by Jared Ornstead
aka Perfect Lionheart
At precisely midnight, a spell washed over the oceans, calling forth the dead who slept in watery graves to new action.
Thousands of ships, from ancient Etruscan galleys and Egyptian reed boats through the great galleons and caravels of the Age of Exploration, up through modern hulks of steel ships resting in chunks and pieces on the bottom.
So long as that ship's masters or crew had served evil, it didn't matter how old they were, or their condition, or what their country or nation of origin was. According to the ancient compact, they rose to serve again.
And, with supernatural speed, they all flowed to a single point.
Destroyers and pleasure cruisers of every description had flocked around these new neighbors to the Hawaiian islands. Virtually none of the coast guard or military personnel had believed a word out of that wild story told by the first contact destroyer, and the civilians were there doing what civilians in boats normally do, taking in the pleasure of new sights, boating around enjoying the show, and just generally relaxing in the pleasant aura of normalcy, with just enough odd to feel exciting.
All of that peaceful serenity was shattered with the arrival of the death hulks.
Tattered ghost ships of every description arrived with terrifying speed, disruption the midnight watches and partygoers. Undead ships sliced in and among those peaceful vessels, paying no heed as their heavy wakes tossed them about in great fear and consternation, though causing thankfully very few casualties.
The undead war host had no interest in the military or civilian ships. Their target was on the island ahead. And the undead ships beached on it, unconcerned over their own destruction, for they had met it once before. Keels shattered and ancient hulls crumpled on meeting the island's sand or rock, but it was too late. The undead war fleet had already done its business of delivering the massed horde of ghosts and undead in their holds.
An army of hundreds of thousands of undead of every description waded or floated ashore. Ghosts flying above skeletons. Banshees and specters rushing onto shore alongside of living shadows.
They'd no sooner hit land than Xander's walls flashed into existence, stopping easily ninety percent of their attackers - everything that did not have a special immunity to their walls in one form or another, basically. But where on previous turns, Xander's walls had merely stopped their foes, this time those walls had companions.
True to their plans, the walls that could stop armies stopped everything they could, which this time included all of the flying creatures as well. Hope's concerns about their enemies learning the holes in Xander's defenses had been well realized. The attacking horde represented every type of creature with ability to reach him, with a heavy emphasis on the flying ones, because, presumably, those were the most readily available.
Only this time flying didn't help their attackers to reach Xander.
Banded with those Stop Army Walls were the Life Giving ones, so a certain portion of that damage they would ordinarily do instead got channeled into extra health for him. But also those wall combos were acting in concert with the Cockatrices he'd summoned.
A Cockatrice destroys any creature it meets in combat, and thanks to the specific wording of the Banding ability it was as though the Cockatrices themselves were personally blocking each creature those walls did.
Hundreds of thousands of attackers turned to stone on those beaches and stopped there.
Flying attackers fell and shattered on the beaches, scattering new stones that would serve as pebbles and homes to new sea life as the tides dragged them back to form reefs, and slightly less than a tenth of the attacking force went on.
If that army had been anything but undead their morale would have been shattered in their first steps on that island, regardless of the special abilities of those that remained. But they pressed on uncaring, or perhaps merely unheeding of their comrades' demise.
All that was left had some special protections against Xander's walls, so it got met by other defenders.
Protection From White had formerly made a very strong showing against Xander. However that was before he'd acquired the mayor's air force, and the bunch of adrenaline junkies he'd gotten to fly it.
The angels had been busy recruiting, and forewarned by witches formerly of the mayor's employ, the air force had been ready. No sooner had those ships debarked upon the sand than fighters and biplanes strafed the beaches, pulverizing undead with their bullets, while bombers made runs dropping racks of explosive ordinance and loads of napalm and other nasty substances, shattering rocks and undead bodies indiscriminately - Accompanied by the mad cackling of the adrenaline junkies, finally able to live out their fantasies.
Not even half of the undead force that had survived the walls managed to wade through their own carnage on the beaches to enter the forest beyond.
And that was far from the end of their troubles.
Sophie's four sisters had all been empowered as Karmic Guides, each of whom brought a creature back from the dead as they entered play, and the creatures Xander had grieved most over had been his Ironroot Treefolk, who had loyally perished in desperate battle to spare his life, and they stood again in combat now.
Astonished folks in boats still tossed by wild wakes left by those crashed undead ships had been brought wholly aware by their emergency and looked with some astonishment as the trees on shore came alive, roots and branches lashing to take apart undead by the score, advancing through the horde of dead flesh like, well, animals attacking food.
Which, when you consider that plants consider undead just walking bags of fertilizer...
But that was not the end of the onlooker's surprise, as Amy had educated Xander some in nifty ways to take advantage of cards that have special advantages that take effect when they come into play, and one prime example of those was the Deranged Hermit.
When a Deranged Hermit is created it brings four squirrel tokens with it. But if that Hermit leaves play again nothing happens to those squirrels. They are tracked separate and leave play only according to the requirements of any other creature.
Ho hum, right? What did that matter?
Well, Xander had another card that turn called Arctic Merfolk, which when it entered play could return another creature you controlled to its owner's hand. By summoning the Arctic Merfolk and activating that ability, he could restore all four Deranged Hermits to card form, leaving Larry and his buddies in their original forms.
Then he could use those Deranged Hermit cards to transform them all over again, and this was the good part, doing so brought into existence another four squirrels apiece, leaving thirty-six squirrels in play under his control, all of them five-five creatures.
Better still, by combining the Arctic Merfolk with the Darting Merfolk he'd summoned earlier by transforming that cargo of tuna, he got a set of special abilities where he could summon and unsummon those merfolk as often as he had mana, and return other creatures to his hand each time. So he could call those Deranged Hermits into being as often as he liked, bringing a new set of enhanced squirrels with them each time.
Sadly, being short on blue mana, he'd only run that setup once. But next turn promised loads of possibilities for squirrel summoning on a fresh supply of mana.
Black Knights and other Protection From White creatures simply got obliterated as squirrels leapt from the trees and annihilated them. Onlookers watched in stunned surprise as trees thrashed the invaders, tiny squirrels tore hulking undead monstrosities limb from limb and seemingly ordinary bluebirds dived from out of the sky and all together did almost as much damage to the attackers as the amazing squirrels.
Sea Serpents also surfaced to snatch up whole regiments of undead into those massive jaws, crunching them like so much popcorn before they got out of reach of the water.
And then the Crawl Wurms and lions and antelopes and Grizzly Bears emerged from the leafy underbrush with a cacophony of roars, even the Birds of Paradise got involved in the counterattack, snatching off the odd skull here or there and dropping it out of reach as the other super powered animals slashed apart ranks of the undead troops.
Dragons strafed from above, hovering over the forest on beating wings while breathing fire down below. Gaea's Lieges attacked, wading into those invaders like a football linebacker attacking three year olds. The odd undead giant here or there even encountered a spare Cockatrice or three and froze midstep, immobile forevermore.
An invasion greater in scope than D-Day, and what emerged from that forest around the Elfhame Palace was merely a couple thousand undead, already reduced to a mere two percent of the original force.
What remained contained of a large number of monsters who could not be blocked by walls, the green and blue defenders having gutted the attacking army of every creature with Protection From White they could.
Angels then rose to the defense, and worked fearsome slaughter upon the enemy.
Few of invading corpses stumbled on.
What remained to reach the palace had special abilities to get them there. Some fragments of the force of Protection From White creatures that had survived the slaughter by aircraft and simply outnumbered the defenders in the forest, but mostly it was monsters who possessed the Fear ability, and living shadows as yet untouched by anything, that entered the lawns around their buildings.
Filigree Angels, themselves artifact creatures, played late by Xander on mannequins left over from Ethan's shop after all other artifacts he could play had been played in order to to get maximum use out of their ability to grant him three life for each artifact he controlled when they got summoned, had no emotions and thus were among the few things that could face the mind-bending horror of creatures with the Fear ability.
They did so, stopping the largest and most dangerous ones they could, leaving corpses of mighty monsters splayed out, motionless upon the lawn before the rest entered the tower where Xander stood.
Bianca, the former plush toy Barney, and now their purple-haired bunnygirl, wasn't very bright. When the creatures with Shadow broke through the last defenses the poor dear had just seen Star Wars with the gang, and simply snatched up the lightsaber Willow had rescued from Ethan's old shop, the one that was only light and couldn't cut anything.
Only her first, clumsy, well-intentioned swing proved that assumption wrong, as while it could not cut anything material, the blade of pure light proved perfectly able to cut through creatures made of shadow-stuff, just as cleanly and easily as anything it did in the movies.
Bianca then got cut down by hundreds of shadows descending on her all at once.
As the last vestiges of the once-mighty invasion force began to climb the stairs, there was nothing left that could stop them.
Looking out over this from the balcony in his room, Lady Elizabeth de Summers turned from the scene to where Xander stood surrounded by his core of loyal followers, none of whom could do anything to protect him from the mauling about to be delivered.
"It is time," she said simply, going to Xander's side and removing the phasor from the holster at his side as she kissed him goodbye. Meeting Willow's eyes, she said, "Take care of him for me. Now go."
Seeing the angels begin immediately to shuffle him out of the room and disappear up into the night sky, Buffy then activated the Bodyguard ability, where she began shining out as a beacon to all of the monsters seeking Xander, an irresistible siren's song where they could do nothing but follow the call, directing all of their violence towards her, like a flare drawing away a heat-seeking missile from the helpless aircraft it had originally been aimed for.
She raised the phasor and charged it only moments before slavering creatures out of nightmare burst into the room, despite their terrific losses representing enough power to have scoured England down to bedrock.
Taking aim at the mass, she fired.
"Someone doesn't like us," Cordy observed from Lady Summer's bedside, where they were visiting the regenerated bodyguard, who was convalescing from her ordeal of last night by laying in bed reading a magazine.
Regeneration was effective like that.
The object of her observation was the cloud of alien, insect creatures descending on their island.
"I take it they get alarmed when brand new players are able to remove a more established one," Sophie remarked, having just returned from visiting the regenerated Bianca, only the bunnygirl's experience of being restored from scattered scraps of flesh had thrown them far more curve balls than Buffy's had.
Specifically, Bianca now took up a hundred rooms at double occupancy. Something about the weird effects of mixing magic, but the bunnygirl responded to being regenerated a little TOO well!
A little bit like a starfish, but more so. Instead of every scrap of tissue joining together again into one person, each grew into a copy on its own. So now they had just a little over two hundred bunnygirls.
"You got that right," Harmony chimed in, in regards to the comment about other players in Xander's game being panicked over him having removed the Mayor. "I've been reading those records left by the Mayor for days, and his opinion of the major, established players was they all had a defensive mindset. All of the bold, risk-takers got removed long ago. So a balance shift like this one hasn't occurred in a long time. Do remember this game has been going on for eons - and apparently they don't like surprise new players who do well."
"What does that have to do with not liking new players?" Verity asked.
"The duration or the risk-taking?"
"The risk-taking." Lady Elizabeth put down her magazine to attend this conversation. She was still too weak to do much, but it was nothing a little bed rest wouldn't handle.
"Well, it's like this," Sophie answered on Harmony's behalf. "Spellcasters on Xander's scale are rare, almost unheard of outside of the game that produced him. So most of the players in this contest we got involved in are just leaders of lots and lots of monsters. Now, unlike us angels, when you send a monster out to attack somebody, that same monster is busy for a while, so it's not also available to defend you. So what happens when a bold, aggressive player sends out most or all of his monsters to attack somebody?"
"He's got little or no defense," Verity surmised after a brief analysis, correctly as it turned out.
"Exactly!" Sophie nodded her head, eyes still on the cloud of monster insects approaching their island. "Now in a two-player game, if my whole army attacks and beats up your army, we both are hurting and probably not doing so well, but it more or less equals out, you and I trading blows until one of us dies. But in a multiplayer game?"
Verity thought that over for a moment, before concluding, "The more players there are, the more a window of vulnerability would matter. If I send all of my monsters out on an attack, then anyone else could take a free swing at me, and the more other players there are, the more that would matter, as even small attacks would add up."
"And when there are dozens or hundreds of players?" Sophie probed.
Verity frowned, thinking that through. "Anybody who opened his defenses up like that would be annihilated. It wouldn't even take an all-out attack exposing you completely. Just a miscalculation, sending a couple of monsters too many, leaving you just a little too light on defense, and someone else could mob you, swamping your defenders to wipe you out."
"Only that player could then be wiped out by someone else," Sophie nodded. "Now think of a game on those terms, going on for hundreds, or even thousands of years."
Verity looked up, eyes brightening in understanding. "You'd be left only with players who took no risks at all, people who forted up and used most if not all of their armies to defend themselves, attacking only when there was no risk to doing so."
Lady Elizabeth snorted. "No wonder Xander's all-out angel attack surprised them."
Cordy, whose popularity games had a surprising similarity to something like this, interjected her own thoughts on the matter, "In a situation like we've got, everybody would be closely watching everyone else. No one person in this conflict could afford to take on all of their enemies on at once. If so, they'd win and be king, or whatever. So they'd spend all of their time sniping at each other, and watching out for alliances forming among their enemies. No, I can see how they wouldn't like surprises at all."
"But why would they even snipe?" Verity asked, innocently. "Wouldn't it be better to just keep everything on defense, all of the time?"
"It doesn't work like that," Cordy shook her head, golden brown hair flying. "When you swim with the sharks if you're not constantly attacking, you are seen as weak. Anything weak is vulnerable. Anything seen as vulnerable will have everyone else gang up on them. And if you have fifty enemies, each one of which can cut you down by say ten percent without undue risk to themselves, the only thing that would matter to you is making sure no ten join together, because they can annihilate you. So they'd spend literally all of their time probing at each other for weaknesses, because all you'd have to do is find one good weakness to prove an enemy is vulnerable, then everyone else will gang together to take them out. But you have to do it first, before they can do it to you, or you'll be the one torn apart."
She gave everyone a wry grimace. "High school social life works mostly the same."
"So why don't they get a bunch of friends together?" Verity once more asked innocently. "If they got a whole bunch of friends, they'd be stronger than anyone, right?"
"True demons don't really do the whole friendship deal," Sophie informed her, watching the front ranks of the bug horde fly into their walls and be annihilated, dropping as stones from out of the sky. Thankfully it was far enough out for the petrified remains to fall in the water at about the right spots to grow more coral reefs, which were always pretty. "At most, they can make alliances, but even then they never stop trying to dominate each other. It's like they're hardwired to only accept master/slave relationships. They can make temporary allies of convenience, but even among the ones that work out long term, they never stop looking to stab each other in the back. And the whole thing falls apart the moment they don't think they need each other to survive outside threats."
"That sounds like the Yama Kings," Harmony piped up. "From what I've been reading, the only thing they hate more than each other is everyone else. They are one of the longest established demon teams, but they never stop squabbling and scheming against each other. Against any outside threat they appear as solid as the Great Wall of China. But they keep their own armies and palaces and territories and everything separate, like their own little kingdoms that only band together against a common enemy. Even then, they are always trying to cheat each other in how much they contribute against common threats, hoping one of their allies takes worse losses than they, so they'll have an advantage over him. It's nearly gotten them killed a couple of times, according to the Mayor's notes."
"That's sounds pretty typical of demons, actually," Lady Elizabeth allowed.
Apparently, whoever ran these insect hordes didn't have much variety. Over a hundred thousand insect demons sent, yet nothing got past their walls.
Having an Island Sanctuary did not work out as well as they'd hoped.
Some things that would be near to impossible in a medieval style game environment are trivial in a modern setting. Renting a boat or plane to reach an island was so easy it barely even slowed their enemies down.
Of course, for certain powers, hijacking or stealing ships was even easier, as proved by the boatloads of goblins delivered the fourth night.
The toad demons of the night before had simply walked up out of the water, after having countless numbers eaten by sea serpents and slaughtered by merfolk, naturally.
Goblins can be a terrific force of destruction, laying waste to walls, enemy creatures, artifacts and frequently even land. Every once in a while, when they were not getting incinerated in lava, crushed by boulders, trounced by infantry, overrun by cavalry, pierced by archers or devoured by dragons, goblins experience moments of unmitigated glory in battle.
Today was not one of those days.
Ordinarily the sneaky little buggers would have been all over his island, turning up in the oddest places, getting into everything and mostly destroying it. However, nothing Xander had, excepting only himself, could be targeted. That meant the goblin digging teams could not find his walls to undermine them. Goblin vandals could not discover where he hid his artifacts to destroy those. And, yes, the goblins whose job it was to destroy his land could not seem to find that, either.
It would have been harder to believe if it were any other race, but goblins could be very, very stupid. In fact, they often struggled with the very simple concept of letting go of the grenade before it exploded. In fact, it could be argued that as many goblins had died because they could not grasp that high-yield explosives were not a melee weapon, as had been killed by any other race in combat.
It went without question that goblins killed more goblins than anyone else killed of goblins.
A race of natural born terrorists, suicidal violence were pretty much their watchword. They didn't care if they perished by droves, so long as they also took out their enemy. They used more types of artillery and war machines than virtually any other race, yet they didn't really care if those machines exploded, or they fired off a few goblins along with the ammo.
Goblin surgeons regard Doctor Frankenstein as conservative. Sewing together corpses of many slain goblins to get one working one was routine for them. The only challenge came from how much of their raw material had died in large explosions, or had to be sifted out of fresh piles of dragon dung.
Kooky mad science experiments were everywhere in a goblin horde. Goblins flew on homemade hang gliders, paper wings they flapped themselves, and other, less sturdy methods. Goblin dirigibles took to the air and war wagons rumbled across streets. Sleds of every description rolled down any sloped surface they could find, even skiing down roofs when nothing else was available.
Cavalry on goats and wolves, chariots pulled by pigs charged up the beaches, and every place you looked, some goblin had a huge keg of explosives strapped to him.
The race got used very much like modern armies used missiles. Sure, you point it at the enemy and expect it to do a terrific amount of damage, but you don't expect to get it back at the end of the day, either.
Flying attackers had done fairly well against Xander in previous turns, and it came as no surprise that these goblins showed up prepared to do a lot of it. Goblin Balloon Teams went aloft. However, the hot air balloon riders had altitude as their one edge in combat, and did not fare as well when the majority of the defenders they faced were also flying.
And this itself proved so distracting they almost missed a real thrust of the goblin attack.
Hidden in among the hordes who were to inevitably perish on his walls were a dozen or so magic battering rams, enchanted to destroy any magic wall they hit. In among the rest of the motley horde, armed with any number of other arcane or kooky devices of odd shapes and sizes, and shrouded by the chaos, noise and smoke of a goblin assault, they were practically invisible.
Being magically aware of the combat situation was the only thing that saved Xander, as if things had been allowed to follow their normal patterns, with his walls blocking everything they could block, those magic rams would have gone and encountered his walls - and destroyed every one of them.
Sure, he could have regenerated them, but that would still have left all of his walls tapped and unavailable until the next turn, popping his defenses open like a can of beans, leaving him vulnerable to every other attack from more than twenty other players.
That would have finished him then and there, unable to stop the overwhelming numbers of his opponents from swamping his paltry few hundred defending creatures.
Goblin war drums pounded as several of Xander's angels desperately rushed forward, breaking ranks and revealing their positions so they could eliminate those battering rams quickly, before the walls went off. A storm of fire, ooze, gunshots and arrows rose up to greet them, while bombs and rocks and other nasty stuff raised down on them from the goblin balloon brigades floating overhead, often detonating on their own goblin ranks below when they'd failed to hit the dodging angels.
Banking around dropped pots of vegetables and climbing over clouds of flung garbage, Cordy led the assault on those dreaded battering rams. She and the angels with her flew through a gauntlet of goblins in a scene eerily reminiscent of the one in Star Wars where X-Wings attacked the Death Star.
And for similar reasons - they had mere seconds to take out a threat before it destroyed all of their safety, obliterating the very people and cause they held most dear.
It was almost impossible to tell how many goblins there were in an assault as the disgusting creatures gave each other the same personal space typical of rats, meaning their teeming hordes would walk or run or climb over each other in preference to anything else, so they came almost as a solid mass of filthy, angry flesh, sprouting weapons.
But the angels could quite literally slaughter them by thousands, and thanks to the pinging, radar-like sense that Xander was able to convey to them, the last-second dangerous lunge to get those battering rams removed was successful, if costly.
As Cordy and her strike team withdrew, the goblin hordes had advanced nearly a half mile inland, burning all the trees and stripping vegetation of every green leaf, leaving only foul puddles of ash and puss behind. But the last bettering ram was gone and Xander's walls snapped into place, flash frying and annihilating the main goblin force, leaving only petrified statues behind.
Dirigibles and other flying machines turned to stone spontaneously fell out from the sky to shatter into unrecognizable bits as they met ground, pummeling the already ruined landscape with a rain of stone while statues of goblin war machines stood in mute testimony to the assault.
However, it was like stopping the tide. Halting it in one place only meant that it advanced in others. Goblin wizards had been used in preparation to this assault to grant vast numbers of the goblin hordes Protection From White, and other sources had even added Protection From Red and some Protection From Blue as well, and those hordes marched on while Xander's dragons circled overhead, unable to stop them.
Then the forest forces rose up to counterattack, gaining vengeance over the devastation of their beloved woodlands already ravaged in this assault. Fangs and claws, hooves and horns coupled with birds and branches met the assault and turned the ground wet with green goblin blood, until it became mud, then squishy with a swamp-like consistency to a depth of several feet as gallons of blood seemingly without end spilled across it.
Yet still the hordes marched on.
Right into the face of a force of very angry angels.
While it appeared at once this would be the end of that assault, as the green defenders had wiped out all their attackers that had Protection From White, hundreds of tunnels opened up simultaneously all over the island, spewing forth a whole fresh assault force and catching the defenders by surprise, goblin sappers having made large forces unblockable.
Lady Elizabeth de Winter calmly stepped forward, pushing Xander out of the way while activating her Bodyguard Beacon.
They would find her later, her torn and mangled body laying in a clearing she'd created, surrounded by fields and hills of goblin corpses, and a dozen empty phasor batteries. But mangled though she was, Xander was able to regenerate her.
However, just as they thought they were finally safe two hundred goblin grenades sprang out of concealment among the fields of corpses and leapt upon Xander. An infamous strategy where goblins with their mouths and body cavities stuffed full of explosives ran to suicide on their opponents. The suicide bombers caused him what would have been a thousand points of damage if the Urza's Armor didn't cut it down to a mere two-hundred.
"And what's worse," Xander wiped goopy green blood from his face with a handkerchief, looking out over the battlefield where mounds of corpses forming new hills surrounded puddles of green blood so wide and deep they qualified as small lakes, "Is that when goblins go to war, if the right enchantments are running in the background, every goblin who falls only gets sacrificed to make their controller stronger - the energy of their dying used to produce even more goblins than died, or worse effects."
Face now clean, he gave his girls a serious stare. "And I felt those enchantments running here."
Amy's eyes bugged wide. "So, no matter how many we killed here, now there are more?"
Sophie looked out over the fields of bodies. Corpses, blood and puss covered their island as far as the eye could see. In fact, that and the wreckage left by the assault were the only things visible. Even their buildings and towers had been buried by the mass of goblin bodies. "What concerns me now is the landscaping catastrophe this is. Because you know all that goblin blood can't be good for the soil."
Mercy nodded. "Yeah. You know if anything grows here, it will be twisted and evil somehow."
Skipping up behind them smirking with her tongue stuck impishly out, Harmony popped open the genie bottle of Mr. Clean.
They all stopped what they were doing to watch in awed astonishment.
Mr. Clean limped back to his bottle, gasping.
"Wow! He did it!" Harmony chimed, leaping into the air in delight, before staring in some concern toward the bottle. "But at the end, he looked so exhausted."
The others had no comment.
"What do you suppose he did with the bodies?" Sophie asked, praying for reality after the miracle of what Harmony had just accomplished.
"Marianas Trench." Xander answered shortly, also staring at the fields that were no longer buried under literal mountains of bodies, and not quite able to believe what he saw.
"How do you know?"
"Godzilla just came out of it, highly looking upset." Xander admitted. "I can sense it as a new, out-of-turn attack."
One of the sorceress queens they'd recruited from what was left over from the Mayor's forces simply pointed her wand, and seconds later they Greatest of All Kaiju had been reduced to the size and consistency of a plush doll.
"Oooh!" Harmony snatched up the new Godzilla plushy. "Lookit! He's so cute!" She skipped away, holding the shrunken monster. "I'm going to name you George, and hug you and squish you and love you and squeeze you..."
Sorceress Queens have the special power of tap to reduce target creature to a zero-two until end of turn.
They just couldn't use that against Xander when he was attacking the mayor, because none of Xander's creatures could be targeted.
Thanks for reading.