Grimace hung low in the sky--
--what? Oh for Ralph's sake. Alright.
Once upon a time... there was a seal clubber who hailed from the frozen north--
Because there's always a character class that hails from the frozen north, that's why.
--from the frozen north, whose name was Bernice. Bernice Vega. And she was on a Quest.
Grimace hung low in the sky, while Ronald had not yet risen. It was still hot despite the black sky overhead, which was studded with myriad jewel-like constellations. As in, the family jewels. (What, you were expecting maybe something glowing and ethereal?) Bernice was reassured by their familiar dangling presence above: something recognizable in this ridiculous expanse of desert, where a seal clubber from the frozen north had no place being.
Yes, of course it was the Twig and Berries. ...who said what? No, I'll-- I'll tell you when you're older. Do you want to hear this story or not?
...she stalked along the burning desert sands, feeling Ultrahydration leak from every pore. In her wake buzzed twenty-three pounds of blood-sucking insect, sticking as close to her as possible to absorb stray drops of water from her skin.
"Do you have to stick so close? " she growled eventually, waving a bill bec-de-bardiche glaive-guisarme about over her head-- something only those with significant Strengthliness can pull off. Gnollish crossdressers and dresscrossers alike had learned to fear (and envy) Bernice's (manly, yet provocative (and currently Tingly)) biceps, but the insect merely dodged the swinging weapon effortlessly and settled on her shoulder.
"I'm thirsty, " he whined in a nasal voice. "And we've been walking for miles."
"No. I've been walking. You've been flying. And riding on my shoulder when you got tired."
"I'm still thirsty."
"Well, save the appetite for the next wrestling scorpion we run across, willya? Next thing I know, you're gonna be slurping off me."
"Hey, hey, I'm not the one who wanted to head out into the stinkin' desert without a guide-- I said we should stick with the gnome dude, Gnasal--"
"Whatever. He knew where it was at. Those little guys always do. But you, no, you had to punt the little bastard over the dune and right into the freakin' maw of an overgrown caterpillar, and here we are, lost." The mosquito let out an angry buzz, and repeated it for emphasis. "Lost! And soon to be Sunburned! Or Majorly Poisoned!"
"Hey. You coulda stayed at the campground. I swear, I've known stab bats woulda been more useful than you."
"Thanks a lot. Man, in the larval egg they told me about you clubbers. They said, better hope you don't get a clubber. Hold out for a tamer, they said. They said--"
"Diamonds, shut up for five seconds."
There was sudden silence over the endless desert, without even a bird call to disrupt it. The formidable seal clubber gazed slowly around the desert, the muscles in her neck moving like cogs and sprockets in a clockwork crossbow. Seconds passed.
"--that I would never be appreciated, and--"
"Diamonds. Shut up, or I will turn you into a twenty-three pound smear."
The mosquito fell silent again, and Bernice's eyes narrowed as she spotted something. An irregularity in the sand, or merely a trick of single-moon-light? The warrior stepped forward--
--and the sand gave way beneath her blackberry combat boots, plunging her into an even blacker nothingness below. You know, blacker than the boots. In case you missed that.
I'd hate to think you weren't paying attention.
Asterisk, asterisk, asterisk.
...what do you mean, what do I mean? It's right there on the page. Three asterisks. It's a sophisticated, cultured way of saying a break. A section break. You know, "time passed." No, I don't know why they don't just say "time passed." They use the asterisks, alright?
Ahem. Moving on.
"Woah! Watch it! You nearly had me there, yeesh..."
"You were sucking my blood?"
"I was waking you up! Get a grip! Not on me!"
Bernice rubbed at her collarbone, where Diamonds' proboscis had raised a red welt, and gave the mosquito a dark glare. She glanced around to see uniform blackness. Then she glanced again, because there was a tailor in the seaside town who'd pay cold hard meat for uniform-grade blackness.
Grunting, the seal clubber felt in the dark for her bill bec-de-bardiche glaive-guisarme, either luck or intuition guiding her hand to one of the non-pointy sticky bleedy bits. Bernice was lying on something hard, unyielding, and unpleasantly damp, and for a second she smiled, but then remembered all the corporate attorneys were back in town.
"A little light'd be nice," she muttered as she hauled herself and seventy assorted pounds of armor to her feet. Diamonds buzzed nervously about her head.
"Why a little one? Wouldn't a big, pulsing one be better?"
"Size doesn't matter," Bernice said with a shrug, slinging her pack off and rummaging by feel through an inventory that ought to have been transferred to a Colossal Closet a long time ago.
Incidentally, this is what will happen if you don't keep your room neat. Someday, you're going to be lost in an arid desert in pitch blackness, likely to be eaten by a grue, and you're going to be unable to find what you need to survive due to everything being a mess. Tomorrow, we're cleaning this place out.
It was uniform blackness. Now it's pitch. It got darker. I don't know. The pitch oozed out of the walls, okay?
Anyway, Bernice rummaged in her pack and eventually came out with something that felt like silk in her hands-- slimy and tangly, just like most forms of moth spit. It did however glitter faintly in the definit darkness.
Well, what did you think they distilled for it? Potatoes??
...Bernice shucked out of her antique greaves, and into the star pants. As they made contact with her skin, the faint glitter flared into full light, as stars and lines strained to cover massive, well-formed calves and thighs that would have made a Frat Warrior jealous.
"Excuse me... I don't know why I'm bringing it up when it doesn't really matter since we're all going to diiiiiie here, down here with the bones, down here with the dead, and the locusts are going to eat us all-- but would you mind putting those out? You're hurting my sole friend in all the world's eyes."
Bernice grabbed one-handed to keep her still-untied pants from falling down, and with her other hand she hefted the bill bec-de-bardiche glaive-guisarme once more.
Yes, I know it's a two-handed weapon. She's just hefting it, all right? It's not combat yet.
In the twinkling light that her snug trous emitted, she could see what looked to be a figure hunched against a wall that was likely as hard, unyielding, and unpleasantly damp as the floor she'd been sitting on. Probably male, and judging from the slinky cant of his hunch and general air of ne'er-do-well, definitely a Moxie class.
"Hey," Bernice growled, with the sort of rumble that usually presages unfortunate things happening in the engine of one's bitchin' meatcar. "You watched me undress."
"Oh, like I really wanted to," he whined, and slumped down the wall. "Like I could care about that. Like I could care about anything. We're going to die."
Bernice crossed her arms-- carefully. A bill bec-de-bardiche glaive-guisarme is a dangerous thing to handle on a regular basis. "'Scuse me?" she said, and someone still learning from the Toot Oriole could have picked up on the menace in her tone. "There's some in the Knob Goblin guard as pay good meat to watch Bernice Vega shake it, kid."
"Oh, I don't care, I don't care, I don't care," he moaned, and with each I-don't-care smacked his head aback against the wall. He had floppy emo hair that moved with each smack. "Put out the light! You're hurting Glorfindel's eyes."
See, I told you there were grues.
Bernice stared, and in the dimness she could just make out a patch of darker darkness cowering on the other side of the young man's leg. She arched a slow brow. "You named a grue... Glorfindel?"
Diamonds snickered. The young man, on the other hand, drew himself up a few inches against the wall and said, haughtily, "It's meant to be Ironic."
"Oh, you're one of those," Bernice sniffed. "I suppose you also gave your store a long, reference-laden shopkeeper speech that has lots of indie music jokes. And probably hired that little bastard with the bowler hat to watch it, eh?"
No, White Canadians weren't her favorite drink. Look, sometimes people just say 'eh' in real life. No, really. They do.
The young man had picked up his grue and was cradling it protectively, turning it away from the slight light that shone from Bernice's nether regions. "Don't listen, peachums pookie," he murmured. "The big stupid seal clubber just doesn't get us. It's alright."
One of Bernice's dinner-plate sized hands tightened on the bill.... thing. "Watch it, Moxie."
"That's accordion thief to you, thanks ever so much. And what's your little bloodsucker named?"
Bernice grunted and crouched back down to her pack, stuffing away the antique greaves and shouldering the whole thing again. "Diamonds."
"Because they are a girl's best friend."
There was a moment of silence, and then a stricken, horrified whisper of, "You're a girl?"
Asterisk, asterisk, asterisk.
"Thanks again. I'm feeling so much better. That'll teach me to be careful with those candles."
"Yeah, no problem. Let's drop it. Keep up with me."
"I had some soft green echo eyedrops in my own pack, but it's when you're most depressed that you don't realize you need help, so--"
"Yeah, I get it. Shut up."
"I'm trying to apologize and be friendly, okay?"
"And I'm trying not to alert every dubiously-dead thing from here down to the bottom levels of this pyramid that we're here. Ralph! For a Moxie you don't know a damn thing about being sneaky, do you? You're wearing tap shoes, for Boris's sake!"
"I... well, I thought they were.... really moxious..."
"Yeah, you can dance your way right on to Beaten Up. Diamonds, if he talks again, nail him in the jugular, will you?"
"God, I hate you people."
There's three more asterisks here.
They followed long back tunnels through the heart of the pyramid-- for this, in fact, is where they had ended up-- with Glorfindel the Grue scampering ahead ever so often and returning to offer advice on which turn they should take. This advice was invariably wrong, but it was so invariably wrong that it served them quite well as a reverse compass. Eventually, the two adventurers, and their familiars, stood before a door.
It wasn't one of those ominous heavy stone doors that is lined with the years, or even hieroglyphic runes. It wasn't particularly foreboding at all-- small, unremarkable, and discreet, save for the modern and gleaming keyboard lock set into the handle and a small, unremarkable, and discreet sign saying "Staff Only - Please Keep Out."
"Great," Bernice muttered. "Just when a Mysticality Class would come in handy, and what do I have? The emo hipster Accordion Thief from hell."
The thief cringed, but said, "Look, the lock can't be that complex-- I'm sure we can figure it out."
"So what if we do? Do we have a staff with us? I don't."
"Um, I might in my pack-- give me a second--" The thief crouched down and searched-- and in a few seconds triumphantly held up a spooky staff.
Bernice stared. "Why do you even carry that with you? It's no use for your class."
The young shifted about uncomfortably. "Well, when I joined, someone told me I shouldn't get rid of anything because I might need it someday to make something else and--"
"Wait. You haven't gotten rid of anything? At all? Since you started adventuring?"
"Oh for Sneaky Pete's sake... how n00b can you get? I bet even a sevenner wouldn't-- are you a sevenner?"
"Am I a what?"
"Shit, I'm standing in the tomb of Ed the Undying with a damn seven-digiter!" Bernice slumped to the ground and gave in to an uncharacteristic moment of despair. Diamonds hovered around her in concern, eventually settling on her ample bosom as one of the few unspikey and unarmored regions of her body.
The accordion thief coughed. "A little familiar, isn't he?"
Bernice lifted her head and stared blankly. "Not that little," she pointed out. "Your grue can't be more than eight pounds there."
"No, I meant... never mind. Look, are we going to try opening this door or not?"
Bernice shrugged and waved a hand dismissively. "Do what you want-- Diamonds, stop that-- do what you want. So you've got a staff that should be part of a spooky scarecrow, knock yourself out trying to guess whatever obscure pop-culture reference serves as the password. I'm taking a break." She reached for her pack again and dug out a White Canadian, which was her favored booze.
Yes, yes, you said so earlier, you're very smart. Now shut up.
"I will," said the nameless young thief. Not that he was actually nameless, because you can't adventure in the Kingdom without a name, even if it's just one of those unpronounceable ones that has a lot of numbers. But even those who hail from distant lands-- yes, or the frozen north-- have names, such as the beautiful and exotic sisters Monique and Unique Us'Rname. Where was I? Oh, right, the young man-- whose name, incidentally, was T3d t3h 1337, said "I will," and proceeded to bend over the small keypad.
Bernice had barely had time to knock back her drink, feeling Canadianity rush through her veins like a flood of hot maple syrup, when there was a soft beep and click, and a staff-shaped slot appeared in the door. T3d grinned triumphantly. "Wa-la!"
"Voila," Bernice said automatically, still staring.
"That's what I said," T3d said, and turned to insert the spooky staff into the door.
"No, it's not. What was the password?"
T3d stepped back from the door, rubbing his hands together as it swung open. "'Password.' Hey, what'd you say I could use this spooky staff for? A scarecrow?"
Here's some more asterisks. They must have been on sale.
Having crept in a secret, back-door, hidden entrance to the Ancient Buried Temple, the two adventurers now crept along the secret, back-door, hidden service corridor inside the Ancient Buried Temple. Eventually they emerged into a small crawl-space, and found themselves jostling to peer through a crack in the ancient stone slabs to look down into the room below.
"I can't believe this," T3d muttered.
"Yeah," said Bernice. "Imagine... no adventurer has ever beheld what we have before... never come by these secret paths and viewed this awesome sight... this unguessed-at mystery..."
"Oh, I don't know about that, " T3d said, and gestured without moving his head from the peephole at a pile of adventurer bones in the corner. "But I'm talking about the way he's playing. Who the hell bluffs on a pair of deuces?"
Bernice frowned, and shoved T3d roughly aside to look down through the crack again. Sonuvagun, he was right; Ed was going all-in with only two twos clutched in his bony, mummified hand.
KoL staffers were swarming around the Undying One, carefully stitching limbs back together with fishing line and duct tape. Ed ignored their work with the air of one who has been through this many times, concentrating only on his cards. From their angle, it was impossible for the adventurers to see who he was playing against.
"I know you're bluffing, Ed."
"You do not."
"Do not-- and before we start this, remember I am Undying. I can keep this up forever."
"Point taken. Show your cards, then. I call."
There was the sound of playing cards hitting the table, and a triumphant, feminine laugh, and Ed groaned, putting his skull in his hands. A pile of meat was raked across the top of the sarcophagus away from him. Bernice strained for a glance at Ed's opponent, but in vain.
At that moment, an alarm went off somewhere in the pyramid, and Ed cursed. "Shit. Someone's past the Middle Chamber. I'd better get ready. Hey! Would you double-tape my foot this time? Last fight it was first to come off, and it's hard to limp menacingly."
"You got it, Ed," murmured one of the employees. Ed made it into his sarcophagus with much groaning and wheezing, lifting one skeletal hand to wave a farewell to his poker opponent. "Catch you next Wednesday, if I can get someone to cover for me here. I gotta say, the benefits are everything Jick promised me, but my schedule? Sucks."
"I know how it is. See you, Ed," said the mysterious figure, and disappeared in a flash of light. That seemed to be the cue for the staffers to hurriedly finish getting the poker cards and meat swept away, and the crypt returned to a condition of ancient sepulchral dusty gloom. Ed produced something that glowed from inside his sarcophagus, and settled it atop his chest.
"The Holy MacGuffin," T3d and Bernice breathed together, as the staffers disappeared through secret doors in preparation for the incoming Adventurer.
Bernice and T3d glanced at each other. T3d smiled. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Bernice nodded. "Go down there and challenge him to a fair fight with much bellowing and beating on the chest? Absolutely."
"....what? No, we go down there while he's busy with this other Adventurer, and we steal the MacGuffin, and we high-tail it out of here."
"What?? That goes against my creed as a seal clubber from the frozen north! Besides, I'm itchin' for a fight."
"Well, it goes entirely with my creed as an accordion thief from some unnamed sleazy alley somewhere, and I've already spent way too many adventures on this quest already!"
"Oh, like you were really using them for something better. What are you missing out on, an exciting hour of farming, or inserting more band references into your store??"
"Don't push me, clubber," T3d growled, and reached for happiness.
"You'd break if I did, moxie," Bernice replied, and cracked her knuckles ominously. (The bill bec-flamboyant had been left outside the crawl space.)
At that moment, an Adventurer burst into the crypt below, and pasta sauce started flying. Bernice and T3d shut up to watch the Combat!, but Ed proved too much for the neophyte Sauceror who had come into his tomb cruisin' for a bruisin', and sent him packin' with a smackin'.
"Now," Bernice hissed as the Beaten Up Sauceror wandered off in a black-and-blue daze. "Now that he's been weakened!" And she slammed down one meaty fist on the stone panel that held them above the room.... and tumbled down into epic conflict...
Aste-- yes. No, asterisk cubed is not the same thing. Look, just let me finish this.
Bernice stood breathing hard, feeling health return to her as Diamonds steadily injected blood into her veins. With the bill-of-sale du glaive left above, she'd had to improvise; but it was amazing how well Ed's own arm had worked as a club against him.
"Are we done?" she said shortly, and Ed's disembodied head glared impotently up at her.
"You cheated," he clacked out through cracked and fractured jaws.
"Yeah, I did. Bad company was rubbing off on me," she said, and tossed his arm back to him. She glanced back to the sarcophagus-- and swore as she noted the Holy MacGuffin was gone.
"That two-timing son of a dairy goat and a furry giant!"
"Are you really surprised?" asked Ed, and Bernice sighed. "Nah. But it was something of an adventure sink, and now I'll probably have to do it all over. Unless I can hunt him down before he gets back to the Council."
"You mean you might be coming back?" Ed said with a grimace. Yeah, I know he's a skull. He grimaced, okay? "Look, there's no need. I have a ton of those damn things in the sarcophagus. Just feel around in the bottom there, you'll see."
Bernice arched an eyebrow and reached into the coffin. Her hand closed on something radiant. Angels sang her accomplishments. She grinned and shoved the MacGuffin into her sack. "Hey, thanks."
"Yeah, don't mention it."
"No, seriously. Don't mention it. I'd get in serious trouble. Breach of contract."
"My lips are sealed," Bernice swore, and stood up. "Hey, you mind if I ask a few questions?"
Ed sighed. "Can I stop you?"
She considered this. "No. So... who were you playing poker against, anyway?"
Ed stared, then began to laugh, a horrible, dry, cackling laugh, infused with the dust of ages and ages of dust. "Ha ha ha ha HA! Saw that, did you? Oh, you'll meet her, Adventurer. You'll meet her. Someday. And on that day... I swear to you by my undying soul... my defeat here will BE AVENGED!"
Bernice waited for the echoes to die away, then said, "Okay. And why's it so damp here? In the desert, I'd think it'd be dry."
"Oh. Bad plumbing." Ed sighed. "The Procrastination Giant is supposed to come fix it, which means it won't get implemented til the next NS. Now, do you mind? I have to get patched together before the next one of you hooligans comes through here."
Bernice nodded understandingly, shouldered her pack, and headed for the door. She still had a dirty, double-crossing accordion thief to find, after all. As she made her way up to the desert floor, Ed's parting words echoed up the stairway to her, carrying evil, if incomprehensible, promise...
"See you next Ascension, Adventurer...."
What next? Well, she found T3d, and broke a lot of his bones, and TPed his campsite, and got into a clan that raided his clan a lot.
Well, yes, but it was a good courtship all told. After all, he always healed. He became a great favorite of Doc Galaktik's, your father did. Why, the Doc even came to our wedding, and helped us sort out the paperwork to get your father's name changed. ...because I wasn't about to become Bernice t3h 1337, that's why.
Okay, it's time for bed now, my spicy little burrito. No, you've already had a glass of water.
No, I won't tell you another story. Yes, I did eventually meet and defeat Ed's poker opponent. I'll tell you tomorrow night.
No, there aren't any monsters under the bed, and besides, you have a club right there next to you if there are. I didn't raise my daughter to be some shifty spineless coward like her father.
Yes, dear. I love you too.