The door swung open as Jim stepped into the house, absent-mindedly removing his shoes as he went through the bundle of mail in his hands.
“Junk, junk, bill, junk, coupons…eh?”
He pulled one envelope free and dumped the rest on the dining room table. After tearing it open, he discovered a card from his aunt that read: “Sorry it’s a little late, but happy birthday! I send a bit extra to make up for the wait!”
Jim sighed. “My birthday was three months ago…”
A gift card from Amazon was enclosed. When Jim saw the amount it was loaded with, his eyes went wide.
“Th…this is some kind of typo, right? That’s more than just ‘a bit extra’!”
Setting the card down, he made a quick call to his aunt to verify that this was the amount she intended. It checked out, so he excitedly thanked her, snatched up the gift card, and jumped in front of his computer. Seconds later he was on Amazon, scrolling through his wish list.
I could probably get a few of these things with this much cash. Although…this is the perfect opportunity to make one of the larger purchases.
Further down the list were the links he was searching for. Opening both in separate windows, he grinned and reviewed his options. Two beautifully crafted figurines stared back at him: one labeled “the Queen of War,” a heavily armored woman with long blonde hair, brandishing a longsword; one a slightly younger woman with short red hair and an elegant pink dress, dubbed “the Queen of Light.” Both wore a simple golden crown, though the ornaments bore different insignias to represent their respective wearers.
When Jim’s eyes wandered to the prices, however, his smile faded. Such well-made sculptures had equally impressive price tags, made worse by the shipping and handling necessary to fund their overseas journey. A quick check of the gift card reminded him that he could only choose one. Jim grunted, squinting at the screen as he tried to focus his thoughts. He was a fan of both characters. Being forced to choose between them was not something he was pleased to be presented with.
Still, he thought, it’s one or neither. I can’t miss this chance! I’ll have to decide…now, how do I go about that?
For a while he just sat there, staring at the screen while rhythmically tapping his fingers against the table. A few times he began to move the cursor, but each time he stopped, shook his head, and moved it back. Jim was in this state when the door opened and his brother and sister walked in. He instantly froze.
“Hey, Jim,” his brother said. “Back at the computer, I see.”
Shoot. I didn’t know they were coming!
“Be nice,” his sister said. “Anyway, we’re not bothering you, are we? I just wanted to stop by and see how you’re doing.”
Jim stood and took a few steps towards them. “No, no bother! Great to see you! How are you doing?”
His brother craned his neck. “What’s that you’ve got there? A gift card?”
Ugh! Jim silently shouted. I should’ve put it in my pocket or something!
As his brother made his way to the computer, Jim tried to subtly get between him and the device. It was an unsuccessful tactic. His brother picked up the card, looked at the screen, and grimaced.
“Seriously? More toys? You already have like a thousand of these.”
Trying to shrug it off, Jim said, “I’m a collector. Nothing wrong with that.”
“When a grown man would rather sit alone in a house full of toys than go be social, there’s something wrong, you nerd.”
Jim wondered if his brother was intentionally trying to be insulting, or if the term had just taken on such negative connotation that it couldn’t be heard any other way. He guessed that both were true. Before he could think of a response, his sister came to his rescue.
“Cut it out. Gosh, you always do this! Not everyone has the same interests as you. What gives you the right to go around dictating what’s normal, or telling people they have a problem just because their personality is a little different?”
Setting down the card, the brother said, “Only a nerd cries when a football breaks some plastic figure.”
The painful memory made Jim feel a little sick. His sister replied, “Really? I seem to remember you wailing like a baby when you got your precious football stuck in a tree.”
The brother clenched his teeth. “That was different.”
Seeing that her push was successful, the sister grinned. “Was it, though? Because they were both something that meant an awful lot to someone—the only real difference is whether it was yours or his. Heck, he handled it better than you did.”
Jim watched his brother try to think of a comeback. “…Ah, whatever,” was the best he could do. “I only came here to talk to your neighbor. That guy, at least, has some taste in hobbies.”
Jim didn’t want to admit it, but he was more than happy to see his brother go. With a sigh of relief, he said, “Thanks for backing me up…as usual.”
His sister shrugged. “Don’t mention it, as usual. So what’s up? Ordering some new recruits?”
She walked to the computer and eyed the screen. Joining her, Jim answered, “Yeah. They recently produced a new line of figures from this video game I play, and there are a few I’d like to pick up if given the chance. Those two are my favorites but…well…”
“You can only afford one?”
“Ah. How are you going to decide?”
Jim’s sister chuckled. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. Good luck, little brother.”
“Thanks,” Jim said as she walked out.
Alone again, he sat back and crossed his arms. An idea struck him. Opening a third window, he navigated to YouTube, typed in the name of the video game, and looked through the results for videos featuring either the Queen of War or the Queen of Light.
The Queen of War stood perfectly still. Miles below, the enemy forces could be seen marching through the valley, their armor glowing in the morning sunlight. From her perch, the Queen could see the entire group—about 200 in all.
It seems easy, she thought disappointedly. A trap, maybe? No, we stumbled across their trail by chance. This group was sent ahead to weaken us. The rest of the army is moving at a slower pace…probably about a day or two behind. The Queen of Nature thinks she can take us by surprise, make us feel safe with a small victory, and then surprise us again with a full invasion. Clearly she doesn’t know me as well as I know her.
The Queen looked over her shoulder. One of her vassals had approached, and now paused to bow.
Somewhat hesitant, the vassal said, “Not to question you, Your Majesty, but must we settle this with battle?”
“Of course,” the Queen said. “They are soldiers encroaching on our land. We must defeat them.”
“Surely there are alternatives. There could still be a chance to negotiate with them, could there not? You have always preferred that method in the past.”
“That was before I received the Crown of War. She who wears the Crown is no longer who she once was. You have noticed, yes?”
The vassal, not wanting to offend, took a moment to construct her reply. “I…have noticed some minor differences. For the most part, however, you have seemed to still be yourself.”
“I suppose, in a way, I still am. Crowns do not rob the wearer of her personality, but rather, meld it with that of the Queen it belonged to. I am still me…but I am also not.”
“I don’t understand, Your Majesty.”
“It is too alien to explain properly. But now that I am the Queen of War, my lust for battle can no longer wait for delays such as negotiations. You should return to camp.”
“I was under the impression we were about to attack?” Sekai asked.
The Queen of War unsheathed her sword and glared down at her enemies. “I will attack on my own.”
Before Sekai could protest, the Queen leapt off the cliff and fell down into the valley, sword raised above her head. The enemy troops spotted her and readied their crossbows, launching several arrows in an unsuccessful attempt to stop her. When she hit the ground, the Queen slammed down her blade, and crimson energy erupted from the land and rushed over her enemies, striking them with the force of a tsunami. The scattered soldiers attempted to regroup as the Queen of War advanced upon them. One swing of her blade felled a dozen. A few tried to avenge their comrades, but they were dispatched just as quickly.
The Queen calmly walked through the enemy’s ranks, killing as she went, but a few soldiers managed to slip behind her. Their foe was surrounded—sure of themselves, they opened fire. The Queen merely raised one hand. A transparent dome sprung up around her, protecting her from harm. When she waved her hand, the dome rapidly expanded, vanquishing her attackers and tossing away their corpses before it finally dissipated. She scanned the valley for survivors. A few enemies could be seen attempting to make a retreat, obviously more panicked than anything else. The Queen of War broke into a run, easily catching up, and then finished her foes with a lunging cut.
As they fell behind her, the Queen flicked the blood from her weapon. “As predicted…much too easy.”
The Queen of Light quietly walked down the hall, fidgeting with her dress as she went. Though her Queen personality was fond of such garments, her human side couldn’t help but wonder if something so flashy was really necessary, giving her mixed feelings to say the least.
“Oh, whatever,” she mumbled.
Suddenly she lost her balance—the tile she had stepped on receded into the floor, and numerous spikes flew out of the walls. The Queen used her power to create a barrier, which the projectiles bounced off of harmlessly.
Continuing on her way, she said, “You’re still using these archaic traps? Seriously, change it up every now and then…”
At the end of the hall was a massive iron door. The Queen held one arm back, paused, and then swung it forward. A blade of white light extended from her limb and sliced clean through the metal, simultaneously knocking down one half of it to create an opening. Stepping inside, the Queen of Light looked around.
The chamber beyond was vast but poorly lit. Torches dotted the walls, providing just enough light to see the mountains of books and bottles spread out over the floor, and in the midst of it all sat her target. The elderly man did not rise from his throne—he merely adjusted his glasses and smirked arrogantly.
The Queen gave an exaggerated curtsy. “An honor to see you again, Mahou. Your face grows more wretched each time I see you.”
The man cleared his throat, preparing his old, raspy voice. “As always, Your Majesty…the pleasure is mine!”
He drew a wand from his robes and sent a bolt of fire in the Queen’s direction. Unflinching, she batted it away with a swing of her hand.
“Can’t we skip this?” she asked. “It’s always the same: I show up, we fight, you realize you’re losing and find a way to escape, and then a few years later we do it all over again. Aren’t you at least half as bored with it as I am?”
Mahou laughed softly. “This time will be different.”
The Queen rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Never heard that before.”
Getting to his feet, Mahou said, “I have made much progress in my research. You still don’t know what it’s about, do you? Allow me to—“
“I don’t really care. All I know is that you go around attacking Queens and their countries, and I’m not a fan of that.”
“Don’t you want to know where you come from?”
The Queen frowned. Seeing that he had her attention, Mahou continued, “You Queens, once powerful goddesses, now sealed within parasitic crowns…don’t you think it strange that none of you remember how it came to be this way? Wouldn’t you like to know why you’ve been reduced to such a pathetic state?”
For a moment, the chamber was silent. Soon, however, the Queen replied, “If we don’t know, then we’re not meant to know. I accepted that a long time ago.”
Mahou grinned. “How disappointing. Maybe this will get you interested!”
Raising his wand, Mahou fired a volley of energy blasts. The Queen created another barrier, blocking the shots, and then lowered it to attack. During the delay, however, a stray shot hit her dead-on. Strangely, there was no physical pain, just a disorienting sensation unlike anything the Queen had felt before. In her confusion, she staggered back, and her Crown slipped off her head. Narrowly catching the object, she stared at it in horror. This should have been impossible. Once a woman donned a Crown, it could never be removed—it became a part of her, signifying the permanent fusion of her former self and her Queen persona.
As soon as she could, she placed the Crown back on her head. Mahou launched another fire bolt as she did so, catching her off-guard and knocking her back. Fortunately, the Crown did not fall off again—it seemed the link had been re-established—but it did nothing to make the event less disturbing.
“I don’t believe it,” she said. “You found a way to break the connection…”
“Exactly!” Mahou chuckled. “I have discovered how to rob Queens of their power! Now you have no way of defeating me, foolish Queen of Light! Surrender and I will not prolong your death.”
The Queen stood up and glared at Mahou. Her eyes showed no fear, no hesitation, just pure, focused determination.
“Congratulations: you’re officially a threat. But that means I can’t let you get away this time.”
Light began to radiate from the Queen. Mahou readied his wand, and…
Jim’s stomach growled. He paused the video, saying, “I guess I don’t need to watch the boss battle.”
Another growl made him hang his head. I told myself I wouldn’t eat until I decide! Come on, after all those videos, I must be close to a decision! Think!
Jim’s eyes darted between the two windows, thinking carefully about what he had seen of both characters. The continued pangs of hunger, however, prompted him to abandon this approach and operate on instinct. He drew the cursor over to the Queen of War’s window and clicked the close button. Turning back to the Queen of Light, he placed his order, closed the computer, and then went to grab some instant ramen.
“Well, glad that’s done. Can’t wait until she gets here!”
As he ate, Jim wandered into his room and stopped dead in his tracks. The walls were lined with shelves upon shelves, each one packed with dozens and dozens of figures. Dragons, samurai, mages, robots, and more all welcome him, calling forth memories of Christmases and birthdays, plus more than a few well spent paychecks. It was a wonderful sight…but it made him realize something. The Queen of Light would need a place to stand when she arrived, meaning one of the figures currently on display would need to be removed.
But…how am I supposed to decide?!