Bard Mart



"There exists a place of singular bravado. A place where the peculiar and the wondrous combine. A place where all your dreams can come true for a reasonable price, and you can take home with you memories to last a lifetime. Not to mention the souvenirs. I am talking, of course, about Bard Mart: your one-stop shop for all things adventure. Where the common man can be a hero for the day. Where you are the star of the show."

This is the sell-speak printed on all the brochures that litter the alleyways of every hill and dale from Westwood to Corc's Pinnacle. Words matching nicely with the mashing of yellows and greens depicting a magical battle between Gary, Bard Mart's high necromancer and owner (and yes it is odd that a necromancer owns an entertainment business named Bard Mart, but he's a crafty one this Gary) and a few common folk painted in awe-inspiring reverence. In this snapshot of battle it looks clear that Gary should be the victor, but we all know that's not how it works out in the end. At Bard Mart, you always win. That's what you paid for.

But this story isn't just about Gary. It's about the bards that run Bard Mart, too. Sam, Dorcy, Solvantus, and Buck. The men of the front line. The organizers. The orchestrators. The heart and soul of Bard Mart.

Sam is the manager, a position he gained as a result of painting those previously mentioned brochures. He is not terribly tall, nor is he short, and is the owner of a face that would otherwise go unnoticed if not for the giant blue wide-brimmed hat on his head. The hat was his idea, too. He wanted uniforms for everyone to "help sell the BM feel", as he'd often say, though it hasn't quite caught on yet.

Dorcy is a lot like Sam except that he couldn't care less about working at BM or the silly hats. He prefers to keep his nose down designing the elaborate scenario packages which are really just his own short stories that, through the combined magic and grit of the rest of Bard Mart's staff, end up becoming their narratives. Dorcy would prefer not to work a day in his life, instead whiling away the hours with quill in hand and a plate of cheeses. And it so happens he gets to do that most of the time working for Bard Mart, though he is not beyond the occasional outing himself. The others would prefer him not to, however, because the only thing worse than the dialog he writes in his stories is his insisting on using it while on the job.

Solvantus is the oldest bard at Bard Mart. Going on his 70th year on this world he is also the crankiest. But what he lacks in youth and vigor he more than makes up with sarcasm and disdain for the working mage class and their politics and extravagant lifestyles. A right expert on parliamentary procedure and policy writing it's clear that he used to be a mage himself. That, and the 6th circle and lower spells he knows. But, despite the spit and sputter he'd deliver with his reply, he'd tell you he much prefer to be a bard now. He may even believe it.

And lastly there's Buck. That's not his real name. In fact, no one knows what his name really is, even himself. This is probably due to his shape-shifting nature. Buck can be, at any time, a man, a cat, a raven, a snake, or a cow. While he's sure he could be any number of other animals, and maybe even other people, he has never been anything else than what's listed here. There is endless debate among the other bards as to why this is, and the most popular idea is that it has something to do with his diet. As a result he has developed the habit of checking his food for the often odd bit of unidentifiable matter that the others are fond of slipping into his sandwiches. His is a miserable existence, his only highlight being able to flex his natural charm and play companion to the would-be adventurers that come to Bard Mart.

And it is such that on a bright and sunny summer morning that the bards of Bard Mart gather for their opening checks. And it is here that we have joined them for our story. As Sam has put the till back in the register and as Dorcy has sank into his corner to write his latest scenario, and as Solvantus spouted off about the injustice of this morning's mage council ruling, and as Buck turned the sign on the front door from "Closed: returning at 9am" to "Open: Come on in" the door opened, and through it came Henry and Mary Tuddle, farmers from Eastmain.

"Oh, look at all this, 'enry", Mary said with wide eyes casted about.

"Yes, yes, all very fine", said Henry, "jus' like the brochure."

Sam jumped into action upon hearing the common dialect and found himself squeezing in between the couple and Buck, who was already winding up for the standard Bard Mart greeting.

"Welcome to Bard Mart, your-" Sam and Buck began simultaneously but, being overshadowed by Sam, Buck merely committed to mumbling the rest, "-your one-stop shop for all things adventure!"

Henry and Mary shared a look with each other, clearly impressed.

"How can we help you?" Sam began, his pitch expertly rehearsed, "Looking for an adventure on the open road, bandits at your back, in search of lost treasures?"

Sam slid a hand behind Henry's back as he stepped aside and guided the couple inward further.

"Perhaps a tale of bravery and heroism fighting off ne'er do wells while on the back of a dragon? Or perhaps I can interest you in our very finest adventure, Banishing the Dark, where you and your intrepid sidekick-slash-heroine and love interest team up against the deadly and conniving Dark Necromancer?"

"Oh, 'enry, that sounds romantic!" Mary said, her eyes alit with possibility.

"Oi, now, let me see 'ere." Henry produced a pouch of burlap, tattered and patched with even more burlap. He turned it over in his hand and spilled the contents into his palm. Six silver coins clanked together.

Sam's look of dejection immediately spread across his face.

"Oh, so the copper package the-"

"Oi! 'old on, 'ere," interrupted Henry, a hand re-tasked to dig down deeply between the rope he bore as a belt and his skivvies underneath, "you don't keep yer coin all in one place, father always said."

Henry dropped a single gold coin onto the stack of silver and then looked at Sam, a proud smile spread across his face. Henry shoves the lot in Sam's direction.

Sam, at once disgusted by the whereabouts of said gold coin but happy at the total amount, took the coins leaving one silver behind.

"One gold and five silver, so the silver package, then?" asked Sam as he walked around the counter to enter the amount into the till.

"Aye, saved up all summer, we did," said Henry.

"Well, that's very good," said Sam, the money safely in the drawer, "everyone who works hard should be able to enjoy something special for all that work."

Sam pointed to the sign behind him, a plaque that detailed each of the packages one could buy.

"Silver package: That's good for you and up to three companions, of which your lovely wife is one," he said with a smile to Mary, "and two of our bards for the others. You also ge-"

Beside Solvantus, in the back corner opposite Sam, Henry, and Mary, a crystal roughly the size of one's three fingers began to emit a warbling sound. It was loud enough to stammer Sam for the moment, but when the sound ended he began again.

"You also get a choice between a high adventure or-"

The crystal rang out again. No one else seemed to notice.

"You get a choice between the high advent-"

The crystal rang out a third time.

"Can someone get that, please?" Sam spoke sternly to his crew, but otherwise kept his smile.

Despite Solvantus being closer, Buck picked up the crystal and put it to his ear.

"Hello, you have reached Bard Ma-" Buck began before stopping himself. "What? Who?"

Sam tuned out the interruption and returned his attention back to the Tuddles.

"Where was I? Oh, yes, the silver package."

"Right" said Henry.

"Three companions. High adventure or the magic waterw-"

"S-Sam," stuttered Buck, "it's Gary's wife. There's a probl-"

"In a minute, Buck."

"Sam, Gary's gone mad, he's raised an army and is attacking-"

"Not now, Buck, I'm trying to help out our very important customers."

"What's all this, then?" Mary asked, her attention turned to Buck and the crystal.

"Sounds like the ol' bait and switch, Mary," Henry started, "we can't afford no army."

"I assure you we're not offering an army package right now," Sam said, as he fumbled with his hat that had become unstable from his increased forehead sweat.

"What?!" gasped Buck as he listened to the crystal. "An undead army? Well, of course, it's Gary. But he's attacking where? Rainsport? Hold on," Buck placed the crystal against his chest and looked to Sam. "She says he's raised an army of a thousand dead and is currently storming Rainsport."

"Who said?" asked Sam.

"Oi! Now look 'ere, we ain't buying no undead army," said Henry, "an undead army is a gold package option and we're paying for silver, you hear? I can't afford no gold package."

"Sir, I'm not trying to sell you the gold package," said Sam.

"His wife," continued Buck, "oh, no, his ex-wife." Buck grimaced. "'Soon-to-be ex-wife', she says."

"Bloody hell..." Sam's moist forehead found itself in his hands as he tried to understand the situation. "Dorcy. Dorcy!"

Dorcy looked up from his notepad and blinked lazily at Sam.

"Hm, what?"

"Dorcy, can you run out and get Maudlin, please? We need to call in the other bards."

With an audible protest Dorcy slid off of his stool and lumbered toward the door.

"First an undead army, now more bards?" said Henry as his voice rose, "what kind of 'ighway robbery you trying to run 'ere?"

"Can't get Maudlin," Dorcy said from the doorway.

"Why not? Bring her in here," said Sam.


Sam looked up toward the door that Dorcy held open. Just beyond a black fire raged across the grassland and within it the building next door was engulfed in flames.

"Housing's gone," said Dorcy, "probably the bards, too".

"What...the...f" began Sam, rounding the counter and nearing the door.

"'enry, look at that! That's some fine kind a magic effect there, ain't it?" Mary let out a delighted gasp.

"Magic like that is a plat'num package!" Henry said as he bunched his pants at the waist and shifted foot to foot as if getting ready to fight.

Sam turned to the Tuddles, arms open and a smile on his face.

"Congratulations! You are our one-thousandth customer! You know what that means?"

The Tuddles looked at each other and shook their heads.

"That means you get an upgrade to our highest package. All the magic, all the danger, all the fun! Completely complimentary."

"Well, I'm sure it's all very much full of comp'ments, but we can't afford no-"

"Complimentary means free", interrupted Sam, his smile strained and tight against his teeth.

"Oh. Free?" Henry postured as though he had just won a difficult debate.

"Yes, free. Completely. Do you accept?"

"Free free?" asked Henry, "Like, the upgrade is free, or the whole thing is free?"

"The whole thing. Why not?" Sam rushed back to the till and popped it open. Withdrawing one gold and five silver, he slammed it all down on the countertop. "Free free."

"Well, bloody 'ell, thas a sweet deal" Henry beamed as he grabbed Mary by the shoulder, "we accept."

"Good." Sam closed the till and walked to the window as Henry gathered his coins in his pouch. Sam could barely make out the horizon through the smoke.

"Solvantus, we need a spell."

Solvantus, who had been studying the onslaught of black fire through Bard Mart's front and only window and had also seen his bard brothers both roasted and then raised in the last ten minutes, pondered the very nature of Sam's request.

"Hm, yes, a spell. A spell, indeed." Solvantus said as he pulled out a long pipe and packed it with pipeweed. "A spell would be the right thing to use right about now. I agree." He pushed open the window and stuck the bowl of his pipe outside, being very careful to hold the pipe by the very tip of the mouthpiece.

Sam sighed.

"Such a thing to bend reality and give us a decisive solution to our particular quandary." Solvantus continued as he pulled his pipe back in, the weed lit aflame with black fire. He puffed it twice before turning toward Sam. "Er...what is the quandary, exactly?"

"That's so cliche," said Dorcy with a sneer.

Solvantus's only reply was a puff of smoke.

"Solvantus, I just need some rain. Or snow. Something wet and or cold, please. Out there." Sam gestured down the hillside toward the road to the Mart.

"Ah, right, of course." Solvantus hobbled toward the door, a journey of a thousand miles to everyone else in the room.

When he reached the doorway Solvantus produced a silk pouch from his hip and loosed its string. Peering inside he reached and carefully retrieved a bit of fine dust which he then put into the palm of his hand. Rubbing a finger through the dust, Solvantus peered ever closer at it and began to mumble.

"Sand," Solvantus grumbled, "I swear one trip to the beach and you will never get rid of all the sand you track back."

"Solvantus!" said Sam.

"Right. Right." Solvantus returned to his pouch and pulled out a crystal disk, no bigger than a thumbnail, that he then gripped between his fingers. Raising it high above his head he began to mutter his incantation and within moments a flurry of snow and ice rained down from a source of nothing overhead, dusting the path and smothering the magical fire in a wide line from the door to the roadside. The disk then crumbled.

"Alright, are we ready," asked Sam as he squared himself at the door.

"What's the plan?" asked Buck.

"We need to get out of here," Sam began, "before the place burns down. I'll figure something else out once we're safe."

Sam turned to everyone.

"Bards! We're on duty. Everyone to your roles and stations. Solvantus, be ready with another spell to clear our way if we need it. Dorcy, start coming up with ideas on how to deal with a rogue necromancer who happens to be our boss."

"And me?" asked Buck with hope in his chest.

"Sidekick to the guests."

Buck's shoulders sank.

"But Sam, maybe I could change into something that could help us. A raven to scout, perhaps? O-or a snake to hide until the time is right to strike."

"Buck, you have the most important job of all, making sure our customers enjoy their experience with us." Sam clapped Buck on the shoulder and smiled, and then leaned in to whisper. "We're running off script here, I need you to keep them safe and distracted. Okay?"

Buck nodded, forlornly at first but then with a sense of duty.

"Good, okay. Let's go," Sam said as he turned and stepped beyond the door.

"Oh, 'enry, it's starting!" Mary said with a giggle in her voice.

"Aye, love, time fir adventure!" Henry replied.

One by one each followed the other and left Bard Mart.

Once on the outside the devastation was clear. Rainsport, the township upon who's lands Bard Mart technically sat upon, was nestled on the other side of the hill on where Bard Mart was located, between the rolling grasslands and the open sea. It was also in flames. Cries of anguish rose over the township and hung like a fog, or a plume of smoke if you would prefer, except that analogy was already taken by the literal plume of smoke over the township. From their place atop the hill Sam and company could see the people attempting to flee and dying, and subsequently rising again to run back in to grapple what was left of the living. And over it all was Gary, dressed in his typical brown and black robes, although somewhat disheveled, and altogether without any regard to his untamed hair, it's short black natural curls tangled in a rat's nest of thatch upon his head. Gary hovered, crying uncontrollably, lobbing one black fireball after the next into town. He had long since given up on any sort of aiming or effort.

Sam looked at his boss and sighed. He then looked at the dead and sighed more.

"That mus' be the bad guy, Mary!" shouted Henry. "Alright, what do we do? Draw our swords and rush in?"

"We don't have any swords," Dorcy pointed out.

"Oh, right, huh," Henry thought about his options, "alright, then what?"

Buck, standing behind the Tuddles, clasped them both on the shoulders.

"Why, we parlay, of course," explained Buck, "every encounter with a big bad guy always has to start off with an exchange of wits. A discourse of virtues. How else do you get him to say his monologue?"

"Oh, that's right!" Henry smiled. "Yes, good idea. Okay, so I'll 'ead on over there and get to talking."

"Uh, I was thinking you'd let us do the talking," Buck interrupted, pulling on Henry to stay put, "yeah, because, we're, uh, we're the expendable party, right? You let us go in there and get him yapping and you just enjoy the show. That way if he's still in a killing mood, he takes one of us out instead of you." This sentence sounded better in Buck's head. His regret was instant.

"You're right," Henry smiled, "get on out there, sidekick, and let's get a move on."

Buck nodded nervously and walked up beside Sam.

"What do we do?" he whispered.

"I got this," Dorcy said as stepped forward and opened his notebook, flipping a few pages deep.

"Oh, no," said Buck.

"Maybe not," said Sam at the same time.

"Guh, I don't think..." offered Solvantus slightly behind in timing to the other two.

Undaunted by his co-worker's objections Dorcy found the line of dialog he was searching for and placed his finger upon the page. Clearing his throat, he took a deep breath and puffed himself full of air.

"Oh, pray-tell oh Gary, lord of the dead," Dorcy yelled, "of what wicked deeds you have wrought upon us the innocent this day?"

Dorcy's co-workers grumbled and winced at the dialog, resuming their previous objections.

"Dorcy, Gary never liked your dialog," Sam protested.

"We're trying to reason with him, not depress him further," Buck added at the same time.

"Good lord, boy, parliament has better language in their sanitation clauses than that," Solvantus concluded, slightly behind in timing to the other two.

Gary, upon hearing the dreadful dialog, paused in mid throw and looked up. Seeing his employees upon the hill, he quickly tried to wipe away his tears and smooth out his robes. To do so, however, he had to drop the fireball, which he did, by tossing it sideways into the stables.

"Look!" Henry said, "you got his attention! Piss poor way of doing it, but it worked."

Gary took a deep breath and attempted to calm himself and then floated toward the group.

"Hark, he approaches, and so must his death be upon his heels!" Dorcy recited from his notebook, "stay your hand, cur, lest we-"

"Oh, shut up, Dorcy," Sam yells.

"For fuck's sake, Dorcy," Buck adds simultaneously.

"Crap on a cracker, Dorcy, shut up!" finished Solvantus, who was right on time.

"Oi!" came from Henry, a full second later, accompanied by a thwap on Dorcy's head.

Gary hovered before everyone, his eyes red from both years of practicing necromancy and at least several hours of crying. He hovered there silently for a few moments, unable to gather up the words or courage to address them.

"Gary, what are you doing?" asked Sam.

"She... She left me, Sam," Gary said with a sob, "she left me this morning."

"Oh, Gary, but why do this? Why are you killing everyone over it?"

"Oi, I've 'ad enough of this bellyaching. How do we attack him?" Henry pushed forward. Buck leapt ahead of him and turned around.

"Okay, so you're ready to attack the boss?" asked Buck, continuing when the Tuddles nod, "okay, so for this encounter you have to fight magic with magic. Just, uh, wiggle your fingers at him and make magic sounds."

"Who are these guys?" Gary asked to Sam.

"Pitchoo, pitchoo!" Mary yelled with hands outstretched before her.

"No, like this, Mary. Buddam! Buddam!" Henry said, his fingers thrusted and wiggled as if he was flicking water from them.

"Uh, they're customers, sir," Sam said, "silver package. Or, they would have been but... This." He gestured to Rainsport. "So act like you're getting hit."

"Right," Gary said, "oof! Ugh! Ahh!" He emoted his inflicted damage upon himself by the Tuddles, dodging and weaving from their onslaught.

"Sir," Sam posed again, quietly as to not disrupt the battle.

"You don't understand, Sam." Gary said, "She -ughh, oof, arrrg- she said I was a waste. Me. The first necromancer ever to earn an A health rating at his shop."

Gary swung out of the way of another volley of imaginary magical attacks and rose high into the air. When he spoke again his voice boomed across the hillside, tinged with magically enhanced menace and fervor.

"You fight valiantly Tuddles, but now witness my final form!"

Gary's visage shifted out of proportion, growing in size to dwarf the Tuddles and their companions. This form twisted and sprouted wings from his back, his skin darkened, and two massive horns of onyx jutted from his forehead. At once his entire body was wreathed in dark flames.

"Witness me and cower!" Gary's voice rang out.

"Oh no!" Mary clung onto Henry.

"What do we do now?" Henry shrank behind Buck, pulling him in front of them.

"Right, you have wounded the boss. Gary is staggered but not done yet. You have to be brave and push through," Buck said urging Henry and Mary, "you have to be the heroes you know you can be!"

The Tuddles resumed their attacks, driving courage into their frames and stepping toward Gary, lobbing handfuls of air and wiggling fingers at him with renewed purpose. Gary, now completely enraged, gathered and threw another dark fireball, this time directly at the party. Buck threw himself upon the Tuddles, grounding them, while Sam, Dorcy, and Solvantus dove into the dirt. All narrowly avoided the very real ball of fire that engulfed the grass behind them. A wave of heat washed over the group, one that drained the very color out of the skins of the bards.

"Holy sh... That was real," Dory said as he drew in his breath, "he's lost it."

"My hair," yelled Henry as he grabbed at his head, "dang necro-mander nearly burnt it all off!"

Gary continued throwing balls of fire in all directions, blazing anything missed before and surrounding the party in fire.

"She said I should take over the world," Gary's voice whispered next to Sam's ear.

Sam was startled and jolted at the sound.

"Powers like mine, and I'm just a stupid entertainer," Gary's voice continued, "'you don't think of me, you don't take over towns and kingdoms for me, you just play archenemy to whoever has some coin like some low class prostitute', that's what she said to me."

"So you're going to do what, take over the world?" Sam whispered back. "You think she'll come running back if you do? And even if she did, then what? You know she'll just do it again when she gets tired of what you give her."

The voice at Sam's ear fell silent and the demon Gary stopped his attack. His shoulders sagged as he listed to the side.

"Now!" yells Henry, grabbing Mary as he jumped to his feet. The Tuddles begin their attacks again square into Gary's back.

"Gary," Sam whispered, "you've got a good thing going here. You've got money and you've got respect. People come the world over to fight you. They love you."

"It's not the same without her, Sam," the voice responded.

"No, it wouldn't be the same without you, Gary," Sam said.

"It's too late, Sam. I'm already a murderer."

The demon swooped down low and away from the party, gliding over the land until he was a hundred yards out, and then twisted and climbed upward into the sky, spiraling until he reached his apex whereupon he spread his wings and blocked out the sun.

"There's no going back," the voice whispered, "I have to destroy it all."

With an unholy yell the demon reached over his head and began to gather energy, the screaming faces of hundreds of tortured souls swirling and balling up between his hands.

"Solvantus, ice lance," ordered Sam.

"This is highly irregular," huffed Solvantus, "a real attack against Gary?"

"Solvantus, now!"

Solvantus rose to his feet and pulled from his pouch a sewing needle. He pinched it between his fingers and reared back as if preparing to throw it like a javelin. Then, with all the might he could muster, he threw it and as it left his hand it grew and glowed, condensed moisture, and crystallized as it sped toward its target. The lance wavered, however, at the end of Solvantus's physical ability to throw it, but it then burst forward under its own energy and pierced the demon in the chest before shattering. The rain of ice reflected the sunlight the demon had eclipsed casting rainbows fluttering about through the shadows.

The demon reeled under the attack, black blood spurted from his wound as he reached to cover it, losing the gathered energy in the process.

"Dick move, Sam," the voice whispered in Sam's ear.

"Gary, how many scenarios are you in?" Sam asked.

"Almost all of them, why?"

"And of the ones you're in, how many of them do we kill you?"

"All of them."

"And why do we kill you in all of your scenarios?"

"Because at Bard Mart the heroes always win," Gary and Sam recite together.

"Gary, if you want to really hurt someone, I can't stop you from throwing your next fireball at us or anyone else. But-"

The demon recovered and bellowed out a roar that shook what was left of the burning buildings down and sent Solvantus backward on his rear.

"But," Sam pressed on, "I know that's not the real you. I wouldn't respect the man you're pretending to be right now. I wouldn't love that man."

The demon paused.

"You love me?" asked Gary.

"Well, yeah, in, uh, a guy way. You know," Sam stuttered, "I just mean..."

The demon's form lit his flame anew.

"You know what? Fuck it. Yes. I love you, Gary. Now stop this." The latter half of Sam's confession mirrored his resolve and was louder than he anticipated.

"Oi, not what I was expecting," Henry said.

"It's a distraction," Buck said quickly climbing to his knees and helping the Tuddles up, "now's your chance, charge up and finish him!"

"Right!" Henry jumped up with Mary and they both began to charge their attacks.

"Sam," the voice whispered, "I don't know what to say. I'm such a jerk. A dumb idiot jerk."

"Yeah," Sam replied, once again in control of his volume, "so let's talk about it. Let the Tuddles kill you and then we can go get a beer. Somewhere. Not here. Obviously."

"How? I torched this place," Gary said, "every magehunter and necro-killer in a hundred miles will be on me by nightfall."

"Then let your team do what we do best," Sam said as he stood up, "cover it all up and say it was part of the show. You know actual resurrection spells, right? Eh, it doesn't matter, we'll figure something out."

The demon smiled down at the party. He flapped his wings once and then turned his attention back to the Tuddles, who looked nearly ready to launch their attack or pass out from the effort. Rather than waiting to see which would occur first, the demon tore out the remainder of the ice lance and threw it to the ground, bellowing once more.

"Do your worst, mortals!"

"Now!" yelled Buck.

Henry and Mary unleashed their ultimate attack. Screaming with all their lungs could endure, they both threw forward their hands and shook them violently. Taking the queue, Solvantus took from his pouch some fine dust and threw it before the Tuddles and then gestured upward at the demon. A rush of white fire raced from the Tuddle's hands and rocketed toward the dark figure, engulfing him with a light as bright as the sun. The demon screamed in agony as the fire ate at him and was soon unable to keep aloft. Struggling with each wing flap, the demon descended bit by bit until his wings gave out and he tumbled to the ground below. With a thud the massive creature collided with the earth and remained motionless as the flames devoured his body. Within moments the fire dissipated leaving nothing behind.

"Wooooo! Yeah!" Henry and Mary yell out in their triumph, "we took down the necromancer!"

"You sure did," Buck said, "congratulations, you beat our first-ever necro-demon-death scenario! The hardest one, yet!"

"'ell yeah," Henry continued, "we're amazing! Can' touch us!"

The Tuddles celebrated their victory, dancing with and hugging each other.

"That it?" Henry asked over Mary's shoulder.

"Yeah," Sam said, "scenario complete. All done."

"What about our souvenir?"

"Right," said Sam, turning to look out over the battlefield.

"Right here," said Dorcy, ripping out a page from his journal and handing it over.

When Henry took the page he turned it over to show Mary. Across its surface was a depiction of a fierce looking demon battling two even more fierce looking Tuddles, all detailed in silver glowing ink.

"Gary must have done that," Dorcy whispered to Sam with a shrug.

"Well, I hope that was a amazing adventure for the Tuddles," Sam said as he pat Dorcy on the shoulder and helped Solvantus to his feet, "please think of us again the next time you guys want another awe-inspiring and daring campaign."

"Oi, five stars. Ten outta ten!" Henry said as he handed Mary the paper. As they turned to leave they minded their steps, being careful not to touch the burnt remains of people or other things, they couldn't be sure of either, on their way out. Mary squealed at the picture and hugged Henry tightly as they walked away.

The bards stood upon the hill and overlooked the aftermath. Gary slowly fizzled into sight next to them.

"So I guess we have some work to do," Sam said, smiling at Gary and then to his team.

"Right," Gary said, "let's get to work. And... I'm sorry."

The bards let the moment work.

"Dorcy," Sam broke the silence, "write up a cover story explaining how this was our biggest production yet. No dialog, just the facts."

"Solvantus," Sam continued, "whip us up some wind spells and anything you can do to restore these houses. We've got to make it look like it used to."

"And Gary," Sam said, turning to the necromancer, "raise the dead. For real. Let's undo as many deaths as we can."

Each bard nodded in return of their tasks except Buck, who remained eagerly waiting.

"And me?"

"You do what you always do, make them feel like they're a part of the show."