Strife Bringer Gillian scooped a handful of bubbles, turned her palm flat, and sent them flying with a puff of air. It was a silly thing to revel in, but it was as much exertion as she was willing to expend as she soaked in the great redwood tub Griswold had built for her. Adria had rigged up a series of runes to heat the water, and Pepin supplied the witchhazel and other herbs that gave the bubbling waters their soothing powers. Sunday was her day to do nothing but enjoy the tub, and she let herself relax entirely. She couldnâ€™t see the others, but she knew exactly what they were doing. Griswold was over by the cave â€œfishingâ€ and loudly singing a ditty that he only knew half the words to. She had no idea what Gris thought he was accomplishing, but it must be his way of relaxing, just like her time in the tub. Ogden and Wirt would be playing cards upstairs and filling their stomachs with pickles and bratwurst. Wirt would try to cajole an ale out of Ogden, but would settle for the tangleroot tonic Ogden offered him. Wirt used to drink sarsparilla like it was water, but the small white flowered plants whose roots were used had stopped growing several years ago. Pepin and Farnham would be well in their cups, and arguing over the origins of the universe as they lay on their backs gazing skywards and philosophizing. Farnham had been a worldly knight before the incident, and he knew things that amazed even Cain. It was a such a pity to see a fine man go to waste like that, but someday Pepinâ€™s talks would bring Farnham around to rejoin reality. Gillian smiled as she pictured Cain trying to read one of his tomes, while Adria massaged his neck and tried to convince him to move out of this dreary town. Gillian often thought of inviting one of those big strong warriors in to work on her neck someday. If they would ever stay that is. She never could understand why they were in such a rush to go down and battle, and even more confused that they left so abruptly after winning great piles of gold and achieving victory. If they stayed even one night, they would see how much fun Odgenâ€™s was, and they would learn that there was still plenty of land to be farmed north of the church, free for the asking. There were still unoccupied houses as well, but these adventurers never seemed interested in anything but killing and looting. They might if Cain hadnâ€™t forbid Ogden to sell them any ale. Surely, the hankering for a frosty tankard was what made them leave in such a hurry. She cleared her mind of such things, and unwrinkled her brow as she let herself slip deeper into the steaming waters. The bubbly foam tickled her nose. And she had just muttered something her grandmother had told her about tickled noses meaning company, when IT happened. The ground trembled for a second and then THAT sound came again. No beast, demon or machinery could have made the unnatural sound. It started out with the faint cackle of static electricity and then a high pitched shimmering that sang like the ring of a glass bell. The sound seemed to roll and build as it started in the center of Tristram and swept to the far corners. It couldnâ€™t have lasted for more than half a second, but it seemed an eternity. As it built to a peak, every object in vision was tinged with a red outline. Gillian could even see the spoken words of her muttering hanging motionless in bright crimson letters, as the world ground to a halt. The sound died as quickly as it came and things seemed normal again. â€œWe are being watched,â€ Cainâ€™s words were heavy with the inflection of dread, and the whole town scrambled into position. Gillian jumped out of the tub, used the cantrip of drying, then grabbed her garments and donned them hurriedly. How she wished she could wear something besides that moth eaten dress, but Cain wisely insisted that the town must always look as if nothing had happened. Gillian listened to the whipping sounds as Tristramâ€™s folks teleported to their stations, and wondered again about what Cain meant when he explained that the red flash and sound were signs of a time stoppage as a gateway was opened to the distant towns beyond the rivers of Tristram. She stood in front of her hut, and smoothed her dress. She almost forgot her hair, and barely had it up before she saw the great gauntlet in the sky. Adria had called the gauntlet â€œStrifebringerâ€ and she said that every town had one or more. The ground trembled and the sound sang out three more times as the others arrived. Soon enough they would come tramping into town with their shining armor, scarlet robes and the occasional huntress who would sashay about and make the fine young warriors forget all about Gillian and her charms. They seldom even came over to talk to her anymore, which was just as well, because so many were just callous killers. Not one of them ever seemed to care about her ill grandmother. It was Gillianâ€™s litmus test. If one ever did show some concern she would ask him in, and if he was worthy, she would explain how he could break his slavery to the Strifebringer that hovered above him governing his life, and join the townfolk of Tristram in their placid life. Farnham had tried to explain that most, if not all of these adventurers were merely avatars, brought by some great ship that sailed between the stars, and that they lacked souls as they knew it. He even had a name for them, â€œTerransâ€ and he said that in time the â€œZergsâ€ would follow. It would all be the same, though. They would come, buy some supplies and then venture down for carnage and treasure. Cain discounted Farnhamâ€™s theory that the sound and red flash were a great power that actually filled the subterranean world with monsters and treasures. It was well known that there were no monsters, and anyone who believed in the silly nonsense was a fool. Why didnâ€™t these so-called monsters ever come up? For that matter, why couldnâ€™t the adventurers ever bring back a single body? Cain insisted that they go along with the â€œmonster charadeâ€ when the adventurers were in Tristram. The town needed the influx of gold these people brought, and they would stick to their pre-arranged stories. There was no reason they should know that Wirt had been mauled by a bear that had briefly taken residence in the cave, or that the body laying by the church was an retired stage actor who spent his weekends hitting on Adria. If it werenâ€™t for Farnhamâ€™s insistence that the monsters were real, they would have it all set. The drunken fool had even urinated in the town fountain, but Pepin had smoothly covered that seeming incongruity with some laughable imaginary Poisoned Water quest. She stifled a giggle as she thought about how readily these adventurers bought into the story! She was slightly troubled at how the water would sometimes clear after a lone adventurer went down to complete the imaginary quest. Cain explained that the mesh embedded charcoal at the bottom would filter all impurities from the fountain automatically. Farnham still insisted that he was never the cause of the tainted water, and yelled at them as heathens. He had gotten so vehement in his talk that Pepin had to sedate him before the arrival of the adventurers. The repeated dosages slurred his speech and addled his thoughts, so that his ramblings were usually ignored, and the town went on making money from the visitors. As she heard the four adventurers heavy armored footsteps padding through the town square, she wondered why she hadnâ€™t yet heard Griswold yell out his standard greeting and sales pitch. There was a whipping sound and Farnham sat next to her, with his hobbles still firmly binding his legs. â€œThey have come for their brethrenâ€ â€œWho are you babbling aboutâ€ Gillian turned from his foul odor. She felt sorry that Cain forced him to wear the soiled rags, but the stench was necessary to keep adventurers at bay. â€œThe minotaursâ€ Farnham smiled, his absolutely perfect teeth betraying his supposed role as a lush. This was one of the reasons Cain didnâ€™t want adventurers hanging around him too long. Wirt had suggested knocking a few of his teeth out to complete the haggard visage, but Gillian had stood up for him, and eventually they compromised by rubbing a depilatory salve on patches of his head. It wasnâ€™t harmful, in fact Griswold used it every week to keep his head smooth. â€œYour story about the hoofed people is ludicrous!â€ Gillian could not even imagine anyone buying into that hokey conjecture. No one knew what strange land the three spotted people came from, but Griswold, Cain and Adria had subdued them with spells and clubs. Their silly looking armor was stashed in Adriaâ€™s hut, and Pepin had skillfully cut out their tongues, so they would stop their horrendous lies. They could still moo, and even let out a frustrated grunt, but Griswold had lashed their feet to iron poles sunk deeply, and the adventurers had ceased to pay them any notice. â€œThen how do you explain that why that new guy Lester is sometimes wearing one of their spotted outfits?â€ â€œHe enjoys it. Sometimes I even loan him a few of my dresses. There is no harm done, but he knows as well as you do that there is nothing extraordinary about the hoofed people.â€ Gillian was still a bit peeved that Lester had ruined her best heels when he insisted on dancing in them. She continued, â€œHe even has a name for them, â€œcowsâ€, and he says they are perfectly normal beasts in the town he grew up in. â€œAnd do the, ahem, â€œCowsâ€, make clucking sounds in his land?â€ Farnham shook his head at the naivete of the lass. â€œThey have only learned to cluck recently, and they wouldnâ€™t have to if they still had their tongues.â€ Gillian thought about teleporting to Adria, and having her telekinesis Farnham back to his place, but she had no way of knowing if the adventurers were over there yet. It would be a few minutes before they came her way, and she had to figure out some way to keep them from seeing Farnham here. â€œKeep the wool pulled over your eyes, my dear, but I have left a few maps for them.â€ Farnham chuckled. Gillian had no idea what wool was, but its was probably from some of these imaginary â€œanimalsâ€ that Farnham insisted on believing in. Cain had asked Farnham to provide one solitary example of these â€œanimalsâ€, or even a skeleton, but of course no such proof ever came. Griswold was partly taken in by this animalistic mythology, which was why he insisted on â€œfishingâ€. Every day he went without catching one, then called Farnham a blasted liar, but he always went back and tried again. Farnham told him that his lousy singing would scare any possible fish away, to which Griswold retorted that his beautiful voice would surely lure the little beasties from their watery boredom. It was certainly true that Farnham could describe his imaginary creations with vivid details, and that these details never wavered no matter how many times he was asked. She put this down to a prodigious intellect and a photographic memory. â€œPray tell what kind of maps,â€ Cainâ€™s stern voice rang out as he laid strong hands upon Farnhamâ€™s shoulders. Pepin held a sharpened hollow twig at Farnhamâ€™s neck. â€œMaps that show them how the stars are aligned and how to get into the bovine caverns. Donâ€™t bother trying to find them. I have left them in hidden places, and since I have teleport memorized, they are scattered far and wide where you will never find them.â€ Farnham had a mean look in his eye; one that Gillian didnâ€™t like at all. â€œShall I sedate him now?â€ Pepin asked. â€œNot yet,â€ Cain looked at Farnham for a long moment. â€œIf these adventurers are only â€œavatarsâ€ as you insist on calling them, why would you care if they find the, ahem, bovine caverns? After all the avatars themselves arenâ€™t real people, in your opinion.â€ â€œBecause once they have opened the Bovine Caverns, the bovines will slay them, take their form and venture back to the home planets of the avatars. Even Lester knows this, which is why he keeps that silly outfit handy.â€ Farnham scowled and flexed his legs what little he could considering the tight bindings. â€œSurely you have noticed how every summer it grows a little hotter?â€ â€œAnd what does this have to do with anything?â€ Cain asked. â€œThe three minotaurs in our town are creating gases that cause the sun to heat our atmosphere. In time, Tristram will become so hot that the rocks themselves will flow like rivers and then the demons below will emerge from their fiery lairs.â€ Farnham looked off into the distance as if he were seeing it even as he spoke. â€œBalderdash!â€ Cain smacked Farnham in the side of the head. â€œGo ahead,â€ He nodded to Pepin. â€œI have seen it happen before,â€ Farnham exclaimed. â€œMy home world is in the same system of the Terrans, though one planet closer to the Sun. It used to be green and growing like this one, but now the rocks glow and the sun is obscured by thick gasses. Nothing lives on the surface, which is what has already begun here. Thatâ€™s why you donâ€™t see any animals, and the plants left are only a few odd varieties.â€ â€œIt will take a minute to take effect. Wonâ€™t the adventurers notice us here?â€ Pepin looked about worriedly. â€œNo,â€ Cain said, â€œI mentioned something about the sword Azurewrath to them, and they went scrambling to that new crypt in the graveyard. Theyâ€™ll be down for hours.â€ Cain was still troubled by the recent additions to Tristram, both miraculously appearing overnight. Gillian shook her finger at Farnham as she spoke, â€œTheyâ€™re arenâ€™t any animals, because no such things exist. You yourself told us about how you had once believed in unicorns, and how they turned out to be a lie. Thatâ€™s all you do, create elaborate lies.â€ Farnham gurgled for a moment, then coughed. Eventually he spoke in a low raspy voice, â€œThen why do you only have to slightly heat water to make it turn into steam? This is not natural at all. You should not be able to cook corn by simply leaving it in the river.â€ â€œThe air is pleasantly warm, how can this be abnormal?â€ Gillian asked, adding, â€œAnd if the water is too hot why do you keep telling Griswold to go fish?â€ Farnham chuckled, and his head weaved around. He straightened it for a moment, â€œCuz, some fish can live in water that is even hotter than steam. I donâ€™t know how it is that we survive, but I tell you the air feels hot in my lungs.â€ Cain leaned towards Farnham and hissed, â€œThis has gone far enough. If you despised these â€œminotaursâ€ as much as you say, why should you be helping them take over another planet? Your story is quite grim, but it makes no sense, and neither do you. If I hear anymore of this, we will find a way to explain your absence and dump your body in the cave.â€ â€œWe could call him the fallen hero,â€ Pepin suggested. â€œAnd use him for the body by the church, instead of paying that second bit has been actor?,â€ Cain mused. â€œWonderful idea! We will implement it this very night.â€ Farnham used all his energy to fight the powerful drugs he had been injected with. He rubbed his forehead until the grime was gone, and the glowing stone was exposed. â€œYou will all get one of these, as the avatars do. And the Minotaurs will control your mind as they do my thoughts. If I wasnâ€™t so strong, I couldnâ€™t try to help you. You have ignored my help and treated me horribly. I care not what happens to your world or others. Know this before you dispatch me. I am the last of my kind, and no others will come to help you. Lester is the only reason I try at all. He believes, and he might save himself, and go on to save others by spreading the truth. I have given him a powerful rune bomb, and if any of you try to harm him, he can obliterate your little town, so I would recommend leaving him alone.â€ Then Farnham slumped over. â€œBefore we dump the body, I want his head removed so that no one will recognize him down there.â€ Cain said solemnly. â€œThen we will find a way to combat Lester and the lies he will undoubtedly spread.â€ â€œThe Strifebringers are coming back upâ€ Gillian pointed to the great gauntlets that were materializing in the sky above the portal area. â€œBack to your places people, and not a word of this to anyone,â€ Cain and Pepin grabbed Farnhamâ€™s limp form and Gillian was left alone in a cloud of dust as they teleported off. She wondered how the adventurers never heard the whipping sounds, and if they sometimes wondered about the hoofed folk as she now did. No matter, she practiced her line in her head as she heard footsteps approaching her. But what was this? The adventurer approaching her wore the same silken pajama bottoms and ridiculous slippers Farnham had worn in his youth, but his taut muscled chest was covered with fine scales that she wouldnâ€™t have noticed if she hadnâ€™t been staring so. And the fiery band about his shaven head that she had first mistaken for a crown was actually part of his bald pate. And the pointed ear lobes. . . Perhaps there was some small measure of truth in Farnhamâ€™s stories. This wasnâ€™t a Zerg was it? No, it was nothing like anything Farnham had ever described, but Gillianâ€™s grandmother had a dream that was beginning to make an awful lot of sense now. . .