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Authors: Kevin J. Anderson

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Gameplay

BOOK: Gameplay
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Table of Contents

Book 2 of the GAMEARTH Trilogy

Kevin J. Anderson

Book Description

Gameplay
: It was written in the Rules—Save the World! Over the past two years, a group of four players had given so much to their role-playing world that it had developed a magic of its own. The creatures, warriors, sorcerers, thieves—all had come alive. And now there is an odd connection between the gamers and their characters, splitting into factions to determine the fate of the Game itself and both the inside and the outside worlds.

***

Smashwords Edition – February 2014

WordFire Press
www.wordfire.com

ISBN: 978-1-45242-741-6

Copyright © 2014 WordFire, Inc.

Gameplay
Copyright 1989 WordFire, Inc,
Originally published by Signet Books 1989

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except where permitted by law. This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Book Design by RuneWright, LLC
www.RuneWright.com

Published by
WordFire Press, an imprint of
WordFire, Inc.
PO Box 1840
Monument CO 80132

Electronic version by Baen Books

***

Dedication

To Ginger LaJeunesse

(Charles Dickens said it best.…)

***

Acknowledgments

Many people have offered encouragement and comments during the writing of this book. I would like to thank especially the members of my writers workshop for critiquing above and beyond the call of duty: Dan’l Danehy-Oakes, Michael C. Berch, Clare Bell, M. Coleman Easton, Lori Ann White, Gary Shockley, and Avis Minger. I also express my appreciation to Chuck Beason, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Doug Beason … for a whole bunch of things.

***

“Always remember this: every character on Gamearth was created by the Outsiders. We exist solely for the amusement of those who Play our world. Our ambitions, our concerns mean nothing—everything is determined by the roll of the dice.”


The Book of Rules

***

Prologue

Melanie blew warm breath against the map of Gamearth, trying to make the paint dry faster. She didn’t want the other players to see what she had changed. David would probably call it cheating—but their game would keep playing itself, no matter what they did.

Melanie wanted to win.

A shoebox of acrylic paints lay on the card table in the study. Some of the colors had dried up, with lids cemented by hardened paint. But the bottle of deep forest green had some sluggish drops left at the bottom.

The map’s hexagons of terrain were bright and vivid colors, like some lost Arabian mosaic. They represented mountains, forests, seas, deserts. Melanie pulled a strand of long brown hair behind her left ear and blew again on the wet paint. She looked at where the mysterious “Rulewoman” supposedly lived on the map, in one of the forest-terrain hexes deep in the south. The complexity, the patterns of the map were dizzying.

Gamearth—they had created it as a fantasy world setting for a role-playing game, she and Tyrone, Scott, and David. The four of them played there, embarking on imaginary adventures into imaginary lands every Sunday night for the past two years.

Melanie had painted the map herself, acrylics on a smooth sheet of wood, using rulers and protractors to lay down the precise grid of hex-lines between sections of terrain. No store-bought map kit would do for
their
world—it had to be something personal, something she created herself. Gamearth needed to be different from all the other worlds available in simple boxed adventures.

Melanie and the others put a great deal of themselves into Gamearth. Perhaps too much.

But times changed, and the Game went on and on. One entire race of characters, the Sorcerers, departed from the world in a magical Transition that turned all of them into six powerful Spirits: three white Earthspirits and three black Deathspirits.

David wanted to end the Game there. He said it wasn’t fun anymore. But Melanie and the others outvoted David, and so they kept playing. David could not leave them. The Game had too much of a hold on all of them. Instead, he made an attempt to destroy the world, but he had been thwarted.

Now, though, David had finally made up his mind—if the others would not let him quit, then he would create a new monster, Scartaris, to devastate the entire map and suck every spark of life dry.

That would end the Game once and for all.

But Melanie planned on stopping him. They both had to play by the rules—but rules could be advantageous, especially if you bent them a little …

Melanie carried the altered map out of her father’s study. She could hardly tell where she had repainted the one hexagon. They would not notice, since she had not changed the terrain type, in which case she could argue—as Scott would—that she hadn’t changed anything relevant anyway. But she had
placed something there
, under the paint, into the world of Gamearth.

She didn’t know if it would work, if her world could ever have any true connection with the characters
inside
Gamearth. But this had to be the way, if anything. It had to be.

Somehow during their last gaming session she managed to communicate to her characters about the growing threat of Scartaris in David’s designated section of the map. Her three characters, Delrael the fighter, his scholarly cousin Vailret, and the half-Sorcerer Bryl, had tried to protect their land from Scartaris by creating a giant barrier river that severed the eastern half of the map from the rest.

But now she knew, as did her characters, that the Barrier River would not stop David’s creature. It would only trap half the inhabitants of Gamearth on the wrong side—with the growing threat of Scartaris.

She stared at the blue line of hexagons that indicated the river slicing down the map. It still gave her shivers to think about it. Gamearth showed its own power the previous week, during their last gaming session.

This had become much more than a game to all of them.

In their imaginary adventure, the new river came surging through a channel from the Northern Sea to pour across the plains—and as the four players watched, Melanie’s painted map reflected the change all by itself. Hexagons of forest, grassland, and swamp terrain turned
blue
, right in front of their eyes. Scott, the “rational” one, had been amazed and terrified, unable to hint at an explanation.

But Melanie knew the explanation. It was so simple. After being steeped in the gaming fantasy as dictated by the rules, Gamearth had developed its own magic.

And Gamearth was not going to accept its destruction without a fight.

If she could do anything to help, even if it meant stretching the rules a bit behind the other players’ backs, then Melanie felt obligated to do so. After all, not many people ever had the opportunity to save a world, not even an imaginary one.

Satisfied that the new paint had dried, Melanie carried the map board out to the kitchen and started to prepare herself for the Game. The future of her world would be in the roll of the dice.

***

1. Enrod’s Crossing

“Something is terribly wrong here. My own city of Tairé has succumbed. People I have known for years act strangely. At times even I do not know what I have done or where I have been.

“And the untainted lands to the west have cut themselves off from us with a great river. We are trapped and alone. We have been sacrificed. They didn’t even give us a chance.”

—Enrod,
Annals of Tairé
, final entry

The Sentinel Enrod stood on the eastern shore of the Barrier River. The black hex-line that separated the water from overhanging willows and reeds extended razor sharp as far as he could see, north and south.

Off in the distance, across the impassable expanse of water, he could see the green rolling line of forest terrain, lush and healthy. Farther north Enrod could see the broad expanse of a hexagon of grassland. All green, all growing, safe and protected from the evil to the east.

Enrod gritted his teeth. His hand squeezed the eight-sided ruby, the Fire Stone, he had carried all the way from Tairé. The corners of the gem dug into the skin of his palm. Enrod paid no attention to the pain. He was the last remaining full-blooded Sorcerer male on Gamearth, now that Sardun was gone. Enrod had used his reserves of magic to keep himself healthy and relatively young-looking. But now the haunted weight of too many years shone out from his eyes.

He looked at the green forest terrain across the River. His eyes widened and turned bright. The terrain would not stay green for long. Alien tendrils crept up within him, sliding along his spine, inside his skull, like some invading leech. Visions of fire and sorcerous destruction marched across his imagination.

Enrod’s dark hair had been tangled in the long journey across the map, but he paid no attention to it. Whenever he thought of something else, any other distraction, he felt sharp pain in his head. It would all be better once he brought destruction to the other side of the River, once he showed
them
what it was like in his city of Tairé.

Threads of Sorcerer blood whipped through his veins like snakes, whispering to him constantly:
Use the power! Show the Stronghold that they cannot cut themselves off and leave the rest of Gamearth doomed.

They thought they were so safe, so protected. A human fighter character named Delrael had created the River to keep Enrod out. To keep all the Tairans out. To keep every living thing in the East away from the sanctuary of the untouched forests, the protected lands.

Enrod felt trapped and compelled. It was appalling what they had done. The memory made his thoughts become dark, uncontrolled. He had to destroy the Stronghold. Destroy them. Wash the land in flames. Explosions. Devastation.

He shook his head. The buzzing returned, making it hard for him to concentrate. His feet were blistered and bloodied from the long journey. But he couldn’t quite remember traveling to get there. Days and days seemed like a blur of hex-lines, changing terrain, vast distances.

He kept losing track of time. It used to bother him, but it happened so often now. He would blink and find himself someplace, or realize he had been doing something that he just didn’t recall. A warm, pulsing blackness filled the empty spots in his memory.

Something was wrong in his city of Tairé, too. He thought of his home, the streets, the buildings, the other people, all they had worked for.
Something was wrong!

Something … from the east. Dark and full of power, growing, devouring. Something deadly from Outside. Ages ago the same thing had happened, a growing force planted by one of the Outsiders just after the Transition—Gamearth would have ended then, except for the miraculous appearance of the Stranger Unlooked-For who had saved them all.

Now they needed another miracle.

The buzzing in Enrod’s head convinced him that everything could be fixed if he would just devastate the land around the Stronghold. The human characters Delrael and Vailret, and the traitorous half-Sorcerer Bryl, had caused all the problems on Gamearth by creating the Barrier River.

Enrod could not question that thought or the pain and confusion would start again.

Tairé had suffered enough in its history. They build the city in terrain that had endured the worst battles of the Sorcerer wars. The land itself was desolated, hexagon after hexagon turned into wasteland, desert.

The Wars had ended long ago. The two warring factions of Sorcerers made their peace and then embarked on the Transition, turning themselves into six ethereal Spirits who then ignored all the wreckage they had caused.

But young Enrod had not joined the rest of his race in the Transition. An idealist then, he stayed behind because the Sorcerers had done too much damage to Gamearth. They could not simply go away without making amends, without trying to help the other characters survive the aftermath.
Enrod
vowed to make amends.
He
lived in Tairé, in the middle of the worst devastation
. He
wanted to heal the land, to bring it back to what it had been.

The six Spirits held the power to make everything right again with little more than a gesture, if they cared.…but they too disappointed him. After the Transition, the Spirits vanished completely, gone on to whatever interested them without a thought for everything they left behind. They had not shown themselves in the two centuries since.

Enrod despised them for it. The Spirits had abandoned Gamearth, when they could have been so much help. Perhaps they could even stand against the whims of the Outsiders.

Enrod spent his life in Tairé helping the human characters to build their city, to heal the land. First came small garden plots, nurturing the soil, growing outward, expanding to cover the hills with grass again. Plants sprouted on their own. Stands of trees grew on some of the hills. Living things took another foothold in the desolation. Enrod saw his life’s work coming to fruition.

Though he had the Fire Stone—one of the four most powerful magical items in the Game—Enrod needed it little. He used the power of his own sweat and effort. Characters working together made their own kind of magic.…

Then it all changed. The plants withered and died. Enrod began to have nightmares, sensing something terrible growing in the mountains near the eastern edge of the map.

The new-planted forests became skeletal black sticks on the hills. The ground cracked, and the windswept dust scoured the nearby hexagons clean. The characters in Tairé became listless. Their life seemed to drain away from them along with their free will, their hopes. The city fell silent in the midst of its desolation.

Desolation.

As the land across the River would be.

Enrod stepped back away from the edge of the water into the forest. Despite his sense of urgency and the need to unleash his anger, he forced himself to work with care. He selected appropriate trees, all about the same size and thickness.

Holding onto the thin, straight trunk of an oak, he looked at the Fire Stone. Each facet of the ruby showed a number from one through eight. Enrod concentrated, then tossed the Fire Stone on the scattered dead leaves at his feet.

The ruby came to rest against a moss-covered rock. The number “7” faced up. If Enrod had rolled a “1”, his spell would have failed—but instead, he summoned nearly as much magic as the eight-sided Stone could command. He hated to waste so much power on such an insignificant task.

Glowing red spangles filled his hand. The power awakened in him, eager, dancing at his fingertips.

He gestured and sent the sorcerous fire into the earth, incinerating the roots of a tree and severing it neatly from the ground. Smoke and powdered dirt spurted into the air. The smell of burning sap and green wood stung his nostrils.

Enrod contained the fire in his fist and braced himself, pressing the bark against his shoulder. He let the trunk slide down against a larger tree until it thumped against other bushes and came to rest.

Enrod directed the burning spell at the fallen trunk, stripping the side branches away. The curls of flame peeled off the bark, leaving a steaming naked log on the forest floor, blanketed on each side by damp leaves. The spicy scent of charred wood reminded him of more peaceful days in Tairé, as characters gathered around bonfires in the harvested fields.…

The birds in the forest fell silent. He could hear the motion of the Barrier River as it poured along its course, bounded by the sharp hex-line.

For a moment Enrod hesitated. What was he doing here? He couldn’t remember. He blinked his eyes and turned to look behind him into the forest terrain.

But then the throbbing power of the Fire Stone in his hand distracted him, and the black buzzing came roaring back into his head, like a storm through his thoughts. The buzzing left only one idea untouched. Destruction. Devastation. Get across the River and make things
right
. Burn them clean. Start everything new and fresh, after a white-hot cleansing fire.…

He wrapped his fingers around the corners of the Fire Stone and directed the hot power at another tree, and another, until he had a line of neat logs scattered in the forest, seared clean of bark and branches. Steam and gray smoke made his eyes water. His vision grew blurry.

Night fell.

Dawn came.

Enrod swam up out of a dream sea of hypnotic blackness and chaotic thoughts to see that he was standing barefoot in the rough mud of the riverbank. His hands were raw and bleeding, studded with splinters from the logs, from the vines he had used to lash the logs together to form a raft. He had woven thin green tendrils into strong ropes, then coated them with oozing sap to seal them. After lashing the logs together, he had coated the ropes, the knots, with a thicker layer of pitch and baked it into a glassy varnish with the Fire Stone.

Enrod didn’t remember doing any of it.

He wondered if it had really been only a day. Smears of mud and ash stood out on his tattered white robe. Far from the powerful Sentinel of Tairé, he looked like a man who had been crumpled, badly used, and poked back to life again.

His back cried out with pain as he hauled the heavy raft to the water. Enrod stepped over the black hex-line and sank up to his knees in the cold river. The mud soothed his torn and blistered feet. The hem of his robe soaked up the water.

He rocked the logs of the raft, pulling, dragging. It slid partway over the hex-line and became easier to move. Enrod climbed back onto the shore and used a thin pole to lever the raft over the edge. He hopped onto the smooth logs, picked up the pole again and gave a push that strained his ribs, shoving the raft over the hex-line and into the grip of the river.

Enrod sat down on the raft, smelling the water and letting it carry him downstream. Before long, he stood up again and pushed the pole into the riverbed, gaining leverage and inching the raft across the current.

He had an appointment to keep. He had to destroy the other half of the world.

Fallen trees thrust up from the surface like the fingers of drowning men. The water itself roiled brown and muddy, still cutting its channel and bearing debris from its journey. Beneath the current, Enrod imagined forests, houses, the skeletons of travelers, wandering monsters, all who had been caught in the flood. According to the map of Gamearth, the new course of the Barrier River had swallowed up an entire village.

The current brushing against the sides of his raft seemed to whisper to him, all the dead voices gurgling up from the river bottom begging Enrod for revenge. How could any character dare to do this? What right did they have?

He would lay waste to the land, turn hexagon after hexagon to flames and ash. He would destroy it all, level it.

The raft lurched, as if it struck an unseen bump in the River. Enrod swayed and regained his balance. The brown, silty water flattened out like glass in front of him. A streak of light, yellow and searing, shot back and forth beneath the surface. The smell of ozone, like the air after a thunderstorm, drifted up to him.

Everything grew quiet, deathly quiet, but the air seemed charged with crackling power. Enrod tensed, confused.

Deep beneath the water foam bubbled up, disturbing the smooth surface. The churning increased until spray gushed to the sky. Mist appeared from nowhere, swathing the horizon and leaving him isolated in the middle of the River.

Enrod pulled up his wooden staff, holding it in his hands like a weapon. He let the raft drift, but it remained in place, anchored invisibly from below.

The bubbles gushed higher, then opened up like a gigantic mouth, a trap door letting something
emerge.

A triple shadow lifted itself from the depths of the water, rising … and kept rising, filling Enrod with awe. Three forms, hooded and spectral, clad in black tattered cloaks, pouring upward into the sky. His bones vibrated with thunder beyond the range of his hearing.

The three figures surged with dark power until they towered over the Sentinel, impossibly high. Their attention focused down on him like sharpened spears.

Enrod could not move.

He had seen them once before, two centuries ago, on the field of the Transition. They had not spoken then, but hung in the air surrounded by fallen empty bodies of the Sorcerers and grass and mountains in the distance. In silence, they had departed with their three white counterparts, the Earthspirits. Enrod thought they would never come back. All the characters on Gamearth had given up on them.

The Deathspirits.

The buzzing dark presence suddenly left Enrod’s head, deserting him entirely. Without the driving force, he was disoriented, like a marionette with severed strings. He couldn’t remember anything for a moment. He looked at the Fire Stone in his hand and realized what he had been about to do. He couldn’t understand what had been possessing him.

The ruby Stone leaped out of his hand, wrenched away with such force that its sharp corners sliced his fingers. He felt blood running down his palm, but he could not take his eyes away from the immense Spirits. The Fire Stone rose in the air, spinning and glittering far out of reach.

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