Deo closed eyes in focus. In a compartment of the mind, not unlike memory or emotions, was a separate location of the psyche, a mental space dedicated to the control of his undead thrall. He felt them as pieces in the recess of a foggy veil, figures stored in an abstract dimension. If Deo held on to that focus he could sense an individual corpse, though seeing or learning from its perspective did not work. Taking direct control or siphoning an undead’s memories and experiences proved impossible to Deo. He was limited to feeling a sense of location and a sense of effort and whether that particular undead remained under control. Broadening his mind’s eye view of his armies he felt the weight that they taxed, by knowing how much force controlling his horde required by the million he had a fairly specific notion as to the current horde size. Deo felt he was down just shy of six million undead and an effortless search through his mind revealed the corpses in Ophir remained intact.
So Vallis managed to destroy a whole six million, the last week seeing nearly two million alone. The defenders were really pulling together some serious effort, but being backed into a corner often presented that as a natural reaction, meaning there wasn’t anything concerning that had taken place. The defenders weren’t doing anything differently, except for better. The weakest soldiers were weeded out, giving way to the strongest, most able-bodied fighters. Essentially a quality control through survival of the fittest. It was the way of sieges and always has been for the thousands of years the city-states existed.
Coded into the DNA of the men and women of this race is the instinct of siege and trench warfare, though comparatively it is nothing more than defending one’s hearth and habitat.
Deo recognized the loss of six million undead as the lashing out of a dying creature, a final ditch effort, railing against the callousness of fate. The amount of undead Deo would obtain in the aftermath of the siege was dizzying to contemplate. He wasn’t even sure he’d be capable of handling that many. Possibly a hundred million corpses or more!
Depending on how deep the catacombs go and how preserved the ancient burials are, the number could be closer to two hundred million with mudmen and mummies forming the bulk of the second half of two hundred million.
Such staggering numbers that Deo hardly wrapped his head around. There were days where he lost all sense of self and individuality, as if his own body were just one of the number of soldiers in his army. There was the issue of trying to do too much at once, the sheer scope of millions often put Deo in spouts of headaches and nausea. It was one of the reasons he wasn’t eating, he couldn’t hold anything down. He was undergoing a sensory overload everyday, and one that was hard to get used to. If Deo stopped giving orders or feeling out his horde he would have moments of rest and calm but during a siege in which overwhelming the enemy was key, he couldn’t afford to waste too much time sleeping or eating. Orders needed to be constantly given, changed, reissued and withdrawn but in specific groups of attackers. What’s going on in parts of the east wall might be different then in the south. There were a number of officers positioned around the perimeter of Vallis giving constant updates, through a multi-way radio call. This allowed Deo to remain in one spot without traveling everyday. But even without any physical exertion the tax on his body was becoming a concern. Deo likened it to a month of binging television, twenty-four hours a day for the whole month would damage the eyes as the rest of the body atrophied. It was like that but for the organ of his Aspect, the mental and energetic sense was over exhausted.
Bisult never rested, and so Deo could not either. A slip in offense opened the opportunity for Bisult to launch a counter attack. If Deo was going to win this war, he’d need to prove his stamina was greater than Bisult’s.
The siege was progressing as planned. Every objective was being met. Infiltration, dissention, plague. Vallis, crippled and wavering, would not live to see another autumn, Deo decided. This summer would be their last. He’d rip their souls from their bodies and raise the corpses in a great banquet of the dead under the next full moon. He’d televise the event, to mock the human race. A dance of the morbid lichdom. Deo imagined it vividly.
The razed city erupts in a conflagration of flames. Throngs of skeletons and bloody carcasses cavorting through cobbled streets in jubilus liturgy. A sinner’s sacrament filled with shrieking sacrifices, stupefied with nepenthe, tossed into the shambolic shivaree as humanity is married to the grave forevermore.
The whole world will tremble in anger and fear at the sight of my scarecrow comedy.
Such thoughts occupied Deo’s attention one late morning when materialized in the air just above ground, Garriot and Goblin. Garriot managed to rotate in freefall and toss his massive Orgblade away from where he landed a moment later with a grunt and thud.
He threw off his steel helmet. “Dammit Goblin, that’s the last time I lead a charge against the Torbun!” Garriot dragged himself to sit up on the grass.
Goblin deftly used his staff to stop the impetus of falling. He hung suspended for a second, balancing on the tip of the staff before allowing himself to land on his toes. Goblin snickered at Garriot for his less than serene landing but did not disagree about charging the Torbun. Goblin left his own conical helmet on.
“Welcome back.” Deo acknowledged with some humor.
“You look like shit.” pointed out Garriot.
“As do you.” retorted Deo. Garriot was covered in blood, grime and mud. His face was hidden behind war paint that had been smeared from its original design and color.
“Want to eat?” Garriot suggested. To Garriot, it looked like Deo hadn’t eaten since a month and a half ago when Goblin teleported him to his world.
“Why not.” shrugged Deo. He commanded a corpse to notify the cook to prepare a meal and drinks. He ordered for Kiasmus to join as well.
“So how is the siege coming along?” Garriot asked, observing the ongoing battle between living and dead.
“Kiasmus is coming, I will wait until then to discuss Vallis. For now, let me hear your latest adventure in Goblin’s World.”
Garriot shook his head. “It wasn’t much different than here. Goblin needed me to besiege a warring Clan’s stronghold. The Torbun. They are a bluish race of goblins, very fierce in a melee, stout defenders. Goblin wants to unify the clans and tribes you see.”
“Very inconvenient timing, during our own siege.” commented Deo.
“It’s how my Aspect works. I can summon Goblin whenever I need help and he can summon me whenever he needs help. We’ve both learned to complain less and focus on the task.” Garriot stripped off his battle armor and stretched out. “Anyways, the Torbun’s stronghold was impenetrable. Their palisades were made from strong and thick oak. They were stuck deep into the ground and cemented with clay, a goblin technique for long lasting walls. We spent weeks losing soldiers trying to batter down the walls or mount them and even tried torching them but the fires would never catch. We were getting desperate and morale was dwindling. Our only option was to get rid of those walls somehow and slaughter the bastards inside.”
“So what did you do?” Deo pressed. Goblin let out a throaty laugh at the memory, one of approval and satisfaction.
“As part of our supply line we had with us a zhoulba snake, ‘bout as big as a train.”
“What is a zhoulba?” Deo asked.
“You’ll find out soon,” Garriot said with a twisted grin. “For now, just know they are giant slugs from Goblin’s world.
“So what we did was throw hooks attached with ropes and tied them around the zhoulba. Now understand these zhoulba are not meant for battle the way a standard zhoulba is. The snake zhoulba have too much lateral surface area, a goblin raiding party could easily overrun and tear one to pieces if it is not defended properly. However, they do make for excellent carriers and transports. They weigh more than a couple buses and combined with the strength to back it up. We sent the zhoulba backwards and wrenched the oak stakes right from the ground.”
The first course of food arrived and Garriot wasted no time digging in. Deo was slower to start, easing his stomach back into the concept of a meal.
“This reminds me of our first encounter,” said Deo reflectively.
“Yeah well like I said back then, the food there is atrocious. It tastes like crap only and makes you hungrier.”
Goblin muttered something similar but about human food.
“So the walls were finally breached, then what?” Deo started the story back up.
“Aye, the walls were down at last and we had the one opportunity to charge the stronghold before the Torbun could recover from the shock. What followed was a damned bloody and close fight. Even with superior numbers, myself and a goblin shaman,” Garriot gestured to Goblin, distinguishing Goblin as the shaman. “We barely won and our casualties were worse than the Torbun’s by the end.”
Goblin chimed in. “Torbun good, followerz of stone and wood godz. Must conquer Torbun to unify tribez.”
“It’s a goblin custom to submit to whatever warlord conquers them. Clans are constantly losing and gaining tribes.” Explained Garriot.
“What is the difference between a tribe and a clan?” asked Deo.
Garriot swallowed a mouthful of food before answering. “In Goblin’s World, a clan is like a pact or an empire consisting of many tribes, which are either small or large groups of Goblins divided by either a leader or a what we would consider breed or community.”
“So Goblin here wants to unify them under a single clan?”
Garriot nodded. “He thinks the Goblin’s should no longer fight amongst themselves. That new advances in technology, exploration and culture could be obtained. In short, he doesn’t want a clan but something greater, a nation. I help out when I can.”
“Your Aspect is fascinating.” Deo complimented.
“It’s hit or miss, honestly. Sometimes I feel as if Goblin could take out the strongest Specters on the planet and other times he’ll shoot a measly fireball that’s about as effective as Onager’s whole power.”
“Onager’s Aspect is one of the truest to its nature, thematically speaking. Its purpose is for siege warfare, far longer than this siege or the siege of Garghent. Something years long. It’s destructive damage is low compared to most but his stamina is all but unaffected by weeks of sustained fire.”
“You’ve given it a lot of thought,” chuckled Garriot.
“It is good to know the strengths and weaknesses of my Specters and I have had time to contemplate and brainstorm, seeing his catapult shots flinging in the air nonstop.”
The second course was brought as well as the second round of drinks. Kiasmus arrived with it.
“You are back.” The Palaot elder stated flatly.
“Yes, and it is time to finish Vallis.” Deo declared, switching tones from his lighthearted conversation with Garriot to a cold and calculating one. The presence of Kiasmus triggered the switch. Kiasmus reminded Deo of Sumedi, the Palaot shaman and the datura brew that had been prepared to drink. The moment everything changed for the young man, his purpose found and Aspect realized. A fire burning in place of a soul blazed as intense as it had on that day on Turtle Island as he puked his guts out. Deo allowed for a slight smile at that. He’d not gone complacent or soft in the last months.
Deo’s ianthine eyes sparkled, scintillation from that pyre in place of soul.
“So how shall we approach this?” Deo asked his two commanders.
“If there’s one thing I learned in Goblin’s World,” started Garriot while munching, he washed it down with a large gulp of wine. “Don’t try anything fancy, it’s a waste of time to undermine walls or scale walls or break them. If you got the muscle just pull the damn things down. And you got the muscle.”
Between Kiasmus’ Skullheads and Deo’s thirty plus million undead there certainly was the muscle for such a feat.
“After that,” Garriot began, “we send in all our Specters, mercenaries and undead and slaughter everyone inside.” He took a large chunk of food and wolfed it down.
“We don’t know what Vallis is holding back, power wise.” Deo warned.
“The Skullheads will draw the most attention.” Kiasmus informed.
“They can survive rockets and artillery?” Garriot asked.
“Yes. Long enough to destroy their heavy weaponry.” Kiasmus said sternly.
“It is too soon to make a final play, I think.” Deo said. “I am assuming you want to start as early as today.”
Garriot swallowed. “May as well. If we wait too long, their allies might decide to come.”
“No city has shown any indication of mobilizing.” Deo mentioned before sipping on more wine.
“Has Bubonica started her infestation?” Garriot asked.
“Only in the last two weeks. You can see the smoke from fires burning day and night in Vallis. They are burning the sick bodies.”
Garriot took another look at Vallis and saw several plumes of smoke. “I thought that might have been buildings. Their corpse burning will affect your supply won’t it?” Garriot asked.
“Not by any significant value.” responded Deo. He turned to the Palaot Elder. “What do you think, Kiasmus?”
“The Skullheads can break sections of the wall easily, but a cornered enemy is most dangerous in the charge. That wall suddenly becomes a spring board.”
“We can target Bisult and the other Specters. Bring them down and Vallis is ours.” Suggested Garriot.
“That is not a sure method. It is a gamble, if we lose our Specters then they can counter attack. Besides, I do not want Bisult to die, nor any other Specters if it can be helped.”
Garriot made a face. “That’s asking a lot!”
“If we wear them out further, added to that the spreading plague and infected food supplies, they will be weakened enough for the final assault.”
“Instincts tell me it’s bad to wait.” Garriot said earnestly. “We need to end the siege soon. Consider this, Bisult will expect us to play the long con, the battle of attrition. He expects this because he knows you now. Bisult knows he has time to plan, to think of a way to win. By the next month or two all of the strongest will have survived and they will bring out their Specters in full. They could even buy an army to attack the north or west and try for a last chance charge against you personally, for that is all they need to do to win.”
“The kid is right.” Kiasmus started. “The siege is never going to last long because of the nature of our army of undead. In a standard war between an attacker and defender there is the human factor, morale and reason, the cause to risk limb and life to fight. In a normal siege one man displaying a heroic effort can turn the tides and shift momentum, victory is not always assured when man fights man. The undead? Now that is something else entirely. I know you have thought through the implications of a restless army but from the defender’s perspective at some point they will try to target you, risking everything.”
“You think the risk of an immediate assault is less than the risk of Vallis possibly mounting an assault of their own?”
“Yes!” Garriot answered. “I read about the Siege of Garghent after you told me of it. The siege was not succeeding but not failing either, they were slowly whittling Garghent down. It all changed when Klyle, my Master, the Lion Aspect, came in and decimated the Coalition’s forces. Garghent capitalized on the Coalition’s drawn out strategy simply because the factor of an Aspect cannot be accounted for.”
“We have the opportunity and the means. Stalling only benefits Vallis. Their soldiers will never run out of food because they will have the priority over the citizens. Bisult is experienced enough to handle his side of the siege as logistically as possible.”
“I see. Interesting. Garriot and Kiasmus, I will leave the assault in your hands then.”
“I’ve learned a fair bit of warfare strategy in military school and it is often the sudden decisions at the moment of critical change that decides a victor.”
“You must take Bisult alive.”
“I have some ideas for how to do it. Do not concern yourself, you need only to send your corpses in when the walls are torn down. Bubonica and the others are still on the inside, correct?”
“They are.” Deo stated.
“Good, they will still be useful. Your strategy will work nine times out of ten if we leave it as is, but this right here will work ninety-nine times out of a hundred.”
“Is that the law of averages?” Deo said with a smirk.
“Something of that sort.” Garriot flashed a fiendish grin.
“I’ll leave you to it then.” Deo poured himself more wine and relaxed. Garriot was becoming more and more an able general. He had just returned from a siege of his own and that experience and near failure left him frustrated and eager to try again with his newfound knowledge. If one piece has an exploitable move, then it is folly to suppress that move.
Deo thought how effective Garriot’s Aspect was. It seemed to present Garriot with a test, in this case a siege against goblins. If he loses he may die, victory however, increases Goblins power and Garriot’s own ability in whatever situation he’s in. Probably not even Garriot realizes how involved Goblin is with his unconscious mind.
A truly fascinating Aspect, Deo thought while drinking more wine.
But that is but a single warrior from Garghent’s elite school. Deo had a sobering thought that some twenty others like Garriot would eventually be his enemies.
A problem for the future. For today, Deo would enjoy the sun and the sight of a million dead consuming the living.
Kiasmus left to prepare his Skullheads and Garriot went to inform the other Specters and mercenaries of the strategy, to prepare immediately for the assault.
The only thing Deo needed to do on his end was craft a large number of hooks and ropes. They had hauled tons of raw material that was going unused from Ophir in the event that it might be beneficial to the siege. Everything from wooden boards and planks and rope, to nails, iron and stone.
The attack order was awaiting Deo’s official signal, when his undead were in place. A hook, regardless if lobbed over the battlements or fired from a cannon to be embedded in the walls, was a benign method of breaching the metropolis. The rope could be cut from the hook quite readily and climbing rope was a slow and dangerous process for an attacker. However, for this siege the volume of rope hooks would put pressure on the defenders as each couple of meters would have a hook, added to which the three Skullheads were logically going to be at the center of Vallis’ attention since the damage they could do to the walls was both more and faster than the ropes.
The plan had very few flaws, despite only being two dimensional. Breach with the Skullheads or breach with the ropes. Sometimes the simpler plans do work better.
The Carn Aspect sat on one Skullhead, Veinbreaker on another. Kiasmus would ride the third Skullhead, commanding it more directly and personally. Garriot would lead a troop of mercenaries to wherever the first breach occurred, establishing a foothold for corpses to pour into. Jan was an unpredictable factor for this battle and would most likely rush inside to find the body of Weeper and potentially leave a path of destruction on his way in and out. Onager would continue to fire his catapult shot into the city. Bubonica, Arachnomania and Veil were inside Vallis ready to spring on the chaos fast approaching, with updated mission objectives to capture any Specters if possible.
That left Deo whose main role, aside from commanding the hordes, was to not die. A guaranteed task and a factor without risk. There was no way a single enemy, not even Bisult, could reach Deo alive amidst the assault they were sending.
Deo stretched his hands and found a little spot under a wilting willow tree with a full view of the south end of Vallis. The day had turned into a hot one, ninety degree weather without a cloud in sight. The tree provided enough shade but it was not as if the heat would affect his army nearly as much as Vallis’.
“All is set, my liege.” Garriot informed. “Standing by your orders. Commence the assault at your leisure.” He grinned at his own wordplay which was clearly a result of pre-battle excitement and adrenaline. Garriot was a hedonist to the core with war being the source of greatest pleasure.
Deo, the Aspect of Death, gave the orders to his undead horde first. Mixed in with the order to attack Vallis was an order to shout or produce any sort of foul noise that the corpses without vocal cords could manage. They marched stomping feet and moaning or screaming or shrieking or cackling jawbone against jawbone, it became indiscernible from the populace of Vallis who as well screamed in panic upon hearing the marching hordes and so the day was beset with violent terrors and frantic pandemonium.
“What goblins use during battle,” Garriot said while warming up his muscles with a few easy and controlled swings of his Orgblade, “is war drums and war horns. They march to the beat of the drums but when the horns are blared the drummers pick up the pace of the drumming and the bass notes are so deep it feels like a second heartbeat. I, for one, always fought better when we had drummers. There is something incredibly savage in that noise.”
“Must explain why concerts can be so wild.” pondered Deo. “But hey that is a good idea. After Vallis has fallen we will discuss it.”
“One city-state coming right up.”
“Oh, one thing Garriot.”
“Do mind the orchids, Vallis is famous for their orchid growing competitions and so many residents grow orchids outside their apartments. They bloom in autumn so they will just look like buds and stems. I want to bring some back for my ziggurat since we will be back before autumn now.”
Garriot chuckled. “One day, you will have to explain how that mind of yours works. I talk of war drums and you think of concerts, I speak of conquering a city and you ask me to ‘mind the orchids.”
“I am not here to destroy the world Garriot, I am a student of learning and a creature of nature. I wish to live on a beautiful planet free of human disgust, that is all.”
Garriot shook his head. “Liar.” Garriot stalked off. “Kiasmus is moving his Skullheads, I’m going into position!” he called.
Deo unfolded a map of Vallis and the surrounding countryside. He placed various chess pieces of both ivory and wood on the map to symbolize the armies and key Specters. It helped him keep a frame of reference of the battle and eased some of the mental load on memorizing the location of his hordes.
Deo placed the pawns around the city and moved them closer to the walls.
His thirty-three million undead did the same.