The king of Effen-Ayho was bored. To relieve his royal boredom, he decreed that a fair should be held to coincide with the Midsummer festival that was rapidly approaching. Proclamations went out to all corners of the kingdom and beyond. It became known that the king was looking for diversion, something to enliven the long hot days of summer. To this end, contests had been devised for various of the arts. There was to be a contest for tumblers and jugglers, a contest for acting troupes, a contest for chefs and cooks; and there was to be a magick contest. It was this last competition that roused the greatest excitement amongst the citizenry. Magick was an art not generally practiced within the confines of Effen-Ayho. Magicians were not persecuted, but the restrictive taxes levied against them generally discouraged them from taking up the art in that country. King Tunwar and his tax collectors had always had trouble deciding how to apply taxes. How does one figure the tax on something that might disappear or change form by the morrow? How to fairly tax something that might not even be there? How to tax objects that might be there but could not be seen, heard, felt, or generally even proven to exist? So to be fair and impartial, the government had put a tax on everything a wizard might do or own, from potions to wands to books to clothing to familiars, even down to the passes and physical motions that might be made and the incantations that might be spoken. However, the king realized that such heavy fines would discourage any mage from entering the contest, so he decided to lift all tariffs against conjurers for the duration of the fair. To further entice participation, the king declared that the grand prize for the magick contest would be the Star of the Desert. The Star was an ancient ruby that had long been part of the treasury of Effen-Ayho’s royalty. The estimation of its value in financial terms was far from generous, and aesthetically it was one of the least valued gems in the world; but the Star was rumored to have mystical properties, not least of which was the power to open doors to unknown realms. The offer worked to its desired effect; when it became known that the Star of the Desert would grace the collection of the winner of the magick contest, magicians of every stripe and from every realm made sure that their applications for participation in the contest were submitted well before the deadline.
Rokus was nothing if not practical. He fed himself no delusions as to his chances of winning. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Even though he wouldn’t win, he might impress one of the lesser royals or foreign dignitaries sufficiently to be offered a stay in their entourage. Anyway, he always enjoyed seeing fellow mages practice their craft. You never can tell what might be learned from watching others.
Rokus gathered up what he hoped would be a suitable assortment of spells and illusions, taking care to select only those that he knew from experience would go off smoothly. Not a bad grouping, he told himself. At least he would make it past the first round of eliminations. After that, he decided to leave it to the tender mercies of Tar-Dratsab, patron saint of wizards.
No one was more surprised than Rokus himself when he made it to the grand semi-final, the round that would select the final participants for the grand prize. All of his effects were certainly less spectacular than his competitors, but there seemed to be a general flatness all around. Feats either fizzled or produced unexpected results. This worked against most of the others, but actually seemed to enhance some of Rokus’ work. In the opening round, a magician by the name of Plez Kon attempted to produce a profusion of birds of paradise, but upon reciting the necessary incantation, the bag from which the birds were to fly produced a loud pop and a brilliant flash, ripped open at the bottom, and a number of green and orange slubdorts fell out on the ground and slithered away. Rokus’ own attempt to produce a bouquet of gargantuan krylotus instead brought forth a swarm of Verlozin bees that formed a number of geometric patterns in the air. Had Rokus announced his intention to produce flowers, his failure would have been perceived as such; but he had merely promised “a wondrous display, sure to please the eyes”, and the glittering insects, weaving in and out as they ascended into the upper atmosphere, certainly seemed to fit the description.
Subsequent rounds brought similar results. Rokus was quick to notice and fit his patter to leave the impression that, whatever the results of his effort, it was what he had intended. At one point, a wizard of Vimartez tried to cause an apple tree to produce oranges; the tree shuddered and swayed violently for a number of minutes, then began to exude a strange and repulsive aroma that caused many in the crowd to lose what they had sampled earlier at the chef’s pavilion. Rokus’ own effort for that round was intended to call forth a small wind devil that would play with the gentlemen’s hats and the ladies’ skirts; what was produced instead was a gale force wind that blew many to their knees, but also cleared away the stench from the previous conjuration.
When the grand semi-final arrived, Rokus found himself facing four powerful opponents. Three of these had either managed to salvage enough of their displays to show pleasing results or to turn the mishaps to good effect by dint of quick alteration, before the judges became aware of anything amiss with the spell. The fourth, a giant of a man some eight feet tall, was unknown to all present. The great cloak he wore shrouded his entire frame from view save his forearms, which were black as jet; these remained uncovered for the working of spells. The cloak’s hood fell across his features, so that nothing of his mien might be observed save the occasional sparkle of his eyes. The stranger had somehow managed to come through every level of the competition unscathed. His conjurations, while somewhat pedestrian, all came off to perfect effect. There was some grumbling among the losers, but none could bring themselves to suspect this so-far nameless stranger. After all, if he could command powerful enough magick to affect all the others’ spells, surely he would have presented more colorful and spectacular tableaux that those he had heretofore shown.
King Tunwar, who had included himself among the judges, signaled the semi-final competition to begin. This penultimate round was to select two finalists, each of whom would then present a grand finale. The first to perform was Qwazil Hayvnopus, a wizard of some repute in the ancient domain of Sysmanople. Hayvnopus was humiliated when the clouds he had called, rather than raining flowers and sweetmeats as predicted, slung freezing mud and manure on the heads of the crowd. Next was Elliv Senak, a practitioner of the pyromaturgical school; a witch whose winsome appearance belied her quick wit and sharp tongue. She unfortunately became a victim of her own Spectacular Gyrating Sunwheel effect. The third contestant, Cib Szantari, declared that he would materialize a powerful djinn from a strange and distant dimension that would answer any questions the king might pose. This gambit backfired to the extent that, rather than bringing a djinn, the spell called down a number of rabid bats and foul creatures upon the throng.
Rokus, who had planned at this stage to conjure a small fire fountain from which several very minor djinni would toss sweets to the children, became so unnerved that he performed instead the cream of his meagre crop. His finale involved the use of his most prized possession, a Soul Mirror. The Mirror had been a present from one Lord Belknazar, a member of the court of Sorrouieu the Opulent. Belknazar’s daughter Sylva had been abducted by radical elements hoping to gain Sorrouieu’s attention. Rokus had stumbled into their forest lair one evening while searching for shelter, having lost his way and in need of a place to stay for the night. The radicals, perceiving him to be a wizard, agreed to let him stay on the condition that he provide supper. He attempted to conjure a turkey dinner with all the trimmings; the resultant accidental explosion blinded or crippled all the radicals. Sylva, bound and gagged in the next room, had escaped injury (as had Rokus himself, being at the center of the vortex). Belknazar had rewarded Rokus by bestowing upon him the Soul Mirror, one of the few items in the royal collection that Rokus knew how to use. It was to the Soul Mirror that Rokus now turned as his last, best hope of making it to the final round of competition.
Each Soul Mirror could be adjusted, according to the needs and wishes of its user, to reflect a specific aspect of human existence. If you wished to determine the depth of a person’s affections or the sincerity of their intentions, you would tune the Mirror to the Emotional Range. If you wanted to determine truth or falsehood, the Mental Arena would accurately reflect what you wanted to know. Similarly, if one wanted to gauge their progress with the Spiritual Compass, the corresponding band of reflections would be used. Even though all Mirrors were capable of the full range of soul expressions, each Mirror had its own personality that made it partial to one of the three major areas; Mental, Emotional, or Spiritual. This served as the Mirror’s home base, the area to which it returned after it had served the specific functions requested of it. Rokus’ mirror was attuned to the Emotional Range.
The Mental Arena was useful for a great many more things than mere indication of truth or falsehood; for example, the Mirror could reflect memories and fantasies. It was for this utilization that Rokus had prepared himself. Before the competition he had spent several hours in meditation, dreaming up such grandiose fantasies as King Tunwar being swamped by waves of adulation from his subjects, King Tunwar standing victorious before the entire civilized world; basically, anything he thought might be pleasing to the king. The Mirror, under his direction, would then present these chimaera as “assessments” of the king’s popularity and “predictions” of his future glory.
Rokus’ turn to present had arrived. He said a quick charm of tranquility to steady the shaking of his hands as he removed the Mirror from the cloth bag in which he had brought it. His reflection, just for a moment, showed a man on the verge of terror; his eyes seemed to bulge from his head, his mouth working frantically to no effect. Then as the charm of tranquility took hold, the features smoothed somewhat. There was still a haunted cast to his features, but the frantic look had eased considerably. Rokus had never expected to make it this far, and now he was facing an unknown opponent, in unpredictable circumstances, before a crowd that might easily become an enraged mob should something catastrophic happen. Even should he make it to the final round, his supply of effects had run out. He was about to withdraw, forfeiting to the stranger, when he caught the brilliant glint of the sun dancing off the Star of the Desert. The Star had been placed in a booth to the side so that all might see it during the competition. Up until this time, he had not even thought about the Star; he had never expected to win it. Now it winked in the noonday heat, seeming to bob and dance before him like a lily on a windswept lake. Something flashed across Rokus’ consciousness--- an intuition, an insight, a message, he knew not what--- but he was seized with the idea that the stranger must not be allowed to possess the Star of the Desert. He wondered vaguely for a second or two what he could do for a finale. He dare not bring forth the fire fountain; even were it to execute flawlessly, he would be laughed out of the fair for producing so trivial an item. But even these considerations fell away as he narrowed his focus to the task at hand. The king and crowd sat waiting patiently, expecting Rokus would need to make some minor preparations. Rokus took a last glance in the mirror, then turned to face the judges. As the Mirror swept the crowd, he had an impression of hundreds of eager faces reflected in it. In this case, the Mirror was simply reflecting the physical reality, as the anticipation of the crowd was quite visible to the unaided eye.