“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!”