The Most Dangerous Challenge

In many kung-fu stories, the fate of the world and even the multiverse is determined by martial arts prowess. This seems like a terrible method of governance. It feels like it would favor bullies and thugs, unlike our system that… Well, it’s got problems. This story offers a different option. Is it any better? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

“My Prince, the Dread Masters have arrived,” said the majordomo as he bowed.

Straightening his abnormally high and over-embroidered collar, the Prince of Highlandia gestured that the unpleasant guests should be shown in.

Clad in black armor that somehow also glowed black, the Dread Masters entered the throne room. Their leader, known as the Most Dread Master, and his lieutenant, the Lesser But Still Very Dread Master strode in followed by the other Dread Masters. Their names all indicated where they all stood in the hierarchy of Dread, but since they only got longer, we will not list them here.

“The time has come, oh Prince,” sneered the Most Dread Master, “The three moons of fate have eclipsed the seven suns of destiny.”

Sighing, the Prince of Highlandia replied, “Yes, yes, it’s pretty hard to miss.”

“Are you prepared for the Challenge That Will Shape The World?” asked the Most Dread Master just as he had rehearsed with his Dread Acting Coach.

“ARE YOU?” added the Lesser But Still Very Dread Master.

“I thought I said to just glower, menacingly,” the Most Dread Master whispered at his lieutenant.

“Just thought it would help,” sullenly replied Lesser.

“Well, it didn’t!” spat the Most Dread Master, “Did it?” he then asked the Prince.

“Not really.”

“I prepared a song. A very scary song,” Lesser said hopefully.

The Most Dread Master pushed down his disappointment. Just because someone is excellent in martial arts, doesn’t mean they had any sense of theater. He had to take care of this before it became a ‘thing.’

Lesser’s face lit up. “Really?” 

“Listen, I asked you to glower because you’re so good at it. The best, in fact.”

“Absolutely! You are my best glowerer, hands down.”

“I think I need to hear that. It’s been a rough week. My girlfriend-”

“Let’s talk later, okay? After the Challenge That Will Shape The World.”

“You got it my Most Dread Master!”

Turning back to the Prince of Highlandia, the Most Dread Master intoned, “So my Prince, are you prepared for the Challenge That Will Shape The World?”

“You already said that.”

“Well, it’s literally the event that will determine the fate of every being in the realm for all eternity. It deserved to be said twice! Maybe even three times!”

“Would you like to say it again?”

“Twice, I think imports the gravity of this event,” declared the Most Dread Master in a tone he felt was both wise and threatening.

“Agreed,” nodded the Prince as he sagely stroked his beard. The beard stroke really sold the sagacity.

“As was written in the scrolls of sacred conflict, let the champions present themselves!” declared the Most Dread Master as he stepped forward.

The Prince, who was in his late middle age and had what could be accurately described as a ‘Dad Bod’, stood up.

“You? You are the champion?”

“I am,” he said with a shrug.

The Most Dread Master waited for a ‘mere jest’ or a ‘got you’ or even a ‘psych!’ It did not come.

“What happened to your loyal cadre of warriors? Johnny Lightning Hands? Myka Mistress of the Razor-Whip? Mysteroid, the Living Smoke? The Mongoose Twins, Ebi and Abi? Bunfar, the Guy with Swords for Feet?”

“Oh, they’re up there,” the Prince said pointing up a balcony. 

All his champions waved and cheered, which resulted in some clanking in the case of Bunfar who stomped his feet swords with great enthusiasm. 

“Are you not going to take this seriously?” asked the Most Dread Master with unmasked irritation. 

“Of course I am, this will shape realm forever.”

“So you think you can defeat me?” 

“I don’t think that.”

“Haha, you will-”

“…I know it.”

It was a classic burn. The Most Dread Master was rapidly losing the mystique of menace that he had spent years cultivating. Time to make some big power moves.

“Okay, Prince ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Check this out.”

With a flicker of darkness, the Most Dread Master teleported about the throne room, shattering vases on plinths with masterful kicks and strikes. Appearing and disappearing into and out of puffs of oily black smoke, which he thought was extremely cool. The fact that the smoke smelled of potpourri was perhaps less cool than he wanted it to be.

“And that’s just the tip of the dark iceberg of my martial arts techniques!”

The Prince applauded and said, “Impressive. Very much so. I enjoyed the potpourri.”

“It’s not potpourri, it’s the scent of dying springtime!”

“Sorry, it just reminded me of potpourri.”

“Well, you were wrong!”

“Would you like to hear the challenge?” stated the Prince in a serious manner.

“Indeed I would!”

Carrying the scrolls of sacred conflict, the majordomo entered and unrolled them to a specific spot.

“I’ve been reading over the scrolls and I discovered something of great interest to me.”

“Do you think you’ve discovered some loophole that will allow you to avoid this?”

“Not at all. But listen to this, ‘The challenged, in this case, me, may choose the nature of the conflict, and the challenger must abide by this or forfeit on pain of disintegration.’”

“I know, I know! It’s a proviso so you can choose where and how we fight. It could be in the Ice Volcano on the edge of the Sea of Fire, or on a Dragon-Owl’s back in a lightning storm, or if we both are blindfolded and have to compose haiku while leaping from branch to branch in the forest of very slippery leaves.”

“Yes… And no.”

“What the hell does that mean!”

“The thing is, the challenge doesn’t have to be a fight,” the Prince offered with a smile.

“Don’t be absurd! That’s what we do! Our whole way of life is based on superiority through martial arts! You can’t just go changing it!” sputtered the Most Dread Master.

“The scrolls do not specify the challenge needs to be one of fighting.”

“Where is my Dread Litigator?” 

There was a great deal of reading and arguing between the Master and his attorney. Part of it was why their copies of the scrolls were on black parchment with purple lettering. It had seemed so very metal when they were made but turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to read. Finally, the Most Dread Master spoke.

“On advice of counsel, I accept that the challenge need not be one of the martial arts. Even though it makes a mockery of everything our most sacred and profane traditions stand for.”

“Very magnanimous of you,” said the Prince.

“I thought so,” replied the Most Dread Master.

There was a dramatic pause.

“Now, and only now, will I reveal my challenge to you, my foe.”

“It better not be trivia! If it’s trivia we should have teams!”

“While that might’ve been entertaining, I had something else prepared.”

At that, servants set up a long table and placed cloth-covered trays upon them. A distinctive acidic smell wafted across the throne room.

“By the sightless eyes of the Iron Crone… No.” 

“Hot wings. Marinated with the essences of one hundred different peppers. Including the feared Pandemonium Pepper which only grows in the darkness of Valley of the Mad. Whoever can eat the most, will mold the world for evil or good.”

While the Most Dread Master enjoyed things that would make the hardest hearts weep, he could not stomach spicy foods. Even black pepper was too much for him. But the challenge had to be met.

He took off his cape with a flourish to show he still had style, and also to prevent it from being stained. As he handed it to the Lesser But Still Very Dread Master, he said quietly, “Send a dark crane to the Dread Gastroenterologist. Tell him I will need his services very shortly.”

Sitting across from his ancestral foe, the Most Dread Master looked at this, his final battlefield, and uttered these words.

“So, no blue cheese dressing?”

But Then Again…

This is a short piece I wrote, dipping my toe in some Cyberpunk waters. A sub-genre I’m extremely fond of but one I haven’t written much in. The idea behind this is probably absurd and could never happen. But then again…

They sat in that evening in late autumn rain, waiting on a rooftop for the saleryman to emerge from the tube station. Mathis checked her gauss rifle to make sure it was still charged. There was an almost zero chance it would lose its charge, but she was meticulous. Shanna, who had set up a micro-cameras in a three-block radius checked the facial recognition algorithm installed in her eye. Still nothing.
“It’s so damn cold,” she said.
“So it is,” replied Mathis.
Neither woman spoke as the rain beat on roof as well as them. Shanna looked at her partner. Mathis resembled a middle-aged woman. In the past, Shanna asked her if she’d ever consider plastic surgery, they could make her look years younger in the time it would take to eat a meal. Mathis told her, “A middle-aged woman is often unseen, something that in our line of work is priceless.” The younger woman didn’t know if Mathis was modified to look that age or if she was that age. She supposed it didn’t really matter.
“There’s a coffee machine across the street,” Shanna observed wistfully, “Do I have enough time to get us a couple of cups?”
“Probably not,” she said.
“Damn.”
A moment passed.
“What kind of machine is it?” she asked.
Shanna zoomed in and read the name.
“Mestre Do Café. Not terrible for machine coffee.”
Mathis shook her head. “I won’t touch the stuff.”
Shanna smirked, “Coffee snob.”
“It’s not that. Did you ever hear of the Umbrella Man?”
“The legendary killer? Yeah, I’ve heard of him.”
“Do you know what happened to him?”
Shanna paused.
“He doesn’t work anymore. I just assumed he had enough credit to move up to one of the Orbitals and is living his best post-human life.”
“I too heard that rumor, though no one knows for sure. But I heard another one.”
Rain continued to piss down on both of them.
“Are you going to make me guess?” asked Shanna who was in no mood for guessing.
“No. But it is absurd,” she said.
“It has to be better than listening to the rain.”
“Very well. As you may know, the Umbrella Man had multiple body modifications, not crude chainsaw hands or obvious hydraulic legs, but subtle and bespoke enhancements. Invisible to the human eye and to all scans. These were very expensive, but then again, his own fees were such that if you had to ask, you should know that you could not afford them.”
Shanna sighed, everybody knew that part.
“One day he took a commission on a dictator. A terrible man, as all dictators are, but his security was exceptionally talented as well as true believers, which made them even more dangerous. This dictator did not drink alcohol, or use drugs and while he had an appetite for physical pleasures, his partners were scrupulously vetted. So the usual avenues were closed. But the Umbrella Man was undaunted. This dictator had one weakness, which he saw as a strength. He would not eat anything prepared by human chefs, because he did not trust them. Everything he ate or drank came from a vending machine, each picked randomly each day.”
“That’s disgusting!” Shanna said.
“I agree. But it an excellent way to not be poisoned, except for the terrible food and drink but I suspect that this man was already dead, spiritually speaking, so these synthetic meals had little effect. Now the Umbrella Man, as I heard the tale, goes to Mrs. Sai, the noted body mod specialist.”
“I know who she is Mathis, she did my eyes,” said Shanna.
“And a superlative job indeed. But the Umbrella Man wanted something unique, an untried mod. He wanted his consciousness implanted into a vending machine. Specifically, a Mestre Do Café machine.”
Shanna looked at her partner and wondered if she was taking the mickey out of her but she was not one for whimsy. Mathis shrugged her shoulders and continued.
“I am aware of how absurd this sounds. But it is genius, even if it is a bit mad,” observed Mathis.
“A bit mad? It sounds completely bonkers! Even it were true, which I don’t believe, how would he know that this dictator would chose the one he was in? That’s an insane gamble!”
Mathis smiled.
“Ah, but it isn’t. There are thousands of these machines, all over the world, from major cities to the smallest towns, they are omnipresent. However, they are all linked together effectively making them one machine, giving the Umbrella Man a would-wide view.”
“Then why not just hire a digital artiste to get into their system?”
“Mestre Do Café did not become the most prolific beverage machine by having a lackadaisical outlook on digital security. The word from my friends in the business is that their customer data is both extensive and viciously protected. But the Umbrella Man became as a spirit, watching patiently. He knew he would have only one shot, so to speak, to complete his contract. When the dictator placed his order from a machine, and it could be any machine, all he had to do was alter the synthesizing sub-routines for that one cup, and while it tasted like coffee, it also was laced with a nano-toxin that would cause a massive, irreparable stroke. Job done”
The only sound was the incessant rain as Shanna looked at Mathis. It was ridiculous. Urban legend. The sort of story you might tell over drinks or to kill time.
“That’s bullshit,” she said, “How would he get out? Why wasn’t he caught by the digital security? How did it not make it on the grid?”
Mathis checked her rifle once more and sighed.
“As I told you, it’s an absurd tale. Most likely rumor and nonsense, as you said, bullshit. However, even the most preposterous story may have a particle of truth. Do I think a cup of Mestre Do Café will kill me? No. But then again…”