Hales extinguished her Aspect. She remained unblinking as her eyes transitioned from galaxies to their normal form.
Deo’s eyes kept their purple glint.
“Hello Deo.” Hales greeted.
“Hello Solar.” Deo replied, using her Aspect in place of her name.
Hales didn’t say anything for a number of heartbeats.
She inhaled. Exhaled. Then Spoke. “I was intending to kill you, when I got here.”
“Is that so?” Deo asked with a brow raised.
“You’re confident your angel there is faster than me. True, he might kill me, but not before a beam of sunlight burns a hole in your chest.” Hales fingered one of the little dyson spheres at her hip, attached by a hook on her belt.
Deo tilted his head. “Perhaps. What changed your mind?” Deo was still unworried, likely due to Hales having her Aspect deactivated.
“I remembered our time on the train, the conversation we had about the psychology of chairs. You were telling me all about your theories…” Hales was going to say more, but decided to cut to the point. “Well you’ve got your chair now, your throne. That seat of power you talked so extensively about that day on the train. You remember it right?”
“Of course. I will never forget.” Deo’s features softened, the ceaseless throes of nostalgia pounding on his still-beating heart.
“You’re changing the world, right? Just like you said.” Hales spoke softly, just audible over the rancor of the banquet and barely audible to Deo sitting up the stairs on a carved throne of reddish wood.
“I no longer entertain such childish fantasies.”
“Why did you torture those people in Vallis?” Hales could scarcely recognize Deo when she thought of those people screaming.
“Because I am evil. There, now you have the moral superiority. That is what you wanted to hear, right? A confession to make things simple for you. I am evil and you are good. Therefore what would normally be considered evil is justified when you do it. You get permission to kill because I have validated, in your reality, a cause that is just.”
Hales scowled. “When you kill innocent people, really make them suffer, you abandon any argument. There is nothing you can say that will take back what you did. You did it for show, to rile shock and anger from the world, but you hurt people for that, millions of people.” Hales knew it was futile to argue with Deo, it’s not why she wanted to talk but the words came out anyways. “Was it worth it? Can you even feel anything?”
“Yes I feel. I know you humans like to accuse your enemies of being something without any qualities of life, emotionless, different, anything that makes it easy to end another life. What I felt was bliss. But tell me you have not come here to debate philosophy and reminisce.”
“No Deo, I am not here to debate.” Hales said with a twinge of sadness. “I came here because I was ordered to. I am talking to you now because I want to know something.”
Deo entertained Hales’ inquiry. “What is it you would like to know?”
“If you are the same Deo that I knew. The one who took care of flowers and wanted only to make the world a better place.” Hales couldn’t get the memory of all her preserved flowers crumbling before her very eyes nor could she ignore that mad look in his eyes when he deserted, declaring their love ended.
“I am the same.” Deo held her gaze.
“There is a flower over there,” Hales pointed to a small bushel of wildflowers, some of which were wilting as the summer ended. “Can you preserve it?” Hales challenged.
Deo followed her hand. Looked at the flower. “No, I do not think so.” Deo admitted.
“So you have changed. And now you want to destroy the world.”
“The whole world? Do not be so dramatic. It is always the same with humans. Some catastrophe occurs and humans rail against the fates, calling out that the world is coming to an end. Humans are not the world.”
“But there are humans who don’t deserve to die.” Hales argued.
“Anything that breathes has the equal chance to live and die. There is no fairness, no reason. All of culture is a combined effort to make sense of living.”
“Why are you alive?” Hales asked.
“To bring death.” Deo said with some sarcasm.
“If that’s all you’re doing then why don’t you just die!”
“Then kill me like you said you wanted to. Kill me before I kill you all.”
“So you kill everyone and end the world is that?”
Hales was about to speak but Deo cut her off, his eyes intense and full of a passionate fury. “This is what I will do!” He snapped, breaking out into a string of threats. “I will conquer the human settlements, what we call the metropolises. I will slaughter humans in the millions, the death toll alone will be hailed as an extinction event. I will raze cities as humans prophecy that it is the end times. But oh how I will prove their insignificance! Humans will die but the world will not die with it. To insult this human species, I will purge the very idea of human, the word itself will no longer exist in vocabulary. I will burn every book, destroy every history. Nothing will remain that was human. By the end, I will march the dead corpses of a foolish race into churning oceans and down raging volcanoes, through valleys of shadow and buried under flaming dunes.”
It was that last word that brought a dark memory into Hales’ mind. Once upon a desert…
“Deo,” Hales started, breaking his train of thought. He could sense the severity of his own name being spoken. “There is something I never had the chance to tell you, something I could never bring myself to say.” Hales pursed her lips, working up the courage. She finally shrugged. “After my first mission, the one where I was lost for weeks and weeks.”
“Yes I thought you had died or were captured.” Deo kept his jaw tight.
“I had nearly been killed after an ambush. I got separated from my squad and was forced to flee into the Aiy Dry Desert. I should’ve died of dehydration, I nearly died of pain and heat alone. But something happened and it gave me the will to keep walking.” Hales shuddered, looked around self consciously. No one appeared to be listening. The angel boy by Deo’s side had not even looked her way once. He was zoned out or something. Hales bit her cheek. “There was a miscarriage, out there in the desert. I hadn’t known, not until it happened.” Hales was red with watered eyes.
Deo blinked but did not have any words.
Hales composed herself. “I did not tell you to try to make you feel guilty or anything. I just needed to tell you. I know it changes nothing. I really wish that I did not have to be a soldier for Garghent. I wanted to be with you, Deo. Garghent is corrupt, they are planning such terrible things, I don’t want to be a part of it.” Hales rambled, unloading emotions that had been bottled up since the day Deo deserted, emotions she didn’t know existed.
“Then leave Garghent.” Deo said simply. “I am gathering only the strong. You certainly fit that criteria, Hales.”
“Deo, I know you. I know why you are doing this. If I could go back in time I’d never join the military. I’d have left Garghent with you. My siblings, I could have come back for them one day. We were going to use our powers to achieve our dreams. You could plant any flowers you wanted and I have my stars to grow them with. Our Aspects are synergistic! I’m sorry I let you leave alone.” Hales felt like her brain might collapse in on itself. Every emotion was bubbling over and out the rim. To Hales, Deo represented the ability of taking control of her own life, something she’d never been in charge of. It was sickening that before the military all she was worried about was the morality of killing people, now it was the loss of independence that grated against her will.
“I forecast a torrential storm, Solar. You do not want to be caught up in it. I owe you that much. The chance to join me. So what do you say?” Deo appeared apprehensive. Not because he did not want Hales to join, but because he feared being declined, the way he opened his guard to her. It was a risk for him to make such an offer in front of his subordinates, though they were out of earshot, it was obvious the conversation was taking place. To be denied could weaken his hold ever so slightly. If the chain of command was teetering delicately, such a rejection could be irredeemably negative.
Looking at Deo, Hales saw through his haggard features, signs of malnourishment and severe sleep deprivation were clear, although he did seem to be on the recovery. But Hales saw the same boyish smile, the eyes that held together a mask hiding someone else. The feelings she had for him had never truly faded, Hales discovered. She could tell it was true for Deo as well, in his own way.
The slight white and pink streaks on her face itched, the scars of her molten tears. Hales was becoming more and more attuned to her Aspect. At the rate she was developing, how soon could she ascend to a Master? With that sort of power on Deo’s side, the conquest of the Sister continent would be that much more feasible.
Hales made her decision. No more regrets. No more gazing longingly back into the past. No more dreaming of alternate lives. No more existing in states of mindlessness and spacing out. She would live in the moment, take every risk and create the world she wanted to live in. Doubtless Garghent will take her siblings hostage, to that she would crash their gates and meteor strike their city into oblivion. The powers in play had been established years before she was born. In fact, Hales had been birthed into their hands, to be molded as a weapon, used and discarded when her edge was dulled. It’s the futility of challenging fate that motivated Hales the most. Nobody dared to challenge fate in the way that Deo did. Garghent is invincible and still Deo threatens them. The cycle of wars, poverty, raising kids to be soldiers, destruction and tearing families apart for more wars will never end so long Garghent and other other cities exist. Hales suddenly understood the deeply complex mentality Deo must wear in order to even have a fighting chance. He had to forgo all sense of morality, deny his own humanity, play the role of a villain, descend into chaos all so that he might form an empire of the most ruthless fighters and criminals. He needs Specters that are equally depraved. Gather the scum of the planet and somehow tear down the might of the city-states. Sure he’d seen some success so far, but Hales knew Garghent would crush Deo without much contention when it came down to war.
He needs me, Hales told herself. He needs all the help he can get, though he’d never admit it.
“I…” I will join you, Deo.
“I…” Why can’t I say it out loud?
‘Tongue tied are we?’
Great, you again?’
‘She wants to join Deo.’
Ah! What’s stopping her?
‘No idea, seems to be a mental block.’
Strange, what should we do?
‘Nothing, I don’t think. There’s nothing we can do.’
That must be some mental block.
‘Let’s observe what happens.’
“I can’t, Deo.” Hales said. That’s not what I wanted to say!
Deo breathed sharply. “I see.”
No no no!
“That is your decision, Solar.” Deo’s voice was terribly cold. She knew he just had to say these words for show.
“But I…” What is wrong with me?
Deo pulled on his cowl neck collar and rose from his throne. “Be used by Garghent, traitor. You are my enemy, now and forever.” Deo unconsciously ordered his undead to face where he faced. Thousands turned in unison, staring with their blank faces toward the center of the ziggurat.
Hales stood in shock and stillness, her mind quickly dissociating.
I know Deo the best. Every move he makes and every word he says is transparent to me. We are bound together, I the sun and he the soil. I am the light and he is that which comes from the ground. We are one. Together there is nothing that can stop us…
That’s right, I said I can’t join him. Why did I do that? It’s not what I wanted.
All talking ceased at the banquet.
“Draje,” Deo growled. “Leave this land at once. Garghent is not welcome in Ophir.”
“That is unfortunate,” Draje started. “I was just beginning to tell young Garriot here the might of our armies. You know,” Draje stroked his mustache,” I wonder if Master Klyle alone is enough to destroy this pathetic city of yours.”
Garriot looked uncomfortable at the mention of Master Klyle.
Veinbreaker chuckled “Oh you guys have really done it now. Death is upset!”
“I say we kill them!” Yillo shouted, looking murderously at Garriot, one of his old rivals.
“You can try bastard. You’ve never beaten me before.” Garriot taunted.
“Looking at your ugly face reminds me what it was like killing Jonatan.” Yillo glowed to the color of blood orange.
“Come then Yillo, taste my knuckles again!”
“Enough.” Deo said, ordering the undead to growl something as close to the word he used, providing a monstrous clamor backing his demand.
Deo addressed Garghent. “You may leave here alive. But that is all the quarter I shall ever grant to this miserable species.”
“I am honored to have been a guest.” Draje made a mocking bow.
“You’re surprisingly livid for a senile old man!” The Onager Aspect hollered.
Draje chuckled. “I think I am getting senile. I didn’t notice you sitting there. I remember the last time I saw you, you were launching yourself from catapult to catapult fleeing from me.”
“What are you talking about?” Onager asked bemused, assured that Draje was actually crazy.
“At the Siege of Garghent. You might remember me by my Sortilege Aspect. You sure you don’t want to see it again.”
That shut Onager up. He’d been sorely beaten before by Draje, though having forgotten who he was until this painful reminder.
Draje was absently shuffling his twenty-two card deck. The major arcana that allowed him to transform into a personification of the tarot he randomly draws.
“You came here for what you wanted. Be satisfied with that and leave.” Deo recommended assertively. “Do not test my patience,” he warned.
“Seeing as this is your day of celebration, I do not want to impede on your generosity. We shall embark peacefully. As you are a new ruler, I would like to leave you with this advice.” Draje was on his feet now, the bodyguard reforming around. “Enjoy your dominion in Ophir, as fleeting as it will prove to be.”
Deo was standing like a dark god lauding over his temple. He nodded. “You are no king, General, but you act like one. Therefore when the time comes, I will kill you like a king.”
“And how does a king die?” Draje asked with snark and humor.
“Until next time, lord Deo.” Draje said before leaving.
Hales didn’t look back as she numbly marched out with the others.
The banquet was silent. Deo waited until the embassy from Garghent left the city limits, which was confirmed by Hege who was standing at the throne’s right hand side again.
“We begin by building trenches. I want several layers, a hundred of kilometers long around both Ophir and Vallis. Bisult, I want you to go back to Vallis and start preparing the city. I will leave it to your discretion how you want to run the city. Any resources you need will be provided. Stay in communication with Hege.”
Deo looked around his followers and his Specters. He could see skepticism written on their faces. “Where is Kiasmus?” Deo had not noticed his absence at the banquet.
“Repairing his two surviving Skullheads, I believe.” Hege informed.
“Ah, good. Onager go meet with him immediately. You know what to do.”
“Aye, lord.” Onager strode off at once.
“I need cameras at work sites, both for the trenches and in Vallis. My undead will provide the labor, but I need recordings of the space so I can order them to work.”
“Right away!” One bureaucrat responded.
“Veinbreaker, put together a guerilla force and raid supply lines on the major highways and railroads. Don’t extend past Garghent, hit hard and fast. Anything you can’t lug away, burn. Use whatever means you wish. Make them afraid.”
“With pleasure.” Veinbreaker smiled. “Arvin and Carn, care to join me?” he offered.
Carn was stomping his feet in excitement. “That’s a yes from us.” Arvin declared.
“Got room for us?” The mercenary captain of the monster hunters raised a glass.
“Good, we could use some trackers.” Veinbreaker raised a glass as well and toasted the captain.
“Garriot.” Deo said, moving on. “In the coming days and weeks there will be newcomers joining us, including mercenaries offering their services, vagabonds in search of work, criminals and Specters. I will filter through them. Any warrior will be handed to you, prepare them against enemy Specters. Whether we battle Master Klyle or the entire army of Garghent, make them ready. Anyone else will be given to you Hege.”
Deo turned to Hege. “You will handle supplies, provisions, weaponry, medicine, everything we’ll need to be adequately equipped.”
“Might I make a suggestion?” Bisult’s deep voice carried naturally.
“Of course.” Deo gestured for him to continue.
“Transport everyone from Vallis into Ophir. Leave Vallis as a forward base for your undead. It will be too hard to defend in its current state. I would need a year or two to make it defensible again.”
“We do not have the housing for eight million citizens. They are panic stricken and in shock. Moving them could cause problems here.” Deo said.
“Trust me, lad. The problems and logistics of moving them are nothing in comparison to what will happen when Garghent attacks Vallis. It is likely they will leave the city alone if they hear it is empty, save for undead. They will focus everything on conquering Ophir and killing you before seizing control of Vallis. If we are divided, they can simply ignore Vallis anyways. You’ll need myself and Paradice in Ophir.”
“Very well, you have convinced me. Bisult, I will leave that in your hands. Work with city planners to begin constructing new housing for Ophir. Hege, I apologize but add the refugees to your list.”
“Not a problem, Deo. Bisult is right. This is the best move. Might even be a fair number of citizens we can make use of.” Hege said, already readjusting his allotment of resources and manpower.
Deo addressed the entire banquet. “If you have any doubts about fighting a war against Garghent, you may voice them. Garghent has more enemies than we do, there are a number of factors that we cannot predict. However, I believe it is safe to say most of the city-states will wait to see how much we can weaken Garghent before they make their move. Garghent is not invincible. Make no misconception. We’ve an army of nearly two hundred million. When the time comes to field them, watch as the whole world trembles in fear. We’ll make this war bloody. Bisult, I hope you do not mind me adapting your defense strategy of multi-layered trenches at an incline.”
“By all means.” Bisult waved.
Deo stood. “We are damnation’s vessels and it is time to damn this world. Be sick. I want to hear Garghent squeal.”
The plan had been to not start a war with Garghent, but everytime he thought of that wretched place nothing but a pained longing to see it’s tall buildings ground to dust fills his head.
“I think we can all agree, that guy is screwed in the head.” Veron broke the silence. The embassy from Garghent was on their way back, camping the night. Veron, Yillo and Hales sat around their own fire. “I can’t believe he used to be on your squad!”
Hales was throwing twigs into the fire.
Veron kept talking. “So Hales, what did you talk to him about for so long.” The tattooed girl asked innocently.
“He offered me to join him. I wanted to say yes.” Hales spoke absent-mindedly. Not even caring if what she said could be reported for treason.
“Hales!” Veron exclaimed. “You can’t be serious? Then we’d have to be enemies!”
“I know, for some reason, I think you’re the reason I couldn’t leave. Part of me realized I couldn’t betray my friends.” Hales didn’t feel normal saying that, like it wasn’t her own thoughts on the matter.
Veron moved to Hales and gave her a tight hug. “Aren’t you grateful? I saved you from doing something stupid.”
“What do you mean?” Hales, normally uncomfortably with such random affection, but found herself comforted by Veron’s hug.
“You can never do something that would put you against me. I charmed you.”
“Duh! We couldn’t afford to have you wandering off. You’re one of the very best!” Veron finally released the hug but was still holding Hales by the arm.
“Oh when did you do that?” Hales asked normally. Mentally she was screaming.
“You remember my Bloom Jinx? Well it’s not real. I don’t have any healing Jinx’s, wouldn’t really be a Jinx then huh. You probably could have figured it out but you kept asking for my Bloom whenever you got seriously injured.”
“What, those injuries got better though!”
“I doubt it, just placebo I guess.”
“Placebo…” Hales was thinking back. There were several occasions where Hales asked for Veron’s help. The tournament, in the war, every so often when injuries were too much to handle. “So you took advantage of me? You lied.” Hales’ voice was talking sweetly, like a regular conversation. Her body wouldn’t obey the muscle impulses of drawing her gun and shooting Veron.
“Those were my orders. Keep an eye on Hales. Sometime after the camp I was pulled aside by Klyle and Vandle. You were the one they were most concerned about keeping in check. I’m surprised you don’t know about all the little things our class is doing. Guess it’s a need to know basis.”
“What else is our class doing?” Hales wondered.
“Well I suppose there is no harm in telling you now. You’re quite infatuated with me now. That was what the brain scan was checking for. Making sure my Charm was imprinted in your brain. Benhan is Janiform Gemma’s personal assistant. Antho is infiltrating an irksome vigilante group. Lo, Aulus and Winnow joined Aceldama, to be ready for when we take over the orbits and satellites. Don’t look so surprised, Hales! We were bred to be weapons. Garghent has the best Specters and the most advanced espionage. That’s really how wars are won nowadays, yeah? By winning them twenty years before the war actually starts. I guess I get a lot of classified information, being in the Espionage Division and all.”
Hales was stuck. She couldn’t do anything to harm Veron or even speak ill of her. Internally she was in limbo. It was like standing still, trying with her entire might to move her muscles on the condition that no muscles be moved.
Yillo finally spoke. “Want me to kill her?” he was talking to Hales.
Yes, please yes! Rip her apart. “No, Yillo. It is okay. It’s for the best.”
Veron hugged Hales again. Yillo didn’t quite comprehend the situation. He was in Hales’ boat, kept from all the classified information. Just a tool, nothing more.
Hales cursed in her mind, which was abuzz with multiple voices. They kept talking with different opinions. Hales didn’t trust anything right now. Hours flew by. They were sleeping now. Or supposed to be, Hales couldn’t.
Whose voices are these? Are any of them mine?
She screamed mentally until the voices no longer spoke in her mind.
Finally clear headed, she laid down, staring at the stars, unable to beat the insomnia.
Hales whispered to the night air, relying on the cool breeze to carry her maudlin prayer. “Please understand that I’m only trying to kill you because I love you Deo. This war, I’ll make it the most destructive, most savage thing. I’ll give you hell, thwart you each step of the way so that we can drag this out, the two of us together leaving a path of ruin. You are the villain Deo, that’s what you wanted. That’s okay. I will be your protagonist, the hero everyone in the world relies on to defeat you.”
“Nobody knows you, not like I do.”