Writing by: Ryan Pietz

Pitch 8: Shu

Just before daybreak, while the metropolis still slept, Kane and Zell exited Pfeffersack’s shop.  Outside, Greg sat intently staring at a snail ascending a tree.  Kane wondered if it was more unusual to wake up or stay up snail watching.  As the pair passed by, the geezer lay down in their path and opined, “The journey is long, but the snail never doubts the imm’nence of ‘is arrival, now does ‘e?”  The pair nodded in response, hoping acknowledgement might clear the way.

The old man performed a Kip-up, removed the snail from the trunk, and placed it on a leaf. “See, ‘e’s there!” laughed Greg, popping off with youthful exuberance.  “Be seeing you.”

Unsure if Greg was addressing them or the snail, the pair waved and resumed their trek, sleep still weighing heavily on their minds.

Entering the still dark courtyard, they observed that the crater had been filled in with dirt and the minotaur statue had found its way home.  As the warm morning sun broke over the castle wall, Len and Lucien approached.

“What’s that?” blurted Zell, pointing to the tiny octarine dragon perched upon Lucien’s shoulder.

“Another entrant,” answered Lucien.

Kane seized the opportunity, “If you’re just going to waste your time with the mirror, can I use-”

Simultaneously, the emperor and the wizard snapped, “No.”

Kane recoiled, and changed gears, “So why did you summon something so… small?”

Len answered, “Our visions in the mirror made the dragon appear to be an imposing ruler, curled upon a cushioned throne.  Countless worshipers offered tribute, feeding what we believed to be a mighty ruler.”

Kane inquired, “So he’s intelligent then?”

“No, she has the mind of a puppy,” corrected Lucien.

“A naughty puppy or a cuddly puppy?” asked Zell.

Len glanced over to the tiny dragon on Lucien’s shoulder, and resolved, “A cuddly puppy.”

The dragon rolled to his back as Zell scratched his belly with his finger.  “She’s so cute.  You can’t have her fight.”

“We don’t intend to,” said Lucien.  “Jub-jub is my familiar.”

Kane and Zell chuckled, “Jub-jub?”

Len interjected, “We have several other participants for the tournament, but you and Vargas are our aces.  You will be training under commander Shu.”

Kane interjected, “Didn’t he lead an elite team against the Dark Lord’s kamikaze berserker force in the Battle of Blood Forest during the Last War?”

“You’ve heard of him then,” replied Len, impressed by the merchant’s knowledge.

Kane retorted, “But the Battle of the Blood Forest had no survivors!  Not even the trees.”

“After the three days of fires, they legitimately assumed that there were no survivors.  But, Shu was found in a bloody ditch covered in blood, eating a blood orange also covered in blood.  As far as anyone is concerned he is dead, and I’ve requested that his corpse train Zell and Vargas.”

Zell exclaimed, “He sounds amazing!  I can’t wait to meet him.”

Len directed Zell’s attention to the two figures gazing in awe upon the visage of the minotaur.  Zell hurried over to meet them.

“Hmm,” grunted Shu in appreciation of the work.

“The beast has conquered all opposition and proudly waits for another to challenge it,” expressed Vargas somewhat less efficiently than his companion.

Zell joined in, “He’s pretty big, but I cut him in two yesterday.”

The two men turned to the boy.  “Why would you try to harm a magnificent monument to manliness?” admonished Vargas.  “It’s a good thing you didn’t do anything to it.”

“Mm,” agreed the commander.

“To prove myself to the Emperor,” explained Zell, observing that the creature was whole again.

Still marveling at the statue, Vargas asserted, “Defacing works of art proves nothing.”

Before Zell could explain, Shu spoke; his voice was like that of a man who ate rocks, drank acid, and whose vocal cords were made of lightning.  “The time for art has passed — now we train.”

Day 1 Test 1: Wrist Control

Kane observed the training while reclined upon a hovering disc at the edge of the courtyard.

“We shall begin with the fundamentals.  If you are proficient, we will proceed to more advanced techniques,” prefaced Shu with outstretched arms, which displayed more scar tissue than healthy.  He wore a spiked bracer with two inch razor spikes.  The commander professed, “The key to grappling is wrist control.  Vargas, grab my wrists.”

Without hesitation Vargas grasped the blade clad wrist.  Shu twitched twice, testing his pupil’s grip, and mused, “Excellent. Now, attack!”

Vargas pulled Shu forward headbutting him in the face, and followed up by performing a belly to belly suplex.

As the two men climbed to their feet, they remained stoic, not betraying the depth of their injuries.  His face gushing blood, Shu affirmed, “Well done.  You have masterful wrist control.”

The commander faced Zell.  “Zell, grab my wrists.”

Zell wiped the blood splatter from his face. “But that would really hurt.  How will I hold on?”

“Well done.  You have learned that wearing spiked bracers inhibits wrist control.”  Shu addressed Kane.  “Shopkeep, buy this boy some spiked bracers!”

“Yes sir,” replied Kane, speeding off on his disc.

Passed!

Day 1 Test 2: Blind fighting.

Kane returned with Zell’s bracers, a small sphere, and a set of vials.

“Thanks,” said Zell, “but I’m not very good with non-swords.”

“I know, but you don’t have any ranged weaponry.  These explode after you throw them, so you don’t have to be accurate.”

After equipping the boy with the bracers and vials, the merchant activated the sphere and a glowing green dome encircled him.  He reclined safely on his disc.

Commander Shu presented two archery targets and two blindfolds to his students.  “Put this on and strike the target,” instructed Shu, handing Vargas the first blindfold.

Carefully surveying the ground around himself, Vargas donned the blindfold, dropped to a knee, and warned, “Zell, don’t move.”

Shu catapulted the target into the air.  With blinding speed Vargas snatched up rocks off the ground and flung them at the target like a human Gatling gun.  Other than littering the general path of the target, his throws were devoid of accuracy, but the sheer volume of stones more than compensated for the lack of aim.  Pieces of earth blotted the sky as the target soared over Vargas’s head, and as the target crashed to the ground, a hailstorm of rocks gave chase, several of which continued to hammer the target until it was no more.

“Well done,” said Shu.

The courtyard was pocked with countless holes.  Kane had heard rumors of the mighty Meteo spell, and now began to comprehend the damage it could do.  Though not a single rock hit Zell, Shu, the minotaur, or the merchant’s force field, Kane wasn’t taking any chances and left to purchase a second shield sphere.

Zell tied the blindfold, and drew his blade.  Shu launched the target towards the heavens. The target rotated slowly in the air as it reached the pinnacle of its trajectory.  Zell’s sword shot from his hand in a flash of light and shadow, striking the target dead center.  The moment before the target collided with the ground, Zell leapt across its path, removing his blade.  His back to the target, Zell returned the Edge of the Abyss to its scabbard with a “shink.”  With that, the target split in twain.

“Well done,” said Shu.

Returning just in time to witness Zell’s performance, Kane clapped enthusiastically.

Passed!

Day 1 Test 3: Warrior’s spirit

“Channel your energy and attack!” commanded Shu, crossing his arms.  Brilliant energy began flowing around Vargas.  Bits of earth levitated from the ground.  The dragon slayer rocketed forward, his fist speeding toward the commander’s face.  The grizzled veteran caught the attack in his palm, but Vargas’s energy traveled through Shu’s arm, sundering his bracer in an eruption of razor spikes.  Executing a masterful iaijutsu draw, Zell unsheathed his sword deflecting the incoming projectiles into the ground, Kane cowered safely behind his twin force bubbles.  Vargas and Shu however, having no opportunity or desire to dodge the burst, were showered in shrapnel.  As the commander removed the metal shards embedded in his face, he grinned sadistically.  “Well done.”

Zell was well versed in chakras and chi disruption, but he had never once tried to channel energy himself — especially not for an attack.  The boy dug his feet into the ground, focusing his mind on his goal.  Clenching his teeth and fists, Zell shouted, “I’m gonna DO IT!”  His muscles clenched and shook, but nothing changed, save for the awkward silence of undeniable failure.

Shu’s voice sundered the silence, “Tomorrow you will meditate under the cascade falls.”

Passed and Failed.

Day 1 Test 4: Stance

Zell and Vargas stood in a battle stance as Shu paced before them.  Vargas’s stance was like that of a bull ready to charge.  Zell took up a “Heaven and Earth” posture as Shu stood before them inhaling deeply.  Shu bellowed a thunderous kiai shout that shook the earth about them.  Dirt, rocks, and Zell were propelled backwards, colliding with the courtyard wall.

As his force fields flickered, Kane hid under his disc.  Vargas shook his head in frustration — the earth about him had been stripped away, and his knee was touching the ground.

Rubbing his bruised back, Zell returned to the field.  He was disappointed but knew that he was gonna DO IT!”

“That is all for today.  Tomorrow we meet at dawn.  Your training will begin in the mountains.”

Failed.

Pitch 9: Training Montage

Shu, Vargas, Zell, and Kane exited the city at dawn, and scaled the Cascade Mountains arriving at Rainbow Falls by nine.  Justifying its namesake, numerous rainbows shimmered about the falls.  At the base of the falls, crystal clear water pooled in a small lake, an unparalleled reward at the end of an exhausting climb.

Zell stripped down to his fundoshi and jumped in.  The young adventurer had not been swimming since leaving home.  He lay back into the water, and let its soothing embrace wash away the pain from the hike. While Zell floated in the water, Kane floated over into a shady enclave and pulled out his copy of the tournament rules.

Deciding that five minutes was ample time for relaxation, Shu approached the water’s edge and declared, “The time for fun has passed — now we train.”

Zell scrambled up the rocks at the base of the falls, but was repeatedly washed off.  After several attempts, and Vargas’s assistance, Zell managed to maintain his position under the crushing pressure of the falling water.

Vargas swam to the deepest part of the lake for underwater exercises to improve his reflexes.  Shu sat on a small stool at the edge of the lake and fired arrows into the water for his student to catch.  When Vargas was finally able to catch the arrows consistently, the commander began firing them in pairs.

For several unsuccessful hours, Zell meditated below the falls.  He recalled Shu’s instructions on the hike, “Your spirit is like the water; as it flows over your body, your energy will flow through.”  Zell didn’t feel that the water was flowing over his body so much as it was deflecting off of it.  Zell’s mind began to wander, recalling things that flow, and how he might channel his energy.  Nothing relevant came to mind, until his stomach began to rumble.  Since eating his reserve ramen, Zell’s palette settled for mundane servings of crème brûlée of foie gras and roast duck a l’orange.  He reminisced fondly upon how the smooth noodles flowed through his stomach and how the soup infused his body with warmth.  Zell thought to himself, “Be like ramen.”  While the water assailed his head and shoulders, Zell found Zen in his belly.

Every morning the group returned to the falls, repeating their respective routines; the afternoon regiment consisted of running, katas, sparring, matches of Pai Sho, and war stories, until the day of their final exams.

Final Day Test 3: Warrior’s spirit redux – over 9000

The warriors, the merchant, the wizard, Jub-Jub, and the emperor all gathered in the castle courtyard for the final tests, the first of which was Zell’s energy channeling.

Len leaned over to Kane and inquired, “How was the training?”

“Zell spent every morning under a waterfall, and if I understand correctly, that means he can channel energy into an attack,” replied Kane, unsure if he understood correctly.

“Oh,” responded Len, also not understanding.

Noticing the thick, tournament rulebook under Lucien’s arm, Kane asked, “Any luck on the interdimensional loopholes?”

“Temporary jaunts to pocket dimensions are permissible if they do not cause an unreasonable delay in combat,” explained Lucien.  “Disregarding ‘reasonable delay,’ is the Abyss a pocket dimension?”

Kane reasoned, “I believe it’s a dimensional Nexus, which isn’t really a dimension so much as a place between dimensions.”

“That might fall under one of the gateway clauses.”

“Do you mean the wormhole exception?”

The emperor wiped his brow and stepped away from the two men as they discussed and debated the intricacies of sport law. The tournament was stressful enough without the need for a legal team.  Len turned his attention and anxiety away from the banter of the rules lawyers and to his ace fighters.

Zell moved to the center of the courtyard to begin his exam.  He adopted a horse stance with his legs and extended his arms forward, turning his palms upwards.  Zell breathed calmly, closed his eyes, and relaxed his mind.  He imagined a hot bowl of ramen in his hands.  He brought his hands inward, and then down towards his stomach.  Energy followed the path of his metaphysical noodles.  He repeated this motion several times, feeling the energy grow.  When he opened his eyes, he was standing the Abyss.

Upon vanishing, Zell took with him a significant section of the courtyard.  Commander Shu narrowly avoided the dimensional rift.  He glanced over to the trio of onlookers, who were safely hidden behind two protective shields, a column, and Kane’s pack.  Kane lowered his shields and held out the mirror.  “Magic Mirror eject.”

Zell popped back onto the field.

“You have succeeded, but you have much more to learn.”

Barely Passed!

Final Day Test 4: Stance

Both Vargas and Zell posed in the same manner as the minotaur, arms akimbo.

Commander Shu smiled and inhaled deeply, and without exhaling, inhaled a second time.

Vargas grinned and whispered to Zell, “He’s using both lungs today Zell, this is the true test.”  The dragon slayer also breathed in deeply.

Zell declared, “I’m gonna DO IT!” and puffed his chest out as well.  Having a keen sense for when to run, Kane sped off to the far corner of the courtyard.

As Shu’s cataclysmic cry pierced the heavens, animals and people rushed for shelter.  Lucien immediately cast a teleport spell, transporting the trio safely outside the castle walls.  Watching the castle inhabitants scramble in terror, Lucien and Len considered relocating future tests to remote locations.

The sound and energy emanating from the mighty commander engulfed Zell and Vargas.  Zell’s wide posture absorbed the maximum amount of force, and he was flung away immediately.  Shu focused his attention to Vargas who retaliated with a kiai shout of his own.  The two roars clashed visibly as everything around the two warriors, including the ground, was torn away.  Sparks flashed in the air, and lightning struck between the two in an earthen storm cloud.  After a series of sonic booms and bursts of energy, all went silent, and the emperor and his two companions returned.

As the brume of dirt slowly fell away, it revealed Commander Shu crouching on a section of earth jetting from the edge of a moderately sized crater.  A narrow pile of dirt and rock remained stacked upward in the center of ground zero where Vargas retained his stance.

“Hooray, Vargas!” yelled Zell.

The audience turned around to see Zell, stance maintained upon his sword, which jetted out from the wall.

Passed!

Final Day Test 5: The test of real ultimate power

At Shu’s advice, the wizard and the emperor joined Kane under his shields of force.  Shu removed his coat, tossing it onto the merchant’s force fields.  Kane hung the coat from his disc.

With arms crossed the commander stood before his disciples.  The war veteran’s body bore a library of injury: wounds from every type of weapon, nation, and probably animal.  Scars covered scars.  As the onlooker’s gawked, and Vargas read, the grizzled warrior spoke, “For your final test, you must work together to cut me.”

Confident in their training, Zell and Vargas immediately sprinted forward.  Shu countered with a kiai shout, forcing Zell to dodge off to the side, but Vargas pierced the wall of sound head on.  Shu followed his cry, running at Vargas who, unabated by the shout, careened toward the commander.  At a safer distance, Zell cut through the sound wave with his sword and circled to flank the commander.  Vargas threw a haymaker that connected with Shu’s temple, but in a blink the commander was nowhere to be seen, or at least by Vargas.

Before Zell could voice a warning, Shu grabbed Vargas around the torso and lifted him off the ground.  Zell threw his sword at Shu, but Shu leapt into the air.  Vargas struggled to break the commander’s grip, but before he could free himself, Shu drove his strongest pupil into the ground like a nail.

Swordless, Zell faced off against Shu, who stood before the hole Vargas was buried in.  Zell’s eyes fell upon his sword, protruding from the earth before his opponent.  In the background Vargas’s hand broke through the topsoil, and clasped Shu’s ankle.  Amazed by Vargas’s resilience, Shu grinned sadistically.  In the moment of Shu’s bemusement, Zell sprung forward, retrieved his sword, slashed Shu, and returned his blade to its scabbard.

Zell glanced back; his attack had done nothing.  The commander spun, wrenching his ankle free from the dragon slayer’s grasp.  Both Vargas and Zell had witnessed the commander bleed before, but neither of their attacks affected the mighty Shu.

Shu charged Zell, giving him little time ponder his next attack.  Vargas burst from the ground to intercept the commander.  As the two behemoth’s clinched, Zell threw a vial into the dirt behind Shu.  The commander spun Vargas around to shield himself against the vial’s anticipated assault.  Vargas would have absorbed the full force of the blast, but the vial remained lifeless and whole — the soft soil had cushioned its fall.

Utilizing the distraction, Vargas hopped up and kneed Shu in the face.  The commander caught Vargas’s knee and tackled him to the ground, narrowly avoiding Zell’s blade as it grazed over his head.  A few strands of cut hair fell to the earth.  The commander relinquished his grip on Vargas and chuckled, “Hm.  Well done.”

Passed!

Pitch 10: Rule 29

Len and Srug sat around a circular table in a windowless room.  Enchanted stones embedded in the ceiling emitted light bright enough for the occupants to see each other, but not too bright to disrupt the clandestine atmosphere.  Srug etched notes in his ledger while Len anxiously awaited the arrival of the Dwarven rulers.

The instant the brambles entered the room, Diana initiated the meeting.  “Why have you brought us here, Len Gawain?”

Lucien closed the door and gave a nod from the shadows, signifying that the room was secure in both the physical and astral planes.

“I desire transparency,” professed Len earnestly.  “I wish to discover Oberon’s intentions behind this tournament.”

“I think he intends to have a tournament,” joked Diana, injecting levity into the somber atmosphere.

“But what does Oberon have to gain?”  Len spoke heatedly with escalating energy and anxiety, “A wish he already owned?  Proof that he arbitrarily found a better warrior in a mirror he also already owned?  Why have a tournament at all?”

“I like tournaments.  What do you have against tournaments, Len?” argued Glenn, recalling the last Dwarven Games he officiated, or more accurately, how drunk he became during the last Dwarven Games he officiated.

“I harbor no objections to the tournament itself,” assured Len, rubbing his temples.  “I am concerned because Oberon is scheming.”

“You gathered us because Oberon was scheming?” inquired Diana, wondering if Len became alarmed when ducks were quacking.  She feared that the emperor was finally cracking under the pressure of his empire.

“I gathered you here in the hope that we might determine the intentions behind his scheme.”  As Len’s heart raced and his brow collected dew, he sipped water from his chalice to cool himself and his nerves.

“I assumed it was his intention to kill you with stress,” jested Diana, bringing attention to Len’s foot tapping audibly against the table.

Srug closed his ledger, and took the reigns of the conversation.  “The emperor’s concern is well justified.  We do not know what Oberon has to gain, but we can rely on his nature — he intends to gain something.”

“Or take away,” added Len grimly, appreciative that someone else appreciated the gravity of Oberon’s machinations.

Srug continued, “Oberon is not a fool.  He will not gamble on uncertain odds, and as you have previously evinced, what does the tournament offer that he does not already own?  I proffer that the tournament’s mere existence is means to some alternative end, its outcome is irrelevant.”

“Or merely just a ruse to garner legitimacy to a wish.”  Diana suggested, intrigued by the conspiracy game.  “Since someone will have earned it, to the populace it will appear as if the winner deserves to have it granted.”

Srug laughed, “That’s lot of effort just to grant legitimacy to a wish.”

“And not unlike Oberon,” reminded Glenn, still bitter about Oberon’s manipulation of the social consciousness that left the world believing that all dwarven women were overly hirsute.  It was rare that dwarven women grew beards, and he was especially proud of his wife’s accomplishment.

“This is true,” admitted Srug.  “All of these may be mere pieces whose sum justifies the effort.”

Len nodded energetically in agreement; the solidarity of his fellow rulers raised his spirits.

“Do you intend boycott the tournament?” inquired Glenn, unsure of where the conversation was headed.

“The Gawain Empire will participate,” Len resolutely assured.  In the extreme chance that Oberon does have the ability to grant wishes, are you all certain of your greatest champion’s intentions?”

“What of your champion?” imposed Srug, curious as to what the emperor would divulge.

“Vargas is our favorite.  He has bargained with gods themselves, so I am confident in his ability to construct a sagacious wish or to eschew its temptation.”

“Our champion is righteous and true and will wish for a harem,” touted Glenn.

Diana glared at her husband.

Srug admitted, “Ours is more interested in tangible assets than wishes.  He has been paid to win, and that is all.  Many thanks to your Mr. Pfeffersack for the funds.”

Len clarified “So, you have purchased the wish?”

“Yes, and it is no secret that I intend for the curse to be lifted from the Dark Lord.”  Srug leaned forward, placing his arms on the table and intertwining his fingers.  “Theorizing Oberon’s motivations was amusing, and the early roster is intriguing, but what exactly do you want?”

“I propose that we share all information we discover regarding Oberon’s intentions — an information alliance of sorts.”

“I see,” acknowledged Srug in a hushed tone.  “Are you aware of Rule 29, your highness?”

Looking to his wizard for advice in the matter, the emperor guessed, “Is that the rule on time travel?”

“No,” replied Srug soberly.

Lucien brought the rule book to the table and placed it before Len.  As the emperor flipped through the book, he asked, “Was it the one regarding mounts?”

“I was not referring to a rule of the tournament, but a rule of politics and of life,” answered Srug.  “The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy.  No more.  No less.”

Len pleaded, “We do not have to be enemies.  I only wish for peace.”

“Peace perpetuates both your wealth and our poverty.  If Oberon’s scheming upsets the balance of power, we have little left to lose — our land cannot be cultivated and our largest natural resources are lava and salt.  I wish no ill will on you personally, but I have higher obligations — that is, unless you wish to secede land to us?”

“No.”

“Good day to you all.”  Srug slid his seat from the table.  He towered over the other attendees as he made his way to the door.

After Lucien closed the door behind Srug, Glenn rose from his seat.  “I agree with Srug.  You can rely on the Dark Lord being evil and you can rely on the untrustworthiness of elves.  I have no doubt that Oberon is scheming, but is an investigation worth our time?”

Remaining seated, Diana objected with a time tested strategy, “Are you too busy drinking?”

“You just want to stick your nose where it doesn’t belong,” countered Glenn with his own favored tactic, not wanting to cut further into his drinking time.

“We’re aiding an ally,” proclaimed Diana, hoping justice would justify her curiousness.

Glenn’s skepticism remained resolute.  “You’re making a mountain out of a no-hill.”

“Oberon is always scheming.”

“Sometimes a tournament is just a tournament.”

“Only sometimes.  What about the other times?”

“You’re becoming obsessed, woman.”

“I’m becoming angry.”  Diana’s eyes burned like embers from the hottest dwarven forge.  The emperor and the wizard took refuge behind chairs and wondered how much time she spent meditating under waterfalls.

Glenn calmly turned toward Len’s chair.  “What I meant to say is, yes, we would love to form an information alliance.”

-

“Good morning, Len.  You wished to see me?” greeted Kane as he entered the Great Hall.

“I don’t get it,” sighed Len.

“What?”

“I have consulted everyone there is to consult, including Srug, but I cannot discern what Oberon has to gain from this tournament.”

“Did you ask Oberon?” asked Kane, expecting the emperor’s favorite response.

“No,” replied Len flatly.

Kane mulled for moment and suggested, “What would your father do in this situation?”

“He wants me to win the tournament as a show of strength for the people, send out spies, and not worry about it,” answered Len with less hesitation and thought than Kane put into the question.

Len’s use of the present tense and very specific tactics nonplussed Kane, but he decided it best to overlook the peculiarity. “Then that’s what you should do.  You need to stop fretting, or you’ll die from stress.”

“I am fairly certain that was his plan all along,” moaned Len.

“Then stick it to Oberon and stop worrying.”

“That’s good advice Kane,” acknowledged Len, making a concerted effort to evict the Elven ruler from his mind.  “We shall no longer speak of Oberon.”

“What will we speak of?” prompted Kane, hoping to get to business.

“The reason I summoned you was to thank you for your assistance, we’ve acquired all the contestants we will need, and turned in the entry forms to the tournament officials.  You can have the mirror.”

“Really,” squeaked Kane, barely able to contain his excitement.  Rejection and misfortune were problems of the past.  He would have a working mirror all to himself with no limit to its use.  Though everything was coming up Pfeffersack, his pragmatic realism kept his hopes in check.  “What about Oberon?”

Len rolled his eyes and assured, “He offered no instructions for its return, so I am bestowing it to you — you’ve earned it.”

All obstacles cast aside, Kane’s eyes darted about the room in search of the mirror.  Before Len could answer the unspoken question, the court wizard entered the room.  “I apologize for the intrusion, but Vargas did not retrieve his breakfast and he was not in his room.”

Jub-Jub roared in confirmation.

Worry sprung back to the emperor’s face, but his vocal authority overshadowed his visible anxiety.  “Lucy, take Kane to the mirror.  He has earned its use.  I will organize a search for Vargas.”

Lucien led the merchant through the castle to the depths of the dungeon.  “It looks like you and your familiar are getting along well,” observed Kane, appreciative of the cordial rapport he and Len had developed recently.  “Have you taught her any tricks?”

The wizard addressed Jub-Jub and commanded, “Pfeffersack.”  Jub-Jub rolled back onto her tail and glared at Kane.

“Touché,” replied Kane.

Lucien smiled amicably at the merchant to express that there was no ill will.  The wizard went so far as to not add Kane’s ‘skipping’ to his list of grievances.

The pair arrived at a thick wooden door.  Lucien waved a key wand with no visible effect, and the pair entered into the court wizard’s Lab and Library.  Beakers, potions, and magical experiments bubbled and burped along one wall.  Another held several artifacts and mystical items.  Stacks of books and piles of scrolls cluttered the far end of the room.

Lucien closed the door and waved his key wand again, still with no visible effect.  With all the sights to take in, Kane had difficulty locating his new acquisition.  “Where’s the mirror?”

“It’s over on the pedestal next to the fireplace,” directed a distracted Lucien as he tampered with his wand.  Kane’s eyes focused on the veiled pedestal that Lucien had designated.  The giddy merchant pranced over and excitedly lifted the veil — Vargas’s disembodied head stared back at him.

Pitch 11: Blame

“This is your fault!” cried Lucien.

“H-how is it my fault!?” stammered Kane.

“You’re star-crossed.”

“Being star-crossed isn’t contagious!”

“I think Vargas’s head says otherwise.”

“No I didn’t,” said Vargas’s head.

The bickering suddenly ceased as the pair realized that Vargas was not staring into the great beyond, but at them.  “I think he’s still alive,” whispered Kane to Lucien and vice versa.

“Of course I am,” asserted Vargas matter-of-factly.  “I won’t let a little decapitation stop me.”

“You two stay here; I will return with Len and we can get to the bottom of this.”  Lucien raced off to find the Emperor, leaving Kane and Vargas in awkward silence.

The merchant paced about anxiously waiting for the emperor to debrief the decapitated competitor, but one question eroded Kane’s patience.  “How can you talk without lungs?” blurted the baffled merchant.

Vargas shrugged to the best of his ability.  “I don’t know.  I’m not a doctor.”

“I suppose not,” conceded Kane, yielding the point and his inquiry.

Lucien returned to the room with a flourish of magic flying from his fingertips.  Arcane energies encircled Vargas’s head, crystallized, and shattered.

“What was that for?” yelled Kane and Vargas.

“Safety,” answered the emperor, calmly entering behind Lucien.  “To remove lingering spells, specifically, the remote viewing enchantment that was placed upon all the contestants.”

“Quick thinking,” praised Kane, “but does that kind of spell maintain even if the person has been split in two?”

Lucien answered, “Enchantments do not typically follow into the grave.  I do not know what the effects of division however.  The magical community does not take kindly to questions of that nature.”

“Questions of what nature?” inquired Kane.

“Science,” whispered Lucien gravely.

“Lucy, show me what happened,” instructed Len as he reclined in the wizard’s high-backed armchair.

Lucien pulled back his sleeves, chanting an eldritch incantation.  Once more, mystical energies bowed to his will, and a thick fog crept into the room.  The group watched spectral visions of themselves as time played out backwards upon the mist.  The emperor and the wizard exited, the wizard returned, and after a few moments, the illusory room became as it was before Kane and Lucien’s arrival.

The projection remained unchanged for well over an hour.  “Can it go any faster?”

“We must be thorough,” justified the wizard, unable to control the speed.  Suddenly, the vision flickered as the individual droplets cycled through random shades of gray, leaving the observers in a pepper-speckled haze.

“Is it supposed to do that?” asked Kane.

“There is an aura of interference,” remarked Lucien, concentrating on the spell.  “We cannot observe them through magical means.”  The static projection cleared, and the vision of the room reappeared.  The mirror lie veiled upon the pedestal once more.

“That’s enough,” commanded the emperor, rising from his chair.  “We will have to investigate the old-fashioned way.”  Len casually approached Vargas and unleashed a volley of speculation, “Who did this?  Was it Oberon?  Is he cheating at his own tournament!?”

Disregarding the emperor’s escalating paranoia, Vargas reported, “No, it was a dragon.”

“There are no dragons; the last one was killed hundreds of years ago,” dismissed Len, fixated on his own nemesis as the culprit.

Jub-Jub performed her Pfeffersack trick.

“Maybe a dragon was killed hundreds of years ago,” acquiesced Vargas, “but it wasn’t the last.”

Jub-Jub raised her head proudly at the inadvertent recognition.

“How did a dragon sneak into the castle?”

“A dragon didn’t sneak into the castle.”

Conversational progress severely routed, the Emperor glared at Vargas’s head and started anew.  “Then what happened?”

“A dragon’s servants snuck into the castle.”

“How do you know that?”

“I smelled ‘em.”

“When did you smell them?”

“When I woke up.”

“When did you wake up?”

“When they cut my head off.”

“When was that?”
“I didn’t ask.”

“Did you see anything?”

“I got soft, slept with my eyes closed,” confided Vargas, ruing his negligence.  “I was foolish; this is my penance.”

“You want me to believe that servants of a dragon infiltrated the most guarded castle in the empire to assassinate a visitor from another dimension and steal an artifact that they knew nothing about?”

“That is the most reasonable course of action.”

“How is that!?”

“Simple, self-defense.”

“How is a midnight assassination self-defense?”

“The dragon knew I would find it sooner or later, it just goes to reason.”

“Why would they take your body and not your head?”

“Maybe they knew they couldn’t kill me?  Maybe they steal bodies?  I don’t know.  I am not a forensic pathologist.”

“Or a doctor,” added Kane.

Len resumed, “How would they even know who you are!?  The castle servants are aware of your role as a contestant, and that’s it.  The only people…”  Len paused and stomped his foot.  “Bloody Hell!”

“What?” asked Kane and Lucien on bated breath, anticipating a breakthrough.

“I discussed Vargas with the Brambles and Srug as a show of good faith,” explained Lucien.

Kane consoled, “At least it’s not Oberon.”

“As the tournament organizer, Oberon knows of him as well.  Anyone could have done it.”  Downtrodden, Len slumped back into the armchair.

“But they didn’t,” reminded Vargas, “It was a dragon.”

“The dragon had to find out about you and the mirror somehow,” moaned the hopelessly frustrated emperor.

“They have their ways,” responded Vargas.

Lucien reasoned, “Let’s slow down and consider the facts.  Someone smelling of dragon attacked Vargas in the night and took the mirror…”

A knock at the door interrupted his train of thought, which was already approaching the end of the line.  The wizard stepped out to meet the messenger.

“It’s Oberon’s mirror, so wouldn’t he know who took it?” suggested Kane, as Lucien returned to the room.

“No,” refused Len.  “I will not call Oberon.”

“You do not have to.  He is calling you,” reported Lucien grimly.  “His projection is waiting in the throne room.”

-

Len sat upon his throne to speak with the image of Oberon looming before it. “Good day to you, Oberon.  To what do I owe the extreme pleasure of this surprising visit?”

Oberon’s authority projected through his image as he spoke.  “I wish to remind you that dispelling the scrying enchantment disqualifies your entrant.”

Len maintained his resolve and replied, “I am aware of that rule.  Why do you mention it?”

“Do not play coy with me, Len Gawain,” admonished the great Elf, “I am referring to Vargas.”

Len gritted his teeth and bluffed, “Vargas is dead.”

“That is surprising,” replied Oberon, showing no sign surprise.  “I recall his fall from the window, yet the next day he appeared just fine.”

The emperor desperately scanned Oberon’s voice for any hint of deceit, but one word was no different from the next.  Without betraying his fear, the emperor contested, “Concussions are quite different from decapitations.”

“You should be careful with your warriors, Emperor,” advised Oberon knowingly.  “You only have so many left.  I sincerely hope no other misfortunes befall them.  Good day, Emperor.”

The moment Oberon’s projection dispersed, Len leapt from his throne and down the steps.  Lucien sat waiting outside the hall as the emperor burst through the double doors.  “Lucy, we need to see Zell, now!”

-

Kane moped down the street, expecting to be assailed by Greg at the usual spot.  The merchant carefully peered around the edge of the building, but to his surprise, the old man was absent from his favorite loitering-hole.  Unfretted passage assured, Kane stepped out from the corner.

“Climbin’ trees gives you a great view, but i’s a bit dang’rous, innit,” warned Greg reliably from atop the tree as he hooked his legs on a branch and swung down to face the melancholy merchant.  “Wha’s got you down?

Kane stared at the upside-down geezer.  “Life, Greg.”

“Then you should take a nap.  That’s what I’m gonna do.”  Greg immediately began snoring loudly.  The merchant sighed, stepped around the hanging man, and ducked into the shop.

Kane entered his office to find Len and Lucien standing upon his coffee table.  “Why are you standing on my table?”

“We came to save Zell, but we’re too late,” lamented Len, hanging his head.  “Zell is gone.”

“I don’t understand,” replied Kane.

“My Father was right — Oberon attacked Vargas and now Zell.”

Disregarding both Len and Len’s father, Kane contested, “First of all, there is no way Oberon would come here, and second, Magic Mirror Eject.”

The boy plopped onto the couch.  “Hi guys,” greeted Zell jovially.  “I fell asleep while I was reading.”

Pitch 12: Plans

Trembling nervously, Elsa rapped upon Lucien’s basement laboratory door.  It slowly creaked open as Lucien peered his head outside, his gaze darting quickly back and forth without making eye-contact with the anxiously fidgeting girl.  After confirming that the hall was secure, his eyes met hers, and he curtly instructed, “Come in.”

Lucien briskly shut the door, startling Elsa into emitting a tiny, “Eep.”  The girl’s golden blonde hair and white robes glowed in the center of the room whilst a cabal of characters observed her from the shadows.  Once her eyes adjusted to the dim light, another “eep” escaped her throat as she recognized Emperor Len staring gloomily from his armchair.  To his left a tall hooded figure sniffed the air; glimpsing glowing eyes and a flash of fangs beneath the cloak, Elsa eeped again.  A young soldier stood at attention to the emperor’s right.  Though there was nothing physically ominous about the boy, Elsa had been expecting someone sinister and eeped anyway.

Lucien retrieved a glass of water from a nearby table, and approached Elsa from behind, eliciting a final “eep” for good measure.

“Would you like some water for your hiccups?” offered Lucien.

“Yes, please,” replied Elsa, not realizing that she had hiccups.  She shakily sipped the water from the glass, hoping to calm her nerves.

“Elsa, Oberon’s tournament has created a time of crisis,” informed Lucien.

“I thought the tournament was for peace,” interrupted Elsa with doe-eyed innocence.

Len’s palm audibly connected with his forehead.

“About that,” sighed Lucien. “We believe that Oberon has concocted the tournament as a ruse to mask an ulterior motive.”

“Oh my,” gasped Elsa, covering her mouth with her hands as she whispered, “What is he planning?”

Len shifted irritably in his seat.

“We do not know,” confessed Lucien, “but we are certain he has a secret agenda.  Furthermore, Len’s magic mirror has been stolen.”

“I don’t understand.  Why are you telling me all this?” asked the maid who was not typically granted access to state secrets.

“Elsa, the empire needs you,” professed Len phlegmatically.

“Me?” doubted Elsa.  “Do you need me to clean something?”

Lucien explained, “We need someone we can trust completely.”

“But Len said that I was completely untrustworthy,” recollected Elsa, unable to assimilate the conflicting information.

“The emperor had to support the court’s judgment,” reasoned the wizard.

“But he said I was gullible and-”

“Elsa!”

“Yes, Lucy,” winced Elsa, lowering her head.

“You are the most talented healer I have ever met.  The emperor is giving you the opportunity for redemption.  Do you want it?”

“Yes, but I’m not a cleric anymore,” reminded Elsa.  “I was demoted to ‘Healer of Dust’ because-”

“We all recall the incident,” Len interjected, rubbing his temple.  “Consider this your reinstatement.”

“Really?” responded hopeful healer, squinting at the emperor in disbelief.

“Yes, really.”

“Thank you, Len,” choked Elsa, failing to hold back tears of joy.  “Um, can I ask you one more question?”

“What is it?”

“Why are we in the basement?”

“This meeting is a secret,” sighed the emperor, finding even reasonable questions exasperating.

“Am I only a secret cleric?”

Lucien relieved the emperor of the conversation.  “You’re a full-fledge cleric, but it’s your mission that is secret.”

“What should I tell my mom?”

“Tell her that you are on a quest to slay a dragon.”

“A dragon!” exclaimed Elsa, and then remembered not to be gullible.  “But there are no dragons… are there?”

Jub-Jub had given up on responding to these kinds of statements and continued napping in Lucien’s pocket.

“It’s just your cover, Elsa,” explained the wizard.  “In case anyone asks.”

“Cunning plan to cover the truth with the truth,” mused Vargas.

Elsa turned to face the voice but saw no one, just a table with a pitcher of water, glasses, and a severed head, the last of which caused her to shriek and stumble backwards into Lucien.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you too,” greeted Vargas.

“You’re alive,” gasped Elsa, “and you can talk!”

“Elsa, allow me to introduce Vargas,” presented Lucien, propping the girl upright.  “He was attacked last night, and his body was abducted along with the mirror.”

“Oh my,” replied Elsa.  “I’ve never healed a missing body before.”

“You don’t have to,” assured Vargas.  “My body is fine; we just need to find it.”

Lucien briefed, “Along with Private Flamé and Tracker Flint, you will assist Vargas in retrieving his body and the mirror.”

“Hi, you can call me Flamey, ma’am,” saluted the young soldier, who had been eagerly awaiting his introduction.

The hooded stranger bowed, uttering a guttural, “Grrreetings.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you both,” reciprocated Elsa with a curtsy.

“Flint has already found the scent of the intruders, but we are awaiting a magical suit of armor for Vargas.  You will all leave tomorrow at dawn.”

“Did you say… scent?” eeped Elsa.

-

Glenn awoke from his mid-day nap.  Having submitted the latest draft of his mining expansion plans to the council, he was eager to enjoy weekend drinking night, but first, he needed to find Gobs.

Because Gobs spent his life on the wind, it wasn’t unusual for him to miss a weekday drinking night, but weekend drinking nights were completely different — they were competitive.  As the reigning pixie-weight champion of speed mead drinking, Gobs never missed a chance to defend his title, especially since it meant free drink.  Though pixie-weight was a class populated by children, the dwarves did not discriminate.

Glenn found his wife diligently reviewing their budget for next year.  He knew better than to interrupt Diana while she was working, but it was an emergency — drinking alone was not an option.  He admired her long black hair with snowy streaks, her glasses resting gently upon her round nose, and her deep eyes glaring back at him.

“Why are you staring at me?” asked Diana cynically.

“Have you seen Gobs?” chimed Glen.

Diana answered plainly, “No.”

Sensing that there was something amiss, particularly her lack of hostility at the intrusion, Glenn accused matter-of-factly, “What did you do?”

Diana turned in her seat, “We sent your freeloading little pal to spy on Oberon.”

“That’s dangerous!” exclaimed Glenn.  “Why would we do that?  Did we get me drunk?”

“You got yourself drunk.”

“I’m disappointed in you, Diana,” admonished Glenn, shaking his head.  “You took advantage of me, and now poor Gobs is going to be captured by those conniving Elves.”

Realizing that her absent-minded mate had no recollection of the plan, she elucidated, “Gobs has your zephyr cloak; he’ll be fine.”

“You gave him my zephyr cloak?” whined Glenn.

“It’s been hanging in our closet for months.”

“That’s where I keep things, in the closet.”

“I asked you first, and you said ‘yeah sure.’”

“Do you always take advantage of me when I’m drunk?

“Is there a time when you’re not drunk?”

“I’m not now,” moaned Glenn regretfully.

“And I’m not taking advantage of you.”

Returning to the original subject, Glenny inquired, “Why is Gobs spying on Oberon?”

“We have an information alliance with Len, and I intend to gather information.”

“That was yesterday.  He’s been gone all week.”

“I was being prepared, and he should be back in a day or so,” assuaged Diana, pouring a flagon of mead.  “Why don’t you have a drink?”

“You are a beguiling woman, Diana,” admired Glenn, pride surmounting his ire, and drink tempting his taste-buds.

“That’s why you married me, Glenn,” replied Diana, easily flattered by her husband’s compliments.

“I know…”

[Scene Missing]

-

“You summoned me, sire?” asked Srug as he entered the throne room of the Dark Lord.

“Yes, I wish you to oversee my latest plan,” instructed the ruler of the Orcs.  “I want our competitors to assassinate Lucien.”

“You intend to risk their disqualification?” pressed Srug, curious of his master’s rationale.

“It is more direct than wishing him dead.”

“Good point, my lord.”

The Dark Lord chortled maniacally, “Lucien won’t see it coming.”

“Truly devious, my lord…  It is a shame though.”

The Dark Lord ceased his self-indulgence, tersely inquiring “What is a shame, Srug?”

The chamberlain clarified, “That Lucien won’t see it coming.”

“That is the fundamental premise of assassination, Srug.”

“I apologize for my thick-headedness.  I merely thought that knowledge of impending peril would cause him anguish prior to his demise.  I realize that his death would not be as quick or assured, but like you always say, “what good is a wound if you cannot rub salt in it?’”

“This is why I keep you around, Srug.  You remind me of my genius,” mused the dark lord, resuming his self-indulgence.  “Take a letter:

Vile Wizard,

You are going to die.

With murderous contempt,
The Dark Lord

“A pithy communiqué, my lord,” praised Srug.  “I will send it immediately.”

Srug returned to his office, tossed his briefcase on to the couch, and waltzed up to the bar.

“How fairs Ol’ Darky?” inquired a voice from behind Srug’s desk chair.

“Cursed as ever,” replied the overworked Orc, pouring himself a draft bear.  “He wants Lucien dead and never stops talking about it.  He has requested that our contestants join in the attempts.”

“Curious,” replied the voice.

“It should work to our advantage all the same,” said Srug, adding, “assuming Lucien isn’t slain.”

“You do not desire his demise?” inquired the stranger, intrigued by Srug’s mercy.

“What good is a dead wizard?”

“What good is a live one?”

The de facto ruler of the Barren Wastes sauntered over to his wall of portraits, awards, and diplomas.  “If Lucien were to die, Len would assuredly seek vengeance for his fallen friend, whereas currently, the emperor is locked in conflict with Oberon, or at least the Oberon in his mind.  Eventually there will be no difference as Len will wage war on all his Oberons.”

“Perchance this is Oberon’s plan?” suggested the voice coyly.

Srug straightened a portrait of himself and an ostentatiously dressed Orc.  “It matters not what that wretched Elf is scheming; he has provided us with a distraction.”

“Curiouser and curiouser,” mused the voice.  “Go onnnn.”

“I wish to fetch a graft of the sacred world root.”

The visitor’s jovial voice fell into a grave whisper, “And what, pray tell, justifies defiling the elves sacred plant?”

Srug removed his diploma from the wall and reminiscing upon the university before it burned down, opined, “We live in a barren waste.  The children know only pestilence and famine.  We will grow our own world root and restore life to this land.”

“How do you propose the root be extracted?”

Srug removed a scroll from his pocket and placed the parchment upon his desk.  “I got you a job.”

“Moi?” gasped the visitor, feigning surprise as he spun around in his chair.  A gleam of smiling teeth shone from under his hood as he whispered, “The plot thickens.”