Rules

In this place, one who lies will always deceive; one who speaks truth will never waver from it.

The Game had a new player, so Naomi found herself once more frozen in her place, one ghost among the many owned by the Game. Anticipation, no longer tethered to her living belly, shivered through her whole self. Another chance. Another chance for some fool to die and take a place amongst the ghosts, but another chance for Naomi to guide a player to victory. Impossible to have one without the other.

The Game’s gallery grove stretched long, encompassing each ghost upon their plinth, at the base of two rows of grand cedars that touched branches far above. A cathedral, writ in living growth, with needles that softened footsteps down the center and impassible undergrowth beyond. Down it, each solitary player padded in their turn, eager or suspicious, to hear the rules. To play the game. Inevitably, it seemed, to lose.

But in victory, if Naomi could ever manage it, a player could leave; a player who left could rob the Game of prey forever after, by spreading word of the Game’s trickery. An end to victims would mean that Naomi, who could no longer be saved, had saved someone else. Perhaps she could not have an ending, but by grace she would have a purpose.

The ghosts who lined the grove wore robes, a circlet at their temples—no less a mark of ownership for not being about the throat—each with an individual pattern of posture and objects to hold. Symbols, Naomi suspected, in a language lost to ancient, pre-magic times, but nonetheless built into the very heart of the Game.

Naomi’s symbols were a bound notebook and pencil, book held static before her belly on the flat of one hand, pencil poised in the other. A sign of how she watched, she supposed, how she recorded everything in her memory: her own litany of failures, unable to guide players to success, and the other failures she had been granted no influence on.

This player was an old woman, confident but frugal with her movements. Her dark skin showed the seaming of weather and emotion through her face only subtly, but the tiny braids along her skull were much more white shot with black than the reverse. The woman listened as the Game spoke the rules in its ringing, directionless voice, hands folded at her belly, and kept her thoughts hidden.

“Who has come to play the game? Do you understand that if you do not abide by the rules, your life is forfeit?”

“I am Dianthus. I understand this.”

Naomi did not think this player would be one to rely on strength of arm. And those with strength of mind thought better than to bring a proverbial knife to a spell fight. Thus, she was most likely skilled in magic, and in searching, Naomi found a swipe of flaking red-brown over each of the woman’s eyelids. A blood mage, then, having armored herself with an all-purpose spell against illusion. A good blood mage, for her fingertips and inner arms had no scars whatsoever, which was a sign of power and training sufficient to heal cuts with the tail end of each spell, as a matter of course.

Naomi had seen no few blood mages play the Game, almost invariably for the prize of an ability to work magic with the blood of others, not only their own. That was, of course, one of the prizes that were impossible to win. One of the many.

Truth or lies? said the Game.

The words were only within Naomi, as they would be within each ghost, upon their plinths. She wasn’t sure why the Game asked them—as if it could not force them either way, as if it didn’t know their answers before they spoke them. But this had at least the semblance of a free choice, the only enforcement coming after it was made, should they wish to waver. Naomi made the choice she always did, Truth, and the heavy sensation of the Game’s control over her receded for the moment.

Choose your friend or choose your foe; the other will be chosen for you.

Dianthus stepped from ghost to ghost, giving each a silent weight of consideration. Naomi could not move, to entice her with expression or gesture, but if Dianthus paused before her, Naomi was permitted to speak. And if in that speech Naomi could persuade her... Each player was such a line of “ifs.” But at the end of that line, someone might finally, finally win.

“I would fall quickly before your strength, as foe,” said the first man when Dianthus looked into his eyes. A lie. He was fast, with poison on his stiletto. “I would teach you such a spell as none can withstand, as friend.” The next ghost, another lie. Naomi supposed the manner of their deaths—or even the mere fact of their failures—left few ghosts eager to help.

She, on the other hand, had nothing else left but her drive to aid the players. The question, however, was whether to offer that aid as friend or foe. As friend, she could give every answer Dianthus might need, but only if Dianthus could find the correct questions. Naomi was slight with no skill in combat, which would make her an excellent choice as foe, but that was balanced by the fact that it would not be her fighting, it would be the Game.

She hated the sensation of the Game filling her up, using her as an extension of itself, ownership saturating her to the edges of her consciousness. At least when she spoke as a friend or silently watched to record one more failure in her memory as an unchosen ghost, she could pretend there was still truly a self for her to be.

Dianthus moved with a suddenness Naomi would not have predicted, to stand before one ghost in particular. “Althea,” she said, and shut any further words away behind fingertips on her lips.

“I would speak to you again for as long as I am allowed, as friend,” the ghost of the young woman said, tears blurring the words at the edges.

Ah, so. Disparate pieces of knowledge snapped themselves into alignment. Althea had been the most recent player, and she’d worn her hair so as well, tiny braids along her skull. Those had changed to longer ones as one of her symbols, a great spill over her shoulders to her hips. She held a willow branch, tipped low, and her head inclined to an angle that spoke of weeping as well. Her death had been long, and hard, and Naomi had done what she could to ease it, though what she could do was only listen and do her best to deny the Game a suicide. In dying, and then as a ghost, Althea had spoken much of her wife, the one she could not—as it had indeed proved—live without, but also of family. A grandmother too wise to have made the mistakes Althea had.

This, then, must be the grandmother, come intending to bargain for her granddaughter’s life. That particular boon could never be granted, but at least as ghosts, they could speak together without barriers. And first, Dianthus would choose her as friend.

Dianthus drew herself up, drew herself away from her granddaughter and continued on with heavy steps. Determined. Hope fluttered, unfocused, within Naomi’s self. If Dianthus could turn away from a chance to speak with her granddaughter one more time, what other heights of strategic thinking could she reach? “I would tell you who grants you truth and who grants you the reverse,” Naomi said. She’d meant to speak it much plainer than that, but the Game seemed to warp everything within its control into its own ornate logic.

The important thing was, what would Dianthus make of that offer?

Dianthus scoffed, yet intelligence sparked within her eyes. “The answer to that particular riddle only applies when there are two, one bound to lie, one bound to tell the truth. All of you could be lying to me, could you not?” She swung an arm to indicate the grove stretching away, ranks of ghosts.

“Yes.” Naomi answered as much as was allowed to her, then waited. It would be a frail thing, any trust built on the fact that Naomi had broached the idea of riddles, of their accompanying strategy. But she did not lie, and it was all she could offer.

“This one.” Dianthus set a hand on a stone-like fold of Naomi’s robe, firm in her decision the moment it was made.

Naomi.”

Another inclination of her head. “As friend.”

A friend must answer every question but the last; they know how you can win.

A wrench of perception, and Naomi was on her hands and knees on the needle carpet, robes and symbols gone from her. Now she was as she’d been at the moment of her death, black rope of her single braid falling over one side of her neck, and in bodice over blouse and fitted pants. They were different in execution from Dianthus’s bright, loose linen tunic and trousers, but not in concept. Strange, to think that Dianthus must stand as far from her in style and culture as she had from pre-magic times when she died.

The other ghosts were gone from them, banished to observe or ignore as they pleased, denied all substance but thought, somewhere beyond the trees. The length of the tree-vaulted gallery was left empty but for the slowly sharpening angle of sunlight that trickled through the branches. And through the light brown of Naomi’s skin, rendering it translucent. Pure, direct sunlight was the thing that most showed the ghosts for what they really were, if the player did not try to touch. And if the Game did not lend them substance as a foe.

Naomi stood tall, had to look up now she was on a level with Dianthus, who had no stoop, no matter her age. Now, the questions. Her knowledge was nothing if the player did not prompt it properly. She stood by habit with her balance forward, as if on her toes. Now there were gesture and expression to help her, she held her hands open, inviting.

“What determines which question is the last?” Dianthus approached and held out one hand, fingers loosely fanned over Naomi’s, until they sank in to Naomi’s nothingness. Naomi indulged herself by closing her fingers, imagining for just one moment what that touch would once have felt like.

That was an excellent question for them to begin with. “When you ask me how to win, that is your last question, for I cannot answer it, and then you must fight your foe.”

Dianthus’s eyes touched where her fingers could not, every detail of Naomi’s face and appearance. “You played the game yourself, and lost?”

“Yes.” Less scope in that one. Naomi grimaced over it, exaggerated.

“You—” Dianthus stopped. Calculated, lips thin. “Can you only answer questions?”

“Yes.”

“What do you wish you had known?”

“That lies are not merely the absence of assistance, they are weapons aimed actively to harm. That truth cannot be given expansively lest its assistance be too great.” There was more she’d thought she might be able to convey—Questions phrased too widely yield little more of use than those phrased too narrowly—but the words would not come. She hunched briefly, arms hugged over her belly, with the effort of trying.

“How did you die?”

That, she little liked to remember, but perhaps the Game would enjoy the memory’s effect on her, let her tell it at length, with other lessons buried within. “The mistake I made,” she set her hand through Dianthus’s, emphasis, “was believing lies. The friend I chose told me my fight would not begin until I struck the first blow, so I thought I had some moments of safety to assess my foe.”

Instead, in that first moment, her foe had drawn his blade. Now, here, with Dianthus, her throat opened under that cut and the heavy, crimson spray made Dianthus flinch from what should have been a wet slap against her skin. Naomi felt nothing, of course, and the blood kissed away to nothingness against Dianthus’s reality. “What was that for—?”

“Talking is boring. Love, the Game,” Naomi said with heavy irony. It was that or madness. Another semblance of a free choice. “It will escalate if you ignore it for too long.”

Dianthus straightened but did not otherwise scrub at her face or arms where phantom blood had disappeared. But blood would hold no disgust for her, Naomi supposed. “What mistakes did you avoid?

Yes! “As my prize, I chose knowledge. There were accounts, of people who said they’d won riches in the game, but wouldn’t that be a convenient cover for a little banditry? There were also accounts, of people who sought out the place where ‘The Game’ was scratched on a sheer cliff face and who must have taken their riches to far-off lands, for they were never heard from again. But those two sets of people—they never matched. I wanted to understand.” She’d thought there might be a way to hear the rules without committing to the playing, more fool she. “Knowledge, that prize I could grant to myself.” She held Dianthus’s gaze, tightly, over that.

“Grant yourself? But the prize is awarded—” Dianthus’s focus snapped internal. “Ah. The rules never say a prize will be given, do they? Just that it must be won.” Her voice hardened, shot through with her grief. “What prize did my granddaughter ask for? How did she die?”

“Her wife’s life,” Naomi said. Dianthus must have known that already, but it did offer Naomi a few more seconds in which to craft a gentler way to offer the truth of an ungentle death.

Gentle did not suit the Game’s purposes, of course. Beside them, the image of Althea, braids short and tight to her head, sank to her knees. That they were watching the moment of her death was unmistakable, given her sunken eyes, sunken cheeks, the way she couldn’t focus her eyes, confusion stark in her face.

No reason then not to let the truth tumble free, with all its cutting edges. “She died of thirst. She defeated her foe, but as her prize was an impossible one and the rules did not allow her to leave without it... There is no water here. But she denied the Game a suicide, at least?” Naomi found comfort in that, but she rather doubted any other would. “Those, it savors.”

Silence then, Dianthus retreating behind a mask forged of that grief. Naomi reached a hand toward her shoulder, an impulse to comfort. Dianthus dropped her shoulder away from it, so Naomi granted her two steps of distance between them. Dianthus had the information she needed, or at least it seemed so to Naomi. Perhaps time to regather herself now would serve her better than more questions.

“The Game will make her my foe, of course.” Not a question, but Naomi nodded her answer in any case. “If I hadn’t acknowledged her—?”

Again, the impulse to touch for comfort. Naomi dropped her hand. “The Game knows what its ghosts know, because we belong to it. And it can guess what facing her will do to you.”

Dianthus sighed, her appearance of bone-deep fatigue growing with each second of the exhalation. “Is that what this game seeks? The greatest pain? Suicides, to... ‘savor’?”

“That’s the only guess I’ve been able to form. Perhaps all players are suicides, coming here, and taking the final moment into their own hands is the purest distillation of that. Or perhaps it’s more simple—individually crafted pain certainly isn’t boring.” Naomi smiled, tried to gift the irony, in case it helped.

Dianthus’s counter-smile was tight. She stepped back from Naomi, looking down into the infinite distance of the gallery, where no end was to be found. “To win, one must sometimes take the long view. Now tell me this. What are your motives for offering me what you’d have me believe is truth, Naomi?”

A last check of trust was only sensible, though to her frustration Naomi could think of no clever leading answer to offer. “If someone could finally win, leave and carry a true account to lay to rest all the rumors, perhaps there need be no more deaths. It cannot be me, but I don’t care, as long as it’s done.”

“Sounds true enough to me.” Dianthus’s smile turned cutting in its sadness. “How do I win, Naomi?”

Name the prize for which you fight; you will never find a way free without it.

No wrench this time—as friend, Naomi was not removed from the gallery, but she could do nothing to influence the physical clash of the fight while insubstantial in any case. Dianthus stepped away from her as the Game’s voice surrounded them on all sides. “For what prize do you fight?”

“I fight for the chance to see my granddaughter one more time.” No sign of Dianthus’s grief now; she was a straight pillar with the strength of weathered granite.

Naomi had thought that she’d hoped to the point of desperation before; it was nothing to what she felt now. Dianthus had understood, had chosen her prize wisely, had gathered every chance to win... but for the fact that she would need to defeat the very granddaughter who love had driven her here to save. Naomi couldn’t conceive of that love with precision enough to weigh Dianthus’s chances truly—was that because she was a ghost, or because she’d died too young?

The Game strode for Dianthus, wearing Althea as its skin, and Naomi set aside her calculations as she brought her clenched hand to the base of her throat to press down a knot of anguish, lest it grow to consume her. She remembered well what it was to be worn by the Game.

A foe must fight with all they have; there is no choice for them.

The Game and Dianthus chose their stances, within the space demarcated for them by the trees. More than enough distance from side to side of the gallery to face off. The Game eased into a low, graceful stance with fighting daggers at the ready; Dianthus centered herself into comparative stillness instead.

Stillness but for the flick of a knife drawn from her hip pocket. She drew a line in red along her inner arm, then flicked the knife back down into its handle and dropped it into her pocket once more. Her first move, then, simultaneous with the Game’s: Dianthus gathered blood on the pads of her first two fingers and flicked it outward, though there was not enough of it for any droplets to break free, and the Game slashed at her.

The Game’s first dagger came down on a red shimmer of shielding magic, light clotting around the blade to hold it back with a growling hum that hurt to hear. Dianthus held two blood-painted fingers low in a position that could be maintained indefinitely. A split second later, the second blow landed at a different angle but with the same angry noise as the shield stopped it. The Game settled back on its heels and considered.

First, a whirlwind of blows. As fast as they came, the shield hardened beneath them. That was the beauty of it, Naomi realized. It resisted where it was struck, not across the whole surface. If it drew its strength from the strength of the blow, however—

Her thoughts paralleled those of the Game, it seemed—much as the idea of such a thing made her sick—and the Game set the point of one blade against the shield and pushed. Slow and steady, as if it would slip in like a table knife into jelly. The red light whined and spattered no less violently around the attempted penetration. The aching hum only deepened when the Game attempted a sawing motion. Dianthus held her fingers before her, arm unshaking.

Another shift back. The Game considered Dianthus. “Grandmother,” it begged, tears starting in its eyes as the Game bent Althea’s body into a tight semblance of fear. “Please, help me.”

“Defense is boring. Love, the Game,” Naomi murmured to herself. A nervous giggle twisted free around the last words. How could Dianthus bear it?

“You’re already dead, love.” Perhaps the words were a reminder for herself, as Dianthus finally moved. Out came the small knife once more, to draw a deeper line on her opposite arm. With her off hand, she gathered fingertips of blood; with the other, she reached to the small of her back, clearly to a weapon of her own.

Such a strange weapon it was, when she drew it, not a blade of any kind. Like the pre-magic artifact, a gun. One of the most ancient ghosts held one as his symbol, a black, angular, hand-filling shape that purportedly threw tiny explosions like a mage who never tired. She’d coaxed him into showing it to her once. In contrast, this gun was patinaed metal and wood, levers and channels illuminating rather than hiding its workings.

Dianthus slashed her off-hand down, opening two parallel paths in the shield. A gap, Naomi realized. A gap needed to be opened, for the shield would hold in what the gun threw as much as it held out what the Game did. The Game slashed one dagger squarely through the gap toward Dianthus’s neck, as fast as the opening could be perceived. Dianthus stumbled back to avoid the cut, wrong-footed for the first time. Her shield sealed beneath the second dagger, leaving her protected but contained.

Stalemate.

“Grandmother. How can you—?” Althea’s voice, wielded by the Game, broke across the words. Dianthus’s next breath came as a sob, the first crack in her calm, but Naomi couldn’t imagine it the last.

Imagine, record, guide, lead, nudge—what could Naomi actually do? Frustration boiled up in her, filling her with a visceral impulse to violence, as if she could attack the Game with her fists, scream at it. Another loss, another death. Death after death, century after century.

But Dianthus wasn’t yet dead. Naomi still had time. Didn’t she know the rules upside down and backwards? Nothing said the friend could not help, if only she could determine how—

The idea hit her with a violence of its own. The Game had given Althea a physical presence, then borrowed it because the Game had none of its own; Naomi had no physical presence either.

Could Naomi possess Althea, wrest control of her from the Game? It was not against the rules, but there were no rules against sheer impossibilities; there was no rule against casting herself back in time, to whisper a warning in the ear of her younger self. That had not happened for all her wishing. She had never seen any ghost accomplish a possession either, but so few had had the opportunity to try. After the choice and until death was certain for a player, only the friend and foe could do more than observe from beyond the trees.

Well, Naomi was friend, and she would try.

Naomi threw herself at Althea. Perhaps, had the Game not already been there, it would have been simple. But instead she found only the feeling of glancing off, some intricate angle of alignment incorrect. She had no time to consider new methods, so she threw herself at Althea again and again, at Althea, at, until at became into and she was there.

She couldn’t quite—she couldn’t find what she should hold, or how she should be, to move a body after so long without one of her own. But the Game’s next slash, one of a steady stream to keep the shield up, slowed. Naomi wrestled against the sensation of movement. She couldn’t drop the blades, but she could pull, pull with everything in her mind against Althea’s arms rising from her sides.

And what was the sensation of the struggle for Althea? When they’d spoken as ghosts, Althea had seemed strong in her sense of self, likely able to hold together against the violation inherent in the Game’s control of her—though that would change with time, if Naomi was any guide—but how much worse must this internal battle be, as she was buffeted between two violations?

Then again, Althea couldn’t wish to kill her grandmother, so Naomi was aiding her, fighting on her side. Naomi saw no choice but to hold fast to that thought with everything she had as she grappled with the Game, movement against non-movement.

Naomi couldn’t speak, couldn’t conceive of achieving something so complex, but Dianthus must have seen the opportunity even if she didn’t understand the mechanism behind it. She snapped her free hand down, the gap appeared, and the gun came up. From within Althea’s physical presence, Naomi felt the way the Game widened her eyes, looking straight at Dianthus.

The gun was so loud, Naomi hadn’t imagined that. As though in being made tiny, the explosion spell it mimicked had only grown more concentrated until it was a physical blow to the ears as well. The Game flinched to the side, then straightened, and Naomi felt it smile slowly with Althea’s lips. Nowhere could Naomi find pain once the sound ebbed.

Dianthus had missed.

Who could blame her, looking on the face of her terrified grandchild? And she did fire again, both hands to the gun now, aimed straight. Pain smashed into the two of them, Naomi and the Game, in their struggle. Naomi reeled away, right out of Althea’s physical presence with the shock of it. Her shoulder. One of Althea’s arms dangled useless now, blade thudding to the grass.

But the Game had a second blade, a gap remained low in the shield, and Naomi opposed the movement no longer. The Game stabbed, through the gap, and the dagger sank deep into Dianthus’s gut. She choked, a wet sound, and the shield disappeared, allowing the Game to angle the blade, drag it toward one hip before ripping it free. That the wound would eventually be fatal was clear enough, but the Game eased back only fractionally, considering. Perhaps it was weighing the stretching anguish of a slow bleeding out against a quick flash of terror in seeing a final blow fall. Dianthus would certainly never give it the delectable despair of suicide.

“Naomi, I need time—” Dianthus coughed, spattering her lips with blood. Her hands were pressed instead to her wound, as if she could gather up the blood and hold it close. Could she possibly be so powerful a blood mage that she could heal such a wound?

Naomi pushed into Althea at once, but the Game was ready for her this time, its opposition of her every movement making her effort feel like an attempt to shift a mountain by pushing with her hands. And the more she struggled, the more she imagined what she’d feel in Althea’s place as the object of such a clash, and the empathy twisted her up.

And wasn’t that an iterative feast of anguish fit for the Game to gorge itself on, perhaps distracting it from a final blow? The pain she might be causing Althea, the pain the guilt caused her, the second guilt that the first guilt engendered, because she rated her emotions anywhere near as important as Althea’s, and...

The Game tipped Althea’s head up, eyes closed. Savoring? Naomi was dead; she could not seek death, but what was that seeking but a longing for an end to all other suffering emotion? That, she had.

A breath, standing that way, and the Game stepped definitively back, leaving Naomi to fall, as her separate ghost presence alone, to her knees beside where Dianthus had crumpled. Naomi had indeed granted time, but it seemed that time alone had not been enough, because Dianthus was still dying. The Game had signaled the end, and the translucent streaks of color marking other ghosts seeped back into the grove. They held well back, for now, out of politeness or disinterest.

Naomi gentled her voice to the tone she used with all those she offered company to as they faded into ghosts. “You’ll be able to speak to your granddaughter soon. It’s not so bad...”

Dianthus’s hacking laugh brought up a gobbet of blood that oozed downward from where it landed at the corner of her mouth. “Now you’re lying. Is that allowed?”

“Ghosts may speak to ghosts as they like.” And only a little more seeping blood separated Dianthus from being one of those herself.

A deep breath, careful but smooth. “Listen, girl. My teacher, and her teacher before her, they always said there comes a time when dying is easy. Then living is what’s hard. Having to hold fast to the pain when you know you can let go.”

It wasn’t blood Dianthus was attempting to hold back at her wound, Naomi realized. It was magic, and she was succeeding in holding it. The blood flowed out, mundane, and the magic gathered in her hands. One last spell, with the power of a life behind it. Dianthus had needed only a little time to craft it properly.

Naomi twisted to look at Althea’s young face, rendered impassive by the Game. She finally saw the shape of Dianthus’s long view, and true awe gripped her. Many were the legends that turned on blood mages’ final spells, a death to resurrect a life, but those were legends. Myths. Naomi had spoken to real blood mages, knew the truth: rare indeed was the blood mage powerful enough to have not only the strength for a resurrection spell, but strength to spare to remain lucid to cast it.

Had Dianthus always intended this sacrifice, from the moment she arrived, or had she crafted the solution as she stood calmly speaking to Naomi? Naomi could hardly conceive of the will needed to accomplish either. “Your granddaughter is strong as well. I’m sure she won’t give in.”

“Oh, Naomi.” Dianthus hacked one last laugh. “I love her more than life, but no, she isn’t. Not the kind of strength needed here. Besides, she didn’t gain her prize.” She reached up, pressed blood-smeared hands into Naomi’s throat, thumbs crossed over each other. “I charge you with my lifeblood, Naomi. Find a mage, tell them every truth you’ve ever learned, and bring them back to win, defeat the Game for good, and lay us all to rest.”

And the magic wrenched Naomi away from every one of the perceptions she had left as a ghost.

Survive your foe, gain your prize, leave this place, that is how you win; fail in these, and you belong to the Game.

Living wasn’t pain, it was drowning. Drowning in the physicality of emotion. As a ghost, Naomi had had emotions, of course. But now they were in her body, shaking and clenching and aching. She couldn’t quite remember how to run—she could barely remember how to breathe!—but she stumbled for a gap that had appeared between two trees. Now the long hall of them was a ring. Half a dozen steps and she was beyond it, free of the Game’s territory. Younger, smaller trees showed through fog at comparative random, and Naomi stumbled on, unable to choose a better direction than away. Away from the Game.

Maybe the difficulty breathing was only because of the emotions. Naomi found she was sobbing, without having noticed when she started. Too much. Too much to handle, and she wanted to fall to her knees until her chest stopped sawing, and she didn’t dare, and she hated herself for being so weak. She was failing Dianthus and she was failing herself, and maybe anger at herself would give her back some kind of self-control. But no, anger and self-hatred mixed with her fear that failure was all she would ever manage, and she was left only with despair. She was worthless. Why had Dianthus trusted her?

This was the pain Dianthus had meant; she understood that now. How could she make the sensations stop? What if they never stopped? What if her death had forever taken away her ability to cope with any of this? What if she hurt forever?

She didn’t want to hurt forever. She’d do whatever she had to, to make the pain end. It would be easy. She could just stop moving and let go. Lie down and release her grip on the life Dianthus had given her.

She wished, fiercely, with every part of her being—now that it had such an alien weight—for a release from the pain, for an ending.

That thought was an echo, she realized. Her thought, but not quite hers any more. That was how the Game had warped her. It had taken its own ornate turns of phrase and made them her thoughts.

Making the pain end, that was dying, and then the Game would still have won. How could she give the Game that satisfaction?

But she was so weak and worthless, how could she do otherwise?

She glimpsed two figures, through the mist. Yes! She could tell them how to defeat the Game, and then she could die. Naomi forced herself the last few steps and slammed to her knees in front of the two people. A man and a woman, both with skin the same shade of brown as Dianthus’s and Althea’s. “Listen! This is important! To win the Game, pick a small goal and a foe whose weaknesses are your strengths. Ignore the friend.”

The man pulled a small knife from his pocket, flicked it open and ready as he growled something angry.

Angry, and incomprehensible. She’d understood Dianthus—but ghosts were beyond language. Naomi had been dead a long time, and the language she’d known must have drifted.

She was going to fail in this too. She slumped to hands and knees, curled up over the despair that was growing too large to fit in her body.

The worst part was that every few words, Naomi could almost understand the man and woman as they argued. She could have sworn the woman said “mother” when she spoke calmingly to her companion, and the man said “mother” in his growled reply. Althea’s father and aunt they must be, then, because blood magic passed strongly through the maternal line and Althea hadn’t had any. They’d be wondering why this sobbing stranger had stumbled out in place of their niece or daughter.

It wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t she be stronger? Naomi pressed back up to her knees again, held a clenched hand against her throat as she shouted at them. “Dianthus! Althea! Listen to me, so I can let myself die!”

The woman repeated the names in shock, followed by a torrent of words. Naomi tried to listen, there on her knees in the woods, shaking all over. She was cold, out here in the mist, moisture from the ground wicking through the knees of her pants, and there was a sharp little rock jabbing into her right shin. She hated that rock with a sudden, absurd intensity. One tiny annoyance on top of the emotion that was swallowing her whole, and she couldn’t even ignore it.

And what about the Game? Oh, she loathed the Game, with her whole soul and body both. It had killed her, and controlled her, and warped her, and it had made her want to kill herself and she wasn’t—

She wasn’t going to let it win.

Dianthus had seen sufficient strength in her, and if Naomi couldn’t trust in herself, she should trust in the opinion of the woman who’d been clever enough to outwit the Game after centuries of players. She wouldn’t let Dianthus down.

That thought gave her something to hold onto, while another realization formed. All this was more than duty to Dianthus; it was her goal, her prize. When she’d told the Game she wanted knowledge as a prize, she’d meant to do something with it. Warn people off, grant grieving relatives closure. Now she knew she’d been dreaming too small—Dianthus had shown her a better goal: the ghosts’ freedom, the Game’s total destruction.

She reached out to the woman. “You have to take me with you. So I can learn the right words to tell you how to win the game and free the ghosts.”

The man seemed ready to slap Naomi’s hand away, but the woman frowned him down, knelt, and put her hand on Naomi’s shoulder. Everything in Naomi expected the touch to fall right through, but it didn’t. Instead, the woman drew Naomi gently in. She had a kind face behind the mist, already growing into her mother’s gravity.

“Ghosts?” The woman managed something close to Naomi’s pronunciation. The vocabulary of magic must be older. As she spoke, Naomi recognized “blood magic” and “anchor.” The woman meant to anchor her?

She pulled Naomi against her chest, back of her head against the woman’s arm. She flicked out her own knife, a highly polished blade hinged to an intricately carved handle. The metal reflected a flash of Naomi’s cheek and hair, and she grabbed for the tip to angle it properly. Her mind was warped, but did she look like herself? Did she remember what that self had looked like? The man hissed but seemed to realize that with her current grip, Naomi would cut her own fingers before she could turn the knife on anyone else. And he didn’t know, though Naomi did, that had she still wanted to let go, she would have no need of the knife to help her die.

In the reflection, her eyes were clouded white. A corpse’s eyes. No wonder the man had not been eager to trust her.  

The woman tugged the knife away and pricked the pad of her thumb. She smeared a curve of blood across Naomi’s forehead. Naomi’s sensation of drowning didn’t lessen, but the feeling that she could die with a simple act of will did, and her vision burst with startling, crystal-sharp colors.

The man’s face showed grief now, the shell of anger cracking. He spoke his daughter’s name, several times.

“I’ll help you free Althea, with the rest of the ghosts.” Naomi put everything she had into trying to make him understand that she wouldn’t give up, would never let the Game win.

The woman spoke sternly, meaning clear: there would be time enough for that later. She tightened her arms into an embrace, the first Naomi had felt in centuries.

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R.Z. Held writes speculative fiction, much of it in the apparently disparate subgenres of space opera and weird western. Her Silver series of urban fantasy novels was published under the name Rhiannon Held. She lives in Seattle, where she works as an archaeologist for an environmental compliance firm. At work, she uses her degree mostly for copy-editing technical reports; in writing, she uses it for cultural world-building; in public, she'll probably use it to check the mold seams on the wine bottle at dinner.

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