The night had not gone well. Centaurs could subsist on grass alone for a short while but, as Ringman quickly discovered, they needed to supplement this diet with high-protein food sources. The feed in the feed carts had been more than just hay and alfalfa. Free centaurs probably fished and hunted wild game for their protein. Ringman tried to teach the centaurs how to fashion crude hunting spears out of straight tree branches and sharp rocks, but it was slow going. These centaurs had never held anything other than mining tools.
The lack of adequate fresh water at their campsite hadn't helped, either. Despite all this, the centaurs' spirits still seemed high. Eric had worked his way through several crowds that had congregated around makeshift campfires and chatted up a storm. Sure, they knew that their current situation was full of more unknowns than it had been at the pits, but for the time being, their hopes outweighed their concerns. Ringman greeted this news with profound relief when Eric told him about it.
Ringman was also grateful to have a new friend like Eric to talk to, so far from home and so cut off from the people he cared about the most.
The mega-herd of man-horses couldn't keep on wandering in the wilderness like this indefinitely. But fortunately, they wouldn't have to. Several miles past the other side of the hill they'd just camped at was a vast clearing, rumored to be home to a large village of centaurs. Free centaurs. Centaurs living in their own community as they always had, never having been forced into slave labor or used as experience-point fodder. Ringman would only have to lead his centaurs that far. ("His" centaurs? Ringman searched his feelings. Weren't they their own centaurs now that they'd been set free? Then why was he still leading them as a group? Why did he call them "his" centaurs as though it was a given? Yes, he did feel responsible for each and every one of them. Until they were united with members of their own kind who could show them what it meant to be free centaurs, they were "his.")
Ringman broke camp and began blazing a trail over the hill, the mass exodus following close behind him. He hoped that the rumor about the village of centaurs was more than just a rumor, and that the village would be big enough and friendly enough to greet a billion newcomers with open arms. . . .
Meanwhile, in the first circle of Hell . . .
Her half-elven eyes drank in the vastness of the cave's vaulted ceiling. She felt a little anxious, but mostly exhilarated. This was the first change of scenery she'd had in twenty-eight long, mind-numbing years. Where she was, who had summoned her, why she was here — she didn't care. All she cared about was that she was here. She was someplace vast, and dark, and cavernous, someplace lit by torches made of solid gold, someplace dripping with splendor and power and excess, and most importantly, someplace without one single article of dirty laundry anywhere to be found.
For whatever reason, Omnion was at last getting a break from washing underpants.
She sat down in the center of the room, just sat right down on the floor. She could feel the cold of the stone even through the plush shag carpeting. That little twinge of cold was the most refreshing thing she'd felt in nearly three decades. Normally, the flames of Hell surrounded her and licked away at her incessantly. Her permanent potion of fire resistance at 150% effectiveness ensured that the flames never hurt her, of course, but that didn't mean that the flames hadn't gotten annoying after a while. And that constant weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth from the other denizens of Hell going on around her all the time, day in, day out, was more annoying still. But for this brief, fleeting moment in eternity, both the wailings and the flames were silent. She stared at the ceiling — past the ceiling, at infinity — and let herself become lost in the magnificent solitude.
"Okay," she let her voice reverberate off the cavern walls after satiating herself. "Whoever you are that gave me this reprieve, I thank you. But I know you wouldn't pluck me out of the middle of serving my sentence if you didn't think you had some use for me. You might as well show yourself and tell me what you want."
Slow, thundrous footsteps approached from an adjoining hall, like the beat of an approaching bass drum. Omnion had a good idea of whom those footsteps belonged to. Soon enough, a thick, stubby clawed foot stomped into view, and then the five variously-colored dragon heads that the foot belonged to pulled themselves into view as well. The five pairs of saurian eyes that stared out of those heads glared with a baleful intensity but betrayed a deep fear.
"Tiamat!" Omnion smirked. "Well! I guess I have you to thank for giving me this little coffee break from all that washboard scrubbing. I'm touched that you'd think of me. So, what kind of assistance do you need from a dead lawful-evil half-elven fighter/mage/thief?"
"As you may know," the dragon's red and green heads began in unison, "I have recently been defeated in battle on another plane."
"Tsk tsk tsk," Omnion made clicking noises. "What'd you do, accidentally show your face on Central Earth?"
"I'm not that stupid," her black head rolled its eyes. Her white head chimed in, "I wasn't anywhere near Central Earth when it happened. In fact, I was on an entirely different plane. I'd found out that a new Bahamut had recently been born, and I thought I might be able to stomp him out while he was still a child. BUT WOULDN'T YOU KNOW IT," all five heads boomed at once, "RINGMAN THE PALADIN WAS ON THAT PLANE!" Her blue head continued, "That Goody Two-Shoes ninth level by-the-book wimp has more connections than an AOL modem farm during Spring break!"
"Modems haven't been invented yet," Omnion interrupted.
The chromatic dragon's green head ignored her comment: "Ringman decided to play the valiant defender and try to 'vanquish the dragon.' What could I do? I couldn't just let him take potshots at me. I'm the lord high goddess of all evil dragons! I have a reputation to uphold, after all. I was going to zap him back into the dust from which he came, but wouldn't'cha know it, one of his disgusting character relatives showed up from out of nowhere and blasted me to flinders!"
"Yeah yeah," Omnion rolled her eyes, "Like you didn't see that coming. Cry me a river, quintuple-halitosis-face."
Tiamat's red head went on: "Ringman foiled my plans the previous time, too. If I can eliminate Ringman, his disgusting character allies will lose interest in me and I can carry out my plans for draconic conquest in peace. But thanks to my most recent defeat, I am now condemned to remain here, in the first circle of Hell, for the next ten years. I need someone else to wipe out Ringman for me."
"And you want me to be that someone?" Omnion quipped.
"You were the logical choice," the black dragon-head responded. "Ringman was the one who killed you, too. I would think the grudge would have seethed in you long enough by now to drive you to the brink of madness. And besides, we're both lawful evil, which ought to count for something."
Omnion shook her head. "Truth is, Ringman never irked me all that much. Plus, I kinda mellowed after I got here — not even the mention of Sick Sword's name could send the bile rising in my throat like it used to. Heck, I was even a little sorry for her when I heard her son had annihilated her soul."
Tiamat's blue head grinned. "Turning Sick Sword's son to evil was my idea, you know."
"Well, duh," Omnion rolled her eyes again.
"So," Tiamat's green head began, "You won't—"
"Even if I did want to," Omnion interrupted her, "I can't. I'm under a 999 year sentence to wash Hell's laundry, and I can't leave Hell until that sentence is finished. I'm in the same predicament you are, only mine's gonna last longer."
Tiamat rubbed her white chin in thought. "You're stuck here in Hell, serving out your sentence . . . because you died lawful evil . . . but . . . but what if you were raised from the dead?"
Omnion furrowed her brow in thought. "It would be as though I'd never been dead. My sentence would be lifted — no, erased. But who'd ever get the urge to raise me from the dead?"
Tiamat's green head whispered, "I could raise you from the dead."
"You?" Omnion snorted. "You can't even cast clerical spells!"
"There are other ways of raising someone from the dead besides casting raise dead from ones own spells," her black head explained.
"And even if you could," Omnion said, "I've been dead for over 28 years. That's way past the expiration date for any raise dead spell."
Tiamat pondered this, then remarked with her green head, "It's not too late for a resurrection spell, though."
"Wouldn't matter," Omnion shook her head. "My corpse has been scattered to the four winds. Even a resurrection spell requires some little intact piece of its recipicent, in order to work."
The chromatic dragon goddess's green head puzzled. "You mean you didn't cut off one of your toes and keep it in a safe at home, in case you needed to be resurrected?"
The half-elf shrugged, "It didn't occur to me at the time."
All five dragon heads stared down at the floor, dejected. Then, suddenly, the blue and white heads brightened and chirped, "I could wish you back to life!"
"You mean a wish spell?" Omnion queried. "A wish spell can bring someone back from the dead? Without a corpse?"
"Sure!" the blue head answered. "A wish spell can do anything! Er, provided nobody's anti-magic shell or magic resistance or scarab of protection saving throw gets in the way, of course. A raise dead or resurrection spell requires a corpse, or a part of a corpse, sure; but why would you need a corpse to be wished back from the dead?"
"Um," Omnion pondered, working out the details in her head, "But wish is a ninth-level spell. The Field Guide to Central Earth Wildlife says that you can't cast any spells higher than fifth-level."
The red head glanced at various piles of treasure sequestered in the corners of the cave, while the white head replied, "I could always use a ring of multiple wishes or a luck blade sword. If I could find one somewhere in all of this stuff. Damn, there's too many nooks and crannies around here for a ring to worm its way into. I know I toasted a knight two centuries ago who was carting around some pretty keen magic items — where'd I put my trophies of that battle?" She peered around with all five heads, then sighed. "That's the trouble with being a deity," her black head grumbled. "You live longer than your memory lasts. But hey! You know, I don't have to be the one to wish you back to life. You could cast the wish spell on yourself!"
"I . . ." Omnion began, then trailed off.
"Why not? Just because you're dead doesn't mean you're not still a 49th-level mage. Heck, Ridiculous Sword brought herself back to life eighteen years ago, and she only had to use a piddling fifth-level raise dead spell to do it. If she can do that, you should certainly be able to do more by using a wish."
"Wish," Omnion whispered to herself. Then her brow furrowed and her eyes narrowed. "Do you mean to tell me," she droned through clenched teeth, her eyes flaring, "That all this time, all twenty-eight of these years, I could have just wished my way out of Hell?!"
Tiamat looked innocently at the ceiling, a smug smirk on her five faces.
Omnion seethed. She thought about lashing out at the one who had delivered this "bad" news to her; even though Omnion was a multi-classed character, killing Tiamat on her home plane would give her enough x.p. for a couple of levels. But then, she remembered: "Oh, wait. That wouldn't have worked anyway. I only had one wish spell memorized on the day I was killed, and I used up that one-and-only wish spell trying to teleport all my magic items back onto my person. Hmph. And I didn't even get to finish that damn spell, either!"
"You only memorized one?" Tiamat's red head asked.
"Yeah," moaned Omnion. "I figured on getting it back when I got ahold of my 9th level pearl of power. I'd had a second wish spell memorized until a few days earlier, but I used that one up and never re-memorized it. Cripes, do you have any idea how many hours of the day you have to waste just to memorize one lousy ninth-level spell?"
The dragon-goddess shrugged — not that a being with five dragon heads can shrug very convincingly. "Time isn't so important when you're a deity."
"I don't suppose," Omnion quipped, "That you have any spell books lying around with a wish spell in them, which I could rememorize it from?"
Tiamat grinned and shook her heads. "No no; you know my spell books only go up to fifth level."
The lawful-evil half-elven fighter/mage/thief rubbed her chin, then said, "You know . . . I don't have a wish spell memorized . . . but I do still have a limited wish spell memorized."
Tiamat's blue head's saurian brow furrowed. "That wouldn't be enough to bring you back to life, would it?"
"I think," Omnion searched her memory, "That one of the things you're supposed to be able to do with a limited wish spell is get the effects of a full wish spell for a limited time. Like how you can use it to heal all your damage for part of a day, after which the wounds reappear."
"But if you limited wished yourself back to life," the draconic black head speculated, "You'd only be able to stay alive for a few hours, at most."
Omnion smirked. "A girl can do a lot of damage in a few hours."
All ten of Tiamat's eyes twinkled at the idea.
Omnion continued the thought, "In fact, a few hours is enough time to scrounge up a ring of multiple wishes or a luck blade sword from the Black Magic Market for Black Market Magic. Then I could wish myself back to life permanently."
"You mean puhhhhmanently," the chromatic dragon corrected her.
"Puhhhhmanently," Tiamat's black head explained. "You have to say it like a James Bond super-villain. You know? Like," she shifted into a Goldfinger voice, "'I want this little problem taken care of, puhhhhmanently.'"
Omnion folded her arms. "James Bond —"
All five of Tiamat's heads finished her sentence, "HASN'T BEEN INVENTED YET. I KNOW! SHEESH!"
"Okay, okay," Omnion acquiesced. "Anyhow, I could limited wish myself back to life on Central Earth. And I could get hold of a magic item that enables me to cast a full wish, thus making my return from the dead into a lifetime deal, so to speak. But . . ." she took a deep breath, "But, I won't."
Tiamat glared at her. "You . . . won't?"
Omnion sighed. "No. Have you seen what Central Earth is like these days? It's oozing disgusting characters from every pore. I used to think of myself as the most powerful being in the multiverse, but against any one of this new crop of disgusting characters I'd be mowed down faster than you could say '50,000th level weapons master.' And if a person with my reputation were to show her face on Central Earth again, every disgusting character in Town would be vying for the opportunity to be the one who killed Omnion the second time. I wouldn't be able to get close enough to Ringman to wipe him out before getting sliced and diced myself. And then, I'd be right back in Hell washing dirty laundry, and my 999 year sentence would start all over again from the beginning!"
Tiamat's heads drooped as fast as her spirit did. "Criminy. You really don't bear any grudge against your killer, do you? Perhaps I should not have summoned you here to begin with."
"Now now," Omnion reminded her hostess, "I can still use that limited wish spell of mine to bring somebody else back from the dead for you."
"You'd do that for me?" Tiamat asked.
"If you let me stay here in your lair for a while," Omnion answered. "Damn, but I hate doing Hell's landry."
Tiamat's green head narrowed its gaze. "You're not gonna try to kill me for the experience points while my back is turned, are you?"
Omnion snorted. "I could do that with just my psionic powers and one hand tied behind my back, whether your back was turned or not. If I wanted your x.p., you'd be annihilated by now."
"Okay, then," Tiamat agreed, "It's a deal. You scratch the scaly hide on my back, I scratch yours. Now, who am I going to find who'd be willing to assassinate Ringman?"
Omnion shrugged. "Wild Max is an assassin. And I think he's still alive."
"He's not an assassin any more," Tiamat replied. "Can't be. Assassins got taken out of the rules in Second Edition."
"Oh yeah," remembered Omnion. "Forgot about the sweeping changes that latest edict from the Dungeon Master must have made. That must explain why Rasper the Pit Fiend renovated the sign over Hell's entrance gate — it used to say, 'Welcome to the First Circle of Hell,' and now it just says, 'Welcome to Avernus.' And they took down that cute little placard that said 'Arbeit Macht Frei,' too. Something about it being too kitschy. And heck! I used to be a fighter/magic-user/thief, and now I'm a fighter/mage/thief. Not to mention how my psionics got all screwed around."
"I kinda like the change," Tiamat said. "Sure, I'm not in the Fieldous Guidous to Centralous Earthous Wildlife, like I was in the First Edition days; but according to my entry in the Book of Draconomicon Wisdom, my armor class just went from 0 to -15! Plus, you should see how much more damage my breath weapons can do now. And best of all, it'll take that new Bahamut an extra 800 years to age into godhood."
"Yeah, but no assassin class?" the half-elf countered. "Now who're you going to get to do your dirty work?"
Tiamat pondered. "I'd need someone who really has it in for Ringman. Someone who hates that ninth-level by-the-book paladin as much as I do. And who'd be willing to risk getting turned into mincemeat on Central Earth."
"And why would anyone be willing to take that chance?" Omnion wondered. "Even the lord high goddess of all evil dragonkind couldn't offer such a person any reward that would be worth the risk."
"Unless," Tiamat mused, "That person were so despicable, so vile, so rotten that he'd be willing to do it just for the vengeance, or just for the sheer thrill of the kill."
"Hmmm . . ." the dragon-goddess and the half-elf pondered in unison.
Georgo woke from his lazy afternoon nap, his head still resting on his mate's equestrian flanks. The birds in the tree overhead twittered their occasional calls and challenges to one another, as they had done for as long as he could remember, and went about their daily tasks blissfully unaware of the throng of centaurs resting underfoot. The early morning hunt had been good today — the best Georgo had had all year, in fact. Tonight they would feast on venison, cooked by some of the most skilled culinary hands in the village.
Georgo let his eyes scan slowly over the distant horizon, following the contours of the verdant mountains ringing their clearing. He'd heard of people who lived on the other sides of those mountains — he'd seen two of them, both elves, pass through the village in his lifetime. He even ventured up to the top of one of those hills, a long time ago, and looked out at the land beyond. But he'd never worked up the urge to journey into one of those other lands, to walk down the other side of that hill and view the new, strange place up close. He just wasn't that curious or adventurous. Besides, no land looked as majestic up close as it did from a hilltop view. And, for that matter, no hilltop looked as beautiful up close as it did from the valley below. There was the glittering, snow-capped peak of Mount Arg^ento off beyond the lake to the north; the low, rolling curve of the Okcidenta Range off to the west; the twin peaks of the Mamo Sisters off to the south; and far off to the east, there was . . .
That was strange. It looked like there were clouds rising from the far eastern hills. Smoke clouds? Were the hills on fire? No, it was too early in the year for fire season. And the clouds were the wrong color. They were neither black, nor white, but tan. As though they were made of . . . rising dust.
"Kio en la nomo de c^ielo?" Georgo muttered.
And now that he'd pricked his ears up, he could definitely make out a sound coming from the direction of that dust cloud. It reminded him of rolling thunder, or a gigantic, distant waterfall. He listened intently for another moment. It almost seemed to be getting closer. He didn't know what to make of this new, strange phenomenon, but if it was indeed getting closer, he and his compatriots ought to be on their guard. He pushed on his mate's horsehair-covered flank to rouse her. "Lindo!" he spoke her name, "Lindo, vekig^u! Io venas!"
When Ringman first looked out at this vast valley and saw the distant, expansive signs of settlement — and the freshwater lake on whose southern shore the settlement had probably been established — he couldn't have been more overjoyed. The rumors were true! There was a centaur village here — a big one! His centaurs would be camping out with their own kind, swapping stories with their newfound brethren by the light of village campfires this very evening. He couldn't wait to descend the western slope of the hill and cross the rest of the plain in triumph. And now, here he was, just a few miles from that goal. With every step of his horse, he grew more excited — and more anxious. How did foreign groups of centaurs usually respond to each other? Would there be enough fresh water and space for a billion extra horse-sized people? Heck, how long could this many centaurs be cloistered together before their manure became a problem? One centaur could poop nearly as much as a full-sized horse, as Ringman had quickly discovered last night. He'd never given much thought to horse manure before, simply because Warhorse was a magical horse and therefore produced no waste products. And in addition to all these worries, there was bound to be some other glitch, something he was forgetting, some other problem that would gum up the works and complicate his plans, lurking there like an unidentified bag of devouring right under his nose.
And then, he saw the other centaurs. The free centaurs. Their first representatives were approaching from the outskirts of their village. Coming up to meet and greet this new crowd of a billion unwashed centaurs, not attack them, he hoped. He also hoped that the hunting spears he'd helped his centaurs fashion last night wouldn't be misconstrued as weapons of war.
The first natives finally walked within easy earshot — they were carrying weapons of their own, but they were sheathed, thank goodness. Ringman made sure that Prometheus, his holy sword, was tucked firmly away in its scabbard, both to assuage any fears the new centaurs might have of his intentions and in case Prometheus decided to make some annoying, inflammatory remarks of its own. Finally, he spoke: "We have come from a faraway land to escape slavery and certain death. We mean you no harm. We wish to extend our warmest greetings in the hope that we may co-exist peacefully with you, our centaur brethren, and that we may share all that we have to offer with you and your people."
Standing next to Lindo, Georgo cocked his head as he eyed the armor-clad horse-mounted stranger. He looked like a centaur up on that horse, sort-of, but that extra horse's head protruding from the body said otherwise. And what was with those strange, nonsensical words he was speaking? The elves had spoken their own tongue, which Georgo had learned a few words of, but this language sounded entirely different. He asked, "Kion deziras vi, c^i tie?"
"Uh . . ." Ringman began, uncomfortably, "I'm sorry, but I don't understand you. Do you speak Common?"
"I say, do you speak Common?"
Again, no answer — only a hushed murmur going through the crowd. Anxiously, the paladin turned to Eric. "I know you don't speak Centaur, but do you know anyone here who does?"
Eric shook his head no.
Ringman spoke up to the throng of recently-freed centaurs massed behind him: "DOES ANYONE HERE SPEAK CENTAUR?"
There was a rush of muffled conversation, and a lot of shaking heads. No one came forward and said yes.
"Crud," Ringman winced, then had a thought. He put his hand on the haft of his longsword and unsheathed the blade half way. A gasp echoed from the new, strange centaurs he'd just met up with; they were afraid he was going to draw his sword and attack them. He'd better play it cool. He looked down at the green glowing blade by his side and asked, "Prometheus, do you speak Centaur?"
The sword pulsed green as it replied, "Not a word of it, lard-butt."
Ringman rolled his eyes and re-sheathed his holy avenger. Fortunately, the sight of him talking to his sword had elicited laughter from the villagers, not fear. They would have been laughing harder if they had understood what Prometheus just said, though. In fact, this whole darned meeting would be going a lot more smoothly if they could understand each other. Damn it! The language barrier! He knew he'd forgotten something. How could his centaurs ever hope to integrate themselves into free centaur society if they couldn't even speak the free centaurs' language?!
Ringman's mind reeled. There had to be some way he could communicate with these villagers. He had an Intelligence of 10, which entitled him to two foreign languages. If he'd still had one of these unused "intelligence-based language slots" available, he could spend it right now and pick up the Centaur language immediately. But he didn't have an unused slot. He already knew how to speak two foreign languages in addition to the Common tongue — neither of which was the Centaur language. But . . . maybe one of the villagers knew how speak one of the two foreign languages he did know. It was worth a try. Ringman cleared his throat and, conjuring up his long-unused knowledge of the Halfling language, asked, "Parlez-vous Hobbitte?"
Okay, Ringman had one other foreign language to try, but it was a long-shot. He took a deep breath. "Arf arf arf," he said in fluent Blink Dog, "Arf arf arf arf arf whine arf?"
That caused a peal of laughter through both groups of centaurs. Ringman's cheeks flushed beet-red. It was obvious that nobody spoke Blink Dog, either. Was there anything else he could use? The one first-level priest spell he'd memorized, endure heat/endure cold, sure wouldn't help him speak with these other centaurs. Neither would any of the other first-level priest spells he could memorize, for that matter. Well . . . he could always try building a mutual vocabulary with the villagers one word at a time. He pointed at the shining armor covering his chest — magic armor was always shiny, no matter how much dirt it was exposed to — and said, "Ringman." Then, more slowly and deliberately, "Ring-man."
"Ring-man," the centaur villager in the front repeated, trying out the word. Ringman smiled and nodded emphatically. (At last! Progress!) The villager pointed at his own torso, and said, "Georgo."
Ringman craned his neck slightly toward him, to underscore the fact that he knew the other was giving him his name, and pronounced, "Georgo."
'Okay, paladin,' Ringman thought, 'So you know each others' names. Now what?'
Before Ringman could decide what do do next, Eric stepped forward, slowly, from among the throng. Ringman watched in stunned silence. What would this centaur friend of his do? He thought of riding up to him and restraining him. of bringing him back into the herd, but then realized that there was nothing more he could do that Eric couldn't. Eric knew what was at stake here every bit as much as he did. He'd have to trust him.
Eric pointed to the Georgo, said, "Georgo," then pointed to himself and enunciated, "Eric."
"Eric," Georgo repeated, wondering what this fellow four-legged newcomer was up to.
Eric held out his spear in his right hand at arm's length. He waved his left hand back-and-forth between himself and the spear, as if to say "no," then lowered the weapon. He then rubbed his stomach, shaking his head as he did so, and to emphasize the point, he reached down, snatched up a patch of grass in his left hand, and ate it.
"Vi mang^as malpurajn herbojn?" Georgo asked, his face showing disgust.
Eric took in the throng of a billion centaurs gathered behind him with a sweep of his arm, then made the longest, saddest face he could, and then nestled his head on his hands and made snoring noises with his eyes closed. Finally, he got down on one of his front knees, clasped his hands together imploringly, and pleaded with what he hoped was the universal sign for "I beg of you."
"S^ajnas," Lindo commented to Georgo, "Ke ili bezonas placon por dormi hodiaw nokte."
"Kaj duondecan mang^on," Georgo added. Smiling broadly, Georgo shrugged his shoulders and gestured inland, toward the periphery of the village and the shore of the nearby lake, and nodded enthusiastically. He then pointed toward the center of the village and shook his head "no." He also turned to some of the village centaurs gathered around him, pointed in a few directions, and spoke something that sounded vaguely like instructions or orders.
Eric nodded in understanding, and so did Ringman. The paladin addressed the crowd behind them: "It looks like they'll let us camp by the shores of the lake tonight, but their village is off limits. Hopefully, they'll let us into their village after they get to know us better. I don't know what kind of wild game will be available for us to hunt tonight, but at least we know there'll be plenty of fresh water to drink and bathe in."
Ringman tugged on Warhorse's reins, and started trotting off on a path toward the lake that would keep them clear of the village. A billion centaurs followed him close behind. "Thanks, Eric," he said.
Eric smiled a weary grin as he trotted along beside the paladin's horse. "It was the least I could do."
They were past the first hurdle, at least, Ringman knew. And, thanks to some seat-of-the-pants gesturing by his centaur friend, the potential hostilities of that first meeting were defused. But not forgotten. As they made their way to the lake, Ringman could see several of the villagers standing at regular intervals around the edge of the village carrying spears and swords, which had not been there before. Wonderful. They'd posted guards. His newly-freed centaurs' problems were anything but over.
"All right, you experience point hogs," Unbelievable Sword addressed the Town populus, "The centaurs are all on strike. Anybody who tries to go after 'em has to answer to me!" For added emphasis, he raised the Unbelievable Longsword in his right hand and the Unbelievable Dagger in his left.
"What?!" a voice piped up from the crowd, "I don't remember votin' for you!"
"You don't vote for disgusting characters," Unbelievable Sword countered.
"Listen," the nameless heckler went on, "Black magic markets for black market magic distributin' artifact swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical million-gold-piece gem ceremony!"
"Hundred-thousand-gold-piece gem, now," Unbelievable Sword corrected him.
"Oh, but you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery centaurs threw their gems at you! If I went 'round sayin' I was Emperor, just because some moistened shopkeeper sold a scimitar to me, they'd put me away!"
"All right, that's it!" Unbelievable Sword huffed, then reached into one of his portable holes, took out a glass rod and a piece of fur, rubbed them together, and chanted the ancient mystic words, "Lightning bolt!", whereupon ten six-sided dice worth of electricity lept from his fingers and completely fried the heckler in the crowd. The non-disgusting among the onlookers gasped with awe.
'It would have been even more awe-inspiring,' Unbelievable Sword thought, 'If the Second Edition hadn't imposed that 10-die limit. As a ninety-seven-thousand-and-tenth level mage, I would have been able to do ninety-seven-thousand-and-ten dice of damage under the First Edition rules. Wow. 97 010 d6. Inflicted on one peasant. That would have looked spectac...' And thusly pondering the smouldering corpse he'd just created, he remembered that he had "lawful good" scribbled somewhere on his character sheet. He made his way down through the crowd to the charred body of his victim, took out his generic holy symbol, waved it over the corpse a few times, and raised the heckler from the dead.
The heckler shook the grogginess out of his recently-dead eyes, gazed at Unbelievable Sword, and growled, "Oh, now we see the violence inherent in the system!"
Unbelievable Sword rolled his eyes. "Go peddle your papers," he shook his head as he wandered back to the front of the crowd.
"Come see the violence inherent in the system!" the man shouted after him, still too weak from his brush with death to follow him, "Come see the violence inherent in the system! Help! I'm bein' repressed!"
"As I was saying," Unbelievable Sword continued when he'd returned to the front of the crowd, "I'm not gonna let anyone kill any centaurs and take their four one-hundred-thousand-gold-piece gems while they're on strike."
Danny was among the members of the crowd, and he was anything but happy about this. "You're just doing that so no one else can get to higher level than you are!" he shouted at Unbelievable Sword.
"Maybe," Unbelievable Sword shrugged, "But what're you gonna do about it?"
"This!" Danny sneered, pressed his forefingers to his temples, and engaged his psionic telekinesis power, trying to grab Unbelievable Sword in its invisible grip and wrench him free of the path in front of him.
Unbelievable Sword didn't budge. He folded his arms and quipped, "Is that the best you can do?"
"Huh?" Danny stared at his unmoving target, confused. "Why didn't that work? Magic resistance and scarabs of protection don't work against psionic powers!"
Unbelivable Sword non-chalantly held up his Bracer of Unbelievable Defense. "Artifact power 24:8, immunity to all forms of psionics. I'm surprised you didn't remember it, since you have the same power on that artifact bracer of defense you bought."
"How the hell do you know what powers my artifacts have?!" Danny stammered, incredulous.
Unbelievable Sword stared at him levelly. "Because you ripped off your artifact lists from my character sheet. Just like most of the other disgusting characters in Town did."
Half the gathered crowd coughed uncomfortably.
"Now, come on, Townspeople," Unbelievable Sword changed the subject, "There's a whole lot more that you could be busying yourselves with than experience point mongering. F'rinstance, since the time of the Dungeon Master's second-edition-only edict, we've been neglecting the Central Earth Bench Press rotation. We left poor old Horrendous Halberd down there holding up the planet with his Atlas Strength ever since then, with no one coming in to relieve him. Now, whose turn is it supposed to be today?"
Ringman crouched by his campfire and stared longingly at the free centaurs' village. His own billion centaur horde still had to limp along around the other edges of the lake, munching on the local grass and eating what little game they could hunt with their makeshift spears. Thirst was no longer a problem, but cold and hunger still were. With his centaurs only speaking the Common tongue, and the locals only speaking the Centaur language, his centaurs had no chance to plug themselves into the local economy.
As evening approached, some of the free centaurs in the village gathered around what appeared to be the village square and began playing music. Other centaurs joined in, dancing with each other. It looked like quite a festival; some of the centaurs were really kicking up a storm in time with the music.
'My Deity, that looks like a good time,' Ringman thought, then looked away wistfully into the distance. 'I just wish I could say hello.'
And as he looked into the distance, he saw a small figure approaching. On two legs.
Puzzled, the paladin got to his feet for a better look, his mithral-alloyed armor clanking lazily. As the stranger approached, Ringman could tell that he was definitely shorter than the average man. Almost as small as a child, in fact.
Or as small as a dwarf!
"Josephus!" Ringman called out, now able to make out the newcomer's great beard, his warhammer and shield, and his armor of blending disguised as his priestly robes. Ringman dashed over to greet his old friend.
As soon as he arrived, before either of them could say another word, Joe the Cleric grasped the paladin firmly by both upper arms and said, from the bottom of his heart, "I have sinned against you."
Ringman puzzled at this, uncomprehending. But before he could ask the cleric what he meant by it, he heard hoofbeats approaching, and turned and saw Georgo, the centaur from the village he'd met when he first arrived, coming from the outskirts of the village. Georgo was obviously intrigued by this new two-legged stranger. "He," he commented, pointing at the dwarf, "Kaj kiu estas vi?"
Without missing a beat, Joe replied, "Mia nomo estas Josefo. Ringviro kaj mi estas de Towno, trans la malproksima flanko de la okcidentaj montoj. La grandega centawraro c^i tie estis iam sklavoj, antaw kelkaj tagoj. Ringviro savis ili kaj alkondukis ili c^i tie, c^ar li ne konas alian placon, kie log^as liberaj centawroj."
"Parolisto!" Georgo exclaimed. "Fine! Venu kun mi, kaj vi parolos kun nian gvidantaron." He headed off back to the village, and Joe tagged along behind him, beckoning for Ringman to follow.
Ringman stared at his old friend with open-mouthed astonishment as he fell into step beside him. "You speak Centaur?!"
Josephus looked at Ringman with a distant sadness. "I grew up with centaurs."
Ringman shook his head. "You . . . you never told me anything about that."
"It ended long before you were even born," the cleric continued as he walked. "My parents were part of an adventuring party, and they invited my siblings and me to come along on a trip through the forest, as their way of showing me what adventurers did for a living. Well, of course, we dwarves are great at navigating underground, but put us in a forest and we'll get disoriented inside of five minutes. My sister had no end of fun needling my mom and dad for not having brought an elf along with us. We were lost for hours. Finally, we happened across a centaur village, much like the one Georgo is leading us to right now. Us being dwarves, the centaurs naturally told us to take a hike."
"Huh?" the paladin asked.
"Field Guide to Central Earth Wildlife, First Edition," the dwarf replied. "Page 14. Quote, 'Centaurs are not generally friendly with humans or dwarves,' unquote. Fortunately for us, though, they could see that we were lost and had stumbled upon them by accident, so they took pity on us and let us spend the night."
"Um," Ringman ummed, "But if you'd never run into centaurs before this, how were you able to converse —"
"Alignment languages," Joe blurted.
Ringman rolled his eyes and groaned.
"Hey, don't knock it," Josephus shrugged, "It saved our bacon. Mom happened to be chaotic-good, so she was able to communicate with them. Of course, she got tired of acting as our interpreter inside of half an hour, so we kids started picking up the Centaur language. We had a surprisingly good time with all the younger centaurs that evening. So much so that they begged the older centaurs to let us stay and play with them the next day. Of course, we couldn't stay, we had to get back to Town; but from that day forward we made a point of visiting the centaur village every couple of weeks. We kept it up for several years, until we lost touch and I entered the clergy full-time. That was how I learned to speak Centaur."
"Well, bless me with a two-by-four!" Ringman chirped. "Josephus, the old sixth-level by-the-book cleric, used to play around with centaurs! Say, what ever happened to that old centaur village you used to visit, anyway?"
"It was widened," Joe began, then took an anguished breath, "Into the centaur pits."
Ringman felt as though he'd just been hit in the stomach by a hammer of thunderbolts.
"And I just stood there . . . and let it happen," Joe lamented. "That's what I meant when I said I'd sinned against you! You asked me a few days ago if I'd ever been to the centaur pits, and I said no, and that was true, I have never been to the centaur pits. I've never been there because I was avoiding them. I didn't want to see with my own two eyes what my old hang-out had become. And I didn't think I had the power to do anything about it. What good would a sixth-level by-the-book cleric have been against the Intercontinental Union of Disgusting Characters?!" He grasped Ringman's upper arms as he had done when he first arrived. "You did for the billion centaurs behind you what I should have done twenty-eight years ago."
Ringman bit his lower lip. "I haven't done it for them yet," he responded. "They may be free, but they're still destitute. I'm hoping your skills as an interpreter can at least help some of them get better food and shelter for the night, but even so, there's no way a single village can sustain a billion beings, each of whom is the size of a horse. You could spread this many of them out over the whole continent and each of them would still be within earshot of the other. Sooner or later, I'm going to have to split this massive group up. Maybe into ten sub-groups of a hundred million each, or a hundred sub-groups of ten million each, or something. And each of these sub-groups is going to have to find a different centaur village to join up with if they ever hope to survive in the long run. And to do that, they're going to have to learn how to speak Centaur. And to do that," he stared levelly at the cleric, "I'm going to have to learn how to speak Centaur."
"You have an unused intelligence-based language slot left?" Josephus asked.
"No," Ringman replied, "But thanks to Second Edition, I don't need one. They have those new non-weapon proficiency things, and since I've never had the need to use them before, I do have a couple of unused non-weapon proficiency slots left. Modern Languages are one of the twenty-nine General non-weapon proficiencies listed in the Second Edition Book of Finite Wisdom; but unlike intelligence-based language slots, the rules for a Modern Language say that a teacher must be available."
Joe grinned. "I'd be honored to be your teacher."
"You can start," Ringman said half-jokingly, "By telling me what it was you told Georgo a moment ago."
"Oh, yeah," Joe blushed. "I told him my name, and that you and I were from Town, past the far side of the mountains to the east; and that the enourmous herd of centaurs here used to be slaves until a few days ago; and that you saved them and brought them here because you didn't know of any other place they could live."
Ringman shrugged. "Gotta admit, it would've taken me a whole lot longer to tell them all that using hand gestures."
The Intercontinental Proliferation of Disgusting Characters is continued in chapter 7.
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