"STOP!" shrieked a child's voice, boosted to 120 deciBels.
The command was addressed to a 17-year-old with jet-black hair (underneath his stack of magic helms), who was facing the other way. Without bothering to turn around, the blue-eyed young man focused one disinterested eye of his robe of eyes on the boy who'd barked the order. This knave — he couldn't have been more than 5 years old — was holding a heavy lance in his right hand and a not-quite-as-heavy lance in his left, both of which pulsed full of magical power. 'Wonderful,' thought Unbelievable Sword. 'Another meaningless challenge.'
"You scum," the boy went on as soon as he was sure he had his opponent's attention, "You've been spreading that goodness and order of yours all over Central Earth! Your very existence gives chaos and evil bad names! It's up to me, Ludicrous Lance, to show you who's really the boss of the planet!"
"Oh, give it up," Unbelievable Sword shook his head and began to walk away. This was the third time this week.
The brat scooted around in front of him at 12 288 feet per second and whipped both lances around so that they were scant centimeters from Unbelievable Sword's eyes. Unbelievable Sword didn't flinch — not because he was strong-willed (which he was), but simply because he was bored.
"You can't escape from me that easily!" Ludicrous Lance sneered. "Wa ha ha ha! Now you shall taste the wrath of my Ludicrous Heavy Lance and my Ludicrous Medium Lance, backed up by my Bracer of Ludicrous Damage, my Atlas Strength, my Ludicrous Pair of Gloves, my Other Ludicrous Pair of Gloves, my gauntlets of ogre power, my ring of shocking gr—"
"And how, pray tell," Unbelievable Sword folded his arms, "Are your Ludicrous Lances —"
"My Ludicrous Lance and my Other Ludicrous Lance!" the youth corrected him.
"— how are they better than, say," he drew his main weapons, "My Unbelievable Broadsword and Unbelievable Dagger?"
Ludicrous Lance gritted his teeth. "My weapons are +6 unholy vorpal defender frost-brand flame-tongue unsun luck blades of wounding, sharpness, dancing, contradisruption, never missing, slaying everything, thunderbolts, throwing, speed, quickness, all dragon slayer, life stealing, and nine lives stealing, with intelligence 17, speech and telepathy, ten non-alignment languages, eight extraordinary powers, eight special purposes, and artifact abilities!"
Unbelievable Sword shrugged. "So are mine — except they're holy, disruption, and sun blades. Big deal."
"And I can hit Armor Class 0 on a roll of -50 032 or better, and do double damage dice and +17 312 damage points with them!"
"Me too," Unbelievable Sword sighed. He shifted his weight to one leg and rolled his eyes.
"Um," Ludicrous Lance fidgeted, "But I have 1 297 108 hit points!"
Unbelievable Sword sheathed the dagger in his left hip scabbard. "Same here." He brushed the tips of both of Ludicrous Lance's lances away from his face with one finger. "And I regenerate 4 hit points of non-wounding wounds every ten minutes, just like you do. And I get 18 attacks per minute with my main weapons, just like you do. And I've got a permanent double-strength potion of speed in effect on me, just like you do; and an armor class of -16756, which improves to -41766 when I'm parrying, just like you do; and the powers of all 31 different character classes, just like you do. If we fought each other, every attack would hit and do a little over 17300 damage points, which means we'd run out of hit points after 75 attacks — so after 74 attacks, each of us would use one of the 400 wish spells we get from our Pearls of Power to heal all the damage on our own bodies. Then 74 attacks later, we'd both be in the same predicament, and we'd each use the second of our 400 wish spells. It would turn into a game of chicken, or rather a game of tedium, to see who would give up and teleport away from here first." His blue eyes glowered at his would-be adversary. "This isn't the first time some new kid with an opposite alignment has decided he wanted to play king-of-the-prime-material-plane with me. God II knows it won't be the last. I've gotten nothing but grief from jerks like you since I became a disgusting character. Save yourself the frustration, kid, and go beat up an elder god or something instead."
Unbelievable Sword turned his back on Ludicrous Lance and started walking away in utter contempt.
That was more than Ludicrous Lance would put up with. "RAAAAAAAAAGH!" he bellowed, and charged with both lances at his foe.
The death-dealing tip of Ludicrous Lance's Ludicrous Lance lunged to within scant millimeters of Unbelievable Sword's unarmored backside, but before it could make contact, Unbelievable Sword chanted the magic words "dimension door!" and teleported 10 feet to one side. Ludicrous Lance stumbled forward through the space where Unbelievable Sword had been, then regained his footing a millisecond later and swung at Unbelievable Sword with his Other Ludicrous Lance. Once again, Unbelievable Sword popped out of the way, this time rematerializing directly behind Ludicrous Lance. Of course, it's rather difficult to be "behind" someone who was wearing a robe of eyes, as both Unbelievable Sword and Ludicrous Lance were.
"Dog gone it," the boy whirled to face Unbelievable Sword, "Stand still!"
"All right," Unbelievable Sword smirked, and stood perfectly still.
Ludicrous Lance wasn't quite sure what to make of this, but, hey, why should he pass up and opportunity to skewer a lawful-good character? He rammed the business end of his heavy lance straight through Unbelievable Sword's sternum and out the other side, delivering a massive 17 324 damage points. Unbelievable Sword flinched a tiny bit as the lance made the wound, and didn't flinch at all as Ludicrous Lance pulled his lance free of his chest. He'd had worse, much worse. This was nothing. With businesslike precision, he raised his broadsword and struck back at the little boy, easily connecting and slicing him straight across his midsection, for an equally massive 17 321 damage points.
"Owwwww!" the boy yelped, "You hit me!"
"Well, yeah," Unbelievable Sword shrugged. "That's the way combat works, kid. You hit me, I hit back."
"Um . . ." the kid fumbled around for his Villain's Collection of Commonly Used Sayings, found a card he liked, and read aloud: "I should kill you where you stand!"
"But you can't kill me where I stand," Unbelievable Sword countered. "We're equally matched. Neither of us would win. You got that? It's. A. Standoff."
Ludicrous Lance looked as though he were ready to cry.
"And next time, just hold that card aloft and let your enemy read it himself. It's far more effective that way." Unbelievable Sword once more trudged away.
"B-b-b-but," Ludicrous Lance stammered, not following after him, "But I'm Ludicrous Lance!! I'm the most powerful force of chaos and evil in all of Central Earth! I'm a billion zillion jillion whillion billion times better than you!"
Unbelievable Sword shook his head slightly as the kid's words faded off into the distance. He heard, "You're a poopy head! A big stinky poopy head! I win by forfeit! Ha ha!" before the childish voice was finally lost against the murmur of the crowds milling about Town.
These crowds milling about Town were sure different now than when Unbelievable Sword had been growing up, too. Back then, being a disgusting character meant something. It was an exclusive club, and Unbelievable Sword had been the most exclusive member of them all. Being the son of Ridiculous Sword had ensured him of that. Nowadays, though, it seemed like everybody and his brother was a disgusting character. Ever since the word got out. Ever since the whole of Central Earth found out about how, if you rolled the dice just right, every centaur could be carrying four gems, each worth a million gold pieces. And every gold piece was an experience point.
And this proliferation of disgusting characters wasn't the only change, either. A few years back, the oft-dreaded Dungeon Master had decreed a new Second Edition of the Book of Infinite Wisdom, the Book of Finite Wisdom, and the Field Guide to Central Earth Wildlife. Parts of the Other Book of Infinite Wisdom had been subsumed into these new Second Edition books, but other parts were conspicuously absent. A few of these changes were advantageous, such as the lower experience point requirements for gaining levels in most classes, the allowance for using any weapon in ones off-hand that was smaller than the one used in the main hand (not merely a dagger or a hand axe), the lifting of the alignment restrictions on vorpal and sharpness weapons (thus allowing a weapon to be both vorpal and sharpness at the same time), the fact that rolling a natural "1" on a saving throw was no longer an automatic miss, and the blissfull lightening of the gold piece to a fifth of its earlier weight. But most of these changes — particularly the elimination of monks, barbarians, the spoon of stirring, the tempus fugit spell, and the constitution bonus on hit points when you were too high a level to earn new hit dice — would have severely hampered all the disgusting characters who had taken advantage of the older rules.
The upshot of all this was, whichever of those new rules made someone more powerful were adopted faster than you could say Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt, but the rest of them were conveniently ignored. No one wanted to yield any of his or her disgusting abilities. And apparently, the Dungeon Master wasn't too interested in enforcing these new rules anyway. Thus far, every disgusting character who kept following some of the older rules — including Unbelievable Sword — had slipped beneath the D.M.'s radar, and it looked like it would stay that way.
'Oh well,' Unbelievable Sword assured himself, 'At least not everybody is a disgusting character yet.' The latest polls brought the total up to somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of the adult population. He looked around at the faces walking by him, then noticed a lot of people were glancing at his chest. Oh yeah. He'd forgotten about the enormous wound he still had there from his run-in with that Ludicrous Lance kid. Quickly, and with some mild embarrassment at this little faux-pas of personal hygene, he droned, "I wish all the damage on my body were healed," and the wound was gone.
Walking at the leisurely pace so few disgusting characters got to enjoy any more, Unbelievable Sword eventually reached his destination on the other side of Town: a small castle with the words "Jimmy's House" emblazoned across the main entrance gate. He floated over the moat and knocked on the drawbridge.
"Go away!" came a voice from inside. "I already told you people, I don't need a centaur agent! I'm perfectly happy getting all the points I need myself!"
Unbelievable Sword grinned. "I don't blame you," he shouted back, "Those centaur agencies are total vultures."
The drawbridge lowered instantly. Unbelievable Sword had to jink to one side to avoid it. On the other side of the now-open front gate stood a 28-year-old man in full plate armor with a Masters-of-the-Universe-looking sword dangling from his belt, beaming with pride at his new visitor. "Unbelievable Sword!" he declared, and ran to meet him.
"Hi, dad!" Unbelievable Sword called back, hugging the man with his full Atlas strength. "Long time no see! Well, except for all those times when you took off your amulet of proof against detection and location and I got to take a peek at you through my crystal ball, of course."
"My, how you've grown!" Jimmy said, looking his son over. "The last time I saw you, you were just getting ready for your first trip to the centaur pits, and now look at you! A 15th level assassin, 17th level monk, 23rd level Hierophant druid, 31st level barbarian, 39th level oriental barbarian, 48th—"
"Me?" Unbelievable Sword cut him off. It could take all day to recite all of his character classes. "Well, look at you! You're a 50 000th level fighter now! When you had me, you were barely fifth-level. And this castle — why, this was just an old run-down mud-hut the last time I was here! You've certainly done well for yourself."
"Yeah," Jimmy agreed, "I gotta admit, it is kinda nice having half a million hit points. And thanks to the new unlimited THAC0 advancement rule, going up in level as a fighter forever makes it a lot easier to hack up the bad guys!" He drew his sword and swung it at the empty air with great skill, as he had so often in his youth. "Wham! Hack! Swoosh!"
"I WISH YOU WOULD STOP DOING THAT," his sword replied.
Jimmy addressed the sword smugly, "And what are you gonna do if I don't, huh, Sick Sword? At 50 000th level, my personality score's so high you'll never be able to dominate my will anymore. Ptttttt!" he gave the sword a raspberry.
Unbelievable Sword cocked his head to one side as he examined Jimmy's sword. "You know, that sword is the only remnant of my grandma's namesake," he mused. "I sure wish I could have met her."
"Me too," Jimmy replied. "I only heard about her from the stories Ridiculous Sword told me."
"D'you still think about mom?"
Jimmy sighed. "The torrid affair between Ridiculous Sword and I ended a long time ago. I don't regret a moment of it — least of all having you — but I couldn't go back again. She was pursuing her dream of being a disgusting character, and I had my own path to follow."
Unbelievable Sword raised an eyebrow Spockishly. "A 50 000th level figher doesn't qualify as a disgusting character?"
Jimmy snorted. "Not compared to the guys like you that're running around nowadays. I mean, you're over 50 000th level as a paladin and as a magic-user and as a . . . um, ken-something —"
"Kensai," Unbelievable Sword corrected him.
"Yeah yeah, kensai . . . and as a samurai. Heck, back in Ridiculous Sword's heyday, she didn't even have the Book of Oriental Wisdom for those last two character classes. The best she could hope to get as far as Armor Class and damage bonuses went was the piddling base of AC -3 and +30 damage as a 60th-level Weapons Master. The samurai and kensing—"
"Kensai," Unbelievable Sword corrected him again.
"— Kensai character classes sure blew the lid off those old weapons master upper limits."
"Yup," Unbelievable sword boasted. "As a 50 009th level kensai I get a base AC of -16671, and as a 50 027th level samurai I get to add +16676 to all my weapon damage."
"And as a 50 038th level magic user, you can cast 50 038 d6 fireballs. Nuts to that 10d6 limit in the Second Edition!"
"Fireballs are next-to-useless. Too many people have fire resistance. Now, delayed-blast sonic ball, that's a spell! Or it would be, if everyone wasn't part monk and got that saving-throw-means-no-damage-even-if-the-spell-normally-only-allows-you-to-save-for-half-damage ability. You know, dad, you ought to consider picking up a few levels as a monk so you can —"
Jimmy shook his head decisively. "I've told you before, I'm not gonna be a disgusting character. Besides, I'm half-elven; I couldn't become a dual-classed character even if I wanted to. I'm just a fighter."
"Oh, speaking of which," Unbelievable Sword remembered, "You wanna go see the jousting tournament today? I hear Fantastic Falchion and Vastly Hugely Mindbogglingly Powerful Pike-Awl are going to be competing."
"Fantastic Falchion? Cool! The last time I saw her joust, she made mincemeat out of Irresistible Battleaxe. They had to use a raise dead spell and a regeneration spell to bring him back. Let's go!"
"My dad can beat up your dad," the scrawny 16-year-old lad commented.
"Oh yeah?" retorted the punked-out 17-year-old bodybuilder, thrusting his burly chest forward into the other's face to drive him back. "My dad's Ringman."
"No way!" the scrawny lad replied nervously. "If Ringman was your dad, he'd make you go to paladin school and be all lawful-good and stuff."
"Oh yeah, he tried, but he couldn't make me. No one's the boss of me, man!" He shoved the smaller kid, who stumbled backwards and fell to the grass.
The smaller youth tried to scramble to his feet, but the punk towered over him. "Oh-oh-okay," the smaller one stammered, "I-I got the message!"
"And don't you forget it," the punk spat at him, then folded his arms and gave his victim just enough room to get back to his feet.
The instant the scrawny youth regained his footing, he turned and broke into a run, and then taunted back over his shoulder, "But there's no way Ringman's your dad!"
"Why, you little!" the punk growled, and darted after him. He caught up, grabbed the kid by his waistcoat, reeled him in, and punched him hard on the side of his head.
"Ow!" the kid yelped, more afraid than in pain.
The bully yelled, "You don't know nothin'!", and boxed him squarely on the ear.
"Owwwwww!" the kid bellowed. He tried to wriggle free, but it was no use. The punk was too strong.
The bully cocked his fist back to give the weakling a kidney punch.
"DANNY!" a commanding voice stopped him in mid-swing. He let go of his victim instinctively and gasped as he turned toward the voice he knew so well.
There was fury in the 50-year-old paladin's green eyes. "What the hell do you think you're doing to that poor kid?!" Ringman thundered as he trudged across the remaining gap between himself and the punk.
'Ringman?!' the scrawny kid mouthed silently.
"He was dissin' me!" Danny explained.
"Oh, and that's reason enough to kill him, I suppose?!" Ringman roared.
"He said you weren't my dad!"
Ringman folded his arms solemnly. "Well, am I? I wonder. I really, really wonder. What son of mine would turn into a neighborhood bully?"
'My God VII,' the scrawny lad thought as he beat a hasty retreat, 'Ringman really is his dad!'
"And maybe I don't wanna be your son!" Danny retorted. "All you ever talk about is being a goody two-shoes and obligations and humility and staying 'pure', whatever the Gehenna 'pure' is supposed to mean. Maybe it means stayin' away from Central Earth, 'cause you're so scared of that place."
"Enough!" Ringman snapped. "You're coming home with me right now!"
"No way! You're not the boss of me, man!"
Ringman grabbed him by his leather jacket. "Let go, ya perv!" Danny spat, and swung a punch at him.
Ringman caught his son's fist in his bare hand before it reached him, and held it firm. "Oh, so you wanna fight, do you?" He pushed back a step or two and put up his bare fists. "Is that it? You wanna take it out on me, do you?! Go ahead! Take your best shot!"
Danny did. He swung the widest, fastest haymaker he could manage, aimed straight for the left side of Ringman's head. Ringman didn't even bother to dodge out of the way. He just let the blow land and didn't even budge when it did. He countered with a right-cross to Danny's jaw, backed up by the full force of his 18/92 strength. Danny flew back almost ten feet and landed squarely on his tuckus, his jaw broken and blood oozing from the corner of his mouth.
Ringman stalked toward his downed son, who watched with growing horror as his father approached, not knowing what to expect. His father rubbed his hands together briefly, spread his palms wide, bent down, and laid both hands flatly on either side of Danny's broken jaw. In a flash of soft paladinic light, the broken bones were whole again and the blood had vanished.
"Yeah, big man you are," Danny groaned, trying out his newly-repaired jaw, "Beating up on your own son. You might be stronger than me now, but all I need is one trip to Central Earth and I'll be able to whip anybody on this whole plane, including you!"
"Oh, yeah," Ringman folded his arms, "You could become a disgusting character, just like all the other disgusting characters on Central Earth. It'd be pretty easy, especially if you cheat on the dice rolls like all the other disgusting characters do. And then what happens when you meet another disgusting character who's more powerful than yourself?"
"Never happen," Danny boasted, "I'll be better than any of 'em!"
"Nonsense. There's always a more powerful character. And if you brought your new-found disgusting character powers back here to Dragontown or North Fliedershire with you, the more powerful disgusting characters would follow you. And they'd tear you down. Or maybe you'd get a few more billion experience points and then you could tear them down, until the next batch came along with even more experience points. Don't you see? You're entering into a never-ending war of escalation if you go down that road. And the more powerful you get, the more everyone else will want to beat you. I've seen it happen myself. It tore my last family apart from the inside. It even killed and annihilated my common-law wife."
"That's what you say," Danny retorted. "I think you got burned once, and now you're just scared."
"Come home with me," the paladin stated matter-of-factly. "Now."
Danny eyed him warily. "Oh, all right. But when I find a place of my own, I'm outta there."
The two mounted Ringman's warhorse and rode away in tense silence.
How could Danny have gotten this far out of control? Ringman wondered. Sure, he always knew his son didn't want to follow in his footsteps like his daughter did. He wasn't exactly the most lawful-good kid in North Fliedershire; in fact, he was downright chaotic-neutral. But at least he used to have realistic aspirations. Ringman and his wife, Izabella, had assumed he wanted to become a bard when they saw him playing Air Lute in his room. They got him a real lute and he'd taken to it the way an adventurer takes to gold pieces.
And he'd grown bored with it just as quickly.
Maybe if Ringman had spent more time with Danny, instead of trying so hard to bring up Bahamut junior. . . .
The warhorse jogged Ringman out of his reverie when it picked up a little speed and leapt across a narrow brook on its way back to Izabella and Ringman's house. This was the same warhorse Ringman had called way back when he was only 4th level; back then, he could think of no more original name to give the steed than "Warhorse." The magical horse had been raised from the dead already once, by Sick Sword — a woman who, ironically, was not only dead but had also had her soul annihilated so that she couldn't be raised from the dead herself. Warhorse had followed Ringman to the plane of Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt soon after her demise, thanks to a plane-travel spell from one of her daughters, and it had lived in Ringman's and Izabella's stable ever since. And in all that time, the horse had never aged. Probably because it was a magical horse, and all.
Of course, the horse's +3 plate barding, horseshoes of a zephyr, and horseshoes of speed had not accompanied it here, any more than Ringman's magic items had accompanied him. This was Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt, after all. No material goods from other planes could enter this plane. Ringman had had to get a new suit of non-magical full plate armor made for himself, a new non-magical longsword, a new non-magical shield, a new non-magical lance — none of which he'd had much use for, thank My Deity — and new non-magical plate barding for Warhorse. And when he did, he discovered that his horse's armor class while wearing plate barding had worsened, from being AC 1 to AC 2.
That was his first clue that the Dungeon Master had changed the rules yet again.
Ringman didn't want to get caught off-guard again, like he had when the Other Book of Infinite Wisdom came out, so he'd hunted down and read the Second Edition books just as soon as he could. He knew disgusting characters might be able to get away with not abiding by all the new rules, but, being a ninth-level by-the-book paladin, he didn't have that option. And the first thing he noticed when he read the new Second Edition rules was that all the sweeping changes that had been done to the paladin class in the Other Book of Infinite Wisdom were un-done in the Second Edition Book of Finite Wisdom. The 18/00 strength, 18 dexterity, 18 constitution, 18 charisma, and 88 total hit points that the Other Book of Infinite Wisdom had thrust upon him had spontaneously reverted to their original scores of 18/92, 17, 17, 17, and 79, respectively. Comeliness was a thing of the past. His immunity to fear had vanished. So had his to-hit and damage bonuses with the mounted lance and the other two cavalier weapons of choice he'd been forced to become proficient with. Sure, the experience point requirements for level advancement had gone down, but not enough to raise him to tenth level. And worse, some of the abilities he'd had — even before the Other Book of Infinite Wisdom — had gotten chopped down. His continuous protection from evil had fallen to a mere -1 attack penalty on summoned and evil creatures' attack rolls within 10 feet. He no longer received two extra first-level clerical spells for having a high wisdom, and the one first-level spell he still could cast had to be selected from among only one-quarter of the total available "spheres" of priest spells. He used to like to memorize Command, Purify Food and Drink, and Resist Cold; but now Resist Cold was out of his reach as a second-level spell, and the other two didn't happen to lie within the "spheres" he could cast from. He'd had to limp along with memorizing Endure Cold/Heat and nothing else.
As soon as they arrived at Izabella and Ringman's house — which used to be just Izabella's house before she met the paladin — Danny dismounted and vaulted for the relative safety of his room before Ringman could stop him. Ringman put Warhorse in its stall, strapped its feedbag over its snout, and went next door to a very different kind of animal stall.
"Hiya, junior!" he cooed to the platinum-skinned baby dragon within.
The little drake bounded up to nuzzle his adoptive father. "Got any scrambled eggs for me today, Ringman?" he purred, licking the paladin's face.
"Nope, the hens won't be laying any eggs 'til this afternoon," Ringman replied, scratching the dragon behind its little dragon ears.
"I'm sorry I lost my spell-casting ability and an age-level category," the dragon commented.
"Me too, Bahamut. Not that it was your fault. You were progressing beautifully until that Second Edition came out." The Second Edition of the Field Guide to Central Earth Wildlife — which was called the Fieldous Guidous to Centralous Earthous Wildlife, for some reason — made it quite clear that dragons never gained any spell ability until they reached the "juvenile" age category. It also added the "hatchling" age category, thus ensuring that no dragon would become a juvenile until age 26. And worse, the old "ancient" age category at the top of the list had been replaced by "great wyrm," which took 1200 years to achieve — 3 times longer than it had previously taken a dragon to become ancient. Bahamut junior still had 1182 years to go before he could assume his rightful place as the god of all good dragonkind.
"Hi, darling!" came a perky woman's voice from behind them.
Ringman stood up and embraced his plump wife. "Hi, hon!" The recent years had been far kinder to Izabella than her early years had. When Sick Sword first met her 27-odd years ago, she'd thought Izabella was middle-aged, but it turned out she was only 5 years older than Ringman was. Working the farm by herself, not to mention her disastrous attempt to raise cows, had made her grow old before her time. Ringman had been the best thing that ever happened to her. She could hardly believe it when she learned she'd scored a paladin as well as a beefy stud and a total sweetheart. Many mornings when she had awakened to see him lying next to her, she'd thanked My Deity from the bottom of her heart for blessing her with this man, and those feelings had still not diminished. It had taken years off her appearance; she now looked her rightful age instead of far older. She reached up and kissed him with a gentle intensity.
Ringman returned her kiss with equal feeling. Izabella had been one thing that Sick Sword never had: she was supportive. She'd stood by him and the tough decisions his paladinhood sometimes called on him to make. She believed in him. He was more than just some obscure ninth-level by-the-book paladin to her, and she never lacked for affection to show it. The fact that her personal deity also happened to be My Deity, just like Ringman's was, didn't exactly diminish the depth of his feelings for her, either.
"Sheila's back from paladin school on spring break," Izabella told him. "She's brought some of her classmates with her. They've never met a level-titled paladin before."
"Great!" Ringman brightened further. At least one of his children was making something of herself. "I almost hate to break the news to them that level titles were eliminated in the Second Edition. Let's go in and introduce them to the 'great' Ringman."
They walked the cobblestone path up to their house — cobblestones laid down by Ringman himself one day, when he'd waxed nostalgic about his early youth as a mason's apprentice — but their rather small, unassuming front door was closed. "Uh oh, I didn't mean to let the door close all the way," Izabella sighed. "You wanna do the honors, honey?"
Ringman rolled his eyes, lowered his shoulder, and rammed into the door with all his might. The thin wooden panels shuddered, but the door refused to give way. He backed up and ran at the door again, and this time it finally freed itself from its doorjamb and flew open.
'I hate that opening doors rule!' Ringman thought as he stumbled through. He looked up to see about eight stunningly gorgeous teen-age boys and girls sitting around his dining table. They all had their customary cups of hot dirty water, and while one or two of them were still sipping on them, most looked up to see what the commotion at the front door was all about. "Greetings, paladins-to-be!" Ringman greeted them.
All of the kids immediately got to their feet and bowed, nervously, as their courtier training had prepared them to. All but the black-leather-clad punk scowling in the corner. Danny stood at the threshold to his room and watched the proceedings with detatched contempt.
Ringman ignored his son's scorn and returned the students' bows. "Welcome to my humble abode."
"These friends of mine are from my swordsmanship class," Sheila informed him as she and her classmates sat back down, her silky black hair cascading down her shoulders in all its 17-charisma glory.
Ringman scanned their 17- and 18-charisma faces. "All of you remind me of the comrades-in-arms I had back when I was in paladin training. I knew I was damn lucky to be there, standing among the best of the best. You've all chosen the highest, most prestigious, most noble calling a person can follow. You'll gain fantastic powers and be fabulous warriors. But ultimately, the role of the paladin is a role of the utmost sacrifice. Once you complete your training and receive your stations, you'll never again be able to ignore injustice at any level. You may find yourself at odds with everyone you've ever known when you stand on your principles. You may be lonelier than you have ever been in your life. And it never gets easier. The greater your skills and confidence and autonomy become, the greater the challenges you'll know you have to take on. Your paladin powers will be your burden. As will your inevitable failures — and take it from one who's been there, you will have some failures."
Danny snorted and walked out of the room.
"Tell me," Ringman continued, "Do they require you to learn the mounted lance anymore?"
"They did, until the Second Edition came out," one of the apprentice paladins replied. "I just missed having to take that course."
"I took it," another kid replied. "It was kinda fun! You urged the horse into its fastest gallop, charged ahead at a breakneck 180 feet per minute, and tried to keep the lance pointed just right when you ran it into the target."
"Tell 'em about one of your early adventures, dad!" Sheila urged him.
"All right," Ringman took a seat. "Let me tell you about the time I decided to vanquish Smogzilla."
"You're the Fire Eater?" one of the students puzzled.
"Oh, no no, not the Smaugzilla from around here, Smogzilla spelled S-M-O-G zilla. She was a huge ancient red dragon back on Central Earth. I was only an 8th-level paladin at the time. . . ."
The edges of reality got all wavy, mysterious music played, and suddenly we were in a flashback.
King What's-his-name the 75th had just assigned me to be the guardian of the village of Town, Ringman's voice-over continued. I'd taken up residence there for less than a week, when I met the local revenue collector.
The scene opened on the central square of Town, in the days before the statue of King What's-his-name the 75th had been erected there. A very young-looking Ringman, clad in glowing +5 plate mail with a +4 shield, rode proudly through the square on the back of Warhorse, who was wearing horseshoes of a zephyr on top of its horseshoes of speed and clad in the +5 plate barding that the rules would later insist must be reduced to +3.
Wait a minute, a voice-over from one of the apprentice paladins interrupted, How did you get such a powerful array of magic items by 8th level?
This was Central Earth, Ringman's voice-over explained. You could buy any magic item listed in the Book of Infinite Wisdom, for the listed purchase price, if you could afford it. And wandering monsters whose pockets bulged with coins and gems littered the countryside, practically begging to die in mortal combat. Now, as I was saying . . .
The hustle and bustle of Town's central square seemed more feverish than it had when he'd arrived a few days ago. A jittery, smallish man bumped into Warhorse, apologized quickly, and skittered on past. "Whoa, there, my good man," Ringman addressed him, "What's the hurry?"
"It's almost that time of the year again," the man continued walking quickly. Ringman trotted alongside the man, the paladin's longsword-scabbard containing his holy avenger Prometheus clanging against his thigh armor with every bounce in the horse's stride. "I've got less than a week to finish putting together enough tribute, before we put it in the tribute pile and get ready for the big Collection Day."
"You just put your village's revenues in a big pile somewhere?" Ringman asked.
"Yeah, right at the usual place on the outskirts of Town."
"Won't somebody steal it?"
The revenue-collecting man snickered. "Oh no. Nobody's dumb enough to come out while the tribute pile is out waiting to be collected!"
The collector stopped in his tracks. "You're new around here, aren't you?" He resumed his frenetic walking pace.
"Yeah, I moved in less than a week ago."
The collector glanced nervously at the horseman. "So you don't know about Smogzilla, then."
"Smogzilla?!" Ringman gasped. "The huge ancient red dragon? Here?!"
"Yeah, the dragon! Her cave's not five leagues from this very spot. This is always the first town she raids for treasure when she goes out on her annual collection rounds."
"How much does she take each year?" Ringman asked.
"Well, if we can scrape together two thousand gold pieces worth of treasure, she only steps on one or two homes as a lesson in continued obedience. Between one and two thousand gold pieces and she'll torch a neighborhood. Anything less than a thousand g.p. and you can say goodbye to half of Town. She did that once, a couple decades ago, and we're still not done rebuilding all the damage."
"Two thousand gold pieces?!" Ringman exclaimed. "That's enough to finance a small army! Why don't you just stand up to her?"
"Because she's a huge ancient red dragon!" the collector explained as though he were talking to an imbecile. "Duh! Of course, some people were stupid enough to try. None of them ever came back."
"But we've got to try! We can't just let her walk all over us any time she feels like it! It's . . . it's unjust!"
"Hmph!" the collector snorted. "What are you, some kind of paladin?" He parted company and skittered away.
It was at that moment, Ringman's voice-over intruded, That I knew I had to defeat Smogzilla.
The young Ringman drew his holy sword. "Prometheus, I have to defeat Smogzilla."
"Hot diggity," the sword replied, "Combat!"
"Warhorse, old buddy," Ringman continued, "We're going to Smogzilla's cave. Onward!," he snapped the reins, and his horse galloped off toward the nearby hillside at twice its normal speed, its zephyr-shoed feet never quite touching the ground.
They reached Smogzilla's cave less than an hour later. It was hard to miss; any opening in the side of a mountain big enough to let a huge ancient dragon go in and out would be visible for miles. At the base of the cave entrance, no less than four skeletons lay in twisted agony.
Ringman quickly took out his holy symbol and nearly screamed, "Begone!", before it sank in that these weren't those kinds of skeletons. They were, in fact, the bones of previous would-be dragonslayers, frozen in whatever pose they'd had when Smogzilla roasted them or slashed them with her claws or bit them in half. Some of them were still wearing the burnt-out remains of plate mail and clutching half-melted longswords. Ringman suppressed a shudder, and Warhorse suppressed two or three shudders. Prometheus wondered when the fighting was going to start.
"All right, Warhorse, this is it," Ringman took a deep breath. "Charge!"
He and the horse flew toward the mouth of the cave.
In retrospect, Ringman's voice-over explained, If I'd stuck with my original frontal-assault plan, I would have ended up just like those piles of bones lining Smogzilla's courtyard. But luck was with me that day.
Just before he reached the cave entrance, a draconic roar burst forth from the darkness beyond. Warhorse instinctively screeched to a halt as a saurian, serpentine form thundered out into the full daylight. It was a red dragon, all right, but hardly a huge ancient one. It couldn't have been more than twelve feet long. It glared at the mounted paladin with disdain, then opened its gaping maw and belched forth a cone of fire.
Ringman instinctively ducked back behind his shield, and Warhorse cringed so that its plate barding bore the brunt of the flames.
Why don't you just say "Warhorse and I made our saving throws so we only took half damage"? Sheila's voice-over interrupted.
Because it's not as dramatic that way, Ringman's voice-over explained.
The young paladin, Ringman, and his trusty warhorse, Warhorse, both emerged with surprisingly light singe-marks. That blast of dragonbreath couldn't have carried more than a 15-damage-point whallop, even to someone who didn't make his saving throw. With renewed confidence, Ringman urged Warhorse to charge, closed with the red-scaled mini-monstrosity, and rammed Prometheus point-first into the beast's abdomen. Prometheus pulsed a bright green, sending an extra +10 damage points into the little red dragon's already-wracked body — such was the price a holy avenger extracted from a chaotic-evil target. That, plus the 5 extra damage points from Ringman's 18/92 strength, plus the 5 additional damage points from the sword's +5 rating, plus the d12 worth of base damage a longsword does to large opponents, was more than the poor miniature dragon could withstand. It keeled over and slumped dead to the ground.
"Whoo!" the longsword cheered. "Man, did that ever feel good! We oughta hack something up like that every day!"
Ringman scratched his head. "That can't have been Smogzilla. I have it on the best authority that she's a hu . . ." his voice trailed off. "'She'. . . . Oh. My. Deity."
"Whassa matter, Ringman," the sword quipped, "Your armor chafing you again?"
Ringman pointed to the miniature dragon corpse in horror. "This must be one of Smogzilla's babies!"
"Hoo boy," Prometheus commented, "Is she ever gonna be ticked off at you!"
Ringman shook his head. "Worse. She'll take it out on Town! She'll reduce the whole village to cinders and rubble!"
"And dead bodies," the holy sword reminded him. "Don't forget about the dead bodies!"
My mind was racing, said Ringman's voice-over. It was one thing to give up my own life trying to slay Smogzilla, but quite another to jeopardize a village full of innocent people. There had to be some way to defeat a huge ancient red dragon that would actually work. Then it hit me.
A boulder fell down the mountainside and landed on the young Ringman's helm. "Ow!" he yelped, rubbing his head. "Watch it!" he called back to the voice-over narrative.
Sorry about that, Ringman's voice-over apologized. What I meant was, I got an idea.
The young Ringman snapped his fingers, then sheathed Prometheus, dismounted, and clanked over to the baby dragon carcass. He grabbed on to part of its hide on one side of its neck and pulled with all his might. A dragon scale popped loose in his hands.
"What are you doing?" the sword chided from within its scabbard.
"Collecting dragon scales," Ringman remarked, wrenching another one free.
The sword would have rolled its eyes if swords had eyes. "Well, ask a silly question . . ."
Ringman pried loose three more scales, then mounted back up and rode back to Town as fast as Warhorse could gallop downhill. He made a beeline for the fletcher's shop he'd seen when he moved in. It had a rather unassuming sign hanging out front — all it said was "Fletch." He stepped inside carrying the dragon scales under his right arm.
"Good evening!" the proprietor said, even though it was morning. "I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not!"
"Please, please, just call me Fletch. That's what all the hot babes do."
"Okay, Fletch, then," Ringman waved his hand impatiently. "Do you have any magic shafts?"
"That's a rather personal question, don'tcha think?"
"Magic arrow shafts!" Ringman grunted.
"Why, you bet your sweet patootie I do!" Fletch perked. "This is Central Earth, after all. You can't hardly sneeze without knocking down a magic item or two." He reached into a barrel and pulled out two perfectly straight, almost-glowing thin rods, each with three feathers on one end but no arrowhead on the other. "These are some of my best stock here. I got 'em off an enchanted Tibetan yew tree that only enters this dimension once every millennium. Even with a plain flint arrowhead, these babies'll be at least, oh, +25."
Ringman's eyes bulged out. "Really?"
"Yeah," Fletch assured him, "You should've seen the evil wizard I had to kill to find out about this tree, too. Must've been at least 200th level. Oh, and we're having a sale this week, so if you buy these arrow shafts right now, I'll throw in full title to a bridge I own over in the Brooklyn continent."
Ringman rolled his eyes.
"Just like to keep my customers on their toes," Fletch winked at him. "Actually, these two're just the usual dime-a-dozen enchanted shafts. I use 'em to make just about every kind of magic arrow listed in the Book of Infinite Wisdom. It's the arrowhead that has to be made special."
"That's why I came here," Ringman explained. He set the red dragon scales down on the front counter. "I need you to make as many arrows of dragon slaying as you can, in as little time as possible."
"What, is Tiamat holding her annual convention here?" Fletch asked with his usual hint of deadpan sarcasm. "Dog gone it, why am I always the last to hear about these things?"
"I got those scales from one of Smogzilla's babies," Ringman declared.
"Whoo, talk about diaper rash," Fletch shook his head.
"No no, don't you get it? Those scales came from one of Smogzilla's ex-babies."
Fletch wrinkled his eyebrows, then gasped, "You killed one of Smogzilla's babies?! Hoo boy, is she ever gonna be ticked off at you!"
"That's what I said," Prometheus quipped from inside its scabbard.
Fletch frowned at the longsword. "Was that your holy avenger talking, or are you just glad to see me?"
Ringman cut him off (so to speak). "Smogzilla won't just take her vengeance out on me, she'll take it out on all of Town!"
Fletch shrugged. "Not if we put you on top of the collection pile and pin a big sign to your chest that says 'He did it!'."
"Even then," Ringman declared in all earnestness. "The ire of a red dragon is very slow to cool. Either we bring her down, before she starts her inevitable rampage on Town, or we all die."
Fletch sneered. "And you've only been here for, what, half a week? Boy, you sure know how to mess things up fast, don'tcha?" He picked up one of the dragon scales and turned it over slowly. "Hrm . . . I might be able to whittle these down to an arrowhead shape, but I don't know if my cutting tools are up to it."
Ringman drew a glowing dagger out from his boot scabbard. "Use this," he said, handing it to Fletch handle-first. "It's +2. +3 versus larger-than-man-sized opponents."
"Not enough," Fletch shook his head. "An arrow of slaying is +3, and it's definitely not larger than man-sized. You can't carve a +3 arrowhead with a +2 blade." He handed the dagger back.
Ringman took the weapon and handed Fletch his glowing hand axe instead. "A hand axe'll probably be a little awkward as a shaping tool, but at least it's +3 against all sizes of opponents."
"That ought to be sharp enough to do the job," Fletch commented. "But I gotta warn you, making arrows of slaying is exceedingly exacting work. You can't rush them. I don't know how many arrows of slaying I'll be able to finish before Smogzilla finds out you're a dirty no-good baby dragon murderer."
Ringman winced. "I didn't know it was her baby before I killed it!"
"Oh, geez!" Fletch rolled his eyes. "It was a red firebreathing reptile, with batlike wings, coming at you out of Smaugzilla's own cave — didn't that kinda clue you in?!"
"But I had to defend myself!" Ringman whined. "It breathed fire on me!"
"It breathed fire on me," Fletch mocked him in a snivelling imitation of the paladin's voice. "A poor, little, defenseless red dragon baby, whose breath could barely light a torch, and you had to go off the deep end and hack it to bits just because you got a little singed."
"I only stabbed it once!" Ringman protested.
"Oh, and that makes it all right, I suppose? 'But officer, I only stabbed him once!' I'd hate to be around you when you're in the kitchen!"
"All right, all right! Could you just make the arrows?"
"Well, okay —" Fletch used the +3 hand axe to point to the scabbard containing Prometheus "— if you'll promise to keep ol' stabby boy there in his trousers while you're in here." He commenced whittling away at one of the dragon scales without another word.
Ringman zipped out of the fletcher's shop, grateful both that some arrows of dragon slaying were in the works and that he didn't have to put up with Fletch for a while. He mounted Warhorse and rode off toward his temporary quarters in Town to pick up the equipment he'd need.
Before the sun set that same day, said Ringman's voice-over, jumping over the dead time in between, I heard it.
The young Ringman looked up from packing Warhorse's saddlebags as a deafening screech filled the air. It was coming from Smogzilla's cave. She'd found her dead baby. As Ringman's eyes focused on the distant hillside, he just barely made out a dust cloud and the flapping wings that stirred it up. Smogzilla was on the warpath.
Ringman leapt into the saddle and charged back across town to the fletcher's shop.
Before he was even a third of the way there, Town's bell-tower sounded the alarm. Every local resident recognized the village's Smogzilla Alarm and reacted immediately by running around in a blind panic. Ringman's progress through the streets slowed to a trot, then a crawl, as the maddening human traffic ran every which-way — and most of the which-ways were in the opposite direction from where Ringman was headed. He clenched his teeth and looked up at the approaching airborne monstrosity. Smogzilla's leathery wings and serpentine frame loomed larger every minute. She would have loomed larger every second, but then, red dragons can only fly at 300 feet per minute (300 yards per minute outdoors).
That molasses-slow movement rule was the only thing that allowed Ringman to make it back to the fletcher's shop before Smogzilla arrived. The door was closed and bolted from the inside. He knocked loudly on it three times. No response. He knocked emphatically, making shallow fist-shaped dents in the wood. "Fletch!" he cried. "I need those arrows of dragon slaying!"
The door unbolted instantly, and an arm shot out, grabbed Ringman by the collar of his +5 plate mail, and yanked him indoors, slamming the door shut behind him.
"What are you, nuts?!" Fletch scolded him. "If Smogzilla finds out I'm the one making arrows of dragon slaying for you, the next item on her menu'll be Fletch Flambé!"
Ringman mulled this over, then chirped, "Oh come on, it's not as though there's anybody else in Town who can make magic arrows! She'd suspect you no matter what."
"Oh, thanks a lot," Fletch cursed.
"Look, look, she's almost here. How many arrows of dragon slaying did you manage to make?"
Fletch presented ringman with a solitary glowing black arrow, tipped in pointed dragonscale. "Only one."
"One?! That's it?! I'm only going to get one shot at her?"
Fletch laid the arrow in Ringman's left palm and eyed him levelly. "Don't miss."
Ringman put the arrow in a special nook in his quiver, marched purposefully out of the fletcher's shop, mounted his warhorse, and unstrapped the +1 composite longbow from his left shoulder. He glared up at the huge ancient red dragon darkening the sky. She looked like she was almost ready to unleash her first firebreath attack on Town — and her dragon breath would be far, far more devastating than that miniscule cone of flames her non-dead baby had breathed on Ringman and Warhorse earlier that day. He had to divert her attention. "I'm the one you want!" he screamed to her in the Common tongue, cursing himself for not having learned how to speak Red Dragon for just such an occasion. "I killed your baby!"
Smogzilla glanced down balefully as she flew past.
Ringman unsheathed Prometheus and held it up to the sunlight. "Some of its blood is still on my holy sword!"
Smogzilla looked back with her keen dragon-sight and narrowed upon a few tiny dried specks on Prometheus's blade. Somehow, with that sense that only a mother dragon could have, she knew the dried blood belonged to her baby.
"RAAAAAAAAAAAGHHH!!!" she bellowed, all else forgotten as she swooped around to get the no-good self-righteous bastard who had taken the life of one of her children.
Ringman sheathed his holy avenger instantly, brought up the bow he'd had at the ready, and drew from his quiver the only weapon for leagues and leagues around that had any chance against the awesome and terrible megabeast now hurtling headlong toward him. He nocked the black arrow deftly in his bowstring, as he had practiced so often in the past, raised the bow so that its precious ammunition rested at eye level, and drew it back with all his strength. He aimed for the dragon's not-quite-as-indestructable underbelly.
Smogzilla's fearsome battlecry was close enough to swamp out all other sounds. Her front claws sprang forward as she closed in for the kill.
'O My Deity,' Ringman prayed without speaking, 'Guide my hand.'
He let the arrow fly.
The arrow zeroed in, almost of its own will, on Smogzilla's chest. It impaled her right in the narrow gap between two scales, just to the left of her sternum, and there worked its dark magic. The dragon screamed in pain, aborting her strafing run at Ringman and swooping straight up. Crackling black lightning bolts arced out from the wound, traversing her tough hide, and then a solid wall of black ichor seemed to spread out from the arrow-shaft and sweep its way up and down the length of her body. She reached the apogee of her swoop, froze for the briefest of moments in mid-air, and then the life exploded out of her in a shower of black bolts and brilliant white rays of light.
The burned-out, grayish husk that had once been Smogzilla fell like a stone and landed on its back in the middle of the empty street, the spent shaft of the arrow that had slain her sticking straight up out of her breast — a slim, black monument against the sky.
The edges of the world wavered in place once more, and suddenly, we were back in the present.
"That," a 50-year-old Ringman told the student-paladins, "And the later battle with Omnion that put and end to the Intercontinental Union of Disgusting Characters, were the two times where my whole life came down to a single shot with an arrow of slaying. So while swordsmanship is important, don't neglect your training with ranged weapons. After I vanquished Smogzilla, the news of her demise spread faster than Smogzilla herself could fly. Now all the money that had been going to appease Smogzilla each year could go where it belonged — into the tax collection coffers of King What's-his-name the 75th. Needless to say, the king was eminently pleased with this turn of events; so much so that he actually knighted me. For a while, I was Sir Ringman. Smogzilla was worth enough experience points to bring me to ninth level, which was the level at which I became a true paladin in title as well as class. It seemed so appropriate that the act which had bestowed level-title status upon me also brought me to knighthood. Unfortunately, it didn't last. I had to give up the land and the rest of the reward — I had my tithe to pay, of course, and being a paladin I would have had to give almost all of the remaining 90% to charity, except that I owed Fletch 2500 gold pieces for that arrow of slaying. And, well, compared with the needs of that rather dull sector of the realm that my knighthood would have made me lord over, Town needed me a lot more."
Sheila puzzled. "Wait a minute, dad. I thought you told me you got selected to be one of King What's-his-name the 75th's elite palace knights before you even became a first-level paladin. How could you have been a palace knight without having been knighted?"
"Er, well," Ringman began uncomfortably, "You see, on Central Earth, there are knights, and then there are knights . . . er . . . and —"
Something rumbled like otherworldly thunder in the distance.
"— and," Ringman finished, "And we'd better go see what that noise is."
Ringman walked to the front door and his knees nearly crumbled beneath him. In the sky in the distance, well past the outskirts of North Fliedershire, a bright blue point-source of light had irised into a giant swirling blue cone that seemed to go off into infinity. It looked just like an approaching space ship's jump-point from Babylon 5, except that Babylon 5 hadn't been invented yet. And something was coming out of the apex of that seemingly-infinitely-deep cone. Something large. Something very, very large.
Something very, very large, with enormous batlike wings, a serpentine body, and five differently-colored heads.
"RAAAAAAAAAAAAAWRRRRRR!!" all five heads roared in a deafening chorus. The full deity-sized bulk of the chromatic dragon smashed to the ground on all fours, sending quakes in all directions. "WHERE IS THE NEW BAHAMUT?!"
"Izabella?" Ringman called, unable to tear his petrified eyes away from the dragon-goddess.
"Yeah?" his wife replied, similarly transfixed.
"Put on Warhorse's barding. I'm going to strap on my armor."
The Intercontinental Proliferation of Disgusting Characters is continued in chapter 2.
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