Or: "Whatever happened to those old LotGD masters, anyway?"1)
Yes, you might say it all started with Guth.
Or if you want to get technical, who really kicked it off was the Watcher, warning that monsters were getting ready to besiege and overrun the towns.
Still, the first2) that anyone on the Island heard about it was when jovial old Guth started saying to successful fifth-level contestants, "I'll be off to join up with the Watcher soon, you know. Can't hold an old warhorse back. Ha! Haha! So if I don't see you again - Chin up! Cheerio! Carry on!"
It wasn't just talk, either. He did leave. We can suppose he was as good as his word and started fighting monsters with the Watcher, though nobody has seen him since. Candidates for fifth level were faced with a new master: Tiffny Figg, a gum-chewing Squat with gold hoop earrings, heavy mascara and a switchblade, who swore and spat and was cheekily triumphant when she beat them.
As you can imagine, the changeover caused quite a stir in the dojo. The masters had all been there - together - for as long as anyone could remember. Now one of them had been.. replaced? Naturally they couldn't resist gossiping about it just a little with successful contestants.
Most of them were just mildly interested - but Gadriel the snooty Elven Ranger3), now.. he was completely outraged. He could not abide the vulgar Tiffny Figg - much to the sly amusement of the dwarf Adwares. Gadriel called her 'unacceptable' and seemed to think that all he had to do was explain this obvious fact to Joe.
The simple plan did not quite work out for him the way he expected..
The first part of the conversation took place inside and is not on record, but we do know that in AceHigh, Gadriel stormed out of the dojo pronouncing with icy clarity, "I do not have to take this. Bluspring would never have allowed that.. that creature to be a Master."
Joe lounged against the door frame. "My dojo. What I say goes. You don't like it?" He shrugged. "Too bad. Deal."
Gadriel rounded on him. "I will not deal, as you call it. You don't seem to have grasped how serious this is. Either that Squat goes, or I go!" He gave a sharp nod, triumphant. That would give Joe pause!
Unfortunately for him, it did not. Joe only said equably, "Suits me. When you get settled somewhere else let me know, I'll send your stuff along. Anything you want to take right now?"
The elf's jaw dropped. "You - but -"
Joe eyed him, waiting.
Gadriel stiffened his spine. The Jokers on the wall had noticed the little scene by the Dojo - one was snickering and nudging her neighbour. Intolerable! The fey are not to be mocked. He spat out, "Ingrate! You were nobody when I joined the Dojo. Nobody and nothing! You needed me. But I will return - when you are dead. Mortal." He stalked off.
Joe grinned, then turned back inside and said, "Effie, you're hired."
Effie, as it turned out, was a Mutant with eight long arms, wielding Evil Ventriloquist Dummies. Eight of them! She did not talk, ever. But the Dummies did.
Not long thereafter, Sessine was nursing an ale in the Prancing Spiderkitty, idly dropping occasional tokens into the Clatter machine, when he noticed a familiar figure hunched in the corner. Unelith!4) How odd. He'd never seen Unelith in the PSK before. He took his ale over to the other table. "Mind some company?"
Unelith glanced up, shrugged. Taking that for permission, Sessine slid into the seat opposite. He sat for a while in silence, taking an occasional sip from his drink. At last he said, "Problems at the Dojo?"
With a shudder, Unelith muttered, "You've seen them. You know."
Sessine nodded. "Ah." He did. "Effie." Eight of them, in her gangly arms.
"Bad enough to have to fight them," said Unelith. "You don't have to hear what they're thinking."
Sessine thought about that. Then.. tried very hard not to think about it. "What are you going to do?"
"What can I do? I'm a wreck. I can't function this way. I've told Joe I'm leaving."
"Where will you go?"
"Don't know. The broth joker showed me an empty hut in the mountains. Used to belong to Foilwench, back when. I might go live there for a while."
Sessine laid a sympathetic hand on Unelith's shoulder. "Don't be a stranger. We've known each other too long. You'll let me know if you need anything?"
Unelith looked up, then smiled a little. "Thanks. For listening."
"Do you know who Joe's going to get to take your place?"
Unelith shrugged. "He said something about another mutant. It should be all right." A wry laugh. "Can't be worse than this one."
Sessine assessed the ex-Master. "C'mon. Let's go take a look at that hut. I'll help you lay in some supplies." He kept talking as they went out. "And the roof may need patching. I'll pick up my tools.."
That "other mutant" proved to be Amir, a poet. A mutant poet. Anyone who has collected items for the Museum knows what that means.5) Well, with such changes afoot, of course news reporters started nosing about. A lucky young reporter from INN managed to catch up with Adwares in the Raven Inn.
Now, the Raven Inn is, by tradition, a permanent floating bar brawl. Adwares was sitting in a far corner, battle axe leant against the wall beside him, ignoring the noise, the flying furniture and the hecklers in the rafters, in favour of the drink in front of him. By the way he was glaring at the mug, he was there for some serious drinking. He downed the contents in one gulp, then called, "Barkeep! brin' me anither swally!"
"Yesh shir. Comin' right up, shir!" The toothless bartender supplied him with a fresh mug.
Just then a young woman entered the inn, her eyes roving quickly to take in the scene. Darn. Nothing but the perennial brawl - wait! Who was that in the corner? She dodged a flying table leg with practiced ease and slid into the seat opposite. "Excuse me.. if I could just have a word with you? I've been wanting to meet you for the longest time."
Adwares looked up with a scowl. "I've nae bin wantin' tae meit ye, lassie. Whit dae ye want av me?"
"Oh, my name is Junebug. I'm a reporter for INN, and of course I know who you are, everyone knows Adwares, the famous master! I was hoping you'd give me an exclusive interview?" Junebug looked modestly down, then up with a little smile. "It would be an enormous favor. A personality profile, so people could understand you better than just seeing you in the dojo." She was an attractive young woman, especially when pleading. "Oh, do say you'll do it! It'll be wonderful. Think of how it'll teach the Rookies how to respect you!"
Adwares harrumphed! Hard to resist those big blue eyes. "Weel, mebbe a cuttie gab, 'en."
Junebug bounced in delight. "Excellent! Let's get started right away. Now then, can you tell me how you came to join the dojo.." Question after question, she hung on his every word. It is hard to resist such fascinated attention, and he did not. His answers, at first curt, grew longer and more detailed. By the time she worked around to the recent events at the dojo, he was not guarding his tongue at all. "And so.. you say with the onslaught of monsters, Guth decided to go off into the Jungle to fight?"
"Och och aye, ye ken he was aye borin' fowk wi' his yarnin' abit th' raf, whativer 'at was. A aye thooght he was aw gab, ne'er dreamt he'd dae it." Reluctantly.. "A brae chiel."
"And then Gadriel left?"
Adwares guffawed loudly. "Ye coods say 'at. Wi' a goad up his crease. He cooldnae stain 'at Midgit hen. Heem an' his fancy blaither abit 'immortal elf'." Adwares leaned forward and said low, "Dae ye ken whit she did tae heem!" He whispered in her ear, and her eyes widened.
"Mercy! She surely never did that, did she? In the dojo?"
Adwares nodded, pleased with the impression he was making. "An' she didne stap thaur. Efter 'at, she.." He whispered again, causing her jaw to drop.
Junebug was practically cooing. She could see the headline! SCANDAL IN DOJO. You've heard the official story - Now read the TRUTH! Why did Gadriel really leave?
She turned to gaze at him adoringly. "Come on! Let's go somewhere more private where you can tell me the rest of it!" He allowed himself to be dragged out. Judging by the anticipatory look on his face, he maybe had a.. mistaken idea about what was going to happen next. He barely remembered to snatch up his battle axe on the way out.
The old bartender shuffled forward. "Shay, hol' on, what about the bill?"
She winked. "Put it on my tab. Expenses."
.. .. ..
Raised voices had been heard from the dojo rather often lately. The next morning they were louder. Quite a bit louder.
To be exact, one of them was much, much louder: Joe's bellow was unmistakeable. "ADWARES YOU BLEEDIN' IDIOT! WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?"
The reply was mumbled but might have included the words, "pryin' bludy hen."
Joe didn't stop yelling. "Anyone with an OUNCE OF SENSE would know not to blab to INN. Look at this! DOJO FEUD - SQUAT HARASSES ELF! And downhill from there. Lies and more lies! I'll not have filthy backstabbers in my dojo. I've just one thing to say to you - YOU'RE FIRED!"
A low, rumbled reply.
"No. Get out. GET THE HELL OUT. And don't show your face around here ever again!"
A very crestfallen Adwares emerged slowly from the dojo, dragging his battleaxe behind him. He crossed the square in a deep cloud of gloom. Highly unapproachable.
He was, nonetheless, approached. Junebug inquired brightly, "Master Adwares, for our readers and the viewers at home - tell us, now how does this make you feel?"
Adwares growled, "Awa' wi' ye, wumman. Huvnae ye dain enaw?"
Impervious to his scowls, she pressed on with her earnest inquiries. "Are you angry at being fired for telling the truth?"
He swung his battleaxe half-heartedly in her direction, not trying to connect.
She danced just out of reach. "Some people are saying the dojo's former masters should get together and teach the newcomers a lesson. What would you have to say to that?"
Adwares trudged across the square to the gate snarling, "Haud yer weesht."
She followed. "But the public has a right to know.." Their voices faded into the distance.
Very shortly thereafter, contestants wishing to attain level seven encountered a delicate and philosophical robot with a tazer, named ADDIE.
Somewhat later, in Pleasantville, Sessine amused himself with mending a maliciously broken mirror as a puzzle, shard by shard, on a worktable of air.
Musical Alisen Small watched the proceedings, intrigued by the oddity that the mended fragments fitted smoothly together with no visible cracks, and seemed to be reflecting.. something else. She peered at it curiously, hands in her shorts pockets and hedgehog on her shoulder, edging around to give the whole thing a closer look. Sessine slid the last triangular piece into place - "Got it!" - and showed it triumphantly to Alisen.
"Do you know these people?"
The mirror was showing an interior with.. six, no, seven people around a table. She leaned forward, looking closer. "I.. Yes." She stepped forward a step, peering as she mouthed names to herself. She had only met them once each. Reaching out to touch the mirror, she hesitated, and then simply tapped the air in front of it as she named them each aloud. "Mireraband. Fie. Glynyc."
She glanced up at Sessine, then continued. "Ceiloth. Dwiredan. Celith. Adoawyr." She looked up again. "The dojo masters?" She frowned, and Dinah the hedgehog squeaked.
There seemed to be a heated discussion under way. Glynyc looked worried. Mireraband, of all people, was pounding the table. Adoawyr was frowning while he cleaned his fingernails with a penknife.6)
Fie was shaking his head. Whatever had been proposed, he disagreed with it vehemently. As he replied, Celith grimaced. Then Dwiredan stood up and slammed both hands on the table.
Dwiredan said.. something.7) Around the table, the masters looked at each other. Slowly, there were small nods of agreement.
Sessine smiled, and flicked the mirror with his fingernail. It popped like a soap bubble, leaving behind a faint aroma of burnt sugar. He winked at Alisen. "Changes coming, I think."
Alisen Small simply watched, eyes wide. A hand lifted to press black-tipped fingers against her mouth. Dinah snuffled curiously at her arm, and went unnoticed. She lifted her gaze to Sessine's. "What.. what was that?" Her voice wavered slightly, and she cleared her throat.
Sessine grinned. "I expect we'll all find out soon." With an innocent twinkle, he added, "A pleasure to meet you. Right now.. I believe there's some construction work that's calling my name." He bowed, and strode jauntily off.
Alisen nodded, a frown creasing her brow. "I suppose so," she muttered to herself quietly. She petted Dinah lightly, still looking thoughtful. Somehow she felt like she ought to be thanking Sessine. She continued to stand there, running her fingers gently over the hedgehog for a long moment before she shook her head. "Not like there's anything we can do, right, Dinah?" She started towards the gates again, listening to Dinah chitter back at her, and still a little lost in thought.
One result of that mirror-seen meeting was soon very clear. All of the Masters who had been around that table were gone.
In their places.. Tom Carney, a scarred human street fighter with a sock full of marbles. Felicia, a slow but inexorable Zombie. Kouska, a Kittymorph with claws and a suggestive smile. Emma Blackman, a cool-headed human with a riot hammer. Clairvius, another Zombie wielding a severed leg. Devvo, a Squat who was viciously effective with his Budget Horse's Tail. And Reventlov, a robot with a lightning gun who spoke only in binary.
Noetha had always been one to say things like, "The Master takes action by letting things take their course. He has nothing, thus has nothing to lose."
It was hardly surprising, really, that one day he quietly chose to be not there.
His replacement? Vitoleone, a tough old tom Kittymorph with astounding ways of using knitting needles.
Two familiar figures emerged from the Dojo. One said urgently, "We need to talk. Away from the dojo! C'mon, Yoresh, don't tell me you haven't seen the writing on the wall."
Above them on the wall, two of the guard Jokers turned and grinned at each other. One of them nodded, the other winked, and they both leaned their elbows on the railing, frankly eavesdropping.
Yoresh squinted at the much-reinforced wall beside him, oblivious to the Jokers above. "Where? Ah.. the wall? Is that what you're all upset about, some graffiti?"
Gerrard rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath. He tried again. "They've all gone, all of them but us. We two, we are the last of the old guard." With what seemed to be a well-worn sense of injury, he added, "They didn't say a word to me, the buggers. Not one of 'em. And now Noetha. We have to do something!"
"Noetha?" Yoresh made to pat the other man reassuringly on the arm. Gerrard stepped back nimbly, and Yoresh sighed. Nobody ever seemed to want him to touch them. He put the reassurance into his voice instead. "Don't worry so much, Gerrard. Noetha has always done his job quite satisfactorily. I'm sure he'll continue to do so."
Leaning against the wall - at a safe distance - Gerrard laughed. "You mean to say you haven't even noticed? You're something else, Yoresh. Even farther out of the loop than me." He tried again, his voice bitter. "Noetha is gone. G-O-N-E, gone. He was still here, and still here.. and now he is not here. GONE. Without a word. GONE, do you get me?"
Yoresh blinked. "Who's teaching his class, then, Celith?"
"Celith's gone, too. That's what I'm telling you, Yoresh. They're all gone. We're the last. There's a whole new crowd. Didn't you notice a damn thing?"
Yoresh tried to grasp the concept. "Gone." He frowned and turned it over in his mind. "If they're gone, where did they go?"
Gerrard threw his hands up in exasperation. "What have I been saying? They didn't tell me. I don't know where they went because they DIDN'T BLOODY TELL ME."
"We can tell you," came a pleasant female voice from above. The two looked up, startled. "You'll be wanting to join them, I suppose."
She had sandy hair, freckles, an air of competence. Her service revolver was clean and well-oiled - and aimed straight at them.
"W-whaat?" Gerrard managed. Yoresh just gaped at the gun.
"You heard me," she said, smiling. "You'll need a place to stay, and they've worked hard fixing it up. They must have the hut quite liveable by now."
"Who are you?" Gerrard was assessing angles, timing. No, there was no way he could get an arrow off fast enough, even if he had his bow in his hands instead of slung on his back.
"Why, I do apologize," she grinned. "I should have introduced myself. I'm Anne, and this here," she angled her head to the other Joker, "this is Will."
Will was tall, lanky, with curly black hair. "Yes," he said, flipping a card in the air and catching it. "We're your replacements."
Two pairs of Joker eyes glinted dangerously green. Gerrard opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again. Yoresh frowned down at his hands. A Death Touch is not a lot of use in such a situation.
Anne tilted her head to one side with a sparkle of mischief. "What.. cat got your tongue?" Then she added quickly, "No, Will. Don't get ideas." Gerrard swallowed hard. He preferred his tongue to remain exactly where it was, please. In his mouth seemed like a very good place for it. Deep breath.
"Where.. where did you say the others went?" he asked.
"Oh, I believe I didn't say. How forgetful of me." Anne smiled merrily, quite unrepentant. "Foilwench's old hut in the foothills, east and a bit north of here."
"But," said Will, "wherever are our manners, Anne? That's a weary long trudge. Let's save them the walk, shall we?"
"Oh yes, let's!" she replied. "I've been wanting to try that out. Ready?"
She pulled the trigger.
At the same moment, he flipped a card in the air.
A green glow enveloped the two - former - masters.
When it faded, they were nowhere to be seen.
After a pause, Will asked, "Do you think it worked?"
She shrugged. "Perhaps." Will jumped lightly down from the wall. She holstered her revolver and walked down the stairs.
Arm in arm, they strolled into the Dojo.