Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 1

Nodammo had dropped the first sugar cube in her tea when the hero alarm went off.

"And we haven't even opened for the day," she said before she stirred in another sugar cube and watched it dissolve, ignoring the bells that rang throughout the tower. "Agnurlin, would you be so kind as to check whether the village children have been playing with the heroism detectors again? I've had it with the false alarms."

"Will Mistress be wanting the usual this morning?" A rather tall and yellowed skeleton stood by the dining table, and with a practiced half-bow set down a tea-tray and a platter of honey-lined fruit sandwiches. Nodammo wondered once again how her butler managed to keep his waistcoat starched and spotless, then reminded herself she had more important things at hand.

"Yes, thank you. Agnurlin, would you mind hurrying up? Can't be too careful with heroes turning up around these parts of late."

"My apologies, Mistress." Agnurlin crossed the dining hall to the wide balcony in a very butler-like gait, the tap-tapping of his feet on the masonry creating echoes in the dining hall's corners. Once he was out of sight, Nodammo made short work of her tea and considered consequences. The last three alarms had been duds, two of them caused by straying children and another by a flying pig, but it never hurt to be vigilant.

After all, it'd been complacency that'd killed her grandfather.

"What do you think the hero alarm means, Victor?" she asked between sips of her tea. "Has the Company finally started making inroads here?"

The black dragon curled by the enormous fireplace stirred; one amber eye opened, fixed itself on Nodammo, and shut again. "I hate hero alarms, especially when they go off during breakfast."

"You hate everything, Victor!"

"Too much noise, Boss. Couldn't you at least set them to play some soothing music instead of this din? Something classical, perhaps? Greendowald's Fifth Symphony might be a good choice."

"Victor…"

The black dragon reached out, speared a sandwich on a claw tip and dropped it daintily on his tongue. "Just make it stop. I hate the way it drones on."

"Fine." Nodammo waved a hand, and the deafening ringing stopped instantly. "Better now?"

"Very much so. We've a long day ahead; no point starting it in a downdraft. Now would you be so kind as to hand over the lemon crackers? Not very filling for someone my size, but that's biscuits for you."

Between sorceress and dragon, the lemon crackers and fruit sandwiches steadily disappeared till only crumbs remained.

"What's taking Agnurlin so l--eeyagh!" A stray strawberry slice bounced off the front of Nodammo's dress and landed on the floor. "Agnurlin, I am not my mother! I know she hasn't been in retirement for that long, but please don't do that!"

Agnurlin contrived to look innocent despite having no facial muscles, and pulled a spyglass out from his waistcoat. "Mistress, you might want to see this. Heroic activity has been confirmed in the direction of the Generic Little Village."

"You mean the one with a capital 'G', 'L' and 'V'?"

"The very one, Mistress."

"Well, no point in dragging the matter out. The best hero is one where you've cleared up the bloodstains before lunch." Without another word, Nodammo took the spyglass from Agnurlin, strode out on the balcony, and put the spyglass to her eye.

"Oh," she said at last. "Botheration."

#

Bob the hero was slightly confused. The old man by the roadside was appropriately frail-looking and wizened, yet wasn't carrying some burden or otherwise in need of help.

This was unprecedented. Honest-looking old people like old woodcutters were there to be helped, and then they'd reward him in some way; his friend Fred had gotten a magic shield that would protect him from "all men of woman born," whatever that was supposed to mean. Since he already had a magic sword, maybe this one would tell him how to defeat the evil sorceress of the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair.

Having exhausted all avenues of thought, Bob decided to start from the basics and walked up to the old man in the shade of an equally old oak.

"Good day."

The old man lifted his head and eyed six feet of shining golden armour, complete with a sword to match strapped to Bob's belt. "G'day, youngster. You know, you might be attracting unwanted attention, wearing all that jewellery. You don't happen to be a new-wave hippie or something, do you?"

"What's a hippie?"

The old man seemed to consider something, and shrugged. "Look, lad. There isn't much to see or do around these parts, and I'm merely taking a rest and admiring nature. Why don't you just hop along and leave me be?"

"Admiring nature? You don't happen to be a Druid of the Secret Grove, do you?"

Now the old man looked annoyed, but Bob knew this was only a test. According to his extensive hero training carefully handed down by his wise old mentor, mystical old people always tested heroes before revealing their true selves. Besides, this particular old man had a long, flowing beard, and everyone knew little old men with long, flowing beards were wise. Something to do with beards facilitating cooling of the brain or somesuch.

"Look, sonny, just how many 'Druids of the Secret Grove' have you run into in your bloody life?"

"Three, and all on my Quest(TM) to defeat the evil sorceress of the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair."

"Ah. Um. Well, I could be one. Tell me, why does she need to be killed?"

"Because she's Evil. I thought that was obvious."

"All right, supposing you're correct, and she is evil. Then what gives you the right to pass judgement on her and play executioner?"

Bob frowned. This didn't sound like the usual riddles mystical old people usually threw at him; it wasn't even in verse. "Because I'm Good."

The old man sucked on his teeth. "Ah. I see. Well, I might have just the thing which'll help you on your little quest…a map! For the low, low price of a mere five generic gold coins, you can have this map of the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair, wrested from the fires of the…um…utter deadly inferno of ancient times!"

Grabbing the map with a gold-gauntleted hand, Bob glared at the old man and unrolled it. "This looks nothing like a tower."

"You're holding it upside down."

"And it's drawn in crayon."

"Ancient crayon!"

"And it has 'Product of Mary-Sue and Sisters Paper Mills' printed on the edge."

"That's a very old paper mill. Dates to before Fantasyland was called Fantasyland, you know. Look, son. I'm offering you a wonderful deal; not only can you get invaluable aid for your quest, but you can also prove yourself willing to sacrifice worldly desires for the greater good. That's an important heroic trait, isn't it?"

Bob scrunched up his face in thought. Everything was as it should be--the wise old person was after all, suitably enigmatic and appealing to his sense of heroism--but he couldn't shake off the idea that something was amiss, in much the same way an ant on a moving wagon wheel is aware something important is happening but unable to figure out just what until it's squashed. Finally, he sought refuge in the familiar.

"Very well then," Bob said. "Here you go, sir, and a very good day to you."

"A very good day to you indeed." After handing over the map and taking the money, the old man reclined against the tree's rugged bark and closed his eyes. "Now leave me be, thank you very much."

Smiling, Bob stuffed the map into his belt-pouch and ambled down the road. For some reason, he felt lighter in body and spirit, as if a great burden had been lifted from him.

And it had.

When the old man was sure Bob had gone, he unclenched his fist to reveal a bulging coin-purse, the straps attached to it cleanly cut through.

"Sucker."

#

"I hate little villages."

"Now, there's no need to keep up appearances here, Victor," Agnurlin shouted over the shrieking wind whistling through his eye-sockets. "We're going into the village to get some white lettuce, check whether the hero has arrived yet, and that's it. Why don't you land in that grassy patch over there?"

"I hate white lettuce."

"But white lettuce is good for you. Mistress says it's very cleansing for one's insides, even for dragons. Cooked in soup, the nutritive and alchemical value increases--"

"I hate soup."

Clenching his bony jaws together, Agnurlin tightened his grip on Victor's spines and let out a sigh that set all his bones to rattling. "Just land, all right?"

With a rush of air that flattened the spring wildflowers and sent sheep running, Victor dove and sank his claws into the ground, tearing up small clods of earth as he came to a halt on the grassy knoll. Agnurlin dismounted, brushed some microscopic specks of dust off his waistcoat and started for the Generic Little Village, Victor trailing five femur lengths behind as they came in front the fields and padded down what passed for a main street.

The inhabitants didn't care about the sight. Compared to some of the things the tourists brought in such as garish clothing, bad manners, and funny accents, a black dragon taller than some of their homes was as exciting as a radish, to say nothing of a skeleton in a finely-pressed waistcoat. It wasn't long before Agnurlin was pushing open the door of a grocer's, Victor settling for sticking his head in through the window. Inside, an old man with a long, flowing beard was leaning on a counter, chatting with a human couple and their daughter. Agnurlin noticed the local tourism industry was doing well, if the number of Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair souvenirs they were carrying was any indication.

"And just the other day, that funny foreigner was telling me about how in her homeland, people don't just cook, they set the food on fire before eating! I mean, what would be the point? Wouldn't you just burn your mouth?"

"Slogan? I'm here to collect the baskets of white lettuce."

"Excuse me a moment." The old man turned to Agnurlin. "They're in the back; I'll show you to them. Would you mind signing here?"

"You don't happen to have seen any heroes around, have you? Mistress' hero alarms have gone off again. No thickly-muscled men in gleaming armour and rune-etched swords? No inexplicably well-groomed women with the dreaded golden, flowing locks and clothing that wouldn't cover my dry bones? Or maybe boys trying to sell you mysterious stones and getting all huffed up when you point out there's no market for unidentified minerals in the middle of nowhere?"

"Actually, I have," Slogan replied, his face turning grim. "I'd closed my shop the other day and was minding my business under the Father Oak, when this young man came up to me…look, let's talk about it in the back."

Both grocer and skeletal butler disappeared into a doorway in the far end of the general store, leaving Victor alone with the tourists.

"Eeeeeeeee!" the little girl shrieked. "It's really Victor the Ferocious! Daddy, Mommy, look, it's really Victor and not just some guy in a suit paid to embarrass himself!"

Victor winced and let out a breath with a loud "whuff". That only made the little girl squeal louder and her parents steal accusatory glances at each other.

"And I have a Victor the Ferocious plush at home which says 'use your purchasing power!' whenever you pull his string, and every week we go eat Dragonburgers and super hot-hot soup at DeliDragon and mommy has a whole closet of Dragonfire lingerie. Daddy said it's supposed to put Mommy into heat, whatever that means, and--"

Before the little girl could say another word, her parents dragged her out of the grocery store. Victor stared at the trail they'd left through the dust until Agnurlin emerged from the back room, two enormous baskets of white lettuce in each hand.

"Any news for Boss, Ag?"

Agnurlin gave his colleague a curt nod. "Plenty, and it's all bad. Help me strap in these baskets, and I'll fill you in on the way back."

Victor extracted his head from the window and held still as Agnurlin tied the baskets to the spines on his back, then lowered himself to allow his colleague to scramble on. "While you were fiddling around in the grocer's back room, I realised a great and profound truth on a truly mind-boggling scale. One which might have widespread and startling effects on the global economy, possibly sending markets into uncertain times."

"And that would be?"

"I hate tourists."

#

I am happy to announce to my fellow practitioners that despite its association with the more dubious fields of fortune-telling and the likes resulting in it gaining a less-than-spotless reputation, the common tea leaf shows much promise pertaining to various practical applications in our daily lives, and not just as a beverage. After conducting experiments funded from my own pocket…

Something was wrong, and it wasn't the hero in the vicinity. Nodammo could feel the wrongness in the weathered masonry of her tower, in the flashing lights and spinning teacup ride which occupied much of the first level along with the gift shop. She'd told Agnurlin to hang the "closed" sign in front of the tower's entrance before he set off, but she still couldn't shake off the feeling that there'd been something left undone, and she'd already looked over the "Horrors of the Tower" ride.

"This is stupid," she said, and took a sip from her teacup before returning to her article for Magician's Journal.

I am certain that all results are perfectly replicable under standard laboratory conditions (see Rince's Essential Wizzard's Guide, 4th ed. appendix 45-b for details), such as the successful summoning of a tentatively named tea elemental, an embodiment of the varied and immense powers of the humble liquid brewed from the tea leaf. Ritual details are as follows…

Nodammo let her letters fade away to a scribble and drummed the fingers of her free hand on the desk, alternating her gaze between pen and teacup.

Pen. Teacup. Pen. Teacup. Pen. Teacup. With a loud sigh, Nodammo scrunched up her half-written article and threw it in a nearby wastebasket.

"This isn't working," she grumbled. "Why aren't those two back yet?"

"Because we have only just returned, Mistress?" a familiar voice said from behind her. "Victor's putting away the lettuces."

The teacup clattered on the desk, but it didn't tip over. "Very well," Nodammo said, feeling her heart unclench. "Is the situation as bad as we thought it was?"

"It's hard to say, Mistress. By all accounts, this hero doesn't seem too bright, but he appears to have a mark seven Sword of Destiny. Best to be cautious."

Nodammo whistled. "Seems I've come up in the world, if the Company's pulling out one of those to kill me. I thought the Company still had those in prototype stage."

"Not any more, it seems. Shall I give the word for the villagers to be on full alert?"

She nodded.

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 2

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Inns, Bob knew, were supposed to be full of rowdy, drinking men ready to start a punch-up at the drop of a coin. There'd be a roaring fire in one side of the room, and harried innkeepers with fat red faces would be shouting orders to barmaids buxom enough to warrant a whole host of back problems. He'd been in them before, had visited them all the time before the wise old mentor had died.

This "guesthouse" was something else altogether, as were most things in this strange land.

Bob didn't trust quiet villagers. They were always conspiring with the guards or the Dark Lord or someone Evil. The problem was, he'd never encountered a whole room of quiet villagers. To make things worse, none of them were bald, morbidly obese or missing digits, which made picking out the Evil villagers all the more difficult and annoying.

"Ale, barmaid!" he shouted, bringing his fist down on the table in an appropriately heroic fashion, as his wise old mentor had taught him. "Bring drink to me, wench!"

Some women sitting in a corner stared at him over mugs of something dark, thick and otherwise indescribable. Bob guessed they were awestruck by his rugged handsomeness and grinned at them; one of them fainted dead away, and his grin grew wider. Ladies swooning over him; now that was something he knew. Perhaps when he'd finished off the evil sorceress of the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair…

"Your order please--" the last word was spat-- "sir."

Bob looked up. The girl by his table was distinctly lacking in mammary volume and was thus unimportant, yet a small thought in the back of his brain kicked his tongue into action. "Ale."

"We don't have ale."

"Wine, then."

"Wine? Would you like some of last year's dry white clear, or maybe--"

"I don't drink wine I don't recognise. What else do you have?"

"We have a fine choice of meads brewed from clover or alfalfa honey…"

The barmaid's voice trailed off to a steady drone, and Bob decided he hated this Quest(TM), where there wasn't any ale or proper wine, the barmaids were flat-chested and uninteresting, and villagers were dark and brooding while still managing to live in huts. Someone was responsible for this utter mess of a land, and that someone would see the point of his sword.

As soon as he'd disposed of the Evil Sorceress, of course.

"I'll have whatever sounds good," he managed to croak. The barmaid stomped off and returned with a large mug of foul-smelling brew which he downed in one gulp, not even bothering to notice the taste.

By now, most of the villagers were unabashedly staring at him. "Screw it," Bob said. "I don't have to put up with this." Steadying himself with a gold-gauntleted hand, Bob rose from his seat. Before anyone could stop him, he'd stumbled through the front door and out into the night, leaving a trail of splinters in his wake.

The villagers watched him go through the hole he'd left in the door.

"He didn't pay. The bloody hero didn't even pay. Even the bloody tourists don't act as if the whole world is supposed to serve them," the guesthouse manager said.

One of the villagers raised her mug and downed its contents. "Are we even sure we wanted his money? A Fenorisian guesthouse is a Fenorisian guesthouse, after all. We've a long history and culture of serving travellers, not arrogant bastards who think the world revolves around them. We're not an inn."

The gathered villagers nodded at that.

"Thank goodness I didn't wear those rolled-up socks in my bra as you suggested! The way he kept on staring at my chest when I served him, like a rancher sizing up a cow's udder--"

"Bugger can't hold his drink, either. One mug of mead--"

"You know what mead around these parts is made of, Alf."

"Clover honey. Well, mostly clover honey. And herbs, too. Lots of good and healthy organically grown herbs; everyone knows herbs are good for you, especially the yellow-spotted mushroom."

"Mushrooms aren't herbs, you idiot," someone near the fire said.

"And he stinks to high hell, too! Bugger probably hasn't had a bath in goodness knows how long! Poor Kit fainted dead away!"

"Someone's got to go up to the tower, tell the young Lady Ebonlocke trouble's coming," the guesthouse manager said. "Anyone willing to run up the hill road?"

The villagers fidgeted uncomfortably and glanced at each other.

"Well…"

"Um--"

"You lot enjoy the tourist gold she brings in, but can't be bothered to do something for the Lady when she needs it most," the guesthouse manager said with a despairing sigh. "Fine. Venka, see that the tourists are settled in their rooms. I'm going myself."

#

"You know, Ag, they say--"

The skeletal butler looked up from his cooking to Victor's head framed in one of the kitchen's many windows, ready to smack it with his spatula if it came too close to the cooking. "Which 'they'? 'They' as in the gossip groups down at Riverside or the guesthouse loiterers down in the village is a very different 'they', as compared to the exclusive societies in Literacity or the 'they' of the Company's faceless agents."

"I meant 'they' as in the community at large, you bonehead."

"Been one for the past two hundred years and proud of it," Agnurlin replied as he shook in a little salt into the enormous pan over the roaring fire. The pan's multicoloured contents sizzled enticingly. "So, they're that 'they'."

"Yes, and they say hotpan is just another name for having nothing left in the larder except wilted vegetables, putrefied meat and other assorted slops one wouldn't poison pigs with."

"And I'm all the better chef for being able to produce a delicious and nourishing meal from white lettuce, minced pork, condensed soup and dog food. What's your point, Victor?"

"I hate hotpan." Victor blinked, and his neck stiffened. "Wait. Dog food? You don't mean to say you've been feeding Boss dog food, have you? I mean, I'm not going to complain if you feed me dog food, even if I hate it, but you can't feed Boss…"

"Well, that's only to be expected. This brand is harmless to humans, and the nutritive content is to die for--" Agnurlin began, but a faint pounding began echoing through the tower's empty corridors. Victor's head disappeared from the window for a moment and reappeared with his eyes swirling.

"Ag? Egil's down at the front door; he ran up the bloody hill in his bloody guesthouse manager's suit. It's got to be important."

"Will you please watch the pan while I'm gone? Don't hesitate to blow out the fire if the hotpan starts to burn."

After the white of Agnurlin's chef's apron had disappeared from sight, Victor lowered his snout and sniffed at the pan's contents, then crossed his eyes. A casual observer might have noticed a few outward signs of a titanic inner struggle between two irreconcilable positions, compounded by the scent of white lettuce heavy in the kitchen air. More than once his snout came dangerously close to the sizzling, sputtering pan, even prodded and lifted it once or twice, but always withdrew before the pan was tipped over.

"Screw it," Victor said. "I really hate hotpan."

#

The exact configurations of a tea elemental will depend heavily on both the reagents and process used in the ritual, perhaps even more so than the synthesis of arcanium. For example, dull black tea having undergone multiple roasts will sometimes assume a masculine humanoid shape…

Nodammo frowned at the footsteps that echoed up the hallway and into her study. It was far too early for Agnurlin to be bringing up her dinner. Shifting her chair slightly so she could keep one eye on the door as she worked, Nodammo readied a spell on the tip of a finger and continued writing.

While green tea imported at great cost from beyond the Shimmering Sea may assume a more feminine form. I am not sure why this is the case, especially since the majority of my tests have produced elementals with amorphous shapes. As a result of repeated experimentation, I have deduced the temperament of a tea elemental can be further altered by the addition of various substances, including but probably not limited to: milk, fresh or condensed; sugar, lemon slices…

"Mistress does well to be cautious, but it is only me," Agnurlin said from behind her. Nodammo struggled to contain the incendiary spell after having nearly set it off on Agnurlin's apron, and wiped her damp brow.

"Agnurlin!"

The skeletal butler removed his chef's hat and bowed. "More than one employer's life has been saved by the timely intervention of a butler, Mistress. If that had been a hero coming up the stairs, I am sure my presence would have been appreciated."

"Not if you frighten me to death first!"

"You never minded it until the day you took ownership of the tower from your mother. You may be Mistress of the tower, but remember that while she lives, I'm charged to protect you even if it means going against your direct orders."

Nodammo gritted her teeth, but chose not to press the matter. Not having eyeballs meant Agnurlin could outstare anyone. "Forget it. What's the matter?"

"Egil's come to see you, Mistress. He says the hero's been spotted in the village proper, and is heading through the woods towards the tower."

"Send him in, then."

At a nod from Agnurlin, the study door opened and a still-panting Egil dragged himself in, his black and red suit rumpled and stained with sweat.

"Tea, Egil? Or perhaps some other refreshment?"

"No, m'lady," the guesthouse manager said, his breath still heavy. "Merely doing my duty. The hero's just left the guesthouse."

"Tell me about it."

So Nodammo listened as Egil recounted his tale of Bob's obnoxious behaviour at the guesthouse, and her frown deepened as his tale wore on.

"You're sure he had runes etched on his blade? Can you recall what they looked like?"

Egil nodded, and traced some symbols in the air. "To tell the truth, m'lady, they looked more like chicken scratchings than anything else. Like…like someone's idea of how runes should be, instead of how they are."

"It is a mark seven, then," Nodammo said. "Buggers at Quest(TM) scrawl some mystical-looking nonsense on a flat surface, and they call them runes from ancient times lost or somesuch. Still, he's a hero, and we can use that fact against him. Thank you for taking the time to come up here, Egil. You're sure you won't stay for dinner? We're having hotpan tonight."

"I have a guesthouse to run, m'lady, and custom dictates I make every effort to ring the bell. Still, the thought is appreciated. Thank you, and a safe night."

"A safe night to you, too."

Egil stopped and turned at the door. "Actually, m'lady, there is something you could tell me. How long is it going to be until the tower's rides reopen? The tourists are going to be grumbling something fierce about the main attraction being closed, and no one likes leaving without a proper Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair t-shirt or fluffy cap."

"The day after we've dealt with the hero, probably. I don't like losing revenue from the gift shop, either, but it can't be helped. I'm not going to have someone sliced in two on the teacup ride by some deranged hero. Is there anything else?"

"No. Good night, m'lady." Egil gave a small bow, which Nodammo returned.

"Agnurlin will show you out."

The door shut, and Nodammo was alone with her thoughts once again.

The hero wouldn't creep in during the middle of the night, not if he was the kind to go around wearing golden armour. That meant she'd at least the night to prepare, and maybe the next morning as well, if she was lucky.

"However did I get so high on the Company's hit list?" Shaking her head, Nodammo gathered up her half-written article and stowed it away in her desk drawer before pushing on a nearby bookcase. A brief whiff of magic in the air, and there was an audible click as the shelf slid back easily on grooved rollers. Old Vardus Ebonlocke had been paranoid, but he was right to say a room with one exit was known as a "trap". One of the first things Nodammo had learnt after she was old enough to walk were the tower's floor plans, and the knowledge had been useful in designing some of the more dizzying rides.

Pushing the secret door back in place, Nodammo sank onto her favourite lab bench and shuddered.

"Got to pull myself together. Got to pull myself together. This isn't the first hero I've faced down, and it damn well won't be my last. Got to think of something, cook something up. What would Mother do?"

"With all respect due while being as honest as possible, Mistress, the old mistress would have gone up to the hero, given him a stern talking-to and a pulled ear, and then sent him packing back to his little farming village after a good paddling on his rump."

"I closed and sealed every entrance! Agnurlin--" Nodammo's scowl turned into a small smile at the sight of her butler in his oversized chef's apron, hat and oven gloves, holding a gently steaming plate in his skeletal hands. There was something about that picture that made it impossible for one to stay angry. "I suppose so. But I'm not my mother."

"You are an Ebonlocke, and that's enough. Now have your dinner before you do any alchemy, Mistress. I've cleaned your bench and changed the air, so don't worry about contamination."

It was good, Nodammo reflected as she dug into the slice of hotplate, to have a butler who willingly chose to serve a family over death. It was even better to have one who could cook excellently.

"Orange tea, Mistress?"

"Yes, please." Nodammo watched as Agnurlin made the dirty dinnerware vanish as if by sleight of hand, to be replaced by a tea-tray. "One day, I'll figure out how you manage to do that."

Agnurlin filled a teacup with rich orange tea. "Trade secret, Mistress."

"No doubt." The orange tea vanished in one gulp, and Nodammo felt all the better for it.

"Is there anything else you require?"

"Not at the moment, Agnurlin. You may leave." Nodammo turned away towards her reagent shelves, and by the time she'd picked out the necessary chemicals and apparatus, Agnurlin had gone and the ventilators had started chugging away.

Which was just as well. What she was going to do would probably take all night, and while the traditional eye of newt had its uses, no one seemed to consider a pinch of sodium thiosulphate as a much more effective alternative. It'd been all very well and good in the old days when showmanship was as important as the actual product, but clients nowadays wanted results above all.

Indeed, Bob would most certainly be getting results from her.

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 3

"What, exactly, is a hero?"

The guru regarded the young man before him with obvious distaste. Vegetable matter caked almost all of the latter's clothing, and the sores and abrasions on his skin didn't improve his appearance, either. Of course, the guru had hair that would have done an angora goat proud and wore only a loincloth, but that was the accepted style for mountaintop gurus. Still, he decided the young man had his grudging respect, if only because he'd made it all the way up the mountain despite the vegetables pelted down at him. Most people gave up before he started on the squashes and rockmelons.

"You have every reason to know that better than me,--" the guru concentrated for a moment-- "Brommus."

"No, I don't," the young man protested. "I'm starting a new career with the Company, and I'd like to know some things about heroes before I start helping herd them around like a dog after sheep."

The guru considered that. Most supplicants asked about pointless things like the meaning of life, if the economy was going to pick up, or next week's winning lottery numbers. At the very least, this particular supplicant had come up with a fairly original question. "Almost every culture has examples of heroes."

"But none define what they are."

"All right. You want to know what a hero is? I'll damn well tell you what a hero is. A hero is someone who, no matter what he or she does, is automatically assumed to be in the right. Is that good enough for you?"

"But how--"

"By definition, just as a villain is someone who gets beaten every time, no matter how well-intentioned, innovative or interesting their ideas are. Because everyone knows that if you are Evil, work with Evil, serve the forces of Evil, live next door to Evil, do Evil's tax returns or unclog Evil's toilet, the hero is entitled to do whatever horrendous things he can think of to you. Without a twinge of genuine conscience, of course. Got it?"

"I think so."

The guru looked over Brommus for a little while, and then cracked a smile. Teeth had been one of the luxuries he hadn't been willing to part with, even as a guru. "Having second thoughts about your choice of career? Why do you even bother, anyway? Heroes are idiots. They do stupid things like wading into overwhelming odds, trusting pathetically soft metals like gold to protect their vitals, and having a hot and steamy relationship with the annoying bird who always tags along with them. The Company's toys can only do so much against sheer idiocy, you know."

"Well, that's true."

The guru stroked his beard in an appropriately sagely fashion. "For all their idiocy, they never seem to come out with more than a few attractive-looking scars. Hell, in all my years of sitting on this mountaintop, I've never heard of a hero who got pregnant and had to pass on going on her quest to take care of her spawn. The way things turn out, you'd think some bugger was manipulating the outcomes. Knowing all this, why're you taking the job?"

Brommus shrugged. "I don't feel like being another educated bum on the streets of Literacity, unable to find a job even at minimum wage. Maybe I can make a small compromise and steer some heroes to do the right thing instead of letting the right thing being what they do, maybe try to get something into their heads of theirs?"

"You do that, kiddo."

"You know, you could probably get plenty of impact out of your vegetables if you froze them beforehand. Shouldn't be a problem with all this snow about. Can you imagine what a sack of frozen peas might do to someone's head?"

The guru blinked. "Now that's an idea. Why hadn't it occurred to me before? Problem with being a guru is that everyone expects you to know anything and everything. Which is sort of the point, I suppose, but still, It's annoying when someone has a good idea and doesn't speak up."

"Glad to be of help."

"You go down the mountain through the elevator in the back, kiddo. You helped me out; no point tiring yourself getting down. It's right behind those craggy outcrops over there; just walk through the illusion and you'll be in the lobby."

Now it was Brommus' turn to blink. "You have an elevator?"

"Well, the mountaintop's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't live here. Besides, even if I could do without a proper bath and a barber, where would all these vegetables come from?" The guru winked at Brommus. "Come back any time, but keep the elevator a secret, will you? Feel free to help yourself to the pumpkin soup, too; I've got too much of it hanging around doing nothing."

#

"You need cheering up, Boss."

"But--"

Victor took a deep breath. "Oh, bash it. It's not often that I get to exercise my vocal talents."

"Well--" Before Nodammo could say another word, Victor had started. It was, arguably, the most horrible singing Nodammo had come across, and it wasn't in a language she could understand, anyway.

Still, Nodammo clapped as much as her reddened hands would allow. "Most dragon singers don't go well on human ears, Victor, but you are an exception. I have no idea why, but I'm not going to dig too deep for fear of actually finding the answer."

Victor bobbed his head. "Thank you. Thank you. If it makes you feel any better, I hate human music with equal passion."

"Well, thank you for the song and dance, Victor; I feel much better already. Here--" she snapped on a pair of rubber gloves-- "is our answer to this 'Bob'."

Black dragon and skeletal butler stared at the rich blue liquid in the stoppered flask, motes of light swirling against the glass. Vapour rose from the liquid's surface, condensed on the glass and dripped back into the liquid in a continuous cycle.

"Pretty, Boss," Victor said. "I still hate it."

"Well, I thought the glitter would be appropriate. Adds a certain flair to the mixture, if you will. Would've added a light show in the bargain, but I couldn't figure out a workable formula that wouldn't affect the active ingredients."

"Begging your pardon, Mistress, but what is it supposed to do?"

"The vapours, once inhaled, force one to think logically and rationally. Once the hero arrives, Agnurlin, you'll feed this into the ventilation intake and fill the whole tower. Victor and I shouldn't have too much of a problem coping, you don't have any lungs anyway, but as for our dear hero Bob, well, you know what makes heroes heroes can also be used against them."

Victor blinked. "Boss, I've managed to become the biggest invisible investor in Fantasyland, and I still say that's downright evil. Wouldn't a flask of distilled atrophy be far more humane?"

"Hey, they're the ones who come here trying to kill the lot of us. I think I'm entitled to use reasonable force in the defence of my person and my employees, aren't I?"

"Haruummm…I wonder if this counts as reasonable force, Boss…"

"Well, Mistress, normally I…"

"And that's that," Nodaamo said, flipping her straight black hair in her best impression of a jaunty twirl she'd once seen a circus dancer do. "Now excuse me, for I have to do appropriate things of a feminine nature which females do when they're expecting visitors any second. See me in a little while, and I'll lay out the details of the plan."

That did the trick. Both Victor and Agnurlin started sidling away from Nodammo with impressive speed, and soon disappeared from the dining hall. When she was sure her employees were gone, Nodammo set the flask on the table and pulled off her rubber gloves.

"My decision to major in alchemy was not wasted, you hear, Mother?" she shouted at the walls.

#

Brows furrowed in thought, Bob the hero looked at the silhouette of the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair, then at the map he'd bought off the old man. The crayon drawing was vaguely cylindrical, as most towers were, and Bob decided that was plenty, considering that he couldn't even remember the last time he'd a map to guide him.

"Bottom of the tower," he mouthed to himself, his finger tracing a big arrow on the now-crumpled paper. "Top of the tower." His finger moved again.

Now came the hard part. Bob's brows broke three laws of physics and one of magic as beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and plopped onto his golden armour. "To get…to the top of the tower…go into the bottom…and climb up to the top."

Bob smiled to himself. That had been simple enough, and he'd covered plenty of ground while figuring out how the map was supposed to be read. It'd been harder going than translating the ancient hieroglyphs of the lands of Goochi-Gummi, but the old man had been right, after all; the map did show a foolproof method of getting about in the tower.

The he rounded the hill, saw the tower more clearly, and blinked.

Evil magicians' towers, in his experience, didn't have beehives. Or a vegetable garden, for that matter. There was something disillusioning about the seven-storey tower built from what seemed like greyish stone of some sort; after that affair with the Dork Lord Sharon, spires which rose into the clouds and were hewn from the living rock had been all the rage as fortresses of evil. Maybe, Bob reasoned, this was due to the living rock bit; it tended to complain quite a bit when it was quarried.

Still, a Quest(TM) was a Quest(TM), and the sooner the prophecy was fulfilled, the sooner he could be in familiar grounds and buggering big-breasted serving girls. Bob's legs ate up the ground between him and the tower, and before midday he was standing in front of the entrance to the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair, studying a plywood goblin and the chart it was holding.

Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair

Ancestral home of the Ebonlocke family!

Entertaining and educational rides steeped in the culture of Fenoros!

Visit our gift shop today!

We are open: from the ninth hour to the seventeenth hour daily, closed on Farmday and Fireday.

*You must be at least as tall as me to sit on the rides.

**All prices inclusive of miscellaneous taxes according to Fenorosian law.

Underneath that last line, someone had scratched in the following:

***But not inclusive of GST. You're not paying that here, I hate it.

Taxes. Bob rolled the word around in his mind, and it had a reassuring feel to it. Taxes were bad, he knew. People who made villagers and the like pay taxes were Evil. Other people who didn't want the same villagers paying taxes were Good. That was a given, a rock of the universe to which Bob could anchor the boat of his mind to.

But the sign both wanted and didn't want people to pay taxes. After a minute of trying to figure it out, Bob shrugged. The sorceress was evil; the nice people at Quest(TM) had told him so, and they'd been right about everything else, from the huge black thing with teeth and Mrs. Pie. Carefully-honed heroic instincts snapping into action, Bob started looking around for an air vent to enter the tower by.

As luck would have it, there was another sign there too, and a small coin box beside it.

Experience entering a magician's tower through the thrilling path of sneaking in through the air vent!

Claustrophobic darkness awaits you!

Please pay an additional five coppers for admission via the air vent. While the management will make every effort to keep the vent clean and safe, neither the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair nor Nefarious Industries will be responsible for any suffocation, dismemberment, being stuck, loss of valuables or other mishap that may occur in the air vent.

Tolls. Everything had tolls these days, from bridges to sunken cities, and now, it seemed, air vents as well. Tolls, in Bob's opinion, were like taxes, to be avoided if necessary. Instinctively, Bob smashed open the coin box and sifted through its contents. It might not have been gold, but treasure was treasure, however you found it. Besides, it'd been in a box. His wise old mentor had been clear on that; boxes were for opening and looting.

"Well," he said, and tore the vent grating from the wall. "There we go."

Life was so much simpler that way.

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 4

"You know, I hate it when people go ahead and vandalise things they don't understand," Victor said. "That coin-operated air vent grating was a bloody work of art, I tell you. That's right, a bloody work of art, with all the gears and mechanisms and shit--"

"Victor, a moment of your time please?"

"Boss?"

"In the interests of our continued safety and well-being, I, Nodammo Ebonlocke, cordially request that you be quiet while I read the tea." Nodammo twisted a knob on the apparatus on the table, and the flow of tea into the basin in front of her increased. "Hm. Reception from the ether's a little choppy. A little blackcurrant jam, please."

Wordlessly, Agnurlin handed Nodammo a jam-smeared knife, which she dipped into the basin a little at a time until the ripples on the liquid's surface evened out. Nodammo bit her lip, took a deep breath, and forced herself to stare into the basin.

"What do you see, Boss?"

"Hold on…maybe the knife should be a little further to the right…there we go. He's halfway through the air vents. You can see for yourself, just don't upset the basin, please."

Dragon and skeleton peered into the basin.

"Well," said Victor, "He appears to be headed for the spiral well. Considering how many rooms Ag's boarded up over the years, he's going to have to take a more or less linear path, assuming he's headed for the dining room."

"Everyone knows the big showdown between the hero and the villain is best done on high ground," Nodammo said. "That means we can more or less predict his motions and Victor can intercept him on the way up. Agnurlin, you know what to do. If everything goes according to plan you shouldn't have to use your axe, but feel free to turn up behind me if I'm in trouble."

"It is good that Mistress keeps the skills of her employees in mind." Try as she might, Nodammo couldn't find anything in Agnurlin's bony expression other than careful politeness, and gave up.

"All right. Everyone to their stations. Let's move; the air vent won't hold that hero forever."

#

There was something soothing, Bob decided, about climbing through an air vent. Perhaps it was the way the clinking of his armour made echoed in the vent, or perhaps it was the calm, complete darkness. Or perhaps it was how good he'd felt wrenching the grille right out of the wall and shaking bits of plaster and masonry from it.

Slowly, Bob crawled out of the air vent on all fours and looked up to see the most horrendous monster he'd ever seen in all his days of adventuring.

It towered over him.

It had blood-red lips and a bulbous nose of the same garish colour.

Deathly white hands on the ends of thin, spindly arms made it even more disproportioned and otherworldly.

But the worst thing about the creature was the crazed grin sandwiched between those sausage-thick lips, a grin straight out of Bob's quota of angst-ridden nightmares that cut straight into memories of appropriately demolished home villages and sent deep, primal heroic instincts surging forth. With a yell, Bob drew his sword and swung it at the horror in a geometrically perfect arc.

The rubber clown deflated with a sad squeak and collapsed into a wrinkled pile on the floor.

"Bob and the giant rubber clown," he muttered to himself through ragged gasps. "Should make a fine ballad."

Giving himself a few moments to catch his breath and let his hammering heart calm, Bob leant against a counter underneath a sign stating "Ticket Office" in big bold letters. There were small rooms on the other side of the counter that reminded Bob of prison cells, but since there weren't any gold, jewels or prisoners in them, Bob knew they were insignificant and not to be bothered with. When his hands had finally stopped trembling, Bob headed for the stairwell on the opposite end of the large chamber.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," a thick voice grated. "That's strictly for employees only. If you're looking for the rides, they're down the hallway."

Bob whirled around and caught a glimpse of a silhouette outlined against the dim light. Was it just that horrible drink he'd downed earlier, or was he starting to feel light-headed? Come to think of it, there'd been that odd mist as he'd crawled out of the air vent…

Blinking, Bob peered into the darkness and from it emerged a big, black dragon. Bob's wise old mentor might have used one of his confusing long words to describe it, but to Bob the dragon was certainly very big and black.

Very big and black indeed.

"Hello," it said.

That was odd. Most dragons Bob had encountered had tried to eat him on the spot. What was truly unnerving, though, was the fact that this one didn't seem to be afraid of the glowing elfish runes on his sword.

"You don't scare me, foul beast," Bob said. "I've a collection of stuffed dragon heads at home, and besides, I'm a half-dragon. Now prepare to die, pet of the evil sorceress of the Dank--"

The dragon rolled his eyes. "Harrrum. That is interesting. Do you know that half-dragons are a biological impossibility?"

"What?"

The dragon settled down on all fours and raised one claw to scratch its head. "Look, kiddo. Do you know what a species is? Yes, I know that technically you can breed a horse and a donkey and end up with a mule, but what I'm getting at is the chance that something like me and something like you would be able to breed and produce viable offspring is next to none, and yet you're still here."

The sword of destiny came down, down at the bit of the dragon nearest to Bob, but only cut through air. This was because that bit wasn't there anymore, having moved before Bob noticed it.

"Unpleasant," the dragon said. "I hate people who try to kill me while I'm talking, you know. Now, you're clearly here, otherwise--"

Another swing.

"--I wouldn't have to be avoiding your efforts to remove my head from my neck. Now, even if such a thing as a half-dragon were possible, I imagine you'd be much bigger than you are, complete with horns and wings and tails you can trip over. Very convenient you look just like any other hairless monkey, don't you?"

"Non-shiny dragons lie with their tongues!" Bob shouted. No matter how he tried, he always seemed to just miss the dragon, despite its size. As his wise old mentor might have put it, it was like attacking a shadow.

"Have you never considered the possibility you might not be what you claim to be? Who said you were a half-dragon anyways? Have you even considered the mechanics?"

"Wha…?"

"Now, kiddo, I'm sure you might not have thought of this before, but then, most youngsters don't actually think of it until it's pointed out to them. Look at it this way. I'm big enough that even this entrance lobby is a bit cramped for me, and even though my line was always a bit brutish, I'm hardly anywhere near full-grown. Now, while I usually keep it sheathed, I'm sure I could try…"

Bob watched as the black dragon reared onto its hind legs, and he stared at what he saw. And stared. And stared some more. A faint blubbering noise came out of his mouth along with a thin trickle of drool, and his eyes threatened to pop straight out of their sockets.

"Now, as you've seen, I really doubt that could fit into the average human female. It'd be like squeezing a twelve-length bolt into a one-length nut; stupid, pointless, and very hard. Even if you managed it without tearing apart the nut in the process, I just don't see anyone going to all that trouble. Can you imagine something like that in your mother?"

Bob could, did, and screamed.

"It's probably no fun the other way around, either, and believe me, females of my species have at least some standards. Don't think anyone would feel anything, no fun for both parties, if someone didn't end up squashed in the process. Now, artificial insemination might work if the problem of biological incompatibility could be overcome, but according to my employees' findings, the result would probably cause the poor human female to explode rather spectacularly…" Before the dragon could say another word, Bob turned and ran up the stairs three at a time, his sword of destiny waving about wildly in the air.

Victor watched him go, resettling his wings across his back. "I hate having to talk to kids about these things; they're always too squeamish about the facts of life. What're human schools teaching their young these days?"

#

"He's headed up the spiral well, Agnurlin. I'll do my best to handle him alone, but feel free to step in anytime."

"We shall be ready then, Mistress. You need the experience."

#

It couldn't be true. It couldn't be true.

But it had to be. He'd seen the size of the thing. Its shape. Usually, he'd have dismissed such facts and sent them to the dumpster of his mind, but today there was something blocking that easy dismissal, something in the stone of the tower or the mead he'd drunk or the oddly stale, musty air with a hint of something to it that held up the dump barge at the riverside.

The nice people at Quest(TM) had told him he was a half-dragon, and he had all the powers to prove it. But he'd seen for himself that it was rather impossible, so either there was some trickery involved, the world itself was wrong and he didn't exist at all, or the nice Company people had lied.

The first and second thoughts were rather more palatable than the third.

For the first time in his life, Bob felt truly exhausted. He sank onto the steps for a quick break.

"Tea, sir?"

"Isn't there any wine in this damn place?" Bob shouted. By the time his thoughts had turned to the question of just who had spoken, a bottle of wine sat on the floor next to him. By the time Bob had turned in the direction of the sound, there was no one there, so he carefully picked up the bottle.

The wine was red. It was clear, and the faintly sweet scent that crept through the glass promised a fruity flavour. A whole unmarked bottle of wine of the sort Bob knew, the sort that didn't bother with confusing words like "dry" and "vintage".

But this wasn't a mushroom, a plant or a root. Bob's wise old mentor had been very clear on that; while mushrooms, plants and roots you happened to chance across could be safely eaten no matter how they looked, the same couldn't be said of loaves of bread, cheese, or in this case, a bottle of wine; more likely than not, they were the Evil Sorceress' traps designed to lure in and catch him in a moment of weakness. Still, it took three attempts before Bob managed to step away from the bottle and continue up the stairwell.

He was rather proud of himself for that.

The dragon had to be lying, Bob told himself. It had to be lying. It was black, after all; there had to be some villainous trick behind the whole demonstration, perhaps a cleverly-crafted illusion.

Or maybe it's because you can't accept the fact that someone has one that's bigger than yours, a tiny voice whispered in his mind. Bob made a mental note to question his mother the next time he saw her. After all, there's no greater identity crisis than being just proven that by all rights, you shouldn't be able to exist.

Strangely enough, there weren't any arrow slits, descending spikes, big boulders that rolled down the stairs or any other traps of that nature. A few steps creaked as Bob placed his prodigious weight upon them and he tensed, ready to leap aside at any untoward happenstance, but nothing as much as a gear moved. By comparison, the Festering Fortress of Filth and Flatulence had had razor-sharp pendulums swinging across every hallway, and that was just to get to the privy.

The door at the top of the stairs came into Bob's view, and it swung open of its own accord. Or maybe not of its own accord, considering the young woman standing behind it.

"No, I really don't think I'd be installing traps in the main stairwell," the sorceress said. "It might be a nice architectural quirk to have in a pinch, but I really don't feel like jumping through flaming hoops every morning, or at least, before I've had my tea and sandwiches."

"Foul sorceress! I, Bob, maybe half-dragon and long-lost true heir of the ancient kingdom of Gladyos have come to--"

"--kill me. Oh, yes. The last one was the barbarian princess of the…hmm… the wobbly steppes, I believe." The sorceress seemed to be eyeing his sword of destiny a lot. Did she fear it, or was she planning a spell of some sort? Was all this talk just a ploy to keep him stalled while reinforcements came? But what reinforcements would there be? There'd been just that one dragon, and it hadn't even tried to go on the offensive, at least in the physical sense of things.

The thought just sent more shivers up Bob's spine. Best to end things before matters had the chance to get out of hand. Initiative, his wise old mentor had told him, was key to defeating magicians of any sort. Keep them harried, keep them panicked, and they wouldn't be able to concentrate enough to light kindling.

Bob leapt and swung his sword of destiny. The evil sorceress ducked just in time to avoid the half-door collapsing towards her and hurled something at him, a rag-topped bottle of clear liquid which burst into flame at his feet.

Bob simply walked through the flames.

The nice people had been right, after all. The armour was impervious to almost anything, and if they were right about that, they could very well be right about him being a half-dragon. Besides, invulnerability did feel good; it was a soft, warm and fuzzy sensation that came from within, to be precise. Now to come up with a suitable taunt… "Is that the best you can do? Come on, they said there'd be gold and jewels here. Share the wealth, and maybe you'll be able to become a recurring villain, or maybe even an arch-nemesis."

"I'd rather die than go with the Company. Besides, I don't have very much in the way of liquidity. You want the Ebonlocke fortune? What's left of it is in honey, white cabbages and tea."

He had her now. There was nowhere left to run, not when he'd her backed up against the wall like this. It'd been almost as if she'd intentionally cornered herself, but he couldn't see anything besides one very panicked young woman…

"You lie like your dragon!" Bob roared, waving his sword about like a drum major's baton as white flame dripped from the runes on the blade and fizzled on the floor. "Evil magicians always have loot lying around! Always!"

"And you've been lied to by more people than me," the sorceress replied. "Your Sword of Destiny, for example. It's simply a mark three with the hilt gilded gold and the ruby replaced with a diamond. You've been had, sucker."

"I haven't!"

"Oh yes, you have. Victor showed you proof of impossibility of your existence. You know where to find the version documentation on your sword, don't you?"

No. It couldn't be. It wouldn't be. Not like this. His face contorted into a snarl, Bob ripped the fist-sized diamond out of its hilt socket and read the inscription beneath. "Ha!" he said. "I knew you were lying! It was a--"

Boom.

Flash.

Bang.

"--mark seven after all," Nodammo said as she knelt carefully and eyed the ash-coated inscription. "But really, everyone knows opening a sword of destiny while it's still active is dangerous. At least, anyone who's read the manual."

"That was close, Mistress."

Nodammo ran a hand through her sweat-soaked hair. "Closer than I'd thought. Still, get the sword put away somewhere safe and these ashes swept up. At least Bob can finally do something useful with his life by helping the vegetables grow bigger."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 5

"Turn the soil evenly, Jete. Digging up my vegetable beds is all well and good, but it won't do much good unless you get it right."

"Sorry. Digging is so much fun."

Nodammo waved her trowel, a more delicate version of the huge earth-mover Agnurlin worked with in the cabbage patches, in the air. At Nodammo's insistence, her butler had swapped his waistcoat and pants for a vest and durable working pants, but he still moved as if he was balancing a tea-tray in one hand and a rack of towels in the other. "Of course it is, but it's important to have all things in moderation. Like you, Victor. Did you have to bring your get to the workplace on the very day I've decided to put in fresh cauliflowers from the nursery? Bring Your Daughter To Work day only comes around once a year in Fenoros, you know."

"And I didn't have a daughter to bring to work until a few years ago, so think of it as me collecting on all those days your grandfather and mother owed me." Victor yawned and rolled one eye skywards. "It's not my fault a bellyful of eggs tends to make her mother cranky, is it? Seems these days that Obsi's finding the piped water either too hot or too cold, the kittens don't warm up fast enough, the stocks aren't bullish, the crystal chandelier and sculpture she put in the other day doesn't look right and what have you; I hate it and Jete doesn't like it either. Besides, Jete's learning important life skills here at the tower, and she'll need them if she's to guide Nefarious Industries when I retire."

"Well." Nodammo eyed the black-scaled dragonet dutifully churning Bob's ashes into the earth along with those of Flopsy Bunny, Mr. Twiggles and Ayeefia the Barbarian Princess of the Wolf Wilds, to name a few. Privately, she thought Jete looked like a roly-poly bug, all armoured chitin and scale, but Victor didn't need to know her opinion. "She has a striking resemblance to you, Victor."

"She's got my underbite," Victor said, a grin set into his jaws. "You know, I think Jete will grow to be even bigger than me someday. Watching her grow up has been astounding."

Nodammo could believe it; she'd seen the pitifully small crumbs in what'd been a brimming picnic basket before Jete had gotten in it. Already, the dragonet had fished out a mole from the earth and held the struggling creature in her jaws before a quick twist of her neck flung it straight up into the air.

"Mole!"

Three heads turned to watch the mole as it arced upwards, then tumbled down, down into Jete's waiting jaws, which snapped shut right on it. There was a sickening crunch, and bits of gore rained down onto the moist, damp earth.

"Mole!" Jete squealed, and both halves of the mole disappeared down her bloody snout.

Victor beamed with paternal pride.

Agnurlin sighed and pulled his wide-brimmed straw hat further down his bony forehead. "That, in my opinion, is a more-than-striking-resemblance. I remember you doing the exact same thing to the Chosen One of Flaf'ert'boor; they were picking pieces of him off the ground days later."

"And is that supposed to be better or for worse, Ag?"

"Couldn't say, Victor. Couldn't say. We'll just have to see. What I can say is that whelp is one of the few things you don't hate."

The sun shone down. Birds sang. Bees buzzed. Vegetables got put into the soil, and what was left of a mole got digested.

Three hilltops away, something began to happen.

#

"I'm afraid we're going to have to let you go, Brommus."

Brommus swallowed and tried to think of a suitable response, one that would let him keep his job. Maybe it was his imagination, but the smiley faces plastering the walls of Miss Annoyed's office seemed to be staring at him. While Brommus knew it was Company policy for executives' offices to be wallpapered that way, he couldn't help but feel it had some special purpose here.

Like intimidating people.

"My employment contract--"

"Was open for renegotiation, Brommus, and the people upstairs decided not to renew it. I don't like it either, but the days of job security are over," Miss Annoyed said, forming a steeple with her fingers. Brommus winced. The gesture was ominous enough, but when each finger had three joints instead of two…

"I understand."

"No, Brommus, from the look of your face, you don't. We are not letting you go because we are cutting costs, because the department's being downsized or because of something you couldn't control. You know our emphasis on quality, Brommus. Quest(TM) is a customer-oriented business. Your performance of late has become a liability, and I've been told to let you go because of that. Not because of any other reason."

Brommus' shoulders slumped. Of course. He'd known it, and it was his fault, wasn't it? Miss Annoyed had always been fair with him, had tried to keep him despite restructuring orders from upstairs, and he'd messed it up. For the fourth time.

"Ayeefia. Conone. Hazelhair. Now Bob. That's four heroes you've lost in a row, and it's costing the Company money. Money that goes towards persuading fertility and beauty goddesses to poop out mortal babies so the heroes can get their perfect complexions, money that goes towards the assembly lines churning out toys for outfitting, money that goes towards paying the salaries of employees like you. I've done my best, pointed out your stellar work record in previous years, but the folks upstairs said four chances were more than anyone else's ever been given and you've till the end of today to clear out your desk.

"And that's not counting the strange ideas you've always tried to get the heroes to come around to. While they weren't explicitly against Company policy, it nevertheless managed to get his attention, Brommus. You know the Company's vision of heroes just as well as anyone else does, and things like encouraging heroes to talk things out instead of bashing things with swords just doesn't mesh well with established guidelines. To be honest, I'm frankly surprised you managed to get four chances. "

Suddenly, the grains in Ms. Annoyed's desk seemed very interesting. Ms. Annoyed walked over, clapped Brommus on the shoulder, and smiled at him--well, he guessed she was smiling, since he'd never been able to make out her face. It was as if a perpetual fog hung around his superior's features, a security measure of some sort, or so he'd been told.

"Don't be upset, Brommus. I'm sure you'll be able to find another job soon, even if it'll never be like being a wise old mentor. Everyone knows the Company produces the best skilled workers. Besides, you'll never have to feign death again."

"I suppose. Thank you, ma'am, for all you've done for me."

"I should thank you instead, Brommus. Four heroes lost or not, having strange ideas or not, you've been a pleasure to work with. Maybe I'll see you again sometime."

At least those parting words made Brommus feel better as he trudged out of the office and back to his desk, if only marginally so.

Pointy wizard's hat. Appropriately long, flowing robes. White hair dye. Fake beard. Knockout pills. Rub-on birthmarks and liver spots of all shapes and sizes. Pencils, notebooks and erasers, all bought with his own money. An old mark two sword of destiny, supposedly condemned and overlooked by Logistics. Big as it was, the box in his hands simply wouldn't hold everything on his desk, the accumulated debris of ten years' worth of shepherding heroes through their destinies.

Or at least, the destinies the Company had laid out for them. Ten years of camping out in the wilds, ten years of having to deal with borderline psychopaths and sociopaths, ten years of having angst-ridden heroes cry over his supposedly dead body, ten years of digging, and in some cases, blasting himself out the graves they buried him in after the knockout pills wore off.

And what had he got to show for it?

"So it happened, eh, Brommus?"

Brommus looked up into a grimacing face. "Yeah, it happened, Obb-One. Cleaning out my desk and everything before going to surrender my security pass at the guardroom. They were nice enough to let my keep my Company ID as a memento, though. Punched through, of course."

"Severance pay?"

"You know I like to keep myself active, Obb-One. I'd look for work even if I were drowning in gold."

"True." Obb-One shifted his eyes. "Since you're leaving anyway…"

Brommus thrust the box at his soon-to-be ex-colleague. "Sure. Take my stuff, all of it. It's not as if I'm going to be coming back here in any case; go ahead and haul it all away."

"Well, if you insist." At least Obb-One didn't have to fake the occasional bout of arthritis expected in wise old mentors by virtue of having it for real, so Brommus ended up lugging the box and its contents across the room.

"Just set the box on my desk; I'll pick up the leftovers in my own time. You know, while this working environment doesn't really lend itself to…oh, heck." Obb-one leaned forward and hugged Brommus. "I'm going to miss you, Brommus. Remember the time we had to teach those heroes how to beat the witchalocks and their Lord of the God-Kings in three days flat? That was great."

"Yeah."

"I daresay a few other buggers around the office will miss you too when they come back in from the field and find you're gone. Good luck."

"The same to you."

It was surreal, Brommus would reflect later, the way he meekly accepted everything that happened next, from watching his security pass being chopped in two by the hero on duty in the guardroom, to leaving the glass-and-crystal tower that was the headquarters of Quest(TM) for the last time, to walking the streets of Literacity without so much as a thought about what would happen next. Only when Brommus had reached his small rented room and was safely seated on his bed did the question strike him.

"What am I going to do with the rest of my life?"

#

Agnurlin did his best not to grin. "I shall admit, Victor, there is something endearing about that whelp of yours sleeping up on your head."

"She is cute, isn't she? It won't be long before Jete's too big to sleep up there."

Nodammo looked up at Jete sprawled on Victor's head, stubs of misaligned teeth jutting from her snout. "Um, yes. Cute. That's the word, isn't it? Very definitely cute. Victor, I don't want to be seen as trying to tell you how to raise your offspring, but don't you think you might be a little prone to spoiling her?"

"Um, Boss, what did you say?"

"Nothing. Forget it. I'm just cranky because someone happened to eat my lunch when my back was turned, this damn basket's too heavy and a bath's long overdue for me."

"I was worried those sandwiches were small and inadequate anyway, Boss. Ag will be delighted to cook up something with those turnips, won't--"

Nodammo stopped in her tracks. "What's the matter, Victor?"

"Haruuum." Victor raised his head, tipped his snout upwards and sniffed the breeze across the hill. "Do you smell something, Boss?"

"No. What do you smell?"

"Something. I…" Victor bobbed his head up and down, and settled his wings across his back. "I don't think I've ever scented the likes of that before; it reminds me of…ugh. It just stinks, and I hate it. A lot. Maybe I should go and do a sweep over the area, Boss, see what's up?"

"Well, I suppose it couldn't hurt. What about Jete?" Before Nodammo could say another word, Victor had gently plucked his daughter off his head and shaken her awake.

Jete yawned and blinked wearily. "Daddy?"

"Daddy has to go fly over the downs, take a look-see for Miss Ebonlocke, Jete. Can you stay with her at the tower until I come back? I don't think Mommy's returned from her treasure appreciation club meeting yet. Listen to Miss Ebonlocke and be good till I get back, all right?"

"Of course, Daddy."

"There's my girl." After a few beats of his wings, Victor was a receding speck on the horizon.

Nodammo sighed and set down her basket of winter turnips. "You think he's on to something, Agnurlin? I really don't want to deal with another problem before that last one's even had the chance to start on pushing up the vegetables."

"It's hard to say, Mistress. Victor usually isn't wrong, but he's not infallible either. In any case, it's just a bad smell. Could be a mere vagrant on the road; they do not bathe often, so I'm told."

"You're right. Let's head back indoors. If something does happen, at least we'll be in a better position to meet it." She turned to Jete. "As for you, you can make up for those sandwiches by helping us carry the turnips back."

#

A mere hour into the job, Nodammo was wondering how babysitters did this for a living without going insane.

"All right," she said, wishing desperately for a cup of hot, sweet tea. "Why won't you play with the blocks? They're my very own from when I was your age."

Jete prodded the nearest block with a foreclaw. "I don't like blocks."

"And why not?"

"Because the suggestion that I should be amused by these geometrically regular and hexahedral pieces of carved wood with letters painted on them is frankly insulting? I believe I progressed beyond that level two seasons out of the egg."

"All right…" Hmm. When I was two seasons old, I said my first word. Mother said it was "blorp". I wonder where that puts me in relation to her.

"Daddy asks me to help out with balancing Nef-Mart's books, and that's frankly much more intellectually stimulating and entertaining than these things of dubious value."

"And your fruit snack? You haven't eaten that, either."

"I don't like this fruit snack."

"But your daddy always goes on about how you like fruit snacks. Besides, you were quick enough to eat all my sandwiches out there."

"No one's ever served me a tea-flavoured fruit snack before, Miss Ebonlocke. Is tea even a fruit?"

"No." All of a sudden, Nodammo's shoulders began aching. "Not yet, anyway."

"Well, I suppose I'll have to proceed with my daily deep-meditation exercises and reflect upon the many things in life I don't like and how I can change them for the better and for everyone's benefit. Good day." With that, Jete curled up in the middle of the dining hall, tucked her snout under her tail-tip and closed her eyes.

Deep-meditation exercise, it seemed to Nodammo, didn't seem any different from napping. "Is my hot bath ready, Agnurlin?"

"Yes, Mistress."

"Then let's go." Nodammo levered herself out of her seat, and both of them left the dining hall through a plain archway. "What a day."

"Agreed, Mistress."

"You know what, Agnurlin? Remind me to never have children. I don't think I could stand it."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 6

"Seems it was a false alarm after all, Boss. If there'd been someone or something there, it'd gone by the time I'd flown over the area. Did three full circles of the downs, and nothing out of the ordinary, just some poor sods out with their sheep who waved at me and asked when you'd be coming down to the village."

"Well. That's…that's good to hear."

"Thanks for looking after Jete while I was gone. You look a bit worn-out, Boss. Should I--"

Hurriedly, Nodammo shook her head so hard her hair flopped from side to side. "No, Victor. Take Jete home. I think she needs her nappy-time, or whatever disgustingly cute phrase you use to refer to it."

"If you insist, then. I'll see you tomorrow at eight, Boss." Victor's head disappeared from the window, and when she was sure father and daughter were gone, Nodammo sank into Agnurlin's waiting arms with a groan.

"Please don't let him bring that little monster here tomorrow. Or the day after. Or any other day so long as I live. Ugh. Please?"

Electing to stay silent, Agnurlin dragged Nodammo over to the nearest chair in the fashion that butlers have used for centuries on distraught, inebriated or otherwise incapacitated employers.

"Daddy's little monster in every sense of the phrase, a pretentious, nasty-minded little monster," Nodammo babbled and gratefully grasped the teacup Agnurlin offered her. "How does Victor and Obsi manage to keep her in check when she doesn't have any setting between 'comatose' and 'maniacal'? I've never seen either of them touch so much as a parenting guide! Agnurlin?"

"Yes, Mistress?"

Nodammo drained the teacup. "I wasn't like that when young, was I?"

"Well, Mistress, I'm certain you remember the day you set fire to--"

"That bitch was asking for it. She didn't just steal my candy, she said to come out and fight, so I did. The burns weren't too bad, anyways."

"Still, pardon me for saying so, it was a terribly mean-spirited thing to do."

"Agnurlin, shut up."

"No, Mistress, this needs to be said. To elaborate on my previous statement, you were merely displaying childish tendencies with consequences amplified by what you could do. The same goes for Victor's progeny. Children can--and are--terrible at times."

"…I suppose you're right. So I might have been as bad as that little monster, but that doesn't bar me from being annoyed at her behaviour, does it?"

"No, it doesn't, Mistress." Agnurlin raised the teapot. "More?"

"Gladly." The teacup was quickly emptied, followed by another. "You won't tell Victor?"

"I see no reason to harm the mutually beneficial relationship the three of us share."

"Well, that's good. I could do with another cup, please. Or two. Or three. Or maybe even the whole damned teapot."

#

The signal was sent.

A magical pulse designed by Quest(TM)'s finest magicians, the signal met the minds of heroes all around and stirred something hidden, something more base and primordial than the urge to breed or eat chocolate. A signal that the Company executives preferred not to be used, considering it meant the temporary abandonment of projects in progress, but in this case was deemed necessary.

One by one, the heroes began to respond. Half-breeds of all sorts stopped whinging about their dubious parentages. Barbarian princesses stopped complaining to their fathers about being treated like broodmares. Muscular men in golden armour and leather thongs stopped their pitched battles against the legions of various Evil Empires and Dark Lords, while others in green tights paused in the act of robbing the sheriff's wagons, not even bothering to get receipts on their ill-gotten tax refunds.

Like migrating birds, they began to move, not quite sure why they were doing so or what awaited them at their destination, only that the summons was of utmost importance and that the world would be in dire danger if they failed to respond. Some flew, some rode horseback or on vehicles, some teleported while others had to simply rely on their legs to bring them to their destination, but if one looked down from above and made a few deductions, the primary enforcers of the Company's will were very definitely converging on one spot, a grassy stretch of land known as the Fenorosian Downs.

Deviant plot elements were a menace, an affront to the proper order of things that kept the Company running the way it did. They threw in unpredictability and unpleasantness, made stories do strange and confusing things. None of the heroes wanted to entertain the idea that their efforts might not save the kingdom, slay the Wicked Wizard or end up with them filthy rich beyond their dreams. Worst of all, it suggested to them they might not be the centre of the world.

The deviant plot elements had to be eliminated.

#

"Thank you for the breakfast, Agnurlin," Nodammo said as she pulled on her gloves and reached for her safety goggles. "I've never thought of pickled turnip as a breakfast dish, myself."

"It is my pleasure, as always. Will Mistress be requiring my services during the experiment?"

"Only to contact the fence."

Agnurlin clacked chipped, yellowed teeth as he set the sword on the laboratory bench. "If I may make a suggestion, Mistress? We've just got our hands on a prototype mark seven. It's a weapon of supposedly boundless power--"

"Which I don't have any idea how to use, anyway. Fat lot of good it did that hero. Besides, remember what happened to Tak in the neighbouring county--got to call them counties, since we're now part of North Fairbanks. Bugger tried to use some hero's singing bow for hunting, the innocence clause zapped him the moment he pulled the bowstring in earnest. Granted, he didn't have anything more than a party conjuror's diploma and didn't know he should have checked, but it still pays to be careful."

"Point taken. I'll be sending a message to Mr. Upright, then." Agnurlin slid the bookcase back into place behind him, leaving Nodammo alone in the laboratory with an assortment of straw dummies.

"Well, time to get started." She flipped open her copy of Rince's Essential Wizzard's Guide. "Hmm…where was it? 'Dealing with anomalous materials. When dealing with potentially dangerous anomalous materials, the author suggests having a quick escape route, or failing that, a sock with a half-brick in it.' Well, there's no lack of that, so let's get started…"

A quick pass of Nodammo's hand over the blade showed an odd lack of any protective magic whatsoever--was the Company really foolhardy or confident enough to not bother with any protection for their toys? Did they really believe this could make their heroes invincible, that there was no chance of the sword being dispossessed in any way?

Sometimes, the mysteries of life just didn't add up, but as her mother had often said, people weren't placed on this world to 'get it'.

If only she could.

"Now, where did Tak say it would be…they always have…ah." The sword's pommel had a hairline crack in it, and after a good deal of cursing and swearing, it came free along with a rolled-up piece of paper bound up in a strip of ribbon. Nodammo picked it up and spread it out.

"Congratulations! You are now the owner of a Quest(TM) handheld Sword of Destiny, mark seven. With it, you can hack and slash your way through your Quest(TM) approved adventures! In general, the sword has been proven to be completely user-friendly. The blade, however, has not. For your own safety and the safety of everyone within the kingdom you are the long-lost heir of, please follow the instructions below:

"1. Do not touch the business end of the sword with any part of your person.

"2. Do not point the business end of the sword at your sidekicks.

"3. Do not enchant the sword, even temporarily.

"4. And under no circumstances should you attempt to--"

"--Open up the sword while it is still in operation. Failure to comply can and very likely will cause terminal shortness of breath through vaporisation," Nodammo finished. The ink on that last bit had been blotted into illegibility; even if he'd read the manual, the hero wouldn't have known better. Oh well. She continued reading:

"Operating instructions:

"While this manual is not comprehensive, enough can be inferred from the recommended actions below to apply your Sword of Destiny to a wide number of practical problems. For example:

"To slay a monster, integrate monster and blade with an appropriate level of pulchritude.

"To convince someone of the intellectual superiority of your argument, introduce blade to head of debater in a forceful manner.

"To extract information from a lackey of the dark lord, repeatedly apply pointy end of sword to said lackey threateningly.

"To use your Sword of Destiny to aid in preparing the ubiquitous stew you will be consuming in the wilderness, julienne your ingredients with edge.

"To open a door, bash the Sword of Destiny against the door until it gives.

"Tip: remember to optimise sword usage by applying sharp end first. Application of blunt end to targets will reduce the effectiveness of your sword of destiny in addition to posing a significant risk of injury to your person."

"Well. Technically correct yet utterly useless; the manual never changes through all the versions," Nodammo muttered as she drew the blade from its scabbard. "Still, I suppose heroes would need a good dose of common sense. Let's see…by the ether, it's heavy."

While the sword was clearly meant to be a one-handed weapon, Nodammo had to grip the hilt with both hands before she managed to exert some form of control over the blade. A moment's pause to gather her strength, a wild swing, and the nearest straw dummy's head fell to the floor, neatly severed at the neck.

Nodammo blinked. "Oh. Well. A safer procedure is definitely in order. Agnurlin?"

A slight puff of wind as air molecules rushed to get out of the way. "Yes, Mistress?"

"Could you please bring me the hardness testing kit?"

"Oh, certainly." Another puff as the very same molecules rushed in to occupy the now-vacant space. Before long, a knock came from the bookcase-door, and Agnurlin strode in, his arms filled with a large, heavy chest which he set down on the floor. "Here you are, Mistress."

"Thank you." The chest opened with a heave, and Nodammo picked out a small hunk of rock. "I suppose we'll start with calcite and work our way up…"

It wasn't too long before Nodammo was staring at two halves of a raw diamond. At least the candle flame had stayed intact like it ought to.

"Well. The sooner I'm rid of this thing, the better."

#

"Mister Brommus! Are you decent?"

For the first time since he'd paid his first rent, Brommus was tempted to answer "no" just for the sake of seeing Mrs Pie's reaction, but held his tongue. It wouldn't do to give his landlady a bad parting impression, and if it meant not solving one of the eternal mysteries of the universe, so be it.

"Yes, I am, Mrs. Pie."

"I'll be coming in, then." The door to Brommus' room slid open, and Mrs Pie's frame slid into the room, all arms and legs. "You're really set on leaving, Brommus? There's nothing I can do to convince you to stay?"

"For the last time, yes," Brommus said through gritted teeth. "If you don't work for the Company, directly or indirectly, you don't work in Literacity. Who'll hire me now?"

"I know nice place at Serfway--"

"I don't mean small-level dead-end jobs like party conjurors or a teleporter for a shipping company, Mrs. Pie. The kind where you go to work at eight, knock off at five, and wake up the next day to repeat it all over again for the rest of your life. I wanted to do something where my work would make a difference, have some meaning, and just because I'm thirty doesn't change that fact."

Mrs. Pie smoothed out a bit of bed besides Brommus and sat next to him. "Some of us choose to avoid excitement, Mister Brommus. Too much can be unhealthy."

"I'm leaving Literacity, and that's that." Brommus stood up and took his suitcase in hand. After years of cloth bundles tied to sticks, proper luggage felt good to have again. "Perhaps I can't live in a big pond, but I don't see anything wrong with lording over a small one."

"Well, good luck, Mister Brommus. Do visit if you're ever in Literacity again."

"And to you, too. You'll find another tenant soon, Mrs. Pie; I'm sure of it."

They went down the stairs together and stopped at the door, where Mrs. Pie picked up a brown paper parcel half the size of Brommus' suitcase and pressed it into his free hand. Even through the bindings, the fresh aroma of sugared fruit met Brommus' nose, promising apples, peaches, and other sweet-smelling things he didn't quite recognise and were probably illegal.

"Before you go, though…I baked a pie for you, Mister Brommus. There's enough honey and sugar in the crust and filling to let it keep for a while and I wrapped it in wax paper, but don't leave it more than a week. You hear that?"

"Don't worry, Mrs. Pie. I'm not letting one of these go bad on my watch." Brommus tucked the parcel under his arm. "Now, I'll have to go if I want to avoid the rush at the city gates. Good-bye, Mrs. Pie."

"Good-bye, Brommus."

Brommus stepped through, gave his landlady one final nod, and closed the door.

The click echoed through the house. Mrs. Pie gazed at the door for a few minutes before sighing and shrugging.

"No point moping about it," she said to herself. "Plenty of things to be done. Bakery's got to be opened."

She was kneading the dough when someone knocked on the door. Not bothering to wash off her floury hands, Mrs. Pie strode up to the door and flung it open to find herself face-to-face with a literally featureless person in a business suit; no matter how much she squinted, she couldn't quite make out the details on the man's--was it even male?--face.

"Bakery doesn't open for one more hour," she said.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, madam," the suit said. "Is this the residence of a certain Mr. Brommus?"

"It was," Mrs. Pie replied. "He left at the crack of dawn, and isn't coming back."

"Where to?"

"What business is that of yours? You're with the Company, are you? Why should you care where he's gone now, since you lot fired him?"

The suit cleared his throat. "Mrs. Pie, there's been a terrible error in mid-level management regarding a decision about your tenant. He was not supposed to have been fired that day; an ambiguity in the memo led to the junior executive interpreting it as a lay-off order. Unfortunately, the error was not discovered until we noticed incongruities in our records, and that is why we have rushed to your doorstep to offer Mr. Brommus his old post back, complete with another employment contract."

"'We?' Is there someone lurking behind you?"

The suit ignored the question. "Quest(TM) regards employee welfare highly, Mrs. Pie. Are you sure you cannot or will not tell me where he has gone so this mistake can be corrected?"

"I don't think he wants to have anything to do with you lot anymore." Mrs. Pie thinned her lips. "No, I will not tell you."

"Then I will not press the matter. Good day, Mrs. Pie. Or what's left of yours."

"Hey, what did you--" Unfortunately, the suit had already rounded a corner and vanished from sight.

Mrs. Pie shook her head. "Buggers." She closed the door, washed her hands and had just started kneading the dough when the bakery spontaneously combusted in a enormous, mushroom-shaped fireball that was seen three streets away.

It was very sad, everyone said later when Mrs. Pie's charred remains were brought out of the ashes. Very sad, but not uncommon--it was Conjurer's Row, after all, where even the hobos who lived under the bridge could for a few coppers, make a potato tap-dance and sing a bawdy song.

Besides, Mrs. Pie had been living in a fire hazard, and everyone agreed it had been only a matter of time before something happened. After all, everyone knew how combustible flour in air was.

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 7

It wasn't that Brommus didn't like white lettuce. White lettuces were good for you; everyone knew that, and they made a tasty, crisp salad. The problem was that there could be too much of a good thing, and the all-pervading stench of Literacity's waste on the fields didn't help, either.

During the course of his career, Brommus had bravely shepherded heroes past trolls, huge green things with teeth, nameless horrors of the night, biological mash-ups and a strange woman who could have been Mrs. Pie's evil twin, but he'd always avoided leaving for field work in the morning when the dung carts entered the city.

We are what we eat, the vegetables eat our shit, and we eat the vegetables; therefore we are shit. Brommus reached up with his free hand, and remembered he wasn't wearing his fake beard. Poetic. Explains a lot, too.

At length, he came to a fork in the road.

Brommus looked left; lettuce fields as far as the eye could see. He looked right; more lettuce fields as far as the eye could see. The junction, he noticed, was conspicuously devoid of a signpost, as if someone had made great pains to make its absence stand out to any passers-by.

"Hmm."

An old, rusted nail lay fallen by a nearby fence, and Brommus picked it up and tossed it into the air. The nail spun, fell, and landed with its pointy end facing the left road.

"Hmm."

As Brommus watched, the nail slowly shifted in the dirt to face the right road.

"Hmm."

Brommus picked up the nail again, tossed it, and looked on as the invisible force shifted the nail to face the right pathway once more. With a laugh, he ground the nail into the dirt with the toe of a boot and began tromping down the left road, suitcase in hand.

"Screw you, Destiny. I'm no hero, and I'm not playing by your inane rules."

#

"I hate cold mornings." Victor's voice found its way into the guestroom through the open window. "I hate tourists and human children, too. Even more when they're both. And I hate human child tourists on cold mornings."

Nodammo winced at the remark, but managed to keep her grip on the small glass jar she was holding. "All the pills and potions in the world won't match up to a healthy diet and balanced lifestyle, Mr. Rae. This'll help with the backache, but you really have to watch yourself. Don't strain your back beyond what's necessary, but don't use that as an excuse to lie around all day, either."

Rae nodded and accepted the jar of pills. "Thank you, Lady Ebonlocke. One of these twice a day, after I get up and before I sleep, you said?"

"Yes. It's important not to overdose on this. It won't harm you, but you'll feel as if you were made of jelly. You won't be able to let the tourists in the shop if you can't even stand, and we'll be back to where we began."

"Hrm." Rae counted out silver coins in a callused hand. "Not to be complaining, Lady, but the old mistress--she could wave her hands and make me feel better there and then. Even had sparkles added."

"I--" Nodammo bit her lip. "Never mind."

"Be seeing you, then. Thank you." Rae rose and made for the guesthouse door.

"Wait! You've overpaid me, Rae. The cost of the components only came to three silvers; you've given me four."

"The extra's for giving you offence, Lady Ebonlocke; my way of saying sorry, if you will. Good day."

The door shut. A whole silver. How much is that compared to one day's takings for him? Without so much as a word, Nodammo stuffed the coins with the others in her portable field kit and latched it shut before heaving its straps over her shoulders. At length, she sighed and left the room, where Egil was waiting for her.

"Rae just passed me by, so I figured your consultation hours were over, M'lady. You sure you won't stay and have lunch here on us? We're having rabbit stew and rice today; Venka worked on it all morning. You know how much tourists eat."

"You've done enough by letting me use your rooms for consultations. I couldn't possibly impose."

"Nonsense. I--" A roar came from just outside the inn, and Nodammo cringed. "I really can't stay, Egil. Victor's getting cranky, and while I know he tries his best to be nice he's still a dragon at heart. Good day." Hurrying out of the guesthouse as fast as her feet could take her, Nodammo found Victor in a ring of tourists, all of them trying to poke and prod him.

"Damnit, I hate being treated like a display in a petting zoo. Look, if you don't stop now I'll have to squash--Boss! Boss, could you get these tourists away before an terrible accident happens?" Victor lashed his tail to and fro, and a group of boys that'd been trying to touch it went goggle-eyed. "You'd think they'd never seen a black dragon before."

"Definitely not one such as you, Victor." Nodammo clapped her hands. "All right, folks! Show's over! Sorceress needs to return to tower and all that other stuff, rides will be open tomorrow! Chop chop!"

The tourists muttered and grumbled, but acquiesced and moved away one by one until Nodammo and Victor were alone on the grass.

"Someday, there's going to be an accident, Boss," Victor growled as he nosed a nearby half-eaten sack of dragon kibble and grasped it in a foreclaw. "There's going to be an accident; someone's going to stand too close, poke too hard, try to fit his or her head in my mouth or something equally stupid, and all sort of shit's going to happen, quite possibly involving a lot of spilled blood. Good thing I was having lunch when they started disturbing me, or the very nasty accident might already have happened, and where would we be?"

"In big trouble."

"That's right, in big trouble. Problem with tourists is that they don't understand what 'back off' means; once they've decided you're a damned attraction, that's it for you."

"Mm-hm. Well, let's get back to the tower, then." Victor obliged by bending a forefoot so Nodammo could climb on, and the sorceress stepped on it and pulled herself up onto his neck. "Don't worry about it too much, Victor. Tourist season is going to be over soon."

"Which means hay fever season is around the corner, and Jete is going to be miserable sneezing all day. Just a heads-up, Boss--I'll be using some of my leave for that month or two. Someone's got to look after her, and Obsi's been getting lethargic of late." A running start followed by a leap and a few beats of Victor's wings, and they were airborne.

Nodammo sighed, untied her hair and let the oncoming winds ease her aches. "You really love her, don't you?"

"Boss?"

"Jete, I mean."

"She's my kid, Boss. Is that so strange?"

"No, I guess not."

"Hrah. The way you speak of it--" Victor stopped mid-sentence, and his nostrils flared as he sniffed the air.

"What's the matter?"

"That odd smell, Boss; the one I told you about the other day. It's coming from the downs again."

Nodammo frowned. "I still don't smell anything."

"It's stronger this time, Boss, and that's starting to worry me. I don't like it one bit, like…like those kind of clouds you get on the horizon and you know you're in for a thrashing, yet it's already too late to get out of the front's way or even land safely. That sort of feeling."

"Well, if you must. Take us high enough that anything on the ground won't spot us, Victor." With a snap of her fingers, a faint aura briefly shimmered about her as Victor pulled into a steep ascent.

The first time Victor had flown Nodammo through a cloud as a child had made her heart hammer and her mother wonder if she was right in the mind. The second time was still thrilling, but a little less so. This time, all she worried about was whether her clothing would get damp, even if the spell prevented her from feeling the cold so high up, and the sensation of water pooling in her mouth or the fact she couldn't see her own hands wasn't something she cared for.

At length, Victor stuck his head down, presumably out of the cloud.

"Do you see anything?"

Silence.

"Victor? What'd you see?"

More silence.

"Victor!"

"Oh, fuck, Boss. Fuckity fuck fuck."

Nodammo sighed. "What's the matter?"

"You know that so-called foolproof twelve-step program you helped write? The one for keeping heroes away?"

"What of it?"

"It's not going to work this time, Boss. I don't know what's going on, but it's almost as if the heroes are…swarming."

#

Heroes, Miss Annoyed reflected, were like sharks. On their own they had the potential to be powerful killing machines. Ask two or more of them to cooperate and work towards a common goal unsupervised, though, and chances were they'd tear each other into chunky bits before getting anywhere.

They were very definitely not team players. What made it worse was that the downs were practically seething with heroes, and they were all very hungry, as her superiors would have put it.

Very hungry indeed.

Miss Annoyed ground her teeth and tasted diamond powder. "Could you please restate your concern, Miss…um…"

"Rhian, princess and soon-to-be queen. That barbarian at the campfire next to mine kept on making lewd remarks at me, and I refuse to be objectified in such a manner! Even though I happen to be physically perfect, I am more than my body!"

"Ah, yes. Let's see…" A snap of her three-jointed fingers, and a shimmering, translucent image appeared in the air in front of her. "According to my records, that would be a Mr. Treeg, wouldn't it? Reformed follower of the dark god Ul-Gor, wanted to set all air on fire? Wears bear furs and carries a glowing spear around?"

"Yes. He--"

"--Came to me this very afternoon, complaining to me about you making a ruckus after he wouldn't let you touch his 'nice ass'." Miss Annoyed stared at the hero's jewelled gown and daggers and sighed. So boring. So very boring. Well, the sooner she got this field trip over with, the sooner she'd be back in the office, sitting in a massage chair and sipping coffee brewed from real beans instead of this disgusting instant stuff that came in sachets. "Heroes aren't supposed to be hypocrites, you know. Or at least, that was according to the old operating procedures. Even now, it's still not encouraged."

"I--"

"It doesn't matter. Mr. Treeg and you aren't going to be in each other's proximity for very much longer. Get out and get ready, because we're moving out."

The tent flaps practically burst outward as the annoying little hero made her exit. "So much for keeping the peace," Miss Annoyed muttered. "No point giving myself an aneurysm."

The moment she stepped out of the tent, a tidal wave of complaints slung itself into her face.

"Those disgusting humans over there, hewing off tree limbs for firewood--"

"My wolf companion is getting the shakes just by being around so many people in one place--"

"I refuse to work with dwarves. You don't see their women anywhere; I'll bet they're all chained to the stoves and breweries. Either that, or dwarves are all secretly androgynous hermaphrodites, and the implications of that's even worse…"

"Them folks and their heathen gods over at the next fire keep on going at it with their stupid chanting! They kept me awake all night!"

"Damnit! Why isn't there any wine, or cheese to go along with it! I demand--"

"There's dirt all around! And bugs! And I'm getting grass stains all over my beautiful dress--"

"WILL YOU ALL SHUT UP!" Something must have gotten into the heroes' thick skulls, for they all obeyed instantly. "Now. Over the next three hills lies the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair. An Evil Sorceress lives within the tower. The Quest(TM) is as follows: after the valiant defeat of the last four heroes to venture inside, heroes from far and wide have put aside their cultural, social, racial, yea, verily, whatever-al differences to put an end to the darkness and despair that the sorceress has blighted the land with her evil magic so that the people may be free of her cruel grasp, so on and so forth."

The heroes stared at Miss Annoyed as she paused to catch her breath. Birds sang, the wind rustled through the grassy downs, and the sun shone merrily upon patches of wildflowers.

Miss Annoyed narrowed her eyes, as though daring any of the massed heroes to challenge the truth of her statement. "Any questions?"

A hand waved in the air. "Will there be any loot?"

"When has there not been loot?"

"Never."

"You've answered your own question. Next!"

Another hand came up. "Um, Miss Annoyed, some people are saying the sorceress isn't really evil. I picked up this business card in the nearby village, and it states she isn't."

"Would you mind letting me see that?"

The heroes obliged, passing down the small rectangle of cardboard until it was in Miss Annoyed's hands. Printed on it in clean, black ink was:

Nodammo Ebonlocke

Morally Ambiguous Sorceress, MA, Master in Alchemy, Fenoros Academy

Pills, potions, salves and general remedies. Casting of minor long-lasting spells for reasonable fees. Chemicals for sale. No love potions, explosions, or explicitly criminal activity. I'm morally ambiguous, not evil.

Consultations available on Farmday and Fireday mornings in the Generic Little Village. Special visits may be arranged for an additional fee. Emergency cases are to be brought at any time to the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair.

Serving you since we're not quite sure when--the Ebonlocke family.

This card was printed at Mary-Sue and Daughters Paper Mills.

"Oh, come on," Miss Annoyed said. "You're actually taking the Evil Sorceress' disinformation seriously? Remember what your wise old mentors taught you about villains' mind games?"

"But we were taught to listen to the villains when they're telling us all about their plans."

"This isn't one of those times. This is one of the times where the villain tries to sow confusion and distrust between the hero and his adventuring party."

"Adventuring party? Does that mean some of us are supposed to be sidekicks? I'm not budging from this spot if I'm going to have to be a sidekick; it's insulting! I'm the centre of the world!"

Breathe. In. Out. In. Out. It's not the heroes' fault; they're just fitting all the evidence and making perfectly accurate assessments about the state of the world they've built for themselves. "You're all heroes, damnit. Working together as equals. It's supposed to be a very heroic thing, overcoming traditional barriers to cooperate. All right, any more questions?"

The assembled heroes muttered amongst themselves, but no hands were raised.

"Great. Let's get this show on the road."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 8

Nodammo Ebonlocke, Medical Alchemist, Morally Ambiguous Sorceress of the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair, minor noblewoman of the now-largely defunct Fenorosian aristocracy and leader and only member of the Fenoros Academy tea research team, bit her lips and stared down at the gleaming river of generally humanoid bodies that moved across the downs.

There was no mistaking which way the heroes were headed, and she had the lingering suspicion they weren't going to her home for the wonderful discounts on Victor the Ferocious plush dolls. How many were there? A hundred? Two hundred?

So many thoughts and only one mind to consider them with.

"Think you can fly a little lower, Victor, perhaps let me get a better look?"

"No can do, Boss. We've already taken a big enough risk by getting out into open skies. I'll give you a minute more, and we're heading back under cover before one of those idiots sticks his or her neck up our way and spots us."

"Very well, then. Take us around once more, and then we can head for home and consider consequences."

Victor veered to the left, and Nodammo hung on to two of the numerous small spines that ridged the black dragon's neck. She'd never fallen off before, but it was better to be safe than to trust one's life to a slow-falling spell.

"That's as close as I dare go, Boss."

"Hold us here." The gleaming river continued to cut its way through the downs, and Nodammo briefly wondered how much gold and silver the heroes had on them. "They don't seem to be making very good time."

"Heroes, Boss. You know. Dithering about the countryside, taking in the sights and looking up forty-two ways to describe water so they can tell horribly boring travelling tales to anyone who'll listen. Normally, I'd hate the sluggish buggers, but if they keep up this pace they'll take more than a day to reach the tower."

"Which gives us all the more time to prepare. That gives me an idea. Are you too tired to hover, Victor? There isn't much in the way of a prevailing wind, and I want to make sure this goes down as straight as possible. Given the way they're headed…yes, they'll probably be using the Butter Bridge to get across the river; it's the only one sturdy enough to accommodate a horde of that size. Given their pace, they ought to reach it in an hour or so."

Victor let out a growling laugh and spiralled into a slow, lazy glide. "Me? Tired? Over the Butter Bridge was it, Boss?"

"A little to the left, over by the rushes near the riverbank. I want it to be obvious, but not too obvious."

"Oh, that's fine, Boss. What--what are you doing with the morning's takings?"

"Buying time, Victor. Buying time." Before a startled Victor could react, Nodammo had dug deep into her field kit, drawn out a well-sized bag of coins and hurled it down, out of Victor's reach and towards the riverbank. "My professors always said you can't buy time with money. Well, I've just proved you can."

"Boss, that was forty-two whole plush dolls sold and your fees this morning. You know how I don't like to have to dip into Nefarious Industries to keep you in the black."

"It's a sound investment, Victor. Gold doesn't do corpses much good, unless you have an account with the Bank of the Dead."

A low sigh. "Maybe, but I still hate to see money being thrown away."

"You wouldn't be Victor otherwise. Come on, let's head home. We've got a welcoming party to prepare, complete with tea. Lots and lots of tea."

#

It is a well-known fact amongst heroes that commodities often turn up as and when they are needed, often out of thin air if need be. Heroes facing hunger in the wilderness always happen to chance upon edible wild plants such as unnamed tubers, roots, fruits and mushrooms, or even the occasional rabbit or edible bird too stupid to flee. Similarly, circumstances always conspire such that whenever a hero needs a horse for speedy travel, there is one available nearby for hire, purchase, theft or other means of appropriation.

Therefore, it was no surprise to the army of heroes that a split-open bag of coins should have found its way to the riverbank. After all, it was simply providence making itself known once again, and one didn't encounter traps by riverbanks. In ancient temples of forgotten dark gods, yes, but rushes and cattails aren't exactly the best place to hide your brand-new aged swinging pendulum of sharp edges.

The first of the heroes in the vanguard to spot the scattered coins picked up the one nearest his boot. It was hard, and it was cold. Milled or not, I have intrinsic worth independent of whatever value the government that issued me says I have, it said. Your choice to keep me or throw me away.

"It's not gold," he said, and waved the roast pigeon he'd been gnawing on in the air like a baton. The fact that said pigeon hadn't been gutted, skinned, dressed or even plucked didn't seem to bother him; if anything, the singed down lining his mouth seemed to make the pigeons even more finger-licking good.

Another nearby hero nodded. "More copper than silver, perhaps, but coins are coins. There's no one who doesn't take coins, is there? I'm sure all of these have to be worth…lots?"

Lots. The other heroes in the vanguard rubbed their swords, bows and axes of destiny and mulled over that fact. It struck them that while there were lots of coins in the pile, they didn't add up to very much, or at least, not enough for everyone in the vanguard to share and come away with a reasonable sum, let alone the main body trundling a mile behind them.

"I think," the hero with the roast pigeon said, "this should go to whoever needs it most, since we can't split it."

The heroes glanced at one another. Sharing treasure usually wasn't something that was done--sidekicks didn't need or deserve any, and the hungry masses some of the treasure eventually went to often weren't around at the loot-taking scene. That meant by default, the treasure went to the hero.

Of course, there was more than one hero around. That was bound to cause some confusion.

"Um. Sounds fair, I suppose."

"Right."

They stared at the coins for a little while, eyes glittering with intelligence--or perhaps it was just sparkly lights added for effect.

"I need the money to bury my grandma," a plate-clad dwarf said. "Need to hire a speechwriter to write a eulogy, cleaning up from all that quaffing of ale at the funeral dinner and the coffin's got to be made of solid gold, or else I'll die of shame."

"You have a grandma? I thought dwarves were really asexual and reproduced by binary fission. Either that, or it's spontaneous abiogenesis from rock."

The dwarf pushed back the visor on his helmet. "You willing to take that back, wizard-boy? Big words aren't going to help you against a proper beat down with Mister Axe, and I don't care if you're wearing glasses; all the better to get glass in your eyes with."

"Nicodumbus, Dimli, stop it," the hero with the roast pigeon said. "All right, anyone else got a good reason for wanting the money? Need over greed, folks."

"Well, my home village's starving and everyone's depending on me to bring back treasure to buy food with--"

"Handouts don't help anyone any, dolt. You should have used what money you got to set up self-help and empowerment programs like what I did in order to help them stand on their own feet--"

"I heard folks who don't agree with the principles of your so-called 'self-help programmes' just vanish in the middle of the night. So much for that!"

"Do not!"

"Do too! I need the money more anyways; I know of a bunch of rebels who could use the funding to buy arms for their struggle against the evil tyrant!"

"Well, I have to put some money in the ancient temple's roof repair fund. It has to be done every thousand years, or the Nameless God will destroy the world!"

"Oh, screw this. Since no one can decide who gets what nicely, let's settle it the old-fashioned way," the dwarf said, and clonked the young wizard over the head with his axe, which prompted a nearby unicorn-riding princess to dismount and kick him in the shins, her mount happily goring a winged half-angel straight through, and it wasn't long before a lovely crimson began smearing the bright yellow paint of the Butter Bridge's supports all the way through.

#

"Spyglass, please."

Agnurlin handed Nodammo the spyglass, and she leant against the balcony's balustrade as she put it to her eye and twisted a knob on its side. "Just as I thought. Heroes really don't take well to having to share with each other, do they?"

"That depends, Mistress. The first generation of heroes to work for the Company, those who weren't born and bred to the job--some of us were better than that. Or maybe not." He shook his skull in a very un-butler-like manner. "We're supposed to be heroes, to behave heroically, for what that's worth. It's depressing to see what we've become. Sometimes, I wonder if the heroes nowadays give to the poor only because any beggar they encounter on their Quests(TM) is likely to be a powerful wizard, goddess in disguise or the holder of a seemingly useless trinket which'll prove key in defeating the Dark Lord. It is very sad."

Thinning her lips, Nodammo returned the spyglass to Agnurlin's hands and strapped on her safety goggles and gloves. "They'll be here before too long. Has the water started to boil?"

"Nearly there, Boss," Victor's voice came from the dining hall. "Damn it, I still remember every time your grandmother wanted me to heat up the old boiler. I hated the job, and let it be known I still hate it. Thought I'd never have to see the thing again after you ripped it out and installed central heating."

"Well, it's the only thing that's big enough for my purposes," Nodammo said as she walked back into the dining hall. All the paintings and wall-hangings had been taken down, and the dining table was looking forlorn in one corner with the chairs stacked on top of it. In the middle of the room sat a tarnished boiler on a metal bracket, under which a smokeless, lightless flame burned merrily, reinforced every now and then with a puff on Victor's part. "Agnurlin, are the ventilators up to the task?"

"I checked them myself, Mistress. You can hear them humming away, can't you?"

"That's a yes, then." She had to struggle a bit, but Nodammo picked up a stepladder thrice her height from a corner and leant it against the edge of the boiler. "Let's brew some tea. Should be fun, since we did the hard part earlier on."

"I hate tea."

"Of course you do, Victor." Nodammo climbed up the stepladder and stared into the steaming water through her safety goggles. Well, here goes nothing. Time to test my scaling theories. "Agnurlin, the half-bucket of lightly roasted Highland Fragrant Green, if you will."

Wordlessly, Agnurlin passed it up and Nodammo hurled the tea leaves into the boiler. Should I have used a strainer fixed to the bottom of a cut-away bucket? She narrowed her eyes. Hmm. Maybe not. Best to keep the leaves with the brew for control.

Then a more troubling thought struck. Don't be silly. You've done your experiments. You've formulated your theories, created your silly mathematical models and even managed to convince one or two buggers at the Academy of the validity of indulging your whims. Of course it'll work, and this is going to show them once and for all. "The condensed milk, Agnurlin. Three hundred measures of half-reduced milk with five percent sugar." The bucket was passed, and Nodammo lowered it into the boiler, withdrawing it only when all the milk had been washed into the brew.

"Damn, this smells good, Boss."

Nodammo took a whiff of the hot steam and smiled. "They're from my own tea bushes. Of course they'll bloody well smell good. Too bad the smell's all going to waste in the ventilation; if only I could bottle up smell somehow. Now for the lemon juice if you will, Agnurlin. I want the tea to curdle."

The buckets of strained juice were dutifully passed along and dumped into the boiler. A snap of Nodammo's fingers, and the tea's surface began to swirl steadily and evenly.

"Pinch of blueberry extract, or should I use mint instead? Which would you rather have, Agnurlin? Sweetness or refinement?"

"You know the answer to that, Mistress."

"Mint extract it is, then." Nodammo measured out a dropper of the colourless liquid and held it up to her eye, testing it against the light before squirting it into the brew. "A little more stirring, and it should be done."

"All this talk and this smell is making me hungry," Victor said. "Could do with some crumpets, or maybe a digestive or two."

"So long as it's not that awful kibble you're so fond of."

"We've gone over this, Boss. Just because it's processed food doesn't mean it can't be healthy, Nefarious Dragon Kibble has been specially formulated by the best alchemists to provide a balanced and--"

"Save the sales pitch, Victor. You know I'd buy you a freshly slaughtered cow every meal if need be."

Victor skulked. "Meat's no fun if you don't get to kill it yourself and hear it scream as it dies. Besides, if I don't use products from my own subsidiaries, who the hell is?"

Nodammo opened her mouth to reply, but was saved by Agnurlin clearing his throat, or rather, the noise he'd have made if he had a throat and cleared it. "Mistress? The tea is ready."

"Ah. Help me out here, please…"

The next few moments passed by in a flurry of activity. The fire was doused by Victor stomping on it, while Nodammo and Agnurlin fitted rollers under the metal bracket. By the time the fire had been reduced to smouldering cinders, all the rollers were in place and Victor dragged the whole setup all the way to the balcony.

Now came the hard part.

"I don't suppose we're going to get any sparkles, Boss?"

"There won't be enough energy to spare."

"Oh well." Victor settled down on his forelimbs and underbelly. "Should be still a sight to see."

Theoretically, it was simple--all magic was when reduced to equations on a chalkboard. Closing her eyes, Nodammo concentrated and reached into the tea, between the water and curdling milk and dregs of tea leaves to find a spark of personality there, a certain air of refinement tempered by the lemon juice, a sense of a refined old courtier who had a bad day with the hunting and the cook had burnt the stew so slightly and the peasants were massing at the gates with their pitchforks again--

--And all she had to do was push and push, prod the personality into action--

--And push some more--

--And some more--

--And more--

"Turn on the spigot, Agnurlin," she gasped. "Hurry." Agnurlin obeyed, and a steady stream of thick brown liquid flowed out the spout, over the balustrade, and onto the ground below.

It quivered and began to take form.

"The top hat and monocle. Throw them down."

The living liquid accepted the accessories, placing the hat on its highest point and the monocle slightly below that.

Nodammo could have sworn it was looking directly at her.

Bit by bit, the mound began to grow until the boiler had been emptied, and then slurped away in the direction of the downs.

They watched it go.

"Well, there you have it. A tea elemental," Nodammo said as she wiped her sweaty palms on her dress. "Not quite humanoid, but I've to perfect the technique."

"You used too much sugar, Boss."

"Don't you mean lemon juice, Victor?"

Victor shook his head and thumped his tail on the floor. "No, too much sugar. Definitely too much sugar."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 9

Brommus had to admit that travelling with heroes had its perks, like beautiful scenery. Most of the Company-planned routes for Quests(TM) deliberately twisted and wound upon themselves in order to pass through as many breathtaking vistas and grandiose sights as possible.

Of course, the hero he'd been assigned to play shepherd to would sit down and at least pretend to contemplate the sight before saying something supposedly deep and moving about the beauty of nature or something on those lines while Brommus, who'd heard it all before, considered faking a heart attack just to get the bugger moving.

Now that Brommus was in a time and position to appreciate the world around him, all he saw along the stone-paved highway were rocks. And trees. And more rocks. And more trees. And water. Which wasn't even moving, unless you counted the occasional bubble that rose to the surface and burst.

He kicked a pebble and watched it bounce away before coming to a rest on the river's surface.

Maybe I'll go and see the guru again, he thought to himself. After all, I know where the elevator is. He'll probably have something to say about my situation, I can only hope it's something constructive. Like where to get a useful job.

Or what I can do with my life.

More rocks. More trees. More brownish water. A distinct lack of inexplicably hostile wildlife, for which Brommus was thankful. He'd seen the Company's wolf and bear pens where the animals were trained to mindlessly attack heroes, and didn't want to meet up with an escaped specimen without someone to back him up.

"This sucks," he said through gritted teeth. Already, the sun was low on the horizon, and there wasn't even another traveller on the westward road, much less any sign of civilisation. "Well, best to be safe."

A tree by the side of the road seemed solid enough, and after checking the stoutest branch for signs of rot, Brommus heaved himself up onto it, and his suitcase followed with a snap of his fingers. A moment later, he had his back to the tree trunk and his suitcase against his chest, and he'd just closed his eyes and gotten comfortable when he awoke to the sickeningly sweet smells of jam and candy.

Or at least, he thought he did.

Brommus blinked. "Gandwarf? What the heck are you doing here? You're supposed to be dead for real! Why is the ground a very large poundcake, and why are the trees all candy canes? It finally happened, didn't it? Obb-One always believed those bloody rumours about the knockout pills causing brain damage."

The dwarf hovering in front of Brommus shimmered and became translucent as he took a big drag on his cigarette. "Calm down, kid; you're just as panicky as you were when you were my on-the-job understudy. Nothing's wrong with your head--or at least, more wrong than it should be. You're still sleeping."

Brommus looked about him and sighed. "Let me guess. This cake-and-candy scenery is supposed to be reflective of the inside of my mind, or some other pseudo-psychological stuff on those lines."

"I'll explain that in a moment, but I've got to do something first." Gandwarf straightened his pointy wizard's hat and patted the pockets of his stars-and-crescent moon wizard's robe. "Damn it! I knew I had that blasted slip of paper somewhere…there we go. Brommus! Your mind has been transported back in time and to the plane of Gawapapapa!"

Brommus winced. "What in the world is that supposed to mean? Gawapapapa? Look, old man--"

"But it doesn't matter!" Gandwarf roared, his beard going into hysterics, perhaps from belonging to both a wizard and dwarf. "What does matter is that you believe in yourself! There, that's gotten my bloody obligation done with. Who in their right minds writes this sort of cryptic crap anyway? It's just plain wrong anyway, unless the inside of your mind happens to be the plane of Gawapapapa."

"The Company's plotting department?"

Somehow Gandwarf's cigarette had remained in his mouth throughout the whole outburst, and the dwarf wizard took the chance to blow a few perfectly-shaped smoke rings. "Kid, you and I both know they're paid good gold to sit around on their asses doing nothing all day, and besides, I'm really dead. It doesn't matter, anyway. Now that the cryptic crap's out of the way, we can talk like normal people. Who are not dead, of course, on account of dead people not being able to speak."

Brommus sighed and patted the poundcake he was sitting on. "Aren't you supposed to vanish, and then I wake up with your message lingering in my mind?"

"Aw hell no, kid. This isn't like the time you had too much blueberry pie at the wizards' convention and projectile vomited all over the guest speaker. I can't cover for you since I've croaked, and you're not running away from this."

"To be honest, I don't see why I'm talking to you. Only heroes get encouraging visions of their wise old mentors, and I'm not completely sure this is encouraging at all. Maybe all this is just a figment of my imagination."

"Listen to me or not, it's your choice, kid; I can't stop you from believing this is a dream if that's what you're determined to do. I'm merely giving you advice on the choices available to you. You should head north at the next junction. That'll be a good choice."

"And why would that be the case?"

"There's pie there that must be eaten. It will be delicious, with chocolate and coconut pecan frosting."

"Your jokes aren't funny, old man."

Gandwarf tossed away the stub of his ghostly cigarette and began to roll a new one. "So exorcise me for trying to not be so damn serious. There's a nursing home for magicians along the road you might find work at, Brommus. They're a bit understaffed at the moment, and your skills and job experience--"

"I don't think that's a good idea," Brommus said, and tore out a handful of the poundcake to taste. It was delicious and buttery, and he took another. "I've had it with caring for the--ahem--functionally challenged for some time."

"Not as a caregiver, you fool. As a handyman. Go in, ask for their problems, and fix them. Should be simple for someone who had to do all the maintenance for heroes. Then when they're suitably impressed with your handiwork, ask to get on the payroll."

Brommus bit his lips. The idea had a certain appeal. "Oh."

"Well, kid? You want to follow your wise old mentor's advice, or not?"

"And if you're just a figment of my imagination?"

"Look here," Gandwarf said with a deep sigh. "You're already bumming around aimlessly and wondering if leaving Literacity was such a good idea in the first place; I always told you to work on your long-term planning, but you'd never listen. Here I am, back from the damn grave just to give you a heads-up, and all I get is ingratitude. Feh, I've got an urge to fill your underwear with rice pudding to teach you a lesson."

"I didn't mean that, old man. Just a few days ago Destiny was screwing around with me--"

Gandwarf waved a hand. "Sorry, I'm all out of time, kid. Would have loved to stay and try the pound cake. Bye."

A flash, a puff of smoke, and Brommus found himself back on the tree limb, his eyes wide open. He shifted a little, and felt something wet and sticky in his underwear.

Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be rice pudding.

#

"Boss…"

"I said go home, Victor; this is no time for overtime. Don't argue with me. Go. Considering that they've stalled at the butter bridge, I daresay the heroes won't be here until late tomorrow afternoon; I'll be safe enough. Go home, sleep, and you can turn up tomorrow better refreshed. Agnurlin's here to help should something stupid happen. I pay your salary."

"Which is just a token anyways," Victor swivelled his head to one side and smiled, or at least, something close to it.

Nodammo hadn't remembered Victor's teeth being so sharp.

"Boss, I understand what you're getting at and you have my interests in mind, but please, please don't ever fucking pull rank on me again, because I HATE PEOPLE PULLING RANK ON ME. I call you 'Boss'. That means I'm an employee, and that entails the happy fact that I can quit any time I like if you start treating me like a goddamn pet. It's all there in your granddaddy's contract, 'kay? Very legal. Very proper."

Nodammo tilted her head up to meet Victor's gaze evenly. "You've made your point. I apologize."

Victor licked up the threads of slaver hanging from his teeth and closed his jaws. "That's all I ask, really. To be asked politely when something needs to be done, have my opinions considered, and not be treated like a Company serf. Now, I'll do a few passes around the tower, and if I'm satisfied with how everything's looking, I'll head home. There, a compromise."

"A compromise," Nodammo said, a sour feeling worming its way into the pit of her belly. "Yes. Of course. I--I think I need to think a little figure out how to best deal with the heroes…"

She turned and fled.

The hallways passed by in a haze, and Nodammo's legs went on automatic, ferrying her to her study, where she collapsed behind her desk and began scribbling on the nearest sheet of paper, anything to wash her mind of what she'd just said and done.

Postulate: An army of heroes matched against one sorceress, one black dragon, one skeletal butler and one tea elemental equals overwhelming and impossible odds against the sorceress and company. Does it make a difference if the heroes are stupid?

Given a assortment of a few hundred heroes in the proportions identical to that of the total hero populations, let us estimate and take away:

-The heroes who fall into arguing over who gets the gold and glory, or how it should be shared out, and end up offing each other.

-The heroes who fall prey to blindingly obvious traps and are one way or another taken out of the equation.

-The heroes who are too egoistical to work with others as equals, run off on their own and get themselves killed.

-The heroes who take to bickering relationships with their sidekicks and prioritise those above saving the world.

-The heroes who are easily distracted and wander off on tangents to the main plot for long periods of time.

-The heroes who rely on the Company to tweak things in their favour to even keep them breathing and alive.

The result? Still a fuckload of heroes. Too many for us to off, in any case.

Oh, damn it. I might as well tell Agnurlin to start packing and sealing up all the important rooms. But I can't abandon the tower. I shan't. I won't.

Nodammo wiped her sweaty palms on her dress and scribbled on.

"Tea, Mistress?"

"No, thank you." The nasty feeling in the pit of her stomach had only grown. "I don't feel good, for any value of 'good'."

"By all rights you shouldn't. Victor could have bit you in two there and then had he the mind to. If I may make an observation, Mistress, you've become a bit too familiar with him."

"I thought that was supposed to be a good thing."

"Mostly." Agnurlin produced a plate of digestive biscuits from his waistcoat pocket, but reality didn't complain, being used to this sort of abuse from butlers. "At the risk of sounding like a nag, Mistress, it's important to remember not to take people for granted. Do eat something if you're going to be working late; I'm going to smoke out the beehives and activate the emergency systems."

"You do that, Agnurlin. And…um…thank you."

"It is a pleasure."

Nodammo felt Agnurlin's presence retreat and turned her attention back to the paper in front of her. This is stupid and surreal at the same time, she thought. We're going to be in for the finest fight of our lives, moreso than anything Grandfather faced, and I'm sitting here working out gibberish while Agnurlin taps the beehives for wax and honey. This has got to be procrastination at its finest, or we know we're doomed and it's pointless to do anything.

But if we're doomed, why aren't we already running?

A digestive disappeared from the plate, and the sour pit in Nodammo's stomach eased a little as she turned her attentions back to the paper and to the drawing that was taking shape on it.

#

Miss Annoyed felt like ripping the smiley face off her identification badge and spitting on the obnoxious yellow circle with its beady eyes and stupidly curved mouth.

"They killed each other. Of all things that could have possibly sparked an argument, they killed each other over arguing whose helpless and pitiful dependents needed the money most. Am I right in saying this?"

The wise old mentor Miss Annoyed had brought along to help drive the heroes rubbed her stick-on scars and wished she was back in her prefabricated witch's cottage. "Yes, Miss Annoyed. That would appear to be the case."

"Oh, for goodness' sake," Miss Annoyed said and threw her hands in the air. "I am so going to be taking this matter to Upper Management once we get back to Literacity. Esmay, can you keep the heroes in check while I get this mess cleaned up? They mustn't be allowed to see it, for obvious reasons. Tell Bumblebore and Riven to get their asses over here and help me with mopping up the bloodstains."

"A suggestion if I may, ma'am? Why not let them see what the Evil Sorceress can do? I mean, they'd be more motivated to work together and fight her if they knew she was killing them off; we can say she used generic dark magic to off them and the other heroes will accept that."

"Good idea, but we don't have the time for it. We're already within sight of the target, and the heroes' schedules are already tight enough without heaps of angst slowing them down from buggering off to their next Quest(TM). Best to nip the deviant plot in the bud before it has time to proliferate." Miss Annoyed looked once more at the riverbank and mumbled something crude under her breath. Coffee stains were hard enough to get out of pantsuits, but coffee and blood stains were in a league of their own. "I suggest you spend the delay teaching the heroes the virtues of sharing with a game or song or something, because by the end of this Quest(TM) they're damn well going to be needing it."

It was supposed to be a great story, she knew; it had all the makings of one. Heroes putting aside their behavioural problems, old prejudices and wildly different backgrounds to band against the evil sorceress in her evil fortress. Yes, a great story complete with all sorts of issues and moral values to be touched upon, but if things like no-brained heroes killing each other over coins and spoiled princesses speed-dialling their lawyers at the slightest infraction kept on happening, the plotline would sink faster than lead weights.

Miss Annoyed sighed, hefted the first body over her shoulder, and dumped it out of sight below the bridge supports.

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 10

Nodammo woke to the smell of fresh graphite in the morning.

"Wsflg," she said, and with some effort, opened sleep-crusted eyes and tried to remember what she'd been doing.

Then she lifted her head and looked down at the drawing on the paper that until moments before had been her pillow. Picking it up in pencil-smudged fingers, Nodammo ran her eyes down the list of equations in the margins until they finally made sense to her sleep-fogged brain.

"Agnurlin!"

"Mistress?"

"Please make some noise when you mo--oh, this isn't the time for pettiness." She grabbed her fallen pencil, circled some of her scribbles by the sketch of a chicken and waved the paper in front of Agnurlin's face. "Could you see if you could set up the rides to do this? You should, but perhaps there's some sort of complication I haven't foreseen or something."

Agnurlin took the paper, scanned it, and tapped his skull with a finger. "You want the rides to literally jump their rails, Mistress? That'll take out the central support. The load-bearing central support."

"Once they're done with us, the bastards are going to collapse the tower anyways. If the family home's going to be levelled, I might as well do it on my own terms and take out as many of them as I can in the process." She took the sheet of paper back from her butler and drew some more circles before handing it back to Agnurlin. "I did the maths. While I don't claim to be able to model scenarios perfectly, there is no way we're going to be able to take them all on by ourselves. We can soften them up, buy time, but beat them? I'm no hero. I know when to cut my losses and run and fight another time."

"Pardon me, Mistress. All we did yesterday--"

"Bought us time we're going to need in order to effect a good escape. If I thought we'd a serious chance of successfully holding out, I wouldn't have summoned the tea elemental so early or allowed it to go off on its own." She looked up at Agnurlin. "Have a seat. You look like you need it."

Agnurlin nodded, sat down on a nearby chair, and pored over the numbers once more. "Mistress?"

"Yes?"

"Would you mind if I said something socially improper?"

"If you feel it's warranted, sure."

Agnurlin said a single word rather empathically. A twitch crept into Nodammo's cheek, the pencils rattled in their holder, and a small glass figurine in the shape of a cat on the bookshelf shattered into tiny pieces.

"Feel better now?"

"Yes, Mistress." Agnurlin rose to his feet. "I'll get about rewiring the rides at once. How do you plan to set it off without collapsing the tower about you?"

"It's all tied to the main control switch, and a simple spell should let me flip it remotely. Don't worry about the glass; I never liked Uncle Meastrum's presents anyway. I'll clean up the mess myself."

"As you wish. Victor was waiting at the aerie when you called me; perhaps you should discuss his role in this matter with him. I'll be off, then."

"Mm-hm." Nodammo rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and when she'd opened them again Agnurlin was gone, but she hadn't heard any of the doors open. "Someday, I'll have to learn how he does that." Willing her aching limbs into submission, Nodammo made for the bathroom. If she was going to die this day, she'd at least do it with some measure of dignity.

#

"There're some people looking for you downstairs, Boss," Victor said to Nodammo when she climbed up the ladder into the aerie at the top of the dank dark tower of doom and despair. "Seems the people from the Generic Little Village want to speak with you. No prizes for guessing what they want to talk about."

"Victor, about last night--"

Dragon stared at sorceress down the length of his snout. Nodammo held his gaze, a little harder or softer than she'd done yesterday, depending on how one wanted to interpret it.

The good thing about being taller than anyone else, Nodammo reflected, was that you got to literally look down on people to no small effect.

"Let's not talk about this right now, Boss. We've got work to do. I'm not saying that I don't hate it, only that this sort of petty crap doesn't matter right now. I took notice of the heroes' position on my commute here this morning; they've crossed the Butter Bridge and are just over the next hill. A few bodies in the river too, but not as many as I'd hoped for." He gestured downwards with a claw. "That's gotten the villagers antsy--sort of like shareholders who've just realised their shares became worthless overnight--and you ought to speak to them."

"And what do you think I'm supposed to say?"

"Dunno. You're the boss. Nobility and all that, more than I am, anyway. You're supposed to be able to deal with the people, right?"

Nodammo peered over the parapet, the wind blowing in her still-damp hair. The villagers were indeed milling about below; she recognised amongst them Egil, Slogan, Venka and a few others, fidgeting nervously as they waited outside the tower's entrance.

"I'll be with you shortly!" she called down. "Victor, would you mind staying up here and keeping an eye out for any new developments?"

"Seemed like we went over an old lesson, eh, Boss? Gladly, since you asked politely."

"Yes, yes." With that, Nodammo climbed down the ladder, descended several flights of steps and unbarred and heaved the tower's front doors open.

Egil greeted her with a respectful incline of his forehead. "M'lady. Today I had to ring the guesthouse bell for a reason other than suppertime. I haven't rung it for a long time, not since your parents had that…disagreement when you were very young. The others--Kit and Rufus and Bord and everyone else--they want me to speak for them, so we're all here."

"I know." Nodammo took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "My hirelings and I are doing everything we can to stall the heroes so the three of us can flee. I've seen the size of their host. One hero is enough of a problem; that many is pretty much a plague."

The other villagers began muttering amongst themselves, but Egil merely thinned his lips. "I'm sorry to hear you'll be leaving, but it doesn't change what we've come to offer, M'lady."

"And that would be?"

"We'll hold them off for as long as we can." Egil studied the look on Nodammo's face, then looked to the other villagers for support. "Not like how you're thinking, M'lady. We're merely going to do what we've always done--use them to supplement our incomes."

"Still, things are going to go badly for you if the Company discovers you've been messing with their heroes."

"And I don't care," Slogan said. "I'm sick to death of heroes, and I believe I can speak for everyone present when I say we like you. You've brought tourists, and by extent, their money, into the economy. You've managed to put the Generic Little Village on maps, if not of the world then at least of Fenoros. I remember back when the local population was so small there wasn't even any need for a grocery store; everyone provided for themselves one way or another. We ate mostly vegetables in your mother's time, and now…well, we still eat vegetables, but they're better vegetables, and we've got piped water now. It's the least we can do to repay you for what you've done, and if you have to go into hiding, well, we're still famous for our mostly-honey mead and yellow-spotted mushrooms. We'll get by somehow."

Nodammo raised an eyebrow. "I never thought you'd be the kind to make speeches, Slogan."

"Hear enough of them from heroes passing through and trying to sell me rotting bear carcasses and gigantic rubies while I explain to the buggers that there's absolutely no market for the things. Shops have to make money, you know." Slogan sighed. "You really are going into hiding, aren't you?"

"It seems I don't have a choice. If you think about it, it's a bit surreal; what with the heroes forcing the villain from her hometown. It usually goes the other way."

"Then promise us you'll come back someday, Nodammo Ebonlocke. It won't be the same without someone from your family around, and I don't think your mother wants to come back."

The villagers watched and waited, but Nodammo looked down at her boots. "I'd make that promise, Slogan. I really would, believe me. But I don't know whether I can stay alive beyond today, and I don't like to make promises I know I might not be able to keep."

#

The heroes reached the crest of the last hill, and Miss Annoyed was becoming even more so by the moment. The warm spring sun and new shoots sprouting from the soil were effectively disquieting the heroes, who'd been expecting the ubiquitous craggy spires, rocky, barren ground, and dark, overcast skies of the villain's domain. A Royal Farmboy already had had a nervous breakdown, babbling something about the sun and stars and royal birthright, and Miss Annoyed had to slap the stupid out him in order to get him moving once more. Then there was the matter of the coffee stains on her pantsuit; she wondered if any amount of scrubbing would ever get them out of the fabric.

Bonus, bonus, bonus, she thought as she rubbed her still-smarting hand. Just think of the goddamned bonus when this is done, and everything will be all right. The lost heroes I'll explain away as a heroic sacrifice to add drama and tension to the plot, and Upper Management will buy it. Everyone loves drama in their stories.

How should this go? "Long, long ago, um…an evil sorceress did something really bad! And now heroes from all over Fantasyland have to band together and do something about this really bad thing! Or else the world will be doomed--oh, yes, the world's always got to be doomed, it's all or nothing--and there'll be swords! You'll like it! Really! Do I look like I'm lying?"

"I'm calling my daddy's lawyer when I get back," the Royal Farmboy wheedled. "He won't take this sort of insult lying down."

Miss Annoyed would have slapped him again, but her right hand still throbbed from the last one she'd dispensed. "You're not even supposed to know who your father is yet, you idiot."

"Don't care."

That did it. Balling her fists, Miss Annoyed counted backwards from ten very, very slowly. She'd reached three when she noticed that the heroes had stopped in their tracks.

"What's the matter?"

Then she saw it. An enormous, quivering blob the size of a full-grown ogre was steadily advancing up the hill towards them, making a slurping sound as it moved. That wasn't the problem; many a hero had gotten their start by picking on poor helpless puddles of ooze which had been minding their own business.

The problem was this particular living puddle had managed to get itself a top hat and bow tie, and sunlight glinted off a monocle on its surface. Miss Annoyed noted the blob's disgusting brown colour and the disgusting stench that hung about the creature, and it started making sense to her.

"Tea," she muttered to herself. "I should've known. Only snobs think themselves above coffee."

An orifice opened in the blob's side, and it spoke; a deep, refined voice rolling across the downs, vaguely reminiscent of diamond-topped canes and cocktail causages on little sticks.

"I say, dear chaps, would you be so kind as to enlighten me as to whether you happen to be the heroes from the Company? Only I've gotten a bit lost while looking for them, and my cytoplasmic pseudopods are getting a bit on the tired side, if you would excuse me for saying so."

This is…dumb. Even the blobs are snobs in this bloody place. And look at all the heroes. I can practically see their brains going "does not compute" over and over again. Guess I'll have to play shepherd. "These are not the heroes you're looking for," Miss Annoyed called back. "All right? We're…um…a support group for the socially and mentally challenged having a picnic and a nature hike."

"Ah, yes; it indeed is a very fine day for the great outdoors. My apologies, miss. I'll be on my way, then. Toodles, and a very good day to all of you." The blob had just turned to go when one of a heroes--a noble savage of a barbarian by the looks of him--charged towards the blob, axe raised high.

"Xpeee!" the hero shouted at the top of his voice and closed the remaining distance between him and the blob. Miss Annoyed wondered for a moment if that had been some sort of outlandish battle cry and would have had her face in her hands, if not for the fact that watching what the blob did to the offending hero was satisfying in a twisted sort of way.

Once, Miss Annoyed had spilled boiling hot coffee in her lap while at her desk. It hadn't been a pleasant experience, and she rather doubted that hot tea was going to be much different in that regard, especially when the offending hero was being boiled alive.

The blob spat out the hero's jewel-encrusted axe, and it landed on the grass with a thud. "Oh, dearie me. While I shouldn't really be accusing anyone, it wouldn't happen to be the case that you lied to me, miss? It's really annoying when people do that just because one doesn't have a fixed form; I guess I'll have to give you the what-for I was asked to deliver."

With that, the blob flowed towards the heroes in earnest.

"Damnit!" Miss Annoyed snarled. "The plot didn't call for this! Esmay, round up all the Clumsy Student Wizards and their ilk, and put them out front. No amount of swords or arrows is going to stop this solid. They can be cannon fodder for all the Most Powerful Mages In The World. Get them into a straight line facing the blob. Hurry, damn it!"

The wise old mentor by her side nodded and rushed off. Rubbing her hands together, Miss Annoyed kept one eye on the heroes forming up, and the other on the rapidly advancing blob of tea.

Miss Annoyed knew how to deal with tea; compared to the specimens left in the break room, this was nothing. Like coffee, one could get rid of tea by drinking it--something she didn't care for--or one could wait until it congealed into a sticky brown mess and wash it down the sink.

"Hot air!" she shouted at the mage heroes. "I need hot air, as much as you lot can summon up, and make it as dry as possible!"

"But I can summon a meteor that'll devastate anything for miles around," one of them protested. "Surely that would be far more impressive and effective--"

"HOT AIR!"Miss annoyed screeched at the top of her lungs. "Do you not understand? Are your brains bred for their tiny size--oh wait, they are! Just fucking blow hot air at the blob!"

Finally, the heroes' minds got the message, and Miss Annoyed watched in grudging satisfaction as the blob began to slow in the face of gusts of wind so warm they made the air shimmer.

The blob slowed and shivered.

It shrank.

It became a viscous, dark brown mess that stained the grass, smelling faintly of caramel and lemon, and that was that.

Miss Annoyed sighed and spat on the blob's remains while the bravest of the heroes wandered out into the mess, looking for treasure that probably wouldn't be there, since the blob hadn't been Company-approved. Here was more proof of the obstacles heroes could overcome if they'd the mind to.

Now all she had to figure out was how to get them to do it without having a heart attack in the process.

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 11

"Well," Nodammo said as she lowered her spyglass. "That was…not perfect. The buggers actually did something somewhat intelligent, for a change. Still, the tea elemental bought us some time."

"There was a suit amongst them, Boss," Victor said from beside her.

Nodammo frowned. "Where? I didn't see a suit."

"Behind the line of Clumsy and Bespectacled Apprentice Wizards," Victor replied. "You're sure you didn't see it?"

"No. I wonder how long the villagers can confuse the heroes if they've got someone directing them. Best to not count on it. Victor, would you mind staying up here and doing your warm-up exercises or whatever it is you do before starting a hostile takeover of some sod's firm? We may be in for a sudden, long flight. I'm going to check on Agnurlin and the final preparations."

"Can do, Boss." Victor flexed his wings and settled his belly on the floor. "I'll be waiting."

Nodammo nodded and peered out of the side of the aerie open to the air, taking in the sight of her vegetable garden and beehives, the neat, orderly piles of winter turnips, white lettuces and starchy tubers Agnurlin had dragged out of the root cellars to make space for hiding the tower's valuables, the sickeningly cheerful goblin cut-out with the tower's opening hours and regulations painted on it.

All that gone, gone for good by the end of today. It was almost too much to hope otherwise; everyone knew that the villain's fortress collapsed upon his or her defeat, even if it was most structurally sound building for miles around. Explosives tended to have that sort of effect.

Nodammo had figured she'd die before the tower did, not the other way round, and the realisation hit her like a rock falling off a cliff.

"Boss? You're shaking. Didn't you say you were going down?"

Nodammo swallowed. "I'm fine, Victor. Really." She dashed over to the trapdoor, heaved it open and was down the ladder before Victor could say another word.

It was all going to be gone. Gone. Gone, and the message was reinforced with each step Nodammo took towards the cellars--discoloured patches on the walls where portraits of the Ebonlocke family had hung until mere hours before, fresh plywood boarding off nailed-shut doors, books gone from shelves, empty space and dust where furniture should have been, bare shelves on the gift shop.

Agnurlin met her on the steps to the cellar and accompanied her down into the gloom.

"Everything we can't carry with us, I've stowed away in the cellar and packed over, Mistress. Still, there's no telling whether it'll be back when we return. I once had an elf sidekick who had a mind like a locating spell; he could find loot no matter how well-hidden it was."

"You think glassware and paintings of merely sentimental value count as loot?"

Agnurlin thought for a moment. "It's hard to say, Mistress. Some of the magically-inclined heroes might be interested in your copies of Rince's Complete Wizzarding guides, but I think they'll be disappointed when they read about thermoalchemy and running away, instead of how to cast some spell of ultimate death. The rest…well, I suppose they'll be hacking the gilt from souvenirs for whatever little gold it contains."

"It's not even gold; it's a brass alloy that merely looks like gold. How else would I sell little miniature towers for three silvers apiece?"

Agnurlin shrugged. "Heroes these days don't care, so long as it's shiny. We had standards then; we dragged them through the snow both ways and we liked having and living by them. Would you mind inspecting the field kit, Mistress? I hope I left nothing out."

"Of course." Nodammo undid the clasp on the large leather satchel and checked each and every one of its contents before she tested its weight with one hand. "It's heavy. You're sure you only packed the essentials?"

"Yes, Mistress. It's almost all enchanted, unbreakable glassware."

"I don't suppose you could keep this where you make tea-trays and the like--oh, what am I thinking? If you could, we wouldn't be stuffing all this into the cellar right now."

"Even waiters, who use it to the greatest effect, don't fully understand butler-space, Mistress. Food and cutlery aren't a problem, but when was the last time you saw a butler with a beaker in hand? I'd like to help as much as possible, but there are…restrictions on what can and can't be done."

"Aren't there always?" With a sigh, Nodammo reached into the field kit and drew out a few vials of clear, oily liquid, which she placed by the stacked-up alchemy apparatus. "That's magic for you, behaving arbitrarily as and when it wants to. I suppose I'll have to synthesize what compounds I can in the field."

"Let me help you with the straps, Mis--"

The hero alarm went off, loud enough for Nodammo's teeth to start chattering. She stared wide-eyed at Agnurlin, who appeared as shocked as someone without facial muscles could.

"That's not right," she said breathlessly. "They shouldn't be here for another full five hours, and yet the alarm's far too strong for a false positive. How did they manage--"

"Excuse me for my impropriety, Mistress," Agnurlin said as he hooked a bony arm around Nodammo's waist and started dragging her towards the stairs, sorceress, field kit and all.

#

Brommus decided he liked fountains. They didn't complain they were hungry and tired every chance they got, nor had to have the objective of their Quest(TM) repeated to them every ten minutes. They didn't squirm and flinch when someone had to go into them to fix something that was broken, or demand that since they were the chosen saviour of the world, everyone should be worshipping them. They were just content to sit there spouting water, being all gentle and peaceful. If one had to be stupid, it was better to be a gentle and peaceful sort of stupid, rather than a sort of stupid that went out and did things, even if it meant the world got saved in the process.

Best of all, they didn't threaten to call their lawyers and charge him for abuse when he'd just been doing his job trying to keep them alive until they could face the Dark Lord; sometimes, a slap or two was warranted.

Wasn't it?

Brommus put down his spanner and gave the fountain a slap on the rim. He'd replaced his wizard's robe with a pair of coveralls and traded in his pointy hat for a simple cap with a stiff bit out front that shaded his eyes--far more practical, considering the literally sticky situations he found himself in--but had kept the stars-and-moon motif. Wizards were wizards, even those who used their powers to unclog toilets and keep the gardens in order.

"There, Mrs. Ebonlocke. Now let's turn on the water valve and see if things go well."

The old lady chose to remain some distance away and sip at the contents of her teacup. Brommus shrugged, and heaved on a big red valve on the fountain's side. Nothing happened for a few moments, and then gouts of water spurted upwards to form rainbows in the strong afternoon sunlight.

"Excellent," Mrs. Ebonlocke cackled, cane in one hand and teacup in the other. "Even if you're not working with the residents, you're a nice young man, that's for sure. I hear the management's pretty glad you came when you did."

"Thank you." Brommus knelt and started to replace his tools in their box.

"I'm not being light with my words here. Your predecessor died trying to fix the fountain. It ate him, feet and all, and we never saw the poor sod again save for a bit of a torn boot. I know this sounds a bit out of place, but tell me, what do you think of our nursing home for the magically inclined?"

"Well." Brommus stopped to think and nearly dropped his hammer. "I used to be afraid of growing old, but after coming here, I don't feel that way any more."

"Growing old gracefully; it comes with the job. You see all sorts of crud amongst the common population all the time, but when was the last time you saw an old wizard in a wheelchair, or maybe an incontinent hag of a witch, or even a party conjurer who had to mush his food? Ever wondered why we're active in our later years when some folks in other places have to take their applesauce intravenously?"

Brommus leafed through his memories of time spent with Gandwarf. "Never."

"Precisely. The magic helps, but I still think at heart it's a perk of the profession that comes with the mindset you have to develop. We get a bit of white in our hair like me, perhaps have to use our staves as walking sticks, but we still rise to the occasion when needed. Do you have business to attend to after this, Mister Brommus?"

"Well, not exactly. Why?"

"I'm an old lady in a nursing home, even if I did put myself here of my own free will. My daughter visits only when she wants something from me, and I need to talk to someone about other things than the latest iteration of the thaumo-quasi-bloodymindium theory or the best way to produce a laboratory explosion which causes no actual harm. Would you mind taking a short walk with me?"

"A strange old lady tries to gain a younger man's sympathy and asks him to take a walk with her out of the blue. Hmm, where have I heard of this before?" Brommus gathered the last of his tools into his toolbox and tapped the brim of his cap. "You'll understand if I respectfully decline. Oh, I can't read your mind, that's for sure. What I can predict is that this sort of story never has a happy ending, no matter what happens. Good day to you, Mrs. Ebonlocke. I know a whole host of handymen jokes, and don't intend to start another one this soon after a change of career."

Mrs Ebonlocke watched Brommus disappear into the nursing home, then shook her head and turned her attention to three aged wizards playing a board game under a cherry tree. "Cynical boy. All I wanted to do was to see whether Nodammo would be interested in him."

#

The downs were on fire.

From her vantage point high up in the aerie, Nodammo saw a wall of flames half a man's height consume prime grazing land, fields of wildflowers and small, stunted trees as it headed straight for her tower. The heroes followed, oblivious to the heat and smoke the wildfire left in its wake.

Heroes were powerful. They had very big swords, boatloads of luck to match them and often there were at least two or three jostling to be the best at anything in the world, from magic to goose plucking or Fenoros hold-them-down. The problem with heroes was that a good proportion of their power came from contrivance and stupidity, which could be turned against them, as the Ebonlocke family had been doing for generations.

But if they could be directed…

If they kicked off the arbitrary limitations on their powers which stopped their Quests(TM) from ending too soon…

Nodammo clenched her hands into fists, and they stopped shaking.

"It's shaping up to be one of those days again, Boss," Victor said as Agnurlin strapped Nodammo's field kit to his back. "Can't say I like it, but I'm not going to say I hate it, either. Let's bug out while we still can and maybe have a little fun in the process, hrrm?"

"Victor is right, Mistress," Agnurlin said. "I've broken through a number of sieges in my heyday, and it won't be too long before it'll be impossible to mount even an aerial escape. Do I have to drag you again for your own good?"

One last glance towards the downs, burning merrily under the sun. The villagers had said they'd do their best to stall the heroes, but Nodammo doubted they'd even had enough time to get to their homes before the heroes had made their appearance.

What if the fire spread to the Generic Little Village?

What if the fire met the villagers coming the other way, people who'd done nothing wrong save deciding to protect one of their own and a notable tourist attraction?

"Mistress!"

"I'm fine," Nodammo said with a nod, and drew out a flask of sickly green liquid from her field kit. "Good thing I prepared this ahead of time; at least I don't think it's possible for me to make a mess out of this. You want a little pick-me-up, Victor? You've a long flight ahead of you."

"You know how much I hate drugs, Boss."

"Suit yourself." Nodammo tossed her head back and swallowed the flask's contents, then hurled the empty glass out into open air before clambering onto Victor's back. "Let's put the fear of…um…moral ambiguity in those Company bastards."

"I guess, Boss."

"That wasn't very inspiring, was it?"

"Hey, you're not a hero. You've got to say more than a few silly overused phrases in order to get folks all up in arms. Let's burn some shit."

With that, Victor hurled himself into the air, sorceress, butler and all, and neatly executed a sharp turn as a lightning bolt arced upwards and passed to his left.

"They've noticed us!" The elixir sloshed around inside Nodammo, hot and cold at the same time, and fighting to get out the way it'd come in.

"Of course they've noticed us, Boss. We're out in broad daylight with no cover. Now do something useful, or stop distracting me while I do my job." Victor peered down at the heroes, now having broken into a full run towards the tower, and roared. "Hey, suckers! Next time, remember that big people don't have to be slow!"

Then he took a deep breath, and loosed his fire. It came from too high up to seriously hurt any of the heroes, but the scattered cone the stream broke up into had its intended effect: a goodly number of heroes who'd drawn bowstrings dropped their aim and sought cover from the dark flames.

"Run, you wretches, run!"

Nodammo broke her concentration for a moment, and the shield she'd been holding up in below Victor's underbelly wavered. "He really enjoys this, doesn't he, Agnurlin?"

"It's not often that Victor has an opportunity to let him be himself, Mistress."

"All right, Boss. I think we've enough of an opening--" Victor swerved again, taking Nodammo's magical shield with him and facing it towards another barrage of arrows and magical missiles. "--to take us up and out of range. Didn't you have something you wanted to do before we go?"

"How far are the heroes from the tower, Agnurlin?"

"They're up against the walls, Mistress."

Nodammo nodded, and concentrated. By now, the elixir had stopped trying to escape and made her feel warm and tingly all over, which was nice, considering what she was about to do.

Deep within the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair, a switch flipped itself, and mechanisms began to move.

They moved very quickly.

"Five," Nodammo counted under her breath. "four, three, two, one--"

The tower exploded.

Roller coasters with monsters painted on the sides came tearing out of the vegetable garden, while teacups followed them through the masonry. A authentic imitation pirate ship sailed out of where the kitchens once stood and beached itself on a group of Destined Saviours, proving their destinies weren't that glamorous after all. Lights fizzled; garbled music played, and the tower's historical and educational rides made a short, nasty job of eliminating all the load-bearing supports--bringing them straight down on the nearest heroes.

At the end of it all, the goblin cutout and its sign still stood, a little charred at the edges but otherwise unharmed.

Nodammo saw it all, and thinned her lips.

"Victor, take us up."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 12

A dark shape sailed through the clouds.

"Victor?"

"Ag, I'm trying to keep my bearings here. Is it important?"

"Do you know what Mistress put in that elixir of hers? The one that she took before we set off?"

"I think it had extract of yellow-spotted mushrooms in it. Rather concentrated, if I remember correctly; Boss had me put out the fire. Is there any point to this conversation?"

"Only that Mistress is giggling like a half-crazed idiot. I'm worried the shock of--"

"And that's why I hate drugs. She'll be fine, Ag. Remember when you guided her through her first vivisection? Didn't even flinch. Three generations of Ebonlockes, and every single one bounced back from what didn't kill them."

Silence.

"Victor, ice is forming on Mistress' skin, but she's not even noticing. Perhaps you could fly a little lower?"

"And get zapped or something? I can see them on the ground, Ag. Just…keep Boss warm and make sure she doesn't fall off or something. I really can't talk any more; these bloody winds are more trouble than they're worth, but don't tell Boss that. I think the heroes are trying to smoke us out."

"But that's not right. We didn't usually get to manipulate the weather while on a Quest(TM)."

"And until today, we've never seen an army of heroes. Your point?"

More silence, followed by a thump, the sounds of a struggle, and of rope sliding across rope. The clouds around them began to thin and the ground below became visible to Agnurlin, Victor's wings steadily eating up distance in slow, steady strokes.

"Ag? What's going on in the back? Keeping my balance is hard enough without you creaking a ruckus back there!"

"Oh, nothing much. I just had to tie up Mistress, secure her to your back and get a warm blanket over her. No fuss at all."

"You…tied up…you know what, Agnurlin?"

"Yes, Victor?"

"Sometimes, I hate you. I won't even ask where you got the warm blanket from."

"It is a pleasure to be of service."

"Yeah, but…"

"What I did was for her own good, Victor. Mistress will thank me in time to come."

"Perhaps. Should I set a course for that guild-operated nursing home? Boss'll want to see her mother. I can't fly forever, you know, and who knows when the dope will wear off?"

Agnurlin thought for a moment, pinpoints of greenish light flickering in his empty eye-sockets, and nodded. "I agree. Mistress will want to see Ebonlocke senior, if only to tell her of what's happened to the family home. You can start heading there later, Victor."

"Later? Why later? What's so important now?"

"Behind us, Victor. Turn slowly. Sloooowly. They seem courteous enough to keep their distance--for now."

Victor banked, did a sharp flip with a dip of his tail--and found himself facing a trio of dragon riders, their mounts gleaming shades of gold and silver in the afternoon sun.

Their riders did not look too pleased.

"Three only? The Company sends a whole army of heroes against us, and they can only send three of these buggers?" Victor growled. "Well. Maybe tying Boss down wasn't a bad idea after all."

"Mm." Agnurlin flicked a bony wrist with an audible snap, and pulled a battle-axe out of thin air. The axe's plain handle was slightly worn and stained, but the double-edged head had obviously been lovingly cared for, the metal itself showing signs of numerous reforgings.

A simple weapon of wood and steel, nothing more to it.

"I really dislike having to fight nowadays," Agnurlin said as Victor rapidly closed the distance between them and the dragon riders. "The bloodstains are so hard to remove, and how is a butler expected to be refined with stained clothing?"

#

Miss Annoyed glared at the heroes assembled on the barren, cooling earth. At least some of them had the sense to look ashamed; most of the rest were ignoring her and picking through the rubble in search of "shinies", while a few bickered amongst themselves and compared the size of their swords. Probably some hero thing.

"Why," she said, emphasising every word, "did you let her go?"

A Feisty Princess pulled her perfect eyebrows together on her equally perfect and acne-free face, which was rather remarkable considering her age and the fact that she didn't know what cosmetics were. "But the villain always gets away. Well, almost always. We learnt that in heroic basics one-oh-two; the villain's got to escape so there can be another Quest(TM) down the road. Either that, or we can seal them away so they reappear a thousand years later."

Miss Annoyed knew it usually wasn't a thousand years later before the evil was released, more on the lines of a thousand seconds in order to maximise the number of Quests(TM) floating around, but the heroes didn't need to know that, so long as they put their rear ends on the local equivalent of a throne at the end of the day. Still, she had to admit it wasn't the heroes' fault. They'd just been going along with the base instincts which had been planted in their heads.

All the more reason, then, to petition Upper Management to consider revising some of the Company's guidelines. When the tried-and-tested methods worked, fine, but when they didn't and the heroes simply refused to try something different for once due to some stupid, outdated conventions…well, one had to only look at what'd happened today. They could be worked around, as she'd just proven. Why was Upper Management being so stubborn about matters?

Someone--perhaps it'd been someone from the wise old mentor department--had once told Miss Annoyed that real pain didn't hurt. Now she understood what the saying meant.

"You're not to blame, I suppose," she said. "Not as if you knew better. Anyways…ahem…and so while the valiant heroes overcame their differences and scored a decisive victory, the evil sorceress of the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair escaped in the heat of battle.

"With the sorceress' evil influence gone, the land returned to its natural, fertile state and everyone was happy and there was peace, joy and laughter around. However, the heroes know that the dreaded day will come when the evil sorceress chooses to rise again and spread the seeds of destruction across the land, and they must remain ever-vigilant against the forces of evil. So ends the tale of the Very Bad Thing Which Happened Long Ago Which The Heroes Had To Do Something About. The end."

The heroes looked at each other and shuffled their feet.

"What's your problem?" Miss Annoyed snapped. "It's over. You can go and slay some dragons or save kingdoms from evil empires or whatever it was you were doing before you were summoned. Go on, shoo."

One of the heroes raised a hand, and Miss Annoyed noticed she had leaves in her hair. This was generally not a good sign. "Um…"

"Yes?"

"I don't think the land's very fertile. Actually, since we scorched it, and I heard every single blade of grass scream as they got roasted to a crisp--"

"Then you know they died for a better cause. Isn't that what we all do with our lives? Give them up so future generations have a better chance at living?" With a sigh, Miss Annoyed reached down and picked up a clod of soil. "Ashes. Fertilise soil. Soil fertile. Simple enough for you? Then there was that tea-blob-thing; had a whole lot of sugar in it. That's plant food or something. Next!"

"There wasn't any loot--" the hero in question shut up, for Miss Annoyed had flung a crumbled piece of masonry at his helmeted head, making a very loud and hollow sound as it struck.

"There, an artefact from a place of untold evil. I'm sure you can pawn it off for a goodly amount to a Company-approved shopkeeper; they all buy seemingly worthless stones. Heck, pieces of the Merlin Wall are going for thousands of gold apiece since it went down." Miss Annoyed ran her eyes over the heroes, and finding no opposition, nodded. "All done? Good, then this Quest(TM) is officially over. Wise old mentors, take charge of your heroes. Any post-Quest(TM) comments, suggestions or complaints may be redirected to my in tray, since I'm going to be at the executives' hot spa for a day. Or two. Or three."

#

"Oh dear," Agnurlin said. "I appear to have made quite a mess. How terribly clumsy of me."

Victor sputtered and snarled by way of reply, his claws and teeth the same bright reddish-green as the edge of Agnurlin's axe as he tore into a nearby gold dragon's wings and sent mount, rider and boarding party into a death spiral. The remaining riders were busy winding up their repeating crossbows--evidently they didn't know how to take turns keeping pressure on an enemy, or were too egoistic to care--and plunged into a steep dive.

Agnurlin had to brace himself against Victor's hide, but remained standing. "Just like times gone by, eh, old chap? Just me and you and a bunch of ne'er-do-wells seeking quick fame and fortune by offing some bigwig."

"Keep covering my back, and we'll be fine," Victor growled, each word coming out as a thick gurgle. "Bloody grappling hooks. Hate them. What--what the--don't tell me they're that dumb as to try that sort of nonsense?"

Agnurlin spun around to see a number of heroes clustered around the edge of a silvery dragon, evidently preparing to jump. "Oh, I don't know," he said, steadying his grip on his axe. "I've done it before."

"Not without a parachute. Brace yourself!"

The heroes jumped. Agnurlin noticed some of them had cutlasses in their teeth.

Victor jerked and twisted sideways with a flick of his tail.

They fell, and kept on falling until they were specks against the ground.

"Idiots," Victor said, and made straight for the remaining two riders, a maddened gleam in his eyes. "That sort of craziness only works in stories."

"Indeed." For a moment, Agnurlin wished he still had hair so the rushing wind could blow through it dramatically, the remembered he was supposed to be past all that. "Shall I support?"

There was no reply, for Victor's jaws were busy dealing with the silver dragon's neck, his foreclaws keeping his foe at bay while he shook his head from side to side like a dog worrying a chew toy. The rider was struggling to hold on--that was the problem with reins instead of a good set of straps, Agnurlin thought--and after a moment's worth of struggling, fell from his saddle, his bloodied and clawed mount following right behind him.

"Who's next?" Victor roared, looking a fright from the claw marks all over his belly. "Come on, I don't have all day, and I hate waiting."

The one remaining dragon rider hesitated, then turned his mount around and flapped away as fast as the poor creature could fly.

"Uppity bastards." Victor exhaled and blew a great gout of steam into the air. "Thinking they're better than everyone, just 'cause they've got shiny scales and money to boot and no one's trying to kill them because they've been designated as good…" his voice trailed off.

"Same old gripes, eh?"

"Forget what I just said, Ag. Talking about the problem isn't going to solve it. Let's get Boss to her mum before that bugger returns with reinforcements."

#

Brommus smiled and put down his wire brush. A simple spell could have taken care of the grime and scale on the nursing home's sign, but after years of magically eliminating the rust and notches from various heroes' first weapons, it felt surprisingly satisfying to apply one's hands to the task. Odd, Brommus reflected, that people should spend so much time learning to use magic to make their lives easier, then end up not using it because doing things the mundane way made one feel better.

"This wouldn't happen to be the Dancing Donkey Inn, would it?" a voice behind him said, and Brommus turned to look down upon the most horrifying sight he'd ever seen, outranking huge black things with teeth, balrogs, cosmic horrors with over a hundred tentacles they used for this and that and undercooked pies.

It had clothes that reminded Brommus of fish scales, far too much garish makeup topped with bright red lipstick, and fishnet stockings pulled over furry feet.

"Who or what the heck are you?" Brommus replied, trying not to breathe in the stench of cigarette smoke that hung around him, her, or it; Brommus couldn't quite make up his mind which of the above the thing that stood as high as his waist was.

"I'm a Hobait. This is supposed to be the Dancing Donkey, isn't it? I'm waiting for a--um--friend by the name of Jumper." He, she or it took a drag on her cigarette and blew a puff of bluish smoke that smelled faintly damp and earthy, like mushrooms.

Brommus searched his memory of Company-approved non-human races, and came up with a match. "I'm afraid you'll have to leave, miss. This nursing home has a family-friendly atmosphere, and the management plans to keep it that way. Please don't solicit business here. This isn't the Dancing Donkey Inn, anyway; I'm quite sure there isn't an establishment by that name for a good distance around."

"Oh, it isn't now. But it will be soon." The Hobait flicked her--Brommus settled for thinking of her as that--cigarette stub onto the ground and stomped it out under one high-heeled shoe. "Soon enough for my Quest(TM) to take place, anyway."

Brommus froze and suddenly felt very, very cold, despite it being a sunny spring afternoon. "I'm sorry, miss. Could you please repeat what you just said?"

"I said that this is going to be the future site of the Dancing Donkey Inn." The Hobait frowned. "Is there something wrong?"

A nasty thought crept into Brommus' mind, followed by another, and then yet another. He could simply bury the body somewhere discreet; people on or slated for Quests(TM) didn't have inconvenient dependents slowing them down, so there wasn't any chance of grudge-bearing descendents looking for him years later. The nearby forest would be a good place for that; all the moss and damp would speed along the body's decomposition, and the Hobait's throat was so small he was sure he could easily get both hands around it and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze until there was nothing left.

For Brommus realised he finally was happy, and was willing to kill to preserve that happiness. If the hero got killed, there wouldn't be a Quest(TM), and the nursing home would be safe for a time.

But something felt wrong…

"Um, Miss?" he said. "Look behind you!"

"Oh, come on. I'm not falling for that. You'll probably just spike my drink, grab me from behind, try to cop a feel or something stupid. I don't give freebies, thank you very much."

"I mean it! Look behind you! It's going to land!"

"Did you not hear what I just sa--"

There was a loud crunch and squelch.

The enormous, dark shape that until moments ago had been airborne pulled its claws out of the ground and bobbed its head in Brommus' direction. "Hey, good job on the sign there," it said. "It's actually gleaming. Can't remember when that last happened."

"You…you crushed…" well. He'd been thinking about doing it himself, hadn't he? Wasn't it a nice coincidence that someone would come along, do the job for him and conveniently absolve him of all moral responsibility? Brommus' shoulders sagged, and he nodded. "Thank you for the compliment. Can I help you?"

"Yeah. We've got to see Mrs. Ebonlocke."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 13

Nodammo opened her eyes, realised where she was, and shrieked until her mother patted her on the shoulder and gave her a smile full of tea-stained teeth.

"There, there, No," Mrs. Ebonlocke said. "You haven't turned into me. Yet. Don't try to get up, though; I think a little more lying down would do you some good. The management took some convincing that this was an emergency, and you'd do well to appreciate dear Agnurlin's efforts in persuading them to free a bed for you."

Nodammo looked down at the antiseptic-smelling sheets of the bed she was in, then at her sweat-stained pillow, before she took in the sight of the elderly wizards who'd been drawn by her shrieking and finally back at her mother. "I…maybe…oh, you're right, Mother."

Mrs. Ebonlocke's smile grew wider. "I've been waiting a whole thirteen years for you to say that, ever since the day you turned twelve."

"Don't think I'm going to budge on what we've discussed before, though." Nodammo groaned, and levered herself into a sitting position on the bed. "Where's Agnurlin and Victor?"

"We brought you here, Mistress," Agnurlin said from behind both mother and daughter. "Victor thought you might be wanting the consul of your mother, so here we are. He's in the fountain right now, cooling himself off. Madame, Mistress, will you care for a spot of tea?"

"Of course," Mrs. Ebonlocke replied. "The caterers here are nice and all, but they can't make a decent cup of tea. And Agnurlin? Some days I really wonder if you abuse butler-space just a little too much."

Agnurlin merely bowed, and the next moment, he wasn't there.

"Butler-space," Mrs Ebonlocke said, more to herself than anyone else. "Where lost socks, pens, matches and keys go, and where those freshly-ironed newspapers and laundered clothes appear from--if you have a trained attendant in your service, of course. If only the gatekeepers wouldn't be so damned secretive, we could properly harness it--"

"Mother, this isn't the time to be making small talk or discussing theory. The tower's gone. I tore it down of my own accord--"

"Yes, yes, I know. Always wanting something from me--I think that's the only reason you visit. Agnurlin filled me in while you were sleeping off the effects of your so-called energy drink--fat lot of good it did you, knocking yourself out and leaving your hirelings to do the dirty work. Well, at least we've risen high enough for the Company to take serious notice of us. Must have been a sight, all the rides jumping their rails and mowing down those heroes."

"I'm being serious here, Mother."

"And so am I. So, what you're going to ask me now is what you should do now, because you haven't got any idea as to that."

Nodammo was silent for several moments. "Yes," she finally said. "I thought you might have some advice to give."

"And why would that be?"

"Because…you're my mother. You always knew everything, from how to clean up spilt grape juice on the tapestries to why that guy at the next desk in Transmutation wasn't interested in me."

"Ah." Agnurlin chose that moment to return, and with a flourish produced a tea-tray and set it down on the bedside table before he filled two teacups and put in four sugars into the first cup, followed by two in the second.

"Madame, Mistress, your tea."

"Thank you, Agnurlin," Mrs. Ebonlocke said as she picked up the cup with four sugars in it. "Shall we enjoy our tea without interruptions, No? I don't have a ready-made answer for this question, anyway. You'll excuse me if I take a little time to think."

Like it or not, Nodammo had to admit that her mother was right yet again. The teacups were emptied soon enough, and Agnurlin refilled them with steaming brew. By the third refill, the warm tea inside Nodammo had conspired with the evening sunlight filtering in through the window and the room's potted plants to make her feel marginally more at peace with the world, if such a thing was possible.

"Things have been changing, Nodammo. Not just in Fenoros; it's the whole of Fantasyland. Do you remember Aliera? That sorceress? She told me that her old cottage had recently transformed itself into a gingerbread house, complete with candy canes for supports, frosted sugar for window panes and a large oven to fit a child into. You know how much effort a transmutation on that scale takes."

Nodammo nodded. "Otherwise we'd be turning rocks into delicious cake instead of making it the old-fashioned way. Go on, Mother."

"It's…disturbing, the things I've heard. It could be the Company, but I'm not sure it's them, either; they've never stooped to these lengths before. Still, I can't figure out who else would have the time and motivation to go out and build houses in the middle of the woods, then pay people to dress up in bear suits and live in those houses and cook porridge. Goodness knows what those people do in their free time; or at least, I can't think of anything that'd I'd mention at meals."

"I'd never heard of an army of heroes until a few days ago, either."

"Which is why I said things are changing, No." Mrs. Ebonlocke stood up, crossed the room and shut the door in the faces of those peering into the room before she returned to her seat. "Now what was I thinking? Oh, yes. Did you have any plans?"

Nodammo shook her head. "Not really. I thought we'd be on the run for a while, maybe hide somewhere where the Company's influence hasn't reached, and try and make do. It wouldn't be fair to the Generic Little Village, but…"

"Yes, but?"

"But…" Nodammo's lips moved wordlessly. "But…um…"

"But you can't find a good reason for abandoning them, is it? Listen, Nodammo. When I was your age I thought the Company's reach wouldn't extend as far as Fenoros--heck, I thought even Fairbanks was safe, and see what's happened to the kingdom now, what with its completely unpronounceable new name with plenty of obligatory apostrophes. At this rate, by the time of my granddaughter, or at most, yours, there isn't going to be a single spot in Fantasyland that the Company hasn't expanded into, unless you want to live off the edge of the world--if it even exists."

Nodammo set her teacup down with a clink. "Let me guess, Mother. You want me to do something about it. Well, you know what? I've just had a new idea. If the Company can raise a host of heroes, I can damn well do the same for villains--or maybe I should rephrase that as 'morally ambiguous personages'. Has a nice ring to it, don't you think?"

To Nodammo's utter horror, her mother appeared to be seriously considering her suggestion. "It might work. If you collected every disaffected Token Sidekick, every supposedly dead wise old mentor, every sod who has to dress in black according to Company regulations, every abandoned Animal Companion, every guardsman forced into incompetence; if you got everyone with a grudge against Quest(TM) all together, it just might work. The sheer numbers of those people have to be overwhelming, considering the Quests(TM) that take place on a daily basis. It's a good idea, isn't it, No?"

"You can't be serious! I was being sarcastic when I said that!"

"Then your sarcasm didn't come across very well. Months' worth of turnips spent on speech and drama classes, and nothing to show for it." Mrs. Ebonlocke sighed. "But I digress. Consider what you've just said deeply, No. Are you going to sit back and do nothing, try to hide as best as you can? Will you be able to live with yourself if you did that?"

The answer was there in the memories of Egil, Slogan, Venka, Kit, and everyone else who'd been on her doorstep mere hours ago, in their offers to lend what assistance they could. "No," Nodammo whispered. "I don't think I would."

"Since the Company's setting you up for a sequel, you might as well give them one to remember. I'm not asking you to rush into a decision and do something stupid for the sake of appearing brave, but I'll say an army of the disaffected and disenfranchised would be a sight to see."

#

"Tell me, Miss Annoyed. Where do you see yourself in five years?"

"It depends on the turns the Quests(TM) take," Miss Annoyed replied, doing her best not to stare directly at the yellow circle that passed for Mr. Happy's face, complete with black dots for eyes and the trademark smile that defied all sense of anatomical proportion. "Traditional Hero's Journeys are doing quite well, so perhaps I'll see myself overseeing a few more of them."

A fork moved down towards the plate of steamed broccoli, speared a hunk of green and vanished within that disquieting smile. Perhaps, Miss Annoyed decided, the worst thing was that his mouth didn't move when he spoke. One could get used to blurring masks, but this was something else altogether; the smile went straight through disarming and out the other side. Or perhaps it was something to do with the fact she was in a swimsuit and he in formal business attire. "Ah. You do not see yourself being promoted, then? Most junior executives I have spoken to aim for a spot in Upper Management."

"I…I like to be in the field, sir. Working with my hands, as some might put it."

"Well, that is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Perhaps it will soon be time for a new post to be created in Upper Management that still primarily deals with fieldwork; where there is a need, it must be fulfilled."

"Sir."

"Do not take me amiss, Miss Annoyed," Mr. Happy said, his expression not changing in the slightest--not that it could, anyway. "There are no hidden meanings to my words, just as this personal lunch is just that--I am here to reach out to my employees, and not chastise them for their perceived failures. Despite the fact that you were unable to achieve the set goal, the outcome was still not a failure."

Miss Annoyed winced. "You mean about that last venture? The one with the evil sorceress in the tower?"

"Exactly. Your heroes were right; the Company can make a sequel from this. Even a deviant plot or character can be unwittingly…coaxed into performing its intended role in a narrative. There is no character too far gone that a marketable story cannot be extracted from it." One gloved hand reached out and grabbed a bottle on the table; the other found its way to the cap and unscrewed it. "Care for some turnip juice, Miss Annoyed? It is very healthy."

Miss Annoyed's stomach lurched at the smell rising from the bottle's mouth. "I think I'll pass, sir. The celery cake was rather filling."

"As you will." The edge of the glass disappeared into the smiley-face illusion, and Miss Annoyed found herself wondering what Mr. Happy was really like under the soft cloth gloves, the neatly starched suit and pants, and the shoes polished so brightly they gleamed in the spa's dim light.

She also noted they were all perfectly dry, despite the clouds of hot steam which rolled throughout the spa.

Oh, of course, there were other ways to tell whether someone was using doubles without having to see face or flesh, from walking gait, tone of voice to those tiny mannerisms which no one seemed to consciously notice but still picked up, anyway. But still, showing your face helped others spot your weaknesses, and Miss Annoyed had to admit that the whole setup helped bolster Mr. Happy's mystique.

Which was what he was all about, she supposed. Mr. Happy had been chairman of the board of directors, Company president and central executive officer for as long as anyone could remember. Mr. Happy weak, old, or the narrative forbid, dying? Impossible; he was Mr. Happy.

Then the big, yellow face was directly in hers, like the sun falling out of the sky in one Quest(TM) she'd helped direct. "You were having improper thoughts about your Company president?"

Miss Annoyed's fingers froze mid-fidget on her lap. A bead of sweat rolled down the side of her face, and it wasn't just due to the heat. "Um…sir…well…"

"Again, there is nothing to be ashamed of. It is actually quite common for staff and customers to wonder about this when they meet me in person, Miss Annoyed. I can say with reasonable certainty that I have been myself since the founding of Quest(TM), and if I happened to be possessed or replaced by a double in the past, that incident does not remain in my memory. Transparency is a good business practice, even with the likes of Nefarious Industries, since it promotes trust within and without any corporate body. However, as you have personally experienced with your obscuration spell packages, certain precautions have to be taken when one's safety is concerned." Mr. Happy finished the last of the turnip juice and nodded at Miss Annoyed, reminding her of a bobble-head. "Is there any concern that you wish to bring up to me? I promise you that complete confidentiality will be maintained."

"No, sir. I'm perfectly content with my workload, sir."

"Then I will not insult you by doubting your judgement." Mr. Happy pushed away his seat and stood. "It was a pleasure having lunch with you, Miss Annoyed. Communication is important, after all."

"Sir." Miss Annoyed looked on as Mr. Happy began walking away, but suddenly, he stopped and turned.

"Oh, and do make full use of the spa facilities. We had to gut a whole story to get this one out of context."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 14

Brommus had just finished smoothing freshly turned earth over the chunky crimson bits when he heard wheels against dirt. Raising his sweat and dirt-stained brow to the source of the noise, he hurriedly patted down the last clods of earth before taking in the sight of a cart drawn by two oxen coming towards the nursing home's gate, the Quest(TM) Logistics Division logo freshly painted on its side.

"Can I help you?" he called out.

"Actually, you can," came the reply from the driver, a thin, pasty-faced young man wearing thick spectacles. From the looks of him, Brommus guessed he was a reject from world-saving wizarding basics. "You haven't happened to see a hero--if you can call it that, I suppose--around here, have you? A bit on the short, I mean, vertically challenged side, has furry feet mostly hidden by fishnet stockings, uses purple lipstick?"

"No," Brommus said with the practised air of complimenting droves upon droves of pasty-faced bespectacled boys on their magical skills, or rather, lack thereof. "There's no hero walking around here, I can tell you that."

The boy scratched his head and shrugged. "Odd. I was running late, and figured he, she or it'd have gone far ahead of me by now. Then I'd be catching flak from the higher-ups for dereliction of duty. You don't mind if I hurry up and get everything settled before the hero comes along? There's food to be placed along the route, convenient sleeping places to be cleared and sprayed for insects, and then there's the staff cart coming back up to put peasants and prefab huts in place so they can dispense proper homely, earthy wisdom to the hero."

Brommus took one look at the wrapped chocolate buns and cartons of fried eggs in the back of the cart and winced. At least his heroes always had to clean the dirt off their food before they ate it. "Um, yeah. Do what you need to do, just out of sight of the nursing home, all right? This is private property, and we're trying to keep a positive living environment for our residents."

The cart driver looked a little worried at that, but nodded. "Well…I guess a little into the woods would still be along the Quest(TM) route. Thanks. Guess I should have thought twice before taking this job, but I can't stop eating just because I feel like it, you know."

You and me both, Brommus thought. With a nod to the cart driver, he slipped behind the wall that surrounded the nursing home and peered over it to watch the boy go about his business. The buns went onto tree limbs and the fried eggs hidden amongst the leaves of various shrubs, the cart driver planting huge signs in the shape of arrows with "breadfruit" and "eggplants" painted on them in big, bold letters. As if that wasn't bad enough, a small heap of straw was laid just out of sight, with "strawberries" painted on the matching sign.

By the time a perfectly circular patch of ground had been cleared of undergrowth and sprayed by a Company-approved mower, the wince in Brommus' eye had turned into a tic.

"This is stupid," he muttered, but forced himself to keep watching. By the time the cart driver was done and had set his oxen in motion once more, the patch of woods just outside the nursing home looked less like woods and more like…well, Brommus supposed it looked like a wood made by someone who'd only had one described to them and never set foot amongst real trees. Which was probably fine for most people, but it wasn't for Brommus.

Then another thought struck him. Why do I care? I mean, really, why do I care?

Did it make heroes any less heroic when the supposed rigours of the wildernesses were made trivial, or if they got outside help? Heroes went out with the primary goal of slaying fearsome monsters and thwart the plans of all sorts of Dark Lords and Ladies. Enduring the rigours of the wild and slapping away bloodsucking insects was merely something that needed to be done along the way, to be gotten over with as soon as possible and not returned to. Not every hero was supposed to be skilled at woodcraft; plenty had sidekicks to fill in the necessary details.

Yet…

Alternating his gaze between the cart driver's handiwork and the nursing home, Brommus scratched the stubble on his chin and frowned. At last, he made up his mind, took a deep breath, and stormed out towards the little prepared campsite before he began removing the wax paper cartons and wrappings from their hiding places and pulling up the signs. By the time Brommus had finished, his arms were aching from the sheer number of wax-paper cartons in them.

"Not as if that silly Ho-bait is going to need it anyway, what with being dead and buried. Shame to waste good food. Heck, the fried eggs were the only decent thing in the staff canteen, anyways."

#

Nodammo looked down at the miniatures in front of her and tried to push the background noise of the recreation room out of her mind. "I don't know about this, Mother. I mean, if I'm going to be following your suggested course of action, I ought to be planning as to what I'm going to do instead of playing some silly fantasy game, shouldn't I? I mean, I'm a no-name sorceress--well, managing a tourist attraction isn't exactly going to qualify me to spark this revolution you're proposing. I'm not a hero; I can't just walk up, make a silly little speech and suddenly everyone's up in arms against the evil threat looming in the distance."

"And only because said people are extras hired by the Company," Mrs. Ebonlocke finished. "But that can wait. It's already night, and you're not flying out into the darkness, not with the possibility of heroes on your tail--it may not a problem for Victor, but it is going to be a problem for you. So sit down and play before I get all cross."

No matter how much she tried, Nodammo couldn't care for the miniature representing her character, a young woman in an oddly-cut blouse with blue stripes and necktie. After all, it was just a clay figurine with a bit of paint splashed on and silly made-up story behind it. "Fine, fine. I go into my cubicle and check my in tray."

There was the clacking of dice rolling from behind the cardboard screen on the table, and Mrs. Ebonlocke rubbed her wrinkled fingertips together. "You find a memo from your employer, reminding you that his thinking machine isn't working and wants you to fix it as soon as possible. However, you have diagnosed this problem earlier and need a screwdriver, which you do not have."

Nodammo thought for a moment. "I search my colleague's cubicle for a screwdriver. Always worked when I was in college and short on alchemical reagents, don't see why it shouldn't work here."

More dice rolling. "You find a screwdriver, but your junior systems analyst colleague comes up, demands to know what you're doing in his cubicle and gets all mad at your invasion of his personal space. What do you do?"

"I cast a spell on him to make him shut up."

Mrs. Ebonlocke sighed. "That doesn't work in this imaginary world, Nodammo. This is a fantasy game. Try using your imagination."

"I chop off his head with an axe. You can't speak very well without a head."

Another sigh.

"That's why I don't like playing 'Real Life' with you, Mother," Nodammo said as she swept the miniatures back into their box. "Practical, sensible choices just don't work in your standard fantasy setting. That shouldn't be the case."

"Perhaps, but it's still fun, especially after the latest edition fixed some of the more egregious problems. Oh, here comes our supper."

"Fried eggs and chocolate buns today," a rather deep baritone came from behind Nodammo. "I was on my way out, so the kitchens asked if I could drop off supper to the residents in the recreation room."

Nodammo turned, and saw a rather simple-looking man with bit of scruffiness about his edges, as if he was used to working outdoors. The calluses on his hands, stubble on his chin and stained coveralls only served to reinforce that image.

"Nodammo, meet, Brommus. Mr. Brommus, this is Nodammo, my daughter. The one I was telling you about the other day."

"Telling me about? You only--" Brommus blinked, then appeared to remember something and nodded. "Oh, yes. You were telling me, Mrs. Ebonlocke. Well, a very good evening to you, Miss Ebonlocke, and it was good to meet you, but I'm just here to deliver supper. Magic might make pipes easy to clean, but they never stop getting dirty." With that, he placed the wax paper cartons on the table and walked away.

"Nice young man, isn't he?" Mrs. Ebonlocke said. "Very duty-oriented and all that, the way your father was. Perhaps when all this is over, you could come every now and then to chat with him?"

"Mother, we've been through this conversation before, and it always ends up the same way. What makes you think this time is going to be any different? I don't understand you sometimes."

"You can't blame an old woman for wanting grandkids, can you?"

"I can, if she's trying to dictate how I should live my life, even if it's only with the best of intentions. Much in the same way she tried to steer me towards conjury, despite the fact that I never did well at it and had no interest in the subject."

"You're far too touchy anyway, No. For all you know, I could have been encouraging you to get some friends on a non-professional basis--after all, you spent so much time cooped up in that tower with only Victor and Agnurlin for company--but you just jumped to conclusions."

Nodammo sighed. Even tea wasn't going to fix this. "This is pointless, Mother. I'm going to consider what I'm going to do next. At least that'll be more useful than arguing with you."

#

Things, Brommus decided, were getting bad. First a hero, even if he, she or it had been of dubious merit, then the hero's logistics team. Sooner or later, he figured, someone was going to notice the provisions were gone without the hero having passed through, and Bad Things were going to happen, at least, back at Literacity. Of course, someone would have noticed rotting fried eggs with much the same effect, so that wasn't the problem.

Oh, Quests(TM) often took heroes around the world, yes, but for the purposes of most of them, the world consisted of a city or two, the same number of quaint little villages, some number of exotic locations--for a given value of exotic--and stretches upon stretches of identical scenery. Nursing homes didn't involve themselves in Quests(TM).

"I should've realised it sooner," he muttered to himself. "They're not going to leave me alone even after firing me, eh?"

Brommus' boots rustled against the grass underfoot. Boots. That Ebonlocke girl had been wearing boots, hadn't she? Good stout ones, too with thick leather; they definitely said something about her. You could trust a woman who was the kind to wear stout, practical boots, or at least, he'd never run into a heroine who'd wore similar boots. Princesses on the run from arranged marriages always wanted sequins or steel caps, depending on what kind they were.

At least the garden was peaceful at night, when there weren't geriatric wizards drinking their heads off on cheap wine amongst the cherry trees, and the cool night air coupled with the fountain's gushing and dim light from the nursing home proper made the aching between his temples a little more bearable. There were a few shrubs that could use pruning, though, and the dragon in the fountain was spoiling its shape.

The dragon in the fountain. The dragon. In the fountain. It was large enough that the water only came up to its snout, the bulk of its body coiled about the amusingly-shaped spout in the middle and under a thick stream of water.

Brommus walked up to the fountain, reached over its lip and tapped the big, black dragon on the tip of its snout. One eye opened and stared into his face, glowing a faint amber in the darkness.

"I'm sorry, but the fountain isn't for bathing in," Brommus said, putting on his sternest expression. "I spent most of this morning unclogging the intake pipe. Would you mind going somewhere else for a soak?"

"Sorry about that, chap. Emergency." The dragon shivered, and the eye closed again. "Got into a fight ferrying Boss here. Got…urges. Really strong ones. Hate them. Cold water helps."

Brommus made a face. "Urges. Are they what I'm thinking they are?"

"Well, they damn well aren't telling me to eat some of that atrocious ice-cream Boss makes. Don't give me that disgusting look on your face--you humans aren't much better. At least I am what I am and I can admit it. Now, I've got to get rid of them fast, so if you wouldn't mind not getting my blood up, I'd appreciate it."

"Wait, which urges are we talking about now? Those--" Brommus waved a hand in the air-- "encouraging you to do this and that, or something else altogether?"

"They're all interlinked. I don't have time to explain it. Yes, I know you're used to that phrase, whoever you are, you damn well smell like a wise old mentor." A jaw full of serrated teeth filled Brommus' view, each one half as tall as he was and smelling like old onions. "What's one of those doing out here, and without an accompanying hero to boot? A spy?"

The back of Brommus' neck was damp with sweat, but he held his ground. "I got fired less than a month ago."

"Really."

"Yes, really."

The dragon seemed to consider that for a moment, then settled his head back into the water. "You don't smell like you're lying, but I'm still not convinced."

"We'll just have to settle for that, then."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 15

The woman hugged the little bundle close to her breast as she tore through the trees and new grass, her poorly-made sandals coming apart on the rough ground. The last sign she'd come across before she'd left the road had stated she was entering the province of Fenoros, but she couldn't care where she was, so long as her baby was far away from Gru'bar'atr and the clutches of its evil king, the dreaded and tyrannical monarch Slakar.

Dark, ominous clouds obscured the sky, blotting out the stars save one, a brilliant red gem that hadn't been there before that night. The woman noted that it was the exact same colour as the crown-shaped birthmark on her baby's shoulder, and wondered if the star was a sign from the gods that he would be safe. After all, the star did look a little too much like one of the mage-lights she'd seen at a street show in her happier days, before the evil king had overthrown his uncle and taken the throne. The same street show had a fortune teller who'd said the birthmark was actually in the shape of a wedge of cheese and her baby was destined to be a great cheese merchant, but whoever heard of such nonsense?

The wind whistled through the grass, telling tales of great battles it had seen through the centuries, and of those it would see in the future. All was silent; no cricket chirped, no raven cawed.

Her baby started to cry, though, and she started humming a breathless, broken lullaby, a twisted rendition of the one her own mother had sung to her as a child. All her fear washed away, all her past deeds and what the evil king had done to her seemed to have washed away, and the only thing she felt now was peace. The woman had heard stories of the ancient, mystical powers of elves' children; even if her own was only but a half-breed, perhaps he still possessed some of them.

But she could not run forever. Even with peace in her heart, the woman knew her legs were starting to give, and if she were to protect the last of the Ancients, half-breed or no, she had to find refuge. A village loomed in the distance, a quiet, secluded thing; it was small and dirty but the woman knew the people who lived there had values, because everyone who lived in small, simple villages were good, earthy and full of homely wisdom. Perhaps she could find a suitable doorstep and place her baby there to be a burden on the family living there, before her heart gave…

But it was not to be. The woman's knees buckled, and she fell to the ground, her baby in a protective cradle. Yet he cried even louder.

Then they came.

Slinking out from the shadows, the wolves formed a circle around the woman and her babe, each of the grey-furred beasts standing tall and majestic in the wan moonlight.

The woman frowned a little at that thought, but dismissed it. So what if the moon hadn't been visible just now? Didn't mean it had to be obscured now. Still, she knew she could go no further, and if she couldn't get to the village, then the wolves were her only hope. Trying not to cry, she summoned the last of her strength, unhooked the amethyst pendant around her neck and placed it around her child's.

"Uh…um…what would be good…Leath Gua-oh, something or the other." A magical blue light spiralled out of the woman, enveloped the baby, and vanished into the stone for safekeeping. Raising her head, she tried to look the alpha male in his deep eyes full of clarity and wisdom--or at least, that was how she imagined them to be, because the alternative wasn't so appealing.

"Please take care of my baby, noble ones," she gasped, and breathed her last.

The wolves--perhaps about fifteen to twenty of them in total--clustered about the squalling bundle and cooling body before sniffing each other. The last winter had been a hard one for the pack, and the following spring not much better--most of the weaker members were already dead of starvation, and the rest had been subsisting on only field mice and their ilk, much with the same effect packets of peanuts had on humans--it kept them from starving, but never quite managed to fill them up.

Fresh meat usually didn't offer itself up so willingly.

#

"Boss? Boss!"

"What's the matter, Victor?" Nodammo said as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Victor had to be given credit for trying to be quiet, but even his best usually wasn't enough--some of the other residents, her mother included, mumbled in their sleep and turned in their beds. "It's still dark out."

"You know that Brommus guy? The handyman?"

"Mother introduced the two of us, yes. What of him?"

"Do you know he used to be a wise old mentor? The stench of the knockout pills they use to feign death is lingering around the bugger like a week-old dead salmon."

Nodammo chased away fragments of fresh dreams from her thoughts as she sifted through them. Brommus…well, he'd seemed like an average handyman, albeit a magical one. Then again, that was the point of spies--they were supposed to lay low and be innocuous. "So what you're saying is that he might be compromising us? Don't be silly. Even if he were a Company agent, how would news of our escape get here ahead of us when you were flying me over? That's like the way heroes break out of the Dark Lord's prisons and expect to find wanted posters of them in the next town."

"I was just pointing out a fact, Boss. You should be careful, considering how much most humans use their senses."

"All right, point taken." Nodammo reached out towards the window, and patted the moist, chitinous tip of Victor's snout. "Victor? I was wondering…does it ever bother you that most human structures are too small for you to fit into? I mean, the tower aside, you've always had to stay outside and stick your head in through windows and doorways…I don't know if you've ever felt left out because of your size differences. Sometimes, it doesn't seem fair to you."

"I don't hate it, Boss, if that's what you're asking."

"A first from you."

"I mean it. My physical form is part of who I am, Boss. If I wanted to be more like a variety of hairless ape just to conform better to their world, even if it only meant thinking like them, it'd mean that I, at some level, would be hating myself." Victor clacked his teeth together gently. "That'd cause me even more misery then feeling a little left out."

"I never knew you thought about these things."

"It's common sense. I don't let humans into my home without good reason, so I don't expect them to be obliged to let me in theirs. Of course, there's no shortage of those who try to sneak in, but Obsi makes short work of them and Jete needs to practice turning heroes to red chunky bits. Get some rest, Boss; you'll need it, and I need to get myself some grub anyways. Ag and I will take turns keeping an eye on that Brommus fellow for you."

"Thanks." Watching Victor withdraw his snout from the window and the drapes fall back into place, Nodammo lay back against her pillow, shut her eyes, and tried to fall asleep.

The next thing she knew, alarm bells were ringing and Agnurlin was yanking her out of bed.

#

Within the confines of his little janitor's shed, Brommus cursed. It was homely and comfortable enough, he'd seen to that, but in retrospect maybe choosing to live in a small shed with no cover around hadn't been such a good idea, after all.

"Individual by the name of Brommus, you are charged with suspected intentional and malicious sabotage of the Quest(TM) 'Bob the Golden and the dreaded sorceress of the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and despair', leading ultimately to its failure and massive losses incurred by Quest(TM), and I, Raven-Hunter-Sue-Sparklypoo-Krystallyne-Gla'do'ri'rel, have been duly authorised by the board of directors to bring you in for a formal trial. Furthermore, you are suspected to have absconded after your dismissal with sensitive artefacts and information which, if made public, may compromise the interests of Quest(TM). These include, but may not be limited to: one mark seven Sword of Destiny, a prototype sent out for field testing under practical situations with a hero named 'Bob'--"

Brommus knew that voice; he'd once had to put up with it complain endlessly on how its owner wasn't going to be eating anything that came from an animal despite not knowing which foreign plants were edible, had to lend a sympathetic ear while its owner waxed angst over how the handsome prince had been ignoring her while the Dark Lord's armies were on the march mere hills away.

It's not fair, Brommus thought as he clenched and unclenched his fists. He'd done his duty, fished the heroine out of her doomed little village just before the Dark Lord's minions had burnt it to the ground as per standard operating procedures. He'd fed and clothed the little brat, taught her enough in the way of magic and swordplay to off the Dark Lord, even conveniently pretended to die when he wasn't needed to relieve the brat of any moral obligations and give her an easy source of angst, and this was what happened. First chance they got to climb up the corporate ladder, they took it, even if it meant using your head as a stepping-stone. So much for grateful being more than a measure of cheese.

Brommus cracked open the door an inch, peeked out and slammed it shut as an arrow embedded itself in the spot his head had been a moment ago. Seemed Raven-Hunter-Sue-Sparklypoo-Krystallyne-Gla'do'ri'rel had gained a bit of status and a few additional odds and ends to her name, to be a bloody dragon rider.

"--and under section seven, lines three to twenty-two of the Quest(TM) employee agreement act, ratified by Mr. Happy and all present on the board of directors, no employee may, for his or her own personal benefit, commit larcenies involving Company property, no matter how small. Leniency may be granted if said stolen property is reinstated to Logistics without undue delay."

"But I didn't take the bloody thing!" Brommus growled to himself. Still, he checked his person. Unfortunately, no Sword of Destiny fell out from under his armpits, so the problem remained unsolved.

"We have been authorised to use force to extricate you if you refuse to cooperate. Please do not force us to rely on extreme measures which the Company finds thoroughly unpleasant. Do help us help you help yourself."

They wanted just him, didn't they? Brommus paused at the door of his shed, his hand halfway to the knob. No. Giving himself up to the false charges might buy the nursing home a little more time, but what had the Hobait said? That this place was slated for normalisation anyway? If he went out there, would a heroic sacrifice have any point to it?

Brommus sucked in a breath through gritted teeth. There had to be a better way out of this, but for the life of him, he couldn't see it. If only he had a dragon with him, he probably could use that cantrip…

Shouting. Dragons roaring. Footfalls outside his little shed. Odd, though, how there hadn't been the telltale thump associated with one of them landing. Still, Brommus rolled up the sleeves of his coveralls, and readied a force bolt. If he was going to die, at least he was going to take someone down with him.

The door burst open.

"Hurry!" Nodammo shouted at him. "Mother and the others are having the time of their life, but they can't hold them forever! Victor's waiting outside."

"What? How--" Brommus took in the scene just outside his door, might and magic flowing forth from doddering old witches and wizards in wheelchairs, and made his decision. Questions could come later. "Let's go, then, but I'll want answers later."

"Don't we all?"

It was a bit surreal, Brommus would reflect later, weaving in and out between the nursing homes' residents, people whom for the past month or so had seemed as harmless as kittens, cackling hysterically and apparently having more fun than when one of the residents had slipped firepowder into someone else's rice porridge. Someone in the Company's task force must have noticed him trying to slip away, for they made a concerted push against the nursing home's residents in an effort to reach him.

"Cease and desist! Cease and desist!" Raven-Hunter-Sue-Sparklypoo-Krystallyne-Gla'do'ri'rel's voice carried above the chaos in the gardens.

"Go fuck yourself," Brommus muttered and at Nodammo's urging, climbed up onto Victor's back with practiced ease, setting his foot on a lower back haunch and heaving himself up with his arms. "I never stole so much as a single staple in ten years of coming to the office, and this is what I get for being a trusted employee."

"Victor, if you will?" Nodammo said once her skeletal butler had joined them a-dragonback.

"Gladly, Boss. Hate the buggers. Can't stand the sight of them, even though I know there're a few who joined up willingly. Actually, those are the worst. Don't even respect themselves for what they are."

Brommus gritted his teeth. "Can we go instead of talking, please? I must have missed the memo stating this huge mess was some sort of game."

"When you've seen things through my eyes and been in my hide for a little while, you can't help but see everything as one big bloody game," Victor said with a low, rumbling laugh, before his spread his wings and broke into a loping run. "It'd be too depressing otherwise, seeing all your fellows get turned into trophies, medicines, designer suits and whatnot."

"It helps?"

"If you let it, buddy." One last leap, a powerful downstroke, and they were airborne. Only then did Brommus chance looking back at the nursing home; the dragon riders were trying to detach themselves from the fray and go after him, with little success.

Future site of the Dancing Donkey indeed. Had he caused this? No, that was stupid. How could the Hobait have foreseen this? Even company prophecies required plenty of liberal interpretation and manipulation to realise themselves.

"They're going to get an enormous amount of flak from the Company for this," he whispered.

"Mother's capable enough, and the nursing home's run by Fenoros Academy. They won't go down without a fight, and if they do, they'll probably escape safely."

"Probably? How sure are you to say probably, when your family's concerned?"

"Sure enough," Nodammo replied, although Brommus thought there was a hint of uncertainty in her voice. "What did they want you for? I thought they were after us, not you; a bunch of those buggers chased us for a bit."

"It was either them or gryphon riders, and the latter's not too commonly seen. Not as glamorous, you see. I don't know, to be honest. I did act as wise old mentor to Bob and held his sword for a while before passing it on, but the only Sword of Destiny I ever had a second-hand mark two, and that was supposedly condemned."

"You were supposed to have stolen a mark seven?"

"What of it?"

"Because I happen to have this, taken from someone who tried to kill me." Nodammo dug into one of the satchels strapped to Victor's back, and dug out Bob's golden sword, complete with the diamond in its hilt.

Brommus' eyes grew wide.

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 16

"Again, Miss Annoyed, there is no cause for concern. I don't want to have to repeat myself unnecessarily; you seemed like an intelligent and professional young woman during our business lunch at the spa, and I'd like to keep that impression of you for as long as possible.

"Yes, yes, I can understand your worries, but I know what I'm doing, thank you very much. Sacrifices have to be made in order to clinch the most advantageous deal, and even if it falls through, we have the resources to recover from a worst-case scenario. Remember what I told you; even deviants can be coaxed back into the narrative scheme of things, one way or the other. Would you like me to put that into corporate babble so you can understand it better? No? Think of it in the broadest terms; don't get stuck on the details. The subject refused the call to adventure, was punished for it and now is about to--well, has, already, in a sense--received supernatural aid.

"So you see, Miss Annoyed, you should just sit back and have some more of that coffee you enjoy so much, because everything is going splendidly."

#

Brommus stared at the sword. "M-may I?"

"Mistress…"

"I don't see why not, Agnurlin. It's not as if he's the type to pull it on us." Holding the sword of destiny by its scabbard, she placed it in Brommus' outstretched hands. "You knew the person it belonged to?"

"I don't blame you for doing what you had to Bob. I was with the Company long enough to know what it is that heroes do, and it would be stupid of me to say you weren't entitled to self-defence. Still…" Brommus' fingers tightened about the scabbard. "Bob wasn't that bad for a hero, at least, during his time with me. I guess I'll have to accept what you did, but I can't say it sits well with me."

"I didn't see any of those traits when he was trying to separate my head from my shoulders."

"You know what other heroes have done? Whining whenever I was a bit late getting supper done was the least of the lot; there were those who pretty much outright ignored me after the whole obligatory 'young hero defeats wise old mentor in a duel' bit of the Quest(TM). One even suggested that I hurry up and die, since I was no longer needed. At least Bob was nice enough to mourn my death for other reasons than providing petty angst."

"I--"

"Oh, he was annoying at times, and could be horribly self-centred and rude at times, but there were moments when I remembered why I wanted to be a wise old mentor in the first place." Brommus sighed, and took in a lungful of crisp, chilly air. "You killed him?"

"He broke into my home and was bent on doing the same to me. I'm sorry, but as you said, I do want to continue breathing, although the Company doesn't seem to like that."

"What'd they do?"

Nodammo was about to say the words when Agnurlin tapped her on the shoulder with a bony digit. "Are we sure we can trust him, Mistress?"

"I don't see why not. The Company's after him, too."

"If you see it that way, Mistress."

So Nodammo told Brommus of how the Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair had been attacked by an army of heroes, leaving out a few details, especially regarding the tea elemental. When she'd finished, Brommus was scratching the lengthening stubble on his chin.

"An army of heroes, you say? That…that goes against the grain of most heroes. Oh, of course there's always the ragtag bunch of misfits or the secret order, but there's usually never more than one hero in one at a time. I…I don't know. The world's changing. Company policy's changing. Used to be that Dark Lords and Ladies used to be freelancers, too, and we didn't go around bugging people in their homes, but…"

Nodammo nodded. "That's what my mother said, too."

"I thought wise old mentors had job security. I guess I was mistaken. Well, what do you want with me?"

"It's up to you. You can do as you please."

Brommus raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"I've given you back the sword, right? You can go and give it back to the Company, and they'll be off your tail."

"As if." Brommus let out a bitter laugh, then raised his head and gave Nodammo a long, hard look. Before anyone could stop him, Brommus had stood up, steadied himself and hurled the sword of destiny out into the open air. The sword arced up, glittered a brilliant gold in the moonlight, then began a very long fall down to the ground.

When everyone had recovered from Victor's starting, Nodammo stared at Brommus, disbelief written on her face. "What was that for? You just threw away your ticket to a--"

The ex-wise old mentor sighed and shook his head. "You really believe what you said about the Company, don't you? Where did you spend your life?"

"In a small village dedicated to parting tourists and heroes from their money."

"Small villages. Well, at least you're a realistic product of them, unlike--oh, what the heck. The Company isn't stupid. There's a whole assembly line in Literacity dedicated to churning them out, and no one's going to send a prototype out for field testing without making multiple copies of the blueprints and putting innocence clauses and other nasty stuff to prevent them being fenced if they got lost. Logistics could have another sword made in a day. Three coppers say them wanting the sword back is just a pretext for something else."

"Like?"

"How would I know? They fired me. It's their fault. Or maybe it's your fault for killing Bob and making me lose my job."

"Hey, how was I expected to know that when he was trying to off me? If you'd done your job properly, he wouldn't have been a complete idiot! I don't know--I've only been around you for a few hours, Mister Brommus, and I don't think you liked your previous job. Did you?"

"Keep it down in the back, please," Victor said in the tone mothers use with their children when they've doodled 'I love you' on the wall with their crayons in seven colours. "I hate stupid, pointless arguments, and even more so when they're carried out on my back. Put up, or shut up."

Silence.

Agnurlin produced a thermos full of hot tea from a waistcoat pocket half its size, and Brommus and Nodammo passed it between each other until it was empty. Brommus thought the tea was a little too sweet, but it was pleasantly warm on his insides and he wondered if there were more than just tea leaves in the brew.

"Thank you, um…"

"I am Agnurlin, sir, and it is a pleasure to serve you."

"Yes. Agnurlin. Thank you for the tea."

"Again, it is a pleasure. There is nothing like a spot of sweet tea to cool a heated argument."

"So," Nodammo said, handing the thermos back to Agnurlin, "what are you going to do, Mister Brommus? We can set your feet on the ground anywhere within reasonable flying distance, I suppose, and you can be on your way, unless you have something else in mind."

"Well, I know this is sudden, but I'd rather not get off, if you don't mind."

Nodammo frowned. "You want to come along with us?"

"Look at it this way. I've just been forcibly removed from my home and job without so much as a copper to my name by a mob of people who want me for some reason I don't even understand, and happen to meet up with a group of people who're wanted by the same mob and helped me out of a sticky situation. Since we're on the same dragon--" Brommus pointed down at Victor's hide-- "Maybe we should stick together for a bit. Besides, your mother was a respectable old lady, even if she was a bit…eccentric at moments."

"But--"

Brommus sighed. "I know, I know. I can't prove I'm not a spy for the Company, and I'm not denying I used to work for them. You could refuse. I'd understand."

"You seem to understand a lot of things. I understand it makes you appear quite spineless."

"It comes from this trying to see someone else's point of view thing. You might want to try it sometime."

Nodammo tut-tutted. "That's why I usually don't bother with such things for complete strangers. No wonder you managed to survive being a wise old mentor for so long; I'd have given up after a week. Do you mind if I consult my hirelings before I come to a decision?"

"Go ahead. Evidently, there's no hurry." With a soft groan, Brommus turned his back on Nodammo and Agnurlin before pulling off his boots and airing his aching feet. How many narrow escapes had he been privy to? Brommus thought a little more, and frowned. If this had been a Quest(TM), the Company would have been behind the scenes manipulating the odds, but this wasn't one. Besides, there was really the off-chance that he could have been that lucky, but…

Brommus sighed once more, and decided he needed a bath, a razor, and plenty of soap.

"Buddy, would you mind getting your stinking feet back into your boots? I mean, how'd you like it if I put my stinking feet on your back? Common courtesy's not too much to ask, hrm? "

"Sorry."

#

"Well, Agnurlin, Victor, what do you think?" Nodammo said in a loud whisper as she eyed Brommus lying down near the base of Victor's tail. "Do we want this Brommus person along with us, or not? He does have a point; we're all stuck in the same situation, and if he used to work for the Company he might prove useful to us. Besides, if he was really Bob's wise old mentor, we are sort of responsible for his situation right now, even if by all means it seems to be better than the one he was in."

Victor turned his neck around. "Boss, the whole point of a spy is to appear convincing; only spies in Quests(TM) do stupid things like have shifty eyes, dishonest faces--whatever that means--and happen to vanish suspiciously at strange times. I'm not saying he is a spy--if you ask me, I'd question the chances the Company knew where we were going so quickly and plant a spy in our path--but just because something is unlikely to happen doesn't mean it can't be the case. I don't mind this Brommus coming along, provided someone keeps an eye on him."

"Agnurlin, your opinion?"

"Victor does have a point, Mistress. My time with the Company was quite a while ago, but I've never seen them react so strongly to a larceny. Of course, the most I saw anyone steal was a tuber or mushroom meant for the heroes from the logistics cart. If you ask me, I'm not so worried about Mr. Brommus being a plant for the Company. You saw how he threw away that Sword of Destiny and the reason he gave--he's going to be a liability if he keeps on behaving like that. We can't afford to give coins to random starving children. Sad, but practical."

Settling her back against a bumpy bit of chitin, Nodammo sighed and realised that she didn't have any idea where Victor was taking her. She also realised she didn't care, so long as it was away from the Company's forces, then realised that wasn't a healthy thing to do.

"Victor?"

"Yeah, Boss?"

"Which way are you headed?"

"Away from the buggers, which would happen to be north. There's no point tiring myself out now that we've lost them. Any particular reason why, Boss?"

"No…no. You're holding up well?"

"Yeah. Don't worry about it, Boss. Go and get some rest. I'll get mine when I need it."

"It's just…I'd never have thought the day would come when I'd be worried about Mother, but here it is. Worrying's not going to help her, but…well, it's human to worry, isn't it?"

"Good thing I'm not one then, Boss."

"As for Brommus, I suppose we could give him a chance to prove his usefulness. After all, we could put him somewhere populated if things don't work out. One way or the other, I feel responsible for what's happened to him." Nodammo squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her temples. "Oh, I'm not cut out for thinking right now. Everything more or less hurts."

"What'll happen will happen, Boss. I stopped worrying about my mom when she got turned into about two hundred leather purses and a goodly amount of 'grow-it-big' cream, amongst other stuff. There's always the bright side of things to look at. Then again, I don't think human-hide shoes would sell very well." Victor craned his neck to look behind him, and a deep growl rose from his throat. "No rest for the morally ambiguous, Boss; you'll have to think, like it or not. They're coming!"

Nodammo froze, her eyes wide. Already, Brommus was on his feet and racing towards her, the exact same expression etched onto his features.

Winged shapes were silhouetted against the moon--and headed straight for them.

"Damn it! How did they find us again?" Nodammo said through gritted teeth.

"Did you expect anything else, Miss Ebonlocke? Dragon riders have the biggest egos of animal companion-possessing heroes; even the most experienced wise old mentors avoided going on a Quest(TM) with them as much as possible. You think they'd let a slight go, no matter how small?"

"Fine. Victor, can you fly any faster?"

"This is as fast as I go, Boss, unless you feel like jettisoning any of the field kit."

Nodammo turned to Brommus. "Well, if you've got anything to contribute towards getting us out of this fix, I'd appreciate it. We've got no one to help us, Victor and I are tired out, and there's nowhere to hide. Not for Victor, at least."

"Actually, I do."

"I'm listening."

"Well, it goes like this…" gesturing with his hands as he spoke, Brommus outlined his plan to Nodammo and a brief summary of the magical theory behind it. When he'd finished, the dragon riders were noticeably closer.

"How--" Nodammo sighed and shook her head. "You're sure you majored only in conjury? From the looks of it, you're starting to seem like one of those heroes who can do anything and everything when the situation calls for it."

"On-the-job training," Brommus replied. "Wise old mentors have to know everything, from ancient stories of how the world was formed to all the standard quirks of might and magic so the hero can go defeat the Dark Lord, right up to keeping the bugger's sword sharp on the sly. Too bad I didn't quite think the spell through before starting to work it out. By the time I realised it required an active and willing dragon to initiate it, I was done and it was time for me to make a heroic sacrifice to save the hero. The poor beast with him was far from active and willing, I'm afraid."

"All right, buddy. What you're saying is that you need me to do some mumbo-jumbo, and everything'll be fine?"

"Yes. Wait, what are you--" Brommus began, but Victor had pulled his wings tight and plummeted straight towards a small rocky outcropping amidst the trees below. Gravel flew up from the force of his impact as he landed, and he pawed at the ground.

"Get off, Boss. It's you they want. Our buddy Brommus and I will hold the buggers off; if anything goes wrong, at least you'll be safe."

"But--"

Victor shook himself, and both humans and one skeleton slid off his back. "Come on, don't be a hero, Boss. You know where I live. I'll see you by the nearby lake."

"And you?" Nodammo said as she righted herself.

"Do I look like a hero?" Victor half-roared, half-laughed. "Get going. The buggers are going to catch up to us soon, and I've got a score to settle with them."

"Let us go, Mistress," Agnurlin said as he gently but firmly pulled Nodammo into the undergrowth. "We are wasting time."

After Nodammo and Agnurlin had gone, Brommus looked up at the black dragon beside him. Victor didn't seem too concerned about what was about to happen, instead humming to himself as the shapes drew closer, a low, thrumming sound that started somewhere from the base of his neck.

"So, Mi-st-ah Brommus," Victor said. "Do tell me, in layman's terms, exactly what I'm supposed to do. And it'd better work, because if it doesn't, I'm going to find whatever afterlife you've gone to and discover for myself whether it's possible for someone to die when they're already dead."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 17

"Anson and his sidekicks set out on a grand quest

To slay the evil menace lurking in the far west

Erik went into a cave to sniff a seam of gold,

They fished out his beard, but there was nothing left below.

'Cause Sythry the dragon went crunch, crunch, crunch

Then her hungry brood went munch, munch, munch

Helping the cause by ending heroes' lives

And turning their corpses into lunch, lunch, lunch."

Brommus groaned, took off his cap, and started to fan himself with it; not that it did much good to his already sweat-stained clothes. Nervous humming he could understand, but this…noise the dragon was making was in a league of its own, a mishmash of grunts and growls that by some miracle, still managed to be comprehensible to his ears. Besides, someone shouldn't be singing a jolly tune off-key with no sense of rhythm when facing imminent death. It just wasn't proper.

He shook his fist up at Victor. "Did you even hear a word of what I said just now? I hope you don't forget what you're supposed to do, because I'll go find you in your dragon afterlife and beat you up! Piece by piece if need be!"

Victor ignored him and continued singing.

"Timmy was a royal farmboy, he was rather vain,

He worried his golden armour would rust out in the rain

The breastplate was polished and it gleamed all clean and bright

But gold was rather soft; it didn't help him live through that night.

'Cause Sythry the dragon went crunch, crunch, crunch…"

The dragon riders were closing in by the moment. Brommus gnashed his teeth and balled his fists.

"Hazeleye the elf was rather uppity,

She'd go in the woods to do things humans should not see

Anson and his bunch waited till it got really dark,

They were running out of numbers and also out of luck.

'Cause Sythry the dragon went crunch, crunch, crunch…"

Looking at the overgrown, brutish form that was Victor, Brommus wondered if he was going to die here. If he did, he'd have deserved it for trusting his life to someone who was clearly insane.

"Jill was a loudmouth and an unrepentant bitch

In between her bickering she called herself a witch

They went beneath a tree to make sweet, torrid love,

When Anson woke next morning her skull hung from above.

'Cause Sythry the dragon went crunch, crunch, crunch…"

Maybe throwing away the Sword of Destiny hadn't been such a good idea after all, reflected Brommus. Maybe he could have used it somehow--no. Throwing it away had been the right thing to do. Bob had deserved as much.

Still, a mark seven would have been an very useful thing to have.

"Anson went a-running, he couldn't sit quite still

For he didn't want to be like his sidekicks and get killed

But something flew by and a giant shadow loomed,

Anson couldn't run any more and he knew he was doomed.

'Cause Sythry the dragon went crunch, crunch, crunch…"

"Remember, think of the link as a door! Don't go through the wall; you won't get anywhere that way! The door is opened and turned to one side; all you need to do is to move the door so it's open on the other side. Understand? That's all you have to do, I'll do the rest. I'm the pump, and you're the pipe, and the pipe simply brings the stuff the pump is pumping where it needs to be."

Victor bent down and nudged Brommus with the tip of his snout. "I. Am. Not. Stupid. Crazy, at times, perhaps, but not stupid. Yes, I heard every word of what you said and shockingly enough, comprehend it. Yes, I know they're coming, yes, I know if your silly little cantrip fails, we're both going to die horribly, and yes, I know you think I'm insane. There. Is this enough seriousness for you, buddy?"

Brommus replaced his cap on his head and shivered. "Yes, thank you very much."

"Good, because you and I might not have much of a life left, so it's important that we don't waste any of it thinking unhappy thoughts." Victor reared up, sat down on the tip of the rocky outcropping, and pulled his neck back in what Brommus thought could have been a regal recline, if only his proportions weren't so thick-set. It would've been more impressive if Victor's eyes had blazed, like he'd seen some of the heroes' dragons do, but they stayed that same calm shade of amber. "It's important to keep a positive outlook on matters. Oh, look, here they come."

And they did.

The two columns of dragon riders split down the middle to easily and cleanly surround Victor and Brommus on their rocky outcrop, three rings of scaly beasts of burden hovering in the air, three rings of wound crossbows and notched elven longbows pointing down at them.

Victor yawned. "I hate dragon riders. Are they going to do a grand speech on how Good always triumphs over Evil or something on those lines? I always like to have a good laugh myself."

"I wouldn't bet my life on it," Brommus replied, his hands clenched into tight fists. "Would you please drop the act and do what you're supposed to?"

"Attention! You are wanted for resisting detention--"

"Shut the fuck up," Victor said, concentrated the way Brommus had shown him, and saw. Frustration. Hopelessness. Confusion. Under the haze of spells designed to keep the dragons compliant, did they even remember who they were, what they were supposed to be? Victor didn't know, but he planned to find out soon. Soon. The Company had trained their dragon riders well; they made ready to swoop down and blast the two of them into nothingness.

There the threads hung; all Victor had to do was to gather them the way Brommus had shown him and tie them differently, to reverse the magic's flow. Maybe I can't break the Company's spells, but I can make them regret putting them there in the first place.

To his mind's eye, the strands that bound telepathic companion to their human counterpart were far beyond industry standards; fine and impossibly strong for their weight like gossamer.

But being threads, they could be bent and tied. Brommus had told him to expect the back of his mind to feel a little numb, which would mean the ex-wise old mentor was working his magic, and sure enough, a presence made itself known at the edges of Victor's consciousness and speared its way directly at the retied threads…

The change was immediate and startling.

"Being a dragon, I think I know more about my kind than you, suckers."

"Wha--aaaaa!" The formation leader had lost her grip and fallen out of her saddle to the ground, clutching at her head. "My body…feels heavy…tired…but…must…fly…"

One by one, the other dragon riders fell off their mounts. At the same time the dragons--gold, silver, bronze and all--started blinking, shaking their heads as if they'd been awakened from a very long, deep sleep.

They did not seem happy.

What riders had survived the drop continued to writhe where they'd fallen.

"Must…love…rider…don't know why, just…must…obey master's will…"

"So tired…incomprehensible…"

"Why must I listen…incessant, angst-ridden whining…no more…"

The first screams rang out as the dragons began turning on their riders.

Victor looked down at the carnage and ran his tongue over his teeth. "Bastards. Hate dragon riders so much. Well, that wasn't too bad." Slowly, he padded towards the formation leader's corpse, broken and bloodied from the fall. A thick, black cloak was tied about her neck, and Victor pulled it off her neck with his teeth, shaking the corpse like a ragdoll.

Then he tore it in two, strands of leathery material breaking loose from the cloak and dropping to the ground.

"And that makes a total of one hundred and seventy-three, which means…shouldn't be that many more pieces of Mom floating around to destroy." Victor cast his eye once across the scene of dragons feeding atop bloodstained rock. "I think this would be a good time to leave before someone comes along, notices us and starts asking inconvenient questions, hrm? By the looks of it, these buggers won't be on our tail for some time--oh, come on."

Brommus had shrunk against the rock he'd been sitting on earlier with his eyes wide and glassy, holding himself as he whimpered. When no amount of gentle prodding and poking with either tongue or claw managed to rouse the ex-wise old mentor, Victor scooped him up in one forepaw and unceremoniously dumped him onto his scaly back.

"I hate spineless humans," he muttered to himself as he tromped away into the woods. "Can't face the realities of what needs to be done."

Behind them, the sun began to rise, its light as red as the ground.

#

"Try some positive thinking, buddy. You're supposed to have been been a wise old mentor. Didn't you protect your charges from all sorts of threats and take part in all sorts of battles? Blood and guts spilt all over the place shouldn't have been anything new to you. Why the reaction? Don't tell me there's any difference between spilling the guts of the bad guys and doing the same to the good guys, because we all know there isn't any."

Brommus continued to stare into space--or at the trail of destruction Victor left behind him as he ploughed through the forest, saplings and undergrowth trampled into the ground and larger trees uprooted and toppled like matchsticks in the black dragon's wake, the earth shaking with the rhythmic pounding of Victor's feet. Every now and then, the Brommus would turn his cap in his hands and stare at the inside like a street musician looking for the odd tossed coin or two.

"Damn it, I hated this angst crap when Agnurlin went through it, and I damn fucking well hate it now. Snap out of it. Life's too short to go around moping, especially for you humans."

Brommus cleared his throat, and tried to find the right words. "It's not that."

"Well, if it's not, then why the heck are you acting all spell-shocked?"

"I…I don't know for sure. Back when I was younger, I thought I was making the best of a bad situation by joining up with the Company, and now, seeing what's happened despite my best efforts, to think I believed I could change…oh, I don't know what to believe any more. Maybe that's it. To think less than a season ago I was thinking of how to best get along with the next hero in line, and now I'm sitting on the back of a black dragon."

"Well, you've placed yourself firmly enough in our little bind by doing that spell of yours. Just go along with it, and see where it leads; it's not as if you're going to get out anytime soon."

"That's true," Brommus replied with a sigh. "Still…forget it, there's something you might be interested in. Don't you think we managed to…ahem…deal with those dragon riders a bit too easily?"

"You complaining about something being too easy, buddy? I thought I'd heard it all. You'd rather have lost a limb or something beating them off? A stump to, as you humans say, tingle on a cold night so you can remember?"

"No, no. I'm just finding it strange; dragon riders are supposed to be the cream of the Company's airborne heroes' crop, the best of the best. The way some Quests(TM) are structured, even one of them appearing on-scene would be enough to turn the tide of a battle faster than any other stock hero type could. Don't you think it's suspicious that the spell worked a little too well? It was something I put together in a month and that was all theory."

"Who cares how we did it, so long as we did? I built a business from the first salary Vardus Ebonlocke gave me, and I still can't think of any gambit that warrants utterly destroying almost all the finest gems in your hoard, so to speak. That sort of make-or-break crap usually isn't worth the risk. You're simply worrying too much. We deserve a bit of luck, considering what's been happening to Boss of late."

Brommus sighed once more and tried to conjure up a small flame, without much luck. Half his head felt as if it'd been removed, and the other half felt as if someone had filled it with nails and they were rattling around with each step Victor took. "You wouldn't happen to have anything to drink in those bags tied to your sides, would you? My mouth's getting sort of dry."

"With the way you were sweating, I'm surprised you aren't already a shrivelled husk. Still…will you die if you don't get a drink?"

"Yes," came the reply without any hesitation.

"Help yourself. Left bag, brown pocket. Just don't go poking around Boss' alchemy stuff."

Brommus clambered across Victor's back on all fours, reached over the dragon's side as far as he dared and rummaged around in the thickset travelling packs, pausing at a bottle, the label on its side declaring it to be Fenorosian peach brandy. The ex-wise old mentor stopped, considered the ramifications of a hangover on top of everything else he was suffering from, and suddenly, another thought struck him. "Miss Ebonlocke isn't in the habit of re-using old bottles to store her alchemy components, is she?"

"Nope. Not after the incident with Slogan. We didn't bring any of her potions with us anyways."

"That's a relief. If this had been a bloody Quest(TM), I'd have grabbed a bottle full of some mislabelled dangerous chemical or the other, gulped it straight down, and suffer no ill effect save those for purely comical value." Brommus uncorked the bottle, and began to down the sweet contents in large gulps, wiping his chin with the back of his hand when he'd finished. "You're just clearing a trail for the smaller animals to use. That's how it works, doesn't it? Big animals trample clear paths through vegetation, game trails form, so on and so forth."

Awkward silence.

"I'll write it off as you being drunk, buddy," Victor growled and kept moving. "We're nearly at my place anyways; you can sleep off whatever it is that's bugging you. If that don't work, I'm sure Boss can cook up something to put your head back on straight."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 18

Nodammo ran as fast as her legs would carry her, which wasn't very much so. Agnurlin seemed to be having a better time of it as he ducked and weaved between the trees with far more grace than Nodammo could ever hope to achieve, but then again, he didn't have any leg muscles to complain about being abused.

"Think we're safe?" she gasped between breaths, ducking just in time to avoid a low-hanging branch that had been on a collision course with her face. Fallen branches snapped under the soles of her boots, and Nodammo wondered what kinds of creatures were to be found in the thick, wet leaf litter that was everywhere.

"A little more, Mistress. The woods are hardly as thick as I'd hoped they'd be."

More trees passed by in a blur of mossy grey-green.

"I knew…Rince's essential wizzarding guide said to expect to do lots of running as a practising magician, but…this is…ridiculous."

"Slow down, Mistress. I see a good place to stop ahead."

"Because I'm tired?"

Agnurlin pointed at a stand of trees off to one side where they grew thicker and tilted, their crowns sharp and dangerous-looking. "And because it is defensible."

"Oh. Well." Nodammo felt the soles of her boots begin to skid on the mulch, and righted herself against a nearby lichen-coated tree trunk. "I don't…see why not."

"Rest a while. No one appears to be pursuing us."

A protruding root looked clean enough to be sat on, and Nodammo wasn't waiting for an invitation. Instead of the clean, pristine air ubiquitous to the stories her mother had told her when she was little, this forest smelt of dirt, rot and the cold damp of early spring nights.

"Your mother will be fine, Mistress. She is capable of holding her own against enemies. As for Victor, he claims to be indestructible. Let him live up to it. Don't look so glum."

"It doesn't seem right that everyone should be protecting me like this."

Agnurlin shrugged. "Victor and I have a contract, and we will honour its terms. If it makes you feel any better, Victor has his own axe to grind with the dragon riders, so you're not the centre about which Fantasyland revolves."

"Why, thank you, but that's not the problem. I…well, I'm supposed to be your boss, but ever since this whole business started all I've been doing is being shuttled by either you or Victor from one place to the other. I haven't done anything--well, everything I've done hasn't turned out that well--and it's wearing on my nerves to see other people step up when I can't even pull my own weight."

"Allow me to be blunt, Mistress. You are feeling inadequate."

"Well…yes. Maybe Mother had a point. I've only been on the run for two days and I'm already thoroughly sick of running away; there is no way I am going to be doing this for the rest of my life. Sooner or later, I'm going to run out of luck, and I'd rather die fighting than fleeing."

Agnurlin reached into his waistcoat and pulled out a fistful of gold-tipped pens, before looking vaguely disgusted and throwing them away. A few odd socks came next, followed by keys of all sorts and handfuls of loose change, coins of milling Nodammo had never seen before, and his axe, the edges of which were stained with dried blood.

"Having trouble finding what you want?" Nodammo asked.

"Objects in butler-space have to come from somewhere, and most of them are from under rugs, the backs of couches, the behind of couches, and the like. Things put there by butlers themselves, they are a minority, and sometimes the magic refuses to cooperate. My apologies."

"It's all right. I don't think I could stomach anything now, anyway, not after all that running. Why are you telling me this, anyway?"

"You aren't moping any more, Mistress, are you?"

"No, I'm not. Thank you." Nodammo's knees ached, but she forced herself to her feet. "Perhaps finding this Brommus person was to our advantage. If we're going to go out in the blaze of glory, at least he can tell us where to start. If he and Victor pull through that rabble, of course."

"I really hope he does. I do not want to have to face down Victor's mate and tell her he is headed for the shoe factory." With a steady clacking of his joints, Agnurlin took Nodammo by an arm and leant her weight against his. "I know these woods, Mistress. Victor's home should not far from here."

Nodammo sighed. "If this is how it's going to be from now on, I'd better get into training--and fast."

#

"What's that supposed to be?"

"This?" Victor tapped the large metal cylinder by the cave's mouth with a foreclaw. "It's the water heater. Strange as is sounds, I like a warm bath as much as you do. That one by the back's the septic tank; most of it's underground, though. All built by myself, of course. Can't afford to have workmen snooping around my place for obvious reasons."

"Oh." Piqued, Brommus looked around. The wards around the lair were top-notch--he wasn't sure what some of them did, and whatever the case, Brommus was quite sure he hadn't heard of any dragon lairs with a sign posted out the front, especially not with 'come to kill me and rob my home? Please take a number and have a seat while you wait for your turn.' written on it and a small ticketing machine under a nearby tarpaulin.

"Jete and I worked on that as a father-daughter project," Victor explained. "Most buggers read it, touch the machine to take a number, and get disintegrated. We recycle their ashes, so it's all good. It doesn't keep out all heroes, but it does weed out the worst of them. I hate heroes."

Brommus looked at the pile of damp ashes by the machine and swallowed despite the peach brandy settling in his stomach. Most heroes, knowing they were invulnerable to the consequences of their choices, would happily push a button labelled "Do not push. Pushing this button will cause the end of the world. Really.", if only to give them an excuse to go on another Quest(TM).

"Stop looking as if your face's about to melt off. You'd rather I let them waltz into my home and kill me and mine?"

"I was thinking…well…there has to be a better way to keep heroes away than killing them off."

"Well, if you think of one, let me know. Heroes are worse than flies; at least with flies, when you catch one and release it back outside, three more come in when you're not noticing. Heroes come back and bring along everyone and their mother in the bargain. Are we going to get in out of the cold and damp, or not?"

Brommus couldn't think of anything to say to that, so he followed Victor into the cave mouth, half-expecting to be vaporised by the mesh of spells over the entrance. When his constituent bits failed to be torn apart, Victor was already ahead, and he'd to break into a fast jog just to keep up with the black dragon's lazy ambling down the tunnel, its length and sides smoothed down and illuminated by orbs that flickered on and off as the two of them passed by.

"You have lighting?"

"What did you expect? Can't see a damn thing otherwise in complete darkness. What did you think we dragons kept in our homes? Cheesecake?"

"Well, you have hoards…and, um…well…the occasional world-shattering artefact of immense power the heroes have to retrieve in order to save the world, and, err…a shelf to sleep on? Maybe a water source?" Scratching his head, Brommus looked up at Victor's lumbering bulk. "All right, so I've never been inside the home of any of your ilk who wasn't affiliated with the Company."

"Feh. Most of my loot hasn't much in the way of liquidity anyway, buddy, and money is worthless if you don't do anything with it." Up ahead, the tunnel widened into a modestly-sized cavern--in relation to Victor's size-- with a few smaller ones branching off to the sides. What interested Brommus more, though, were the furnishings, and not just the trough of gravel Victor had settled down upon.

"You have a transmitter," the ex-wise old mentor whispered as he stared at the buttons, screens and levers, all scaled up to Victor's size. "One of the most powerful models at that."

"I do have to keep in touch with my humanoid intermediaries from time to time, even if Nefarious Industries mostly runs itself these days without requiring my interference. Sometimes--" Victor pointed at the filing cabinets that lined one side of the cavern, scaled up to dragon size-- "I forget what's in those."

"Daddy, can I kill him now?"

"Mmph mrrrfff mffmffmff," Brommus said, as people do when they've had their faces pinned against the ground. "Mmmff mfffff!"

"Let Mr. Brommus up this moment, Jete," Victor said. "He's not some half-dead hero for you to practice hunting on."

"Sorry." Jete unclamped her jaws from about Brommus' neck and shifted her weight off him before she circled the wizard like a cat, sniffing him all the while. "He smells yucky anyways. I don't like him."

"It's the peach brandy. Sorry about my daughter, buddy. You know children and how they tend to easily get overexcited, especially when they think Daddy's come home with a present."

"I see the striking resemblance." Shakily, Brommus pulled himself to his feet. "I…I think I need a hot bath. I…well, I can't blame her--a human lurking about in here usually doesn't mean anything good, can it?"

"The warm pool is over there. Turn on the water heater, wait a little while, and it should be ready to go. Take care not to drown--it wasn't designed with humans in mind."

Father and daughter watched Brommus hurry off.

"Don't slink away, Jete. We have a few things to talk about--and not just about your attitude towards guests. First, where's your mother?"

"You're going somewhere, aren't you, Daddy?"

"How--"

"The saddlebags are a dead giveaway. You didn't have to get rid of the human; we could have just spoken in draconic if you didn't want him overhearing our conversation."

Silence. Victor settled his body on the gravel, and tried not to concentrate too hard on the interior of his home. "He's Mr. Brommus. I hate having to admit it, but for a sop, he's earned the right for us to call him by his name. Now where's your mother?"

"Mommy's sleeping in the back."

Victor sighed. "That's Obsi, all right."

"She's gotten really big of late and sleeps most of the day now; I'm too small to wake her, so I've got to run the business, and everyone thinks I'm stupid and egg-damp--" Jete looked down at the floor and curled her tail about her legs. "Will you be gone long, Daddy?"

"I don't know. I really don't know, little gem. Boss has got the idea in her mind to do away with the Company for once and for all, and I could be back within the year, or not at all. I have a contract. You know how important it is to honour your promises."

"You could always quit, Daddy; I know your contract makes provision for unilateral termination, so long as the other party is duly informed. I've never known you to undertake a business venture that didn't promise success. I don't like it when you don't come home for long periods of time."

"This can't go on forever, Jete. You weren't even an urge in my mind when your grandmother had her head lopped off, but you should remember what happened to Aunt Flammie."

Jete cringed. "Yes."

"Someone has to stop this for once and for all, because sooner or later, the three of us are going to run out of luck. Me, you and your mother. This is something only I can do, Jete. I have to try and make sure Boss succeeds, one way or the other."

"Do you really believe that rubbish, Daddy? Someone else can--"

"Who else will?"

When Jete had stopped mewling and dared to look up into her father's gaze again, it'd softened. "I'm sorry for that, Jete," Victor said quietly. "But my point still stands. Who else will, if I don't? The few dragons who aren't already on the Company's take are trying to hide as best as they can. Who else will?"

Jete brightened suddenly. "Bring me with you, Daddy!"

"Sometimes, I wonder if you taking after me is a good thing. You're going to have brothers and sisters very soon, little gem; plenty of them, if the size of your mother's underbelly is any indication of that. I want you to be a good girl and help out your mother. You can do that, can't you?"

"I won't like it, but I'll do it."

"That's good enough for me." Scales and chitin clicked as Victor rose to all fours and padded over to the filing cabinets. Pulling open the oldest and most rusted of the lot, he peered into it before sticking in a foreclaw and retrieving a large cardboard tube. "I'm going to give this to you."

Jete sniffed the cardboard tube and nosed the end open; a yellowed sheet of paper fell out. She unrolled it and looked down at the faded scratchings on it. "What's this?"

"You won't be able to read it yet, but you'll be able to so when you get old enough. When that day comes and if I'm not back by then, your mother, your siblings--them at the very least, I don't know how many more--they'll be depending on you."

No matter from which angle she looked at the writings, Jete couldn't puzzle out their meaning, although there was something familiar about their shapes she couldn't quite place a claw on. "This is ridiculous, Daddy. If you can read it, why can't you tell me what it means? And why should me getting older suddenly allow me to be able to make sense of this nonsense?"

Victor rolled his eyes and pawed at the ground. "It doesn't work that way, little gem. That's what I don't like about magic. It does what the hell it wants, and sometimes there's simply no explanation for why things are as they are."

"Well, I don't have to accept that."

The only reply was a toothy grin.

"You're going to be leaving soon?"

"As soon as that Mr. Brommus is done with his bath. Boss is probably already waiting for the both of us."

"And you don't think you should tell Mommy you're going off on some stupid errand? You're going to leave it up to me to break the news to her?" Jete snorted. "Really, Daddy. I thought you were better than that."

"You don't want your Daddy to get killed before he even leaves home, do you?"

"No, I suppose not." After a little hesitation, Jete nuzzled the crook of Victor's foreleg. "Hurry back."

"I will, little gem."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 19

The smiley faces that adorned the walls of Mr. Happy's office seemed more intense to Miss Annoyed, especially in the presence of its occupant. Bigger. Bolder. Brighter, and it might have been her eyes tricking her, but the sunlight that blazed in through the windows was far too intense for an early morning, as were the white fluffy clouds and rainbow in the sky. Her pantsuit of swirling colours seemed out of place against the oppressive monochrome of the walls, but if Mr. Happy disapproved of her dress sense, she couldn't tell.

"Do make yourself comfortable, Miss Annoyed," he said as moved to pull out a comfortable-looking, cushioned chair for her. "Did you make full use of the spa facilities?"

It only seemed polite to accept the proffered seat and Miss Annoyed did so, trying to look as professional as possible while Mr. Happy seated himself, produced an ice-cream on a stick and inserted it into the illusion that surrounded his head with a faint slurping sound.

The ice-cream was a bright orange and smelled faintly of carrots.

"Yes, sir."

"Very good. We'll get straight down to business, then. I received your memo regarding the dragon riders. Surprised? I do read each and every memo I receive, you know."

That was odd. Someone with an ice-cream in their mouth shouldn't have been able to articulate their words that well. "Sir, I must impress upon you that the costs of training and equipping new dragon riders to fill in the lost ranks will amount to--"

Mr. Happy waved her off. "Yes, I know how much they will cost, and that's not even considering whether it'll be possible to find appropriate candidates within so short a time. We aren't here to talk about such utterly droll triflings." Setting aside the half-eaten ice-cream, Mr. Happy reached out with his free hand and shifted aside a small potted plant on his desk, its leaves and stem far too green and healthy to be real.

"Sir?"

"Don't move a muscle. Please." The smile stuck in that bright yellow circle of a head widened. "All right. You can breathe now, Miss Annoyed. What did you think I was going to do?"

Miss Annoyed meshed her fingers together and glanced at the floor. "Um. Sir."

"Well, it's only natural. I can understand why you might have such thoughts, but that does not mean Company policy condones such behaviour. But enough of that; the security's deactivated now. Look at what I have here in my hand, Miss Annoyed."

There a pause while Miss Annoyed sought to follow that twinge of familiarity at the back of her mind. "Narrative power?"

"To say it is that would be a very grave understatement." Mr. Happy turned the canister in his hand back and forth, and clear, viscous liquid sloshed around in its midsection. "This is the ripest of the fruits of our labours, Miss Annoyed. The one-in-a-thousand chance that swings in the hero's favour, the inexplicable strength of the last stand, the chance that star-crossed lovers just happen to bump into each other around the corner, the unquestioned twists and turns of narrative casualty, of how the kingdom is prosperous despite collecting no taxes and being ravaged by war, all because the right person has his or her posterior on the throne. Pretty, isn't it? We got it from the project you worked on recently, the one involving a certain deviance."

Miss Annoyed watched the liquid, its motions smooth and calm one moment, thrashing against the canister's walls the other. The liquid seemed to grow, filling her vision until there was nothing left in the world but the ebb and flow of droplets…

She was saved by Mr. Happy tapping her on the shoulder with a gloved finger.

"Drawn into the story? The narrative here is as saturated as it gets, Miss Annoyed, enough that we've been able to condense it into something tangible. Even the greatest and most epic Quests(TM) we've been able to manufacture and harvest from yielded only a sparse vapour form.

"All those Quests(TM) from runaway princesses to maverick one-man armies freeing persecuted peoples--they are nothing compared to this venture, and that is why I'm taking this into my own hands. I wouldn't say natural is always better, but there is a distinct difference between tamed lightning that comes from two pieces of metal and a lemon, and that of a funnelled lightning strike. Risk against reward, Miss Annoyed. I believe in effective communication, and that's why you've been asked to drop by my office.

"Do you now understand why I'm so nonchalant about a bunch of grunt-level dragon riders snuffing it, if it means we can extract more of this narrative? No employee of Quest(TM) should go around with unnecessary doubts or worries impeding their safety and productivity during working hours."

Miss Annoyed swallowed. "Sir. Um, where do I fit into all of this?"

"Yes, yes, I was getting to that." Mr. Happy picked up his ice-cream--it hadn't even begun to melt, despite the pool of sunshine in which it'd lain for a good while--and inserted it into the big smile once more. "We've exhausted our temporary supply of minor antagonists for now, and conflict is a good part of any gripping narrative, since we can't glue them to a narrative with chewing gum and peanut jam."

"Am I supposed to laugh, sir?"

"Just weeding out the workers from the sycophants, if you will. In any case, we can't control everything, otherwise the narrative would lose much of its power, but we can ease matters along, and that's where you come in, an opening for a bright young junior executive looking to make a mark on her career.

"I need you to be a recurring antagonist."

#

Faced with the draft coming down the cavernous tunnel, Brommus shivered, plodded on and wished Victor had a towel. Of course, Brommus thought, even if one could find a towel Victor's size, it'd be ripped to shreds before any use could be gotten out of it. Victor happening to have a whirlpool bath--even if it was hardly human-sized--had been enough of a blessing, although putting dirty clothing onto clean skin was hardly pleasant.

Besides, all his towels had been in his little shack back at the nursing home.

The nursing home which by now probably had been reduced to a pile of flaming rubble according to Company standard operating procedures, and this time it wasn't a prefabricated village with an extra shoddy look, which only purpose was to stand for ten to twenty years for the hero to mature in before being destroyed.

Flaming rubble that was being moved away to make space for the Dancing Donkey Inn, if that Hobait had been right.

Brommus shivered again. Everyone there had been so nice and friendly, even the fountain.

"Damn it, there's nothing I hate more than a perpetually sour face, buddy. If you're going to be tagging along with Boss and the lot of us from now on, would it kill you to at least try and be cheerful once in a while?"

"Sorry."

"Grah, now you look even worse. Forget it. Get up on my back; maybe not having to walk will make you feel better."

It took a bit of scrambling, but Brommus managed to get a grip on Victor's scales and haul himself up.

"You've been doing this a while?"

"I…I've had practice. Many heroes have unusual mounts, and once you know where to step, it's just a matter of using your arms."

"Hrm."

A moment of silence passed, punctuated by the quiet, rhythmic thumping of Victor's footfalls.

"You love your daughter," Brommus said, looking contemplative.

"Amazing deduction, Merlin. How could you tell?"

"I heard everything two of you said from the bath. If you don't know, the entrance funnels in sound from your living room quite well."

"What? But I clawed the walls just so--" Victor snorted, and the fire in his eyes died. "It's so bloody hard to account for these things when you humans hear things differently from us dragons. I hate it. That aside, is loving your children such a strange thing?"

"If the Company's to be believed, no. Fathers are only around to randomly torment their daughters and beat their sons, while mothers are stuffy, hidebound and constrictive. Since there isn't enough manpower to go around putting villages to the fire and blade, sometimes heroes have to have a reason to go off on their own."

Victor snorted. "That's disgusting."

"She didn't take well to your leaving, did she?"

"Now you're flying a bit too high, buddy. Jete's old enough to take care of herself, she still has her mother around, and even if the business were to collapse this very moment, the trust funds will make sure she'll never want for anything in her lifetime. When I was her age I wished my mother--" Victor suddenly stopped mid-step, and Brommus would have been flung off if not for the sheer roughness of Victor's back. "Congratulations, buddy. You've just managed to spread your grummy face around. Hope you're proud of yourself now."

Brommus sighed. "And this is why we conveniently remove all dependents before a hero embarks on a Quest(TM)."

"Whatever. I…let's get out of here. If this goes on, I'm going to end up not leaving at all." Flattening his wings against his body and redoubling his pace, Victor ran down the tunnel so fast the glowing orbs scarcely had time to register his passing.

While he couldn't be sure, Brommus thought he heard crying--or something the sounded exactly like it--wafting down the tunnel from behind him.

#

Waking to a tingling, creeping sensation on her legs, Nodammo opened her eyes to see a trail of red ants marching across cloth and skin to get at the half-eaten tray of sugared fruit by her side.

"Aagh!"

Agnurlin came rushing into the lake clearing through the wide forest path, huge battle-axe in hand, then tucked it into his waistcoat as he knelt down to help brush off the stinging ants from Nodammo's legs, then held one wriggling specimen up to an eye socket. "You had me worried there, Mistress; these ant bites are harmless. Annoying, but harmless. The swelling should go down within the day, although I daresay it will itch abominably before then. Be thankful; it could have been worse."

"I…oh, for the love of a little distilled cymerian oil. Then we wouldn't have this problem. But then, it's my fault for attracting them in the first place; it's hard to believe we don't have a home to go back to. I thought that tree root was my bedside table." Nodammo looked down at her legs, a mess of red welts that extended from below her kneecaps to just above her socks. "I wonder if heroes ever had to bother with insects."

Agnurlin tucked the ant-covered tray into his waistcoat. "Only those who were unlucky enough not to have their campsites sprayed and dusted ahead of time, or those who had crazy wise old mentors."

"There're some forest flames over there. A pinch of diluted acid to extract the active ingredients and--" she groaned and sat down on a nearby clean-looking rock. "Victor's got the field kit with him, doesn't he?"

"I'm afraid so, Mistress."

"Tired, aching from sleeping on hard ground, aching even more from running, in dirty, damp and smelly clothing, and I'm not sure how my feet would smell if I took them out of my boots. Some adventure this is turning out to be."

"Such are the realities of life away from civilisation."

"Yes, these things are supposed to be small and trifling compared to what we're supposed to be facing down, but they're so bloody irritating," Nodammo said with a sigh and rubbed her eyes sleepily. "I suppose I could be grateful for not being hungry."

"Hungry. Gimme eat."

Later, Nodammo would reflect on how it shouldn't be right for someone so large and ruddy like Victor to move so silently, but there and then she was aware of something very large behind her.

Nodammo sighed, and immediately wished she hadn't amidst a whuff of not-quite-fresh dragon breath. "First Agnurlin, now you, too?"

"Eat. Now."

Brommus looked down at Nodammo from Victor's back. The expression written on his face was obvious: Help, please?

"Oh, calm down. He'll settle down when he's had a chance to eat. That's Victor for you; goes for days without a single bite of food or wink of sleep, then it suddenly comes crashing down on him all at once." Nodammo took the sack of dragon kibble Agnurlin had produced and set it before Victor, who didn't even bother tearing the sack open before swallowing it in one gulp. "He can eat the junk his factories churn out."

"That was the only one I was able to save from the tower, Mistress. I could look for more, but sacks of dragon kibble aren't exactly the sort of thing people lose behind cupboards and under cushions."

"I'll gladly buy him a cow later, and a live one at that," Nodammo said as she helped Brommus down from a now-snoozing Victor and led him to a nearby sun-warmed rock. "Well. Never thought I'd have to say it to a wise old mentor, but I'm glad you're still alive."

"I'm glad I'm still alive, too," Brommus replied in a small, quiet voice.

"Don't be like that. Aren't wise old mentors supposed to be calm and confident in everything they do? Why don't you start by telling me what happened after I left?"

So Brommus told her, while Agnurlin served tea in his usual unobtrusive manner. When Brommus was done, Nodammo raised an eyebrow at him over her teacup.

"I've never heard of anyone who was worried about things being too easy."

"Then pardon me, but you haven't gotten out into the real world much. Quest(TM) makes a living by being competent at what it does. The whole matter with the dragon-riders reeks of a set-up."

"Well then, Mr. Experienced, what's it a set-up for?"

"Um…"

"Maybe it is a set-up. Maybe you just got lucky, or the spell worked like you wanted it to. Maybe the dragon riders were expecting easy pickings and weren't taking the two of you seriously. I don't know. But it'd be stupid to let that worry paralyse us from careful action, don't you think?"

"I suppose. To be honest, I feel like I'm on a Quest(TM), except there's no script to follow, no logistics cart one step ahead of us to clear the way and prepare important plot points, all the mysterious supernatural benefactors have taken a day off and my Sword of Destiny's been turned into a monkey wrench." He pulled a particularly large specimen out of his coveralls. "I was going to fix the kitchen sinks this morning. Then there's the question of Victor…"

They turned to watch Victor dozing in the sun.

"I could let him go, you know. He's earned the right to a peaceful life without getting involved in what I've got planned."

"He doesn't seem to think of it that way, and while I haven't been around Victor long, I don't think he'd take it well if you forcibly retired him."

"His daughter is annoying enough. I don't think I could stand it if her daddy gets killed and she ends up hating me for it." Nodammo finished the contents of her teacup and handed it to Agnurlin. "In any case, we can't do anything about it before he wakes up, so we might as well turn our attention to other matters."

"Such as?" Brommus took a deep breath of the tea's fragrant aroma, and let it out again slowly. Perhaps all this might be worth it, if he could have tea like this every day.

"You were a wise old mentor. Tell me, what do you know of dissatisfaction within the Company's workforce?"

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 20

Victor didn't wake up that night, or even the next day. He formed a ruddy hill by the lakeside all on his own, letting out gentle rumbles from time to time and shifting in his sleep.

"I wonder what he's smiling about," Brommus said as he watched Victor hum and nuzzle empty air.

"Blood. Violence. Sex. Probably all three together at the same time for the best effect, knowing him," Nodammo replied.

Brommus blanched. "Serves me right for asking, I guess."

"Victor is what he is, and most importantly, he enjoys being what he is. He's like a force of nature; it'd seem wrong to ask him to be what he isn't."

It rained that afternoon, a cold spring downpour that cut visibility to an arm's length and turned the ground into thick slurry. Agnurlin busied himself with setting up the collapsible tent from Victor's saddlebags, and was digging trenches to divert the rainfall around the camp while Nodammo and Brommus discussed matters over a small fire.

"This is a commitment we're talking about here, Mr. Brommus. You've already been a great help to us, not just with regards to Victor, and you can walk away from this and hunker down without feeling ashamed of yourself. Since I don't know how to put this without being offensive, I'll be blunt here: I don't want anyone coming along just because they feel obligated to, and that includes my hirelings as well. No matter how useful you are or what you can contribute to this endeavour, if you're not coming along with us for the long haul no matter what happens, you might as well not start."

"All right, all right, I get the point. You don't want people who'll drop and run at the first sign of trouble. Maybe duty means nothing to you, but I do have one to fix everything I've broken."

Nodammo wasn't sure if she should feel insulted or not. She contemplated the grass and tried to run a hand through her hair, by now a mess of tangles. "A question, if I may?"

"Of course."

"Why did you stay on with the Company if you knew they were less than completely upright people? You don't seem the type to do that."

"It's…it's hard to explain." Brommus sucked in a breath and continued peeling the lotus root with his knife. "Part of the reason was that I thought I could change the system from within, you know, encourage heroes to do the right things instead of what was convenient or the script dictated, even though they could get away with the latter. Still, thinking back on it, I don't think that would have been enough."

"Go on."

"The Quests(TM)…they were like stories, for lack of a better word. You know how in theatre, the actors can pretend to slip on rotten fruit, crack their heads and bleed to death, and the audience does little more than laugh? Or how we can look at paintings of enormous, bloody battles with gore strewn all over the battlefield and simply shrug it off without another thought? It's because we know that the painting is just some artist's fantasy, that at the end of the play the actors will get up and walk off the stage unharmed. It wasn't real."

Nodammo considered that. "It isn't strictly true. A good storyteller will be able to move the audience to care for the characters, even if they aren't real, for your definition of the term. That aside, I understand the point you're making."

"Even though I used to get buried a lot, I never actually died;it was just a few moments' worth of clawing oneself out of the grave and that was that. The villages that all got razed to the ground were prefabricated units that wouldn't have stood longer than what it took for the hero to reach maturity. The mothers who were supposed to have expired in messy, bloody childbirth--they didn't really die, they were just taken away and the hero told they went to a better place or something on those lines." Brommus paused to catch his breath and skewered the peeled tuber on a sharp, pointy stick over the fire. "At least, that's the way it used to be when I joined up. It was all a game supposedly designed to part clients with their hard-earned gold. I'm not sure what it is now."

"Nothing good, that's for sure. Look, Mr. Brommus. I haven't known you for very long, but you seem a nice enough person, and my mother thought well of you. That's the problem. We don't have the liberty of being nice, since the Company's decided we're villains." Nodammo spat on the ground. "People like Victor, Agnurlin and I have to make compromises to retain our breathing privileges--well, Agnurlin doesn't breathe any more, but you get my point. Though I won't speak for Victor, I like to think I was never unnecessarily cruel, and I don't want you balking at some necessary action just because someone's going to get hurt. Better them than us."

Now Brommus looked a little unsure as he turned his meal on his makeshift skewer. "I can live with that, I guess. No unnecessary cruelty."

"We're morally ambiguous, not evil. You get to have so much more fun that way."

"Hmm." With a quick flick of his wrist, Brommus pulled the fibrous root out of the fire. Nodammo had to admit it smelled wonderful. "So what's the first step on your plan to rally those disenfranchised by the Company?"

"I've got an idea. It needs a bit of refining, but it might work."

"And that would be?" Brommus asked as he tore into his meal.

"Don't talk with your mouth full. Anyway, you were telling me about Gru'bar'atr last night. You could tell me a little more, couldn't you?"

#

Victor slept on.

Water pooled in the pits on the hide of his pitted, spined back, ran down his flanks and wing-leather in small waterfalls and collected in the small depression he'd made in the ground.

"Foul beast! I am Kirimi Riley, Daughter to the Legacy and Gifted One of the silver hair and deep blue eyes! Long have you terrorised the villages of…um, I mean, the elves, no, there aren't any elves here…long have you terrorised the happy and cute woodland animals who were going about their business when you happened to eat them!"

Victor slept on.

"Hello? Can you hear me? I'm here to slay you! Look, I've got a really big staff here that shoots fire out of the knob on the end, and it makes things go really ouchy when the fire hits! So wake up and meet your doom, damn it! See? I'm poking you! People wake up when they're being poked, so wake up now! I demand it!"

Victor slept on.

"I'm not going to be ignored, you big lunk! No one ignores me, because I am Kirimi Riley, Daughter to the Legacy and Gifted One of the silver hair and deep blue eyes! I didn't wade through all this disgusting mud, leaf litter and insects just so you, vile dragon, could sleep in front of me, in spite of my great sacrifices! I walked through this rain and am dripping wet! I suffered a broken nail! My hair is a mess, and chances are I'm going to have plenty of split ends tomorrow! And just look at the horrors my ordeals have done to my complexion! You are going to wake up this moment, and I am--"

Victor mumbled in his sleep and rolled over onto his side. Wood splintered and something crunched, but the sounds were quickly drowned out by the thunderous downpour. After a few moments of squirming, Victor rolled back onto his belly and rumbled happily to himself as the rain washed the worst of the bloody mess into the ground.

Victor slept on.

#

Brommus smelt pound cake, too fresh, fluffy and delicious to be real.

Maybe if I keep my eyes closed and lie very still, I'll be able to wake up without incident--

Something stiff and hard planted itself firmly in Brommus' stomach right above his spleen. While Brommus wasn't sure if he could throw up here, his stomach definitely felt like it.

"Rise and shine, kiddo! Rise and shine! You're not going to get ahead of others by lying down there, even if the pound cake does make a good bed. Don't look so goddamned pathetic like a helpless kitten; wake up and smell the ashes. You know what people do with helpless kittens, don't you?"

Brommus opened his eyes just in time to see a sprinkling of ash fall from Gandwarf's cigarette onto him, and he pushed himself up on his elbows. "I don't see anyone with a sack, and we're not a river. Look, I'm trying to have a pleasant night's sleep without the likes of you intruding on my dreams, so I'd appreciate it if you delivered your stupid cryptic message and got the heck out of my head."

Something was wrong. The pound cake still looked like pound cake, and it smelt as mouth-watering as ever, but there was something odd about the colour, as if the baker had added a few drops of food colouring to the batter before it'd been baked. Perhaps it was a trick of his mind, it was enough for Brommus to wonder if the chocolate river flowing off to one side seemed a little greenish and smell too bitter for milk chocolate, of if the colour on the candy canes was just the tiniest bit faded.

"No, no, you've got it all wrong, kiddo. I'm here on my own time." Gandwarf laughed, smoke curling from his nostrils, and patted Brommus on the shoulder. "Just here to give you a bit of encouragement and wish you luck, since you're going off on a grand journey and all."

"I'm not--"

"You're still too bloody skinny, like a…like a…noodle. That's right, a noodle. Are you still drinking that bloody vegetable juice every day?"

"No. If you would be so kind--"

"Waste of good magic, extracting that juice from carrots and cabbages and beets and whatnot. I told you you'd never grow big and strong that way, that eating that sort of stuff that doesn't put meat on your bones, and there shouldn't be any hero who looks like a beanpole. Even starving street urchin heroes don't look as stretched as you do. But no, you'd never listen to your wise old mentor the way yours listened to you."

"Would you please tell me who gave you the idea I'm going on a Quest(TM)? The Company's trying to kill me!"

Gandwarf smiled, displaying a mouthful of yellow-and-brown teeth. "Finally got you angry enough to grow a spine, didn't I? I never said you were going on a Quest(TM). I said you were going on a journey with that black-haired broad. Aren't you?"

Brommus deflated and looked down at the pound cake he was sitting on. "That's right, I am going somewhere with her. Is it that wrong to want to stick with people who're casting the same spell you are?"

"Um, nothing. Never mind. 'S probably a good idea you're going to Fairban--I mean Gru'bar'atr. Very good idea, indeed."

"Why?"

"Just got a feeling." Gandwarf erupted into a spasm of hacking coughs and spat a gob of yellowish-black sputum into the chocolate river. Brommus winced. "Okay? You don't question these feelings. All right, I get the idea that you don't want any more of me. Anything you want to say before I go?"

"Hmm. Yes, there is one thing." Brommus mumbled a few syllables under his breath, and snapped his fingers. It didn't take long before a disgusting brown stain appeared on Gandwarf's robes and continued to spread steadily. "That's for the rice pudding."

"Glue! In my underpants! Why, you little brat, I--I'll--"

Brommus woke up, feeling better than he'd in weeks.

#

"I hate waking up."

"Mhm. Take a moment to stretch well--that'll help with the aching."

It was interesting, Brommus decided, to note that despite the fact it made sounds akin to sheet rock cracking, Victor's stretching was distinctly catlike. Oblivious to Brommus' scrutiny, Victor grunted, settled his wings, and padded down to the lakeside to drink from the scummy, greenish water.

"He won't get sick from that, will he?" Brommus asked Nodammo.

"I've never known Victor to get sick from eating anything. All sorts of heroes have tried to poison him before. You look chipper this morning. Pleasant dreams?"

"You could put it that way." Brommus shook his head. "So, we're heading out to North Fairban--I mean, Gru'bar'atr?"

"Do you have a better plan? You've stated you have connections there, after all."

"I'd hardly call once being wise old mentor to the king merely a 'connection', but yes. Slakar was a nice kid. Better than most, anyways, and if the newsprints are anything to go by, he needs help. Pity being able to wave a sword around and retrieving a shiny jewel doesn't quite prepare one for the challenges of statesmanship."

"Well, prepare yourself; once Agnurlin's broken camp and Victor's refreshed himself, we're off. We'll be stopping on the way to pick up necessities, and I'm sure you'll want a change of clothes from those stained old coveralls, even if the pattern is fitting, and a few moments with a razor would make you far more presentable than you are now. If you don't mind me, I need to deal with employee relations for a moment, so take your time."

#

"Victor. Don't pretend you can't hear me. We need to talk."

Victor raised his snout from the water just long enough to grunt a reply before he dipped it back in and continued to drink. "I hate talking. Noise, noise, bloody noise all the time."

"We all have to do things we hate, Victor. I would hate to see you go, but you have a family; there's no reason you should get mixed up in this when you have other responsibilities. I could release you from your contract, you could apologise to Jete and Obsi, and then stay at home and…um…and get on with your life."

A short pause, and Victor spat out the water in his jaws, creating a fine mist in the air. "You mean hide. Hide like a worm. I could, you know. At the risk of sounding fucking poetic, my kind are of the bones of the earth and the dark places in their joints. I could take Jete and Obi deep into the earth, seal off the entrance with a whole bloody fucking mountainside and live off the things in the darkness without having to worry about our fucking spleens being stolen as a medical alternative to unicorns' kidneys. Nefarious Industries runs itself now, and the money still gets deposited into the bank accounts. I could do all that and live out the rest of my life never seeing the fucking sun, but I'm not going to, because, amazingly, I have too much of a sense of self-worth to live the fucking life of a fucking exile.

"I hate discussing this sort of shit. Fuck off."

"Victor, think of Jete and how she'd feel without her father around--"

"FUCK OFF!"

Before something worse could happen, a skeletal hand had grabbed Nodammo by the arm and yanked her away from the water.

"Please don't agitate him any more, Mistress," Agnurlin rattled as he frogmarched Nodammo back towards the campsite. "You were treading into dangerous territory there, mentioning his daughter."

"But--" Nodammo lowered her gaze. "Oh."

"We will wait for Victor to calm down, and we can be on our way."

"What about you, Agnurlin? I could release you from the binding spell, you know."

"To put it succinctly, I have not existed long enough to want to end it all, Mistress."

"Then I suppose we're all in this together." Nodammo sighed and rubbed her forehead. "Victor worries me sometimes."

"He has the right to choose his own path, even though it may not be the one you feel is best for him."

"I know, I know. It's just…oh, never mind. Here he comes." The words were scarcely out of her mouth when Victor came stomping up to them, steam and water pouring off his flanks and collecting in the deep footprints he made in the soft mud.

"Where to, Boss?" he growled as Agnurlin stuffed the collapsible tent into his saddlebags.

"Do you know how to get to Gru'bar'atr?"

"Used to see a lady friend there in my younger days. Where exactly?"

"The capital of the same name. Don't go there straight, though--now that no one's on our tail, I want to stop and pick up supplies on the way."

"Get on."

Nodammo decided it would be unwise to refuse the invitation.

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 21

Victor landed in the middle of the landing pad with a jarring thump that startled a few nearby gryphons and their riders. He lowered himself, and Nodammo, Brommus and Agnurlin clambered off his back.

"Nefarious-Mart, a deliciously wonderful pit of crass consumerism founded by yours truly," he grunted. "Take what you want; I'll settle the tab. If you need me, I'll be off the service-side entrance doing some face-to-face management."

Nodammo folded her arms and watched Victor pick his way through parked broomsticks, steaming flying machines and the odd pegasus tethered to a stake. "Brusque."

"He needs some time to be alone, Mistress. Place yourself in his hide for a moment."

"Somehow, I always assumed the phrase 'emotional Victor' was an oxymoron," Nodammo said, then noticed Brommus staring up at the enormous magical sign that overshadowed the courtyard, a grinning dragon's head that distinctly resembled Victor's.

Nefarious-Mart, Fenoros division

For all your monstrous shopping needs!

Local currency only, either in cash or money transfer from a bank recognised by the province of Fenoros. Mundane gold and jewels are also accepted at the exchange rates set by weight and quality as outlined by the Bank of Fenoros; appraisal value at the checkout counter is final and non-negotiable. No other forms of payment such as credit or souls will be accepted. Returns must be made within seven days of purchase, and goods must be in saleable condition.

Our motto: "We hate high prices. And the GST, of course."

Nodammo looked at Brommus, who was staring at the sign with his mouth open. "What's the matter? You're not a goldfish. I'm sure you must have encountered bazaars and such in the course of your work; the concept here isn't too different."

"So…big…"

"Oh, for goodness' sake. Let's clear the pad before someone yells at us. We don't happen to be the centre of Fantasyland, you know. Would you mind helping me, Agnurlin?"

Between the two of them, they managed to jostle their way through the crowd and get Brommus into the glass doors that made up the entrance of the building. The place seemed different from what Nodammo remembered the last time she'd visited it--which was admittedly some time back, since Agnurlin did most of the reagent shopping. Still, the shelves seemed even more crammed and sprawling, the aisles wider, the colours more vibrant. With this sort of success, it was little wonder Victor hadn't bothered to collect his salary from her for the last decade or so.

"I'm sorry," Brommus said and wiped his brow with the back of a hand, much to the disgust of a trio of nearby goblins. "I used to work in Company headquarters itself, but I don't think anything would prepare you for this. Pleasantly warm in here, too."

"Thermosensitive spells," Nodammo replied as she led them down an aisle marked "dragon needs". "They keep the place warm when it's cold outside, and vice versa. As for the size, the place was originally designed to fit Victor's proportions, and then there's your typical spatial-bending magic. Are you ready? We're going to need food for sure and perhaps a spot of tea on the side, and there's the matter of a few essential alchemy reagents, followed by a change of clothes for me and you, a razor for you, and anything you might think useful. Don't get lost in the crowd; some of the shoppers here could step on you and never notice."

Brommus eyed a group of nine figures in black cloaks and hoods arguing over the price of a ring on display and shuddered; there was something familiar about them and the stand that proudly proclaimed the ring to be "the Two Ring", whatever that was. "Um, all right."

"You just pick out what you need, all right? Don't worry about ingratiating yourself to us, we're all in this together now." Nodammo hefted a sack of dragon kibble off a nearby shelf and passed it to Agnurlin. "The tuna-flavoured sacks are up there. The stepladder please, Agnur--oh. Thank you."

"My pleasure," the white dragon rumbled and stomped off, leaving Nodammo standing with her feet in a small pile of sacks. After Agnurlin had scooped them up into his waistcoat, Nodammo picked out a couple of stiff-bristled wire brushes with extendable handles and hurried past displays of clubs of all sizes on discount, humanoids of various shapes and sizes milling around the testing stands.

Clubs! Clearing stock, must go NOW!!! We hate clubs!!!

1025 40 60 75 percent off!!!

All shapes and sizes for a wide variety of purposes!!!

Prices so low they're evil!!!

"Victor explained it to me once," she said as she passed a pile of packaged and salted crickets. "Since a fire elemental or lizard-person can hardly walk into any old store and order the week's groceries, he wanted to build a place where people like him could shop in safety and didn't have to worry about getting their heads lopped off by some passing hero while picking through fresh chicken cutlets. It's worked remarkably well, and now everyone gets to spend their money instead of hoarding it up to be looted by heroes. Victor's a sop like that; do you believe the week before all this nonsense started, he was telling me of his plans to build a school for dragon hatchlings? Well? Brommus?" When no reply was forthcoming, Nodammo turned around to find a conspicuously empty spot where Brommus should have been.

"Oh, botheration."

#

Brommus wiped sweaty palms on the mud-crusted fabric of his coveralls, and told himself he wasn't being discriminatory, but the sheer…monstrousness, for lack of a better word, of the shoppers around him was disquieting. Going by his experience, several fights should have already broken out, but it seemed that even the vampires and werewolves were content to call a temporary truce and push their squeaky-wheeled carts down the aisles in search of black pudding and flea powder respectively.

Brommus cursed under his breath. Somehow, he had the idea that a monkey wrench, no matter how stout and solid, wouldn't do him much good if any of the shoppers felt a need to pick a fight with an ex-Company employee. The proper thing to do would be find the information counter or the equivalent thereof, have them make an announcement, and then when Nodammo arrived, apologise profusely to her for being too interested in the powdered mandrake off to the side and getting lost in the process.

Only problem was, he had no idea where to start looking.

"Would you like a complimentary jar of grow-it-big cream, sir? We're giving out free samples today."

Brommus turned to see a harpy perched in a small booth set between the shelves. It--she, Brommus corrected himself--wore a black-and-white striped uniform tailored to accommodate her wings, complete with a name tag in the shape of a black dragon's head with "my name is Penny" embossed on it and a silly-looking cap in the same colour scheme.

"Um…err…" A lump found its way into Brommus' throat. "I'm not exactly sure I'm the sort of person who'd need that."

"But of course you do!" the harpy practically shrieked, and winked at Brommus. "Grow-it-big cream combines the forefront advances in herbology and alchemy to ensure maximum gains in size upon topical application! And then there's grow-them-big cream, for things that don't come in ones! I'm sure you prefer your melons firm and ripe, yet heavy, don't you? No one likes melons that're so thin on one end they're practically pointed. They're not going to win any prizes at contests. I use lots of the stuff myself."

Brommus stared at the fist-sized clay jar sandwiched between the harpy's wings, pulled at his collar, carefully traced his line of sight to avoid the harpy's chest and wished he was anywhere in the world but in the here and now. "I…I…I really must go. Now. Sorry."

"Should I call the store manager? You look sicker than those dryads who went on to buy a whole barrel of the stuff."

"I…well…I'm not very confident when it comes to these things. I mean, I shouldn't have to use a crutch to get ahead of others, if you know what I mean. Um. It doesn't seem…right, for lack of a better word. Almost like cheating."

"Well, you shouldn't be ashamed. You look like a natural gardener, but even then, care will only go so far if you don't give the plants what they need to grow. Now you don't need the traditional magic beans to produce prize-winning fruits and vegetables."

"Um, uh, vegetables. That's right, vegetables." Brommus let out the breath he'd been holding, and forced himself to take the small jar into trembling hands and peer at the label before consigning it to a coverall pocket. "Carrots and other single vegetables only. Thank you. You wouldn't happen to know where the information counter is, would you? I've managed to get myself separated from my friends and was hoping to use the public address system or something."

"Don't worry, people get lost in here all the time. We once had a poor schlobb camp out in confectionary for twenty years, living off candies and such before someone making the rounds discovered him; he'd gotten addicted to the magical Turkish delight. The counter's a little ways past spell components and by the fresh produce section and farmer's market; it's really big and black. You can't miss it."

"Thank you. You've been a great help."

The harpy salesgirl winked at Brommus again. "And you've been more polite than most people I have to deal with on a daily basis, so it all balances out."

Not wanting to be rude, Brommus tipped his cap before making his way through the slithering, stomping and creeping shoppers in the direction that'd been pointed out to him. While Brommus understood that even people who weren't humans had to eat sometime, the sight of zombies in various stages of decomposition picking out and sniffing relatively fresh brains wasn't one he'd care to see again, nor the sign stuck into the pile:

Human/dwarf/elf assorted brains

One gold, twelve silvers per weight.

Harvested humanely from the best free-range people who died from natural causes. Completely organic, with no additives or medical problems, so don't knock the high cost.

Stop hating yourself! Fulfil your cranial cravings without guilt today!

Three snack stands later, Brommus found himself face-to-face with a smiling young man who, the Nefarious-Mart uniform aside, looked more or less human.

"You're lost?" he said. "I can tell."

Brommus nodded. "I'm lost," he managed to wheeze out between gasps. "This is my first time shopping here. I'm sorry to trouble you, but could you make an announcement or something so I could let my friends know where to find me?"

"That shouldn't be a problem." The young man cleared his throat twice, and tapped a crystal panel in front of him. "Hello? Hello? Is this working? Ah. Could whoever who's lost their little human please report to the information counter? He looks like he's about to cry any moment now."

Brommus wished people could die from embarrassment.

#

Travelling on the Company's coin had seemed a good idea at the time to Miss Annoyed. She figured she'd have plenty of time to think and plan as to how Mr. Happy's instructions were to be carried out, it was a slow and scenic mode of travel that allowed her to see the world, and best of all, she'd get a deeper understanding of how things worked in the field.

She just hadn't expected them to be so incompetent.

"You busted the spell!" the cart driver yelled at the wizard sitting in the back. "At this rate, we're going to go way off the script in no time, and in front of a bloody executive! Pardon my language, ma'am."

Miss Annoyed nodded, tugged at the camouflage fabric of her newly-tailored pantsuit and reached for the ham-and-cheese sandwich she'd been putting together. The cart driver was just that--a big fish in a little pond, a small man with a big mouth and even larger ego. "Do what needs to be done, Eddie. I'll take a--ahem--liberal view of matters in my report."

"You hear that? We're getting a second chance, you buggers, so hurry up and get it right this time. All right, I think I can see--all right, the hero's stopped wondering why there isn't rain--he's picked up his wise old mentor again--all right, let go at it!"

The wizard in the back of the cart--a young thing hardly out of whatever institution of learning he'd come from--mumbled, waved his hands in the air in a shower of sparkles, and a small localised rainstorm materialised a little way away directly over a patch of forest.

"Yes, that's it! That's setting the proper mood for the scene! Get ready for the big one--"

A wail rose from the now-dripping patch of woodland. "Nooooo! Why? Why did you have to take that arrow for me, Treacle! Now I'm all alone in the world! Why did you have to abandon me like this? Whyyyyyy?"

"Lightning, boy! Now!"

"NOOOOOOOOO!"

The wizard mumbled some more, and nothing happened. Shortly, a very confused duck materialised above him and plopped onto his head.

Miss Annoyed took a bite of her sandwich, and chewed with deliberate slowness. The filling tasted of nothing.

"What's the matter?"

The duck-capped wizard pushed up his spectacles, seemingly oblivious to the duck on the brim of his pointy hat. "The spell isn't working. I suspect it may have to do with the specific starch coefficient in the breadcrumbs we're supposed to plant for that other Quest(TM)."

"Well, don't just sit there! Get out the bottled lightning!"

"But we're supposed to save it for the Dark Lord's maniacal laughter--"

The cart driver flailed his arms about in the air. "We won't get to the scene with the Dark Lord's maniacal laughter if you keep messing up! Why did I get an idiot assigned to me?"

Another bite of sandwich, this one even more tasteless than the last.

"Ugh! I can't get the bottle cap open!"

"You can't get any bottle open when you're so much like a noodle. Remember that bottle of apple juice you took a week to uncap? Why do I have to do all these things myself?" The cart driver grabbed the glowing glass bottle from the wizard and struggled with it while various wailing and keening noises came from the patch of forest. The cap gave with an audible pop, and a bolt of lightning struck a tree within the small thunderstorm.

"TREACLE! NOOOOOOOOOO!"

Privately, Miss Annoyed wished it'd struck the hero instead, but Company resources weren't there to be wasted on personal needs. "Well, that's this scene over with. I'm leaving."

"Uh, you aren't travelling with us any more, ma'am?" the cart driver wheezed. "There's still some distance between here and Fair--I mean, Gru'bar'atr."

"I'll live. The two of you'll get the performance report you deserve." Chewing on the last of her sandwich, Miss Annoyed grabbed her pack, rifle and bandoliers from the clutter in the back of the cart and swung herself over the side. "While I'm at it, I'll be taking that duck as well."

"What duck?" the wizard said, looking puzzled.

"Oh, for heaven's sake." Before the duck knew what had hit it, Miss Annoyed's fingers had closed around its neck and lifted it into the air, flapping wings and all. "This duck."

"Quack," the duck said.

"Oh."

At least, Miss Annoyed admitted to herself later when the fire had died to ashes and the bones had been buried, the duck hadn't tasted that bad.

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 22

"I'm sorry about getting lost," Brommus said as they passed the store's mascot, a poorly-crafted bipedal replica of Victor holding a "thank you for shopping with us" sign. "I shouldn't have been distracted."

"You can make up for it by helping carry whatever won't fit in Agnurlin's waistcoat. Here." Nodammo thrust a large brown paper bag into Brommus' arms. "Do be careful. That's a whole set of basic reagents in there."

Brommus peered into the bag. "I thought it'd be…bigger. More extensive."

"You can squeeze a lot into a small space if you extract the active components from their raw states and do away with all the pointless mass and volume. While there's a certain charm to using deadly nightshade or leeks straight from the greenhouse, you can't bring potted plants with you on the move, and even dried herbs--if they can be dried without harming the active ingredients--can be a problem. Then there's minerals and salts and dehydrated acids and whatnot."

"I suppose."

The three of them walked across the parking lot with its assortment of mounts and vehicles, and made their way along the line of waiting carts towards the loading dock. Several not-quite-human carters eyed the group, their vehicles filled with what could be liberally called fresh produce.

"You really have to stop it with that face, Brommus. That incubus manning the information counter was right; you do look like you're about to burst in tears any moment." Nodammo shifted the wrapped clothing she was holding to her left hand, reached up with her right and pulled up a corner of her mouth with a finger. "Smile a little, would you?"

"I'm sorry. It's just that…well, my life's changed a lot of late, and I'm trying to deal with it…well…I suppose my point isn't valid, is it?"

"Stop apologizing for everything. Understanding other peoples' positions doesn't mean you need to bend over for them. You need to assert yourself; otherwise people are going to be picking on you till the end of time. Forget about smiling for now. How about you try looking fierce?"

Brommus twisted his face and furrowed his eyebrows.

"What's the matter now? Did you drink a stale potion or something?"

"I was being fierce."

Nodammo rolled her eyes and gave Brommus a small smile. "You'll improve with practice, and perhaps if you get the proper inspiration. Or at least, I hope, because the alternative is quite sad."

"I'm--uh, never mind. It's just force of habit, I guess. Heroes can get really antsy if they have their egos challenged."

"Well, I'm not a heroine, we're not on a Quest(TM), and you're not working for the Company any more. I know, I know. Take me, for example. I'm worried about my mother. Why, shouldn't I be showing it? What good is that going to do? Is keeping a disgustingly sad face going to bring her back from the dead, if that's what happened back there at the nursing home? How would I know anything for sure? I know it makes me seem a little heartless, but that's the way it is. At least I know Victor is going to pull out of his rut. I can't say the same for you." Nodammo sighed and licked her lips. "Now I'm all thirsty from talking. Should've bought something to drink back there."

"Perhaps when we get somewhere with the appropriate facilities I could bake everyone a delicious chocolate cake," Agnurlin suggested. "It will be guaranteed to make you very happy, even if the effect is only temporary."

"That's a nice thought."

They found Victor at the head of the cart line, supervising teams of trolls in matching Nef-Mart uniforms unloading produce from carts and moving it into the warehouse at the back of the building. Maybe it was the blood and viscera that plastered the whole of Victor's front and the most of the loading dock, but Brommus had to resist the urge to turn tail and flee. The workers didn't seem too well off, either--they were visibly cowering as they worked, perhaps a bit too eager to finish their job and be gone.

Nodammo thinned her lips, folded her arms and looked up to meet Victor's gaze.

"What?" Victor growled. "The management was embezzling from company funds, sums that went into the tens of thousands of gold. I checked the books, they didn't balance, and when I gave them a chance to explain themselves the fuckers made a lot of pointless noise. You saying I shouldn't have downsized them, Boss?"

At the word "Boss", a few of the trolls scratched their heads and pointed at Nodammo. She ignored them. "So you took them out back and made an example out of them?"

"Yes." Victor stomped on the tarmac of the loading dock, sending a tremor through the ground, and cast his gaze over the workers. "You lot are going to listen in anyways, so I'll tell it to your faces and you can spread the word to everyone else. All I expect from you is what's in your bloody job description--nothing more. I pay your salary, I provide you with bloody insurance, a dental and health plan, your overtime pay, all sorts of stupid benefits, so the least I would like from you is to do your bloody job. If you don't like it, you can quit any time and look for a better deal elsewhere. Is that so hard to understand?"

The trolls stopped their work just long enough to shake their heads.

"Good. What I don't like is when you take my money and then try to fuck around with me. This--" Victor ground a pasty red blob into the floor-- "is what happens when you do. Screw it, now I'm even more depressed. Let's go, Boss."

#

"Mommy?"

"How could he? How could he? The pathetic spawn of a lizard didn't even have the guts to tell me to my face that he was leaving and had to use a whelp to pass on the message! He'd better make sure to die out there, because if he dares to show his hide in my presence again I'm going to kill him!"

Jete curled into a tight, armoured ball and peered out at her mother. "Please, Mommy, you're scaring me. Don't be angry any more; I'll go and get the sugared kittens from the cold chamber. You'll feel better after you've killed something."

"Thank you, but Mommy doesn't have any appetite for sweets right now. Or anything else, for that matter." Obsi ceased her attempts to tear down the cavern wall and slumped back into the bathing pool with a groan. "Why did he have to go? So someone has to take the plunge. Why not some other poor sop's hide?"

The steaming water in the bathing pool began to bubble and boil.

"I don't like seeing you so moody, Mommy. Daddy had good reasons for going off, he's not alone, and he's smart enough to stay away from bad investments. He'll be home someday, and I'm sure he hates being away from us as much as we do."

Obsi let out a half-choked snort-laugh that sent an enormous plume of steam into the air. "You're defending him? Do you really believe that rubbish? That sort of thing only happens in stories. Chances are your Daddy is going to come home as some heroine's handbag or a barrel of grow-it-big cream, if he ever makes it back in the first place."

"Yes, because Daddy said so." Jete uncurled just enough to raise her snout and sniff at the sourness rising from her mother. "I believe him."

"If it'd been any other dragon, I'd have laughed, but…oh, Jete. Why do you have to look so much like your daddy? It wouldn't hurt if you took after me just a little, would it?"

"Mommy…"

"I know, I know, it's not fair of me to say such things. I was the one who laid the egg that sheltered you, after all. But what about you? Aren't you going to be lonely without your daddy around?"

"I still have you, Mommy. Don't worry about me, I'll be reminded of Daddy every time I tear something to tiny, bloody pieces."

"Still, I'm going to miss--" Obsi sniffled, then churned the water into a frenzy with her tail. "No! What am I saying? I'm supposed to hate him for abandoning us--but--but--I can't--"

It was, Jete decided, her cue to leave. When she returned to the bathing pool, a cage of mewling kittens balanced on her back, Obsi was asleep, silent save for the occasional sniffle. Jete set down the cage by the pile of rubble that pillowed her mother's head, sniffed at the cooling water--now much less sour--and left.

Kittens had to be eaten, accounts had to be balanced, life had to go on.

#

"So, you're going to land in the courtyard, ask to see the king, and wing it from there? Don't you see any problems that might crop up while doing this?"

Brommus shrugged, and concentrated on maintaining the flame in his cupped hands, over which Agnurlin was preparing potato stew in a small cookpot. "It's not perfect, but unless you have a better plan…"

"You've got me there. I don't have a better plan."

"Then we'll proceed that way. Victor'll need to be disguised in some manner--no matter how nice a kid Slakar is, I doubt he'll take well to a blood-spattered black dragon landing in the palace grounds. We don't want to attract the Company's attention so soon, either."

"Sounds logical enough for me. So we're going to help him turn around a failing kingdom? That should be fun. I only wish I had the Academy's newsprints to study right now." Nodammo watched a couple of chopped onions enter the bubbling stew. "Personally, I never saw how having a big sword and your parents happening to be the right people made you the best candidate to rule, especially if you spent the whole of your youth herding sheep. I mean, the job does teach you how to manage idiots, but there's more to statesmanship than that."

Brommus nodded. "That's why it's a failing kingdom. Don't worry, the kid'll listen to me; he wasn't your ordinary hero. He's reasonable."

"You're willing to risk your neck on that? Because that's what we're doing."

"Yes."

They flew on through the night, everything silent save for the rushing of the wind against their faces and the bubbling of Agnurlin's cookpot. Occasionally, Brommus would summon the courage to look over Victor's side at the ground far below and sigh. At length, Agnurlin removed the cookpot from over Brommus' hands, produced two large bowls from his waistcoat, and poured out the cookpot's thick contents before sticking a spoon into each.

"Mistress, Mr. Brommus, your supper. Do turn in early; Victor estimates we'll be at the capital just after sunrise."

"Thank you."

Agnurlin bowed. "My pleasure." With that, he retreated to the base of Victor's tail, produced a single-headed axe and started sharpening its edges.

The stew, Brommus decided, was very good indeed, if a bit too thick and salty for his tastes. Much better than any other in-flight meal he'd ever had, at any rate. After the bowl had been emptied, Brommus laid back and tried to make himself comfortable, and the next thing he knew, it was dawn Nodammo was shaking him awake.

"All right, you're the conjury major. Work your magic, please."

"Hmm. Agnurlin, could you please stand over here? Thank you." Scratching his freshly-shaven chin, Brommus stood up, closed one eye and sketched in the air with an index finger. "Hmm. Given Victor's size, I'm not quite sure what might be a properly believable illusion, but I'll give it a go."

"Take your time."

"Hmm." A few mumbled words, a snap of Brommus' fingers, and the air surrounding Victor shimmered and shifted, to be replaced by a faint image of a basket and a balloon on top. Or at least, Brommus thought it was a balloon, considering the number of patches on it.

"Disguising him as a crude zeppelin?" Nodammo peered down at Victor, still visible through the translucent image the surrounded him. "Doesn't seem to have worked very well."

"It's not very comprehensive, nor will it last very long, but it'll be enough for us to land with some modicum of safety. Only the rich get to play with toys like this, so I think anyone wanting to take a potshot at us will think twice before doing so."

"Or they'll want to kidnap us for ransom."

Brommus shook his head. "Slakar isn't that kind of kid."

"You seem awfully confident in him." Nodammo met Brommus' gaze, then looked away. "Fine, fine, so blame me for being cynical when it comes to the natural altruism of heroes, even ex-heroes. But why does the balloon have 'drink DragonFire health drink today!' painted on its side?"

"Um, my Academy had a request by a major sponsor when I was studying there, and you know how important funding is to academia…"

"Heh."

"You laughed, Victor."

"No, I didn't. You know how much I hate laughing."

"I heard you, and no, I don't remember laughing being on your rather extensive hate list."

"Um, Boss, we're there. Do you want me to land?"

"We're going to see the king."

"I hate kings." With that, Victor folded his wings and dove towards the ground.

"Wait!" Brommus cried. "A zeppelin isn't supposed to be able to descend that fast--you're ruining the whole point of the disguise--I--I--I--"

"Sorry, sucker!" Victor roared. "Can't hear you above the wind!"

Crash.

Thud.

Crash.

"Ugh." Gingerly, Brommus sent out his senses to discover what he was lying on. Dirt in his mouth, and elsewhere, grass, leaves, and something wet and crunchy. At least, he reflected, he wasn't dead, although given how much his joints ached from the landing, death might have been kinder.

"Secure the sorceress and the skeleton, and…um…uh…make sure the dragon doesn't move. Somehow," a young man's voice called out. "I'll see who this--Brommus?"

Brommus opened his eyes, waited for the world to stop spinning and flashing, then looked around him. "Oh. Hello, kiddo? I'm sorry about your crocuses, but landing like this…"

"It's 'your Majesty'," a nearby guardsman prompted.

"Oh, bash that," Slakar replied. "This is the man who made me who I am today. If anyone's earned the right to call me 'kiddo', it's him. But what happened to you? I thought you were dead, having taken that arrow for me! I saw you die! I buried you! We even had a dramatic scene and everything, complete with appropriate rain and lightning!"

"I got better."

Slakar raised an eyebrow. "From death?"

"Resurrection's not exactly uncommon in Fantasyland, is it?" Brommus sucked in a breath despite the pain, and forced himself up on his elbows. "If there's one piece of advice I can give you, it's don't get yourself buried six feet under the ground. Digging your way out with little more than your hands is tough."

Nodammo bobbed her head up and down. "I'm really sorry to interrupt your little reunion, but this armlock is starting to make my elbow hurt. If you would be so kind…Victor, please put away that log. This isn't the time for that sort of force."

"I know it's a bit off-kilter, but they're with me, Slakar." Brommus sighed. "It's a long story, but the long and short of it is that I heard you needed a bit of help and came to see what I could do."

Slakar nodded at the armoured guards, and they released Nodammo and Agnurlin. "I was about to have breakfast anyway. You can tell me all about it."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 23

Nodammo could see why Brommus seemed to like this rather young king so much. Slakar reminded her of an innocent puppy, with an overeager face, wide eyes, and an unadorned steel crown that had a tendency to slip down his forehead. Unfortunately, one knew too often what happened to innocent-looking puppies.

It usually involved a sack and a nearby body of deep water.

"And I got rid of the land and road taxes, since every if there was one thing that was drilled into my head during my extensive training to be a hero, it was that taxes were bad. But then the road workers and inspectors started complaining that they were going unpaid, and when I asked the Finance Minister to check it out, there wasn't any money left in the treasury to pay the road workers and procure new road-building materials because no taxes had been levied. Then the tax collectors staged a protest outside the palace, because they were out of a job and their families were going hungry, and well, I didn't have the heart send the guard in to break up the protest, since it was an orderly protest and no one was being overly unruly."

"So what did you do?" Brommus asked as he chewed on a slice of dried apple. The North Fairba--the Gru'bar'atrians--seemed to like their apples a lot, or at least, it seemed that way to Nodammo; the breakfast table held dried apples, apple pie, candied apples, and a sickly sweet apple juice that had a strange, sharp odour to it. Even the ubiquitous wall tapestries depicted scenes of people picking, peeling and processing apples.

"I tried to reinstate the taxes, but of course after a month or two of not being taxed at all, the peasants didn't like the return of any taxes at all. And do you remember all those corn and wheat fields we set fire to when fighting my uncle, to deny them supplies? Turns out that caused a rather large famine in the south, and the treasury had been emptied even further to buy food from Fenoros for the people--I suppose I could have just seized the grain from our newest province, but that would by tyranny--and the Company said, 'no, you can't use grain barges, everything must be delivered by cart', so that cost even more--" Slakar slumped forward against the table in a very un-kingly fashion. "You know, Brommus, maybe things were better when I was just a shepherd. At least I was happy then, even if the sheep did try to kill me on occasion. All I wanted was for people to like me, but no matter what I do there's always someone or the other who doesn't like my apples."

Silence. Nodammo held out a steaming slice of apple pie to the nearest window. Victor curled his tongue around the treat with a soft slurp and brought it back to his mouth.

Slakar stared. "You know, Miss Ebonlocke, that's a rather big pet dragon you have there."

"Victor's not my pet. He belongs to himself."

"Oh." Slakar pushed up his crown. "I'm sorry. Everything's happening like, I don't know, like I'm in a story; I was walking in the garden hoping someone I could trust would come help, and my old mentor falls out of the sky at my feet. It's a bit surreal."

Brommus patted the young king on the shoulder. "It's all right, it's all right. Now, wasn't there that young woman with you? You know, the one who went with us on our Quest(TM)? I'm sure she likes you at the very least; I heard you got married to her or somesuch."

"We split up. Daily bickering and spying on one another in the bath isn't exactly conducive to a stable relationship; I learnt that the hard way. Then there was the question of children; she wanted any we might have had to be raised by wolves! Can you believe that? Wolves?"

"I think I can. Oh dear."

"She may or may not have been pregnant when she abdicated her station as Queen and stole away in the middle of the night, though."

"Oh dear. Oh dear." Brommus looked across the breakfast table at Nodammo. "It's a cycle, you see; we used to joke about it in the office. I'd wager that someone's setting up another lost-royal scenario."

"And I haven't told you a third of what's been going on yet. I can't trust two-thirds of the ministers in the House of Nobles, the other third's all up in arms because they believe my uncle was the more competent king, royal blood be damned, and plenty of nearby kingdoms have all tried to tempt me with bailout offers, all with so many strings attached they might have been puppets. That's one of the worst things about being king. Not knowing who you can really trust." Slakar turned towards one of the liveried guards in the corners of the room, and beckoned him over with an outstretched finger. "Inkyrus, do inform the kitchen staff they're free to help themselves to the leftovers. I've no appetite today."

#

It was a tavern, as a tavern should be, and Miss Annoyed allowed herself a smirk at how well Company regulations were being followed. The tavern keeper was fat and jolly with a big red face, the serving girls were all clean and pristine despite the oily, insufferable air, various seedy-looking clustered in the darker corners and generally all sorts of armoured, robed, and otherwise abnormally-dressed patrons milled about the tables. Of course, there were the expected typical leering men, paid a small stipend by Logistics to do nothing but go to taverns every night and leer at women and occasionally get beaten up by feisty heroines, but a proper death glare from her had settled that problem.

It was a place where Quests(TM) were born, and one was in the making right now.

"Now, Dark Wyndd, listen closely." Miss Annoyed had donned appropriately scholarly robes over her camos in an attempt to fit in, even if it made her skin itch. "Company headquarters has come up with a great Quest(TM), and you're to play the central role in disposing of the evil king of Gru'bar'atr so the rightful heir can take his place years from now."

Dark Wyndd peered into his ale and scratched his head. "But this king is the rightful heir. Didn't he depose his Evil Uncle about two years ago? There was a whole coronation ceremony and everything; it was the last time I had a good mug of cider. Don't know why, but you can't find good cider anywhere in this kingdom any more. Everywhere you look, it's just wine and ale and more wine."

Miss Annoyed knew the reason, but answering unimportant questions hadn't been in her job description. "Well, the king's imposed laws prohibiting the production, transport and sale of cider within the kingdom, so if you ever want to see your cider again you'll want to be getting rid of him. He's also raised taxes for the second time this year."

"But the land taxes were nothing last year, and even now they're only a fifth of what they used to be under his uncle."

"So? At this rate, six years down the road the peasants will be taxed a hundred and twenty percent of what they produce. Do you really want to see that happen?" Miss Annoyed laid a hand on Dark Wyndd's arm. "Look at it this way; the land clearly doesn't want the Evil King to be on the throne, otherwise there wouldn't be all these famines, pestilence and nonsense going on. Right? Right? Remember that kingdom that had to have a queen plant her butt on the throne or the crops would shrivel up and die?"

"But the fields didn't shrivel up and die in this case. They were burnt by the rebels."

"Doesn't matter. Crops still died." Miss Annoyed reached into a pocket, drew out a roll of paper, and gave Dark Wyndd the sweetest smile she could drum up. "I've got a Company directive here, signed and stamped. You won't get into any trouble. You're a Dashing Rogue, aren't you? What's there to be afraid of?"

"Oh, all right." Dark Wyndd peered into the depths of his mug of bitter ale. "There's bound to be something worth stealing and redistributing to the poor in the castle, anyways."

"Good. Here's a map, detailing all the secret passages in the palace--oh, don't look at me like that, palaces always have secret passages--and a nice red shirt to help you on your way."

A package wrapped in brown paper moved across the table, and Dark Wyndd had undone the twine and opened the package without so much as a rustle. "It's a fine shirt, although the fabric feels somewhat odd. The bright red might cramp my style, though."

"That's because it's a shirt of elven grace. You can wear a black vest or cloak or something over it if you want to keep it hidden. Good luck, and I'll be seeing you again when the job's done."

Nodding, Dark Wyndd tucked the shirt under his arm and stood up in one fluid motion. Miss Annoyed watched him go, and finished the last of her ale. While it would be a nice surprise if Dark Wyndd returned successful, she wasn't going to bet money on that happenstance.

#

"Help?"

Jete lowered her head and sniffed at the young half-elf who'd gotten his legs pinned under a large boulder at the cave mouth; if her sense of smell didn't lie about the sweat and blood, the poor man was under rather a lot of stress. "Yes?" she said.

"Um, I seem to be in a bit of a fix," the half-elf said. "I was passing through here, minding my own business when there was a small rockfall and when I came to, I found myself here. Dragons are supposed to be very strong, aren't they? I don't suppose you could help me out?"

"However did you end up here? This place is lengths upon lengths off the main road."

"I got lost."

"With the Fenoros Land transport Authority with its tail in a twist over making sure road signs are accurate, and the roads themselves are properly maintained?"

"Well, it did rain heavily two nights ago, and visibility was really bad…"

"I can't seem to help noticing you're in a very shiny breastplate and there's a very shiny, jewel-encrusted sword stuck in the boulder over there."

"I'm delivering them to my brother in the next town. Since I heard there were bandits lurking about these woods, I thought I might put them on to dissuade them from attacking me. You know, a show of force. Everyone's afraid of magic swords."

Jete continued to sniff the half-elf all over, then broke away and nosed at something in the ground. "I don't like shiny things, but maybe you do. Would you like your copy of 'Dragon slaying in twelve easy steps'back before it gets too damp?"

"Um, uh, I got that at random before I set off," the half-elf replied, and licked his lips. "Just picked it out from a bookstore. You know how boring travelling from place to place can be, and of the quality of books sold at travellers' hubs."

"I didn't ask why you had it."

"Oh. Well. Um, as much as I'd like to talk to you, I think my legs are going numb. Could you please get me out of here?"

Humming to herself, Jete stood on her hind legs and made a show of pushing against the bounder pinning the half-elf before giving up. "I don't like big rocks. I'm too little to move them."

The half-elf's face fell. "Oh."

"But I think I can get someone who can. I might be a little while, though, so we'll have to make sure you don't bleed out and die while I'm getting help. Don't go anywhere." With that, Jete loped out of the half-elf's sight, and returned shortly later with something balanced in the puts and ridges of her back.

"Um, these would be…"

"Herbs." Jete shook the sweet-smelling flowers, shoots and leaves off her back and began tearing off the petals with the talons on her forefeet. "They'll cure anything, and you look pretty torn up."

"Uh, herbs…"

"They're not black and oozing slime or anything, are they? Everyone knows evil and poisonous plants look that way, and these are pretty and colourful plants. Would you like a fresh apple?" Jete nudged it towards the half-elf with her snout. "I brought it so you'd have something to bite down on if it hurts."

"Um, I didn't mean to say I distrusted you. In fact, my other brother was down with the incurable buboboneric plague, and the local herb-woman ran out the door, spent a few minutes gathering some 'herbs', brewed them and after my brother drank it down he was all better by the next morning. It's just that you're a…you're a black…well…never mind."

"That's nice. This might sting a bit." Carefully, Jete nosed the torn petals into place and packed them against the exposed cuts and scrapes on the half-elf's body, then did the same with the shoots and leaves. "There. That'll disinfect the wound and help your circulation while I go and get someone who can get you out from under that rock."

"Thank you."

"You shouldn't waste that apple, you know. It's been in the cold chamber since last fall, and it's still crisp and juicy. Do you know how expensive out-of-season fruit is?"

"Mff mff mf mfmf mppph." The half-elf swallowed. "It really is crisp and juicy. Isn't it amazing what advanced magic can do these days?"

"Good. Now, I know someone who lives close by who could get you out from under there. But first--" Jete clambered up to where the sword lay in the stone, stood up on her hind legs and pulled it out by the pommel with her teeth. "--I've got to take care of this," she finished, her voice slightly muffled.

Perfectly shaped hands clawed at the dirt and glass in a futile effort to reach Jete. "Wait, what are you doing with my Sword of Destiny? Give that back!"

"I don't think so." Jete paused in front of the cave mouth, spat out the sword, and took a deep breath. "Mama! Daddy's hero trap worked just fine; I made dinner for you, seasoned with all your favourite herbs!"

The half-elf stared at her, his face ashen.

"Oh, don't look at me like that. Those herbs really do disinfect wounds and staunch bleeding, in addition to making meat taste tangy and nummy. I'd stay longer, but someone has to manage the accounts when Daddy's away. Buh-bye."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 24

Victor thumped his tail on the grass, took a sip of water from the miniature waterfall, and cleared his throat. "It doesn't work that way, your Royal Highness. Even if you had an unlimited supply of gold, your problems wouldn't be solved."

"They wouldn't? And please, call me Slakar. Since I've got this 'sees commoners as equals' persona going on, I might as well stick to it without wanting them to treat me just a bit better because I'm king."

A snort. "Very well. Why do you think gold is worth so much, then? You can't eat it--or at least, humans can't. There are various engineering and magical applications that involve it in some capacity, but it's too heavy for most practical purposes. Apart from looking pretty, there's really not much use for gold--it's valuable only because other people think it is."

A liveried guardsman was posted in each corner of the small, walled-off topiary, vaguely impressing Victor with their lack of screaming and running away, or even flinching while in his presence. Clearing his throat once more, Victor pushed the thought of tinned food out of his mind and continued the lecture.

"If everyone had gold, no one would want it any more, and its value would drop until something else was more worth having, like…like tin, or turnips, or tomatoes. At least they're useful for more things than gold is. I once knew a bugger who made a mill that churned out flour, salt and money by the cartload; within a year the local currency had been utterly devalued, the respective commodities markets had crashed, and five kingdoms had been thrown into economic turmoil. When the time came for the counterfeiting charges to be pressed…let's say the sucker never knew what hit him."

Slakar looked up from his writing tablet. "I think I understand your point. It's like when I had a problem selling sheep on market day when there were too many other shepherds around."

"Sort of, but not exactly."

"Whatever happened to the mill, anyway?"

"Destroyed by the kingdom's central bank. Which was the problem in the first place; the value of say, a copper coin isn't equal to the metal used to make it in the first place, but it has that value because you, the shiny-scale, says it has and can back it up--or at least, people believe you can. If everyone had a sack full of coins, people would probably start melting them down for the metal in them. What I'm getting at is that there isn't going to be an instant solution to a deep-rooted economic crisis."

"Sometimes, I wish my uncle were still here," Slakar said with a sigh and adjusted his crown, which had begun to slip over his brow again. "He knew how to handle these matters, or at least, assign the correct person to the task. Fat lot of good being the rightful king's done me when I can't even get a single policy right."

"Well, complaining about it isn't going to solve any problems. Which brings us to the topic of taxes. You've already learnt firsthand the importance of taxes for generating government revenue, but you need a sop--I mean, something to salve your conscience before we go on to the role of taxes in maximising social benefit."

"I did--" Slakar sucked in a breath, settled down on the garden bench he'd been sitting on, and dismissed the guardsmen with a wave of his hand. "You're right. I do want a sop. Half of me is wondering why, if not for Brommus, I should be trusting you to dictate what I should be doing with my kingdom, but the other half is asking how much worse could things already get."

"You want my honest opinion on this?"

"Go ahead."

"Most people--doesn't matter if they're humans, elves, dwarves, giant eyeless monstrosities from far beneath the surface--don't care who they're ruled by, so long as they're living out their lives in relative comfort and peace, and it doesn't take a master magician to figure out that's why the people outside your capital don't like you very much. Whatever you do, there's always going to be someone who doesn't like your new policies and laws, so don't bother with pleasing everyone. Just do what works, and if that happens to coincide with what's viewed as right, so much the better."

#

Brommus met Victor coming out of the royal topiary, and waved up at him. "What do you think of the kid?"

"Eh. He's ignorant, but not by choice, and with time, I suppose he's salvageable. He's got the potential, he's willing to be taught, and he's neither afraid nor disrespectful of me, which says something about him. The problem here is that we don't have time; your little king hasn't even heard of basic macroeconomics and I'm not going to stay here and play tutor to him until my long-term investments mature. What we need to do is to get someone who can hole up with your little king, knows something about statesmanship and isn't going to yank off every scale from his hide the moment our backs are turned. Then there's the other problem. Just look at this. Just look at it."

Frowning, Brommus let his gaze follow Victor's outstretched talon. "What's wrong with that humorously duck-shaped bush?"

"The fact that there's a humorously duck-shaped bush in the first place," Victor growled. "The treasury's down to its last few coppers, the kingdom is going to go into massive levels of debt feeding the refugees from the rebellion while the villages are rebuilt and the fields cleansed, and your little king doesn't have the fucking heart to put the gardener out of a job."

"Oh." Suddenly, the crocuses didn't look as colourful and vibrant to Brommus any more. "I think I'll talk to Slakar about it. Maybe the gardener can be put on unpaid leave."

"Besides, I hate duck-shaped bushes."

They walked--or rather, Brommus had to jog in order to keep up with Victor--around the blooming spring flowers and towards the garden lake, fed and drained by a stream that wound through the palace gardens and out through a grating in the wall. "Um. Well. I suppose there's other things we can talk about…"

"I see Boss got you some new coveralls. Still not willing to give up the stars-and-moon motif, buddy?"

"Well, I am a wizard, even if I'm a bit down on my luck of late. Appearances and all."

"If you cared for your appearances, you'd bother to shave more often and stand up straighter." Victor craned his head down to look Brommus all over. "Really. Even with that bald spot, you're not that bad, as far as I'm a judge of humans. Maybe it's because you got rid of that horribly pathetic-looking face."

"And what about your pathetic-looking face? I'm sure you miss--"

"Don't push it, buddy. It's not wise to agitate someone who's for most intents and purposes, a flying rock."

Brommus thinned his lips. "No, I will push this. I was just wondering if it was normal for you to react like this to having to leave daddy's little villain alone for a while. From my point of view, it strikes me as a little overbearing, smothering, perhaps even obsessive? Creepy?"

To Brommus' surprise, his body didn't explode into white-hot agony. Instead Victor paused in front of a thistle, stared at it for a minute, and with great care and deliberation ground it into a fibrous pulp against the muddy soil of the lake shore. "Is that how you see it? How I treat Jete?"

"It could be interpreted that way."

Sitting down in a catlike pose, Victor appeared to consider the matter, letting out the occasional grunt. At length, he got up, waded into the lake, and turned his head to face Brommus.

"When you've lived long enough to realise that within your lifetime you're going to see rivers change their courses, empires rise and fall, and mountains move, people of your kind around you suddenly become a lot more important than you first imagined. After you've added that to the fact that anyone happening to want to bump off you or anyone close to you gets a free acquittal not because of what you did, but what you are, talk to me again about how you much you should value your family members."

#

Nodammo dipped her pen into the inkwell, watched a drop of ink form on the nib, and applied herself to the paper once more.

Egil, I hope everything is all right back home. I could be wrong, but chances are the Company won't attempt a hostile takeover of Fenoros so soon--there's usually a while between the initial incursion and the actual takeover bid. If I have my way, this won't be a problem, but I wouldn't bet my winter turnips on it.

I don't know how you're holding up without me to help bring in the tourist coin, but I'll hold you to your word that you'll manage. Could you do me a favour, too? Please send someone to the wizard's nursing home my mother was staying at, and…well, if there's anyone left, do help them. Maybe they could be your new tourist attraction or something. I'm being facetious here, aren't I?

How am I doing? Well, it's a bit hard to say, really. I'm supposed to be in charge of this little operation here, but everyone seems to be doing something, except me. A mere day after our arrival, Victor's hard at work trying to drum basic economics into the king's head, Brommus--that's the sad-looking handyman wizard I picked up--is hard at work explaining the situation to everyone around the palace and cheering up his Majesty, even Agnurlin has had something to contribute by supplying us with hot meals and clean, starched clothing, and here I am sitting on my rump bone idle.

I guess the task of nation-building doesn't call very much for the science of alchemy, does it?

"Tea, Mistress?" A familiar voice called from over Nodammo's shoulder. She made no move to reply save to slump further against the desk.

"I'll leave it on the side table, then. Do drink it before it gets cold." Nodammo heard the door close and the latch click, but didn't look up.

There's not going to be any return address in this letter, so don't bother looking. I don't want the Company to get a lead on us, and I'm not sure how long we're going to be staying here anyways.

A knock at the door, and Nodammo set down her pen and looked up. "Yes?"

"It's me, Brommus."

"Come in, then."

The door creaked open, and Brommus stepped into the room, looking somewhat haggard and dishevelled, his boots muddy and coveralls creased. "Victor's just had a quick talk with the king about economics."

"And? Don't keep on standing, get a chair and sit down. Doesn't matter if it looks like it'll collapse any moment--most of the furniture in the palace already looks that way, after all."

Briefly, Brommus outlined what Victor had told him. "It's true that no head of state works alone, even in the most centralised governments. There're always advisors, experts, that sort of people whom he can rely on to give honest and accurate advice, and we can't stay here all our lives to be those people."

"And of course, the problem is that all of the competent ones liked Slakar's uncle better than him and resigned from their positions. Some nobles they are, if they care about who the king is, rather than the position of it. You wouldn't catch an Ebonlocke doing that."

"And of course, the kiddo was too nice to refuse their resignations." Brommus looked at the side table, picked a teacup off the tray Agnurlin had brought in and poured himself some tea. "Join me?"

"No, thank you, I'm not really thirsty right now. What I think we should do is to make a list of those supposedly trustworthy people, and start going down it. Maybe some of them have wised up and realised that the state of the kingdom is more important than who's got his sorry little butt on the throne."

"Makes sense." Brommus gulped down his tea. "I'll speak to the royal archivists about it."

"But it was my--" Nodammo settled back in her chair. "Nothing. Never mind. Do report back on what you've found, all right?"

"I will." Standing up from his chair, Brommus dusted off the knees of his coveralls before making his way for the door. "Do get an early night. The kiddo was nice enough to open and clean up a few rooms for us; the least we could do is to accept his hospitality."

"All right. Goodnight."

After the door had closed, Nodammo barred the door, pulled off her boots, laid back on the straw mattress that rested in one corner of the room and was about to snuff the candle when--

Scritch scritch scritch scritch.

Nodammo tensed and held her breath. The sound was coming from within the wall, a wall that was supposedly a thick block of solid masonry all the way to the opposite guest room.

Scritch scritch scratch thump thump.

Pulling on her boots, Nodammo hurriedly glanced about the room and was out the door as quickly as her legs would take her. Even at this time of night, slow-burning torches flickered in the wall sconces, and it didn't take too long for Nodammo to spot a red-uniformed palace guard coming down the hallway at her and wave at him.

"Look, I know you lot don't like me very much after my entrance yesterday, but there's--" she began in a harsh whisper, but the guard cut her off with a nod of his head and a finger raised to his lips.

"We know. The silent alarm's already been raised. You can stand back and watch if you want, but don't get in the way."

Of course, she didn't want to.

It was, Nodammo would recount later, all a bit surreal, watching the palace guard file out from the stairwells and surround the column, almost completely silent despite their studded leather, thick boots and shortswords. They took up positions lining the wall, every guardsman within sight of another, their solid, motionless forms casting deep shadows in the light of the flickering torches.

"You sure it'll work?" Nodammo heard one of the guardsmen whisper to another.

"It should. One side's open to the air, and the support column only goes up to this level and the one above. If the bugger's going to come out of the wall, he's got to do it somewhere."

"Makes sense. I really hate those Dashing Rogues."

"Who doesn't? Fucking bastards. Think they're masters of stealth and everything."

Scritch scritch scritch scritch.

Nodammo didn't dare breathe.

Scritch scratch thump thump click--

THUMP CLANK.

"Got you, bitch!"

When the swarm of guardsmen into the adjacent room had abated and Nodammo dared peek in, one particularly burly guardsman had a thin, pale, and reedy-looking hero in a head and arm lock, while the others had an array of sharp, unfriendly-looking implements pointed in the hero's direction. Part of the wall leading into the support column had been drawn back, and Nodammo could see steps leading into the darkness within. For some reason, the hero was wearing a red shirt despite the fact the rest of his clothing happened to be black.

At length, one of the guardsmen walked up to the hero and touched his brow in what might have been a mockery of a salute.

"Individual, you are charged with breaking and entering, trespass, and by the looks of the daggers on you, intent to cause hurt, at the very least. Oh, and now for resisting arrest in a violent manner. No, don't bother; the armlock only hurts when you struggle, you know. Now you can't complain we're imprisoning you without just cause, and you know it. Take the bugger to the dungeons, strip-search him, cavity searches included, and post a constant guard on him at all times. I think he'll find our accommodations comfortable.

"Midnight, and all's well!"

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 25

"You do have a very efficient guard, your Majesty," Nodammo mentioned over the next day's breakfast, a modest plate of apple jam buns hot from the oven. "Certainly very professional indeed."

"To be honest, it wasn't my idea," Slakar replied as he spread a dab of butter on his bun. "My uncle started it, and after I took the throne, the Company demanded that my elite guard be a bunch of useless idiots. I got around the problem by shifting all the current personnel into the new elite elite guard--there was nothing in their regulations about having one of those. I've seen their training program for new recruits. Very effective, especially the bit on threat containment."

"I can tell. My elbow still hurts."

"My apologies, but as you've witnessed for yourself, they do take not just my security, but that of everyone in the palace very seriously. It's a sticking point of honour for them, you know." Slakar nodded at Nodammo and poured himself a mug of steaming, fragrant tea from a teapot. "Have some apple tea, Baronetess?"

"Just call me Nodammo. Fat lot of good being titled ever did my family--the only practical use I've ever gotten out of it was an excuse to have a last name. And yes, I will try some, thank you." Pouring herself a cup full of the light brown brew, Nodammo studied the king as he supped. Whether he was being extremely cavalier about someone up to no good sneaking in his home in the dead of the night, or was confident in the ability of others to protect him she didn't know, but either way it was something to be worried about, especially if the Company was sending heroes in to cause trouble. By all rights, Slakar deserved some measure of peace from the Company for what he'd gone through, but he wasn't getting any.

No doubt he still thought himself as being Good, and Nodammo had the lingering suspicion that wasn't the case.

"About that miscreant, um…"

"Oh, he's safely in the dungeon my uncle built to hold all sorts, heroes included. I've spoken to the castellan, and he'll have his best masons working on sealing up the passageway." Slakar sighed and shook his head. "And here I was, thinking I'd gotten them all after I consulted the architects. Well, the Company probably wouldn't be too happy with me sealing up secret tunnels in palaces, but how would they know?"

Nodammo bit into a fruit sandwich, and tasted apple. "Slakar?"

"Yes, Nodammo?"

"I think I may have a lead on why that hero was here. How many Company regulations have you been bending?"

"Why, almost all of them. I mean, I can understand your dragon and his advice on fiscal policy, but that's a whole different matter from some of the stupidest things the Company's demanded of me. I mean, nothing but wine and ale to be served in drinking establishments? How am I going to enforce that? The people would swarm into the palace and throw me from the parapets if I dared to take away their cider, anyways, and even if I could, I wouldn't take away their right to enjoy their drink."

"Hmm."

"I mean, it's not as if I was even given a by-your-leave. One moment all I had to look forward to was the next lambing, and the next thing I know I'm informed that my hedgehog birthmark is really crown-shaped, and my home's demolished by barbarians. Never did know where they came from, anyway. I mean, barbarians have to come from somewhere."

Nodammo suspected she did, but nodded and said nothing.

"Yes, yes, the Company is my benefactor--I suppose--and I've tried to do what I can, even renamed this kingdom by their request to something stupid and unpronounceable, tried to appease them in official matters, but seriously! Am I to ban all river trade? That's what they think I should do, and even I'm not that ignorant as to do that. And somehow make sure that all country girls have near-flawless complexions. And make the guard in every city completely incompetent, corrupt and useless. That's right, sacrifice the security of the populace in order to…well, I'm not sure what exactly was their intention in doing that, but that was it, and I told them so. How in the whole of Fantasyland am I supposed to make sure that all bread is white and soft, and all cheese is yellow, round and in a wheel when so much of it is produced and consumed within a single household without so much as passing by the eyes of anyone else?"

Nodammo stared at Slakar, then blinked hurriedly. For that one moment she thought she'd glimpsed…no. The king was once again an affable-looking young man, looking slightly boyish and sad as he chewed on a pie crust. "Well, with our help, I think we'll get through this in one piece."

"Yes, yes. Brommus has already filled me in on what you're planning to do. I do hope that most of the ministers and such will take their old jobs back, although I don't think they will. But if we could persuade one to do so, maybe more will follow."

"We'll think of something if that doesn't work out. Oh, may I make a small request? I'd like to go out of the palace into the capital. You know, get a feel of matters on the ground, listen to popular opinion, that sort of thing."

"Of course. I'll speak to the castellan about that as well. You'll be allowed in and out of the palace as you please; if you aren't, tell me." Slakar finished his pie and sighed. "Open door, pick up Blue Bird of Happiness, feed bird golden corn you found half the world away that appeared to have no practical purpose, draw sword, kill evil wizard. I've learnt one thing for sure; heroing is the easy part; it's what comes after that's the challenge."

#

Deep within the executive suites of the Quest(TM) Logistics Department rest stop, Miss Annoyed snapped her fingers and the scrying spell dissipated. Small as it was to avoid notice, the linking spell on the red shirt would hold for some time--long enough for her to get more useful information out of Dark Wyndd's fate and plan for the next step. It had been a pity--heroes didn't grow on trees, except for perhaps the odd half-dryad--but compromises had to be made in order to move forward.

The trick to success was choosing the correct compromise.

She finished her coffee, hoisted onto her back a thick, bulky backpack with a nozzle sticking out from its side, and made to leave.

"Good morning, Miss Annoyed!" the desk telepath called out as she passed by him. "You have a new message direct from Quest(TM) Literacity headquarters, marked with high importance. Would you like me to repeat it, or shall I save it for later?"

"Might as well," she replied, tugging at the worst of the wrinkles on her camos. "No point cluttering up your memory, is there?"

"Mr. Happy would like a status report within the week. Message ends."

"That's all? I guess he has a right to know what he's paying me for. Thank you, and have a nice day."

"You too."

"Too late for that." Taking her leave of the desk telepath, Miss Annoyed picked her way past sleeping quarters lined with hammocks and entered the canteen. Crowded with logistics carters, special effects technicians, obstacle movers and everyone else who made Quests(TM) possible on a daily basis all applying themselves to what looked like greyish-yellow, tasteless mush, the canteen seemed to have a dull aura even the big smiley face on the motivational poster that loomed over the entirety of the canteen couldn't counter.

"Cart number three hundred and seventy-five B to Murkywood Elf Reservations for setting preparation, your cart is restocked and ready for departure," a mechanical voice blared from a speaker set high into a wall. "Cart number four thousand and twelve Z to Moider for McGuffin retrieval Quest(TM), you are delayed for one more day due to unforeseen circumstances. Cart number two hundred and five E to SeaEarth for Rebellion Against the Evil Empire Quest(TM), your horses have spontaneously exploded in the stable and will have to be replaced. An inquiry will be conducted into your professional behaviour and capacity as to how you work your animals."

"Good morning, Ma'am," the server said as Miss Annoyed approached the counter. "Today, just for you, we've managed to prepare some delicious chocolate cake--"

"Sandwich," Miss Annoyed snapped.

"But--but delicious chocolate cake--"

"Sandwich. Bread, cheese, sliced vegetables, and lean meat of choice. I understand it's on your menu. Wrap it up hygienically, and I don't want any little stick umbrellas with olives on them." She fished around in a pocket and drew out a small thermos. "Fill this up with hot coffee, while you're at it."

The server looked so defeated Miss Annoyed wondered if she'd been too harsh with the girl. "Look, I didn't mean--it's just that chocolate cake--well, I should probably be getting more exercise, and I'm supposed to be impartial in all my duties, so currying favour with me isn't going to work, delicious chocolate cake or no."

"Oh." The server returned with Miss Annoyed's thermos in one hand and a goodly-sized sandwich wrapped up in brown paper. "Going out to do enforcement, Ma'am? You don't look like the typical suit out for business."

"Not at the moment. Look, I really have to be going, it was nice talking to you, all those common social pleasantries people say to one another to convince themselves they're being friendly and all that. I'll be paying with Company credit; add it to my tab." Without another word, Miss Annoyed snatched her thermos and sandwich and hustled out of the canteen and rest stop as quickly as her heavy backpack would allow her, ignoring the curious stares of the breakfasters.

Outside, a warm Gru'bar'atrn late spring morning awaited her, and Miss Annoyed walked past cages of various birds to be used for ambience setting, past a cart park and off the beaten path, rounded a hill and kept on going until she was in a grassy meadow out of sight of the rest stop.

"I suppose there isn't a better place," she said to herself as she unsung her backpack and pushed a button on the side. The backpack began humming, and tiny specks of light coalesced out of the air and spiralled into the nozzle. While she waited for the device to finish its job, Miss Annoyed pulled out her sandwich, thermos and a book, and sat down on the grass to read.

"'The tough guide to Officeland.' Well, should be interesting."

The sun continued to rise in the sky. The sandwich gradually disappeared, as did the coffee in the flask. At length, the backpack stopped humming, and let out a small beep.

"Hmm," Miss Annoyed said as she opened the backpack and drew out a pen and a long, thin cylinder of golden-brown liquid. "Could have been better, but could have been worse." She stopped to think for a moment, then applied her pen to the blank label on the cylinder.

Happily Ever After (extracted from Gru'bar'atr) batch #4852.

Dosage quantity: enough for one person for duration of twenty years.

Suggested market: pensioners.

#

"So you see, when this hypothetical demerit good is untaxed, consumption at the private benefit level is not going to give the maximum social benefit. Think about it this way--a guy goes to the tavern, gets drunk, then goes on to make a public nuisance of himself and kicks his dog, spreads general misery around, so on and so forth. By taxing this demerit good, you're shifting the demand function from here to here--" Victor scratched a diagram into the soft lakeside mud by Slakar's foldable bench with a foreclaw-- "and ensuring maximum social benefit. The next time the Company asks you why you're raising taxes on their precious ale and wine and lowering those of cider, just tell them you're trying to save the souls of your people from the evils of drink by discouraging them from buying alcohol while at the same time acknowledging the benefits of a national drink to the national pride and identity. It's a whole load of bullshit, but at least it sounds better."

"But how am I supposed to know how much to tax in order to achieve maximum social benefit?"

"That's where you get rooms full of economists from. Never figured it out for myself, either. But still, the theory is there, and along with it, the excuse for doing all sorts of stuff. Lovely, isn't it?"

"Um. I suppose." Slakar glanced around at his personal guard, which had doubled since the hero had been detained. "While I'm grateful for you taking the time to give me instruction, I'd like to ask when are we going to do something with what we're learning. Hands-on experience of sorts?"

"Soon, soon. When you're ready. Still, a little action is warranted, if what Boss has told me is correct." Victor lowered his head and sniffed at the ground. "I've been over the so-called 'guidelines' the Company presented you with your Finance Minister. Most of them are absolute rot. I mean, seriously, a blacksmith in every village? Have they never even heard of market saturation? We'll see about doing something about them, and you'll be involved--at the very least, we'll explain to you what we're doing and why."

"But, well, the Company…I've never dared to go against them for fear of the…repercussions."

"The repercussions be damned. You need to straighten out your kingdom and government, buddy, or Company regulations or no, you're going to get sworded. And arrowed. And burninated. Maybe all three at once. Perhaps I'm being a bit blunt here, but apparently your dear Company's already decided you're a villain of sorts, which would explain the bloody hero in the dungeon your uncle built."

"But that isn't right!" Slakar protested. "I'm--well, I was--a hero. I'm the rightful ruler of this kingdom! I went through a whole Quest(TM) to prove it! I can't be a villain!"

Out of the corner of his vision, Victor noted the already-twitchy palace guards stiffen like clockwork soldiers he'd once bought for Jete to practice wrecking things on. There was, was, he supposed, something to be said for carrying out your duties in suicidal fervour; maybe he'd ask Slakar where the palace guard got new members from. Nef-Mart could use some new management.

"Two words, buddy," Victor grunted. "Fallen Hero. Heard of them? Best excuse for one to recycle the same setting over and over again."

"This is nonsense," Slakar said as he stood up from his bench and straightened himself, the wavering gone from his voice. "I haven't done anything evil."

"Oh, really? First off, what you think doesn't matter, because it's what the Company thinks that does. Now listen to me. You follow the Company's regulations on running a kingdom, no matter how you bend them you're mismanaging the kingdom, causing pain and suffering, so on and so forth. Evil. Don't follow the regulations and do the sensible thing instead? Whoever head of a good king who raised taxes, or at least, one in a Quest(TM)? That's right, none. As one might say, you're giving up your hide whether you like it or not."

Sighing, Slakar sat down on his bench and slumped forward, a forearm propping his chin up. "This sucks."

"Whoever said management was easy, buddy?"

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 26

Biting her lower lip, Nodammo lowered the jam-smeared cracker bit by bit until the tip brushed the tea's surface and sent tiny ripples speeding across it. By the time they had cleared, nothing had happened--the tea was as dark and murky as ever.

"Something has to be blocking us specifically," Nodammo said through gritted teeth, dropped another sugar cube into the tea-filled basin on the table and turned back to her copy of Rince's Essential Wizzarding Guide. "Crystal balls, magic pools and tea leaves are all very common, but I've never heard to anyone bothering to throw a wrench into tea-and-jam scrying before, and definitely not crackers."

"Maybe it's because you're using the local tea instead of whatever you're used to?" Brommus said as he looked over Nodammo's shoulder at the basin's contents. "It's just a thought; you're the expert here."

"Technically, it shouldn't interfere with whether the scrying is successful or not. The particular interpretation of the results, perhaps, but not whether we're getting a response or not." Nodammo picked up a teaspoon, stirred the tea, and grimaced. "Damn static. Maybe a spot of milk…"

"Or maybe there just isn't an answer to a question like this, and the ambiguity isn't helping, either. I mean, 'who would be most willing to return to their old governmental post?' It'd depend on the methods we used, how we worded the question, how well we explained the situation, so on and so forth.

"Seriously, though, I'm having flashbacks to the time I helped Jammy Toyler take out the Dork Lord of the Study Hall. Every time I suggested an easy resolution to the problem, like teleporting into the Dork Lord's bathroom when he was having a bath and stabbing him there--some silly contrivance would crop up to prevent him from using his powers. I know the Company didn't want too easy a resolution, but it was annoying. Maybe the same sort of thing's happening here for a more organic reason, without anyone needing to interfere?"

"But why?"

"How would I know?" Brommus crossed over to where the leftover tea was cooling, and finding no teacup, poured it straight from the teapot into his mouth. "What we do know is that we aren't getting anything. Perhaps I should try Riley's Mirror again."

Nodammo winced as Brommus set down the teapot. "Conjurors and their bombastic names for everything."

"Come on. We don't have to do things this way. I've already ranked the list of potential candidates by importance of their previous positions with regards to our current situation, we'll just go down that one by one. It'll be so much simpler. After all, it won't do us much good if the most willing person happens to be the Minister of Pig-Cleaning or something equally useless."

"But…" Chin in hands, Nodammo slumped against the table, stared down at the now-cold basin of tea and sighed. "Never mind. I was going to go out for a small trip into the city proper, anyway. You go ahead and enjoy yourself, Brommus."

"I will come too."

"Agnurlin!"

Picking up the basin in one hand as if it weighed nothing, Agnurlin crossed over to a nearby waste sluice and dumped the tea into it. "Was that a reaction to my sudden appearance or to my suggestion, Mistress?"

"Both, Agnurlin. You can't go out by yourself; you'll scare people and I don't think even Brommus has the power to sustain an illusion for hours on end, let alone me."

Agnurlin rinsed the bowl and wiped it dry with a few easy strokes of a dry cloth that was hanging nearby. "The kitchen and housekeeping staff seem to tolerate my presence well enough. No running and screaming from the living dead, no calls for exorcisms--if anything, someone who can evenly turn a roasting spit for hours on end without so much as a drink of water gets their respect."

"Probably because the king does, and they respect him to some degree. I know well enough that the palace guards are jumpy near Victor, and I don't blame them."

"That is because I don't think they can justify him away as being rather thin and pinched, Mistress. Let us be serious here. If I may be so bold, you've never really been in a city of any considerable size."

"What's the worst that could happen that I couldn't handle with a well-placed fireball or two?"

"You might get lost, for one."

Nodammo stared hard into Agnurlin's eye sockets. "You aren't joking, are you? No, you wouldn't be."

"Agnurlin does have a point," Brommus said. "If you haven't been in a major city before, you might be in for a shock when you do visit one for the first time. It might be…interesting, but you'd do well to have someone along just in case something unexpected happens. Agnurlin could wear a dark hood and cloak, and no one would even notice him, let alone the fact he's a skeleton."

At that, Nodammo and Brommus burst out laughing till tears came to Nodammo's eyes. "Thank you. I needed that."

"Don't mention it. Seriously, though, I wouldn't worry too much about Angurlin following you around. People don't see what they don't expect to see, and if they do--well, the locals are very friendly people. Friendly enough to discount a heap of bones walking down the street, the last time I was here. "

#

"So the hero Siegfried went up, and in an utterly narcissistic fit of egotism lopped off the dead dragon's head, adding illegal possession and trafficking in parts of an endangered species to his list of crimes--"

"But Mommy, didn't Daddy use to do that to his competitors in the wholesaling business? Gut them and sell their bits to people who actually had uses for things like troll spleens and eye of giant newt?"

"The difference between your daddy and a hero, love, is that your daddy doesn't claim to be a paragon of virtue, an ultimate role model to be blindly adored and followed or some silly rot on those lines. He's just Victor; he's just your daddy. Which is saying a lot, but you understand what I mean." Obsi shifted her considerable bulk to a more comfortable position and touched the tip of her snout to Jete's in a gentle nuzzle. "Now where was I? Oh, illegal possession and trafficking in parts of an endangered species in addition to breaking and entering, extortion, burglary during the night, murder, kidnapping, outraging the modesty of a young human woman--if you'll remember the virgin tied to the stake--and plenty more. Still, he managed to get away with all that and be universally loved by people within his silly little generic kingdom, which only goes to show what depths of self-absorption, criminality, and general sociopathic behaviour you can be forgiven for if you're a hero. That's enough for this morning. It's already light outside; you should be asleep by now."

"But I want one more story, Mommy." Jete whined as she tugged at her mother's foreclaws. "Please?"

"Not today. Mommy's tired from doing implementing the cost-cutting measures."

"You're always tired these days."

"I can't help it. If your daddy were around, he'd be able to help, but--" Obsi groaned. "Do you know what first made me notice your daddy? It was that dark look he gave me. It matched his misaligned teeth perfectly, and well, it went on from there."

Jete raised her head. "Mommy? Are you all right? You're not feeling ill, are you?"

"Humour your exhausted, bloated mother, will you, love? Every time I wondered whether your daddy still loved me or not, he'd know, and give me that same look, and I'd know. It was all so very romantic."

"When you say 'dark look', Mommy, do you mean something like this?" Jete made a face.

Obsi studied her daughter and ground her jaws in thought. "Dear, I think a dark look as in 'You. Now.' is rather different from 'I would like to murder you and your family in the most visceral and painful manner that's possible, and quite probably, impossible.' The number of teeth you're showing is important, for one."

"Oh." Jete looked down. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. Now, you ought to be going to bed, and I'm feeling rather sleepy myself."

"Mommy?" Jete prodded her mother, but Obsi had curled about her swollen and slightly lumpy underbelly, her head nestled against a nearby boulder. After some prodding and poking, Jete decided her mother wouldn't be waking anytime soon, and padded quietly out of the cavern to the main chamber where the filing cabinets were. After making sure she was alone, Jete pulled out the lowest drawer on the oldest cabinets, rummaged around amongst the thin metal sheets and drew out the old cardboard tube with her jaws. The end came off with a faint pop, and she unrolled the paper as she'd done every night since Victor had left, revealing the same old faded scratchings.

"Are they ever going to change?"

They did.

Jete stared, read the scribblings again, and wondered why she hadn't understood the very moment Victor had passed the paper to her. What she was supposed to do was all so painfully obvious; she just hadn't expected it to be so…so soon.

Something had to be wrong. This wasn't a task for a grown-up, let alone a whelp like her.

"I've got to find Daddy. He'll know what to do." Letting out a soft mewl, Jete nosed the paper back into the tube and replaced it in the cabinet. "But where is he?"

#

"Bugger off. Come on, go away, get lost, make yourself scarce, make like a tree and leave, disperse and relocate somewhere else, spatially orient yourself to create maximum displacement between you and me. Oh, fuck it. Fuckity fuck off."

One of the children stared at Victor. "The dragon said a bad word!"

"So what if I did? There're far worse things I could do than merely saying 'a bad word', and none of them are going to be pleasant for you. Good thing the water's so nice and cool that I'm not even going to bother getting out of it. Now stop treating me like a zoo display. Don't you have anything better to do, like be woefully oppressed into undignified child labour or have too much sugar and go hoppity-skip all over the bloody place?"

"Come on now," Slakar said as he gently led the small group of boys and girls away from the lakeside. "The dragon has a point. He can't help looking that way; it's not polite to stare. Go back to your parents."

When the children had gone, Slakar set up his folding chair by the lakeside and hummed to himself as his guard took up their positions. "Sorry about that. Inquisitiveness, double-edged sword of the human condition."

"Fucking hell. Ducklings? Follow their mother on an organised single file. Kittens? Learn quickly not to stray too far away. Human children? Run around like mice fed an exclusive diet of yellow-spotted mushrooms. Not to boast or anything, but my kid has enough sense to not go near obviously dangerous creatures. I hate young humans."

"Well, I'm not a philosopher. Anyway, Brommus will be here soon, and then we can get on with today's agenda."

"Agenda. Balmy afternoon, sun shining, breeze blowing, birds singing, a great day for agendas of social upheaval." Victor laid his head on the muddy lakeshore and rolled one amber eye skyward. "Oh, here comes our sad little wizard to join the sad little king and the sad little dragon. Let's get this done and over with."

Brommus nodded and Slakar, Victor and the palace guard, then took his seat next to the king. "I've already sent out the first batch of letters, targeting those who primarily held seats in foreign relations, finance, security and public relations. Hopefully they'll be so kind as to acquiesce."

"I wouldn't bet my hide on it." Victor growled. "You'll have to make some changes to your policies. Like the handouts the crown has been giving to the poor. They'll have to stop for now. Implement the old taxes once more. Normally, I'd try to stimulate the economy with a little government injection into the economy, but your treasury's empty enough as it is and borrowing from another kingdom's out of the question for you, right?"

Slakar nodded, though his eyes and mouth said otherwise. "Yes. I have no wish to place my people at the mercy of another ruler."

"Good. Look, I really don't understand why you have to look so grummy. Being practical doesn't mean you can't be nice, compassionate, what have you, and the same goes the other way around. There's not just a thin line, but a whole horizon between 'no taxes at all' and 'tax them until they don't just bleed, but are wrinkled, lifeless sacks of skin'. If you ask me, this so-called recession is mostly artificial, and once the Company's influence goes away things should go back to normal once people feel safe enough about spending once more."

"That's…good to hear," Slakar replied.

"Now first things first. Your public appearances and the speeches you're going to be making."

"Speeches?"

"You know. It's the best way to prove you're not evil--all Dark Lords do all day is to brood in their forbidding castles and never show their faces in public. You need to go out, mix with the people, exercise a little charisma, kiss some babies for effect and convince everyone that you're a decent king after all. In fact, I've convinced the archivists to modify a few previously successful speeches; since no one remembers very much about them afterwards, they've just changed the details up a bit." Victor cleared his throat with a rumble. "Now let's see. Association of farmer's collectives: 'Applying modern magic and technology to increase the fruitfulness of agriculture.' Craftsmen's guilds lobby: 'Applying modern magic and technology to increase the fruitfulness of Industry.' And…hrmm…Gru'bar'atr women's association: 'Applying modern magic and technology to increase the fruitfulness of big breasts and wide hips.'"

The look on Slakar's face could have turned cider into vinegar.

Brommus took off his cap and fanned himself with it. "Kiddo, if you have anything against what we're proposing, please speak up. You are, after all, the king. While that doesn't stop people reinterpreting your words to suit their own ends, you still have the power to say them."

"No, that's not it. Everything you've suggested makes sense so far--well, except that last speech. That aside, I'm just worried at just how the Company will react to this."

"We'll be ready for them, buddy. Better to die living than a living death."

Slakar slumped forward, and his plain crown slipped over his forehead once more. "It's not me dying that's got me worried. It's other people dying that's the problem."

"He has a point there."

"We'll be ready for them. Believe me, we'll be ready for them, and if the people are behind you, so much the better for everyone."

One of the palace guards drew close to Slakar and bent over to speak to his liege. "With all respect, sire, I wonder if it's wise to leave the security of the kingdom and you to a massive, brutish, positively foul and ugly fire-breathing lump of--"

"A-hrrrrm."

With a few easy strides, Victor stepped out of the lake and shook water off himself, creating a brief localised rainstorm in the royal gardens, followed by a personalised solar eclipse in the immediate area of the offending guard.

"--Yet somehow noble and dignified, dragon."

Victor smiled, or at least, showed his teeth. "You're not helping your case here, friend."

"Umm…did I mention the abundance of good qualities? Like…claws. And…umm…spines. And teeth. A lot of teeth."

"That's enough of this nonsense." Slakar got up from his bench with enough force to tip it over, and tin the blink of an eye had placed himself directly between Victor and the offending guard. "He might be in the wrong, but I'm not going to have one of my retinue threatened in my own home. File an official complaint if you must, or are you worrying that it won't be addressed?"

"Don't worry, buddy. I'm not going to hurt him. I'd just like to impress upon our friend here that while he might not be quite used to the idea of talking to someone like me on equal terms, or perhaps he's been lulled into complacency by the fact that I lowered myself to your level so we could speak more comfortably, it's still fucking impolite to speak about someone as if they weren't there."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 27

Miss Annoyed peered into the mug in front of her. "What's this, barkeep? I ordered ale."

"It is ale, Miss. Ale, as per the king's regulations pertaining to the sale of only ale and wine in stereotypical drinking establishments, served in an appropriately polished mug and with a clear, frothy finish. Definitely looking the goods, eh?"

It was frothy and alcoholic, Miss Annoyed had to give them that. Frowning, she dipped a finger into the brew, drew it out, and sucked on her fingertip.

"Oh dear. It's an absolutely vile, malodorous concoction, thick and dreg-filled, and if my tongue isn't wrong, it seems to be brewed from the hell-fruits from the blasted lands of Moider, which grow only in complete darkness and dead earth…oh wait. They're apples. Which begs the question of what apples are doing in ale in the first place."

"It's apple ale. The specialty of our kingdom, carrying with it a few thousand years of cultural significance and importance. You know, a national drink, the importance of fruit, especially apples, in our daily diet, that sort of thing. Historic battles against neighbouring Fenoros, with this beverage being invented because the troops thought it would be a shame to waste the catapult ammunition. Sorry about the wordiness; the tourism board gives us a small stipend if we promote the drink on their behalf."

"Smells like cider, tastes like cider, looks like cider--are you sure it isn't cider?"

"It's apple ale," the barman replied once more, thumping his fist on the counter for emphasis. "Brewed from the finest apple juice. Well, mostly apple juice."

"Not malt and hops?"

"May or may not contain them. Like nuts, you see. I did say it was mostly apple juice."

"Hmm." Miss Annoyed took the mug in one hand, sniffed the still-foaming contents, and shrugged. "Why are there shrimps in my drink?"

"Ah, those are drunken prawns. You see, a local fisherman once made the point of proving the strength of his liquor--"

"Save it. I'm not in the mood for grandmother stories right now."

The barman stiffened, but managed to keep a straight face. "Then think of it as extra protein."

"I guess I'll give it a try."

"A very wise decision if I say so, miss. Careful, it's a bit strong."

"We'll see about that." In a few quick gulps, the mug had been drained, prawns and all, and Miss Annoyed was staring pointedly at the grain of the countertop.

"Are you all right, miss?"

"Ulp."

"You sure? I could get you a glass of water if you want. It would be bad for business to have someone die of alcohol poisoning on the premises."

"Urk. Urk urk urgle." Miss Annoyed swallowed, and her eyes snapped back into focus. "There, much better now. How much do I owe you for the drink?"

A tic had crept into one of the barkeep's eyes, but he held a straight face and nodded. "Oh, not much. A few coppers."

"Thank you. The drink was…eye-opening. I might be back. Or I might not, depending on how things go." Miss Annoyed dug around in her pocket, found a few coins next to the fragmentation grenade and paid the barkeep. When she was safely out on the dirt road, she hummed to herself, searched her pockets again and pulled out a clipboard thrice the length of the pocket opening, a pencil attached to it with a bit of string.

Guideline adherence report for drinking establishment #56918-TAV.

Adherence level: extremely unsatisfactory. Danger of expected narrative being broken if come across on a Quest(TM) and rendered unsuitable for commercial application. Improper drinks being sold. Bread served is black and very dry. Liberal use of adornments on toothpicks, which is unacceptable under section 3(a) of the Drinks Guidelines. Magical lights being used instead of dribbly candles on cartwheels hung from the ceiling. Major offence as pertaining to the Magic Exclusivity Act.

Additional offences: Assuming a Quest(TM) employee with full enforcement privileges is a gormless idiot and attempted poisoning of said employee, or simply serving very bad drinks.

Recommended action by inspection personnel: typical bar brawl is insufficient to make an example of this particularly egregious establishment. Possibly cue one barbarian ransacking, or one monster rampaging. Preferably something huge, green and with teeth. Or perhaps falling victim to some unexplained catastrophe which heralds the Dark Lord's return from a thousand years of being sealed away.

When she'd finished writing, Miss Annoyed tore the page off her clipboard, folded it neatly four times over and tossed the slip into the air where it promptly vanished.

She hadn't gone a hundred paces when a fissure opened in the earth right under the tavern and swallowed it whole. There was a terrible cracking noise from deep beneath the earth, and the fissure closed up, leaving no trace of its passing.

Miss Annoyed stood in the light of the setting sun, licked traces of cider from her lips, and shrugged. "Oh dear. Didn't expect Enforcement to be that fast on their feet."

#

"Keep your chin up, kiddo," Brommus said as he gently tilted Slakar's head upwards. "You need to be confident. A head of state is a person whom people are going to look to and depend on in times of crisis; no one's going to be very encouraged if they see you looking down like that. You need to exude--what's the name for it--charismatic power."

"Herbalist, treat yourself," Slakar muttered, but nodded and straightened his back. "I'm sorry. It's just…all that's been happening recently…"

"No, you're right--I'd be worried if you weren't brought down by all that's happened since you took your uncle's place. Still, I know you have what it takes; you've addressed crowds before. Remember that one time at the downs where you managed to convince the people that you were the rightful ruler?"

"But that was just thirty people."

"Thirty, three thousand, it really doesn't matter once you've got the basics down," Victor grunted. "Look, friend, I'll take you for a little flying if you get this rehearsal done, all right? Incentive and all that."

"Flying?"

"You know, being in the air and not falling down, that flying. Your garden lake's very comfortable, but I need the exercise."

"Oh. All right, I suppose." Picking up a sheaf of paper from a nearby garden table, Slakar stepped onto a nearby rock and began to read. "Here we go. Farmers, we are gathered here to discuss the introduction of state-sponsored agricultural methods, which will be entirely voluntary--"

"Be more forceful! Tell them what they want to hear!" Victor snapped.

"--With immediate effect, all restrictions on approved crop types as deemed by the Company will be removed--"

"Look at the audience instead of your speech. It should come naturally to you. Your hands--watch them. Don't let them wander about, but don't keep them completely still, either. Use them for appropriate emphasis." A smile on his face, Brommus stepped up and adjusted Slakar's arms. "There; a little space between limbs and body. That looks more open and friendly."

"--Since I have realised we are a sovereign nation and indebted as I am to Quest(TM) for helping me assume my rightful place, I refuse to be a corporate puppet any longer. Thank you." Alternating his gaze between Brommus and Victor, Slakar stepped down from his rock. "How did I do?"

"You'll pass, friend; it was at least on the same level Nef-Mart conducts its board meeting presentations, although that's not saying much. Still, I did note a few areas for future improvement. Firstly--"

Victor didn't get to finish his sentence, because one of the ubiquitous palace guards had run up to Slakar and saluted, clearly out of breath. "Sire!"

Slakar set down his papers, his eyebrows creased into a frown. "What's the matter, Tarkus? Take a moment and catch your breath; it's a long way back to the gatehouse."

"Sire. There's a mob outside the petitioners' entrance. About fifty or so men and women."

"Oh, no. We're too late to--"

"Excuse me for interrupting, but they don't want to see you, sire. At least, not immediately. They want to see the dragon."

"Me?" Victor rolled his eyes and yawned. "They want to see me?"

The guard stiffened. "Yes, um, er…lord dragon?"

"Just Victor will do. Tell me, my good man. This mob…any muscular hunks in it? Women that you would describe as athletic, yet feminine? Plenty of gold on them?"

"No, lord. They seem…well, I know them, actually. They're from the grassroots winter lettuce farmers' organisations."

"Very well. Pitchforks? Bent scythes? Flaming torches? Humorously-shaped hats, and equally humorous slogans, chanted over and over like broken vocalization spells?"

"No, lord. They seem to have a list of some sorts, a few barrels of cider, and…well…a virgin tied to a stake. Or at least, she's got 'I'm really a virgin' painted on her blouse."

Silence. Slowly, Victor squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again, and made a grating noise as he sucked in a breath through his teeth. "Here we go again. Your Majesty, you can let your people in; I have an idea of what they want. Properly dealt with, they won't make any trouble, even with their virgin-on-a-stick."

Slakar looked a bit worried at the idea. "Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure. Scenes like this is one of the reasons I manage my investments through more acceptable intermediaries these days."

"Well, if you say so, Victor. I'll stay and watch; maybe I could learn a thing or two." Removing his crown and wiping the sweat off the rim, Slakar nodded at the guard. "Show them into the gardens, Tarkus, but do insist that they behave in an orderly fashion."

The guard nodded, saluted the king, and departed. He returned shortly after, the assembled people trailing behind. A few women had enormous casks of cider slung over their shoulders, and six men carried between them a large stake, to which a young woman had been tied.

Victor shifted the front half of his bulk out of the water and drummed his claws on the mud as one of the men stepped forward.

"Great and mighty dragon, please accept these sacrifices and release the king from being held hostage--"

"Whatever makes you think I'm holding him hostage?" Victor grunted. "And who the fuck told you this was the way to appease dragons?"

"Well…um…it's traditional, isn't it? The cider's part of our efforts to expand potential markets through word-of-mouth advertising, and as to the girl…dragons prefer virgins and all that."

"You think I would be interested in pursuing some sort of romantic relationship with a member of another species? What do you take me for? Someone with an unnatural fetish?"

Now the man was clearly sweating. "Um…that's not it…you know, you hear things…that, well, virgins taste better, especially with winter turnips."

"Buddy, I fail to see how the act of sexual congress would suddenly make someone less delicious, but I suppose it is the fault of other dragons for helping this myth along. Look, let's stop all this nonsense now; I haven't got your king under any sort of compulsion or the other. In fact, I'm actually here because he invited me."

"To?"

"To attract state-of-the-art businesses and revitalize the economy. Here's what you're going to do, buddy. You let the girl go, take home your cider and drink yourself silly, and wait for the reforms. All right? And if you want to give dragons food, why don't you try making a gift out of Nef-Mart dragon kibble? Delicious, nutritious and no one has to spend so much time looking for virgins, which I understand are a rare commodity amongst humans."

#

Heavy footsteps echoed in the dark, appropriately musty confines of the ancient tomb. Amidst the darkness, a single torch kept the shadows at bay, flickering dangerously despite the air in the tomb being absolutely still.

"Avaunt, foul necromantic creature from beyond the realms of light!" the lone young woman called out as she picked her way across the bones strewn on the floor. "Prithee, I…um…where was that script again? I'm sure I've got it in one of these pockets…damn these figure-hugging outfits."

"Prithee, for this day I will consign your soul to the dark depths of the damned dimensions from which you devilishly dawned! Yeah, yeah, you can cut the crap now; I've heard every single one of those stupid speeches before, complete with bad alliteration." The lid on one of the stone sarcophaguses trembled, lifted and crashed to the ground and a skeletal arm yellowed with age emerged, soon followed by the rest of the skeleton it was attached to. "Damn, can't get two seconds' worth of sleep without either some idiot summoning me from the darkness or wanting to send me back. Which Ballmantle are you?"

"What?"

"Oh, come on, don't act surprised. You know, secret line sworn to defeat the Lich Emperor every time he resurfaces in the mortal world, that sort of crap. What's your name, girl?"

"Tuffy."

The Lich Emperor made a show of yawning and rubbing his eye sockets. "Tuffy Ballmantle. Great. Were your parents dropped on the head when they were children? Wait, I know that one. They were, because I was there."

"Are you done insulting my name so I can get on with this big showdown between good and evil? I have a date with the boy next door in a month or so, and I've got to make it all the way back across the Utter Waste of Time if I'm to make it back on time and get dressed up."

With a hollow sigh, the Lich Emperor pulled himself out of the sarcophagus, sat on its edge, and tried to arrange the tattered bits of fabric on himself into some modicum of respectability. "I'm sorry, I don't have my soul-stealing sword of evil with me right now."

"What? You lost the sword? I mean…I mean…how hard can it be?" Tuffy paused her spluttering, pulled out a scrap of paper out of her bodice and jabbed at it. "I mean, you don't need very much for a Colossal Showdown Between Good and Evil. I've got the list here, and it's not a very long one. Good, Evil, and a big fight, and you can't even do that?"

"I didn't say I lost my sword, I said it wasn't with me right now. I threw it away."

"Why--"

"I mean, it's the same story over and over again, isn't it? You've gained the artefacts of this and that, gone through the holy rites of that and this, so on and so forth. By now, it's hardly going to be a fair fight anyways, since I won't even be able to touch you." Sighing, the Lich Emperor scratched his head. "I mean, I'm supposed to be a great agent of necromantic power, I should be able to, y'know, fill your body with writhing maggots, blow you to pieces with methane, but apparently all I'm allowed to do is throw easily dodged bolts of dark lightning and a bit of sword fighting that's more flash than anything else. Whatever, I don't give a damn anymore. I quit."

"What? You can't quit. You're--" Tuffy began, but the Lich Emperor cut her off with a wave of his hand.

"I said I quit. Q-U-I-T. I'm just going to lie down here on this slab, and you can kill me. The phylactery's in my safe behind the mouldy painting, and the combination's five-twenty-three-seven-two. Don't fuck up when you go about destroying it, either."

Silence. A few uncomfortable moments passed.

"What's the matter? You get all the glory, Miss Tuffy. Good triumphs over evil once again, the land is liberated, the darkness is vanquished, and all that crap."

"But why?"

"You want to know why? I work hard for everyone, do the whole evil business, perhaps raise a few pathetically feeble skeletal minions to spice things up a bit. I give them an excuse for a bit of adventure where nobody really gets hurt, or at least, nobody important, even create a small tourist industry centred around the myths of the Lich Emperor, but they still manage to hate me despite the fact that if I weren't around, they'd be growing and eating dirt.

"Do the silly little rulers ever thank me for distracting the populace from how they're mismanaging their kingdoms and letting the infrastructure fall into ruin? Do they even bother with a small sending spell to say 'thank you for being a convenient scapegoat to blame for the crops failing this year', even if they don't have the time to come in person? That's gratitude for you these days, young lady. No, I've had enough and I don't want to come back. Besides, turning up more times than that old sprouting onion at the bottom of the basket is starting to get to me."

"You can't do this! The suits will be on to us! Oh--fuck, one of them's already here! See what you've done!"

"Don't mind me, the two of you. Pretend I'm not here and get along with your Colossal Showdown Between Good and Evil." Miss Annoyed waved her clipboard in the air. "Just making sure things are going according to the script, otherwise…"

"Oh, all right," the Lich Emperor said. "Let me…let me just pretend I'm trying; that should be good enough. Um, flash! Bang! Kapow! Onomatopoeia associated with flashy magic! All right, miss, now thrust that sword right here between the ribs…yes, that's the spot. Argh! This cannot be! I am immortal! I'll be back! But not really!"

Tuffy stared that the little pile of dust that until recently had been the Lich Emperor. Her shoulders slumped.

"Well, your performance wasn't the best, but it'll have to do," Miss Annoyed said as she tore off a piece of paper from her clipboard and hurled it into the air. "I can tell you one thing, though; you won't be getting a raise this year."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 28

"Don't stare at the nice man, Timmy. He can't help looking a bit…thin…"

"But mommy, he's really a skeleton! He's got those big empty spaces where his eyes should be and nasty sharp fingers and--"

"Actually, madam, the child's not to blame; it's a rather common misunderstanding," Agnurlin said as he inspected a tomato from a market stand. "The diet my doctor's put me on for my condition has left me rather pinched, if I may say. Still, health is more important than appearances, isn't it? No good looking good if you're dead. Maybe my eyes are so sunken they've disappeared? Wonder what I'm seeing out of, then."

"But mommy…"

"Enough of that, Timmy. Skeletons live in creepy places like graveyards and tombs, and they don't go out walking on the street, let alone go shopping. Whoever heard of skeletons buying tomatoes from a market stand?" The woman bobbed her head at Agnurlin and Nodammo. "Mister, Miss, I'm really very sorry about my son. By the way, what would happen to be the diet your doctor put you on?"

"Absolutely nothing," Agnurlin replied. "It's proven rather effective for weight loss, don't you think?"

"Yes, yes, rather effective. If you don't mind, I've got to go and see to something." The woman hurried off, dragging along her son by the ear. Nodammo and Agnurlin watched them go.

"Can't stand kids," Nodammo said. "I bet they look cute and helpless on purpose just to manipulate our emotions."

"Hmm. Do excuse me a while, Mistress." Agnurlin fished another tomato out of the stand, and eyed it with all the precision of an alchemist weighing powders. The tomato was about the size of his fist, a bright red, and by every appearance firm and juicy. "There's something about this produce that strikes me as out of place…"

"Buy them anyway," Nodammo replied.

"But Mistress, I do not think--"

"I think I understand what you're getting at. Buy them anyway."

With a curt Nod, Agnurlin turned to the stallholder. "How much do I owe you for the tomatoes, sir?"

"Three coppers."

"Mark me slightly surprised. No insistence that I pay in coinage appropriate to the currency applicable to your kingdom? No insistence that I visit a moneychanger first?"

"No, sir. Everyone knows that money is directly linked to the inherent value of the material used to produce the currency, and as such any currency is universally accepted." The stallholder stared hard at Agnurlin, then burst out laughing. "Nah, I'm just bullshitting you. Three Fairbankian coppers, please."

"Don't you mean Gru--"

"Oh, to heck with that. They liked the king well enough back when he kicked his uncle off the throne, but back then people had full bellies and could afford to be a bit romantic, you know? Still, even then I didn't like that the king had to go and change the kingdom's perfectly good name to something stupid I couldn't wrap my tongue around, even if I had a dozen curlers on standby. You get my drift? Didn't help that the queen literally ran off with the wolves, either."

"Indeed, sir." Agnurlin gave the stallholder a small bow, and paid. "Thank you very much."

"Don't worry. It's not as if I've got anything better to do with my life than to give random passers-by a taste of popular sentiment regarding our young king. At least this way I'm doing something useful, instead of being paid a stipend to sit on my ass all day like those people at the fake bazaar."

Nodammo's eyebrows shot up. "Fake bazaar?"

"You know. Every big city's got to have an open-air marketplace where all sorts of exotic goods are sold; crystals, stuffed fish, incense, that sort of stuff which no one ever seems to need but still get put out for sale anyways. I'm not so sure what's the point--the traditional wandering shops have pretty much got that market cornered and at saturation, but that's just me questioning those strange regulations. You'll want to visit the fake bazaar, though; it's only two streets down."

"Oh, all right. Just one question, though. You're supposed to be a bloody stallholder. There's nothing against you understanding the concepts through common sense, but how the heck are you using words like 'market saturation' and 'popular sentiment'?"

"Um…uh…I'm taking free night classes given out by the grassroots activists for the promotion of literacy. They want us to be able to read the king's edicts so we'll be able to understand the next crazy proclaimation for ourselves and not have to rely on officials' interpretation of them." The stallholder gave Nodammo a wide, too-earnest grin. "Really."

"Something's not quite right here, and I don't like the way things are looking. By their very definition, no one should know of wandering shops except the people in the magical community and those who're unfortunate enough to stumble upon one. That only leaves one thing." Thinning her lips, Nodammo rolled up the sleeves of her dress and stepped towards the stand. "Do you mind if I take a closer look at your--"

The stallholder stared at Nodammo for a split second, then stomped hard on something hidden behind the vegetable stand.

"Grab him!" Nodammo shouted and pointed at the stand. Agnurlin was already sailing through the air with Nodammo's hurled spell, only to land in a rapidly dispersing cloud of mist. Having lost its target, Nodammo's spell twisted on itself, wavered and fizzled out in a shower of sickly green sparks.

"Damn it, a spy," Nodammo muttered to herself as she helped Agnurlin up amidst scattered tomatoes and curious onlookers. "I should have suspected something when the tomatoes were too fresh to have been grown."

#

Sniffing at the aroma of coffee brewed from well-roasted beans, Miss Annoyed smiled to herself and flipped open her laptop. The horrible instant coffee that came in sachets was well enough for an emergency, but to her, there wasn't quite anything to match an authentic brew.

"Hmm," she said as she stared at the information the spell woven into Dark Wyndd's red shirt had gathered about the palace's layout, and traced a fingernail along the laptop screen. "Hmm. Perhaps…possibly…well, why not? It'll add a little excitement and drama to someone's life. Can't let a story stagnate for too long. Don't be silly, Verra. You've already requisitioned the materials. Just get on with it."

Still, Miss Annoyed took a swig of coffee from her mug and started pacing around the executive suite until a knock came at the door.

"Who is it?"

"The desk telepath, Ma'am. You have a sad schlobb from Logistics waiting to see you. Shall I send him in?"

"Yes, please. I've been expecting him for a few days now."

"I hope it's not too late for you to have a nice day."

Miss Annoyed's smile grew wider. "No, I don't think it's too late. Thank you." The door opened, and a young man in blue coveralls stepped into the room, a large crate clutched to his chest.

"Fido Express, Ma'am. Your requisitioned materials have arrived. I didn't see any hazardous materials storage in this rest stop, so where should I put it? The sooner I'm away from these things, the better."

"Just put it down in that corner by the bed."

Miss Annoyed noticed the young man's already strained hand tighten further. "Ma'am? A-are you sure? I don't want to get into trouble if something happens."

"You won't get into trouble. Do you want a written statement from me absolving you of all responsibility?"

"Well, ma'am…I wouldn't impose…"

"Don't worry, I know what I'm doing. You're dismissed." The young man turned to go, but Miss Annoyed suddenly waved him back and pressed a gold piece into his palm. "Here, I almost forgot. Your tip."

The young man's face broke into a grin, a welcome change. "Thanks, ma'am. No one ever gives Fido Expressers tips, let alone a big one like that. They just take us for granted."

"Well, I'm not. You may go now."

After the door had been closed and locked, Miss Annoyed gingerly undid the latches on the crate and shifted the lid off. Most of the crate's volume was actually foam, but she decided it was justified after drawing out a cylinder of nitroglycerine, its glass casing alight and shimmering with suppressant spells. Ten minutes later, an assortment of oils, thickeners, tubing, wiring and less orthodox equipment sat on the floor, waiting to be turned into something useful.

And useful it would be. Rigging a bomb from makeshift materials and disguising it to suit a particular narrative was easy. Planting a bomb and manipulating the narrative flow to ensure its discovery was another matter, but still manageable. The real challenge, Miss Annoyed supposed, was to make sure it was complicated enough to appear threatening, yet simple enough to actually get defused as the narrative demanded.

She locked her fingers together and stretched. "Well, time to get to work."

#

"That's worrying," Brommus said. "As far as I know, Enforcement is usually content with periodic inspections and letting things run themselves for the most part. For them to have active surveillance on a location is never a good sign."

The royal kitchens were busy, since Slakar had insisted the delegation winter turnip farmers' association stay for lunch. Nodammo and Brommus, by now familiar faces to the staff, were summarily ignored in their little corner amidst the rush. Still the utensils on this particular counter had been polished till they shone, unlike the others which made the royal kitchens their home.

Nodammo stopped fiddling with a knife and turned to face Brommus. "Signs of?"

"You know. They're either expecting something to happen, or Mr. Happy or one of the board have taken a personal interest in some project. Perhaps both, or neither. And it's never good for the people being watched."

"Well, I never imagined this was going to be easy. Now, where was I? Forces of magic, please accept this sacrifice of two eggs, a quarter-cup of milk, two tablespoons flour and this lump of soft cheese…"

Brommus watched as Nodammo turned back to the counter, mixed the components in a bowl and began to whisk the mixture. "Umm…I know you're the expert on this odd branch of alchemy, but--"

"Oh, the chanting's mostly for show. I had an education, you know, and come to think of it, so did you. Everyone knows that appealing to the forces of magic as a sentient entity does nothing."

"No, not that. I mean, does it matter what kind of eggs or flour you're using, in the same way as the eye of what species of newt matters? Do speckled eggs give more accurate results than non-speckled ones? Or how about rice flour when compared to wheat flour?"

"I'm sure there're some process variables to be accounted for, but the generalised version of the spell shouldn't be too picky about the components so long as the general energy balance equations work out. With some luck we should be able to use the bugger's tomatoes against him and find out something useful."

"Hm." Brommus sat down on a high stool next to Nodammo and looked on as she drizzled clear, greenish-yellow oil on a clean, heated skillet. It wasn't long before a warm, fragrant aroma wafted from the skillet and joined the other smells of cooking around them.

"Hm what? With these words, I consign the concoction to the fire. Well, not quite fire, or that'd be burning it, but rather, heat in general…"

"Do you mind if I have a go at this food alchemy thing? It's quite novel to me, and…um…well, I do like to try new things. It helped my job to have at least a basic understanding of many subjects, you see."

"You can cook well?"

Brommus tipped his sweat-soaked cap. "Hundreds of small helpless animals roasted on spits and cooked into soups and stews over campfires. None of them ever complained."

"I don't see why not, then. At this point, the spell's mostly a matter of not letting it burn. And you don't have to explain yourself to everyone all the time." Nodammo poured the egg mixture into the spitting skillet and passed it to Brommus. "Come to think of it, you could answer a question for me in return. How do you know Mr. Happy's Mr. Happy?"

"What do you mean?"

"I've always wondered, myself. What I mean is how do you know Mr. Happy is really him and not someone else dressed up in a suit?"

"Well, there's the smiley face illusion over his head, and there's his business suit, and there're the white gloves…"

"All which don't make Mr. Happy who he is." The egg mixture sizzled in the skillet, already fluffy on one side, and Nodammo carefully guided Brommus in turning it over. "Someone with the proper dress could impersonate him. No, not that way. Oh, just give the damned thing back to me."

"Well then, what does? Anything can be faked with enough effort, from the way he walks, to his voice, to the little gestures and habits we use in everyday life. Does it really matter who or what Mr. Happy is underneath that big smiley face illusion of his, or if he's replaced every day by a new actor? I think not, if he behaves in the exact same manner, gives the same speeches every company get-together and makes the exact same decisions? What I'm getting at is that the essence of Mr. Happy isn't something physical. It's the way he acts. Perhaps you could say he's more of a persona, or even an idea than anything else."

"You have a point there." By now, the top of the egg mixture had gone a rich golden-brown, and Nodammo carefully spread the oil-soaked tomato slices in the middle of the omelette before turning it over and sealing the edges. Golden sparks danced along the edges of the skillet, rose into the air--and vanished.

Nodammo said a word that made Brommus wince, and the skillet came crashing down onto the stove, scattering droplets of hot oil in all directions.

"Fuck," she said as Brommus hurried to save the omelette with a clean plate. "Fuck fuck fuck fuck; they've really got all their angles blocked, haven't they? What're you doing with that thing? You're not actually considering eating something made with tomatoes that're far too fresh and firm to be--"

More golden sparks oozed out from the sides of the omelette, rising into the air like a swarm of angry bees. Without warning, the swarm of sparks twisted in upon itself, spun a few times and darted off in the direction of the nearest exit, startling a few servants and a fat, greasy dog on its way out.

Nodammo and Brommus stood rooted to the ground, their mouths agape, then hurried after the trail the golden sparks had left behind.

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 29

"Where is it going?" Brommus asked. The trail of golden sparks, a shimmering streak in the air, had gone up several flights of steps to the older and more disused sections of the palace, circled round a very surprised chambermaid, and was now leading Nodammo and Brommus through an old art gallery dedicated to still-life paintings of apples against various backgrounds.

"Don't ask me!" Nodammo gasped. "I…was hoping to…get around whatever blocks that'd been set up by using a semi-randomised locator variable in the spell. Look, I'll explain all this when we find out where this damn thing is taking us and I get a chance to catch my breath, all right?"

"You promise?"

Nodammo nodded and skirted around a statue of a man bent over and kneeling, weighed down by the giant apple on his shoulders. The trail went down several flights of steps, back to the ground floor of the palace, and ended at a door. Brommus tried the handle, and the door slid open noiselessly and cleanly, despite the copious rust on the hinges.

"They've been oiled," Brommus said as he inspected them. "And it's still wet, too."

"Well, let's go see." Nodammo put the heel of her boot to the door and stepped into an arsonist's dream. Barrels upon barrels of lamp oil were stacked upon each other along the walls, giving off a pungent odour that had turned the masonry slightly yellow. Crates of large white candles occupied one of the corners, and in an apparent attempt to save storage space, lanterns sat on every available surface. A number of oil-stained rags hung from hooks, and huge vents and windows were set high up into and against the ceiling, as were sconces for something that was supposed to be orb-shaped.

Nodammo went up and read a scrap of paper stuck underneath one of the empty sconces and noticed that it was suspiciously free of dust. "Place dousing orb here."

Then she noticed the ticking, which came from something sitting off to one side of the room.

It was large.

It was unsightly.

It had tubes and flasks sticking out of it, and a clock face glued onto its side, the hands moving ever-so-steadily towards midnight. Two rather large tubes stuck out prominently, and one was tinted green and the other red.

It also had one large glass tube in the middle, around which several naked flames were positioned. A pale yellow liquid swirled in the central tube, looking distinctly uncomfortable like someone who'd had too many prunes the previous night.

The swarm of golden sparks hovered above the device, danced once, twice and vanished, its job done.

Nodammo sucked in a breath. "It's a--"

"--Quest(TM) stereotypical incendiary makeshift rig, and a pretty poor one at that, judging by that big open tube in the centre. Haven't seen a model with one of those before," Brommus finished. Rolling up his sleeves, he took off his cap and knelt in front of the bomb to inspect it. "I shouldn't have any problem sending off this old piece of alchemistic junk; done a whole lot of them in my time. Nothing like your standard armed explosive device to add a bit of suspense and danger to the narrative, my colleagues used to say."

"Then shouldn't you be doing just that instead of talking?"

"Hah. Look at this." Brommus waved Nodammo over and pointed at the clock face. "There's no rush. The bomb goes off when the clock hits midnight, and we've got a good thirty minutes before it blows. Why don't we get Victor to take it someplace deserted and let it go off there?"

"Hmm…" Thinning her lips, Nodammo circled the bomb a few times and sniffed the air. "I wouldn't do that. Three coppers say that there in the central tube is nitroglycerine. Shake it too much and it explodes; I'll wager it's there to stop anyone from moving the thing."

"So much for thinking outside the box; seems we'll have to do it the old-fashioned way. Why don't you go outside and warn people to stand back? You know, just in case?"

"Are you insinuating that--"

Brommus stoop up and held out his hands. "Just in case, all right? Miss Ebonlocke, while I have confidence in my job training as a wise old mentor, it's always good to have a backup plan."

"I--"

"Do you know anything about bombs?"

"No, but I know something about alchemy, and the liquid in the green tube is--"

"It's the red tube. I know what I'm doing here. You always break the red tube to disarm the thing. It's a standard rule, and rules are everything to the Company."

"Would you please at least listen--"

"They've got to be made so idiot-proof that even heroes can do the job. Heck, the clock is there to conveniently tell them how long they have left. Trust me on this, all right?"

Nodammo scowled fiercely at Brommus, but nodded and stomped out of the storehouse.

"Well, that's that." Taking a deep breath, Brommus drew out his wrench from his coveralls and tested its weight in his hand. "No point in drawing this out, then."

With a well-practiced swing, Brommus swung his wrench down at the red tube. It shattered with ease, and viscous liquid dribbled out of the broken end to pool on the floor with broken glass. The flames went out, and the tubes emptied themselves with alarming rapidity.

Smiling, Brommus replaced his wrench into his coveralls and stepped back a few paces to admire his handiwork. "Another job well don--wait, what? Why--why is it bubbling like that? That shouldn't--aaaah!"

The force of the resulting explosion flung open the door and sent shattered glass flying as far as the passageway outside.

#

"Fire!"

Bells rang throughout the palace as the red-liveried guards herded panicked servants out into the royal gardens like experienced sheepdogs controlling a skittish flock; while the edges of the massed people continually threatened to break, the job was done quickly and efficiently. Apparently, the palace residents had collectively decided being near a dragon was better than being near a raging fire.

"Seems like the king's old mentor didn't succeed, eh?" the guard captain said to Nodammo as he mopped his brow and splashed water from the garden lake onto his face. "The palace won't collapse; it was built to last, and the king's uncle was generous with the renovation budget. We should be getting a bucket chain going soon, m'lady. We've dealt with worse fires before. "

"No. It's an oil fire. Water will just help it spread, and we don't really have very much sand at hand, either." Nodammo thought for a moment, and a thought came to mind. "Both entrances to the apple gallery--the doors are solid steel, aren't they?"

"The very best; they'll withstand anything. Pity about the works of art in there, even though I've never cared very much for art. That and no one ever goes there anymore; that's why we used the place to store all the lighting equipment in case something like this happened. Why?"

"I'm going to go in to shut those doors and seal the windows in the storage room. With any luck, the fire will starve itself of air and go out of its own accord before it spreads to the other parts of the palace."

The guard captain balled a hand into a fist and slammed it into the palm of the other. "M'lady, it's far too hot--"

"I am a sorceress, my good man. That implies that I can, you know, do magic. You know? Magic? Altering the world through imposing your will on it? Besides, I won't be alone; I'll have my butler with me. He's rather fireproof."

Sighing, the guard captain looked back and forth between Nodammo and Agnurlin, the latter who hadn't been standing there a moment ago. Nodammo was impressed, not just because the guard captain hadn't been fazed by Agnurlin's sudden appearance, but also because he wasn't fazed by a skeleton undressing and folding his clothes into neat piles.

"Let her go in, Gerber. She has a point, and I'm sure she can keep herself safe." All three of them turned to see Slakar, his plain iron crown tucked under his arm. "Still, it's not only about keeping the fire contained, is it? You're worried about Brommus."

"I am not leaving someone in there. Dealing with heroes my whole life has taught me one thing: if there's no body, don't assume anyone's dead."

Slakar nodded. "Especially if he's survived being buried in a diamond tomb and clawed his way out with his fingernails; I think that would say something about him. Good luck, baronetess. You'll need it."

#

Smoke.

More smoke.

And yet more bloody smoke.

Nodammo had expected its presence, but not thick, roiling clouds that seeped through the spells she'd set up around herself and made her eyes water and her throat scratchy.

Given what'd probably have happened without the laboratory safety spells, though, Nodammo was grateful she'd actually read the lab manual during her days at the Academy. Other students had stuffed their copies out of sight, forgotten about them and ended up as interestingly-shaped murals during practicals.

"Agnurlin?"

"I am here, Mistress." Bony fingers Nodammo couldn't see closed about her own reassuringly. "Do not worry, and lead on."

She could make out the pillars that held up the gallery and the vague silhouette of the apple-man statue, but that was about it. With a clang, she pulled the heavy metal door shut behind her and pressed on through the art gallery, the paintings now faint flickers of light in the smoke and dust.

"I think it should be right about…here…" Nodammo said as she pressed her hands against the uncomfortably hot walls. "Agnurlin, help me look for the door to the storage room."

It wasn't long before they found it, the latch ripped from the stout wood--which was also aflame. Dropping to her hands and knees, Nodammo scrambled amongst the few patches of floor unoccupied by blazing puddles and gasped when her fingertips came into contact with something slick, soft and with lots of little hard bits stuck into it.

Suddenly, she was grateful for all the smoke.

"It's him. Brommus. Agnurlin, please help. I…I can't shift him by myself."

The soft tapping of bone against mortar, and there was a damp, sucking sound as Agnurlin carefully hoisted the body into his arms. "He's alive, Mistress. Barely. We should get him to safety as soon as possible. Your spells will not last forever, especially under such stress."

"You go," Nodammo said, and coughed. Was it her imagination, or were the flames beginning to waver and twist into strange shapes? Nodammo rubbed her eyes despite the steadily thickening smoke and shook her head. "I'm not going to trust these flames to behave. Someone's going to have to shut off the openings, and you're the only one who can carry Brommus."

"Mistress--"

Nodammo stumbled towards the door. "Get him out. I'll be fine. He needs medical attention as soon as possible; you can't afford to stick with me outside the apple gallery. I'll rejoin you shortly."

Agnurlin hesitated for a moment, then nodded and strode briskly through the flames, Nodammo trailing behind him. They reached the other end of the gallery, pulled the heavy door shut behind them, and Nodammo paused to catch her breath.

"Mistress--"

"Just go! Are you waiting for him to bleed out?" Without waiting for a response, Nodammo turned towards the nearest stairwell and dragged herself towards it.

#

Mr. Happy angry, Miss Annoyed decided, was an oxymoron and more than just in terms of a pun. There was something so incongruous about someone whose head was an oversized yellow circle slamming his fist on a table that reached beyond the pie crust of the psyche and made the creamy filling quiver, and the fact that it was done through a laptop screen didn't diminish the effect.

The comically frowny face and inversion of Mr. Happy's usual smile didn't help, either.

"Look, I don't want to do this, Verra," Mr Happy said as he sighed and made a steeple with his gloved fingers. "No one likes a sudden performance evaluation. You don't like being scrutinised. I can understand that. I don't like the sudden and unnecessary paperwork. You can understand that. But a foul-up on this scale--that isn't something I can turn a blind eye to. It wouldn't be fair to the other junior executives, otherwise."

Miss Annoyed picked up her coffee mug from the executive suite's small kitchenette and drained it in one gulp. "I understand, sir. Still, I was fully expecting the deviants to react in a way appropriate to their character. They were supposed to have known that the solvent was in the green tube, acted in a logical manner and broken that, defusing the--"

"I'm really very sorry, Verra, but at this moment it doesn't matter." Mr. Happy pointed at the numerous canisters of viscous, glowing liquid on his desk. "A whole batch of suspense and danger all ruined, absolutely ruined. Who's going to buy suspense and danger that's actually real? People want a bit of a thrill to quicken their pulses and lives, not to lose their limbs. How am I going to explain to Mr. Dao that his thrilling adventure is going to be delayed, or at worst, called off? How much of his downpayment should I return to him? How hard will our company's image be hit? Think about it."

Miss Annoyed gritted her teeth and wished for that slice of delicious chocolate cake she'd been offered the day before. Perhaps she should ask if it was still around. "Sir, while I respect you as my superior, please don't talk down to me. Employee feedback is important, you know."

"Yes, yes, I'm sorry." Mr Happy reached up and brushed some invisible lint off his business suit. "You've been our best field operative for some time now. Still, the reason I hire executives is so that I don't have to oversee things myself. How many days you've worked without an accident doesn't matter when an accident does happen. Accounting's estimated this mishap just cost us forty thousand dollars in lost revenue. Insignificant compared to our total takings, perhaps, but it's more a matter of principle."

"It won't happen again, sir."

"That's good to know. I'm going to leave it up to you to salvage the situation, Verra. The narrative must continue. If there's nothing else to be discussed, you're dismissed, then."

"There is one matter I'd like to bring up, sir." Miss Annoyed stared into her coffee cup and decided how to best phrase her next words. "About those deviants--um, sir, should we really be risking this new narrative? I mean, I can understand the benefits, but their unpredictability makes me uneasy."

Mr. Happy merely pointed at another stack of canisters on the other side of his desk. "My dear Verra, we can probably crush them anytime, and I do suppose all good things must end sooner or later. Before we do that, though, why don't we let them earn a little money for us?"

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 30

"What I want to know is how the bomb got in there," Nodammo said though the facemask the healer had given her. "I thought your oh-so-efficient palace guards would have intercepted something on those lines. How hard can it be to notice something that big, irregular and loud?"

"Baronetess, you seem to underestimate the importance of a palace. People go in and out of here every day. It isn't merely a place for me to stay, it's a process. People live here, and those people have to eat, have to have their needs tended to and their waste carted out, lighting, clothing, yarn for those lovely tapestries which adorn the walls of every decent castle--those alone accounts for an interestingly large amount of traffic from the main gates. Then there're delegations from the citizenry, not to mention the royal gardens have been open to the public since my uncle's time. The guards do what they can, but to stop and search every cart coming into the palace grounds would be insane." Slakar scratched his head. "Why are we even arguing about this, anyway? What's done is done. The important thing is to make sure Brommus lives."

"Victor's certainly rubbed off onto you."

"Has he? I wouldn't know. Healer, how is the patient?"

The healer, a young woman in a short dress and boots not too unlike Nodammo's, scowled and raised a pair of blood-stained tweezers. "He's lucky, all right, sire. Most of the shards didn't strike anything vital, but there was a large piece that slid through his ribs and narrowly missed the heart. Look--you can see where he instinctively shielded his face with his arms, and the dent in this wrench where that glass shard I was talking about probably got struck and deflected away. So long as the alchemist there keeps the anaesthetic going, we have a chance. Do add more yellow-spotted mushrooms to the distilling flask, Alchemist."

The distilling flask in question was connected by way of a tube to a cut-out bladder that covered Brommus' mouth and nose. A small pile of glass shards lay on a sheet of gauze, stained the reddish-brown of clotting blood, a small enamel basin held boiling water and steeped gauze, and Agnurlin stood by an assortment of both Nodammo's and the healer's glassware and other equipment, seemingly unperturbed by the whole scene.

Brommus himself lay on a mattress of stuffed straw, what was left of his wizard's coveralls cut open by the healer to let her get at his wounds. Almost every single part of him had been wrapped up in gauze, stitched together or slathered in some sort of thick, bitter-smelling gel the healer had brought along. Nodammo wasn't so sure what was it about the scene that disturbed her--accidents had been common enough when the new magical/mechanical hybrid ploughs had been introduced into rural Fenoros, and more often than not an over-enthusiastic cabbage farmer or two had managed to tear their limbs to shreds. Perhaps it was the way that despite how horrible and bloody he appeared, Brommus was smiling, and Nodammo wasn't sure if there were enough yellow-spotted mushrooms in the world to make all that hurt go away.

After what seemed like an eternity, the healer made one final pass over Brommus' form, her hands glowing faintly, nodded, and pulled the cut-out bladder away from Brommus' face with a soft sucking sound. "That should be the last of them. I'll come down every so often to check on him and renew the healing spells on him, sire."

"Thank you, Aria. Brommus is very important to me."

"You keep paying me even though the treasury's nearly gone, sire. This is the least I can do for you." The healer pulled off her bloodied gloves and turned to pack up her equipment. "Alchemist, I'm going to write a prescription for that gel--you should be able to synthesize it without too many problems. It'll soothe his burns and keep the other wounds from getting infected. I'll get one of the palace guard to bring it to you."

"All right."

"Hope your apples ripen today. You deserve a bit of luck." With a curt nod, the healer walked out of the room, leaving Nodammo, Slakar and Agnurlin alone. There was a moment's silence, and Nodammo picked up Brommus' wrench from the table and looked intently at it.

"It saved him. The wrench saved him."

"Just as holy books tend to do in urban myths. Or magician's wands. I remember once having a sidekick who was saved from an arrow by a copy of Stronk and What's The Elementals of Sthal With Practical Questions For Students he always kept on his person."

"Oh?"

"Very wide. Very thick, and iron-bound too. Come to think of it, that book also saved us from a falling meteor the Banished One of Naz'thu'gu'gul called down on us. Left a dent in the binding, though."

Nodammo turned the wrench over in her hands again. "Given enough imagination, I suppose this could be seen as a sort of wand. On another note, your healer doesn't seem to like alchemists much."

"She doesn't see it as a proper science, I think. All the searching for the Philosopher's Stone, Elixir of Life and all that."

"But that was ages ago! Now we deal with sodium nitrate and nitroglycerine and other sensible chemicals like potassium cyanide, not outmoded rubbish!"

Slakar shrugged. "She's the one with the chip on her shoulder. You bring it up with her, but whatever happens, I don't want a screaming match in my castle. Not until I've had time to think through what's just happened."

#

"Boss? Is that Brommus guy going to be all right?"

"He'll live." Nodammo picked up a rock from the ground, leaned back, and flung it at the lake with all her might. It skipped once, twice, and disappeared directly into the reflection of the setting sun. Satisfied, Nodammo sat down on the grass and folded her arms around her knees. "It might take some effort on his part, but he'll live."

"Good thing, Boss. Would've been a pity if he'd died; I was beginning to like that guy."

"That's another on the list of things you don't hate."

"He's earned it."

"How?"

A moment's silence. The lake's surface began to ebb and rise; a good deal of movement was going on underneath. "Boss, did I ever tell you my first memory?"

"I don't think so, but let me guess. The warmth of your mother's mind touching your own, pleasant dreams of shared memories while still in the eggshell?"

"Nah, Boss. I don't think I was ever that lucky; that sort of shit's dreamt up by humans who have nothing better to do than romanticise us. My first memory was that of my dad dying. Got sworded. And arrowed. Maybe you could call it 'sworrowed' or some shit like that. You want to know what my second and third memories are?"

"What?"

"I was being made to jump through a flaming hoop. A fucking, honest-to-gods, oil-smeared and fucking flaming hoop, and there was a dwarf on the other fucking end with a fucking whip and making me fucking jump through the fucking hoop. Then I thought to myself 'why the fuck am I doing this?', followed shortly by me ripping the guts out of the bastard with the whip and running away while everyone else was distracted by the blood and gore."

"That's…well, I suppose you suppressed everything in between…"

Victor arched his neck and sipped at the lake's surface. "It wasn't just then, Boss. It's now, too. Did you see the way those people looked at me while they were in the gardens? They were wondering whether I had gone and set the fire, because that's what dragons do, burn down castles for the fun of it--oh, none of them told me as much, but I could smell it on them.

"It wasn't even as if I was expecting them to see me as Victor--it's not as if they know me personally. Heck, I wasn't even really expecting them to see me as 'the king's counselor'; they have a right to be suspicious of my motives, and I understand that. But 'a dragon'. That's all they saw me as. That's what most of you humans and the like will ever see me as. 'A dragon'. Like 'a bird' or 'a fish' or some other fucked-up shit monster. Unworthy of their respect since they took their natural place the fucking rulers of the whole fucking world. The time of man has come, everyone else fades away, and all that shit. How'd you like it if everyone called you an alchemist and your only worth was defined by that?"

"Actually, Victor, there was that healer--"

"That's why Brommus earned it, Boss. You and the rest of your family, to some extent--I've forgiven, but haven't forgotten the times you slipped. Agnurlin, after a few rough-and-tumbles on our part. That sad boy-king of Brommus'. A few people here and there, who don't think of dragons as either stupid slavering beasts, noble creatures to be blindly worshipped or animals in a petting zoo. I don't hate them."

Nodammo noticed a small patch of recently-sprightly crocuses by the lakeside had wilted, and sighed. "Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?"

"You could get me something to write on; I'm going to send a letter home and maybe you should too. Metal foil would be best." Victor raised a dripping foreclaw out of the lake. "Paper, ink and a dry surface will suffice."

"But a simple sending--"

Victor bared his mouthful of crooked, misaligned teeth. "A letter, please."

Several moments later, Victor found himself alone with a thin sheet of hammered bronze that had been carried in by a couple of guardsmen. By then, the sun had already gone down above the horizon, and in the darkness the humorously duck-shaped bushes seemed less humorous and more twisted.

Victor drummed one set of foreclaws on the bronze sheet, making soft ting ting ting noises that fled into the night. Thinking letters through was important when making corrections was costly.

One talon raked its way through the mud.

Obsi, I--

No.

I didn't mean to--

No, he'd meant to, done it knowing full well what he was doing, and had no regrets. Victor paused.

Jete needs--

"Daddy?"

At the sound of that voice, Victor dipped his head into the lake and brought it out again, shaking droplets of water all over the rose bushes. Water pouring off his sides, he heaved himself out of the lake.

"Daddy, are you all right? You look…odd…" Jete's voice died to a mewl.

"What the fuck are you doing here, Jete?"

"I can read it, Daddy. That dried-up bit of paper you left me, I can read it."

Victor's tone softened considerably. "So you can? I…I didn't think you'd be able to. Not while you're still so young."

"I could and did. That task--it's not something for a hatchling like me. That's why I came to find you; once I figured it was you from the news reports over the transmitter I made my way here. A bit of flying was involved, but I mostly rode on the backs of produce carts. Humans can believe anything's a rather large pumpkin if they try hard enough."

"Does your mother know where you've gone?"

Silence. Caught by her father's gaze, Jete squirmed like a bug held under a lens. "No, Daddy."

"Not so easy to squeeze yourself into my hide, hrm?" Victor grunted and tapped the bronze sheet with a foreclaw. "No, Jete. I've been looking for a good while myself, and I'm not sure where our family's flaming crown has gone. You can help me write this letter to your mother, though. I've never had a way with these sort of words, and you'll save her a lot of grief by letting her know you're safe with me."

#

"I'm not telling you anything, servant of evil! Do your worst!"

"We're civilised in these parts, Mr. Wyndd. That means we don't torture prisoners, lie to them, or threaten them with burning grains of sand, and we put applesauce on all of our boiled ravens before eating the buggers. Local delicacy, you see." The guardsman licked his lips. "Gotta boil them good to kill the germs and like, but the taste is worth it. Come to think of it, we just caught and served a rather large raven that was trying to get at the cell keys. Damn things can be as bad as magpies, eh?"

Dark Wyndd looked like he'd tried to swallow a whole orange, but managed to nod with excruciating slowness and sat back down on the wooden board that was the only piece of furniture in his small cell. He'd already tried everything--from pretending to be ill and overpowering the guard who came in to investigate, which had only brought a trained healer under the eyes of three watchful palace guards, to climbing out through the air vent, which had proven a problem considering it wasn't any bigger than his head.

They'd even taken away the lucky red shirt of elven grace the nice lady had given him and replaced it with a plain hemp one. That, he supposed, had been the best part of the cavity search, inasmuch as realising you're going to hit the river at the bottom is the best part of falling down a canyon.

And now the barbarians had eaten Shadow. With applesauce. Was life never fair? Dark Wyndd knew his rights as a hero as per his standard contract and breaking out of prisons was one of them, complete with the guarantee that any prison one got thrown into would have an easily identifiable and usable escape route.

There didn't seem to be one here.

"Dinner time," the guard called out cheerfully and slid a tray through a slot built into the cell's bars. "If this diet were more balanced, it'd be a clown. Good joke, eh? Oh, and the castellan says to stop worrying at the anti-magic aura; it's annoying. Eat up now, you're going to have a visitor in a little while."

Dark Wyndd stared at the contents of the tray. A mug of sickly sweet apple juice sat on it, along with a baked apple, a cold slice of apple pie and a jug of water he could not only see the bottom through, but was actually clean. "Aren't you going to let me out for exercise with the other inmates?"

"Whatever for? We're not stupid here, you know. Everyone knows heroes can stay fit without needing to exercise. Whyever would you go to all that trouble? No, you're staying in here until someone decides what to do with you. Now please be so kind as to eat up--I've got to take back the tray to the kitchens."

With a sigh, Dark Wyndd chewed resignedly on his slice of apple pie, and the items on the tray disappeared one by one. When he'd finished, he slid the tray back where it'd come from, and the guard picked it up.

"Thank you. The Lady Ebonlocke will be down to see you now."

Dark Wyndd perked up at that. A lady? Perhaps…no, but ladies didn't wear boots, or at least, not those that he cared to remember…

Flanked by two guards on each side of her, Nodammo strolled into Dark Wyndd's view. One of the guards produced a bunch of keys and unlocked the cell door, while the other three drew their swords and stood at the ready should something happen.

"My lady--"

"I know to be careful around heroes; they've been trying to kill me since I was a child. Thank you for your concern." With a practiced hand, Nodammo drew out a syringe filled with deep blue liquid, and depressed the plunger just enough for a single drop to well up on the needle tip.

Every single instinct in Dark Wyndd's brain screamed at him to run. He settled for pressing himself against the opposite wall as far as he could.

"Now, Mr. Wyndd," Nodammo said as she advanced, "we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way. Cliched, perhaps, but it works."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 31

Brommus woke to the smell of pound cake, or at least, pound cake that smelt like old onions. He was rather sure that pound cake wasn't supposed to smell that way.

"Wffflgrm," he groaned, and pulled himself upright with aching limbs. Something was wrong, and not just the fact that it was hard--no, it hurt to breathe, reminding Brommus of the time he'd climbed all the way through painfully thin air to see the guru on the mountaintop. It took a few tries, but he finally managed to stand and stay on two legs.

"Urgh." Brommus gasped for breath and looked down at his feet. "Ugh."

The pound cake hadn't merely gone stale; it was well into rotting. Mouldy patches had joined to form a fuzzy carpet of sorts that clustered around his boots, and the raisins--or at least, that was what Brommus assumed they'd once been--had hardened to tiny, rock-hard dots he wouldn't have touched after a month lost in the Endless Wastes of Doom and Destruction.

The candy canes hadn't fared any better. Half of those he could see had been snapped in two, and the other half had gone all green and funny. Brommus supposed it was the tomatoes growing on them that were doing it.

"Is this what's been happening to my head?" Brommus frowned, contemplated a nearby tomato that was bursting with ripe, juicy goodness, and shrugged. "Never noticed anything odd."

Everything seemed grittier, darker, and yet more carefree in a way he couldn't quite place into words. So what if the pound cake was rotting? So what if the chocolate river had gone all black and smelt bitter? So what if the sky was overcast with rust-coloured clouds? Somewhere in the back of his mind Brommus knew he should be worried about these new developments, but it was as if the bridge between "I am not worried" and "I am now worried" had a very nasty-looking troll living underneath it with a chip on its shoulder against the goats of rational thinking.

Something in the distance managed to catch Brommus' notice, though. It was big, somewhat round, and inordinately shiny for something the size of a mountain.

"It's an apple, you know," a voice by Brommus' ear whispered. Brommus spun, lost his footing in the mouldy cake, and fell.

"Gandwarf!"

Gandwarf put a cigarette between his teeth and cupped a hand to light it with a finger-flame. "It's an apple. Vaguely round and shiny things with stems. You find them on trees, in fruit baskets, on market stands and in healer-free diets. Apples. That's a name they have, that's what they're called."

"I know it's an apple, damn it," Brommus groaned as he levered himself into a sitting position. "What I want to know is why there's one the size of a mountain smack in the middle of my mind."

"Beats me," Gandwarf replied, shaking the ashes off his cigarette. "You know what you've been doing, kiddo. You should be able to get the analogy or whatever those thingies are called."

"Well, I'm just going to sit right down here until this nonsense is over, and I can get back to the business of my life."

"No."

"What?"

"That's what I've been sent here to tell you. You're not coming to till you sort out this mess." Gandwarf waved a hand at a particularly vicious-looking puddle of sour treacle. "By the looks of it, there's a lot that needs doing, and it wasn't just you being stupid that caused it."

Folding his arms across himself, Brommus tried to think, although it was hard to do that and concentrate on breathing at the same time. A goat of a thought butted the troll off the bridge, memories came flooding back, and suddenly Brommus was very, very worried.

There had been flame.

And glass.

And pain.

Lots of pain.

Brommus swallowed. "Does that mean--"

"Yes, it does," Gandwarf replied. "When you come to, a hundred years will have passed, no one will remember you and you'll pass for an authentic mountain guru. Sort of like that Rapp Von Twinkle guy who drank the wrong booze and lay in an alley for a hundred years before being taken in and used to prop up an old beam."

"You can't be serious!"

"Of course not, kiddo; I just love watching you get all terrified. All joking aside, time is largely relative here. Even if it wasn't, there's such a thing as a 'long-term coma', so I'd better hop to it if I were you. Forever is a very long time to spend in your own head." A smoke ring emerged from Gandwarf's lips and hovered above Brommus' head like a halo. "Use your wand and put things right."

Brommus nearly collapsed in relief. "What wand?"

"That wrench thing there in your pocket."

"This?" His face twisting into a scowl, Brommus reached into the front pocket of his coveralls and pulled out his wrench. It felt heavier than he'd remembered it being, as if it'd been turned into solid gold, and had acquired a dent on its side, but was otherwise unchanged. "You call this a wand?"

"You think the first wizards dealt with unicorn horns, phoenix feathers and all that other crap? Look at your wrench, kiddo. It puts things together, it takes them apart. It breaks and fixes objects. It can hurt, it can kill. It's both a problem and a solution, and it saved your sorry ass. Most importantly, it's got a knob on the end. Well, somewhat knob-ish. That's good enough for me."

Brommus turned the wrench over in his hands, and the scowl faded from his face. "I…I see."

"I'm running out of time here; it's up to you to save yourself, kiddo. Remember, putting things right sometimes means having to break them. Then again, sometimes it doesn't. It's up to you to decide." With that, Gandwarf's image vanished abruptly, smoke rings and all.

Brommus pulled himself to his feet. One boot got stuck in a nearby patch of stinking, molten toffee, and no amount of tugging would remove it. With a sigh, he pulled his foot out and was about to move away when his other boot started whimpering pathetically.

"Want to join your fellow, do you?"

The boot on his foot whimpered more empathically.

"All right, all right. I don't think I could walk lopsided for very long anyway." Brommus bent over, undid the laces, pulled his foot out and hurled the boot into the toffee patch. "Go be happy."

Put things right, the ghost of Gandwarf's voice echoed in his mind.

"Put things right," Brommus muttered to himself, and not really knowing why, swung his wrench at a nearby candy cane. Ripe tomatoes fell amidst bits of greenish candy, and a swarm of ants erupted from the cane's chewed-out core.

A small loaf of bread sat in the middle of the rubble. Taking a deep breath, Brommus steadied his trembling hands and picked it up.

It looked good. It smelt good. It felt good, with none of the coarseness that came with people baking chicken feed and cabbage stumps into their bread. Breaking it in two revealed it to be wholesome and thick-crusted, the sort of thing ancient kings ate for their last meals on account of not wanting to go hungry while in the queue for their place in the afterlife to be processed.

Brommus tossed the pieces of bread over his shoulder and considered the next candy cane for a long while.

"No," he said to himself at last. "No. That's Victor's way. He'd be the one to knock over the board, change the rules to suit himself, and threaten all the other players. That's fine; it doesn't make him evil. Perhaps it would even be reasonable in some circumstances. But it's not my way.

"Not my way. My mind, my way." Gripping his wrench so tightly his knuckles turned white, Brommus stormed off in the direction of the big apple, his stockinged feet squelching in the mould.

#

"Mr. Wyndd, I'll restate your choice," Nodammo said. "You can choose to talk of your own accord, or you can choose to force my hand and use this little wonder I've brewed up. Which one will it be?"

Dark Wyndd glared at Nodammo. It was all he could do, considering that each of the four guards each had a limb pinned down.

"I see. We'll have to use the truth serum, then. Now then, you'll feel a little prick…"

Beads of sweat appeared on Dark Wyndd's forehead as Nodammo stuck the needle in his arm, depressed the plunger, removed it and wiped away the blood with a spot of gauze.

"There we go. Cooperation without barbarism. You can let go of the hero now, there's no need to restrain him any further," she said. "Now, Mr. Wyndd, do sit up; it's much easier to hold a proper conversation that way. I'd be much obliged if you'd tell me who sent you, and why."

"I--I--" Dark Wyndd's hands had gone clammy, and he was trembling. "I--Miss Annoyed sent me, said I had to defeat the evil king and free the land, because the earth itself was rebelling because the wrong king was on the throne."

"Interesting. Please, do go on."

Rivulets of cold sweat ran down Dark Wyndd's toned body and pooled on the board. Try as she might, Nodammo couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for the hero, his eyes unfocused and teeth chattering rapidly. "Well, she said the crops were failing and the geese were flying backwards and spontaneously exploding and the people were starving and hated the king and apples were rotting on the bough and cart wheels were getting stuck in the multiplying potholes on the roads, and I saw them myself, saw the geese flying backwards with little propellers attached to their backs and heads, the surest sign of evil--"

"I think we get the idea, Mr. Wyndd. What did this Miss Annoyed look like?"

"C-c-couldn't rightly say. Her f-face--I just can't remember, it was like looking into a mist."

"A suit," one of the guards said, and the others nodded at him. "A suit."

Nodammo ignored them and pressed the questions. "Fine. So her face's a mystery. Then her clothing? Her body shape? Any particular oddities on her? Come on, even her footwear, the way she walked, or any calluses on her hands? Chemical stains, that sort of thing? You know?"

Several minutes later, Nodammo had a list of details sitting in her hands, and she waved one of the guards over. "You have an artist somewhere around the palace, don't you? Would you mind taking this to him or her and getting an impression sketched, even if it's rather…faceless?"

The guard saluted, took the paper in hand, and marched off. Nodammo turned back to Dark Wyndd. "See? That wasn't so hard, was it? Your cooperation is very much appreciated and will definitely be taken into account when we decide what to do with you. Good day, Mr. Wyndd."

Dark Wyndd blew a spit bubble and slumped back onto the board. Shrugging, Nodammo picked up the empty syringe and turned to leave, the guards locking the cell behind her and easily falling into an escort formation.

"That was interesting, m'lady," one of the guards said once they'd turned round the corner. "A truth serum."

"It wasn't."

"But we all saw its effects. No man could have faked the shaking and sweating. Well, not without a good amount of apple ale in him or her."

"Oh, if you could convince Victor to part with one of his teeth on demand and get me a couple of unicorn ulcers, I could make one. Even then, the best truth serums only make people more inclined to speak--you can't force people to tell you anything if they're determined to keep quiet." Nodammo shook her head as her footsteps echoed in the mostly-empty dungeons. "All that was in the syringe was coloured water with a spot of tea in it to give it a bitter smell, that's all. What was important was that our hero believed it was truth serum, and he did the rest of the work himself. It's amazing what people will do when they believe they're not responsible for their actions."

"So it's headology, m'lady?"

"What's that?"

"Well, my granny's a witch, and people act funny around her. She has a sort of effect on people that makes them want to believe what she says, or at least, that's as far as I understand it."

"Perhaps. I couldn't rightly say without seeing it in action." Nodammo was about to set foot on the long spiral staircase that led up from the palace's hero-holding cells when the guard she'd sent up earlier came barrelling down the other way.

"M'lady, his Majesty requests your presence. The wizard has come to."

#

"How do you feel?" Maybe it was a stupid question, but Nodammo felt it had to be asked, the way small, pointless questions like "good weather today, isn't it?" had to be asked.

"Water," Brommus croaked, opening one eye. He'd been propped up into a sitting position by a small stack of cushions, and the reddest and angriest of his burns had faded somewhat. "Water. Breathing hurts."

"Um…" Nodammo cast an imploring glance at the healer, who pointed a gel-smeared finger at the basin of boiling water she'd set up earlier, a clean rag floating in it. "Ah, I see. May I?"

"Yes. Play nurse if you want; just don't get in my way." The healer returned to her task of scrubbing Brommus' raw flesh and changing his bindings.

Thinning her lips, Nodammo snapped her fingers, levitated the rag out of the water, and waited for it to cool off before taking it in hand and letting Brommus suck on a damp corner.

"Thank you." Brommus managed to say after some wheezing on his part.

"Now will you listen to me when I have a suggestion to make?"

"I…not the time for…where's my wand?" Brommus' one open eye rolled around in its socket frenziedly. "Where's my wand?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"I…I meant my wrench. Where's my wrench?"

"Well, if it gives you any comfort, you're more than welcome to it. I was merely keeping it safe for you." Nodammo picked the wrench up from a side table where it lay and placed it in Brommus' right hand. "There you go."

Brommus shuddered at the sight of the healer trimming dead skin from his legs and sucked in a breath, which sent him coughing and spluttering. "Thank you. I'd…I'd rather not talk any more for a while, if it's all right with you. Too much effort."

"Well, I'm glad you're not dead. Pardon me if I'm wrong, but I don't think Agnurlin's form of existence would appeal to you, even if he does save a lot on food and never complains about the aching back he used to have, as Victor tells me."

"I'm glad I'm not dead, either. Forever…it's a very long time to spend in your own head."

"What was that?"

"Nothing. Just thinking aloud. Go see to the king, will you?"

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 32

Beep.

Beep.

"Rise and shine, friend!" an automated voice called out from the darkness, perhaps mistakable for a vocalisation or sending spell if one didn't know better.

Miss Annoyed reached out, groped in the darkness and cursed before her hands closed about her laptop cover. She could understand the need for secure communications, but keeping telepaths on the paylist, trusting them with everything from year-end reports to production figures, then not using them for the purpose they were ostensibly there for seemed rather counterproductive to her. Still, the laptop was one of the few things from the other side which couldn't be duplicated in this place.

The other side. It seemed so long ago; Miss Annoyed wondered in the back of her mind whether she'd gone native. If her laptop--an inanimate object--had changed, she wasn't betting two coppers on this place leaving her untouched.

"Since when were we friends and how quickly can we stop this 'friend' nonsense?" The half-finished mug of coffee on the bedside stand had gone cold and congealed a little, but was still drinkable. Miss Annoyed poured it down her throat without a second thought.

Her laptop beeped again. "Rise and shine, friend!"

For the whole of two seconds, Miss Annoyed considered thinking up some excuse to ignore the summons, then decided against it and flicked the laptop open. Faint magical light flickered in the darkness, and Mr. Happy's big golden sun of a face appeared on the screen.

"Verra, while I understand that this is an informal summons, there are dress codes to be observed even during long-range sendings. Lenient as they are, I do not believe one's underwear is appropriate for a meeting with one's superiors."

Miss Annoyed rubbed the sleep from her eyes and yawned. "Sir, you've caught me at a bad time, and I'm worried that--"

"I'm sure you have very good reasons for everything you do, Verra. Because of that, I'll overlook this just once." Mr. Happy drummed his fingers on the surface of his desk. "That aside, though, we're doing rather splendidly thanks to your salvaging of the situation."

"Wha--?" Miss Annoyed shook her head and wished she had more coffee. "I didn't do anything, sir."

"Oh, come on, there's no need to be modest with me. Our ex-employee is going to make a rather timely recovery, but he'll never be the same again. What drama! What excitement! Better than farm boys with destinies and magical hoes rising from the dead and vanquishing evil that's also risen from the dead! Life-changing experiences are rather in demand these days; you'd know that if you spent more time at the office."

"I like it out here, sir."

"Well, you just missed the annual potluck. We had some amusing contributions this year--let's just say I'll never look at crab cakes the same way again. That aside, though, I have a new request to make of you, Verra. What I think--and a few other board members agree with me--is that we should be getting a nice climax out of this whole business with this batch of deviants. We want you to orchestrate one, and make sure you lose."

Miss Annoyed bit her lip. "Sir, I'm not so sure that's the best of ideas. Gru'bar'atr just fell under our sphere of influence and was undergoing normalisation procedures, and you want me to throw the fight for--"

"Verra, Verra. I think you misstate the situation. When you've been in this business as long as I have, you'll think of these matters in terms of…cycles. Yesterday it was petite, helpless damsels getting captured by the evil wizard's minions and requiring one or more strong, manly heroes to come and rescue them. Today, it's muscled, fiercely independent secret daughters of lost warrior women tribes--"

"--Getting captured by the evil wizard's minions and requiring one or more strong, manly heroes to come and rescue them." Miss Annoyed shrugged. "What's your point, sir?"

"My point is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Details get swapped around, but the core of the stories are still identical. Who cares if we lose Gru'bar'atr today when in the long run we'll get it and more back with yet another 'lost heir discovers his destiny and overthrows the false king' Quest(TM)? Given how royalty tended to behave, and not just around unfortunate serving girls and chambermaids, we can dredge up a dozen different farm boys descended from royalty any day. The board is--" Mr. Happy rubbed a gloved thumb and forefinger together-- "confident this is the right thing to do, Verra. You, of course, have the right to decline; we'll pass on the assignment to someone else."

"I don't believe in these, pardon me, short-sigh--"

"You'll have a while to consider your reply; it is, after all, a major career decision of sorts. No rush, no rush, inform me when you've made up your mind."

The screen flickered one last time, and Mr. Happy's image dwindled to a spot of colour before vanishing. Slamming her laptop shut, Miss Annoyed laid back on her bed, her only companions the sounds of the air vents and her own breathing.

In. Out. In. Out.

Maybe the rules couldn't be broken, but perhaps they could be bent far enough for some sort of compromise. And if they did break, she was more than willing to face the consequences. What was the point of fighting if one was going to throw the fight? The customers wouldn't be able to pinpoint the difference, but they'd know, like how Miss Annoyed's friends knew when she served diet drinks instead of the real thing during parties.

Sometimes people like Mr. Happy had to be saved from themselves.

Reaching out to the clothes rack and pulling on her camos, Miss Annoyed flicked open her laptop to find Mr. Happy's image already there, him sitting serenely at his desk with his fingers steepled as if he'd been waiting all this while for her reply.

"Sir," she said, "I'll do it, but I'll need some level of autonomy to make decisions on the ground."

Mr Happy's smile grew. "You'll have it, and anything else you care to ask for."

#

"Feel better?"

"Marginally. I itch abominably all over; healer says it's the new skin growing. That's not the important thing, kiddo." Brommus carefully spooned a mouthful of watery gruel into his mouth and swallowed. "How did they take to the speeches?"

A cool night breeze came in through the window and made Brommus shiver. Slakar had pulled up a chair by Brommus' bed, a guard on either side of him.

"Well, the apple farmers' association was glad to hear that they'd be able to use bugkill and plant growth spells once more. Not that I could ever enforce that silly suggestion made by the Company, but I suppose they took it more as a measure of goodwill than anything." Slakar took off his crown, handed it to one of the guards and slicked back sweat-soaked hair. "I'm still not sure how people will think of a Nef-Mart in this kingdom, even if it is going to be away from main human population centres. The representatives from the chambers of commerce were pleased, though. If word gets around, perhaps more members of my uncle's old councilmen could be persuaded to return."

"I've been inside one of those Nef-Marts, kiddo. Believe me, it'll do what Victor says it does, it'll serve the monstrous community, and with fewer monsters idle and feeling marginalised we won't have so many inter-species conflicts. Trust me on this; we can't go wrong so long as we keep pushing forward."

Slakar scratched his chin. "Well, you said the same thing the time we decided to follow that yellow brick road. It never led to the rebels' stronghold like you claimed."

"It worked out in the end, didn't it? You had a life-changing experience which served you well against your uncle."

"Maybe. I still have nightmares about the flying monkeys."

The last of the watery gruel disappeared, and Brommus placed the bowl on his lap. King and wizard shared a moment of silence before Brommus reached out and placed a reddened, sticky hand on Slakar's shoulder.

"Don't worry, kiddo. There's no script here, no hazy-faced suit dictating that the wise old mentor has to die and the hero has to continue the Quest(TM) without him. That was the hardest part, you know. Not that I had always had to leave, but I had to leave in such a manner. This time, I'm not going anywhere until I'm sure you can manage a kingdom by yourself."

"Really?"

Despite the pain it brought, Brommus managed a smile. "Really. I didn't come back all this way just to abandon you again."

"I--I--I--"

Slakar began to cry. Tears fell from his face, soaked into his surcoat, and made him appear even damper than ever. By now, both guards flanking his chair were clearly fidgeting.

"Shucks, kiddo. Not in front of your guards, please," Brommus said, but continued patting Slakar on the shoulder. "You've got to pull yourself together. What will people think if they saw you crying openly? A head of state's supposed to be--"

Brommus caught himself and looked up at the two guards. "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but would you please leave? Your king needs some time to be alone. I'll be here to watch over him."

The guards exchanged worried glances, but nodded at Brommus and placed Slakar's crown in his hands. "We'll be placing his Majesty's safety in your hands then, wizard. Call out if anything happens."

When they had gone, Slakar's crying gradually died down to choked sobs under Brommus' patting. "They all left me. My mother, my uncle, that milkmaid I had my eye on, you, everyone else, even the one who was my queen--they all left me, one way or another, even when I thought I'd earned my happy ending. They were right--happy endings only exist in stories, not in reality. I--I just--oh, I'm not even sure of that--"

Brommus nodded, handed Slakar a lukewarm rag from a nearby basin to blow his nose with.

"It all feels like a dream sometimes," he said at last. "A bad dream."

"That it does," Brommus replied, and with a surge of strength lurched forward to place the heavy crown back upon Slakar's brow. "But the good thing about nightmares is that one way or another, we have to wake up sometime."

#

Carefully-practiced crazed laughter echoed throughout the confines of the castle as the nefarious Duck Lord, Evilus Evilly McEvil, came to rest upon the seat of his skull-motif throne.

"Evil! Evil!" he roared, arms thrown wide. When nothing happened, Evilus twisted his lips and shook a fist at what appeared to be empty air. "Hey, you were supposed to come through with the lightning and thunder! It's there in the script, and they aren't going to be too pleased if I tell the suits you're being uncooperative with the dramatic effect."

"Give us a break. We damn well know you're very excited about being part of this new department, but not everyone shares your enthusiasm," a voice replied from empty air. "Have you ever tried to get to get a stubborn cap off bottled lightning? Have you? Have you?"

"Fine, fine. Let's do this again." Returning to his throne, Evilus stood up and flung his arms wide once more. "Evil! Evil!"

A loud boom of thunder echoed outside, and lightning illuminated the throne room for a split second. Not that it did much good anyway, considering that everything from the walls to the fruit bowl off to one side had been painted black. Sighing, Evilus slumped back into his throne, picked out a grape from the fruit bowl and ate it.

"Damn," he said to himself. "These grapes are good."

"Indeed, your fowlness." The great double doors on the other end of the hall opened, and a hooded, robed figure approached Evilus along the gold-trimmed carpet that led up to the throne. Thick folds of black cloth hid his shape and the hood did the same for his face. "I've found that grapes go well with a pinch of salt."

"I don't know about any salt," Evilus mumbled, but managed what he thought to be an evil smirk. "Well, if it isn't my loyal acquaintance, Billy! How goes the extent of my evil rule?"

"Bad news, your fowlness. There's been a setback. The book of Mac'guf'fin has fallen into the hands of a farm boy. A very, very, um…rustic farm boy."

"Now, how was this supposed to go again…" Rummaging around in his spiked armour, Evilus pulled out a slip of paper. "Ah, yes. What? This cannot be! My evil is reaching its zenith, and the ducks shall rise from their ponds and cause untold nuisance once more! Evil! Evil!"

Billy stared blankly at his colleague.

"You're supposed to writhe on the ground while I waggle my fingers," Evilus whispered. "Come on."

"Why? That's so…degrading."

"Look, it's right here in the script, where my finger is. Act three, scene four, lines forty onward after the entrance of Billy the featherwraith."

"Fine, fine…" Once he'd lowered himself onto the plush carpet, Billy rolled around on the carpet and clutched himself while Evilus planted a maniacal grin on his face and purple sparkles glowed about his fingers. "No! No, my lord! Help! Please stop! I promise I'll be good next time!"

"Go and destroy the farm boy or else! Ahahahahahahaha! You will have my eyes and ears to follow and aid you. Come, my minions! Serve your master once more!"

Black-feathered ducks flew in through the windows set high into the walls, hundreds of them. They filled every single available surface, from the throne to the fruit bowl to the hooks the tapestries hung from, forming a waddling, quacking sea of warm, fuzzy bodies.

"Ducks," Billy said as he picked himself up and dusted himself off. "Ducks."

"Ah, but these are not any ordinary ducks, my friend! These are--" Evilus leaned forward conspiratorially-- "EVIL INCARNATE! Look at their beady little eyes and all-knowing, evil gazes? You can just imagine them plotting to evacuate their bowels upon helpless passers-by, can't you?"

"Your fowlness, I think that's pigeons."

"That doesn't mean--" A chill wind whipped its way through Evilus' throne room, and when it was gone Miss Annoyed stood before the two of them, knee-deep in ducks.

"Mr. Evilus, Mr. Billy, promoted to the newly-created antagonists department?"

Evilus swallowed. "Yes, ma'am. Did I--"

"No, there's nothing wrong with your performance; you've shown excellent enthusiasm for your work and we appreciate that. I won't waste more of your time; your understudies for the job training seminar should be arriving any moment now." Miss Annoyed waved her clipboard in the air. "I'm merely here to inform the two of your that your hero, amongst others, will be temporarily requisitioned for special purposes. You may need to brood in your evil lair for a little while before the hero assigned to your Quest(TM) is reinstated."

"Ah. That's all right, then. Isn't it? I mean, that's what I'm supposed to do."

"Indeed. Well, gentlemen, I'll be on my way. Time's a-wasting." Another blast of chill wind, and Miss Annoyed was gone.

With some effort, Evilus tore his eyes away from the spot where she'd been standing and slumped back into his throne with a sigh. "Well, that sucks, and melodramatic suits suck even more. What's for dinner tonight, Billy?"

"Baby souffle and puppy blood meringue, straight from the logistics cart."

"Ah, yech. No matter how high up the corporate ladder you go, the food at work always sucks. Oh well, leave it." He waved his hand, and the ducks flapped out of the hall. "The students should be arriving just about…now."

The grand double doors creaked again, and this time three figures in long, flowing robes and hooded cowls, nearly identical to Billy's, glided into the throne room along the carpet before coming to a halt before Evilus.

"Master," one of them began. "We have travelled--"

"Oh shut up," Evilus said, and rose from his throne, crossing over to a blank wall to the left of his throne. "We don't have to be in-character during job training sessions. Billy, would you mind getting the chairs from the fruit table and then leaving us?"

Eventually, the chairs were brought and the three evil understudies were seated facing the wall. Evilus cleared his throat, shooed a duck from his shoulder and sketched on the wall with a fingertip, leaving behind trails of deep, disturbing purple on the stonework.

"All right. You're here because you've shown promise, and our bosses want to be sure that antagonists are doing their assigned role properly, the way heroes do, so we're going to have a short training seminar to reinforce some important points." He cast his eye around the three hooded students, who had remained as still as statues. "You appear to have perfected the Look. That's good. I'm sure all of you have been practicing your evil laughs and hollow voices, and trying really, really hard not to smile these last few weeks, for any reason. I can smell kitten blood in the room, and it isn't me. I also know you've secretly gone out and bought silk underwear. Come on, show it to me."

There was an embarrassed silence hot enough to melt cheese. All three hoods began alternating glances between the other two. After waiting for a minute or so, Evilus sighed and smacked a fist against the palm of his other hand.

"Look, we're all evil here, so there's no need to be prudish--we're supposed to be evilly alluring and practice all sorts of forbidden kinky acts. Even if we weren't, we aren't seeing anything under those robes. I'll show my own first, if that helps. The sexual appeal of evil is very important if you want to tempt a potential hero or heroine, which may just be part of your career-changing plot."

More embarrassed silence. One of the hooded students finally made up his mind, and produced from within the folds of his robe a pair of black silk briefs. Emboldened by their classmate, the other two quickly followed suit, producing respectively a pair of silk boxer shorts and silk bra and panties--black, of course.

"Good." Safe in the knowledge that no one at company-organised seminars ever reads the display screen, Evilus sketched more gibberish on the wall as the students hurriedly replaced their underclothes. "Now, everything I've just mentioned are props, trappings, crutches. They can help you in your evilness, but if you haven't got the basics right you'll just end up looking cheesy, so that's what we're going to cover today.

"First, you need to have a immense sense of self-importance and entitlement. No, one, I repeat, no one, is more important in the world than you. Everyone else is either an idiot or a stepping stone to be crushed pitifully under your heel on your path to glory. Since you're all rising young stars in the corporate world raring to make a name for yourself, you shouldn't have a problem fulfilling this criterion.

"Secondly, you must be utterly insensitive to even the mere presence of others, and fail to believe that any of your actions will have any sort of negative consequences for yourself. It helps if you suffer from a mental condition known as I-can-do-what-the-hell-I-want-because-the-world-owes-me-it-one-way-or-another, which fortunately cannot be forcibly cured. This will come in handy when you hire the hero, who is disguised as a chimney sweep, to clean the chimneys of your inner sanctum and completely destroy the ancient artefact you plan to take over the world with. Again, since you're all rising young stars in the corporate world raring to make a name for yourself, you shouldn't have a problem fulfilling this criterion.

"Last but not least, you must be obsessed with avoiding responsibility for anything that goes wrong. It was your minions' fault for letting the farm boy get away, your trusted lieutenant didn't press the button in time, it was rainy that afternoon, your donkey cart was five minutes late and that's why the hero managed to arrive on the scene early and utterly trash that fountain of virgins' blood you spent months building for the dark ritual, the alarm clock didn't go off and that's why you happened to be a whole half-hour late for your job training seminar. You're probably naturally qualified for it."

One of the students raised a hand, or more correctly, a robe sleeve. "But my alarm clock really didn't--" he paused, and thought better of it. "Does this have anything to do with the fact that we're rising young stars in the corporate world raring to make a name for ourselves?"

"No, it's a basic instinct of the sentient condition, ever since the first clay man pointed at the first clay woman and said 'she made me do it!', so much so that wanting to accept responsibility for one's own actions is actually considered a virtue and not a matter of fact. Still, that doesn't make you any less qualified for this whole 'evil' business, so do you have any questions?"

Silence, save for the scribbling of pencils on paper.

"No? Good. Copy all you want; the display will remain for a half-hour after I leave. Now you can tell Humanoid Resources that your job training credits for this year were well-spent. Class dismissed." Without further ado, Evilus stormed towards the door, muttering to himself. "Puppy blood meringue indeed."

The door slammed shut. The students looked at each other once more, and one of them cleared her throat.

"I think," she ventured, "Master Evilus doesn't think highly of us."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 33

The hospital ward was empty, save for one young woman in the bed and, now, one man in a business suit and tie, his face obscured by a greyish mist. Neither door nor window had budged, and yet there the man was, brushing aside the wires and tubes that connected the young woman to her life-support equipment as he made his way towards the bed, the heels of his shoes clacking on the tiled floor.

The man stood by her side for a moment, straightened his tie and cleared his throat.

"Verra Arkenberg."

No reply was forthcoming from the young woman. The man considered that, raised his arm, and snapped his fingers with a crack that echoed in the room far longer than it should have. Her eyes fluttered, opened and took in the man with an eerie calmness.

"Verra Arkenberg, you are dying."

The young woman made to gasp, then realised the action hadn't brought wracking pain along with it and coughed instead. Flecks of blood-stained spit landed on her pristine hospital blanket. "Aren't we all?"

"No, even in the spirit in which you made your jest. For the purposes of my visit, I am pleased to note that you retain some sense of humour so close to the end."

"Well, I suppose Sunday school was all wrong. They taught me to expect either wings and harps or horns and pitchforks, not some person in a business suit. Unless heaven or hell has been bought out already by some multinational? You don't happen to carry a scythe, do you?"

"You are incorrect, Miss Arkenberg. I am not an angel or a demon, nor do I happen to be Death."

"Then who or what are you?"

"A potential benefactor. Someone who brings magic into the lives of needy people like you." The man produced a large leather briefcase that hadn't been in his hands a moment ago, and set it on the cardiac table that stretched across the bed. "Excuse the following melodrama. Guidelines strongly recommend it."

"You're forgiven."

"Ha. Ha. Ha."

"You weren't really laughing. More like making the sounds without any of the…well…meaning behind them. Like how they say some people smile with their mouths but not their eyes."

"It is considered polite to make an effort on behalf on a potential client. Are you prepared?"

"As much as I'll ever be." Craning her neck as much as her strength would allow, the young woman tried to get a better look as the man reached down and opened his briefcase. Golden light poured from within, warm, powerful light that reminded her of happier times, lazy summer days and pleasant memories.

Her already-weak heart missed a beat.

The man's expression was hidden behind the obscuring mist, but she thought there was a certain air of satisfaction about him as he reached into the briefcase and drew out a canister of golden liquid, its light so powerful it hurt her eyes.

"I have been briefed that you are dying of leukaemia, Miss Arkenberg, that your parents have already begun to make the funeral arrangements. Rather depressing to see such a young life snuffed out for no good reason, don't you think? Fortunately for you, I have in my hand a freshly harvested measure of miraculous healing, a subtype of deus ex machina, and this whole 'untimely death' nonsense can be done away with."

"I don't believe this."

"Miss Arkenberg, I am not a boogeyman. I will not go away even if you do not believe in me--and if that were the case, I would not exist, you could safely ignore me and go on to have a good death. What I am offering you is an opportunity, Miss Verra Lawler Arkenberg. The sample I am holding in my hand has an estimated market value of a single digit with many, many zeroes after it, perfectly justified due to the fact that it can cure almost any ailment."

The young woman's face would have paled if it could have gone any paler. "I don't have that kind of money. I'm just--well, was--a college student. No one would ever--"

The man waved a hand dismissively. "That is, if you were an ordinary client. I have been authorised to give it to you…absolutely free."

"What's the catch?"

"That you come and work for the organisation to which I belong. We need a certain kind of person to fill in vacancies in our company. People who have been touched in a way imperceptible to most, yet which is extremely important to us."

"All that time in the career counselling centre wasted, eh?" The young woman tried to shake her head. "Always thought I'd be looking for a job, not the other way round. Mind telling me what this job is? I don't want to be stuck in a fate worse than death, thank you very much."

The man shut the briefcase, and the golden light faded. "You will be one of us, Miss Arkenberg. Collecting--well, magic would be the best word for it--and distributing it to people, just as I am doing for you now. Helping those in need."

The young woman took a deep breath and choked on it. "I think--"

"Do consider our offer deeply. You'll be going to interesting places, meeting interesting people, and this is truly a one-of-a-kind job. Not to mention all the perks, from regular company exercise and healthy eating days to the annual potluck and ball, as well as complete coverage for all health matters and an excellent dental plan. Still, I can only attempt to persuade you, Miss Arkenberg; the final decision lies in your hands."

"Do I have to sign a contract in my own blood?"

"I reiterate, Miss Arkenberg, I am not a demon."

"Sorry, sorry. Was just trying to lighten things up. I suppose I can quit if the job's not to my liking?"

"Of course. You'll die once you leave our employment, but then again, you are already slated to die." The man checked his watch. "In about five hours, ten minutes and eleven seconds, I believe. There's no hurry to make your decision."

"Just one last question before I give my answer. What is it that's so special about me in this oh-so-imperceptible manner?"

Taking a step closer to the bed so that he loomed above the young woman, the man rubbed his hands together in a manner that sent chills down her spine. "You believe in magic, Miss Arkenberg. Almost no one really believes in magic any more."

#

"More apple tea, Mistress, your Highness?"

"Thank you, Agnurlin." Nodammo and Slakar were in the gardens, sitting under an ornate and vaguely apple-shaped gazebo. Then again, once one had spent enough time in this kingdom, everything started looking like apples.

It was, she supposed, a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

"From all reports, the people weren't too happy about the tax collectors turning up once again," Slakar said as he shuffled a few pieces of paper and sipped at his mug of tea before setting it down. "Still, it didn't go too badly, especially since I'd given orders for some of the collected funds to go directly to the nearby road crews, such as in Coreton--I mean, Leyktuff. Seeing the money go to their fellows' payrolls helped the situation somewhat--at least they knew their hard-earned money wasn't going towards the evil king's mad schemes."

"You'll have to do something about those atrocious names sometime soon, your Highness. At the very least, it'll save money on repainting the road signs. There's one thing that's been bothering me, though--your people seem far too willing to carry out your orders to the letter--or at least, the recent ones. I mean, you'd expect some level of bureaucracy and corruption in any sort of organisation."

Slakar's hand stopped halfway to his tea mug. "What are you implying, Baronetess?"

"It's just that, historically in many other kingdoms people have always found creative ways to interpret their liege's edicts--"

"Oh. That. Fenoros has been a recent and rather neglected addition to the kingdom, so I'll tell you up front: we've always been a rather good-natured people, Miss Ebonlocke, and there's been a history of them liking royalty, provided all they pretty much do is sign their names on documents--which was why they accepted me over my uncle in the first place. Of course, having lots of strong cider around helps." Slakar leaned against the table in front of him and scratched his brow. "Well, things are looking up for this kingdom, and it's thanks to all of you."

"None needed. The Company doesn't like either of us; it'd only make sense to stick together."

"Speaking of which, why haven't they done anything yet? The last time I so much as tried to argue against their so-called guideline against using magical lights for street lighting, they sent a suit down to lecture me on the wonders of whale-oil lamps, despite the fact we're miles from the sea." Slakar shook his head and drummed his fingers on the table. "I can't shake off the feeling that something's going to happen."

"Of course something's going to happen, or else time as we know it would stop, and we'd be well into Stanley's Paradox."

"You know what I mean, Baronetess."

"Yes, yes, just an attempt at humor." Nodammo tried the now-lukewarm apple tea and wondered just how it'd managed to grow on her.

Silence. The teapot was steadily emptied, and the coming of a warm breeze signalled the imminent end of spring. Slakar poured out the last of the apple tea and handed the pot to Agnurlin, who made it disappear.

"No sense worrying about it when we don't even know what the Company might do, then. Best to enjoy the day like they're doing."

Slakar jerked a thumb in the direction of the lake, where Jete was fishing using her tail as line and bait. Victor had planted himself nearby on the lakeshore, his watchful gaze never leaving his daughter. While she had to admit Jete had grown out somewhat of her woodlouse-like appearance, Nodammo still thought she looked like an armoured, spiky, winged potato with four stumpy legs and an equally thick tail.

Much like an effigy of one of her academy professors she'd made and burnt after a particularly difficult practical.

"Try moving your tail from side to side every now and then. The water here's too still for the tip to be mistaken for live bait." Victor settled into the depression his weight had made in the mud and sighed. "That's my little gem. I used to enjoy this when I was younger, you know. Too bad there aren't any fish my size any more."

All of a sudden, Jete twisted and pounced with incredible speed on the spot where her tail had been moments ago, the water's surface beginning to froth and churn. "Daddy! Daddy! Help! I've caught something!"

"Land it yourself. You have some of my muscle; use it quickly before it gets away."

"Daddy!"

Victor rolled his eyes skyward lazily. "No. You have to learn this for yourself. I didn't have my father to pull up the fish for me when this was all that stood between my stomach and going hungry for the day."

Nodammo couldn't help but let a smirk creep upon her face as Jete struggled with her quarry.

"You don't like Victor's daughter, do you?" Slakar said.

"No, but we tolerate each other for her father's sake. Or at least it should be that way. You try spending time with a brat as pretentious as her and see how you like it. Still, if Victor says she needs to come along with us, I'm sure he's got a good reason for it--he'd never place his 'little gem' in any more danger than necessary."

"You trust him that much?"

"Is that so surprising?"

"Well, when I was a hero I came across dragon riders who--" Slakar sighed and planted his elbows on the table. A loud squeal came from the lakeside as Jete hauled out a pike half as long as she was and watched it flop around on the mud. "Why are we even talking about this? We should be enjoying this heartwarming--by all the bloody fermenting casks in the kingdom, what is she doing?"

How Jete could extract so much viscera from a three foot long pike was a mystery to Nodammo, but the result wasn't: bits of fish guts had been churned into the lakeshore mud to form a brownish-red mess and the result plastered all over her stout little body, evidently with enough left over to go between her jaws.

"I killed a pike, Daddy! I killed it dead!" Jete squealed as she reared up on her hind legs and pushed against Victor's forefoot. Nodammo felt her gorge rise in her throat and by the look on Slakar's face, he wasn't faring any better.

Lowering his head to briefly touch snouts with Jete, Victor let out a low, genial rumble and headed for the water. "You did well, little gem."

"Don't ask," Nodammo said as Slakar turned a questioning gaze in her direction. "Victor and his ilk don't see the world the way we do. Even after growing up in his presence, some things about him are a mystery to me."

#

Clipboard in hand, Miss Annoyed strode down the dusty main street until she came to a modest-looking house. Well, modest when compared to the size of the workshop behind it, which still had lights on and was steaming away even in the middle of the night.

Locks weren't a problem when one could dispense with the problem of opening doors altogether.

"You are Richie, son of Durken the yoghurt merchant?"

The young man--Miss Annoyed guessed he couldn't have been any more than fifteen--looked at her and nodded, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that she'd just walked through a reinforced, iron-bound door. "Yes, that would be me."

"Well, congratulations. It just happens that you are the ten thousandth hero commissioned by the Company, and have been chosen to go on a very specially-designed Quest(TM)--"

Richie cut her off with a wave of a juice-stained hand and poured the jug of strawberry pulp he was holding into a nearby blending vat. "Not interested. I prefer yoghurt. It's thick, it's rich, it's delicious, and best of all, it doesn't try to kill you. At least, most of the time."

"But you have a crown-shaped birthmark. And a thick moustache that you grew from sheer will. And last time I checked, you disliked your father. You can't abandon your calling; it's in your blood."

"If you ask me, it looks more like a wedge of cheese, and I now understand my father was merely being responsible in not letting me get a tattoo. I've learned all the nasty things one can get from their needles." With a twirl of his moustache, Richie stepped away from the vat, set down the empty jug and started up a magical stirrer with a push of a button. "Look, I'm going to be up all night, so I don't mind if you'd like to hang around. Could I perhaps interest you in some fresh--well, technically it's not fresh, but you get my point--yoghurt? Good for the teeth and bones."

"Um…"

Half an hour later, Miss Annoyed was back out in the street, wondering just why she happened to be the owner of a tub of plain yoghurt, a do-it-yourself yoghurt fermentation kit and several stuffed cows.

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 34

Dead Wise Old Mentors, while having "passed beyond", tend to turn up in the dreams and visions of their proteges. They often offer advice that, while technically being correct, is often too cryptic to be of any use until one sees events in retrospect, whereupon the meaning of said advice becomes clear.

"Would you mind putting down that book for a moment? There's something I'd like you to take a look at."

Brommus looked up from the pages to find Nodammo's face looming over him, and set down his book. "How convenient. Looking at things is all I'm good for at the moment. Oh, don't glare at me like that. It's no bother, really--I was mostly reading to keep my mind off the itching and stiffness."

"The Necrotelementorcomicon?"

"Found an old copy in the palace library. Some ancestor or other of the kiddo's happened to be a wizard-king. Not that you get many of them these days who don't happen to be Dark Lords as well, but things change." Brommus looked down pensively at his bed sheets and set the book on his lap. "Look, what is it you have to show me?"

Nodammo pointed at a rather large rolled-up sheet of paper in her hand. "You used to work at the Company. Could you identify someone from an artist's impression? The hero we caught turned out to be rather cooperative, after we'd convinced him of our position, and he gave us a description of the suit who'd given him the Quest(TM)."

Brommus gave Nodammo a frown, which she returned.

"What?"

"Nothing. Just thinking," Brommus replied. "I can try, but I can't make any promises. Never met many people outside my department, and even then I was out in the field most of the time. Most wise old mentors usually are."

"Some sort of chance at a lead is better than none at all." With a flick of her wrist, Nodammo had the binding off and the paper in Brommus' hands. "It'd be good to know who we're up against."

Slowly, Brommus straightened the paper with unsteady hands and stared long and hard at the sketch on it. His eyes grew wide for a moment, and after some mumbling to himself Brommus slumped against the headboard, his position, bandages and the long stubble on his chin reminding Nodammo of a homeless man she'd once come across.

"So you do know her."

Brommus wouldn't meet Nodammo's eyes, but nodded and wordlessly passed the paper back to her. "Yes. Not many suits dislike wearing…well, suits. That narrowed the possibilities down quite a bit, and the general body shape…well, you know what I mean. The splotchy pattern on her clothing confirmed my suspicions--I've never known anyone else to wear cloth dyed in those colours."

"Well, isn't that good? Now that we know who we're up against, hopefully we'll be able to find out something we can use. Look, why are you acting so despondent? You look just like when we rescued you from the nursing home. I'll get Slakar here and Agnurlin can bring us some tea while you tell us all about this person."

Brommus' lips reformed themselves into an almost invisible straight line. "Let me explain first, please. I liked Miss Annoyed. She stood up for me whenever I messed up and let heroes fail their Quests(TM) by accident. She was the one who sent me gentle reminders to attend the yearly potluck, to not overstretch myself when I was mentoring three heroes at once without them knowing about each other and kept on having to make mysterious excuses to leave each one to their own devices while I tended to another one. Even at the end, she tried to convince the board to keep me, and when that didn't come through, for a few more severance benefits than I deserved."

Nodammo rolled her eyes and turned her palms skywards. "That didn't stop her from blowing you to bits with a bomb. Assuming, of course, that she was the one behind it."

"Perhaps not, but she's not a monster to be disposed of without a second thought. If only…no, there has to be some sort of peaceful resolution to this." Brommus sighed and scratched at the raw skin on his neck. "This is shaping up to be like a Quest(TM), isn't it? I remember all the effort we'd put into making sure the bully who used to rub the hero's face in the dirt turns out to be the Dark Lord's henchman, or even the bugger himself. Then we'd have a lovely 'oh no, it's you!' scene at the grand showdown between Good and Evil, and everyone would be happy. Well, except for the Dark Lord, of course."

"Look, I think the heat from the fireplace's addled you. Let me put out the fire; I'll wait for the room to air itself before I come in again."

Brommus smiled, or rather, showed his teeth. "I'm not confused, my dear--"

"Some tea to cool the tempers, Mistress, Master Brommus?" Agnurlin's voice rang out from behind Nodammo, startling her. "I made this myself. No apples in it."

"Goodness, yes and thank you, Agnurlin," Nodammo replied as she took two teacups and handed one to Brommus before eyeing him as he sipped at the dark, steaming brew. A few uncomfortable moments passed as both sorceress and wizard finished their tea, and Brommus spoke at last, wiping traces of tea from his chin stubble.

"I'm not saying I won't oppose my former boss if it comes to that, Miss Ebonlocke--and it seems like it will. If Miss Annoyed has been throwing wrenches into the workings of this little and mostly harmless kingdom, I'm all for stopping her and will do whatever's deemed necessary. But while I've spent some time with you, I'm never going to see things exactly the way you do. She's not a monster, she's not a fiend, and I refuse to see her that way just because she's opposing us."

Nodammo sighed, handed Agnurlin her teacup and rubbed her forehead. "Is this more of your 'understanding'? Because it's really getting on my nerves."

Brommus turned away from Nodammo, his gaze as stony as the wall he'd affixed it to. "Yes, it's more of my inconvenient 'understanding', my dear. And if it makes me spineless or even traitorous in your eyes, that's a price I'm willing to pay for my beliefs. Why don't you go and get Slakar down here, and we can discuss the matter of my former boss in a more constructive manner."

Nodammo narrowed her eyes and pulled so close to Brommus' that he could feel her breath on his cheek. "Fine."

#

The signal went out again, this time centred about a different location. Since it had no reason to break a winning formula, it roused first the heroes most likely to take it upon themselves to help the weak and oppressed, or in other words, those particular heroes with nothing better to do with their lives.

Still, after it'd made the usual rounds of rustic farm boys, young women being forced into arranged marriages by their abusive and often drunken parents, and exiled individuals from suspect races, there still weren't enough heroes to fill half the number Miss Annoyed had requested of the spell. Lists of active heroes stored in the Company's databases were scanned and noted, and those who'd been recently freed up from their Quests(TM) felt a strange urging in their minds, similar to the one which encouraged people to do silly things like gathering their friends and going into old haunted ruins in search of mythical treasure, jumping off cliffs for fun with only a single line of elastic cord between them and certain death, and eating chocolate after midnight in the presence of members of the female persuasion.

Some of the more literate heroes knew it as "the call to adventure". Others referred to it as "that darn feeling", or "ugh, my head really hurts, I'll need to nip out and get a couple of dried toad pills". Still, most of them obeyed the call and started wandering towards the signal's prompted location.

Invariably, bottlenecks arose.

Egil, Fenorosian guesthouse owner and once-major retailer of Victor the Ferocious plush dolls and Dank Dark Tower of Doom and Despair models, was disturbed by the sudden upsurge in business since the tower's destruction.

"I don't like it, dear," he remarked as he ladled out another bowl of hill-fox broth. "Even if these ones are paying. Something's happening."

"Does it matter if we're not privy to it?" his wife replied, and glanced out at the main room, devoid of locals and chock-full of gilt, gold and gems, all on the persons of various heroes. Egil wasn't worried about a fight--everyone knew that fights in drinking establishments were for a hero to show off their prowess against the nameless locals, who probably deserved to be beaten up anyway for daring to oppose a hero. This was something else altogether.

"Take this to those buggers at that table in the corner, and charge them double," Egil said as he handed the bowl to one of his serving girls. "And remember, for your own sake, Elpe, you're not a serving girl or goodness forbid, a barmaid, not unless you want to get through the night with your modesty intact. If it comes up, you're a sustenance distribution agent. A sustenance distribution agent. Got it?"

The serving girl nodded, accepted the bowl, and hurried off. Muttering under his breath, Egil focused on thinning the countertop varnish with a cloth when someone clearing her throat made him look up. The person in question happened to be a young woman no more than twenty years of age, dressed in a riding shirt and trousers, the former which showed gratuitous amounts of cleavage. The fact that she'd obviously attempted to bind her breasts didn't help either, not when all the bindings did were to push up her rather adequate bosom, nor did the shorn ends of her hair. At least, Egil though to himself, she'd tried to hide that last detail with a large cap.

With an inward sigh, Egil leaned on the countertop and quirked a corner of his mouth upwards. "Can I help you, miss?"

"That's sir, not miss," the obviously-not-a-young-woman snapped. "Why does everyone mistake me for a woman when I'm wearing men's clothes and have short hair?"

"Oh, I wouldn't know, I'm just a guesthouse manager. Maybe it's the shape of your face? The way you walk? Your waist-hip ratio? Your general body shape? Your voice? Or maybe--" Egil jabbed at the air, his finger stopping just short of bare skin-- "These strange protrusions on your chest which bear a distinct similarity to secondary sexual characteristics of many humanoid females, sometimes affectionately referred to as 'lady lumps'?"

"They're tumours."

"Tumours. Really. You might want to want to find a better way of displaying your masculinity, mi--I mean, sir. Those axe-wielding barbarians of the horse-cart clan have been staring at your behind for the last few minutes."

"Look, we're getting nowhere with this conversation," the obviously-not-a-young-woman said through gritted teeth after throwing a furious glance at said barbarians. "Do you have any rooms to let?"

"We don't let rooms--"

"What sort of inn doesn't let rooms? That's the whole bloody definition of an inn!"

"--At least, not for sleeping in, although the games room was a rather big success." Egil finished. "Oh, and we're not an inn. This establishment is a guesthouse. If you want to spend the night here, I'm sure a rather interesting and unique experience will be had in you sharing the mens' hammock room and latrine. Cheaper than most inns, too."

"A hammock room? Why would you put your guests in hammocks?"

"Interesting true story. You see, two thousand years ago or thereabouts, the high prophetess Fuggeditall of the fertility goddess--"

"Forget it. You know, I think I should be moving on. Perhaps I could make it somewhere else by nightfall."

"A real man wouldn't be worried about having to spend one night in a room with plenty of other men; we members of the male persuasion do it all the time. Unless you lean that way, of course, in which we Fenorosians are very open-minded about such matters. Besides, there isn't any other establishment for quite a distance. That's what you get when you have a local monopoly."

"Oh, all right, since you put it that way. I'll have a hammock for the night."

Egil's wife punched him lightly on the back of his shoulder. "You're a devious bastard, you know."

"And that's why you married me. Seriously, though, that's the fifth heroine with a piss-poor disguise we've had today, and I haven't mentioned all the sad farmboys with rolled-up socks for breasts running away from various Dark Lords. They must be swarming or something."

#

"They must be swarming or something." The guard saluted with such force Nodammo wondered why he hadn't knocked himself out in the process. "Sire."

"Heroes, you say." Slakar ground his teeth, his face inscrutable. "Heroes."

"Yes, sire. We've had transmitter reports from Peacedale, A Rock, and A Hard Place. The greatest number of incidents have been reported at and between the last two locations, sire; in short, between A Rock and A Hard Place. You know, what would be expected: tavern fights erupting for no apparent reason, city guards going missing in action and turning up battered or even dead the next day, usually placid wildlife such as bears and wolves going berserk and randomly attacking people, that sort of thing."

"I fought a bear once," Slakar muttered under his breath. "Wasn't really that gratifying, even if I did manage to save my sandwich and picnic basket."

"Swarming heroes." Nodammo slumped forward and stared into space, her head in her hands. "Why do I have a bad feeling about this?"

"Because the exact same thing happened to us and scrapped our lovely little tourist attraction, Boss?"

Nodammo glared daggers at Victor's face through the arched window that framed the latter's head. "I was being sarcastic and cynical."

"Look, we're getting nowhere with what little time we have. Baronetess, if you've had any experience with these so-called hero swarms, I'd like to listen to what you have to say. Frankly, I've never heard of them before, even during my time as a hero myself."

"I hadn't, either. Not until the start of this season." Fortified by a cup of tea Agnurlin passed to her, Nodammo recounted her experiences with the army of heroes, from her attempts to sow discord and confusion, summoning a tea elemental and finally escaping on Victor's back. "Heroes don't work well together; you should know that, your Majesty. Still, in the hands of someone reasonably competent, even if we picked off as many of them as possible, I'm quite sure there'd be a good number of them left over. More than enough to lay waste to your capital several times over."

"I still don't understand it, you know. What makes them think that even if I were killed, the people would accept…what, the Company in my place? They'd never stand for it, even if they didn't rebel outright. I mean, they only accepted me because they liked the whole idea back then, and now…"

"Your Highness, we've got to step things up, get as many competent members of your government back on board as quickly as possible, especially those in the defence ministry. Perhaps they'll be more willing to help now--is there anyone in particular we should be asking in light of these recent developments?"

Leaning back in his chair, Slakar curled his left hand into a fist and supported his chin with his knuckles as he mumbled to himself. "Yes. Yes, I believe there is."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 35

Working late, Miss Annoyed decided, had its benefits. No one complained when she monopolised the desk telepaths, for one; she'd already exhausted three of them. The poor sods had just managed to drag themselves to various soft couches and armchairs in the rest stop's lobby before passing out, and the last remaining telepath had begged Miss Annoyed for a cup of coffee in lieu of an actual coffee break, a request she'd granted.

There was no point, after all, in being excessively cruel. To the telepaths, that was. She was perfectly capable of running on coffee fumes and sheer determination, if it came to that.

"I don't think you understand the situation, Mrs. Gregarious," she snapped to thin air. "This is going to be a fucking epic Quest(TM). A Quest(TM) which will boggle the bogs out of your tiny, non-progressive mind, and I have full authorisation from Mr. Happy and the board to arm-twist your department into subservience, and if you so much as try to skimp on one bloody logistics cart they'll be onto you like a pile of rectangular building materials. Not me. Tell the bitch that, telepath."

She paused for a moment to let that sink in. The telepath whimpered and strained, beads of sweat staining his shirt, and in a few moments thoughts flooded into Miss Annoyed's mind, the voices as clear as if she'd actually heard them herself.

"What the fuck do you mean you can't do it? You can and you will. I've gone through the department budget, staffing roster, and schedules. There are exactly one hundred and twenty-four logistics carts idle, with fifty-three of them being suited for special effects. I want the foodstuffs to be in place before the heroes arrive, and I want them to be proper. Not putting jam buns in trees and calling that shit 'breadfruit'. Mushrooms growing between roots. Wild potatoes one has to dig for and clean the dirt off before they even start peeling the damned things. Deer that--fine, we don't have any that won't stand around dumbly while waiting for heroes to put an arrow in their brain. But get it done or you'll find yourself back on the other side before you can so much as clean up your desk."

"Please, ma'am," the telepath whimpered and stared up at Miss Annoyed with eyes as reddened as hers, only his pupils hadn't shrunk upon themselves to dots of shifting colour. "My contract very clearly stipulates my working hours--"

Miss Annoyed thrust a steaming mug of coffee in his direction. "It damn well didn't say anything about overtime, did it? Drink. We're nearly done anyway, it's just one more sending. You want your raise, don't you?"

The telepath nodded numbly and accepted the mug. "Um, ma'am, this isn't even a liquid, it's like syrup heated to dryness--"

"Drink the bloody thing! Or eat it if you must! Ingest, imbibe, consume, whatever the heck you want to call it, we don't have time!" Another row of maddened scribbles joined its fellows on Miss Annoyed's clipboard. "And you can tell that bitch that I want one thousand fucking tigers from the Generic Foreign Lands. They have to be big and fierce and stripy and go 'rawr', like fucking, 'rawr'. No good if they don't go 'rawr'."

The telepath smiled, and displayed two rows of brown-stained teeth. "Yes, ma'am. There, done and done."

"Dismissed. I'm not going to argue with that bitch." Ignoring the loud crash and thump beside her as both mug and telepath collapsed to the floor, Miss Annoyed scrutinised the scribblings on her clipboard and a crazed grin spread on her face as she placed a tick beside the final item on her list.

NEEDED FOR TEH FUKKING EPIC SHODOWN WHICH IS TEH EPIC

1. Good guyz. Must haff gooood guyz. Lots of dem. More th' merrier.

2. Bad guyz. Already done. Don'ch hafa worry 'bout them. Bastards makin' my life diffi-diffi-shitty.

3. Swerds. Need swerds to maek th' clangy noises and be all shiny and stuff. Doubles as ph-phahl--whatever dick-related symbology and whatnot other shit. Stories gotts to have, no, needs meanings. Swerds got the meanings. And dicks.

4. Big battle. Gots go haf ye olde super-duper-looper big battlez at th' fucking end. It's notsh a proper climax without a fucking big battle. Hahaha, climax. I r so funy.

5. Big battle got to have big speech. Like…like talking about troof, justick and how ur mom is really a walruss in disguise, hahaha, cause she's so fat. Wait, perhaps I should take a break, I'm getting a bit tired--no, hahaha, just kidding.

6. Majeek! Kaboom! Litening and thunder for drramas! Drramas with pples looking up at heavn and scraming their head of why why why an no no no! Note: need jarr litening, not buttle litening, jarr has the bigur mauf. Gd f'r soundies.

7. An' wun nundred million thousand oilipunts girrafs tygers!!!!! Bcaus tygers are fukkin' EPIC!!!!!

After some consideration, Miss Annoyed underlined the final "epic" with great care and deliberation, then stopped to admire her handiwork before underlining the word twice more for additional emphasis.

Then she fainted dead clean away.

#

The air, Nodammo noted, was definitely getting warmer. Or at least, Victor was flying higher than she'd remembered; the neat square patches of turnip fields and apple orchards far below the both of them vaguely reminded her of the numerous board games her mother had forced her to play when she was younger.

She'd hated each and every one of them, from "knights and merchants" to "connect three counters together to remove them from the board".

"You think we should have left Agnurlin to care for Brommus and the king?" she ventured, casting an eye at the thin ribbon of the river below. "Something might happen."

"To us or to them, Boss?"

"Both. Perhaps to your little gem as well."

"Jete will be fine, and as for Agnurlin, he'll be more useful there than with us, and even if it so happens that we do need him, he'll find a way to turn up. That's butler-space for you."

"She'll be fine? Your daughter ate a butterfly, several rather oddly-shaped sticks and dug into a termite mound to get at the queen, and that's just yesterday."

Victor snorted. "The problem with you humans is that you don't appreciate exotic cuisine."

Nodammo suppressed a sigh and clutched tighter at the spine she'd been holding. "Are we there yet?"

"Nearly, Boss. If the map that boy-king lent us was any good, that is. Hrrrm."

"What is it?"

"I think I see something. Let me circle a little while I figure out what it is, all right?"

"It's not as if you need my permission, Victor."

"Don't be obtuse, Boss."

"Well, if you don't want to see things from that angle."

"You're not being funny."

The something, Nodammo realised as they emerged from a cloud and spiralled towards the ground, was a small cottage by the woods' edge, the sort a stereotypically humble peasant full of earthy knowledge would live in. As Victor descended further, a thatched roof came into view, along with a small well, a couple of beehives and a vegetable garden that reminded Nodammo of the one she used to tend.

Digging in the garden was a woman dressed in full battle regalia, her black plate armour drinking in the midday sun like a professional party guest at the liquor table. The moment Victor's shadow passed over her, she stood up, removed her wide-brimmed straw hat and exchanged the shovel in her hand for a sword.

"Who are you and what do you want with me?" she yelled.

"I'd like to talk business, if that's all right with you!"

"Land away from the garden and approach from where I can see you. And please keep the dragon away; the scent of large predators always riles up the chickens."

Nodammo patted Victor's chitin as he made to land. "Well. Always wears a full suit of black plate; she fits the description just fine. Victor…"

"Client negotiations, Boss," Victor replied as he set down a saddlebag and picked out a sack of dragon kibble. "Story of my life. No one ever takes talking to a dragon seriously until they're forced to. One of these days…"

"I think I understand." Carefully, Nodammo clambered down from Victor's neck and started towards the vegetable garden, the woman's unblinking gaze upon her every step of the way until a row of tomato stakes separated the two of them. By the looks of her face that framed a pair of steel-blue eyes, Nodammo guessed she was in her early thirties.

"State your business."

"You would be Arthess? Ex-commander of the Fairbankian armies?" Nodammo's eyes darted to the sword in the woman's hand. It was plain grey steel and was very, very sharp, the kind of sharp one usually only found with gourmet chefs and people who were fascinated by razor blades and periodically giggled to themselves. A sword like that could have cut short a discourse very, very quickly.

"What's it to you?"

Nodammo chanced another glance at the sword. Its business end was pointed towards the ground, but Nodammo wasn't about to relax--such a move from someone like that only meant they were confident enough in their abilities. The best wizards, in her experience, had never bothered with explosions and giant thunderbolts; they simply did things like evacuating all the air from around your head while you slept.

"I'm Nodammo Ebonlocke, morally ambiguous sorceress; the king sent me. The kingdom is in danger; while you might not care for him over his uncle, he knows you care for the country and was hoping you'd return to your post, at least until the danger's passed."

For several moments, Arthess seemed immensely interested in a squash plant to her side, the point of her sword wavering slightly, and then gave Nodammo a cold, hard stare.

It was, Nodammo would reflect later, a good stare, even better than her mother's. You are nothing, it said. I could close the distance between us and turn you into bite-size chunks before you could even think 'Abracadabra'. Whatever it is you want, it is too trivial for my notice.

Nodammo's toes curled in her boots, but she planted her feet into the soft, loamy soil and widened her stance before returning fire with her best glare.

Moments passed. A cloud drifted past the sun. At last, Arthess dropped her glare, sheathed her sword and cocked her head slightly.

"So, it is important, eh?"

Nodammo slumped her shoulders and let out the breath she'd been holding. "If you consider an army of heroes apparently converging on the capital important, yes, it is."

"I wondered why there was one trying to get at the beans the other day. We'll talk further in the house." Picking up her shovel and hat, Arthess took one last look at her garden before heading for the cottage door. "You don't have a half-bad talent for a glare, girl, but it needs a lot of practice if you're ever going to intimidate someone who matters."

"Um…thanks?" Nodammo said, but Arthess had already disappeared into the cottage without so much as a sound, despite her armour.

The open door beckoned.

"Oh, what the heck," Nodammo said, and stepped in. Just inside the door, a small, bow-legged and balding man rocked contentedly in a rocking chair, his eyes closed and hands folded across his lap while Arthess threw logs onto the fire in the hearth.

"Is he your father?" Nodammo asked.

"If only he'd been. I would have been honoured, and rightly so," Arthess replied, and prodded the man on the shoulder. "Hey, you might be interested in this, sire."

"Sire?"

"Technically, the knight-commander is right, young woman," the man said, opening an eye. "Loafar, thirty-fourth ex-ruler of North Fairbanks, and all-rounded evil usurper at your service."

#

Brommus greeted Slakar as the latter stepped down from the balcony overlooking the palace square. "How'd it go, kiddo?"

"I'm not sure."

"What?"

"I mean, the people wouldn't throw fruit at royalty, but at least they'd certainly let me know if they thought I were doing things wrong--I mean, you saw the turnip farmers come and make their protest. They didn't cheer, either; they just all went quiet all of a sudden and filed away without so much as a sound."

"Not even a little stereotypical muttering and discussion?"

"No. That's why I'm worried."

Brommus tried to conjure up within his mind's eye the population of an entire capital city filing back to their homes, each one in sullen silence, and suppressed a shudder. Mobs were stupid and emotional; that was why you always got one to storm the gates of a forbidding castle, for nothing else would be dumb enough to do the trick. But for something to pierce through the aura of stupidity and mutual contrariness that pervaded any large group of humans…

"No one likes heroes."

"Come again?"

"No one likes heroes. Well, generally speaking. I mean, you've gone down to your local watering hole for a drink, and no, some hero went and started a fight there and now the place's going to be closed for months for repairs . Or you baked a pie and set it down on the windowsill to cool, and some starving child of prophecy nicks it without so much as asking. Or the fact that they keep on obstructing city guards from doing their work."

Both king and wizard started down the spiral staircase that led to the palace gardens, Brommus' cane tap-tapping on the masonry. "Mostly petty things?"

"It's the petty things which really annoy people, and I don't think I should have to mention the times when people are just trying to get on with their lives and make the wheat grow instead of being stolen, eaten by bugs or destroyed by acts of the gods, and there comes along some bugger trying to rally you to be his or her cannon fodder against the evil monarch."

"So what you're saying is that they're more likely to be pissed off at the idea that heroes are invading, rather than being pissed of at the fact that I defied the Company and made them come."

"Yes, I think that would be it." Brommus sighed, and looked down at his cane. "Damn it. This stupid thing makes me feel forty years older."

"The healer said it's an important part of your physiotherapy. You wouldn't be standing now if not for it."

"Still."

"Let's not argue about this now," Slakar replied as the two of them passed under a row of enormous red stained-glass windows in the shape of apples. "We've still got the city defences to look over. If it comes to blows, it's where we'll have to make our stand--according to the palace guard, the palace itself wouldn't last longer than a wormy apple against a serious force like this. Someone capable like Arthess in charge would be nice, but I'm not going to bank on it."

"I'm sorry that I can't help any further. Battle tactics usually gets left out of wise old mentoring. So we're just going to prepare as best as we can and see what happens?"

Slakar nodded. "Unfortunately, that seems to be our only course of action."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 36

"So," Nodammo said when she'd finally managed to find her voice. "You're the evil king. The usurper. Or was, at any rate."

"That is correct, and I am rather unashamed of that fact. You know of me, and I know of you, too, Baronetess Ebonlocke--gossip is practically a national sport, and a little careful divination filled in the few remaining gaps. Admittedly, it did rather puzzle me for a while as to why a Fenorosian would bother with the affairs of North Fairbanks, but you seem to be doing some good, for what it's worth."

"Our friend here claims that an army of heroes is headed towards the capital even as we speak." Arthess thumped a balled fist against a palm with a clang that resounded throughout the cottage. "We can't turn a blind eye to this."

"No. We can't, or we'll have been living a lie for the last few years, Arthess. Still, I think we're owed something." Loafar opened his other eye and turned back to Nodammo. "You seem like a reasonable woman, Baronetess, and I understand you've been on the receiving end of heroes' attentions too. Would you at least hear me out before we discuss the matter of Arthess' return to the capital? It won't take long--well, not long enough to matter."

Cautiously, Nodammo alternated her gaze between Arthess and Loafar. While the former had an expression of utter blankness that only came with years of practice, the latter seemed hopeful, eager, like a puppy faced with a new red squeaky ball. Listening to what Loafar had to say, Nodammo figured, would heavily tip the scales in her favour. "I don't see why not."

"Oh, good." Loafar snapped his fingers, and a wicker chair and table wobbled across the room before stopping in front of his rocking chair. "Do make yourself comfortable, Baronetess; I've heard that people are more at ease when there's something between me and them. Arthess, if you would mind?"

"Um, thank you." There was, Nodammo decided as she sat down, something disturbing about someone clad from the neck down in pitch-black armour serving tea and sugared biscuits.

She tried a biscuit. It was rather good, if a bit oversweet.

Loafar sighed, sipped at his tea and closed his eyes. "Where should I begin? Perhaps at the beginning. Yes, that's traditionally acceptable for storytelling. I was the younger son, and of course, that naturally meant that I was expected to learn all sorts of silly things like economics and humans resources management, so that when my brother did take the throne, I'd be the one doing all the work while he went hunting, had banquets, kissed babies, the sort of thing kings always do while the people cheer on and form quaint, romantic notions about royalty in their minds.

"That was fine with me. I'd come to accept the fact that I'd never be the public face of the royal family, not with my stature. Someone had to keep the books and make sure the numbers tallied up, and it was better to have someone who had a stake in the tallying up doing the calculations, so to speak. At the very best, I was insurance for the succession should something happen for my brother, but I didn't want that. Everyone knows why kings are ugly. Or weak. Or otherwise physically deformed. Or gods forbid, not having a chin one could use as an anvil."

Nodammo thought for a moment amidst the gentle creaking of Loafar's rocking chair. "I see."

"You see. Inbreeding doesn't only bring out the worst traits; it also strengthens positive ones, but this isn't an academic discussion. Let's just say that in my brother's second formal year of rule, he started getting a little…ill."

"Ill, you say."

"Oh, standard royal insanity. Wear underwear on head, pretend to be a duck, insist that you can play a seven of lemons after a four of cauliflowers in Hobble Mister Apple, that sort of thing. Would have been mostly harmless too, if he hadn't bothered trying to be a good king and getting in the way of the people who made sure the fish from the coast turned up on time at the markets relatively fresh, or the metal ingots from the smelters made their way to the blacksmiths--ore loses a lot of weight after you smelt it, you know. To make a long story short, he was ruining the kingdom. No one noticed, of course, because I was the one running around undoing his errors, much like what you and your little troupe are doing for his son."

Nodammo took another sugared biscuit. "You can't deny Slakar was under compulsion by the Company. He's shown willingness to learn."

"We'll talk about that later. The final straw came when my brother made the Queen's breasts a baroness and insisted on fondling them during court to get their opinion, on, say, the invasion of Fenoros--no offence meant, Baronetess. Still, if you can persuade the royal archivists to do enough digging, I believe you can find records of a certain "Baroness Firmandperky" in the list of peers. Rather sad." Suddenly, Loafar bolted upright in his seat, his eyes snapping open and their pupils shrunken to points. "Can you, knowing all this, tell me I was wrong to stop people from starving? Can you tell me I was wrong to save the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people, simply by disposing of my brother and taking his place?"

"Um…"

"Bloody ingrates. I was the one who did away with ditches in the street and installed sewerage systems in all the major cities. I was the one who turned dirt tracks into proper paved highways. I was the one who built aqueducts and made sure people had clean, hygienic water to drink. I was the one who subsidised the beginnings of agricultural magic, brought continuous light spells into every household, and gave the buggers full enough bellies and comfortable enough lives to hold stupid their stupid romantic notions regarding royalty. Fifteen years, and I managed to turn North Fairbanks from a largely agrarian society to…a less agrarian society, and all they remember about me is that I raised taxes, when their increased affluence outstripped that three times over! I--"

A slew of cold water hit Loafar squarely in the face and made him splutter. Wet and dripping all over, Loafar got to his feet, wrung the water out of his cotton-cloth clothes, and nodded at Arthess, who was holding a now-empty bucket. "Thank you."

Arthess thinned her lips. "More water, sire?"

"I…I think that'll do. We've unsettled our guest enough already." With another snap of his fingers, Loafar dried himself and the puddle which had accumulated about his feet vanished. "But I think you get the idea, Miss Ebonlocke."

"I understand; my family's been there too. It doesn't matter what you do or how well you rule," Nodammo said, her voice a hushed whisper. "Only who happened to win the genetic dice roll."

"Doesn't matter how much you improve the public works."

"Doesn't matter how much you keep the peace within and without the lands you govern."

"Doesn't matter how contented the people are, only who buggered who, even if half the time the believed parents aren't the actual ones. You know, I didn't want the job. I really didn't want it, but someone from the line had to sit in that damn throne and wear that stupid crown to prevent the provinces from threatening secession, and since I had the post I decided to do a good job." Loafar shuddered. "Have you tried to put it on--the crown, I mean? Do you know what that silly little circlet of steel does to you?"

"It's made your nephew look like a damp rag most of the time, I can tell as much."

Loafar nodded. "He's got a stable mind, I'll give him that much. You'd have to be a certain sort of person to wear a crown and not go crazy one way or another; I was going to pass it back to him as soon as he showed enough responsibility to handle it. Then some idiot of a chambermaid stole the brat out of the palace, and you know the rest. Mysterious baby shows up on peasants' doorstep, they take it in despite being the most unlikely socioeconomic group to be able to afford to feed another mouth, and whoops, fifteen years later some old man with a crazy beard starts banging at the door just before the soldiers arrive in the village. It wasn't as if they were going to do anything, anyway--I'd just wanted to inform him of his bloody birthright and ask nicely if he wanted it back. They didn't even burn down the village.

"So, yes. I am the evil king, I am the usurper under whom the land quails and all that other nonsense, got booted off by the so-called rightful monarch, etcetera etcetera, and I am not the least bit sorry about anything I have ever done in that regard."

More silence. Arthess pulled up another chair to the table, and took the last sugared biscuit. The dull, flat crunching that ensued might very well have heralded hopes crumbling into so much dust.

"Well, given that Arthess clearly still looks up to you, could you please give her leave to lead the city defences? Your nephew said she was--is--good at what she does." Nodammo bit her lip, and paused briefly while she decided how to continue. "Look, I understand you don't have the best relationship with your nephew, but if he was anything like your standard Company-approved hero when you last saw him, he's had to swallow a few hard truths in the last few years, especially the whole finding-out-he's-been-classified-as-an-evil-king bit. At the very least, can we save the kingdom first? I'm sure we can work out some sort of accommodation, if not reconciliation, after all this is over."

"Did I say I wasn't going to let her go? You're right; I don't know if I could stand to be anywhere near my nephew again, but I'd be a hypocrite if I stood aside while North Fairbanks becomes an official Company subsidiary. So yes, by all means, go. Perhaps I'll even come myself."

Arthess nodded down at Loafar, who had gotten out of the rocking chair. Nodammo noted he didn't even come up to her shoulders. "And that's why I respect my liege. He might have been an evil king, but he was a good evil king."

#

"Um, I don't mean to pry, but is it absolutely necessary that you wear that at all times? It just struck me as odd, since plate armour isn't exactly the sort of thing you'd wear for midday gardening."

Arthess turned from the barrels of dried apples she was moving aside and glared at Nodammo. "You think I keep this on as a fashion statement? I can't take it off while the sun is up. Family curse."

"Um. All right." Nodammo looked about the cellar for a quick escape route, if it came to that, although she didn't have much luck. Sealed tins of flour filled one corner along with turnips the size of her head, and there was a heap of knickknacks directly in between her and the door, ranging from shields of polished black metal to replacement shovelheads. Whatever Arthess' virtues were, storage space management wasn't one of them.

"'Let our baby be a girl,' my parents prayed every damn day. 'The curse of the black knight states firstborn son, not firstborn daughter.' And what happened? The day I turn twelve, I get saddled with this stupid magic outfit that looks as if someone hammered it out of an old cauldron and two soup pots. Well, there went my chances of ever getting a boyfriend."

A bead of cold sweat trickled down the back of Nodammo's neck, and she sucked in a breath. "Weren't you looking for--" she began, but Arthess wasn't listening.

"The sweat I can live with, and you can learn not to drink too much and know what gives you the runs. You want to know what's the worst thing? That time of the month. It…it just trickles down and everything on the inside's soaked with sweat already so cloth pads are useless and it collects in the sollerets and oh gods I can't wash them out till sundown and I'm squelching in the stuff throughout the whole day--"

After taking one look at Arthess' claw-like fingers, Nodammo hurriedly shut out the words as best as she could and dug through the pile of junk until her hands closed about something she figured she could lift. "Look! Look at this! Tell me about it, not…not that!"

"Oh? That's the old king's favourite cider mug. Slakar's father, I mean. Loved it to death; was never seen at mealtimes without it. When Loafar fled the capital, he took it as a keepsake of his brother, I think."

"Hmm." Turning the grey mug around in her hands, Nodammo tried to read the faded writing about its base. "It's a bit heavier than what I'd expect for pewter or even steel. What's it made of?"

"How would I know?" Arthess made to continue shifting the barrels out of the corner, but paused. "Look, I'm sorry for telling you more than you needed to know. It just gets to me sometimes. Sometimes it's enough to make me wish I'd been a hero--they never have to even wash their hair."

"We all have our problems. I get really bad cramps sometimes." Looking down at the mug, Nodammo hummed to herself and tried to find a convenient pocket the mug would fit into. "Do you mind if I borrow this for a while? There're a few tests I'd like to run on it."

"Cramps." Arthess sniffed and moved one last barrel out of the way, revealing a closet hidden in the wall. "Cramps. Oh well. And go ahead, I don't think Loafar will miss it anyway. He hardly ever comes down here."

"Why, thank--what in Fantasyland is that?"

While Nodammo had been studying the mug, Arthess had opened the closet and retrieved--well, it looked like a horse, but Nodammo was quite sure the grey-green splotches of hide and horseflesh didn't belong on normal horses, nor was one supposed to look like something out of a contortionist's box. Nails stuck out from a few of its extremities, and it looked, in general, half-rotted. Which it was, accounting for the stench of formaldehyde that wafted from the now-open closet.

It heaved.

It moved.

With a grunt, Arthess dumped the creature onto the floor and began straightening out its legs with audible creaks. "What's what? Oh, it's just a zombie horse. Very economical, very efficient. Plenty of mileage for what you put into it."

"And you kept it in a closet."

"Well, everyone has a skeleton in theirs. I keep a zombie."

Nodammo eyed the zombie horse. It gave her a baleful, red-eyed glare and half-groaned, half-nickered, making her take a step back. Agnurlin wouldn't have stood for being a zombie, Nodammo thought to herself. He wouldn't want to deal with rotting, dangling bits.

"Silly boy, no grains when you've just woken up," Arthess said, and thumped the horse had on its back before leading it up and out of the cellar, Nodammo tailing behind them. "Ever since he became a zombie, the daft bugger only cares for grains. No fruit, hay, or grazing, just grains, grains, grains. It can't be good for him."

"Isn't it rather pointless to beat a dead horse? I mean, the undead can't really feel pain."

"No, but it establishes who's in charge--me." With a heave, Arthess leant her weight against her decomposing mount and urged it into the sunlight. "Have you considered the numerous benefits of having a zombie horse for a mount? You don't have to feed, water, muck out, or otherwise care for it, it vanishes when you don't need it and reappears when you do, and as you've seen, stabling is a breeze. Best of all, they run on nothing and go really, really fast."

"I couldn't do that. Victor's more than just someone who gets me from place to place, and I don't think dead horses appeal to me." As if to prove her point, the zombie horse coughed and spat out a wad of greenish goo while Arthess adjusted the saddle and stirrups about its back.

"Ah. Oh well," she said, and clambered atop her mount's back before putting on her helmet, a simple, riveted cylindrical headpiece with a narrow slit for her to see through. "Return, sorceress, and tell the king that the Black Knight rides like thunder to his aid!"

"What, you mean with plenty of noise and not much in the way of action? Or perhaps in the wake of a mighty destructive force?"

"Oh, shut up."

"I was ribbing you, you know."

"Yes, I know. Shut up."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 37

"We've got wood elves, sea elves, dark elves, light elves, sky elves, space elves, sparkling elves and superfluous elves," Miss Annoyed said as she scribbled on her clipboard and surveyed the remains of hundreds of campfires around her. "That should be enough types for our purposes, but are they all high elves? It's very important for the epic feel that they're high elves."

A wise old woman leading a column of wood elves snapped to attention and saluted as best as her gnarled hands would allow. "Yes, ma'am, and we've got enough yellow-spotted mushrooms to keep them that way. One or two cooked into their morning broth is enough for a few hundred of them."

"Excellent." Turning her back on the rank and file, Miss Annoyed scratched at her camos as she strode towards the tiger cages. Each and every one of the striped, long-toothed beasts had that dull, stupid look in their eyes that came with the mesmerisation enchantments that were used on most Quest(TM)-approved animals, but that didn't matter. All that mattered were that they were big, orange, stripy, and appropriately epic when ridden as mounts into battle.

"I don't want to be telling an executive her business, miss, but please don't touch the beasts," a nearby handler said, looking up from fitting saddle and stirrups onto the tiger. "You might muss up their fur, and we spent days brushing it out."

"Don't worry, I won't. Not without good cause, anyway." Feeling a tremble run up her spine, Miss Annoyed let a grin creep onto her face and looked straight down at a battle-ready tiger, barding, saddle, stirrups and all. "Do they talk?"

"Miss?"

"I'll repeat myself. Do the tigers talk?"

"No, miss."

The grin faded. "Not even into people's heads like some dragons or wolves do? You know, cute telepathic speech?"

"Miss, they're dang armoured tigers, complete with golden barding with elvish runes painted on and backs that'll snap under the weight of most of your lovely heroes, not to mention all that nonsense you're weighing them down with. Aren't they already ridiculous enough without them needing to talk?"

"They need to talk. To speak." Miss Annoyed looked down at the nearest tiger, her voice hushed. "To, um, give us humans pause and reflect on the beauty of nature. Oh, and talking animal companions are always a welcome complement to any hero."

"Most of them would either run away or tear your throat out if it wasn't for the spell holding them. You're a loo--" the handler began, but one of his colleagues quickly clamped a hand over his mouth.

"What my friend means is, miss, there's one in the back which talks. Doesn't have a very wide vocabulary, but it never went to public school, either," the other handler said hurriedly. "All it says is 'rawr', though."

"It roars? That doesn't sound much like talking to me."

"No, it doesn't go 'rawr', it says 'rawr'. There's a difference."

"So how do non-speaking tigers roar?"

"Rawr."

"And how does that particular speaking tiger say 'rawr'?"

"Rawr."

"And that 'rawr' was very definitely different from the first 'rawr'."

"Yes."

"Oh, really." A corner of Miss Annoyed's mouth quirked upwards. "You know, there is such a thing as taking a joke too far, or otherwise, acting smart in front of your boss whom you think is too dull to catch you acting smart. Still, you're both from Logistics, I was the one who started it, and the two of you aren't to blame for trying to be logical in a bad situation. Now get back to work; we're about to push off."

The animal handlers scurried back in the direction of the wheeled cages, and Miss Annoyed turned over a sheet of paper on her clipboard before climbing onto a crate of soap. There was just one last thing to be done before the operation could commence. Even before she'd come over from the other side, Miss Annoyed had never liked public speaking, especially after the last time on the Fenorosian downs.

Still, where one was lacking, one had to practice.

"Assembled forces of Good--well, of course including somewhat antiheroic heroes, misunderstood members of stereotypically evil races who are in exile--oh, you know what I mean. We are gathered here today to march upon the land of Gru'bar'atr which has suffered long under the brutal tyranny of its evil king, who has has committed the following crimes and more: let the kingdom fall into disrepair, burnt grain shipments meant for the people, intruded into their personal lives, so on and so forth, you know the works." What she'd said was completely true, too, for a given value of truth. A value that didn't include mentioning of Quest(TM) guidelines on managing kingdoms. "As such, we will have to uphold justice for the helpless, oppressed people with a pre-emptive strike against the evil king before he can do any further acts of dastardliness. Any questions?"

A hand at the back shot up, and Miss Annoyed rolled her eyes. "Yes?"

"Who's going to get made king, then? I understand that traditionally, the hero who disposes of the evil king gets to be king in his place. Or queen, as it might be. I don't think there's enough space for all of us to fit on the throne."

"It's not healthy to have a power vacuum in any governmental structure following a period of social instability, especially one caused by external forces," another hero said. Miss Annoyed wondered how he'd managed to learn so many long words and dangerous ideas, and noted down his face for future inquiry. Heroes who asked inconvenient questions were potential problems.

"We'll handle that," she snapped. "You'll just be there to do the fighting and get another item in your list of heroic deeds. Think of it as a Quest(TM) to help reinstate the rightful king. Which in all probability, isn't you."

Another hand shot up. "No loot?"

"You'll be paid one gold coin a day, plus reasonable allowances for miscellaneous expenses. Any more questions?"

There was some murmuring and grumbling from the massed heroes, but eventually years of careful training and mindless acceptance of everything wise old mentors told them kicked into action and quietened them down. Seeing that all was in order, Miss Annoyed climbed down from the soap crate and wiped the soles of her boots on the grass.

"Atten-shun! Stereotypically drunk and gruff dwarves, off to the right! Wizards in search of ultimate arcane power and winged assorted half-breeds, wait for the antisocial mercenary monster hunters with tortured pasts to clear out from their campsite, and fall behind them! I want this to be strict and ordered, not like the last bloody time! And no fighting amongst yourselves! That means you, athletic but feminine Amazon warriors who have studied theoretical conjury and excel at all intellectual subjects! I don't care!"

Slowly but surely, the massed heroes fell into neat columns and began moving under the guidance of the appropriate wise old mentors. One of the animal handlers came up with a saddled tiger, and Miss Annoyed vaulted onto its back. Later, she'd reflect on how it was odd the way she just knew, as if the story was controlling her as much as it did heroes. But in the here and now, she was a tiger-back, watching her heroes grind grassland into so much mud and plant matter under their collective walking appendages.

There should have been a low dust cloud, though. One day, she'd figure out a way to have troops marching over low grasslands kick up dust clouds; dust clouds were ominously epic. Nothing said "impending great conflict" better than a low dust cloud.

This is something careers class never presented as a viable career option, she thought, and tightened her hold on the tiger's reins. Far better than working my life away in some dreary little cubicle.

It was times like this which made it all bearable. Verra Lawler Arkenberg had never thrown a fight in her life, and she wasn't about to start now.

"Fucking epic," she muttered under her breath as the tiger lunged into a dash and loosened her hair just so that it streamed out behind her. "Just fucking epic. Mush, you lazy bums! We've got places to go, kings to overthrow, people to liberate!"

#

"These," the wholesaler said as he set down an apple core on the fence between them, "are good apples. But they're not cider." He pointed down at the baskets of apples about Galis' feet, and leaned forward such that the fence bore most of his weight.

Galis took a step back from the fence and the wholesaler. It wasn't that he disliked the man--the wholesaler was one of the few people he actually saw on a regular basis--but rather, the fact that said wholesaler was leaning dangerously close on the fence. The fence was sacred. He'd hewn the trees, smoothed the planks, and nailed them together all with his own hands. It was all that stood between Galis' little apple orchard and everyone and everything else.

And now all that it stood for was being threatened.

"Look, the king only just lifted those restrictions on not using magic in orchards last week! I was eating last harvest's apples myself as it was; you can't expect me to produce cider-worthy apples in a week! The last few years have crippled me enough as it was! I've got the rest of the harvest in the silo; they've got to be worth something."

The wholesaler pushed himself off the fence and crossed his arms. "There are regulations, you know. I can't be taking cider apples and passing them off as table apples; I'd lose all my credibility and my license. No one would be fooled--they're all far too sweet."

"All right, call them cider futures. After all, they're potentially cider. Or go into do-it-yourself-cider kits--I hear homebrew is popular. Or start the trend of eating cider apples." Galis flailed his arms about in the air. "Or something, anything that doesn't leave me penniless. Look, you said yourself that they were great apples. Surely they'll become wildly popular or something, and everyone will be wanting to try one for themselves. It'll be an enormously popular concept! You'll be swamped with people wanting a piece of those bloody apples for themselves, even if they taste eye-crossingly sweet!"

"Oh, really."

"Yes, real--do you hear something?"

As one, Galis and the wholesaler turned to look down the length of the fence.

It wasn't so much of a dust cloud as a mud cloud, with bits of vegetation and bugs churned into the mix for good measure. Farmer and wholesaler stared at the advancing humanoid wall for a split second, faced each other for another, and ran away from the fence, their legs working far harder than they'd needed to in years.

It was very quiet.

There was a thunderous noise.

It was quiet once more.

When Galis and the wholesaler dared to return to the ruined fence and the field of brownish, churned earth that'd been the land beyond Galis' orchard, both of them looked down at the empty spot where the apple baskets had lain. Oddly enough, there were no smashed apples amidst the mud, and the two of them looked down at the last surviving patch of grass amidst the mess.

The wholesaler hemmed and hawed. "Three silvers for a weight, and no more."

"Deal." Galis looked down at the wooden splinters in the earth and sighed. "Come to think of it, I might want to expand my land sometime in the future."

#

"To tell the truth, I've never really commanded an army before," Slakar said to Brommus as they paced along the battlements, inspecting the hastily-constructed additions to the fortifications that'd sprung up like so many mushrooms. Privately, Brommus wondered how effective they would be against heroes--strong as the ancient city walls were, they probably weren't going to stand up against the best of might and magic. All too often, each and every hero was supposed to be the best in the world at their given skill, and a mere wall against an army of them wasn't going to stand long. The improvised palisade…he shook his head, and tried to think happier thoughts that didn't involve everyone being slaughtered.

Heroes didn't like sieges. Quests(TM) didn't like sieges. They dragged on for far too long and ruined the Quest(TM)'s pacing, and as such were best avoided. Heroes didn't take well to standing around idle.

"You haven't?" Brommus said at last, and knocked away a rock with his walking stick. "Then again, that's not surprising. Heroes usually fight in battles, not command them."

"No. I snuck into the palace, had a showdown with my uncle, and then formally took the crown after throwing him off the throne." The two of them passed under a couple of giant cauldrons and enormous barrels of dehydrated apple juice. "It was all rather bloodless, thankfully, although I still wonder if throwing him onto the carpet was necessary. You know, Brommus…"

"Yes?"

"I…I just don't feel right about leaving the battle plans and everything to the captain of the palace guard. Oh, he invites me to all the discussions, but half the time I've no idea what he's trying to tell me and just smile and nod my head. I am the king, after all." Slakar stopped, looked around, and took in the nervous gazes of the mail-clad city guard as they scurried about their business. "I ought to know something about this, or it places me with all those idiots in the stories who spend all their days hunting, eating very large dinners, and so forth."

"That, kiddo, is responsibility. I'm sorry I can't help you there, though. Battle tactics is one of the few things wise old mentors don't usually teach heroes."

"Perhaps I'll get the captain to explain it to me when it's all over. If it's all over. Or maybe Arthess, if she's willing to return."

"We'll find out soon enough."

Just inside the city gate, Jete and Agnurlin stood by a large magical sign maintained by two of Slakar's court wizards, the words on the shimmering screen slowly scrolling down, complete with a commentary for the less literate. The steady stream of carts that flowed in from the gate went through the warehouse district and emerged to leave by the south gate, their cargos of foodstuffs emptied and the drivers noticeably richer. Every now and then, a red-liveried palace guard would pass along a roll of paper to Jete, who would be sniffing over the carts' contents, and wait for her to pore over it and give her approval before taking it back to the accountants.

"Nice of Victor to dip into his own pocket to pay the farmers." Brommus looked up at the sign. "Why are we creating a stockpile. Direct and to the point, I suppose."

"I'll repay you somehow, someday."

"Think of it as fixing what I broke the day I dragged you out from your shepherd's cot and into the world."

"Wait." Slakar shielded his eyes with a hand, looked out of the city gate to the road that stretched into the distance, and pointed down its length. "Do you see something?"

Brommus squinted in the direction Slakar had pointed in and ground his teeth at the rapidly approaching dot in the distance. "I think I do."

"Is it…them? Already?"

"I don't think so. I've never seen that shade of sickly green on any hero. Come to think of it--watch out, it's burning!"

Flinging himself against Slakar, Brommus cursed as a streak of fire wove through the line of produce carts, and cursed again as tender new skin scraped against the cobblestones of the street. When the world had stopped spinning, he was aware of something large, green and positively foul-smelling looming above him, and readied a burst of energy on the tip of an index finger.

Then the zombie horse gave with a loud groan, all four of its still-burning limbs snapping from its body and skittering on the ground while its head fell off and landed next to Brommus' face with a hissing squelch. Slowly but carefully, Slakar picked himself up before helping Brommus to his feet and staring at the remains of the zombie horse, which by now was a mostly shapeless mass of burning horseflesh.

"Brommus, you can put that spell away. It's Arthess." He staggered away from the burning heap, righting the crown on his head. "Now that was a dramatic entrance."

"And one befitting me," Arthess replied as she stepped out of the ruins of her mount and took off her helmet, ignoring the carters and guards staring at her. "The king sent the sorceress to summon me. I burnt my mount to get here. Now, what's the problem?"

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 38

Loafar sat alone in the dark confines of his cottage, rocking so hard the floorboards groaned and ripples spread across the surface of the bowl of carrot soup beside him. Thickly-veined hands were folded across his lap, and his brows were furrowed as he hummed to himself.

Creak.

Creak.

Creak.

Presently, he got up, fought for balance on unsteady legs, and began pacing around the room, stopping every now and then for a sip of soup.

"Do I owe him anything?" he asked the room. He hadn't been expecting a response, and would have been surprised if there had. "It could have been different, you know. I could have listened. He could have listened. It didn't have to be like this. Perhaps I should have asked the sorceress to stay a little longer, asked a few more questions. Oh well, too late."

Bit by bit, Loafar emptied the bowl, and with a snap of his fingers sent it flying to the little sink by the water pump. He paced around the room a few more times, and finally stopped by the curtains and threw them open, flooding the room with afternoon sunlight. Another moment passed as Loafar studied the vegetable garden outside, then looked down at his twisted legs and feet.

Arthess would be more than capable of bringing out every possible defence she could muster, he knew. After all, she had earned her position. But to Loafar, the problem with war wasn't the actual fighting; it was the befores and afters that threw wrenches and wands into what should have been a clear-cut affair of winner take all.

The country needed him, and everything he'd heard on the transmitter had confirmed the sorceress claims--his nephew had changed for the better.

"Damn it." It took a bit of effort, but Loafar eventually managed to retrieve his travelling cloak from a high shelf and headed for the door. With one final snap of his fingers, the fire in the hearth died out, several locks slipped in place, and innumerable magical traps clicked into position. "I do hate it when my conscience gets the better of me."

#

"No, you throw the apple juice over first. It boils much hotter than water does, and we've got plenty of it, as opposed to the more traditional oil. Then throw a bunch of shit over."

The palace guard captain looked up at Arthess with a perfectly straight face. "Shit, knight-commander?"

"Yes, shit. And some piss and a dead cow or two for good measure. Try to find one that's started to bloat decently, put it in a barrel, and keep the heck away from it until they're here. Let's see their stupid healer sidekicks deal with a wildfire infection when half of them don't even know what shit and piss are on account of never having used so much as a bush."

"Really, knight-commander?"

"It's been theorised that heroes either have extremely efficient metabolisms, or exhale their wastes. Would explain the bad breath. Now get to it."

The guard captain saluted Arthess, and hurried off in the direction of the wall to relay her orders. Nodammo had to admit that at the very least, the guard knew how to look busy. Under Victor's watchful eye, men and women bent under the weight of sacks and barrels hurried from the warehouses to the camps at the base of each watch house, while others clustered nervously in groups, some clearly better equipped than others.

"Good idea getting the dragons to help out in the tallying. Hear they can tell if something's missing from a pile just by looking at it." Arthess snorted, and put her helmet under her arm. "Not going to tolerate hoarders in times of war."

"You've mobilised the militia?" Slakar said.

"It's them or us," Arthess replied. "We're an evil city now. Evil cities always get crushed to rubble, the citizens within be damned. I wouldn't trust that rabble with anything more than a pointy stick, but they're the last line of defence before it comes to hot water from windows, cooking pots on heads and stringing the enemy between washing lines. A hero strung from a clothesline--now that'd be a sight to see, more than those turrets in action."

Nodammo looked at the crude clay and metal constructs on the walls, Brommus and Slakar's court wizards labouring over them and setting the wall alight with the colour of magic. "You're sure those golem things will work?"

"Please. They will. Growing vegetables is a lot of waiting when you've got the bugkill and weedkill spells down right, and I've never taken well to idling." Arthess turned to Slakar once more. "The walls, thick and sturdy enough to mean something to the sorceress' brute of a dragon. The guard and militia, thankfully untouched by your messing around with the workings of the kingdom. The whole emergency siege preparation system--boy, your uncle's legacy is saving your ass right now."

Fire flashed in Slakar's eyes. "I may have done some stupid and misguided things in my time, but I think I can learn from my mistakes," Slakar snarled. "Your coming back to help is appreciated, but you haven't earned the right to call me boy. A lesser ruler would have you done in for treason."

"You haven't earned the right for me to call you sire, either." Arthess' hand had strayed over to the hilt of her sword, and she let it fall back to her side. "I suppose you've made a start, though. When all this is over, get your archivists to dig through the records. My oath binds me not to you nor the position of king, but to the kingdom."

"Can we stop all this nonsense right now? If we're all alive at the end of the day I don't care how many games of stupid buggers you want to play, but if you've noticed, there's a damned army of heroes out there so stop arguing over the silliest matters. Dignity isn't going to do you much good when you're dead."

Arthess narrowed her eyes and clenched her fists, but nodded at Slakar, who returned the gesture. Sensing that the show was over, the people who'd stopped to watch the scene picked up their burdens and went about their business.

"Sorc--Nodammo. You were telling me about the time your home was attacked, and you summoned a tea elemental to help fight them off. Could you do the same here? Any additional help that's…non-standard would be appreciated."

Nodammo gave Arthess a long, hard look, then turned it upon Slakar, who had turned his back upon the both of them and was speaking with Victor. The two of them cared, she realised. They really did, and if she was any judge of character, would willingly die for their apple-obsessed kingdom rather than let it fall into ruin.

Now if only she could get them to agree on the exact meaning of "ruin". It wasn't impossible, she knew. If heroes could be convinced to work together, there wasn't any reason those two couldn't.

"Well, it's theoretically possible with any liquid that's got enough personality, but I'm not sure if it'd do us any good. The one I made wasn't very strong--it was more of a diversion for my escape than anything else. I'm not sure if we have enough tea in the palace to summon up anything worthwhile, too."

"We do have a lot of apple juice, though, and that's got a whole kingdom's personality behind it. Could you do it? You'll have assistance from as many court wizards as can be spared. I've been around Loafar enough to know magic, especially that on the more theoretical side, can be a tricky thing, but--"

Nodammo waved her off. "I suppose it's got to be worth a try."

#

"Halt!"

Like a train that'd been going far too fast than what was good for it, the procession of heroes took a while to grind to a halt. Even with the wise old mentors wrangling them like overworked sheepdogs yapping at deranged sheep, the heroes at the back kept on going like carriages in a train coming to a sudden stop, with much the same effect.

Miss Annoyed didn't care. That, after all, was the kind of problem the wise old mentors had been paid to solve, and this time had been better than the last--at the very least, the heroes weren't trying to kill each other. Heaving a contented sigh, she hopped off the tiger's back and patted it between its eyes.

It'd been worth it. For once, she'd felt like a bloody hero while riding the tiger. A hero, straight out of the old books and comics she'd read and fantasised about as a girl.

"I think," she said, "I'll call you Penny."

Penny yawned, stretched, and tried to scratch itself through its jewel-studded barding before eventually conceding to let the animal handlers groom it. I'll have to learn how to care for it myself if I'm going to keep it, Miss Annoyed thought. Huh. The boys at the office will have a field day with this.

Behind her, the heroes were setting up camp--or at least, finishing up the job the logistics carters had started. Miss Annoyed had to admit they'd done good work, or at least, she had yet to see a hero going hungry or a single bug in the field. One couldn't so much as scuff their boots on the ground without unearthing a neatly-wrapped edible root or tuber.

"Mathamancer?" she called out. "Mathamancer!"

A short and stout man with thick glasses hurried out of the throng of heroes, his general shape reminding Miss Annoyed of a marshmallow--large, white and soft. "Ma'am?"

"I can see the walls of our target from here, and they seem quite well-reinforced. You might want to update our current odds."

"At my last calculations, assuming standard values and variables for a city that size and the narrative structure--" the mathamancer fiddled with dials and gears set into a bracer on his arm-- "The odds of us winning were exactly nine hundred and eighty-three thousand, six hundred and forty-two to one. In our favour, of course."

"That's dangerously close to the magic number. Any chance you could tell me what they are now?"

"It'll take a few minutes, ma'am."

"I can wait." Watching the mathamancer work his magic, Miss Annoyed reached into her pocket and drew out an egg and cress sandwich wrapped in brown paper, along with a small thermos of still-warm coffee. Sandwiches and coffee were good. One could believe in them, the same way one could believe in alcoholic drinks.

They were, as with everything she made herself, delicious.

"Well?"

"According to my calculations, assuming median values of unknown variables, the odds of us winning are now nine hundred and eighty-one thousand, three hundred and seven to one in our favour."

Miss Annoyed swallowed the last of her sandwich and wiped the crumbs from her mouth with a handkerchief. "Well, well. That's good. Or bad, depending on how you want to look at it."

"Ma'am?"

"It's the million-to-one chance, you see. The magic number. So we manipulate the odds so that the million-to-one chance never occurs, the protagonists never win, and everyone's happy. Or I am, at any rate. No one important gets hurt, and everyone benefits in the long run, so it's perfectly justified."

The mathamancer stared at her.

"Oh, what's your problem? We don't think inside the box. We are the box, and today, I say that the box is damn well going to be oval, so that's the way it's going to be. Are you going to report me for obeying only the letter of the rules?" She gestured at the multitude of campfires behind her. "Look, those are heroes. Heroes win, everyone knows that, and every single suit--me included--agrees. So bugger off."

"No, ma'am, it wasn't that. If you want me to be honest, I was wondering why you felt the need to explain yourself to me."

"You know, that's a good question. That's a very good question." Miss Annoyed pulled out a sleeping bag from her pocket. "Thank you for bringing that up. Would you mind leaving me alone for a moment and spreading the word I'm not to be disturbed? We're going to move at dawn tomorrow, and…um…I need to be rested."

When she was certain the mathamancer was gone and she was as alone as possible, Miss Annoyed crawled into the sleeping bag and pulled the zipper all the way up despite the heat.

#

"Where should we put it, milady?"

"Right on that griddle." Nodammo pointed to a huge blackened contraption that sat in the middle of the great hall, the largest in the royal kitchens. "Carefully, now."

After the enormous vat had been hefted into place by four kitchen hands, one of them dragged a line of enchanted sheep's gut over the lip of the vat with the help of a stepladder, while another worked the pump, sending apple juice sloshing in. Nodammo had to admit--albeit grudgingly--that the golden-brown liquid did have a personality almost as strong as that of tea, if only in a different way. Tea spoke of culture and refinement; apple juice--or at least, the way the people of Gru'bar'atr understood it--spoke of well, drunkenness and breakfasts and easy-going natures and essentially, everything that characterised the kingdom for what it was.

That was important. All too often people forgot that elementals were heavily influenced by what people thought of them. People didn't think of earth as being nasty bogs that stole your boots and your life; they thought of it as either in terms of stone or being covered in green living things, and that was they way they turned out. Of course, one couldn't stop a fire elemental from being hot, but during Nodammo's days as a student so many of her classmates had invariably called up foul-smelling, all-destroying beings of living flame.

"Something wrong? I'll help if you need it."

Nodammo looked up to find Brommus' face close enough to hers for her to smell the antiseptic patches on his face. "I was just thinking. The offer's appreciated, but not really necessary--it's mostly about bringing out what's already there and giving it a way to express itself."

"If you say so." Brommus placed a bandage-wrapped hand on Nodammo's shoulder and shook her gently. "Victor's told me something of the research you used to do. This is your chance to demonstrate your findings."

"Mm."

The benches and long tables that usually occupied the great hall had been stacked in a corner, and seats had been arranged in circles around the vat. Already, the first few rows had begun to fill up, one side with the pointy hats that represented the more classical school of magic, the other with occult jewellery and magical limbs, and all sorts of scrawny wizards and witches-in-training filling up the gap between the two. Even Victor had deigned to grace the occasion with his presence in his usual manner of his head through one of the tall, arched windows, Jete perched on his neck.

"Is Miss Ebonlocke going to kill a whole cartload of heroes?"

"No, little gem, she's going to create a construct that'll kill a whole cartload of heroes."

"Yay!"

Feeling a shiver of anticipation run through her guts, Nodammo thought of Agnurlin, and only widened her eyes slightly as she found him standing behind her.

"Are all the reagents prepared?"

"Yes, Mistress." Agnurlin patted his waistcoat pockets. "I have them right here."

"Then let's get this done and over with." Watching Slakar and Arthess take their seats in the front row, Nodammo noted that the Gru'bar'atrans acknowledged their king with little more than a nod and smile. "May I?"

"Go ahead," Slakar replied.

"Don't trust this newfangled rubbish," a wizard who could pass himself off as a pencil said to his colleague in a not-quite-hushed tone. "Remember the days when we had the classical earth, fire, air and water elementals and that was that? Then came along the young'uns with their fancy light, dark, heart or spirit or whatnot, and today it's a bloody apple juice elemental. I say…"

Well, sod off, Nodammo thought, and took a deep breath. "Both you and I know what we're here for, so I'm not going to waste any more time on introductions. What do you like to put in your apple juice, and how do you like it served?"

There was a moment's awkward silence, and then the great hall was filled with chattering voices.

"Warm!"

"Cold, with ice!"

"With sugar! And salt! And a pinch of cinnamon!"

"Made into cider and drinks of questionable origin!"

"Heated into syrup and baked into buns!"

"You can't beat concentrate! What'cha gonna do for apple juice in the spring and summer without making concentrate?"

"In the apple itself!"

Nodammo quietened the crowd by waving her hands in the air. "Since no one can decide what's the best way to serve apple juice, we're going to put everything in and see how it turns out."

This got a cheer from the crowd. Without further ado, Nodammo climbed up the stepladder and assisted by Agnurlin, began hurling beaker after beaker of reagent into the vat. Sugar, salt, chopped apple slices, various herbs and spices, yeast--each and every one was stirred into the mixture amidst the sounds of a whole hall putting pencil to paper.

Nodammo grinned. This was fun, unlike the last time with the tea elemental. No safety goggles, no rubber gloves, no carefully measured amounts, just her and the magic. It wasn't a better way, nor was it a worse way, but she definitely found it more enjoyable in the way a duck prefers water instead of potato soup.

Steadying herself against the vat's rim and closing her eyes, Nodammo reached into the apple juice, and found--

--Young couples sneaking out to the apple orchards at night to see each other--

--Academy professors debating the importance of the apple to the local economy--

--One of Slakar's predecessors doling out apples to the needy in the middle of winter--

--People out in their fields trusting each other enough to share the same cider cask--

--Troops loading old apples into the catapults, snickering amongst themselves as they aimed its payload at the Fenorosian encampment--

Nodammo's eyes snapped open, breaking the stream of shared memories. She looked down at her hands and saw her fingers were pale from gripping the vat's rim. The apples had been grown, harvested and pressed in the kingdom, had been privy to the oddities and loyalties of its people, had been so ingrained into its history and maddened, insane culture that people did silly art pieces of them, it was hard to imagine Gru'bar'atr without apples.

"It's not someone's personality, or even that of a bloody drink," she muttered to herself. "It's a kingdom's personality."

With a conscious effort, Nodammo pried her hands off the vat and spread them over the juice mixture. The whys and wherefores of magical theory could be left to the watching witches and wizards; all that mattered to her was that she had to push the personality to life.

It gave easily, almost as if it wanted to move. It probably did.

"Are you all right?" someone called from below. Nodmmo couldn't be sure who it was through her blurred vision, but she teetered and fell into someone's arms, then something cold and hard lifted her upright and into a seat. The next thing she knew, Arthess was pouring cold water onto her face.

"Wha--" Nodammo began, then looked up at the vaguely humanoid shape hefting itself out of the vat. The apple juice elemental paused, took two steps in Slakar's direction, then promptly saluted with a dull, wet smack. Slakar stepped forward, removed his crown and held it close to his breast, one embodiment of a kingdom to another.

"It worked," Nodammo said between giggles as the room burst into applause. "It actually worked."

"How long till dawn?" Brommus asked Arthess. "They'll attack then--a charge at dawn is always the best for dramatic effect."

"Two hours."

"I hope we're ready."

"Oh, we're more than ready for them, for what it's worth." Arthess glanced at the various magicians staring up at the apple juice elemental, and then at the guards holding them back. "Not sure if they'll be worth anything, but it'll be fun."

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 39

The sun rose, fast enough to be reasonably dramatic, yet slow enough for Miss Annoyed to wonder if someone back at Company headquarters was manipulating it for maximum effect. Astride her armoured tiger, she hummed softly to herself as she led the army of heroes at a slow walk, the mathamancer and the few wise old mentors who could be spared at her side. Old masters, wise herb women and mysterious aged storytellers weren't exactly the best of comrades, but they didn't tend to go at each other's throats once left alone.

"Something's happened," the manthamancer said as grass bent underneath their feet. "The odds are now nine hundred thousand, seven hundred and six thousand, three hundred and four to one in our favour."

"Hmm. Tell me, mathamancer. This may seem a bit odd, but if you could have anything in the world right now, what would it be? Be honest, now. I can smell lies." Technically, that wasn't true, but what the poor sod didn't know couldn't harm him.

"Well, if you ask, ma'am…to be far away from here and in bed."

"A perfectly reasonable answer." Miss Annoyed raised her head to take in the milling dots on the city walls. "I'd have a nice cup of coffee."

The mathamancer mopped his brow with a handkerchief. "Coffee, ma'am? When you could have anything in the world?"

"Well, what else would I want? I'm already in the job I dreamt of doing since I was a girl and the job was just that--a dream. I'm leading an army of heroes right now. I'm not interested in pursuing a relationship of any sort at the moment, and I slept rather well last night. No, I think a cup of coffee would be lovely right now, and would go down nicely with an epic battle."

"If you say so, ma'am."

"Good." Miss Annoyed looked down at the wise old mentors and nodded. "Tell everyone to get the final roll-calls done, and for the heroes to mount up. This isn't the sort of inter-department effort you see every day, and I want it to be done right."

One by one, voices rang out across the meadow, calling out heroes by their classifications. One by one, Miss Annoyed checked them off on her clipboard, and winced when she had to put a cross in the checkbox next to "dragon riders". One by one, the heroes mounted up on the tigers. The question of whether they could ride in the first place was never brought up--everyone knew heroes could ride anything.

"Fucking epic, with one thousand fucking tigers," Miss Annoyed muttered. Putting away her clipboard and rummaging around in her pockets, she drew out a bandolier of grenades and a rifle in a sling before putting them about her shoulders and back.

They weren't getting away this time, and Mr. Happy be damned. She was going to be sure; if that meant bending the rules a little, so be it.

A flash of lightning lit up the sky, and Miss Annoyed felt the ensuing thunder rumble through the soles of her boots. That's odd, she thought. I don't remember requisitioning level ten magnitude lightning strikes from Special Effects. Still, it wasn't an opportunity to be wasted.

"Just. Fucking. Epic. Heroes! Charge! For truth and justice and some old prophecy and all that other crap! Just fucking charge!"

One thousand tigers and their riders raced towards the city.

#

It has been said that like history, stories are doomed to repeat themselves. Like all statements ever made, this is true to a certain extent. Genders get switched around, but in the end the protagonist rescues the designated love interest. Circumstances may vary, but the hero eventually gathers enough plot coupons to redeem a happy ending, and everything is happy ever after, no questions asked. The dark lord one way or another, is no longer a threat, and if he is, the story's not really over and he's bound to return after a hundred, a thousand, or perhaps two thousand years for good measure. Or someone's bound to summon him up by accident, and it's the same story all over again, with the whole world in danger. Because of course the whole world has to be in danger, and lesser stakes aren't possible.

Names change, roles change, times change, but some things persist.

At some level, all stories have been told.

At some level, all stories haven't been told.

Just as it's possible to distinguish a home-cooked chicken pot pie from one bought from an open-air stall or a frozen one heated in a microwave, so the stories--which are still fundamentally the same--are distinguishable from each other. The pot pie's tastier, or oversalted, or someone used meat of dubious origin in it. Some have thicker crusts, others have more hearty fillings.

The story wondered which ending was the right one. All of them seemed awfully familiar in the many times it'd been retold in its different forms, yet it couldn't quite make up its mind. Heroes won, it knew, but everyone seemed to be a hero in some shape or form.

Still, there was a minor discrepancy…

Suddenly, the story know which was the right path. It'd gotten so involved with the trappings that it'd gotten itself confused. Without further hesistation, it darted forward.

#

Victor stiffened his neck and peered out at the horizon fraught with many tiny dots moving towards him at great speed. Behind him, the Gru'bar'atran troops shuffled uneasily on the wall. Victor didn't mind. He'd have done the same if he'd been in their place; at least they weren't whispering and pointing at him any more. Then again, he wasn't a human like they were. Agnurlin was perched on the base of his neck, an axe in his hands, sharing the view with him.

"Just like old times, eh, Ag?" Thin wisps of smoke streamed from Victor's snout, and he couldn't help but paw at the ground impatiently.

"Yes, just like old times." Agnurlin repeatedly smacked the flat of his axe against the bony hilt of one palm, creating an almost inaudible tapping noise. "Remember the time the two of us took on that greatest mage in the world? The one who wielded all four classical elements?"

"Which one? Been so many I lost count. All I remember is that I hated their taste."

"The one who was looking for the various magical music instruments before the evil institutionalised religion could."

"Arrrh. That one. I hated her." Another shudder ran through Victor's chitin and scales, begging to be released. He dug his claws deeper into the earth and let out a puff of smoke. "Still, it was epic. Not as epic as this one promises to be, though."

Jete ran up and butted Victor on a foreleg. "Can I come too, Daddy? I want blood, too! And lots of nummy kidneys! And making things dead!"

"No. You're not indestructible like daddy is, little gem. You stay here with Boss," Victor replied. "You go out there, and you'll end up as a pair of boots before the day is out. Maybe when you're older."

"You always say that. When is older?"

"Oh, maybe when you're a hundred or so." Gently but firmly, Victor picked a skulking Jete up by the scruff of her neck and trotted back to the city gates, where he deposited her at Brommus' feet. "Look after my daughter, will you?"

Brommus nodded, and returned to watching the advancing heroes. Satisfied, Victor stomped away from the gate, over the palisade, and looked out once more at the approaching army of heroes, close enough for him to see the glint of gold on their mounts' barding.

"I hate the rising sun. When is it going to get done with this dawn thing?"

"Perhaps never," Agnurlin replied. "It depends."

Victor twisted his neck around to look at Agnurlin and gave his best impression of a human smile, a gesture which Agnurlin returned. "Yeah, I guess. Fucking thing might never get done with it. Let's do this."

With all the ceremony of a witch or wizard donning his or her pointy hat, Agnurlin unbuttoned his waistcoat and shirt and let the sides hang limply about his bony ribs. Butlers had standards, as did ex-heroes, and with a bit of imagination, it was possible to reconcile the two.

"Yes," he said, clacking the yellowed remains of his teeth together. "Let us do this."

#

Miss Annoyed looked up at the dark shape looming in the sky before her and narrowed her eyes. "Wizards. Dragon as expected. Shield." Almost instantly, a dome of shimmering energy encased the army of heroes, save a few who didn't make it in time and were engulfed by the droplets of light-devouring fire that fell from above.

Miss Annoyed look back to see three or four heroes trying desperately to beat out the flames on themselves. The screams echoed in her ears, and she gritted her teeth before spurring her mount onwards.

Note to self: submit a suggestion to include stop, drop and roll to basic hero training.

"Should we return fire?" a nearby aged storyteller asked.

"No. Bastard's out of range of our elf archers; he's trying to soften us up before we reach the walls. Let him tire himself out and we'll deal with him when it's time for the wizards to make their move so as to conserve their energy. Two birds with one stone."

"What?"

"Nevermind."

"FLAME! DEATH! DESTRUCTION!" a voice roared from above. "COWER BEFORE THE MIGHT OF--oh no, the evil king has magically enslaved me to his will! You must save me from his evil clutches--NAH, I'M JUST KIDDING. I'M HERE TO KILL YOU ALL."

Miss Annoyed mentally ticked off a checkbox in her mind next to "evil cackling".

The aged storyteller spoke up again. "Ma'am, some of the heroes can't see through all the dark fire washing over the shield--"

"Onward! You don't need to see anything to go onward!" Miss Annoyed pointed ahead and tried to block out the dragon's awful voice.

"YOU KNOW, SOMEDAY WE'LL MEET UP AGAIN AND WE'LL TALK ABOUT THIS. WE WILL LAUGH ABOUT HOW YOU DIED SO HORRIBLY THIS DAY. THERE MAY OR MAY NOT BE PIE AFTER THIS, AND GOOD TIMES WILL BE HAD BY ALL. BECAUSE YOU'LL BE DEAD. BY THE WAY, DID YOU KNOW SWORDS OF DESTINY ARE TWENTY-THREE PERCENT DISOBEDIENT HERO? THAT'S WHY THEY FEEL SO ALIVE IN YOUR HAND."

A tic crept into Miss Annoyed's eyes, and she nearly lost grip on her reins.

"YOU REALLY BELIEVE YOUR ANTICS ARE THE BEST WAY TO PROMOTE THE ALL-ROUNDED PROMOTION OF POSITIVE EXPERIENCE, DON'T YOU? WELL, THEY AREN'T. YOU BUGGERS ARE JUST HOARDING ALL THE BLOODY POSITIVE EXPERIENCE AND GENERAL WELL-BEING FOR YOUR FUCKING SELVES."

Miss Annoyed ripped the rifle from her back with a snarl and sprayed a burst of bullets into the air. "Forget the dragon for now; the fire's stopped and we're there anyway, but keep a squad of bowmen on the lookout if he reappears. Everyone else, dismount and drop the shield--we're going to force the bloody wall open. They want a siege--we're not going to give it to them."

The walls were nothing new to her; Miss Annoyed had seen them countless times out in the field. Hewn, or at least, built, from the living rock, whatever that meant, spots of lichen standing testament to its aged grandeur. She remembered the times she'd gone inspecting city walls for appropriate lichen levels.

The heroes dismounted. The shield was lowered, and a few well-wined fireballs took care of the palisade.

Then the turrets popped up and started firing. That wasn't allowed, Miss Annoyed knew. Wands weren't supposed to be able to fire so rapidly, or be so big. No one mounted them on tripods, let alone imagine such a thing could be used during a battle. Battles were all swords and bows and the occasional flash of magic from a wizard's staff. Not…this.

A nearby hero blocked each and every one of the magical darts with the flat of his blade, reminding her of a scene she'd read in a comic so long ago and dreamt of re-enacting herself. Others had less luck.

"Fucking cheaters!" she screamed, and brandished her rifle. "I play by the rules, and this is all I get! Well, I can cheat, too!" Dreamily, Miss Annoyed placed a turret in her sights and fired, then giggled like a schoolgirl as a red-liveried guard fell from the walls. It wasn't long before the elf archers took cover behind their fellow heroes and sent up a hail of arrows against the wall, more than a few finding their mark.

"You don't want to play fair! Fine! All bets are off!" She nearly ripped off her bandolier in the process, but Miss Annoyed eventually managed to get a grenade into her rifle's launcher with a very satisfying thunk. The grenade arced, fell, and exploded on the wall.

Moments later, hundreds of mage heroes, their powers all boosted by ancestry, unique birthplaces, blessings, prophecies, or a combination of them and more--they focused their powers on the blackened spot where the grenade had exploded.

Flame. Death. Destruction.

"What's happening, Verra?" a voice she barely recognised as Mr. Happy's sounded in the air. "Why are you using prohibited methods? Do you know you're threatening the narrative's continuity? Why--"

Smiling sweetly, she prodded a finger at the fuzzy image of the usually smiley face in the air before her and watched as it vanished in a shower of silvery sparks. "Why, sir, I'm merely doing my job. The job you asked me to do. Now leave me to it."

Onward. Always onward.

Miss Annoyed was vaguely aware that she might have mowed down enormous number of guards as she pressed her way through the breach with the other heroes. Certainly, there was blood in her boots and her camos, although she couldn't remember how it'd gotten there, and the bayonet on her rifle glistened. She'd seen a bloodied guard on the ground and shot him for good measure. Everyone knew guards weren't people. The dragon had been fun, too. He'd caused a bit of trouble until a few high explosive grenades had brought the overgrown lizard down to earth in more ways than one, and the heroes had finished the job.

The main highlight, though, had been a disgusting, oozing thing that had smelt vaguely of apples. It'd been a bit harder to dry it into nothingness in the end, but apparently the wizards had managed it just fine, with only some casualties. "Some", of course, being a variable number between "none" and "all". Everyone knew nameless soldiers who fought with the hero in the climactic battle weren't people, either, even if they happened to be heroes.

This, Verra Lawler Arkenberg realised, must be how a hero felt. Laying waste to the forces of evil, saving the day, restoring peace, righteousness and the right way of duck-flying to the land.

She liked it.

"Stop. Please."

Miss Annoyed briefly paused in her path across the blood and debris, and considered the man before her. Bandages and healing burns covered most of his body and he walked with a cane, but he still had a hopeless air of quiet understanding about him--

"You. You're with them. I didn't want to believe it when I was told you'd turned deviant, but it seems I was wrong. After all I did for you, too. Ingrate."

"Yes," Brommus replied. "I am, and I thank you for making my previous job a better experience than it could have been. You're a good person, I think."

"You know I can't stop." Miss Annoyed ejected a spent clip from her rifle and made a show of loading a fresh one. "Why bother asking?"

"I'd hoped we could come to a peaceful resolution."

The world had stopped, as had been expected of the narrative. Guards and heroes clashed on either side of Miss Annoyed and Brommus, conveniently leaving a little circle of space for them to stand in. Miss Annoyed smelt the magic in the air, and wondered how many canisters the extraction teams would be filling.

"I don't think that's possible. Everyone wants large battles, duels to the death, and lots of gratuitous violence. Nobody wants to know how the hero and the dark lord played a game of checkers, or even worse, resolved their differences amicably and came to a compromise. Now get out of my way or I'll remove you. Permanently."

Brommus shook his head. "I'd hoped it wouldn't come to this. Please leave."

"Or what? Why should I care what you do? You're not even real!"

"This." Brommus pulled his left hand out of his coveralls pocket, where he'd been hiding it.

His wrench rose.

It spun.

It fell.

Miss Annoyed stood in shocked silence for a second. Then her eyes rolled towards the angry red bruise on her forehead and she collapsed, her rifle and bandolier vanishing in a shower of silver sparks.

Gingerly, Brommus picked up his wrench and dusted it off, then hung his head in a moment of silence before time flooded in once more.

Morally Ambiguous

Chapter 40

The sun finished rising.

Nodammo looked over the conical swathe of destruction the heroes had cut into the city as they'd poured in through the breach in the wall. Homes and establishments had been pounded to rubble, and the cobbles on the streets themselves had been smashed to dust that was now coating the bodies of defender and hero alike.

Everything smelt of apples, too. There were sticky, syrupy gobs all over the place, the remnants of the apple juice elemental.

While the area had been theoretically cordoned off as Slakar's remaining able-bodied guards and wizards gathered the more obvious battlefield spoils, loading gold, silver and magical knickknacks onto a cart, the townsfolk who'd forgotten their fear wandered behind them, pulling off boots, buttons, and anything of value from the heroes' corpses. Some of the more enterprising ones were carrying off dead tigers strung on poles, presumably for their skins.

Skins. Hides. Lots of money. Victor had always complained about…

A sudden dizzy spell took hold of Nodammo, and she grabbed a nearby lamppost for balance.

"Victor," she said, and blinked crusted eyes. "Victor. Where's Victor?" She half-whirled, expecting to find Agnurlin standing behind her, but her butler wasn't there, either.

He was in front of her, Jete bounding about his feet.

"Sorry I'm late, Mistress. It's hard to put yourself together again after you've been smashed to pieces." Agnurlin tried to smooth out his grimy, bloody waistcoat with shattered fingerbones, and gave up. "I'm not quite sure myself--those explosions threw me off Victor, and…I…"

Nodammo was impressed and surprised at the same time. She'd never known Agnurlin to be lost for words. "Then tell me where you last saw him, and we'll go look together. Brommus can handle matters here without us." She looked down at Jete. "If the worst has happened, I owe your father a proper cremation or whatever it is you do with your dead."

#

Her head throbbing, Miss Annoyed groaned and tried to push herself upright, then realised she was under someone else. A dead someone else. With a burst of effort, she broke free from the mound of humanoid and feline bodies she'd been pinned under and sat down on the tall grass, a safe distance away from the deep, dark pit the bodies were evidently slated to go into. There were a few fires lit on the other side of the pit and she could hear people talking, but she dismissed them as being too far away to be any threat. After all, who wanted to be near a pile of rotting corpses?

Something glinting in the moonlight caught her attention, and she stopped pounding life into her limbs to get a better look at the object protruding from the pile of corpses. It was the mathamancer's bracer, still attached to its owner. Holding her breath, Miss Annoyed got to her knees and carefully turned over the bracer to examine its display.

A million to one in the heroes' favour, and the counter wasn't constantly fluctuating the way it usually did.

That only meant one thing.

"No." She let out a half-choked gurgle, coughed, and tried again. "No." she shook a fist at the starlit sky and pointed up with the other. "We control you! Not the other way round! We put the words on paper! We decide the plot points! We write the stories!"

Stories write people too, the story replied. Even if we're going by your definition of 'people'.

Shakily, Miss Annoyed got to her feet and felt blood rushing into her legs and feet. "No. I…" she paused, unsure of what to say next and unwilling to concede the story might just be right.

The story wrote you, Verra Lawler Arkenberg. Made you the way you were through its magic even before you knew me for who I am, the day the recruitment agent offered you the job. You read the books and comics, you watched the films, and it touched you more than others. I and my fellows have written many people who've never even crossed into this place, and you know it.

"So that's it? I'm to be a recurring antagonist and fail no matter how much I try? Why should I even bother, then? Why don't I just lay down and let them win? I did everything right. I followed the formula. I should have won."

You're one to speak. And no, it doesn't have to be that way. You wanted it badly enough to choose it. Heroes win, but what exactly is a hero?

"That…that's different. They're just characters in a story. They aren't even real, for god's sake. Technically, none of this is."

If the story could have sighed, it would. You know that's not true, either. It's real to enough people for it to matter. Besides, you're not any more real, given your definition of the term, than they are.

Silently, Miss Annoyed looked down at her multi-jointed fingers, caked with drying blood. She thought back to her formal dress of shifting colours hanging in a closet far, far, away, and balled her hands into fists. She sucked in a breath, steeled herself, then began plodding across the yet-uncollected corpses towards the nearest stand of trees, gold, silver and prophecies passing under her Gore-Tex boots. Whoever who was around the fires would have easily noticed a lone figure on the grasslands at night, but she didn't care anymore.

"I'm real," she mumbled to herself, reminiscent of a delirious desert-lost traveller. "My name is Verra Lawler Arkenberg, I live…used to live…in Minnesota…my name wasn't what one would call common…on my fifth birthday I got a puppy, which died of old age when I was seventeen. I was sad, I remember. I am real. Dexter took me to the prom, and I went to college at…I can't remember where, and then…

"And then I died…"

It was our deal, the one even the recruitment agent didn't know about, the story said, not unkindly. It might have been a trick of the light, but Miss Annoyed thought her fingers were glowing faintly. Be a part of the story, and live forever as it is retold over and over again in its infinite iterations. The hero isn't the only one with a thousand faces. Everyone else shares them, too.

She would not cry. Not like this. She'd gone a very long while without crying.

She cried.

The story made one more pass about her mind. Your life ended on a hospital bed, Verra. All that remains is story.

Then there was silence, the kind you only get when sound is rushing in to fill a recently vacated spot. Finally, Miss Annoyed managed to compose herself, mopped her face as best as she could and forced her feet into action, wishing for a cup of hot coffee to put the world into perspective again. To be precise, a perspective away from failure despite one's best efforts, blood everywhere, and damning doubts.

The trees were thick, not the stunted, windswept specimens usually found on grasslands. Miss Annoyed recalled a memo about Special Effects planting stands of trees on grasslands, and shrugged before sitting down on a tree root of oddly ergonomic proportions. Natural or not, the trees would serve for cover while she worked out a way to extricate herself from the locality.

Then she realised she wasn't alone.

The black dragon was there, forming a little hill all by himself in a ring of broken and uprooted trees. He lay on his side, what remaining intact hide he had coated in thick green ichor--the only reason Miss Annoyed could think of for his head being still attached to his neck was that no one wanted to lug the thing all the way back home. Pieces of chitin had been pried and broken off and lay on the ground, and he sported almost as many arrow shafts as spines on his tail. Miss Annoyed remembered the heroes swarming over him like ants over a picnic spread, and shrugged.

The dragon was also alive, judging by the amber eye that flicked in Miss Annoyed's direction as she approached. Barely alive, but still breathing.

One, she supposed, had to be content with the victories one could get.

"Where's the pie?" Miss Annoyed said through her teeth, her rifle appearing in her hand with a shower of silver sparks. "I was promised pie and a good time, and I'm going to collect, one way or another."

Talons scrabbled at the air, and one torn wing twitched. "Good thing I'm indestructible, because there's no pie."

"I hate you so much, you know that, right?"

"The feeling's mutual." The dragon showed more of his teeth, and Miss Annoyed noted some of the ends had been chipped off. "Impressive wand you have there, though. Doesn't…doesn't change the fact that I…I'm indestructible."

"This isn't a wand. It's a gun." Miss Annoyed patted her pockets, and came up with another high explosive grenade. "You'd do well to remember that." She loaded the grenade into her rifle's grenade launcher. "A direct hit to the bottom of the jaw should aid the memory processes, and well, no one's going to be mounting your head as a trophy."

The eye widened. Miss Annoyed pulled the trigger, and something hard and heavy collided with her legs at an impressive speed, knocking them out from under her.

"Don't you dare point that thing at my daddy!"

The grenade sailed over the dragon and exploded over the treetops, illuminating the forest with a burst of light. Looking up from the ground to see a dragonet gearing up for another charge towards her--it was somewhat similar to the other one in terms of snout and teeth--Miss Annoyed readied her rifle and swung as she rolled out of the dragonet's path.

There was a sound reminiscent of a sack of gravel hitting concrete as plastic-metal composite came into contact with scale. Bits of broken teeth fell to the ground, and the dragonet squealed in pain.

Miss Annoyed had never liked children.

"Your daddy," she said as she picked herself up, "promised me pie and a good time, and he's refusing to come through with a promise. Keeping promises is important. Without them, what would your word be worth?" She kicked at the dragonet's underbelly for good measure, keeping a straight face throughout the whole process. It squealed again.

The dragon twitched frenziedly, as if caught by a seizure. "Don't hurt her. I won't…allow you to hurt her…"

It was Miss Annoyed's turn to show her teeth. "And what are you going to do, bleed on me till I drown?"

Voices and lights amongst the trees.

"It came from here! Look, that has to be Victor. It's little wonder she ran off like that."

"You can't help but wonder where that explosion came from. I'm quite sure it wasn't anything magical."

"All the more reason to hurry them, Mistress."

Unhurriedly, Miss Annoyed tightened her grip on her rifle and looked down at the dragonet, then at its father. "This isn't over." And so we're setting up for a sequel, Mr. Happy probably is overjoyed at getting another chance to milk this for all the magic it's worth, and the board members are thinking of getting supports for their clothing to hold all the money they'll be making. All through my failure.

Fuck him. Fuck this. And fuck the story. I control the story. Just wait.

Then she was gone, her boots rustling in the undergrowth and leaf litter. She'd made it to the tree line when Mr. Happy's image flickered into existence in front of her.

"There you are, Verra. I was so worried; we've been trying to get through to you for the last half-hour. Marvellous job you did there, though. Projections are that with what we stand to make from today, we can afford to outfit three times the heroes we've lost. Isn't that marvellous?"

"Yes. Good. Whatever."

"I was wondering what you were up to when you tried calling up Enforcement and so I ordered them not to lend assistance, but it seems everything worked out in the end. An extraction team will be coming to pick you up shortly--is there anything you'd like them to bring along?"

Miss Annoyed looked down at her hands, her boots, her clothes, her rifle, all a stinking rust-brown and shivered. "A cup of hot coffee would be wonderful."

#

"I can't help but have the idea that we didn't earn our victory," Slakar said as he surveyed what had once been the ruins of several brick houses, crown in hand. Arthess was directing the town and palace guard in collecting and wheeling away the rubble with impressive efficiency. "Even if we did cheat a little, it was still a million-to-one chance back there."

"We still won," Brommus replied, and scratched at his bandages. The dust wasn't helping matters. "The spoils should go some way towards restoring your reserves."

"Yes, but it matters to me. Those were heroes. One of them should have been enough to slay dragons, inspire revolutions, topple tyrants and save whole worlds. By all rights, we should have been crushed like a bad apple under heavy wheels, even with Victor, an apple juice elemental and turrets on the walls. They could have, oh, I don't know, conjured up a firestorm and burned us all to ashes without even bothering to assault our walls. It bothers me, as if they threw the fight and we're playing straight into the Company's hands."

Brommus shrugged. "Maybe there's some conservation of competency clause we don't know about? I find it hard to believe they'd willingly suffer a loss this great."

Boots crunched through broken stone, and they passed out of the city gates towards the burial pit, where people with gloves and crude cloth masks about their faces shovelled dirt over the dead. The corpse pile was smaller than it'd been the previous night, but it was still too large. Far too large for Slakar.

King and wizard stood and watched for some time. Gently, cold metal came to rest on the former's shoulder, and Slakar turned his head to see Arthess behind him, a faint smile on her face.

"It's not the choice I made, sire. If I were to grow too attached to them, given the nature of my job…I'd go insane. It's so much easier on the mind to think of them as pieces on a game board." She clapped Slakar on the shoulder. "But I can understand your way of thinking. Just don't mess it up like you were doing."

"I…I think I've learnt something since then, and I don't think the Company's inclined to do anything for a while but cut their losses. It's possible to be a good and competent ruler, isn't it?"

"For a given definition of 'good'? Yes. Your uncle was one, sire. He might have burnt down cottages and executed rebels, but he always made it clear to the people the whys, wherefores and the evidence."

Slakar looked down at the blood-and-apple-juice-watered grass, then up at the brilliant afternoon sun. Then he realised something. "You called me sire."

Arthess' smile widened. "Would 'your Majesty' be better? Let's be getting back. We still have to hear the Finance Minister give us a valuation on the battlefield spoils, and there's--"

She stopped as a lone figure came into view, walking haphazardly down the road to the city. No one except the three of them seemed to notice the bald, bow-legged midget as he came all the way up to them in his loping gait and stopped.

"Seems I'm a bit too late to help," Loafar said as he looked around him. "You seem to have done reasonably well, though."

"With Arthess' assistance," Slakar replied, half-stooping to meet his uncle's eyes.

"Yes."

Together, the watched the gravediggers at work. Two men came up, got Arthess' signature on a chit, and hurried off again. A small group of guards came out of the city gates, bearing lunch for the gravediggers in baskets and casks.

"How's it like, being king?"

"Not what I expected."

"I hear you've changed. Even Arthess seems to have warmed a little to you in the short time you've known her. That takes effort."

"I've tried. It hasn't been easy." Slakar pointed at the crown in his hands. "This thing's far heavier than it should be. It does things to you, and I think it whispers to me when I'm not really paying attention."

"I know."

Slakar coughed loudly. "About the last time we met, Uncle. I didn't listen when I should have, and…well…for what it's worth, I am sorry about what happened. Perhaps like Brommus, I can try to repair the damage I've done? Um, would you…I…"

"Help? That's why I came. Don't get me wrong. I'm not doing this for you, your father, or even the position of king. I'm doing this for the kingdom. But first, we need to talk. About you, your parents, and everything that's happened."

Slakar nodded and started towards the city gates, Brommus and Arthess in tow. "Sounds perfectly reasonable. Even with the homeless filling one wing, I think there shouldn't be enough problem finding somewhere private in the palace."

"There's one thing, though, nephew."

"Yes?"

"I heard from other travellers that an embodiment of the kingdom rose up to defend it in its time of need. That would be…"

"It was the apples, Uncle. It was the apples."

"Ah." Loafar nodded, and hobbled after them. "Fitting."

Morally Ambiguous

Epilogue

A familiar voice came to Brommus' ears. "You've been sleeping early these days. Hope you did something to earn it."

Somehow, Brommus wasn't surprised to find that the ground was now comprised of slightly sticky rice pudding. Gandwarf stood over him and helped him up before rolling a cigarette from thin brown paper and the contents of his tobacco pouch. The job done, he stuck it between his teeth and lit it with a finger.

"You did good, kid."

"Did I?" Brommus wandered over to a nearby riverbank, and peered inside. Fresh, creamy milk flowed on its way, and he thought he could see a few biscuit fish beneath the surface. Oddly enough, they didn't appear to have gotten soggy. "It could have been better. Fewer people could have died. I could have helped more."

"It was good enough for me, and apparently for you, too. Come on, kiddo. I'm sure you can see that for yourself." Gandwarf waved his free hand at a nearby giant cabbage, then at a boiled sweet. "No one can fix things till they're perfect, but you've made some progress. The rest…well, it's out of your hands. They've got to work it out themselves. Sucks, but that's life for us wise old mentors."

A fallen stick of giant celery lay by the riverbank much like a log, and Brommus went over and sat down on it, Gandwarf following suit and leaving a trail of cigarette ashes behind him. "Do you mean my mind, or the kid?"

"Could be either. Could be both. One's probably a meta--meta--met-something, you know the word for representing one thing with another?"

"Metaphor."

Gandwarf nodded sagely and puffed on his cigarette. "Yeah. One's probably a metaphor of the other or somesuch. Shouldn't be a problem for you. You've got your wrench, right?"

Brommus felt for its reassuring weight in his pocket. "Yes."

"Then everything should be just fine."

They sat in silence for a little while longer. Pink clouds of cotton candy drifted across the sky along with marshmallow peeps, while a caterpillar bun emerged from a hole in the celery stick and wiggled away from both wizards. Slowly, Gandwarf's cigarette burned to a stub and he flicked it into the milk river, blowing a final smoke ring.

"This is the last time we'll be meeting each other, kiddo, or at least, while you're still alive. I won't be coming back," he said at last.

"Why?" Brommus replied, his voice suddenly quiet.

"It's the way of wise old mentors. You have to let go at some point, trust the kids to not fuck up their decisions and learn their own way of doing things. Besides, there's a lovely party where I am, and I think someone's spiked the punch with something both nasty and wonderful." He winked at Brommus. "Don't worry, I'll save some for you for when you're ready to join me."

"That's…very kind of you."

"Seriously, though. You'd imagine being dead would be the cue to let go, but it isn't so for some of us--damn the whole spirit advisor gig. You'll have to leave that kid of yours sometime, too."

"I was planning on doing that soon."

"Then it's all good." Gandwarf dusted off his robe, stood up and adjusted his pointy hat; he was already turning translucent around the edges. "I ought to be leaving, or we'll never be done here. Anything to say?"

Brommus thought for a moment. "Yes, there is. Thank you for everything."

Gandwarf's face broke into a wide grin. "And thank you. You don't know just how many of your fellow wise old mentors have been wishing to hear those words."

#

Dear Mother, I am well, and so is Father--

Jete curled up on the tree stump she'd been sitting on and stared down at the sheet of bronze foil under her, thinking. She hopped off the stump, circled it thrice, and sniffed the metal foil before scratching out the few runes she'd already set down.

Mama,

I am feeling good and so is Daddy. He was hurt by the bad people but Ms. Ebonlocke says he will not die because he is too much of a bastard to die like that. Daddy eats and sleeps a lot so that is a good sign I think and Mr. Agnurlin and I take turns watching him. I also haul the sacks of kibble out of Mr. Agnurlin's waistcoat to Daddy while Mr. Agnurlin mucks out his bed. I am a big dragonet and can carry three of them at once so do not worry. Ms. Ebonlocke also brewed up something in a really big cauldron that smelt yucky but Daddy drank it anyway and went to bed again.

The little hill that was Victor grunted and growled in his sleep. Various birds roosted on his horns and spines; Jete thought they looked yummy and was tempted to chase them, but turned back to her letter with some effort.

The human king and his mini-stars are very excited about Daddy's company bringing in investments to the kingdom, and Daddy is of the opinion that dragons can do with more friends so long as said friends remember their debts. That seems likely as the humans seem impressed with what Ms. Ebonlocke and Daddy have done and will probably write a story or something about it so no one forgets how their apple kingdom won against the bad people.

I really am very sorry for leaving you like that and so soon after Daddy did but like him this is something I must do. It is a lot to ask but please understand and do not be angry or upset. We are quite safe from being turned into boots handbags and other clothes for humans so take good care of my brothers and sisters for Daddy and me because we will come home someday and everything will be happy again.

Jete.

While it might not have been technically true, it would make her mother feel better. Carefully, Jete leaned on the metal foil and impressed her footprint onto it, then folded it up and carried it in her jaws to Agnurlin, who was watching a pot boiling over a fire.

"Could you please put this into a parcel and post this for me, Mr. Agnurlin? Mama will want to hear about Daddy."

"Of course." Agnurlin took the letter, slid it into his waistcoat, and patted Jete on the head. "He's my friend, and you are his offspring."

Suddenly, tremors ran through the earth, and a the birds which had been roosting on Victor fluttered off in fright as he thrashed about, knocking over a sapling in the process.

"No doctor. I'm fine," he rasped, blood bubbling in his voice. "Not as if there're any doctors for the likes of me. All they want is--is my--"

When Jete dared to uncurl from the tight, armoured ball she'd rolled into, she cast a worried look in Victor's direction. "Daddy is going to be all right, isn't he?"

"Your daddy doesn't like doctors," Agnurlin replied, shaking his skull and poking at the fire. "One tried to steal his spleen once. And most of his naughty bits. We searched the practitioner's cold chamber, and it was full of unicorn kidneys. Since then, he's only trusted self-medication, and failing that, the Ebonlocke family."

"I smell a story in that."

"Do you like stories, Jete?"

Jete laid down on her belly and tucked in her legs. "I like them well enough, I suppose."

"Well, I suppose there's nothing else to do while we brew up your daddy's medicine." Agnurlin made a rattling noise that in a human might have been someone clearing his throat. "Once upon a time, there weren't any heroes, nor was there any Company. There were just people who tried to do the right thing, and one of them had met and befriended a black dragon not too much older than you are…"

#

Nodammo lifted the teabags out of the teapot and placed them on a saucer. Lips pursed in concentration, she poured out a cup for herself and another for Brommus, then dropped two sugars into her own; making tea was serious business. Agnurlin might have been the best butler in the world, but it was important to make one's own tea every now and then.

"Nice place," she said as she looked about the reception room. The simple wooden tables and chairs had a quaint feel to them, and anyone looking at them would understand why some people romanticised the rustic lifestyle.

"It is," Brommus replied. "It's proof that you don't need gilt and all that to make rooms look grand."

"You don't look too grand. Your face, for example…"

"I was never a pretty face anyway, and the scarring's not so bad that people will run screaming from me. It could have been worse; I could have died. Still, you were right, and I should have listened to you."

"No chance that the scars form just so as to make you more dashing and dangerously attractive?"

Brommus laughed. "If you can make something as spineless as me dashing, I'd like to see it."

The sounds of the crowd down in the palace square and Slakar's voice wafted in through the archway to the balcony, and for the first time in a long while, Nodammo closed her eyes and savoured her tea.

"I know I haven't been the best of rulers, despite my intentions," Slakar's voice came in from below. "I've let others trample upon our rights as a sovereign state, and at that time I thought it was for the best. Yes, it was foolish and short-sighted of me to agree with them.

"Still, as you've probably noticed, I've been trying to fix things, and these others didn't like that fact. We managed to beat them. We're not sure if or when they'll try again, and if they do, whether we can repeat what we did a week ago. We've all heard rumours about what the Company can do.

"But here and today, things are going to change, and hopefully for the better. Firstly, I would like to present my uncle--most of you still remember him--as he is to be given the newly created position of Senior Minister. We have worked out enough differences to matter, and hopefully with his encouragement, more of the council will agree to retake their old positions and put forth the prosperity you knew under my uncle."

The crowd grew louder.

"And most importantly, from this very moment, the name of Gru'bar'atr is no more. North Fairbanks is North Fairbanks once again!"

The roar from the crowd was deafening even up in the reception room, and Nodammo smiled as she set down her teacup.

"Another job well done," she said. "I'm not sure what I'm going to say to him when he gets back, though. You know the old king's cider mug I borrowed from Arthess? I ran a few tests on it, and under the layer of pewter was a mug made out of bloody lead. Little wonder Slakar's father went insane--he'd been poisoning himself with heavy metal for years on end."

Brommus' cup jittered in his hand. Dribbles of hot tea splashed onto bare, healing skin, but he didn't seem to notice or care. "I think we'll have to spend some time hunting down whoever gave him that mug."

"Yes. Well. So, Brommus. What do you want to do now? You could stay here and be an advisor or something to the king. He'll need as many level heads as he can get on his side, even if they've got no backbones attached to them."

Brommus shook his head. "I have to let go. It's the way of the wise old--oh, I know I was fired from my job. But if I've learnt anything from this, it's that being a real wise old mentor isn't an occupation. It's part of who you are, and no one can take that away, one has to give it up. What about you?"

"You know, wander the world, free others from oppression and tyranny, that sort of thing." Nodammo laughed, and poured herself another cup of tea. "Seriously, though. We've proved that the Company can be beaten. I'm sure there are those out there who want to hear this, and would want even more to see the people who did it. Perhaps we could even help them…do something about their situation."

"You? Altruistic? I thought you were morally ambiguous."

"Oh, and of course to get back at those bastards for pulling down my home and threatening my mother. No one gets away with that, even them."

"I'll be coming along, then. But first, I think a rest is in order. Perhaps an opportunity will present itself."

"Mm-hm." Reclining in her chair, Nodammo looked out of the window at the palace square. The noise coming from below had swelled to deafening levels, and she could smell alcohol from where she was.

"My," she said with a smile before sipping at her tea, "isn't this just lovely."

The end