"So, let me get this straight," Ringman said to Josephus by the light of the campfire after the centaur situation had been handled for the night. "The Centaur language has only sixteen rules of grammar, and no grammatical exceptions?"
"That's right," Josephus told him. "There's not one irregular verb in the whole language. Unlike the Common tongue, which has irregular verbs coming out of its ears."
"And the spelling and pronunciation are completely regular, too?" the paladin asked.
"Yep," replied Joe. "Every letter makes one sound and one sound only. Every vowel is a syllable, every consonant makes the same sound no matter what letters it's standing next to, and every word has its accent on the next-to-last syllable. And as if that didn't make things easy enough on you, the vocabulary is kept relatively small by using prefixes and suffixes instead of inventing new word roots. For example, bona is Centaur for 'good,' and malbona is Centaur for 'bad.' Frua means 'early,' and malfrua means 'late.' Dekstra means 'right,' and maldekstra means 'left.' Now you try it. Granda means 'big,' and . . ." He held out his hand, indicating for Ringman to finish the sentence.
"Malgranda means 'small,'" Ringman replied.
"Very good," the dwarf answered. "Larga means 'wide,' and . . ."
"Mallarga means 'narrow,'" Ringman filled in the blank.
"Good!" the dwarf replied. "Alta means 'high,' and . . ."
"Malalta means 'sober,'" Ringman responded.
Josephus buried his face in his hands to keep from busting out laughing. "Not that kind of 'high'!"
"Oh, sorry," Ringman said, turning slightly pink. "Malalta means 'low.'"
Joe shook his head and snorted, "'Sober'?" He snickered. "Anyway, you'll notice that all those words we've just been tossing back-and-forth all end in -a. That's actually the third of the 16 rules of Centaur grammar: all adjectives end in -a. Er . . . plus whatever case and number endings are on the noun they modify."
Ringman eyed the small man warily. "What and what?"
"Uh, maybe I should back up a bit," Josephus conceded. "The second of the 16 rules of Centaur grammar is that all nouns end in -o. Except that only applies to singular nouns. To make a noun plural, you add a 'j' on to the end of that 'o.'"
"Not an 's'?"
"No. A 'j.'"
"So," Ringman figured, "That means, if the word for 'book' is, uh —"
"Libro," Joe told him.
"Okay," the paladin continued, "If the word for 'book' is LEE-broe, then the word for 'books' would be LEE-brodge?"
"Yeah," Joe replied, "Except you have to pronounce the J like a 'y.' Just like they do in Orcish. Libroj is pronounced LEE-broy, not lee-brodge."
"Hoo-kay," Ringman raised his eyebrows and picked up his notepad, "J is pronounced like 'y,'" he jotted down. "Any other weird pronunciations I should know about?"
"Well, actually, yeah," Joe answered, a little embarrassed. "C is pronounced like a t-s. Centawroj, which is Centaur for 'centaurs,' is pronounced tsen-TAU-roy. Polico, which means 'police,' is pronounced poe-LEE-tsoe." While Ringman wrote this down, Joe continued, "And then there are the letters with the funny-looking hats on them."
Ringman grunted. "Uh oh."
Joe took a deep breath. "C with a hat on it is pronounced like a 'ch.' G with a hat on it is pronounced like the G in 'giraffe.' H with a hat on it is pronounced like that weird throat-scraping ch sound in 'J.S. Bach.'"
"J.S. Bach hasn't been invented yet," Ringman droned.
"Don't cloud the issue with facts," Joe waved his hands. "There's also a J with a hat on it, which is pronounced like the z in 'azure.' An S with a hat on it is pronounced like an 'sh.' And finally, a U with a different kind of hat on it is pronounced like a W. Due to typographical limitations, the hat over a C, G, H, J, or S is sometimes written after the letter as either a ^ character or an X, and the U with the dippy-looking hat on it is sometimes just written as a 'w.'"
Ringman shook his head in amazement. "This language obviously pre-dates the invention of the ASCII character set."
"Which hasn't been invented yet, either," Joe noted. "Now then, to get back to what I was originally saying before we got side-tracked on this pronunciation tangent, a singular noun ends in -o, and a plural noun ends in -oj. Provided, however, that the noun is in the nominative case, that is, it acts as the subject of the sentence or is inside a prepositional phrase. If a noun acts as the direct object in a sentence, then it's in the accusative case, in which case you have to tack an 'n' on after the 'o.'"
Ringman just stared, glassy-eyed. "Huh?"
Joe shrugged. "Grammatical case is the one thing you haven't gotten to see in the Common tongue. It has no analogue in Common or in any of the other languages you know. Cases do exist in Orcish and in the ancient clerical language, though, and are much more complicated in those languages than they are in Centaur. Centaur only has two cases: nominative, and accusative."
Ringman's eyes were still glazed over. "Huh?"
"Um," Joe scratched his head, looking for a good analogy. "It's like this. You know how in Common, the pronoun changes depending on where it is in the sentence? Like, you know how you might say, 'I ate an orc'?"
"Doesn't sound very appetizing," Ringman countered.
"Never mind that, it's just an example!" Joe waved his hands some more. "If you reversed the sentence, reversed who was doing the action to whom, you would instead say, 'An orc ate me,' right?"
"Here's hoping I'd give the orc indigestion," the paladin snickered.
Joe rolled his eyes. "But do you see what I'm getting at? In the first sentence, you referred to yourself as 'I,' but in the second sentence, you referred to yourself as 'me'! You might also say, 'He ate an orc,' and then turn it around to 'An orc ate him.' You use 'he' when it's the subject, and 'him' when it's the direct object. That's what 'grammatical cases' are! The word changes depending on whether it's the subject or the direct object!"
"Ohhhhh!" the little light spell over Ringman's head lit up. "Like 'he' becomes 'him,' and 'she' becomes 'her,' and 'we' becomes 'us,' and 'who' becomes 'whom'!"
"Precisely!" the dwarf nodded. "The difference, though, is that in Common, only the pronouns — I, we, he, she, they, and who — change form to match their case. But in Centaur, nouns change form depending on what case they're in, too. If you just wanted to say, 'an orc,' you would say orko; but if you wanted to say 'I ate an orc,' you would say, Mi mang^as orkon. You'd put an extra N at the end of orko because it was the direct object. The thing is, there are a couple of other instances where an N is warranted on the end of a noun even when it isn't a direct object, and so the grammatical purists out there refer to all the cases where an N goes on the end of a noun, collectively, as 'the accusative case.' All the instances where an N doesn't go on the end of the noun are called 'the nominative case.' This whole nominative/accusative case thing takes a lot of getting used to for us native Common-tongue speakers. Messing up case endings in Centaur is probably the most common error a Common speaker commits, if you'll pardon the pun."
"Um," the wheels in Ringman's head started turning, "What happens if the noun is plural and accusative?"
"Then you tack the -n on after the -oj. If you wanted to say 'I have books,' for example, you would say, Mi havas librojn. And if you wanted to say, 'I have big books,' you would say, Mi havas grandajn librojn. And that's the next difference between Common and Centaur grammar I wanted to tell you about: In Centaur, the adjective always inflects to match the case and number of the noun it modifies. Sure, in Common we would say 'big city' and 'big cities,' and the adjective, 'big,' doesn't change regardless of whether it's describing one city or a whole bunch of cities. But in Centaur you would say granda urbo and grandaj urboj."
Ringman snapped his fingers as he remembered, "The Halfling language does the same thing. In Halfling, the adjective has to match the noun in number and gender. And the adjective comes after the noun."
"Good!" Joe replied, "Then you know what I'm talking about. The good news is, Centaur doesn't have grammatical gender. It's like Common in that regard. And furthermore, in Centaur you can put the adjective before or after the noun it modifies — the language isn't picky about word order. Blua c^ielo and c^ielo blua both mean 'blue sky.'"
"BLOO-ah chee-ELL-oe, chee-ELL-oe BLOO-ah," Ringman tried out the words in his own mouth.
"And just to confuse matters further," the dwarf winked, "Mi havas libron, Libron havas mi, Havas libron mi, Havas mi libron, Mi libron havas, and Libron mi havas all mean the same thing. They all mean 'I have a book.' The case ending, and not the word's position in the sentence, is used to determine whether the word is the subject or the direct object."
"You originally said libro means 'book,'" Ringman queried, "And now, you're saying that libro means 'a book.' Does libro also mean 'the book'?"
"No," Josephus answered. "Centaur doesn't have indefinite articles, i.e. words that mean 'a' or 'an,' but it does have a definite article. The Centaur word for 'the' is la. La is always the same. It doesn't inflect for case and number the way the other adjectives do. You'd say la libro or la libroj or mi havas la libron or mi havas la librojn, and the la would keep on staying a la for all eternity."
Ringman suppressed the urge to sing.
"And that, in fact, is the first of the 16 rules of Centaur grammar," Joe informed him. "So now you already know 3 of the rules: (1) the definite article is la, and there is no indefinite article; (2) all nouns end in -o in the nominative singular, to which a -j is added to make it plural and an -n is added to make it accusative; and (3) all adjectives end in -a in the nominative singular, and they must take the same -j and -n endings as the nouns they modify."
"What's the fourth rule?" Ringman asked.
"Numbers," Joe told him. "Get ready for a smattering of brute-force memorization. Unu . . . du . . . tri . . . kvar . . ."
Ringman stretched and blinked the dawn's first rays of sunlight out of his eyes as a friendly voice said to him, "Bonan matenon!"
Ringman turned his head to look. It was Eric who had just said "Good morning" to him in Centaur. His four-legged friend was learning fast. Ringman conjured up the lessons he'd memorized the previous night, and replied, "Bonan matenon, Eriko! Kiel vi fartas?"
"Mi, um," Eric fumbled with the new language, "fartas tre . . . bone."
"Very good!" the paladin congratulated him, temporarily envisioning himself as a teacher as well as a student. That simple greeting, bonan matenon, seemed to break half the rules he'd already learned. It was in the accusative case, yet there was no verb for it to be the direct object of. Josephus had had to explain, carefully, that the phrase was really shorthand for something like Mi deziras ke vi havas bonan matenon, meaning "I want you to have a good morning," and that the words bonan matenon were clearly the direct object in that sentence. Meanwhile, kiel vi fartas? had introduced him to his first correlative, kiel, meaning "how," as well as his second pronoun (vi, meaning "you") and a verb that sounded suspiciously like the Common word "fart" but which in fact only meant "fare." Kiel vi fartas? meant "how do you fare?", which was the quirky way Centaurs asked "how are you?".
But the verbs had actually been a joy to learn. Joe wasn't kidding when he'd said that Centaur had no irregular verbs. Every verb was conjugated in exactly the same way. Furthermore, the system of conjugation was almost painfully simple. To put a verb in the present tense, you added -as to the end, period. It didn't matter whether the subject was in the first person, second person, or third person. It didn't matter whether the subject was singular or plural. You just tacked an -as on the the end of the verb root, and you were done. Mi estas meant "I am," vi estas meant "you are," g^i estas meant "it is," ni estas meant "we are," and ili estas meant "they are."
"I'm surprised," Eric commented. "This speaking Centaur is really easy!"
"Ah ah ah," Joe scolded them, overhearing their conversation. "Ne krokodilu!"
"Oops," Eric apologized. Ne krokodilu literally meant "Don't crocodile," but was Centaur slang for "Don't speak your native language when you should be speaking Centaur." Eric corrected himself, "Um, I mean . . . Parolanta . . . Centawre . . . estas . . . um, facila. Facilega."
"Not bad," came a voice from behind them, familiar to Ringman but totally strange to Eric. "Of course, I would've just verbed the language name and omitted parolanta entirely."
Ringman turned around with a broad smile on his face. "Ridiculous Sword!"
"Heya, dad!" she said, hugging him. "I heard you were trying to move a mountain out here, so I thought I'd see if I couldn't lend a hand."
"Thanks!" Ringman said. "We certainly do have our hands full here. Ever try to feed and house a billion centaurs? It's a logistical nightmare."
Ridiculous Sword shrugged. "Nightmares are only 6 + 6 hit dice."
Ringman slapped his palm across his eyes and pulled it down his face. "Eric," he turned to his centaur friend, "I'd like you to meet my daughter from my first family, Ridiculous Sword. Ridiculous Sword, this is Eric, the first centaur I've ever befriended. Joe, you remember Ridiculous Sword, don't you?"
"Indeed I do," the cleric answered. "She's grown up to be quite beautiful."
"I oughta be," Ridiculous Sword quipped. "I had to use every old pre-Unearthed-Arcana trick in the books to pump my Charisma up to 21."
Joe rubbed his shaggy chin. "Do you ever regret becoming a disgusting character?"
"Actually," Ridiculous Sword began, "Yeah. Yeah, I do. Well, okay, I didn't used to regret it, not when I was at the top of the heap. But I got dethroned from that place of honor so long ago I can hardly remember it any more. I hardly even qualify as 'disgusting' by today's standards. And even when I was on top of the heap, or close to it, it was like being one of those fast-draw gunmen that are going to come into being in the American Wild West — there's always some kid who wants to skewer you on his artifact holy vorpal sharpness thunderbolts etc. weapons, and become the new most-disgusting disgusting character on all of Central Earth. But, you know . . . the riches and character powers and magic items that come with being disgusting sure make it easy to take care of all the amenities of living. And, worse, if I'd never become disgusting, I would never have known what all the fuss was about. I'd have to say that the only thing I would have regretted more than becoming a disgusting character . . . would have been not becoming a disgusting character."
Josephus shrugged. "Once you start down the dark path," he said with a muppet-like accent, "Forever will it dominate your destiny."
Ridiculous Sword rolled her eyes. "So, dad," she ignored the dwarf, "Anything I can do to help out around here?"
"Well, now that you mention it," Ringman considered, "Even with the local villagers' help, we are having a hard time finding enough wild game for a billion centaurs to eat."
"Hrm," she thought. "I could create some meat out of the local mountain ranges with some stone to flesh spells, I suppose. One stone to flesh spell can create up to 9 cubic feet of meat per level of the spellcaster, which means I'd create 441 cubic feet each time I cast it."
"Um," Ringman remembered from his perusal of the Book of Finite Wisdom, "I thought the Second Edition limits you to creating a 3-foot-by-10-foot cylinder of flesh with that spell."
"Un-uh," Ridiculous Sword shook her head. "It says the spell can create such a cylinder; it doesn't say it has to. I think that 10-foot-long fleshy cylinder rule was put in there to help out low-level wizards. Anyway, with my pearls of power, I can cast stone to flesh 400 times — which would take nearly seven hours — and create . . . um, 176-and-a-half thousand cubic feet of flesh. That'd feed a million of your centaurs for one night, maybe two million tops. That's not enough to make a dent in your food shortage. Personally, I can't see any way around this but to have them eat each other."
"What?!" Ringman gasped.
"Sure!" said Ridiculous Sword. "One centaur could feed ten other centaurs for one night. Plus, it'd help with that horrendous overpopulation problem you've got."
"You're advocating cannibalism?!" the paladin asked, incredulous.
"Look," Ridiculous Sword folded her arms. "You knew, or you should have known, going into this that not all of the centaurs would survive. That's the kind of risk you take when you instigate a mass exodus. You knew that if you left them there in the pits, they'd all die, and they'd live like cattle while they were waiting to die, right? So you did a little paladinic cost-benefits analysis, and came to the conclusion that losing some of them in a walk-out was better than losing all of them by letting them continue to live in the pits."
"I was willing to accept a few losses if we were attacked," Ringman explained. "I had no idea we might starve. I swear, I thought that stuff their half-orc feeders carted in was just grass! I didn't know they needed protein, too! My Deity — cannibalism?! There's got to be another way!"
Eric stepped up. "Um," he scratched his head, "Where did the Keepers get all that protein to put in our feed, back when we were in the pits?"
"Tofu," Ridiculous Sword said flatly.
"A high-protein substance made from soybeans. They grow it by the gigabushel in a little field adjacent to the centaur pits. The whole field's enchanted so that a normal year's harvest grows in about a week, and the soybeans are already in tofu form when they're picked."
"Could," Ringman mused, "Could a magic tofu field like that . . . be set up around here?"
Ridiculous Sword shook her head. "Not for at least a year. The enchant a tofu field spell only works on an existing soybean field that's gone through at least one full year's planting and harvesting cycle. However . . . with everyone's attention focused on the centaurs and on the centaur pits themselves, I'll bet you gold pieces to donut-holes that nobody's watching the existing tofu field. I wonder if I couldn't steal some of it for you guys."
"Steal?" Eric worried.
Ridiculous Sword grinned smugly. "I am a 17th-level thief, after all. Now, let's see. A centaur probably needs, oh, let's say a pound of tofu to satisfy one day's protein requirements. That means for a billion centaurs we'd need a billion pounds of the stuff, or about half a million tons. The weight's not a problem — I can lift anything with my Atlas Strength — but the bulk is another matter. At about sixty pounds to the cubic foot, a half million tons of tofu would take up 16 and two-thirds million cubic feet. That's a single cube-shaped block 255 feet on a side. There isn't a backpack built that can hold anything that large. Even a portable hole can only hold a little over 282 cubic feet. If I tried to pick up that much tofu with my hands it would crumble under its own weight."
"So how're you going to transport it?" her father asked.
Ridiculous Sword snapped her fingers. "Of course. A polymorph any object spell. The rules don't give any upper limit as to the size of the object that can be affected. I could put all the tofu in the field together into one enormous lump, then polymorph it into a tiny little tofu cube one inch on a side, bring it here, then cancel the spell. You'll have enough food for a week!"
Ridiculous Sword liked this idea so much, in fact, that she turned to go without saying another word. Just before she kicked in her 61 440 yards per minute outdoor movement rate, however, Ringman caught up with her out of earshot of the others. "Um, honey?"
"Yeah, dad?" the disgusting character replied.
"There's something that's been bugging me." The paladin scratched the back of his neck uncomfortably. Ridiculous sword raised her eyebrows as if to say, "Go on," and Ringman continued: "When you and your sister, um, became disgusting characters, you had to defeat some centaurs and take their four one-million-gold-piece gems in order to do it, right?"
"Uh huh," Ridiculous Sword nodded. In the midst of a billion former centaur slaves, it was now her turn to feel uncomfortable.
"You mother, Sick Sword," Ringman went on, "She once told me that she got the four million experience points from a centaur's four one-million-gold-piece gems by threatening the centaur into dropping its gems and running away. But when I talked to Da Bad Dude a few days ago, he told me that he only got experience points for treasure by fighting something for it."
Ridiculous Sword nodded. "The Dungeon Master got all ticked off one day when some enterprising disgusting characters got a huge chunk of experience points by handing a million-gold-piece gem back and forth amongst themselves. So, he instituted a 'must kill' rule. Nowadays, you can only get experience points for treasure by killing its former owner." She put her hand on Ringman's shoulder. "Don't worry. The must-kill rule was only instituted a few years ago. Neither I, nor my sister, nor mom ever killed a single centaur." She shrugged, "Although I did knock plenty of 'em flat on their backs with psionic blasts."
And without another word, she kicked her boots of speed and her double-movement-speed artifact powers into high gear, and vanished in a sonic boom.
Ringman looked after her, mulling over her answer, and smiled. "I'm very glad to hear that."
The tofu helped tremendously. Ringman could see it in the eyes of his centaur multitudes; they looked renewed, re-enervated, re-readied for the next big challenge. His mastery of the Centaur language was growing every day, as basic familiarity with the language propagated throughout the billion centaur throng. He was now in the habit of greeting not only Eric, but all the other centaurs under his care, with a hearty "Bonan tagon" instead of the usual Common-language "Good day." He was also glad to see that they were getting the hang of their hunting spears. They'd need it all — the Centaur language, hunting skills, and all the self-defense skills they could learn, when the inevitable day came for them to split up into groups of a few million centaurs each, and go off to seek their fortunes in different corners of the continent.
That day would have to come pretty soon, too, Ringman realized. Even now that he could communicate with the local villagers in their own language, the locals were none too pleased at the ecological stresses a billion centaurs were inflicting on their valley. He hoped that the local native centaurs, or Josephus, knew enough about where other centaur tribes were located on the continent that they might be able to draw him a map.
As he gazed out over his herd — or rather, his people — Ringman felt a familiar Atlas-Strength hand on his plate-armored shoulder. "Oh, hi, Unbelievable Sword!" he greeted his grandson. "I thought you said you couldn't be by my side on this mission of mine."
The disgusting character shrugged. "It wouldn't have been right not to check up on you, now would it?"
Ringman smirked. "I thought you had crystal balls for that kind of thing."
"Yeah," Unbelievable Sword admitted, "But they lack the personal touch of a house call. And from what I can tell here, you've done pretty well for a ninth-level by-the-book paladin."
"Well, I had a little help from your mother," the paladin replied, "And from my old priest."
"That Josephus character?" Unbelievable Sword raised an eyebrow Spockishly. "He helped you bring in the tofu?"
"Er, no," Ringman answered, "But he did teach me how to speak Centaur."
Unbelievable Sword rolled his eyes. "Oh, heck, mom or I could have given you that ability by casting one measly tongues spell on you." He thought a moment. "Then again, that wouldn't work if you were standing inside an anti-magic shell."
Ringman put his fists on his hips. "And where am I going to run into an anti-magic shell way out here?"
"Er," Unbelievable Sword winced slightly, "That's the other reason I came here. To warn you. The Townspeople are getting pretty unruly. I might not be able to hold them off much longer. Sooner or later, some disgusting character is going to slip past me, and then —"
As if on cue, a voice behind them shrieked, "HA HAH! AT LAST, WE MEET AGAIN!"
It was a child's voice. Boosted to 120 deciBels.
"Oh, no," Unbelievable Sword groaned, "Not you again!" He motioned for Ringman to get to a safe distance.
"Yes," the 5-year-old boy continued, "It is I, Ludicrous Lance! The most powerful force of chaos and evil in the multiverse! And I'm a billion whillion zillion jillion billion zillion times —"
"Oh, put a sock in it, kid!" the 17-year-old disgusting character interrupted.
"Oh yeah?!" the kid said, flustered, "Well, take this!" He lunged at Unbelievable Sword and stabbed him full-on with his artifact heavy lance. With the way a disgusting character's THAC0 always outweighed his Armor Class, there was no way Ludicrous Lance could miss his equally-matched foe. The lance skewered Unbelievable Sword, as it had the last time they fought, and did 48 556 points of damage. This was almost three times the damage it had done the previous time, but Unbelievable Sword had expected it, due to the increased level-based damage bonus of the weapons master character class as of the Dungeon Master's last decree. It was still far fewer damage points than Unbelievable Sword's 292 034 hit point total.
But then, something happened to Unbelievable Sword that he hadn't reckoned on. Black lightning bolts arced out from where the lance had skewered him, and raced up and down his body, covering him with a sickening, crackling black light. He recognized the special effect, and cursed, "Aw, nuts!"
And then, he died.
Ringman watched in stunned silence as his grandson's lifeless body slumped to the ground. He had no idea how it had happened. Unbelievable Sword was supposed to be the most powerful disgusting character on all of Central Earth. How could his life get snuffed out so quickly?!
His distress turned to fear, however, when he saw Ludicrous Lance turn his attention from his fallen grandson to him.
"You're lawful-good too, aren't you?" the boy grinned evilly. Ringman swallowed hard, wishing the Second Edition rules hadn't robbed him of the cavalier's immunity to fear. He stepped back slowly, eyes riveted on Ludicrous Lance, feeling for the grip of Prometheus in his belt scabbard.
And then, to the shock and amazement of both Ringman and Ludicrous Lance, Unbelievable Sword groaned and got back to his feet, alive as he'd ever been.
Unbelievable Sword pointed at Ludicrous Lance, a deep scowl on his face. "All right," he sneered, "That does it!" He reached both hands across to opposite sides of his weapons belt, as if to draw his sword and dagger, but instead he reached a little lower and pulled out . . . two bundles of three-foot rods.
Each bundle consisted of ten rods tied together, all facing the same direction. He whirled them around on his fingertips with the skill of a 97 000th level weapons master who had quadruple-specialized in rod bundles.
He pointed both rod bundles menacingly at Ludicrous Lance, who had gone into a classic weapons master's defensive stance, and then lunged at the boy. It looked as though he intended to "stab" Ludicrous Lance with the rod bundle in his right hand, but at the last instant he jinked the rods to one side and slammed them into his heavy lance instead. Five of the ten rods twinkled on and winked off in rapid succession, but the sixth made a loud, electric "pop" and seemed to burn out.
And the instant that sixth rod went off, the artifact heavy lance in Ludicrous Lance's right hand ceased to be an artifact.
"Hey!" the boy whined, "What —"
Unbelievable Sword swiftly touched the rod bundle in his left hand to the medium lance in Ludicrous Lance's left hand, before the boy had a chance to react. Seven of this bundle's ten rods twinkled, and the eighth popped and burned out just as the sixth had in the first bundle. And all the magical enchantments of that artifact medium lance evaporated into oblivion with it.
"Hey!!" Ludicrous Lance whined even more loudly. "What gives?!"
Unbelievable Sword twirled the rod bundles around the way a cowboy twirls his guns after a gunfight, and put them back in their holsters. "Rods of cancellation," he explained. "Each rod has a 3 in 20 chance of permanently disenchanting any artifact it touches. So, I touched your artifact weapons with ten rods of cancellation each. One of the ten was bound to roll that lucky 3-in-20 chance. Your lances are now just plain, ordinary, non-magical, non-artifact lances, without so much as a +1 to their names."
The boy started to cry. "You're not playin' fair! I'm tellin' my mom! Waaaaah!" He tucked his now-mundane lances under one arm and ran back toward Town as fast as his boots of speed and his remaining artifacts would carry him.
Ringman was still trying to sort out what-in-Concordant-Opposition had just happened. He pointed a shaky finger at Unbelievable Sword, and stammered, "B-b-but you were dead!"
"I was," Unbelievable Sword nodded Boxleitnerly. "I'm better now."
"How did — how did —" Ringman sputtered, "He killed you in one hit?!"
Unbelievable Sword grunted. "Yeah. His main weapons, like mine, have a whole bunch of magical weapon powers combined. You know, like they combine the powers of a vorpal weapon sword, and a sword of sharpness, and a sword of life stealing, and a hammer of thunderbolts, and a scimitar of speed, et cetera, et cetera. Well, one of their powers is the slaying ability of every kind of arrow of slaying ever made. They're essentially weapons of slaying everything. One hit, and whatever their target is, it dies instantly. With. No. Saving. Throw. Now, back in the days of First Edition, this wasn't a problem, because a scarab of protection gave you a saving throw against magic that normally allowed no saving throw. But the Second Edition Book of Infinite Wisdom changed the wording in the scarab of protection description juuuuuust slightly. The scarab now only gives its wearer a saving throw against spells that normally allow no saving throw. I didn't have any defense against the slaying effect of Ludicrous Lance's Ludicrous Lance." He rolled his eyes. "That'll teach me not to go out without a stoneskin spell in effect on me. Or that new invulnerability to magical weapons spell from the Complete Handbook of Wizard Wisdom."
Ringman still wasn't satisfied. "So how'd you come back to life, then?"
Unbelievable Sword wiggled one of the rings on his right pinky. "Ring of regeneration. It'll bring you back from death unless your body is totally destroyed, or unless the damage that killed you had 'of wounding' in its name. And, the way I see it, that means it also cures the slaying effect of a weapon of slaying." He smiled. "The beauty of this ring is that it'll regenerate missing body parts, too. So even if that brat had scored a natural 20 and done the sharpness limb-lopping routine and the whole vorpal head-chopping bit, I'd eventually grow a new arm and a new head. It wouldn't bring back the experience level I'd've lost from the lance's life stealing power, but I could get that back any old time with a quick restoration spell. Seriously, rings of regeneration are great. You should get one for yourself."
"Uh," Ringman uhed, "I already have a magic ring on each hand."
"So?" Unbelievable Sword asked, then remembered: "Oh yeah. You follow that pitiful little rule in the Book of Infinite Wisdom that says, 'A second ring worn on one hand causes both to be useless,' don't you?"
"Well . . . yeah!" the paladin defended his honor. "And now that the Dungeon Master is insisting that the rules given in the Second Edition Revised are definitive and final, I'm surprised you can get away with wearing more than one ring on each hand!"
Unbelievable Sword shrugged. "The First Edition said we could only wear one magic ring on each hand, too, but that never stopped anybody. I always figured that rule was only intended for non-player characters."
"Non-what?" Ringman asked.
Unbelievable Sword bit his lip, then decided he'd better not go there. "Er, skip it. Look, if you're not going to wear a ring of regeneration, you should at least have a stoneskin spell in effect on you."
"But I —" Ringman began, but Unbelievable Sword was already wiggling his fingers and sprinkling diamond dust on him before he could object. And with the ancient mystical words, "Stoneskin!", Unbelievable Sword turned Ringman's hide into an absolutely utterly one hundred percent indestructable barrier.
"There you go," the disgusting character brushed the remaining dust from his hands. "That'll give you complete and total protection from the next 48 505 plus 1d4 attacks, even if those attacks are vorpal, or sharpness, or wounding, or slaying, or anything else. Just watch out for flame arrow spells, which can shoot one flaming arrow for every 5 experience levels of the caster all at once with no upper limit, 'cause each flaming arrow counts as a separate attack. Oh, and steer clear of any anti-magic shells."
"Uh . . . thanks. I think." Ringman rankled his nose.
"And while we're at it," Unbelievable Sword said, waving his arms and casting another spell while he spoke, "You could probably do with a mind blank spell so that no disgusting characters can home in on you."
"Geez," Ringman worried, "Do you disgusting characters have to go through this same arms-race ritual every day?"
"Only if we don't want 5-year-old brats to down us in a single hit," Unbelievable Sword growled.
Ringman rolled his eyes. "Hmph. Even when you're a victim of the system, you still help it along."
Unbelievable Sword eyed his grandfather warily.
"Oh, you know what I meant by that," Ringman declared. "The whole system is set up so that you're rewarded with tremendous powers for killing things and looting their corpses. You kill something carrying four hundred thousand gold pieces worth of gems, you gain four hundred thousand experience points. And because you're doing it, everybody else has to do it, just to keep up with the Joneses. And because everybody else is doing it, you have to do it even more, to ensure that you stay on top. And in the process, every gem-carrying centaur loses. There's something just . . . plain . . . wrong with this whole set-up! Heck, one of the things I'm kinda hoping for by walking out on strike with the centaurs is that maybe, just maybe, the denizens of Central Earth will wake up and realize that they don't have to play this game! That being disgusting doesn't buy you anything other than bragging rights. Oh, sure, it'll eliminate some of your worries, but I'll bet you your average non-disgusting person isn't worried about disgusting characters trying to play king-of-the-hill with them with trans-lethal artifact weapons. I'll bet your average non-disgusting character doesn't have to worry about forgetting to cast the right spells on himself every morning, or losing his artifacts to someone with a bundle of rods of cancellation, or rolling a '1' on one of those mountains upon mountains of life-or-death saving throws you guys probably have to make on a routine basis."
Unbelievable Sword folded his arms. "Are you finished yet?"
Ringman shook his head, and bared his teeth into the wind with all the drama he could muster. "I won't be finished," he orated, "Until the very rules of the multiverse, which caused all these disgusting characters to proliferate in the first place, are repealed."
A distant rumbling, as if of encroaching thunder, crescendoed across the landscape, and then the biggest, bluest lightning bolt Ringman had ever seen surged straight at him from out of the clear blue sky. Unbelievable Sword saw it, gasped, and saved the paladin's life by doing the only thing he could: he interposed himself between the bolt and Ringman, absorbing it with his own body.
Unbelievable Sword lit up like a blue Christmas tree, every muscle clenched in agony. When finally the bolt had discharged its last, Unbelievable Sword collapsed, motionless, at Ringman's feet, smoke wafting out of his ears.
Alarmed, the paladin knelt down by his grandson and prepared to lay his hands on him, to bestow what little paladinnic healing was within his own ninth-level by-the-book power. But as Ringman looked closer, his eyes opened wide in panic. Unbelievable Sword wasn't merely injured, he was dead. And, worse, that ring of regeneration he'd boasted about such a short time ago wasn't bringing him back to life. Ringman glanced from side to side in a frenzy, looking in vain for anything — anything — that might restore the breath of life to him. My Deity, this was Unbelievable Sword! He was the most disgusting disgusting character of them all! He had almost three hundred thousand hit points! He was 200% resistant to magic, if such a thing was possible. How could one lightning bolt snuff the life out of him?!!
His mind raced. Raise dead? What about that spell? That ought to restore life to him, right? Did he have access to a raise dead spell anywhere? No. Josephus was only sixth level, and a cleric had to be at least tenth level to cast raise dead. Maybe Unbelievable Sword was carrying a scroll of raise dead in one of his portable h—
In a blinding flash of white light, Unbelievable Sword's body disappeared, and in the same instant, a fully alive Unbelievable Sword popped into existence, a little worse for wear but nevertheless standing up, a few feet away.
Unbelievable Sword looked panic-stricken. He pointed at the sky and stammered, "Did you see what color that bolt was?!!"
Ringman stared, dumbfounded. His grandson had just been blasted into an early grave and had come back to life in a matter of seconds, and all he could think about was the color of the lightning bolt that just hit him. "What," Ringman managed to say, "In the Nine Hells are you talking about?!"
Unbelievable Sword stepped up to the paladin until their faces were less than a foot apart, and very quietly, very deliberately annunciated, "It . . . was . . . blue!"
"A blue . . . bolt . . . from the heavens!!" the disgusting character said, making exasperated hand gestures as though he were explaining the obvious to the biggest thick-headed moron in the multiverse.
"Uh," Ringman uhed, "Am I missing something here?"
"That was no lightning bolt spell," Unbelievable Sword explained, making more exasperated hand gestures, "That was a damage bolt! Those things don't occur in nature. They can't be cast by ordinary deities or demigods. They can't even be cast by disgusting characters. Only the Dungeon Master can cast damage bolts!"
"The —" the paladin gulped, "The —"
"That bolt was aimed for you!" Unbelievable Sword continued. "There were enough damage points stuffed into that one bolt to kill you ten thousand times over. After taking that much damage, even a resurrection spell would've been useless to bring you back to life. Your crusade with these centaurs has brought the wrath of the Dungeon Master down on you!!"
"Oh . . ." Ringman gasped, ". . . My . . . Deity!"
Unbelievable Sword lowered his voice again, in all earnestness. "Even your deity won't be able to protect you against the Dungeon Master. Even I won't be able to protect you against the Dungeon Master. You were lucky I was just in the right place to intercept that damage bolt this time."
"How did you manage to come back to life after that bolt?" Ringman asked.
"Oh, easy," Unbelievable Sword shrugged. "I just cast a wish spell and wished myself back to life."
"You cast a wish spell." Ringman stated.
"While you were dead."
"Sure," Unbelievable Sword quipped. "Heck, mom did that once with an ordinary raise dead spell, back before I was even born."
"And why didn't your ring of regeneration bring you back, like it did with that Ludicrous Lance kid?"
Unbelievable Sword rolled his eyes, once again incredulous that his grampa shouldn't already know something so obvious. "Because that was a damage bolt of wounding. Duh!"
Ringman scratched his head. "Wait a minute, I seem to recall that your artifact weapons have 'of wounding' as one of their powers. And Ludicrous Lance basically copied your entire character sheet, so wouldn't that mean that his weapons are 'of wounding,' too?"
"Well, yeah, they are," Unbelievable Sword answered, "Or at least they were until I hit 'em with my rods of cancellation."
"But your ring of regeneration brought you back to life after he hit you with one of them," Ringman noted.
"The 'of wounding' power only means that the damage points inflicted by the weapon can't be healed by magical means," Unbelievable Sword explained. "Any of the other powers that affect the target — vorpal, sharpness, slaying, life stealing, venom, you name it — can be regenerated or undone like normal, regardless of whether the weapon also has a wounding power or not. It was the slaying effect of the Ludicrous Lance that killed me. That damage bolt, though, killed me simply by hitting me with a half a million hit points of damage, and overwhelming my hit point total. That kind of death was affected by the wounding power of the bolt, so my ring of regeneration couldn't touch it."
"Oh," Ringman said, shaking his head again at the morass of combat rules a disgusting character had to deal with.
"Although," Unbelievable Sword pondered, "Even if it hadn't been a damage bolt of wounding, I was still down to more than a hundred thousand hit points below zero. It would have taken two years for the ring of regeneration to heal back that much damage."
Ringman let out a low whistle. "A hundred thousand hit points below zero. No wonder you look so haggard right now."
"Well, yeah," Ringman pointed at his grandson with both hands open. "You look like you're five years older."
Unbelievable Sword thought for a six-second interval, then snapped his fingers. "Oh! That's because I am five years older. I forgot about that rules change. As of Second Edition, a wish spell ages the caster 5 years."
Ringman raised an eyebrow. "Uh oh."
"No matter," Unbelievable Sword grinned. "I wish I were de-aged by ten years," he wished, and poof, he was back to his normal boyish 17-year-old self. "There y'are, that takes care of the 5 years from the wish spell I brought myself back to life with and the extra 5 years from the wish spell I just used to de-age myself."
Ringman groaned uncomfortably.
"Next time," Unbelievable Sword commented, "I'll have to remember to add the words 'and that I were de-aged by five years' to the end of every wish I make." He glanced around at the throng of centaurs still packed shoulder-to-shoulder throughout the valley, and got serious again. "Look. The Dungeon Master learns from his mistakes. Next time, he'll go after you with something even harder to stop than that damage bolt. If you keep going on this damned fool idealistic crusade, sooner or later the DM will strike you down. By defying the Dungeon Master, you're essentially defying the whole multiverse."
"Well, then," Ringman sighed, "Maybe its time somebody did defy the multiverse. I've had to stand up to foes far mightier than I was, many times in the past. And each time, I did it because I knew it was the right thing to do. It's no different this time than it was any of those other times. The exploitation of billions of centaurs is wrong, and I'm not going to let anyone just take them back into the Centaur Pits and turn them into slaves to their experience-point appetites. Ever. Even if the Dungeon Master himself is against me, I have to stand up for what I know is right."
Unbelievable Sword stared at the aging paladin, incredulous. "The rule of one experience point per gold piece worth of treasure acquired from a creature you've slain is one of the basic rules of the multiverse. You've always gone on and on about how your deity wants you to follow the rules, and now here you are, breaking them?!"
"I'm not breaking the rules," Ringman countered, "I'm just not letting any of you disgusting characters abuse them. You can still get experience points for treasure, you just won't have easy access to hundred thousand gold piece gems. While the centaurs are out here, living their own lives, and not crammed into some makeshift dungeon setting, they will be free-willed people just like you and me, instead of randomly generated monsters. That means they don't have to carry treasure type Q if they don't want to. Heck, all the disgusting characters on Central Earth would probably leave the centaurs completely alone, if not for the fact that treasure type Q means 1-4 gems."
Unbelievable Sword leered at him Regisly. "Is that your . . . final answer?"
Ringman nodded. "So long as the Fieldous Guidous to Centralous Earthous Wildlife lists centaurs as having treasure type Q, and so long as that one-x.p.-per-g.p. rule stands on the books, I'll fight to keep the centaurs free."
Unbelievable Sword lowered his head. "Then I can't keep the other disgusting characters off your back for you any more."
"What are you saying?" Ringman asked.
Now it was Unbelievable Sword's turn to sigh. "You're going up against the Dungeon Master. If I help you out, I'd be going up against the Dungeon Master. It won't matter how many hit points I have, or how good my armor class is, or how high my magic resistance is. No amount of experience points or artifact powers will win out against the big DM. I'd be throwing my life away, just like you are."
Ringman stared at his grandson, not saying a word. He felt a hard lump in the pit of his stomach.
Unbelievable Sword frowned and shook his head. "In fact, I don't think any disgusting character would dare to help you now. I doubt that even Ridiculous Sword will be willing to bring you food shipments any more. Sorry, Ringman. Grampa. You're on your own."
With that, the most disgusting disgusting character of them all turned and walked away, so slowly and dejectedly that he was almost moving subsonic. Almost.
And as Ringman watched him vanish in the distance, and heard the last faint echoes of his sonic boom fade into silence, he felt totally, completely alone.
The Intercontinental Proliferation of Disgusting Characters is continued in chapter 8.
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