Feeling the Burn

fem_orc_bubaben

This story takes a light-hearted look at the gamer girl phenomenon. I wrote it a while back, while I was still playing Dark Age of Camelot and eagerly awaiting the Warhammer MMO (/sigh). I was also inspired by an exhibition of pulp SF covers at the Seattle SF museum. Chainmail bikinis a-go-go! Let’s be very clear, as the politicians say: I really loathe the whole chainmail bikini aesthetic, for reasons obvious to anyone who’s met me (and no, not just because I haven’t got the required *ahem* attributes.)

It got turned down by the first (& only) magazine I subbed it to, with an expression of disgust – they’d got the impression it was serious, I think, but perhaps it was a perfectly valid reaction. I was going to re-write the opening to make the satire more obvious, but I couldn’t think of a way to make Tiara any more shallow and vapid without putting you off your lunch. Next!

WARNING: Contains mild sex, some swearing, and some content that has previously been mistaken for misogyny.


The coral pink grass looked soft, but it was coarse and scratchy. Its serrated edges cut into her back and distracted Tiara from what Spade was doing. She sighed and tried to focus on the pleasure. It was all part of the same thing, after all. The feel of the sun on her bare skin, Spade’s big, rough hands caressing her silky hair, the grass, the earth, the fear of dying. She felt safe with him, and she knew that the sense of safety came from the fear of death, and the intensity of her pleasure was heightened by the other, less comfortable sensations that this world brought her.

Not that the sex hadn’t been good before. It had been a lot of fun in Verlain, even more fun in Starfarer where there had been relatively few females and she’d got a lot of attention, attention she’d never have received had she led a normal life, and where she’d first met Spade – but this was Argosy, and Argosy was totally different. Spade gently eased her thighs apart and moved his body to cover hers. He kissed her as he entered her. He started to move. She released a few more seductive pheromones, careful not to be unsubtle.

Just as she was reaching that tingly stage before climax, he stopped.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Shh,” he whispered, barely audible even though he was so near that the air of his breath stirred against her skin. “Look there.” He pointed. She turned her head.

On the path to their right an emerald green insect stood, antennae dancing in the summer breeze, mandibles working thoughtfully, glittering eyes fixed on their position. The mandibles were powerful looking, and the creature was also armed with mantis-like forelimbs. It was over ten feet tall.

Tahar patroller. Damn, damn, damn. They were miles from the Taharkin Spike, what was it doing all the way out here? This mission should have been an easy fetch quest; head over to the Astouni encampment at the edge of the Plain, pick up supplies of chitin from the Taharkin Hunters’ Guild, hike back with them to Haw in S’kresh, collect six credits. Almost all she needed to be able to afford a new breastplate, which would see her almost ready to join the rest of their Guild in the frontiers.

Feeling a spike of grass slice through the blue silk of the decorative little number she was wearing at the moment, she wondered if she should get something a little more practical next time. This one was more silk than leather, and more bare skin than silk, but the gold chasing around the bust had sucked her money from her purse before she had time to say ‘protection factor’. But she shouldn’t have needed serious armour for this trip. The most dangerous creature around here, according to the map, was the fluffy, non-aggressive ground-chigger. Tiara had actually considered doing this one without Spade’s help, but she liked having him along for conversation, and the possibility of more intimate companionship. The patroller was at least ten levels above a chigger, and she was very, very glad Spade was there.

Tiara twisted her head around to look at Spade. Slowly, silently, he withdrew from her, pulled his britches closed and gathered his weapons. She knew the drill; the two of them had fought side by side in three worlds and always the same way. It was a well-practised dance, a shared language in which they were both fluent. Her hands went to the knife sheathed at her waist and the whip hung on the other side, and she willed her knees to stop shaking.

Adrenaline coursed through her as she and Spade sprang towards the Tahar, he guarding them both with his shield, mace in his right hand, she with the whip in her left hand and the short, leaf-shaped blade in her right. The same thought as always flashed across her mind: I bet we look so shit hot doing this.

The patroller struck out at them with one massive claw, a blur of movement. Tiara threw herself into a forward roll. Spade, encumbered by the heavy shield, could only crouch low again. The passing of the claw created a wind that lifted Tiara’s long hair and set her skin alight with fear.

“Get in beneath its reach!” screamed Spade, running hard towards the insect. He drove squarely against the huge head. The bug’s jaws were almost big enough to close around his shield, but not quite. It snapped at him, every blow making him stagger. His knees bent, absorbing the impacts. He swung his mace into the side of its head, catching it only glancing blows. That didn’t matter. It was his job to keep the thing occupied. It was her job to kill it.

Timing her strikes to coincide with Spade’s mace blows, she darted from behind his shield and snapped her whip, aiming for joints and other weak spots. Lines of blue fire crackled from the whip and spread across the Tahar’s carapace. Her left-handedness made this form of attack much more effective, and her confidence surged as she found her rhythm. Ichor ran from the many wounds she’d opened up; eventually the thing would start to weaken. Then the Tahar washed the smirk from her face with a stream of burning fluid.

“Oh my freakin’ god,” screamed Tiara, “it bloody spat at me! Spade! Hit it!”

“I am hitting it,” grunted Spade through clenched teeth.

“Hit it more! Oh god- I can’t see.”

She rubbed frantically at her face with her right wrist, knife still in her hand.

“Hey, watch where you’re waving that thing, honey.” Swing. Crunch. “I have enough to do fighting this bug off, hngh, without you switching sides halfway through the fight. And I’m, nnhgg, full defense specced remember, I hit like a girl. You have to hit it.”

Squinting through stinging eyes, Tiara swung out to the left again. Crack of the whip. She spun, and sunk the short blade into the patroller’s armoured side as high up as she could reach. She threw all her weight behind the blow and used her momentum to twist the knife in, simultaneously pivoting herself around the blade to land towards the insect’s rear. Slight as she was, she didn’t manage to pull it off balance, but it felt the attack and started to turn toward her.

“Watch the misogyny, ape-man. I’m a girl and I hit like a truck.” It was a routine, this conversation, as much as the fight itself. “Don’t worry monkey-bum, I’ve got your back.”

She ducked beneath the creature again to meet Spade, who was circling, trying to get his shield between the insect’s head and Tiara.

“I prefer it when you have my front,” said Spade, as she slipped back behind the shield.

“Oh, you’re all front. All mouth -” She rolled out from under his defending arm again and stabbed upwards into the patroller’s midsection “-and no britches.”

Spade swung his mace again. She didn’t see it connect, but she heard the pop-splash-splinter of the spiked ball destroying the patroller’s left eye. It wouldn’t be knocked out; its brain was somewhere in its midsection; but now it had a blind side.

“I thought you preferred me that way,” said Spade.

He remained at the creature’s head while Tiara danced out onto its left side and began to hit it in earnest. Leaping backwards, she sent screaming fireballs to splash against its emerald sides.

“You may have a point there. You never had any taste in clothes, so you do look slightly less ridiculous -” darting in, she drove her knife into a leg joint and felt something give way beneath it, “- without them.”

The Tahar was down to three legs. Spade was starting to show signs of tiring, grunting loudly with every blow he took from the insect’s jaws, his thighs quivering and shoulders straining. Tiara was feeling the burn in her own muscles. They needed to take the bug down fast, now.

Just then, it flicked out glittering scarlet wings and launched itself into the air with a deafening buzz. It landed a few hundred yards away and started to rub its wing cases together, letting out a series of piercing squeaks and clicks.

“We need to get under cover! It’ll call in Warriors, and we won’t stand a chance against them without an opted group! How far are we from the Astouni camp?”

“I don’t know, about half a zone maybe?”

“Which way?”

“I was just going to head to the edge of the plains and go north and work it out from there. I didn’t think there’d be anything to fight up this side.”

Spade groaned. “This is your mission Ti, do I always have to look everything up for you?”

“Usually you just know. Haven’t you been to this camp before?”

“No. I don’t take piddly fetch-some-chitin tasks, nine-to-one they aren’t worth the time. And the Astouni are hostile to me.”

“Really? They’ve never been hostile to me.”

“You’re a quarter-Astoun, stupid. Automatic faction.”

“Oh, right.” Tiara rarely thought about her racial makeup. All she knew was she liked what she saw in the mirror, and Spade seemed to like it too. “I am not stupid, stupid.” She slapped him on the arm.

They jogged northwards, looking for cover. Tiara’s eyes hurt and she felt like she’d pulled a muscle in her back somewhere. There was no real cover anywhere to the north that they could see, just miles of dusty track flanked by scattered rocks and clumps of the vicious pink grass. Somewhere over to the east the mesa ended and the Taharkin Plains began. They agreed, not without some argument, to travel northeast and drop down onto the plains wherever they could; they’d be inside Tahar territory then, but the cliffs should shield them from the sun and any Taharkin flying over.

When they did reach the cliff edge, thirsty and breathless, they found no way down. They were forced to continue north until they reached a dry riverbed filled with loose scree. They started to hike down it. Tiara stumbled on a rock and turned her ankle.

“Ow, freakin’ rock.”

“Careful Ti.” There was mockery in his voice so she knew the follow-up was coming: “I’d have thought someone with 75 in agility would be able to negotiate a few rocks.”

“It’s these freakin’ boots. They pinch. I wish I’d worn my old boots.”

“Those boots offer 14% better protection. And you look nice in them. They’re a pretty shade of purple. Think of this as a good way to break them in.”

Nice indeed. Tiara had bought those boots to look hot. Dangerous. Not nice. Never nice. Still, at least Spade had noticed. She looked down at her lower legs. They did look good.

Tiara was still musing on the pros and cons of her new boots when the sky filled with an angry buzzing and grew dark.

“Our friend brought his friends,” observed Spade helpfully.

“Yeah,” said Tiara. “Nice for him.”

It wasn’t fair. Seven giant insects against the two of them, and they weren’t even in Taharkin territory. But here the bugs came, a squadron of Tahar Warriors. They were bigger than the patroller they’d injured. Much bigger. Great spikes protruded from their backs, and their mandibles were scarlet.

“What do they eat when they can’t get hobbit?” Spade murmured in her ear.

“What?”

“Exactly.”

They prepared themselves for a hopeless battle.

The bugs were flying in a V formation, and they dropped out of the sky with the precision of machines, curving down behind their leader and arrowing toward the two adventurers. Tiara cracked the whip three times. The first shot went wide. Twice she hit the leader with a fireball, and then it was too close. Spade threw Tiara to the ground and covered her with his body, bringing them both under his shield. He was heavy, and Tiara couldn’t move or see what was happening.

“Shit, Spade you twat. I can’t fight with you sitting on me,” she tried to say, but the breath had been squeezed from her chest. A second later she was glad she couldn’t see too much, as a forest of green insect legs appeared around them and blows began to rain down on the wooden shield.

There was no way they were getting out of here.

The Tahar Warriors surrounded the pair and attacked en masse, stabbing their heads down at them where they huddled beneath his shield. Spade cried out several times as mandibles sliced at his exposed lower legs. Tiara tried to speak to him, to ask if he was OK, but couldn’t make herself heard over the pounding of chitin against wood, and the squeals and clicks all around them. He had a high pain tolerance; it was his job to be able to take a lot of punishment. Still, there were times when he screamed. Tiara clung to him, feeling the muscles in his arms hard and hot beneath the cloth of his tunic sleeves. She released all the pain and fear control pheromones she had in her arsenal, but still she could smell the fear in his sweat, though he kept it from his eyes. They would die here. And death here meant something, shit, it wasn’t like the old days, when you could re-roll and start over without a real cost, or even get resurrected. Neither of them had died since they’d come to Argosy. They’d be separated. She’d lose this body, that had cost her so much, that she’d worked so hard to develop. That Spade liked so much. What if he didn’t forgive her? What if he didn’t want her any more?

“I love you.” She formed the words carefully so he could lip read. The sick feeling in her stomach told her it was true. What was a damsel without her knight in shining armour?

“I love you,” she said again, but she was saying it to Spade’s retreating head, as a Warrior seized him by the leg and dragged him into the air.

“Shit!” he yelled.

And then he was out of sight and it was all she could do to fend off the blows that rained down upon her. Bastards. Goo-spitting, zerging, squeaking, not-where-they-should-be bastards.

She screamed and began to spin her whip around her head, flicking it out at those bugs that looked her way, keeping them at bay.

A cry of defiance flew from her throat, challenging the insects to come and get her.

Unfortunately it turned out that they did, in fact, think they were hard enough.

Then, and only then, the big green barbarian women arrived.

They rode up the riverbed on Tahar Workers. The enslaved bugs wore red and yellow bardings draped over the green chitin of their carapaces, and spikes ripped from the bodies of Tahar Warriors bolted to their necks to prevent them from turning their heads and attacking their riders. The women carried pennanted lances that caught the sun. They wore elaborate helmets made from chitin and decorated with red and yellow ribbons, and short leather hotpants. She knew they were women, even at a distance, because that was all they wore. Not a stitch else. Naturally, none of them was anything less than impressively endowed. Tiara took all of this in even as the Warriors closed around her again, risking the sparks of blue agony that spun out in all directions from her flailing whip. Her first thought was oh my god; I want some of those hotpants. Her second was lost to grief, as she realised Spade would probably never get to see her in them.

The women thundered up the ravine three abreast, lowering their lances as they came. Shimmering cones of force sprang from the tips and into the knot of bugs around Tiara. She felt herself lifted from the ground. Then everything ended.

#

Tiara expected to wake up in a growth chamber, but she found herself still in Argosy, slung unceremoniously across the neck of a Tahar Worker, wedged tightly between a row of scarlet spikes and the leather pommel of its rider’s saddle. It was just like something from a bad Western. She shared this space with two dead ground-chiggers. The smell from their torn bodies was ripe in the midday heat. Chitin dug hard into her ribs and stomach with every step the bug took. Thin rope bound her wrists and ankles, not too tight, but it stopped her from shifting her legs or arms to ease the pressure. That pull in her shoulder was still there, the tiny cuts on her back from the grass itched terribly, and it felt as though she’d been whacked upside the head with a house brick. Her eyes still stung and her feet still ached. Damn it all. Sometimes she wished she was living somewhere just a little less visceral than Argosy.

Then she remembered Spade. She craned around, trying, upside-down, to see the other riders, see if any of their Taharkin carried large, Earther shaped burdens, but all that swam into view was a huge green leg.

The leg was shapely and slender at the ankle, and as well muscled as that of a Nova Zarky full-back. Tiara tried to imagine the thigh that would go with that, and shuddered. The foot wore a flat-soled sandal held in place with strips of leather. The leather was decorated with tiny bells and a variety of teeth. Some of the teeth looked a lot like Tiara’s own. The skin revealed between the strips was smooth and hard looking. Back in Starfarer, Tiara had had a dress just that colour, the colour of the topside of sycamore leaves on a summer day. At the time, it had matched her eyes. Spade had pulled it off over her head the first time she wore it, catching her arms in its folds, pushing her to the ground with his knee between hers, and-

Below her dangling head, the desert sand became a blue-grey blur as tears came. Freakin’ tears. They ran down over her eyebrows and into her hair. They tickled and she had no way to wipe them.

She closed her eyes and endured the journey to wherever it was they were going. She hoped it wouldn’t take too long.

It took too long.

“This ‘alf-breed stinks worse than chiggers,” growled the woman as she pulled Tiara from the Tahar’s back and threw her over her shoulder.

“The on-board facilities weren’t exactly what I’m used to,” Tiara mumbled into a faceful of the woman’s thick black hair.

“Oh, it’s not dead then isn’t it? ‘Ave to set that right before dinnertime then, heheheh.”

“What? You can’t kill captives, that’s griefing -”

“Only messin’ wiv yer. We dunt kill captives. Just ‘ave a little bit of fun wiv ‘em, you know worra mean?” She patted Tiara playfully on her bottom. Tiara felt the heat of embarrassment prickle at her cheeks. Her other cheeks. Her blue silk skirts were still wet, and she did stink worse than a chigger.

When the woman set her on the ground she saw that she was in a cavern of some kind. The walls, floor and roof curved together. Burning brands stuck into iron sconces illuminated the edges of the space. In the circles where the light fell brightest, shapes could be seen moving on the other side of the walls. The women moved around her, stripping the barding from their insect steeds and ushering them through a huge, dark doorway. Other smaller exits gaped blackly on all sides. A nasty suspicion poked itself into Tiara’s mind. It was just like the sensation of putting your foot into your boot to find a creepy crawly already there.

“Where are we?”

The woman who had brought her here turned from the retreating rear of her Tahar and shook out her hair. She put her hands on her hips and appraised Tiara from a distance of a few yards. She was magnificent, in an ugly sort of way. A real throwback to an aesthetic that had become increasingly rare; the tiny hotpants were regular enough, but the rippling muscles and wild black mane, the strong nose and jaw, the eyes that didn’t take up half her face, the red and gold tattoos that decorated her chest – these were things you didn’t see very often. And the cute little tusks – those were new. She’d been right about the thighs. You could crack rocks with those things, never mind nuts.

“Where’d you fink? In da Spike, nooblet.”

“I’m not a nooblet,” Tiara retorted, forgetting for the moment that she was sitting in a torn two-piece drenched in her own piss, covered in bruises and scratches, trussed up like a turkey and without her boyfriend. The woman laughed. It was throaty and menacing. It sounded like she’d practiced it a lot. It ticked Tiara off.

“Oh shut up. Why do you talk in that stupid way anyway? Are you going to untie me and let me clean up?”

“Barush, na? We’re da Gurlz.”

Oh great. Freakin’ roleplayers. But something wasn’t right here. “You can’t be,” she said. “Barush reproduce asexually. Some kind of spore. There’ve never been Barush females, ever. And they have way bigger tusks, and hairy chests.”

The woman raised a fierce black eyebrow. “Titch knows its fluff.”

“It’s not fluff, it’s what I was told -”

A sucker punch to herself: it was Spade who’d told her.

“My boyfriend, he was with me fighting the Warriors, did you see – was there anything -”

The woman tilted her head, looking over Tiara’s shoulder. A second huge woman was standing there, and in her arms, like a bride being carried over the threshold, was Spade.

“Is he…?”

The woman holding him grinned toothily. Her hair was chestnut and tied back in a high ponytail.

“Not gonnered yet. Can still ‘ave us fun wiv it.”

Tiara looked at her, back to the first woman, and back again, finding no comfort in either leaf-green visage. But thank the gods, at least he was alive.

“He needs help. I don’t have any healing powers. Do you have a healer?”

“Barush, noobling. No magic. B’zuk got good hands. B’zuk’s hands dunt always stick ter closin’ holes though.” She laughed again.

Tiara pulled herself upright and thrust her breasts forward. “Spade is my partner. You keep your hands off him, or I’ll-”

“Lookit you. Lookit us. Stoopid titch. Whatcha gonna do?”

Damn. Tiara had seen this scenario in movies. She knew how her defiance would look; like it was being played for laughs, but it wasn’t funny and it hadn’t been funny for a long time, and it certainly wasn’t funny to be stuck in the middle of it with your hands tied and your knickers wet.

“Just keep him alive, bitch. I love him.”

Both women roared with laughter. Tiara closed her eyes and longed for a way to disappear. She longed to be in Starfarer, or Verlain, or Woebegone. Anywhere but here.

They released her legs so she could walk, and they dragged her after them into a room where an enormous bathtub steamed gently in the torchlight. It was half full of women, gossiping in their ridiculous dialect and washing one another. The woman who had brought Tiara in led her to the edge of the tub and drew a blade from a holster at her side. They’d relieved her of her own knife and her whip, of course. The blade tip rested lightly against her exposed breastbone and traced its way down between her breasts.

“Titch coun’t afford proper armour?”

“You’re one to talk.”

“Barush dunt need it. Skin’s tough ‘nuff.” She turned the knife and pressed it against her own chest. It dented the skin but didn’t pierce it. “See?”

“Why wear anything at all then?”

A shrug. “Some chafing. We gets you clean now nooblar.”

She snicked expertly at Tiara’s armour and it fell away.

In the water, Tiara looked around at the huge women around her and felt very small and girly. Usually she liked feeling small and girly. She enjoyed the company of big, strong men liked Spade, who treated her like a delicate flower. She enjoyed knowing that she was a killer in an elegant package. Fast. Agile. OK so she went down like a bundle of twigs if something hit her hard, but that’s what teamwork was all about.

She was still bound at the wrists. The women washed her, and they weren’t gentle, but she had nothing to say about it. She wondered whether Spade would enjoy such a scene if he were there to see it. No. He didn’t go for brawny chicks. He’d get jealous, probably, and wade in to rescue her. Slap these bitches out of the way and carry her off, take her to a quiet place and ravish her, leaving the rope around her wrists perhaps, just because. He’d stroke her where those hard hands had rubbed her soft flesh. She shut her eyes again and reached for that safe feeling, her body in Spade’s capable hands. All her aches and pains were drawn out by the hot water and the steam soothed her stinging eyes. Spade was rubbing her feet now, soaped and slippery. Rubbing the back of her neck too, working that knot out of her shoulder. A hand on her thigh, circling higher and higher. Mm. Any minute now he would lean in and kiss her…

“Fink it fancies yer, Mashak.”

Exaggerated kissing noises and harsh laughter.

She opened her eyes to meet the gaze of a Barush woman. Though there could be no such thing, Spade had said so. It might have been the one who carried her in front of her saddle, it might not. She thought it was.

“Stop calling me ‘it’,” snapped Tiara, blushing. “The name’s Tiara.”

“Mashak,” said the woman. “Guild officer of da Greenskin Gurlz. Pleez ta meetcha.”

“Can’t say I feel the same way,” said Tiara, folding her arms across her breasts and trying to look dignified.

“Some kinda princess, isn’t it? Princess playing da wrong game if it doesn’t like to play ruff, na?”

“What’s your faction, anyway?”

Mashak narrowed her eyes. “Da Gurlz got no faction. Da Gurlz ain’t on nobody’s side but da Gurlz.”

“The Barush are allied with the Earthers. I’m Earther faction, so you should be on my side. I have Astouni faction too but I’m an Earther. That makes capturing me griefing, and if a god catches you at it, you’ll get the big stick for sure.”

“Y’ain’t Earther. Look like blueskin. Smell like blueskin. An’ we ain’t real Barush, ‘member?” She put on a silly voice, a crude imitation of Tiara: “Never been Barush females. Never.” In her own voice again: “We’re da Gurlz. Fuck da Barush Boyz.”

She looked angry, and sad.

“You – You’re renegades? Illegal moddies? Broke the lore?” It would explain their persistent use of their wretched dialect. You had to be hardcore to go renegade. “Anyway,” she went on, “race isn’t everything. I’m three-quarters Earther, one-quarter Astoun. I chose the Earther life.”

“Race is everything, titch. It’s all there in the fluff.”

“Why do this? It’s not like the Barush are really male. Why risk everything to go female?”

“You askin’ me, princess? Calls themselves Boyz, na. Hairy chests.”

Before Tiara could reply, a Girl entered the room, came up to the edge of the tub and spoke to Mashak. Her use of the dialect wasn’t as natural as the Gurlz Tiara’d met so far. She sounded like a schoolteacher trying to get down with the kids.

“Da Earther tank type’s peepers iz open. It talkin’ shit. An’ a blueskin hunting party movin’ up da west path.”

“Big party?”

“Yeah. Biggish.”

Spade was awake.

“Send scout to parley. Tell if dey come.”

‘Dey come OK.”

The other woman was dismissed. Mashak sank into the water up to her tusks, with a little sigh. “Work work work, na?”

“Can I see Spade now?” asked Tiara.

Mashak looked at her from under eyebrows still fierce as ever.

“Sure,” she said.

Spade was sprawled on a pile of chigger fur blankets, his legs covered in rough bandages. He looked up at her, squinting as if she were hard to make out. Tiara flung herself down next to him, naked and with her hands still tied.

“Are you all right darling? Oh Spade, I’ve had a terrible time. You got taken by the Tahar Warrior and I thought you were dead, and then I thought I was dead, and then these damn women came and used some kind of stun on them, but it caught me too and I thought I was dead again, and they brought us here and they took my whip and my knife and my clothes, and they talk in this freakin’ dumb way, they’re freakin’ roleplayers but they’re really hardcore and I don’t know what they’re going to do with us, oh, Spade!”

She hoped he would put his big strong arms around her.

He didn’t.

“I’m sure it’s been rough. Would you mind not talking for a minute? My head hurts.”

“Why did we ever come here?” Tiara wailed.

“You picked up a dumb fetch and carry mission and for some reason I thought it would be fun to come along. Sheez. Now please be quiet.”

“I didn’t mean here. I meant Argosy! It sucks! Have you called the Guild yet? Can they get us out of here?”

“I tried, but I can’t make a connection. Seriously Ti, I took a hard crack on the skull there. I’ll try again when I’ve slept. You should sleep too.”

Tiara spent half an hour trying to get Spade to talk to her, to hold her, to show her any sign that he’d understood what she’d said to him when they were huddled together under his shield, short of asking him directly. He evaded and avoided, held his head and groaned.

For the next hour she went to and fro in her own head, trying to work out why she gave a crap, while Spade snored gently beside her, and then she too slept.

#

Beneath the towering Spike, on the hard sand, five Gurlz, presumably all the Guild officers, sat cross-legged on piles of furs, facing eight Astouni, who kneeled with their feet tucked under their knee length blue-grey robes that matched the desert perfectly. Their hair and skin was a darker blue, and only their eyes had any other colour, ranging from red to violet. If it weren’t for the eyes you’d hardly know they were there. Tiara had often wished she’d gotten Astouni eyes, but hers were relentlessly human.

The Astouni had quivers full of arrows on their backs, but their captors stood over a pile of bows and curved knives. The Barush officers had laid their weapons on the sand in front of them; swords and enormous iron-and-chitin axes. Encircling the party was a troupe of Gurlz, lances pointed towards the Astouni.

Tiara and Spade had been roped together and dragged along insect-hewn tunnels until they had emerged blinking into the sunlight where the Astouni hunting party waited. The adventurers now sat separate from either group but where they could easily be seen. Tiara’s boots had been returned and she’d been lent a shift and a length of ribbon to cinch the waist in with, as the thing was ridiculously big on her.

An argument was underway. The Astoun speaking was soft-voiced, but also putting on a show of anger.

“…and there was no need to come charging in waving force-lances. These are Astouni lands and you have no right to be here, but we would not have responded to a peaceful approach with undue force.”

“Pretty words, blueskin. But Gurlz know your kind.” That was B’Zuk, the healer. “Backstabbers. Double crossers. Sneaks.”

Mashak took over:

“You not on nobody’s side. Gurlz same. We got good lair here. Trained up bugs good. Bugs make safer for us. Want to stay. But blueskin’s arrers makin’ us twitchy. Can’t do anyfin’ wifout some hunter pingin’ arrers at us. Soon, late, some Girl gonna get mad an’ break a blueskin stick.”

“Neck,” said B’Zuk, lazily snaking her tongue out and licking one of her tusks. “Breakin’ its neck.”

“That would be an act of war,” said the Astoun, huffily. He looked as if he was enjoying himself. “Although we would not need such an act before attacking your… people. We were granted exclusive hunting rights in this area by the gods themselves. Before you were born, or even thought of! The Taharkin are our brothers, and the way you use them is offensive to our ethical code. We would be justified in driving you out without parley!”

“If we gots to fight yer, we winnin’ for sure,” said a woman who hadn’t spoken yet, shaking her breasts at the Astouni.

“The day will come sooner than you think!”

Tiara spotted something and nudged Spade, who was half asleep still. The Gurl sitting behind Mashak had Spade’s mace on the ground before her, and Tiara’s whip wound around one shoulder. No doubt she had her knife somewhere too.

“We’re bargaining chips I guess,” shrugged Spade in response to her hissed enquiry. “They must think the Astouni will want us for something, want us badly enough to let them stay here. They must realise we’re worth more with our own weapons.”

“I wish they’d get the heck on with it. The way these Astouni talk is nearly as bad as the Barush. Pompous asses.”

“You getting sniffy about roleplayers now all of a sudden, sweetpea? What was all that damsel-and-hero stuff we were doing then?”

Tiara was shocked into silence. She’d been playing her role, obviously, damn; the Huntress wasn’t her, any more than her previous roles had been. But her relationship with Spade was real. Wasn’t it real for him? How could it not be real, after all these years together? And they’d slept together, flesh on flesh, not just once but over and over again; she had let him inside her in every sense, shit, they were practically married. All the things they’d done. She loved him, and she’d always thought they both felt the same way. She felt as if she was falling, fast, as though the ground had dropped away from underneath her.

Abruptly she was pulled to her feet by the rope around her wrists. She and Spade were made to stand between the two opposing parties. While they’d been talking, it seemed the negotiations had progressed.

“Dese you can ‘ave. Earther man, woman part-Earther part-blueskin freak. Earthers pay nice bounty for both or yer keeps dat one if’n yer feels kinship wiv it. We gets nice home in Spike, stayin’ here.”

A murmur ran through the Astouni, who turned to gauge one another’s reactions. The consensus seemed to be derision. Their spokesman sneered and shook his head. “We cannot allow it. You must leave.”

Once again, Tiara had the impression he would welcome a fight. Being a member of a Hunter’s Guild in a backwater like this must be pretty dull. She’d never understood anyone who wanted to farm for a living. A dispute based on the lore of the Astouni and on ancient rights granted; that would be legal, and spice things up considerably, though on Argosy, the risks were high. But then that was the whole point of Argosy. She sighed. It was rapidly losing its appeal.

She’d missed another exchange. The Astouni were getting to their feet, their faces expectant. Tiara couldn’t read what they might be expecting. Mashak and the other Gurlz leapt to their feet too, picking up their weapons, which they held above their heads. Some of them had bared their teeth. B’zuk spat towards the Astouni. The spittle landed near Tiara’s foot. It glistened in the light. The Astouni spokesman smiled sweetly and bowed towards B’zuk.

“Luckily for you we know the ways of the Barush, and so we know that you mean us no insult.”

“Spit then, blueskin man-titch,” growled B’zuk. “Make deal.”

The Astoun shifted his weight from his heels to his toes and back again, regarding her coolly. One of the other Astouni stepped forward and whispered in his ear. Still smiling, the spokesman let his eyes wander to the horizon, scanning the area around them in all directions bar the Spike itself. The Gurlz followed his gaze, uneasy.

“Because are learned in the ways of the Barush, we know that you cannot seal a pact with a captive foe. There’s no honour in it. Give us our bows.”

Mashak frowned, but signalled to the women guarding the pile of Astouni weapons. “Gif them they bendy sticks.”

The bows were handed out to the Astouni, who made a great show of testing them.

“Now spit.”

More shifting of weight, more smiling.

“Because we are learned in the ways of the Barush, we know what you are. You cannot hope to win this fight. Out there are another two dozen archers, and our entire Guild knows your secret. Leave now or we will read that secret into our prayers and call down the wrath of the gods upon you.”

Tiara bit her lip, watching the faces of the Gurlz for their reactions. Though she ought to be on the side of the Astouni, both by kinship and by rights and after the rough way the Gurlz had treated her, she suddenly realised that she wanted them to survive. Their insane dedication to a hopeless, pointless cause touched something in her, knotted her stomach with sympathy.

Then she saw the way Spade was looking at them. His eyes were round with desire and his mouth was soft. Bloody hell.

With a roar B’zuk stepped forward and swung her axe at the spokesman. She gripped the haft with both hands and put all her weight behind it. He tried to parry with his bow. It snapped like a twig but deflected the axe so that it sliced along his arm instead of severing it. Blood poured onto the ground.

Six bowstrings twanged in unison, and B’zuk was staggering, carried forward by her own momentum. Tiara couldn’t see how many arrows had met their mark, because everyone was moving, pushing into one another, Barush weapons rising and falling, Astouni robes swirling. Barush axes cut through robes and the leather armour beneath, into skin and bone. Astouni hands left angry red marks on Barush skin: toxic attacks.

Spade jumped into the melee, tried to wrest his sword from the Gurl wielding it, his hands still tied, and took an arrow in the back. Tiara screamed.

Some of the Astouni broke off and ran for the pile of knives still lying by the Gurlz with the lances. They let out an ululating cry, and the Taharkin began to rear up on their hindmost legs and beat the air with their forelegs, antennae waving and mandibles working madly. The Gurlz with the lances saw the Astouni clearing the scrum and took the chance. Cones of force pulsed out and knocked the Astouni into the air like blowing leaves. The Taharkin pulled free of their tethers and stampeded, not away from the fight, but into it. Tiara looked for Spade, couldn’t see him, crouched close to the ground and started dodging through huge muscular green legs and wiry blue-grey ones. Someone caught her on the back with the flat of a sword and winded her; she sprawled on the ground, willing her chest muscles to relax and let some air in, oh, for fuck’s sake, breathe!

The first breath, when it came, ripped into her as painfully as the last one had been driven out. She curled into herself, gasping, shuddering, always aware of the maelstrom around her. She could see black poles coming down now between the fighters, the Taharkin Workers were amongst them, frenzied by the scent of blood. She figured combatants on both sides would be trying to take control of the bugs, but for now they were attacking everyone. Mandibles sliced down through the air. Tiara got to her feet again. Astouni now outnumbered the Barush three to one: those hidden archers hadn’t been a bluff, then. But both sides were concentrating on the Taharkin. Bleeding bodies lay all around them. Just unconscious, Tiara hoped. She summoned what strength she could and pumped out pheromones. Hopefully the Astouni had a real healer. Yes, there were two robed figures running glowing spheres over the fallen. But there were severed limbs littering the sand. Those would be beyond any healer to restore outside of the hospital facility at First Fall. Damn weirdos, wanting to live out here permanently! An hour from the nearest portal! Tiara would have to make sure to keep her arms and legs attached, losing one would be damned inconvenient.

When one of the Barush was tossed into the air and caught on the raised mandibles of a Tahar Worker that no longer respected any master, and sliced in half, the lance-wielders lost all restraint. Force cones whumped, ionising the molecules of heated air. Tiara groaned and flung herself onto the ground again. The wave hit her and, of course, she blacked out.

She must only have been out a short time, because when she awoke she was still surrounded by chaos. Beside her was a fallen Barush, magnificent limbs twisted awkwardly, arrows sticking out from her sycamore-leaf skin and blood pouring from a huge cut above her left eye. On her shoulder was Tiara’s whip.

Tiara couldn’t wield it with her hands tied. She called out to an Astouni hunter, held her hands out. He sliced through the rope but kept running. Automatic faction, hey.

Back on her feet with the whip in her hand, Tiara felt a surge of the certainty she’d always felt when fighting hip-to-hip with Spade; the weapon an extension of her arm, her balance naturally adjusting to it. Her right arm felt strangely truncated without a blade. It hadn’t always been a whip and a blade of course. In Starfarer she’d wielded a force whip and a Claw, in Woebegone two magicakal flails, and in Verlain the fire had rushed directly from her fingertips, making her hair stand on end. Of course she hadn’t been able to feel it there. Soon they’d be able to weave magic like that into a meat world like this one, but not yet. Briefly, Tiara yearned for the next world, the one that would give her real-flesh sensation and the full powers that belonged to her. It felt like destiny. It was in her. She was the Huntress.

Then something caught her and threw her down again. On hands and knees she saw her shadow swallowed by a larger shadow, and above her something clicked and rustled. Arses. Damn, shit, damn. She rolled onto her back. Mandibles reached for her. She flashed back to the fight with the patroller, the fight with the warriors, hiding under Spade’s shield, telling him – where the heck was Spade, anyway?

She flicked the whip up, sending blue fire streaking over the bug’s mouthparts. It reared away from her. She felt her arm being wrenched, but she wasn’t going to give up the whip again already. She grabbed it with both hands, jumped, and swung into the bug’s body as it plunged backwards, hitting another bug, scrambling backwards over it. She was thrown around mercilessly and her shoulders and arms screamed with the strain. Around her, battle still raged. She saw two, three, five Tahar Warriors now engaging the Barush lancers. The burn in her shoulders became agony. Feck it. She would have to let go.

She dropped like a stone and landed like a bag of groceries despite her high agility. Screw visceral reality, seriously. No thrill was worth this much pain.

Yards from where she was standing, she saw Spade. He was fighting back-to-back with B’Zuk, the two of them taking on three bugs at close quarters. Tiara had no weapon. She looked around for something she could use, and seized the severed tip of a Tahar foreleg, evil looking claw on one end and ichor oozing from the other. She turned it across her body, tucked and rolled under the midsection of the nearest insect. Emerging next to Spade, she joined the melee, using her severed leg to parry blows from stabbing mandibles.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” grunted Spade. “Not your kind of fight this, sweetpea. Get out while you can.”

“And leave you to form a battle-bond with Miss Megapecs here? Not ruddy likely.”

B’Zuk laughed, kept her sword moving. Clang. Clash. Sweat ran down her body, brought out the colours of her tattoos, but she showed no sign of fatigue.

“You can’t make any difference,” said Spade.

“Starting to seem that way. I meant what I said, you know.”

Spade just grunted and swung his mace.

#

It took no time at all for them to realise it when the bugs stopped moving. It was as though someone had freeze-framed the world, which in a sense they had. Attacks already committed by the players were completed; their impacts rang out and died away. For a moment silence reigned.

“God,” breathed B’Zuk, turning to Spade with fear in her eyes. Tiara noted the way he returned that look.

“Yup,” he said slowly.

“We should leave,” she said, taking his elbow. “This isn’t our fight, we’ve broken no lore. We didn’t call the gods down. Let’s go home. Please.”

He didn’t budge. Still looking at B’Zuk, he said gently “You don’t love me Ti. We made a good team, that’s all.”

Made? Made? It was over then. Whatever happened next, it was over. No new lives for Tiara and Spade, no new worlds to taste. Her thighs clenched with sorrow.

From somewhere to the west, there came a humming noise. A speck appeared in the sky and grew quickly, resolving into a huge flying lizard with golden scales. Tiara squinted. She’d never seen a god before.

The beast was as big as six Taharkin standing mandible-to-tail. It settled with a dramatic beat of its wings, blowing sand up into their faces. It swung its head from side to side, taking in the carnage. The Astouni who were not crumpled insensate on the ground gave a half-hearted cheer. As if they’d heard somewhere that it was what you were meant to do when a god answered your request. Tiara felt vaguely ashamed to be kin to them. Cowards, running to Teacher when the other kids didn’t play their way.

Eyes like diamonds bore into each of the players on the field. A voice spoke in their minds.

Astouni Guild of Taharkin Hunters reports Game Lore transgression level 2. Barush racial type modified for female representation without permission. Modified Barush avatars to be removed from Argosy. The decision of the moderators is final.

“That’s not fair!” cried Mashak, for the first time dropping her dialect. She sounded younger without it. “We requested permission eighteen times during beta. We collected nearly a thousand signatures. Lore has been changed before. You’re excluding a huge number of potential players with this decision. It’s bad lore. Da Boyz are hardly the neuter race Barush were intended to be. The whole race is being exploited by male chauvinist pigs.”

The dragon pulled a face that indicated the raising of an eyebrow, though it had none.

Design is working as intended.

And one by one, the dragon turned on each of the Barush, both standing and fallen, streamed fire from its great golden jaws, and burned them to a crisp.

When only B’Zuk remained, it spoke to Spade.

Stand aside, Earther.

Spade stood firmly between the Gurl and the dragon. Always the freakin’ hero. Just not Tiara’s hero any more.

“No,” said Spade. “I support their case. Women should be able to play avatars they identify with, especially here. Wherever the Gurlz decide to go next, I’ll go too. I quit.” He looked at Tiara, at last. “You could come with us?”

Tiara took a breath to answer. Sound was coming from her mouth before she knew what the answer would be. But she was looking at two piles of black ash, one containing a sword, one an axe and a collection of little bells. Each was topped by a bean-shaped metal object with a tail protruding from it, like a shiny silver tadpole; all that was left of the players. Tiara stood alone. The Astouni looked on in silence. Perhaps they felt a little guilty. She hoped so. Twats.

Do you quit?

What had I been about to say? Tiara wondered. She had no idea.

She tried to imagine staying in Argosy without Spade. It didn’t feel like home any more. There was nobody else in her Guild who would miss her. Strange and sudden as it was, the person she’d come closest to caring about besides Spade was Mashak, and Mashak was gone. She looked down at the body she’d designed with Spade in mind, tried to recapture the feeling of fighting, her sense of self. It didn’t come.

She tried to imagine moving on into a new game, alone. That didn’t seem right, either. She couldn’t imagine starting again, having to learn her way around a whole new world. Knowing nobody at all. And where would she go? After Argosy, other worlds would feel too flat. Without the massive death penalties, any other game would feel like… a game. She’d grown accustomed to playing for higher stakes. There were no other meat-worlds open yet, even in beta.

She tried to imagine returning to her real life. Part of her wanted to be free of all this: the built in sexism, racism, glorified violence. They were all here because they were primitives, getting their kicks by giving in to their most bestial instincts. Out there, people at least tried to be civilized. And so what if she’d never had good sex in real life? Sex was part of the problem, maybe it would be good for her to do without it. The game company had her original body on ice, they could slot her own shiny tadpole back into it, and she’d paid for the procedure up front. But she couldn’t remember anything about that life except the tiny apartment she’d bought before entering her first full-immersion game experience. She’d eaten and slept there, and that was all. She couldn’t remember her own face, and the attempt to do so filled her with a dread born of remembered boredom and loneliness. No, there was no going back.

“I don’t quit,” she said, as bravely as she could. “But I think I’ll re-roll.”

She wanted to leave an impression on these damn Astouni, and maybe she could do something for Mashak, too.

“I rather think I’ll go Barush.” Hairy chest and all. She undid the ribbon at her waist, pulled the shift off over her head and shook out her hair. Standing on the blue-grey sand in nothing but her boots, she put her hands on her hips and looked the dragon squarely in its glittering eye. This time round, things would be very different.

“Burn me,” she said.

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