User:SourceRunner

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SourceRunner
Championed by the Hero: Tarintodont
Personality: Well-intentioned, and with enough knowledge to be dangerous.
Motto: You can't fall off of the floor.
Guild: E.I.S. Eternal
Guild Position: Founder and General Contractor



Salutations!

You have reached SourceRunner's wiki page. She's not here right now, but if you'd like to leave a message with me, Tarintodont, I'll pass it along in my prayers.
This page is the closest thing I've found to her holy book: it's where she puts things like the "Missing Vignettes" and "Discourses on Godville." My Guardian Spirit, as wordy as she is, somehow only wrote a page, not a book. Huh. Anyway, feel free to look around, and take anything she says with a tankard of lager. I always do.
 
 
 



The Missing Vignettes

This section contains all of the vignettes, and occasionally something more. If there was a storyline that didn't resolve in the main chronicles but should have, you will likely find the rest of it here. If you want to know the whys and wherefores of Number Seven, they're definitely in here. Did your favorite vignette disappear from the chronicles? It will reappear here. Eventually. No promises.

The Lost Vignettes
Vignette 1:

It happened that summer. You know the one I mean-- the one when it rained so hard for three weeks straight that even the ducks got tired of being wet. The one when the ground was covered in a mat of drowning earthworms, and the moles, skunks, and badgers all grew prodigiously fat on them. The one when even the fearsome Double Dragon could not light his mighty flame.

It happened that summer. That summer, they all stopped laughing at my mackintosh-and-wellington armor. They all wept at the sight of my saber-umbrella.

It happened that summer: nobody mentioned my McDonald's Happy Meal box hat.

It did not happen that summer that My Lady saw fit to bless me with more awe-inspiring equipment.

Vignette 2:

I found a dead shepherd, today. Poor man, there wasn't much left of him, all shredded and nasty and with not a single gold coin to his name. Whatever got him got his sheep, too. They're alive, but all bloody about the mouths. Or maybe the sheep got it, if it was a Jolly Reaper. Heroic sheep, leaping at the Reaper's scythe, valiantly trying to keep the beast's weapon from striking their master.

I buried the gruesome remains, of course, in a nearby vegetable patch. May the shepherd rest in peas. While I was shoveling all the bits and pieces into the ground, a piece of paper fell out of the man's pocket. It was a mini-quest! Now I have to "lead his sheep to green pastures and beside still waters."

That sounded hard. I haven't a hook (and I am not a crook), and none of my friends has a Sun Dog, so how was I supposed to round the sheep up and keep them with me? But I was worrying for no reason: the sheep followed me with hungry gazes, licking their lamb chops.

Wherever these green pastures are, or the still waters for that matter (good fishing), I have to find them soon. It's getting dark, and I'm seeing signs of a humungous wolf pack everywhere!

I wonder if this mini-quest has a second part...

Vignette 3:

I was back in Godville, recovering from that vicious sheep attack (the crazy guild doctor kept insisting my wounds looked like wolf bites-- the quack! He offered me a rabies shot, but I turned him down because I was in no mood for another quest, and rabies didn't seem like an appealing award, anyway. Seems like he was fresh out of shots at gold bricks) when I met a bunch of other heroes at the pub. What were the chances? Wow!

We got to talking between drinks, and I found out that some heroes die regularly. It got me thinking: if that starts happening to me, having things like "kiss a stranger in the main square of Undefinedstan" on my bucket list seems kind of unrealistic. So here's my revised bucket list-- more of a "To Do Before the Next Time I Die" list.

1. Make burial clothes out of fly strips (top priority, after what maggots tried to do to me last time)

2. Kiss a stranger in the main square of Godville.

3. Avoid the resultant slap.

4. Explain my glow bracelet fixation to SourceRunner. (My Lady! Why are you writing things in MY bucket list? Do you know something I don't?)

5. Get back and spend the gold coins I leant Master Brewer Cooper.

6. Find a legitimate reason to write in my diary, "Paradise is a noble woman riding up to you in her coach and saying, "Get in. I'll take you anywhere you want to go.""

Vignette 4:

I found another dead shepherd today. I have a really bad feeling about this.

Vignette 5:

My Lady, you haven't spoken to me today, and I think it's my fault. Is this what it's like to be married? Or dating?

Anyway, I've been wracking my brain to figure out my late sins, and only one comes to mind... I think-- I think, maybe, just maybe, in the dimmest outside chance, at the last town, I drunk-prayed you. Or maybe I drunk-prayed some other guardian deity and you overheard.

It's very vague. But I think that the serving wench told me that she would never date someone who could stuff a conker up each nostril. Or maybe she said "would." I had paid a recent visit to the village chestnut tree. I might have had one up my nose. Or two. Maybe one in my ear. I wasn't hearing very well.

But if I'm remembering correctly, I went to the old outhouse, heartbroken. +Staggered+ to the old outhouse, heartbroken and full-bladdered. The moon was bright that night upon the outhouse. There was a horse trough outside, and I stared at my devilishly handsome face in it.

The wench was right, I think I concluded. My nostrils were just a bit too large. My only flaw, and its disfigurement ruined my chance for human love. At this point, so say the scrapes and bruises on my hands and knees, I fled and fell my way to a nearby shrine and threw myself across the altar. I wept. Maybe I snotted a bit on the sacred relics. There might be a conker in one of the grails.

It gets really fuzzy from here, but I think I wailed to you. I think I blamed you for my enlarged nostrils. After all, how many times have I been on my deathbed and you've crammed a bird of paradise into my sinuses? The other heroes think I have a habit. Someone even left a "Paradise Addicts Anonymous" contact card in my coin bag! I mean, that's what I yelled at you. When I was drunk-praying, my Lady.

I didn't mean it, Lady of Light. Whatever I said. Sure, healing water and living soda is great, but if all you have is a Bird of Paradise, I'll take that, too! And I'm certain my nostrils are just the size you want them to be. Reason for everything, right?

So, what I'm really trying to say is I'm sorry. Very sorry. So sorry that I'll be eating ashes all day tomorrow.

If I live that long. You see, I'm having some serious trouble with this Syntax Terror.

A little help please?

Vignette 6:

Are you there, SourceRunner? It's me, Tarintodont.

If you're listening, I wanted to talk with you some more about this bird of paradise problem. If nothing else, your threat to discuss my propensity to wish at wells (THANK you for spreading that ALL over Godville; even Iacchus is laughing at me, and you know how little humor he finds in anyone but his precious Becky; I have to wear a mask if I want to go to the black market to sell anything, now) taught me that you dislike your subjects complaining without offering solutions. So that's what I'm going to do. Prepare to be impressed, My Lady, because I'm about to revolutionize dosing for your birds of paradise!

1. Ears-- You could put the birds of paradise in my ears, instead. Think of it! Sometimes I think I hear you saying that I must have wax in my ears, so what better way to get it out? I'm also pretty sure it's a more direct route to my brain and my blood system than up my nose. The only down side I can see would be the possibility of a feather or two to get stuck and start tickling. I couldn't scratch the itch, after all, since Mother always told me not to go sticking stuff... in... my... Oh. Is that why you don't use that route, Mighty One? Well, I guess it's on to the next option.

2. Mouth-- Modern doctors administer most of their curatives orally, so why shouldn't a modern Spirit of Light like yourself? I happen to know you prepare the most delicious food in the world, because every once in a while, you send me a divine care package: a message in an edible, perfect, avian wrapper. So if you-- wait. Doves are birds. If they're from you, they must be from paradise. And when I eat them, they just fill my belly, not my health. Darn. And I thought I had a good one, there. Moving on.

3. A-Ah, no. I am not taking a feathery suppository, no way, no how! 

On further thought, My Lady, the nasal delivery method is just fine. I trust you to know what you're doing.

Vignette 7:

My name, Lady. We were talking about my name before you put me to sleep last night? Why did you do that, anyway? I wasn't even counting the sheep following me since that last shepherd I buried.

Oh well. What I really want right now is an answer. If you give me just this one, full-out, straight answer, I promise that I will never, ever, ever ask you for another thing. Ever. Never.

At least, until the next monster comes along. 

No! No, I won't let you distract me, My Lady. Or me, for that matter. I want answers. About my name. The only thing I got from my Mother was, "I got a divine mandate that you were to be named so." That must be true, because the alehouse where I was born prominently featured people with single sill-- sylb-- seela-- SourceRunner, why are some words so hard to say? Y'know, those word bits, and my name has four of them.

Why didn't you name me something like "Wolfheart"? Or "Domingo", Or "Ted"? Something illustrious.

"Tarintodont." What does that even mean? A wise old sage-- well, maybe not so wise, and not so old, and smelled more like basil, but definitely smart-- told me that "dont" was an ancient word for "tooth." So... what? "Tar into my teeth?" But I brush them regularly; they're nice and white, like your doves.

Why would I have tar in my teeth? It's not like I chew asphalt, like some of those Road Obstruction Workers... Or are you saying I do? Figuratively?

Huh.

I... tear up the road? Eat up the miles? I'm a fast mover and shaker, and where I go, no one else dares follow?

Huh. I like that.

Never mind about a straight answer, Great One.

Vignette 8:

Lady, grant me strength!

Or wakefulness.

Or a Sun Dog.

Certainly the first two now, and the last when you see fit!

I'm not sure how well you see me, Guardian Spirit, but I'm trying to paint numbers on these sheep. When I saw sheep in the fields wearing numbers, it seemed like a great idea. After all, whenever I try to count mine, I fall asleep around "15." Best rest I've ever had, but I'm really... really worried about these guys. What if... if a wolf or... a vicious sheep or some other mon... monster starts eating... eating them? I won't know until... until... until...

Excuse me! Forgive me, My Lady, I keep yawning!

I won't know until I only count 14 some night. So if they have numbers, I can count the numbers, rather... rather than the sheep, and know they're all there.

I'm... on my 15th... sheep, now, Mighty One, and this paintbrush feels like lead in my hand. My eyes... my eyes keep falling shut and... and feel like... like butterflies' wing du... dust is in th...em.....

Please! My Lady! Help me! I must... must get to... get to sheep... sheep sixteeeeeeeennnnnnzzz...

Zzz.

Vignette 9:

SourceRunner, thank you for the sudden rain shower to wake me up, but it diluted my paint. That's going to mean another 371 gold coins that won't go toward you temple. Or beer.

But I'm not upset. There's a reason for everything, and that's why we keep our heads up, our feet down. In this case, I imagine I'm supposed to be learning patience, so I've decided to sit and appreciate my surroundings for a while.

Not that there's much else I can do. After all, I'm sitting in a bush, hidden from the path, indecent and waiting for my clothes to dry. I hope lead aprons don't rust.

The bush is really quite nice. It's one of those frond-y ones without the thorns. It's very shady, and there's a perfect window in the foliage where I can look out to the path, meadow, valley, and mountains beyond. The wet road is gently steaming in the sunlight, and cloud shadows are making interesting patterns on the grass. The skies... Well, the skies look like my sheep, all scattered cotton balls on a brilliant background.

Except for number 7. She didn't go off to eat for some reason. Instead, she's rolling about in the slurry of mud that used to be the path I was following. I could have sworn only pigs acted like that.

The path is stretching in both directions way out of my sight. I hear it goes out to Herolympus and beyond. How many feet have worn away the dirt here, My Lady? I suppose not only feet but also paws, hooves, and wheels have traveled this way. How many people have gone before me?

Speak of the devil, and he shall appear: I hear horse shoes sucking in mud, and rattling wheels flinging gobbets of same onto the pathside foliage. Hmm. It's a phaeton, probably a noble's, and very nicely put together, with a pair of Clydesdales pulling. Now that's just showing off!

Number seven is still in the mud. She'll see the carriage soon and move, I'm sure.

Distracted driver. He's talking to his lovely passenger, so I really can't blame him, but he's not seeing number seven.

Look at the road, man. Look at the road. Look!

Seven, move. Move now, you stupid sheep!

Oh, I'm going to regret this. My Lady, if you could give me back my old fig leaf for just a moment, I would really appreciate it.

Vignette 10:

Well, Milady, I just spent three of the most humiliating minutes of my life, cross-legged in the scratchy, scrubby grass by the side of the road, nude, hiding my face in the very, very dirty wool of the very, very upset sheep I was clutching in my lap, with two astonished, possibly offended, possibly amused nobles staring down at me from their phaeton as they went by. And you don't have to tell me, Lady Divine, because I already know that you were trying to cover my nakedness with those warblers, but, in the horrible, wretched, utterly unthinkable event that this sort of thing might happen again, please, I would rather one of your double rainbows. Or pirouetting cupids. Or even a choir of angels! Something-- Anything!-- to make the people stop staring at +me+.

It was a real low point. I think I can say-- yes. Yes, I can definitely say that this was worse, even, than the time my Mother showed my harvest dance date my embarrassing baby portraits. My date laughed, and then she decided to go to the dance alone.

Yes. This was much worse. Then, I was miserable. Now, I'm miserable and need a bath.

No! No. Please don't send another shower. I must have an aura of audibility, because that offer came through loud and clear. But if you could bless me with a warm spring nearby...?

Thank you for the rainbow. It's beautiful.

Thank you for the billboard. It's... there.

Thank you for the dove, but I'm really not hungry right now.

My Lady, I'm feeling sorry for myself, not dying! Stop with the birds of paradise!

...though, they are kind of funny, now that I get to actually look at them. Can you do that thing where you make them dance again? Ha.

You know, right now I really wish I was a villain. Then I wouldn't feel guilty about wanting to kick number seven. Of course she'd be the sheep following closest on my heels; you must have a special friendship with Murphy, SourceRunner.

Oh, praises and blessings upon you, Merciful Lady! An inn! An inn by the wayside of the road! I've never seen one before, but who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth without the proper examination kit? Let me see, what is it called?

My Lady, I can't believe you did that. "The Grimy Shepherd"? That was low.

Vignette 11:

Dear Guardian Spirit:

It's been a long time since last I did this. We haven't been on speaking terms since the second sheep incident, six months ago, but I get the feeling that you're still hanging around, so if you get this, it's an olive branch. Maybe we can go back to the way things were in the beginning. Happier times.

I sold all of my sheep to a trader who said he knew a ranch out in Devilshire that could take them. It turns out there were 39 of them. Number Seven showed up a few days later, as hard on my heels as an angry Godville Administrator. If I ever take a pet, this could be a problem.

Since I've been ignoring you, I've tried some alternate religions. You wouldn't believe the variety out there-- it's like there's a god for every hero in Godville! There were some truly bizarre rituals involved. One place, the worshipers were collecting all of the whispers and writings on the toast--er, wall that we find everywhere. Some of the sayings got to stay in the collection, but some of them got thrown out, and I was never quite sure why.

 Another place, people sat around and told each other lies all day. Right next door, people who were amazingly good at quantifying how good they were shared worship space with people who were frighteningly capable of quantifying how bad they were. Fights broke out, of course, but every one involved seemed to enjoy that, too.

And then there was the church of the noodle implements. I hope you weren't watching that. If you weren't, I'll leave their rituals to your imagination.

All of that, surprisingly, was not in Godville city, but in a place called Foreham. They must have a terrible infestation, because I saw more than a few "Please don't feed the trolls" signs. After I gave up being a sculptor, I thought about going back and offering my services as an exterminator, but I couldn't find the place again.

Oh yes! I learned a bit of sculpting. If you still want that temple, I can now save some money by carving all of the effigies  and votive statuary myself. But nothing large, mind you: I stopped sculpting when a gold colossus almost fell on me. Sculpting is dangerous. Heroes get resurrected, but it turns out that sculptors never do. So I decided to go back to being a hero.

That was about a month ago. Spent some of that time praying to Iacchus' goddess, GreyLiliy. Iacchus says she's always listening, but I couldn't tell. Might have something to do with her being his personal goddess.

 That's what brought me round to this, actually As angry as I was about the sheep thing, part of me missed you. I think-- well, I don't know what I'm thinking, and I might actually be hearing you laugh at the idea that I ever think. But if you'll have me, I'm ready to come back.

Overall, these past six months have been good for me. I've come to a better understanding of the world. Either that, or I'm so used to being confused that I've mistaken greater confusion for wisdom. You tell me.

Sincerely, Tarintodont

P.S.: I can't tell. Have you been using birds of paradise on me when I sleep this whole time, or do I have a hole in my pillow? I keep waking up with down on my face.

Vignette 12:

Well, that almost ended in disaster.

Way back when I still had a whole flock of sheep shadowing me, I desperately wanted a Sun Dog to keep them in order. Thank goodness I'd already sold the flock by the time I found the perfect pet, because Pumba is a Firefox! Number seven is still hanging around, of course, and they had to work out their differences, but after Pumba got all fired up and chomped number seven a few times, only to come away with a mouth full of fluff, they seemed to get along.

It's almost cute the way Pumba will curl up on number seven's haunches for a nap while we're walking during the day. The only thing is, I can't figure out whether he keeps watch all night when she and I are sleeping, or if he lives up to his "lazybones" nickname.

Yesterday, I decided it was finally time to shear number seven. It's getting on to high summer, after all, and I doubt my goddess would approve of me letting one of her creatures suffer (begging the question why she's allowed to let me suffer, but that's beside the point)! It didn't take long and wasn't expensive, just a stop at a roadside farm and 40 gold coins, and I got three bags of wool out of it. One I kept for Milady (after all, her temple will need some sort of tapestry or rug, and black wool is notably good at keeping warmth in the winter). One I gave to a pretty, polite, youthful dame I met in the marketplace, who made my head spin almost as fast as her drop-spindle. One I almost gave to that little boy who lives somewhere along Godville Lane and likes to follow us heroes around, wearing  a bucket on his head and carrying a mop.

Then I had what SourceRunner calls one of my little flashes of sanity, couldn't imagine what the kid would do with wool, and sold it to a trader instead. Got 233 gold coins for it, recouping my shearing cost and a good bit of number seven's overnight in-town stabling fees.

We were fine all yesterday after the shearing, though Pumba seemed worried that we had exchanged number seven for this half-sized, scrawny, nervous little thing that was walking with us. We were also fine all morning. The wind kicked up and the road happened to be passing by a lake, bringing in a chill unnoticed above the bumper crop of monsters I had to fight. But around lunchtime, just as I was taking the Sad Panda chops and potatoes wrapped in eucalyptus off of the fire, I guess the sight of all of number seven's trembling, pink-and-grey skin finally got to Pumba.

He flared up.

She, for once in her life, noticed danger and fled.

He gave chase.

I hollered, grabbed my pack, and chased after both of them.

Number seven leapt over a downed tree across the path.

Pumba barely even seemed to levitate, effortlessly clearing the same log.

I vaulted the rotting trunk, stuck the landing, took a step, tripped in a pot hole, and fell flat on my face. 

I got up and resumed pursuit, bellowing the whole time.

This basic pattern repeated through fords, under bridges, around dolmens, and past four milestones. I missed fights with countless monsters who stood by in glib astonishment or silent bewilderment at our bizarre procession. One of them was a Godville Administrator, and I'm just as grateful to skip that encounter, but I shudder to think that any one of the others might have been carrying a gold brick and I missed it!

Finally, I fell far enough behind that I lost sight of my dim-witted companions. I also lost my stamina and slowed to a walk. About an hour and two fights later, my tired feet brought me in range of a frantic yapping. It convinced me to do that most dangerous thing of all: leave the path.

About thirty strides through the woods and out the other side, I found Pumba, ears flat on his head, tail between his legs, eyes so wide I could see their whites, and adamantly NOT on fire. He was pacing in front of the lip of a cliff that bore multiple hoof-sized skid marks going right over it.

I almost didn't look. Having fallen off a cliff (been thrown, actually. Twice. By that Godville Administrator) myself, I knew exactly the sort of disgusting sight I would see, and I didn't want to see it made of something I knew. But Pumba pawed at my trouser leg and circled between me and the cliff, so I had to, just to appease him.

There, ten feet down, was number seven, clinging to a root by her teeth, dangling over a 100 foot drop.

I'm too tired to say how I got her back up, but so that I remember when I come back to augment this entry, it took:

  • a sturdy rope
  • hope (two pieces)
  • a remorseful Pumba
  • a pointy WIZZARD hat
  • an alchemical transmuter
  • a bag of filthy prawns


Suffice to say, I'm now out of Ewe Crunchies(R), Pumba is in disgrace, and I'm very hungry.

I'm having a dinner of grass and bark. Almighty, would it be too much to ask for a little salt?

Vignette 13:

It was a dark and stormy night. The kind of night that finds me in my office (the darkest back corner of the dingiest pub in Godville), with my loyal Firefox curled under my desk (the burnt, mug-ring-scarred table that some drunk hooligan had decided to carve the initials "TSR" into) at my feet (Pumba had gotten tired of dodging splashed beer as various heroes gesticulated wildly over their own tales). The candle had burnt so low it was guttering in its own pool of melted lard, and a fly buzzed around the nose of a hero who snored beside a crusty bowl of finished rarebit at the next table.

It was disgusting, but it was my home.

She fled into my life from out of the lightning, gasping and trembling, and pitched toward me on weakened legs that must have spanned the milestones, if the clinging her wet skirt did was any indication. She caught herself on my table and I reached to steady her. Skin-warmed rain caught me in the face as she flipped back her hair, exposing a neck that would make a swan swoon in jealousy.

"I need you--!" she said, her pearly bosom, as smooth and round as the pommel of my alchy's sword strapped across my back, heaving becomingly under her low-cut kyrtle as she caught her breath. Of course she needed me: all women needed me, they just didn't know it yet. I patiently waited for her to continue.

She hiccoughed. "I need you. I need you to-- I need you to go chlorinate the fountain of youth."

AGAIN?!?! I've already done it four times! If it's going to run out so often, Mighty One, why can't they switch to a bromine system? It's so much easier to retrieve and put tablets in a floating dispenser than to dive to the bottom, wrestle with the stupid filter that always sticks, load a new cartridge-- holding my breath the whole time because some sick priest mandated that it all has to be done in one go-- pound the wretched filter back into place, kick it a couple of times, surface, and gag on a spoon of that castor oil they call "essence of senility" in order to counteract any "ill effects" of my submersion.

I ask you!

I wanted to shake the pretty woman. Really, I did. But I remembered that heroes-- good heroes-- don't do that sort of thing. Instead, I rose, brushed her tangled hair back over her shoulders, and gathered her into my arms. I cradled her against my chest. She stared up at me with her rich, dark, smokey bedroom eyes, eyes with the promises that could drive a man half-crazed to search an eternity for something half so sweet. 

She flinched as thunder crashed and rolled outside, some sort of divine or demonic cart being rolled across gap-ridden cobbles, but she couldn't drag her gaze away for long. I took off my hat and held it to shield her face from the outside world. I dipped her, whispering, "For you, my darling, and only for you will I do what you ask."

She slapped me.

Vignette 15:

When I asked the priests about the meaning of life, my life in particular, the oldest, hoariest, most grizzled of them took his peace pipe out of his mouth. It must have been an old pipe, with him a long time, because the end was well gnawed. He didn't have a single tooth left in his jaws. His tongue still worked, though.

"Dim son," he said to me, "follow the money."

I left the non-denominational temple to ponder his words, winding my way through the streets of Godville, across the marketplace (funny, I haven't seen the girl I gave number seven's wool since that day), across the bridge that arcs over the river of Life, and into the tavern "The Firefox and Glove." They serve this thing there called mead. It's thicker than ale, heartier than whiskey, and sweeter than wine. Quite good, like drinking dessert.

I thought about what I do with money. By the end of my third pitcher of mead, I came up with what I  thought the old sage had meant. Excited, I paid my tab, left Pumba sleeping by the taproom fire, forgot to collect number seven, and ran to a little place near the 22nd mile marker that I know well. 

I tossed a coin, made a wish on general principles, and dove into the well after both.

Miserably sober very quickly, I made the following discoveries:

1. The bottomless pits I sometimes retrieve from monsters are actually put to use and become wells.

2. Wells are wet places.

3. It's impossible to follow a gold coin into a bottomless pit if you like to breathe.

4. I was finally right where SourceRunner wanted me, and the recipient of a long "discussion" about the efficacy of wishes versus hard work.

5. SourceRunner thinks Pumba is a girl, from the way the wind whistling across the top of the well kept referring to lassies. How do you tell a Guardian Spirit the proper way to check a firefox's gender? And should you, if said Firefox is the only thing between you and spending a night in deep water?

Once out of the well and back in Godville, I made two further discoveries:

1. Shrine maidens don't like anyone who drips or puddles on their floor.

2. If the shrine maidens are mad, nobody gets cookies.

I sat in front of the priests, shivering, and recounted my gained wisdom. Though they nodded sagely (basilly?) at the shrine maiden business, after I finished everything, the oldest and most grizzled among them took his well-chewed pipe out of his mouth, knocked me on the head with its bowl, and said, "One more chance. Don't blow it."

I went back to "The Firefox and Glove" to nurse my headache.

Vignette 16:

Took a short break to hang the stars in the sky. What a mini quest: you have a tougher job than I realized, Guardian Spirit!

After seeing the doctor and buying a brick with my mini quest earnings, I went back to "The Firefox and Glove." Some tipsy fool had gotten ahold of a box of matches while I was away, so no more mead. Darn. Consoled myself with a bitter or two at "Famous Last Words," which just wasn't the same, since they have their serving wenches on rollerskates.

Got to thinking about my main quest to follow the money-- stop snickering, Almighty; you complain enough about my penmanship without distracting me-- and thought of another way to go about it. When not investing in wishes, I spend money on beer and other libations. But what do pubs spend it on? Barrels and tuns.

Hah! I followed the errand boy who had my spending money from the tavern to the cooper. The boy's bodyguards thought I was a robber and stopped to beat me up, but they're nothing, compared to a toothless vampire. Perhaps I should offer my services when I'm in town for a while.

Got to Cooper Cooper's place just as the errand boy was handing over a sackful of coins for a barrel delivery. Was almost tempted to go bad and take the coins myself, but my dashing Firefox and the sky overhead simultaneously started growling at me; ultimately, my restraint was a good thing, because number seven bleated in alarm behind me, and when I spun around, I saw an Elf Karl with a very large axe scratching her between the ears.

Now, I expect you to be very proud of me, Guardian Spirit, because where most heroes would carry on about a monster and start slicing, I waited until I realized I recognized the fellow. That my hesitation may have had something to do with dizzy stupor is not the point! 

The man that frightened number seven is actually a woodsman and carpenter who lives out around milestone 57. He most certainly would have been upset if I had stolen the gold, because he expected to be paid for the bundle of staves on his back that Cooper Cooper had ordered. As it was, Karl recognized me, too, and we ended up spending most of his gold and mine back at the "Famous Last Words."

This morning, with a blinding headache, I'm all set to visit a shrine and bribe-- er, sacrifice and pray to SourceRunner to curse those cats yowling under my hayloft bed last night.

Vignette 17:

This is one long quest, My Lady, to be interrupted by multiple miniquests! Just how did the barkeep expect me to cut the cake when all I have is a broomstick, anyway?

Figured out that I figured out what the woodsmen do with their money, since all of Karl's went back to the pub and looped into the cooper's pockets. (I almost thought it was a waste, but then I remembered that there was beer involved.) That put me back at Cooper Cooper's coopery. I endured his suspicious stare until he told me that his coins go for wood, iron rings, and beer.

Is all of Godville idolatrously worshipful of beer? Surely not!

So I followed my long-gone coins to the smithy. Unlike Cooper Cooper, the smith's name is Frank. Nice guy. Quite honestly told me I was a bit thick (you may not have noticed, diary, but I've packed a few pounds around my middle-- my armor is fitting better, but I've lost my abs), and offered to repair the steel cap on my broomstick for 1758 gold coins. In the interest of my quest, I agreed.

To my surprise, instead of putting my payment into his till, Smith Frank threw the stamped circles into a hopper. While I was watching Smith Frank repair my weapon, his assistant came into the forge, checked the hopper, and poured something like six thousand gold coins  from it into a crucible. Six thousand!

The crucible went into the furnace glory hole (yes, My Lady! You really are Omniscient, aren't you? I picked up that term of art when I had to share space with a glass worker), rested for quite a while, and came out just as Smith Frank was finishing with my broomstick. He had to prod me a couple of times with the pointy end because I was watching the assistant pour the melted gold into two brick moulds. Are deities goldsmiths? You do that without moulds!

Smith Frank laughed at my drool, and with a wink offered to let me peek into his secret showroom. Secret showroom? Sounded dirty, but I took him up on it anyway. And what should I see through the keyhole but shelves and shelves stacked with shiny, glowing, clean, new gold bricks! Oh, and a trader buying two. 

At a price significantly lower than that same trader had charged me for just one three days ago. 

When I asked Smith Frank about that, he mentioned something about a wholesale club membership card. If I ever get one of those from a monster, I'll have to remember to keep it.

Well, traders sell bricks to heroes like me, and those go straight into temples, so that's another dead end, just like the money going to woodsmen. Unless bricks also go somewhere else? After all, there are those caravans I see on the road sometimes...

I followed the trader. Got beaten up by bodyguards much stronger than the errand boy's. Visited the guild doctor, who asked me how my wolf bites were doing (I showed him the scars of my SHEEP bites). Got back on my way in time to see the same trader loading one of the caravan carts with gold bricks. Ah-hah!

I stopped by the reconstruction site of "The Firefox and Glove" to practice chasing workers around with a trowel, and then continued to "Famous Last Words" to celebrate my day.

Vignette 18:

Rocks are hard, sheep are bony, and firefoxes have teeth. Why can't life on the road provide a comfortable pillow?

I ran out of gold coins to finance my stay in Godville (I can neither confirm nor deny that this had something to do with "Famous Last Words" needing new tables), so I took a job with one of the gold caravans as a guard. It's much better than following and getting pounded as a robber by the three other heroes doing the same job, isn't it? Though, I don't like the way that pure evil! heroine keeps looking at number seven. Maybe My Lady will put an aura of vegetarianism on the woman, if I pray hard enough.

We've already been attacked four times in two days, and no one--

Argh. Make that five times in three rainy, miserable, sleepless days. I hope you've stocked up on cans of living soda, Guardian Spirit, because this Godville Administrator looks like a duesenberg.

Vignette 19:

Join a caravan, see the world.

After a month, two weeks, and five days, I've seen every town between Godville and some place called Fieldston-on-Lethe. On the upside, I've also crossed "Get out past 2000 miles" and "Kiss a stranger in the main square of Undefinedstan" off of my ultimate bucket list.

I'm also really, REALLY bored of quest destinations. They're all the same: mythical quest monument (fountain of youth, hall of the mountain king, Brian's TV, etc.), hero swarm (saw Iacchus six times, and Angel 20 twice), nearby temple outpost where heroes from the swarm completing quests go to collect their rewards. The caravan must have stopped at every single one of these places, dropping off bricks, grabbing changes of oxen, laughing at my heroic brethren... Ugh. I'm disgusted.

Thank SourceRunner that a monk from the monastery in Fieldston-on-Lethe approached me and told me I'd finished my quest to follow the money. He gave me one of the last gold bricks from the caravan, and asked me to deliver an Alchemical Transmuter and a Wish for Good Luck to the traders in Godville to pay for the extra delivery of bricks.

I have got to find a way to break this cycle that I seem to be part of.

But first, I need to go tell the oldest and most grizzled of the priests that my purpose in life is to courier payment for bricks from the temples to the traders. I wonder... will he reward me with a brick?

Vignette 20:

Lady of Light, today I woke up with a mouth that tasted like spinach kimchee and the idea that I may have done something stupid yesterday.

It began in the newly reopened "The Firefox and Glove." It was buy one, get one free night, and I was flush with cash, and who should walk in but Sarah Wolf? Through the throng of dizzy-drunk other heroes she didn't see me of course, and instead floated her way across the room until she found an evil hero to charm out of his seat. In a moment of overblown gallantry that I may live to regret, I bought myself another round of mead and sent the serving wench to deliver the free one to Sarah.

The wench thunked the pint mug down on the table, slopping mead over the rim, and barked something I couldn't understand at my friend. Sarah looked momentarily confused and stared around her until she saw me raising my tankard in her direction. She beckoned me over, so I grabbed my tankard, stood, and waded through the boisterous crowd. Pumba, who had been unceremoniously dumped from my lap into a mingled puddle of spilt alcohols by my movement, yowled a resentful and barely audible complaint at the foul brews marring his groomed-to-an-inch-of-its-life fur, but followed me for the sake of not getting his tail mangled by a careless boot.

I had to pick him up by the scruff when he tried to start a fight with someone else's dashing Firefox.

A brief trip over a passed out patron landed me on my funny bone across Sarah's table. I didn't have any time  to cry, though, since she hauled me close by the collar so she could holler in my ear and be heard over the din. She's a strong lady, for all that she prefers magic.

"The waitress said my drink was from the man with the equine nose!" she shouted. Great. Even the wenches were poking fun at my nostrils, now. "I think she meant 'aquiline!'" 

Sure. But then, that's what makes Sarah good company: she sees kindly motives in just about everything. A few more years in the hero business might beat that out of her, but who knows?

"If you say so, Ms. Wolf," I replied, levering myself into a chair that opened up when she leveled a glowing stare at some hero who was eying her with bad intent. Useful talent, even if she never uses that pink charm thing against traders.

"'Angel,' Tar!" she laughed. "At least remember to call me 'Angel,' if you can't manage 'Angel 20'!"

"Alright, Angel." It fits, I guess. Tall, tan, blond, with hair that might be twenty feet long when she doesn't  have it wrapped around an arm to keep it out of the booze running in rivers on the floor. And pink eyes. Really, My Lady, all I ask for is some blue or green eyes that match my armor, rather than these brown things that look like mud, and you deny me. But you give her MAGENTA? You know, I asked her how she got you to do that, once, and she said something about angels and mages and told me to stop worshipping a false goddess. Not playing around with other religions, anymore, Merciful One, so I declined her offer to tell me the word of the White Mage.

Well, yesterday afternoon, we got to catching up on each others' quests. Long stories, which I honestly can't remember right now (something about taking the Rosetta Stone to the Tower of Babel? I don't know how she did it-- that slab is huge!), but through them all, she kept fidgeting with a cracked and oft-repaired strap on the back of her floppy disk shield. She wasn't doing it consciously, but it still pulled my attention. Most of her armor is showing wear, like mine, but worse since she's still so new to the hero road. None of it goes with her outfit, if I'm any judge, worst of all being those boxer's mittens.

"I'm starting to get a headache and my throat is raw from all of this shouting," I finally yelled to her. "What say we get out of here and go to the armourer?"

I took her duck under another hero's wildly swinging arm as a nod, drew my broomstick, and started mowing a path to the door. Pumba practically fled before me, accompanied by a beribboned dust bunny that had a suspiciously pink cast. Said dust bunny jumped into Angel 20's arms once we won clear into the street, so I guess the new addition was hers.

The armourer's was a cluttered place, that night, full of sold off gear and knick-knacks-- which I guess explained the sheer numbers of heroes spending their cash at the taverns-- so you'd think it would be easy to find stuff in Angel's price and level ranges, but the bin of hand-and-arm armour was disappointingly sparse. Only an old set of bandages that even someone with a fig leaf wouldn't wear, and a set of paladin's gauntlets that were way out of any but the elder heroes' ability to purchase.

"Sell those boxing mittens," I said to Angel.

"Excuse me?"

"Sell them. The most important thing a hero can use is his hands. And look at these things: they're old, they're patched, the padding's gone, and they won't let your fingers uncurl. Sell them. They're no good."

"Well, I have to have SOMETHING to wear," she protested.

That sent my mind in another direction, until Pumba nipped my heel and brought me back to the present. I belatedly agreed with her. "Yes, of course. And you will." Heck, I'd bash my Heavy Gauntlets of War into a wall until they were a level she could wear, if that was what it took, but those mittens had to go. "I'll take care of it. Just sell them."

I don't think I've ever had someone listen to me, before, but Angel 20 did. She sold the mittens, and we walked out of the shop.

Which left me with the dilemma of hand armor for her.

There was nothing for it. I got out my newest gold brick, and started stripping off my gauntlets. It was going to be painful, because they were my favorite pair... but wait! Gleaming up from my finger was the heirloom wedding ring my Mother gave me when I first followed the SourceCall to Godville. It was too low a level for me, anymore, and couldn't do anything under gauntlets anyway,  but I'd kept it because of something Mother said.

"If you're wearing a wedding ring, nobody can take your hand in marriage. Or in war."

Perfect! Light, flexible, level-ready armor, and gold, too, which would work with Angel's pink-and-blonde color scheme. In case she cared about that sort of thing. I yanked it off my finger, breathed on it, polished it against the only unbloodied part of my jerkin, and put it on her own bare finger.

She looked less vulnerable with armour on her hands. I grinned at her and said, "There."

Angel frowned. She gaped at her hand. She looked like she was going to say something. She closed her mouth. She looked at me. She smiled an overwhelmingly infectious smile. "Oh, Tarint! This is the happiest day of my life!"

It was? Well, OK, but it was just some armour.

"You sneaky man, you," she bubbled, as she hugged me. "How did you know I've wanted one of these since I was eight?"

I hugged her back, non-plussed. "But it's--"

"Oh, hush! I know it skips a step, but who really wants a diamond?" She batted her lashes and walked her fingers up my chest. "What I didn't know was that you felt that way! Aren't you a shy one? That's adorable."

Angel shoved away from my chest. I staggered back into the wall of the armourer's shop, while she sprang across the cobblestones of the thoroughfare and twirled a few times in the torchlight. It was all so strange, I couldn't help but wonder if she'd gotten an aura of concussion while I wasn't looking. She wasn't making sense, she was acting strangely--

"Oh, if I can only be this happy tomorrow, too, my life will be perfect," she sang.

"Why? What happens tomorrow?" I asked, like the dunce that My Lady sometimes reminds me I am.

"Our marriage ceremony, silly!" Angel 20 stopped twirling and clapped her hands. Her hair continued to swirl around her feet like drifted snow. "You just watch, I'll take care of this bit. I'll go see the priest right now!"

"But--" And before I could say any more, she whipped her ribbon from her hair and was gone in a rush of feathers. Someday, I have to find out how she does that. Is it a high level flying bird skill?

Needless to say, I was struck dumb. Well, dumber. Literally, the only things I could think were, "Well, there are worse fates," and, "Will my Mother like her?"

I went back to "The Firefox and Glove," encouraged by nudges from Pumba, ordered a few more drinks, and blacked out. Now, I've woken up in the hay loft with a missive in my pocket summoning me to the Temple of Dawn at sunset.

Dear SourceRunner in heaven, what have I done?

Excerpt from Angel 20's Diary, as shared by White Mage:  16:20: Met Tarintodont in the shop looking for a purchase. He gave me some tips on how to dress. Apparently I look much better with this new wedding ring!

Vignette 21:

Who took my broom and replaced it with  beehive on a stick?

Not that I'm complaining, really, since it could sort of be a range attack weapon; I could bash something over the head with it, run to a safe distance, and the bees would go after the monster I bashed, because they work on smell, not sight. And it's a ready source of food, unless I have this all wrong and honeybees don't build their hives out of mud.

You'll never believe what happened today. I got jilted at the altar.

The morning started out badly, which should have told me something at the start. You see, instead of going to the pub, I set out to find Angel 20 and put straight the misunderstandings of last night and see if she still wanted me in spite of it. Of course, Iacchus and any of my other friends were on the road, so I had to do it alone, with only My Lady to guide me, which is easily one hundred times harder than facing down the nefarious Multi-Legged Luggage. Well, My Lady, my firefox, and my unlucky number seven sheep, but fat lot of good that doe--ow! 

Well, look at that. The blood drop formed what I actually said. But why did you give me a paper cut, Guardian Spirit?

I trod the byways of Godville, on the trail of pink feathers, and they led me to a dress shop. It had lots of frills, lace, and glitter in the front window, so I couldn't really see if Sarah was in there without going inside. So I did. And she was. Along with five dressmakers marking tucks and seam adjustments to be sewn into the white gown she was wearing.

"Angel?" I said.

She whirled, hair flaring, instant rage in her eyes. "Tarintodont! Get out!"

Smack! Smack! Smack-smack! Smack! SMACK! I reeled, stunned by the rapid slaps of five seamstresses at whom I hadn't even been leering, and was no match for either the hail of pins, scissors, thread spools, needle cushions, measuring tapes, and fabric weights they threw, nor the most solid and matronly of them who picked me up by my ear and dragged me into the street.

Number seven and Pumba looked on from a stoop on the other side of the avenue, long accustomed to the fact that traders did not let them into shops. I swear that number seven shook her head in exasperation as the shopkeeper threw me onto the dusty cobblestones.

"The groom," she said in the booming tones and thick accents of an Undefinedstan ex-patriot, "does not see the bride on wedding day before ceremony." She aimed a kick at me to emphasize her final point, "And not in the dress!"

It's hard to imagine that a thick-waisted woman in ruffled traditional dress with a measuring tape draped over her shoulders like a boa can stalk, but stalk she did-- right back into her shop, where she slammed the door, threw the lock, and flipped her sign to "Closed." For my part, I spat out scraps of thread, pulled a pin from my vest,  brushed the boot-print  from my thigh, and scuttled over to wait with my sheep and my Firefox on the opposite doorstep. I may not have been able to get in to see Angel, but she'd have to come out sometime.

An hour later, a second-storey window opened in the shop. Angel put her boot on the sill, leapt, and in a flutter was gone before I could shout her name. A single pink feather spiraled down and landed on my foot. When I ran out into the street to try to see her in the sky, the shop lock snapped and the sewing matron stepped into the sun, arms folded.

"That one, she is very nice. She waited by window for the half-hour for you to leave. She is not going Bridevilla on you," the woman intoned. "You do good by her, boy."

"Augh! Where's she going, now? I'll never find her!"

In response to my outburst, the dressmaker scrubbed her face and went back inside. "Youth!" she tossed over he shoulder before closing the door.

I paced around the street, then, wracking my brain for anything I knew about weddings to figure out where she might go. Struck upon that rhyme, hmm-hm-hm-hm, something old... the heirloom ring? She already had that, so no luck. Something new... the dress? Again, dead end. Something borrowed... but I don't know any of her friends. Something... something.... something colored? What color? Green? Orange? Pink? There are at least half a dozen color-based stores in Godville, spread all over the place, so I'd never find her in time without remembering the color.

The street was empty, so there wasn't anyone to ask. Well, no-one except for a heroine in pink bicycle shorts, smelling strongly of roses, and carrying a brown-wrapped package under her arm. Having recently been abused by members of the fairer gender, you can understand why I was reluctant to approach the maiden. She passed by, whistling.

Pumba gagged loudly and looked confused. He said, "Follow that heroine."

"What?" I said.

Pumba started drawing in the dust with his tail. Along with several pictures of fox treats, a message emerged. It said, "You heard me. Follow that heroine. And stop making me waste GP."

This sounded like a bad idea. I was already following one heroine around town and getting slapped. Would following a second increase the pain additively or geometrically? But a divine command is a divine command, so I followed. 

The heroine wound her way through the city like a native. Not many heroes or heroines can say that. She almost lost me four times, looping through the alleyways, back and forth over bridges, up and down buildings. I couldn't tell if she was onto me or not. But after a particularly difficult climb down a temple with three (three! I hope you don't plan to be that ostentatious, SourceRunner) ranks of clerestory windows, with city guards shooting arrows at me the whole time, I sat down to rest on a front stoop that I had passed several times. Somehow, number seven and Pumba had followed me through the whole ordeal, and flopped down in th dust beside me. When I finally stopped panting, I looked up to get my bearings. Diagonally across the intersection was a building with one of those motivational billboards on it. The board said, "Don't Give Up" without an exclamation point, so it almost seemed to run into the name of the shop mounted below it. The shop was named, "The Purple and Gold Sparkly Box." It was a women's barber, what's it called? A hairdresser's.

A hairdresser's. 

The realization hit me like a thunderbolt. Might actually have been a thunderbolt. She would want her hair and nails done for her wedding. Women ALWAYS want their hair and nails done, don't they?

The front door slammed back on its hinges as I barreled through, knocking over several display racks of funny-smelling shampoos. There was Angel, feet propped up, reading a .50 calibre magazine, waiting for her toes to dry, while four women worked on winding her hair around pink torture devices that looked like they belonged hooked up to a rack, but that my Mother always told me were called "curlers."

Everyone froze as I fell over the front desk. The four women gawked. I tried to get my feet to a position lower than my head. Angel 20 started to smolder.

In a very bad way.

"Angel--!" was all I managed to spit out.

Splack! Her feet hit the tile floor. Clack! The curlers in her hair struck one another as her hair swung into place. Wham! The .50 calibre magazine found residence in the hairdresser's chair.

A vengeful Angel advanced on me. I crab walked backwards out into the street.

"Tarintodont!" she yelled.

"Yes'm?" I mewled.

"I have been VERY patient. I have taken in stride your unorthodox proposal methods. I have forgiven your drunken carousing last night. I have even overlooked your attempt to see me in my gown before the ceremony."

"Yes'm."

"This is the last straw. You are ruining my wedding day! I have half a mind to skin you alive and feed you to Baby, my dust bunny! Do you have any idea how much wedding preparations cost?! Have you any appreciation for the traditions of matrimony?! I could beat your head in right now--"

She raised her delicate fist to demonstrate its strength, but one of a number of city guards that I hadn't seen gathering around her grabbed her wrist and bent it into a half-Nelson. Another guard grabbed her other wrist and locked her elbow. Another put a sword tip to her back. A fourth said to her, "You'ree coming with us, ma'am."

A fifth picked me up out of the dust. "Honestly, man, do you have a death wish? Harassing a bride on her wedding day? At least bring reinforcements!" And with that terse statement, he propelled me down the street in the direction opposite of the one they were frog-marching a vociferously protesting Angel.

I tried to get back to the guard to ask him where he was taking my fiancée, but was myself accosted by the hairdressers, demanding payment for their aborted services. A contract to bring any locks of hair that I ever won straight to them for wig-making and a fee of 3816 gold coins brought me free of them.

I raced through the streets, asking passers-by if they had seen any barbarians manhandling beautiful women through Godville. Twice I got dragged off course, pursuing the wrong cretins and the wrong cads, manhandling a raven-haired beauty and a red-headed firecracker respectively, but I caught up with Angel and the guards just in time to see them dragging her through a wooden gate in a flint-walled castle. As soon as the gate closed, a portcullis bit into the ground in front of it.

What followed was an ineffective hour of blubbering and beating my hands against gate and portcullis. Then I realized that it was almost sunset, and made my way to the Temple of Dawn to confess and be absolved of the sin of getting my bride-to-be arrested for publicly inciting riot on her wedding day. 

The priest demanded payment for the candles and preparations he had been making for the wedding ceremony, so I reluctantly parted with my last 241 gold coins, and he patted my head while I wept at his knee. The sun went down, Angel did not appear. The stars came out, Angel did not appear. Fireflies danced with owls in the upper reaches of the temple, and Angel did not appear. At dawn, I was all set to leave, but up the aisle processed a number of veiled ladies in embroidered dresses with full trains carried by footmen and ladies-in-waiting galore.

If that was Angel, she'd brought sisters, I thought.

The lady in front silently handed me a letter. The lady behind her handed me a letter opener. The third lady set a waste paper basket at my feet. It was all very solemn and ceremonial.

Since I was obviously meant to open the letter, I did. 

"Dearest Tarintodont,

I hope this finds you well. As you can see, our wedding has been postponed, and I tell you it is for a most worthy cause.

Why didn't you tell me that Empress Deusia Godvillina had sent you to tell me that she needed me to go on a quest to find her long lost prince who went abroad to wage a war and has now seemingly gotten a bump on his head and can't remember who he is? I wouldn't have gotten so mad if you had just said so! The key to a good marriage is communication. We obviously need to work on that before we take this any further.

Empress Godvillina has given me some special questing armor, and by the time you get this I will be long gone to the far reaches to complete my quest. It's so romantic that she has waited for her prince for so long, but her heart shouldn't have to suffer any longer. Perhaps you and I will meet again when I return.

If it's all the same to you, I'll keep the ring, since it was a gift and all.

Your loving angel,

Angel 20"

I put the letter in the waste paper basket, gave back the letter opener, and watched the three ladies process back out of the temple.

I feel kind of confused

Vignette 22:

On the road again. Man, am I glad that business in Godville is all over; heroes shouldn't even be allowed to date, let alone nearly get married!

Right now, I'm on a quest to "take the bait from the Tower of Eee." And this quest is special, because it actually told me about where to look. The tower is somewhere near the 137th milestone, according to the fool who sent me on this errand, and it was definitely a trick to get out here!

The funny thing about the land between milestones 127 and 140 is that it's a gigantic prairie: no trees, no mountains, no towers or buildings taller than three storeys. And those three-storey buildings are clearly taverns in the town whose-name-will-not-be-mentioned-due-to-lack-of-sanitation. No sewers, anywhere. No towers, anywhere, either.

Just to be absolutely certain, I took up my uranium walking stick and left the path. I hate leaving the path. No telling what cruel things that delight in my pain might be out there. But for the sake of my quest, I have been conducting a spiral search pattern. Found nothing but ancient earthworks and the tumbled stele of long-forgotten Godville peoples. All in all, they seem to have been much like us, relishing adventure, fun, and a good drink or two. They couldn't spell too well, but neither can we.

This underground structure I'm using for shelter is a typical example. A priest talked to me about these once, and called them "frat houses." I can't think what sort of beast a "frat" was, but apparently each had a name symbolized by three letters (here, tau rho phi) and had a lot to do with drunken carousing. Since I've set up my campfire in the middle (why do those always take a whole box of matches?), the crude pictures of people drinking that cover the walls seem to dance. More primitive paint covers the walls in between the pictures, sometimes even over the pictures, scrawling the same three characters: tau rho phi. Except halfway through, it changes to tau rho pi. Worse, to tau rho space pi.

Number seven seems reluctant to join me.  She's standing in the door frame at the bottom of the steps we took to get down here. I keep calling her, and Pumba keeps circling between her and the fire, but she won't come in. 

Tau rho space pi. TR_P. Tr_p. Tryp. Trup. Trop. Trip. Trip? Why yes, it was quite a trip. Enough with this travelogue. I believe I'll go grab one of those ancient beers piled up in the corner over there.

Refreshing. Hearty. A little musky, but what can you expect from multiple-century-old beer?

Trip... trep... trap... Trap? Oh, darn. Seven? Seven, don't come i--

Damn.

Vignette 23: 

Animals have souls. I just wanted to get that straight before we go any further, lady.

Yeah, that's right, I called you "lady." No capital letter. What are you going to do, punish me? You'd hit your precious hero, who's sitting right across the campfire from me. He's sharing Ewe Crunchies (r) with that pathetic sheep that follows us everywhere. He's eaten enough of them that he's probably pretty full right now.

Meanwhile, I sit over here, eating nothing. See, I'm in "disgrace." I'm getting sent to bed (read: tied to a tree) with no supper. And I didn't do nuthin'!

Tarintodont thinks he caught me raiding his pack when we stopped so he could wash his clothes. Sure, he set me to guard the bag while his back was turned. Sure, he found me dragging it across the clearing. Sure, it was open. But that bit wasn't me! How was I to know that a Ticket to Paradise and a piece of uncooked toast were missing from it? I'd had to go to the little firefox's bush, and that ewe wasn't around to spell me at guard duty, the useless thing.

It must have been some other firefox who did it, some wild, unscrupulous sort with no concern for his collar-enthralled brethren! Really! Look at me! Is this the face of a firefox who would leave shreds of travel vouchers all over a clearing, lady? And I'm sure that the smell of bread on my breath was left over from breakfast.

Your hero was upset. Of course, that sheep had mysteriously reappeared-- I have my suspicions that she did this and framed me-- and pointed at me while Tarintodont tore at his hair. She's a tattler, not a proper sheep. And now I'm hungry. So hungry. So I have a proposition for you, sky-dame: hit the guy and the sheep with a couple of lightning bolts until they give me something to eat, and I'll acknowledge that maybe you ain't so bad for a nosy spirit.

They don't have to be big bolts. Maybe just little shocks, but--

Yes. Yes, My Lady, I talk for my pets. You'd do it, too, if you had a sad firefox staring at you with a betrayed expression because you're eating the only edible thing left in your knapsack after he got done with it. Seriously, though, what's with giving that little punk such puppy eyes?


Vignette 24:

To borrow a phrase, SourceRunner,"We need to talk."

Call it an intervention, because it's something you need to think about. Seriously, Guardian Spirit: what do you have against traders?

It's like every time I walk into a shop to sell things, you get all up tight. I can feel it: it makes my hair stand on end. Did one steal from your offering plate, or something? You've got to let it go. You can't hold the actions of one against all of them. Was it that trader in Beerburgh? I'm almost afraid to leave his shop every time, because I get the feeling that you'd make the earth swallow him if I wasn't nearby.

Let's look at an example. That shop I just left? When I walked in, it was your typical, dirty, dingy, dark shop manned by your typical, short, smarmy trader. The moment I stepped in the door, you bathed me in a ray of holy light, like I was some sort of celebrity you were spotlighting. Thanks, but that's a little much. As I walked down the aisle toward the sales-and-returns counter, you healed a bunch of the goods on the shelf; that one clawed tentacle grew so fast that it tumbled over and smacked Pumba in the tail. He's still cowering against my legs!

At that point, I thought maybe you were done with the light show. So I put my goods on the counter for evaluation. The trade started out on a good note, with the trader struck speechless by my one-of-a-kind item. I got a good price for that, and the trader was ecstatic to purchase it. Then, as soon as he put it on his shelves, the air took on that soft, sparkly quality that means either you're doing something, My Lady, or that I'm suffering life-threatening blood loss. Instantly, massive tear drops started rolling down his cheeks, he put his head down on the counter, and said, "Forgive me, hero, for I have sinned!" He proceeded to pour out a full accounting of heroes that he had cheated today, even opening the till to illustrate. (I saw my first-ever 623 coin note, as an aside. I took it out of the till just to see what one looked like, and the trader shut the drawer before I could put it back. Though I feel guilty, I'm not sure what to do about it now. It's not like I meant to steal it!) Why did you do that to that poor man?

The only thing I could do at that point was to pat him on the shoulder and ask him why he had cheated those heroes. First step to recovery being admission, second step being analysis, and all. The trader grew very still at that, refusing to meet my eyes, and explained that his daughter had a chronic illness likely to be fatal, and that he needed the money to pay for treatment. You would never know it to look at her, pretty thing that she is, but some people are even braver than heroes, that way. So I told him I'd pray for her, and donated my appeal torte and length of rope to his cause. Then you healed several things on the shelves, put a room-freshening perfume on Pumba, and made me glow enough that the trader could see the next item I had in great detail-- that was all very kind, SourceRunner, and almost makes up for what you did afterward.

The trader and I had our heads bent over the puzzle beer bottle, and I was showing him the little drawer I had found in the base that had originally contained broken hope (2 pcs), when I felt a sudden and characteristic lightening in my wallet. I barely shoved him out of the way before a gold brick fell right where our skulls had been! Guardian Spirit, I don't mind you joking like that with me, but traders don't wear helmets, and what if you had killed him? Unless you had planned to cure his daughter, his entire family would have been left in the lurch! Since this isn't the first time this has happened, I'm starting to question whether it's accidental.

Thankfully, the trader didn't seem to mind. He popped up from behind the counter, winked at me, and shoved a box of burnt matches into my bag as thanks for saving him. He quickly paid me for the puzzle bottle, and when I pulled the matches out to explain that the whole thing was your fault and return them, he beamed in delight and insisted on paying me a high price for them.

It turns out my broken hope (2 pcs) was cursed. Maybe that's why it was hidden in the puzzle bottle in the first place. The trader has a neat little gauge in his counter for telling how cursed something is. He just waves the artifact over the dial, and if it moves, the thing is cursed. Though, honestly, I think he might be able to tell by picking an object up; every time he found an object to test that ended up being cursed, he had a heck of a charley horse to work out in his leg. Anyway, I gave him the broken hope, because he knows where to recycle cursed objects.

Then you shoved a bird of paradise up my nose for no reason I can figure. That, My Lady, was a non ses-- non seqwo-- non sesqui-- It didn't make sense.

By the time I managed to sell off all of my stuff, the trader had presented me with the same box of burnt matches another four times-- twice under the guise of me being an anniversary customer!-- and given me money every time in order to get them back. I'm pretty sure you had something to do with that, Soul Supreme, because the haze of sparkles in there got thick enough in the to cut, and everything got healed to within an inch of its life. Not that that mattered, because I couldn't buy and wear any of the armor, given my current level and lack of dexterity with clasps.

The last thing that happened occurred on my way out: the trader blind-sided me with a bag of coins to the back of the head as I was pushing open the door. It was heavy, and got me right where my helmet meets my neck, so it hurt quite a lot. But it was money! I can't figure out if he was angry or joking, and I don't know if he knew, himself-- did you strike him with lightning when I wasn't looking and addle his brains, SourceRunner? Why would you do that?

Think about it.

Vignette 25:

Dear Diary, today a tablet fell from the sky. For once, it didn't fall on my head.

I was all excited, because I thought that maybe following the SourceCall had finally paid off; that I had finally proven myself worthy of reward with divine knowledge; that maybe, just maybe, my Guardian Spirit had seen fit to provide me with some moral guidance. It was a truly momentous occasion. I couldn't step forward for several minutes.

You must understand, I've thought about this a lot. I came up with five commandments that I would give my followers if I was a god, and I've tried to live by them every day to the glory of the Soul Supreme. I tried for ten, but I just couldn't think of that much that I would want if I were a god. My five commandments are as follows:

1. Love SourceRunner with all your heart, in punishment and encouragement.

2. Rest every second day and celebrate SourceRunner.

3. In resting and in celebration, show full and abiding appreciation for the gifts that SourceRunner has provided, and their derivatives.

4. Love not the monsters that keep loot which should be offered to SourceRunner with thanks.

5. Where it doesn't interfere with the other commandments, buy gold bricks and construct an earthly home worthy of SourceRunner and her disciples.


In accordance, no matter if I'm sick, injured, exhausted, punished, or encouraged, I pretend that I believe and trust that SourceRunner knows what she is doing. In accordance, I make sure to return to town every second day, sell off all my loot, heal up, and devote a full day to my apostolic duties. In accordance, I start at the tavern to fuel my celebratory day of rest and work, and attempt to fully appreciate one of every derivative of SourceRunner's harvest bounty available there, in the certain knowledge that the great Guardian Spirit understands my quest to eventually be able to move beyond the tavern and will one day grant me a high tolerance for food and alcohol. In accordance, I find and slay as many monsters as possible and send them to SourceRunner to sort out, and "lose" as many artifacts as I can without the traders getting suspicious that I might be sacrificing them to my Lady and black-listing me. In accordance, I put all my resources that do not go into appreciating SourceRunner's gifts toward (slowly) building a magnificent golden temple for her and myself.

Since such a great deal of my time goes into performance of these duties I have divined, you can imagine my hopes and delight when a tablet, whole and planed flat, slammed into the grass beside my favorite well, bounced once, and came to a rest, face up. The Soul Supreme had finally seen fit to tell me how close I had gotten to correctly worshipping her! She had decided to fine-tune my liturgy!

I edged forward, eager to read the good word, but afraid of the news that I might have to drink  and eat even more than I could hold, or that perhaps I had to leave all artifacts in the mud puddles, not just the bold and activatable ones. I inched closer, desperate to see what I had been doing right. I crept up to it, certain that I could gain more than my five guidelines.

The tablet contained one line. 

One.

That one line said, "THOU SHALT NOT WISH."

Now, dear diary, you can imagine my disappointment. Instead of giving me a list of things to do right, my Lady of Light chooses to give me a sin. Moreover, she chooses to make my favorite hobby a vice.

She and I are back to being on not-speaking terms.

Well, no, that's not quite true. I do have one thing to say to her.

"Game on, SourceRunner. Game on."

Vignette 26:

Heroes and heroines have obsessive, addiction-prone personalities.

Not me, of course, but as a general rule. 

I have reason to say this. It doesn't come out of the blue. You see, tonight I sat with the winged ones.

It's not like I meant to! The pub was crowded, the air was hot and dry, and I was freshly back from my latest attempt at relearning how to eat only one potato chip. (I swear, Milady, I will stay on my dietary regimen this time. The vile temptation of thin-sliced, salted, fried potatoes will not woo me to more than one chip per day. Definitely no more than one bag per day!) All I wanted was to not. Move. Another. Step. And the only seat open was at a table occupied by heroes wearing awkward wings made of goose feathers, bees' wax, balsa wood, and honey.

Icarus wings.

Personally, I have nothing against the wings. Really. In fact, I'm convinced that Icarus just had the bad luck to be flying the day that Phaeton was driving. Not his fault he flew too near to the sun when it was dodging wildly about. But the creepy thing about the wings is how so many heroes get them and never give them up. Does angel dust create a chemical dependency?

Still, no seat anywhere but with the beatifically smiling, winged, happy-footed cult of the soft-spoken and civilly disobedient (to their deities). I limped over and asked if the chair was taken. I was met with white feathers pulling out the chair and gently drifting me into it. Several wings petted my arms as if in pity, and someone shoved a foamy ale into my hands.

It seemed my arrival had interrupted a conversation, but even after I gulped a mouthful, wiped my face, and voiced my profound thanks, they stared at me with eyes fired from within and waited. What do you say? What do you say to that? Humor is probably wrong, but it's the only thing that came to mind. So I held out my wrists, palms up, glanced at them, and in my most sheepish voice said, "Kind of underdressed here, huh?"

The heroine sitting to my right had a close-cropped crest of red hair and seemed to favor silver clothing. She must have had a lot of patience, or just a bad sense of humor, because she reached a feather to flick a missed fleck of foam from my nose and clapped me on the shoulder (raising a cloud of road dust that drew coughs and scowls from the table of heroes behind us).

"Poor little man, you're not old enough or skilled enough to take feathers," she said. "'Tis a shame to have cold arms and be unready. But, when you are, I tell you that there's nothing better than having an immediate supply of writing utensils, arrow fetching, and Tickle Fu weaponry."

"Hey, now," jumped in a hero with greenish skin and a pair of wings flexing from his shoulders in addition to the ones where his arms should be. "Don't mislead the boy. The best part is the ready pillow. A couple of punches and that balsa wood molds perfectly to your head, cushioned by feathers you don't have to pluck yourself."

"You would say that," said an elphin hero (propped up on a stack of books in his seat across the table) with a grin, "having wings from birth, and all. No. You're both wrong. The weather-proofing and the shear breadth give Icarus wings their most appealing attribute: the ability to shield your pet from the rain. No more stink of wet sun dog!"

"Hear, hear!"

"Sing it!"

"I'll drink to that!"

And they did. And toasted. And harassed the serving wenches for another round. All except for a mousy little heroine who slurped around a pair of small fangs and seemed perpetually in shadow. Her voice was a sibilant melody when she spoke. "I do not agree. You must remember that the wings are a source of candle wax and tinder. One needs both for the geometry of the arcana."

"Mmm." This hero's voice rumbled and cracked like trees caught in an avalanche. He also had a tattoo along one side of his face and his Icarus Wings were stained red-brown along the leading edges. And he licked his lips twice. It was... unsettling. "They are also as quiet as a snowstorm on the sea. Your enemy does not know his death is whispering toward his neck."

"'Death on swift wings'?" scoffed a blonde hero to my left. Waxed mustachios swathed most of his face. "You take yourselves too seriously. My lad, if you must know, the very most laudable use for these wings is polishing your armor." He brandished his shield, a fun house mirror. "You see? Is this not a perfect shine? Why, I must have slain fifty basilisks this month, and all because of the buffing power of my Icarus wings."

Again, the whole table laughed. Someone's whiskey fell over and flooded across the table until several wings slapped into the stream, sopping it up. The owners brought soaked feathers to their lips and happily began sucking on them.

"Three, man," said a heroine with a sour expression who had missed out on the chance of barley-flavored feathers. "You've only killed three this month. Remember, I've been right behind you on the road and come across every one of your grisly victories." She shook her head and flicked one of her long, pointy, furred ears several times. "If you ask me, none of you are using your wings properly. If you warm them a little in the sun, they start smelling strongly of honey, which, as you know, is the most sure-fire lure for monsters of the day. That way, you get more money for retirement, better equipment, and more experience without having to walk as far on your old bones."

Surprisingly, the table degenerated into a round of ersatz hisses and boos at this suggestion. More rounds were called and drunk until all of us were quite loose in the limbs. No further conversation on the subject developed until I stood to leave. I threw 651 gold coins on the table to pay for my tab and a round for everybody, thanked them for their company even if I didn't know their names, and assured them that I had learned a lot. 

"As soon as I don feathers," I said, even though I never plan to buy Icarus Wings, "I will try flying and then every one of your best ideas."

Silence fell on the table as heavily as my forehead when the crimson-and-argent heroine pulled me down. The blonde hero yanked my head to one side by my hair and stared at me, his formerly glowing eyes blazing with Icarus' sunbeams.

"Are you crazy? Don't you know what happened to the first pair? When you take wing, you must not fly!" He yanked me back up by my shoulders and propelled me toward the door of the tavern. "Off with you, you young fool!"

So here I sit on the darkened stoop of a cobbler's shop, writing by the light  of a full moon. My head aches. Still, I wanted to record the whole incident as a warning to myself before I forgot it.

Now, I plan to pay a visit to the artillerer's battery. My Phlegm Thrower is getting a bit beaten up, and the sight has broken off entirely. It's served me well, just like its two predecessors, so I think I'll just get another one.

Vignette 27:

I think I've disappointed my guardian spirit.

It's been raining. Hard. For a week. It used to be all sunshine and rainbows, especially after I finished quests that earned me bricks or equipment, but now I'm starting to watch the skies for thunderheads. Apparently she's going through a grieving process, and I really don't want to be the target of the anger stage.

And let me just say, you haven't heard weird until you've heard the Soul Supreme yell a bracket at you. "[Unprintable], [Expletive] it!" was the last thing she said to me before this monsoon.

Oh well. I have joined the Air Corps. I earned my wings, and wear them proudly. Icarus wings, that is.

It was a difficult choice, especially after I managed to offend the rest of the winged heroes. First, I tried the gloves of stranglehold for my next equipment choice. They were quite good. When I got tired of bashing monsters with my osmium hammer, I could just sling it over my shoulder and leap for the menace's throat. The magic of the gloves of stranglehold rests in their automatic reaction to grab and dig into whatever throat they encounter. What a rodeo when I caught that Hall Minotaur around the neck! It thrashed, it bucked, it spun, and I just hung on for (having the time of) my life. Ultimately, it collapsed of exhaustion and hypoxia. It was a little difficult to release the gloves at that point, but that was because they had made my hands cramp.

That was what ultimately led me to reject them. Cramped hands are dangerous if you have to meet a new monster a minute later.

Next, I tried dimensionless gloves. There's nothing better if you need to retrieve an object your Firefox is chewing inappropriately. After all, if there's no dimension, there's nothing to bite. But there's a corollary problem, and that's the inability to undo snarls in sheep wool. If you want to grab something large, like a bowl of petunias, somehow that works. But if you want to thread your fingers into wool and work a tangle free, your hands just slip through without any impact on the knot.

Obviously, not a feasible choice for next level of equipment.

So I spent a long time wearing my finger trap. That didn't interfere with using a two-handed hammer, in a pinch could act as a monster garrote, and let me grab double handfuls of gold coins so I could make wishes in wells. It was a foregone conclusion that I would have to choose some new equipment at some point, but the finger trap went to about +42, so I could use it comfortably for a while. 

Then came the glorious day. The day I killed a wanted Heffalump, it was worth a new piece of equipment from a trader in Tradeburg. Well, sort of. I had to give the monster's head to the sheriff; he sent me to the disbursement clerk; the clerk took me to see the notary (snobbish man-- had a stack of death certificates in front of him and automatically started filling one out when he saw me, before the clerk explained); the notary sent me to the records office to get proof of my birth; the records office sent me back to the notary with a copy of my creation certificate; the notary drafted and had me sign a certificate of compensation, then sent me back to the disbursement clerk who also signed the certificate and escorted me back to the sheriff, who presented me with the certificate. All told, I spent four hours in the courts and administration building. Pumba and Number 7 were laughing, bored, and then sleeping through the entire thing.

Once I had the certificate, I reported to the armory. You'd think that they would have armor there, but apparently they'd had a rush of heroes about my level, and their store rooms were empty. They sent me to a state-sponsored merchant (what does that even mean?) instead. He was a long way out on the seedy edge of Godville. Pumba enjoyed the walk, but Number 7 insisted on being carried for the last five streets. For a ewe that rolls in mud, she is rather finicky about what she walks in.

The merchant had a son. I'd never seen one before. Didn't even know it was possible.

One of the unspoken rules for selling to merchants in Godville is to always keep your hand on your coin purse if it's not on your belt, or else the merchant thinks you're paying him for something. Paying him all your gold for something. Very dangerous. Now, most heroes will never remove their belt purses, but it's the one unfortunate side-effect of wearing finger traps that maneuvering to get items out of and coins into a belt purse is awkward, especially repeatedly when the purse is on one hip. So I got into the habit of setting my belt purse on the counter and keeping a hand on it

That went perfectly during the whole time that I was selling my inventory (which included an alchemical transmuter and a philosopher's stone-- the merchant said that someone having and selling both was remarkably rare, and asked if I was an abandoned hero), right up until I tried to redeem my certificate proving wanted monster death.

"Ah! Well done," said the merchant when I handed it to him. "It was an-- mmhmm, and your level-- there it is... No stock at the armory. What a shame. Well, sir, you are in luck: though I am out of just about everything, too, I have a splendiferous pair of Icarus wings that would suit you just perfectly."

Something must have shown on my face, because he backpedaled quickly.

"Now, now," he soothed, "Icarus wings have gotten an undeservedly bad rap. I assure you, I would never sell something sub-standard. At least do me the courtesy of looking at my wares before you reject them-- you are of good alignment (it says so on your certificate), so please don't wreck my shop like the last hero who stopped in."

And he had me there. My favorite thing to do in the arena is be so polite that my opponent punches himself or herself in the face, so I AM pretty obligated to be courteous off the battlefield. I agreed to look at the wings.

They came in one of those boxes that usually houses something formal, like a tuxedo shirt, or something. The merchant folded back the tissue paper with reverence and stroked a feather into place before he presented the box to me.

They were stunning. Like a merchant's son, I had never seen a new pair of Icarus wings before. They glimmered. They looked soft. They felt warm to the touch. And I was tempted. Sorely was I tempted. But I remembered the glowing eyes of the wing-wearers, the feel of the tavern table grinding into my face, and my oath to my Lady that I would never take wings, and because of it all I said "no." 

"No," I said, "thank you. Please adjust my certificate for later use, when you have something else in inventory."

The merchant sighed, nodded, and folded the wrappings back into the box. He solemnly got out a quill feather, sand, and a bottle of ink. He sharpened the feather, uncorked the bottle, and dipped. But, just as he lifted the pen out to write, it caught the lip of the bottle, which tipped. Ink flooded everywhere. The merchant managed to swipe the box of Icarus wings out of the path of the India black unscathed. I was not so fortunate: both my purse and my finger trap got drenched.

The trader was most embarrassed. 

"Oh! Oh, sir, I apologize! Oh, in the name of Grow's Prophet" --the name of the high priest of his god, if I had to guess-- "what a mess! Here! Take off that finger trap and let me clean it for you."

I balked.

Hard.

The mark of an experienced merchant is the ability to read his customer. This one must have mainly served heroes, because he instantly intuited the problem. "And of course you will wear these wings for the time being so that your arms aren't vulnerable."

"But--"

"Nonsense! Bertrand!"

And, like that, the trader whipped off my finger trap and his son slipped the Icarus wings on my arms. It was a practiced maneuver, so Bertrand must have been helping his father round the shop for a long time. I barely managed to keep one hand on my coin purse through the whole thing. The wings slid up my arms and over my back like warm peanutbutter. They buckled securely across my shoulders as if they had been made for me. They wafted the aroma of honey and violets. They were warm.

There was only one problem, and that was the way the arm hole of my full metal jacket bunched under one strap. But I could cope with that until I got my finger trap back.

The merchant returned from the back of his shop, redolent of laundry soap, and sadly picked up my certificate (now half-obliterated by ink). He said, "You might as well take this. I won't forget it, and swear on my Grow's Prophet that I will honor it."

I reached for the paper, mindful of not getting ink on the leading feathers of the wings, and placed it on the counter next to my coin purse so I could pin it with one finger of the same hand and leave the other free for use. The movement pinched my armpit where my jacket bunched. I bit back a yelp of pain, and the loss of health points reminded me to ask about healing items. Instantly, the trader was happier and back in his element. He began showing me a wide variety of wares.

Long experience has taught me to be cautious with bought healing items. A percentage of them are fake. Once, I bought a can that looked like it should contain living soda, but when I opened it to use in the field, a bunch of spring-loaded snakes jumped out at me. That was death #5. And, anyway, some of those potions are loaded with preservatives-- doesn't make for the pretty corpse you might think. So every item the trader showed me I shook, spun around, turned over, and examined for ingredients. Each little movement tightened the binding round my shoulder, rubbing the skin raw. When I selected a potion of antique restoration and an extra life, I haggled. I gestured with my free arm, making cutting motions, waving offers off, punctuating my final offer with a fist to the counter. I began feeling something disturbingly warm and slick seeping down my ribs inside my jacket.

When I counted out the gold coins and pushed them over the counter, all feeling in my arm vanished. I gritted my teeth.

I forced my numb fingers to tug down the hem of my jacket. No effect.

I bent my elbow double. Couldn't reach the sleeve hole.

I studied the trader. He was busy sorting different coin denominations into differs slots in his cash drawer. I'd given him quite a few, and from different cities in Godville, so he'd be at it for quite some time. He wouldn't turn away from his task until he finished it, and then he had to wrap my purchases in paper for me, so it had to be safe. Right?

I picked my hand up from my purse. I tugged my jacket straight. Oh! Blessed relief!

"You won't regret your decision, sir!" My blood ran cold. Bertrand! The trader's son! He had seen, swooped in, and even then was extracting my hard-won certificate with as much smug self-congratulation as assurance to me that I was now the owner of a high-quality product. The merchant himself finished wrapping my healing items and nonchalantly turned back to me, not quite timing his smile of joy and surprise so that even a naive idiot would believe it genuine.

"Oh! Oh, good sir! What a splendid thing, and they suit you so well!" he exclaimed. In fact, exclamation points burdened the caboose of his every sentence, dripping unwelcome from the stalactites in the cave of his mind (may her Ladyship blight it with eternal darkness to never hear the SourceCall, fiend that he is). "In honor of your purchase, I will dispose of your ruined finger trap free of charge!"

And I am very sure he did. At no charge to me, that is, but substantial charge to some other poor soul. You see, the ink staining my hand and purse disappeared an hour later.

So I came to own Icarus wings and all the attributes that go with them. But it isn't all bad. In fact, I have found one very grand quality to the wings:

I like flying by night.

Vignette 28: 

The eyes have it.

The solar glow. My eyes have that solar glow that all the Icarus winged have, that makes looking into a mirror like staring into the heart of an enraged sun. I don't understand it... I'm on my second set of dramatic paws.

It was difficult to get rid of my first pair of wings; traders only let you trade up, and there is nothing higher than a set of Icarus wings. But after a miserable month of rain and fighting the mouldering undead, the feathers began to stain and break and fall out.

That's something no-one ever worried about. Every person I know considers the problems of wax construction in the face of heat, but nobody considers the other components and rain. For posterity, the dissolution of Icarus wings in rain:

1. Honey was the first thing to go. It dissolves in water. My arms were sticky for several days, and mottled with the smaller, more delicate feathers that the honey fixed to the balsa wood.

2. Wax sheds water, but gets brittle under the onslaught of cold baths. Chips and chunks started dropping from my wings after three weeks of rain.

3. Balsa wood is not as waterproof as everyone seems to believe. It is pine or fir that has had most of its pitch removed. After its sealing coats of wax and honey were stripped away, after repeated exposure to the destructive forces of combat, after constant running rain the whole day while I quested, it began to take on water. It swelled, it warped, it twisted, it broke. 

4. Goose pin-feathers were the last to go. The well-groomed goose will make his feathers naturally weatherproof. This proofing will last for several weeks without noticeably deteriorating under normal circumstances, and will last indefinitely with daily maintenance. Unfortunately, the goose has to be reasonably dry to preen his feathers, and anyway, I am  not a goose. Under the unnatural circumstances of a Guardian Spirit's sadness and ownership by a non-goose, feathers will get washed of their proofing in a week and become waterlogged, separating and running to points like hair and wet leaves do, but they will not rot. They will mold. Black mold, if you deal with the undead. It's disgusting. Then impact such as you expect armor to take will splinter them straight down the vanes, and swelling wood will eventually push them from their drilled holes and wax-fixed recesses.

By the time the wings became ineffective enough to warrant being traded in for something better, the trader who saw me hurried me into a private fitting room so I would not put his other customers off. And he took pity on me, giving me 50% off of his usually doubled price on a pair of scorpion pincers.

I stepped outside to a beautiful triple rainbow swathing the sky.

Then I met up with a Duct Tape Golem with a special love of crab claws. Needless to say, that quickly wrecked my armor and I had to go to a new trader, who slapped me with a pair of Icarus wings. Bertrand, if you must know. (Curse him thrice! Once for the first trick, twice for marrying the trader's pretty daughter from Last Resort, and thrice for ensuring that +his+ new shop is the one that always rises from the abyss when my inventory gets full!)

It started raining again. With some sleet mixed in this time.

Knowing what I was in for, I actively worked to destroy this second pair of Icarus wings. Shredding with the claws of a Syntax Terror? Check. Gnawing by a Little Green Man? Pass the barbecue sauce. Splintering against the armored side of a Fifth Elephant? Thank you, sir! More please!

Besides, flying by night isn't so much fun when blazing eyes give you away before you can sneak up on anyone. 

A week later, I had clear skies and my dramatic paws. They are lined, so they're warm and soft on the inside. The thick pelt sheds blades and teeth almost without me feeling anything. And, surprisingly, they are no problem to use with my blade-encrusted folding chair! I liked them so much that I chose a second pair as a quest reward.

The only thing is, my glowing Icarus eyes are not fading. They should go away now that I'm not wearing wings, right?

Unless these dramatic paws once belonged to a Solar Bear.

Dang.

Vignette 29:

What kind of a name is "The Rocketeers"?

Three weeks ago, I again found myself in great need of new arm equipment. Three weeks ago, the selection was still the same. Three weeks ago, I snapped, threatened the merchant, his wife, and his daughter, and began destroying the shop.

You don't know how good that feels until you've been Pure Good! so long that the smile on your face has stopped hurting and turned numb, and you'll never need to spend another hour in the sun because of the permanent tan you have from your own halo. I loved every minute of it. Every. Single. Minute.

Except I'm glad SourceRunner was off plaguing a distant land at the time, because I don't think she'd have approved. And I feel a little guilty, now. Just a touch.

After you've figured out that your long sojourn (in the worst of weather because of the equipment you're wearing) has no end in sight (because the shop only has more of that same equipment), after you've rattled your mace of amnesia in the trader's face, threatening to figure out how to gut him, remove his wife's still-beating heart, and lodge it somewhere in her daughter's small intestine using nothing but such a blunt weapon, after you've ransacked the shelves of every piece of equipment from -14 to +99 and screeched your mad dissatisfaction to the world, there's still a sane part of your mind, looking out of your eyes, hearing with your ears. That's how I know what happened next.

Pumba, my poor retiree Firefox, who had reached his dotage twenty bricks and a day before I finished building my Lady's temple, was cowering under a broken chair in one corner, tail bushed, eyes looking as though they stared at an army composed entirely of rabid and undead Godville Administrators and Double Dragons. Across the room, the three faces of the merchant family, just visible over the sales counter, mirrored his expression short of whiskers. The trader himself clung to a dried ham more like it was a drowning man's board than a weapon he wanted to brandish. Number Seven, gloriously stupid sheep that she is, displayed astoundingly good sense in being completely invisible, for once in her astonishingly long and prosperous life.

The merchant family was talking- more like wailing to each other- at any rate, not bothering to whisper, so I heard this entire exchange rebounding off the wreckage strewn in my wake. Every few seconds, catching a glimpse of a caved-in beehive on a stick sticking out of a pile, or seeing the shredded pieces of a golden brick, or hearing the grind of a severely damages clockwork orange finally giving out would cause one of them o gasp and shudder.

"Pyotor! He's tearing off the wainscoting! He must be a very demon sent from the depths of hell to collect on that bargain you made all those years ago!" shrieked the wife.

"My love, he can't be! He has a natural halo," the trader shouted back. "And besides, he hasn't shown any interest in our daughter's soul. Her body, maybe, but not her soul!"

The daughter, who was just as pretty as any other trader's daughter, if a little young, had been screaming a steady chant of "Daddy! Daddy! Make him stop! Get it away! Get it away!" but heard her father's pronouncement and redoubled her efforts.

"Well, what does he want, then? Now he's chewing the plaster!"

"I don't know! All I know is what he doesn't want: Icarus wings. He doesn't want Icarus wings." The merchant rubbed his blanched face. "That's all he said. Not Icarus wings!"

"But that's all we have! We don't stock- Nadiya! Shut up, girl, I can't think with that racket- we don't stock anything other than Icarus wings. Oh, and now he's tearing out all those thousand bricks you collected to build this place!"

Nadiya the Trader's Daughter subsided, or maybe ramped up, into blubbering hysterics.

"That's not strictly true, dear," said the trader. "There's that box in the back..."

Silence fell, but for the sound of me crushing pathetic clay bricks in my bare hands as I tore the shop a new doorway.

"You can't mean--!"

"Yes, darling, I DO mean."

"Pyotor, I forbid you to place such power and means of destruction in the hands of a madman. I refuse!"

"My dear, it's the only way. They're not Icarus wings, after all."

The trader's wife grabbed him by the collar, pulling him nose-to-nose with her. "You have read the box: they are the 'Armor of an Epoch.' Have mercy upon me and your child. Let it not be our 'epoch,' I beg you."

"Yeah," said Nadiya in a small voice. "They haven't even been beta tested, yet."

"Yes. Yes! See?" announced the merchant. "That's the beauty of it: let him take them and go blow himself up. He will be far from us, and the suppliers will get their beta test. We will still have our livelihood! Let someone else clean up the mess."

The trader's wife, whose name I never actually did catch in the end, wavered, unkinking her fingers from her husband's neck band and turning back to me, her cheeks gone sallow and her eyes dark. A fragment of an alchemical transmuter wobbled in her hair. "By Grow's Prophet! My rafters! He's starting on my beautiful rafters!

Pumba set up a keening whine.

Pyotor the Trader prodded Nadiya without looking at her. "Go, girl. Get the box from the back room. Run!"

A skill in flying bird couldn't have made that child run any faster. The box slammed onto the counter, glowing white under a thick layer of dust, a familiar candle-in-splendor logo adorning each side. Not that I cared, until the trader called me over and rattled a lollipop jar. He probably wished he hadn't when I faced him at two feet away, since I was foaming at the mouth with lime and brick dust and was using my Cheshire smile for entirely the wrong reasons.

"S-s-sir," he stuttered, "per-perhaps these might meet your discerning specifications...?"

The box was Icarus brand, identical in every way to a wing box except for possibly being made of stiffer cardboard. I glared at the trader and growled a low, guttural growl. He gulped and fumbled to remove the lid. The tissue paper wrapping the contents crackled and tore when he peeled it away. The mother and daughter pressed together against a wall, watching my face for signs.

The box held a pair of brushed steel, tapered, solid-core booster rockets. Icarus Rockets. And they were beautiful.

"Price?" I rasped.

"P-pr-pri--? On the house! I'm sure you've killed two-- no, three! Three wanted monsters today! Take these as a sign of our humble gratitude." With that, the trader clamped the rockets to my shoulders and stood back, wringing his hands.

I left the shop. And blacked out.

That was three weeks ago. Two weeks ago, I came back to myself, sitting stupefied in a grove with several days of beard growth on my face. A wood nymph was tying daisies in my hair. Every few minutes, she'd lean to my ear and whisper some soothing words from my Lady. Before I stirred, Pumba and Number Seven each came and laid a morsel of food in my lap, which I ate automatically.

It felt like my nose had been reamed out by a feather duster.

When I moved to stand, the wood nymph responded by looking to the sky and saying, "Finally. He's awake! May I go, now?"

Wood nymphs must be much more open to the SourceCall than men, even of my calibre, because she waited a moment, nodded in reply to something I did not hear or see, and rose to her feet in the swishing of the wind through a briar patch. She offered my her twiggy hand, which turned out to be as solid as a hickory tree, pulled me to my feet, spun me around, and shoved me forward. "The right path is that-a-way. Get."

I got-- hard not to, when all the trees seem to be scowling at you-- but I didn't get all the way to the path. No. It occurred to me that my wings weren't dragging in the brush like usual. Then I realized that the sun was actually shining and there was no autumnal chill to the dappled shade in the woods. And then I remembered what I had done and the results of it. But I had no clue how to use the Icarus Rockets. Had I used them to destroy a town? Had I blown myself up, as the shopkeeper implied, and that's how I ended up senseless in the lap of the nymph?

So I stopped. Better to figure out the secrets of the Rockets when no-one but me was around to get hurt.

Now, Icarus Rockets function independently, strapped to a person's triceps with a cord running down the inner arm to terminate in a dial-and-button control in each palm, making them easy to trigger even with a sword and shield in hand. I have since found out that the same feature makes it incredibly easy to shatter the controls in doing a lot of blocking, but that's not germain to this story. Each of the dials goes from 1 to 12; strength, heat, or duration, at the time I didn't know. I set the left dial to 6, checked to make sure nothing was around, and pressed the button.

Came to laying on my right side, head aching in a way that I couldn't blame on just its root pillow, with the denizens of the forest dancing around me. To include the wood nymph, who broke away from the circle of squirrels and bluebirds with a look of long suffering, and hauled me to my feet by my collar.

"In the name of the greater power that governs all the deities and spirits," she muttered, brushing pieces of bark from my hair. "Why do they always choose idiots for emissaries?"

The impromptu country dance broke apart as I was again propelled in the direction of the road. Still dazed and confused, I went that time. 

Though my first cognizant experiment with the Icarus Rockets was a disaster, I grew increasingly adept with them over the next two weeks. They're amazingly versatile. Need extra torque on your sword stroke? Fire one in the opposite direction of swing. Fleeing? Light off both and leave your opponent in the afterburn. Campfire? There's no problem with matches or damp tinder anymore.

Life on the road isn't so bad with a pair of rockets.

I walked for a week, Pumba and Number Seven trailing behind be with a loyalty I don't deserve. Though I could say I was on walkabout, on a journey of self-discovery and futile redemption after what I did to that poor trader and his family, in truth I was merely lost. I was seeking the correct path by any means I could think of, even resorting to a fridge magnet on a string at one point. And it doesn't help when your guardian spirit keeps making miracles involving hands reaching out of the clouds and pointing in random directions! She thinks that's funny!

After a week of wandering and practice with the rockets until I was soaring through the air in the darkest night, annoying the owls, after a week of losing artifacts and gaining more, with a full pack, I finally found a town. A small one, to be sure, but with a merchant's shop, a bank, and a tavern. What else is needed for civilization? 

The first stop was, of course, the shop, where it turned out that the bearish look of a citizen of the wilderness acts as a natural aura of huckstering. Then it was a stop at the public outhouse, a duck into the horse trough (much to the disgust of the Prancing Ponies and Trojan Horses in attendance, but I don't care), and I was ready for a night on the town. With the gold heavy in my pockets, I looked longingly at the bank, spat, and marched off to the tavern. A beautiful little tavern it was, called the Sign of the Hunting Heffalump, and I brushed through the open door to the warm lights of a thousand candles and fruity smells of a thousand types of beer. The bar called to me. I obliged it. And then a band of thuggish oafs in ridiculous armor stood to block my progress, knocking over their chairs and stools in the violence of their rising. To a man, they wore Icarus Wings.

Abruptly I couldn't breathe. Not because I was scared of the heroes that would step between me and my evening object, but because persons unknown had seized me by the back of the collar and were dragging me in directions unseen. Persons unknown were also berating me loudly.

"Rocketeer, are you nuts?! Don't you know that there's a war on?! And with the tavern the only neutral ground, you would provoke the Wingmen!"

I knew the voice.

"I've seen some pretty stupid stunts in my lifetime. Even committed some of them myself. But that idea just about takes the cake! What were you going to do, take them on alone? Not that one of us isn't worth ten of them, but you ought to have another think about a head-on approach, man!"

My head slammed face-down on a rough wooden table. Yes, I knew that voice. I also knew those hands, and that throw. As I coughed breath back into my lungs, I moaned. Of all the taverns, in all of Godville, I had to come into this one. I started turning my face up. There was an elphin hero, sitting on a stack of books. There was a red-haired heroine in silver clothing. There was another heroine with small fangs, who seemed perpetually in shadow. All of them wore Icarus Rockets. I picked up my head a little farther and turned toward the speaker.

"You!" I said. It was Mr. Blonde Mustache, and he had Icarus Rockets, too.

"Oh, my goddess," he said, in that tone I remember all too well from being chosen last for all the team sports in grade school. "We have the idiot."

Vignette 30:

FRUNCH!

That's the noise your nose makes when it breaks under the assault of what amounts to the butt-end of a feather-padded two-by-four. Not even the dignified cascade of cracks that breaking ribs make, just frunch! and you have blinding pain, two black eyes, and a terrible nose bleed.

I think that sound is actually the Wingmen's greatest weapon. Not the shear force resistance of balsa wood, not the amazing tensile strength for the lightness of the wings, not the lengthy years of experience the Wingmen have in using Icarus Wing armor, but "FRUNCH!" How do you argue with it? It's soft and destructive, like a kitten in a pile of gnawed bones. And you can't discuss it with friends over a beer in the context of battle. How would that sound?

"So I swung, but he managed to duck inside my guard, and FRUNCH! there were fireworks going off behind my eyelids."

"Hang on. 'Frunch'? He hit you and you went 'frunch'?"

"...yeah."

It's demoralizing. And it has ramifications beyond just the injury sustained in battle. A Rocketeer can invite a Wingman to fly too close to the sun of his twin solid-fuel boosters. May even have a good likelihood of winning. But, victor or loser, nothing can save a Rocketeer from the horrors of recovery.

No man, woman, or child knows true pain until he or she experiences a guardian spirit trying to cram a bird of paradise up his or her broken nose.

Vignette 31:

Winter armor must be warm, but not too warm.

And on that knowledge, perhaps I should not have chosen a beach towel of doom as reward for that last wanted monster. It can't meet my needs. After all, it'll wrap my shoulders, or my hips, but both options leave my midriff bare to the flying snow. If I want to clamp my arms to my sides, sure, I can wrap the thing around my chest, but I'm sunk if a monster shows up then, because I can't keep it up by myself. I just have not drunk enough beer to develop those features.

So my beach towel of doom leaves me cold.

Well, except for the time it caught fire in a tragic accident with my Icarus Rockets. Then it wound up being way too warm. But that awkward scar is healing nicely, so I won't dwell on it. 

Vignette 32:

Thing I Don't Understand #471: The Monster siege of Godville.

So far, SourceRunner hasn't explained this one to me.

OK, so she doesn't explain much to me, except how I shouldn't throw gold in wishing wells, the importance of saving for retirement, the amount of care Pumba needs, and other things that I STILL don't understand after she stops lecturing.

But back to the siege. Your typical siege is carried out by a standing army. Organized-like. Together. And it focuses around a fortified structure with the intent of cutting off all outside input and eradicating anything emerging.

It also usually involves heroes against other heroes, but maybe that's a racist assumption on my part. Specious? Speciesist?

Monsters aside, this picture has a lot wrong with it.

1. Godville City is not fortified. It's not even a single structure. There is no wall, there are no guard towers, there's barely even a gate. Well, that's a lie. There is a wall. It's about six miles inside of city limits, wrapped around the first two temples ever built. By then, Godville was growing too fast to build an effective wall around. This is great! Sort of. It means massive growth, metropolitan prosperity, yadda-yadda-yadda, etc., traders are happy, and the priesthood is gainfully employed. But it also means that the guard on perimeter duty has an average daily commute of fifty minutes each way from the central station inside the old wall-- explaining their propensity for anger and extracting bribes-- and is faced with the knowledge that his job is the most useless in the whole city. A pack of marauders invade at any time and avoid all guards. Smugglers frequently do. Only heroes and brick caravans enter the city through the main gates. And we heroes only do it for the customs stamp.

2. The monsters aren't a standing army. They aren't even organized. It's like they each have a homing instinct set for Godville City, or a quest to show up there, but not the means to make a concerted effort to overrun the place. A few have gotten inside; they mostly stick to the sewers or take up residence in a temple as that guardian spirit's holy animal, and none of them do much more than a pet does. Most of them just sit outside the city, fighting with outward-bound heroes, and those only if they can't show a customs stamp on their weapons from the same day.

3. The monsters aren't interested in cutting off supplies going in. They don't bother anyone going toward Godville City. I heard a wild theory that the monsters think anyone going that direction must be one of their own, but that can't be right. It would explain why, when I'm going back to town and I wave at a friend, the monster always waves back, but it really can't be right. And wouldn't it be more lucrative to attack heroes on their way in? We carry more stuff then. But the monsters just let us carry it right on in, supplying the city to withstand another month of weird siegeyness undisturbed. If challenged on the way back out, all I have to do is present my sheathed weapon so that the monsters can see the neon customs stamp of the day, and they wave me on. All of them. I can dance a little jig around a 502 Bad Gateway-- one of those things that even scare the Godville Administrators-- and it'll just smile indulgently and make shooing motions, as long as I have a stamp from today from a town further back.

4. The only thing they get sort of right is trying to eradicate anything emerging from Godville City, and that they only get halfway because of the whole stamp thing. But the first time I leave the city on a quest, I have the worst fights on my hands! You'd think a bloody halo that's hung around so long that I've gotten a hero's tan from the stupid thing would afford me some sort of protection or respect. You'd think that the fact that I have a Firefox and a black sheep living together would serve as a bit of a warning. You'd think that this humongous, shiny, metal, X-shaped squeezing contraption I carry around  that the merchants call a tropical punch but that I call "Shirley" would clue things in not to mess with me. No, no, and no. It's ridiculous, to the point where I set a single toe past the guard shack, see a charging Deformed Rabbit, and have to turn to Pumba and Number 7 to ask, "Really? This again?" For the record, Pumba responded with one of his whining yawns, and Number 7 sat down in a convenient mud puddle that I'm really hoping was not made with what I think it was made with. 

Oh, Deformed Rabbits. The Lady must really hate these things, because one of these was the first thing she sent me up against, and they haven't stopped coming. I know other heroes who had more illustrious first opponents, like Dreaded Gazeboes and Hellephants, but not me. No. I get Deformed Rabbits who have the nerve to die laughing if I should strike a heroic pose.

If you were wondering why I almost never talk about fighting in my chronicles, this is your answer.

But where was I? Oh, yes. Sieges. Usually, when a member of the besieged escapes the fortified city, he would expect to be killed if he ever showed up in the besieger's stronghold. Not so with the siege of Godville City. No, the monsters in Monsterdam and Los Demonos welcome us with open arms, and only slightly open jaws. "Hello, I'm Tarintodont, and I just killed your cousin about eight miles back. Would you care to buy his old continental shelf? I've cleaned it of all traces of his innards." "Why, yes, sir! I would. I always hated Cousin Markus' guts, anyway." "In my defense, it was in self-defense, Mr. Tradesmonster." "I'd expect so. Always a bit of a wild one, was Markus. Always going on about his destiny being in Godville. Really, what self-respecting monster would want to go there? But don't worry-- or perhaps do worry, if you're so inclined-- Markus' god will probably resurrect him soon, and he'll be back all furry and swearing and crazy as he ever was. Now, what's in that loot bag of yours?"

Thank goodness not all monsters talk. Pumba would confound me if he said anything more than what the Lady puts in his mouth. Not that he doesn't already. Confuse me, that is.

Vignette 33: 

I think my Guardian Spirit has lost her marbles.

Either that or I have. I'm having waking nightmares about fighting people I tend to avoid in the arena. And far from helping with her regular healing beams and occasional lightning bolts, all SourceRunner's doing in my dreams is yelling at me!

I'm terrified. I think I need to go talk to the psychiatrist about my obsessive need to kill monsters. Or something.

Eep!

Dedicated to my new guildmates, with luv, apprehension, and no small measure of utter gratitude.

Vignette 34: I'm not sure how to tell this one, except straight out: I always thought I had guildmates.

Now I know I do. But before...

When I first started E.I.S. Eternal, it was just me. I had only just started building a temple for my Lady, and we hadn't had our falling out, yet. I was full of wide-eyed innocence and beer and knew, just knew, that a proper guild needed a guild hall so that members had a place to stay. So, between quests, I visited the Association of Godvealtors and scoured their listings for suitable places. 

There were grand mansions overlooking the temple district.  There were whole floors of shiny skyscrapers in the business district. There were cottages surrounded by humongous parks on the outskirts of Godville. But none of these were suitable. Oh, grand, splendid, and a credit to whomever was to eventually occupy them, I'll grant you, but completely out of my price range. You know how it goes, fighting for every gold coin, sometimes only to have them turn into bricks at random, never sure if you'll have enough to cover your tab at the end of the night. So I kept leaving the office, night after night, disappointed.

Around my thirty-sixth visit, one of the Godvealtors took pity on me and asked about what I was looking for. I explained and he nodded. He questioned and I explained. He nodded. Then he showed me something perfect: a bank foreclosure on an old hotel. A definite fixer-upper, just this side of condemned, but fully furnished and the Association was willing to part with it for just over the price of a golden brick.

After that, it was a matter of timing. I had to scrimp and save, to often forego that fourth ale, and most importantly to listen for the SourceCall very carefully. The times when I hear it least are the times when my Guardian Spirit isn't watching, and so couldn't at that time be expected to encourage a brick out of my coin bag.

She's a very nosy spirit, too. Can't expect more than a few hours to go by before she's staring at me again. Makes things darned difficult.

But then came the day when I had enough, and timed it so I was in town, and she wasn't round. I laid my money down, walked away with the deed, and recorded the whole transaction as a night of buying things from the shopping network, just in case the Divine Minder was going to check. I have never felt better! The temple was for my Lady, all of my clothing, my equipment, and my time were in her service, but the guild hall? That was mine. All mine

It wasn't all roses and birds of paradise from there. That first night away from my usual hay pile in the loft of the Boatmurdered stable was as close to hell as I've ever been. The old hotel creaked, clattered, settled, and moaned. Rain dripped into the big, open foyer, running down the fake brass chandeliers. Every flue was blocked, so I couldn't build a fire to keep warm without filling whatever room with soot and smoke. Pumba gave me dirty looks from where he sheltered under the main staircase.

Just about the only happy person that night was Number Seven, and that's because she was stabled on the outskirts of Godville.

But the next morning... glory. I woke to sunlight streaming through the narrow windows to either side of the front door, gleaming off the shards of oil lamp chimneys, scattering across a carpet that used to be a sumptuous scarlet in its heyday. I found bannisters of scratched oak and a check-in desk so heavy that even the worst barroom brawl couldn't pull a splinter from its edge. There were eight rooms on the first floor, twenty-two rooms on the upper gallery. There was a kitchen with two massive, brick, wood-fired ovens and a butcher block preparation table that I could lay in the center of and spread eagle without a hope of touching the edge. Each of the rooms had a bed... most in desperate need of re-roping and replacement mattresses, but the bones were good. And then there was a small library lounge with free-standing shelves. The books were all gone, but that's OK, and it's not like I have time to read, anyway. Had time. Was still temple-building.

From then on, every time I was in Godville City, just after I finished putting bricks and tiles into the temple, I'd walk the easy forty minutes to the guild hall and rip up molding carpet or replaster walls or stuff mattresses with monster fur. In four months, I had the upper gallery almost livable and had started refitting the kitchen. The only other change was a new sign outside, saying that this was the guildhall. 

I was sanding and scraping the table in the kitchen, waiting for the mortar to finish curing on the repaired ovens, when the front door opened and shut. It's very loud: you can't even sleep through the front door opening and shutting. Then I heard a woman calling.

"Hello? Hello? Is this the ice guild?" she said.

"Yeah," I called back. I was in a tricky place with the table. "This is E.I.S. Eternal. Give me a moment and I'll be right out."

"No, nah, don't bother," she said. "Just making sure I'm in the right place. Guild placement sent me. My name's Mary. Where can I put my stuff?"

I screwed up with the scraping and put a gouge in the surface. "Uh, ah, um, well (darnit!) ah, the upstairs gallery still leaks a little when it rains, but you can probably choose a room since there's a drought on." The gouge is still there, but you can hardly see it anymore. Shellacking helps.

"OK," replied Mary. "I'll take the one on the end. Gotta love a room with a view." 

She tramped up the stairs. I kept scraping, tried to even out the gouge a bit, sanded until my arms ached. Mary thudded down the stairs again. 

"I've gotta go out again. Talk with you later!"

"Oh." I'd been planning to make a welcome dinner, but it was getting dark outside, in summer, so it was probably too late. So the front door opened and slammed, I lit a few lamps, and I kept working on the table. Hours passed. The front door opened and slammed again.

"Hey, Tar! I found a new guildmate, named Pak!" yelled Mary from the front hall.

"Pack?" I returned.

"Pak. P-A-K," said a new, male voice.

"Don't bother getting up," Mary said. "I'll show him upstairs. He'll take the room next to mine."

"Got it." At the time, I figured that probably meant Pak was Mary's beau, so I worked on the table until I passed out under it. Woke up in the morning with any number of cricks in my back, scrawled two signs in my best calligraphy and posted them on the two occupied rooms to label them by owner, and ran in the direction of the unemployment office to get a new quest. The SourceCall was buzzing in my ears.

It went like that. I'd get back, go to work. There was nobody around. Or there was, and it was pretty much one of the two calling that they were headed out for breakfast/lunch/dinner, not to wait up, please not to go into either of their rooms, because they were messes or there was some sort of science experiment going on... They never seemed to help, but they never made problems either, so I didn't really mind. At one point, after I finished refurbishing the kitchen, and also after I fixed the roof because some other hero declared the drought over and brought the rains again in the name of his false god, I put together some hot and cold snacks, brought in a small keg of beer, and called my guildmates down for guild council in the kitchen.

"Give me a few minutes!" yelled Pak from his room.

And from the library, SourceRunner only knows what she was doing there, Mary also called, "Hang on! I'm busy!"

So I waited. Drank some beer. Ate some snacks. Drank some more beer. Threatened aloud to finish the keg myself if Mary and Pak didn't get in there quick.  Listened to their laughter. Ate more snacks. Drank more beer. Fell asleep. Came to in the morning with a blazing headache reminiscent of one of those lightning bolts, to find all of the beer and the snacks gone. Heard snoring from the upstairs gallery. Dumped the dishes in the sink and got on the road because I found a slip in my pocket that gave me my next quest.

When I got back two days later, the dishes were still in the sink. That annoyed me. I didn't really mind if I made food and they ate it, even leaving me out cold to do so, but the rule in my Mother's house was always, "If one person makes the meal, the other does the dishes." And that held true whether there were two people or twenty in the house. Godville over, I've found no place that this is different, except in pubs and bars. But they don't count.

So I left the dishes where they were. There was more crockery, all left over from the old hotel, so when I needed to feed myself I just got out a new plate, fixed food, ate, washed that plate, and put it away. And the dishes in the sink grew fur. If I ever see such balls of mold again, very likely I will mistake it for a return of the Tribbles.

That went on for months. Things between Pak and Mary and I were...we shall say "cool."  I did ask them once to do the dishes, taking great pains to explain this one and only rule I had formulated for my guild, but I heard no response from behind the doors, so I supposed at the time that they were ignoring me or I hadn't heard them go out. So I slipped notes under the doors. And the dishes sat.

I fought with SourceRunner, went away, came back. And the dishes sat.

Pumba met his goal. And the dishes sat.

I finished my temple. And the dishes sat.

I lost who-knows-how-much time deranged under the influence of Icarus Wings. And I assume the dishes sat.

I finally got myself home to a dirty guild hall that had once again sprung a roof leak in one corner, necessitating that I rip out and replace carpet upstairs again, despite the fact that I still had a library to refurbish. And there the dishes still darned well sat!

This is getting pretty close to present day. I was at my wits' end, which both Pumba and Number 7 know is very dangerous (though occurs more often than it perhaps should), and funneling all of my frustrated energy into the last repairs to the EIS hall, which amounted to the library. With the empty, free-standing shelves. Did I mention they look built in? They do.

I was checking the plaster. See, the library has oak paneling between the shelves, but it only goes three quarters of the way to the ceiling. Just high enough that you can't get a good look at the plaster above it, much less reach without climbing on something. So that's what I did. I climbed up the front of the biggest bookshelf, which is about two-and-a-half times my armspan wide, and half again as tall as me. Yes, it was stupid. My Guardian Spirit has told me so several times. But I +did+ think it was attached to the wall.

As I reached the second shelf from the top, the whole thing peeled away from the plaster with a groan. I found myself swinging like an attacking conker, only my fight would be not against another chestnut, but against the unyielding floor. So I did the sensible thing and tried to swing free. My feet landed on the tile. The falling bookshelf landed on my hands. My arms collapsed under the weight, so the shelves landed on my shoulders. My knees met tile with a painful crack.

At some point, I cried out. I know because, quick as a wink but deadly serious, Pumba raced into the library and dove under the bookshelf to help me. He managed to support enough of the inexorable weight to keep it from crushing me further immediately, but even the mighty Firefox is no match for solid oak construction. We were pinned. I couldn't move. Pumba wouldn't move. And all I could think of was that this was it. I would die here. Here, crushed,  in a guildhall that my Lady might not even know existed, so how could she find and resurrect me, I would meet my final demise. Worse, my pet would be coming with me. Not just getting knocked out, but truly dead. Nobody would be around to resurrect him. Nobody would ever retrieve Number 7 from her stall at the stable. Nobody.

"HEEEEELP!!!!!!!!! HEEEELP!!! PAK! MARY! ANYBODY! SOURCERUNNER DAMMIT, COME HELP ME!" I screamed. I screamed myself hoarse. I screamed and shouted until I was sobbing to draw breath. Nobody came. Nobody came to help, and nobody came to laugh. Nobody. And there were tears on my face and sweat on my back and everything +hurt.+ Oh, it hurt!

I was shaking. My back was bowing. Every breath Pumba took was a strained wheeze...

Then came the sound of the front door opening. I blinked enough to see Pumba flick an ear, so I knew it wasn't wishful thinking. Coughed twice and gathered everything I could.

"Help!" I croaked.

Footsteps sounded on the foyer floor, coming closer. A pair of cubic feet appeared in my limited vision beneath the shelf still pressing down. And a face, which registered shock as it took in the situation. 

"Good god!" he swore.

Then the face vanished, replaced by the cubic feet on again, a pack hastily thrown to the ground, and a pair of starship trooper's gauntlets curling around the top lip of the shelf and lifting. The strain eased a bit. Pumba breathed deeply.

"Hello, out there!" the man called, sounding like he was yelling toward the foyer and the front door that I hadn't heard slam. "Yo! Need a little help in here! Right now! On the double! Ranking member's orders!"

Unrequited gloves and all-terrain slippers, fire arms, and golden fingers and basilisk's feet quickly joined the man already lifting, and the shelf creaked upward. I all but threw my poor, geriatric firefox out the widened gap before crawling out myself, because he was trying to be noble and self-sacrificial, the silly thing. And as soon as I was free, my saviors let the bookcase drop to the ground with a crash.

"Darn, that was heavy!"

I sat back on my heels and panted, looking at the four rolling their shoulders and rubbing their fingers. Two men, two women, covered in travel dust. Four bulging packs scattered in various locations around the library floor. They were heroes and heroines. Well, of course they were, to me, but by profession as well!

"Source be dammed, you saved my life! You saved Pumba's life!" I said, and flung myself to kissing whatever hand or cheek I could reach. It was an overreaction. You get those from narrow escapes. "Can I help you in return? Repay you somehow? Anything! Name it, and it's yours!"

The first hero, the one in trooper's gauntlets, and a visionary (you could tell by looking at him), extracted his offended hand from my grip and fended me off with a wince. "A bath would be nice. And the chance to talk to whoever's in charge around here."

The fourth hero, with a distinctly feline air of independence, brushed at his sleeve. "Yes. And a place to stay. We met up on the road here, to join this guild. It took longer than is should have, because the placement office gives abominable directions. I may write a letter to the editor about that."

The second heroine had whistled her sun dog in, and was watching him circle warily with Pumba. The third heroine examined her phlegm thrower for damage that might have occurred because of my greeting.

"You're... You're EIS?" I asked, as stupidly as could be. "A place to stay-- certainly! Let me show you the accommodations and you can choose."

Long story made much shorter, introductions were made, quarters were claimed, dibs were called on the sun-warmed water in the cistern on the roof that was generally reserved for bathing and showering, and I staggered away to get over my near-death shakes. No matter how many times a person dies, the terror of a near-death experience never goes away.

Leaning against the freshly redone plaster and paper wall of the upstairs gallery is not very comfortable. The gallery walkway is wide enough, and the bannisters are turned logs as thick as a person's leg, but you're still looking over the railing at a floor one-and-a-half storeys down.

Falling is my least favorite way to die behind crushing.

I had been working on those oak bannisters a few weeks before, on a tall ladder. What if the ladder had slid and left me hanging by my sweating palms from the railing? Would Mary or Pak have come and help me? They hadn't come while I was slowly being squashed to death under the book case. They hadn't come when I'd sliced my arm open on a slat when I was pulling down some rotten plaster. They hadn't come when I'd dropped a hammer on my foot. 

No. They wouldn't have come if I was hanging from the bannister outside of their rooms, screaming my voice hoarse and kicking my feet while the floor stalked me.

And that final thought made me angry enough to stop shaking, angry enough to stomp my way down to the occupied rooms at the end of the gallery, one of which had a view onto the street. Angry enough to bang on their doors and barge in, violating the privacy so important to them.

What I found surprised me. Shocked, more like, and took away my rage. I'd expected to find indolence, embarrassment, and matching wrath. What I found was a set of quiet rooms, two inches thick in dust. The was no sign that anyone had been in them for six months or more. The spreads on the beds were untouched where I had folded them the last time I had seen them. A moth had fallen dead on the window sill after beating itself against the window pane. Both rooms were the same: empty.

I closed the doors and went downstairs.

I washed the dishes.

I thought.

I never saw Mary and Pak, actually. Just heard them. And maybe that night of the guild council, I got drunk and ate everything myself, and didn't remember any of it. Pumba certainly never reacted to their assumed presence.

And I think-- I think maybe I was sick. For a long time. I was sick for a long time and didn't know it. But now I know it. Now that I'm well.

Very well. 

Better than well!

EIS is up to over fifty members, now! We've run out of room, upstairs and downstairs, and are breaking through the wall where the book shelf used to stand to add a new wing. In fact, we celebrated that last night, along with my birthday, with a massive feast, everyone in guild counsel in the kitchen, hovering around the table covered in foods and drinks from across Godville.

And you know the best part?

I did most of the cooking. Some of it was successful (my mother's old recipes that she taught me), some of it outright failure (my own experiments). All of it got eaten. And, well into the night, when all of us could barely muster the energy to roll over, I started clearing, only to have the plates snatched from my hands.

"You cooked! I'll do the dishes," was the chorus.


I'm home.

Vignette 35:

A friend in need is a guy who didn't realize just how many friends he actually had until right that moment.

Or so I learned when Pumba got knocked out again.

I'm still not sure how that happened. Pumba is the smartest Firefox I know, he's  an experienced combatant, and his retirement medal proves that he's an excellent judge of what monsters he can take on alone and what monsters he can't. He also knows how things work between me and SourceRunner, where if I die, it's never forever. So I don't know why he threw himself under that Dreaded Gazebo to save me, but he did and got knocked out, and that worries me. Thank the Source (and this "Randy" deity that my guardian is so in love with) that Pumba grew out of that phase where this sort of thing actually killed him!

There is a very specific sequence to follow when a pet gets knocked out. First, you get the dead monster off of your pet. Generally, it's just a limb, or the monster is sort of half-slumped over the pet, so it's easy enough to shoulder the thing off, but sometimes you'll see some hero running around on the road, waylaying every horsecart for a winch. Then you check your pet for other injuries, because the hero who revives his pet and then tries to extract that broken incisor is... mind-blowingly stupid, even for one of us. Following that, you crack open any healing items you have and apply what you can. Not enough that you have to record using them (what a supervising deity doesn't know can't hurt her), but enough so that those gouges won't break open and the torn cartilage will be mostly healed by the time you accomplish revival. After that, you make a papoose. At least, you do with firefoxes, sun dogs, and dust bunnies; I have no idea how heroes with Trojan horses or philosoraptors manage. But making a papoose usually requires cannibalizing non-inventory (pet wounding may keep the entire tent and security blanket industry afloat) and inventory (make up some lame excuse for losing that board of education, something like making a breadcrumb trail or slipping in a puddle, just don't blame your pet), and a lot of creativity. The funniest pet papoose I ever saw was made of a rubber ducky-printed union suit with duck feet and a duck hood, secured by a chain of events and a coil of lathered rope. If that ninja tortoise had been awake, his hero would have been dead.

Once you have your pet papoosed, you continue on your way toward the nearest town. It's about all you can do. The revivers cost a lot of money. To get money, you have to fight monsters, dig, and sell stuff. Oddly enough, monsters seem sympathetic about knocked out pets, waiting patiently while you settle your papoose on some lossy ground in the shade of a tree before you fight, and they never try to attack your vulnerable pet. So collecting can go fairly uneventfully. It just takes time, and usually visits to two or three towns. 

That was what happened last time. I'd already had a good coin base to work from to revive him (though it wasn't enough-- why do revivals cost more the older pets get? Pumba is still the same firefox), but also a nearly full inventory, so I stopped in Tradeburg. 

EIS has an outpost in Tradeburg. It's just a small one, since we're not large enough to afford a presence in that city, but there're always members going in and out of the little storefront, so after selling what I was carrying and healing up, I met one of the more recent members there over a quick lunch. Nice guy, gladiator, seen both sides of the alignment spectrum, and has a rocky raccoon. We talked about idle stuff like the latest digs, what pubs are running new brews, "I'm thinking about growing a beard" "Oh, don't do that; I once had a nightmare about having a beard that I couldn't shave off,"  etc., right up until I seized and stared at his raccoon and he twitched and stared straight at Pumba. As far as we can tell, our deities were discussing something to do with pets. 

It was awkward. 

"So... your rocky is newly medaled?" I asked.

"Yes... Your 'fox is knocked out?"

"Yeah. Just. I'm working on it."

"Would you want help? I know some people..."

"I, uh, wouldn't want to impose, thanks." And somehow that just made it more awkward. I made it more awkward. Needless to say, I washed up the dishes (muttering my prayers over them) and left pretty quickly after that. So quickly, in fact, that I realized once I got out onto the hot summer streets of Tradeburg that I'd forgotten to give Pumba any water.

There's one way in and out of Tradeburg. It's called The Strip, and it's the longest piece of north-south running commercial main street in existence. At about three times as wide as your regular street, The Strip has nothing but stores, shops, merchants, traders, bars, taverns, and pubs as far as the eye can see, and only ever has one shady side. The merchants and traders occupy the eastern side of The Strip so that their customers, the townsfolk, are comfortably shaded while doing their morning shopping runs before most of the heroes are up to bother them. The bars and taverns occupy the western side of The Strip so that their customers, the heroes and heroines, are comfortably shaded while doing their afternoon and evening drinking. (Some say also that it's so that hungover heroes and heroines are punished for their destructive indiscretions by bright light when they emerge from the wreckage of some pub or another in the morning after passing out all night, but that's unsubstantiated rumor.) Both sides are divided by four lanes of boulevard and a grassy median.

Since it was just after noon when I was carrying Pumba slung over my back on the way out of Tradeburg, shade was just reaching the western side, signaling heroes and heroines to begin their patronage. It was also where I happened to be walking when I realized my firefox needed some water. It was also where I was most likely to see people I sort of knew (but not really) and kind of wanted to avoid because I was still embarrassed over the awkwardness I'd caused with my own guildmate. So I found a corner where a pub front jutted out a little, giving me deeper shade to put my papoose down in and a bank of windows so I could keep track of the reflections of anyone who might approach me for whatever reason. People like the absolutely massive Harvest Moon and the smart-looking Altoholic who both seemed sort of familiar and were ignoring me to sip their lagers in companionable silence in front of the next bar up.

Pumba was showing no signs of coming around, yet, but he was starting to automatically pant, so I opened my canteen of water, tipped his head up, and poured some out on his tongue. He didn't swallow until I rubbed his throat, but we soon got a rhythm down to the point where he drank half of the canteen with minimal spillage. It took about twenty minutes, and the whole time I had one eye on the reflections in the window.

For the first thirteen minutes, it looked like we were going to get away without anyone taking the least bit of notice. Then my guildmate with the rocky raccoon went walking by, also on his way out of Tradeburg. I don't think he saw us, but he must have breathed in a bug, because he developed the worst coughing fit I've ever seen outside of the arena. It continued to attract the attention of heroes and heroines from three establishments to either side until I got up, darted over, whacked him on the back until he could breathe again, and nonchalantly walked back to Pumba. We didn't even exchange a further word. And MOST of our colleagues from either side went back to their drinks and conversations. Except, darn it, that Harvest Moon and his Altoholic friend. They stared, and they continued to stare. Or the Moon did. The Altie returned to concentrating on getting the last drops of beer out of her to-go tankard as soon as she was absolutely certain that no fight was going to break out.

I went back to watering Pumba, monitoring at the reflections in the window the whole time. If there were any people on the other side of the glass, they might have gotten quite self-conscious. But in the distorted, wavy glass, I watched the Moon knuckle the Altie in the shoulder.

"'ey. Don't we know 'at guy?" he asked.

She slapped the side of her tankard to condense a few droplets. "Sure. That's the one with the party trick. He can cram chestnuts up his nose."

Once. I did that once. And I'm never going to live it down.

"Big Nose? Where's 'e been? I ha'n't seen him in f'rever!" Yes, that would be a symptom of me having made a drunken fool of myself. In public. Again. Youth is wasted on the young. "What's'e doing?"

The Altie lounged back against the barrel table the two had occupied and tipped her face to the sun. She shrugged. "Don't know."

"Messing w'somth'n. Bundle. Aw, heck." He took a deep breath and called over, "'ey! Nostroid! Is your pet down?"

That would be my nickname among the Moons. Funny thing is, I don't think they're being mean, despite the whole blood vs. halo thing. But even in Tradeburg, you don't ignore it either way if one of them talks to you. "Yessir, thanks for asking, but don't worry, he'll be up soon." And I waved.

He turned back to his companion and elbowed her again. "His pet's down."

"I heard. So? He isn't Harvest Moon, and in my case, he has to ask first."

"Aster's li'l sis is in his guild. 'e's almost Moon."

"With a halo?" And even through the distortion of the wavy glass I could see the sheer sarcasm of the look the Altie cast at her drinking buddy. Then she went back to sunning. 

"Think 'e 'as much gold, yet?"

"Don't know. Don't know, don't really care, unless--"

"His belt purse is bulging. Can't tell if that's gold or 'ealing potions."

"Well if it's gold, good for him and better for us."

" e'd better follow him."

"He still has to ask first." And an unseen force wrenched her bodily around so quickly that she had to dig all ten fingers into the Moon's burly, knotted arm to keep herself upright. "Or my goddess can get word of the whole thing. Here we go again."

By this point, Pumba had finished drinking a reasonable amount of water, so I gathered him onto my back and set out for the Tradeburg gate before anything else could happen. Or anyone else could develop designs on my gold. It was a long slog (they really don't want you to leave if you still have any coinage on you at all) and the guards had to check pack and papoose to make sure I wasn't carrying away anything that didn't come with a receipt, including Number Seven when I got her from the stable, but I eventually made it outside of the city walls to resume my journey forward. Just outside, my guildmate with the rocky was laughing and chatting with a few other of our guildmates he had found, so I slunk past them, feeling renewed awkwardness and hoping not to be noticed.

Number Seven, perverse sheep that she is, of course bleated very loudly just before we got around the bend in the path that would get us completely out of sight.

Several miles later and back on the right path, I was fighting a thesaurus rex when a crack of thunder so loud and so close that I thought it was right on top of me caused both the monster and myself to dive into a ditch. After it had rolled and echoed away, I eased my head up just enough to see over the embankment. There, not eight meters away, was the Harvest Moon fighting a Godville Administrator. Another few meters behind him was my guildmate, dispatching a double dragon. Then there was the Altie, up against a stuttering mime. And strung along the road like lumpy pearls, each fighting one of a menagerie of monsters, were the other guildmates, and some more Alties.

The thesaurus rex, also peering out of the ditch, looked at this line of heroes, looked at me, looked back at the line of heroes, mutely handed me 43 gold coins and a flux incapacitor, and fled. A moment later, the flux incapacitor evaporated in my hands and coved me with an aura of pacifism.

Auras of pacifism are good if you want to get somewhere fast, but pretty bad if you're trying to collect money to get your pet seen to. No monsters, no coins, no artifacts unless you stumble across one. So that leaves you only one choice: dig. Which is what I did after moving another mile or two and using all of my knowledge of topological features to determine that the ground where I stood might have a useful aspect.

I broke my shovel. Number Seven had the bad grace to look amused.

Another mile. Dig (with Number Seven's Ewe Crunchies scoop-- who's laughing now?). Found nothing useful.

A third mile. Dig. Wrestled a bold artifact from the dirt and tree roots.

Despite that they were fighting monsters every step of the way,  the chain of heroes caught up to me by the time I finished cleaning the bold artifact enough to stick it in my pack. At the front was that Harvest Moon, who finished off a deformed rabbit in one swing and stood cleaning his nails with his weapon. And whistling. So I sat back on my heels and looked at him.

"Can I help you, somehow?" I asked. "Because it feels like you're following me."

He blew on his hand, buffed the nails against his shirt, pursed his lips, and said, "Nope."

That was it. That was the only answer. Even though I waited for a good two minutes, he said nothing else, and he refused to move along. So I gave up and kept going.

Mile. Dig.

Mile. Dig.

Mile. Dig. Chest.

Mile. Dig. Artifact.

Mile. Dig.

Mile. Dig. Look behind me. And there, strung along the road for the most part, but some two or three to a mile, were Alties, EISing, Harvest Moons, Suns, Blue Feathers, Ni-sayers, Namers, and Tundra Expeditioneers. We never see each other on the road, unless we're fleeing together, telling a joke, or heading back to town. This was odd. As I watched, the Moon collared a hero on his way back to town, spun him around, and muscled him forward again. It was time to ask again. 

"What's this about? I'm not angry enough to skirmish. And my pet being out doesn't necessarily mean I have a lot of money. What do you want?" I demanded of the Moon.

Of the massive, strong, unsettling, and probably spiteful or evil Moon.

Yes. Bad idea. What was I going to do, glow on him with my halo? And actually, I HAD just challenged him to a skirmish by being belligerent. He had every right to turn me into a grease spot on the pavement, if my Lady didn't do something about it. But then a miracle happened. Not a Miracle miracle, but a miracle.

He laughed. Not nastily. A genuine laugh. And he shoved me in a friendly way. It still made me stagger, but it wasn't a punch or a humiliating push.

"Is that what y'think we're here for? Y'really are an idiot! Just get on with it, Nostroid."

And because I don't push luck past the breaking point, I did. I dug and dug and dug until the sun started going down and my hands grew raw. Every time I looked back, the crowd following me had gotten larger. It wasn't always the same people, since inventory is a factor, but they tended to catch back up if they stopped in town.

Finally, just as I was about to give up and call it a night, my digging started a landslide. With a hefty "crack!" a sinkhole opened up and sucked me down. Riding that was a bit tricky: with a pet on your back, you can't afford to fall the wrong way. Usually, I can slide down on my tail, but this time I caught my foot on a stalactite hanging from the ceiling of the cave below, and ended up doing a painful belly flop onto the stone floor to avoid smashing Pumba. 

It hurt. Not in the get-up-and-walk-it-off way, either. More in the are-all-my-internal-organs-still-in-one-piece way. Unless I counted the constant pain in my liver, my lungs seemed the most impacted. For several seconds. Once I caught my breath, I shrugged out of the papoose and flopped onto my back.

High above me, Number Seven,  my guildmate, and the Moon were crouched over the hole, looking down. The humans shared a high five. Then one or both turned and shouted, "Everybody! Dig!"

The underground boss never stood a chance. All that remained was a smear of unidentifiable protein, eight cartloads of trophies divided evenly, and an obscene amount of gold. Pumba was back on his feet by the next town. 

I... never knew I had that many friends who would want to help me like that. Needless to say, I bought a round for everyone. I disguised the massive expenditure in my diary as a bit of drunken foolishness so that SourceRunner doesn't get any ideas: 03:05: Ran into a friend of mine at the tavern and ended up betting on a drinking contest. Long story short, Mighty One, I'm out 26879 gold coins, the tavern is a wreck, and the barkeep is considering a restraining order.

In all honesty, the tavern was a wreck when we found it.

Vignette 36: 

Death just marks the start of another phase of life-- heroes are proof of this.

Every once in a while, I get a mystery box with a notarized death certificate for some death I don't remember, or a tally that tells me I've been counting more deaths than my share. Now, far be it from me to buck the Godville Census Bureau or the Life and Death Administration, but I REALLY do not deal well with uncertainty, so this entry will document every death I can remember, or am told I have suffered.

Death 1: I don't remember my first death because I was too young, but they say that that's how they know you're a hero. Not that "they" are very specific as to whether the death coming really early is the sign, or the fact that you come back is the sign, but it's called a "Hero's Christening." One of the temples on Temple Row has a really neat stained glass window documenting it, symbolized by a grim reaper, scythe at feet, cradling and nursing a swaddled baby.

My first death happened because the midwife my mother chose was suffering a hangover. Perhaps my mother did that deliberately; immaculate conceptions are rarely planned or convenient, and despite their common occurrence, the mothers still suffer a good deal of humiliation from those who hated them in high school and want to pretend that they're sluts. But whether Mom actually wanted me or not, and whether she actually was engineering an accident or not, when the time came to "catch," the midwife had her eyes closed against sensitivity to the dawning sun light coming through the window, and she fumbled. I ended up on the floor before I even drew my first breath, so I didn't. I can only imagine the looks that passed between Mom and the midwife. 

Apparently, I was dead for a whole ten minutes before SourceRunner sent me back. Mom later told me that I probably came back because I gave my guardian spirit a headache from all the crying... Which sort of makes a sick sense for why she heals me so much. I like to think that she loves me and wants me happy, but it's a little difficult to believe, and that's why I get an aura of rage sometimes.

Death 2: I'm not sure if I remember this one or if my family just told me the story so often that I think I remember. But it happened when I was two. I had a few siblings by then, and we made a family trip to the beach along the banks of one of the many rivers that sweep through Godville's countryside. We went to a sandy beach, Mom, Dad, Aunt Jes, me, and my brothers and sisters (when it's not immaculate, conception runs to twins and triplets in my family). Aunt Jes came for me, because Mom and Dad were busy with my siblings. I liked her. She was nice, and didn't laugh about my name having three more syllables than it should. So I ran around her, played, and then buried her in sand.

Adults never realize how heavy sand is until they get buried in it. Aunt Jes couldn't move to stop me when I decided to go for a swim in the river. So I got swept into the main channel and over the waterfall a half mile away.

Aunt Jes hadn't believed I was a hero and was terribly upset, right up until I toddled out of the bushes and patted her hair where she sat weeping on the family picnic blanket. I do remember being pulled into a big hug and not understanding why the hugger was calling me a, "poor, poor boy." Then she tied a spare napkin around my naked bottom.

Death 3: This might be considered my first death by monster. Operative term, "might." I was three. Mom had sent me out to pick peas for our dinner from the vegetable patch. I had filled the basket halfway when I saw a really colorful stick. I picked it up. The stick moved in my hand, whipped around, and bit me. I panicked, dropped the stick, dropped the basket of peas, and fled. I fled really hard. I fled head-first into our apple tree.

Mom came out to find me dead, and a garter snake curled up and annoyed in a scattering of picked peas. She sighed, finished harvesting peas, told me that dinner would be ready in half an hour. I remember this one, I saw it, because it's the first time I was hanging around my body. It was less scary and creepy looking down at my own body than it was a bit shocking. I got to see things about it that no reflection in a puddle could show me. I was up again in time for dinner.

Death 4: I got really good at not dying until I was ten. When I was ten, I fell into a gang of other kids. We called ourselves a guild, and we ran around in the woods with slingshots and sharpened sticks. Most of us were heroes, but we had a couple of non-heroes in the guild, too. They somehow became our god and goddess. Our god was a real jerk. He liked to play evil, punishing us with sailing rocks, and making us carry him over streams on our shoulders so his feet didn't get wet. Our goddess was really nice. She asked us to carry her over streams, too, but she was pretty and she encouraged us with kisses and feathers she found. I trusted her, and she never told us to do anything that was supposed to make us hurt. 

One day, our goddess wanted chestnuts from one of the trees in the woods, and told me to climb up to get them. Our god whipped me with a switch until I climbed up high enough that he couldn't reach me, but it was worth it because every time I looked down, our goddess was smiling at me. She was a shopkeeper's daughter, so that tells you what it looked like when she smiled. So I picked chestnuts and threw them down in a pile at the base of the tree until there were enough for the whole guild.

Then I faced the problem of getting down. I was easily fifteen times my own height off the ground, and looking down, I couldn't see how I had climbed up. 

"Jump!" our goddess told me. Jump? From here? "Jump!"

I trusted her. I trusted that she saw something I didn't, and that I wouldn't get hurt. I jumped.

I landed on my feet. One of them broke. The other flew out from under me on wet loam. I fell onto my back and cracked my skull on a rock cradled between tree roots. Death was instantaneous.

None of the guild was scared by my mishap. Some of us died every other week. They knew I'd be OK. In fact, they picked up my head, chorused "eeewww!" at the mess, and ate the chestnuts. It was... well, sort of companionable that they didn't move away from my body, at least.

Death 5: I died again when I was twelve. Suffocating in a vat of cocoa powder is a sweet but ultimately disturbing way to go. 

Deaths 6-10: Age eighteen, shortly after the final rejection from my guild's former goddess when she refused to go to the harvest dance with me, I tried suicide as an out. I thought that maybe I was a cat, and had nine lives, and if I could just get past that, I would get to stay in heaven forever. Since this is about the age when all heroes start hearing their deities talking to them, most will claim that any attempts at teenage suicide were them following "die" commands. But to be honest, I just hated my life, saw no hope for it, and wanted off the merry-go-round. There's nothing funny about it. The guild's former god jumped off the bridge and went over the waterfall, and his parents were devastated. He wasn't a hero... He never resurrected. It was a tragedy, and what stopped me trying to kill myself, because I saw what happened to the people left behind, and I never wanted to do that to anybody, no matter how much I was hurting.

Death 11: I was twenty-one. I was helping with a barn-raising. My job was acting as a counterweight on the end of a rope that was raising a beam into place between frames. It takes a lot of concentration. Of course, this was the first time I heard the SourceCall, like a beautiful song, like a wave of euphoria, like a shush of fine fabric over smooth ceramic. I looked around to see where it was coming from, intent on following it to its origin. My fingers slackened on the rope. It whipped through my hands, unlaced from the pulleys, fell away, and dropped the beam on my head. The SourceCall didn't sound in my ears while I was dead.

Death 12: I was twenty-one, and it was a couple of months later. My mother was strange about birthdays. All of her children got one birthday per year, all together, on the day in the middle of all of the birthdays. I had to wait until this day before I was "of age" to drink. I discovered that I liked beer. I discovered that I liked vodka. I discovered that I liked whiskey. I discovered that I liked wine. I discovered that my purge reflex does not kick in fast enough to prevent me dying of alcohol poisoning.

Deaths 13-23: Sometime after I turned 22, the SourceCall sounded in my ears continuously, and I couldn't resist it. I left for Godville City, and started on my guardian spirit's temple. Since that time, my deaths have all been due to monster interference. I'm a little fuzzy on it, but I think that the order of causes of death is as follows: ~ Deformed Rabbit ~ Worthy Opponent ~ Godville Administrator ~ Worthy Opponent ~ Organ Grinder ~ Tower Defender ~ Stuttering Mime ~ Worthy Opponent (this was Number Seven's fault) ~ Worthy Opponent ~ Deformed Rabbit ~ Thesaurus Rex ~ Worthy Opponent

I do not like Worthy Opponents at all. I have to wonder if there's a "Death by Worthy Opponent Anonymous" organization.

Vignette 37:

My life is a sequence of ridiculous events and coincidences streaming from innocuous stupidities, and this past year has been a shining example.

A shimmering example.

An example with an uppercase "E" and surrounding exclamation points in fluorescing neon. 

It all began with picking up litter. I started picking up roadside litter partly because the kids in Los Adminos told me (by means of bullhorns and rocks) that I was borrowing Godville from them and they didn't appreciate how I was treating it. I can't decide if they were simply children actualized into aggression by fourth-wavers, or if the hard line is a fifth-wave thing, but I decided to listen to the message and ignore how it was delivered. After all, little monsters those kids may be, but still by far off limits to me.

Picking up litter has actually led to some pretty good things. I picked up around a bamboo grove just last week and found a bold artifact, just sitting there in an unprotected and humid patch of direct sunlight. One man's trash is another's treasure, for sure, and that wasn't even an unusual occurrence. 

Another thing I found... Well. It's kind of a sad thing. This really nice collar with an ornate tag reading "Toto" was hung up in a bush, like someone cast it there in a fit of grieving fury and either couldn't or didn't want to find it afterward. When I got it out of the hedge, Pumba gave it the once-over sniff and then ignored it, so I stuffed it in my bag with the thought that I could give it to some heroine with a little dog. It rattled around in the dross at the bottom of my loot, only really reminding me it was there if I sold off all the artifacts, and I pretty much forgot about it.

That ark? Got that built just in time. And I seriously mean just in time, because I did something extra dumb right after the monks at the temple got it christened. None of the monks won their routine bets about my escapades, that time, because I blew all of their guesses right out of  the  proverbial water; it was so bad. But like everything, it started with good intentions. Why do good intentions return...? Law of the universe.

You see,  since  a bunch of nice heroes and heroines had been helping  me  collect my gopherwood boards in dungeons, I had a few favors to repay and was still dungeoning long after finishing the ark. Pumba was generally bored waiting for me on the outside with Number 7, but was a good boy other than developing a propensity for long daytime naps and long nighttime yapping sessions. (I threw a pillow at him once. He burnt it up, gave me a contemptuous look, and went right on with his song.) His complacency changed the day he saw one of my fellow dungeoneers take a vengeful mole down into the dungeon.

Pumba has this thing about moles. They are food. Moreover, they are food that mocks him. Therefore, they are to be put down with prejudice and of course never be allowed to outdo him in anything. You can imagine his dismay that a  mole  was permitted to accompany his hero into a dungeon  when  he was not.

There are reasons some pets can go into dungeons while others have to remain topside.They mostly have to do with extra training that dungeon pets get, and with the training seemingly a pilot program that the religious orders are passing around, only pets that have reason to be underground anyway are getting  the  training. The training consists of scent  detection of bosses, treasure, and traps, a harder focus on obedience, and  the fostering of creative problem-solving. There is also some reaction conditioning to prevent the pet getting hurt by known hazards that have a stable solution, like ducking flat at the sounds of arrows and rolling away from falling axes.

Not that Pumba cared about all that when I explained it to him. He only saw a mole getting to go into a dungeon while a fox got left outside. He decided to campaign for his own dungeon trip. All of the suddenest sudden, staying outside and guarding Number 7 was Not Good Enough.

His tactics began with simply putting himself in the center of the entrance to the dungeon, sitting tall with his paws together and his tail wrapped around front, ears pricked, occasionally flaring brilliantly to emphasize his presence. He was certainly difficult to ignore as we gathered to go spelunking. Still, he wasn't aggressive about it, so mostly we just rubbed his ears for luck as we went by. 

Pumba was not pleased. He moved on to grabbing artifacts from my pack and trying to follow us into the dungeons. A few times he managed to get to the starting room before I or one of the goblin receptionists caught him and put him back out. I lost a few good loot items to sticky-fingered dungeon staff that way.

Then there was the hiding in my loot pack (someone noticed his tail hanging out), the running ahead (did you know these dungeons have compartmentalizing airlocks? It's to prevent or isolate flooding, normally, and is part of the ancient city structure from the time of the [look it up]), the scratching and kicking and biting (it seems that if one's health drops low enough while waiting for a dungeon, one automatically falls unconscious in the first dungeon room), and the general making my life miserable to get his firefoxy way.

I knew I and others were keeping Pumba out for his own good. I knew that he didn't understand that. I knew that I should help him get over his mole prejudices. But there came one day when enough was enough was enough was enough.

It was a bad day filled with the sorts of things that seem to only happen to me. Nude men in foil hats kept coming up and imparting nonsense, a grammatical terror chased me while yawping frantic mating calls, I got a hole in the pocket where I keep my candy, and I missed my dungeon party and wound up with two heroes looking at me with the glassy eyes of AFKs (that's dungeon slang for "Absent-minded Foolish Kooks"; I consider them proof that SourceRunner is as blind as justice, because if she could see them she surely wouldn't coddle them) good for nothing but being damage sponges. Honestly, if the patrolling constables didn't punish heroes caught fighting on the road with a year working in the hop fields and no recourse to beer, I would have hung my halo on a tree and started something with the next traveler who came by, just like in the old days.

So when Pumba gathered himself for his rebellion, I lost it.

"You think you have what it takes to run a dungeon, you mangy, flea-bitten, sorry excuse for a mini-monster?!"

Pumba gave me a piece of his mind with some shrill, angry yips.

"You think that you're so smart, you know-it-all?!"

Bark-bark, snarl, from Pumba. And I'll be struck by lightning if that woolly Number 7 didn't have a nasty grin on her cud-chewing face, like she'd put him up to it.

"Well, SourceRunner forsake you, you mutt, this is your chance to prove it! And don't come crying to me if you lose your tail in the attempt, stupid firefox."

The two AFKs watched dully as Pumba ran by them into the mouth of the dungeon and began turning excited circles. They looked at me with sparkless eyes as I signed a waiver that the goblin receptionist gave me and promised not to hold the spelunking company responsible for anything that should happen to my pet. They continued to stare as we were guided to the starting point, until I snapped at them, "It's not like he could be any less help than you two!"

Things started to go wrong almost immediately. You see, another reason for only sending trained pets into dungeons is that they come away from the training with several items of essential kit, including a specially fitted gas mask. Pumba does not have one of these, so of course the dungeon he entered with me and my AFK compatriots was a dungeon of frightening toxicity. He began wretching and sneezing, water streaming from his eyes, in the very first room, greatly complicating my immediate reaction of swathing his face in scarves wetted by a health potion.

Once he was breathing easier, though trembling and with his bushy tail tucked between his legs, I knelt to consult him.

"Pumba, sweetie, forget what I said earlier, you don't have anything to prove. This is a really nasty dungeon. Bundled up like this, your eyes and nose are useless, and you'd have to rely on your ears only. Do you want to go back?"

Most certainly not, his growl and suddenly straight and frizzed tail exclaimed to me. Dumb firefox. Dumber hero, for not insisting on sense. Instead, I watched him stumblingly stalk through a door to the south, and followed with the AFKs. 

That second room was empty, and was more a corridor going south than a real room. The third contained a field of scarecrows guarding a stalk of corn.  SourceRunner made their job and ours easier by bursting a spring of healing water at the corn's roots. Everyone drank and felt better. Well, everyone human, that is; Pumba yelped dismay at his unexpected bath, but obviously came away feeling restored. The fourth room is where it all went wrong, again.

The floor was lava. The two AFKs became a mass of flailing limbs tripping over each other in a mad scramble to get atop the floating living room furniture before molten stone burned through their footwear. Having been splitting my attention between my companions and Pumba in an attempt to make sure all of them stayed together, I failed to notice the arm of one AFK with a dangling wrist pouch of gold coins swinging in my direction until it sapped me in the head. It was all my stunned mind could do to keep me from going to my hands and knees into the liquid basalt, much less avert the disaster I witnessed as Pumba, having gotten the bearings to leap from the AFKs' unintelligible hollering at each other, dashed forward and planted all four paws into the lava as he gathered to jump.

I had him gathered into my arms and was dashing back north even as his pained shrieking began filling my ears. The AFKs scrambled after us, barely keeping up as I retraced our path, stopping only to dip Pumba's paws in the cool mud of the corn's drying spring. We skidded to a stop at the dungeon's entrance door, and I pounded on it until the eye slot slid open for the bilious gaze go the goblin receptionist.

"Let us out! It's an emergency!"

"You have not yet completed ten steps."

Almost spitting, I told him, "Stand aside or be smashed flat." And then I backed out of the room for a long enough run to charge.

In another one of those coincidences that only seem to happen to me, the goblin opened the door just as I had leapt and set my shoulder to ram it, so I sailed past him through the air and almost rolled the landing, but managed to keep to my tangling feet. The jarring renewed Pumba's agonized yelping. I sprinted out of the dungeon entrance.

"Number 7! Come! We are going home. Now!"

All the way back to Godville, I was praying for miracles. I activated every single one of my travel skills, traveling eighty-six miles in less than ten minutes, and thank heavens nobody tried to stop me for a speeding ticket or customs fees, because that unfortunate would have been a grease spot on the road. I don't know, nor do I care what happened to the AFKs, and it hardly registered how fast Number 7's little hooves were moving to keep up.

The first priority was the veterinary hospital. Godville has one of the best. Fortunately, the emergency wing is free of patients because heroes with unconscious pets take them to their temples, and the vet quest that best pets' heroes get to do specifies that they have to schedule checkups during normal office hours. The nurse at the emergency desk had his head down and was napping when we blew through the doors. Still, he woke up fast enough and got on-duty vets mobilized even faster. My whimpering Pumba got swept into emergency treatment, and I got shut out.

What followed was a number of hours of worried pacing in the waiting room. Thump, squish-skree, thump, squish-skree (I didn't want to know what I'd stepped in during my dash). Clop-a-click, clop-a-click, clop-a-click, clop-a-click (whatever it was, Number 7 seemed to have avoided it). Stare at the surgery doors and strain ears to catch any news. Thump, squish-skree, thump, squish-skree. Clop-a-click, clop-a-click, clop-a-click, clop-a-click. Repeat.

The nurses and doctors finally wheeled Pumba out in a basket, woozy and bandaged up to his shoulders. Everyone treated me with forbidding glares. 

I shrank.

Eighteen lectures later (two of the doctors took a second go, and one of the nurses even took a third), I wiped out my beer earnings to pay the bill and was allowed to take Pumba home. Not that was to be the end of it-- they wanted him back for check-ups twice weekly, physical therapy every other day, and possible follow-up surgery if they didn't like the way he was healing. All of this was going to run me as much as ten times the gold I had just paid (after all, they were still equipping the diagnostic wing, and merchants' pets little neutering surgeries couldn't fund that) each week. And Pumba was going to need daily wound irrigation and assistance with biological activities.

Hallelujah for the ark. In the old days, I would have been up that proverbial stinky creek: either Pumba would have gotten diminished care as I hauled him around on my back, trying to make enough money for his medical bills, or he would have gotten excellent daily care as I quickly went into debt and had to melt down SourceRunner's temple. But with the ark finished? Heh. The cloister-dwellers had immediately instituted a round in order to care for and shepherd whatever ended up in the hold. The monks and nuns could take care of Pumba! I made plans to detail the religious orders in taking my firefox for his appointments while I went out to bring in the gold to pay for them.

Pumba slept most of the rest of that day, because of the painkillers I administered, so it was simple enough to make his bed up, put a no-lick cone around his neck, and instruct the religious orderlies on his treatment. I slept beside him in the straw that night, and he did whimper, but he did not wake. 

The next morning was another stupid affair. I was apprehensive about leaving Pumba alone with the small number of strange manimals and fenimals that had started to call the ark "home." What if they had that "kill off the weak member of the group so he doesn't attract predators" instinct, and were just waiting for me to turn my back? My solution was to leave Number 7 to keep him company.

Number 7 was having no part of being around a soon-to-be-cranky firefox. Surprisingly prescient for an often insensible sheep.

I told her to stay. She dogged my heels.

I gave her a pile of treats. She pushed them at Pumba and trotted toward the door with me.

I tied her up. She bit through the rope.

I chained her to the post. I don't know what happened next, but there she was behind me, trailing a length of ragged metal.

Finally, I tried to sit down and reason with her. Yes, reason with Number 7, the stupidest sheep in Godville. I was desperate, OK?

"Number 7, come here and sit with me," I invited, patting the floor beside where I sat cross-legged. She plopped her rump down so she was in front of me and we were looking eye-to-eye. Not quite what I had wanted, but I could work with it. "You like your firefox, right?"

Slow cud-chewing. I took that to be a nod.

"He keeps watch over you when we travel together, right?"

More chewing.

"Well. He's hurt, you see, and has to stay here. He needs you to watch over him, now."

Number 7 swallowed her mouthful. I didn't want to think about when or if it would be back. Hay should look like hay, if it must be eaten.

"Right, so, you understand, now, that you are staying here while I am going out. Stay. Good sheep. Stay."

But once I turned and took a few steps, there she was in front of me. I didn't even see her move. And, for the second time in this whole ordeal, I lost my temper.

"Argh! Number 7, you stupid ewe! Look: you are a fenimal. It's time you learned that a fenimal's place is in the ark, not on the road!"

Teeth latched onto my arm and dragged me forward onto my knees, out of the path of the lightning and the blue streak of divine invective that landed squarely where I had been standing. A couple of blinks later, once my ears stopped ringing and burning (which is a very odd sensory combination, if you have never experienced it), I felt the need to say something complimentary to Number 7 on her reaction time. But then I noticed something... odd. Yes, we'll go with "odd."

The teeth digging into my forearm were sharp. Boarding hook sharp.  Even without undue pressure, they were doing significant damage to my hands-free gloves. As I stared at them, I heard the distinctive clanking of four-inch guns emerging from ablative steel wool and adjusting azimuth to draw aim on an unlucky aspiring grease spot. I slowly looked past steam-venting nostrils and into Number 7's eyes, now glinting with twin targeting reticles.

"You're a battlesheep." 

Behind me, Pumba snickered.

Number 7 let my arm go, and I scrambled backward into a vertical beam. (It hurt. I ended up with a goose egg on my noggin and had to sleep face down for a week.) Suddenly, the number on her side took on a more ominous cast.

"You're a battlesheep." Yes, I'd already said that. Cut me some slack-- I was understandably stressed out. "You're an unlicensed battlesheep. You're an unlicensed battlesheep in the middle of town! That's an enormous fine! What if the guards find out? I can't afford a fine for an unlicensed battlesheep. And it's Saturday! The registration office isn't open on a Saturday. Oh, heavens, what am I going to do?"

Number 7 chambered munitions.

"We have to get you out of town, before the guards notice." To this, the ewe snorted some steam, but her aim softened, and she'd've only hit the hull of the ark just past my head if she'd fired. "With you looking like that, they couldn't help but notice. Maybe we could make it to the wall through the sewers?"

Number 7 growled (in the darkened hold of an ark, with a single shaft of sunlight spearing down from overhead to glint off her teeth, there is nothing more intimidating) and retracted her guns into her fleece. She blinked and the reticles faded from her eyes. With the horking up of some cud to chew, she once again looked like a normal sheep. Only, when I looked closely, those were nails she was chewing, not hay.

(I later learned, in a fit of frazzled study, that this chameleon ability is unique to the subspecies of battlesheep known as "Q-sheep." Shepherds sometimes deliberately use them as last-ditch flock protection measures, but more often they simply insert themselves into regular folds with no-one the wiser.)

"Not good enough. The guards aren't dumb. I don't know how we've gotten away with you even this long," I told her. "There's got to be something I can do. Maybe spoof a collar and tag out of an end of a rope and a gold coin?" I scrabbled in the hay for my pack that had fallen in the fracas. Not sure what I was thinking, if I was thinking, because I had long since traded my trophies for gold to buy ointments for Pumba, but somebody above was smiling on me, because I opened the bag and immediately saw the "Toto" collar at the bottom of it. You know. The collar I had picked up as litter?

The angels sang. The winged horses stampeded in the heavens. The bulb that sparked above my head lit the whole place in an actinic flash. In no time flat, Number 7 was gagging and shaking herself as I fluffed her wool out around the collar. 

"There. Now the guards will just think they've been missing your license under your wool this whole time." I met Number 7's fuming glare. "You don't like it? Tough. If we want to get you out of Godville, if you want to come with me, this is how it has to be. Otherwise, you stay here as a fenimal, because I can't afford you unlicensed."

Number 7 opened her mouth to bleat belligerence.

"Not with Pumba so injured," I interrupted her, "especially if you had something to do with it."

Her teeth clicked shut.

"OK, then, you 'ram.' If anyone asks, your name is 'Toto,' and you're low-level."

Getting out of town was still a nerve-wracking experience. And no point was worse than when we had to walk past the guards' barracks. A bigger bunch of steely-eyed men and women too smart to be heroes and heroines you have never seen. It felt like every single one of them was watching me, knowing what sort of fraud I was perpetuating.

"Act natural, 7,"said I, out of the corner of my mouth. "Just smile, and act natural. Wait. No. Don't smile."

The group-- three uniquely menacing guards-- clustered by the horse trough, smoking, just about gave me a heart attack when they started elbowing each other and pointing. I grabbed Number 7 by the collar and started hustling her.

"Hey! You!"

I froze and squeaked, "Me, ma'am?"

"Yeah, you. You look familiar."

I swallowed hard, slugs of sweat sliming down my spine. The woman had a smile that wouldn't melt butter.

"Ain't you the one with the party trick?"

"Party... trick?"

"Walnuts. Up the nose," chimed in the man who looked like he could crumble boulders by pinching them.

"Oh! Hah... Yeah, that's me... Amaze your friends and neighbors."

"Thought so," said the here-to-fore silent assassin type that rounded out the set.

The woman cackled and tucked her cigarettes back in her pocket. "Sarge Lucy loves this guy! Says he's the reason she stopped tending bar and enlisted."

"Always thought 'Last Straw' would be taller." I don't know how he would tell- that man-mountain towers over everyone.

"Hey, hey!" said the woman, still laughing. She smacked me in the arm. "Sarge's second anniversary is comin' up. Would you jump out of a cake, walnuts in your nose, the whole bit?"

Sure. Anything. Just don't look too closely at my battlesheep. "Ha-ha, sure! Anything for our boys and girls in blue. Godville wouldn't be here without your service." It's not like I had plans for that dignity, anyway. And I don't want to be arrested.

That earned me a slap on the back from the huge guard. I staggered and fell into the arms of the assassin-guard, who propped me up on my feet again. "Mighty decent of you to say. It takes a big man to admit to the troubles you heroes cause." 

"We'll watch for when you're next in town," murmured the assassin, "and we'll meet you in the Khaki-Colored Dragon to work out the details. Don't die on  us, now."

"Ha-ha!" At least my "forced laughter" trade skill was getting a workout. I edged away. "Of course not. See you there! C'mon, Num-- Toto." And then I beat feet, wanting more than ever to put miles of cobblestones and dust between me and the nearest city guard. You know how that is.

No other guards stopped us on the way out, possibly because Number 7 quickly developed a sixth sense for where the patrols would be walking and led us on a labyrinthine path through the city streets and byways. I think I learned more about the differences between her bleats of warning and her conversational maa-ing in those 40 minutes than I had in the years before. Still, all of the winding couldn't get us out of passing one more set of guards: the gatekeepers.

We kind of moseyed on by, declining a passage stamp because I had cancelled my old quest and was starting another. I tried to block the guards' view of Number 7, just in case, but it's really hard to cover a whole sheep with just a human frame. ...And I mean that in the most platonic way possible. Argh. There is not, and will never be, anything going on between me and Number 7. ...Where is that brain bleach that was in my inventory? Yech. Yuck. Ew. 

Anyway, moving on.

The gatekeepers let us out, and sure enough there was a monster waiting. A Worthy Opponent. It took quite a while to defeat, which is why I was still in earshot of the guards to hear their conversation.

"Dair, my frend, gowz in-con-trow-vertibabble proof dat heroes ah dum," said the first to the second.

"Oh? What's diff'rent about that 'un in particular?" asked the second of the first.

"Youss sees Lammy, dair?"

"Yeah... It's a sheep. What about it?"

"Eczacly. Youss sees wuts around its neck?"

"It's a collar. It's prob'ly his pet. Lots've heroes have 'em."

"Yeh, but dayz yoosooally monstuz."

"It's prob'ly a battlesheep."

"Datz wut he tinks. He tinks puttin' a kahlah on it wull sumhayah mayk it man-yew-fest powuz. But I seen it wit-out wool, shear'd-lyk, nowair to hide nuffink, an dat, my frend, is a doity, pa-thet-i-ma-tik, noimal sheep."

"Huh," said the second. "No kiddin'?"

"No kiddin'. Cross my haht."

"Wow. Heroes are dumb."

When I spared a glance for Number 7, she gave me a venomous look, plunked her rear in the dirt, and scratched pointedly at the collar with her hind leg. Then the Worthy Opponent whacked me over the head and I had to go back to fighting. Once it was dispatched to courier heaven, we could move on.

"Let's go, 'Toto,'" I called. Number 7 trotted after me, and double-barrel-hosed a Deformed Rabbit with napalm cannons the moment the gatekeepers could no longer see us.

All the time that Number 7 was tagging along behind me and Pumba, she was leveling up. I just didn't notice it. Which made it somewhat awkward when guards filling out entry records in other cities saw that my "new" pet was already level 21. Not all of them bought the story that "Toto" was just a gifted leveler; at least one of them reported my "fraudulent pet levels" to the Board of Pantheonic Taming. Since "Toto" isn't my first pet, the Board didn't really care except to slap me with the condition that all of Pumba's levels have to be verified by three independent observers for the next two years.

Even with her head start, Number 7 leveled fast. It seemed like she attained level 30 after only six months on the road! I'm attributing her speed to the fact that she not only helped me fight, she also insisted on carrying me frequently. My traveling skills started to seriously lag behind my other skills by the time she was ready to take a vacation in the ark.

Somehow, we never got Number 7 really registered. For the longest time, all of my gold went to restoring Pumba to health (no matter what I told SourceRunner I did with it), and after that... well, the guards had known her as "Toto" for so long that it just seemed wrong to deprive them of their favorite "harmless sheep." She appreciated their chin scratches and sugar lumps, anyway.

Number 7 and Pumba traded time spent in the ark, for a while. I think they figured one needed to keep me from kicking, and the other needed to make sure the ark fenimals and manimals learned who was boss. Didn't seem interested in ever both traveling with me again. I blame the monks, giving them firefox and battlesheep treats all the time.

Then came that fateful day when I found myself alone on the road for the first time since I was level 15. 

It was the middle of high summer. I'd just brought Number 7 back in from a quest, and she was sweltering. She walked into the temple courtyard, bee-lined for the fountain, and laid herself down right in the middle of it. Only her nostrils stayed above the water.

...she sank my battlesheep.

Bare moments after I healed and sold off my loot, before I could even string up the hammock, the head priest came rushing out to me with a quest assignment of dire doctrinal duty. I might not have gone graciously, but I did take the quest.

Since Number 7 didn't appear to want to move from the fountain, I checked in at the ark to see if Pumba wanted to stretch his legs. He took one sniff of the oven-air outside, gave me his most skeptical look, and retreated to the cool confines of the lower decks. 

In the courtyard, Number 7 had left the water, but she was vigorously scratching at her collar. It's a habit she's never lost. Nobody has ever put a collar on me, but I once had a chainmaille turtleneck that was too tight; maybe it's like that. So I took it off of her. I didn't expect her reaction.

She soft-mouthed me. 

She caught gentle hold of my forearm as I was moving to put the "Toto" collar into my pack, looking up at me with pleading, glistening eyes.

"Don't worry," I said. "I'm just putting it away. If you decide you want to come back out on the road, it'll always be here for you."

Number 7 let my arm go, huffed a contented sigh, and meandered off to graze at her manger of scrap metal.

And with that, I was on my own. Wow, was that an experience, just me and my guardian spirit, out on the open road.

Mile 1, it was invigorating. I could try out all of the combat moves that I'd thought of but never done because my pets would laugh at me.

Mile 10, I was deeply pleased to note that nobody was eating my artifacts.

Mile 50, saw me fall asleep at a fishing hole for so long that I got a sunburn, without anyone nosing me awake. It was glorious.

Mile 100, a Master of Disaster got the jump on me, but that was no big deal.

Mile 200, I startled to realize that I had nobody to register with me on the way into a town.

Mile 300, there was a cold snap in the mountain pass, and no-one to share the misery.

Mile 400, I gave up explaining to heroes and heroines giving me sadly sympathetic looks that I did have pets, they just... weren't with me.

Mile 500, a Grammatical Terror and I showed off wallet-sketches of our "kids" to each other, and I sent him home to hug his family.

Mile 600, I sat on a rock, lonely and bawling, so heartily sick of this epic quest that I was ready to give up. And then a warm, soft muzzle pressed into my hand.

On my way back into Godville, it seemed the same two guards had drawn gatekeeper duty as when I first soloed with Number 7, so I was privy to another of their conversations while I stood aside and filled out customs forms.

"Gawd," said the one with a heavy Los Demonos accent. "I thawt dat wun e-pit-o-mat-ized heroic stew-pidity when he fell outta da cayk at Sarge's pahty, but he's gone an' mayd it even woise! No i-maj-i-no-ta-tion, I tell youse."

"Oh?" The second guard's armor squeaked. He was probably turning to look at me. "'im again. What's 'e done, now?"

"Youse remembah his pet from befohr?"

"Yep. Nice li'l sheep."

"Youse sees wut he's got wit' him?"

"Yeah, looks like a terror bull," the second guard confirmed. "'e have some sort o' fascination with barnyard animals?"

"Dunno. Don' ask, don' tell."

"That's a li'l old-fash'n'd, don't you think?"

"Eh, woiks fo' me," said the first guard, with an audible shrug. "Enny-wayz, back to da hero. Youse see dat terro'bull? Wut do youse gess he naym'd it?"

"...no."

"Yes."

"'e didn't."

"He did!"

"'Toto'!" they chorused.

"Wow. Heroes are dumb."

I just smiled to myself.

Vignette 38:

Monks and nuns are pains in the neck.

And I don't mean that as a turn of phrase, I mean that in actuality. Now that I have a temple to mind, I don't know what I'll do if I ever give up questing for good. Or for evil. Or for neutral. Because if I stop questing, I'll have to stick around the cloisters, and that would kill me faster than any monster I've ever met.

If you've never met the monks and nuns of the SourceCall, let me illustrate them for you:

They start every morning by waking up before dawn and gathering to sing infernal chip-tunes and hymns in country-western style. Is this necessary? No. I've told every abbot and abbess who takes office that SourceRunner sleeps in when she can, and probably won't hear them. But each of them doesn't care, and won't accept the empirical evidence that, beside a single instance or two otherwise, all of my heroic deaths have occurred during morning hours over the weekend. Instead, as the current abbess let me know in no uncertain terms, they attribute my deaths to me being hung over. Hung over! And as a result, every night I spend at the temple ends far too short with Mother and Father Tuneless leading the Sisters and Brothers of the Tin Ear round and round in ceremonial procession, banging prayer drums and crashing prayer cymbals outside my door, and myself scrunched up into the three feet of mattress closest to my headboard as I try to hide under my pillow.

That's the first pain in my neck.

After their hour (hours? I've never been clear on the length of time, as the ceremony always seems to end the moment I give up and get up) of song, the monks and nuns proceed to the dining hall for breakfast and prayers. Intermingled breakfast and prayers. Breakfast and prayers that are required full participation. Everyone sits along tables and receives one portion of soupy porridge in a wooden bowl that looks suspiciously like half of a coconut. Everyone sits with heads bowed as the lector of the day recites the prayer of the day, then everybody picks up his or her bowl and raises it in offering, head thrown back for I-don't-know-what-ecstatic-reason. And with heads still back and spines still arched everyone lowers the bowl he or she holds to her or his lips and drinks a mouthful of the meal. Repeat this sequence twelve times. Haven't finished your porridge in twelve gulps? Tough luck, being hungry on top of your freshly-acquired tension headache.

That's the second pain in my neck.

If it's not a questing day, the monks and nuns vie after breakfast to recruit me for their various projects. Some days I spend crouched over ill-made desks, carefully copying valuable tomes. Some days I spend hauling harvested grapes with the inevitable forehead strap and back basket. Some days I tutor particularly recalcitrant students in the posture of penitence. Whatever I do, I do it until lunch.

That's the third pain in my neck.

Lunch is something I have given up on taking at the temple. When last I tried, the cooks insisted I have the honor of serving the hot stew. How is that anything but a pain in the shoulders? Well, in my lady's temple, all food is held high in offering for at least part of the meal, and at lunch the server makes the offering on behalf of all. Instead of the cauldron of stew hanging from my stretched arms, it rides on my shoulder through four ceremonial processions around the dining hall, displacing my head awkwardly to the side. The abbess complimented me on my poise and balance in making the offering, when she came up with her stew plate to receive a portion, and deemed the fact that a bird of paradise alit on the rim during the second circuit a sign that I should always serve lunch.

I avoid that pain in my neck.

The afternoon is the time set aside for me to read to the temple children. There's this one little one-- Tilly Rose, an aspiring nun-- who insists on sitting in my lap as I do, but she won't stop squirming unless I pin her. Of course, my hands are already occupied by the book, and I have my heels on the hems of the tunics that Tyler and Tyrone the Terror-Twins are wearing that day to keep them from racing around the nursery and making a mess. So what's left to pin Tilly? My chin. 

That's the fourth pain in my neck.

By dinner, I'm exhausted. Dinner, when I get to it, is when my resistance is lowest. And It's the time when having a halo is a completely inconvenient. Dinner is the reason I don't bring my friends home anymore, because the rituals of dinner are devoted to exalting heroes by "accentuating" our "divine characteristics." With evil heroes, that involves decorating their scars and stigmata with all sorts of body paints and baubles and whatnot. That goes over about as well as a lead balloon. After a few of my monks and nuns got extended stays at the T. G. Random Hospital Traction Ward out of unwisely gilding the obscenely-shaped scar some deity put on his bruiser-of-a-heroine's cheek, the abbess pointedly asked me not to bring any more of her type to dinner. Personally, I would love the gilding. Instead, what happens to good heroes is that we get ornaments and jewelry and structures dangled from, wrapped around, and built upon our halos.  At the time that the ritual developed, post-boss-emergence and pre-dungeon, it wasn't so bad, because halo mark 2.0.8 just kind of gradually sank onto my shoulders under the weight, so eventually I found myself in a helmet lit warmly by twinkling lights and chiming with soft bells. Pretty quickly I figured out how to time eating my dinner so I was full by the time the helmet sank past my lips. That all changed with halo mark 3.0. 

I don't know if someone reported the sinking halo as a bug, or if whichever manufacturer and supplier of halos to the divine for decal-like application to mortal subjects simply found a cheaper way to produce a durable product with enough upgrades to sell again to prior customers, but halo mark 3.0 arrived firmly anchored to the wearer's head. Not that there are visible bolts, or even emanating rays like some artists show. Nothing like that. Halos are not visibly attached. But that doesn't stop them from keeping relatively still and transferring all force applied to it into the wearer. On the upside, if I catch a blade on it, all I get is a mean case of whiplash. On the downside... oh, boy, the dinner ritual is torment.

The monks and nuns were thrilled about halo mark 3.0. It's brighter, shinier, wider, and sturdier. The nuns can add more shiny stuff. The monks can build higher. And I... I. I can learn to balance structures three or more meters tall and get used to the feeling of the vertebra and disks in my neck compressing at a swifter and swifter rate as my dinner winds slowly toward dessert. Once, I tried to hide all of the decorations before dinner. That doesn't work. If the monks can't find their metal skewer scaffolding, they improvise with candelabra. If the nuns can't find their gold dangles and strings of glowing cranberries (gee, thanks for making THOSE, SourceRunner), they grab the temple handbells and votive candles.

That's the fifth pain in my neck.

When I can get out of washing dishes after dinner, I sneak out to the pub for some well-earned relaxation time. Of course, it's not always the same pub, and not always one pub, and not always a certain pattern or predictable amount of time at any pub. 

I know what you're thinking, and you're wrong: I'm not trying to drink myself into liver failure and skip out on the bill. In fact, I'm lucky if I get to finish even one of my drinks, because I am a hunted man.

In a rare streak of empathy (or is it sympathy?), the bar tenders and innkeepers understand my plight and help me out by keeping watch over my shoulder to warn me to move on, and they let me take one of the beer mats (that's "coasters" to those hailing from Herolympus) with me when I run. By the time I get cornered, I've got a stack of the beer mats that amounts to my trail for the night, I throw a sack of gold coins at the last bar tender I see, and he swipes up the beer mats so he can settle my bills at the rest of the fine comestibles establishments that I've had to flee.

What? You thought he'd pull out a sub-mesa battle axe and come to my defense? Everybody knows better. The monk hunting me terrifies.

Brother Strakes is 390 if he's a day. He carries a gnarled hickory cane that doesn't need to be a sword-cane, the way he wields it. He can exert more pressure between his thumb and index finger than most self-respecting drill presses. He keeps an arsenal of the most unapologetically hackneyed lecture rhetoric to ever make a person feel five centimeters tall. Everybody calls him "Grandfather, sir." 

My evening ends when Grandfather, sir seizes me by the ear and drags me back to the temple, like the reprobate I am, telling me all about how I am not allowed to make a laughingstock of the cloisters ever again because he has to live in this town, and when he was my age he'd have thrown me off his lawn, so respect my elders.

Did I mention that, due to his advanced age, Brother Strakes has a severe case of osteoporosis that has reduced his former four foot glory to a ground-hugging two-and-a-half feet? I've prayed diligently for my guardian spirit to affect a cure for him, but until she does, I go all the way home bent over with my head cranked to one side.

That's the sixth pain in my neck. Then it's go to bed, wake up, and do it all over again.

Is it any wonder I prefer staying at the guild hall?

Vignette 39: Life isn't all bad.

I realize that I've been complaining an awful lot, but a hero's life isn't all suffering. To prove it, I thought that I should add this bit of cheese to go with all the whine.

Today's afternoon was truly good. Truly, truly good. I'd just gotten back from a quest to sit in a pub all day and make up diary entries, exhausted and tail-sore from sitting on a bar stool the whole time, to find Pumba, Number 7, and Toto (he's not allowed in the Khaki-Colored Dragon since the plutocrat incident) all sprawled in a dogpile on the lawn in front of the temple fountain. Since there's a perfect niche behind Number 7's shoulder that I can fit my halo into while having my neck supported, I flopped down with them.

The sun was shining in just that way where motes float lazily in the air. It was warm. The air just felt... soft. 

Sleep stole over me on little cat feet. I must have been out for a good half hour when a tiny somebody who smelled of baby powder and flowers crawled under my arm and pillowed her cheek on my rib cage. When I opened one eye, I saw the top of Tilly Rose's curly-locked head. She dropped into sleep faster than I got back there myself, and piped the music of her gentle snoring into the gentle breeze.

It turns out to have been a good thing that I didn't immediately fall asleep, because through slitted eyes I watched Tyler and Tyrone the Terror Twins creeping up on our nap-fest with a bucket of water from the fountain. There's a certain art to warning your pets to get ready to spring away without them doing so immediately or giving away what they're about to do. I'm not going to share the technique here, but by the time the Terror Twins were within six steps of the dog pile, Pumba was ready to snatch Tilly from under my arm, Number 7 was tensed to catapult me toward the Terror Twins, and Toto was ready to body-check them into me.

When the Twins were within five steps of the pile, Sister Diamondbottom (I am not making that up-- that's her nun name, and I'm not asking why) materialized behind them with a chime of the SourceCall. She paused for a second in surprise, but swiftly grabbed both of the twins by the collars of their tunics and lifted them off their feet. As Toto, Number 7, and Pumba all relaxed, I saw through my still-slitted eyes as the sister turned around that the back of her habit was torn away in the shape of her chair of office. Almost like someone had put glue on it. Then I slipped off into lullaby lagoon.

Heh. Sometimes being the chosen hero of a guardian spirit is a good deal.

Vignette 40: Spring is when the monsters frolic and the gardeners show off.

After all, that's when Lostway holds a plant show, and heroes and monsters hold a festival so secret that even our deities don't know much about it.

It all began about... oh, I don't know, maybe as many as three hundred years ago, maybe as few as forty; nobody really seems to be clear on that point. But what everyone agrees about is that it started at the Lostway Academy of Mythicology for the Young of All Species, which was a school established for the training of heroes and monsters by a founder of the unlikely name of "Alewishes Cowherd." Despite the spelling, the founder insisted that the pronunciation of his name is actually "Ah-loo-ish-us K'ward." 

And there ends my knowledge of him. I prefer the "Ale-wishes" pronunciation, anyway.

Back when the festival hadn't started yet, heroes and monsters both attended the academy at the same time and in the same place, but generally maintained segregated classes for everything but physical education (and that was only integrated because faculty discovered that it motivated the lazy of each kind to actually participate-- proto-heroes to run in terror and proto-monsters to give chase). As a result, both sets of students became very possessive of particular classrooms, and both considered the grounds and sports fields neutral territory belonging to everyone. 

In spring, the groundskeepers and gardeners had a habit of commandeering hero-students who earned detention for "digging practice," to set up flower beds and seed replacement trees for those that were knocked down by winter storms or practice shots by proto-deities. Hero-students became exceptionally adept at angelic behavior in spring, because nobody wanted to be recruited for the first big planting push of the year. Still, prank wars between boarding school dormitories are sacred duties that cannot be postponed for long, and one year two sets of proto-heroes got into a situation of mutually assured destruction. Far from being angry along with the janitors and the rest of the faculty, the head gardener was delighted to have forty able-bodied young diggers on his hands and set about having them plant thousands of bulbs, acorns, and saplings, all in one unseasonably warm day.

He really should have known better. He really should have known that monsters mark the first warm day of spring with several nights of athletic dancing to honor their god, the Leveler. They make a policy of seeing that their festival sites are packed flat by the time they finish each night, ostensibly to obscure the entrances to their underground cities.

Of course a fresh, soft, newly-planted bed of bulbs would make the perfect site for their celebrations-- they wouldn't even become footsore for hours!

The head gardener returned the next morning to inspect the hard work of his previous day and found nothing but tulip mash. Outraged at the blatant and rebellious vandalism he thought caused by the heroes-to-be, he hauled every last one of them out of their morning prayers to redo what they had done yesterday. Their collective befuddlement and protests of innocence did nothing to improve the head gardener's mood, but one blessing of second opportunities is that the process goes much faster on repetition, and even more of the annual planting work was done by the end of the second day than the first.

The young heroes' conversation over dinner became so absorbed in complaints about inadequate breaks for barley water that they did not notice the extra food the young monsters were shoveling in to fuel their night's dancing.

The monsters-to-be were delighted to find, when night fell, that their dancing grounds had been prepared to a conscientious softness for them again, and even expanded for their celebrations. They danced even more vigorously in the light of the waxing moon that night.

In the morning, the head gardener had kittens. Then, after he had seen to the comfort of his prize mouser, he went outside and had a cow at the state of his grounds. Out came the proto-heroes again, aching shoulders and stitching sides be darned.

Two days of planting and destruction had exhausted the supply of bulbs and seeds, leaving the flowers that the groundskeepers had forced in a greenhouse over winter for the decoration of the founder's dinnertable, and whatever the head gardener could find blooming in the woods for the young heroes to transplant. But transplant they did, the end of the day seeing borders of bloodwort and lawn daisies, features of leggy daffodils, accents of scrub cedar, and trellises bedecked in tendrils of money vine.

The student heroes were much too tired to stay awake during dinner, let alone comprehend the student monsters' murmured anticipation of what they would find in their dance that  night.

Needless to say, the proto-monsters were deeply touched by the kind provision of materials from which to make garlands to use in their dances.

Conniptions were the order for the head gardener the next morning. He shredded his favorite hat in white-lipped rage. And then, still under the erroneous impression that the heroes-in-training were responsible for the phytocide, he set the unlucky group to digging up, transporting, and replanting the biggest, oldest, heaviest oak tree he could find. It took all day long, and they say the holes dug were so massive and deep that moles have never since been seen in the vicinity. The heroic survivors of the Transplanting of the Tree were said to evermore wear golden acorns around their necks, or bear a tattoo of an oak leaf somewhere on their scarred bodies. They watered the thing with their sweat and tears.

And that night, they set an honor guard, armed with rolls of toilet paper to bind any wounds that broke back open, or serve as pillows for their weary heads.

When the monsters-in-training arrived for the final night of their dances, they paused in awe. They did not have to run into the forest to find a Leveler Tree to festoon with streamers, for the heroes had brought them a perfect specimen, and had even brought rolls of the decoration with perfectly customizable perforations in them. Many monsters shed a tear of gratitude, and were as gentle as can be about replacing the loo roll pillows with various items of wadded equipment under the heroes' heads. And after a night of maypoling and worshipful poetry recitations, the monsters left a very kind thank you note for their human ceremonial assistants beside a neat stack of cardboard cores.

That morning, the head gardener was discovered on the floor, frothing at the mouth, in front of one of the windows with a view out onto the grounds. The Academy quietly bundled him away to a rest retreat for the emotionally unstable. The heroes-to-be stole back into their dormitories with the thank you note, vowing to share it among themselves until they discovered what it meant. The janitors grumbled and cleaned up strewn toilet paper so that the oak tree could have a chance of growing into its new home.

Flash forward to the present day, and you have the most important heroic festival to ever be kept secret from our deities. We prepare for it all year. Sometimes we insert in-jokes in our diaries because we know our guardian spirits won't "get" them. For instance, I laugh every time I write, "Planted some flowers, patted some puppies, and tried to be good." SourceRunner doesn't know that I'm creating some stock for my gardener for the Lostway Annual Flower and Garden Extravaganza.

Each gardener who wants to participate in the four-day garden marathon gets assigned a square of earth seven paces by seven paces large. That gardener creates a plan, and then recruits a bunch of heroes to make that plan happen. Good heroes are in charge of growing and harvesting secret beds of particular flowers and bulbs ("secret" because sabotage is allowed, like when I go romping in garden bed, and then pretend the flowers were already trampled when I got there). Evil heroes get to seek out specimen trees and bushes (again, secret, because if a rival evil hero notices the selection, he or she is prone to hanging out beside it until a punishment catches it on fire). Neutral heroes... usually stand around, laughing at the rest of us.

I have about six different beds of tulips hidden away in various glades, right now. I hope they're the right shades, but you never really know until they bloom. One year, I followed one of the Blue Feathers after we had each been recruited by rival gardeners. His guardian spirit sent him into a dungeon shortly after he left Lostway, and since nobody is allowed to take competition plant matter into a dungeon (let's face it: one whiff of a toxic dungeon kills all plants without fail), he left his bag of bulbs outside, hidden under a tree stump. As soon as he was gone, I emptied his bag into the creek and put my assigned bulbs in their place. He planted and assiduously watered those things all year (while I got and attended a second batch), and was so puzzled when they came up purple instead of teal... and then so mad when I dug them up and gave them to my gardener. I only got away with that one year, and he got me back last year by replacing my banana trees with dwarf varietals right at the start.

The first day of the garden extravaganza, the gardeners show off their skills in creating lawns. Good and evil heroes from all over bring rolls of sod... And if you see a sign by the road that says "Keep off the Grass," you'd better heed it! Some heroes dig tiger traps in random places, so anyone unauthorized stomping on the chosen harvest sites may disappear like the ground ate them! I've seen it happen, and even written about it!

The gardeners sometimes ask for particular species of grasses, and make little color mazes or patterns with them. Each plot usually gets a hedge or low wall border, that day. By afternoon, human judges give each lawn a score on looks, and that night the monsters come to dance. Monster judges give scores for danceability. Last year, the winning lawn was made of tufts of moss and steppable aromatic herbs, so there may be a different style this year.

The second day, the wrecked lawns get replaced with flowers in amazing arrangements. You've never seen so many saints with muddy faces as converge on Lostway as on the second day, armed to the teeth with the ingredients of floral confections; reds, blues, purples, oranges, whites, pinks, and all shades in between that have a name or a paint chip show up in bundles and flats in the arms of good heroes. Bruised shins and kidneys proliferate as each team seeks to rush to the right spot to undo the night's destruction and prevent other teams doing the same. It's where that phrase, "chaotic good," comes from. I'm certain. Annuals carpet the ground in various heights and textures. This year, I've heard that gardeners plan to work around a theme of sailing ships, so maybe there will be rolling oceans of blue flowers.

Human judges score the garden patches on looks and creativity. Monster judges score them on the sounds the flowers make underfoot, and any transfer of color from flower to fur. And by morning, the place is a fresh canvas again.

The third day, gardens are only allowed to use plants scavenged from the woods, and seeding is cheering. Many fights break out between heroes who have seen and planned to use the same patches of bloodwort and mayapple on different days during the preceding year. One evil hero took to dragging monster carcasses into a foul fence around his desired bluebells. It turned out to be a bit of a faux pas when one of the nocturnal dancers smelled her missing betrothed on one of the plants. 

Human judges score the gardens on their naturalism and ability to attract wildlife (on that note, it is considered cheating to pin squirrels and birds to the display by their little feet). Monster judges score them on the buffet of small plants and animals they offer to refresh the dancers throughout the night. And so the ground is flattened neatly for the fourth, final day.

The last day is the day when the evil heroes shine in all of their infernal glory. If a gardener wants the biggest, oldest, most gnarled specimen tree, he or she generally recruits the biggest, most twisted, most scarred hero he or she can find. Usually, that hero will gleefully recruit helpers on the day, after having spent a year scouting for the best specimen trees, and set them to manipulating their spirits' influences. You see, there are things that evil heroes can do to get particular punishments, like picking a fight with a bear, or releasing a stork near a frog pond. When trying to get a specimen tree uprooted, suffice it to say the evil hero providing said tree recruits a lot of other evil heroes and heroines who end up mauled in the course. And just in case the tree gets struck by lightning, an experienced evil hero will have another two or so specimens in mind to try for instead. Then, once they get one grounded, you'd better clear the road, because a honkin'-great leafy battering ram is comin' through, driven by teams of eighteen or more fresh recruits lashed to a gallop by strains of lightning attracted to the head evil hero. Any heroes without fast enough reflexes to get out of the way are left as broken piles of unidentifiable remains on the road behind, left with the dilemma of making up a suitably heroic demise to report to the guardian spirit responsible for resurrecting them. (I hear that Death trains his apprentices on this glut.) By the afternoon, the outskirts of the Lostway Arboretum have grown by several acres.

The human judges score the gardens by the qualities of the specimen tree in each. The monsters score them by some obscure standard of "festoonability." And in the morning, the top three victorious gardeners are presented with bags of gold and certificates to luxury spas. It is generally thought good manners for the gardeners to spend the gold buying their hero teams beer. I haven't been on a winning team, yet, but I hear it's quite a celebration.

Vignette 41: The things I trip over...

Sometimes they can be really cool. I recently found something extremely cool by tripping over it, and it wasn't something hard that turned out to be a chest of gold.

There are certain things that heroes with halos can do that heroes with scars and devil horns can't. Well, maybe not "can't," really, but more like "will get run down by landsfolk with torches, pitchforks, and thumbscrews" if they try. I don't care how sick, evil, and outright twistedly sadistic your deity is, you WILL be psychologically scarred when a sweet-faced five-year-old in pigtails is tightening down those screws. Gary-Sue told me so, and I didn't ask how he knew.

One of the things a halo will get you that a spade tail and forked tongue won't is unasked shelter in a stable during a sudden storm. Stable owners usually assume that an evil hero brought the downpour, hail, lightning, etc., and don't take too kindly to the risk that their horses or oxen may end up parboiled by proximity. But if a hero has a halo? Hey, a good near-miss by an encouragement can even heal a fatal case of torsion. So whenever I get caught in a falling flash flood, I look for a nearby barn or stable and go right in. Usually, there's no-one there but us animals.

That's what I was doing a little while ago. The wind was whipping the rain into horizontal licorice twists (rain is supposed to taste like chocolate-- someone's guardian spirit was in a cruel mood), the lightning was making my teeth tingle, and I knew I was about to get belted in the mouth by a swinging branch if I didn't get under cover soon. (Did you know that branches can swing out of nowhere? Don't even have to be attached to trees. I've lost count of how many teeth I've lost to some other spirit's wrath. A neutral heroine called it "collateral damage.") So I spotted a low building with lots of doors along the walls and one big one at the end; classic stable. Usually, you can spot the farm the outbuilding belongs to, but the precipitation bathing my face kept me from looking too hard.

I sprinted across the yard, heaved the door open just far enough to let Toto and myself in, slammed it to again, and turned to scurry deeper into the straw-scented space. That's when I tripped.

It was a beauty of a flying sprawl, if I do say so myself. The unseen obstacle caught me about mid-shin and flexed, so I didn't feel pain or know that I was in trouble until my desperately lifting other foot tangled its toe underneath some sort of ropy ledge and I started to tip irrevocably forward. My arms flew out and up, and my body twisted badly to one side, and I had just enough time to pray for a landing that wouldn't dislocate a shoulder or break my collarbone before I flopped onto something soft that briefly resisted before bumping to the floor.

At first, I had my eyes scrunched closed in anticipation of the snapping I'd heard on landing being followed by the breath-robbing sensations of something having gone horribly wrong, so it took a few moments to realize that the surface under my cheek was fuzzy and warm and covered with exquisite paisleys. For that matter, the stable that I'd expected to be dark and musty was brightly lit, warm, and occupied by a pair of curly-toed shoes only a little way in front or my nose.

"Are you OK?"

Having just finished my inventory of bodyparts and found nothing immediately amiss, I pushed myself onto my haunches and looked at my host. Above the curly, blue, gold-embroidered shoes billowed a pair of white trousers gathered at the ankles, layered over by long, black, linen tunic with blue and gold designs, overlaid by a long, pointy beard that led to a concerned face topped by a blue cap with gold embroidery. Six-foot-six, he stood on the ground, and behind him looked like the warehouse of a very successful floor decor business, with carpets draped over the walls of every stall, hanging from the rafters, and spread over hay piles. Some rippled in the breeze.

Except there was no breeze.

"I... think so," I replied, rubbing my eyes. "Though I may be hallucinating."

"Splendid!" The man clapped his hands and smiled. "Please rise and get off of my silver-fringed imperial, because it is not ready for passengers, yet. While that particular weave is easy to train to hover, it is also notoriously fractious if discouraged by too much weight too early."

I scrambled back and bumped into Toto, who was sitting and scratching himself with a hind hoof, apparently having avoided all mishap getting through the door. I stood up, now on a straw-thatched dirt floor, and looked at what I had fallen onto: only a rug, slightly rumpled. Perhaps the thunder outside had partially deafened me. I wiggled my jaw.

"I'm sorry, but could you please repeat that? I misheard something."

"The silver-fringed imperial," my host repeated, gesturing downward. "It has only just begun hovering, and cannot yet support the weight of a rider. That could frustrate it and render it untrainable." He ignored my gaping and straightened the carpet. "Up, little one. Try again."

The throw rug rippled up a corner and edge desultorily.

"Come, now, you must try again. There is nothing to hold you to the ground. Wouldn't you like to feel the air under your warp and weft? Up, woven bird."

Before my eyes, the carpet rose unevenly, humping up in the middle like an inchworm before snapping its front and back off of the floor. A bit of straw was caught in its dangling, silver fringe, but it truly floated, shin-high.

"Splendid!" my host repeated, and gently bushed his fingers through the fringe to untangle some strings. "Aren't you a fine, beautiful creature? Soon, you will soar in the heavens, swifter than a stooping hawk, and you will win glory in the races."

"What... What is this place?" I couldn't tear my eyes from the hovering carpet. "Is this magic? Are you some sort of wandering master?"

My host barked a laugh. "Wandering? Hardly. Welcome to Al-Coursee Loomworks and Stable, home of the finest racing carpets in the whole of Godville." He swept an arm around  indicating the whole stable. "Welcome to my venture and passion. I am Khamid Al-Coursee. And you, my friend? Surely you are not truly a drowned rat."

"Ah, no... My name is Tarintodont, and this is Toto the Terrorbull. I'm sorry, didn't mean to barge in... It's raining and not fit for man or beast out there."

"So I gathered." Khamid sank into a cross-legged seat on the floor, scratching the floating carpet lightly and supporting it underneath with a spread hand. "You must be one of the vaunted heroes I hear fighting along the road each day." He coaxed the carpet a little higher, and leaned forward to whisper something into its bristled surface. "We used to use your arena in between duels, before the city expanded its sports complex to include a regulation flight path."

Uncomfortable with towering over the man, I sat back down. The thoughts in my head were racing like snails stuck in molasses. "Again, sorry, but I think I whacked my head. Let me get this straight: this is a stable?"

"Yes," my host confirmed agreeably.

"For... flying carpets?"

"Indeed."

"Which race? Each other?"

"Quite."

"And you own and breed these... flying carpets?"

"Actually, we weave them, since carpets cannot breed, but you were doing well up until that." Khamid had supported the carpet up to the seated height of his shoulder, and he slowly dropped his hands. The silver-fringed imperial bobbled momentarily, but stabilized. "Ah... Now you see that? Have you ever seen finer potential in a show carpet?"

"No, I... no, I can't say that I have."

He leaned in and blew along the surface of the carpet between us. The carpet shivered and rippled. "Yes, very sensitive. This one could be an agility racer or a show carpet, as long as it works hard to perfect its flight. We may finally have a challenger for Whispers At Midnight."

"Who are 'we'?" I had to ask. Khamid chuckled.

"'We' are the Continental League of Aeronauts: Woven Division," he said, stroking what I was beginning to suspect was a very young carpet, fresh off the loom. "Most of us have emigrated from warmer climes, and brought our sport with us as a memory of our origins. My brother, the first of us to move here twenty years ago, was quite surprised to find a racing club already in place. They were hobbyists flying hot air balloons. He joined them with his first rag-rug, and the new division began there. Would you like some tea? We will let this little silver rest, and go to my house to warm you with hot tea."

Suiting actions to words, he encouraged the carpet to land and rolled it to lean against a wall under a heat lamp. When I looked at Toto, my terrorbull seemed to be contentedly slumbering in a straw pile. It wouldn't hurt to leave him there. So I followed my host through a person-sized door at the far end of his stable, surreptitiously marveling at all of the different carpets abounding. So many materials (silk thread, yarn, old rags...); so many shapes (rectangle, runner, round, oblong...); so many colors (silver, red, teal, gold, cream, black...); so many styles (rustic, native, imperial, oriental, embroidered, fringed, tasseled, bound...)! We passed several large looms, some holding half-finished weavings, one acting as a stretching frame for a tapestry. A quick glance at the cartoon it was to replicate revealed a high degree of detail and accuracy.

Another door led directly into a domicile of cream and gold, of arches and columns, of mosaic ceilings and artwork. Where there were actual walls, tapestries graced them, or arrangements of prize ribbons and the sketches of riders and flying carpets that documented their victories attracted beams of light.

"This is my home," stated Khamid, somewhat unnecessarily. "My wife and daughters are at the market, gathering supplies, or there would be more than myself to greet you. But you and I shall have tea and fresh bread, and we shall wait for this storm to pass over."

"Thank-- thank you. Is there anything I can do to help?"

"You can keep me company as I prepare our repast." Khamid turned left, so I did too, and we entered into a high-ceilinged kitchen where my host swung a cauldron on an iron arm over a fire and emptied a bucket of water into it. Several carpets hung overhead, fastened to the mosaics and shifting in the stirring air.

"Are those some of your retired racing carpets?" I asked, pointing to them. My host raised his eyebrows and glanced up. Then he broke into another smile.

"Oh, my, no. It would be cruel to fix in place a carpet that spent its whole life aloft, and no man of means would display something as shabby and threadbare as a retired racing carpet." He got out a board, a loaf of bread, and a knife. Before setting to cutting, he pointed up with the knife. "Unpredictably, something can go wrong with the weaving and a carpet never awakes from the loom. The ones that are still beautiful, I keep for myself and for my daughters' dowries, and these furnish my home. The rest, I sell in the markets around about Godville."

As Khamid arranged rounds of sliced bread on a platter with a cup of fruit preserves in the center, I searched for something else to say. I struck upon, "I don't believe I've ever heard of carpet races before, and didn't know that they happened in Godville."

"Ho! And why should you? When we raced around the arena, it was always when there were no duels or prospective duels to be fought. Now that we have our new flight path to race, we travel parts of the city where heroes never go." He took a tea pot to the cauldron and poured boiling water into it, then whipped tea into the water.

"I think I'd like to see one, though--"

"Then you shall! And you shall be my guest. My box has the best view of the whole flight path! You must tell me how to contact you for when the races happen."

We took the tea in a room piled with pillows and more carpets. Conversation wandered around Khamid's competitors, the qualifications of a good carpet jockey, prospects for the off-season and the characteristics of various styles of carpets in flight, comparative benefits of flying by balloon versus carpet, and generally all things flying carpet. Long after the storm passed and the sun was shining once again, shrieking women ran into the house, complaining strenuously against the monster that had moved into the carpet barn. Introductions were made, and a woman about Khamid's age took control of the conversation and firmly steered it toward the life of a hero, as if to apologize without words for her husband's obsession with flying carpets.

To be honest, I didn't mind the discussion of carpets. It was fascinating. I continued to turn it over in my mind long into the night after I took myself and Toto back onto the road at dusk.

I mean, flying carpets! In Godville! Who knew?

Vignette 42: People tend to see what they want to see.

Which must mean that I want to see magic carpets everywhere, because that's what I'm seeing. They honestly weren't there, before-- I never saw them-- but in the months since I met Khamid Al-Coursee and his family of weavers and jockeys, carpets are all over the place. Truly, the fruit is falling plentifully from the loom.

Or flying, rather.

For instance, just now, as I was writing the previous sentence, I spotted a fast-moving shadow on the ground, bigger than a bird, and when I looked up there was a massive runner carpet zooming overhead. It seated something like fifteen people! All in a row, one behind another, parents making sure their kids don't buck the carpet. I'll have to check with Khamid to be sure, but I suspect that someone got the bright idea to start hero-watching tours, and that's what that was. It makes sense, if you think about it-- no guardian spirit has yet created flying monsters (that is NOT a hint, oh Soul Supreme), so the safest place to see monster fights from is the air, and a carpet is the fastest way to get from fight to fight. I just hope that the tour guides keep a weather eye out for the-- ...well, weather. It would be a shame to see one of those runners spiraling out of the sky in flames because of a guardian spirit's bad aim.

The tours weren't what this chronicle set out to document when I started writing it, though. What it's meant to discuss is a rather solemn adventure I had last night. 

Don't worry, it turned out well in the end.

Again, it started out in a rain storm. What is it with the weather and starting adventures, lately? But at least it wasn't a lashing rain. Nor were there ominous peels and rolls of thunder to send me seeking shelter, otherwise I wouldn't have been beside a nice creek with a hook trailing its lazy way through the current.

Fishing is good at that particular creek, so I won't be revealing its location, suffice it to say that tall trees border it and branches criss-cross over it. It's not the sort of place where one meets visitors from the sky or fishing inspectors. (Visitors from the heavens are a different matter altogether. SourceRunner had a bad day, once, and sent an angel to punch me in the nose while I was fishing there. I spun a full circle, staggered to the side, fell, and rolled into the water, which scared away any fish. Those angels pack a whallop.) On that particular day, I'd already fished out a brace of trout, a walleye, and a ><))))> when I felt something unusual snag on my hook. The way it flexed and tugged in the flowing water, I had high hopes for a wishing fish, a fenimal, or even-- just maybe-- that most elusive nymph of the waters, a mermaid.

I reeled it in consummately gently. While I don't have a fishing rod with one of those fancy locking reels, I can spin my rod to draw the line in slowly. That's no fun to fix, because the line comes off curly when I unwind it again, but a mermaid constitutes extenuating circumstances. By agonizing centimeters, my catch emerged from the waters, dark and draping wetly, like a nereid's hair. Strands even separated and hung free. But no face of siren beauty adorned this shape.

Instead, I saw a paisley.

A pale, ivory paisley.

One, two,  many paisleys.

If anything, my winding got slower. Partly out of disappointment, I'll admit, but also partly out of bewilderment. Someone had dumped a decorative carpet into the water. Why? Old boots, I can understand. Sandbags, I can understand. But a nice rug? The more of it came out of the water, the more clear it became that it was the sort of rug that I'd be proud to lay down in the temple. It wasn't rubbish.

Once I drew it near enough to unhook. I set my rod aside and held the thing up by the corners. Water streamed down it, and the dark fringe that I'd initially mistaken for sopped tresses hung in clumps, but it was undeniably of quality workmanship. The only sensible thing to do was drape it over a low tree branch to drip dry-- or drier, at least, given that nothing dries fully in the rain-- while I finished fishing.

My line did unwind in ringlets. Typical.

About half an hour later, I caught a fenimal, and was going to issue her a free ticket to my ark, but something distracted me.  The hanging carpet seemed to flicker in one corner. I stared at it. There was no breeze, just steady precipitation falling straight down from the heavens, like a certain someone was crying (and I'd have tried doing a little dance to cheer her up if concerns weren't converging), but the lower right corner curled and rippled as I watched.

It was a flying carpet. And I would be lying if I said that a few unsavory oaths did not rocket through my mind at just that moment of realization. Did magic carpets drown? Had someone tried to murder the carpet? Would water logging hurt it? What could I do to save it? Was wringing out appropriate? I knew people beat regular carpets to get the dust out, but was that carpet abuse? I didn't know, and I had to ask fast. But Khamid and his family were all the way back in Godville! I'd checked, and it was a major racing week! I needed an excuse to return to the city.

Pity my health was so good and my armor shining.

Pity my bag wasn't even half full of loot.

But I did have a fenimal.  That might work.

"Milady," I cried, sweeping my earmuffs of selective deafness from my head and bowing low. "You are precious and should be protected. Please allow me to personally escort you to my ark."

Where her eyes had been narrowing in growing miffedness as I was distracted, her nose and the insides of her ears then blushed a pleased pink as I courteously abased myself. I prodded Toto the Terrorbull awake and settled her on his back, gently got the carpet down from the branch and rolled it up, then led the whole party back to the city at my best quantum leap pace. 

For reference, Toto can outstrip my pace by at least half again my speed. What I have on him is stamina: if you have a terrorbull with a discipline problem developed from rambunctiousness, take him on a 750 mile run and then try some positive reinforcement training while he's exhausted. It works every time, especially if your reinforcement treat involves Redham's strawberry-flavored, extra-salty, wholegrain pretzel twists.  I should invest in that company, as much of its stock as I buy.

The fenimal was an excellent rider. Great poise in her carriage, and she didn't fall even once.

Risked trouble by blowing past the guards at the gate. 

"Hayh! Youse get dat customs jumping tayul back heyah!"

"Aw, leave 'im alone. 'E's that particularly dumb 'un. We'll get 'im on the way back out."

"But it's da prin-si-pab-able of da ting--"

The city was too noisy and I was too far away to hear anymore of the conversation, but since nobody chased me, I assume the one guard prevailed over the other with the heavy Los Demonos accent. Anyway, soon enough the Fenimal Express was skidding into the temple courtyard, and I lifted the passenger down, firmly instructing Terror Twin Tyrone (doing an animal rotation under the steely gaze of Sister Diamondbottom) to get her settled in the finest cabin in the ark.

All of the fenimals get their own finest cabin, since the only differences in the appointment are the colors, but they seem to appreciate having something secret to be smug about as they settle in.

Bowing deeply to the fenimal as she elegantly led her small procession up the gangway, I muttered firm instructions out of the corner of my mouth to Toto. "Stay here. Guard my pack. Divide the fish between yourself, Number 7, and Pumba, and eat them before they go bad. I have something urgent to do, and I have no idea how long it's going to take."

The trek to the quarter where the Aeronauts of all stripes tend to gather was significantly longer than the mad dash to my temple, for the sole reason that I'd never been there before. Most heroes haven't. In fact, so few heroes have that I got asked at least eight times (three of which were by city guards) if I was lost, drunk, or lost and drunk. It didn't stop until I unrolled the carpet and draped it over my head and shoulders for all to see. Which choice got me unreasonably wet because the poor thing was still sopped despite the rain slackening.

If I've never been to the Aeronauts' district, how did I know about the carpet race schedule, you ask? Simple: the bookies at the arena still get the race calendars delivered as a matter of professional curiosity. They share, if one asks nicely and brings them a bag of quantum dice every once in a while.

The good thing about the district is that once you get there, the Aerodrome is the biggest thing around. You can't miss it. There are massive bronze hangars for the balloons, rivets studding every seam in the metal sheets. There are lofts and stables for the carpets. There's a stadium with seating enough to rival the arena, where the races start, and a jumbotron so the audience can see the entire course of the race or some of the aerial exhibition battles that the venture capitalists for those new zeppelin things sponsor. And off to the side, in a low building close to the stables, are the quarters for visiting carpet owners and weavers. The signage said so. I went right in and stopped at the reception desk.

"Mr. Al-Coursee, please?" I asked, with my most winning smile.

The matron behind the counter looked over my attire, sniffed and caught a whiff of the carpet that was giving off the twin odors of mold and algae by this point, and gave me a truly eloquent sneer. She pointed at a brass plaque standing on the desk. It read, "No Solicitors."

"Oh, I'm not a lawyer," I assured her. If anything, her glare intensified, by which I deduced that the plaque meant "solicitor" in the Herolympus sense. "I'm also about twelve million away from retirement, so I'm not a merchant or trader of any sort, either. Look, Mr. Al-Coursee issued me a standing invitation to come see one of his races sometime, so it's possible he left a note authorizing me. Can you please check for 'Tarintodont'?"

With an eyebrow arched in scornful doubt, she opened her visitor log and scanned with a fingertip. "That's 'Gerontologist' with a 'g'?"

"No, 'Tarintodont' with a 't'. Three t's, actually."

"I know how to spell, hero." She reluctantly paused on a line. "Well, now. You are authorized." She closed the ledger with a thump. 

I waited for a moment, but she just stared at me. I ventured, "So... where do I go?"

The last time I got such a hairy eyeball, it was a trophy for defeating a monster. "Down that hall, eighth door on your right."

To my shame, I actually considered not thanking her before I dashed down the hall, the carpet lofting and slapping in the tradition of the best sodden capes. I also skidded and lost my balance on the polished marble floors, falling into a beautiful slide right past my destination. We shall say nothing of the tremendous crash of the decorative amphora that stopped my frictionless progression.

By the time I got back to the eighth door, Mrs. Al-Coursee was peering in my direction out of it, as were several other curiosity-seekers from their own doors. I clasped the corners of the carpet around my neck and held out my other hand in greeting as my worries tumbled out from between my lips.

"Hello, Mrs. Al-Coursee, I'm Tarinodont. We met several months ago when I took shelter in your barn during a storm? Khamid invited me to see a race, sometime, and I still hope to, but I'm here for a different reason. You see, I found a flying carpet in a river, and it's completely soaked, but still moving, and I don't know how to take care of it. Can carpets drown? I don't know what to do with it! Please, help it!"

She blinked at me for a few seconds, parsing my breathless rush of words, then responded, "Yes, of course. Is this the patient? Let me see."

I swept the rug from my shoulders, holding it up for her.

Those people who say that a smile, good manners, and a kind word will open doors? They're wrong. The best way to open doors is a shriek from a well-respected lady. Every door that wasn't already open up and down the corridor practically flew off its hinges and crashed into its opposite zooming the other way. 

The last time so many people heaped such hostility on me was when I accidentally walked in on the traders' daughters' debutants' ball when I made a wrong turn looking for the Alefest Planning Board meeting. That was also the last time so many people all drew weapons on me at the same time. This time, all I could muster was a feeling of resigned exhaustion. Dying like that again would stink like a seven-day-dead fish, but it no longer holds that special terror of mystery for me.

Luckily (a strange sort of luck, but still luck), Khamid rushed from a back room. Shirtless and tripping over his drooping trousers, he still managed to gather up his wife and shield her from me, interposing between us a glare that was somehow more intimidating than the assorted scimitars that were already pointed in my direction. I dropped the carpet, which pleated at my feet with a soggy slap, and kept my hands up by my shoulders.

"My love," growled Khamid, "what did this scoundrel do?"

Man alive, I have a halo and still get accused of being bad.

"Nothing!" his wife wailed. (I really need to remember what her name is.) "It is Maha! He found her carpet in a river!"

"He what?!" Right. Maha was their youngest daughter. About... twelve? Eleven?

I pointed down with one finger. "I'm going to pick it up again. It's very wet, and I don't want it to smother itself, if that's a thing." And as I suited actions to words, I checked past my own shoulder and saw that the people in the doorways were no longer menacing me, but showed no signs of going back into their suites until the drama was over.

As I straightened the rug (and myself), Khamid's face grew taut with fury. "It is that stupid rag from Orchard Loomworks" --for those not read up on carpet-racing jargon, calling a rug a 'rag' is equivalent to calling a dog a 'mongrel' or a 'cur'-- "that she was so keen to rescue! We should never have bought her such an unreliable tangle of knots. It probably got frayed nerves and bolted, dumping her somewhere in the wilderness!"

The carpet at first rippled weakly under Khamid's condemnation, but at the last accusation it made an impressive show of strength, whipping itself from side to side, spraying drips everywhere, torquing me enough that my boots squeaked against the floor in the puddle that it had left. Then it flopped straight again, looking for all the world like Pumba when he's been knocked out. It didn't even flick a corner.

"Um," I said. "Now, I don't know carpet body language, but that looked to me like an emphatic, 'No, no, no! I didn't!'" I shook it, but it didn't move again. "Is it dead? If it's any comfort, there was nobody in the water. No body, either. Maha might be OK."

Khamid's wife lifted the carpet from my hands. "I will take this carpet for a scrubbing, then put it through the wringer. When it recovers, it may be able to show us where it left her. In the mean time," she grabbed my collar, "you will show my husband exactly where you found it. Exactly!"

"Yes, ma'am," said I, my neck getting yanked to the side as Khamid grabbed my halo and started dragging me down the corridor. When we got out a side door and into the cooling, evening air, and I stumbled over the threshold as I tried to keep up, I ventured to comment, "Y'know, like any good Trojan Horse, I run much better if you give me my own head."

The relief was instant when my friend the carpetmaker let go. Just as instantly, I got up beside him, matching stride for stride.

"Sorry," he said. "I am worried. We sent Maha back for silk cording for emergency repairs, this afternoon. She insisted she could go all by herself. She said she wanted to test the bias"-- more carpet jockey jargon; "testing the bias" of fabric usually involves stretching it in different directions, so Khamid meant Maha wanted to stretch the limits of her carpet's abilities-- "of that rag from Orchard." He abruptly halted, spun, and grabbed me by the front of my trustier bustier. I ended up uncomfortably aware that he was still shirtless and the rain was starting to run over his skin in little rivulets, because of the way my head whiplashed as he shook me. "And I let her! I let her go out on a carpet woven to life by accident-- an unproven pattern from a loomworks that uses mixed fibers!"

"Uh," I commented, and Khamid set off again, dragging me along in an iron-fisted grip. We headed inexorably to something that looked like a stable, with words painted on the roof. With some difficulty due to the oblique angle, I deciphered "ConLoA: Woven Div." Khamid pulled me into a side door, deftly snatching a half-robe hanging on one of a flight of pegs on the near wall.

"Safiq! Safiq, I want Whispers at Midnight!" he hollared, finally letting go of me to thread his second arm through a sleeve. The inside of the carpet stable was warm, dry, well-lit, and surprisingly odorless, unlike my ark. That probably had to do with the fact that the racers were free of biological processes. They stacked in rolls of various sizes or draped themselves over beams and stall walls, and generally appeared inert except for an idle tassel flicking here and there, and a single mat lofting gently in the light over a lantern. (That one had foreign writing on it. It could have been a spell of some sort, but just as likely it said "welcome." It didn't look big enough for anyone to ride, unless while standing, so I have to wonder if there is something like carpet surfing or if it was maybe an attack carpet set to guard the others. Chilling.)

A frowning young man dressed in metallic silks peered out from behind a wall, absently picking a loose thread from his shoulder. "I just finished braiding ribbons into Whisper's fringe and set it to rest up. We disturb it now, and it will be completely spoiled for tomorrow's steeplechase."

"I do not care about the steeplechase--"

"It's the cup qualifier!"

"I. Do not. Care. Get Whispers at Midnight ready." When he saw Safiq put up his hands and move into the stall resignedly. Khamid relented a little. "You'll get to ride Whisper to glory next year, I promise. Right now, Maha has gone missing and her carpet was in a river."

Mid-hoist of a carpet roll, Safiq gave a strangled noise and popped back up with wide eyes. "Maha?! What happened?"

"That is what I need our fastest in order to find out," noted Khamid.

"Of course, of course." Safiq shifted the carpet in his arms into the aisle between stalls and expertly unfurled it the way most people unfurl a bed sheet. Whispers at Midnight didn't even touch the ground, instead snapping flat to float at shin height in the air. I could see where it got its name. It was predominantly glossy black and glinting silver, with the warp and fringe seeming to be made of fine jeweler's chains. It was woven smooth, no pile in evidence.

Safiq fidgeted. "What can I do?"

Khamid snatched two pairs of goggles from some cubbies. One set thumped into my six-pack (of beer... belly). "You can let us out of here, then go straight to the laundry. Laila is reviving that water-logged scrap of garbage and might appreciate your weather eye if it decides to mat." That was it-- Laila. Khamid's wife was named Laila.

"Of course. Right away." Safiq practically flew across the stables to unlock and take hold of a crank I hadn't noticed until just then. The crank had thick, fibrous cables circling around it and pulleys unfathomably clustered across the ceiling.

"Hey!" Khamid snapped his fingers in front of my face. "Hey! Pay attention! Wool-gathering spins no yarn. Have you flown, before?"

"No. Uh, not on a carpet, anyway." Because there was that one time when-- ...y'know what? Never mind. Not important.  I disentangled my goggles from where a first attempt to don them got them wrapped around my stupid halo, and settled them on my face. They immediately fogged up, which would have been useful when my carpet-racing host had not been wearing a shirt, but now was just annoying. Wiping them left finger smears on the inside, yet it was better than nothing.

Khamid sat cross-legged on the front edge of Whispers at Midnight, leaving generous space for me to climb on behind him. "We are going to be going fast, steep, and high. Since you do not have the core strength necessary to keep a seat, yet, I want you to kneel with both knees and both sets of toes on the carpet to brace for pitch." I did. "Good. Now turn your dominant knee out 90° to the side so you can brace for roll." I did. "Good. I don't have time to teach you to brace for yaw, so just press your palms to the carpet and hold on. And never, ever, under any circumstances, grab Whisper on the edges."

A loud creaking above my head heralded the whole roof rising on a hinge and rain starting to patter in. My eyes practically fell out of my face and rolled across the floor, so my response sounded a little distracted. "Why?"

"Because it is ticklish!" And with that, Khamid violently wrenched a front tassel and Whisper leapt forward into a steep climb as if stung. We shot into the sky over the glistening, golden rooftops of Godville, Khamid verbally demanding better from Whispers at Midnight, me yelling the whole time in terror. 

We screamed out of the city (by which "we" I mean "I"; Whisper just went tremendously fast),  attracting the attention of the gate guards. 

"Hayh!!! Get down heyah!"

Ye-ah, I was going to be in trouble with them, the next time I went through...

Around the fourth time I had to take a breath to keep yelling, spots started dancing through my vision due to oxygen deprivation, so I put my head down and contented myself with moaning. I later figured out that a carpet woven of jeweler's coil acts a bit like a cheese grater to the human face, but just then it felt comfortingly cool, with a sort of muscular solidity.

"Are you still alive, back there?" asked Khamid.

"Mrphlgr," said I.

"Good," he replied. "Since you didn't fall off, sit up and look down. You'll find this interesting."

I groaned into the carpet. "If SourceRunner had meant me to fly, she never would have seen to it that there were more pieces of arm equipment beyond Icarus wings."

"Ah," he countered, "but if you were meant to never fly, you would not have stumbled into my barn, yes?" He hauled me upright again by a hand on my collar and pointed down over the side. "Look."

Obediently, because one should never argue with the jockey flying the carpet, I slid my hands toward one edge and leaned to peer over. Just as my fingers curled into empty space, but thankfully before I shifted my weight, Whispers at Midnight bucked, shuddered, and slewed sideways as if to pitch me overboard. I yelped.

"Do not touch the bound edges!" Khamid hollered, yanking on tassels and fringe to get the carpet back under control. "Did I not just say Whisper is ticklish? How would you like it if you were fighting a Master of Disaster and someone suddenly coo-chee-cooed you under your sword arm?"

"Sorry! Sorry," I said as I rushed to get back into the center and keep my fingers to myself. "Sorry." But I had caught a brief glimpse of the ground below and seen something startling. Wild Presidential Seals couldn't have kept me from easing toward the side to check my eyes. "Wait. Is that...?"

"Mm-hmm."

"No. That's impossible. We have debated for many long years about the nature of the road, about the fact that there is only one, with no crossroads, about the placement of the towns along it, about why it leads straight out to the wilderness." I paused for a breath and stared. "How have we never known? How did we miss this? It's not straight, at all! It's--"

"A spiral!" Khamid chorused with me.

"Oh, wow. Oh, wow." (I was pretty speechless. You would be, too, if your entire world view was cranked round in a circle without warning.) "Wow. This changes everything. So Unspecifiedstan is not actually that far away, it's just--"

"--about forty minutes that way, as the carpet flies," Khamid finished for me, pointing. "And beyond even that is Newlandia. It's a vacation spot that very few heroes have ever reached or passed." He turned to look at me over his shoulder, the collar of his loose shirt billowing up to smack his face in the gale-strength breeze. "I'm sure you'll have many questions, but right now I have a more important one for you: will you be able to show me where you found my daughter's carpet, in light of this?"

Almost certain the blood drained from my face, and I looked over the side again. "Um. I think so. Get us out past Tradeburg and fly low, and I might be able to spot it." Even that sounded more confident than I felt, looking down at the curving stripes of green forests, golden fields, and multicolored deserts, all so neatly sliced up by wide loops of golden road. It curved so imperceptibly on the ground, but from the air its adamant spiral sunward going out and widdershins going in only wobbled from its course when threading through the mountain ranges-- no! No! Only ONE mountain range, I could see, now, chording the spiral... And the port of Godville looked like it had an outlet through a deep canyon-- was that Sar Chasm? I'd never not been fighting my way across that suspension bridge, so I'd never looked down to see if there was portage traffic under it. So did that mean...? Yes! Along the next spiral of road where it came to the canyon again, there were the natural bridges of Fallen Arches, home to frequent collapsing wave functions because they are so close to Vector Field! "It makes so much sense... The highly varied but sequentially repetitive landscape and ecology finally... the why of it... There's logic now!"

Yes, a hero can revel in logic. Don't worry, it passes with the next trip to a tavern.

My viewing was short-lived, because the hair on the nape of my neck stood up and a shiver shot down my spine. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of a punishment even once can't mistake that feeling. The first place you look is up, which I did. It had very much stopped raining.

"Left!" I yelled, hauling on Khamid's arm. Whispers at Midnight rolled in a fast enough turn that my stomach didn't even realize I might be falling, and we narrowly avoided a swarm of fireballs. Seriously, we were so close that I spotted "Common Denominator" written on most and "Chutzpahtl" marked in stylized pictograms on the biggest. "Move! Move! Move! Lightning follows that one!" Frankly, I don't fancy getting my giblets fried on an electrically-conductive flying griddle.

"Diving!" And THEN my stomach discovered we were falling, and a whole lot faster than we should have been, with Khamid somehow keeping his seat and me floating over his left shoulder with a death grip on his elbow. I'm amazed that I didn't crush one of his nerve points, now, but at the time I was watching the trees approaching like thrown spears, with a good deal of alarm, and didn't pay attention to what I was doing. One conifer in particular was menacing me right between the eyes, when (miraculously) a bolt of lighting struck it, knocking it over on a bear that no doubt went on to maul some poor hero. Whispers at Midnight swerved through the gap this left, ducking down into the forest, swinging between trunks like some mad yo-yo artist's prize speed act. You have not been whipped by branches until they lash you at forty miles per hour- I just found another pine needle stuck in my back molars. But when we burst through a bramble patch and back onto the road, it was thankfully into an unoccupied stretch. Whispers slowed down. The way it heaved under my knees felt uncannily like it had lungs and was gasping.

Gotta say, Khamid looked pretty bad. Gashes opened up on his arms and knees, a black eye was definitely about to blossom around his broken goggle, and I swear there was a tooth in the glob of blood he spat into the underbrush. Wondering what body blows he took or what bones he cracked chilled my blood. As I knew from the bad year when I tried to ignore the SourceCall, tradesmen don't get healed. 

"Whoa," I said. "Stop the carpet. We have to do something about your wounds." Not sure if it was Khamid or Whisper that did it, but we glided to a halt hovering over the stony verge of the road, under the shady boughs of an elm tree. I peeled off my own goggles and set to ripping up my equipment for bandages. If I'd had my pack with me, I'd have been applying healing artifacts as fast as possible, but it was unhelpfully back at my ark ("best practices revision," as SourceRunner is fond of saying, pending). Still, as I got the bleeding stopped and took him through breathing and focus exercises (bless Sister Diamondbottom's insistence on first aid courses) he admirably perked up. Enough, even, that I had to give him some bad news. "Look, if I was as banged up as you just got, I'd long be high-tailing it back to town for a doctor. You can't go on."

That got me a glare. "My daughter. Needs. My help'"

Ah, yes. Loving parenthood. Possibly the only thing that strengthens the body and weakens the survival instincts more than heroism. But he wouldn't have survived the approving clap to the shoulder I was inclined to give him. "No, your daughter needs you to survive."

That got the what was left of my collar seized in a meaty, though broken fist. "If Maha got caught in what happened up there--" he stabbed a dislocated finger at the sky "--I need to find her NOW."

"If you--" And that's when I felt the other frission, the one that starts like a fizzing in your toes, and got a desperate idea. You see, despite having been intermittently shielded behind the carpet jockey's center mass during the tree dodge, I was far from unscathed. In fact, my health bar was probably not just red, but flashing. "Sorry about this." I broke Khamid's wrist, shouted, "INTERCEPTION!" and threw myself off the carpet. I was reaching for my diary and pen to write the appropriate entry even before the white-hot pain of breaking my collarbone on a tree root blinded me.

Happily, the other thing that blinded me was Khamid caught in the blaze of a concentrated healing beam. His encouragement paralysis faded with the light, as I could tell by the stream of what was likely profanity while I struggled to write my least legible diary entry ever, and said stream ended in, "YOU!"

"Hold that thought," I croaked, putting a punctuation squiggle at the end of my entry. Then sweet, cool, rose-petal-swirled relief lifted me into the air and spun me around. It set me on my feet with only mild aches remaining and beaned me with a soft drink that I dutifully swigged to get rid of the last discomfort. My guardian spirit is nothing if not predictable, when I claim someone else stole a healing beam. I sagged against the elm trunk and looked at my friend, who was jumping off his carpet with murder in his every movement. "How are you feeling?"

"I could wring your neck, you traitor!"

"Oh, could you? That's good," I chuckled. Don't judge me: healing sometimes comes with a drunken euphoria that leads to impairment. I usually end up promising to do something great and stupid in my lady's honor when it hits. "Most recent injuries usually heal last, so I was worried about your wrist."

Two hands of wriggling fingers stopped just shy of my throat as Khamid really looked at them. His skin was glowing. Not just with health, but really glowing. If he caught another four really good encouragements, he'd probably develop a vestigial halo. Just a trace of a ring, nothing awkward.  The fingers curled and drew back again. "What... was that...?"

"That was SourceRunner," I sighed, pushing away from the tree and tapping my own halo. We didn't have time for me to enjoy the lassitude loosening my joints, more's the pity. "Responsible for this. She's not the best guardian spirit-- in fact, whoever Chutzpahtl's is is arguably better, removing that tree for us-- but she's mine and I'm her hero. If you want, I'll tell you all about her later. Let's go find Majid."

"Maha."

"Maha, then." I... did not want to climb back on that carpet. But there are many things like that in a hero's life, so I did it anyway. "Carpet flyers don't usually follow the roads, do you?"

Khamid gave me another good look, pausing with one foot on the ground and one knee on Whispers at Midnight. "No. It's faster to cut across the spiral, and the open land is better scenery, anyway."

"Safer, too, I guess." As Khamid settled back in, I patted his shoulder. "Moshe--"

"Maha." 

"Maha probably didn't get caught in a punishment. She'll be fine when we find her, you'll see."

Whisper balked against going aloft for a moment or two, emphatically shaking one corner until a tangle of knotted wire came loose and fell to the ground. The corner looked as good as new under the discarded mass, so I suppose encouragements work as well on flying carpets as they do on trees and the stock on a merchant's shelves.  And with that, Whisper had gotten its wind back, gliding smoothly into the air, barely hesitating before rising above the canopy.

The view was clear above the trees, and Khamid edged Whisper away from the road while he and I did our best head-on-a-swivel impressions. (You want to talk about creepiest artifacts to find on dead monsters? The head-on-a-swivel gets my vote. There a poor hero is, vanquished monster at his feet with its tongue flopped out to one side. Dead, right? So you'd think. So the hero, having just saved his own pitiful life, cautiously starts patting the monster down, looking for gold or a clue to the quest, all the while carefully avoiding the claws and fangs in case the monster is just faking. It's going well, right? A coin here, a coin there, no signs of further aggression, and the hero starts to relax. Then. The monster. Moves. The hero scrambles back, biting down on the undignified scream fighting up his throat, and watches the monster with his sword drawn. It's BREATHING. Not getting up, though that has to be happening soon, but breathing in a measured, wheezing sort of way. Then it stops. No motion at all. Is it dead? Is it waiting to pounce? The hero edges closer, planning to stab it and skitter back again, and just before he gets in range, the monster starts breathing again. This happens several more times until the poor hero discerns the rhythm sequence and gathers his courage to get close enough to flip open the monster's vest or heave the body onto its back, and there, tucked in a fold of fur or feathers or scales, is a bald, pallid, human head. Its jaw hangs slack in death, its eyebrows absent and lashes sparse; its ears perch tallow-yellow. If the hero suppresses his revulsion enough to press around the base of the head to see if it is some sort of appendage on a mutafacient-deformed monster, he won't get much further than glimpsing the stub of metal pole emerging from the thing's truncated neck before it opens its eyes. And its eyes are black from lid to lid, obsidian glassy from corner to corner, deep like the abyss, seeking to suck a hero's soul out and leave an unresurrectable husk. That's not exaggeration-- I have stared into the Abyss, and it is a jolly Santa Claus compared to these eyes. Then the thing starts to twist. It scans from side to side to side to side... Eight or twelve times it rakes the surroundings with its foul gaze, then it closes its eyes and again appears dead. It never closes its mouth. Now, you would think that if you picked this thing up by its ears, it would simply twist its pole beneath it. You would be wrong. The poor hero who tries that experiment finds his feet scraping a semi-circle on the ground while the suspended pole stays perfectly still. When I find one of these disturbing things, I usually tie its mouth shut and shove it in my loot bag as fast as possible. And try to ignore the feeling of my pack squirming as the thing moves.)

(You might think that any merchant would happily pay a hero to destroy these things, rather than purchase them. Again, you would be wrong. The merchant who beholds one for sale assumes an expression of unholy glee. He or she knows that the eldritch horror is in high demand by wig sellers, who somehow synchronize them to display the wares.)

(When I walk through a city, I plan my route to avoid the wig district. Walking past a window filled with twenty or more heads-on-swivels sends the wild heebie-jeebies galloping up and down my spine for a week.)

Keeping as much to the countryside as possible, Khamid gingerly navigated us around the last arc of road and up over Tradeburg, then looked at me when we were on the other side.

"Ahead slow," said I. "I'll keep my eyes peeled for my fishing spot."

And I did. Everything looks so different when one floats along at a different height than one stands, but I kept vigilant for both the distinctive branch arrangements and any influences forming in the skies. Had to tell Khamid to back up twice, but pobody's nerfect.

Whispers at Midnight probably could have flown through the trees between the right path and my fishing spot, but neither of its riders were keen on another bracken rush, so we dismounted and proceeded on foot, carpet rolled and tucked under its owner's arm. I pushed branches out of the way, and consider it a credit to me that I only lost a grip on two that swished back and whopped Khamid. Neither were deliberate. I blame them on the earlier rain not quite having dried.  Soon enough, we waged our way through the underbrush and stepped onto the open riverbank in Toto's tracks.

"Here," I confirmed, walking to the edge where the stream widened out and slowed to an easy habitat for trout. "I cast about twelve feet out, where it has the deepest channel, when I caught that carpet."

Khamid glumly looked at Whispers at Midnight, and blew out a sigh. "There's a different flying dynamic over water than over earth. I don't know if Whisper can handle the squishy ground effect to fly as low as I'll need to go. But there's nothing for it-- if we end up in the water, that's how it will be." He shook the carpet out of its roll and into the air. He asked, "Can you swim, Tarintodont?"

Oh, joy. I had to get on the carpet again, this time with the prospect of being dumped in. Could this day get better? "I can."

"Good. I may need you to fish me out." Khamid belly-flopped onto Whisper and took off without me, calling over his shoulder, "I never told Laila I can't swim!"

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Or tassel, I guess, is more appropriate around a flying carpet. But I wasn't complaining, I was watching the pair do a lap at ten feet while the carpet jockey wriggled forward on his belly to hang his nose over the front edge of fringe. Some day, I'll have to ask if the fringe bends away or gets in a person's nose and tickles. Then they swooped lower and lower until they were practically skimming the water's surface. Whisper bobbed, once, dunking its rider's midsection, but I couldn't tell if that was deliberate or a mistake. Khamid's eyes stayed eagle-focused on the water. He even followed downstream far enough that they disappeared around a bend and I started after them. Sea beasties have never been seen in freshwater streams, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

They returned before I got close to the curve, and swerved to land. A tassel tweak settled Whispers at Midnight to the ground and Khamid slid to the side to roll it up.

"There's some sort of beaver dam or storm blockage down there," he noted, "and untouched sand the whole way. She didn't come this way."

"So, we head up stream."

"Yes."

"I've got to warn you, I don't know what's up that way," I said. "I don't randomly encounter bosses on the road, anymore, but some people think that's because the overland dwellers moved into the deep forests."

A quick shrug settled Whisper into position across Khamid's shoulders. "And that means what?"

"That means if I tell you to hide, you make like a pet and don't get involved in whatever fight I'm in. Even if you think you see or hear Misha--"

"Maha."

"--Maha, you stay planted behind a rock or tree, well away from the action. Verstook?"

"Uh...?"

"Understood?" Nobody seems to understand that term. Maybe it's unique to runnerians.

"Ah. Understood, Tarintodont."

And there we started our hike. It was much more difficult than walking along the road, even considering the monster fights. I mean, we had to stomp our way in slow motion through sucking mud, haul ourselves over fallen logs, swat mosquitos, pull off a year's supply of surgeon's leeches, bang our knees on overhanging ledges, trip on submerged roots, gash our palms on brambles and briars, and finally scale a jumbled rock face of water-smoothed boulders that looked like the extinct remains of a roaring waterfall. It cemented a suspicion I had long held about myself: I detest nature.

Why didn't we use the carpet? Well, you might remember I mentioned the trees over my fishing spot form a nice sort of riparian bower; it dramatically closes in up stream, leaving no room for flight, and little enough bank for walking. Besides, we needed to look for trace evidence of the errant daughter as we walked.

The treecover unexpectedly opened up at the top of the rock face. There were broken branches everywhere, a big hole punched through the canopy. Shredded leaves fluttered listlessly from branches and across the ground. A large pad of spring grass and moss lay flattened and muddied, the culprit of the destruction apparently having bounced several times as it rolled toward where the creek disappeared into a sinkhole. And like a convenient banner, a bright ribbon waved from a twig at the top of the sinkhole.

"Maha!" yelled the frightened father, flinging his carpet to the ground and running toward the sinkhole.

I, of course, tackled him. "Stop!"

"Get off of me," he howled, landing a truly excellent right cross. "Maha! Baba is coming!"

"Stof! Thaf a dungeon," I said, around my newly-loosened teeth, not letting go. "She'f fine!"

"Maha!" Heel to the gut. I say, nice shot, sir. 

I pulled Khamid into a full nelson, avoiding the instinctive headbutt I knew was coming by sheer habit. "She'f fine! We can'th go in vere yeth, vo."

"My daughter is not fine! You said she is in a dungeon!" He gave a tremendous heave and landed on his back on my ribcage. I locked his knees with my own and put a bow in his spine. I hate grappling almost as much as I hate nature. Give me a resurrection migraine over grappling any day of the week.

"She didn'th go down vere on purpofe. Ve goblinth--"

"Goblins?!"

I had to almost put a kink in his back, that time. "Ve goblinth who run vese fingf will fee she ifn'th vere on purpofe. Vey'll gif her cookief and be nife tho her unthil thomeone-- ack." The loosest tooth finally gave way and I spat it out. "--until someone picks her up."

"Well, I'M going to pick her up!"

"No, you're not. Not yet. If we go down there, the goblins will know we're down there deliberately, and they'll shunt us into the dungeon proper regardless of our purpose." I was getting pretty tired of the rock notching my own spine. "I'm not letting another someone convince me to take him into a dungeon unprepared, not after Pumba, so we are getting you equipped to survive at least 20 rooms and a boss, first. They'll let us take your daughter on the way out." As awkward as it was, I shook him. "You understand me? You go down there unprepared, you'll die and never see ANY of your family again. How could I face your wife with your daughter and not you?"

There followed a contest of wills between father-bear and logic, but Khamid finally relented. "I see. Let me up."

About time. Limbs untangled, backs torqued and untorqued, soft-tissue injuries withstood probing. Khamid glared at the sinkhole. I hoped he could see the flight of stairs going around its side, now, and didn't think I was bluffing about the dungeon. Keeping one eye on him, I unrolled Whispers at Midnight where it had landed on the moss. It was best to leave him some peace to work through whatever his mind was doing.Finally, he turned to me.

"What do I need?" he asked.

I patted the jockey's spot on Whisper. "Stuff conveniently available at your house. Let's go."

The trip only took ten minutes by straight line, cutting across the spiral, but I filled every moment of it reciting the weekend dungeoneering kit. Believe it or not, there is one, developed by hero committee fora Godville Times journalist who insisted on trying a dungeon out for himself. In his defense, he was a writer for the "Leisure and Tourism" section, which is constantly desperate for not-in-town things to publish, and he was going a bit nutty when he struck on spelunking as the next trendy extreme sport. It never caught on, since tradespeople generally don't find limb loss amusing, but I hear he's the office celebrity on dress-like-a-pirate days.

"Two canteens, one of orange juice, the other of beer--"

"Not water?"

"No. One's for blood loss, the other's to dull the pain. One length of rope. One length of wire. Fireproof, waterproof, acidproof backpack. Helmet, preferably of metal with a padded interior, but the next best thing you can lay your hand on if you haven't got one--"

"Cooking pot?"

"That'll do. The thickest or most metallic clothing or armor you can run in." At this, Khamid speculatively prodded Whisper's weave. I shouldn't have been surprised, since woven wire and chains ought to be somewhat strong and protective, since a parent is often willing to sacrifice even his most valuable of possessions for his child, and since he could probably weave another just like Whisper, given time. But it still seemed like a shame and a waste to offer the carpet up to a monster's claws. "Two pairs of underwear. Six pairs of socks. One pair of ear plugs. Any lucky charms you have. One sword or shield. O--"

"Or? Not both?"

"Not both. Not unless you're in practice with both. Most non-heroes not involved in law enforcement will get themselves killed by fatigue or indecision, trying to use both. One pair of lavaproof boots. One compass. Eight torches. One stiff upper lip. One sense of wonder."

"Um..."

"Those last two items are from an advertising circular."

"Ah."

"Now listen: dungeons are weird places. Sometimes a bottomless pit isn't a bottomless pit, and sometimes it is. You will see the beauty of the stars below, and fish that swim through the air. Stone bees will buzz your ears, and that will be OK; hamsters will stampede over your feet, and that won't be OK. You will find traps that knock you on the head, send you slithering quite literally through the bowels of the earth, and spit you out with an artifact in hand. You will find fountains of healing potion right next door to grisly scenes of virgin sacrifice. Are you understanding me?" I watched Khamid nod. "I don't think you do. When you get down into a dungeon, you will be tested to the limits of your sanity, and you will have to hold on for your daughter's sake. You'll also have to survive for her. Your best option is to hide behind me. It's always to hide behind me. Do you get it?" And Khamid nodded quite vigorously. "Good. Just like the riverbank, if we run into a boss, let me handle it. The last thing a loomster needs is to lose a limb." He flinched at that (not sure if it was at the thought of being maimed or if it was my word choice) and brought us down gently by his loomworks. "I need to borrow a sword. Or club. Or spring-loaded device. Whatever you have on hand."

Whispers at Midnight actually rolled itself up after we disembarked. Maybe it recognized where we were, maybe it was just exhausted. I picked it up while Khamid opened his barn door, and, after letting my eyes adjust to the interior gloom, stood the carpet as gently as I could manage in a storage rack. It might have been my imagination, but Whisper seemed to wave a tassel when I patted it in thanks. Khamid was already bursting through the door to his house, so I couldn't ask.

My perusal of the barn had a different focus, this time. Did you know how much improviseable weaponry exists in a wearer's workshop? Needles as long as a hand and thick as the bones in a little finger. Double-ended shuttles honed to slide through webs of string and made entirely of dense hardwood. Tensioning weights affixed to sturdy ropes. Garrots a-plenty in a stylish array of colors, for all your assassination needs. Styluses as effective at punching holes in knotted muscles as they are at loosening out knotted string. A pair of teasing combs that looked like smaller versions of my dignity shredder.

Yes. A weaver's workshop might be a very dangerous place, indeed.

By the time I settled  on borrowing a pair of weights and went to find him to unhook them for me, Khamid's house looked like a tornado lived there. Bottles and pan lids skittered into the corridor, family heirlooms (some truly looms, in this case) lay discarded on the floor, pillows were flung about, carpets were skewed and rumpled, a vase of cut flowers was overset on its shelf and emptying its contents on the floor faster than a hero at a beer festival, and books were slowly jumping their way out of hutches as the carpet jockey slammed cupboard doors on the other side of the wall. Needless to say, I poked my head into the kitchen very slowly and carefully. Khamid had girded himself about the middle with a tapestry bound to him with tasseled cord, and stuffed it with sauce pan lids, put his tea cauldron on his head, and had just retrieved the sort of saber I tend to associate with opening fine bubbly. At least, it certainly looked wicked enough to whack through the glass neck of a bottle.

He was beginning to look like a hero.

"Come," he said, beckoning me and turning to another cabinet. I approached and happened to glance out a window.

Then I looked again. 

"Oh. Oh!"

Something in my change of tone caused Khamid to scramble backward out of the cupboard, banging his head in the process. He came to join me at the window. "What? What now?"

The window looked out onto the Al Coursee family driveway. The drive had a few ruts in the dried mud, so they either took deliveries or made them via cart, rather than carpet. It curved in a serpentine fashion, interposing trees between the house and the road. Having just rounded the final curve, a burly figure with a lightning tan, a few ropy scars, and a definite limp presented himself in the full glory of his menacing shadow glow of especial evil before apprehensive eyes. And he had Maha-- see? I got it that time. Bet you didn't think I could do it-- slung over his shoulder like a sack of sugar.

"Spawn from the very pits of hell has my daughter!" Khamid roared. "Do something about it!" And to his credit, he did not go racing out by himself, this time. Also to his credit, he tried to see me armed. Unfortunately, what was probably meant to be an empowering toss of the sword into my waiting hand became a skewersome missile aimed directly my liver. Being rather fond of that organ, I bent time and space to contort myself out of the way. The saber ended its trajectory vibrating from the exact center of a very large, very old cookbook in a floor stand.

"No! Wait! I know this guy! He loves kids! There has to be something we're missing." And almost as I finished speaking, the "hellspawn" began pirouetting and capering madly, drawing paroxysms of shrieking laughter from his shouldered burden. "There, see?"

Khamid gaped out his window. "I see, but I do not understand."

"Well..." How could I put this? Oh, right. "One of the most evil deeds he ever planned-- and he confided to me in all seriousness-- was stealing all of the marshmallows from the supplies a rival guild had stocked for a S'mores party." (Though, when it came to the execution, his escape plan involved hurdling through several rings of fire, the final of which tripped him, sending the now perfectly toasted marshmallows unerringly from their tray and onto waiting graham crackers. The entire guild erupted into cheers and offered him five-star ratings as chef and entertainment. Every year, when they offer him payment to come back, I find him in Boatmurdered, convincing himself that it was OK he didn't get a S'more, because he really doesn't like them, anyway.) "Another was paying dueling pianists in a piano bar to play the top eight earworms for three hours on end." (The dueling pianists turned out to be best friends, so his original plan to get them to actually duel didn't work out.) "And once he managed to swap all the gold bricks in the Godville Treasury for the ones in the Dogville Treasury." (That one he pulled off without a hitch, but nobody ever said anything about it. We figure that maybe nobody has noticed the stamps all say the wrong location. Or maybe the guards are just too embarrassed that someone made it through all that security multiple times.) Maha was now insisting on a cartwheel race across the soft, green grass. This was probably one of the last before she finished growing up, being on the cusp of teenagerhood. "Most of those scars? They're from arena, dungeons, and sailing, and the rest come from his false deity's monster-fighting efforts. Your daughter's probably safe as houses with him. Ready to go ask what happened?"

Short answer: "YES!"

Longer answer: "Yes, absolutely, Iwantmydaughterback--MAHA!"

To which came the reply, "Baba!!!"

Cue the classic reunion scene of a father and daughter running to each other to hug, with the daughter somehow telling her entire hours-long adventure to her father without breathing and her father abjectly begging her to never scare him like that ever again. It was clearly going to take a while, so I stuck my hands into my pockets and strolled over to my compatriot.

"Hello, Gary-Sue."

He was uncapping his pen and frowning over his diary. "Hey, Tarintodont."

I searched my pocket and found a very mushed bun to give to him so he could write our meeting entry. "Wha'cha up to?"

"Escorting a suicidal and easily-killed villager to safety." Gary-Sue, having the advantage of an evil disposition, is allowed to stretch the truth even further than an average hero.

"Funny," I said, "me, too."

"You're not going to give your goddess the whole truth?"

"Not in my diary. Might be compelled to tell it some other way, but them's the breaks." I ducked the good-natured swat aimed at my head for poor grammar. "Are you going to tell your guardian spirit?"

"What he doesn't know won't hurt him." Gary-Sue tucked his diary away, stretched his arms over his head, and finally looked at me. "I didn't tell him about skipping out on the opportunity to get a dreaded gazebo for a pet, today. Between you and me, I'd rather have a presidential seal."

I nodded and gestured to the father and daughter who were still gabbling over each other. "What's the deal?"

"Found her in the treasury of a savings dungeon, if you can believe it. Those gremlins sure have some nerve-- I'm going to pummel the next one I see." He shook his head. "Poor kid must have gotten pegged on the head."

"She... looks OK to me..."

"You haven't heard her talk. She keeps talking about her flying carpet falling into the drink and being swept over an underground waterfall. At first, I thought she was trying to con me, but now I'm starting to think she's serious." Gary-Sue cast the little girl a wary glance and lowered his voice to a murmur. "Do you know any good doctors who specialize in brain damage caused by punishment hailstorms? Since she got caught in one, she's hallucinated a whole life about weaving and racing flying carpets. Flying. Carpets. That's serious."

"Yeah, about that--" I started, but was interrupted by an outburst from Maha.

"Baba! What are you wearing?!?"

"--we should be over there," I concluded. Gary-Sue would meet the carpets soon enough. I tugged him by the arm into conversation range with the Al Coursees.

Khamid was explaining his strange attire to Maha. "--and we were going to find you in that dungeon."

"No, Baba, never go into a dungeon," admonished Maha, staring solemnly into her father's eyes. "Dungeons are scary, dangerous, horrible places. I know this, and I didn't even have to go through one for real! I just had to listen to it happening until I was saved by Mr. Sue. Hi, Mr. 'Dont!" 

I couldn't help it. I checked over my shoulder to see if there was a Mr. Nim to round out the seemingly destined trio. There wasn't. So I smiled and waved at Maha.

"Baba, this is Mr. Sue," she said, gesturing. "He helped me get out of the dungeon and come home."

"Gary-Sue," Gary said, offering a handshake.

Khamid shifted Maha so he didn't have to let go of her and clasped Gary's wrist. "Khamid Al Coursee. Thank you. It was very good of you to bring home my daughter."

"Baba! You're embarrassing me! Mr. Sue is not 'good.'" Ah, yes, the nascent teenager appears. But I was a little surprised at the unexpected hero-worship... Until she dropped into sotto voce.  "He farts in elevators."

I gaped at Gary-Sue. He favored me with a chuffed smirk.

"You do?" I asked.

"You know it," he replied.

"That... is some serious next-level evil, man."

"Isn't it, though?" Gary's chest puffed out. "That's the REAL way you earn 'honored fiend.' The punishment survival number is just window dressing."

Maha leaned her head against her father's shoulder and yawned. "I'm sorry I didn't get the twine, Baba."

"Do not fret about it, sweetling, I am just happy to have you safe," Khamid reassured her, patting her hair reassuringly. "Are you tired?"

"Mm-mm," she said, shaking her head, though it was clear she was crashing. In a not-ploughing-a-furrow way, this time. "Hungry."

"Then we will take you to the finest restaurant in Godville for dinner," Khamid said, turning to carry her into the house.

"Not yet. Baba, we can't go to Godville yet," she whimpered. The day was catching up with her. She might be on the way to a tantrum, even. "We have to find Hambal. Hambal protected me from chunks of hail this big." She held up her hands like she was cupping eight walnuts. "But now it's missing."

Gary-Sue elbowed me. "There she goes. She supposedly named her flying carpet 'Ham Ball.' It's making me hungry."

Khamid paused and stared at his daughter. The trees sighed on a sudden breeze. A lonesome eagle called overhead. The setting sun gilded the pair. Maha begged, "Please?"

It was a very picturesque moment. It probably looked to Gary-Sue like a father on the brink of crisis, about to learn of his daughter's insanity. It probably looked to Maha like a denial was about to be issued, possibly as a punishment. It just looked to me like Khamid hadn't paid attention to what his daughter had called "that rag," so was caught a bit flat-footed.

"That ra-- ah, Hambal is in Godville," he finally said. "Tarintodont found it and brought it to us. That is why we were out looking for you."

"What?" asked Gary-Sue.

Maha flung herself at me. I barely caught her. "Thank you, Mr. 'Dont!"

I awkwardly patted her shoulders and handed her back. "All in a day's work."

"Wait. Ham Ball's real?"

"More than that," I confirmed. "Hambal is a carpet and does fly, Gary. And it's not the only one. You've got to see this. Khamid? Can we hitch a ride with you back to town?"

Pretty soon, we were aloft on the biggest, softest, cushiest area rug I have ever seen. It would have fit in a banquet hall. The pile was so deep, I could dig my fingers into it, and it sculpted the vegetal motifs into significant relief. I could flop flat and scuff a carpet-angel into it without coming anywhere close to touching anyone. Typical of families, especially those that have just suffered a scare, Khamid and Maha were cuddled together at the front of the carpet, where he could steer and still hold onto her. Gary-Sue, after spending a few minutes jumping like he was on a trampoline, had his own "it's a spiral" revelation.

"Do you see this?" he asked.

"Yep," I affirmed.

"Do you SEE this?!"

"Mm-hmm."

"Do. You. See. This!"

"Pretty cool, huh?"

"I'm going to build the world's biggest trebuchet, and randomly lob payloads of waterballoons at other rings on the spiral." He sat back and gestured expansively. "I can just see it: hero and monster locked in the fight of their lives, when out of nowhere, with no warning because it isn't a punishment-- SPLOOSH!" 

Gary-Sue has always had an amazing faculty for speedy adaptation.

We got back to Godville, reuniting Maha with what turned out to be the entire League of Aeronauts: Woven Division. We were all feted and celebrated and treated like the heroes of the hour, telling the story of what happened again and again, well into the morning. Someone even tracked down Chutzpahtl, who was confused and had a bit of a goose egg on his noggin, but seemed happy to join in the toasting.

Best party ever.

The very next day, when I set off on my next quest, the guards had posted a brand new ordinance on the city gate: "Entry or exit of any town by any hero or heroine by aerial means is hereby prohibited. Offenders will be fined and soundly beaten."

There went my retirement plan. Ah well.


[With many thanks to Tlazolteteo and Jimbob64 for their kind permission to borrow their heroes for this Chronicle. If you are not yet friends with these two splendid people, you should be.]

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Thank you for reading the above vignette. Tarintodont and I hope you enjoyed it. If you feel you've arrived in the middle of the story, you are quite right; please find everything that came before (but one) on my GodWiki page under "The Missing Vignettes." A link, for your convenience: http://wiki.godvillegame.com/User:SourceRunner#The_Missing_Vignettes

Chronicles updated infrequently. If you "Friend" me and send a message that you're watching Chronicles, I'll message you when I update them.


 
 
 



Discourses on Godville

This section contains little essays based on SourceRunner's experiences in Godville. I don't understand much of what she's talking about, but maybe it's just one of those holy mystery things.
 

Two on Voices, At Least One on Pets
Humor in Eighty Characters or Fewer: Voices for Fun and Profit 

So you're tired of chanting the same word to your hero or heroine, wasting god power and having him or her ignore you until the meter shows a donut. Did you know that there's a way to make those voices give back every bit of the power that you just poured down the drain masquerading as your hero or heroine's ear? All you have to do is phrase your commands in such a way that other deities laugh and vote them "witty." Easier said than done? More like as easily said as done. 

The object is to get more deities voting "yes" on your commands than "no." But how? 

A few guidelines, based on my observations in over forty instances of successfully earning back god power (now improved with the observations of others!): 

1. Other deities respond best to well-spelled commands with full sentences.

2. Other deities like commands that respond to commonly-seen game events, so they can tell exactly what's happening.

3. Other deities follow the "misery loves company" rule.

4. Other deities appreciate clever couching of known command keywords in phrases that mean something completely different.

5. Other deities appreciate shock-value, as long as it's clean.

6. Other deities love sequels.

7. Saturating the voice command market can harm your case. (The GodTaquitos  Theorem)

8. If a voice has a designated audience, timing is everything.

What the heck does that mean? No worries, examples below, dredged from my own stash of successfuls. 

Guideline #1: Other deities respond to well-spelled commands with full sentences. It's true. Every command that has ever earned me godpower (GP) has had a full sentence in it. You will see this in all the examples for the other guidelines. Now, there are a few exceptions, mostly centering around the humor that auto-correct lends to a situation. After all, 
"Scarf your enemy! Hit him with the ru-- Whoa. totally meant strafe" 
is funnier than 
"Strafe your enemy! Hit him with the rubber bullets!" 
any day you read it, bad spelling, poor punctuation, rotten grammar, and all. The difference is in presentation. Figuring out when and when not to explain what happened is key, but a matter of trial and error. Until you're used to earning GP back, don't try for exceptions (let them be happy accidents), and try for the guideline. Aim to use proper grammar and spelling, and strive for at least one full sentence.

Guideline #2: Other deities like commands that respond to commonly-seen game events, so they can tell exactly what's going on. There are plenty of inspirations for commands in the game. For instance, the first godvoice that ever earned me some GP was a response to the Earthly News "The hero is easing the tension with his epic dance moves." I was (understandably) upset over this "hero miss," so I shot off a godvoice that resulted in this response from the community: 05:28: Omnipotent One, you won't believe this! I've just heard how a choir was singing a song with the words "Hit the monster, not the dance floor!" in it. I guess you're getting famous! 
This godvoice worked because of guidelines 1, 2, and 4, but mostly because of 2. There are many, many dance-related Earthly News entries and they come up in combat frequently. A godvoice that references them makes other deities think, "Yeah! That's what I always want to say when that happens!" Result: up-vote. In fact, it got up-voted four or five times before I retired it, so guideline 2 is probably the most powerful of the guidelines. Other common themes involve singing, beer, wishing, and radioactive waste. 

Guideline #3: Other deities follow the "misery loves company" rule. Guideline 3 works like guideline 2 in that it's all about getting other deities to relate to your godvoice. There seems to be something inherently comforting or humorous in the knowledge that you are not the only one suffering. Hence: 
02:10: Almighty, you won't believe this! I've just heard how a choir was singing a song with the words "Excuse me? WHAT did I just READ?!" in it. I guess you're getting famous! and
05:46: You know, my Goddess, it looks like people are passing your saying, "I let you SQUANDER 10000 gold today! Stay away from wishing wells!", around. 
and 
05:13: Soul Supreme, I just became aware that your saying, "Well, aren't you independent, fighting when I'm not around? Wait for the arena.", is widely spreading around. Sounds like a good prayer to me.
These three voices had very little in common. The first gave no information on what happened, where the second and third told a whole story. The first and second create the certainty that someone is about to get punished, where the third simply indicates annoyance with no consequences. So how, exactly, did all of them get up-voted? They both provoked a "been there, done that/good to know somebody else gets a boot-to-the-head sometimes" reaction in the deities who read them. Result: up-vote. 

Guideline #4: Other deities appreciate clever couching of known command keywords in phrases that mean something completely different. So many of the godvoices that spread around Godville are straightforward (melt your gold into bricks) or inane (kill kill kill kill kill kill kill kill), making deities feel that they've wasted precious seconds of their lives reading them. Others are purely random (colander fugit, slip-slap), making deities wonder what purpose the sender had in wasting the GP. Guideline 4 is about avoiding the first reaction and short-circuiting the second.  
12:30: Great One, I just became aware that your saying, "You wanna be a song & dance man? Fine. 1! 2! 3! Hit it!", is widely spreading around. 
This godvoice was obviously saying something, so it was worth reading from the start. That was the entree to an up-vote. It also hid the keyword "hit" in a phrase most readers would associate with music instead of violence, which provided the mental equivalent of a comedic pause. It let the other deities think, "Okaaaaay, so what was that all about? There's no keywo--oh, hey! There it is!" The "that's clever" reaction becomes associated with the "I'm clever for understanding that" reaction in the reader's mind, so in a serpentine way a godvoice that follows guideline 4 becomes a compliment to the other deities. Result: up-vote. 

Guideline #5: Other deities appreciate shock-value, as long as it's clean. Obviously, sending an obscene godvoice will get a deity in trouble and will offend just about anyone who reads said godvoice. This is to be avoided. However, that doesn't mean that shock-value has no, uh, value. Surprising other deities is a good way to yank a laugh and an up-vote out of them. Items that tend to shock without offending include callous disregard for pain and suffering, blatant political incorrectness, and and very mild blasphemy. For example: 
09:43: Great One, you won't believe this! I've just heard how a choir was singing a song with the words "I need to give these ants some frequent dier miles. Stop stomping on them." in it. I guess you're getting famous! 
While this godvoice could be argued as falling under guideline 2, it was a response to a Diary Entry that happens only for good-aligned heroes, and only rarely, and (judging by the deities who contacted me with the comment that it had made them laugh) it was mostly up-voted by the deities of evil-aligned heroes who could never have seen the entry it referenced. Therefor, this godvoice likely shocked readers with its generally uncaring attitude toward the lives of the insignificant, generating surprised laughter. Result: up-vote. 

Guideline #6: Other deities love sequels. Really. That's the only way I can explain the below run of successes.
° 05:28: Omnipotent One, you won't believe this! I've just heard how a choir was singing a song with the words "Hit the monster, not the dance floor!" in it. I guess you're getting famous! ° 04:37: You know, Mighty One, it looks like people are passing your saying, "No! Singing won't do it! Hit the monster, not the concert tour!", around. ° 05:32: Omnipotent One, you won't believe this! I've just heard how a choir was singing a song with the words "How many times--?! Hit the monster, NOT the dance floor!" in it. I guess you're getting famous! ° 03:38: Most Righteous One, you won't believe this! I've just heard how a choir was singing a song with the words "Do I have to say it again? Hit the monster, not the dance floor!" in it. I guess you're getting famous!
This works because deities who have up-voted your previous godvoices are more likely to see your later, newer godvoices. So if you strike on something that appeals to the community at large, run with it. Just remember the rule: unless you're Ian Fleming/Albert Broccoli or Janet Evanovich, people will get sick of a theme after four or five iterations. And if a godvoice is down-voted, Godville seems less likely to send it out again, along with your other godvoices.   

Guideline #7, The Taquitos Theorem: Saturating the godvoice "market" can harm your earnings. This guideline arrives courtesy of GodTaquitos . Like guideline #6, this happens because the deities who up-vote seem more likely to see future voices from the same source. With this group of people, a frequent vocalizer will not only develop name recognition, but also style recognition. (For differences in style, see voices by GodJoenzy  as compared to voices by GodJimbob64 .) Each new voice that the vocalizer sends out appears to go to historical up-voters and a selection of new listeners. This is generally a great system, until the vocalizer sends out multiple new commands in a short space of time, and style recognition turns into tedium. It's the psychological equivalent of being served good scot-- er, hot chocolate: the first mug is divine; the second mug is great, especially with a little bit of nutmeg; the third may have some marshmallows and still be quite warm and tasty; the fourth is hot chocolate; the fifth is getting rather old; the sixth is patently disgusting because you want (please!) anything else but hot chocolate to drink. So when you saturate the voice command market, you could be losing steady up-voters as fast as you gain new up-voters.

Guideline #8, If your voice has a designated audience, timing is everything. Different areas of... we'll call it "heaven" for the benefit of our heroes. Different countries and cultures in heaven have specific memetic tics. Certain word arrangements will annoy or send members into gales of laughter. Therefore, certain voices may have a buillt-in audience. The first rule of using these is, of course, to make certain that your voice is really something funny to your audience (hint: Australians have gotten pretty tired of dingo-and-baby jokes; mentioning bangers and mash is not the best way to get on a Brit's good side; Canadians absolutely do not like a mention of "eh"; Americans don't... OK, we still find cowboys, hot rods, and drunkards pretty funny- we're a little pathetic). Assuming you have the first rule down, the second rule is to only use a voice with a built-in audience when that audience is likely to see it. For instance, "I feel like Dilbert today. Dig me a pointy-haired boss monster" will not work at GMT 1:00-2:00 PM, because the vast majority of the intended audience (American, white-collar) are either just starting their work day (east coast, 8:00-10:00 AM), in their commute (Midwest, 7:00-9:00 AM), or just waking up (west coast, you know the drill). However, this voice will work if sent around GMT 5:00 PM, because the intended audience will be getting lunch (east coast) or sneaking morning checks on their heroes (Midwest, west coast). The vocalist might even catch some expatriate Americans in Britain and Germany who are recovering from their own workdays. This tactic plays out with every heavenly region. Timing is key, unless the target audience is a non-regional subculture.
 

This list of guidelines is by no means complete, and each has its own vagaries. For instance, where would "A hit! A palpable hit! Well done, man!" fit in? And yet that, for some reason, appealed to the deific community. So if, in the course of your adventures shouting at your hero for profit, you discover a new guideline, please let me know, and I will add it here with full attribution to you. 
Good luck and lucrative berating!

More on Voices: Theory and Discovery

So you're trying to figure out how to maximize your profit potential from voices and basic guidelines aren't cutting the mustard. Never fear! Though I, myself, am in semi-retirement from voices, several divine labs have been working steadily to discover the secrets of godvoices, and they have generously permitted me to record the results of some of their work here.

How much can I expect to earn from a good godvoice? BLUF: 50% or more.
GodJimbob64  and the Knights Who Say Ni Workshops have recorded an average of 60-70% godpower (GP) returned for a community-approved voice. I generally don't let Tarintodont wander around with less than 35% GP in my control, and a returned godvoice always puts me at 100%, so my average defaults to 65% earned. Having a full control when a voice returns usually results in a charge being added to reserves, effectively returning 50% godpower. GodTaquitos  of Tundra Expedition Society reports a GV-record return of 99% GP for one voice. 'Update: Christmas 2012-- Jimbob64 broke Taquitos' record by earning 100% GP for a holiday-themed good wishes voice.
This interesting variation leads to a theory on how godvoices work: percentage GP returned may depend upon the percentage of deities approving (above 50%). [Under Investigation]

How long should I wait before deciding a godvoice has been rejected? BLUF: As short as 35 minutes, as long as 1.5 hours, but with an average of 40-50 minutes.
GodJimbob64  and the Knights Who Say Ni Workshops report that a command will generally return in 40 or 50 minutes, if at all. Once, I sent a godvoice at the worst time possible (for timing theory, please see the next section), and it surprised me by straggling back after 1 hour and 32 minutes. At peak time, in what must have been an absolute fluke, I had a godvoice boomerang in 35 minutes. But if you have waited 2 hours or more, your best bet would be to write the command off as a loss, either trying it once more at a better time or moving on to a new one entirely.

When is the best time to send a godvoice? BLUF: When you have the largest audience. Try GMT 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM.
This information is based on my own (slightly outdated) observations in response to a question from GodTaquitos . Eventually, I will put this into tabular, color-coded form, but for now, please try to visualize it.
If guideline #8 above does not apply to your godvoice, if it has no audience or a very general audience, you have a free hand to send it out in the hopes of earning back GP. This doesn't mean that you should. English Godville (EGV) has three main geographic areas it serves, which are the three major English-speaking areas: Western Europe; North America; Australia. While EGV does have some deities from China, Oceania, and India, which are English-adapted countries, a quick investigation of ratios as represented in the "Where Are People From?" forum thread casts instant question on whether EGV possesses the critical mass of English language humor appreciators to approve godvoices around the clock.
By time zone mapping, there is a five-to-eight hour difference between when Australia finishes coming online and Western Europe starts coming online, a four-to-five hour difference between when Western Europe finishes coming online and North America starts coming online, and a (slightly ameliorated by Hawaii and Alaska) eight-to-twelve hour difference between when North America finishes coming online and Australia starts coming online. This is not to say that these times are lulls. Humans have a (healthy) active day of between eight and sixteen hours, automatically overlapping the noted gaps, but these days are governed by specific activities that dictate whether or not they can be on Godville, ready to see  a good godvoice. A day in the life of a typical dedicated Godville deity:

6:00 AM: Stagger out of bed. Check the hero for half an hour while letting the dog out and brushing teeth. Put hero away in order to complete other morning ablutions.

7:00 AM: Breakfast. Get chided if trying to check on hero.

8:00 AM: Commute to school/work/club or rec center. Generally driving or socializing with fellow travelers. Probably no Godville.

9:00 AM: Occupied by school/work/scheduled activity.

10:00 AM: Still occupied. Getting bored. Possibly sneak an early check on hero.

10:30 AM: Class break, bored of work, or just needing to stretch and do something different. Check hero for 10 or 30 minutes.

11:00 AM: Generally occupied, but some taking an early lunch. Check hero if not socializing over food.

12:00 PM: Definitely lunching. Try an arena duel or monster dig, if not socializing over food.

1:00 PM: Most occupied again, some late lunchers. Late lunchers more likely to check hero.

2:00 PM: Occupied by school/work/scheduled activity.

3:00 PM: Still occupied.

3:30 PM: Some deities get out of school. Check on hero. Try a duel or dig, if not socializing with other travelers on the way home.

4:00 PM: Some deities get out of work/scheduled activity. Check hero.

5:00 PM: Commute from school/work/club or rec center. Generally driving or exhaustedly napping. Mass transit commuters sheltering in Godville.

6:00 PM: Making or finishing eating dinner. Looking for diversion. Checking on hero.

7:00 PM: Multitasking with Godville and other jobs/entertainments.

8:00 PM: Multitasking with Godville, books, and television.

9:00 PM: Finishing that last duel/dig/quest rush in Godville before going to  bed.

10:00 PM: Looking at the clock and saying, "Just one more dig..."

11:00 PM: Spouse removes Pocket Godville from sleeping deity's face.

12:00 AM: Groggy check on hero while stumbling to the bathroom.

12:15 AM: Asleep until 6:00 AM.

Note that the above does not describe the casual deity (who is generally not the godvoice target audience) or the night shift deity (who is a delightful wildcard). However, this basic schedule plays out for deities on three continents. Since the trick for culture-non-specific godvoices is to maximize possible audience so as to have the greatest chance of encountering cheerful people, the trick with timing is to send a godvoice when people on all three continents are likely to be checking Godville. My favorite time period for bouncing godvoices off the proverbial wall is GMT 5:00 PM-9:00 PM. During this time, Europeans are finishing work, enjoying evening entertainment, and getting ready for bed; Americans are checking in the late morning, lunching, and beginning the commute home; Australians are waking up, and checking in the late morning. Depending on specific hour sent, a godvoice sent at this time has the potential to garner up-votes from all three continents, and deities in all areas are looking for a reason to laugh.
There are some definite lulls in deity activity in Godville, which make for terrible times to send godvoices, dig for monsters, or go to the arena expecting an opponent (conversely, a wonderful time to visit the arena if looking to advance in the pantheon of fight avoidance). The two that I've mapped for certain are GMT 4:00 AM-5:00 AM and GMT 9:30 AM-10:30 AM. GMT 4:00 AM has the Europeans mostly sleeping, Americans falling asleep on their Pocket Godvilles, and Australians in the last hours of their workdays. GMT 9:30 AM sees the Europeans hard at work, only the earliest of America's early risers waking up, and Australians falling asleep. (Having noted this publicly, if I start seeing the ruination of my fight avoidance score, you will go into my black books.)
Other things to consider: the day of the week; current events; current memetic constants. Deities tend to be in a bad mood and vote things down on Mondays. On Tuesdays, they are slightly indifferent, so a voice has to have a startlingly humorous quality to drag out an up-vote. Wednesdays, they desperately need a joke to lift their spirits or sarcasm to balm their suffering, and will ruthlessly down-vote voices that disappoint. Thursdays herald hope for the weekend, so deities vote a little erratically. On Friday, deities are feeling good, so up-votes are not hard to extract. Saturdays are unpredictable due to deities flitting in and out. Sundays represent a weekly lull in Godville, so getting a godvoice to pass around can be difficult. In terms of current events, surprisingly deities do not react well to humor when a national or international tragedy has occurred. Best to keep quiet if you can't think of something soothing to say. In terms of current memetic constants, be aware of what popular movies and games are doing; some vocal deities can truly pull off the spreading of a meme or reference, but most of us should avoid even accidental reference like the plague.

How many deities see a godvoice, and how many need to approve it? BLUF: We don't know yet. [Under investigation]
The Knights Who Say Ni and the Tundra Expedition Society Workshops are currently investigating this gap in our knowledge. All that is thought certain is that at least 50% of the responding deities must up-vote for a voice to return.

How does a godvoice spread for approval? BLUF: We don't know yet. [Under investigation]
There are several competing theories for how godvoices filter out to Godville deities for approval. We've proven none, but rendered some unlikely.
'Godvoices sent out for approval appear simultaneously in randomly-selected deities' hero diaries, and continue to be sent in waves until the response quotient has been met. Status: Unlikely. During peak deity populations, a system like this would regularly return godvoices in ten minutes or fewer.
'Godvoices sent out for approval go to one randomly-selected deity at a time until the reaction requirement total is met, aborting early if rejections exceed 50% of the required total. Status: Plausible. This theory of operation supports the generation of longer response times. However, it would be resource intensive on the Great Random (server), and would require a built-in timeout for voices sent in lull deity populations.
'Godvoices sent out for approval go to an initially random and small selection of deities and spreads out in a dendritic fashion utilizing the friend lists of up-voters until the reaction requirement total is met or 50% rejection is exceeded. Status: Plausible. This theory explains the behavior of some voices that allows for style and name recognition. However, tracking and sorting response totals might tax the Great Random at peak deity populations.
'Combination theory tweaked from the above. Status: Highly plausible. We don't know enough, yet, and breaking into the game code to find out for certain would be wrong/not fun/a violation of terms of service.

Are there other ways to profit from godvoices than getting the hero to do what I want and earning godpower back for being funny? Really? You want MORE?! Well, since you asked, GodJimbob64  has shared anecdotally that one member of the Knights Who Say Ni who participated in their godvoice workshopping used such successfully humorous godvoices in a duel that s/he incapacitated her/his opponent with giggles at a critical moment, causing the deity to miss using an influence and lose the duel. So maximize your godvoice profit potential: hone your dueling arsenal.
From another angle, sending out good godvoices attracts deities to your hero profile page. The thinking is, "Huh. That was funny. I want more. Do I really want this deity as a friend, though? Better check out who this is. Oh, hey! There's a chronicle, here! Maybe there's more funny stuff..." A reader pre-disposed to approve of your humor and writing is more likely to go lenient on any errors in chronicles and assign a higher star value after finishing reading. Higher star values result in higher rankings in the Pantheon of Storytelling. (No lie. When I'm actively sending out funny godvoices, my Storytelling rank is generally two places higher than when I'm silent. But don't take my word for it when you can try it yourself.) So maximize your godvoice profit potential: write a chronicle.
From a third and more altruistic angle, sending out funny godvoices  is likely to interest new deities in raising the quality of their own godvoices, or trying out godvoices in the first place. In extreme cases (happened to me on Christmas 2012, when I contradicted the priestess telling my hero to go forth and multiply), you will see your own godvoice rebroadcast by a new deity who thought it was particularly funny. What's the saying? "Emulation is the sincerest form of flattery"? So maximize your godvoice profit potential: help to improve the quality of the godvoices you receive for approval or rejection.
Finally, the more you practice with funny godvoices, the more you get a feel for community humor and can write ideas that get good reception in the Ideabox. Voices are even a good way to preview community reaction to a potential idea. The very first idea I ever had accepted into Godville currently resides as 'Just as I was taking a sip of my medicinal tea, I saw the tea leaves appeared to form the phrase "%god_phrase%" That's it, I'm never drinking anything that's not hoppy or malted ever again!' Prior to submitting the original version (eventually very much refined by ER personnel; thank you), I sent a godvoice testing the concept. I don't have the original voice, but it went something like, "You know, not only hops and malts are brewed. Tea is, too." Since it violated several of the basic godvoice guidelines, it never earned me GP, but enough people who saw it told me they found it funny that I submitted the idea. Voila, success! So maximize your godvoice profit potential: use a godvoice like the Ideabox proving ground it is.

And with that, I'm done bossing you around about godvoices. Thank you for taking the time to read. Check this space every once in a while for updates on godvoice theory, and please see the guilds with godvoice workshops for up-to-the-minute developments in godvoice studies. And for heaven's sake: if you have theories or are part of the godvoice labs sprouting up around Godville, let me know! I'll happily place and cite you here!
 

Pets, Huh? Good Gods (Y'All), What Are They Good For?: Leveraging Your Pet_Class

Intro: So your hero has a little Firefox. Or Significant Otter. Or Rocky Raccoon. Or Alpha Centaur. Or Multilegged Luggage (how'd you end up with one of those?). He's cute, hiccuping bubbles, yawning, wagging his tail. Sometimes he'll attack a monster, or heal your hero, or growl at the merchant, and maybe, if you're lucky, he'll give the hero a ride so the milestones go clicking by. But it's all random, right? There's nothing you can do to level this pet_class faster, right? He'll pet medal or go best pet all in his own time, right?

Wrong. You have a modicum of influence. It's small, but it's there. This discourse will tell you how to use it, based on my observations and those of deities across Godville.

Let's nip some things in the bud before we get down to brass tacks. (1.) This is not a guide to keeping your hero's pet_class from knocking himself out (that would be a miracle) or reviving your hero's pet_class (some nice and highly informative deities have already done that; try reading the pet page carefully, and maybe asking GodBenign Neglect ). (2.) This is not an "I pet medaled before I templed, and you can, too" plan (even though I did and you can).

"Then what is it?" you ask? Well, like the title says, it's guidelines for leveraging your hero's pet_class. If you want to squeeze the pet_class for all the help he can give your hero, this will help. If you want to goose the pet_class into moving slightly faster up the taming pantheon, this will help. If your mercenary soul wants to know which pet_class to nurture and which pet_class to bump off, I pity your hero and pet_classes, but this will help.

Pets 101: Pets have four skill sets/adaptations: combat; healing; trade; transport. While all pets will  experience some entries each of combat, healing, and trade, each pet_class will tend heavily toward one adaptation. (Bear with me, of transport-adapted pet_classes-- your situation is a little different, and I will address it later. You need this basic info, too.) A Firefox or Alpha Centaur will fight. A Rocky Raccoon will excel at finding artifacts and intimidating traders. A Significant Otter will rub off all of his fur trying to cheer up or heal his ailing hero. But you won't often see them doing anything else.

When your hero's pet_class is exercising his fighting skills, you will see entries like "My beloved Pumba crept up behind the monster and roared loudly. Judging by the shocked look on its face, the Underwear Wolf might need a new pair of pants now." (GodSourceRunner ) and "Oy meowed loudly and charged the enemy. The Tiger Lily desperately fought back, but my Heffalump is a pretty tough opponent." (GodDragola ) If you have a combat-adapted pet_class, you will see these entries at least twice every half hour, and up to four times in ten minutes. If you have a differently-adapted pet_class, you will see a combat entry about once every six hours.

When your hero's pet_class is exercising his healing skills, you will see entries like "Fido came closer and started licking my wounds. Suddenly I felt better, even without all these sword-puncture sessions." and "Aware of the health benefits he offers, Fido carefully rubbed against me with his soft fur." (Goddjleeds ) If you have a healing-adapted pet_class, you will see these entries at least half of the times you let your hero's health slip into the red level. If you have a differently-adapted pet_class, you will see these entries generally no more than once in every five or six times you let your hero's health get into the red.

When your hero's pet_class is exercising his trade skills, you will see entries like "Rex growled at the trader. The trader swallowed nervously and gave us a good price." (GodJimbob64 ) and "Dumbo suddenly perked up attentively and roared. Then he rushed into the bushes and pulled out a standard of justice." (GodJimbob65 ) If you have a trade-adapted pet_class, you will see these entries up to twice every trip out and back. If you have a differently-adapted pet_class, you'll see these entries about as often as your hero used to use trade skills before the last adjustment.

When your hero's pet_class is exercising his transport skills, you will see entries like "Oy suddenly grabbed me, and the milestones started to flash before my eyes... Uh, at least we're rushing in the right direction." and "Mounted my little friend and swiftly rode a couple of miles. Oy sniffed resentfully." (GodDragola ) If you have a transport-adapted pet_class, you will see these entries. If you have a differently-adapted pet_class, you won't. Ever. Transport skills are not open to non-transport pets. And another way that transport-adapted pet_classes differ is in that they begin cross-adaptation as basic-type pets, most often with fighting or healing.

Pets are stratified to match heroes by level. (There's an excellent grid on the pets page that illustrates this.) So a level 18 hero will go for a Dust Bunny, and a level 70 hero will consider no less than a Dreaded Gazebo as a worthy new companion. Rumor (and a couple of other deities' pets that I'm watching) suggests that higher strata pets level faster. More importantly, they appear to develop an aptitude for cross-adaptation. Cross-adaptation is the ability to use multiple skills in near-equal measure. For instance, and Alpha Centaur will fight just about as often as he provides rides, maybe moreso.

The last thing you need to know about pets, before we move on to the stuff that you really want to know, is that their levels are not just a function of their ages but also of how often they use their skills. A fighting pet_class will level like a speed demon. A trading pet_class... not so much. Which brings us to our first point of manipulation.

Opportunity: If you read the section above, you have probably identified how your hero's pet_class is adapted. You have no control over this, short of promoting the risky sorts of behaviors that get a pet_class concussed. And released. And replaced.

And that's depressing to consider, so moving on!

The good news is, there is no bad adaptation. It's all good! Your hero's pet_class is naturally predisposed to help your hero, and is always looking for the opportunity. So it follows that the best way to have your pet_class help your hero (and consequently help your pet_class, for any of you taming pantheon climbers) is to provide said opportunities.

How?

Well, combat-adapted pet_classes are easy. The heroes spend the majority of their time on the gold road, fighting monsters. Leave a combat-adapted pet_class alone and he will level himself. Go too heavy on arena visits and dig monsters, and he'll slow down, because Random isn't getting as many regular monster fights on which to roll the dice for if your hero's pet_class helps or not. Don't mess with a good thing is the bottom line for combat-adapted pet_classes.

Healing-adapted pet_classes are a little more dependent on your playing style for how fast they level up. We still aren't quite certain what conditions trigger healing; we know it doesn't happen at full health, it's at least 20% more likely to happen when a hero's health is in the red, and a certain percentage of the healing entries appear to be near-death experiences. This would suggest that healing-adapted pet_classes are the best friends of evil-aligned heroes. If you want to advance your healing-adapted pet_class, adjust your playing style to provide lots of time when your hero is down to a third of total health and do not encourage.

Trade-adapted pet_classes may take the most care of all. They have few natural opportunities to assist (how much time does your hero spend on the road NOT fighting monsters or "returning to quest"? Uh-huh, thought so. How about selling stuff? Slightly more? That's good), so you may have to modify your playingstyle extensively by returning to town more often or (under special conditions covered in the next section) willfully destroying artifacts through study or crafting in order to stay on the road longer. On the positive side, trade-adapted pet_classes may gain some credit for entries responding to "dig" commands where the pet reacts. How much this is impactful versus cosmetic is still under investigation.

Transport-adapted pet_classes, like combat-adapted pet_classes, will level themselves naturally, especially if cross-adapted to combat. But because transport pet_classes have their primary skill in a limited-use category, they may level more slowly. Like trade-adapted pet_classes, transport-adapted pet_classes are likely to benefit from more frequent returns to town.

Auras: Speaking of returning to town and other things we don't like to do, let's talk about auras. Auras! Yes! Use them!

Seriously, here: one of the best ways to help your hero's pet_class help your hero is to put an aura on the hero. You don't have a choice of which one Randomassigns when you activate that artifact, but knowing which ones are good for your pet_class's adaptation can tell you if you should activate that next artifact or if now would be a good time to visit the arena.

Combat-adapted pet_classes:

Best aura: Sublimation. An increased likelihood of monsters being sacrificed, resulting in GP? Oh, yes please! Not only will the pet_class be helping the hero, the pet_class will be helping you. And you can turn right around and use that extra GP to either craft artifacts (if you need more space and want to stay out longer) or encouraging to try for that "something fragrant" pet healing/experience entry.

Worst aura: Pacifism. Obviously.

Healing-adapted pet_classes:

Best aura: Unknown. Possibly Spooky. There is no aura that constantly does damage to a hero (though Concussion, Confusion, and Contusion have been known to cause repeated damage to deific foreheads and heavenly walls), so nothing calls on a healing pet_class to repeatedly use his skill. However, there is a type of spooky aura that will prevent a hero from gaining gold from monsters, and possibly prevents looting healing items as well. This is still under investigation, but if it proves out, this will be the best aura for your healing-adapted pet_class. Too bad the hero needs to be dead for about an hour to get it-- you were planning on working on that martyr achievement anyway, right?

Worst aura: Immortality, Reviving, or Pacifism. This sounds counterintuitive. I mean, you want your hero alive so that your healing-adapted pet_class can work his magic, right? We-e-ell, sort of. But Immortality forces the use of healing items and returns to town, dramatically reducing a pet_class's usefulness. Reviving appears to have the side-effect of making your hero more cautious, lengthening the time to trigger healing. Pacifism, you can figure out.

Trade-adapted pet_classes:

Best aura: Pacifism! Surprised? You shouldn't be. For most other deities, Pacifism is a mixed blessing; on one hand, you can spend an hour not checking on your hero, but on the other hand, your hero is hemorrhaging artifacts. Not so for trade-adapted pet_class owners! Your hero may be dropping artifacts, but that entire hour is a minute-by-minute opportunity for Random to have your hero's pet_class find something. Several somethings. Enough somethings to off-set puddle loss, quite possibly. Hoarding also appears to have some benefit, too, because the aura seems to bleed onto the pet doing some voluntary finding. Still under investigation, though.

Worst aura: Huckstering. Again, this sounds counterintuitive. But Huckstering appears to increase the probability that a hero will force a better price from a trader. If the hero forces the price on an artifact, the trade-adapted pet_class cannot then force the price on the same artifact. This aura actually reduces the number of opportunities for a per_class to use his trade skill.

Transport-adapted pet_classes:

Best aura: Unknown. Still under investigation.

Worst aura: Unknown. Still under investigation.

Light Under a Bushel: the Awesome Levelless Pet: Credit for this section goes entirely to GodDragola , who tirelessly watched and reported the behaviors of his levelless pet, Oy the Heffalump "who refused to be stereotyped, [...] to go quietly and slowly fade away into obscurity." The data this Heffalump has been giving shows that not only are levelless best pets NOT useless, but they may prove to be a greater asset to their heroes than a leveled pet. If that piques your curiosity, read on.

What if you have a levelless best pet? He's not climbing the taming pantheon anymore, so can he do anything at all? Can you, as a deity, still influence this pet? Surprisingly, the answer is "yes."

With pets, there is always the question of what entries record pet influence in a hero's life (impact entries) and what entries perform other entries and just invoke pets because that's how they're written (cosmetic entries). The general consensus for separating the two is based on the initiating factors and whether the action depicted happens regardless of pet presence. For instance, a pet_class breathing fire at a monster is an impact entry because it was initiated by the pet_class and non-hero forces do not attack a monster mid-fight when pets are absent. In contrast, the pet_class reacting to a thundering voice by digging up an artifact is a cosmetic entry, because the deity initiated the action with a godvoice and the hero occasionally obeys by digging up an artifact in the absence of pets.

Just about every report I've heard until recently indicated that levelless best pets just performed cosmetic entries (mostly artifact destruction), and no impact entries. That is NONSENSE. A best pet_class will spend, at most, about one month in this state, and then become a pinnacle example of cross-adaptation. A best transport-adapted pet_class will resume giving rides, will add combat entries, may start healing sometimes, and will distract the trader so his hero gets a better price. The removal of the "will to compete" appears to make the pet more rounded in skill and versatile in playability.

So how do you play a cross-adapted best pet_class to you hero's advantage? There's the beauty of it: any way you want. Short on GP? Let the best pet_class take care of the hero's health needs for a while. Have a hankering for gold? Slap an aura on that sucker and play to its combat or trade strengths. And in the case that deity playing style should influence pet_classes into developing particular behaviors and traits more strongly (still under investigation, looking unlikely, but you never know), cross-adapted pets won't have to work themselves out of a behavioral rut to become what the hero needs at any given time.

Kinda makes you wonder why anyone would let go of a best pet, doesn't it?


No, Seriously-- Why Would I Release a Best Pet, Now? Hey, I'm glad that you feel that way! Honestly, I can only think of one reason: the variety of entries. Diary entries appear to vary either according to pet_class species or to hero level at the time of capture. Pumba, my hero's Firefox, frequently leaps on monsters' heads and bites their heels. Oy, Dragola's Heffalump, cracks monsters over the head with crow bars and breathes fire. Fido, Djleeds' Significant Otter, never fights but pulls all sorts of antics to raise sinking moods. Seeing something new after months of the same pet might appeal to some people. That and getting back into the taming pantheon, but who cares about that?


Credits: I had a LOT of help from a whole cadre of researching deities for this discourse. These people are awesome. Add them as friends, join their guilds, upvote their chronicles and godvoices, or whatever you do to say "thanks," because they deserve it. In no particular order (and if I've missed you, somehow, please tell me so you get the credit you deserve):

GodYour Ex Girlfriend -- Trojan Horse (transport)

Goddjleeds -- Significant Otter (healing)

GodJimbob64 -- Rocky Raccoon (trade)

GodBenign Neglect -- Rocky Raccoon (trade)

GodYour Ex Girlfriend -- Alpha Centaur (transport cross combat)

GodDragola -- Heffalump (transport cross combat)

GodBenign Neglect -- Hyper Lynx (transport cross combat)

GodZombificationer -- Dandy Lion (transport cross combat)

GodMistress of Science -- Solar Bear (transport cross combat)

GodNever More -- Prancing Pony (transport cross trade)

GodDragola -- Best Pet (levelless)

GodJimbob65 -- Sun Dog (combat)

GodBlissful 1 -- Double Dragon (transport cross combat cross healing)


As with all discourses, this remains a work in progress. Any data that you have that you are willing to share I would greatly appreciate receiving, so that we all learn a little more about our pets. Thank you for reading.