INSANITY UNLIMITED #3 "The Things We Do" By Jamas Enright Framing sequence by Drizzt ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- "So, you want to hear a tale, eh?" the bard said, unstringing the lute from his back. "But a tale of what or who? Dragons, huge and terrible? Heroes, bold and brave? Treasures, golden and glittering?" He looked around the inn's gloomy interior. A few of its denizens took notice of him, but most paid him no mind. He reminded himself of his mission here, to build cells of resistance against the evil Teeyessarr Empire which threatened to overwhelm them all. The bard spoke again. "Tales for the telling. All you must do is ask." "I'll hear a story," a voice said. The bard turned to see an imperial guardsman at the bar. Copper glinted in the dim light as the guardsman flipped him a coin. "Make it one of a true hero, one who was mindful of his honor, his duty, and his country." The guardsman looked around with disdain at the shabbily-dressed villagers. "Tell a story of great sacrifice and triumph against the impossible." The curly-headed bard smiled as he pocketed the copper piece. "Well, if it's a story of heroism and sacrifice you desire, I have exactly the tale for you." Picking up his instrument, he began. "There lived a barbarian who was not truly a barbarian. He was the son of a 'true' tribesman and a sorceress. When he was yet young, his mother was slain in wizardly combat by the infamous Squishi the Goo Wizard, a death which the young man avenged in time." A few more heads pivoted to catch the story he was weaving, and the bard began to hit his stride. "But he found vengeance to be cold and empty. His mother was still gone, and nothing he had done changed that. And that is when the tale begins..." ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- //Why did you forsake me?// "Mmmrrrmmrmrmm," said RetConan into his pillow. //Why did you let me die?// RetConan turned over, restless, and rolled off the blanket. //Why "AARRGGHH!!" The cold stone snapped RetConan awake. He sprung to his feet, scrabbling for something warm to protect him, and ended up standing on his bed. A low moan alerted him to the presence of the female. How much had he to drink last night? Still, his father would probably complain, RetConan thought gloomily. "Vhy didn't you haf two girls?" RetConan could imagine him saying. "I had two." RetConan's father, Robert, aka Bob the Barbarian, came into the room RetConan was staying in. "Ah, at last you are avake. I vas beginning to zink you vould sleep in all avternoon." RetConan glowered at his father. Doddering old idiot, he thought. RetConan leapt across the room, and landed by his hastily discarded equipment. Deftly extracting his sword, Shamcutter, he spung around to see Bob already taking a swing at him with his sword. RetConan blocked with Shamcutter, and attacked in return. Their swords clashed and clanged in their normal exercise battle. Clash! Clang! Clash! Clang! [I would write "CLANG TATANG SHRIPP SWACKT SLICE THWACK TITTANG CLANG," but I don't stoop that low.] A screech distracted RetConan, and he turned to see his night-time companion awake, and holding the blanket against her body in terror. However, he missed his father's blow as the flat of the sword caught him on the head. "Pah," his father spat. "Vhat kind of barbarian are you? Distracted by the sound of a woman. Alvays zinking vith your loins." "Oh?" replied RetConan. "And you were any better with Mother?" "Vhat can I say?" RetConan joined his father for his chant. "I vas young. I vas stupid. I vanted to ravish her." "You need a new line." "And you need to get dressed." Bob indicated RetConan's nakedness. A titter brought the woman to his mind again. "Quiet, wench," RetConan growled. "Or I'll see you split on the end of my sword." "That's what you said last night," replied the woman. "Your sword wasn't that impressive then." RetConan could feel his face reddening, and his father smirking. "That's enough of your lip, girl, or you'll be feeling the back of my hand." "Oh, let her be," said Bob. "Just get on vith it. Our quest is vaiting." "Why do we bother with this quest, anyway? Why can't we just let her be dead?" Bob shrugged. "It's a barbarian zing. It'z in our contract. Pillage homes. Fight dragons. Rescue previously dead mothers. Check vith ze Union." RetConan sighed. Once, just once, he'd like to just go for a simple hack and slash journey. _-~-_ Later, RetConan descended into the tavern proper in full barbarian clothing, carrying his sword in one hand, and his rucksack in his other. The outfit set his body off perfectly, emphasising his muscles, and protecting those all important parts. Yep, you couldn't go past a good loincloth for proper clothing. His father was waiting for him, paying the barman for the rooms. "You never said tventy pieces!" "I did too," insisted the barman, rather fatally. "I haf your tventy pieces right here." Bob brandished his sword in the barman's face, who swallowed, but didn't look away. RetConan grabbed his father's arm. "Dad. Just pay the man," he advised quietly. "He vants tventy pieces. He said verteen last night. Zat's daylight robbery, zat is." RetConan turned to the barman. "Perhaps you should rethink things." The barman shook his head. "If I let go, you won't have a head to think with." RetConan relaxed his grip slightly, and the sword swung dangerously close to the barman's nose. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead. "Yes, you're quite right. Thirteen it was. Yes, all coming back to me now. Thirteen." The look on Bob's face didn't lessen. "Six, no, it's on the house. Go. Just go." Bob turned away, and stomped out, leaving RetConan to follow in his tracks. Outside, RetConan caught up to his father. "You shouldn't do this like that." "Ah, vhat do you know? Vhat reputation vould ve haf if ve paid for everyzink? I do vish you'd try to be a barbarian sometimes. It gets very disappointing." RetConan stared at the ground. Always with the guilt. RetConan kicked at pebbles in the path, unable to bring himself to strike back at his father. Forcing his thoughts in another direction, RetConan asked, "So, how do you plan on finding mother?" Bob waved his arms around, nearly decapitating a nearby peasant with his sword. "Zere's a vizard I can get in touch vith. I've already contacted him, and he is searching for her. He can tell us where to go." "I can tell him where to go. Dad, he a wizard. We're barbarians." "Oh, so you noticed, did you? Vell, ve haf no choice. She's probably stuck in some ovther vorldly dimension or anovther. You know how she can get. Ve'll need some magic to get zere if she is." "So, how far away is this wizard?" "Not far. Just forty odd miles. Ve'll be zere by sundown." *Forty* miles? "So," asked Bob. "Vhy did you only haf one girl last night? I had two." _-~-_ RetConan walked around the wizard's hut carefully. He had an irrational hatred of all wizard kind. Well, hardly irrational considering a sorcerer had killed his mother, and nearly him. Or, so he had thought. Over the past few weeks, he and his father had been receiving messages in their sleep from her, berating them for abandoning her. "Alvays nag, nag, nag," Bob said. "Never a moment's peace, not even vhen she's supposed to be dead. I ask you. Vhat kind of vife vould nag her husband vhen she vas dead?" After a while (Bob being yelled at for four hours straight), they finally embarked on a quest to rescue 'the damned stupid voman.' And the trail led to this hut. It was a fair sized hut, as huts go. Smoke rose from the chimney, soot fell off the sides, and birds nestled in the eaves. Could be quite a nice place to stay, if it didn't house one of the more despicable tradesmen of the world. His father had gone in there an hour ago, and, after the initial explosions and abuse, events had become rather more peaceful. RetConan prowled around, looking for things to occupy his mind. He took a few swings at a nearby tree, but saw Shamcutter looking less than sparkly, so extracted a rag from his possessions and started cleaning it. Soon, he sitting amongst his belongings, using a whetstone to sharpen his sword. RetConan looked along the length of the sword to check the blade, and saw his father looking down at him. "So good to see you taking appropriate care of your sword," Bob said. "Now, pull yourself togevther. Ve're going." As his father moved out of his sight, RetConan could now see the wizard standing in the doorway of the hut, looking at him. RetConan growled, but the wizard just poked his tongue out. RetConan leapt to his feet and pounded towards the wizard, but the door was barred to him before he got halfway. RetConan returned to his belongings, and packed them away. "Where're we going?" "Zere's a forest to the north, Fenring Forest. On cold moonless nights, zere's a path that glows. Zis path leads to a tomb. In ze tomb is a gateway to a pocket dimension. Apparently, the stupid voman got trapped in zere, and now ve haf to get her out." RetConan's eye bulged at this. "We've just walked forty miles -- well, jogged forty miles -- and now you want to go walking on a glowing path on a moonless night. Do we get a chance to go a marathon first?" "Ah, alvays the same. Never satisfied, alvays vanting to sit zings out for a vile. Vhen I was your age, I could run from Gatvig's Gloming to Ravdern Den in one day." "In your day, Brekburn Valley wasn't destroyed by an erupting volcano." "True, but I could still do it." Bob looked at RetConan with something akin to sadness in his eyes. "I just vant you to be a proper barbarian. Is zat too much for a father to ask of his zon?" RetConan sighed. "No, dad. Let's get going." _-~-_ The path felt eriee to RetConan's tired senses. It indeed glowed in the lack of moonlight, and was barely wide enough to fit him. He followed his father's footsteps, unable to draw the elder into conversation about what else the wizard had said. It was because of this distraction that both RetConan and Bob were surprised by the two wolves they came across. Fortunately, the wolves were surprised as well. The barbarians barely had time to draw sword before the wolves snarled and leapt for their throats. Bob took a swing a the wolf leaping for him, and his sword bit deeply. However, the wolf managed to sink its teeth into Bob's arm. The second wolf attacked RetConan, and scored a hit into RetConan's side. RetConan had little time to reflect upon the lack of armour supplied by just a loincloth, as Shamcutter took its toll on the wolf. Bob's second stroke severed his wolf's chest, whereas RetConan's retaliation against his wolf's second futile attempt caused the wolf's decapitated head to fly into the surrounding forest. Pausing only to bind some cloth from their backpacks around their wounds, the pair continued in silence until they reached the clearing. RetConan saw his father head straight for a grassy bank, in which he could see a massive stone door, entwined in the roots of an old tree, but RetConan took time out to collapse on the forest floor and fall asleep. _-~-_ //Why did you leave me to die?// //Why did you leave- RetConan felt a boot digging into his ribs. He rolled away and spang to his feet, Shamcutter cutting wide arcs in the air. As his eyes focused before him, RetConan recognised his father tapping his foot against the ground and waiting. RetConan lowered his sword sheepishly, aware that anyone else would have taken advantage of his rather defenseless position. "You're lucky vhat no-vun and nothing else vants to come to zis place." Bob shrugged. "It's probably haunted or cursed or somevhing." "So, what are we doing here?" asked RetConan, fetching a piece of meat from his backpack, and chewing it. "Ve haf to uncover zat," said Bob, pointing to the door. Bob had already hacked the worst of the roots away, but there was plenty more undergrowth to go, and the edges were buried in dirt. "It vill help keep your mind focused," Bob said, handing him a pickaxe that he retrieved from his backpack. When he saw RetConan's surprised look, he explained "I didn't just get advice from ze vizard." Still, it took a few hours before the area had been cleared enough to allow Bob and RetConan to haul the door open. They peered myopitically into the gloom before fetching lanterns and lighting them. Bob led the way down the stairs. They found themselves in a long Gothic-arched corridor, which was about 4 metres wide. RetConan's attention was drawn to a tapestry on his left. It pictured a host of warriors locked in a gory battle. RetConan saw his father nod approvingly at it. They continued down the corridor, and saw large double doors of black wood bound with verdigris-stained copper ahead. To the right was a smaller door. However, before they could reach the doors, a metal portcullis dropped down to block their way. A harsh clang made them turn to see another portcullis had fallen across the foot of the stairway. Before either of them could move, they saw the tapestry flutter, although RetConan failed to detect any breeze. As he watched five of the warriors became solid and stepped into the corridor. They wore strange sculpted armour, in the hue of the tapestry, and their faces were the colour of old cloth. But their wide-bladed short-swords were all too real. Although RetConan and Bob both struck lucky first blows, only Shamcutter's anti-magical ability seemed to affect them deeply, and then it was only two of the warriors they hit. The faded warriors all leapt forward to attack, but only the first two could actually reach RetConan and Bob, and they successfully parried. RetConan's mind turned over possibilities, and quickly put the tapestry at the top for consideration. As he dispatched one warrior, an idea came to him. He stepped back for a moment, letting Bob go on the defense for both of them, and RetConan threw his lantern over the warriors' heads, and onto the tapestry, smashing the lantern, and setting the tapestry alight. Bob quickly pulled away as not only the tapestry burnt, but so did the warriors. They screamed silently as their bodies turned to ash and disappeared. As the tapestry disappeared, it revealed a tunnel behind it. Leaving the portcullises for a moment, RetConan and Bob ventured into this new room. In the centre of the new chamber hung a wand, slowly rotating about its own centre. One end glowed a dull red, the other sparkled with blue-white light. The central section was black and unreflective. RetConan looked past the wand at the walls of the room. It was an octagonal chamber, the walls covered with markings that followed some unfathomable geometric principle. There were no other exits, but against the far wall was a heavy oak chest. While his father concentrated on the wand, RetConan circled around it, and approached the chest. Carefully, he knelt down, and opened the lid. A jet of green gas squirted in his face, too quickly for him to dodge it. He shook his head to clear it, and turned to see his father drawing his sword and advancing towards him menacingly. Bob the Barbarian considered the wand rotating before him. He had seen plenty in his time to realise that even taking a wand was no simple feat. He put his lantern down, and reached out for the nearest part of the wand when a noise alerted him to his son's movement. Swiftly, RetConan brought Shamcutter up and swept it down towards him. Bob hastily retreated, examining RetConan's face. The boy was under a spell or something. Typical, couldn't keep his mind to himself. Bob expertly brought his sword up in defense, clanging it against Shamcutter. He knew there was no reasoning with RetConan, and patiently waited for whatever spell to wear off. Their shadows danced as their feet tripped across the floor. Eventually, RetConan realised what he was doing, and stopped. He looked towards the chest to see it standing open. "Haf you finished hafink fun, boy?" RetConan hung his head. "It was gas." "Gas? You should be past zose problems by now." RetConan sighed. "Sorry, dad." "Don't vorry. I've been attacked by more possessed friends zan you've had hot meals." RetConan quickly counted on his fingers. "I've only ever had seven hot meals," he complained. "Well, I've only been attacked nine times. Live vith it. Now, vhat do you make of zis wand?" RetConan eyed the wand suspiciously. "Why are there different colored sections?" "How should I know?" asked Bob. "I'm not an interior decorator." "I'd say take it by the black part. Looks harmless enough." "Looks, yes. But is it?" Bob reached for the red part of the wand. "Don't you trust me?" RetConan asked, hurt. Bob sighed. "All vight, all vight. First your mother, and now you. Do I ever get any peace around here? Nag, nag, nag, nag, nag, nag." Bob changed his aim to the black part, and grasped it firmly. The wand stopped moving, and lay in his hand. Somehow, he knew what this wand did. The blue, cold end, fired a blast of intense cold. The red end fired a blast of heat. Neat. Bob turned to tell RetConan what he had found, and saw him back by the chest. RetConan reached down and picked a bag up. "Put zat down," said Bob. "Virst rule, kill everyone, zen pillage when you know no-vune's left to attack you." He turned away and didn't see RetConan stick his tongue out and tie the bag to his loincloth. _-~-_ The portcullises were easy enough to move, and Bob and RetConan had no trouble opening the double doors. They continued down the passage, and soon came upon a steep cliff. There was a light coming from above, so Bob was able to put his lantern away. Carefully, they climbed up the cliff, and RetConan nearly slipped but managed to hold on with his hands until his feet found new perches. As they hauled themselves over the top, they found themselves in a vast cavern. Stalactites sparkled in light which seemed to come from all around. Their hearts skipped a beat as they saw, curled atop an enormous mound of treasure, the long sinuous form of a huge red Dragon. Luckily for them, it was sleeping; wisps of blue smoke curling gently up from its black nostrils. Near it, contained within a red pentacle inscribed on the cavern floor, was a stout old oak whose branches reached up to the shadows beyond the magical light. Or did it? Just for a moment, when he reached the top, RetConan though he saw a figure: a wild bearded man two metres in height, holding aloft an ebony staff. But then, as he looked again, it was the oak tree he saw standing there. It must have been a trick of the light. RetConan and Bob split up, circling around the treasure, and eyeing the Dragon warily. As RetConan reached the oak tree, he put out a hand to touch it, but it was stopped by an invisible barrier. Looking down, RetConan saw hand hand above the edge of the pentagram. Bob had decided on a bolder approached. He walked directly to the Dragon. First, it opened an eye to watch him, then Bob saw its red tongue flicker between its sharp teeth. "Hell Low There. Who Are You?" Bob took a surprised step backward at the Dragon's voice, but quickly recovered. "I am Bob the Barbarian, and I hav come to rescue my stupid vife!" "Oh! How Nice. A Fam A Lee Bar Bare Re Ann." "Not that I particularly vant to, but she's supposed to be dead, but she just vont stop nagging me. Nag, nag, nag. All night long." "Oh, How Terr A Bil." "Yes. So, zince I'm here anyvays, vhat say I take zome of your treasure and be on my vay?" "No. I Am A Fraid Not. You See, I Have To Kill You Now. You No How It Is. Con Tract, And All That." Bob nodded. Yes, those Unions had a lot to answer for. "No chance of delayink you?" The Dragon considered this. "Well. It Has Been So Long Since I Had En Ee One To Talk To. We Could Have A Rid Dil Game, And I Kill You When You Lose." "And if I vin?" "Don't Wuw Re. You Wont. Now, What Am I Look Ing At? I What Ched An Arr Me Gath Ther Ring Sup Plies Oh Ver Miles Of Cun Tree Side, No Home Stead Did They Pill Age, No Blade Of Grass Was Bro Ken." Bob ran the riddle book through his head. This was number... 122. "A svarm of bees." "Hmmm. Too Ee See. What Is It? Ay Cross The Seas Up To The Sky All Through The Land Un Seen By Eye." Number... 271. "The vind." "Oh Kay. What Is It? As Long As Six Men. As Strong As Six Men. One Man May Carry It. Six Men Can Not Stand It Up." Number 13. "A vope." "Oh Kay. Oh Kay. I've Got An Noth Ther One. It Eats Ev Re Thing But Is All Ways Fam Mished And When It Drinks, It Dies." Number 44. "A fire." The Dragon sighed. "Well. I've Used Up All My Rid Dills. I'll Have To Kill You Now." Bob nodded. "Vighteo. Just as long as you understand I'll have to defend myself." The Dragon nodded. "Fair Ee Nuff." The Dragon pounced, breathing fire, and Bob launched himself at the Dragon, his sword flashing in the light. As they touched, a bright burst of light flooded the cavern, forcing RetConan, who had watched the match with dread, to shield his eyes. When he could open them again, all he saw in the middle of the cavern was his father, frozen in position. No Dragon, and no treasure. Beside him, the oak had also changed. It was now the man who RetConan thought he saw before, holding the staff by his side, and tapping his foot impatiently. "Oh No. I'll Have To Re Set That En Tire Ill Lu Shion Now. Drat The Thing." "No," RetConan cried. "Not that damned speech pattern again! If someone was writing this down, they'd've have gone barmy by now." He pulled Shamcutter out and prepared to charge. The magician eyed him. "You Can Not Get To Me, For I Am Pro Teck Ted By Mag Gic Far Su Peer Re Or To En Ne Thing You Have Ev Ver Seen. My Mag Gic Is So Strong, You Need Some Thing In Cred A Blee An Te Ma Gic Cal To Ev Ven Get To Me." RetConan hefted Shamcutter, the most anti-magical sword ever created, and grinned. _-~-_ "AARR GGUUHH!!.... Ow Ee Ow Ee.. <Gur Gel Gur Gel Gurk&gr;... Urk." _-~-_ RetConan helped his father down the corridor. "I'm all vight now," Bob complained. "I could haf taken him." "Then why didn't you?" "I vas saving myself. No sense exerting myself all ze time." At the end of the tunnel was a T-junction. The new passage ran east for just a few metres before opening into a room. To the west, the passage continues for 15 metres before turning a corner. Bob turned to the west, but RetConan looked east. "Come along, boy. We don't haf all ze day. Your mother is vaiting." "All right, dad." But, instead of following his father, RetConan crept east, and into the room. He could see a bronze helmet lying on a wooden table against the far wall of the wall. RetConan stepped through the archway, and into the room, but his ankles became entangled in a web of fine strong strands. He tried to pull him legs out, but the webbing held firm. He slashed at the stuff with Shamcutter, and parted it, but not yet enough to get free. RetConan was about to make another cut when he heard a screech from above. Looking up, he saw a Giant Spider descending towards him. He gulped, but tensed his muscles, ready to fight. His first blow was wild, as he underestimated the web, and tottered on the edge of failing over. He slashed the spider, hacking one of its legs off, then collapsed backwards, his arms flying. The Giant Spider landed softly on the floor, and stared down at its trapped prey. RetConan looked into the multifaceted eyes and saw his death. Paralyzation flooded over him, but RetConan steeled himself, and overcame his numbness. Forcing his arms through the web, he brought up Shamcutter just in time to skewer the Spider as it descended on it. Shamcutter bit deeply, and blood washed over RetConan. The Spider thrashed about, still very much alive, but in much pain. It pulled itself off Shamcutter, and leapt skywards. RetConan rapidly lost sight of it as it fled for its lair. A whooshing noise sounded by his ear, ending in a thud as his father's sword hacked into the web beside his head. RetConan pulled himself up to see Bob slowly shaking his head. "Feeling better now? Had your little rebellion? Vhen vill you ever listen to me?" RetConan, mustering his dignity, cut a path through the web, and fetched the bronze helmet before joining his father. As they walked through the corridors, RetConan examined his new treasure. It was a strange ornate helmet, curiously free of corrosion. The oddest thing about it was that the visor consisted of a large flat mirror. RetConan tried the thing on his head, and found that he could see through the mirrored visor. However, it was like peering through smoked glass, and he could see objects only as dark silhouettes. The first proof of this was the ding on the head he received from his father from nearly walking into him. As they reached the bend in the corridor, a flagstone gave slightly under RetConan's feet. There was an ominous click. Suddenly a massive gleaming axe-blade swung out of the side wall. Bob's more experienced reflexes enabled him to duck and tumble out of the way, but RetConan felt fresh air in an unaccustomed place as he leapt out of the way. They both looked down at the back of RetConan's loincloth. A section had been cut away, revealing a certain amount flesh that shouldn't have been. RetConan looked indignant. "That's was my favorite loincloth. Now how am I suppose to impress people?" Bob sighed patiently. "I keep telling you, boy. Ve don't meet people, ve kill zem. Now, get dressed. You look so stupid like zat. It reminds me of the time vhen you fell into the quarry, and you ran to us holdink your bottom and vail-" "Yes, yes, yes," interrupted RetConan hurriedly, feeling his cheeks blush. "There's no need to bring that up." He stood there with his father watching his expectantly. "Vell?" Bob finally asked. "What?" asked RetConan. "You want me to change with you watching me?" Bob rolled his eyes. "Kids! I tanned your hide often enough to zee enough to last me a lifetime. Do you really zink anythink I see now vill be surprisink? All vight," he added, after RetConan's embarrassed look. "I'll zee vhat's up ahead." Leaving RetConan behind him, he continued up the passage. He could see a glow further ahead, and turned his lantern down. Finally he could see what was ahead. The way on was blocked by a flickering barrier of violet light that shimmered in the air between two baroquely carved pillars on either side of the passage. Through the shimmering, he could just barely discern the outlines of the corridor as it continued north. Just in front of this barrier, set back in alcoves to his left and right, were two fountains. In the western alcove, a chalky grey liquid issued from a snarling stone face and ran down into the fountain beneath. The eastern fountain was filled by a purple liquid that bubbled from a face sculpted in an expression of fear. Bob heard someone creep up behind him, and without turning around said. "Vell, boy, vhat do you make of zis?" The change in sounds in the footsteps told him that the obvious choice was the right one. "It's a big swirling path of air." "Sometimes, I despair. I really do," said Bob. "It's an obvious astral gate into an alternate temporal/spatial dimension. A gatevay across the PluRealities." "Oh. Of course it is. I see one every day." This earned RetConan another clip around the ear. "Don't be disrespectable to your betters." Bob indicated the fountains. "Vhich one?" RetConan looked at the face of fear distrustfully. "Not that one. Looks like an obvious trap. I'll try the other one." Bob looked on as RetConan dipped a hand in, and pooled some liquid to sip. The look changed to horror as RetConan's flesh became rock! Soon, RetConan's entire body was one big stone. Bob looked at RetConan, unable to believe what his eyes were telling him. Turning around, Bob proclaimed "My son is an idiot!!" Getting back to current matter, Bob looked for some way to turn RetConan back, and his eyes lighted upon a bag tied to RetConan's waist. It was the bag RetConan had picked up earlier when Bob got his wand. Unlike the rest of RetConan's equipment, it was perfectly normal. Bob opened the bag and saw a kind of paste inside. He fetched some out and spread it over RetConan's body, Where the paste touched, rock became flesh. Working quickly, Bob released RetConan's head so he could breath again. Soon, RetConan was back to normal. "Right, so we go for the obvious trap, then." Bob was the first one to sip the fluid. It tingled on the way down, but otherwise left him unchanged. He stepped up to the barrier, and stuck an arm through. His flesh felt as if it was on fire, but the pain was bearable. No doubt it wouldn't be without the fluid. He stepped through fully. His body screamed in agony, but Bob stoically bore the effort. The pain faded to a dull ache, but even that left after a while. He turned to watch RetConan step through, his mouth wide in torment. Bob waited for the pain to fade, and looked around. The corridor continued for a while, before descending abruptly. Bob thought he could hear the rushing sounds of underground river. "Not much of an exotic alien dimension, every inch filled with a disgusting visage of terror." Bob snorted. "Never had much imagination, your mother. Still, on vith the quest." RetConan followed wearily as Bob lead the way. _-~-_ The corridor ended in steps, and at the bottom of the steps was a stone quay beside rushing waters. A rickety plank bridge lead across to another quay on the far side. A figure of rose-coloured rock stood between the steps and the bridge. It looked like an uncomplete statue - the upper torso, arms and head were perfectly sculpted, but the lower body was a single lump of unworked stone. With a harsh grating noise, it slowly flexed its massive sinews. Its long talons were knives of flint. RetConan and Bob appraised this new threat, keeping out of its reach while doing so. RetConan took a few practice swings at it with Shamcutter, but even that sword bounced off without leaving any marks. "What we need," RetConan thought out loud, "is some way of heating it, then rapidly cooling it off, so the expansion and contraction destroys it for us." "You know your problem, boy?" said Bob. "You zink to much for a true barbarian. But, in zis case, I can help you out." Bob extracted the Wand of Fire and Ice he had picked up earlier. "Heat, first?" RetConan nodded, and, with a thought, Bob send a devastating blast of intense fire at the stone figure. Being only upper body, it was unable to dodge, and soon glowed white. Bob spun the Wand around in his hand and fired a blast of ice. The figure instantly stopped moving, and shattered into tiny pieces. RetConan kicked the pile of stone, and watched as pieces skittered over the edge into the river. Some fell on the bridge, and, to their shock, through the bridge. "Oh yeah. I am not going on that," said RetConan. "You aren't usink your brain, boy," said Bob, to RetConan's surprise. Bob aimed the Wand at the river, and fired a blast of ice that froze a path across the river. "Come on," he said, smirking as he crossed over. "Do try to zink a little." _-~-_ Steps lead up to another corridor and this one continued for quite a while. A pair of double doors in the path were rather incongruous, as there was only more corridor behind it. However, there was another T-junction up ahead. From one branch of the corridor was streaming blight light. RetConan and Bob walked cautiously towards the T-junction. In the bright bar of light thrown across the corridor, they noticed a looming shadow. Someone was waiting for them just around the next corner. They paused and held their breaths as they studied the outline of the shadow. RetConan thought he noticed something strange about the person's hair, so hung back as his father continued. They both took a firmer grip on their swords as a soft, evil hissing reached their ears. It was because RetConan was more cautious (or, according to his father, scared), he didn't catch the full gaze of the Gorgon that leapt around the corner. Unfortunately, Bob was looking right at it. RetConan hurriedly turned away before he could see his father become stone. Something occurred to him, and he scrabbled for the helmet in his pack. He placed it on his head, visor down, just before he felt someone tap him on the shoulder. He turned back, and through the smoky glass, saw the Gorgon turn to stone under the power of its own reflected gaze. He stood there grimly as the Gorgon's body hardened, then quickly sidestepped as the body topped forwards, and smashed against the floor. RetConan removed the helmet and threw it bitterly onto the debris. He crossed to his father and examined the shocked look on his face. "D'oh," RetConan d'ohhed. The bag with the convenient paste to turn rock into flesh! He got as far as reverting Bob's torso and face before realising that he wasn't going to have enough paste to completely free Bob's body. After Bob's cursing finished, he had to face facts and decide which limb he would leave as stone. He needed his legs. A barbarian that couldn't move was dead. He needed his sword arm. A barbarian that couldn't fight was dead. So, that left his right arm. And a barbarian with an extra club to hit with wasn't dead, whereas one without just might be. This done, RetConan and Bob continued on they way, Bob looking slightly ungainly as he held his rocked arm against himself. The northern branch of the corridor, where the Gorgon had lain in wait, extended only a few metres and then ended in stout oak doors bound with iron. The light came from a glowing crystal globe hanging from the ceiling. As Bob shone his lantern west, they discovered that the transverse corridor also ended in double doors after eight or so metres. Bob indicated the iron-bound doors on his right. "Zey look rather sturdy. It'll take us a vile to get through zem. Ve may as vell try down zere first." RetConan, upon reaching the doors, gave them a push. They opened creakily, and they passed through. On the other side of the doors lay a dusty room with a mouldering reek in the air. Suddenly a host of grinning Skeletons hurled themselves forward from the shadowy corners of the room. RetConan and Bob both took a step back to prepare themselves, and neither flinched from the battle ahead. There were seven skeletons in all, and RetConan knocked one back by smashing another into it. Bob took out two more, one by decapitation via his sword, the other by physically smashing it with his right rock arm. With the remaining three, RetConan and Bob performed a twirling maneuver that squashed one skeleton between to others. With an ounce of force, all three were crushed at once. RetConan now noticed a huge wooden treasure-chest by the south wall. It was sealed with a gilded padlock bigger than his fist. He then noticed something gleaming in the lantern-light: a key, hanging from a chain around on of the skeletons' necks. Grinning, he reached down and plucked it off. Bob grimaced in disgust. "Ve haven't got time for zat," he said, but didn't stop RetConan from unlocking the padlock and opening the chest. Inside they saw a quiver full of arrows, a gold robe-clasp, two stoppered stone jars, a parchment case, a large silver sceptre and an ivory crucifix. Bob ran an experienced eye over the hoard. "Arrows - unnecessary to true barbarians. Parchment - probably a spell of some sort. A clasp - jewellery. A zeptre and a crucifix - priest stuff. Here, hand me vune of zose bottles." RetConan reached out and touched a bottle, but was thrown back by a tremendous force. Bob watched as the chest slammed shut, the bottle RetConan had touched lying on the floor in front of it, and looked around vainly for the key. As RetConan picked himself up, Bob grabbed the bottle and unstopped it. He took a careful whiff, and pulled away hurriedly. "Corpse potion. Brings corpses back to life. Still," he added pensively. "Your mother vill be happy. Ve have something to bring her back to life with. "And she says ve don't prepare." _-~-_ RetConan and Bob backtracked, then tried the iron-bound doors. They swung open silently without any effort, and they entered warily. They found themselves on a balcony overlooking a vast circular hall full of shadows. They couldn't see the far wall or the soaring roof above. In the centre of the chamber, within a pillar of green light that streamed down out of the darkness, was a tall statue of a woman, her face set in asking agony, and her arms outstretched pleadingly. "Mother," cried out RetConan. "At least she could haf brightened ze place up a little," was Bob's comment. Around Shania, twelve mighty staffs stood balanced on their ends in a perfect circle. Off to their right, stone steps swept down to the floor of the hall. At the foot of the steps, Bob's lantern picked out the shining surface of a massive gold casket. RetConan made to go down the stairs first, but found Bob's arm in his stomach. "She's my vife," he said, and RetConan quickly stepped back and motioned that he would be honoured if his father would like to precede down the stairs before him. Tatters of deepest shadow flitted from the furthest recesses of the hall, clustering and coalescing on the steps in front of them. Two darkly glittering eyes fixed upon them as a womanlike form took shape. The sense of abiding malevolence descended like a pall. The figure drifted up towards them. Its body and fluttering robes were murky and indistinct, but they saw its white hands and hate-filled visage with a terrible clarity. It reached back and seemed to draw a spectral staff from the empty air. "Hi, honey," said Bob. "You look good. Been vaiting here long?" The spirit shrieked gratingly, and fired a blast from its staff at the steps, which exploded above RetConan, showering him in stone chips. "Mother, it's me," RetConan called. "Remember me? I avenged your death. I killed Squishi for you!" The spirit shrieked and flew straight for them, causing them to duck as it whistled over their heads. "Okay, okay," muttered RetConan. "Next time I'll just send an angry letter." They ran to the floor of the room, the sounds of shrieking ringing in their ears. "I don't zink she's all zat happy to finally see us," Bob commented. "How mad could she be?" RetConan asked. "We only left her spirit to eternal torture and damnation." He shrugged. "What more could a sorceress expect?" Bob held his sword up as the spirit tore towards him, and watched, not in total surprise, as it passed, unharmed, through it. RetConan, with a slightly better plan in mind, grabbed one of the staffs surrounding the statue. When the spirit came towards him, he held it up as a bar. The spirit dived towards him, but stopped when it neared the staff. "Right, now, talk to us." The spirit backed off, and didn't show signs of attacking. Finally it spoke. Its voice seemed to come from far away, and sounded like the wind passing in the forest. "You left me. You left me to die." "I couldn't save you from Squishi. I had no chance." "You left me." "Rather one track mind zere," Bob said. "Honey, vhy don't you sit down and have a rest? All zis haunting must be very tiring." "You left me to die. You must now pay." Bob sidled closer to RetConan. "Zomethink doesn't seem right." "What do you mean?" "She never acted like zis vhen she vas alive. I think ve've been duped." When this realisation voiced, the spirit gave up the pretense and swooped for them, sucking their minds out of their bodies. _-~-_ Mist surrounded RetConan's body, but this took a while for RetConan to work out. It wasn't his normal body. It was slightly skinnier, lacking in muscle, and generally underdeveloped. It was only when he had prodded himself a few times, somewhat painfully, that he accepted his new stature. Once he had this understood, he now had time to consider where he was. Not in the room he last remembered being in. Not in any room he ever remembered being in, for that matter. Taking a few hesitant steps, he emerged from the mist into a kind of clearing. To his right, into the clearing, stepped his father. At least, someone looking like his father might have many years ago. The body was bigger, more bulging in muscle, looking fitter than RetConan ever did. Also, his right arm was back to normal. Bob looked around. "Looks like a mindzcape to me." "A what?" "A mindzcape. You look like how you zink of yourself." Bob got a good look at RetConan. "And, boy, you don't look like much. I alvays said, never much of a barbarian." RetConan sighed yet again. Never let up, his father didn't. "You look... better." Bob held himself up proudly. "Yes, I do, don't I? Vell, zis is how I picture myself." "So, who brought us here?" "I did, and I must say that I should have chosen better." RetConan and Bob turned to see a.. gameshow host, complete with suit, funny little smile, and a toupee. "Welcome to 'It's the Mind'." RetConan had a sense of deja vu, but let it go. "No doubt you are wondering why I brought you here. Well, I was thinking to myself, I usually do you see, a bit of a quirk I have, anyway, I was thinking to myself, I could do with a bit of preying on the souls of others. I'm a parasite, you see, I suck things from people's bodies and minds." He strode as he talked. "The thing I like sucking most, the thing I realy like, is bravery and courage. I really like those things, they really give me a kick. So, I was thinking, how do I get those things? From knights? Probably the choice people would go for first, but I also had to consider, I think of many things, you see, I also had to consider the controlling factor. While it's easy to send knights on quests and such, trying to control their mentalities, and tap them, I also have to tap them, otherwise how can I feed?, but trying to tap the mentalities of knights is quite difficult. They build so many walls around their minds with all their preconceptions and thoughts and purities and whatnot. It's all very tiring. "Anyway, after knights, the next on the list would be barbarians. They like to think of themselves as brave and courageous, doing mighty deeds and slaying things left right and centre, and, the important thing here is, they are easy to tap. Don't take this personally, but barbarians are very crude in their minds. Hardly any defences at all. So, I called on a few barbarians, and guess what I find? You two have suffered a loss, Shania, I think she's called Shania. I could be wrong, I'm not usually, but I admit that in this I could be wrong. Anyway, you both felt her lost, so I thought, why not send them on a quest. Get them mixed up in sorts of battles and puzzles and things. Get them doing really brave and courageous things, and then I can feed on them. "Unfortunately, you managed to see through my deception. Okay, so I didn't do a perfect job of imitating how she might be. Well, I'm not perfect. Okay, you're right, I am, but even I can be so perfect to seem flawed to the unenlightened. You don't mind if I call you unenlightened, do you? No disrespect intended, but you are rather thick for people. Anyways, so, you saw through my disguise, and then, I acted. I had to didn't I? Survival of the fittest and all that. So, I brought you here, where I can now devour you at my leasure. "Which one goes first?" RetConan and Bob blinked in the silence. Neither could keep up with the stream of babbling, and they certainly weren't up to speed to work out the answer to the question. The gameshow host sighed. "Try to be nice, and what do you get? I ask you, is this any way to behave? Would you act like this is someone offered you a million dollars? Of course you wouldn't. Then again, you are ignorant savages, so I suppose I shouldn't have expected better. I did, and I was let down, but I guess I'll just have to get over it. "I'll take you." The gameshow host jumped into Bob's body. It became a surreal collage of suit, bulging muscles and a toupee as Bob's mind fought that of the parasite. Inevitably, the parasite won, but the body still looked strange. It turned to RetConan. "Well," it said, in a voice that was a mixture of Bob's and the parasite's. "That was rather easy. But, he had more bravery and courage I could feed off. You look like a scrawny catch. Still, vaste not, vant not." It made to leap into RetConan, but he quickly put up a hand, and actually stayed the creature. "You want bravery and courage?" The creature nodded. "Well, what If I showed my true self. I should be able to do that if I put my mind to it." "But, you should already be your true self." "I've had to repress myself," RetConan said quickly. "It's not easy being like I am and trying to also be a barbarian." "What in the ten hells are you talking about?" RetConan shut his eyes and concentrated. Everything depended on his being able to picture himself properly. Slowly, his loincloth was replaced by a formal suit, complete with ruffles on the shirt, and even lace around the edges. Perfume wafted off the outfit, coming from every crease, and from the small bouquet in his button hole. RetConan's hair became slicked back, and oozed with grease. A cigarette in a long cigarette holder appeared in one hand, and a long tumbler glass full of champagne appeared in the other. "Greetings, dahling. It's so wonderful to finally be able to express how I really am," RetConan said in a bad falsetto. The creature took a long disbelieving look at RetConan, its mouth dropping open in shock. "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!" it screamed finally, fleeing Bob's body in an effort to get as far away as possible from this effeminate thing. Bob's body, back to normal, slumped to the ground, also looking at RetConan disbelievingly. Slowly the mist came up and RetConan blacked out for a moment. _-~-_ He awoke in his normal body, back on the floor of the large room. His father was looking at him, disappointment etched on his face. "My son, how could you?" "What dad? It was a pretty good trick, eh?" "All zis time, I tried to train you to be a proper barbarian, a strong man, and you turn out like..." RetConan looked confused. "What do you mean? I *am* a barbarian. It was just a trick to get it to go away." "How can I return to ze Barbarian's Guild? I'd be laughed out of ze building. My son..." "Dad? It was just a trick. Dad?" Bob picked himself up, and carried himself off, leaving RetConan behind looking lost and alone. He heard one last statement as his father walked away from him. "My son... a vhoopsie..." ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Night had fallen by the time the bard completed his tale. Faces now alight with the odd sense of hope his tales imparted peered at him now from all corners of the inn. Everyone had been mesmerized by the tale he'd woven. Everyone but one. The guardsman still managed to sneer condescendingly even when confused. "I don't understand, bard." "That's not unexpected," the brown-haired stranger agreed, his blue eyes glinting with humor. The guardsman scowled menacingly and continued. "I thought you were going to tell us of a hero, not..." -- he waved his hand in the air -- "a half-breed barbarian freak." The bard noted the angry looks the crowd gave him and smiled again. "What greater sacrifice can one make than to lay not only his life, but his very honor on the line for another? To know that person may well turn their back on them for all time, yet to persevere on the path, no matter the cost? That, my good sir, is true heroism." "Fah," the guardsman sneered. He plunked a few coins on the counter and left the inn. "Tell us another, bard," a voice said. "What became of this RetConan?" "A tale for another night, I believe," the bard said. "I fear the hour grows late and my throat grows dry." He held up his hands to silence the chorus of disappointed murmurs this evoked. "Fear not, though; I shall be here for a few days yet. Tomorrow is soon enough, is it not?" He stood and replaced his lute in its case. "May we ask your name, then?" The bard smiled. "Call me Driz- no, wait; that name's taken here." He thought for a moment, then spoke. "Barnabas. Call me... Barnabas." THE END.Back to the Index.