At 11:37 this morning, my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number and, since tragedy could strike at anytime, debated not answering the call. Then I thought, “Gravy! It might be Publisher’s Clearing House!” so I answered.
It was not Publisher’s Clearing House.
Let me repeat that for those of you planning to ask me for a loan. It was *NOT* Publisher’s Clearing House.
It was, in fact, Sheila.
“Good afternoon, this is Sheila with Cancer Research of America, how are you today?” a rather chipper voice asked. It was the type of voice that would shortly be asking me for a donation.
“I’d be better if you knew it was morning here, Sheila,” I politely replied to the chipper east coast elitist.
“Yes, of course, good morning,” she said, stumbling over her canned speech.
“Well, what can I do for you today?” I asked, opening a Wikipedia article about puffins on my laptop.
Sheila took a breath, launching her pitch. “Cancer Research of America is a foundation dedicated to finding a cure for cancer—“
My ears perked up.
“What’s this? A cure for cancer? I’ve seen quite a bit posted on Facebook about cancer, Sheila. Many of my acquaintances share posts in support of those fighting cancer. Tell me more about cancer,” I said, honestly intrigued.
“You haven’t heard of cancer?” Sheila asked, seeming a bit befuddled. East coast elites always seem to think people have nothing better to do than keep up with the news.
“No, please, tell me more about cancer and this cure you’re funding. Will we be sending troops in to destroy them or is this more of drone operation?” I asked, pulling out a pen and pad of paper. I felt the information Sheila was about to offer would be invaluable to my friends. I wanted to get every detail right.
“Troops? Drone operations? I’m not sure I understand,” Sheila said, sounding more confused than when she started. Perhaps she wasn’t the tactician I needed to answer my questions.
“The cure for cancer. Given the voracity with which so many people want to fight it, I assume it’s a terrorist organization. Foreign? Religious oriented? Hiding their operatives in refugee camps in order to take down our way of life? I’m certain my city is a prime target. In fact, I don’t like to talk ill about anyone, but I have this neighbor—“
“Let me stop you there,” Sheila said, the chipperness draining from her voice. She obviously felt quite strongly about the evils of cancer. Perhaps she had a relative fighting them. “Cancer is a disease which kills over half a million people a year in the US alone. More than one-and-a-half million people in the US will be diagnosed with cancer this year. As a whole, cancer is a significant health crisis—“
“A disease?” I said, setting down my pen. I had just been to see my doctor and was the picture of perfect health. In fact, she had taken four or five pictures of my perfect health.
“Yes. And we were wondering if you would donate to help us find a cure for this disease so no other people have to suffer.”
“But Sheila, what about heart disease? Asthma? Ingrown toenails? There are a lot of diseases and ailments out there. Your organization is spending God knows how much money to research and stop only one of them? That seems rather shortsighted.”
“Shortsighted? Cancer destroys the health and lives of so many people—“
“All health matters, Sheila, not just the health of those fighting cancer,” I replied.
The other end of the line was quiet. Then Sheila said, “I’ll take you off our list.”
“Thank you, Sheila. I’d appreciate that,” I said. “Of course, if your organization ever decides to expand their focus and admit #AllHealthMatters, I’d be happy donate.”
I’m not sure Sheila heard me. The line went dead before I finished speaking. I considered calling her back and letting her know I’d be happy to help with the all health matters movement but Wikipedia articles on puffins don’t read themselves.
“Come out, come out, whereeeeever you are!” the Deuce sang, shooting plasma orbs at the Carlson Carbonite Building. A fiery cloud of glass and concrete exploded over Clayton Street; Ableman slid under an abandoned armored truck to avoid the rain of cinders and ash.
“Betsy, I need backup,” Ableman whispered into his communicator.
“No problem, Abe,” Betsy, sitting at her computer back at headquarters, replied. She pulled up the Backup Support Module to find which heroes were available and near downtown Beaver Creek.
“Login and Password?” the module asked.
Betsy furrowed her brow. She had logged on as soon as the emergency call came in and it shouldn’t have kicked her out already. She’d have to log a bug report with IT.
“Betsy?” Ableman’s voice crackled in the earpiece.
“Hang on. It logged me out,” Betsy said, entering her username and password.
The system flashed an “Unrecognized User” message.
“What the hell?” Betsy muttered.
“Talk to me, Bets,” Ableman whispered.
The scream of steel twisting against itself exploded in Betsy’s ear.
“Abe!” Betsy shouted.
“I’m okay,” Ableman said, running down an alleyway holding his left arm. The armored truck lay twisted and burning in Dimpleman’s Department Store’s holiday display. “I could really use that backup.”
Betsy pounded her keyboard. The system was again telling her, for the third time, her username wasn’t recognized. “Let me see if Henry can make the request,” Betsy said, jumping up from her chair. She turned and found the exit to her cubicle blocked by Mike, the Middle Manager.
“Hey there, Betsy. Mind joining me in the conference room for a minute?” Mike asked, giving her a two thumb salute.
“Just a minute, Mike, I really need Henry to—“
“You can give Henry the office gossip a little later, right now—“
“Betsy! What’s going on over there?” Ableman shouted. Something, sounding very much like Beaver Creek’s First National Bank, exploded in the background.
“Mike says he needs to talk to me in the conference room and won’t let me—“
“They’re doing that now?” Ableman shouted.
“Doing what now? What are you doing now?” Betsy asked Mike, her eyes growing big.
“This doesn’t need to be painful, Betsy. It’s just business,” Mike said. “If you’ll come with me.”
“Tell Mike it’s a Code Purple! I’ll give him the go ahead later,” Ableman shouted. “But I need backup now!”
“You knew about this?” Betsy muttered.
“I… Code Purple, Betsy. I order you to—“
Betsy snorted. She picked up her coat and purse. “Okay, Mike. Let’s get this over with,” she said, following him into the maze of cubicles.
Security alarms blared in Betsy’s ear as Ableman dashed through the bank’s wreckage. He begged her to send backup. “I can fix this, I swear,” he shouted over the plasma orbs exploding around him.
Ableman scaled a fire escape, climbing into a small apartment smelling of face powder and Persian cats. “Betsy, we’ve had good times,” he whispered, peering out the window.
The Deuce walked past the building, using his plasma cannon to knock parked cars through storefront windows.
In the conference room, The Axe was already sitting at the table with the blue layoff folder in front of her.
The Axe — a small, white-haired woman — always wore grey tweed and pearls. As the only ‘normal’ to reach an executive level, she had been given “The Axe” as her secret identity. Everyone joked the tweed and pearls were her company approved super costume.
“Betsy, hello. Please sit down,” The Axe said before turning to Mike and asking, “Will Ableman be joining us?”
“He hasn’t been at his desk all morning,” Mike replied, taking a seat next to The Axe.
“Typical,” she muttered, opening the blue folder. “For all their heroics, every one of them runs and hides when real work needs to be done.”
“Betsy, please!” Ableman shouted. “I’m sorry. I’ll give you a glowing recommendation. My brother works at Google—“
Betsy smiled. In one ear the Axe explained her severance package, how long Betsy’s insurance coverage would last, and the process for filing unemployment.
In the other ear, concrete exploded and a building groaned before crashing to the street.
“Betsy! I thought we were friends,” Ableman groaned, as he limped across Tripoli Boulevard and into a grocery store.
Betsy’s smile faltered as the store’s muzak piped through the earpiece. The normal sound was unnerving amid her current, surreal circumstances.
“I’m sure you’ll find work in no time. This isn’t due to performance and we will make sure anyone calling for a recommendations knows that,” The Axe said.
“Thank you,” Betsy replied, picking up the blue folder.
“Do you have any questions?” The Axe asked, as the muzak suddenly stopped and a corrugated roof collapsed into aisle 7.
“Oh! I almost forgot,” Betsy said, digging the earpiece out, and setting it on the table. “I don’t suppose I’ll be needing this any longer.”
“No, I suppose not. On a personal note, I’d like to thank you for your maturity during all of this. You have no idea how many people scream, plead, and threaten when it comes time for a transition,” The Axe said, standing to shake Betsy’s hand.
“These things happen,” Betsy said.
The Axe nodded and smiled. “Mike will walk you out. It’s policy.”
Marla Tipley stood on tiptoes, feeling around the top shelf for a jar of firenewt spines. “I know it was up here, just yesterday, I — Ah ha!” she said, pulling a green clay jar off the shelf.
“Drat!” Marla slammed the jar on the counter. “Any chance maggot tongues would work?”
Vork, cloaked in his heavy hooded cloak, despite the summer heat, shook his head.
“Doesn’t hurt to ask, does it?” Marla said, climbing on a stool to search the shelf.
Vork despised coming to Marla’s Magik Makings for his potion supplies. Not only did Marla overcharge for commonplace magical items, the shop was a disorganized mess. He preferred Petra’s Potion Emporium two towns over, but the corpse laying in his cavern wouldn’t keep in the summer heat, while he traveled there and back.
“Ah! Here we go, spine of firenewt! Somehow it ended up behind the bottle of swamprat urine,” Marla said, pulling a blue clay jar from the shelf and setting it next to the green one already on the counter.
“So let’s see. That’s one jar of firenewt spines and jar of maggot tongues,” Marla said, totaling the amounts on a pad of paper.
“Only the firenewt spines,” Vork said, pushing the maggot tongues away.
“I could have sworn you said—“
“Only the firenewt spines,” he repeated, placing a skinless hand on the blue jar.
Marla flinched seeing the hand. “Yes, of course. Just the jar of firenewt spines,” she mumbled, crossing maggot tongues off the bill of sale. “One silver.”
Vork dropped his last silver on the counter, stowed the blue jar in a pocket of his cloak, and left the shop.
“Creep,” Marla muttered, biting down on the silver coin.
Vork drifted through town, relishing the aversion people showed as he passed. Normally he would drift past the church, giving the pastor cause to pray, and by the schoolhouse, just to hear the children weep, but Vork was in a hurry.
Despite his urgency, Vork made sure to pass the Muller farm, where he stopped and whispered a short incantation. The cows lowed; inside the barn Leslie shouted, “Dammit, Vork, stop spoiling the milk!”
He whispered another incantation. The cows lowed a second time.
“Thank you, you skinless gimp!” Leslie shouted.
Vork would have smiled if he had lips and continued on. He’d visit with Leslie after resurrecting the corpse and returning it to the capital.
Up the road, he entered the woods. While walking the mile to his Cavern of Doom, he took time to enjoy the terrified silence of the birds. Simple pleasures were difficult to come by these days.
Vork’s troubles began when his Castle of Doom collapsed, several months earlier. While the townspeople whispered hell had swallowed the castle, but spit Vork back to earth, the truth was foundational water damage had caused a sinkhole to form. One evening while Vork was gathering bandit spleens by moonlight, the castle, most of his magical items, and his entire fortune had sunk into the earth.
Leslie Muller had been kind enough to let Vork stay in her home until he found the cavern in the woods.
But replacing everything he lost was costly and work had been hard to come by.
Bitter townsfolk requested minor hexes, giving Vork enough work to keep tea in the pot and bread on the table, but not enough to conduct his hellish endeavors and buy a nice cottage where he could invite Leslie Muller to dinner.
So Vork sent notices out to town boards throughout the Realm, offering competitive rates for malevolent magic and nefarious necromancy.
Vork heard somewhere alliteration sells.
He didn’t receive replies to his posts until a lucrative offer appeared on his doorstep three days earlier, followed by the corpse delivery last night.
Vork entered his cave and found the muddy potion in his cauldron had slowed to a simmer.
Vork added lilac wood to the fire and, after a few puffs from the magic bellows he had stolen from the Volcano of Shoo, the cauldron bubbled back to life.
Then Vork checked the corpse.
The corpse was overripe when it had arrived last night. Vork should have performed the spell immediately, but it was only after the corpse’s arrival Vork realized he was out of firenewt spines.
The morning’s heat had sped the body’s decay. Originally bloated and fishbelly grey, the corpse’s palor had risen to that of a sickly flan. Vork pressed a bony finger against the corpse’s stomach and found its consistency matched its color.
Vork calculated he had less than an hour before resurrection was no longer viable.
Vork wiped his flan-flesh coated finger on his robe and returned to the bubbling cauldron.
He took the clay jar of firenewt spines out of his pocket and pulled out the cork topper.
Vork dropped five firenewt spines in the cauldron. Their addition released a puff of green smoke, turning the brown brew red.
Vork began the first incantation. The lilac flames blazed up and over the cauldron and disappeared. An icy chill entered the cavern; frost formed on the walls.
Vork dipped a vial in the cauldron, filling it with the bubbling red resurrection potion.
He moved the ceremony to the corpse, chanting the second incantation, and poured the vial’s contents in the corpse’s mouth.
Then… Nothing happened.
He poked the corpse – his finger sunk to the knuckle in its flan-like side.
Possibly the firenewt spines were past their expiration date. Perhaps the corpse was no longer viable.
Or perhaps the spell needed time to work. The corpse was fairly dead.
So Vork made himself a pot of cucumber-lemongrass tea and waited to see if the resurrection would occur.
* * *
“Habeas Corpus!” the corpse shouted, jolting up from the floor. He then fell to the left and flopped aimlessly around on the floor like a fish in a dry barrel.
Vork picked up his green ceramic tea set, rinsed to pot and cup, and put them away.
Then he got his bag of traveling powder, whispered the incantation, and tossed a pinch of dust in the air between the corpse and himself.
The dust swirled and grew.
“Cloud!” the corpse shouted, as the traveling spell enveloped them both.
“Yes, cloud,” Vork muttered, as they disappeared from the cavern.
“What is the meaning of this?” Senator Wallpot shouted at the two men who suddenly appeared in the center of her office. One could have been the grim reaper while the other flopped helplessly on the floor.
“Justice Briff!” Senator Wallpot said, recognizing the flopping guest.
“Stare decisis!” the judge shouted, before rolling over and vomiting a pile of maggots out on the carpet.
“He… doesn’t look like himself,” the Senator said, looking down at the bloated, flan-like justice, who was currently picking through the pile of maggots.
“His coloring will improve with time. As for the rest of it…” Vork shrugged.
“I need to get him in his seat before the Queen nominates a replacement. Otherwise Justice Briff can no longer hold his seat on the high court,” the Senator said.
“Resurrection is dicey. You get, what you get,” Vork replied.
“Argle bargle!” Justice Briff screamed.
“Yes… well I suppose he’s already sounding more like himself,” the Senator chuckled. “And political beggars can’t be choosers. As promised, here is your payment,” Senator Wallpot pulled a sack of silver from her desk drawer and handed it to the wizard.
In exchange, Vork gave the Senator a scroll of instructions on dealing with the resurrected.
The Senator reviewed the scroll.
“He eats brains now?” she asked.
“Brains!” Justice Briff shouted, grabbing the hem of Vork’s cloak and putting it in his mouth.
“Legal minds will keep him current,” Vork replied, pulling his cloak from the justice’s mouth.
“I suppose there are enough lawyers in the Capital to keep him fed for a lifetime. Thank you for your service to the Realm and the Congressional party,” Senator Wallpot said, stowing the scroll in her desk drawer.
“Think nothing of it,” Vork replied, pulling the bag of traveling powder from his robe, and disappearing from the room.
The Senator helped the high court justice to his feet.
“Brains?” the justice asked, pulling at the Senator’s hair.
“Bradford!” the Senator yelled.
“Yes?” her assistant asked, hurrying into her office. A look of revolted surprised crossed his face, but he quickly covered and said, “Justice Briff, nice to see you again, sir.”
“Yarg,” the justice responded.
“Bradford, you attended law school, didn’t you?” the Senator asked.
Zoe lifted her sunglasses so Barnaby could see she was watching and said, “Go ahead, baby!”
Barnaby, who wasn’t yet 3, crouched, wiggled his butt, and jumped into the pool where Bill caught him before he went under.
“Good job!” Zoe said, clapping.
Bill smiled and waved. Zoe waved back. Then he turned and crossed the resort’s pool giving Zoe a few minutes to relax in the sun.
The vacation was Bill’s idea. He planned everything, even booking first class tickets for both of them.
“I can fly down there and save us—“
“No way! I want you next to Barnaby and me the whole time. We like your company,” Bill said, kissing her on the forehead.
Zoe liked hearing that. She work had eaten up a lot of their time together.
All Zoe needed to do was request time off work and enjoy her vacation.
“Another daiquari, ma’am?” the waiter asked.
“Please,” Zoe said, settling back in the lounge chair and closing her eyes.
Nearby someone whispered, “Look at that!”
Zoe heard gasps and murmuring; then the familiar click of high-heeled boots. ‘How were those even useful footwear for a superhero?’ Zoe often wondered.
“Thermo?” Flying Girl asked.
Zoe sighed and opened her eyes. “Use my real name when I’m not in costume.”
“It’s a Code Burgundy,” Flying Girl said, ignoring the reprimand. She tossed her hair so it gently bobbed in the breeze.
Zoe considered Flying Girl a sanctimonious tool.
But with a Code Burgundy, Zoe couldn’t ignore her, even on vacation.
She spotted Bill swimming towards them, with Barnaby on his back. A knowing and disappointed look on his face.
Before Zoe offered her usual apologetic look, Bill shrugged and gave a half-smile of understanding which said, “If it weren’t for the health insurance…”
Zoe crooked her lip in response: “Damn benefits.”
Bill blew her a kiss, turned, and swam Barnaby off to the other side of the pool so he wouldn’t see mom leave. Hopefully she would be back before Barnaby woke up from his nap.
“Thermo, there’s no time to waste,” Flying Girl said, placing her fists on her hips.
“You’re single, aren’t you, Jennifer?” Thermo said, standing up. Before Flying Girl responded, Thermo flashed into the sky, leaving a pair of burnt footprints on the cement deck.
Flying Girl glanced around, seeing if anyone heard Thermo’s revealation of her secret identity. She would file a grievance as soon as she got back to the office.
Twenty minutes later, Thermo, in full costume, strode into the conference room.
“Thermo, glad you made it.” said the Purple Decree, who sat in his usual spot at the head of the table. Mike, the Middle Manager, sat to his right. “I trust you’ve been briefed on the situation?”
“No, I was poolside at the resort when Flying Girl notified me. There wasn’t time for an update,” Thermo said, hoping she accented the words ‘poolside’ and ‘resort’ without coming across as passive-aggressive.
“Then let’s jump in,” the Purple Decree said. “Mike, bring us up to speed.”
By ‘us,’ he meant ‘her.’
“Happily,” Mike said, connecting his laptop to the projector and dimming the lights.
Thermo maintained a corporately passive look, despite finding her vacation cut short to view one of Mike’s powerpoint presentations.
“Approximately ten hours ago, Buffalo, was wiped off the map,” Mike said. A picture of Buffalo’s former downtown flashed on the screen.
“What happened?” Thermo asked, concerned since Buffalo was a major city in her portfolio.
“That’s what we’d like to know,” the Purple Decree replied. “Mike, please continue.”
“We don’t know what destroyed it? Do we have anyone on the ground?” Thermo asked.
“Of course we know how it was destroyed. We’re here to figure out what happened,” the Purple Decree replied.
Thermo felt her temperature rise, but kept her questions to herself.
The screen changed. Security camera footage showed beasts rampaging through Buffalo.
“Approximately 16 hours ago, space yeti attacked and ultimately destroyed the city,” Mike said.
The screen changed again to read: “Thank You! Compiled by Mike Glaston, Middle Manager.”
The lights came back on.
“What happened when they attacked?” Thermo asked.
“We’ll let Mary Preston explain. Dial her in, Mike,” the Purple Decree said.
Mary Preston, Assistant City Manager of Buffalo, and Thermo’s primary contact on the account picked up on the second ring.
“Hello? Ms. Preston? This is the Purple Decree at Heroes Inc. I’m sitting with Mike, the Middle Manager, and Thermo to figure out exactly what went wrong.”
“I’ll tell you what went wrong. No one did their jobs! I must have called three dozen times and sent no less than fifteen urgent emails, but Thermo did not respond! Now everyone is dead and I’m out of a job!” Preston shouted.
“Mary, I’m so sorry. I’m not sure what happened—“ Thermo began, but got cut off.
“Like always, you were unresponsive!” Preston snapped.
“I’m not sure when you feel I’ve been unresponsive before, but this time I was on vacation. The Warlord Warrior was covering all of my accounts. Perhaps if we could—“
“How am I supposed to know the Waylaid Warfarer is covering your accounts? All I know is I called and emailed and got no response!”
Thermo took a deep breath, avoiding eye contact with Mike and the Purple Decree.
“When we spoke on our call last week, I mentioned I’d be out of the office. My voicemail and the out of office message on my email—“
“Buffalo was destroyed and you’re referring me to an out-of-office email! Are you saying this is MY fault?” Preston shouted.
“No one is saying anything of the sort,” the Purple Decree said, stepping in. “I heartily agree, Ms. Preston, now is not the time to get mired in details. We should be figuring out who is accountable for this disaster.”
Thermo felt her temperature rise.
“It’s good someone at your organization is willing to take responsibility! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to dig through the rubble that was once my house,” Mary Preston said before hanging up.
“It sounds as if Ms. Preston attempted to contact us,” the Purple Decree said.
‘Me,’ Thermo wanted to say. ‘She attempted to contact me,’ but instead said, “I can bring up the emails and voicemails.”
“No need,” the Purple Decree said. “As long as you’re sure you set your out-of-office messages?”
“I am,” Thermo said, failing to keep the annoyance from her voice.
“I’ll trust your word on that,” the Purple Decree replied. “Did you follow protocol of having all emails forwarded to your backup?”
“Of course. The Warlord Warrior and I tested it last week before I left. Perhaps if he joined us we could—“
“Oh, he’s dead. He was killed in an assault by Cheethor two days ago,” Mike, the Middle Manager, said.
“Ah, yes. I remember the email,” the Purple Decree said.
Thermo lifted her mask, staring at the two buffoons across the table. “Warlord is dead?” she asked, enunciating each word. She steam hissed through her ear canals.
“Yes, didn’t you read my email?” Mike asked.
“Nevermind that. I’m concerned about what happened in Buffalo,” the Purple Decree said. “Tell me, Thermo, how do you think we can do better for our clients?”
There was the ‘we’ again.
“The Warlord Warrior was dead and I was on vacation. Who was supposed to cover an attack on Buffalo, or any of my clients for that matter?” Thermo asked, a puff of black smoke escaping her left nostril.
“Thermo… Zoe, this sounds like a problem instead of a solution,” the Purple Decree said, folding his hands on the table.
“I’m just pointing out a possible procedural breakdown, if we don’t have a failsafe for a vacationing, or dead, superhero this could happen again,” Thermo replied, clenching her teeth.
“We have a plan. When a superhero leaves the company, their Middle Manager assigns their workload,” Purple Decree replied.
“So Mike was supposed to delegate the workload?” Thermo asked.
Convincing Barnaby to eat his peas or Bill she needed to work late was easier than this conversation.
“We’re not looking to point fingers, Thermo,” Purple Decree replied.
“And I’ve been swamped compiling expense reports. There just aren’t enough hours in the day,” Mike replied. “It’s why I depend on my colleagues to be independent.”
“Independent?” Thermo repeated, as the back of her chair began melting.
“See, Thermo? If we don’t support each other cities, lives, and accounts will be lost. We need independent, outside-the-box thinkers who can work beyond protocol. Buffalo is a sad reminder of what happens if we don’t. So I would like you and Mike to come up with a workable solution for future breakdowns of this sort—“
“Purple Decree, I have a suggestion,” Mike, the Middle Manager, said.
“Oh good! Thank you, Mike, for bringing forth a solution for Thermo’s oversight. What are you thinking?” the Purple Decree asked, swiveling in his chair so his back was to Thermo.
“Perhaps if Thermo, or any superhero really, is out of the office, they should be expected to check their email and voicemail on a regular basis. This way they’ll always be up to speed on what’s going on and can plan accordingly. If Thermo had been aware the Warlord Warrior was dead, she could have made alternate accommodations for her clients,” Mike replied.
“Wonderful idea, Mike! And thank you for offering us a solution. How often would you recommend heroes check-in?” the Purple Decree asked.
“I don’t think more than once an hour is necessary,” Mike replied.
“Once an hour!” Thermo exploded, quite literally in a blinding flash of heat and light. Fortunately the conference room at Heroes Inc. is outfitted against such internal disasters, as it’s often used by HR for layoffs.
Shielded from Thermo’s explosion, the Purple Decree and Mike gave her a moment to pull herself together.
“I’m sure you understand what a privilege it is to work here,” the Purple Decree said.
“Of course, and I’m sorry for my outburst,” Thermo said, sounding as apologetic as a volcano. “Now, Mike, who will be backing up my other clients for the rest of my vacation?”
“As the Warlord Warrior’s backup, I’m sure you understand we’ll need you in the office. I’ve gotten word a giant algae mass has been spotted off the coast of Portland, and—”
“But my vacation—“
Purple Decree lifted a finger. “I’m sure you understand how, after the incident with Buffalo, vacation time should not be your first priority.”
Inside the sacred tent, Sev the Barbarian knelt before the tribe’s high priest. The sacred fire of Galeth burned behind him and illuminated the priest’s face.
“Sev, Seventh Child of the Seventh Leader of the Seventh Tribe, do you accept your fate as the one foretold?”
Sev, born into prophecy, without any say in the matter, knew only one answer. He was, and always would be, the Seventh Child of the Seventh Leader of the Seventh Tribe.”
“I accept,” Sev answered, bowing his head to his knee.
“Bring forth the Spear of Galeth!” the high priest shouted.
Four of the Seventh Tribe’s strongest warriors carried the Ark of the Spear into the sacred tent and placed the stone case behind the high priest. The priest placed his hand on the Ark, reciting the incantation of Fenault. The Ark’s lid glowed pink and opened.
“Sev, the Seventh child, retrieve your destiny!”
Sev took Galeth’s spear from the Ark. The tribe cheered.
Sev held the spear for all to see, speaking the ceremonial words ingrained upon him since birth.
“Today we ride across the unclaimed desert to the Cavern of Moore! And with the swiftness of Galeth, we will stop Boh’s awakening!”
During the reign of King Bluthmarn III, the city of Narr was the pinnacle of culture, society, and architecture. Glass spires rose high above the marble walls surrounding the city. Poets, musicians, and fashion designers of any historical note resided inside its walls. Famed merchant houses for textiles, jewelry, and spices headquartered in Narr.
Anyone who was anyone came to Narr to walk its flagstone streets and soak up its culture.
And protecting the Realm’s richest city was a red and white guardhouse just outside the city’s main gate.
And inside the guardhouse, reading today’s newspaper, sat Daris the guard.
“Good morning, Daris!”
Daris looked up from the paper and found Alice Preston learning through the gatehouse window.
“Ms. Preston! Good morning! Lovely day!” Daris said, quickly folding up the paper, and brushing off his epaulettes.
“It is, isn’t it? Are you going to see the Harlequins’ show tonight?” Alice asked, referring to famed traveling circus.
Darius puffed out his chest. “I’ll be guarding the city.”
“Oh, poop. I hoped you’d join me. Perhaps another night,” Alice said, pouting her lips.
“I… would like that,” Daris said, allowing a brief, unprofessional smile to touch his lips.
“Wonderful! Well, I should get to work,” Alice said, turning to the road out of Narr. “Have a wonderful…”
Alice paused, squinting at the horizon. “What do you suppose that is?” she asked, pointing.
Daris leaned out the guardhouse window and caught a whiff of Alice’s mulberry perfume. He followed her gaze. In the distance, a cloud of dust tumbled towards the city.
“Better get inside the gate, Ms. Preston. This could be trouble.”
“Be careful, Daris,” Alice said, touching his arm before hurrying back to the safety of the city’s walls.
Daris ordered the gate closed.
Crowds gathered inside the gate and on the city walls. People whispered about the cloud. They asked Daris what he thought it was, but he simply picked up his paper and continued reading.
“He’s so brave. He’s not worried,” Alice said to those around her.
“We have nothing to fear with Daris at the gate!” someone else shouted.
Three cheers rose for Daris, then everyone waited to see what trouble the dust cloud would bring.
Hoofbeats rumbled across the plain. The cloudy shadows took shape. The people of Narr leaned forward, shouting descriptions, and wondering why barbarians approached.
Daris continued reading his newspaper.
The Seventh Tribe stopped a hundred yards from the gate. A single barbarian detached himself from the horde and rode to the red and white guardhouse.
Sev held the Spear of Galeth aloft and shouted, “I am—“
“State your business,” Daris muttered, folding his paper.
“Excuse me?” Sev asked, turning to look at the squat man in a box.
“State. Your. Business.” Daris repeated, enunciating each word.
“To… uh… I’m sorry, this is throwing me off a bit. I have a whole speech I’m supposed to give and—“
“Business! State it,” Daris said, slapping the paper down.
“Yes, sorry. To prevent the awakening of the demigod, Boh,” Sev replied.
Daris pulled out a clipboard and began flipping pages. “Boh… Boh… I’m sorry, I’m not seeing anything. Do you have any paperwork?”
“Paperwork?” Sev asked, glancing back at the high priest who, very unhelpfully, shrugged.
“Yes. Travel papers, state of work, seal of someone or another perhaps?” Daris asked, counting the options off on his fingers.
“I have the Spear of Galeth. Would that work?” Sev asked, holding out the spear.
“A weapon? Are you threatening me?”
The Narrian crowds booed.
“No. Absolutely not. I’ve taken a vow to save your city and the world. I would never…” Sev said, quickly putting the spear behind his back.
“I believe I can help, my Noble Sagewent,” a voice squawked from inside the horde.
Sev turned atop his horse and watched the horde part, letting through a tiny, old woman, loaded down by several leather satchels.
“Who are you?” Sev asked, having never seen this member of his tribe before.
“Madal, the bureaucrat, oh Noble Sagewent,” Madal said, approaching the guardhouse, while rifling through one of her seven satchels.
“Bureaucrat?” Sev repeated.
“I file forms, licenses, camping permits, and the like so no one else has to. All the stuff that takes away from the splendor of barbaring,” Magal said, before poking her head into one of the sacks.
“All hail, the bureaucrat!” Sev shouted.
“All hail!” the horde shouted in response.
“Oh! Haha, very funny,” Magal said, pulling a small leather purse from the third satchel. She walked to the guardhouse, stepping between Sev and Daris.
“Now then, I think you’ll find everything in order. Here is our invitation from the mayor and the King of the Realm to stop Boh’s awakening. Our license to fight beings up to, and including, demigod status. A permit to bring supernatural weapons into the city. And camping permits for outside the walls. Should we just set up camp over there?” Magal asked, pointing to a smattering of tents east of the city.
Daris grunted, shuffling through the paperwork. Unfortunately, everything was in order. Magal even had triplicate copies of the supernatural weapons permit for filing with the guardhouse, the armory, and cathedral.
With the entire city watching, Daris had no choice but to allow a horde of barbarians inside.
“I’m sorry. No,” Daris said, handing the paperwork back.
“No?” Magal said, glancing through the paperwork. “But I don’t understand.”
“My job is to protect the city. I do not believe barbarians have a place here,” Daris said, loudly so the citizens of Narr could hear.
“But we have the proper paperwork. I went through the proper channels and—“
“I have the Spear of Galeth!” Sev shouted, raising the spear over his head.
“That’s fine, dear, but right now we need to get this cleared up,” Magal said, patting the Sagewent’s leg. “Now then, what can we do to make this happen?”
“I’m sorry, but I do this for Narr!” Daris said, raising his chin with pride.
“We have followed all laws and completed all paperwork,” Magal said, holding out the paperwork for Daris to take.
Daris struggled. Magal was correct, they had followed the law and had the correct paperwork… But they did not have his blessing.
“There… are… laws… greater than those of men,” Daris said, bowing his head and performing the sign of the circle.
“Greater than… Excuse me?” Magal asked.
“Daris! Daris what are you doing? Let them in!”
Daris leaned out the guardhouse window, pushing past Magal, and saw Narr’s mayor standing behind the gate.
“Mayor Trutt! Hello! Never fear, I’ll keep these heathens out of the city!” Daris shouted, saluting the mayor.
“Let them in you buffoon! The prophesy says Boh will rise any moment. His awakening will destroy the city!” Trutt yelled. “And will someone open this damned gate!”
Daris looked at the citizens watching him from the walls and the crowd behind the gate.
He looked at Alice.
In her eyes, in all their eyes, he saw the same thing.
“Belay that order!” Daris shouted. “Only the guard of the gate may order the gate opened! I’m sorry, Mayor, but my duty must come first!”
The citizens of Narr cheered.
The mayor, surprised at the reaction, took a moment to realign himself with his constituency as there was an election fast approaching.
“Perhaps if you came back tomorrow? We appreciate your urgency, but we need time to discuss the pros and cons,” Mayor Trutt shouted to the barbarians.
“The pros and cons? But your city will be destroyed!” Sev shouted.
“Yes, yes. You’ve been very clear about that. I’m just not sure we believe you,” Daris said. “Honestly, in all the years I’ve lived in Narr, we’ve never had a demigod awaken.”
“Yes, but the Cavern of Moore—“
Magal returned the paperwork to her third satchel.
“Have a nice day and thank you for visiting Narr,” Daris said.
“Yeah, sure,” Sev said, turning to ride off.
“One moment,” Magal said, digging through her sixth satchel and pulling out a scroll. “I’ll need each of you to sign the refusal of services contract. Basically releasing the Seventh Tribe from any damage, disaster, or death resulting from not fulfilling the prophecy. If you could sign here, here, and… well, next to each X, we’ll be on our way.”
Daris snatched the scroll and signed his name next to each X, feeling the paperwork undermined his impressive display of heroism for Narr.
“I’ll need a copy of this for our files,” Daris said, handing back the scroll.
“Of course,” Magal said, handing the scroll to Sev.
Sev signed on the lines marked, “Prophesy Filler,” and handed the scroll back to Magal.
Magal whispered an incantation older than the one used for opening the Ark of Spear. The scroll glowed green and a second version of the signed scroll appeared next to the first.
“Here’s your copy. Make sure to file it with your Hall of Records and—“
“I know the procedure for filing forms with the city,” Daris snapped, taking the scroll.
“Of course you do. Now, I suppose we should be on our way, my Noble Sagewent?” Magal said, turning to Sev.
“I suppose we should,” Sev said, shouldering the Spear of Galeth.
“Don’t forget to come by tomorrow after we have this all sorted!” Mayor Trutt shouted.
But the barbarian horde had turned and was already riding back across the Narrian plains.
Daris stepped out of the guardhouse, watching the retreating horde’s dust. Then he turned to the people of Narr.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of Narr! Today is an important day. A day we have saved our children from—“
The ground shook. Daris stumbled, grabbing the guardhouse for support. Several people screamed for the gate to be opened.
“It’s only a small tremor. Now where was I? … Ah yes! Today I have protected you from the scourge of—“
The ground shook again. The cathedral’s glass spire cracked.
“Just an aftershock! You see—“
But no one saw, mostly because they were tumbling down into the Cavern of Moore as Boh stood and wiped the sleep from his eyes.
It was another bright and cheerful day at Heroes Incorporated until disaster struck.
Little did she know it, but today would be the day Shrink Girl finally made her mark at Heroes Inc.
“Code Rose!” Mike, the Middle Manager, yelled, running through the cubicle farm. The world’s most famous superheroes popped their heads over the cubicle walls like a herd of masked prairie dogs. Mike turned down one row, up a column, down another row, rounded a corner, and started retracing his steps, all the while shouting, “Code Rose!”
Beet red and breathless, Mike stopped and leaned against a cubicle wall.
“Anything I can do to help, Mike?” asked the Human Megaphone.
The Human Megaphone never missed an opportunity to help middle management, unless there was a chance to help upper or executive management.
“Need… to find… Shrink Girl!” Mike wheezed. He bent at the waist, forcing blood back to his head.
“SHRINK GIRL! REPORT TO SECTION B, ROW 7, CUBE 27A! I REPEAT… RRRREEEKEEKEKKEBBERRR!”
Everyone covered their ears to block out The Human Megaphone’s feedback.
“Who is using a transistor radio?” The Human Megaphone glared at the heroes around him. “I’ve asked you not to use transistor radios as they interfere with my abilities! … Mike, I’m so sorry. I’ve told them…”
A row over, Scarlet Mime switched off her nonexistent radio. There was, in her opinion, no need to shout in an office.
“Hello? Did someone call me?” Shrink Girl asked, rounding a cubicle corner. She bit her lip in an unsuperhero-like manner and assumed she was in trouble.
“Where have you been?” Mike demanded.
“On The Public Relations Importance of Catchphrases When Dealing with Collateral Damage webinar. I had my headphones in,” Shrink Girl said, lowering her eyes.
“This is exactly why headphones are forbidden in the office. Right, Mike?” The Human Megaphone said, at a volume 4, so everyone heard.
“That’s right! I know you’re new here, Shrink, but we have rules for a reason.” Mike launched into a lecture on the dangers of headphones in an office, which is easily summed up by saying, “And that’s why radioactive marine life now run Topeka.”
Mike, as Middle Manager, was obligated to give the longer explanation.
Shrink Girl had only worked with Heroes Inc. for three months, replacing the former shrinkable hero who left to pursue a career in accounting.
Since starting, Shrink had only been allowed to attend seminars, conferences, and webinars on all topics superhero and legal. She had also taken forty-seven tests on the Super Employee Handbook and Crime Fighter’s Manual and passed each one.
And all of this experience led Shrink Girl to one, undeniable conclusion. She was underutilized.
So she began sending out her résumé.
“And just after Google installed a fiber network. Such a waste,” Mike said, finishing his lecture.
“I’ll never wear headphones again. I promise,” Shrink Girl said, wondering how the Dastardly Debutante would enjoy listening to tomorrow’s webinar: ‘To Rescue Or Not To Rescue – The Likelihood of Lawsuits.’
“Good. That will be all,” Mike said.
Shrink Girl turned to go.
“Mike, what about the Code Rose?” The Human Megaphone whispered.
“Of course!” Mike shouted, grabbing Shrink Girl’s hand and dragging her off through the cubicle farm.
“Good luck, Mike! Your work is appreciated!” The Human Megaphone called after them.
“The Human Megaphone’s a good guy. Keeps up morale, which is very important. You could learn a lot from him,” Mike said pulling Shrink Girl towards the stealth hanger.
A Code Rose? Thoughts swirled in Shrink Girl’s head.
A Code anything was important.
Someone had taken notice of her test scores and hard work!
Soon she would be in the stealth plane getting debriefed on the Code Rose situation!
Now, if only she could remember what a Code Rose meant.
Red indicated a major continent was being attacked.
Orange meant a minor continent was under attack.
Blue was for asteroids, space junk, or other inanimate objects hurtling towards Earth.
Shrink Girl blanked. She pictured the page in the manual, but couldn’t find Rose.
Not that she would admit this to Mike, the Middle Manager.
They were ten feet from the hangar doors when Mike made a sudden left. Shrink Girl, lost in hashtags descriptions for her first mission, missed the turn.
She lost her footing and fell into the doorway of the 4th floor supply room.
Red-faced, Shrink Girl stood up. Three heroes, plus Mike, stood there staring at her.
“She’s here. If anyone can find the paper jam, I’m certain Shrink Girl can!” Mike announced to the group.
“Just use the 3rd floor machine,” Mister Stretch said for the third time today.
“That’s for support staff,” Mike replied, clearly appalled at being lumped in with them.
Mister Stretch rolled his eyes.
“Shrink Girl, this is important. A rash of yogurt thefts are bringing down morale. We need fifteen signs reminding people to only eat their own food. But the copier is broken,” Mike said. “If we don’t have morale, what do we have?”
“Paychecks?” Lady Mystery suggested.
“People don’t work for paychecks, Mystery. At Heroes Inc., we work for the love of our job. This is our passion and a yogurt thief will not undo our commitment!” Mike replied, banging on the Rose-McKellan copy machine.
Lady Mystery’s smile was difficult to read.
“Here’s the background, Shrink. I got Stretch, but he couldn’t reach the jam, and Kongliath wasn’t able to shake the paper out. Now you’re up. Make me proud!” Mike said, stepping aside.
“What about Lady Mystery?” Shrink Girl asked, hoping to finally figure out the Lady’s powers.
“I just came for a pen, but stayed for the excitement,” Lady Mystery replied, leaning back against the laser printer, as if to say, ‘Why not just print more pages from this?’
“So get in there and show us what you’ve got, Shrink Girl!” Mike said, popping open a compartment door.
“Okay!” Shrink Girl said, hoping enthusiasm hid her disappointment. Only Mike seemed fooled, but Shrink Girl figured this was fine, since Mike was the only one who cared.
She dove into the open compartment door, shrinking to the size of a pea, and landed on tab B. Shrink Girl climbed over a roller and entered the heart of the Rose-McKellan.
Back in the supply room, Mike’s head snapped towards the door. “Did I hear Paper Mate out there? Isn’t he still on vacation?”
“Today’s his first day back,” Kongliath replied, picking a nit from his forearm.
“Why didn’t anyone say so?” Mike asked, hurrying off to find Paper Mate.
“I’m starving. What are you two doing for lunch?” Lady Mystery asked.
“I brought mine,” Kongliath sighed. “Dan has me on a diet. I couldn’t fit into that monkey suit for his 40th birthday, so now I’m stuck eating chicken feed and lettuce.”
“I’m going to Jimmy Subs. You’re welcome to join,” Mister Stretch replied.
Lady Mystery shrugged. She’d already eaten Jimmy Subs twice this week and was getting tired of them. But she was also one punch away from getting a free sub. “Let me get back to you,” she said, as Mike pulled Paper Mate into the supply room.
“G’day, mates. Whad’ve we ‘ave ‘ere?” Paper Mate asked.
Originally from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, the corporation rebranded Paper Mate to appeal to their Oceanian clientele.
As part of the rebranding, Paper Mate spent Tuesday and Thursday afternoons working with an Australian linguistic coach. So far he had managed to alienate most of New Zealand and the better part of Queensland.
He looked at the Rose-McKellan’s display panel.
“We’s pulled the machine apart, but it still won’t run,” Mister Stretch explained. “There’s a scrap in there somewhere.”
“Nah. Yoo joost ‘ave to turn it off then on a’gin,” Paper Mate said, slipping into a terrible Canadian accent.
He flipped the power switch.
“No!” everyone yelled, except Mike, the Middle Manager, who muttered, “Yes, of course! Turn it off and on again.”
The machine buzzed to life, spitting out signs reading, “Remember: Gogurt Your Own Yogurt!”
“Something must be wrong with the ink saturation,” Mike muttered, throwing the top five pages into the recycling bin. “Oh nevermind. No more red streaks. We’re all good.”
“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.
“Professor Icicle, sir! Professor Icicle! Excuse me, have you seen Professor Icicle?” A high-pitched, anxious voice asked a few cubicle rows over.
Professor Icicle hung his head and took a deep, calming breath.
“Who’s that?” Lady Mystery asked.
“My temp,” Professor Icicle said, rolling his eyes.
“What happened to Marcus? Did he find another job?”
“In a manner of speaking. He died during last month’s attack on the lobby.”
The lobby was still under renovation after Doctor Fuzzle and his slime minions attacked the Starbuck’s stand, attempting to negatively impact productivity at Heroes Incorporated!
Several line graphs suggest he succeeded.
Flying Girl had been demoted to ‘acting elevator’ for those unable to fly.
“I’m sorry to hear about Marcus,” Lady Mystery replied. “He seemed like a good guy. I remember one time—“
“Oh! Professor Icicle! There you are, sir!” Alan, the temp, called from three cubicles away. “Oh goodness! It took me ever so long to find you… The mayor of Reno is on the phone! I can transfer her over to… uh… uh…” He looked at Lady Mystery and obviously did not know her name.
“Lady Mystery, a pleasure to meet you, Alan. Welcome aboard,” Mystery said, standing and shaking Alan’s hand. Professor Icicle caught the smirk she threw in his direction. He always had the worst luck with temps.
“Yes, Lady Mystery, nice to meet you. I can transfer the mayor to Lady Mystery’s line for you, Professor Icicle, sir!” Alan said, beginning to salute, thinking better of it, and instead put his hands behind his back.
“That won’t be necessary, Alan,” Professor Icicle replied, adjusting the lapels of his tweed jacket. “I really should get back to my desk anyways.”
“And I should finish this expense report before you-know-who gets up in arms over it,” Lady Mystery said, nodding towards Mike, the Middle Manager.
“Good luck with that,” Professor Icicle replied, turning and following Alan back through the cubicle farm.
“I asked the Mayor to hold and came to find you immediately. She offered to leave a voicemail, but… well she is a Mayor so I figured she deserves priority service,” Alan said.
“You put the President of Bolivia into voicemail while his home was being attacked by killer robots,” Professor Icicle pointed out.
“Yes, but this is an American mayor,” Alan said, emphasizing all of the wrong words in that statement.
Professor Icicle grimaced. “All of our clients are important, Alan.”
Had he gotten the Bolivian call when it came in, Professor Icicle would currently be enjoying a celebratory glass of champagne with the President and his wife.
Instead, someone with a higher paygrade was franctically working to keep the former Bolivian Vice President from cancelling the contract.
“What does the Mayor of Reno want?” Icicle asked.
“Serious problems with the Winter Festival,” Alan said, lowering his voice, “the snow machine has broken!”
Alan’s hands fluttered in what Professor Icicle concluded was Alan’s attempt to show excitement at what he considered a wonderful opportunity.
“Super,” Professor Icicle replied icily.
Mayor Margaret was his most troublesome client.
Not troublesome like the Mayor of Toulouse who, as the former President of the Planet Frinx, suffered from regular assassination attempts by the Galactic Waste Collection Union.
Nor was she troublesome like Mexico City, which sat atop a 15,000 year old Titan named, Brock, who kept breaking his chains of imprisonment and clawing his way to the surface.
No, Mayor Margaret was the type of trouble that called when an ice machine was broken. Or the city hall’s HVAC system was on the fritz. Or her lemonade was tepid.
“Okay, transfer her over,” Professor Icicle said, standing at his desk.
“Done!” Alan said, rushing over to listen in on the call.
Professor Icicle watched the phone, waiting for the transfer light to blink.
“Alan, she’s not here,” Professor Icicle said.
“She must be,” Alan said, leaning over the cubicle wall and grabbing at Professor Icicle’s phone. “Huh… I’m sure I transferred her. Let’s see…” Alan dug in his pockets and pulled out a slip of paper. “Hit hold. Transfer. Hold. Hashtag. Star. Park. And Hang-up.”
“And you entered my extension?” Professor Icicle asked.
Alan looked confused. “Of course, I did. Right after… No before… I mean…” Alan blushed. “I’ll get her on the phone right away.”
“Thank you, Alan, that would be great,” Professor Icicle said, settling down in his seat.
“Oh! And there were a few messages while you were away from your desk,” Alan said, holding out a ball of crumpled pieces of paper.
“Why didn’t you come and get me sooner?” Professor Icicle asked.
“They were foreigners,” Alan whispered, before hurrying back to his desk to get Mayor Margaret on the phone.
Professor Icicle pulled the crumpled pieces of paper apart and smoothed them out.
‘Vatican under attack by Lord Conductor.’
‘Alien spaceship hovering over Sydney playing Bananarama on repeat.’
‘Canada has disappeared.’
Professor Icicle took a deep and cleansing breath.
“Hey there, Ice. How’s it going today?” Mike, the Middle Manager, asked, popping his head around the cubicle wall.
“Fine, Mike, and you?” Icicle asked.
“Not so great if I’m honest. I’ve been getting a lot of 411s from your clients and, golly, if they aren’t angry. Why don’t you swing by my cube when you have a chance so we can pow-wow the sitch, alrighty?” Mike said, giving Professor Icicle a thumbs up.
“Fine,” the Professor said. “Just fine.”
“Okay, she should be there now!” Alan said, running up to the cube and bumping into Mike as he turned to walked away.
Professor Icicle glanced over at his phone and waited for the light to blink.