Two sets of eyes stared down at the chequered surface dividing them; one pair steady, the other incredulous. Both were fixed upon the same object—an innocent cobalt figurine standing triumphant in the middle of one square, with splintered iron shards of its former occupant strewn around. Individual fragments had been scattered all over; a few happening to strike incidental pieces situated nearby. Some wobbled tentatively, but otherwise managed to remain upright. A handful of pawns—some blue; some grey—shattered as they hit the board, gradually fading from sight.
A similar fate awaited this iron figurine. Originally a lifelike facsimile of an armour-plated bear; a crack had split the statuette clean in two, separating its ravening maw from a trunk-like neck. The statue’s head had fallen to land right side up on the board, expression still frozen in a vicious snarl. Already it was becoming slightly more indistinct; less substantial. In another moment or so it would be gone, with nothing remaining to mark its passing.
Well, not quite nothing—the lingering effects of that one statue’s downfall still persisted, like aftershocks following an earth tremor. Here and there, figurines sporting the same featureless grey shook and clattered in agitation. One or two vanished from sight entirely, removing themselves from the game. Others vibrated and somehow managed to turn themselves inside out; their coats of grey leaking away like water down a drain, revealing uniform shades of deep blue. Spots of azure blossomed all over the chessboard, shooting up like flowers after a rainstorm even as clusters of grey receded and withdrew.
The players might as well have been statues themselves, from the way each was studying the other. Both were hulking, burly figures adorned with the accoutrements of war. The gleam of plate armour could be seen on both, catching the light of the torches. But here the resemblance ended. One of the pair appeared to be a blue furred werewolf; dressed in mountain fashion—kilt and sporran, with a weapon belt strapped bandolier fashion across his broad chest. His opponent seemed to favour the more conventional medium of full-plate; resembling a walking weapons factory. Armour fenced him from top to toe; an effective mix of jangling chain mail and plate. The head emerging from that fortress of metal was that of a lion’s; its mane obscuring part of his attire. For a moment, neither spoke.
“That’s a do-over. Take back that move.” Faust spoke at last, fiery outrage in his eyes betraying otherwise measured tones. Fingers curled and unclenched; longing to wrap round the haft of that outsize halberd propped up against his chair.
“Not likely,” Fenris folded brawny arms across his chest. “It won fair and square.”
“Fair?” lion claws gouged scratches into the table’s surface. “You call this fair? I insist on a replay. You had help on that last move. If not for the brat…”
Illicor stuck out a pink tongue at him; trusting to the safety of the wolf’s immovable bulk. Alternating between pulling faces at Faust and grinning, the jackal child kept nudging at a blue-furred hand; efforts rewarded at last as Fenris idly indulged his erstwhile ally, tickling that sensitive spot just behind the ears. “Oh, stop being a sore loser. The move stands…unless you want to surrender?”
Faust spat a leonine curse. “You had help!”
His rival shrugged. “There’s no rule against watchers offering their opinions. Nothing’s stopping someone else from telling you where to move—if you wanted to take their advice, that is.”
Flat, yellow eyes swivelled in the little jackal’s direction. “So that’s how it is. You turn against your master; Horseman?”
“I tried to help. You didn’t listen,” Illicor twitched his ears, eyes half-shut in bliss beneath the attentive ministrations of a grudging paw. “And I’ve no master.”
Snarling an oath, Faust rapped the chessboard with one meaty fist, making its pieces rattle and jump. “Hear him! This is the creature you choose to ally with—someone who forswears vows and blood-kin? What’s to stop him turning on you when something else catches his fancy?”
“I’ll take my chances. Your Champion is down. Do you concede?”
“No,” the word issued forth in a low, sibilant purr. “But I think I will reconsider my current strategy…”
Pools of dark shadow rippled outwards from Faust’s throne and spread across the ground. Illicor barked a warning even as the darkness solidified, taking shape. Rising slowly from the gloom were the God of War’s attendants, silently emerging out of nothingness. They took up position behind their master’s chair without saying a word. Prospect adjusted his cloak, revealing the shiny glint of daggers concealed beneath it. Wrath sharpened his claws, grinning in anticipation. The red Omega symbol on Strategy’s flag fluttered gaily on its post, tattered and stained with the marks of many battles. Metal grated on metal as Despair took her place, burdened with shackles and chains. “You have your watcher, but so do I. Mine; at least, still are loyal to me.”
“Bets?” It took some finding, but Illicor located Prospect at last—hidden from plain sight as usual; something clutched in a rigid paw. That he had somehow ended up standing right behind Faust could be attributed to simple coincidence...or perhaps not.
Strife appeared with his trademark smirk; one eye cautiously fixed on his treacherous sister lurking somewhere nearby. “Long time no see…cousin.”
Maybe calling attention to himself wasn’t such a great idea.
“We’ve missed you…” Fur rose all along the jackal’s spine as Discordia’s voice spoke directly into his ear. Strife’s twin materialized right beside him, draping herself across Illicor’s shoulder. Arms drew him into a sensuous embrace, whiskers tickling at a cheek. “It’s been awhile.”
“Watching… Waiting… So long…” the banshee’s accusing wail made the rest of his pelt stand on end. Despair’s gaunt form lurched unsteadily towards him, and with superhuman effort he wrenched himself away from the empty void of her eyes. “Waited…so…long…”
“What the chick says,” now here was Prospect, grinning toothily from the depths of his ragged hood. “You should’ve written, cousin. Visited once in a while…” The coyote toyed with a gold coin extracted from a fold of his cloak; flipping it, catching it, making it dance across his claws. “Aren’t we interesting enough for you?”
Looming threateningly at the back, Wrath said nothing—but the look the giant black hellhound shot his way was laced with meaning. Unfortunately, the gist of it involved that massive sword he carried strapped across his back, Illicor himself, and copious amounts of gore. The jackal found it easier not to dwell on it.
“Strat—I thought we were friends.” he turned towards the silver fox cub and his flag, the only one yet to stir from his corner. Those eyes returning his gaze were chips of mica; devoid of warmth.
“We are. That’s why I’ll give you a ten second head-start.”
“You’ll prove harder to kill than my stupid brother; hmm?” Discordia’s claws emerged slowly, scraping at the skin below golden fur. “I do like a challenge once in a while…”
“You’re not a screamer like my annoying sister, I hope?” Strife approached from the other side, hemming him in. “You can’t imagine how hard it is on the ears. And distracting too—why do people always insist on doing it?”
“Selfish of them,” the jackal observed in little more than a squeak. It was harder to be capable of anything else with the cold edge of Prospect’s dagger resting ominously at his throat.
“I’m so glad you agree,” purring, Discordia drew closer towards him. Her tongue rasped across the cub’s downy fur. “Maybe I’ll let you play with the Rope Engine—I was saving it for my idiot brother, but for you I could make an exception.”
“We aim to please.” Strife joined in, shoving his twin out of the way. He ignored her warning growl. “I’ll even postpone bumping off my sister to deal with you first.”
Discordia rounded on him, claws bristling. The hyena’s mane flared upright in her rage. “You do not lay paw on me…brother!”
“And what’re you going to do about it?” Strife’s own mane rose up in response to that challenge. The cub unsheathed his own set of claws. “Let’s see you make me.”
Prospect stepped between them. “Now, now—enough of that! What must our dear cousin be thinking of us? Have manners—deal with him first. You can always go back to killing each other later,”
Illicor inched aside. “No, really—it’s alright; carry on. I can wait…” He heaved a sigh of relief as Fenris scooped him up and deposited him safely in his lap, well out of reach from his psychotic relations.
“What’s all this, Faust? This game is between the two of us.” The blue wolf tightened his grip on the sturdy war-hammer at his side. “But if it’s come to this…”
“Sit down, barbarian. It still is between us. These,” Faust indicated his Horsemen. “Are merely new pawns…”
“You drew a card and added a follower on your last turn, did you not? Surely I’m entitled to the same. By the Law, I’ve the right to add any new followers I have on my round. And these are my followers as well.”
“They are immortal! You cannot…”
“Nothing in the Rules against it,” jaws parted in a macabre smile.
Fenris exhaled a deep breath. They both knew the rules. The move had to stand. “Fine—but only one addition.”
“Naturally.” the lion sized up his servitors, each quivering to be chosen. He strode past Despair and Wrath, paused at Strategy… Illicor held his breath. That little fox would be a formidable opponent if he were to be selected. Of the whole cohort, his cunning was almost a match for his own. So it was with great relief when Faust passed him by and continued onwards to Prospect with his many dangerous toys, to…
“These,” a claw flicked to point, and up bounded both Strife and Discordia. They joined the God of War at his chessboard, shooting Fenris and his ward identical, evil grins.
The wolf surged to his feet. “Who’s the cheater now? You were entitled to only one!”
“So I was,” Faust replied him. Before their eyes the twins warp and shift, melding into each other to form a single being before parting again. “And I see only one before me.”
“It’s okay,” Illicor cut him off with a reassuring nuzzle. “They’re pushovers. You can take them.”
“Easy for you to say. I’m playing the game here—it’s not your life on the line.”
“That’s what you said just now…and you got his champion. Just trust me.”
His companion snorted. “Last time you said that, I ended up gathering storm clouds for a month from your idiot scheme to steal Father’s sceptre.”
“It won’t be like last time.”
“That’s exactly what you said last time too.”
“Are we agreed or do you concede?” Faust demanded. Next to him, Strife mimed dragging a knife across a throat. He tipped them a wink.
“We’re agreed,” Fenris scowled at his companion. “Why do I let you talk me into these kinds of situations?”
“Because you’re a wonderful big brother who loves his half-brother…?” the puppy snuggled up to him in affection.
“Don’t push it.”
They watched the broken shards of the defeated chess piece dissolve into wisps of grey smoke. Almost at that exact instant, somewhere in those hostile ranks of iron pawns a newcomer had entered the game—one that would be more formidable than anything else Faust’s army had to offer. Hidden amongst all those mortals was a demigod with the power to take on nearly a third of his forces all at once. If only he knew which one…
“If we get through this, remind me to strangle you.” he informed the ball of fluff clinging precariously to his neck, eyes already alert and scanning the chessboard’s surface for possible moves.