Good vs. Medieval head man, Keno, displaying the highest look of determination, filtered through suspicious shadows and gossip on the pink dusk streets of downtown Milkhoney. In tow were his men, but the white-robed wizard, rotund dwarf, and elfin jester did not appear as sharp, hanging their heads in fatigue. Only upon hearing a business sign creaking in the breeze and noticing that it read "inn" did they perk up.
"Thank the misty blue yonder," Gregor sighed before turning to his armor-clad mate. "Late starts bum me out. I say we rest for the night, and that'll give us all day tomorrow to look for that silly dagger!"
"Are you sure?" Keno bartered. "I'm good for another three or four hours. It may be possible to find the goblins' hideout tonight, do the half-off closeout sale with their scrawny carcasses, retrieve our client's stolen property, then call it a wrap. We could vacation tomorrow."
"Look, you can party all night with the goblins if you want," the stubble-faced mage reasoned with a referring hand to the dwarf and elf, "but the kids and I are exhausted from the boat ride to this gods-forsaken kingdom. Remember, there's no 'happy' in 'tired,' and neither are in 'team.' "
"That almost sounds like your usual drunken babble, and we haven't even visited the bar yet. You must be tired!"
Three lazy heads bobbed in unison.
"Very well," Keno concluded. "You three can rest up. I'm gonna search for clues while the searching's good."
Lantern in hand, Keno did just that, starting with questioning of random after-hours pedestrians, but then the foul smell of goblins drew him to a place where the lights of civilization ended and unknown wilderness began.
Adding to his twig-snapping footsteps, sounds of giddy demonic laughter and hasty escape rustled across the void. Enticed by the hunt, Keno reached for the gore-nurtured broadsword sheathed at his hip. He heard them again: sounds of tricksters rattling bushes directly ahead. Sighting his targets did not matter; employing his favorite fighting style of hack and slash, he mulched the greenery within lantern range. Keno was pumped by the excitement of the kill. He snapped around to face a shadowy humanoid form standing much taller than any goblin, and his sword arm coiled, ready to lash out.
"Halt!" the stranger cried with authority.
Suddenly the woods exploded as a gang of identical mysterious species leapt from the darkness; struck Keno's hand, disarming him; and piled on top of him, shrouding the last glimpses of the warrior's straining form as he was muscled to the ground. Keno's smashed lantern fading to an ember, light seeped into nothingness.
Minutes or maybe hours had passed for all Keno knew. Upon rousing, he found himself slouched in a chair, unbound, inside a dark room lit only by dying oil lamps and a glow of yellow under an exit door.
Unwilling to assess the situation, he shot from the chair and scrambled to escape, but once his hand reached for the door, a feminine voice addressed him from behind.
The barbarian turned to find an old woman, her wrinkled face and scraggly hair illuminated by the candle she held. The black hallway void from which she emerged complemented her eeriness.
"What is this?" Keno demanded boldly. "Explain your intentions, witch!"
The old woman replied in hex-like fashion. "Impetuous soldier, you are not permitted to wander the goblin forest."
The warrior stood his ground. "I don't have as much right as scoundrels who run amok and terrorize innocent people?"
She offered an unshaken retort. "You are a foreigner to Milkhoney, are you not?"
"For what it's worth, yes."
This cued the questionable wench to reach for a crank on the wall. With one turn, the lamps brightened to reveal the room's interior. Its finery consisted of a desk, glass museum displays, and heads of various wildlife mounted on the walls. One space showcased a large map of the kingdom. The room's newfound vibrancy caused the hag to undergo an extreme transformation into that of a cheerful personal relations type.
"Well then, welcome to Milkhoney!" she bubbled with arms outstretched. "I'm Duwert, head of this Visitor's Information Center."
Completely thrown off guard, Keno reacted with a perplexed squint. "Visitor's Information Center? Why does this seem more like a death trap than a tourist trap?"
The office person claimed her place behind the desk, charming smile never fading. "Please forgive me for that incident earlier. We have some new personnel on our border crossings. They are impulsive and inexperienced. You may have passed through without properly being checked; thus, they saw you as an interloper."
Keno cautiously approached the desk. "I don't understand."
Duwert explained, "Under section five, paragraph three of Milkhoney law, also known internationally as 'Neighborhood Fence Act 37,' all foreign visitors of valiant persuasion must possess a Nobledeed Passport. It's a precaution our kingdom strictly follows. After all, you never know when someone parading around as a legendary hero may turn out to be a smuggler or a terrorist planning to overthrow the king. Such things can wreak havoc on an economy, you know." She punctuated her statement with tight, happy eyelids and a cute cock of her head.
The fighter's armor-padded shoulders loosened. "Well, I guess that makes sense."
"Not to worry," assured Duwert, sliding a piece of parchment in front of her. "Applying for your Nobledeed Passport is easy as a smile! All you need to do is answer a few simple questions."
"Keno, the Barbarian."
The old woman's quill scribbled. "Name: Keno. Title: barbarian. Do you normally travel alone or do you have a party?"
"There's four of us. We're called Good vs. Medieval."
"And are you the leader of this party?"
"Good! No more questions. All you need to do now is present your Certificate of Barbarianship, and I will grant your Passport."
Keno shifted his head in confusion. "Certificate of Barbarianship?"
"To prove that you're a barbarian," Duwert clarified before reaching below her desk and raising the large handle of a familiar weapon. "Or else we cannot let you loose in our kingdom with this sword."
"I've never heard of such a thing!" argued Keno. "It's not like I went to school to be a barbarian; I earned that title by busting heads!"
The weapon sank out of sight again, and the old woman gazed toward the ceiling, pondering. "Well then, I guess the only thing we can do in this case is register you for certification."
"What? How do I do that?"
Duwert's wrinkly face portrayed unnatural bliss. "Go to the training grounds tomorrow morning. Applying for your Certificate of Barbarianship is easy as a—"
"Smile," Keno finished for her. "Yeah, watch how easy that is right now." He followed with a roll of his eyes and a groan that sounded like a zombie with a hangover.
The following morning, Keno hit the fenced-in, abandoned farm-turned-warrior's-obstacle-course as planned. The air was thick with the odor of pig manure, and the ground puddled with the stuff.
The judge, a rugged fellow in dirty woodsman's gear, allowed the barbarian to equip his broadsword and enter the simulation, slamming the wooden sheep gate behind him.
Cautiously Keno paced forth, keeping his weapon ready for anything. A deathly suspense filled the air as his eyes scanned lifeless hay sheds and silos. He heard no sound at all.
As he tiptoed along, mostly to avoid stepping in animal waste, an explosion of movement threw him like a yanked carpet. It was a giant reptilian tongue that whipped at his feet then reeled into the mouth of an elephant-sized iguana rounding the barn.
Keno's stumbling momentum sent him onto his back, then into a lopsided roll as he tried like hell not to touch down on any brown land mines. He situated himself in a nook between two haystacks to gather his wits— more importantly, to check over his armor to make sure it was not soiled. Fresh as dry-cleaned; so far so good, he mused.
Focusing on his scaly adversary, Keno watched as it ducked behind the roof of the barn. A grin formed on the barbarian's face, for he knew exactly the tactic he wished to use. He could imagine it: swiftly dodging the next tongue attack; grabbing hold of it, anticipating a tugging slurp; riding it back like a shuttle, extended blade leading the charge; then WHAM! steel penetration into the base of the brain. He knew it was a risky and perhaps unnecessarily hot-doggish stunt, but the veteran had faith in his abilities and a reputation of style to uphold. A naughty snicker cranked from his throat at the thought of not only passing this challenge but kicking it in the groin.
The creature had made its den in the stable, and luring it into the open was no easy task— with all the manure heaps to swerve around and all— but after a series of taunts and throwing stones at the complacent lump of scales, the bait made itself known, and a ferocious roar bellowed within.
Keno retreated, looking back in stride at the dragon emerging from its shelter. It was not the most graceful of beasts: once sunlight hit its form, its right front claw trod onto a pig trough and wedged inside. Thus began a vigorous shake of its leg to dislodge the cumbersome shoe, and it jigged from side to side and around in circles. The episode became so out of control, the creature smashed its head into the side of a brick silo. Keno winced at the painful display.
Wobbly, the overgrown lizard stumbled into an adjacent willow tree, knocking a beehive from its branches and onto its snout, resulting in a mad buzzing storm and a sneeze of burning needles. As the creature thrashed its head in panic, its left hind foot slammed onto an upturned rake, and a squeal of pain from its red, blistered muzzle followed. With a final surge of desperation, it tripped over its own feet and belly-flopped onto a plow.
There was little fire left in the beast now; the blade of the farming tool created a bloody gash in its chest, and it whimpered in defeat.
"No," Keno gasped in disbelief. "Where's the glory in that?" And he raced toward the fallen foe, greeting it face-to-face. "Get up, softy!" he demanded. "Come on, fight me! Fight me like the scum of the homerealm that you are—! Please?"
The creature used its last bit of energy to uncoil its tongue, and Keno lifted it off the ground. To taunt further, he used the limp piece of flesh to towel-snap the dragon's face while shouting, "Come on! Are you just gonna take this or what?"
The monster's eyelids descended.
"No! No! No!" Keno hollered with a choke. Fighting back tears, he mimicked a touching act of a dear friend leaving him. "Don't die! Wake up and meet your fate! I wanna be a legend among legends!"
Finally a gust of death blew from the lizard's nostrils, toppling Keno backward into a moist pile of pig feces. Regardless, the dragon was slain, which earned Keno his certification.
Later that day, after a long hot bath which only masked his odor, Keno, joined by Gregor, revisited the Information Center. Proudly the muscleman presented his sheepskin, but the old chair warmer seemed more occupied by the stench in the air.
"My certificate of barbarianship," Keno introduced. "Now can we freely explore your land?"
Dewert perked in response. "Why yes, you certainly can! Feel free to—" In mid sentence, she took a closer look at the man in the robe. "Wait a minute. Are you a wizard?"
"Only the best," bragged Gregor with a toss and catch of his staff.
Turning back to Keno, Dewert stressed, "You did not mention that you had a wizard in your party."
"You never asked!" the barbarian impatiently defended.
Flustered, the woman babbled, "Well, dear me. Wizards are a special case. They require a special degree of stipulation lest the kingdom go up in flames or succumb to other supernatural disasters. Gregor, can you provide certification that you're a true wizard?"
He nodded smugly. "If it's ID you want, I have my bar license on me— and it's a real one this time!"
"Oh, I am afraid a tavern permit is unacceptable. Just like your barbarian friend, you will have to be tested to prove your integrity."
"This is ridiculous!" Keno protested.
"Just a second," interjected Gregor, aiming a sly glare at the wench. "Before we go any further, we have two more in our party. They're idiots. Do they have to take idiot tests? Like with the square pegs and the round holes?"
Duwert shook her head. "No. Only leaders of parties and wizards require paperwork."
"Fine," Gregor accepted. "Write out that passport right now because I'm gonna take your stupid test and come out smelling like a rose— which is more than I can say for my buddy here!"
The barbarian shot a look of disdain at his mate. "Remember who lifts your ale kegs into the house," he threatened.
The following morning, it was Gregor's turn at the abandoned farm, but it was not a gigantic iguana he had to face. His adversary waited in plain view: a very professional-looking white-bearded mage in a mystic blue robe and hat.
"So, young magician," the master greeted his challenger plainly and without interest. "You will duel against me for your certification. I hope you are ready."
"Pft!" scoffed Gregor as he presented his staff and rolled up his sleeve. "Bring it on!"
With a lightning fast flex of his wrist, the master cast a spell from his wand and instantly transformed Gregor's staff into a slithery rattlesnake— an old trick, yes, but effective.
The youngster did a startled jig and tossed the serpent into a nearby bush, albeit without much thought in the action. Embarrassed, he called for a time-out to retrieve his weapon.
Reaching into the bush where two identical rattlesnakes actually crossed paths, he grabbed one of them and yanked it into the open. Quickly he commanded, "Undo curse!"
Then the strangest thing happened. In a flash of light, the serpent transformed into a dashing prince with curly blond hair under a feathered cap. Gregor's bafflement knew no bounds.
The prince grabbed Gregor's hand and shook it with utmost gratitude. "Young mage, thank you from the bottom of my heart for freeing me from that awful eleven-year curse! I am entirely in your debt!"
Still confused but quick of thought, Gregor replied, "You're welcome. But don't thank me; thank him!" He pointed to his adversary across the field.
The prince did not hesitate. He rushed for the man in blue and enthusiastically started shaking his hand. "Great master, I am eternally grateful for your assistance in—"
"Undo undo!" shouted Gregor, reversing the transformation, and the gentle grip of the prince turned into a pair of venomous fangs piercing the hand of the master.
The old magician let out a howl and waved his hand frantically, launching the snake clear across the field. Immediately after, he fell to his knees, then face-first to the ground with a thud. Dead.
Gregor knew what this meant; he pumped his fist in victory and took a swig from his canteen— which incidentally was not filled with water.
Day four arrived. With all four members of Good vs. Medieval having earned their Nobledeed Passports, they had had enough with preliminary hassles and were ready for action. Unfortunately, the outskirts and wilderness of Milkhoney were not as eventful as they had hoped. After several hours of poking around shady hideouts and craggy ledges, no more than gophers had been encountered.
Frustrated, the quartet wandered back into town in the direction of the local tavern. Little did they know that lurking behind the rooftop sign, a shifty goblin set its stare on them, an ornate steel dagger grasped in its bony fingers ready for an ambush.
The men approached the door of the establishment and stopped just under the overhang. It was there that Gregor blew an exhausted sigh and complained, "I can't believe we've been in this frogged-up kingdom for four days, and we're still no closer to finding neither the goblins nor the prize! Mister Krewlty wants his dagger. More importantly, he wants to give us a big payoff for bringing it back to him. I want that payoff!"
"Relax, Gregor," Keno assured him. "I know we've been like assless dogs on pottery wheels for most of this quest, but I sense a peep hole to the women's shower of victory nearby. Remember my philosophy about cosmic balance? Well, although I'm not big into metaphors, I'll tell it to you like this: the world is like a big peach— or maybe a melon—"
As Keno proceeded to lull his men into daydreams and to-do lists, the menacing goblin peered over the rooftop ledge. His mouth watered with the taste for blood: so much so that drool puddled within his lip and drizzled down. Bracing his foot, he prepared to pounce.
Disregarding the stream of intoxicating spiel from Keno's mouth, Keeb was more occupied by glistening droplets pattering on his jester's uniform, and he held out his hand. "Hmm, feels like rain." He reached behind his back for a bright red umbrella, opened it and propped it upright as if the sky were falling. All the while, the high-pitched battle scream of the plummeting goblin grew in intensity until abruptly stopping with a winded grunt: the umbrella spike speared through its chest. Alarmed by the rustle of fabric overhead, Keeb looked up, saw the short steel blade penetrating the umbrella's web, and casually noted to his mates, "Hey, it's the dagger."
Keno and Gregor stopped their one-sided discussion to have a look and saw that the blade's appearance, with its intricately carved hilt, indeed matched that of the description provided by its owner days before.
Not even paying heed to the carcass silhouette within the umbrella, nor the stream of blood trickling off its side, Keno grabbed the elf's free hand and gave it a bone-crackling shake. "Good work, Keeb! You found the dagger, and you didn't even need certification to do it!"
Placing his hands on his hips and giving a satisfied nod, he added, "All right, men. Let's get the hell out of this messed-up kingdom!"
It took one more day before the heroes could call their quest finished. The final measure involved returning the goods to their client. This was done back at the Good vs. Medieval household in Briton kingdom.
Mister Krewlty, an everyday working-class schmoe and the dagger's true owner, showed up right on time. The happiness portrayed in his face upon receiving the priceless family heirloom was rewarding in itself, but he had much more gratitude to show in handing Keno a great big sack of gold commerkens, enough to live on very comfortably.
"I cannot thank you enough for retrieving my great grandfather's dagger," the man praised. "I know gold is such an impersonal gift, but I hope you may graciously accept this offer."
"Oh, don't worry about that," Keno insisted, poorly covering his greedy excitement. "We'll keep this offering close to our hearts."
"Gregor will keep most of it in his bladder," Keeb joked before being elbowed in the gut by the irate wizard.
"Wonderful," replied the gentleman. "It's so nice that—"
Suddenly his warmhearted speech was interrupted by a thunderous knock on the door. Gregor was there to swing it open, revealing a castle guard standing on the mat.
"Yo," the sly wizard addressed. "How may we help—?"
The guard jumped in without formality. "Excuse me, heroes. The castle treasurer just reported an outstanding fee due to the illegal importation of weaponry into our kingdom from a foreign land, and traced it to the border crossing from which you four had entered." He took a glance at the dagger. "In fact, I do believe that is the culprit right there. It should not have been transported without filing of the proper papers."
Keno argued, "Hey, I earned my certification good and proper! I abided by all the facets of international Neighborhood Fence Act 37!"
The soldier nodded and refuted, "Perhaps, but Briton adheres to Neighborhood Fence Act 37B, which states that empowerment is given to the most mentally challenged of a heroic party as long as he retains a valid bar license."
Miffed, Keno smeared his hand down his face and looked downward to his potential savior eye-level with his waist. "Stumpy?"
But the dimwitted dwarf simply shrugged and mumbled, "Iuhoh."
"It's no big deal," the imperial soldier assured the men. "All the king needs is some monetary reimbursement." He took the liberty of grabbing the oversized sack of gold out of Keno's hand and shaking it with a tinkle. "This should do just fine. We'll just forget all about this incident, then. Have a nice day, heroes." And with that, he slipped out the door like a skittish rodent.
The four warriors stood in a silent muddle for several uneasy seconds, their humiliation broken by— what should have mattered most at that moment— the appreciation of the man whose wishes were answered overall.
"I'm sorry that had to happen," Krewlty consoled sincerely. "But the important thing is that you did a very good deed, and courage and determination saw it through. I'll never forget that. Thank you, and I bid you farewell, my friends."
"Okay," Keno responded zombie-like, stuck in the funk of easy-come easy-go. The others were too beside themselves to even speak at all.
The client offered one final nod and a warm smile before exiting, leaving the heroic quartet to stew dumbfounded before their kitchen window displaying the peaceful, sunny hillside.
Keno sighed and began a play-by-play of the inevitable. "Yep. Now he's gonna go—"
From the window echoed the cries of Briton's own Princess Coppofelia, and Keno was the only one who turned to witness the damsel in the golden dress being hauled off at knifepoint by the very man who had just offered his gratitude.
"—kidnap the princess in an attempt to overthrow the kingdom."
He turned back to the empty space that the other three stared at, never blinking or changing their wacky, hopeless grimaces, and his face mimicked theirs with the exception of one final note: