The hustle and bustle of Town solidified before them in all its splendor. Danny could hardly believe his eyes. It seemed that almost every passerby carried some sort of glowing weapon in his belt! There had to be more magical firepower in this one village square alone than in the entire world Danny just left!
Plane travel being what it was, Unbelievable Sword wasn't sure exactly where he'd end up, but he quickly regained his bearings. He was right outside the jousting arena he'd left only a few melee r— er, minutes before. "Welcome," he intoned to his passengers, sweeping his arms wide, "To the splendor and majesty that is Central Earth. Now if you'll excuse me for a moment, I'm feeling a little naked without my items and artifacts." He ducked into the arena at a running speed so slow it looked almost normal.
"Oh, this place brings back the memories," Ringman waxed nostalgic. "Look!" he pointed, "The statue of King What's-his-name the 75th! I remember watching when they put it up all those years ago."
"Whatever," Danny grunted. He couldn't care less about some yellowing old statue. His eyes were glued to a particularly devastating-looking falchion going by. And the knockout babe carrying the falchion was pretty devastating-looking herself.
But he forgot all about that little piece of eye candy and gawked uncontrollably when Unbelievable Sword walked back out of the arena. Not one minute ago, that man had been a plain-clothed curiosity. Now, he was a walking arsenal. No less than four glowing blades dangled from variously-placed scabbards. The gloves on his hands also glowed with a magic-weapon-like glimmer, as did the backup pair of gloves on his belt. The runes etched in all these weapons implied they were artifacts, unique creations with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal magic-items. The bracer on his left forearm, though not glowing (probably because it wasn't a weapon), carried more runes than he'd thought it was possible to cram onto a single artifact. A stack of three helms rested on top of his head, the outermost encrusted with gems in a pattern that perfectly matched those pictures Danny had seen of a helm of brilliance. A magic ring adorned each finger on the outside of that glowing artifact pair of gloves he was wearing; little bumps in the gloves implied that two complete sets of rings were worn beneath them. From the gauntlets (of dexterity?) protruding from underneath the artifact gloves, Danny guessed that the second layer of rings went on over these inner gauntlets, and the innermost third layer of rings went on under both the gauntlets and the artifact gloves. Unbelievable Sword's body also sported three cloaks, two robes, a mantle, a necklace, two scarabs, and an amulet, all of them unquestionably magical; and a cloud of 16 bizarre little stones orbited his head.
Danny couldn't even guess at what articles of power Unbelievable Sword carried underneath his clothing. He didn't even notice the armored fighter accompanying Unbelievable Sword out of the arena until Ringman pointed him out.
"Jimmy!" Ringman enthused, walking forward to shake the fighter's hand. "I barely recognized you!"
"Happy Hunting Grounds, it's been a long time!" Jimmy shook Ringman's hand. "The last time I saw you was back when that whole fiasco with Gross Sword was going on. I remember following you and Ridiculous Sword to some plane with an unpronounceably long name. You found a baby platinum dragon there, and there was this fat broad hitting on you. Didja ever score with her?"
"I married her," Ringman grinned.
Danny snorted. "Fat broad. Boy, ain't that the truth."
Ringman cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Jimmy, this is my son from my new family, Danny."
"It's a pleasure," Jimmy said, politely holding out his hand for a handshake.
Danny ignored him. He pointed at the various trinkets adorning Unbelievable Sword and asked, "How can I get items like yours?"
Ringman and Jimmy stared at Danny's rude display, then at each other.
Unbelievable Sword just shrugged. "You can get items like these the same place everybody else gets them. At the black magic market for black market magic. Their stock is infinite. They can pull artifacts out of thin air. So long as you have enough gold pieces, you can buy it."
'Gold pieces,' Danny thought, then snapped his fingers. "The centaurs! Where are they?"
Unbelievable Sword pointed. "Down that thoroughfare for a couple of furlongs, then follow the signs. Or follow the crowds. You can't miss it."
"All right!" Danny cheered, and immediately took off in the direction Unbelievable Sword pointed.
"Hey. Hey!" Ringman lurched after his misbehaving son.
Jimmy restrained him with his 25-star strength arm. "Don't worry, he won't get hurt. These streets are pretty safe."
"No no!" Ringman insisted, squirming to get past. "I don't want him going to the centaur pits! I don't want my son turning into another dice-cheating disgusting character!"
"Dice-cheating?!" Jimmy and Unbelievable Sword stammered in unison.
Ringman could see Danny running fast away down that road. The road that led to an existence of never-ending one-upsmanship. The road that led to a kind of doom all its own. The road that led to a perdition worse than any divine torment, an Acheron-full of woe that would never let up, even after he died. The road that led to —
"All right, already!" Ringman interrupted. "We get the picture!"
Sorry. Carry on.
"Danny!" Ringman called out over the crowds to his son, now nearly out of sight. "Don't do in any centaurs! Don't pick up that first million-gold-piece gem! Don't do that to yourself!"
Either his son ignored him or he couldn't hear him that far away, but he turned the corner without glancing back and was gone.
Ringman breathed sharply, clearly anxious.
Unbelievable Sword grinned. "You'll have plenty of time to stop him later, if that's really what you want to do. A newcomer can't just rush into the centaur pits and start amassing million-gold-piece gems. He'll have to go through a whole long ritual to get properly prepared first. And then, of course, he'll have to sign the damage waiver and wait his turn with all the other newcomers. It'll give him plenty of time to cool off and think about whether this is the right thing for him."
"Hmmm," Ringman hmmmed. If he gave Danny a chance to change his mind on his own, he might be a lot more cooperative when it came time for the two of them to go back to Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt. Maybe leaving him alone was the best thing for now. "If Danny does something really stupid and gets himself killed, you'll raise him from the dead, right?"
"Sure," Unbelievable Sword assured him. "And free of charge, too. Try getting that kind of a deal at some bargain-basement cleric's shop!"
"All right, then," Ringman acquiesced, "I might as well enjoy visiting the old home planet and the old family in the mean time."
"Oh, and speaking of old family," Unbelievable Sword began. He reached into the astral plane and pulled his pointy-headed familiar down into the physical universe. "Meet the Unbelievable Brownie."
The foot-and-a-half tall half-pixie sat on Unbelievable Sword's shoulder, decked out in glowing full plate armor, two helms, a cloak of protection, gauntlets of ogre power, two amulets, a necklace of adaptation, a scarab of protection, 7 rings, and two glowing artifact short swords in his hip scabbards. A cloud of 15 ioun stones swarmed about his head, getting lost in the swarm of 16 ioun stones buzzing around his master's head. There was something oddly familiar about that little pixie stick's face. . . .
"Homer?!" Ringman gasped.
"The one and only!" the brownie replied.
"Ah, I see you two know each other," Unbelievable Sword interjected.
Homer continued, "Look at all this great stuff Unbelievable Sword here gave me! Two +6 short swords!" He unsheathed them both. "With all sorts of magic sword abilities and artifact powers. And all the rest of this stuff! Sick Sword never gave me a tenth as many goodies when I was her familiar."
Ringman pained slightly at the name of his old love. "Wow. You know, seeing you again, Homer, and remembering Sick Sword . . . it really makes me want to see my first set of kids again."
Ringman rode up to his first-born daughter's castle by himself, on Warhorse's bare back, and parked the horse in a grazing spot near the front drawbridge. An ornately carved and platinum-inlaid sign above the gate read, "Disgusting Sword's House."
He was about 5 centimeters away from ringing the doorbell when the drawbridge began lowering of its own volition. Beyond the drawbridge, as it lowered, he could see the narrow top of a stack of white disks, each about half a foot tall, the topmost of which was about a foot across with each succeeding lower cylinder a foot wider than the disk on top of it. More and more of this white stack revealed itself as the drawbridge continued to lower. The whole stack must have been over 20 feet tall. Finally, as the drawbridge lowered the last few feet and fell into place across the moat, it revealed that the stack's white color was caused by an outer layer of frosting with the words "Welcome back, dad!" written on it in pink icing, and Disgusting Sword, and Ridiculous Sword, and Gross Sword — all three of Ringman's children from his first family with Sick Sword — stood proudly in front of it.
"We knew you were coming," Disgusting Sword beamed, "So we baked a cake."
Overjoyed at the sight of all three of his older children all together, Ringman shrugged off the wierdness of being in the presence of the biggest layer cake he'd ever seen and rushed to embrace his first family. "Disgusting Sword!" he called out, grabbing them all in a group hug, "Ridiculous Sword! Gross Sword! This is great! How'd you know I was here on Central Earth?"
Gross Sword grinned. "We are disgusting characters, after all."
"That," Ridiculous Sword added, "And my son sent me a telepagram a few minutes ago to let us know you were coming."
"Oh yeah," Ringman commented, breaking off, "If I don't see him again before I leave, thank him for me for saving my bacon. If he hadn't come when he did I'd be Purina Chromatic Dragon Chow right now."
Ridiculous Sword winced, almost imperceptibly. "Unbelievable Sword and I don't talk much any more."
"No?" Ringman worried.
She shrugged, "Well, you know. He's a 17-year-old boy striking out on his own. He doesn't want his un-cool older-generation parents around raining on his parade. He'll probably get over it in time."
It reminded Ringman of Danny. "I hope he does get over it," he replied. "Um . . ." he looked up at the enormous white layer cake dominating the castle's foyer, "Let's go inside and have some cake. What flavor is it?"
It was the best death-by-chocolate cake Ringman had tasted in years. He supposed one of his disgusting-character children had used a "flavor" cantrip to give it such an unearthly-good flavor, but right now, he didn't care. The three Sick Kids sat on the sofa across from him and watched him devour his second slice.
In between bites, Ringman drank in the lavish decor of Disgusting Sword's living room. Its walls stretched up and out of sight, until its cathedral ceiling seemed lost in the distance. He guessed this was a permanent distance distortion spell, but the effect was still breathtaking. The walls and supporting columns were built of solid adamantite, polished to a perfect sheen. Statuettes forged out of the very substance of the adamantite walls themselves jutted out at 20- or 30-foot intervals, blazing with the glow of continual light spells. Million gold piece gems sat on ornately carved platinum fixtures which joined and merged seemlessly with the adamantite walls. But the best decorations by far were his three adult children and their mature 25-charisma looks. How they'd grown! Disgusting Sword and Ridiculous Sword were both stunningly beautiful, although Ridiculous Sword's outfit was a little bit on the skanky side. Gross Sword was the epitome of manhood in his late 30s, yet he still showed the tell-tale lines of someone who once, long ago, had led a life of chaotic-evil. "So," Ringman began, "What have you kids been up to while I was away?"
"Oh, the usual," Disgusting Sword replied, "Watching the rest of the world turn into disgusting characters and shaking my head lamenting how ordinary I've become."
"You? Ordinary?" Ringman asked.
"When I first emerged from the centaur pits," Disgusting Sword reminisced, "I was the most powerful being in the multiverse."
"Until I surpassed you the next day," Ridiculous Sword chimed in, grinning smugly.
"What-ever!" Disgusting Sword rolled her eyes. "Now, look at where I stand. My most powerful character class, weapons master, is barely fifty-eighth level. Disgusting characters these days are cranking themselves out at up to fifty thousandth level, right out of the starting gate." She pointed a thumb at her sister. "Even her son, Unbelievable Sword, used to be considered, well, unbelievable — now he's only marginally better than any other disgusting character on Central Earth. And someone's sure to surpass him someday."
"In a way," Gross Sword beamed, "It was kind of a double blessing for me to lose all those chaotic-evil character powers and artifacts. I knew from the moment I did it that I'd be taking a back seat to Ridiculous Sword, power-wise. I was dethroning myself. Not needing to be the most powerful character in the multiverse has kinda allowed me to take this proliferation of disgusting characters in stride." He glanced over at Ridiculous Sword, who suppressed a sneer. "I . . . it's let me enjoy living, more than . . . than I would have otherwise."
Ridiculous Sword cast her eyes down. "Well," she grumbled, "At least it was my own son who was first to dethrone me. That's something of a consolation. Man, I miss being top dog!" She pulled out the Ridiculous Hand Axe and toyed with it. "In the old days, when this axe, my Bracer of Irresistible Damage, and I got together, we could kill anything we went up against in a single hit. Now, there are characters out there with more than a million hit points." She sighed deeply.
"You know, dad," Disgusting Sword changed the subject, "You really ought to do something about your fashion sense. Those clothes you're wearing look like they were whipped up by a 'wrap' cantrip."
Ringman looked down at the generic garments covering his body and blushed, embarrassed. "Uh . . . that's because they were whipped up by a 'wrap' cantrip. Unbelievable Sword didn't think I should take anything with me out of Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt, and —"
"Well, then," Disgusting Sword smiled, "Maybe you should put on these!" She snapped her fingers, and a pile of mostly-metallic objects appeared in the space between the sofa and Ringman's chair, clattering to the ground.
Ringman took a few seconds to recognize them. "That looks like . . . That's my old magic armor! And Warhorse's magic plate barding! And those look like my old magic items!" He knelt reverently next to the pile.
"I kept them here while you were gone," Disgusting Sword explained, "In case you ever came by for a visit."
Ringman wasted no time strapping on his old glowing full plate armor. Despite nearly two decades of disuse, there wasn't a spot of rust on it or a sticky joint anywhere, and it still fit perfectly. And he'd forgotten how light it was; it felt no heavier than a breezy summer outfit. Such was the power of enchanted mithral-alloyed steel. After trying out a few easy leaps around Disgusting Sword's living room, he went back to the pile and strapped on the rest of his old, familiar gear. There was the ring of shooting stars that Sick Sword had exchanged with him all those years ago. There was his other ring, the +3-in-a-5-foot-radius ring of protection. There was his +4 shield. There was his +1 composite longbow and his quiver full of +1 and +3 arrows. There was his +4 dagger of throwing in its leg scabbard. There was his +3 periapt of proof against poison. And then, there was an old fair-weather friend in its longsword scabbard.
He drew the sword and let it see him again. The sword pulsed excitedly with greenish light. "All right!" the sword cheered. "Someone's finally taken me out of that dingy old closet! And from the vibes, it feels like a paladi—" Its voice dropped to the level of disgust. "Oh. It's you again."
Ringman shrugged and smirked. "It's, uh, good to see you too, Prometheus."
"I don't know which is worse," the sword grumbled, "Being squirrelled away with a bunch of foul-smelling mothballs, or having you for a wielder. Either way, I won't get to kill anything."
"Oh, pite down, it's not that bad," Ringman replied, shoving the holy avenger back into its sheath.
Disgusting Sword raised her eyebrows. She had one more surprise in store for her 9th-level by-the-book paladin visitor. "Besides my little brother and sister here, I invited some old acquaintances you might want to say hello to."
Ringman turned as an adamantite double-door the size of a city gate swung open at the far end of the room. There was a miniature cocktail party taking place on the other side of it. The aging gent closest to the newly-opened door turned and greeted Ringman with a wry smile. "Good lack-of-gods, you've gotten old!" He levitated into the room, letting his robes flow in the breeze he created for himself with a gust of wind spell. "I'd accuse you of nipping at the potions of speed, only I know how difficult potions are to come by on Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt."
Ringman squinted at the approaching curmudgeon. "Wierd Dough?"
"The one and only!" the arch-mage replied, shaking Ringman's hand. Ringman gripped the man's hand as strongly as he could manage, out of his habits in dealing with disgusting characters in the past. "Ooch, careful there, Popeye!" Wierd Dough winced, trying to pull his hand free. "I'm the only disgusting character in the history of disgusting characterhood who doesn't have a 25 strength!"
"Oh, sorry," Ringman let go quickly. "Um . . . so! How's that magic school of yours been doing?"
"Burned down," Wierd Dough replied flatly.
"Oh, My Deity!" Ringman blushed at his faux-pas. "I didn't know — I'm, I'm terribly sorry —"
"Don't be," Weird Dough shrugged. "I was the one who burned it down. It was getting way too old and creaky. Back when it was built, we actually made buildings out of wood! Can you believe it? Not adamatite, not adamantite-alloyed steel, not mithral-alloyed steel, not even meteorite-iron steel! I had 'em rebuild the school entirely out of solid adamantite, like it should've been in the first place. And I added a new "love nest" wing for all those long nights of, er, magic experiments with a charm person spell. I may be gettin' on in years, but I've still got a 16 constitution! Oh, and best of all, the whole construction project only cost three or four one-million-gold-piece gems — one centaur financed the whole deal!"
"You know," Ringman changed the subject ever-so-slightly, "I've been doing a few construction projects of my own over in North Fliedershire. I used to do stonemasonry before I became a paladin, and —"
"Oh!" Wierd Dough interrupted, "I hope you remembered to use at least +5 mortar to hold your stones together. Otherwise, any schmoe on the other side of the wall with a +4 dagger can hack his way through the cracks. A wall's only as strong as what you hold it together with!"
"Actually, this was a cobblestone walkway, not a wall," Ringman explained, "And besides, where am I going to get +5 anything on Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt? Here's a big shocker for you: I built the walkway with non-magical stones, held together with non-magical cement! Not everything needs to be made out of solid adamantite!"
Wierd Dough let out a low whistle. "I knew magic items were scarce on your plane, but I had no idea the conditions there were so destitute, so barbaric! Non-magical alloy construction? Next you'll be telling me you used non-magical weapons and armor!"
"I did use non-magical weapons and armor," Ringman retorted.
Wierd Dough gasped. "Then how the heck did you defend yourself whenever a giant hoard of spectres or liches stomped through your village?"
"There are no giant roaming hoards of undead in Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt," Ringman explained, rolling his eyes. "Or rampaging bands of mercenaries, or armies of gelatinous cubes, or gangs of cloud giants, or classroomfulls of apprentice mind flayers, or any of the other beasties that seem to be lurking in the shadows here on Central Earth. There was one red dragon — one — and Sick Sword put that beast out of its misery 28 years ago."
"It sounds like a very strange place," Wierd Dough shook his head.
"It's a wonderful place!" said Ringman.
"Really?" came a voice from the adjoining room, clanking over to join them in glowing adamantite-alloyed plate mail. "It sounds like you'd never get a chance to use that ten-foot-radius anti-evil-creature protection power you paladins brag about so much." The aging newcomer flashed a smile, showing off his magic artifact teeth.
"Clerasil!" Ringman shook the cleric's hand when he arrived. "Wow, the last time I saw you and those Teeth of Dahlver-Nar, you were sewing my right arm back into place. My Deity, it seems like a lifetime ago!"
"Yeah," the high priest noted. "With us all together again, it's almost like the old times, before Wierd Dough even thought up that disastrous I.U.D.C. idea."
Wierd Dough stuck his tongue out at Clerasil.
"Why," Clerasil continued, undaunted, "It'd be a dead-ringer for the good old days, if Peter Perfect were still around."
"Ew!" Ringman sneered. "You would have to bring up that so-called paladin. Bleah. It makes my skin crawl just to hear his name again."
"Hmmm," Clerasil wondered, "I've always wondered, what was it between you and Peter that got you so riled at each other? It couldn't've been mere philosophical differences — you never got singled out by Dirk the Destructive or Wild Max or Da Bad Dude for any special attention, and those guys were thoroughly evil. Did you ruin his favorite begonia bush or something?"
Ringman sighed. "All right. Maybe I should tell you the story of how Peter Perfect and I first met. I was 8th level — I hadn't confronted Smogzilla yet — and King What's-his-name the 75th had just assigned me to be the paladin protector of Town. I'd just secured temporary sleeping quarters in Town for the night, and was going out to familiarize myself with the local color. The best place to get a feel for the locals, of course, was in the Town saloon. . . ."
And as happened the last time Ringman launched into a story, the vision of reality waved back and forth more and more strongly, mysterious music rose tremulously up in an almost epileptic glissando, and suddenly, we were in a flashback again.
The scene opened on the Town saloon, much as it had been when Ringman first met Sick Sword there all those years ago. Cantina music, eerily reminiscent of a certain band that played at Mos Eisley a long time ago and far, far away, wafted from the bard in the corner. A young Ringman stepped through the swinging doors in +5 plate mail with a +4 shield and Prometheus sheathed at his side. He made an effort to project that aura of authority that only a paladin can, but a keen eye would have discerned his underlying nervousness. He sidled up to the bar.
"What'll it be, stranger?" the bartender addressed his new arrival.
"Uh," Ringman thought for a moment, "Gimmie a paladin health shake."
The bartender snickered. "Oh, a sissy boy, huh?"
"Er . . ." Ringman glanced sidelong at the other patrons, who were beginning to take notice of him. "A paladin health shake on the rocks," he corrected, defending his manhood. "Make it a double!" He pounded his fist lightly but firmly on the counter to emphasize his point.
"Well, that's more like it!" the bartender grinned, going to his drink mixing tools. He was still snickering a little.
Ringman looked down to the other end of the bar, where another patron caught his eye. Like Ringman, this other man was wearing glowing adamantite-alloyed (+5) plate mail and carrying a glowing adamantite-alloyed (+5) shield, and he, too, had a longsword sheathed in his belt scabbard. There was no glow emanating from the scabbard, but the protruding longsword handle still had that eerie je ne sais quois about it which implied an enchantment. A strong enchantment. The man's hair was an intense blond, almost a bleached blond; his eyes were a searing blue; and his perfectly clean-shaven chin jutted forward in a way that just oozed confidence. There was something almost holy about his presence, in a sickening fraternity-boy kind of way.
I could tell, even from that distance, Ringman's voice-over explained, That this man must be a paladin, just like I was. This was Peter Perfect.
Without warning, Peter Perfect drew his longsword. The sword didn't glow, but it was magical, all right. In fact, it was downright holy. Ringman could practically hear the "Hallelujah!" chorus wafting from the unsheathed blade. With a primal grunt and one swift, clean swing, the blond paladin sliced the head clean off the shoulders of a rather surprised peasant man who'd been staring at him.
Ringman was on his feet and up next to the other paladin instantly. "You didn't have to do that!" he shouted.
"Tell me about it," Peter Perfect said in an almost bored tone, wiping the blood off his sword with one of the bartender's dishrags. "That guy couldn't have been worth more than 10 experience points, tops."
"I mean," Ringman stammered, "You didn't have to kill him!"
"Sure I did!" Peter explained, "He was chaotic-evil!"
"Oh, you do not know that!" Ringman countered.
"He was lookin' at me funny," Peter continued. "You don't look at a paladin funny unless you've got something to hide. And who would need to hide anything from a paladin, unless he was chaotic-evil!"
"Maybe he was just nervous!" Ringman explained. "He might have been afraid that you were going to turn around and chop his head off! And it looks like his fears were well-founded!"
"I detected evil on him!" Peter said, making up another excuse.
"You did not," Ringman answered. "You barely glanced at him. I know what kind of concentration a paladin's detect evil power takes, and you weren't doing anything of the sort."
"Okay then," Peter grinned, "If he wasn't chaotic-evil, how come he died after only getting hit by my holy avenger once?"
Exasperated, Ringman returned with: "He was a peasant! They're zero-level characters! He wouldn't've had more than 6 hit points to begin with! The normal +5 damage bonus from your holy sword alone would have been enough to ensure killing him — with or without any +10 damage point bonus against chaotic-evil opponents!"
Peter narrowed his eyes. "You really are beginning to bug me, mister, you know that?"
Ringman drew himself up to his full 6'1" height. "I'm going to have to insist that you practice a little more peace and justice in your paladinning, mister," he half-ordered, half-pleaded. "I am the new Town paladin, after all."
Peter furrowed his brow. "That's impossible. I'm the Town paladin!"
Ringman reached into a hip pocket. "Not according to this decree, you're not." He produced a credit card with illuminated writing on it. He was told to give this card to anyone who questioned his station, although he couldn't read what was written on it himself.
Peter snatched up the card and read quickly. "Hear ye, hear ye, Ringman is hereby decreed to be the official paladin protector of Town, by order of King What's-his-name the 75th, this order to supersede all preceding orders dated —" He slammed the card down on the counter. "That son of a — gods damn it! Where the Abyss do they get off taking me off this beat? Huh?! What, did I slaughter too many peasants again this month? Come on! They're just peasants! I'm Peter Perfect, a full-blown 9th level paladin! I have a girdle of storm giant strength, for crying out loud! They can't do this to me!!"
"Apparently," Ringman shrugged, "They can, and they did."
Peter glowered at this pipsqueak upstart newcomer paladin. "Well then," he announced, drawing his holy longsword again, "I know how we can fix that real quick!" He raised his holy avenger and hacked downward at Ringman's head.
Instinctively, Ringman raised his +4 shield and blocked the sword swipe. He backed away rapidly toward the swinging entrance doors to the saloon, hoping to draw his opponent out onto the street where he wouldn't harm quite as many innocent bystanders. Peter Perfect slashed at him again on his way out, the tip of his holy sword scraping dangerously across Ringman's abdominal armor plates and sending off sparks. Finally, Ringman made it outside and unsheathed his holy sword, Prometheus.
Peter admired the green glowing blade in between hacks with his own holy avenger. "Hmmm, nice sword."
"Thank you," the sword replied in lawful-good.
"An intelligent weapon, too!" Peter hacked at Ringman again and missed. "Who'd you have to kill to get it?"
"Nobody!" Ringman said defensively, parrying Peter's sword equally defensively. "I found it in a dungeon treasure hoard someplace!"
"I'll bet it's intelligence 17, too," Peter grunted during a longsword swing.
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is," Ringman noted as he lured Peter Perfect farther away from the saloon and the crowds who'd gathered to watch.
"Hah!" Peter hacked, missing again due to Ringman's parry. "I knew it! You must've had to reroll the percentile dice a whole bunch of times before you got that double-zero on the Sword Intelligence and Capabilities table!"
"I did not," Ringman insisted, fending off another blow. "I'm a follower of My Deity! We don't cheat!"
"Suuuuure!" Peter sniggered. "What extraordinary power did you roll for it?"
"Telekinesis," the sword answered him. "Say, you've got quite a strong sword arm there, mister!"
"You know it!" Peter preened, letting up on his rain of longsword swings for a fraction of a second. "Why, even before I got that girdle of storm giant strength, I was 18/00!" He hacked at Ringman again. "I bet you're no stronger than 18/90!"
"I'm 18/92, I'll have you know!" Ringman said, defending his honor while defending his left flank.
"Well, I've got straight eighteens in all my other stats across the board," Peter Perfect boasted, "Plus, I've got psionics! And over forty magic items!"
Ringman whined, "But that would put you over the magic item limit! Paladins aren't supposed to have more than 1 suit of magic armor, 1 magic shield, 4 magic weapons, and 4 other magic items total."
Peter Perfect completely lowered his sword and, for the moment, all sounds of fighting ceased. He stared at Ringman in open-mouthed astonishment. "You don't mean to tell me you actually follow that ridiculous rule, do you?!"
Ringman furrowed his brow in confusion. "Well, yes! It's required by the code of paladinhood. I keep no more than 10 magic items at a time, I pay my tithe, I donate my excess, I —"
"Oh, good Lords!" Peter exclaimed. "You have got to be kidding me! I knew I could easily best you in a fight, but I had no idea you were this much of a namby-pamby! Go back to your mommy, you little paladin twerp. I have to wash the cooties off my holy sword now from fighting with you."
And with a "hmph!" of disgust, Peter Perfect turned and walked away.
Ringman watched him walk away and shook his head. "What a bizarre man," he said to his holy sword, Prometheus.
"He seems pretty . . . stimulating," the sword pulsed green in time to the rise and fall of its own voice.
The boundaries of reality shifted back into place, the mysterious music filled the scene once more, and we were back in the present.
"And the rest," a 50-year-old Ringman finished, "Is history."
"Speaking of history," a voice interrupted from the far room. A figure in glowing black full-plate armor made of pure adamantite clanked through the doorway, toting a vile sword which, even ensconced in its scabbard, radiated a sickening black glow. The whole countenance of the black-haired, dark-brown-eyed man gave off an almost-palpable aura of chaos and evil. "How ya doing, ol' buddy?"
Even if his paladinical detect evil power hadn't given the man away, Ringman recognized him instantly. He gasped, and instinctively drew Prometheus. "Dirk the Destructive! How did you get in here?! Stay back!"
"Easy with the holy sword there, boy," Dirk the Destructive finished approaching non-chalantly. "I gave up on being anybody's enemy over two decades ago."
"But," Ringman stammered, "But, but you're chaotic-evil!"
Dirk the Destructive shrugged. "Only so I can keep all my anti-paladin powers. Chaotic-evil, lawful-good? They're just labels to slap onto your character class. Alignments are pretty much meaningless, and have been for a long time."
"Meaningless?!" Ringman retorted. "They're not meaningless to me! I'll have you know that I follow the edicts of lawful-good and the code of paladinhood, well, religiously! Your alignment isn't just something you wake up one morning and decide to be!"
"And did you choose your alignment because of its virtues," Dirk the Destructive surrpetitiously scanned the paladin with his helm of telepathy, "Or did you just pick it because you had a 17 charisma and didn't want to waste it?"
"Um," Ringman hemmed and hawed a bit, visibly nervous, "The latter. At first! Only at first. By the time I earned my paladinhood, I had discovered just what being lawful-good meant, and I knew it was the only true course for me, the only alignment that made sense."
"And your old girlfriend, Sick Sword?" Dirk pressed the subject home. "Why did she decide to be lawful-good."
Ringman cast his eyes down as he remembered. "So that she could wield the Mace of Cuthbert." He fought back hot tears. "Damn it, I wish you hadn't brought that up."
Dirk smirked. "What did you expect? I'm chaotic-evil."
Ringman continued as though Dirk had never spoken. "That was the one thorn in our relationship that we never, ever got over. I did it for virtue, and she did it for power. I tried to tell myself when she cheated on her dice rolls and became a disgusting character that she was only doing it to bring down the I.U.D.C.. But it didn't stop there. She brought up our children as dice-cheating powerhouses too." He glanced over at Disgusting Sword, Ridiculous Sword, and Gross Sword. "I still love you kids and always have, but for yourselves, not for your powers." He sat down, short of breath. "Sick Sword didn't see the path she had put you on — that she'd damned you to — until just before she died for good. O My Deity, why couldn't she have seen it sooner!" He broke down and sobbed bitterly.
Wierd Dough, Clerasil, and Dirk the Destructive glanced around uncomfortably and tiptoed back toward the other room, as Gross Sword, overcome with his father's display of emotion, put his arm around him and cried with him. Gross Sword's tears and wails soon outmatched Ringman's, and it became Ringman who consoled Gross Sword and not the other way around.
"I killed her!" Gross Sword lamented. "I killed mom, and then I turned around and killed her soul! She's gone for good because of me!"
"It's not your fault," Ringman wept with a consoling and understanding grin on his face. "You were under the influence of Tiamat's seed of evil. She made you do it against your —"
"No!" Gross Sword countered, "No, I wasn't!"
Ringman puzzled. So did Disgusting Sword and Ridiculous Sword. "What?" the paladin queried.
"I found out about Tiamat's seed of evil practically as soon as I became a disgusting character," Gross Sword admitted, the tears still choking his words. "I cast dispel magic and remove curse on myself as soon as I became a high-enough level cleric and magic-user. There was no evil outside influence forcing me to kill mom. I did it all myself of my own free will! I swung the Gross Broadsword each time!"
"Oh My Deity!" Ringman gasped. He let his arms hang loosely by his sides, not touching his son.
"I wasn't being made chaotic-evil anymore, I was chaotic-evil! Heck, when you guys brought me back, when you put me through that near-death experience — it wouldn't have worked if Tiamat's evil seed was still there. You saved me from myself!"
Ringman shook his head vehemently. He felt like he was being torn to pieces from the inside. "I didn't know!"
"Neither did we!" Disgusting Sword commented, indicating her sister.
Ringman gibbered, "I've . . . I've . . . there's someone I've got to go see. Now." He clanked over to the main exit drawbridge, holding a hand over part of his face as his head shook.
Ringman's warhorse galloped silently on a cushion of air through the streets of Town, dodging the occasional blindingly-fast disgusting character. The horse's meteorite-iron steel barding gleamed in the sunlight. Warhorse felt right at home back in its old +3 full-plate barding, and loved the long-ago familiar feel of two sets of magical horseshoes on its hooves. Ringman, though, was too preoccupied to enjoy the ride, or the sights of Town, or anything else.
He stopped in front of a little chapel and tied Warhorse to the hitching-post. A small but well-manicured lawn — a rarity in a medieval village such as this — framed the chapel's front walkway. In the middle of the lawn stood a sign reading, simply, "First Town Church of My Deity." Ringman reverently removed the helm that went with his +4 full plate armor as he entered.
The sanctuary was small and sparse, with only five rows of pews, a wooden lecturn, and the holy symbol of My Deity on the wall behind said lecturn. There was no altar, no gold-piece-operated holy water fountain, no price list for healing spells — none of the usual paraphernalia adorning most of the other sanctuaries on Central Earth. A short, stocky man dressed in priestly robes was tending to one of the few lit candles, facing away from the front entrance. An adamantite-alloyed shield, a mace, and a war hammer clattered at his sides, and once or twice Ringman swore he could hear a "clank" as one of the implements bumped into the man's robes. Ringman smiled in a mixture of excitement and relief and asked, "Josephus?"
The small man turned his head quizzically. His eyes were an earthy dark brown, nearly coal-black, complemented perfectly by the ruddy hue of his magnificent beard. The shape of his features completed the picture: this man was a purebred dwarf, through and through. He wrinkled his brow as he stared at the paladin, then joyfully exclaimed, "Ringman! Oh my, you've been a long time gone!" He crossed the room toward Ringman, his robes now clanking quite noticeably.
"It has been a long time, hasn't it?" Ringman agreed. "I stopped coming to your church way, way back when Wierd Dough and Clerasil first showed up all those years ago. What with all the ruckus they caused, and with all the changes that came afterward, and with how the Code of Paladinhood doesn't require church attendance, merely tithing —"
"But," the dwarf raised his eyebrows, "You used to come to this church regularly, long before you were even an apprentice paladin. I can still remember bouncing you on my knee when you were still a young lad."
"And I remember running my little fingers through that grand beard of yours back then, too," Ringman chuckled. "I first grew this —" he indicated his own short beard "— because I wanted one just like yours, like Unca Joe the Cleric's. Come to think of it, Joe, you actually look younger than when I last saw you."
"You can thank those new Second Edition rules for that," the dwarf explained. "Dwarves now have a 350 year lifespan."
Ringman let out a long, descending whistle.
The dwarf continued, "I heard about that whole rigamarole with the cavalier class you paladins had to go through when the Other Book of Infinite Wisdom came out. New weapons requirements, new armor requirements, no more 10% experience point bonus — it must have given you whiplash when the Second Edition undid all the changes."
"Well," Ringman countered, "It couldn't have been worse than those changes to the list of clerical spells — excuse me, 'priest' spells — that came with Second Edition."
"Nah, most of the new spells were in spheres I couldn't cast anyway — and then, I can't cast that many spells to begin with. I'm just a simple 6th-level by-the-book cleric, you know."
Ringman nodded. "The path of My Deity is long and slow."
"Longer and slower still," Joe added, "Since the secret of how to be one of those disgusting characters reached every corner of Central Earth. My Deity has become perhaps the least popular god in the whole pantheon. There's hardly a soul left alive that still wants to follow a god that doesn't allow its followers to cheat on the rules or on their dice rolls."
Ringman shook his head slowly in understanding, and sighed. "My own grandson is probably the biggest rule-cheater of them all. He changed his character class to barbarian at one point, then changed it again to something else, even though the Other Book of Infinite Wisdom clearly states that a player character barbarian cannot be a character with two classes. You know how he justifies it? He says he's not a character with two classes, he's a character with thirty-one classes! He knows that the term 'character with two classes' refers to any character that changes class, no matter how many classes the character actually has — but that didn't stop him."
"Neither did the elimination of barbarians from Second Edition," Joe observed.
"Exactly!" Ringman commiserated. "He's still casting fifty thousand die fireballs, he's still using all the character classes from the old Book of Oriental Wisdom, he still has his psionic powers, he's still part monk — his list of mix-and-match first-and-second-edition cheats just doesn't quit!"
"Oh!" the dwarf recalled, "I forgot to show you. The coming of Second Edition hasn't been a total loss. Watch. Armor, show yourself!"
The priestly robes adorning the dwarven cleric morphed like a computer-generated morphing effect in a movie, except that movies hadn't been invented yet. They solidified into a polished, glowing suit of adamantite-alloyed full plate armor. Now Ringman understood why Joe's "robes" had been clanking so much.
"+5 Full Plate Armor of Blending," Joe explained, "One of the new magic items found in the Second Edition Book of Infinite Wisdom's magic treasure tables. Like it?"
Ringman frowned. "Those look like gauntlets of ogre power on your hands."
"They are," Joe shrugged. "They go with my girdle of storm giant strength."
"You have a girdle of storm giant strength?" Ringman worried.
"Sure," Joe replied. "I need the girdle and the gauntlets to properly use my hammer of thunderbolts."
"And a hammer of thunderbolts, too?!" Ringman asked, more and more incredulous.
Joe hefted the hammer by his side. "Plus 5, all girdle and gauntlet bonuses, double damage dice, and strikes dead any giant on which it scores a hit!"
"Geez," Ringman shook his head, "And I thought Prometheus was an impressive weapon."
"My ears are burning!" Ringman's longsword replied from within its scabbard.
"Well," Joe tried to act modest, "I also have this ordinary mace of disruption for when —"
"An ordinary mace of disruption?!" Ringman was incredulous. "A hammer of thunderbolts, the most powerful girdle of giant strength in the book, gauntlets of ogre power, a +5 shield, and the most powerful type of magic armor in the form of this brand new Armor of Blending —"
"Not to mention my rings of regeneration and air elemental command, my staff of the python, and my helm of brilliance over there on the hat rack," Joe interjected.
"Not to mention those!" Ringman resumed. "Are you sure you've been keeping My Deity's edict against cheating on dice rolls for magic treasure generation?!"
"I'm just lucky," the dwarf shrugged. "Just as lucky as you are, mister 17-intelligence holy avenger."
Ringman glanced down at the scabbard Prometheus was sheathed in, and blushed a deep crimson. "Point taken."
The dwarf looked Ringman squarely in the eye. "What brought you back here, after all these years?"
Ringman sighed, yet still had trouble getting the words out. "It's . . . it's . . . it's Gross Sword."
"Your son?" the cleric asked.
"My son from my first family, yes," Ringman answered.
"I didn't know you'd acquired a second family," the dwarf said.
"They're in Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt," Ringman told him. "A wonderful wife, a beautiful, successful daughter, and another son whom I'm still struggling with. But it's my first son, Gross Sword, that I . . . that . . . he . . . he just . . ."
"Yes?" Joe urged him on.
"He wasn't under the influence of Tiamat's seed of evil when he annihilated Sick Sword," Ringman finally spit it out. "He did that of his own free will!"
"My Deity!" Joe exclaimed, clutching the holy symbol around his neck.
"He just told me he'd dispelled Tiamat's evil seed well before his altercation with his mother," Ringman continued. "I'd fooled myself into imagining this irresistible force at work in Gross Sword's body, forcing his dagger-arm forward against his will when he killed Sick Sword." He started visibly shaking. "It was so easy to blame Tiamat for everything. She's an evil dragon goddess, more a force of nature than a real person. I didn't want to think that Gross Sword, my own son, would have been responsible for killing the woman I loved." He lost all composure and fell to his knees. "My Deity! I've loved my son, loved him for years, and now I learn this! I don't know if I can even look him in the face again!"
Joe shook his head, groping for the right words. "The . . . the influence of Tiamat can be both indomitable and subtle. It was as though there was a voice in your son's head, telling him to be evil, since before he was born. He'd grown used to it. Being evil was all he knew. That wasn't going to go away just because Tiamat's influence had been removed! No dispel magic or remove curse spell could change his alignment!" He put his arms on the paladin's shoulders and stared him in the face with all earnestness. "Only your love could do that."
Ringman looked back up at the dwarf, his eyes wet and his lower lip quivering.
"That," the cleric shrugged, "Or a helm of opposite alignment."
Ringman collapsed in a snickering fit, totally unprepared for that last comment.
Joe smiled. "It's good to see you can still laugh, too."
Ringman pointed at Joe between giggles. "A helm of opposite alignment" — he snickered again — "would" — another snicker — "would only work if you took away his scarab of protection first!" He broke out into a cacophonous laugh, collapsing and holding his sides.
"Oh, come on," the cleric worried, "It isn't that funny."
"And his magic resistance!" Ringman belted out between whoops of roaring laughter. "He got 5% from his robe of the archmagi and 50% from his unholy avengers! A helm of opposite alignment would still only have a 45% chance of affecting him!"
"I thought magic resistance only affected spells," Joe commented.
"Not any more! Not thanks to Second Edition!" Ringman tried to get up, but his legs were still too weak from laughter. "Now magic resistance affects spell-like powers also!"
Joe grimaced. "A helm of opposite alignment doesn't qualify as a 'spell-like power,' does it? I mean, you can't cure its effects with a dispel magic spell — or a remove curse spell, or any spell except a wish."
Ringman smirked at the dwarf. "How do you know so much about helms of opposite alignment?"
"My Deity does not forbid us from reading the pages of the Book of Infinite Wisdom," Joe answered. "Though it is tough to find a copy that's been translated into dwarvish." He changed the subject. "Anyway, you said your new family was on a . . . on a Fordin-something?"
"Uh, yeah," Ringman said, regaining his sobriety. "Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt. It's another plane. I've been living there for the last eighteen years or so."
"No wonder your tithes stopped coming in to this church!" the cleric said.
"Yeah, I've been tithing to the First North Fliedershire/Dragontown Church of My Deity instead. It wouldn't have been very economical to get a plane shift spell cast on my silver pieces, you understand."
"Silver pieces?" the cleric gaped. "You must have given up adventuring if you have to measure your income in measly silver pieces."
"Yep," the paladin affirmed. "Got a new wife, got a new family, settled down and went back to doing stonemasonry for a living. My daughter's sixteen now, and she's training to be a paladin."
"That's great!" Joe slapped Ringman on the back, making sure to hold his full storm giant strength in check. "And your new son?"
Ringman winced. "In some ways, he's like Gross Sword all over again. I see him following his own drummer down into perdition, and it's as though there's nothing I can do to stop it. He thinks he wants to become a disgusting character. I took him with me to Central Earth in the hope that he might see how boring all these cookie-cutter disgusting characters running around are and lose interest, the way he lost interest in lute playing."
"Was that why you came back to Central Earth?" the dwarf asked.
"Not entirely," Ringman answered. "You've heard about the centaur pits, right?"
"What Central Earther hasn't," Joe sneered. "They're the focal point of everything My Deity stands against in this society."
"Do you . . ." Ringman wondered, "Do you know what they're like?"
"I've never visited them," the dwarf answered quickly. He turned a suspicious eye toward Ringman. "You're not thinking of going after a centaur to get its four one-million-gold-piece gems yourself, are you?"
"Perish the thought!" Ringman admonished. "No . . . but it seems to me that no follower of My Deity has ever seen them."
"Of course not," Joe declared. "They're an abominable institution."
"For the characters who partake of it, yes," Ringman agreed. "But what about the centaurs themselves?"
"Um . . ." now it was Joe's turn to wince. "I've just never been to the centaur pits, all right?"
"Well," Ringman put on his best paladinical tone of voice, "I think it's high time some representative of My Deity upheld Truth and Justice in the centaur pits!" He got down off his high horse. "Seriously, though, I do want to check them out before I leave."
"You must do what you feel is right, of course," Joe said with a Kenobic air of resignation in his voice, as the paladin turned to go.
The Intercontinental Proliferation of Disgusting Characters is continued in chapter 4.
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