Hales grabbed a seat in the auditorium, near the back corner at the higher levels. She spotted Abajem and waved her down. The girl had not been looking Hales’ way but suddenly turned, saw Hales and waved back. Abajem took the seat adjacent to Hales.
“Been a while, huh?” Hales greeted, unsure whether to be somber or excited, considering the circumstances under which all the Specters, Generals and many of the major Gentleman and other high ranking public and military officials of Garghent gathered.
“It’s good to see you space chick.” Abajem smiled like no time had passed at all since they last saw each other. Hales grinned back.
“Some battle you had. I heard it was pretty rough.” Hales realized she wasn’t sure what to talk about. Life had become such a strange thing recently.
“It was rough for the weaker Specters. You and Yillo should have been there instead of the fools they sent.”
Hales raised her brows. “That’s harsh! I’m sure they didn’t expect the king of Bast to be so strong.”
“Oh they knew alright. The General’s keep making mistakes. They’re all too old and stubborn. We should kill them and take over.” Abajem giggled at Hales’ shocked expression. “I’m only teasing, Hales!”
“Nothing can change your mood can it?”
Abajem shook her head and started people watching.
Magun and Dartan took two seats in the row in front.
“Space chick and bug chick!” Magun possessed a voice entirely too loud for an auditorium, or from another perspective, one suited for that kind of projection of voice.
Abajem stuck her tongue out at the nickname and Hales looked around bashfully, seeing if anyone heard Magun’s obnoxious greeting.
“Quiet.” Hales whispered.
Dartan pinched his nose. “And now my headache is back. Hales, Abagene, hello.”
“Hi Dartan.” Hales welcomed.
Magun grunted as he sat. “Man I am sore. You remember Crnobog, Hales? Fought him at the battle. Been feeling it ever since.”
“You see, now I’m glad I didn’t go.” Hales told Abajem.
“So what do you think this is about?” Magun asked, his attention changing to something else.
“Everything.” Dartan said. “Literally everything.”
“Like?” Magun asked.
“War stuff, government stuff, Specter stuff. The Janiform is on his way.”
“Damn. Is that why we’re in the auditorium?”
“It’s just more comfortable and easier to talk in, I imagine.” Dartan guessed.
“Man, we really haven’t all gathered like this since graduation.” Magun pointed out. “Where’s Yillo?”
Magun kept the conversation going. “So Antho really is a traitor then? Garriot too. I thought we’d always be on the same side and all.”
“Antho really screwed up our mission. We were counting on his assistance as a double agent.” Dartan said.
“I’m sure he had a good reason.” Hales commented, before wishing she hadn’t.
Magun gave her a weird look and started talking more. Hales tuned him out and leaned back. Abajem exchanged a glance with Hales and she rolled her bug-like eyes.
Hales joined Abajem’s people watching. “Do you ever think about what would happened if we were all attacked suddenly, since we’re all conveniently in one spot?” Hales whispered to Abajem.
Abajem giggled. “Is that what you’re always daydreaming about?”
“It’s more like an intrusive thought. Where my daydreaming comes in is how I would be the only one prepared and have to save the day.”
“That’s bias of you.” Abajem pointed out, whispering back.
“Well it’s my daydream I can do whatever I want!” Hales murmured.
“What do I do in your daydream? Do I get some kills?”
“Hmm you’d probably be playing with a mantis the whole time without any concern.”
“What! No, I guess that’s true.” Abajem reached inside her breast pocket and pulled out a tiny rectangular clear box. There were some holes at the top, a few twigs and flower petals. Abajem slid the box open and reached for one of the flower petals.
“Bullet proof box. Got it specially made.” Abajem showed off.
“What’s it for?” Hales asked.
“What do you think? It’s for a mantis.”
Hales realized the flower petal in Abajem’s hand was crawling. It was in fact, a white and pink mantis no bigger than a finger nail.
“She’s an orchard mantis baby. I like to get to know them as nymphs.”
“Wow, that really looked like a flower at first.”
Abajem became engrossed in the mantis and once more Hales leaned back. She could hear Dartan and Magun’s conversation as the auditorium started to fill up.
Hales saw the ranking officer above Captain and her immediate superior, Cull Marcarios. She saw Juy, Corvan, Uana, Xander, Bria and many other of her classmates. Even Professor Vandle was here along with several other of the most prominent Aspect teachers. Many of the Generals sat in the front and a variety of aristocrats who looked important, or at least dressed like they were important, also sat toward the front.
As the remaining arrivals settled in, the auditorium grew quiet. The lights were kept on and several people took to the stage.
There was General Draje, the most senior of the Generals. General Lillian, head of intelligence. Gentleman Nerrin, the wealthiest and therefore most prominent of the Gentleman, making him the highest ranking aristocrat among the Merchant faction. Towering above them all was Master Klyle.
Gentleman Nerrin had the microphone first.
“Welcome all.” Nerrin spoke formally, well-mannered and proper in the patrician way. “There are a number of pressing matters to attend to today and we found it would be beneficial to discuss them all at once, with the top members of Merchant and Military factions alike. Going forward, we will need to act as one body for the greater good of our city. This is a meeting, a discussion and a council all in one. Anyone seated here today is a vital asset to Garghent and so feel free to speak your piece should you feel so inclined. There are microphones placed under each seat, you need only to stand, wait to be acknowledged, switch on the microphone and speak.”
Nerrin gave a second to allow for the members to check their seats and become situated in full.
“Now, the first news that comes to us is bleak. The Former Janiform Amenais was assassinated. His death is untimely and the assassin goes by the name of Creeper.” There were gasps, whispers and plenty of furtive glances to the shadows, by guilty consciences no doubt.
“We do not know his whereabouts but we are certain his target was Amenais alone, at least for the time being. He is an assassin by contract and it was the king Eberon of Bast who ordered the hit. Eberon was defeated in battle, as you know, and Bast is weakened and will likely seek to pay for a peace treaty. There is good news mixed with the bad.”
Nerrin paused, seeing if anyone wanted to speak.
Hales noted how charismatic he actually was. He was an excellent orator, cool headed and seemingly bipartisan. He appeared to have the approval and agreement of most everyone in the auditorium. People of power rarely have so many allies and so few enemies.
“Trade has become a tumultuous beast. Shipments from the Brother continent are struggling to sail the ocean in one piece. Daedal is acclimating to our rule while Tholi, Natung and Amineto are blockading trade and travel altogether. The current thought is to make Bast a vassal state and move to occupy the empty Vallis. With Daedal producing raw metals, Bast paying tribute and reopening the mills of Vallis, we can make do without trade. We will, however, be stretched thin.”
This time several people stood to speak. Nerrin addressed them one at a time, saying each by name and title. He apparently knew everyone in the auditorium personally.
One Gentleman asked, “What about us who have their business staked in trade?”
“Naturally we will provide ample opportunity for you and those in your situation in the business ventures of Vallis. In fact, we would recommend only those with experience in trade to run Vallis, as it will be a hostile front and swarming with vagabonds and looters. We need those experienced in navigating such dimensions.”
The trader seemed satisfied and sat down.
The next question followed right after. “What about Ophir? Won’t they seek to fight to keep Vallis.”
Nerrin answered. “Per our latest scouting, Vallis is unoccupied. It seems their leader decided it would be too difficult to secure. They have moved the surviving population onto Ophir.”
“The northern cities may very well form an alliance, but we do not believe they are capable of mounting another offensive. They will divide the continent in half. We shall have Garghent, Daedal, Bast and Vallis. Ophir we will discuss later as their seems to have no intention of forming an alliance.”
“Would we even consider an alliance with such a man?” someone asked.
“Unlikely. Short term perhaps. But we will discuss military matters soon. General Draje will take over at that point.”
“The markets are uncertain. Our citizens are worried about the future. They are worried about another draft, about wars, about their children. They grow concerned for the menace of Ophir, the destruction in the Brother continent. For Garghent to prosper in the future, we must not neglect our people. We must offer security and hope. Think of this as we move forward today.”
Nerrin walked over to General Lillian. “Always relevant, is our stream of information. What are we up against, what are we losing in? Intelligence is forever the basis of all strategy. I will now give General Lillian the stage.” Nerrin handed Lillian the microphone. She accepted it and walked to the center of the stage.
“The northern city-states are set to enter a trade alliance, which means we will be cut off from all our northern suppliers. The combined wealth of the northern half of the continent is projected to be greater than ours. It is no small margin, yet if we can secure Vallis and rebuild the farms and textile factories we can easily overcome that deficit. Tholi, Natung and Amineto understand this and are making preparations to stop our reconstruction efforts in Vallis. Our spies and local rumors confirm significant arms and troop movement. We do not believe they will start an official war. The public opinion of those city-states would not approve, they are still reeling from the last attempt. A neutral territory land dispute, however, is fair game. So we expect some level of resistance.”
“What of Geminis, Dienberj, Eleavear? We have partners in those cities that are loyal.” Someone spoke out.
‘Geminis and Dienberj are highly discouraging any communication from foreign cities. They have essentially hit a standstill in their parliaments. Normally we would expect some degree of support from these cities but as of now they are caught between allying with us, who are furthest from them geographically but boast the strongest military, or the alliance of Tholi, Natung and Amineto who are their neighbors and could swiftly retaliate.”
“What are the optics of those two cities allying with us?”
“Not good. We are working on establishing relations but Garghent supporters the minority there. For now, they are trying to maintain a policy of isolationism. I imagine they will stay out of politics until there is a clear winner to join. It may preserve some of their early attrition, but will harm their relationships in the long run. In war, it is those who do not act which inspire the most bitterness. Those with foreign relations with these cities should do everything they can to build up their following and show them the benefits of allying with Garghent.”
“And what of Eleavear?” Someone else asked.
“Eleavear has gone through a major revolution. The leader of the revolution, Lazulie, is currently purging all government and business officials of foreign influence or sympathizers of the previous government. It will take time for Eleavear to rejoin the grand soiree of cities.”
General Lillian started talking numbers. Gross domestic product of each city, number of heavy weaponry each city can muster, professional troops at the ready, projected growth of each city, major infrastructure plans, everything important in determining the standings of Garghent compared to potential allies and enemies and the prosperity outlooks of each metropolis.
Hales saw more than a few people taking notes, mostly from the Gentlemans whose business tactics could depend on the market valuations of the competition. It was insider knowledge usually considered illegal to know, outside of the Espionage division that is. Garghent was going to weaponize the Merchant faction’s keen ability to dominate the trade and equity markets. People from other cities liked working with Garghent because they had all the latest equipment, fastest trains, best military for protection, biggest wealth to pour into ventures, most daring businessmen and seized every opportunity with any margin of success. Garghent had rapport, established over the last half century. They had friends in every crooked corner of the planet.
Every move Garghent made in the last fifty years was calculated to the finest detail and composed to be an asset for the future.
Hales was beginning to realize just how important the former Janiform was. The fact that his death led to this grand combined council could be seen as going into panic mode. Garghent lost their visionary leader and so they struggled to reconstruct that vision. If that required everyone important to Garghent’s success, just what did Amenais have planned? A better question, who exactly was Amenais?
Hales shivered. She’d been told a million times by a million people; you think too much.
She missed the transition of the microphone, only the change of a voice jolted her attention back to the stage.
Speaking now was General Draje on military matters. “Our first and most immediate problem is with Bast. Thanks to the efforts of our soldiers and Specters, we have defeated their king, who by some ability, can live immortally. We have concluded that so long as his crown is unbroken then he can live. We currently have his head, with crown attached, in our possession under maximum security. We must decide what to do with this crown. Destroy it, or hope to one day restore Eberon’s body and perhaps have him join us.”
This was the first time conversations broke out at once. Draje let them discuss amongst themselves.
“How can we be sure that it won’t fall into the wrong hands?” one asked.
“We cannot.” replied Draje. “It is a gamble. We are also assuming that should Eberon be restored and he attacks us that we will possess the means of defeating him again.”
“So what is the benefit of keeping it around?” another asked.
“The unknown. We know Eberon had a specific vendetta against Amenais. He fulfilled that vendetta and so perhaps would be open to negotiations the next time around.”
“How could you think of negotiating with the killer of Amenais!” someone else shouted. It was followed by clamor of support.
General Uana, the Gale Aspect, stood next. The auditorium chilled just by her speaking. It was enough to stop the shouting and arguing. “Do you not think General Draje is devastated by the death of Garghent’s former Janiform? If you know the history, then you know Draje grew up with Amenais. Do not be so blinded by emotions which you do not understand. It is a grudge which ultimately got Amenais killed and you want to repeat that cycle? You can say because I am young I do not have the same fondness or respect for Amenais, the same passion for avenging our fallen leader who you all served under for years and years. Well, what can I say? You are absolutely right. I am of a new generation that does not value the same antiquated ideas of rigid notions and stupid feuds. You are shortsighted. I think an Aspect should not be so readily tossed aside. I think we keep the crown of Eberon. The people of Bast will respect us for that. They will plead with us to return it to them. That is when we propose an alliance, to convince their people to convince Eberon.” Uana sat down.
Draje broke the silence. “I have heard complaints of our youngest General. Criticisms that her appointment as General is gained on nothing more than family merit and wealth. True, it is our tradition that any position can be bought but she has proven as able as any General I have ever known. Trust that the future of Garghent is safe in our young generation’s hands and respect their upbringing and tutelage, which comes to them from us. Do you all doubt yourselves so much that who we raised are ignorant and weak? They fought toe to toe with King Eberon longer than I could. Is there any who disagree with keeping the crown safeguarded?”
No one disputed this.
“Great! Next is the problem of Ophir. Their lord has some hundred million undead soldiers, probably more. What we have learned is that there are generally three types of undead, based on the progression of their decomposition. A fresh corpse resembles a human in every way and can be ordered to perform a task much like you or I could. Their brain is capable of operating machinery, guns and speech. The term being thrown around for this type is an Aliver. Corpses which have been preserved in burial processes are called Mummies. They can do simple tasks but the lack of brain prevents them from complex activities. They are fast but brittle. The last category is Mudmen. It appears all that is needed to raise a corpse from the dead is a significant portion of the skeleton. A ribcage, for example, will form a body out of nearby soil and dirt, packed tightly in the shape of a human which anatomically seems to fit with the skeleton. So no matter the state a corpse is in, it can be preserved and animated. These Mudmen make up the bulk of Deo’s undead army and are slow and simple. Yet the bone they are formed around must be destroyed to kill it. As you can see Deo has a devastatingly strong Aspect. He has no intention of peace, so war with him is inevitable.”
“Can we not send a skilled assassin to dispatch him?” a member of the military asked.
“We have tried that. A sniper team made an attempt not long ago but failed. Deo has a number of strong Specters at his disposal. One is a bodyguard, an angel in resemblance. Aceldama saw him as a threat and attempted to kill him as well. They dropped right on him but still failed. This was back when he was besieging Vallis.”
“Surely with all our Specters and military prowess we could win a war?” another military man asked.
“We could win a war, of that I have no doubt. The victory would be pyrrhic at best. It will take too long and cost too much, the rest of the continent would pounce on us like ravenous wolves. Likewise, Deo has not invaded us because of the same reason. No one relishes the thought of fighting his undead legions. We will continue this stand-off until we find a way to breach his defense and kill him outright.”
“How can you be sure he won’t invade us?” a concerned Gentleman asked.
“He’s abandoned Vallis and moved the surviving population to Ophir. He is expanding his city and building factories and farms. His undead guard the fronts and have dug trenches in his perimeters. He is establishing a permanent, self-sustaining metropolis. Meanwhile criminals and wanted Specters flock to his banner. He is a careful man, by all accounts, he seeks to grow his power first and foremost.”
“I heard he was a citizen of Garghent. How could such a powerful Specter fly under our radar?” came a question from an officer.
Hales clicked on her microphone and stood. Draje acknowledged Hales as speaker. Hales cleared her throat. “As some of you know, Deo was a soldier in my squad for a short time before he defected, during the Siege of Garghent. He was a friend and I sought to protect him. At the time all I knew of his Aspect was as a flower seller. He used it to preserve flowers which had died and then sold them to vendors. I had no way of knowing he could use it on people or that he would leave Garghent. Say what you want about my decisions but there is one thing which I have not said before, about Deo. I do not know if it’s relevant or true or whether I even believe it. Deo once told me that he was born with his Aspect.” Hales sat back down, allowing for new arguments to break out, mostly among those with Aspects.
Draje spoke up. “Thank you, Captain Ailor. No one has ever confirmed the possibility of that. Of the Aspect we know very little. General Lillian, please have someone look back into his family records.”
“We already have. There was nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Look at them again!” Draje insisted strongly.
“Yes sir.” Lillian ceded.
“Ophir also has a few Specters raiding our countryside and supply trains. We will need to strategize and form a team to counter them. We’ve identified Veinbreaker, Carn and Arvin, the Arachnomania Aspects. Along with some mercenary soldiers. Their job is likely to draw out our Specters while instilling fear in the local populations. As we are naturally trending toward the topic of Aspects, allow me to pass the microphone to Master Klyle.”
“Klyle took the microphone, which looked comically small in his fur-covered hand. His sharp eyesight found the faces of each Specter in the auditorium, a piercing gaze that could excite and thrill by its sheer intensity.
“Talis Ranis, in his final days, uncovered a cave written by ancient Specters. He carved a last message to humanity alongside those writings. Our scientists have translated both works and I have done my best to interpret the meaning based on my own experience. They are calling simply calling the collection of works the Saga of Masters. As the name suggests, it is an ancient depiction of how to further the awakening of an Aspect. Obviously they did not use the term Master but the description is clearly equivalent to our idea. This information was leaked and so the whole world will have access to it. There is nothing that can be done about this so we must not dwell on that. But think of it as the natural sequel to The Dream and Dreamer. What may very well follow is an awakening of Masters, similar to our Aspect revolution when Talis Ranis’ first book was translated. I offered to our Generals and Gentlemans already, and they approved, to train any Specter who wishes to go down the path of Aspect Mastery. I have only as long to train until I am needed in battle. This Mastery could take years for you, decades perhaps. For me, it was a lifelong journey that I am still on. Those with Aspects are considered to be enlightened. Talis would likely argue that true enlightenment is unobtainable, as it is an ever evolving state of being. To achieve oneness with a universe that is always progressing, one must, likewise, always progress.”
“Will we get a copy of the translations?” a Specter asked.
“We are currently printing a special book compilation for each Specter here. Further works will likely be published from other interpretations from around the world. Considering the world as it is now, this will be an arms race of sorts. Garghent boasts the largest number of Specters by any city. This does not mean we are the strongest in terms of ability. There are Specters in the world I could not hope to defeat. I have seen weak Specters defeat those who I thought were invincible. A duel between Aspects is a measure of how clever you are, your attention to detail, experience, planning, wit. The Aspect is a weapon only as lethal as its user. One final point,” Klyle continued, “is that there will be Specters such as Deo who have inexplicably obtained power from ways we may never understand. Evaluate your opponents and exploit their weaknesses while recognizing your own weaknesses and working to improve.” Klyle handed the microphone back to Draje.
Draje said one final statement. “The future is as unknown as the Aspect’s origins, yet it is the Aspect which we must awaken to bring us into the future. Janiform Gemma has arrived to make a statement. We will clear the stage for him now.” General Lillian, Gentleman Nerrin, Master Klyle and General Draje found seats in the auditorium.
A curtain was drawn in front of the stage. The silhouette of a man sitting on a chair was all that could be seen behind the ruffled curtain.
Hales had heard him speak on a couple of occasions. His voice was a mix of forced diction and careful practice. His normal voice was something probably entirely different from the one he used to address his city.
“Today,” Gemma began, speaking slowly and clearly, “I offer two things for the men and women of Garghent to consider, one is news and the other a suggestion.” He paused for a moment. “The news I bring is a visit I was paid merely days before. I have discussed this encounter with several of the highest members of our society. A number of personnel were there to witness it as well, so what I tell you today is reality and this has happened to other cities too and will eventually happen to each city in turn. Two Fables told a tale to me. They called themselves the Interluder and the Propheteer. To sum their message up, they spoke of a great god-like being beneath the planet seeking to reemerge from subterranean depths to fulfill a life purpose of worshiping the sun. It is named Diamak. They warned of an individual who sought to destroy the sun and that is this creature’s ultimate enemy. The destruction of several Brother continent metropolises have been credited to this Diamak.” Gemma allowed for the members of the audience to talk amongst themselves. Those who had already heard this story in greater detail were answering questions and confirming the alleged severity of the encounter and significance of two more Fables, the same level of Talis Ranis, existing in the first place.
Hales was watching Janiform Gemma, her mind wandering into oblivion. She watched in disbelief as the silhouette of a vicious looking appendage tore itself from Gemma’s body before quickly being suppressed.
Hales looked around but nobody seemed to notice. Magun and Dartan were talking to some people in the row in front of them and Abajem was playing with her mantis. Elsewhere people were in conversation. Hales looked at her own hands, questioning whether she could even trust her eyes.
Just a trick of the light I am sure…
Gemma resumed his speech. “You will have more time to process after this is over. The second thing to consider is my suggestion. In light of the new Talis translations and this Diamak figure, I propose granting each Specter in this city full security and access clearance to any and all information Garghent has available. Government archives, intelligence findings, scientific labs, historical research, classified documents, weapons testing. Any location they may choose to travel to will be granted and an escort provided. The Military Faction will no longer handle Specter operations, instead a third, minor faction of Garghent will be created to handle requests for Specter usage presented by both the Military and Merchant factions. In short, they will be freelancers working for the city, with the freedom to pursue their own Aspect Mastery.” Gemma was forced to pause as arguments broke out yet again. Gemma talked over them and eventually the crowd quieted. “Let me finish, as I have already thought of possible amendments to this proposal. I am not decreeing this, though it is within my power as Janiform to do so, but simply an offer. Access to information can be monitored of course. Everything a Specter learns will be for their eyes only, for the express purpose that the resources they are using will benefit their power. Access to resources can even be in the form of a stipend. Missions and jobs must be completed to allow for a certain number of hours in study. Conclusively the Specter faction will still answer to the joint operations and goals of the Merchant and Military factions. This proposal benefits the city and distributes power evenly. We have too many Specters to all be controlled by the Military faction. Likewise, the incentive for Gentlemans to hire Specters for personal use undercuts our intensive Savant schooling. You have a week to decide. You can hash out further details. I will approve anything that meets the general theme of my original suggestion. That is all.” Janiform Gemma departed despite the number of questions thrown his way. The illusive leader of Garghent disappeared behind the curtain and left the auditorium.
Hales sighed because she knew the council was far from over. One speaker gave way to the next and Hales started imagining what she would do to awaken her Aspect. If they truly got the kind of freedom and clearance Gemma proposed, then Hales knew exactly what she would do. A certain man was rotting away in a military prison cell, just waiting for the day Hales could release him. The one Aspect that had combined with her own, a happenstantial accident that nearly killed them both.
What else to fit her Solar Aspect then the Loupe Aspect? Is it not telescopes that provide the means of watching the stars at night in the first place?