“What is that smell?” someone in line behind Walter asked.
He didn’t look up or acknowledge it. It might not be him. Sure, he was a shit farmer from a long line of shit farmers, but it could be someone wearing Battle Axe body spray.
“Yeah, something smells like shit,” someone else added.
It could still be Battle Axe.
“Next,” the kobold working the desk said.
Walter hurried forward and held out his class course selection parchment.
“Name,” the kobold said without looking up. A nametag on his tunic read “Marvin.”
“Walter,” he said and lowered his voice. “Dungharvester.”
“Dungha—” Marvin looked up, his yellow eyes going wide. He sniffed the air a couple times and leaned back.
Walter didn’t move, just held the parchment out. He’d prepared himself for this, though apparently washing all his robes and undergarments eight times, taking three showers, and loading up on deodorant didn’t do any good. He made a mental note to pick up some Celtic Spring body wash.
Marvin reached out, took the parchment between two claws as if it might explode and coat the room in a layer of crap. After a careful examination, Marvin reluctantly set the parchment on his table, well away from anything else.
“Student ID,” he said.
“What?” Walter asked.
“Student identification card,” Marvin said, as if to an idiot child. “It’s a little card with your name and picture on it.”
Walter reached into his bag and began fishing through it. “Sorry, I didn’t think I’d need it anymore.”
The kobold just sighed and rolled his eyes, hand still out as Walter removed items from his bag and set them on the table: registration paperwork, quills, ink, comic scrolls, dorm room key, student handbook—
He cleared his throat and gave an apologetic smile. “Sorry, I know it’s in here.” He pulled out the small checkbook—the account contained the princely sum of two copper phalluses, one of which would soon be claimed by the bank as a monthly low balance fee—and found the ID underneath the cover.
He sighed, handed it over, then set to shoving everything back into his bag.
Marvin checked the ID, handed it back, then opened a gigantic tome. He flipped through pages of remarkably small text, ticking marks every now and then.
“You’re lucky,” Marvin said, marking another tick. “‘Hexes, curses, and the unholy art of retributive magics’ is being taught by Dr. Heckel. She’s a great teacher, but watch out for her assistant. Mr. Jyde can be a monumental asshole. I suggest sitting near the back and try not to show any fear.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Walter said and peered at a line of ticks. “Did I get into ‘Necromantic studies in horde building’?”
“Second to last spot,” Marvin said.
“Yes!” Walter did a little happy dance.
Marvin drew in a breath. “However, I’m now required to point out that it’s horde building, with a ‘d’.”
Walter blinked. “I don’t follow. What else could it could—oh dear Gods!”
Marvin nodded. “Yeah, an undead brothel makes one hell of a mess. It’ll be another year before ‘Ratigan the Fleshy’ hall is cleaned up enough for anyone to stay there.”
Walter shuddered. He wasn’t a prude, but he’d never understood not-so-necrophilia.
“You do not want to meet the ghosts that haunt that place,” Marvin said as he resumed marking the tome. “Sorry, ‘Raining fire and destruction 101’ is full.”
Walter knew that’d been a long shot. “What about ‘Intro to outer-planar contracts’ instead?”
“It’s open,” Marvin said and made a mark. “But you’re still missing the required athletics and liberal arts courses.”
“Um, well,” Walter said, adjusting his robes, which reminded him they were secondhand and freshly mended, by his mother no less. “I’m either majoring in Applied Necromantic Arts or Thaumaturgic Annihilative Studies,” he shrugged, “maybe a double major I don’t know, so I—”
“Tough tinkles, Dungharvester,” Marvin said, giving him a flat look. “It’s required that all freshmeats take an athletic, and an arts course in their first two semesters—”
“What?” Walter asked.
“You said freshmeat,” Walter said. “You meant freshmen, right?”
Walter opened his mouth to question further, but decided against it. “What are my options for athletics and arts?”
Marvin flipped to another page. “For athletics we have openings in beginning jousting.” He smiled. “You know the Erstwhile Ents tourney and jousting team made it to the all kingdom finals last year.”
“Yeah, I know,” Walter said, “but, um, jousting isn’t really my thing.”
“You sure?” Marvin asked. “Coach Horzrath, eater of spleens, teaches the class himself. And we only had seven student deaths last year. That’s an all-time low.”
“Yeah, tempting, but I have really bad carpal tunnel syndrome,” Walter said.
Marvin shrugged. “Archery?”
Walter tapped his spectacles. “Far sighted.”
“Anything less, um,” Walter bounced his head from side to side. “Physical?”
“You do understand what the word athletic means, right?” Marvin asked.
Walter opened his mouth.
Walter glanced down then back up. “What about bowling?”
“Oh, I like bowling.”
“Huzzah, I’m sure we’ll have a festival to celebrate,” Marvin said in a flat tone. “For arts class we have—”
“I don’t want to be a bard, why do I—?”
“Because it’s the rules,” Marvin said and pointed across the room. “And the line for people who give two shits is over there. This is the line for people give a single shit, and I’m fresh out.”
“I see why they have you working the table.”
“Yeah, my people skills are the stuff of legend and song,” Marvin said. “You can take a philosophy course in lieu of art. What about ‘Discussions on Current Events’? It’s taught by Sarlakin the baby gnawer—”
“The ogre that invaded the kingdom a last year?” Walter asked. “He wasn’t list in the handbook.”
Marvin shrugged. “Part of the peace treaty granted him tenure. He also teaches ‘Human privilege and non-human studies’ as well as ‘Intro to interpretive dance.’”
“I’m from the Feculence Hills,” Walter said. “I’d rather not take a class taught by the ogre who slaughtered a third of my neighbors.”
“Typical human,” Marvin said. “There’s a spot in ‘Crumbling Towers: The Toxicity of damsel in distress stereotypes’?”
“Probably a lot of girls in that one,” Walter said to himself smiling.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Marvin asked.
“What? No! I didn’t mean, uh, I just—”
“I know what you ‘just,’” Marvin said. “You think the rampant sexism princesses have had to deal with all these years is some kind of joke? You don’t suppose they’d rather armor up and take on that dragon themselves instead of waiting for Sir Bro to rescue them?”
“No!” Walter said. “I mean yes! I’m sorry, I. Um.” Walter cleared his throat. “I guess, um, put me down for non-human studies?”
“Good choice,” Marvin said and marked the book. “I think you’ll find it quite enlightening.”
Walter nodded as the memory of his neighbors being pulled apart like string cheese flashed in his head.
Marvin marked up the parchment and thrust it at Walter. “Your required tome list is in the class catalog next to each course,” he said. “Orientation for freshmeats is in Lord Tautkeister the Frugal auditorium every three bells, starting at noon.” He looked at the line. “Next.”
A human girl dressed in all black, probably a student acolyte of the dark goddess Penelope, stepped around him, and handed her paperwork to Marvin.
Walter tucked the paper into his bag and headed for the exit. Once outside he checked the time. He had just under an hour to kill before orientation. He didn’t feel up to going back to his dorm. Kevin, his roommate—a bardic studies major—was nice enough, but Walter could only take so much epic poetry about unrequited love. And he really hated lute music.
He made his way through the quad to the feast hall, bought a shank of mutton and a chai tea. He ate by himself on the terrace, downwind from everyone else, and marveled at the grey stone spires above him. The intricate carvings were amazing and the twisting towers reached high into the bright blue sky.
There was a crashing sound as a pile of gargoyle droppings crashed to the stone courtyard. Instinctively, he calculated the value of a pile that size. Masons would pay through the nose for that stuff; it made for incredible mortar.
“No,” he said to himself. “That isn’t who you are anymore. You’re a scholar at Erstwhile Thaumatecnic University, the finest institution of higher learning in all the lands.”
He might not be as well dressed as the legacy nobles, or as muscled as the joust scholarship recipients, but he deserved to be here. Hell, he’d even earned a scholarship. Well, a partial scholarship, but still.
This was his chance to escape a fate of farming shit, and he was going to succeed, damn it! He’d finish his undergrad studies then work towards his doctorate, probably in the infernal arts. After that, he’d build a horde, and then a tower near a nice village he could terrorize. In a few years, once his skill at iron-fisted domination improved, he could work his way up to something nicer. He wasn’t greedy; extorting a modest city could provide a very nice living. Once he settled in, he could think about getting married and maybe even having some kids.
With his positive outlook refreshed, he made his way to Tautkeister auditorium. Soon he was just another of the countless new scholars, filled with the optimism and hormones only youth can produce.
His renewed excitement waned when he drew too close to someone and, after sniffing the air, she looked around in wary disgust.
He found a seat off by himself.
The smell had to fade eventually, right?
Just give it time, he told himself. He’d make friends eventually. He might even find a loyal underling, or even meet a girl!
His thoughts returned to the here and now when the room went quiet.
A centaur in substantially modified professor’s robes came onto the stage, her hooves ringing loudly on the wood.
“Hello, class of 712,” she said in the kind of sincere excitement that only comes from making the same speech over and over for centuries. “I’m Professor Kalkin. During this eighty minute orientation you’ll learn about life at Erstwhile, and all the exciting programs we offer.”
Walter felt giddy as he pulled out his student handbook to make notes.
“If you’ll open your handbook to page three and follow along,” Professor Kalkin was saying, oblivious, or apathetic, to the utter lack of attention being paid to her.
Walter turned to page three. Of course he’d read the whole thing, nine times in fact. He knew the layout of the entire campus, its history, every professor’s credentials (at least those who weren’t recent additions to the staff because of peace treaties), the location and time of every religious ceremony, and even the feast hall menu for the next six months.
“Erstwhile Thaumatecnic isn’t just a premier university,” Kalkin said. “It is also a vibrant and exciting place for students to cut loose. The student union is—”
A pixie flitted up to the stage carrying a rolled up scroll three times her size and dropped it on the podium in front of Kalkin.
“Thank you, Amber,” the professor said then unrolled the missive and read it. “Is Walter Dungharvest, of the Feculence Hills, present?”
Walter winced and slid down into his seat.
“Thought I smelled a shit farmer!” someone near the back shouted.
A round of laughter followed.
Walter tried to slide under the seat in front of him.
“Dung purveyors are an important part of our economy,” the professor said. “There is no shame in it. Come now; make yourself known, Mr. Dungharvester.”
Walter prayed for one of the more wrathful Gods to strike him dead.
The professor let out an exasperated sigh then moved her hands through the air and shouted, “frasiken!”
Walter found himself enveloped in an aura of green faerie light.
All the students near him, none closer than five seats away, moved several more seats away.
“Are you deaf, boy?” the professor asked and gestured in what he assumed was sign language. “If so I apologize for not—”
“No, ma’am,” Walter said pulling his hood down lower so no one could see his face. “I just thought you said—”
“Report to the financial aid office immediately,” Kalkin said dismissively.
A surge of panic seized Walter and he sat upright. “What? Why? What’s wro—?”
“I’m sure they’ll inform you when you arrive,” Kalkin said. She motioned toward the door with her hand and resumed her speech.
Walter grabbed his bag and made his way through a gauntlet of snickers and whispered insults, head down so as not to look anyone in the eye.
Thankfully, he found no one in the waiting area of the financial aid office. A single worker sat at the window with their back to him. Their long hair was matted and falling out. The room stank of fetid garbage and teriyaki beef jerky.
“Hi,” he said and glanced at the name plate on the desk. “Zarla, I was told—”
“Sign in and take number,” Zarla said in a low, gravelly voice without turning around.
Walter looked around. “Take a number? But there’s—”
“Sign in and take number,” Zarla said again and waved a hand around.
Walter noticed that Zarla’s sleeve was covered in dark stains and torn in several places. He suddenly felt better about his own tattered clothes. He signed in, took a numbered tile—one—from the basket, and took a seat.
He waited for several minutes, his leg bouncing rapidly. After several minutes, he stood.
“Excuse me, I was told—”
“Eating lunch. Wait for number to be called,” Zarla said.
Walter sat back down and took a series of slow, deep breaths.
There was a squishing sound as Zarla finished her lunch.
“One,” she finally said and turned.
Walter returned to the desk, his best glare aimed at the—
“Of course you’re a fucking zombie,” Walter said under his breath.
“Can I help you?” she asked. A piece of gray, bloody meat clung to her chin.
“Um, yes,” Walter said and returned his numbered tile to the stack next to the sign in sheet. “I was told to come here. Is there a problem with—?”
“Nnnnaaaaammmmmeeeeee?” Zarla asked.
Walter closed his eyes and drew in a sharp breath. “Walter Dungharvest, of the Feculence Hills,” he said through clenched teeth.
Zarla looked through a rack of student scrolls, losing a finger in the process. When she found Walter’s scroll, she removed it and dropped it into a brass tube opening at her desk. There was a sucking sound and the scroll vanished. The lost finger crawled its way across the desk and pressed a button. There was a buzzing sound in an office behind her.
“Yes, Zarla?” a deep, resonant, and disembodied voice asked.
“Walter Ddduuunnngggharvester here,” Zarla said.
“Ah yes,” the voice said. “Send him back.”
The finger released the button.
“You go back,” Zarla said and motioned to a door behind her.
Walter picked up his bag and walked to the door. A battered, worn, and dented brass name plate read: Financial aid officer Lord Zyxafillions, High Master of the Dark and Unholy Arts, Scourge of the Iron Teeth Mountains, Slayer of the Tarsien Hordes, Weaver of Nightmares, MBA, CPA.
Walter knocked on the door.
“Come in, come in,” came from the other side.
Walter opened it and stepped through to find a lich in tattered black robes sitting behind a massive stone desk.
“Walter,” Zyxafillions said and gestured to a pair of chairs in front of its desk, “please have a seat.”
Walter swallowed, fought the natural aura of fear that emanated from the lich, and sat.
“I’m very sorry to have pulled you out of orientation,” Zyxafillions said. “It’s really a very informative presentation, but I felt it best to resolve this issue as promptly as possible.”
He wasn’t sure, but Walter thought the lich might be smiling, or trying to.
“What exactly is the issue, sir?” he asked. “I thought everything was taken care of. After I turned in my parents’ tax returns—” He tried not to meet the burning blue orbs of fire that floated in the lich’s empty eye sockets.
“No, no,” Zyxafillions said. “There’s no issue with your verification.”
“Is there a problem with the money?” he asked. “I was assured there’d be enough aid to cover—”
“Well, we never make any guarantee of financial aid to any potential student,” Zyxafillions said. “But that’s not the issue either. It’s—”
“Ack!” Walter shrieked as something rubbed against his leg, causing him to jump and nearly topple the chair back.
A skeletal cat, half covered in matted shreds of fur, looked up at him imperiously with one milky, dead eye and one empty socket. Its boney tail moved lazily back and forth.
Zyxafillions chuckled. “That’s just Mr. Snuggums, don’t mind him. He’s harmless.” The blue fire eyes narrowed. “Today, muahahahaha.”
Walter fought the urge to wet himself and run screaming from the office.
“I’m sorry,” Zyxafillions said. “Can’t help myself sometimes.” He leaned forward and looked down at the cat. “Leave Walter alone, Mr. Snuggums, you siwwy kitty.”
The cat turned away from Walter, lifting its tail (flashing a rotting feline anus), strutted around the desk, and leapt onto the bookshelf. The kitty lich almost knocked an ornate glass award for “Citizen of the Year (undead)” from the shelf.
“Now, where were we?” Zyxafillions asked. “Oh yes, the problem isn’t with your financial aid.”
A wave of relief settled over him, though he still wanted to soil himself.
“You qualified for a Valsparan grant and a student loan,” Zyxafillions said. “Which when combined with the partial scholarship you received, well done by the way.”
“Uh, thank you?”
“Your tuition, dorm fess, and meal plan are more than covered. You’ll have plenty for books.” Zyxafillions leaned in and gave what Walter assumed was a lich version of a sly smile. “Probably enough left over for a few rounds at the pub too, eh? Not that we condone student drinking of course.” The lich laughed again, one blue fire eye winking, and sent a fresh shiver down Walter’s spine.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Walter said in a shaky voice. “But what’s the problem?”
“Well you’re not registered as a student yet, of course.”
Walter blinked. “But I just registered for my classes.” He reached into his bag. “I—”
“I mean your tuition hasn’t been paid.”
Walter blinked. “Well no, because I haven’t received the financial aid yet.”
“Of course,” Zyxafillions said, nodding patiently, steepling his boney fingers. “But we can’t release the financial aid payment until you’re a registered student. To be a registered student, your tuition must be paid.” He laughed again. “We can’t go giving money to people who aren’t students, now can we?”
“Sure,” Walter said, not following in the slightest. “But I can’t pay the tuition without the financial aid. That’s why I applied for financial aid; to pay the tuition.”
Zyxafillions nodded again. “I understand, but my hands are tied, as it were.” He laughed yet again. “Obviously no one is capable of binding and holding Zyxafillions, Scourge of the Iron Teeth Mountains, and Certified Public Accountant! Muahaha.”
Walter forced a strained laugh. “But how can I pay my tuition if you won’t give me the money to pay, until it’s paid? If I could pay, I wouldn’t really need financial aid.”
“I don’t make the rules,” Zyxafillions said. “Oh sure, I’ve set my share aflame in a vicious torrent of death and destruction.” He shook his head. “But these are binding. I can’t release the funds until I’ve received confirmation from the registrar’s office that you’re registered as a student. You’ll need to resolve this with the business office.”
“Don’t worry, this happens all the time,” Zyxafillions said and smiled again, which just further unnerved Walter. “You have three days to get it resolved before your acceptance is cancelled and you’re banished from the university.”
Zyxafillions nodded. “Good luck. Oh, and welcome to Erstwhile Thaumatecnic!”
Walter collected his bag and backed out of the office.
“Please close the door behind you,” Zyxafillions said. “I don’t want Mr. Snuggums getting out.”
Walter nodded, closed the door, and hurried to the exit without looking at Zarla. His mind spun and his stomach twisted as he made his way to the business office. His dreams of escape were slipping away.
How could they expect him to cover his tuition? Even with his scholarship, it’d be more than four gold vesticles. His parents’ manure farm didn’t make shit. Well, technically it did exactly that, but it’d take six months to earn four vesticles.
He slowed his pace, mind whirling as he struggled to come up with a plan. He still didn’t have one when he walked into the business office, and up to the reception desk.
“Can I help you?” asked an ifrit in an aristocratic accent, sporting a bored smile.
“I need to speak to someone about my tuition,” Walter said.
The infernal jinn arched an eyebrow. “Really? You don’t say?”
“No, what I mean is—”
The ifrit slid a clipboard and parchment toward him. “Sign in and take a number.”
Walter filled out the information, took a numbered tile (seven this time), and joined the four other students waiting. A young elfin boy fretted his lower lip, sweating profusely, and didn’t look up when Walter glanced his way. The other three students were human. Two of them—both girls—were dressed as commoners, and seemed as nervous as Walter. The last, a noble boy wearing an Erstwhile Ents jousting team jersey, a thick gold chain around his neck, and enough jewels to cover the tuition of half the student body, let out an exasperated sigh, and rolled his eyes every minute or so.
“Number four,” the ifrit said.
The elf stood and shuffled his way to a door, which Walter saw opened onto a cave entrance. A low rumble and a wave of hot air filled the room. The elf, trembling, stepped through the doorway, muttering what Walter thought was a prayer.
The door slammed shut behind him.
Five minutes later, the elf burst out of the door and bolted for the exit, the smell of burnt hair in his wake.
“Now serving number five,” the ifrit said with a smile and a chuckle.
“Um, you can go ahead of me,” one of the girls said to the noble, offering her tile.
“At least someone knows their place,” the boy said and stood, stopping at the ifrit and giving it a withering look. “Don’t you people know how I am?”
“Lord Jake Gildedscrote,” the ifrit said. “Klaxikon will happily hear any concerns you have regarding the quality of service you’ve received today.”
The noble gave a derisive sniff and made his way to the door. “Damn right he will!” He vanished down the corridor, and the door shut behind him.
Five minutes later a very low, rumbling, disembodied voice said, “Ali, please send in the next student.”
Walter and the two girls exchanged looks.
“I’ll, um, just come back later,” said one of the girls as she stood and hurried out.
“You want my spot?” The remaining girl said to Walter.
Walter looked from the girl to the door and back. “Oka—?”
She practically hurled her tile at him with a grateful smile.
He handed his to her and turned to the ifrit. “There’s another exit, right?”
“Of course,” the ifrit said and smiled in a way that only added to Walter’s concerns.
Walter forced a smile, swallowed and went to the door. A metal plaque, similar to Zyxafillions’ read: “Klaxikon, Terror of the Western Reaches, Calamity of the Salt Sea, J.D., DDS.”
Walter opened the door and made his way down the winding cave. It was lined with torches, so at least he could see. The corridor sloped down, doubling back several times. The temperature increased with each step until Walter’s robes were soaked through with sweat. Eventually, the tunnel opened into a massive chamber, hundreds of feet across and so high the ceiling was lost in darkness. There were dozens of hills—literal hills—of gold scattered around the cave. Behind an almost comically large desk sat a ginormous red dragon. At the edge of the desk—and next to a terrifyingly huge bottle of ketchup—sat a name plate twice as large as Walter.
“Name?” the dragon asked in a voice so low and loud it literally shook the cavern.
Walter drew a blank and could only stare at the dragon as it picked its teeth with a lance. When it worked something free, it spit the debris out. A torn and scorched Erstwhile Ents jersey landed a few feet from Walter.
He let out a whimper.
“Name?” the dragon asked again.
“W—w—w—Walter,” he said. “D—d—d—Dungharvester.”
“Dungharvester?” Klaxikon asked, peering down at him. It sniffed the air a few times then leaned a little away from Walter.
The dragon waved one of her—Walter was pretty sure all dragons were female—gigantic claws and a scroll floated up into the air, hovering just before her burning yellow eyes. She squinted, drew the scroll closer, then let out a sigh.
“Oculous,” she said, and a pair of huge spectacles appeared out of nowhere then settled on her snout. “Ah, yes, much better. Let’s see, with your scholarship,” she glanced over the scroll at Walter, “congratulations by the way.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Walter squeaked.
“Total payment due is seven golden vesticles, two silver uvulas.”
“Seven?” Walter asked, shock and panic banishing the terror. “Tuition, dorm, and meal plan only come to six, and my scholarship covers two!”
Klaxikon smiled. “Ah, but that doesn’t include your lab fees, student union fees, processing charges, registration fee, dorm elevator access fee, gym membership, consulting fee, taxes, surcharges, handling fees, or parking permit.”
“But I don’t have a carriage,” Walter said.
“Seven golden vesticles and one silver uvula then,” Klaxikon said. “As for payment, in lieu of the King’s coin, we also accept precious gems, or raw gold or silver. Though in the case of the latter, we do charge a five percent smelting and minting fee.”
“Um,” Walter said and tried to swallow again but his mouth was dry. He smiled nervously. “Actually, I have financial aid—my loan and grants are in—but I was told I couldn’t collect them until I paid my tuition.”
The dragon nodded. “Correct. Financial aid is for students and until you pay, you are not a student.”
“Clearly, ma’am, you can see my dilemma?” Walter asked. “If I could pay, I wouldn’t need financial aid.”
Klaxikon rolled her eyes. “Surely you can acquire the funds.” She waved a claw in the air. “Ransack an ancient tomb, pillage a nearby town, beset some careless traveler? Something.”
“I’m not really skilled in ransacking, pillaging or besetting,” Walter said. “My parents are simple farmers—”
“Yes, I can plainly smell what kind of farmer your parents are,” Klaxikon said. “But I don’t know what to tell you. We do not issue funds to nonstudents. You received a scholarship, surely you’re bright enough to understand I must protect the financial sustainability of this institution.”
Walter glanced at the mountains of gold, then back at the dragon. Clearly the place was just barely holding on.
“It wouldn’t do,” Klaxikon continued, “to give out monies only for a potential student to decide, when in possession of a small fortune, to take the gold and run, as you humans like to say.”
Walter was pretty sure that wouldn’t be the only reason someone would run.
“But I don’t have the money,” Walter said instead. “Once I get the financial aid, I’ll come straight here and pay. Can’t I make a bond of my word—?”
The dragon broke into hysterical laughter, almost toppling over, and causing bits of rocks to fall from the ceiling.
Walter waited, wondering if all dragons were such ass holes.
“Yeah, no,” the dragon said once her laughter subsided and she could draw in a breath.
“Surely, oh wise and magnanimous—”
“Kissing my ass isn’t gonna pay your bill,” Klaxikon said then let out a sigh and leaned forward. “Jesus, kid, haven’t you got anything you can pawn?”
Walter opened his bag and showed it to the dragon. “You tell me.”
Klaxikon peered down and shook her head. “Damn, now you’re depressing me.”
Walter’s head fell forward. His eyes fell on a faint glimmer of hope in his bag. No, it couldn’t be that easy. Could it?
“Any chance you’d take a personal check?” he asked.
Klaxikon narrowed her eyes and tendrils of smoke rose from her nostrils. “In cases of severe indigence, Royal Act 780-314 obligates us to make such allowances.” Her mouth twisted as if the words left a rancid taste in her mouth.
“Shit. Farmer,” he said, punctuating each word.
Klaxikon opened her mouth and raised one claw.
Walter crossed his arms and arched his eyebrow.
“Yeah, all right,” she said at last. “You’ve got me there.”
Walter drew out a quill and ink pot then looked around for something to write on.
Klaxikon let out a sigh, rolled her eyes, and then waved a claw in the air. A small wooden table appeared in front of Walter.
“I won’t even ask if there’s enough in the account to cover this.”
“There will be,” Walter said, his excitement building. “Do I make it out to Erstwhile Thaumatecnic?”
Walter signed the check, tore it off and held it up to the dragon.
The dragon looked at him as if he were a simpleton.
Walter lowered his arm. “I give it to the ifrit, then?”
“With a mind like that, you’ve a bright future,” Klaxikon said.
She leaned down, lowering her massive head until it was hovering just above Walter. He held his breath, but could still smell rotted meat on the dragon’s breath. He hoped he was wrong, but there appeared to be the remnants of a thick gold chain melted and crushed against some of the humongous teeth.
“It’d be unwise to let that check bounce,” the dragon said.
Walter swallowed and nodded.
“Apart from the serious impact to your credit rating,” she said, “there is also a three uvula charge on all returned checks!” Hot, stinking dragon breath blew Water’s hood back.
He wiped a spray of spittle from his face, barely able to hold back a grin, as the dragon sat back on her haunches. Threatening his credit wasn’t much of a threat.
“I understand,” he said. “Trust me, I have every—”
“And of course it goes without saying that I’ll scorch your flesh then devour you over a period of days as you scream from the unimaginable torment,” she added casually.
Walter peed himself a little. “Right, of course,” he squeaked.
The dragon sniffed the air, her mouth twisted and she leaned further back. “Though in your case I might make an exception.”
“Three showers,” he said under his breath then turned and walked out the way he came. With each step the fear faded. A surge of exhilaration overtook him as he neared the cavern door. He might never slay a dragon, but he’d outwitted one.
“Score one for the shit farmer,” he said, not wanting to risk the dragon hearing him.
The commoner girl was still waiting in the front office, and two other students had arrived. The girl looked at him in shocked surprise as he swaggered up to Ali’s desk. He flashed the girl a smile and winked as he held out the check to the ifrit.
Then he stumbled, nearly falling to the floor, and dropped the check.
He recovered himself, and bent down, snatching up the check. As he stood, his head smacked against the edge of the jinn’s desk.
“Goddamnmotherfuckingshitportalassmonster.” he muttered.
“A bardic studies major no doubt,” Ali the ifrit said.
Walter handed the check over, rubbing his head, chastising himself, and very intently not looking at the girl.
“Thank you, and welcome to Erstwhile,” Ali said through a vulpine grin and handed Walter a receipt.
Walter left, avoiding eye contact with anyone, and sprinted back to the Financial Aid office.
This day might’ve started going to hell, but he’d pulled through and everything was going to be—
Zarla looked up at him as he stepped in. The left side of her jaw had come unhinged and she was trying to reattach it with a stapler. It was not going well.
He drew in a breath, through his mouth, and strode over, refusing to let anything bring him down. He slapped the receipt down in front of Zarla.
“All paid up. I’d like to collect—”
“Nnnaaammmeee?” Zarla asked.
“Oh, for fu—!” He clenched his jaw and drew in more slow breaths, again through his mouth.
Zarla looked at him with dead eyes.
“Walter Dungharvester,” he said through gritted teeth and made a mental note to never, ever, have zombies in his undead horde.
Zarla flipped through the scrolls again, losing two more fingers, and sending the scrolls to the floor. She reached down and tried to pick them up, but with only a pinky and thumb, she merely succeeded in rolling them back and forth.
Walter bent down, picked up the scrolls—leaving the fingers—and set them back on Zarla’s desk. She stared at the floor in confusion for several moments, as if unsure where the scrolls had gone.
Walter pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “This is hell. I died after leaving home, and now I’m in hell.”
Zarla bent down to look under her chair, knocking the stapled side of her jaw loose again.
Walter tapped the scrolls then the desk. “Zarla, up here.”
She looked at him, then down at her desk. She picked up his scroll with her intact hand and dropped it into the metal tube.
“What? No, wait, can’t you just—?” The scroll vanished down the tube.
Zarla’s first missing finger—still sitting on her desk—pressed the button.
“Yes, Zarla?” Zyxafillions asked.
“Wonderful! Send him back!” Zyxafillions disembodied voice said.
“Back, yeah,” Walter said and went to Zyxafillions’s office. The lich was holding Mr. Snuggums in his lap, petting the “cat” gently. It purred, or what was supposed to be a purr. It sounded a bit like bones rattling together.
“Look who it is, Mr. Snuggums,” Zyxafillions said and looked from the cat to Walter. “Can you say hello to Walter?”
“Sir, I don’t—” Walter began.
“Hello, Walter,” Zyxafillions said in a high voice without moving his boney jaw, waving one of Mr. Snuggums’s paws.
Walter just stared.
No, this isn’t hell, it’s worse than that.
“Aren’t you going to say hi back?” Zyxafillions asked Walter.
“Hello, Mr. Snuggums,” Walter said in a flat tone.
Zyxafillions laughed. “Oh, I’m just teasing you, it was me talking, not him.”
“You don’t say?”
“Bet you didn’t know I was also a ventriloquist, eh?” Zyxafillions asked.
“You can’t possibly imagine my surprise,” Walter said.
“Ah, but you’re here on business,” Zyxafillions said and set Mr. Snuggums on the floor. “Everything settled with the business office?”
Walter handed him the receipt and smiled as he imagined punting the undead cat through the office window and into the courtyard, followed by Zarla’s head.
“Excellent!” Zyxafillions said and reached into a desk drawer. “I knew you’d find a solution!” He withdrew a weathered leather pouch and dropped it on the desk in front of Walter. “Eleven gold vesticles and four silver uvulas.”
Walter reached his hand out to take the pouch, but stopped and narrowed his eyes.
No. This is too easy. It’s a trap of some kind.
He watched Zyxafillions intently as his fingers closed slowly over the pouch and lifted—
“Oh, I almost forgot!” Zyxafillions said.
I fucking knew it!
Walter clenched his teeth and drew in yet another breath.
“Don’t know where my head is today,” the lich said and laughed.
Walter drew his hand back and let his head fall forward.
“Since this is your first time receiving financial aid, I have to go over the responsibilities presentation.” Zyxafillions gestured to the chairs. “Have a seat, this won’t take more than thirty minutes.”
Walter fell into the chair.
Zyxafillions produced a black leather-bound tome and set it almost reverently on his desk. He opened it, set a skeletal finger on the first line and began reading excitedly, “Fiscal responsibility and you.”
Walter looked at the stone desk, rough cut and very solid.
He wondered how many times he’d have to drive his head into the desk before it killed him? Couldn’t be more than four or five times if he did it right. Catch the corner and he might get it in one.
For thirty mind-numbing minutes, Zyxafillions covered the details of the loan. Explaining how the “very reasonable” interest rate of sixteen point three percent—compounded annually—would accrue starting immediately, though the first payment wasn’t due until six months after graduation/leaving.
By the end, Walter had long since reached the end of his shocked/surprised/terrified rope and scarcely heard a word Zyxafillions said.
“Now you just need to sign here stipulating that I went over the presentation,” the lich said, pointing to a spot on a parchment set before Walter and holding out a silver-tipped quill.
Walter reached out to take it, but Zyxafillions seized his hand and produced a dagger. “We just need a bit of blood to—”
Walter took the dagger with his free hand and cut along the forearm of his detained arm.
Zyxafillions blinked at him.
Walter drew his hand back, dipped the quill into the welling blood, and signed.
“Um,” Zyxafillions said, staring at Walter, then pointed to another spot. “Initial here to show you understand about the demon knight collection agents who will be set upon you if you miss—”
“And also here if you are declining the loan insurance.”
“Lastly,” Zyxafillions said, regaining some of his composure, and pointed to the bottom of the page. “Sign here to acknowledge you agree to all terms and conditions, now and forever binding you and your succeeding generations to a life of financial ruin, with your soul being forfeit to an eternity of torment, if, in the unlikely event, you default on the loan.”
Walter signed, never looking away from Zyxafillions, and handed the quill back.
“Yes, well, congratulations,” Zyxafillions said. “You have officially entered the world of financial responsibility, and—”
Walter collected the pouch and stood.
“Your new life as a student at Erstwhile Thaumatecnic University,” Zyxafillions said as Walter walked out.
“See ya, Zarla,” he said as he passed the zombie, once more trying to reattach her jaw.
She grunted something in reply.
Outside he drew in a deep breath and allowed a satisfied smile settle on his face. The worst just had to be behind him now. After a lich and his kitty, and dragon, what the hell else could happen? He knew it was tempting fate, but he decided to head for the campus bookstore. Whatever else this day had in store, best to get it done with.
The squat, stone building sat in the middle of campus. The entrance and windows were covered in thick cobwebs. It looked abandoned, save for the magically illuminated “open” sign in one dark window.
He pushed the door open and stepped inside.
A spider, six feet across and wearing four pairs of spectacles—all the frames a different shade of purple—lowered itself from the ceiling, stopping at eye level. It wore a name tag that read “Hi, my name is Tiffany.”
“Welcome,” Tiffany said in a cheery tone. “Do you need any help finding something?”
“My sanity?” Walter asked before he could stop himself.
She laughed, and the sound of it made him smile.
“Can’t help with that,” she said. “Must be your first day.”
“That obvious?” Walter asked.
“Been there,” Tiffany said and her mandibles shifted into a smile. “Let me help you find your books. Do you have your course list?”
Walter handed it over. Did Tiffany purposely brush his hand when she took it? No, had to be his imagination.
“New or used?” Tiffany asked.
“Used are cheaper, right?”
Tiffany bobbed her head.
Tiffany dropped to the floor and led him through the rows of tomes, scrolls, and clay tablets. She was amazingly helpful, friendly, and efficient. As they made small talk and collected the books, all the stress from the day seemed to melt away.
“That’s everything,” she said as Walter set the books on the counter. “Probably not interested in an Ents jerkin, cloak, pennant, or stein?”
“Thanks, but no,” Walter said.
Tiffany began adding up the bill on an abacus. “Total comes to six vesticles, one uvula, and three phalluses,” Tiffany said.
Walter closed his eyes and let out a long breath. Then he started laughing.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Walter gently set his bag on the counter, pushed it to one side, and then started smacking his head against the newly opened spot.
“What are you—?”
“Please stop,” Tiffany said, putting a couple of her legs gently on his shoulders. “If anyone else dies in here, I’ll lose my job.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, head still on the counter. “You’ve been incredibly nice to me, and you can’t imagine how much I needed that kindness, but I give up.” He looked up at her and smiled. “Fuck it, I’m done.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked. “If it’s the cost of the books, I’m sure there’s something—”
“There’s nothing,” Walter said. He drew some papers from his bag and held one up. “The admissions board can shove this worthless scholarship up their collective asses! Sideways!”
“You have a scholarship?” Tiffany asked. “Wow, congrat—”
Walter set the papers down and then thumped his head on them.
“Anything I can do to help?” she asked.
“How do you feel about mass homicide?”
“No,” he said and opened his eyes to stare at the taunting text of the scholarship acceptance letter. Then he read it again. “No way.”
“What?” Tiffany asked.
Walter blinked and read the words yet again, slower this time.
It’s a trick! Run! His brain screamed at him.
“The Feculence Hills arcane opportunity scholarship,” he read, “provides a sum of two vesticles towards tuition, room, and board.” He sat up, lifting the page with him and continued reading. “As well as all required supplies purchased at the on campus bookstore.”
“Really?” Tiffany asked. “I’ve never heard of any scholarship doing that.”
He held the paper out for her. “That’s what it says though, right?”
She read the paper and nodded. “Yeah, wow. It’s even signed and the wax seal makes it a legally binding document.”
“Are you sure?” He asked.
She shrugged. “I’m in my second year of infernal law, so yeah.”
Tiffany stepped closer, and Walter noticed for the first time her leg was still on his shoulder. Their eyes met—well his and two of hers—and held for a long moment.
“So, you want to get new books instead?”
“Hell yes I do,” Walter said and smiled. “And I think I’ll need a new cloak and a stein.”
Tiffany smiled, or he thought she did. “Well, if you need them, they’re required.”
Walter had never been an arachnaphile, but there was something about Tiffany. The way the light made her eight eyes shine, and how it gleamed over the fine hairs of her thorax—
“I just need your student number,” she said.
He snapped his attention back and handed over his ID.
She noted the number and the book titles in a ledger then led him to the new books section.
“I hope this doesn’t sound creepy,” he said. “But, um, what time does your shift end?”
“Why? Are you asking me out?”
“I think I am,” Walter said.
“Half an hour,” she said, then lowered her voice. “But as it happens, I’m the only one working today, so I can duck out a little early.”
“Let me guess,” Walter said. “You wrapped up the other clerk in a web and ate them?”
“Who told you?” Tiffany asked, her tone serious.
“I’m kidding,” she said and laughed.
Walter narrowed his eyes and smiled. “Are you though?”
She drew close. “Does it matter?”
Walter smiled more.
Tiffany drew closer still. “You know, I have drinks in my apartment, and you have a stein.”
“Best. Day. Ever.”