Sir Angst was traveling down a not-smooth road to a hole in the ground to do battle with the most bored dragon in all the realm: Anwe the Apatheficent. This quest was a burden laid upon him by Alice’s fairy godmother as proof of his not-base character and not-ignoble intentions. Her true name was unpronounceable to those unable to see sounds, but the men of the realm preferred to call her Mentis.
He wasn’t sure about the not-pleasant revelation that Alice had a fairy for a mother. He had nothing against fairies generally speaking, however he had misgivings about pursuing a lady related to one. They were always popping by at odd times and they never bothered to warn you. Furthermore, he had heard that those raised by fairy godmothers tended to be emotionally stunted, always relying on magic to save them from the consequences of their actions. They also, he had found, tended to carry a sort of entitlement mentality when it came to courtship. They almost always expected men to limit their immediate self-interest and consider factors beyond personal gratification. Angst had always found this to be a particularly not-not-unpleasant thing, and yet here he was. Trailing a bored dragon on one of the most unscenic and unremarkable routes in all the realm. If there was a God, Angst felt that he could not justly be blamed for deserting this place.
The lovely transportation and accommodation arrangements provided by the Scholarly Warriors Guild had ill prepared him for this journey. There was no divan carried about by servants. In fact he found himself walking about on his feet as though he were a peasant. Gone were the morning, mid-morning, afternoon and mid-afternoon tea intervals and the lovely card games that often accompanied them. Gone too were the jams, jellies and exotic cheeses that soothed his hunger and pleased his palate. Instead he had a package of week-old pepperonis, some slightly moldy cheese and matzo crackers. Thinking of those bygone days of yore caused a not-happy sensation to arise in his stomach. He had been on the journey for five whole hours, perhaps it was time to eat. He sat down and took out his provisions to break his fast. He stared blankly at the dusty ground before him, slowly becoming aware of a not-present element. Previously when he had to set out to consume nourishment there had been a sheet already there on which to place the food. He suddenly came to the realization that the sheet did not always and simply arise as a byproduct of his desire to eat. But if that was the case, how could the sheet have been there all those many other times? This was yet another of life’s deep mysteries that he stored for later pondering, but for now he tended to think it was Mentis’ fault. In the meantime he found a few not-smooth rocks and arranged them into a sort of makeshift coffee table. He also noticed that eating was a much more mundane task without a minstrel to sing a merry song to him. Life on the road is filled with many hardships, Angst had concluded.
Out of the corner of his vision he saw a largish troll carrying a club of not-soothing size in his hands. He had a not-satiated look in those bulbous protrusions, and he gazed upon Angst’s meager provisions with an almost lascivious countenance. Angst was a man who was enthusiastic about few things, but the fundamental right of individuals to own and protect their private property was one of them. The unfortunate brute had probably never encountered civilized folk before, and so was unenlightened about his moral imperative to go hungry rather than violate a universal law of human nature. He could not of course be held culpable for this, for he had never had a chance to hear these sensible words emitted from Angst’s scholarly mouth and so was not malicious but simply ignorant and wrong-headed. Angst would now rectify that situation with one of his lectures: Private Property and Man in His Natural State. He opened his mouth to speak. Unfortunately, however, he was quite hungry and thus his arms embraced his provisions and moved them toward his chest in a not-unprotective way. He tried to say something about how private property is a sacred thing that no individual or government has the right to seize without due cause, but the only words that came out of his mouth were: “No, my pepperoni and crackers!”
The troll looked at him somewhat quizzically, with an expression that expressed stoicism and a twinkle in his eyes that suggested amusement. “Yours? By what right do you claim them to be yours?”
A common objection, Angst had found in his many travels, and one which could easily be refuted. Since his bowels were protesting a certain absence, however, he decided to persuade on the basis of common convention. “Well, I bought them when I was passing through Resignation, you see, and in the land of Morosia if you buy something then it’s yours. Do you follow?”
The troll held back and gave off a hearty laugh that sounded more akin to mockery then Angst would have liked. “Indeed I do, weakman, indeed I do. But I am stronger than you, and could gain your prize for myself if I so desired. How then can you claim that these are yours if I have the power to take them from you.”
This troll was an odd sort, and Angst was beginning to dislike his inane logic. “You could very well take them from me by force, however that would not change the fact that they belong to me. Private property, you see, is the heart of every human endeavor, and it is unjust to unlawfully dep-ACK!”
The troll, you see, had suddenly lunged at Sir Angst at a not-unhasty pace, grabbing his throat in the process and holding it with fingers that resembled giant sausages (if, that is, giant sausages possessed tendons that felt as though they could crack a walnut). “I know very well of your human laws, and they disgust me. You embrace the weakness of your laws while I use the strength of my arms. I have had many chances to see which is the stronger in these parts. So far, your ways have proven far less effective than mine.”
Suddenly he thought that Mr. Troll’s face looked very amusing, but as his field of vision began receding he thought that this might be a momentary euphoria caused by a lack of oxygen. He began to gesture toward the food lying below his dangling feet. The troll looked even more amused than before, and suddenly took on a sardonic expression in his countenance.
“You’re offering it to me? Oh, how gracious of you sir, to think of me in my lowly state.” His expression had changed back to menacing, although his giant sausage fingers had relaxed a bit around his neck.
Angst managed to summon up enough breath to say a few dry words. “I’m not offering all of it, I’m simply offering to share. Of course, I’d respectfully request that you let me go of me in reciprocation.”
The troll looked quizzical once again, although whether he was considering the statement or simply drawing out the torture Angst was not entirely sure. “Share? I have heard of this thing. It is a way you weakmen have of stealing from your betters through trickery. Still, I am quite hungry, and it has been a while since I have had anyone to talk to.” He stared into his eyes with a questioning gaze. “I will let you live, for now. But know this, weakman, I will not share anything of mine own with you.”
Angst sighed. “That is perfectly acceptable.” The dumb beast probably had nothing worth sharing anyway.
After they had satiated themselves sufficiently to loosen their tongues, Sir Angst thought it might be an opportune moment to inquire after his dinner guest who had so recently tried to kill him. “So… what is it you do exactly?” Angst inquired.
“Me? Why, I am a professor of law at Morosia University.”
Angst found that notion highly doubtful. Being a Morosia man himself, he doubted that their standards had dropped so low that they were accepting trolls. Still, a man who was on a quest to slay an apathetic dragon and had previously so valiantly defended the fourth wall ought not be too skeptical of implausible developments. “Really? I actually graduated from Morosia U, with honors, actually. I was also the captain of the rowing team.”
The troll looked at him with a look of earnestness for a moment, then smiled broadly. “I’m joking you fool. Gods, you weakmen are gullible, but you are the most gullible one I have ever met. To think, a troll being a professor at a university! Next you’ll tell me that not all small people are elves! Hraw!”
In fact, as Angst had painfully learned through a lesson involving a straight-razor, that last statement was true. But it would’ve been considered rude to contradict his guest in his joke. The troll continued. “No, I suppose according to your weakmen customs I don’t really do anything, except sleep and hunt for food. I used to live with a community of trolls, but they found my opinions unpleasant and disturbing.”
Angst could understand how that might be the case, and found sympathy with their judgment. “They didn’t respect my strength or my honesty, and so they banished me because they were jealous. Now I just roam the countryside, seeking what or whom I may devour.” This conversation had taken an uncomfortable turn. The troll noticed his unease. “Be at peace, weakman, I don’t eat dinner guests. I do have some standards. Anyway, what is it exactly that you, um, do?”
“I used to be a Steward in the Department of Scholarly Warfare, but the war has taken a nasty turn and the kingdom needed me as a soldier. That didn’t work out, however, as it seems that I was far too brave for their needs and so they let me go. I then met a woman who is, well, really quite ample in certain key areas. Then I met her fairy godmother, who tasked me with slaying a dragon in these parts. I was on a journey to the Cave of Crushed Dreams for that very reason when I encountered you.”
The troll was silent for a moment, and then spoke. “I see. Well, seeing as I’m not doing anything better, would you mind if I accompanied you on your quest? I haven’t killed anything worth killing in quite some time, and I have a feeling that this would be a refreshing change of pace for me.”
Angst thought about this for a moment. On the one hand he was quite an irascible sort, but then again the road does become quite lonely when one is alone. “I don’t see why not. If we are to travel together, however, there are two things that I require: first I must know what I can call you, and second You must allow me to slay the dragon myself so as to prove my worth.”
The troll chuckled at this. “As for the second condition you need not worry, weakman, I detest dragons. Pacifists, they call themselves, they’re nothing but damn cowards. As to the first, you may call me by name, Nitchy the Glorious.”
“You have added Nitchy to your party!” A voice exclaimed from above. Was it the narrator? What does that even mean? Angst chided himself for his momentary lapse into internal monologue.
He looked up, and saw Mentis descending from the sky with her usual mischievous face. “Great. Let me guess. You’re my guide?”
Mentis touched down and lit up a cigarette. “Look,” she exhaled, taking her first puff. “I’m not happy with this either. I don’t really like you, to be honest I think you’re kind of a schmuck. But Alice seems quite taken with you, and I don’t think your sorry arse has what it takes to slay a dragon, bored or no. So I’m here to make sure you make it out of this in one piece. Clear?”
Angst took a moment to stare at the chain-smoking, winged silhouette standing before him. Having a fairy for a guide was vexing to be sure. Yet there seemed to be something not-un-useful about her, and if he had any hope of gaining Alice he would have to learn to tolerate Mentis. “I don’t like your meddling ways, fairy. Still, I suppose you might be able to offer some not-unconstructive tips as I go about my quest. I suppose I would not object to having you as a helper.”
Mentis gave him one of the most derisive smiles Angst had ever seen, and then gave a bow that seemed less-than-sincere. “Oh, you are most gracious, good sir. I’ll try not to cramp your style overly much. You should be grateful, it’s not easy being a single fairy godmother. I’ve taken time out of my busy schedule to be with you today, time that could most likely be more productively spent elsewhere.”
Angst was growing annoyed with her impertinent attitude. If she kept up with it, he might even tell her that. “Well, since you’re helping and all, any suggestions as to the best way to slay the dragon?”
Mentis blew a hearty puff of second-hand smoke his way. “Slow down there, Galahad. You’re not just going into any dragon’s lair, you’re navigating the Cave of Crushed Dreams.”
Angst had a sneaking suspicion that he was about to enter into one of those pesky expository conversations that were always the bane of quests like this one. “Pray tell, Oh wise fairy, what is so special about the Cave of Crushed Dreams?”
“I’m glad you asked, oh noble knight.” There was that almost mocking tone again that Angst so heavily disliked. “Thousands of years ago, when the Passions still roamed the earth---”
“If you don’t mind, could we skip the flashbacks and go straight to the relevant part? This is my personal opinion, of course, but I find that flashbacks are for amat-”
“The Cave of Crushed Dreams was built in primordial times by the daemon Melancholia to test the inner strength of mortals. There are three trials every knight hoping to gain entrance must undergo: Strength, Love and Mortality. To date no mortal knight has ever completed all three trials.”
“Until now, that is.” Angst had been rehearsing that line for years now, he was gratified by the opportunity to finally use it. Mentis, however, looked rather nonplussed.
“Well, no mortal knight has ever been aided by me. You’re lucky that Alice favors you. With my assistance and the help of that rather large friend of yours you might manage to not make a complete fool of yourself.”
Now it was Angst’s turn to feel nonplussed. “Shall we to the cave, then?”
Mentis threw her cigarette to the ground and put it out with her combat boots. “Yes, let’s get this over with.”
An indeterminate amount of time passed until finally they reached the mouth of the cave. There was a plaque on the wall to the entrance of the cave that read:
To all visitors}: Welcome to the Cave of Crushed Dreams, a historic relic from the primordial age of Morosia’s past. We hope you enjoy your quest to this place, but please be aware that there are a few guidelines for visiting this site: 1) No littering. We’ve been finding a lot of candy wrappers. No one’s trying to point fingers here, Lloyd, but we know it’s you and it’s not funny, so stop it. 2) Only one boon per knight, be a caring looter and leave some booty for the next wayfarer. 3) Mind the dragon. Thank you for your consideration
–The Morosia Tourism Board
“I thought you said that no mortal knight had ever completed all three trials.” Unlike the masses, who took in lies as others did opiates, Angst did not like being deceived.
“Did I? It must have been a slip of the tongue, or perhaps something to make you a feel a bit nobler about your quest.”
Angst felt sufficiently noble already, he didn’t need a fairy’s compliments to boost his not-small ego. He decided to let this insult pass, however, so that he could attend to the business at hand. The mouth of the cave was completely obstructed by some kind of stony wall, with a rather large boulder standing slightly to the right of it. “Any suggestions, Oh deceptive one, as to how one is to remove this rocky obstruction?”
“It’s no mere obstruction, Angst, it’s a gate. This is the test of Strength. In order to open the gate, you must push that boulder up that rocky incline over there.” She gestured toward the keystone of the cave entrance, where a spiraling path had been dug from there to the boulder.
Angst looked at the boulder with a not-unintimidated look, and wondered how his waifish figure could accomplish this. “Very well, then. I shall do this task, just as I shall with the other two.”
“Are you sure you can do this by yourself, weakman? It looks a very largish rock, and you are not a largish man.”
Angst waved him off with a hand. “Do not fear, noble Nitchy. Though my size may not communicate this, I actually possess a not-inconsiderable strength in these arms of mine. Stay here and watch me perform this feat.”
Mentis and Nitchy watched and waited. And waited. And waited. Angst stressed and strained every muscle of his body for what seemed like hours. Step by step, inch by inch, the boulder was slowly but surely moving upward. Finally, as it was nearing sunset, he finally reached the summit of the path. Angst felt a not-inconsiderable amount of pride and accomplishment at performing this grand deed. His self-satisfaction quickly faded however as the boulder very quickly rolled back down the hill to its starting-point at the mouth of the cave. Angst did not cry, though that seemed a not-implausible reaction given the circumstances. “How… disconcerting,” he said with a slight tremble in his voice.
Mentis noted his upset with a look approaching a mild concern. “Come on, Angst. You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you? The hill is shaped in such a way that the boulder rolls back down as long as you’re not pushing it.”
Angst stared at her in angry disbelief. “You mean to tell me that this hill is built so that the task cannot be completed. That’s unfair! That’s cheating!” His eyes filled up with the moisture of righteous anger.
Mentis stared back at him, stoic as ever. “The boulder isn’t unfair, and it isn’t fair. It simply is.”
Angst was growing tired of Mentis and her damned riddles. “Alright, then, how in the bloody hell am I supposed to pass this trial?”
Mentis crossed her arms and put a mischievous smile on her face. “Not in the way that you think. Look, Angst, I don’t approve of handholding, even among those I favor. I will give you a hint: You cannot hope to defeat the boulder. You therefore must simply accept it, and try to work around it.”
Angst searched through the corridors of his mind for a possible solution. Nitchy could certainly try his hand at moving the boulder, but he would face the same depressing results in the end. Then he had a sudden idea. “Nitchy? Could you possibly keep the stone wall from closing after I put the boulder up the hill?”
Nitchy eyed the stony gate for a few moments, possibly analyzing its strength. “For a long time? No, weakman, I cannot do that. I could possibly keep it open long enough for you to gain entry however.”
Angst thought about this for a moment. “Let’s try it. At the very worst, we will end this trial none the better for having tried it.”
Mentis rolled her eyes and lit up another cigarette.
Angst clambered down to the summit of the hill, took a moment to collect himself, and began pushing the boulder. “Urgh, Nitchy, be ready to hold that gate open as soon as I get this back up!”
“Very well, weakman, I will wait for you until then.”
Angst heaved the boulder up the hill with greater effort than before. It felt as though every tendon was about to snap this time. He finally got it back up the hill again, and Nitchy moved toward the entrance to hold the gate in place.
“I’m holding the gate, hurry weakman!”
Angst motioned to Mentis to finish her cigarette as he jumped over the arch to squeeze through the gate while the boulder moved downhill once again. The gate was bearing down on the troll’s shoulders halfway by the time Angst went through. “Mentis! Hurry!”
Nitchy was grunting heavily now. “Coming!”
Mentis somersaulted through the not-large aperture and gained entrance. She lit up another cigarette. “You’re not as dim as you look Angst.”
Angst wasn’t sure how to take compliments from Mentis, especially when they sounded so much like insults. “What exactly do you mean, Oh noble fairy?”
Mentis stared at him for a moment in disbelief. “What? You mean you completed the task and you don’t even know the moral of it?”
“I thought that’s why you’re here. Why should I bother about the moral when you can easily explain it for me? Isn’t that your purpose?”
Mentis took another puff, scowled, and rolled her eyes. “Jiminy Christmas, I was wrong. You are as dim as you look, but extremely lucky nonetheless. The point of the task is to show you that although life is full of toil, there are still friends who can help you shoulder the burden. There, happy now?”
Angst looked at her with a look of self-satisfaction. “Indeed I am. If the other tasks are as relatively simple as this, I should be in Alice’s loving arms in no time.”
“Slow your roll there, Lancelot. That was the easiest task. The two others will be much harder, I assure you.”
“However difficult they may be, I’m sure I can meet the challenge.” Thus they went on their way, groping in the darkness in the Cave of Crushed Dreams.
As they went their winding way through the descending darkness, Angst thought it might be worthwhile to ease the tension of the party by engaging Mentis in what common folk call ‘not-large talk.’
“So tell me, O enchanted one: What is going to occur when I reach the second trial, that of love?”
Mentis sighed and lit another cigarette. “The trial of Love is guarded by an ancient sorceress named Decepta. She told the world’s first lie, and brought the shadow world into being in the process. As punishment, she was cursed with the task of weighing the heart of many a wayward adventurer.”
Angst disliked magic in all its forms, not merely in practice but in principle. Magic by its very nature was quite erratic and irrational, and he had been taught over many years to equate rationality with goodness. He had won many intellectual battles over the years by arguing that a thing is only good if rationally understood, for a thing can only be good if it is perceived as good by a conscious subject. If a tree falls in the forest and I don’t hear it, Angst had argued, it doesn’t matter. “Very well, then. How and in what way will I be tested? Would you grace me with that information, prithee?”
Mentis gave that demure half-bow again. “Gladly.” She took another drag of her tar. “Decepta has a special spell she uses on you adventurous types, a very elaborate illusion.” She laughed a bit to herself, then cleared her throat and continued. “She will take the form of the one you love most, through a spell she calls ‘Affair of Despair.’ And,” she smiled what appeared to Angst to be a very grim smirk. She took another deep drag before beginning again. “Well, you wouldn’t believe the rest even if I told you. Oh look, a light at the end of the tunnel. We must have made progress over the course of our conversation. Ain’t exposition grand?” She patted Angst on the back in a sardonic gesture of friendship. “Well,” he sighed, “at the very least it’s a decent way to pass the time when nothing else is happening.”
He grabbed his sword hilt. Perhaps he could seize this Decepta and force her to yield before she even had a chance to conjure her malicious conjuration. As he came closer toward the light, however, it grew increasingly bright, eventually blinding even the outer limits of his field of vision. Nevertheless, he kept moving forward though the blinding light.
Suddenly he regained his vision and found himself standing in a not-large amphitheater, with colourful walls emblazoned with red and yellow geometric shapes behind him and an audience bench to the front of him. Seated in the audience bench were Nitchy and Mentis, the latter in the process of lighting another cigarette. “How did you two even get over there? You were two lengths behind me a moment ago.”
Mentis shrugged her shoulders while taking a puff. “We are precisely where we are meant to be, Angst. That’s life. Sometimes you move it, and sometimes it moves you. Try not to think about it overly much.”
Angst sighed, removing his hand from the sword hilt. Very well, he would resign himself to, well, whatever in bloody hell this is. He decided to look at the colourful set of red and yellow directly behind him. There was a small podium to the left and to the right two small sedan chairs with a wall separating them. Directly behind the podium was an obnoxious circular logo, with a red circle and yellow letters that somehow glowed, emblazoned with the words Affair of Despair.
Behind the podium was a man with a disturbingly cheery smile on his face that suggested perhaps he was bit too happy to be here. “Hello, everyone, and welcome to Affair of Despair, the most existentially depressing contest in all of Morosia. Our latest competitor is a swarthy man from the land of Morosia and valiant defender of the fourth wall of Resignation. Please give it up for, SIR ANGST!” Angst saw a strange sign that flashed the word “APPLAUSE” directly above his head.
Nitchy and Mentis waved their complimentary flags while very stoically exclaiming “yay”.
“Now, Angst, you will soon have conversation with someone who will take on the form of the one you love most. The trick of this game: You will not recognize this person with eyes or ears. This yonder wall will partition your faces, and your beloved’s voice will be warped beyond recognition through the power of magic.” He flashed that pearly white and eerily joyful smile again. “Let’s get started.”
Angst positioned himself to the chair on his far right beyond the aforementioned partitioning wall. He was not perturbed in the slightest degree. Grand illusions or no, he knew where his affections stood and to whom they were oriented. Though he obviously could not see her face or discern her voice, he knew without a doubt that it would be Alice on the other side of yonder partition. Speak of the maiden; he thought he had just heard her approach the other side of the wall and seat herself at the opposing chair.
“So,” the unrecognizable voice began with what sounded like a hint of nervousness, “what shall we talk about?”
Finally, a task that required his not-inconsiderable talent for verbal combat had come to him.
He began to expatiate upon various topics such as the proof of immortality within time apart from any considerations of an afterlife. He heard his companion giving sounds of mild assent here and there, and he thought for a moment about how eloquent he must have sounded at this time. He rather envied this doppelganger-Alice her ability to hear such clear and irrefutably rational truths coming from his not-unlearned mouth. He then began to talk about all the things he had accomplished (“valiantly defending the fourth wall,” “taming a savage troll,” “rolling a giant rock up a hill,” etc., etc…), hoping to impress her with romantic tales of his grand and heroic deeds. She gave somewhat milder sounds of assent this time, and seemed to have reached that level of intellectual overstimulation that the common folk call ‘boredom’. He decided to move on to his hopes, dreams and aspirations, which were many and far too involved to include in the telling of this story. At this turn he suddenly found that Alice had grown strangely enthusiastic at their conversation.
“I quite agree with you, that would be a thrilling and thoroughly heroic adventure to undertake. The quest you just mentioned, that is.”
Angst smiled at himself, Alice was proving to be quite eloquent at this moment.
A shrill bell suddenly sounded. The morbidly ecstatic host interrupted. “Sorry, lovebirds, but that bell means that we’ve reached the final round of our contest. Sir Angst, it is now up to you to decide: Who is this beloved with whom you’ve been having such a pleasant conversation?”
Angst did not show an ounce of hesitation in his response. It had to be his flaxen-haired beauty, with such a mind on her besides. It took quite a lot of intelligence to understand and admire rhetoric of Sir Angst’s caliber. He had not noticed that particular quality in her, previously, but he supposed that six hours is really a rather short time in which to truly know anyone. “It can only be one person in all of the realm. It is the golden-haired creature who stole my heart in Resignation. Erm, the town, that is. It can only be the pretty-eyed Alice.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Mentis stooped in what was either a fit of coughing or laughing. He felt a deep and growing sense of disdain arise in his soul. Could he have possibly been mistaken? Gods know it had never happened to him before, yet Angst could not in good conscience dismiss it as a philosophical possibility.
The host smiled that kind of delightedly sympathetic grin reserved for pitiable fools. “Ooo, so close! Remember, Angst, there is a certain bit of magic at work in these proceedings.”
“I don’t quite understand. The sorceress was meant to take the form of the one I love.”
The host put his index finger up from his cue cards in a gesture of pious correction. “Not quite, my noble friend. There’s a very important qualifier you’re missing when recollecting that statement. The sorceress will only take on the form of the one you love most. Sad to say, that person is not Alice. We’ll not leave you in suspense any longer though. Everybody give it up for, DECEPTA!”
Nitchy and Mentis waved their flags again with a flippant “yay”, although Mentis looked decidedly amused at this time. Decepta came out in her adopted appearance, and if Angst had had the capacity, his eyes would have quite rolled out of his head and onto the floor. The man he saw looked exactly like him, although he inexplicably wore a dark brown goatee upon his chin. He stood there for a moment in utter stupefaction, as though he had just become the butt of some supremely cosmic joke.
“You’re telling me that the one I love most is myself.”
The host gave him a condescending smile this time, and wagged his finger piously “Not quite. It’s really quite impossible to truly love yourself by yourself even with the strongest of magicks. You are rather in love with an image of yourself. After all, you don’t have the goatee of your ideal self. Which is really something you should consider, by the way.”
The moisture of righteous anger was soon found returning to the not-insensitive tear ducts of Sir Angst. He had tried to grow a goatee once, but despite 3 years of not shaving, he still had nothing to show for it except a bit of what the common folk call ‘peach fuzz’. He would, however, be thrice damned before he’d allow anyone to know that. “So,” he sighed, “the one I love most is a visage of myself with a beard, is that it? So I should just go home now, I suppose? I should just grow a beard, buy myself a mirror and take it to church and make an honest glass out of it. Is that what I’m supposed to do?”
“Not quite, my good sir. The magic of the Cave of Crushed Dreams is more reformative than it is punitive in nature. Don’t be too discouraged. A vast majority of our contestants begin out of self-love. That is the first step on a much longer journey. It’s not bad for a first step. But, as you can see, it makes for a rather disappointing destination. Love is something you may have in yourself, but it is not meant for yourself alone. Rather like a good story or a nice bottle of wine, it is a gift that one only truly enjoys by giving and sharing with others. We do, however, intend to send you on your way with a lovely parting gift, which might help you in your quest.”
He handed him a rather light box, which Angst promptly opened. The box was entirely empty, save for an elegant note handwritten at the bottom. Angst picked it up and unfolded it. It read: You have worth.
“It’s a box,” Angst demurely declared. “What, pray tell, do I do with it?”
The host gave a short, derisive chuckle and then explained. “Why, you’re supposed to put things in it of course!”
Angst felt very confused the more these explanations progressed. “Alright, fair enough. What sort of things?”
“Your things, if you have any. If not, ask someone else to share their things with you. Eventually, their things will become a part of your box, and you may be asked to share some of your things with someone else. That is the only stipulation of Dr. Arcus Pluvius’ charity box: that you share as much as you have enjoyed. In this way you will go on in life, bearing boxes for one another. Now, I’m afraid you must be going, you have one more trial to complete before you face the dreaded beast Anwe!”
He cheerily gestured toward the exit door, where Angst found Nitchy and Mentis waiting for him.
“Angst, don’t look so solemn,” Mentis suggested, her face now taking on an almost maternal look.
“I made a complete and utter fool of myself. Here I am, the most egotistical knight in the entire realm! I had a pleasant encounter with my beloved, who although a projection of me is somehow more handsome than I am! I failed the trial of Love. I, who should have been champion, could not get past mine own self to complete it. I should give up now and go home.” He bowed his head in defeat.
“If you’re worried about what I think you’re worried about, I kind of picked up on the fact that you were a tad enamored with yourself quite some time ago. But I think your heart’s in the right place, and at least now you see your error. Some knights never make it that far.” She patted him, awkwardly and lightly but kindly, on the head. “I think that there’s a part of you that could love Alice, perhaps sometimes even beyond yourself. Relax, our hearts have all been a little hollow at times.”
“Yes, indeed, weakman,” interjected Nitchy the Glorious. “Now, we had best get going, the trial of Mortality awaits.”
“Indeed, noble Nitchy, let us be off!” And so they went through the exit door to the amphitheater, and moved toward the third and final trial.
Sir Angst worked his way through the dark and winding corridor at a not-unhasty pace. Darkness gave way to darkness as he strode through the gloom. Finally he came upon a not-small gargoyle in the middle of a stony alcove, bearing a not-cheery expression upon his stony face. On the gargoyle’s chest was a stone medallion that bore the inscription: Ask me about the Trial of Mortality. Angst stirred his courage within himself, but was frustrated to discover himself not-unfrightened. Perhaps the courage would take a moment to warm itself up. He waited for a few indeterminate moments, yet still the courage was not present in him. He wished that he could be like one of the knights of legend, who faced peril with not an ounce of fear or fright.
Mentis lit another cigarette with a sardonic expression. “What are you waiting for Angst?” She exhaled in a puff of smoke.
“You know, on second thought, I’m not sure this was such a good idea. Perhaps we should head back home. I’ve still got some pepperoni and crackers, perhaps we could make a nice picnic to cap off our little adventure. What do you say?”
“Alright, if that’s what you want. I know Alice had her heart set on you, but I’m sure she’ll endure.” She flicked her cigarette in a gesture of intentional insincerity.
Damn her and her stupid riddles. Angst chided himself again for the lapse into internal monologue. These episodes are becoming more and more frequent. Stop it! “Well, you see, I did complete the first two trials. I don’t suppose that, well, I don’t suppose I could get, um, a prorate on the boon for this adventure?”
Mentis stared at him blankly as she took another drag off her tar. “I see. You want me to prorate my goddaughter? Are you serious?”
Angst was vexed by this fairy’s dense nature. He certainly did not give any indication in words or speech that he was jesting, and he did not have a reputation for making jokes in front of large and intimidating gargoyle statues. “Well, yes, I mean if that is possible. I understand there would be limitations, however I hardly think that weekend visitations are out of the quest---“
There was that annoying word again, that monosyllabic utterance that irked him so much. “You have nothing more to say about the matter? A simple no is your answer?”
“Very astute, Sir Percival. See, the way these quests work, it’s all or nothing. You either complete the quest and get the girl, or you abandon it and get nothing.”
Angst sighed; these silly trials seemed to have no end. Although he was still quite frightened, he decided to grit his teeth and endure it. Perhaps the legendary courage of the knights of old would come later. “Very well, then. Um, Mr. Gargoyle sir, if you please, would you tell me about the Trial of Mortality.”
Suddenly fiery orbs of greenish-yellow light appeared in the previously hollow eye sockets of the gargoyle. “The Trial of Mortality is one which everyone must undergo but which no one truly knows. Your life will be weighed and measured. If it is determined you are worthy, you will be released. If not, you will be detained. Are you ready to begin?”
“I—I’m not sure, could you give me a moment to think about it?”
The gargoyle looked confused. “Invalid response. We shall begin the trial then.” Suddenly everything went dark around Angst and his companions.
When Angst regained his composure, he found that he was still in darkness, but was now enclosed inside a pinewood box. Upon further examination, Angst found that it was not unlike a coffin. He heard the faint sound of an organ playing in the background, mingled with murmurs and the smell of candles burning. Am I attending my own funeral? Angst wished to cry out in annoyance, but found that no sound was coming out of his mouth. Wonderful. It seems now that I am only capable of expressing myself in terms of internal monologue.
The crowd suddenly hushed as the minister began to say a few words. “Sir Angst of Morosia was a, truth be told, quite mediocre man of average to meager accomplishments. All in all, he will probably be missed for a short time, after which it will be as if he had never existed at all.” This man is a terrible preacher, he’s not saying anything nice about me at all. “He left behind no loved ones, and a small circle of friends who seemed to regard him with a moderate amount of affection. In summary, he was an unremarkable person who did many unremarkable things in an unremarkable way. Honestly, I don’t even really see the point of a funeral, since it is highly unlikely that any of us will truly mourn his passing.” Damn him! Just because my deeds were unremarkable in the general scheme of things doesn’t mean they were unimportant. They were, after all, tremendously important to me personally.
“We will now take a moment to hear testimony from friends of the deceased.”
He heard the sound of someone clearing their throat, and discerned that it was Mentis. “I didn’t know Angst for very long, and honestly would’ve known him for less than that if I had had anything to do with it. He seemed like an alright guy, it’s too bad that he’s dead.” I’m not dead! He would’ve screamed it, had not the magic of vokhalkhords been temporarily suspended from his throat.
Next was Nitchy. “Weakman made for an interesting companion. Not great, but interesting. I will be claiming his pepperoni and crackers, since it is unlikely he will ever have need of them again. Thank you.” Damn it Nitchy, those are my pepperoni and crackers! I only agreed to share them with you, you’re not supposed to take them all.
Finally, he heard the voice of Alice. “The noble Sir Angst was a nice enough man, I suppose, though a bit on the waifish side for my taste. I would say more, but I’m afraid I must be off to get my hair trimmed. Goodbye Angst, sorry you’re dead, that’s a really terrible thing to happen to anyone.” No, this can’t be, this mustn’t be. I can’t die yet, I haven’t even truly lived.
Soon enough he was lowered into a small mound in the earth and buried. The burial was formal enough, yet there was a bit too much not-large talk for Angst’s taste. Soon enough, there was silence. The silence of the dead-dead-dead. Great, now even my internal monologue has an echo-echo-echo. Creepy-creepy-creepy. He tried to scratch at the interior of the coffin, but his perfectly-manicured nails did not make so much as a rip in its fabric. Damn me and my excellent hygiene-hygiene-hygiene! There must be some kind of way out of here-here-here. He fumbled around the coffin, looking for a loose board or some implement which could help him escape. Suddenly he found a spoon, to which a note was attached in illuminated script. Do you want out? Then dig yourself out, it read. Next to it was a shield on which was inscribed the words Memento Mori. At least he gained the boon of a shield that reminded him of his mortality, a reminder he would find unnecessary if he was unable to escape. Angst gave off a soundless sigh. Not many people are given the task of digging themselves out of their own graves, and probably fewer still were given a spoon with which to do so. Nevertheless, with a few stout thrusts of the spoon he was able to break through the wooden vessel, at which point a handful of dust and dirt fell directly into the confused Sir Angst’s mouth. He was not surprised to find that dirt tastes precisely how one would expect, though somehow he did not feel edified to have this particular theory confirmed. He began digging through the soil, which fortunately was still soft. He measured his life out with a coffee spoon. One hour gave itself into the next, and he kept digging and digging until he finally saw the first glimmer of light. He thought that he heard carnival music outside. Finally he had dug a big enough hole to pop his head out to the surface.
“What the bloody hell---” I can speak again. Yay! Damn it, stop with the internal monologue already! It was indeed a small carnival built into the Cave, complete with ferris wheel and funnel cake stand. He looked at the sign directly to the right of him, it read: See the Astounding Living Dead Man! Nitchy and Mentis were directly ahead, eating funnel cakes.
“Angst, you made it!” Mentis exclaimed.
“Where the hell am I?”
“The Carnival of Temporal Meaning.”
At this Angst stood himself up and threw the spoon to the ground in outrage. “I’ve been digging myself out of death with a spoon, and you tell me I’m at a carnival!”
“Yup, would you like the moral lesson now?”
Angst could feel more moisture of righteous indignation forming at his tear ducts. “Sure, why the hell not?”
“Life is full of striving, that’s what mortality is all about. Our lives are limited, and so occasionally we have to dig our way through and hope that it makes a lasting impression on those we love and those who love us.”
“This seems an awfully dreary lesson. Is there anything more to it, you know, beyond the striving and meaning and loved ones?” Mentis smiled mischievously at this. “There’s funnel cakes, would you like one?”
Angst didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry at this, so he decided to let forth a sort of chuckle-sob. “Give me a bloody funnel cake, and let’s go kill that dragon!” And so they ventured forth to slay the mighty dragon Anwe the Apatheficent.
As they approached the dragon’s lair, they saw a plaque before the entrance, it read:
Here lies Anwe the Apatheficent, the most bored dragon in all of Morosia. Enjoy slaying the dragon, but please do not use any flash photography while in the dragon’s lair (it ruins the mystique). If you wish to commemorate your experience, postcards and other memorabilia are available in the lobby. Have fun!
“I will accompany you for this journey, weakman. I love debating these pacifist simpletons, and mayhaps I might be able to distract him and leave him exposed.”
“Perhaps your mayhaps is correct, noble Nitchy. Very well, you shall come with me. What about you, Mentis? Mayhaps there is a moral message that you can explain to me.”
Mentis lit another cigarette and exhaled. “Think I’ll watch on the sidelines, you should have the hero’s glory and all that. Good luck slaying the dragon.”
As they walked towards the entrance Nitchy turned back and shouted: “Think it’ll work?”
Mentis responded by mouthing the words “It would take a miracle.”
The dragon was reclined on what appeared to be a rather not-small beanbag chair, and was pressing buttons on some brick-like object in front of some sort of enchanted screen which was displaying images of a sort. Angst took a moment to inspect this not-particularly-engaged creature. His scales were a kind of grayish shade, it looked like a mixture of dried out barley and tobacco ash. His eyes, which were violet, were glazed over such that the not-unperceptive Sir Angst concluded that he hadn’t slept for days. Otherwise, the dragon appeared very much as a stereotypical creature in the final stages of morbid obesity.
He examined the cave and quickly concluded that Anwe was very much a bachelor dragon. Around the beast and his enchanted screen were scattered various plates encrusted with food or a food-like substance as well as can after can of Draconis Cola (). In the corner of the cave were stacked a pile of not-round boxes that stretched from floor to ceiling, upon which were inscribed the words .
Angst noticed the not-entirely conscious dragon looking at him with a look of morose curiosity, or perhaps it was curious morosity, he couldn’t quite discern which.
“Are you the pizza guy?” the dragon inquired, with a barely interested tone.
“No, um,” Angst replied with a not-calm stutter. “You see, I’m Sir Angst of Morosia, former Steward for the Department of Scholarly Warfare and valiant defender of the fourth wall.”
The not-impressed dragon glared at him blankly. “Yeah. So what?” He replied.
Angst was growing quite tired of having to explain himself to every Thomas, Richard and Harold that he encountered on this damned quest. “Well, you see, this might seem a bit awkward and/or a bad time, but” Angst found himself struggling with words. He honestly did not expect it to be so difficult to announce his intention to slay the flying lizard, but on the other hand he hadn’t anticipated the medium taking the form of a conversation.
“What are you getting at?” the dragon pressed on with his gaze, not-unsuspiciously. “Are you doing a petition? Because I’m not interested in signing anything. Leave me a pamphlet and I’ll think about it. You can go away now.” The dragon turned its eyes from Angst to the screen in a not-undismissive gesture.
Nitchy clapped his hand on the nonplussed Sir Angst’s shoulder. “He has come to slay thee, you filthy pacifist!” He shouted. The dragon did not so much as turn his face from the screen. “Oh, yeah? Well, now’s not a good time. I’ve almost leveled up and I’m not at a good stopping place. Sooosorry to disappoint, but I’m going to have to decline. As for my beliefs on war and violence, that’s just your opinion dude. I have my reasons for my positions on the issues, same as you.”
NItchy looked very not-pleased by this reaction. “Oh I see, because there have to be some very compelling ‘reasons’ for why the most majestic beasts on earth became a bunch of gutless cowards with no regard for their own strength!”
At this point the dragon stood upright, revealing a fleshy torso beneath his white t-shaped upper tunic. “That’s the sort of answer I’d expect from a troll. You guys are a bunch of warmongering morons who are blind to your manipulation by the military-industrial complex.” At this point a shield from out of the darkness flew towards the beast and dinged the serpent upon the head, having seemingly no effect and subsequently flying off into the darkness. “Ow! I’m a dragon you jerk. My armor’s too thick for even the sharpest of weapons. Not that I’m surprised, alphas like you always resort to violence when challenged about your narrow-minded worldview.”
At this point Mentis stepped into the circle of light from the screen and lit up another cigarette, exhaling with gusto. “Oh right, and you dragons are freethinkers who see things clearly as they are. Admit it,” she took another long and satisfying drag from her smoke, “you’re as deluded as your pusillanimous accusations. Just another soft-bellied coward rationalizing your soft belly.”
The dragon stretched himself in a pose of righteous indignation, revealing yet more pink flesh beneath his tunic. “You both are so ignorant I’m surprised you even got here. I could cite study after study that supports my positions on passive resistance, but I’ll break it down in terms even your simple minds can understand. Consider Kensington’s Conundrum, which clearly states that if us dragons were to continue their warmongering ways they would eventually reach a z-OW!” The impact of that same shield against his chest prompted the dragon’s outcry, with no damage done again and the same ricochet into the inky blackness of the cave. The dragon sent his protest into the void. “DUDE! I just bought this shirt a few years ago, you ripped it! Whatever though, karma will even the score one of these days. Anyway, I’m not surprised you think I’m delusional. The light of truth is always blinding to those who live in the cave of ignorance. You would have us chained to that cave, worshipping the shadows.”
Mentis took another strong and hearty puff. “You can pretty it up with whatever flowery words you like, but it all comes down to the same thing. You have no soul down there, deep down in your guts where it counts.”
“The fairy is right, you lavender-tongued worm!” Nitchy interjected. “You have no guts. I’ll bet if someone were to pierce your bowels with a sharp object such as a shield, they would find nothing inside save more soft pink flesh.” Nitchy raised his voice on this last sentence and projected, as if to emphasize his point.
At this stage the dragon rolled his eyes and was now standing fully upright in a fury. “Right. Because passive resistance is always going to seem like weakness to you people. In reality, us dragons are far stronger than your sort can ever hope to be. We don’t have to swing swords to know we’re right, and we reinforce our arguments rather than r-AAAAHRGGHHH!!!” The dragon was screaming in pain, and both Mentis and Nitchy looked forward to find Sir Angst’s shield lodged in the belly of a pacifist.
The dragon groaned for an indefinite moment and then expired. Mentis twirled around to Angst and gave him a godmotherly kiss on the cheek. “Angst, you clever idiot!” She exclaimed. “Whatever possessed you to do that?”
The not-ignorant Sir Angst replied with a certain degree of not-modesty: “I took an introductory course on dragonology in my years as a Junior Steward, and one of the first principles is that pink scales reveal the creature’s weak spot.” Angst smiled broadly, and Mentis and Nitchy exchanged a knowing and sardonic glance.
Nitchy looked upon him with a look approaching pride. “A worthy kill, weakman. Now Mentis, if you wouldn’t mind reviving the creature so we can get out of here.”
Angst was beginning to feel nonplussed again, a not-unsurprising sensation of not-not-unpleasant proportions at this particular moment. “Wait, so you’re going to revive him? Then what in the bloody hell did I kill him for?”
Mentis gave him an affectionate pat on the head. “To prove your worth, Angst. And you have. That was a good move, and you’re occasionally a clever man. Dense sometimes, but clever at others.” She moved over to the creature, laying her hands upon its carcass and whispering arcane words in a strange accent. “There’s one difference, though,” she gave Angst a wink. “We’re stealing this one. You wouldn’t mind giving us a lift since I resurrected you and all, right?”
Anwe the Apatheficent stared at her blankly. “Sure. Why not? It’s not like I have anything better to do.” “Very well,” Mentis replied. “Are you ready Angst?” Angst gave a not-unhappy sigh and then spoke. “Very good, let’s go.” They rode off into the sunset, not realizing that they had inadvertently begun the second War of the Dragons.