Andy Dharma carried the body of the Super Wizard From Space to the opposite side of the planet. A long journey through stark alien landscapes, enduring strangling desert heats and continental sandstorms, crossing over colossal red mountain ranges and crossing through yawning abyssal canyons. An undeterred march that didn't end until he crossed over to the dark side of the nameless world.
In the middle of a vast salt flat, he looked up to the murky heavens. He studied the few weak constellations he could make out and decided that he'd gone far enough. With this planet's sluggish rotation, the night here would last for weeks. With a grateful sigh, he dumped his burden on the soft ground.
From within the loose sleeves of his monastic robes, he brought out slivers of dried wood, a small silver kettle, a poach of cured leaves, and a small iron gong. He sat on the ground cross-legged, lit a small fire, and began making some tea. When the water boiled and the air filled with a pleasing acerbic aroma, he picked up the gong and played a single ringing note. Then he waited.
It wasn't long until his allies arrived. They appeared as points of light in the sky, growing in size as they approached the surface. They tore through the atmosphere like a pair of radiant comets, and landed with a pair of thunderous impacts. Andy shielded his eyes as they approached, each of them glowing with incandescent fusion.
"Sirs, please!' he called out in frustration. "There's no need to blind me."
The two shapes looked over each other, and with a reluctant nod, they both drew their incredible power within themselves. The white and furious heat diminished in implosive waves, dragging away with it what meek starlight remained in the sky. Eventually, the vague forms solidified into two thin humanoids wearing the blue-gold uniforms of the super-wizards race.
Andy sighed a relief and did his best to recompose himself. "Ah, much better. Thank you Scrivener, thank you Stringer."
The Stringer super-wizard had wide eyes and a wider mouth, making for an expression both intense and disturbing. "Don't confuse your relief with weakness on our part, monk. You only know us by popular titles, not by our secret names. We could snuff you out in an instant. Either of us could. Certainly."
Andy frowned and said nothing.
The Scrivener super-wizard put a hand on his companion's shoulder. He had a broad hawkish nose that he constantly looked down. "Now, now. No need to be antagonistic. Andy's our ally. Nothing to gained by infighting."
"I am an ally under duress." Andy noted.
"We're all under duress, Andy," the Scrivener said. "These are dark times. A dark age. Surely, you understand the situation."
"Then please, sit, and have tea with me. Let us talk of our situation in more detail."
The Stringer stamped a foot hard into the campfire. The kettle toppled off, spilling its contents onto the cold ground. The flames lurched, as if doused in alcohol, then were pulled up into the wizard's boot. Flickering and flailing and, finally, stolen away. "No," the Stringer said, "There isn't the time. Genovefa Buzz is already on her way. Here."
"'Nought done in a hurry is thorough,'" Andy chided, "'and an eye for small gain means big things undone.'" He pointed to the body in the shadows. "You observed the entire encounter, so you know I've done as instructed. There. There is your super-champion."
The Scrivener went and knelt over the body. He cautiously rolled it onto its back and placed a hand on the chest. "There's some fusion fire still within him…" he jerked his hand away quickly, "…poisoned."
"Careful! We're not protected against our sabotage anymore than he was. We must rely on our internal reserves."
"I'll keep my distance." He did a hurried examination, then stood up and backed away. "I detect no life signals. Any power remaining is simply leakage. It'll dissipate shortly." He turned to Andy. "I also don't see the Crown."
"Nor will you," Andy said. "I've taken it."
The Stringer tightened his hands into burning fists. "The Crown is ours! It belongs to the Super Wizards From Space. You're… you're trying to steal from us!"
Andy stepped back, instinctively adopting a defensive position: back foot firmly planted, hand flat and forward like a blade, body held sideways to present as thin a target as possible. He'd chosen and studied this spot for maximum advantage. He'd watched his 'guests' for tells and weaknesses. "Careful, Stringer. If you wish to fight, be sure you've first counted the cost. You've watched me strike down your super-champion, the best of you… do you think you'll prove any more of a challenge?"
The Stringer hesitated. He looked at the body in the shadow. He looked back to the still readiness of the monk.
"No. Enough. Tsk. We haven't the time for this," The Scrivener marched between the two. "You made a deal, Andy. You're to hand over the Crown to us…"
"In return for my brother."
"Will he keep his word, though?" the Stringer snarled. "If we hand over the other Dharma, we lose our leverage. How do we know he'll not just wear the Crown himself?"
Andy shook his head. "I've been subjugated to the Tournament once before. I'll not make the same mistake twice. As soon as you've returned Brody Dharma, I will give you the Crown. I swear this to you on the spirits of my honourable ancestors."
The two wizards looked at each other. There was a pregnant second where Andy worried they'd unleash their fire upon him. He could see a cutthroat flicker in their eyes. Maybe he'd finally find out if he could defeat a super-wizard in a fair fight… but eventually, they came to a silent agreement, turned away from him, and raised their hands to the empty sky.
A black circle grew out of the night. It didn't come from a distance or a direction. It didn't have depth nor weight. The two wizards motioned at the circle, guiding it down between them. When it touched the dry mud, it peeled apart in long disintegrating spirals, and Brody Dharma fell out of his prison.
"What's happened to him?" exclaimed Andy. His twin brother looked old. Decades older. Mottled brown skin hung wrinkled and loose on his body. Milky eyes were deeply recessed, barely catching any of the evening light. Wisps of grey hair scattered across his head. He looked frail. He looked ancient.
"We warned you. When we first approached you," the Schrivener said with indifference. "Time moves differently within a black-hole cell. You should've worked… quicker."
The Stringer grinned, showing teeth.
Andy fell to his knees and took his brother's hands. "Brody. Can you hear me? Do you recognize me?"
"Andy? Is that you? Oh no. What've you done, brother?"
"I've done as I've always done. Wherever I go, I go with my heart."
"No no no. You do not understand. You cannot understand. How could you, with so much… everything out here? Blinding, deafening, an overload of the senses and the spirit. Not like me. Not like my pitch cell. A lifetime expended in an emptiness so absolute it defied definition. But even so… no lake is so still that it has no wave, no circle so perfect that it doesn't blur. From within that perfect darkness, I watched the last thousand years come crashing toward our present with… an intense momentum. And I could see our future, a feverish animal stalking us backwards through time. Our every action, our every decision, our every word, they only diminishes what few moments we have left. The End is coming. The End is inevitable."
Andy wept at his brother's ramblings. He should not have let him go, should never have let him go alone. "Quiet, now. Your mind will regain its center, if you let it rest." With his campfire smothered, he instead laid Brody down beside the still-warm body of the super-wizard champion. "Here. The last dregs of his fusion heat will help you, at least until I've rebuilt a fire."
The Stringer barked, "Okay! Enough, monk! We've returned the old lizard. Now give us our Crown."
Andy reached into the loose sleeve of his robes and pulled out the Cosmic Crown. It hovered above his palm; it refused to contact the simplistic universe it was trapped in, it roared with the ferocity of a better reality. "Here, then. Take it. If you cannot see these as the curses they are, then you are best deserved of them."
With a disappointed air, the Scrivener snatched the Crown from Andy. "I see now how you failed in the Tournament… you care too much. It blemishes all your decisions. Responsibility isn't some great weight to be borne, it's a fire to be endured. That's why the Super Wizards From Space are the greatest of all the super-races. We alone know the secret of wielding absolute authority: if you want to shine like the sun, first you have to burn like it."
And he donned the Cosmic Crown.