In the middle of the world, in the heart of the game, there are two small children comforting each other. The older boy reads his younger sister from an old book. Its pages are yellow and he has to hold it carefully as to not shred any pages. But for the children it is the breath of the fantastic history which fascinates them. With his high sweet voice he reads aloud.
“Long ago there was a man named Player. They say he was the best at every game, be it with cards or dices he would win them all. One day he invented a new game and organized a tournament where he duelled against the best gamers of his times. He defeated them all. Once he even challenged the embodiment of boredom, the dreadful demon Apathos. After that he began calling himself the King of kings.”
When the boy stopped, his little sister asked: “You want to become the next King of kings, don’t you?” Her brother smiled broadly as he answered: “Yes, I will be the mightiest King of kings in history. Even greater than Player himself!”
Awakening after a pleasant dream, which was also her memory, this was something Chesska loved. She loved her easy life. She loved her brother, whom she owed a lot. The girl was sure that without him her life wouldn’t be as easy as it is. It was his willpower and intelligence that prevented them from living on the street as other abandoned children. Neither she, nor her brother has seen their parents in person, thought she as she combed her hair, but they were sure both of their parents are alive. Otherwise they would hear news of their death. However, they weren’t allowed to see them. Sometimes she tried to imagine how it would be to have both parents at home but in the end she was satisfied with what she already had. They had money, servants and friends. On the other side were poor farmer families, with a lot of family members but struggling to survive.
Not long after finishing her morning preparation she heard a knock on the door followed by an immediate creak afterwards as the door was being opened. The opening door soon revealed a tall, young man with similar facial features as Chesska. Shogi Go, the current head of the Go clan has come to greet his little sister. No, she wasn’t a child anymore, mentally correcting himself. She was still younger, sure, but as he noticed the little girl was fading away until only young woman will remain. Yesterday was her sixteenth birthday after all.
Behind Shogi’s back stood his right hand woman, the never smiling Lady Blanche. Right now she was gazing at Chesska behind her master’s back. Chesska shivered, she never liked that woman but she knew her brother admired Blanche’s abilities, therefore she held her tongue and calmly yet coldly returned her stare.
The staring down contest was interrupted by Shogi’s voice as he complimented his sister: “You’re strong and beautiful. Today I will show you the reason for your training.” Chesska was trained in martial arts and logical thinking since childhood, she had the best teachers and she herself studied hard because she knew that one day she will help her brother to achieve his big dream. Even if she didn’t know what exactly she will have to do she was determined to be the best for herself as well as for Shogi.
She heard from servants and Shogi’s closest companions that the missions her brother undergoes vary significantly. Sometimes they would mention something about working in a dessert or a on a sea but no one ever described any quest into much details so naturally Chesska was very curious about this whole business but also worried that she may fail. No, thought she, I’m not going to fail. I will do it. No matter what obstacle I have to overcome I will succeed.
She focused on her brother fully again. She hoped he didn’t notice her slip in attention but he either wasn’t aware of it at all or didn’t mind it. Shogi was already telling her instructions needed for their next mission: “Gather everything you need and come to the GameMech. We leave in an hour.” He then threw a supportive smile at his sister and walked out of the room. Chesska stayed in her room for a while to pack last necessities into her bag before she was ready to follow him. In the passage she met Hanafuda and Mono Polly arguing over some philosophical problem as they were walking to the meeting point.
Chesska grinned as she greeted them, their arguments were frequent and amusing. Old Hanafuda with bushy eyebrows and long beard chastised Mono for his love for money. The greenheaded spiked haired young man defended himself that Hanafuda’s pursuit of knowledge was a kind of greed, too.
Together they passed marvellous paintings, which were hardly noticed by them because they have seen them countless times before. The halls of the palace were full of white marble. White being dominant colour in everything which belonged to the Go clan.
Soon they arrived at the palace’s courtyard where their transport parked. The machine was metallic silver because only the White King was allowed to drive a white GameMech. This time the machine looked like a giant horse with massive armor on it. The metallic beast had a barrel-like body from which various tubes sticked out, went along its body and ended in its artificial legs.
Chesska knew that it was able to transform into a huge mechanic warrior with a broadsword. The girl wondered how it was possible because each form looked so differently it seemed to be impossible for the machine to be able to alter its appearance without adding any additional parts. Chesska saw that process several times, she never understood it fully, though. But that was the nature of the world they lived in, some things you can grasp with your mind but some had to be believed in. You are allowed to question them, although you must be prepared that you may never get your answers.
It took the silvery horse-like machine about two hours to make it into the destination. Chesska tried to collect more information about the place they were heading to or about the job they will have to do there. However, she didn’t get much information as her brother insisted that the best way to learn to know their quest is to experience it.
The GameMech landed on a plain made of light brown ground and yellow grass. In what looked like ruins of an ancient town stood a little referee with a tall hat. He didn’t move an inch when Shogi’s team walked from the GameMech and towards him. Only as they all stopped before him, the small man bowed and turned around expecting them to follow him.
“These are our opponents,” whispered Hanafuda to Chesska as they approached a group of four dirty looking thugs. The contrast to the fine dressed siblings from Go clan and their companions couldn’t be bigger.
This second the miniature referee faced them again and spoke: “We gathered here to witness or participate in one round of the Great tournament founded by our Lord Player. Let me introduce the competitors! Today Smartly from Eccles challenges Shogi Go from Gedera.” The miniature referee stopped and let the leaders of opposing teams greet each other with a nod.
“The rules are sacred. Every attempt at cheating will be punished severely. Before the match begins, choose one member to be your Sacrifice. You can choose one or two Observers who will supervise the match from Killjoy’s Nest and may assist you through giving you hints or put obstacles in front of your opponents. The rest will go to the Playfield,” continued the referee to list the rules, ” This game’s purpose is to follow orders. For every obeyed order you get a point. The team with more points, wins. Remember, if you cheat, your Sacrifice will be killed.”
As soon as the small man with big hat stopped talking, Shogi turned to his playmates in order to tell them what they have to do: “Mono and Chesska go with me. Hanafuda, you will watch the game from the Killjoy’s Nest” “Of course, master,” said the old man respectfully and walked to a platform made of stone, which lifted itself the moment Hanafuda stepped on it and took him to the peak of a high pillar.
“Blanche, you will be our Sacrifice today.” “But master, Chesska is a newbie. She may learn more when she can watch the match from a far,” lady Blance used the same respectful tone as her team member, yet the words she spoke expressed slight discontent. “It’s out of question,” her master’s normally tender look hardened as he glared at his servant. Lady Blanche disapproved of Shogi’s decision but she wasn’t stupid and with a slow bow of her head and piercing violet eyes acknowledged her lord’s order.
Then as she straightened up again, Blanche elegantly stepped into a two meters wide circle and put one of her hand on a pillar that ejected shortly before she took her spot and reached to her waist. The circle was then enclosed in some type of sound-proof barrier.
Chesska shot a quick glance at the irritating woman before she rushed with her team members to the start line. Her team assembled next to the rogues lead by Smartly and both sets of participants awaited the beginning of the match. Then finally the dwarfish referee yelled: “Let the match begin!”
Suddenly a strange creature began to appear in front of both teams. It looked like nothing the girl saw or learnt about before. It had a form of human figure but instead of legs its body ended in a smoke like cloud. Humans aren’t normally translucent either. And don’t shimmer. “I’M SIMON!” shouted the strange being so loud Chesska fought his yelling deafened her but fortunately for her she recovered quickly. The young participant wondered if that was a name for this single creature or a whole species but she hadn’t time to ponder it thoroughly, because at this moment the being turned to Shogi’s team. “Polly, this is your turn,” hissed Shogi and his follower nodded. “Make a handstand,” said the Simon thing and made a ridiculous pose. It gazed at the team but no one moved. With a chuckle Simon faced the other team: “Simon says. Kick your friend in the butt.” Chesska watched as Smartly followed Simon’s order and delivered a nice kick to his team mate’s behind. So that’s what a player has to do, Chesska said to herself. Everyone must focus and listen if the Simon being says his name or not. This part was easy if she concentrates, now I just have to wait for my orders.
The game continued with Simon talking to both teams. Once or twice was Chesska’s turn, she wasn’t sure because as soon as she fulfilled one request, or did nothing for that matter, she observed other players as not to miss her next turn. Some commands were plain silly but Chesska noticed that the orders as a whole were becoming more and more malicious. Her suspicion was proved right as it was her turn again.
Simon made downright evil smile as he slowly said: “Simon says. ‘Stab your friend’.” Chesska froze in horror. How could anyone want her to hurt any of her team mates. “It’s okay, Chesska.” Shogi reached out with his hand and gestured her to stab him. “Simon says. Stab him,” repeated the giggling creature. She reluctantly took out her dagger. “If the participant doesn’t follow Simon’s instructions. Your team loses a point,” she heard the referee’s voice. Damn it, I don’t want Shogi to lose but how can I wound him? He’s my brother!
In the middle of her inner conflict someone grabbed her hand. It was Shogi, he looked directly in her eyes with such intensity that she began to pour tears: “Please, do it.” It felt as if he said those words both lovingly and hard. Chesska gulped, closed her eyes, lifted her dagger. Then stroke. Still with her eyes closed she heard Shogi’s hiss the moment she stabbed his hand but otherwise he suppressed any signs of him feeling any pain. It was only then she finally found the courage to open her eyes again. She saw her brother beaming proudly at her. She wanted to apologize to him, nevertheless she hadn’t the chance to do that because the referee announced the end of the game: “The match is over! Team Shogi Go won 12 points. Team Smartly won 10 points. The winner is...The team of lord Go!”
The team assembled again and they congratulated each other. Even Lady Blanche complimented her lord, which was a way to show her affection towards him, people who didn’t know her could regard her words to be as cool and aloof as if she spoke any other time though. “You have done a great job, rookie,” laughed Mono Polly and patted Chesska on the shoulder. The new team member blushed, feeling ashamed of stabbing her brother but at the same time happy that her actions helped her team to win the match.
One of the servants who flew with them immediately tended to Shogi’s wound, Chesska approached her brother still feeling guilty but as he looked up at her he had his typical warm smile on his face: “You did great. Don’t be worried about the wound. It all belongs to our work. When the servant finished treating Shogi’s hand, his master stood up and walked to the other team. Their leader shook hands with him and congratulated Chesska’s brother for their victory, however the young Go dismissed this with a humble smile: “We were just luckier, that’s all. Would you accept our invitation to a bottle or two of Medianan wine?”
Smartly smirked and looked at the rest of his team. Everyone agreed. Then the leader smiled impishly and winked at Chesska which made her blushing. “It will be our honour to celebrate with such beautiful ladies.”
Soon both parties were busy drinking and having fun. “To the great victors,” yelled the leader of the opponents laughingly and raised his glass. Both teams lifted their glasses full of expensive alcohol and some emptied theirs in seconds. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Unfortunately the losers didn’t know that this was just an act on Shogi’s part. None of his team actually drank any alcohol. The young blonde observed the thugs slowly getting drunk and falling asleep. When the breath of the last one became steady he snapped his fingers. End of pretending, time to work. His companions didn’t need any more instructions and swiftly pulled their daggers of the unwitting opponents. Blanche and others slit their throats. In five minutes it was over. The drunken opponents never stood a chance.
The whole thing happened so quickly even Chesska wasn’t able to do anything. She just watched the dreadful scene in horror trembling. One moment she asked herself why would Shogi do something like that, seconds later she cursed her helplessness. She had no idea, her team members were about to kill their rivals but she still felt as if it was her fault. This should have been fair competition not a foul war. And now she was a part of this battle.
Her brother noticed her change of mood and leaned to her trying to comfort her. No matter how hard he tried or what he said, nothing could get to her heart. Chesska shivered. His voice, normally soothing, frightened her even more out this time. The bond of love and trust that was built between the siblings, was shattered.
The whole journey back to the castle and the second day Chesska had to thought of the terrible deed she witnessed. She feigned good mood and behaved kindly to others as before but deep down she longed to get as far from them as possible.
Her brother was a murderer. A cold blooded criminal. She knew she will never tell anyone what he did that evening, she loved him too much to turn him and also because she herself still couldn’t fully fathom what she saw. She knew only one thing. She will never be able to trust him again and this awareness lead to her decision to leave the palace. Sooner her warm loved home, today a cold hollow place.
That night the great marble towers silently witnessed the escape of a young girl. She didn’t even cast a look around her shoulder on the things and people she was leaving behind, for darkness hid everything in the cloak of night, what else was to see, was covered by the veil of Chesska’s tears.