by Stephen van Ham
Deep within the bowels of a sweltering city in a little hall with dirty windows and a lop-sided podium at the front, there was an assemblage. A rag tag assembly of humanity. Poets, farmers, merchants, even a convicted piglet snatcher, the most desparate group you'd ever see. The only thing they had in common was a desire for monetary gain and week old stubble. They craved any chance of opportunity to lift their depression and their financial strife. Due to the unseasonably hot weather, the crops this year had withered, and the cattle (and piglets) had perished at the hands of some unknown plague. The times of prosperity long behind them, these days everyone was too moody to want to listen to poetry, so the poets, as usual, had taken to boiling their own boots to make soup.
If the tavern talk were true, everyone blamed their ails on the black blanket of cloud that now shrouded the land, and so when the gossip machine had spread word that the cloud was of demonic origin and that an underground group had formed to combat this menace, a group that was hiring new recruits, the downtrodden had flocked to the smokey recruiting hall to join the ranks (and earn some coin).
It was these desperate men that packed tight into that very hall, an impatient mass of humanity, their combined clouds of tobacco smoke filling the hall with a deep haze that was slowly taking upon a life of its own. When an hour or more had passed and no one came to greet the men, they turned angrily to each other, all talking at once, voices raised as they complained about their respective situations. Their financial woes, the ravaged crops, the empty taverns. Talk soon turned to the matter of the heat and the clouds that now hung over cities everywhere, and some even blamed all their troubles upon the robed figures and trail of burning and destruction coming out of Kurast and other eastern realms.
Tensions were well on the rise when the front door finally creaked open and a strange figure entered the hall. Striding confidently across the yowling floorboards, the figure threw back its cowl, revealing a middle aged face, a handsome face that was set in a rather bland scowl beneath night black hair and a creased forehead. Drumming his fingers slowly and deliberately upon the podium, the man stared out over the sea of impatient applicants. As one, their voices hushed as they regarded the man. The air was soon still and clear, but for the aroma of stale manure and the slightly muffled shuffling of booted feet shifting nervously. Outwardly calm, the newcomer at podium continued his scrutiny of the small large group.
After a few moments, the man smiled, as if sharing a private joke with himself. Leaning over the front of the podium he winked at those in the front row. With bit of hesitation, they all winked back. Appearing satisifed with their response, the man gripped the podium with one hand while he flipped open a small scroll with the other. He scanned it briefly and then looked out over the crowd once more. "By the roll counts," he began, "there are forty-two of you. So tell me, one or all of those forty-two, why are you here?"
"We're here to flush out them demons," boomed one.
"We're here to get paid," offered another.
"I'm here because I was darn sicka' the wife and kids whining that they were hungry again," said a third.
One eager young man pushed himself up. A poet from the looks of him, most likely with the usual story of hardship. He was well groomed, possessed a clean shaven scalp, and ragged but well made clothes. He also possessed the half dilerious face of a poor bordering on starvation. He propelled himself up by the shoulders of his neighbours, gained himself about two feet of leeway above them, and wailed, "We're here because we're the best of the best of the best! And I'm the best of the best of the best of the best! Pick me! Pick me!" It was the desperate ploy of a desperate soul, and the man at the podium mentally pushed him right to the bottom of his selection list.
From somewhere in the back of the gathering, the farmer known as Jay guffawed at the enthusiasm of his fellow pauper. Jay was a handsome one, dark skinned, even featured and with a mop of black curly hair. At this moment he had a rather large smirk on his young face. "Yeah," he mocked, "you just keep on clucking my unwashed, skinny friend. The only thing you are is the best of the worst." He waved his hoe scornfully at those around him, making them fall back a step and grumble among themselves.
The man at the podium cleared his throat. "So, why do you think you're all here then, young man?"
Farmer Jay leaned reflectively on his hoe. "Well, you already know what young slim over there is here for some trumpet blowing, but me, I'm here to stab me some demon rear. I'm ready to do some hoeing, yes indeedy."
The man found this thought amusing and regarded Jay quietly. Suddenly, before he could make any reponse, the front door flew open and boomed loudly against the wall, making the windows shake and flakes of paint fall from the darkened, smelly ceiling. With those present still recovering from the shock of the sudden assault on the carpentry, a huge wall of flesh and ponytails hit the doorframe like some avenging titan. Doorframe squealing, two burly looking men barged on through it, side by side. Well, side by side until they realised that their combined girth would have needed much larger door to grant egress. After a quick rearrangement of limbs and dignity, the taller of the two strolled into the hall first, a glint in his eyes. The shorter one came in right on his heels. They were incredibly well muscled, almost completely naked but for a loin cloth and knee high black boots, and, from the lack of any telltale bulges beneath their belt lines, eunechs. Eunechs, with blades, very sharp blades (which MAY have accounted for their current unfortunate status as eunechs).
The massive pair turned as one and nodded to the man on the podium. As he returned their greeting they twirled on their heels, and, paying the assembled crowd no heed, looked back through the doorway, placed their huge hands over their hearts, and bowed low.
As if on cue, the man at the podium raised his hands above his head and raised his voice. "All rise for the High Impreceptor. All rise. Rise and pay homage!"
No one moved. They were already standing.
With her two bodyguards to guide her steps, a cloaked shadow entered the building. And as she swept back her hood, all those present could see she was incredibly ancient, her skinned as gnarled as a weather beaten oak tree, her limbs as twisted at the legs of two lovers merged in passionate embrace. But she seemed far beyond such things, seemed far beyond those before her, as she gazed over the crowd with timeless eyes and spat once, twice on the dusty floor.
"This is what you find for me, Journeyman Kay?" she snarled, every syllable pouring scorn on the congregation of men before her. "A bunch of farmers and out of work minstrels?" As one the crowd tottered back and forth uneasily, some already considering other options for quick financial gain. Storming the high king's large and well guarded treasury, for example.
The man at the podium, Kay, looked once at the Inpreceptor. There was a moment of silent communication between them, and then Kay smiled apolegetically. As his face hardened again, he looked over the group before him, catching their gaze, to a man. "The Lady thanks you for your interest and the effort taken to be here, but she has already found suitable members for our elite team..."
There was a bustle outside, the sound of boards rattling, a flock of startled chickens squawking for all they were worth, and then two more figures entered. They were tallish, thin, dressed absolutely attrociously, and one had was wearing bright emerald shoes, some of the pointy tipped, high backed new items worn by the high ladies of society in Westmarch, the capital city of the realm. He piroetted on his heels and played to the ground.
Rich turned to Stephen and grinned. "Hehe, this looks like fun!" He waved to his audience. Some in the crowd waved back uncertainly, but most were staring at the chickens still fluttering around outside in a whirl of peevish poultry.
"Yeah, I suppose so," Stephen muttered. He rubbed his stomach and grimaced.
"What's up? Is that still hurting?"
"Yeah." His pulled his hand away from his belly. Unfortunate demises in parallel realities had an unfortunate habit of manifesting themselves in other realities in some form or another, and this was no exception. Stephen's fingertips came away slightly red. "Still seeping too."
"Well, cheer up. You're healing up nice," he lied. "At least there was no scarring." More lies.
Stephen grimaced and he eyed the eunechs warily. "But it just gets so hard to get used to. Having your organs ripped out isn't the most pleasant experience."
"I know," Rich said, apparently oblivious to his surroundings or the eunech standing behind him. "But at least you get to have another go at things. Which one are you up to now?"
Stephen turned over his thin wrist and flicked up the battered little tag tied around it. He read off the little code scrawled on it. "SVH #42 it says..."
"There you go. After 41 brutal ends, you should be getting slowly acclimitised to things. You'll have it all worked out by seventy or eighty, I guarantee it."
"You think so? What are you up to?"
Rich checked his tag. "93." He laughed. "And I have at least twenty of those to thank you for. Do you remember that time I was shot out of a cannon, eaten by a spider, regurgitated and then speared repeatedly by a pack of Amazon warriors, dissolved in acid and then sucked into a black hole? Now THAT was an impressive combo."
Stephen forgot about his own pain for a moment and rolled that past episode over in his mind. He waved his hand airily. "Thanks. It was nothing. You would have done the same for me."
"Perhaps I can return the favour here?"
Stephen looked around. Everybody was staring at them, even the High Inpreceptor who was regarding the pair like they were bugs in a jar. "Sure. What are we up for? You said it would be good."
"It will. Trust me, it's just what you need. A little journey, some time away from things."
"You're starting to scare me."
The High Inpreceptor snapped her fingers impatiently as Rich continued. "It's noth -"
One of the the High Inpreceptor's eunechs stepped foward, spun Rich around and stuffed a huge hand over his face, cutting off any further inanities.
Rich stumbled backwards, startled. "Hey -"
"Silence!" the eunech boomed. He drew his curved blade and waved it under Rich's chin, the razor sharp edge hoving uncomfortably close to Rich's jugular. He looked at the blade and wondered what being beheaded was like. That was one thing he hadn't tried yet. A tiny bead of sweat trickled off his forehead and rolled down the blade like a shimmering tear. But before he got to experience beheading first hand, Stephen grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back into the shadows. "Shhh, leave it be."
Kay ignored the two fools as he continued. "The High Impreceptor has already selected one half of our elite force. I will lead the other half, along with..." - he pointed out over the crowd - "...you, the fellow with the hoe. If the rest of you would just -"
Farmer Jay swung his hoe in a defensive arc designed to fend off any would-be piglet thieves, clearing a space between himself and the mass of disgruntled men. "Me? Why me? I'm honoured, but -"
Kay was adamant. "You are the most qualified for the task."
Farmer Jay looked around with a bewildered look. "You can tell that just by looking at me?" A sudden thought crossed his mind and he frowned. "Wait, I know what it is. You chose me because I'm a coloured man with an attitude, didn't you?" He leaned on his hoe reflectively. "My mother, the gods rest her soul, always said I'd amount to something." He shook his head sadly and looked around. Everybody was staring right back at him.
Kay cleared his throat while the High Impreceptor and her eunechs looked on impatiently. "If Journeyman Jay has quite finished, I'd ask him to join me at the podium for debriefing."
Jay pushed his way through the crowd, elbowing aside both farmer and poet and grinning from ear to ear. He mounted the steps and struck a heroic pose.
Jay's new partner turned to issue his instructions. "If the rest of you would just wait here a moment I will explain how you will be rewarded for your efforts in coming to attend today." He handed Jay a rather strange looking pair of spectacles. They had frames made of the darkest quartz and the lenses were just as dark. "Here, put these on," he ordered.
Just as Jay pulled the frames over his ears there was a bright flash of light, an eye popping burst of white light that got whiter and whiter until it went black and then faded away to a shimmering afterimage. As the flash cleared, Jay saw the crowd now stood as still as statues. Their eyes were dulled and their bodies still, and they stared forward like an army of zombies standing at attention. Kay, his face placid, put something into his pocket before Jay had a chance to see what it was. "Sorcery!" Jay breathed, backing away.
Kay grabbed him by the arm. "In a manner of speaking. You have nothing to fear." He gestured at the army of subservient drones. "Show our friends to the door."
"Will they be okay? I mean, is that permanent?"
Kay shook his head. "No, they'll return to normal in a couple of hours."
Jay brightened and walked to the front of the crowd. He pointed to the door behind them. Forty-one heads swivelled around, and forty-one bodies turned to follow. Jay looked back over his shoulder as he moved to the entrance. "What do I tell them when they wake up?"
Kay smiled a very rare smile. "Nothing. You won't need to. They won't remember a thing..."
Stephen grabbed Rich by the arm and dragged him back outside. They stepped around the flock of squawking chickens and walked up the alley towards Beggar's Corner. Passing through four more dark alleys they strolled down a street parallel to the Varaya and Khan monument.
"...are you sure this is the right way?" Stephen was saying. He looked at Rich uncertainly as the two continued to walk. Their boots echoed against cobbles upon which only cutthroats, thieves and the insane dared to tread. Stephen's guide was neither a cutthroat nor a thief.
Rich whistled tunelessly to himself and grinned. "This is the way alright."
Stephen caught a glimpse of a pair of beedy eyes regarding him from the shadows. He shuddered and pulled his bright red cloak tighter. "Where are we going?"
"One of the old way points. It's lain unused for centuries."
"And what may I ask is a way point?"
"One of the permanent Horadrim rifts that can take you anywhere in the world. The High Impreceptor says it's the best way to get ANYWHERE in a hurry." They walked in silence until Rich turned another corner and entered a short alley. And the end of the alley was a light coloured square of stone. The stone pad was criss crossed with runes and there was an ominously pulsing black gem in the center.
Eyes bright, Rich spun on his heel and waved his hands theatrically. "Behold, the way point." He stepped closer and took Stephen's arm. "We need to BE somewhere in a hurry, but I'm sure we've got time for a quick detour."
Stephen was staring at the way point with some trepidation. "A detour? To where?"
"What's in Lut Gholein?"
"The Palace Harem..."
[Editor's note: Rich and Stephen's epic journey to thwart the Adversary, the Boojum, the Prime Evils, world hunger, tax evasion, piglet snatching and to generally goof off is chronicled in the Collaborative Carnage spinoff "Collaborative Clownage: The Director's Cut", publication date TBA.]
Two hours later Jay and Kay departed on the road to Khanduras.
Two days into the journey, Jay was already tiring of the scenery of grasslands, forest and more grasslands. He turned to his new partner. "Can I hold the magic memory eraser for a bit?" he asked.
Kay's eyes were on the road. "No."
"You should have let me zap those guys back there again, just to be sure they won't remember anything."
Kay kept on walking, his hold on the magical device firm and unrelenting. "Trust me, they won't."
"Okay, well let me zap some peasant or something. I'll need to practise using that thing anyway."
"Think of it as furthering my education."
"At least tell me what it is."
Kay sighed and began his tale. He'd do annything to shut Jay up at this point. "It's known as the Compelling Orb. It's an old Horadrim artifact that has many reality distorting powers. The Orb can be used in spells of binding, warding and minor evocation."
Jay nodded thoughfully, eyeing the device that was beckoning at him from within Kay's grasp. "And they let us borrow it, to help fight in the eternal battle of Good and Evil?"
Kay gave Jay a sidewards glance as they crossed a wheat field. "No, actually we stole it."
"Yes, during a period in the Sin War when the Horadrim were on the move and in pursuit of the Prime Evils. One of our order snuck in to one of their covenants, posing as a humble shepherd lost and needing a place to sleep. He took the Orb from under their noses and escaped into the night. The Horadrim were so embarrased about the ease of the theft that they glossed over details of the robbery and wrote it off as just another artifact that they had destroyed to protect humanity. It was during the time they were getting rid of the Lost Spells and Lost Artifacts, so it was easy to lump the disappearnce of the Compelling Orb in as part of that. They had two more of them in their possession, so it was no great loss."
"It must be powerful to be able to zap brains like that."
"Believe me, it is."
Jay stopped in his tracks as a terrifying thought crossed his mind. "You haven't used it on me have you?"
Kay remained poker faced. "Not yet, but I'll certainly consider turning you into a less vocal Jay if you're not careful."
Jay was silent for the rest of their journey.
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