The cloaked messenger weaved in and out of the busy market. Millions gathered in the streets for the yearly Tear of the Moon Fair. The cloaked messenger saw the emblem of the festival worn by nearly everyone in some way, a tear-dropped, crater filled moon. The celebration goes back to the earliest settlers of the city-state of Natung. The metropolis was founded overlooking Lake Lirhal, the largest body of water aside from the Asies oceans.
Legend holds that the surrounding land was a barren wasteland, ground dry and cracked and life struggling. Plants would wither and crops fail and animals starve, ribs exposed and stomachs bloated. The moon saw the strife of land, named Natung by its inhabitants, the archaic word for ‘nothing’, and took pity.
The moon wept for the poor Natung, a tear of rock that streaked across the sky like a mighty jewel lighting up the heavens in honor of the destitute land. The moon tear landed in Natung, leaving a cavity to match the moon’s. Where the moon cried, removing a piece of itself, the land mirrored as the rock crashed and shook the world. Apparently the moon tear was filled with water and so Lake Lirhal was formed on the spot. Life flourished after that and each year the citizens of Natung for the last ten thousand years honor the moon and the lake by lighting tear-drop shaped paper lamps.
The cloaked messenger slipped discreetly into alleyways and cut through districts where throngs of people celebrated from dusk until dawn the next day, always on a night of full moon.
There was too much going on to be noticed, decided the cloaked messenger. Who would suspect one cloak over the thousands being worn on this chilly autumn night?
Perhaps the strangest part of the legend of the Tear of the Moon is that a hundred million years ago a meteor did crash into the spot where Lake Lirhal is. The lake is actually an ancient crater, filled with water after an ice age thawed the nearby mountain range, the melting glacier filling the basin and transforming the environment.
It always fascinated the cloaked messenger how the first settlers of Natung came up with that legend, which was so eerily accurate.
Of course this mystery was not the subject of his message, so he let the problem go.
His message was different, urgent. Being wanted for treason made the whole affair uniquely difficult.
The cloaked messenger needed to reach the President’s estate, dodging the guards and security perimeter, enter the manor and somehow convince the President of Natung to listen to his message and pray not to be executed after, or worse, before he could deliver the message.
“Deviant.” The cloaked messenger activated his Aspect. He had an Augur class power that reversed his body. His skin turned inside out, his skeleton becoming his outer layer and all his organs revealing themselves. Each organ system turned into a tool or weapon and his skin, now protected inside a suit of bone, muscle and body parts. The skin was now his vitals.
The messenger discarded his cloak. The Deviant unwound his intestines and lassoed them like a rope. He swung it up towards the wall of the estate, wrapping them around a battlement.
With leverage now, the Deviant ran up the side of the wall, leapt over the battlement and unwinding the intestinal rope before he landed.
A pair of guards had just made their rounds where the Deviant now stood. He whipped his intestines, catching both of the guards who gave a surprised yelp as they found themselves being yanked back.
The Deviant clanked their heads together, knocking them both unconscious before they processed what had happened.
The Deviant knew the security and rotation of guards at the President’s manor. He’d have several minutes before the alarm was raised and the President taken into the bunker with no hope of reaching him.
The Deviant had enough time. He sprinted from the wall towards the roof of a barracks some fifteen meters from the ledge in the courtyard of the estate. The Deviant threw his intestines to a burning chimney, pulling himself the distance and rolling quietly on the ceiling. A flex of his stomach muscle recalled his intestines the way a measuring tape might retract its tongue.
Racing along the roof, the Deviant reached the end and dropped below, throwing his bladder to the ground first. He fell shoulder first on the bladder which acted as a bounce cushion that broke his fall and sprang him upright, cartwheeling in the air.
The Deviant caught the bladder and found his footing, immediately sprinting into the shadows as another pair of guards turned a corner.
The Deviant threw both kidneys, one aimed at each guard’s head. He was running past the knocked out guards, snatching his kidneys before they fell.
The courtyard was extravagant. A massive field of gazebos, hedge mazes, gardens and perfectly mowed lawns with pathways and roads leading in every direction to the many offices and buildings of the estate. At the center was the President’s house, a huge mansion with another wall and hundreds of bodyguards.
The Deviant chose to go through the hedge maze, having memorized the labyrinth many years ago. It would provide the best cover and he knew the fastest path through it.
There should be at least two pairs of guards patrolling the hedge maze and another pair guarding the entrance with still another pair looking out from the window of the mansion.
The Deviant came upon the first pair of guards. They were taking a break, sitting at a bench talking quietly. The Deviant removed his lungs and inhaled the the contents, deflating them into empty bags.
Sneaking up on the guards, the Deviant ambidextrously placed each lung over the guard’s heads. He suffocated them in an instant by inhaling powerfully through the trachea, which connected the lungs together, stealing the air from the very lungs of the guards. Their struggles lasted a moment before they passed out, falling limp in their seats.
The Deviant removed his lungs and hurried through the rest of the maze. He didn’t encounter the second pair of guards by the time he reached the entrance. The two guards were standing under lamps.
There could be no room for error, lest he wanted an entire nation descending on him. From the shadow of the hedge maze, the Deviant spotted where each of the sniper guards were posted. One on the roof of the mansion and one behind a window three stories above.
Standing just meters from the two guards at the entrance of the maze, the Deviant tied one kidney to his large intestines and one kidney to his small intestines.
Taking a step back for room, he began to swing his intestinal slings. He’d have a moment before they two guards in front picked up on the whirring noise.
The Deviant launched his kidneys via sling at the same time, aimed for two different people to land simultaneously.
As the kidneys flew in the night sky, the Deviant met the two guards who came to investigate the noise he was making. His skeleton fingers throat jabbed the first guard as his intestines whipped the gun hand from the second guard. Acting first, the Deviant pounced on the guard and broke his neck, not having any more time to waste on small mercies. He saw that the guard he punched was choking on his broken windpipe.
The sniper on the roof had actually fallen from being hit by his kidney and was dead on the ground, having fallen unconscious right into a thorny bush.
The Deviant could sense where his kidneys were. The one kidney was on the ground beside the fallen sniper and the other was in the room with the broken window. After retrieving his kidney, the Deviant used his intestinal rope to climb the mansion up the window room.
The guard was knocked out. The Deviant stuck his hand through the hole and unlocked the window from the inside. Pulling it up, the Deviant climbed through and recalled his intestines.
He knew where the President would be celebrating the festival and the best way to get in.
The Deviant took the keycard from the sniper and deactivated his Aspect, allowing his skin to return to the outside and phasing his organs back inside.
He stripped the unconscious guard and put on his uniform, grabbing a hat to hide his face. After that, the Deviant, now a disguised guard, simply walked down the hall, waving and nodding at the other guards along the way.
So gullible were humans who saw a confident uniform walking without a hint of uncertainty, even gaslighting their own brains into thinking they recognized the imposter.
The disguised guard walked up to the door where the President would be celebrating with his closest friends and allies.
Another guard hailed him. “What brings you here, agent?”
“Reporting activity in the courtyard. Two guards haven’t finished their rounds.”
The guard immediately went on alert. “Where?”
“Hedge maze. I was spotting through the window. The agents posted outside the maze went to investigate and never returned.”
“Why didn’t anyone radio?”
“Communications are down,” lied the disguised guard.
Another fault of human behavior. Even if for a second, stating something as a fact will block out the possibility that the false fact can indeed be false.
The guard cursed.
“Go tell command. I’ll warn the President about the situation. It’s probably just party-goers having too much fun and all the lamps are messing with the cell towers.” the disguised guard explained.
The guard looked convinced and relieved, though he didn’t take the time to process his own confusion before the disguised guard was moving with urgency. This caused the guard to run down the hall and spread the word to alert the captain of the watch.
The disguised guard was just closing the key-pad locked door behind him as he heard the guards successfully testing the radio.
Too late for them.
Inside the room, a lounge area with several televisions, couches, pool table, a bar and a fair number of drinks between the President, his closest allies and his three wives.
The angle of the moody lighting along with his hat shielded his identity.
“What do you want?” The President of Natung asked, annoyed at the intrusion.
“There’s been an intruder, Mr. President. The Deviant has been spotted in the courtyard, heading towards the mansion.”
“What!” he stormed. “Why hasn’t the alarm been signaled?”
Just then the alarm did ring, a total lockdown being announced over radio and a call to arms. Pounding on the door were several guards demanding the door be opened.
“Why is the emergency lock on?” The President asked. Nothing could get through those doors now.
“I wouldn’t want you getting out.” The disguised guard stepped into the light, removing his hat and pointing a gun at them.
The President’s eyes went wide. His wives retreated to the corner of the room in panic.
The other political friends of the President raised their hands.
“Call off the alarms. It is hard to think with them ringing so loudly.” The Deviant ordered. “I only want to talk.”
“You treasonous bastard!” The President said defiantly.
“If I wanted to kill you I would be in my Aspect form, tearing your body to shreds. I am no traitor to my city. Call off the alarm and let us talk. I have a message.”
The President hesitated but in the end he didn’t have much of a choice but to radio the guards. He explained to the commander of the watch that the Deviant was in the room and should anything happen to him, make sure the Deviant dies too.
The alarms shut off.
The Deviant set down his pistol. Immediately the President and two of his friends all pulled out revolvers and aimed them at the Deviant.
The Deviant took a seat on one of the leather couches.
“Sit.” The Deviant gestured. “I come in good faith. I have no desire to kill my president.”
“The word of a traitor means nothing.” The President held his ground.
“Here me out, then do what you must. Getting past your security was the only way I could have an audience with you, what with me being a wanted traitor and all.”
“Maybe you don’t deserve an audience with me.” The revolver was still aimed for the Deviant’s heart.
“Then pull the trigger and be done with it.” The Deviant challenged. “You will have slain Natung’s strongest Specter and most loyal servant.”
“Hah! You have led this city to the brink of revolution and bankruptcy.”
“And you had my family killed as punishment and banished me from ever returning to Natung. Make no mistake President Garlo,” the Deviant’s eyes expressing a terrible violence. “I could kill you before you pull the trigger, even now. But I do not blame you for executing my family. I blame Garghent and their thousand lies.”
“You sold Natung out.” The President corrected, though he lowered his gun. His allies did as well.
“No. Garghent fabricated the formation of the Coalition of the Sister. It had been their plan in the making for decades. They wanted to create a war we could never win from the beginning, to cripple us for their eventual conquest. Garghent wants to be ruler of the Sister continent.”
“Rumors and lies. The Coalition failed because traitors like you sold our secrets. They saw us coming and turned our people against us after revealing the cost and loss of life we suffered in a war labeled as aggression on Garghent. We have not begun to recover.”
“I am telling you it was Garghent’s plan. They garnered sympathy and devastated the military of half the continent. Look at them now? Daedal is theirs, Bast is a suzerain, Vallis is being rebuilt. This was all designed from the beginning.”
“Where do you get this wild conspiracy from?” President Garlo entertained.
“A former Gentleman of Garghent, a man named Rabio who fled from Garghent.”
“And he is trustworthy?” The president mused.
“Perhaps not. But he has never once lost a bet on anything he has ever witnessed. He’s betting against Garghent.”
The president took a sip from his tumbler glass. The atmosphere in the room was much more comfortable, the others relaxing as the president did.
Garlo licked his lips, tasting the hard liquor a second time. “I have heard rumors of such a person.”
The Deviant nodded. Garlo continued. “The people of Natung elected me president fifteen years ago. My term lasts for five more years. I have dedicated my life to Natung and will always live in service to our great city, whether I am a president or a peasant. All I do is for my city. I will hear your message out, Deviant, you have convinced me to do that much.”
“That is all I am here for.” The Deviant said graciously. “The former Janiform of Garghent, Amenais, is dead. Assassinated by Creeper. General Draje has fallen in battle to the tyrant Deo of Ophir.”
President Garlo smirked. “I see, so the old dogs of Garghent do bleed. Only Master Klyle is alive from their shadow government.”
“Of the original three, yes. Powerful Generals and Gentlemans still support Amenais’ plan,” agreed the Deviant.
“I believe you. News from Garghent has been sullen and terse recently.” said the president.
“Garghent is engaged in a brutal war with Deo of Ophir. They are very rapidly losing their experienced veterans. What’s left will soon be children. One such General is barely over twenty years of age.”
“Klyle’s Class of the Savant. They are famously strong Specters for their ages.” The president remarked.
“Which brings me to my message. Kill Klyle and Garghent will be crippled forever. Their victory over Ophir is inevitable, even if at a great cost. But they will recover and look north. Vallis will be a sprawling metropolis again in a matter of years.”
“And what if this is another trick?” the president asked severely.
“No one could predict Creeper’s betrayal of Amenais, nor Deo’s rise to power and the killing of General Draje. Klyle is stooped up in Garghent, protecting it against another Master, the Marrow Aspect.”
“How do you suggest we accomplish this feat?”
“Use them.” the Deviant said.
The president went still. “Everyone out of the room.” To the protests of his allies and wives who were concerned for his safety he insisted with the powerful authority he wielded. “I will be fine. The Deviant and I have something to discuss that cannot touch another’s ears. He has paid the penance for his failure.”
The others reluctantly left the room, explaining to the guards outside the situation who in turn reluctantly stayed outside after getting confirmation of Garlo’s well-being from his own mouth.
With the door closed and the Deviant and President alone, they spoke freely.
“Use the Men-Ten Thousand, huh?” the president asked aloud.
“Garghent’s imperialism can finally be stopped and revenge for the Coalition.”
“That is all well and good in theory, but how can we lure out Klyle?”
“I have learned his secret and there is no reason to doubt it.”
“Should I ask where this secret comes from?”
“If ever a single person knows a secret he should not, then the whole world knows.” the Deviant said sagely. “Klyle’s time is coming.”
“I agree that Garghent will look north when it is finished with Ophir. But suppose we cripple Garghent too soon and allow Deo to win and raise the dead of the entire southern cities? What do they say? Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” quoted the president.
“Garghent is the devil we don’t know. If Amenais’ plan comes to fruition, the risk is likely greater than the threat Deo may pose. A stray bullet can end the entire war against Deo, or an assassin’s blade.” the implication was that the Deviant would carry such an assassination out. “What Amenais planned and what Klyle is capable of finishing is something they orchestrated the most brutal war in modern history to help achieve. I do not wish to see what that was for.”
The president refilled his drink, uncorking the bottle and pouring the drink. He offered the Deviant one, who declined.
“So what is Klyle’s secret?”
“His Aspect has connected him to the very essence of the Lion. He is joined by a network of every lion on the planet. He has spent decades building sanctuaries of lion dens that he can draw their spirit and merge with his own. Each time he heals his wounds. We find a den, slaughter the lions in it and he will be forced to deal with whoever has learned his secret or risk losing his Aspect’s source.”
“The Men-Ten Thousand have trained for thirteen years for one singular purpose. Ten thousand warriors, grouped by every hundred to specialize in a different weapon, training as an army to fight the strongest Master or Fable Specters. Ten thousand soldiers who have dedicated their lives for such a task like killing Master Klyle. They are Natung’s answer to the growing power of Specters. Our equalizing factor…” The president let the thought hang for a moment. “To have them remove Klyle, I can conceive of no better target. Draw Klyle out and the Men-Ten Thousand will be there.”
“We will be casting our lot, the first of the city-states to enter this war. There is no coming back from this, Mr. President.”
The president was looking out his window now, over his city, Natung, the Tear of the Moon, the Nothing. This was the only chance of survival, judging by the state of the world.
“We are casting our lot, a foolish gamble.”
“I think I’ll have that drink now.” The Deviant indulged.
“For the sake of Natung and her people, let us hope this Rabio’s win streak holds true.”