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Library: Trickster's gambit

Books

Author: qurp
Date:Dec 19 2003

                  I    By dawn none shall live


  It was an early morning, just before nature springs to life. Against the
snowclad mountains glistening with first rays of sunlight stood a lone
bastion. It wasn't a formidable or remarkable fortress by any means, just
another front guard against the possible intrusions in the nation of Kadrast.

Just recently a priest had arrived to this far-away outpost. It was part of
his duties as an acolyte that he would spend 20 years in search of people
who did not yet believe in the one true god. It had been only few days since
his arrival, but through hard work many had turned towards the light. Few
tough cases remained, after their conversion he would move forward. Things
had not gone as planned though, since during the night forward scouts had
reported about an advancing barbarian horde moving towards the bastion.
It had been too late for him to leave.


  The fort was under attack. Arrows of fire flew fiercely in both directions
and oil poured on the attackers from cauldrons was ignited by them, turning
brave men into screaming heaps of burning flesh and bone. The assault had
been going on for about an hour now, and already there were dozens of corpses
lying in the bloody snow, not even counting the losses inside the
not-so-formidable fortress. Even though the men inside this not-so-formidable
fortress were few, they had been able to hold off an enemy far superior in
numbers.

'I'm telling you, the gods are on our side. Your doubts will just ruin their
favour' Said one, bearing a small arrow-wound on his left shoulder. A gaunt
man hardened by life, yet still young in years.
'You are so gullible, just because you priests say there are gods watching
over us doesn't mean it is so. We are still alive because we are inside
this fortress and those barbarians are out there. When they ram down the front
gate we are done for.' retorted another dressed in an official guard garment
and fired a crossbow towards the horde of attacking men below. In response
came a chilling scream of promise 'When dawn arrives you will all be dead!'.

Faennor Askalath, one that his doubter had given a nickname 'blind believer'
mused 'Well, I tried. No matter how hard I try I can't get to him, and to top
it all off I got caught in this attack of icetribes. Those barbarians are
even more stubborn in their beliefs than these men, so we will get
slaughtered to honor their wargods.'

As Faennor was lamenting his situation something strange started to happen
on the battlefield. All of a sudden, to the center of the battlefield and
seemingly out of nowhere, appeared a catapult of almost disproportionate size.
As it materialized slightly above the heads of a small band of barbarians the
follow-up landing was rather messy, and loud.
Suddenly there was a chilling silence as both sides were busy rubbing their
eyes, wondering if they were hallucinating, dreaming or just plain mad. The
selfdialogue was cut short though, as stupefied men seemed to freeze on their
tracks, unable to move.

Time itself seemed to stand still, but for some reason Faennor was able to
move around. He looked around carefully, an expression of fear and
curiousness strangely mixed upon his face. He tried waking up the other men
to no avail, they were completely rigid, some frozen in seriously stupid
postures. Just as he was about to give up, he heard a voice. This was not
just any voice, but a deep, distinguished one and to his amazement he
noticed that this voice seemed to speak from above.

'You cheated!' it screamed, knocking Faennor to his knees.
'You old fart, I was just being imaginative, I would've won if you hadn't
frozen time.' said a younger voice, laden with sarcasm.
'I call for a judging, and anyway you didn't freeze this one geezer, he is
hopping around the board' said the former voice.
A third voice, which caused Faennor to have chills on the back of his neck,
was currenly saying 'I rule in favor of Azkara, it was indeed cheating to
move the catapult to the field at this point. According to my calculations
it couldn't have arrived on this position in less than twelve turns.'

There was a moment of silence during which Faennor was busy wondering what
the hell was going on, shutting his eyes and pinching himself to wake up
from this strange hallucination. 'Maybe it's something I ate' he was
thinking, 'or maybe I am just dead'. 'No you are not' replied the one
with distinguished voice 'but something we didn't expect just happened and
I will have to remove you from the table'. A huge hand holding a pair of
tweezers descended from a hole in the sky,  snatching him skillfully by
the collar of his ragged brown robe, beginning to pull him upwards towards
the hole. 'Don't worry', assured the voice as Faennor was gasping for breath,
passing in and out of consciousness with his small mind ready to explode.


                         II      Somewhere


  Awakening from what seemed to be a spartan stone tablet, Faennor groaned in
agony as his joints played a duetto. Taking his time in getting up he surveyed
his surroundings with a casual glance. Not far away he saw some sort of
surface, which seemed to curve in such a way as to form a perfect bowl under
which he apparently was. Patting his robe Faennor stood up, failing to notice
a small lightglobe above and accidentaly knocking his head against it.

'Hey, watch it!' the lightglobe exclaimed angrily, seemingly watching as
Faennor backed away from it.
'What..who are you?'
'I am your guide, you can refer to me as guide. If you have any questions
about this place or its' occupants feel free to ask' answered the glowing
ball, though Faennor had no idea exactly where this voice he heard came
from. It seemed to come from a different direction every time, which was
slightly annoying.

'Oh, well, how do I get out of here? I have to continue my duties.' asked
Faennor in confusion.
'Are you insane? It is your chance to find out about mysteries unknown to
your kind and you want to leave?' the guide bellowed 'I truly wonder why they
picked you, but gladly that is none of my concern.'
'Who picked me? I just remember a very loud sound and then nothing.' answered
Faennor truthfully.
'Gods, creators, whatever your kind calls them. We are inside a small portion
of your world which is at the moment occupied by several of them. They are
playing a game of sorts but I don't think you want to know the details.'
'I have orders to take you to the board, one of the creators wants to speak
to you' it continued.
'Fine, fine' replied Faennor annoyedly, he wasn't at all convinced about the
divinity of this place. Anyone could do this with a bit of trickery, and this
ball of light was really getting on his nerves.


  As they trekked towards a large, strangely colored platform in the distance,
Faennor learned that the 'bowl' that surrounded him was actually a protective
shield of some kind, which followed his movements perfectly. Also he didn't
feel tired at all, it was as if he weighted less. Encouraged by his newfound
feeling of freedom he leaped forward and closing his eyes pictured himself to
be running on a field of perfect, smooth grass. Opening his eyes it
momentarily seemed to be true, but the glowing ball educated Faennor on the
matter, 'Much power is near so if you want something pleasant, it happens. No
agressive wishes are allowed since gods are a wrathful bunch.'.

In the distance Faennor could see even stranger things which occupied him for
a moment, two rather large round balls of pure lightning. They seemed to be
really far away, but Faennor could see better than he had ever seen. These
lightningballs appeared to be in line with the center of the island, one on
both sides of it. For some unknowable reason they were moving back and forth
between two spots. He could see them clearly against the blue backround, yet
they seemed somehow transparent.

'Time and space don't seem to have any hold on this place' Faennor mused to
himself, 'It is as we've been walking for hours, yet right now we don't seem
to be getting any closer to that platform out there. Then again, when I lower
my eyes and look back up, it seems we are right next to it.' Voicing his
question, he had his answer: 
'I thought I told you this already, are you stupid or what? Why didn't you
think you wanted to get there?' reprimanded his guide. 'Uh, I am sorry I
forgat that' Faennor replied hastily and closing his eyes thought himself
to be by the platform, and when he opened his eyes that was exactly what had
happened. This delighted Faennor to no end, but he was quickly silenced by
disapprovingly bright light shining from the orb.


                          III      The board 


  The gameboard or whatever it was supposed to be seemed most peculiar to
Faennor. It was divided into six sections, all of which had a different set
of colors. Others were blindingly bright, others so dark that one could
hardly discern the shapes drawn on the surface. These things added to the
soup with different sized shapes drawn on the surface, height variation on
seemingly random locations on the board and disappearing objects which
appeared later on another spot made Faennor very confused.

There was also a case of a strange device in the middle of the board.
Apparently this device was used to operate a huge hand that hung from ropes
slightly below the top of the device. For some reason unknown to Faennor
the hand was holding a pair of tweezers. Standing on a small platform on
top of it there was a group of green creatures (in what appeared to be a
heated debate). Faennor caught up with the discussion as he heard a
familiar voice speaking.

'I won, it is my turn again, read the rules nitwit'
'It ended in judgement and cosmic die landed in 24312' replied another with
authoritative, chirping voice.
'Dammit I give up, it seems you people change rules all the time, last
time it was 24132 and judgement for changing turns, and to top that off my
marker is on green vertical' moaned the former.
'It's your turn again after 60225 turns, stop whining, go get some
refreshments or something' ordered the one everyone else seemed to be
calling a judge.


  Turning his head towards Faennor the creature started gliding downwards
in his direction with silky wings that glowed in the pale light. This
creature descending towards them was cobalt green, had huge mandibles and
looked just like a grasshopper. 'It doesn't just look like one, it is one.'
wondered Faennor, poking himself in disbelief. 'Yes indeed, there is a
creature in your world which looks just like us' replied the landing
grasshopper 'reading your mind is fairly easy, you think in a very
simplistic manner.'

'To answer your many questions, we are indeed what your kind would call
gods. This game you see before you is done in a stopped time and we are
playing using a complicated set of rules which are used to determine who
controls your universe.'

'Our wager is this ball here, inside which your universe is contained'
it continued, kicking the ball, making it roll forward, revealing a short
inscription 'made in T' on the side. 'As to your question of how you ended
up here, I can only hazard a guess. It seems these marble balls we acquire
to hold universes occasionally have a small flaw. This crack forms an area
which we can not affect with time control. You were in such a spot when we
froze time and were not touched by it. A shame, a shame indeed. We have had
to remove pieces from the board before because of such mishaps and I can
tell you, it isn't in no way more pleasant to us than it is to you.'

No matter how hard Faennor tried to control his thoughts he could not stop
thinking about how he disliked being called 'a piece' and the creature
picked it up instantly and said 'well, you see, you humans are our smallest
units used in this game. Those markers on the board represent masses of
people with similar thinking patterns. The size of the marker represents
how many pieces are part of that marker. Moving them in four-dimensional
space using the number of cosmic die we move a certain marker to a certain
spot determined by it. If there is another marker next to it we then
calculate the size of their spheres of power and if they overlap. If they do,
owners of the markers can then use their powers in a limited degree to affect
the outcome. Whoever destroys or absorbs the other marker wins that round.'

Faennor pondered all he had heard for a while, and although his thinking
seemed faster than usual he still didn't understand much. It was clear to
him though, that this god didn't care about human life. It was not the god
he had worshipped all these years. He was about to voice his growing concern
but the creature replied before he could open his mouth 'I can sense that
you think our actions are immoral, because we sacrifice countless lives to
win in a game. You see, we don't look at it that way, we think of ourselves
as superior to your kind, and outcome of this game to be beneficial to your
species.'

'I will now move you back into your own world, this is just too much for
you to comprehend. I will answer one question before I will send you there,
so ask.' it said.

Many questions raced through Faennor's mind, until he was fairly certain
what he wanted to ask the grasshopper. 'How can we break out of the game?'
he blurted out. The green creature seemed to be on the brink of blowing up
when it suddenly bursted into horrible fits of giggling. 'That is a good one,
I will answer it because you will fail if you intend to follow on this path.
Listen, all you need to do to get out of the game is to convince people in
your world that gods don't exist, as we gain our power from believers and
belief sustains the composition of the marble ball inside which your
universe is located. When the ball shatters we can't make another just like
it. Even if we tried it would no longer be your universe but something close
to it. Breaking out of your ball would free your souls to travel anywhere
you want. There is limitless amount of worlds and times your feeble mind is
hardly able to conceive.'

After these words were spoken Faennor's surroundings seemed to change to
another setting altogether. He was sitting inside a small wooden boat with
a fishing rod in his hand, and he could see a small island with clay huts
in the distance. 'Ok start the time' someone yelled from above and suddenly
everything seemed to lurch forward. Entire ocean seemed to shake and huge
waves raised and fell against Faennor's boat, making him hang to the
sideboard for dear life. 'Oops, sorry about  that kick' a chirping voice
whispered from above.


                          IV   Sweet homecoming


  Wasting no time Faennor started rowing towards the island, and since the
waves had died down, he reached his destination fairly fast. Some fishermen
came to the shore, eyeballing him with curiosity and an appropriate amount
of animosity. Jumping out of the small boat, Faennor started towards the
center of this small village, telling fishermen that he had important news
and asking them to follow him. After a meager collection of old women and
even older men of the village had gathered around Faennor,
he started speaking, telling the villagers all about what had happened to
him and how gods played with them, and about the way to break out of the
marble ball which contains their world. After his long speech he waited for
a response, but people just gave him a strange look and turned away, shaking
their heads and mumbling something like 'he is possessed by demons'.


  Faennor didn't give up, he moved to next town, next city, next listener,
hoping to find anyone that would believe what he had to say, but nobody
would listen. They called him a cheat, fraudster, charlatan, liar and many
such pleasant names, he got beaten, spitted on and shunned by practically
everyone, except for few bards who wrote down his story. His old friends
didn't want to have anything to do with him, they thought he had gone insane.
Those few that remained tried to make him stop, but to no avail, and finally
they too gave up on him.

Many years went by unnoticed, his hair turning grayer and shadow smaller
with each passing. Even though it had been a long time since it happened to
him, Faennor could still remember everything about his encounter with the
gods down to the last detail. It was as if his mind wasn't growing older,
only his body.

He had been in almost every city in the great nation of Kadrast, but he had
been ran out of a majority. Travelling north he was once again getting close
to the place where he had first heard the gods. It wasn't as it had once been,
a military campaign had set the new borders of the nation further north, the
bastion had been abandoned and a small town of five hundred had grown next to
it.

It was a busy town since there were many mining operations nearby, excavating
iron for the army. Tired and hungry, Faennor wobbled towards the town, hoping
to find shelter before nightfall. He took a left turn after the city stables,
entering what appeared to be the cheapest of small sleeping houses along the
main street. Faennor figured he was too tired to eat now, and went straight
to bed, after paying the keeper.


  He suddenly woke up during the night, having an urgent need to go out and
relieve himself. There was an alley next to the sleeping house suitable for
this purpose, so he got up and headed out. Turning to face the wall,
he started pulling down his pants, only to be stopped by a punch from the
side which knocked all air out of him. Faennor fell down, coughing and
wheezing, trying to breathe. 'Hand over your money' said someone whose voice
was filled with malice, standing somewhere behind Faennor.
Between coughs and wheezes Faennor could manage a 'I don't have anything'
but that didn't stop the robber, who came closer and started searching through
Faennor's clothes. 'Ha, I knew you lied, is this metal I feel here?' he said,
kneeling over Faennor who was still on the ground, unable to get up.
'What, only two pieces of nickel! I have better things to do with my time!'
the faceless man screamed, and made a fast movement with his right hand.
An explosion of pain shot through Faennor, but he was too weak to scream.
After that there was absolutely nothing. His murderer spat at him, and walked
away.


  His body was discovered by dogs much sooner than by men. Nobody knew who
he was, so he was buried in an unmarked grave. Somewhere there was another
marble ball, getting kicked. 


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