It was with the apprehension born from the contempt of life itself, a pact between a man and his world to disagree eternally on the fundamental value of existence, that Deo rose from bed. He splashed water on his face in the sink and stared down his face in the mirror. Dark complexion and darker mood mixed to create a brew of lucid disdain in the man. That Deo only saw what he hated when he observed his reflection said too much about him.
For if a man hates himself then all the world is free to be scorned by that misanthropic creed.
Deo had nothing more to do, his military uniform was in the barracks and everything essential would be supplied. He let his parents continue working as he left his house for the final time without a parting word. Of course it was unnecessary to speak. His words would fall on deaf ears. Not that his parents were actually deaf, the lack of hearing would be an obvious giveaway.
No, maintaining the semblance of humanity required all the senses to be working and the brain to remain undamaged. This would ensure ease of motor skill usage including speech and facial reactions. Anyone who observed long enough could pick up on odd peculiarities but the natural conclusion would be a very quirky person.
The absolute last conclusion someone would subscribe to was that Deo killed his parents over a decade ago, before he had aged into double digits, and embalmed their corpses with his power turning them into perfectly preserved corporeal automatons under the absolute authority of his thrall. Generally a conclusion too specific to reach.
But reality nonetheless.
Deo thought back to that day on his walk to the barracks, the probability of imminent death lingering in the air for much of the city, but especially the newly trained levy, triggering maudlin thoughts of the past. Deo could probably count his last days with the fingers on his hands at this point.
But that day so many years ago, the first memory of his life, the introduction to his existence in the world. A vivid memory of the slicing of sleeping throats. Deo still to this day couldn’t understand why he had killed them. A feeling of curiosity, of macabre brutality, an impulse born of his inherent Aspect? Deo didn’t know.
When the blood finally overflowed in their lungs and they choked to death, Deo pressed his hands to the chests of both his father and mother. He used his power, and it was like they had never died. Except their lives were under his control. No action could be taken without his order. They lacked all sense of self, of personality. They were dolls instead of parents. In the first years controlling them proved an impracticality. They needed to work, buy food and uphold a house without attracting suspicion. Deo, already a clever boy, created his parents anew in his image. He made up personalities and functions, developed his powers to the point he could give them a function as broad as ‘go to work’. Because their brains were intact, because he sewed their throats closed and used makeup to cover the scars, because his adolescent mind increased his Aspect in the way only a child’s creativity could, his parents, his dolls, his undead slaves, they lived unnoticed in society. Friends, jobs, hobbies, they could do anything unaltered from their living existence. Deo took advantage of the human vessel and all its neurons and synapses to replicate people who no longer lived. He knew it was never his real parents after that, but their dying gurgles had given him nightmares for years after.
Now, at twenty-one, Deo was baffled at the complexity of his childhood use of his Aspect. The level of control he had over his parents and that his parents had of themselves was astounding and not something he could recreate. Not that he tried. As he grew up their deaths had taken a toll on his mental health. He vowed to never kill again. Without school or responsibility or the need to ever work, Deo lived an easy if mundane life, one filled without laughter, intimacy or adventure. He was a kid when life stood still. It was natural that as he aged he would seek to learn from and experience the world around.
So he began his walks through the city. He enjoyed the perilous tales of swashbuckling heroes, the literary masterpieces of the classics, the odd yet fascinating worlds of fantasy and science fiction. After he exhausted most of the books that interested him he had turned to learning. His world expanded with the introduction of knowledge. Reading comprehension and critical analysis reshaped his juvenile engrossment of fantasy stories into the deep and ever expanding realms of philosophy, biology, psychology, history, current events and everything else.
He pursued information at all costs because the guilt of his childhood chased him like a rabid wolf. There were days he couldn’t stomach food and days he felt he needed to bleed in the way his parents bled.
When he learned about flowers he suddenly had gained a new purpose, nothing life fulfilling, but something terribly fascinating and an adventure in its own right. He was saddened with each flower that wilted, the way the stem fell limp haunted him as his closed eyelids pictured the drooping necks of his parents.
He wrapped his hand around one flower on a cold an rainy day and let his power surge to bring it to that state that was not quite life and not quite death.
So began his quest to be Garghent’s hidden gardener. To preserve the dead flowers so that nothing had to truly be gone. Florists and botanists around the city were intrigued by the mysterious flowers and thought that Deo had a strange method. They never suspected any Aspect for the simple reason that no one registered had an ability that could do what he did. He was one of the world’s anomalies, nothing more and nothing less. They loved his flowers and any store that sold them saw their profits rise exponentially.
Deo had no care for money so he sold them without concern for their price, his parents supplied enough for him as it was.
That was the life of Deo. Very brief and filled with little variety. Despite the boredom that he met with on a daily basis, it had not been a bad life. Meeting Hales had been a twist to the tale of his squandered saga…
Deo refused to revisit the memories of her. They were too special or else too painful to dwell on. Besides, he’d done enough of that over the past few months.
Instead he focused on his role in the war. He broke down three options for himself. He could lay low and try to survive, that would require considerable luck yet most wars don’t end with a hundred percent of the loser’s population dying. His second option would be as a reckless soldier, throwing himself into the frontlines until he either got killed or somehow made it through alive. One way or another, time would move a lot faster with the second option.
The third option was to walk away. Find a moment when he could slip from the forward base they were going to be deployed to and never return. Being surrounded on all sides by enemies gave him slim odds at deserting successfully.
Not a lot of favorable choices.
Deo made it through the security checks and found his unit’s building. Hundreds, thousands of soldiers were milling from place to place, grabbing their gear, eating breakfast, double and triple checking every last detail. It was clear this was the levy force. One could taste the nerves in the air.
The first of the troop transport vehicles arrived and the pace picked up.
Deo found his locker and changed into the soldier’s garb. There was little casual conversation, even among friends. Deo was glad for that much, his desire for dialogue all but nonexistent.
It was on his way to the armory that something curious happened. A sweaty and clammy officer’s assistant had been going around his unit when finally someone pointed to Deo. The man cleared his throat to get Deo’s attention.
Deo turned and the man was such a nervous wreck that he couldn’t look Deo in the eye.
“Um… sir, Deo right?”
Deo gave a cautious nod.
“You are requested at wing one, sir.”
“The captain building?” Deo’s mind leapt to a couple conclusions.
“Let me get my gear first.”
The aide cleared his throat again. “No. You have to go now.”
“Okay…” Deo assumed by the man’s lack of follow up that the conversation was over. This was confirmed when the aide looked down on a sizable stack of papers, his to-do list.
Deo would have to backtrack and travel to the other end of the base, not a short walk, to reach wing one.
There was a shuttle making rounds that Deo waved down. He hoped the location he was heading to would give him clearance.
“Goodmorning, sir. Mind taking me to wing one?” Deo gave the formal salute. The driver, an elderly sergeant, greeted back likewise. The importance of anyone needing to go to wing one convinced the driver.
“Come aboard,” he gestured.
The man made light conversation which Deo answered absently to. The ride was mercifully short and Deo stepped out and immediately saw some of Garghent’s top captains and Culls making final preparations. Deo was most definitely out of place here, not only his low-ranking uniform but ideologically as well. A few odd glances cast his way but people were too busy with their own tasks.
Deo reached the checkpoint and the soldier at the post was apparently expecting him. She gave him the room number and saluted him on.
It was Deo’s suspicion that the military had done some sort of background check on him and discovered his Aspect. The worst case scenario, he decided. Being dragged into their war was bad enough, being extorted for his power was absolutely unacceptable.
Still, Deo remained calm and tried to ignore the future even as he became ever closer to it with each step.
“You are Deo?” A soldier standing outside of a room asked suddenly.
“Right this way sir.” The man opened the door and let Deo through.
Deo’s heart skipped a beat, maybe two.
Near a planning table, among several other soldiers, stood a woman with brown hair, cut shorter in the back and longer in the front, with tawny eyes that were darker than her hair.
Her demeanor had changed, the months away must have been hard. Deo noticed that in an instant.
“Welcome Deo.” Hales spoke with a smile. Deo nodded, barely suppressing a smile of his own. They both stayed cool, though each wanted nothing more than to hug the other.
“Meet my team.” She introduced the five other members one by one.
“This is Ava, she is our terrainer.” Deo was familiar with the term. A class of soldier who specializes in geography for both strategic reasons and survival reasons. A scout who can both lead and ambush and infiltrate enemy lines. Deo’s mind couldn’t resist weighing the merits of Hales’ squad from a strategic standpoint.
Ava herself was tall and fierce, experience etched into the lines of her scowl.
“Santiage, our tactician.” Santiage was a stocky man with soft eyes, but eyes that didn’t miss a beat. Tacticians in Garghent’s use, were more than simple battlefield planners, they were walking encyclopedias of political, social, economic and of course military knowledge.
“Liem, our torturer.” Narrow features, snakelike almost, gave this soldier the appearance of a killer. Not a born killer, but one trained to be a manhunter, a craft as surgical as it was brutal. Often, these were the deadliest kinds of killers, the type whose profession was wrought from passion rather than talent.
“Sacha, our weapon jack.” Out of everyone, Deo remembered him the most from when Hales used to tell him about her squad. A drunkard by all accounts but a survivor first. Skilled in a wide array of weaponry, his diversity likely made him an important asset in skirmishes.
Deo saw how the pieces of Hales’ team fit together. They were, to boil it down to the bare essentials, squad members who filled the areas Hales was less adept at. They lived through months in enemy territories so she had evidently picked her team well.
One member he didn’t recognize from Hales’ descriptions so long ago, which oddly enough felt like yesterday, now that he was here to see them and Hales was alive, and now Deo a part of it…
“Yillo, the Paroxysm Aspect.” The man had eyes that burned barely controlled. Messy and recently dyed silver-grey hair and nails painted ivory white. Deo remembered him now because of his Aspect from when he watched the tournament over a year ago. He had an explosive power that drew from rage or something along those lines. A classmate from Hales’ school and someone who’s inner turmoil could quite literally burn those around him. An interesting choice for her squad.
Deo’s only question was how he factored into this elite special forces group. He didn’t want to think of the reason Hales selected him, because it made her a fool to bring in an inexperienced rookie soldier who abhorred Garghent.
But he was more than glad to see her.
“So what’s the recruit got?” Saccha asked, more as a way to gauge his new partner than any sort of condescension.
Hales answered for him. “He’s brilliant. We needed someone on our team who sees things with a unique perspective.”
An overstatement, thought Deo, but he didn’t want to feel like dead weight in front of these veteran soldiers so he accepted the appraisal.
“We’ve got to report to General Uana and gear up, captain.” Declared Santiage, double checking the time. The name sounded familiar but to be a General only months after graduating seemed far-fetched. A coincidence most likely. How could one of Hale’s classmates rise through the ranks that quickly?
“We’re already running late.” Santiage added.
Hales led her team out. Her and Deo had so much to talk about, but they neither had the time nor the place to do it.
Deo did ask one question as they marched through the building, towards one of Garghent’s primary military headquarters.
“What strings did you have to pull to get me on your team, captain?” It felt odd using her rank to address her.
“When I found out a draft had been issued I had someone look up your name in the company listings. Other than that I was owed some serious favors.”
“The draft was months ago. How recently did you return?”
“Little more than day.”
She’s tough, Deo thought. And she’s made up her mind about war. Determination was written in her eyes. She had found her reason, perhaps not her purpose, but a start to figuring her life out.
Deo, on the other hand, had been reunited with Hales but at a price that came with a front seat ticket to the thick of the war and was still thoroughly torn between love and loathing…