A fresh-faced and enthusiastic wizard, newly-possessed of his first spellbook and excited to go on an actual dungeon-delving adventure, introduced himself to the motley assemblage who would be his companions: “well-met! I’m Manfred Hoch; my friends call me ‘Manny.'”
They nodded slowly, offering their own hands in return. “Manfred,” one of them said, by way of acknowledgement. With introductions out of the way, the fledgling adventuring party set to their task of capturing a murderer near the lower city docks.
“They’ll warm up to me eventually,” Manny wrote in his journal that night. “Being an adventurer is obviously a profession which attracts cutpurses and malcontents. Once they see I’m neither of the above, we’ll be the best of friends, I just know it!”
By capturing the murderer, then rescuing a prized cockatrice, unmasking a plot to befoul the city guard, and apprehending a thief who had purloined a pair of winged boots, the party had, over a period of weeks, started to come together, to unite as a singular force in the large city. They told jokes around the inn hearth, revealed their tragic and sordid backstories, and even had playful nicknames for each other.
The nimble-fingered halfling was jokingly called “Stabby,” a priestess of the moon goddess “Silver,” and the overly-aggressive dock worker with a penchant for throwing javelins “Chuck.” Everyone had a nickname.
Everyone, except the wizard.
Wherever they went, he was quick to introduce himself as “Manfred Hoch; my friends call me ‘Manny,'” hoping that his companions would get the hint. He felt like they had accepted him readily enough—they had asked about his upbringing far away from the city beneath the Spire, had certainly benefited from his wide and varied academic studies, and had even started buying him ale when they stopped for a pint. He seemed to be “part of” the group but not quite “in” it, for reasons he could not discern.
As Spring turned to Summer, into Autumn and then Winter, the small group had started making a name for themselves among not only the adventurers’ guild but also society’s upper crust as well. They were invited to parties at lavish estates in honor for their heroism and brave deeds both within the city and beneath it, in the sprawling and largely-unmapped catacombs from whence all manner of nasty threat bubbled up.
A lithe woman in an uncomfortably low-plunging dress sidled up to the wizard as he sipped a spiced mead on the outskirts of one such party. “It seems our hosts have sought to make waves, inviting the talk of the town to their little soirée,” she laughed, a sound as clear as crystal, her voice refined and well-educated.
Caught off-guard by the noble addressing him, and then doubly so at her apparel—which her smirk showed was having exactly the effect she planned—he could finally bring himself to stammer, “Manfred Hoch; my friends call me ‘Manny.'”
Placing her left hand on his and draping her right across his thin shoulders, he couldn’t help but shrink and start at her touch, at the exotic and intoxicating perfume her being so near wafted over his senses. “I think I would very much like to be your friend. You and the others have become quite the local celebrities,” she teased, her voice dropping an octave.
He swallowed hard. “I—I would like that,” he stammered, blinking rapidly, suddenly deciding that nobles’ parties may be worth his time after all.
“Hey Manfred!” Stabby called over from the dessert bar, having shoved nearly his entire hand into the chocolate fountain. “Manfred, you have to come see this!”
The wizard shut tight his eyes, hoping he could make the halfling vanish through sheer force of will alone.
He heard a low, almost toying laugh right at his ear. “Some ‘friends’ you travel with, Mister Hoch. Maybe our paths will cross again, when we can resume this little tête-à-tête.” She drew a thin fingernail across the back of his hand—not hard enough to leave a mark, but enough that he would feel it the rest of the party.
And the woman was gone.
The group of adventurers would come to meet and have understandings with watch captains, minor bureaucrats, and other noteworthy civil officials—they had a sterling reputation for always acting in the public’s interest, and had managed to keep collateral damage to a minimum, Mrs. Farnsworth’s bakery notwithstanding. Their talents and skills grew as they worked, and their trust and camaraderie grew as they worked together, ensuring they were a smooth, high-functioning team of professionals who could be trusted to take on even major threats facing the city.
And yet Manny felt alone. He had some of the greatest minds in modern magic knowing his name, could turn the ear of even the most stoic noble house, and had amassed the gold to find companionship in any city district, but all the successes and accolades felt hollow.
“Hey Manfred, what are you writing tonight?” A newer member of the group asked, seeing his long penstrokes in the journal which never seemed to fill. The jovial cleric of life—an oddly suitable compliment to the cynical moon priest they already had—had taken her cues from the rest of the group: the wizard’s name was “Manfred” and that’s what she would call him.
“Oh,” he scowled, not looking up from his writings. “Nothing new.” She shrugged and backed away.
Every time one of the party addressed him, it was as if they pushed a tiny dagger just a fraction deeper into his chest. No matter what he did, no matter that he alone saved the day against a pack of rust monsters or when Chuck fell into an ooze trap, they never let him in. They never acknowledged that he was one of the gang. Not like they did for each other.
Even “Sunny” got her—not very original—nickname after just one day. Two years on, and he was still just “Manfred.” Always “Manfred.”
The Banewarrens were a terrible and horrifying dungeon a long-passed wizard once created to house some of the worst creatures, artefacts, and sorceries the world had ever known. It had been locked away for centuries—deep beneath the city—where all that evil could be contained without ever again seeing the light of day. At least, not until an evil cult dedicated to a dead god discovered its location and attempted to breach its magical and physical wards for their own macabre ends.
The party, now true heroes in their own right, were called by the highest council in the city to investigate the breach and, if possible, re-seal the entrance before anything inside could make its way out. They were to track down any who had made their way inside and prevent whatever foul machinations they held from coming to fruition.
Knowing they would be locked inside the horrid vault until their task was complete, the group solemnly geared up for the task. Swords were sharpened and re-enchanted. Holy symbols were reblessed and resancrified. New javelins were hewn of the hardest ironbark. And the wizard’s spellbook was stuffed to overflowing with arcana both offensive and defensive, suitable for any conceivable situation.
Standing before the great Banewarrens gate, as elite troops from the City Watch looked on, the party huddled. Manny reaffirmed the danger they faced to mind and body. “I have studied the creator of this hellish place, and I have learned all there is to know about what lay inside. He sought to do so much good, but in the end all he accomplished was bringing the world’s evils under one single roof; a roof these cult thieves have made their way inside. Be wary, be smart, and be aware that your thoughts may not be your own—the most insidious of magics is mind-control, and there are items in here which could convince you to flay your own arm.”
The wizard looked at the party that had been with him—and he with them—through so much. “Shall we save the world one more time, friends?”
“We’re right behind you, Manfred.”
Wearily cresting the final stars to the top floor of the treacherous arcane labyrinth, the party was almost out of provisions. Time was hard to measure in a place so thoroughly warped by the evil which pervaded every stone, and each twisting corridor failed to adhere to any semblance of three-dimensional space. At best guess they had been inside for three weeks, but there was no telling how much time has passed on the outside. They had been subjected to dangers physical, emotional, and mental, and there was genuine concern among them just how much of their old selves would survive, if even they made it out at all.
They had faced down nearly all of the cultists, defeated the primordial beasts they released either by design or accident, and re-secured the many objects of world-shaping evil that had come so close to escaping. The party was continually plagued by dark whispers and tempting promises, a cacophony of seduction that luckily prevented any one object’s voice from rising above the rest. All that remained would be to vanquish the cult leader, a being who willfully gave in to the darkness of the Banewarrens. If they did that, they could at long last turn back toward civilization. Back toward sanity.
Stabby turned back to the party with eyes widened by fear eyes, having peeked his head just out of the stairwell. “He’s holding up some sort of black circlet!” he hissed. “I think he means to put it on.”
The wizard nodded solemnly, his gaunt features seeming to have withdrawn even further as they explored the black dungeon. “The Crown of Authority.” His voice was thin, like butter scraped over too much bread. “Dread Emperor Ragneok used it to almost conquer the world in a prior age. Our beloved Empire rose from the ashes of his failed kingdom.” There wasn’t haste or concern in his tone; rather it was a simple recounting of facts and history, seemingly disconnected from the emergency at hand.
“Are we ready for this?” Chuck snarled, gripping his javelin in a white-knuckle grip. Only fury was left as his motivation, everything else having been eaten away by the foul Banewarrens.
The clerics looked to one another, and nodded. All eyes turned toward the wizard.
He shrugged beneath his thinning robes. “it’s logical for us to stop him.” He looked almost bored.
Pieces of the cultist leader lay all about the ritual chamber, his ability to contain the arcane energies of the crown upset by the timely arrival and intervention of the adventurers. What little was left of his spirit evaporated into the dense dungeon air as the party took stock of their injuries. Burns from magical fire, cuts from cruel daggers, and bruises from being bodily slammed against the unyielding stone, but nothing that would prove fatal, so long as they could make their way back out of the Banewarrens. With the last cultist defeated, it almost seemed like their trial would finally be at an end.
“What do you have there, Manfred?” Sunny asked, seeing the wizard turning something over in his hands.
He murmured noncommittally. “I’m deciding how best to deal with the Crown of Authority.”
Stabby propped himself up from the floor, waving off Silver’s ministrations. “It’s not like we’re taking it with us, right? It stays here, just like everything else that was locked up. We seal it away, just like it was before.”
“It would be shame to hide such a potent artefact away without studying it first,” the wizard thought aloud as he ran his fingers along its inlay.
Chuck put a meaty hand on his shoulder. “C’mon, that’s what the old wizard tried to do, and it almost killed the world. Leave that thing here; there’s nobody alive that could use it for good anyway.”
He did not recognize the seething fire flaring in the wizards eyes as he turned to face the larger man. “No-one? You have never respected my mastery of the arcane; the lengths I’ve gone to save this city and the people in it. What I’ve done to save us.” He shook off the warrior’s hand and took a step backward, putting space between them. The rest of the party warily took positions behind Chuck, post-battle exhaustion giving way to fresh waves of adrenaline.
Spittle flew from the wizard’s mouth as he continued, releasing a pent-up tirade that had been months—years—in the building. “All of you, you have your in-jokes and your frivolities. Your laughter and your camaraderie. But what’s left for me? Nothing save being laughed at and kept apart. Being a stranger in our own home!”
Silver opened her mouth to speak.
“No, not even you had a kind word to spare for me,” he continued, addressing them all. “In the same breath you congratulate and thank the clerics for channeling the power of their gods you ignore and belittle the wonder and miracle it is for a mortal to control the forces of the universe by sheer will alone. What I do is amazing! What I do is praise-worthy! Haven’t I proven, time and time again, that I deserve to be your friend? And yet you keep me shut out, you send me away at every turn.” Tears were openly streaking down his waxy cheek.
Chuck looked confused. “But, what are you talking about? We are friends.”
He fixed the larger man with a frigid stare, his drying lips peeling back from pale gums. “Friends you say? What is my name?”
The party shared a look of confusion. “What?”
“A simple question—what is my name?”
With a nervous guffaw, Chuck laughed. “Manfred, of course.”
An impossibly bright bolt of searing green energy whipped from the wizard’s fingers, striking the warrior square in the chest, knocking him off his feet, armour burnt and smoking. “Anyone else want to try?”
“W–what are you—Manfred Hoch! your name is Manfred Hoch!” cried Sunny. A lancing indigo streak slammed into her temples, dropping her bodily to the ground in a twitching heap.
“Stop!” pleaded Stabby, his left hand a bare inch away from his favorite throwing dagger. “This is all the Crown’s doing; you don’t mean any of this!”
The wizard paused, and then started laughing, the sound gratingly discordant with the scene unfolding before them. “This thing?” he suggested, holding up the midnight circlet between two fingers. “Not even a little.”
With a flick he tossed the priceless and neigh-limitlessly powerful artefact behind him into the darkness, where it could be heard bouncing, then spinning, then finally coming to rest on the floor.
“Then… then why?”
He shook his tired head. “Because of all the criminals, the assassins, the monsters, the magical cults we’ve faced down, the threats against the city and of society as a whole, I’ve come to one singular conclusion: you are all the worst among them. You take and you take and give nothing in return. Everything you’ve ever done is to further yourselves. Good deeds are just means to a reward for you, when the real treasure lay ignored and abused at your feet—all because you didn’t think it would personally enrich your lives.”
His face was a scowl as he turned to his remaining companions, his eyes recessed in deepest shadow. “You aren’t heroes, you’re just bullies dressed in the tattered vestiges of honor you never once possessed.”
A sigh as his hands began glowing with unbridled arcane energy.
“One last time. What is my name?”
Header image by Hansuan Fabregas on Pixabay.com, a great source for royalty-free stock images.
A huge thank you to Brandon for letting me share this tale about an old D&D character of his.