General Draje approached the small strike team, bony hands clasped behind a back that no longer stood straight. The nine soldiers saluted.
Draje nodded to them. “Captain Magun, how is the arm?”
“It’s better sir. A lot better.” Magun grinned from ear to ear, excited to be out on the field once more. His fight with Crnobog had left him in recovery for several weeks. Magun missed multiple missions assigned to him such as getting some trench experience.
“Good. We are interested in seeing how your Aspect performs against large numbers of undead. This mission is nothing more than a small, elite cell testing what can be achieved. You’re running data on our offensive capabilities.”
Magun would be leading Jid, the Hunter Aspect, Dartan the Rule Aspect and Emilo the Steelskin Aspect along five other combat veterans, professional warriors who were cool and reliable in any situation.
Other than Magun who was assigned to this task, the other three Specters wanted their own practice to see how their less conventional Aspects did against hordes, important information to gather before the full war breaks out.
“Garghent doesn’t need to exhaust unnecessary resources for this war with Ophir. If we have to we will, mind you, but our Specter firepower is unmatched in the Sister continent. Over the course of the war, each Specter should contribute around a million kills of these undead soldiers.”
“General, is that a realistic number?” Magun asked, skeptical of such a big number as one million.
“Hah!” Draje laughed full of phlegm. “In my prime I could have done three million. They are but drones. Klyle will take ten million. Some Specters will take out less than a thousand but it will average to about a million. I am speaking over the course of the war, it could be years of fighting.”
“I see, General. If that’s what is expected then I won’t let you down!” Magun saluted once more and prepared with the other soldiers and Specters to depart.
“Remember,” Draje shouted over the whirling blades of the transport chopper, “Lightning strike, dig in deep, test your power and get out before they send anyone!”
Magun shouted something but it was lost in the noise and he climbed aboard the chopper.
“Man, I’ve been itching for some action. I’ve spent weeks coming up with new ways to use Tank.” When Magun was around authority he acted disciplined and well-mannered but as soon as the coast was clear he became a loud, rambunctious and hype brute. “Let’s go!” Being stooped in a recovery unit meant all that energy built up waiting to let loose.
Dartan shook his head embarrassed but the other five soldiers were grinning with Magun. They were basically given a field day to shoot at targets with the latest weapons on the market.
“How are you going to use your Aspect?” Jid asked of Dartan.
“I was about to ask the same about you,” replied Dartan. “Rule can be used to enhance myself but it’s not really effective. I’ve been playing with the formulas and coming up with some new equations. I realized I’ve been thinking of my Aspect wrong.”
“What made you think that?” Jid pressed, their voices still loud to beat the sound of the chopper.
“So I’ve been working to crack the code of this secret website of the vigilante group, right, and I’m able to get in and print out dozens of pages of forums and discussion posts. It’s absolutely mad what goes on there! There’s conspiracy talk, leaks from government agencies, survival and self-help tips, debates about end of the world stuff and just interpreting news and current events in a completely different way. You’ve got people from all around the world, from different walks of life just collaborating on a lot of fringe topics and the whole thing is being run from within Garghent by a group with a name you physically can’t say. They have a Coder that has essentially muted their name from all of human language. Friggin’ crazy, man.”
“Dartan, that’s wild and all but what does this have to do with your Aspect?” Jid knew Dartan well enough to know that once he got started on a topic he could talk for hours. One had to guide Dartan to the point of his ramblings or else suffer endlessly his long-winded nature.
“Right, so anyways one of the forums I managed to pull out was about the Talis Ranis cave and they were receiving updates of the translations months prior to the actual release.”
“Yeah, the archaeologist.”
“Yeah,” Dartan confirmed, “and there were definitely some Specters in that forum and their insights gave me some perspective. There are people, Specters, moving in circles we have no awareness of. They are leagues beyond our abilities, world’s apart really. You can learn a lot from one thing, become a master at a specific craft but you can go beyond that by learning many things. The more you broaden your knowledge, the better at that one craft you get.”
“Maybe with unlimited time.” Jid argued.
“It’s like this. Let’s say you are trying to make the tallest building with wooden blocks. You can simply build straight up, stacking one on top of the other in a giant tower or you can create a foundation, build that foundation up and then you have proper support for building an even taller structure.”
“I see your point,” Jid conceded.
“No matter what your craft is, you should learn about arches. That’s my new philosophy.” Dartan said with pride as if it were the most profound wisdom in all mankind.
“Arches?” Jid said quizzically.
“It sounds like the most counter intuitive construction technique but the tension makes it one of the strongest structures in engineering. You see, what I learned is to not focus on pure mathematics. I was only trying to learn the most complex formulas and proofs, doing impossible theorems, dimensions, different sorts of conjecture problems, it’s amazing stuff don’t get me wrong.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Jid cut in.
Dartan picked up where he left off, “it’s amazing, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere in terms of my Aspect. My progress was growing at an exponentially reduced rate. And then I learned about arches and I studied the ocean and chemistry and biology and I’m learning more about the mathematics in nature and the universe rather than worrying about rabbit holes of what are essentially number wormholes.”
“I get, I get,” Jid pressed his brow, “so what’s the big change in your Aspect?”
“Now that, you have to wait and see.” Dartan winked.
Jid tossed his hands up. Magun leaned in to explain. “He’s been acting like a madman for a while now, he says the same thing to me! The geek’s never been so confident in his life and it’s scaring me.”
“I haven’t fully tested it out yet, but on paper it should work.” Dartan explained with his hands.
“I’m just glad you’re off the pain pills.” Magun said with some seriousness.
“I’ve got a much clearer head now.” agreed Dartan. “So what about you?” Dartan nodded to Jid.
“Well excuse me if I don’t have a speech to tell you but I’m learning how to draw out marks and signs from my Hunter state into the regular state. If I can do that, you guys will be able to see points of weakness, trails of movement, heat signatures, all kinds of stuff like that. As far as fighting a horde, if I can make the vital spots glow, we can easily dispatch them with assured accuracy.”
“That’s useful.” one of the veteran soldiers said approvingly.
Jid nodded, “I think it will be.”
Emilo was about to start explaining his new use for his Aspect, not that anyone asked, but the pilot informed the group of their landing.
“This is as far I take you. We’re right on our furthest trench. You can see the hordes from here.”
The group of nine exited the chopped and watched as it departed, leaving them to the sandbox.
They took a few minutes to prepare and inform the commander of this trench their mission.
With formalities taken care of, they set off to an oddly quiet enemy line. A lot of the grass was dead from the sheer number of feet stomping on it daily. There was a certain darkness, a vignette or lifeless sepia that permeated from the legions of dead humans, broken bodies that moved despite their inability. Several more skeletal looking corpses danced, holding hands and jumping in circles, bones all rattling and clanking.
“Do they know we are here?” Magun posed the question cautiously. This was important because there could be an ambush lying in wait.
“There’s no way,” one of the veterans spoke, “they were ordered to dance on instruction.”
“How can you tell?” Magun said.
The veteran pointed. “Some two hundred meters that way is another group dancing. It was just a general order I reckon.”
Jid shook his head. “It’s more than that. Their leader, the Death Aspect, knows we are here, not us specifically and not our location, but he knows there is a group out today testing themselves somewhere.”
“So he set them dancing to mock us.” spat one soldier.
“Not mock, invite, welcome us.” Dartan observed. “The statement Deo is making is one of encouragement. He doesn’t mind that we are doing this and will not interfere.”
“You think so?” Magun sought reassurance. He relied on Dartan to do the complicated thinking.
“Definitely. We are good to continue.”
“Sound enough logic for me.” a soldier with a large machine gun and a belt of ammunition wrapping around him said while priming the weapon.
“Tank.” Magun activated his Aspect. His arm changed shape and swelled, becoming a cannon of calcified sinew. The rest of his body took on this sinew as armor that doubled as his ammunition. Magun squeezed his cannon arm, letting a round bulk through where his forearm should be and released the large bone cannonball to pulverize the dancing skeletons, destroying them completely.
The fire alerted the corpses in the area.
“You haven’t seen nothing yet.” Magun teased, either talking to his comrades or the undead, it wasn’t clear. “ExoTank.”
What was clear was his cannon arm morphing into his face. A mask like growth of sinew covered his head and his arm molded into his face and his whole body became more rigged and covered in thick sinews until his shape appeared more square. His legs were pillars of calcified sinew and his torso was boxy.
“Ah but that is the first time your Aspect makes sense. You’re a blasted tank!”
Magun’s voice was muffled behind the mask. “Damn right!” He spent more hours than he could count, almost literally, trying out different shapes. The answer had been in his Aspect’s name the whole time! Part of Magun knew the universe had given him the Tank Aspect because of how simple the solution was, it fit his sense of humor so he was not insulted by the almost rudimentary Aspect he was given. Magun needed only to emulate a tank. A strong and bulky body with heavy armor and a control center with a huge cannon. Magun was a walking, mechanized, bone and sinew tank. The resource depletion issue had always been his biggest limitation but being in the hospital made him realize only certain body parts were actually needed when using his Aspect. Most internal organs didn’t serve a purpose and Magun learned to rearrange and convert them to sinew the way his skin did. The digestive track alone is meters of unused sinew just waiting to be converted. And always with his Aspect, everything eventually heals and returns to normal so long as he doesn’t die.
Magun also had a direct feed from his ammunition to his barrel. Magun fired a scatter shot round at some charging undead and tore them to pieces. The pressure was far more superior than his normal cannon arm as the lungs in his ExoTank became propulsion pumps. Magun’s walk was sluggish but the firepower more than made up for his reduced mobility. His free hand was equipped with a jagged sinew appendage, a sharpened stake for keeping off corpses that got too close.
Magun was exultant that it worked. He cleared undead left and right, smashing heavy rounds, cluster shots, burst cannons, javelins, anything that suited the arrangements of enemies. Magun could adjust his munition accordingly.
“Well, let’s get to work, can’t let him have all the fun.” the soldier with the large machine gun said. He picked up a piece of straw, placed it in his mouth for something to chew and went to business.
The other soldiers took points and the group moved together at Magun’s pace, who was learning to move a little better as he got more accustomed to the new Tank body.
Jid entered his Hunter state, becoming almost entirely invisible and ethereal, meaning he was removed from the physical plane, though he remained in the same location in space just in his own state which was a vibrant and colorful rendition of the world, replete with neon contours, pulsing flashes, smoky trails, wisps of ether. Life became a spectrum of light unknown to the normal eye and Jid saw it all, understood the lines of animation, the flow of energy that emanated and poured from his comrades and every other living thing from critter to plant.
So it was a shock to Jid when he saw the undead from his Hunter state lack any semblance of this myriad and majesty of hues and sparks. There was nothing about the corpses that suggested they were living. He knew they were dead corpses but at some level he expected a kind of pulsing from them but they were as colorless as stone save for a small glow inside them, a cage of sunlight trapped and struggling to be free. Still, amidst the sea of drab undead, he could see the preserved internal system of the corpses, the hearts, brains, skeletons, everything… just unmoving. It was unnatural.
Jid shook the feeling and focused on selecting those undead which had cores that were not obvious, primarily in the ones covered in soil. He marked about fifty of them before he needed to exit his Hunter state.
When Jid returned to the normal plane, the major systems of the corpses were highlighted and the soldiers swiftly began to dispatch those one by one.
“Not bad.” Jid heard one of the soldiers commend.
The further the strike team advanced, the thicker the horde. They were a pocket of killing force amidst the torrent of shambling corpses. Magun led the way, blasting them to bits. Three undead managed to grab onto Magun’s tank frame, pounding and clawing. One grabbed onto his leg, another stuffed its hand down his barrel and a third climbed onto his back. Magun skewered the corpse on his leg, tossing it to the side. A cannon shot obliterated the corpse on his barrel while the third was decapitated by a slice of his blade.
That few seconds gave the horde enough time to reach Magun, threatening to overwhelm the group. There were several hundred in the immediate vicinity and thousands more swarming toward the nine soldiers.
Magun changed tactics, firing explosive shells at the ground rather than directly at a corpse. This worked to damage more undead but the killing rate was reduced. Legs and other parts went flying, forcing some corpses to crawl and drag themselves ever forward. Magun stepped on a crawling one, crushing its skull with his giant armored leg and spearing another.
The team was forced to halt their advance while more corpses came from behind to surround them. The soldiers remained calm, firing at the targets marked by Jid and any undead that came too close. Magun found himself constantly in a melee, while not in any real danger himself, the rest of his team relied on him for dealing with the bulk of the horde. A few undead slipped by Magun and he shouted a warning.
Emilo, in Gargoyle form, swooped in and smashed the corpses with stone fists. “I’m going to try something!” Emilo flew overhead and landed far in front of the group in a crowd of corpses that immediately turned on him.
Emilo took a deep breath, changing his Steelskin Aspect from stone to steel, immobilizing himself in the process. He took another breath, packing the air in his lungs. He became titanium while the corpses fruitlessly tried to bash and pull him. Emilo breathed in further, straining his lungs and packing the air tighter, stretching his stomach and chest. His skin hardened into a dark tungsten.
“A little more,” thought Emilo. He took another deep breath, forcing air into the top of his lungs and with nowhere else to go, filling his throat and mouth. The tungsten grew denser, impossibly denser. It started to exert an inward force, like a magnet. Tungsten Gaol is what Emilo called it. There was so much pressure that the air collapsed around him, forming a sort of vortex that attracted anything in its radius a few meters out. The corpses attacking Emilo found themselves punching with added force, destroying their own bodies with each strike. Their orders were to always attack and they used their legs and hands and when those were obliterated on Emilo’s body they used their heads. The corpses mobbed in, falling victim to the vortex of Emilo’s Tungsten Gaol.
Steadily, Emilo released his breath, turning from Tungsten to Titanium, back to Steel and finally settling with his Stoneskin, or Gargoyle form which he could maintain with natural breathing, unlike the other immobile forms that could only be maintained so long as he held his breath in. Emilo flew up and looked down, seeing an indentation in the ground where a pile of countless corpses had bashed themselves to death. He would need to recover before doing that again but it gave the team some breathing room.
Able to advance again, Magun forged a path through the undead.
“Reloading!” called the heavy gunner, dropping one empty ammo belt and strapping on a new one.
A sudden surge of corpses crested a hill and charged.
“I got this.” Dartan announced. He activated his Rule Aspect and the world became filled with floating numbers, letters and an assortment of mathematical symbols. Dartan’s eyes became glossy and reflected the algebraic vision only he could see. Dartan wrote in the air an equation, talking to himself aloud. “Set the wind shear. Factor in rotation and vertical tilt.” Dartan had a limited time to complete a Rule before he has to restart and the effect is cancelled. “Updraft should be set. E is the maximum turbulence of wind velocity raised to the power of two and divided by half. Divide E by the spirality…” Dartan’s equation started to fill out and the numbers floated in the air, visible to anyone.
From Jid’s Hunter state, he could see a unique convergence of potential energy gathering at a point.
“Now I just need to add combustion,” Dartan muttered to himself. The equation for fire was rather simple but where it became complex was in adding it to his previous one. “Shoot.” Dartan skimmed through his numbers, looking for a problem. “Aha. The vertices here needs to be circulated around the combustion.”
Dartan concluded his Rule right before his time limit and put the effect into reality. A weather system formed on the hill where the horde was coming from that flashed into a tornado suddenly and explosively. Heat charged the supercell, combusting it into flames.
The fire tornado raged on the hill, thrashing hot winds and flinging corpses in a violent maelstrom.
Dartan pumped his fist. “It worked!”
“Well damn. So that’s what Coders can do, huh?” Jid was thoroughly awed as he watched the mob get torn to shreds by the fire tornado. They could feel the burning winds but before long the tornado cleared as Dartan gave it only enough fuel to last for half a minute. The natural disaster was devastating and the new mob of corpses was decimated.
The strike team stayed in formation, testing the frequency and potency of the novel uses of their Aspects, reveling in the destructive might. They were in a groove, fighting for hours until their limits were reached. Magun’s tank was a quarter of its size and Dartan managed five more fire tornadoes, failing the equation only once as the numbers changed each time. Emilo used his Tungsten Gaol twice more before his lungs burned too much and Jid ran out of fatigue for his Hunter state.
The group made it several kilomters into enemy territory before switching to a defensive retreat with the last of their resources conserved for making it out alive.
Magun deactivated his Aspect when they made it back to their trench. He slumped to the ground, utterly tired. His body needed time to rearrange itself and recover.
“I’d say that was a success.” Dartan downed a canteen of water and doused his head in the cool liquid. Jid was stretching and Emilo fell immediately to sleep. The five veteran soldiers brought back a meal of broth and bread to eat.
“How many would you say we killed?” Jid asked between stretches.
“Five thousand? Probably more.” Magun suggested.
“But less then ten?” Dartan assumed.
“Less then ten but this was the first day out here trying our Aspects like this. Once we build the stamina for these abilities we can go for hours longer.”
“Fighting corpses is easier than people, no moral objections to killing something already dead you know.” said Jid with relief.
“That’s true,” agreed Dartan.
They felt good about themselves. The Specters performed well, their powers were effective and the nerves of fighting a horde of undead was replaced with easy confidence in battling such simple fodder.
“That Aspect of Death is going to come to a rude awakening when he realizes just how strong we are. Our class alone can probably win this war.” Magun expressed, full of the conviction of the ignorant.
Because what they didn’t realize was the dent they made had already been ironed out. That a few thousand dead meant nothing to a hundred million. The Specters have to rest and recover, they can have hope and learn and think but the undead do none of that. Mindless thralls marching, traitors to their living kin, savage machinations full of their master’s hate.
Later that same day, the undead were commanded to charge in the millions on Garghent’s border.