It was under rare circumstances that the most important members of Ophir sat at the same table as their leader, the Aspect of Death, Deo. Rare because Deo did not often communicate with his retinue outside of his throne, and further uncharacteristic was his current mood for socializing. Not that they were here to discuss anything other than politics and strategy, but it was a welcome change for many of the administrators and Specters who seldom got more than a curt sentence from their reserved lord.
Good food and fine wine were set at the long table on the second level of the ziggurat. Torches and fire pits were lit to keep the cold at bay. Deo of course sat at the head of the table. Hege and Jan sat on his right and left, respectively. Along the flanks of the table were Bubonica, Kiasmus, Garriot, Klea, the newest Specter, Annana, Onager, Bisult and the top few aristocrats and mercenary captains, most of which had either their loyalty paid for or their loyalty won over by Hege’s Aspect.
“So,” Deo broke the initial silence that follows the start of a meal when the food is first brought out, hot and sizzling fresh from the ovens. “Garghent is making a play for Vallis, as expected. This works in our favor and the primary reason for abandoning the city in the first place. Garghent thinks always in the distant future. Repopulating Vallis and bringing the farms and mills back to full production will take several generations.” Deo’s expression was set. “They will not have the luxury to exist for so long. Their plan is simple to follow. Secure Vallis, build up their military and wait for their Specters to become Masters.”
“It’s not a bad plan.” Garriot said honestly, talking while he chewed. “They have no need to rush into war. Bast is all but theirs now, Daedal is a vassal and Vallis will be annexed shortly. Considering how many Specters the bastards have, it makes sense to wait on Mastery.”
“Is Goblin not here?” Onager asked randomly.
Garriot shook his head. “He said human food ruins his delicate sense of smell, or something like that.”
“Have you read the translations?” Bisult presented the question to the table.
Most nodded and said that they had.
Kiasmus scoffed. “It is fluff. Do not be fooled by that writing, it will get you nowhere.” Kiasmus was also the only Specter here that had awakened to the level of Master, having done so recently during the Siege of Vallis.
“How did you become a Master?” Jan asked curiously.
“You need to understand, boy, that I was raised by our people’s shaman who gave me visions and trained me to fulfill a single purpose. I have lived every day of my forty odd years in preparation, my Aspect honed to its deadliest limits. If you slack even for one moment on your intentions, the Aspect will move on to a better vessel.”
“I’ve always had an interest in the ancient archaic arts,” said Hege, “so the translations were fascinating to me. I think they had an air of truth about them, whether it can be applied universally, as with anything about the Aspect, is up for debate.”
“If you think they will help, then use them. Specters all over the world will be doing what they can to train desperately for that power. You are a fool to base your life and ego on the works of someone else. Learn from it by all means, but do not imitate it in all parts of your personality. Unoriginality is the greatest sin.” spoke Deo, ever the one to transform the argument into one of philosophy and existential purpose.
“I take it you have not read them, lord?” Hege asked.
“They do not concern me, so no, I have not. I agree with Kiasmus on this matter.” Deo replied.
Deo received a couple strange looks.
“Mastery should be secondary to us. It is quite fortunate that most of us should have Aspects that grow naturally so well together. The more bodies we capture, the more dead I have and the more bone Kiasmus can build with. It is food for Bubonica’s rats. Carn is with Arvin and Veinbreaker, harrying Garghent’s traders and countryside. They will draw Specters to battle, giving Carn the experience he needs for his Aspect. Still more bodies can be given as sacrifice to Annana.”
Annana smiled. She had perhaps gone mad since her strange failed pregnancy and the exultation of awakening an Aspect that occurred at the same time.
“I just learned,” Annana explained, “that my Aspect only accepts sacrifices from men.”
“Then you will be given every tenth man we capture.” Deo promised.
Deo’s solution to keep his Specters well supplied with bodies was simple: twenty percent of every newly captured group of humans was given to Bubonica, the Rat Spores Aspect and Annana, the Obyzuth Aspect, ten percent to each. Kiasmus received the leftover bones of them both. Kiasmus used his bones to construct more Skullheads and bone catapults for Onager to command.
Troublesome criminals from within his own empire, prisoners of war, and newly captured civilians from the raiding party were the fonts of this precious resource. These only added to the millions of extra fresh humans Deo had preserved with his Aspect. Aside from the ones he needed to lead his construction projects or command his legions, they were paid weekly to Bubonica and Annana. This went down in the privacy of the undercity as the sewers and old ruins were converted to an underground necropolis, designed by Bubonica.
The Rat Queen’s original suggestion had been to build a highway tunnel from Ophir to Vallis but that project had changed form since Vallis was abandoned.
Deo concluded his thought. “The longer Garghent waits, the stronger we become. True, as Garriot said, it is probably in both our interests to stall during this power race. I am confident in our ability. Although right now, it seems impossible for either side to make a successful invasion, not without crippling themself for another city to conquer the remains.”
“Garghent will cut you off from the rest of the world. They’ll stop anyone from going south once they secure Vallis.” Hege said thoughtfully.
“Garghent could never control that long of a border, not while we apply pressure. The northern cities will tolerate only so much aggression before they take action against Garghent’s imperialism.” Deo refuted.
“You’re assuming the city-states don’t recognize you as a common enemy and join forces to eliminate your empire.” It was Klea speaking from behind her transparent veil, a slight antagonistic smile visible from the red of her lipstick.
“I’m assuming nothing.” Deo said. “The northern city-states forming an alliance with Garghent is an impossibility. It would seal their fates. They know that right now Ophir is the only chance of weakening Garghent. We might even receive offers from our distant neighbors shortly.”
“This is all supposing that the so-called Diamak doesn’t come to the Sister continent and destroy us.” Onager voiced a very real fear.
“If those two Fables came for blood we wouldn’t be able to stop them either.” Garriot pointed out, always finding some morbid humor in saying the unspoken realities, just to cause undue worry in those around him. “Hell, if Klyle came back with a platoon of Specters we would be screwed.”
Deo’s annoyance flashed for a brief moment before realizing Garriot was trying to get that exact reaction out of him. “I imagine you would be safe Garriot, off in Goblin’s World at the most convenient of times.”
“Damn right!” agreed Garriot.
“So you really can’t control Goblin?” Annana asked. “I’ve only ever treated wounded Specters but now I have a newfound curiosity for the Aspect.”
“The bastard’s got a mind of his own. We have an agreement. I help him in his world and he helps in mine. No questions asked.” Garriot explained.
“Complaints are valid, mind you.” Onager winked.
“Those are necessary.” Garriot confirmed. Annana laughed.
Deo noted how Annana seemed to adjust to this new life well. She was enjoying the power of her Aspect and the company of Deo’s lot of villains.
“Never in a million years would I have imagined myself with an Aspect.” Annana said in disbelief. “It is like walking out and experiencing the sunshine after being inside your whole life.”
“The sun is painful.” Bubonica sneered.
“Oh I didn’t mean it like that.” Annana said apologetically.
“Don’t mind her,” Hege said. “She was born and raised in the sewers of the undercity.”
Bubonica stuck her middle finger out at Hege in a friendly way.
Deo also noted how Bubonica was adjusting to people. She was becoming more sociable, more approachable. She was picking up humor rapidly, courtesy of Garriot’s strong personality.
Overall, morale appeared to be high among his Specters. Hosting lunches like this every once in a while also seemed to boost that. Deo was learning just how important the role of leader was on an individual level. Likability, conversationalism and friendship were qualities of a ruler that could not be overlooked. These had to be balanced with the mystique, air of authority and ruthless unpredictability necessary to captivate the fear, awe and imagination of the followers.
The moment a human is figured out, interest wanes. Deo thought of it like listening to a song. So long as the artist’s meaning and the exact lyrics remain unknown to the listener, the song will always have a special quality and personal connection, even after years of hearing it. But when the listener ruins the magic of a song by memorizing every lyric and learning the artist’s interpretation the song is reduced to that of a normal sound.
It was this line of thinking that Deo lived and ruled by. A successful king or leader must prohibit all personal friendships. They must be isolated from companionship. All normalcy is denounced in favor of the abstract. Deo built his personality around that level of unknown. Deo himself did not know what he would think of a subject from one day to the next. His actions were not his own, but this other Deo created to be the imago of Deo the ruler, Deo the tyrant. This projection of self is reinforced daily by the interaction of his followers, for no personality exists outside the perception of the peers. Human’s exist in a state of perception, Deo knew. It is combined and learned perception that gives way to language and culture and therefore society. At some point a group of humans decided the meanings of words, even if it was only an unconscious understanding, and used those new meaningful words to describe and interact with the world, creating imagination in the process. A human cannot imagine something without language, even non-verbal languages apply, for language is but a flavor of communication. The relationship between mind and ego exists only so far that they can communicate and differentiate and divert from each other.
Those patterns of interaction become habits and rituals around the unconscious meanings of words without which the imagination has no structure. This patterned living of habits, rituals, subconscious behavior and shared communication form a cult, a group of humans with shared beliefs. Cult is the basis for culture. Culture flourishes with the introduction of novelty, often in the form of meeting other cultures, whether by war or trade.
Deo prided himself in his understanding of humans. This knowledge gives him access to manipulation, extortion, exploitation. In order to forge an empire, one must comprehend the construction of a cult, a culture. Deo’s current policy of precise decadence gave his people a sense of hope and healing. He’d killed a majority of two city-states but as compensation he offered complete security, sizable land and a thriving economy. There was only the law of the land to abide by, a rustic system where disputes were handled case by case by a district governor, the administrator of Ophir Hege and sometimes Deo himself. Thus a new culture was forming.
The economy worked in a fair market system. Similar to Garghent’s free market but quarterly restrictions existed to encourage natural growth in businesses rather than an all out market war where the top businesses could dominate the market through one successful operation of compounding interests. It was a system that only worked in smaller to medium populations where land, wealth and businesses were abundant in proportion to the citizenry. The idea of a contained city proper limited horizontal growth while profiting off of vertical economies. Deo liked the idea of a sprawl city that expanded as it needed to. Private property ownership only works so long as everyone has enough space in locations they enjoy. Deo had an entire chunk of the continent to work in. Being in the corner was something he’d thought of when he chose Ophir.
Geography was as important as policy. This particular mix of economic, social and political preference Deo chose to run his city with was catered specifically to his ability to guard a cornered border with a tireless legion, reduce populations to a fraction of their total while offering incentives for the living to not disrupt his order. His governance could only be accomplished as effectively as it had because of the nature of his Aspect and Hege’s.
A fool is marked not by intelligence but by the usage of all that is available to them. The fool keeps unnecessary things around him and disregards the necessary tools at their disposal.
Deo had a keen sense for maximizing all of his assets horizontally. His undead could be used to instill fear into his people at the same time as displaying military might and security to those people. His undead legions aided in crude construction projects, terraforming the land, as a resource for various other Specters, as his standing army and a wall to define his border…
Deo hadn’t noticed the dark clouds roll in from the north along with a gusty wind. He’d been thinking and eating as conversation continued around the table.
Garriot cursed. His straw hat had blown away by the sudden wind. Jan flew up and recovered it, handing the straw hat back to Garriot on his descent.
Garriot snatched the hat and muttered. “I hate the damned wind.”
“I like moody weather.” Deo said, rejoining the conversation and watching as the sky darkened.
“We need to talk about this out loud.” Bisult voiced seriously. “Can we beat Garghent? We are officially at war and they have made two attempts on your life so far.”
Deo bobbed his head thoughtfully. “Let me hear what your opinion is, Bandit King.”
Bisult pushed his plate to the side, leaned his chair back and elevated his legs on the table. He scratched the scar of his missing eye before locking his fingers behind his neck, propping his head up.
“Before you, my record was all but untarnished. Now we are working together. Aye, none of us here are conventional fighters or thinkers, I would say. We are not bound by law or duty, morals or ethics. We have a mix of personal grievances against the world, dreams of obtaining power or nowhere else to go. In short, there is nothing holding us back. We’re a pack of hunters with no restraints and a vast hunting grounds in which to frolic in. Garghent will be an anvil to test the mettle of your empire, Deo. Vallis was never known for its military, hence why they relied on mercenaries and the safety of knowing no city wanted to weaken its main source of food. You of course do not use those standards with your army of the dead. This inhuman army is a first for the modern world, it will take our enemies time to adjust to such a foe. Garghent may be the strongest military, but they will prove to be but guinea pigs to our tactics.”
“Garriot? What do you think. You have been in charge of recruiting and training our living troops.” Deo asked next.
Garriot downed his glass before responding. “There’s an eighty percent chance we’ll be killed sitting here out in the open.”
“Hasn’t happened so far.” Deo pointed out.
“Came damn close.” Garriot winced. “Alright, say we make it through those eighty percent odds, the remaining twenty percent is an overwhelming battle against a superior city. No offense.” Garriot added.
“None taken.” Deo said humorlessly. Deo’s patience wasn’t endless.
“That being said, Garghent is a haughty place but those heffers raised me and so I’m haughty too. If we make it to a full scale war, I have no doubt we can force Garghent into submission. The sheer number of our undead is too big for any defenders to fight a winning battle. I’ve personally seen goblin hordes overrun the biggest, most bastardized Orgoblin tribes.”
Hege, from the time of Bisult’s explanation, chopped a cigar and lit it despite the wind. He puffed on it and spoke as fumes escaped his mouth and displaced the smell of food for burning herb.
“To bring up history again. Forces that relied on numbers faced one common issue when they were on the losing side of history. That being miscoordination, mismanagement falling under that umbrella. A smaller contingent of generals, a hive mind army and geniuses of strategy or finesse all around. We’re the makings of an empire unstoppable while underestimated.”
“Annana, you were the most recent of us to be in the city of Garghent. What do you make of their position?” Deo addressed next.
“Hmm. Thinking of those memories now, I notice details I didn’t before. The reality behind the confidence of Specters whose wounds I treated. The officers and doctors with a higher pay grade, their smug pride and vile thoughts. I can tell you they believe they are righteous and invincible. They are wealthy, powerful and filled with Specters who are each capable warriors. So it will be with joy that we bring them down and rip their hearts out.” Annana flashed her macabre smile.
“If I may cut in,” Jan spoke up. His voice was always light and boyish… until provoked and then it became a cacophony of a thousand screaming angels. Today, though, Jan’s voice was normal. “We should send spies into Garghent again, like we did for Vallis.”
When Jan said this, there was an imperceptible, completely natural and innocent moving eye exchange between Klea and Hege.
No one noticed this as Klea was mostly hidden behind her Veil and Hege nursed his cigar.
“I have considered that course of action again. The timing is wrong right now. Garghent is keeping tabs on us and now knows our faces better than Vallis did. We have the raids which will escalate soon, perhaps in the chaos we can slip in some agents.” Deo did not talk down or condescend to Jan. He kept it professional and considered and responded to his suggestion the same as Garriot, or Hege or Bisult. It made Jan feel appreciated and valued, despite the obvious naivete everyone else could clearly see in the youngest member by age.
“You do have the Alivers.” Klea said suddenly. “They could infiltrate with the right back story. I know you do not like to micromanage at that level but it is a valid option to plan.” Klea had no sense of guilt toward Jan or anything of the like, nor did she think saying something made people less suspicious of her. No, Klea knew she was perfectly safe from suspicion. She spoke up only because the idea came to her and she was dedicated whole heartedly to Deo’s cause.
“I can see you are already scheming ideas involving that,” Deo answered. “We can discuss that later.”
The winds picked up and Deo signaled for the chefs to clear the tables. The fires had covers placed over them to stop from blowing out and the temperature dropped significantly.
“Onager?” Deo called over the wind. The chill bit into Deo’s violet eyes and caused them to tear painfully.
“Me and Kiasmus have been collaborating in siege tactics. We’re constructing weapons unlike any others!” Onager had to speak in a half shout to be heard by the table. “Come around sometime and we’ll show you.”
Kiasmus nodded in agreement to Onager, unaffected by the cold but adding nothing more.
After no one made to speak Deo stood up. Signifying this would be the last statement of the banquet lunch. He spoke meticulous, as if reciting a comprehensive and well thought out list.
“The defeat of Garghent comes down to one single factor. Strategy. The Aspect is but an extension of an ability to dominate another lifeform. No enemy is too powerful, no walls too high, no city too great. A kingdom of ants could slay a dragon. Garghent is sickened by the taste of its own blood. The strongest empires have the swiftest changes in morale. Early victories will be our priority and focus. When we humble Garghent for the whole world to see, they will grow desperate and reveal weaknesses. The general aim is the same as Vallis, break the citizens first. The first stage began with the televising of the massacre after our conquest in Vallis. What Veinbreaker and his group are doing is the second stage. Tales of mangled corpses will begin to spread as fearful rumors. When Garghent suppresses these rumors and assures their people are safe, we deliver the first victory in combat. Much rests on the first battle, whether it is in a month or a year. But all our preparations now are for that. Garghent is too tactical and methodical with their military. They will fight conservatively, knowing they have tens of millions of the dead to battle. We will record key moments and publish them to news sources that care only for ratings. Information and societal avenues are the true battlefields in our age. When Garghent is rebelling and rioting from within, the soldiers fighting for a believed cause will have that belief shaken. A soldier who does not have the support of his home nor trust in his own cause will shatter under pressure. Timed right, we drive this wedge until Garghent falls from the inside. The social war is the optimal way to fight a stronger military. That is my answer.”
The attendees of the banquet slowly broke away, back to work but invigorated at the renewed idea of war.
Deo turned and walked up the stairs to the third level of the ziggurat. He suddenly craved his throne for its warmth and comfort.
And the throne beckoned as lovingly as if Deo had never left it.