Thursday, October 30, 2014

There Ain’t No Money in Fanfic: Dumptruk’s Sweet Sixteen

I found myself skimming through Google Groups the other day and discovered that last month marked an anniversary. A couple anniversaries, actually, as the month of September 1998 is when I posted my first two fanfics to the Usenet newsgroup. Social media—a term that had yet to be coined—was in some ways very different from what we have today and, in others, very similar. For one thing, Usenet newsgroups were generally text only. “Text only” meaning “text only,” not “I’ll tweet this HD clip of a squirrel doing a cute thing.” Because of the limits of technology at the time, i.e., dial-up modems that could typically handle 28.8 kbps or less, downloading image or—heaven forbid—video or audio files to a discussion group took a long time and was considered bad netiquette. Some folks out there were paying for their connection time by the minute. (If you wanted to share cat pictures or porn, there were dedicated newsgroups for those things for those who had the patience and/or connection speed.)
The way in which it was like today was that it comprised communities of people from around the world bantering, discussing, and joking about a common interest. In this case, the common interest was Blizzard’s computer game Diablo and the community was (or AGD to us regulars) whose colorful membership included a woman who it turned out I went to high school with and a guy named Mickey who ended up selling his URL to Disney for a pretty tidy sum (it was the very early days of the Internet).
Anyway, it was during a discussion about barbarian characters and whether or not they should use magic that AGD regular Dalai Lama posted his short story, “Belchard’s Philosophy.” I had two reactions to it. The first was “That was a really great story!” The second was “Wait a second. We can write stories?”

Not this guy (at least, as far as I know)

So, on September 2, 1998, I posted “Dumptruk Meets a Soul Burner” to AGD along with an apology for the excessive file size of 12 KB (it was the very early days of the Internet).
Here it is, old enough to get its driver’s license and annotated for your reading pleasure.
“Dumptruk Meets a Soul Burner” [1]
The hot air stank of scorched flesh and ash. It was, at the same time, unbreathably thin and oppressively heavy. The ground crunched underfoot like millions of tiny bones or insects, and was the color of an infected bruise. The walls seemed carved from the bones of some great beast. Given all that, it hadn’t surprised Dumptruk [2] in the least when, after describing the above to Caine [3], Caine had explained that Dumptruk had crossed a dimensional barrier and literally entered Hell.
And then there were its denizens. Great sword-wielding serpents who reared-up as tall as the ogres of his homeland. Vicious armored warriors who exploded in black flames when slain. And then there were the succubi. At least, that’s what Caine had called them. Dumptruk accepted the strange new word; he didn’t feel comfortable referring to the evil creatures as “women” despite their obvious female appearance. The kind-hearted Gillian and her ailing grandmother were women. His mother, who had firmly and lovingly raised him and his fourteen brothers, was a woman. Dumptruk would have killed any man who dared put his mother in the same class as these creatures. Likewise, Dumptruk didn’t think it fair to call them witches even though they cast spells. That strange ageless woman across the river was a witch. Visiting her hut always made Dumptruk a little edgy, but she always seemed glad to buy the books, scrolls and staves he found. [4] He had to trust her to deal with him fairly since he had no idea what kind of squiggles made one book or scroll more valuable than another. She was also willing to buy those strange blue potions he sometimes found. [5] Dumptruk had tried one once. It had made him feel itchy and restless as if there were something inside him straining to get out. It also made him a little horny. Caine had explained that many sorcerers literally lived on the blue potion. If true, it only reaffirmed Dumptruk’s life-long philosophy: Never turn your back on a sorcerer. In any event, Dumptruk never felt inclined to try one of those potions again.
Dumptruk was running as fast as he could in the choking air. Ahead of him was a retreating succubus. [6] She and her sisters had ambushed him, blasting away with bursts of red and golden energy. Although the lights were pretty, they stung when they hit. Dumptruk was certain they would do a lot more than sting if they ever caught him without the ridiculous armor he wore.
Despite being full plate, the armor was virtually weightless. It was black-and-white, just like a heifer. [7] It also had a giant metal udder that protruded from the stomach and clanged whenever he walked. The man who had given Dumptruk the armor had been dressed as a cow himself. He had given Dumptruk the Bovine Plate in exchange for a moose suit Dumptruk had found. Dumptruk had met stranger individuals on his travels, but not many.
Dumptruk had taken the armor to Caine who told him that the Bovine Plate was forged from pure mananite. After patiently explaining that mananite was a type of metal, not a tribe of farmers who wore black and led simple lives according to their religious beliefs, [8] Caine went on to say that the armor’s strength came from absorbing magical energy—mana—from its surroundings. Over many years it had absorbed enough mana to become indestructible and harder than the shell of an ancient dragon turtle. It would even blunt the power of magical attacks aimed at its wearer. Despite this, the armor had not been well-crafted. Its maker had forgotten to enchant the armor not to absorb mana from the wearer. Caine had gravely informed Dumptruk that he would be unable to cast spells in the armor. Dumptruk had just shrugged.
(Actually, Dumptruk did have a magic power. He had acquired it after investigating an ornate shrine [9] in the dungeon. He found he could generate small balls of lightning that would travel along the ground like glowing white drunken spiders. He briefly entertained the idea of assuming a new identity as a warrior-mage, but dropped the idea for two reasons: A) it wasn’t a very effective spell; it was just adequate for cooking small animals for dinner. B) Someone pointed out that the name “Lightning Balls” was unlikely to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. Dumptruk had finally given up the spell altogether after he nearly set Pepin’s hut on fire trying to race two of the charged bolts across the village square.)
After Caine had finished describing the armor at great length, Dumptruk took it to Griswold. The poor craftsmanship enraged the Master Blacksmith. In fact, Dumptruk hadn’t seen Gris so angry since Wirt had concocted a scam wherein he tried to convince the town that he was really Griswold’s illegitimate son. “Mad Cow Armor!” Griswold had snorted. On general principle, he refused to offer Dumptruk more than 100 gold pieces for the armor, so Dumptruk kept it. [10]
Dumptruk was gaining on the succubus. She was the last one. In each corner of the stygian chamber, one of her sisters lay dead. The demonesses were plenty brave shooting at Dumptruk from a distance, but they had little appetite for hand-to-hand combat. He had painstakingly chased each one into a corner and brained her with Gnarled Root while her sisters enjoyed free shots at his back. Even with the Bovine Plate (which, due to another design flaw, glowed like a roaring campfire and made him an easy target), Dumptruk probably could not have survived such a concentrated assault from the succubi if not for another artifact he wore.

The Bovine Plate, Leoric's Crown, and Gnarled Root

Dumptruk was quite fond of Gillian. Not only did she faithfully store the extra treasure, potions and magic items he found, but she was pretty, unconditionally polite and charming to everyone she encountered; and would not have lasted three seconds in a real fight. There was something about her that filled Dumptruk with the need to protect her from stray dogs and strange men. So when she told him about a grave matter in the old crypt, he promised to check it out for her.
What he had found instead was a huge chunk of glowing masonry. Remembering what Gillian had said about leaving an offering, Dumptruk dropped a magic bow on the block. It was, according to Caine, a very powerful weapon, but Dumptruk had never been much of an archer. As soon as Dumptruk let go of the bow, a booming voice began babbling about a year of golden light or some nonsense and nearly scared Dumptruk out of his armor. [11]
When Dumptruk returned, after the voice had finally shut up, the bow was gone, and, in its place, was a battered crown forged from a heavy metal.
Caine identified the crown as that of their tragically lost king, Leoric. A curse had fallen upon the crown and, when Dumptruk wore it in battle, he wanted to kill and kill until nothing was left standing. In other words, it wasn’t much different than not wearing it. Interestingly, each time he landed a blow upon an enemy, the crown would make him feel stronger. Dumptruk’s wounds would close as if the crown was somehow causing the life force to drain from his enemies into him. Actually, the bloodlust that the crown inspired in him concerned Dumptruk. He was glad he worked alone, because he could easily imagine the crown’s thirst for blood causing him to turn on an ally before he could stop himself. Likewise, he also worried that it might lead him to charge into an overwhelming situation and get killed. There was nothing to do about that, other than to just try and be careful. The crown’s benefits still outweighed its risks.
The succubus had gotten far enough ahead of Dumptruk to stop and fire off a shot. A sun-yellow burst exploded to Dumptruk’s right. Dumptruk knew it was his right because that was the hand he used to wield his weapon. The spiked club hadn’t looked promising at first when Dumptruk killed a giant acid-spitting spider for it, but he quickly changed his mind after Caine had identified and analyzed it for him. Caine had identified it as Gnarled Root and Dumptruk found he could hit three times as hard with it as he could with any other weapon he found. That was hard enough to kill any enemy with a single blow, assuming he got a good hit. Why someone would want to drive a few nails through an old piece of a tree stump and then dip the whole thing in an iron-mananite alloy was beyond Dumptruk, but why argue with success? It probably made more sense than using up a half-million gold pieces worth of mananite to forge a 100 gp suit of Mad Cow Armor.
The succubus—the yellow energy blast told Dumptruk that she was a Soul Burner—had run into a corner. As Dumptruk raised Gnarled Root over his head to strike her down, she turned to face him and Dumptruk hesitated. [12] She was beautiful. Her night-black hair framed an unblemished heart-shaped face that was at once girlish and womanly. Her expression showed both vulnerability and a promise of everything that she was willing to share with him if he spared her. Dumptruk spared a glance at her ample bare breasts. Whether she was out of breath from the chase or whether her breathlessness was part of her offer, Dumptruk couldn’t tell. In either case, it was almost enough to allow him to overlook the tiny horns protruding from her forehead. To sample those charms, he might be able to ignore the furiously beating little wings that grew from her shoulder blades.
(Dumptruk often wondered about the wings. They were bat-like, but beat like a hummingbird’s. They were far too small to carry the succubi in flight. Perhaps, he theorized, they permitted the succubi to run across uneven ground in those high-heeled boots they seemed to favor. Or maybe they acted as a counterbalance to their prodigious chests. Or perhaps, in whatever strange and dark dimension the succubi called home, they actually could fly.)
Dumptruk didn’t like killing the succubi anyway. They were too pretty, too human-looking. Not that Dumptruk had any problem killing any man or monster who came at him in battle, but killing these scantily-clad opponents seemed somehow dishonorable. Even knowing their true nature, it still felt like beating up on a bunch of girls. Dumptruk had taken to loudly humming a drinking ditty he knew whenever he battled succubi. The tune masked their screams and the sickening sounds of their skulls caving in or rib cages shattering.
Dumptruk started to lower Gnarled Root. Perhaps it would work: Her love for him would ease his loneliness. His love for her would restore her humanity. Then he stopped.
It wasn’t that he noticed the yellow-white energy arcing between her slender fingertips as she charged-up to blast him at point-blank range that stopped him. No, Dumptruk had gotten a good look into her eyes. No lights were on, and no one was home.
There was nothing remotely human in those eyes. If there ever had been, it had died cold and alone a long, long time ago. A drunken tryst with an ugly stranger in a filthy alley would be more desirable than coupling with this creature. Even joining with one of the cows in the field would have returned Dumptruk more love and meaning.
Dumptruk raised Gnarled Root again. This time, he didn’t have to hum.
[1]       I later retitled it “Dumptruk’s Temptation” because I thought it would be nice for the piece to have a title that didn’t stink.
[2]       Dumptruk was named for a non-player character in a college Dungeons & Dragons campaign who was a hill giant under the thrall of a weretiger/sorceress.
[3]       I misspelled this character’s name. There’s no “e” on the end. Anyway, in the game, Cain was the Exposition Guy and he was voiced by an actor who seemed to be doing a not-terrible impression of Sean Connery.
[4]       Gillian and Adria were two more town NPCs in Diablo. Adria, the witch, bought and sold magic staves, potions, and books and also sent you on a side quest. Gillian, the barmaid, didn’t do much of anything. I used to store my excess inventory near her cottage.
[5]       Mana potions, for restoring one’s magic powers. Assuming you had magic powers to restore. The Barbarian character class, developed but not fully implemented in Sierra’s official expansion to Diablo, Hellfire, had a base magic ability of zero, so mana potions and spell books were not much use to him. (You could activate the Barbarian test character by writing and adding a short text file to the game’s directory.)
[6]       Succubi were monsters encountered in the final third of Diablo. They were scantily clad babes with horns and little bat wings who hunted in packs and fought as snipers, shooting bolts of magic energy. If your character was a hand-to-hand combatant like Dumptruk, it was pretty much like bringing a sword to a gunfight.
[7]       Well, actually, a Holstein. The Bovine Plate and the NPC who provided it figured heavily in a lot of my other Diablo fanfics.
[8]       Boom. Pun.
[9]       It was a thing in Diablo, literally called an “Ornate Shrine.” If you touched it, it granted you the ability to cast a Charged Bolt spell, but it was a weak level-one spell.
[10]     Griswold bought, repaired, and sold weapons and armor. He had a Scottish accent that somebody obviously had fun doing. Wirt was a shady character who would sell you random magic items of dubious quality, but it cost 50 gold pieces to even see his inventory. He was the NPC everyone loved to hate.
[11]     This was a tool for swapping items between characters in the Hellfire add-on. That way, if you were playing as a Sorcerer and you found a really cool sword or something, you could drop it off at the “Cornerstone of the World” where it would be available for your Warrior to pick up next time you played as that character.
[12]     This was the in-game genesis of this story. I was playing, much as described in the story, when my Barbarian came face-to-face with a Soul Burner. They stood there like that for a moment and I wondered what passed between them.

"So... Come here often?"

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