Ringman was a little annoyed. Here he'd followed that good cleric's instructions to the letter, and he and Sick Sword didn't even follow him into town. The patrons of the town had all looked up into the town square when he popped in, but when they saw it was only him they wiped their brows and lost interest. That wasn't too uplifting either, but he kind of expected it. He could slay an ancient red dragon, but couldn't even scratch eleven people.
He let the teleporting helm dangle in his sword hand as he walked away from the town's center. He was worried sick for Sick Sword; he knew about the recovery time for being raised from the dead, and at any point during that Clerasil could decide to snuff her back out again. Then again, Sick Sword could defend herself better unconscious than he could defend her at full strength.
The creaking of the pub's swinging doors was a welcome feeling; he hadn't seen the place for days. "Hey, Ringman!" somebody called out. Then practically the whole bar joined in: "Hey, Ringman!"
Ringman smirked a bit and said, "Hey." He approached the bar. "One double paladin health shake. On the rocks."
"Hey, Ringman!" the bartender hailed him as he retrieved the necessary equipment. "Long time no see! What's been goin' on?"
Ringman sighed. "I wish I knew. Omnion killed Sick Sword."
"WHAT?!?" the whole bar expurgated.
". . . and then Clerasil raised her from the dead."
The bartender puzzled. "What's that Disgusting Billy Graham reject got up his sleeve?"
"Apparently, defection. People usually don't mumble about having 'worked for the wrong side all this time' when they're casting raise-dead if they believe in what they've been doing."
"You mean Clerasil ain't tryin' to take us over no more?"
"Well, I —"
"HOORAY!!" issued the cheers from the bar. The piano player instantly began playing Wild West barroom music and everybody started dancing on the table tops. Everyone was so excited that they not only didn't pay the slightest attention to Ringman, but failed to notice that pianos hadn't been invented yet as well.
A league away, Omnion fumed. She felt like strangling anything, even her pet imp. Only one cleric could have gone in that fast and raised her mortal enemy; Clerasil had turned legit. She glanced around at the other Disgusting Characters in the encampment, picked out Wierd Dough, and spat, "I'm going to murder that cleric and destroy his soul!"
"Soul destruction isn't what we're here for," Wierd Dough replied, still wrongly confident that he was in control. "A dead defector's soul can't do anything to us from the plane of its alignment."
"Oh yes," Omnion interrupted on her own wavelength. "That reminds me. Destroying his soul is a good excuse for me to clean out Elysium. Now then, where would they have most likely gone?" She trod over to her pile of maps.
Wierd Dough's face clenched into anger. Responding, his pseudo dragon leapt up onto his shoulder. He tromped over behind her.
She saw him coming from behind, easily. "But first," she stood up from her maps of Central Earth, "I need to let off some steam. Maybe I'll go wipe out the plane of Olympus."
The plane of chaotic-good! That was more than Wierd Dough could stand. "Now see here, young lady —"
"CRAM IT, wizard wimp!" She gestured and cast a lightning bolt at him.
Wierd Dough was half-expecting it, but it still shocked him [sic] that she'd actually fry him in anger. He stuck out his spell turning ring and deflected the bolt back at Omnion, who in turn deflected it back on him. The bolt doubled or tripled its speed with each rebound, setting up a resonance field that soon exceeded the speed of light. Several things could have happened at that point, but what did happen was the quantum-tunneling lightning bolt sucked both Omnion and Wierd Dough along with it into the positive material plane.
Wierd Dough took an instant to get his bearings. He was standing on a glowing planet under a glowing sky, with glowing trees and a glowing lake nearby. It looked suspiciously like a glowing version of the Disgusting Characters' camp on Central Earth. The only thing that wasn't glowing was Omnion.
She drew her sentient +6 vorpal longsword of wounding and her +6 dagger of wounding; the weapons looked like they were having a devil of a time functioning on this plane. "I could carve you up in one minute," Omnion declared, "But I'm not going to."
Wierd Dough still held his ground. "You can't. This plane works for me, not you. My spells are at one-and-a-half times normal strength here, while yours won't even work since they have to tap the negative material plane!"
She growled, then involuntarily glanced at her imp, who had come along and felt quite nauseous at this point. Wierd Dough's pseudo-dragon seemed to be enjoying itself quite a bit, grinning and hopping up and down on his master's shoulder. Even an arch-mage's familiar felt the pull of its magical environment.
"Even your ninth-level ball lightning swarm spell couldn't penetrate my items' defenses fast enough to keep me from slicing you into luncheon meat. NEVER forget who is most powerful in this group — NEVER forget who the real leader is!" She touched her amulet of the planes, and left with her imp.
Wierd Dough rubbed his glowing chin. She was right, she was the Union's most powerful member. And she had assumed leadership even though she'd failed to destroy her objective. This was definitely getting out of hand. Well, he'd give her one last chance. . . .
Wierd Dough popped out of the ether just outside the Disgusting Camp, and peered in. Omnion was hunched over her maps, explaining them, and her imp and a bunch of other Disgusting Characters were leering over her shoulder. Doubtlessly, she was describing her latest plan to annihilate Sick Sword and Clerasil. Wierd Dough scanned the leering group; there was Wild Max the chaotic-evil Grandfather of Assassins, Da Bad Dude the evil illusionist, Dirk the Destructive the anti-paladin, Rango the chaotic-good ranger (that was a little unsettling), and — Great Bahamut's ghost! — there was Peter Perfect looking in maniacal amazement at Omnion's plot over everyone's shoulders!
That was the last adamantite straw. The group had schismed, Omnion's people on one side and the less violent on the other. 'I should have figured this group was doomed form the start,' Wierd Dough said telepathically to his pseudo-dragon, 'But I was too power-hungry to see it. What cause would a group like this have served anyhow? All the monsters are already scared to death of human beings, if they're not extinct. We can't make any advances in increasing prosperity, lengthening the average lifespan, getting people laid more often, or bettering our understanding of the universe. All we did was change the power holders from a bunch of third-level monarchs to a bunch of thirtieth-level monarchs.
'We've got to rally Middle Monk, Koenieg, and Melnic the Loud against these guys, and find Clerasil and Sick Sword. That weapons mistress'll be our most powerful ally. What do you think, pseudo-draggy?'
'Rrrgh, I'm hungry.'
Sick Sword examined Clerasil's character sheet scrupulously. She glanced back up at the cleric, then down again at the sheet. "Nope. If you want to take these guys on, you're gonna have to shift a few things around."
Clerasil looked peeved. "Oh yeah? Like what?!"
"Like your artifacts' powers." She took out her copy of the Book of Infinite Wisdom. "You've got all 32 of Dhalver-Nar's teeth, Heward's organ, Guy Gaxx's ring, the Seven Rods of Parts, the good Crown, Orb, and Scepter of Might, Orcus' wand — from it's original owner — and even Yeenoghu's flail. And what do you have for major benign powers? 'Wall of fire twice per day.' 'Disintegrate once per day.' 'Animal Summoning III.' You're not a tenth as powerful as you could be!"
"Well, what can I do about it? I can't just change the powers on my artifacts!"
"Why do you think those powers are only pencilled in in the Book? Here, you take this eraser, rub out II:KK to get rid of 'Stone to Flesh,' and replace it with II:UU for 'Weapon damage is +2 hit points.'"
"Well . . . okay," he acquiesced, changing the entry, "But what good's an extra 2 damage points going to do?"
"You mean what's an extra 2 damage points taken nineteen times going to do. Oh, and you'll want to have one of those major powers be 'Cause Serious Wounds by touch' — that'll up your strike damage by 3-17 every time."
Clerasil looked at the entry for the Mace of Cuthbert. "Then why didn't you take that power on your mace instead of the +2 damage points?"
"Because caused wounds can be healed magically. Extra damage inflicted by a sword of wounding can't. You have to take these things into account when you're fighting someone with a vampiric ring of regeneration. I'm just sorry there's no such thing as a hammer of thunderbolts of wounding."
"Hey," complained Mjolnir, the sentient hammer of thunderbolts hanging from Clerasil's side, "I resent that!"
Clerasil looked at the Cuthbert entry again. "Why minor power Z? What's so good about having a mind blank thrown up three times a day? It's only good against id insinuation, and —"
"Not the mind blank defense mode, the eighth level mind blank spell! It's as good as or better than an amulet of proof against detection and location. I cast one of them daily on my brownie so the Disgusting Characters won't find him." She patted her brownie on its pointy little head.
Clerasil put his fists to his waist and indicated the brownie. "Now how come I've never seen that little Pixie Stick before?"
"Don't be so dense, Cler," she replied. "I'd never take my familiar with me into a Disgusting battle. It'd be the first one to bite it. That's why you hardly ever see Omnion's imp or Wierd Dough's pseudo-dragon; they're within a few feet of their masters all the time, but they're usually astrally projected."
"Say," Clerasil figured, "If you can put your imp under a mind blank, couldn't you do the same with Ringman?"
"No, he wouldn't want to leave his horse behind," she replied, as if that explained it all.
"But I thought you had three of those things in the mace."
"Right. One for the brownie, one for the Sick Sword, and one for either Ringman or his warhorse but not both."
"You mean you put a mind-blank spell on your weapon?"
"Sure. It has a mind, doesn't it? Anything that has a mind can be detec— you mean we've been sitting around with Mjolnir here open to outside scrying all this time?!"
"Well, yes, I never figured on locating a sentient item to find its owner."
Sick Sword didn't waste an instant. She drew the mace of Cuthbert and tapped Mjolnir with it, transferring the day's last mind blank spell into the war hammer.
"Ooch!" the hammer complained. "Watch it!"
Sick Sword exhaled. "We're damn lucky Omnion didn't know you were that stupid."
"But I couldn't have mind blanked it anyhow!"
"Oh, yes you could've. One of your teeth has power I:Z just like my mace does. A mind blank spell lasts all day."
Clerasil was taken aback. "You mean three people could be continuously protected better than if they were all wearing amulets? That's pretty sick for a minor benign power."
"No, as a matter of fact, it's disgusting for a minor benign power."
"Well," Clerasil began, trying to soothe and resume better terms with his new ally, "Since my left top bicuspid can cast three mind blanks, why don't we bring in Ringman and his horse?"
Sick Sword's nervous anger melted. "I'm very glad to hear that," she said. 'That's what Ringman always used to say,' she thought as she opened her Acme patented sure-fire Road Runner Portable Hole and rummaged for a clear crystal sphere. "We have to find him first." She found the device, took it out, put the hole on the ledge (through which she could catch glimpses of more lava), and started moving her hand over the sphere's surface.
"You have to rub these things," she commented, "Though I never could figure out why."
Clerasil watched in boredom as an image congealed out of the sphere's bent light. He and Sick Sword saw a sturdy, adamantite-plated horse floating a few inches off the ground (thanks to its glowing horseshoes) and grazing. "Yeah, horses are always grazing when you spy on them," Sick Sword commented. "I guess it's a tradition."
The image changed to a glowing armored man sitting behind a maple desk with a helm of teleportation on it in a rather plain room. He was looking at drawings of the surrounding town on the left, unable to read the legends, and sketching a rather crude likeness of Sick Sword on the right. Sick Sword and Clerasil smiled at each other.
"I think he likes you," Clerasil said.
Sick Sword tapped her medallion. "I know he feels more than that," she replied.
"How romantic. Uh . . . he hasn't gotten you pregnant, has he?"
"Why do you think I'm wearing a ring of protection?"
They turned their attention back to the crystal ball. Ringman was meticulously filling in his picture's erogenous zones. Suddenly, he dropped his charcoal, stood up, and drew his holy sword and magic axe. Two humanoid silhouettes of haze and snow had just materialized in the room.
"A couple of people just showed up who are scan-proof," Sick Sword declared. "The I.U.D.C.'s moving in on him. Quick! Use that teleporting tooth of yours to get us over there."
Clerasil shrugged, alarmed, and activated his left main incisor just as Sick Sword sent her brownie into the astral plane.
They stepped through the teleportal just in time to see Omnion and Dirk the Destructive dissolve holding a struggling Ringman between them.
Ringman sagged beneath his own weight. His arms and legs were bound by adamantite ropes to a ground-level adamantite crucifix; they'd stripped him of his magic items, his magic armor, and even his clothing. Even his own tremendous strength had given out trying to support him. He was nearly ready to pass out from exhaustion, when a cold hand touched his chest and he felt a nasty shock.
"Yaaaah!" he yelped. It felt like a hundred people who'd shuffled their feet across a dry carpet touched him at the same time. He could hear the static.
Omnion withdrew her hand. "Be grateful that was only a shocking grasp and not a symbol of pain. We can keep damaging you and healing you like this indefinitely."
"Well, well, well!" intruded a chiding voice. Ringman recognized it instantly. "We meet again, Ringman the goody-goody. How does it feel to be totally helpless?"
Ringman met the other paladin's stare. "I hope you find out first-hand, Peter Perfect!"
"Oh, tut tut, you shouldn't be so snippety — especially considering the position you're in." He drew his sentient holy longsword. "Look, Prometheus, your former owner."
"Glad you could make it," the holy avenger pulsated.
Dirk the Destructive moved in and put his unholy sword under Ringman's chin. "You gonna talk?"
"Talk? I'll talk all you want! There's nothing I know that you can use that you haven't already picked from my brain! Why do you want me to talk?"
Omnion explained, "Because that's what you always have to make the prisoner do in a torture scene."
Ringman shut his eyes. "Oh brother! Look, really, what do you want me for?"
Ringman stopped cold. 'Oh no,' he mouthed, 'Sick Sword.'
"And that traitorous cleric. There's no way we can locate them with their amulets and mindblanks on, but with you captured they'll have to come to us. That's when we can kill them." She snapped her fingers.
Rango walked in drawing a horse by the reins. Ringman gasped; the +5 plate-barding, the two layers of magic horseshoes, the little white spot beneath his chin — this was his warhorse.
"Since we already know you'll be super-valiant against us, I thought we'd up your cries of anguish." She tossed a scroll to Wild Max. "Max, invoke the symbol of pain on this animal."
"NO!" Ringman protested. "Not my warhorse!"
Wild Max began to read, panting with anticipation.
"You cruel barbarians! Can't you see how much he's been through already?!"
'That's right,' Omnion thought. 'Keep on screaming, Ringman. Your peril will echo across the farthest reaches of Central Earth for Clerasil and Sick Sword to hear.'
Sick Sword picked up his empathic signal, all right. She stared helplessly into her mirror of mental prowess, at the naked paladin scared out of his wits, at the horse writhing in pain. She looked up at Clerasil who was violently shaking his head from side to side, saying "No way!"
"And now that she's heard you," the evil female half-elven fighter/archmage/thief continued, "We can do even better for you." She drew out another scroll, illuminated with gold leaf and ruby-colored ink made from real rubies. "Normally, a symbol of pain or a few more jolting grasps would get anyone's attention, but just to be sure — RINGMAN!!"
As she read his name from the scroll, he froze. He couldn't have moved even if he hadn't been bound and panicked. 'I thought those things could only be used on creatures from the lower planes,' he worried.
Omnion read: "Oh freddled gruntbuggly, thy micturations are to me —"
Ringman cringed in pain. Yes, it was a Spiritwrack scroll.
". . . as plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee."
Ringman could feel his discomfort mounting. It would get worse.
". . . Groop I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes."
That was all Sick Sword could stand. With or without that cleric, she had to stop Omnion. It was bad enough she was torturing Sick Sword's boyfriend, but to do it by bending the rules about what a Spiritwrack could affect was inexcusable. She spent a few psionic power points, teleported right between Omnion and Ringman, and cut the scroll and Ringman's bonds in half with one stroke of her broadsword.
Omnion was thrilled. "GET HER!"
Sick Sword had to hurry. She snatched Ringman up in her left arm and stuffed him into one of his portable holes as she ran. Several Disgusting Characters were hot on her tail, but none were fast enough on their feet to reach her.
"Damn it!" Omnion cursed. "Where's that monk?!"
That monk, along with the bard and the druid, was in the midst of a tumultuous decision with Wierd Dough. They stared out at the fray from their adamantite X-ray proof bush. Wierd Dough turned to the Great Druid. "Don't you see what they're doing?"
"All things must exist in balance," Koenieg replied.
"First torture and now a gang-bang!"
"The Way exists along the golden path," Koenieg continued.
'This guy's more like David Carradine than I am,' Middle Monk thought.
Wierd Dough didn't want to let this unsettle him. Sick Sword's coming back around for Ringman's warhorse was doing that to him just fine. "Look, Omnion can't come back and attack us if she doesn't know we're interfering, right? All my spells are pretty loud . . ."
Sick Sword had finished cramming the warhorse in the same hole as Ringman, but she wasn't done yet. She had to get Ringman's pile of magic items, and her Helm of Teleportation, before she'd leave. She glanced around momentarily, then caught sight of a mound of junk with a sign saying, "Ringman's Pile of Magic Items" sticking out of it. That was what she wanted; she altered course and charged.
Omnion snorted. Dirk the Destructive had fired an arrow of slaying lawful-good at Sick Sword, which she made her saving throw against. Da Bad Dude had cast a prismatic wall in front of her, which she ran right through without noticing, and then an alter reality spell, which altered nothing. Wild Max had cast a fireball on her from his helm, from which she took a whole 7 damage points. Peter Perfect had charged after her on his own warhorse, which didn't stand a chance of catching up. Well, Omnion would be damned if boots of speed, a speed potion at 150% effectiveness, and the "double movement speed on foot" major power in Sick Sword's mace would keep her at bay. Already covered in Dust of Disappearance, she cast a light spell on Sick Sword's robe of eyes and charged.
Koenieg was reciting more proverbs: "The Tree of the Universe holds the center of all —"
"SHE'S DOING IT!" Wierd Dough cried. "She's charging invisibly on Sick Sword!"
Sick Sword was nearly upon Ringman's Pile of Magic Items. A helm on one side of the stack had a piece of masking tape on it labelled, "Sick Sword's Helm of Teleportation." She also knew she was done for.
"If she reaches her, it's all over! Cast your trip spell on the ground in front of her, Koenieg! Cast it!!"
Koenieg scowled at the archmage, then replied, "Oh, all right, just to humor you."
From behind an adamantite X-ray proof bush, a piece of mistletoe waved. A lump of ground in Omnion's path curved imperceptibly upward right where her next stride would land. She hit it, and feather-fell on her face in the mud.
Perilled, she lifted her head. And she saw Sick Sword touching everything in the Pile at once, casting two of her own 8th-level mindblank spells on Ringman and the warhorse, and teleporting out.
"FRAAAAACKERS!!!!!" Omnion screamed, and shook the landscape.
"Whew! It's hot in here," Ringman commented.
"And it's a lot safer than our old hideout," Sick Sword returned. "But you're right, you and your horse must be sweltering. I know my brownie doesn't like this place much either. Tell you what . . ."
Everybody fell through Sick Sword's dimension door.
". . . we'll hole up on the shady side of this volcano."
That was better. The temperature was at least thirty (Fahrenheit) degrees cooler out here. The view was also far more breathtaking, particularly since it looked out on a bunch of black-capped mountains where nothing grew surrounded by scorched ground with flaming cracks. "Lovely place," Ringman noticed.
"But better than Union headquarters," Clerasil remarked.
"Yeah," Sick Sword said, "Your H.Q. must be loaded with traps. Omnion tripped trying to catch up with me; I could see her impression in the ground. Any place that can trip someone with an eighteen dexterity's pretty hazardous."
"Hmmm," pondered the cleric, "That sounds like the second level druid 'trip' spell. Funny, Koenieg never instigated any trip traps."
"And 'trip' allows the runner a saving throw to see if he or she avoids falling. Omnion'd never miss a saving throw in a circumstance like that; she'd play with loaded dice that can't land on '1'."
"Well, maybe this was some new spell that allowed no saving throw," Ringman offered.
"She'd still make her save," Sick Sword said. "Scarab of protection and eighteen pluses, remember? . . . However, Koenieg could have cast the new spell on the ground. If the ground assumes a new natural shape, that's not a magical effect, and the scarab won't help you, right?"
Clerasil worried, "But that kind of advantage — always tripping if you don't notice it — must incur some kind of heavy penalty on the spell's utility to make up for it."
"Perhaps. A higher casting level, or a limited duration would do the trick. How does this sound: Range 50 feet, Duration 1 minute per level, Casting time 6 seconds, No saving throw ('cause it's on the ground)?"
Clerasil nodded. "That'd do it. If that is the new spell, then that can only mean —"
Sick Sword and Clerasil chanted in unison, "Koenieg is on our side!"
Ringman's eyes opened wide. "A new ally? Really?!"
Clerasil and Sick Sword thought a moment, then said, ". . . Nah."
"Now then Peter," Omnion turned away from her maps, "Where would be the least likely place for a bunch of anti-Disgusting-Character disgusting characters to hang out?"
Peter Perfect pointed at the map with Prometheus. "Well, they could have gone HERE —" he made a hole "— but I doubt it. Or, they could have holed up back HERE —" he stabbed the map again "— but that wouldn't make much sense. Or, they could have hidden behind HERE —" he punched through the map a third time "— but then they'd have to go on reconnaissance patrols over —"
Omnion snatched the map away. "Will you quit wrecking my documents!?! Vellum's expensive stuff!"
"I did notice one point of interest, m'lady," Dirk the Destructive commented.
He indicated a big black region on her maps and picked out the tallest mountain. "Right here. The cracks of doom."
Omnion smiled omniously [sic]. "Perfect. That's just where I can summon up my Legions of the Dead. If Sick Sword and Clerasil aren't there, the undead can march all the way into the populated heart of the continent. If they are there, then that'll save the trip. Bwa ha ha ha ha. I'm going to get my Ghoul Generator gear ready."
"But what can a few hundred lower undead do against them?" Da Bad Dude asked. "They're both ultra-clerics; all the monsters have to do is look at them and they'll turn to powder."
"The onslaught of ghouls will be ceaseless. They'll be pumped out of my Negative Entropy Ghoul-A-Second Monster Generator and Vegetable Slicer faster than they can be pureed. And even if they can get past this . . . the undead have one other can of tuna up their sleeves. . . ."
Clerasil surveyed the landscape with his Eagle Eye glasses. He usually switched one of its lenses with a lens from his Eyes of the Microscope, but he needed binocular vision now and didn't exactly want to go through having a split personality. Nothing in particular was happening, aside from the usual sulfur emissions from the ground and the black, demonic giant bats circling the volcano's rim.
Sick Sword was trying some experiment with convex and concave lenses. She said she should be able to achieve the same effect as wearing Eyes of the Eagle this way.
"Bah humbug," Clerasil replied. "Optics'll never replace good old-fashioned magic."
The brownie, meanwhile, was toying with Ringman's holy avenger. "Neat toy," the half-pixie commented. "How far can you throw it?"
"You don't throw a longsword," Ringman answered, "You use it to hack up things standing next to you."
"But suppose they're not standing next to you?"
"Then you throw your hand axe —" Ringman stood up and hafted his +3 axe into his right hand. "— Like THIS!" He heaved it at an outcropping of soft rock, which it embedded itself into and cracked.
"Okay," the brownie continued, "Now you've killed that Evil Mutant Rock Creature, but you haven't killed his brother yet. What do you do?"
"Why, I get out my bow and —"
"— By that time he'll've reached you and will be trying to squeeze the whey from your body."
Ringman did a double take. "I don't have any whey in my body!"
"Then the Evil Mutant Rock Creature will find that out — after he takes your body apart."
"Okay, forget the bow then, I'll just throw one of my magic arrows."
"Great. That did enough damage to make him mad. He'd still grab you and wring you out."
"Look, I've got 79 hit points anyhow. He can't kill me in one attack!"
"No, but if he grabs you you can't melee him with that holy sword. You have to throw your sword at him before he gets to you!"
"But you can't throw a longsword!"
"Sure you can. Have you ever tried?"
"Well, no, I —"
"Then what are you waiting for? Throw it at the Evil Mutant Rock Creature's brother!"
"Oh, all right, just because there's nothing else to do!" He aimed with his right eye at a neighboring rock and threw his holy avenger like he would fling a canister of sneezing powder. The blade sailed point-first into the stone, sank in half way up to its hilt, and practically knocked the Evil Mutant Rock Creature's brother off-balance.
Ringman had impressed himself. "Well, what do you know? You really can throw a longsword."
"Hey, Arthur," Clerasil interrupted, "You'd better draw that holy sword out from the stone; we've got ghouls half a league away!"
"Ghouls?!" Ringman yiped, suppressing a perk of rejoicement. He leapt up, dashed over to the first stone, yanked out his axe, moved over to the second, grabbed the hilt of his holysword, and pulled with all his might. The sword didn't budge.
"Oh, come on!" he cursed. "You're not even sentient; how can you discern your True Wielder?"
The sword still refused to give.
The sword practically leapt into his hand. Ringman rolled his eyes up into his head and started toward the precipice at the edge of their campsite that led downward.
"No need for that, fuzz face," Sick Sword restrained him. "I can get us there a whole lot faster."
Ringman stared her squarely in the eye. "I know you can," he said deliberately. "And you can vaporize all the ghouls a lot faster, too. There isn't anything you can't do faster than me!"
Sick Sword shot a glance at his groin, and she suppressed a chuckle.
Ringman's face reddened. "BESIDES that, I mean! Look, I'm more a nuisance to you than an asset! Sometimes you make me feel so . . . so impotent."
Sick Sword could hardly contain herself. She was staring long and hard at his groin now. "Believe me, you're anything but —"
"WILL you stop that?! You know what I mean! And . . . besides . . . I don't try to be very fast. I don't exactly consider twenty minutes to be a quickie."
Clerasil's eyes widened as he acknowledged the paladin's prowess.
"I'm of no use to you, or anyone," Ringman continued, "Except maybe as a bed partner. With heroes like you pushing the outside of the envelope when it comes to the rules, rolling dice with 0's on each face, and mugging centaurs for their four 1 000 000 gold piece gems, what can a legitimate paladin like me accomplish?"
Sick Sword glanced down at the multiplying ghouls. Their numbers had exceeded countability. Without bothering to wait any longer, she teleported the lot of them down to the edge of the ghoulish plague.
Ringman took an instant to regain his equilibrium, and almost fell off his warhorse. His mount had been teleported there too. He glanced to his left and saw the disgusting cleric and the anti-disgusting weapons-mistress/cleric/archmage, side by side, brandishing their respective holy symbols. He returned his glance to the right and saw a ghastly-looking [sic] bony creature in the center of the ghouls with red glowing eyes.
Clerasil and Sick Sword saw it too.
"That lich is really gonna screw things up," Sick Sword noted. "The best either of us'll be able to do is turn 1-12 of them, instead of dispelling 7-12 of them."
Clerasil puzzled for an instant and said, "Oh, that's right, in a mixed group of undead, turning is based on the most powerful member if that one is a leader and the undead aren't mindless."
"That's why Omnion used ghouls instead of zombies," Sick Sword replied. "Lowest of the mindful undead. I sure wish we could just get rid of that lich; it would make our job a whole lot easier."
No sooner had she said this than a shimmering white arrow shot across the gap and hit the lich square. Before the creature could return fire with any spells, it screamed and disintegrated.
The two turned to Ringman, who was holding up his bow and smiling. "So much for my arrow of slaying undead," the paladin reported. "Glad I could put it to good use."
Sick Sword joyously cried back, "Great move! You'll get at least eleven thousand experience points for that one!" She turned to Clerasil. "Ready?"
Clerasil nodded and concentrated on his holy symbol."One . . ."
"Two . . . " Sick Sword did likewise.
"THREE!" they chanted in unison. Then: "BEGONE!!!"
Waves of clerical force zoomed in toward the ghouls, intersected each other, and dissipated ineffectually.
"Huh?!?" Sick Sword wondered.
"We're getting destructive interference," Clerasil noted. "Who's your deity?"
"Why, God II, of course."
Clerasil snapped his fingers. "THAT'S the problem! I worship God III. Our different turning channels are cancelling each other out."
Sick Sword scanned the area. "Okay then, I'll take that side, and you take this side." She split off without waiting for a reply.
Six seconds later, from opposite ends of the ghoulish horde, the words echoed out again: "BEGONE!!!"
Ten ghoulish gray bodies evaporated into dust on Clerasil's side. Sick Sword had been slightly luckier, as usual, and had absolved twelve of the undead back to the dust from whence they came. The other 436 would have to be dealt with by more conventional means.
Sick Sword went into action like a living thunderbolt. Her jewelled outer helmet glowed bluish, which was painful and mildly damaging to the ghouls, but this couldn't begin to match the lethality of her melee. Every one of her twenty strikes in that first minute struck home and flung their formerly undead corpses over a dozen meters away; she destroyed a ghoul every three seconds. Clerasil was a bit slower — especially since the only two weapons anyone could use in his off hand were both edged — but not much less effective: he struck and downed two ghouls and was on the verge of a third. Ringman got in one successful holy-sword-strike that cleaved its target, but his hand axe only wounded the ghoul it sank into.
Watching the ghouls try to scratch through their defenses was a ridiculous farce. They looked like enraged monkeys trying to break through five-centimeter glassteel, as seen from the glassteel's other side.
But one dull gray arm came too close to Ringman; he instinctively tried to block it with his left arm, but with no shield it penetrated to the flesh beneath. Ringman clenched his arm and suppressed a yowl; fortunately, the ghoul's normally paralytic chill didn't take hold of him this time.
"I'm used to having my shield," Ringman mumbled. "DAMN that Peter Perfect!"
Sick Sword and Clerasil continued to dominate the ghouls' attention for the next three minutes, while Ringman stuck next to Sick Sword and took care of any strays her La Machine fighting style might have missed. That was when Sick Sword's sick sword vibrated to tell her it was ready.
"Okay, Sick Sword," Sick Sword instructed her sick sword, "Do your stuff!"
The sword instantly leapt from her hand and began slaughtering ghouls all by itself, with a prowess and might equal to Sick Sword's. Normally at this point Sick Sword would take out her +6 bastard sword of wounding, but since her enemies were undead she instead drew the Mace of Cuthbert.
"Ya-hooo!" she shouted, lunging into the nearest gray thing mace-first. The instant the mace touched undead flesh, the ghoul disintegrated into dust.
"Nice effect, this disruption," she commented, "But I did SO enjoy seeing them fly back forty feet."
With Sick Sword's dagger, mace, and dancing sword going through the enemy ranks like a Tasmanian devil, there wasn't a single ghoul within twenty feet of Ringman. He wondered momentarily how they had gotten within his Protection from Evil in the first place, then recalled that he broke it by attacking one of them. But now it was back up, and he could relax and let the expert-and-a-half handle the situation from a safe distance.
And it was just this relaxation that triggered an alarm within him.
"My deity!" he gasped. "While we're here getting our kicks with the ghouls, more of the Disgusting Characters' minions could be storming Town!"
He moved to the sidelines, mounted his warhorse, glanced around, relocated his girlfriend by the flying grey flesh and weaponry, rode up to her over the piles of dead undead, and grabbed the bluish-glowing helm of brilliance off of her head from behind.
"What are you DOING?" she barked, slicing a ghoul in half with her dagger. Her ESP medallion only pointed forward, you see.
Ringman took the second helm off her head and put the glowing jewelled one back on. "I've got to return to my Town!" he said. "Their homes and lives are in jeopardy!"
"Can you handle it?" she asked, lightly tapping another ghoul and thus blasting it out of existence.
Ringman reached down into one of her portable holes and retrieved one of her spare million-gold-piece diamonds. "I can take care of myself, love. You're not the only one with an at-least-average intellect around here."
He put on the helm, pictured the town, and disappeared from view, horse and all.
The ether shifted slightly around the town square, and a paladin-and-horse-shaped apparition materialized into a paladin and a horse. He scanned the horizon over the one-story building tops; sure enough, a rather large clump of animated corpses was approaching from four miles off. He had no time to waste.
He trotted off northward out of the town square, looking around constantly. Where was that black market that Sick Sword bought her items from? "Gotta find it," he mumbled. "Where? Where?!"
SUDDENLY, just as he turned into Texas Chainsaw alley, a dense crescendo filled the air and a sales stand materialized from out of nowhere. The back end of the shop was blurry, and the rotund brown-skinned sales clerk looked like he should be selling uncaffeinated lemon-lime soft drinks.
"Ahhhhhhhahahaha," the salesman chortled, "Welcome to Dirk Vader's black magic market for black market magic! Would you like to buy . . ." he produced a glass flask filled with pink liquid ". . . a potion of speed?" He waved a finger in front of Ringman's face. "Crisp and clean, and all caffeine; no natural colors, no natural flavors."
"Um, no," Ringman waved it off. "Not right now, I don't think. I —"
"But of course, you don't want to lose a year off of your life. Then how about . . ." the liquid he produced this time was gold ". . . a potion of extra-healing?"
Ringman shook his head, exhaled, and slapped Sick Sword's million-gold-piece gem on the counter. "I want —"
"Oh, I am sorry effendis, but we cannot accept any denominations over twenty gold pieces."
"Grrrr," he growled, then took out his holy sword and decided to try Sick Sword's trick. Seventeen cuts later, he'd cleaved the one gem worth a million gold pieces into 131 072 gems worth 7.629394531 gold pieces. He pushed the pile forward.
"Ahhhhh, that's more like it. What may I do for you?"
"Give me every potion of super-heroism you have in stock."
The clerk looked puzzled. "Our stock is infinite."
"Uh, okay, then, just gimmie 428 of them."
"428, eh?" the polynesian said, reaching back behind a black etheric cloth. "What kind of Enterprise are you planning to embark on?"
"Never mind that. Oh, and field plate! Yes, I need 428 suits of field plate armor."
"Ahhhhhh," he repeated, rummaging around behind the cloth again. He pulled out the front end of a tremendous pile of metal and flasks. "That comes to 834 600 gold pieces — we're having a sale on non-magical field plate this month."
"Can you deliver it to the town square?"
"For another 100 gold pieces."
"THAT'S another 5000 gold pieces."
"Fine. Do it."
The dark-skinned islander snapped his fingers. "Done."
"Uh, keep the change," Ringman indicated the pile and turned away.
"But you still have 160 400 gold pieces left. Surely, there must be something else you want."
"No, no, I'm in too much of a hur . . ." He slowly turned back. "Well, actually, you COULD interest me in a +4 magic shield. . . ."
"It's no use!" Clerasil shouted to Sick Sword from half an undead horde away. "No matter how we attack, they're being created faster than we can pulp them!"
"Yeah, I know, it's that accursed generator situated against that rock crevice over there. This reminds me of a game based on a piece of armor worn over the hands." She cut two ghouls in half simultaneously; her dancing sword was in its four-rounds-of-melee-combat cycle instead of free from her hand.
"I'll try and fry that thing." Clerasil wiggled his fingers, said something in Latin, and threw a half teaspoon of sulfur into the air. The yellow powder vanished, and a pillar of fire thundered down over the far-off generator and struck it squarely. When the flames receded six seconds later, though, the generator was unharmed.
"Damn that bitch!" Clerasil cursed. "She musta given it a magic-proof vest or something."
"Or made it out of electrum. You know how temperature resistant that stuff is."
(Actually, at this point, they weren't talking to each other so much as communicating telepathically through their helms. It's hard to hear through 200 intervening, yowling undead.)
"No problem, really," Sick Sword telepathized, "I'll just fly over these guys and . . . hey, what gives? What happened to my permanent potion of flying at 150% effectiveness?!"
Clerasil was slightly alarmed. "Hey, yeah, I can't fly either!"
"You took three steps?"
"And jumped off like a diver. Just like the instruction book said."
"Well, I can still teleport."
She blinked. Nothing happened.
"WELL, I CAN STILL TELEPORT!" she insisted, and blinked harder.
Still nothing happened.
"Great," Clerasil slumped, pulverizing another ghoul with his hammer of thunderbolts. "An anti-flying zone and an anti-teleporting zone."
"How about ethereal phasing?" Sick Sword wondered, casting the appropriate spell. It worked just fine, but that didn't allow her to pass through the ghouls. "No good, their bodies are biplanar."
"Lemme try dimension walking," Clerasil decided, and didn't go anywhere. "Arh, no good, that's still considered teleporting."
"I tried moving through the ground, but it exists on the etheric plane too. Boy, this is the last time I vacation on the flatlands by Mount Doom!"
"Have you tried astrally projecting yet?"
"Why bother? Astral access is how teleportation works in the first place, and we KNOW we can't do that."
"You could plane shift and then come back," Clerasil offered.
"Yeah, and then I'd end up exactly where I left. You know that."
"Well, we can't just sit here and fight ghouls all day; we'd never get to the generator!"
"Hmph. It's all we CAN do. We've at least gotta try."
And as if on cue, a small (6d6) fireball cascaded down from above and immolated 1256 square feet of ghouls. Astonished, Clerasil looked up and Sick Sword gazed through one of her robe's skyward-pointing eyes. The form floating above them was Wierd Dough.
"Wierd Dough!" Clerasil exclaimed.
"Wierd Dough?!" Sick Sword gaped.
"Wierd Dough," Wierd Dough commented. "The one and onl— whoa, hey, what's going on, I can't flyyyyyyyy! . . ."
Fortunately, his earthen ring kicked in and he floated gently to the ground.
"Wierd Dough," Sick Sword wondered. "You too?"
"Darned right me too. I'm sorry I ever suggested the Union."
Clerasil smiled. "I'm just sorry we let Omnion in."
Wierd Dough shrugged him off. "Aah, Dirk the Destructive, Wild Max, Da Bad Dude, and Peter Perfect would've screwed things up eventually. Do you realize that Rango the Ranger is still siding with them?"
Sick Sword was amazed. "You mean Koenieg, Middle Monk, and Melnic the Loud are on our side?"
"Just as sure as I am," Wierd Dough said, looking over his shoulder at the generator. "Haven't you taken that thing out yet?"
Sick Sword exhaled, non-chalantly stabbing a ghoul in back of her. "We can't GET to it."
"Oh yes, that's right, the anti-teleport and apparently anti-flight plains-of-the-cracks-of-doom magic-absorptive field. Well, there's one seventh level spell I have that that can't counteract."
Wield Dough gestured and spoke, and in forty-two seconds the three of them were englobed in a shimmering sphere. The sphere rose ever so slightly off the ground, and then moved in an arrow-straight line toward the generator.
"We're moving!" Sick Sword noted. "THROUGH the ghouls! Not even their etheric bodies are touching us."
Wierd Dough breathed on his fingernails and rubbed them against his robe. "Wierd Dough's Transporting Bubble; it's a spell of my own devising."
"Yeah, I figured that from the title."
"Nothing within the bubble can touch the outside world; and conversely, nothing outside after the sphere is formed can intercept the sphere's contents. We move in one direction and one direction only, at constant speed, until the spell runs out or I stop it."
They reached the ghoul generator. Wierd Dough Stopped It.
"Here we are," the archmage commented, presenting the generator with an ostentatious extension of his arm.
"Great," Sick Sword mumbled under her breath. She went up to the generator and slammed her sick sword down on top of it. Both objects, sword and generator, vibrated like mad; neither was dented.
Sick Sword put both of her blades away, and reached into the portable hole labelled WEAPONS. "Guess I'll need something that can do a little more structural damage than that." She pulled out something that looked like an adamantite pole — at least for the first eight feet of its length it looked like an adamantite pole. The huge perpendicular cylinder at its other end dismissed that notion. She grasped the titanic mallet in both hands, concentrated psychically, grew one measly foot, raised the maul, and brought it down with all her might onto the generator.
Ringman had climbed into the church tower next to the town square and grabbed the bell rope. Jumping up, he pulled down on the rope with his full near-ogrish strength, then pulled the cord again and again. The tower bell's alarm echoed through the Town.
'They don't call me Ringman for nothing,' Ringman thought.
In minutes, the entire population of the town had gathered in the center. Ringman ascended the pedestal of the statue of Whatshisname the seventy-fifth and addressed the crowd charismatically:
"Townspeople, this is a dire emergency. The whole village is in peril from a threat worse than Smogzilla. I need only for the farm workers to remain; the rest of you, return to your houses and lock your doors!"
Nearly a thousand women, children, and medieval computer programmers scattered from the scene; all that remained were 428 farmers.
"Laborers of this fair town, the threat we face is an incoming horde of zombies a half mile across. I cannot defeat them alone; they would surely get by me and overwhelm the city. We must ALL join and fight them. Gather up whatever farming tools you are familiar with that you can use as weapons!"
"Farmers against zombies?" cried 428 voices. "How many of us would die?!"
"None of you, if you do this right," Ringman commented. He hauled out the cartload of armor and potions. "Retrieve your weapons, return here, and I shall equip you to attack and defend!"
These people had a great respect for this paladin indeed. They all scurried back to their tool sheds and returned, two-and-a-half minutes later, with an arsenal of hoes, sickles, staves, wheelbarrows, and one two-handed sword.
"Hey, I have hard soil!" the two-handed sword bearer explained defensively.
"Now then," Ringman instructed, tossing out field plate ensembles, "Everybody get into a suit of armor. This stuff doesn't constrict as much as plate mail and offers better protection."
Eight hundred fifty-six farmwork-toughened hands snatched the incoming iron body suits from the air. The scene was filled with countless people fastening their metal fasteners, slipping on arm and leg greaves, and pulling helmets over their heads. Metal gauntlets never before used were flexed. Surprisingly, everything fit perfectly.
'One-size-fits-all armor,' Ringman thought. 'I wonder what would happen if the garment industry ever thought of . . . nah.'
Within three minutes, a newly formed, completely equipped army stood ready to fend off the incoming undead. Well, almost.
"You have your weapons, you have your armor, you have your conscience, and you have your courage," Ringman oratoried. "The only thing you lack is training. Would that I had three weeks to train all of you; but the menace will be here in less than an hour." He reached down into the remaining heap of items, now consisting only of 428 glass flasks filled with glowing white liquid, and raised one beaker. "THIS will serve as your training."
He readied to hand the first beaker into the crowd. "But I must warn you: its effects last for only five to thirty minutes, so don't drink until I tell you too." He commenced with potion distribution.
And once every nervous individual possessed a full dose of the glowing white fluid: "Now, onward to the edge of the city!"
To commemorate the final kill, Sick Sword obliterated the last ghoul by kicking it. It didn't feel as good as she'd hoped.
"Well," she said, brushing the non-existent dirt from her hands, "That's that."
"Now what do we do about the real enemy?" wondered Wierd Dough.
Sick Sword sheathed her dagger. "We can storm into the Disgusting Characters' headquarters and wipe them out."
Clerasil shook his head. "They'd wipe us out in the process."
"Oh yeah, that's right," Sick Sword recalled, "Most of you aren't half as powerful as I am."
"By the real enemy," Wierd Dough interjected, "I meant specifically Omnion. Er, for now, I suggest you let me be the brains of this operation."
"What for?" stammered Sick Sword, putting her fists to her hips.
"Well, for one thing, you only have a 21 intelligence, Sick Sword, and you, Clerasil, have only an 18."
"And what's yours, pray tell?" Sick Sword folded her arms.
"24, naturally. Now, what precisely is it that makes Omnion as powerful as she is?"
Clerasil wondered. "Um, her 49th level of magic use? No, her permanent potions, right?"
ick Sword figured it out: "Her magic items."
"Exactly," Wierd Dough came back. "Specifically, her artifacts. Liberate her from them, and she'll be reduced to naked ash."
Sick Sword rubbed her chin. "But liberate me from my magic items, and I'm twice as fast in melee and can do far more damage and be a lot harder to hit with any melee weapon."
Wierd Dough saw what she was getting at, too. "So you think a good way to defeat her would be to go someplace where magic items don't work or are stripped from you, and there trash her yourself."
"Yup," Sick Sword replied. "Now, where are we going to find a place like that?"
Clerasil snapped his fingers. "I've got it! How about an anti-magic shell?"
Sick Sword and Wierd Dough shook their heads, then said in unison, "We've already tried that."
Wierd Dough chortled a bit, then continued: "Anti-magic shells neutralize all magic and magic items — even permanent potions and spells — EXCEPT for artifacts."
"Yeah," Sick Sword related. "I cast it once to test its effectiveness. My Sick Sword went into a coma, but Cuthbert's Mace was up there chugging along at full strength without even flinching."
"Well, aren't there any inner or outer planes of existence that force you to drop all your magic items before you enter?"
Sick Sword thought for an instant. "No, I've never had to go through customs before boarding a plane."
Wierd Dough smiled broadly. "There may be at that, Clerasil."
"Huh?" Sick Sword huhed.
Wierd Dough promptly pulled out a portable hole, opened it up, and took a mint-condition magazine off the top of a pile that nearly filled the hole. "Fortunately, I was able to get this new month's supply of Dragon & Dragrace before Omnion got her grimy little half-elven hands on it."
Clerasil glimpsed the vast collection of not-yet-available magazines in the hole before Wierd Dough reclosed it. "Just like old times."
"I haven't read all the articles yet," Wierd Dough admitted, "But I think some of them might prove useful, if not decisive. Particularly the one about the plane of Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt."
"Present potions!" Ringman ordered from warhorseback.
Four hundred twenty-eight hands raised four hundred twenty-eight beakers of glowing white super-heroism juice. One of the farmers belonging to one of the hands belonging to one of the beakers said, "Zeke here won't use the stuff; says it's 'gainst his beliefs ta drink potions."
"Oh, all right then, I'll use his," Ringman said as a young farmer next to the one who'd spoke hurled his potion back to the paladin. "Never hurts to gain a couple of experience levels." He glanced back over his shoulder; the zombies were nearly upon them. "Now, DRINK!"
And four hundred twenty-eight bottle bottoms tipped skyward and glugged their white gold down four hundred twenty-eight throats.
Within 12-30 seconds, the ground was literally rumbling with magic potions going into effect. Four hundred twenty-eight little capes appeared on the imbibers' backs, and a single letter — the person's initial — appeared as an insignia on each of their armored chests. The potions of super-heroism had lived up to their name.
The now-12th-level paladin with the "R" on his adamantite-plated chest turned his warhorse away from the 427 sixth-level farmers (not including Zeke the 0-level non-imbiber), drew his holy avenger longsword, pointed it toward the approaching undead, and cried, "CHARGE!!"
The warhorse charged. The mob of superfarmers charged.
On horseback, Ringman reached the front line of zombies before anyone else. They looked pretty oblivious to his presence, but anyone would be if he was just an animated corpse. Ringman held his holy avenger forth in an impressive, paladin-like manner, and hollered, "BEGONE!". Nine zombies erupted into non-existence.
That was the easy part. The undead turning; that was easy. The other countless approaching undead were the real challenge. There were so many of them; it looked like too many, even by overrated "number appearing in lair" standards. His curiosity aroused, he quickly took out his Field Guide to Central Earth Wildlife (the one with the flying red dragon, unicorn, centaur, troll, owlbear, and roper on the front cover) and thumbed to the listing for "zombie." The "number appearing" column read "3-24."
'Thought so,' Ringman thought. 'No way hundreds of those beasties could bunch up naturally.' No time to waste, however; he went about setting an example for the formidable armored farming army behind him by hacking at the nearest available zombie with his holy sword and cutting it in two through its chest.
The farmers reached the zombies and eagerly joined in the fight. The first hoe came down and nearly severed a zombie's shoulder. A sickle swished through the air and took another zombie's head off. The farmer with the two handed sword hacked all the way through one undead's body in one stroke. A wheelbarrow clanged down on a zombified head and gave it a terrible migraine, if nothing else. Everywhere, state-of-the-art medieval farming equipment got put to the test against the Town's grey foes. Several times a zombie managed to get a lucky shot in past a farmer's armor, but the damage was taken off the added super-heroism points first so those strikes didn't really count anyway.
After five minutes of fraying, the first of the farmers' potions of super-heroism started to wear off. These farmers, feeling their sudden drop in ability and toughness, immediately fled to the sidelines; but there were far more remaining who still retained their potions' added powers. The zombies' ranks diminished as rapidly as they had appeared; the farmers had already chopped the half-mile width of their mass down to a third of a mile, and still it CONTINUED to shrink.
"How many of you need healing?" Ringman cried out. "How many of you have taken damage beyond the added hit points of your potions?"
Two farmers on the sidelines raised their hands. Ringman rode over to them at top speed and began to cast his first cure light wounds spell.
"But what about the battle?" one of the injured farmers complained. "You can't just leave those other farmers there!"
"I still have a few minutes before my own super-heroism potion wears off; I want to get my extra one first- and four second-level spells off before then." He completed the gestures, touched the injured farmer, and healed him of 1-8 hit points of damage. "The other one of you can wait. I'd take this opportunity to cast a chant spell or two, except that they take 10 minutes to complete." So saying, he rode back into battle, holding his holy sword straight out beside him so that it could cut off any undead heads it happened to intersect.
More and more farmers' capes-and-insigniae winked out of existence as more and more zombies fell to the earth. The longest those potions could last for was thirty minutes, but most of them failed a long time before that, including Ringman's. At the end of the thirty minutes, a single farmer remained sixth-level to fight beside the now-only-ninth-level paladin. His last sickle strike reduced the zombies' numbers from 55 to 54; the rest was up to Ringman.
'Hey,' figured Ringman, 'Maybe if I leave and then come back, these'll count as a new group of undead and I can dispel them again!'
So thinking, he rode off to a nearby boulder, rode out of sight around it, came back, held forth his holy sword impressively, and shouted, "BEGONE!". Nothing happened.
'Nuts,' he thought, 'I'll have to do this the hard way.' And so, he charged back into the mass of undead to hack all 55 of them up. All 54 of them up. 52 of them up. 51 of them. 49. 48. At one-and-a-half attacks per minute, that was exactly how fast the zombies' numbers dwindled.
Before long, only a single zombie remained, who appeared quite worried despite the fact that it was mindless. Ringman smiled and gestured for it to approach him. The zombie shook its head. Ringman nodded his head. The zombie shook its head more fearfully. Ringman stopped gesturing, shrugged his shoulders, began to turn away, then came about and flung his holy sword through the air and right through the torso of the zombified beast.
'That's one less Evil Mutant Rock Creature's brother in the world,' he thought, and retrieved his sword.
"Now," he turned back to the embattled farmers. "Who needs healing? Who else took damage past their potion of super-heroism's added hit points?"
Four hands went up. Ringman dismounted, rushed to the first and inspected the wound. "Zounds, you're down six hit points!"
"Yeah, I would've died if I hadn't been a lucky farmer." Which was true; farmers got 2-7 hit points to begin with.
"You're going to need special treatment," Ringman said. He took off his gauntlets, opened his palms, and laid them on the zombie's claw marks. The wounds vanished.
"Who else?" Ringman barked. "Who else?"
"Here!" cried one. Ringman touched him with a finger and removed his light wound.
"Here!" cried another one. Ringman approached him and began to chant. "Say," the farmer said, "I thought you paladins could only lay your hands on somebody once a day."
"We can," Ringman reported. "This is a cure light wounds spell." And it cured his light wound very nicely.
"Here!" cried the fourth post-battle injured one. Ringman cast his third and final cure-light-wounds spell of ninth-leveldom.
"Oh yeah, and me too!" came another voice. Ringman approached this one, began to gesture, searched his memory, and admitted, "Oh darn, I've used up all my spells for today." Nevertheless, he reached into his leather backpack and pulled out a green potion. "I was saving this for myself, but it wouldn't have done much for me anyway. Drink."
The farmer drank, and then, he was healed.
Ringman stood up, put his gauntlets back on, and brushed the dirt from his hands. He put one fist to his hip and one hand to his lower jaw; he'd been so engrossed in reparations for the last few minutes that only now did he notice the din around him. Clapping and cheering issued from nearly every point around him.
His arms dropped to his sides, letting his +4 magic shield fall to the ground. The mouth under his beard waxed into a contented smile, and faded into chuckles of victory. "Huh. Hah. Hah hah. I did it. I DID it! I actually got this town to fend off the zombie attack! I saved the whole town!"
"Ringman, ya did it!" cheered several people at any point. "You led us to victory over the Forces of Evil!"
And home they brought him, shoulder-high.
"Ringman," the mayor continued, "This town is deeply indebted to you for the second time in its history. You, and you alone, had the courage and wisdom to round up the able-bodied farmers of our fair land, give them the right potions and armor for the job, and stop the zombie menace before any harm could be done. For Smogzilla we owed you our gratitude; for the zombie horde we now owe to you our well-being."
"Thank you, mister mayor and kind folk of this town." Ringman spake.
"Yaaaaaay!" the crowd cheered.
"But the battle is far from over. Those zombies weren't merely a natural apparition, a bunch of undead who happened to be going out for a hot night on the town all at the same time. No, they were sent here by Omnion, with the backing of that Intercontinental Union of Disgusting Characters, because of Sick Sword and myself. Yes, that's right, they were animated to ruin my name and the name of my dear friend and ally who also comes from this town's ranks. Until the Disgusting Characters are brought down, until Omnion is vanquished, this town and all like it on Central Earth can never be —"
Space twisted and turned around Ringman's body. The crowd gasped as the paladin vanished from their view. In a nearby stable, his horse had his meal of oats rudely interrupted by just this same space warp. When normalcy resumed, both were standing in a dry, grassy clearing with an unlit fire pit in the center and Sick Sword, Wierd Dough, Clerasil, Melnic the Loud, Koenieg, and Middle Monk off to one side.
"— safe," Ringman completed his sentence.
"Beautifully worded," Sick Sword acknowledged his speech. "I couldn't have said it much better myself."
"Although she probably could have projected her voice a little more loudly," Wierd Dough noted.
"Not as loudly as I could," Melnic the Loud commented.
"Huh? What? Wierd Dough, and the monk, and the druid, and the bard — here?!"
"Easy, lover," Sick Sword calmed him, "They're on our side now."
Ringman let his jaw drop slightly, surveyed the ex-Disgusting-Characters once more, and broadened his expression into joyousness. "I'm very glad to hear that."
"In fact," said Clerasil, "We wouldn't have been able to mop up all those goons if it hadn't been for Wierd Dough."
"Really?" Ringman was genuinely amazed.
Wierd Dough snapped his fingers. "Spells-R-Us. 'Wierd Dough's Transporting Bubble' and 'Ball Lightning Swarm' a specialty."
Sick Sword hadn't heard that last one before. "Ball Lightning Swarm? As in Meteor Swarm with electrical damage?"
"Exactly. I actually fabricated it to get rid of you. It's useless against Omnion, though, thanks to that blasted Invulnerable Coat of Arnd she's always wearing."
"So," began Ringman, "When do we storm the Disgusting Characters' camp and get rid of them?"
Sick Sword sighed. "It's not that easy. We're about an even match for them in number and strength, but as far as the big one goes — Omnion — any battle with her right now would be decided by who rolls a '1' first and blows a vital saving throw. We can't risk the fate of Central Earth on that."
"Then what do we do against her?" Ringman asked.
"She draws most of her power from her magic items and artifacts. Primarily her artifacts. If we can get her to plane-travel to the plane of Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt, she'll be forced to drop everything she's carrying at her point of departure."
Ringman chuckled. "A plane you can't carry any baggage on, eh?"
Sick Sword scowled. "I already made that pun."
Wierd Dough continued where Sick Sword had left off. "We don't know any details about Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt, only that itemnal entrance is barred. This article in the new Dragon and Dragrace talks about non-magic and non-psionic people who used devices to try and travel there and got stuck there forever."
"But we can't force her to plane travel there," Sick Sword said; "She'd make the saving throw against whatever we used against her, whether she's supposed to get a saving throw or not. Scarab of Protection and all that. We have to TRICK her into going there, rely on her not knowing the price of entering Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt. The only way to do that is to lure her there; and I'm the best one for the bait."
Ringman gaped. "YOU?! You're going to throw your life to the wind and lure her somewhere where your own magic items can't follow you either?!"
"Stripped of all our items, I'm the more powerful of the two of us; assuming I can find a make-shift weapon before Omnion finds me."
"And what if she figures out your ploy, and you dare her to follow you onto Fordin-whatever and she stays behind?"
Sick Sword sighed, and held up card # 3 from the Hero's Collection of Commonly Used Sayings. It read: "That's a chance I'll have to take."
"Where'd you get THAT?" Ringman wondered.
"I sent away two magazine inserts and one electrum piece for postage and handling to the Dragon and Dragrace publishing company."
"In any event," Clerasil said, "We have to catch them off guard. They can't suspect what we're doing."
Ringman's eyes bugged wide. "With me and my horse sitting here right now, listening and talking to you?! They've probably crystal-balled in on me already and know everything I've been saying!"
Sick Sword buried her face in her right hand. "Don't you remember the mind blank spell I cast on you at the beginning of the day?"
"Uh . . . oh yeah, that's right. Never mind."
"We want you and your warhorse to be in on this too," Melnic the Loud interjected. "We'll need every moderately-powered helping hand we can get."
"ME? Against Disgusting Characters?!"
"Wild Max is only fifteenth level," Middle Monk noted. "And he's evil, so your paladinness will protect you from him . . . a little. So what if he has titan strength, is wielding the sword of Kas, and can do quintuple damage from behind?"
Ringman swallowed hard.
Sick Sword approached her boyfriend, put her arm on his adamantite-alloy-plated shoulder, and turned him away from the rest of her new allies. "What I really brought you here for is the last shot."
"You'll see," she said, and kissed his cheek. "I can't do everything by myself. . . ."
The Intercontinental Union of Disgusting Characters is continued in part 3 of 3.
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