Sord’s room was quiet except for the small noises he made as he tinkered with his newest project. There were nine different gaming systems behind him, monitoring nine different realities, and each was running a bot that was designed to execute a different macro for the various games they kept watch over. The scripted programs were all auto-farming loot, and Sord was busy at work setting up a tenth when his doorknob turned with a loud click. The ever-tired-looking, dead-expression man’s face twisted as he looked up from his work and toward the door.
“Who is it?” Sord asked vexedly as the door swung open. The prime law protected the deities from killing each other, so he wasn’t too concerned over who might be paying him a visit. The golden rule had been dictated the day they had all gained their status, so there was no reason for him to feel even so much as an ounce of fear. The only way he could possibly die was if his Herald, his descendant that was currently competing in the game, was killed. Otherwise, he had nothing to fear.
“An enemy,” someone answered back. The voice was unlike any other that he had heard in millennia. It was filled with an actual divine essence that pierced his body and rattled the very core of his being as it echoed throughout the small room. “A patient enemy.”
“What the . . .?” Confused over who would proclaim himself in such a manner, Sord finally stood up and turned his full to his visitor only to find a small chimpanzee smiling up at him. “Augustus, what are you doing here?” he asked exasperatedly. “Are you here to threaten me again?”
“Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.” Augustus let out a slow and deliberate laugh and then punctuated the monotone expression with the staccato sound of him cracking his neck. “I’m not here to threaten you at all,” Augustus said patiently. “I’m here to tell you a story.”
“Then you can let yourself out,” Sord said shortly. “I don’t have time to listen to you threaten me again or tell me how you’re going to report me or whatever it is that you’re planning to do to get me in trouble with the system. I need to set this up soon or else it won’t be ready for the game’s launch. I can’t have my character fall behind my guild’s.”
“This story won’t take long,” Augustus continued, undeterred by Sord’s somewhat hostile indifference. He grinned wanly for a moment and then allowed it to fall from his face as he walked toward Sord’s bed, which was nothing more than two mattresses stacked on top of each other in the corner of a room. “And it’s a good one at that.”
Sord shook his head in annoyance and turned his focus back to his work. “I just told you: I don’t have time for this. That stupid meeting took up enough of my time already, and I have to get this done.”
“You see,” Augustus began, completely ignoring Sord in the same way that the God of Rising Numbers was attempting to him. “The story starts with a man who loved the world–not just one person, but every person–and so he spent his days fighting, building, crafting, and fighting again to protect each and every person in that world.”
“This could be any Herald in any of the wars,” Sord said crossly. “It could be nearly any man in any of the wars. Everyone thinks they’re protecting the world. They all die. The only difference is whose stats were highest, what their kill-death ratio was, and what loot they dropped when they finally bit it. You’re not telling me anything new, so you can leave now.”
“I know I’m not telling you a new story,” Augustus said, “but it’s still one you need to hear. So, just be patient.”
“Fine,” Sord agreed, reluctantly acquiescing as he realized that Augustus wasn’t going to be so easily turned away. “Finish your story and leave.”
“You see, if stats were all that mattered, this particular man’s were the highest. He was the best at what he did. In battle, you could say that he was a god, and his loot, as you often call it, far exceeded all others. Combined with his tenacity, strategy, army, and abilities, he was undefeated. He was the reigning champ–if you have to define him in such a way, that is.”
“Sounds like my kind of guy,” Sord said.
“He was,” Augustus said, grabbing a bag of Sord’s cheesy, spice-covered chips. “You and he were friends, after all.”
“I think I’d have remembered that,” Sord said. “Even after thousands of years, I haven’t had many friends. Only the same few I started with.”
“I think you do. I think you remember it very well. I think you remember all the times you argued with him about whether or not you had a shot with Anna Belle–even though she very clearly only had eyes for Denny. You would nag him about whether your buddy Johnson was better than you at fighting, and you would”–Augustus popped a potato chip into his mouth–“tell him he needed to stop talking to that voice inside his head.”
Sord froze, and his hands locked into place with one grasping a wire and the other simply hovering midair. His breath quickened, and his eyes opened slowly in shock. “This isn’t a story others should know.”
“You mean that it isn’t a story that people who aren’t your friends should know,” Augustus corrected. “It’s a story that only two people should have ever known.”
“Neither of whom are still here,” Sord said, finally turning to Augustus.
“I take it that I have your interest now?” Augustus asked. “That’s good because the story continues. You see, this particular man and that voice inside his head that you hated so much continued on until they defeated every challenger in existence, collecting all of the special stones in the process.”
“He was a great friend,” Sord answered, his voice cracking a little. “It was a shame how things turned out.”
“Mmm . . .” Augustus paused for a moment in thoughtful contemplation and then continued. “After he defeated all of his foes and stood supreme, after he became the final existence in the world with the powers of a god, this man became conflicted. The war was over, you see. The people that the game had created would soon die and fade away into nothingness. But he loved them. Amongst them, there was a woman whom he valued above his own life, friends he would die to protect, and neighbors whom he had fought side by side with for a thousand years. They might have all been creations of that voice in his head, reflections of the system he had been assigned, but he treasured them all.
“So, when that voice in his head told him that it was his turn to take over and manage this particular swath of creation the Clockmaker had put together, that it was time to fulfill his duties as the game’s champion and the only remaining deity, he begged of her. He pleaded with the system that she would allow for him to use the three wishes that the game had promised for collecting the stones before she destroyed the world and all of his friends and loved ones along with it.
“‘Fine,’ the system said. She relented to this man’s wish out of kindness, and with those words, he set in motion a plan that would ensure everyone would suffer.”
“The three wishes; the two laws,” Sord muttered breathlessly. The words barely escaped his mouth, and his face was now blanched with horror.
“Yes, the two laws. With his first wish, he made it so that all of the people the game had generated would be given the status of a deity–even if they weren’t given a diety’s powers–so that they would not be wiped out when the game ended. They would no longer be mere background characters that regenerated as soon as they died. They would no longer be faceless cannon fodder that the challengers used to play their hand at kingdom building and strategic war. This ensured that all of the people he loved and the thousands and thousands of others within the confines of his kingdoms who had served within his armies would be immortal.
“But, after living in a state of constant war for over a millennium, the champion was worried that war had become ingrained in their very being, that it was in their blood. So, he used his second wish to create a law that was designed to protect them: that none may kill another. He wished that it would be impossible for any one of the people whom he had made into an immortal to kill another one of the people he had immortalized. He fully believed that, with these two wishes alone, that his love, the woman who encompassed his entire existence, would be sure to live forever. He was certain that the two could spend an eternity together.”
Although Augustus didn’t realize it, his emotions had become caught up in the story. Two teardrops that had formed in the corners of his eyes began making long and lonely trails down his cheeks. It was a sight that made Sord tremble.
“B-but the wording,” Sord stuttered around a dry mouth. “It’s . . .”
“Yes, it was haphazardly done. The fool had trusted the system, whom he considered his closest friend, to protect his intentions with the wish. He hadn’t once considered that the system had been given a higher, unignorable purpose by the Clockmaker. The idiot had forgotten that the system had but one purpose in its creation: to eliminate all but one deity. To find a singular person who would be able to assume the role of Guardian as the Clockmaker continued on, creating perfectly-ordered, intricately-designed realities. It was a purpose that the system couldn’t ignore, and it was a purpose that the Clockmaker had given with exquisitely clear orders on how it should be executed. And those instructions were designed to prevent the system from choosing the winner or acting in an overly biased fashion.”
“Which is why the wars began again,” Sord said, finally ripping his gaze away from Augustus and turning it down to the floor.
“Indeed,” Augustus agreed. “Which is why the wars began again: because the system had to come up with a way to make sure that the deities could continue to be killed off. It had to ensure that they would slaughter one another until the hundred-and-fifty candidates selected for each game would be whittled down to a single one.”
“But . . .” Sord let the word slowly escape his mouth and then left it to hang in the air as he frantically worked on how to phrase this next part. “That’s not right. The winner of the tournaments, he could–”
“Will eventually die until only the champion’s descendants still live–until only the champion remains as the final deity. What the other gods failed to understand is that because he won the first game and his status as a deity is above all others, he is the only one who cannot be killed by the system if his Herald dies. He’s different than all the newly made deities that only received their status after the game. It’s just like how they didn’t understand what that good-for-nothing hippy Herald Plonk in the recent games understood: if none of the Heralds fought each other, the game would go on forever, and everyone could live happily ever after.”
“But it’s nature,” Sord argued. “You can’t fight against nature. Eventually, people are going to level-up and want to see how they fare against their competition; and, eventually, that desire will lead to death. It’s exactly the same as the continuous creation of these games: eventually, they kill us all off. When the first game started, it was doomed that . . .” Sord was suddenly conscious of the fact that he was sweating profusely as he spoke and that his nervousness was showing through. He was practically twitching, stumbling across his words, and he was struggling to even form a coherent argument. “That they would eventually fight each other.”
“That’s true,” Augustus said, his voice growing a little louder and deeper as he spoke. “You can’t fight that nature. The Clockmaker designed us all to have that type of sin within us. We were all designed to eventually fall and succumb to our baser instincts. Death was inevitable, but it didn’t have to happen the way it did. She was innocent. She loved everyone, and to punish the hero for also loving everyone . . . That wasn’t how things had to happen.”
“Augustus—” Sord visibly flinched as if he had been struck and unconsciously shuffled back as Augustus’s voice rose yet again. “You don’t have to be angry. No one was to blame; it wasn’t their fault. I wasn’t even there. I didn’t know.”
“No, you weren’t there. But you were at fault.” Augustus stood up and changed into his human form.
Sord quickly backed away as Augustus shifted forms, knocking over a gaming system in his desperate attempt to press himself into the wall behind him.
“No one knew who my beloved was. No one knew who my beloved’s Herald was. Except for four people: you, two others, and Angelica. Yet, not knowing who my beloved’s Herald was, my firstborn and most treasured star, they banded together, their heralds united in purpose against her as they sought to defeat my child. But, then again, you already know that, don’t you?”
“August, I- I mean, Octavius,” Sord pleaded. His face twisted around, and he wrung his hands together. “Please, don’t do this. It wasn’t me. I didn’t tell anyone. It was Cory and Adam. They were the rats. They were the ones who betrayed you. Please. I swear. I didn’t do it.”
“Do you remember what they did to her?” Augustus roared. “Do you remember what they had their Heralds do to my only child? Do you know what it was like, watching the person I loved more than all others be tortured to death? Do you know what it was like to watch them torture, abuse, violate and slowly kill her over a five day period?”
“I swear!” Sord wailed. “I had nothing to do with it!”
“That was what I thought as well. And that’s why I let you live when madness and grief carried me on that killing spree. I thought, for such a long time, that you had nothing to do with it. So, I spared you. But then Siegman, hurt and angry, told me the truth. He dared to mouth off about how close you two were. He blamed you for being the rat who sold him out during this game because you were the same rat that betrayed your friend all the way back in the first war. When I confronted him–and this was between his screams, mind you–he told me all about how he had heard of my daughter from you–about how the others had heard of her from you. But, don’t worry: I assured him it didn’t matter since he’d never have a chance to make another mistake again. I understand what it means to make mistakes–after all, I had made the mistake of letting you all live to begin with.”
“Octavius, I swear: Siegman was lying.”
Augustus smirked. “Sord, I don’t need you to lie to me. Just take a deep breath. This will be over quickly since I don’t have time to waste. Just . . . When I’m done, take comfort in knowing that you had good stats when you died, your kill-death ratio wasn’t bad, and your loot will be rather decent.”
“You can’t do this!” Sord shrieked desperately. “The game is going on! My Herald is still in it! If you kill me now, they’ll all know! My herald will die, and they’ll all know you’re back! You can’t do this!” Sord sank into the floor with his back against the wall and broke down into tears, his body quivering uncontrollably. His fear of Augustus and what he was capable of drove all thoughts of resistance from his mind. This was the one being who wasn’t bound by the prime law. This was the only being in existence he had to fear. And there was nothing he could do to save himself.
“Ha!” Augustus barked the single word as a weapon materialized into his hand. “Me? The lazy, good for nothing weak and sloth-like layabout? Even if they know that I, the only one exempt from the rule preventing gods from killing each other, am back, they will never suspect me for being him. I’ve lived amongst you. I’ve let you insult me, degrade me, push me around and treat me like crap for millennia. Not a single one of you has ever once suspected why I don’t show my face. Even if they do know I’ve returned to wreak havoc, there is no way they’ll know that I, the War God, am wearing the guise of a drunken, crafting god.”
“Drunk crafting god . . . You . . . you took his identity. How did we not see it?”
“Pride,” Augustus answered ruefully.
“And if you’re just going to kill me, why would you tell me this all?” Sord asked. “Why don’t you just get it over with?”
“I will,” Augustus said. “I just wanted to make sure that you knew exactly why I was killing you. I wanted you to know, on your deathbed, why you have died.”
“Look, you really don’t have to–”
Sord’s words were cut off as Augustus punched him in the mouth. Augustus’s fist broke away the deceitful god’s and shattered his jaw, leaving his mouth hanging open. Augustus grabbed Sord’s tongue with one hand and then jerked backward, ripping it clean out of Sord’s mouth.
“Your tongue-wagging has bothered me enough for a single life,” Augustus spat.
Sord’s attempts to scream were choked off by blood welling up in his throat. His body was wracked by giant convulsions as he fought to vomit up the blood and not choke on it instead. He struggled to push himself away from Augustus, but pinned against the wall as he was, there was nowhere else for him to go.
“Don’t worry,” Augustus taunted, with mock sympathy in his voice. “You’ll be alive long enough for me to return to you just an iota of what my daughter went through.”
“Where did you get off to?” Mary asked as Augustus walked back into his own room. The scarlet-covered woman was lounging on the bed and watching their two Heralds on the screens plastered across one of Augustus’s walls.
Augustus shrugged. “I had an errand to take care of. Nothing too important.”
“Whatever.” Mary pulled her attention away from the screen just long enough to look Augustus up and down. While he used animal forms to go to and from different rooms within the prime dimension, the dimension where all the gods resided, he would still assume his human form when he was alone with her. After a second, she turned her attention back to what Lee and Jade were doing.
“What?” Augustus asked, walking over and sitting down in his chair. “Did you want me to pick you something up? Get you a copy of the new colorstone book? Maybe MC’s too weak curse book that everyone loves? I’ve heard that it’s really good. ”
“No, I don’t need anything,” Mary said as Augustus offered to pick her up deity-exclusive books, the kind that one wouldn’t be able to find unless they were in the deity’s own private dimension. “I just . . .” She frowned slightly as she crawled off the bed and walked over to him.
Augustus wasn’t sure what was going on until Mary, inches away from him, wrapped her arms around his neck.
“What are you . . .” Augustus started to protest but he stopped when she began tracing her fingers through the hair on the back of his head.
“It’s okay,” Mary said.
Augustus didn’t understand why she was doing this or what had possessed her to behave this way, but he leaned forward and returned the hug that he didn’t know that he had needed.
“It’s okay,” Mary offered comfortingly. “I’m here for you.”
She had originally been terrified of him. Up until recently, just the visage of his human form had caused her to shake and quiver in terror the same as it had inspired horror in Sord. So, for her to be comforting him and playing the role of a gentle friend confused Augustus. But not in a bad way. He appreciated it. He needed it.
Finally, after some time, he asked, “Why?”
“You just look hurt. You looked like you needed it,” Mary answered.
And she was right. Augustus didn’t know how she could tell. He had done his best to retain his typical indifference and to act as if nothing had happened, but even after a thousand generations, just the thought of his first daughter’s tragic death–the all-too-vivid memory of her being tortured and abused–tore at him. He would never forget the moment her pulse stopped. It was a wound on his heart that time could not heal, and no matter how many millennia passed, it was still raw and ugly.
If Mary hadn’t been there, he would have already sunk into a bottomless glass of alcohol just to try and drown that memory.
“Thank you,” Augustus said, noticing that he was still holding her hand.
“Don’t mention it.” Mary backed away and broke the connection between. Then, giving him a sly look, she said, “I mean, seriously, don’t mention it. My reputation is already bad enough.”
“Do you really care what people think that much?” Augustus asked. He stood up, moved across the room to the bed, and then collapsed onto his back.
“I wouldn’t be here if I did,” Mary said, lying down next to him. It was the same spot she had been in when Augustus had gotten back from dealing with Sord.
“I thought you were only here because I scared you into being here.” Augustus’ brow creased slightly as he recalled the first time they had interacted while Augustus was in his true form.
“Maybe at first . . .” Mary leaned over and rested her head on Augustus’s chest–“but maybe now I’m just here because I like it here.”
Augustus didn’t know how to respond to that. She knew who he was, but unlike Angelica, she hadn’t put any barriers up between them–even with full knowledge of the horrific things that he had done during his first war. She had slowly gotten closer to him, one step at a time, and now the two were almost inseparable. After just lying there quietly for a moment, he threw out the words one more time. “Thank you.”
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