The second writing challenge from Project Exodus happened to fall in the middle of the Guardian Games event within the game.
Despite the server’s overall middling feelings for the event, I decided I could cook up some interesting prompts to work with the theme of the Guardian Games. They ended up being:
I won’t lie–these prompts stumped me at first. Even though I was the one who came up with them.
I ended up taking a less conventional route and doing one single story, with five chapters based on each prompt instead. I borrowed NPCs from the lore, of whom there were scant details, and gave them a bit of history and filled in some empty spaces with color and headcanons.
Here’s what I came up with.
“This is why,” the Stormherd snarls to her Ghost. “This is why, I keep saying, we can’t just leave–”
“But it’s been decades since the last raiders came. Raiders. Plural. Look. This is just one.”
She feels a strange prickling along her skin, the air almost electric, like it is right before the many hazy electrical storms that filter through the pass.
She aims her sights down the valley, where a stranger dismounts his sparrow and walks into the village. Such a different time, she thinks. The younger ones among them don’t even have the sense to be wary. Elders pull them back, but the more curious ones wriggle out of reach.
The robed stranger keeps his helmet on, but his stiff posture is instantly familiar. He speaks with the villagers, respectful of their distance, their jumpiness. Always good to be wary of strangers to this mixed community, but his stoicism seems to put them at ease. He looks like he’s asking a question. She sees the Matron, a human, shake her head. Tries to read her lips. …No, none like that here. Not for some time. Not since–
She cuts off as a youngling, Kellikin, jumps forward, excitedly pointing up the sheer cliff that shadows the valley. Her cliff. An approximation to her position.
Traitor! she thinks, but not without fondness.
The stranger’s dark faceplate follows the young one’s indication and looks right at her.
At least, that’s what it feels like. Even with an enhanced visor, she knows she’s too far to see. Too well hidden. Still, she freezes. Watches. He wanders away from the villagers, searching the ridge. Her ridge.
Surely he knows that if she’s up there, that she’s capable of such a shot, even from this distance. Surely he hasn’t forgotten all those competitions they’d had to settle past disagreements. And what a day–she couldn’t be asking for more ideal conditions! She keeps the crosshair aligned on his head. He’s a safe enough distance from the others. She could pull the trigger anytime she wanted. Death from above. Divine intervention. It would terrify the poor villagers, yes–and worse, give away her position–but maybe it’d dissolve that bitter knot of resentment left in her chest once and for all.
She hears his voice in her head, his attempt to hide his smugness making him sound unbearably so, talking about the odds of winning when allowed the first move.
And she remembers always choosing black anyway, just to spite him.
Oh, who cares? Nebula would just revive him, anyway. And he’d make some remark on how she’s still so emotional, so quick to anger. She can’t give in just to prove him right.
She takes her finger off the trigger, and invites her old rival to make the first move.
It takes another year after the stranger’s sighting before the Stormherd feels comfortable leaving again.
It never felt right, taking from the village–not after raiders had ravaged their stores for so many years before she’d come along. Every now and then, she’d wander the dark and pick a plump yaviirsi fig in the dead of night, just a treat, something that wouldn’t be missed from the orchards. Otherwise, she’d travel–though the nearest towns weren’t near at all, and she always ached with worry that something would happen to the village without her there, watching over it.
When she finally goes, she walks her old haunt: a path that took her on a view of the city, a short detour through the dark ruins of the metro, and through some sort of monument, all falling water and geometric shapes, in harmony with nature even before the Collapse had let it all creep back in. Hugo, her Ghost, chatters aimlessly to her about some journal issues they’ve pulled from VanNet while they have a faint signal, and–
Something is different. A once ivy-coated courtyard has been cleared of moss and growth. Underfoot is flat granite, weathered over the years, but still identifiable as a large checkerboard pattern.
“What is this.”
“Obviously, it’s a–”
“I know that,” she snaps. “What is it doing here? What’s…” She unchlenches a fist to gesture at the black and white figures set up on either side. Familiar, but a novelty, much larger than she’s used to. The tallest one, a king, is as tall as she is.
Hugo looks at her with reproach. “You used to love this game.”
“Used to.” She kicks at a black pawn, attempting to knock it over, but the flared base keeps it upright as it slides forward two squares.
“Petrov’s Defense!” Hugo says brightly.
“Don’t,” she says, pointing at him, and marches on.
It takes another year before she dares wander back to the same place. There’s been an earthquake in the last month; she expects the pieces to be fallen or missing, swept away by weather.
But, no. Everything is as it was, except the white king-side knight has been sent forward.
She picks up the knight from her black side–and finds a note underneath.
A moot question, since the game’s already begun.
I have left my rifle here in good faith. It is hidden in the rafters of the warehouse east of your position. It is my most prized possession. Try it out, and you will see why.
If you win, it is yours.
If I win, I ask for the same from your arsenal.
Keep your stupid gun, she scribbles back on the page, and leaves it under the kingside bishop, and make your move.
It took him three stubborn years before he decided to light a candle for her during the Festival of the Lost. He did it quietly, stoically, as was his custom that had already become his namesake.
“A new candle?” observed a voice. It was the Warlock Vanguard, Osiris.
The Stoic nodded.
“Is there news? Has she been declared dead?”
“May as well be.” The Stoic drew back his hand. “It took two years for Kauko Swiftriver to be declared as such following his disappearance.”
“Then why did you not light her candle last year?”
The Stoic didn’t have an answer for that.
“It was she who used to light these with you before, was it not?”
The Stoic nodded again. It was their own private little ceremony. In hindsight, perhaps that’s where all this started. He never seemed to mourn those they’d lost the way she did; not adequately, not in the way that satisfied her. In fact, most of his actions seemed to irritate her. At least toward the end.
No. She had always been that way. Quick to anger. Overly emotional. Logically, he could pinpoint the decline as taking place after that argument. The one following the Great Hunt excursion. When they’d lost…
Well, that was what the other candle was for.
Osiris seemed to read his mind. “It is important to defend one’s view. It is all we have.” He studied him, Warlock to Warlock. “It is your right.”
“But was it right?”
The Warlock Vanguard raised his eyebrows, apparently surprised by the Stoic’s sudden outburst of emotion.
That debate over the Great Hunt, the grand dissection of all that had gone wrong–it had been far from their last argument. He remembers that one in vivid detail. The straw that broke the Ahamkara’s back.
They’d decided years before to design a gun together–something explosive, she’d said. Now, she wanted to get the ball rolling. He had his designs. She had hers. Both uncompromising. And for some reason, things just escalated.
“Let’s settle this like usual.” He gestured toward the chess set that was ready and waiting. She smacked the board and sent the marble pieces flying.
He remained unmoved by her outburst. Best not to react, he’d thought at the time.
“Marksmanship then,” he said, considering the matter settled. “The usual time and place?”
She stormed out of the Tower. He’d taken it as a yes, and thought no more of it.
The Stoic flinched as the match burned down to his fingertips.
“It’s not for me to say,” Osiris said in reply.
“I don’t understand why she thought leaving was the logical move.”
“There was likely no logic in the decision at all,” Osiris replied.
“Then why did she leave?”
“The same reason any of us do,” Osiris said, eyeing the unlit candle. “To see who cares enough to follow.”
The game lasts for decades. Some moves happen in a span of months. The fastest of them happens, though neither of them realizes, in a changeover of a single night. They miss one another by mere hours.
She plays quickly, intuitively. She strolls through the board, appraises the moves that have happened out of sight, makes her own, then departs.
He, as always, takes a full measure of time. He stands, looking over the chessboard from high angles, trying to imagine all possibilities. Nebula runs simulations that he forbids her from sharing with him. Hours later, he solidifies his move, then stares more, contemplating the possibilities of what she might do next.
She always manages to surprise him.
She starts to view the board as he does. She takes in the movement of the pieces, confined to rigid logic and self preservation.
And when she does this, she starts ruthlessly capturing his pieces.
From her view, it’s as if he does almost nothing to defend himself.
After many years of mounting annoyance, she finally leaves him a note:
You’re holding back on me.
I’ve left you MY rifle. Your prize. Try it out and see what you’re missing. You won’t want to lose this one.
Take the game seriously, or I’m burning this board down.
He shakes his head. So she hasn’t changed much. He leaves his rifle in the place of hers, and does as she suggests.
It’s a strange weapon: sleek, modern components elegantly arranged around some arcane conduction rod, shimmering with power. When he fires it in a test range, it makes a wiry clap, seeming otherwise unremarkable.
But when he tests it in the Crucible, a bolt strikes down from the heavens, flashing between targets, decimating the entire enemy team in a single shot. Not at all the calculated detonation he’d labored over with Uzoma and Taeko. Devastating beauty in its simplicity.
And she was right. He did want to win it.
He starts playing like her, and a strange thing happens–for the first time, he enjoys the game. Winning he’d always liked, but always weighed heavy against the laborious task of engaging his mind to outwit his opponent. His pieces are depleting; he’s barely hanging on–but the joy comes from returning each time to see that she’s decided to continue.
But he knows the end is in sight. And he knows his opponent too well: either way, he stands to lose. A loss, and she may call his rifle subpar and throw it back in his face; perhaps she will accuse him still of holding out on her, letting her. A win, and he leaves her little village defenseless without her gun.
Either way, he will certainly never hear from her again.
But they did not nickname me the Stoic for nothing, he tells himself. This hardship I will weather like any other.
And yet when he finds the board in checkmate, he shoves his king over in an outburst of grim resignation.
The Stormherd stands stunned over the toppled white king and thinks for a moment that she’s made a mistake, and can’t be playing who she thought she was playing all these years.
“You always hated when I did that,” she says, when she hears footsteps behind her. “Overdramatic, you called it.”
“You always said it sends the most effective message to the victor. In this game, with its heightened scale, I found it fitting.”
She forces herself to turn and look at him. Helmetless, both of them are silent as they reconcile the ledger of differences in the face–of the rival, the friend–they knew from centuries past.
He holds out Cloudstrike to her.
“This is an impressive weapon. I’m sorry to let it go.”
She waits for the follow-up of caveats, things she might have done better, but it doesn’t come. She takes Zen Meteor off her back and holds it, running her fingers over the oxidized brass filigree.
“I can honestly say the same,” she says. “A strange thing happened. Raiders came back to my village. Without Cloudstrike, I thought it’d be the end, but…” She shakes her head. “All those things I said, about the arithmetic being too complicated in battle–I was wrong. She lit them up like the Dawning.”
She holds it out to him. He doesn’t take it.
“The more powerful the mind, the more powerful the weapon,” he nods. “Those I ended up making it with were more keen on the idea than you, but it turned out to be to my detriment. It will be better off in your hands.”
His smile is brief. It takes her a moment to realize that he’s being self-deprecating. A rarity in the extreme.
“Come on. You were always a great thinker.”
“Perhaps. But not a very good friend.”
She pushes Zen toward him. “Take it back. I have my own.”
“And now, you have two.”
“If you expect me to give you Cloudstrike just to make amends…”
“I do not. You won fairly.”
He sets Cloudstrike on top of Zen, forcing her to bundle her arms around both to keep from dropping them. “I knew what I was losing. It was a worthy wager to ensure you were alive somewhere, and well.” He nods, then turns to leave.
“Wait,” she says. She mentally thumbs through the list of excuses to get him to stay–but knows he’d spot her disingenuity from orbit. She squares her shoulders, realizing it’s her turn to make the first move. “This doesn’t magically fix everything. We still have some things to settle, you and I.”
“A rematch?” he says, picking up the king. But she shakes her head.
“The other way.”
“I don’t have a rifle.”
She tosses him one of hers. “Usual time and place?”
“No,” he says, turning Cloudstrike over in his hands. “Now. And let’s find somewhere new.”