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.”
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.”