Deo descended the stairs from the top of his ziggurat, compulsively letting his fingers brush against his throne for as long as they could reach. He stood level with his military council which consisted of Hege his right hand man, Kiasmus the Master Specter, Garriot the general of his human forces along with Goblin, Bisult the one-eyed mercenary captain, Klea the manipulative Sage, Jan bodyguard of Deo, Onager the siege expert, Bubonica the plague queen and Annana the witch.
The council crowded around a large table that had a detailed geographic map of the land from Garghent all the way to Ophir. The appropriate markings for trenches, supply depots and factories were included. Deo used chess pieces, white for the enemy and black for his forces on the map. The map itself was set to the best and latest intel they had on Garghent’s troop deployments. With preliminary engagements already underway, there were black and white pawns touching each other on various trench locations along Garghent’s border.
“Each pawn represents my undead legions. I have drawn dots on the tops of the pawns indicating the number of undead each pawn stands for. The legend is down here, as you can see the numbers range from ten-thousand to ten million,” explained Deo to the council.
The line of black pawns engaged with the white pawns were all using the lowest marking of ten-thousand.
Deo had a tray on an unused portion of the table that held dozens more chess pieces pulled from multiple sets, though the style of the set was consistent to avoid confusion. Hege went to work grabbing pawns and marking them with the different color-keys. The smell of his cigar and black coffee perfumed out.
Hege handed Deo a handful of the one-hundred thousand pawns. Deo placed them in reserve behind the ongoing trench fighting.
“Right now the strategy is simple,” Deo started, “we will continue light attacks with unarmed undead on their front. Our numbers will never be overwhelming, however they will be endless. Garghent cannot commit to a full war while they are unsure of the northern city-states actions. It is the same for us. We have, in essence, agreed to start with light skirmishes to feel out how the rest of the continent reacts. A full scale invasion at this time would leave us too exposed.”
“Sounds solid. We have the resources to pull off a slow burn war.” Bisult observed, scratching his beard as he studied the map.
“But even as we build up Ophir and train our own human military, Garghent settles in Vallis which gives them a significant amount of land and border control. Daedal of course has been their vassal for a while now and only Tholi is within striking distance of Garghent but they are reluctant to act, and rightly so.”
“It would be better for us if Tholi declared war with Garghent, no?” Jan the Seravim Aspect asked.
“If Tholi were to declare war, Garghent would have justification in conquering Tholi, which they could accomplish in a year, maybe less.” Deo replied patiently.
“But Tholi has allies!” Jan blurted out.
“Tholi has allies so long as they remain defensive. None of the cities want a repeat of the Coalition that blundered their chance to defeat Garghent. If Tholi falls to Garghent they will have nearly half of the entire continent under their domain. From there it would be practically impossible to stop Garghent from finishing every city one by one. Tholi knows this.”
“Oh, I guess I didn’t realize that.” Jan looked down, embarrassed of his lack of insight.
“Do not lose heart, Jan. You are still learning.” Deo tried to sound encouraging but realized he likely came off as condescending. He moved on to avoid breaking the flow of the meeting.
“We got reports from Veinbreaker,” Garriot said with a mouthful of food. “The bastard’s been driven from the roads of Vallis and is returning to Ophir. Seems they finally sent some strong Specters to stop the raids.”
“That is fine, I did not expect them to be able to do that forever. I mainly wanted to keep Carn sharp and give Veinbreaker the chance to indulge his art.” Deo removed three black knight pieces from the space between Vallis and Garghent. The knights indicated a Specter. “So Garghent will rush the reconstruction of Vallis. They want territory and resource production, especially food and textiles. We will let them rebuild Vallis because it means troops, supplies, materials and time will have to be spent there instead of focusing on the trenches.”
“I am beginning to see how you want this to play out,” Annana mused. “Garghent is prioritizing its claim of Vallis while holding the front against us. They must know dividing themselves like that is playing into your hands? You allow them to take Vallis with only a little pressure to justify Garghent keeping a large detachment to secure their prize because to you the fighting at the trenches is more important.”
“I am playing into their hands just as they are playing into mine. Garghent wants Vallis and sees that as their future. They are confident in their ability to hold us off while they do this. I am confident the trenches are the future and will start this conflict, as Bisult said, a slow burn war. Doing it this way allows Garghent to divide themselves which gives us the chance to break through their defenses when the timing is right.”
“But they know this is what you plan? A build up to the full scale invasion.” Annana pressed, not quite understanding.
“Like I said, Garghent is confident Vallis is the future. They do not suspect they can lose the war, even long term, especially if Vallis can bring in resources and food. They will be completely self-sufficient with Vallis.”
Onager joined in. “In that case the logical thing to do is besiege Vallis once more? Stop them from reaching this self-sufficiency.”
“No, you guys aren’t seeing it.” Garriot voiced, exasperated that they were still on this subject. “We are going to focus everything on the city of Garghent while only putting enough pressure to make them scared of losing Vallis. But how long will that bastard city take to rebuild to flip an actual profit, a flipping decade, right?” Garriot sounded particularly proud of substituting a curse word for word-play. “Garghent is not going to last a decade. We’ll either break through by then or all be dead.”
“Thank you, Garriot, always the eloquent speaker.” Deo took over. “Things are happening fast. There are unknown factors in play. The awakening of Masters, the cataclysms in the Brother continent, the two Fables making an appearance. These events are outside our control and so we must be flexible in preparation for them and react correctly to the potential circumstances changing on a dime.”
“Yeah but there is no way you can formulate a strategy based on something you’ve no conceptualization of how or what will happen.” Onager argued, preferring to stick to the hard facts. Like a good siege, one can only deal with problems of getting through a solid wall with equipment and engines and not basing the siege on predicting the tectonic plates will shift under the wall or a volcano will destroy the city inside.
“Even so, our strategy considers the bigger picture beyond our war with Garghent.” Deo announced. He continued with troop placements. “Garghent can field some one hundred Specters with that number increasing yearly. The Generals of Garghent are composed of mainly powerful Specters, they are the queen.” Deo placed the white queen directly in Garghent. “The Janiform is the king, though little is known about him and what he is capable of.”
Garriot shifted in his seat. Deo caught the movement but said nothing. “We can expect dozens of Specters defending the trenches along the border. Garghent will not miss this opportunity to give experience to the newer Savants. Carn’s main purpose will be moving along the border, picking off these new Specters.”
“What do I do?” Bubonica asked, eager to be given a role.
Deo pulled out a bishop. “Specters who are assigned tasks other than direct fighting will be represented as these bishop pieces. Bubonica, you will be near the trench fighting on the border. Use your rats to infest the enemy lines, food stores and spread diseases. I have an idea for how you can accomplish this.” Deo placed the bishop behind the line of black pawns. Store rats inside my undead. If they can reach the trenches then the rats can burst out and if they are destroyed, the rats will still reach the enemy lines.”
“Clever.” complemented Klea the Veil Aspect. Bubonica looked delighted and clapped her scrawny and scabby hands together.
“Be mindful to not engage the enemy. You are to remain in the reserve, away from the direct action. Food for your rat spores will be provided.” By food, of course, Deo meant living humans.
The rats crawling on Bubonica squealed excitedly as they felt the rat queen’s own thrill.
“What happens next? When is the full invasion?” Onager was eager as well.
Deo pulled out three rook pieces. “Onager, Bisult and Kiasmus will be in charge of the siege. The three of you will lead a division of soldiers to begin besieging Garghent. I will get to this in a moment.”
Deo first grabbed a knight. “Garriot, when the time is right, you will front the invasion.”
Garriot interrupted. “Whoa, why am I a knight? I should be a queen if I’m a general!”
“Do you want me to use a queen?” Deo conceded.
“No, I actually like the horses more. I just thought you would think of me on the level of queen, they’re the best piece.”
“Then the knight it is. And Hege is the queen.”
Hege spread a hand and mock apologized to Garriot who then swore with a grin. Goblin snickered, always finding amusement when Garriot is on the receiving end of humiliation.
“What sign are you waiting for?” Kiasmus spoke up.
Deo knew Kiasmus meant a sign for when to initiate the full invasion. “We are stalling for three things.” Deo held a finger up for each point. “Annana to fully grasp her Aspect and its power, Garriot’s pet to mature and Garghent to blink.”
“The bastards ain’t going to blink.” Garriot argued not for the first time on this matter. “Garghent hasn’t blinked in almost a century.”
“They will soon.” Deo assured. “Janiform Amenais is dead and the current Janiform is estranged from his city. There is going to be a power struggle or a breakdown of leadership soon. Claiming Vallis almost guarantees this.”
“I should infiltrate the city and speed this along.” Klea volunteered.
Deo shut it down. “Garghent’s extensive espionage network and dossier files of us will make any such attempts far riskier than justifiable. It worked with Vallis because most of us were unknown at the time. That is no longer true.”
“When the moment arises,” Hege chimed in, “Garriot is going to lead Ophir’s army along with millions of undead and drive a wedge through Garghent’s trenches. That is when Onager and the siege team set up their foothold.”
Deo nodded. “We maintain these steady skirmishes until we get an opening. Garghent will be unlikely to risk another assassination attempt while Kiasmus is here. They fear losing someone like Klyle. But don’t get me wrong, I am fully prepared for Garghent to unleash a retaliation strike with as many Specters and soldiers as they can muster. They will have to cut through swathes of undead and our own trenches.”
“And this is where you will meet them with embracing arms,” Garriot argued again, “right into your open floor plan!” He had brought up his concern on multiple occasions as to Deo’s choice of architecture and the lack of a wall and ceiling, especially after the sniper had nearly taken Deo’s head.
Deo explained once more, “I am not the lord of a prison. My lands are not defined by walls like the foolish metropoli.”
“Well, the bastards aren’t going to let anything happen to you.” Garriot declared.
“I’m confused,” Annana exclaimed, “are we the bastards or is Garghent the bastards?”
“You really need to use more nouns other than ‘bastard’.” Hege teased.
“We’re all bastards!” snapped Garriot, crossing his arms and scowling.
Deo brought them back on topic. “Troops movements will be as follows, three legions of ten thousand will be sent via the Aiy Dry Desert to harass Vallis. From the border of Garghent to Ophir will be fifty million undead. Attack or defend, the legions there will be the primary fighting force of our military with several hundred thousand armed with guns and another few million armed with melee weapons of some sort. Twenty million undead are reserved to guard Ophir and another ten million will patrol the coasts both to the south and east of us. The remaining twenty million or so will be given to Kiasmus to prepare weapons and megaliths for Onager and the siege.” Deo and Hege went to work placing the appropriate number of pawns on the map, filling the board with black pieces. They next placed white pieces on the board to show Gargent’s military to the best of their knowledge and predictions.
Hege described Garghent’s troop deployments. “The trenches along the border have already been engaged for a week. By now they will have some data to crunch, calculating how many troops and how many provisions they will need to safely hold the border. To adequately defend such a long strip of land, we are guessing at least a million soldiers rotating in and out at any given time. Garghent’s total professional military numbers are somewhere in the ten to fifteen million. As we’ve seen before, Garghent can swiftly draft millions of more conscripts.” Hege stopped to hit his cigar a couple times. “Daedal’s mines and metal factories ensure Garghent will remain stocked in munitions. Bast as a suzerain city-state allows them even more resources to manage. Some will be for Vallis and some will be for the war effort.” Hege placed a couple of rooks on Daedal, Bast and Vallis. “This represents Garghent’s territories. They effectively own the land between these rooks.” Hege paused again to drink his bitter coffee. “Keep in mind Garghent has the wealth to pay premium for trading. No city-state wants to do business and support Garghent, but driving prices up will see third party markets flock to Garghent’s merchant faction to take advantage of their immense wealth. Garghent is fighting a military and economic war against the entire continent. They are winning as you can see.” Hege finished placing white pawns, knights and bishops in various parts of Garghent’s chunk of the map.
Deo spoke once more. “I advise you all to study the public records of Specters, even those outside of Garghent’s employment. Allegiances change and services can be purchased. Prepare and memorize every Specter and their abilities. Knowledge is the greater part of war.” Deo breathed in, feeling the onset of a migraine. “Please, discuss amongst each other.” Deo turned and walked back up the steps to his throne. His head was beginning to spin from the sheer scope of undead under his command. Every so often, especially when directly thinking about his legions, the dizzying whirlwind of millions of faces and bodies with which to command blurred in his mind. When Deo learned to divide his undead into a chiliad, a group of a thousand, it had significantly reduced the strain on his mental space. But now he found himself ordering each chiliad captain, an undead with an intact brain, multiple times in a day. Restoring damaged legions, exchanging captains when one got its head blown off, commanding retreats and attacks, receiving letters and messages from undead to update on conditions of the battle. Deo for that was at least grateful, had he the ability to connect to every pair of eyes and the flow of information that entered each functioning brain of his undead mobs, he would have gone crazy from the sensory overload of millions of experiences. Just managing his undead took most of his energy and time.
Still, Deo pushed himself to ensure his undead maintained a semblance of intelligence in their attacks. If an order was not specific or its conditions could no longer be met, the undead would just stand there waiting to be cut down. But by rotating legions in and out he upkept a mechanical process that could not be exploited by Garghent’s troops. The undead were also given orders to retaliate and defend themselves if provoked.
Deo breathed in deeply and closed his eyes. Fresh orders needed to be given and so Deo focused on directing legions to their assignments. Several thousand here, bulk charge the flanks for the change of pace, send thirty thousand through the desert, march ten million from his trenches to just outside of Garghent’s border and then ten million to replace the ten million on his own trenches. Deo at the very least could order hundreds of chiliad captains at one go to perform the same set of orders. Day by day, the undead followed Deo’s orders as if they were connected to his thought process, that is to say without any actual orders, following just the intention and instinct. Deo felt this before and if he only controlled a small portion of undead, he knew the complexity and attunement to his own will would be fully realized. The number of his undead slowed that process but Deo was learning and getting better with his necromantic Aspect of Death.
“So it begins in earnest.” Hege commented, the council disbanding for the day. Deo knew how much time had past by the state of Hege’s cigar which was but a stub.
Deo rubbed his face and eyes. “Indeed it does. The romance begins. An empire only exists until it doesn’t.”
Hege smirked. “True, you ought to have been a philosopher.”
“Oh but I am. But my teachings only appeal to the dead, see how many followers I have?”
Hege did see and as far as his vision could allow on the top of this ziggurat were fields of the unnatural preserved corpses.
Hege was enjoying every second of this lichdom. In truth he had been bored of climbing through the ranks of mobs and gangs, squirming his way through the city and the echelons of society just to have a decent life for him and his people. “Thank you for winning. Our little chess game way back. I’d not have the imagination to think so grandly beyond the city of Ophir.”
“We should play again sometime. Just for fun.”
“Should I get a board, we can play now.” Hege offered.
“And why not?” Deo asked warming to the idea, “we are already involved in the highest stakes game, playing without lives will be refreshing for a change.”
“Ah but don’t get too comfortable young lord, playing with lives is so much more entertaining.” Hege winked.
Deo closed his eyes for a second, finishing the commands to his legions for the day. Deo opened his eyes with a slight smile, those ianthine irises intoxicated by power. Hege and Deo shared a similar set of Aspects that allowed for the domination and control of other beings. It was a rush like none other, to be the hive mind. “Come then, let us go and practice moving pieces.”