Garrinfeth and Hobard left the Ducal castle through the main gate and re-emerged onto the street. On either side of the gate the well dressed guardsmen stood at attention. The audience with the Duke, to pay the “adventurer’s duty”, had been less painful than they had anticipated and Garrinfeth in particular was happy with the outcome. He pulled the tan leather hood of his cloak up over his head, to protect from the chill wind, though his companion, Hobard Half-dwarf, resolutely refused to acknowledge the weather. The two men looked up and down along the street, searching for the third member of their small company, who should have been waiting for them.
“Hobard, old friend,” the swarthy wizard said casually. “Can you tell me why everyone is waving at us?” Garrinfeth raised his hand uncertainly to return the waves of a dozen different peasants along the street.
“Dunno,” replied Hobard. “Maybe they heard ‘bout your special talents, eh? ‘Specially ‘tween the sheets!” The half-dwarf smirked.
“Aye, perhaps, though many of those waving are in fact men.”
“Liberal minded folk, these,” quipped Hobard, and guffawed at his own humour. From further down the muddy street a crowd was growing and many of the waving people pointed the two adventurers in that direction. The two freebooters began to make their way towards the crowd.
“I have an unpleasant suspicion,” said Garrinfeth.
As they rushed towards the crowd they could see, in the midst of the throng, that a square of sorts had been set up by stringing two rope lines between two huge long-haul wagons. Standing near one of the wagons, stripped to the waist, was Orrifed, a young farmer’s son turned warrior and the third member of the adventurer’s cabal. From the way he was waving his arms and squatting to warm up his legs, it was clear that Orrifed was preparing for a wrestling match. Pushing his tangled blonde mop of hair out of his eyes, the young man caught sight of his two companions and waved to them cheerfully.
“Hola, you two!” Orrifed called. “You’re just in time to watch me!”
“Watch you do what?” asked Garrinfeth archly.
“Wrestle,” answered Orrifed simply, smiling all the while. “Apparently they’ve got this local bully who’s never been taken in a match. When I told some folk that I was a fair hand in the ring, they put me up to it. Good way to make a bit of a name, what say?”
“A local bully?” breathed Hobard, aghast. “Boy you have no idea what you’re in, do you?”
“Oh don’t be so serious, Hobard,” chided Orrifed pleasantly. “You said it yourself, I’m a great wrestler.” He slapped himself on the chest in a gesture of manly confidence.
Hobard ignored the young man’s words and turned instead to Garrinfeth. “We must stop this!” he said, a genuine note of panic rising in his voice.
“It may be too late,” answered Garrinfeth, noting that another shirtless man was stepping now into the makeshift wrestling ring. He was tall, but not especially so, and genuinely obese. He had small black eyes and a bald head. He grinned at the cheering crowd and then at Orrifed. One could not tell it from looking, but Garrifeth knew that the man was half bred too, with the blood of ogres in his veins. The wizard addressed his young companion.
“Orrifed you have been deceived,” Garrinfeth said earnestly. “That is Kal-Kinnoh. He is champion of all this region and with good reason, for he is part ogre by birth. He draws strength from the very earth. No ordinary wrestler could defeat him. He is brutal with his victims. The crowd has tricked you; you’ve been lured into a contest that could be your death.”
“Surely you don’t mean that?” replied Orrifed, doubting the words but persuaded by the wizard’s demeanour. Before Orrifed could receive a more detailed explanation however, the eager crowd pressed him forward to the ropes and into the ring. Once inside, Orrifed gave no thoughts to doubt, concentrating instead on his opponent, and his youthful confidence soon reasserted itself.
Garrinfeth and Hobard pressed their way to the ringside, watching the match develop. At first, Orrifed circled about the fatter man, dodging back and forth and landing stinging open handed blows. Kal-Kinnoh took the strikes almost with good humour. Then, thinking that he saw an advantage, Orrifed dove at his opponent and laid a shoulder lock upon him. The young warrior’s look of focussed strength changed suddenly to one of shocked horror, as Kal-Kinnoh exerted superhuman strength, and pulled Orrifed’s arms away from the shoulder lock with the ease that a father pulls away a wrestling child. While Orrifed was still trying to comprehend what was happening to him, Kal-Kinnoh felled him with a single over hand blow. The stout young man was knocked to his knees in the dirt and before he could recover his wits, Kal-Kinnoh had gripped him by the throat and was beginning to squeeze. Orrifed let out a single grunt of pain as he tried to break Kal-Kinnoh’s brutal grip. When it became clear that he could not the young man slapped at his thigh, the conventional sign of submission, yielding Kal-Kinnoh the victory. In spite of his opponent’s surrender, Kal-Kinnoh would not stop.
“Yielding,” called Hobard desperately from the sideline. “He yields!” But the half-dwarf’s voice was swallowed by the roaring of the crowd. The two adventurers watched in disgust and horror as the brute Kal-Kinnoh murdered their friend in public view. When at last the young man’s neck cracked loudly and collapsed under the obscene hands. Kal-Kinnoh pushed the body down into the mud and looked to the two at the sidelines.
“This is what we does with cocksure loudmouths in this town,” he declared savagely, and the crowd cheered louder. Then the champion wrestler left the ring and accompanied by flunkies and hangers on, stalked back to a bench outside a local tavern, where he still had a tankard waiting for him.
“We can’t allow this to stand,” said Hobard angrily.
“And so we shan’t,” agreed Garrinfeth. Reaching into one of the many small pouches on his belt, he drew forth the mystical components for one his magics and then began to walk slowly through the dispersing crowd to where Kal-Kinnoh sat, ‘holding court’. Garrinfeth stood silently in front of the small crowd, apparently studying the inn and tavern in front of which they were sitting. Kal-Kinnoh drained his tankard in a draught, foam spilling down the sides of his mouth, and then fixed his eyes in a threatening stare at the pair of adventurers.
“What do you want?” he asked sneeringly.
“Tell me,” said Garrinfeth, his fingers moving surreptitiously. “What do they call this tavern?”
“The Orc’s Dagger,” said Kal-Kinnoh. He looked over the shoulder at the tavern’s entrance and pointed at a plaster hand of an orc wielding a dagger, apparently protruding from the wall above where the name “The Orc’s Dagger” was written in faded gold lettering. It was a gruesome blazon and entirely suited to the kind of rough house that Kal-Kinnoh and his crew would frequent. “It’s plain as day you stupid foreign…”
Kal-Kinnoh’s abusive words choked off, as he stared in horror at the plaster figurine. All about him looked as well, but they could not see what he was seeing. In Kal-Kinnoh’s vision, the orc’s hand had separated itself from the wall of the tavern and was now flying through the air towards him. He leapt fell back from the table and cried out as the phantom blade slashed near his throat. The others seated about him exclaimed in surprise and alarm as a line of blood, as of a blade slash, appeared on Kal-Kinnoh’s skin, seemingly from no cause. The half-ogre jumped to his feet, eyes darting about, seeking escape from a terror only he could see.
“Here,” said one of his companions to Garrinfeth. “What you done?” Hobard fixed the man with a steely glare.
“Take care he don’t do it to you!” warned the half dwarf and the man and his friends stepped back cautiously.
Meanwhile, two more cuts had opened on Kal-Kinnoh’s skin, and he fled screaming into the tavern’s taproom and up the stairs to his own quarters. From outside, the adventurers and the wrestler’s companions could here him roaring about his room, dodging and hiding as best he could.
“Will it kill him?” Hobard asked as the street began to clear around them.
“Perhaps, but it is unlikely,” answered Garrinfeth. “But I have thought of something more fitting. Why don’t you see to poor Orrifed’s body while I finish up here.” Hobard nodded and walked back to where the farmer’s son’s body still lay in the muddy street.
Garrinfeth took a long pipe from his belt pouch and stuffed it with a strange smelling tobacco, purple in colour. He chanted something as he lit the pipe and then began to puff on it methodically. No smoke came from the pipe’s bowl however, though the tobacco was plainly alight, glowing as it did with each puff. Garrinfeth continued to puff as he scanned the street, looking especially to the rooftops. Soon, on the branch of a tree that grew in front of one of the houses, he spotted what he was looking for, a small bird. Holding out his finger, and still puffing on the pipe, he silently called the bird to him. The little creature flittered to him and alighted calmly on his extended digit.
“I have a favour to ask, little one,” said the wizard, his pipe still in the corner of his mouth. Then he removed it and breathed smoke from his mouth into the little bird’s face. The creature sat stock still for a moment. “Go deliver that for me, would you?” instructed Garrinfeth, and the little bird flew from his hand. It circled a few times and then headed up to the window sill of Kal-Kinnoh’s room. Standing on the sill, it opened its beak as if to sing, and instead spewed forth the magical smoke. It came in gentle puffs and as it entered the room, the noise of struggle within subsided. Then the little creature flew off back to its tree. Happy with his work, Garrinfeth walked off to assist Hobard with Orrifed.
The next day, when Kal-Kinnoh’s erstwhile companions thought to look for him, they found him in his room. He was dead, and his body was encased in a block of solid glass. One of his hands was pressed against the surface of the glass, as if against a wall, hoping to get out. His face was contorted in fear and his mouth opened to scream in terror. Lying on the top of the block of glass was a scroll, upon which was written in a fine hand;
“This is what WE do to those who would slay the innocent and unwary for sport.”
Kal-Kinnoh’s friends left, never to return to the tavern. The tavern keeper, having suffered many years under the hands of Kal-Kinnoh and his friends, was not displeased to find the half ogre so slain. Rather, he had the glass block mounted upon a stone out the front of his tavern and the words of the scroll carved into the block. He changed the tavern’s name to “The Judgement Rendered”, and his establishment prospered for many years.
Me too! This is a hellish busy week for me - I'm chasing my PhD supervisor to get her to approve the changes to my thesis so that I can graduate in Sept. I'm finishing off my submission to WotC for the Maiden of Pain, I'm working full time and my poor eighteen month old son is sick as a dog.
As soon as I had the idea for this story I dashed it off at work, with just a once over for spelling or grammar errors. Let us hope that it stands up to scrutiny.
OK, almost exactly 12 hours to spare... I got more done last night than I thought I would.
Taladas vs. NoOneofConsequence vs. Joshua Dyal
Entry #2: Strip Poker
Far, far to the north, where the unforgiving snow and ice never melt and where half the year is enclosed in a frozen and desolate nightfall, there’s a jolly little place called the Smeeblesnort Occultery School (otherwise known as S.O.S.) Alright, so it’s got a pretty silly name and all that, but it really is a pretty clever little place. For one thing, the great wizard Blackleaf lives there (no, he really is alive); in fact, he’s turned the place into a great school for wizards, warlocks, witches, sorcerers and the like from every spot on the globe. The place is cheery enough, if you ignore for a moment that it lies right in the middle of a glacier swept year round by howling, Boreal winds. It’s made of sturdy stone, like a little castle – or complex of castles, really, and its halls and dorms are lit and warmed by cheery, magical fires of red, and gold and lavender.
And of course, any place that’s home to a couple hundred teenagers learning to do magic is bound to be interesting. For one thing, their magic still kinda sucks, so spectacular and disastrous mishaps are almost commonplace at S.O.S. Of course, Blackleaf and his staff are quite adept at putting things to rights after these kinds of things happen, so they accept it patiently. What exasperates them considerably more is the fact that they are teenagers. Blackleaf and his staff accept that fact with varying degrees of patience. However, the venerable wizard believes that teenagers have to have an outlet to be teenagers if they are to maintain health in body, mind and spirit, so he turns a blind eye to some of their more harmless shenanigans. In fact, at least one shenanigan has become an institutionalized tradition at S.O.S, taking place every year at that point when it’s almost a little bit warmish outside, and the sun hangs perpetually over the horizon for weeks at a time. And to kick off this one officially sanctioned moment of hooliganism, as the deputy Headmaster Queeble likes to call it, all the students, from the pimply-faced and gangly freshmen to the almost men and women seniors gather in the great assembly hall for Blackleaf himself to address them.
Colin filed in with his friends. His dorm was one of the last to arrive, from the looks of things; the assembly hall was already teeming with kids from all the dorms. As was somewhat traditional for this event, at least, the girls and boys sat on opposite sides of the assembly hall. Colin looked out at the girl’s side, wondering who would be picked this year. Idly he dreamed of Genevieve standing up against him; he could see her now, a straight-backed freshman with long golden hair and a few freckles under her piercing green eyes. She was talking excitedly with her friends, tossing glances towards the boys’ side as well. Of course, he’d never tell his friends that he thought Gene (as she was generally known) was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen – it simply would not do for a junior to be mooning over a freshman. Even more so that Colin was one of the better looking guys at the school himself; trim and fit, with olive skin, dark hair and shockingly blue eyes that were perpetually lit up with a ready smile. No, he was supposed to go in for girls like the twins Helga and Heidi. Yeah, so they were hot chicks, and he knew for a fact that boys all over the dorm fell asleep with the two of them (often at the same time) in their dreams. But, those two were also insufferably boring and arrogant, and frankly he wondered how they had the intelligence to be accepted into S.O.S. in the first place.
“Wassup, Colin and Co.” said a voice below him. Colin’s friend Duane was high-fiving Leif, a chubby and pimply faced senior. Duane promptly turned into a miniature panda bear at the contact.
“Whoops!” laughed Leif. “Forgot to turn that off after Polymorphology this afternoon!” The rest of the crowd joined in guffawing Duane’s plight. He growled at them, apparently in an attempt to talk. “Don’t worry,” Leif said. “it’ll wear off in a half hour or so.” Leif leaned over closer to Colin at this point, whispering conspiratorially. “So, how you feelin’, Colin? You ready for this?” Colin shrugged and smiled.
“Not much getting ready to do, I guess, is there?” he said. “And we’ve got a week before the actual Big Day.”
Leif scowled a bit. “Wonder who they’ll put you up against. I could do without the sight of Blanche in all her… uh, glory. If its her, you’ll throw the match, right?”
Colin laughed. “I dunno. I don’t really fancy standing up there starkers myself y’know.”
Leif waved aside his objections. “Yeah, but if it’s someone hot, you better come through, y’know? It’s not like I’m very likely to see a hot chick naked ever again.” Colin tried to stifle a laugh.
“I’ll do my best, Leif, I promise,” Colin went on to take his seat.
At that moment, it looked as if the proceedings were about to begin. Two guards came through the doorway at the back of the auditorium, and the Headmaster and his deputy both walked out onto the stage (picture #1). Blackleaf himself was a dark-skinned man, dressed in a fine robe of golden thread, with a fleeced hood. “Ladies and Gentlemen!” he said in a loud voice that carried as well as thunder quieting all conversation. “Welcome to the kick-off of our annual Strip Poker match!” The hall burst into cheers.
“For you freshman (and exchange students) out there who are unfamiliar with the grand tradition of Strip Poker, let me explain briefly what it entails. Strip Poker is a game. An ancient game, from our most ancient of ancestors, with ritual and religious significance that we can only echo palely today, I’m afraid. Indeed, many of the details of the game are lost to us now, but we carry on as best we can with it – to honor the gods of the ancients as the Grand Theogonist would say. But I,” and here he leaned forward and winked to the crowd, “sometimes wonder if it wasn’t really just a hoax that some horny young lad came up with to try and get a gander of some girl he liked.” The crowd laughed appreciatively; the deputy Headmaster looked scandalized.
“So, we do the best we can with the rules,” continued the Headmaster. “We know it was a card game, and the cards had great significance. We know that each player got five cards, and could trade some of them in once before playing his hand. And we know that the two hands were then matched against each other to see which was the most powerful, and the loser had to lose one article of clothing – one at a time until someone was completely naked!” The crowd was completely silent at this point. They were, after all, teenagers, and the thought of someone of the opposite sex naked had a sobering effect on them all.
“Other than that, though,” continued Blackleaf, “we’ve had to fill in the gaps somewhat as to the rules the ancients actually used. So, we’ve made our cards magical. Depending on what you get, you can use up to five of the cards in your hand to try a summoning spell that conjures a being of come kind; a magical being of pure energy – what you get depends on which cards you put in the spell, and your own native magical talent of course. These two summoned creatures then battle until one of them is dissipated at which point that hand is over and the loser takes something off! The rules are also strict – two pieces of outer garments and two inner – that’s all you're allowed.”
“We do it with two champions, one from the boys side of the school and one from the girls, and in the great arena the two will stand on tall towers for all the school to see and face off in their game of Strip Poker. The champions are already selected, and if you haven’t heard by now who they are, you surely will – traditionally they are not announced, but everyone always figures it out ahead of time anyway… I never really saw the point in that tradition,” Blackleaf rambled to a halt.
Of course, Colin was the boys’ champion. He had played a number of poker (without the strip) qualifying heats with the other boys' dorms, and apparently his native talent for summoning magic (or his skill at poker – a dubious prospect at best) made him the best shot the boys had this year. He was especially eager to win – this was his third year at S.O.S., and the boys had not yet won in that time. So he was keenly interested in who the girls’ champion was to be – he also sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be Blanche. Apparently, she had had a crush on him for several years, at least according to the jibes and gossip that floated back to him. And, like Leif, seeing her naked was not a prospect he relished in the least. Once again, his thoughts drifted to Gene, but she was only a freshman. Nobody that young ever got picked.
“So,” continued Blackleaf, “I expect all of you to continue to pay attention to your classes over the next few days, and don’t become too distracted by the coming event. We’ve got a few days to get the arena ready, and magically warded anyway, so everyone, back to the dorms! Spit-spot!”
With that unceremonious dismissal, Blackleaf turned and left the arena, and the buzz of excited conversations leapt to life all over the auditorium. Colin walked with some of his friends, who were busy describing to themselves what they imagined a naked girl looked like to each other (Colin rolled his eyes and didn’t participate) as they filed out into the frigid night air.
Then, huffing and puffing, little Dennis came running up to him. “Colin! Colin!” he cried. “Congratulations, Colin! Good luck!” Colin nodded and thanked the freshman. “So, have you heard the latest? Seems some freshman is the girls’ champion, crazy, huh?”
“Some freshman?” said Colin sharply. “Who?”
Dennis quailed a bit under his gaze, “Umm, some girl I don’t know; her name’s Jen or Gene or something like that.” Colin’s face flushed under the nighttime sun, and he felt a sudden desire to bury his head in the snow; it felt feverishly hot.
“Gene? Genevieve MacPherson?” he said in a quiet voice.
“Yeah, that's the name…” said Dennis uncertainly.
Duane, still a furry panda, now covered with flakes of snow grunted at him. His other good friend Geoff looked at him too. “Yeah, what’s wrong with you, Col? You’re not losing your nerve over a freshman, are you?” he said incredulously.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” snapped Colin. “She just can’t be ready to do it, that’s all. That’s crazy to put a freshman into strip poker.” Duane-Panda seemed to suddenly shake with laughter. Then Geoff caught on as well.
“Ohmigosh! You like her! A frikkin’ freshman, and the most popular guy in school is sweet on her! Well, this is your big chance to get a look then, isn’t it?” he laughed. Colin stomped away angrily.
“Bunch of idiots!” he shot back at them. As he feared, he didn't hear the end of it all that night, though.
The night of the tournament was a clear one, and the arena was filled to the brim with students, already yelling, jeering and cat-calling from the boys side to the girls and vice versa. Colin arrived a bit early and climbed his tall wooden tower to a massive cheer from the boys’ side, and boos and hisses from the girl’s side. Of course, he preferred the boos and hisses. The appraising glances and rather more vulgar comments that came up towards him made him blush a bit in spite of himself. On top of the tower was a bucket of snow (what was that for, anyway?) and a small podium from which the cards would be magically dealt to him. Feeling a bit cocky, he smiled and waved to the girls, and flexed his arms at them. The catcalls grew worse.
But within moments, Gene climbed up her tower too. When she came up, the girls cheered, but the boys were quiet – each looking appreciatively at her slender legs and beautiful golden hair. It’s about time the rest of these morons realized how hot she is thought Colin with a sense of some satisfaction. He smiled and saluted her. She in turn, looked at him briefly, gave a hesitant half smile and salute, then threw back her hair and cracked her knuckles. And then, the game began.
Five cards magically appeared on Colin’s podium – and four of them were garbage. He put them back down, and they disappeared to be replaced with four others. He glanced dubiously at his hand – two cats-eyes was a decent start, but not enough, and the zebra and the Card of Death were difficult to read. He put together a hand as best he could, and tossed down those four cards, waiting to see what it gave him. To his delight, a magical tiger appeared – roaring into existence on the sands of the arena. Gene put down her cards, and half a dozen pink piglets appeared. Colin laughed, but for some reason, Gene had a smug smile on her face. What was she thinking? The tiger was about to make pork chops out of them.
On fact, the tiger was already racing towards them, when suddenly the pigs let out a massive “hiyaa!” and leapt into kung-fu formations. Colin watched dumbfounded as they hammered his tiger in a dazzling and acrobatic display of the finest martial arts he had ever seen. Before long, the tiger was down on the ground out cold, pigs walking all over his cold form, even as it disappeared again (here’s a bonus – picture #4 from my last story)
The boys were also silent and open-mouthed, but the girls were cheering wildly, and someone started a chant (it sounded like Blanche): “Take it off! Take it off!” and soon all the girls had joined in. Colin shrugged, and pulled his shirt over his head. Underneath he had a skintight tank-top of an undershirt, so he wasn’t really hurting yet. He twirled his shirt over his head a few times, shaking his hips and getting cheers from both sides for his display of bravery in the face of such a monumental defeat, then he tossed the shirt across the arena to Gene, who caught it deftly with one hand. His cocky smile faded and his face turned white when she tossed it to Blanche, however, who sniffed it deeply. Gene gave him a wink and smile.
The cards were up again. Gene would keep her pigs, since they were undefeated, but Colin got a new hand. He thought it was a good hand, but when he threw down the cards he was shocked to find a mummy in a glass box. “Crap!” he shouted. “What’m I supposed to do with that?” picture #2 The girls were all laughing at him, including Gene. He broke out in a cold sweat. There was nothing for it, though – the pigs were already approaching the shrunken little dead man packed tightly in the glass case. To everyone’s surprise, as the pigs approached it, it fell over crushing three of them. Gene’s laugh was cut short, and Colin himself had a wild hope to pull a victory out of this hand. But the remaining pigs made short work of the mummy, and it soon vanished. A bit more sullen this time, and without the cocky smile (but not without the wild cheers and catcalls from the girls’ side) Colin pulled off his undershirt and hunched forward to get his next deck of cards.
The Feast card, the Wolverine, the Wrestler – this was shaking out to be something he could actually work with. He threw down the cards again, and a massive brick of a man, with golden hair and a small pair of shorts appeared in the arena. “Bacon!” he yelled, and within a few seconds, the pigs were all gone.
All of the boys were holding their breath now, and the girls were muttering. Gene shrugged – surely she didn’t expect to come away completely clothed, after all, even if she hoped to win – and her shirt came off. Her underwear was lacy and black and quite tiny. For a few seconds the auditorium was absolutely silent, then a thunderous cheer erupted from the boys’ side, nearly blowing Colin off his tower. He found he had to concentrate to wipe a silly smile from his face. Gene rolled her eyes and drew her next cards.
She had a pursed look of disappointment, and was absent-mindedly chewing on a fingernail as she threw down the cards, and an audible groan escaped her as her magical champion appeared – a tiny black bird – a thrush, who’s breath was already steaming from the cold northern air (picture #3) Colin’s champion laughed and made short work of the little bird, which was so cold that it barely seemed able to avoid his clumsy grabs. He crushed the life from the poor creature with his bare hands, and it reformed into the magical energy that spawned it. Gene was noticeably red-faced as she pulled off her trousers – her panties were even smaller, lacier and blacker than her bra had been. The taunts and whistles from the boys were a tremendous wall of noise. Colin found himself suddenly embarrassed for them; for her. Earlier he had fantasized about her being on the tower, losing one article after another of her clothes, but now that it came right down to it, he found it pained him to see her going through it. He frowned. Gene caught his eye, and gave him a small understanding shrug and smile. She had accepted the risk when she agreed to be the champion – this was the way the game was played after all.
She regained her smile somewhat as she drew her next hand, though – and when she threw them down, she too had an enormous fat man – not unlike Colin’s own, but hers had no hair, and was fresh. The two combatants slammed into each other like express trains, but Colin’s fell to the ground first. Quick as a striking snake, Gene’s wrestler leapt on his back, and choked the life from him (picture #4)
Another thunderous cheer from the girls, and mutinous rumblings from the boys. Off came Colin’s pants, and he stood shivering, but not from the cold. He had run out of clean boxers a few days ago, and been forced to wear his much smaller underwear. Why oh why hadn’t he done his laundry yesterday? He caught a glimpse of Blanche standing in her seat to get a better look, and he angrily looked away.
But his next hand was a goldmine. His face surely betrayed him for a moment, a look of triumph or joy flashed across it. He threw down the cards, and a small form appeared – an iron statue of a man with an apron and a chef’s hat, and an iron cauldron along with it. The iron statue moved suddenly, and picked up a cleaver from under his apron. The powerful Iron Chef magic – Gene’s Mr. Clean was going to struggle to do much against him. Indeed, Gene was already nervously biting her lip, and she winced as Iron Chef chopped her champion to bits, literally.
Now, the entire assembly was silent as a grave. Most of the boys were leaning forwards in their seats. Slowly Gene reached behind her back and unhooked the clasp of her bra, letting it fall to the floor of her tower. There were a few hoarse breaths from the boys’ side, and then they let out the most wild and raucous cheer Colin had ever heard. Colin himself suddenly understood what the bucket of snow was for, as he was forced to dump the entire lot into his own pants to keep his reaction under control. After a moment, he found he was able to look at her, mostly by concentrating on her face. She had a grim look, but a determined one. She was the first freshman ever to make it to Strip Poker, and she was playing her hands as they were dealt her, with bravery and a poise that were quite admirable.
Suddenly Colin was flooded with a sense of… something. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but he had never felt it before. It wasn’t the crush he had on her before, it was something else, something much more powerful. And suddenly his face fell. He couldn’t stand to see her lose her last bit of dignity; her last tiny bit of clothing, and stand exposed before all the lewd and greedy eyes of his fellow classmates. In an instant he knew what he must do.
She had drawn her cards and thrown them down – a floating green hand appeared out of the air; a hand grasping a long serrated knife (picture #5). Yes, the Grim and Ghastly Ghost Hand of Death was a powerful combination indeed, but the Iron Chef would surely resist the knife blows regardless. Unless…
The hand struck out at the Iron Chef in a vain attempt to penetrate its solid iron body. With a gasp of utter shock and disbelief, the knife plunged deeply into the Iron Chef. The golem gave a shudder and began to crack. Chunks of it began to fall to the sand little by little, then larger chunks until the entire construct dissolved into magical energy again. Somehow the Iron Chef had been defeated. Unnoticed by all, on the floor of Colin’s tower, was a ripped card – the armor card that gave the chef his iron nature.
The boys groaned in disbelief and amazement, the girls let out a wild cheer. Blanche actually fainted, apparently from excitement. Gene quickly pulled on a robe as Colin finished taking off the last of his threads and stood completely exposed to the entire student body. Somehow, though, the sounds and sights seemed to fade from his consciousness – he was only aware of one person, one face. Gene was looking at him as her friends shepherded her from the arena. Before she left, he saw an intense look of complete puzzlement on her beautiful features.
Just a few days later, Colin found himself after supper outside watching what appeared to be the sunset (of course, the sun wouldn't truly set for several days, if not weeks.) He sighed and pulled his ankle-length overcoat closer. He liked this spot – not too far from the school, but surrounded by tall firs that gave him quite a bit of privacy. Having lost that tournament had made life a bit more difficult for him in many respects. Leif couldn't even talk to him; he just sputtered in indignant rage every time he saw him. Most of the girls he passed in the halls on his way to classes giggled uncontrollably as he went by. And he hadn't even seen Gene since the day of the tournament. That was the worst part of all. The feelings he had churning inside of him had only turned worse; he couldn't bear to hear the lewd descriptions of her some of the boys were making now; in fact, he had been in an actual fight with Aberforth earlier today, which was only broken up when he had inadvertently turned Aberforth's head into a cabbage. He sighed again.
"Colin?" he heard a small voice call for him. He turned around to see a slim figure in a great overcoat like his.
"Yeah?" he said flatly. The figure came closer and sat next to him. Colin stiffened slightly and his pulse started racing. It was Genevieve. She didn't say anything for a moment, she just looked out over the faux sunset with him, the orange light streaming through the branches of the nearest trees, giving her face a look of burnished gold.
"Colin," she said finally, "I know what you did the other night at the tournament. Why did you let me win?"
He sputtered for a moment. "I did no such thing!" he exclaimed. "You won fair and square; I didn't have strong enough magic to keep the Iron Chef going."
Gene smiled sardonically at him and pulled something from her pocket. It was a ripped armor card from his deck. "Colin, we both know that Grim and Ghastly Ghost Hand of Death is a powerful combination, but nearly useless against the Iron Chef. I found this on your tower later in the night. Please tell me why you did it."
Colin was silent for a moment. When he spoke, it was in a low voice, almost a whisper. "I just couldn't see you up there, for all the other boys to gape at. You're not the kind of person who deserves to lose all your dignity just so a bunch of losers can get their jollies for the year. I just couldn't see that happen, that's all."
Gene stood up then, and Colin stood with her. "That's very sweet, Colin," she said, kissing him lightly on the cheek. Colin felt as if he might have to undo the clasp on his coat – he suddenly felt very hot. "But there's one thing that bothers me about the whole thing, really. You took my place as the scapegoat, and you didn't get the prize you deserved. So I've decided to bring it to you personally."
"What do you mean?" said Colin, his head swimming. In answer, Gene opened up her overcoat herself. Underneath it, she wasn't wearing anything at all.
"I… uh…" Colin said in a strangled voice. Under the circumstances, he thought that was actually quite witty.
Gene's bare skin erupted with goose bumps in the cold northern air. Colin on the other hand, could literally feel the snow melting all around him. He swallowed and tried to speak again, failing as much as before.
Then Gene closed her coat. "Thanks again, Colin!" she said brightly with a smile, then turned and walked back towards the school. As she was almost out of the clearing, Colin called to her.
"Gene…" he said hesitantly. "I… err, I think I love you!"
She smiled at him again. "I know, Colin. See you around." She blew him another kiss then disappeared into the trees. Colin suddenly whooped for joy and fell backwards onto the snow, a stupid grin on his face. Somehow, now, he knew that nothing anyone at the school said to him about his loss at the strip poker game would matter anymore. He wondered idly where Gene was going on her summer break…
Author's Note: This is actually a re-adaptation of a story I wrote year and years ago and posted on a rather obscure website for about half a dozen people or so to read. When I saw the pictures, something about them brought it back to mind, and I stole the basic premise and a few of the details of the plot from my older story. Of course, it's hardly complete copy of that story, and that one wasn't written with the same time challenge on it or constraints to fit into the pictures I had. In that regard, in some ways, the original is a better story, I think. For the curious, the link to the original story is still active, and can be found here.
The streets of Rockhold are bristling with people. The Harvest Festival is to start tonight. Entertainers are entering the gates of the city with great flourish. Making a parade of acrobats, clowns, wrestlers, animals and their trainers. The peasants and gentry alike are finishing last minute shopping. And then through the noble gate comes a tall man followed by the Captain of the Watch.
(#1) “My lord, what an unexpected visit. May I ask why the King has sent an emissary such as your esteemed self to Rockhold, milord?” The Captain of the Watch says.
“My business here is private. Prepare a room. I will stay through the Harvest Festival.” Says Lord Sean.
“Of course, milord. Everything will be prepared.”
A fortnight ago. Lord Sean descends the dark staircase with a torch in his hands. The air is foul and dank. He reaches the bottom and walks with purpose to the figure on the pedestal. (#2) Lord Sean quickly sets the torch in the wall. He then gestures and whispers in an arcane tongue. The figure in the glass stays motionless.
“I have some questions about the Duke, Powell?” Says Lord Sean.
The figure doesn’t move but a voice comes out from it. “So cold, I don’t get much company Sean. I wish you would visit me more. I am so lonely.”
“I have cast many divinations and fear that something is going to happen at the Harvest Festival in Rockhold. The Duke seems to be in danger. “
“Yes, he will die the first night by the Blade of Vishnau. Tell me about the outside, Sean.”
“Who will kill him, Powell? How can I prevent it?”
“That is for you to discern. Won’t you talk with me for a while? I am so lonely.”
“The Blade of Vishnau, interesting.” Lord Sean waves his hand at the figure cutting off their magic connection.
Security is always tight around the Duke and the Harvest Festival. It is after all the most public gathering of the year. All of the performers are searched before they are allowed to appear before the Duke. Screened for magic and weapons they are thoroughly examined. The Duke sits on a balcony overlooking the plaza that the performers use as a stage. Of course hundreds of peasants line the plaza as well. Lord Sean being an emissary of the King sits with the Duke.
The entertainment is really quite typical. Fools and fire-eaters mill around entertaining the crowd between acts. Although quite bored, Lord Sean remains vigilant for any sign of danger. Even through both plays. They were both quite dreadful, but the title of one gave Lord Sean a chuckle. “The Dreadful Death of the Boisterous Baron.” The actual title was “The Dreadful Death of the Dashing Duke.” Performers often change titles like this to avoid offending the local nobility.
Then came the wrestling match. At first nothing seemed amiss. The wrestling of course was a bit staged but that was to be expected, especially on cobblestone. But then it hit him; they were performing a ritual. (#4) The wrestler with the red wristbands was the lead in this summoning ritual. His wristbands must have ratspurge on them. His hand movements tracing invisible but very real arcane sigils in the air. The large bald man is Vishnau in the ritual. The movements recreated the ritual perfectly, very clever. At the end they bowed to the Duke sealing him as the target of the spell. I of course cast a quick tracking spell on them. It would allow me to find them later and possibly they would lead me to whoever hired them. I am sure that they would start looking for him or her once the rotting curse started.
The Duke slept up in his room unaware of the doom that awaited him. I didn’t tell him because I knew that he would panic and do something stupid. I find it easier to do my job alone. I rode up to his window on the breath of a songbird. (#3) I entered as smoke and materialized. A simple spell put the Duke in a deeper sleep and another to hold the door shut. I did not need any distractions. It was fifteen minutes before the Blade of Vishnau spell activated at the 13th hour, 1 A.M. I prepared diligently, sprinkling the wight’s dust in a rough circle around the Duke’s bed. I then sat in a chair waiting… I then got up and got the platter from the Duke’s late night snack. I went to his bed and put it over his chest and fixed it in place with the bedsheets.
Then I sat down and waited. My hands fixed in arcades en guard position. The watchtower signaled that it was one o’clock. In a flash the Blade of Vishnau appeared and stabbed down at the sleeping Duke. I completed my incantation swiftly but heard the blade strike the platter. I was glad that I had put the platter there otherwise the Duke would have died. The King would have been furious.
I examined my prize the Blade of Vishnau along with Vishnau’s hand. (#5) I now had in my possession one of the most powerful artifacts in existence. I must take it back to my laboratory to examine. Perhaps Powell will be able to give me answers. But first I guess I must track down the assassins before they completely rot.
He then put the blade in a secret place in his cloak and turned to smoke. Moving out the window he meets the waiting bird and became its breath.