Deep in the heart of the country of Nagnang, there was a small garden. Not a single weed disturbed the carefully planned and lushly growing flowers within. Sad-faced peasants methodically groomed the plants one at a time, inspecting each leaf to remove wayward representatives of Nagnang's abundant insect population, before they could damage the plants. An observer might be impressed with the gardeners' attention to detail, but if he looked closer he would see that the peasants were terrified.
For in Nagnang it was a crime punishable by death for any of the gardeners to allow the flowers to come to harm. These mixed-color blooms in a lovely pale lavender and yellow were the Prince's favorites. Occasionally, a representative of His Majesty would ride into this small village and demand flowers.
Carefully, almost reverently, the Master Gardener would cut and wrap several bouquets and present them to the mounted functionary. Then he would kneel in the dirt next to the horse with his head bowed and wait. For as it was a crime punishable by death to harm the flowers, sometimes the representative of the Prince would interpret that edict rather broadly and include cutting the flowers for the Prince.
This Master Gardener was quite a young man. As they usually didn't have much time to get older, that wasn't much of a surprise. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the Palace representative, expecting the worst. He guessed that he had survived so far by his ability to be so still and quiet as to be nearly invisible. Late at night, huddled for warmth next to the other peasants in their shared hut, the Master was lauded by the other peasants and called "Ninja", for that ability to disappear.
Not that the peasants had much experience with Ninjas. Everyone knew that Nagnang was full of them and that they were trained here. The greatest Ninja of them all, Master Tomas had actually been born near here and had worked these very fields, until being snatched up for training as a child.
The Master Gardener held no secret fantasies that he was truly invisible, as he held his breath surreptitiously watching the functionary's shadow drew a longsword. It was really no surprise that he was about to lose his life... he knew there would be trouble from the moment the representative rode alone into the garden. When there were a few of them, the representatives took their anger at being "flower boys" out on each other. Usually, then the peasants got off with only a beating. It had been some months since the last solo rider had come for flowers. That was the day the peasants got a new Master Gardener.
Waiting for the downstroke of the longsword, the Master's eye was caught by the perfect blooms of his flowers growing next to the path between him and the rider. Immaculately groomed and mulched, its long green shoots rose to knee height, capped by myriad lavender and yellow petals. A work of art created by the Gods, but nurtured by the Master Gardener. Although the swordsman might take his life, nothing could take away that glow of pride, knowing that he had raised such a masterpiece.
Grimly, he smiled and shut his eyes, intent that the image of the flower would be the last thing he would see before opening his eyes in Heaven.
The Palace Guard watched the pitiful, dirty peasant kneel and drew his sword. One less worker wouldn't be missed, he thought. Besides, it almost made up for the extreme embarrassment of being chosen as "flower boy".
A sudden flash of light startled the Guard's horse causing it to rear. It attempted to spring backwards away from the threat. Struggling to get his mount under control, the inadequately trained rider was forced to hang onto his pommel for his life, as the crazed steed galloped away.
When nothing further happened, the Master Gardener opened his eyes. What met them was an extraordinary sight. Standing in the middle of the Prince's finest flowers was a short, dark man. Although dressed much as any peasant would be, this stranger didn't look at all like any peasant the Master had ever seen before. Perhaps it was the odd bowl-shaped haircut with the prominent widows peak that lent him an air of menace, or the way he clutched a small dagger, holding it not as a weapon, but like a wizard would a powerful wand.
"Which part of Kugnae have I landed in?" The stranger asked the kneeling gardener. "I don't recognize the spot, but it doesn't surprise me. Those goofy Gods were always changing things."
The Master Gardener glanced about quickly to see if anyone had heard the man's sacrilege, but all the other workers had fled.
"Goofy Gods?" He asked, quietly.
The dark man looked down at the Gardener with narrowed eyes, as if seeing him for the first time.
"Yes, the whole Pantheon of Panic, Orb, Kismet, Grin... they couldn't tie their shoes if I wasn't there to help." He pointed the dagger at the kneeling man, and then frowned, as if he had expected flames to jump from its tip! "Blasted idiots! I bet they have this place guarded against my toys. I bet they don't want another Zibong War! Still, I can feel it is doing something... working around the obstacles, somehow."
For a while the dagger-wielding man quietly concentrated on his blade, stopping all heretical ranting, which relieved the Gardener.
Something happened. The Gardener felt a shiver and his vision blurred, then cleared, again, but... things were not the same as before. The change was almost indefinable, yet the whole world felt like it had moved a step to the left.
"There we go!" the small man beamed at the Gardener, who was rubbing his eyes. "I guess it just needed to get warmed up! Well, don't just kneel there! Get up and admire my handiwork!"
With a rising sense of panic, the Gardener looked around at the neatly cultivated rows of flowers. The pale purple and yellow blooms were all gone. In their place was an abomination.
"Black! Don't you just LOVE black?"
"Why?" the exasperated Gardener whispered, seeing the work of a lifetime ruined by this madman. "How did you do this?"
Desperately, he dug at the roots of the nearest plant, while the dark man stood over him and gloated.
"You won't find anything," he cackled. "I changed what the plant is, not just he color of its flowers. Root, stem, branches... Everything. Seeds, even! All black! Am I not a genius?"
"Who are you?" The Master Gardener clutched his violated blossom in his hands. It practically dripped blackness, even the roots shone like obsidian hair.
"Me? You really don't know?" The little man seemed miffed. "My name is Morgan and soon I will rule this world!"
Five miles down the road from the garden; a very embarrassed guard was finishing his report to the local platoon commander. He had been lucky to run into anyone in this deserted section of Nagnang, let alone the officer in charge of the district. Still, telling a superior officer about being run off out of control wasn't going to do the guard's career any good. At least the commander seemed interested in the appearance of the stranger.
"We can't just let mysterious foreigners pop in and out of the Kingdom," the commander decided. "Lets go arrest him as a public nuisance."
"But Commander!" One of the junior officers objected. "Our orders from the Palace say we must report strangers to the Ninjas. In case that Northerner madman Gareth comes back."
"Gareth, huh?" The Commander tightened the cinch on his saddle a bit. All his tack was showing wear, after a year in the field. He turned back to the embarrassed Palace Guard. "You said the man that appeared was short? Would you say he was more slightly built or closer to the weight of a small cart horse?"
The Guard blinked in confusion.
"It was a small man, sir," the Guard finally replied, quietly, then gathered his courage a bit to finish his report. "I wanted to say that he had odd eyes. Once I met the Governor of the Province. He was a man used to making the decisions about who gets enough rice for the winter and who doesn't. The foreigner had those kind of eyes."
"There you go!" The Commander replied to his junior officer. "I met Gareth briefly during that debacle he called a 'vacation'. Lost my post commanding the Prince's gold mines because of him. Believe me, no one would ever call him 'a small man'. He looked strong enough to... well, think about it. He led a party of five into a foreign land, unarmed, mind you, and walked away with both a fortune and the enmity of a Prince."
"You almost sound like you admire him!" the younger officer whispered, so as not to be overheard by the other guards.
"Admiring a national enemy and known criminal would likely lose me my head," chuckled the officer. "But other than defying the Prince by staying alive, I really don't see what all he did wrong. Our gold reserves jumped tremendously after we heard about his trick and who knows, maybe smoking out those termites would have worked after all. Not like anyone dared try Gareth's method when they came back the next year. Might have saved the summer Palace."
"Still it leaves us with the question of what to do with our 'Mystery Man'", the younger officer drew his superior back to the problem at hand. "Should we report it?"
The Commander pondered a moment, then decided.
"Although I cannot imagine a worse post than riding around the wilderness protecting flower gardens," he smiled grimly. "One should never underestimate the good Prince's ability to cause misery. If anyone could come up with a better punishment, it would be him. Report it. We will meet you at the gardens."
The Watch Commander reined in his horse at the lip of the small valley sheltering the Royal Gardens. He shook his head at the scene before him, and for the first time, a doubt entered his mind. The valley had changed since the last time he had seen it, only just a few days ago. All the neatly cultivated plants and flowers were now the deepest shade of black he had ever seen!
Even more astounding, between the rows there were things... that crawled... hopped and amazingly enough... flew from terrace to terrace.
"What were the gardeners thinking?" The junior officer exclaimed.
The Commander watched as one of the 'creatures' unfurled a pair of immense wings, each the size of a tent canopy, then flapped up into the air, landing clumsily on another patch of flowers.
"Somehow I don't think the gardeners had anything to do with this," the senior officer replied. Then he ordered his men to spread out and approach the center of the garden from different directions.
Laughter came from around the last obstructing wall of plants, blocking the Commander's view of the center of the garden. With some trepidation, the soldier peered around the wall to see a small man standing amidst neatly cropped rows of flowers. Evidently, this man fit the description of the fellow they sought. The Master Gardener stood next to him, but obviously it was the short man doing the laughing, as the gardener looked severely ill.
"I suppose I should be disappointed," the dark-clad man said to the convulsing gardener. "There goes my vision of converting entire armies into flocks of birds."
He laughed again and the Commander judged him insane, but if he was responsible for all this damage he must also be one very dangerous mage, too.
"I suppose soldiers would make poor birds," the man continued. "Almost as poor as your gardener friends make butterflies!"
The Commander's eyes grew wide as he looked again at one of the large flapping creatures. He spotted one on top of a nearby partition, cleaning and straightening the clusters of black blossoms hanging off the trellis. Fully the size of a man, the Commander wondered if this truly had been one of the peasants?
"Plenty of unexpected drawbacks..." the madman said to the gardener, who hardly seemed to be listening, as he had fallen to his knees and was busily being sick.
At least it isn't Gareth, the Commander thought, watching the powerful Mage work another transformation. This time, he made the Master Gardener's ears grow. Soon, they were as long as a hound's.
"Now," the short man announced, "You might even be able to hear your plants grow!"
As he cackled with self-important glee, the Commander signaled his squad to close in. at a crouch, he crept forward. When he reached the cleared area around the dark men and crying gardener, he stood up, brandishing his sword.
"Halt!" he commanded, although it occurred to him that the Mage wasn't presently doing anything to stop. "In the name of the Prince, SURRENDER!
The dark Mage glanced at the Commander calmly enough, still waving his small dagger. Though not jeweled or runed like a typical Mage weapon, it looked like it would be an ineffective weapon even for a warrior. In a Mage's hands, well... he might as well be unarmed.
"Prince M'hul?" the short man mused, tilting his head. "So, I am in Kugnae, after all."
"Prince Kija, you dolt!" the Commander bristled. "This is Nagnang, and you are under arrest for performing illegal magics."
The mage laughed, his attention already wandering.
"Illegal? You fool!" he pointed his dagger at the Commander, who winced unconsciously. "I am the Law! When Morgan, your new king, speaks..."
The Commander watched helplessly, as his upraised sword slowly faded from view, leaving behind a small bouquet of gray flowers.
Suddenly, behind Morgan, a gray-haired man appeared, dressed in Ninja robes. There was a sick thump as the pommel of Master Ninja Tomas' blade struck the back of Morgan's head.
The dark mage fell in mid-sentence, lying still on the ground, a pitiful small form.
"Hail, King Morgan," Tomas intoned sarcastically. Then he looked around, finally meeting the Guard Commander's eyes. "Who was this fool?"
"No idea," the Commander replied. He carefully tucked the gray bouquet in his belt. If what that mage said was true, perhaps someday they would change back into his sword. On his new job, he couldn't afford to lose a month's salary to replace it. "A most extraordinary Mage, though, Master Tomas, as you can see. He seemed to hate everyone and somehow assumed we would know who he was."
Tomas knelt next to the mage's body and examined his clothes. Except for the dagger, he had no possessions of note. Although not quite certain why, Tomas carefully avoided touching the dagger.
"Give me your cloak, Commander," the Ninja ordered.
The guard slowly unsnapped his fur-lined cloak. Another half-month's salary, he thought as he handed it over. The Ninja carefully wrapped the dagger in the cloak, and then stood up before the guard.
"Clean up this mess," he intoned, calmly. Something about his manner led the soldier to hear an additional order, one not said out loud. "Talk about this to anyone and I will kill you."
Tomas walked towards an approaching group of Ninjas that were leading an extra horse.
"Sir?" The Commander asked uncertainly. "What about the peasant gardeners?"
Tomas mounted his horse, and then walked it over to where the Guard Commander stood, next to the still sobbing form of the Master Gardener. He seemed to notice nothing but his mutilated ears.
"That was the mess I meant," he explained coldly. "Save one of those butterfly men to amuse the Prince."
"And the rest?" The Guard asked cautiously. Some orders need to be explicit, he thought.
Wheeling his magnificent tall horse around, Master Ninja Tomas headed back up the path. He barely turned his head.
"Kill them all."