Master Leung, head of the Brotherhood of Long Winter, had reached his eightieth year, and tradition held that a new Master must be selected from among the most skilled monks of the temple. Although a great tournament would be held to determine the new Master, Leung was certain it would be Pupil Wu, his most senior student, who would receive the honor. Pupil Wu would receive the sum of Master Leung’s knowledge; would read the secret sutras and learn the final, hidden techniques of the Brotherhood of Long Winter. Pupil Wu would become Master Wu, and would carry on leadership of the Order in the traditions of the centuries of monks that had come before. Of this Master Leung had no doubt.
Yet, before that, a tournament must be held; for so it is written in the sutras that prospective applicants must pass the trials and prove their worthiness to become Master. Thus, in accordance with tradition, the Temple gates were opened to receive visitors; those who would serve as spectators to perhaps the greatest display of martial prowess in all the land.
Everywhere there was a palpable sense of expectation and excitement for the coming contest. For days prior to the tournament, peasants, nobles, warriors and monks from other traditions all arrived at the temple, braving the mountainous terrain and the bitterly cold winds. Just before the closing of the gates, one final traveler arrived. His features were hidden beneath cloak and hood, but that did nothing to disguise his great size. In a soft, yet firm voice that belied his massive bulk, he demanded to take part in the Tournament of Long Winter. He would compete to be the new Master.
Master Leung frowned. Although there had been instances of monks from other monasteries competing in the tournament, it had not happened in many generations. Besides, this man did not look like a monk. Leung ordered the traveler to remove his cloak and hood, and the traveler complied; much to the shock and outrage of all assembled. The traveler was an Uroku, one of the savage half-men of the mountains! In times past, the monks of the Long Winter had hunted the Uroku and driven them deeper into the lofty peaks and crags. Old as he was, Master Leung had never seen an Uroku. He was shocked to learn one could even speak.
“My name is Bak Mai,” he said, “and I demand the right to compete in the Trials of Long Winter.” Nervous laughter and gasps of outrage greeted this announcement from the throng of spectators. This…thing…was not a monk. It wasn’t even human! How dare it demand anything? The Uroku was immediately set upon by the monks of the temple. He knelt calmly and bore the blows of their staves without resistance, all the while staring defiantly at Master Leung.
Master Leung was nothing if not familiar with the traditions, and nowhere in the sutras did it say that a competitor must be a monk, or even human. With obvious reluctance, Master Leung told the monks to cease their assault. He allowed Bak Mai to enter the tournament of Long Winter, much to everyone’s astonishment.
After all, thought Master Leung, entering is not the same as winning; and there was no possibility of this beast winning the tournament.
After the first day of the tournament, Master Leung began to feel a sense of disquiet. Bak Mai easily placed first in all the Trials of Endurance. Although two monks lost their footing and plummeted to their deaths, Bak Mai was first to scale the Cliff of Woe, and did so with startling ease. He remained under the frigid waterfalls of Tessen Lake for far longer than the other monks, three of whom froze to death in the icy waters rather than concede defeat. He knelt on hot coals without complaint or injury for a full hour while they piled heavy stone weights upon his lap and shoulders; even though twenty-five minutes was the most any of the monks could endure; and several would forever carry horrific burns that might never fully heal.
The Trials of Combat were held on the following day; and the outcome was not even close. Bak Mai chose no weapons with which to complete. Instead he dressed in bits of the armor and raiment of the soldiers and monks that hunted and harried the Uroku in years past. The monks and spectators were outraged by Bak Mai’s affront, but their mutters and protests were quickly silenced as Bak Mai soundly defeated every monk who stood against him in combat. The force of his blows was terrifying, like a thunderclap atop a high hill. Many monks were killed, many more forever crippled. There seemed no way to defeat the Uroku, and Master Leung began to feel something he had not felt in decades: panic.
That night, Master Leung meditated upon his dilemma. Tomorrow was the final Trial: the Trail of Wisdom. Traditionally it was a test of the monk’s problem-solving abilities, knowledge of the sutras and creative thinking. It was always held as the last trial of the Tournament of Long Winter; when the monks would be at the limits of their physical and spiritual strength. Only Bak Mai and Pupil Wu remined to take part in the competition. One of them would be the new Master. Leung repressed a shudder at the thought of the Uroku leading the Brotherhood. He had to ensure Pupil Wu won.
Master Leung considered the problem of Bak Mai. There was no way the Uroku could know the sutras as Pupil Wu did; and yet, he would have said there was no way an Uroku could have placed first in the Trials of Endurance and Combat, defeating every monk that opposed him. Bak Mai was an enigma; worse, he was a serious problem. He threatened centuries of tradition. Master Leung had to make certain that whatever test he set tomorrow, Pupil Wu’s victory was assured. He meditated for hours, until the once-tall candles were guttering pools of wax. Then, he permitted himself a smile. He knew what he would do.
The next morning, Pupil Wu and Bak Mai knelt on tatami mats in the main courtyard, surrounded by crowds of spectators and those monks who remained. Small writing desks had been set before them along with brushes and ink. Master Leung spoke from atop his dais. His voice rang out loud and clear in the early morning air. “The Trial of Wisdom shall consist of but one task,” he said. “Draw a snake.”
Here was a task any child could perform, thought Master Leung. He had no doubt the Uroku could draw a snake; but it fell to Master Leung to decide who drew the best snake. It was a matter of opinion: his opinion. No matter how artistic Bak Mai may be, he had already lost.
Bak Mai reached for his ink brush and selected a sheet of paper. Pupil Wu blinked in confusion, then did the same. He watched as the Uroku hunched over his sheet and began to draw. Pupil Wu did the same. He drew a basic squiggle with a head. He was finished, he thought; but then he looked over and saw Bak Mai was still drawing. What could the Uroku be drawing? Perhaps he was adding scales, or coils. Perhaps he added the flicking tongue, or the poisonous fangs. His snake was probably far better than Wu’s. Sweating, Wu began adding all these details, only to find Bak Mai was still drawing. Desperate, Pupil Wu added more and more…
“Enough!” called Master Leung. “Present your drawings!”
Bak Mai held his picture aloft. It was a basic drawing of a curved line in the shape of an S, with a circular head. A child’s drawing of a snake; but an obvious snake, nothing more.
Pupil Wu felt ice on his spine as he realized that Bak Mai had certainly drawn this in seconds. There was no reason for him to labor so long on a drawing so crude. He was pretending, hoping that doing so would provoke Pupil Wu into making a mistake.
And it did.
Flushing with embarrassment, Pupil Wu revealed his drawing. It was an extremely detailed snake; or it would be, if not for the tiny legs Wu had added. He had seen Bak Mai drawing for such a long time, he panicked and began adding all manner of embellishments and details. Unfortunately, he added too much. Not even Master Leung could pretend that snakes had legs.
A silence settled over the courtyard. Everyone waited to see what Master Leung would do. Everyone except Bak Mai. He leaned over and regarded Pupil Wu’s drawing critically.
“That’s not a snake,” he said.
Bak Mai is an Ogre from Wizards of the Coast. I found him in a plastic bag along with a bunch of other miniatures I acquired in a Craigslist buy several years ago. To be honest, I forgot I even had him. He was not easy to identify, but thanks to R Strickland on The Miniatures Page for the assist.
I wish I could take full credit for writing Bak Mai’s Trial of Wisdom; but it’s a variation on a legendary martial arts fable: “Don’t Paint Legs on a Snake.” It means don’t waste time adding useless embellishments to something that is perfectly adequate as it is.
As some of you may know, a big fucking storm blew through New England a couple of days ago; leaving half a million people in Massachusetts without power. Guess who was in that group? While putting a standby generator on my house was one of the best things I ever did, I had it wired to power necessities like my furnace and my well (heat and water are nice to have). Sadly, the painting cave didn’t make the cut, so I lost a few days of painting time. That means my entry for Dave Stone’s Apocalypse Me challenge might be a tad late…
The good news is that this guy serves as both my Character of the Month for October (not late, like last month) AND my entry for ORCtober! Sure, he’s technically an ogre, but I painted him as an orc (in case my clever use of “uroku” went unnoticed) ; so does that count? I say yes.
Up next: playing catch up!