Sick Sword's memory still haunted Ringman like Isolde's did Tristan. Like Juliet's did Romeo. Like Thisby's did Pyramus. Like Rock Hudson's did Jim Nabors. Like —
"Enough, already!" Ringman sneered. "We get the picture!"
Homer the brownie rode in back of Ringman on his warhorse, as usual. Disgusting Sword and Ridiculous Sword floated through the air next to them. Peter Perfect rode his own warhorse aside Ringman's, holding the reins stiff-armed. The horse seemed a little uneasy about this whole setup, as did Prometheus. Jimmy lagged a little behind everyone else (staying clear of the horse's trail, of course), swishing the Sick Sword menacingly through the air.
"So what's this big plan of yours, R.S.?" Jimmy asked.
"Yes, Ridiculous," Ringman inquired, "I'd also like to know what we're about to get ourselves into, so I can decide whether or not I should be afraid of it."
"Well," Ridiculous Sword began, "The first thing we've got to do is lure Gross Sword back out into the open. That's why we're heading for The Great Big Clearing That Happens To Be Even A Little Bigger Than The Clearing Sick Sword Built Her Keep In."
"Ah," Ringman ahed, "So there won't be any innocent bystanders for him to hack up."
"No, just to give us some maneuvering room. Oh, by the way, I just remembered: Ringman, you've gotta upgrade your ballista. Plus 1 won't hit anyone protected by a double-strength potion of invulnerability."
Ringman buried his face in his right gauntlet.
"Aw, don't bother him about it," Disgusting Sword told her, "Peter Perfect doesn't have a spoon of stirring anyway. So, tell us more about your plan."
"Why don't you tell 'em, sis?"
"I don't know your plan."
"But you can read my mind."
"Not when you always have a mind blank spell up."
"Oh, all right," Ridiculous Sword acquiesced. "Anyway, we get Gross Sword to come to us. Disgusting Sword and I will keep him occupied by meleeing him and not hitting. Meanwhile, he'll keep us occupied by meleeing us and not hitting. And then," she pointed to Jimmy, "You hit him with Secret Weapon XJ-46."
"Right," Jimmy grinned, instinctively moving his left arm behind his back.
Quizzically, Ringman looked behind Jimmy's back. All he saw was a left hand clutching air. Then the paladin fingered his own torso and decided, 'I think I'd better keep this Invulnerable Coat of Arnd on for the duration.'
"And that's the whole plan?!" Homer complained. "Hit him with Secret Weapon XJ-46?! No escape routes, no back-ups, no ideas of what to do if Gross Sword's still alive after your big lollapaloozer hits him?!"
"Oh, he probably will be still alive after he's hit. I've already thought of that."
They reached the geometric center of the clearing and stopped. Ridiculous Sword solemnly declared, "The time is right."
"Uh," Ringman interrupted, "Don't we have to wait for the three suns to align or something?"
Ridiculous Sword grimaced at him. "Central Earth only has one sun! Sheish, for a paladin you sure have a weak stomach!"
"You ready?" Disgusting Sword asked of everyone (but of Ridiculous Sword in particular).
Ridiculous Sword nodded matter of factly. "I'm ready."
Jimmy smiled like a little boy hiding a secret. "I'm ready."
Ringman and Homer blinked at each other. "We're not ready."
"Good, we're all in agreement then," Ridiculous Sword declared. She raised her horn of blasting into the wind, and yelled through it: "GROOOOOOOOOOOSS Sword! Come out come out wherever you are!"
The clear-blue sky seemed to rumble a reply as Ridiculous Sword put her horn away and both she and her sister began to cast the same spell. What spell it was they were casting, no one but they had any idea. Homer the brownie, suddenly aware of his vulnerability in only having four hit points and a positive armor class, ran around behind Ringman's warhorse and blended in with the surroundings. Peter Perfect, of course, just sat there stiff-armed on top of his horse. Ringman drew his (merely +5) holy longsword and raised his shield.
The air felt tense. Very tense. Ringman probably could have drawn a spark by touching metal if he wasn't grounded to his armor. He wished to his deity that his daughters would hurry up and finish whatever spell it was they were casting.
Then, he saw it. So did everyone else, for that matter; it was rather hard to miss. Six seconds ago the sky had been pure azure, but now it was dominated by a single gigantic, swirling, black cloud reaching all the way to the ground. And into the center of the Great Big Field, out of the cone of this cyclone — no, hurricane was a better word — dropped the single most powerful force of chaotic-evil in the multiverse.
And flanking him at ten yards intervals dropped four twelve-foot-high humanoid machines.
"Golems!" Ringman gasped. Ridiculous Sword or Disgusting Sword could have told him that, of course, but they were still busy saying magic words and waving their arms around. This scared Homer even more, and even Jimmy and Ringman's warhorse began to get lumps in their stomachs. (Though Peter Perfect, of course, just sat there in the saddle with his arms out stiff.) These golems were big, and broad, and dark-colored, and noisy. Very noisy. One solid, clanking step from any of them could set off a fault line. Ringman had a slight feeling that he was outclassed. "Uh . . . Ridiculous Sword . . . Disgusting Sword . . . could you hurry it —"
"Ha haaaaaah!" the boy in the middle gloated, drawing attention back to himself (as well as the Gross Broadsword and the Gross Hand Axe). His sandy brown hair framed a dark, hidden fury within his eyes, but the whole of his expression drowned in his sinister, sickening smile.
It was then that it dawned on Ringman: this was his son. This was the first time he'd ever so much as seen his own boy. It was also the first time Gross Sword had seen him for real, even though he had probably spied on Ringman countless times with a crystal ball or a mirror of mental prowess or whatnot.
"So, father," the sinister smile mused as Gross Sword pulled out card number ten from the Villain's Collection of Commonly Used Sayings and held it up to display: "At last we meet."
He tromped with painstaking slowness toward Ringman, Gross Broadsword in right hand and Gross Hand Axe in left, relishing the ever-increasing look of horror on his father's face. Perhaps, some dim flicker of conscience told him, he should be paying more attention to his goody-two-shoes sisters; but they were no threat and this paladin was far more entertaining.
The holy sword quavered in Ringman's hands.
And at that moment, Ridiculous Sword and Disgusting Sword finished their spells by casting their hands toward the sky and crying the activating phrase, "TEMPUUUUUUUUUUUUUS FUGIT!"
If you thought the Sick Girls could move fast before, you would have been flabberghasted to see them now. Their normal running speeds, which were already only slightly under mach five, now increased SIXFOLD to a monstrous 30 720 feet per second. They could move six times as fast, attack six times as fast, cast spells six times as fast, and even think six times as fast. This was the awesome might that Tempus Fugit had bestowed upon them.
Gross Sword looked through his robe of eyes' rear eyes at the two human cyclones now approaching him. "God IV!" he gasped. "How could I have overlooked such a powerful spell!"
Ringman wiped his brow, grateful that his murderous son's attention had been drawn from him. He stopped relaxing, though, when he realized that the four golems hadn't been so distracted.
Gross Sword assessed things as quickly as he could manage. Ridiculous Blur and Disgusting Blur would probably use their speed to try and feint past his defenses. He would have to keep his guard up more now than ever before in his life. The only way he could hope for better-than-average odds of survival would be to . . . <cringe> . . . PARRY — without attacking! He swallowed his pride and went on the defensive.
Ridiculous Sword reached him first. She had been nearer to him when she'd finished her spell. Gross Sword crossed his broadsword and hand-axe and readied to kick in his helm of teleportation if it came to that. And then, when Ridiculous Sword closed to within ten feet of him, she . . . she slowed down! She slowed to her usual ridiculously-fast pace, instead of the unbelievably-fast pace she'd just had. Puzzled but delighted, Gross Sword looked at Disgusting Sword, and found that she had slowed down to below hypersonic as well. And his father behind him, and the four golems — they looked to be moving six times more lethargically than they had any right to.
Now he remembered. Tempus fugit affected everything within ten feet of its caster, friend or foe.
Ringman hardly noticed his son's and daughters' little skirmish; twelve feet of mindless metal was about to pound him into the ground like a tent peg. He would have to hit it first. He charged up the few remaining yards to the behemoth, shouting to drown out his fear, and rammed his holy sword toward its metal belly.
He was in mid-swing, too late to stop the momentum of his blow or the momentum of his thoughts, when he realized exactly what kind of metal this golem was made of.
The sword's tip impacted into an impenetrable wall. It arched under the weight of Ringman's thrust, protested, and finally snapped in two. The upper half of the blade clattered down soundlessly against the grassy earth. Ringman stared in horror at the half of a sword remaining in his right hand, then slowly turned to the golem and exclaimed, "You have broken what could not be broken!"
"I am pure adamantite," the golem replied. "That is a +6 substance. Your holy sword was only +5. That was why it broke."
Ringman nested his face in one hand and shook his head.
"This has been a recorded announcement," the golem finished, and smashed down on Ringman so hard it knocked him to the ground.
Ringman rolled out of the creature's way and stood up. Just being stepped on by that thing would probably squish him, mithral-alloyed armor and all. The adamantite golem stumbled harmlessly by, leaving six-inch-deep footprints. Ringman figured he might be able to keep its attention for a few minutes, but then it might lose interest and turn instead on Homer or Jimmy or his warhorse. He needed to down this thing, and he needed a +6 weapon to do it.
He looked over at Jimmy. He had a +6 broadsword. He was also using that +6 broadsword to fend off one of the other three adamantite golems. Ringman certainly couldn't take that sword from Jimmy, even if he could stomach taking the Sick Sword into his hand again. Ridiculous Sword and Disgusting Sword also had +6 broadswords — and +6 daggers, and +6 longswords, and +6 hand axes. And all eight of them were either in their hands or dancing in the air to keep Gross Sword's attention. And Gross Sword probably wouldn't be willing to forfeit any of his +6 weapons to Ringman just yet.
Where on Central Earth could he find a +6 wea—
The green glow from Peter Perfect's hip almost seemed to respond to his thoughts. That poor-excuse-for-a-holy-sword had told him that Peter Perfect had paid the extra 20 000 gold pieces to upgrade it to +6. . . .
"No," Ringman convinced himself aloud. "No. No way. Un-uh. No. Absolutely not."
The golem clanked toward him again.
"Oh hell," he said, reached over, and drew the +6 sentient holy avenger longsword from Peter Perfect's sheath.
The sword was as perky as a +6 holy puppy dog. "Ringman, old buddy old pal old pal old pal! So ya finally changed your mind!"
Ringman pointed a threatening finger at the sword. "One snide remark, Prometheus, and I'll find a way to break you, too!"
Prometheus shrugged in that way only holy swords can. "My personality score's higher than yours."
The golem was nearly upon them.
"Fine," barked Ringman, "For now just do what you do best!"
"I thought you'd never ask," Prometheus replied and, in concert with Ringman's strong right arm, rammed its tip right through the adamantite golem's belly.
"Ouch!" the golem commented.
Ringman yanked the sword out of his opponent and swung again, making a deep gash in the metal giant's side. It was hurt pretty badly now. "Two attacks per minute," Prometheus commented. "I'm impressed."
"New paladin rules," Ringman replied as he deflected another swing of that adamantite arm with his +4 shield. "Longsword happens to be my weapon of choice."
Ringman hacked twice at the behemoth again. This mountain of adamantite was doomed to fall, Ringman could be sure of that.
Nearby, Jimmy was disposing of his adamantite golem in classic fashion. He couldn't attack as often as Ringman could, since he was only first-level, but with the Sick Sword in his hands he could hit just as hard, if not 10 damage points harder.
The third and fourth golems, surprisingly, were already mangled heaps of metal filings lying on the ground. Disgusting Sword figured maybe she didn't need both her Disgusting Dagger AND her Disgusting Broadsword hacking futilely at Gross Sword at the same time, so she sent the dagger off to tackle the golems during one of its four-minute "dancing" episodes.
All this time, Gross Sword and the Sick Girls had been hacking at each other and at each others' dancing weapons with absolutely no result. Gross Sword could have sworn that Disgusting Sword had only been armor class -27 last time he saw her, which was certainly a weak enough A.C. for him to penetrate.
"I could have sworn you were only armor class -27 last time I saw you, Disgusting Sword," Gross Sword said, breaking their silence.
"I was," Disgusting Sword told him as she parried and riposted. (Her riposte missed, of course.) "Look at my stones."
Gross Sword quickly counted and assimilated the tiny baubles whirling around Disgusting Sword's head. Sure enough, there were eighteen dusty rose stones in orbit about her that hadn't been there before. "Oh," he said, "I see. Eighteen +1-protection ioun stones to bring your armor class down to -45. You're almost as cheap as I am."
Jimmy chopped down on his golem for the final time. The humanoid lump of adamantite gave a non-descript grunt and keeled over. "All right!" Jimmy cheered. "I got one! I . . . uh . . . I . . . IIIIiiiiIIIIIII — AAAAAGH!"
Jimmy too keeled over, holding his stomach. He looked like he was about to explode. Ringman saw this and rushed to his side, taking off his gauntlets in case he needed to lay on his hands. "What's wrong, son?!"
Gross Sword glanced over at him when he heard that. But it wasn't he who his father was asking, merely Ridiculous Sword's new playmate whom Ringman had fleetingly called "son."
Ridiculous Sword looked over at Jimmy and smiled. She knew what was going on.
Jimmy, unfortunately, did not. He felt like the time his strength had suddenly climbed from 18 to 18/00, only about a hundred times worse and in all the wrong places. He shook, he held his throbbing temples, he bubbled over; he imagined himself turning inside out.
When at last the feeling ebbed and his stomach returned to his belly, he noticed the last fading traces of a bluish aura around him. He would have noticed it while he was changing, except he had more important things to worry about then.
"That adamantite golem got you 26 700 experience points, Jimmy!" Ridiculous Sword called out. "Welcome to level five!"
"Oh no," Jimmy shook his head. This was just too much. He was grateful that he had a migraine headache so that he could hold his head and feel something familiar.
Gross Sword's Gross Swords clanged and clashed against Disgusting Sword's and Ridiculous Sword's invincible defenses. His airborne dancing weapons parried theirs like bats out of the Abyss. There must be some way to end this stalemate, Gross Sword figured. There must be some power, say, that his weapons could drum up. His broadsword, his hand axe, his long sword, and his dagger were all +6 unholy dancing defender flame-tongue frost-brand anti-sun blades of wounding, sharpness, throwing, thunderbolts, life stealing, venom, contradisruption, all dragon slaying, speed, final wo—
"Hey, WAIT A MILLISECOND!" Gross Sword barked. "How come my weapons' Final Word power never kicked in?!?"
"I was waiting for you to mention that," Ridiculous Sword said with a wide grin. She cocked her right arm back, put every ounce of Atlas Strength she had into the swing, and hacked a mighty blow at her nemesis with the Ridiculous Broadsword. Gross Sword threw everything he had into the sword's way — even his weapons' full defender abilities — but it couldn't stop the blade. Razor-sharp adamantite tore across his abdomen like thunder, boosted by the limitless strength in Ridiculous Sword's arm and the Bracer of Irresistible Damage around her left wrist. When the smoke cleared, Gross Sword was down 330 hit points.
"AAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!" Gross Sword wailed. He backed up, blinded by a searing pain like he had never felt before in his life. His eyes were full of reflexive tears when he looked back up. "How in the name of Demogorgon's ghost did you do that?!!"
"Easy," Ridiculous Sword explained. "I had a feeling the Dungeon Master would forget about our weapons' Final Word powers, just like he did the last time we fought. I was just waiting for you to remind him."
"The Dungeon Master . . ." Gross Sword's words flowed out as slowly as pitch. "The Dungeon Master . . . forGOT?!?"
Ridiculous Sword merely half-smiled back.
"Then . . ." Gross Sword figured, "Then . . . my swords' Final Word powers should work on YOU, too!" He started to swing his broadsword.
"Maybe," Ridiculous Sword replied, turned around, and ran. "But you have to catch me first!"
Gross Sword gave chase. He ran after her for nearly a tenth of a second before he realized that she was outdistancing him six-to-one. Damn it, her "tempus fugit" field moved with her; when she ran away, she left Gross Sword out in the cold. And Disgusting Sword had already put a fair distance between herself and her dear little brother.
Gross Sword sheathed his broadsword and his hand axe. "I can fix that," he muttered. He inhaled deeply, wiggled his fingers, and began to chant. The chant was an illusionist spell; a fifth-level illusionist spell. He had memorized tempus fugit just like his sisters had. He just hadn't been sure of what the spell could do, that was all.
A sword and a dagger buzzed through the air toward him at blinding speeds. They were Ridiculous Sword's. Damn her dancing weapons. One hit from one of those things, backed up by her Bracer of Irresistible Damage, would be enough to finish him off in his current state of health — he only had 279 hit points left. There was nothing he could do except abort his spell and run backwards until he was out of the dancing weapons' 30 yard range.
So reasoning, he aborted his spell and ran backwards until he was out of the dancing weapons' 30 yard range.
Disgusting Sword wasn't about to let him out of her clutches so easily. After all, the old Grosser might still have another tempus fugit spell memorized. She ran around behind him and charged with her dancing +6 holy longsword of wounding and her dancing +6 holy hand axe of wounding. Gross Sword saw the disembodied weapons coming (he was wearing a robe of eyes, after all) and parried them with the Gross Broadsword and the Gross Dagger. The weapons didn't stand a chance of hitting — poor old Disgusting Sword was born too soon to put the Final Word ability on her toys — but still they hacked and thrusted and slashed six times faster than they had any right to.
"What gives?" Gross Sword said, fending off her dancing weapons. They had certainly been confusing the hell out of him all this time. "Your dancing weapons aren't inside of a tempus fugit field!"
"They don't have to be," Disgusting Sword called back. "Dancing weapons fight with exactly the same expertise and power as their wielder. And since I'm in a tempus fugit field . . ."
Gross Sword slapped a palm over his face (while still parrying with the other hand, of course). "That has to be the most ridiculous distortion of the rules I've ever heard of!" he exclaimed.
Ridiculous or not, it was there, and being implemented; and any second now Ridiculous Sword's weapons could catch up with him and deliver the Final Word. He was at a dangerous disadvantage. There was only one option open to him. He grit his teeth, swallowed his pride (which was a very large gulp), and declared, "Tactical advance to the rear!"
Then he teleported.
Or at least he tried to teleport. Neither the Ether nor the Astral Plane would accept him. He bounced off of the fabric of the multiverse in a purplish haze, and snapped right back to his point of origin.
"WHAT?!?" Gross Sword winced.
Ridiculous Sword grinned. "You don't think we chose this particular clearing by accident, do you? Certain areas of Central Earth, such as this place and the Cracks of Doom, are inherently teleport-proof. You've just walked right into our trap."
Gross Sword grimaced, then pulled out his last ace. "Oh yeah?" he breathed, "Well, there's one other trick I have left." He grinned. "Which you didn't count on." He moved his hands to the sky, and his sisters recognized the gesture.
"OH NO!" the Sword sisters gasped in unison.
Gross Sword snickered evilly, finished his somatic components with a groin thrust, and chanted the mystic words, "ANTI-MAGIC SHELL!"
Ringman stared on in awe as an invisible sphere 49 feet across englobed his son. Even he knew what that spell could do. No magic item would function within its confines — not a single one. Nor would any of the Sick Kids' permanent spells. However, Ringman did recall his dearly departed Sick Sword once saying something about —
"Artifacts!" he yelped, pointing at Gross Sword. "Your artifacts can still work inside the shell!"
Ridiculous Sword, Disgusting Sword, and yes, even Gross Sword all turned to their father and grudgingly told him, in chorus, "Not any more they can't."
Ridiculous Sword beamed him a telepathic picture of Dragon and Dragrace's latest issue, page 23, paragraph 3. The paragraph read: "I, the Dungeon Master, the most lordly and highest creator of all the multiverse, and the most incredibly omnipotent of any of you jerk-offs out there, hereby declare that anti-magic shells will now stop the effects of artifacts and relics, as well as the effects of non-artifact magic items, like they were supposed to do in the first place. Furthermore, magic potions imbibed before the anti-magic shell touches the imbiber will function normally. IN NO WAY IS THIS STATEMENT TO BE ASSUMED AN ADMISSION OF DUNGEON MASTER ERROR!"
"Oh," Ringman shrugged.
The scene fell silent. Gross Sword had summoned in the ultimate defense. "Ha HA," he chortled chaotic-evilly, "My defensive powers still work, but your offensive powers do not! Your little trick hasn't availed you at all, my dear sisters! And now that I know about this spot and about tempus fugit, you'll never be able to trick me again! BWA ha ha ha haaaa!!"
Jimmy shook his head and looked at Ringman, who was standing less than ten yards away. "I dunno . . . it's that evil laugh that gets me."
That evil laugh . . . that old bwa-ha-ha. That was something Peter Perfect had always wanted to do. If evil laughter wasn't prohibited by that darned code of paladinhood, he'd . . . he'd . . .
Something snapped. Something that only Peter Perfect could hear. It was no louder than a blade of grass dying of thirst, or a bottle of fresh milk evaporating, but it was like thunder compared with the boundless silence that had been numbing Peter Perfect's consciousness. That evil laugh had brought him to the surface, and allowed him to make another saving throw against the charm he was under. And this time, with the help of the magic items the Sick Sisters had given back to him, he made it.
He felt his warhorse's familiar adamantite saddle underneath him; the saddle sores felt welcome indeed. He surveyed his situation. Gross Sword was chortling up a storm inside of an anti-magic shell the way Peter had always wanted to do. Ridiculous Sword and Disgusting Sword were standing there, pondering their next move. Jimmy was holding the Sick Sword in his right hand and concealing his left behind his back, and pretending to be something more than he was. Homer the brownie was hiding behind Ringman's warhorse. And Ringman, staring in awe at the fray (or lack thereof), was wielding his own dear Prometheus!
He was about to charge over and snatch the holy sword from his rival's hands, but his combat sense stopped him. The Sick Kids would mash him to bits if they knew he was up and around. He couldn't let them know. He put his arms out stiffly in front of him, as they had been when he was charmed, and hoped that Ridiculous Sword and Disgusting Sword were too busy to tune in to his wavelength.
'Prometheus!' his thoughts cried.
Startled, the holy sword twitched in Ringman's hand. Fortunately for Prometheus, Ringman was too preoccupied to notice. 'I hear you,' the longsword transmitted telepathically.
'When I tell you to,' Peter Perfect continued without flinching, 'Leap into my hand. When I tell you to.'
'Gotcha,' the sword replied. 'It's nice to hear from you again.'
'Yeah, yeah, whatever.' Neither of the Sick Girls turned their attention to him. Good. He watched, and waited.
Gross Sword raised his voice. "I demand one billion gold pieces, in small coins, and safe passage out of this land!"
"Gold pieces?" Ridiculous Sword asked. "What would you want with money?"
"Oh yeah," Gross Sword corrected himself, "That was just something I heard on one of those old late-night precognitions. But I still demand safe passage out of this land! Or I'll kill each and every living thing within thirty miles, and you won't be able to stop me!"
"Oh, we won't, will we?" Ridiculous Sword's grin grew as wide today as it ever would. "Jimmy, it's time!"
Jimmy almost lost control with excitement. He pulled his long-concealed left hand out from behind his back to reveal: "Secret Weapon XJ-46!" he yelled, glinting the secret weapon in the sunlight. "A BALLISTA OF AUTOMATIC MISSILE FIRE!!!"
Disgusting Sword and Ridiculous Sword whipped out their Ollamh Harps and strummed an incredibly triumphantly dramatic chord. Jimmy continued, "And ballista targets —"
And now everyone joined in, except for Peter Perfect who was still pretending to be charmed, "— ARE ARMOR CLASS TEN IF EXPOSED TO SIGHT!"
Gross Sword cringed at the oversized crossbow sitting on Jimmy's shoulder, at the chain feeding into it. Each link of that chain held a missile the size of a javelin with the punch of a small house. He wanted to fireball that kid as fast as he could. Or iceball him, or lightningball him, or sonicball him, or whatever he wasn't immune to through the Sick Sword he carried in his other hand. But to launch any such attack on him, Gross Sword would first have to lower his anti-magic shell — and that would leave Ridiculous Sword's final-word weapons open to reduce him to chowder. There had to be some other way for him to remain invulnerab—
"Ha HAAAH!" Gross Sword suddenly recalled, "My permanent double-strength potion of invulnerability isn't affected by the anti-magic shell! You still need a +2 or better weapon to hit me with, but since every weapon that comes near me gets rendered non-magical, you won't be able to hit me at all!!"
"Not so!" Jimmy replied in the most majestic tone of voice he had ever used. Ridiculous Sword had planned for just such a come-uppance, and had given him one final contingency. "Your invulnerability requires your opponents to have a weapon of at least +2 OR hit dice of 6+2 or greater!"
Gross Sword shook a finger at him. "No no no no! I've read page 75 of the Book of Infinite Wisdom myself, and the footnote specifically states that 'This does not apply to characters of any sort'!"
Jimmy grinned. "But it does apply to monsters." He flexed his neurons in concentration, and kicked in his permanent potion of polymorph (self). A startling transformation occurred. Two seconds later, he stood before his gross foe as . . . a hill giant.
A hill giant with a ballista of automatic missile fire.
A hill giant with eight hit dice (plus one to two additional hit points).
"A character with lots of hit dice might not be able to hit someone who's invulnerable, even if he's shooting at him with a ballista," Jimmy explained in a hill-giantish voice, "But a monster with lots of hit dice firing a ballista at him can!"
He pulled the trigger, and tore the sky apart. The weapon's catapult-string twanged back and forth, accepting and releasing its javelin-sized loads, with an unearthly speed all its own. Shot after shot filled each deadly second with over a dozen missiles, none of which failed to strike home. Gross Sword cringed under the onslaught as the shafts riddled his body, ignoring his permanent double-strength invulnerability and all common sense.
And he couldn't heal himself. None of his clerical healing spells or magical wish spells or vampiric rings of regeneration would work unless he dropped the protection of his magic-proof sphere — and lowering his only last-ditch defense would leave him wide open to Ridiculous Sword's weapons' Final Word attacks. Slaughtered or shish-kabobbed; one was hardly different from the other. His psionic cell adjustment ability would only heal a couple hundred hit points of damage before he exhausted his psionic power point reserve. His monk ability of missile deflection was useless against siege missiles like the ones that were puncturing his body at that instant. And he couldn't teleport.
Gross Sword was down to four hundred hit points, and dropping fast. . . .
Three hundred hit points. He still couldn't teleport. . . .
Two hundred hit points. The supply of missiles going into that ballista still seemed endless. . . .
One hundred hit points. Instinctively, he cowered behind his own arms . . . which were also impaled.
Weak flesh. Weak weak weak. All his special training, all those experience points, all those artifacts he'd collected to make him indestructible came to nothing now. He was as naked as when he was first born. As naked as in the womb before his birth. As naked as when Tiamat's seed of evil had first infected him.
Fifty-three hit points. He looked up, looked around for salvation. Jimmy's hill-giantish eyes were merciless. His sisters played their Ollamh lutes with mounting tension. Only Ringman, among the onlookers, seemed deeply concerned. Gross Sword's paladin father bit the knuckle of one of his gauntlets and shook his head with impending sorrow.
Father . . .
Forty-five hit points. . . . Twenty-eight. . . .
Twelve. . . .
Jimmy released the trigger on impulse. Everyone froze. The music ceased. Gross Sword's scream left a wake, a gulf of deafening silence.
And the mightiest force of chaos and evil in the multiverse collapsed onto his knees and cried.
"Mphg," he sobbed into his hands. "Ahuc ahuc ahuc. Wh-wh-wh-what — what've I done?! WHAT HAVE I DONE?!"
Ringman started to stride toward him, feeling urgent.
"No no, Ringman," Jimmy warned him, "He's still dangerous!"
"Nononononononononono!" Homer the brownie called out to the ninth-level by-the-book paladin, shaking his head wildly with each syllable.
Ringman ignored their warnings and sauntered toward his son. He took his gauntlets off within the first ten yards; then his helmet, then his greaves, then the Invulnerable Coat of Arnd. Armorless. Completely defenseless. He knelt down by his only male child.
Gross Sword looked up at him out of his hands, then buried his reddened eyes right back into his hands again. (And this time, doing so kept him from seeing anything, what with the anti-magic shell inhibiting his robe of eyes and all.) He shook his head and nearly flung off his tears. Then, slowly, he looked back into the eyes of his father once more.
He lowered his right hand. Ringman grasped it.
Gross Sword shook his head more slowly, with a furrowed brow. "Mom," he winced. "Bahamut. All of the people and non-people. They didn't deserve it. They didn't do anything — anything — to deserve what I did to them." He inhaled sharply. "WHY DID I POLLUTE ALL THEIR LIVES?! Why . . . why in Hell's name didn't I listen to the last generation of Disgusting Characters when they told me about Tiamat's seed of evil?!"
'Tiamat's evil seed,' Peter Perfect thought. 'That was my doing. Hah, revenge never felt so good as that time.' All the other onlookers were thoroughly distracted. It was not yet time to leap into action, but it wouldn't hurt to get into a better position. He nudged his warhorse ever so subtly with an invisible squeeze from his legs, and the mount trotted, slowly and non-chalantly, toward Gross Sword and Ringman.
Oblivious to Peter — and still presuming him to be charmed — Ridiculous Sword and Disgusting Sword also made way toward their brother. He saw them coming and lowered his anti-magic shield. More barriers were the last things he needed right now.
"This," Gross Sword went on, pouring out more than nine years' worth of misery, "This was all wrong. Damn it, I only felt satisfied whenever I did something sadistic! And every victory was as hollow as the ones before it! All those people I hurt or killed, all with lives . . . and loves . . . of their own."
He looked into his father's eyes. They were nearly as red as his own. "Oh, dad!" he sobbed, clutching him, "Why'd I do that to you and mom?!"
Ringman embraced him back. He could barely breathe straight, his feelings so choked him. In all senses of the words, he had finally met his son.
Gross Sword broke the hug and looked into Ringman's eyes again. Ringman nodded, weeping with joy. "Gross Sword, I think I can be really proud of you now."
Gross Sword shook his head, unable to accept it. "Proud of a mass murderer? A tyrant? Proud of Bahamut's and his mother's — your love's — killer? Proud of the being . . . who could have set the whole multiverse back five thousand years?"
And Ringman couldn't accept that, either. "I was proud of you," he admitted, "From the time I first heard you were born."
They hugged each other again, and sat that way for a long, long time. Of all the spectators present, Prometheus was the only one who was the slightest bit agitated.
'Now?' the holy sword begged, telepathically.
'No,' Peter Perfect returned, 'Not yet.'
'Soon, all right?!' Peter's thoughts barked. 'Geez, your more impatient than I am!'
'But I wanna kill something!' the sword pouted.
Peter was tempted to bury his eyes in his hand and shake his head, but that would have given him away. He stood firm as always, arms still out stiff, and waited. The moment would come.
Gross Sword loosened his tearful embrace and looked down at his own waist. Four adamantite belt loops jutted out from his Bluejeans of Free Action. These loops housed the hafts and blades of the four grossest chaotic-evil weapons in all the multiverse. The Gross Hand Axe, the Gross Longsword, the Gross Dagger and, most powerful of all, the Gross Broadsword; four weapons devoted solely to spreading limitless evil and chaos through whoever chose to wield them. Their overwhelming power had been his idea, and his alone. Nothing, he had figured, could withstand the might of an anti-ranger and anti-paladin who used those . . . those . . .
"NO!" he blurted, startling everyone there because he still had his mind blank spell up and they couldn't read his mind. He stood up. "I don't care what powers those two classes give me! I don't . . . want . . . to be an anti-paladin or an anti-ranger any more!"
The heavens rebuked — well, actually it was the Abysses that rebuked, but you get the idea — and Gross Sword, the only son of Sick Sword and Ringman, gave up the powers of the anti-paladin and the anti-ranger.
Even Ridiculous Sword was impressed. "Wow," she uttered, finding it difficult to pick the right words. "Now . . . now you're only . . . a plain, average, run-of-the-mill psionic druid/monk/assassin/thief/bard/illusionist/cleric/magic-user/weapons master!"
Gross Sword nodded solemnly, his eyes still wet. "I know. A terrible loss — but no price is too high now."
"What a guy," Disgusting Sword whispered with utmost sincerity into her sister's ear.
"I don't want to be some unholy force anymore!" Gross Sword continued. "I don't want to be evil! AND I DON'T WANT THESE DAMNED SENTIENT WEAPONS POLLUTING THE MULTIVERSE ANYMORE!!"
He snapped the Gross Longsword and the Gross Dagger out of their loop-scabbards and hurled them to the grassy ground, where they impaled themselves point-first in the earth. Without another though, he followed up with the Gross Broadsword and the Gross Hand Axe, thwunking the broadsword into the ground just as he had the other two weapons but hurling the axe edge-first into the soil beside them. He flung the Gross Pair of Gloves off of his hands and down next to the blades, then drew the Other Gross Pair of Gloves from their holsters and cast them away. That was twice he'd hurled down the gauntlet in as many instants. He inhaled vehemently. "I'm gonna have you six DESTROYED!"
The six weapons erupted in light and shone directly on their owner. His robe of eyes was blinded, but he wasn't, of course. "YOU CANNOT DESTROY US," the Gross Weapons boomed together as one. "WE ARE ARTIFACTS. YOU YOURSELF CREATED US AS MORE THAN MERE SENTIENT MAGIC WEAPONS. WE CANNOT BE DESTROYED!"
Ridiculous Sword chuckled for a few seconds, then broke into roaring laughter. "HA HA HA HA HA!!" she addressed the Gross Artifacts. "You don't think so, do you?!" She reached into her last portable hole, and rummaged for a tiny object. She'd been awaiting this day ever since her brother created those weapons in the first place. At last, she pulled out the one thing she'd had prepared specifically for this event.
It looked like one of those snap-lidded velvet cases that diamond rings come in. Disgusting Sword clasped her chest and beheld the box in splendid wonder. Ringman and Jimmy scratched their heads and beheld the box in utter confusion. Homer the brownie didn't know what in Sick Sword's name was going on, but he was enjoying this whole show more and more. The front of the box was engraved, in block lettering, with simply, "The Ant Box."
Ridiculous Sword flipped the box open. "All right, you Gross toasties!" she exclaimed. "It's time for you to meet . . . THE HUMBLE ANT!"
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!" the Gross weapons screamed.
The centimeter-long black ant in the box lethargically lifted its eyes up to Ridiculous Sword, and said, in that language spoken only by ant-kind, "I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed."
She picked the ant up on her right index finger. "Never mind that," she replied in Antspeak, "I have a task for you!"
"I won't enjoy it," the ant informed her.
"I'm not asking you to enjoy it," Ridiculous Sword told it. "I just want you to step on those chaotic-evil artifact weapons."
"<GASP>!" the Gross weapons gasped.
"You want me to go step on some artifacts," the ant groaned. "Here I am, brain the size of a pinhead and you want me to go step on some artifacts. Probably be the biggest load on my intellectual capacities today."
"For a humble ant," Jimmy sidetalked to Homer the Brownie, "He sure has one pompous ego."
Ridiculous Sword lowered the ant toward the weapons. Disdaining his task, the ant grudgingly crawled down from her left index finger and trudged toward its quarry. It reached the Other Gross Pair of Gloves first.
"ARRRRRRRRRGH!" the gloves screamed. "NOOOOO! DON'T SEND ME BACK TO THE VOID!!"
The ant stepped. There was a <CRACK> where its foot came down, and in a flash of blue-white light the gloves crumbled to dust.
The ant looked down at his work and moaned, "I'm not getting you down at all am I?"
And since the Gross Pair of Gloves was nearest to where the Other Gross Pair of Gloves had been, that was the humble ant's next target. He walked toward it in that way that only humble ants can.
"NONONONONONO!" the Gross Pair of Gloves wailed. "Wh-What have I ever done to you?!"
"I have this terrible pain down all the formic acid ducts on my left-hand side," he said with disdain, and destroyed the second of the Gross Weapons.
'How does that ant manage to destroy BOTH gloves at once by stepping on ONE of them?' Disgusting Sword wondered.
Gross Sword smiled and nodded in revelation-like gratitude as the ant approached the Gross Hand Axe. The axe wasn't quite as receptive: "Uh . . . er . . . ah, that is . . . uh . . ."
"Call this job satisfaction?" the ant asked rhetorically, and stepped on the axe head. The head broke in half and released its essence back into the etheric ocean. "'Cause I don't."
It approached the Gross Longsword. The weapon shivered with fright. "It wasn't enjoyable at all, what with being locked up in that box all the time," the ant told it. "The first ten million years were the worst. And the second ten million years, they were the worst too. The third ten million years I didn't enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline."
"B-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-ut now you're OUT of the box!" the sword argued. "You can get away from all this and live your own life!"
"LIFE!!!" the ant bellowed. No one present had any idea that an ant's voice could get that loud. He crunched down solidly on the blade, and broke it forever in twain. "Don't talk to me about life."
Two Gross weapons remained. The Gross Broadsword and the Gross Dagger were all that remained of Gross Sword's old evil. The ant approached the dagger, and the blade bargained for its life: "Hey, ant! Maybe we can make a deal! Just claim me for your own and I can give you . . . well, power beyond your wildest imaginings!"
"Sounds awful," the ant replied, and snapped the life out of this blade to boot.
'Whoo,' Peter Perfect thought. 'Some ant. Glad Prometheus isn't an artifact weapon.'
And now, it came down to the Gross Broadsword. Gross Sword's number one weapon throughout his entire Disgusting career. The ant treaded his way toward its quarry as before, but the Gross Sword didn't flinch. It didn't cry out on fear, it didn't beg for its life — it just sat there.
In an act of greatest contempt, the ant said nothing either and just stepped on the blade.
And nothing happened.
It stepped again. Again, nothing. It stepped harder. Still nothing. The ant looked solemnly up at Ridiculous Sword and complained, "Hmmmph. You seem to have miscalculated."
"Ha HAAAAAH!!" the broadsword cheered. "I knew it! I knew it! I was Gross Sword's favorite, you see! I was much too valuable to have the foot of a humble ant be the means of my destruction!"
Ridiculous Sword smirked. "You're right. Being stepped on by an ant isn't the way you were designed to be destroyed. You, Gross Broadsword, can only be destroyed —" She cast a gate spell. "— by HIM!!"
Through the purple glow of the gate stepped the most monstrous humanoid being any of them had ever seen. It towered 48 feet in the air and had skin of solid iron. The very air shook in his vicinity. The being of iron stared down balefully at the bunch gathered before him and bellowed, "WHO SUMMONS ME?!"
Ridiculous Sword stepped forward and non-chalantly pointed at the Gross Sword that was still on the ground. "Step on that artifact," she instructed him.
The being's eyes grew wide with anger. "YOU, A CHILD?! You DARE SUMMON TALOS FOR SUCH A MIDDLING . . . er, such a middling, uh . . . er . . ." He recognized her. "Er . . . uh . . . duh, um . . . ooh . . . eeh . . . ah, ah, OH, PLEASE DON'T KILL ME, RIDICULOUS SWORD!! I have a wife and seventy-two hundred children! I'm only three thousand years old, I'M TOO YOUNG TO DIiIiIiIiIE!!!"
Ridiculous Sword shrugged her shoulders. "Then step on that artifact."
Talos nodded meekly. The Gross Broadsword knew what was coming next, and it wasn't going to take it lying down. Using its telekinetic ability, along with its flight power and some of its unused minutes of being a dancing weapon, the broadsword leapt up and out of stomping range of the Triple Iron Golem. "OH no ya don't!" the sword barked. "You're not getting rid of me this easily!"
Without a word, Ridiculous Sword rushed up to the Gross Broadsword and plucked it from the air. The sword vibrated in her hand as it tried to escape. "Let . . . go . . . of . . . me." The sword was trying to dominate her ego. A futile attempt, but it tried anyway. She forced it down onto the ground. "Step, Talos," she said with infinite calm.
The iron giant put its foot down on the sword. That is, it tried to put its foot down on the sword, but the sword jerked itself out of the way it the last instant. Even in Ridiculous Sword's Atlas-strength grasp it wasn't totally immobile. Talos stepped again, but again the sword evaded the giant iron foot.
Everyone's attention was on Talos and the Gross Broadsword. The time was perfect. Peter Perfect vaulted off his warhorse's adamantite saddle, tumbled across the ground to an upright position, and in all the confusion made it to Gross Sword's side before even his robe-of-eyes-assisted vision could warn him. He had his hand around the artifact bracelet on his left wrist and had yanked it off before Gross Sword even reacted.
"Now, Prometheus!" he shouted. Ringman looked down at his hilt just as Prometheus pulled itself free. The sword landed grip-first in Peter Perfect's right hand. "HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" Peter guffawed. "Now I have the power!!" And with that, he engaged the helm of teleportation which Disgusting Sword and Ridiculous Sword had seen no harm in leaving on his head, glowed purple for a moment, and vanished.
The Gross Broadsword was so stunned, in fact, it didn't even see Talos's foot coming down, and it died in a fit of breakage.
"M-may I go now?" the Triple Iron Golem asked.
"Yeah, sure, sure," Ridiculous Sword waved him away, not even bothering to look straight at him. Talos went back through the gate and both disappeared.
"Peter Perfect wasn't even charmed!" Disgusting Sword said with disgust. "He fooled us!"
"Yeah . . ." Gross Sword noticed. "And how the HELL did he manage to do what he just did in a Teleport-Free Zone?"
"Hell," Ridiculous Sword cast a thumb over her shoulder, "That gate I made shouldn't even have worked. Teleportation of ANY kind is supposed to be prohibited in this region." She cast her eyes skyward. "But I guess the DUNGEON MASTER forgot about that little detail!!!"
The skies rumbled once more, and a searing blue bolt of pure damage hurled down from the heavens and struck Ridiculous Sword squarely. None of her magic items of protection could defend her from that murderous bolt, as it was thrown directly from the Dungeon Master's hand. Ridiculous Sword's body lay there in a fried heap.
"Ridiculous Sword!" Ringman screamed, and knelt down beside her. "OH, MY DEITY!"
And then, ten seconds after her death occurred, Ridiculous Sword stirred and shook herself back to consciousness. "Mmmm, hi dad," she said.
Ringman scratched his head in utter confusion. "But . . . but how did —"
"Easy," his younger daughter told him, propping herself up on her elbows, "I was dead, right? Sent to Heaven, right? Well, all I had to do was cast a raise dead spell on myself and POOF, here I am!"
"This is one Hell of a crazy multiverse," Ringman mumbled. "Hey," he noted, "I thought raise dead was a minute spell."
"It is," Ridiculous Sword came back, regaining more and more of her composure with each second. "Tempus fugit's still up. And we can still catch Peter Perfect."
"But how?" Jimmy asked, joining them. "Where did he go?"
"Yeah," Gross Sword commented. "I tried to pick him up on clairvoyance just now, but all I got was snow. He's still mindblanked."
"All right, then," Ridiculous Sword figured. "If you were a megalomaniacal paladin, what would you most want to do?"
"Take over the world," Jimmy said.
Ridiculous Sword winked at him. "Right. And if you couldn't take over the world, then what?"
Ringman rubbed his chin, then said, "You'd want to destroy it."
"Uh huh. And that's most likely what he's set out to do."
"Destroy the world?" Disgusting Sword puzzled. "Before we can find out about it?"
Disgusting Sword had a revelation. "Ohhhhhhhh."
"All right," Ridiculous Sword drew a breath, "Hang on to my coat tails, Jimmy. You, Homer, ride with Disgusting Sword, and Gross Sword, you take dad, okay?"
Ringman did not catch this at all. "Wait, wait a minute. Where are we going?"
By the time he said "we," Gross Sword already had him on his back and Homer and Jimmy had already mounted up. Ridiculous Sword leapt into the air and told him, "To the basement of the world!"
The clearing whooshed by beneath them. Soon, they were passing over forests and towns, and then lakes and finally a wide ocean. Ringman was still confused. "And where is this 'basement of the world'?"
"Where else?" Ridiculous Sword chuckled. "On the bottom side of Central Earth.
Ringman mouthed the words "bottom side," then asked, "You mean it's flat?"
"Sure! What did you think it was anyway, round? Hah, we'd all fall off then!"
"Well, that makes sense," Homer the brownie concurred.
The ocean passed serenely beneath them. Soon, the blue of the sky faded to a black, velvet backdrop against which the stars shone more brightly than they ever did at night. They were reaching The Edge. Ringman pointed helplessly as the boundary of Central Earth — circular, but so vast that up close it looked straight — rushed by beneath them, and they were in free space.
"Whoa," Ringman moaned, feeling uneasily giddy. "Whoa, this feels weird!"
"We're weightless now," Disgusting Sword informed him. "That's what happens whenever you leave the plate."
Ringman nodded. "I'll remember that next time I happen to come here."
Ridiculous Sword dipped down — not that down had any real meaning anymore — and swung past The Edge. Ringman looked forward and saw the stars in their sphere of perfectly hard ether swoop past; over his shoulder, the dirt and rock of The Edge obscured more and more of the blue-capped top of that beautiful world. And at last, The Bottom reached his view.
The Bottom was nothing like the blue-lit majesty of The Top. It was in deep night now, and would be until the sun set and passed its light from the world above to the world below. Yet even by the dim light of the stars alone, Ringman could make out the contours. It was rough and craggy, dripping with stalactites of rock and dirt. There was no living sound, not even the breath of life; only a hollow echo of their swift passage through this Other World. The hanging peaks passed above him, and he realized that they were, indeed, above him. Back under the plate, gravity had returned.
Homer, of course, merely hung on for dear life through all of this.
Their course hugged the mountainbottoms and aimed straight for the other side of the world. In this space without blue air, the other side could clearly be seen, even though its true size was impossible to grasp. But it was not the opposite side of the plate that was their goal; it was the center. Ringman peered with as keen an un-disgusting eye as he could manage, and saw it. He was the first non-disgusting character in the history of Central Earth to see it. A tiny, tiny thread stretched down from the center of the world and lost itself in the unfathomable depths below. The North Pole of Central Earth. That was the axis along which the plate rested, the reference point that indicated which direction "down" was.
"That thread," Ridiculous Sword told him, "Is called the Thread of Gravity. It's what generates our weight on Central Earth. Without that, everything would float off into free space."
Jimmy scratched his head. He had only been disgusting for a few weeks, and hadn't learned everything yet. "So then . . . that means that the plate itself should weigh something also."
Ridiculous Sword nodded. "That's right. It does."
"So then," Ringman interjected, "What's holding it up?"
"Atlas," the Sick Kids said in chorus.
Finally, it all started to dawn to Ringman. Atlas had the job of holding up Central Earth. If Peter Perfect wanted to destroy the whole world, his best bet would be to get rid of the pillar that was holding it up. That would be Atlas. That was why he took the Other Bracer of Irresistible Damage from Gross Sword to begin with.
The Center of Central Earth came closer and closer into view. Ringman could make out a tiny silhouette on the end of the thread pushed right up against the plate. It was a humanoid silhouette — no, two humanoid silhouettes. At last, Ridiculous Sword cast a continual light spell on the nearest stalactite and illuminated the situation in both senses of the words.
Atlas, who was no larger than your average Greek athlete, was still holding up Central Earth — but just barely. Terrible wounds more than justified the exhaustion in his eyes and face. His feet could barely keep their grip on the thread. Next to the teetering titan stood a grinning Peter Perfect, waving Prometheus to exalt the blood that now stained it. He had wanted them to catch up with him, to see his moment of triumph. Ridiculous Sword levitated herself up to the bottom of Central Earth and used the inverted surface to run toward him at her full running speed.
Peter Perfect put up a restraining hand and stepped to Atlas's side. Ridiculous Sword stopped herself. Prometheus went down so that it just covered the world-holder's throat, and the Other Bracer of Irresistible Damage around Peter's wrist pulsed in blue-white readiness. "One more step, Sick Kids," the disgusting paladin announced, "And Atlas here gets it!"
'Hoo boy,' Ringman thought. Jimmy's thoughts ran along the same lines. Homer was too frightened to think.
Gross Sword looked him levelly in the eye. He never did like this poor excuse for a paladin, but now his dislike for him was for different reasons. "You don't really want to do this," Gross Sword said to him.
Peter Perfect did a take. "What do you mean I don't want to do this?! Of course I want to do this!!"
"You want to destroy everything on Central Earth just because you can't have it all?" Gross Sword put to him.
"Darned right!" Peter exclaimed. "Stupid old world. What did it ever do for me, anyways? And besides, you people seem so attached to this miserable little planet, full of so much vile filth and sin and nasty other things that we paladins are out to destroy, that if you don't agree to give me total control over all beings on this planet, I'll snuff out Atlas right here and now!"
"And what would you do with total control?" Gross Sword pressed on.
"What would I do with it? Why, rule over it, of course!"
"You mean play with it as you pleased."
"Like a toy, whose only purpose was to amuse you."
"And you call yourself a lawful-good paladin?" Gross Sword and Ringman asked at the same time.
Peter Perfect's eyes darted worriedly to either side. He still felt like he had his paladin powers. Sort of. Didn't he? He shook his head, and with utter contempt, slashed the last slash across Atlas's neck. After the Other Bracer of Irresistible Damage, his Titan Strength, the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords' +2 weapon damage bonus, the cause-serious-wounds-by-touch power of the Talisman of Al'Akbar, and Prometheus's own +6 magical bonus, he ended up doing 242 damage points, killing the Titan-Who-Holds-Up-the-World instantly and inflicting temporary paralysis on him to boot.
And amid gaping horrors, Central Earth fell.
No earthquake could match what happened on the plate's Upper Surface. No words can describe the sudden and inexplicable loss of weight that everything thereon experienced. On a world that had grown up with and evolved everything it had into the concept of gravity — for over four billion years — freefall was simply not within the realm of understanding. Nor would it be for long, as it was gravity's task also to hold the blue air to the surface of the world.
And as it fell, it landed on something. Something that was already in freefall. Peter Perfect. The blow was nothing more than the force of, say, walking across a room and not stopping before you ran into the wall. Not enough to hurt anyone. Not normally.
But the Book of Infinite Wisdom, or perhaps it was a necessary reality-building article in Dragon & Dragrace, made a stipulation about that. It said that whenever a solid object lands on somebody else, that object does a certain number of d6 worth of damage for every hundred pounds it weighs. Central Earth weighed six billion trillion tons. And since there was at least a little mithral that hadn't yet been mined out of its crust, it was considered a +4 or better weapon with regard to what kinds of creatures it could affect. Peter Perfect's permanent potion of invulnerability thus rendered useless, he and even his adamantite full plate armor were squished into an unrecognizable bloody wet-spot a mile across.
"Gee," Jimmy commented, "He didn't even say goodbye."
"Yeah," Ringman noted, now in freefall himself, "But that didn't keep Central Earth from falling!"
"Somebody's got to catch it," Disgusting Sword commented.
"Who'd be strong enough?" Ringman asked.
"Somebody as strong as Atlas," Ridiculous Sword replied, non-chalantly. "Don't forget who you're in the company of."
Ridiculous Sword flexed her 25*-strength muscles and prepared to halt the falling slab . . . but Gross Sword slid in ahead of her. He braced his Atlas-strength legs against the thread that was the North Pole, held up his Atlas-strength hands, and with a calming breath and about three inches of leeway, he brought the world to a stop.
Having weight return to the people up top so abruptly was almost as big a shock as having it leave in the first place. Massive property damage ensued, and most everyone was severely shaken up — but fortunately, no one was hurt.
Ridiculous Sword caught her falling father with ease, not taking her eyes from her brother. Gross Sword stood there, holding up the world between his shoulders, and heaved a mighty sigh of relief. Central Earth and all its inhabitants were safe — safe from losing their atmosphere to free space, and safe from the Old Gross Sword's petty wrath.
"Now," said Ridiculous Sword, "How are we going to brace it?"
"Uh, brace it?" Gross Sword asked.
"Sure. You can't just keep holding it up forever. We've gotta brace it with something."
Gross Sword thought for an instant, then shook his head in dismay. "It would take a column of adamantite bigger than all the adamantite in existence to support this much weight. The only force strong enough to hold up Central Earth, and keep it held up, is somebody with twenty-five star strength. Like me."
Ringman's brow furrowed. "But . . . but you can't just stay here forever!"
"Sure I can," Gross Sword surmised. "Every twelve years or so I can set Central Earth down on my shoulder blades and buy a potion of longevity from the Black Magic Market for Black Market Magic. Uh, make that several potions of longevity, so that if the first one backfires I can cancel it real quick. And then I can pick Central Earth up again and go back to work."
Ringman shook his head. "And what kind of a life is THAT?!"
Gross Sword sighed. "A sacrificial one. Hell, I got us into this scrape in the first place. If I hadn't been suckered over to the evil side of things, we could have all gone out together and ridded ourselves of Peter Perfect once and for all. I have to repay this world for the damage I've done. This is the only way I know how."
"No," Ridiculous Sword replied. "There's another way. We can train huge numbers of people to have 25-star strength, and have them take turns holding up the plate. For which they'll get paid five silver pieces an hour, or some such."
Gross Sword brightened up for a fleeting instant, then sank back. "No, it's better this way. I don't deserve —"
Ridiculous Sword cut him off. "Damn it, Gross Sword, YOU'RE WORTH MORE THAN THIS!!"
Gross Sword blinked his eyes, realizing something but saying nothing.
Ridiculous Sword wrinkled her mouth shut and nodded. "Let's go. Gross Sword, we're going to get you out of this predicament even if you won't."
She took Ringman's hand and gestured to Disgusting Sword, Jimmy, and Homer. Prometheus slid itself into Ringman's sheath, grudgingly coming back to its first master for the third time. The war was over. It was time for the healing to begin.
Fordinchuarlikomfterrablaxxuuuuuchh'chh'chh-pt did not fit Ringman's concept of an ideal vacation spot. Ridiculous Sword took him to that plane with nothing, since no material possessions other than those created there could make the voyage. Ringman and his younger daughter materialized stark-naked in the middle of a fuzzy, cold green place. It took nearly a minute for the paladin's vision to clear, for the green to resolve itself into grass, and for him to cringe as a not-so-naked woman rushed out to greet them. He instinctively crossed his hands over his groin.
Ringman expected this woman to shout insults at them for mucking about on her lawn with all this interplanar travel nonsense, but instead she smiled and waved to them. She pulled the front of her skirt away from her legs and bounded toward them, unable to conceal her more-than-well-fed bulk. "Fire Eater!" she cried out, "Fire Eater! You've come back! Y—"
She stopped about twenty feet away, finally able to make out their features. "Oh, excuse me," she apologized, one hand on her heaving chest. "I thought . . . say, are you two any relation to the Fire Eater?"
Ridiculous Sword extended a psionic probe and gleaned a picture of the "Fire Eater" from the woman's mind. The memory was more than eleven years old, but it was clearly of Sick Sword. Ridiculous Sword nodded her head solemnly. "The Fire Eater's dead."
"Oh." The woman felt concerned for a few instants, then it passed. Especially when she took a good look at Ringman. Her lips slowly broke into a smile. "Hey, what's your name?"
"Ringman," he replied, now shivering from the morning cold. He felt somewhat imposed upon, as well, until he looked into her bright little eyes. "What's yours?"
She put her hands on his shoulders. "My name's Izabella." She looked down a little lower. "Mmm, you have quite a physique." She looked still lower. "Yes, quite. . . ."
"Thanks," Ringman replied, his teeth now chattering. Whoever invented the morning chill should be skewered. "B-b-but c-c-could you g-get me some c-c-clothes to wear?"
Izabella puzzled momentarily, then leapt back to reality. "Oh, oh sure. Sorry. Follow me."
She led them both into her farm house, gave them each one of her old tattered terrycloth robes, and sat them down around a small circular kitchen table. She also poured them each a hot drink. As far as Ringman was concerned, hot dirty water never tasted so good as now.
"We're here," Ridiculous Sword broke in, "Because my mother — the Fire Eater — promised to come back here one day to check up on things. She never got around to it. So I decided to bring my father here and myself."
Izabella's bright little eyes narrowed to scrutiny as she came closer to Ringman. "You were the Fire Eater's wife?"
"Well," Ringman shrugged, "For all intents and purposes, yes."
She stared at him out of the corner of her eye. "You mean you two weren't legally married?"
"No, as a matter of fact, the Other Book of Infinite Wisdom hadn't come out by then. And that was the first place which listed a marriage spell."
Izabella shrugged. "Oh, all right then," she complied, and sat down next to him. A little too close next to him, by most counts, but Ringman smiled and put his right arm around her anyway.
"So," Ridiculous Sword continued, "How well have things been working out here in North . . . uh, North . . ."
"North Fliedershire," Izabella filled in the name of the town. "By the way, Ringman, how old are you?"
"Thirty-two years young," he replied with a chuckle. "And Ridiculous Sword here is ten, and my other daughter and my son are eleven and nine, respectively."
"Her name's Ridiculous Sword?"
He shrugged. "Sick Sword picked it out."
"Ah. And, um, why didn't you bring your whole family here, Ringman?"
"Well," Ridiculous Sword told her, "Gross Sword — that's my brother — is out holding up the entire planet of Central Earth; and Disgusting Sword has already recruited over two thousand Atlas-strength people to take turns taking Gross Sword's place and is looking for more."
Holding up the planet? Izabella mouthed in astonishment.
"Oh, and Dad didn't bring me here," Ridiculous Sword finished; "I brought him."
"Mmm hmm," Izabella nodded slowly. "So I see that the Fire Eater's power runs in the family."
"And more," Ridiculous Sword stated matter-of-factly.
Izabella raised her eyebrows, then realized she hadn't been paying attention to Ringman for nearly thirty seconds and put her left arm around his shoulders. "And, uh, what happened that your brother has to hold up the planet?"
Ridiculous Sword sighed. "Some jerk who called himself 'Peter Perfect' killed Atlas, so somebody had to stay and keep the world from falling."
"Yeah," Ringman agreed. "Good thing the fall killed him, too, or you kids might have had to get your hands dirty. His body got so splattered there's no way anybody could resurrect him now; so he'll stay in Heaven, completely out of harm's way until some dummy decides to reincarnate him."
"He killed Atlas and he still got to go to Heaven?"
"You betcha," Ringman said; "He was lawful-good. Hmmm . . . I wonder how he's making out in Heaven right now. . . ."
Ridiculous Sword whacked herself on her 19-intelligence forehead. "Thanks for reminding me." She cupped her hands in front of Ringman and projected some blue-white mental energy there. "Peter Perfect sent me a telepagram from Heaven just this morning. Here, take a look."
Ringman and Izabella drew closer as an image formed out of the blue void. A blond-haired man wearing a gold ring over his head and a winged white choir robe resolved himself against a backdrop of clouds and others dressed like him. He was holding his ears vehemently and screaming: "I CAN'T STAND THIS ANYMORE!! All I ever meet are a bunch of peace-minded angels strumming their stupid harps! BLEACCH! Not even a lousy stinking little piece of EVIL to stomp on! THIS IS NO FUN AT ALL!!!"
Ringman snorted a chuckle. "Looks like he's gone to hell after all."
Ridiculous Sword folded her hands and the image vanished. "Getting back to why I came here in the first place: how has North Fliedershire been holding out since the Fire Eater was last here?"
"Oh, wonderfully," Izabella said with a lilt. "That nasty old Smaugzilla made an excellent set of luggage. And it was nice not having a dragon burn down all your crops all the time, too. Funny thing, though — I always thought dragons had huge treasure hordes inside their caves. When the townsfolk excavated this one, all they found was an egg five feet across."
"An egg?" Ridiculous Sword sat up. "A dragon's egg?"
"Well, we think so. If it is we'll give the dragon baby everything we've got to make it turn out good instead of evil like its mother."
"Make a red dragon turn out good?" Ridiculous Sword's voice got more urgent. "And this egg's been there for over eleven years. My God II, its incubation period's almost up! We have to get there, and I mean now!"
Izabella shook her head nervously. "Um, there are some horses in the garage, if —"
"No, I mean right now!" She reached across the table and grasped Ringman's and Izabella's free hands. "Have you been to this place where the egg is?"
"Oh, countless times," Izabella told her.
"Good. I want you to close your eyes, and visualize this place in your mind."
She closed her eyes. Ridiculous Sword picked up on her thoughts; they were a bit foggy.
"Really see this place in your head," Ridiculous Sword pushed her onward. "Visualize every detail you ever saw when you were last there. Every shade, every sound, every scent — even the air temperature, if you can remember it."
Izabella did. The image of the cave's mouth and the wooden fence came in as sharply as the stars in space.
"Good. Now —" Boink. "— is this it?"
Izabella opened her eyes and gasped. She was actually there! It was a lot cooler than the time she'd just visualized, since the last time she'd been there was in early afternoon, but this was the place!
"Teleportation," Ridiculous Sword told her. "I do it all the time. And that," she crossed the two-foot-high wooden picket and stared at the red, speckled bulb in its center, "Must be Smaugzilla's egg."
"Uh huh," Izabella nodded.
Ringman furrowed his brow. Despite being an obscure ninth-level by-the-book paladin, he did have certain powers of his own which he could exercise. "That's funny," he commented after a few seconds, "It's supposed to be a red dragon egg, but I don't detect any evil coming from it."
"Me neither," Ridiculous Sword concurred. "This is damned strange." She looked a bit more intently at the egg. "My God II!" she exclaimed. "Look at this X-ray picture!"
"How?" Ringman and Izabella asked simultaneously.
"Oh, sorry," Ridiculous Sword caught herself. "That isn't a baby red dragon in there at all!"
"No?" Ringman asked.
"No! The neck's the wrong length, the head resembles a horse more than it does a lizard, and the skin has a metallic sheen — and there's not the slightest sign of deformity! It's just a plain, straight different species of draco!"
Izabella's eyes grew suddenly distant. "The legend!"
"Huh?" Ringman asked. "What legend?"
"Not another one of these again," Ridiculous Sword muttered.
"The legend of the Fire Eater's leftovers!" Izabella exclaimed.
"Ah, well that clarifies EVERYthing," Ringman muttered. Life in the multiverse could get so confusing. At times like these he wished it was all just castles and damsels and dragons and things once again — those he could understand.
"'After the Fire Eater's triumph,'" Izabella recited, "'Eleven cycles of Hyperion's bronze chariot will go, and then the fruits of the dragon's demise will ripen and a force that had been lost will be replaced in the universe.' The legend must have been talking about this baby dragon!"
"Or it could have been talking about baked potatoes," Ridiculous Sword sneered. "That's the thing about these legends, they're all so vague. But I tell you what, there's only one way we're going to find out. Stand back."
Izabella stepped back a few feet. Ringman grabbed her and pulled her behind a rock. "When she says stand back," he told her, "She means it."
"Normally a baby dragon can hatch from its egg within six months," Ridiculous Sword explained, "IF it has the warm body of its mother to incubate it. If not, the embryo won't die, but it'll mature about as slowly as glass runs downhill. It can take upwards of eleven years. This dragonette here is on the verge of hatching; it just needs a little warmth to encourage it to come out of its shell."
"Uh, how much warmth?" Izabella asked. Ringman suppressed a snicker.
"Oh, about the equivalent of —" Ridiculous Sword cast a fireball spell and centered it right on the egg. The wooden fence turned to ash, the rocks inside of it glowed a cherry red, and Ridiculous Sword's terrycloth robe disintegrated. Her hair was a little mussed up, too; after all, a double-strength permanent potion of fire resistance could only do so much. "— Red dragon breath."
Ringman and Izabella came out from behind the rock in time to see the egg crack. The first shell fragment fell away, and a polished (but damp) foot-long dragon head poked out of the hole and glanced around. Not seeing its mommy, it shut its eyes and wailed a few bucketfulls of tears.
Ridiculous Sword grabbed the head and stroked it. That calmed it down a bit, and gave it enough incentive to bust the rest of the way out of its shell. The sun chose just that moment to peer over the horizon, and glinted off its dew-specked dragon skin with a silvery-golden light.
"My deity!" Ringman whispered. "A silver dragon!"
Ridiculous Sword looked back up at him and shook her head. "No. A platinum dragon."
"Platinum?" Ringman mouthed.
"The first one to be born in over two thousand years. The first one to be born . . . since Bahamut."
"A new lord of the dragons . . ." Ringman mused.
"He'll have a lot to learn before he can become that — but he has 401 years before he's an ancient dragon and ready for that position, anyway."
"Um, you're sure it's a he?" Ringman asked suspiciously.
"Sure," his daughter assured him. "All platinum dragons ever born are male. And besides, I checked."
This puzzled the paladin still further. "But if all platinum dragons are male, that means that they can't reproduce."
"That's 'cause they're a hybrid. You see, when a gold and a silver dragon mate, they produce an electrum dragon. If this electrum dragon then goes on and mates with a speaking, spell-using dragon of another species — any species, good or evil — they either produce no offspring, which is usually the case, or they produce one of these." She indicated the platinum dragon chick in her arms. "That's how Bahamut was born in the first place."
"So, then," Izabella put the pieces together, "Smaugzilla had to have mated with one of those electric dragons?"
"Electrum dragons; and yes. These affairs are rare occurrences indeed, because electrum dragons never live past the age of sub-adulthood. But this one's here, and we're going to keep it that way until he's able to take care of himself."
Ringman whistled. "Four hundred and one years. Heck, it'll take him fifty years just to grow into a full adult. That's a lot of time to devote to one creature."
"Mm hmm. Matter of fact, he'd probably be best off if he were taken care of by someone from North Fliedershire. Like you, for instance, Izabella."
Izabella gulped. "M-me? But I couldn't even raise cows right! I don't know anything about raising dragons!"
"They can pretty much take care of themselves. Just feed him scrambled eggs and teach him how to speak — and he'll be able to tell you everything he needs by the time he's six months old. Send him off to magic college when he's 1, and he'll be casting first-level spells before you know it."
Izabella shrugged. "Sounds simple enough, but —" she smiled at Ringman "— I could sure use a nice strong man to stay and help me raise this dragon."
Ringman pursed his lips. "Or you and the platinum dragon could come back to Central Earth with me. I have a great little keep set up in town. . . ."
She stroked a finger along the hairy, exposed portion of his chest. "Well, we'll see."
"A new Bahamut," Ridiculous Sword nodded and smiled. The dragon cuddled up against her chest and purred. "A beautiful new Bahamut. I wonder what we should name him."
"Bahamut the second?" Izabella offered.
"Bahamut junior," Ringman chuckled.
Ridiculous Sword rubbed her chin. "How about Sick Dragon?"
"NO!" Izabella and Ringman shouted as one.
"You tell 'em!" a distant voice from behind intruded.
"Huh?" Ridiculous Sword turned around first, unaccustomed to being without the 360-degree aid of her robe of eyes. A naked boy was running toward them. He was easy to recognize.
"Hi, Rid!" Jimmy said as he arrived two seconds later. He would have been out of breath except that he had an 18 constitution. "Hi, Mr. Ringman!"
"Jimmy, what are you doing here?" Ridiculous Sword asked with one fist on her hip.
"Oh, just trying out some psionic plane travelling. I shoulda guessed from the piles of junk that fell to the floor when you two left that this plane doesn't allow any carry-on luggage, but oh well. Hey, who's the fat broad?"
"Izabella," Ringman stared him levelly in the eye, "My new girl-friend."
Jimmy stopped himself. "Oh. . . . And who's the dragon?"
"Bahamut the second," "Bahamut junior," and "Sick Dragon" all came out at once.
Jimmy thought for a second. "How about just calling him 'Bahamut,' like the old one?"
"Well . . . why not?" Ridiculous Sword acquiesced.
"Sounds good to me."
"Good," Jimmy sealed their agreement. "But anyway, R.S., there was somethin' that's been buggin' me."
"Yes? . . ."
"When I turned into that hill giant and attacked GrossSword with the ballista of automatic missile fire?"
"Mm hmm . . ."
"That shouldn't've worked. Just because a hill giant has 6+2 or more hit dice doesn't mean I got to have 6+2 or more hit dice. I was only fifth-level at the time. I shouldn't have been able to affect him."
"I was wondering when you were going to figure that out," Ridiculous Sword told him. "I won't tell the Dungeon Master if you won't."
Jimmy mopped his brow in relief. "Agreed. Oh, and one more thing . . . about how I helped with stopping Gross Sword and Peter Perfect and —"
Ridiculous Sword held up a restraining hand. "Wait . . . don't tell me —"
Jimmy nodded, and he, Ridiculous Sword, and Ringman all joined in chanting the immortal words:
"HOW MANY EXPERIENCE POINTS DO WE GET?"
We hope you have enjoyed The Sick Kids.
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