July 9, 2011

Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light, episode 9 "Horn of Unicorn, Claw of Dragon"


New Valarak is struck with a plague that affects only magic users. Cryotek is the first to fall victim, and is quickly followed by Feryl, Ectar, and Galadria. Fletchen shows up again to nurse them with herbs and chicken soup, and a weakening Leoric sends warning to Witterquick and Arzon, who were outside the city on a hunting trip at the time. The two rush off to seek guidance from Merklynn.

They arrive at Iron Mountain to find Lexor and Cindarr, who are looking to cure the similarly affected Darkling Lords. Merklynn has been expecting this plague and the quests that both the Knights and Lords had been skipping out on were for the very items needed to cure it: the horn of a unicorn and the claw of a dragon. Having already had their fill of dragons a couple episodes back, the two Lords opt to go for the unicorn and the two parties go their separate ways.

Arzon and Witterquick seek out the dragon Gragskimar (I hope that's how it's spelled), debating along the way the ethics of their actions. Arzon dislikes the idea of killing so majestic a beast for little more than potion ingredients, but Witterquick takes the "us or them" mentality and reminds his ally of the lives that will be lost should they fail. They are suddenly attacked by Gragskimar, who burns through their Power Staffs and exhausts their animal forms in an extended chase. The weakened Arzon starts to feel the effects of the plague.

Just before Arzon is gobbled down, a second dragon appears, and the two Knights sit off on the sidelines, Witterquick hoping one will kill the other so they can pick a claw from whatever's left of the loser. Gragskimar manages to hurl the other dragon into a crevasse miles away, but crashes to the ground with a damaged wing. Witterquick is ready to move in for the kill, but Arzon pushes forward and addresses the dragon. He tells Gragskimar of the plague and their desperate need, and offers to stitch up the torn wing.

Gragskimar lets him, then plucks the two heroes from the ground and takes flight. Witterquick is furious, thinking they'll be made a meal of, but Arzon points. Gragskimar is taking them to the crevasse where the other dragon was thrown. One of its claws broke loose as it landed, and Gragskimar ferries them and the relic back to Iron Mountain.

Meanwhile, Lexor and Cindarr row a boat out to a secluded island where unicorns are known to roam. They think it'll be an easy job, but they don't know about the adorable little wood nymphs who are sworn to protect the creatures. The nymphs sink their boat in a hilarious sequence, then constantly chase the flock away, keeping the unicorns one step ahead of the Lords. Lexor even forces Cindarr to unleash his Destruction spell, but it turns back on them when it can't find anything else to smash.

That night, Lexor fumes over a campfire while Cindarr heads out to look for food. He finds a baby unicorn trapped in a bush. The nymphs are terrified, but Cindarr gently frees the unicorn and lets it go. Their need is not so great that he'd take the life of something so young and helpless. The nymphs are curious and he tells them about the plague and their desperation. The nymphs thought it was an empty hunt for a trophy of pride and apologize, giving him a flute made from the horn of a unicorn that died long ago. He returns to the fire where Lexor is furious that he didn't find food, then slightly less furious when he learns they scored a horn.

Lexor and Cindarr are the first to arrive at Iron Mountain. Lexor starts concocting a plot to take out the Knights before they can benefit from the cure, but when Arzon and Witterquick arrive, Cindarr honors the arrangement and helps them. Merklynn performs the curing spell and the day is saved. Back at New Valarak, the Knights celebrate with a feast. Even as Witterquick regrets letting Lexor and Cindarr go, Leoric raises a toast to the heroes of the quest, including those from the Darkling Lords.

"It's good to know that honor can exist among the darkest of hearts."

I loved pretty much everything about this episode. The plague seems sudden, but takes on extra weight when we learn Merklynn has been trying to cure it over the last few episodes, and everyone was so busy trying to free themselves of his influence that he was unable to gather the ingredients in time. There's great consequences there that cement the idea that he isn't just some random old wizard who's forcing these others to do his bidding. He has actual goals in mind when it comes to preserving the order of this world.

The predictable way for this episode to go would have been dividing the teams into one Knight and one Lord each, forcing them to work out their differences, but it's far more believable that they'd stick with their own allies as they set out. Even then, it's a great touch that conflict is found even among friends. Arzon's distaste with taking a life against Witterquick's desperation for survival. Lexor's willingness to wipe out an entire heard of unicorns for a single horn against Cindarr's refusal to kill a single trapped baby. By showing the good among the villains and the conflict among the heroes, they're adding so much more flavor to these characters. Plus, it's great to have some of the secondary background types fleshed out a little more, which we've been in desperate need of.

I also love the design of the wood nymphs: tiny and slender, with gently vibrant skin tones of pink, turquoise, or yellow, and with fluttery butterfly wings. It's like the Darkling Lords are stepping into a world designed by the My Little Pony crew, and that world still manages to totally kick their ass. The nymphs are a genuine threat as they drill boats full of holes or offer a round of applause to a drowning man who's screaming for someone to give him a hand.

My only issue with the episode would be the ugliness of the dragon designs. They're not ugly in a fierce way, just bland and indistinct, and I would have liked a little more detail and personality in them. That said, the extended battle between the two, as well as the fight against the Knights, was really nicely staged.

All in all, this was a fantastic episode.


People of New Valarak rejoice! For this week, your King is too ill to screw anything up! Good for them, but bad for me. I guess I didn't realize just how much material Leoric provided me with, which means that I may have more at stake in his cure than anyone. And speaking of the cure...

Why is it that every time there's a plague in these medieval fantasy stories, the cure always requires body parts from some dangerous or rare creature? I seriously doubt that Pfizer or Merck ever send teams of people out on quests to gather shark's teeth or rhinoceros horns. I know it's an accepted trope, without which we'd have no story, but just once I'd like to see a wizard go, "The Dark Fever, you say? We'll need the head of a dandelion and one whisker from a small kitty cat. Both of which I just happen to have here in my medicine cabinet.".

Noel pretty much hit on everything (thanks a lot, Noel), but some of it bears repeating.

It was refreshing to finally spend some quality time with characters outside of the main groups, particularly background-background characters like Lexor and Cindarr. And it's from Cindarr that we get the episode's biggest surprise. Call it compassion or honor, but whatever you call it, it's not something we often see from villainous characters. I half expected Cindarr to pick up the unicorn and go into some variation of the old Looney Tunes gag, "I will name him George, and I will hug him, and pet him, and squeeze him..." It's a bit of a cliché that Cindarr is the slow-witted member of the Darkling Lords, the kind of archetypal big dumb guy who doesn't realize he's on the wrong side, but it's still commendable storytelling and typifies what sets this series apart from its contemporaries.

Witterquick and Arzon's dilemma has less to do with ethics than it does with philosophies. Though the story ultimately chooses to show that Arzon was right to address the dragon, if this were reality, it could just as easily have gone the other way. To me, Witterquick is no less noble for not initially wanting to bank on the reason and compassion of a dragon when his friends' lives are at stake. Still, it adds a nice bit of shading to our heroes, each of whom make a good case for their point of view, and shows that complex questions don't always have simple answers. Good people can look at the same situation and the same facts, yet still disagree.

The Wood Nymphs... are a little too cutesy for me. Blame George Lucas (as I often do for most of my problems in life - try it, it's fun) and his damnable Ewoks, I suppose, because my tolerance for those sorts of shenanigans has pretty much been zero since May 25th, 1983. By the time I saw Willow in 1987, I was ready to crawl through the screen and stab the Brownies to death with my Slurpee straw.

This is a solid episode. It's not the most thrilling, nor is it the funniest, but it may well be the deepest and most thought provoking yet.

But, most important of all, by episode's end, Leoric is healthy once again and, by all accounts, as dumb as ever. For that, I raise my own cup and toast the heroes of the quest.

It's time for this week's "Now That's Being a Visionary!" moment:

Cindy: "Hi, girls!"

Suzie: "Oh. Hey. Cindy. Nice dress. Did you find it in a dumpster?"

Ginny: "Yeah, I think I saw that in my neighbor's trash can last week."

(both laugh)

Woman's Voice: (off screen) "Am I fashionably late?"

Girls: (in unison) "Fletchen!"

Cindy: "They were making fun of my dress."

Fletchen: "Why? I think it looks perfectly lovely on you."

Cindy: "Really?"

Fletchen: "It is a pinch short and tight in those places that lead to trampery, but if that's what you're going for... "

Suzie: "What do you know about clothes?"

Ginny: "You look as old as my parents. Where's your butter churn, geezer?"

Suzie: "Do you even have a bra under there? What's that fabric? It looks like the floor mat of my uncle's Pinto."

(Fletchen hoists them both in the air, one hand each)

Fletchen: "My mother spun this fabric two nights before she was eaten by a dragon, along with half the town's flock. I saved it for three years until I was able to salvage a needle following the fires and the legendary Winter of Dysentery. It's kept me warm and decent and I won't have lowly gutter spittle like you passing judgment on it."

Ginny: "It's beautiful."

Suzie: "She's so strong."

Fletchen: "That's the benefit of a butter churn, child. Now hand over the shopping bags. Both of you. Cindy just earned herself some new additions to her wardrobe."

Cindy: "Now that's being a Visionary!"

Fletchen: (looks around) "Visionaries? Where!? Oh, how that Leoric sends a flutter through my loins."

Additional articles in our Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light series:

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