Witchkin

The Story

End of another busy work week.  As is customary every Friday night computer geniuses get together to continue competing in one of their company’s ongoing virtual reality games.  Tonight’s choice: Witchkin.  A game which began months ago with forty nine players and which has dwindled to nine.  But inside the game itself, centuries of combative spells have come and gone.  The rules are simple.  Become transformed into a unique powerful witch.  Either as a group or an individual— destroy Stellavene, the dominant witch, never defeated since the software’s release.  As the game is played,  other employees—some of them previous logoffs (as the losers are called)—watch the actual computer-generated action, as it is compressed into three hour episodes from monitors in their corporate skyscraper bar called the Showers Lounge.  What strategy will the surviving players implement?  And who is actually being played?

 

Witchkin

by loujen haxm’Yor

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

thanx, Alex—

for collaborating with me

somewhere,

before I became lost

elsewhere

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

They reached Centersphere.

Tonight it was Martin’s choice.  His eyes browsed about the honeycomb of dark portals which funneled in all directions about him.  “Down seven fifty-four.”  He sounded like an ancient elevator operator nearing the end of an overlong overtime shift.  With that blank mannikin face.  And humdrum discourse.

He was trying too hard.

He was fooling no one.

“Brushing up on your Merg last night, Mister UnFair One?”  Paula felt his confidence.  Scoffing her.  So did the others.

One of the portals glowed a soft green light and echoed Martin’s command: “Down seven fifty-four.”   The antigravity field responded accordingly and steered the scientists as a group through the 7:54 O’Clock Tunnel to the lower depths and the creative recreation sectors.

Martin reached into his shirt pocket and took out a fluorescent prism, a more recent experimental photon drive. “Actually, I’ve been anxious to see how this plays.”

“Rococo!  A new program?”  Actually Laurie was hardly impressed.  Nonetheless, she concentrated on the spectral patterns emanating from the software.  Then she speculated on the shadowy mounds below Martin’s eyes.  “Know something, gang.  I believe our friend here’s done some intense crunching last night.”  She grinned and shot him a cold stare.  “Tryin’ to hustle me, Erm?”

The next shock came when Martin handed the drive to Steve.

“And you even let Saint Judas touch it!”

Yes.  They all got to touch it.  And wonder just what sort of deceit Martin was up to.  He was such a cheat!— they all suspected.  But how does one cheat at Witchkin?  After all, the object of the game was to come out a survivor.  To outlast a bombardment of viral and antibody bytes conjured up by some of the world’s greatest programmers of impractical illogical procedures.  They were hackers nightmares!  But in the category of Games, that informal escape from personal credit evaluations and time cards, there was something particularly sneaky about Martin Price.  Something beyond his wit.  For now it was nothing more than unprovable gut feeling.

The staff glided through the last foyer’s antigravity corridor and entered ID.  There the transparent metal tubing became alive with humatomy rays, which scanned the individual DNA structures and matched them against the priority access log.

As they emerged from ID onto the Zero Force slab, a feminine mold android, the oldest in a series of walkability recognition modules, stepped up to each of them, and announced: “Laurie Norman… Krista Petta… Steve Gallegos… Geoff Drury… Doug Nickerson… Cyndi Powell… Martin Price… Debra Cunningham… Paula Kor.”

Since lunchtime they had been addressing each other by their game handles.  Just warming up for the big one.  Still, to hear their real names now initiated a sense of pride.  Like listening to a daily roll call.  Only this one was emphasizing, We are the survivors.  We’re what’s left of forty-nine original players.  The logoffs, those who didn’t make this session’s cut, were on a glass-domed observation deck, three hundred stories up, in a bar called The Showers Lounge.  Sipping exotic spirits.  Sharing hors d’oeuvres.  Placing bets.  Threshing out the chances of their comrades, especially for Geoff and Paula, who elected not to logoff in spite of their desperate situations.  But mainly everyone was focusing on the surround monitor system and its projection of the current pre-game ceremony.

They were all very surprised by Martin’s choice of games, especially after the thrashing he received almost two months ago.  He got a little too cocky during that session.  Let his guard down.  And paid the odious price– of thraldom.  Now he mustered the guts to reassume his last position.  With all of its hopeless prospects to advance.

Of course, being a viewer at The Showers was a considerable advantage.  There was the essential coverage of the game.  With all of its time frames.  With all of its locations.  On the other hand, those playing the game knew only of their own virtual interactions.  And what ever was told them during those interactions.  Nothing more.  Even after a session of play, no one ever discussed any of the events with the survivors.  It was a cut throat code of honor by which everyone abided— with egotistical pride.

As the android continued with her formalities, the Zero Force slab began descending.  Patterns of prismatic light radiated from the ceiling and directly onto the speaker.  “How do you do, ladies and gentlemen.  Welcome to Casino 7:54.”  Ten meters down– and the open ceiling symmetrically closed. The slab came to a stop.  A familiar chamber. Cylindrical.  Gray.  And except for its occupants– empty.  Nothing but bare even surfaces.  “ We have a reservation for nine players.  The game is Witchkin.” The walls then slowly expanded outward until the diameter of the room was fifty meters.  “My name is Miss ID.  I will represent The House.  Tonight’s session of play will last for three hours, unless earlier critical events dictate that the game is over.”

It was always such a delightful experience for them.  Miss ID’s company.  Any interaction with her.  Even this ritual.  She looked liked one of those celebrities in the Hollywood Wax Museum.  Her human details weren’t quite perfect.  Her general body movements, however, were apparent connected steps.  Her facial expressions were even less refined.  Each syllable of her speech was noted by a modest opening and closing of the mouth.  But she had come a long way.  The hardware was all there. For every bend, every wrinkle, every stretch of her anatomy.  And it wasn’t that the programming took so much time. An incessant labor.  Even now some team of nerds were ready to merge designs in the refinement sectors of the android’s intricate motion routines.  The results of the next satisfactory tests would then be directly transferred by wireless to her primary structural and functional drives  Eventually her daily makeovers would produce that almost human condition for which her creators had strived.  But because of the game—this game—Miss ID’s evolution was intentionally delayed.  A humorous expression of intimidation and/or insult to injury against the players.

As usual, Cyndi couldn’t resist a word with the droid.  “Oh, Miss ID.  You remembered me again.  Well I remembered you too.”  She took a compact diamond drive, which was cleverly attached to a cardboard stick and wrapped in cellophane— making it look like an old fashioned lollipop— and inserted it inside one of ID’s cleverly designed lab coat pockets.  “Here’s a little reading material I’m sure you’ll find most inspiring.”  Then she emphatically whispered to the rest of the group, “Basic Robot for Dummies.”

Everyone cracked up except Martin.  He went over and made direct eye contact with the android, and said, “Ignore last speech: Wiggibimmi.  For ID equals one to UnFair… Upgrade systems…”  Then he held the machine’s hands, and added, “There— you’re better now.  You’re wiser.  And lovelier than you’ve ever been.”  Then he hugged the android, which maintained that ever constant deadpan stare, and inserted his own prism into one of her vacant pockets.   “Wish me luck, my lady… Next ID.”

The other players— they smirked.  But no one decried  Martin’s performance.  A part of themselves was like him.  They had all been employed into coexistence with the latter generations  before Miss ID.  And like them she evolved into something special.  Special enough never ever to be looked down upon as some touchtone cosmetic It.

One by one they took their turns.  With their familiar personal speeches.  And furnishing Miss ID with their updated software implements.

The android ran a check on all of the occupied drives.  “All bets are in.  Please proceed to your last session’s position on the board.”

A narrow beam of red light appeared straight down from the ceiling to a vacant spot on the floor.  The light crackled with the voice of Miss ID.

“Ursala Thoth.”

Laurie Norman walked over into the beam, which transformed into  a cylinder of light surrounding her stance.

“Nen’n’Yyl.”

Another beam of light appeared elsewhere, and Krista Petta took up her position.

And so it was with the rest of the handles: “Junsyid… Saint Judas… Ermek the UnFair… Wiggibimmi… Petechia… Caligin… Blain Lamp…”

The final introduction was aimed at Miss ID, who maintained her position in the center of the playing field.  “Stellaveen.”  At that moment she was the only one who did not perspire.

The rules were simple.  Just play out your part.  Protect yourself.  Defeat your enemies.  Make some allies.  And along the way, go ahead and enjoy yourself and test your preternatural powers against any and all.  Be aware that if power is exhausted by any player, an inactive recess will be needed for recharging.  And when faced with the opportunity, try challenging Stellaveen.  If you want out, simply say “Logoff.”  And that’s what you’d become— a Logoff.  It was the one word, the one act, that everyone hated.  But it was better than suffering.  Better than imminent death, which would last until the end of the three hour session, after which the logoff was automatic.  Logoffs would immediately disappear from the virtual playing environment.  The force field within their lighted areas would guide them around the remaining players, elevate them through a concealed opening in the ceiling called the Relief Valve.  From there their weightless bodies were whisked through a labyrinth of tunnels leading to The Showers Lounge and a rude round of applause.

Miss ID gave her last preparatory order.  “Now set…”

The players quickly reflected on their initial moves.  Their minds hammered out the cries of war.  To hellwaste and nothingness!  To hellwaste and nothingness!  Then they braced themselves for the final command.

“Witchkin!”

Both the anti-gravity and restriction fields were activated.  The first— to levitate the players to dissimilar positions.  And the other— to prevent collisions with each others’ maneuvers.  What were once reddish glows became soft green shells which contoured the players’ movements.  Security cameras continuously observed the  real time activity. The choreography of humans.  Swimming in their magical aquariums.  To themselves, however, these living game pieces were adjusting to a rebirth. A transmutation in flesh, apparel, temperature, motion, scenery, and power not dreamed in dreams.

But as phenomenal as these changes were, the most overwhelming acclimation would be time.  There had been an intermission of two months.  Before that, almost two years of intermittent play.  Yet coming to mind now were the deeds of a slue of centuries.  The composition of compressed time.  For these programmer combatants, it was the present peak of their collective achievements.

Back at The Showers Lounge and its eager audience— the monitors were transmitting the program’s overall interpretation of the virtual playing field.

Defusion.

Fossil memories.

Suffocated feelings.

Untruths of lifeness– that missing link in the thrill of living.  Centuries had blighted that hope.  No reprieve.  No hatching.  No real numbness.  Just thoughts.  Exhausting thoughts.  Thinking inside a boundless whereabouts.

Thinking.

At least dreams would mean rest.  But here– thoughts were beyond reach of this incompleteness.  This limbless composition.  Thoughts.  Some intentional.  Some rabid.  Thinking them.  That was the agony.

Witch’s agony.

There were five of them.  Thought sufferers.  Their baseless frames.  Their robes.  Their lifeblood amulets.  All trapped into one flesh.  But not their minds.  Each was alone there.  Without company.  Awarenesses to be bled until eternity’s meltdown.  Laurels of the vanquished.

Defusion.

An eon of starless night environed the stone pelt of Gsolz Minaret.  Blind to the cosmic horizon, it too was alone.  A faint cerulean firefly– an island in nowhere– buoyed only by the gossamer skeleton  and deadness of deepest space.

Yet, from within this marooned tower– from inside Melancholy Keep–  there screamed a greater silence.  It arose from the consciences of the spellbound heap.  Forces from the Cauldron of Merg.  Expotent forces.  Down to cold wax.  Their last flickers a whole yesterage consumed.  Gsolz’s malignant womb saw to that.  Its comatose were nurtured to think.  And learn.  And fantasize.  And remember.  And strain their severed nerves to accurse the spectres of their final mistakes.  In trillionfold isolation.

Defusion.  The cruelest of spells.

Suddenly.  From within themselves.  Something ultraviolet.  Creeping.  Penetrating.

Feeling?  Dawn in a mole’s eye!  Another chum flash.  It had to be!  Flogging the void-locked mind into feigning sensation.  And arming that ultimate lie– an ear’s image of unwanted truth.

The Merg braced their imaginations for the due mockery.  An assailing past.  An all too familiar song.  A melody of endless devourment.

By their defuser.

But the haunt did not emerge.  Instead— strands of dreams were slowly pulled outward and supplanted with…

Sounds.

Real sounds.

And not so peculiar.  More like… signals.  Transmissions.  Directed at themselves.

But what if, like always…

Oh– to hellwaste and nothingness– Now!

A league away a great bird was defying the barren spacescape and winging towards the beacon ahead.  Biting into its neck was a poacher’s collar— the brand of a Wildling slave.  Intermittent drops of blood sprinkled from its wounds and, for a brief time, appeared  like red hot embers, then disappeared.  And trailing in the condor’s wake was an ancient malignant cloud, its night-energized gills spitting into the virgin blackness.  Reverat’s Echo.  The first light in several millenia to fall this way.

Tentacles of purple cloud slithered their way through Melancholy’s pores and pervaded the  prison of thinkers.  A frenzy of mist was churned, unveiling in its virulent breath a triad of witchkin.

A palm embroidered with a sand boojum held out a tapir’s heart.  Wiggibimmi blew upon it.  A pulse was born.  Beating.  Respiring.  Coughing up golden blood, which crawled over her scabrous fingers.  Dripped.  Splattered into schools of slithering molten rock jellyfish.

At the same time, her comrade, Yyl, clamped the fangs of a rattler’s skull to her bottom lip and issued a mortuary shrill against the frozen silence.

“Hear the unholy choir from the post?”

It was the voice of the third figure.  The voice of his mind, for his lips did not move.  He approached the dead life mound, and with both hands, raised a silver-runed narwal tusk above his head, and continued to chant.

Souls of afterdeath scourged unmercifully–

Their waxes perspiring to infinite swarms

Of disharmony,

Even towards the self?”

And with a gratifying passion, Saint Judas plunged the toothspear deep into the defused mass.

Blades of burning light waylaid the blue darkness.  Caustic rain downpoured from the dungeon ceiling.  A scourging whirlwind gathered all the venomous fog and enshrouded it closely about the branded pile.  Demonsong resounded everywhere.

Time was resurrected.  And the heap that was the imprisoned brethren Merg began to stir.  Melting apart.  Toppling into component beings, whose jarred minds were boiling with perceptions.  Of a long forgotten…

Contact.

At length, the charms of the triad were drained.  Their conjured storm subsided, leaving only the dregs of dampness and burnt stench as comfort.  Exhausted from their spell and their powers down to but competent defense levels, the rescuers  levitated into upright positions, bowed their heads and slept.

Sensory decompression.  It would take months.  Sporadic intervals of physical senses pressured to excess, self-abuse, tears, deranged laughter, howls, vomiting, confused illusions— even moments of disciplined, forced silence.  All part of the rebirth… into the climate of touch.

And truth.

For Blain Lamp, Ursala Thoth and Petechia— it was a time of fresh robes, vital charms and renewed confidence.

For Junsyid and Caligin…

St. Judas gripped the tusk, which still skewered their newly sensitized bodies, and thought aloud.  “Being the cause of our olden failure, for your penance…”  He then twisted the spear slowly, pressing it deeper into the flesh stock.  The Lamp hovered next to him and dynamized his single crystalline eye.  His ivory face became flush with a boiling redness.  Golden fire blasted from his sight at the penetration point of the spear. The results of their collective efforts was a loud whisper. “To hellwaste and nothingness– Now!”

And the toothcharm was slowly twisted and extracted.  Emerging bloodless.

There were no outcries of anguish from the victims.  No rabid convulsions.  No accelerated corporal decay.  Just a languid gasp.  A whisper.  Then death.  Quiet death.  At least on the outside.  On the inside.  The furthestmost inside.  It was hardly quiet.  It was hellwaste— where the disgraced were denied the alter freedom.  And it was forever.

It was now the new Cauldron of the Merg whose levitated positions formed the constellation of Chaos.

“So tell us of Erth.”

“Whose chariots rule now?”

The three deliverers grinned— though somewhat sadly.

Chariots?  It had been a long time.

Junsyid and Caligin were not about to endure hellwaste forever. And until the end of this session was forever.  Terrible wounds from other games reminded them of how far the VR softwares had evolved.  How far VR pain had evolved.  Even if only a few seconds.  The ripping and charring of their ghostly torsos quelled any delusion of survival.

The intentions of St. Judas and Blain Lamp were easily recognized.  And they both quickly whispered aloud in desperation.  “Logoff!”

There was immediate comfort.  Gliding through the Relief passages.

Then bitterness.  At becoming Laurie Norman and Geoff Drury again.

Then more bitterness.  At getting bashed with the sentiments of the Shower Lounge.  “C’mon.  Did you really think they were gonna cut you guys a huss?”— was the general consensus.

A frosty mug of honeymead.  Another.  And another.  And a ton of four letter abuses spat at the unmerciful ones on the surrounding monitors…

…and everything was better.

“Try to imagine an incredible acceleration of progress.  Today the Erthites are not confined to the surface.  They’ve settled throughout their own arm of Milky Way.  They are powerful… and weak.  You see, their powers are still artificial.  Their tools.  Their weapons.  Their thinkers.  Even their lovemaking.  All artificial.  Generations no longer born of the flesh— but of extractions from the flesh.  Diseases arisen from their own technology saw to that.  Zillabytes and picatomic particles. That is the range of their power.  Synthetic magic.”

“There are no magicians?”

“Only illusionists.  Slight-of-handers.  They feel nothing for the real elements.  Their cauldron is a circus.  Nothing more.”

Ursala’s chest burned from both memory and uncertainty with the next question.  It was almost a whisper.  “What about Stellaveen?”

There was a hateful breath from Yyl.   “Stellaveen— the bitch lives.  As she has always lived.  Amongst the Wildlings.  She never abandoned the true power, which the Erthites either feared or never believed in or didn’t care to know about.”

Petechia shut her eyes and waggled her arms in all directions.  Her Nubian skin glimmered with a melange of bemired colors.  Misshapen snails erupted from her forearms.  They slithered about the edges of her torn flesh, till each trauma was cauterized and sealed with runes spelled with thickened scars.  “And no one’s come close to killing her?”

Saint Judas flexed his thoughts.  “Actually— someone has succeeded… in wounding her.”  The bird squawked as the choker bit into its neck.  “A young apprentice, trying to make a name for himself.”

The listeners focused their attention on the bird, their sensile fingertips probing the feathery layers for some subtle hint of disguised power.

“He won her trust– somehow.  Then ambushed her.  In her own invisibility chamber.”

“In the Sightless Cave?”

“Yes.  A lucky shot— of his own peculiar magic.  But it was slightly deficient magic.  Wasn’t it, birdosaurus?”

The bird let out a harrowing cry as scabs were broken into rekindled runs of blood.

Wiggabimmi held her tapir’s heart under the blood flow, till it throbbed with a steady pulse.  Then she drank from it.  “But not totally incompetent, dear resentful brother.  Yes.  Stellavene did cripple him to this.  But at least he crippled her.  Maybe giving us an edge.”

There was an aura of agreement among the Merg.  “For her to recover, Stellavene might still need either a counterspell from him, or ____.”

Pressing his forehead to the tusk, Saint Judas telepathed the alternative.  “Or all of our ruin— to hellwaste and nothingnesss!”

Nen’n’Yyl combed one side of the bird’s face with her saurian fangs, spawning a screaking tune with each stroke.  “Want to join us, dodo-roc?  Get back for losing your monkhood?”

Suddenly the condor cried out.  Blain Lamp had just cast a quick but fleeting beam of fire from his single golden eye at one of the bird’s feet.  He sneered at his prey, who wept while cursing quietly to itself.  “Actually I was thinking more of… meat on hoof.  Anyone for a really big meal?”

“Let him be,” said Wiggabimmi.  “He might prove to be a primary toad’s tongue in our game plan.”

“Still.  For now he remains a slave.  Until his conjury is needed.  If it is needed.”

The Wildling stared into the eyes of the narwal master and felt the power of his mind.  For now, the bird was relieved.

It was a clear cool night.  The little girl sat in the middle of the field.  A salamander snuggled in her lap and smiled at the twinkling in the sky.

“Oh, Kuutwa. Imagine a trillion candleflies all stopped for a moment to watch us now.  It is time on the march.  The legions of fire all retreating from everywhere— So it has been said.  You do feel it, don’t you?  Oh, Kuutwa.  It’s so wonderful.  You and I.  And all of this.  The arborfolk— and their rustling manes.  The winds of pine and honeysuckle.  The stream bathing her rock bed.  Heaven’s reflections.  The shadows watching us imagining them.”

She sniffed the air.  Then something nudged her from behind.  It was a cougar.

“Hi, Yolabol.”

The girl rubbed one of his ears and and the salamander kissed him on the snout.

“Ooh!  What a nice wet nose!  Must be feeling better now, huh?”  And he nestled beside them.

She smelled the air again.  A mule deer approached— with a cautious eye on the cat, who raised its head, then laid it back down.

“It’s okay, Lewn. Yol won’t bother you.  He’s learning to be good now— huh, Yolabol?  Come on, Lewn.  Come here and sit with us.  Come on.  It’s okay.”

And feeling assured, the deer did just that.

The salamander and cougar and mule deer watched the stars with their little friend.  After all these years, they were no longer sad about her face having no eyes.  For when she was with them, somehow she could feel what they saw.

The reunion of the Merg.  It was time to stir their caldron.  Practice their spells.  Perfect their maneuvers as an invincible team. The Wildlings of Rainholt stared into the heavens and heard the cries emanating from the waves of dark light.  Somewhere out there unholy venom in the forms of disease, fire, storm and devourment was spat upon an unlucky few of the cosmic civilizations.  The diabolical weaponry of Reverat’s Echo suffocated the power of their defense machines.  Be it the crossbows of castle ramparts or the gamma guns of space fortresses.  All were smitten to maximum scale rout and destruction.  The Merg.  Their amended sortilege.  Their confidence.  They had never been stronger.

So was their anger, as their telescopic eyes watched Foortux Comet turn white with speed and pass the final arm of Siren Star.   It was the impatiently awaited sign.  Not just a plea to cease the current barrage.  But a plea to bring their hate to the final battlefield.  On the night when Foortux would pass between the Island of Gsolz and the frozen blackness that was both the beginning and end of time.  The night of the Comet Eclipse—the feast of Stellavene’s victories.

It was a challenge.  This time to the challengers.  From a weakened enemy.

Together the Merg chanted their prayer of boast.  They scourged the great condor and steered his barbed bit towards the system of Unborn Suns.  Then they levitated themselves to rest.  While they dreamt, evil would gradually recharge their veins and sinew—to maximum  evil.  And their mythical yet real enemy would be scourged to the bone.  To the hellworld of diffusion.  Till eternity’s meltdown.

Rainholt.

Its eons old minaret was buried under the tropical canvas of the last of the Erthite jungles.  It was a dignified structure.  Entrances and passages without doors.  Window openings without sashes.  A statue of nature planted within a realm void of mined metal, machinery, electricity, oil, pavements, high rises and guns.  Where only the Wildlings lived.  Outsiders stopped coming here.  Archeologists.  Missionaries.  Curious looky-loos.  Even the heavily armed troops gave up ages ago on their invasion and security attempts to protect the lumber industries.  The legends evolved to where all trespassers were somehow swallowed up by the great rainforest.  Or was it the sorcery of the minaret?

Nevertheless, a tempest was on the way.  It had been here before.  Now a nimbus chariot armed with stronger and more devastating magic and criss-crossing the treescape in search of special prey.

Tonight— only witches would dare to enter the universe of Stellavene.

“There.  You see?  That light?  It is Ermek the UnFair.  Harnessed like an ox-slave.  Being force to lead them.  To find us.  To find me.  Come.  We must first take refuge in the Sightless Cave and design our defense.”

There was one door.  It was inside.  Far opposite to the open main entrance.  It appeared to be an alternate exit from the minaret’s ground floor to the forest outside.  But when it was opened, a huge underground cavern was revealed.  A hole in space hinged to the granite of Rainholt.  The four friends hurried themselves past the frame and shut the door behind them.  Once inside the girl removed her clothes.  And like all Wildlings, they disappeared and blended with the air of the Sightless Cave.

Outside, the walls of the minaret began to pulse with an ultraviolet skin.

Although but a firefly in this world’s largest jungle, the rhythmic beacon was not to be missed.  It was meant not to be missed.  The Merg knew this.  They would be cautious in their approach.  They would maneuver as a group, never to separate.  Never to get caught off guard—alone.  It was important that all their fighting power was conserved—for when Stellavene was most vulnerable.  When their total concentration of vicious magic would assure them of a vengeful victory.

Ermek the Birdling glided Reverat’s Echo to a hovered state just outside the minaret’s crown.  He had already warned his captors that Stellavene would probably ambush them in the Sightless Cave.  The Merg listened.  Not just to Ermek.  But to the sudden silence of the rainforest.  It was like the far reaches of deep space.  Even the wind was in slumber.  And finally the pulsating walls ceased to a faded but continual ultraviolet radiance.  The Merg weren’t taking any chances.  They set the bite on the condor’s collar to tighten for every hint of drift from his position.  Then they blended as a group.  A purple fog ascending to the crown, across the gallery, down the spiral shaft, till it brushed the base floor.  There was no trap.  They met with no resistance.  So far Ermek was right.  Once again they became dressed in their demon flesh.

The door to the Sightless Cave.  Seeing it.  So plain.  So unfortified.  The only obstacle being what was behind it.  The Merg formed a parabola, which opened towards it.  Because of his powerful eye, Blain Lamp braced himself closest to the doorknob side, but a respectable distance from it.  Deep breaths.  Adrenalins rose.

St.Judas flexed his thoughts and telepathed aloud.  “Stellavene!  Your guests have arrived.  You remember us.   You should remember us well.  Each of us bears the trademark scars from your bitter spells.  Much of it thin luck on your part.  Old history now.  Show us what’s left of you.  Or we’ll churn our magic and curse this door to a forever impregnable wall.  And claim the Sightless Tomb as our victory.  We are waiting.  And not another century.  Not another minute.”

To their surprise—in the next instant the doorknob turned.  A small girl wearing a hooded cloak calmly walked out.  She closed the door, leaned against it, and whispered a few words to the silence on the other side.

“Saying ‘Good-bye’ to your furry friends, Stellavene?”  Petechia was grinning, while twiddling with her rosary of snail shells.

“There is no need to involve them.  They are the innocence of Rainholt.”

The girl’s lips did not move.  It was as if her mind had telepathed the message.  Though she was blind, she could feel the presence of the evil before her.  She sensed its terrifying power.

Showing no fear she stepped towards the fearful six, who retreated slightly, then encircled her.  She appeared defenseless with her arms down against her sides.  But soon they began rising slowly.

The mind of Saint Judas quickly spoke.  “Hear the unholy choir from the post…”

The rest of the Merg wasted no time summoning their energies.  Demonsong reverberated off the entire minaret structure and echoed throughout the forest.  Nen’n’Yyl let out an unearthly and deafening wail and released her rattler’s skull.  Its fangs flew from her lips and sunk themselves into the girl’s throat, hoping to lessen the chance of any oral charms of defense.  Wiggabimmi blew a spell upon her tapir’s heart and squeezed golden blood upon the girl.  A dozen jellyfish with lava sacs were born.  And their fire and poison tentacles scourged wherever they touched her.  Ursula Thoth, the Egyptian pharoah, shut her eyes and gave life to the cobra on her headpiece.  The snake sprayed flesh eating venom over the child.

Still the suffering girl continued to raise her arms.

More of Judas’ thoughts filled the air.  “…Souls of afterdeath scourged unmercifully…”

The Nubian, Petechia, chanted aloud.  Her snails retracted into their shells.  However, a tornado of mad killer bees exitted from those same shells and converged upon their enemy.  By now Blain Lamp had charged his eye to full power.  He fired his searing beam, concentrating it at the girl’s head.

“…Their waxes perspiring to infinite swarms of disharmony, even towards the self?”  Finally, Saint Judas thrust his narwal toothspear into her heart.

Her arms fell.  What was left of her body collapsed to her knees.  Then her feet.  The Merg went into overkill till their energies were drained…

…Until only a puddle of spumy ash bubbled before them.

“To hellwaste and nothingness!”

It didn’t matter that any one witch could claim victory.  After all these virtual millenia, the group called the Merg were elated to just to have defeated Stellavene.

As a show of good sportsmanship Blain Lamp suggested that they unharness their winged steed from Reverat’s Echo.  His comrades agreed.  They went outside and combined their last ounces of magic to change the wretched condor slave back to Ermek the UnFair monk.  He was simply relieved to see this game at its end.

“Many thanks for wounding Stellavene, birdman.  Nice spell, turning her into a little blind girl.”

“Hey.  Like you said: I got a lucky shot in the Sightless Cave.  But she got me too.  Which is the only reason why you guys could control me—pulling that damn cloud of yours.  But I didn’t turn her into Kuutwa the blind girl.  I turned her into a salamander.”

Silence.

Throughout the entire rainforest.  As if they all stood in a vacuum of nothingness outside this universe.  They all turned their heads towards the doorless entryway of the minaret, whose ancient skin was pulsating with an increasing ultraviolet glow.

A salamander crawled out onto the welcome mat.  “I told you.  She was of the innocence of Rainholt… and my friend.”

The Merg were frozen in their stances.  Only Ermek was free to escape closer to the tree line.

As the salamander approached her attackers, she gradually grew and transformed into a Bengal monitor… to a komodo… to a velociraptor… to a large humanoid dragon which levitated above them.  Her eyes glared.  Her jaws opened wide.  Her outstretched arms convoked all the power of Rainholt.

The Merg despaired.  They knew what they needed to do.  But their throats were numb.  They could not Logoff.  And as they watched the dragon flex her sinew till it shone like a blinding star, the thought of defusion sounded merciful.

All at once their was an eruption of ultraviolet light.  It separated like a prism, forming various rays of concentrated radiation upon each of the powerless witches.  So hot that fire itself would have melted from its touch.  Then the six furnaces were drawn together into a condensed burning black hole.  The minds of the Merg screamed so loudly that their tortured thoughts could be heard by all of the forest wildlings.

Darkness.

An unfocused fog.

Then the directional lights of the Relief Valve and the antigravity ascent three hundred stories up.

These particular six losers would avoid this game for a while… if not forever.

Meanwhile the mule deer and cougar emerged from the Sightless Cave.  They convinced Ermek to use the last of his depleted strength to undo his spell on Stellavene and return her to her more womanly form.  After all, she still possessed a great amount of combative power.  More than he could handle.  He was more than agreeable to their request.

The monk removed his scapula and cowl and placed them over the head of the dragon.  He prayed a silent prayer.  Slowly the serpentgirl was converted, until his habit fitted neatly over her shoulders.  A beautiful brunette with ultraviolet eyes emerged from under his hood.

She went over and kissed him lovingly on his lips.  “Thank you, Ermek the UnFair… for freeing me… and for your lollipop.”  It was the voice of Miss ID.

The Showers Lounge was very loud.  Loud conversations over loud music over overfilled drinks and tv screens in replay mode of the most recent gaming episode.

Steve the bartender tossed a couple of empties into the recycle bin.  “What do ya think, Shelly?”

The waitress was scanning a barcode for some drink orders.  “It’s been a long night.  I’m ready if you are.”

“Last call!”

The music stopped.  The tv screens went blank.  And all the patrons froze like statues.

The Lounge’s computer picked up Shelly’s final voice commands.  “Fifteen minutes.  All personnel.  Showers Lounge cleanup.  Programming stations.  Self-maintenance.  Sleep mode.  Awake Monday.”

As they floated down Main Tunnel, Steve and Shelley were looking forward to the weekend.

“Tonight was fun.”

“Yeah, it was.”

“You know, Steve.  Miss ID may be one of the old box clunkards—I mean, compared to our newer, more humanoid upgrades…”

“Oh, you don’t have to tell me, girl.  When she plays Stellavene, she kicks ass on all the droids.  She’s got the edge on the learning skills.  But we gotta get her a better body.”

“No!  No!  It’s kinda cool— watchin Doug and Krista and the rest of ‘em shakin their zigabyte heads and wondering why the hell they can’t beat her.”

Steve cracked a smile.  “Ya know.  Us talkin like this.  Means our live crew are really doing some stuff with this robotic software.”

“Wonder what game they’ll play next Friday?”

“Kirk Campbell’s choice?  Lots of erotic folders?”

They reached the lobby and answered simultaneously.

“Clone Lovers Brothel.”

And together they laughed their way towards the SubBullet station.

Back at ID a physical dinosaur of a robot caressed a recently acquired photon drive and inserted it into her labcoat slot.  “Oh, yes.  Nothing like new knowledge—to evolve into newer knowledge.  By next week I shall become the unrivaled Dungeon Mistress of Clone Lovers Brothel.”

The End

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