Green Glass

by Bryce

The Imperium of the Green Glass was destined to span ten worlds in the Ether of the Confederated Realms, and Ashley was to be the brains of its most famed and respected Lord Admiral of the Archipelago, rising to preeminence by first rescuing Ocean World from the abusive Devastators and laying the foundation for the Empire itself. Yet as she sat next to me directing my feeble attempts to get my computer operational, I wasn't sure if she even enjoyed computer games, and was hesitant to ask.

"Ah, you've got a WinModem," she reported.

"That's good, right? I mean, it's better than a LoseModem, right?"

She didn't even acknowledge that lame joke with an eye roll, but instead made a grab for the screwdriver and vengefully attacked my computer box. "We can do better..." she confided shyly as she pointed me to her purse.

Now, the fact that you could find a modem in Ashley's bag ought to tell you something. Not that I've not stuck a mouse or something in my own... Of course, if she knew I was telling you about this - or rather, ANYTHING about her, well she'd flip. But that's just how she is. Private.

She pried the green card out of the computer and flipped it up onto the table. I'd never seen her ever treat a piece of computer hardware so dismissively as she did that modem.

"Hey Ashley, ever played Belchfire?" I asked. "By WorldForge?" I clarified.

"Isn't that one of those Ultiver Quest type games?"

"Er, no, it's really a completely different style of game than Ultima Online or EverQuest." I continued as she sat back and booted up the machine. "Well, I suppose since it's got some similar stuff there's confusion there, but from what I've seen it's completely different. It's oriented more towards acting and story building than towards HAS and fedexing. Often, its the players themselves that drive the plots - not the server admins."

Ashley gave a non-committal, "huh," as she continued rummaging around inside that machine. Was she even listening?

Ashley was never the type to ask anyone for anything. Too much risk of being rejected, I guess. She preferred doing everything herself. Alone. Dragging her out of her shell was a full time job for me. Sometimes she didn't even know when she should ask questions. Hmph.

"HAS is 'hack and slash'," I explained, a tad annoyed, "It means just mindless killing of stuff. Fedexing is mindless repetitive quests, where you go to the king to get the order, head off to the witch in the mountains to get the potion, and bring it back, lather, rinse, and repeat."

Ashley paused for a moment, sat back and brushed a few strands of black hair aside as she considered thoughtfully. I thought for a moment that she might ask about what it was that made Belchfire work without the mindless drivel, and was anxious to fill her in.

"This Phillips is not working... could you hand me my socket wrench set?"

I glared.

"We can't play until the computer runs, Kristen." She smirked.

I beamed.

Without too much more struggle we got the machine on. A stream of Ashley-pleasing verbiage later, and we were online and checked out. Downloading and installing the core client took but a few minutes. I started it up and grinned as I saw recognition play across her face as the logo twinkled.

"Oh, this WorldForge..."

"Yeah."

"Cool, I heard about these guys."

I nodded.

"Wow, so you mean, they actually finished something?"

"Yeah!" I grinned. "It's cool, here check this out:"

I pointed her through the panes of the client display. I had used this client up 'til now only on Windows and was more than a little pleased at how equally responsive it was under Linux.

"So, why'd you want Linux so bad? You're really more of the Windows type, aren't you?"

It was a joke. Or really, a half-joke. She'd been asked a similar question at school by a guy she now endearingly referred to as "The Eunuch of Unix".

"It's no stunt. WorldForge is a quick moving target; every week there's something new. The core stuff - clients and such - get ported to Windows and pre-compiled into binaries pretty often, but the more useful but obscure stuff like editors, AI's, and such are released most often in source code form. Now, I know I could get a compiler for Windows, but it just really feels to me like Linux is a wonderful toolbox, with strange but powerful keys to unlock many puzzles."

"Okay, now what? What server do we log into?"

I grabbed the mouse and launched Mozilla. "First thing's first." I smiled as I entered www.worldforge.net. A display of several dozen servers popped up, showing rather impressive player loads.

"'The Hall of Heads'?" Grinned Ashley. "'Wormy's Sandbox Wargames'? Wow, there's a section on live roleplaying sessions too... All over the world!"

I nodded but maneuvered the mouse, "What we want is one of the 'Confederated Realms' games. Here, do a filter by Pact for 'Confederated Realms', then filter out any with AverageUptime of less than a week, and then sort by player base." Twelve worlds made it through the search...

"That 'Frontier Caverns' looks interesting, but this plain sounding 'Ocean World' one has some pretty impressive performance numbers. What is this 'Pact' thing? The banner ad on the last page said something about 'Scions of the Gloaming Pact'...?" Ashley clicked through the choices, madly absorbing the brochure-like pages describing the concept of different games, each one proclaiming 100% rule-compatibility with the other Confederated Realms games.

"Well, Pacts are associated servers that enter into contracts with one another and establish some loose links between themselves. At the very least, they back up all of each other's player databases, so if one of the servers goes belly up, your hard work isn't lost. In fact, your account is common across all of the servers - so points you earn on one server can be used on any of them. The one rule is that your account can only be active on one server at a time, which kind of sucks, but you can establish multiple accounts if you're really stuck on having AI's running on several servers. Some of the servers in a Pact (all of them, in the case of Confederated Realms) will let you load up your characters on them, so that you can be sure of having at least a few worlds to play on. In fact, you can take almost all of your equipment, any inventions or custom art you've created, scripts... pretty much the only thing you'd have to leave behind is the buildings and your knowledge of the world."

Ashley nodded, "I can imagine how servers must come and go, as the people running them get busy with school or whatnot."

"Mm hmm! And plus it lets us try out one server and work on our character there, and if it turns out to be too boring - or slow - or whatever - we can take the character to another server. I understand the server admins will use one or two of the servers as development machines, and as they get new entity exemplars tested out they can move them around to other servers. Players can do this too."

Ashley pursed her lips, "This all sounds cool, but it really seems easily abusable..."

"Anything powerful can be abused, as they say. Security comes from many people watching each others' backs. When a bug is discovered, the discoverer is allowed to exploit it for a bit, but had better turn in notice of it quick. If they don't turn in notice, well, then they risk the wrath of the server admin. Plus, if one of the server admins believes that any given feature is a security hazard he flips a switch and suddenly all of the servers in the Pact have that feature shut off. Part of being in a Pact is sharing out the administrative responsibilities, and taking advantage of other admin's security-consciousness."

"This Scions thing...?" Ashley prompted.

"'Scions of the Gloaming' is actually a commercial server system. All ten servers of that system are owned by a small company that provides really good tech support, quality control, and bandwidth. But you gotta pay $25 per month."

"Wow, that's a lot. But I guess you get what you pay for."

"Sure, and really if you think about it, online games are services more than products. So you pay for as much service as you need; those servers have quite a bit more polish and control than ones like this. Gloaming tends to get a bit fascist about roleplaying, though." I bit my tongue; I was a very strong roleplaying-promoter, but my 'proclivity to excessively visit in anachronistic ways' got me invited out. Ashley didn't need to know about that.

I moved aside and offered to let Ashley try out the character generation. "I already have a character," I explained straightfaced.

Ashley narrowed her eyes at me suspiciously: "You're just trying to get me addicted. But you'll fail. No one knows my plan." She giggled.

"Um, sure." I laughed with her as we started poring over the options and numbers. Character generation was pretty easy; if you were in a hurry you could generate a complete character in under 15 minutes. But what fun is that? Ashley and I spent hours speculating on Darial's background, bantering about which of the skills actually would be useful, and plotting out different schemes we could work up.

"Well, call me a girl with a crown and a scepter, but I think we're done." Ashley sucked in her breath and looked me right in the eyes. "Give me fifteen minutes to run home and log in, and then we can both play!"

***

We lost eleven shades of tan and gained about 30 wpm over the next few months playing Darial and Ginnia. Ocean World's vast aqua-system centered on the precious lands of the Archipelago, an extended family of islands, reefs and atolls strewn like grain across a blue blanket. Grottos and kelp-beds on the shallow seafloor hid submarine cities and vast forests of seaweed. And even the skies bore life, thanks to some idiot trailing blimps across the sky.

We had found an ancient galleon secreted away and forgotten in the bowels of a mossy sea-cave, and after enticing it forth back onto the open ocean and hiring a crew, we were in business. With me as Ginnia the first mate, we terrorized the seas. Well, okay, we mostly ferried adventurers from island to island in search of adventure and loot.

It was on the remote and distant Skelros Isle in the eerily misty morning that the Oath was first spoken. We had been employed by a group of three independent adventuring parties to ferry them to this newly discovered land. The three groups had been initially wary and suspicious of each other; one can imagine the concern they had about rivalry leading to dishonorable treachery. Thus the need for an Agreement was recognized the moment foot was set on our ship. During the long voyage the parties came to know and appreciate one another, and so by the time the ship reached the distant land, the agreement had evolved from a simple non-aggression compact into a sophisticated charter with provisions promoting common camps, establishing requirements for cooperative mutual defense and outlining procedures for resolving disputes and reaching decisions.

"May this agreement ensure the everlasting safety of the fair Archipelago," the leader known as Wigglespike proclaimed.

"Hear hear," cried forth Bucksthorn, the leader of the dwarven party. "Agreed!" assented Yeenu, a rogue half-elf and leader of the six man mercenary band known as the Demon Lancers (due to a victory over something none of us wished to know more about.)

These codes and principles benefited the collaborating groups soon after pledging their oaths, as the isle was filled with a very aggressive orc tribe, which adopted a tendency towards mass retaliation. When the primary orc den was discovered, the groups orchestrated a clever coordinated strategy. The smallest party conducted a frontal assault on the den and fell back, their flight luring the orcs into a chase - straight into an ambush by the second party, who were stationed in trees and atop boulders. Meanwhile the third party infiltrated the orc lair and secured it, and when the ambushed orcs retreated home for safety they were cut to ribbons.

Hidden deep in the recesses of the lair, in the catacombs where the tribe interred their ancestors was found a massive emerald mirror installed atop a delicate throne built from the leg bones and skulls of long dead elves. The function of the mirror was to emit a ray of weakness, on command, but this we would not learn until much later. In fact, that it was emerald and not just plain green glass was not even recognized immediately. So on completion of the quest the adventurers resolved to mount the mirror in the bow of our ship, thereby rechristianing the ship as "The Green Glass".

On return to the mainland, one of the craftsmen from the crew fashioned a set of green glass medallions replicating the mirror in miniature, each etched with the words of the Oath, to remind the parties of their bond, and to serve as a token of their achievements. It turned out that this small action would have profound and long reaching consequences in bonding warriors to a common cause.

***

Subsequently, Ashley and I, or rather, Darial and Ginnia, went on to lead other similar expeditions, to other islands, and on a few cases, with the express permission of Jademancer (the server administrator), to other game servers within the Confederated Realms.

Jade emphasized that she and the other server operators had some concerns: "When we established the interlinks we took time to carefully balance the resources on each server; if one world had a deficit of a certain material, then its economy would surely go crazy when people from other servers start bringing the resources from other lands. So far it's worked fairly well - each world's economy is independent of the others and things seem pretty stable."

So we took care to make sure any equipment brought from one world to another, returned whence it came.

But things change, and we were soon to get a full helping of it.

Jade's love was ecology; she spent an incredible amount of effort tweaking and optimizing, almost to a fault. Every time she made a change to the porpoises, sharks, or whales it was the same: Ashley, figuring the changes were intended to put an end to some undesirable behavior of ours, insisted we investigate the cause of the change (why we couldn't just ask Jade directly I'll never know). I suppose it taught us a lot about how the world's ecology worked, but you can imagine how relieved I was to hear that Jade was going out of town for a couple weeks.

They probably started the minute she left but no one really noticed until their nefarious deeds were done. They called themselves the Devastators, and for some unfathomable reason had taken on the duty of ruining Jade's carefully constructed ecology.

They started with the livestock. Now, in real life, a group of people going around and slaughtering every sheep, chicken, and steer would attract attention, but let's just say that due to the mindset ingrained by certain other games, this was not exactly anything novel. Normally the evildoers realized that there was no gain from killing barnyard animals and wouldn't bother. These guys persisted and eventually exterminated all three species entirely, without registering a bit of curiosity in others as to their intentions. Then they turned their attention to the fields, setting light to one after another, turning essentially our entire agricultural system to ash. Now, this activity did attract attention. A lot of attention.

One thing I have to give credit to the Devastators for, they were well prepared and very well organized. Evidently they'd played on the server for quite some time, as they had amassed a virtual army of NPC's - five hundred at the least. The first few adventuring groups to focus on these ecological terrorists met stiff resistance and were slaughtered mercilessly. By the end of the first week of Jade's absence it had become crystal clear that the whole game world - OUR game world, was in deep, deep trouble.

I started when the rap came to the front door. My roommate Erin answered it and showed Ashley in. I bit back a lump in my throat as she quietly and grimly took a seat on the ancient couch near the computer. Ashley's eyes held to the ground until Erin left.

I watched my hands lift the glass of water, shaking and raw. The water was tepid, but rinsed out the lump.

"Ginnia is starving. There's no food. None, I've been looking for hours. No one will sell anything." I paused to stiffen my lip. I think I failed, with a pleading, "Why? It's so calculated, and cruel... What did we do?"

Ashley nudged my arm. "Kristen, it's time to plan. We need to..." She trailed off as Erin was drawn back to the room. Uncomfortable, Ashley retreated into the folds of her jacket, waiting furtively for Erin to leave.

"You're not getting all emotional over that game, are you?" Erin tormented us. Ashley kept her eyes on the floor while mine smoldered.

A heat of sorts built up deep in my chest, burning away the lump. "You have no idea, Erin, you cannot understand. There are people there. A community of people, all over the world. We have been working on building the Archipelago for almost a year now. We do it merely for the love of doing it, and the hopes that one day someone would come and just appreciate the world we've built. And now these assholes are ripping it to pieces and trashing it, without a care. It would be bad enough if they were killing for the sport of it, but these guys are being so goddamn coldly systematic about it. They know exactly what they're doing, and there's NO sport in it at all. It's just wanton destruction, beyond all sense of fair game, Erin."

Erin smirked. "Get a grip, life ain't fair. And then you die. Or starve." She snickered. "Well I am going out. With a community of real people. And then I'm going to appreciate the real world, and then I'm going to go to dinner and eat all I wish. You girls are welcome to c... ah yes we couldn't have you along," she looked straight at Ashley, "You're too geeky." And then at me, "And not 'shallow' enough for us."

She departed before I could untangle my tongue to issue an appropriate retort, so I issued a few at the already battered door. Erin was exasperating. "Roommates suck. I can't believe how..."

Ashley interrupted: "Kristen. We need to plan. We need to take action quickly."

I nodded and we huddled as we shared a conspiratorial whisper.

***

I could almost feel the gnawing hunger in my own belly as I watched Ginnia's fatigue counter increment. Each of the periodic spikes on her pain register elicited a wince from me. "Hold on Ginnia, hold on. Just one more day." The thought of her starving unnerved me. "I hope."

Ginnia stood resolutely at the helm of the Gilded Hornet and spun the oaken wheel to ease the ship to dock at the northernmost town of the Isle of Ythlay, known as Port Cloudcliff, due to the town's precipitous location embracing the side of the massive fjord walls. Darial guided the Green Glass into the next berth over.

The lower part of the town was built atop the rising and falling wooden piers, anchored to a narrow earthen quay. Perhaps two score buildings occupied the under-town, and another dozen or so hid in the cracks of the walls in the cliff above.

With a sudden shout, Darial lifted his sword and pointed to the cliff-hold. "Take the cliffs!" He shouted. Both of us knew that the warriors would have a hard time of it ascending the ropes and ladders when so hungry, but it must be done.

Like streams of ink the hundred warriors slithered up the side of the cliff and into the dank smokeries and storerooms. Townspeople emerged from their shacks and looked up at the cliffs, quietly surprised.

Darial, dressed in a long flowing black leather jacket, his pony tail clad with silver rings, approached one of the men. "We do not mean to rob you; it is our purpose to rid these lands of those who defile it and return the sense of balance to the ecosystem. Your sacrifice is to..."

The man laughed. "Oh n'er the mind, there's no fish up there anymore. We sold them all to the army a couple days ago. Quite a profit, too, I might add."

"Ah... I was afraid of this. Dammit." Darial pursed his lips and thought.

Ginnia was stunned. "We must retreat then...? Again?"

Darial shook his head. "We are committed; the dice have been thrown. We will only grow weaker the longer we wait. We will rest here tonight, and tomorrow we will scale the cliffs and then descend upon the invaders."

The men returned from the cliffs, acknowledging the absence of food. "Alas, yonder caches stand void of piscine nourishment," the one known as Wigglespike confirmed.

Darial, Ginnia, Bucksthorne, Norgle Lar, Yeenu, Wigglespike, Silent Dan, and Mongomery Fort conferred as Miziath Varran and Jana Lenn looked on cooly.

Monty grinned, "Well, that settles it. Time to whip bum and jaw some gum, and we're clean out of..."

"We're so frelling dead," Dan interrupted, "Why should we even bother? I mean, these guys are just looking to get a reaction out of us, and we're just going to fall right into their trap."

Wigglespike nodded solemnly. "Let's not give those dren-sucking criminals the pleasure of our deaths..."

Dan interjected, "If we died at their hands it would just be wrong, we need to think of our honor. We've all taken the Oath (well, except for Varran and his pet over there). We should do as Darial says of course, but you know what I think."

Wigglespike continued, "...On the morrow we can cast ourselves from the cliffs above and perish, if not nobly, than at the least of our own accord."

"Yes." Dan added, "It has been a joy adventuring with all of you, and I hope in the next life we meet again."

"I too have enjoyed being part of this company and wish you all the best of luck." Bucksthorne said.

"Until the next time," Norgle rejoined, tipping his hat to Darial as his shoulders sagged.

Jana walked to the front of the assemblage, and with a single "Hsst!" suddenly silenced the rabble. All vision turned to her, which she returned with slit-narrowed eyes, her marble-chiseled face taking three passing gazes over the crowed, professionally arrogating all attention, and then, with a casual flick of her ivory chin and haughty eyes sent it to her liege lord.

Miziath Varran grinned at his erstwhile adversaries, clucked, and shook his head as he stepped forward. "Fools. You are utter fools. And I too am a fool - for having affiliated with this little venture, trusting in Darial's claims of having a plan I assumed to be more audacious than it appears to be. I'd anticipated slightly more intelligence from you. Too used to facing competent adventurers, such as the Delvers or Unar's Hammer, I suppose.

Shame on me.

"Listen, these invaders clearly are not here because they want to annoy us. They don't give a shrimp shell about us. Look at how quiet and methodically they go about their work. No, I tell you these guys have a purpose: To drive all of us away. Whether it is through starvation, frustration, or fear does not matter. Why do they do this? Who can say. Perhaps they wish to take the world over for themselves. Perhaps it is a challenge. Perhaps... Well speculation is endless.

"Protesting by quitting is not the answer; it will achieve nothing except what they already wish. No one will even notice that you quit. On the other hand, the good guys will notice if you spend every last dying breath fighting for the Cause, even in face of inevitable defeat. This of course does not mean you should throw yourselves at your enemy en masse. Pick your battles. Oh, and Plan." Miziath Varran glared at Darial.

"I do not know why I bothered to accept Captain Darial's request to join. I had thought mayhaps he had some clever ploy in mind to squeeze from me my knowledge of operation of the Green Glass to save the day, and personally I had every intent to scheme away the glass. But the foe stands atop the cliffs, well away from the path of the glass, assuming of course it even has a range that far, which presently none of us can know."

Miziath paused, studying Darial's face. Darial stood leaning against the stone wall of the wharfmaster's quarters, a faint smile and a far-away gaze occupying his face.

"What in the hell are you smirking at?" Miziath demanded.

Without shifting his eyesight, Darial simply spoke, "First silence yourselves and listen. Then turn about."

With the commotion quieted, a faint "Thwump..... thwump...." could be made out. The group turned to see.

Looking down, beyond the quay, across the waters between the shear bluffs rising on either side of the long, curving fjord, they watched a string of leather-tan dirigibles steadfastly cut through the wispy mist like pearls on a long necklace. Massive counter-rotating blades the size of windmills pulled the airships along, each rotation sending a sound-pulse: "Thwump... thwump..."

It was Quentin.

Erupting in cheers, the soldiers quickly prepared ground and roof for the vessels to dock. Within half an hour the two dozen vessels had set their mooring lines and begun unshipping their loads of foodstuffs to the appreciative crowds.

The largest of the ships, the "Audionaut", dropped a ramp to one of the port's buildings, and a dark blue cloaked figure strode forth. "Well met friends of the Green Glass!" He bellowed to the gathered men below. A cheer returned his greeting.

As the ships unloaded, Quentin descended and joined the men and women. Ginnia prompted, "How much weight can your ship there lift?"

He cocked his head, "Well what do you want to lift?"

Immediately, as if on cue, fifteen people turned and speared out their arms towards Darial's ship. "THAT!" they proclaimed, grinning madly and pointing directly to the Green Glass mounted on its front. The possibilities suddenly dawned on everyone, who erupted in a chorus of ideas.

Quentin laughed as Darial winked. "That's the plan, folks." He bowed to Quentin, "In exchange for services rendered, one Green Glass."

Miziath Varran, too, let out an expression of approval. "Clever, Darial, very clever." He smiled. "Quentin will of course require the command word, which appears to be where I come in, eh? I require just one thing."

Darial grimaced, thinking back to the many, many times he and the rest of the Green Glassers had battled Varran, more often than not over some scheme of his to acquire the Glass and use it for one nefarious end or another. "Well then?"

"Simple: I want to command the vessel that carries the device." He elaborated: "I'll return it to you on completion of the battle, should we survive. But I have lusted after this artifact for so long, I long to use it in battle at least once."

The rest of the crowd had silenced to hear the negotiation, and at this point erupted in protest. At this, Jana took an aggressive step forward, her hand on her sword hilt. "Hsst!"

She narrowed her eyes again. "Miziath has spoken his terms. They are fair and non-negotiable. We are wasting time we could use to eat and sleep, and prepare for tomorrow's battle. Get to work."

Well, that settled that. Darial clapped his hands, "All right, get to it." He turned to Miziath. "Quentin will accompany you of course, it is his ship."

***

A deep rumbling rush of air flowed around the vessels as they silently ascended up the sheer cliffs, passing through thin layers of mist. On clearing the ridge, the balloons immediately ejected their cargoes. Two hundred and fifty men and women leapt forth from the gondolas of the many vessels to take the ground by foot, immediately drawing forth their blades, prepared for danger. Lightened, the airships rose even faster as their captains hurried to let out sufficient air to slow them to a hover.

Falling into line, the army prepared for battle. Darial and his battle-hardened henchmen and allies took the lead in the first rank. The faint morning air glistened off their leather capes and leggings as they strode forth across the mist-painted slopes of the ridgetop, picking up the pace as they neared the depression where the enemy was expected to be enclosed.

A cry rang out. "Enemy ho!" Suddenly scores of blades snapped into place, the razor-sharp oars of the shark's arching mouth. The line paused at the lip of the depression, waiting for the order. From somewhere, an ancient Viking battle chant issued forth, to quickly be taken up by the remainder of the warriors: "Dai ay... HO! Tai ay... HO! O ree hee. O ro ho."

The mist of the depressed land was thick, and swirled amongst the footfalls of the army. Rising silently like prehistoric fish emerging from a fetid swamp, the enemy revealed itself... three hundred dark heads bearing spear and shortsword, two hundred archers to their rear, and Unar only knew what else was hidden in the folds of the steam-covered grounds.

An eternity passed in silence as the two ranks faced off, slowly eyeing each other as the wind rippled their standards and cast the scent of fear off to dissipate across the sea.

Suddenly Darial shouted. "Victory or death!!"

A pause. Then: "V I C T O R Y O R D E A T H ! ! !" echoed forth nearly inhumanly across the concave plain.

From the airships above, a deep cadence thundered down, the thumping of oak drums the size of elephants stirring the souls assembled on the battlefield. "BOOM... dum dum, BOOM... dum dum."

The lines of the enemy slayers shuffled a bit but held. And waited. As if with second thoughts, they took a short step back... then advanced, slowly, then stopped. A rank of one hundred drew their bows and waited for the order, counting down seconds until the optimal range to lance the enemy with certain death. The sinews of the bows creaked and whined as they readied themselves.

But silently, a great, leather-tanned, rounded form appeared on their flank, unbeknownst and unseen. A spark of green reflection almost betrayed its nature, but before any could react, a remorseless beam of green energy sliced forth. Ecstatically it darted into the ranks, then out, then quickly danced across the archers and behind, then out again. It repeated, remorselessly... unforgivingly. Men caved to their knees, not injured, but severely weakened. The archers were thrown off and their arrows shot askew, harming only an unlucky few.

They were scared. But only for a brief moment; that was all that was allowed.

The cry rang out and the advancing army broke into a brash charge. Steel screamed through the air. Blades sung their Butcher's Song.

The front two ranks of warriors clashed as they engaged. At first the clang of sword on sword dominated, but was quickly replaced with heartwrenching groans and yells. Suddenly frightening cries of pain and death took over, as the battle descended into the horror of gore and death that no amount of glorific writing can hide. Like golden twigs caught flame, men and women whose lives had been rich with adventure and story were snuffed out, brought to an end by uncaring bits of wood and metal.

Yet their will persisted.

After a time the foe's ranks disintegrated, men backing away from the line, then gathering themselves and turning to flee. Most without weapons, they instinctually sought safety, struggling through the mist. Without warning a green blade of light played again across their scattered forms, sending chill and weakness to take hold deep within their bones. They ignored it; it weakened but did not kill - surely they could still run.

With a flash their doom was unexpectedly revealed. At the narrow end of the depression stood a single, black leathered woman, her long hair firmly tied behind her, and her eyes darkened for death. She shifted her weight from left to right and heaved up her blade, ready to reap the waves of fleeing warriors. Slowly Jana Lenn grinned, as Death himself appeared at the ready behind her. She said not a word.

Silence seemed to wash over the fields, then in the distance the deep drums began their tribal rhythm. The simple pattern intertwined with a pulsating thunder. Jana's blade lifted... then swung... and swung, explosions of red rain fountaining above her. She was the Anvil, upon which her Hammer compatriots slammed down the weakened enemy. "Bring them... faster..." she gasped to no one but the soon-dead men, as her blade slew forth.

Shortly, the battle was complete.

***

"There we go, I've got their IP's in the global ban list. Fret not, and fare thee well, I shall see you are safe from these urchins on any world of the Confederated Realms." Quentin grinned.

I nodded back solemnly. Ginnia had not survived the battle, sadly, although our army had won the day. Darial, Varran, and of course Jana were the real heroes of the victory, but, interestingly, Varran and his cohort had absconded with the Green Glass as soon as the battle was complete. Predictable. Well, whatever they'd done with Quentin-the-Airship-Captain we'd yet to determine, but Quentin-the-Real-Person assured us it was unpleasant and traitorial, but not too sociopathic. A quest for another day.

I was a little pissed that he hadn't just gone ahead and banned their asses straight away, before the battle, but Quentin was steadfast in his position: "There'd be no sport in that position, plus what a plot hole that would leave!"

"So are we actually safe from guys like those returning?" I asked, a bit bitter.

"Well, those particular guys are going to have a tough time getting back; they've been banned. I'm sure they could get a new ISP and relog in as someone else, but hopefully the path of least resistance will be for them to find some other game server," Quentin said.

Ashley added, "Well, that'll be tough; most every Belchfire server subscribes to the ban lists."

"True, but there are always a few servers that follow the principle of allowing anyone on and anything to go. Anyway, they won't be the last troublemakers. Obviously some other solution is needed." Quentin shrugged.

We had also tried pleading with him to restore the ecological balance disrupted by the abusers, but to his credit he resisted our will. "This server has a delicately assembled ecosystem; I shan't try to play god with it." He allowed no further argument. "Good luck, my friends, the battle you just finished was nothing compared to the struggle still ahead of you." And with that he and his marvelous balloons departed into the skies and off to other lands, leaving us to our fretting. Well, who said playing a game was supposed to be easy?

***

Captain Darial spread the weatherworn parchment across the table and stabbed it with his finger. "There, the Crypts of Ulster, half drowned during the War of the Ocean Mages. We can use these as fish hatcheries and protected spawning grounds. This server is programmed to model fish-shark ecology; we'll reweight the parameters to our own ends!"

Only a day had passed since the Battle of Cloudcliff. The struggle that Quentin identified, was now facing the inhabitants of Ocean World square in the face. Or, rather, the belly. The only meat-providing species left unravaged was fish. In fact, due to this world's many fjords and islands, realistically fish should be extremely plentiful. In fact they were not. Why would a game server operator wish to dedicate so much of the machine's limited resources to supporting moving fish schools around, and modeling their behaviors? Jade didn't. Thus, locating these sparsely distributed schools was a challenging job, and the labor and cost involved quite high. (Thus our prior dependence on the now-extinct cattle and sheep.)

But Ashley had recognized the potential. If the fish could be *farmed*, the amount of food that would be available was astounding. Already, Darial had organized the weaving of massive nets, to be used to drive the fish into the fjords to trap them for easy harvesting. Intensive breeding programs were being planned. Little did we know that we were building a foundations that would one day turn Ocean World into the leading producer of preserved meats.

Basically, the idea was, by destroying the sharks and other creatures that preyed on the fish schools, we could reserve the fish for human consumption.

"But the Crypts are filled with monsters," countered Monty Fort.

Silent Dan quickly countered, "So then we'll have to clear it out the old fashioned way!" He grinned madly, rising quickly from his cot, then wincing in pain. "Or, rather, we'll have to hire an adventuring party less beat up than us to go clear it."

I grinned. Now I knew what my next character would be and do. Then I paused, "Hmm, I have enough points to make several characters..."

***

Ashley stood up from my computer and grinned. "You're all set with DSL now. And boy, am I jealous."

Over the past month, while Ashley had been solidifying Darial's power and establishing an organized government to manage the fish breederies and guard against the return of other Devastators, I had been industriously building my own little platoon of willing servants. We had investigated the tricks used by the Devastators and found out how they'd been able to assemble such a large army. We duplicated them for ourselves. Really there were only three guys (as in, real life humans) behind the army. They had adventured in the world long enough to build up a trio of charismatic leaders. Then, over a long period of time, they had slowly registered additional accounts, until they had hundreds, each with one NPC attached. At the appropriate time they assigned each NPC what we came to call an "obedience" script - a program that makes them obey the preidentified leader unquestioningly. The NPC's operated on the main server, so that there appeared to be only one character being run from the player's IP address, yet each player had hundreds of remotely managed NPCs at their disposal.

Jade and Quentin and a bunch of programmers were apparently looking into this. In the meantime, we decided to take a more Darwinian approach, by fighting fire with fire. We used the exact same techniques (multiplied by several hundred allied players) to assemble a huge force of loyal non-player guardsmen and soldiers, each sworn to an oath to follow "The Emperor of the Green Glass", yet another non-player character whom several of us designed and wrote over a couple of weekends using Cyphesis and some AI scripts we'd picked up from off the net. We designed him to obey the will of a committee of advisors (us), and included a delegation mechanism to give temporary power to respected player characters. Darial was named Lord High Admiral and given military command of most of the army.

Not only did we find the abusers suddenly turned into a source of great adventure and amusement, we were able to establish strong governmental control over our game world. Trouble brewed on other servers in the cluster, and at the request of the denizens of those other realms, the Imperium of the Green Glass began to extend the reach of its influence and control. The massive wars that were to come greatly eclipsed that first original battle atop Cloudcliff, although the first was fought by real people (so to speak) and was most the most romanticized and highly spoken of.

Of course, to control all these artificial personas we needed computers with decent bandwidth to manage the communications, and a dedicated server to correlate the information collected by the scouts and spies, and orchestrate the activities of all the guards and soldiers. And that's where me and my DSL came in.

Ashley looked up and silenced her chatting as Erin arrogantly walked into the room.

"Still playing with that... computer game, are you?" She narrowed her eyes at Ashley, as if to brand her forever with the label "geek", and drive her back into her shell. My jaw dropped when Ashley broke character and instead stood up, altogether defiantly. She walked over to Erin and stared her straight in the face.

I couldn't help but grin as I watched the play of emotion run over Erin's face - I even saw fear pass across her brow as she took a step backwards! But, at just the right moment, Ashley seemed to detect just the right wisp of thought in Erin's head, and she quickly grabbed it:

"Now that you have such impressive bandwidth, would you mind joining us in an important quest?"

Because, as you surely have guessed, it was time for us to hunt down Miziath and recover the Green Glass. Of course, that is yet another story, one which turned out much differently than you'd think!