379: Player Unknown

“That guy who’s the leader of the War Guild,” I said, “what was his name again?” I stood in the doorway looking at Grayson in his brilliant white outfit. There was a step up to the house and I liked being almost eye-level with Grayson as we spoke. Made me feel like we were equals. I mean, I was his superior, but I’d settle for equal.

“Guild leader Geffen,” said Grayson.

“Yeah, that’s right.” I had no recollection if that was his name or not but us commander-in-chief types need to exude a sense of knowing who the hell we’re in command of. “He’s your boss, is he?”

“You are my boss,” said Grayson. “I take orders from you. Geffen represents the interests of the men under my command.”

“So, if he tells them to do something?”

“It depends what it is he tells them. Technically, he can’t order them to fight or send them on missions. He can tell them to go on strike or insist on concessions on their behalf before agreeing to let his members follow more drastic commands.” He made it sound like ‘drastic commands’ referred to working overtime on the weekend, rather than riding into the jaws of death, the mouth of hell.

“And before I took over?”

Grayson shrugged. “Then he did set policy and general troop commitments since there was no one else to do it. But guarding the city has never been that complicated — keeping order around closing time, clearing broken down carts blocking the roads, the occasional thief to be apprehended, that was the brunt of it. The Pope did the rest. People are generally less disposed towards creating trouble when they get to watch a show every day where they can win prizes.”

Religion, opiate of the masses. Gorgoth had been a happy den of junkies until I turned up.

“And Geffen, he isn’t upset that he doesn’t get to calls the shots anymore? He doesn’t mind you being in charge of the men?”

“With the upcoming difficulties, no, I imagine not. If the city falls, it makes no difference, and if by some miracle we survive, he will be ready to resume control. As a soldier, we are treated best when danger is looming and considered least at all other times. Which is how it should be, I suppose.”

Grayson was being blunt and undiplomatic, which I liked, but he wasn’t resentful about it.

Fairly standard practice. Let others make the tough calls during war. Say thanks very much once the fighting’s over and take back the steering wheel when it comes to rebuilding (and handing out the lucrative construction contracts).

“I expect that’s why they’re so keen to have me here,” I said. “They can blame me for everything that goes wrong, and take over as the new broom, even though they were the broom before me.”

“Undoubtedly,” said Grayson. “It’s hardly your prowess in battle they’re looking to exploit.”

His bluntness was less charming when it was directed at you.

“There’s something I’ve always I wanted to ask you,” I asked as I turned and led him into the house. “Back when you first found us in Probet, why didn’t you just train all of us to be able to survive here? What was the point of making it sink or swim?”

“That’s how it’s always been,” said Grayson. He followed me into the large dining room where Arthur (who had really been Joshaya) had occasionally fed us. There were probably more suitable rooms to discuss matters of life and death, but I had never bothered to properly look around. Plus, Damicar was supposed to be bringing snacks.

“Just because that’s how it’s always been doesn’t make it a good idea. There had to be a reason.”

“Yes,” said Grayson, taking a seat at the long dining table. He took off his hat and put it down on the table where it looked like a box that might contain fancy cakes. If only. “But I am not privy to them. If you’re asking me to guess, I would think it had something to do with the people who came before you not wanting Visitors running around changing the nature of this world. For whatever reason, they prefer to keep life here as it is.”

More likely, they preferred to keep it under their control, which would be much harder if everyone was brought up to speed on modern advancements like cars and guns and making murder illegal. Not that those things made much of a difference back home, but it’s never the unfairness of a system that people object to, it’s who gets to be unfair to who. Once you get hold of the conch, suddenly it’s time to stop talking about progress and change, and start talking about honouring tradition and maintaining stability.

I sat down on the other side of the table, facing Grayson. I almost sat down beside him, but that would have been weird. Like when someone gets on a nearly empty bus and squeezes in beside you when there’s plenty of other seats available. That person isn’t being friendly, they’re indicating they’re mentally ill and not someone you want pressing against you, elbow to elbow, for the rest of the journey.

“You were working for the Council of Four back then, weren’t you?”

Grayson nodded. “I was.”

“Are you still?”

He looked at me for a moment. “No. But if I was, I probably wouldn’t tell you.”

“I can’t really trust you, can I?” I said.

His expression hardly changed, but there was a sense of, “Well, duh…” to the way he scratched his chin. “You can’t trust me nor anyone else. Did you not wonder how the guild leaders knew you were coming? How the Council knew where we were out at sea? The people in Fengarad have complete knowledge of your movements, also, and I’m sure there are numerous others quietly keeping tabs on you.”

I sighed. He was right, of course. Trust was not something I had the luxury of. They could be watching me from a distance right now, earwigging this conversation. They could have spies by my side, controlling me without even knowing it. I didn’t even know who they were. They seemed to work in shifts, rotating so everyone got a chance to fuck with me.

“I really don’t understand their approach to dealing with this world,” I said. “Even if they wanted to thin out the new arrivals, or only keep the ones with talent, did you have to leave the rest of us to die? I mean, battle royale isn’t the only way to find out who’s the best. You just end up with all the hyper-violent thugs.”

“Would you describe yourself as that?” asked Grayson.

He had a point. If last man standing produced winners adept in the art of brute force, how was I still in the game? Of course, anyone who’s ever played a battle royale FPS knows the cheesiest way to win is not to fight at all. Go hide in a bush until everyone else has been killed or heavily wounded. Then jump out, fresh and full of vigour, and kill whoever’s left.

“If we all fight in the same arena until there’s only one left, then he must be the best. Simple.”

But battle royale isn’t a good way to find your greatest hero. Life isn’t a shooter, it’s a resource management game. One full of hacks and cheats and micro-transactions.

What a battle royale system does give you is simplicity. It’s very easy to verify who won. They’re the one tea-bagging the guy who did all the hard work.

Simple isn’t best, it’s just easiest. And cheapest. It’s like how they put kids of the same age in the same class. Does that meet individual needs? No. Does it meet budgetary restrictions? Hell, yeah.

Tailor-made is what you want, not one-size-fits-all. ‘Best’ is a cheat word. Best implies a single answer, which tricks you into thinking you have to ignore alternatives.

What’s best for everyone? Nothing.

What’s best for most people? Doesn’t sound so grand and impressive when you frame it like that. Take care of the middle, fuck everyone on the edges, what’s best for that?

“They won’t let you go,” said Grayson. “For whatever reason, they find it convenient to have you as the focal point.” He sounded as bemused by it as I was, which was kind of insulting. Accurate, but still, I have feelings (biologically speaking).

People did consider me a threat. Everywhere I went, people misconstrued my lack of interest as a lack of fear. My rejection of their ideas as a sure sign I must have better ones.

“I’m not the person they think I am. I’m not the person you think I am, either.”

“Good,” said Grayson. “That comes as a great relief.”

“Then what am I supposed to do?” I was thinking out loud, really. “I can’t find a way to get them to leave me alone.”

“You could give them an alternative,” said Grayson. “Someone they might prefer to you.”

He made it sound like it couldn’t be too hard to find someone like that. Again, hurtful. Seriously, dude had zero chill.

“How? Who can I find to take the job on such short notice?”

Grayson shrugged. “I have no idea. One of your own, perhaps. Train them, perhaps support them from the sidelines until they can stand on their own. Make them seem an attractive alternative. If you make sure they receive all the credit for successes you might accrue, it would be possible to shift the attention you dislike so much onto them.”

“Even if I found someone like that, how would I get them to do as I asked?”

“Usually,” said Grayson, “a leader inspires loyalty through either fear or love. You may have to come up with a third way.”

“What about you? You’re the heroic type. People like following you around and doing what you tell them.”

“No, thank you.”

“But you have to follow my orders, you said so yourself.”

“I can always resign. You can’t.”

There was no reason to be so smug about it. I did like his suggestion I find a replacement, especially the part where credit went to someone else. There’s nothing as double-edged as credit when it comes to how people treat you.

“Well done. Thank you, really. Truly impressive work and well-deserved rewards. Now fuck off you jammy piece of shit, we don’t need your type around here making the rest of us look bad.”

The only problem was finding a suitable candidate.

“I know just the person,” said a voice from behind me.

I nearly fell off the chair as I scrambled to turn around, my wooden sword in my hand (although what good I thought that was going to do I have no idea).

“Arta Aski!” said Grayson, standing up with a shocked look on his face. “You’re here?”

“No,” I said, putting my sword away. “That’s not Arthur, it just looks like him.”

“A fairy?” said Grayson.

“I’m not sure. This is Joshaya, the One True God, aka the Pope of Gorgoth and a number of other aliases. The Fairy Queen sent him to keep an eye on me, just like everyone else.”

Grayson looked even more confused, which I liked. Not so smug now.

Joshaya, in his old man Arthur guise, stood there, eyes gleaming, in a bathrobe threatening to fall open at any moment. “I happened to overhear what you said, and I have the ideal man for the job. A great warrior, a mighty mage, a true hero of the people. His name was Caim, they called him the Deathreaper. If only you could see him in his ivory white armour that made him invulnerable and his giant sword, Dreamer, carved out of sentient black crystal — no one could stand against him in battle. He was the greatest Visitor this world has ever seen.”

“What’s the catch?” I said. Paranoia, my oldest and truest friend. With paranoia, you are never truly alone (because you’re always convinced someone’s watching).

“No catch. Well, a slight one. He’s been dead for a number of years.”

“Deathreaper Caim… I’ve never heard of him,” said Grayson.

“Of course not,” said Joshaya. “They conspired against him, jealous of his power and the love the people had for him. Once they killed him, they removed him from your collective memories. But if you bring him back, he will reignite that love, and also take your place, I am sure.”

“If he was so great, how come they were able to kill him?” Fair enough they turned on him — nobody likes a show-off — but if he was the greatest hero ever, how did he wind up dead?

“Betrayed by those he trusted. They showered him with affection, vowed to be loyal, and then stabbed him in the back.”

He did sound like the kind of guy I could relate to.

“So he’s dead… That shouldn’t pose a problem for you. You’re the God of Death, after all. Just resurrect him.”

“I thought you said he was the Pope,” said Grayson.

“He is,” I said. “Your Pope isn’t as benevolent as you’ve been led to believe. They never are.”

“It’s not so simple,” said Joshaya. “It requires a great power to bring him back, but fortunately you have something in your trousers that might do the trick.”

One day I’d like to find a form of magic in this world that involved playing cards and metal rings you interlock. “Look, I don’t make it a habit to have sex with corpses. I told you, that time with you was a misunderstanding. I thought you were dead.” I realised what I’d just said could be open to misinterpretation. “It isn’t what it sounds like,” I said to Grayson. “Actually it is, but for a very good reason.” I wasn’t making things any better. “Let’s just agree to never talk about it again.”

“The thing in your trousers I was referring to is the ball of life given to you by the Council.”

Cowdrey had given me a ball he claimed would give me a second chance if I died. I didn’t know if it actually worked, but I was already being asked to give it up. Although, if it did work, it could solve my problem.

Revive the hero of legend, set him up as the new protector of Gorgoth, let battle commence. Everyone else might have settled into an uneasy alliance against me, but he would be new to the game and hopefully still ticked off at his treatment. Meanwhile, yours truly is on a beach somewhere, sipping on a cocktail.

“This guy, this hero, Deathreaper Caim, where’s his body?”

“Ah,” said Joshaya, in a tone I recognised as the sound of a turd sliding into my cocktail. “There is one slight problem. It’s hidden in the temple. We would have to get past the Fairy Queen to reclaim it.”

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Afterword from Mooderino
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