“No, no! Don’t step with your weight when you’re leading into a punch. Launch off your backfoot into it!”
“What’s the difference, bastard?” Garriot challenged between breaths.
“This!” Bisult pushed off the ground, the planet acting as a springboard for his mass to bounce from. Bisult’s fist took Garriot’s chest and sent the younger man flying backwards.
“You feel the force?”
Garriot muttered as he tried to rise.
“Every punch should hit like that.” Bisult explained.
“Damn old man.”
Why don’t you take a break, Garriot. Watch how us men fight.” Hege put out his cigar and stretched his neck.
“You forgot old.” Garriot pointed out, finding a seat out of the way. “This should be good,” he commented.
Bisult laughed. “Now this is what a fighter looks like.” Bisult was still the bigger man but Hege was stocky and a couple decades younger.
Comparing the three men’s boxing revealed a lot about the lives they lived. Garriot was an athlete trained to be a soldier. His technique was a mix of standard military boxing and the headstrong recklessness of youth and endless stamina, coupled with the knowledge that any wound will heal.
Hege grew up with nothing and often had to box to earn money or on the streets, fighting for his life. His style wasted no time being dramatic and every action had to be calculated because one wrong move could mean death. Hege learned to box knife fighters, against groups of opponents, in the early morning, at the dead of midnight, and he’d done it all drunk, hungover and sober countless times. His boxing style was as a street, bar and sometimes cage fighter.
Bisult learned to box as a vagabond. Whether it was in tournaments for money and glory or disputes in leadership during his bandit days, Bisult fought ultimately because combat was all he’d ever known. Being strong meant surviving, being the strongest meant thriving. One could have anything to the heart’s desire if one had a quick enough right hook. Bisult boxed larger opponents until he was the biggest. He knew how to fight heavyweights, so he knew how opponents would fight him. Losing an eye only forced Bisult to rely on other senses, to be able to read moves more efficiently. A handicap for Bisult was an opportunity to develop skill. Excuses never existed in Bisult’s life because an excuse indicated a weakness, and weakness equaled death in this world.
When Bisult boxed Hege and Garriot, that first day of autumn, he had made an important life choice. Bisult decided to join Deo, to be viceroy of Vallis, and to teach Garriot how to fight. Something the Yarak Aspect found himself realizing was how fond of Garriot he was becoming. Perhaps he saw a younger version of himself in him or perhaps it reminded him of a son he never had, one that actually lived past age twenty.
For Bisult, in his older age, there was not much point in throwing his life away for a city, though he had been prepared to die in that siege. But he had lived, and Bisult lived his life with one commandment, never feel guilt for surviving.
The dead were gone. Bisult lived. The only other survivor of his crew, something he’d built over the course of thirty years, was Paradice. In short, Bisult had nothing to lose joining Deo. He would be paid, per the mercenary way. More battles would follow, more glory to be had.
Bisult, Hege and Garriot represented three different generations of warriors with similar personalities and dispositions. These were the muscles of Deo’s empire.
Deo saw Bisult take down Hege with a series of gut and face punches as he walked up the steps to his throne. Bisult accepted his offer within two weeks of the Siege of Vallis.
Deo eased himself onto his redwood throne. Since the siege he had not rested himself upon its expert craftsmanship. The sleek, flowing design, carved from a single tree to feel and appear natural, as though the tree had grown itself into a throne. A profound sense of clear-headedness descended over Deo when he sat on his throne. The weeks of travelling, besiegement, planning, and commanding the undead scattered his thoughts into near oblivion. His mind had been pressed full, constant migraines leaving him sick and groggy, sleepless and weary. But like the cool autumn breeze that brushed the summer heat away, his mind cleared upon sitting on the throne.
In that instantaneous lifting of the brain fog, Deo realized a solution to his most urgent issue. After conquering Vallis, and even before the problem had been mounting, but following the raising of another hundred and fifty million undead, bringing his total just shy of two hundred million, his waking consciousness felt like bursting. His soul and all his mental space had been filled beyond capacity and was ready to overflow, leaving him dissolved and dissipated.
But one minute on his throne and the solution came. Deo did this all in his mind with his Aspect. He divided his undead into compartments. Sifting through the legions of his corpses, he sought out suitable Alivers, those who retained an undamaged brain, and made these millennium captains. Each captain would be commanded to lead a thousand undead. Deo’s workaround was for each group of one thousand, or millennium, to copy the order of its assigned captain. By compartmentalizing his army and binding them with a shortcut, it allowed Deo to lessen the load on his mind. Having an army of almost two hundred million meant having close to two hundred-thousand captains. This was such a significant downsize on mental strain that Deo felt like he was cheating. Controlling such a vast army without the repercussions of overworking himself opened the floodgates to expanding his army tenfold. The cap which he thought he far surpassed just got raised exponentially.
It would take some time to divvy out the captains and their millennia but with each squadron Deo felt his migraine relieving.
No longer burdened by that pressing issue, Deo didn’t have to worry about abandoning corpses behind in the next siege.
“I will leave no gravestone unturned,” he said to himself
Jan landed to Deo’s left, bowed and straightened. The angel with blackened wings stood silent, statue-still.
Deo took in the scenery before him. The leaves were changing colors already, on this the autumnal equinox. The weather had cooled significantly on his journey from Vallis. Predictions abound that the upcoming winter was going to be long and harsh.
The ziggurat was packed with humans at this time. Deo was throwing a banquet to celebrate the conquest. There were people preparing tables, food and drink and soon his Specters would join along with some of the more important humans.
Hege, Bisult and Garriot were finishing their sparring, and only the Onager Aspect was hanging around in the ziggurat. He approached Deo, looking up from the landing floor some steps below.
“One hell of a siege, lord. And just like that we are back in Ophir.”
Deo smiled. “How does it feel to be a part of your first successful siege?” Deo’s humor was high, with the headache receding and Bisult agreeing to run Vallis. Everything was as planned.
Onager spread his hands, “it’s true I haven’t had the best record, but then most leaders I’ve served under were idiots. They never listen to their soldiers, never take advice from veterans and they always misuse their weapons. But you did all three with precision and grace.”
“I appreciate the compliment. To me, your Aspect is invaluable in long a siege or in a trench fight. People want immediate results but much like yourself and your Onager, you are a classic man, using methods from antiquity.”
“What kind of a species are we if we do not learn from history.” Onager said it with a grin, because the kind of history he learns has to do with destroying buildings and killing people.
“Indeed, we must not neglect any strategy, no matter how ancient. I think going forward I will give you command of a full siege arsenal. I want you to talk with Kiasmus and plan the construction of bone siege crafts.”
“That is excellent! Thank you lord. I look forward to the next campaign. Now, I’m off to enjoy this celebration.” Onager left and got a head start on the drinks.
Several minutes went by before Veinbreaker and Arvin arrived. They said their greetings to Deo and claimed their own spot.
Bubonica stalked in from the side, staying clear of everyone as others did the same. She left her rats outside the ziggurat, attempting to be more sociable. She nervously walked to Deo.
“Deo, I have a plan.” Bubonica said in a high, cracky voice. The years of being around squealing rats and the lack of humans had produced a shaky voice undefined by speech patterns.
“You did well in Vallis. I am open to hearing any plan.”
“The sewers under Ophir and Vallis are similar. We can make a great sewer that connects them together.”
Deo twisted a lock of hair, thinking over the suggestion. A single tunnel alone would be an engineering marvel, but Deo did have the labor. Implementing a highway system or an underground train railway for transporting goods and troops covertly offered rewarding benefits. In which case Deo would need an entire necropolis because to support a train would require resources, technicians to run it, upkeep refueling stations, access points, living quarters… The idea was not a bad one, though it was an investment.
“A great sewer. You want to be queen of the underworld? Aren’t you satisfied with being queen of the rats?”
“One day I will run out of room for all my rats.” she countered, “unless you want them up here?”
“I will discuss that idea with Hege, see how plausible it is.”
“Think on it.” Bubonica left, satisfied. In fact, everyone was satisfied here. They were successful, public enemies, hated and feared by the world, satiated with slaughter and conquest, at home enjoying a feast and company.
Deo set this banquet up for the express reason of seeing his warriors together. Seeing their reactions, interactions, expressions. He secured their loyalty, and for the first time was sure of it. That is not to say Deo was not cautious still, but overall, he had them enthralled, delivering on his promises.
Bisult and Garriot came in, loud and rambunctious, ordering drinks and filling their plates with food while nursing bruises and cuts, of which Garriot had the most of.
Hege approached and took his place to Deo’s right, cigar in hand.
“Welcome back to Unophir.”
“You have made much progress on the infrastructure and the populace, well done.” Deo commended.
“Things have been smooth. I’ve picked out a number of gardeners and sculptors of expert talent for you to review. I know you are eager to finish the statue garden around the ziggurat.”
“Ah, good. I will meet with them first thing tomorrow.”
“Your infamy is growing, Deo. There are a number of visitors requesting a meeting with you. Aristocrats, oligarchs, businessmen, criminals.”
“They want to know if I’m going to be a friend or foe.”
“And will you be?”
“It really depends on how useful they are.” Deo said honestly.
“What about Garghent?”
“There is an ambassador arriving today, just received the news.”
Deo shifted in his seat.
“What do you want to do?” Hege said between puffs.
Deo answered with a question. “What do you think?”
“Of Garghent? I think they just want to see you in person. Find out if you’re a threat or not. It’s what I would do.”
“I wonder if it’s that simple. Garghent will underestimate me regardless. They can field probably close to a hundred Specters and a few dozen million soldiers. They have the best technology and weaponry. Their visit is futile. So why come at all?”
“A fair point. Looking for an alliance. Their motivations for dominating the continent are clear at this point.”
“By now I imagine they have learned I was a defect from the draft. They should know I will not be friends with Garghent. I view them as an enemy.”
“Or they think you can be swayed back to their side. Do they have anything on you?” Hege asked.
“No, I have no ties anywhere.” Deo said coldly.
“So what is your move?”
“I will let them in. It is all well that we are having this banquet so that our power is right here to be witnessed. As for letting them leave alive, I haven’t decided.”
“I will inform the gate commander.” Hege took out his phone and made the call.
Deo stood up and raised his hand for silence. By now all his Specters, mercenaries and bureaucrats were gathered under his throne.
“Vallis is ours.” Cheers and ruckus followed and Deo let them go on for a minute before waving his hand.
“That is the first to fall. As we expand our empire, more will flock to the throne. You here are the smart ones, you’ve joined me. Now you feast on fine food and finer wine. You have riches and land.
“And women!” Garriot shouted, arousing another round of cheers, from only the men of course.
“You will have anything you desire, so long as you continue to serve me. For today, enjoy yourselves. When the time is right, I will call on you for the next conquest. I only ask that you keep your edge and to not quarrel amongst each other. More will flock to the throne in the coming weeks and months.” Deo looked around at his Specters and soldiers. He did not need to over emphasize what they already knew. They were on the same page as their lord.
Deo concluded his announcement. “In a couple hours we will have visitors from Garghent here. I do not know what they seek. Do not kill them unless I give the order. That is all.”
Deo sat back down and the revelries continued. Deo kept an eye on Bisult especially. He appeared to be getting along with everyone, adapting to the environment naturally. Deo trusted that Bisult was loyal, that kind of a man values his word above all else. Paradice was more reserved, probably torn between following Bisult’s lead and trying to escape or assassinate Deo. Klea as always stayed in her own corner, just people watching. The Carn Aspect stuck near Arvin, as he was the only Specter that could speak the Beast tongue.
“Did you hear, your friend Lazulie called you out?” Hege initiated conversation after half an hour.
Deo inhaled, removing himself from his thoughts. “He is too principled.”
“Few people call that a vice.” Hege remarked.
“I want him to join us.”
“Invite him for chess sometime.” Hege suggested.
“I doubt he will ever accept, but I will extend an invitation.”
“You see him as a rival.” Hege stated.
“No, more of an equal.”
“You might not realize it yet, but an equal and a rival are one in the same.”
Deo thought about that seriously. “I suppose that’s true. Very well, Lazulie is my rival. I want him in my empire, even if we have to beat him first.”
Hege caught the ‘we’ in that sentence. Either it meant Deo valued Hege’s advice and wisdom or he was not sure he could best Lazulie by himself.
“Not to worry, lord. Eleavear is a far cry from here. You should focus on Garghent for now, as they have reached the front gate.”
Deo sharpened up. “Be prepared. They could just as easily be sending a hit on me.”
“I don’t think that is the case. Garghent would send assassins and you’d never hear about it until the knife is deep in your chest.”
“Ah, comforting.” Deo relaxed, realizing there was no use in being caught up with every possible scenario, not for something as benign as a meeting with another city-state. There was just an off feeling that he couldn’t shake.
“How many?” Deo asked.
“We have some high profile lads on the way. A General Draje, a Gentleman named Nerrin. Four special forces bodyguards, armed to the teeth and three Specters accompany them. The General is also a Specter.”
“So they have sent one representative from each faction, the military and merchant. No, those are the topmost ranked of each faction. Interesting.” Deo started tapping his fingers on the arm of the throne.
“This may be more serious than we anticipated. They send two of their top members of their governments with only seven bodyguards. So they don’t expect a fight with you, yet they want their best to meet you.” Hege took a few puffs of his cigar in a row.
“Have we identified their Specters?” Deo asked.
“Yes! There is the Paroxysm Aspect, Augur type. Solar Aspect, Mancer type and Jinx Aspect, Sage type.”
Deo went mute for a minute. Hege continued the briefing. “They performed well in the war, some of the strongest of their graduating class and in general very powerful Specters for their age, just about a year younger than yourself.”
Deo nodded, ending the conversation. There was a lot going on and Deo couldn’t help but think Garghent has the upper hand in this. Bisult and Paradice could even be planning to escape with Garghent. The number would be enough to turn the tides if a battle broke out.
Maybe this is an assassination attempt, to free the general of Vallis and end my reign, thought Deo.
Deo kept his appearance calm. Displaying signs of anxiety would put everyone on edge. He’d have to trust his own Specters to act first.
“Hey Hege.” Deo began softly.
“I just thought of that too.” Hege replied. “Hold steady. Look at Carn, he knows too. His instincts are sharper than ours.”
“If they are here, bring them in.” Deo ordered, wanting to end the anticipation already.
Hege made a phone call. “We are ready,” was all he said.
Deo ordered his undead to clear a path on the second floor of the ziggurat. The banquet quieted significantly.
Moments later the emissary from Garghent strode in. They were an arrogant bunch, members of the most powerful city-state in the Sister continent. The Gentleman Nerrin observed his surroundings as if he were estimating the worth of things. General Draje spotted the weaknesses with an eye that had seen little other than war during a very long lifetime. The special forces soldiers were the elite, already deciding a battleplan should a fight break out. Yillo, the Specter in Hales’ squad from that time, sported a furious expression, eyeing only the Specters. The Jinx Aspect strutted in like she was an invincible being, with everything playing into her hands perfectly.
Then there was Hales. She looked only at Deo. With galaxy eyes, unreadable and brimming with power.
“How nice of you to join our banquet.” Deo said, talking in a humorless voice. “We were just celebrating the first of autumn… and the conquest of Vallis.”
“Quite the accomplishment,” complemented General Draje. “You have proven yourself to be a sharp young ruler, boy.”
“So what brings you to the end of the world?” Deo asked, maintaining his flat, almost threatening voice, rife with a self aware sarcasm that was both deadly serious and oddly charismatic.
“It is customary for world leaders to meet, is it not?” Draje countered.
“When the Janiform arrives, let me know.”
Draje chuckled. “You’ve got wit, boy, I will give you that. The young should always be full of wit and fire!” Draje’s expression hardened. “But make no mistake. My orders are law. For example, I could order an all out war on Ophir and the next day be sitting on that throne of yours, your head on my lap.”
“Address me as boy again and I’ll hand you the phone to make that call.” Deo’s eyes were bright lavender in the shady autumn ambience.
“yes, yes.” cut in the Gentleman Nerrin. “We all know how to start a war, but that is not why we are here. Do not anger our new friend, General.”
“Hah! I was only teasing.” Draje said. “My apologies, lord tyrant.”
They are provoking me, Deo told himself. Remain calm.
“Of course. It is Gentleman Nerrin, correct?” Deo said, taking the conversation away from Draje.
“It is a pleasure to meet you. What brings you to my abode?”
“Personally, I believe it is in both of our best interests to establish trade. I imagine there are many refined resources you may be interested in acquiring for your new empire.” Nerrin spoke like the business man he is, the second wealthiest person in Garghent.
“I find it hard to want to trade with a city so open to starting a war.” Deo replied.
“Excuse my warmongering friend, he has so little imagination for business.” Nerrin spoke and his words smelled more bitter than Hege’s cigar.
“It is true, us elderly folk tend to stick with what we know best.” Draje explained.
They are toying with me, thought Deo. A dangerous game they are playing.
Deo risked a glance to Hales. She was still staring at him, Aspect at the ready.
“Ah, you remember the Solar Aspect, do you not?” Draje inquired with fake innocence. “You used to be squadmates, I hear.”
They are trying to make me appear weak, to break the mystery of my life in front of my Specters. Maintaining that suspension of reality is vital. I am larger than life, I am DEATH!
“Damn, cigar’s out.” Hege said, throwing Garghent off their tracks. He set the nub on the ground and pulled out a new cigar from the inside breast pocket of his suit. He proceeded to chop one end and lit a match. He worked on starting the cigar. “Please, don’t stop on my account.”
“And you are?” Nerrin asked.
“Call me Hege. Former crime boss turned administrator of Ophir. As this is a celebration you must make yourselves at home. Please, find a seat and drinks will be served. There are introductions to be made and business to discuss. Gentleman Nerrin, why don’t you join me over there,” Hege was already walking down the stairs, puffing in between sentences. “I would like to go over some provisional data with you and hear your feedback. Perhaps we can even strike a deal today!” Hege was at eye level with Draje now. “Oh, you remember Garriot, the Goblin Aspect right? He was a student of your military school, I believe. Went missing for a couple years, but rest assured, he is sitting right over there along with Bisult, viceroy of Vallis. Those are lord Deo’s two top generals. Didn’t know that?” Hege asked, cigar still in mouth. to the shocked faces of some of the Specters. “Garghent’s intel gathering must not be what it once was. Draje, why don’t you join them and discuss whatever military things you like, tell them of your exploits perhaps.”
Hege’s ability to suddenly diffuse the tension and create an amicable environment had stopped a possible fight.
“Let’s not sully the lord’s victory with talk of war!” shouted Hege. “We shall get drunk together as a proper celebration. How does that sound, General?”
There was nothing General Draje could do, the situation had been flipped on its head. Making a move at this point would be dishonorable. “Only if we drink from the top shelf!” There were some cheers to that. After Hege’s outburst, no one was in the mood to fight. The time bomb was defused and conversation resumed around the banquet. Garghent’s men spread out, finding open spots to sit and talk.
Only Hales remained standing under the throne. Her eyes changed from galaxies to a swarthy hazel.