Deo shivered when the morning sun at last touched his cool skin. The shadows cast dramatic silhouettes of limestone beasts and masked gods, carved to be stoic and brooding. With the dawn came the artisans and masons commissioned by Deo to build the sculpture garden that surrounded his ziggurat, guardians to the pyramid of his damnation, the throne of the world.
They came with chisels and rasps, sharpeners and charcoal. They removed the sheets from the unfinished sculptures and set buckets of water next to each. From what Deo had observed, the water was used to clean the dust produced from carving and provide a preview of how the finish will look once it is sanded and polished.
The lead builder, the master sculptor, was a man named Mevonne. He was young to bear such a title, in his early thirties. Deo selected him because the man made a point to do things without power tools in the traditional way. For all Deo knew, Mevonne was born two centuries too late. But he was good, and understood Deo’s vision for the sculpture garden better than Deo. His artistic skill allowing his imagination to not be hindered by questions of what is and isn’t possible to accomplish. Mevonne collaborated with Deo’s gardener to plan out the whole space.
Moss acted as the ground cover while curving pathways snaked from one point to another. Mandrake roots were expertly planted to wrap around small rocks so they jutted irregularly, slightly above the surface like miniature wooden toad creatures gripping onto the planet.
Various arrays of day blooming and night blooming flowers were planted in patterns that changed based on the time of day. Tiny canals ran along the pathways providing flowing water to an underground watering system that fed into the roots of all the plants so they could absorb water as they needed. It doubled as a drain system so days of heavy rain would not damage the flowers. The moss also had the added benefit of absorbing much of that water while preventing unwanted grass or weeds from invading the garden.
The sculptures added elevation to Deo’s garden, a key component to any garden space, while frogs, spiders and snakes naturally found homes in the garden which Deo permitted as movement was another important factor.
The space was impressively large, wrapping in a hundred meter circumference around the ziggurat. There was one main central path that led directly to the base of the ziggurat in front of where Deo sat and faced, directly from the gates of Ophir. The ziggurat was in the center of the city and slowly Deo made the city his own. There was much to be done and Deo enjoyed watching the work of his craftsmen.
Mevonne was directing his dozen workers and they went about their artistry, sculpting by hand, measuring with protractors and rulers and other strange instruments Deo did not know the names of to check corners and curves, edges and lines. The sawing and ‘tinking’ noises of the sculpting process was relaxing to Deo. The sounds of stone vibrating under the blades and points of steel tools masterfully moving material into shapes of wonder and terror.
Deo contemplated the nature of such things. His thoughts were momentarily interrupted when Hege approached and stood by his side, the smell of black coffee emanating from his mug.
“Did you stay here all night again?” Hege asked.
“I missed the sunset, so I stayed to watch the sun rise.” Deo replied.
“The garden is coming together.”
“Yes.” Deo agreed. “I’ve been thinking.” Deo began.
“A dangerous pastime.” Hege commented.
“When a crafter or an artist or a builder, really anyone that transmutes one object into another, what about that object changes? Is it the essence that changes. Take these stone blocks, we think of them as blocks, lacking personality and form, lacking soul. When a sculptor carves them, how is it they can change when the stone is still stone?”
Hege took a sip of his coffee. “Well you used an interesting word, transmute. That implies a sort of magical change, a conjuring. The artist uses his own life and energy, literally putting life into his work. You can see the character and expression written all over their art. That is one interpretation.”
“But two different people can interpret a piece of work differently. One may look at a painting of a portrait and exclaim how sorrowful and haunted the model looks while another appreciating the painting will comment about the tranquility and beauty. Who is right?”
“Maybe it is a question of dimension. Living things never express only one mood. If a work of art has a soul then the two different observers are seeing the different dimensions of the painting based on their own life experience. One has become adept at seeing sorrow and the other at beauty. The two are not necessarily unrelated.”
Deo thought through what Hege said. “But you don’t believe that?”
Hege rubbed his chin. “Perhaps the painting or sculpture is in the mind. The stone is still a stone or the canvas is still a canvas, that does not change. What changes is the mind.”
“Go on.” Deo said, intrigued.
“That is the point of the inkblot tests. They are specifically made lacking any and all emotion. Abstract black and white illustrations. Each viewer may see something based on their mind. But when someone points out a shape they haven’t seen, they are then unable to not see that new shape, yet in their mind they can choose back and forth which shapes they wish to interpret.
“Then tell me this,” Deo retorted, “what separates a living thing versus a nonliving thing in that idea. An animal is only alive in the mind, that is a logical conclusion to that, is it not?”
“Aye, but then everything we’ve labeled and named is in our mind. We decided to classify the world in different ways. We chose to say that life falls under these certain parameters and nonliving things must meet each one. It is subjective, because that is how our language is structured. You can take a pebble, just any pebble and no one will think much of it. Without carving it into anything, I can imbue it with the same life as a stone carver.” Hege took another sip. “I can name it. Suddenly it is filled with life, personality, character, and now I’ve grown attached to that pebble in the same way one might their favorite piece of jewelry.”
“I do not know that I could argue against that.” Deo admitted. “It is reasonable and true, as far as I know. But what I believe is different. There is life in all things. Life we can give and life we can take. Take the Aspect, there are those who can make fire dance or water float or wind shape. It is said that a Specter does not name their Aspect. You simply know the name of it when it is awakened. I had a thought a while ago that has just come back to me. That maybe Aspects are alive. Conscious things.”
“Careful, lord Deo, men have spent lifetimes searching for explanations to questions like that and have gone irreversibly mad, babbling foolish nothings to an unanswering cold still wind.”
“Ah, then it is good fortune I am already mad.” Deo was looking away and grinning slightly. “What comes after madness, I wonder.”
Hege shivered. “It is good that your mind is still sharp and eager to learn. Complacency is akin to atrophy.” Hege didn’t know what else to say.
Deo sighed out. “Enough of this talk, it is making me existential.”
“Deo, I believe you were born existential.”
“True enough. We must shelf this philosophy talk and move on to what civilization actually values, war. What news is there?”
“Bisult and Paradice are nearly finished migrating the survivors from Vallis. We’ve got enough temporary housing and food to accommodate everyone until more permanent neighborhoods can be built. The Ophir citizenry seems excited to welcome them. Shared experiences and all that I’m sure.” It was a joke but Deo was not paying attention.
“I think Paradice will not return. That is partly why I sent just him and Bisult. I did not want to create a stir here. Paradice was unhappy. He will likely remain my enemy.”
“Bisult will come back?” Hege asked.
“Yes, that old man is a sucker for bands of criminals against the world. I don’t think he’d ever admit this but his bandit blood runs more true than his sense of morality. Paradice on the other hand will not forgive us for killing his entire group and friends.”
Hege nodded. “Moving on, Garghent has been preoccupied with a new adversary since Kiasmus dueled Klyle. We don’t have all the details but it appears someone the world believed to be dead is actually alive. There are rumors it is Eberon, the previous king of Bast who was assassinated by Garghent in all likelihood.”
“So Garghent may enter an official war with Bast in the coming months or weeks. Interesting.”
“Veinbreaker is making good progress in terrorizing Garghent’s countryside. The raids are drawing attention but not as much as normal due to the issue with Bast. Garghent is over exposed and stretched thin, it appears.”
“That is sudden, are they over reacting?” Deo posited.
“That’s a possibility. Garghent is rarely so flustered. Perhaps there is truth to the rumour after all.”
“Whatever it is, they believe it a bigger threat than us. Any news as to the stances of the other city-states?”
“They remain neutral, on the surface at least. Inaction seems to be the safest course.”
“That will work in our favor. We’ll not provoke Garghent more than the raids until we know what is happening. We continue to bolster our defenses and allow the citizens of Vallis to settle.”
“Sounds good. The trenches will be done before the winter but trade is beginning to slow down already. Businesses are playing it safe and keeping products limited to domestic transactions. No one is sure who their enemy will be in a month. We’ll lose out on extra weapons.”
“That is fine. We have the labor to open our own mines nearer to the coast. As far as I know it is unused space we should be utilizing.”
“I’ll set that up.” Hege confirmed.
“Garriot is keeping busy?” Deo asked next.
“He’s got a group he’s training to be elite. It’s slow-going since Goblin takes him for half a week every week.”
“That is unfortunate but we cannot help it. So long as Goblin does not need him so much when war does break out.”
Hege chuckled, “if only.”
“How are crime rates?”
“Still low, there were several spikes recently but it is not concerning, just some work related incidents that have been resolved.”
“Good. We need our people to be fiercely loyal. We have the wealth of two metropolises and only a fraction of the population.”
“Unfortunately lord, it is not so simple as that. That money is swiftly dwindling. We need to increase the economy by a hundredfold next year or Ophir will not last long term. Ophir in the past relied on importing everything to support the gambling and games. Vallis was a major exporter and now both have ceased.”
“We have a number of bureaucrats and businessmen, work with them to come up with a plan. We need farming, textiles and metals. I want us to be self-sustainable. Relying on trade at this point is foolish. It is an asset, not a commodity.”
“I agree and I will set that up. Returns will be slow coming but the long term security is worth it.” Hege had switched from coffee to cigar by this point.
“And you are okay, Hege? You are the backbone of this. I am more suited for controlling the dead than the living.”
“In truth, I am stressed and the workload is mind-numbing at times but I enjoy building an empire. It is fulfilling and things will smooth out after Vallis settles in. I think that we have done things nearly perfectly so far. And you are more able than you give yourself credit for. You’re a born strategist and the populace is slowly warming to you. Vallis might cause problems but they are beginning to learn that you are not the sort of tyrant they initially thought.”
Deo smiled. “And what sort of tyrant am I?”
“The deadliest sort of tyrant in the world, the likeable kind!”
Hege took his leave after. There was much work to be done.
Deo relaxed in his throne. He focused his mind on his hordes. Preserved bodies of humans both recently deceased and ancient corpses.
Are they alive? Deo asked himself. What a trivial thought. Alive or simply animated by an accursed power, what difference did it make?
“They are mine.” That is what they are.
Deo felt exhausted, having spent all night awake. Despite the brightness, the warmth of the sun was pleasurable more than the chill of the night. Deo felt the weight of his eyelids slowly tighten around his vision.
He was in the most comfortable place in the world, his massive redwood throne.
Deo shifted suddenly, leaning to the other side of the throne.
That movement saved his life.
A loud noise and a hole appeared where his head had just been a heartbeat before. His ianthine eyes snapped in the direction where the bullet was fired. So far in the distance on a hill, too far to actually see detail, was a glint from a scope reflecting the sunlight.
It had to have been nearly a kilometer out. Only a trained expert could even hope to hit from there. And hit they did!
Deo’s fury translated all into his gaze. It dared them to shoot again. Dared with passionate hate. Dreadful, unflinching death.
The sniper scrambled to release the lever on his bolt. He finally pulled it back but the shell was jammed inside, he was struggling to pull the shell out with his hand while keeping his target in his scope.
The sniper couldn’t take his eyes off to see what his hands were doing, not when there was another pair of eyes that shouldn’t be able to see far enough staring into his own. Purple eyes, the eyes of death. Any normal target should be either panicking trying to get to safety or paralyzed by fear. That is the natural course of prey, to run or hide.
The sniper was experienced enough to know his target, the lord of Ophir, the Aspect of Death, was staring at him as if he were prey!
Those knowing eyes, an unphased expression. Why did he have to shift? The shot was perfect!
The sniper’s spotter was shouting in a hushed voice to hurry but the sniper was entranced by fear.
I’m paralyzed! Me, a sniper by trade and a hunter by nature. It was surreal, unbelievable.
“Why is he staring at me!” The sniper shouted.
The spotter shoved the sniper out of the way and wrenched the shell out of the chamber and finished priming the next shell, snapping the firing pin into place by slamming the bolt into place. He took aim and fired but the shot went wide, missing the throne altogether. The wind changed too much.
He was cursing while he released the bolt action and primed the next shot.
“Pull yourself together, man! One last shot and then we need to get out of here!” The spotter ranged his target again and rushed through his calculations. The rifle flashed and fired, hitting a stair step just below the target.
He cursed. He knew he could hit his third shot, having adjusted to the distance and variations. The next shot was primed. The spotter did find it odd that the man sitting on the throne should be still doing so. He’s not human!
All the more reason to end him, he thought.
He never fired that third shot and he never thought anything again. Standing over his prone body was an angel with black wings and black sword. His spine was crushed and all feeling left his hands as he desperately tried to squeeze but all muscle control was gone. He moaned as blood bubbled in his lungs and out his mouth.
Jan lifted the spotter and the sniper and flew over to Deo.
“This one is dying and this one is alive. Jan shoved the first sniper to his knees in front of Deo and held his sword pressed to the nape of his neck.
The man was begging for his life pitifully.
“Do you wish to torture them for information?” The Seravim Aspect asked emotionlessly.
“Kill him. Make it clean.”
Jan did so and the man died with a blade sticking through his throat. He finished the other man off as well.
Deo did not bother moving from his spot and with a wave of his hand bathed the area in a twilight that did not even last a second before light returned.
“Stand.” Deo told the two corpses. They stood.
“Walk to Garghent.” He gave them their orders and they set off at once, silently shuffling.
The rifle shots caused a stir and many people rushed toward Deo. They were calling for soldiers to check the area and asking a thousand questions at once. It was all noisy and Jan answered for Deo.
“The lord is unhurt and tired. The assassins have been dealt with.” No one questioned Jan.
Garriot came strolling in, whistling and shaking his head. “What did I tell you, Deo, about leaving yourself so exposed!”
“I am not going to be the lord of a cave. I am alive and you have an army to train.”
Garriot lifted his hands and just laughed before walking away, his humor unphased.
Alone again, save for Jan who stuck around, Deo turned to see the bullet hole in his throne. The bullet did not pierce through and so it would remain lodged in his throne.
“Will you repair it?” Jan asked, out of character. He normally did not say anything unrelated to his job.
“No. The tree this throne was carved from bore its scars as trophies. I will not change that.”
Deo finally went to sleep in the embracing caress of his throne.