Chapter 77 The Siege of Vallis: part two

But the sky opened up that first day of the siege. The patter of rain splashed on the muddy banks surrounding Vallis. That noise was drowned out by the shouting and wailing of the undead and by the mobilization of the city defenders, calling orders and firing lead into the writhing mass of Deo’s army. Soil stained bones, light brown and dirty tan, surrounded the cold stone grey walls, all of which contrasted under the deep blue ocean storm that dumped its content over the violence of battle. Deo advocated for death through the mangled orders of his corpses. He had them grind themselves to dust against the walls or climb atop piles of old flesh laid to rest for the last time to reach the battlements where the defenders shot and bludgeoned mechanically as the day dragged miserably on. The core of Deo’s plan involved testing the mettle of Vallis, finding a breaking point and applying pressure until the whole thing split. The sun set at some point and still the heavens showered their fury, only growing in intensity as the night continued. Lightning would frequently reveal a haunting photograph of macabre gallows in action, a freeze frame of the chilling horror that was the reality of Vallis and its inhabitants. Thunder followed as it always does, briefly blaring its approval, the war horn of the gods.

Deo rested on a chair crafted of femurs, rib cages and pelvises built by Kiasmus to be his throne away from home, his ex cathedra, his bone cathedra. Being constructed from the Marrow Aspect, the seat could move on its own and follow Deo where he went. There it was that Deo watched the siege unfold day after day, night into night. He occasionally caught glimpses of Bisult as the giant Yarak Specter made his rounds from the north to the south wall, from east to west. The real wall of Vallis was that man, tireless and invincible as he bolstered the defenders for hours after he came and went. Everything about Vallis oozed defeat, the destruction of their farms, the endless hordes bashing the city, their dissolved government and the static atmosphere of Weeper’s depressive ability encapsulating the millions of citizens… Everything except for Bisult was just ready to turn over and die.

Outside the southern wall, in the backdrop of the horizon could be seen three looming silhouettes of skeletal abominations, the Skullheads of Kiasmus. They sat in waiting, crab hands at the side, domed tops filled to the brim with corpses and elongated face-torsos expressionless in their snarling, vaguely cadaverous countenance. They dwarfed the water towers that once supplied hydration to the farmers and their crops. One Skullhead was painted blood crimson chitin, another coffin black and the third had a bright red top and white dots with a beige cream for the stem. Each Skullhead’s color scheme played to one of the three inspirations for their overall design. The first a crab, the second a sepulcher and the third an amanita muscaria.

They stared ominous and silent, three adjudicators presiding as forlorn judges, as deities of the macabre. Deo and Kiasmus agreed to save them for the right moment. Let the anxiety of their presence build and the weight of their malice squeeze the courage of the southern defenders.

Despite Bisult’s aura of resilience, Deo was confident in the current arrangement of arms. His corpses died in the hundred thousands daily while the defenders weakened only in their thousands. Simple algebra revealed that Deo could sustain such casualties in a flat ratio whereas Vallis’ losses were exponential. Every soldier Vallis lost meant thinner and thinner defenses and a slightly smaller casualty number they could deal out to Deo’s army. It was a war of attrition where the resources of ammunition, food, water, personnel and fatigue only affected one side. Deo’s army required none of those things integral to a living system. 

So far Bubonica had failed to breach the food stores of Vallis. Bisult had increased the efforts to cleanse the necropolis but those efforts were losing momentum as the more immediate threat of the siege required the full attention. Bubonica was biding her time, and though Vallis likely had their suspicions that the Specter in the sewers was related to Deo’s invasion, nothing could be done about the matter and it seemed rather benign considering the forty million undead at the gates.

The strategy around the sewers was brought up on multiple occasions by various officers of Deo’s army.

“Why not raise the dead from the graves inside of Vallis and the ancient cities underneath as you did in Ophir?”

There were two primary reasons. The first because Deo would risk dying to get in range to raise any significant amount of undead in Vallis. It was something done best in the center of the city.

The second reason because it would draw attention to the sewers where Bubonica prepared to unleash her plague rats. While the city could potentially be overrun and the siege ended all the sooner, the risk of Bisult ordering firebombing in the sewers and just destroying it all was too great. Bubonica as a Specter was too valuable to draw undue attention to her. It was this very reason that Deo believed Bisult hadn’t already just torched the entire necropolis, because if he did, then Deo could raise the army afterwards as the corpses resting in catacombs would be spared the brunt of the firebombing. Deo responded similarly to suggestions of undermining the walls. Bubonica was owed a chance to follow through with the original plan of poisoning the food, whether that took a week or a month into the siege was of no concern to Deo. 

Deo ordered a corpse to bring a glass of wine as he sank deeply and comfortable into the chair. A few minutes later and Deo was savoring a dark and bitter drink, the siege unfolding bloody in front of him. 

Deo called for a nearby human officer. 

“Yes lord?” the officer bowed.

“Is Garriot around? I would like to speak strategy with him.”

“Um,” the officer hesitated. “He’s gone. Lord.” He added at the end.

“Gone?”

“He disappeared, it seems.”

“As in?” Deo pressed.

“Vanished into thin air, according to Garriot’s aide.” The man cleared his throat.

“Why am I just now hearing about this?” Deo said icily.

“We told you a month ago, when it happened. Remember lord?”

“No I do not. Still, it must be his Aspect.” Damn Goblin, thought Deo with a smirk. Garriot would approve of that response at least.

Deo dismissed the officer and returned to his wine. Forgetting that detail was probably a result of too little sleep and too many skipped meals. 

Deo was patient. There was no need to rush this siege. Let the defenders tire and grow accustomed to the futility of their strife. 

No, Deo had all the time in the world to sit and drink wine, it was the world that didn’t.

*****

Bubonica hunched over a rat infested dead body. One of the many sewer workers and hunters that had entered her necropolis over the last two months since she’d taken over. The foolish people were only feeding her Aspect, Rat Spores, allowing for her to expand her mischief. So far Bubonica had been limited to the confines of the sprawling sewer network but soon her swarm of rats would be enough to chew through the steel reinforced barricades that were added to the food storage warehouses and all the entrances and exits to the sewers themselves. Her current plan involved biting through partially every barricade until the point came that any of them required just a slight pressure to open, meaning Bubonica could spring an attack on every major warehouse at the same time, maximizing the damage to the food in one go, rather than risking full retaliation after only a single breach. Thousands of rats chewed themselves to death trying to work the steel. The process was slow going and she’d been at it for weeks, since right after the siege began. To remain subtle and under the radar of the city commander was her first condition before working on a barricade. Appear harmless for as long as possible before revealing the sort of plague she had planned for this city. Her days through the sewers were often spent fantasizing what hell Vallis had in store. Corrupting the food with filth covered rats and biting the ankles and feet of unsuspecting citizens with teeth filled with parasites and maggot eggs. Bubonica would create the breeding ground for disease to spread through the city. It’s why she avoided touching any trash or sewer water and why she made sure to keep her rats from dirtying themselves in human waste for the time being. 

People think rats are the epitome of foulness and grime, the bottom of a hierarchy where the clean and pristine human resides at the top. 

Disgusting. Is it not humans who produce the most trash? Who dumps their defecation into rivers and oceans and septic tanks? Is it not humans who must scrub and shower daily to maintain hygiene? Only something truly gross creatures need to do, to clean itself so often. But where does that shower water go? The sewers. The same place that Bubonica was born and raised in, because humans even cast their own into waste and landfills to fend for themselves. 

It is that sort of creature that claims rats are filthy animals. Could an animal live in human waste and survive? Of course there is too much disease and rot, the immune system would be constantly challenged to the limit until some toxin or pollutant enters the body and destroys it from the inside. Therefore that animal must be extremely intelligent and clean with its hygiene to survive sewers.

Idiots. Scum with no sense. As Bubonica thought this, as she often did, she felt her violence and hatred for humans rise and burst like a boil. She screamed a weak and scratchy scream. She pulled hair out from her head which was easier than pulling grass. 

Only when ready will she order her rats to swim in the filth and not groom themselves, in order to carry back the waste to the humans.

“Deo, I’ll kill them all!” she shouted. Only he understands. Only he gets me.

She was panting after her rage and needed to sit. She noticed a small jumping spider make its way to her. 

“Hi little one.” Bubonica greeted the creature. She put a hand down and the spider leapt on. Jumping spiders had a keen intellect and the ability to recognize facial expressions in species other than arachnids. They were reliable in delivering a message.

“Aw and what do we have here, little one?” Attached by a woven web was a wrapped note smaller than a finger tip. Bubonica carefully detached the note from the spider’s back with a gnarly pinky nail. She gently unfolded the note on her palm, next to where the spider waited, eyes watching Bubonica’s.

A lifetime of living in darkened sewers had given Bubonica extraordinary night vision and attention to detail, since one must be able to memorize a maze of identical paths through minute scratches or chips or displaced pebbles, or die. Though Bubonica never learned how to formally read, there were basic characters and numbers she knew the meaning of. 

The miniature paper read: 10pm wheat district.

“Did you write this note, little one?” Bubonica pet the jumping spider with a slight brush of her finger. The spider waved its front legs to and fro. 

“Don’t worry, stick with me and I’ll bring you back to your master,” Bubonica assured the spider. She dropped the note to be torn to pieces by a rat.

Bubonica ruffled the hair of another rat. “Did you hear that? Change of plans! We are going to start tonight!”

The plague queen was ready to emerge from the sewers.

*****

Paradice lopped the head off of an undead, used the natural momentum to flow into the next attack, shifting a foot for leverage, and bringing the bardiche down on a second undead, shattering the old bones. From there, Paradice ran across the battlements cleaving legs to pieces in a line dash. Picking them off from there was a matter of downward pressure. More undead climbed up and over and mechanically attacked any nearby defender. Paradice found himself surrounded by several undead. A big swing took out three and a release of his offhand from the bardiche opened up room for his sawed-off double barreled shotgun. One shot had enough kick to destroy several undead. He shot the two pellets and cleared the way for the next wave of undead. 

These undead were old, very old. A thousand years or more, Paradice guessed. Their bones were brittle and easy to break. Killing these undead involves the destruction of the majority of the body or if it loses its head. The mummies, as most of this kind were, could move surprisingly swift and their master had clearly ordered all of them to sharpen their finger bones to a point. Paradice had witnessed many comrades die and so knew this about them. Despite their almost automatic fighting style, they were hyper and surgical. The mummies always aimed for the fleshy parts of the body, the stomach, the neck or eyes, thighs and groin. Some carried weapons but most did not. 

Paradice had fought every day for the last month, though on rest days only five or six hours. He fought in both the day and night shifts equally, as was the procedure during this siege, that each soldier shared the horror of night fighting. Paradice had come to enjoy the nights actually, it meant one couldn’t see how endless the hordes of undead were.

Paradice took a step back to catch his breath before launching himself back into the fray. An overhead swipe followed by a half spin and backhand cleave left another six undead destroyed. There were a few mudmen mixed in this wave of undead. For these undead, their vital bone structures, needed to keep them animated, were hidden behind thick sod and clay, having been formed in the ground where they had lain, sometimes for millennia sometimes for decades. The tricky thing with these undead was their vital bones were not obvious or consistent. Sometimes it was a ribcage or a spinal cord or a femur or a skull or a shoulder. The bone had to be severed from the body or crushed to defeat the mudmen. Paradice was beginning to learn patterns for how the sod was caked on differently in parts around the bone structure, though against wave after wave of undead it wasn’t easy to pause and assess. Fighting had to be done instinctually through years of training. Paradice found simple martial arts was all that was needed to beat the mummies and mudmen, he conserved energy this way.

Paradice tried to avoid thinking about how strong an Aspect the enemy leader must have. A necromantic ability that can use even just a part of a skeleton, and that’s without mentioning the sheer number of undead he controlled.

Paradice glanced at another defender. “I’m surprised they don’t turn into undead after they get bit.” he said, making conversation. The words killed and dead were becoming taboo words in this place lately. They all were starting to lose friends and there was no telling if or when the dead would rise against them.

The soldier forced a smile but didn’t have the energy to respond. It took another hour before such a lapse in the fighting occurred again, one that allowed for at least a sentence of conversation.

Paradice threw off his helmet and unstrapped his body armor. He downed some of his rationed water, knowing he’d regret that later. He looked around for the soldier he talked to and fought beside. He spotted him in a pile of other dead bodies.

Paradice crawled to the battlement and leaned against it, his back to the milling hordes under and below. It’d take some time for them to get another foothold now that the sweepers made it to the south wall. Everyone was grateful for the sweepers, a group of soldiers and Specters with the task of clearing huge amounts of undead off the walls. They used a mix of heavy machine guns, explosives, and powers to give the defenders a respite. 

Paradice lit a smoke and wedged it between a crevice in the battlement, letting it burn slowly on its own. 

“Odd way to smoke. Doesn’t do much over there.” The speaker was Bisult the one-eyed. General and commander of Vallis.

Paradice made to salute but Bisult waved him down. “Relax, man. You knew me before all this professional fluff.”

Paradice gave a chuckle. “True enough. And I was burning it to keep the bugs away. Lots of flies recently.”

Bisult raised the scar where his brow used to be. “You’ve always got a new peculiar habit going on.” Bisult took a seat next to Paradice. “What was it last week? Drawing pictures with chalk!”

“My masterpiece was a mosaic of a bee and a crocus.” Paradice let out a heavy breath. “Can we win, Bisult?”

Bisult wiped sweat from his bald head. “You’ve been in my band for fifteen years and never once have we lost. The twenty years before that we never lost. No plans to start this time around.”

Paradice stretched out his legs. “Truthfully, you think so?” 

Bisult could hear the penumbra in Paradice’s voice, the haunting sense of nothingness. He deserves the truth, thought Bisult.

“A month ago, I would have laughed at any proposals of defeat. The pace we are going, we’ll never win. But that doesn’t mean we won’t survive or that there isn’t a way to win.”

“I understand.” Paradice closed his eyes for a moment.

“You remember the motto from way back in the early days, you were just a teenager when you joined.” Bisult started.

Paradice grinned, “I’ll never forget, ‘millionaire or die.” he quoted.

Bisult laughed. “Yes! And we achieved that, all of us in our band of brigands. That was the goal back then and after we had luxury we thirsted for the thrill of fighting, the rush of combat and the development of our Aspects.” Bisult continued. “If you can think of the motivation and fire our group possesses, and we’re no weaklings in this world, think of our combined power and fury… well compared to what this boy has, Deo, the Aspect of Death, his dreams are lightyears beyond our wildest ones.”

“So that’s the sort of person we’re up against?” Paradice commented.

“Aye.”

“What is this Deo waiting for? Surely he can send in all the undead or those big bowl monsters out there.” Paradice suggested.

“He’s careful. He’s waiting for something, probably an internal breach or another Specter, but his patience only serves him more. It’ll wear us down and make us complacent. Something big is coming sooner or later.”

“Ah, here I was hoping he was incompetent.”

“Better luck next time!” 

“I still can’t believe Cube and Orb got themselves killed. Damned shame, we really needed their powers here.” Paradice didn’t want to go into how they were longtime members of the group and good friends. They’d already mourned and drank to their deaths.

“Well, one of these days you may want to use your own Aspect. Be a real shame if you kick the bucket without even using it.” Bisult teased.

Paradice clicked his tongue, “I think I’ll wait for that big something that’s coming. War of attrition and all that.”

“I know, you may seem amicable and easygoing, some would even say lazy and a freeloader…”

“Get to the point!” Paradice lost any weight to his snap the way he grinned through his teeth.

“But you may be the most stubborn bastard of us all. So long as you’re alive Vallis will be unconquered.”

“Shut up, you’ll make me blush. Senile old man.” Paradice muttered. There was a silent moment and Paradice lit a new smoke, throwing the old bud over the edge. Paradice took out a small pouch with pipe cleaner and oil and worked on cleaning his sawed-off.

“So tell me this,” started Paradice. “Why Vallis? We aren’t bound by anything here, not anything we couldn’t slip out from.”

“If it’s not Vallis it’d be another city, take your pick. Deo isn’t going to stop. We’d be running forever. But think about this, how many cities are we going to have full command over and access to whatever we want to use?”

“That’s a good point. I don’t mind it here, was just wondering.”

“I know. There’s not a warrior here, either part of my original band or a militia of the city I wouldn’t sit down and have a drink with, thank them personally and commend them for their bravery.”

“Is that why you go around to each part of the wall?” Paradice switched to his bardiche, cleaning and sharpening the edge.

“Aye. I could sit here and talk about how it’s strategic to keep morale high and allow for the younger soldiers to see their commander, which I guess is true in part, but really I am grateful to fight alongside these people.” Bisult cursed. “Maybe I am getting senile.”

Paradice whistled. “I think it’s time you moved on to the next wall, I’m worried you’ll break out into song! Besides, your falcon is looking at me funny.”

Bisult slapped Paradice on the shoulder excessively hard. “Fighting’s starting up again.”

Paradice stood with a helpful arm from Bisult. Paradice restrapped his armor and donned his helmet, loaded his sawed-off and holstered it. He kicked up the bardiche from the staff part and gave it a few test swings.

“You staying the night?” Bisult asked. He knew Paradice’s shift had ended.

“Well why not? It’s a cool summer night and I’ve got lots to think about.”

“Don’t think too hard, might pop a synapse!” warned Bisult.

“Are you fighting on this wall?” Paradice asked, hopeful to battle alongside his commander and master.

“Will I get to see your Aspect in action?” Bisult countered.

“Nah!”

“I’ve got to help the west wall anyways, nights have been rough on them.” Bisult said seriously. 

“Ah, that’s too bad.”

“Next time!” Bisult promised. “Tell me one thing, it’s your night off, why push yourself if you won’t even use your Aspect?”

“Because I do so adore the graveyard shift!”

The bloodlust was finally kicking in, thought Bisult. Paradice takes awhile to get going, Bisult knew. He’d go through slumps of existential depression and bouts of languor before finally flipping persona’s into a full blown ire.

Bisult might actually miss Paradice’s Aspect tonight after all, depending on how intense the fighting got.

Walking west along the battlements Bisult called back. “Oh Paradice,” Bisult’s deep voice boomed for the whole side of the wall to hear, “happy thirtieth!” 

Paradice shook his head from the cheers and attention. He needed to focus, he really wanted to think tonight. 

There is no better environment for the formation of thoughts than the killing grounds.