Chapter 72 Skullheads

Deo grew bored hearing the crime disputes of the petty humans at the foot of his throne. Listening to them all day harp about their dull lives in full detail and whatever series of events led to the misery or great injustice done to them. Normally Hege handles such disputes but particularly disagreeable and stubborn cases require Deo’s own judgement. Deo considered having both parties killed but knew for a city to function actual living people needed to occupy it.

Deo decided to dismiss the case for the day and promised them a conclusion would be reached in the following one. With that headache gone, Deo stretched and descended the stairs, Jan following close behind.

Ophir was rife with construction projects, cleanup and restoration. It gave the humans something to do, to occupy themselves with rebuilding rather than retaliation. Hege had done a superb job in governing the humans to contentment. naturally charismatic, Deo doubted Hege needed his power much. Deo kept his undead quartered off in different sections, away from the humans per the request of Hege. It helped with morale if people didn’t have to live near walking corpses. Around the ziggurat, however, were millions of the dead. When Deo had nothing else to do, he ordered the undead in the area to construct various structures, monuments to fill the empty, cleared out space surrounding his ziggurat. The early workings of pyramids, obelisks, statues of beasts, standing stones, metal trees, anything that his imagination conjured, adorned his palace. There was one particular statue he was keen on finishing, a twenty-one meter high weeping willow with long, spindly fingers and animal and human spinal cords mixed in with the metallic foliage, all reaching down. 

But that project would have to wait. The invasion of Vallis took precedence over the sculpture garden. He named that perimeter area around his dwelling the Garden of Nede, the center of which was the ziggurat, atop of which rested the throne of the world.

Central to the invasion was the Palaot elder, Kiasmus. The Marrow Aspect required his own sector of the city to do his work. Deo saw the raised dirt where Kiasmus dug a massive crater into the ground from kilometers out. 

In the mood to walk, Deo decided that as his means of travel. 

“You may go, Jan. I wish to be alone.” Deo dismissed his bodyguard.

“Yes, lord.” Jan bowed and changed direction. Deo didn’t watch him leave as he slipped on his earplugs and connected his phone. He found a book, old writings from a philosopher of bygone ages.

Forever, it felt, since the last time Deo strolled through a city with nothing but his thoughts and whichever of the endless sources of information and entertainment his phone could provide him. 

It made no difference that the background people in this city were dead. People anywhere are dead, even when they are alive they are dead.

And even when they are dead they are live, thought Deo with a twisted smile.

The philosopher that Deo listened to, Azel the Mad as he was called, went into the concept that color is derivative of chaos, that only when something is filled with saturation and pigmentation does it then become creative and alive, two faculties of chaos. Faded colors, like rock and dirt, the philosopher argued, were lifeless and served no purpose in terms of essence and chaos, the fundamental energy behind animation, aliveness, because of their lack of coloration.

Deo was enjoying this particular book because it included the dialogues of many of that philosopher’s rivals and their back and forth debates. One rival countered Azel the Mad by pointing out that if color contained such power a bucket of paint would rule the world. 

Deo listened to the audiobook reader give Azel’s response.

“Oh but it does, young Fethstene! With a bucket of paint I can emblazon a crest of war and lead men to battle, men who will die for that insignia. I can mark my body and face with shapes and alter my persona. I can erect a splendid wonder, dedicated to whomever I choose and the men of today and the men of a thousand generations to come will see it and gaze in awe, inspired and under the spell of that tinged wonder. Most of all, young Fethstene the Thinker, I can take that rock, devoid of life and color, and paint it. Thus the rock comes to life, and I shall name it and it will have personality, signifying something. A symbol, a token, a talisman. That rock is now imbued with the majesty of chaos, a contributor to entropy, but filled with creativity, soul and consciousness. There can be no freedom or free choice without color, young Fethstene the Foolish, and one day all the colors will bounce in this cradle of existence together in the grand phantasmagoria at the end of times, when the boundaries of reality blur with that of unreality, and finally all the colors will combine into an eclipse of colorlessness, then follows silence.”

Azel the Mad is considered the first true abstract philosopher. He was an old man when he died, stabbed to death by a robber. All Azel had on him, according to legend, were three sticks of chalk in the primary colors red, yellow and blue.

Deo undid his earplugs as he came upon the site of Kiasmus’ lair. Cresting the barricade, Deo looked down into the deep depression, scaffolding and ladders lining the interior. The several hundred Palaot’s Kiasmus brought with him were all assisting in this enterprise.

In the center of the pit, Deo saw peering over the precipice, was the axis of the labor. 

A thing made of bone. Deo noticed that the Palaot brought bones harvested from the dead down to the bottom while Kiasmus added the bone to the ‘thing’ of his Marrow Aspect. Deo couldn’t make out what it was aside from what appeared to be a basin.

Kiasmus climbed the thing of bone upon seeing Deo above. The thing was really a creature of enormous stature.

It rose slowly, standing on four, thick, multi jointed legs. These legs resembled that of a crab’s by design. The torso was a giant stem or pillar with an elongated skull caricature. The crustacean theme extended to two appendages at the top end of the skull-stem torso in the form of arms with dual pronged claws. The roof of this bone thing looked like a mushroom cap flared upwards, providing a bowl or basin at the top. Deo thought the skull portion housed the eyes at first but on the mushroom cap were two protruding circles which were obviously the eyes upon closer inspection.

Deo could easily break down the inspiration for this bone thing, crustacean, mushroom, skull, but together in this titanic monstrosity the fitting was oddly satisfying.

“You’ve arrived, lord Deo.” Kiasmus was standing atop his bone thing, which had reached the entire height of the pit, around sixty meters. Deo and Kiasmus were at eye level. Deo didn’t miss the accuracy at which Kiasmus orchestrated this whole project.

“I have. I like this.” There were no signs of the qualms Kiasmus had for joining Deo as a supplicant at this point. “What is it?” Deo asked.

“Meet my Skullhead. The first of this size I have ever been able to construct.” The Skullhead must have been a lifelong passion of Kiasmus, a creation of his Marrow Aspect he stuck with beyond any other possibility.

“What can it do?” Deo asked, unsure of its function, though not doubting its potential.

“See for yourself.” Kiasmus tapped the Skullhead and it titled forward slightly, to reveal, in full view of Deo, the complete size of the bowl. Deo saw that it was less of a bowl and more of a plateau just with the flared edges. Edges that could guard something inside.

“A transport?” Deo’s eyes widened slightly with the revelation.

“Your undead can stand in here and be carried right to the high walls of Vallis.” Kiasmus said pridefully.

“I can stack them, the undead will not be discomforted.”

“You could fit hundreds of thousands that way. My Skullhead will not buckle under the weight and the power needed to destroy it will leave any enemy short on munitions.”

Deo nodded, thinking. “How many skeletons would you say this took to make?”

“You generously gave me over a million’s worth of skeleton, lord. I forged the bone to be as condensed as possible. It will not break.”

“Make two more.” Deo ordered.

“Lord?” Kiasmus said, taken aback.

“I will provide you three million more skeletons. I will have a furnace prepared so that I can melt the flesh off and then order them to walk right to you.”

“You want this done fast.” Kiasmus stated candidly.

“The invasion of Vallis will be as soon as you finish.”

“It has taken a month to finish this one, lord.”

“You have a month to finish the next two. I want Vallis before the Autumn.”

Kiamus scratched his beard, grateful for the donation of bone but concerned over the logistics of completing the task. “Having you walk your dead right to me will certainly cut down on transporting the raw material… It could work.” concluded Kiasmus.

“I am hosting a war council tonight at my hall. We will discuss it more then.”

“Very well, lord.”

Deo took his leave and Kiasmus called it a day.

Deo dialed Hege and informed him to gather the top officials of his administration and all the Specters in the city for this war council. The conversation was brief and Deo made his way back to the throne. He sat there, overlooking the horizon as his mind drifted. With renewed motivation he sent his corpses to work on his tree statue. After seeing Kiasmus’ own creation, Deo felt inspired to portray his artistic style within use of the Aspect all the more. It served as good practice to hone his commanding skills, day by day increasing his ability to order more specific assignments with less management in large groups.

Deo’s mind wandered.

He thought old thoughts and of the blind boy singing repetitiously the same song in the worn streets. Every day the same dream. What’s it like to be happy? 

Deo was indiscriminate with his attack during the invasion, the genocide. The likelihood of the boy being killed and becoming one of his preserved corpses was high. Deo refused to draw the face from memory and search among the horde to seek out the reality.

It changed nothing.

The suffering of the world changed nothing. 

Dreaming all the time. 

For that suffering and the dreams unfulfilled the human race would bury. Bury far, far into the dirt, into soil and soot as ash and dust, unmarked, an untraceable race of hominids erased from time and the universe. 

Somber thoughts were the deadliest for Deo. Like a violent storm in his mind, bloodlust boiled in him as sadness deepened. 

The peak of Deo’s emotional instability, full of rage and fury, was the psyche he began the war council in. 

His Specters filed in. Hege climbed the stairs to take his place next to the throne, puffing on a cigar and sipping his black coffee. Jan flew to his spot on the other side of the throne, landing softly on his toes. Kiasmus found a place to sit on the floor in the main, second floor area. Garriot, who brought his own chair, arrived with Goblin. The Onager Aspect leaned against one of the gargoyle statues in the corner. Bubonica, the Rat Spores Aspect, stood with a small swarm of rats milling around her feet. Klea, the Veil Aspect, took a spot on a bench. Lorrely, the Weeper Aspect, approached shyly hand in hand with her dead doll. The monstrous Carn Aspect and the Arachnomania Aspect, Arvin, came together and picked a place no one else was at. Last to arrive of Deo’s Specters, the Veinbreaker Aspect, who simply stood with arms crossed, lean muscles defined and black veins pulsating.

Other hired mercenaries and a few ranking citizens of Deo’s Ophir, appointed by Hege, joined the war council. Everyone was gathered and Deo removed undead from the ziggurat to leave the space crowded.

“Let us begin.” Deo’s expression was set and his eyes were livid and mauve. It cemented the mood of this council. All business, war business.

“The purpose of this council is to decide the strategic course for the conquest of the metropolis Vallis which numbers around eighty-seven million citizens, the most populated of the Sister continent.” Deo addressed Hege. “Debrief the war council of the qualities of Vallis. What do we know of the city.”

Hege drank a few sips before setting the steaming coffee down at his feet. He needed his hands to talk and the cigar took precedence over the caffeine.

“As you know, Vallis is situated at the center of the continent. The location and climate has made Vallis the foremost producer and distributor of food, both crop and livestock. They boast the largest and best quality farms. This, however, is a triple boon. Because of the sheer amount of raw material they obtain from their farms, Vallis is also the leading manufacturer of textiles and pharmaceuticals. Investments in railway and packaging has allowed Vallis to outperform other cities with their own native businesses. Their trade empire is unmatched in the continent and only Garghent rivals their capital.” Hege paused momentarily to drag his cigar. “Vallis is run by what you would call a Corporatocracy, the business monopolies control the city. They outsource their military to third parties but do not think they have neglected defenses. The contractors they use are uninhibited by government restrictions, they are sanctioned to do anything necessary for the maximum defense. Protecting the farms and factories is the top priority. One final point of interest to note is that the city proper is extremely dense but probably doesn’t house more than seventy million citizens at any given time. The surrounding farmlands house a sizable population, it equates to roughly seventeen million workers dedicated to farmland jobs, if the latest census is to be trusted. Studies have shown Vallis itself can accommodate for a hundred million people, though it would be crowded, but the point is they have the food and lodging to last years of siege.” Hege scooped up his coffee, indicating the conclusion of the opening.

Deo outlined his plan. “It is their defense we will exploit. By raiding the farmlands outside of Vallis we will force the population to hole up inside the city proper. For that task there will be three parties, one led by Garriot, one by Veinbreaker and the third by Onager. The purpose will be to destroy infrastructure and scare the farmers, but avoid excess killing. Vallis must swell. To protect their industries and to prepare for the coming siege, Vallis will move all their food stores to the city. Their plan of defense is simple, turtle.”

The Onager Aspect raised his hand. 

“This is an open council, speak freely when you have something to say.” Deo announced.

Onager took the floor. “I’ve got some experience in sieges, and I was there in the failed Siege of Garghent. Even with the superior numbers, it’s nearly impossible to take a city that has time to bolster its defenses. This siege will take years. Trying to win a war of attrition against Vallis is foolish, lord. That is my honest take.”

“Thank you for voicing that concern, Onager. It is useful to have varying opinions and I trust your experience.” Deo said formally. “It is precisely for that reason the siege will be swift, Vallis will fall by the end of summer.”

Some murmuring broke out and a few people started talking at once. Onager was shaking his head, openly skeptical.

Deo continued. “The invasion will start in one month’s time, the middle of spring. The three raid captains will begin preparations immediately. Every three days I will send between ten and fifty thousands corpses to invade farms. The main purpose of this is to distract Vallis’ guard while the raiding is carried out. Should they neglect them, the corpses they’ll wreak havoc and destruction. If they focus on the corpses, the raids become uncontested. The resources needed to destroy a horde is going to leave them short by the time of the real siege.”

One of Hege’s appointed officials, a thin and balding man, posed a question. “What’s the thought process behind sending a horde every three days, lord? Wouldn’t Vallis pick up on this pattern and optimize their defenses accordingly?”

“That is the hope. I want Vallis to know we are coming. The purpose of the preparatory month is to instill fear in the people of Vallis and burn ammunition. My corpses are much more durable than a living human as a significant portion of the body or head must be destroyed. They will learn this and discover the pattern of attack. This sort of structure builds anxiety in the populace. The common civilian will know the nature of the enemy and the timing of the attack but not the location. They will think to themselves ‘are we next?’ That paranoia will reach a critical mass and from the farms to the city they will go running. We are an unknown force to Vallis, therefore for them to fear us we must provide information.”

“I see. I am impressed at how deeply you thought through this, lord.”

Deo saw the man make eye contact with Hege. There was clearly a lot of apprehension in following Deo and further hesitation in trusting someone half their age. The balding man and his small group looked satisfied, or rather more open to listening now.

“On top of the raiding parties, there are three Sages amongst us who are to infiltrate into Vallis. Klea, the Veil Aspect, Arvin the Arachnomania Aspect and Lorrely, the Weeper Aspect. I am not entirely familiar with the use and abilities of the three of your Aspects but your role is to enter Vallis and ferment dissension. You will journey to Vallis tomorrow, well before the raids, and once there decimate the morale of the people. A society is composed of individuals, this is a fundamental principle of human arcology. Make multitudes of individuals doubt and fear, add to the entropy of Vallis and the human need to talk will spread those values to the rest.”

Klea started to talk, a veil covering the majority of her face. Her speech was almost cryptic, like it served a purpose beyond conversation. “Lies, scorn, agony and grief are the vices of decay my power abuses. Veil is a mirror reflecting the unconscious all that it wishes to see and all that it hates in itself.”

No one commented or said anything following her explanation.

Deo nodded. In the couple of times he’s heard her speak he could feel the efficacy of her words, the emanations charging the air around her. Deo had the suspicious sense that Klea was a Sage far outside his ability to control. Perhaps the safest route would be to convince Hege to use his own Aspect on her, but that would require him to set up a game to play and for him to win it the first time. And between the two Sages, Deo assumed  they’d pick up on the other’s intentions and abilities. 

Sage’s are a different breed of Specters, thought Deo. It’s all mental with them. Layers under layers of subtly. 

“Arachnomania’s my Aspect.” Arvin declared, introducing his power and breaking the silence. “My Aspect can be described as inducing fatal spider attraction in my victims. Spider hallucinations and spider gravitation.” Arvin was playing with a spider as it made a web from one hand to the next. The spiders hanging from his ears were still and sleeping. “My victims will experience a psychosis of spider illusions that border on severe schizophrenia but at some point actual spiders arrive and gorge themselves on blood and lay eggs. It is like a curse I place on my victims.” Arvin gave the impression that he had so much more to say on the subject but just smiled instead at the horrid images in his head.

Lorrely talked next, shyly and barely audible. “When I cry, people with weakened constitutions hurt themselves.” She crowed away from the eyes on her and retreated into the arms of her doll.

Jan was about to dispute Deo on sending Lorrely to Vallis when she noticed Jan’s intent and cut him off. “I vowed to offer my power to Deo for gifting me him.” Lorrely was referring to the undead doll. “And I will avenge his suicide so that the world will know what it did to him.”

Jan retracted, sighing and saying nothing.

Deo resumed talking. “I will leave it to your discretion. Do not hold back. And one more thing,” Deo was still addressing the three Sages. “Take Bubonica with you. Make sure she reaches the sewer system safely.”

Bubonica’s scarecrow frame jolted awake upon hearing her name. Her big eyes stared at Deo, awaiting her orders. “Bubonica you have a month to secure the sewers. Control them, because from there you will have access to every major storage facility in Vallis. When the invasion starts, you must infect the food. Spread disease and sickness, ruin their rations and poison their water which they are placing their faith in.”

“I will Deo.” Bubonica started talking to rats after that. Filling their minds with soft words of encouragement and evil fantasies.

“Ah!” Onager exclaimed. “I see now. This can work. But what about the actual invasion? I am assuming at this point, with all the setup going into this siege, that you have an idea beyond throwing your hordes against the wall endlessly?”

“Kiasmus is constructing monolithic bone creatures, they will transport soldiers and corpses right onto the battlements. And then I will unleash the endless hordes right into Vallis. Your Aspect will be useful in destroying sections of the wall as well.”

A scarred mercenary leader chimed in. “The plan is solid. A factor to be considered is allies joining Vallis. Ophir will be exposed and our flanks.”

“Hege is to remain in Ophir as insurance for that. But the state of the cities is one of apprehension. With Garghent on the move it is too risky for a city to sally out and expose their own flanks. Vallis is on their own.”

Deo sank back in his chair and let conversations break out. His volatile Specters finally had something to do but only time would tell if that was enough. Deo let the focal point of the war council shift from the general scheme and move into logistics, tactics, opinions and excitement. For a lot of the Specters and soldiers, the prospect of war and action thrilled them. The scale of what they were going to attempt was met with calculated and equal anticipation. 

Hege talked privately with Deo. “You’ve given this some thought. Taking advantage of the fact that all the city-states on the Sister continent are built over older cities giving them an expansive sewer network that leads everywhere.”

“I am fortunate that Bubonica’s element is the sewer.”

“Another factor to consider is Vallis’ Specters. They will have many strong ones.”

“True. But I can do little else besides test my own Specters versus theirs.”

“They are a cavalier bunch.” agreed Hege. His cigar had depleted and his coffee drained.

“I need you to assist Kiasmus in setting up workshops for his Skullheads, as he calls them.”

“Aye.”

Deo stood, commanding silence. “If there are no more points to contend with, I will dismiss the council and leave you to devise your methods of operation. Since you are all still here, I am assuming everyone is committed to the siege of Vallis.” Deo looked amongst the council. “Onager, you will join the siege?”

“Make the pre-invasion two weeks longer and consider Vallis yours.” said Onager. There was unanimous agreement.

“Very well. I can see the merit in two additional weeks. The invasion begins in forty-four days starting tomorrow.” Deo officiated.

Onager was grinning. 

Deo noticed Garriot had stayed silent throughout the council. “You are the General of Ophir, Garriot. Have you anything to say?”

Garriot spread his hands. “I hear Vallis is nice in the summer.”

Deo sat back into his throne and rubbed his temple. The council was dismissed and about to disperse when a roar erupted from the Carn Aspect. Carn looked furious and offended.

Deo turned his head to the dinosaur-human hybrid. “Do not think I have neglected you, great hunter. My task for you is the most important, for you will solve my problem of the enemy Specters.”

Carn gave a satisfying growl and lumbered off. The rest followed and with it the noise of conversation. 

Hege was the last to leave. “I think I will get some sleep while I can.”

“One thing, actually.” Deo had an afterthought.

“Yes, Deo?” 

“When you see Kiasmus tomorrow bring paint.”

“As in buckets of paint?”

“Lots of buckets.”

“Sure thing, nowhere near the oddest request I’ve received.” Hege scratched the back of his neck. “Um, what color paint?”

“Red, yellow and blue will suffice.”

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