Deo strolled with hands clasped behind his back to the aptly named Bone District, Kiasmus’ section of the city. The Palaot tribesmen were the only other inhabitants. A solitary people. Kiasmus was working on a project with Onager. Deo saw their progress in the form of a cannon, styled like those from antiquity.
“Welcome, lord.” Onager greeted excitedly, turning from his inspections. “You’ll be pleased by our progress. This cannon is capable of adjusting its own aim by moving its own wheels back and forth. Kiasmus has an incredible Aspect. An animated siege engine can be far more accurate, and therefore more devastating, than human calculations.” Onager lifted the cannon, which was no larger than a keg or barrel. “This is just a prototype as you can see. The full size will match any industrial artillery Garghent can produce. We’re talking a dozen meters this way and several high.”
Onager set the bone cannon down. “Kiasmus will give me control, so the cannon will follow my orders.” Onager mentally told the cannon to turn around. One wheel rolled back as the body pivoted. It readjusted itself and stopped, now facing opposite from its starting point. “The best part is the ammunition will never run out because it can use my green spectral boulders.” Onager squatted down and resumed his inspection. “Pretty good right? I figure with about five of these full sized ones I could do serious damage to any walls, without any of the drawbacks of bringing shells or gunpowder.”
Onager finally paused long enough for Deo to respond. “This is good, Onager. I expect nothing less from my siege captain. But if you will excuse us, I must speak to Kiasmus.”
Onager got up. “Not a problem, I’ll go grab some lunch.”
“Come walk with me.” Deo said to Kiasmus. The Elder nodded. Side by side, Kiasmus dwarfed Deo, yet the Death Aspect had an air of authority not even the newly ascended Master could match, something that went beyond raw power and esoteric abilities. Deo was king, Kiasmus was not.
The king required of his knight a task.
“There is a certain enemy who will be invading soon, within a day or two I imagine.” Deo explained.
“A single enemy?” Kiasmus asked.
“A single enemy worth a hundred armies. A Master Specter of great renown. Klyle, the Lion Aspect.”
“The name is familiar.” Kiasmus said.
“I do not know how strong you are in truth, only that you are my strongest, but I wish for you to meet him halfway and do battle outside of Ophir.”
“You honor my name with such a glorious fight.” Kiasmus was itching to test for combat. Such was the nature of the Specter that newfound strength must be tested, refined in the fire of battle. No flame burned more pure than that of a duel, and no sharper edge than that of a Master.
“Garriot was trained by Klyle. He told me all he knows. He resembles a lion, is bigger than even Bisult. His physical strength and speed are unparalleled. Any wounds that manage to penetrate his thick skin heal almost immediately, and any mortal wounds do not affect him. Other than that he makes use of roars, claws and bites. The quintessential Augur.”
“Already I feel eager. I can sense his secret.” Kiasmus said with that twist of barely repressed violence.
Deo smiled. “What do you need?”
“A million skeletons. Fresh blood.”
“It is done. They will meet you in front of the gate.”
Kiasmus said nothing else.
Deo walked off. Contingencies had to be prepared. Bisult and Paradice were traveling to Vallis. Veinbreaker, Carn and Arachnomania were already setting up for their raids. Veil, Hege and Bubonica would do little but die, according to Garriot, which Deo believed because Garriot himself was apprehensive. A feeling Deo had never seen from the usually debonair warrior. Garriot would be in no condition to fight Klyle.
That left Jan and a legion of the undead. “Perhaps after his fight with Kiasmus, the Lion will be worn out enough that my undead can swarm him.” Deo voiced his thoughts, now back sitting on his throne. Only the sullen Seravim Aspect stood beside him, untalking and unblinking in his watchful post.
Deo’s chin rested on his fist. With nothing to do but wait, he watched the clouds meander through the sky.
“There seems to be a lot on your mind.” The speaker was Klea, the Veil Aspect. Deo had not noticed her appearance.
“I am faced with a problem in which I have no control over the outcome. The consequences will decide all of our fates.”
The Veil Aspect, talking behind a screen of silk, moved closer to the base of the staircase that led to Deo. “This is that infamous Master Klyle, no?”
Deo replied. “Yes, the Lion Aspect.”
Klea sat down on one stair, slightly sideways so that she was not entirely turned away. Her veil wrapped around tight on her ears so that her face below the eyes remained hidden.
“Garghent is foolish if they send him alone.” Klea said.
“How so? They risk nothing, for Klyle is nearly immortal. They can see our strongest fighter, and supposing our strongest fighter is not nearly good enough he will simply decimate us. No, unfortunately Garghent is very unfoolish. They risk nobody, they do not expose their flanks, they avoid causing a scene with their military. They will look like liberators and not tyrants for retaking Ophir and Vallis.”
Klea looked upside down at Deo. Oddly, her eyes appeared to be rightside up. “You are speaking in strategic nonsense. It’s always objectivity with you. ‘The right move’ how can such a thing be quantifiable? They send in a single warrior to fight an empire. Foolishness.”
That was the most Deo heard Klea talk at once.
She stood and faced Deo. “They are waging war against an unknown assailant and bring their mightiest warrior to fight the first battle. You commend them for their superior intellect but ignore the factor that such a vain move can be taken advantage of.”
“Enlighten me.” Deo encouraged.
“Suppose this duel ends in our favor, what then?”
“Then preparations will continue.” Deo said disinterested.
“But what does it mean?” Klea pressed. When Deo didn’t respond, she kept talking. “Word will spread that you possess someone capable of standing toe to toe with Klyle. Your support will rise and bring in new followers. Garghent will look weak.”
“Nobody will think Garghent weak unless I can hold Klyle’s head in my hands.” Deo snapped.
“That is greed talking. Garghent believes they can destroy us. When that doesn’t happen you must put the pressure on them. The world is watching.”
“I will think on that.” Was all Deo responded with. He spent the rest of the day brooding.
“I will cut to the point, we want you to reclaim Ophir.” The former Janiform Amenais issued.
“We’re all in agreement here.” nodded an aristocrat.
Klyle spread his paw like hands. “I will do the job, but is that line of work not more suited for Creeper and the Headless?”
“Creeper’s current whereabouts are unknown. Otherwise I would have you track him down and dispatch him instead!”
“Creeper has been loyal thus far.” said a more scholarly aristocrat. “There is no reason to believe he would betray us.”
“Creeper works for the highest bidder and we’ve always assured that was us. If something has changed, we need to take the first strike.” argued a high ranking military officer.
“We will deal with Creeper soon enough. For now, let us return to the problem of Ophir.” Amenais always dictated these meetings as leader of the shadow government that secretly ran Garghent. In reality it was nothing more than the most powerful, connected and influential oligarchs of Garghent, including the former Janiform, chosen by being the wealthiest citizen in the metropolis. They get together to decide policy, course of action, city governing, war strategy and their own agendas.
Their decision to send Klyle to conquer Ophir was unanimous.
“Their leader, Deo the Death Aspect, is a start up nobody trying to overthrow the metropolises. He has somehow managed to conquer two cities, giving us the opportunity to liberate them and rebuild under Garghent’s banner.”
“He poses a threat in the long term. The more he fights, the larger his army grows. Both from his ability to raise the dead and the increasing support from criminals, anarchists, brigands. It is best to dispose of him while we can.”
“This mission has the added benefit of granting us nearly the entire southern half of the Sister continent, save Bast which will soon enough succumb to our suzerain.”
“Why send Klyle alone? Surely a full military excursion makes the most sense, especially if it is to ‘liberate’ the cities. I cannot foresee any backlash from the rest of the city-states.”
“It is not the backlash we are worried about, it is the message it sends. While individually Garghent has the strongest military, a play right now could see us fighting another Coalition, this one likely to be unaffected by our sabotage. But by using only Klyle, we avoid the military attention and keep the narrative that we are seeking to liberate Ophir and Vallis, doing us all a favor by ridding that fanatic.”
Amenais raised a hand for silence as conversation broke out. “We are in agreement of the method and means, let that be an end to it for we have much else to discuss.” Amensais turned to Klyle. “When you are ready, journey to Ophir and destroy them.”
Klyle nodded, stroking at his mane. He stayed for a few minutes as the topic interested him. It concerned the recent compiling of Talis Ranis’ works.
A bearded scientist presented next. “We’ve nearly finished studying the cave. Once it’s complete it can be given to all the highest ranking Specters to study. I won’t pretend to understand it from that perspective. That will be your job, Master Klyle. From there I imagine all the existing Specters and the new generations will have an edge over the rest of the world.”
“There is no way the translations can be leaked?” asked a concerned general.
“The only outsider working on the team is the archaeologist who discovered them.” The sceintist assured.
“If he is not needed for the translation, kill him at once.”
The scientist nodded. “It will be done.”
“This is excellent news,” Amenais clapped his hands together. “The advent of a new age of Specters is fast approaching. Talis foolishly left a gift before dying and we shall gladly keep it to ourselves.”
Master Klyle walked out after that. He left the building and traveled to the edge of the city. It took several hours but he was in no rush. It was nighttime and he’d meditate on the battlements of the rebuilt walls until daybreak.
He was leaning over the crenellations long past midnight when footsteps approached from behind. They were lightweight, filled with anger, but balanced and consistent. A warrior’s gait.
“Was it you?”
The speaker was a former trainee, Hales, the Solar Aspect.
“So you were told?” Klyle responded with a question.
“It was you. And who else?” Hales was shaking, fighting something within. “Professor Vandle? The Generals?”
“Aye.” was all Klyle said.
“If I was able, I’d kill you right now.”
“No lass, you wouldn’t come close. Many years before you were born we decided to start something. We’re nearly finished.” Klyle was purposefully vague.
“We’ve already given up our lives to be weapons for Garghent’s wars and if that’s not enough you mind control us. Was there any point in which you stopped to think how fucked up it is? You’ve got something figured out don’t you? Some secret that ensures you get more Specters. Poverty and violence right? You purposely sabotage and abuse millions of citizens just so they can have a higher chance of awakening an Aspect if they qualify for the military? Is that why the second city exists?” Hales stormed, “When Janiform Amenais gave criminals and homeless people a section of their own it was an experiment to see who survives and becomes a Specter!”
Klyle said nothing.
“Did you know my family before I was born?”
“I was not in charge of that part.” Klyle admitted.
“You think I’m stupid! I know it was the Espionage division. I’ve figured it out. I’m going to break out of Garghent one day and when I do you’ll be the first I come for.”
“I look forward to it,” said Klyle
Hales wanted to say more, but not getting a reaction out of Klyle defused her anger.
She slumped to the ground.
“You’re going to kill him now?” Hales asked softly.
“I hope you lose.”
“Anything can happen,” admitted Klyle. The sun was cresting over the horizon, with clouds gathering as far as the eye can see.
“I’m leaving now. And Hales,” he said without turning. “Do what you must.” Klyle jumped off and broke into a sprint.
Hales scoffed. “I can’t when I’m being controlled, idiot.” She knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep for days until she learns what happens…
Leaves fell and blew in lazy droves as pittering droplets coagulated on the canoe fold of the chameleon foliage, forming into covalently bonding puddles until the weight bore becomes too great and both leaf and rain complete their descent to join the duff at the bottom.
Amidst the drizzle and autumn chroma stood the Marrow Aspect, arms crossed in waiting and porous armor, condensed by a million extra skeletons, pulsing like several hearts and overflowing with bubbling blood.
Kiasmus had gained several meters in length and thousands of kilograms in weight. The forest quieted, anticipating the upcoming violence.
For hours Kiasmus bade his time patiently. There was no concern, in his random choice of spot, of being missed for the scent of blood alone could lure any olfactory organ. The sweetness of damp soil mixed with the odor of iron to create an unpleasant abnormality. An abomination of nature, a creature of some alien design, whose very existence deigned the delicate and beautiful cycle of life.
It is the proper way of the Aspect to connect those enlightened with its powers to the grand cosmos all the way down to the minutest protozoa. That oneness achieved through the dissolution of self combined with the perfection of individuality. A cocktail of spiritual success and physical mastery. But no such emulsification took place in Kiasmus, the Marrow Aspect. No deep connection to nature or the universe, no awareness of the world and the unknown divine. Nothing but a bottomless basin of primordial horror linked Kiasmus with his Aspect. A horror that smuggly clawed its way and found nest in the entity known as Kiasmus the Elder of the Palaot, followers of the way of Pal of Ot.
Sensing a tickle of energy, like a ley line forming and beaming straight at him, Kiasmus let out a slow sigh of relief. The waiting was over.
Approaching from the west with the pressure of a freight train was Klyle, Master of the Lion Aspect. Moving as lithe as any cat, the Lion jumped between trees, bounded over pits and valleys, silent as a stalker with prey in scent.
Only Kiasmus’ attunement to energy allowed him to feel Klyle’s deadly approach. Without that hypersensitivity, there would no possibility of predicting Klyle’s presence. A concealing hunt was invaluable to Kiasmus. It meant there would be no pre-fight exchange and none of the nonsense and fluff surrounding an official duel.
Klyle was serious. This was life and death, the way of the wild. The lion need not roar before the pounce, that courtesy cannot be expected by the unsuspecting boar. Although used to savage dominance, the lion must not neglect precautions for the boar to lash out with sharpened tusks, in defiance to its predatory rival.
Altruism indeed exists and sitting across is indiscriminate slaughter, eager to tip the karmic balance.
Master Klyle leapt from all fours onto Kiasmus who had no way of reacting to the incoming velocity.
The density of his marrow armor prevented all damage, but the force did shove him back into a tree which he splintered into pieces.
A claw swipe left scratches on the chest of Kiasmus, barely perceptible damage.
Kiasmus kicked the Lion off and grew dozens of armlike appendages.
Klyle flipped in the air and landed on his feet. Breaking into all fours again, he jumped to a tree, bending it just before the snapping point. He used the tree as an arboreal spring and propelled headfirst directly at Kiasmus.
The appendages entangling Kiasmus became hard spikes that skewered Klyle. Fifty holes in the Lion’s body appeared. Klyle felt blood drain out, as if being slurped by straws.
Klyle grabbed all the spikes in his massive paws, wrenched them out from himself and swung around to throw Kiasmus.
The Marrow Aspect detached his appendages and Klyle threw nothing but the discarded spikes. Kiasmus stepped in and delivered a hook that shattered Klyle’s jaw, who reacted fast enough to punch Kiasmus in the abdomen.
Kiasmus was lifted briefly off the ground, feeling the internal rupture of something in his grotesque biology receiving blunt force trauma.
Klyles wounds healed over, his mane and body color changing hues from a slight brown to a soft orange.
Kiasmus grinned. It confirmed his suspicion.
Klyle leaped back, fading into the complementary brush, camouflaged by the autumn leaves. He raced in blurs of motion.
Kiasmus drew a wicked sword from his wrist. The blade acted like a compass seeking fresh blood. It pointed in the direction Klyle came pouncing from. Kiasmus cleaved in a wide arc, but Klyle ducked under and chomped down on Marrow’s calf, tearing a chunk of bone off and continuing his route. Klyle spat the bone out.
Kiasmus took a defensive counter stance, widening his legs and lowering his body. His sword was at the inside position, jutting straight out at chest level. He rested the blade on his offhand’s forearm, which was perpendicular to his sword.
Kiasmus kept track of the zigzagging Klyle, turning and repositioning as appropriate.
Kyle roared, loud enough to shake the trees, causing thousands of leaves to dance about. The sound was deafening and the echo confused Kiasmus’s blade. It gave a false direction and Klyle appeared behind Kiasmus.
The Lion used both hands and tore into Kiasmus’ back, shedding layers and layers of bone marrow.
Staggering from the attack, Kiasmus shot bone spikes from his spine in a vertical fan. Klyle evaded most of them but found a few sticking from his hand and bicep.
Kiasmus pivoted around and cut. The blade chopped Klyle’s mane but the Lion was agile enough to avoid a severed jugular.
Staying close, Klyle squared up with fists. Kiasmus feigned a strike with his sword and threw a left cross. Klyle met the fist with his own. The Lion’s fist shattered Marrow’s. Without missing a beat, Kiasmus thrust his sword into Klyle’s hip. The true faint was sacrificing his hand, which was immediately replaced by a new one that grew from his wrist.
Klyle attempted to pull the sword from Marrow’s hand but found that it was connected to its wielder. Klyle tugged on it, this time successfully throwing Kiasmus into the air.
Klyle squatted and jumped, leaving a small crater behind. He reached the airborne Kiasmus just above the apex of Marrow’s flight. Marrow tried a wild swipe but missed the Lion who now floated above him. Klyle bunched up, constricted his muscles and brought his knees to his chest.
As soon as the upward momentum changed to downward, that quarter of a second where the trajectory is going neither up nor down, that pivotal junction, Klyle expanded his body, kicking Kiasmus with enough force to generate shockwaves.
Kiasmus hit the ground hard, sinking three whole meters deep into the mud. He pushed himself out with a large pillar of bone that grew from his back.
Before Kiasmus could stand, Klyle landed on him with another powerful stomp. Kiasmus sank deeper this time and Klyle hopped free of the pit.
Bellowing a maniacal laugh, Kiasmus formed a ribcage that was unconnected at the sternum. The ribcage protruded from his chest like giant fingers.
Kiasmus rose to his feet and stepped out from the pitfall covered in mud. Blood began to mist out from the tips of the ribcage. Moments after, the bloodmist began to spread and thicken. Twin exhaust pipes formed on his left shoulder, emitting extremely high temperatures that boiled the drizzling rain and evaporated his bloodmist on the spot.
The heat raised into the atmosphere, mixing with the nimbus clouds. The sky reddened and the refraction of light painted the already orange terrain into violets and magentas with a crimson overhead.
Red rain poured, heavier than before. The torrent of thousands upon thousands of liters of human blood, preserved superbly by the expertise of the Aspect, compressed by the straw-like abilities of Marrow’s appendages and then sprayed out into the sky, only to be fiercely expelled by the heavens.
The soil and ground cover found the thicker bloodrain more difficult to absorb and bloody, muddy slipways and streams began to flood, carrying dead leaves along the messy way.
Klyle’s fur stained red, giving him a dark, primeval glare. If Kiasmus was an alien from the underworld of some barren planet on the outskirts of the galaxy, Klyle was a mythological demigod, half god, half lion.
The bloodrain covered Kiasmus’s distinct scent, effectively blinding Klyle from a whole sense.
The two Masters faded into the environment, relying on wit and experience to out maneuver their opponent.
In terms of hunting, Klyle had the clear upper hand. But right now, this was Kiasmus’ turf. The bloodrain revealed the general shapes of objects, outlining the silhouettes. Kiasmus could sense trees, bushes, branches, mounds and a crouching figure some forty meters to the left.
Kiasmus chose an indirect route so as not to reveal his intent.
Klyle’s form faded from the rain outline as soon as Kiasmus went on the move. The Lion somehow figured out he was being watched and hid beneath a tree.
Brief instances of a blip appeared in impossible locations from the previous blip.
Kiasmus stayed in motion but tried to track the meaning of the movements.
Was he leaping from tree to tree?
Kiasmus felt a rush of air behind him. He spun but nothing was there. Another rush to his side. Kiasmus cut in the direction, slicing only rain.
An object embedded itself in the nape of his neck. Kiasmus reached back and pulled the projectile out. It was a small twig.
Realization struck the Marrow Aspect as the blips on his bloodrain were twigs being flicked by Klyle with so much force that blocks of air and rain were being displaced.
Having been fooled by the ploy frustrated Kiasmus. A mite of a thought began to eat away at him.
The Lion is leagues above me in skill.
Merely entertaining this notion angered Kiasmus to no end. He shouted in fury, temporarily pausing the rain with the soundwaves. In a fury, Kiasmus revealed his own location.
Realizing the mistake Marrow prepared for the attack he knew was coming. Running was futile as Klyle would not lose sight of his target.
Kiasmus expected a charge but instead a series of whole trees flew at him from above. Kiasmus easily cut through these with his sword, dancing around the tumbling logs while slicing them into several pieces.
Assuming the logs were a distraction, Kiasmus focused on the low pounce as he cleaved his way through log after log. Feeling the outlines, Kiasmus knew that a dozen more logs were already high in the sky. What Kiasmus didn’t know was that the next falling log held a passenger.
Cutting through the log as normal, Kiasmus felt a pointed jab dig into his chest, around where the heart is usually at in normal human anatomy.
Klyle had thrown a dozen logs into the air and managed to leap to one that was going to fall early in line so as to fool Kiasmus. He rode the log down, hugging it close so that the bloodrain did not outline him.
It worked and now Klyle had a hand in the Marrow’s chest.
“Fool, I’ve no heart!” hissed Kiasmus.
“I know.” Klyle replied coolly, his voice a deep growl.
Lion clutched as much bone as he could while Kiasmus tried to hack Klyle’s arm off at the elbow. The blade only made it halfway.
Klyle tore out a solid chunk of the bone marrow. He was correct in assuming that to defeat Kiasmus he had to reduce his mass to nothing. There were no vital spots, organs or any shortcut to ending the Marrow’s life. Only to break him to pieces and ground the bits to dust.
Kiasmus lunged at Kyle, who sidestepped the thrust, grabbed Kiasmus by the shoulder with one hand and the wrist with another hand. Klyle roared with effort, tearing off the whole limb and sword.
Kiasmus shouted in defiance and sprayed scalding mist at Klyle. The stub was replaced and his body redistributed his mass. His overall height was lowered to that of Klyle’s.
Several quick claw swipes later and Kiasmus found himself missing his protruding ribcage.
Kiasmus retreated, distancing himself from the unrelenting Lion.
Klyle took the opportunity to pull off his own damaged limb, which regrew in a moment and stomped on the ribs, shattering them to pieces.
Kiasmus drained out gallons of blood. The liquidity made his marrow too malleable and therefore weak in terms of defense. Drying out his body would increase his hardness and durability.
The Masters approached cautiously, circling each other. The ground was slippery, vision was obscured and the rain intensified.
With a lion’s roar, Klyle charged. Kiasmus formed a spear with his new hand and thrust the charging beast.
Klyle jumped over the spear, rolling his body and shoved the spear into the ground, continuing the rotation, Klyle drop kicked Kiasmus in the torso. Being launched off his feet, Kiasmus found his momentum suddenly stop before he flew even a meter.
Klyle had snatched the spear, which was connected to Kiasmus’ arm and yanked him back. Klyle punched a hole through Kiasmus’ chest. Bone erupted out the back.
Kiasmus regrew the hole with enough speed and force and making the repairs razor sharp, actually cut off Klyle’s hand in the process.
With his other hand, Klyle palmed Kiasmus in the face, snapping the Marrow’s neck violently around in a half circle.
Kiasmus countered by firing off spikes from his chest that pierced Klyle in several spots. One spike, however, was caught by a regrown hand from Klyle, which he spun and threw point blank back at Kiasmus.
Upon entering his body, Kiasmus tried to reabsorb the bone spear, but it was launched with such force that it dragged the fleshy bone that was trying to fuse the spike into the body out with it.
Kiasmus was losing mass fast. Klyle had already regenerated again, his fur becoming a dark brown color.
Kiasmus staggered back, now smaller than Klyle. Kiasmus had lost about two hundred thousand
All was not lost yet. He could still call his Skullheads to fight or risk everything to get a taste of Klyle’s marrow. That quality of bone could be made into a blade far superior than his previous one. The question remained, how to trap Klyle long enough to absorb some marrow?
skeleton’s worth of marrow, meaning he still had a majority left. But he was getting weaker and Klyle was undaunted by any damage Kiasmus delivered. At the current rate, Kiasmus would not last another hour of combat.
Then something happened.
A voice communicated in Klyle’s mind.
“An intruder has entered the Barrow Fang sanctuary. The whole pack has been slaughtered!”
Klyle roared in anger and left the forest going north, ending the duel just like that.
Kiasmus took a seat, bewildered but relieved. He morphed his body back to his original human form. The duel was incredible. Kiasmus found himself shaking both with excitement and the adrenaline of a near death experience.
“I am glad some of my human biology is still present.” The heights of human feeling amidst battle were second to none. Although it was disappointing that the fight should end inconclusive.
Kiasmus found the severed arm and hand of Klyle and scooped them up. “Ah, but it was not all for nothing.” He grinned, absorbing the bone marrow of Master Klyle into his body.