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.
“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?”