Being a wanderin’ mercenary is hard work. Do a job, get paid, repeat until there aren’t any more jobs, and then move on to the next town. Pickin’ up a bunch a stories is the real reward for me, though. If you have some time to kill, I’ll gladly tell you some stories in exchange for a tankard of ale for a weary soul. Weary soul being me, that is.
I’m a man who prefers to drink–oh. That stuff? I wouldn’t drink that if it was–No, no, that’s okay. Beggars can’t be choosers. But just so you know, there’s probably a reason that drink was half-price.
But you paid for my drink, so a story you shall have.
There were about a dozen other people I traveled with over the course of my adventures. We had some dashing rogues in our number, two wizards, two healers, an archer, and a bunch of dudes who smacked things with weapons of varying degrees of sharpness. Each of them were roughly as skilled as myself, though I was clearly the most talented. My specialty is shortswords and cudgels, in case you were wondering.
At the time this story starts, our group was in the Kingdom of Orramm before it lost control of the lands west of the river. Wars were good to Orramm before that, though. Got four lesser kingdoms in the past century that way. Orramm turned its spoils into dukedoms, and the increased trade between the regions shifted the language into a pidgin.
You know what a pidgin is, kid? That’s when you have a simplified language made up of bits of a buncha different languages. The name “Orramm” came to mean “land of many men” in at least some of those languages. And Orramm was almost entirely regular humans like you and me. Skin color and language may change, but humans were in charge there, which I attribute to my work as a soldier of fortune.
So anyway, I’m relaxing at a tavern after yet-another successful adventure solved with violence when a curious red envelope materialized in front of me. There was no sender information, and the outside only said “Hail, Adventurer!” I opened it up and gave it a read, because nobody remembers the folks who do nothing.
The letter was from some wizard I’d never heard of before, and if I hadn’t heard of them, I was sure no one else in our group had. Got a mind like a steel trap when it comes to names and rumors. That’s because I have more brains than most people, and that lump on my head right here, that’s caused by my brain bein’ too big for my head and needing more room. Where was I going with this? Oh, right, the letter!
It congratulated our party of adventures on our successful exploits and nigh-unkillable constitutions. Word of our great deeds had traveled to distant lands, and we were being asked to travel to the abovementioned distant land to take part in something that only adventurers of legendary ability could take part in. It was a meeting to be held in several weeks’ time known only as “The Foundation of the Ninth-Level.” It was to be held in a small town in the kingdom of Aniesh, beyond a ridge of snowy mountains that marked the eastern border of Orramm. A small map that indicated roughly where we were supposed to go was also included in the letter, but that was just a courtesy for people who don’t have an innate sense of direction when traveling.
You’ve heard about Aniesh, right? That’s the kingdom inhabited by Fae folk. There were many races that lived beyond the mountains, but I’m humble enough to not pretend to have seen them all. Definitely seen my share, though. Goblins, elves, trolls, fairies, and more lived here, and the people of Aniesh didn’t generally welcome humans into their kingdom. Orramm didn’t have much to do with Aniesh either, ‘cause of the natural defenses the mountain range provided their borders. The entire kingdom of Aniesh was shadowy and mysterious to the common man, and that was just the way Aniesh liked it. We knew that it existed to the east, and that there were some peoples that didn’t look like us and possessed much stronger magic, but at the time, that was all we knew.
I pass the letter around for everyone to read, and we all agree that we should have ourselves a little adventure through the mountains to find this place and take part in a history-making event. We’re slowly traversing mountain passes, the craggy terrain giving way to tundra. Eventually everything is covered in snow up to our knees, but we keep going east.
We keep on trekking until we hear shouting in the distance. A creature we believe to be a troll is walking toward us along with a small contingent of folks who look suspiciously like us “normal” people. The troll is as tall as three of us standing on top of each other in armor, and that massive creature is obviously in charge. The smaller people in the troll’s group are waving and shouting in an attempt to get our attention. We wave back, signaling we mean them no harm.
One of our number gets a bad feeling about this situation. She is reminded of a story she heard as a child, where a troll king kidnaps any person who walks into his domain. Each person the troll king captures, he forces to swear loyalty to him. These people must wander the lands as the troll king’s personal army and convince other people to get close enough for the troll king to work his fell magic and induct them into his fold. The penalty for disloyalty is death, either being ripped apart by the troll king himself, or being magically exploded. The troll king in the story was very fond of hands-on discipline, if you know what I mean.
This was not news we wanted to hear, but we were far enough away that we could attempt evasive maneuvers. As soon as we started edging away, the group began to approach us faster, eventually breaking into a full run toward us. Our party member’s story probably had some truth to it, so we kept running until it was clear that a fight was inevitable.
I’m gonna level with you here: if you’d bought me a better drink, I’d tell you in great detail how this fight went down. But half-price drinks beget half-price stories, so you get the abridged version. Lots of sword-slinging and magic whiz through the air. Some of the enemy combatants are slain. Some of our own are injured, but keep fighting. There is a spectacularly dramatic moment where the troll king is tripped and gets a sword through his nose. We bandage our wounds, and march away victorious toward our meeting with destiny.
We arrive at a sprawling manor on the outskirts of a small village. It definitely seems like this is the spot we’re supposed to be, because there are clumps of mercenaries and other adventuring parties converging on this house from all directions. The time of the meeting is upon us!
We march into the main building just as a bell starts ringing outside. The inside looks sort of like a chapel, with dozens of long benches facing a podium with a lectern on top of it. A guy in bright red wizard robes takes to the stage and addresses the audience.
He thanks us for our time and all the adventuring we had to do to get here. He congratulates us on achieving ninth-level status, and talks his big fancy words that tell me he is little more than a meat-covered sack of hot air. Then he gets to the part where he explains why he summoned everyone here. We’re hanging on every word now, because this is the part in the Adventurer’s Code that usually indicates a person has a problem they intend to solve by paying us money.
The wizard–whose long and pompous name I can’t remember, and I am convinced he intentionally erased it from my memory–considers himself to be of even greater ability than the people in this room. That’s why he was a member of the Circle of the Tenth Level which is just a fancy name for having a classist hierarchy based on subjective merit. Yeah, knowin’ big words is just another of my many talents.
So this wizard is bloviating—do you know what that word means? You do? So, he’s bloviating about how amazing he is, and how he wants us to change the world. The part about changing the world makes me want to hear what he has to say, but all his self-congratulatory bluster makes me want to sleep. He’s the kind of person who public speaking lessons are for.
As much as I want to tell you all of the wizard’s ramblings, I will spare you such pain and cut to the part he talks about what it takes to be a Ninth-Level member. You pay dues to this wizard, and he provides you with some wizard protection. Fancy wizard protection, the kind that the wizards in our group haven’t mastered yet. We’re supposed to go back to our homelands and start up an Eighth-Level Foundation and seek out promising adventurers and help them become as good as us. Of course, we get to charge dues to the people we train and provide protection for. The Eighth-Level people could in turn start a Seventh-Level group and collect their own dues, and so on and so on.
This is when I realized an important life lesson:
I JUST ADVENTURED FOR SEVERAL WEEKS THROUGH A HOSTILE KINGDOM JUST SO I COULD SIT THROUGH A PITCH FOR A PYRAMID SCHEME.
That’s the real lesson, kid. Not even the exotic lands we romanticize are safe from financial tomfoolery. But, hey, I’m more than willing to take you under my wing, so to speak, and teach you how to recognize these financial scams. You’re a bright kid, though, so I’ll cut you a deal. I’ll teach you the ropes for half of what I normally charge, and if you refer some of your friends to me, I can send a few coins your way.
So what’ll it be?