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Math is Hard

By Matthew Perrett All Rights Reserved ©

Humor / Fantasy

Chapter 1

"So, you want me to get rid of the wizard in the tower?" Frank asked.

The village elder nodded.  "Seemed like a good thing at first, seeing as how we ain't had a renter in that old tower in ages, and the coin didn't hurt none.  This area used t'be real popular with dark mages back in my grandpappy's day – towers all over the place, even a few timeshares."

Frank crinkled his nose as the smell of the nearby bog wafted in on a humid breeze.  "I can see the appeal."

"You're ramblin' again," the elder's wife interjected.

"I ain't ramblin', Myrtle!  I was just gettin' to the point!"  He cleared his throat as his wife rolled her eyes.  "Anyway, the feller in the tower's been a right nuisance lately.  We figured, ain't our place t'deal with this, so we put in a request with the adventurer's guild, and that's where you come in."

Grinning, Frank rubbed his hands together in anticipation.  "Been awhile since I took care of a wizard.  What kind of trouble has he been causing you folks?  Summoning demons, raising the dead, raining down fiery destruction?"

The old man absently scratched his beard.  "None of that, 'cept maybe the fire.  Nothin' outside the tower, mind, just some explosions inside.  That and a whole lotta cussin'."

His wife shook her head in amazement.  "Lordy, that cussin'!  Feller could make a sailor blush."

Frank's face drooped in disappointment.  "Okay, no major crimes against humanity then.  How about the less serious stuff?  Stealing, starting fights, anything like that?"

The elder shrugged.  "Naw, not really.  Hog goes missing now 'n then, but he always leaves money behind t'pay for 'em.  Ain't that right, Zeke?"

"Yep, sure is," answered one of the villagers behind the elder.  "Every month or so I'll come out in the mornin' and find a hog gone and a stack of coins on a fence post.  I offered t'butcher 'em for him once, but he just pretended he didn't know what I was talkin' about.  Real prideful sort, I reckon."

"Never any footprints," another man mused.  "You suppose he's got one of them invisible servants, or he just turns hisself invisible?"

The pig farmer snorted.  "You been drinkin' too much rotgut, Dale.  Ain't no way a mage that scrawny could carry a whole hog off by hisself.  'Sides, someone with invisibility cast on 'em still leaves footprints.  Unless they cast Greater Invisibility, that is."

"If this guy is such an upstanding citizen," Frank broke in before the conversation wandered down any further tangents, "why do you want him gone so badly?"

"Noise," the elder's wife stated simply.

The old man nodded.  "Feller's up at all hours of the night, cacklin' about world domination and his enemies ruin' the day they were born.  Them explosions make a real racket, too.  Hard when a man's gotta be up before dawn t'do honest work."  The crowd murmured in agreement.  "That and the cussin'," he added.

Myrtle shook her head.  "Lordy, that cussin'."

"Let me get this straight," Frank said.  "You called for an adventurer to evict a tenant because of a noise complaint?"

The elder was silent for a moment.  "Well, that and the sunbathin' incident."

The villagers shuddered as one.  "Once seen, can't never be unseen," droned one woman emotionlessly.

"Honestly, he's really not a bad sort," the elder said.  "If you could talk him into keepin' the cacklin' and explodin' and cussin' to daylight hours, and maybe sunbathin' on the roof inside of the front yard, that'd solve the problem right nicely for us."

Frank crossed his arms and glowered at the old man.  "This sounded a lot better in the ad," he groused.

The village elder glowered back.  "Look buddy, you want the job or not?"

Frank tapped his feet for a few seconds, then sighed.  "Fine, I'll do it."

The pig farmer stepped forward and handed held a few coins out to the fighter.  "Oh, and could you give these back to that feller while you're over there?  He overpaid for the last hog he took.  I reckon it weren't no mistake, seein' as how it's been a hard year, but I won't take no charity.  We're proud folk in these parts."

Biting back an angry response about not being a delivery service, Frank pocketed the coins.  Be cool, Frank, he thought, just be a professional and get the job done.  How hard could it be to beat some sense into some wannabe dark lord?


Arriving at the wizard's tower around dusk, Frank took a moment to empty the bog water from his boots before sizing up the structure.  At least from a distance, it looked very much like a stereotypical spellcaster's tower, though the adventurer knew very well that appearances were often deceptive when magic users were involved.  The building was three, maybe four stories tall, and was constructed with dark, weathered grey stones.  The walls were covered with a greenish film that gave it a sickly tint.  He guessed that it was some sort of moss or algae from the bogs, but he certainly didn't care enough to investigate further.  A light could be seen from a window near the top.  Good odds on someone being home, hopefully the mage he was here for.

Pulling his sword from the sheath on his back, Frank approached the front door.  It looked like an ordinary door, albeit one that was old and slightly rotted.  This is going to be easy, Frank thought with a chuckle as he reached for the handle.

Just before his hand came into contact with the rusted metal, the fighter realized what he was doing.  He jerked his hand back and swore under his breath.  He was experienced enough to know better than to enter a mage's abode without checking for traps first.  Examining the door, he smiled grimly as he spotted what seemed to be a paralysis rune...or was it just a stain?  He didn't feel like taking his chances, so he broke off a piece of some nearby brush and prodded the door.  The hinges creaked loudly, but there was no accompanying surge of magical energy.  He poked it with his sword, harder this time, and the door swung open a little further with another noisy squeak.  He glanced at the spot again.  Yup, just a stain after all.

Tossing aside the brush, Frank gripped the hilt of his sword with both hands.  He took a deep breath, then kicked the door open and leaped inside.  He spun his blade around in a complex pattern designed to guard his upper body against foes on all sides...only to discover, as his eyes adjusted to the dim interior, that he was alone.  Feeling slightly foolish, he lowered his weapon and scanned the room.  It was just a dusty foyer, with a small pile of garbage on the far side and a circular staircase leading up.  A few magic-powered lights along the walls provided some measure of illumination.  He frowned; he had expected skeletons or a golem or some variety of guard, not an empty room.

The warrior shrugged and started up the stairs.  He carefully checked the steps for traps, but found nothing.  So far he hadn't found a hint of any defenses – hell, the front door hadn't even been locked or barred – and he wasn't sure what to think.  The stairs led to a narrow hallway with two rooms, one on each side.  Choosing the closer of the two, Frank slowly opened the door and peered inside.  Looked like a kitchen, if that kitchen had been invaded by a horde of particularly unhygienic barbarians.  Unless he felt like looting the wizard's stale bread and moldy salted pork, which he didn't, there was no reason to bother investigating further.  The second door was slightly ajar, and the stench of decay grew stronger as he approached the room.  Maybe he had gotten lucky and the mage was already dead.  He couldn't see much of anything through the crack, so he carefully pushed the door open.  Probably a lavatory, if he had to gue—

A deluge of lukewarm water obliterated all thought from his mind.  As he stood in the doorway, dripping and gaping like a fish, his eyes settled on a cylindrical metal object on the floor at his feet.  A bucket, he realized.  He had fallen for the old bucket-on-a-door prank.  A bucket full of bog water.  He was covered in filthy, stinking bog water.

This wizard was going to die.

Furious, Frank stormed up the stairs to the third floor.  Near the top of the stairwell he saw a small hole in the wall and froze in his tracks, one foot still in the air.  A chill ran down his spine as he imagined what might have happened had he not noticed the potential trap.  It was an almost perfect setup: enrage an intruder past the point of thinking rationally, then let them blunder into a far deadlier trap before they came to their senses.  The apparent ease of entry and lack of other traps might also play into it, encouraging an unwary trespasser to relax their guard until it was too late.  Clever, very clever.

The adventurer examined the area around his feet with extreme care, then put his foot down in a place he was sure was safe.  When nothing happened, he breathed a sigh of relief.  Tapping his chin, he pondered the nature of the trap up ahead.  Fire?  No, the walls would show signs of heat, and he suspected that the stench of burning flesh and boiling bog water would be difficult to eliminate.  Lightning?  Definitely a possibility, since the water trap would make the electricity more effective.  Of course, a simple arrow or dart trap could get the job done just as well as a bolt of lightning and wouldn't require any magic.

Ultimately, Frank reasoned, it wouldn't matter as long as he found and avoided the trigger.  Stepping cautiously around the curve of the stairwell, he scanned the steps and walls for anything that might set the trap off.  He almost cheered when he saw it: a step that was a subtly different shade from the others.  He was about to jump over it when the thought occurred to him that it might be a bluff.  Maybe the next step was the real trigger.  He stared at the steps, frantically trying to work out the possibilities.  Was it really a bluff?  What if it were a double bluff, intended to make him think the discolored step was safe?  What if it were the next next step, which most people would never even consider?

Well, there was only one way to find out.  He jumped onto the discolored step with one foot, then hurled himself back down the stairs and hopefully out of line of sight.  After several tense seconds, he realized that nothing had happened.  He walked back up and put his weight down on the discolored step.  It didn't budge.  Taking a chance, he tried the next step.  Nothing happened.  The third step was also entirely ordinary, no different from any other step and definitely not the trigger for a trap.  The fighter dropped to the ground and crawled up the stairs to the hole in the wall, making sure that he kept his head far below it.  Once he was past it, he got up and examined it again.  With a sinking feeling, he realized that it was just a broken bit of masonry.  The trap he had been so afraid of was just a shadowy crevice filled with cobwebs.  There probably wasn't a single trap or defense mechanism anywhere in the whole godforsaken tower.

Gritting his teeth, Frank stalked up the remaining steps without incident.  He was so very, very done with this job, this tower, this bog, with this whole damn area.  The messy bedroom that occupied the third floor barely even registered as he angrily strode through it, unconsciously kicking aside piles of dirty clothes and other assorted debris.  He didn't bother checking for traps as he made his way up the stairs to what he hoped was the top floor.  Nothing barred his way except one last door, which he shoved open without any concern for noise.

This chamber, a laboratory from the looks of it, was actually occupied, though the occupant was too engrossed in what he was doing to notice the warrior's entrance.  A man – at least, Frank thought it was a man – with flowing black robes and long, greasy hair was madly scribbling away on a huge blackboard on the far side of the room.  An extensive collection of alchemic equipment and supplies took up the left side of the room, and the right side housed a few large bookshelves and a writing table.  In the center was a large, not entirely neat magic circle.  The walls, floor and ceiling were littered with scorch marks, and the room smelled vaguely of sulfur and...apple sauce?

If he had been planning on killing the guy, Frank would have been quite happy to take advantage of the mage's inattention.  Well, he had planned on killing him, but he had calmed down enough to resist the urge to use deadly force.  He mustered up what little patience he had left and waited for the man to turn around.  To pass the time, he took a peek at what the spellcaster was writing.  It looked like a long, complex series of equations mixed with incantations.  Some sort of math-based spell, maybe?  Something clicked in his head, and he snorted in amusement.  That would certainly explain the explosions and cursing, alright.

This sound the wizard noticed.  He spun around, brandishing his chalk as if it were a wand.  "So, an adventurer has come to foil my plans for world domination!" he cackled wildly.  "Little did you know that today would be the day you would meet your doom at the hands of—"  He  broke off, seeing that Frank wasn't listening to him.  "Hey, I'm talking to you!"

"Huh?  Oh, sorry."  Frank gestured at the blackboard.  "That's not going to work, you know.  It's just going to blow up in your face again."

The magic user sneered.  "What would one such as you know about—"

"Math?  You've got a few glaring errors in your equations here."  Frank strode past the mage to the blackboard and pointed at a particularly dense part of the scribbling.  "Look, you have sine where you should have cosine.  Also, I'm pretty sure that even in advanced magical formulae, one plus one still equals two."

The wizard gaped in astonishment.  "How did you—"

Frank shrugged.  "I may have specialized in hitting things with a sword, but I paid attention in class.  By the way, I think you have a syntax error in your Draconian."

"Where?!"

"Right here," Frank replied, jabbing his finger at the offending passage.

"Oh...so I do." The mage at least had the decency to look embarrassed, Frank noted.

The adventurer shook his head.  "Jeez, no wonder you haven't taken over the world yet."

The dark mage shrugged weakly.  "Well, it's a long road, you know?"

"Yeah, I hear that.  Maybe you should think about taking a break and going back to school."

The wizard sighed and collapsed into a nearby chair.  "I was considering it, but it's tough to give up on a dream."

Sheathing his sword, Frank took a seat on a stool from the alchemy lab.  "Well, you've got some other options.  You could work as an assistant to a more experienced dark lord, for example."

The young man screwed up his face at that.  "I know how those guys treat their employees, so no thank you."

"Or you could find a partner, preferably someone who complements your strengths and weaknesses."

"A co-conspirator!  The idea does have merit."

"You could also drop the whole 'dark lord' thing and offer your services to the locals."  Frank held up a hand when the mage started to protest.  "Hear me out, okay?  The townsfolk seem to like you well enough, and I'm not sure you have the right temperament to be a world conqueror.  Besides, it's a risky line of work – a lot of adventurers would have just stabbed you in the back, looted your tower and went on their merry way without a second thought."

"It can be a bit dangerous – high risk, high reward and all that," admitted the youth.  "But what do I tell my dad?  All my life I've been hearing about how I have to follow in his footsteps and join the family profession.  Plus, he and my mom and keeping me afloat right now."

Frank shrugged.  "Just tell him how you really feel.  He'll be disappointed for a while, sure, but he'll get over it.  Besides, you can't sponge off your parents forever."

The wizard nodded thoughtfully, then looked at Frank quizzically.  "Say, what brought you out this way, anyhow?"

"Oh, right!  The villagers wanted me to ask you to keep the noise down.  They go to bed early, and you're keeping them up at night.  Oh, and something about sunbathing."

The mage colored with embarrassment, but coughed in a vain attempt to hide it.  "I'm, uh, sure I can rearrange my schedule to their satisfaction."  He cocked his head to the side.  "Why didn't they just tell me themselves?"

The adventurer gestured dismissively.  "I dunno, I guess they thought it would be awkward or something."  Suddenly, he snapped his fingers and pulled out his coin purse.  "Almost forgot, some pig farmer said you overpaid him and wanted me to give you the change."

"Oh, Zeke!  I was hoping he'd just keep it, but they're proud folk in these parts."

"I'm sure he'd be happy to do some extra work, like butchering the pigs for you," Frank said as he pulled out the coins and held them out.  "You could also have someone come in once a week and tidy the place up a bit.  The community could use the extra income, and the tower could stand to look less like a bachelor pad and more like the home of a respectable magician."

The wizard took the coins from Frank and wrinkled his nose.  "Did you fall in the bog on the way here?"

Frank's lips tightened in anger.  "No, I got a bucket dumped on my head in your bathroom."

The young man looked apologetic.  "When you opened the door?  I'm really very sorry about that.  It's my invisible servant's favorite prank.  Wind spirits can be such tricksters sometimes.  I do hope you can forgive him."

The fighter smiled grimly.  "Yeah," he said through gritted teeth.  "No harm done."

The mage chuckled nervously.  "Yes, well, you've given me a lot to think about, and I shouldn't keep you any later."  Rising, he walked over to a shelf and picked up a lantern.  A brief incantation caused it to light up.  "The light will guide you back to the village," he said, handing it to Frank.  "Just leave it with the elder when you get back."

Frank took the lantern.  "Thanks.  You might get a survey from the adventurer's guild in a week or two."

"Don't worry, I'll be sure to give you a glowing review.  Take care now!"

Bidding the wizard farewell, Frank made his way down to the entrance of the tower.  He was glad to be done; he was already tired, and he still had a long walk ahead of him.  As he approached the front door, he frowned.  Hadn't it been hanging the other way before?  A thought occurred to him, and he glanced up through the crack of the slightly ajar door.  Yup, just as he thought.  Pulling out his sword, he pushed the bucket resting on top of the door until it tilted backwards, and was rewarded with an angry rustling of wind.  He opened the door and grinned savagely at the shimmering outline of a wet-looking humanoid.  "Fool me twice, shame on me and all that."

In response, the spirit made a rude gesture.  Frank just laughed and walked away with a spring in his step.  This job hadn't been so bad after all.

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