The Accountability of We

“Mommy! Watch!”

Zoe lifted her sunglasses so Barnaby could see she was watching and said, “Go ahead, baby!”

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A stock photo of a beach resort.

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.

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Image of Flying Girl from her short lived clipart comic.

“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.

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Buffalo Before

“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.

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Photo of a space yeti attacking the mayor of Buffalo and a woodsman

“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.

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The conference phone used to call Mary Preston, former Assistant City Manager of Buffalo

“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.

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The Warlord Warrior, while good at his job, had many cultural sensitivity trainings with HR

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.

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A sample expense report

“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?”

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The Corpulent Corporal’s algae monster attacking a now forgotten city

“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.”

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Shrink Girl Makes Her Mark

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.

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Heroes Incorporated’s cubicle farm. Superheroes are just like you!

“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.

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Three days later, signs similar to these went up on every cubicle wall at Heroes Inc.

“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.

But Rose…

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.”

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Heroes Inc. is located in a corporate park. Jimmy Subs is the only lunch place within walking distance and receives a lot of business from non-flying heroes.

“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.”

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Mike, the Middle Manager, ended up retrieving the red streaked pages, saying, “It will serve as a subtle reminder to anyone thinking of stealing yogurt.”

The End of Flamebro!

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.

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Fiorna Plott of the Normanshire District claims her cat, Buckles, is the reincarnation of Agnes. You can see the similarities in the eyes.

“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—“

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How Agnes confused Bree for a little girl is uncertain. Especially since Bree may still be out there and we definitely want her to know we don’t think she looks like a little girl at all!

“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.

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Agnes’s Knight in Shining Armor

“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!

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The 47th Edition of The Warrior’s Guide to the Realm. Haverford was dead by the time this edition was published. It contained a nice obituary outlining his aviary accomplishments.

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.”

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Haverford’s parakeets (left to right): Blinky, Pinky, Inky, Clyde, Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

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.

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Plupart’s sword, Myrtle, currently housed in the Heroes’ Museum and Interactive Experience

“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?”

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According to legend these tusks once belonged to Flamebro the Wicked

“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!”

Motheral
A play bill from the Deserted Desert tour of “Whose Mule Is This?” Note the odd Desertian translation of the play’s title.

“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?”

Thomas shrugged.

“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.”

PICASSO H146
Woman wearing one of Thomas’s hats. We have confirmed she looked like this before donning his handmade chapeau.

“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.

warrior
An artist’s rendition of Flamebro’s excitement to join Plupart’s Party as a balladeer

“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.

6208b_023
Searched “Man on Spit Roast,” was not disappointed.