"I AM THE DUNGEON MASTER!" the trans-celestial voice boomed. "I am He who gave life to the multiverse and all that dwell therein. I make all the rules around here, and don't you lowly dweebs forget it! And it is for this reason that I deign to speak to you now. I am changing the rules."
"That's odd," Unbelievable Sword whispered to Ringman, "He usually just publishes his rules changes in Dragon and Dragrace magazine."
"I heard that!" the Dungeon Master's voice interrupted. "I have graciously decided to bestow this latest rules change upon you in person, because its impact is so great and its scope is so vast. For a great while, I have tried to blend the old rules of the first edition books with the Second Edition, and have allowed all of you to mix-and-match between them. But this has now become impossible. Therefore, I am hereby decreeing that, from this day forward, ONLY the rules of the Second Edition Revised will be of any effect. No first edition rules will be used any longer. Not even the Other Book of Infinite Wisdom."
Unbelievable Sword gasped.
"You heard it here first," the Dungeon Master's voice declared.
"No first edition rules?!" Unbelievable Sword stammered. "You mean no more psionics? No more double specialization? No more kensai armor class and samurai damage bonus? No more artifact powers?!"
"The Dungeon Master is a merciful Dungeon Master," the Dungeon Master's voice decreed. "Behold! I hereby bestow upon the denizens of the multiverse these new rules supplements."
A flapping sound filled the sky, and then a flurry of full-sized books — a few in hardback, but most of them paperback — rained down from the heavens. Unbelievable Sword gathered up as many titles as his permanent potion of speed would let him. He glimpsed books with titles like the Guide to Castle Wisdom, the Complete Handbook of Fighter's Wisdom, the Complete Handook of Psionics Wisdom (thank God II!), the Tome of Magic Wisdom, the Book of Artifact Wisdom, the Book of Weapons and Tactics Wisdom, the Book of High-Level Campaigns Wisdom, and several others.
"And since I'm cleaning house rules-wise," the Dungeon Master's voice continued, "I might as well take care of another little thing that's been bugging me. You inhabitants of the multiverse are to stop being so darn sloppy with your terminology, and start sticking to the official typographical conventions from now on. It's not a '+5 holy avenger longsword', it's a 'longsword +5, holy avenger'. And the names of all spells and magic items have to be in italics."
Unbelievable Sword raised his eyebrows and smirked. That would annoy a lot of the old timers no end.
"I have also decided," the Dungeon Master's voice went on, "To add a few more capabilities to the the weapons master character class. The kensai's level-based armor class bonus, for example, was just too neato-keen to leave out of the multiverse entirely, so the weapons master gets to have it now. Plus, 60th level seemed like a rather arbitrary point for an upper limit on the weapons master's level-based damage bonus, especially now that samurais aren't part of Second Edition Revised; so now, a weapons master's level-based damage bonus gets to keep on increasing without any limit. I figure, hey, I invented weapons masters, I can add anything I want to them."
Unbelievable Sword breathed a sigh of relief. Under the old system, a weapons master was limited to the same maximum effective armor class of -3 that a 17th-level monk was. At least he had a way to keep his base AC of -16671 now.
"All inhabitants of the multiverse now have 48 hours to go back and re-arrange their character sheets to comply with the 2nd Edition Revised rules. You may rearrange your experience points into any character classes you like, so long as you can come up with some theoretical character progression that you could have gone through for those character classes and levels to be allowed. You can rearrange your magic items and artifact powers likewise, so long as you obey the Teeth-of-Dahlver-Nar Rule, which states that each artifact power is worth 5000 gold pieces. And don't worry about that rule in the Book of High-Level Campaigns Wisdom that limits characters to 30th level, because it's contradicted by the spell tables in the Complete Handbook of Wizard's Wisdom. But remember, you must get all your changes taken care of within 48 hours, after which time any and all classes and powers that do not follow the Second Edition Revised rules will be lost. Um . . . THE DUNGEON MASTER HAS SPOKEN!"
And with that, the crack in the sky closed, the lightning faded, and the sky returned to the blue of day as though nothing had happened.
"Well," Ringman shrugged, "Good thing I'm already abiding by the Second Edition rules, eh, Unbelievable Sword?"
He looked to the side where his companion had been, but he was long gone. "Uh . . . Unbelievable Sword? Hello?" His voice echoed more than it should have. It was then he noticed that the entire town square was deserted. "Hello?!" he called out more emphatically.
'Damn, this is going to be a tough one to pull off,' Unbelievable Sword thought as he rushed home, rulebooks in tow, at his usual 12288 feet per second outdoor movement rate. He thumbed furiously through the books as he went, looking for the rules that might save him from certain mediocrity. The Complete Handbook of Psionics Wisdom completely revamped the way psionic powers were acquired and operate. All psionic powers now had a "power score" you had to roll in order to activate them; if you wanted to raise this power score above its base value, you now had to become a new character class called a psionicist. No problem. The Dungeon Master said he could rearrange his character classes, so adding a new one to his list would be easy. In fact, the new psionicist class gained psionic strength points every time it gained a level, something the old rules didn't allow. He could have thousands of psionic strength points if he wanted to. No, wait — if he could finagle his way into having a psionic "Wild Talent" and being a psionicist at the same time, he could have hundreds of thousands of psionic strength points by gaining levels in his other classes.
Hit points were another matter. The old barbarian character class had been watered down to one of those new-fangled "fighter kits," and had lost its 12-sided hit dice, its +4 hit points per level after gaining maximum hit dice, and that insanely-high constitution hit point bonus that Unbelievable Sword so loved. Worse, the Second Edition Book of Finite Wisdom explicitly forbade the constitution hit point bonus from being added to the hit points you gained for gaining a level after your character class had earned all its hit dice. Unbelievable Sword would never again be a hit point millionaire, and would have to limp along on a paltry low-six-figure hit point total.
And the spoon of stirring was gone. That meant no more double-strength potions. He'd have to settle for his permanent potions being only at 150% effectiveness, as provided in the Book of Infinite Wisdom's table for mixing potions together.
Unbelievable Sword reached his home, seated himself at his editing desk, pulled his character sheet out from the extradimensional space above his head, and got his pens, pencil, eraser, and fresh blank character-sheet paper at the ready. But before he would dare to alter a single inkstroke, he had to finish poring over the 2nd Edition Revised rules and supplements in minute detail.
Like the barbarian, the monk, too, had been pared down to a namby-pamby kit class with none of the powers that used to make it special. It was now only a kind of priest kit called a "fighting-monk", whose only monkish trait was the ability to specialize in an unarmed fighting style — an ability that all Warrior classes now posessed anyway. Damn. That meant he couldn't keep his "evasion" ability, which was the ability to take no damage against an attack he made a saving throw against, even if the attack normally required everyone who made their saving throw to take "half" damage. The Second Edition Revised magic resistance rules would make that a moot point, though. The old first-edition Field Guide to Central Earth Wildlife had insisted that a target's magic resistance is reduced by 5% for every level the spellcaster's level is above the 11th. This made magic resistance totally useless against a spellcaster of even a low disgusting-character level. But in Second Edition Revised, that rule was gone. 100% magic resistance now meant you were totally immune to all spells and spell-like powers, no matter who cast them — neither Asmodeus, nor Demogorgon, nor Odin, nor Zeus, nor even a disgusting character could affect you with a spell.
Getting magic resistance, then, was of primary importance, and the new Book of Artifact Wisdom was the key. Appendix B, Table 24, Verse 12: +20% magic resistance. He could give that to his artifact Bracer of Unbelievable Damage 5 times, and have 100% magic resistance. Uh oh — a new spell in the Tome of Magic Wisdom called lower resistance acted as though its target's magic resistance were halved. Better take the Table 24, Verse 12 artifact power 10 times, for 200% magic resistance, just in case. Oh . . . and it looked like he wouldn't be able to call it the Bracer of Unbelievable Damage any more. The old "weapon damage is +2 hit points" major benign power had no analog in the Book of Artifact Wisdom's power tables. All right, then, he'd keep its old protection bonuses (which he'd have to change over into individual AC and saving throw bonuses), take away the old +500 points of weapon damage, add +200% magic resistance, and call it the Bracer of Unbelievable Defense. And while he was at it, adding few more protections and immunities to the Bracer couldn't hurt.
And in the process of looking for a power similar to "weapon damage is +2 hit points," he found something even better. There was an artifact power that provided double attacks per minute when the artifact was used as a weapon. Wow. Combine that with an artifact weapon in the off-hand that also had the "double attacks per minute" artifact power, make them both weapons of speed, take advantage of the grand-mastery rules the Dungeon Master had lifted from the Book of Combat and Tactics Wisdom and worked into the weapons master character class, and then, even with his permanent potion of speed knocked down to a mere 150% effectiveness, Unbelievable Sword could get a grand total of 122 attacks per minute.
Even though the Second Edition Book of Infinite Wisdom had been around for quite a while, Unbelievable Sword had skipped over any rules changes that might have weakened him. He could get away with that in the old sorta-1st-sorta-2nd Edition days, but not any longer. He had to know exactly what capabilities had been taken away from the magic items he relied on the most. He picked up the now-Revised Second Edition Book of Infinite Wisdom ("Revised" seemed to mean only some new artwork and a few fixed typos), and pored over the miscellaneous magic item section.
What he saw in the description of the scarab of protection made his blood run cold.
In the First Edition Book of Infinite Wisdom, a scarab of protection gave its wearer a saving throw against "magic" which normally allowed no saving throw. Unbelievable Sword had always interpreted this to mean he got a saving throw against things like vorpal weapon swords and arrows of slaying. After all, the head-slicing effect of a vorpal sword and the instant-death effect of an arrow of slaying were "magical" effects, against which no saving throw was allowed, right? But in Second Edition Revised, a scarab of protection only gave its wearer a saving throw against "spells" that normally allowed no saving throw. Now what could he do to protect himself against an arrow of slaying? Or worse, an arrow of slaying's slaying effect incorporated into another disgusting character's artifact weapons?
He thumbed through the spell notes in the Book of High-Level Campaigns Wisdom, searching for something therein that might help. Those "true dweomers" looked interesting, but difficult. Hmmm . . . chapter 3, on spells and magic items . . . maybe there was some clarification of the effects of a spell or item that he could — woops! One of the sentences under "potions" read:
"Temporary effects made permanent by a roll on the potion compatibility table from the Book of Infinite Wisdom can be suppressed by an antimagic shell."Unbelievable Sword growled under his breath. This was the third time the list of what an anti-magic shell did and did not affect had changed. And it still wasn't clear, when an artifact gave its possessor the ability to cast, say, a fireball spell 3 times per day, whether the fireball would have any effect inside an anti-magic shell or not. And speaking of fireball spells, he now recalled that when he'd first perused the Second Edition Book of Finite Wisdom, he read that a fireball was now limited to 10d6 maximum damage. Maybe chapter 3 in the Book of High-Level Campaigns Wisdom would lift that restriction . . . no. No such luck.
"Well," he said to himself, "At least there's still no upper limit on how much damage a cone of cold can do."
He glanced at the notes on cone of cold in the Book of High-Level Campaigns Wisdom. The words "maximum" and "10d4+10" instantly leapt out at him.
Ringman had been abiding by the Second Edition rules since they came out. He knew everything there was to know about Second Edition paladins. But now, if he were to have any hope of understanding what changes would soon be happening in the world around him, he would have to know about the rest of the Second Edition rules changes, too. Comfortably situated on Warhorse's saddle, he hauled out his well-worn copies of the Second Edition core books and perused their pages.
Surprise was rolled on a d10 now instead of a d6. The new rules also made it somewhat easier to add together the bonuses on your surprise roll. This was a fix long overdue; every other character race or character class or magic item in the first edition boasted that its possessor would be surprised "only on a roll of 1 on 1d6." Were these effects cumulative? They didn't say. But now, in Second Edition, they didn't have to — each of these effects was now phrased as a "+1 bonus" to their possessor's surprise roll, and there was no doubt that such bonuses should be added together.
The Constitution bonus to hit points no longer applied to those +3 hit points per level that Warrior classes (such as paladins) got for gaining a level after ninth level. It wasn't clear that the Constitution hit-point bonus ever did apply to these hit point gains, but now the Second Edition Book of Finite Wisdom had removed all doubt. This hadn't affected Ringman yet because he was still only 9th level, but there was always that chance that he might make it to 10th level some day and he wanted to be ready.
The magic item tables no longer listed gold piece sale values for magic items. Heh. Ringman knew a whole bunch of disgusting characters who wouldn't like that one bit. Of course, they'd probably just keep using the old price lists from the Other Book of Infinite Wisdom, even if they couldn't use the rest of the Other Book of Infinite Wisdom's rules. The miscellaneous magic item tables were divided into convenient categories, perhaps because they now required random-selection to be rolled on a d20 instead of percentile dice. The sword +6, defender and sword +6, holy avenger from the Other Book of Infinite Wisdom were conspicuously absent from the Second Edition's magic swords tables; did this mean that Prometheus was now only a +5 holy avenger again?
"Not on your life, hairface," the longsword replied from within its scabbard. Well, that settled that mystery.
Ringman perused up toward the top of the magic item tables, then lingered around the treasure generation rules. In a well-buried paragraph, coins were now declared to weigh in at 50 to the pound, instead of 10 to the pound as they had in the first edition. Finally. Then, Ringman's eye drifted down to the gem tables. The old "jewelry" table had been replaced with a more generic "objects of art" table which was in a separate category from gems altogether. The base value table for gems was absolutely identical with the one in the first edition Book of Infinite Wisdom. The table showing variation of a gem from its base value, though, was now rolled on a d6 instead of a d10, and was now only supposed to be used on ten percent of all gems found. This decreased the chances of a gem being anything but its base value, but increased the chances that it would be far above or below its base value. The rule against a gem increasing by more than 7 places from its base value was gone; now even a base 10 gold piece gem could be worth as much as a base 5000 gold piece gem, if some disgusting character were to roll the dice just right. The first footnote below the gem variation table changed the progression slightly for base value levels above 5000 gold pieces; now, above 5000 g.p., a gem simply doubled in value each time a 1 was rolled on the d6.
Then, Ringman noticed the next sentence:
"No stone can be greater than 100,000 gp."Huh. That was sure different. In the first edition Book of Infinite Wisdom's gem value tables, the absolute maximum value was 1,000,000 g.p.. This new maximum value was only a tenth of that. Well, it looked like none of those disgusting characters would be able to "randomly" find a 1,000,000 gold piece gem ever aga—
A million-gold-piece gem . . .
Four one-million-gold-piece gems . . .
And now, the most treasure a centaur could be carrying was four one-hundred-thousand-gold-piece gems. Only one-tenth the value of what they carried before. . . .
Oh. My. Deity.
Eric looked around listlessly at the dusty Pit floor around him, wondering when the end would come. He'd already missed his shot at the breeding grounds, and now, having gathered the requisite four maximum-valued gems, was waiting in his place in the Last Long Line. For some reason, the Line hadn't moved at all for several hours, and although his half-orc feeders were still hauling around their carts, he hadn't seen any of the higher-ranking Keepers in all that time. It was as though the whole Town had been deserted. He wondered if it had anything to do with that crack in the sky that had talked about those rules changes. Such things hardly mattered to a centaur in the Centaur Pits, but they might be important to the Centaur Pits' customers.
He squinted at a formation off in the distance. A cloud of dust, perhaps kicked up by the hooves of a horse (or another centaur), was approaching from a direction seldom used by visitors. As the cause of the dust cloud rode into view over the rim of the pit, he caught the gleam of mithral-alloyed armor.
"Ringman!" Eric shouted, waving his arms. He was so overjoyed to see a familiar face that he almost stepped out of the Line. As Ringman approached close enough for Eric to make out his face, however, his excitement faded to concern. Ringman looked like he had just seen a ghost.
"You look like you've just seen a ghost," Eric commented.
"Worse," Ringman answered. "Much worse. Look at the gems you're carrying!"
"I've got four of them now," Eric shrugged, opening his gem pouch. He furrowed his brow as he looked inside. "I could have sworn these gems were bigger than this."
"They were," Ringman explained, "Until that latest edict from the Dungeon Master."
"You mean that talking crack in the sky?" Eric asked.
"Yeah," Ringman replied, "That was the Dungeon Master. He said that from now on, only the Second Edition Revised rules will be in effect. One of the changes between the First and Second Editions of the Book of Infinite Wisdom was that the maximum possible value for gems found as part of a treasure hoard went down. Way down. It used to be a million gold pieces, but now it's only a hundred thousand gold pieces. All of the gems that you and all the rest of the centaurs here are carrying are now worth only a tenth of what they were yesterday! That means that when someone kills one of you and takes your four gems, they'll only get 400,000 experience points out of the deal instead of 4,000,000!"
"Well, that's good news!" Eric's face brightened. "Now they won't have as much of a reason to want to kill us!"
"No no no!" Ringman shook his head violently. "Don't you get it? If you're only worth one-tenth as many experience points, they'll have to kill ten times as many of you to get the same effect! Everyone who wanted to get to, say, Unbelievable Sword's experience level used to need to kill about twenty thousand of you — but now, they'll need to kill two hundred thousand of you!"
"Oh my goodness," Eric's face fell.
"There'll be mass centaur slaughter on a scale that's never been seen before!" Ringman implored. "We can't let this happen!!"
Eric glanced at the half-orcs trundling along with their feed carts, and remembered the harsh edicts that the Keepers taught to every centaur. "But what can we do about it?"
Ringman looked around, too, at the throng upon throng of centaurs stretching out as far as the eye could see, and narrowed his gaze into resolve. "We leave this place. All of us. Every last centaur. My Deity, I should have stood up for you like this even before your gems got devalued. The way you've been treated just isn't right. We get out of the mines, we get out of the Line, we get out of the Pits. We never come back. And we never, ever, let your keepers — or anyone else — pen you up like cattle again."
"We centaurs can do that?" Eric asked.
"You and the rest of the centaurs here in the Pits," Ringman explained, "Have been living as experience-point fodder for so many generations that you've been born into it. You don't remember a time when it was otherwise. But enslavement is not your natural state. Centaurs have not always lived and died like this, and some of them still don't!"
Many of the other centaurs waiting in the Line started listening to the paladin.
"There are a few small bands of centaurs out there in the wild," Ringman continued, "Still living free, like they have since they first appeared on Central Earth."
A half-orc pulled his feed cart up next to the Line. Even the centaurs who had been listening to Ringman with rapt attention scooped the feed into their hands out of instinct. Eric munched on a handful of the stuff himself, then asked with alarm, "But if we leave, how will we eat?"
Ringman looked into the cart and smiled. "This stuff they feed you is nothing more than hay and alfalfa. It grows on the sides of hills in practically limitless quantities. You're just not used to seeing it because you've been in this dust-floored pit all your lives. Centaurs can literally live off of the grass in the fields!"
The paladin drew Prometheus from its sheath and held it high for all to see. "Spread the word, Eric! Spread the word, all of you! We are leaving the Centaur Pits before your Keepers return!" He urged Warhorse to start trotting, so that he could give his speech to other centaurs that were too far away to hear him the first time. "This may be the only chance you have to escape certain death!"
Hear me now, O thou bleak and unbearable world,
Thou art base and debauched as can be —
And a knight with his banners all bravely unfurl'd
Now hurls down his gauntlet to thee!
I am I, I am Ringman, deliv'rer of centaurs,
Our destiny calls and we go —
And the wild winds of fortune shall carry us onward
Oh, withersoever they blow.
Withersoever they blow,
Onward to freedom we go!
". . . and since paladins don't get those cavalier level-based to-hit and damage bonuses anymore," Unbelievable Sword said to himself, "I won't have any reason to raise my paladin class to 50 018th level any more, either. That'll free up another 13-and-a-half billion experience points. Hey! Put that together with the 51 billion experience points I saved by not being an anti-barbarian, samurai, or kensai, and I think I can afford to raise both my Weapons Master and my Mage character classes up to hundred-thousandth level!" He did a few quick calculations on his +6 abacus of colossal calculation. "Dang! Not quite enough. But I can afford to raise them to ninety-seven-thousandth level each." He scratched some numbers onto his new character sheet draft. "Good thing, too, 'cause that Book of Arms and Equipment Wisdom introduced a whole slew of new weapons I'll need to spend weapon proficiency slots on. Including a real falchion — which is now classified as a two-handed weapon. Heh. I guess ol' Fantastic Falchion will have to give up wielding a weapon in each hand, if she wants to keep her name. But, hey, as a 97 000th level weapons master, I'll get 32 334 weapon proficiency slots, which'll be more than enough to quadruple-specialize in every weapon known to exist and still have 30 000 or so slots left over. Not to mention all the weapon proficiency slots I'll get from my other classes. Oh, and speaking of my other classes, I still have enough experience points left over to . . ."
The commotion outside his door drew him out of his reverie. He looked out through the portal spell — er, window — to see a throng dashing madly through the streets of Town. They were making quite a racket and seemed to be in a near-panic. 'Odd,' Unbelievable Sword thought, 'The 48 hours aren't up yet. There's still a few hours to go before they lose their unused experience points. Why are they running around like chickens with their heads cut off?'
Unbelievable Sword opened his front door and addressed a random passerby. "What's going on?"
"bblbblbblbblbblbbl!" the man gibbered, freaked out beyond rational speech.
Unbelievable Sword switched to telepathy. 'Haven't you heard?' the panicked man's thoughts echoed in Unbelievable Sword's head. 'The centaurs! The centaurs in the centaur pits! They're gone!'
"Gone?!" Unbelievable Sword blurted out loud. "Impossible! There were over a billion of them! How could anyone carry them all away?!" The man he'd read the mind of had run away screaming by now, but Unbelievable Sword continued speaking, sorting out the possibilities: "Sure, anyone with Atlas Strength could lift a billion centaurs, but first he'd have to get them all together in one place. The Centaur Pits stretch on for leagues and leagues. Hmmm . . . maybe if the perpetrator was a 50 000th level mage and cast Enlarge on himself. That'd make him grow by 500 000%, or a factor of 5000, which for a 6-foot-tall humanoid would make him about five-and-a-half miles tall. That would be enough to run around the pits and pick up all the centaurs in a few hours, but he'd still need either a giant tweezer or a giant strainer to pick them all out. I'd better go look for giant footprints."
Unbelievable Sword went outside, closed and wizard-locked his front door, then trotted over to the Centaur Pits at his new pure-Second-Edition outdoor movement rate of 15 360 feet per second. A dense, impenetrable crowd was gathered at the rim of the Pits. Unbelievable Sword would have liked to use the gauntlet of make way on them, to make the crowd spontaneously part and let him pass, except there was no such magic item in this multiverse. He had to fly over their heads for a look.
The Pits were eerie in their emptiness. Picks, shovels, and other digging tools littered the ground right next to where they'd most recently been used. Mining cars, filled to the brim with the most valuable gems in existence, looked like they'd been abandoned on the railroad tracks midway to their destinations. Even though railroad tracks hadn't been invented yet. All around lay enough hundred-thousand-gold-piece gems to finance a prime material plane sized army, yet not a living soul stirred for as far as the eye could see. Sure, a few scavengers from Town who needed extra cash might go down and pick up some of these gems, but without the hands of a centaur to hold them, the miraculous process by which their gold-piece value could be turned into almighty Experience Points would never happen.
And, worse, there were no giant footprints anywhere in the Pits. Darn it, the 50 000th level mage who cast Enlarge on himself and picked up all those centaurs must've also cast a fly spell to keep from leaving any tracks. Apparently, this centaur rustler was quite cunning, in addition to being a disgusting character. Hmmm . . . maybe Unbelievable Sword could use one of the powers of his new Psionicist class to unravel this mystery. Still hovering in midair, he hauled out his new copy of the Complete Handbook of Psionics Wisdom, and thumbed through the "Clairsentient Sciences" section. He'd given himself every Science and Devotion in the book, but still hadn't had time to look up what these powers actually did. Hmmm . . . the old Sensitivity to Psychic Impressions power from First Edition was still there. Maybe he could use that to . . .
Something at the far rim of the Pits caught his eye. He wafted a little higher for a better view. Aha! There were no giant-sized footprints in the Pits, but the perpetrator had left some sort of impression on the ground outside the far end of the Pits. Unbelievable Sword donned his Eyes of the Eagle for a better look. He squinted, then did a double-take and blinked hard, not quite able to believe what he saw. The impressions on the ground looked like millions upon millions of hoof prints.
Could the centaur rustler have cast a big enough mass charm spell to make these centaurs walk out of the pit under their own power?
No, that was impossible. All the victims of a mass charm spell had to fit within one 30-foot cube. Likewise, Mass Suggestion only had a 30-foot range. And the perpetrator couldn't've created the illusion of empty Centaur Pits while the centaurs were still in them, because Unbelievable Sword's robe of eyes would've seen right through it. Maybe the rustler cast mass charm several million times . . . no, casting any spell now took at least an entire minute under Second Edition rules, and with tempus fugit no longer available to boost the spellcaster's speed, the rustler wouldn't've been able to cast more than a couple thousand spells in the two days since the Dungeon Master's big announcement.
Well, there was only one quick way for Unbelievable Sword to find out how the perpetrator did it. He'd have to follow that trail of hoof prints leading out and away from the Pits. He cancelled his fly spell, feather-fell to the ground, and took off at his new on-foot movement rate of 15 360 feet per second.
At that speed, Unbelievable Sword caught sight of the dust clouds kicked up by the rearmost centaurs in under 20 seconds. The whole pack came into view a few seconds later — and even to a seasoned disgusting character like Unbelievable Sword, the sight took his breath away. The mob of half-man-half-horses stretched nearly forty miles in all directions. They stood nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, each marching or plodding at his or her own pace, each unable to see more than a few hundred yards ahead or behind and yet each all headed, inexorably, in the same direction. It was a mass exodus that would have turned Cecil B. DeMille green with envy, if Cecil B. DeMille had been invented yet. It took Unbelievable Sword nearly ten whole seconds to find the leftmost flank of the group, move past it, and come back around to the front-and-center of this vast "formation" — where the perpetrator would doubtlessly be leading them.
And, on horseback in front of the whole mob, there rode the last man on Central Earth that Unbelievable Sword had expected to see.
"Grampa?!" Unbelievable Sword blurted.
"Hi, Unbelievable Sword!" the paladin beamed, never slackening his horse's stride.
The disgusting character shook his head with incredulity. "You?! You kidnapped the entire population of the Centaur Pits?!! But how?!"
"I didn't kidnap them," Ringman explained. "They're following me of their own free will."
"But . . . but that's impossible!" Unbelievable Sword insisted, hauling out his copy of the Book of Finite Wisdom, Second Edition. "You're only Charisma 17! The Charisma chart clearly limits you to a maximum of 10 henchmen."
"They're not my henchmen," Ringman countered. "They're not loyal servants willing to die at my beck and call, or any such nonsense. They're following me because I'm their best chance to gain their freedom! They're acting on their best interests, not mine. All I did was tell them that they didn't have to be cattle any more — that there are centaurs on Central Earth living their own lives — and that I could lead them to where those free centaurs lived."
"But who'd you get to cast the mass suggestion or hypnosis spell on them?" his grandson asked.
"Nobody cast any spells on them!" the paladin stammered. "Nobody used any magic of any kind on them. Nobody used any magic items on them, nobody used any psionic powers on them, nobody spiked their food or drinking water with anything, nobody planted any seeds of evil in their mothers' wombs, nobody implanted any suggestions inside of any bard songs, nobody used a super-high Charisma score to get a good roll on the reaction table — nobody did anything but convince them of the truth!"
"So," Unbelievable Sword deduced, "You used an artifact, then?"
"NO!!" Ringman shouted. "Nothing! Don't you get it? They. Are. Doing. This. Of. Their. Own. Free. Will!"
Unbelievable Sword stopped in his tracks, stunned. The idea that the centaurs could leave on their own simply had not occurred to him. He had to shake himself back to his senses to avoid getting run over by a centaur — not that getting trampled would have hurt him through his permanent potion of invulnerability, of course, but he'd still have lost several style points.
"Are you trying to tell me," Unbelievable Sword drawled, incredulous, "That they're doing this of their own free will?"
"GAH!!" Ringman screamed, tearing at his hair in exasperation. "Yes! That's what I've been telling you for the last minute-and-a-half!! Geez! Aren't you supposed to have a 25 Intelligence?!"
"Only because there aren't any rules for Intelligences higher than 25," Unbelievable Sword quipped, then mumbled, "Believe me, I looked."
The clip-clop, clip-clop of millions of hoofbeats following along behind them blended together into a low, roaring hiss, like the dull roar of an enormous, distant waterfall. The afternoon sun gleaming off Ringman's full plate armor +4, he pointed at a verdant hill far off ahead. "That hill is where we're going to camp for the night," he told his grandson. "All that fresh, green grass should make excellent grazing. It'll be the first time any of these centaurs have eaten real grass!"
"Um," Unbelievable Sword began, "You know, most of Town is in a panic right now. The Centaur Pits are empty. They've lost the single richest source of experience points on all of Central Earth."
"In the whole multiverse, probably," Ringman replied. "Central Earth has such a big reputation for cranking out disgusting characters they even know about it over on Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt. But you know what? As far as I can tell, the denizens of Central Earth can live and get along just fine without having experience points on tap to guzzle down whenever they feel like it. But the centaurs can't!" he pleaded. "Centaurs aren't just some natural resource you can harvest to feed the economy — they're living, breathing, feeling, thinking individuals!"
"Good God II," Unbelievable Sword said, "You've turned into a hippie!"
"A what?" the paladin asked.
"Er, scratch that," his grandson replied. "Hippies haven't been invented yet. Look, grampa, I know you've always held a personal grudge against disgusting characters. We're the ones with all the power in the multiverse. Deities tremble at our presence. We can move mountains — Hell, we can move whole planets if we want to. And this power can be used to make real, deep, plane-spanning differences, not just for the sake of power, but for the ultimate betterment of the multiverse. But we can't gain this power without a serious source of experience points!"
"Does your 'source of experience points' have to come at this cost?" Ringman asked, taking in the whole super-herd of centaurs following him with a sweep of his arm.
"Sadly," Unbelievable Sword answered, "That's the way the multiverse works. One person's experience points come only at the cost of another creature's defeat."
"And what about those 'differences' you claim disgusting characters can make? What improvements have come as the result of the actions of disgusting characters? You haven't eliminated wars, you've caused them to escalate. You haven't reduced poverty, because the non-disgusting characters of the multiverse are just as bad off today as they were three decades ago." He thumbed over his shoulder at the centaurs, concluding: "And you certainly haven't done anything about oppression."
Unbelievable Sword licked his lower lip, trying to phrase what he wanted to say as delicately as possible. "Now, I know you don't fully understand this; you were a respected paladin in your youth because you followed the rules and didn't cheat, but 28 years ago when the first disgusting characters came into the public eye, they left you behind in the dust. And you resent it. Even with all the righteous virtue that's supposed to come with being a paladin, you're jealous of it. Believe me, I understand. I still feel jealous sometimes, when I look at all the other people on Central Earth that have become disgusting characters too. I hate the thought of someone eventually dethroning me as the most disgusting disgusting character. But I don't try to stop them from pursuing their dreams. You, though, you'd rather have everybody gain their experience points at the same slow crawl that you have to put up with. And what have you gained by it? Huh? What mountains have you moved? What have you done about war, poverty, or oppression? What can you accomplish, what can you really do as just a ninth-level by-the-book paladin?"
Defensively, Ringman tried to think of a come-back . . . then he broke into a slow smile and answered, "I can lead a billion centaurs to freedom."
Unbelievable Sword looked down and away, and pursed his lips. "Point taken." He looked back up into the paladin's eyes. "But you know they're not going to sit still for this. There are a whole lot of newly-minted disgusting characters out there who haven't gotten all the experience points they want yet, and even some veterans who've been hoping to fatten their kitty, and they're going to come after these centaurs whether they're in the Pits or out here in the open."
"They'll be pretty disappointed if they come after these centaurs now," Ringman said smugly. "I made certain before we started our exodus from the Centaur Pits that they left every last gemstone behind. The 'wealth' they'd been forced to carry was the whole reason they were getting put through that meat-grinder in the Centaur Pits to begin with. If they're not carrying any gems, they're not going to be worth any more experience points than any other 4-hit-die monster."
'Like a taxi cab with a sign saying "Driver carries no cash",' Unbelievable Sword thought, blithely ignoring the fact that taxi cabs hadn't been invented yet. "Okay," he said aloud. "Tell you what. I won't fight by your side on this, but I'll be willing to help you out some. I'll try and keep the rest of Town off your back. I'm a 97 000th level weapons master and a 97 010th level mage now; even the more disgusting among the disgusting characters will think twice before challenging me."
Ringman smiled. "Thanks."
Unbelievable Sword's mouth curled into a wry grin. "After all, as long as the Centaur Pits are out of commission, nobody'll be able to get enough experience points to surpass me. I'll get to play king of the hill for a little while longer than I would have otherwise."
"Oh, wait," Ringman added, "There's one other thing you can do for me. Use one of those interdimensional communication powers of yours to get a message to my wife. Tell her . . . tell her I'll be late getting back."
"Will do," Unbelievable Sword nodded.
"And tell Danny," Ringman sighed, "That I love him. No matter what he's become."
Unbelievable Sword didn't need a medallion of ESP with empathy to see the pain in his grandfather's eyes. "How do you feel?" he asked.
Ringman clicked his tongue, then began, "Danny's a good kid, deep down somewhere, I know it; but —"
"Er, no no," Unbelievable Sword waved a hand from side to side, "I meant, how do you feel about this whole mess you've gotten yourself into with the centaurs?"
Ringman gazed off at the green hills in the distance, and tightened his grip on Warhorse's reins. "I feel exhilarated. I haven't felt this good since I led the townspeople against Omnion's zombie invasion twenty-eight years ago. This — this is why I'm a paladin! I have a cause to fight for now!"
Unbelievable Sword backed away slowly, and started heading back toward Town. 'Hoo boy,' he thought. 'I don't care if they haven't been invented yet; Ringman has turned into a hippie!'
The Intercontinental Proliferation of Disgusting Characters is continued in chapter 6.
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