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.
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.