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Alpha Zero by Arthur Stone

 

Overview: I should not exist.
All children like me are stillborn, or die in infancy. Those who cannot grow stronger, die. No empty child has ever reached a year of age, yet I am now thirteen.
It has been a long and miserable thirteen years, where the best I can manage to do is walk with difficulty. Sometimes, I cannot even manage that.
My clan has paid dearly for every minute of my life. And money is not so easy to obtain, here at the edge of civilization.
Perhaps I might have lived in this state for many years. A cripple, strong in mind but feeble in body. But when some unexpected guests came to our estate, everything changed. I would die at last – or, I would learn to survive on my own.

 

Alpha Zero by Arthur Stone Book Chapter One

 

Degrees of Enlightenment: Empty

Attributes: none

Skills: none

States: none

 

Teshimi is a dead man. Teshimi may still be walking, talking and breathing, but he is already gone. Teshimi is among that variety of dead men that haven’t a clue that it is all over for them. Were I to tell him that he had been banished from the realm of the living, the poor bastard would assume that he’d misheard me or that I was mad. The walking corpse is certain that everything is just peachy. That all he has to do now is to suffer through the boring half-hour greeting ceremony of the Mistress and her heir, at the end of which he’d head back home to Nadeira, as plump and jolly as ever, along with his two children. His dear beloved children, for whom he would do anything.

 

Including stealing from the clan.

 

Children are a source of joys and worries. Only in this world, the worries far outweigh the joys. Unlike the world to which I had been born and where I had lived my first life. This one comes with a unique burden that weighs on all parents without exception, peasant and noble alike.

 

Being the inveterate recluse that I am, I rarely interact with vassal shudras, but Teshimi is an exception. He holds a privileged position in the clan’s hierarchy of servants on account of overseeing a lion’s share of production of one of our major resources. The very product that makes food edible in the eyes of every self-respecting aristocrat. So crucial is his role that he reports to the Mistress directly and regularly. And seeing as I am nearly always by her side, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to get to know the farmer.

 

Compared to others of his kind, he isn’t bad. Perhaps he is even the best of them. His role carries great responsibility, and he shoulders it well. I would go as far as consider him one of the keystone pieces in the foundation of the pint-sized kingdom headed by my unhinged mother.

 

And today, this already flimsy foundation is going to suffer another blow to its stability.

 

Because Teshimi is a dead man.

 

It was three months ago that I had found out that he wasn’t long for this world. A man in my position is starved for entertainment, clinging to whatever comes along. So whenever my mother would sit down next to me to review the ledgers, I would join her in studying their contents. Sure, I could have just as easily ignored all the data—none of it pertained to me directly in any case—but then how would I have occupied my inquisitive mind? By staring mindlessly at the wall?

 

No thanks, I’ve had enough of that over the past week and a half. That and praying to the higher powers to aid in Camai’s swift return.

 

I knew that upon returning this time, he would kill Teshimi. But Teshimi was a dead man anyway, and I very much dislike spending my days playing the role of a spineless vegetable.

 

Camai brings back something that would turn me into a vegetable capable of at least some movement. Have you ever seen a walking eggplant? Me neither—until the vicissitudes of my new life had turned me into precisely such a wretch.

 

The place where mother chose to settle could be described by a word that had several synonyms in my native tongue. I prefer to think of it as a homestead, because a knight’s castle it certainly is not, despite formally being the last stronghold of one of Areia’s most ancient clans. Not even the Imperial family could match ours in certain points of gentility.

 

Yet, gentility doesn’t necessarily translate into might. Alas, the clan’s best days are in the past, as is the clan itself. Only one-and-a-half pieces remain: myself and Treya Atweir, ruler of the Crow and the biological mother of the pitiful body that serves as the host for my consciousness.

 

I had to become a self-taught acting prodigy to be able to refer to her as mother with a straight face and an unbroken psyche. Indeed, I may well have managed changing a few things about my psyche. But this was the only way to keep her from suspecting anything.

 

I had to become her son, and not someone pretending to be him.

 

The homestead amounts to a no frills single-story manor. Several service buildings stand out back, where the servants live and work. Further back, a tiny ceremonial grove conceals a modest ritualistic structure the likes of which I’d never seen back in my world. The locals refer to it as desai, which could be loosely translated as “great pain and courage.” It is a kind of hybrid between barracks and temple, where one is supposed to pray to the higher power responsible for military valor. Or, in simpler words, for murder. And not just to pray for it, but to actively develop it within.

 

This squat round barn is also the place where Camai dwells in between his excursions, upon which my very life depends. It has been said that he spends all his nights there, but even Blind Desu knows that this only happens in the rare periods when he isn’t warming the beds of shudra widows, which is both his privilege and his duty.

 

Losing her husband does not release a woman from her obligation to churn out new shudras for the Crow. Yet, as banal debauchery is frowned upon in the local society, it is therefore intricately woven into a complex system of rules and traditions—as was the case with all societies. And so the burden of bull stud fell on Camai, if for no other reason than the Crow simply lacking any other candidates for the job.

 

Today was a momentous day—and the reason for the clan’s subjects gathering at the homestead. On this day, Treya’s degenerate spawn was to be put on his feet yet again. That spawn being me.

 

Can’t argue with tradition.

 

I found myself playing mindlessly with the amulet brought by Teshimi. It is thanks to this very trinket that I wouldn’t be a total vegetable for the next five and a half weeks.

 

Oh, how pleasant it was to feel my hands and feet again.

 

Let alone actually move them.

 

I sat in a woven armchair to Treya’s right. Mother was perched upon her wooden throne, installed on the open terrace earlier this morning by the serving staff for the occasion. The throne was probably the fanciest piece of furniture in the entire homestead.

 

Staring coldly over the heads of the people who came to pay their respects to the Crow Clan and its leader, mother pronounced her sentence word by ruthless word.

 

“Teshimi took that which belongs to the Crow. Teshimi did this not once and not twice, but four times. That much is evident by reviewing the spices ledger.”

 

Teshimi, you foolish bastard. Why were you so awful at covering your tracks? I don’t actually fault him, because I understand the reason for his foolishness. He wanted his kids to grow up into people of consequence, and that costs money around here. The natives aren’t beasts—their babies aren’t capable of developing their ORDER skills independently, by filling up their spiritual centers and surrounding them with sets of attributes. If you aren’t a noble with wealth and connections, you have to really hustle for your offspring to reach the third, maybe even fourth degree, by the time they reach early adolescence. From that point on, things get a little easier.

 

And so Teshimi hustled. His legal salary wasn’t enough, but an industrious individual dealing with spices wouldn’t want for opportunities to enrich his mistress while taking care of his own. In all likelihood, he first started with cultivation and harvesting, as accounting for those stages rested on him alone. And for as long as he did it neatly and carefully, nobody was the wiser. But then he began to grow bolder—and all because of a new group of swindlers that turned up in our lands. Calling themselves the traders’ guild, they were the apparent blue bloods of the profiteering world, and their representatives wasted no time filling the heads of many with dangerous dreams, promising aid in unlocking any attribute. In exchange for payment, naturally. All five of them should the buyer so wish.

 

Teshimi adored his children. So he began pulling from the field in greater numbers—enough to make a visible dent in the accounting ledgers.

 

And that is why Teshimi is a dead man.

 

“He who steals from the clan makes himself enemy of the clan,” mother continued pontificating. “It is tantamount to declaration of war. And the Crow Clan is up to the challenge. As the izumo of the clan’s leader, Camai shall fight Teshimi to the death. Teshimi may choose any weapon from the desai of my home. Guyom, Dectori and Maguma, help Teshimi make his selection.”

 

Her judgment pronounced, Treya turned towards me and stroked my hair gently.

 

“Is my boy hungry?”

 

I struggled to fight back nausea at the thought of food, but didn’t let it show, shaking my head instead.

 

“I’m tired. May I lie down?”

 

“Just a little bit longer, son. Things are going to get interesting. Camai is going to punish a bad man.”

 

I dared to object. “Teshimi is not a bad man.”

 

Voicing an objection wasn’t common, and largely because doing so was utterly useless. Treya’s attitude towards me was irrational, to put it mildly. I was her only and favorite son, the source of all her broken dreams, evocative of great pity and longing—and yet, for all that, I might as well be furniture for all the attention she paid to my opinions.

 

“Teshimi is a very bad man,” mother repeated patiently. “Teshimi took something that belongs to the clan. He robbed you, my precious child. And for that, Teshimi shall be punished.”

 

The nausea was bad enough—but at least I was used to it, as it often accompanied the amulet’s return. On top of that, now I was going to have to sit here and suffer through this butchery. In a world without TV or Internet, these duels were considered premium entertainment. The few times I had witnessed such things in my former life, it was exclusively via a screen. And I must say that it hardly inspired me to encounter any such violence in the real.

 

I wish I could just close my eyes and not look at what was about to happen. But no, Treya wouldn’t have that. Nothing escaped her, and she was adamant in forcing me to do what I disliked.

 

Besides, not watching was just as hard. It is a weird trick of the psyche. You may cringe as you watch something truly repugnant, and still you can’t look away.

 

The last such execution had taken place at the end of winter, when Camai personally brought in a couple of bandits. Common farm hands from the southwest. The poor bastards barely made ends meet in summertime, so when the weather turned cold, the hunger pushed them to all sorts of lawlessness.

 

I still remembered the sight of blood spattering both my feet.

 

Ah crap, must I remember that now? I’m already nauseous...

 

Teshimi picked a spear. Good choice, Teshimi. It never failed to surprise me to see your random dolt going for a sword. It is a weapon of the aristocracy for a reason—the few commoners that could fight with it aren’t commoners anymore, but those of Camai’s ilk. Achieving that kind of status as a fighter is beyond difficult. The odds are about the same as winning a game in Nightmare mode with a naked character that can’t earn experience, when the lowest opponent can finish you off in a single shot.

 

Commoners were meant to be born, work the land, then die. Fighting with weapons was never in the cards for them.

 

That said, anything could happen—and sometimes did. The lands in which the pitiful remnants of the Crow Clan had settled are restless. But given our status of exiles who were unwelcome anywhere near civilization, we had to content ourselves with scraps of land at the edge of civilization.

 

And the lands beyond the edge are, accordingly, no longer civilization. Our clan was hardly enthused with our neighbors, as most of our interactions with them were of the unpleasant variety. Moreover, the scanty nature of the land fostered criminality among the locals, compelling even the most mild-mannered peasants to keep a quilted jerkin, a thick leather helm and a spear, close at hand.

 

So, yes, Teshimi, the spear was a solid choice. It is not uncommon to see a teenager handle the weapon with skill that would cause Hollywood stuntmen to turn green with envy, let alone a grown man with combat experience.

 

But skill wouldn’t be of any help to Teshimi.

 

Because Teshimi is a dead man.

 

Camai came out empty-handed and silent, as always. Wearing his usual uniform of all black, lips closed in a thin line. I once saw him go up against four men with nothing but his bare hands, and beat them all to death. With not a word spoken or noise uttered, he twisted their limbs, cracked their skulls, tore the flesh off their faces with inhumanly powerful fingers, and snapped their collarbones. That sickening crunch was still fresh in my memory.

 

Not once did his mouth open throughout that whole battle.

 

“Can that monster even breathe?”

 

I wish I knew the answer.

 

Teshimi is no fool, either. He knew full well that he wouldn’t be walking away from this. They always know. In this hinterland, a hardened beta-ranked warrior of the twenty-eighth circle of enlightenment might as well be an army of fifteen thousand Imperial guardsmen. Either scenario is just as unbelievable as the outcomes are predictable.

 

His chances going up against an army wouldn’t be any better than against Camai.

 

The duel lasted mere seconds. Displaying little enthusiasm, Teshimi spun the spear and thrusted the butt-end into the earth, aiming to send clumps of dirt flying into his opponent’s face. Camai easily evaded the clumsy attempt as he cleared the distance between the two.

 

A snatch and a jerk and the familiar sickening crunch, and the body of the former grower of spices crumbled to the trampled ground of the yard—his neck unnaturally twisted, the light of life gone from his eyes.

 

Teshimi is a dead man.

 

Is it me, or did Teshimi and Camai exchange words imperceptibly before the battle? It just seemed too long, the time they stood opposite each other before getting on with the action.

 

Must be my imagination. Teshimi was a common farmer, not a warrior. The secrets of the warrior class were sealed off from his kind.

 

Then again, who knows? Hardly anything surprised me anymore in this bizarro world.

 

“Teshimi fought honorably and deserves to rest in peace,” mother nodded, rising from her throne.

 

Wonderful. That meant the body would be handed over to his family instead of being dumped on the far shore of Redriver, to be promptly devoured by the predators of the Wild Wood. That would be some consolation to the widow, at least. Planning the funeral should distract her from her mourning, and channel her thoughts towards the future.

 

And the future far less certain now that she has two kids to raise on her own. Finding a new husband here is hardly realistic.

 

This land is rich with widows, making competition among the fairer sex quite fierce. And Teshimi’s widow is neither a beauty nor young, by peasant standards.

 

Up on her feet, Treya graced me with a smile and offered her hand.

 

“Come inside, my dear boy. It’s chilly out, and you haven’t your strength.”

 

That much was true. I don’t have my strength—or anything else, for that matter.

 

I am a zero, capable only of drawing breath once the amulet is discharged.

 

And barely capable, at that.

 

With an inhuman effort, I grabbed mother’s hand and willed myself to my feet.

 

It wasn’t the getting up part that was truly difficult. Sure, it was far from easy in my present state, but it couldn’t compare to the worst part.

 

The worst part was holding mother by the hand.

 

The same hand with which she had ripped out my heart.
 

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