"I don't understand."
Merlin sighed at what was quickly becoming Sora's catch-phrase.
"It's an enchanted game, lad, Similar to an enchanted book."
"But it's not a book."
Yuffie facepalmed, and Leon stepped forward. "It's like an enchanted book."
Sora considered that and scratched his head nervously.
"So... if I hop into it... it would be like hopping into the Hundred Acre Wood?"
Merlin stroked the considerable length of his beard while he sputtered about details that flew through Sora's head without stopping. Sora lifted the lid off of the rectangular box they were discussing, not paying much attention to the content of the picture it boasted as its cover, and stared glumly at a very un-magical set of playing instruments. One by one he set them out on Merlin's table, which had been cleared for the sole purpose of tinkering with the newest discovery of the Radiant Gardens Restoration Committee. Every set of eyes in the room- Aerith, Cloud, Yuffie, Cid, Riku, Kairi, and even Leon were in attendance- watched with swiftly deflating awe as Sora began to remove the contents: A rule book, another rule book, a third rule book that was shorter than the first two, several blue figurines of blue-armored soldiers, several red figurines of red aliens, some dice, two rulers, oddly shaped pieces of plastic that resembled wreckage, and a single, human figurine with a large, metal briefcase. The figurine had a pistol in the other hand, a blue uniform like the soldiers, and a nasty look on his face. Sora set him down and jumped back when he saw the result.
Just as the last figure touched the surface, a shimmering line had made its way around the edge of the table. There was certainly magic afoot.
"Well?" Merlin gestured Sora forward.
"Jump on in, lad! It should be just like the Hundred Acre Wood."
Sora grinned at everyone sheepishly and waved for Kairi and Riku to join him.
"Alrighty then. Come on guys!"
They hopped into the table and were replaced by figurines of themselves, posed for battle like the soldiers and the aliens. Everyone nodded, impressed, except for Cid, who had stuck his nose in the instruction book.
"'The hell is this?"
Everyone turned his way quizzically, so he read aloud from what he had found on the first page.
"It is the 41st millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth..."
Sora, Riku, and Kairi hadn't expected quite so much dust. They were furiously rubbing it out of their eyes and coughing hoarsely as it coated their throats. This was nothing like the Hundred Acre Wood. All around them was the feeling of impending doom, of a great battle without end. And yet there was nothing but dust and wind. When it cleared, and they had finished composing themselves and blinked their eyes clear, there was silence.
"Where," Kairi mumbled. "Where is everyone? Where is... anyone?"
Sora and Riku shrugged their responses. As far as they could see were plains of white sand, like talc. They felt truly alone among the stars.
Cid had finished reading the introduction to Warhammer 40k: Battle for Maccragge, much to the horror of everyone else.
"Maybe," Aerith mumbled, "we should just get them back out and keep this on the shelf. It doesn't sound like a very fun game to be playing."
Merlin nodded his agreement and raised both of his hands into the air. With a wave, a swish, and a twirl, he sent a spell to the board. Nothing happened.
He tried it again.
"It appears that they can't leave until they finish the game."
The force of everyone's eyes caused him to retreat a step. "And, well... er... I can't do anything about that."
Merlin startled as he realized that Yuffie had invaded his personal space rather suddenly.
"What do you mean, 'they can't leave until they finish the game?'"
He fumbled with his wand nervously and mumbled, "well, we just have to play the game until it's done, and then they're free."
Her eyes narrowed, but Cid drew everyone's attention when he picked up a book that identified itself as the campaign codex and flipped to the first page. "Looks like there's a story to it. It's not very long, either."
Yuffie stamped her foot. "I don't care! They could be in danger! Do something Merlin!"
Merlin mumbled something about research and began digging through his bookshelf while Leon peered over cid's shoulder.
Cid's cigar dodged words while he announced his summary of the first page. "To begin, we need two players, terrain for the field, and this guy." He pointed to the briefcase-man.
Aerith stepped forward, to opposite sides of the table, and Leon approached the other side. "how about us?"
Aerith nodded to Cid. "We can do it."
"So the game begins with the aliens, Tyranids, shooting down a spacecraft carrying the gene-seed of a chapter of Space Marines. Don't ask me what that is."
He set three pieces of wreckage on the field.
"The pilot survives."
He set the figurine with the briefcase next to one.
"The Tyranids land on the planet."
He set the rest of the terrain down at random and added a blob-like figure next to each one.
"The pilot is trying to save the gene-seed by taking it to the safety zone."
He peeked around the board. "Where's the safety zone?"
A golden square illuminated on Leon's side of the table, which was opposite the pilot and Aerith.
"Oh. Well there we go."
Yuffie gasped. "Hey, look! They're moving!"
She was right. The figurines of Sora, Riku, and Kairi started a shuffle across the board toward the briefcase-man and his piece of wreckage.
Riku glanced at Kairi quizzically. She was just as confused, and turned to Sora, who was making sure the horizon didn't move. The trio continued to look around sheepishly. It had been several minutes now, and their surroundings showed no signs of changing, not horizontally anyway. No one thought of looking up, at least until the sky started falling. First came a chunk, then a piece, then an entire ship cartwheeling end-over-end and trailing fire as it plunged from the heavens, marking the opening of what could only be a terrible and bloody day. It struck the ground with the force of an angered god that loved nothing but death, and added several explosions as an afterthought while its own weight dragged it along the ground, grinding a crater into the earth about a kilometer away from them.
The trio was stunned, or thought they were until a hatch burst off of the amazingly still intact cabin and a man came out. He leveled a weapon at them before they could blink.
"Identify yourselves, in the name of the Holy Emperor!"
Riku mustered his senses the fastest and called out across the considerable distance between them, "We're servants of the Emperor."
Kairi nodded at the clever response while Sora turned to his friend and mumbled, "what?"
"Then get over here! Quickly now."
They traded glances, shrugged, and, not wanting to offend their new friend, obliged him. The man turned back into his ship to grab something, and then emerged with it, a large metal briefcase.
When they had come close enough, they realized he was a giant, and his weapon was a fittingly large handgun. It found a new target before they could speak. The man had turned, aimed, and fired impossibly fast for his size. His gun barked like a rabid tank and something in the distance exploded. The trio froze in shock.
"I see the Xenos swine have already arrived." His voice rumbled like lightning from the mountain of his throat. He was huge, fast, and carrying the biggest handcannon they'd ever seen. In fact, up till now, they'd only ever seen actual guns on T.V.
Kairi took a step to her side and back a bit, making a shield out of the others while they watched him.
"What..." Sora mumbled. The man focused his attention downward at the keybearer. "Yes?"
"What... wow. You're huge."
The pilot nodded. "I am a Son of the Emperor, from the esteemed Ultramarines Chapter of the Adeptus Astartes, assigned to the evacuation of our chapter's holy gene-seed. The Great Devourer found us and... well..." he gestured at the piece of wreckage he had emerged from, and then at the three other large pieces scattered about. His gaze lingered on a sphere hovering near one of them, and he took aim at it slowly.
"Do you see that?"
Kairi squinted hard with the others and asked, "what is it?"
It hovered above the ground at the height of an average person, moving randomly and reaching out with tendrils to feel its surroundings, seemingly oblivious to them.
"Pay attention." He squeezed the trigger, throwing a slug across the plains and causing the hovering sphere to detonate wildly. The bloated gasses in its flesh expanded several meters in every direction before burning out. They didn't have to 'pay attention' to notice the effect.
"That's what happens if it so much as senses a pin dropping. Don't let one get close."
Sora jabbed his finger at another piece of wreckage in the distance, and Riku and Kairi gaped in horror as three more spheres emerged from a bulbous organic thing in the ground.
"Usually I would wait for my brothers to arrive, but, well..." He trailed off and set down his briefcase so he could push a button in his ear.
"Brother-Captain Octavian, the gene-seed is intact, but my auspex is non-functioning. Requesting orders."
He waited for only a moment before the bead in his ear replied, "we are launching a flair Brother-Pilot. Move to our location."
The group's heart sank through misery when they saw a bright streak appear on the horizon, with three pieces of wreckage to climb over and at least seven more spheres between them.
"As the humans, Aerith gets to move first. Every individual unit gets to move and shoot in a turn. The pilot..." Cid's cigar nearly dropped from his mouth, but clung to several teeth for dear life. Merlin read over his shoulder and added his amazement for agreement.
"Oh! How interesting! Spit it out."
"The pilot may move twelve inches per turn, and shoot twelve inches along the table per turn with his bolter pistol. Sora, Riku, and Kairi have no ranged weapons, and can therefore only move. To make up for this, they are given a bonus in hand to hand combat. How'd it know they're playing?"
Yuffie shrugged as if the question were directed at her, and then pointed a gun-finger at Aerith.
Aerith picked up her measuring tape, somehow projecting spite at Leon with the motion, and scooted the four of her figures straight across the field. "Catch us if you can, Devourer."
Leon sneered back. "Your worlds will fall, human."
Everyone balked at the exchange.
"Follow me closely if you want to live."
Their new companion took off at a dead sprint straight for the hovering alien spheres. Their reluctance was a given, but he had the gun.
"And Leon..." Cid followed Leon's dead set glare to Aerith's. "You... eh... get to move now. But it says here that spores move randomly. So instead of choosing which way they go, you roll the 'directional die'..." Leon did without breaking his stare. The six sided die came to a stop with an arrow on its top pointing table-west, straight at Aerith and her party.
"Eh... and then to determine the distance it moves in that direction you roll a... 2d6? One sec'."
He rummaged through the books like they were boxes of information before finally mumbling, "two, six sided-" He stopped when he realized that Leon had already rolled two six sided die and moved his pieces accordingly. He was currently holding a small, plastic circle over a spore, which had touched Sora. "The blast covers your whole party, human. Where is your God-Emperor now?"
Aerith bared her teeth like a battle hardened commander and growled, "he watches over all of his servants." She rolled four dice, all sixes, and added, "faithfully."
Cid's cigar was a fighter, but it fell this time. "Y'all know how to play?"
They didn't answer.
Yuffie waved a hand in front of Leon's face to no response. "What's goin' on?"
Cid flipped through his manuals again while Aerith took her next turn.
"The four dice she rolled were for a save, and she got sixes. So even though her pieces were in the explosion, they survived."
Yuffie glared at Cid. "I don't care about the game! What's going on with Aerith and Leon?"
Merlin pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and stroked his beard. "They can't leave the game until they're finished."
"And there's nothing I can-"
Yuffie drew back a fist.
Riku, Kairi, and Sora quickly had their doubts confirmed when the nearest sphere turned in on them. Sora had almost stopped in time to dodge the tentacles that let the spore feel. Almost had cost him two fingers. Looking for them with heat-scorched eyes was hopeless, so he cradled the wound in shell-shock, waiting for his hearing to return while their pilot companion was putting a hand over Kairi's mouth to stop her screaming. The spores could hear apparently. One turned their way, chasing the disturbance it had felt, and detonated harmlessly when it sensed the Pilot's bullet rupturing its hide.
Kairi was hoisted to her feet, and they quickly mustered and set off on another sprint, following out of shell-shock rather than any amount of faith. They made it clear of the rubble without incident, and only then did they feel their wounds. When her shock had died down, Kairi turned on their giant friend. Most of her hair had burned away, leaving several minor burns.
"You nearly killed us! We should be dead!"
"The Emperor protects." The Space Marine pilot didn't seem too worried. Of course, he was the least hurt of the group. His superior genetics were proven before their eyes.
Kairi kicked him in the shin as punishment, which hurt her toe. He didn't seem to notice it. "Why did you run straight at it? That was so stupid!"
His posture gave nothing away, but he answered in a clear voice, "Spores move randomly. There was a higher chance of it moving any other direction than toward us."
Merlin cradled his nose and Cid got caught up on the next scenario while the terrain rearranged itself magically. Meanwhile, Aerith and Leon traded snide insults about emperors and pedigree that made all of zero sense. Cid read a summary aloud as soon as he was done.
"'Kay. In the second scenario, Squad Octavian is nearby." He pointed at the blue-armored soldiers, who scooted into position on Leon's side of the table.
"However, they are separated from the others by more spores."
He pointed out spore colonies that littered the battlefield.
"And there is a time limit for the humans. After fifteen turns, the Hormogaunts arrive."
Leon grinned obnoxiously and gnashed his teeth at Aerith, who remained stoic.
"For the humans to win, Sora, Riku, Kairi, the Pilot, Brother-captain Octavian, and his flamer must survive, and all Tyranids have to be killed."
Aerith reached for her measuring tape.
Kairi's eyes adjusted to the 'biscope,' binoculars really, that the giant with the case had offered her, and she spotted several blue figures in the far distance. The other Space Marines were coming their way with all due haste, a comforting thought.
"My brothers," the giant rumbled. "Come. We're almost to safety."
"My..." Everyone stopped and turned to Sora. He was staring at the mangled remains of the knuckles that were missing from his hand.
"The Emperor shall remember your sacrifice. Be thankful that he has deemed you worthy to continue the fight against his enemies."
Sora nodded, not breaking his horrified stare, and his friends lifted him up to his feet. Following a gesture from the pilot, they took off for their second suicidal slalom. Explosions began to rock as their help, Squad Octavian, executed the spores and spore colonies in their path. Occasionally a roar could be heard, like a tiger in high grass. Smoke would billow and curling, crackling flesh would shriek just afterward. Squad Octavian had brought a toy. Riku almost lost his focus when he took an interest to the spewed death of the flamethrower upon one of the fleshy growths that was spawning their oppressors. Squad Octavian would get them out of this. He was sure of it.
"So few turns left, human. So very few."
Aerith didn't appear worried. She was quick to voice her belief in the God-Emperor's everlasting vigil over the faithful, and the strength of the "Adeptus Astartes."
Even Cid was having trouble keeping up with their new jargon, despite his constant flipping through the reference material that came with the game.
Leon was right though. And that worried everyone. So far, Aerith had done an okay job of steering the main characters clear of the Tyranid spores while keeping Octavian busy with the three spore colonies on the map, but there were only five turns left until the Hormagaunts arrived, and then there would be a significantly harder fight. They looked infinitely deadlier than the shambling spheres that had been present so far.
Aerith indicated the flamer of Squad Octavian and held a plastic reticle over his head, pointing it at the last of the spore colonies. It reached by just a centimeter, and a sneer came to her face as she said,
"I hope you like bacon, Xenos scum!"
Hell spewed from the nozzle of the flamer and purged the last of the ungodly menace from the ground. Brother-Captain Octavian raised the Firehawk pilot on his vox-caster as the cackling napalm drew quiet enough. "Is the Gene-seed still intact?"
Riku and Kairi- who were jogging on their way to the safety Octavian would provide- gave their companion a glum look. "We're fine, really. Don't worry about us."
Sora turned to Kairi, still cradling his missing finger. "Come on, Kairi. It's important to them. Right?"
The pilot nodded and patted the metal case in his hand. "More than you know. Its capture is the fall of this world, and perhaps the whole sector."
He pushed a bead in his ear. "Affirmative, Octavian."
The groups united quickly, and the keybearers realized that the pilot they thought was huge was, in fact, a dwarf among his brothers. The armor of the soldiers before them was fit for gods, and their weapons- bolter pistols engraved with blessings and Aquilas- were large enough to kill if they were just set in the wrong place. The armor they bore covered every inch of their bodies in metals that would intimidate lowly Orichalcum, and their helmets were marked by the red, electronic lenses of the god-killers.
The keybearer's awe soon turned back to worry when one of the Astartes took a knee and watched a rectangular screen he held in his hands.
"Contact on the auspex, two clicks east. Moving fast."
His voice was augmented mechanically, but everyone paid more attention to the shrieks emanating from a cloud of dust on the horizon.
The only marine without a helmet was the captain, and Sora felt a surge of awe that Riku and Kairi didn't when the man bellowed, "More of the ungodly seek our genes! Form a box!"
The marines were quick to comply, and the trio soon found themselves and the pilot encased in nine armored bodies. Nothing could possibly get through that box. Nothing. Not even the fast moving, shrieking dust storm that was coming from the east. It couldn't. It simply wouldn't be possible. The trio backed into each other tighter for support anyway. The atmosphere told them to not take any chances.
"There's a difference between chasing victory and running to the slaughter, Nirn-Queen."
Aerith's jabs were coming more frequently, but something kept Leon calm, like only an ace up the sleeve could.
"Numbers, Lord Militant. Numbers always prevail."
Yuffie had tried everything by now to free her friends from their trance-like competition, while Cid had consigned himself to learning the rules as quickly as possible. Merlin only stroked his beard.
"Will they be alright?"
Cloud spoke for the first time, proving that he wasn't just a shadow on the wall. Yuffie considered what he said and looked to Cid. Cid looked to Merlin. Merlin stroked his beard and answered, "What kind of person would make a game that hurts people?"
Cloud's eyes lit up (more) at that and he shifted his weight off of the wall. "Who did make the game?"
Cid leaned past Aerith, who was measuring out distances, to grab the box. He flipped it over. A second cigar dropped from his mouth. Two symbols were covering the publishing trademark. One was the emblem of the heartless, and the other made his eyes go bloodshot when he saw it. He dropped the box and rubbed his eyes hard. "Ow. Yeah, let's hope Aerith wins."
The creatures had reached them fast. Dear God-Emperor, they had reached them so fast. They ran like quadrupeds down on all fours, but balanced themselves with a tail just well enough that their forelegs never had to touch the ground, which was convenient since their forelegs were replaced by massive blades. Brother-Captain Octavian and the two beside him had fired in time to kill a wall of leaping beasts, and the force of the explosive shells knocked their savaged and separated pieces backward. But that was only a hundred out of whole legions. Soon they were enveloping the horizons, and even restless pebbles on the ground were trying to make their escape. Brother-Captain Octavian's augmented voice boomed over the din nonetheless.
"By the throne, these hellspawn are fast! Where's our extraction?"
The soldier with the auspex, a device that Riku was quick enough to identify as a radar of sorts, took a peek at it between two bursts from his bolter. "80 clicks out. Twenty minutes, Brother-Captain."
He stopped firing to check again. "There's something else, sir. The reactor core of the Firehawk is still active."
The eyes of Squad Octavian settled on a piece of rubble, which they were separated from by hundreds more, running, hellspawned creatures. It was the same piece of rubble they had been running away from.
"Flamer, Cut a path!"
The keybladers had no intention of trying their luck with more battle, but the massive, metal bodies were shifting the box now in that direction.
"Ten steps, on my mark!"
Wrath from the flamer nearly drowned out the captain, but the augmented voice was made to be heard over anything. "Mark!"
Each marine took ten steps. Their formation didn't warp so much as an inch. They kept spraying, and Sora swore he heard one man singing a monotonous hymn. He was soon joined by the others, who followed the rhythm with Latin verse punctuated only by the call of "Mark!" and the perfectly timed clank of metric steps. Soon, the horde of creatures began to dwindle. And before the trio knew it, they were standing in a field of dead locusts, on top of a humming piece of wreckage.
"We made it!" Sora fell to his knees and laughed despite himself. "I need to get to a doctor. Oh my gosh, I'm so-"
One of the marines ripped a panel off of the ship and gestured to the pilot, who set down his case and peeked inside as the auspex marine yelled, "Contact. East again. Moving faster."
The pilot shimmied out and back upright. "I'm going to need time to repair this, Brother-Captain."
"We will make you time, Brother-Pilot."
Sora jumped to his feet. "Wait, wait, wait. Why don't we just leave? I need to see a doctor!"
The pilot reached into the hollow that the panel had covered and began working with his hands while he explained.
"The reactor core is unstable. If it explodes, everything within a hundred kilometers will be destroyed, including the gene-seed."
Riku nodded and noted with some alarm that the marines were forming a box again. "Wouldn't that be a good reason to get out of here?"
"It will explode in five minutes."
The marine with the auspex corrected, "four minutes, ten seconds. And the contacts are two minutes out."
The captain pointed out four spots on the ground. "Shield projectors! Now!"
Cid finished reading and began his summary while his newest cigar set to work on its word-dodging game.
"Scenario three begins with-"
"A feast upon the Emperor's bastard children. I will have those genes one way or the other."
"Your foul dealings will be stopped, and your whore-spawn punished with the wrath of the God-Emperor for ever thinking to have left the void, forsaken creature!"
Leon and Aerith were still at it. And everyone who had tried to read the second symbol on the box had regretted it. Yuffie was banging her head against the wall, fighting a migraine, Merlin had a nosebleed, and Cloud was afraid to blink because of the things he was seeing when he closed his eyes. They were rooting for Aerith.
Cid rubbed his bloodshot eyes again and continued reading. "Squad Octavian is setting up four shield projectors so that the pilot can defuse the reactor core. Every turn, Aerith starts by rolling a die. If she doesn't get a four, five, or six in five turns, they all explode and die. The Tyranids have upgraded their forces to Genestealers."
The front door burst open, showering light into what was steadily becoming a very dark room.
Mickey, Donald, and Goofy stepped in.
"We came as soon as you called. What's the matter?"
Cid mumbled, "Just watch" as larger alien pieces with four arms shuffled their way onto the table from thin air.
Nothing could feasibly break the solid wall that the Space Marines formed. Of all the keybearers had seen, they knew this. No heartless could bear the sharp strength of even their reflection in the blue and perfect armor that the god-killers donned. Even the dust seemed fearful of them. Whatever creature dared to fight them would have to be stronger than myth, and faster, by far faster, than what flesh could achieve.
A vision of terror, to be exact. Ten of them, four armed creatures with legs that mocked a horses form mounted on a humanoid chassis, came charging across the ground, pounding, screaming in guttural and shrill tones in a cacophony designed to baffle the human senses. They moved too fast, agile enough to dodge the aim of even the Space Marines. And before anyone knew it, a fresh horde of them had arrived. The Astartes, their Bolters blazing the Emperors will, twitched in their armor as they sorted targets just fast enough to keep the creatures from reaching the shield projectors. Just fast enough, Sora thought, to stay alive. And then the moment came. A series of rapid clips and the call, "empty!"
A massive clip was handed over their heads by another marine so fast a blink would have missed it. Horror struck as the ammo ran low. But the Space Marines were not known for being short-sighted. The guns were slung to holsters just as they emptied and the roaring of engines was heard. The keybearers understood when they saw it, that they were about to be part of the fight.
Everything afterward happened in the course of two seconds.
The Space Marines lifted swords that roared like chain saws, teeth sweeping down and up the blades, and raised shields that they drew from their backs, blue, like their armor. The Genestealers tore the shield projectors apart with their bare hands the way the God-Emperor moves air. Effortless. Three keyblades appeared. And then the press. The mass of the horde had pushed the Astartes back, squeezing the box formation, but only for a moment. The men pushed back hard, their strikes swift and true, sending xenos blood through the air to paint the dust red. And then time resumed its usual pace.
"Step on my mark!"
And now they were about to open the box.
Everyone took a step down on the wreckage, and there were three keybearer sized gaps. Sora, Riku, and Kairi jumped in to meet their enemies head to head for the first time.
"So when two units come into contact, base to base, what happens?"
Cid flipped through an instruction manual, trying to answer Mickey's question, while Aerith and Leon rolled against each other for melee.
A Space Marine fell. His arm went first, the one that held his shield. A genestealer had grabbed it and tugged, pulling it off like cooked meat from a chicken. The marine kept swinging, beheading three beasts, flaying ten or so, and then lost a leg to another. His weight brought him down, and from there he continued to swing, but could no longer block them with his mass. Sora dropped his blade vertically, cracking a skull, and turned in time to see another beast hop over the fallen marine and sail through the air at him. He froze. Riku decapitated the thing mid flight and it deflected it with a shield spell, sending the body backward onto the waiting chainsword of the fallen marine. Gore frothed and lurched from the continuing wound and caked itself on everyone in the group, spraying Sora in the eyes and forcing the coppery scent into his nostrils and down his throat. More came. More died. He swung hard, left right, guarding Kairi, guarding himself, being saved by them in return countless times. An adrenaline high got the best of him then, and the fight continued through his red eyes until blood lust had been more than fulfilled. Sora was still swinging at phantoms conjured up by his shattered psyche when it was over. He crushed the skull of an already dead creature and trudged through its organs to the next one, raising the keyblade above his head. Kairi's hand on his shoulder stopped him. The thoughts of kill-or-be-killed left, and he simply stood there, feeling the lithe digits on his skin. He breathed and slowly kneeled to the scarlet mud where he wept. Even his tears looked like blood to him. He wanted to go home now. He was done with the game.
"It sickens me to see those beasts corrupting the very genes of the Emperor's people, twisting humanity into this trash." Captain Octavian was fine, except for his distaste of the xenos.
He kicked a small piece of what used to be a huge creature, and then gestured down the soaked wreckage to the blood that had made a moat around them. So much death, the hand of life withdrawing so very quickly; so little time. Time... Riku scrambled back to the top of the wreckage and peeked into the hole that the pilot was working in.
"How's it going?"
The pilot didn't answer, too busy clipping wires and flipping switches.
The marine with the auspex stepped up to the hole. In a tone that was unusually calm he rumbled, "Ten seconds."
Aerith turned her hand ever so slightly enough to let gravity have its way with the unsupported die. It fell, tumbling end over end and bounced off of the edge of the table. It rolled to a stop with six dots facing up. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief except Cid. "It only counts if it lands on the table."
Everyone tensed again as Aerith picked up the die. She made the sign of the aquila, mumbled a prayer of benediction, and dropped it again. It tumbled, it bounced, it rolled, it spinned, and it came to an almost dead stop at three. Almost... until it rolled onto four.
The pilot pulled himself out of the hole and set a glowing cylinder on top of the auspex. "hold that for me, brother."
The marine with the auspex chuckled. "Well done."
Kairi, Riku, and Sora, who had huddled together already, were feeling left out and pushed around at this point. Kairi wiped some blood from her face and asked, "what's next? How do we get out of here?"
Squad Octavian rounded on her, giants observing an odd ant.
Cid balked at the obviousness of the king's question. "What's next?"
King Mikey gestured him onward. "How does it end?"
Cid flipped to the last page and realized, "that was the last scenario."
Yuffie tilted her head. "Well that's a strange way to end a game. There isn't even an epilogue?"
"Eh... it says somethin' about building larger armies and coming up with new scenarios and new armies with your friends for a... 'a never ending game play experience.'"
King Mickey took a look at the back of the box before someone could stop him. "Yowzers!" He dropped it and began rubbing his eyes vigorously. "It's corrupted by the heartless! There has to be a way to get them out!"
Merlin shrugged. "I've tried everything, your majesty."
Mickey continued rubbing his eyes while he thought. "Whelp… It seems to me that the original makers of the game were not the heartless, and were not who ever's symbol is next to that. It also seems to me that no one but the Heartless and the others would make a game that's a trap. So it's safe to assume that the heartless changed the rules. So the key here would be to change it back."
Yuffie scratched her head and mumbled, "so he just needs to find the keyhole in the game? Just like in the Hundred Acre Wood?"
Mickey paused his rubbing. "Keyhole?"
Yuffie nodded. "You said the key was to change it back."
Mickey nodded and tried looking at her. "Oh. Well it's funny how much help a slip of the tongue can be. Yes. He probably needs to find a keyhole in the game world. If he can lock it, the game would be fixed."
They all turned to Cloud who had emerged from his own mind again. "Where in the game would the keyhole be?"
"What's next?" the Brother-Captain replied. "What's next, you ask?!"
Kairi nodded steadfastly; although she wasn't entirely brimming with confidence while she tilted her head all the way back to look up at the Space Marine's face.
"What's next is we defend the gene-seed, young mamzel. With our lives if we can."
"Until what? Don't you have a plan to take it somewhere?"
The Space Marines stared at her bluntly, all except for Brother-Captain Octavian, who took one massive step forward so that he blocked out the sun over her.
"My only plan is to defend the sacred gift of the Emperor until my brothers arrive and we cleanse Macragge of our enemies. We will accept nothing less than total victory!"
"Contact east again, sir. More Tyranids. Larger."
There were more dust clouds rising on the opposite horizon, telltale shrieking and gnashing heralding the arrival of another horde of Genestealers and Hormagaunts. But as they drew closer, more, larger shapes appeared behind them. And behind those, just far enough to seem like figments of the imagination... No. Nothing could be that big. Riku, Sora, and Kairi were slowly realizing that what they knew no longer applied in the 41st millennium. It hadn't yet dawned on them that in the grim darkness of the far future, there was no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.