by Casey Nash
Having captured the Lord of Despair, Ceravic goes after the Lord of Deception.
I am the Lord of Despair, and I am a helpless captive.
Shun had to think that to himself quite a few times before he could make any sense out of it. Ceravic had outmaneuvered him so totally he could scarcely comprehend it. This last move--the use of a double agent to lure him here to the castle, and force him to send his forces against Rade's with internecidal intent... It was too... ambitious.
Shun didn't think Ceravic was just Playing for fun anymore. All indications were that the Goblin King had decided to end the Game. Shun could only guess at the catalyst that had prompted Ceravic's decision, but it wasn't that hard of a guessing game, in the end.
Shun had known the details of Marin's death almost as soon as they had happened, and he had been very confused. Teth had always been something of an enigma, but to actually kill another Player...
No doubt Ceravic was feeling very unsettled. If Players were going to start killing each other, he would no doubt want to get a jump on the movement.
Which is why I'm in the situation I'm in, he thought dully. He cast his dark eyes around Nex's dark lab. It was filled with things that he dared not touch, for he could sense the layers of magic intwined in every object at hand. That included the door, and the window. The window that, for reasons Shun could only begin to ponder, revealed nothing but a dark corner of the castle's interior. And then, of course, there was the sorcerer himself.
Wrapped up in his long black robes, Nex was lying motionless on the great stone table that dominated the laboratory. Shun could feel tremendous amounts of magic layered into the rock, and, furthermore, he could feel that the magic was active, meaning, the spells laid upon the table were working on Nex as he lay atop it. Magic that offered a rejuvenating effect, Shun was sure. He was the leading authority in the world on death, and Nex had seemed half-dead out there on the ramparts. But his white face was relaxed and peaceful-looking here in the shadows of his laboratory.
He needs his rest, for what's next on his agenda. Apparently. Shun had heard of Sinder, the infamous battlemage. He had invented such spells as "Thunderflame," and the coyly named "Higher Fire." And "Immolation Bomb."
- - - - - - -
Noon. The sun stared down at the world from its zenith, and shadows fled from its brilliant gaze. In a large courtyard within the outer walls of the inner castle, goblins massed in huge numbers. Ceravic was wasting no time in going on the offensive. The training grounds for his armies were enormously expansive. Most of the central castle and all of the space beneath it was reserved for the goblin hordes. A whole other city, a whole other world, one of tunnels, existed beneath Oblivion, extending into the eponymous mountains in nearly every direction. The mountains themselves covered the center of the continent, and from there extended to all the coasts save the north. And where there were mountains, there were goblins, hordes of goblins, within and underneath them. And the Goblin King commanded the entirety of these hordes. A previously useless nuisance was now an entity of swarming destruction. Ceravic smiled to himself as he watched his forces being shaped into formation. The scaly masses were being divided into three groups, one each led by Ferus, Ssob-gib, and Glate. Huge wagons were being readied before the massive outer gates of the city, and great, tireless beasts called Krags were being reined into position before them. The wagons were filling up with goblins, who had no problems with (or concept of) personal space. Whatever troops did not fit into the wagons would run alongside them. The masses would be heading out on a speed march very shortly, a rapid rush to the enemy, the momentum of which would be carried over into battle.
Ceravic called it Wave Warfare.
Atop a single spire that extended up from the central castle, ornately robed elbows rested upon a circular balcony of a dull red metal. Hema-something or other, Sobgib had told him it was called. Ceravic watched the hustle and bustle, and he noted the attention it was attracting. He would probably have to make a statement to the populace, explaining that he was responding to the two-pronged attack of yesterday. The sharper among the citizens would have already figured that out, but Ceravic put very little faith in the deductive powers of the average human being, precisely because they were average human beings. Had they any true intellectual prowess, they would be more than average.
He heard footsteps on the tight spiral staircase that climbed this spire; light, quick footsteps: ones that would be made by the thin, nervous type. Without turning, he asked, "Do they need me, Sobgib?"
"Yes, Sire," the tactician said breathlessly. "Your presence would be greatly appreciated. The goblins are easier to handle with you around."
I'll bet. He straightened and turned to face Sobgib.
"Also, sir," Sobgib added, somewhat reluctantly, "I must admit I am at a loss to understand your current reasoning. Is an attack the best move right now? I thought we were going to use my plan--"
"I'm not attacking Rade."
Sobgib tilted his head.
"I've issued a challenge to Teth. He has accepted. Over the course of our little interim, he has been massing troops on the western side of my mountains."
Sobgib looked interested. "What sort of troops?"
"The avians, of course. What would his merfolk do in the mountains?" He shook his head. "Delicate little things. I don't know what he sees in them."
"The avians? They have wings."
"And hollow bones." He gestured. "Tell them I am on my way."
"Your Majesty." Sobgib nodded and departed.
The King watched his servant leave, and then turned back to regard the massing of his troops. His--Sobgib's--current plan was one of which he doubted Simble would approve; it was a tad too sneaky for the stringent Lord of Right's sterling standards. So appearances must be maintained. It was no secret that he and Rade were constantly at odds with each other, but he didn't want to seem to be exclusively focused on his barbaric adversary just now. He needed to set up overly obvious and easily recognizable behavior for the moment, behavior that had nothing to do with Rade. Teth's incursion into his borders made an ideal excuse; naturally, the territorial Lord of Oblivion would focus on punishing such audacity. Then, when the noose that he and Sobgib--and Shun--were carefully drawing around the barbarian overlord's neck suddenly snapped tight, none would be more surprised than the Goblin King at this utterly unexpected turn of events, and he would see to it that a ripple effect would ensue, the waves of Rade's fall coming to crash down on all the others.
Ceravic's faint smile reappeared briefly. I just might win the Game. Very, very soon.
He drew his sword, shouting a single, guttural word into the air that echoed through the courtyard. It blazed red, a beacon that drew all eyes up, to him. Then, with all eyes on him, he leapt from the spire, flipping and twisting as he fell. His robes billowed tightly about him again, and he slowed to a languid, controlled pace, touching down gently just before the entrance to his castle. Three phalanxes of troops straightened in respect.
"Time to go."
And go they went.
- - - - - - -
"And it's not going to be me."
"Wrong," I voice my mental contradictions, "on both accounts."
He eyes me in utter disgust, total exasperation. "That makes no sense whatsoever."
Nex became aware that he was conscious. The last images of his dreams faded into memory. Conscious, he examined the backs of his eyelids, listening to the blackness in the lab. His back was sore and stiff and perfectly straight against the hard stone of the table he lay on.
As he listened to the black, he tried to hear some noise that would indicate Shun's location. He knew the necromancer was still in the room, because the only way he could have escaped was by defeating Nex's spells. Which was laughable. Just laughable.
And yet, knowing for a certainty that the Lord of Despair was in the room, Nex could not hear him. Not a breath nor footstep nor flutter of clothing disturbed the black silence. Nex held his breath to help his focus, but all that did was make him acutely aware of his own heartbeat.
Frustrated without quite knowing why, he opened his eyes, feeling like doing so lost him a game.
Shun was pacing the far wall. His black tatters wavered silently around him. His footsteps made no noise whatsoever.
Well. That's just eerie, he thought to himself.
As if he had caught the thought, Shun looked over at Nex with a mocking smile on his death's-head face. It made Nex wonder... Ceravic had some skill with the mind-touching art known as Arcane Perception. Did all the Players? From what Nex had heard, Simble always knew if you broke his rules. Teth always knew if you lied. What did Shun know? He had sensed Marin's death from halfway across the continent.
If Shun was aware of Nex's inner musings, he gave no sign of it.
In any event.
"I see you have been filling the hours productively," Nex said.
Shun made no reply beyond stopping in his pacing and settling his awful gaze on Nex. Nex was no stranger to intense glares, but looking at Shun like this was a little like looking at death itself. There was a promise in Shun's soulless eyes, and it made Nex shiver in spite of himself.
The sorcerer smiled at him. "Wanna go for a walk?"
Shun stared. "I can't say that I do, no."
"That's too bad. We'll be leaving right away."
Shun's death-bleached stare showed Nex nothing of the thoughts beyond, and he was unwilling to try and force his way through just then.
At length, Shun said, "Lead the way, Nex."
- - - - - - -
Ceravic hurled Slayvyr straight up in the air, where it spun and flashed red and fell back down shortly afterward, two halves of something large and feathery falling down with it. He put on a spurt of speed and jumped, spinning his way through the air, blade ripping its way through the number of bewinged creatures that happened to be in the way.
Flash, flash, flash, flash.
His booted feet touched down lightly again, and he watched as the remaining avians in his immediate vicinity spiraled away, giving him a wide berth. He smiled savagely; they hadn't been expecting that. His goblins, inspired by his example, all began hurling their own weapons into the air, and Ceravic laughed aloud; a ringing, harsh cackle, at the flurry of panicked evasions, and not-quite-evasions. Some goblins tried to leap straight up like they had seen their master do, but not quite as effectively.
Sobgib had expressed concern over how, exactly, they were supposed to combat beings that had one extra dimension of movement available to them. "We can't attack them if they're fluttering around over our heads. Well, the goblins can't," he amended, flourishing his crossbows. "Neither can Ferus, or y..." and there he trailed off, uncertain of Ceravic's exact capacity for destruction. "Well, the goblins won't be able to touch them," he finished.
"And they can't touch us while they're fluttering about over our heads. They will have to engage, and we, retaliate."
The tactician remained unconvinced. "What if they have ranged weapons?"
"They don't." Ceravic watched the passage of their mountainous surroundings as the mighty Krags pulled their wagon forcefully along. "Well, some do," he then admitted. "But they are Teth's personal entourage, and I will be dealing with Teth."
Ceravic had been, as usual, correct. The only good the avians' wings was doing them was giving them control over when they died. The Goblin King charged forward a good distance unhindered, the word of what had happened to the last soldiers to stand in his way apparently spreading rapidly.
He performed a back flip roughly one millisecond before the ground in front of him was blasted into a smoking crater. Remaining crouched, he looked up and saw smoke of a light blue color dissipating, revealing five of the bird-men swooping down to land in a shallow arc in front of him. Twitching his head with alarming speed to glance behind him, he noted a similar arc behind him, enclosing him in a very loose circle. Each of the winged warriors held a short staff in hand, and each such tool was crackling with intermittent strands of blue energy.
The Goblin King smiled widely. He twirled the hilt of his sword through his fingers, twice, over his head. "Afternoon, boys." His sword swept down to low guard on his right side. "If it's not too much trouble, I'd like a word with Teth."
Apparently, it was. Three of the avians in front of him, along with three of the ones behind him leapt forward, short staves trailing lines of indigo through the air. The remaining four launched themselves into the air and started flying in a slow circle. Ceravic about-faced, sword slashing the air, and a blaze of red blasted the three attackers behind him into a smoking heap. About-facing again, he met three sparking attacks in rapid succession, then dealt six of his own; two for each avian. His sword blurred, and the center enemy let loose a startled squawk as it fell before the Lord of Oblivion's blade. The left and right ones parried with impressing skill. He took a quick, hopping step backward, saving himself from being electrocuted by shocks of blue from his airborne adversaries. Snarling, and yet somehow expressing nothing but joy, he leapt up into the air to meet one of the circling warriors and deliver five swift smashes. The avian was visibly astonished--he should have been paying attention earlier--by the king's maneuverability, but he still managed to block every blow. He was, however, knocked out of the sky, falling back to the dull, red earth with the Goblin King.
Ceravic and the two remaining trios of land and sky endured a brief moment of adjustment to the new odds, and then they moved again in a new dance of blue and red and, occasionally, purple.
- - - - - - -
Teth, Lord of Deception, was staring into a blue basin filled with water so perfectly transparent that it appeared empty at first glance. When the water wasn't filled with images, that is. Which, at the moment, it was. Images of a light man in red and blue, dispatching one of his soldiers after the other with what was, perhaps, an inappropriate amount of glee. Teth took a sip, of pure water. He loved water. He also loved the sky. They were, in his opinion, the two most perfect phenomena in existence. If he were ever forced to play favorites (and the number of people on the planet who could force him to do anything was in the single digits) he supposed he would choose the sky, because water fell from it, and wouldn't really be having to pick one over the other at all.
He drained his cup, and then he touched a single, scale-gloved finger to the water in the bowl, connecting himself to the Talon, his personal elites, telling them to stand down. Ceravic was almost upon him, and there was no sense in losing any more of them.
- - - - - - -
The Lord of Oblivion's booted heel connected with a beak, and the head to which said beak was attached swiveled in a very tight half-circle.
Then it swiveled back, black eyes blinking dazedly. Ceravic laughed aloud; avians were such fun. He backhanded the bird-warrior out of his way, his interest in killing it lost. Teth was nearby, he knew. It was like having another sense, analogous to touch; the air felt... thicker. More tense. Charged. He looked around and spotted a mountain-colored tent nestled in something of a very shallow cave. He slowed his pace, wary. When it came to this game, he was a very straightforward player. So were all of the others. One army versus the other, and they each kept a running tally of wins and losses.
The Lord of Deception took a different approach. He called himself a mystic. Ceravic called him a trickster. He gloried in lengthy, convoluted schemes to the detriment of all around him. He had an expansive collection of very complicated, abstractly useful spells that he put to good use. He was clever; very, very clever, and arguably the most dangerous of any of them, if one went by their track records. Teth was the only one of them to have ever actually succeeded in killing another Player.
But, sneaking and skullduggery aside, Ceravic was the best fighter, and they both of them knew it. He knew he would greatly enjoy being able to destroy the trickster here and now, just as he knew that the odds of Teth actually allowing that thing to happen were poor.
Still, no one could fault him for trying. He persuaded Slayvyr to return to his sheath with an apology, and raised his hands for his favorite spell. "Thunderflame" was a devastating as it was simple, and it would unleash as much destruction as he put energy behind it. Dipping into the core of his willpower, he summoned the arcane energies, and bent his thoughts upon them with unwavering intent. When the image in his mind's eye was as vivid as it was going to get, he willed it into existence and spoke the words to direct the power. "Secressit furiecstress coretet, furestric cort scly!" White-blue lightning crackled between his fingers, sparking sparks that blossomed into a great ball of red-orange gas. A sudden forward thrust of his hands sent the lightning-streaked fireball surging forward. It ignited the tent with a concussive blast of extremely hot air and some spectacular, lightning-tinged, explosions. His bones shook under his skin and he draped his red-purple cape over his face so as to shield himself from the rapidly approaching wall of rock and dirt and dust.
After the chaos had subsided, Ceravic beheld a shallow depression in the rocky earth, that, in his mind, did not quite qualify as a crater. He also beheld a man dressed in what appeared to be something of a mix between a suit of armor and a cloak, fashioned entirely from blue scales. The man (Teth) was standing within a large, semi-transparent ball of shimmering blue energy, that, at his gesture, expanded and vanished.
Teth surveyed the wreckage and then strode toward the Goblin King. "That," he commented in a voice that was as icy as it was languid, waving a scale-gloved hand at the smoking ruin behind him, "was hardly necessary."
"Neither was attacking me. Neither, really, are you."
"How droll. How very droll. You wound me, Ceravic."
Ceravic nodded. "Sounds like a plan." Slayvyr flashed anew, an infinitesimal blaze of red coruscating through the air. "Think really fast," he advised, and bounded toward the trickster.
Slayvyr tore through the air with every apparent intent of doing the same thing to Teth.
An instant (perhaps two) before the blazing blade made contact with Ceravic's blue-clad target, he (the target) spoke a single word with a smile on his face, and the world spun around them both in a swirl of bewildering color.