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Sleep State Interrupt

Chapter 8
Princess Kiyoko's Battle

Princess Kiyoko surveyed the army before her, arrayed along the highlands in concentric semicircles. Red banners fluttered in the wind as five thousand armed men and women awaited her command, by far the biggest army she’d ever assembled. Their leaders included nobles, samurai, magic-weavers, healers, unicorns… even a dragon. Matching the banners, Kiyoko had donned red hair and robes to bring luck.

She risked everything. Prince Vostok sought to dominate the entire Fantasy Continent of BetterWorld, and her realm of Yumekuni bordered his. Six months ago he offered a pittance to buy its richest part, the Vale of Waterfalls. Of course she could never let it fall into the hands of a tyrant like Vostok.

Even though Kiyoko owned her land legally, and he couldn’t actually seize it by force, Vostok tried to wear her down by drawing away her supporters and goading her into battles that she always lost. When she complained to the BetterWorld administrators that he was harassing her, they said he wasn’t breaking any rules. Vostok and his equally obnoxious followers then called her a ‘baby’ and ‘carebear’ on the message boards.

Good never bows to evil, she decided, and she raised an army to crush him, recruiting allies and purchasing non-player soldiers and equipment. After her sister’s plea for credits, she increased the stakes.

“If you want the Vale so bad,” she challenged Vostok in public, “see if you can take it from me.” She proposed a battle on a duplicate of their terrain, which only the combatants could access. Battlefield success and relative casualties would determine the winner. Not an unusual challenge except for the bet. If Vostok won, she’d give him legal title to the Vale of Waterfalls. If she won, she’d get an equivalent combination of land and development points from Vostokia, Prince Vostok’s narcissistic and unimaginative name for his kingdom.

Vostok had responded immediately. “Name the time.”

Selling his land would take time that Waylee and Pel didn’t have, so Kiyoko bet her remaining credits on the BetterWorld gambling market. Given that Vostok long ago reached maximum level as a fighter, and had beaten her three times already, the odds started at 2:1 against her. She encouraged friends to post messages saying she was clueless when it came to combat. As Vostok liked to point out, she was just a girl after all.

The official odds were now 4:1 against her.

Kiyoko lifted a brass telescope to her eye. Vostok prepared his army just past the Neutral Zone, on both sides of the Sylvan River, which began in the Vale of Waterfalls and widened beyond. He’d gathered player guilds and mercenaries, and around eight thousand non-player combatants. Ten-foot tall ogres stood strapped to two dozen wheeled trebuchets and carts of boulders. Others carried long ladders or giant wooden shields.

Long ago, Kiyoko erected a stone wall across the mouth of the Vale and up the adjacent slopes, but it wouldn’t withstand an assault like this. The wall was especially weak where the river flowed through an iron grate.

Well, they – and by “they” she meant Pel and Dingo – said the best defense was a surprise attack, so her force of vassals, allies, and mercenaries, along with their computer-controlled troops, would crush Prince Vostok’s army before it could launch its assault. Pel, Dingo, and Charles would hold the walls. But cloaked by magic, her main force would hit the enemy’s flank and rear.

Atop her giant unicorn cat, Nyasuke, Princess Kiyoko addressed her army. Their loyalty could be her biggest advantage. “My people, my friends. I thank you with all my soul for coming here to my defense.”

She pointed to the winding river valley below them and its green farms, magical woods, and thatch-roofed hamlets. Waterfalls cascaded down the cliffs on either side and imbued the air with glittering mist. “You can see how beautiful the Vale is, how peaceful its people…”

Pel’s avatar, a high-level knight, appeared in a translucent popup to the right, the glyphs “Accept incoming private call?” underneath.

Bad timing, jerko. “Be right back,” she told her army. “I must commune with those who hold the wall.”

She tapped Pel’s see-through forehead with her finger, accepting the call. Her avatar on the highlands would appear as if in a trance. She used her royal command voice. “Make it quick.”

Pel’s knight bowed and twirled a finger. “Yes, your majesticness. Everything is ready here.” His voice, run through a real-time modulator, sounded deeper and older.

Pel and Dingo had played Fantasy Continent wargames enough to develop high-level characters, but they lost interest long ago, and she’d never seen them in action. “You’re sure you can split the enemy?” she asked. Charles offered to reprogram her army’s stats and make them invincible, but if the admins saw any sign of cheating, she’d forfeit the wager. So instead, he had come up with something more subtle.

“Yes, yes, we made more than enough,” Pel said.

“Tell Dingo not to pull a Leeroy Jenkins on me and rush in early.” His avatar’s name, Berserker Bob, worried her.

“Don’t worry, we’ve got things under control.”

She ended the chat and returned to her attack force. “In his avarice,” Princess Kiyoko spoke, “cruel Prince Vostok gathers his foul army to swoop down on this land, destroy all that is good, and put its people to the sword.” She met the eyes of her followers and allies. “Only we can stop this terrible fate. And stop it we will!”

A cheer arose from the gathered troops. Swords and polearms pointed skyward. No guns on the Fantasy Continent - against the rules.

Princess Kiyoko patted her unicorn cat. “Forward!”

Her army followed her west on the plateau, away from the Vale and Vostok’s army. They entered a forest of tall pines. “We have to win this battle,” she spoke privately to Nyasuke.

The unicorn cat responded with a :-), as he always did.

They halted well to the west of the Vale, still near the escarpment down to the Neutral Zone, but hidden in the pines. She checked the time. The battle would officially commence in ten minutes.

Princess Kiyoko addressed her army again. “And now I bestow upon you the gifts of luck and stealth.” She tapped into the qi – natural energy – produced and stored by the forests, streams, and minerals of her realm. She weaved all the available energy into invisibility, silence, and bless spells, cloaking and protecting her entire army.

The colors faded from her followers until they looked molded from glass. They could still see each other’s outlines, but the enemy wouldn’t see them at all. Nor would they hear them. And the bless spell would increase her army’s probability to hit and avoid being hit. Of course, Vostok had magic-weavers too, and detect magic was a pretty standard spell, but with luck, they would be amidst the enemy before they could react.

A chime sounded in Kiyoko’s ears. “The battle begins,” she announced. They were now permitted to enter the Neutral Zone.

Kiyoko’s ally Aburatsubo, a powerful mage who lived to the west, had gathered qi from his realm and stored it in a crystal-topped staff. He walked to the edge of the cliff marking the border of Yumekuni. He tapped his staff on the ground, traced a sigil in the air, and spoke a few words Kiyoko didn’t recognize. A wide column of air thickened, taking on the consistency of water. “You may proceed,” he said.

Kiyoko led the way, coaxing Nyasuke past the cliff. It was a long drop, but they fell slowly, slower than a feather. Her map display showed her troops following. Nyasuke landed no harder than a footstep.

The transparent cavalry, including two dozen qi-bearing unicorns and their mage riders, gathered at the bottom. Their commander’s shouts rang in Kiyoko’s ears, but no one outside her army would hear.

The computer-controlled foot soldiers formed into phalanxes with spears and tall shields, each group commanded by a player. Samurai with bows, naginatas and other polearms, and katana swords took the front positions.

It would take about an hour for the enemy to get their trebuchets in range of the Vale. Kiyoko’s forces had to cross miles of open country and hills in less than that. Kiyoko activated the voice override and shouted. “For Yumekuni!”

The horses charged north across the grassy fields of the Neutral Zone. They would hit the enemy from behind. Her friend Jayna from Baltimore, cross-gendered as a male half-elf, rode point.

Nyasuke carried Kiyoko east with the foot soldiers. They would hit the enemy’s side.

She’d keep out of arrow range, at least for now. One of the nicest things about BetterWorld was that death wasn’t permanent. You could respawn indefinitely. But if you died in challenges like this, you returned to your login point, and couldn’t rejoin the battle in progress.

Kiyoko barely noted the immediate scenery, focusing most of her attention on her map display, making sure all her units went where they should, and searching for any sign they’d been spotted. The cavalry forded Amity Creek, which separated the Neutral Zone from Vostokia. Water sloshed silently around the knees of their horses. Kiyoko felt a pang of regret as the first horses exited onto the opposite bank. She had just invaded another realm.

Her cavalry commander, one of the top warriors on the Fantasy Continent, popped up in her vision. “Enemy scouts one mile to the east,” the fur-clad woman said.

Kiyoko looked through her telescope. They looked a lot like her horsemen, but wore black boiled leather. They carried long bows and curved swords on their backs. None seemed to notice her invisible army.

Bypassing the scouts, Kiyoko’s cavalry continued into the low grassy hills on the far side of the creek. Then they swung east through Vostokia. Her infantry jogged east through the Neutral Zone. I’ve split my forces. I hope this works.

Kiyoko opened a view from the gold dragon, Abrasax. They were good friends in BetterWorld, but had kept her participation top, top secret. Abrasax flew high over Vostok’s army as it departed from its camps and construction sites and entered the Neutral Zone. She zoomed in.

So many. Vostok’s forces marched along the Sylvan River plain behind a rainbow of banners featuring elaborate coats of arms. Mostly human, but also dwarves, elves, half-orcs, trolls… the usual suspects. Most continents had rules against non-human avatars. They were meant to replicate Earth. That is, her sister liked to say, if Earth were a world where no one starved or grew sick or died, a world with a stable atmosphere and endless resources.

Kiyoko opened the rest of her views and looked from one to another, also charting her army’s progress on the map.

Vostok’s army halted, still three to four hundred yards from the Vale wall. Do they know we’re coming?

Ogres placed boulders in the trebuchet slings. Leather-clad trolls yanked ropes that dropped the counterweights and flung the boulders impossibly far. They smashed against her wall and sprayed shards of stone, leaving ugly scars. More ogres winched the lever arms back in position, and the bombardment continued.

The wall defenders scrambled for cover. “We’re under attack,” Pel said.

“I see that.” Vostok’s catapults had a greater range than she expected. “Fire back.”

Her counterfire fell well short. Vostok, you jackdog. He could just sit there and smash down her walls with impunity, and then send his troops through the gaps.

Should she send in Abrasax? It was still too soon, and the dragon would have no support.

“Got an idea,” Pel messaged. The defenders placed flasks of lamp oil in their trebuchet slings and lit them. Orange fire arced through the air and exploded randomly among Vostok’s troops.

“Yeah!” she screamed. Lighter projectiles meant longer distances.

Her invisible army neared striking range of the enemy. “Pel,” she said, “tell Charles to hop to it.”

“You got it.” Charles had fudged something or other to increase her stores of lamp oil by over a thousand fold. He’d insisted the “exploit” was undetectable.

Charles’s magic-weaver avatar pulled a rope and clear oil poured down a chute and into the Sylvan River, where it floated downstream. He faced Pel and bowed. “Long live Princess Kiyoko.”

“Don’t tell Shakti about this,” she told Pel.

Pel rolled his avatar’s eyes. “It’s not a real river.”

“Problem,” Jayna announced in her faux-male voice.

Kiyoko switched her entire view to match her friend’s. A picket of enemy scouts, mostly human fighters, stood watch on the final ridge above the river plain. An elven magic-weaver amidst them peered at Kiyoko’s cavalry. He shouted something, too faint to hear.

“They can sense us,” Kiyoko said.

“I think you’re right,” her cavalry commander replied over the voice link. “Take ‘em out?”

“Yeah, especially that magic-weaver.”

Four score horsemen drew their bows and fired a volley at the enemy scouts. Arrows pierced their throats and chests. The elf staggered and dropped.

“That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout,” Jayna shouted.

The enemy captain, limping from an arrow in the thigh, lit a torch and tossed it into a large open barrel. It exploded, throwing up a huge fireball and plume of black smoke.

There goes our surprise. “Attack!” Kiyoko shouted.

The cavalry, still invisible, charged over the ridge and down the slope beyond, closing the distance to the enemy supply wagons and healers at the rear of their columns. Her infantry sprinted east through the flat Neutral Zone. Kiyoko focused most of her attention on the dragon’s view and the map.

Vostok’s followers reacted inconsistently. Some commanders looked toward the plume of smoke. More continued to face the Vale wall, apparently unconcerned about an attack from the direction they’d come from. But a handful of silver-robed magic-weavers rode wolf-beasts to the rear of the enemy formation, accompanied by burly-looking fighters.

“Target those magic-weavers,” Kiyoko told Abrasax.

The enemy had no dragons, which wasn’t surprising. As avatars, they were almost impossible to come by, and the computer-controlled dragons kept to themselves. Her friend Abrasax, one of the rare exceptions, swooped into action.

Too late. Multispectral rays burst from the mages’ fingers and illuminated her charging cavalry. Transparent armor turned silver and banners waxed crimson.

Untouched and still invisible, Abrasax reached the enemy mages. Orange fire jetted from her mouth and engulfed the nearest figures. The dragon turned visible, her own magic dispelling Kiyoko’s. Abrasax strafed the mages and their guards, searing them with a line of flame. Soldiers scattered like ants.

The enemy reacted in earnest, firing bows at the dragon and scrambling to meet the cavalry charge. Abrasax climbed high into the sky, several arrows protruding from her scales. Magic-weavers looked in the direction of her still-invisible infantry and prepared spells.

“Arrows,” Kiyoko ordered. “Aim for the player characters. Especially the captains and magic-weavers.”

Her infantry turned visible. Arrows arced across the sky in every direction. “Fall, foul fiends!” Jayna shouted over the voice link.

Where’s Prince Vostok? Kiyoko looked for a tall figure in black spiked armor on a three-headed hell-horse. If killed, his forces would be uncoordinated, even with vassals and allies there.

Through Abrasax’s eyes, she saw him on the far river bank, ordering troops across. Ogres entered the water, unrolling bridges of rope and wood planks as they waded across. Vostok plunged into the river on his hell-horse, followed by the rest of his cavalry on the far side.

Kiyoko told Abrasax, “Ignite the oil.”

The dragon folded her wings and dove. Just short of the river, she threw them out to brake, and spat a jet of flame. The river exploded, setting the ogres, the bridges, Vostok, and his cavalry on fire.

Kiyoko screamed for joy and pumped a fist. “Call me a carebear, will you!”

“I’m hurt,” Abrasax said. A ballista bolt protruded from her stomach, a lot more worrisome than the arrow pinpricks she’d received.

“Fly to the healers behind my infantry.” They were poor fighters but could get injured characters, even a dragon, back in action.

Kiyoko’s cavalry smashed through the thin line of sentries and other defenders at the rear of Vostok’s army and attacked his healers. Her foot samurai, supported by archers, hit the low-level infantry in the center of the enemy column. They slashed through pikes and cut off limbs and heads.

Vostok’s players fought without coordination. They and their followers charged the nearest opponent, and the battle turned to confusion, individual soldiers locked in fights to the death. The clashes, the shouts, and blinking lights on her map grew too numerous to follow. Kiyoko’s bless spell gave her side an extra edge, and they pressed forward over the corpses of the fallen. She followed on her unicorn cat, surrounded by guards.

Damnation. Vostok emerged on the near bank of the river, accompanied by two dozen riders, scorched but alive. The bridges had burned at least, trapping most of his army on the other side. And scores of burnt non-player corpses floated downstream.

Astride his three-headed horse, Vostok shouted inaudible orders. Ogres turned some of the trebuchets toward her infantry and their troll commanders fiddled with the release fingers, presumably adjusting the range.

Her own catapults ran out of oil flasks, and switched to small rocks, which served only to irritate.

A human figure arced through the air. Kiyoko snapped up her telescope. Berserker Bob, screaming and waving a sword. Dingo.

She messaged Pel. “What’s that fool doing?”

Pel chuckled. “Loaded up on armor spells and climbed in one of the slings. Said he wanted to slay some nerds.”

She looked back at the battle. Dingo crashed into the middle of the enemy troops, got up, and started swinging his sword left and right.

Abrasax returned to the air. “Health back to normal,” she messaged.

“Abrasax,” Kiyoko replied, “catapults are top priority.”

“On my way.” She attacked the enemy trebuchets, igniting huge fires that blackened the sky.

Blue energy streaked toward Kiyoko. Her surroundings flashed red and her skin tingled, although she felt no pain per se. Her health indicator dropped by half, and faint wisps of smoke curled from her robes.

Shit. Someone must have targeted her. She unhooked her shield from Nyasuke’s back and held it in front. “This is Princess Kiyoko. I’m under attack by a magic-weaver.”

Abrasax took another ballista bolt and two surges of magic lightning, and had to withdraw.

A streak of fire hit Kiyoko’s shield. It blocked the damage.

“I’m deploying archers,” one of her captains said.

Kiyoko sent Abrasax a private audio message. “How’s health?”

“Almost gone.”

Another fire blast. Some of the flames curled around her shield and scorched her arm. Her health indicator dropped more.

“Can you stay overhead, so I can watch the battle?” she asked Abrasax.

“Can do.”

Through the dragon’s eyes, Kiyoko watched her tormentor, a raven-haired woman in indigo robes, collapse from enough arrows to make her look like a porcupine.

Not far away, Dingo’s avatar staggered from a dozen wounds, surrounded by enemy dead, plus a few still living. She messaged him. “Well done, Berserker Bob.”

He grinned. “M’lady. I believe my work is about done here.” He transmitted his external view. “And here comes the coup de grace.”

A three-headed hell-horse galloped toward him, bearing a figure in black spiked armor. Vostok.

Berserker Bob raised his great-sword. The charging horse filled his field of vision, crazy-eyed heads spitting froth. On top, Vostok swung a glowing, rune-covered sword toward his head.

Dingo’s video feed flashed red, then disappeared.

Kiyoko returned to her personal view. Vostok rallied his remaining cavalry and with him in the center, they charged. They headed straight for her, ignoring everything in between.

Her guards and the other nearby fighters formed a protective ring, but Vostok’s horsemen cut them down one by one.

Vostok sliced off her guard commander’s head and shouted, “Will you fight me, Kawaii Princess? Or are you afraid?”

She was afraid. He was the top-ranked fighter on the continent, and he’d killed her before. But honor demanded that she accept the challenge. Besides, her vassals and allies would carry on without her. Most had bet money on the outcome.

Kiyoko pulled her long naginata from its saddle sheath and pointed it at her nemesis. She summoned qi from Nyasuke’s horn and wove a protective spell. “Have your minions step aside.”

“Leave the otaku to me,” he shouted. His horsemen drew back.

“Tell me, Prince Vostok,” she said, “do you have to practice day and night to be such an enormous asshole, or does it just come naturally?” She hugged Nyasuke, and they charged. Vostok sat motionless on his horse, holding his glowing sword in the air.

As she closed, Kiyoko wove a light spell directly into her enemy’s eyes. Cheating, maybe, but I need every edge. She thrust with the naginata as she reached him.

“Sorry, no effect,” he said, swinging his huge sword down and severing her naginata’s blade from its wooden shaft.

No! I’m so stupid.

His hell-horse clamped onto Nyasuke, two sets of teeth biting into the unicorn cat’s flank. Kiyoko screamed for him. Vostok swung his sword again, and Nyasuke’s head tumbled from his body. Kiyoko fell from her saddle and hit the ground hard. Her vision flashed red and her immersion suit stiffened against her back.

Vostok laughed. “+5 vorpal sword, bitch!”

Kiyoko stared Nyasuke’s severed head in the eyes. She couldn’t help it. She cried. It was like he killed the real Nyasuke, her soulmate. The tears wouldn’t stop. Her father, Feng, wore that black suit of armor.

Kiyoko was five when her sister brought Squeaky-Squeaks home. “A friend for you,” Waylee said. The cutest calico kitten in Philadelphia.

But Feng snatched up Squeaky-Squeaks during one of his tirades, saying the kitten wouldn’t shut up and was driving him crazy. “Just like you, you little brat,” he told her. She cried and Waylee kicked him in the shin and then Feng beat the crap out of both of them and she never saw her kitty again.

Feng loomed over her on his three-headed horse. “Cry all you want, it won’t do you any good.” He raised his huge sword. “And now I’ll have your head, little Princess. And your realm with it.”

She had always been small and weak compared to Feng, a burly Manchurian transplant who claimed to have never lost a bar fight. She couldn’t even stand up to her mother. All she could do was pray.

Vostok and his hell-horse slid backward, away from her. Abrasax. Her fangs gripped the hell-horse by the right rear leg. The horse thrashed and gnashed at the air as the dragon pulled it away from Kiyoko. Vostok twisted in his saddle, but the dragon kept just out of sword reach.

Oh, thank you.

Abrasax shook the horse violently. The leg ripped from its socket and the horse collapsed, spilling Vostok to the ground.

He leapt to his feet, charged Abrasax, and brought his glowing sword down on her neck. It sliced off her head.

“No!” She’d lost Nyasuke and Abrasax now. She’d never heard of a weapon that could behead every opponent, every time, but somehow Vostok had one.

Vostok grinned. “I’ll trade a horse for a dragon any day. I can salvage this battle yet.” He sprinted toward her, sword raised.

Kiyoko pulled her katana out of its scabbard. At least she’d die on her feet. Waylee fought Feng year after year, and in the end, she beat him.

And Waylee said, if the game is fixed, change the rules.

She threw her katana aside, knelt, and gripped Nyasuke’s spiraled horn. She emptied its huge store of qi, undissipated by death, and added the rest of hers, weaving a spell she hadn’t used since reshaping her realm years ago. Transmute earth to water, used to create stream valleys and other topography.

The ground beneath Vostok turned liquid. “May the very earth you tread on refuse to support you anymore,” she said, “and swallow you whole.”

Vostok’s legs sank into the soupy mire. He cursed and waved his vorpal sword, but his heavy armor dragged him downward. Still clutching his sword, he tried swimming. But his dark torso sank beneath the surface, then his arms, and finally his spiked helmet, leaving only ripples.

She felt no sense of triumph. Only relief. “Goodbye, Vostok.”

A glowing sword thrust up from the mire. It traced circles in the surface and flung bits of muck into the air. Kiyoko stepped back and shouted for help.

The tip sank lower with each slice, though. Then it disappeared entirely.

Reinforcements arrived. Kiyoko ordered her troops to drive off and kill Vostok’s remaining cavalry. She summoned one of the unicorns over, tapped its qi, and reversed her spell, turning the liquid mud back to solid earth. Even Prince Vostok couldn’t escape burial deep underground.

With Vostok and his top lieutenants dead, Kiyoko’s cavalry and infantry tightened the noose and drove his remaining troops back against the river. We need some stirring music for this. By now, a real army would surely surrender. But no one ever surrendered in BetterWorld - they always fought to the death.

Which is what Vostok’s forces on the west side of the Sylvan River did. Kiyoko’s army splintered them into uncoordinated groups, which they overwhelmed one by one. They killed his remaining player characters first, then finished off their passive automatons with volleys of arrows. While the players disappeared after death, non-player corpses littered the ground. Kiyoko and her allies collected their possessions.

Vostok still had forces on the other side of the river, but without bridges or horses, they couldn’t cross. They’d have to strip off their armor and swim, and thereby present easy archery targets. Their commanders didn’t seem eager to attempt that.

Kiyoko moved her forces closer to her walls, healed her wounded, and waited. Her casualties had not been light. But three of Vostok’s died for every one of hers, giving her a victory even if neither side possessed the Neutral Zone.

After a while, the BetterWorld admins declared the battle over and Princess Kiyoko the victor. The Vale was safe, and she now owned some of Vostok’s territory, which she’d split among her allies.

Her reputation would eclipse all others on the Fantasy Continent, and Pel and Waylee would get the money they needed. She hoped this was a good thing, hoped they knew what they were doing.

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