The mass cemetery housed 40,000 graves with many corpses stacked over old ones. Probably in total close to 300,000 bodies lay beneath Deo’s feet, some to the left, some to the right, some behind and some directly down.
Ophir lay asleep and the dead lay unmoving in this foggy pre-morning hour. Deo breathed in the crisp air. He ran through the numbers once more.
The metropolis had a population of 25 million, among the smaller cities of the Sister continent, with a mortality rate of about one percent per year, give or take. This includes deaths of any cause. Using this average meant there could be as many as 250,000 new corpses every year. While burial is not the only method for funerals, it is the most popular in Ophir. Unfortunately cremations were the second most popular method of human disposal in the city. To err on the side of caution, Deo went with fifty-percent as the amount of burials that didn’t destroy the remains of the deceased. The number was likely closer to sixty or seventy percent but the literature on such information barely existed. Fifty percent was a safe number to use.
So of the 250,000 deaths, if half were burials, then there should be about 125,000 thousand burials yearly. Humans, especially ones encased in tombs or caskets, will not decay for many years, dozens even, hundreds possibly.
The bones last the longest as most bacteria do not consume calcium as readily as soft tissue, blood and organs.
With the numbers he got, Deo calculated what five years of burials would equate to. Five years at 125,000 deaths a year meant 625,000 bodies. Likely most corpses would remain partially intact for far longer. At fifteen years there could be upwards of 1.8 million corpses. Even underground without any embalming or casket skeletal remains can last for half a century or more.
In fifty years there should be around 6.2 million corpses. These numbers were not insignificant, but they were not enough to take a city of 25 million. Deo didn’t plan on massacring every single citizen, that would be foolish, he just needed enough to secure the whole city, meaning he needed a few corpses per living person. Thankfully each person that dies in the resulting conflict can be added to his legion further, a very ergonomic factor in this equation.
Deo focused on his power. He could sense what his Aspect allowed, feeling the ability and ableness, the extent of his range, the requirements of preservation leading to absolute command over the dead.
It had to be a human corpse. Fully dead but not fully unblemished. Such was the benefit of closing all doors to other uses of his Aspect that Deo became so augmented in this singular function. Animal corpses would not work since he did not leave that possibility open. Flowers were no longer subject to his preservation either.
All for the human race. Deo’s Aspect was ever-activated, there was no way to turn it off. Because of this he grew accustomed to perceiving his range and depth, the scope his latent power harbored, though these particular sensations were novel to him, courtesy of his visit to the Island of Turtle.
It was because of that, that Deo knew the most basic level of corpse reanimation could occur to remains that featured only a single, sizable bone. A skull, a pelvis, a ribcage, a spine, any major bone would suffice. What that would look like was unknown to Deo, just the knowledge that it could be done was assured.
This greatly expanded his potential numbers. There were more factors to consider. Ophir, like most of the city-states, were constructed on top of older cities which were constructed atop more ancient cities. Humans built, lived and died over the same land for millennia.
So how many bodies truly lay under the city of Ophir?
Currently, slightly more than a billion humans live on the planet. Throughout all of human history there have been, to the most educated of estimates, several billion more, and that is the lowest guess. Reduce the total number to the amount of those cadavers whose bodies survived with at least a skull, pelvis or ribcage. Perhaps there are hundreds of millions of potential corpses in the world?
The number needs to be confined further to the space of Ophir. Measuring the past civilizations, which have been historically embalming or burying their dead for thousands of years, the catacombs of the previous cities that existed here, the numerous mass graves from wars, executions, plagues and disasters that archaeologists seem to uncover every couple years, detailing areas with tens of thousands of piled, intact skeletal remains. Accounting for everything, were there hundreds of ancient remains? Thousands? Millions? Deo would soon discover the answer.
Thinking through this Deo could almost hear what the ghosts of all these individuals would say to him if they could.
Leave my burial alone!
I yearn to live once more!
Do not harm my loved ones!
I refuse to be your thrall!
“Shhh.” He quieted the made up voices calling to him. How odd for nature to experience such perverse mechanisms. Decomposition allowed for new things to come to life, the breaking down of minerals and molecules was essential for life to continue. Without decomposition the mass of dead material would fill the planet causing carbon to build up so much that ecosystems would collapse altogether. A wasteland of undecayed piles.
Deo smirked, “that would be a sight to see.”
Uncomposition lay in the medium of rot and animation, a state of being unique to Deo’s Aspect. At its core it was a mockery of nature and an abomination to the cycle of life.
Deo squatted low and touched his hand to the ground, eager now to tempt biology. Deo tried to stay realistic to the enormous possible numbers whirling in his head. It was dizzying just imagining the horde of corpses he would control!
His power extended outward from his palm and a sphere of twilight briefly flashed before converging back to nothing. The sphere reached only several meters in diameter.
Deo felt less than a hundred bodies in his control.
He blinked. Deo walked a few steps and used his power again. The sphere of twilight extended only marginally further than the last time.
He had a few more corpses but the scope of his power’s range confounded him. Deo knew his power was better than that.
“Perhaps I just need to get warmed up.” He said to himself before attempting again.
The result was the same.
Deo took a deep breath, forcing down the rising concern. Was it false? That phenomenal cognizance of the raw potential that shadowed his every waking moment.
Deo needed to think. He paced around the cemetery, attacking the problem from different angles.
Meditation is common among Specters, is that what I lack?
He tried clearing his head but was not trained in the ways of silencing the mind. He never needed to meditate before.
It’s not like my power isn’t working, but I need to reach the entire city.
Deo found a flat gravestone and sat on it, ignoring the disrespect of sitting on the grave’s occupant. Of course Deo’s subsequent sacrilege would be far more damning.
Half an hour went by when Hege approached, waving. The burly man held his usual mug of black coffee.
“How goes it?” he asked, looking around to see nothing changed.
“I’m testing something but seem to have run into a problem.” Deo said vaguely.
“Ah.” Hege replied.
“Shall we take a walk?” Deo suggested.
Hege raised his mug in compliance.
Deo hopped off the gravestone and the two strolled through the city.
“Morning comes.” Hege observed. The sun broke the horizon and cleared the fog. The dew began to evaporate.
“How foolish of me.” Deo said beratingly. Of course!
“You have thought through your problem?” Hege asked.
“Yes. I would like your opinion on something.”
“Go ahead.” Hege encouraged.
“How many corpses do you believe lie beneath Ophir?”
Hege took a few sips before offering an answer. “I know the oldest civilization embalmed their dead and recent laws prohibited disturbing those ancient catacombs with so many outbreaks of graverobbers… I’ve heard some predictions that there are a few dozen million over the span of four thousand years.” Hege needed another sip. “But there’s no reason that information should be relevant to your power!”
Hege almost spat his coffee out. There’s no way someone’s Aspect could be so powerful at such a young age, Hege thought. If he’s telling the truth…
“My prediction was less than 10 million corpses.”
“You’ve underestimated the number by about 30 million I’d say, if you really can consider so far into the past.”
Hege kept his surprise to himself. 40 million corpses, this kid is insane! Can he, or anyone for that matter, really control so many bodies?
Hege himself worked with a few thousand but had plenty of secretaries and underlings to carry out orders. His Aspect, Hegemony, gave him authority over a couple hundred more but he didn’t micromanage their actions. He merely had total loyalty.
From what Deo told him the previous night, all corpses he controlled without functioning or surviving brains needed to be ordered directly. Which would account for a vast majority of them.
“An army of 40 million pawns.” Hege said in awe, taking in, really taking in for the first time the severity of Deo’s intent. Hege still couldn’t wrap his mind around the logistics of controlling such an army…
“Do you have any maps?” Deo asked as they changed streets, aimlessly walking through the city they soon would besiege.
“You mean maps of the city? There’s a newspaper vendor right over there, they’ll have an atlas or two.”
“Perfect.” Deo went to the dispenser machine and paid the necessary fee. The paper atlas fell into the deposit space and Deo snatched it. He leafed through the pages and was satisfied at the detail and thoroughness of the map. There were sections for every district within the metropolis.
This would be a valuable asset.
The morning began in earnest and Deo felt the jitters settle in his stomach. He chided himself for his stupid mistake at the cemetery. It was more of a lapse in attention to detail or an oversight, but still. Such failure was inexcusable, especially in this stage.
Light Trap. That was the name the shaman’s brew intoned in his mind. His ability within the Aspect of Death that all other possible doors were closed to enhance.
Obviously he’d need a much stronger source of light to use his power at the scale he was attempting. For the range of an entire metropolis and the number of potential corpses ranging in the thirty to forty millions a sunny, bright day would be required.
He killed the time with Hege, wandering in the city while discussing whatever relevant or irrelevant topic invited itself. They came across a worn down part of some gambling district. The amount of homeless and ragged people here reminded Deo of Garghent’s inner city, the poverty sector designed to herd all the poor.
A scrawny boy, thin as a stick with matted greasy hair and large blank eyes started singing completely tone deaf and out of key. Gauging the reaction of the stirring people in the area, this was a normal thing for the boy, who obviously lived in the alley he loitered around, to do. A small and empty tin can stood at his feet.
The boy’s unfocused eyes gave away his blindness. He sang his repetitious tune unceremoniously for everyone to hear, echoing the majority thought of the milling citizens and beyond that the whole world if they could have been in earshot.
“What’s it like to be happy?”
“What’s it like to be happy?”
“What’s it like to be happy?”
The urchin’s immature voice rang oddly musical despite the lack of any singing talent, Deo thought. He had his own rhythm, his own tempo and most of importantly a genuine passion for the song which was a misheard chorus of a real song.
Deo paused near the boy and listened. The boy turned his head to Deo and continued to sing. Hege tapped Deo’s shoulder and whispered, “why not give the lad something?”
Deo shrugged and accepted a wad of cash from Hege. Deo dropped it in the bucket and moved on.
“Thank you sir!” The kid squeaked before continuing to sing.
Another rugged old man with missing teeth started talking. “Kid’s been singing that song for the last five years.” The lack of teeth made the man’s voice hard to understand.
Deo replied after mentally translating the toothless man. “How old is he?”
“I’d say about twelve.” The man chuckled, a painful sound, “ain’t nobody ever steal from him before. You want to know why?”
“Why?” Deo asked after the man stayed silent, waiting for a response.
“Because he always shares his cash! That’s a good lad.” The man produced a wheezing laugh.
“What’s it like to be happy?”
Deo walked intently, barely controlling his anger, from the area.
Hege followed after Deo. Hege sensed Deo’s mood darken considerably. He felt some of the hate ooze from the violet-eyed man that must be spurning him on to attempt such a feat as conquering a city.
“I’m going to kill them all!” Deo threatened. Hege caught up enough to see Deo’s eyes blazing purple light.
“Calm yourself, boy, you’ll only draw attention.” Hege warned quietly.
Deo covered his eyes with one hand, grabbing his own face hard enough to dig his nails in.
“Why did that urchin affect you so?” Hege asked, trying to talk Deo through his anger.
“What’s it like to be happy?”
“What’s it like to be happy?”
Deo could still hear the boy singing in the distance.
“I don’t know.” Deo deflected the question.
“You are planning on massacring the city, but perhaps you have had a change of heart?” Hege offered.
“No.” Deo said sternly.
“You’re raging against the injustice of the world. How even the saddest of urchins can still be charitable, and therefore get cheated by his neighbors. It’s pitiful and one of the lows of human depravity.”
“Oh no. Seeing that makes me want to get violent. There is not some empathy forming in me from that kid.” Deo spoke sadistically.
Deo quickened his pace, searching for an isolated space. Too many humans in the way.
Deo imagined the streets lined with soulless corpses walking through the motions like they were living people. It made him smile to think that soon they would be.
“Why is the world the way it is?” Deo asked, with more control to his voice now.
Hege said nothing but watched Deo carefully.
“In an endless vacuum of wasteland I claw at the dirt and clutch at the water. A fistful of mud in my hand is laid out to dry as brick. I stack brick by brick ten thousand times forming a line on the ground. This is my boundary I say, outside is evil and those who cross this shall perish. The organs pulsing in your body are not the same as mine when you stand opposite this wall. Nothing is the same as mine. Desperately I grasp for immortality. The things I surround myself with validate my existence. If I gather more I will not die. Mocking laughter accompanies my endeavors. I curse the wind for bringing jeers and scorn. From tears will I be reborn. In the sorrow will my strength be renewed. In sickness my invention leads to discovery. I pull down a mountain to gather stone, such is my hopeless hope that I change the land. I stack stone by stone ten thousand times forming a line on the ground. This is my boundary I say, outside is evil and those who cross this shall perish. The stone corrodes and leaves me vulnerable. Permanence is unobtainable by me but I cannot cope knowing that. In nothingness I explain existence. I condemn yours. My life is longer as a result of your suffering.”
Deo found a spot clear of the crowd, secluded from daily activity but lit by the midday sun.
“For all the talk of Man and his symbols there is but one that resonates through time and ages with the same ringing… It is Man’s dream. We reach for it in sleep, grasping nothing. In the morning we rub our eyes trying to recall the visions, left only with pallid memories of the dream. Throughout the day the feelings of nostalgia haunt our waking life. At night we fade to unconsciousness and seek once more the revelations of the thing we call dreams. Culture is built around these opaque nightly hallucinations. We kill and die, love and hate in direct relation to our dreams. The daydreamers long for the dark recess of sleep while the insomniacs dare not succumb to the void of slumber. Man understands so little. We are creatures of that void. It is during voidlessness, our wakeful animation, that the lie of life is performed. Removed from our innate state of being Man forgets his nature. Consciousness evolved to sustain our vessels for prolonged sleep. By dividing sleep into a waking half and a comatose half Man could better interpret and prepare for the journey of his dreams. That we are our unconscious is unknown to us. We named ourselves ‘unconscious’ and thus caused our own amnesia. Consciousness is a cheap counterfeit to our true homes in the void.”
Deo pressed his hands to the ground as he did in the cemetery. He was losing his grip on reality, the insanity of his voice sounded eerie.
“I have travelled in that void, that screaming abyss, and learned of power and the Aspect! I have attuned myself utterly and inescapably to my Death. What I witnessed was the dream-state Man has sought, though he knows not he seeks it. I found Man’s void and stared into the deep. Power comes from that void. Courage, valor, love, ingenuity, violence, all our emotions and everything derived from the psyche is said to come from within. What is within? Inside is our connection to the void. The Aspect is no different. These vessels, the human body, is merely a physical container from which the unconscious can interact. We are catalysts for the void and the eyes are windows to the void and each breath sustains our bodies in preparation for the void! They are called Aspects because they exhibit, no, facilitate an element as it expresses itself from void to Man to physical world. So here, Ophir, is my piece of the void. Damned be the voidless world. From dust and light you were born and with dust and light you will be reborn.”
Deo used his Aspect. Out of his hands extended a sphere of twilight that grew beyond the walls of Ophir. Thousands of square kilometers became enmeshed in the lightless sphere. Deo felt every second thousands of corpses and bones fall under his necromantic tyranny. He gave no orders so they remained as motionless as when they were decaying.
Thirty seconds past and the twilight remained.
Hege watched in consternation. No one, save for the most enlightened Fables, should be able to use their Aspects at such magnitude.
The lack of sunlight, as it was all being absorbed, in the area caused the temperature to drop rapidly. A minute went by and still Deo felt only two million corpses.
The rush of so many bodies under his command triggered severe vertigo and Deo puked out everything from his stomach. Deo slammed the ground with his fist, forcing himself to focus. The smell and taste of bile lingered on him but he felt better for emptying his stomach, despite the burning in his throat now.
Frost started to form all over the city as temperatures dropped further below freezing. Hege shivered from the cold and looked up to the sun. Through the sphere of twilight the sun appeared as a distant light, faded and blurry. It was like being in a colorless eclipse, yet outside the sphere of Deo’s Aspect all was normal. The city would likely explain this away as a weather phenomenon until they discovered it only occurred in Ophir. The next explanation would be that a Specter was up to something but by the time that conclusion was reached it would be too late for the city to prepare.
Another minute went by and Deo’s numb fingers pressed into the dirt. His whole body trembled from the effort and even the light from his eyes were absorbed by the twilight. He was well into the millions now but not even half of the corpses under Ophir had been preserved by his uncomposition.
The intense change in temperature caused all the natural moisture in the air and clouds to freeze in bulk and fall as drifting snow. Hege likened the city to a snow globe, a contained sphere where snow flurried around.
Several more minutes ticked by. Deo at last stopped his power and collapsed to the ground. He did not pass out but his whole body needed to recover. Light returned in an instant and the warmth came back to evaporate the ice.
Deo’s breathing was heavy. His mind worked furiously to compensate for the massive intake of information. He did not sense through his corpses, but he did feel their location, their configuration and their capabilities. He controlled them but he didn’t in any way become or merge with them. They were separate entities tethered to him by his power.
His army consisted of thirty-eight million corpses that at one time were living, breathing humans. Deo rolled to his feet and tried to stand. He staggered but Hege gave him support.
Deo shrugged Hege’s hands off and leaned on a nearby tree instead.
Deo pulled out his map and spread it on the floor, ripping pages apart to create a larger map collage.
“Hege, show me where the military, police and wealthiest districts are located. Chemical factories too.”
“Let’s see.” Hege squatted over the maps and rearranged them by physical location. Hege turned the atlas into a visual of the whole city. He took a marker out and began circling and labeling general areas he thought Deo would be interested in.
“These are major police headquarters. Here, here and here are ports, trains stations and helicopter airways. Military bases I circled with X’s. These twelve districts represent the wealthiest and most populated ones.”
“Which one is yours?” Deo asked. They had discussed the previous night that Hege’s district would not be touched.
“This one here. I control the mayor of the neighboring district as well as these three other small districts. A couple more locations have my loyalty which I will mark with a star.”
“You’ve extended your influence pretty far.” Noted Deo, finally regaining his composure somewhat.
“I was, more or less, attempting to do a similar thing as you. Conquer the city. Our methods differ but I see how this can work. Likely, we are two of the most brilliant minds with Aspects that bring us a legion of followers. What’s the plan with your army?”
Deo nodded. “I’m going to keep them underground, they’ll dig under the foundations of these major buildings and sweep through the sewers. Once the buildings crumble from below my corpses will swarm the streets. Your districts will not be touched of course. I would like you to use your connections to ensure the safety of what I will refer to as priority citizens. I am planning on keeping half a dozen million occupants alive. I want the top craftsmen, artisans, chefs, architects and other skilled workers of renown to help upkeep the city when the aftermath settles.”
“Forty million of your… corpses should be enough to destroy the foundations of most of Ophir’s more important buildings.” Hege agreed, weighing in the numbers. “Using their position underground like that is clever. The city won’t see it coming. Right now the city is on high alert from the twilight but I imagine by nightfall people will calm down.”
“Yes, I was worried my power might cause a big commotion. Thankfully the public is easily fooled by whatever explanation the media will come up with.”
“What about the walls?” Hege asked as he continued to mark zones in the city.
“The walls stay. I want this city to be locked down. No one leaves. It’s the most efficient way to take over.”
“Aye. We’ve got our bases covered pretty well. Let’s consider some potential risk factors. A strong Specter could easily counter our whole operation. Each district’s military could be mobilized to defend against your horde, which I imagine will not be armed, at least at first.”
“In terms of random Specters, I will handle that. For the military, we will overwhelm them. Armories are a target and though the aim will be inferior to a trained soldier, my corpses can at least squeeze a trigger. I cannot imagine Ophir owning enough ammunition to win.”
“Surprisingly, they might. Almost every citizen owns a basic firearm. But I will make an educated guess and say that a single shot will not have the same effect on one of your corpses than it will to a living person, what with the lack of blood and organs.”
“You are correct. Any large chunk of intact bone can become a corpse. If they are not adequately destroyed, say the skull or ribcage, then they will move so long as they have legs or arms.”
Deo ordered groups of corpses to dig to the commanded locations. The orders were to begin excavation of the entire horde and then reach a building and deconstruct the foundations to cause collapse. From there the massacre can start. Judging by their progress it will take the rest of the day and most of the next day before buildings start to topple. The corpses were brainless but received broad orders well enough. Deo was beginning to feel that his orders carried his intention with it. His power was so refined now that the link between him and his horde was like an extension of willpower. It very much resembled the feeling of moving pieces in a board or a video game to Deo.
“I better get going. This will be a busy few days and I’ve a lot to prepare for the transition of power.”
“I’m counting on you.” Deo said as he gathered the maps into a single pile and stuffed them in the book binding.
“So am I.” Hege replied honestly.
Deo relaxed head against the tree trunk.
“Don’t get yourself killed out here.”
“Under me is fifty thousand preserved humans, ready to breach the surface at my command. You’ve not to worry.”
“Ah! Call if you need anything. Coordination will be key if we are to pull this off.
“Well then, I’ll take my leave.” Hege phoned a driver and lit a cigar. He puffed on it in rapid succession, his nervous tick already beginning.
Deo said nothing more and let himself doze off under the tree. He thought of the kid by the alley and the song stuck in his head.
“What’s it like to be happy?”
Deo had no answers. But he did have a response.
Death becomes the human race. What that had to do with the question Deo didn’t know. He drifted to sleep in the shade of the tree dwelling on this.
Deep in the sewers an emaciated woman in a torn dress caressed her anxious rats. They were the first to encounter the risen dead and they screeched their warnings. She sent messenger rats to gather the clans…
The Onager Aspect witnessed the twilight sphere from afar as he was visiting the city. A veteran of many sieges, he sensed the upcoming conflict and took to a hillside two kilometers out and activated his spectral siege engine. He would wait for the fighting to begin and join in the chaos…
A boy and a girl sat on a park bench. The girl was crying over her dead lover and the boy, who was the brother of the dead lover, kept the girl shrouded in his dark angel wings. She wept pitifully and anyone too close would be compelled to die. They were in the park alone.
All around Ophir the enlightened roused upon feeling the power Deo emanated. Lingering in the back of every Specter’s mind was the itching feeling that a bloodbath was fermenting.
What kind of Specter wouldn’t be excited by that prospect?