As the Schrivener super-wizard brought the Cosmic Crown to his brow, it seemed to gain… weight. It didn't feel heavier in his hands, as he wasn't even holding it (it hovered above his palms, and he more directed it than handled it). But the higher he raised it, the more… ponderous it became. Moving it was a war with some immense foreign gravity, greater than any star, than any black hole.
And when he finally placed the Crown onto his head, all that gigantic immensity slammed down on his consciousness. He fell to his knees, his spirit nearly crushed by the mass of a compacted reality. "By the living suns! This power! This incredible power!"
"What is it?" asked the Stringer super-wizard, eyes wide with fearful curiosity. "What's wrong? What's happening?"
"It's… there's… so much! Unbridled potentials! Alternate possibilities! A whole other universe, with its own suns and its own stories. My mind is exploding with a thousand million directions, a four-dimensional tapestry that threatens to engulf me. Its only through… sheer determination that I'm able to pick out any one strand, to pull out a thread. It's only through constant will that I direct the smallest fraction of this energy into anything… cohesive."
The Stringer approached with a hand outstretched. "If it's too much for you, than I can…"
The Schrivener growled, the sound coming from a deeper, savage place within. He stood up, slowly, carefully, as if he could tip over and shatter like glass. "I have the Crown. I'll bear its power. It shall not defy me…"
The Crown suddenly flared! A series of fearsome electrical arcs lashed out, crackling and snaking around the Schrivener. The arcs bent and folded and twisted, forming a chain of cosmic power. The super-wizard made a horrifying sound, like the cry of a trapped animal, then the chains disappeared and the power of the Crown subdued.
"Are you all right?" the Stringer asked.
The Schrivener didn't respond. He was stunned, unsure of where he was. Slowly, his brow furrowed and a frown split his face. He glared at everyone around him, like they were small and far away. Then, without a word, he drew his power within and launched into the night sky. In seconds, he was out into space, and gone.
Andy was floored. "Huh."
The Stringer yelled at him, "What happened? Where's he going?"
"To Genovefa, I would assume?" he replied with a shrug. "'The pheasant cries, as if it just noticed the mountain.' You said Queen Buzz was in this very star system. If she's truly that closed, he could not resist."
"Resist? Resist what?"
"The Tournament, naturally. The crowns enforce the rules, and he is compelled to obey."
Brody broke out laughing. It was stuttered and it cut often with sickly coughs, but it was a loud, ecstatic laugh. Andy couldn't help but smile. It was a good sign. The long isolation hadn't driven the humour from his brother.
"Impossible!" the Stringer pointed at Brody, or more specifically, at the body beside him. "You defeated our super-champion. You took his Crown. The Cosmic Tournament is over."
"The rules of the Tournament state that a crown-bearer must claim an opponent's crown. Though her opponent has changed, Genovefa Buzz is the challenger. The Tournament continues until she or the Schrivener claims the other's crown."
"You… you did something! You knew this would happen."
"I warned you this would happen! I told you these crowns would be the end of any who wore them, but you couldn't help yourselves. The moment you had all that power at your disposal, you had to have it."
"Of course we did. It's ours! You were never supposed to have it. It belongs to us!"
"The cosmic crowns don't belong to anyone. They're not things. Every one of them is a vast and monstrous presence, caught and caged and dragged into our universe against its will. They are each a cosmos, older and stronger and better than our own in every way. To try to wield one, to believe you can manipulate such a thing…? This is an act of incredible arrogance…"
"…and madness," Brody said, finally regaining his composure.
"Yes. Exactly. Comedic, karmic madness," Andy agreed.
"Oh no, I meant 'madness' quite literally."
"Quiet, mossback," the Stringer snapped.
It took a puzzled look from his brother and the growing agitation on the Stringer's face for Brody to make his realization. "You… don't know? Then these two… they haven't told you…"
"Tell me what?"
The Stringer started moving toward Brody, a finger pointing hard in his direction. "I said be quiet."
Space-greed! He's infected with it. They both are. This irrational avidity you're seeing, its a factual sickness. And his entire super-race is wallowing in it."
"That was privileged information, damn your eyes! That was shared with you in confidence!"
Brody looked at the Stringer incredulously. "You couldn't believe I'd keep it a secret, did you? You must have known I would tell everyone. Especially my own brother… my other self!"
"You were never supposed to speak of it. He must have tampered with the body somehow. Otherwise, none of this would every have…"
"That's impossible," Andy interrupting. "I'm sorry, Brody, but that can't be true."
"Look at him!" Brody said. "Look at how's he's acting."
"…but the Super Wizards From Space developed a cure for space-greed. They wiped out all the Great Space Crimes."
"Bah! Wiped out proof of them, perhaps," Brody said.
"Enough! Quiet! Both of you!" the Stringer shouted. "You have no idea what you're talking about. You're a species frozen in time. For all your studies, your training, your temples, your traditions, your supposedly wondrous martial art… what's it all been for? What has it benefitted you? Nothing! Just that! All your accomplishments are in your distant past. And worse of all, you see nobility in your stagnation! What you praise as a 'balance' is nothing more than malaise!
"Not us. Not us! We're a race of doctors. Researchers. Scientists. Specialists. Each and every one of us strives for mastery in our field. More than mastery! To break beyond the borders of our work, to explore the unknown, to define and to catalog and to then break beyond even that.
"The Super Wizards From Space are the greatest of all the super-races because of our pursuit of more. We are, as a whole, motivated by our desire to achieve. And to keep what we achieve. And to fight for more thereafter!
"What is space-greed? A virus? A cancer? Do you even know? Of course not! Brainless animals that you are! You accept what you're told because you are told so by your betters. And that is what we are. We are your betters. And we are so because we worked to become so! We made ourselves this way!
"There is no cure for space-greed. We've never looked for one. And we don't want one!
"Space-greed isn't a disease. It is a drug. A powerful narcotic that, through careful research and observation, we've learned to safely medicate ourselves with. In controlled doses, it increases our voracity and our alertness. It focuses our aspiration and resolve. It's made us wizards of white stars and black holes alike! It has made us sorcerers of the production and exchange of matter and space!
"And what's it cost us? Only the moral scrutiny of our so-called peers. Like the Red Hand and their bleeding-heart crusading. Or a batch of rusting robots and their rotting religion. Some nihilistic ghosts and their dead teacher. A few small-minded monks and their diminishing luminaries. All of you, dripping with jealousy! All waiting for the chance to take from us what is rightly ours!"
"As I said. Madness." Brody said with great disappointment.
Andy clenched his fists hard enough to cause himself pain. His breathing slowed, each intake of air being dragged deep into the pit of his torso and wrestled of all its value. "I believed you to be a vile and rude creature when we first met. When you blackmailed me into assisting you. But this… contemptuous selfishness that you've draped yourself in… the cosmic tournament, the super space war… by all my holy forefathers, my hands are cover in the blood of thousands because of this insanity!"
"The Super Wizards From Space live for their own sake and by their own minds. We're the custodians of universal order because we have made ourselves so. Supernaturally so! We look forward to the future with wide-eyed eagerness. You… you look backwards and slowly strangle yourselves with ancient customs. You don't grow anymore. You don't want anything. You deteriorate, and call it 'tradition'."
"You're mistaken, Stringer," Andy said with calm deliberateness, each word a microscopic meditation. His awareness focused like a laser, his mind ascended into the white-hot ends of infra-zen. The world around him became like rice paper outside the infinite mass of his consciousness. "If you'd truly paid attention, you would know of one thing I've want very much…"
The world slowed. Slowed. The empty background noise of the desert became low and far-away. A look of apprehension crawled onto the Stringer's face. A single moment of surprise.
Andy jolted forward with an old maneuver called the Torture Of The Noose, a hard-quick chop at the man's throat. He quickly followed with good a cross elbow to the same spot, the Searcher's Cascading Choke, and then crushed the nose with the heel of his hand, the Tiger Hammer. He couldn't be certain super-wizards needed to breathe, but if they did, such a combination would be crippling.
The Stringer made a sickening gurgling sound. Oily black blood splattered out from his open mouth. His eyes became blue-white spots of rage, and fusion fire leapt out from them.
Andy was already three steps out of the way, a swirling whirlwind of motion that placed him directly behind his opponent. As Andy had suspected, the Stringer lacked finesse. He simply lashed out.
Still, with the devastating force a super-wizard could unleash, there was substantial risk. Andy needed to end this quickly, before the Stringer became more imaginative.
From behind, Andy struck with the Thirty Destructions Lock, a rapid series of piercing blows straight down the Stringer's spine. He completed the combination with the Mountain Wolves Press, a fast sweeping kick at the back of the knees. The sound of breaking bones crashed like thunder in the arid emptiness.
The Stringer screamed in pain, and collapsed onto the ground. With a desperate wave of a hand, he rolled bright sunlight around him in a curved shield.
Sloppy, Andy thought. His super-champion would've warned him to use fusion fire for protection instead. Andy simply shifted his chi outside the visible spectrum and slipped through the barrier.
The monk knelt over his foe and slammed both fists on opposite sides of his head. The Perfect Gates. Andy felt the skull crack under the force of his hit, saw liquid tar ooze out of the Stringer's ears. The super-wizard was stunned. Shocked. Even so, it might be for a moment.
But it would be long enough.
Andy put a knee in the crook of the Stringer's back and wrapped both arms around his head. "…and now I finally know. Thank you."
And with a wrench, he broke the Stringer's neck.