“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The others withdrew, their images going ghostly and silent, each of them withdrawn into their own personal battles.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?”
“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.
“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.
“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.”