There was little I could do. The lion man was as good as dead. The giant spider was but feet away from him, ready to pounce, when one of the other spiders collided into it.
I shaded my eyes to see that on top of this other spider was the crab man, who held both of the spider’s pincers in his one large claw, and was now guiding the creature at will.
“My own personal monster,” the crab man shouted.
Leo signalled his thanks. The crowd, silent up to this point, gave out a loud cheer. They were cheering that the life of an Altered had been saved. I looked over at Orrin. The significance of this was not lost on him.
The spider on the receiving end of the collision gave a might roar and lowered its head, crashing into the side of the crab man’s ride, throwing him to the ground. Maheras, the centaur, scooped the crab man up onto his back to another rapturous applause from the crowd. Maheras galloped up and down in a tight pattern, throwing his forelegs into the air and neighing loudly, while the crab man held on with clenched legs, and raised his one claw in salute to the crowd. They cheered even harder. Brulum may well win the upcoming war, but he was losing this battle.
And… play. Livestream is go.
Five minutes from the deadline. It’s quiet on the feed, but that’s the usual traffic this early in the game. Any people that are on are prowlers, the ones who obsess about my technique over the actual closer.
@thereathee: what model rifle is that?
@skilleez67: @thereathee it’s an S&W Dellax-77. He’s taking the shot from at least 49km.
@punfisher118: did he adjust for wind?
@feulkllr: @punfisher118 she, and yeah she did. She’s taken trickier shots than this.
@45yoigi gender is relative. #fluidsarepeople #equalityforfluidsnow.
Buncha nerds, geeking out about the little things. But prowlers and gun nuts justify the ad revenue alone. Gotta love ’em for that. Now if they only pledged more than the bare base donation amount. Cheapskates.
The arena was silent. I looked at the six mechanical monstrosities, then up at the crowd. None were cheering. None clapped their hands or stamped their feet. Brulum had overplayed his hand. He lacked his uncle Arak’s finesse. An empire was taken with fist, but held with heart.
A ruler who murdered his people, could never be loved. Arak knew that. The original fables of the great strength and prowess of the Altered—created to work where humans normally could not; the solar fields, the uranium mines and other equally harsh landscapes—turned to tales of barbarism and savage cruelty, when our purpose had been fulfilled. But Arak’s story weavers had proven too effective. The Altered still held some sense of awe and mysticism for the citizenry of Galicia.
We were the pure, the free, the ‘noble savage,’ they themselves often longed to be—but could never be. We bolstered their drowned dreams with the imagined possibilities of courageous action, and dynamic true-hearted purpose.
I tuned back in as Director Hobson came to the end of his welcome for the new interns. I’d heard his spiel numerous times before – he liked to have me there as an example of how agents could make multiple trips through the vortex and suffer no ill-effects.
Hobson drew himself up in a supposedly spontaneous display of righteous indignation, hands gripping both sides of the lectern. “…and despite what those deluded protestors outside may chant, we are not murderers, nor body-snatchers, nor are we devoid of conscience. All those we retrieve from the past vanished without trace – overlooked, unmissed, discarded by the society of their time. The organs and other genetic material we harvest both lend purpose to their passing and save the lives of countless recipients in the here-and-now.” He paused for an equally spontaneous smattering of applause, led by Miss Brunner, the head of Human Resources.
I shifted my weight to the other foot and idly picked at a barely healed scab on my left hand. The decay was troublesome, but time in the regeneration tanks didn’t come cheap.
How could they sit and eat—like fat sedated cows, while their fellow beings were carted off like chattel?
Three lives gone is as many minutes…
I could not say I knew the bull, or the twin-headed warrior from the Outerworld of Aldron, but I did know their suffering. I knew every curse; every sneer, every glance of contempt that they experienced.
We all did.
I looked up at the crowd. They laughed and chatted among themselves, swapping gossip, gesturing greetings, occasionally glancing down as the Emperor’s soldiers removed the ‘debris’ from the arena floor. Had they really no empathy for us. None? I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Soldan. “Ulserra, join us.”
The watcher was back, an unseen presence that sent prickles of warning racing across Eilish’s skin. The horse fidgeted and snatched at the bit until Eilish soothed her with a hand on her neck.
‘Easy, Lady. It’s just me being silly.’ She glanced at her wristwatch and turned for home with a slight shiver.
The girl had the look of his Eithne: creases at the corners of eyes that easily smiled, and the toss of a head that cared not for convention. The watcher’s earth-chained spirit had felt no warmth or cold for three hundred years, but loneliness? Yes, he felt that.
Obbas, my Master of Games hovered to my right, hoping to stay invisible. I could feel the eyes of some of the Council elders on me. All knew the water-bearer had come too close for comfort.
Someone had to pay, and dearly.
I flicked my eyes toward Obbas. He drew near. “Your Imperial Majesty, please forgive me. The Arissian was watched for months, Your Majesty. We could not have known she possessed such power.”
“Within the time —
A few of the Council members furtively glanced my way. I gestured to my Lord Marshall. When he was still a few feet away I spoke, loud enough for the right ears to hear. “Our Master of Games’s sight has weakened somewhat of late. Take out his eyes, and bring them to my personal physician. Perhaps he can remedy what ails them.”
A ripple of fear sparkled around me. My dear late uncle was right; there was no sensation quite as satisfying as placing terror into the hearts of men.
Ok, so I’m in this closet in the hospital. The vid’s kind of dark, but I don’t want to turn on the light because somebody might find me. And I have to find Lily first.
I can’t go into surgery without Lily. I won’t. Fireman Jim gave her to me in the hospital after my house burned down. I don’t go anywhere without her. Ever. You know her, she’s my purple rabbit? Yeah, she’s in all of these vlogs.
He left Lily with me, and she was there when I woke up in the hospital. All I could remember was smoke … screaming … it hurt … I was upside down over somebody’s back and out the window OMG … and then everything was black, and I felt this soft thing with one hand, and she was the only thing that didn’t hurt. That was Lily, but I didn’t know her yet.
The lion man pulled away from me. “Why? Why are you helping me?
“Because—” I faltered. I looked around me, at the carnage. Two innocents dead, one about to die. The ones they had christened Aries, Scorpion and Taurus. Others knew them as brother, father…friend.
I had to tell the lionman, and the other players who did not know of our plot against the emperor. They had a right to know. “Warrior, there’s something—”
“I don’t form alliances,” the lion snapped. “I play a straight game. Yeah, I know that sounds hard to believe, Water Bearer, but I do, after my own fashion. You want partners, you’d best look elsewhere.”
A cry sounded near us. It was the bull. The crab man stood over him, a bloodied claw raised high, ready to strike. The wound in the bull’s side was wide enough to fit a human head. He lay on his side, his eyes turned upwards to the sky. His face looked – no…
He could not be serene. He was about to die.
The crab man’s claw came down with force. The clack of a shattered skull echoed around the arena.
“You ready?” asks Miller, Alec, owner-prime and enhancer of my system. He wants to tap my back, but when he sees his grease coated hands, he relents, not wanting to stain my exterior plating.
“I am prepared,” I reply.
“You remember what we talked about? Dodge at all times. All you gotta do is dodge. Then, when you get an open, you hit ’em with…what?”
“What?” I ask.
“No, that’s when you…never mind. It’s when you swing your arm. That’s under sub-router 12. Just remember your programming, and you might just stay in one piece until the first round, got it?”
“Affirmative sir. You will be pleased with your coat of paint,” I reply, as per my programming.