Episode One, Part One
Vacation Shopping Turned Vile
by Jared Ornstead
Disclaimer: I can't make up any excuses. There are no excuses. So go ahead, HAVE fun, see if *I* care! (blubbering) It's not as if this isn't written for you to enjoy yourself!
Humming merrily to himself, Jared Ornstead stepped into what he *thought* was his favorite shop in the mall and came into what was obviously the wrong place. He turned around to leave the small, cluttered space for something more hospitable when a voice came in clipped, British accent from behind the counter.
"Can I help you, sir?"
Jared shook his redhaired head. "Thank you, but no. I've only another thirty minutes and desire to spend it in the company of delicious books, beautiful videos, and the occasional RPG tome. Ta-tah!"
He reached for the door handle out with the hand not currently holding his backpack.
"I'm afraid you won't be able to leave, sir. The doors are magically locked. Much like valet parking, sir. Once entered, you must make a purchase to get out."
The redhead looked back over his shoulder at the shopkeeper. "Is it worth it?"
"Could be, sir. We carry most everything you like."
The young redhead caught the name of the store on a plaque. "Spells R Us? I've heard of this place. Nothing good. You might say I've been warned that the owner is a mage who takes his fancy inflicting mayhem."
"Very possibly. I, however, am merely an apprentice of his. He's on vacation. We *did* have a demon in here working the desk, but apparently he gave in to some inexplicable impulse and failed to be sufficiently nasty. I *would* be willing to at least give you a sporting chance, sir. We do have rules of our own to live by."
"The old English sense of fair play?"
"I've heard that most everything in here is transformative. Could you at least confirm that?"
"Certainly sir, you are correct. Most of the items *do* serve that purpose. None of them take effect until after they are put to use. We have the occasional shoplifter, but you may rest assured that all items do get paid for." The man said with a nasty smirk. "Promptly."
"Well, let us begin at the beginning." Jared rubbed his hands together, stepping toward the counter. The shop was divided into approximate equal halves, with candy and racks of costumes on his side, while boxes of various paraphernalia stood in racks behind the counter. He'd designed a shop or two like this himself, all the interesting (and *every* potentially useful) bit would be behind the counter where the customer couldn't easily get at it.
The shopkeeper tensed. "Very good, sir. What would you like?"
"What about a Big Hunk bar?"
"Never have those till the end of the week."
"As expected. Well, that does in my limited desire for sweets. How are you for books?"
"We have quite a broad selection."
"Am I right in thinking that while the title is important the actual storyline has some bearing?"
The man behind the counter winced. "In the case of a magazine, no. But in the case of something with a definite plot, yes, the title is not the only consideration. Most people aren't supposed to know that."
Jared smelled triumph. "Do you have The High Tech Knight, by Leo Frankowski?"
"Is this about cybernetics, sir?"
"No, as a matter of fact it's about a man with vast engineering expertise getting a brief hop back in time; gaining noble title, women, wealth, and becoming the defacto ruler of medieval Europe with very little opposition. Very much like a happy version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."
The shopkeeper sweated slightly, then turned and gave a brief and totally inadequate check on the bookshelves. "No, we don't seem to keep it in stock."
"The Radiant Warrior in the same series?"
"Get it fresh on Monday."
"I am inclined to wait."
"Ooops. Gads. I was mistaken. We don't carry books here, sorry."
"Not, Dragon's Companion, by Don Callander?"
"Not, Pyromancer, by the same author, or The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs?"
"I'm afraid not." The counterperson replied flatly.
The redhead's eyes twinkled merrily. "Ah. Never you mind. What about High Crusade, by Poul Anderson?"
The shopkeeper felt a brief moment of curiosity. "And what would that be, sir?"
"Ah, well you see, it's very much the reverse of that wonderful book I mentioned earlier. You see in this case a starship full of aliens lands back in medieval England, vastly underestimates the ferocity of the native inhabitants, ends up with a cavalry charge up the main ramp into the body of their starship, which leads to an accident where the entire town and their abbey are transported into space where they have no choice but to successfully decimate the alien empire and conquer it for the greater glory of God and Great Britain, suffering almost no casualties in so doing."
"Ah." The Englishman fought hard against the odd appeal of that thought. "No. As I said, we don't carry any books here."
"Really? I think I see some right there over your shoulder."
"Purely window dressing, sir. They're not for sale."
Jared fingered the straps on his backpack and eyed the door as if considering. "Then what *is* for sale here?"
"Just about everything else, sir."
"We've got videos, sir."
"Specifically forbidden to stock that item, sir."
"How about 'The Best of 007'?"
"Rerecorded over it last night with a copy of Barney. I'd be willing to give it to you at a discount."
"You are joking? Thank you, but no. Ah! Another excellent title. What about The Wizard of Speed and Time?"
"Against union rules to carry that sort of thing, sir."
"Truly? A delightful movie."
"I'll take your word for that, sir. How about a copy of The Sorcerer's Apprentice instead?"
"I'm allergic to being small, with round ears, and named Mickey." The customer retorted dryly.
"I take it you've seen the movie then, sir."
"Quite." Jared deadpanned. "Oh well. I suppose there's nothing for it but to begin scraping the bottom of the barrel. Do you have a copy of Superman, by any chance?"
The shopkeeper's eyes bugged. He stuttered a minute before recovering himself and coughing into his hand. "Uh, no."
"Not worth just looking?"
"Well, I don't suppose you carry Dragonslayer, IQ, The Immortals, Merlin, Dragon Half, or The Mystic Masters of China, by any chance?"
Looking slightly pale the shopkeeper reached one hand under the counter and rattled it around uselessly, quickly terminating his pretend search. "Sorry, we seem to be right out of videos."
"I thought you said you had plenty."
"Sorry, brief magnetic pulse wiped them all out. No help for it."
Jared leaned an elbow on the counter. "Look, I'm getting a bit fed up with this. Are you quite sure you've got any merchandise in here at all?"
"Quite. Just look around you, sir. Shop's full of it."
"So I can see."
"No, I mean we've got a staggering variety of merchandise, just take your pick." The shopkeeper waved to the shelves.
Jared glanced significantly at the door. "Are you certain that spell will hold me if I can legitimately not find anything I'd care to buy?"
"Uh..." The apprentice adjusted his collar. "Look, if you'd care to look around..."
"And *should* there be an obligation to buy in spite of that what is to stop me from taking and detonating a small purchase harmlessly? For example taking that rather convenient box of girl scout cookies and feeding them to an actual girl scout? Or are they not for sale as well, for some mysterious and unguessable reason?" He asked quite dryly, drumming his fingers on the counter.
"Would you like a Scandinavian, sir? Fascinating taste."
"Where do you think the name Ornstead comes from? Tibet? But while I could claim that ancestry I'd rather not play with the other likely effects."
The shopkeeper stood there helplessly.
Jared sighed, stepping back from the counter. He eyed the door. He might as well get this over with. "Look, I stated three interests when I came in here and you claimed quite openly that you could fill them. I am willing to speculate that if I state the third one and you claim not to have it the shop's own magic will do something rather a bit nasty to you. Fair guess?"
The apprentice appeared nervous. "Could be, sir."
"How well set up are you for RPG supplies?"
"We carry practically everything, sir."
"So you said before."
"In this case it's true, sir."
"Ahhh... No. Sorry, sir. Just caught us out."
"Oh, never mind. How are you for Marvel Superheroes?"
"Would you take Villains Unlimited instead?"
"No. But you never said if you had my request."
"No, it seems to have scampered away off the shelf while we were talking. Take me weeks to find it."
"Weeks I have."
"Oh dear. The cat's eaten it."
"I won't ask you what kind of cat you have to eat a softbound rulebook."
"Wise of you, sir."
"Is the Ultimate Powers rule supplement for that game out of the question?"
The shopkeeper spent a few moments choking. Looking quite pale the man shook his head that it to was not available.
"Deities and Demigods?"
The shopkeeper spent minutes hacking but indicated that that also was unavailable.
"Never mind then, how about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?"
The by now pasty face of the apprentice broke in the wide grin of a soul redeemed.
Jared snapped his fingers as if remembering something. "Ooops, too bad, already have too many copies."
The man fell down behind his counter.
"Ninjas and Superspies?" Jared leaned over to ask.
A sign emerged, held weakly in a trembling hand. [Haven't got it in stock.]
Jared nodded. "Ah. I see you have Genma's panda signs. Well, what about Interstellar Pig?"
The man rose from his crumpled position to look at him askance.
Jared smiled. "Ah. I see. I was only kidding, of course. This is not the sort of place to buy gag gifts for Ryoga. Well then, a blank sheet of paper if you please."
With a suspicious sidelong glance the shopkeeper procured from the rack a small pack of lined paper and slid it across the counter.
With a confident smirk Jared paid for the purchase and tore open the package, producing a pencil and a clipboard from his backpack he took some notes and began to transcribe.
"What are you doing?" The clerk regained enough curiosity to ask.
"Well, I figured that this stuff was going to change me according to whatever I wrote on it. Something to tempt me to inscribe a horror story, no doubt, or change me into a basket of fresh oranges if I made out a grocery list, something like that. So I am going to fill it in before I get that urge."
The clerk shrugged. The purchase had been made. He was no longer involved in it, but he was curious as to the outcome. He leaned forward. "So what are you doing?"
Jared shrugged, not looking up from his work. "Just a mundane and ordinary task. My favorite First Edition D&D character was getting a little worn so I am transferring him to this new sheet of paper."
"You what?" The shopkeeper choked out.
Jared smiled. "Oh, I'm making a few changes, of course. Trivial stuff, really. Instead of saying 'name of player' and 'name of character' I'm adopting an older convention and listing my name under 'name' and his under 'alias', which should, if I'm thinking right, merge us seamlessly instead of having a two-brains-in-one-head sortuv backseat driver arrangement. After all, you *did* say you'd give me a sporting chance."
The clerk nodded. "Fair enough, sir. What kind of character is he?"
Jared smiled more broadly, continuing to write swiftly and carefully. "Now that is the amazing thing. I started this guy as a whim, something to annoy the other players. They tend to rely on me to play spellcasters and so I started a guy with no spells of any kind. Just to be perverse I grabbed two classes from Oriental Adventures, a monk and a Kensai, and made him double-classed."
This didn't convey much meaning to the shopkeeper.
Jared glanced from under his eyebrows. "I was unprepared for how successful a combination it was. I had the only first level character in the party who could, and did, kill ogres at a blow, and more often by skill than by accident. Later on he grew to be able to do more impressive things. Somewhere after eleventh level he became the only character I've ever known to kill two thousand ghouls in a single round in hand to hand combat without using magic. It's all perfectly legal, too. I could show you the rules and walk you through how he did it."
The apprentice began to feel a certain unease about this.
Jared finished the first page and went on to another, placing the first securely in his pack, carefully titling each as he went.
"The *truly* amusing thing," Jared went on, "is that I never set out to make him powerful. I mean, I've done that, where I've tweaked the rules and played up every advantage I could to get a guy formidable. I'm told I am somewhat good at it. But this guy just seemed to have the most amazing luck. I wasn't *trying* to make him tough, I was looking to play something amusing. But every time we came across something, like a random magic book or a well of strange powers, he would benefit powerfully instead of getting turned into a toad or whatnot. He just seemed to lead a charmed life. Like when he was maxed out in level, couldn't go any higher as a monk, we ran across this magic well and everybody tossed a coin in. Most threw gold, I tossed in a copper. While others got burps from the well or a bag of coins spat out at them I got maximum hit points for my level and abilities, which, as I said, was maxed."
"For how long?"
Jared looked up again. "As a one-time permanent effect. I might just as easily have been turned into a drow, but it didn't happen. What *did* happen later that game was the character getting killed in a siege when the enemy summoned one elemental more than we could handle. I died heroically taking down an absolutely enormous fire elemental."
The apprentice paled. "You are deliberately transforming yourself into a *dead* person, sir?"
The redhead shook his head. "Nope. Back around fifth level we'd done quite a favor for a local king and he'd rewarded us by letting us each pick a magic item. I'd taken one that turned out to be an upgraded ring of the pheonix. It made one resistant to fire, and if one ever *died* of fiery causes it instantly raised you with many pheonix like attributes. Among them a total immunity to fire and the ability to throw an infrequent fireball through an act of will."
The shopkeeper began to look a trifle unsteady. He noticed that Jared's hair now looked rather a bit like flame, even so far as dancing slightly as the youth moved.
Jared was having fun relaying this. "This guy *always* has his bad luck turn good for him! And I don't know why. Like for example, his fiery demise and rebirth set his alignment permanently to neutral good. He had to be lawful to be both his classes and so he lost the ability to progress in them in an instant, but retained his class powers because it says so and I blew a few wishes controlling the damage. He just couldn't progress any more and had to pick something else to adventure as. So, after a retraining trip home he came back as a first level spellcaster, not able to use any of his old class powers until he'd surpassed his previous level. And he'd been a grandmaster before, so how likely was that to happen? It was *possible*. A monk's highest level is 17 and mages only begin to get their highest powers at 18, or an archmage. But I didn't feel it of immediate concern. So I refused to worry about it and just went along having fun with this low-level, know-nothing who had an insane number of hit points and a slew of interesting innate powers from his rebirth and whatnot. Again, I was just having fun... that is until the day he *did* hit archmage status and, lo and behold! According to the rules all his previous class powers he can now use at the same time with no penalty!"
The clerk gulped very heavily, fumbled around in his drawer for a bit and held out some coins, suddenly all smiles and friendliness. "Oops! Almost forgot something, sir. Your change." When the redhead failed to take it he proffered the coins again. "Here, sir. You paid over the amount."
His response was a lifted eyebrow. "No, thank you. I gave you the exact coinage necessary for this purchase."
"No really sir." The clerk offered the coins again. "There was a special today, half off that item. Here's your change."
"If it was half off, then why are you are offering me three times the price I paid?"
"Ah!" The counterperson gave an exaggerated smile. "That was just to test you, sir. Really it was our 'Special Price, Observant Customer, Three Times Rebate on Your Sale' offer for customers who are smarter than we are. Only it pays out like a slot machine, in coins. So, here you go, take your change."
He was looked at. "Accept unspecified change from a shop known for specializing in transformative puns? I think not."
"I really must insist sir, here." When that failed to earn any sort of reaction the clerk snatched a candy from the rack. "Why don't you accept this instead, sir? I really can't put the coins back in the register unless there's been a purchase made."
A glance at the label revealed it to be a Whatchamacallit bar.
"No, thank you."
"Really, sir. I can't let you out of the shop until the accounts are clear."
"Then consider those coins you hold in your hand my gift to you, if I have any right to them."
"Urk!" The clerk's face clearly became ill.
Jared had been writing all this time and completed the last sheet from the small stack of paper. He waved the pencil under the clerk's nose and that person noticed the writing implement had become a dancing lick of purple flame, a literal pheonix quill with a jeweled nub.
"No, really. I am satisfied. This guy is the most powerful warrior I'd ever played. When that topped out he, by accident, had to go back and start again, becoming an even *more* powerful mage. I have a gift for creating powerful characters, and this guy tops out every one I've ever had. What's funny is that I'd never *intended* any of that. His luck is something I just can't explain. The DM I created him under *likes* killing off characters, especially the challenging ones. That this guy survived at all was a miracle, that he *thrived* puts him somewhere near the realm of Mihoshi's reality tweaking good fortune."
The young man stood and gathered in the last of his supplies. "It was that luck that made me feel I could pull this particular trick off. While as a mage and a warrior he is powerful, it is my luck as him that should scare you if you intend to come after me."
Jared, now robed in silk and cotton, picked up his backpack and disappeared.
No small amount of accomplishment was needed to simply disappear through the wards against teleporting on *this* shop.
The clerk concluded that the owner was going to kill him. No, worse, he was going to make him SHOP here and under his very own watchful eye. The demon they'd hired as temporary counter help had not managed to screw up half so badly.
He looked down at his arms to note the hand holding the Whatchamacallit bar had started to grow purple fur, and that enough coins were now missing from the handful in his left to pay for the bar...
...without using up all the change.
The Wiz turned to the demon, blinked, and made a remark about never hiring apprentices from Monty Python again.