Prologue Part 1
More than two hundred men hurried across the seemingly endless, scorching expanse of desert. Very little moved around them, excepting a few small creatures that scurried out of their path. The ziriks they rode were sweating heavily under their coats of hair, despite the scales reflecting sunlight off of them from the tails that arched over their backs. They were being ridden hard.
The army passed a large guran tree, disturbing a nesting kyt. The aerial predator moved through the tightly packed spines on the branches, her spiked feet fitting between the defensive needles, and screamed at the men, warning them away.
They paid her no attention. Their focus was solely on an object shimmering in the heat, close enough now the horizon had relinquished its hold on it.
General Urig’s face was grim, and he kicked the zirik when it began to lag, spurring it back to speed. They had better be in time.
The two hundred men with him were part of a slowly shrinking military. The Grak, a branch of humanity that had split away hundreds of years past, had begun encroaching on the territory around the impressive Mount Ramadan. Before, they had stayed in the West, leaving the human settlements alone, content to war, hive against hive.
Now, though, the deformed, less than human Grak were trying to take the land away from them, and succeeding. Three villages had been lost almost at once, before a cohesive defensive could be raised. Another had fallen since then, with heavy losses. Future prospects were grim.
Undoubtedly, the Grak’s end goal was to secure the Vallah Spring, on the Eastern side of Mount Ramadan. The spring was a precious and priceless resource. Flowing out of the mountain, it created a small river that flowed Southward, then ended as abruptly as it began, spilling into the unmeasured depths of the chasm known as The Great Tear.
The zirik lagged again, and grunted painfully when Urig kicked it viciously. The general had no time for weakness.
The watery blur of a large establishment was dissolving into the clear picture of a circular structure, and two lookout towers. Also visible were several large Grak mounts, their bony crests standing up from their heads like the shields they were.
Urig’s frown turned into an urgent scowl, and he spurred the zirik to go even faster, not caring it might drive the beast to its death of exhaustion. If the lyrds were still moving, the Grak continued to attack. If they got through, it would mean the end of the hope being created within those circular walls, and likely the end of the oasis of mankind that bloomed in this desert.
The two hundred men and ziriks came to a hurried stop in front of the facility, but their haste had been unnecessary.
Nine men were left to greet them, breathing heavily and bloodied, both from their own wounds and others’. Scattered around them were some fifty dead soldiers and scores of Grak. A few of the lyrds had been killed, and the rest had run under the command of their riders, in turn under the order of a surviving prince. Those cowardly souls were still visible, hurrying away into the West.
“The Grak have been turned back, Sir,” one of the soldiers reported as the general dismounted and walked over to survey the carnage more closely.
Urig studied the bodies in the sand. Large, strong Grak brutes, and the smaller, more nimble Grak agiles. His quick eyes found the bodies of two princes, less deformed than the others, their bodies more colorfully adorned. Slaves and slave drivers, and too many of his own soldiers.
He looked up from the corpses to the lyrds growing smaller in the distance. There was little point in chasing them. They’d never catch them with their exhausted ziriks, and there was a chance the Grak Queens already knew of the incursion’s failure. The strange hive life of the Grak seemed to have given them a form of shared thought. It was one explanation for how the princes guided and directed their armies without having to be on the front lines, or speaking in their growling, muttering language.
The General’s jaw tightened and he ordered the men he’d brought to clean up the mess and repair the lookout tower that had been toppled by a lyrd. Leaving someone to take care of the ziriks that would survive the ride, he went inside, unbothered by the weight of the warhammer strapped to his back. The most important thing now was that the Grak had not somehow learned of the nature and purpose of this facility.
He brushed aside the questions of a few staff members that didn’t know it was pointless to ask them, and went straight to the inner sanctum. Without breaking his stride, he threw open the doors, instantly fastening his eyes on the slightly built man inside.
“Calm down,” the man said softly, without looking at him, hunched over his work. “The project is safe.”
“You are certain, Asnamad?” Urig advanced into the room, careful not to disturb the shelves full of small, black stones that rimmed this quiet, circular space.
“They failed to breach the walls, did they not? Everything is safe, and without seeing inside, they cannot have discovered our secret,” the man, also in his mid twenties said simply, still intent on carving a symbol into the stone he was holding. It had to be done with exquisite care, and wasn’t something he left even to the other Keepers that had come with him.
“The only ones who know are in this place, and we neither leave, nor have visitors,” He set the stone aside, one face of its smooth surface now carved with three interlinked circles, and looked up at his co-conspirator. “Not that the non-men would understand, anyway.”
Urig didn’t relax, though he was relieved at the assurance. He went to the racks of stones, and took one of the blank ones to examine it, noting there were far fewer of the unmarked stones. “You are marking all of them? Are you certain that is wise?”
“You do fret a great deal, don’t you?” Asnamad rose and stretched his back, having been at his task for hours.
“I would not be surprised if the hives begin to ally themselves with each other,” Urig put the stone back and turned to him. “Our existence is threatened by one hive, every additional enemy diminishes our chances drastically. I need these soldiers, and I cannot afford to have the Rama Stones used up in a failed experiment.”
“You need to have more faith, Urig. Vallah is with me, otherwise we would not be here. Have you forgotten? The Great Mother gave me this vision, and revealed to me the Stones. We have reached the correct balance. You will have your warriors, and Vallah will be preserved.”
“And the Keepers hiding away in their valley will disown you if they ever know what you have done to reach this balance,” Urig took him at his word, but thought the Keeper had grown arrogant. Bit of a difference from the simple confidence he had exuded at their first meeting. “We need to build more facilities. The Grak nearly got through. You will ensure every Keeper that followed you knows exactly how to complete your process, and they will each be instated as head of a facility.”
Asnamad didn’t appreciate being ordered like that, and asked with a smile, “Speaking of the Grak getting through, what happened to the reinforcements you said you were sending? They should have been here earlier today, but they never arrived.”
Urig scowled. “They encountered the Grak that attacked you on their way here. Two men brought word of the force. If those reinforcements hadn’t found them, you would be dead. Preferably eaten alive.”
The Keeper chuckled. “Come now, General. Don’t be so angry. I know you have lost men, losses that we cannot sustain forever. I will prepare my brethren, but we will need more mothers.”
“Leave that to me,” Urig started for the door.
“You do realize it will take over a decade for your army to be at all ready to fight for you?”
“I will find a way to safeguard us,” the General said darkly. “Even if I have to force every stubborn villager into the capital and train them to fight. We will not be driven out of the land.”
Asnamad watched him go, and closed the doors behind him. Urig was the kind of man who would sacrifice anything to accomplish his goals. He’d already proven that. Oddly, it turned out they weren’t so different. Now wouldn’t that surprise the Keepers that hid themselves in the Vallah Valley?
He put the stone he’d finished on one of the shelves, and took a blank stone back to his seat on the floor. The first successful child had been born over a week ago, with two more following closely. The product of two years of research and experimentation.
Urig had no faith in anything but himself.
Well, even the faithless could be rewarded. Asnamad smiled and began to carve a square with a half circle into the small black stone.