Chapter 2: The Silent Siege

The room was spacious, with walls of dark, red wood and a long table at its center. A bare few sconces lit the chamber, providing stark shadows that flickered against the faces of Mack Berner’s council. Usually, he enjoyed this effect – the dramatic lighting and dark atmosphere made him feel every bit the powerful Chief Executive he dreamed of being back in Kestrigrad.

Not tonight though. Tonight, it felt less like a proud station of command, and more like a tomb.

“Gentlemen, I’ll be frank,” he began, lighting a cigar as he spoke. “Our scouts have returned, and are reporting direct sightings of the Gozrak.”

The silence that followed was as troubled as Berner had anticipated. After a moment, Trade Officer Dillon Arhnam spoke.

“My caravan – the Gozrak – are you certain?”

Berner sighed, exhaling a cloud of smoke as he did so. He never liked Arnham – the man was quick to lose his composure, and composure in spades would be needed to survive the night.

“Yes, I’m afraid I am. Scoutmaster Lewell himself identified them, and the damage on the site was consistent with Gozrak raids,” began Berner. “Honestly, I’m relieved. We know what we’re up against – we’ve faced the Gozrak before, we know what they’re capable of, and we know how to defeat them. Dealing with these brutes is why I’m here, after all.”

On the side of the table opposite of Arnham, Lieutenant Castor nodded.

“Originally, we anticipated engaging with enemy forces after around three Mideran-cycles. Certainly, their arrival is sooner than expected, but we can accelerate our settlement plan without much of a hitch,” Castor said. “It won’t be quite as smooth a transition as if we had that time, but it’s far from impossible.”

“Exactly,” said Berner with another puff. “Arnham, cancel any gathering expeditions you have scheduled – the Gozrak have likely been using them to track the location of our outside resources. We have stockpiles to last a few weeks, with some luck. If this situation lasts longer than that, then I want your team to gather only from the nearest sources, and with a full security detail. Men-at-arms, Canthro, the works. Give the order now.”

Arhnam hesitated, before lowering his head and hustling out of the chamber. From there, Berner turned to Castor. “As for you, I want Gradavan to be on high alert tonight. That means full guard around the perimeter, and archers in the towers.”

Castor stood up at once. “Yes sir. As for the settlers themselves?”

“Send out the alarm – they should know what we’re up against. Tomorrow, I want to begin two hours of daily combat drills among the civilians – do it in shifts, I still want work to get done.”

With a hasty salute, Castor dashed from the room. Berner had to shout so that he could halt the lieutenant. “One more thing – tell Lewell I want his scouts to locate the invasion force. If that fails, I want to capture one of the bone-heads. If we can crack a few bones, we should learn where’re they’ve holed themselves up.

Castor nodded again, and jetted out the door. Berner took a long, slow drag of his cigar; he wondered whether or not his lieutenant's eagerness was spurned by fear, or by anticipation for battle. He was young – perhaps it was some mixture of both.

Gradavan was the jewel of the Great Human Coalition’s intergalactic colonization efforts. The first and largest settlement of the GHC, the colony was able to achieve unprecedented growth and productivity, thanks to the settlement’s position on the platinum river, a powerful but slow-moving stream that powered their mills far more efficiently than any coal burning factories could match.

On this night, the flames from the watchtowers burned brightly, reflecting off of the river like fallen stars.  The landscape, normally bright crimson, appeared ruddy mahogany in the dim glow. For now, it was calm.

From his position in the central tower, Berner could see the web of soldiers positioned around the settlement’s walls. Some settlers had chosen to remain in their dwellings – most, however, were perched outside, awaiting an attack with the same palpable anticipation as the soldiers themselves.

Every gust of wind – every rustle of brush visibly tensed the watchmen, who were waiting for an enemy who would not make themselves known. Hours passed like this – and Berner’s eyes were set on the horizon the entire time.

This was not like the gozrak – not in his entire career had Berner known the Gozrak to skulk in the dark, to not make themselves known to their adversaries the moment they could.

Unless—

A sudden roar sounded in the distance, a manic howling that soon elevated into a grim chorus. A wave of energy rippled throughout the settlement, as the soldiers readied themselves for action.

None came – the howls continued to echo in the distance, but never approached closer. Eventually, Castor approached Berner’s station.

“Sir?” he began, seeming to lack an end to his question.

“A silent siege,” Berner spat.

His lieutenant paused. “I don’t understand, sir.”

Berner reached towards his pocket, his fingers searching for a final cigar that was not there. “A silent siege – it’s a gozrak strategy for territorial conquest, I studied it back at my post in Harker’s ridge.”

Castor nodded, his eyebrows still steep in confusion. “What does that mean, sir?”

“It’s usually reserved for territorial conquest between tribes,” Berner said. “The larger tribe surrounds the other, and waits. Anyone who leaves the boundaries of the smaller tribe are cut down.”

“So, they won’t attack us. It gives us time to prepare. Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Sure,” growled Berner. “Until we try to act. If we’re under a silent siege, it means that we’re not going up against an invasion force, Castor.” Berner cracked his neck, before leaving to exit the tower.

“If I’m right, it means we’re up against a whole damned tribe.”

 

 

The following morning brought little respite for the people of Gradavan. Outside, settlers were training with soldiers, clutching axes and pikes in their hands, running drills and being fitted for gauntlets. The eyes of all – man, woman, and child alike – were dark and starved of sleep. Berner would have been surprised if anyone had managed to achieve a moment’s rest last night. The howls of the Gozrak still rang in his ears, distant and jovial, mocking him.

Earlier that morning, he had met with Arhnam to discuss alterations to his instructions – ceasing all caravan activity, and devoting those resources to defense. Looking down now at the rations before him, Berner almost regretted this decision; on his plate was but the barest sliver of salted meat from Midera, and a slurry of reddish grain-meal harvested from the farms within the settlement. Hardly appetizing, even with his portion of ale. It was almost a relief when Castor approached.

“Sir, I’ve news.” The young man, despite his exhaustion, was still energetic as ever, his steps bouncing slightly.

“Yes, I imagine,” Berner mused, taking a final swig of ale before standing. “How have our civilians taken to training?”

Castor blinked. “About as well as can be expected, sir, but that’s not why I’m here.” With a slight grin, he began to pace away from the mess hall, beckoning Berner to follow. “I know that last night was rough, but while the bone-heads were wailing in the dark, Lewell managed to get some work done.”

A wry smile spread across Berner’s face. “That was fast. We’ve got one?”

Castor nodded vigorously. “Yes sir. We’ve got one.”

 

 

The din of struggle could be heard from the brig, chains clanking and guttural screeches echoing throughout the chamber. As Berner entered, a flush-faced Scoutmaster Lewel rushed to meet him.

“A right nasty fucker, this one,” he spat. “Got one of my boy’s arms, but we managed to bring ‘im in.”

“Excellent work, Lewell.” Berner took the time to light a fresh cigar. “Who are we dealing with?”

Lewell grinned. “A young one, from the look of it. Brash, inexperienced. Should be no problem for one with a reputation such as yours, sir.”

Berner nodded, removing his jacket and exposing the metal pistons of his gauntlet. He flexed his iron grip; it had indeed been a long time since he had worked on a prisoner directly, but he would be lying if he said he hadn’t missed it. If nothing else, the following hours would allow him to work of the stress of the following night.

Entering the cell, Berner saw the large figure of the gozrak warrior, restrained against the wall by an elaborate series of chains. He noted the stark whiteness of the gozrak’s skin – whatever tribe this one was of, Berner didn’t recognize it. Upon seeing him, the warrior gnashed and strained against them. Berner struggled not to laugh.

“I’ve got questions for you, whelp,” he said, pacing back and forth across the room, drawing closer and closer like an animal approaches its prey. “But I know your kind, you’re hesitant to share. That’s why, I’ll break the ice, and tell you something about me first.

As the gozrak hissed, Berner adjusted a valve on his gauntlet. A small panel shifted on the metal plate of his palm, revealing a small array of saw-teeth. Flourishing his fist as a magician would a deck of cards, Berner twisted yet another gear. Immediately, the teeth began to spin, and a ragged and sharp whir filled the room.

The gozrak ceased his growling, and spoke in a low, guttural voice. “What are you –“

Berner pushed his palm against the chains, and a jet of sparks exploded outwards, accompanied by a violent scream of metal against metal. “How uncivilized,” he smirked. “I told you, now is my time to speak.”

With his open palm held in front of him, Berner paced towards the gozrak, each step slowly following the other.

“You’ll have your chance to tell me your name. You’ll tell me your tribe, your location, and anything else I deign to ask you. Would you like to know why?” The gozrak remained silent, but his eyes widened as the gnashing teeth inched closer to his face.

“I’ll give you a hint. Your people have a name for me – can you guess what it is?” Berner’s eyes narrowed, his smile intensifying. It was so easy to intimidate the young ones – he likely would have been able to get all the answers from the fledgling gozrak now, if he so desired. But where would the fun in that be?”

“No answer?” he mocked. “Well then, I suppose I’ll tell you. You have the honor of sharing a room with Mack Berner, the Bonecutter.”

With one last flourish, Berner pressed his open palm against the thick bone plating of the gozrak’s collar. The young warrior’s screeches were lost against sound of metal tearing into bone.

And at last, the sound of distant wails disappeared from Berner’s thoughts.

Chapter 1: The Arrival of Erkko

Clan Ahma touched the surface of Niylia as its sun approached the peak of the sky. The marauders descended on one of the many white bluffs on the surface and spread about to take in their horizons. Among the various bone clad warriors and riders, Erkko, Great Skull of Ahma, slowly fell upon the new world he sought out to claim.

Ahma was not the smallest of the Gozrak clans but it was far from biggest, as they had been driven from their campgrounds. Two years prior the red tents of Ahma had been pitched in the north of Crexia, under the mountains that separated the Prezak Desert from the domain of humanity. There the clan enjoyed challenging hunting grounds on the peaks where flying predators could be found and their griefmaws kept their borders safe to the west. But the true threat was from the East.

Humanity was not in clan Ahma’s mind. The canyon that lead to the east was hundreds of miles south and humanity could not climb the desert mountains like the talented grapplers of the Gozrak. But they did not need to. Around the time of the battle for the Sacred Boneyard, tremors shook the sands beneath Ahma tents. Suddenly, human machines erupted from the mountain side. Boulders rained down decimating the campgrounds, crushing warriors and their families and severely crippling Ahma’s response

As expeditionary forces stormed through the tunnel and began to dispatch the defenders, Great Skull Pyry ordered a retreat into the desert. The stunned survivors and their families followed their leader into the sands, grabbing what little they could. Much of the clan had been lost, too many to launch a counterattack. They met up with their maw riders to the west and set forth to wander for new hunting grounds.

The clan searched for some time, praying not to encounter a terrormaw along their path, until they came across a pack of beasts they could follow and hunt for food. Weeks passed and word of Ahma’s fall had spread. Clan Voduwo came from the North borders of the desert to repel the invaders and reseal the tunnel, claiming the former campgrounds as their own.

At the time, Erkko was a young marauder, not yet a veteran. However, he was easily the strongest of his generation. The younger members of clan Ahma looked to him for inspiration. Erkko was enraged by the state of Ahma. Their source of food and water was never a certainty and their reputation had been tarnished. Ahma was seen as pitiful and worthy of no respect from the northern clans. Erkko had had enough and decided it was time to start his own trophy collection.

Erkko challenged the older Pyry and his claim to Great Skull. The clan gathered to watch the spectacle. Erkko stood a full foot taller than Pyry and gazed at him with malice. Pyry prepared himself and took stance, but Erkko merely continued to stare. Pyry rushed Erkko while he presented no defense, lunging with his bone sword towards Erkko’s chest. But Erkko’s strength was more frightening than poor Pyry imagined. The young challenger clutched the sword before it reached his skin and yelled deeply, teeth bared, twisting his elder’s arm back and up. Pyry let out in pain as his shoulder let out a crack. Erkko held the sword and arm up and stared, still yelling and eyes bulging. The bone sword began to crack where Erkko’s hand held it and soon split in half.

Pyry fell back and attempted to halt Erkko’s advance with his good arm, but Erkko swatted it away and proceeded to pierce the Great Skull’s neck with his own blade. Erkko took hold of both ends and ripped the Skull’s head clean off, waving it in triumph to his clan and firmly earning the title of Great Skull of Ahma.

Erkko reignited the spark of Ahma and said that without martial prowess they would not rise from the ashes of their lost lands. But Erkko’s ambition for dominion did not lie on Midera; rather the young Skull set his eyes on the gates and what lay beyond.

.  . .  . .

Niylia’s landscape was certainly odd compared to the lands of Midera. Erkko gazed out upon a landscape of white limestone for as far as he could see, save for a distant ocean to the south west. Trees and vines spread throughout the cliffsides, red leaves and veins filling space on the white canvas. And the world was calm - a sort of calm Ahma was not used to. The red leaves billowed in a soft wind that cooled the gozrak on the bluff where they stood, and clouds above kept the harsh rays of the sun at bay.

Head scout Tatu slung with his grapple hook from a tree on the cliffside and approached Erkko.

“We’ve spotted what appears to be a river not far to the east” he reported. And so Erkko silently began to march to the east, his clan following behind.

As they marched down into the valley, there was still little noise. The spaced trees on the walls of the valley would catch the sun in a way that cast a light red shade upon the gozrak path, vibrating and shimmering with the movement of the leaves. The clan had never been somewhere so calming, yet Erkko marched on towards the river, paying no heed to the light show and never letting his guard down.

After close to an hour of travel, they came across what the scouts had reported. Indeed it was a river but it shimmered in the oddest way. There was no hint of cool blue or white, but instead an odd silver that emanated heat. An older hunter approached to drink from the source and knelt at the river bed. As he reached for the water, bonemancer Vasa yanked him back and down. Enraged, the hunter stood up to face Vasa, but Erkko motioned for him to halt. Vasa then threw a stone into the river and it caught fire as it slowly melted into the stream. The hunter’s face appeared as though his spirit had left him and he apologized to Vasa. Erkko approached them both and faced the hunter.

Erkko spoke, “Do not worry my friend, I grow thirsty too. We may not be able to drink from here, but I saw what appeared to be an ocean back to the south. Rest assured we will find water, and if not then we will break into the stores of ale we have left from our last raid.”

They made to depart, when a large metallic explosion sounded in the direction of the riverbend. Erkko called for Tatu and his scouts to follow him and ran towards the source of the sound. The group turned the corner of the valley where the river bent west and were greeted by an unpleasant sight: A bright, bronze human outpost stretched from either side of the river, which flowed into the buildings directly on the river bed. Smoke rose from one of the outer structures and agitated voices could be heard in the distance.

“It blew another damn gasket. Fix it before it throws us into the river damn it!”

Erkko’s teeth clenched and his veins began to show. How dare humans encroach upon Ahma once more. Tatu spoke up, “I know this must enrage you Erkko, as it does us all, but we must all rest if we are to fight, you included.” Erkko hesitantly nodded and began to recede back into the valley. First they would find water and then he would plan on how to deal with this.

.  . .  . .

The coastline was much farther than the river and through a much more difficult path. The clan walked for several hours and often were forced to climb vines to reach higher points as walls of rock stood in their path. While still no animals were in their path, the clan could  hear faint and long whistles bounding over and through the canyons and cliffs. As the sun began to set, they reached the ocean.

Men and women began to gather what water they could in jugs and prepare campfires to cleanse it. Erkko and Vasa walked onto the beachfront. Vasa began to speak but Erkko was too fascinated at what lay beneath him. The sand here was not like that of home. Yes, it was white and peppered like everything else around but it was also course and rough, not like the smooth blanket of the Prezak. Erkko began to think of home, of the lost cliffs, and then of the new humans here on Niylia. He hoped he had made the right choice bringing his people here.

“So do we bide our time, hide and wait; or do we attack?” Vasa said, his words finally piercing Erkko’s thoughts.

“We shall have counsel in the morning, for now let us rest. Perhaps we shall have dreams about our path forward.”

.  . .  . .

The next morning Erkko sent Tatu and his climbers out to examine the surroundings and ordered the others to gather sand, clay, and rock. In the meantime he and Vasa stood at the edge of the beach, the water washing over their feet, discussing their current situation.

“I don’t feel any bones here.” Vasa started. “On Midera, I felt them when I woke up and everywhere I walked in my days. Whether they were buried deep or shallow in the sands; whether they were from my time or a forgotten age. I felt them all, the history of our people and lands beneath my feet. But here it’s empty. I thought maybe I’d find something here by the sea. I know fish have bones from my time visiting Clan Kai on the coast. But still nothing. It’s… unsettling, Erkko.”

“We will put bones in the earth soon enough. But for now we weigh our options. We have no idea how large that outpost is or how many soldiers lie inside. At our current size a full assault is to risky. We could easily make this our base camp. The water makes it ideal and the vegetation seems to be edible, even if it is odd tasting.”

“Leaves?”

“Vines. Bit of an earthy taste but something else as well. Like eating ore almost, at least in taste. Although I assume many of us will grow restless without hunting, it will do for now. With this as a camp we could begin taking to the cliffs and scouting the region, looking for the best areas to jump their parties and thin out their forces. How comes the dye?”

“I’ll go check now.” Vasa said as he departed.

Erkko stared at the sea. What a strange world he had brought his people to. He had never seen the oceans of Midera. Even though this place was odd and uneasy for Vasa, the sense of adventure gave Erkko solace. This was the right decision. Ahma would emerge victorious here or die. Living as disrespected nomads was no way for his people to live at all. Even if they failed here, they would join the tomb of the reaper wars as adventurers.

Vasa returned, “It’s almost ready sir, we should have enough for everyone. The clay has mixed well. Let’s begin soon.” Erkko nodded and headed back to camp.

.  . .  . .

The sun was high once more in the sky when Tatu returned earlier than expected.

“Sir, we’ve spotted a small caravan headed towards the coast. Most likely they are gathering water for the outpost. We could surprise them and strike a blow to their resources.”

Erkko and his clan mates were gathered around cauldrons and fires.  The gozrak had mixed and melted the various rocks and clays of the surface to make a white paste. They motioned for Tatu and the scouts to join them. The clan began to chant around the cauldrons and somether themselves from head to toe in the paste, careful not to miss a spot. The paste would dye the exteriors of the gozrak skin and bones, blending them into the Nylia cliffsides. Dyed skin and symbols were a staple of Gozrak tradition in denoting clan origin and performing rituals but now it would be used to surprise their foes. As red and white were the colors of the planet, so too would be clan Ahma’s banners and tents once they claimed dominion here.

.  . .  . .

Erkko, Tatu and his scouts, and twenty hunters began up the cliffs to the path the caravan had carved from many trips to the ocean. Once there they took positions standing by tree trunks, hiding behind bushes, hanging from the steep faces of the cliffs. Some, including Erkko, even lay down in the road, appearing as little more than an odd collection of rocks along the path.

They closed their eyes and waited, listened, and dared not to move. Time passed and soon enough they heard voices. Pots and pans clung against one another as horse hooves stamped upon the stone. Three wagons and a handful of riders, many slightly intoxicated and unprepared for what awaited them.

Tatu was the first to strike.  As the third caravan passed under a tree, he swung down with his grapple and dug his hook into the chin of the rear guard, plucking him off his horse and forcing out a scream. Spears fired from the cliff sides quickly piercing and crippling the crew of the second wagon. Erkko rose from the ground and in one swing decapitated the lead horse before leaping at the driver, throwing her off to be dealt with by the others in the road. Two gozrak rose and dismembered her before she knew what was happening. Erkko clambered to the top of the wagon where an intoxicated guard drew his sword. After a fumbled strike, the man was swiftly kicked off the roof and caught on the spear of a hunter.

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The battle seemed to last all of an instant before the humans were slain. Blood had finally been spilled on Niylia. It flowed on the ground, staining it and moving towards the red vines which began to recede from the liquid. The only injury to the Gozrak was a broken leg on one of the hunters after he had gotten too close to a startled horse. A grin rose upon Erkko’s face, he rose a fist triumphantly and howled ferociously. His warriors joined, full of adrenaline and fervor. Tonight would be the first celebration since the fall of Ahma. Tonight they would make great fires and feast on horse. Tonight they celebrated the Crusade of Niylia.

To read more on the factions involved in the Crusade of Niylia, click here