“Behold, lord, the great city of Vallis. The largest city in the Sister continent, commerce and textile capital of the world. Administered by a council of bipartisan aristocracy and defended by a man whose name I have marked for death on my blade.” Garriot introduced the city to Deo. After their crossing of the now Diluvian canal and a full day’s marching, the metropolis of Vallis came into sight. The city was far more grand in terms of breadth than Ophir and still bigger than Garghent, though it lacked the fine artistry and planning that had gone into Garghent’s design and architecture.
Farmland turned what would have been rolling plains and prairie fields into fractal rows and columns of crops that coiled out from a walled center in hatch and knit formations. It was a basket laid flat around an industrialized city, the woven twine composed of multicolored stripes of creams, beiges, browns, tans, reds, oranges, purples, greens and yellows. Each sown crop had its unique color of fruit or vegetable. Tomatoes, radishes, yams, carrots, berries, beans, onions, wheat, barley, hops, garlic, peppers and a dozen more supplied Vallis and a majority of the continent with the highest quality food. Under normal circumstances any number of city-states would rush to the aid of Vallis, the leading food distributor, but the current romance of the metropoli saw them all protect their own interests over those of their neighbors or trade partners. Crops could be replanted more readily than an empire be rebuilt.
Deo opened his eyes from the reconstructed vision of what the famous farms of Vallis used to look like, from images he’d seen on the internet taken from way above. A time before he destroyed them.
Deo saw only remnants of those farms. Now they burned and shriveled. The majority of crops had been harvested when Vallis evacuated from the raiding parties. As many cattle and other livestock were herded into Vallis as possible, the rest were either slaughtered for food or released to roam free. Insects and wild animals already took advantage of the free farms and though it had only been a couple weeks of neglect, weeds and grass and wildflowers began to fill the empty spaces between crops where once hundreds of thousands of workers maintained.
How quickly nature reclaimed its land.
“Lord Deo,” the Onager Aspect approached, “there are a number of cows we could sicken and catapult into the city. Spread disease and bacteria, perhaps causing an outbreak of something. It is an old siege tactic from antiquity.”
Deo shook his head. “No. Animals are not the enemy. Humans are.”
“What if they are already dead, as there are many.”
“Leave them out of this.” Deo ordered.
Onager wanted to say more but Garriot held his hand to stop him. “Leave it be. Besides, we’ve got Bubonica on the inside, she’ll spread enough famine and disease to go around.”
Onager sighed and left, joining a group of mercenaries eating and drinking by a fire, cooking something warm for a midday meal.
“I think I’ll join them if there’s nothing more you need.” Garriot said.
“No, enjoy yourself.”
“Want me to save you anything?” Garriot offered as he walked.
“I am not hungry.
Deo thought what Vallis must be thinking now, seeing some forty million undead soldiers line the desecrated horizon. Weeks of anticipation and fear come to fruition in a terrifying menagerie of ghoulish design, cruel and necromantic.
“Ah, lord! News from Vallis.” The speaker was a spy, Deo recognized, sent to keep tabs on the Sages planted inside Vallis. His purpose wasn’t so much to ensure the Specters stayed loyal, there would be nothing that spy could do about the Sages for multiple reasons. His purpose was simply to monitor their progress and gauge the mindset of the population and what action, if any, was taken by the government and report back before the siege started.
“Right on schedule.” There was no one else in earshot as they had all started eating. Deo was glad to be hearing the news first and alone. Controlling the flow of information was a surefire way to breed distrust, but in this case, Deo wanted to hear the briefing before anyone else in the event that the news is terrible. Deo chalked it down to instincts.
“You are right in wanting to hear this alone,” the spy said somberly, clearly dreading this next part.
“Worst case scenario as you feared, lord. The Sages did too good a job.” The spy started out slowly, casting a nervous glance in the direction of the group by the fire, specifically Jan, the Seravim Aspect who sat quietly, keeping to himself.
Deo grimaced, knowing in the pit of his stomach the one of two possibilities for ‘worst case scenario’. Firstly, either one or more Specters were found and killed or secondly, the government of Vallis collapsed under the stress, tension, riots and rebellion.
“The entire governing body is dead, completely wiped out.”
“What caused it?” Deo cut in. It was important to know the nature of the power struggle in the city. Insurrection, martial coup, voluntary or temporary succession. The spy cleared his throat.
“It was Weeper, she joined a crowd protesting outside the council hall where the government officials were meeting to decide how to keep the population in check with housing, food rationing, that sort of thing. Weeper must have gone through something that day because the level of power was something I’d never experienced before.” The spy was shaking just recollecting.
Deo nodded at him to continue.
“Keep in mind I was a good deal from the event but even from my nook I was hit by a wave of… of languor, more like a pulse I guess. The crowd all took their own lives. Mass suicide. Well I guess not really since Weeper made them do it but you know what I mean. It was mass hysteria that day and still is. Everyone in the council building did the same, from bodyguards to bureaucrats and governors. Weeper was uncontrollable, she just started wondering the streets with her power on full force… that is until someone, a Specter I imagine, someone who could get close enough and still withstand her power… dispatched her.”
So it was both worst case scenarios, thought Deo.
“Weeper is dead?” Deo said just confirming.
“Yes.” The spy said dreadfully. Deo assumed the spy’s fear was a mix of the lingering effect from Weeper and the fact Jan was no more than a stone’s throw away.
Deo closed his eyes for a moment, processing the information. The spy kept talking, more and more nervously. “The death toll was over three hundred thousand. This was two days ago. Vallis is in a state of paralysis and depression right now. It’s surreal, everyone is docile and numb. I slipped out when I could, the only opportunity I had. Their military leader took over the city just yesterday.”
“Bisult. He would have just returned from a skirmish we had. Now he has full access to run and defend Vallis to his own standard. This news is less than ideal.”
“Veil, Bubonica, and Arachnomania are still inside, lord. They are stuck since this Bisult closed borders… but I have a feeling that that is worse for Vallis.” The spy gulped.
“You did good. Go back to Ophir and rest.”
“Thank you lord.” The spy was sweating at this point but openly relieved. He immediately started walking the opposite direction from Vallis.
Deo needed to think fast. The entire dynamic of Vallis just changed overnight. Bisult was experienced, cunning and ruthless. Part of the strategy was to allow the slow-moving and incompetent government to hinder Bisult’s ability to defend the city. Vallis would likely establish some proxy faux government in the meantime but all the power was with Bisult and he’d likely have the full support of the populace until the nightmare of the siege was over. That was just one problem. The immediate issue was Jan. His reaction to Weeper’s death would be unpredictable, but Deo had no choice but to tell him. Lying all but guaranteed a worse reaction somewhere down the road. Deo could lie now and try to have Jan assassinated after the siege but Deo wanted to keep him as a bodyguard. He was already down one Specter from Weeper’s death. Losing another would be all the more costly. There was a lot to weigh but less time to decide as the group by the fire, Garriot, Onager, Jan and several other mercenary officers noticed the spy had arrived and departed. The group was coming over to Deo.
Jan would either kill him or not, Deo decided. Deo couldn’t prepare to fight as a contingency as that only exacerbated the fact that Deo expected Jan to lash out, making it more likely Jan would lash out in the first place. Staying defenseless obviously posed an even more hazardous issue in the event Jan decided to kill him anyways.
Deo let himself breathe. When in moments of duress and uncertainty, one must, with zero tolerance for failure and the embarrassment that accompanies failure, act pridefully, over indulge in confidence so as to appear better than everyone else. Look down on them with contempt and bring to mind every tiny detail that makes that person so intolerable and inferior.
Somewhere in that juxtaposition of snideful pride and the drowning fear it will balance out in a place near the center as a normal and even reaction.
“Was that your spy?” Garriot asked.
“Yes, and he brought grave news.” Deo looked Jan in the eyes, portraying honesty rather than challenge. “Lorrely is dead.”
Deo let the quiet linger a moment longer as Jan’s anger built up and exuded.
“You said…” Jan struggled for words.
Deo completed the thought, “that she would be okay. That is what you were going to say.” Deo let out a slow exhale. “She is dead, Jan. Her body destroyed and mutilated by Vallis.” Deo threw just enough disgust in the words to sound believable in that disgust. Deo lost a piece on his board, albeit a strong piece, but a piece nonetheless.
“You want to take your fury out on me?” Deo asked lightly.
“Yes I would very much like to.” Jan’s voice was trembling. He drew his weapon. Garriot tightened the grip on his own blade but a slight twitch of Deo’s finger told him to stand off.
“Or,” Deo started.
“Shut up!” Jan darkened, blackened like night as an aura permeated in the ground beneath his feet, decaying the short grass as air around his body became hazy.
“Or,” Deo started again, “you can take your fury out on Vallis, on the whole world because Lorrely never had a chance in this life. Your brother never had a chance either.”
“I said shut up! You know nothing about my brother!” Jan leveled his sword.
“I know that they are together now, Jan. Lorrely and your older brother, only the shells that housed their spirits are separate.” Deo didn’t really believe this, but on a symbolic level he could. Deo held on to that idea when trying to sound genuine. “All we can do is beat Vallis and recover her body. From there you can bury her in Ophir with your brother and I will never touch them with my Aspect.”
A tear fell from Jan’s cheek.
“I…” Jan stuttered. The bloodlust was still there.
“You have no obligation to me, Jan. Should you decide to leave Villain Throne I will bear no ill will, nor will I ever pursue you.”
“I… will see the siege of Vallis through and recover Lorrely’s body. After that I do not know.”
“I would recover her body whether you want to fight in this or not.”
“I know you would, Deo. I am not angry with you. You gave Lorrely some moments of joy, but truth be told she was dead for a long time.” Jan looked down distantly.
“You will have your blood, Jan, I promise you that!”
Jan nodded dumbly. “Promise this to me too, that you will win and wipe this world clean of its filth.”
“That is a promise I have made to myself, I do not see why I cannot extend it to you as well.”
Jan sank to the ground, shuddering. His sword was plunged into the soft soil.
The Seravim Aspect was still a teenager, Deo reminded himself. It meant unpredictability in personality but it also meant a more impressionable mind. If Deo could convince him to stay, and with Lorrely too dead to distract him, Jan could see his potential grow and hone his Aspect into an even more wicked being. Deo bit the inner linings of his cheek to stop from smiling.
“At the risk of sounding crass,” Garriot began, “there is more to this bad news, isn’t there?”
“Bisult is now in total charge of Vallis, beyond its defenses.” Deo refrained from explaining how Lorrely died making things worse, for obvious reasons.
“The strategy is unchanged. Surround Vallis and begin the siege. We start immediately, my legions are marching into place as we speak. Kiasmus is but a day behind.”
“I’ll talk to the men and get them ready.”
“Good. Onager, set up your Aspect and begin bombardments, work with our engineers.”
“Yes, lord.” Onager took only one step before staring off into the distance.
“What is wrong?” Deo asked.
Onager pointed to the sky. “We might have some company.”
Garriot ran back. “We just saw it!”
Aceldama, the orbital soldiers whose purpose is to quell any threats to humanity. A joint program funded by every city-state on the planet. Some of the world’s most elite Specters work for Aceldama.
“The impartial heroes have taken a side.” Deo said.
“Hmph.” snorted Jan. “I guess they sniffed us out.”
“It’s hard to say, but that doesn’t look like their flagship. Too small.” Onager observed. Deo was unsure how anyone could make something like that out from so far. It was speck in the atmosphere.
“Spread out!” Shouted Garriot. “Goblin!” he summoned his Aspect. Goblin teleported in, griping unintelligibly about ‘the clans’.
A sparkle appeared.
“Here they come.” Onager said nervously. He summoned his catapult and started firing up, trying for a lucky shot at a drop-pod. He drew his pistol as well, in the event that his one in a million shot happens to not kill them all.
Deo ordered as many undead to surround him as possible, using them as a shield. There were a couple thousand that would make it in time to be of use.
The pods were more visible now, falling at terminal velocity, rapidly approaching the ground. Onager hadn’t hit anything.
With a shrill shriek Jan launched from the ground, flying to meet one of the pods head on. They collided and Jan unfurled his wings, which were healed from his fight with Bisult and twice their normal size.
With a great flap of his charcoal wings, Jan stopped and reversed the momentum of the pod. Jan found a grip and carried the pod into the sky. The shrieking receded as he ascended.
The rest of the pods landed in a circle around Deo, from ten to twenty meters. Their placement was extremely precise and apparently they were gunning entirely for Deo. They crushed whatever undead was in their way and the pod doors shot open, knocking a few more out. Water and vapor drained out of the twelve pods.
Goblin chanted something and fired lightning from his staff. The electricity met the water still draining out and fried the soldier within, killing him instantly.
Garriot charged one pod, swinging the Orgblade in a wild run, cleaving the pod in half. The soldier inside rolled out in time and spun. The Aceldama soldier was a Specter and he sprayed red dust at Garriot from his hand. The red dust obscured vision and denoted into mini explosions.
Garriot’s Orgblade took the brunt of the blasts and when Garriot charged to counter he found the dust still lingering. The dust from the explosion had not dissipated but instead acted as fuel for the next detonation. This explosion was larger and forced Garriot to slide back.
The Reddust Aspect created self growing explosions. The blast froze in place once it hit its apex, obscuring vision further and causing larger, more powerful explosions with each subsequent detonation. The Reddust Specter formed a ring of dust around himself that exponentially increased in size. He added more fuel and pushed it further out. The undead throwing themselves into his ring were annihilated. Garriot grunted but prepared himself for the Reddust that was billowing his way, guided by the Specter controlling it.
In another pod, a rocketeer soldier was clearing scores of undead at a time. His ammunition was auto-reloaded into his pump cannon via a large belt and bag strung over his back and waist. He slowly gained ground as he moved toward Deo in the center of the ring. Deo ordered some undead to climb that soldier’s pod and leap from it onto him. The soldier grunted when the weight of several undead landed on his back. In another instance he was overwhelmed and torn limb from limb.
Veinbreaker arrived on the scene, coming in from behind an unsuspecting Specter controlling three large, crystal wheels, razor sharp and winding for another spin. The tracks left on the ground and the severed body parts were evidence of her visceral Aspect.
Veinbreaker sent his obsidian tendrils that emerged from his own veins to enter hers. They snaked in through her hands and spread all over her body. The tendrils wrapped around and slid in her veins, causing her body to convulse and squirm until the pressure built up the same way a pinched hose filled with water might. Her veins burst, causing hemorrhaging in every part of her body. The hemoglobin, no longer receiving oxygen from the heart and pooling up against her skin, looked bluish black, giving her limp corpse the appearance of a single, tender bruise. She was held up by Veinbreaker’s tendrils which he whipped, sending her body flying over to a nearby Aceldama soldier. He screamed in anger at his fallen comrade and turned to face Veinbreaker.
The Carn Aspect descended on that soldier and crushed the man’s skull in his jaws. Brain matter and cranium chunks flew about.
Deo kept more undead rushing in, ensuring a barrier of bodies protected him from the dwindling number of Aceldama soldiers.
Garriot tried slicing at the Reddust Specter. He cut a sliver of dust from its place and nothing else. The explosions that followed pelted his body. Garriot cursed. The dust was consuming his real estate, growing around him too fast. Any attempt to attack was futile. It not only left him exposed to explosions but attacking blindly merited no progress in taking down the Reddust Specter.
Garriot grunted as his back shoulder got hit. The reach of his Orgblade was the only thing keeping him alive as it had given him enough space to take minimal damage from the explosive dust. That space was rapidly diminishing.
Reddust continued to press his advantage. Garriot was left with little choice but to try something desperate. Garriot in as wide and choppy a swipe of his sword as possible, using the broad, flat of the weapon for more surface area and drag, tried to wipe the dust away. To his surprise, and to Reddust’s surprise, enough of the dust was cleared for Garriot to see his enemy’s newly found shocked expression.
Garriot, in a fluid overhead motion of his sword, sliced down at Reddust who, recognizing his plight, tried to dive to the side.
The Orgblade tasted kneecap and half a leg stayed where Reddust had just been. Reddust yelped and tried to scramble to safety, tumbling in a panic. Garriot wiped more of the dust to open a path and step through. Reddust sprayed more explosive powder but Garriot danced around it and let the Orgblade stab at Reddust’s belly. Garriot twisted the massive weapon, curling guts and crunching spine. Reddust died with a grunt and Garriot cursed in relief.
Two more soldiers standing back to back were overrun by undead, a pile of bodies around them. Goblin slit the throat of another soldier that had been placed under a freeze spell. The soldier gurgled blood as Goblin snickered over his dying body.
Onager fired a shot at an Aceldama soldier, practically point blank. The soldier was lost in a flash of green fire and flayed corpses.
Carn and Veinbreaker battled an Aceldama soldier wielding dual machine pistols, firing Aspect enhanced bullets that absorb flesh. Using the excess undead as body armor, Carn and Veinbreaker maneuvered around the Specter, each taking a different flank. The Aceldama Specter spread his hands to target both left and right. He opened fire at the undead, the shots causing wounds that became sinkholes of flesh. The corpses decayed from sight but had bought enough time for Carn and Veinbreaker to dash to the Specter.
They reached machine-pistols at the same time, bullets whizzing by. Carn bit off one hand and Veinbreaker mutilated the other.
The last of the Aceldama soldiers fought haggardly. The captain of this particular cell. He had braided hair and a plaited beard.
Shatterfist is what he had called his Aspect when he activated it upon landing. An apt name, his fists caused the body to lock up so tight that a follow-up punch would literally shatter whole segments of bone and flesh.
Shatterfist had pummeled his way through nearly a hundred undead. For an Augur, without a weapon or Aspect designed to take on large groups, to perform so well left Deo impressed. Shatterfist’s cumulative wounds from scratches, farm tools, sharpened bone and anything Deo’s undead could throw at him finally started to affect him.
Shatterfist fell to his knees, only a few steps from Deo, who stood unmoving. Undead continuously beat and stomped on him. Shatterfist ignored what he could but occasionally found the strength to turn and deliver a quick double jab.
There was a determination in Shatterfist’s eyes that Deo caught sight of.
“This is your only chance.” Deo told the crawling captain.
Shatterfist groaned but managed to speak through however many gritted teeth he had left. “I only… need to land… a single punch on you!” He spat some red fluid.
Deo replied in his typical, hushed tone. “Is that a joke?” Whether it was or not, Deo didn’t move. Somehow Shatterfist could still find the strength to claw at a clump of dirt and haul himself ever so slightly closer to Deo.
“Aceldama messed up. You underestimated me.” Deo explained to Shatterfist. It was written in Shatterfist’s expression, all over. The realization and magnitude of what and why Aceldama needed to stop and the pain of failing.
Deo’s villainy was still not taken seriously enough. That would likely change after this fight and most definitely after Vallis is reduced to ashes.
Shatterfist raised his torso from the dirt and extended his hand. Deo’s eyes narrowed and held his breath unconsciously.
Shatterfist, with one last effort slammed his fist down on Deo’s boot. Only it wasn’t a slam, Deo realized. He had just fallen. Shatterfist died from that last-ditch stretch, which had likely let the last drops of his blood spill out or else placed too great a strain on his heart at that point.
Regardless, his bloody fingerprints smeared Deo’s boot.
Deo hadn’t moved because there was something thrilling about challenging fate, about seeing it crawl at his feet, begging for a chance to claim him. All fate could manage was a dirtied shoe.
Deo’s own Specters gathered around, exhausted and thrilled from the fight. Deo started conversation. “I am both disappointed and relieved that Aceldama did not send their flagship.”
Garriot chuckled sore and aching. “Why did they not coordinate with Vallis and attack together?” he asked contemplatively.
“I was thinking through that. It is a missed opportunity on their part. Perhaps Bisult is more preoccupied with the transition of power than we thought he would be.”
“Maybe.” Garriot acknowledged.
“That must be Jan’s doing.” Onager once again pointed to the tiny speck of the Aceldama ship, this time however, it was falling.
“I think it’s safe to say we burned that bridge.” Garriot lowered himself, wincing on the way down. Goblin approached and started snickering as he applied some strange smelling salves to Garriot’s wounds.
“We would not have been able to stop Jan if he had decided to kill us…” Onager stated in epiphany
“Indeed.” remarked Deo passively, forgetting that old problem and moving to the next. Shifting his attention from their recent battle, Deo looked to Vallis.
Jan landed back at Deo’s side, wordless and silent as shade.
Deo lifted a hand, fingers spread wide, partly blocking his own view of the city.
The legions marched on Vallis, commencing the siege in a mute phlegmatic inexorability that only the undead can personify.