< Return to Balls Part 7
I know you’ve all been awaiting with bated breath for this. So I’ll just skip right to the main show.
“Congratulations contestants. We are now on the final portion of the Bard’s Challenge. This is perhaps the most important portion yet! While the wizards in their towers think they alone can use the arcane sorceries, we bards know this is not true. For what could be more trivially useless than the practice of magic itself! But us minstrels do not live lives of boring study and routine. No, our magic is that of the heart and the moment. Thus, without preparing the majority of the spell in the morning, our contestants have twenty minutes to make the greatest magical display using our secret reagent. Tobias!”
The back curtains parted and the aid pushed a large table forward with a great white sheet covering it. He stood behind the table, reached for the middle of the sheet.
“Competitors!” he shouted in a valiantly courageous attempt. “I present to you… koe-chiap!”
“Koe-chiap?!” all three competitors shouted in unison.
“That’s right,” the administrator said, turning to face the crowd. “Imported from the mysterious distant west is this rare paste. Its use is not entirely understood but scholars wager it is part of some coming of age ceremony to test youth’s constitution and vitality. We’re told it’s a concoction of pickled fish and spices but believe it’s made from the ground pulp of a strange red fruit and horse manure.”
Derrek, Laara and Alec rushed to the table. Great bowls filled with the thick, viscous liquid were arranged in an eye pleasing manner. There appeared to be different colours ranging from a sickly purple to a bright green.
“You have twenty minutes, competitors! May the best bard win!”
Derrek grabbed a bowl, holding it in his hands and looking expectantly at the others.
“By the hells, what are we suppose to do with this?” Laara said. “We don’t even have anything to prepare spells with.”
As if on command, a few more aids came running out with arms wrapped about large woven baskets. They set each before the three competitors. Lifting the lids, an assortment of alchemical supplies and tools were shoved unceremoniously within.
Laara and Alec dove head first into the baskets, tossing alembics, pestles, mortars and flasks aside.
Derrek set aside his bowl, rooting from some ingredients to work with. He wasn’t entirely sure what sort of spell he could perform with this reagent, especially since he never heard of it before. He had learned a few cantrips at the College as most classes often awarded bonus marks to the students that could knick spells from the neighbouring Academy. Dating a wizard also gave certain advantages when it came to understanding the practice of magic.
His digging eventually provided enough ingredients for a rudimentary summoning spell. Not the flashiest magic on the block unfortunately. Summoning spells typically involved inducing a magical compulsion in some poor chump to go and fetch the desired item for the practitioner too lazy to get it himself.
Derrek looked over to Laara and Alec. He knew nothing of his female adversary but judging by her confusion over the proper end of a burette, Derrek wasn’t too worried. However, Alec was laughing almost maniacally to himself.
It was a little disturbing.
“I’ve got this in the bag,” Alec whispered. He threw his materials in the ground in a great heap, falling to the floor and scratching a rough circle of chalk upon the stage.
“Oh really? If I remember correctly you couldn’t even get the simplest light cantrip to glow.”
“Those are totally hard and you know it.”
“It’s lighting a piece of straw!”
“Heh, you’ll see. I’m going to destroy this challenge and be named Seeker. And you know what the first thing I’ll do will be? I’ll make a doll of you and carry you around as my dummy. Then the realms will know how stupid you really are.”
“That’s the most idiotic plan I’ve ever heard,” Derrek said as he lay his instruments carefully out before quickly turning to his rose thorns and mashing them in a mortar.
“That sounds exactly like something your dummy would say!” Alec laughed.
“You’re the worst.”
“Hey, want to hear a joke?”
“Your bardic talents?”
“Why do Derrek’s songs sound better by candlelight?” Alec upturned a pouch of marbles, watching them roll chaotically amongst the seals he had scrawled.
“It sets a sexy mood because I’m so gods blessedly handsome?”
“Because you can shove the wax in your ears!”
“That’s it?” Derrek asked. He began to scrawl his ancient runes upon the floor.
“Did you not get it? Need me to explain. Because I can explain if you need me to.”
“Explanations are the fastest way to ruin a joke,” Derrek said.
“Yeah, know the second fastest? You, and being dumb.”
“That’s two ways,” Derrek said. He began to roll his barley seeds in the mashed concoction of rose thorn, mandrake root and persimmon skin.
“Ten minutes competitors!”
“You know Alec, you’ve always been half the man that I am. If you want to just bow out now, no one would think less of you. In fact, they may think more.”
“You see this?” Alec asked, standing and holding his bowl of ketchup before him. “This is the image of your defeat.”
Then, without further provocation, he upended the contents of the bowl over his head. The liquid seeped over his hair and dripped down his great jowls. It fell in great globs upon his fancy clothing. The thick goop rolled over his eyes until he appeared as a great, squishy red grape.
He stood in the middle of his circle, unmoving. Derrek and Laara watched with anticipation. The seconds ticked by and everyone seemed to hold their breath.
A large glop fell upon the floor at Alec’s feet.
There was a soft pop once the substance hit the wood and the tiniest wisps of smoke curled from it. All eyes turned to the stage, where tiny burnt tendrils seemed to run from the scattered marbles as if they had given a small surge of electricity towards the foreign substance but too quickly for anyone to notice.
The glop fizzed a second time then fell silent.
“Was that it?” Derrek asked.
Alec stared at the drop of the floor while still blinking.
“I… guess? Can you still see me?”
“Damn this useless charm! I was told it would complete whatever spell I attempted!”
As Alec ripped a necklace hidden beneath his collar from his throat, Derrek stood, dropping his small ball of ingredients into some purified water and mixing it quickly. Then he strolled over to Alec, careful to avoid stepping on his chalk outline and raised the container to the man’s lips.
“Here, drink this.”
Before Alec could protest, Derrek upended the contents into his mouth. Reflexively, the fat man’s drinking instinct kicked in, downing the potion in one great gulp. With the last drop from the bowl, Derrek quickly whispered the words of completion then attempted to think of some item he desired.
“Yuck! What was that?”
“Balls!” Derrek cursed. “I guess mine didn’t work either. I suppose koe-chiap doesn’t make a good substitute for blood.”
“Five minutes contestants!”
Laara gave a shout of excitement, standing quickly to her feet.
“I think I’ve got it!” she exclaimed. She turned excitedly to the judges. She then sang the softest of magical verses. Derrek recognized the incantation amongst the chorus. It was an old type of sorcery quite similar to the ancient skald verses. With the last word escaping her lips, a soft glow seemed to surround her. She looked surprised as she held up her hands. From the mystical light, a string of globes seemed to pull free, floating before her outstretched arms as if obeying her command. With a gentle flick of her wrist the orbs seemed to roll excitedly about her like pretty faerie lamps.
“There they are!” cried a voice from the audience. “Get the balls!”
“Balls?” Alec slurred, his voice suddenly heavy as if he were drunk.
From the audience four people emerged, rushing towards the stage. With amazing acrobatic flair they tumbled around, beneath and over the started crowd. Derrek recognized their flips immediately.
The flamboyant man himself emerged from the wings, his wind-and-fire wheels already in hand. He leapt to Laara’s side, his shirt unbuttoned down to his navel to display his trimmed and apparently oiled chest as he prostrated elegantly before her.
“Forgive me, my lady, but I’m afraid I must confiscate these!”
He punched her across the face, causing Laara to drop like stone to the ground. But as Mikael grabbed for the abandoned balls of light, they seemed to pop into blinding bursts of light the moment his fingers touched them.
“Those aren’t the real ones!” cried a voice from the audience. “Find the true balls!”
“Baaaaallllsss,” Alec slurred once more, stumbling over the stage. He landed, head first upon the judge’s table, collapsing it to the ground in a great snap of tinder.
Mikael and the acrobats turned to Derrek.
“So sorry, my friend, but it looks like we’re going to have to dance again.”
Mikael brandishes his wind-and-fire wheels, the clinking of the blades ringing clearly through the air.
“Can’t we just discuss this?” Derrek asked.
“Orders are orders,” one of the acrobats said.
“And don’t even think about escaping!” another called.
In perfect unison, the acting troupe flipped and rolled until they had him surrounded, their daggers and swords pointed worryingly at Derrek’s chest.
“I’m sure this is completely unnecessary. There’s no need to mess with this,” Derrek said, waving his hand over his beautiful face.
“Well, you seemed to suggest that you didn’t have the orbs when we drugged you,” Mikael said. “So, unless the potion didn’t work or you can resist the effects of a voracity divination…”
“Voracity divination?” Derrek muttered. “That sounds an awful lot like something a wizard would make. Where would you get that?”
“Actually, it was your -“
Before Mikael could finish his sentence, there was a terrific shatter as an enormous raven burst through the window. Following it immediately scampered an enormous newt and black cat. The creatures turned directly to Mikael, cawing, hissing and newting as they smashed through the hall.
The crowd shrieked at this final interruption, scrambling for the doors in a great, heaving mass from the enlarged menagerie.
As the critters descended, Mikael shouted, throwing his weapons to the ground.
“Mercy, friends! I mean no harm to you, cute creatures of the earth! Peace!”
But, the animals didn’t share Mikael’s passivity towards nature’s kin and they lashed out with talon, claw and newty mouth. Unable to morally defend himself from that which he felt need protection, Mikael screamed as he fled the furry, feathered and scaled onslaught.
The other acrobats, however, just looked at each other and shrugged before advancing on the bard.
“There won’t be any more convenient interruptions to save you now.”
“Stop right there!”
The treacherous thespians turned towards the doorway where a tall, eye-patched individual stood with a small contingent of thugs. They raised daggers and crossbows towards the stage as Dian stepped forward.
“Sorry for the delay,” Dian said. “But it took awhile to get past the crowds.”
“I thought the cat was with you,” Derrek said.
“Gorge? She’s back at the hideout,” Dian said.
“The cat is with me!”
Everyone turned to the back of the stage. Emerging from the shadows in a long white gown with a glowing staff in hand was a familiar woman.
“Aliessa?” Derrek whispered.
Dian, the thugs and the acrobats looked between each other, turning to point their weapons at as many people as they could.
Aliessa ignored them all, walking unflinching past the tide of steel. A soft glow seemed to pulse about her menacingly. Resistance parted before her and the wizard walked undaunted until she stood face to face with Derrek.
“It was you.”
“That’s right,” Aliessa said.
“But why? Why did you do it?”
“Before you continue, could you explain what it is?”
Almost annoyed, every party turned to see Marien crawl out from some overturned chairs. She was covered in bright red splotches, suggesting she didn’t fare the trampling too well. However, she held two blades menacingly between the thugs and the acrobats on stage.
“It was I that informed Marien that you have the Globes of Power,” Aliessa said, drawing herself erect. Marien ceased her advance just below the stage as the shimmering glow around Aliessa brightened menacingly.
“But why?” one of the acrobats asked.
“Because I knew she needed them to activate the talisman. In truth, I had hired their party to fetch the globes because it was our anniversary and we were supposed to spend it together. But that damnable party of yours wouldn’t leave you alone for three days. I had to be rid of them if were to celebrate!” Aliessa cried malevolently.
“But why tell her that?” one of the thugs asked, pointing to Marien.
“Simple. I knew Marien would kidnap Derrek in order to try and steal the orbs from him.”
“Wait, why did you want your boyfriend kidnapped?” another acrobat asked.
“I needed him gone from his room so Alec Carver could ransack it. I told the fat fool that Derrek kept his greatest stories with him in a journal. It would contain the best material of his travels that would fetch any minstrel worth his salt untold gold in any tavern he performed them in.”
“But why did you need Alec to steal Derrek’s material?” one of the judges who had remained behind asked from his hiding spot.
“I knew Derrek never kept such a journal,” Aliessa said, her voice dripping with cleverness. “He keeps everything as a jumble within his head. But Alec was too foolish to know this. I needed him to just make Derrek’s room appeared ransacked while Marien had him kidnapped.”
“But to what end?” the third acrobat asked.
“Because Marien would inevitably fail to find the globes on Derrek’s person. I had sold Mikael a potion, lying to him that the imbiber would be forced to tell the truth. That way, when Derrek said he didn’t know where it was, Marien would naturally think it was hidden in his room. When they returned to the inn, they would see the mess and think someone else had stolen the globes.”
“But you didn’t expect Derrek to go to the street gangs!” one of the thugs accused.
“No,” Aliessa whispered, her eyes narrowing. “Derrek was able to cure himself of the potion I fed him. With his mind cleared, he confronted Alec who almost revealed the plan.”
“It… it was you,” whispered Laara from the ground. “You’re the one that sent the giant bird.”
“If there’s one thing that foolish fat man is afraid of, it’s birds,” Aliessa laughed. “It was no big challenge, I prepare an enlargement spell every morning and all I had to do was cast it upon one of my pets.”
“But why?” the last acrobat asked. “Why all this subterfuge and trickery?”
“Because,” Derrek said with growing defeat. He turned from Aliessa, his heart heavy in his chest. He could barely form the words to speak. “Because it’s our anniversary.”
“That’s right!” Aliessa shrieked, lifting her staff. “Our anniversary!”
The thugs, acrobats, Dian, judge, Laara and Mairen looked confused.
Finally one thug raised his hands in defeat.
“I don’t get it.”
“Don’t you see!” Aliessa shrieked. “This is because of this damn Challenge! You never planned on spending the weekend with me at all! You just wanted to be in this stupid tournament!”
“It was my dream,” Derrek whispered. “My dream to be Seeker.”
“It’s just a really bad copy of the Wizard’s Challenge!”
“Wait. Wait a damn minute!” Mairen cried. “All of this… all of this was to stop him from competing in this bloody competition?!”
“Yes,” Aliessa admitted, her voice dripping with acid and malice.
“No seriously!” Marien shouted. “THIS WAS ALL SO HE WOULDN’T COMPETE IN THIS STUPID CHALLENGE?!”
The woman gave off a litany of curses.
“What a gods damned waste of gold!” she shouted, stomping towards the exit. “Now I have some thrice cursed useless talisman and no fiery hells way of powering it and…”
“Wait!” called the acrobats. “Does this mean we’re not getting paid?”
They dropped their weapons, turned and slowly edged their way past the thugs. The thugs then turned to Dian who merely shrugged.
“I guess you don’t need anymore protection.”
Dian led the thugs from the hall.
Derrek turned to Aliessa.
“Well… now what?”
“I don’t know,” she said lowering her staff. The glow around her shimmered then vanished.
The hall fell deathly quiet.
Aliessa raised a hand to brush some loose hair from her eyes.
“I can’t, I can’t help but feel like it’s slightly my fault,” Aliessa whispered.
“It’s just that this Seeker title really means a lot to me, Aliessa.”
“I know,” she said. “But I feel… maybe… maybe if I hadn’t supported you so much you wouldn’t have thought you could get it.”
Derrek nodded solemnly.
“And if I didn’t think I could really get it, I never would have tried to, I suppose.”
“I guess… I suppose this is it.”
“I guess so.”
Aliessa walked forward, lifting a hand slowly to Derrek’s cheek. She let her fingers brush his skin, to feel his warmth one last time. He reached up his hand, taking hers. He could feel how soft her skin was. As she drew near, he was reminded how heavenly she smelled.
They looked into each others eyes. Hers were welling with tears, the pain written plainly on her face.
“I won’t… I won’t say I love you,” she whispered, looking down and resting her hand upon his chest. “I promised I would never cry.”
“Maybe we don’t have to,” Derrek whispered.
“You’re right,” she said. She leaned forward, giving him a quick peck on his cheek. “Goodbye… my dear. Goodbye Derrek.”
They embrace. Derrek wrapped his arms tightly about her, holding her absolutely close. Despite her vow, he could feel her shudder in his arms and the soft dampness of her tears against his chest. But still he held her close as the sobs came until she could cry no more.
They released, but reluctantly. Aliessa hadn’t even noticed she dropped her staff. She sniffled back a few straggling tears and bent to pick up her weapon. But Derrek bent faster, grabbing it and holding it aloft for her to take.
She smiled weakly as she took it. She turned, walking slowly towards the exit. Her dress swayed with each rock of her hips. Derrek watched entranced as she glided away, like the phantom of a dream fleeing the coming morn.
“Will I ever see you again!” he called.
She paused before the door, looking up at him one last time.
“All you need to do is close your eyes.”
She opened the door and was gone.
Absolute silence fell upon the hall.
It was done. It was all done. Everyone had left.
Derrek was alone.
In one fell swoop he had lost his girlfriend and his chance at the Seeker challenge. He turned to Laara who still lay upon the stage. Whether she had fallen unconscious again or was merely acting so to maintain the gravity of the scene, he couldn’t tell. The remaining judge, in pure dramatic style, had also made himself scarce.
But surely, there would be no chance of him winning the title now. And though the winner of the first act was surely going to come down to subjective opinion, Derrek was positive he had lost the trivia contest by one point. And there was no way his spell would compete against Laara. She would no doubt be crowned winner so perhaps this was her way of repaying him back for being a worthy competitor.
Derrek turned towards the door, his body felt completely drained. He didn’t know what he would do now. He didn’t know where he would go. He had no direction, no aspirations and no future.
The world suddenly seemed bleak and drained of all colour.
But then, there was a curious shadow of red and blue that seemed to skitter across the walls. He paused amongst the wreckage of chairs and watched as the light danced and bobbed becoming brighter and brighter as it went. It seemed to be shining from the exit.
Derrek turned to see Alec burst through. Clutched tightly in his hands were two small glowing orbs that clinked as he moved.
“Balls!” Alec cried triumphantly as he held the objects aloft.
“Come back here you bastard!”
Alec turned then hurried towards Derrek, his flabby flesh jiggling about him like so much free jelly.
Just as the balls were pressed into Derrek’s hands three people burst into the great hall. The large, dark man had his great two handed sword drawn and a look of pure bloodlust in his eyes. Following him was a taller, sinewy, younger man carrying a thinner but more elegant sword in his hands while dark brown eyes filled with loathing searched beneath a mop of messy hair. Pulling up the rear was a woman who looked remarkably similar to the tall man, a bow drawn and an arrow notched between her fingers.
“Rutting swine!” cried the tall man. “Give those back!”
Alec cried, quickly ducking behind Derrek. As Derrek watched the group approach, the wrath in their eyes seemed to vanish and replace with confusion and a great deal of fatigue. Up close Derrek noticed they were covered in dirt and dried blood. Their clothes were ragged and matted as if they had been through some great ordeal.
There was a clatter as the great two handed sword fell to the ground in pure exhaustion.
“Derrek?” the woman muttered.
“Jeremiah, Keirn, Kait,” Derrek said. “You’re… you’re back!”
“And we have those damnable orbs!” Keirn cried, pointing his weapon at the globes in Derrek’s hand. “Let’s get those to Aliessa so we can finally be paid. I really need a bath and a nap.”
“Oh, I don’t think she’ll be wanting them now,” Derrek said with a shrug.
Keirn stared at him unblinking, his brain slowly processing this new information. His sword clattered to the ground as he fell to his knees and cried with hands upturned to the ceiling.
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