“Hey, calm down,” I said to a very irate god.
“You think you can use that to beat me? Is there no depths to which you won’t sink?”
“I’m not—” I ducked as a bolt of lightning flew at me.
How did I dodge lightning? Good question. It wasn’t aimed at me, more of a warning shot. It was a good thing I didn’t try to dive out of the way, probably would have hit me.
Winning is hard. You come up with a strategy, put in the time to think it through, practise as much as you can, be prepared for all eventualities. It’s never enough.
There’s always going to be a degree of uncertainty you’ll have to deal with. A good idea on paper may turn out to be a turd on a stick when you get to the live event. And then what? Come up with something on the spot when the plan you spent the last five days working on didn’t pan out the way you hoped?
We all have that feeling inside us that being the good guy should give you a bonus on your rolls. Yes, it’s a million to one shot, but with my +1 Decency stat, that should mitigate any bad RNG.
And the reason we feel that way is because every story we’ve read or watched has told us that’s how it always goes down. It’s the only ending we’ll accept. We like winners. We like stories about them. Even if every other single person who tried to fight the monster died a horrible, mangled death, we only want to know about the one guy who scraped a win with his magic sword and the power of destiny.
Everyone knows you learn more from failure, but we don’t like it when the main guy fucks up. Sure, if he saves everyone and then dies taking a bullet for his buddy about to become a father, we’ll take that as a victory in absentia, but ‘tried and failed’ only gets you a slow golf clap.
Such high standards… for other people.
The thing is, though, winners aren’t the good guys we perceive them to be. On a level playing field, it isn’t the best man who’ll win, it’s the best cheater who gets away with it.
Jaded? Cynical? I would hold up my hands and admit both, but my counter-accusation would be, naive? Blind?
You have to ask yourself, what is it you want to win? If one person can run faster than the rest, so what? Did he do all that training and hard work to prove mankind’s potential, or did he want to win a shiny medal and earn some sponsorship megabucks? Because if it’s the latter, who cares how he did it? Getting to your objective is how you judge success.
At this point in history, how can anyone suggest that ‘Winners don’t do drugs’? They do all the drugs, that’s how they won. In fact, there’s no need for drug testing anymore, winning is the drug test.
You might think that’s a terrible way to see the world. An awful indictment of where we are as a species. But all it means is you have to play the game by a different set of rules. Or, in most cases, by getting around the rules by whatever means are at your disposal.
It’s an ugly world. I find ‘espionage’ much nicer.
“Why did your wife leave you?”
Sounds a lot better. Sometimes, you have to do dark things for the war effort. Like shagging your spouse’s sister. Almost noble.
The question you need to ask yourself when faced with the moral problem of whether to play by the rules or use underhand methods to ensure victory, is why? What’s your aim? To be the better man, or to achieve a particular result?
If you’re worried about losing people’s respect, bear in mind most people are full of shit. They’ll complain about child labour and buy Nike shoes. Sympathise with Chinese workers driven to suicide by their work conditions, and tweet about it from their iPhones. The problem with respect is that most people’s respect isn’t worth very much.
The thing about cheating, though, is never to do it during the game. You want to get your cheating in early.
Athletes don’t stick a needle in their arm just before the race, they get pumped up with steroids and swap their blood around months in advance. Train on that electric jumping juice until they get all Ivan Drago, and then get clean before the big showdown at the racetrack.
No drugs in your body, only natural wholesomeness.
The strange thing about it is, they aren’t even trying to use technology to augment their abilities, they’re using it so they can train harder. It’s twice the effort to pull that shit off.
The lesson is to not focus on the battle itself. By that time, it’s already too late. You should already have the win in your pocket long before that.
The dwarfstone was smaller than my palm and didn’t look very scary. Like some plastic jewel from a little girl’s toybox. The way Joshaya reacted to it, you’d think I was holding a severed penis. I happen to know what that particular reaction looks like because I’ve done that, too.
“I’m not trying to beat you with it,” I said from a prone position. “I’m trying to give it to you.”
Joshaya calmed down enough to be confused. “Do you think I don’t know who you are?”
If he actually knew who I was I’d have been amazed. I’d done some pretty remarkable things, but my ability to go unrecognised was the most legendary thing about me. Much more likely he had mistaken me for someone else.
“Who do you think I am?” I asked him, genuinely expecting him to get it wrong.
“You released the elf. Because of you, she is in Fengarad, preparing the way for the rest of them.”
Not bad. That was kind of close for a first attempt. Fame at last.
“I didn’t release her, I stopped her from killing everyone. And I used this to do it.” I held up the gem. “Look. It’s empty. I used the dwarf to take control of the elf. She’s in Fengarad because I decided that was the safest place for her.” I tossed the gem at him.
Joshaya reared back and let it fall on the grass. He leaned down to look at it. “There is no dwarf inside.”
“I know! Look, I know it was the elfs and the dwarfs who pushed your lot out. You stayed behind for whatever reason, but if the elf regained control, you’d have to face her. Or run. I saved you from that. Ask around. Although, they might not remember my name exactly.”
It was my last dwarfstone. I’d used the other two on Uncle Peter. The two dwarfs now resided inside him, vying for control. There was a balance because there were two of them. The third had been with me.
The stone was my only way to enter the adjacent world. I had been saving it for something important as I didn’t know when I’d be able to access that world on my own. That had been the whole point of going to Gorgoth, the fourth city. Find a guy, get trained up, turn into a Level 100 mage.
Plans change. Now I was using it against a god. Seemed like it was important enough.
I knew I couldn’t take him on directly. My magic was nowhere good enough. Even with the recent improvements, it was a bee sting versus a nuclear bomb. This guy could bring things to life, create huge illusions and call down lightning.
I could put on a bit of a firework show. Wheeeeeee.
My understanding of how magic worked was getting better, though. And making yourself stronger isn’t the only way to defeat an opponent. Making them weaker will also do the trick.
From what I’d learned, the difference between what you felt about what you loved and what you didn’t was what powered magic. As a god, he had a very high opinion of himself and everything he considered part of him. And as an arrogant twat, he didn’t give a shit about anything else.
I was almost on a par with him on the second part, but there was no comparison with the first. As a god, he saw everything around him as his own creation. It was as important to him as a part of his own body.
It finally made me understand why gods always need so much worshipping and flattery. It helps reinforce that bond of ownership. I made you, you belong to me, let’s make magic.
If I needed that kind of relationship to become a top wizard, I’d never make it. I’d be far too embarrassed.
In order to weaken him, I would have to either make him care more about those outside of himself, which I had no idea how to do, or make him less enamoured with himself. And I am a bit of an expert when it comes to self-loathing, even if I do say so myself.
Or I had to take away his beloved followers.
“It wasn’t a castle, was it?” I said. “It was a church. Your church.”
The blueprints the forest had drawn for me had made a familiar outline. I’ve never been a big churchgoer, but that’s what it had reminded me of, not a place for living in. A big open space built to make everyone face the same way, smaller rooms underground that would be very cramped for long term habitation. Single purpose, no conveniences—it had religion written all over it.
Joshaya didn’t say anything. His outline flickered. I got the sense of something enormously powerful just under the surface.
“You gathered everything around you nice and tight so you could feed off it. Feel loved by your followers. It’s a fairly standard god play.” Not that I was much of an expert, but I did R.E. at school. I knew how similar all the religions were when it came to this stuff. Not for nothing did they all throw praise at their deity of choice.
“You can’t defeat me here,” said Joshaya. “Even with that gem, you are far below my strength.”
“I know. I don’t want to beat you. I want to make you stronger. If the elfs come back one day, there’s no way you can stand up to them, not the way you are now. But if you gain followers, become a god that’s worshipped by thousands instead of a bunch of plants and forest animals, you might stand a chance.”
He didn’t look convinced, but he was at least a little interested by my proposal.
“And where would I find these followers?”
“Gorgoth. That’s where we were headed. Come with us. There’s always room for a god in our party. “
It wasn’t something I’d consider a long term move. As much as I’d enjoy having an omnipotent being on staff for the big fights, gods don’t tend to follow orders well. They prefer to give them, and they usually involve sacrificing stuff. Prove you love me by killing something you like. How is that not a dick move?
“There is nothing for me in Gorgoth,” said Joshaya. “My place is here.” He didn’t sound completely sure of himself.
To be honest, I didn’t think there was anything for him in Gorgoth, either. Nothing I’d want him to have, at least. But I hadn’t expected him to turn up here. I thought I’d have more time and then be able to stretch things out at his place as we pretended we were having a fair fight. We were never going to have a fair fight. Not if I intended to win.
Now I had to play for time while the forest got the girls out.
I hadn’t, despite my best efforts, managed to convince the forest to help me. I’d come up with various ways to keep old Josh distracted while the extraction was ongoing, but the forest didn’t believe I could do it. Well, I was keeping him pretty distracted right now.
It was all one under the soil. I didn’t have to force it to eat anything, everything was food, you just had to bury it.
The trees around us moved and swayed. The grass rippled. The trees moved some more, this time a lot more dramatically. The grass started crawling away.
“You put the dwarf in the forest,” said Joshaya.
It wasn’t easy convincing the dwarf to play along. Once he was in the forest, he could have made a break for freedom, run back to Fengarad. But what I realised was that I could let the dwarf out if his new body was very slow moving and flammable.
“We’re all leaving. Us, the frogs, the forest. You can stay here on your own, if you want.”
“I can still destroy all of you.”
“But you would be left with nothing but scorched earth. Not much to draw power from. And then we might actually be able to have a fair fight. How about that?”
He didn’t look too keen. He could still win, but that’s the thing about cheating your whole life, makes it very hard to play straight again. Just doesn’t feel right not having a massive advantage.
“What if I just kill you, here, now?”
“What if I tell the forest to tear out the foundations of your church?” I didn’t know if that was a decent threat or not, but I threw it at him anyway, just in case. It wasn’t like he couldn’t kill me first.
He stood there, glowing, incandescent with rage.
“If you truly can stand against the elfs, perhaps there is need for you. Leave then.” He turned around, full of sulk. “But I’m keeping your women.”
It wasn’t a bad compromise. Our lives and freedom for three annoying girls. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and run.
“Fine. Bye, then.”
He stopped. “You’ve taken them already.” He said it more as a statement than question, but I answered anyway.
“Yes. It would be a bit petty for you to kill them now.”
He turned to face me. “You think you’ve won, don’t you? But that depends on what you think the prize was.” He suddenly started laughing, and then he faded to a white light in the outline of something not human-shaped, and was gone.
Gods, always have to have the last, enigmatic word.