When Roy awoke, the first thing the fighting-man noticed was that his boots were grey. So was the floor. And his armor. Even his namesake, the hilt of his grandfather's sword, was grey.
The second thing he noticed was that the narration had called him a fighting-man.
"Uh -- guys?"
All around him, his companions began to sit up. They, too, were various shades of grey: Durkon's skin and beard, Vaarsuvius' robe, Haley's hair. The floor, the walls -- everything had gone monochrome.
Belkar groaned, rubbing the stubble on his scalp. "Don't tell me we're in a flashback."
"I don't think we are," Roy said, frowning at the hobbit. Something about him seemed off, and it wasn't just his color.
"Hobbit?" Belkar said in outrage. "I'll have you know that's a mortal insult in my culture. Okay, not really, but I just want the excuse to --" He paused, looking confused. "Or maybe not. Do I want to stab somebody? I can't tell."
Roy, much to his regret, staggered to his feet just in time to receive a hobbit skull to the crotch. "I don't want to kill people!" Belkar wailed, hugging him desperately around the hips. "Or maybe I do! I CAN'T TELL!"
"Calm down, Belkar," Haley said, helping Elan to his feet. The fighting-man shouldered her bow and --
"What?" Haley yelped, staring all around. "Fighting-man? I am no man!"
Roy's vision swam. Then there was a knock at the door, and for one optimistic moment, he hoped it would herald the arrival of some sense. Instead the door opened to reveal Mr. Jones and Mr. Rodriguez -- greyscale, of course, like everything else. The lawyers cleared their throats with their usual pomposity, and Mr. Jones said, "We apologize for interrupting. The Tolkien estate has filed suit, and the court has issued an injunction. You are hereby enjoined to cease using the word ‘hobbit' in reference to your diminutive companion or any others of his race."
"The one without the beard," Mr. Rodrigeuz said, as if there might have been any confusion. "Also, Miss Starshine, I advise you -- strictly in a friendly capacity, you understand; this does not imply any attorney-client privilege, nor any other fiduciary relationship between us -- not to go issuing statements like that any longer. At least not using those precise words. That could potentially have an impact on our current settlement negotiations. Have a nice day!"
Roy might have moved faster if he didn't have to drag a distraught halfling with every step. As it was, the lawyers slammed the door shut behind them before he could reach it, and when he wrenched it open again, all he saw outside was an empty grey hallway.
"Typical," Haley muttered.
Elan patted the thief on the shoulder, then blinked in surprise. "Wait! You're a thief, now!"
"I've always been a thief," Haley said proudly. "But -- wait, I see what you mean. I'm a thief, Belkar's a halfling instead of that other thing, Roy's a . . . fighter, now? Things are starting to go right. But Belkar's also a fighter and a thief for some reason, and you, Elan, you're a --"
"I'm a magic user!" Elan declared, bouncing on his toes with glee. "V, look! I'm just like you, now!"
V was staring at their ash-pale hands, utterly still. "Yes," they said in a tone far too steady to mean anything other than I'm screaming on the inside, where you can't see. "I appear to be a magic-user. Again."
Into the blank silence that followed, Durkon announced, "I know wha's goin' on."
Belkar detached himself from Roy and flung himself on Durkon instead. "Tell me," he begged. "I don't feel evil. Why don't I feel evil?"
"Couldn't be because you've turned over a less bitter leaf," Roy muttered. Then everyone turned to look at him, and he winced. "Okay, I guess muttered asides don't work the same here. Where's the small font when you need it?"
Haley tapped her lip, looking thoughtful. "I think I know what Belkar means, though. I don't feel especially . . . good, y'know?"
Elan nodded; Roy shook his head. "I feel just fine," Roy said.
"So do I," Durkon said. "An' I can tell ye why, if ye'll just pipe down fer a moment."
"Storytime!" Elan exclaimed, and dropped cross-legged at Durkon's feet, looking like an expectant child.
As Roy and Haley settled in behind him and Belkar unclamped from the dwarf, Durkon said, "What do ye remember just b'fore this?"
Their brows all furrowed. V said stiffly, "We believed that we had brought Xykon to bay in this castle, and that our preparations were adequate for destroying that undead abomination at last."
"But something went wrong," Roy said, trying to bat aside the fog of confusion. "He had some kind of magic item -- he turned a knob on it --"
"I've nev'r heard of this spell, mind ye," Durkon said. "But I recognize tha effects from tha stories me grandpappy used ta tell, tha ‘is grandpappy use ta tell ‘im. Back in me great-great-grandpappy's day, dwarves dinnae ‘ave na truck wit this notion o' ‘classes;' they were dwarves, and tha were good enough fer them. And elves, ‘e said, were the same. Oh, they had still ‘ad magic an' all --"
"Yes." V's voice hadn't relaxed. "I felt arcane power still at my disposal. But I could no longer lay claim to even to the debased title of ‘magic-user,' let alone ‘wizard,' because I was not qualified."
Like a volcano erupting, the tension gave way to a sudden explosion of distress. V shot to their feet. "Do you comprehend the magnitude of this horror? A core piece of my identity was taken from me! Some portion of the immeasurable knowledge I once possessed has vanished from my mind! I am merely a common magic-user, as if the forces of the universe were no different from a lantern or a belt or a -- a -- a sword!"
"I'll let that pass," Roy said mildly. "So, Durkon -- have we traveled in time? Back to your great-great-grandpappy -- er, grandfather's day?"
"If we have, the lawyers went with us," Haley said.
"Or they're immortal!" Elan suggested.
"No, because they remembered us," Roy said. "So we're not dealing with them at an earlier point in their timelines."
"Nay, lad," Durkon said. "I think wha Xykon cast was -- lemme see if I can say it under these rules -- reduce edition."
Silence fell again. Roy remembered the alternate versions of themselves they'd fought, who claimed to be from some alternate dimension. A "Fourth Dimension" -- only Other Roy had initially called it the Fourth Edition. And he'd claimed the normal version of the Order of the Stick hailed from one of many Third and a Half Dimensions . . . or Editions.
Even someone as stupid as a stereotypical fighter would have been able to do that math. "If there was a Third and a Half Edition," Roy said, "then presumably there were Editions that came before it."
"I don't know," Elan said, with that gleam in his eye that heralded a gleeful leap into wild speculation. "What if you started a story at, like, Episode Four or something? Then it would make people feel like the story was so much bigger than the part you were telling them. And later on you could go back and tell the earlier bits if you wanted -- but no, that would be boring, because everyone would know how it's going to end." He dismissed the idea with a wave of one hand.
Haley suddenly sat bolt upright. "Wait. What if --"
Only one thing could create that kind of panic in her voice. She breathed a sigh of relief when she peered into her bag of holding and saw it was as full of coins as ever -- but the sigh cut short halfway out of her mouth. "What's this?" she said, pulling out a coin unlike any Roy had ever seen before. In a monochrome world it was difficult to tell shades of metal apart, but one side was helpfully engraved with the word "electrum," and the other said "=2 GP."
Elan's curious murmur of "electrum?" was nearly drowned out by metallic thunder as Haley poured her bag onto the floor. Coins bounced and spun in every direction. Roy, examining them, found the familiar platinum, gold, silver, and copper . . . but according to their reverse sides, one silver was only worth five copper instead of ten, and one platinum was worth five gold pieces. The only thing that was the same was gold being worth ten silver.
He looked up to see Elan holding Haley close and rocking her back and forth as she made little whimpering noises. "It'll be okay," he said in his most soothing voice. "You can count it all and see what it adds up to now. Hey, you never know -- maybe it's worth more than it used to be!"
Roy left him to soothe Haley's greed and picked his way through the coins over to Durkon's side. "So is this why we're all grey? Because it's an earlier Edition?"
"Aye, I think so," Durkon said. "Back in me grandpappy's grandpappy's day, they couldnae afford color. Na inside tha books, at least. An' it were a simpler world, too, in lots o' ways -- only a few classes, ev'n fer tha humans, and nobody was quite good or evil. They understood tha decent people followed tha law, and bad people dinnae, and --"
"Hey!" That was enough to rouse Haley from her shock. "Don't make me poke you with arrows until you admit that isn't true."
"Wait, do you want to stab people?" Belkar asked her, perking up. "Arrow-stabbing? I could get behind that. What does it take to be an archer?"
"Longer arms," Roy said. "Can we stay focused?"
"Unlikely," V muttered, and showed no concern that it showed up in the usual size of font.
"If Xykon cast reduce edition" Roy said, ignoring the elf, "then why the changes? Why am I a fighter and Belkar's a halfling again? Is it wearing off?"
Durkon looked somber. "I dinnae think so, lad. More likely Xykon's fiddlin' wit it a bit. Me grandpappy's grandpappy used ta go on an' on about ‘ow things were better back in tha very beginning, when thar weren't nae thieves . . . or liches."
Roy blinked. Then blinked again. "Wait. You mean that if we hadn't all collapsed, we could have killed Xykon while he was -- what? Human again? Or some other kind of undead? Something that's easier to destroy than a lich?" He sank down and smacked his head against the stone floor. He half-expected to make a saving throw, but apparently "save vs. stone" only meant being turned to stone, not taking damage from it.
Several minutes passed. The quiet metallic noises he heard were presumably Haley sorting through her loot in order to reassure herself. Elan was humming under his breath; fortunately becoming a magic-user instead of . . . whatever he'd been before . . . hadn't done any harm to his sense of pitch.
Then, out of nowhere, Vaarsuvius spoke. "I know what we must do."
"Can you check me again?" Roy begged Durkon. "I'm sure I must have taken damage from hitting my head on the floor like that."
"As I told ye, lad, yer fine. There ain't na rules for concussions in this Edition, any more than there were in ours."
"Then why," Roy said, "do I keep thinking that V's in the corner over there talking to a harlot?"
Elan squinted. "Technically, I think she's a haughty courtesan. You can tell by the fancy clothes, and by the way she has her nose in the air."
Vaarsuvius bowed at the woman and swept back over to the table where the rest of them waited. "Even if my magical prowess has been reduced in its scope, my vast intellect, fortunately, still operates at full capacity. I regret to say that the haughty courtesan I have spoken with was unable to help. But this town possesses more than one tavern, and if my recollections are correct, the probability is very high that each of them will possess at least one harlot."
Roy fought the urge to grab the elf by their robes and shake them until logic fell out. "V, why are you talking to prostitutes?"
"Because at one point in my studies I read a few tomes on the early history of magic, seeking a greater understanding of when and how the spells in my repertoire were created," Vaarsuvius said. "When Durkon surmised that we had been reduced in Edition, I recalled a minor point of information I had nearly dismissed from my brain so as to make room for something more useful. Given what has transpired, I am glad I did not."
"What information?" Haley asked, fascinated.
V assumed a lecturing stance, one finger raised. "There is a thirty percent chance that any random harlot will know valuable information. Statistically speaking, I need only consult two before I have slightly better than even odds of obtaining that which I need to know -- but as there is a fifteen percent chance that she will instead make up information in the hopes of obtaining remuneration, I would like to consult at least ten. That way I may be relatively certain of the veracity of what I learn." V cocked their head at Haley. "As there is also a twenty percent chance that the harlot may be a thief or work with one such, Miss Starshine, I would appreciate your assistance in guarding my belongings. Although I attach little significance to material possessions in the ordinary way of things, our current circumstances are far from ordinary. I do not know what might prove difficult to replace, or vital in our struggle to return to our proper Edition."
Haley cracked her knuckles, grinning toothily. "Other thieves, you say? I wonder if they had guilds yet back in this Edition . . ."
After consulting with one brazen strumpet, one aged madam, two cheap trollops, four typical streetwalkers, and one sly pimp, Haley's pockets were bulging with odds and ends pinched off both the would-be thieves and those who showed no criminal inclinations whatsoever. "See?" Durkon harrumphed. "This is wha I mean aboot chaotic types."
"Come on, Durkon," Haley said. "It isn't just us that Xykon hit with that spell. The whole world's been reduced! We need to get it back to normal, and from what V learned, that isn't going to be cheap. We have to fund this operation somehow." Her expression promised arrow-stabbing for anyone who suggested the funds might come out of her own personal stash.
"Wait a moment," Roy said. "Don't get me wrong, I want to get back to our Edition; I don't like everything being grey, and the creeping sense that Haley and Belkar suddenly have the same moral code. But are we sure we want to do that before we fight Xykon?"
Belkar kicked his ankle. "Of course we are! I'm supposed to be a sexy shoeless god of war, not whatever bullshit fighter-thief multi-classed combo approximated my awesomeness back in this stupid Edition! I don't even know if you can dual-wield under these rules! And I want my cat back, damn it -- where has Mr. Scruffy gone?"
"Look, I get it," Roy said. And he actually did: beneath the usual bluster, he could see that Belkar was truly rattled. By the disappearance of his cat, if nothing else. "I know I'm not as affected by these changes as the rest of you, but this might be a golden opportunity. For all we know, Xykon might actually be easier to kill right now."
"Och, I doubt it." Durkon sighed. "Ev'n accountin' fer me great-great-grandpappy's exaggeratin' -- ‘Back in me day, we were nae allowed ta call ourselves adventurers until we'd killed a dragon wit our bare hands' -- I think things used ta be harder. Monsters were nae balanced so tha most parties would win most battles most o' the time. Lots o' adventurers died back then."
That sobered them all. "He's got a good point, Roy," Haley said. "We don't know what liches were like in this Edition, or sorcerers, either."
Vaarsuvius said, "I can to some extent answer that latter question. It seems that our foe has chosen to alter the parameters of the world to a point where liches exist -- but as I understand it, the term ‘sorcerer' merely denotes a magic-user of a certain level. As much as it pains my tongue to shape these words, that is my proper title at the moment. But that debased and slapdash form of magic known as ‘spontaneous casting' has not yet been inflicted on reality."
Elan stared at the elf. "Wait. What do you mean? How do I cast spells?"
With a beatific smile shining over their demurely folded hands, Vaarsuvius said, "You must prepare."
Through Elan's moans that he didn't even know how to study, Roy said, "Okay, but that might help us. We all know what Xykon's like --"
"He makes me look patient," Belkar said.
"And if he has to prepare his spells, he's going to whine and moan about it. Does he even own a spellbook? Even if fights are harder in this Edition, if we can hit him before he's ready --"
Durkon's frown was mostly buried in his beard, but he held up one hand to catch Roy's attention. "There's another problem, lad. Ye may na ‘ave felt it yet -- or ever, since ye're human; I remember hearing tha "Men" ‘ad advantages like tha -- but . . ."
The dwarf trailed off. "But what?" Roy said. "What's wrong?"
Vaarsuvius took a deep breath, eyes squeezed shut.
"Lad," Durkon said, "Why is Belkar a fighter and a thief?"
"Because he likes to stab people in the back?" Elan offered.
In a toneless whisper, Vaarsuvius said, "Because there are . . . level limits."
Dead silence fell among them. In the distance, one of the cheap trollops was laughing.
Roy remembered what V had said a moment ago. Even if my magical prowess has been reduced in its scope. They weren't talking about being called a magic-user instead of a wizard, or the way magic operated in this Edition; they meant they weren't as high-level as before.
They literally had lost some of their power.
"Wait!" Haley objected. "That's not fair! Just because you three aren't human, you don't get to level the same way the rest of us do? Like humans are just . . . better somehow?"
"Na just tha, lass," Durkon said. "Take a look at me description."
He was a dwarf; they all knew that. But not until they looked at him properly did they realize that at no point since they woke up had the narration described him as a cleric.
"Dwarves cannae be clerics," Durkon said softly. "Nor can elves. Or halflings. An' Belkar an' I couldnae be magic-users, either. It's fighters or thieves only, fer us."
"But -- what about Thor?" Haley whispered, stricken.
Durkon shrugged, expression set in stoic lines. "I know ‘e still ‘ears me. Tha's wha matters."
Except it wasn't.
Despair threatened to drag Roy down from greyness into black hopelessness. He distantly heard Elan asking V what they'd learned from the harlots, and V saying they had a lead on where to find Xykon . . . but what did it matter? Without a cleric, and with their primary magic-user limited in strength, what could the Order of the Stick do against a lich -- even one who had to do his homework before a fight -- and the assembled might of his allies?
Roy leapt up again, drawing all eyes to him. "I have an idea. But you're all going to have to promise me first that you won't attack on sight."
"ATTACK!" Roy bellowed, charging forward with his grandfather's blade raised high.
"I'm trying!" Haley yelled back from the other side of the room. Her bowstring punctuated her reply. "But I don't -- have -- any of my -- feats!"
A lightning bolt sizzled through the air. Roy didn't so much dodge it as . . . shrug it off, apparently by sheer dint of fighter-ness. A second and a third went to Vaarsuvius, who barely even seemed to notice anything had happened, even though the elf had hardly been a paragon of either reflexes or fortitude in the past. Five images of Elan danced around, waving his rapier at the skeletons thronging the dungeon chamber; magic items weren't really for sale anymore, but Haley had mugged a passing adventurer and looted him for a scroll that turned out to an assortment of random spells on it, including mirror image. Unfortunately, Elan seemed to have forgotten everything he once knew about how to use a sword.
One of the fake Elans sizzled into nothingness as another lightning bolt hit it. "Come on, Xykon!" Roy shouted. "Did you just sit there and memorize lightning bolt all day?"
"As a matter of fact, no," the lich said, with his usual toothy grin. "Meteor swarm -- oh, come on!"
Four fireballs had shot from his bony hand, exploding into flames around Vaarsuvius, Belkar, Durkon, and Roy. But to Roy's surprise, the searing heat was no more difficult for him to withstand than the lightning had been, even though he should have been fried halfway to a crisp. "What's the use of a ninth-level spell," Xykon complained, "if the saving throw against it is the same as everything else?"
The meteor swarm had done something, though; it had wiped out most of the skeletons. Roy hurled himself forward and swung at Xykon -- but his sword slowed mid-air like it was trying to cut through molasses.
"Go ahead," Xykon taunted, tapping Roy on the shoulder and then backing out of range. "Look up your attack roll on the appropriate table. I'll wait. Lightning bolt!"
This one got through, though the fact that Roy was paralyzed had nothing to do with it. An arrow pinged off Xykon's clavicle in revenge, and then Durkon was there, swinging his hammer at the lich's kneecaps as if he'd never been a cleric instead of a dwarven fighting-man.
"Oh, screw this," Xykon said, trying and failing to touch Durkon. "It was funny while it lasted, but let's spin the wheel and see what things are like on the other side of the dial." One bony hand dipped into the pocket of his robes.
And came up empty.
The world swam, just as it had before the lawyers appeared. Roy staggered as his mobility returned, and Xykon scowled. "Your saving throw vs. paralysis isn't supposed to apply to me!"
Hope rose in Roy's heart. "What's your Armor Class?" he asked.
"Zero," Xykon said. "Why?"
Roy's grin spread from nonexistent ear to nonexistent ear. "Because I'm a sixteenth-level warrior with a THAC0 of five. And guess what I just rolled."
"THOR!!!" Durkon howled, and a burst of divine power emanated from him. It felt like a hug -- a smelly, beery, rusty dwarven hug. The plan had worked, at least so far . . . and in Second Edition, dwarves could be clerics.
"Keep trying, hairball," Xykon scoffed. "I'm much to powerful for you to turn. But why are you even allowed to try? There's not supposed to be any such thing as a dwarf priest! Where the hell is my magic doohickey?!"
"Over here," Redcloak said.
Silence fell, except for the clatter as Belkar downed the last skeleton and the quiet melody of Elan singing, "Listen, listen, listen to the goblin talking . . ."
"Redcloak?" Xykon stared at his erstwhile minion . . . no, at the small device Redcloak held in his hand. "You've got my knob thingy? Give that back."
Squaring his shoulders, Redcloak said, "No."
Lightning danced between Xykon's metacarpals. "Looks like somone took Non-Weapon Proficiency: Growing a Pair. Hand it over, Wrong-Eye. These stupid adventurers may be able to make their saving throws, but you? I don't even think you have one on your sheet. I can and will electrocute you."
"No," Redcloak said, "You won't. Because the moment I hear the letter L start to come out of your mouth, I'll turn this knob back to the left." His green hand touched it gently, not yet twisting.
Xykon's hand went quiet. "Been there, done that, got the mortality back. Blech. What do you want?"
"The same thing I've always wanted," Redcloak said. "To help goblins. To make things better for my people. But you . . . you turned the world into a place where we didn't even have class levels."
Xykon cocked his skull to one side. "Oh, is that why you were so useless? Oops."
The casual reply made Redcloak grit his teeth, but he ignored the lich and turned to Roy. "Our deal stands? You let me out of here with Xykon, and I'll turn the world back to its proper edition. Then I'll destroy this foul artifact, so it can never again be used to cripple me and my people."
Roy locked his gaze with the goblin's remaining eye. Tracking down Redcloak had been a gamble; Durkon swore he couldn't possibly be a cleric under the rules of the First Edition, but old-fashioned goblins weren't exactly known for their intelligence, either. It had turned out even better than Roy could have dreamed, though. He'd only been hoping they could bribe Redcloak into helping them out by stealing the reduce edition device.
Instead they'd learned more about their goblin opponent than any of them had ever imagined. Roy suspected Redcloak would regret that later . . . but in the moment, his distress at being cut off from the Dark One had overwhelmed his common sense.
A goblin who wanted to destroy the world was an implacable enemy. A goblin who wanted to raise up his kind, to protect them from the depredations of adventurers and a world that had stacked the deck against them?
That, Roy thought, was someone they could possibly negotiate with.
But not right now. Not with Xykon right there. Not when Roy wasn't even sure how to calculate his attack rolls -- though a querulous meow from the doorway and Belkar's delighted yelp told him that at least his halfling companion was a ranger again.
"The deal stands," he said.
Redcloak marched past him and grabbed Xykon by the cloak. The lich protested as his supposed minion hauled him bodily from the dungeon chamber -- but not very strenuously, Roy noted. It seemed Xykon was no more eager than the rest of them to push the situation too far.
Durkon sighed, watching them go. "Lad, I know why we agreed to it. But I hope we dinnae regret this later."
"So do I, Durkon," Roy said, as the world began to swim again.
"Stupid third-party supplements," Xykon said. He snatched the device from Redcloak's hands and hurled it as far away as he could, over Redcloak's snarled protest. "See if I order from any of their catalogues again. Teleport."
As the lich sorcerer and the goblin cleric blinked away, the device bounced and rolled into a rocky crevice. And when it landed, the dial twisted ever so slightly, stopping halfway between the marks labeled 3.5 and 4.
"All right, everybody," Roy said, sheathing his sword. "As long as we're in this dungeon, we might as well clean it out. Make your Perception checks."