From their perch on the edge of a cliff looking out to the west, Ringman, Danny, Josephus, and Eric watched ten million centaurs march away into the unknown, while ten million more funnelled through the pass in the Okcidenta Range to their left. At long last, Group One was finally on its way out of the valley and on to a life of its own, with Group Two following close at its heels. And not a moment too soon; even though the recently-freed centaurs had started learning how to hunt, what wild game did exist in the valley could not possibly have sustained them. A few days more, and protein deprivation would have caught up with them once again.
And it would catch up with the other 980 million centaurs, too, unless they also began their exodi in the next few days.
"Well," Ringman commented, sitting atop Warhorse for a better look, "Group One is on their way to Settlement Site One, and in an hour or so, Group Two should be making a right turn and headed for Settlement Site Two. Just ninety-eight more Groups to go."
"Good riddance," Danny replied. "I can't stand their smell."
Ringman smirked without turning to look at his son. If Danny had really felt that way, the kid wouldn't have stuck around. "You know, this really gives me a sense of pride," the paladin commented, "Watching all my little ducklings spread their wings like that."
"Hmph," the youth half-grunted, "That's gotta be a rarity. When was the last time you ever felt like a proud papa?"
"When you were born," his father replied with a twinkle in his eye.
Danny rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on."
"Well, okay," the paladin acquiesced, "I also felt pretty darn proud when Sheila was born. And when she was accepted for paladin training."
Danny looked away.
"And," Ringman finished, "When you decided to stay here."
"Huh?" the newly-three-thousandth-level weapons master looked back at his dad.
"You're a disgusting character now," Ringman noted. "You could have gone anywhere, done anything. If you wanted to, you could have brought most of the other Disgusting Characters in town with you and forced these centaurs back into the centaur pits, and there would have been nothing I could have done to stop you. But instead . . . you're standing here. With me."
"Oh, get off your high horse," the youth said, meaning it in both the literal and figurative senses. He stalked a few yards away and began playing mumblety-peg with his artifact long sword.
"Geez, kid," the long sword rebuffed him, "This is humiliating!"
"Oh, shut up," Danny retorted, picked up the sword and threw it point-first in the ground again.
"Gah," the sword continued. "Here I am, a sword +6 with the powers of 47 specialty magic swords combined —"
Danny interrupted, "Only because you're counting 'dragon slayer' ten times and 'of slaying' twenty-one times."
"— not to mention 17 intelligence," the sword continued unabated, "Eight extraordinary powers, eight special purposes, and twenty-one artifact powers and effects —"
"One of which is only a curse," Danny quipped.
"— a market value of nearly half a million gold pieces, and here you are, chucking me into the dirt. You know, if I weren't solid adamantite, this treatment would wear down my edge so much you'd have to go sharpen me."
Danny picked up the sword by its haft, sneered at it, and shoved it point-first into its scabbard. So there.
"You know," Josephus joined him, "You're not all that different from your father."
"Riiiiiight," Danny mused, absent-mindedly drawing his artifact short sword. "We're not even close to being the same alignment. And, no offense, pastor, but that My Deity of his and yours sickens me. No god that rewards weaklings for staying weak is worth worshipping in my book." He began cleaning his fingernails with the shortsword.
"You may not share his alignment or his god," the dwarven cleric replied, "But you do share his level of commitment to your ideals. You wouldn't be staying here, in open defiance of a foe more powerful than anything in the multiverse, if that weren't true."
The youth scraped his short adamantite blade against the stubble of his five-o'clock shadow, turning Joe's words over in his head. "Well," he began slowly and in a low voice, "The Dungeon Master does sound like a big jerk."
From some yards off, Ringman, who had been making idle chit-chat with Eric, suddenly jerked his head from side to side and furrowed his brow. "Something's not right here," he announced. He stared intently back toward the valley for a bit, then pointed to where he was looking and with eyes wide said, "I'm detecting evil within 60 feet in that direction."
Eric looked to where he was pointing, but saw nothing.
Joe looked to where he was pointing, but saw nothing.
Danny looked to where he was pointing, and gasped. "It's an ethereal mummy! Damn, that Dungeon Master is one touchy bastard!" Danny transferred the short sword to his left hand with the lightning-quick reflexes of a 25-Dexterity weapons master, reached into his portable hole with his now-free right hand, and pulled out a nearly shapeless lump of black stone an inch or so high. "No time to let the obsidian Steed grow to full size," he commented, shoving the stone between his legs as though he were riding an inch-high horse, then commanded: "Go ethereal!"
Danny, his lump of obsidian, and his short sword instantly sidestepped out of the prime material plane.
Although Danny was still standing on the same spot he was an instant ago, his newly ethereal state meant that he could neither be seen nor touched by any creature still enjoying a material existence. To the eyes of Ringman, Eric, and Joe, Danny looked as though he had simply disappeared. But the 9th-level paladin and the 6th-level cleric, seasoned adventurers that they were, knew better. Ringman cupped his left hand to his ear; he couldn't be sure, but it seemed as though he could actually hear muffled whispers of the exchange going on on the ethereal plane, as though he were listening in on events a half a mile away. He heard what sounded like the sepulchral groan of the undead, then Danny's voice yelling, "Eat adamantite!", then a horriffic wail followed immediately by an unmistakable BOOM! At that instant, the air where Ringman had been pointing a moment before burst into crimson-white radiance, revealing an ethereal explosion so gargantuan and yet so concentrated that it was actually visible.
After all, 1557 damage points could produce quite a light show on any plane.
Danny re-emerged into the physical universe 24 seconds later, blowing the smoke off of his artifact long sword. "Hah. The poor mummy never even saw it coming."
Ringman stared at his son in confused amazement. "There really is such a thing as an ethereal mummy? But . . . but how did you even see it?"
"Easy," the youth gloated, "I have a detect invisibility spell cast on me with permanency."
Ringman's brow furrowed even further, if such a thing was possible. "But that kind of application of a permanency spell requires you to cast the spell on yourself!"
"It does?" Danny worried.
"You bet it does!" his father answered. "Look up permanency under eighth-level Wizard spells in the Second Edition Revised Book of Finite Wisdom if you don't believe me."
Danny shrugged, "Oh. Well, then, I must have cast it on myself."
"But you're a pure weapons master!" Ringman insisted. "You're not any Wizard class, and you've never been any Wizard class. How did you cast both detect invisibility and permanency?"
"Uh . . . I read 'em off a scroll?" Danny half-answered.
Ringman shook his head. "Impossible. Only Wizards can read scrolls of Wizard spells. Well . . . them, plus thieves and bards starting at tenth level. But never any of the Warrior classes!"
"Um, uh . . ." Danny stammered, then lit up as he snapped his fingers. "A book of infinite spells! Yeah, sure, that's it! That's the ticket! Anybody can use a book of infinite spells! That must've been how I got all the different spells that a permanency spell lets you make permanent."
Ringman went over such a scenario in his mind. "All of them? So . . . you got ahold of a book of infinite spells where the first page happened to be a detect invisibility spell, and the second page just by chance happened to be a permanency spell, and then the third page also happened to be one of the spells that could be made permanent, and then since you're not allowed to go backwards through a book of infinite spells, the fourth page also just by sheer coincidence happened to have a permanency spell on it, and then —"
"Well," his son mused, "Maybe I used two books of infinite spells. Book number 1 had permanency in it, and I left it open to that page, and book number 2 had comprehend langauges, detect disease, detect evil, detect good, detect invisibility, detect life, detect magic, infravision, past life, protection from cantrips, protection from evil, protection from good, protection from hunger and thirst, protection from normal missiles, protection from paralysis, read magic, tongues, and unseen servant. Uh, in that order. And book number 1 never happened to automatically flip to the next page even though I cast it 18 times. Or if it did, the next page also happened to have a permanency spell on it."
Ringman rolled his eyes. "Gee, what are the odds!"
Danny grinned. "It beats casting 18 permanency spells under my own power, and losing 18 points of Constitution in the process."
"What I'd like to know is," Joe interrupted, "What good does it do you to have a permanent read magic spell, if you can't use Wizard scrolls anyway?"
"There's lots of other things you can do with read magic!" Danny retorted.
"Like?" the dwarven cleric pressed.
"Well," the youth scratched the back of his head, "Like, um — like reading a Wizard's spell book!"
"Which you can't use either," Joe reminded him.
Danny pointed a half-hearted threatening finger at the cleric. "You are really asking for a psionic blast right now, you know that? Here I go and save your butt from an ethereal mummy, and —"
"HAH!" shrieked a child's voice, boosted to 120 deciBels.
All four of them turned and looked, in horror, at the five-year-old who'd just crashed their party.
"You've got lots worse problems to worry about than some stupid ethereal mummy!" the kid proclaimed. "I, Ludicrous Lance, intend to wipe you all out, 'cause I'm chaotic evil! Wah ha ha ha ha! Now taste the wrath of my artifact Ludicrous Lances!" He drew two lances and set them both on their highest skewering setting.
"Those . . . those lances . . ." Ringman began, staring in half-shock at the magical weapons the boy was wielding. "But I thought my grandson neutralized your lances' artifact powers!"
"I bought new ones!" the child explained.
"Stand back," Danny said, positioning himself between his three companions and the newly-arrived menace. "I'll handle this."
"But he's ninety-seven thousandth level!" Ringman hissed. "You're only three thousandth! You're no match for him!"
"Don't worry, dad" Danny whispered over his shoulder, "I've got a couple of aces up my sleeve." He glanced down at his artifacts. "Or should I say, on my sleeve." He lowered his brow, brandished his artifact long sword in his right hand and his artifact short sword in his left hand as menacingly as a three thousandth level weapons master could, and shouted "Eat adamantite!" as he launched himself at his munchkin-sized foe.
"Hah, you dweeb face," the boy countered as Danny closed to within striking distance, "My weapons are longer than yours and I rolled initiative! And I do more damage in a single attack than you have hit points! Die!!" He thrust his artifact heavy lance inexorably toward Danny's midsection . . . and missed.
The boy stared in stunned silence. "What?!? How the Tartarus could I miss?! You're only three thousandth level! My THAC0 with the Ludicrous Lance is minus ninety-seven thousand and three! I didn't roll a 1! What's going on here?!?"
Danny grinned and chortled, "The Teeth of Dahlver-Nar Rule."
"Huh?!?" the lad replied, utterly confused.
"You can add as many artifact powers to an item as you want, at a cost of 5000 gold pieces each," Danny recited the rule to him.
"The Book of Artifact Wisdom, Table 33, Verse 1," Danny explained. "'Grant an Armor Class bonus of 2 to the user.' It's one of those artifact powers that are available for 5000 gold pieces a pop. Before all the centaurs went away, I had accumulated nearly a billion-and-a-half gold pieces worth of gems. So, I decided to spend a measly 250 million of those gold pieces," he patted his artifact bracer of defense, "And buy the Table 33, Verse 1 power fifty thousand times."
Ludicrous Lance's jaw dropped open. "That would bring your armor class down below -100,000! You'd be unhittable!" He conked himself on the head with the butt of his lance. "Why the Hell didn't I think of that?!"
Before Ludicrous Lance could answer his own rhetorical question, Danny swung his long sword around in a wide arc, maneuvered it around every parrying motion Ludicrous Lance could bring to bear, cut inside every Armor-Class-increasing magical barrier the little boy had in place, and slashed his long sword's blade straight into Ludicrous Lance's flesh! Ludicrous Lance would have taken 1557 damage points, not to mention being instantly slain by the sword's various arrow of slaying powers, were it not for the stoneskin and invulnerability to magic weapons spells he had up.
Ludicrous Lance was flabbergasted. "And how the Pandemonium did you just now manage to hit me, when I have a -32 419 Armor Class?!!"
Danny shrugged and patted his artifact bracer of defense again. "Table 22, Verse 2. 'Grant a +1 bonus to the user's THAC0.'"
"Don't tell me," Ludicrous Lance rolled his eyes, "You bought that power fifty thousand times too."
Danny nodded smugly.
"Well, it won't help you," Ludicrous Lance countered. "I've got stoneskin and invulnerability to magic weapons cast on me. And you don't. You can hit me as many times as you want, and I won't take even one little damage point."
And a good thing, too, Danny thought. If Ludicrous Lance's artifact bracer was anything like Danny's, it almost certainly had the artifact power from Table 28, Verse 7: "Inflict an equal amount of damage upon any creature that inflicts non-spell damage upon the user."
"And furthermore," Ludicrous Lance bragged on, "I can still hit you if I roll a natural twenty. Seeing as how I get 122 attacks per minute, I should be able to score a hit on you an average of once every 9.836 seconds! And I do more damage points with one hit than your whole hit point total! Plus my Ludicrous Lance and my Other Ludicrous Lance both have the powers of every arrow of slaying, so you'll be, like, double dead!"
"In which case, I'd better even the odds," Danny smirked, raising his artifact shortsword high above his head. "ANTI-MAGIC SHELL!"
Ludicrous Lance gasped as a sphere of absolute non-magicality expanded out from Danny's sword and enveloped the punked-out teen, surrounding him in an utterly magic-dead zone. Artifacts would work inside that spherical shell, but no other magic spell or item would. Ludicrous Lance's permanent potions would be useless, as would his permanent spells — and those stoneskin and invulnerability to magic weapons spells he'd cast upon himself. Even Mordenkainen's disjunction, the one and only spell that could affect an anti-magic shell, wouldn't help him because the teen-aged punk had 200% magic resistance just like he did. He swallowed hard . . . but then, as he looked at the sword at the center of the anti-magic shell, his eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute," he noted, "You cast that spell from your artifact! That means it would have been cast at only 20th casting level. And that means that its area of effect only covers a 20-foot diameter sphere! All my spells and magic items will still work so long as I'm more than 10 feet away from you!"
Danny took a few menacing steps toward the five-year-old. "A guy can do a lot of damage in ten feet." He stalked ever-closer. "And since my artifact weapons will still have all their powers inside the 'shell, they can still instantly slay you with a single melee hit. So long as I'm standing over you, neither your invulnerability to magic weapons spell, nor your stoneskin spell, nor your ring of regeneration will be able to save you."
Ludicrous Lance glanced around frantically, searching his disgusting-character-sized inventory for some trinket that might get him out of this jam. None of his ordinary magic items would be of any use against an anti-magic shell, but maybe one of his artifacts—
"Aha!" the five-year-old yelped, pressing a few hidden buttons on his Bracer of Ludicrous Defense, "I cast stoneskin from my Bracer! It's one of its artifact powers! And since an artifact cast the spell, and not me, it'll work inside your anti-magic shell too!"
"Oh no it won't!" Danny retorted. "According to Dragon and Dragrace magazine, issue 156, page 55, while artifacts do function inside an anti-magic shell or the anti-magic ray of a beholder, any spell-like effects they produce will be suppressed." He folded his arms smugly.
"Hah!" Ludicrous Lance shot back, "I've read that article too! But guess what? The artifact power to cast stoneskin once per day comes from the Book of Artifact Wisdom, Appendix B, Table 20. Every other table in that appendix, except for table 20, lists all the spells an artifact can cast in italics, like they're supposed to be. But for whatever reason, none of the 'spells' in table 20 are printed in italic type! And you heard what the Dungeon Master said: the names of all spells and magic items have to be in italics. That means the ability to cast stoneskin that my artifact gives me can't be a spell or spell-like effect! Therefore, it will operate inside an anti-magic shell!"
Danny glared at the kid, dumbfounded. "That's got to be the stupidest excuse I've ever heard!"
"Yeah, well tough toonies!" Ludicrous Lance put on his smuggest air. "Whether you like it or not, the rule still stands!" He stuck out his tongue.
"Hmph," Danny grudgingly yielded the point. "Well, unfortunately for you, your artifact would've cast stoneskin at 20th casting level, just like my anti-magic shell. Which means it'll only protect you against 10 attacks."
"10 plus 1d4 attacks!" Ludicrous Lance corrected him. "Don't forget my extra 1d4!"
"And don't you forget," Danny reminded him, "That my +50 000 bonus to THAC0 and +100 000 bonus to Armor Class were also bestowed on me by one of my artifacts, so I'll still hit you on a natural 2-20 while you'll only hit me on a natural 20. And figuring that each of us will be able to attack the other the same number of times per minute, you'd only win this fight if you can manage to roll a natural 20 on your to-hit before I roll eleven (plus 1d4) natural non-1's. So you'd better ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"
Ludicrous Lance thought for a second, then said, "Sure, why not!" and stabbed at Danny with the artifact not-quite-as-heavy lance in his left hand. The rattle of an otherworldly 20-sided die roll filled the air for a split-second, then: "HOT DAMN! I rolled a natural twenty!! That means you take 48 569 damage points, are instantly slain, get decapitated, lose a limb, and take a level drain! Fall down, you're dead!"
Danny folded his arms. "No I'm not."
"Yes you are!" the five-year-old insisted.
Danny shook his head. "No I'm not."
"YES YOU ARE!!" the little boy whined, jumping up and down and stamping his feet.
"Did I forget to mention," Danny calmly informed him, "That earlier today, as part of my daily preparedness ritual, I also cast stoneskin from my artifact?" He patted the bracer on his arm once more for emphasis.
Ludicrous Lance stood there with his mouth open for an instant, then did the math in his head. Even with every missed attack he'd make stripping away one attack's worth of Danny's stoneskin protection, the odds were now stacked so heavily in Danny's favor that it would be suicide for him to continue. He could only drawl, "Ohhhhhh crap."
And with that, Ludicrous Lance dashed away as fast as his eight double-movement-speed-on-foot artifact powers would carry him (kicking in his boots of speed, too, once he was outside the short radius of Danny's anti-magic shell).
"Woo hoo!" Danny held both artifact swords up high over his head, letting the sun glint off them. "I win!"
Ringman stared at his son in stunned disbelief. "My Deity, you did it! You bested an enemy that had over 32 times as many experience levels as yourself!"
"Over 64 times as many levels," Danny gloated, "If you count his mage levels separately from his weapons master levels." He watched the dust trail of his foe recede into the distance, and rubbed his chin. "Then again, I should probably finish him off. Otherwise, he might just go back to the Black Magic Market for Black Market Magic, plunk down 250 million gold pieces worth of his own gems, and buy 50000 increments of that +1-THAC0-bonus artifact power for his bracer of defense. I mean, now that he knows that trick. My anti-magic shell still has nearly its full 200 minutes of time left on the meter, so I might as well put it to good use against him while I can. I'll be back later, dad!" And without another word, he sped off in hot pursuit of the most disgustingly powerful five-year-old boy on Central Earth.
"But —" Ringman began. His boy was already out of earshot before he could get the next word off.
Eric stared at the paladin. "Is your personal life always this exciting?"
Ringman shrugged. "Well, it used to be."
"I'm worried," blurted Joe the Cleric.
Ringman rolled his eyes. "We were just attacked by an ethereal mummy and a 97-thousandth level disgusting character, and now you're finally worried?"
"Sure," the dwarf explained. "If Ludicrous Lance decided to come to the valley and harass us, maybe other disgusting characters are on their way too. My Deity! What if Fantastic Falchion decides she wants to mow us down? Or Horrendous Halberd? Or Bletcherous Belaying Pin?"
"Bletcherous Belaying Pin?!" Ringman mouthed, squinting in disbelief at his dwarven pastor. He didn't know which was worse: using a belaying pin as one's main weapon, or having "Bletcherous" as one's first name.
"I've got to warn the centaurs down in the valley," Josephus resolved. "If we put 'em on the look-out for disgusting characters, we'll have that much more lead time if a disgusting character does attack." He looked down the long hillside stretching down to the vast, sprawling, centaur-choked valley below. "Um . . . Ringman, can I use your warhorse? His horseshoes of speed'll get me down there much faster than I can run."
Ringman puzzled. "I thought dwarves were terrified of horses."
Joe shook his head and made "tsk tsk" noises. "We may be a trifle dubious and wary of horses, but terrified? That's just an urban myth, invented by some two-bit screenwriter. What's next, are you're going to tell me that you believe in the Scepter of Gold Dragon Control too? Or in dust that lets a low-level mage cast magic missile and dimension door without verbal components?"
Ringman scratched that particular movie off his mental list of reliable sources. "Okay," he acquiesced, handing over Warhorse's reins, "Just be sure to bring him back in one piece. Warhorse and I go waaaaaaay back."
"Thanks," the cleric said, hoisting himself into the saddle. "Giddyap!"
Ringman watched his old warhorse and his older friend depart down the side of the mountain, dwindling into the distance until they were lost from view.
"Well," the paladin patted Eric's half-man-half-horse shoulder, looking around at the otherwise-empty hilltop, "It looks like it's just you and me now, kid."
And right on cue, a mellifluous yet threatening voice interrupted from beyond the cliff's edge: "I wouldn't say that, old chum!"
Gasping and thoroughly confused, Ringman inched forward to get a look past the edge of the cliff. And as he did so, the head, the torso, and finally the legs of his new guest came into view one-by-one. The man stood forty feet beyond the edge of the cliff, and since the cliff edge cut off Ringman's view at the man's knees, he looked as though he were suspended in midair. He wore a shimmering, silvery coat of chainmail, along with a backpack, a stack of glowing magical helms, and several sheathed swords which dangled from his belt. A pouch dangled from his belt, too, with writing on it too small to be made out from this distance. He presented his outstretched palms to Ringman and smirked as if to say, "Look at me!" But nothing could have prepared Ringman for the man's visage. He had the clean-shaven lantern jaw, the blue eyes, and the blond hair of a Hitler youth, except that Hitler hadn't been invented yet.
"Peter Perfect!" the bearded paladin exclaimed.
"In the flesh," the clean-shaven paladin boasted, and with an almost imperceptible command gesture from his outstretched palms, he began to rise. Slowly. Inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter, the bottoms of his legs came into view, then his boots of elvenkind (worn on top of his boots of speed), then his boots of elvenkind's soles, and finally the thing that was holding him suspended in midair to begin with. "How do you like my new warhorse?" he quipped. He was standing on an adamantite-alloyed full-plate-barding saddle, which had been thrown across the enormous backbone of a skeleton. A skeleton with a 146-foot-long tail, huge flapping leathery wings, four clawed legs, a prehensile neck, a terrifying jagged-toothed skull — and baleful, glowing eyes.
"A dracolich?!?" Ringman gawked at Peter's "warhorse."
"I call her 'Fluffball'," the blond-haired paladin told Ringman.
"A DRACOLICH?!?!!" Ringman gawked even harder.
"Sure! You got a problem with that?" Peter Perfect asked, delighting in his age-old rival's dumbfounded amazement.
"But . . . but . . ." Ringman stammered, ". . . but, dracoliches are evil!"
"Not this one!" Peter patted his mount's shoulderblades. "She's based on a gold dragon. They're lawful-good." He glanced upward in thought for a second, searching his memory for something else to gloat about. Oh yes: "Of course, she wasn't just any old gold dragon, she was a great wyrm gold dragon. Highest age category. Best hit points and breath weapon damage. No reason my warhorse shouldn't be the best!"
Ringman still could not, would not believe that a dracolich could be made out of anything but an evil dragon, let alone be allowed as the summoned mount of a paladin. He closed his eyes and chanted, "This is not happening, this is not happening," firmly disbelieving in the draconic skeleton that was landing beside Eric and himself on the hilltop. He peeked through one eye in the hope that his disbelief had made the terrifying creature vanish, but it was still most definitely there. 'Curse my paltry 10 Intelligence!' he thought, hoping that he'd merely missed his disbelieve roll and that the dracolich really was an illusion.
Peter Perfect dismounted and trudged toward his old bearded rival, his short-handled Axe of the Dwarvish Lords brandished menacingly in his left hand. Ringman gasped — illusory dracolich or real dracolich, Peter needed only that artifact axe to slice one of his arms off. He instinctively drew Prometheus from its scabbard, pointing its green glowing tip at his approaching adversary. "Stay back!" he warned.
Peter, though, grinned at the sight. "Well, well, now! Prometheus, old buddy!" He extended his empty, double-gauntleted right hand. "Long time no see!"
"Peter?" the long sword perked, pulsing a brighter green with each syllable. "Peter Perfect, it is you, it is you!" With a burst of telekinetic self-propulsion, the sword jerked itself out of Ringman's hand and flew to the blond-haired paladin, covering his face with kisses in the way that only a holy sword can. "Oh, Peter, it's been so long! How I've missed being held in your titan-Strength right hand! How I've longed for those times when we'd go out and hack all manner of creatures into tiny bits!"
"Hey, hey, easy there, Prome!" Peter calmed Prometheus, grasping the sword's haft so that it assumed its rightful place in his right hand. "It's good to be together with you again, too."
Recovering from the shock of this unanticipated, but not altogether surprising, turn of events, Ringman pulled out the one remaining magical melee weapon in his arsenal — his dagger of throwing +4 — and quickly threaded his left arm through the straps of his shield +4. "Stay back!" he warned a second time, trying to wave the dagger menacingly and failing.
Peter Perfect continued trudging toward Ringman, his eyes narrowed to a predator's slits, his hard-set jaw not uttering a single word for a change. Ringman's knees quaked despite himself; he wished that paladins still had the old cavalier class's immunity to fear. He swallowed hard. "Wait . . . wait a minute," the ninth-level by-the-book paladin found the words, "How the Concordant Opposition did you come back from the dead?"
Peter smirked, still whittling away at the gap between them. "I had a little help from a couple of old friends of mine. Maybe you remember 'em. The one who actually brought me back to the land of the living was a cute little diamond-haired half-elf who used to wear a shuriken around her neck while she was alive."
Ringman gasped. "Omnion?!"
Peter nodded smugly. "Twenty-eight years without her spell books, and she still had a limited wish memorized. She's quite a lady . . . er, if you're into that whole lawful-evil thing, that is. Oh, and speaking of lawful-evil, I understand the other old friend of mine who helped me out is someone you ran across rather recently."
"Huh?" the bearded paladin wrinkled his brow.
"Oh, come come now," Peter tut-tutted him, "Who in Hell do you think would have the clout to bring Omnion and I together? Who do you think could strike the kind of deal that would get Omnion to waste a whole post-mortem seventh-level spell on little ol' me? Who," Peter levelled his gaze, "Do you think," he set his Axe of the Dwarvish Lords aside on one of his belt hooks, "Would give me THIS?" He snatched the pouch that was dangling from his belt and held it before Ringman's face so that the writing on its side was unmistakable. It read, in sinister block type: "EVIL SEEDS."
Ringman's eyes bulged out as he remembered. "Tiamat!"
"Everyone's favorite chromatic dragon goddess," Peter finished, replacing the pouch of evil seeds on his belt so that it still lay within easy reach.
"Tiamat?" Ringman shook his head. "And Omnion? Why would either of them go to so much effort to bring you back?"
"To get rid of you," Peter Perfect sneered.
"Muh . . . muh . . ." Ringman half-groaned, half-yelped.
"Now, I could just run you through with Prometheus and be done with it," Peter explained, marching still closer as Ringman started to back up. "Or, heck, I could just have Fluffball bite you in half and not even dirty my hands with you. But what's the fun in that? I'd rather see you suffer first. In the worst way possible." He opened the pouch at his side and took out a handful of the Evil Seeds. They came with their own diabolical music and seemed almost to glow with vile blackness. "With these seeds, I can instantly make any creature turn evil. Even you, Ringboy. That'd really be something, wouldn't it? Evil Ringman. Heh. Even that wussy Deity of yours would abandon you. But that wouldn't be nearly as much fun as using these seeds on him!"
With that, Peter Perfect hurled the handful of Tiamat's Seed of Evil past Ringman, so that they all landed squarely on the centaur standing behind him.
"Eric!" Ringman barked in alarm as he whirled to face his centaur friend.
"Aiiiiii!" the centaur screamed, staring in horror at the changes being wrought to his body by the touch of those seeds. His lustrous spotted coat and gently tanned skin instantly turned into a mottled patchwork of fiery red and jet black. Small horns sprouted from either side of his head. The silky brush of his tail congealed into a black, furless, prehensile whip with a barb on the end. And his hooves became cloven.
He was now an evil centaur.
"Lemme at 'im! Lemme at 'im!" Prometheus yelled, pulling himself point-first toward this new Dark Centaur so hard that he nearly escaped from Peter Perfect's grip.
"Ah ah ah, Prometheus!" Peter scolded the holy sword. "We're not gonna kill it together. You're gonna kill it with him!" He lunged forward, grabbed Ringman's right hand so quickly and so forcefully that Ringman dropped his dagger of throwing +4, and thrust the handgrip of Prometheus into Ringman's palm. The sword practically welded itself in place in the lower-level paladin's hand.
"You've gotta be kidding me!" Ringman spat. "Eric is my friend, evil or no! You can't make me kill him!"
"Wanna bet?" Peter asked, and with one swift motion drew his hammer of thunderbolts with his now-free right hand and smashed Ringman in the side with it for 50 damage points. (Plus another 10 damage points from his ring of shocking grasp, thrown in for good measure.)
"Arrrrrrrgh!" Ringman reeled in pain. "How the Tartarus did you hurt me just now, when my grandson cast a stoneskin spell on me?!"
"Didn't you read the Book of High-Level Campaigns Wisdom?" Peter Perfect reminded him. "Stoneskin spells are now limited in duration to 24 hours. Of course, all the other characters out there are perfectly willing to go merrily on their way, ignoring any rules from the Book of High-Level Campaigns Wisdom they don't like, but not you, no no no no, mister Goody Two-Boots. You force yourself to follow every little inconvenient rule in the book, don't you. You always think you've got to play the straight and narrow. So — sorry! The stoneskin spell Unbelievable Sword cast on you ran out 24 hours after he cast it."
Ringman clutched his smashed side and dropped to his knees. But it wasn't just the pain that dropped him to his knees. Something else was fighting him. Something else was taking over, imposing its own will upon his injured body.
"Since you're 9th level with 79 total hit points," Peter explained, "Those 60 hit points you just lost reduced your personality score by 5. Even if your personality score was high enough to resist Prometheus's will before, it's well within the sword's domination range now."
"Oh no," Ringman's voice shook. "Run, Eric!"
But the newly-evil centaur was too dazed and confused to run — and Ringman's body, a mocking puppet under the holy sword's control, stood up and charged at his dear companion. Ringman peered out from his own eye sockets in disbelief as his own unwilling sword-arm swung the green glowing blade in the deadly arc he had practiced so often before, and connected squarely with Eric's left shoulder. The only hope he held out was that centaurs had 4 hit dice, which meant an average of 18 hit points; and maybe, just maybe, his +5 damage bonus from Strength, combined with Prometheus's +6 rating and the base d12 damage of a longsword used against a large opponent, might not be enough to kill his friend in one blow.
But that hope vanished instantly when he saw the bright green pulse of light Prometheus emitted when it struck. Centaurs were normally of chaotic alignment. With Tiamat's seeds turning him evil, Eric was now officially chaotic-evil. And that meant a holy sword did an extra 10 damage points to him. The centaur stiffened, emitted one last cut-off groan, and slumped to the ground dead.
Ringman nearly hyperventilated looking at his fallen comrade. "Eric!!" he wailed, and fell to his knees — this time of his own volition.
Peter knelt so that he could speak directly into Ringman's ear. "Oh, but you're not done yet, paladin. Now you get to search his body for treasure."
"What?!" Ringman blinked.
"Sure!" Peter said, scooting over to Eric's corpse and pointing to its belongings as though he were showing off the grand prize on a game show. (Even though game shows hadn't been invented yet.) "You know the drill: hack up the monster, steal its treasure, and proceed on to the next room! It's a tradition as old as the hills!"
"Eric," Ringman whispered, shaking his head in stunned silence. Then, he gasped — his legs were coming to life on their own again. Prometheus was still dominating him! He stood up, jerkily, like a starship captain under the telekinetic control of Plato's stepchildren, and blundered toward Eric's corpse. He watched his left hand let go of his shield's strap and rummage through the paraphernalia that Eric had strapped to his back. "Prometheus," he addressed his holy sword, sweat beading on his brow, "You've already made me kill him; don't make me defile his body too!"
"Hey, it's like Peter said," the sword shrugged in that way that only sentient long swords can. "Once you hack up the monster, you've gotta steal its treasure. Especially if it's a chaotic-evil monster."
At that moment, his left hand grasped something in Eric's belongings and raised it to eye level. Ringman's eyes bulged out in surprise. "That's a . . . that's a standard-issue centaur's gem pouch!"
"But of course!" Peter Perfect grinned with folded arms.
"But . . . but . . . but Eric wasn't carrying any gems!"
Peter raised one blond eyebrow. "Really?"
"Of course he wasn't!" Ringman explained. "All my centaurs know that carrying gems would spell instant death."
"Ah," Peter smirked, "But after I threw those Evil Seeds on him, he wasn't one of 'your' centaurs anymore. He was an entirely new monster. And as such, we got to roll for its treasure all over again!"
"That's ridiculous!" Ringman blurted.
"There's no need to bring your daughter into this," Peter replied, cueing in on her name.
"Huh?" Ringman took a second to figure it out, then: "No no no! I mean, it's unbelievable! Er, no, wait, it's ludicrous— no, I mean, it's disgus— uh, it's sick— no, no, it's gross—" Gah! Jeez! Was every outrageous word in the dictionary also the name of someone he knew?!
Peter interrupted, "And I'm sure all of them are watching us right now in their mirrors of mental prowess or their crystal balls."
Ringman remembered something about Unbelievable Sword having cast a mind blank spell on him before he left, then he recalled that mind blank spells only lasted for 24 hours, just like stoneskin spells did.
"Not that they're going to do anything more than just watch us," Peter continued. "They're too scared of crossing the Dungeon Master, aren't they? So go on. Why don't you open that gem pouch?"
Once more, Prometheus took command of Ringman's limbs, and the paladin watched in horror as his own fingers opened evil-Eric's gem pouch, revealing . . . four one-hundred-thousand gold piece gems!
"I decided to roll his treasure for you," Peter explained. "But you get to take them."
Ringman shook his head violently. He knew what would happen the instant he scooped those flawless baubles into his hand. "I'm not taking them."
"Come on," Peter knelt by Ringman's ear once again, his voice soft but intense, "It's four hundred thousand gold pieces. Right there for the taking! And that means four hundred thousand experience points . . . for you! All for you! Why, with your 10% experience point bonus from your high Strength score, you'd be tenth — no, eleventh level, instantly!"
"And give up everything I've ever fought for?" Ringman spat. "Not a chance!"
But his holy sword had other plans. Ringman could feel his left hand start to creep over the top of the pouch. He fought to keep it still. Sweat poured from his face. "No! Prometheus! Don't make me do this!!"
Ringman, the disgusting character. Oh my Deity! The thought repulsed him more than any other thought he'd ever had. Better to lose his life, better to lose his soul, than to become something so vile! Yet that was exactly what Prometheus was pushing him toward. His left hand was barely an inch from the gems inside the pouch, and no amount of musclepower or willpower Ringman could bring to bear was enough to keep that hand at bay.
But the right hand, the hand that was holding Prometheus, the hand that Prometheus wasn't paying attention to . . .
Ringman summoned up every ounce of vitality he had left, and with a Herculean effort flung the fingers of his right hand apart. The sentient holy sword tumbled blade-first to the ground; and Ringman, free at last from the weapon's control, flung the gem pouch as far away as his 18/92 strength left arm would let him.
Peter Perfect stared at his old rival, dumbfounded.
Ringman fell to his hands and knees from exhaustion. His heart was racing a mile a minute, he had to work like mad to catch his breath, and his side still ached from the scars of Peter's warhammer blow; but he was free. "Never," he croaked between breaths. "I'll never join the dark side."
Peter scowled at him. "So be it, paladin." He snatched Prometheus from the ground. "If you will not be turned," he cocked his sword arm back, "Then you will be destroyed!"
And with that admonition, the blond-haired paladin's face distorted into a murderous sneer, and he rammed the green glowing holy longsword's blade point-first through Ringman's chest.
There were more than enough damage points in that blow to finish off what was left of Ringman. The bearded, ninth-level, by-the-book paladin tried to grunt but was cut off by the sickening, choking, gurgling sound of his own blood welling up in his throat and trickling out of his mouth; and at last the darkness swirled about his eyes as he fell, limp, onto the dust.
Satisfied for the moment, Peter pulled Prometheus free of the dead Ringman's chest. The blade was smeared with paladin blood. "Uh . . ." the sword commented, "You know, I kinda feel a little bad about this. I mean, he was my wielder for a while, and, well, you know, I'm a holy sword and I just killed a paladin."
"No you didn't," Peter countered.
"What do you mean, I didn't?!" the long sword retorted. "I just inflicted 43 damage points on Ringman, not counting the extra 8 damage points you rolled for your ring of shocking grasp — and he only had 19 hit points left. If that doesn't count as killing someone, then I'm a rapier's uncle!"
"Ah," Peter noted, "But that doesn't mean you killed a paladin! I'll bet you gold pieces to donut-holes that that last transgression Ringman made was enough to strip him of his paladinhood."
"What transgression?!" the sword asked, thoroughly confused.
"Paladins are supposed to vanquish evil, right?" Peter asked. "Well, how better to vanquish evil than to gain lots and lots of experience levels! More levels mean more hit points, more THAC0, more of everything a paladin needs to battle evil." He chuckled. "Ringman might have been able to get away with avoiding experience points in the past, by rolling 'legitimate' dice rolls for treasure whenever he vanqiuished a monster — the wuss — but this time he had four 100,000 gold piece gems right in front of him, and he refused them! No true paladin would ever dream of passing up 400,000 experience points."
Prometheus pondered this over a long silence, then said, "That's the stupidest justification I've ever heard."
"And hey, you know what?" Peter Perfect grinned in what would be an evil manner were he not a paladin. "I'll bet he managed to connive his Deity to let his soul into Heaven anyway! The dirty cheat!"
Prometheus would have rolled its eyes, if it had eyes. "So now you're making up an excuse to destroy his soul, too?"
Peter's eyes narrowed. "I'm a paladin. I never need an excuse for anything."
'Riiiiiiight,' the holy avenger thought as Peter took out his amulet of the planes and began fiddling with it. As Peter Perfect finished aligning the dials on his amulet, he muttered, "I was stuck in Heaven for eighteen gods-damned years. It's gonna feel reeeeeeeally good to be able to kill something there for a change." Finally, he commanded the amulet: "To Heaven!"
"Oh yeah," Peter remembered, "They changed the name of it in the Book of Planescape Wisdom. *Ahem* — to Mount Celesta!"
The clean-shaven paladin and all his gear vanished from the mountaintop, leaving behind a rather bored gold dracolich, a dead evil centaur, and the physical remains of the man he hoped to wipe out once and for all.
The Intercontinental Proliferation of Disgusting Characters is continued in chapter 10.
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