Garriot strapped on his helmet, cursing his own discomfort. It didn’t pay to have his head shot off so he tolerated the inconvenience. Goblin said something snarky about Garriot’s helmet.
“Oh and that stupid conical helmet you wear is so much more fashionable?”
“Block arrowz and spearz and stonez.” Goblin responded in his squeaky, guttural voice.
“These bastards will be using firesticks. It’ll punch through that iron like an Orgoblin charging a skirmisher clan. You sure you don’t want one?” Garriot offered, pointing to his own military grade helmet. Goblin shook his head and cackled.
Gariot turned and scanned the army he would be leading. Eight thousand mercenaries, well trained soldiers of fortune eager to earn their pay. They were positioned in the middle of a sizeable corpse horde, hidden in the wedge that would drive through Garghent’s trenches, waiting to ambush enemy troops with a flurry of lead who only expected unarmed undead.
Behind the bulk of the army stood Onager commanding a dozen bone trebuchets and catapults that were animated by Kiasmus’ Marrow Aspect and given full control to Onager. His role would not be the trenches but to bombard Garghent with his siege engines.
Drawing the eyes up were three massive skullheads, those towering bone constructs that had been crucial in the conquest of Vallis. Their long legs supporting a torso skull with a bowl top and giant crab arms. Where they were used to breach the walls of Vallis, this time they would be used to hover over the trenches and allow for the mercenaries stationed in the bowl to rain shots down below with the superior vantage point while the claws tore into the ranks of troops. Kiasmus added a platform in the bowl at the top to allow for an accessible lean and shoot.
Kiasmus himself would be commanding and protecting his bone machinations from the ground, staking out where Garghent’s Specters would be focusing their fire. The skullheads were too dense for normal munitions to affect, especially with the threat of being overrun by undead. No, the Specters would be forced to fight the skullheads and Kiasmus or else see their trenches face walking towers.
What Garriot really fixed his eyes on, his pride and joy, the king of kings, his fully matured zhoulba.
Goblin uttered a short mantra. Garriot recognized it as the prayer of praise for a god. In goblin culture, they worship things which were magnificent and awesome to behold, that which flooded the senses with grandiose and provided a mirror to their own mortality. They worshiped volcanoes and storms, massive trees or unkillable warriors and monsters of unknown origins and terrible fury. Garriot knew if his zhoulba was in Goblin’s World, it would be worshiped like the sun and stone. It was ten times bigger than any he’d seen before raised by goblins.
The giant slug creature squirmed inexorably forward at a staggering fifty meters tall and a hundred meters long, keeping to the preferred ratio of two to one that the zhoulba’s seemed best fit for. Garriot’s zhoulba weighed well into the millions of kilograms and had been painstakingly cultivated with the most optimum diet by an expert team of professional chemists and biologists hired in secrecy at the orders of Deo to study and develop the best zhoulba. Garriot and Goblin provided the full lore and history to the scientists when the tiny slug was first presented to them.
The simple biology of the zhoulba’s perfect digestion and insatiable appetite allowed the scientists a level of experimentation and expertise never seen in the realm of goblins. The scientists terrified at first, forced to work for Deo who they had seen massacre two cities, soon found themselves fully invested in raising this mythical creature. The dream of any scientist, to use unlimited resources to build the ultimate creature. The zhoulba was like a lab rat with all the rules of physics turned off.
The result brought a tear to Garriot’s eye and Goblin fumbled over his runesticks, offering reverence and blessings to the great zhoubla before them that contained even the durable cells of Master Klyle and countless chemical compositions Garriot could hardly pronounce. By all accounts the zhoulba was nearly indestructible. The scientists tested cells on every sort of affliction imaginable, from fire to lightning, poison and acid, bleach and other chemical abrasives, bullets and cutting, even radiation did little to damage the cells of the zhoulba. The scientists cultivated and raised the zhoulba faster than anything Garriot or Goblin had ever seen. The sheer amount of resources and food looted from Vallis meant the zhoulba could be fed nonstop with the ideal nutrients and materials.
A jagged series of sharped growths were shaped into the head of the zhoulba to appear like a crown grown into the gelatinous creature.
Garriot thought that it looked right on his zhoulba.
Garriot was jealous of Bisult who rode on its shaped and flattened back. A fortress saddle had been constructed for a team of mercenaries led by Bisult to fight and protect the creature. Garriot’s lack of range with his Aspect had been the primary factor for this decision. Bisult had his Yarak Aspect, the falcon and spear to fight with, making him the ideal candidate.
Bisult caught Garriot looking at him and tipped the straw hat that Garriot lent.
Garriot swore and flicked Bisult off as they were too far for Garriot to say it to him personally. He made Bisult pledge his life to not allow anything happen to his favorite hat, since Garriot needed to wear a helmet fighting in the frontlines and leaving his hat behind would violate one of the fundamental laws of the universe. Any exquisite and well made hat must be worn at all times during a venture or expedition, for to die without being able to wear the hat was a most disappointing tragedy.
Bisult always fancied Garriot’s wide brimmed straw hat and seeing as Garriot couldn’t wear it, he didn’t want to deny the hat the opportunity of an adventure.
Irpekh, the lord of the feed. That was the name of his zhoulba. The microscopic bits of metal reflected like glitter off of Irpekh. The shimmering contrasted with its spotty dull pale green mass.
Goblin took off his conical helmet out of respect for this the king of all zhoulba.
“Slime fiend from beyond depthz.” Goblin said the translation, albeit roughly, of the word zhoulba in Garriot’s language, displaying the level of respect Goblin was giving Irpekh in this world.
“That’s right, Goblin. If ever there was a zhoulba deserving of the name, it is Irpekh. Irpekh the Zhoulba. Like a title…” The damn thing could eat whole a blue whale.
Garriot was waiting for his forces to move into position. They had been mobilizing for three days, preparing to launch a lighting wedge and set up the siege camp deep in Garghent’s territory.
Garriot recalled the conversation with Deo when he approached the throne in the afternoon four days prior.
“You realize this is months sooner than we had just planned.” Deo stated.
“Yes, I do. But things are happening in Goblin’s World which will draw me away for the greater part of a year. We are leading an army on the largest fortress in the land, it’s more of a citadel really.” explained Garriot, “I will have to stay after we conquer it to quell rebellions and fight down uprisings and warring parties and challenge rivals chieftains. It’s important in fulfilling Goblin’s dream of uniting the clans and tribes.” Garriot concluded.
“Can you not do that first?” Deo asked.
“The timing is awkward,” admitted Garriot. “Goblin wants the siege to begin in a couple of weeks. There’s really no guarantee when I will back so we should drive in and build the siege camp now.”
“I see.” Deo said, deep in contemplation.
“My suggestion is we just drive the wedge, and set up Kiasmus and Onager. The full invasion can still wait since I do agree it is early for that.”
When he saw Deo remained unconvinced, Garriot put it differently.
“Everything is prepared. The men are looking for action, Onager needs months for his Aspect and is anxious to get that started. Kiasmus is a Master Specter with all his bone constructs going unused. Him and Onager can survive in Garghent’s territory for months, years even and start the process of whittling down Garghent. Nothing else has to change on the border skirmishes. I’ll lead the force swiftly through Garghent’s trenches and draw back as soon as Kiasmus has his roving fortress ready.
“You’ve discussed this with them already,” assumed Deo.
“I did, lord.” Garriot admitted. “They are making preparations as we speak.”
Deo sat quietly for a minute. “I will trust your aptitude, Garriot. Do this successfully and without hiccups. It must be swift so as not to rile Garghent’s full military response. Travel to Goblin’s World after and take care of that. The full scale war may have already begun by the time you return, with this new development.”
“Thank you and I will.” Garriot was relieved. Something seemed off to Deo, but he detected no signs of betrayal and so did not press him. Whatever Garriot’s motivations for this change in plans, Deo felt that it was too important for Garriot to speak of at the moment. Garriot knew Deo had sensed that change in him for a while now.
“What do you need from me?” Deo moved on.
“Several million. Push against their trenches with more pressure, but nothing concerning. We just need cover to get the wedge through. In three days, I will lead the dragonnade right down Garghent’s throat.”
“It will be as you say, general. Garghent has been playing with my undead, using them as shooting practice for their Aspects. This will seem as a response to that overstep. The timing works out.” Deo was warming to the change in plans, excited and adapting, always with a flexible and open mind.
Garriot swore in the present. “You may be too trusting and open minded for your own good, and yet it is not falsely placed.” Deo was never wrong on his judgment of character so far. He was good, Garriot admitted, scary good.
Garriot felt the Orgblade on his back, fingering the hilt. Only one person knew Garriot’s real motivation for this attack. In truth, Goblin’s World could wait and that campaign would unlikely take longer than the summer. What Garriot really needed was to deliver a message to Benhan inside Garghent.
From Benhan’s letter it sounded as if he was being monitored closely, so an electronic message was too risky and Garriot neither had the skills to deliver one encrypted nor the trust in someone who did have that skill.
Without another option, Garriot had to rely on Bisult who did not know the contents of the poorly scribbled letter.
“Can your falcon reach inside Garghent if we were to get close enough?” Garriot had asked only hours before.
“Aye, it’s risky but it can be done.” Bisult said, “what’s this for?” he asked, hesitating.
“An old friend. This stays between us. I need to send him this message.” Garriot revealed the small tube which contained a coiled up letter.
Bisult scratched around the socket where a scar replaced the eye. “One cannot be considered a man if he does not stick by his friends in their hour of need.” Bisult accepted the tube. “Where does it need to go?” Bisult needed to know the location in order to send his Aspect swooping by.
Garriot winced internally. “The Janiform Gemma.”
Bisult swore. “I’m going to need your hat…”
“Sneaky bastard, he’s been after it since the beginning.” Garriot muttered, returning to the present once more.
The waiting was almost over. With everyone in position, Garriot ordered the march. They moved at the speed of Irpekh which was surprisingly fast as it bore through the terrain in its way, maintaining a constant speed, fast as a walk, slowly building momentum.
Garghent scouts would eventually pick up the towering skullheads and the absolute behemoth of the zhoulba. Garriot knew that Garghent would sooner give up ground for this attack than risk their precious Specters in a fight. There would be Specters for sure, but more than likely they’d have orders to keep their distance and battle defensively.
The chances of fighting his former classmates were high, Garriot realized. He felt no affinity to them and so looked forward to testing his strength to theirs.
Bisult’s Yarak falcon soared overhead, cawing twice before returning. They had arrived at the border. The thick of undead ambling forward confirmed this along with the distant gunfire.
Garriot unslung the Orgblade.
“Goblin give me a shield.”
Goblin chanted an incantation wielding his staff, bones and fetishes rattling as he pranced about.
A blue barrier formed around Garriot, a bubble of protection. Goblin placed one around himself as well.
“Stay near me.” Garriot warned.
Garriot lifted the Orgblade straight into the air, needing both hands to stop it from tipping over. “Charge!” He gave the simple instructions and broke into a run, shoving past the other attacking corpses.
Garriot risked a glance back, seeing the glorious blitz of the zhoulba. He would miss the actual impact as it ran over a whole chunk of the trench.
“Bastards.” Garriot blurted between breaths. He’d just have to take it out on Garghent soldiers.
Suddenly the trench appeared in sight amidst the dust and debris blowing to and fro from endless skirmishes.
Garriot’s blue barrier and massive sword made him easy to spot. Garghent soldiers started firing at Garriot. Once they realized the bullets were being deflected by the barrier, one of them shouted, “enemy Specter!”
Another unpinned a grenade and prepared to throw it but Goblin fired a strike of lightning accompanied by a clap of thunder that killed the soldier instantly. It was that thunder that not only alerted the rest of Garghent’s soldiers of the enemy but signified the start of the dragonnade.
Garriot slid down the trench, smashing his blade into an enemy shoulder and pulling it down through his arm, lopping the limb off. The soldier screamed while Garriot flipped his weapon blade up and grabbed the wounded soldier by the neck and rammed his face down into the sharp edge of the Orgblade. The screaming stopped and Garriot removed the body from his blade.
Trenches were not the most ideal ecosystem for Garriot to swing his sword in but he would make it work.
Another soldier drew his pistol but was pummeled to death by three undead that fell into the trenches. Garriot turned and thrust his Orgblade into the next soldier down the line. Goblin was melting the face off of another soldier with a spew of flames, snickering from the sight.
Garriot noticed the barrier starting to fade and flicker. The Orgblade would provide plenty of shielding in such narrow quarters and his own body armor was designed to take the impact of bullets.
The gap that Garriot and Goblin made in the trenches opened the floodgates to the undead as they poured in.
Garriot heard Irpekh crashing into Garghent’s line, smoothing out a section of trench and smooshing anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the slimy mass. The skullheads could be heard stomping around the trenches, the mercenaries firing from its bowl. Garghent was already retreating to the second line.
Garriot followed corpses as they chased after the soldiers going through the vertical communication trenches.
Bisult led the zhoulba past the first trench and towards the second. Bullets did nothing to slow the zhoulba down and Bisult’s spear was thrown and recovered by his falcon, killing scores of soldiers with deadly precision.
Garriot heard a familiar Aspect activate. “Tank.”
Garriot rounded a corner and saw standing on the outside of a trench, his former classmate Magun in a fully decked out mech suit made of his calcified sinews and a cannon-arm for a face.
It seemed Magun had developed his Aspect quite far. A blast of cannon shells forced Garriot back behind his trench corner.
Garriot grinned as Magun called him out, muffled by the armor covering his mouth. “Garriot, you traitor! Come and fight me.”
Garriot nodded to Goblin. Goblin chanted and produced a bundle of fireballs he carried on one hand. The staff he leaned against the trench.
Goblin croaked something in his tongue and started tossing his fireballs. They arched over the trench and landed on Magun, splashing fire over his calcified armor. Magun covered his head with his arm as more fire balls were flung his way. Magun fired blindly into the trench and swiped the last of the smoke away with his arm.
When the smoke cleared he saw Garriot rushing in with a massive sword. Magun fired at Garriot but the Orgblade blocked the shot. Garriot lunged as Magun brought his lance hand up to engage Garriot.
What Magun didn’t consider was the difference in strength between his calcified lance and Garriot’s weapon.
The Orgblade cut through Magun’s weapon with ease. Magun tried to angle his cannon down. He couldn’t do it in time as Garriot cleaved into Magun’s thick tank leg. Magun aimed again only to find Garriot was at his side now, sending a brutal chop along his back.
Despite Magun’s bulky frame, the blow staggered him and he lost balance with the weight on his damaged leg.
Magun tumbled down. Garriot chopped with the Orgblade, cutting through more armor. He threatened to sever Magun in two. There was nothing Magun could do. His new ExoTank form being utterly defeated by Garriot and it was too late to regret using Tank like this.
Magun grunted under another chop.
Magun had no other options. He’d done this once before on a classmate and he would have to do it again.
Fire everything into the ground below him and deal with the consequences after.
Magun felt a sudden rush of heat and a powerful gust of wind.
It was Dartan’s fire tornado!
Garriot turned to face Dartan. The Rule Specter fired off his pistol at Garriot’s chest. The body armor stopped the small caliber rounds from piercing, but it wasn’t Dartan’s intention to kill Garriot with the gun. He only needed Garriot to stop cutting into Magun until his fire tornado could send him flying.
“Another former bastard.” Garriot grinned to Dartan.
“This will wipe that smirk off your ugly face.” The fire tornado landed beside Garriot, who stabbed his blade deep into the ground, anchoring himself.
“Since when did you learn that?” Garriot shouted, amused. Dartan either didn’t hear or chose not to respond.
A moment later the fire tornado disappeared before it ever generated fully.
Goblin was waving his staff, dispelling the weather system.
Dartan took on an expression of shock as Garriot winked at him while drawing his blade out of the ground.
“I’m going for Goblin!” Jid came sprinting through. “Get Magun out of here, he’s already starting to revert.”
Garriot cursed and chased after Jid who was running straight for Goblin with a dagger. Goblin blasted Jid with a fireball but the Hunter Aspect became ethereal and the fireball sailed by. Garriot camped next to where Jid disappeared and waited for him to leave the Hunter state.
He glanced at Dartan who was dragging the significantly reduced Magun.
In that glance Jid had reappeared, having moved only a meter through Garriot to land behind him. Jid stabbed Garriot under his body armor and kicked his leg out from under him, forcing Garriot to one knee. Jid kicked Garriot down in time to see another fireball flying toward him. Jid reverted back to the Hunter state.
Garriot stood back up and winced at the wound. Jid knew from his Hunter eyes where to strike effectively to get under the armor.
Jid rematerialized with Dartan and helped take Magun to safety.
Garriot saw how the battle was progressing. Kiasmus was engaged with multiple Specters. Garriot recognized the Gemini Aspect, one of the Generals as well as several other military Specters he didn’t remember the names of.
They were struggling against Kiasmus and fighting a losing battle. Bisult fought a ranged battle from the top of the still moving zhoulba against Genjam, the Chaos Blue Specter.
It seemed Genjam had some new moves as well, creating odd sorts of wild weapons of irregular shapes. Those weapons did no damage to the zhoulba to Garriot’s relief.
The second trench looked overrun with undead. Garriot saw intense fighting at the third, the mercenaries acting as support for the corpses to get in close.
Garriot ignored the dagger wound and joined the advance on the third trench.
Between Kiasmus’ superior Aspect, the towering skullheads and the indestructible zhoulba, Garriot’s army easily broke through the ranks of Garghent, forcing them from the trenches and fleeing further into Garghent’s territory.
Garriot met up with his mercenary captain who gave him an update. “Looks like they’re going to regroup and bring artillery and more Specters. We fought only what they had nearby.” the captain saluted and returned to his men.
Kiasmus was covered in a porous suit of marrow that looked extraterrestrial and exotic. The arms and legs were elongated in the suit and his face was narrow and aquiline like that of a paragrine.
“I wounded the Gemini. I am disappointed they did not send Klyle. I am ready to duel him again.”
“You will have that opportunity, my medullar friend. Once we break through their next line of defense you and Onager will be able to set up shop and besiege the bastard Garghent.”
“You are wounded.” stated Kiasmus with some mocking humor.
“I wanted them to feel better about losing, you know?”
Kiasmus laughed to this, the voice strange and alien under his helmet.
“Still, it was a good day. I got to feed on fresh marrow.”
Garriot nodded, feeling similarly with his Orgblade and how sweet it is to let it sing and drink.
“Human run away, not come back.” Goblin stated.
“Why?” Garriot asked, understanding Goblin’s broken way of speaking and knowing he meant the Garghent soldiers would not set up another line of defense.
“Human smellz good.”
The only time Goblin said that humans smelled pleasantly was when they smelled of fear.
“Goblin says they will not fight back. I think they are too worried about losing more men to us. They want to see what we are going to do next. I imagine we caught them off guard and they’ll pool their resources to take us out in a day.”
“I think that too.” Kiasmus agreed with Goblin’s assertion. “They will wait for Klyle and the rest of their Generals before retaliating. They want the weaker Specters to handle the hordes.”
“Makes sense.” Garriot strapped his Orgblade to his back. “We will escort you to the spot, then leave. We should make haste if they are preparing to strike back.”
“I will tell Onager.” Kiasmus set out.
Garriot approached his zhoulba and hailed Bisult. The big one eyed man replied. “My falcon has scouted ahead and I see no signs of opposition.”
“We were just discussing whether that might be possible. If it is confirmed then we will march Onager and Kiasmus at once.” Garriot was going to say more but stopped himself.
“We are still on. I have it here.” Bisult padded his jacket. “Your classmates lack ability, you know. They are talented but not very skilled. I am seeing you in a new light, all pampered doing little military exercises and playing with powers you have no understanding of.”
Garriot cursed. “I want my hat back, you fat heffer!”
“Please, heffer was my mother and a deal’s a deal.” Bisult spread his hands like there was nothing he could do.
“Fine. But I am riding on Irpekh.”
“Come up, tell me how you managed to get yourself wounded.” Bisult let down a rope ladder for Garriot to climb.
Garriot was muttering to himself about how being the best meant any amount of injury was treated like an enormous deal.
“It is the price, young Garriot. A burden I am sure only you are able to bear.” teased Bisult.
“True, I am surprised your single eye can handle my presence.”
“Without the depth perception of a second eye, I see but an arrogant hedonist, though I am certain there is more under the surface.”
“Should’ve killed you when we toon Vallis,” grumbled Garriot.
Bisult’s laughter bellowed out and he slapped Garriot on the shoulder. “This old man has your whole life ahead of you. I’m not going anywhere!”
They rode on the zhoulba uninterrupted through Garghent’s countryside with the regime of mercenaries, undead and Onager’s bone catapults. Irpekh dragged a line in the ground of smushed terrain where he traveled, leaving a trail of dirt and soil. Night was falling when Kiasmus ordered a stop. “This will do well.”
“Agreed.” Onager sized up the area.
Garriot glanced to Bisult. “We’ll never get closer.”
Bisult nodded and placed the tube in his falcon’s claw.
Kiasmus went to work, ordering his three skullheads to sit down. The soldiers all dismounted from the bowl. The Marrow Aspect began to reshape the skullheads, melding them together and reshaping the mass of dense bone.
Kiasmus was building a new construct, one he had planned with Onager for months. It resembled a castle of medieval and gothic design with buttresses and arches, walls and towers at the corners with crenellations. A bailey and portcullis with a keep lay in the very center. Onager’s bone siege engines were moved inside the bailey, the floor of which was also bone. It was all connected together forming one complete structure.
The Bone Palace.
And of course it could move. Kiasmus and Onager along with several mercenaries and a division of undead for labor would live here over the months and bombard Garghent from the moving Bone Palace, using Onager’s Aspect as a source of infinite ammunition.
“Not bad.” Garriot complemented. “If the Bone Palace is ready, we will depart now.”
Onager was beaming. He clapped his hands together, “let’s get to work!”
Garriot led the zhoulba and the rest of the army back trudging through Garghent. They would likely face some resistance in the morning but he wasn’t as concerned with that.
His only hope was that Bisult’s falcon delivered the letter to Benhan. The letter contained a straightforward message that read;
You can trust me
a friend, Garriot
Garriot risked the entire war to get this message out successfully.