"Through here. Run around the floor grate. Line up on the far wall."
The Pantoorian sergeant major unlocked the cell's iron-bar door and waved the three conscripts inside. The youth in front of Simeon passed the sergeant major at a jog and took a swat on the seat of his ill-fitting drab trousers. Simeon dashed for the opening instead. A pat on the shoulder urged him forward.
Over a few steps, Simeon took in as much of the cell as he could; once he was at the wall, there would be no looking around—only eyes forward and hands down. The sides were the same gray stone as the rest of the prison, but the single-leg irons, one mounted to each wall, had long coils of chain as if the Pantoorian army wanted its prisoners to walk around.
Simeon put the thought aside as he ran past the floor grate. A glance between the bars showed him nothing, but his nose caught a whiff of rot that lingered at the far wall, which made Simeon glad he had not eaten. When the three conscripts were lined up with Simeon in the middle, the sergeant major entered the cell and closed the door behind him. The bars on the wall above Simeon laid lines of light and dark across the sergeant major's leaf-green uniform.
"Attention!" The word was almost a formality. "This is new for you boys. You've never been in a cell like this, never been chained to a wall, never gone in the hole. If you had been, you wouldn't be here with me."
"No, your records are excellent. Strength. Skill. Mind. Discipline. The Pantoorian army took you in as conscripts, but it has new plans for you. Two of you will attend Lieutenants' School."
Simeon did not react. He could count. The third conscript might be the one who smiled.
"Cheers permitted." Unlike the other two conscripts, Simeon stayed silent. An iron box he had not noticed before was mounted near the door, its hinge squeaking as the sergeant major lifted the lid and pulled out a cloth pouch. It was green, a brighter shade than its holder's uniform.
"Attention!" All celebration ceased. The sergeant major hefted the pouch. It made a clack like the marbles Simeon had passed down to his brother. "I will go down the line. Each of you will draw a stone. Do not look at it. If you do, you go in the hole, and when the next watch is done, you don't want to be in the hole. Understood?"
The three conscripts shouted as one, "Yes, sir!"
"Good. May the Gods favor you. Conscript Abda!"
The conscript to Simeon's left shouted, "Sir!"
The sergeant major stepped forward. "Say nothing more and draw. Conscript Simeon, you're next. Conscript Debir gets the last stone."
When the sergeant major's bag was empty, he returned to the door and addressed the conscripts.
"Remember, this draw did not decide who goes to the Lieutenants' School. Do not show your stones yet, but hold out your hands like this." Simeon did as he was shown, lifting his right hand palm up, fingers curled around the tiny cold weight of his stone. "On three, reveal your draws. One. Two. Three!"
The stone rolled from Simeon's fingers into the palm. It was bright green.
"Conscript Debir!" The sergeant major snapped and pointed to Simeon's right. "The God of Luck was not with you this time. Join me and hand over the black stone."
Debir stepped forward. He weighed almost the same as Simeon but was a brown-haired head taller. His arms shook as he passed back his lot.
"There's still a chance for you, son, but you'll start in the hole." The sergeant major bent at the knees to grab the grate in the floor. The grate's hinges creaked as he lifted it by its lock. "The landing's soft. Hop down."
"Y-yes, sir." Debir sat at the edge of the hole, leaned back, and pushed himself over the edge. Simeon felt his heart beat once. "Oof!"
"Soft landing, right?"
"Yes, sir!" Debir's voice echoed.
"That's what I like to hear." The sergeant major dropped the grate. "You two hand over your stones and find leg irons. I'll come around and lock you in."
After giving back his green stone, Simeon went to the leg iron on the right wall, studying the coiled chain on the way. As he watched the sergeant major trade the bag of stones for a stack of keys, Simeon guessed at mathematics, multiplying loops of chain by length and imagining paces to the middle of the cell while the sergeant major locked him in. Even with one leg chained, he thought he could walk all the way to the other side of the grate in the floor. Why that would be permitted, he was not sure.
"Eyes on me!" The sergeant major pocketed the leg-iron key. "I will hand out two keys. They do not work on your chains and will not fit in the locks. Don't waste your time. They do work on the lock for the grate, as well as a second lock down where Conscript Debir is. Watch."
Again the sergeant major bent at the knees. He chose a key, bulky iron with a loop at the top Simeon could have slipped three fingers through, and put it in the lock. One turn and a bolt squealed, metal on metal. The sergeant major withdrew the key and held it in his palm. The top was shining yellow. Glow-iron. Simeon had never seen it in his village.
"The keys are identical." The sergeant major walked and talked, passing them out. "When the prison watch marches past, I will leave this cell. I will return when they do."
The sergeant major went to the cell door. "Here are the rules. If two of you are up here when I return, they go to Lieutenants' School. If there are three of you, then the two with keys go to Lieutenants' School. Any questions?"
Silence. The sergeant major scowled. "There were supposed to be questions. Speak up!"
Simeon nodded. "Sir!"
"Conscript Simeon, ask."
"Sir, what happens to Conscript Debir if he doesn't get out of the hole?"
"I'm glad you asked." The sergeant major coughed into his fist. "When the watch comes by the second time, a giant carnivorous slug will be released into the hole, and it will be hungry."
Through the grate came a curse. "Oh Gods, let me out!"
"Quiet down there! You need to hear this part." Debir went silent. The sergeant major continued, "The only way to save Conscript Debir is for one of you to walk up to the grate and drop in your key. If you hold onto it long enough, it will glow, and he can find it down there. Once he has the key, he can unlock a ladder from the wall, climb up to the grate, reach through to unlock it, and climb back out. Of course, after that, one of you won't have a key. Conscript Debir won't be slug food, but one of you will be back in the conscript ranks as fireball fodder."
In his peripheral vision, Simeon saw Abda sneak a glance at him. Simeon kept his focus on the sergeant major.
"There's the watch. Your fates are up to you. Conscript Debir?"
A stuttering echo: "S-sir?"
"May the God of Song give you the speech of a lifetime." The sergeant major stepped through the cell door, closed it behind him, and marched away.
Debir stomped around under the floor. "Oh Gods, one of you please let me out."
Simeon tried the key on his leg-iron—no good, just as the sergeant major had said, but this was a test and he would test everything—before tucking it away in his drab shirt's one pocket. "Let me think about this."
Abda swallowed. "We should give him a key."
A curse through the grate. "Why? I'm going to be slug food in a watch if I'm down here!"
Abda cursed too. "Listen to him. I'd hate to be in that hole. We have to let him out..."
"Don't throw in your key yet. There might be another way to get him back with us."
Simeon picked up his chain, hauled up a coil and a half, and tossed it ahead. From under the floor grate, "What's happening up there?"
Simeon cupped his hands to his face and called, "I'm coming over."
"You're letting me out? Gods be praised..."
"I didn't say that." Simeon walked up to the grate, dragging his chain, and looked back. He had little slack left; he could reach the far side of the grate, perhaps, but no more. "Hmm."
"Simeon!" Abda was waving to him from the left wall. "Can we pull him out?"
"I can't," Simeon replied, looking down at Debir. "He fell too far, and I don't have enough chain. If I tried to go in, I'd be left dangling upside down."
"Simeon!" Debir waved his arms. "Look at me!"
"Abda, secure your key and come out here as far as you can."
Abda joined Simeon at the grate. He stood on the opposite edge with just as little slack.
"Not enough for either of us," Simeon muttered. "Debir, I'm sorry!"
"Sorry for what? Just drop your key!"
"I thought there was a hidden test." Simeon took a step back and waved for Abda to do the same.
"A test to get you out without one of us throwing down a key." Simeon shook his head. "It doesn't exist. You're slug food or one of us is fireball fodder. I don't see any other way."
"I'll give back your key," Debir pleaded. Simeon heard the words over his shoulder as he walked back to his wall. "I swear it. I just don't want to die down here."
Simeon turned. "Do you swear by all the Gods that you'll give it back?"
"All of them!" Debir's voice cracked in the echo.
"I almost believe you," said Simeon. "The trouble is that I know what I would do. I would get up here, see the cell door, and know that I'd be unreachable."
"I wouldn't!" Debir screamed.
"I wouldn't," said Abda.
"I would." Simeon stared across the cell. "I would, and Debir doesn't know whether he would unless he gets hold of your key. Yours, because he isn't getting mine."
"You'd let me get eaten by a slug? Bastard!"
"I'm not a bastard. I knew my father." Simeon sat down and kicked out his chained leg. "I saw him go off with the Pantoorians and come back in a bucket of ash. I have a chance not to end up fireball fodder like him. All I have to do is sit here and listen to you for the rest of the watch."
"Simeon!" Abda waved his arms. "Think about it! If we don't throw him a key, he'll die!"
"What do officers do but send conscripts to die?" Simeon shrugged. "This is the test, Abda. If you can't stand the thought of Debir dying, you'll never make it out of Lieutenants' School."
A string of curses from the grate. "How can you sit up there and say that?"
"I have a family to think about."
"So do I!"
"A widow-mother, a brother, three sisters. They're all weavers. I was too before the Pantoorians took me." Simeon sighed. "Abda, listen to me."
"Don't listen to him!"
"Listen to me." Simeon stared across the cell. "You have a family too, don't you, Abda?"
Abda crouched, hiding his face between his knees. "Yes..."
"They'd rather have half a lieutenant's salary sent to them than a bucket with your ashes."
"What about my family?" Debir screamed.
Simeon gave a shrug Debir could not see. "I don't know them. Neither does he."
"I think I hear the slug," Debir whimpered. "Oh Gods, oh Gods..."
"Try to ignore him," muttered Simeon.
"Hey, Abda! Listen to me!"
"I'm listening," Abda answered.
Simeon chimed in, "You shouldn't be."
"New plan! I'll make sure you get your key back. You throw it to me, but then you stand on the lock so I can't open it. I pass the key back, and you let me out."
"Now you're thinking," Simeon called out. "But what'll you do when you get up here?"
"Just hurry up, Abda!"
"You'll try to take a key once you're free."
"I'll get yours, Simeon, you selfish bastard! I'll have the run of the cell with you on a chain. I'll thrash you half to death and take your key and then thrash you the rest of the way!"
"Thrash me, is it?" Simeon stood. "Abda, stay where you are. Debir, I'll make you a deal. I use my key, and you won't thrash me."
"You?" When Debir spoke next, relief replaced disbelief. "I'll take a key. Any key."
Simeon walked to the grate. "Do you swear by all the Gods that you want me to use my key?"
"I swear it, I swear it!"
Simeon looked to Abda. "You heard him?"
When Abda nodded, Simeon knelt down. "All right, Debir, I'm using my key on the grate."
"I need the ladder, Simeon! Throw it down..."
Simeon met Debir's eyes. He wrenched his wrist, snapped the key off in the lock, and walked back to his wall.
Behind Simeon, the other two conscripts screamed. Debir cursed Simeon and all his family. Abda ran as far forward as his chain would let him, shaking his fists. "Simeon, why in the Gods' names did you do that?"
"You heard him threaten to kill me." Simeon put his back to the wall and slid down. "I just made sure he couldn't go through with it."
"He's going to be slug food!"
"Get used to the idea. If you want to help Debir, tell him to stop asking the Gods for plagues on my sisters and start asking for deliverance. Maybe the God of Beasts will sate the slug's hunger." Simeon closed his eyes. "Maybe there are no such things as giant carnivorous slugs. We never saw one in the hole. Maybe it was just a lie to make us go through the test. I'll say no more."
Simeon stretched out along the wall and ignored the words of the other two conscripts for the rest of the watch. Debir babbled, torn between curses and prayers. Abda crouched grate-side, looking down and muttering comfort. Simeon never opened his eyes, not even when the squishing sounds and screams told him that giant carnivorous slugs were real.
Simeon stood alone in the cell, ready to snap to attention. The sergeant major had come and taken away Abda and his accusing words and eyes. A single set of bootfalls marked his return.
"Conscript Simeon." The sergeant major opened the door. "At ease. Let me get you free."
"Thank you, sir." Simeon's mouth was dry.
"Abda told me all about you on the way to Lieutenants' School. He thought you'd be in trouble." The sergeant major gave a one-note laugh as he fished the leg-iron key from the box. "Did I say anything about not jamming the lock on the grate, though? Absolutely not."
"Not that the behavior was desired, mind you. Next time we will have to add a rule about not snapping off keys in locks. That or take the lock off the grate. Coil up the chain after I free you." The sergeant major released Levi from the leg iron. "Glow-iron's not something an ordinary smith can fix. It'll take a priest of metal to restore that key."
"I'm sorry, sir."
"Don't be. Your tactic showed cunning and decisiveness. The Lieutenants' School will develop both." The sergeant major returned the leg-iron key to its box. "Follow me. I'll get you enrolled."
The sergeant major led Simeon out of the prison and on to the instruction wing. A young captain in a uniform bright green like Simeon's stone stood at the door and returned their salute.
"Sergeant major, this is the second candidate?"
"Simeon, sir. Job of..."
"Not needed." The captain nodded to the sergeant major. "Sergeant major, you are dismissed. Conscript, follow me to my desk."
The sergeant major saluted and left. Simeon did as he was told, following the captain into the instruction wing's anteroom to the third row of desks.
"Sit there," said the captain, pointing to a straight-backed wooden chair. Simeon took to the seat while the captain settled in and opened up a book. "We have taken in several Simeons recently with all the usual occupations, weaver included. The sergeant major gave you a new surname."
The captain wrote a line with an iron auto-quill, blotted it, and spoke the name the Pantoorians' enemies would curse for centuries.
"Simeon Halfkey, no longer Conscript but Candidate, welcome to Lieutenants' School. I'll show you around. What do you want to see first? Dining hall, priest of healing, priest of conscience?"
"A latrine, sir."
"A latrine it is." The captain half-smiled and stood. "I'll show you the indoor version."
[I'll leave off Simeon Halfkey's story there to return to the Multiverse.]
Yesterday, Penny Arcade released the most recent episode of its web reality TV show, basically Top Chef for webcomic creators. The challenge this time was Magic-related: make a design for a Chandra Nalaar themed skateboard deck. You have 90 minutes. Good luck!
Several of the artists either played Magic (including Nick Trujillo, who contemplated bringing a cube to the show!) or knew someone who played, making for an intriguing if uneven field. What interests me even more, though, is that in addition to concept art for Chandra Nalaar, the artists were given the Magic 2014 style guide to work with—and the pages that were shown in "over-the-shoulder" shots of the contestants weren't redacted at all.
It'd have to fall to someone with better eyes and computer equipment than mine, but I'd love to see screen captures of those pages. What can we learn about Magic 2014 that we don't know already? What do Magic artists get to help them illustrate the game we love?
Either those over-the-shoulder shots were carefully chosen to leak no new information or this is a remarkably unguarded look into a current Magic style guide. I'm curious to know which. Let me and fellow readers know what you find in the comments below!
As always, thanks for reading.
@jdbeety on Twitter