The Fears had been apprehensive when the Mother of Puppets had come forward with her suggestion.
“A game?” croaked Corruption, her voice sounding like shifting leaves under scurrying feet.
“A game,” nodded Web serenely. “This world is new, and we are not yet powerful enough to enter it, so we may as well amuse ourselves with its inhabitants.”
The fears whispered amongst themselves, and Slaughter shouldered zir way to the front (getting blood on nearly everyone as ze did so). “By striking fear into their hearts? Puppet Mother, forgive my insolence, but some of us already do that.” The look on Slaughter’s ruined face did not suggest that ze actually wanted to be forgiven for zir insolence.
The fears that had physical mouths to titter did so, and Web leveled her many eyes at Slaughter, who had the good grace to take one small step back.
“By controlling them, dear Knifeblood, by steering them. With our hands on their-” she smiled. “-proverbial strings, they can strike the fear into each other, and strengthen our ties to the world of flesh and blood.”
Flesh nodded several heads enthusiastically. “Bit hard for me to do my work, all detached like this.”
Desolation looked up from where his lounge chair made of fire was charring his skin in the corner. “Yes, I suppose having certain people under our control would be beneficial to us. I think Web might be onto something here.”
A voice piped up, quiet and innocuous, but every single head (and dimensional shapes approximating to heads) turned to give their full attention to the speaker. End, sitting quietly at the table, asked only, “How long do we play this game?”
Fidgeting slightly for the first time in recorded history, Web answered. “I suppose that is up to you, Lifetaker.”
End nodded, and just like that, the decision was made.
A very complex board was created, pieces were chosen, and the Fears sat around the table to play. The beginning moves were small, awkward, as the players learned the rules. Too little power and they tended to lose control of pieces, too much power and they often destroyed them. Balance was perfected, and alliances were formed, though not for very long.
“Allseer,” said Web, peering closely at the pieces arranged neatly on the board. “I believe one of your pieces is aligned with Desolation’s Agnes piece. Which one is it?”
The Eye’s voice wasn’t entirely a voice, just a set of thoughts that appeared in one’s head when The Eye had a message to convey. Words bloomed now, in the corner of everyone’s minds.
“Gertrude and Agnes have… an understanding, yes.”
Web nodded, and Desolation smirked. He had never lost the conviction that he would win the game, despite the fact that none of the Fears knew what winning really meant.
Web pushed a new piece onto the board, an unmarked pawn. “Weepfire, if you would be so good as to roll the dice for your Agnes piece.”
Desolation leaned forward, the smirk gone. “What’s this? Who is that piece?”
Web smiled. “No one in particular. A test for the Agnes piece. I wanted to see how she would do against the introduction of love.”
Desolation scoffed, and scooped up the dice in his burning hands. “Love! What need has the girl for love? She is born of unfeeling flame, like her father. A world of lovers could not turn her head, I am certain of that.”
“Not a world just yet, Weepfire. Just one. Just once.”
Eyes burning, Desolation tossed the dice onto the board. The symbols etched on each carved side of the dice would be indecipherable to any human, as they combined numbers, a form of tarot, and ancient cosmic symbols to reach their verdict. Their polished surfaces glimmered in the light of Desolations flames as they bounced to a rest next to Hilltop Road.
Web’s mouth twitched as she read the symbols aloud. “A one. And a Dousing of Light.”
Enraged, Desolation placed a burning finger on the unnamed pawn and crushed it before getting up and striding off into the ether. The Fears were silent until Stranger, in their voice like a tinny recording, remarked, “Unfeeling flame, huh?” Laughs were passed around, and Desolation’s seat was soon taken.
After Dark’s church venture was collapsed by a few unlucky rolls, several Fears started to complain that The Eye had too many players in the game.
“Why oh why do you get ever so many pieces?” moaned Spiral, twisting and juddering over the table. “The Archivist piece as well as the Institute piece? All your pawns? Frankly, I think, as much as anyone here does, those who consider their processes thinking, of course, it seems ridiculous!”
The Eye had no physical presence in the room, but Spiral suddenly felt itself watched, felt herself seen, felt himself analyzed for flaws, and drew back. Words appeared in everyone’s minds as their skin (physical or not) crawled with being observed.
“Perhaps my pieces are smart enough to live longer than the others, It Is Not What It Is.”
In that moment, Web felt an idea enter into her head. It was not… her idea, per se, but nor could she tell if it was one of The Eye’s projected thoughts. She immediately made some rolls behind her screen and quietly sent an innocent looking book to an innocent looking piece.
Time passed quickly, and slowly, and not at all. Pieces were lost, places were destroyed, and the Fears felt a sense of… urgency, though they did not know for what. Web had introduced her Jon piece quietly, as no more than a simple pawn tied to The Eye’s Institute location. She felt a quiet understanding form between her and Allseer, though she kept her deeper thoughts and plans veiled with sticky webbing.
“Heartpound, if you would, please.” Web indicated the dice, and Hunt shifted her set of fangs from wolverine to wolf.
“You said your pieces were smart enough to live longer, yes?” snarled Hunt as she snatched the dice from the table. “Your so-called Archivist is nothing, and Daisy Chase Stalk Kill will gut him for no one to find.” The dice clattered to the board, and The Eye’s voice carried a hint of humor as it inserted itself into everyone’s thoughts.
“We shall see.”
Web peered over the dice, and read their meaning aloud. “A surprised three, and a Cessation of the Mark.”
Hunt thumped a clawed fist on the table. “So she has given him a scratch. So be it, Watcher Coward In Shadows, but I assure you that your Archivist will not forget that scratch.” A smile like a knife, and The Eye said nothing.
One by one, Web moved the pieces and offered the dice, and each Fear took their turn marking the Archivist piece, though they did not know what they were doing. They cursed the dice, cursed The Eye, and lamented the fact that their pieces died so quickly as the Archivist journeyed on.
The Stranger took glee in piloting their NotMannequin piece, but left the table in a tinny huff when an explosion was caused by rolling a seven and a Wielded Axe. Buried reached a clammy hand from their pile of dirt to seduce pieces into their Coffin location, and everyone was surprised when The Eye rolled a two and a Clutched Hand, and gave half of the roll to Hunt’s Daisy piece. Lonely, who had remained fairly quiet up until this point, suddenly leaned forward.
“I would like to roll,” ey said quietly. Ey pushed a previously unnoticed piece towards the Coffin, and reached for the dice.
“Hm?” questioned Web. She tried to focus her many eyes on Lonely’s faint form. Noticing Lonely was hard at the best of times, but during the heat of the game, eir presence was nearly invisible. “Oh, yes, um. Yes. Of course, Quietfog, please, do take your roll.”
Lonely’s translucent hand tossed the dice, and true to form, they rolled silently and came to rest without a whisper. Squinting to read, Web paused for a long second.
“An irreversible two, and… well. Quietfog, you’ve rolled the Tethering Love.”
For once, all eyes turned squarely to Lonely. Ey froze, then chuckled. “That can’t be right, Puppet Mother, not me. Surely you must have-”
“Must have what, Lonely?” Suddenly frigid, Web abandoned the pet names. “The dice do not lie. Say what you want about me, but the dice Do. Not. Lie.”
The room was silent, and the game went on.
The Eye’s Institute location became the prime place for encounters, and everyone could feel the influence of the Archivist piece growing stronger. Hunt tried one more time with two different pieces, not trusting her Daisy against the Archivist piece again. Even Slaughter brought forward zir prized Melanie piece, but The Eye rolled an eighteen and a Dissipation of War, much to zir anger.
The Fears became anxious. There was an energy in the room that suggested the game was nearly finished, and quick glances at End became commonplace. Lonely, as a retaliation to eir surprising previous roll, had been putting every ounce of power into the Martin piece, keeping the Lukas piece close for support.
“I see no reason for your Archivist to follow Martin Alone into my domain,” Lonely huffed, and The Eye remained quiet. Handing them each a pair of dice, Web spoke encouragingly.
“We all know these two pieces are intertwined, but we must roll to know their fates. Please.”
Two sets of dice clunked onto the table. Two sets of dice rolled to a stop. Unknowable amounts of eyes bored into the place where they came to rest.
Two matching Tethering Love symbols revealed themselves at last.
Without a sound, Lonely toppled eir Martin piece and excused eirself from the table. After ey had gone, Web righted the Martin piece and placed it carefully next to the Jon piece, on her side of the table.
Most of the Fears clamored to roll their dice at the Institute, but Web and The Eye had no focus but each other, as plans were rewritten and motives danced around.
“Your Archivist piece has abandoned your Institute stronghold, yet the location sends him a message. Why?”
Though The Eye did not have a mouth, there was a smile in the words that it broadcast to the room. “May I roll for him to read this message?”
Web froze, and darted her eyes to every other Fear at the table. They were all there, even the ones who had stormed off in anger as their pieces were lost. She smiled.
“As you wish, Allseer.”
The dice rolled themselves, landing on a fifteen and…
“The Open Door.” The Eye’s voice boomed, no longer the even tones everyone had gotten used to hearing. A wind started to howl around them, picking up the board and dashing it against the floor. Power seared through each of the Fears, but with it came uncertainty, a loss of control.
“What is it?! What’s happening?!” shouted Vast, as he braced himself against the gale.
“I won.” The Eye’s voice was unbearably loud, painful over the screaming ferocity of the wind. The room began to spin, and a crack of dark light splintered the floor in two.
Extinction grinned as its form (eternally flickering between a skull and a nuclear siren) was pulled apart into the widening crack. “What do you win, old fellow? What’s the prize?”
For the first time, a laugh cascaded over the cacophony in The Eye’s false voice. “The prize? You’ve just finished making it. I win… The World.”