Thousands. There had to be tens of thousands of them. General Urig didn’t blink as he stared at the horde sweeping over the dunes and stolid juts of rock. Grak, the deformations in their bodies visible even from where he stood, and hundreds of their lyrd mounts. He could feel the vibrations of their pounding advance, especially the giant, heavy, four legged beasts, the bony crests rising tall above their heads providing cover for the archers hiding in their shadow.
Urig turned his gaze over the men he commanded. He didn’t need to see their fear; he could feel it rising from them in a stinking wave. They weren’t wrong. The general looked back as the shouting, grotesque army came within moments of slamming into his defenses, and felt a shiver of doubt, cold perspiration beading his brow. The shouting grew louder, and then there was only the grak to see.
Grand General Urig woke with a gasp and threw the covers off of him. He rose to sitting and realized he was sweating. He wiped his brow with his right hand and hit the bed with a closed left fist. Those images, that battle, was the past. A younger version of himself, who had not yet learned to have no fear. He rose and grabbed a robe, loosely tying it as he walked to his study. It was a past he had conquered, and a youth he had mastered.
The guard shifted as Urig entered his study, and studied him for a brief moment. Silently, the lithe figure retreated, shadowy in the light of his candle, bare feet firm against the floor. For a fleeting moment, he was grateful for the understanding the years spent together had imparted to his guard.
The dream had unsettled him, after all, to take that much comfort in the quiet act. Alone, Urig lit enough candles to see by, a few more than he had needed at that prior age, and began pulling out his records.
It wasn’t that he was still afraid of those nightmarish vestiges of memory, no, it was that he considered these dreams as a warning. He was missing something. Even in this era of safety he had led his people into, there was no room for error. He could not overlook anything. So, yet again, he started at the beginning.
Urig had meticulously kept records of everything. His battle plans, notes on the people he worked with, the people he used to work for. Important conversations were jotted down verbatim, or as near to it as his sharp mind recollected.
It had started when he was in his mid-twenties, on the young side at that. Balask hadn’t needed much of a military presence. Mostly, it was a militia that answered requests for assistance against bands of thieves, or unusually strong predatory presence. Basically, it simply seemed sensible to have one. The Council had overseen it, making sure the military wasn’t too strong, or too weak. To be certain, it wasn’t a priority. They usually had other issues on their diplomatic minds.
It had been easy to rise to a commanding rank. Urig was born for war, he could feel it in his bones. Causing it wasn’t an interest, but he knew he was more intelligent, more fit for it than anyone else around him. Besides, no one showed as much desire for command as he did, and the disadvantage of age could not outweigh the intensity of his drive. He was right, and those instincts would be what saved the civilization they all sheltered under.
It was easier to appreciate that civilization, Grand General Urig thought, when one witnessed the contrast.
Almost concurrently with his rise, the grak had begun to press closer. Scout troupes probed the villages, and between them. Urig saw no other cause for this change from their repulsive neighbors than a prelude to a military incursion. The Council believed acting on that conviction was premature. How many hundreds of years had it been since humanity and grak had parted ways? Perhaps they were testing the waters for renewed contact. Maybe they’d changed.
Urig knew they hadn’t. Behind the Council’s back, he drew up battle plans, and laid out defensive strategies. He began recruiting more men, and increased training across the board. The Council disapproved, and they argued heatedly.
Grand General Urig smiled grimly, cold dark eyes pausing their reading as he remembered standing before the Council calmly and fiercely defending his position. They were about to suspend him, fearing radical and unsanctioned movement, when a scout came charging into the chamber, ashen and wild eyed, proclaiming an army of harrowing proportions moving towards them. Silence, then, as the news sunk in, save for the heavy breathing of the panicked scout. Urig waited with satisfied patience. Permission was given with a single word. “Go.”
Turning on his heel, General Urig uttered his first sanctioned orders to the scout, and more to the men waiting as he exited the chambers. His skibb was ready, long, skeletal legs folded, oval body rested on the ground so all he had to do was step aboard. His size covered most of the body of the eight legged creature, but the strength of nature meant the skibb could carry him, and quickly. With a jerk on the two reigns attached to the two forelegs, he pulled the skibb up and a kick to its hairy body sent it running forward. The detachment of soldiers followed.
General Urig had already made many preparations, which had largely been kept from the Council’s knowledge. Some took the form of entrenched positions, long furrows shoveled out of the sand and cut out of the rock where necessary. Some were captured badjads, already ferocious, and soon to be goaded into raged bloodthirst. There were others, and most of it was based on strategic placement.
Even though Urig had sent out his own scouts, he had not felt prepared for the sheer size of their enemy’s force. One thing remained certain, despite the passage of nearly three decades, if he had not done what he had done, his people’s existence would have ended in those first few days.
Grand General Urig looked up and out, staring past the mountain wall his home was carved into, and picturing the garden that existed on its eastern side. Vallah Valley. Home to the secretive Keepers of Vallah, the priesthood that worshiped the goddess of the desert, and the Vallah Spring. This precious source of water flowed out of the Mount Ramadan, and made a silvery, life giving course through the desert, ending as it flowed over the edge of the chasm they called The Great Tear. The Keepers called the spring the Word of Vallah, and laid claim to the majority of its benefits. Benefits the grak had most certainly been after.
Despite the frequent watering hole as the desert stretched west, it was still an all too precious resource. Possession of the spring would have given the grak all the water they needed, at least, the dominant hives, much as it had given humanity enough to flourish.
Urig looked back to his papers, resting on a map he had drawn as he scouted with his men. Hives. There was no other word for it, and the more he came to know his enemy, the more that held true.
Scant recollections of elders from stories handed down by word of mouth said the grak had been human. When their people had crossed the mountains and settled here, they had been one people. Outcasts, if the stories were accurate, though they were quite vague as to what they had been casted out from, or for. Before long, differences had arisen between them. Some were extravagantly hedonistic, giving into sins of all manner. The first cannibalism had been the last of their grace.
To hear the elders tell it, more than half of their population had been forced out, thrown to the mercies and cruelties of the desert for their depravity. What happened to those men and women, no one knew. Every now and then there were reports of sightings, mostly within the last couple hundred years. What they had become, no one understood.
Even Urig hadn’t, until he watched them at their homes for himself. Clearly, they were human no more, not in any way that mattered. Without going inside, much of it was conjecture, but their behavior was akin to that of the tiny marn. The grak were broken up into classes, those dominated by workers broken into large and small categories. A young scout at his side called them brutes and agiles, and it stuck. These were presided over by males, better adorned and perhaps slightly less deformed than the working class. Urig presumed, and accurately, that the breeding females stayed inside their fortresses, birthing and raising young. Rarely was language used, aside from occasional utterances that seemed more automatic noise rather than organized speech, leaving Urig wondering how they communicated.
During these scouting trips, Urig and others witnessed cannibalism, and watched as hopelessly crippled and sometimes young grak were set out as bait for predators. These were captured, if they were lyrds, or killed for food if anything else. The bait never survived. Truly, these abominations were horrifying.
Urig set the paper down and rubbed his eyes, anger flaring. Anything was worth saving his people from that. Anything. And that was what he had done. Protected them, saved them. How many battle wounds had he sustained, fighting to keep them from drowning in a tide of unnatural obscenities? How many lives had he been forced to sacrifice, for the greater good? He could name the figures, but it was pointless. The people out there now were restless, questioning him! Speaking against him! If he’d known who they would be, perhaps he should have thrown them and their fathers to the horde, see if they preferred that.
Calm down, he told himself. Everything is under control. They are still safe, and I will make sure it stays that way. I will protect them, even if it is from themselves.
There was no need to pursue this further. He was the Grand General, his word was law, and his dominance unthreatened.
Still, though, it had been hard, after that first battle. Casualties were massive, and they barely turned the horde away.
Urig got up and poured himself a drink, his mind ticking along past events, despite himself. Once he got going, it was difficult to stop.
He had instituted a draft, took the men off of everything but the forges and metal mines, and kept both working night and day. The grak had grown cleverer, their queens dictating cunning to the princes who acted as their hands. Desperate war was pitched, and many villages lost. Despite their losses, Urig met the grak at every turn, pitting his cunning against their numbers.
It wasn’t enough, though. Even Urig had been able to see that. Several hives banded together, replacing their numbers faster than his people ever could. If something didn’t change, they were facing extinction.
That change had come. In the form of a man, a Keeper of Vallah. A man named Asnamad.