The sun shone down from the east, a blazing yellow light illuminating a huge river twisting in on itself over and over again. Dozens of islands sprang up from its midst. The islands and the banks of the river used to be thick with trees, but yesterday’s fighting had reduced it all to ash and transformed the river into to a thick grey soup. Across the river, Brand’s crimson army was scattered across the plains, seemingly at random. A couple of hills looked to be reinforced with artillery, probably beam cannons like the one Brand had destroyed in their previous battle. But his units had no formation, no hint of order or design. Most of them weren’t moving. Serge wasted no time. Now was the perfect opportunity to strike.
He sent his dragoons across first in waves, spread out in three distinct phalanxes. The hills lit up with blasts of gunfire. Hundreds of his hovercraft crashed and burned, but even without backup they were able to smash through Brand’s line for dozens of miles, easily tearing through the scattered groups of unprepared spider tanks. As he activated his dragoon’s boosters, sending them blazing across the battlefield and spraying aerial mines in every direction, his spider tanks began to advance, leaping from island to island to cross the river with ease. Brand’s tanks were being blasted apart by mines, and his own tanks were quickly forming into a wide crescent, sweeping north and cutting down foes like a scythe threshing wheat. Normally at this point, he would have considered meeting this result with a confident smile. As it were, he felt only a vague unease. Compared to Brand’s sudden burst of enthusiasm yesterday, today he didn’t seem to be reacting at all. Were his units on auto-pilot?
“Ergo, any trouble on your end?” he asked.
“Nope, just mopping up some of Brand’s defensive structures. He left them damn near unguarded, it’s kinda pathetic. He must be focusing his attention somewhere else.”
“Reckes, Jayle, is Brand engaging you anywhere?”
“He just diverted 20,000 tanks away from my army…” Reckes said. “Even though he totally outnumbers me. I was trying to lure him into a trap, but it looks like he’s just gonna let me smash these fortresses. He’s headed towards you Serge. Move up your 4th reserve to point B7, and you’ll be able to flank him. Not too fast, or he’ll see it coming. If he’s bothering to pay attention.”
“Everything’s quiet here,” Jayle said. Her own units were being held in reserve, to support any army that started to flounder. Reckes didn’t want to provoke Seol too much yet. Before they could put their plan in motion, Serge needed make some more headway to the southeast, towards Brand’s castle.
“Alright. I’ll smash his army here. How will that affect the plan?” Serge asked.
“Shouldn’t be a big deal, we’ll just jump ahead a few steps. I’ll revise the operation board when the battle’s over,” Reckes said.
Gritting his teeth, Serge returned his attention to the battle, if one could even call it that. With voice commands, he called out to his forces (which caused Reckes to shoot him a bemused look) and ordered a general charge. Without building into a proper formation, his troops burst forward and ran rough over the enemy. Normally he would have paid dearly for such a reckless move, but Brand’s units were so poorly arranged that they barely got the chance to fire back. His beam cannons, well protected and cleverly placed, nonetheless proved inconsequential. The tanks failed to protect them, leading to their immediate destruction. By the time Brand’s army appeared on the horizon, he already had the field well in hand and had his forces digging in for defense, a pair of shield walkers plodding up to take place in their midst.
Serge set them to firing, then leaned back and lifted his arms like a conductor preparing his orchestra. As Brand’s units began to encroach, splitting to target both his shield walkers at the same time, he swept down his hands to activate his reserve. Thousands of dragoons sped at breakneck pace through tenuous territory, hundreds of them modified to carry spider tanks. They struck the enemy like a hammer; his main force, the anvil. In minutes, the field was littered with broken and shattered machines, their bright red paint providing a gory appearance.
Perfect, he thought, allowing himself a slight twitch of his lips in the direction of a smile. But aside from the pride he felt as victor, there was another feeling gnawing away at the back of his mind. Yesterday, Brand had seemed like his old self again, not the best tactician, surely, but capable of spontaneous bouts of reckless brilliance. When he’d talked with him after the battle, he’d seemed distant and reflective, two traits he never would normally use to describe Brand. During training, he’d always been happy for a challenge, always asking for advice and looking to Serge for an example. It had made him nervous, worrying about how his every action could be construed, but he still had appreciated the thought. He remembered at one time he had hoped that maybe one day Brand would use the advice he had given him to succeed in the Land Games.
Now, they were enemies, and Brand’s abilities seemed to be falling at a meteoric pace. If all went according to plan, he would be defeated in a matter of weeks, and House Amarant will have gained nothing from their ill-chosen champion. He couldn’t help but wonder how Brand would take it. He knew if that ever happened to him, he would never be able to face his parents.
Reckes swept his eyes over the map, searching desperately for some way to speed things up, to finish this and free up their forces. Again, the memory of the spacecraft rose up and he cursed his stupidity. He should have stopped Mei from seeing it, but now she knew about it and she was in a much better position to get at it. Reckes hadn’t bothered to tell his allies about the ship. Unless they could defeat Brand and Seol first, there was simply no way they’d be able to capture and hold it until the end of the game, and he didn’t want them distracted. And if either of his allies took it into their head to take over on strategy, he would have no choice but to comply.
Serve well, and be appreciated, his parents had told him. It was practically the family motto. The Aureus House had long been a subservient vassal, first to House Tyrion and now to Azure. He’d whined and shouted about how he was better than that, that he should be in charge. He was such a kid back then. But then his grandfather had taken him aside and spoken to him.
The old man was ancient, more of a great-great-great-great-uncle in truth, but he had always felt more close to him than that. A masterful player himself, he’d played the Land Games when he was even younger than Reckes, served another House, and emerged victorious. Even now, he served, as a respected advisor to the head of the House. He’d taught Reckes the truth about what it meant to serve others.
Those in power must always struggle. Always watch for the knife in their back, always wonder what to do, and always will they be the ones to suffer if they fail. But those just beneath them, those who give good counsel, those who steer the ones in power from the shadows, aye, they come out ahead. You hang back, say your ‘yes sirs’ and ‘yes ma’ams’ and keep your head about you, and you’ll see who’s really the one in charge. The old man had taught him a lot of good things. In the end, it all comes down to luck. He glanced over at the pair of dice he’d rolled earlier, laying untouched on his interface. They’d come up as a one and a two. Not the worst luck, but pretty close. He’d have to be at his best if he was going to have a shot.
“Sola,” he called, looking to where she floated across the room, calm and serene. She turned towards him, golden eyes shining even in the well lit room. “I’m going to begin the operation. Back me up.”
“Yes master, of course. In what way should I support you?” she asked. An A.I. as simple as hers had to be given specific instructions, sadly.
“Just maintain the groups directly adjacent to mine control group, and watch for any dip in production. Be on standby if I need to split forces with you.”
“Yes master.” He watched as she bent back to her work. He hadn’t known how to act around her when he’d first arrived on this planet, and he still felt a bit awkward ordering her around like a computer when she appeared to be fully human, aside from the wings. An only child, Reckes had grown up only with his parents and a handful of grown servants. The other kids he’d met in training were only obstacles and rivals. Even Serge and Jayle, the ones he’d dedicated his services to for the past two years, he didn’t feel much affection for. When this was all over, they’d go their separate ways. Only far more powerful, if I can get that ship, he thought.
He swept into the game, moving northward into Jayle’s lands. Since his plan relied on keeping Seol fixated on Jayle but preventing her from being defeated, he figured it was best if they managed to expand her territory as much as possible while Serge got into position. Unfortunately, he soon found himself moving forward blindly. Even though he was clouding the skies ahead with dozens of oracles, they were being shot down at a remarkable rate. The most he could tell is that the mountains were filled with silver units, spread out into dozens of small groups. Normally that would be a foolish decision. But someone like Seol, who could actually control them all separately without being overwhelmed, could turn it into a truly threatening tactic. No matter how he chose to advance, he would quickly be surrounded.
He halted his troops between two of Jayle’s fortresses, which had several thousand green valkyries hovering overhead, and switched control over his garudas. Currently he had thirteen of them, flying patrol all over the planet to keep him informed on distant developments. He pulled two from Kurai’s border and called them to join up with his army. Kurai might try to take advantage of his distraction, but he was too weak to pose much of a threat, and if he did attack, he would almost certainly attack Jayle. And honestly, she could use the experience.
“Yo Jayle, I’ve got garudas incoming. I want you to have your valkyries fly escort so we can see what Seol is up too,” he told her. It took nearly an hour for his garudas to arrive, and during that time his oracles caught glimpses of silver movement throughout the hills. She was clearly poised to strike. If she would attack, then they would have Jayle’s fortresses on their side. But the more they let her build up her forces, the harder it would be too repel her later. And he wanted to know what he was up against.
His garudas went forward just behind the valkyries, the wide spread of land clear in their vision. The eastern edge of Jayle’s territory bordered a range of mountains made of deep purple stone, with huge boulders of green crystal jutting out from their side. The mountains had dozens of valleys between them, covered in violet sand, with white water rivers cascading through, constantly changing the flow of land. The burnt orange trees that grew on the mountaintops provided considerable cover, and the constant spray from the rivers created a thin mist as well. It was the perfect spot for an ambush.
“We’d be morons to go in there after her. We’ll just have to make it a little less inviting for her,” he said, smirking. “Jayle, have your valkyries fire missiles on all the mountaintops. She won’t be so comfortable after a few avalanches.”
“We can’t do that Reckes! There’s a lot of Woken living in those hills. Most of the mountains have been hollowed out to form villages,” Jayle said. Reckes grit his teeth.
“Well they’re probably long gone now, she’s got a whole army marching through there. We’re missing a great opportunity here.”
“Listen to Jayle, Reckes,” Serge cut in.
“Sure, we’ll just float around in the sky here with a big target painted on our-”
“Master, evade!” Sola screamed.
The air filled with explosions, Jayle’s valkyries bursting apart dozens at a time. He managed to pull his garudas up, skimming the upper atmosphere, and was met with the sight of a sky filled with black smoke. The garudas vision shifted, allowing him to see through the smoke, and he caught glimpse of a large turtle shaped object slowly crawling through a valley, half submerged in sand. He soon found two more, spread throughout the mountains. Tanks were leaping out of caves onto the summits, firing up into the swarm. There was a crash and blare of static, and one of his garudas was gone.
“Pull back!” he shouted. “Sola, send in the dragoons to cover our retreat. Hold back 20%.”
“Those are airships!” Jayle was shouting. “She dismantled them and turned them into artillery batteries. She’ll be able to fire on our border from here if we let them stay!” The remaining valkyries, numbering less than four thousand, flew high in a loop, spreading out into four distinct squadrons, then dove for the airships, spitting missiles. If she had listened, they never would have had the chance to attack, he thought bitterly.
“Sola, give me control of the dragoons. Prepare for anti-air defense,” he said. Jayle was right. If they didn’t stop those missiles, Jayle’s border could be blasted wide open. It must have taken months to move those airships up slowly, quietly, out of sight on the ground. He’d thought Seol was all about outright combat. It seems she’d learned some subtlety.
She watched in horror as her valkyries crashed down on the mountain summits, blasting chunks of rock and crystal skyward with each strike. She could only imagine the devastation going on inside, the villagers huddled together at the lowest points, praying for protection. Maybe even praying to her, the Green Goddess. She’d let them down again, another wonderful failure. When she’d been training for the Land Games, she’d been the perfect student, skilled, insightful, passionate, and clever. But after it had just been one failure after another. Her poor people didn’t realize how pathetic a goddess they’d received. Two years ago, Believer had told her that the Woken traditionally considered jade green a color of selfishness and shortsightedness. Those that followed her had revised their beliefs, but she had always felt it was an apt description. Of her sister, who wanted the whole universe. And of herself, oh yes, it fit all too well.
Her fingers flew across her interface, splitting and combining her swarm of valkyries in an ever changing dance, dodging missiles and raining fire down on Seol’s subterranean weapons. She could feel her teeth grinding in frustration. Three years ago, she’d have performed this dance flawlessly. Now she was awkward and slow, her tactical mind blunted by so much inaction. So far, she’d managed a few hits, but majority of her shots were being destroyed by defensive fire, and Seol had shield walkers moving in to soak up what little got through. She knew full well how much damage those ships could do this close to her border. After all, she had been the one to develop this tactic, four years ago, during the one week break centered around the Emperor’s Birthday.
She had spent that week locked in constant battle with Seol, frenzied duels that would last half the day and end in a laughing celebration. In those days, Seol and her had been inseparable. Seol never got tired of the game, but even when Jayle insisted on a break, she had been happy to sit with her, not talking much, but listening, silver eyes focused like a hawk on her prey. It had gotten too the point where Marona had stepped in and forced Jayle to call up Serge, insisting that she needed to spend some time getting to know her future husband, although their arrangement had not yet been publicized.
The land-ship tactic had won her the game, but Seol had criticized it anyway, saying it was much too slow to be worth the effort, especially since the ships could do so much more in the meantime if left in the air. Seol always wanted immediate results, and Jayle had managed to capitalize on her impatience in many a game. It was too bad that Seol had chosen now of all times to take her advice.
Reckes golden dragoons were sweeping into the mountains, but she had no time to wait for them. As it was, she knew if she diverted her attention for an instant, all her units would go down, and her border would be defenseless. To her left, her interface was lighting up, showing that her Vassals were requesting an audience, a rare event. One that meant something important had happened. She grit her teeth and kept playing. Her people would have too wait.
As much as he tried to focus on his own battles, Serge couldn’t help but notice the flurry of activity going on in the room around him. Reckes and Jayle were shouting back and forth to each other, sounding steadily more frustrated. Serge glanced again over his own map. Brand’s forces had rallied into a more stable army and was actually reacting to his attack now, but he still had him on the run. A barrage of missiles from his airships had already made it past the battered army and was currently streaming towards half a dozen of Brand’s fortresses. If they did half as much damage as he expected, the way would be open to advance of Brand’s inner territory.
“Ergo, take over,” he commanded, and then pulled up his factory controls, managing his reinforcements while taking in what was happening on the globe in the center of the room. In the mountains just outside Jayle’s border, a frenetic battle was taking place. “Reckes, do you want some help over there?”
“No! Stick to the plan… we have to… oh shit.” Reckes was hunkered over his interface, sweat beading on his brow. His eyes were wide and unblinking. Across the room, Jayle looked much more calm, but he’d never seen her hands moving so fast before.
“Jayle, give me a feed on your oracles,” he said. She didn’t react at all, but after a moment the grey interface encircling them beeped and he was able to access the view of her oracles. He sank back in his chair, realizing what he was seeing. “Reckes, you need help. I’m sending-”
“NO, you stay there and finish the plan!” Reckes turned towards him, livid, then something on his interface caught his eye and he whipped back to it, distracted. Serge ignored him, began queuing up the forces he’d held in reserve-
“Uh, Ser, we got us a problem here,” Ergo called. He pulled up the oracles viewpoint she had selected for him, then stared for a moment, uncomprehending. Across the network of rivers, Brand’s army had been more or less wiped out by Ergo. But rising up from behind them was another force. It was quite small, but rising from the ranks were at least two dozen of Amarant’s towering dreadnoughts. How can he have so many? Brand’s dreadnoughts were so expensive that they seriously cut into his supply of the support units he needed to protect them. It was only really feasible to field about ten of them at a time. And yet there was clearly a large number of units arrayed around them…
He took control and sent a dozen oracles diving towards the army. They were predictably destroyed, but by slowing down the footage they recorded, he was able to get a glimpse of the enemy. The dreadnought fleet was surrounded by about 4000 spider tanks, a paltry amount, and twice as many dragoons. All were silver. Seol’s.
“She can’t be controlling both armies at the same time,” he said, not entirely sure of it. Seol had always been incredible at micromanagement. And she had always been capable of getting even better, the more determined she was to win. He guessed she was pretty determined now.
“It’s probably Ceus,” Ergo said, referring to Seol’s Companion. Even so, she had too be splitting her attention pretty carefully, as she would have been the one to set this up.
“Then we’d better take it out fast,” Serge said. If they managed to defeat Ceus’s army, than Seol would have no choice than to shift her attention, unless she was willing to let Brand lose a number of his factories. He shifted his forces, rearranging them into a defensive position, and separated out a few squads of dragoons for flanking attacks. But he wasn’t sure if his forces were adequate. He had no experience facing that many dreadnoughts at a time. And all Brand would have to do was set targets for them, he wasn’t likely to mess that up. He didn’t have time to think about it. The integrated force was moving forward, fast.
“Hang on Jayle! Ergo, with me!” he called. “Squad delta, charge!”
“Incoming message, priority 1,” a noncommittal voice spoke from her computer. “Sender registered as player Seol, of House Mercury.”
“Open,” Jayle answered. She was still playing on half a dozen screens at once, trying desperately to maneuver her valkyries into position while ordering more units in from her closest cities. She had thousands of dragoons pouring out and blasting towards them at top speed, but they would likely do little good. Most wouldn’t make it into the valleys with all the defenses Seol had set up. She didn’t have time to try and figure out why Seol was messaging her, but she figured she had better answer it. If Seol wanted to divide her attention between playing and talking, she was welcome to it. All Jayle had to do was stay silent and focus.
“I didn’t really expect you to be willing to listen to me. Maybe you’ve matured.”
Seol’s familiar voice spoke from around her. She’d chosen not to provide a visual, but Jayle had no trouble imagining her silver eyes, focused like a hawk. Her voice was utterly flat and calm, devoid of any hint of stress. Jayle expected nothing less from her.
“But this is one thing you certainly haven’t improved at,” Seol continued, while her missiles blasted another hundred valkyries out of the sky. “The old Jayle would never have let me get my army into such an advantageous position. Have you lost your wits? Or do you just not care?”
Jayle saw an opportunity, and leapt forward to hit the screen, nearly shouting in fervor. Her valkyries wove and dived, and at last a flurry of rockets shattered through the shields and struck an airship. She grinned as explosions blossomed along its side, and the useless wreck ground to a halt. Seol continued her monologue without notice.
“That would be just like you. This Land Games is meaningless, you’d say. Just fighting over pointless territory. As if a spoiled brat who has had everything she ever wanted handed to her could possibly understand why we play.”
Across the range, Reckes dragoons were nearly wiped out, but a scant few hundred were flying across sheer cliffs, many of them smashing into boulders as they flew, but they had almost reached another grounded airship. She swept her entire valkryie force in that direction, losing hundreds more, but managing to provide him with cover. It was enough. Not having time to slow, Reckes sent his forward dragoons ramming into the airship at full speed, firing their rail cannons as they went. Another flurry of explosions, and Seol was down to one airship. We’re almost there. We can still do this, she thought.
“Reckes! Pincer!” she called, trusting him to see her plan.
“Sola, take squad b!” he shouted, following her lead. They swept the reminder of their forces towards the airship, attacking from three separate angles. This would finish it.
“All your life, you’ve slipped by, always so perfect,” Seol continued. “Everyone always praised your talent, your dedication. But no one ever looked closer. No one saw the truth.”
Jayle’s body ached, and her arms felt like they had huge stones chained to them, weighing her down. She was moving slower now, and more of her aircraft were falling, faster than ever. She had well under a thousand now, barely enough to make a difference. Reckes dragoons were thinning out, their shots impotent against the shields surrounding their target. Seol’s forces were converging from all over the mountain range, mopping up the remaining resistance. In a few seconds, Jayle’s valkyries were all that remained. No, I can still do this. I only need one shot.
“But I did. I saw you as you truly are. You played the games they told you to, and you won again and again, and gained everyone’s respect. But you only did it because it was easy. Because you didn’t really have to try. You’re just naturally that perfect.”
Jayle’s fingers slowed, then halted, as she realized there was nothing left for her to do. Her army was gone. The airship began to rise, extending fully from the ground, and opened wide, its roof splitting in four triangles to reveal the massive siege missiles meant for destroying factories. She could still watch. A hundred oracles still flew overhead, but Seol did not destroy them. She wanted her to watch.
“But that’s where we’re different. You don’t really care about anything. You don’t have anything to fight for. And that means you can’t win. Talent can’t compare to righteous fury. And I’m pretty fucking furious.”
The missiles launched, trailing shimmering lights behind them. As they rose into the air, static filled her screens as all her oracles were shot down at once.
“Well I’m going to give you something to care about Jayle. You want to sit alone and play goddess with your pets, and ignore the war happening right outside your borders? You think you’re above it all? You think that it doesn’t concern you? You’re wrong Jayle.”
Her screens filled with sight of massive explosions, lighting up the map. The globe holo in the center of the room shuddered, showing shockwaves spreading from the two dozen sites hit. Shields, bright green walls of energy flaring against the yellow sky, held or broke. Nine of her factories collapsed completely ruined. Those that still stood were heavily damaged.
“I’m coming for you Jayle. Try and remember how you beat me before,” Seol said, stoic up until the end. With a click, she ended the connection, and Jayle was left sitting in silence.
“Damn it!” Serge shouted from across the room. “I had to retreat. Brand’s regained all his territory.”
“This isn’t working,” Reckes said, shuffling his dice in his hand. “We need to do better.”
No, Jayle thought. We need a reason to care.