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Tales of Virtue: Table of Contents
Stories taken from the official Ultima Ascension site
Above all things save one, a young mage must be curious, and so it was with Mariah. It was this curiosity that led her, in the course of her journeyman wanderings, into a certain grove that had a reputation locally as a perilous and haunted place.
She soon found that reputation warranted, when a soft, deep and not-unpleasant voice inquired, "How now, little mage, you wander far from the safe byways."
Mariah turned, and when she saw what stood there her first thought was a rather foolish pleasure that she did not start or cry out. But she quickly pushed that aside in favor of more serious concerns, for standing before her was a hugely muscled, flame-red, hairless creature, glowing softly with its own light in the forest gloom. She knew at once that it was a Daemon, one of those vicious and mighty travelers from strange and infernal realms, which sometimes stray into ours in search of blood or mischief.
"Good evening, sir," she said, and her voice shook only a little. "I hope I am not trespassing."
"Not a bit of it," said the Daemon in its soft and mocking growl, "I so seldom receive visitors, I am quite glad to see you."
Mariah had never before encountered a Daemon, but she had studied their nature. She knew that if the creature had desired violence, she would already be dead, therefore it must be planning some subtler malice.
"If it's company you seek, perhaps I can propose a diversion," Mariah said, her mind racing. She had read that certain Daemons of the subtler sort could be tempted by games of skill or chance, and she hoped thus to distract this Daemon from less pleasant amusements.
"A diversion. How delightful. What do you propose?"
"Let us play the Challenge Game."
Now the Challenge Game is an exercise used by young mages for countless generations, and its nature is simply this … each contestant asks the other an abstract question on a profound or difficult matter, and the other must answer promptly, with absolute honesty. Hesitation or evasion result in loss. In this way are the players taught to face the Truth within themselves, and discern it in the words of others.
"An audacious choice," the creature chuckled. "What are the stakes?"
"My life, of course," she replied. "If you win, you take it, and if I win I keep it."
"Plainly spoken, but I expect no less from a mage. I accept, and as the challenged party, I will begin the questioning. Little mage, do you fancy yourself wise?"
This was a standard gambit, and Mariah was prepared for it. "I seek wisdom, which would be a vain endeavor if I were already wise. I have always thought myself clever, which has sufficed so far." This answer did not visibly impress the Daemon, but it did not challenge it.
Then it was her turn to ask, and she turned to a philosophical query. "Daemon, which is greater, Truth or Falsehood?"
At this the Daemon grinned, which is a terrible sight, and replied, "Truth is a mighty oak, the king of the forest. Falsehood is the tiny worm that eats away at the inside of the oak until it is toppled by an errant breeze." This was an excellent answer, and Mariah admired it even in the midst of her fear.
"Little mage," the Daemon asked, "Why did you choose this game? You are young, and I am immortal. Do you fancy your 'cleverness' might suffice against my eternal insight?"
Mariah took a slow breath and replied. "I am mortal, and my mind is my own. My Truth is my possession, and I view it at will. You are bound by your supernatural nature and must act accordingly. Your Truth is a dark room without windows or doors, and you can never see it, for it imprisons you. This is my hope, and my advantage."
Mariah could see that the Daemon disliked this answer, which was as she wished as she prepared her next question. "It is axiomatic that Truth can exist without Falsehood, but Falsehood can never exist without Truth. Tell me then, how can you hope that evil will ever win?"
The Daemon looked at her a long moment, and when it answered all trace of laughter was gone from its growl. "I will show you how," it said, and the phrase ended in a howl of rage as it raised its clawed fist and descended upon Mariah to take her head. But it is the nature of Daemons that, having once accepted a challenge, they are then bound by its terms. And even as the monster charged across the few steps separating it from Mariah, its massive form dissipated, and all that reached her was a sulfurous and unpleasantly warm puff of mist. So she returned quickly to the nearest village, and thereafter was somewhat less curious about rumors of strange happenings.