Writing by: Ryan Pietz

Oberon’s Garden:
Zell — the Boy from the Abyss

or
Mr. Pfeffersack Buys a Friend

Pitch 1: The Emperor

“Alright Sack, the emperor will see you now.  His highness is very busy so try not to waste too much of his time,” instructed Lucien to the waiting merchant with as much contempt as he could intone.

“I will be sure to waste only the minimal amount,” jested Kane Pfeffersack, rising from his seat.

Lucien despised the artifact dealer for no particular reason.  Though, Kane once drove a really hard bargain on a flying carpet the wizard desired to purchase.  It wasn’t as if there weren’t better artifact merchants in the city, there were and several, but Kane was unique, in that he dealt in unique things.  Kane dubbed them “opportunities,” and once Lucien had the opportunity to purchase Kane’s circular flying carpet.

Flying carpets are rare in the first place due to the scarcity of sapient thread, and though neither Kane nor Lucien understood why flying carpets were predominantly square or why the carpets weren’t called flying rugs, they both appreciated that a circular carpet is a most extraordinary treasure.  For these reasons, Lucien paid a very high price to become the proud owner of a one-of-a-kind circular flying carpet.   He swore it was just cut from a square flying carpet but couldn’t fathom a method to do so without damaging the magic or having the carpet run away, and Kane wasn’t telling.  The flying carpet incident was not the cause of Lucien’s animosity toward Kane, but it effortlessly fanned the already burning flames.

As they traversed the halls on the way to the emperor, several new reasons for disliking the merchant popped into Lucien’s head, “Ostentatious red coat, needlessly oversized pack, boring face-”

“When did that get put in?” interrupted Kane, stopping abruptly as they passed the courtyard.  He pointed to a gargantuan statue of minotaur that sullied the otherwise serene garden.  The anatomically gifted monstrosity stood with arms akimbo in a pose that mocked all things smaller than he.

The court wizard added “persistent questions” to his list of grievances and turned around.  “It was sent as a promotion for the tournament.”

“But why is it in the courtyard and not outside, or better yet, in a landfill?”

“We have not decided on a course of action, and it’s not something to have transported on a whim,” explained Lucien, not divulging that he already had it moved — twice.  The first time, the beast was placed in the street, but parents complained that its joyous obscenity scared their children and children complained that it scared their parents.  For the second attempt, Lucien requested it be placed in the dungeon, but the minotaur mysteriously returned to the courtyard.  The wizard had yet to arrange for a third relocation.

Kane’s curiosity now quieted, the pair resumed their trek, and Lucien resumed his prior train of thought, “Annoying logic, ugly shoes, doesn’t wear a shirt, won’t tell me about the carpet,” but his list of grievances was cut short as the mage and the merchant arrived at the massive, wooden, double doors of the great hall.

Kane turned to Lucien and bowed. “Thanks,” said Kane as he stepped through the door, and as it closed, appended, “Lucy.”

Lucien stormed down the hall planning to enact a tax increase on rare artifact sales but refrained, knowing he would be the one paying the price.  So, he just grumbled and added to his grievance list.

The emperor shifted uncomfortably on his thrown, staring into a shimmering mirror.

Kane bowed and began, “Good day your Hi-,”

The emperor glared at the merchant.

“Len.  Hi, Len,” amended Kane, realizing the emperor was not in the mood to be referred to as such.

Len’s gaze returned to the mirror.  “I have a pounding headache, a budget to balance, and more responsibilities than I can finish in a day.  So cut the small talk, Kane, what do you need?”

Unsure of what small talk to cut, Kane proceeded to business as planned.  “I wish to use your mirror. I-”

“No,” interrupted Len flatly.

“You haven’t even heard my offer yet,” replied Kane, pulling out a large purse.

“I don’t have to,” dismissed Len.

“I’ll pay ten mill-”

“No.”

“A hund-”

“No.” Len looked down at the merchant and explained, “It’s not for sale.”

“I don’t want to buy it; I just want to use it,” reasoned Kane, still hopeful the emperor might be swayed.

Len rubbed his temples.  “I am charged with the responsibility of browsing through a seemingly infinite number of dimensions for powerful beings and transporting those beings from their home to mine.  Assuming they do not despise me instantly for their abduction, and we are somehow capable of communicating, I must convince them to fight in a tournament, but not just any tournament, one where the most powerful entities from across all existence meet to do gruesome battle.  What do you think they will say to that?  ‘Yes, that’s what I always wanted to do. Oh happy day, happy day?’ Not bloody likely.  Even if it did turn out like that, it still portents apocalyptic repercussions.”

“Why for?” inquired Kane, thoroughly entertained by Len’s ranting while simultaneously devising new pitch.

“This being must be capable of defeating unimaginable terrors screened and selected from across the entire multiverse by the dwarves, elves, and orcs.  After I, being naturally gifted and well known for my ability to asses and select capable warriors, just happen to pick the greatest entity in all creation who willfully defeats all other top contenders — it gets a wish.  Do you appreciate the gravity of a wish?  Wishes are always horrific, double-edged traps from the pit of lies.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” agreed Kane emphatically.

Len wiped at a bead of sweat pooling at the base of his crown and continued, “There are only two ways to avoid a disastrous wish.  One, don’t do it, and two, be a scheming solicitor with an immaculate intellect.”

“There is a third option,” proposed Kane.

The emperor glared at the merchant.  Kane choked out a quiet, “I’m sorry,” and looked away.

“So, I must scour all of everywhere for a perfect warrior who also happens to be acmatic in contract conception and is an understanding chap who doesn’t mind that it’s all for shits ‘n giggles!  And before you say anything, no. It doesn’t make it better that this is one of Oberon’s crafty schemes, which is probably nothing more than an attempt to kill me with stress,” concluded Len, feeling significantly stressed.

With a grin from ear to ear, Kane beamed up at the emperor, “Len, my old friend, in my humble opinion, you’re thinking way too far into this tournament thing.  The most likely outcome is that these aliens will immediately band together and raze everything out of sheer principal for being abducted.  But, I have a perfect solution — I’ll help you pick.  Everybody wins!”

Slouching down in his thrown, Len sighed, “No. If I let you help pick, then I’d have to let other people help pick, and soon I’d be picking people to help pick. This is my tiresome job and only Lucy will be advising me.  If you want you can petition him for a suggestion-”

“No,” Kane grumbled bitterly.

“I think we have come to terms,” retorted Len with a smile, grateful for the minor victory.

Kane acquiesced, “I suppose we have.”  Withdrawing a small vial from his coat, Kane consoled, “I’m sure you’ll make the right choice.  Here, why don’t you take this for your headache — it’s on the house.”

Len took the vial from Kane and downed it with a shudder.

“Would it be alright if I left out the back?” requested Kane, not wanting to face an enraged Lucy.

Len agreed with a wave.  After several minutes his pain followed the merchant — far, far away to the land of wind and dust.  Experiencing relaxation for the first time all day, with reinvigorated spirits the emperor resumed staring into the mirror.

Pitch 2: Hope

Zell enjoyed the rich umami flavor of the ultimate noodle in his bowl of ramen.  During his recent travels, Zell had experienced many new foods, but nothing compared to ramen.  Its hearty noodles, savory soup, and reliably delicious sapor was one constant he could rely on for relaxation.  Having relished his final noodle, Zell sipped up the soup.  He reflected upon his full belly and gazed into his empty bowl, cluttering his mind with thoughts of the Abyss.

-

Ever since birth, terrible nightmares had plagued Zell’s sleep.  He dreamt of being transported to a desolate, infinite castle where feelings of isolation, loneliness, and despair assailed his mind.  As a child Zell would cower in the corner quivering at the terror of eternal abandonment.  Reality, time, and emotions were distorted, suppressed, and stripped away until he awoke, choking on silent sobs and shivering in his bed.

Sensei, Zell’s guardian, comforted the traumatized child, encouraging Zell that the bonds of family were not lessened by distance.  Even though he may feel alone, or be alone, these states were illusory and must be overcome.  After much effort, Zell eventually trained his body to overcome the cold isolation, his mind the silent endlessness, but loneliness weighed upon the child’s heart.

The dreams continued to haunt him.  Zell wandered the castle alone and hopeless, despair polluting his mind.  Though he would return in the morning, this hope was beyond his comprehension and stripped from his mind while in the Abyss.  After years of journeys to the castle, the boy began to suspect that his trips were not just in his mind.

One night when Zell was ten, while wandering the rooms of the seemingly endless castle, he came across a woman sprawled on the floor facing the ceiling.  Her dark sapphire dress and russet hair spread out from her body like water from an overflowing fountain.  Transfixed by her peacefulness, Zell hurried to the motionless woman and looked down at her.  She opened her eyes and a scream escaped her throat.  The woman scrambled to her feet as Zell leapt backwards in surprise, slamming his head into a wall.  He rubbed his bruised head as the woman glided over to comfort the boy.  She knelt down and placed her hand on his shoulder.  “Are you ok?” asked the woman; her concerned voice and soft touch soothed Zell’s pain.

“I’m alright,” assured Zell, trying to be tough, “I’m sorry for scaring you.”

“I’m sorry I screamed,” apologized the woman, helping Zell to his feet.  “I thought I was alone.”

Her succinct expression of their shared plight evoked a torrent of emotion in Zell.  Someone else finally understood the despair he felt from countless abductions by the Abyss.  The accumulated sadness purged in a wave of tears.  “I hate being alone,” cried the boy.  Every night I’m alone.”

Struggling to hold back her tears at the little boy’s suffering, the woman consoled, “You’re not alone now.”

Zell clasped his arms around her waist pressed his face into her chest.  The woman hugged the boy, a few tears escaping down her cheeks.  Experiencing a motherly embrace for the first time eased the years of sorrow weighing on Zell’s heart.

Once he had stopped crying, the woman wiped the tears from his face with the hem of her dress.  “This is a very scary place, and you are being very brave.  One day we will find a way home.  Hope exists, whether we see it or not.”

“My sensei says family is like that,” related Zell.

“He’s right,” agreed the woman.

Zell woke up on the floor of his room.  He ran to tell Sensei, but he knew so little.  He remembered the image of her lying on the ground, felt the still tender knot on his head, but realized that he didn’t even know her name.  Her gentle voice rang sweetly in his memory but not the words themselves.  The only thing that he could specifically recall was, “Hope exists, whether we see it or not.”

On his next visit to the castle in the Abyss, Zell ran.  He raced from room to room, trying cover as much ground as he could.  He called out the only thing he could remember.  “Hope!  Are you there, Hope?”  Each time Zell came to the Abyss he would scour the castle.  The search for Hope became his ritual, and the despair was cast aside and forgotten.  Zell climbed the same stairs, passed through the same halls, and traversed the same rooms, and though he never found a sign of her, he knew Hope existed.

On one trek through the Abyss after Zell turned fifteen, he came across a courtyard, a courtyard he had passed through several times before.  In the courtyard was a fountain and above the fountain there rose a statue of a mermaid, and upon the hand of the mermaid delicately rested a piece of paper.  Zell leapt down the stairs and snatched the paper from her hand, as if the statue had some say in the matter.  An intricate web of lines covered the page and upon the back, a detailed map of a land unfamiliar to Zell.  The page shone signs of prior binding, as if it was a part of a book.  The boy sat in the courtyard repeatedly examining the paper until he awoke once again in his own room – clutching the paper in his hand.

Zell rushed to show his sensei the paper.  Together, they studied, but Sensei could not discern the landmarks on the map nor the language of the notation.  Sensei placed his hand upon Zell’s shoulder.  “Zell, you have mastered the teachings of Mutoryu, and you have been prepared for the journey that lies ahead.  Your destiny is tied to the Abyss.  You must go out into the world to find the answers you seek.  I no longer have training to offer.”

-

Zell put the soup bowl down and shook off the memories of the past.  “One more bowl to go, Mr. Ti,” requested Zell.

The owner of the restaurant handed Zell a boxed ramen.  “Thanks Mr. Ti,” said Zell, dismounting his stool.

“Don’t forget your cookies,” reminded Mr. Ti, holding out a little box.

“The last fortune I got was pretty mean,” complained Zell, recalling, “The greatest danger could be your stupidity.”

“We won’t have any more messages like that again.  We buy from a new place now.  The fortunes also have good advice, like ‘Never wear your best pants when you go to fight for freedom.’”

“I don’t wear pants,” evinced Zell by tugging on the legs of his shorts, “so I’m always ready to fight for freedom!”

“That you are,” agreed Mr. Ti.  “Good luck on your journey, Zell.”

Zell stuffed the ramen into his pouch, stepped onto the road, and left to fight for freedom.  From atop the hill, he looked back on the city and cracked open a cookie, eager to devour the wisdom contained within.  Unfurling the tiny white piece of paper, Zell read the message aloud, “DO IT!”  Unsure of what to do or why the message necessitated capitalization, he put his hesitation aside and resolved that he would “DO IT!” even if he wasn’t sure what IT was he needed to DO.  Zell shouted to the heavens, “I’m gonna DO IT!” and just then everything went dark.

This was the first time the Abyss had taken Zell while he was awake; it was also the first time he was truly trapped.  He stood in the center of a small circular room with no obvious path of egress.  Though he might be able to cut the stone hewn walls with his sword, he preferred to avoid cutting unworthy objects.  Zell circled the room, lay down in the center, and voiced an obligatory, “Help.”

Pitch 3: The Brambles

[Scene missing]

Pitch 4: Srug

Kane walked confidently up to Srug who was standing, hand extended, behind his large, even by orc standards, oak desk.  Kane shook Srug’s hand, and in turn Srug shook Kane’s forearm, not violently, just massively.  Srug was Kane’s best, favorite, and worst customer.  He always paid up front, he bought the most expensive items, and he haggled like a man who valued money over oxygen.

“Good day, Srug,” greeted Kane.

The orc smiled and cut to business.  “I hear you are looking for a turn at the mirror, Pfeffersack.”

Ecstatic at the opportunity to catch his own pitch, Kane did so.  “Ten million for a-“

“No.”

Kane clenched his teeth and grumbled, “What do you mean, no?”

“I don’t want money,” replied Srug smugly.

“Why not?” countered Kane, “You sure needed money when all your crops burned down, or when you built that eyesore to pierce the heavens.”

“We outsource now, and we won’t be building another.  What I want is the sword.”

“What sword?” inquired Kane, genuinely unaware of what the orc was referring to.

“The Eye of the Jibs,” said Srug.

“Really… you want it back?” asked Kane, disbelieving.

“Yes.  Ever since I sold the blasted thing, The Dark Lord hasn’t shut up about it.  It sat in a case for ten years, but the day after I sell it he asks, ‘Where is the blade that the mighty Wa’arg used to slay the last dragon?  Srug, what did you do?’  As if I did anything at all, and it’s been like that ever since.  So Pfeffersack, today is you’re lucky day.”

That sword was one of the most prominent pieces in Kane’s collection, but for a chance at the mirror, he decided it was worth it.  The merchant agreed to the offer amiably, “You’re tough but fair, Srug.  You can have the sword.”

“And the ten million,” amended Srug who had been waiting for his opportunity, “for one use.”

“But I can take my time?  Days, months, years, if need be?”

Srug placed the mirror on the desk and blithely offered, “Take your time. We already have all the warriors we need, but when you’re done we’ll summon more extras.”

“Extras?” inquired Kane, placing a large purse on the desk.

“In case the first picks don’t work out.  Whatever we don’t use, we’ll just send to battle the elves – Oberon is to blame after all.”

“Interesting,” mused Kane as he slid the pouch across the desk. “I’ll have the sword shipped to you when I get back to the shop.  Is UPS (United Pegasus Service) air ok?”

“That will be fine,” agreed Srug who enveloped the pouch in his left hand and slid the mirror across with his right.

“Please use the mirror in my conference room through the door on the right.”

Kane rose from his seat and extended his hand. “As always, Mr. Srug, it’s been a pleasure.”

Srug clasped Kane’s forearm.  “Likewise to you, Mr. Pfeffersack.  Best of luck on finding what you seek.”

Kane shuffled hastily toward the conference room, attempting to restrain his excitement.  He sat down in Srug’s seat at the conference table.  It was clear that the seat belonged to Srug because it was devoid of blood stains and it was adjacent to the obsidian black throne at the table’s end.

Kane gazed into the mirror, and to his surprise he saw what one should expect to see, his own reflection.  Being an expert with arcane artifacts and all things magical, Kane flipped the mirror around and read the instructions adhered to the back.

MAGIC MIRROR

Directions:  The Magic Mirror is voice activated and controlled.  Use these phrases to control the Magic Mirror.  Say the words “Magic Mirror” followed by any of the control words.  The control words are: on, off, play, pause, stop, fast, slow, reverse, eject, and clock.

Warning:  Objects in Magic Mirror may be smaller than they appear.  Use outdoors or in a well ventilated area.  Use of Magic Mirror may result in death, possession, or even disappointment.  If mirror comes in contact with eyes, consult a magician immediately.

The conference room had windows, or at least holes in the walls, likely from the last meeting.  Kane hoped this would suffice as proper ventilation.  Kane browsed through the visions of the mirror:

·        A butler preparing peanut butter sandwiches for a Glamrocker emanating an aura of fame.

·        A ninja, hiding in the pocket of another ninja.

·        A raccoon tailed plumber hopping across the backs of winged turtles.

·        A gargantuan man, heavily armored, wielding a black spiked shield with bodies impaled upon its spire.

·        A puddle.

·        A tarsier holding a chocolate bar.

·        A large chest with hundreds of tiny feet.

·        A monk with a tattoo of a brilliant phoenix rising from a pine tree, squeezing rocks to make them bleed.

After staring into the mirror for several hours, Kane stumbled upon a boy trapped in a room, calling for help.  Kane examined the boy’s surroundings, and concluded the boy had no hope of escape.  The merchant considered spending his one precious use of the mirror to save the boy, or maybe for something else.  He never got a chance to ponder the something else as he had already voiced the phrase, “Magic Mirror, eject.”  Kane theorized there had to be something else Srug would trade for another use of the mirror.

The Magic Mirror beamed a brilliant light across the conference table.  A dark shadow pierced the center of the light as the mirror ejected Zell onto the conference table.  After a moment he sat up and stared at Kane.  Zell spouted off a series of questions, “Where am I?  How did I get here?  Who are you?”

“You are on a table in Srug’s conference room, I rescued you, and my name is Kane Pfeffersack.  Are you ok?”

“No, I’m Zell,” joked Zell with a chuckle.  “Thanks for saving me from the Abyss.  That was really boring.”

“Boring?  Being trapped in a stone room with no hope of escape is boring,” probed Kane, baffled by Zell’s nonchalance.  “I would have characterized it as hopelessly maddening.”

Taking a more stoic tone, Zell clarified, “The Abyss is the most horrible place I’ve ever been.  I used to just hide and cry, but over the years I learned to cope with the solitude.  I get transported to that place all the time.  Though, that room was new.”

“So you’re saying I rescued someone who didn’t need rescue.”

“Kinda, but I appreciate it,” offered Zell, not wanting to belittle the man’s accomplishment.

Srug entered the room to behold Kane’s choice.  “This is your warrior, Kane?” laughed the orc.  “I questioned your ability to choose a valiant fighter, but I thought you would be a bit more discerning.  You shouldn’t rush these things, though you should rush him to some food.  He looks malnourished.”

“The boy was trapped in a stone room with no means to escape.”

“It’s true,” confirmed Zell.

Removing the mirror from the table, Srug marveled, “That’s a very expensive act of kindness, Pfeffersack.”

The merchant pleaded, “I need another chance.  Please, I’ll pay a hundred mill-”

Srug growled, “Kane, what did you do?”

“I wasted my opportunity in rescuing a kid who didn’t need rescuing,” countered Kane, not seeing the necessity to dwell on the topic.

“I really do appreciate it,” reaffirmed Zell.

Srug held up the mirror whose surface now resembled obsidian.

“Try turning it off and on again,” suggested Kane.

Postponing his anger, Srug commanded, “Magic Mirror off.”

The mirror’s shimmering black surface remained unchanged.

Srug growled, “Magic Mirror on,” but to no avail.

Kane took the mirror from Srug’s hand and shouted in a panic, “Magic Mirror play, Magic Mirror reverse, Magic Mirror eject, Magic Mirror… what happened?”
“You broke my mirror — that’s what happened,” asserted the orc, contemplating his course of action.
Kane crossed his arms and put his face and the mirror down on the table.

“I’ll be taking the hundred million as compensation for my mirror, and the ten million you have in your pocket for emotional pain,” decided Srug as he withdrew the money from Kane’s pack and person.  “You broke it, you bought it.”

Kane sobbed quietly.

Zell picked up the mirror.  “It’s the Abyss; I can sense it.”  The boy flipped the mirror around and skimmed the instructions.  “I have no idea what happened, but you should never give up hope.  Did you try ‘Magic Mirror clock?’”

A purple “12:00” flashed in the upper right hand corner of the mirror.  “See, it still works.”

Kane looked up, bitter over the loss of the mirror and at Zell’s ignorant optimism.  “Zell, let’s go.  Summoning you is the most costly purchase I’ve ever made.  Do you at least have magical powers or something like that.”

“Nope, I’m terrible at magic, but I am a skilled swordsman and a master of the ‘mu-to-ryu style.’”

“You are a master swordsman who practices the no-sword-style?” retorted Kane, baffled by the paradox but not wanting to discus it further.  “That’s fantastic.”

“I know,” agreed Zell in complete seriousness.  “I’m gonna DO IT!”

Kane responded, “I don’t understand?”

“I don’t either,” admitted Zell, “but I won’t let that stop me.”

Pitch 5: Ramen

Several ramenless hours had passed since Zell’s jaunt to the Abyss and subsequent summoning, and hunger ascended from Zell’s belly to his mind.  “Kane, are we almost there?  I’m getting pretty hungry, and I’d like to eat my spare ramen.”

“Once we go around this big ridge, there is a city just down the mountain and around another big ridge.  We’ll rest there,” explained Kane as he pointed in the direction of Ridgecity. “You’ve mentioned ‘ramen’ several times, but I am not familiar with that word.  What is it?”

Zell’s jaw plunged toward the ground like the head of a frightened ostrich.  Unnerved by the thought that someone could actually be unaware of his favorite meal, Zell swung his pack to his chest and quickly withdrew his reserve ramen.  “This,” Zell proclaimed, holding the ramen aloft for all to know its delicious glory, “is ramen!”  The proclamation wasn’t directed at Kane so much as the animals, the trees, the heavens, and anyone within earshot — in this case, a group of bandits searching for someone to attack.

Not one to be moved by food, the merchant eyed the dish incredulously and sniffed the wondrous aroma.  Kane’s appreciation for food fell somewhere between culinary Philistine and being ageusic, and he felt his response of “it smells quite good” to be adequate praise.

“It’s not just good.  It’s the best,” affirmed Zell with a stern nod of his head.

“Then we’ll be taking it,” asserted a man who stepped out from behind a tree.  The man’s brandished crossbow impressed upon the travelers that he was a bandit, the well kept but scarred leather armor suggested that he was willing to fight about it, and the gold rings boasted that he was successful in his ventures.

As the bandit moved toward the duo, Kane whispered to Zell, “Are you a fast runner?”

“I’m a pretty fast runner,” replied Zell who was still holding up his ramen.

Four more bandits wielding longswords revealed themselves and made their way out of the forest onto the road.

Finding a satisfactory position a few paces from Kane, the leader instructed, “If you value your lives, you will leave your valuables.”  He spoke with sincerity, charisma, and the confidence of a well armed bandit leader whose gang outnumbered an unarmed merchant and a scrawny kid holding a bowl of noodles.

“Whatever you say,” assured Kane, digging around in his pockets for valuables.  Zell placed his bag on the ground deposited the ramen back inside.  The bandits grinned at the compliance and general etiquette of their victims.  “There is far too much bloodshed in the world to fight over material possessions,” they thought collectively.

Zell removed his sword from his back and placed it upon his traveling pack.  Kane manifested a pair of coin purses in his right hand while secretly palming a vial in his left.  Zell touched his toes and then held his hands high in the air as if he was stretching.  Taking a deep breath, Kane tossed the pouches to the leader and hurled the vial to the ground.  As the two pouches soared toward their new owner, the vial exploded in a blinding flash followed by billows of crimson smoke.

The leader fired blindly as Kane darted between the bandits who followed their boss in attacking blindly.  The speedy merchant broke through the cloud of smoke and escaped safely around the ridge.  He bent over to more comfortably savor the precious oxygen filling his lungs and peeked back to evaluate the lead that he and Zell had on the bandits.

He took solace in the fact that there were no bandits but quickly traded it in for distress as there was also no Zell.  Kane lamented his weaponlessness, not that he was any good with weapons, and withdrew several vials and a rod from his coat.  He hurried back toward the dissipating cloud of smoke, leaving his beloved oxygen behind.

Arriving at the place he had hoped to escape from, Kane held out his rod and scoured the haze for the bandits, which he decided would be shapes larger than a bean pole, but none were to be seen, just a bean pole.  With the wind’s assistance the smoke continued its migration away from the area to reveal an unscathed Zell donning his pack.

“You’re ok!” exclaimed Kane with excitement and relief.

Zell sauntered cheerfully over to Kane, and chirped “Yep.  They weren’t so tough.  They couldn’t see in the smoke.”

“And you could?” asked Kane, his relief suppressed by confusion as he noticed the bodies of five unconscious bandits propped up against a tree.

“No, but I don’t have to.  I can sense them.  My sensei made me train with a blindfold until I mastered the ‘Strike Without Sight.’  It’s one of the seven senseless techniques he taught me, but I’ve only mastered five so far.  I told you that I was gonna DO IT!”

“Indeed,” accepted Kane, still usnsure of what it Zell was gonna do.

“Do you want me to pull that bolt out of your arm?” inquired Zell, pointing to a wooden shaft protruding from the merchant’s sleeve.

Realization quickly overcame adrenaline, and pain pranced across Kane’s left limb.  Distracted by his newly discovered injury and too tired to surmount the exponentially growing questions in his mind, Kane simply replied, “Yes, please,” and with that, they hurried off.

Pitch 6: Zell

Kane and Zell lingered outside the open gate to the emperor’s castle.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” asked Kane, worrying about the boy’s safety despite his masterful victory over the bandits.  “I can’t deny your skill, but this tournament will have beings more powerful and dangerous than we can imagine.”

“That’s great,” piped Zell.  “I love a challenge; that’s how you become stronger.  And if I get to wish for something, I can learn the secrets of the Abyss and find Hope!”

“You really have no fear,” admired Kane with an equal measure of concern.

“I spent half my childhood in fear of being alone in the Abyss, and you can’t be alone in a duel, so there’s nothing to fear,” explained the boy, resolute in his decision.

Kane appreciated Zell’s point, but felt bodily harm and dismemberment deserved some level fear – at least out of respect.  “You’re pretty weird, kid.  But, against my better judgment, you make me believe you can do it.”

The merchant’s final words rang out in Zell’s mind, “do it.”  Zell replied, “I don’t know if I can do it, but I’m gonna DO IT!”

Unable to comprehend Zell’s sentiment, Kane decided it was time to go.  “Let’s request a meeting with the emperor then.”

Lucien met the two in the castle courtyard.  “What do you want, Sack?”

“I need to see the emperor.”

“He is busy planning for the tournament.  He doesn’t have time to see you today.  You’ll have to go home now.  Good day to you and your friend,” rejected Lucien cheerfully.

“I’m here about the tournament.” Kane explained, motioning toward Zell, “He wishes to be an entrant.”

Incredulously, Lucien eyed the twig-like boy who waved in response.

“Hi, I’m Zell,” introduced Zell.

“Lucien,” replied the wizard flatly.  He refocused his attention to Kane.  “What are you trying to pull, Kane?  I’ve summoned feasts more imposing than this kid.”

“Very few things are more imposing than a fifty foot meatloaf, but he’s stronger than he looks,” insisted Kane.

Zell examined himself, pondering how strong he looked.

“Really?  He looks to be as strong as a small goat, but you’re telling me that he is actually stronger?  I didn’t think that was possible.  I suppose we can decommission the military now that we have him around,” sneered Lucien sardonically, laughing at his own wit.

Zell chuckled at the wizard’s biting retort and considered the goat to be a fair comparison, after all strength wasn’t exactly his strength.

“Listen, Lucien.  I’ll make you a deal.  If you let us see Len, and he decides Zell is not worthy to participate in the tournament, I will explain to you the secret of the circular carpet,” proposed Kane, “and you won’t be disappointed.”

Immediately, Lucien stopped laughing and examined Zell once more.  The boy’s magical aura was completely absent, and though he sensed strange energies, Lucien decided that this was a win-win situation.  Either he discovered the secrets of the carpet, or the emperor gained a new warrior with unknown potential.

“I not only want to know about the carpet, I want detailed instructions,” demanded Lucien.

“Just don’t bias Len and you have a deal,” agreed Kane.

“Wait here,” instructed Lucien as he turned to inform the emperor. “I don’t want you breaking anything in the hall when you show off.”

“Who’s Len?” asked Zell.

“The emperor prefers to be addressed as Len by his friends and associates,” clarified Kane.

Once Lucien was out of earshot, Kane spun to face Zell, “We have one chance at this.  That horrendous statue will be your enemy.  What’s your most impressive move?”

“Chi Disruption or Scavenger’s Flurry, but statues don’t have chi or loot, so…”

“I suppose not.”

“I am great at Pinning Strikes and fantastic at dodging, but…”

“I see,” sighed Kane, desperately racking his brain for an idea.  “I take it all of your techniques are practical, not ostentatious.”

“Yeah, well, except for my feints, but…”

“Somehow I thought this would be easier.”

“I could try a spinning pile driver,” proposed Zell in an attempt to be helpful.

“You know how to do that?  And to a statue?”

“No, but I could try,” Zell offered with a shrug.

“The emperor will be here any minute, so we need to come up with something fast.”  In desperation Kane pointed to the aforementioned sculpted blight in the center of the courtyard and proposed, “Could you split the statue with your sword?”

“Sure, but that’s pretty easy,” contended Zell.  “Shouldn’t I do something impressive?”

“It’ll have to do,” resigned Kane, unsure what Zell’s opinion of impressive could be.

Zell wandered over to size up his opponent as Lucien returned with the emperor.

“Kane, Lucy informed me you have a warrior you want to enter into the tournament and that I should bear witness to your warrior’s might,” declared Len, his tone forecasting doubt with a chance of hope.  “Where is he?”

“Hi, I’m Zell,” answered Zell, returning with a bow.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Zell,” greeted Len cordially as he turned to Kane.  “Where’s the warrior, Kane?”

Kane admitted with a grin, “You just met him.”

The emperor glanced at Zell and back to Kane.  “Did you just bring in a kid off the street?”

“No,” quipped Kane, “He was summoned through the Srug’s mirror.”

Len’s countenance changed from one of perpetual fret and anxiety to one of hope.  “I guess I don’t have much to worry about if they’re going to send kids to battle.”

“Srug didn’t summon him, I did,” clarified Kane.  “They already have all the warriors they need.  They even have extras to send to war.”

“Oh,” groaned Len, anxiety rushing back to his face.  “So you’ve kidnapped a kid.  Congratu-well-done, Kane.  Would you like to turn him over to the state?”

Kane announced their objective, “We would like to receive permission for Zell to participate in the tournament.”  Zell nodded in affirmation as Lucien silently smirked.

The emperor glared at the merchant and berated him, “Have you completely forgotten our prior conversation?”

“By no means, I have completely remembered our prior conversation,” riposted Kane slyly, and prompted, “Zell, please tell the emperor what you do for a living.”

“I am an adventurer.  I travel the world fighting for freedom as a champion of justice,” answered Zell.

Kane continued leading, “And why do you do this?”

“I am in search of the mysteries of my past and the Abyss, a dimension that I travel to sometimes.”

“If you had one wish, what would it be?”

“To learn the secrets of the Abyss and find Hope.”

“That’s two, but thank you,” accepted Kane, turning his attention to the emperor.  “I have brought you a true hero.”

“A true hero built like a fig tree,” appended the emperor, yet to be impressed.  Lucien’s smirk began to bear teeth.

“Zell, are you ready to show the emperor your masterful swordsmanship?”

“Cutting a statue in half isn’t really masterful swordsmanship,” reminded Zell.

“He’s going to cut my statue in half!?” cried the emperor.

“It scares children and clutters your garden,” justified Kane, “and you want to observe his skill, right?

“No, you want me to observe his skill, but you’re right; the statue has no place in a civilized society,” acquiesced Len, still unsure the statue could be split by the boy.  “Alright Zell, show me what you are capable of.”

Zell tied a blindfold around his eyes and meditated upon the moment.  Though cutting inanimate objects was unworthy of his blade, the tournament would lead him to the secrets of the Abyss and to Hope, and splitting the minotaur was his first step.

Len leaned over to Kane, “Do you really believe that kid is strong enough to sunder a statue with a mere sword?”

“I don’t know if he can but he told me he’s gonna,” recalled Kane, “and I believe him.”

Zell focused on the advice of the cookie, “DO IT!”  Zell drew his sword and leveled the blade toward his granite opponent.

In a blink Zell exploded forward and launched himself high into the air.  As his lithe frame hurtled toward the stone behemoth, Zell shouted, “I’m gonna DO IT!”  He raised his sword over his head and brought it down on the statue’s.  An umbral afterimage trailed in the blade’s wake as it sliced through the megalithic beast.  When Zell landed on the ground, his opponent stood just as it did before; though now, a perfectly straight, hairline fracture marred its center.

Zell assessed the damage, “I don’t think it’s going to fall, but that is a pretty nice cut.”  He looked around, realized that he was in the Abyss, and sighed, “Bugger.”

-

Kane, Lucien, and the emperor all stared in silent astonishment at the massive crater in the courtyard.  For several moments they waited for someone else to speak.

“I’ll pass,” said Len, breaking the silence.

“What!?” cried Kane in shock, “He just obliterated half your courtyard.  That was amazing.”

“I agree wholeheartedly.  It is probably the second most amazing thing I’ve seen today.  But, he is no longer here.”

“Remember how he mentioned that he travels to this other dimension sometimes?  He should be back eventually,” Kane reminded.

“If he happens to return, let me know, but as it stands, my options are a strangely powerful boy who isn’t here, all the warriors I’ve selected this far, and the warrior currently in my Magic Mirror.”

“But is the warrior in your mirror more powerful than Zell?” posed Kane hopefully.

“Before I came here, he was standing proudly atop a hill amongst the bodies of thousands.”

“But Zell is a true hero, he embodies the ‘throw your life away for justice’ mentality.  The guy in the mirror could be some crazed genocidal maniac.”

“The bodies were dragons — red dragons,” relayed Len.

“What about the wish?” tried Kane, running out of options.

Len continued, “As he stood upon the hill, he shouted to the heavens, ‘I have done it.  I have fulfilled our contract, overcome every obstacle.  All shall know the name of Vargas of Golgotha.  The wicked shall tremble in fear for my hand is just.  The weak shall rise with courage for my hand is strong.  What challenges have the gods left for me?’”

“He’s just what you wanted, isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” admitted the emperor, feeling a little guilty for turning them down after such an impressive display.  “Listen, Zell seems to be an incredible kid, and I am genuinely amazed by his power.  However, I have seen countless amazing feats today, and I have to go with the sure thing, not a kid who teleports away, and might return at some future time.”

Kane hung his head.  “I understand.”

Even Lucien sympathized with the merchant’s disappointment in the face of Zell’s fantastic display.   He calmly and respectfully requested his winnings, “I’ll be by to pick up the instructions in an hour.”

Pitch 7: Pockets

Scanning the cobblestones in the street, Kane moped back to his shop with no way of knowing when, if, or where Zell would return.  The merchant’s plan to back Zell as an underdog was defunct before it ever began.  He intended to recoup at least a portion of the capital invested, albeit inadvertently, on summoning Zell, but his financial woes had become a distant thought.  In the short time they were together, Kane had grown to like the strange kid, and now that Zell was gone, the world was less exciting.  Not that Kane especially liked excitement, but the combined losses of his opportunities and his friend left Kane in a haze.  As the merchant turned the corner, he collided with an old man hidden by the haze.

Although Kane’s build was almost wizardly in stature, his backpack carried enough heft to maintain Kane’s position and hurl the old man to the ground.  Kane checked his pockets to verify that nothing was pilfered and helped the man up.  “I’m sorry, sir.  Are you alright?”

“No,” replied the man curtly.

“I’m so sorry.  Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Mah name’s Greg,” chuckled the geezer in cockney accent, “an’ you c’n ‘elp by keep’n yer ‘ed on straight.  You look like Def ees loomin o’er yer shoulder.”

“I lost a friend recently, and-”

“When Ah lose tings, Ah check me pockets,” suggested the man turning his pockets inside out, “and you ‘ave lots of pockets.”

“I do.  That’s good advice,” Kane placated the man, rechecking his pockets.  “Well Greg, I need to be going.”

Greg laughed as he twirled about, his pockets flailing outward. “Be seeing you.”

Kane walked a block down the street and arrived at Pfeffsack’s Magic Items and Artifacts.  He dispelled the protection spell with a wave of his key-wand.  Before entering, Kane glanced back to see Greg colliding with another person unprepared for the prancing geezer.

The merchant closed the door to his shop and reactivated the protection spell with another wave.  Working his way to the back of the store, he navigated between the shelves of astral glue, telekinetic wands, floating discs, bags of holding, records of illusion, and mage gloves.  A trio of large protective cases set into the building’s rear wall housed three artifacts: a blazing red bastard sword labeled “The Cursed Eye of the Jibs,” a silver bow harp labeled “The Singing Bow-Harp of the Silverstar Family,” and a pair of kneepads labeled “The Kneepads of Allure.”

Kane unlocked a door at the back of the shop, revealing a short rectangular corridor with three doors, ones to the right and left and one labeled “office” to the back.  Kane pulled a small book from one of his coat’s inner pockets, and thumbed through the pages.  Other than the index, every page bore a pitch black circle.  Kane reached inside one of the circles and withdrew a bronze key.  Unlocking the door, he stepped into a superfluously spacious supply closet containing a broom, a mop holding a bucket, and a book of cleaning spells.

Upon closing the door, a ring on Kane’s finger illuminated the closet.  The merchant inserted the key back into the door’s lock.  As he turned the key anticlockwise, it locked with a click.  He turned it in the opposite direction; it clicked again.  Kane opened the door into a spacious cavern illuminated by glowing rods in place of torches.  Lacquered hardwood flooring lined the base of the cavern, and wooden beams reinforced the cave’s all natural architecture.  Kane removed his shoes and ambled through a passageway into his subterranean office.

From the dome of the cave to the horseshoe desk surrounded by a donut shag carpet, the office embodied a spherical feng shui. Other than a couch and another carpet, the room exhibited very little adornment.  Even the desk was strangely bare, save a petite elephant’s foot palm and the Eye of the Jibs.  “Welcome back,” piped the sword. “How’d things go with Srug?”

“Exactly how you said it would,” sighed Kane, removing a large book of portable holes from his desk.  “I traded you for a chance to use the mirror.”

The sword jeered, “And what did you do to screw it up?”

“I spent that chance rescuing a kid named Zell from a dimensional abyss which in turn corrupted the mirror, Srug charged me one-hundred-ten million for the broken mirror, and Zell got taken back to the Abyss.”

“You used your one chance to rescue some kid?  There are countless kids who need rescuing every day.  Are you just going to give up on your mission and become a hero for children everywhere?”

“I couldn’t leave him alone in that place, and I figured Srug would trade something else, but the mirror…”

The sword mocked him, “I told you I would be returned to the jibs.”

“Then you were right,” admitted Kane, withdrawing a packing slip from one of the holes.

“Aww, you think I’m priceless.  I’m touched,” chided the sword as the merchant filled out the slip.  Kane slid the palm to the center of his desk, crossed his arms, put his chin down.  “I’m destined to loose,” chuckled Kane bitterly to his plant, no longer interested in the sword’s ridicule.

As he stared at the tiny tree’s elephantine trunk, a sphere of green light materialized in front of his desk.  Kane slid the palm aside as the light solidified and dispersed, dropping the emperor and his advisor right in front of the desk.

“You’re early,” commented Kane dispassionately, circling his desk.  “When did you learn to teleport so accurately?”

As the pair stood up and straightened their clothes, Len responded, “I have had a lot of practice,” by which he meant this was his fourth attempt.

“That’s great, soon you’ll be a real wizard,” jibed the sword.

“I don’t have your information ready yet,” said Kane, annoyed that the sword beat him to the punch.

Lucien grumbled, “We’re not here for that.”

“We’re here for Zell,” finished Len.  “He’s in.”

“What do you mean ‘he’s in?’ asked Kane skeptically.  “Did Vargas not meet your expectations?”

“I can’t say I expected him to kill our strongest warrior, Ogdra the Inferno,” admitted Len.

“Why would he do that?”

“He claimed that her name smelled like red dragon and suplexed her out a window.”

“That’s very unfortunate.”

“By no means, she was a red dragon,”

“Well, this is great news and all, but I thought you already had so many fighters that Zell just wouldn’t cut it.”

Len continued, “Several fighters quit, citing that if there were people like Vargas in the tournament, then there were easier ways to earn a wish.  A series of problems followed after that.  One fighter misunderstood and thought he was going to watch a tournament, another suffers from narcolepsy, another was allergic to bread, and five of them left to join the circus.”

Losing track, Kane inquired, “So how many warriors do you have left?”

“Vargas and Zell.  Speaking of which, is he back yet?”

“Unfortunately, no, and I don’t know if he’ll ever be back,” Kane lamented, his melancholy returning.  “I can’t have the Magic Mirror eject him since-”

As Kane spoke, his pocket exploded, Zell and the mirror tumbled onto Kane’s shag carpet.

“You were wrong again!” heckled the sword.

Zell popped up to his feet, turned to the emperor, and knelt back down.  “Did I DO IT!?”

Len cast a glance to Kane and Lucien and answered, “Yes.  Zell of the Abyss, I hereby grant your request to participate in the tournament on behalf of the Gawain Empire.  I expect to see you both in the courtyard at dawn for combat training.”

“Both?” asked Kane, his mind jumping to the obvious conclusion.  “I’m not going to be in the tournament!”

“Of course not, Zell is, but since you summoned him, so you’re his de facto guardian.  If he is transported to the Abyss again, I expect you to use that mirror to bring him back.  Lucien will research the tournament rules for interdimensional loopholes.”

Zell leapt up, and shouted to Kane, “I told you I was gonna DO IT!”