The letter came early in the morning, sooner than post was normally carried. It bore no stamp, but the man who delivered it was quite confident one had been there. It was unsealed, although it had taken a very lengthy journey without a soul noticing. Where an address ought to have been, a nonsense squiggle was written, but the mailman knew exactly where it belonged. The man who opened it, an almost eerily pleasant man, saw it for what it was and was not surprised. Those of his order were familiar with exploiting the ordinary methods of communication without bothering themselves with the details. Owls did not fly between planets and only a handful of the magically inclined were capable of transmitting thoughts over anything greater than a room. Teleportation was a peculiarly precise task and electronic transmission was more troublesome still.
Because of all of these factors (and perhaps more, unknown to the author) a letter had materialized in the middle of a large stack in the Richmond, Virginia distribution center, has been sorted appropriately by ordinarily sane people and then carried into a quiet suburb where it was placed in the white stone mailbox of a man who smiled just a touch too broadly, and never around the eyes. His neighbors called him Mr. Smith when he was around, El Clunker when he was not (a referenced to his used car salesman demeanor and visible old age) and another thing still when polite company was follow Mr. Smith up his crackless driveway, past his meticulously kept lawn and into the well lit foyer.
The letter remained unopened in his hand until he had turned the dead-bolt on his front door and laid the less important items on a table which had housed a telephone in days gone by (before everything became wireless). Resting on the now antiquated stool, he began to read. The letter was on a paper of quality no longer readily available and the ink had been pulled across the page in a flowing, majestic hand. A few moments after reading it, Mr. Smith tossed letter and envelope into his unlit fireplace, where it promptly burned to ashes. He stepped into his kitchen and put on a pot of tea, his mind piecing together the announcement he had just received. If a contest was to be held, he would certainly participate. Yes, he would have to participate. The danger was higher than he ordinarily exposed himself to of late, but the rewards were infinitely more significant. One point continued to nag him, crying out that he was a fool if he thought he understood the whole story and he ought to remember who he was dealing with. With the reward so high, what purpose could be served by the contest? But avarice has a louder voice than reason and Mr. Smith drafted his reply quickly. In many highly disjoint places, a similar scene was playing out. From houses to mud huts to prisons to bio-domes, the letter was replied with universal acceptance. Did it occur to any of these that the same sleight-of-hand that had the letter delivered so efficiently could be coaxing them into agreeing to highly suspect terms? Perhaps not.
In any case, Mr. Smith sent his letter of acceptance in the usual way. At the Post Office, it was picked up by a bleary eyed man who would later be scolded for falling asleep on the job. He slipped it into his breast pocket, but it was gone by the time he took his jacket off that evening. The letter then joined a stack of a several others a very great distance away. No one read the carefully crafted letters of acceptance; their content was already known. Everyone invited to the little competition would willingly come and play a little game against loaded dice and each of them would genuinely expect to win. Three and a half days after the arrival of the letters, the contest began.
Each recipient (Thirteen, Mr. Smith thought) stood in a tall, drafty hall lit by torches. Surrounded by traditionalists who loved the glow of fire, Mr. Smith felt like Jane Goodal amongst the apes. He was used to the near silence of electric lighting and the comfort of woven cotton, not crackling torches and woolen robes. But they all wore wool stained a dark brown, it was a condition they had not been informed of until they had arrived. Part of Mr. Smith had wanted to just pull the robe over his own shirt, but survival won out over comfort by a sizeable margin. He was no longer in a place governed by laws and decency, but a place of arbitrary execution and torture. Risk management would be a very real situation. Therefore, Mr. Smith stood in between two Neanderthals of men (did they really stink, or was it just the conditioning of his mind) grumbling to each other about something. It was certainly a sight: Mr. Smith, with the neatly trimmed silver hair and clean-shaven face, surrounded by men with beards that had personalities in their own right and hair that brushed overly broad shoulders. Across the group was another man in a similar situation (albeit less-so), but under the thick hoods of their robes, each assumed they were alone in the mob. But the murmurs of the other eleven stopped instantly when the chamber door opened (not the door they had entered through, but a larger more stately one that each of the men had kept in the corner of his eye). Light poured out into the hall, bright and shining and their host stood in the middle of the gaping archway, his own hood off his head and resting on his shoulders. He leaned on a staff and seemed slightly shriveled, but his voice was strong enough when he cried “Come!” to the group.
They silently shuffled into a room with a long table and thirteen chairs, each carefully eying the staff the shriveled man held. None of them sat down. “I seem to have miscounted,” their host noted, almost to himself, but rather loudly. “There are fourteen of us, including me.” He closed the door anyway. “Are there any here who would like to return home?”
Had the truth been told, they all would have accepted such an offer while waiting in the hall. But the sight of the staff had been too much for them. An object of such fabled power – so close to their grasp – was more than they could resist. When no one moved, their host shrugged his shoulders and walked towards his own seat at the head of the table, calling behind him, “Decide as you will. But no one will be seated until one of you is no longer here.”
One of the Neanderthal men laughed heartily at this and latched one powerful hand onto Mr. Smith’s head, intending to break the skinny man’s neck. The man never had a chance. Mr. Smith whispered something guttural which sounded like the language of Hell and the would-be assailant collapsed on the ground, dead. The only visible sign was a small quantity of blood which was squirted from his ear, splattering on Mr. Smith’s cheek. While the others still stood around in confusion, Mr. Smith chose a seat next to the head of the table and spotted his cheek clean with his napkin, mildly disgusted that his opponent’s position had worked out so unfortunately. The friend, who had so chummily chatted with the cooling body only moments before, stepped over him unceremoniously. In other circumstances, he might have mourned. But there was the staff to consider.
When everyone was seated, the host spoke. “Each of you is aware of what brought you here. I have grown tired in my age and desire rest. You are also all aware that I am in possession of the Stave of Telmath and that it would be most pleasing to our enemy if he could obtain it and destroy it.” Everyone in the room visibly cringed at the last two words, although they were unaware of it. They loved the staff. “Our enemy has come to loathe what he is, what we all are, and seeks to have us destroy the very thing which defines us. The Stave of Telmath has so far prevented him from taking away our identity, but it must be wielded by one who is mighty if it is to continue to hold off the enemy. That is the purpose of this little competition. Through it, I will determine who will inherit the Artifact and become the defender of our way of life.” The eyes of every competitor were glued to the staff, the last Artifact to remain on their side. With it, they hoped to take back the other Artifacts and destroy the enemy. He was one; they were many. “I know you are all wondering what the contest will entail,” their host continued (although they were wondering nothing of the kind; their only thought was that they might be able to kill him and touch it for a moment before the inevitable guards slaughtered them), “and I assure you it will be simple. I have chosen three planets the enemy is not likely to be able to reach in time. You will each neutralize them one of them as his stronghold.”
The other small man, who Mr. Smith might have identified with under other circumstances spoke up: “Each? There are twelve of us.”
As if surprised, their host laughed. “So there are! My mathematics has fallen short once again. Sort it out as you will, but I only have room for three.”
Any hesitation which had been present when the first man was killed did not return for the second conflict of the day. Silverware flew without the aid of hands, lightning crackled from the finger of one to the chest of another, fire swept out a bright path across the table and one man found himself entombed in ice.
Mr. Smith stepped back at the dawn of the fray and succeeded in staying out of all the excitement. He was not going to allow his big chance at true power to be ruined by a lucky knife thrown by an inept sorcerer. After a few moments of conflict, three remained around the table, plus Mr. Smith and the host. The other thin man was pinned to a wall, with a spoon lodged beneath his collar-bone, leaving Mr. Smith to worry about eliminating one of the barbarians to secure himself a place in the competition. Despite their worn state, Mr. Smith was still no match for the remaining men. Instead, he focused on having them do his dirty work for him. Seemingly of its own accord, a squirt of water shot from the finger of one man across the table, where it was wiped away in midair by another. Had the ostensible victim allowed it to strike him, he would have found it somewhat less painful than a water pistol. As it was, he saw someone who had tried to weed out more of the competition than had been called for and released another signature blast of fire. Mr. Smith slipped forward from the shadows and the host’s face lifted with amusement.
“Food!” He cried out. Servants brought in chalices full of sweet red wine and four plates of beef (rare), vegetables (steamed) and sourdough bread. “I hope you will excuse the meager fare. These are my favorites.”
“If they knew only to have three plates, you told them that ten of us would die,” one of the men marked in passing.
“So I did. But business later. Food now.” A moment later, the servants came in one by one to remove the corpses as the others ate, undisturbed.
“This bread is delightful. Do you have someone on staff full time?”
“I actually made that myself.”
They drew lots for who the order they would “neutralize” their planets and it was then that they first introduced themselves. Mr. Smith introduced himself as just that, “I am Mr. Smith, of Earth.”
“The stronghold of the enemy!” the taller of his two rivals exclaimed. “How d’ya pull that off?”
“I light most fires with a timber box and I keep my head low. If he is only faintly aware that I am around, I may bide my time.”
“Ah, so yer afraid of ‘im.”
“I prefer to think of it as not being a fool and picking my battles.”
“Right.” The man said with a half-smile as he drew his straw. “Well, I’m Raknor - of all over. Ain’t much for stickin’ in one place.”
“A rolling stone gathers no moss.”
“No, I guess it don’t. I don’t see what that has to do with it, but I guess it’s true.”
“Just an expression.”
The third man was the shortest of the three, but hulking and thick. His voice immediately reminded Mr. Smith of a garbage truck barreling down a gravel road, tossing rocks as it shot forward. It was the same man that Mr. Smith “I am Kel.”
“Where ya from?” Raknor asked, to no response.
“Well,” their host replied, “As you are all aware, I am Naul and I hail from the Second Nexus. Let’s see the straws.” They all held out their lots, resting on open palms. “Kel, Raknor and then Mr. Smith it is. There are three planets to choose from. All are approximately the same size, but their level of technology and population vary vastly. One has a very high population, several billion people and has rather advanced spaceflight. One has a very small population and is Neolithic in its technology. The last is moderate in population and technology. Since Kel will be engaging his target first, let him choose the planet he will have.”
A deep, grumbling chuckle pulsed out of Kel: “I want the big one.”
“Wonderful!” Naul cried out, genuinely pleased. “We will indeed begin with something interesting.” The older man shuffled to the closed door, past the table and ignoring the blood stains on the ground and lifted up his staff dramatically. He smote the handle swiftly and the door swung open. But it no longer led into the hallway.
Beyond the frame of the large door was an alien world: vibrantly green grass ran up into an almost violet sky, revealing the skyline of a massive city in its frontier. They all silently noted how their host had not even made a sound. Such power. They needed that stave.
Kel replaced his hood on his head and stepped through the doorway. He noticed it was terribly cold for a moment, as if he was hovering in the dark depths of space, but then he returned to normal in an instant. Kel turned his head and saw no door behind him, only the distant outline of another city. But from the comfort of the dining room, his host and his competition pulled up their chairs to watch him through their window into the world. Their little rectangle of vision followed Kel as he walked slowly across the plain, towards the first skyline.
The wizard Kel was much more intelligent than he appeared to be to his would-be rivals, although he had found that putting on a stupid face did wonders to put his enemies off their guard. However, as raw power went, he was best described as a tank. Feats of energy which Mr. Smith and Raknor could not succeed in with their combined power would be no effort at all to Kel. He was quite sure that if he had the Stave of Telmath, it would augment his power so terribly that he would be the scourge of all those who opposed him, particularly the enemy. If a shriveled old man could build portals between the worlds with the help of the staff, how much more could Kel – the keeper of extraordinary power – do?
He had honed his powers by weaving his ordinary strength training with magical exertions. His entire body was active in the process of spell casting, which allowed him to perform tasks of tremendous scope. Kel felt confident that he would be able to exterminate this planet, win the Stave of Telmath and use it to conquer the First Nexus and free his people from the enemy once and for all.
Kel’s eyes scanned the horizon as he sought an imaginative way to destroy this world. In the sky, he could faintly see two moons in the fading daylight and latched onto the potential of these two off-white spheres. It would take no small amount of magic to pull it off, even for him, but he could do it if he had long enough undisturbed. Since his attack was the first, the enemy would not be anticipating an attack and would not notice his plan until it was too late. This planet would be destroyed in fire and darkness, Kel was quite sure.
With his mind made up as to the proper course of action, Kel began scratching a symbol in the earth with one long finger. First a simple circle, then a small concentric one. Then more and more elaborate characters with more and more energy poured into them, until Kel in his concentration did not realize he was being watched. But an advanced civilization does not remain advanced without some measure of security around its cities, the kind of security which notices a strange man in a robe murmuring to himself as he draws in the dirt.
The security forces came with weapons, but no real intention of using them. There was certainly no need to kill some crazed freak who felt the need to draw in the dirt, but there was a need to make sure he was going to harm neither himself nor others. Orders stood to fire if necessary, but to consider the stranger’s safety a high priority. None of the three in the security team could recognize the obscure occult symbols which Kel was digging into the earth. Indeed, it was highly unlikely that anyone on the entire planet could recognize the characters of ancient magic.
“Sir – may we speak with you?” Kel looked up at the captain, his self preservation instinct crying out to kill them all. For some reason, he decided to wait it out and see if they had something valuable to say.
“What seems to be the problem, officer?”
Which was a rather good question. The man was not actually doing anything wrong. To be sure, he was quite odd. But he was standing on public property, doing something which did not seem to be doing anyone or anything any harm. Coming out and challenging him had seemed like the natural thing to do from the comfort of the observation room, but here on the ground it seemed somewhat absurd. “We just wanted to see what you were up to out here.”
“I’m casting a spell.” Kel announced matter-of-factly, to the laughter of the security group. “I really am. You can watch if you would like.” To Kel’s surprise, they did. More came as well, friends of the security soldiers at first, but soon strangers and then reporters with cameras and microphones. All around the planet, people were watching Kel carefully perform the spell he intended to be their destruction. As he worked, the wizard began to whistle amusedly, his mind thinking of how good it would feel to hold the staff. How good it would feel to have the enemy’s blood drying on his hands. How good it would feel to finally have the shackles of his oppression removed from the ankles of wizards everywhere. The mild entertainment of a lunatic who thought he was casting a magic spell was just about to run its course when the symbols in the dirt began to visibly glow a flaming red. At that point, Kel was physically and mentally drained from the scope of his spell and laid down in the grass to sleep, without comment to the reporters. He closed his eyes and in a few moments was sucked away into dreams. As he slept, reporters and civilians began placing idle guesses about the nature of the glowing symbols. The police did not dignify it with an investigation.