Chapter 93 Mask of Grin

One month ago. 

King Eberon stood in a sickly state with a number of aides busying themselves on taking measurements, grooming and feeding him. A doctor and an engineer were discussing strategy as to the means of permanently fixing the crown to the king’s head.

“We can fasten the crown with a harness while the operation is proceeding,” said the doctor.

“The titanium plates can be forged to the inside of the crown, since it is made of gold we can reinforce the whole thing while we’re at it. We’ll essentially produce a second crown that wraps around the cranium and from there deadbolt it through the skull to secure it.” the engineer planned.

“I have X-rays of Master Eberon’s skull and a three dimensional replica in the lab room. We’ll run some trial tests and get the fit perfect.” The doctor grabbed some files and left with the engineer.

The magistrate Cyd entered the room shortly after. “Your majesty, your guest has arrived and is in the audience chamber.”

Eberon spoke in a weak voice. “Thank you Cyd, inform him I will be out shortly.”

“At once.” Cyd bowed and left again.

Eberon’s aides finished what they were doing and dressed the king. The weight of his clothes fatigued him and forced him to slump improperly. Eberon was led to the audience chamber by several aides that he leaned on for support.

The walk exhausted him and his breathing was labored. The aides eased him onto his throne before dismissing themselves from the chamber.

Eberon couldn’t help but look at his atrophied hands, the muscle all but decayed and pale.

Finally looking up, he saw the man who had killed him more than a decade ago.

Standing in the shadows of a dimly lit chamber, was an averaged height man dressed in dark clothes and sporting hair that resembled dead tree branches and a mask of an incongruous, exaggerated smile. 

“Creeper.” 

“Imagine my surprise when I received a contract to kill a man I already killed.” Creeper spoke lacking any and all emotion. Just a flat monotone. “One does not typically die twice.”

“I wanted to get your attention. I’m glad it worked.” Eberon tried clearing his throat but the vocal muscles were so worn down. “Are the other’s here as well?”

“I am alone. Snuff and Bodysnatcher are pursuing another mission.”

“Good, good.” Eberon took a few deep breaths.

“You look like a corpse.”

“I was a corpse for nearly twelve years, you saw to that. My body is frail but recovering.”

“I cannot reason that you would hire me to kill you again, so why am I here?” Creeper asked.

“To hire you. A kill order, in a month’s time.”

“That is far from now.” Creeper sounded disappointed, a dangerous emotion for the world’s deadliest assassin to have.

“In a month I will be nearly at full strength again. I will declare war with Garghent and draw them from their nest. The target of this kill order will be at his most vulnerable. I want you to kill the former Janiform Amenais.”

Creeper moved his head around, considering Eberon’s contract. 

Eberon continued, “the very fact that both of you are still alive is a surprise to me. He is a terribly cautious man and should have had you executed years ago.”

“True.”

“The payout will be handsome. My magistrate has handled my city well and my coffers are swollen. Amenais will be dead and you will be a freelancer once more.”

“Your plan intrigues me, I admit. Amenais would be a pleasant kill. I’ve never been fond of him.”

“I have the contract prepared, all that is blank is the price and your signature.”

Creeper twisted one of his hairs and bent it down. “Answer me something first.”

Eberon gestured with his hand.

“I want to know… what is it like to be dead?”

Eberon chuckled dryly, or tried but it was pained and pathetic. “I existed in an endless void and saw things I dare not repeat.” Eberon kept his eyes fixed on Creeper.

“That is where I sent you?” Creeper asked rhetorically.

 “I did not encounter another human. Those with no means of returning to life must go someplace else.” Eberon concluded.

“Fascinating.” Creeper said ponderously, though no more emotional.

“Amenais will be sent to that other place.” declared Eberon.

“If Klyle and the Generals are not drawn out from Garghent at the time you disclosed, then I will not fulfill the contract.”

“Those are acceptable terms.” Eberon agreed.

“Will you really be healthy by then?” Creeper asked skeptically.

“Up until recently I have been bed ridden. Now I can walk, albeit gingerly. In a week I will run. The muscles atrophied for nearly twelve years but every day I can feel new energy swelling in me. The thought of destroying Garghent fires my blood and motivates me to grow strong.”

“Is that all?” Creeper asked, prepared to leave.

“One more thing, a bonus if you will. I know how to beat Klyle.”

“Oh?”

“I will tell you because it benefits us all if he is no longer thought of as indestructible.”

Creeper stayed silent, waiting for Eberon to elaborate.

“Come back in five days and I will show you personally. We can sign the contract at that time as well.”

Creeper’s voice had an odd ring to it. “I have been pleasantly amused by this turn of events. You were my most difficult mission and therefore my proudest one. It restores my hope in humanity that you are not a disagreeable person after having been slain by me. It is merely the line of business I do. Thank you for keeping an open mind.”

“Only a weak king holds on to such pettiness. You are the world’s deadliest assassin and I the greatest king. Any lesser man would have been an embarrassment to my lineage and my city. It is your level of professionalism that I value the most. I do hope that this is a sign of future business together as your previous employer will not be much longer in the market.”

Creeper chuckled, still without emotion. “One contract at a time, old king.” Creeper disappeared in the shadows.

Five days later from tha time Creeper returned to the location Eberon disclosed, a glade hidden deep in a mountain range far to the south.

“As promised, Klyle’s secret, the key to defeating the Lion Aspect, Garghent’s most feared warrior and a Master of great renown.”

Creeper said nothing.

Eberon was in full battle gear, the crown was deadbolted and fused to his skull and his sword was ablaze in flames.

He was much stronger and his frame was slowly filling back out. 

“Beyond this outcrop is a hidden community. You will understand what it all means in a moment.

Creeper followed Eberon as he traversed an indiscreet path that eventually opened into an enclave, with a running water stream, large palm trees and alcoves that led into deeper cave systems of the mountain. It was a tiny paradise filled with a sizable pride of lions. They were lounging around mostly. Some were eating, some swimming and others, mostly cubs, were running around chasing and wrestling each other.

“Behold, Klyle’s secret. His Aspect is attuned with all the lions on the planet. Their bodies fuse with him and become one. I suspect their spirits or consciousness merge and he learns from the lions while healing his wounds, at the cost of an individual lion’s life. He can call upon a lion from anywhere, communicate with them and conjure their strength at any time. Klyle is no more an immortal than I. He has enclaves like this one throughout the world, simply living and reproducing and training for the day Klyle calls upon them for battle. He must have gone to great lengths to create and hide these locations.”

“An intriguing theory. How have you reached such conclusions?” Creeper asked.

“Klyle fears me, the great Klyle himself fears me, for he never bested me in combat and I pose the greatest threat to Garghent. Those that fear the king of Bast shall have their weaknesses known to me.” 

“So what will you do?” 

Eberon hefted his blade. “This is the beginning of my plan. I will slaughter the lions of this enclave, drawing Klyle from wherever he is and he will know I have returned. I will gather my armies and prepare to meet Garghent in the trenches outside of Bast. Klyle will insist on fighting me to snub my knowledge of him. That is how I will draw out Garghent so your dagger may end that wicked Amenais.”

“You will start a war only to kill a single man?” Creeper mused.

“I would burn the whole world down to kill a single man. He is the one who ordered my death, my vengeance is directed to him above all else.”

With that Eberon entered the clearing where the lions lounged. Immediately the air was filled with bloodlust and roars of warning. Eberon took this opportunity to exercise his body. The king battled the lions, over three dozen in total, with reckless abandon. They tore at him, dragged him with their jaws, clawed at him, did everything in their ferocious power but realized too late this was an impossible battle for them. 

It took over an hour for Eberon to kill the last lion and the clear stream of water ran red.

Creeper had been napping during Eberon’s excursion and awoke to a blood drenched Eberon standing over him.

“Listen closely, Creeper. Feel the ground and the wind. You hear it trembling? Klyle is on his way.” Though Eberon did not know Klyle at that time was engaged with the Marrow Aspect, Kiasmus.

“I don’t think that I hear or feel anything, but I will take your word for it. I do not want to stick around for his reaction.”

Eberon walked back to a small encampment of his bodyguard and a convoy of vehicles.

“One month.” Eberon departed and Creeper faded into the shadows.

Eberon spent the next month training his body and preparing his city and his men for war. During that period, he also wrote a letter, on handwritten papyrus addressed directly to Amenais.

On the first day of battle between Bast and Garghent, when Klyle left the field in a rush back to Garghent, Amenais was receiving the letter.

“Janiform Amenais,” bowed a portly aide, “a letter addressed to you. As is the proper procedure, it has been tested for poisons and toxins and is clean.”

“Give it here.” The aide handed the letter to the former Janiform.

Amenais broke the seal and read it through.

Dear Amenais my old friend, 

I’ve thought of you often in the years during my death, I’ve thought of all the ways I would like to kill you, to see you suffer slowly by my hands. I’ve debated so many methods of torture and execution but I will not bore you with all the details and wonderful ways in which I could make you die. Wandering in the void, I almost succumbed to despair as none were fitting for the great Janiform, the visionary of Garghent that has lifted his city from a bleak existence to one of prosperity and power. One ashy twilight it came to me, the perfect method to end a legend such as yourself! I mean it wholeheartedly as a compliment, as you used the same one as me. The death of legends, by the deft hand of an assassin. You will remember Creeper, oh how could you not? 

Give my regards to the ruler of whatever hell you end up in,

King Eberon, Master of Kings, Lord of Bast

Amenais was sweating profusely and chills went down his spine. “Guards! Guards!” he called in a panic.

“Shhhh,” a soothing voice hushed.

“Creeper.” Amenais choked. Standing, barely visible in the corner of his study was the discombobulated form of the assassin. Amenais glanced down and saw that the aide who handed him the letter was dead on the floor, killed right in front of his face while he was reading. Such was Creeper’s skill.

“Let’s talk about this.” Amenais pulled on the collar around his neck struggling to breathe.

“Face your death with dignity.” Creeper said.

“I’ll pay you! Triple what you are getting!” Amenais begged.

“Is that the worth of your life?” Creeper asked, curious.

“My life is priceless!” he snapped. “There is work left undone.” Amenais regained his composure, replacing the fear of Creeper with the anger of a doomed man. 

“It is my humble experience that a life with work unfinished is a life well lived, for who wishes to complete all they set out for? There would be nothing left to do.” Creeper replied. 

“That’s when you die! I gave you everything Creeper. I allowed you to become what you are. I funded you. I employed you. The only reason you haven’t been killed up to this point is because I protected you and vouched for you!”

“Tell me, Amenais, when were you planning on giving the order for my execution?”

Amenais blanched. He wanted to rail more, to lie, to somehow force Creeper into accepting how necessary his survival is. But Amenais stopped, inhaled a calming breath and stood up and adjusted his clothes, smoothing them from wrinkles and ensuring they were properly aligned.

“Ah but I am an old man now, truthfully. I regret nothing in life other than perhaps giving you too much freedom.”

Creeper nodded, conceding that point. 

“Promise me this, Gavin. Do not take any more jobs from Eberon. You are far too valuable to be associated with a small minded brute. Bast will lose this war shortly, whether you assassinate every General in Garghent or not.”

“Now I can kill you. Humans always react wildly at first to death, it is nothing but an instinctual trigger of surprise. I am glad you are yourself before the end. Great men deserve their last moments in like mannered respect.”

“I never asked, and you may not remember as it was many years ago, but when I sent you to kill Railey, how did he react?”

“He seemed at peace, drunk on a bench sitting with a friend. Unfortunately I cannot say the same is true for you.”

“You think I am not at peace? No Creeper, I have lived to my best ability and leave this life proudly.”

“I meant with a friend.”

The dagger slid in Amenais’ heart to a surprised expression. Amenais felt his life blood seep down and looked at it oddly, surreal in his last moments. Ragged breaths followed slurred words. “Railey… found a friend… how nice…”

Amenais collapsed to the floor and reached for Creeper. “Did… you happen to… hear the name… of Railey’s friend?”

Creeper squatted down, Amenais’ last sight would be the hellish mask of grin. “Gerin, Goma, ah I recall it was Gemma.”

Amenais’ eyes lit up in a way a dying man’s shouldn’t be capable of. A moment of realization, the missing piece of a puzzle found at last in the enlightened mind of near death. A mystery solved that would have no means to escape his dried and bloodied lips.

The former Janiform Amenais died. 

A threatening roar came from the distance and Creeper disappeared.

The following day on the battlefield outside of Bast, a constricting Garghent army pushed the flanks of Bast further into their trenches, threatening to break their line. In the center, however, King Eberon held Garghent at bay.

In a Garghent camp, Specters were talking strategy. 

“It’s just like when we fought Klyle, it can’t be harder than that.” Xander, the Karma Aspect, remarked.

“No one beat him, no one even beat Professor Vandle.” Magun, the Tank Aspect, countered realistically.

“That was two years ago. All of us are stronger and more experienced. We’ve fought in the Siege and we won’t be limited to teams of five.” Meanu, the Candle Aspect, argued.

“You’re weighing our chances based on a fight against our Master who wasn’t trying to kill us. This is real, not training and we still would lose to Klyle.” Bria, the Ribbon Aspect, voiced. There was a clear division between Specters as arguments broke out amongst them.

Speaking loudly and with authority, breaking up the arguments at once, was Uana, the Gale Aspect and a General of Garghent. “We are not going to waste time discussing probability and possibility. Think of plans. What are his strengths and weaknesses? What do all of us have that Klyle and the Generals do not? There is always a way to victory.”

“Individually none of us are durable enough to withstand Eberon, but I can allow us to get close.” Hido, the Guardian Aspect, volunteered.

“I’d like to test my Bodkin Aspect on his armor.” Eris, A Specter from Xander’s squad, chimed in.

“Me and Meanu pair well with each other. Our fire is stronger than his.” Kaden, the Firebird Aspect, declared.

“Now you guys are thinking! It’s our combinations that give us our edge. We stick and move and throw something new at him with every attack.” Corvan, the Chorus Aspect, said excitedly.

“Me and Hido are usually a duo. I can fight without tiring and Hido prevents me from suffering wounds. Against an opponent like Eberon I’m not sure how much I can contribute, I simply don’t have the firepower.” Speaking now was Jillian, the Alacrity Aspect. 

“If you don’t mind me suggesting, you should act as a field runner. Help move those caught up by Eberon or too injured to escape. While we’re at it, we should think how best to create a perimeter. I’ve got my Palisade Aspect but we’ll need a lot more if we want to trap or at least contain him,” planned Karnev.

“I’ve decided the elements I want to use. A simple combination of fire and water. I’ll use steam to control vision. If we can keep him blind we can win.” Bregan, the Synthesis Aspect, formulated a plan in a rare showing of teamwork.

In a soft and bashful voice, Juy, the Moonblink Aspect, added a disappointing bit of knowledge. “With the snowstorm and most of the fighting going on during the day, I won’t be much help in this.” She was the only Specter here that wished Hales, the Solar Aspect, were here with her ability to create real moons.

Hijo cleared his throat, “we’ll think of something. If you keep me alive long enough, my Wild Aspect will be able to stand toe to toe with Eberon, at least for a short while.”

“Don’t worry, brother. I’ll handle your beast form. You can fight without restraint,” reassured Luri, the Beast Tamer Aspect. 

Off in the corner of the large planning tent, the fey and big-eyed Abagene was huddled facing away from everyone, playing with a praying mantis.

In total were sixteen fine Specters, ten who were trained by Klyle in the Class for the Savant and six who were either previous graduates of that same class or Specters who came from other backgrounds and had since joined the military, some who had even dueled against the Class for the Savant students in the Tournament.

“Do you hear that, Garald? The youngsters are already counting us out!” Suavely General Anteran, the Electrum Aspect, strolled into the tent, along with General Garald, General Yivel and the Gemini.

“We’ve decided to change our plans,” said Garald, the Babel Aspect, in his thunderous voice, “we’re going to fight him all together in tomorrow’s fighting. This will draw his Specters to the fight so expect an all out battle between our Aspects and theirs.”

“We’ve determined it is the best course of action since our abilities are not sufficient in beating the King of Bast.” spoke the Gemini in odd, artificial sounding cadence.

The scarred General Yivel drew up a chair to the planning table, “so, what strategy have you lot come up with so far?”

They planned for hours, plans to slay the king!

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