Only a fool goes to war without a plan. Of course, many fools go to war with a plan, and suffer the same fate. Depends on the plan. And on the counter-plan. You have to take your enemy into account.
I had never been to war, my generation not being the greatest one, or even the second-greatest. Actually, I don’t think we’re in the top fifty. That’s not to say I wouldn’t manage — I can handle an Xbox controller as good as anyone. Drone Pilot Colin reporting for duty, two thousand miles from the frontlines.
While modern warfare requires less and less on-the-ground intervention, in this world it was still heavily reliant on hand-to-hand combat. But gaming didn’t just teach you the requisite skills to murder people at Yemenese weddings, (although there aren’t really many other uses for an Xbox controller — who the fuck plays on an Xbox?).
Thanks to my many years sitting alone in a one-bedroom flat fighting wars against superior foes with underlevelled troops, I had a solid grasp of the fundamentals. Zerg and zerg hard, that was all you needed to know.
I had the added advantage of being able to play RTSWP in an RTS setting. RTS — real-time strategy — is where you make your moves at the same time as your opponent. Whoever makes the most actions per minute (APM) has a massive advantage. Assuming both sides have a good understanding of how to play, the person who sends out instructions the quickest will win. That and being Korean.
You have units all over the map, engaging, surveying, building and firing. You have to tell them what to do in real-time, moment by moment. Micromanagement at supersonic speed. Why the Koreans excel at this, I have no idea.
But RTSWP — real-time strategy with pauses — is also a thing. That’s where you can literally freeze the action and have a think about what the best course of action. Sound familiar?
It’s a much easier way to play. Against a computer that can think through millions of permutations a second, it isn’t really fair unless you’re also allowed to process the information you’re being inundated with.
Against another player, it isn’t necessary. Against another player who is operating without pausing, it isn’t fair.
My ability made going into battle a lot easier. I didn’t have to go in with a fully-formed plan (which was lucky), I could react on the bounce.
Yes, it was a cheese strategy. I got to set my objectives without the pressure of rush and hustle. I could still make the wrong choices, but it wouldn’t be from panic or a lack of time. It would just be regular stupidity.
And at least it wasn’t a turn-based attack system. That JRPG shit — twenty-minute fight every time you have a random encounter with a slime — will bore you to death.
Joshaya went through five large monsters of various species before he’d raised the occupants of this field of nightmares. Once he realised he wasn’t going to have the life sucked out of him personally, he got on with it at a fair clip. His sticking point seemed to have been the idea that he could use the thing he was meant to produce to increase production, like a worker afraid to use the company’s money to buy new and better machinery to make better quality goods. You have to spend money to make money, and it’s always best if it’s somebody else’s money.
It demonstrated how intimidated he was within the fairy hierarchy. If he had decided to use up a resurrected body for his own preservation, the Fairy Queen might have got mad at him. There are guys like that, who are big and strong but are cowed by the women in their lives. I think it’s a psychological issue, and I think it’s caused by early onset mothering. Joshaya’s mum was an arsehole, I’d put money on it.
That was my interpretation, but it didn’t make me sympathetic towards him. His issues were valid, but they weren’t my problem. His current behaviour was down to him.
Even though the battle that had taken place in this field had been between men and monsters, I showed no favouritism. Both sides would be working for me from now on
The human faction were in pretty good nick. Their armour and weapons had aged well and none of them were skeletons. I mean, they looked fucking awful, but the ground had preserved them pretty well. A plum to prunes change — both perfectly serviceable, one more likely to give you the shits.
Caim recognised a lot of them, but they did not reciprocate his tearful greetings. They were able to move and swing their weapons when instructed, but that was about it. The monsters, on the other hand, were much more friendly with each other, and while they didn’t talk or anything like that, they clearly retained some of their memories.
It might be that my observations were tainted by my general dislike of humans (including myself) and that my tendency to see monsters as more sincere and reasonable was some sort of confirmation bias. I don’t think that’s true, but then that’s exactly what someone with deep-seated antipathy toward humanity would say, so who the fuck knows?
I could only go with my own judgement, and to me it seemed Joshaya’s power brought back monsters more intact than people. Which didn’t meant the people wouldn’t be able to catch up, but it was something to be aware of.
There were thousands of them by the end of the day. Joshaya was able to control them all, which was impressive. Making them was the hard part, keeping them on a leash was apparently much easier for him. It did, however, make Joshaya the weak point in our set up. Take him out and the whole thing falls apart.
The army I had gathered was a horrifying sight. Unlike the bodies Joshaya had recovered in Gorgoth, these weren’t in peak condition. The monsters consisted of lizardmen, armoured bears, big-headed, pointy-eared dwarfs I assumed were goblins, various demi-humans with cat, dog and rodent features. Giants, ogres and trolls, although they look tougher and more buff than their modern counterparts. And then a variety of large animals that I couldn’t name because either they were too mutilated or they weren’t anything like the animals I was used to.
Obviously, I could have just asked, but why bother? I try to keep a professional distance from anyone I might have to lead to their deaths (so everyone).
The human contingent were all great warriors of the past, apparently. Many of them were Visitors and had powers and abilities that would come in useful. Possibly. It would take a while for them to come back online.
They looked a bit of a mess, covered in mud and with grass growing on them, and they moved a bit stiffly, but they were more or less functional.
“How long to get them to Fengarard?” I asked Joshaya.
“Two days, if we march through the night.”
The dead don’t need to take breaks, as long as they’re not unionised.
“That should be enough time to get some of the kinks out,” I said like I knew what the fuck I was talking about. “Try to get them cleaned up a bit if you can. Off you go then.”
“Aren’t you coming?” asked Caim, all suspicious that I might run off and never come back. Abandonment issues; probably had a dad who went out for smokes and never came back. It’s not just bad mothers who ruin everything, I have an open mind, I can hate on parents of all types.
“I left something in Gorgoth,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’ll catch up.”
Daddy, no, please…
“What do you want me to do when we get there?” asked Caim, pretending he didn’t care if I showed up to his school recital or not.
“Just set up camp. If anyone attacks you on the way, kill them quickly and keep moving.” I could do nonchalance, too.
I‘d realised as I’d waited on Joshaya that simply turning up at Fengarad with an army wasn’t going to earn me an automatic win. My preference was for them to surrender immediately and for there to be no fighting whatsoever. In order to do that, I needed to force them into compliance, probably by giving them a damn good hiding.
It’s not easy thinking proactively when you’re used to playing defence. Reacting to other people with a way to stop them is much easier. Originating the scenario takes a lot more effort, and it gives them the chance to block you. Which is what you want to do if you’re in a walled city. Don’t let anyone in, pour burning oil from the battlements, don’t provide cheap parking — cities have a siege mentality even when they aren’t under siege.
I took the dragon back to Gorgoth with Flossie, Dudley and Damicar. Caim and Joshaya set off, neither looking very sure of himself, but Caim had his druid zealots (The Druid Zealots!!! Come to our show, free lima bean soup and heavy metal music until you puke), and Joshaya had an army at his back. It wasn’t like I was leaving them isolated and alone. Although isolated and alone is very underrated.
It wasn’t exactly Gorgoth I wanted to go to. My plans were somewhat fluid, which I think is a good thing. People become very fixed in their thinking, like they’re stuck watching an unskippable cutscene (malaria can be eradicated at any time, why isn’t the Bill Gates Foundation tackling this plague?), but switching tactics when you see a better solution is common sense. It also helps if you have a dragon to nip around on.
Joshaya had pointed out where Captain Somya was now, and Dudley was able to home in on the ship using his remote viewing skill. It was a new ship, his previous one having sunk, and the borrowed one was still in the city square. It wasn’t the captain or his ship I was after, though.
We caught up the ship a little after dawn. The crew were delighted to see me, by which I mean they expressed no emotion at all. I took that as a positive.
They were all dead men, and yet they functioned very well this far from Joshaya. His ability was more than simply adding puppet strings, but like most mysteries of this world, the answers wouldn’t fall into my lap via a conveniently found tome or a passing wise stranger. The fantasy stories I’d grown up reading had painted the universe as much more cooperative than it actually was. How was I supposed to use all this information to my advantage if Jack Vance had been lying to me all these years?
“You want to know how my dolls work?” said Mrs Somya. “No, no, no. I can’t share my secrets with just anyone who happens to drop out of the sky on the back of a dragon. Where would it end?”
It would end after the first time since no one else had a dragon to drop by with.
“Please, this is important. And it will ensure your son won’t be dragged into any more of my adventures.” It says a lot about me that my most effective way to threaten people is to suggest I might force them to hang out.
“Well, if you put it like that…” Mrs Somya was no fool. It was obvious she was a powerful being who could shake shit up if she had a mind. Thankfully, she preferred to go sailing with her boy. I wasn’t entirely sure he was very happy about it.
“I just need a rough idea, nothing too complex.”
“I see,” said the blind old woman. “Well, my dear, basically, I enter the mind on three operational levels, the conscious, the unconscious, and the cellular. Influence is most effective with confluence of all three levels, of course. The doll supplements my understanding of the victim in an intimate and deeply unsanitary level, hehehe.” She grinned and chuckled while her milky-white eyes stared into nothingness. “The doll is created from the image, not the wood, and the substance of the original in the form of hair or skin or excrement—” she chuckled again “—is merely to create a bond that is specific, not supernatural. You see, now?”
There’s really no need to keep trade secrets hidden when no one can tell what the fuck you’re talking about.
“What I want to know,” I said, “is if it’s just people you can make dolls of.”
“People? No, no, my dear. Anyone or anything can create a sympathy. What did you have in mind?”
I explained what I wanted her to do and she was quite taken with suggestion.
“I’ve never tried it, but I like the idea. I like it a lot. In fact, I’d like to see it for myself.” Was she really even blind? It could all be an elaborate ruse to put people off their guard.
Captain Somya was slightly worried at the prospect of his mother leaving him, and at the same time, greatly relieved. He was an emotionless corpse, so I may have been projecting.
The dragon took us back to the army of the dead now stationed outside Fengarad’s walls. The undead had made excellent time by not stopping to eat, sleep, or shit — sort of like travelling with Ryanair, only not quite so soulless.
They were massed outside the city, standing in lines twenty deep, both monsters and humans bound together harmoniously, like Spurs fans and Gunners fans united in their disgust for Sergio Ramos.
Fengarad’s gates were closed and guards stood on the battlements, watching the hordes of unliving horrors and ready to shit themselves — not as effective as burning oil when it came to stopping us climbing the walls, but you had to respect the effort.
I left Mrs Somya with Dudley to prepare the big finisher while I went and found Caim and Joshaya.
“You returned,” said Caim. He had his armour on and his sword out.
“Yes, you miserable fuck. If I was going to leave I’d have said so.” Honestly, the boy had issues. “Have they said anything?”
Joshaya handed me a scroll. “They sent a messenger with this.”
I opened it. There was a very short message: Please go away. We’re very busy.
Neville Chamberlain would have been proud.
“Hey, open up…” I wanted my voice to be commanding and authoritative, but it came out garbled and whiney. I cleared my throat.
“Do you want me to do it?” asked Caim in a deep baritone.
“Shut the fuck up,” I said. Not exactly a morale booster, but we can’t all sound like Morgan Freeman.
“He’s very touchy isn’t he?” said Angel Rose.
“Yeah,” said Flossie. “It’s because he got dumped. He acts all cold and aloof, but he’s a cuddler, really. Likes a nice cuddle in the morning. Don’t try to deny it, she told me.”
I was seriously considering ordering the troops to aim all artillery on my position, go down for a noble cause (removing these idiots from the gene pool was worth a chestful of posthumous medals). Sadly, we didn’t have any artillery. If we had, I’d have climbed into the nearest canon and sent myself sailing off, So long suckers.
“We don’t want to fight you,” called out a voice from the walls.
“Who is that?” I asked, squinting.
“Ah, I believe it’s the king,” said Dudley, who had appeared next to me with Mrs Somya and a large table with a sheet over it. Some of the undead were helping her without being ordered to, which tells you all you need to know about her powers.
I preemptively cleared my throat. “Open up and come out with your hands up,” I shouted.
“No, thank you,” said the king.
“Fine, have it your way.” I indicated to Dudley and he removed the sheet.
On the table was a wooden model of Fengarad. It was pretty accurate and the workmanship wasn’t bad for a rush job. Dudley’s roving eye had helped give Mrs Somya the details, and she’d done the rest with her whittling knife. Most of it had been done on the dragon’s back, and then they’d assembled it here.
It was the wall, the buildings and the spires.
People aren’t the only ones who recognise symbology. A connection between objects was possible for all entities, I’d seen it myself in the adjacent world. Everything’s connected, apart from me.
“Light it up,” I said.
The model of Fengarad went up in flames. A few minutes later, the people in the real city started screaming.
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Afterword from Mooderino