The chamber was already filling with water when the wall collapsed. Beef the Barbarians massive muscles strained as he struggled to shelter his teammates from the falling masonry. Standing straight, which he wasnt, Beef was just under seven feet tall and seemed nearly as broad across the shoulders. Cobblestone streets creaked under his heavy footfalls. Even if he had not been scarred by a lifetime of battles, Beef would not have been considered a handsome man. His thick brow suggested a lineage on a somewhat lower branch of the evolutionary tree than standard, and "unkempt" would have been far too kind a word for his wild mane of mangy brown hair. Personal hygiene was another inapplicable term where Beefs description was concerned. The possibility of being crushed to death by a falling wall did not disturb him nearly as much as the fact that the flooding room was much too much like bathing for his tastes.
"Any time would be good," suggested the groups cleric-mage, Ubet Choas who, at just over four feet tall (including his hat, which added a foot to his height), was already chest-deep in water. Despite his stature and navel-length gray beard, Ubet was human rather than dwarfen. His affinity for the latter race had come as a result of adolescent attempts to find his place in the world during which time hed joined and later became a shaman of a dwarfen church. It was only his inability to grow a full beard as a teenager and the fact that all the dwarf girls his age had that ultimately drove him to seek his fortune in human kingdoms of his birth.
|AGENT: All right, our first
DR. FLAGG: Who's this? Your sister?
AGENT: Well, you gotta admire her taste in clothes.
UBET: Not until I see under her hood. How do we know she doesn't have some kind of giant, knobby, mutant, Klingon forehead under there?
UBET: What? Giant, knobby foreheads creep me out, okay?
"Im workin on it," hissed Agent. He was a handsome dark-skinned, dark-eyed man with fingers quick as striking snakes, and right now those fingers were feverishly working the lock to the deathtraps exit. Hed already disarmed the arrow trap, fireball trap, exploding doorknob and the poison needles in the magic lock. Kneeling in front of the door, Agent was also chest-deep in the water. Unlike Ubet, who wore the cheap, sturdy robes typical of cleric-adventurers, Agents black silk shirt, black pants and black leather boots were being ruined. Only his Stealthy Cloak of Midnight would come out of the unscheduled laundering unscathed.
The last member of the group, the sorcerer Dr. Flagg, conjured up a series of two-by-fours to help Beef prop up the sagging wall. Dr. Flagg was the opposite of Beef: One-hundred-and-thirty-five pounds soaking wet (which he was), Dr. Flagg was a pale smooth-skinned man with thin hair and sharp features. "This is getting us nowhere," he complained. "Maybe I should try it from the other side."
"You dont know " began Ubet.
Dr. Flagg raised his staff and vanished. There was a splash as the water rushed into fill the spot where hed been standing.
" whats on the other side of that door, you idiot," finished Ubet.
"Well, Im sure he knows by now," said Agent, his black cloak floating on top of the water behind him. Ubets long beard was similarly afloat.
"Beef cant hold wall much longer," grunted Beef as one of Dr. Flaggs two-by-fours snapped and vanished.
"Hang in there, big guy. Ive almost got it," said Agent. "Anything you can do to help him out?"
"Wall lifting isnt exactly my forte," said Ubet with deliberate slowness.
"Well then maybe the gods can help him," suggested Agent mimicking the small mans tone.
Ubet slapped his forehead. "Oh, right." He sloshed over to Beef and laid a stubby-fingered hand on the gigantic thigh. "O gods of the Earth and Tunnels and Mines," intoned Ubet. "Grant strength to my friends muscles and the will to his spirit to use them." A soft, yellow glow spread from Ubets fingers and traced its way along Beefs muscles, tendons and ligaments. The wall yielded a few inches and the strain etched on the barbarians craggy features softened.
"Beef thanks little friend," Beef gasped.
"Bang! There we go," said Agent finally overcoming the lock. Even as the door swung open, it burst into flame and crumbled into ash which was washed away by the rush of exiting water.
Dr. Flagg stood on the other side of the doorway, his staff still leveled at it from the fireball hed just conjured.
"Great timing," said Agent stepping through the doorway followed by Ubet. Beef gave the wall he was holding a great backward shove and leaped out of the room before it collapsed.
"Sorry," said Dr. Flagg, "I had to deal with a welcoming committee." He gestured toward the smoking lower half of a stone golem hobbling in loose circles in the ankle-deep water. All that remained of the stone guardians upper body was a pile of twitching rubble. "I believe the exit awaits."
There was a stone staircase with a heavy wooden door at the top.
Agent sighed and tried to shake some of the water out of his Stealthy Cloak of Midnight. "Ill check for traps," he grumbled.
The door, as it turned out, was safe and unlocked. Duke Loren was waiting for them on the other side along with his personal scribe and a variety of attendants, servants, and guards.
"Thirty-seven minutes, eighteen seconds," the scribe told him as Agent, Dr. Flagg, Ubet and Beef stepped into the courtyard.
"Excellent!" enthused the duke. "I do believe thats a new record!"
"Actually, it ties the existing record from four years ago," put in the scribe.
"Outstanding nonetheless," continued the duke. "Certainly the best performance weve seen this year." He paused. "However, weve decided to go with another group."
"What?!" exclaimed Dr. Flagg.
"Why?" demanded Agent.
"Who?" Ubet Choas wanted to know.
"Duh?" wondered Beef.
"Look," said the duke sympathetically. "Its not that you boys wouldnt do an outstanding job as our official champions. In fact, Ive already had my scribe write up my personal recommendation for you. Youve got a colorful reputation, and a fine balance of magic, muscle and experience. Its just that youre not quite what were looking for demographically."
"Demographically?" repeated Ubet.
A small group of adventurers stepped up to the dukes side. "These are the Professionals," he explained. They included a tall bald man in light, loose-fitting clothes, a handsome dark-haired woman in armor, a slightly built brown-haired man in green robes, and a cute elf maiden packing a broad sword.
The bald man introduced himself. "Im Nmok, the monk," he said. "This is Vianna Tamar, the paladin; Insta Tune, the druid; and Corriana Carrison, the fighter-mage. Were the Professionals."
"Insta Tune?" repeated Dr. Flagg, bemused.
Agent stepped up and jumped into the awkward silence. "Im called Agent; this is Dr. Flagg, Ubet Choas, and Beef. Were, er, Mighty Thrusting Sword of Justice."
"No hard feelings, old chap?" questioned Nmok.
"None at all," replied Agent shaking the bald mans hand and patting him on the shoulder. "Thats life in the big fiefdom. Well just mosey along to the next province and try our luck there." Agent quickly exchanged similar greetings and fare-thee-wells with the other Professionals and the duke before turning to his own team. "Gentlemen, I believe it was time we were on our way to seek our fortune."
Ubet, Dr. Flagg, and even Beef nodded pleasantly and excused themselves from the courtyard having understood Agents statement to mean that he had just picked several pockets and theyd all do well to be very far away before someone noticed.
By the noon the next day, the four had put many miles between the duke and his new heroes and them by catching a barge downstream to the river town of South Squit. South Squit sat at a the mouth of a mountain pass and saw a lot of travelers including prospectors, miners and adventurers coming in and out of the mountains as well as merchants and pilgrims following the river to and from the sea. Farmers working the rich floodplain also did brisk business in South Squit, so the town had something for everyone.
Upon hitting town, Ubet, Agent, Dr. Flagg, and Beef split up. Agent had to replace his ruined clothes, Ubet needed to visit the local dwarfen temple to pay his respects, Dr. Flagg wanted to check in at the local Wizards Guild, and Beef was merely hungry and wanted to go find someplace to eat until dinnertime.
A human among dwarfs, Ubet Choas probably would not have had a lot of opportunity for advancement in the dwarfen clergy even if hed chosen to stay. However, some members of the dwarfen pantheon of gods saw value in supporting a human sympathetic to their people. While the worldwide dwarfen population had been stable for tens of thousands of years, humanity was expanding rapidly. Only orcs and goblins bred faster, and humans had shown great proficiency in keeping them in check. So the dwarfen gods continued to grant Ubet the powers of a low-level shaman as long as he kept faith with them, even though he was not a practicing member of the dwarfen clergy.
|DR. FLAGG: And here we seem to have an extra from 'Ride of the Valkyries.'
AGENT: Broom Hilda lives.
UBET: You mean Bruunhilda. Broom Hilda's a witch.
AGENT: Aww, that's not fair. She might be nice once you get to know her.
For his part, Ubets obligation to the dwarfen gods included checking in at a dwarfen temple whenever he was in the neighborhood, performing the Rite of Dedication, donating generously to the church, and carrying out whatever task the high shaman there required of him. The latter usually consisted of some minor chore such as helping consecrate a new mine, cleaning the temple, minding the church daycare center for an afternoon or performing some other small favor for a member of the congregation. Only a couple of times had he been required to undertake a long and dangerous quest.
This afternoons task hadnt been of the long-and-dangerous-quest variety, but Ubet almost might have preferred it if it had been. Instead, hed had to muck out the pigpens. That alone was bad enough, but the job was complicated by the fact that hed also had to avoid the amorous attention of a near-sighted old boar. Somehow, hed managed to finish the entire job with a shovel between him and the boar and his back pressed firmly against a wall the entire time.
When Ubet rejoined his companions by the fountain across from the South Squit Adventurers Guild late and covered with mud and pig crap Agent and Dr. Flagg were in the midst of an animated discussion about their employment prospects and the previous days disappointment. Beef loomed behind them, gnawing on a large bone. Ubet half-expected him to reach up and scratch himself behind the ear with his foot.
"The point is, weve lost out on four opportunities for not being demographically correct. We need to be better rounded," Agent was saying.
"Whats to need? Im the brains and magic, Beefs the muscle and melee, youre the black guy " He glanced at Ubet who was trying to comb some of the filth out of his beard with his fingers. " and Ubets the little guy that goofy crap keeps happening to. Were plenty well-rounded and our record speaks for itself."
"No," insisted Agent. "The one thing we need that we dont have and that every team thats beaten us so far has had is a girl."
"We dont need a girl," replied Dr. Flagg.
"This isnt the Fellowship of the Ring. We need to be able to offer some sex appeal; more than I can deliver by myself," said Agent. "Unless you want to go back to Olvylia and reconsider Lord Windeschmeres offer."
"Windeschmere?" remembered Ubet washing himself in the fountain. "Hes the one who said he might be able to work with us if we were openly or at the very least, ambiguously homosexual."
"A niche market to be sure but we could probably make it work," said Agent. "At least, Ive got the fashion sense for it."
"What fashion sense?" argued Ubet. "You usually dress all in black."
"But I make it work," retorted Agent preening. "Besides, theres always Beef and Dr. Flagg."
A visible shiver of revulsion went through Dr. Flagg. "Beef and I are not gay!"
Beef took the bone hed been working on out of his mouth. "Beef loves cute, puny Dr. Flagg," he volunteered.
"Gah!" cried Dr. Flagg.
In years past, Beef had made an enemy of a powerful evil wizard named Ghaaznül the Vile. Through dumb luck and extraordinary circumstances, Beef had managed to thwart Ghaaznül time and again. In yet another futile effort to get the better of his arch-nemesis, Ghaaznül conjured a powerful foe to defeat Beef; a foe who would be the barbarian warriors exact opposite, whose strengths would match precisely to his weaknesses. He would answer Beefs muscles with magic; Beefs stupidity and luck with genius and planning. The result was Dr. Flagg, whom Ghaaznül instilled with a deep hatred and loathing of Beefs very existence. What Ghaaznül had failed to realize was that Beefs feelings toward Dr. Flagg would be exactly the opposite: namely a deep adoration and sexual attraction. Dr. Flagg discovered this the first time he was sent out to battle Beef. The more he wanted to kill Beef, the more Beef wanted to hug and kiss and squeeze him. Eventually, Dr. Flagg realized that he could control Beefs inappropriate desire for him by controlling his own hatred of Beef. As a result, he and Beef were able to team up and give Ghaaznül the butt-kicking he so richly deserved. As satisfying as that had been, it left Dr. Flagg magically bound to the giant malodorous barbarian. As time went by, Dr. Flagg was able to modulate his dislike of Beef into a grudging tolerance, which Beef answered with manly and hopefully platonic affection.
When questioned as to whether or not theyd consummated their adversity before defeating Ghaaznül, Dr. Flagg consistently declined to answer. No one had yet come up with a way of phrasing the question in a way Beef understood.
Dr. Flagg struggled to get his dislike of Beef under control until the dreamy look faded from the barbarians bloodshot eyes and he went back to gnawing on his bone.
"Speaking of gay," said Ubet to Agent, "Mighty Thrusting Sword of Justice?"
"I panicked," admitted Agent. "Still, if were out to make a name for ourselves, it would help to actually have one other than those four guys who did all that damage.
"But Mighty Thrusting Sword of Justice? Oh well, its not like were stuck with it, I guess," said Dr. Flagg. "We have enough dumb stuff happen to us without people laughing at our name."
"I wish one of you had said something before I had the business cards made," complained Agent, "and registered the domain name with the Adventurers Guild."
Ubet pinched his eyes together and moaned.
"For how long are we registered as Mighty Thrusting Sword of Justice?" Dr. Flagg wanted to know.
"Not long," said Agent.
"How long?" repeated Dr. Flagg.
"There was a special," said Agent. "Six years for the price of five."
"Oy vey," said Ubet.
"Just be glad I didnt go with Mighty Throbbing Sword of Justice," said Agent.
Only the sound Beef gnawing on his bone broke the long, uncomfortable silence.
"Look," said Agent finally. "This just brings us back to our original problem. If we want to prove our collective masculinity "
"Whats left of it," muttered Ubet.
" Then we need to get a girl," finished Agent. "Ive taken the liberty of posting some notices around the Adventurers Guild and reserving a conference room. We start interviewing candidates tomorrow."
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