Friday, December 9, 2011

Land Games Act 3 Chapter 3


   “So we’re agreed then?”  Jayle asked, speaking to a small interface screen floating beside her in the street.  Woken buzzed all around her, the ground rumbling ever so slightly with the combined force of their vibrations.  They were everywhere, a constantly shifting wall of brightly colored shells scurrying busily around.  They gave her a wide berth though.  She’d have liked to attribute this to respect, but she could easily remember a time when the Woken crowded eagerly around her whenever she emerged from her castle, stretching forth to receive the touch of the goddess. 
    “Oh yes, I think this deal will turn out quite profitable for everyone involved,” Kurai said from the screen.  She could barely see him on it, but he was wearing the same strangely serene smile he wore every time she spoke with him, which was rarely.  Out here in the middle of her people, she’d felt it was best not to transmit a full body hologram of him.  It would not do to have the Woken see her conversing with one of the Demons.  Not yet, anyway. 
    “Good.  Then please get on it right away.  We need to know what we’re dealing with here.  If I do not receive results from you within three days, I will consider our deal ended.” 
    “Ooh, quite the taskmaster today.  Well ma’am, I know better than to get on your bad side, so I’d better hop to it.  By your leave, my lady.”  He bowed with exaggerated deference, and the screen went blank.  With a swipe, she dissolved it.  Kurai irritated her.  She might be giving him too much credit, but she always had the feeling he could see right through her carefully constructed personas.  But he was definitely the best suited to the job she needed done, which was gathering intelligence on Three.  Now that Brand was beaten and Seol ostensibly on their side, Team Aqua should have this game pretty much wrapped up.  But then Three had come out of nowhere with an army large enough to threaten even their massive alliance.  With two superpowers arrayed against each other, any players on their own now would have to focus exclusively on defending their own territory.  So she’d proposed a simple deal to Kurai: he gather information on the army of House Void and share all of his findings with her, and she would ensure that no member of her alliance would take any of his territory until the end of the game, unless he decided to attack them.  Since she had lost basically her entire army to Seol, Jayle currently had no way to contribute to the battle except through strategy, so she was doing whatever possible to help move things along.  She was tired of sitting by on the sidelines. 
    She walked through the battered streets of her city, taking in the sights of desolation on all sides.  Although most of the Woken had been safely underground during the battle (but not, sadly, all of them), everything above ground had been pretty much ruined.  The Woken were working hard to get some temporary structures set up.  Her few remaining spider tanks towered above them, lifting rubble and carrying to the outskirts of the city.  The Woken gave them a wide berth.  Surrounded by thousands, she felt strangely alone.  She missed Gift, always tagging along just behind her, ready to translate or remind her of the identity of one of her subjects.  But she hadn’t seen him since the battle, though she’d been told that he was uninjured.  Maybe he had lost faith in her, as so many of her people had.  The goddess had failed to keep them safe. 
    Despite everything, she felt warm and happy, the sun shining on her skin.  She’d forgone her usual dresses and skirts to dress in functional shorts and light jacket, and the wind sent her hair flying behind her like a standard.  For the first time in three years, it felt like she was really doing something.  She walked briskly, just holding herself back from flying into an all out sprint, just for the joy of expending some energy.  The voice of dissent in her head spoke up, reminding her of the joyless task she had coming up in just a few minutes, but it failed to bring her down. 
    The castle, now towering over a wasteland of ruins and debris, seemed impossibly large, blotting out the sky and the whole horizon, the one and only object of reality.  She was looking forward to the day when she could leave it behind.  She’d never really felt at home in the House Jade fortress with her sister there, but she felt like that would change when she returned.  Everything was going to be different. 
    The castle’s gate was as crowded as ever, bright shelled Woken formed a solid wall around it.  They buzzed and clacked swiftly as she approached, then flowed to either side to grant her space.  All but one.  Standing alone in the midst of the crowd was a deep brown Woken, short but wide legged, the sign of a strong, solid Woken.  Red markings shone on his shell like spilled blood.  Gift.  All around them, the others went silent except for a low, subconscious buzz, an audible tension that raised the hairs on the back of her neck.  She smiled and inclined her head at her follower.  After a moment, a buzz of electricity hit her with almost physical force, the words lightning fast. 
    “I am here to collect you.  The council awaits your arrival,” Gift said.  They are growing more bold, she thought.  To send someone to guide her through her own castle, and in public.  Before, they had simply awaited in hopes that she would deign to bring herself before them.  This was a sign, a calculated display for the masses.  Well, she thought, if they wish to show a little backbone, that is fine.  Until now, the ruling council had surrendered all authority to her.  Now that she was looking less invincible, they were making moves to wrest some of it back.  Two could play that game. 
    With a few minor twitches of her finger, she signaled her OS, and then whispered a few words, drawing it out to look like an incantation.  A blast of meaningless yet impressive emerald light burst out from her and whirled around behind her, settling into the shape of wings and an encompassing ring.  From the ring, a low stream of bass poured out, slow and powerful, making her whole body quiver along, her heart pounding in time.  The Woken all along the plaza shrunk back as the force of it hit them, and she could imagine their surprise to hear their own language roared out at them in the voice of a god.  She’d been working off and on for more than a year on this program.  Until now, only the Woken who had dedicated themselves to learning her language could understand her.  Now, she could speak to them all.  It was not yet ready for live use, but she had prepared a number of recorded phrases for various use.  Word of her new power would spread quickly. 
    Gift alone did not seem taken aback at her display.  He simply buzzed back a response, and turned to lead the way.  She followed, the massive doors of the castle opening automatically as she approached.  Inside, the castle was as quiet and as empty as a tomb.  Nearly all of its residents were out working to rebuild their city.  Gift’s footsteps boomed in the cavernous space.  She held back the urge to ask him if he was angry at her.  She had her goddess face on, and she had to act the part.  Especially now. 
    Gift led her a large circular room, originally completely blank with white walls, floors, and ceiling.  It was intended as a minimalist interface chamber, its lack of décor a boon to her OS, vastly cutting down on the lag produced when creating holographic backdrops.  But since she had turned it over to the Woken, they had transformed it into a strikingly primeval work of art.  Every inch of space had been painted dozens of times.  Each and every inhabitant of the castle had made their mark, and the mural was always changing.  Directly across from the door the wall was covered in a larger than life portrait of herself, drawn in pink and green.  Her lower body had recently been obliterated by a spray of orange, representing, as far as she could tell, nothing but anger.  Around the room were several dozen Woken of all types.  Each of the councilors was attended by at least one assistant.  Once again she was bewildered at the Woken style of government, with important decisions being made by mass agreement.  She had to assume they never got anything done. 
    She was buffeted by the usual assortment of respectable greetings.  She nodded gravely and walked to her spot in the midst of the circle.  With a wave, she summoned a force field throne and sat, slowly and deliberately.  The room was silent, but for that same tense buzz, nearly inaudible, more of a feeling than sound.  Her pessimistic side spoke up again, warning her against her decision, but she paid it no mind.  She’d made her decision. 
    “Gift, would you please clarify my statements for the respected council?” she asked.
    “Of course…Goddess.”  Gift took up position at her left.  She slowly swept her gaze out among the assorted Woken, allowing the silence to stretch for ten long seconds. 
    “I have called this meeting today to discuss the future of The Woken.  I know that these have been dark times for you all, and that all that you know has been thrown into uncertainty.  Since I have taken The Woken under my protection, we have focused on survival, on weathering this storm that is now tearing about our world.  But now it is time to look forward to the future, to prepare for the elevation of your species.  Though catastrophe has fallen here, soon an entire new universe will open up to you, thousands of new worlds awaiting your arrival.  And as the future comes, I promise to you that I will be there to guide and protect you all.  I will not abandon you.  However, before we can move on into the future, we must revisit the past.  Everything I have done these past years has been to protect The Woken.  But I must admit something…”  Don’t do it, Jayle.  All their love will turn to hate.  This is suicide!  She ignored the thoughts in her head.  She had made her decision. 
    “Though I have done everything in my power to protect you, I have neglected to reveal to you the truth you deserve to hear.  I have allowed you to believe that the other golem armies belong to demons, bent on destroying this world and enslaving The Woken.  But this is not the truth.  I have hid reality from you out of kindness…” the crowd began to grumble, the background noise rising higher and higher.  “…but now you must know the what you face if you are to come with me into the future.  The others you refer to as demons are not my enemy.  The truth is, we are all the same.  I am as much demon as they are.” 
    The room burst into noise as she was buffeted with a dozen shouted questions and outbursts.  She held up a hand, and out of habit they silenced themselves. 
    “That is to say, most of them are not truly malevolent demons.  I know this will be difficult to understand, but you must believe me when I say that none of the other humans mean ill will towards any of you.  All of them are the same as me, children by the standards of our kind.  They are not my foes, but friends.  This battle for your planet has been forced on us.  Its occurrence was an inevitability that we could do nothing to prevent.  But these dark days will soon end.  The war is coming to a conclusion.  The red army is no more.  The blue, gold, and silver armies now follow under my command.  Soon, the destruction will end, and we can begin reconstruction, and under our directive, your society will grow far greater than it has ever been before!  The powers that make us as gods will be yours to command as well!  I know that you all wish that we would leave, that your lives would go back to normal, but I am sorry, this world will never be the same again.  The changes made cannot be undone, and more change is coming.  I know you resent us, rightfully hate us for our actions, but you must put that behind you if you wish to advance.  The past of The Woken is over.  The time has come to awaken in truth.  You have a choice to make.  You can cling to the past and fade away into the darkness of history.  Or you can join me into boldly stepping forth into the future.”  She let her words ring out, put all of her effort into maintaining her façade of calm, and waited for the storm to come.  She wasn’t disappointed.
    “Your words are nothing but lies!  I have sat in silence for far too long, allowing the foolish and weak to follow you, but now everyone will know you for the demon you are!” 
    “Goddess, is this a test?  Surely this cannot be true?  The others are true enemies of all Woken, this is well known-”
    “What is this future you speak of?  Is there truly any hope for a people so deeply broken?” 
    “You would dare to ally yourselves with the very demon who destroyed this city, would have killed every Woken here without a thought?  How can-”
     “This knowledge must never leave this room.  Without faith in the goddess, the masses will fall into despair-” 
    “-will never submit to the rule of demons-”
    “-rise up, destroy them all-”
“Still your shells!”  Jayle was as shocked as the others when Gift threw his voice in.  “Fighting amongst ourselves is pointless.  We are easy enough to pick off without dividing our strength.  Think truly, does this news really come as a surprise to anyone?  For my own part, I have never forgotten how the ‘Green Goddess’ came at the head of an army, spreading fire and death in her wake.  She is no goddess.  No Woken with even an ounce of pride would truly want to follow one such as her.”  Gift turned towards her briefly, as though to glare.  She resisted shrinking away from him.  She could not show fear. 
    “But what choice do we have?  None of the others see us as anything but animals.  Jayle is the only option we have.  Serving her is a disgrace to our ancestors.  Do not ever forget that she is a conqueror like all the others.  Hate her.  Despise her.  But do not believe for an instant that we actually have a choice here.  We will never repel these aliens from our planet, we will never again rule ourselves.  The Green Goddess is a bloodthirsty demon.  But she is the only god we have.”  Gift settled back, edging away from her.  She wondered if he did so out of repulsion, or fear of reprisal.  Her heart sank.  All this time, she had thought that Gift, at least, was her friend.  You have no friends, only enemies and allies. 
    “Very nice speech.  Very concise.  But you’re wrong.” 
    The room was flooded with darkness.  Jayle leapt to her feet, heart pounding.  The voice had come from her own speaker system, transmitted at once in both the Woken language and her own.  Her castle’s OS was being hacked.
    A bright light shone up from below, revealing a young, small Woken standing in the middle of the room.  She was quite certain that he had not been there previously, because he was a distinctive color that she had never before seen on one of The Woken.  Bright orange markings, and a jet black shell.  One of his legs was lifted off the ground, and he leaned on a gnarled staff in its place.  This is a hologram.  One of the other players is beaming this into my presence… but why?  As he appeared, the room grew deathly quiet, the other Woken silencing themselves… in deference?  Fear?  Or just plain confusion? 
    Brrrrr.  Brrrrr.  Brrrrr.
    The black Woken was buzzing in short, controlled bursts.  Jayle knew it was a social gesture pretty much equivalent to sarcastic clapping.  He spoke. 
    “You are, all of you, cowards and fools.  When the demons came, you lost your faith and abandoned your gods.  But your gods did not abandon you.  I am the one foretold to lead you into the future, not this alien child.  You do not know me, Deceiver, so I shall introduce myself.  I am the Farseer.  I am the alternative our people so desperately need.  You sit there and fake benevolence as you claim to have our best interests at heart, but in the same breath you declare that any who deny you will die.  You are smug, secure in your power over us.  But things have changed.  You will not survive to see this war end, and you will not be remembered as a goddess.  You are a plague on this great planet, and I will waste no more words on you. 
    “Traitorous councilors, listen well, for I will not waste much time on you either.  You have all turned your backs on your people to serve this demon instead.  You deserve the fate that she offers you, and if you wish to follow her, very well.  But if you have any pride as Woken, you will follow me, as you should have done from the start. 
    “This false goddess would have you believe that there is no hope, that her people will clamp hold of our planet and never release their grasp.  But I tell you no lies; they have tried before, AND THEY HAVE FAILED!  Our ancestors were enslaved before, but they rose up, they slaughtered the foreign gods, and they took their powers for themselves!  I have seen it with my own eyes and felt it with my own far-sense!  I have reclaimed the powers of our ancestors, and I have a god at my back, a white god filled with righteous anger!  Join me, and we will destroy these demons, we will seize their lifeless golems, and we will go forth into the stars, not as slaves, not as victims, but as conquerors!”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Land Games Act 3 Chapter 2


   Her first thought upon awaking was Maybe it was all a dream.  But memories poured incessantly into her aching head, as they did every time she woke, and she did not have the energy to actively try and deceive herself.  It wasn’t a dream.  They’re really dead.  And it’s her fault.  As she shivered beneath her blankets, she could recall the last few images of her fading dreams.  It was unclear, but there was a young girl, crying in a corner, knee deep in a pool of blood.  Fucking piece of shit morbid cliché, she thought.  She’d never had much of an imagination. 
    She contemplated getting out of bed, but couldn’t think a reason to bother.  She’d failed.  She’d tried to defeat Jayle for the sake of her mother and Rouma.  But she’d given in to her weakness, and let her go, and now she wasn’t in any position to change her mind.  Almost as soon as she’d made that deal with Jayle, after she’d shrugged out of her embrace and retreated to the quiet darkness of her own castle, she’d felt a constant ache of regret.  It wasn’t that she thought that her decision was wrong.  But when she’d been trying to defeat Jayle, she’d been focused and completely certain in the righteousness of her actions.  It had been easy, then, to turn off the grief, to retreat into the intricacies of the game.  To focus on numbers, strategy, tactics.  No it was all gone, and she had nothing to block out the dark thoughts that assailed her day and night.  Just get it over with.  I can’t take this anymore.  I just want to…
    Her thoughts trailed off unfinished.  She’d thought the same pointless, apathetic thoughts again and again for weeks now, running them over in her mind like a dog worrying a bone.  She was now so tired of her own thoughts that she did her best not to think at all.  But then she just felt cold. 
    She felt a light pressure as her Companion’s arms tightened around her. 
    “Hey.  You awake?” he asked, as though he couldn’t tell. 
    “Alright, then.  Sleep all you want.  You need to rest,” he told her again.  He’d said little else since she’d let Jayle go. 
    “No.  Let me up,”  Seol said.  She wriggled out of Ceus’s embrace and rose, pulling the blanket with her.  Nowadays, she always felt cold.  Ceus stood up behind her, but she refused to look at him.  “I’d like to be alone now.” 
    “Of course.  Call me if you need anything, Seol.”  She remained still until she heard the door close, then let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.  She didn’t know what to think of Ceus anymore.  Without him, she’d have gone insane by now.  But she knew his attention was artificial, and worse, his compassion was a mirror that showed her just how pathetic she really was.  She shouldn’t need him, or anyone else.  She certainly shouldn’t need Jayle. 
     She left the lights off.  She liked the dark; it kept things simple.  Still shivering, she crossed to her wardrobe and opened it, revealing a hallway several dozen feet long, fully stocked with hundreds of intricate outfits, each designed to convey a clear message to the world around her.  She didn’t even glance at them, turning instead to the dresser drawers at her feet.  She pulled out a loose pair of sweat pants and a thick, woolen shirt.  She used to enjoy choosing just the right set of clothes to suit her mood, but right now, she only cared about comfort.  She would not be seen today, except by Ceus.
    Her life had been turned upside down yet again in the past week.  After she’d recovered from the initial shock of her family members deaths, she’d thrown herself headlong into the game.  Though at the time she’d convinced herself she was motivated by a desire for revenge, she could now admit that she had been desperate for anything that would keep her mind occupied, keep her too busy to think.  Now that the game had come grinding to a halt, she was left with nothing to do.  Nothing but dark, persistent thoughts.  Outside, her castle was surrounded by an army of silver machines, growing larger by the hour.  She and the other members of Team Aqua (so strange to think of them as her team-mates) had agreed to sit back, recover their forces, and see what happened for now.  With the enormous forces House Void now had to deploy, they couldn’t risk a straightforward fight with it.  Which meant she was doing a whole lot of nothing. 
    Dressed, she wandered back to the bed and collapsed on it, considering going back to sleep.  But she’d probably just end up with more nightmares.  She’d stayed awake for nearly a week without sleep during her assault on Jayle, but she still couldn’t seem to sleep more than a couple hours at a time.  Idly, she waved her hand back and forth across the air overhead, trying to get the attention of her interface.  When nothing happened, she swore under her breath and spoke up.  With an almost blinding light, a cocoon of silvery filigree appeared around her, meaningless symbols like henna mehndi.  She dimmed it to spare her eyes and tapped around to a few of her saved sites.  The official House Mercury bulletin had a steady stream of propaganda issued forth by her father, or at least her father’s personalized speech-writing programs.  She also had access to the memo-laden network used by inner Mercury family members, but it was suspiciously quiet.  She suspected her father had cut her off from the majority of his correspondence, hoping to keep her focused on the game.  She wished she knew enough about computers to hack her way into his personal messages, but she’d never bothered learning about that sort of thing.  Ceus certainly had the skills required, but his programming would never allow him to bypass the security of his owners.  She would have to put up with being kept in the dark. 
    The Imperial News Network was of little use, as usual.  There were numerous articles drafted by (supposedly) key members of the Imperial Court reassuring the general population that all rumors of armed conflict between Houses were completely unfounded, which of course meant there had to be some truth to them.  And then there was the House Jade bulletin.  Since the assassination, Seol had subscribed to every feed supplying information about House Jade that she could get her hands on.  The problem with that was that so many of them were completely unsubstantiated.  At the moment her inbox contained more than a dozen tabloid style rumors about Marona Jade which she could tell were false at a glance.  She really needed to clear that thing out. 
    Finally she checked her personal messages, though she did not expect anything.  She had never been a very chatty girl, so she corresponded with others only rarely.  So she was surprised when she saw there was indeed a message from an old friend.  The icon shone the bright orange color of House Dawn.  In a daze, she opened it reveal only a simple text message.  

To: Seol Mercury
From:  Aurora Dawn
Subject: just read the damn thing

    Hey Seol, how are you doin?  First of all of course I wanted to say I’m really sorry to hear what happened.  I attached a big message along with the one my family sent a few weeks ago, but eventually I realized, duh, you probably got like four hundred of those things I doubt you even read any of them.  So again, I feel terrible and I want you to know that I’m here for you if you want to talk to someone. 
    Its been so long since we’ve talked, I feel terrible for letting it take something horrible to get me to message you again, I’ve just been so busy since my House gave me a real assignment.  I’m in charge of a fleet, if you can believe it, and am on my way to a really interesting place right now.  I’d really like to tell you about it, but of course it is *classified*.  I’ll tell you everything if we get the chance to ever meet in person (which may actually be a possibility one of these days!). 
    One little word of advice: talk to Jayle.  You guys used to be such good friends, don’t deny it, I was there.  So however awful you must be feeling now, please don’t push your friends away.  I know you like to think that you don’t need anyone’s help (and you’d be right, most of the time) but everyone has their limit.  Talk to Jayle.  Let her help you. 
C’ya again soon!  Dawn. 

    Seol stared at the message, bemused.  She hadn’t talked to Dawn in about three years now, long before the Land Games had even begun.  She could remember the girl, all smiles and laughter, pulling them all together after each training session to talk or visit digital clubs until the late hours of the morning.  She’d been older than Seol and Jayle, already verging on the minimum age for participation, and had left training a year before they’d learned they were going to be joining the Games.  She’d be nearly eighteen now.  Seol decided she should respond later… House Dawn had never been close to House Jade.  It was possible she could have a potential ally there. 
    Bored, she turned over and pulled a blanket over her head, again trying to clear her thoughts.  Jayle had said she would help her to remove Marona, and it made sense for her to do so.  With Marona dead or exiled, the ruler of Jade would be her daughter, who was not yet two years old, making Jayle the effective head of the family.  If the girl had any shred of personal ambition, then it made sense for her to throw in with Seol.  But could she really trust her?  And what exactly was she planning to do anyway?  Its not as though she had the force of House Mercury behind her, not while her father ran things.  And she already knew he would prefer to avoid antagonizing the Jades any further…
    “You are being invited to receive a message,” the preprogrammed voice of her interface said. 
    “Tell ‘em to fuck off,” Seol muttered, but it didn’t hear her. 
    “The sender is the contestant of House Blanc.  Name unknown.” 
    House Blanc? 
    Seol threw off the blanket and sat up in a rush, the interface expanding around her.  She hadn’t misheard.  The blank white shield of House Blanc floated before her, a tiny blinking light indicating that he/she was awaiting a response.  Why the hell are they messaging me now?  As far as she knew, the Blanc player hadn’t contacted a single other player since the game had begun.  And now, just out of the blue…
    “Respond.”  She surprised herself with the intensity of her curiosity.  Maybe she just wanted something to keep her distracted for a little longer. 
    Blanc didn’t transmit an image.  A voice simply piped in from the air a few feet ahead of her, as though a ghost were standing in her room.  The voice was made up of a blend of voices, some male, some female, all speaking in unison, with a slight mechanical tone, so it was impossible to guess anything about the speaker’s identity. 
    “Good morning miss Mercury.  Well, it’s morning for you.  It’s a big planet, so you can’t expect our time zones to really sync up most of the time.  I’m surprised you responded.  From what I can tell, you seem to be the rather distant sort.” 
    “Why are you talking to me?” Seol asked.  Immediately after she realized it was one of the overly-blunt statements her teachers had did there best to dissuade her from using so often.  She had a hard time dressing up her statements in polite language.  She considered apologizing, but decided that she really didn’t care. 
    “Straight to the point, as usual.  Couldn’t you at least make an attempt to engage in small talk for a just a little while?  Everyone I speak to lately is so impatient.  And you don’t even have the excuse of being an alien.  Ah, well, it’s true that I have things to do, so I will adhere to your will and keep this short.  There’s a few reasons I decided to talk with you today…”  The voice drifted, as though the ghost were pacing across her room.  “I should think it only natural for me to succumb to loneliness after all this time.  It has been so long since I’ve talked to one of my own kind.  But I’ve managed on my own for years now, so that certainly isn’t the only reason.  I suppose you could say I’m a bit anxious.  Things are going to be changing soon.  I’ve been looking forward to what’ll happen for years.  But change is never easy.  I cannot entirely purge myself of these feelings of apprehension.  But most of all, I suppose I want to offer you my condolences.”     
    “You and everyone else.  What’s the point?  Saying your sorry won’t make anything better,” Seol said.  She was starting to regret answering. 
    “Oh, I know.  You’ll have to trust me on this, but I am the only one on this planet who knows exactly what you’re going through.  The words of those who still have happiness cannot easily reach one entrenched in the pit of despair.  But I have been where you are, Seol, and in fact I am only now arranging the means to evacuate myself from that dark abyss.  So I hope my words will mean more than the countless impotent phrases you’ve been assailed with these past weeks.  I offer you a word of advice:  give up.  Stop trying to be strong.  Stop holding back your tears.  Let yourself break down, collapse into complete and utter devastation.  When you come back out of it, all of your sorrow will be gone.  In its place, transformed, will be true determination.  Not the temporary flash of self-righteous fury that has moved you in the recent battles.  Hot emotions only run so long before they fizzle out, leaving misery in their wake.  What you need is cold, unfeeling, unbreakable force of will.  What does not kill you makes you stronger.” 
    “What do you mean, you understand me?   You’ve lost someone too?” Seol said softly. 
    “Oh yes.  It was several years ago, but I felt the sting for a long long time.  But now I do not, because I took the advice I have just given you, and gave in to my sorrow.  And now I have emerged, reborn from the crucible of calamity.  And though I fully understand that the pain of losing a loved one cannot be measured in terms of numerical value, I still invite you to consider that in your case you at least have a family left to comfort you.  Your father still lives, along with the rest of your esteemed House Mercury.  I was left with no one.” 
    “Your House was destroyed then?” Seol asked.  “I’m sorry.  I can imagine that would be a very distressing event.  But I don’t believe you.” 
    “Oh?  Tell me, dear, in what way do my words smell of falsehood?  What have I done to have so completely misplaced your trust?”  Despite the obviously false nature of the voice, Seol could still tell it was amused. 
    “How about everything?”  Seol said.  “You call me up out of nowhere and start acting like you know me, with this big tragic back-story that just happens to relate to my situation?  Its too convenient.  Also, your story needs work.”
    “Oh ho, did you find yourself a plot hole?” 
    “You’re an official player in the Land Games.  That means you belong to a House selected by the Emperor for this event.  You have the resources to get yourself a castle and maneuvered your way into being selected for this game.  You expect me to believe you were able to accomplish all that as the last survivor of a ruined House?” 
    “Well, well, quite the deduction miss Mercury.  You’re obviously an astute observer.  Learn how to talk to your betters, and you may even make a decent Heir one day.” 
    “Are you done?” 
    “Oh, I suppose.  I do in fact have work to get too.  My clammy companion is as impatient as ever.  I’ll just once more reiterate my condolences, and, if I may, clear up a little misconception I believe you have construed.”
    “And what’s that?”  Seol asked.  The voice was silent for some time, and then Seol jumped in shock as it spoke from directly behind her head. 
    “You assumed I was expressing my sympathy for the unfortunate deaths in your family, but you’ve got it wrong.  I’m apologizing for something that will cause you much grief down the line.  Something I myself am going to be responsible for, and therefore have every reason to sincerely feel some apprehension for.” 
    Seol whipped around, of course saw nothing, and stood to get away from the voice. 
    “Well what is it?” she asked. 
    “I’m sorry you’re never going to get your revenge.  Before you ever get the chance to defeat Lady Marona, your House will be as dead as mine.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Land Games Act 3 Chapter 1


    It watches.  Before It squirms the subject, her muscles tight and twisted.   Her tendons pulsate.  Instinct demands she try to express her pain through the manipulation of her carapace.  Sound.  Vibration.  Sensations which reach out to others.  Sensations which insist on the attentions of the indifferent.  Sensations which demand a response.  Pain.  She is in pain.  But no sound comes.  No vibration.  Her shell has been removed.  Pale clammy skin lays exposed.  White, with a faint pink tinge.  Quivering, she presses her shell-less body against the clear walls of the observation tank.  Senseless.  This clearly causes more pain.  And yet she persists.  Does she desire more pain?  Does it somehow distract her from her fear?  Is fear worse than pain?  It is not sure.  It has only rarely felt pain.  It has never feared. 
    The figure in the tank was a young female indigenous native.  A species as yet unnamed by humans.  This suits It fine.  It has never cared much for names.  It was informed Its name is Three but this is not what It calls itself, in the silence within its head.  It thinks of itself as Itself.  But this young female has a name.  Her name is Final Blessing.  A pessimistic name.  A name given by those with no more hope.  A sad thought.  It does not enjoy sad thoughts.  Desperate for some response, she begins to strike the sides of the tank with her body.  It wonders.  So much pain.  So much fear.  And yet she chose this.  So many have come forward, fully aware, yet willing to endure.  To overcome fear.  To overcome pain.  Three times, It turned away this young one.  Three times, It told her that she could not withstand the tests.  She was too young.  Her body was too frail.  She would not last.  And yet again she came, a fourth time.  Asking.  Begging.  All the while, knowing what she would have to go through.  She was not ignorant.  She was there when Red Flowers On Snow succumbed to the pain and died.  She was watching when Fallen But Not Lost begged for release.  She knew.  And yet-
    It did not understand.  But It could try. 
    It spun Its inner mechanisms faster, sending out a wave of vibrations centering on Its forearm, drawn out before It on the edge of the console.  Every tiny speck of Its armored appendage stood out clearly to Its investigation.  With Its vibration sense It could detect even the tiniest of imperfections in the smooth black shell.  It extended a long curved talon and pressed its jagged point against the shell.  It would try to understand pain.  It pressed down with as much force as It could and slowly dragged the claw across Its arm.  A high pitched keening noise rose up and a slight mark appeared, a long line of grated shell.  Immediately Its shell began to regenerate, creating a slight tingling sensation like that of static electricity.  It felt no pain.  Its shell was too thick.  It would have to try harder. 
    It raised the claw, and thrust it down with a force of ten thousand pounds per square inch.  The claw pierced the shell accompanied by the sound of a sharp crack.  Thick blood, blue-verging-on-black, pumped out quickly, congealing almost instantly to the consistency of drying plastic.  It withdrew Its claw.  A sharp sensation ran up Its arm.  It was unpleasant.  This was pain.  It thought It understood.  But when It turned back to the subject to continue observation, the sharpness did not cease.  It continued.  It grew more and more unpleasant.  It glanced around uneasily.  It did not know what to do.  The pain did not stop.  How could it continue like this?  It tried to ignore, tried to focus, but the pain grew.  It could not think clearly.  It could not-
    It roared, releasing the full blast of its seismic force on the room at random.  It swung Its claws across the nearest console, tearing it to ribbons.  It slammed Its tendrils against the walls and floors, leaving holes behind.  It beat Its arms against the floor.  Alarms blared, competing with the Its roars of pain and fury.  Interfaces appeared, shining bright in the darkness, warnings etched across their surface.  It slashed at them, tore apart whatever It could find.
    And then all at once it was over.  The pain shut off as though a switch had been pressed.  Ah yes.  Combat pain control.  It was a built in function, allowing the body to be flooded briefly with adrenalin and the sensation of pain.  For motivation.  Data showed that those who could feel pain performed better in combat.  But continuous pain was unnecessary.  After the appropriate amount of time was allowed, the brain shut the feeling down.  It was no longer needed.  It felt immense relief.  It had not enjoyed the sense of pain.  Though it had lasted only thirteen seconds, it was an experience that It did not again wish to experience. 
    The thought gave It pause. 
    It did not enjoy pain.  It did not wish it again.  It briefly considered stabbing Itself again, and felt a sudden jolt of intense displeasure.  Fear.  This was fear.  It felt satisfaction.  In such a short time, It had come to understand pain.  It now understood fear.  This was good.  There was so much to learn.  It could not afford to learn slowly. 
    It went back. 

    Pale green fluid bubbled.  It fizzed around the edges of Its carapace.  It floated in a large tank.  Surrounded by others.  Men and women.  Not like itself.  Bodies of soft pink and brown skin.  Exposed eyes and useless vestigial features.  They spoke, aural vibrations softly bouncing from surface to surface.  It was hard to detect them in the tank.  A pair of them moved closer, standing just before the tank.  One male.  One female.  Now It could hear.  They spoke: 
    “-really don’t think your giving this enough thought.  We’ve had considerable success with-” The male spoke.  He stood poised, upper body withdrawn.  Hands clenched.  Nervous.  Submissive.  The lesser of these two humans. 
    “This one is useless.  Not so useless as the last two, I’ll give you that.  But still, there are issues.  Its EEG ratings are much too high,” the female answered.  She did not allow the male to finish his words.  Did she find them offensive?  She stared to one side.  Foot tapping continuously.  One hand searching a pocket of her coverings.  Anxious.  Bored. 
    “I still don’t see why that’s such an issue.  We don’t know for sure what it even means.  It warrants further study.”     
    “It means it’s thinking.  Look around.  What has changed about the local area in the past three weeks?  Nothing.  Same room, same people-” 
    It was confused.  The words this woman said were obviously false.  In the corner of the room, a spider worked industriously, building a web.  The spider had not been there yesterday.  Near the tank, a small object had been dropped, an oblong piece of plastic half an inch long, shattered at one end.  It had been dropped by an assistant two days ago and rolled beneath a table, gone unnoticed.  Another worker had chopped off several inches of their hair a week prior.  There were so many things changing all the time It had trouble noting them all.  But it was confident it had missed nothing. 
    “-what is there for it to think about?  It should be settling down into standby mode and waiting for new stimuli.  We set the engagement parameters too high, just as I warned about.  We’d be better off scrapping this one and getting started on Four.” 
    “But if it’s thinking so much, then it must be learning something.  This could be good.” 
    “No, it’ll just be focusing on a lot of extraneous details.  It’s too stupid to know what’s important.  Look, it can hear us right now, you know?  It’s floating there listening to us talk about what a failure it is and what is it doing?  Nothing.  No reaction.  What kind of-”
    Both figures jumped back, shock running across their features.  Its claws were pressed against the tank, where it had slammed them as she spoke.  Small cracks spread across the tanks surface.  Alarms blared.  A force field, invisible but bright as a spotlight to It, surrounded the tank automatically.  It paid them no attention, lost in thought.  Why had It struck the tank?  It had not been decision.  It had done it spontaneously. 

    It returned to the present.  A loud crash attracted Its attention.  Final Blessing was writhing in the tank, twisting in pain.  She had extended one hand and slammed it hard against the tank.  It glanced at the readings.  She did not have long to live.  Another failure.  Another waste of life. 
    Another slam.  Her palm against the tank wall, the barrier separating her from all else.  It understood.  Moving swiftly, it crept to the edge of the tank and extended Its hand, palm to the glass.  Fingers over fingers.  She looked towards Its head with her eyes, shockingly large and blue outside their shell.  It thought It saw a hint of release. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Land Games Act 2 Chapter 11


    A smile on his face, he spread the window wider to let in the sun, and looked out on the fields surrounding his conquered castle.  His window zoomed in, showing the battle lines drawn up only a hundred miles away.  Serge’s lines of tanks and dragoons looked impotent against the horde of black war machines arrayed by House Void.  They were practically in firing range of each other, yet there had been no battle since Brand had been eliminated yesterday.  Three didn’t seem interested, and Serge didn’t want to provoke him before he had time to reinforce the border.  Brand realized he was thinking strategically and almost laughed out loud.  It doesn’t matter to me anymore. 
    “Brand,” Volca’s voice spoke from behind him, sounding oddly consolatory.  Since he’d lost Volca had been almost silent, and seemed somewhat confused.  She probably didn’t know what she was supposed to do in this situation, especially since Serge hadn’t taken him prisoner as protocol warranted.  “Your message is being answered.  He’s… he’s here.” 
    Brand turned, and was met with the sight of his half-brother Ryam standing in his room, looking tired.  It was shocking how different he looked, eyes bloodshot and framed with dark circles, skin pale and clammy.  He sniffed heavily, obviously suffering from a cold.  It had been a long time since Brand had actually seen him.  He’d avoided him for so long, and now he was momentarily concerned what Ryam thought about that.  He had every right to be angry… but somehow Brand felt he would understand. 
    “Hey bro.  Been a while,” Brand said. 
    “Indeed it has,” Ryam glanced around the room with apparent interest.  “Just like back home in here, isn’t it?  That must’ve been comforting.”
    “Eh, I didn’t really have much time to use it.  Been fighting a war and all.” 
    “So… you’ve been eliminated then?” 
    “Yeah.  Sorry I had to go out first, but it was close.  Seol was like five seconds away from taking Jayle down,” Brand said. 
    “It’s a good thing she didn’t, actually.” 
    “All things considered, everything has worked out for the best.  I’ve been at Court for half a year now, Brand, and I can tell you, something big is coming.  There might not be a real war, hell, no one wants that, but there’s a good chance houses will start aiming missiles at each other soon.  A good missile salvo does wonders for negotiation you know.  Anyway, the point I’m making is, when this shit goes down we don’t want to be on house Jade’s bad side.  If you actually had defeated Marona’s kid sister yesterday… well it certainly wouldn’t have done us any favors.” 
    “So, good job getting your ass kicked then?” 
    “Ha, I guess so.  So what now?  You gonna hang out at Serge’s castle?  Or how about Seol, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind you moving in for a few months.  You guys are gonna get married after all.” 
    “Actually, I’m not going to anyone’s castle,” Brand said.  He realized his palms were sweating, and Volca shooting him a surprised glance was no help.  He’d run this conversation over and over in his head, but honestly he had no idea how it was gonna go.  Ever since Ryam had become The Heir, he’d felt like there was a wall between them.  He’d never been very good at reading people anyway.  All he knew how to do was just say what he thought up front and let people deal with it.  So here goes…
    “I’ve been on this planet for more than two years and I haven’t seen an inch of it with my own eyes.  I’m gonna get out, take a look around.  See what it is we’re supposed to be fighting over,” he said, feinting nonchalance.
    “Oh really?”  Ryam just looked amused.  “You think that’s safe?  I think I’ve heard the natives there refer to you as demons.”
    “I’ll be fine.  Volca will be with me,” he said turning towards her.  To his surprise, she did not appear to be preparing to go off on him.  She looked thoughtful, which probably meant she was running hundreds of probability functions in her head all at once.
    “Hm, yes, I think that will do.  You deserve to have some fun for awhile.  Once this game is over, there will be plenty to do.”    
    “Alright then, I guess I’d better get going.  If Void decides to move in I’m gonna get captured by the wrong player and that would be all kinds of awkward.”
    “That’s one more thing I wanted to ask you about.   I’ve reviewed the battle data.  It doesn’t make sense.  Three deployed an army far larger than it should be able to have created with its resources.  Before your units lost power, it had already conquered a sixth of the Aqua continent, in a matter of hours.  How is that possible?”
    “Beats me,” Brand shrugged.  “Maybe I’ll find out something while I’m looking around.  I’ll keep you posted.”
    “Thanks, please do.  Enjoy yourself.”  He signed off with a wave.

    “Are you sure about this Brand?” Volca asked as they descended in the elevator.
    “Not really.  It’s probably a bad idea,” he said.  “But I think it’s worth doing.”
    “You really want me to come with you?”
    “Huh?  Of course.  I’d get lost in like an hour without you there,” he said.
    “I just thought… I was under the impression…”
    “What?  Spit it out.”
    “I was starting to believe you resented my support.  I want you to know… I have to follow my programming Brand.  My purpose is very clear.  You were supposed to play this game to win, and I was supposed to ensure that you played at your best.  Whether you wanted to, or whether I thought you should, was irrelevant.  I didn’t have a choice in the matter,” she said, quietly.
    “It’s alright.  Without you bugging me all the time I’d probably have been knocked off a year ago.  But the games over now, so… what is it you’re supposed to do now?”
    “I…don’t know.  It is a very strange feeling.”  He grinned, and put his hand on her shoulder.
    “Welcome to my world.  Oh, here’s our stop.”  The elevator chimed and the doors slid open swiftly.  Bright sunlight, real sunlight, flooded in and his eyes ached at the unusual sensation.  He put up his hand, fingers spread, to block out the sun, and took in the view ahead.  It was a burned and battered wasteland, utterly devastated, not a sight he really wanted to see.  But beyond it was a horizon.  And beyond that…
    We’ll find out.  

End of Act 2

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Land Games Act 2 Chapter 10


    “From here onward, you go alone,” the white one, the Deceiver said, the doorway opening before him, a crackling wall of invisible substance holding the ocean back.  The path ahead loomed wide like the maw of a giant beast, ready to swallow him whole. 
    “Why?  You brought me here to show me something did you not?  Is this not all a part of your plan?  Don’t you have any more self-serving lies to tell me?” he’d asked indignantly, trying to hide his fear. 
    “You have called me a liar again and again, but beyond this gate lies the truth.  You must find it for yourself.  When you return, I am confident that your mind will have been transformed,” it said. 
    “And if I do not return?  Perhaps I would rather die free than live as captive to a demon.”      “Then I will have wasted a good deal of my time, and I will certainly be cross.  What does it matter to you?  You won’t be there,” it said, amused.  “Well?  What are you waiting for?  Are you scared?” 
    “I am the Farseer, chosen by fate.  I have nothing to fear,” he said, and forced himself to step forward.  The energy crackled across his shell, and though the ocean’s water was right there, only an arm’s length away, it was pushed back the further he advanced, as though he were walking in a clear bubble of air.  He tried not to be impressed at the sight. 
    Beyond the ship was a mountain of rock and coral, with a swirl of colorful snakes swimming in and out of every crevice.  From a distance, it would appear unremarkable, just one of protrusions rising up from the ocean floor.  But as he ran his far-sense over it, he could sense the open space within, a network of tunnels arranged in a spiral like the inside of a conch.  Exactly like those the Woken had been building for thousands of years. 
    An unremarkable split in the rock wall led to an opening large enough for him.  It was near the top of the spire, a window that would have commanded a high view of the surrounding area were this a home.  He slipped inside, batting away the angry snakes with his far-sense, and emerged in darkness.  A light began to rise up from nowhere, and he realized that it was coming from the edge of the shield that surrounded him.  He wondered how the demon could be doing such a thing, and if it would suddenly cease if he strayed too far from it’s machine.  The light revealed the curve of the spiral wall, leading down and widening as it went.  The walls here were dark and covered in more coral, but below, he could see a hint of color…
    Farseer descended.  As he got lower, the coral ran out, and the walls began to shift and grow brighter before him.  Splashes of color, no doubt once bright and cheery, covered every surface.  Some of them made up mosaics, long pieces of art with a new piece revealed with every turn of the shell.  A wave of homesickness washed over him, surprising him with its intensity.  His home, before he’d been moved to the grand temple in Hope Beneath The Petals, had been much the same as this structure, a tall tower with a single spiral chamber narrowing the closer it got to the top.  As a young child, he had been assigned to the top with three other hatchlings, and they had ran wildly up and down the tower with little regard for the other tenants personal areas.  Six families of many generations had lived in that spire, and they were all so close that the separation of blood was a mere formality.  He had grown up with half a dozen grandmothers and grandfathers, and more uncles, aunts, and cousins than he could count.  His own parents had painted several of the mosaics, his father in particular was a devout and talented artist.  Since he was born, Farseer had often walked past the painting of an older Farseer on the thirteenth turn, the orange markings on his shell shining like fire. 
    Here and there were signs of a long ended life.  Old refuse littered the alcoves built into the inner wall of the tower, the small cells created for those who needed to focus on their work without the constant distraction of those coming and going.  He peered into one such alcove, its walls painted teal like blood, and realized there were dozens of smaller holes on the sides of the walls, probably meant to hold scrolls, now covered in little crabs and sea slugs.  Every home had such a place, where all the books were kept in one common spot, so that any tenant could read as they pleased.  Though of course, some books were kept in secret…
    In the next alcove he found a corpse.  Its shell twinkled in the light, having transmuted over the centuries into a diamond-like form.  He could no longer guess its sex of color, but it was facing him, as though it had died trying to climb the tower.  He ran his far-sense over it gently, and felt a number of small holes riddling the back of its shell.  He didn’t know what sort of weapon had been used, but this Woken had been murdered.  Is this the truth I am sent to find? he wondered bitterly.  Even without the presence of demons, his people had often turned against each other, fighting wars for the sake of greed and pride.  He did not need to see this. 
    The bottom of the tower held a much worse sight. 
    At the lowest level was a pair of huge doors, their frames shattered open.  A huge pile of crystal shells covered the floor, untold dozens of Woken cut down as they tried to push their way in or out of the home.  The bodies were stacked as though some had been trying to climb over each other in their desperation to escape.  Others had been brought down on their way up the first landing, trying to reach the top of the tower.  For what?  There was no escape there, they would only have delayed their deaths. 
    He shuddered as he clambered over the corpses surrounding the entrance.  If there was some truth to find here, he wanted to find it fast.  He was tired of death and destruction.  He braced himself for more corpses when he emerged from the home.  What he found made him drop his far-sense in shock. 
    A large plaza waited before him.  More towers, more homes of countless numbers of his people rose up on all sides.  Hundreds more corpses littered the floor.  But standing tall over them all were a familiar, terrible sight.  Long spindly legs holding up hulking weapons of destruction.  Unseeing eyes of soulless glass.  Cannons that fired long hot streaks of burning death, stronger than any crossbow.  Golems. 
    But these were not the golems of the demons.  His far-sense reached inside of them, and the horrible knowledge he withdrew could never be unlearned.  The bodies of these golems stood on four legs.  Their heads were a huge triangular shell, painted in bright and florid colors, bearing crests painted in painstaking pride.  Tendrils hung down from their backs, spiked and capped with another cannon.  And the space within was arranged so that ones left legs would go here, their right legs there, and have just enough space to access the controls wrapped around on all sides.  These machines were a horrible caricature of his own body. 
    The mind of the Farseer recoiled at the knowledge that his own people had built such golems, used them as weapons of slaughter against their own kind, and declared with full certainty that this discovery should never be revealed, lest his people be once again tempted down that road. 
    But the mind of the revolutionary, the mind of the one who shook with fury at the thought of the demons enthralling his planet, not with malevolence, but with cold degrading indifference, looked on these weapons and thought Yes, I can use these. 

Monday, October 31, 2011


Whew, finally go that done.  I've been very busy lately so I've kinda put this story on the back burner for a few weeks now, but I'm getting back into it seriously now. 

So that was Act 2's big climax, obviously.  There will be two more short chapters before this Act ends, serving as an epilogue of sorts.  Act 3 will begin after, and then we will begin moving into the main plot of this story.  

In other news, I am probably going to be moving this web novel to Tumblr.  I'll let you know when I actually make a Tumblr account.  

Land Games Act 2 Chapter 9



    “The operation is go!” Reckes said.  “Serge, move out now, we gotta end this fast.” 
    “But what about Three?  How is it possible he could have so many units?  They’re swarming Aqua’s whole eastern coast!” Serge shouted back.  On the globe hanging between the three players, the continent was darkening under the approach of hundreds of thousands of black dots. 
    “I don’t know-”
    “Three was supposed to be a distraction, not a whole new enemy!  At this rate, we’ll be overrun!” Serge said.
    “It doesn’t matter,” Jayle said.  Both of the stopped and turned towards her, surprised.  Obviously, they’d forgotten she was here.  “I doesn’t matter what Three does.  If it attacks us we’ll deal with it then.  We all agreed this plan was our only hope.  Let’s get to it.  I’ll move forward and draw Seol’s attention,” she tapped several screens, and her small army began to creep forward.  A crescent of silver ringed her castle, only a mere three hundred miles away.  “Serge, you have to beat Brand, and fast.  Get to it.  Reckes, I’ll need your support.”  Her voice was icy and hard, suffused with a strength that was entirely fake.  Inside, she felt only apathy.  She knew she should care about being eliminated from the Games, if only to ensure that the Woken who relied on her remained unharmed.  But she was finding it hard to see the point.  The games would end, this planet would be divvied up to callous lords who would never visit it, and she would be abandoned. 
    The others withdrew, their images going ghostly and silent, each of them withdrawn into their own personal battles.  She launched her dragoons and sent them streaking towards the hornet’s nest.  Seol was on a hair trigger.  All she had to do was set her off, and then hope she could outlast.  As she watched the horde of silvery spiders and cannons drawing closer, she couldn’t help imagining the face behind them.  Seol and her had spent so much time together, and it was all leading up to this?  What was the point then?  Suddenly from within that cold core of apathy she found a burning spark.      The dragoons were nearly in range.  She tapped a screen and a chat icon popped up.  Seol had left her connected after their last message, daring her to respond.  If she could only make her listen to reason…
    “Seol, please listen to me.  You know I never would have done anything to hurt you.  We’re friends.  Please, talk to me.” 
    The screen flickered, and Seol’s silver eyes stared back at her, sharp as daggers.  Dark circles surrounded them, and her skin had a yellowish tinge, but she looked triumphant. 
    “So now you want to talk, Jayle?  Did my little speech get through to you?  Are you ready to surrender?  Ha, of course you won’t.  You’re too much of a coward to face your sister.  But that’s totally fine, I’ll just have to beat you one more time.”
    “Seol I can’t surrender.  Haven’t you thought about it?  What’ll happen if you beat me now?”
    “I’ve thought of little else for the past month, Jayle.  Victory will be sweet, and I will savor it.” 
    “Seol, if you defeat me, every single one of my units will power down.  This city will be thrown into chaos, and thousands and thousands of innocents will die.  Are you willing to do that?” Jayle asked.  Though Seol’s face barely twitched, she could tell the question took her by surprise.  She probably hadn’t given the natives a thought past wondering if Jayle had weaponized them somehow.
    “You’re trying to distract me.  It’s not going to work,” she said. 
    “Just think about it Seol.  I know you’re mad at me, but-”
    “The natives have already lost.  They can never go back to how things were for them.  I’m sorry but they’re already on a countdown to extinction.” 
    “That doesn’t change the fact that, if you do this, you will personally be responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of them!” 
    “I didn’t start this!  The empire found this planet, they ordered the attack.  It won’t change their fate if I hold back now.  Don’t try to make me out to be the villain here!  I’m trying to avenge my family!” 
    “By destroying thousands of other families?  How can you possibly think that that’s justified.” 
    “Maybe it’s not.  I don’t care.  I’m coming for you Jayle.  If you want to have any chance of saving your precious pets, shut up and get ready.”  The screen went black, and ahead, hundreds of her dragoons exploded as the enemy opened fire. 


    A long beam of energy weaved across the battlefield, its movement erratic and snakelike, whipping back and forth across the sky.  The grass and trees erupted into flame.  The entire sky burned red, reflecting huge flames that burned from horizon to horizon.  Black plumes of smoke rose up like pillars in the distance.  The fire was so thick that he was forced to simply march his tanks through it, hoping their cooling systems could endure. 
    Serge had never seen so many dreadnoughts.  No matter what angle he came from, he was met with a crossfire of the energy beams, and just when he started to make progress a few hundred silver dragoons would swoop in out of nowhere, blast away, and speed up throwing out aerial mines behind them. 
    He needed to do something, and there was no time to calmly measure his options.  He swept his hands over his overlay and pulled a pair of airships out of formation, sending them flying at full speed across the continent.  Immediately a swarm of silver valkyries swept out of the mountains and attacked.  He sent out a wave of missiles to slow them down and fired off another volley towards the dreadnoughts. 
    “Serge, we’re getting a message from Brand,” Ergo informed him.  He knew.  He’d been ignoring it for about five minutes now.  Battle was no time for a chat. 
    A blast of smoke and flame drew his attention to the loss of one of his airships.  He took control of the surviving one and desperately maneuvered, but the valkyries were weaving around in three separate formations, they’re movements calculated enough to provide tactical advantageous and just random enough that he couldn’t anticipate them.  His respect for Seol’s skills was starting to wear thin, now he was just starting to feel inadequate.  How can she be this good?  The voice of his upbringing whispered the answer to him, the one he didn’t want to hear.  Of course she’s better than you.  She’s been bred for it.  House Azure is only a few centuries old.  A hundred years ago it was nothing but a vassal house, glorified servants.  House Mercury has been a force of true power for a thousand years, and has again and again pulled itself up from the edge of destruction, too tenacious to let itself die.  Seol is superior to you by birth.  Only Jayle has a chance of standing against her.
     I can change that, he told himself.  Every house started out as equals.  Everyone has the potential to improve their lot.  The Empire was founded on that philosophy!  It’s the whole point of the Land Games!  All I have to do is win this battle.
    Who are you kidding? the voice said.  Of course they didn’t start as equals.  There are those who are born with skill, and those who are not.  Without the money and research of your parent’s house, you yourself would be an unaltered human, incapable of even conceiving the ebb and flow of this game.  Success builds on success.  The winners are elevated higher and the losers just get lower.  Seol is a born winner.  You are a born loser. 
    “Serge!  Something’s wrong!  All the dreadnoughts have ceased firing,” Ergo shook him out of his inner thoughts.  He realized that, despite his distraction, he’d somehow managed to save his second airship, and a full volley of its missiles was now diving down on a pair of dreadnoughts.  The flames of their destruction added to the hellish backdrop.  He stared, too surprised to feel elation. 
    “Incoming message.  Incoming message.  Incoming message.  Incoming message.  Priority one, priority one, priority one-”  His computer was going nuts, spamming the same message at him again and again.  He muted it and shouted to Ergo.
    “What’s happening, is there a virus?”  Not now, please not now.
    “I told you, it’s Brand.  He’s pinging us over and over.  And his forces have stopped fighting.  I think we should see what he wants.” 
    Serge took a look at the battlefield.  The flames were dying down, and an unnerving silence hung over everything.  Nothing was moving.  Ergo had paused the advance of his ground troops.  Even the silver units had ceased moving, many of them out of formation with the dreadnoughts.  She must be focusing on Jayle. 
    “Answer him.  Make it a private message to my interface,” Serge said.  He felt pain, and realized his fists were clenched hard against the side of his chair, his knuckles white with the strain.  He didn’t like this.  Too many anomalies, too much he didn’t understand.  These game were supposed to be simple.  You fought your enemies and you protected your allies.  That was all you had to think about.  But this game was strange.  He could hear Reckes words ringing in his head.  In the end, it all comes down to luck. 
    With a wave, he removed his interface, the war room containing Reckes and Jayle, and reappeared in his actual physical location, the small island in the middle of his garden.  After the heat and darkness of the battlefield, it was almost shockingly serene.  He heard only the sound of softly dripping water and the rustling of leaves in the breeze.  A flash of red, and Brand appeared opposite him, slouching, his eyes hooded and turned down.  He looked smaller than Serge remembered, scrawny and underfed.  He stared glumly at the ground. 
    “Well, what do you want?  We don’t have time for this Brand!  You’re fighting for your castle here, you know.  Three’s armies are approaching from the east.  Don’t you care if you get beaten here?” he shouted.  He surprised himself at the fury in his voice, and tried to calm himself. 
    “No?  What do you mean no?” 
    “I don’t care.”  Brand raised his eyes, and Serge could see nothing but dejection in his gaze.  “I never really cared about any of this.  Who cares about this planet anyway?  I surrender, Serge, you win.” 
    “S-surrender?”  He should have shouted for joy.  Should have laughed. Something.  Instead he felt like he’d been punched in the gut.  “You surrender?  You can’t do that!”
    “Why the fuck not, who cares?  I just want this shit to be over with.”
    “I cannot believe this Brand.  I thought you were better than this.  Don’t you know your family is counting on you!?  Seol is counting on you!” 
    “Yeah, right.  My parents gave up on me a long time ago.  They know how much of a fuck up I am.  And Seol?  She doesn’t need me.  She never has,” Brand shrugged, and started to turn away.  Something snapped in Serge.  In an instant, he’d cleared the space between and grabbed Brand by the collar, pulling him close and forcing him to look him in the eyes.
    “What are you-”
    “You shut up,” Serge growled.  “How can you betray your fiancé like that?  Do you have any idea what she’s going through?  This is when she needs you most!  This should be your finest hour!” 
    “It’s just a stupid game!  Seol’s hardly spoken to me for weeks!  She doesn’t care about me, all she cares about is winning so she can show Jayle how much better she is.”  Serge let go and Brand stumbled back.  He stared. 
    “You don’t know?” 
    “Know what?”
    “Seol hasn’t told you?”
    “Hasn’t told me what?” 
    “Seol isn’t doing this out of pride.  Her mother and brother were assassinated by Jayle’s sister.  She’s trying to win because it’s the only way she can strike back at the one who killed her family.” 
    Brand’s eyes went wide. 
    “She didn’t tell me!” 
    “She shouldn’t have to.  You are her fiancé, and her partner in battle.  You should know her moods, and understand when she needs you.  You cannot turn away from her because you don’t see the point of this game.  You talk as if it is pointless, but what do you know about it?  Your house is already powerful and rich.  You were born from success, and even though you have failed again and again you will live to be a success because you have the power of your house behind you.  But this game isn’t pointless.  There are those for whom it is as important as life and death.  And Seol is one of them.” 
    “What am I supposed to do about it?”  Brand asked. 
    “Fight me.  And do your best to win.” 


    Thousands of pillars of smoke rose from her city.  Artillery rained down, and only a small circle of green remained ringing the city.  Reckes’s gold army had vanished, whittled away by the unceasing wave of silver.  She was cut off from his reinforcements, and now truly alone.  Despite the desperation of the moment, she couldn’t help but glance repeatedly at the screens showing the deep vaults beneath her castle, where millions of Woken huddled in questionable safety.  She’d had the surface evacuated hours ago.  So far as she was aware, there were as yet no casualties.  The Woken were good at following orders, and had not panicked.  But if this amount of damage kept up, then the entire surface of the city would collapse, burying them alive in grim darkness. 
    She stood in the center of her bedroom, clinging to the familiar as her last refuge.  She’d disabled the team display once Reckes had lost his army.  She was alone now.  From the simulated windows of her room, she could make out individual tanks advancing down the streets of the city.  She was still fighting, her tanks using the narrow streets and buildings to their advantage, her automatic defense turrets popping up out of every street corner.  The streets were clogged with so many silver tank carcasses that her enemies had to climb over them just to advance.  For every hundred yards of ground captured, Seol was losing thousands of tanks.  But she was still gaining.  The castle in the center of the city was already smoking from distant blasts of missiles and beams.  Large chunks of its outer shell had been torn away, with plenty of space for Seol’s spiders to crawl inside.  They would, soon.  Again she opened a link between their systems.  She was fighting still, but it was purely out of habit.  Her only hope was to get Seol to see reason. 
    “Please, Seol, listen to me!” she called.  Seol’s voice answered back instantly, as if she had waiting for her to speak. 
    “I told you before Jayle, nothing you say can stop me.  I’m only answering you because your pleading is sweet music to my ears.”
    “This isn’t what you really want.  Defeating me won’t get you revenge.  Do you think my sister really needs this planet?”
    “This is only step one Jayle.  When I beat you, you’re going to come back to my castle for a visit.  Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.  I’m not the one who betrayed your friendship.  But I need you to get your sister’s attention.”
    “You’ll have it, Seol,” Jayle said, suddenly angry.  “Do you really want it?  You have no idea what my sister is capable of doing.  What happened to your family was a mistake, do you know that?  You know how I know that?  Because she only managed to kill off two of them.  If everything had gone as planned, I’m sure you’d be the last surviving member of house Mercury.”
    “You shut the hell up about my family, Jayle.  I just said I wasn’t planning to hurt you.  Don’t make me a liar.”
    “She’ll wipe you out without a moment of hesitation.  Do you think you’re holding me will dissuade her for an instant?  She’ll watch your family execute me, kill you all, and then calmly sit down to write out new plans.  She’s a cold-blooded bitch, Seol.  You want to shake things up, tear apart her world the way she did to you right?  Guess what, you can’t.  Nothing you do will hurt in the slightest because she doesn’t care about anything but herself.” 
    What am I saying?  She’d never thought like this before.  At least not out in the open, where she’d have to admit it was her own thoughts and not just idle sub consciousness.  But there was true righteous loathing in her words now that, had they been faked, would have been her crowing achievement as an actress.  I hate her, she thought and the admission was exhilarating.  For her whole life, her sister had sneered down at her, automatically writing her off as useless because Jayle couldn’t bring herself to be as soulless and awful as her.  But she had always told herself that she loved her anyway, that she was her sister, that of course she meant well.  But now she couldn’t hold it back. 
    Her interface roared with the sounds of explosions, but it was completely overwhelmed by the same sounds coming from just above.  The castle had been breached.  On her screen, silver spider tanks slid on their treads down the long hallways, exchanging fire with the automatic defense turrets that emerged from the walls and floors.  Bulkheads slammed shut all throughout the castle, only to be blasted apart moments later.  They were coming for her, now.  She had maybe a minute. 
    “You may as well give up talking now Jayle,” Seol said, her voice eerily calm.  “I’ll have you in a few moments, and we’ll have plenty of time to talk back at my castle.  There is no way for you to win now.”
    “Don’t you understand!?” Jayle screamed, slamming her palms against he view screen.  “I don’t want to win!  I never cared about this game to begin with!  If I win, that just means that Marona gets what she wants.” 
    “Then why do you keep fighting!”  Seol’s façade broke, and her voice flooded with emotion, finally. 
    “Because I have to.  There are people, actual people who depend on me, who call me a god, whose lives are being torn apart right now, who will lose everything if I’m taken.  But please, Seol listen to me.  If it weren’t for them, I would power my castle down right now, and let you take me.  I hate Marona.  How could I not?  She’s spent her whole life trying to ruin everything I cared about.  She’s poisoned my relationship with Serge, trying to use me to spy on his House.  She’s pushed away everyone I befriended during training, making sure I didn’t fall in with “the wrong crowd” which is basically anyone with even a shred of goodness in their soul.  And look what she did to us, Seol.  We used to be friends.”
    “I-” Seol said nothing.  Above Jayle, the ceiling shuddered.  It was being blasted. 
    “I’ve done nothing to you Seol.  If I could undo what happened to you I would do it in an instant.  I never wanted to see you get hurt.” 
    “You could have done something!  You are her sister!  Don’t act like you’re blameless!”  Her words were punctuated by another blast from above.  The ceiling cracked, and chunks of debris rained down.  Jayle’s rings reacted automatically, throwing up a green field of energy around her, the debris bouncing harmlessly away.  She ignored it. 
    “You’re right.”
    “I said your right.”  Jayle realized she was crying, and wiped her arm across her face.  “I’ve been lying to myself all this time, telling myself it wasn’t my responsibility.  I didn’t want to act against her.  I’m scared of her Seol.  But that’s changed now.”  
    Another blast, and the ceiling fell away entirely.  A huge silver arm burst through, and reached down.  It couldn’t quite reach Jayle. 
    “I’m going to do what I should have done a long time ago Seol.  As long as I am on this planet, I have to protect the Woken, because I’m the only one they have.  But as soon as this game is over, I promise you I will join you in bringing Marona to justice.  You can capture me now if you want, but I only ask that you stop damaging the city.  My people need it.” 
    The silver spider stopped moving. 
    “You mean, you want to help me?  You’ll help me take down Marona?  You’ll fight against your own house?”
    “I don’t want to.  The thought terrifies me.  But I have to.  I am a scion of House Jade.  It is my duty to take responsibility for the actions of my house.  So for the death of your family Seol,” she knelt, and put for tearstained face down on the floor in a act of prostration.  “I am sorry.  I’m so sorry, Seol.  Please, let me help you.” 
    There was no response.  The explosions from outside had ceased, and only silence filled the air.  The silvery arm of the spider tank had gone motionless.  Jayle raised her eyes to the screen of her interface.  For a long time nothing happened.  And then the screen widened, and transformed. 
    Seol stood before her, her eyes shining with tears. 


    “Right flank, circle around!  Vanguard, charge!”  Serge shouted with exhilaration.  This battle was the most difficult he’d ever faced, in reality or in training.  He’d lost over eighty percent of his forces, and was no only hanging on by the skin of his teeth, but the castle of House Amarant was clearly in sight.  His simple joy had quite overcome his usual predilection towards grimness and he was smiling and laughing with unrestrained fervor.  This is what he was made to do.  This was the way things should be. 
    “Serge, the army of House Void has penetrated deep into the territory of both Brand and Seol,” Ergo said. 
    “And Jayle?” 
    “Still holding.  Actually, it’s gone quiet over there.” 
    “Alright, time to finish this.” 
    The battlefield was nearly empty now except for ruined forces.  Seol’s units were all gone, finally whittled away to nothing.  Two dreadnoughts guarded the castle, and a dozen beam cannons were rose from its walls, filling the air with their fizzling light.  Through the smoke, he saw something red on the roof.  He snatched an oracle and made it dive towards the castle.  It was left alone.  They’d gone beyond trying to blind one another.  When he saw what stood on the roof, he couldn’t help but laugh. 
    “You want me to come, do you Brand?” 
    Brand stood on the roof, completely surrounded by the red light of his interface and the force fields generated by his rings.  The oracle swooped in close enough that he could see his expression.  Brand was smiling idly, as though he were simply enjoying the moment.  He looked up at the oracle, and mouthed a few words quite clearly.  Come and get me.
    “Alright!  All units left, charge.” 
    His tanks rushed forward and were hit with a wave of energy from the cannons.  He rushed into the void left over and sent them swarming out completely out of formation, splitting out as far as possible so the dreadnoughts couldn’t hit them all.  His spiders left up and plunged their claws into the walls of the castle, climbing in leaps and bounds.  The first of them landed directly behind Brand, who, without a moments hesitation, turned and thrust out a hand.  The force field from his ring solidified into a solid beam and struck his tank like a hammer, sending it spinning off the tower.  Several more leaped up, and Volca appeared from a doorway, turning her own force fields against them.  Crunched and battered spider tanks littered the roof, surrounding the two of them like a shield wall.  Serge spared an instant to glance at his unit count.  He was down to practically nothing, his units counted in the double digits.  A blast from the last surviving dreadnought dropped the count to a single digit.  He slowed the advance, grouped his last eight tanks together, and sprang them onto the roof all at once. 
    Shots fired half a hundred times, and the crimson force fields ripped legs and guns from their bodies, sending them flying down the castle.  Smoke cleared, and silence rained. 
    A single tank, its body cleaved in two, but still barely functioning, lay on the roof of the castle.  It’s gun was leveled at Brand’s head, only a foot away.  Smiling, he held up his hands. 
    All across the map, the red flickered, and turned to blue. 


    “Jayle.”  Seol stood before her, silent.  She’d never been good with words, but her eyes spoke volumes.  Jayle stepped over the ruins of her bedroom and grabbed her friend, pulling her into a deep embrace. 
    “I’m sorry Jayle,” she sobbed.  “It’s over now.” 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Land Games Act 2 Chapter 8



    “Are you certain about this?  It seems very reckless.  Your basing your plan on the reactions of an unpredictable player, one we know almost nothing about.”  On his screen, Serge looked exhausted.  Usually he sat with perfectly straight posture, the spitting image of military pride.  Now he slumped in his seat, his eyes bloodshot and framed by dark circles.  He’d removed his ridiculous faux-uniform and was wearing a sleeveless shirt.  He’s gotta be really tired to put comfort before appearances.  Reckes could sympathize.  In the past week, he’d slept a grand total of eighteen hours. 
    “We’ve taken too much of a beating this past week.  We’ve lost too many factories, and Seol hasn’t lost a single one.  You know what that means, she’s got momentum.  We keep playing like this, and the outcome is already decided.  A few more days and we lose Jayle.  After that, I’ll be the next to go down.  If you wanna look at this thing clinically, I’d say we’ve already pretty much lost.  So do you wanna do this the steady, standard way, then sorry to break it to yeah, game over, you lose, pack your bags.  But we still got a chance.  You base everything on skill and tactics, then there’s always a chance you’ll get screwed by bad luck.  But if we put our hopes on luck to begin with, then there’s still a slight chance we can win,” Reckes said.  He turned his dice over and over in his hand, feeling their comforting weight. 
    “Even after all these years, you still don’t strike me as a gambler.”
    “Everything you do is a gamble.  I’m just honest about it.” 
    “It all comes down to luck, huh?” Serge said, then sighed.  “I never would have guessed it, but it looks like you and Brand have something in common.  Alright.  We’ll do this your way.  I’m putting my trust in you Reckes.  The fate of all our Houses rests on your decision.  If we succeed, I will make certain my family does not forget your support.” 
    “Alright then, let’s get crackin,” Reckes said.  He dropped the dice and reached out toward his interface, sending out orders to his units to prepare to move.  But Serge did not yet turn away.  He looked as though he was working up to say something. 
    “And if we fail…well.  If we lose, I’m sure it won’t be because of you.  You have been a loyal and supportive ally these past years Reckes.  I’m  grateful to have had you on my side.  I’m honored to count you as a friend,” Serge said. 
    “Uh, yeah.”  Reckes did his best not to let his amusement show on his face.  So we’re friends now, huh?  That’s news to me…  “You too.  It’s been a fuckin blast, we’re best friends forever.  But we both got stuff to do, alright?” 
    Serge nodded, and made a little grimace that Reckes thought might be an attempt at a smile, and signed off, leaving Reckes alone, suspended in empty darkness with the lights of his interface surrounding him.  He’d decided to drop out of the whole team war-room thing for awhile.  It helped coordinate their efforts, but at this point they all knew what they had to do and he was getting really tired of filtering out the important bits from the constant stream of noise coming from the other players.  His head ached, and his eyes were burning from staring at so many bright lights all the time.  He needed some peace and quiet for a little bit.  He tapped a few commands, and the blackness around him transformed into slowly billowing clouds, deep grey and flashing with occasional sparks of lightning.  Beneath him, a grey-green sea flowed.  It was an image of Algos, the planet he supposed was his home.  He’d never felt particularly nostalgic for it before, but all of the sudden he’d wanted to see it again.  So he had Sola whip up this display. 
    He sighed and took a deep breath, then set his dice aside and pressed a key.  Dozens of screens, several of them twenty feet across, appeared all around him, showing him everything he needed to see.  Today was the seventh day since Seol’s missiles had first bypassed their defenses.  The sun was just starting to bleed over the horizon in the west, the sky over Jayle’s castle tinged light green.  He zoomed out to a composite image created from all of his, Jayle, and Serge’s oracles, and saw that Seol’s main forces were less than three hundred miles from Jayle’s castle.  At the rate they were moving, they could be there in a matter of hours.  Far to the south and east, Serge’s army was deep in Brand’s territory, about five hundred miles from his castle.  This was going to be close. 
      Time to roll the dice. 


    Mei walked across the deck of her airship, smiling as the powerful wind tore at her hair and clothes.  She strode to the edge, where Iras was crouched outside the railing, hanging out as far as he could.  She laughed at the sight; obviously they were not actually on top this airship, they were safely back on the roof of her castle, so there was no chance he could actually fall… unless he was currently hanging off the very real railing of the castle balcony.  Well, it didn’t matter.  Even if he did fall, her castle’s operating system would just catch him with a force field. 
    She joined him at railing and he flashed a fanged grin at her.  Below, ocean streamed in on a crimson shoreline, the vast continent of Aqua open before her.  To either side of her, a trio of airships hung in the sky, clouds and oracles drifting around them.  A few dozen hydras lay in wait beneath the water, their missile pods poised to fire up to the surface above.  On the shore itself, twenty thousand pale peach dragoons hovered over the sand, split into two distinct units.  Before them were the wide rolling hills and orange forests held by Brand Amarant, who was awaiting her support.  She would soon give it, though not too much.  She had plans to help out Team Apollo for two days, then fake an attack by Three and withdraw her forces for awhile.  It would be a delicate task, but she believed she could keep them fighting for at least a few more weeks.  Meanwhile, she was crafting a new strategy for breaking through House Void’s borders.  It was nine-hundred miles from his shore to the place where the ancient spaceship lay buried.  She had her work cut out for her, but so long as she was in possession of that territory when the game ended, all would be well.  Her parents and her brothers and sisters would be proud of her.  Maybe Reckes will be too, she thought.  He would certainly be angry that she had beaten him, but she guessed he was more the type to respect the ones who beat him than hold a grudge.   If we’re lucky, maybe we can play another game!  You couldn’t participate in the Land Games after you turned eighteen, but she and Reckes were both very young players.  They might get another shot.  She would love to give him the chance to get her back. 
    “Alright Mei, this is more like it!” Iras said, bouncing on the heels of his feet.  “This is great for a landing force, but when are we gonna move the rest our units in?” 
    “Didn’t I tell you?”  She smiled sweetly at him.  “This is it.  If you want to win, you’ll have to do it with these.”
    “What?  Are you retarded or something girl?  There’s no way we can make a difference with just dragoons and missiles!  Do you even want to win this game?” 
    She just smiled and waved goodbye, then turned and took a step forward.  The air shimmered around her as she walked, and she reappeared back on her castle roof.  She’d decided to let Iras be in charge of the Apollo force (though she’d have to keep her eye on him!).  She’d kept the secret of the spaceship from him, as well as her overall strategy.  He would be angry, but she thought it was funny when he was angry, so she hardly cared.  She passed the elevator and began bounding down the stairs, feeling a rush of adrenalin as she came close to flying off.  The battle of Aqua was already raging, and soon she would need to start making her moves, both against Serge and against Three, but for now she was planning on eating a huge lunch and taking a quick bath before she got started.  Then she would-
    “Hey Mei stop running around like a moron with her head cut off and listen up!”  Iras voice shouted out of nowhere, right behind her head, and she shrieked in surprise and went falling forward.  Thrusting out her hands, the rings on her fingers created a soft, springy force field and she bounced back up onto her feet.  Iras’ upper body appeared in the air beside her. 
    “That doesn’t even make sense!  What do you want!?” 
    “Right after you left, I caught a garuda flying under our fleet.  I managed to destroy it-”
    “So what?  They already know where we are.  This isn’t exactly breaking news Iras!”
    “Shut up and listen!  Or better yet, watch the fucking footage, I got shit to do.”  He vanished and a screen appeared in his place, fluttering on little golden wings.  She grabbed it and pulled it closer.  The image was blurry, the target distant.  But when saw the garuda flying in a tight loop, trying to avoid the missile Iras had sent after it, she felt a chill run down her spine. 
    The garuda was white. 


    “Master, shall we begin?” Sola asked, her voice drifting in from beyond the cocoon of illusionary clouds he had wrapped himself. 
    “Go ahead and get started.  I’ll be watching, but I want you to take the lead on this one Sola.  I’ve got a thing to take care of,” Reckes said.  On his interface, he was watching his connection request go out.  The receiver showed the symbol of House Tao. 
    “Yes master.  But I am sure you are aware that, as your registered Companion, I am unable to perform at my full capacity?  A Companion must limit their multi-tasking and calculation abilities to a level beneath that of their designated player.  With my current handicap, I do not expect to be capable of defeating Seol Mercury.”
    “I don’t expect you to win.  Just slow her down.  I’m sure you’ll do fine.” 
    “Yes master.  Taking control.” 
    His interface flickered, and Sola took control of the large golden army arrayed around Jayle’s castle.  Her own forces were integrated into his army, split into many small regiments.  She’d spent two and a half years building only a token army, and with a third of her factories destroyed she was unable to field a significant force.  Coming in from the eastern mountains and the southern plains was a massive crescent of silver.  Seol’s lines were stretched tight and the constant stream of reinforcements were barely defended, but it didn’t matter.  Reckes and Jayle didn’t have any forces to spare, so her lines remained safe.  He watched dispassionately as the forces clashed, and the tight formations of both sides dissolved into a mess of chaotic battle.  He turned to his main screen, putting it out of his mind.  He had his own task to handle, and it was as much reliant on luck as it was skill.  His fingers flew across the display as he ordered his units. 
    “Hi Reckesy!  Do you really think you have time to be talking to me?”  Mei popped up on his screen, half a dozen plates of food set in front of her, grinning furiously. 
    “You know I always got time for the ladies,” Reckes said.  On his other screen, he was maneuvering his forces.  Easy now… go slow. 
     “Liar.  You just want to distract me or something.  Well too bad for you I’m already taking a break!  So go ahead and say whatever you want, I’ve got all the time in the world!” she said. 
    “Well it won’t take that long.  I’ve got a proposition for you.  See, I’ve been thinking really hard about something, like really grinding my brain here trying to work out the whole meaning of the universe and shit.  And I’ve come to a realization.  I am completely, utterly fucking idiotic.  Just, a total waste of brain matter here.” 
    “No arguments from me!” 
    “Thank you, that means a lot.  Course I’m really talking about the old me, not the current me, since I was able to realize how much of an idiot I was, that kinda makes me smarter now.” 
    “Sure, that makes sense!” 
    “See, I really just did the one stupid thing.  Granted, it was dumb enough to give me this brilliant epiphany I just had, but it was still only one thing.  Can you guess what it was?” 
    “Gee, uh, I dunno, maybe… letting me find out about the spaceship?” Mei said, yawning. 
    “Bingo.  What the fuck was I thinking.  So, just for the record, aside from that one screw up, I’m still a total genius here.” 
    “We all make mistakes.” 
    “I believe you said something about a proposition?  Why do you even use big words like that anyway, it doesn’t make you smart.” 
    “Shut up, who cares about my vocabulary.  Yes.  A proposition.” 
    “And that is-?” 
    “I think we should share the space ship.  Fair’s fair, we found it together.  It was a totally collaborative thing.  So why should we fight over it?  We both know that this ship is the only thing that really matters in this game.  We should make sure we’re the ones who get to benefit from it,” Reckes said.  On his screen, he was just about at his destination, and he ordered his units to split and begin flying in evasive maneuvers.  He wasn’t quite ready yet. 
    “That’s so generous of you!  And how do your Aqua buddies feel about this?” Mei asked. 
    “Ok, so we’ve established I’m a moron but do you really think I’m stupid enough to trust this sort of information with those ungrateful assholes?  I mean seriously, why the hell do you think I was even scouting Silence in the first place?   I thought you were one of the smart ones, come on Mei.” 
    “What do you mean, that’s why you were scouting Silence?” 
    “I was trying to get a feel for each of the other players, see how good they’re doing.  Because there’s no fucking way I’m going to finish this game attached to these losers,” he said.  On his screen, he caught a glimpse of movement, and furiously began maneuvering his units away.  It was too early for him to be seen.  
    “You mean… you’re going to betray them?” 
    “Of course I’m going to betray them.  The only reason Serge even made it this far is because I was telling him what to do the whole time.  And Jayle is of course as useless as they come.  I’ve managed to get a nice chunk of territory, but now that Seol’s gunning for Jayle it’s time to move on.  And who is there for me to ally with?  Kurai?  Can’t stand him.  Brand?  Only marginally less useless than Jayle.  Oh, how about the huge fucking monster who can’t even speak?  Nah, think I’ll pass on that one.  So that leaves…” 
    “See you are one of the smart ones.  What do ya say Tao?  We got Brand stuck right between us as it is, and they think your on their side.  All we got to do is wait for Seol to take out Jayle.  Then you and me wipe out Brand in about half an hour and we’re good to go.  There’s no way Serge will ever work with Seol if she manages to capture his precious fiancé.  If we time this right we’ve got this game as good as won.” 
    “Are you serious about this Reckes?  You’re always so sarcastic I don’t even-” Mei started. 
    “Nuh-uh, don’t give me that.  The time for bullshit is over.  We’ve got a golden opportunity here, forgive the pun, and we need to jump on this while the iron’s in the fire.  We let the Jayle and Brand get eliminated, then you and me focus on taking down Three.  All we need to do is get that ship and we’re good.  House Tao gets to move up in the world and maybe my House can finally serve someone who actually deserves it.  What do ya say?” 
    “I…I don’t know.”  All her usual easy cheer seemed drained out of her.  Her food lay forgotten on the table.  “I don’t think I can actually make this kind of decision by myself.  I’m not even the heir!  I should contact my parents-” 
    “No, listen, we don’t have time for this.  You know this is a win win situation.  Just think about it for half a second.  You want this.  I know you do.” 
    “Well it sounds like a good plan, but… what about your team mates?” she asked.  “Don’t you feel bad about betraying them?”
     “Why should I?  This is an upgrade.  You and me on the same team, that’s how it always should have been.  This is politics girl.  Sometimes you gotta get your hand’s dirty.” 
    “Alright then!  Let’s do it!”  Mei said, her manic grin returning.  She waved, and her pink interface appeared around her.  “Send me all your visual data!” 
    “Sure.  You can go ahead and send me yours in a few minutes.  Wouldn’t want you to think I’m pranking you here.”  With a few taps, he linked their computers, and just like that all of his units became visible to here.  He watched closely as her eyes scanned her screens, her grin somehow widening even farther. All he could do now was hope she wouldn’t question the placement of his small flight of valkryies, currently hovering between the borders of Silence and Teardrop. 
    “So what’s the plan then?  Just wait for Seol to take out Jayle?” she asked.  He breathed easier, but tried not to let himself show any relief. 
    “For now, yeah.  I’ll slowly start pulling my troops back, let her get closer.  Serge will never notice.  Without me defending her Jayle won’t last an hour.  By tomorrow, this game will be down to six players, and you and me will be on top.”     
    “Alright, I’d better go get my interface set up!  See you soon!” 


    She climbed the stairs two at a time, her body tingling with excitement.  Reckes wants to be on my team!  She could barely believe it was really happening.  She’d tried to make herself be realistic, so she’d never really considered it as a possibility before.  House Aureus was widely known for their loyalty, so she’d never have expected this of Reckes.  But he’s different from those pushovers at Aureus.  Reckes knows what he wants.  And he wants to work with me!  Since the game had begun, she and he had worked up a friendly rivalry, and he would occasionally talk with her even if he didn’t have any tactical reason for doing so.  She considered them friends… but she’d never been sure how he felt about her.  Maybe this would open up the possibilities to a closer relationship.  She wondered if Reckes was engaged to anyone yet. 
    She found Iras on the roof, directing her forces with wide sweeping gestures, as though he were conducting an orchestra.  He turned as she entered. 
    “Hey Mei, what the hell just happened?  We just got all of Reckes Aureus’s tactical data!  And he’s listed as an ally now?”
    “YEP!  We are now Team Golden Peach!  Until we think of a better team name anyway.  So yeah, don’t attack him or anything.  Let me see what’s goin’ on.”  She walked to one of the big, comfortable chairs in the middle of the roof and plopped down, then pulled up her full interface, the many winged screens filling the air around her. 
    “Mei, have you thought about this?”  Iras tone made her pause.  He wasn’t yelling.  He didn’t even sound angry.  He sounded worried, and that was something she don’t think she’d ever heard from him before.  She swept a number of screens out of the way to get a look at him. 
    “Yes, I’ve thought about it.  Just look at the map.  In a few hours me and Reckes will be in top place, and Jayle and Brand will be out of the-”
    “Yeah, yeah, it’s tactically sound.  But who came up with this plan?  You or him?” Iras asked. 
    “Well, Reckes did, but I don’t see why-”
    “And why would he suggest this now?  They aren’t doing too good, but if they can take out Brand first, then they’ll pretty much rule all of Aqua by game’s end.  Seol will take a lot of time to beat, but if she’s on her own then she can’t win.  And your not seriously helping her, are you?” 
    “Because now is the best time to join forces!  He’s just doing what he thinks is best.  Also, I am one of the most successful single players in this game.  Why wouldn’t he want to join up with me?” 
    “Uh huh.  All makes sense.  Now what about House Aureus?  Has his parents agreed to this alliance?  Have yours?”     
    “We don’t need to go to our parents for everything!  We were chosen as the representatives of our Houses-”
    “Yeah, to play the Land Games and win territory.  NOT to set political policy for your House.  An alliance between Houses is a serious thing.  It’s not just something you do in the middle of a game.  I think this is a trick.” 
    “How can it be a trick?  I haven’t even sent my data to Reckes yet!  He’s wide open to us and he doesn’t know anything!  There is no way-” 
beep beep beep beep
    Her interface was signaling that she needed to see something.  She grabbed a flashing screen and pulled it close.  It was a view from a garuda, high above her airship fleet, the one floating over the ocean between the three continents. 
    It was no longer simply floating.  The fleet was moving northwest at an alarming speed.  The coast of Silence was just visible on the horizon.  And in the sky, a couple hundred black missiles were launching towards her.  Immediately she took control and began firing missiles to try and counter the others, but it was almost too late.  Valkyries were rising up behind the missiles, coming to finish her off.
    “Iras, why did you move the fleet!?” 
    “What?  I didn’t move any-”  His face went pale, and he pulled up an interface, his eyes scanning.  “THAT BASTARD!” 
    “Who-” she was interrupted as the first missiles hit her fleet.  Three of the airships went down immediately, while the others managed to blast the remaining missiles out of the sky.  But several took damage.  They wouldn’t be able to move at full speed.  She could either slowly retreat, and try to protect them on the way, or she could abandon the damaged ones and pull her two good airships back.  Either way, she’d just lost a massive force.  But how?
    “I told you Mei!  He did this!”  Iras was still yelling but she had no time to listen.  Then her interface began to beep again, drawing her attention to the north end of Teardrop, where her forward base was under attack.  She switched perspectives and froze, feeling as though she’d been punched in the gut.  The force attacking her base was a force of twelve-hundred valkryies.  They shone bright gold in the sunlight. 
    “He pulled us!  He used the emergency help request and it automatically responded.  I’m sure it sent you an alert, but we were too busy arguing-”  Iras was going on and on. 
    “Shut up!” she screamed, and turned her interface soundproof.  Her airships were being overran by black valkyries.  She couldn’t understand why her base was being damaged by such a tiny force, then realized that her units would not automatically defend against an allied force.  She switched her rating of Reckes from Ally to Hostile, and immediately her forces began to open fire.  He was vastly outnumbered, and would be beaten soon.  She could feel her heart beating fast in her chest, her stomach was churning, and she felt like she was going to be sick. 
    “Hey.  Sorry about that.”  Reckes voice came from one of the many screens floating around her.  She’d left their chat window open when she went up to talk with Iras.  She turned and snatched it out of the air, glaring as her vision filled with tears.  On the screen, Reckes sat stoically, his fingers toying with his stupid dice. 
    “What are doing?  I thought we were supposed to be allies now?” 
    “Yeah, about that.  You really should have known better.  House Aureus isn’t all that powerful, but it is old.  We’ve been around for fourteen centuries.  You know how we made it that long?  Because we were always under the protection of another House.  We’ve shifted allegiance again and again, sure, but never once have we betrayed the House we were bound to.  And as lame as Serge is, I am bound to serve him.  I don’t betray my real allies,” Reckes said. 
    “But I thought… I thought you really wanted-” 
    “To join up with you?  Sure, I’d love to.  You’re a great player Mei, and I like you.  But this is politics girl.  Sometimes you gotta get your hands dirty.”  The screen went black. 
    “Mei!”  Iras had overrun her silence setting and was shouting for attention. She turned, stunned.  “Your base is under attack!  Are you just gonna sit there!?” 
    She looked.  What was Iras talking about?  Her defenses were finishing off Reckes easily, no worries there.  Then she saw it.  Advancing from Silence’s southern shore, a huge force of black units were moving forward, come to capitalize on her weakness.  Another was moving across the water, pursuing her damaged airships, straight towards the eastern edge of Aqua.  Towards Brand’s territory.  And then she realized that was his strategy all along.  To get Three to move out, and distract the others from their attack.  But she had no choice.  Her forces had to retreat, and the only direction she could go was west. 
    “This is wrong.  Three… since when does Three have such a big army?”  She ran a scan on her interface, and it automatically counted up all House Void units visible at this time.  A chill went down her spine as she read the number.  Either her computer had added a few zeros, or House Void had quadrupled in size since their last battle.