“When we exist in our waking hours, as our awake self,” began Deo, pondering forbidden ideas in a pre-sunrise morning, “do you suppose our sleeping self has dreams? That wakefulness is sleep for the unconscious while sleep is unconsciousness for our wakeful self. I suppose that’s why it’s called a daydream.” Forbidden because such ideas imitate nothingness, the counter to living.
Hege drank deeply from his hot coffee, finding pleasure in the warmth as it stung his tongue and sensitized his teeth while the jolt of caffeine wiped the fog from his brain. “I think, if I may speak so plainly, that those kinds of thoughts go in circles. What if we are all the size of mites on a spec of something too immeasurable to be perceptible? How can we know we really exist? What if the sun rises in the opposite direction but no human or animal witnesses it, then we will never know if it rose differently and therefore if no one perceives it, then who is to say if it ever happened? What you are asking, Lord Deo, is if triangles are green.”
Deo toyed with a small twig, bending it and twisting it but avoiding a snap. “I take your point, that some concepts are redundant but the great paradox of humanity is that it is unknown if any seemingly redundant concept is, in fact, redundant. The most inane idea could be the most important.”
“And who decides what’s important?” Hege, as a flaw in his character, could never turn down a conversation. There was never a bad time to consult reality, even on the eve of a war.
“Either there is inherent importance to everything or it is a product of human categorization.” Deo snapped his twig and sought another in the ground around him. He found a leaf instead and rubbed it for the texture.
“There is a word for this kind of thinking, it is called psilosophy, or sham philosophy.”
“Perhaps.” Deo lapsed into silence for a while as he watched the beginning of a new day, all orange and magenta.
Deo resumed the conversation after he organized his thoughts. “I find myself constantly feeling trapped by our language. There are no words which do not exist that I can say. If I make up a word it lacks meaning, if a word lacks meaning it produces no thought. Similarly, if I have a thought it must contain meaning derived from the language I speak. I wonder what my thoughts would be like if I never could speak nor hear a word.”
“It never turns off does it?” Hege teased.
“No, it never turns off.” Deo laid down with his head on the grass looking up and seeing the stars get replaced by the more direct light of the sun.
Hege seriously considered what Deo said. “There are people born mute and deaf and blind or some combination. I have heard they dream in terms of senses they do have like emotion, hunger, fatigue, joy. A lack of one sense in no way retracts from consciousness. There are sensory deprivation tanks designed to cut off all external stimuli, you might be interested in that sort of thing.”
“Yes that does intrigue me, I think that I would very much like to try that.” There was a lull for a few minutes before Deo started again. “I am curious about this world, Hege, all the things I do not know and have not experienced. For example, I have not been to the Brother Continent, nor have I seen in person the Great Tidal Wall. I want to witness the sunrise from atop the highest mountain and travel to the depths of the ocean. I want to see everything under the lens of a microscope and the furthest reaches of space through a telescope. I have never observed the death of a species.”
“Well, one step at a time.” Hege replied, focusing on something else.
“Yes, I will start with Vallis today. Any sign of the raid captains?” Deo was still laying down and felt the sun warm his skin.
“Garriot, Onager and Veinbreaker are approaching as we speak.”
Deo stretched and sat up. “Find Kiasmus, we are marching today.”
“Aye lord.” Hege left to retrieve the Palaot Elder.
Deo stood and waited for his raid captains. He brushed the grass off of his clothes. Deo was wearing black pants and a dark, faded green shirt with fit sleeves and a cowl neck. The clothes were hand weaved by a tailor in Ophir named Nouvel who had survived the massacre. Deo needed to look the part of a lord. Nothing he wore was cheap but his style wasn’t one of flashiness, though he would still stand out in a crowd. Nouvel enjoyed the task of fashioning clothes fit for a man with an undead army. Nouvel had been a costume designer for films and photoshoots and appreciated the thematic style which Deo was aiming for.
The average person probably would fail to notice the attention to detail Deo cares for, but to Deo, even the faintest detail requires his absolute touch and spin. Expression and symbology unite in the human experience to formulate individuality and memories. Everything was art. Deo’s art, the art of his life and his work, would not be exposed as to having a single flaw. Everybody projected the image they wanted others to view them in. Deo’s image, his personality, from the clothes he wore to the city he was building said this about him.
I am pure madness, a villain to rally against and a curse to condemn.
“Ah Deo, such good news we bring!” Onager bellowed from meters away. Deo let them get to a reasonable distance before responding.
“Do tell.” Deo had his arms behind his back and compared to the three of them, he was neither very tall nor extraordinarily muscular. Garriot, Onager and Veinbreaker were lean, tall and physical powerhouses.
They were Deo’s knights if one were to overuse chess as a metaphor.
“The farmers have fled. The estates are empty of people and supplies.” Onager explained
“The bastards are preparing defenses. They have millions of soldiers and at least a dozen Specters worth speaking of that we’ve seen.” Garriot added.
“You’ve met some of these Specters?” Deo asked.
“We’ve each had a run in with a couple. We just finished debriefing our intelligence, expect a report later today. As you ordered we did not engage longer than what was necessary to retreat.” Garriot stabbed his blade in the ground and leaned against it.
Deo nodded. “Do we know who is in charge of the defense?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Veinbreaker said with a cruel smile. “I have video of the base commander and we did a background check as well. He goes by Bisult. He was a bandit most of his life, built an empire raiding highways and then started selling his services as a mercenary guard. He was nicknamed the Mercenary King and a few years back Vallis hired him permanently to defend the city as its military chieftain for over a billion in money, property and amenities. His actual funds for the military are unlimited and he’s given full access to do as he pleases with the military, so long as Vallis’ businesses are secure.”
“He has an Aspect?”
“He does,” cut in Onager. “A strong one too. I met him over a decade ago back in my own mercenary days. The Yarak Aspect. The state of heightened hunting awareness in falcons when they are hungry. He was already formidable back then, who knows what he can do now.”
“I see, I will wait for the debriefing. You said you have video of this Bisult?” Deo said to Veinbreaker.
“Let me bring it up.” Veinbreaker pulled out a phone and loaded the video. “I recorded my latest masterpiece and uploaded it to Vallis’ search engines. Millions will see this before it gets taken down.” Veinbreaker handed Deo the phone and pressed play.
The video was taken by a hidden camera in a large barn room. There were fifty or so humans in a fleshy heap in the center of the building. They were moaning painfully in harmony, the result of hours of excruciating anguish. They were bound together through their veins. Tangled and intertwined bodies kept alive by the flow of blood outward from a center mass composed of all of their combined hearts, exposed and removed from each of their chests. No vein went unused. The arteries fed into the heart-mass from each body, but no artery went to its original owner. The veins carried blood into random parts of the body. One person had dozens of veins connected to his head and face, another had veins all over his stomach. Still another person was hanging upside down and had veins going into his feet. The sight was gruesome and utterly depraved.
Deo gave a smirk.
“The secret is to ensure they all have the same blood type so there is no rejection.” Veinbreaker explained.
There were buzzing flies gathering around the human vein catheter when the door opened and in stepped a group of armed soldiers. The biggest, both in size and atmosphere, was the man named Bisult.
The video was taken too far from the doorway to make out many details, but from what Deo could see, the Mercenary King boasted more scars than the amount of people in Veinbreakers art compost.
One of the soldiers to his side immediately threw up and to this Bisult produced a booming laugh and slapped the soldier’s back.
“Do not be disgusted by that, man! Look at the enemy’s intention with a broad smile and welcome arms. The message they send is one of complete annihilation of Vallis. This is how we will respond!”
Bisult pulled a hand cannon sized revolver from its holster, leveled the piece of metal and fired into the hearts of the moaning pile. The gunshot was loud and the hearts exploded, mercifully ending the lives of the tortured victims.
The video ended there.
Deo handed back the phone with a slight grin. “I like this Bisult. We shall meet him on the battlefield soon. Prepare to depart. Our march begins today.” Deo thought Bisult’s voice was as deep as a gunshot, at least that’s how the microphone recorded it.
The three Specters left to prepare their divisions for the march to Vallis.
Deo summoned forty million corpses to the fields outside of Ophir. They were in rank and file, a legion of the damned dressed in old armor, modern clothes, caked mud or something in between. They wielded knives, swords, spears, bludgeons, and any assortment of mechanical or farming tools. Some of the Alivers, the undead whose brains remained intact enough for complex order processing, were armed with guns. Deo mobilized his legions in only a couple hours, the ground shaking from the marching feet. The wordless army stood awaiting orders as a blanket over the plains.
“They look both an innumerable herd and far too small a tribe.” Hege observed, walking up the hill to join Deo, cigar in hand.
“The siege of Vallis must succeed or we have failed before we ever began.” Deo said, though agreeing with Hege’s assessment. Forty million was a staggering number, but not nearly enough to solidify his domain. Any invading force could potentially beat him.
“Vallis should merit close to two hundred million if the death count is high enough and if the ancient graves haven’t been disturbed.” Hege calculated.
“I will lose many millions of undead taking it.” Deo said realistically.
“I am assuming trying to do to Vallis what you did to Ophir had too many holes?” Hege asked, taking one puff after the next.
“I am too recognizable now and Ophir worked because the military had no real order. There was the police, the border guards and individual district bosses, like yourself. Vallis has a large professional military that will need to be defeated through combat.”
“It will be quite the battle. Why not bring all your undead and the entire mercenary troop you’ve hired? You’ve at least another decamillion in the barracks at Ophir.”
“No, there are millions of humans in Ophir too. I do not want to simply raze cities and leave them unoccupied, not this early. The humans need a home that they believe is defended and secure, even if it is the original conqueror who is lording over them. And I trust you to do the best job running the city and defending it in the event of an invasion.”
“Well I can tell you that you are becoming more popular among the people.” Hege sneezed twice and sniffed. “Always been sensitive to pollen.” he explained.
“That is good to hear.” Deo was responding to the first comment, though it was only after he spoke that he realized what Hege probably meant. The influential people were likely under his Hegemony Aspect and from there it spread.
“Kiasmus is bringing the three Skullheads now. Impressive beasts.” remarked Hege.
“There was no issue in the logistics of creating them?”
“Nothing we didn’t figure out. What are you planning on using them for?”
Deo turned to see the monolithic bone constructs lumbering their way from Ophir. Their bulk and height made them easily visible from kilometers out.
“I will parade them out of range of Vallis while I throw undead at the walls. Vallis will see the silhouettes of the Skullheads for days, weeks perhaps, and then I will load them with as many undead as can fit and some humans and march them to the walls. We can take the ramparts easily this way and from there open the gates. If nothing else they can bash the walls down.”
“Rocketry will not destroy them?” Hege said, pacing as he talked, not out of anxiety but just as a behavioral habit.
“Kiasmus assures me they can survive long enough. I think he has never used his Marrow Aspect to this scale before so we shall see how it goes. Vallis, one way or another, is going to drain themselves of ammunition.”
A man approached and cleared his throat. “Lords,” he introduced formally, “the war tent has been pitched and the generals are ready for the debriefing.”
“Thank you.” Deo replied, “I will be there shortly.” The officer, who was ex-military and one of Garriot’s aides, bowed and departed.
“I will return in the autumn.” Deo told Hege.
“Aye, I might do some renovating in the meantime.”
Deo followed after the officer without another word and Hege stayed on the hill until his cigar burned out.
Inside the tent, Deo sat at the head of a table which had on it a detailed map of Vallis and the surrounding land. Sitting at the table was Garriot, Veinbreaker, Kiasmus, Onager and several other human officers in charge of various tactical and logistical operations, things like food, supplies, munitions and engineering.
The meeting began with a debriefing of the raids and the intelligence gathered about the enemy Specters and the general Bisult. Spies reported that civil unrest was rampant in Vallis with growing fears and panic settling in. They were nearing a crossroads that could either see the population rioting against the government, which would be the most favorable option as the city would be destabilized, the next possibility is the population growing morose and settling down, leaving the chain of command intact, a rather neutral outcome or the third option, the most unfavorable, would be if the city rioted and the military took over and declared martial law. This last one would give Bisult full reign over the people and the defenses, making for a more difficult siege.
The council shifted to the most immediate matter which was the actual march. Vallis lay some two thousand kilometers to the north with a desert in between. It was decided to travel through the Diluvian Pass. A mountain blocks the coast and the desert expands to the west too far to go around. Traveling over the mountain is dangerous and time consuming. Building barges to navigate around the mountain from the ocean was thought to be too risky as a few well placed bombs could wipe out much of the force, leaving the undead lost to sea. The Diluvian Pass was a canyon formed by water millions of years ago that lay in between the coastal mountain and the Aiy Dry desert. It is a popular highway but is prone to flooding during the desert’s rainy season or after heavy winters when the mountain ice melts.
There was no complete consensus on the route. “Bisult will have a defense positioned to meet us, an ambush perhaps. We could lose millions and months trying to cross when we can skirt around the desert in a week or two.” one officer argued.
Some debate followed back and forth and the room went pretty split, though all the Specters agreed with facing Bisult in the pass.
Deo explained the reasoning. “Bisult is only there to gauge us. He knows nothing of me or how my army fights. This is battle data for him. There will not be a large defense, though I’ve no doubts that he will expose any flaws to devastating effect. We will face him in the Pass because I too must learn of the enemy.”
“You are sure of this, lord?”
“I am. It would be foolish to spend too many resources defending a pass when the city is far better equipped to do so. No, the pass is not meant to be the decisive battle. It is the invaders prerogative to do the marching. Vallis just wants a taste of the siege, that is all.”
There was agreement after that. The council had little else to cover and so with some time to spare an open discussion initiated. Talk and criticism of the last six weeks was the main subject, what went right, what went wrong, how raids could have been more efficient. They were all willing to grow, Deo realized. It was preparation for future raids and wars. Acknowledging mistakes and perceiving successful achievements were healthy parts of the warrior’s mind. Adaptation, mother nature’s only advice to its spawn.
Deo’s mind wandered, even as he gave the council a concluding statement and the tent was stored, even as he ordered the legions of the dead to march north and the mighty light of the midday sun looked as if it were shying from his wrath.
Deo’s mind wandered as he thought of life and humans and the odd practice of warfare, organized, competitive hunting. The group of hunters were remembered by the losing party’s kin, who would grow up thinking only of revenge. They would hunt the victors with better weapons, bigger groups and planned tactics. These seesaw conflicts would eventually be written down and studied so that the next generation can possess the knowledge of the prey and predator alike, absorbing lifetimes of experience without the consequences. The organized hunting increases in intensity. New weapons are deflected by armor, clothing designed entirely for the organized hunt. This leads to new weapons that can pierce the armor.
It all seemed so odd to Deo, not because he was unused to the idea of war but because he had never seen two warring packs of dogs don tree bark face shields or rock sharpened teeth and claws and go at it until one pack was beaten into submission. They fought sure, but never as an organized event in which both sides have gear prepared for the clash. It was the gear that gave Deo such perplexity. He could more easily understand a group of unclothed humans running at each other in mobs, but no, they have remote control bombs and wrought iron spikes and sacred, enlightened abilities.
“It is revenge.” Deo said to himself. Humans, because they passed down tales of adventure, battles and tragedy, because they drew on walls in caves and carved messages on trees, because they told their children the evils of the other tribe they kept a memory. That memory would drive twenty thousand years of evolution, invention and brutal war.
“And jealousy is the root of revenge.”
“Not a good habit to have.” chuckled Garriot, who had come up from the side. “Spent two years with a creature that mainly insults me. Did a lot of that self talking.”
“It is not so bad a thing, and certainly not my most terrible vice.” Deo responded truthfully. The full commitment to ending the human race would assuredly be considered worse.
“What were you talking to yourself about?” Garriot asked. He had mainly come to Deo out of boredom and because the purple-eyed man always had something interesting to say. There was also nothing else to be done after a day of marching
“I was wondering what the source of human warfare was.” Deo said without much detail.
Garriot shook his head and cursed. “Kind of a moronic question isn’t it? I mean what difference does that make? Spend too much time thinking about war and the other guy who isn’t thinking will go and chop your head off, end your thinking straight up.”
“I am waging war, therefore I want to know why humans fight.”
“Well you’re beyond me. You like to fight beyond the surface level, into psychological and ideological warfare. You want to completely break down your enemy’s will and hope.”
“Battle is much deeper than brawling with fists and breaking bones. There is purpose and something intimately tied to human existence that seeks out conflict. I want to know, and with each battle I will learn more of the human race.” Deo’s eyes were curiously bright in the small firelight, the darkness of night held at bay by that small fire and those mauve eyes.
“If you’re building a case study I can give you my answer right now.” offered Garriot.
“Yes, tell me, Garriot the Goblin Aspect, Garriot the Bastard of Garghent, why do you wage war?”
His grin said it all. “Because it is fun!”