“One who confronts his enemy for many years in order to struggle for victory in a decisive battle yet who, because he begrudges rank, honours and a few hundred pieces of gold, remains ignorant of his enemy’s situation, is completely devoid of humanity.” — Sun Tzu
Darek’s hands were folded. He arched forward, intently scanning the viewscreen visually, his eyes darting across it, taking in the information, and taking it in again. Examining and re-examining. Evaluating and reevaluating.
He was finally beginning to get a clear picture of his enemy. He had interrogated Entak for information, and the beginnings of a picture were coming into place. Now his native foe had a face, now the first strands of information were being collected on the enemy. The first pieces of knowledge, one of the most priceless commodities in war, was filtering in.
Entak had been the source. The luckless former Commander of the Armed Forces had been ... questioned ... with all the hallmark Darekian thoroughness.
Darek’s enemy were known as the Nobua, as he now knew. Their King: Sharguruk. Darek could vividly remember the fear evident in Entak’s eyes whenever that name had been brought up. It had been a fear he had previously only seen when he was the cause.
Which meant that this Sharguruk, whom Entak had informed him was styled as King of the Laztanai, Daghe, Menai and Lorkemo, was dangerous.
The Nobua lived underground. Again they had defied his most likely expectation. Likely expectations were no substitute for hard evidence.
Unfortunately for Darek, though, Entak had been no spy. He had not been methodically precise in acquiring information. Other than a few important points his information was what Darek already knew. And, of course, he could not ask Entak for information again. Darek needed a properly armed and equipped espionage force.
The war had settled into a deadlock. The Nobua were able to take New Zareshan, but courtesy of Cardassian technology they were unable to hold it. Likewise, Nobuan numerical superiority and extensive knowledge of the terrain prevented Darek from being able to seize Autanga Forest.
It was an even match. Darek needed to find something to tip the balance decisively in his favour before his enemy did. And the only way he could find some weakness to exploit was through a defence force.
And it was then that Darek gained an asset that could be very useful, indeed.
Sharguruk descended into the darkest depths of Laztan, into what had become the holiest shrine and most sacred of the entire forest. His living place. Large and spacious by almost any standards, with furs from various species indigenous to their homeworld used as cloths. In the other room he could hear his wives. He sat down on the bed. And he heard someone enter from behind.
“Luxurious." Came a raspy voice. It was deep like Sharguruk’s, and it was also heavy with wisdom. The King did not turn to face the owner of the voice. “I have made some improvements since you were here last.” The King replied, his mind elsewhere.
The figure strode up to him sat down on the bed and looked up at Sharguruk. Sharguruk would normally not tolerate any eye contact with another Nobua, it was a breach of the Divine Code of Kingship, a combination of the royalty traditions from all four tribes which he ruled. But he could make an exception for his brother. His brother was of a similar build, but was distinctly more laid back, more informal. In some sense he seemed to exude a cautious but blunt sense of wisdom. The most noticeable thing about him was a long scar running down the left side of his face, going right through where he once had an eye. Unlike Sharguruk he did not carry himself like a King or a lord, or like anyone who enjoyed power. He acted as an equal with people, even though he was a reserved, complacent equal. And although he was quick to offer all the proper courtesy to the King — when he didn’t feel it inconvenient — he still acted in that fashion in the presence of a man some saw as nearly a god.
Sharguruk folded his hands and imperiously leaned backwards on his bed, his movements even now subtly designed to indicate that they were not equals. The two eyed each other cautiously.
“You didn’t have an eye for such luxuries before.” Norunga said, casting his gaze about to a fur carpet, but then immediately back at the King — avoiding eye contact, but studying the King’s prowess.
“There was no time to have an eye for luxuries before. There were more pressing concerns then.” Sharguruk stated as his eyes examined Norunga’s facial expression intently. Norunga shifted, but showing no signs of discomfort.
“There are more pressing concerns now.” Norunga said, his eyes trailing up and down Sharguruk, studying the facial features of the King.
“But there were not when I assigned these.” Sharguruk said with detachment.
“Then they have been here for some time?” Norunga asked, his hand waving away from his face in the general direction of the rugs.
“A long time, Norunga. A long time.” Sharguruk replied. “Long has it been since the changes were made. Long has it been since you were last here.”
“Why did you call me here, brother?” Norunga asked slowly and carefully, but Sharguruk did not seem to hear him.
“Long has it been since we fought side by side, Norunga. Long has it been since the Wars of the Throne.” He said in his deep, commanding voice, his eyes not leaving Norunga but not seeming to look at him either. “You supported me before, Norunga. Will you support me again?”
“I do not understand you, my Lord.” Within an instant, Sharguruk bolted upright. He stood his full, formidable height. He strode right towards Norunga and looked down at him. “It has been long indeed, Norunga.” He hissed lowly, threateningly. “It has been long indeed. Have you forgotten of my skills?” Sharguruk lowered himself, leaning closer, his face full of calm, measured rage. “Have you forgotten that I can tell whether or not you are lying?”
“I have not forgotten, my Lord.” Norunga said, not batting an eyelid, as if he had seen it before. All that betrayed any sign of fear was an ever so slight hint of cautiousness in Norunga’s voice, but it was all Sharguruk needed — the King was a perceptive man. “I needed to see if you had forgotten.” Sharguruk probed Norunga’s face with his eyes, and then, satisfied that Norunga was telling the truth but unsatisfied for precisely the same reason, rose back to his full height. “It is not wise to test your King.”
“I tested him for his own good. And as for my loyalty, it has not changed since we have spoken last. Your fight, my Lord, is my fight. It will always be so.”
“As it should be so.” Sharguruk affirmed. “No conflict should occur in this house, divinely ordained by the Great Ones.” There was a silence as the two brothers evaluated each other. Sharguruk was a man who made his subjects worship him, but he knew this was not a state he could reduce his brother to. From Norunga’s perspective, Sharguruk was not some towering, infallible, indestructible idol. He knew him far too well.
But that did not matter. Blood was thicker than water. Norunga had always been there when his brother needed him, and this would be no exception. Norunga was not a man who coveted power or public office, which was why he had let his younger brother take over Laztan after they had both deposed the previous King. He fought for family and when he felt he needed to fight, but otherwise kept to himself — and kept his ear stealthily to the ground. He held no public office, but in the rigid archaic and hierarchical system of the Kingdom of Laztanai, Daghe, Menai and Lorkemo, simply being related to the leader was automatically an embezzlement of some power.
The formalities between the brothers were over. Now the real discussion began. Any sane Nobua, if not being loyal to Sharguruk, would fear him. And if they heard of the strategy being outlined in that room, they would have been beyond fear to be those who were targeted...
The doors to Darek’s office slid aside. Ochreg, accompanied by two members of the militia, came in. “Here is the Cardassian whom you asked for, sir.”
For a moment, nothing. Darek did not move, did not flinch, gave no sign of recognition. Fear brooded in Ochreg’s mind. Had he heard him? Was he too busy to have heard him? Maybe he didn’t hear him, maybe he should say it again?
No. How could he be sure this wasn’t a test? How could he be sure it was a test? How would Darek react if he spoke again? How would Darek react if he didn’t speak again? The questions raced through Ochreg’s mind.
Questions which, as it turned out, he did not need to answer. For Darek had heard.
With sharp and typical precision, he slowly moved back his chair. He faced Ochreg, and leaned ever so slightly back, looking deceptively at ease. His hands were folded and drooped. His posture was relaxed, his muscles no longer tensed. But his eyes betrayed his true nature, as he had intended them to do. His gaze was cold, threatening, and eerily persistent. He gave sharp, dangerous looks to each member of the militia in turn, until his gaze rested on the man whom they had brought in.
“What do you want me for?” The man asked in trepidation and uncertainty. Darek did not respond, but he merely glared. As Darek well knew, manipulating someone’s imagination was a rather simplistic but effective way of letting them immediately jump to the conclusions of their darkest fears. Sometimes it was the mere lack of words, the emptiness, that could chill them to the bone. This unfortunate man was no exception. He was extremely tense, and fearful.
“Not long before the Battle of New Zareshan, Ochreg here reported that an evident Cardassian wearing a Cardassian uniform escaped into the forest.” Darek said in a twisted matter-of-factly tone, finally breaking the silence. “Later personnel manifests revealed that one Glinn Hamar was missing, his location unknown.” Darek paused, letting his information sink in, but it was for only a moment. Letting the prisoner make his own conclusions. “Now, after the battle of New Zareshan, you, Glinn Hamar, were apprehended not far from the Autanga Forest near the brink of New Zareshan’s sentry range.” Darek paused to let the information sink in. He got no response. The prisoner stared blankly at Darek.
“I can expla...”
The incisive, probing eyes of Elam Darek told the prisoner what he could do with his ’explanation.’ Weakly he broke off.
“I have one question to ask you:”, Darek continued in a tone that was almost casual. Almost. He shifted slightly, leaning a bit backwards, savouring the moment, confidential. He looked like he had an ace up his sleeve. “Which type of shapeshifter are you? Chameloid? Founder?”
“How did you—” the prisoner blurted, utterly confounded, but his voice was sliced through.
“It was an obvious conclusion.” Darek interrupted in sharp, authoritarian tone, giving the prisoner no berth to speak. His expression now exuded utter contempt at his prisoner’s reaction, as if assuming he was a shape-shifter was the most obvious thing in the world. Not that that was too far from the truth in Darek’s case. “Of all the possible scenarios, it was the most likely, the one possibility that fit the situation best. I am surprised you assumed I would have thought anything else. You escape to what the indigenous inhabitants of this planet call Autanga Forest, which would be an act of effective suicide for a Cardassian. There is a very high indication that the ability to live within the confines of the forest looking like a Cardassian for the length of time you evidently stayed there is virtually impossible. The Nobua made no offers of leniency or reward of any kind in return for technical information, and given their quite publicised actions taken against the New Zareshan Armed Forces which were in the region only shortly before an attempt to defect would have been self-destructive... that is, provided the person who defected would be recognised as a Cardassian. In short, the main thing you would require to give you a valid reason to go to the forest willingly and survive accordingly would be the ability to become a Nobuan. There was, at the time, insufficient knowledge to allow for forensic alterations to be made to a face and body to match the species we now know as Nobua. The only way you could have been able to infiltrate them was if you were a shapeshifter.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because there is nothing you can do with the information.”
At first, the prisoner did not respond. His eyes drifted across the room, studying the wall and other areas, and studying Darek himself. Darek, almost complacent, let him do so. “Don’t think about it. There is no possibility that you could leave this room alive, shapeshifter, without my saying so.” The being stared at Darek, evaluating him. “You’d be dead before you got anywhere near my desk.” Darek said, responding to an unanswered question. The being, keeping a poker face, continued to stare at Darek, and then towards the console next to him. His eyes slowly probed the room. Most of it seemed innocent enough, undefended enough.
Seemed. Just because there were security systems in place didn’t mean they needed to be advertised. All indications pointed to Darek being extremely obsessed, from what he had observed. Someone who prepared for virtually anything that came to mind.
He wondered, depressingly, just how many different levels of security system the office was equipped with.
He closed his eyes and concentrated, hard. His skin contorted, stretched, twisted. The shape of Hamar twisted and contorted until it was no longer recognisable as Hamar. The militiamen took a cautious step back, aiming their weapons at the twisting features. Soon the only recognisable thing about Hamar was that he was humanoid — but only vaguely humanoid. Then the ripples began to decrease in tempo and a new shape began to be moulded.
As the ripples receded altogether an entirely different being stood facing them. His skin — for he was male was a light hue of faded red. It looked ever so slightly unnatural, as if it was metal in appearance and flesh in actuality. Across his body was the same shiny and uniform hue of red. There was no hair of any kind. And he had no ears whatsoever. His eyes were bright yellow. Other then that he looked like a normal humanoid — if he could be called that. He was still wearing his Cardassian uniform — evidently that had not been a part of him.
The being sighed, and his eyes fell to the floor, as if he was ashamed.
“You’re right, of course.” He said in a voice that sounded ever-so-slightly off-key, an accentuation unlike other humanoid voices, as if it was more of an organic fabrication of a humanoid voice then an actual one. It was a light voice, stilted, slightly uncanny. “I had hoped I would not be caught out but I had thought otherwise.”
“Who are you?” Darek asked, his hands still folded. The being’s s eyes reached him, and shuddered at his glare, his piercing, probing glare. His detached but eerie gaze. The shapeshifter swallowed.
“My name is Doga. I am a Jesoam. We are shapeshifters, but you would not have heard of us. We live far from your area of space. Or, at least, we used to. Several years ago our homeworld was reduced to a burning cinder by our enemies. They feared our infiltrative abilities and so they united to ensure that we would never survive. We were a neutral race. We refused to have Jesoam employed in espionage for those empires. Some did, covertly, but most abided by our government’s law. And in their typical style, the Empires decided that if they could not have us, then nobody would. All the empires of the region, at conflict in many other issues, joined the others in a brief campaign to overwhelm us. We had no defenses. Our planet was conquered, and our people butchered. Any Jesoam who wanted to escape the slaughter was forced to adopt the visage of another species and to effectively become a member of that species, and some were caught out even then. To escape the paranoia, to escape the pogroms of Jesoam destruction, I left that space far behind. I came to yours. And I became a Cardassian. That is my story, Gul. Take it as you will — it is true.” Doga probed Darek but the Cardassian Gul kept a perfect poker face, steely evaluating the Jesoam with a scowl.
“Ochreg, take our prisoner to the Interrogation Room.” He intoned lowly, with a piercing glance thrown the Commander of New Zareshan’s Militia’s way. Ochreg paled visibly and wordlessly coordinated with his men. They grabbed the Jesoam. Doga looked up with a shocked expression. A macabre, thin smile formed across Elam Darek’s face.
“Did you really expect me to take your word for such an incredible story?”
“But it was true—”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Darek said, cutting off the Jesoam. “There is much more information you can tell me as well. Such as what you were doing in the forest, and what you have learned.”
“But I can tell you that!” Doga protested desperately, terrified, as Ochreg opened the door. Doga’s red skin had paled, and it was unlikely that this was a shapeshifting special effect. Darek stood, circled around his table like a hawk, and leaned close to the Jesoam. “You will.” Darek said in a low, draconian tone, a thin smile stretching across his face. “You most certainly will.” And with that Darek broke his gaze from the shapeshifter and strode out from his office, leading the way to the Interrogation Chamber.
It had been quite some time since Darek had preformed an interrogation in person. Darek was not the type who took on interrogating as their prime practice, but he found interrogation a very interesting ... diversion.
And, if only the Jesoam knew, he wasn’t going to just interrogate him... no, Darek was going to do something far, far worse...
The morgue was deep within New Zareshan’s Medical Institute. It was a place seldom entered, only referred to in low, hush whispers. It was not a place that was locked out — in fact, it could be entered at any time. But no one wanted to. Not even the most curious and depraved of the doctors really wanted to know what happened in there. And those very few that did, well, didn’t go for fear of the wrath of the one man who ever went there. Doctor Merot. None really knew what he did in there — and none really wanted to.
Within the morgue the stout and ugly Cardassian cackled under his breath and walked across the rows of corpses. They were all stored in containers designed to slow down the decay process ... well, at least some of them did. The recent fighting had provided him with a substantial increase in dead subjects to ... examine.
He stealthily crept over to the corpse of a man who, though Merot would never know it, was called Haichi. Darek had asked for this Nobua corpse to be kept in perfect condition. Merot, though he was not happy with Darek’s decision, had done so, keeping the body as fresh as the day it was killed and even repairing the burn wounds from which the Nobua had met its end. Merot had not asked why Darek wanted this done, it did not matter to him. A job was a job, and this one was now complete. Merot rolled the table with Haichi’s corpse away from the lines and began to walk across the room, rolling it before him. For some reason — again, a reason the depraved physician did not know — Darek wanted this corpse delivered to him. Merot had known Darek for quite some time, and as far as he knew Darek had no real interest in corpses. So why want it?
No, no need for speculation, Merot quickly reminded himself. He must only get the job over and done with so he could return to what he did best. Merot was hading over the corpse begrudgingly — as he had bemusedly noted, it was perhaps the finest example of Nobua in the corpses available, and certainly the best preserved... But that didn’t matter. He would make do with the others. And there were a lot of them, after all...
“For your actions in fulfilling the Divine Will of the Great Ones, for your work in fulfilling the Nobuan cause, I award you with the rank and title Leader of the Guard, and all the responsibilities and privileges that come with it.” Sharguruk’s voice boomed down towards the Nobuan who knelt before him, Honchlu. He was slightly shorter then Sharguruk, thinner and overall smaller. He looked fit, but not overly so. And he looked thoughtful and reflective, a man who understood the implications of his actions.
Barely perceptibly, Honchlu nodded. “As a further indication of my favour, I will give you my daughter’s hand in marriage, and thus you will become my son and enter the ranks of the Divine House.”
A nod, this time distinctly more reverent then before. “She was the wife of the last Leader of the Guard, and she is faithful and loyal. She will serve you, well.”
Again a nod.
Sharguruk studied his new Leader of the Guard for a moment, evaluating the man who was to become the technical second in command of his state. Pleased, broke off and began to pace across the room.
Honchlu would have hardly been his first choice as a replacement for Haichi. But the aftermath of the battle of New Zareshan had been disastrous. Most of the elite of the Nobuan army had been at New Zareshan and had been subsequently killed. And although Sharguruk would never say it, the army that the Nobua had employed had been exclusively in its upper hierarchy Laztanai. The Laztanai forces which he had re-disciplined and used to seize the Autanga Forest had became the basis and core element of the Nobuan army, a reward for them being with him from the start. But that system was shattered by the battle of New Zareshan. Now all those who had served with him at the beginning where either deceased, too inexperienced to be able to command such a force, or, in the case of Norunga, would consider it effectively a demotion.
Honchlu had been, in the light of this, the logical choice. He had become a member of the Nobua army after the conquest, and had served throughout with distinction and unfailing loyalty. He had commanded a medium-sized Nobua force during the battle of Autanga Forest, and that was larger a force then any of the living Nobua in the army had commanded. He was a Menai, granted, but he had shown no faults as either a commander or as a servant. Sharguruk’s state was meant to be a one which infused all Nobua together in all aspects, and perhaps it was now opportune to realise a bit more of that in fact rather then ideal.
Besides, now more then ever he needed an experienced solider to command his troops. “Leader of the Guard,” Sharguruk boomed. “Rise.” Humbly and meekly, Honchlu rose to his full height — but kept his head facing the floor.
“There is already an urgent task which you will be needed for.”
And so it began...
Doga was barely recognisable. Strung up on a table, an unknown liquid-like purple mesh oozing from his wounds — and he had many wounds — his caved-in face dazedly racking about.
He had told Darek all he knew, as Darek was able to determine all too well. These Jesoam — for this was indeed the real name of Doga’s species — could be bent and twisted physically just like any other species, and they could feel pain because of it. Wounds inflicted on their bodies could be healed by twisting their frame, but Darek was preventing this using a certain ... present ... he had got from the Obsidian Order.
It had needed to be modified, since the Jesoam and Changeling morphing techniques were not identical — for example, the Jesoam’s natural state and the only state they could transform to was solid — but they were very similar in principle.
Doga had been telling the truth when he talked about the history of his people before, but that hardly made Darek regret his actions. He had to be sure, and it was an interesting diversion.
And now Darek was getting a clearer picture of his nemesis through the unfortunate shapeshifter. The Nobua of Autanga Forest consisted of four tribes. Laztanai, Daghe, Menai, and Lorkemo. Each tribe shared their name with the underground catacomb structure which was the home to the tribe — Laztan for the Laztanai, Dag for the Daghe, Mena for the Menai, and Lorkem for the Lorkemo.
He also had learned why Doga had rather inexplicably defected to the other side. He had feared that the Cardassians would, in fact, lose the war and did not want to be caught up in the messy aftermath. It had been a rash, foolish, irrational decision. Doga, it seemed from Darek’s evaluation, was a person who acted without thinking. Doga had adopted the guise of being the son of a little-known, isolated hermit within the forest to cover up his lack of previous identity. But Doga had found the Spartan, primitive Nobua style of living hardly to his liking — more importantly, he had made some serious mistakes in regards to Nobua ceremony and the guards were beginning to watch him because of his unstable behavior, his shady and unfounded background, and generally, Darek noted, his utter lack of preparation take on the role of a Nobua in any but the physical sense.
All very interesting, if largely irrelevant. The direct tale Doga’s journey, although for Darek largely a textbook example of what not to do, had gained only insight into how Doga operated, and no more. The information the shapeshifter had learned as a result was more interesting, but still much of it was unimportant. The tribes had been united under the rule of the Laztan Chieftain, Sharguruk — a name Darek had heard before from the pitiful Entak. It was a name that had also caused the Jesoam to wince. Sharguruk, it seemed, had welded the disorganised tribes into a unified state. He seemed like a dangerous man indeed, and not to be underestimated.
But beyond Sharguruk, lay only a history of the Nobuan people and their customs. This would be useful for infiltration, but beyond that it told little of what Darek really needed to know — the composition, placement and size of their armies, the positions of their main catacombs, the political makeup — including, naturally, those that might be dissatisfied with Sharguruk and could be weaned away from the Nobuan leader. After all, Darek could learn nothing of the tactical situation from Nobuan artwork.
And he needed such information. In a time like now, information was crucial. A lifeblood by which the pendulum of war would be made swing. Darek knew it could only be a matter of time, no matter how long or short a time, before either he or Sharguruk deposed the other. And Darek, the survivalist he was, wanted to be the one to do it first.
The doors to the Interrogation Chamber parted. Wordlessly, a medic came in, rolling the corpse of Haichi into the room. He gave a small tubule to Darek. Darek petrified the medic with but a sharp glance, and he then waved him away. Darek strode over to the device that had stopped the Jesoam from morphing and turned it off.
He then sharply and methodically walked over to Doga, piercing the prone and near-lifeless shapeshifter with his iron, engrossing glare.
“Become one of them. Not this one, but the one you were before.” Darek commanded. The weak body of Doga did not even nod, but immediately began to ripple and contort, twist and bend. Within minutes he had become a youngish Nobua who would have been in the Nobua equivalent of early twenties. Deftly, Darek held the tubule in his hand.
Within was a very potent drug. It had been top secret and known to very, very few in the Cardassian Union. Darek had been one of those few, once, and he knew. The medic who delivered it had no idea what it contained. Nor would he, and in Darek’s mind, nor should he. Within was one of the best-kept secrets of the Cardassian Union and also of New Zareshan.
It was Tokanor. The drug through which the mind could be controlled. The drug had been engineered to perfection. It was so precise that the person who was induced with the drug would immediately become the abiding and absolute servant of the first voice he heard, and serve his purpose to the full. It was a rare drug, and developed only very shortly before Darek had departed. Most of the ingredients had been altered at the sub-atomic level and given the certain properties of their composition impossible to replicate with one hundred percent, miniscule accuracy — and without that accuracy it was worthless. New Zareshan itself only had a small amount of this virtually inaccessible drug available, but Darek, who had naturally carefully weighed out necessity beforehand, decided it was worth it to use it this time. He needed a shapeshifter like Doga if he was to collect information. It might not work, given Jesoam physiology, but the possible benefits outweighed the possible risks.
Long had Darek wanted to gather intelligence on the Nobua. Long had he wanted to assemble an intelligence force. The first step was to be made here.
Darek bent over the restrained Doga. Before the Jesoam could react or see what Darek was doing he injected him the drug. Doga lurched, and in an instant it was over. Darek rounded the table, examining the shapeshifter, evaluating his facial contortions during this momentary loss of complete control. Though Jesoam could change their bodies, it was the result of much effort, and when they had changed to that body they effectively became it — making it as hard for a Jesoam to conceal its emotions as with any other humanoid.
Darek leaned close to the shapeshifter, moving towards his Nobuan ear. “You will obey me.” He hissed, his voice low and threatening. Doga’s eyes rolled over to face Darek’s. “I will obey you.” Doga replied, numbly. Darek squinted, his eyes darting up Doga’s dazed, prone face.
He broke off his gaze and stepped back. He turned the device back on, just in case.
The Tokanor was working. Evidently, that is. And Darek, naturally, wanted to be sure...
And a few more interrogations wouldn’t hurt Darek, after all...
Despite the fact the room was vast, it was packed to the full. Nobua were stocked right across the chamber, enveloping it in a misty blue sea. The King had summoned an assembly of the most prestigious Nobua of Autanga Forest in their entirety via his messengers, and had left no explanation as to why, but only when and where. And so they had assembled, cautiously and curiously awaiting the King. In Sharguruk’s kingdom, the difference between an invitation and a summons was distinct, and Sharguruk never sent out the latter. One could disobey the summons of Sharguruk at their own peril. To do so was practically tantamount to treason.
Naturally, all he had summoned were present. But not all of them were the ones who had been summoned. A number of curious onlookers and others had drifted into the conference, pulled inward by its magnetism and the chance to see the King in person. Throughout the massive hallway conversation actively persisted in hushed, reverent, even fearful tones.
And then there was the low, humming burst of sound as a primitive trumpet was played on a single, bass note. The echo of the noise replaced the hushed conversation as all lapsed into silence.
With firm, assured strides, Sharguruk rounded the corridor and began to descend into the room. His guards stood at his side, including the Leader of the Guard, Honchlu. Within Sharguruk’s swift, sharp strides could be seen his ferocity, his singleness of will. And then he stopped, stood totally still. His deep panting echoed through a room otherwise totally, utterly silent.
“My people.” He began in a reverberating, authoritarian voice. He sounded, in some sense, like a father — a father meting out a punishment. “I was sent to you by the Great Ones to once and for all fulfil the combined and united destiny of the Nobua. I was sent to lead you to glory. Most of you have embraced the will of our benefactors, most of you have decided to side with me on this divinely approved mission.” Then his voice became deeper, lowered, and more threatening. It was quieter, but it was a speech none could fail to hear. “But there are others.” He hissed. “Others, who although born Nobua, forsake their heritage, forsake our destiny. Others who, although they have sight cannot see. They are tempted and courted away from our combined destiny. They deal insidiously with the Evil Ones in exchange for the protection of their shallow and imperfect magic. They betray not just the Great Ones, but they betray the entire Nobua race. They befoul our image amongst the Great Ones by their actions. They are like a black stain on a banner. But they are not a stain on a banner, but a stain on the entire Nobua race. It is my solemn duty, as the leader of all Nobua of Forest, to clean our banner. To erase our stain.”
The very moment Sharguruk stopped speaking, it began. Before anyone could react, before anyone could take in what the King had said, spears shot out from the darkness. The spears whirled through the spear, swept through the room, and drove right into the bodies of their targets with a sickening crack. Within that moment several Nobuan bodies simultaneously slumped to the floor.
Pandemonium erupted. Immediately the crowd became a seething mass of panic and fear, all assembled desperately racing towards the exits.”
And were greeted by the finest of Sharguruk’s troops. All entrances and exits were sealed by their bulk, like a solid wall of blue flesh.
Some of those who believed they might be a target tried to hide, or intermingle themselves in the crowd, but it was to no avail. Sharguruk had selected an assassin for each person whom he had wanted liquidated.
The crowd scattered, shifted this way and that, utter fear and instinct gripping all there. Some tried to force their way past the troops but were knocked back almost effortlessly. Those who felt that they had their back up a wall and had nothing to loose lunged towards Sharguruk himself — but thanks to the keen eyes of the spearmen studiously guarding him never got close.
A final spear whizzed through the room and smashed through the head of its target, shredding the skull to pieces.
The final corpse collapsed onto the dirt ground with a slight thud, and the blare of the trumpet bid the remaining Nobua to attention.
Timidly, shaken and scared, they turned back to face their King.
All in all, the blood-fest had been short, effective, and demonstrative. Only a small portion of the assembled had been killed, but it had sent a chilling message to every other person there.
Obediently, the crowds turned again to face Sharguruk, waiting in trepidation what he was about to do next. His next action could be to dispose of them as well for all they knew, but they had no choice.
Slowly, Sharguruk gazed down at the crowd, gazing with an all-powerful, all-engrossing stare, harshly commanding and reserved, the stare of a monarch.
“Now you have observed what the traitors had gained by aligning themselves to the Evil Ones. You have learned what occurs when someone follows that dark path.” A pause. “There is no need to be scared.” He added ironically, for fear was precisely what his show of force had been intended to project. “The righteous need not fear my wrath. Why are you running? Those of you who serve me, and serve the Great Ones, will never come to any harm under my rule. To serve me, you are aiding the highest of causes. To obey me, you increase the prestige of our people. To carry out my commands, you will help lead our people to their deserved place as masters of Ipnir. Obedience enriches us all...” He paused and his voice fell again. Lower, but with a less threatening tone then before — for he no longer needed that tone. His actions had spoken well enough. “...but to disobey you threaten the very perseverance of the Nobua itself.” Sharguruk then stopped speaking. He stood rock solid, majestically, and warningly. No doubt, as he well knew from observation, this incident would seep through all of Laztan by word of mouth, and stretching outwards to the other catacombs and his empire in its entirety, growing more fantastic with each retelling.
He could have executed the suspects in private, but he knew the method he had chosen would have a far more profound and tightening aspect.
It was a success. But Sharguruk was not content to rest on his laurels. He had learned all too long ago what had happened to men who did...
Slowly, Sharguruk turned his back on the scene of carnage and ascended in brisk, forceful strides. The meaty phalanxes of Nobua filling the exits parted and went their assigned ways as the shadowy killers disappeared altogether.
Soon, the only evidence there had ever been an incident in the room were the rotting carcasses of the victims, strewn across the floor.
Doga wheezed. Blood, grey Nobuan blood, trickled out of his nose. Jesoam did more then simulate a body, they became it in every sense — and right now, Doga’s Nobuan body had taken quite a beating.
That was not the worst of it. His arm was lying on the floor, ripped off, it seemed, by bare muscle.
“Stop...” He whispered, faintly. Tears welled up in his eyes. “Please... stop...”
But to plead mercy from Elam Darek was the actions of a truly desperate man. Darek never showed any mercy. Like a predator, Elam Darek circled him, gazing down on his deformity like a hawk. The heels of his boots clanked sharply against the metal floor. He circled... circled... circled. Doga’s vision blurred.
And then Darek was right next to Doga, leaning down towards the Jesoam. His eyes coldly stared at his prisoner. Doga looked up at the cold, harsh glare that Darek exuded, and whimpered slightly. A morbid half smile played across Darek’s lips, as if he was saying: Now I own you.
And that was indeed the case.
Darek had tested the Jesoam’s supposed loyalty to its limits, to see if the Tokanor truly had an effect on the shapeshifter. Whether or not his actions had been in vain. There were only few ways he could really confirm it, but they were hardly methods for the squeamish. After all, shapeshifter or no, it took a lot of willpower to wilfully rip off your own arm just because someone told you to do so. And that had been one of the more ... mild ... forms Darek had used to evaluate how worthwhile Doga was. Doga was his. His mind was utterly subservient. He would do Darek’s bidding. But still the Legate was not finished. Obedient Doga was, but he now had to make Doga’s obedience truly worthwhile. It was now, now that he was assured Doga would obey him, he was to make Doga an Intelligence Officer.
It was here, and it was now, that Darek’s long-coveted plan of having a New Zareshanian Intelligence Service would finally come to fruition.
But Doga was, of course, not an intelligence operative. He had no experience. He needed to be instructed, disciplined, trained. Molded in Darek’s image. His mind needed to be twisted around, rendered perspective, calculating, evaluating, devious. Cunning, ruthless, methodical. To be obsessive. He needed to see, in short, the world as Darek saw it. And then, and only then, could Doga carry out the operation which Darek intended him to do...
The room’s lights were dimmed, even more then the norm. Slowly, a being entered and looked around. In the murky shadows he whom he had been waiting for stood. Slowly, the arrival crossed the room and the doors closed.
“May we speak freely?” The arrival asked. The other titled his head in his typical fashion. “Have you contacted them?” He asked, terse, and matter-of-factly.
“No...” said the other.
“I told you to contact them!” The other snapped, irritated. “We can’t have these type of delays! Not when we’re so close.”
“I tried to contact them.” The arrival interjected.
“And why on earth did you fail?” The other demanded, losing his patience.
“Because... they’re not there.”
The eyes of the one who had been there from the beginning bulged. “What do you mean, ’they’re not there’? Surely there must be something.”
“That’s the problem. They’re not there. Nothing. No trace. No nothing.”
“That’s ridiculous!” The other exploded, getting angrier by the moment.
“Don’t you think I know that?” The new arrival snapped, getting his turn to lose his patience. “I know it’s impossible, but it’s also true!”
The other one, realising he had overreacted, composed himself. “If it is true, then there must be a way for it do be so. Do you have any ideas... any theories ... anything... that would explain it?” The one who had been there from the start asked.
“No. I have none.” The new arrival paused. “And I don’t think I’ll have one anytime soon...”
Zorat, the Minister for Economics of New Zareshan, leaned back ever so slightly at his desk. He was deep into reading a PADD. Some might have mistaken Zorat for relaxing — but it was far from it.
Zorat was deep into reading all the latest fluctuations, however minor, in New Zareshan’s market. Zorat may have never heard the phrase ’time is money,’ but he was exactly the type of person who would coin it. Tirelessly he examined anything pertaining to the economy of this new state, hawk-eyed he peered for new opportunities or threats, utilising his photographic memory to the maximum to learn all he felt he needed to learn.
It would be no exaggeration to call him the Darek of the business world.
And like Darek he had an impressive track record. His proudest moment had been virtually cornering the market on the supply of ammunitions to lesser planets. He had driven out Lek’s Arms, a Ferengi company which had long held ascendancy in that market. For a time, Zorat could boast to be one of the ten richest men in the Cardassian Union. Of course, he had his failures. And his fortunes had, unluckily for him, not improved after that. His company was forced to switch to producing arms directly sold to the Cardassian military during the Klingon-Cardassian war, and the resulting economic and political turmoil along with heightened insecurity clear across the Union made the change permanent. When the Dominion War began to wind down against Cardassia, and it seemed that greater economic chaos was ahead, Zorat did not respond to Darek’s... offer... to join him entirely because of the coercion.
Not that staying on New Zareshan had been much better. A state ordered monopoly he may control, but it was a monopoly which was under all too tight reins from the state, too much for Zorat’s comfort. Being personally threatened with annihilation as the result of an invasion hadn’t improved his outlook either.
“Sir?” A voice chirped over the com. It was his secretary. Immediately snapped out of his musings and evaluations, Zorat huffily looked towards the air. “What is it?” He demanded petulantly, already annoyed.
“Jakar is here to see you, sir.” Zorat scowled — and since no one could see him it was really for his own benefit more then anyone else’s. “Tell him to get an appointment.” Zorat snapped again, almost parrot-like. It hadn’t been the first time he’d said those words...
“He has an appointment sir. Don’t you remember? He filed one.”
“All right, all right, enough already, send him in!” Zorat barked again.
“Yes sir.” The secretary replied and closed the link. A few moments later the door parted and Jakar stepped in. He walked casually but he was still dressed in his formal, Cardassian military attire.
“Make it brief, Jakar.” Zorat said while making a show of shuffling his files and examining them. “I’m a busy man, you know, I don’t have all day.”
With quick strides Jakar moved towards Zorat’s desk and threw something atop of it, which hit it with a sharp clang. Immediately Zorat looked up, dropping what he was doing. Jakar looked down at the shrewd and rotund businessman with an angry look. It was by no means what Darek could give, but it was quite a look. Zorat looked up, putting on a display of wounded pride but looking more like wounded arrogance. Jakar nodded and smiled faintly, glad that he had got Zorat’s attention. “What is this?” Jakar said, nodding down at the object he had slammed on Zorat’s desk. Slowly, Zorat looked down and picked it up. “It’s a PADD.” He examined it. “It contains the confirmed orders for the new shield generator.”
“And what is that next to the order?” Jakar asked as he swayed back and forth. Cautiously, Zorat glanced up at Jakar. The military man looked quite unstable. Slowly, he responded: “The price required by the shield generator.”
“The... price.” Jakar repeated, doing a mocking imitation of Zorat’s voice. “Tell me, Zorat, what type of man puts a price on his own safety?”
Zorat stared at him blankly. “An intelligent one.”
“Suicidal.” Jakar corrected. “We, the state, should not be required to pay you anything.”
“Why? Can you or cannot you afford this sum? Or has the Legate decreed this?”
“I’m sure when Darek hears, he’ll agree with me.” Jakar said, beginning to circle Zorat. “You wouldn’t want to be on his bad side, even temporarily, now, would you?”
“You don’t know what Darek thinks.” Zorat countered, keeping a perfect game face.
“Tell me, Zorat, just how well do you know Darek?”
“Well enough to know he doesn’t like people presuming his course of action.” And then they paused, staring at each other, looking at where they stood. Jakar’s eyes began to blaze with anger and frustration. “I’m higher ranking then you. Remove the cash. That’s an order.” But Zorat wasn’t going to go under so easy. He would have never achieved what he did if he was.
“Unless you are empowered by the Legate you have no authority to make such a decision.” He shot back point-blank. “You are not higher ranking then me, although a member of the military, and your jurisdiction does most certainly not extend to the economic sector. Unless you have some other oh-so-urgent matter to discuss, Jakar, I suggest you leave my office. Now.” Jakar glared at Zorat, but, knowing when he was beaten, turned to leave. “You’ll regret this Zorat,” he said, his voice laced with meaning.
“We’ll see about that.” Zorat shot back, and in response Jakar scowled and left. Zorat grunted arrogantly and picked up his PADD again, beginning once more to study the situation...
Doga plodded a step forward. Looking more like a drone then the lively Jesoam he had once been, he saluted. “Doga, Officer of the New Zareshan Intelligence Agency, reporting for duty.” He said tonelessly. It had taken excessively rigorous training, but Darek had achieved. He had swept away all that Doga had once been and he had made Doga his own, almost as if he was an extension of himself.
Darek’s eyes probed the Jesoam. “You know your duty?”
“Yes, Legate.” Doga said the word legate as a slave would say ’master.’
When all was said and done about training, there was only one place were someone could truly be trained, truly be tried... and that was in the field. Now Darek would know whether or not his efforts had gone to waste.
One last time, he sized up the Jesoam. He was the ideal choice for the mission Darek had empowered him with. In the brevity of time he could have hardly made Doga into another Darek, but he had forced upon the Jesoam the necessary knowledge by which to operate for him. He was the only being who he could trust implicitly — not, of course, that he trusted Doga at all, but he could, if he really wanted to. If the effects of the Tokanor worked as effectively as Darek believed, then the Jesoam would not betray him, nor would he be betrayed by his fear. And, of course, he had the ability to become other shapes — to a certain degree, provided that they were solid, and it took considerably more effort than another shape-shifters — but he was perhaps the only shape-shifter on the entire planet.
And, given the possible benefits that the mission pertained... it was worth a try. Darek had, of course, methodically planned and prepared for the contingences, building on the sketchy information given to him by Entak and Doga to form a series of plans and preparations for any... issues ... that might arise.
And now it would leave his hands. It would be virtually impossible to maintain communication when Doga had reached Autanga Forest.
For a succulent moment, Darek’s eyes bore hard into the Jesoam, a dark warning of just how crucial the operation really was. Doga, although he would carry out what Darek commanded to the letter could still feel fear when Darek gave him that harsh, deathly look... he’d have to be insane not to. Darek watched him writhe for a moment, bleakly reminding him of just how much the mission depended on him... and what would happen if it went awry. “Dismissed.” Darek intoned when he was satisfied. Doga nodded, seemingly drunkenly, and plodded out of the room. Slowly, Darek turned to his monitor and began to study all his contingency plans based on the various possible outcomes of Doga’s mission. But he could only operate in the aftermath — not affect the mission itself. Once again, the situation was out of his control, although closely measured and approved by him...
And Darek hoped this time the outcome would be better than before...
Honchlu stood in the enclave of Laztan that counted as both his home and his office. He paced back and forth, as if deep in thought. “Leader.” A voice, light by Nobuan standards, intoned behind him. Honchlu whirled around, startled by the sound, and cursed under his breath. “What is it, Hagram?” He snapped. Hagram was a stout, somewhat short Nobuan, with a roughly rectangular face and seemed to be quite inquisitive. “We have caught another one of the traitors, Leader, one of those that Sharguruk have been looking for. We entrust him to you.” Hagram looked out from beyond the hole in the room that counted as a door and nodded. Two taller, more burly Nobua came in, wrenching a third with them that they promptly threw into the room. The third collapsed onto the ground and began to wheeze.
Hagram looked down at the wheezing Nobua and then nodded to Honchlu. “Don’t worry about him. When we found him he was in a weak and exhausted state. I can doubt he can lift a finger, still less fight you.”
Hagram nodded to his fellow Nobua, and he and the two others left the room, their footsteps resonating from beyond the room as they faded into the distance.
Honchlu, cautious, looked down at the Nobua and slowly helped him up. The face looked up at him.”
“You’re Doga the hermit’s son!” Honchlu didn’t get a response.
Provided you don’t count a knee in the ribcage. Honchlu staggered backwards from the blow as Doga brought himself up to his full height. “No, wait, stop!”
Doga, moving faster then any Nobua could, raced over, grabbed Honchlu’s head in a headlock and forced him down. “Stop! Stop!” Honchlu said in-between gasps. “I’m with you!”
Doga released him and let him lie in the floor — and then came over him, his hands gripping the sides of his arms. “What do you mean?”
“Sharguruk. I’m against Sharguruk...”
Doga’s eyes narrowed. “And you’re the Leader of the Guard too? Convenient.” Doga braced for another round.
“No, I mean it! I’m a Menai, and I’m a Menai patriot!” Again a pause. Doga studied the Nobuan’s face. Darek’s course on being able to determine whether someone was lying or not relied largely on psychological Cardassian data and could therefore not apply entirely to Nobua.
“Very well.” Doga said, and stood up. “Tell me... the state of Sharguruk’s Kingdom... and how you are undermining it.” Doga circled him cautiously, his eyes narrowed. “And I wouldn’t do anything... unwise... if I were you.”
Honchlu looked at him with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. “You’re not Nobuan, are you?”
“I am the one asking the questions.”
“Then you’ll have your answers. The situation in the Autanga Forest hasn’t been the same since the defeat at the demon’s den. Our ’great king’ has based a lot of his support on making the people believe that he is invincible, that since he is empowered by the Great Ones his schemes shall succeed. The battle at the demon’s den was more then a tactical defeat... it shattered a myth.
Ever since Sharguruk has been trying to keep the forest firmly under his control, and he’s increasingly relying less and less on his myth and more on brute force and coercion. He is no longer worshipped by the people as he once was. That is dying out, and in Mena, Dag, and Lorkem it is all but extinct.”
“Disaffection is one thing, Leader. Are there those that are willing to turn against him?” Doga asked sceptically as he circled.
“In all three catacombs there is a hidden, secretive independence movement. And those movements have been becoming more important since the battle of the demon’s den. I’ve kept as many members of the movements as I could alive and away from Sharguruk’s suspicion, but that’s a hard thing to do. Recently he’s had his brother patrolling the catacombs in silence and shrouded like an old man, intently examining the people within and making reports back to him.
We need to strike soon before he destroys us entirely.”
Doga carefully studied the Nobuan. It would be unwise to trust him, but if it truly was a trap he knew he could escape, and he had a few tricks up his sleeves formed especially for that purpose.
“Then you shall.” Doga responded.
“How much of the military is sympathetic to your cause?” Doga pressed.
“Before the battle of demon’s den it wouldn’t have been much. Most of the military were Laztanai, and even those that weren’t looked on Sharguruk very favourably. But afterwards ... you know, the combination of Dag, Menai, and Lorkem outnumber Laztan three to one on a population scale. When virtually all the finest Laztanai troops were slaughtered in the battle of demon’s den they resorted to recruiting more and more of ours to fill the ranks. Few of them are actively members of our insurgence, but I feel that it would not be entirely unreasonable to count on them to side with us if and when the war begins.”
Doga titled his head. “Then, Honchlu, I have a plan...”
Night settled on the Autanga Forest. Sharguruk strode down to his bedchamber...
“My Lord! My Lord!” A voice shouted from behind him. Sharguruk looked around to face it. The face reverently titled towards the ground. “My lord, the worst has happened!” Hagram exploded, badly shaken.
“What is it?” Sharguruk intoned forcefully, moving towards the Nobuan with long, sweeping strides. “Lorkem, Dag, and Mena march against us!” Hagram said desperately. “They have crushed our armies in their cities with the fire spears that the demons of the Evil Ones had owned! They are sweeping in on Laztan! Honchlu has betrayed us, and he heads the armies of the enemy! What are your orders?” Hagram blurted. But Sharguruk did not respond. Slowly he turned away from him. It was all unravelling. The Kingdom that he had striven his entire life to attain, manage and form, was disintegrating. His vision of a unified Nobua — unified behind him — was tumbling down. He sighed, long and deeply.
Some great men cried because they no longer had anything to conquer. Sharguruk cried, internally, for he had lost all that he had gained. And all because he trusted one man enough to be the Leader of his Guard.
Better it is to never achieve a dream then to achieve a dream and lose it.
“There is only one thing left for me to do...” Sharguruk said softly, his voice more like a murmur then the commanding voice it had once been.
It had been a long and brutal struggle. The corpses of hundreds of Laztanai fanatics lay strewn on the ground of Laztan, alongside those of other Nobuan tribes who still had worshipped Sharguruk. Among the corpses of Sharguruk’s followers were innocents, Laztanai civilians whose only crime was the tribe they had belonged to.
Doga and Honchlu, escorted by a burly team of Nobua, raced through the catacombs in the final chaotic hours. A team of fanatics hurled themselves at the group but the phasers vaporised them all before they ever got close. They charged up the steep slopes until they reached what they were looking for. And then they barged into Sharguruk’s bedchamber to find—
Nothing. Eerily, no-one was present. Honchlu whirled around to the men behind him. “You! I want you to comb the entirety of Laztan! Do not stop until you have found Sharguruk, dead or alive!” He snapped, and they walked off.
Doga looked around the room. “You know that if we were going to find him at all... he’d be here.”
Honchlu nodded, sombre, and gazed around the room. “But I cannot let the myth survive, Doga, whether or not Sharguruk still lives. If word gets out that he is still alive, that he escaped, it would only assure for some that he is truly a god...”
“And what do you suggest instead?” Doga asked rhetorically.
“We will tell them that Sharguruk is dead. That he died here, and he died in disgrace.”
“There’s no body.” Doga reminded him.
“Then we will say that it was destroyed. Better that than the truth.”
In hushed silence, the two men stood uneasily in the room that had once been the home of the King of all of Autanga Forest, the Saviour of the Nobuan people...