She watched the last remnants of Brand’s crimson tanks blasted apart under the fire of her units (and Serge’s airships-on-loan) with calm satisfaction. As the battle winded down, she began to notice the sharpness of her breath, the sweat beading on her forehead. She wasn’t as used to this as the other players. Jayle avoided combat whenever possible, and the other players didn’t bother to attack her much either, considering how little territory she owned. With a wave, she dissipated her interface and hopped to her feet. Altogether, the battle with Brand had lasted nearly four hours, and she was hungry and in need of a bath.
She wished briefly that she could simply speak and have her Companion jump to attention, ready to prepare things for her. But that wasn’t an option now. She’d had Sero deactivated when she got tired of hearing her sister’s words coming out of his mouth. Honestly, she couldn’t understand how the others could stand it. Then again, they didn’t have any other company at all.
She’d set up her interface in the library just below her own bedroom. Leaving it via the elevator, she pressed the key for the ground floor and waved the walls clear so she could watch as it shot upwards. For the first few dozens of floors, there was only the dreary view of her castle’s automated factories. Then light and color leapt out from every direction.
Many of the castle’s factories had been emptied and converted into living space for her earliest residents. The walls and floors were the same gunmetal gray as always, but huge structures of hard baked mud filled the middle each chamber, rising to the ceiling in complex towers and bridges, like giant termite nests but far more carefully designed. Every surface of the buildings were covered in brightly colored paints and dyes, some colored in full, others patterned in intricate designs. She’d learned that the natives believed each color had a specific quality associated with it, and had been amused at the idea that these primitive people shared the ideas of the nobles of the Great Houses.
Clattering around everywhere in tight-knit groups were the natives themselves. Though the children (of which there were a huge number, here in her castle) were very small, always clacking around her shins, making the air buzz with their excited vibrations, the grown Woken stood about as tall as a human teenager. They balanced on four dexterous legs covered in thick armored carapace, giving the a passing resemblance to the House spider tanks used by herself and the other players. Their torsos were lithe and thin, very human like except for the carapace and barbed tendrils running down their spines, and their arms and hands were close enough to resemble humans as well, though they had only two fingers plus a thumb, very pointed and sharp. The human resemblance ended at the head, where they appeared to have a huge arrowhead-shaped shell across their shoulders, swept forward in an aerodynamic curve. Holes large enough to fit her fingers through threaded the head-shell, which whistled when heavy wind swept through them, but could be closed via interlocking armored plates. There were eyes in there, somewhere, but the Woken didn’t use them too often, except to admire the colors adorning their walls. The Woken considered sight a secondary, mostly decorative sense.
The elevator opened and she stepped into a hallway. Immediately four of her native supporters turned towards her and clicked shut their eyeholes, kneeling low on all fours. She felt all the hair on her body stand on end as the hall was filled with a low buzzing. The many bits and pieces of shell on their bodies vibrated, creating a lively song of percussion, and bringing a smile to her lips. She had had a hard time learning the complex language of vibration from her people, especially since she could not detect the subtle undertones of the bass-like electromagnetic currents they used to create them. But this phrase she knew easily, because she heard it every time she chose to walk among them. “The Green Goddess,” they cried out, their tempo at fastest speed to show respect. “Mother of the Stars.”
She reached out, and they gathered around her, allowing her to trail her fingers across the smooth surface of their shells. She was glad they seemed to consider it a kind of blessing, because she loved the feel of their armored bodies, and the slight electric charge that run up her arm when she touched them. They ended their buzzing/chattering and waited quietly
“What are you all doing out here?” she asked. “I told you before, you don’t have to guard me. No one is going to hurt me.” One of the Woken, a young male whose head-shell came just up to her shoulder, buzzed in response. His name was Gift. His shell was of a deep, rich chocolate color, with beautiful patterns in blood red all over his body. She bit her lip as she tried to understand his ‘words.’ “Danger, threats,” she understood that much. “Red, Devil.” She paused. Red Devil. They meant Brand. His army had been outside the city for the past few hours, though it was now destroyed. No doubt they worried he might have gotten some of his minions inside, to attack her directly. Well, they were always worried about her, after all. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t understand that the seven ‘devils’ conquering their world were her all acquaintances of hers, some friends, none hated. She’d never had the courage to try and explain the nature of their relationships to her people. Would they still love her if they knew she was just another demon?
“I will be fine. The red army is gone, and my machines will defend me. It’s unnecessary for you to watch over me too, though I do appreciate it,” she told them. Not to mention, pointless, she couldn’t help thinking. Unarmed as they were, a single spider tank could slaughter them by the hundreds.
“Do you have need?” Believer asked, vibrating very slowly. She liked Believer. Her shell was a magnificent shade of pink, patterned in pure white, and she stood taller than Jayle, which made her feel more like her actual age, older than Jayle’s parents. And she was one of the only Woken who would actually ‘talk’ slowly to her. Woken vibrated very quickly when showing deference, so as to take up as little of her time as possible. Which made it very difficult to understand them.
“I’m actually pretty hungry,” Jayle said. “Had to skip breakfast.” They seemed a little confused over the word ‘pretty’ but waved her along anyway, Believer explaining there was a victory feast being held at the castle’s gates, in celebration of the defense of the city. They hadn’t dared to hope for her presence, and were delighted to have her.
She followed along, her entourage growing as she passed through the halls of the castle. The closer she got to the exit, the more the air seemed to quake and tremble with the sound of thousands of Woken projecting their electromagnetic fields. Her heart seemed to vibrate along with the beat, pounding harder, and she could feel her body tensing up for action. Her ears began to ring slightly, and she felt as though she were off balance. She paused for a moment before the door, composing herself. In the back of her head, she could still hear her sister’s words, telling her as a child that in public, she was not herself, she was Jayle of House Jade, a member of one of the most noble and powerful dynasties in the known universe, and that she must never show hesitancy or meekness, lest she bring shame on her family. These Woken may not know or care about her dynasty, but they did care about her, and any sign of exhaustion she showed would worry them all. She needed to project a feeling of confidence so that they would feel safe. Their whole planet was a war zone, overrun with powerful machines they couldn’t even lift a claw against, and they needed some small sign that things were going to be okay. Until this game was over, that was all she could really do for them.
She reached behind her and looped her fingers through the band in her hair, pulling it loose and letting her silky black hair cascade down to her hips. She smoothed out the wrinkles in her clothes and focused on her expression, putting on her ‘noble’ face. Eyes clear and focused, showing sharp attention but without hostility. Mouth pursed and serious, but with a slight upward tilt to show confidence. She stood poised slightly forward on her feet, holding herself with a dancer’s grace. She’d learned how to put on this show almost before she could walk.
“Believer, open the door please,” she said.
The doors slid open, and all at once the air calmed, a wave of silence as powerful as an explosion hit her. She stepped forward onto the steps and carefully descended. All around her, thousands of Woken stood shoulder to shoulder, their shells glittering dozens of colors in the bright sun. The yellow sky was fading towards twilight, the deep dark green of this planet’s night encroaching from the west, blending into a rich gold. She looked around, taking in the sights but moving only her eyes, so that she did not show any indication of ignorance. Huge buildings stretched overhead, composed of the cobalt blue metal her machines were built of, but each was covered in a thick layer of the same dried mud the Woken built their houses out of, painted bright colors. Here though, this close to her castle, they were all the same rich green that represented her House, out of respect for the Green Goddess. Hundreds of simple wooden tables had been set up in the main street that led up to her castle, and they were currently being piled high with the fruit and vegetable feasts that the Woken preferred. A culture of such primitive technology could never have fed so many in one place, but she had helped them to construct huge underground orchards that ran beneath the entire city, so that they would not lack for food.
Closest to the gates of the castle, the tables were filled with Woken covered in strips of green silk, looped around their bodies and hanging around their legs. The Woken did not wear clothes ubiquitously (their carapaces took care of both protection from the elements and modesty naturally) but they did wear them for ceremonial purposes. These green wraps showed their dedication to her, marking them as a kind of priests, calling themselves Vassals. She’d told her populace that she was not actually a god, only an alien with advanced technology, but that had not stopped them. Woken philosophy was complicated, and from what she could gather they did not consider her status as a natural being to be incompatible with godhood. Considering how she wanted to address her subjects, she paused at the end of the table, silently regarding the assembled host.
One of the Vassal leaders, an elderly black shelled Woken named Trust In Benevolence, lifted himself to his full height and clicked/buzzed out a question, extremely fast. She wasn’t able to catch what he actually said, but she felt she could assume he was asking her intentions or officially inviting her to the feast. She gave a magnanimous nod and swept her vision slowly over the crowd, allowing them all to feel as though she was locking eyes with them personally… although she couldn’t actually see their eyes, so maybe that was a meaningless gesture. Using small gestures, she caught the attention of her castle’s computer. The whole plaza was still in range of the holo-imagers. Creating only a small interface, she formed a huge image of herself in the sky above, large enough to be seen clear across the city, and figured it to magnify her voice as well. She could hear a great rustling across the crowd as they let out a collective click of awe.
“I am grateful to you for sharing this feast with me. Before we begin, I would like to speak to you all, briefly,” she said. In the back of her head, she could again hear her sister. When reassuring others, always speak succinctly. The less words you give them, the less they have to doubt.
“Today, our city was threatened by the army of the Red Devil. But I assure you all, there was never any true danger. I will always protect my people, and as long as I still live I will not see harm come to your city. The Red Devil has been thrown back, and he will never be allowed to pierce the walls of this great city.” As her words faded away, she could hear, and feel, the rumbles of small conversation in the crowd. They were uneasy about something. She raised her eyes, and could see, just barely on the horizon, the glowing blue shapes of Serge’s airships, still patrolling her airspace. Of course. “And if my army alone is not enough to protect you, I will call on my allies.” She raised a hand and pointed, but guessing that they would not be able to see that far, projected Serge’s airships in the air above the plaza, along with a few of Reckes’ gold ones. She could still feel the uneasy rumbling in the crowd, but what could she do? There were some that called Serge and Reckes gods, but many others that considered them devils just like Brand. She could see they would need more convincing.
She continued to speak, assuring them that their lives of peace and plenty here would not be jeopardized. As she spoke, the rumbling sound grew louder, but more condensed, coming primarily from her right. Keeping her appearance poised, she nonetheless began to panic. She hadn’t had such a bad response from a crowd since she’d built this city and gained the trust of her Vassals. The crowd began to grow silent, appeased, except for that buzz on the far right. It was growing louder, and sounded different than anything she’d heard from one of The Woken before. Shrill, angry. And her words suddenly failed her as the sound grew and assaulted her ears, making her stumble back. The air roiled with a cacophony of noise; everyone was moving, scuttling around like frightened bugs, clicking and buzzing with no regard for each other. She looked to the right and noted a large Woken slamming his way through the crowd, bright red shell looking bloody in the twilight. It was brandishing some unwieldy device of wood and strings. It pointed it towards her-
“Ah!” she shrieked as a heavy creature slammed into her, knocking her off her feet. Believer had tackled her hard enough to bruise, and was straddling over her protectively. She barely had time to notice when she heard a piercing crack, and a two foot long spar of wood penetrated deep into Believer’s neck. Teal blood sprayed out, dotting the shells of her guards and Vassals. The red Woken in the crowd was struggling to reload his crossbow, but the others were pulling him down, restraining him by shear weight. She felt someone tugging at her arm and was pulled to her feet by Gift. He dragged her away just in time to stop Believer from collapsing on her. Blood continued to pour out in a thick pool around her.
In an instant, she was swept back inside her castle, surrounded by a protective throng of Vassals and Gift. All of them were chattering and vibrating with fervor.
“What happened?” she asked. Realizing that she must sound like a frightened child, she tried to compose herself, but couldn’t seem to stop shaking. “Who was that?”
“A madman,” Trust In Benevolence was saying. But Gift was saying something else entirely, his noises drowned out by the others.
“Let him speak!” she commanded, and her Vassals went silent instantly. Gift did not seem likely to break that silence. “Please, Gift. I want to know.”
He spoke. “He called you a Deceiver, and a False God.”