Lilim paced an erratic circle around her cave. It was nearly dawn, but the sun had not yet dared show its face to the mountainside Lilim called her home. Occasionally the flickering light of a torch would slide over her features as she paced, revealing a slight frown of concentration. But most of the cave was still cloaked in shadow, just the way she liked it.
In her mind’s eye, Lilim studied the pieces to the intricate game she played. It was a game where all the pieces could and did move by themselves, for the pieces themselves were the players. First and foremost among them was Lilim herself. She must never allow herself to forget that she, too, was a piece. Just as she could move the other pieces, the other pieces could move her. Forgetting that was the singular most common and most fatal mistake one could make.
Second was Naga’s piece, the bloated purple snake. He was hell-bent on moving against her, for no better reason than that he hated the “little witch.” It was no secret what he called her in his fits of rage. Lilim actually rather liked the description; it was fairly accurate, a fact she was quite proud of. And it was that very rage that was the key to playing Naga’s piece. At times Lilim hardly had to try to get him to move the way she wanted. She had studied his moves so often that she could usually predict them.
Usually. Usually wasn’t always. And Naga’s latest move…
Kyoko and her Vanities. Now Lilim would have to visit the lair everyday, starting today, just to train those half-wit Pixie types. Kyoko…now there was an interesting piece. A piece that could work for or against her. It might take some time to learn to play such a piece properly, but it would be well worth the trouble.
The whole reason Naga had given her such a ridiculous assignment was so that idiot Jaba could have a chance to annoy her. Jaba…not a very influential piece, but one easily played. The fool would do anything for her.
The rebels. The “courageous seven”, as their many friends had taken to calling them. Those pieces would move against Naga, but it would be difficult to control their moves, to say the very least.
Thorn, Pixie and Big Blue. They, too, would move against Naga. Thorn had trusted her once, long ago, but there was no way to tell how much the girl remembered from that time. And even if she did manage to influence Thorn, Pixie seemed to be the one calling the shots. Besides, Thorn was the only person in about a millennium who had accepted her for who she was. Lilim wasn’t going to play her in this game if she could help it.
Moo. Perhaps the biggest and most influential piece in the game. A piece that no one could control. She could expect no help from him. He didn’t even keep the illusion of treating his subordinates with anything remotely resembling kindness. He ruled by fear and fed on hatred. Lilim would deal with him if and when it was necessary. She could only hope that it would not be necessary. Although she did have a few tricks up her sleeve, tricks only one other person knew…
Irene. The only piece she would never play to her full advantage. In a way Irene was like a little sister to her. Long before the Ancient War, Irene had been born in the same lab, only six years before Lilim was created. Irene’s mother and father were both very busy scientists at the dawn of the so-called “Monster Revolution”, the era when monsters were first created. Seeing as they had no time for their daughter, and there being no other kids around, Lilim and Irene became fast friends. Although Irene was actually six years her senior, Lilim, being a monster, matured faster, which was why she always regarded Irene as being younger.
Irene moved by herself, for herself. Her moves in the game usually didn’t affect the other pieces. She generally stuck to herself, unless there was extreme provocation for her to do otherwise. Lilim’s mere request did not count as extreme provocation, but she would help Lilim if she could. However, there were some things Irene just would not do.
Unable to think of any other important pieces, Lilim studied Kyoko’s piece once more. So far the Vanity captain had been only a pawn in Lilim and Naga’s game within a game. But if Lilim wanted to counter Naga’s latest move, she might have to become more than that.
Lilim squinted as the first rays of sunshine pierced the depths of her cave. It was time to go.
She leaped into the air and spread her dark wings, catching the morning breeze and beginning the flight to Naga’s lair. It would be fun to simply appear and startle the Vanities, but Naga would expect her to use the front door. She couldn’t let him suspect what she was. He suspected her enough already.
“Where are all the Ghosts?” Thorn asked, shading her eyes and peering every which way. “I though ya said this was a Ghost town.”
I sighed. The wind blew a tumbleweed across the empty streets. If they even deserved to be called streets. They were little more than pathways of dirt, winding their way through row upon row of dilapidated houses. Annoying little brat. Thorn was probably only pretending to misunderstand the phrase “ghost town” just to annoy us.
“Be quiet,” I said.
“It’s too quiet,” Thorn countered. “I mean, there’s nobody here but those dolls.”
Big Blue and I exchanged glances. A bunch of dolls, in a deserted place like this?
“What dolls?” Big Blue asked.
“The ones under that big painted sign over there.” Thorn pointed, and I turned to look.
Sure enough, there was a large white sign with the word “DOLLS” painted on it in huge, bright red letters. It looked as though a five-year-old human had written it. None of the letters lined up with any of the rest, and each letter slanted at a different angle. The “S” was painted on backwards. Underneath the sign was a small storefront, its simple wooden counter and shelves stuffed to the brim with grinning dolls.
“That sign looks new,” Big Blue observed, scratching his chin.
“Hmm.” I took a closer look. “You’re right.” The paint should have been peeling, or faded at the very least if the sign was as old as the rest of this place. But it was bright and glistening, as though it had not even finished drying properly yet. It was almost as if someone had painted it exclusively for our arrival.
“But why would ya want to put up a sign where no one’s going to see it?” Thorn asked.
“Maybe this place isn’t as deserted as it looks.” I glanced down at Big Blue. “Let’s check it out, Blue.”
As we approached the storefront, nothing out of the ordinary happened. Another tumbleweed rolled across the street.
“Aren’t they cute?” Thorn asked when we reached the counter. Then she looked a little closer. “Actually, forget I said that. They look sort of…evil.”
Big Blue and I exchanged glances again. Evil dolls could only mean…
“Wait a minute…” Thorn said. “These aren’t dolls…they’re Wrackies!”
She had hardly finished her sentence when the Wrackies opened their evil, slanted eyes in unison. The bright morning sky suddenly turned black, and eerie phantasmal shapes flitted around us, sapping our strength. Necromancy.
By the time I got over my surprise enough to react, I was already too weak to fight back…
Question: What do you get when about a hundred Wrackies use Necromancy at once?
Answer: Knocked out. And a major headache once you wake up again.
I was more angry than anything else when I awakened. At myself, for not realizing that they were Wrackies sooner. At the Wrackies, for playing such a nasty trick. And I was just plain tired of getting knocked out and captured all the time. I mean, really, how many times had this happened? First with Crab Dragon, that’s one. Then with Lilim and those Vanities, that’s two. Odium at least had shown some creativity, capturing us without knocking us out. Then there were those Knight Mocchis yesterday…or had it been the day before? Anyway, that’s three. And this time made four. That was more than enough.
But getting mad at the general situation wasn’t going to make it any better, although the anger refused to quiet down within me. I got up and took a look around. I was in the center of a small, square room made entirely of dark brown stone, surrounded by sturdy iron bars on all sides. To test that they were sturdy, I banged on them a few times. My hands hurt, and I made quite a bit of noise, but the bars didn’t budge. In short, they were sturdy.
There wasn’t much else to see. Big Blue was sprawled out next to me, unconscious. Pixie…Pixie was nowhere to be seen.
Panicking at the general situation wasn’t going to make it any better, either. I began to pace around the perimeter of the cage, being careful not to step on Big Blue. I felt like I’d go crazy if I just stood there doing nothing.
Suddenly I felt like someone had stuck a pin in my ankle. I looked down to see a Henger Doll (Wracky/Henger) poking me with his sword.
“Sit still!” he commanded.
I don’t think he expected me to brain him with an umbrella.
I opened my eyes and tried to sit up, but I couldn’t. After a few moments of ineffectual tugging, I realized that I was bound by my wrists and ankles, strapped to a low table of sorts. There wasn’t much I could see, aside from the dark brown stones of the walls and ceiling. There was a thick-looking wooden door a yard or two in front of me.
“Big Blue?” I called. Silence. He was probably in another room somewhere. I refused to contemplate the other all too obvious possibility. “Thorn?” More silence.
“What’s wrong, slave?” sneered a voice that was all too familiar. But it wasn’t possible…he was dead. Dead. I had killed him myself. But his voice continued.
“Afraid that your little friends aren’t here to protect you?”
I looked all around the tiny room for him, but didn’t see him anywhere. Helpless rage boiled up within me, accompanied by that same hatred that had led me to join Moo in the first place.
“You needn’t worry,” the voice continued. “They’re alive. For now, that is.”
A purebred Wracky hopped onto the table, a sadistic grin warping his wooden face. Instead of the usual knife, he carried a miniature cleaver which he casually brandished at me as he continued.
“What’s wrong, slave, don’t recognize me? I may look quite different, but you must remember me. I know I’ll never forget you. Tell me, slave, did you enjoy it when you Lightninged me off that balcony?”
If I hadn’t been tied down, that Wracky would have been a Lost Disk. I already knew who he was: the human leader from Northtown. Strange that I never knew his name, but he had only wanted us to know him as “master”. I would never think of him as that. How he had become a Wracky wasn’t important; it just meant I’d have to kill him again. Electricity crackled around my fingers as I began charging a Lightning attack.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the Wracky warned, lightly pressing his cleaver against my throat. “Although you are amusing when you try to resist. It would be a shame to have to kill you so quickly, slave. Even more so because I’d have to make up for it by killing your little friends…slowly.”
I glared at him, hating him more than ever. But I allowed the Lightning to fade from my hands. With a satisfied smirk, the Wracky removed his cleaver from my throat, leaving behind a thin crimson line of blood.
“That’s right,” the Wracky sneered. “Just be a good little girl, and I’ll let your friends live.” He paced around the table for a moment, waiting for a reaction. I gave him none. “Aren’t you the least bit curious about how I came back?” I didn’t answer. He didn’t seem like he was expecting one.
“Wrackies carry the grudges of monsters killed in battle,” he explained. “But who’s to say they can’t carry the grudges of humans as well?” He paused for effect, then continued. “All of the Wrackies here were humans once, killed by scum like you.” He spat in my face. My bonds didn’t even allow me to move enough to wipe it off. “Now you pay the price.” He sneered at me again and brandished his cleaver. Finally, I understood. He was going to repeat what he had done to me at Northtown. Only this time, it was personal. I closed my eyes and tried not to scream.
“No more shall the war cry sever
Nor the winding rivers run red
They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead
Under the sod and dew
Awaiting the judgement day…”
“Jaba,” Lilim interrupted. “I think you have the wrong page.”
“I do?” Jaba glanced down at the book he had been reading from. “Oh no! I do! This isn’t a sonnet!” He began hitting himself in the head with the open book. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”
Lilim walked right by him, chuckling softly to herself. The fool had been looking for a love poem, and he had read her something about a war older than the Ancient one. She wondered where he had gotten that book, anyway. Irene had once been fond of such poems, but she had said they were centuries old. And that had been before the Ancient War.
It didn’t matter. She’d have to find some way to get that fool off her back. He was the only reason Naga had thought of having her train the Vanities in the first place. But if she knew that overgrown purple maggot at all, even if she did manage to get rid of Jaba, she would still have to train the Vanities. It would be better if she simply played Jaba’s piece against the snake…
Lilim stopped in front of the door to the training ground where the Vanities were waiting and smirked. Might as well have a little fun…
Kyoko took the air as the door exploded out into the large blue-black room used as a training ground. Tongues of fire shot into the room, accompanied by unbelievable amounts of dust and smoke. The other Vanities scattered, flying to the other end of the room and screeching at the top of their lungs.
Kyoko charged a Gigaray attack and positioned herself beside and slightly above the door. Whoever came in wouldn’t know what hit them.
It was fortunate for both of them that Lilim waited for the dust to clear before stepping into the room.
“Oh, did I scare the poor little Vanities again?” Lilim asked, her voice practically dripping with mockery. “I’m so sorry, but the door was stuck.”
The door hadn’t been stuck, and everyone knew it, too. But no one was going to risk challenging Lilim. Should’ve figured she’d want to make an entrance, Kyoko thought.
“Kyoko.” Lilim glanced upward and noticed the Vanity for the first time. “Congratulations. You’ve just passed the first test. Now, if only the rest of you wouldn’t lose what little wits you have in an unexpected situation.”
“Lilim,” Kyoko said, landing gracefully despite being still shook up inside. “Unless Master Naga has taken to eavesdropping, I suggest we cut the crap. I’m guessing you have better things to do with your time than train a bunch of fools, as you’ve called us, and I don’t much like your methods of teaching. Neither of us is pleased with the situation, so we may as well admit it.”
Lilim smirked. “My, my, look how bold we are all of a sudden,” she observed. “Are you sure you’re the same Kyoko who seemed afraid to even look Naga in the eye? Or should I be calling you Captain Kyoko?”
“Captain Kyoko sounds ridiculous,” the Vanity replied. “Master Naga could kill me, and no one who could do anything about it would care. I might be wrong, but I don’t think you will. In fact, I think the reason that you despise other baddies so much is that they seem too afraid to think for themselves.”
“I see,” was all Lilim said. She studied Kyoko, but her mind was on the game. More than a pawn, indeed. The Vanity sounded more in command of the situation than that fool Naga ever had. And she had guessed at one of the reasons for Lilim’s contempt, and guessed correctly at that. But it wasn’t the only reason. Playing this piece might be harder than she had bargained for…but that would only make the game more interesting.
“And you aren’t afraid?” Lilim asked.
Kyoko steadily met Lilim’s gaze. “Not for myself.”
Lilim raised an eyebrow. “Then for who?”
“Does it matter?” Kyoko was treading on dangerous ground…but she could not answer that.
“Doesn’t it?” Lilim asked lazily, not quite willing to drop the subject.
“I sincerely doubt that it does.” Kyoko was not going to tell anyone about her little sister Annie, the Dryad too stubborn to join Moo. No matter what had to happen to her, she would make sure Annie was safe. “Aren’t you supposed to be training us?” Best to change the subject now, before Lilim got too curious…
“Very well, Kyoko. Have it your way.” Lilim grinned demonically. “For now.”
Anger seethed within me as Big Blue still didn’t wake up. I wasn’t sure why I was so mad all of a sudden. I hadn’t even been this mad when Durahan cut off Pixie’s wings, and that had been much worse than this. But somehow this anger just felt right. Maybe it was all the anger I hadn’t felt before, coming to the surface. But it still wasn’t helping improve the situation.
I continued pacing around the cage. The Henger Doll was sprawled out on the floor, arms and legs akimbo. I didn’t think I had hit him that hard, but, well…I guess I had.
I was carefully stepping over Big Blue’s arm on what must have been my millionth circuit around the cage, when I suddenly heard a vaguely familiar scream from somewhere above me. I stopped pacing for a moment and wondered why it seemed so familiar. Then I remembered. That was the same scream I had heard when Odium created his illusion of Pixie’s past…
I fell flat on my face as Big Blue sat bolt upright, recovering instantaneously at the sound of Pixie’s scream. Paying no attention to me, he stood and punched one wall of the cage. The bars came crashing down, unsettling a host of dust bunnies. Big Blue ran straight out of the room, not even bothering to open the door.
Somebody’s going to have a whole lot of cleaning up to do… I thought, glancing at the heavily dented bars and the splinters of the door that littered the floor. Provided they survive Big Blue, of course…
I stood staring at the wreckage for a few more seconds, then shook my head to clear it.
“Hey, Big Blue, wait up!” I called, then ran through the colossal hole he had left in the door.
Big Blue seemed to know instinctively where to go as he thundered through the Wrackies’ fortress. Or at least I hoped he did, otherwise we were thoroughly lost.
As we rounded a corner we came across a group of the doll-like monsters, strolling down the corridor. They froze as they saw Big Blue charging toward them, and they just had time to widen their eyes in shock as he ran them over.
A Baby Doll (Wracky/Pixie) who had been at the edge of the group was the only one who survived. She stood there, waving her pitchfork violently and shouting, “Alert, alert! The prisoners have escaped!” She shut up when I hit her with my umbrella as I ran by.
Unfortunately, the other Wrackies must have heard her. After that several Wrackies would try to attack Big Blue periodically, sometimes jumping on him and striking him repeatedly with their weapons. He flung them off absentmindedly, usually with such force that they instantly became Lost Disks.
I ran in his wake, wondering when we were going to find Pixie. Our charge through the fortress seemed to be taking forever. I should’ve run out of breath pretty fast, but I didn’t. The anger still boiled inside me, fueling me on. For once I didn’t even bother to question why.
We must’ve run through practically every room in the fortress before Big Blue finally thundered up a twisting flight of stairs and turned another door into toothpicks.
The Wracky reacted instantly, pressing the cleaver to my throat the moment Big Blue burst through the door.
“Take one step closer and she dies,” he warned.
I’ve never seen Big Blue stop so quickly.
“Big Blue, what’s going on? Why’d ya stop?” Thorn appeared in the ruined doorway and peered around Big Blue. “Oh,” she said, seeing the Wracky. “That’s why.”
We stood that way for what seemed like an eternity, neither side willing to make a move, but no one able to back down. I considered trying to fry the Wracky again, but I doubted I had enough strength left. I hadn’t even had enough to keep my resolve not to scream.
“Stalemate,” Thorn said suddenly. “If ya don’t do something, we’re all going to just keep standing here.”
“In that case,” the Wracky said, never taking the slight pressure off his cleaver, being sure I remembered just who was in charge of the situation. “I propose a challenge. A battle, one on one. One of you against me.”
“Let me go,” I said. “I’ll fight you.” I wasn’t going to drag Big Blue and Thorn into this. The Wracky was here because of what I had done in the past. Both he and I still wanted revenge. This was my fight.
I don’t think Pixie realized what she looked like as she said this. She was bleeding from numerous cuts, and there were ugly bruises all over her body. Add this to the fact that she was currently strapped to a table with a Wracky pressing a cleaver to her throat… Even if he did let her go, she would get herself killed if she tried to fight in that kind of condition.
“Master Pixie, you can’t!” Big Blue shouted. Only the constant reminder of the Wracky’s cleaver at her throat kept Big Blue from charging to her side. “I will fight.”
“Uh…Big Blue?” I asked. “Ya might not have noticed this while ya were charging like a maniac through the fortress, but those Wrackies scratched ya up pretty bad.” I hadn’t seen it as he had been running, but the hundred or so Wrackies that had jumped on him had succeeded in doing quite a bit of damage. He wasn’t seriously hurt, but he looked pretty banged up, not to mention that he had to be at least a little tired from all that.
“She’s right, Blue,” Pixie said, trying to make her voice sound as strong as her words. She almost succeeded. “Besides, this is my fight.”
“Uh…Pixie? I hate to tell ya this, but ya look worse than he does.”
“Well, who’s going to fight me, then?” the Wracky asked.
“I am.” The words were out of my mouth before I even knew what I was saying.
“What?!” Pixie and Big Blue exclaimed as one.
I searched inside of me. The anger was still there. It had just grown stronger at the sight of what that freak had done to Pixie. I knew I could win this fight. Pixie and Big Blue didn’t look like they were in any condition to do the same.
“There is a reason why I was called Nemesis,” I said softly, without really knowing why I said it. “It’s time ya knew why they named me ‘righteous anger.’ ”
I blinked, not sure if I had heard her right. That just sounded so unlike Thorn…I almost believed she could win. And she was right, I was too weak to put up much of a fight. But still…
“This isn’t your fight,” I said.
“It is now,” Thorn replied. “Besides, ya guys are the closest thing to family I’ve ever had. I couldn’t let anything happen to ya.” Before I could protest, she turned to the Wracky. “Are ya going to stand there, or are ya going to fight?”
“Well, we can’t very well fight here,” the Wracky replied, an evil grin on his carved wooden face. “How about a proper arena?”
He snapped the fingers on his free hand, and everything shattered. Imagine watching something in a mirror. Then imagine the mirror breaking, shards of glass flying everywhere, leaving behind nothing but blackness. Now imagine that there is no mirror, and having that happen to everything you can see.
For a moment there was only darkness. Then the world slowly pieced itself back together again, and I fell into Big Blue’s waiting arms.
“Master Pixie, are you all right?” he asked.
“I’ll live, Blue,” I replied. We were in a cage, positioned in an aisle between the rows of stone benches in some sort of stadium. It looked much as the ghost town had, crumbling and disused. We had a perfect view of the arena, where Thorn and the Wracky stood facing each other at opposite ends.
“Thorn had better win,” I said. The crazy little brat…hopefully her powers would work for once.
Big Blue nodded in agreement. “Mm-hmm.”
The Wracky hopped from side to side, leering at me and taking a few practice swipes through the air with his cleaver. He looked overconfident and ridiculous.
I only smirked. He thought I wouldn’t even be a challenge.
“WEAPON THROW!” he shouted suddenly, his tiny cleaver shooting out from his hand like a missile.
I leapt to one side, dodging easily. It seemed so natural that I barely spared a thought as to how I had moved so quickly.
I landed on my feet, pulled my left arm back, then thrust my hand out toward the Wracky. A solid ball of pale green energy flew from my fingertips.
He cockily stood where he was, still hopping from side to side and grinning like an idiot. His cleaver had somehow returned to his hand. My attack inched closer, then closer…
At the last second he dodged, laughing. He opened his mouth to make some derisive comment, then his painted wooden eyes widened in surprise. A green glow lit his stupefied expression as my attack turned and collided with him, knocking him flat.
“Give up?” I asked, sending a wave of pale green light at him. It hit the fallen monster, lifting his small wooden body and slamming him into the arena wall.
The Wracky’s only response was to wave his hands in the air and attempt to perform Necromancy.
I clasped my right hand over my heart, and pure green light burst forth from my body, destroying the phantasmal shapes as soon as they began to form. But it didn’t stop there. It surrounded the Wracky, completely immobilizing him.
That’s weird, I should be exhausted by now, but I wasn’t even slightly tired. And how was I doing all this, anyway? My powers never worked like this…I’d worry about it after the battle.
“Last chance,” I warned. “Give up yet?”
The Wracky only glared at me, still with that strange smile on his face. I shrugged and clasped my right hand over my heart again. The Wracky slowly floated upward until I held him suspended in the air over the arena. Green energy slid around his wrists and ankles, latching tightly to him. Then each limb was tugged in a different direction. The Wracky continued grinning, even as he was ripped apart.
The remnants of my attack dissipated, and the pieces of the Wracky fell to the floor and became a single Lost Disk. My anger faded as well, leaving only emptiness to take its place.
Suddenly I heard a weird hissing sound that seemed to come from everywhere at once. As I watched, darkness streamed out over the arena floor, lazily rolling its way over to me. There was no way to avoid it; darkness already covered the arena’s only exits. All I could do was stand there and watch as the darkness coiled around me, swallowing me whole.
“Thorn!” I shouted as the darkness covered her completely. Slowly it disappeared, leaving no trace of Thorn behind, not even a body or a Lost Disk. The cage that held us also faded into nonexistence.
“What happened?” Big Blue asked.
Evil laughter filled the stadium, followed by the Wracky’s voice.
“So I’m dead again,” he said. “It seems I won’t be back to trouble you anymore. But at least I know you’ll live with the guilt of what has happened to your little friend.” He laughed once more. “That curse was meant for you, slave, to be sure you paid the price even if you killed me. I thought you’d be alone as you always had been. But your little friend insisted on fighting for you. Now she pays the price in your stead.”
A fierce wind blew over the arena, and I shuddered in Big Blue’s arms. It hardly seemed to matter that the Wracky was gone. All I could do was stare helplessly at the spot where Thorn had vanished. “I told her it was my fight…”
“Let’s go, Blue,” I said, no longer able to keep the weariness and despair out of my voice. “Let’s go.”
Big Blue nodded, then wordlessly turned and carried me away from the arena.