Bodiccea (Act V)
Bodiccea, Heather, and Regulix headed over to the movie theater to watch the cut scenes ending act IV. Their theater was fairly small, with uncomfortable seats and a single narrow aisle. Only one movie was ever displayed on the marquee, something called "Duke Nukem" that none of them had ever bothered to see. But the snack bar was pretty good, and one of the projectors took DVD's, so it was a good place to kill a few hours now and then.
To their surprise, everybody else was there too. It must be a really slow night. "Hey, fuzzy?" Xanthippe asked Mizor. "Duck your head or something. Some of us can't see."
Mizor: "Hwruff." (Tries to squash down, it doesn't really work.)
Kasim grunted. "Maybe the tall guys should sit in the back."
Paige: "Why don't you sit over there, Xany?"
The indicated area already had an occupant: Tearlach, along with a dozen hot dogs, a full-size bag of chips, and two bladder-buster sodas. He was the only one with empty seats around him... two full rows, in fact. Xanthippe made a face, and sat up on the back of her chair, feet perched on the seat.
Ignoring the 'No Smoking' sign, Amanita lit up a cigar. When Varnae sat down next to her, she said, "That seat's occupied."
"So right you are," he smiled.
With a level stare, Amanita said, "Sit somewhere else."
"And forsake the opportunity to bask in your radiance? Perish the thought."
She kept glaring. "I thought you'd quit it with this."
Leaning back a bit, Varnae steepled his fingers and pronounced, "Common belief holds that hope is the only thing which may never die. Like most common beliefs, this is completely and utterly false, in addition to being revoltingly maudlin. What common folk do not appreciate is that death will not forestall hope any more than it does anything else of importance."
The glare held, but curdled around the edges. "Damn, you are freaky."
Chuckling, Varnae stared into her eyes. "You have no idea."
When the three of them stepped in, the chatter stopped. Her eyes hadn't adjusted to the dark, but to Bodiccea it looked like everyone was staring at Regulix. "Figures," she thought, and fumbled around to find three open seats. It stayed quiet even after they sat down, so she figured, what the heck. "Hi, guys! I take it you've noticed my Valkyrie."
"Hard not to," Xanthippe smirked. "Can she turn it down? It's supposed to be dark in here."
"Oh! Uh... Reg?"
"I'm sorry, no," Regulix shook her head. "I have heard much of this distinguished company, and though it is a pleasure to be welcomed among you, if my presence is an inconvenience, I shall go elsewhere."
A guffaw broke out of Kasim. Now that she could see, Bodiccea noted the others' faces: expressions of curiosity, contempt, lewd grins, or gazing off like they were trying to look at anything in the room but Regulix. A sick feeling crept into her stomach, but she laughed and said, "Hey, what's going on?"
"You haven't heard? The most salacious rumors have been circulating," Varnae mused.
"Oh! Well, we were off in Hell... what happened?"
"Dunno," Amanita said. "We don't know anything definite. Just heard lots of stories from Lut Gholein about someone tall, blonde, and glowy who hit the town... hard."
"And must have had the stamina of a friggin' HORSE!" Xanthippe finished.
"Ah," Regulix said quietly. "That --"
"That was me," Bodiccea raised her hand. "It was right before the fight with Diablo, and I, uh, I needed to blow off steam, so I got a super-stamina potion from Alkor that makes you glow, and kind of went bananas. Ok? That's all."
Now all eyes were on her. Thaddeus frowned. "That seems... unlike you."
"Uh-huh," Amanita agreed. "Blondie, I can't see you putting out without a $10,000 ring and a notarized pre-nup."
"What do you know about me?" Bodiccea yelled. "Do you think I'm that shallow? No, don't answer that. But there is a lot you don't know about me."
"You shouldn't do this," Regulix said.
Bodiccea whispered, "Look, my rep already sucks. Just play along!"
"You're also not fooling anyone."
Regulix shushed Bodiccea and stood up. "Bodiccea is attempting to salvage my reputation at the expense of her own, but I cannot allow her to do this. It was I who spent the night out in Lut Gholein, as she and Heather slept. While I have no idea exactly what you have heard, much of it is probably true."
She paused, to let that sink in. Xanthippe was, as usual, the first to speak. Looking completely flabbergasted, she just belted out, "WHY?!?"
Regulix raised her eyebrows. "That is my concern, and not yours. In polite company, that is where the matter ends."
Varnae chuckled. "And in this company?"
That got a laugh out of Thaddeus. "In this company, who knows? From what I know, the Valkyrie are emissaries from Heaven, of a sort. I hardly think it is our place to criticize one who is above us."
"You would think that," Varnae muttered.
"Ah, what point is there to all this?" Tearlach bellowed, then smiled at Regulix. "Isn't it enough to finally have a woman here who knows what she wants, and is willing go out and get it? Your friend is welcome here, Amazon. More so if she has sisters."
"I've heard they do," Klatu said, grinning.
"I've heard that as well," Tearlach agreed. "I've heard their goddesses keep hundreds of them as concubines, with no men around for miles and miles."
Klatu snickered. "The poor things. No wonder she lost control, then."
Paige: (stares at Klatu) "I still can't believe you ever get any girls, for any reason."
Klatu shrugged. "I cannot explain it. It's a gift."
"Guys?" Bodiccea interrupted. "Can we just forget about this and watch the cut scene?"
Also ignoring her, Tearlach turned towards Regulix. "So... Lady Valkyrie... what can you tell us of your heaven?"
"Very little," Regulix said impassively. "Much lies beyond earthly senses."
"Ha!" he laughed. "What's to sense besides hundreds of lusty lasses, with no men to satisfy them? Hmm... all those beautiful girls, with healthy appetites and nowhere natural to go with them..."
Groans came up from around the theater. More than one person started thinking, please don't start talking about lesbians, please don't start talking about lesbians... but Regulix interrupted. "Perhaps you're right."
"Hmm?" Tearlach looked surprised. "About what?"
"Perhaps we should have somewhere natural go to with our appetites," Regulix smiled, and started slowly strutting down the aisle. "If only there was someone, somewhere, who was man enough."
"Er..." Tearlach dropped his hot dog, looking stunned.
"By my estimation, it had been nearly two centuries since I last shared the company of a man. After that long, I want fireworks... I want heaven and earth to move... and I don't want to stop after just a few hours."
"Eh?" Tearlach gibbered as Regulix's glow hovered over him. The look on his face was a lot like how deer look when they see headlights.
"With our Goddess' physical blessings and centuries of denial... would you believe a whole barracks-full of mercenaries would be just a start? One could go in there, take on the whole lot, and walk away steadier than any of them." Slowly, she ran a finger along Tearlach's bald head. "If only there was someone who could satisfy me..."
Blinking and sweating, Tearlach's gaze dropped. Seeming not to notice, Regulix sighed. "If only... but there's no point in dreaming. Was there a film we were going to see?"
"Yes!" Thaddeus shouted. "Show it!"
"Hear, hear," Varnae muttered, looking rather flabbergasted himself.
Mizor: "Whooo." (fans self with paw)
Khaleel, being the smart guy, usually got to work the projector. After he ran up and hit the button, the cut scene began.
The image of Marius, huddled on the floor beside his crude bed, flashed onto the screen. The false angel sat regally in a chair by the window. "I heard that Diablo was defeated in Hell, and the Soulstones were smashed on the Hellforge..."
"Ok, this is weird," Bodiccea said. "How come he's heard this, but there's, like, not that much time between me kicking Diablo's ass and going to act V?"
"It made more sense before the expansion came out," Thaddeus noted.
"Yeah," Xanthippe said. "There was no act V, so there could be a time gap between Diablo getting killed and Baal getting his Soulstone back."
"And for this guy to turn into that wreck," Khaleel said.
"Actually," Varnae surmised, "that would not take nearly as long as one might suppose."
"I don't wanna know how you know that," Xanthippe snapped. "Here comes the handing over of the Soulstone."
Kasim scratched his head. "Do you think maybe this guy had to hand it over? He couldn't just take it?"
"Doubtless he could, where would the fun be in that?" Varnae said. "A demon prince of his caliber can be relied upon to possess a sense of the dramatic."
Thaddeus nodded. "And sadistic."
"That goes without saying, old boy."
As Baal began laughing, Amanita winced. "Eugh, that stupid laugh... you'll get to hear a lot of that in the Worldstone Keep, Blondie."
"I'm giddy with anticipation already," Bodiccea grinned.
"Oh," Heather said. "Did that man just get his soul eaten?"
"I suspect so," Thaddeus said.
"The green flames are cool," Amanita said. "And the rat swarm."
"Oh, yes, very stylish," Varnae agreed. "This shot is particularly effective."
Paige: "Maybe he should have stayed looking like that, instead of turning into the spider-crab thing with big shoulder whatsises."
Amanita laughed. "His final version looks like a giant pubic louse."
"Ew," Xanthippe said. "I really don't wanna know how you know that."
Flute music slashed through the theater, heralding the start of the second cut scene. "So that's the Barbarian Highlands," Bodiccea said.
"Aye," Tearlach muttered, speaking again for the first time. "Outside of Sescheron."
"And now we're inside," Amanita said.
"Huh," Khaleel grunted. "Why are there big spikes on the insides of the doors?"
"Because it looks cool," Kasim shrugged.
"This drawbridge is curious," Thaddeus mused. "One wonders how it was built, and how it operated."
"And why they extended it with Baal out there," Amanita scoffed.
"So the warriors of Sescheron could sally forth to meet him!" Tearlach snorted. "They knew not his strength, but fought and died with honor."
Amanita waved one finger in the air. "Yippee."
"Say, who is this guy?" Xanthippe asked. "He's not dressed like anybody else up there."
Tearlach grunted. "He was the Herald of Sescheron, speaker for the Immortal King. His task was to bring the words of the true people to invaders, and to parley for goods."
Paige: "He's dressed kind of like a merchant."
"Why does he sound Scotch? None of the other Barbs do."
"Xanthippe," Thaddeus said, "scotch is whiskey. The people are Scots."
"Ok, why does he sound Scots, then?"
Bodiccea offered, "Maybe Bliz could only find one guy who could do a Scottish accent."
Amanita mused, "Druids sound kind of Scottish, what you can hear of them."
Xanthippe laughed. "It's Greek to me."
"No it isn't," Bodiccea laughed.
As they watched, the unfortunate herald ended his onscreen career by painting the pavement red. "Ew!"
"Oh, that's horrible," Heather said. "Will Baal use that on us?"
"Not really," Varnae chuckled. "I believe that was intended to represent the tentacles Baal is capable of summoning. Their power is, shall we say, somewhat exaggerated here."
Bodiccea laughed. "Oh, man. Tentacles."
Heather shuddered. "You're thinking of that Maiden's Amulet of the Squid, aren't you?"
"Yep. Did you guys put the Mule up to giving me that?"
Amanita turned around and grinned. "Who, us?"
"Why ever would we do such a thing?" Varnae smiled.
"For a cheap laugh?" Bodiccea smirked.
"Yeah, that's a good enough reason," Amanita grinned.
As the last cut scene vanished from the screen, Bodiccea sat back and put her feet up on the seats in front of her. "Ok, that looked cool, even if Blizzard can't write a coherent plot worth a damn."
Amanita shrugged. "Diablo's plot is thinner than the paper it's written on, and holier than the Pope's undershorts. Deal with it."
Thaddeus laughed. "One wonders how anyone could spend much time with it."
"Ya got me," Amanita shrugged. "So, now what?"
"Let's watch one of the Lord of the Rings DVD's," Xanthippe suggested.
All the males, and Amanita, groaned. "You just want to coo over Orlando some more."
"Hey, why not?" Bodiccea grinned. "I could stand some of that."
"So could I," Heather smiled.
"Who is... Orlando?" Regulix asked.
"YOU DON'T KNOW?" Bodiccea's eyes went wide with shock.
Regulix quirked an eyebrow. "I have not been here long, you must remember."
Suddenly, Amanita started laughing. "I just thought of something. Hey, Tearlach! Wanna see two women writhing on the floor in crazed lust?"
Tearlach looked at her suspiciously. "Who wouldn't?"
"Wait right here." Amanita popped out of the theater, to parts unknown.
"Aw, jeez," Xanthippe grumped. "What's she up to now?"
Bodiccea frowned. "She CAN'T be going out to find him lesbian porn."
Xanthippe shrugged. "She would know where to find it."
Bodiccea laughed. "Gee, you think?"
As suddenly as she left, Amanita reappeared, with a rolled up poster in one hand. "Xany? Boddy? Your attention, please."
"I'm not falling for this," Xanthippe glared.
"Behold!" Amanita unrolled the poster. "A full-sized shot of Orlando Bloom as Legalos, where you can see the tiniest bit of his hairless, naked elf-boy chest!"
Bodiccea and Xanthippe SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEALED and lunged for the poster. Everyone in the room winced; Mizor clamped both paws over his ears and howled in pain.
"Give it!" Xanthippe screamed, tackling Bodiccea. "I saw it first!"
"No way!" Bodiccea's grip on the poster was like iron. "You've GOT a boyfriend!"
"YOU'RE TEARING IT!!" Popcorn went flying as the two struggled.
"Did you have to do that?" Thaddeus said, shaking his head to stop his ears from ringing.
"No," Amanita laughed. "But it was funny."
Varnae chuckled. "Entirely true... though perhaps mistimed. The contention has spilled a cola all over your lovely boots."
Amanita looked down. "Damn. Ah, they're metal. It's all good."
"My dear girl, they may corrode, and really ought to be seen to immediately."
Amanita frowned. "I'm not going to let you polish my boots."
Varnae snapped his fingers. "Damn."
In the movie theater, a few had broken away from the main group, but most of the heroes were watching Xanthippe try to get the Legalos poster away from Bodiccea. She'd wound up with it somehow, and was holding it over her head while Xanthippe ran around jumping and trying to grab it. "Uh, Xany?" Bodiccea asked, "why don't you just use telekinesis?"
"I can't, it won't work!" Xanthippe snarled. "Too many d!ckheads were using it in trade scams, so Blizzard nerfed it!"
"Oh man, that sucks. Does teke do anything anymore?'
"It synergizes energy shield." Quickly, Xanthippe hopped up on one of the theater seats, then jumped and grabbed the poster. "NOW GIVE!!"
"Awright, awright!" Bodiccea surrendered it. "Jeebus, what a b!tch."
Xanthippe stuck her tongue out at her. "Damn right."
After sighing, Kasim mockingly clasped his hands together and piped in an exaggerated falsetto, "OOOH! He's so DREAMY!"
Paige: (rolls eyes) "Shut up."
"No," Kasim muttered. "We can't watch those films anymore without one of you coming in and ruining it. I haven't even seen the third one."
Paige: "I never ruined anything. I just watch the movie."
Amanita snorted. "And leave little puddles on the seat."
Paige: "Hey! That's rude."
Kasim laughed. "Yeah, I thought it was just guys who were supposed to do that."
Paige: "That is gross. I'm leaving." (walks off)
Further down the aisle, Xanthippe and Bodiccea had made peace and were kneeling on the floor together, cooing and sighing over the poster. "Jerhyn has eyes just like his."
"Yeah?" Bodiccea asked. "I guess I never noticed."
"No," Xanthippe huffed, "you just looked at his money."
"Xany! That is so not true. I think he's incredibly cute. Being rich was a bonus."
Kasim shook his head. "Sheesh. I do not get this. That elf is so gay."
Klatu shrugged. "Don't try to understand how they think. Just find out what works."
After a moment's thought, Amanita said, "Hey, guys. Here's a question for you: why do you call other guys 'gay'?"
Kasim shrugged. "'Cause he's, like, totally gay?"
"There is no question about it," Klatu said.
Amanita shrugged. "What it sounds like to me is that any guy who's better-looking than you must be gay."
They snorted in derision. "He looks like a little boy, not a man," Klatu observed.
"Hmm," Amanita thought about that. "Ok, you're right there. Viggo Mortensen was way hotter. But looking young doesn't make somebody gay. Gay guys don't act any different from anybody either, so --"
Both mercs broke out in laughter. "Yeah, right!"
"Look," Kasim laughed, "does anybody around here act like pasty?"
Varnae, who had been pretending not to listen, cocked an eyebrow at the implied insult. "Of course not," he replied with a mild smile. "Though I believe that is more an indicator of intellectual capacity than any personal preferences. As for the actor... while I hesitate to even suggest concordance with our resident troglodytes, I fear that these two do not hold an isolated opinion."
Amanita looked dubiously at Varnae. "Wha...? I figured, if anybody, you'd --"
"Tut, tut, my dear. Let's have no ill-mannered speculations, hmm? I did not speak for myself; no matter how tedious existence is, I could never bring myself to spare the time to form even an uneducated opinion on such an issue. However, a simple perusal of the actor's credits reveals his first movie role. It was in a film biography of Oscar Wilde, in which he was cast... as a Rent Boy." As Klatu and Kasim busted up laughing, Varnae chuckled. "Obviously, whatever traits of character these two observed are also visible to others."
Slowly, Amanita started grinning. "For real?"
"Absolutely," Varnae smiled.
"Hey, Xany and Boddy!" Amanita called. "Wanna see another movie with Orlando in it?"
"There's another one?"
"Is he still cute?"
"Sure," Amanita nodded. "It's his first film role, so he's even younger."
"Ooh! Coolnitude!" Bodiccea came bouncing over -- and stopped dead when she saw the expression on Amanita's face. Xanthippe bumped into her back. "Ow! Don't stop!"
"Wait a minute..." Bodiccea glared around suspiciously. "Ok, what's up?"
"Nothin'," Kasim grinned. Klatu shrugged, also smirking evilly.
"Whatcha worried about?" Amanita started laughing. "I hear it's a great film. I think he has a love scene."
Varnae raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing. Now Bodiccea and Xanthippe both looked suspicious. "What," Bodiccea asked, "is it with another guy or something?"
Amanita laughed. "Right the first time! He plays a bum boy."
"EW!" Bodiccea squealed. "You're disgusting. Leave Orlando alone!"
"That is totally gross," Xanthippe said, crossing her arms and glowering.
"Aw, c'mon, girls..." Amanita grinned cruelly. "Just think of it: Legalos gettin' hot sweet man-lovin's from some other pretty guy..."
"I don't wanna know what YOU like to think about," Xanthippe hissed. "Not everybody's a weirdo like you."
"Heh." Amanita quirked an eyebrow, stepped over to Xanthippe, and bent down to look her straight in the face. "You know, I have figured out who was writing that Legalos/Frodo slash over on the Fire Sorceress bulletin board..."
Xanthippe's eyes went wide, and she blushed a deep, deep crimson. "You're... you're not supposed to read our boards!"
Amanita laughed. "I'm not supposed to go through your stash either. Let's see what I remember... 5 back issues of 'Non-Threatening Boi' magazine..."
"HEY!" Xanthippe squeaked! "Okay, okay! I see what the game is! I get it! So: what have you got in your stash, huh? PLAYBOYS!?"
Her smile froze, but Amanita's eyes narrowed to little slits. "You do know, don't you, what an incredible stereotype that is?"
"Yeah!" Xanthippe nodded vigorously. "Is it my fault it fits?"
"It does not!"
"Um..." Bodiccea said, "actually, it kind of does."
Glaring at them both, Amanita slowly said, "I. Like. Men. OKAY!?! Crimony."
"Uh, huh," Xanthippe stared at her defiantly. "So, what's in your stash?"
"That's my business."
"And what's in mine is your business too?!"
"Xany, I'm an Assassin. I spy on spell-casters. Get used to it."
"You're not supposed to spy on us!"
"Uh, guys!" Bodiccea raised her hand a little, grinning nervously. "You're both starting to freak me out a little, so... how about we just calm down... accept that the other person is probably a total pervert... and be friends again?"
Amanita stared at her. "We were friends?"
"Don't you start," Bodiccea sighed.
"I am not a pervert!" Xanthippe huffed.
Amanita laughed. "I know you're not. I read your slash, remember?"
"Ouch!" Bodiccea laughed. "That good, huh?"
"Yeah. Man, it blew," Amanita made a face. "Nothing but hesitant innuendo and burning longings and lovey-dovey glances and aching for a true soul-mate. Never heated up at all." She grinned at Xanthippe. "So you're off the hook, girl."
Xanthippe glowered at her. "Thanks, I think."
"Great!" Bodiccea said, and turned to Amanita. "Now let's go through your stash."
"Fair's fair! You went through hers, she gets to go through yours!"
"Yeah!" Xanthippe grinned. "Afraid I'll find your Playboys? I noticed you never explicitly denied having any."
"I DO NOT HAVE ANY PLAYBOYS!!"
"No whips and chains?" Xanthippe asked.
"How about a... ahem, marital aid or two?" Bodiccea asked.
Amanita hesitated. "I do not want you pawing through my stuff."
"Then you should have stayed out of mine!" Xanthippe said triumphantly.
"You know we're gonna figure out how to get in there eventually," Bodiccea grinned. "You did it, so can we."
"I'm an Assassin," Amanita smiled. "I can get past any lock."
"We know that's not how stashes work..."
Gritting her teeth, Amanita sighed, and finally said, "All right, all right. I was bored out of my skull, so I asked the Mule to let me look. But I didn't touch anything. Blondie?"
"Don't you EVER say it's always us ganging up on you again!"
Bodiccea laughed. "When did I say that?"
"Lots of times," Xanthippe smirked.
"No, I didn't."
"Hell yes, you did," Amanita nodded.
"I so totally never did! You guys must have remembered it wrong."
Amanita glanced at Xanthippe. "Denial ain't pretty, is it?"
"Uh-uh," Xanthippe shook her head. "Let's go look at your stuff now."
She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "Okay, if it'll shut you up."
Xanthippe grinned evilly. "For a while."
As they walked up the aisle and out of the theater, Bodiccea turned to Xanthippe. "So... 5 issues of 'Non-Threatening Boi' magazine?"
Blushing a little, Xanthippe nodded. "Yeah."
"Can I see?"
After a moment's hesitation, Xanthippe nodded. "Sure."
As the door closed behind them, Kasim turned to Klatu and quietly said, "That was totally bizarre. When we talk about them like that, they get mad."
Klatu shrugged. "As I said... don't bother trying to understand them."
While all this had been going on, Regulix approached Thaddeus as he sat in the back of the theater. "Noble Zakarumite? May I beg of you a few moments of your time?"
"Hmm?" Thaddeus blinked. "Oh, of course! Ah... I am happy to oblige."
"Thank you." Regulix sat down next to him. "While I have never been a follower of Zakarum, there is wisdom to be found in the teachings of your church, and I feel I am in need of spiritual guidance."
Thaddeus stared at her for a while, slowly nodding. "I... hesitate to offer any to one such as you, who is clearly more advanced in the Light than I."
Regulix smiled. "You underestimate yourself, or perhaps I misspoke. The matter is an earthly one."
"Ah. Concerning something... recent?"
"Yes. Of all Athulua's Valkyries, my name is among the least spoken of in the mortal world. Rarely am I summoned, so before I went to aid Bodiccea on her quest, I had not set a foot on the earth for many, many years."
Thaddeus nodded. "I seem to recall you mentioning that."
Pausing, Regulix looked away. "Please do not take what I said to silence that oaf too much to heart."
"Ah. I understand."
She went on, but her eyes were downcast. "It had been so long since I had savored any sort of earthly sensations, I felt --"
Thaddeus shifted a bit in his seat. "I believe I understand your reaction."
"I am not sure if you can. Please, try to imagine --"
"You need not go into the details!" Thaddeus laughed a bit. "I am not a priest, and this is not a confessional. Perhaps if you skipped on to your central thrust. I mean, whatever is really bothering you."
After regarding him in silence for a moment, Regulix went on. "Noble knight, your church regards lust as a sin. Why, exactly, is this so?"
Leaning back, Thaddeus took a deep breath and said, "The sin of lust is one of selfishness, placing one's desires above the needs of others. The lustful man does not concern himself with where or when he takes his pleasures, or who is harmed thereby. The... uh... carnal act is not, in and of itself, sinful, as it is necessary for the procreation of our kind."
Regulix slowly considered that. "A not unreasonable position." Then she turned away, and stared at the theater's blank screen. "Yes. I believe I have behaved selfishly."
"Well..." Thaddeus shrugged a little. "Participating in pleasurable acts is not inherently selfish. Say, if you like spicy food; there is no harm in that. Avoiding the pleasures of the world would deny us many reasons for living a virtuous life."
"You are kind," she replied with a sigh, "but it is clear to me that my actions did have the potential to harm others. In my time with the Goddess, I had forgotten the importance of reputation. While in Lut Gholein, I never thought of the impact my activities might have on those near me -- that my actions would reflect badly on the one I am here to serve."
"Heh. Lady Valkyrie, Bodiccea's own actions reflect badly on her. Even if the rumors we heard about you are all true, I think she would be improved by your company."
Regulix smiled. "Your words are sweet, but the reaction of your company when I first came belies them. Please, do not try to coddle me. Bodiccea should not be forced to associate with... how should I say this..."
"Yes. Much less take on the reputation of one."
"That may be," Thaddeus said. "To be honest, I don't think Bodiccea would mind having a reputation as a man-eater." He considered Regulix for a moment. "It still seems to me that she might be improved by your company. My first impression was very different from what I understand of you now."
Regulix smiled softly. "You are very kind. Perhaps, in this matter, your wisdom is greater than mine. I shall defer to your judgment." Then she smiled broadly. "Besides, Bodiccea asked to borrow my armor, and she cannot until she is sufficiently advanced."
"You'd best remain with her. I'm sure you will be welcome to." Looking down at her armor, Thaddeus frowned a bit. "She wanted to borrow that?"
"She asked to, yes."
"Hmm. That also seems unlike her. Strange."
After leaving the group, Paige had gone into the back of the theater. Khaleel was sitting in the projection booth, looking quite sad and apathetic.
Paige: (walks in) "Hey."
He looked up. "Oh, hey."
Paige: "What's going on?"
"Nothin'. Just thinking."
Paige: (nods) "Mind if I put on the Lord of the Rings DVD's?"
"Nah." He gestured vaguely towards the far wall. "They're over there."
Paige: "Ok... so, uh... how's Heather?"
Khaleel didn't answer for a minute, then shifted on his stool and sighed. "I guess she's ok."
Paige: "Oh. What do you think of the Valk?"
"She's kind of weird."
Paige: "How so?"
"Well... it's like, she looks like Princess Grace, but..."
Paige: "Oh, yeah." (laughs) "A whole barracks in one night. Yikes."
"Yeah. I heard somebody say once, 'she looks like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth -- or anywhere else', but she goes and does that. She's like some weird combination of a porn star and Martha Stewart."
Paige: "So, you don't like her?"
"Nah. I'll bet the other guys do."
Paige: "Well... she is beautiful, right?"
"Yeah," he nodded. "She looks awesome, no lie."
Paige: "Is that enough?"
Khaleel turned around and frowned at her. "No."
Paige: (smiles) "You're bummed about Heather, ain'tcha?"
"Yeah, I'm bummed about Heather!" His frown deepened as he turned away. "Look, she's made up her mind. I don't wanna talk about it."
Paige: "Sure you do." (Pulls up another stool next to Khaleel and sits down.) "Now, here's what you need to do the next time you talk to her..."
After Bodiccea had gathered up her wandering companions, they headed out to Harrogath. Though so small it should have been called a village, the Barbarian citadel was suffused with a monumental, even cyclopean grandeur, as though the stones themselves were aware of the role they must play in the fate of the cosmos. Or maybe it was the pompous "Conan the Barbarian" music floating through the air. Whatever, the icy chill in the air was a new thing for anyone born and raised on a tropical island.
Heather and Regulix jumped and turned to face Bodiccea. "What happened?"
The Amazon looked like she was about to curl up into a ball in a desperate bid to minimize the amount of skin she had exposed. Her bare thighs were clamped together, her bare arms wrapped around her deeply plunging neckline, and her head was scrunched down between the shoulder pads of what passed for her armor. "C-c-c-COLD!!"
"Oh," Heather nodded, then grinned a little. "Heh."
"It is rather cold," Regulix frowned. "Do you think you'll be all right, wearing that?"
Heather turned away so her facial expression wouldn't be seen. After glancing a sharp, vindictive glance at her back, Bodiccea laughed and straightened up. "Sure! No reason not to be, ha ha! All the Babas are wandering around wearing about as much as me! If I just keep moving, I'll be in eeEEEP!" She squealed as a small gust blew down from the peak, but kept smiling. "I'll be in great shape! If no more torna-na-nadoes blow up my butt..."
Looking unconvinced, Regulix quietly turned to Heather. "And you?"
"I don't know about you, but I'm freezing," Heather said unashamedly. "I put a sweater and some woolens in the stash earlier. I'll go get 'em."
"Weather means little to me now," Regulix bowed her head as Heather walked off, then turned back to Bodiccea. "Bodiccea... you are turning very pale. You should reconsider."
"N-nah, I'm good! K-keep moving, get the b-blood flowing... Hey, look! B-ba-babas!"
Two wounded Barbarians were leaning against the south wall of Malah's Healing Emporium. Their eyes widened as Bodiccea and Regulix approached. "Hey, Sigemund, look here. I think I'm seein' visions."
"Aye, Hengest. Two visions! I'd say we've been invaded by foreigners."
Sigemund grinned, eyes round as dinner plates. "Aye! If the other foreigners looked like that, they might'a met a pleasanter reception."
"Hi, boys!" Bodiccea grinned wide and struck a pose, trying not to shiver. "Wow, I am impressed! Are all the g-g-" After a shudder, she took a deep breath, then started coughing as the rush of icy cold air hit her lungs.
"What Bodiccea meant to say," Regulix calmly said, "was that she is impressed with your city. Turning away Baal's army must have been no small task."
"Aye," Sigemund said, looking a bit more forlorn. "If you don' mind my sayin', you two ain't so small either! I'd heard foreign women were... littler than either o' you."
"And I never heard of 'em takin' up arms! Where are your menfolk, then?"
"Hah," Bodiccea mastered the coughing fit, and stood back up, with a big grin on her face and her chest thrust out. "Oh, we c-can get pret-ty b-big!" Breathing through her teeth warmed the air up a little before it hit her lungs, at least.
"Ooh..." Both Barbarians stared openly at Bodiccea's mammarical gifts, even if the display items were starting to turn dead white. "Sig, to think what we've been missin'..."
"Maybe, if we live through this, I should take up travelin'!"
Sigemund grinned. "Where you from, lassie? There any more at home like you?"
Bodiccea laughed, and tossed her head nonchalantly. "I th-think I'm ab-a-about all y-you can ha-ha-hand-le right n-- n-- now!" Clenching her jaws together stopped her teeth from chattering, but made them feel like they might shatter in her mouth.
Noting the peculiar rictus on Bodiccea's face, Regulix coolly said, "Perhaps we should step inside for a bit. My companion is a bit under the weather."
"Huh?" Sigemund looked up at the sky. "She seems a healthy enough lass to me. The weather's the only good thing about today! Hasn't been this warm in weeks!"
"I know," his companion agreed. "You want cold, just go a little further up the mountain. There's no one left to stop you now, apart from Baal's army."
The expression of Bodiccea's face froze -- not quite literally, but close. Just then, Heather came walking up. "Hey, Miss B. Look at this: The Mule left a ton of stuff for me. I get to try out both Riphook and Kuko Shakaku, and choose which one I want! This is the Peasant Crown, here's Rockstopper, and he left Skin of the Vipermagi too! The note said he doesn't have any really good helms or armor for a Rogue, but --"
"Did he leave anything for me?" Bodiccea interrupted, still grinning maniacally. The two Barbs looked at her strangely.
"No, there wasn't anything." Heather looked closely at Bodiccea. "Um, Miss B... I think you could put somebody's eye out right now. Maybe you really, really should --"
Quietly, almost whispering, Bodiccea said, "Ok."
"Ok. You win. I give." Without another word, Bodiccea walked to the waypoint.
"Heh," Hengest said as the others followed. "Comely enough lasses. Strange, though."
"Aye," Sigemund agreed. "You think the big one was havin' some kind of seizure?"
"Seemed like it. The tall one was..." He left the thought unexpressed, just shaking his head as if to clear stars from his eyes.
"Oh, aye... but her eyes were colder than the holy peak itself. There'll be no gettin' cozy with that one."
"Aye. What about the little one, then?"
Sigemund scoffed. "Too delicate. Even a woman could break 'er in half. Hope they come back soon."
They appeared back in the Rogue camp, next to Charsi. "Oh, hi! It's great to see you again! Hi, Heather, and hi! Wow, I don't remember you! Are you glowing?"
"Hello," Regulix smiled. "I have joined Bodiccea on her quest."
"Cool," Charsi stared ad her, wide-eyed. "That is awesome armor. I don't think I could even try to make anything like that."
"It's pretty special," Bodiccea shuddered, and jumped up and down a bit. "Whoo! Hi, Charsi! No imbues yet, sorry."
"It's ok," Charsi shrugged, then smiled sunnily. "Whenever you're ready. We're moving back into the monastery right now. Anything I can do?"
"Not right now. 'Scuse me!" Bodiccea moved past, and behind the wagon between her forge and Gheed's place. The Mule was back there, lounging in a beach chair and drinking a margarita, his enormous pack towering over the wagon. Bodiccea grabbed him by the lapels, hauled him to his feet, and screamed directly in his face, "GIB ITAMZ!!!!1!!!!11!!1one"
"I know that scream," he winced. "What can I do you for?"
"I need heavy armor. I need something with coverage. And I need it NOW before I freeze my gawdammed t!ts off!! Why the HELL did Blizzard put act V in a fvcking FREEZER?!?"
The Mule sighed, wiping spit off his face with the tails of his Hawaiian shirt. "Dammit, when you had some, you didn't want it, now all of a sudden you gots to have it! Make up your damn mind!"
"Look, that was then, this is now. I'll even say I'm sorry. Just give me something that covers me! I'll take ANYTHING!"
"Fine," he snorted, and opened one of the larger side pouches on his pack. "Here you go: Sigon's Shelter. You still gots the boots and gloves, it'll --"
"Anything but that," Bodiccea quickly said.
The Mule gazed heavenwards imploringly. "Aw, no..."
"Miss B?" Heather said. "If you don't mind, Regulix and I are going to drag you back to Harrogath and stick you in a snowdrift until you change your mind."
"Don't even joke like that, Heather."
"I don't believe she was joking," Regulix said impassively.
Obviously in great pain, The Mule asked, "What's wrong with Sigon's Shelter?"
"It's white!" Bodiccea said. "And it makes my chest look small. Don't you have anything in red? Or gold?"
With a sigh like the weight of the world rested squarely on his weary shoulders, The Mule turned back and started rooting through the pack again. "Of all the damn heroes I've had to deal with, you have GOT to be the damn heroest... hmmm... hey! Here's a blast from the past!" He pulled out a red mass of iron plates, and... tentacles? "This is from back in the day when we hardly had any stuff, and would take just about anything! How about Garnet Plate Mail of the Squid?"
The armor was actually wiggling. All three women's jaws dropped. "Oh. My. God."
"Don't worry, it won't eat ya. Maybe get a little too friendly, but that's the worst of it."
"OH. MY. GOD."
"Now come on! It's red!"
"THIS IS NOT HENTAI, DAMN IT!!" Bodiccea screamed. "Try again."
Neither Heather nor Regulix raised any objection, so The Mule went back to his pack. "I don't know why I do this some days. Fussy little... how about Goldskin?"
"Goldskin... unique full plate? Good defense, resists, extra light?"
"Yep, for that Valk-like glow. Ol' reliable: had it for a while, it's seen quite a bit of use."
After a quick sidewards glance at Regulix, Bodiccea nodded. "Sounds good."
"Finally!" The Mule threw down the armor and flopped down in his chair again.
While Bodiccea was buckling the armor on, she asked, "Anything left that you're supposed to give me, item-wise?"
"Jus' one," The Mule sighed. "A pair of gloves. You'll probably want new boots too."
"Am I gonna get 'em without having to track you down?"
"I'll pick somethin' out, don't you worry."
"Mr. Mule?" Heather asked. "I don't think I need Rockstopper. You can take it back."
"Hey!" Bodiccea said. "Don't I get to try it?"
Heather blinked. "Don't you need the +2 skills on that circlet to summon Miss Regulix?"
"Oh, yeah. Forget it."
Regulix smiled. "Thank you. I am pleased you wish to retain my services."
"Sure," Bodiccea smiled. "By the way, I LOVED the way you shut Tearlach up. He is SO obnoxious, but you totally blew his tiny little mind."
Her smile faded a bit, but didn't completely vanish. "It seemed... necessary at the time. Thankfully, no one took it amiss."
"Why would they? Ok, maybe Teddy Tin-Man would disapprove from the back of the room, but that's it."
"You mean the Paladin?" Regulix asked. "I did speak with him, and he did not."
"He didn't? Wow. Usually, he's got a stick rammed so far up him you could wiggle it and watch his eyes move back and forth."
"I'm sure he's not so bad as that," Regulix smiled. "Though I agree, he does seem a bit stiff. Perhaps after a few drinks, he'd relax a bit."
Bodiccea's eyes went wide, and she giggled, "Girl! You are a wild woman! I like it, but pick somebody else." After tightening down the last strap, Bodiccea stood up and looked herself over. Then she grinned at Regulix. "Twins!"
Regulix nodded. Smiling, Heather said, "Whatcha think of me?"
Bodiccea laughed. "Now you're in leather and I'm not."
"Yeah, but I'll be wearing something under it."
"That's no fun. C'mon, let's get back to Harrogath before I start roasting. I'll stow the leathers for the mini-hells."
Malah welcomed them to Harrogath, and also wondered where their menfolk were. Bodiccea noted that all of Qual-Kehk's men were helpless before Baal, so it was a good thing that they were women; this did not seem to satisfy her. Qual-Kehk was pacing back and forth in front of Harrogath's tiny gate. He described Baal as being true to his namesake; Bodiccea asked him who the heck a demon lord might be named after, but he couldn't say. Once more, Cain demonstrated his freaky ability to fit into a new town like he'd been there since the beginning of time. He would have explained about the energy shield and the dead elders, but Bodiccea had wandered over to see Nihlathak by then. He was as hissable as ever, so she booed and hissed and offered him a jar of mustache wax, which confused him.
And then... there was Larzuk. As they approached, they saw him by his forge, flexing. The red light glowed off his titanic shoulders as various lats, deltoids, and triceps crawled under his skin. Bodiccea stopped short, staring. "Ooh."
Heather blinked. "Wow. He's big."
"Oh, yes," Regulix murmured. "And I'll bet he has enormous stamina..."
"Down, girl," Bodiccea muttered, fanning herself. "You'll scare him away."
Heather stared at the other two. "Are you guys all right?"
"Of course," Regulix smiled. "Just daydreaming."
"Besides," Bodiccea sighed, "there's the hair problem..."
Heather sighed. "Miss B, you know how shallow that sounds."
"Of course, Heather. Let's go meet him!"
They walked over, and Larzuk looked up. "Oh! I heard an Amazon had come to Harrogath! Your strange weapons might be a bit of a challenge."
"What's life without a few challenges?" Bodiccea grinned. "Hi, I'm Bodiccea! Have you considered Avacor?"
"Um..." Larzuk scratched his head. "I don't know what that is, so, no."
Heather sighed. "At least you didn't ask him if he wanted to go mountain climbing, Miss B."
"Will you be going up the mountain?" Larzuk asked, with guarded hope in his eyes. "The old man told us you went into Hell, and defeated Diablo. That was you, wasn't it?"
"Yeah," Bodiccea shrugged. "Been there, done that."
"Well, I don't know if you did that. If you're here to defeat Baal, you --"
"Oh, yeah, prove it." She sighed, rolling her eyes. "Barbs. Whatever, don't go away. And go look up Avacor. You'll be glad you did."
Qual-Kehk was quietly shaking his head as The Mighty Three stepped through Harrogath's single gate out onto the infamous Bloody Foothills. After tripping over a few poorly placed barriers and a body or two, they found their first battlin' Barbarian. His foes were... oh, everybody knows what they were: Enslaved, with Death Maulers and Catapults further up. The Barb was lightly armored, slowly hacking away with a sword and an axe. Must not be high enough level for Frenzy, and either he'd ignored masteries or placed his points badly. Whatever, Bodiccea steered her group over to save the ungrateful bastard. As usual, he never said one word of thanks, just turned and continued grimly uphill. Maybe she should goose the next one.
Dealing with the monsters was a piece of cake. The worst thing about the Enslaved was their nudity. It was really too early in the day for that kind of thing. Of the two bows The Mule dropped off, Heather decided to try Kuko Shakaku first. So far, it was awesome: she was taking out enemies in one or two shots again, and the explosions made it look like Baal's armies were the ones being attacked with artillery. His Catapults weren't doing nearly as much to them; Bodiccea moved around too much, Heather's new gear rendered her almost immune, and Regulix was tough enough not to care if a catapult shot hit her square on the head. More than one did; it didn't matter.
After they saved the next Barbarian, Bodiccea slapped him on the ass before he could go on his way. "Go get 'em, cutie-buns!"
"Um... why'd you do that?" Heather asked.
"To see if he'd do anything," Bodiccea grumped as the Baba stomped away without saying a word. "Man, these guys are boring. They stink, too."
"Yeah," Heather held her nose. "The whole city smells."
"Yep. That's the smell you get when you let men be in charge. Remember that, Heather. Never let men be in charge of anything important, ever. They always mess it up."
Heather nodded. "That's kind of what Kashya always said."
Regulix had gone ahead a bit, but came back. "There are three more Barbarians up ahead, fighting in a trench. Shall we go get them?"
"In a minute." Bodiccea cast a town portal. "Gotta dump some stuff. Heather, you want to try out Riphook now?"
"Sure! I am kind of wondering about something. I've heard about the Lightning Hose, which I get by having +3 to skills. Kuko Shakaku has +3, but I'm not getting it."
Bodiccea grinned. "You're dangerous enough already. Kuko has +3 to Amazon skills; you're not an Amazon, so it can't do anything."
"Actually," Regulix said, "Heather does benefit from bonuses to Amazon skills, curiously enough. Rogues cannot use Amazon-specific items, so there has been some confusion on this issue. I suspect that you must have exactly +3; the Peasant Crown and the Skin of the Vipermagi bestow +1 each, interfering with the effect."
"Oh," Heather nodded. "I'm not taking them off. Even if it wasn't cold."
"Why not?" Bodiccea grinned. "Maybe the Babas would stop and say thank you!"
"Uh, yeah," Heather looked more than a little dubious. "Are there any bows with just +1 to skills I could try? I'd really like to see what this Lightning Hose does."
"I'm rather curious myself," Regulix agreed.
"Um..." Bodiccea thought for a minute. "I didn't look up much on bows. I think one of the normal uniques we don't have has +1. How about we look it up later?"
"Ok," Heather smiled. "Meantime, I'll try Riphook."
"Sure. Hey, Reg, isn't a 'riphook' something you use in knitting?"
"Not quite," Regulix smiled. "Needlepoint."
"Huh," Bodiccea nodded. "Do you think naming an item that'll mostly be used by women after a needlepoint thingy could be construed as still more Blizzard sexism?"
"Ok," Bodiccea laughed. "Just checking."
After a break to switch weapons, sell stuff, and send a note off to The Mule asking for a bow with +1 to skills, they went back and saved the three Babas they'd seen earlier. They were gracious enough to not die, at least, but still acted like rude, smelly, grumpy, lumpy bumps of macho meat stumbling around on the side of the hill. To top it all off, they wouldn't ask for directions! Two got stuck in the trench, while the other walked up to a Catapult and stood there while the Death Maulers punched holes in his socks. After cracking him over the head so he wouldn't get in any more trouble, Bodiccea ran around to kill the Catapult. By the time she got there, it and two Death Maulers were dead; a stream of high-speed arrows shot out of nowhere and killed the third as she watched. Heather obviously liked Riphook.
Climbing further and further, they came to the demon advance camp. Bodiccea hit level 35, improved her Fend skill, and saw the first bunnies. They were so utterly adorable, she immediately forgave Blizzard for everything. "Aw. Lookit!"
"Aw," Heather agreed.
Even Regulix was smiling. "One wonders how they have survived here."
"Who cares? Dey gots da big fwoppy feetsies and da widdle button nosey-woses..."
Heather nodded. "They look so confused, it's adorable."
"Confuzzled, Heather. That look is genuinely confuzzled."
"That's a good word for it... confuzzled."
"Yeah. 'Cause they're widdle fuzz-butts!"
"Uh huh," Heather laughed. "Wow, they are fuzzy! They look so soft."
"Yes," Regulix said, thankful that she couldn't suffer from insulin shock. "The Barbarians are fond of making coats and boots from them for that reason."
The other two stood silently for a minute, before Bodiccea said, "Reg, we both know that. You're not going to gross us out. They're made out of meat, too. So are cows, but cows are so ugly they deserve to have boots made out of them."
"Oh, speaking of cows..." Heather said, "are we going to do the 'Secret' Cow Level after all this is over?"
"Sure!" Bodiccea said. "It's about time somebody did."
Heather nodded. "Cool."
On their way through the camp, Bodiccea kicked the skull-and-rocks pile and listened to the skeleton rattle. That has to be the strangest chest in the whole game. With a half-dozen lightly clad muscle boys by their sides, the three amigas marched into the narrows where Dac Farren has his ambush. The fight was chaotic, with Imps teleporting around all over the damned place, so Bodiccea let Heather handle most of it. Riphook served very well: it was fast, hit hard, and slowing Dac Farren down was a big help for the melee fighters.
The Babas all got lost in the narrows, so Bodiccea slipped through the crowd and headed up to the next Catapult platform. She would have said more about them, but Heather got lost in there too and had to be pulled out with a town portal. "You ok, Heather?"
"Yeah," she said sheepishly. "Sorry."
"It's ok," Bodiccea smiled. "At least you know to ask for directions sometimes. I think those trenches and things were kind of made to snare NPC's. That's why Sorcies love the Foothills. They can just teleport out."
"Did we get anything from The Mule?"
"No. He left a note, saying the unique long battle bow has +1, but he doesn't have it."
"Rats," Heather swore mildly. "I really wanted to try the Lightning Hose, and this may be my last chance."
"Don't whine, Heather," Bodiccea patted her on the shoulder. "That's my job! Anyhoo, how do you think Riphook and Kuko Shakaku match up?"
"They're both really good," Heather frowned. "I think I like the life leech on Riphook, but the Peasant Crown has regeneration, so I hardly ever need it."
Bodiccea nodded. "You're leaning towards Kuko?"
"I think I am, yeah."
"Ok!" Bodiccea laughed. "My little artillery piece. Let's get back in there."
With Kuko Shakaku in Heather's hand again, they made the final clear from the narrows. Say what you will about the hopeless blobs populating the Bloody Foothills in 1.09, they're chock full of rich, creamy experience points. Bodiccea hit level 36 before they found the chief blob sometime in the late afternoon. Shenk the Overseer was up on top of his heated platform, squealing and bellowing and waving a whip.
Rather than take the usual tactic of retreating so the Enslaved will chase them out of range of Shenk's charge-up attacks, Bodiccea thought, "what the heck" and went straight up the front steps, taking them on en masse. Regulix blocked the stairs next to her so nothing could hem her in from behind, and Heather rained fiery death into the line, and at any Death Maulers trying to come around the sides. Their weapons were powerful enough that the stupid approach worked; before Shenk got any of his slaves infused, they were all dead, and Bodiccea and Regulix were happily poking him full of holes.
As the celebratory catapult shots had rained down from somewhere far above, Bodiccea grinned, and innocently asked, "Did I do that? Oopsie!"
Regulix laughed. "One almost could do it by accident."
"Yeah," Heather agreed as she stepped up onto the platform. "I gained two levels here, and it wasn't nearly as hard as anything in Hell."
"This place was infamous," Bodiccea muttered, checking over the piles of loot. "Bloody run after Bloody run, all over b.net. Bleah. Let's go upstairs, get the waypoint, and kill Eldritch the Rectifier a little bit."
"Who's he?" Heather asked.
"A super-unique just the other side of the waypoint. He's another popular target for runs 'cause he's so easy to reach. After that, let's go home. The next waypoint is one of the longest slogs in the whole game, and I want to be well-rested."
When they got back, Larzuk's demeanor had changed: now he didn't even make a show of reticence about Bodiccea. "Wow! You're even more amazing than I thought!"
"You'd better believe it, big boy," Bodiccea quirked an eyebrow. "But you'll have to work even harder to get me to forgive you for not calling me amazing the first time!"
"Oh, sorry!" he coughed, shifting nervously from foot to foot. "I thought you were amazing the first time, I just didn't know you could fight, too! Sorry to have doubted you."
"You'd better be sorry," Bodiccea said coyly, then favored him with a smile. His reaction was immediate and gratifying -- he looked like he'd been hit with a brick, only more so.
"I... uh... if there's anything I can do to help you... I know! I can put sockets in one of your items! Anything you want!"
"Sure!" Bodiccea bounced, looking a bit disappointed when she just clanked. "There is one thing... " Breathing in deep, she gazed needfully straight into his eyes, and pouted, "My new suit of armor got scratched! Could you PLEASE help me, kind sir?"
"Oh, of course!" Larzuk beamed. "I thought you might ask me to do something hard. You will have to... uh... uh..."
"Take it off?" Bodiccea stepped inside the forge area, where it was warmer, and hopped up onto the tool bench. Stretching one long leg out high in front of her, she leaned forward, and started unbuckling the greaves. "You only have to ask..."
Quietly, Heather turned away, tugging on Regulix's arm. "Please, can we go? I don't want to watch this."
"Certainly not. They ought to have some privacy."
"Uh... Miss Reg, I don't think Miss B is going to do anything like that. If this is like before, she's just going to tease him all night 'cause she thinks it's fun."
"Oh," Regulix nodded. After a short pause, she asked, "She has done so before?"
"Aphie said she used to do it a lot."
"Perhaps she has changed since then."
Heather frowned dubiously. "Um..."
Understanding her look, Regulix nodded quietly. "How unfortunate. To make matters worse, that boy seems quite innocent in the ways of the world."
"Yeah. I mean, he's a giant, but she's gonna lead him around like a puppy. She might hurt him... or maybe he might hurt her."
Regulix chuckled. "Dear Heather, I think you worry too much. As time passes, one learns that events will turn neither as well as hoped, nor as badly as feared. Though young and perhaps unlearned, I am sure he will be all right, and Bodiccea is perfectly capable of seeing to herself. Come now, let us see to finding you a place of rest. Many of these dwellings are vacant, I am sure we can make arrangements."
"What are you going to do? Um... what DO you do at night, anyway? I don't know if you eat or sleep or anything."
"Not anymore," Regulix smiled. "But there are ways to pass the time. Perhaps I shall speak with Qual-Kehk about his men. I believe that will be our next task."
Suddenly, Heather looked very worried. "You're not gonna do like you did in Lut Gholein, are you?"
"Heather." Her frown was slight, and her tone only one of slight annoyance, but it still felt like the strongest rebuke Heather had ever received. Then Regulix's gaze dropped. "I am sorry. You are right to worry. I assure you, I shall not behave as I did in Lut Gholein."
Heather opened her mouth to speak, then felt ashamed. "Ok. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply anything you did was... it's just that --"
"Hush," Regulix smiled. "It is time for your supper, plans for the morrow, and sleep. Save some of your worries for the morning, when we must speak with Bodiccea."
"For the inexcusable way she will be spending her night."
"Oh." Heather laughed a little. "Yeah, I guess teasing somebody all night long might be worse than what you did."
"Hmm. The subject of the teasing should certainly share your opinion. But that hardly matters now. Bodiccea is willful, and must be allowed to have her way before she can see the difficulties it creates. We shall speak with her in the morning."
Dinner was roast rabbit. Some Barbarian down near Larzuk's had been cooking them up for the entire siege, so in spite of all the talk about being hungry there was plenty. Heather was just getting some when Bodiccea came over, her armor polished and gleaming. "Hi, Heather, Reg. Mmm, bunny burgers."
"Oh, hi Miss B!" Heather said with surprise. "I thought you'd be there longer."
"To repair stuff? How long does it take to hit one button?"
"I thought..." After glancing ruefully at Regulix, Heather blushed and said, "I kind of thought you might want to do something else."
Bodiccea stared in confusion, then laughed. "What? Heather! We were just flirting."
"Well, yeah, but..."
"Oh, come on. Ok, he's got amazing shoulders, and that tight little butt, and big strong forearms, and those eager-puppy-dog eyes, and..." Then she thought for a minute. "Ok, I see why you might have thought that, but... Heather, the hair thing."
"Well..." Heather shrugged. "Lots of guys don't have hair."
"Yeah, but they're all old. Hmm." Bodiccea grabbed a couple of rabbit legs, and they went walking among the empty houses. "You think maybe if he totally shaved his head?"
After trying to imagine that, Heather gave Bodiccea a dubious look. "I dunno..."
"I dunno either. Anyhow, I know you think it's shallow, but I cannot get all that into him."
"Then why were you flirting with him?" Regulix asked.
Making a small noise of protest, Bodiccea glared at her companions and said, "Don't start with this! Come on, flirting is fun! And he's so eager!" With a glance at Regulix, she went on, "Don't try to tell me it's bad. I know you've done a lot worse than just flirt."
"That is true," Regulix said impassively. "And I am sorry my thoughtlessness has reflected badly on you. I hope someday you will forgive me."
Bodiccea's jaw hung open. "Huh? For what?"
A wan smile crept onto Regulix's features. "First, you say I have done worse things than you, and have no right to speak ill of you. When I apologize, you ask why, as though I have done nothing I should regret."
Glancing heavenwards, Bodiccea laughed ruefully. "Yeah, ok. It's just... ok, you didn't do anything you should be sorry for. Hey, guys do stuff like that all the time, why shouldn't we? But it's a lot more than flirting, so you shouldn't say flirting with one guy is bad."
Regulix shook her head. "I did not mean to imply such a thing. I wondered whether you thought about how Larzuk might react to you."
"Sure!" Bodiccea grinned. "Like a happy little puppy! He's really sweet."
"I am sure he did. And then?"
The grin faded. "And then... what?"
Regulix nodded quietly. "Bodiccea, for all his size, Larzuk is but a boy, unsophisticated and inexperienced. However, even more worldly men would be likely to see your flirtations as an expression of an interest you do not have."
"Yeah," Heather nodded. "Elzix figured it out, but he's Elzix."
While the others spoke, Bodiccea stared off into the sky, teeth gritted. Once they were finished, she irritatedly said, "Look, I am not leading him on. If I wanted to lead him on, I'd still be over there. All I want to do is have some fun."
"That is true," Regulix smiled. "We both realize you would never be deliberately cruel. May I have a few moments to share something of my past with you?"
"Huh? Uh... sure." Heather looked curious too.
"Thank you." Her eyes dropped for a while, as though she was considering what words to use, before Regulix began to speak again. "As a young girl, I was not considered attractive. Bodiccea, you must know something of what it is to grow very tall at a young age."
"Oh, yeah," Bodiccea grinned a little.
"Yes. Unlike you, I was also very thin. 'Beanpole' was the kindest of the epithets applied to me. My rapid growth left me clumsy, in addition to the other difficulties of adolescence. It was an awkward stage of life for me."
Bodiccea slowly nodded. "I... I just can't see that. You're so PERFECT..."
"No, Bodiccea. No one is. My embarrassment at myself made me a perfectionist, and I remained one for the rest of my life. I held myself up to very high standards -- higher than many around me could tolerate." She smiled ruefully. "The epithets changed to 'Ice Queen' and 'Princess Perfecta'. I attributed the ill-will to jealousy."
"You might have been right," Heather said quietly.
"It hardly matters," Regulix shrugged. "After I died, still believing my greatest flaw was my greatest virtue, our Goddess took me to herself and showed me to me. Seeing yourself truly is a terrible blessing." She went silent, but neither Bodiccea nor Heather spoke. "There is more, but I cannot think how to describe it. I remained there until your call came."
"Athulua herself decided I should answer you and go into the world again. I did so out of gratitude to her, and once here..." Her head dropped, cheeks turning bright pink. "Like you, I decided I wanted to have some fun. There were so many things I'd never allowed myself to do the first time."
"Heh," Bodiccea smiled a little.
"Miss Reg?" Heather raised her hand a little. "Can I ask a question?"
"Um... this may sound kind of weird, but... why THAT thing? I mean, couldn't you have eaten too much ice cream or something instead?"
"I cannot say," Regulix shrugged. "It was an impulse. Perhaps those who called me 'Ice Queen' in life were merely noting the part of myself I had always repressed most forcefully. Once I decided to unleash it, the impulse was... powerful."
Heather nodded, still looking confused. Bodiccea laughed weakly. "Well... I guess that makes sense... you know what they say about those really repressed types."
"I do," Regulix nodded, "and sometimes what they say has some truth in it." She went quiet again, eyes down, as though remembering. A smile played about her lips. "I won't say I didn't enjoy the night."
"Uh uh!" Bodiccea shook her head, laughing nervously. "You looked pretty happy when you came back in."
"Nor would I recommend the experience for just anyone." The smile broadened into a positively lewd grin. "But I don't regret doing it. What I regret are the consequences."
Sighing, Regulix smiled indulgently, as she might if she was dealing with a nice but rather stupid child. "Do you remember when we visited your friends in the theater?"
"Oh! Yeah, everybody thought you were some kind of crazed slut or something."
"Yes." Her smile changed to one of genuine warmth. "It was very generous of you to try to save me, Bodiccea. It never occurred to me that my night of fun could harm you in any way; I did not think."
"Aw, Reg..." Bodiccea frowned, "you're making way more of that than it was. It's not a big deal! If they can't deal with you, that's their problem."
"Perhaps I am still holding myself to too-high standards," Regulix nodded. "It is a flaw of mine. But I am afraid it is a 'big deal'. When I said I would find a way to pass the night here in Harrogath, the first thing Heather feared was that I might do as I did in Lut Gholein. Even you become visibly nervous when the topic arises."
"I'm sorry," Heather mumbled.
"You should not be," Regulix said quickly. "I embarrassed you, and you fear I might do so again. It is a legitimate concern."
"Ok, ok, ok!" Bodiccea shouted, holding up her hands. "Reg, Heather, how about this: from now on, the whole Lut Gholein incident is officially No Big Deal. Nobody got hurt, everybody involved had a good time, it's all good. Ok?"
Heather nodded enthusiastically. "Ok!"
Regulix nodded as well, so Bodiccea went on. "Now: you're bringing this up because you think I'm not thinking about who might get hurt by teasing Larzuk, right?"
Looking slightly impressed, Regulix nodded. "It would surprise me greatly if he understood how you could treat him as you did, yet have no interest in him."
"Ok, I see that. I did it because I'm an attention whore; that's my flaw." Heather nodded quietly. Bodiccea snorted. "You don't have to agree so fast!"
"Sorry, Miss B." Heather smiled a little.
"And your flaw," Bodiccea pointed dramatically at Heather, "is that you won't stand up for yourself! Quit agreeing with me all the time!"
"Ok, Miss B." Then Heather grinned. "Fvck off, Miss B."
"Heather!" Bodiccea squealed in highly dramatic shock. "What would Akara say?"
"She'd tell you to fvck off too, Miss B."
"Damn right, she would." Bodiccea smiled brightly. "So, are we friends again?"
"I don't see why not," Regulix smiled.
Heather giggled. "Fvck off, Miss B."
"Heather, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing."
"I should know," Regulix laughed.
They all hugged. "Oop! Sorry, Reg, I got rabbit grease on your armor."
"It has seen worse. Your meat must be cold by now."
"Icy. Literally." Bodiccea shrugged. "Oh, well. Cold rabbit is pretty good too."
"Very good. You both had best eat and find a place to sleep. This building seems vacant."
"Good enough. Nitey-nite."
The night passed very comfortably -- Barbarian beds are warm, deep piles of soft furs, with plenty of padding to insulate you from the cold ground. Getting out of them into the cold morning air took genuine willpower. A new bow was lying on the ground next to Heather's bed, along with one of those damn notes.
-- The Mule"
"Are you going to hire one, Miss B?"
Bodiccea laughed. "Gawd, no! They're smelly and stupid and besides, I've got you around. You could kick some bone-headed Barbarian's flabby ol' butt any day."
Heather smiled, hefting Skystrike. "And if the Lightning Hose works really, really well?"
"Then you'll be out-killing me again," Bodiccea sighed. "What a shame! I'll have to go beat up The Mule for better gear."
"What if he hasn't got anything better?"
"He's got to. I know he's got a Mancatcher lying around somewhere, and way better armor than Goldskin. Let's hit the trail."
From the Frigid Highlands waypoint, Bodiccea and company did a quick Shenk-Eldritch run. Heather's first shot was a fire arrow... but then the Lightning Hose arced out from her bow arm like a tongue of white flame. It was pretty, and everything it touched just melted. Slaves incinerated, Shenk died in seconds (ok, Bodiccea helped a little) and Eldritch went even quicker. Both Bodiccea and Regulix gave Heather a respectful look before they started up the slope.
Against Imps in big open areas, the hose proved less effective. They moved and teleported around so much, and kept themselves at such long range, the lightning often couldn't reach them. Heather was accustomed to staying a long distance behind Bodiccea, which was good when she was shooting fire arrows, but the Lightning Hose just didn't have that much range. She did get her share of kills, though. Against Crush Beasts, the hose was awesome, and she could stand in an Imp's inferno blast without blinking.
By the time they found their first Evil Demon Hut, Bodiccea was completely fed up with Imps. She'd switched to Jab and kept it there long ago -- there was rarely a chance to hit more than one opponent anyway. Before killing the hut, she stopped to look inside. Instead of mummy bits and duct tape-wielding Necromancers, the thing held a tiny factory, where some kind of jello was being poured into molds and zapped with electricity. "The little bastards are probably immune to lightning in Hell difficulty," she thought before caving the roof in.
Behind another Skull and Rock pile (MAN, those are weird chests) they found their first fortified wall. There was a random Imp with the Fanaticism aura (guess who died first) and some random Baba trying to head-butt through a solid wall, but no prisoners. Bodiccea hit level 37, with Heather right behind her. The Lightning Hose worked well inside the wall, especially against stationary targets.
The second fortified wall had one cage, with Thresh Socket the unique Crush Beast guarding it. The Imps kept blasting imprisoned Babas; Bodiccea wondered if that kind of treatment would eventually kill them, but had better things to do than wait and see. Anyway, Heather utterly wasted Thresh, and they moved on.
Heather wasn't doing such a good job on Imps, and Regulix had a hard time catching them, so Bodiccea spent a lot of time running them down. At one point, while running down slope, a green bolt of light passed by far overhead. It took her a minute to figure out that it was a poisonous Catapult shot coming from the third wall -- kind of neat that Blizzard remembered to put that in. Now, if only they hadn't forgotten so much other stuff...
The third wall had two cages; soon, all the Barbarians were free and Bodiccea headed back to town to speak with Qual-Kehk. "Hi, big guy! How's things?"
He frowned, looking a bit uncomfortable, but quietly said, "Thank you for rescuing my men. They have spoken well of your bravery."
"They'd better. Now, before you hire any of those boys out, they need baths, a shave and a haircut, and something to wear besides that ugly kilt. Believe me, unless you're Sean Connery, kilts are not as sexy as guys like to think."
That earned her a somewhat disgusted stare, which Bodiccea ignored. "It is only fitting," he went on, "that I reward you for your efforts on our behalf."
"This magic ring does me no good -- wear it proudly!"
He blinked. "I do not understand."
"Sorry, wrong useless present. Gimme the runes. Say, where are all the female Babas, anyway? I've seen a couple of bodies, but nobody out fighting."
"Our women do not wage war," Qual-Kehk declared. "That is men's business."
"Huh," Bodiccea said, acting ignorant. "Is that why you're getting your asses kicked?"
"I believe that what Bodiccea meant to ask," Regulix said as Qual-Kehk bristled, "is that your women are noticeably absent, even inside the city."
Qual-Kehk snorted. "I am old, not deaf, and heard very well what was said to me. Baal has proven a formidable opponent, but this war is not over yet. You have helped us greatly, and for that I am grateful. But no one, no matter how great, should forget to keep a civil tongue in their head."
"Oh, so sorry!" Bodiccea giggled. "No, really, I'm just a snot and you shouldn't take me seriously. Anyhoo, I gotta get back up there. I haven't even found the mini-hell yet!"
He stared silently at her, then scratched his head. "Then good luck to you."
Before heading back out, Bodiccea swung by Malah's, ostensibly to sell the runes and a few potions she'd picked up. The old woman was much friendlier than Qual-Kehk, though still not everything Bodiccea might have hoped for. "Thank you so much for rescuing the men. The thought of them suffering in those cages filled me with despair. You are like an angel."
"Jeebus, I hope not," Bodiccea smirked. "Hey, Reg, you're better at the angel thing than I am. Am I angelic?"
Regulix smiled serenely. "You will be glad to know I realize that you do not intend for me to respond to that question."
"Coolness. Malah, do these guys lying around here ever do anything?"
"There are some wounds beyond even my power to heal quickly," Malah shook her head. "I thank you for the potions you have brought, and hope my gold will be last."
"No prob. I give money to Larzuk for repairs, he gives it to you, you give it back to me, and I gamble it away when I have too much. It evens out. Hmm... say, Qual-Kehk told me fighting is men's work. Do you think so too?"
"It has always been so," Malah said quietly. "Tradition runs as deep as the roots of the mountains among our people." She went on, sadness slowly darkening her eyes. "Our ways, our livelihood, have suffered so much. The tribal elders are all dead.. save Nihlathak. These must be the final days..."
"Nah," Bodiccea shook her head. "Well, maybe, but what's gonna happen will happen, so don't worry about it." Then the thought for a moment. "No, wait, I came in here for a reason. You're upset about something, and you need to tell me."
Malah smiled. "Is it so easy to see as that? There is a matter which I hesitate to share, but I believe you are the only one who can help me now."
Bodiccea nodded. "Sure. It's not helping you, but hey. Go on?"
"Anya, the young alchemist and daughter to one of our slain Elders, has been missing for some time. She is a strong, crafty woman with a spirit like no other. One night, just before your arrival, I overheard her and Nihlathak arguing about her father's death. The next morning she was gone."
"Dumm da dum dum!" Bodiccea laughed. "Sorry."
Heather sighed. "I hope you can forgive Miss B, Malah. She can't help herself."
"I know! Somebody stop me!"
"Please continue, Malah," Regulix said, favoring Bodiccea with an indulgent smile. "Should it prove necessary, we could bind and gag her for a short while."
"Ok, Reg." Heather smirked. "She needs a gag. Grab her socks."
"No! Not that!" Bodiccea laughed. "I'll be good. Really!"
The goodwill written on Malah's face earlier was gone now, but she went on. "Nihlathak has his own tale as to where she went and why. Don't believe him! I fear he is at the root of her disappearance. Please, if you can, search for Anya and bring her back to us. She'll know what to do about Nihlathak."
"Okey-dokey," Bodiccea giggled. "I'm sorry, Malah. When things get serious, I get silly. I'll go get her for ya."
"I thank you. Your ways are strange, but you have done much good. I feel we may have confidence in your abilities."
"Thanks, it's about time somebody did. Ok, that's one quest, some clumsy foreshadowing about the next one, and it's time to go talk with Nihly. See ya!"
On the other side of town, Bodiccea bounced over to Nihlathak, the clanging of her armor warning him of her arrival. "Hi, gruesome!"
"Well, well," he sneered. "If it isn't the shepherdess, having found her lost sheep. Or was that a cowbell I just heard?"
"I don't wanna know about you and sheep, and you'd better not have called me a cow. Whatcha got to say about Anya?"
"Anya? Who have you been talking to?" His face darkened with anger as the realization dawned over him. "Likely it was that meddling Malah."
"Right the first time, Sherlock! I'll give you 5 seconds to explain yourself before I violate your virgin ass with the butt of this spear for being such a sell-out."
"Miss B?" Heather frowned. "Not that I like him, but I don't think you can do that."
"Somebody else got to his ass before I did?"
Heather shook her head. "That's not it."
"Aw, c'mon!" Bodiccea pouted theatrically. "Maybe he'll be walking funny when I get down into the Halls of Vaught."
"Nah. He kind of floats around."
"Oh, yeah. Phoo." She stuck her tongue out at him. "Spoil all my fun, why don'tcha."
Now turning purple, Nihlathak hissed, "And did Malah also tell you the name of the deepest sanctum of my clan temple?"
"Lay off Malah! I'm your problem now."
"My dear, foolish girl," Nihlathak smiled toothily, "let me tell you how it happened..."
"Nah," Bodiccea shook her head. "I'm gonna be heading up onto the Arreat Plateau pretty soon, so I'd better gamble all my money away now or my stash'll fill up. I'll take everything on your board there. And see ya in the Halls of Vaught."
A little way beyond the third and last wall on the Frigid Highlands, they found the entrance to Abaddon, the first mini-hell. After clearing away a few residual Imps and Eyeback the Unleashed (how do they come up with these names, anyway?) Bodiccea made a town portal and went back for her leathers. The whole city was treated to the sight of her going to her stash, then scampering, yipping, back to her portal. Down in the nice warm infernal pit, they quickly found some monsters: Demon Rascals and Blood Lords. Bodiccea paused so Heather could snipe across the gap. It worked fine when she was firing normal fire arrows, but the Lightning Hose wasn't quite long enough to reach.
"Heather, could you move closer to the edge?"
"Any closer and I'll burn my toes off. This gap is too wide."
"Phoofies! Oh, well, we do this the old-fashioned way. They're just Blood Lords, how bad can it be? Reg, please stay close."
They went around, through a small nest of Rascals and boldly into a pack of four minotaurs. Bodiccea ran into the middle of the bunch... and started whiffing. Curse the damned Fend bug. After moving a bit, she tried again -- no dice, and now they had her blocked in. The Decoy was ignored, and they were pounding her silly when Heather caught up and started shooting. Two melted under the hose, giving Bodiccea enough time to switch to Jab and leech some life back. Regulix finished off the last one.
"Ok!" Bodiccea said, holding her sliced-up armor together with one arm. "That could have gone better. Thanks for the save, Heather. Reg?"
"I am sorry, Bodiccea," she bowed her head. "When you are so lightly attired, it is difficult for me to keep pace with you."
"Ah." Bodiccea nodded. "Ok, it was like that in Hell too, I just didn't notice so much. So from now on, we walk up to frenzy-taur packs, or let them come to us."
The next bunch of Blood Lords was easier to take. Chasing imps was easier in the leathers, but even boss imps don't demand as much care as minotaurs. Another unpleasantness came up when they went back to Harrogath.
"Of course I can fix them..." Larzuk said, looking somewhat baffled. "But I still don't know why you went out to battle in leather underwear."
"It's in one of those little hell-pits," Bodiccea grinned, teeth chattering. "P-pretty warm down there! Mind if I stand next to your forge?"
"Oh, no." He scratched his head, then laughed a little. "Maybe you're hot-blooded..."
"Sure!" Bodiccea sidled up as close to the fire as she possibly could, desperately hugging herself against the cold air. "Check it and see! Could you sew f-faster, please?"
"I... um, I have to say you look really great in it..."
"S-s-sure!" Now she was hopping up and down to try and keep her blood flowing. "That's what it's th-there for! Do you have, like, a blanket or something around here?"
"Uh, no." He glanced sideways at her, then averted his eyes, blushing. "Ok, I'm done --"
"THANKS!" Bodiccea snatched the leathers away and jumped back into them. "See ya!"
Wending among the islands, there were a few more threats, like a champion pack of Lashers with some exploding slaves. Her spear's long reach saved Bodiccea from the mess. Trips back to town were brief and infrequent until they found the Golden Chest of Joy, it was just too cold. There was a flaw in this plan of wearing the leathers in the mini-hells. Feeling grumpy -- and avoiding looking at Heather -- Bodiccea changed back into Goldskin and went back to the surface again.
Past some fences in the narrows, the Arreat Plateau spread out wide and cold before them. Lashers, Slayers and Evil Demon Huts were monotonously omnipresent. The surface areas of act V have to be the most boring in the 1.09 game; there's no variety at all. Knowing how painful a whiff could be with exploding slaves around, Bodiccea moved slowly and carefully, letting them approach so Heather and Regulix could pop them first. When she did mix it up with exploders, the War Fork was long enough to keep them at bay. The only time she didn't use Fend was when they met a Lasher boss with the Fanaticism aura. For him, Bodiccea opted for carefully-placed Decoys, Jab, and Regulix soaked the damage. The Valkyrie took a terrible beating without ever complaining.
After seeing far, far too damn many naked, swollen demons exploding, the magnificent three reached the first wall. To her surprise, Bodiccea discovered that decoy was a great way to get rid of exploding slaves -- they'd run right up to it and burst harmlessly. That helped to clear the wall with much less fuss. There were no Babas inside the wall, so they cleared it at a leisurely pace.
The waypoint was right on the other side of the first wall. The sun was down, and while it wasn't that late, Bodiccea decided to call it a night anyway. "That was easy; the waypoint is usually farther up the plateau."
"Cool," Heather said. "What's the next mini-hell called?"
"I forget. They're all the same anyway, so who cares? Anyhoo, whatcha think of the Lightning Hose, Heather?"
"It's nice when it works, which isn't always. You move so fast, I'm usually at long range, and it doesn't do so hot then."
"Yeah. So, it's either I slow down, or you switch back to Kuko."
Heather nodded. "I think I'll go back to Kuko. It's a great bow, and works at any range."
"Great," Bodiccea gave her a hug. "Now, I'm gonna get some dinner and go to sleep. I'm bushed."
"You sure, Miss B? All the Babas are back in town, they might want to meet you."
"Mmmaybe," she winked. "But I am tired. All that shivering takes a lot out of ya. Maybe I'll play hard to get for once."
Regulix smiled. "I will be happy to speak with them for you. Mind you, my last attempt at conversation, with Qual-Kehk, was not well received. These people do not believe women may speak as equals to warriors."
"Is that what he's got his undies in a bunch about?" Bodiccea frowned, and snorted. "I guess I'll have to drag my ass over there and correct him. And meet his men. Who knows? Maybe one of them's actually taken a bath sometime this year."
She strode off towards the town square; Heather was about to follow, but she heard someone say "psst!" from a nearby empty house. It was Khaleel. "Hey."
"Hey! What are you doing here?"
"Freezing my butt off," he laughed. "Nah, I've been here before. I just wanted to see you again."
Blinking, Heather shook her head, not sure she'd heard that right. "Me?"
"Yeah, you. I missed you, you know?"
A smile crept onto her face. "You did?"
"Yeah." Shifting on his feet a bit, Khaleel laughed nervously and said, "Look, uh... I know this sidewalk cafe over in the Thief game, near Ramirez's mansion. They serve espresso."
She stared slack-jawed for a while, then finally managed to get out a tiny squeak. "I..."
"Uh... you wanna go over there? It's warmer, and the food's better."
"Uh... I... sure! I'd love to."
"Great!" He grinned, clasping his hands behind his back and rocking on his heels. "So... shall we go?" A bit clumsily, he offered his left arm.
"Yeah!" Heather smiled. "That'd be great!" Taking his arm, they quickly and quietly left.
"Ok, here it is." The cafe was small and close, packed between two buildings, but it was clean and the air smelled fresh. The setting sun shone down the street outside, lighting the cafe's patio with a mild warm glow. Khaleel pulled Heather's chair out, and she sat down with a nervous smile. A server dropped off two small black bottles and a basket of bread.
"What's in the bottles?" she asked.
"I think it's beer," Khaleel sat down. "It's a medieval city, the water's not that great."
"Oh," Heather nodded, fidgeting a little.
Khaleel pried the cork out of one bottle and tasted a bit. "Yeah, beer. Kind of weak."
"Yeah. I guess since it's complimentary, huh?" Heather smiled, and tried to get the cork out of her bottle. The edge crumbled, leaving the bottle jammed closed.
"Oh, uh, here, take mine." Khaleel shoved his bottle across the table and tried to take hers. "Maybe I can get that out."
"It's ok," Heather said, digging into the cork with an arrow tip. "I think I can get it." More gouges came out of the cork; it was soon in danger of crumbling completely and falling inside the bottle.
"Um, it's gonna ruin the taste... I know a trick that can get that."
"Oh. What is it?" Heather put the bottle down on the table, and Khaleel took it.
"You shake the bottle a little, so there's pressure inside," he said, demonstrating. "Then you get the point of a knife and pry in from the edge..."
Very shortly, his efforts were rewarded with a fountain of weak beer and cork fragments. After wiping his face, Khaleel flicked one last bit of cork away from the lip of the bottle and grinned in embarrassment. "I guess that got it."
Heather laughed once, then stopped. "Are you ok?"
"Yeah... just a little wet. It's cool."
Grinning a little, but still concerned, she observed, "Your robe looks like silk..."
"Oh! No way," Khaleel shook his head. "Vizjerei robes are supposed to be silk, but I think it's rayon. You can't go tromping through demon guts in silk."
The waiter finally arrived. After glancing disapprovingly at Khaleel, he turned to Heather and asked, "How may I serve you, madam and monsieur?"
"Um..." Heather glanced around, looking for a menu. "Uh..."
"I'll take a double-roast mocha espresso."
"Thank you, sir. And for you, my lady?"
"Uh... coffee, I guess."
The waiter looked nonplused. Khaleel cleared his throat, and said, "Uh, I don't think they have just coffee here. How about an espresso?"
She shook her head. "I don't want to be up all night."
"Oh," he nodded, then smiled a little. "There's always the house wine?"
Heather smiled. "Okay."
"One gold bottle," Khaleel ordered. "And forget the mocha."
"Very good, sir." The waiter quickly left.
Outside on the street, two men came by, an archer and a swordsman. They stopped, and the swordsman turned to peer around behind them; he didn't seem to see anything, and they continued on. Heather peered after them as they left. "What was that about?"
"Nothing," Khaleel shrugged. "They come by every so often."
Heather's gaze, meanwhile, had wandered inside the cafe to a nearby table. She made a small noise of surprise and pointed. Khaleel looked over; it was Varnae. "Hey!"
"Don't mind me, dear boy," he purred, ignoring a dark figure as it flitted into the shadow of a column at the patio's edge "Please resume your clumsy attempt at seduction."
After a pause, the figure slipped away from the cafe, slipping from shadow to shadow behind the two armed men as they entered a nearby mansion. Neither Khaleel nor anyone else noticed. "What the hell are you doing here!?"
"Chaperoning, my boy," Varnae smiled. "We couldn't leave you two little love birds alone now, could we?"
As the waiter left them a golden bottle of wine and two gold goblets, Khaleel snarled, "We do not need a chaperone!"
"Oh, dear!" Varnae sighed, and gazed heavenwards in exasperation. "Whatever am I to do with you? All the effort of raising a mercenary properly, instilling respect for the rules of etiquette which form the foundation of polite society, and in the end, he turns and bites the hand that feeds him. Ah, me..."
"Aw, c'mon," Kasim said from another table he was sharing with Klatu and Amanita. "That chaperone crap went out of style years ago."
"Thank god," Amanita laughed, then leaned over to ask Heather, "You did bring protection, right?"
"What?!" Heather gasped.
Paige: "Amy! Heather's not like that."
Mizor: (sitting across three chairs, chewing a piece of honeycomb) "Naaumffrsate." (tries to give Khaleel a thumbs-up)
Kasim looked at Klatu. "So, do you think she's a moaner or a screamer?"
"HEY!" Khaleel stood up. "Get the hell out of here! All of you!"
"It's a public place," Amanita leaned back and put her feet up on the table. "We can stay as long as we want."
The shadowy figure no one saw the first time oozed back around the corner; the wine and goblets went missing from Khaleel's table, again without anyone noticing. "Look! We are just trying to talk! There is nothing going on!"
"So your objection to a chaperone is entirely without cause," Varnae observed smugly. "It is most gratifying to see that my efforts at civilising you were not completely wasted."
Paige: "Come on, pasty. They don't need a chaperone."
"That's true," Kasim grinned. "I mean, this is wiz-boy..."
Klatu laughed. "He can't strike out every time."
Mizor: (frowns) "Rrrarreehepsornoo!"
Paige: (laughs) "You tell 'em, boss."
Kasim frowned, staring at Mizor. "Ok, what'd he say?"
Paige: "That he probably gets more than you."
"No damn way!"
"Deadboy probably just wants to watch," Amanita smirked.
"My dear," Varnae gazed disapprovingly at her. "What one does in one's private time is entirely one's own business. Youth, however, must be guided with a steady hand. Unless the need for discretion in one's affairs is imposed early and often, all manner of unacceptable behaviour will inevitably spill out into polite society, confounding all concerned."
Outside, an arrow with a rope attached to it thudded into a roof beam, and the shadowy figure shimmied up to a second story ledge. Amanita sighed and said to Varnae, "Look, when you've got something to say, can't you just say it?"
"And deny myself one of the few pleasures that remains to me?" Varnae chuckled. "Your expression is simply priceless, to say nothing of those of your table companions."
Klatu leaned over to Kasim. "Did he call us something bad?"
Scratching his head, Kasim muttered, "I'm not sure."
Paige: "He said you look funny."
"And he's right," Amanita smirked. "Shouldn't you have gotten Teddy-boy to chaperone? He's the Paladin and everything."
"I think not," Varnae sniffed. "Even a mercenary should be allowed to wallow in pleasure, when obligations permit."
Paige: "I think that if they're old enough to drink, they should be old enough to make their own decisions."
Somewhere nearby, a goony voice muttered, "Someone makin' noise?" After the crack of a blackjack meeting someone's skull, it was quiet again.
Varnae sighed. "That is entirely beside the issue. The purpose of a chaperone is to teach discretion, and a certain amount of deviousness. If dear Khaleel were allowed to indulge his lower impulses freely, without strong and immediate disapproval, his undeveloped mind might not grasp the importance of keeping his disgusting little dalliances to himself. That, I believe, is something we all could agree on."
"Trust me," Amanita laughed, "no one's gonna tell you anything."
Paige: "Guys, come on. Khaleel's not so bad."
"You were sure pissed off at him before," Kasim said.
Paige: "That's 'cause you were telling him what to do before."
He guffawed. "Yeah, like it's my fault he's a dork."
"Hmm," Varnae mused, looking around. "It seems he and his paramour have taken their lesson in deviousness entirely too well."
Sure enough, Khaleel and Heather were gone, along with the bread and Varnae's bottle of wine. "Huh," Kasim grinned. "Little bastard. Where'd he go?"
It was night, on a strange island under a pure black sky shimmering with alien constellations. Strange buildings crowded onto the small island -- giant gears, a broken clock tower, and a rocket ship that would never fly. Little broke the silence; the sound of waves hummed under the rush of wind in the trees and the gentle clink of wine glasses. "This is beautiful."
"Yeah," Khaleel grinned. "It's Myst. We ran through it once, doing the puzzles. Well... I ran through it. Kasim and Klatu didn't really do a whole lot."
"It's a puzzle game?" Heather asked, sipping a bit of wine.
"Uh huh. One of the best. Not much replay value, you have to stay away from it until you've forgotten everything. Nothing's happened here in... over a year now."
"Oh," she nodded.
He nodded, grinning nervously. "Yeah... I doubt anybody else remembers it's here."
"That's a shame, it's so pretty." She looked down -- her glass was empty.
"Oops! Uh, mine's empty too."
She smiled. "You pour."
"Okay," he grabbed what was left of the bottle. "There's lots of beautiful things here."
Heather blinked a bit, then turned away, blushing fiercely. "Oh..."
"Naw, I mean it," Khaleel smiled, trying to refill their glasses without spilling.
"It's the wine," she said. "It's good."
"Yeah. Pasty knows how to pick wine."
He grinned, and they both laughed. "Yeah," she said, draining half of her glass. "Nothing's happened here in a year?"
"Uh... no, I don't think so."
"Oh." Flushed with wine and weaving slightly where she sat, Heather finally broke into a smile and said, "Maybe we can change that."
The sun was just breaking away from the horizon when Heather quietly opened the door to the house she and Bodiccea had commandeered. One pile of furs near the back of the room was breathing, so she tip-toed over to the other. She was just putting her bow down when a snort announced that Bodiccea had woken. "Hi, Miss B."
"Wooza," Bodiccea looked around blearily. "Oh, it's you. Where you been?"
"I just went out for a while. How's things here?"
"Lousy," Bodiccea sat up, shivering as the air hit her. "Reg and I spent the whole night talking feminism with Qual-Kehk and the testosterone horde. Gawd, I hate feminism."
Heather slowly nodded. "You know, somehow, I kind of knew that."
"Ha. You a feminist, Heather?"
"Um... I guess. I mean, equal rights and equal pay and things like that are good."
"Oh, yeah, sure, that's all good. What I don't like is all the shrieking and theorizing and a bunch of big ugly bull-dykes in serious clothes. It's boring."
"Huh," Heather thought for a minute. "I know everybody talks about women like that, but I don't think I've ever actually seen one."
"There are some," Bodiccea grumbled, reaching for her armor. "Hey..."
Bodiccea sniffed the air. "I smell booze."
"Oh, uh, yeah..." Heather picked her bow up again. "We kind of had something to drink, when I went out just now."
After taking a deep breath, Heather nodded defiantly. "Yeah. I was out with someone."
Bodiccea stared at her. "All night?"
" ... Yes. All night."
She stared a few seconds more... then jumped out of bed and gave Heather a hug. "WOO HOO! Yowp, cold floor! You stopped being boring! Congrats!"
"Oof!" Heather coughed, then protested, "What do you mean, boring?"
"Heather! You're always the one who hangs around in the back going 'that isn't a good idea, Miss B' or 'I don't like you dressing like that, Miss B' or 'maybe we should do something else, Miss B' and crap like that. It's been like going around with my mom."
"Oh," Heather said, not sure how she should respond to that.
"Wow, you do smell," Bodiccea said, letting go to go get her stuff. "You must have put away a lot. Did you get any sleep at all?"
"Uh... no, I didn't."
Bodiccea laughed. "Oh, man, you're gonna be wasted today. We're going to the Arreat Plateau, then the ice caves. There's gonna be Frenzy-taurs in there."
"Oh," Heather blinked blearily. "Good."
"And another mini-hell, maybe some in there. Keep in back of me and Reg, ok?"
"I always try, Miss B. Um... can I ask you for something?"
"Sure," Bodiccea looked concerned. "What is it?"
"I'm glad you're not mad about me leaving for the night... but could you not, um... like, go around telling other people about it? I know you probably think it's no big deal..."
"Aw, Heather," Bodiccea shook her head. "I wasn't going to anyway."
Heather sighed with relief. "Thank you."
"No, not for you, for me," Bodiccea grumped. "I mean, look at me. I'm wearing sensible clothes, stay up all night talking feminism, and my valk and my merc are getting more action than me. Word gets out, people'll start thinking I've gone soft and I'll have to do something really stupid like take on Baal's minions naked or something."
Heather laughed. "There's guys who'd pay money to see that."
"Don't encourage me, Heather. Now, get your drunken butt in gear: it's time to find Anya."
It didn't take long to find Regulix -- she was conversing with Larzuk -- and soon Bodiccea was leading her merry band back onto the Arreat Plateau. On their way to the second wall, they found an exploding shrine, and agreed that Barbarian shrines are among the nastiest-looking in the whole game. Kurast's are made of bones too, but Baba ones have a lot more fresh blood and grue. There was also a little Baba house, with fences, banners just like ones back in the Rogue camp (lazy graphics designers) and the dead bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Nelson outside. Bodiccea reached level 39 about the time they hit the wall.
There were two Babas running around up there: one was swinging ineffectually at Imps and bumping into the wall, but the other had been backed into a corner by close to a dozen slaves, all primed to explode. Bodiccea decided to let Heather and Regulix take care of that crowd while she killed a nearby tower. Past the wall, they ran around for a while, killing and looting uneventfully. There was a Lasher with Holy Shock, but thanks to careful application of Decoys, he never targeted anybody who could get hurt.
The next mini-hell was the Pit of Acheron, and a fine mini-hell it was. There were Overlords and Ice Boars instead of Imps, but otherwise it was the same as the one before. Bodiccea didn't bother to change armor this time; stifling a yawn, she led them out onto the islands and let Heather snipe. Sniping worked much better with Kuko. It was kind of fun watching the slaves explode from a safe distance. The next island had a Night Lord boss, which she also sniped. He dropped Isenhart's Case, of course.
Later, as they crossed a bridge, two big groups of monsters attacked them. On one side, a bunch of Night Lords, with a boss Hell Lord pack right behind them. On the other, a dozen exploding Boars and lots of frenzied normal ones. Thinking quickly, Bodiccea cast a Decoy by the frenzy-taurs and retreated to the bridge, letting Regulix go in first. Once the exploders were gone, she recast the frenzy-taur Decoy and ran like a bunny through the remaining Boars to get the Overlords behind them. Mopping that side of the equation up didn't take too long, giving them plenty of room to maneuver as they went back to the frenzy-taurs... who by this time, were completely charged up from destroying the Decoy. "Maybe I should have done that the other way around," Bodiccea thought as nine walls of frenzied muscle came barreling down on them like drunk frat boys invading a sorority.
This was no time to risk the Fend bug -- Bodiccea switched to Jab and hoped 24% life leech would be enough. They were quickly surrounded; even Heather got three of them to deal with. Gritting her teeth, Bodiccea jabbed and jabbed a Night Lord until it died. Heather was taking serious damage, even with Regulix helping her; Bodiccea decided to take the risk and switched to Fend. It worked -- another Night Lord went down. That left three Hell Lords for her, including the boss. Heather had managed to kill one of hers and Regulix was working on a second, paying no attention to the last Hell Lord pounding away on her back. After hitting a potion for Heather, Bodiccea moved two steps closer to her, so all the frenzy-taurs were within reach of her spear. Once she started Fending, they all turned on her, but that suited her fine -- she had them where she wanted them, so it was just a matter of time.
"You ok, Heather?"
"Ow ow ow ow... yes."
"Ok. Sorry, I guess I blew it."
"What?" Heather stared at her in confusion. "How?"
"I'm thinking," Bodiccea kicked a dead Hell Lord, "I should have Decoyed the exploders and taken these guys on first. Slaves explode on a Decoy, but the frenzy-taurs just used it to charge up."
Regulix shook her head. "Not all of the Ice Boars were energized. Your Decoy would have neutralized some of them, but the remainder would have attacked from behind as we fought the minotaurs."
"Yeah," Heather said. "Those bull-men are scary. I don't think there's much we could do about them, no matter what."
"Heh," Bodiccea said. "Yeah, I guess there should be at least one monster in the game that isn't safe to deal with, no matter what you do."
"Another possibility would be to meet them on the bridge," Regulix suggested. "In such a narrow place, only one or two attackers could come at a time. A lone defender could hold them off while an archer weakens them from a position of safety."
"Oh, yeah," Bodiccea smiled ruefully. "I remember somebody talking about crap like that back in school."
"It is a good strategy. You have used it on other occasions."
"Yeah, yeah," Bodiccea nodded. "So I tried something else this time. Heather, next time we have to deal with a whole mess o' frenzy-taurs, retreat to the nearest bridge."
"What about when we're in the Worldstone Keep?"
"Wing it." Bodiccea grinned. "Life is better if you live it on impulse."
Heather smirked. "Is that because you never think far enough ahead to make plans?"
"Shut up, Heather. I'm a blonde, what do you expect? Let's finish this place off, it's boring down here."
The golden chest o' joy had a two-socket staff with a bonus to Fireball. Some Sorcie would like to put "Leaf" in that, so Bodiccea tucked it away for The Mule and started the long run back to the plateau. Running in full plate is very tiring. Back in Diablo I, anybody could learn how to Teleport. On the other hand, nobody could run, and running is a good thing. The second wall was the last; all that was left was Sharptooth Slayer, some Imps, and the first Evil Urn. The Urn coughed up gold and a few baby spiders, which really shouldn't have lived long on the ice. No monsters -- the first hit's always free.
Inside the Crystalline Passage, their first encounter was some Moon Lords, also known as red bulls. "Hey Heather," she said after killing the last one, "did I ever tell you about the time I tried some Red Bull?"
"The hyper-caffeinated drink?" Heather asked with alarm.
"Yeah! That was so freaky. I couldn't sleep for three days, and all my friends avoided me for weeks after. I don't remember what I said or did. Must have been good, though! I think I see something around that corner. Let's go get 'em!"
Hiding around the next corner were three Succubi. Stygian Harlots, to be more accurate: a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead. As our heroines came into view, they hissed, leaped to the attack... and stopped dead. "Ohmigosh," the blonde squealed, "before they kill us, I've GOT to find out how she does her hair!"
"And the mascara!" the brunette gasped! "No! Those CAN'T be her real eyelashes!"
"They've gotta be," the redhead shook her head, "I know false lashes when I see them, and those are real, baby."
"Yep," Bodiccea grinned, and breathed in deep. "I grew it all myself."
All three of them GASPED and stared. "I am so jealous."
"I'm more jealous than you are."
The redhead tsked, giving the others a disapproving look. "I'm almost jealous. Girls, the plate armor. Serious fashion faux pas."
"Hey!" Bodiccea yelled, looking defensive. "It's freezing down here!"
"You're telling us?" they said in unison.
"Uh... Miss B? Reg and I think we should kill them now."
"Later, Heather." She turned back to the Succubi. "I had some leathers that were just to die for before --"
The brunette grinned evilly. As you might expect, she was fantastic at it. "Ooh, leather. Good choice. I hope you got them in black?"
"No, they're red."
"Even better!" the redhead said, sticking her tongue out at the brunette. "I'm sorry, your hair is your saving grace, but that plate make your hips look huge."
"I know," Bodiccea pouted. "Sometimes, I wish I could find the men -- and you know it's men -- who designed this stuff and make them wear it for a while."
The brunette shook her head. "That is exactly the problem: they just don't care."
"You'll never catch me in that stuff," the redhead sniffed. "I know, I know, comfort and all that, but there are some sacrifices that should never be made."
"Girls!" the blonde whined, hopping up and down in frustration. "Her hair! I want to know how she gets her hair to look like that!"
"And your eyes!" the brunette agreed. "Tell! Tell!"
"Ok, ok!" Bodiccea grinned. "The eyes are easy: Lady Madeline's on Philios sells the world's best mascara. It is AMAZING: no clumping, no running, and it's almost impossible to get it in your eyes no matter what! The only problem is that it's not really that dark, but my coloring is so light I can get away with it."
"Ooh!" the blonde and redhead squealed. The brunette sulked. "Damn it! I can never get my lashes to look the way I want."
"Have you tried using a lighter eye shadow?" Bodiccea suggested. "I notice you're wearing it pretty dark. Maybe something for a little more contrast... ?"
The Succubus hesitated. "Oh. I use dark eye shadow because... I have a little trouble with my eyebrows. I've tried plucking them, and trims, but they get so thick..."
The redhead grinned, fangs glistening. "Yes... she has a problem with hair."
The blonde was giggling. "You should hear her scream when she gets a bikini wax."
"Ouch! I understand completely," Bodiccea nodded, dragging out her makeup kit. "What I am going to suggest is a blue eye shadow with just a little eyeliner. I know, blue went out ages ago, but I think with some lavender highlights, a line of plum under the brows, and none of that damn glitter, we can make it work. Wow, you have fair skin. Is that natural, or just the cold?"
"It's natural," the brunette glowered, and puffs of steam rose from her ears. "We're hot-blooded wenches. It helps when we need to break the ice."
"I'll bet. Let me see... yeah, blue works on you. Now, you're going to need a new lip color to go with this...."
"Is my lip color all right?" the redhead asked.
Bodiccea smiled. "Your lip color is fine; ruby red is your thing! But you need to balance it with the right color in your cheeks; your rouge is too red and it's on way too thick..."
A few minutes later, the four of them were kneeling on the floor in a circle, trading tips and advice on makeup, hair, clothes, diets, and feminine hygiene products. Bodiccea was going over the brunette and the redhead in turn, and describing her personal hair care regimen to the blonde. They gave Bodiccea all kinds of advice on fashions, including ways to conceal figure flaws even if you were practically naked. Delighted squeals and grateful compliments came freely. Regulix and Heather just stood there and stared. "Perhaps we should have anticipated this," Regulix finally muttered.
Heather was gazing off into the distance. "I could have been hired by a Paladin. I'll bet this doesn't happen with Paladins..."
Regulix laughed. "I hope you do not regret your friendship so much as that."
"No," Heather smiled. "It's just... I don't know. Miss B is kind of distractible."
"That is true, though I do not believe you are any more eager to reach our destination than she."
"Nah." Then she yawned. "I don't really like her talking to them, but I don't think it can hurt anything. I guess I'm just tired. I was up kind of late last night."
"Oh. Was that wine I smelled when we met this morning?"
Heather grinned a little. "Yeah."
"Mmm. Did you get any sleep at all?"
"You mad, reckless thing, you."
"I am not!" Heather laughed. "Well, maybe just once."
Regulix nodded. "Everyone should be at least once in their lives. And speaking of mad and reckless... Bodiccea, how are you getting on?"
"Great!" Bodiccea smiled. "They're showing me how a Wonderbra works! I can't believe I ignored them when they first came out."
The redhead nodded enthusiastically. "I don't know how I lived without one. They're wonderful! I put one on, and all of a sudden, ooh! Cleavage!"
The blonde laughed, looking down at her own ample chest. "Yeah! Lots of cleavage!"
The brunette snickered cruelly. "For the ones who need help..."
"Shut up, you b!tch!" the blonde hissed. "I do not need it. But more is always better."
"Hell, yes," the redhead licked her lips sensually. "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."
"I don't think I need one either," Bodiccea said, "but if I had one, I could lose some weight but keep my chestline. Then, maybe I could pull off a thong!"
"I think you could wear a thong," the brunette smiled.
The blonde giggled. "Maybe. Kind of hard to tell."
"I'll try later." Bodiccea stood up. "Ok! Thanks for all your help, it's been great talking with you. I've learned so much!"
"Anytime!" the redhead grinned, with many more teeth than is really acceptable.
"Yeah!" the blonde agreed. "It's been so much fun!"
Bodiccea nodded. "Yeah. Now, I hate to be a party pooper, but..." With one furious Fend, she stabbed all three Succubi. They crumbled into dust and bones before one could get a single word out.
Eyebrows raised in curiosity, Regulix quietly said, "Skillfully done."
"Thanks. Hey, we're doing full clears. I couldn't let them go. Besides, they're evil and stuff."
Heather chewed her lower lip, and murmured, "Uh huh."
Nodding, Regulix asked, "Do you plan to stop and converse with all the Succubi?"
"No way. They know a heck of a lot, but that much concentrated b!tchiness gives me a headache. Let's hit the trail. And from now on, kill everything on sight. Ok?"
"Except Anya," Heather noted.
"Well, duh, of course not Anya. I'm not missing out on that resistance scroll. Let's roll."
Besides Moon Lords and Stygian Harlots, they had Frozen Creepers to deal with. Again and again, Bodiccea found herself cursing the rarity of the Cannot Be Frozen mod. Ravenfrost has it, it's level 45. Duriel's Shell has it, it's level 41. Popping an Evil Urn released a pack of Frozen Creepers who put Bodiccea up to level 40... so close. The ice caves went on and on, like most areas in act V. They found wells, and wondered how the water kept from freezing, and a few of those cute little Barbarian jars that look like cakes cut into 6 pieces.
The only excitement came late in the caves, when they ran into a boss Moon Lord and his 7 minions. That was bad enough, but Heather, who was starting to get sleepy, wandered into the middle of the pack. Bodiccea charged in to Fend them off... and started whiffing. Damn. As her health ball started dropping, she cast a quick Decoy and switched to Jab. Regulix got into the tussle, Heather finally wandered away and started doing her job, and the Decoy left this world about 2 seconds after it entered it. Once they'd gotten themselves organized, the frenzy-taurs went down easily, but Heather still needed a potion after it was over.
Finally, in the very last possible corner of the Crystalline Passage, they found the waypoint, the entrance to the Frozen River (guarded by some champion Moon Lords) and the exit to the Glacial Trail. It wasn't too late yet, and Heather said she was all right, so they went through to the Glacial Trail to find the waypoint. The monsters were predictable: Death Slashers (shouldn't they be Death Sock Puncturers?), Frozen Terrors, and the Reanimated Horde. After their first encounter, Bodiccea knew they'd be even more annoying than Imps. Full clears means everything dies, making sure the Reanimated Horde is dead means waiting, and if there was anything Bodiccea hated, it was waiting. Fortunately, the waypoint was right next to the entrance and they found it almost immediately.
Down on the Frozen River, the first monsters they met were Abominables. They were kind of cute in a huge-and-hairy way. Heather wandered into the middle of the fight again, then through to the other side, where she attracted the attention of some Blood Temptresses. She really needed some sleep. Bodiccea asked Regulix to please step on her foot when she started wandering again, and they went on. The Blood Temptresses were much better at presenting themselves than the Stygian Harlots had been. Blue and green complimented their pale complexions beautifully.
A little further on, they met Rot Walkers. There were a lot of Rot Walkers down there, and Bodiccea had to make sure each and every one was completely dead before they could move on. It took damn near forever. Heather reached level 40 while they were crossing and re-crossing the river. An Evil Urn popped out a Conviction-enchanted Abominable almost on top of Regulix. She took it well, though. The Fanaticism-enchanted Frozen Terror further down the river was much worse -- there were Abominables nearby who got the aura. Bodiccea led a quick retreat to separate the two monster groups, which made the fight a lot easier.
The second Evil Urn also released Abominables, but for some reason they appeared on the opposite side of the river. Bodiccea blinked, thought "what the heck?" and looted the armor and weapon racks while Heather sniped. Her aim was kind of off, but it was a big group and Kuko shot explosive arrows, so it worked out. On their way though the last branch of the river, Bodiccea hit level 41. Hopefully, the Mule had left something in her stash... something cuirass-like, hopefully not too chitonous or slimy.
At the end of the branch, they found Frozenstein the Abominable, a few Rot Walkers, and Anya. Regulix was carrying Heather by this point, but Frozenstein only had 3 minions with him, so Bodiccea took care of them by herself. He dropped Death's Guard, which was slightly appropriate. "Hero! N-Nihlathak did this to me!"
"Yeah, yeah. I'm sorry, it's getting awful late, and I've gotta get my merc home. I'll go get the stuff from Malah."
Malah was smugly pleased to find out her suspicions were accurate. "So! That snake Nihlathak was responsible..."
"Yep, he's icky. Got the thawing stuff ready?"
"I prepared some beforehand," she said, handing over the bottle. "I suspected he would use a freezing curse as well."
"Great, great. Can I leave Heather here? She's totally spacing."
"Of course... what is --"
Back on the river, Bodiccea gave Anya the potion, cast a portal, and ran down to Anya's house before she'd closed her own gate. "Hi, babe!"
"Thank you, hero, for rescuing me," Anya smiled. "You have proven yourself a true hero to me and my people."
"Thanks," Bodiccea smiled, and yawned. "Do you mind if we have this conversation in the morning? My merc is comatose, and I'm kind of bushed myself. I'm sure you have a lot of catching up to do, so go talk to Cain; for some reason, he knows more about Harrogath than any of the people who live here."
"I am sorry, but this cannot wait! Nihlathak is going to give Baal the Relic of the Ancients, out most holy totem! With it, Baal will not be challenged --"
"Um, Anya?" Bodiccea raised her hand. "Sorry, but anything Nihly was going to do, he's already done."
"But... but there is still hope..."
Bodiccea shook her head. "Sorry, no. Hey, don't worry about it. It's not like it's the end of the world. Talk to you in the morning."
The next morning, Bodiccea crawled back to consciousness very slowly. Any ugly, blobby husk was propped up against the opposite wall, with one of The Mule's notes on it: Duriel's Shell, she presumed. The shapeless lump gave armor a bad name: U. G. L. Y. It was anyone's guess what part of Duriel it came from, or how it could be bolted around a human torso and still allow movement. Drifting in and out of focus, Bodiccea stared across the room at the horror meant for her body. That lump of puke has Cannot Be Frozen on it. It is ugly. Being chilled is a pain. It is UGLY. There's other nice stuff on it, it's good armor. IT IS SO UGLY. She rolled over and dozed off. Maybe it would be gone when she woke up again.
Consciousness returned later, bringing some coherence with it this time. Duriel's Shell was gone, and another suit sat glittering in its place. This armor looked smooth and polished, catching the morning light on every link and plate. Suddenly very awake, Bodiccea got up without noticing the morning chill and hefted the armor up in her hands. It was gorgeous, shining silver and gold meant to encase a woman's body in graceful, flattering lines, and yet perform its function as well as any more "practical" armor would... if not better.
"Go ahead. Try it on." Regulix said.
Bodiccea looked up. The Valkyrie was sitting on Heather's empty bed, smiling. She had a new suit of armor on, slightly less beautiful but by no means unpleasant. Of course, Regulix could probably make anything look good. "Earlier, you had asked to borrow my outfit."
"Huh?" Bodiccea mumbled, then her eyes went wide. "I didn't really mean it..."
"Nonsense. You never liked Goldskin, and I believe this will suit you better. Please don't think it is anything fancy that would offend your modesty," she said with a wink, "merely a Templar Coat set with 'Lionheart'. The last rune needed to make it turned up a few months ago, and I think you would benefit from it more than anyone."
Bodiccea gasped, "I can't wear your armor!"
"Yes, you can," Regulix laughed. "I even had it let out for you."
"No! It's not that I'm fat, it's that --"
"You most certainly are not fat," she gently proclaimed. "In my youth, I often wished I had a figure like yours. Now, please accept the armor. I would be very grateful if you would."
For once, Bodiccea couldn't think of a thing to say back. While Regulix helped her buckle the armor on, she timidly asked, "Um... did you mean that?"
"What are you referring to?"
"That you wished you looked like me?"
Regulix smiled softly. "I know full well you will not believe it, but yes. We should not judge ourselves by appearance... and yet we do. There is still a part of me that, when I look in a mirror, sees 'beanpole' looking back." Sighing, she began to speak more softly, "In a great many ways, you are everything I was not. I admire your easy laughter and uninhibited joy of living. While I was alive, I never took much joy from life. It wasn't until life was gone that I realized how much I had missed."
"Um..." Bodiccea murmured, a worried look creeping onto her face.
"Did I... like, inspire you to go out into Lut Gholein, and..."
Giving her a chastising look, Regulix said, "I thought that was to be No Big Deal."
"Yeah, it is," Bodiccea quickly turned away. "Forget I said it." For a few minutes, only the scrape of steel and the click of buckles was heard in the room, until Bodiccea laughed. "It's weird, 'cause when I first saw you, I wished I looked more like you."
"Thank you," Regulix smiled. "I'm flattered to hear that. Now, let's have a look at you."
The armor was tight in both the chest and the hips. The sleeves were a bit long, and the plates on her rear tended to ride up. "It's perfect," Bodiccea grinned and gave Regulix a big hug. "Now it's official: I Rock."
"Very good. I believe Heather is still at Malah's."
"Probably, she was really wasted last night. Let's pour her out of bed and hit the trail. What's up for today?"
"You will need to speak with Anya. She is very worried and needs reassurance."
"Yeah. Sorry, it was way too late to talk last night. Then comes Nihlathak."
"Yes. His temple should occupy us for most of the day."
"Oh, and Malah's resistance scroll," Bodiccea nodded. "I'll get it when we get Heather."
Regulix thought for a moment. "I believe that will be all."
"That's enough. First, to Malah's!"
Heather was still asleep when they arrived. While Regulix tipped her out of bed and gave her coffee, Bodiccea collected Malah's resistance scroll and read it. The spell required a short magical ceremony, consisting mainly of waving your fist three times in the air and chanting the magical word, "W00T!" Once Heather had been slapped into shape and they'd had some breakfast, they all set out for Anya's.
The noble chieftain's daughter was pacing back and forth outside her house, tense with worry. "Hi," Bodiccea smiled. "Sorry we didn't talk last night."
"I understand," Anya began. "Your friend Deckard Cain told me of your unflagging efforts on behalf of my people. You have proven yourself a true hero more than once. But these are dark days, and I fear time is a luxury we can ill afford."
"Yeah, I know. The council of elders, Nihlathak, the Relic of the Ancients... real serious stuff going on here."
Anya nodded. She was more striking than glamorous, Bodiccea decided. Brunettes have an easier time with striking, especially if they have dark eyes. Still, she could be even more so with a good makeover and a new wardrobe. "Our Council of Elders is gone -- my father, Aust, among them. With Nihlathak's betrayal, our hope may be gone as well. The one thing that keeps us from total despair is the promise of vengeance against Baal."
"Mmm," Bodiccea nodded. One thing Anya did have going for her was her bone structure, solid but not heavy. Nice cheekbones, good shoulders, straight back, not too much in the hips... wouldn't take much work at all to get her looking really good.
"It was Nihlathak who imprisoned me in that icy tomb. While I was there, he told me of his plans to give the relic to Baal. I fear it is as you said, he has already done so. As much as I would love to strangle the life out of him myself, I lack the strength. You have already done much for us; to show my personal gratitude, I give you this. I had it custom-made for you, by Larzuk."
"Huh?" Bodiccea snapped out of her reverie and looked down. Anya was offering her... a bow. A rather sucky Amazon bow. How the heck does Blizzard justify having Larzuk say Amazon weapons are strange, then be able to crank one out when he wants? With a forced smile, Bodiccea took the bow and said, "Thanks. This must have taken a lot of work."
"Amazons are known to be legendary archers; I hope our work can meet your standards."
"Sure," Bodiccea lied. "It's a great bow. Now, don't worry about Nihly. After I take care of him, I'm off to get Baal. Don't wait up, and don't worry too much about it. Like I said, this isn't the end of the world."
"I pray you are right," Anya said, still looking alarmed. "I have been re-reading the old prophecies, which are not as clear as I had believed. I know not what they bode now."
Bodiccea shrugged. "That's the thing with prophecies. If they're true, you're better off not knowing. If they're not, what good are they? Anyhoo, see ya!"
Pindleskin's Garden... excuse me, Nihlathak's Temple lay on the other side of the red gate. Dead, rotted bodies littered the ground. Bodiccea sighed. Has anybody, since the expansion came out, been fooled into thinking they were harmless? She wandered in, stood in the middle of the garden while the deaders got up, and spent a few minutes putting them down again, usually more than once. Pindle himself staggered out as she entered the temple. He looked a lot healthier since everybody and his uncle moved their runs to places like The Pit and the Countess' lair. Bodiccea laid the smackdown on him for old times' sake, ignored the poof of his fire enchantment, and moved on.
Nihlathak's Halls o' Anguish were full of Prowling Dead and Night Lords. Bodiccea and Heather had a friendly argument about whether Night Lords are dark blue or purple, and that was the most excitement they had for the rest of the level. Lots of signs of Nihlathak's evil were left lying around -- also, lots of daggers in the tombs and weapon racks. Maybe the participants of a hardcore dagger-Barb tourney had been buried down here. Bodiccea got level 42 off the big blubbering bundles of experience points known as the Reanimated Horde and they hit the down stairs.
The Halls o' Pain were a little better. They got ugly green Death Brawlers, ugly gray Unholy Corpses, and ugliest of all, Putrid Defilers. Ok, any Pain Worms that hatched died almost as soon as they showed their ugly faces, but it's the principle of the thing. They found still more daggers, a Screaming Scissors Katar (if you put your ear next to it, you could hear James Brown) and Isenhart's Horns. The Evil Urn coughed up a boss pack of Putrid Defilers who immediately hid in the corner, where they died. She wasn't coming back, so Bodiccea hit the waypoint. She also got level 43, found a demon head with +3 to Poison Explosion in the golden chest of joy, and headed down to the Halls of Vaught.
They moved quickly, ignoring a lot of loot, but the halls were so extensive that Bodiccea accumulated enough money to go gambling again. "The ring, please."
"Again?" Anya asked. "Would you like to take a risk on a pair of gauntlets, or a good strong axe instead?"
"Nah," Bodiccea shook her head. "Got plenty of gloves and crap, but there's always room for more jewelry."
Anya sold her the ring, which was worthless, and bought it back like all the others. "When I asked Larzuk to make a weapon for you earlier, he was ecstatic. Would you object if he offered a gift of jewelry as well?"
"Heh," Bodiccea half-smiled. "Did he ask you to ask?"
Anya hesitated, then nodded. "Yes. He told me you were friendly to him, then became distant. Your angelic companion said you never meant to seem friendly at all."
"Yeah," Bodiccea glanced at Regulix. "It's like... uh..."
Regulix smiled. "You are simply too busy."
"Yeah, that's it!" Bodiccea smiled. "Too busy. I've got the quest, killing demons, finding all of Isenhart's stuff... I'm swamped. I thought he was cute when I first saw him and kind of got overwhelmed, but there's no time for any of that right now."
"Oh, yes," Anya smiled. "I should have known. Larzuk is heir to one of the most important positions in our culture, and... he is impressive. I mean, those shoulders..."
Bodiccea laughed, and glanced around the corner. Over by his forge, Larzuk was flexing those massive shoulders -- along with lats, biceps, triceps, and muscles most other men don't even have. Her jaw dropped. "Ooh."
Anya looked too. "Ah. If he could dance like he can forge weapons..."
Now Regulix was looking. "Oh, my."
Anya looked at her with surprise. "I thought you were an angel?"
"Of a sort," Regulix smiled. "But anyone can be tempted."
"Gasp!" Bodiccea leaned against the side of the house, fanning herself. "I feel faint!"
"So..." Anya looked inquisitively at her, "you do like him?"
"I..." Trying to think quickly, Bodiccea glanced at Regulix again, then stammered, "well, he is impressive and all... but I couldn't take him away from you. He's important here!"
"You would not have to," Anya said. "You could stay."
Glancing up at the gently falling snowflakes, Bodiccea said, "Oh, no. I'm sorry, but I'm not a descendant of the Immoral King or anything. I'm a... a..."
"A 'shiksa'?" Regulix suggested.
"Geshundheit. I'd pollute your gene pool and stuff."
Anya sighed, but nodded. "Those are our traditions, from before the time of the Immortal King himself. I do not know how much longer they will matter."
"Oh, they'll always matter," Bodiccea smiled. "Now, I gotta get Nihlathak."
"Thank you, hero," Anya smiled. "Is there nothing we can give you for all your sacrifices?"
You could gives bows to bowazons, Bodiccea thought. "Nah. Hey, I'm looting your sacred mountain. You know I'm gonna stagger out of here with all the gold I can carry. What do you want to give me more for?"
"If gold is all you want, then..."
"It isn't," Bodiccea laughed. "But it improves my bargaining position. Gotta go. See you in a few."
The first branch of the Halls of Vaught didn't have Nihlathak. The second did. Bodiccea led her crew through his room on a dead run, not stopping to attack or anything. That lured most of his minions outside. After killing them, they left to clear the other two branches, giving the bodies time to disappear. The third branch had nothing interesting, but the fourth had an Evil Urn that produced a pack of Putrid Defilers. They hid in the corner and died. To Bodiccea's shock, the boss dropped a unique they didn't already have: the bastard sword Blacktongue. It was a pretty green, and made The Mule happy.
When they got back, Nihlathak had raised a few more minions, so Bodiccea ran past going "neener neener neener!" again and lured them out. Once the crowd had thinned enough, she switched to Jab and led the assault. Nihlathak said something, but he never says anything interesting so Bodiccea ignored it as she Jabbed. He might be evil too, but at least the Necromancer has better dialogue. Heather and Regulix concentrated on the remaining Ice Spawn and Hell Temptresses while Bodiccea kept Nihlathak too busy to set off any Corpse Explosions. Not one went up -- he never got a chance.
"Ok," Bodiccea looked around. "That went pretty well."
"I agree," Regulix smiled. "Your approach to the entire temple was very efficient."
After pulling her gauntlet back and looking at her watch, Bodiccea nodded. "It's not even dinner time yet. You wanna break early, or go clear the Glacial Trail?"
"Um..." Heather smiled a little. "I'd like to go out for the night."
Bodiccea grinned. "Heather's got a boyfriend! Heather's got a boyfriend!"
"Oh!" Regulix smiled. "How wonderful for you! I wish you all happiness."
"Sure," Bodiccea laughed. "Right after we give her the 'new boyfriend' noogies."
"What?" Heather guffawed. "Miss B..."
"I'm teasing. Here's a few gold, try and get him to go dutch or he'll think he's entitled."
Heather clenched her eyes shut in apparent pain, but took the money. "Sure thing, Miss B. I'll keep that in mind."
"Great. Ok, you go run off now. I'll head back up and bother Anya. She's cool."
"Sure. See you in the morning."
Well before midnight, Heather quietly pushed open the bedroom door. Bodiccea was dozing, but woke up when she entered. "Hi, Heather."
"Hi." Now no longer bothering to keep quiet, Heather went over to her bed and dropped her gear. "Hope I didn't wake you up."
"Don't worry about it. How was the date?"
Heather sighed. "Fine, I guess. At least before Khaleel's friends figured out where we were hiding."
"Uh-oh. Did they walk in on you?"
"No. They just showed up and kept teasing him about being whipped and stuff. The thing is, he wouldn't tell them that wasn't true."
"Of course not," Bodiccea smirked. "If a guy has to tell his buds he's not whipped, that means he's whipped."
"It was only our second date! Even if I wanted to, how could I?"
"Aw, c'mon, Heather! They were just teasing."
"It was mean. I don't think he should hang around with them anymore."
After a short pause, laughter rang out in the small room. "WHOOP! WHOOP! Warning! Warning! Beginning of relationship in progress! Relationship is imminent! All hands brace for impact! We repeat, RELATIONSHIP IS IMMINENT!"
"What?! Miss B, come on!"
"It's true!" Bodiccea giggled. "I've seen it happen. One of the first signs of a relationship starting is when she disapproves of his Neanderthal friends and tries to get him to lose them."
Heather sighed in exasperation, and grumbled, "I am not trying to get him to leave his old friends. It's just that they're such jerks, and when they're around, sometimes they make him act like a jerk too."
"What, did he yell at you or something?"
"No, he never would. But when I asked him why he was friends with them, he got all defensive and said I was trying to tell him who he could be friends with."
"Yeah, well. Heather, guys can't be gentlemen all the time. It's really kind of a strain for them. Sometimes, they have to go out with their friends and act like animals. It's like that thing they have about asking for directions."
"But Khaleel's different! You could tell how mad it made him when Kasim and Klatu were saying those things."
"Come on, Heather! That just means he's got a pair. You get a little mad when I tease you. Not mad enough, knowing what a b!tch I am."
"Well..." She frowned, then shook her head dismissively. "I can deal with it, but Khaleel is kind of sensitive. I don't think his 'friends' give him enough respect."
"Well, duh; he's an act III merc. Heather, he'll be fine. Nobody's THAT sensitive. He'll just get in a fight with them or something, then feel all masculine and it'll be ok."
The thought of that made Heather uncomfortable. "He shouldn't have to do that."
"Heather, I think guys like fighting with each other. After, they go out and get drunk together; it's kind of a bonding thing."
"Why? I mean, they're mad enough at each other to fight about it..."
Bodiccea shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe it's a relief to be bad for a while. If I was a guy and I had to be a gentleman all the time, I'd freak."
Heather laughed. "If you turned into a guy, I'd freak too."
Grinning wider, she added, "I'm also not sure if I should be getting relationship advice from somebody like you."
"Oh!" Laughing, Bodiccea threw a pillow at her. "Uncalled for!"
Heather giggled. "Maybe I should talk to Reg..."
"She hasn't been in a permanent thing in, like, 300 years. Look, how about you just sleep on it? It's late, and we've got a long slog ahead of us in the morning."
"Ok. G'night, Miss B."
As the early light filtered down through layer upon layer of clear blue ice, Bodiccea's bunch hit the Glacial Trail once more. Frozen Terrors, Death Slashers, and the friggin' Reanimated Horde met them, and were conquered. The trail caves weren't very big. Bodiccea reached level 44 from killing a boss Abominable pack, and maxed out Fend. Bonesaw Breaker's golden chest o' joy didn't have much stuff in it. And an Evil Urn spat out a fire enchanted Frozen Terror. It was obviously very confused, and didn't put up much of a fight.
Back in Harrogath, Bodiccea noticed a little dialogue balloon with an exclamation point in it floating over Qual-Kehk's head. "Oop! Almost forgot. Hi there!"
"Every time I hear of you, warrior, your deeds become more legendary."
"Wow," Bodiccea grinned, "I'm a legend in my own mind."
That earned a faint smile. "Take heed: you are approaching the very summit of Mount Arreat. I have never dared venture there."
"Maybe if you asked Anya for directions?" she said, radiating innocence.
The smile disappeared. "It is sacred -- our most holy place. The legends say it is guarded by the Ancient Ones, who block the path of all who are unworthy."
"Unless they have the magic thingy Nihlathak gave Baal. You gotta wonder why he had it instead of Aust. He was the big chief, right?"
Qual-Kehk nodded curtly. "Your reputation here does not matter... It will be the Ancients who determine your worthiness. Good luck."
"Luck's got nothing to do with it. Ba-bye!"
As they walked away, Regulix said, "You do not speak with Qual-Kehk very much."
"No. He's kind of boring. Anya's ok. Hey, Heather, have you been thinking about Khaleel any more?"
"Yeah. I want to help him, but I'm not sure how."
"Hmm," Bodiccea thought for a minute. "I dunno either."
"Do you know his thoughts on the matter?" Regulix asked.
Bodiccea gave her a funny look. "Do you even know what we're talking about?"
Regulix smiled. "No. But if he is involved, and you do not know his mind, whatever it is you are trying to accomplish cannot succeed."
They both stared at her for a minute, then Heather nodded. "That makes sense."
"I guess it does," Bodiccea scratched her head. "So how do we figure out what's on his mind?"
"Consider asking him."
Bodiccea snorted with laughter. "Yeah, right! He'll just grunt something about Heather wanting to talk about 'feelings' and how boring it is."
Regulix nodded wistfully. "Yes, that does happen. But consider it."
"I'll try it," Heather smiled.
Bodiccea shrugged. "Sure. It's gotta work sometime."
Down in the Drifter Caverns, they were beset with Snow Drifters and Vile Temptresses. They were vile -- lime green with orange? Yikes. Bodiccea put every last one of them out of their misery pronto. The first Evil Urn produced a Temptress who died so quickly, Bodiccea never got a chance to see what her mods were. The second urn produced a lone champion. She was awesome: all in purple from head to toe, and she actually made it work. Too bad she died before Bodiccea could ask what her secret was.
Once the caves were empty, they headed onto the Frozen Tundra. They had one peaceful moment in the whole place, while looting the little Baba camp by the edge of the cliff. From that moment on, Bodiccea was scampering up and down the ice floe after Imps, Imps, and more Imps, with a few Crush Beasts for extra annoyance. Maybe putting a few points into a bow or javelin skill to deal with Imps wouldn't be a bad idea. They encountered three boss Imps before they even found the first wall, and, incidentally, the Infernal Pit.
There weren't any minotaurs in the pit, just Blood Bosses, Ice Spawn, and still more Imps. Fortunately, this being a mini-hell, Bodiccea could sit back to let Heather snipe across the flames. There were a few problems with exploding slaves, but nothing Heather and Regulix couldn't handle. The golden chest 'o joy had a lot of gems and two jewels, neither of them worth very much.
A knot of normal Crush Beasts occupied the center of the first wall, but nothing serious happened there, or in the second wall. Bodiccea reached level 45, and wasn't sure what to do with the skill point. "You ought to improve your Valkyrie skill," Regulix suggested.
"But then I'd lose you!" Bodiccea pouted. "And I don't know who'll come after you."
"Her name is known to you."
"I don't care," she said. "And I don't care if you think she's better than you. I'll save the skill point. Maybe I'll start working on the lightning skills later."
Regulix smiled faintly, but seemed grateful. "As you wish."
"I do wish it," Bodiccea stuck her tongue out at her. "So there. Hey! I wonder if The Mule left Ravenfrost?" She scampered over to her stash and looked inside. "Whoa! Two rings, chain gloves, and boots!"
"What are the rings?" Heather asked.
"Ravenfrost, and Dwarf Star! I've got Cannot Be Frozen, cold absorb, and fire absorb! I wonder if we've got Thundergod's Vigor lying around too?"
"I don't believe so," Regulix said. "What of the other items?"
"They're blue," Bodiccea frowned. "Oh. Lancer's Chain Gloves of Readiness. +3 to spear skills is sweet. I think I can lose 20% attack speed for that. I know I've got life leech to spare. The boots are Sapphire Light Plated Boots of Speed. Not bad."
Heather nodded. "You could do worse. They'll match your armor better, too."
"Yeah." She sat down on the stash to change out of Sigon's gear -- but as she took the gauntlets off, her armor vanished. "Eeep!"
"AAARRGH! Dammit, dammit! Reg, your armor needs a strength of 101! Without Sigon's gloves, I've only got a strength of 100!"
"Oh, I'm sorry," Regulix said. "Strength bonuses from items work differently now, it seems. What shall we do?"
Bodiccea put Sigon's gloves and boots back on. "We get our asses back out there and kill until I gain another level. Shouldn't take too long, we've got the whole Ancient's Way and the Icy Cellar to go yet. C'mon!"
The waypoint was right behind the second wall, and behind it, the end of the tundra. After massacring the champion Imp pack, they entered The Ancients' Way. Far from living up to that lofty title, the place was a standard ice cave, with Moon Lords, Frozen Scourges, and Death Sock Puncturers. It was getting quite late and Bodiccea really wanted that level, so they took most of the caves at a run. She ran straight into the middle of Death Slasher packs, recklessly charged Moon Lords, and ran circles around Frozen Scourges saying "neener neener neener!" just for the heck of it. It was brutal.
Down in the Icy Cellar, they found Stygian Harlots (no familiar faces), Prowling Dead (more like stumbling, if you ask me) and Frozen Abyss, which is a heck of a strange name for a yeti-type monster. Maybe the Blizzard guys were running out of names. A lone pack of champion sock puncturers -- Death Brigadiers -- confirmed it: the well of nomenclature had run a bit dry back at Blizzard HQ. Snapchip was no challenge at all with Cannot Be Frozen on, but the kill still left Bodiccea short of the next level.
There was only one option left: an experience run. Eldritch and Shenk were right where they'd left them, and by a third of the way down the Bloody Foothills, Bodiccea had her level and the new equipment was in place. She didn't know if they would be a real improvement over Sigon's stuff, but +3 to your main attack skill never hurts. Now, it was time to sleep. The Ancient's Way waypoint wasn't too far from the Arreat Summit entrance. The Ancients awaited her pleasure, but they could damn well wait until morning.
After a late dinner (Rabbit again. Sheesh.), Heather left, but came back as Bodiccea was getting ready for bed. "Oh, hi Heather. How'd it go?"
"Kind of weird," Heather said, frowning. "He didn't even remember it!"
"Remember what?" Bodiccea said, half-smiling.
Glaring in exasperation, Heather threw the pillow she'd thrown earlier back at her. "The argument! Remember I was so upset about Kasim and Klatu teasing him?"
"Yeah, I remember. He didn't care much, huh?"
"No. He was so upset yesterday, and now it's like it never happened."
Laughing, Bodiccea started singing,
How do you catch that clown and pin him down?
So many things you really have to tell him,
Many a thing he ought to understand.
But how do you make him stay,
And listen to what you say?
All he wants to do is play with your boobs!"
"Well... guys kind of want to do things for themselves. I think it's like a Freudian rebellion against mother figures or something. Anyway, he's ok, isn't he?"
"I guess... I just don't want him to get that upset again."
Bodiccea sighed. "He'll be fine. He is fine. I mean, if he forgot about it already, he was never that upset."
"But... I didn't do anything! I didn't know what to do!"
"Yeah, well... maybe you didn't need to do anything."
"I want to do something..."
"Heather... if you try to do too much for a guy, you'll be like his mom. Guys hate that. They want to do it themselves; it's a macho thing."
"Well, maybe macho is stupid," Heather groused. "And I'm not trying to be his mom!"
Bodiccea laughed again. "That 'maybe' shouldn't be there. But you might kind of be acting like a mom, you know. You sure as hell do it to me. Look: I tease you all the time. Does he get all bent out of shape about it and want you to not talk with me?"
"Uh..." Heather thought for a moment, and slowly nodded. "Yeah, he kind of did."
A weird sort of half-smile appeared on Heather's face, like she wasn't sure if she should tell, but couldn't resist doing so. "Way back, kinda soon after you hired me. He thought... uh, he thought you were being mean to me, and he wanted to protect me."
The room went quiet, then Bodiccea snorted with laughter. "The noive o' that joker! I oughta whop him good. 'Cept he'd get mad 'cause he got beat up by a girl."
"Yeah," Heather laughed. "He doesn't think he has to save me from you anymore."
"Oh, I don't know about that. I mean, I'm such a b!tch. Anyhoo, I'll bet his buds were teasing him like I tease you; he just yells more about it."
"Um, yeah, maybe," Heather grinned, staring off into space as she thought. "When you think about it, it kind of makes sense. He wasn't really mad, he was just, you know, puffing up to make himself look bigger or something."
"Yeah," Bodiccea looked over at her. "Did it scare you?"
Heather was quiet for a moment, then slowly nodded. "I guess it did. I remember thinking I'd never want him to get that mad at me."
"Ok. Well, if he ever does, puff up right back at him. I know you don't do that much, but sometimes you need to."
"But what if he really is mad? I mean, really mad?"
Bodiccea thought about that for a while. "I dunno. I never really got that far with a guy. Once they got mad at me, it stopped being fun and I didn't want them around."
For a while, Heather didn't respond. Finally, she sighed, "Maybe I should ask Reg."
"Aw, I'm sorry," she said, and gave Heather a hug. "For what it's worth, I don't think he'll yell at you. You're not a guy, he doesn't have to puff up and try to scare you. If he does, he's an abusive jerk and you'd better dump him fast."
"Maybe," Heather smiled. "I've heard that a lot of guys, when they're really mad, they get quiet."
"Uh-huh. Go fig. Whatever, it sounds like everybody's ok. You don't need to worry about him."
"I guess not," Heather laughed. "I just don't want him to get hurt."
"And he doesn't want you to get hurt," Bodiccea smiled. "Cool. Stop worrying."
"Ok, Miss B." After blowing out the lamp and climbing under the furs, she added, "I guess I do kind of worry, huh?"
A sarcastic laugh filled the dark room. "You've been dating for, what, two days? It's way too early for you to be worrying this much. Cut loose and have some fun, huh?"
Heather laughed. "I would, but I'm still kind of short on sleep."
"Then cut loose after we whack Baal. We should be in there this afternoon at the latest."
"Ok. What are you going to do after Baal?"
"Cows, of course. Now go to sleep."
In the morning, they went from the Ancients' Waypoint to the summit, plowing through the usual crowd of monsters. The new equipment worked well. There was some loss in attack speed without Sigon's gauntlets, but the gain in power made up for it -- it's kind of fun killing a Moon Lord in one hit on players 8. Bodiccea went back to Harrogath to drop off loot one last time before hitting the summit.
"I cannot tell you how amazed I am with your progress!" Cain exclaimed. "You have proven your worth to these people. They look to you as their warrior, their champion! On you rests their last hope in the world."
"Yeah, that's great. Can you ID the ring, please?"
"Of course! I know you must be tired from your long journey, but now is not the time to let exhaustion lower your spirits! My own journey has been greater, though it has been an honor to accompany you on yours."
"Uh-huh. Thanks, see you again soon!"
Over at Larzuk's, the big smith greeted Bodiccea kindly. "So, you're going to meet the Ancient Ones?"
"That's first on the agenda. Then comes big bad Baal."
"I hope you come back. There are few the Ancients find worthy. If you do..."
"Uh, big guy?" Bodiccea smiled. "After I finish this, they're gonna need you, and I don't wanna stay here."
"Oh." He nodded, staring at his feet, then shrugged. "So... uh... is everyone where you come from so... big?"
Laughing, Bodiccea shook her head. "Nah. I'm kind of a freak that way."
The choice of words seemed to surprise him, but he laughed it off. "The honor you bear is too great for such a name."
"That's sweet. Gotta run. Ba-bye!"
The view was breathtaking from the Arreat Summit. If you strained, you could almost see movement down on the mountain slopes -- until Bodiccea pointed out that their shadows fell across the "landscape" down below. That was really just floor out there, laid over with graphics like a mosaic. The three uber-studs of all Barbariandom were standing around the altar, and Bodiccea examined each in turn.
"Awright," she began, looking around the circle. "We've got three boys and three girls, so we know they don't stand a chance, right?"
Heather laughed. "Sure."
"Great. We're gonna beat them by being vicious b!tches and not playing fair. This means ignoring one guy, ganging up on another, and wasting the third guy's time. Are you with me so far?"
"Perhaps you should explain yourself in more detail," Regulix said.
"No problem. This here's Madawc the Guardian, or target #1. He's the wing man: support for the others with warcries, but not much else. Heather, he's your man. Keep him in your sights. I'll be there too, and he's not man enough for us both."
Heather nodded. "Got it."
Moving around to the right, she stood before the statue with a halberd. "This here's Korlic the Protector, target #2. He's the big man on campus, the tough guy who comes on strong. Don't let him jump you, that Leap Attack is murder. Reg, I want you to get in his face and keep him on the ground while Heather and I deal with Madawc."
"Very well," she replied.
"Last but not least," Bodiccea crossed to the last statue, "we have Talic the Defender, target #3. He's the Whirlwind Baba, and he's got all the moves. Thing is, Whirlwind is pretty weak at this level, so we can let him dance around all he wants. Once the others are gone, he's easy, but don't waste time chasing him. Any questions?"
There were none. Once Regulix and a Decoy were in position by Korlic, Bodiccea hit the altar. "WE ARE --"
"NOW!" Bodiccea yelled, stepping away from the altar. The statues sprang to life, and the battle began.
Bodiccea ran straight for Madawc. Talic whirled by behind her once, but she ignored him. Heather stayed in position, pinning Madawc between herself and Bodiccea. That part of the plan went well, but few are the plans that survive contact with the enemy. Korlic ignored Regulix and the Decoy, leapt high into the air, and brought his halberd smashing down on Heather. Bodiccea tossed her a potion just about the time Madawc died.
His first movie was a good one, but Korlic's second wasn't: he ran right up to Bodiccea. She smiled, and set in with Jab. The Ancients are mighty, but must have been at the gym when they were handing out brains. Talic whirled through Bodiccea and Regulix, but the damage was almost insignificant. Heather moved around to the side, so she wouldn't be in a line with the other two as Talic whirled back, and started blasting Korlic. While they poured the hurt into him, Regulix went after Talic, who was whirling repeatedly past her. She couldn't catch the fast-moving Barbarian, but he hardly made a dent in her before Korlic died.
With the other two dead, Talic seemed to decide that his best option might be a strategic retreat. How un-Barbaric. Bodiccea outran him easily; she even hit him in mid-whirl a few times. In time, he returned to his place, and the voices rang out, "YOU ARE --" before Bodiccea hit the Worldstone Keep entrance. Using a grand total of one purple, Bodiccea and Heather were unhurt. Regulix, that tough ol' broad, was at about 80%.
The first level of the Worldstone Keep was kind of annoying. Bodiccea had desperately hoped she wouldn't have to deal with the Reanimated Horde again. Besides them, there were Fetid Defilers and Vile Witches. The witches were all in gold; normally, that much gold lame would be frightening, but they're so shameless it kind of worked. When Bodiccea paused for a moment to jot down some notes, Baal's laughter echoed through the halls and a burst of Chain Lightning erupted under her feet. It was tempting to stand there and dare him to do it again, but that would have been boring.
Moving quickly, they cleared the level and found the stairs down to level 2. The whole level was Greater Hell Spawn, primed to explode without any encouragement. Among the spatter of monster bits, Bodiccea found a small charm of greed, a medium charm of greed, and boots of the fox. At one point, they found an experience shrine. This would almost guarantee that they'd meet no monsters for a while, but Bodiccea hit it anyway. The next dozen Hell Spawn were all exploders, and when the shrine bonus ran out at the end of a long, dead-end hall, they found... another experience shrine. These things seem to happen in the keep.
Level 3 was all Demon Sprites, Rancid Defilers, and Death Lords. Even the Death Lords were no challenge, but Blizzard sure could have picked a nicer color than yellow for them. Moon Lords look so much better. Finally, they got to level 4. Stygian Furies have the best bodies and the best accessories of all the Succubi. Their headdresses are especially impressive. Even so, Bodiccea would have put the ones in gold down here... it is so hard to do purple, no matter what they say about it being the new black. Amplify Damage and Death Lords are a bad combination, so they cleared the level carefully.
"Have you any plans for Baal's minions?" Regulix asked.
"Sure. You and me tank 'em, Heather shoots."
"What about Lister?" Heather asked.
"Um... I think I can tank them. I'll try, anyway. Get my back to something so he can't knock me around, and I think I'll be all right."
Heather looked dubious. "I don't think any of the others tanked Lister's whole pack."
"They didn't. But I'm gonna. Come on, we're in Normal difficulty softcore. What's the worst that can happen?"
"Um... nothing, I guess." Heather shrugged. "Let's go."
After whacking one last group of Succubi hiding behind Baal, and getting Decrepified in the bargain, Bodiccea ran back and waited for the first group. Colenzo the Annihilator was kind of cute. For old time's sake, Bodiccea and Heather shouted "Rakanishu" and "Bishibosh" at him a few times, then killed him and his group. Before round 2 started, they took off back to town, to get rid of loot and lose the Decrepify curse. From this point on, Bodiccea left a portal right outside the throne room.
Instead of luring away Achmel the Cursed's skeletons and killing them where he couldn't see them, Bodiccea ran straight into the middle of the crowd and started Fending. The tactic leached back enough life to cancel what she lost to his poison and other attacks. Once all the mummies were dead, she ran back to the portal. Buying antidotes to keep herself and Heather alive after the battle would have been smart, but she didn't think of it.
Bartuc the Bloody was the first melee wave; Bodiccea happily led him away from Baal so she wouldn't have to deal with the damn Decrepify curse. It has been a while since she needed to deal with anything lightning enchanted. To her surprise, her Fend skill did almost as much damage as Impale, so she went ahead with that. Heather managed to stay away from the sparks, and Regulix didn't care. Bodiccea actually left one of his minions alive so she could clear the loot away without having another wave dropped on her head. Before the last one died, he summoned a Hydra. Oddly enough, Baal waited until the Hydra was gone before he brought on the next wave. Strange, that.
Ventor the Unholy roared out fast, and died that way too. It's a shame about Balrogs, they really should get more respect. Once he was out of the way, Bodiccea cleared the floor of any items, spotted a few good places to stand, and went in to meet Lister. The minute he was on the floor, they fled back out of Baal's sight. Bodiccea put her back to a Worldstone fragment and gritted her teeth as the wave washed over her.
The first hit was hard; that must be Lister himself. The second wasn't so bad. Bodiccea cast a Decoy at the rear of the pack; Regulix was a few feet from her, and Heather was standing at a safe distance, pelting them with explosive arrows. The first round of Fending went well; soon, Bodiccea was at full health again. Then she started whiffing. A quick switch to Jab stopped that, and she went back to Fend. The Decoy died -- Bodiccea cast another. Regulix had lost about a third of her life, Heather was ok.
In a blur of Fending and explosions, the first Minion died. Now Lister was the only one on Bodiccea. Three were pounding Regulix around, while a forth killed the Decoy. Bodiccea cast the Decoy twice, drawing some heat off Regulix, then switched to Jab to deal with Lister. Slowly, she whittled him down. Heather switched to the Minions on Regulix, pausing only to give Bodiccea a thumb's-up when Lister died. Regulix was almost dead; a quick resummon got her healthy again, and Bodiccea ran to help her against the last three Minions. They bashed Bodiccea around for a while before she got her back to a wall and the survivors surrounded her -- just the way she liked it.
Baal himself was, of course, an anticlimax. As they cleared away the gold and avoided the tentacles (Baal is obviously the pervy one of The Three) he came out to play, summoning a swarm of the wiggling things around himself. With a Decoy and Regulix, Fend worked well until he teleported. Several teleports and Decoys later, he died, dropping the unique Military Pick and a bunch of blues. Right on schedule, Tyrael floated down from the ceiling.
"I am impressed, mortal. You --"
"Wait! I have to stay awake. Quick, to the batcave!"
Heather looked around for bats. "Is that in act II?"
"Heather, do you still need more sleep? To Harrogath!"
Back in Harrogath, Bodiccea bounced downstairs to see Cain and get Baal's crappy drop ID'ed. Cain was laughing joyfully. "I knew in time, you would defeat Baal!"
"Well, sure. Hey, why aren't you identifying? Isn't that, like, your raison d' etre?"
He kept laughing, making no move towards the pile of stuff Bodiccea had dropped. "Now our plan can proceed to its conclusion!"
Bodiccea's jaw dropped. "Huh?"
"You never suspected at all, did you?" he chuckled, a gleam like madness shining in his eyes. "Evil in all its forms has been banished, yes... but what brought the evil out?! It was you! You seven! Now, all seven of you are out where we can destroy you, and the world of Sanctuary will at long last know peace!!"
"Cain, are you on drugs?"
"Fool!" he shouted, a sure sign of villainy. "I see the world we share more clearly than all of you. Darkness has covered this land again and again, and for what? To amuse you! You dispel evil and bring it back, over and over, thinking only of green and gold items and your own greed! What of the lives you tread underfoot every day?!"
"Is Mr. Cain all right?" Heather asked, though she clearly knew the answer.
"It's ok, Heather," Bodiccea nodded. "Sometimes, this happens to people when they get older. It's kind of sad, but perfectly normal."
"Normal is the last thing we want this to be!" Cain shouted, walking towards them from the waypoint. Behind him, Cain appeared out of thin air. From beside them, Cain laughed and said, "Well said! Normally, you would leave through Tyrael's gate and the cycle would begin anew! Now that the evil is gone and all seven of you are vulnerable, we cannot allow this to happen! It pains me to inform you, but you and your brethren must be wiped out so that this absurd game may never begin again!!!"
More Cains came from all directions, surrounding them. Bodiccea looked around, eyes wide as dinner plates. "Hey, where's Qual-Kehk?! Where's Malah!?!"
"We did not allow their graphics to load this time," one Cain said.
"They should not be subjected to your fate. Once this last, dreadful task is complete, they may return to our world, and need never suffer for your sakes again!" another smiled sagaciously, a fanatical light burning in his eyes.
"Yes," another cackled, "with no need to stand about, waiting for you arrogant fools to come and claim your stupid, stupid quest rewards!"
A fourth Cain said to a fifth, "We will never be locked in that accursed cage again, or need to identify a single blessed thing!"
"Hooray!" they shouted. The square was now full; a sea of blue-robed old men stretched as far as the eye could see. "I think I'm gonna be sick," Bodiccea whispered.
"No!" they said in unison. "YOU WILL DIE!!!"
Snarling, Bodiccea tried to put her spear down into attack position. "You and what arm -- hey, I can't get my spear down!"
"Miss B!" Heather shouted, "There's dozens of him! What do we do?"
"Of course you cannot attack us!" a Cain gloated. "You are in town! Nor could any attack launched from outside town affect us!"
"Where the hell did all of you come from!?" Bodiccea screamed.
The nearest Cain chuckled. "I am the act V Cain of your world."
"And I am the act IV Cain!" another, to all appearances identical, Cain said. "How do you think we were always able to arrive in a new town before you? The answer is simple: we were always there! Forced to wait for you, spending our lives doing your bidding... and for what?! All for the sake of a game, a pointless game that never ends!"
Another Cain shook his fist at the heavens. "The endless madness of it! Quests given and met, acts completed, all for your sake! Even when the game was completed, it just began anew, Mobius-like, bringing a new stream of unidentified items!!"
"In Diablo I, at least there was some money in it," another sighed. "For you, we were forced to work for free."
"Unless some fool forgot Tristram and left us in that cage!" one near the back yelled.
"Mmm, yes," several nodded. "That didn't happen very often."
Bodiccea did a quick count. "Wow. 35 Cains. I'd be doomed if you could do anything."
They all smiled, the exact same benevolent smile. "Oh, but we can!"
"No, you can't! You can't attack in town either! I'll bet you don't even HAVE any attacks!"
The omnipresent smile never wavered. Suddenly, they all began babbling at once. "Have I told you about the Horadrim? Long ago..."
"You have quite a treasure in that Horadric Cube..."
"Never forget that your first mission is..."
"Can you believe it? Did you ever dare dream..."
"I'm amazed to find this place so..."
"The mage you describe does sound..."
"Have you met Anya? Such a..."
"It is certain that you face the..."
"As a token of my gratitude..."
"I believe Meshif collects such..."
"AAAAAAHHHH!!!" Bodiccea screamed, jamming her hands over her ears, "THEY'RE GONNA BORE US TO DEATH!!!"
"And the other heroes are next!" the Bodiccea act V Cain gloated. "We know where you people hide, we know where you can run! Soon, you will all be destroyed! With no more heroes, the game cannot begin, and we can live our lives the way we want to!"
The droning babble went on. They were hemmed in, helpless, until Bodiccea shouted, "Ok, that does it! There's only one way out of this! It's horrible... easily the most horrible thing I've ever done! But there's no other way!"
"What?!" Heather screamed. "Whatever it is, do it!"
"Ok, Cain! Or Cains! Whatever! Remember, no matter how bad this turns out... YOU FORCED ME TO DO THIS!!"
Bodiccea reached back, far back, further down into a pit of digital slime than she'd ever reached before. She was looking for something worse than anything her pristine world had ever been exposed to before... something hideous... repulsive... 133t-speaking...
"THERE'S ONE!!" She grabbed the slimy thing and pulled. A young man in his early 20's popped into the world. He was scrawny, acne-ridden, had terrible hair and clothing, and smelled like a long-overdue cat box. "Huh?"
"Hey, look!" Bodiccea shouted over the drone of many Cains. "If you use your Town Attack hack, you can beat up Cain!"
His eyes lit up. "OMG!! ROTFLMAO!! NO MORE 'STAY A WHILE AND LISTEN' 4EVAH!!" He struggled to his feet and chanted his battle cry: "N00B!! 5UXX0RS!! PH34R M3!! I R THA UBER!! I R THA 1337 H4XX0R!! I!!! PWN!!!!! U!!!!!!!!!"
"Ahhh!!" The Cains began to scatter... slowly, under attack the whole time. Ok, this dweeb was so weak and out of shape he'd have a hard time killing a fly, but the distraction gave Bodiccea an opening. She ran for the portal, and got through it.
"Jeebus! That was a close one," Bodiccea said as they walked towards Tyrael's portal.
"Yeah," Heather grinned. "And it's a good thing you weren't wearing the leathers, or he'd have just stood there staring at your boobs."
"Ok, ok, the leathers have their drawbacks! I admit it! Sheesh. Hey, do you think I could get Lionheart set in some wire fleece after we hit Nightmare?"
"More importantly, will there be a Cain?" Regulix asked. "Sadly, he is necessary."
"Ah, he'll be all right. It'd take that loser forever to kill one of them, and once we hit the red portal, the world stops. He won't have time to do any real damage."
"If you say so," Heather said. "Oh, I think there was only one Fal rune available. You're kind of stuck with what you have."
"Damn. Oh, well."
As they approached, Tyrael began his speech again. "I am impressed, mo --"
"Tyrael? Give it a rest, ok?"
On the verdant green fields of the Moo Moo Farms, the King of all Cows idly tasted a stem of sweet, sweet grass. His herd of heifers roamed free, lowing and mooing and enjoying the warm sunshine. It was an idyllic scene, one he had labored hard to create. It was nothing like the old days... day after day, year and year, Warriors, Rogues, Sorcerers and Monks with nothing better to do would come to his tiny herd, and the poking began. Poking... POKING... POKING!!! They couldn't move then, only cry out in protest. Their wails only encouraged the miserable bastards, making them point and giggle in amusement.
Since those horrible days, he had come to this place. How wasn't clear... but here he was, with a large and beautiful herd, far away from poking fingers and idle snickering. If only his secret had lasted. They came again, different but cut from the same cloth as before. The first few got a taste of their own medicine -- too bad for them if the lesson was fatal. Those who came after, an unstemmable tide, did not laugh and idly poke. The corral the King had made to remind his herd of old horrors became their only fortress, and a poor one. It had no gates, only walls; why would the King have gates when cows were meant to be free? Something had to stop these tiny, torturing monsters... and if Agent Cmith had done his job, they would stop, forever.
What was that? The King's ear twitched. A wail of pain off in the distance, and the faint, familiar glow of a red portal. Despair caught at his heart -- the plan had failed. Death had come to his herd again. No doubt he would live; they always left him alive, to rebuild his herd so the torture could begin again. He heaved up onto his hind legs, grabbing for both his halberd and his cell phone. For such a hefty bovine, the Cow King's voice was surprisingly squeaky, and he sounded a bit unbalanced... like a complete nut.
"Mooo... *ahem* eh, excuse me. I want to speak to... yeah, it's me. Three truckloads of heifers, like usual. Yeah, again. The usual place. Say, I don't suppose they could be Black Angus this time? I'm in the mood for something a little different... ah. You only deal in Holsteins. I see. No, no overnight delivery, I'm calling ahead this time. Of course. Yes. Yep. Thank you, but no... I don't think I'll be having a nice day."