Standard notice; this is an Alpha Test, so it’s at the shitting the bed stage of infancy and will get over that soon… hopefully.
All men have similar conversations. They are part of what makes a man a man. It’s practically in the DNA. The conversation itself varies, of course, but the substance of it always remains the same. Here and now, the conversation started like this.
“Cheese and onion.”
This was followed by some good natured grumbling and the insistence that the speaker keep him mouth closed after lunch. The conversation was punctuated with such statements as:
“Three days in a row, I think she’s trying to tell you something.”
“No kisses for Cliff!”
This is part of male DNA, and perfectly normal.
“Carful, mate, there’s a hydra over there.”
This is less normal, but no less male.
The three men sat on an old barrel with a small fire burning nearby, unwrapping their lunches. Cliff, as is the way of things, was made to sit slightly further away from the other two.
“Is it a lot of onion?” asked Terry, the wizard.
“Smells like a whole one from over here,” said the small man on his left, who was called Brian. Brian was the professional thief of the team, although after he passed his City of Guilds test, he had taken to calling himself a Lockmaster, probably because he didn’t know what it meant.
“It’s alright,” Cliff said around a mouthful. “There’s plenty of cheese to go with it.”
“Is it good cheese?”
“Yeah. She got the foreign stuff.”
The conversation took a brief pause to contemplate the nature of good cheese.
“What have you got?”
Terry’s blush wasn’t hidden by the fire lit gloom.
“It’s a salad.”
“She got you eating healthier has she?”
“Yeah. We’re going to this group every week as well. It’s not bad.” The way he said it made Cliff and Brian both sure that it was indeed bad.
“I’ve got a pasty,” said Brian. “Home cooked.”
“You wait,” Terry said, forking a small bush into his mouth, “it’s all greasy treats at the moment, but when you’re popping out of your armour she’ll have you on water and boiled eggs for tea and a slice of lettuce for breakfast.”
“Oh, we get enough exercise, if you know what I mean.”
Both Terry and Cliff knew what he meant.
“Still got you decorating the spare room?”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t mind, but she wants it done in pastels. I said I wanted red and she came at me with this colour chart wanting to know what kind of red.”
The older men nodded. They had learned long ago that a wife with a colour chart or book of carpet samples was not something to be trifled with.
The men went back to their lunch. Cliff and Terry privately wondered when was the last time their wives had packed them a greasy treat for lunch and realised, sadly, that they couldn’t remember.
“How’s Claire?” Cliff asked.
“Not bad, although her Adminotaur is breathing down her neck.”
“No one likes those bods in HR.”
“Time to go back to work, chaps,” Terry said, dusting off his hands.
The men picked up their gear and set off.
“You ever thought about retiring,” Cliff asked Terry.
The two men stood a little way back from Brian as he did something complicated to the heavy wooden door that blocked their path. Not only was this good practice, as doors tended to exploded or turn into pit traps more often than you expected, but because it was also on the health and safety scroll.
“’Course, who doesn’t?”
“I mean, like, early retirement. This isn’t a business for old men is it?”
“Ooh, pot, meet kettle.”
“Yeah, well, it different for me. You can go off and take up teaching in some university. They’re always after wizards with practical experience.”
Terry chewed a strip of jerky thoughtfully. The door made a loud clonking sound and the two men tensed to run. When there was neither an explosion, a crash or the sound of Brian falling to his death, they relaxed.
“Trouble with universities is,” Terry said around a mouthful, “is that they don’t want to be practical wizarding to be taught.”
“Matha made me look into it about a year ago. Chuck had just retired and I was looking to move up.”
“It was that bloody Winston from clerical that got it wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. Well, I was all miffed and the like, so, I thought that maybe I should get out of this game. I am a bit long in the tooth and these days there are liches out there that are younger than me. So I went along to my old university and asked around to see what sort of jobs they might have going.”
Terry tugged on his beard and combed a few crumbs from it.
“I don’t recognise half the courses they’re offering. They’re studying stuff like The Feminisation of the Staff and Cultural Importance of the Familiar. The only thing I’ve ever used a familiar for is laying my breakfast.”
“We do miss Hortense.”
“Lived to the ripe old age of seven. That’s not a bad innings for a chicken.” Cliff didn’t feel he should mention that Hortense the chicken had ended up inside something that seemed to be part hyena, man and primal fury.
“Bloody good eggs they were as well.”
They waited in silence, listening to Brian swear at the door.
“What about moving up in the company? Occulting have an opening don’t they?”
“Yeah, but that’s just a load of scroll pushing. I’m a hands on sorta guy.”
“The recruitment team could use you?”
“Maybe. But look what happened to Owen when he told that kid to belt up and pull himself together. They called it a racial slur.”
“Well, he was a zombie.”
“Man should be able to keep all his bits to himself, if you ask me. I never went and lost a limb and then complained about it.”
The two men nodded. Regeneration used to come as standard on all employee health benefits.
The door made a very final clunking sound and Brian called, “we’re in.”
The trouble with dungeoneering, Cliff thought, the problem no one told you about, was that you were basically an annoying salesman. You knocked on peoples doors and asked them if they wanted your wares, except all you were selling was pain and the premium was really high.
“Look, if you don’t like it you can fill out the scroll and send it to the firm,” he told the disgruntled Bugbear.
The monster growled at him, folding its arms and glaring down its pug nose at him.
“I’m just doing my job, you know.”
“What do you mean, speak to my supervisor?!”
Cliff didn’t really want to kill the bugbear, or the rest of its clan, but he did. He was very good at it. They all were. You had to be to stop twelve fully grown adult Bugbears from kicking you into mush.
“Couldn’t you have put them to sleep?” He asked Terry as he pulled his sword from the last one.
“Sorry, I forgot that one. Best I can do for you there would be a Tramadol apiece, but they’re a bugger to swallow.”
“Part of the job, mate,” Brian reminded him.
“So is signing the bloody A13b scroll and no one likes doing that.”
“Think of it like this,” Brian said, “they was impeding you in the persecution of your duty.”
“Nah, pretty sure its persecution.”
Cliff wiped his sword clean with a rag. He noticed that Brian cleaned his own blade on the clothing of a Bugbear cub. Something inside him wobbled when he saw that.
He’d joined Clubfoot & Sons back when it was still calling itself a prospecting company. The job was easy back then; you guarded the prospectors. He’d always been a dab hand with a sword and crossbow so it had been a good living for a young man. Half the time you just had to wave your weapons at a bunch of goblins and they would bugger off.
But when some bright spark had decided that mining the gold was for sissys. Next thing you knew the company was paying you to kick open the old tombs in the hills and drag the gold out of them instead.
And that had been … ok. Most of the tombs had just been sorta sad and smelly. The ones that were filled with undead had been fun; the skeletons and zombies fell down pretty quick and you didn’t have to worry about getting your clothes all covered in blood.
But now… well, this dungeon was someone’s home. The old castle above had been ruined for a hundred years or so after a wizard had done something wrong in a rather spectacular fashion but the tunnels beneath were still in good condition. In addition to the bugbears they had killed a small hydra, a couple of goblins and a very old manticore.
Except on the After Action Report scroll they would have to circle the box that said ‘mortality rate’ when they were listing them.
At times it was hard to really understand the difference between ‘mortality rate’ and ‘murder’.
It turned out that this was a class three dungeon. Class threes were quite rare these days, mostly because portals to hell weren’t the investment they had been.
“Big,” Brian said.
“How do we deal with this then?”
“Not a clue. This is normally clerical’s job.”
“Can we call them?”
“My orb ran out of signal a while ago.”
The stone arch before them flickered with light, casting purple shadows across their faces.
“Not doing much is it?”
“What did you expect; it’s on standby.”
“Won’t, you know, daemons come out of it?”
“Well, yes, but… well… not yet. Obviously. Not yet.”
“What happens when they do?”
The men stood in silence for a moment. It could have been their last.
The purple light started to get brighter.
“That’s probably not a good thing, is it?”
“You’re a wizard! Aren’t you supposed to know these things?”
“Look, I don’t criticise you for your swordwork do I?”
“What are you saying about my bloody swordwork?”
The stone arch made a noise that sounded very much like a multi-chariot pile up and started to vibrate. The purple light grew brighter.
“You’re a wizard! Knowing things is part of your job description.”
“Lads, this might not be the time-”
“And not falling asleep on watch is part of yours!”
“Oh, you would bring that up-”
Pebbles skittered across the floor and the purple light started to swirl like ink in water.
Something was pulling itself through the stone arch. On one side of the arch it was and on the other side it wasn’t. They could see it, very clearly, not being there. And yet it was emerging.
A creature that looked like it was a geometry teacher’s idea of a bad joke stepped through archway. It turned to look at the men, blinking in the strange purple light. It opened its mouth, revealing a tongue like a hairbrush, and said;
“Are you from Technicult Support?”
Silence dominated the cavern.
“Umm… yes?” Cliff managed.
“The ride through was bloody terrible. I just had this thing serviced a century ago. I have a good mind to speak to your supervisor.”
“That’s… perfectly fine, sir, we looked on our system and we saw that you had a malfunctioning portal, so we came right away.”
“Good. I have a lot of friends coming around next week so I want this thing fully operational.”
“I’ve been planning this invasion of the mortal plane for years you know.”
“Absolutely sir. The mortal plane needs that sort of thing once in a while.”
“So, are you going to fix it then?”
Terry cleared his throat.
“We need to make a full inspection, first.”
“How long will that take?”
“Oh, it could be a day or so.”
“It’s not going to cost much is it? I still have my warranty.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem, sir. Leave it with us and we’ll find out what’s wrong.”
“Good.” The Elder Thing from Beyond The Stars turned and pushed itself back through the stone arch. It disappeared from this reality, emerging back into whatever LSD infused dimension that had spawned it.
Brian managed to turn around before he spewed his fancy home cooked pasty all over the floor. Terry patted the younger man with a distracted affection.
“Well, that was… different. What you doing, Cliff?”
I have all these fancy swords, Cliff thought, as he scrambled up the stone steps that lead to the arch. Rapiers, falchions, spathas, B-swords (Cliff’s wife Anna wouldn’t let him say Bastard Sword in front of the kids) and they were all designed to either cut or stab of just to beat things to death. But right now, all the swords in the world wouldn’t help him. What he needed, what he really needed, was a hammer.
The arch’s pillars were half a metre thick and looked to be solid stone.
“We don’t have very long before he comes back, I recon. Let’s bring this thing down and get the hell out of here.”