I. The Cavern of Flamebro!
“Number 473! Does anyone have number 473?”
Plupart glanced at the ticket in his hand.
“Oh! That’s me!” he yelled, raising the ticket over his head and pushing through the crowd.
At the entrance to the Great Hall! a middle-aged woman waited to take Plupart’s ticket. A placard identified her as, ‘Agnes, Ticket Agent.’
“I almost moved onto Number 474—“ Agnes muttered.
“Did you call 474?” a knight in shining armor asked from a foot away.
“No. Wait your turn,” Agnes snapped.
Plupart tried to apologize. “I’m sorry. We’ve been waiting for days and… well the mind wanders, one forgets the number, makes a new one up—“
Agnes tapped a small sign next to her which read: “Absolutely NO Soliloquizing!”
“Yes, sorry about that,” he muttered. Having graduated with honors in Soliloquy from the Realm’s Knightiary, Plupart thought it rather rude of the ticket taker to interrupt.
“Okay, you may go in,” Agnes said after checking Plupart’s ticket.
“I need the rest of my party,” Plupart replied, standing on tiptoes to find his friends in the crowded cavern.
The knight in shining armor, a scantily clad barbarian, and a cudgel-wielding orc all sighed.
“Sir, your entire party must be present—“
“They’re all here. It’s just so crowded, you know?” Plupart replied, making a small hand gesture suggesting Agnes calm down.
“Yes, sir. Flamebro the Wicked is very popular, especially during the holidays, but the rules state—“
“Bree! Thomas!” Plupart yelled over the conversational rumble of the crowd. Several heads turned. The torchlit gloom made it difficult for Plupart to distinguish the faces, so he waved his hands wildly, yelling, “We’re up! Come on!”
“Sir, I need to keep the line moving—“
Plupart again gestured that Agnes should calm down.
“This way! Yes, over here!” Plupart yelled, seeing his friends making their way through the crowd.
“Plupart! Thank goodness!” Bree said, popping under the arm of the barbarian. “We’re finally up?”
“We are,” Plupart said.
Agnes violently cleared her throat and tapped another sign that read, “Under NO Circumstances Will Children Be Allowed to Battle Flamebro the Wicked.”
Plupart groaned. “You really shouldn’t—“
“I am a 327-year-old vampire, ma’DAME! I have as much right to be here, if not more, than…” Bree sneered at the knight in shining armor, “some wannabe hero who is more shine than shimmer! Your lack of respect for vampire culture—“
“Identification, please…” sighed Agnes, holding out her hand. The knight in shining armor huffed and turned to look at a rather drab wall sconce.
Bree handed her vampire age identification paper to Agnes. “This really is inconvenient. No other species—“
“Fairies, water nymphs, wind sprites, most of the lesser gods… the list goes on. If you feel offended, take it up with your Senator, as they write the legislation regarding children and battles,” Agnes replied, peering through her spectacles at Bree and then at the paper.
“Plupart! Are we up?” Thomas asked, sliding between two rather large Normanshire wrestlers.
“We are, let’s do this!” Plupart said, drawing his sword and raising it high above the crowd.
“Sir!” Agnes shouted, quickly tapping yet another sign that read, “All Weapons MUST Remain Sheathed Until Entering The Arena.”
“Sorry,” Plupart said, returning his sword to its scabbard.
Agnes sighed and lifted the Gate of Entrance!
The party passed through the gate and headed down the Great Hall! to Flamebro’s arena.
“Did you call Number 474?” the Knight in Shining Armor asked Agnes.
“So help me, Rudolph, if you ask me again, I’m skipping straight to 475,” Agnes threatened, lowering the Gate of Entrance!
“475 right here!” the wrestlers shouted.
Agnes rolled her eyes and huffed. She needed a vacation.
II. The Great Hall!
“Stand to your left!” Haverford the line keeper shouted. “No crowding to the right! It’s a fire hazard!”
“What? What’s going on?” Plupart asked, looking at the long line in front of them.
“This is the line to get into Flamebro’s Arena,” answered the Kensian warrior standing in front of them.
“Cherries!” Plupart cursed.
“In front of a child? Have you no respect?” the Kensian warrior said, nodding towards Bree.
“Thomas, what does the book say about this line?” Plupart asked, as Bree heatedly reprimanded the warrior.
Thomas unshouldered his satchel and dug out The Warrior’s Guide to the Realm. A green bookmark, once the tongue of the Donaldstown’s Hydra, marked the page on Flamebro’s Cavern!
Thomas scanned the page. “Get a number from Agnes… enjoy company of other famous warriors… number called… Ah! Here it is! ‘After passing through the Gate of Entrance! the warrior will find themself standing in a formalized line awaiting their turn to battle Flamebro in the arena. As Flamebro dispatches his challengers with relative ease, the warrior should expect a fast-moving line. While waiting, take time to enjoy the company of Haverford Hacklin, Flamebro’s linekeeper and Agnes’s husband. Ask Haverford about his parakeets.’”
“Look, I’m sorry. But you have to admit it’s an easy mistake,” the Kensian warrior said.
“I don’t see how. How many 13-year-old girls do you know with dagger-like canines?” Bree asked, flashing her teeth.
“I don’t make a habit of examining 13-year-old girls’ teeth. Perhaps you should wear a cape or something!” the soldier snapped.
“Oh Gods,” Plupart groaned.
“Wear a cape? Vampires were forced to wear capes as part of the Grendlin Inquisition, singling us out for…”
“Haverford! Hello!” Plupart called, waving to the shrunken man who was more moustache than face. Haverford was now reprimanding a troll for not standing far enough to the left.
“I don’t care how big you are! No one stands on this side of the line,” Haverford snapped, pointing to a line in the sand. “If you’ll excuse me, I hear someone calling my name.”
Haverford waddled to the back of the line where Plupart was waving.
“Afternoon and welcome to Flamebro’s Cavern!, how may I make your pre-execution experience more enjoyable?” Haverford asked.
“I hear you have some pretty amazing parakeets,” Plupart said. “I’m a fan myself.”
Haverford’s eyes welled up, his sniffed, and shook his head. “My parakeets died five years ago, thank you very much. And if you warriors weren’t so cheap and bought the updated version of the Warrior’s Guide, maybe I could finally get over my grief!”
Haverford wiped his eyes, turned, and headed back down the Great Hall! yelling “Stand to the left or I’ll throw you out! I don’t care how long you’ve been waiting!”
“Well that was embarrassing,” Plupart muttered.
“We really should get the updated copy of the Guide,” Thomas said. “Remember the attack on Fero’s Cove? We were thirty-seven people in before discovering everyone was cured of zombism two years earlier,”
“That was a messy quest,” Plupart said.
III. Flamebro’s Arena!
The Guide was wrong about the parakeets but correct on the line. Within an hour, the trio was escorted into Flamebro’s Arena!
“Charge!” Plupart shouted, pulling his sword from its sheath.
“Just a moment, Sire. I need to finish moving these bodies and sopping up their blood,” said Blarf, Flamebro’s Arena keeper. He tossed one of the Kensian warriors into his corpse cart.
“What? We waited three days!“
“And I wouldn’t want you tripping on a corpse or slipping in bowel slop,” Blarf said. “Real tragedy, that would be.”
“He’s got a point,” Thomas said.
“Let me give you a hand with that,” Bree said, diving on the Kensian warrior who had called her a child, and sinking her teeth into his not-yet-cold neck.
“Much obliged,” Blarf said, tossing another body into the cart.
“Sorry for the delay, brahs,” said a fiery redhead coming around from behind the cart. He wiped his hands on a bloody towel and tossed it on the nearest corpse.
“Flamebro! Gods, it’s an honor!” Thomas said, hurrying forward to shake the elemental consort’s hand.
“Flamebro!” Plupart screamed. He pulled his sword from its sheath. “Die, elemental scum!”
“Woah, dude, be cool,” Flamebro said, holding up his hands showing he meant no harm.
“Yeah, Plupart, be cool,” Thomas said, before grinning stupidly at Flamebro. “This is the meet-and-greet part of the battle, isn’t it?”
“You got it, little man,” Flamebro said.
“Sorry, did you say ‘the meet-and-greet?’” Plupart asked, sheathing his sword.
“Yeah, man. Doesn’t happen often, since Blarf’s really efficient with the clean-up. But there were forty-seven of those Kensian warriors. Even Blarf isn’t that quick. Are you, Blarf?”
“No, boss! But I’m trying!” Blarf yelled back.
Flamebro sighed. “I keep telling him ‘call me Flamebro, bro.’”
Plupart scratched his head. “You’re Flamebro? Elemental consort to Goddess Rujan? Slayer of Lord Braxwell and Lady Miff’s armies? The Boar-Tusked Demon?”
“That’s right, brah. But I’ll tell you, I haven’t had time for Rujan since starting this whole enterprise. I haven’t hung with my crew, drinking wine and spit roasting virgins for… I don’t know how long.”
“Spit roasting virgins?” Thomas asked, somewhat confused.
“Ask this guy. He knows, amirite?” Flamebro said, clapping Plupart on the shoulder.
“I know no such thing,” Plupart said disgustedly.
“Sorry, I assumed you attended the Knightiary.” Flamebro said.
“I did and graduated with honors in soliloquizing. But as knights, we pledge ourselves to upholding the values of honor, fealty, and chastity,” Plupart said, beating his chest as he repeated each value.
“Oh, brah…” Flamebro said, shaking his head.
“Uh, Plupart?” Thomas said. “It’s charity… not chastity.”
“No, it’s… well it was…” Plupart glanced from Thomas to Flamebro to Bree to Blarf and saw the same look of pity in everyone’s eyes.
“Gods on Heaven’s Bench!” Plupart cursed, flinging his sword across the arena.
“Tough break, brah,” Flamebro said, throwing an arm around Plupart’s neck. “Finding that out just before you die.”
“No… it… I mean… All those years!” Plupart groaned.
“So… Uh… Flamebro. This is quite the operation you have here,” Thomas said, changing the subject.
“Thanks, l’il man. We’ve grown a lot over the years, haven’t we, Blarf?”
“Yes, boss. We sure have!” Blarf said, grabbing the handles of the full corpse cart and dragging it to the other side of the arena.
Flamebro chuckled. “That guy cracks me up! You know, back before all of this,” he gestured to the cavern, “I was under constant threat of a surprise attack. Warriors showing up without notice, expecting to fight on the spot. No regard for the fact I might have plans.
“You know, I tried to see Hemswell’s ‘Whose Mule Is This?’ seven times. Every time, I was pulled into a fight.”
“How rude!” Plupart said. Being a fan of the theater, he strongly believed in honoring a ticket holder’s plans.
“Right? Well one day, two different groups show up to fight me. The first said to the second ‘take a number’ and inspiration struck. Boom! Set it up in a cavern, no more surprise attacks!”
“And you were able to see ‘Whose Mule Is This?’ How did you feel about the third act?” Plupart asked.
Flamebro grimaced. “Haven’t seen it yet, brah. Hopefully in the next year or two. Now that everyone knows where to find me, there’s a lot more day-to-day volume. But we’re working out the kinks, making things more efficient, and soon we’ll be back to an eight-hour day.”
“How so?” Thomas asked.
“Efficiencies, brah. I already said that,” Flamebro replied. “This guy ever listen?”
“That’s what I thought,” Flamebro said.
“What I meant was… how are you going to make it more efficient? Won’t there always be more warriors showing up to avenge their lost comrades and take down the Lord of the Wicked?” Plupart asked.
“Well… Yeah, brah… But if we’re more efficient, we can… like get through everyone quicker. And then there will be fewer people to fight,” Flamebro said, sensing he may have missed a pivotal part of the plan.
“How will there be fewer people?” Plupart asked.
“All set boss!” Blarf called out.
Bree rejoined the group. “Shall we get this underway?” she asked.
“Hang on there l’il sis, I need a minute. Brah over here just blew my mind,” Flamebro said, miming an explosion with his hands.
Plupart, Thomas, and Bree dove to the ground. Flamebro was, after all, a fire elemental.
“Sorry, l’il man,” Flamebro said, pointing to Thomas’s singed eyebrow.
“No problem! How many people can say they got singed by Flamebro?” Thomas asked, doing a little victory dance.
“If they could still talk, around 347,000,” Flamebro muttered, sliding down to the ground.
“And how many more will there be?”
“Look, it’s rough now, but like you said, there are efficiencies. You’ll get through this,” Plupart said. “I believe in you. Bree believes in you. And Thomas definitely believes in you. So if we could just get this started, I’ll go get my sword and—“
“I’m not really in the mood,” Flamebro said.
“We’ve come all this way. Waited three days and—“
“Brah, I’m sorry. But it’s just… I need a moment. I’ve been doing this nonstop for a century. I’m immortal and I’m tired,” Flamebro said, running a hand through his hair.
IV. Career Change!
“From one immortal to another, have you considered a career change?” Bree asked, plopping down next to Flamebro.
“Huh? No way, l’il sis. Look at what I’ve built,” Flamebro said.
“You don’t seem very happy,” Thomas pointed out.
“True, l’il man,” Flamebro said.
“What are you two doing? We’ve come here for a battle and—“
“Plupart, hush. We agreed to never fight an injured foe. How would it look for us to take on a burnt-out fire elemental?” Bree asked.
“Exactly, brah. Not cool,” Flamebro muttered. “So what were you saying about a career change, l’il sis?”
“I’m saying sometimes a career change helps. I used to be part of the Royal night watch. Things were going well until I got good at my job. Then they had me guarding the walls at night and the castle during the day. I worked around the clock!
“So I switched to being a thief. Didn’t know a thing about it. Everyone cuts the newbie a ton of slack because they’re still learning.”
“It’s called a learning curve,” Thomas said. “I was a highly sought after milliner. Nobles constantly demanding my services. My fingers bled felt. Now I’m an alchemist. The hours are great, I’m learning new things all the time. There’s literally no pressure.”
“He can almost turn water into tea with the right herbs,” Bree said, winking at Flamebro.
“Don’t exaggerate. I can almost always turn water into tea with the right herbs,” Thomas corrected.
“How about you?” Flamebro asked, looking at Plupart.
“Me? I’ve been a knight since leaving the Knightiary seven years ago,” Plupart said, throwing back his shoulders with pride.
Bree cleared her throat.
“Fine! If you must know, I’m hoping to earn enough to start a cake shoppe,” Plupart said, shaking his head. “You probably think that’s stupid.”
“No way, brah! That’s awesome. Follow your dreams,” Flamebro said.
“And what are your dreams?” Bree asked.
Flamebro thought a moment, then shrugged. “I still have this guitar from my battle with the band of Rogues. I’ve been wanting to learn how to play, but just haven’t had the time.”
“There you go!” Thomas said.
“You could become a balladeer,” Bree said.
“A what?” Flamebro and Plupart both asked.
“A balladeer. You know, the person who travels with the heroes putting their exploits to song, making the heroes famous, that sort of thing,” Bree explained.
Flamebro nodded. “Cool. Yeah, it might be nice to get out of the Cavern for a few decades. Learn to play the guitar, sing about other people’s battles. I like it, l’il sis.”
“So, what do you think, Plupart?” Bree asked. “Can he join us? It’ll be good publicity… once he learns the guitar.”
“I don’t know…” Plupart said, not sure he wanted a fire elemental traveling the Realm with them. Especially one as battle prone as Flamebro the Wicked.
Flamebro’s head sank. “And what about Agnes, Haverford, and Blarf? They depend on me.”
“Bring them along! We need someone for battle clean-up. Haverford could raise messenger birds so we don’t have to trek back and forth across the Realm. And Agnes… I suppose she could make sure we don’t battle any children or break any rules,” Bree muttered.
“And you just came up with that?” Plupart asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I’ve been working on an org chart,” Bree admitted. “They all just happen to fall into it.”
“I love this idea, brah! Let’s do this!” Flamebro said, jumping up from the arena floor.
“Look, I don’t know if it’s such a good idea,” Plupart said.
“I’ll show you how to spit roast those virgins,” Flamebro said with a wink.
“Well… maybe it wouldn’t hurt to have a fire elemental on our side,” Plupart said, looking around for his sword.
“All right!” Thomas said, jumping up and doing a victory dance.
“Come on, Blarf! Let’s talk blood,” Bree called.
“So about this spit roasting,” Plupart asked in a hushed tone.
“Yeah, brah. First, you build a bonfire. You don’t want it too hot, otherwise the thing’s over too quickly,” Flamebro the Wicked began to explain.