It was an ambush, and it was a bloody one.
An ambush? snarled Zeranek, his blades flashing. I thought these zerg were feral.
The hydralisk reeled back with a screech and redoubled its attack. It struck, long claws tearing with savage precision. In a flicker of ghostlight, the zealot's shield blunted the onslaught and then was depleted.
Even dumb animals hunt by surprise, shot Kehdana.
She slid past the hydralisk, ducked under its claws, and spun her poleaxe in a bright arc, a lethal curve of psionic energy. The hydralisk fell in pieces.
Kehdana's telepathic voice was steady in the midst of battle. Focus, zealot. We are outnumbered.
The warning came too late for Zeranek. Two zerglings sprang through the opening left by the hydralisk, knocking the soldier to the ground. His psychic cry was a growl of rage and pain; losing your feet among these beasts meant death. Kehdana wheeled in a dark blur of motion—the shadowy dance of the Nerazim—and her stroke cut through both the zerglings and Zeranek. His cry went silent.
Teredal noted the cold mercy, nodding as he stepped away from the dead hydralisk at his own feet. He then leapt and drove his blades into another of the creatures, which had foolishly turned its back on him in order to finish off a dark templar. The hydralisk fell, almost crushing its victim, and Teredal had to push the zerg aside. The bleeding Nerazim—Teredal remembered his name as Kherenoss—reached up to thank Teredal, trembling in pain. Teredal tried to lift him, then saw that Kherenoss had been separated from his legs. It was too late. The dark templar trembled once more and went still.
Dead. There is no escape from death on this mission, no quick journey home.
Shrouded in the temporary cover of Kherenoss's fading cloak, the scarred veteran surveyed the battle with his one eye. Of the dozen warriors who had touched down on Saalok at dawn, only three remained. It had happened so fast.
The stalkers had fallen first, crumbling under a storm of hydralisk spines. The dark templar had swiftly moved to aid their cybernetic brethren, leaping in front of them to intercept the next salvo of spines with whirling warp blades. It was too late to save the stalkers, their spidery, silver forms splayed across the sand in broken angles, but it was not too late to wreak vengeance on the zerg responsible for their deaths. Teredal could see that two of the cloaked warriors still fought, blurs of umbral motion gilded with streaks of alien blood against the pale sand. Dark templar were nightmarish in melee combat, feared throughout the sector for their lethal stealth. But stealth was no ally in an ambush. Each was ringed by the bodies of zerg, both living and dead. Each was about to be overwhelmed.
The zealots had stormed into the fray without pause, grim combatants who knew they were outnumbered. A zealot did not hide in shadows, did not strike unseen like the Nerazim. A zealot led the charge and drew first blood. So it had been on countless battlefields on countless worlds. The zealots in Teredal's aexilium were no different: they had closed the distance with blades drawn, running the zerg down in a rush of wordless fury. A sudden mist of black blood and severed limbs. The zealots' advance had blunted the ambush, boiled against the enemy, and almost turned it back. Almost.
But a second wave of zerg had arrived in the bowels of an overlord, dropping to the ground in a splash of chittering bile. Their counterattack was relentless: pouncing, crawling, slithering over their dead kin, and the zealots had been swept under, drowned in claws. Each of them had fallen, buried in the twitching corpses of zerg.
Each of them but Teredal, the last zealot standing of the six who had disembarked, a team of seasoned warriors selected by the council for their experience against the zerg. They were to provide support, a pair of them to accompany each dark templar/stalker team as they scouted out zerg strongholds hidden within the chalky arroyos of Saalok. This mission was supposed to have been one of infiltration, marking priority fortifications for later strikes. With the warp stones removed from the aexilium’s armor, death here would be final. There was not supposed to be bloodshed.
Teredal shook his head.
And there would have been none if we had come in a cloaked vessel. But why hide your ships from a mindless enemy? Animals cannot track orbital insertion, cannot tell the difference between a star and a shuttle…
The mission had failed. Now Teredal stood against a score of hydralisks and zerglings with the two—no, the one—dark templar who still lived: Kehdana. She was surrounded, fending off a storm of scythe-claws in a dizzying ballet of blades, psionic fire, and blood. Teredal could tell that it was her final surge of effort, and he sprung from behind Kherenoss's body in an attempt to draw attention away from the fading warrior.
It worked: three hydralisks turned to pursue. A pair of zerglings bounded after them with hungry screeches.
Teredal heard the whistle of hydralisk spines, spun on his heels to dodge a volley that tore past. He continued the momentum of his spin to meet the descending claws of a zergling, the pion-fire energy of his wrist weapon slicing through its talons with arrogant precision.
Driven by fury, heedless of the pain, the zergling leapt through the spray of its own blood, determined to eat, to kill. The reaction was instinctive, one that Teredal had learned to trigger. Long years battling these beasts had honed a reflexive order of parry-riposte into his muscles. With practiced grace, he bent low and allowed the arc of the monster's trajectory to carry it headlong through his raised blade. Two twitching halves of a zergling tumbled into the pale lunar dust behind him.
Death cries echoed through Teredal's mind as the psychic fabric stormed and snapped with the grim arias of his comrade zealots. The Khala connected the protoss in thought and passions, and Teredal felt the deaths of his aexilium in cold, stabbing sorrow.
Stay low, he sent. Stay low and stay in motion.
They have teeth both high and low, responded Kehdana, the dark templar's mental voice strained with effort. And they are too ma—
Her words were cut to silence, and Teredal turned to see her fall beneath a trio of zerglings. More spines ripped through the air, and Teredal raised his gauntlets over his face as he dove. He felt a sharp impact against his armor, heard the cry of torn metal as he hit the ground. Rolling to his feet, Teredal saw two more hydralisks move into firing range. One shook the dust from its head, a ghostly cloud drifting slowly around the creature's spiked carapace.
Teredal knew that he could not stand against another barrage, that the empty ripples in the Khala meant he stood alone against the remaining zerg. A quick downward glance while he pivoted in concert with the circling monsters showed his right gauntlet destroyed; only one psi blade now functioned. His shield batteries were spent. The lead hydralisk hissed and arched backward, retracting the covers from its spine ejectors. More dust drifted from its shoulders.
The dust—these zerg just emerged from burrows.
The realization drove Teredal forward. He took three running steps and then leapt toward the hydralisk, tucking into a ball as spines whistled underneath him. The beast, surprised by Teredal's move, ducked low and slithered to the side. Teredal landed and, instead of turning to confront the hydralisk, sheathed his blade and dove into the dark hole behind the creature. Into its burrow. The only place where he could escape the crossfire and force his enemy into close combat. Tight quarters—where a zealot was most deadly, most sure.
Teredal crouched low in the blackness. The tunnel was occupied; dry shell-sounds of digging stopped abruptly as he spun around. The scrabbling noises were familiar to Teredal—signs of a zerg roach, the burrowing frontispiece of the chitinous army. Teredal reignited his single functioning psi blade, painting the darkness with tongues of blue light. Squatting an arm's length in front of him was the roach. Cold, empty eyes. Toothy maw. Jagged mouthpieces flayed open in animal rage. The roach filled the tunnel, thick claws poised to strike; its hiss became a roar, shaking pebbles from the curved walls.
Teredal buried his blade into its center eye, leaning sideways to dodge the claws as they flailed against the tunnel floor in death throes. The roar trailed off into a bubbling sigh, and the roach trembled, then went still.
More sounds behind Teredal: the dry slithering of the hydralisk as it wormed back into the burrow it had emerged from. Its head and shoulders were already protruding into the chamber. Teredal turned and grabbed the ridge of the hydralisk's chest plastron with his free hand, hauling it down into the hole and slamming the creature's head into the hard-packed gravel wall of the tunnel. He wrenched his blade from the roach and drove it in the hydralisk's neck, pinning it to the floor. The creature's heavy serpentine body thrashed against the rough walls and clouded the air with dust. Teredal twisted his blade, severing its head. The hydralisk's thrashing only increased, pulling the tunnel down in a shower of crumbling rock and sand as the zealot leapt backward. With the entry hole destroyed, Teredal extinguished his blade and was swallowed in darkness.
Teredal held himself motionless; perhaps the zerg would think him lost in the cave-in. The zerg species he had witnessed in the ambush were not creatures of extraordinary sensitivity—or intellect—when left to their own devices. The zealot's survival now depended on their interest waning, their attention focused elsewhere. Sounds of rustling, a high-pitched growl as a zergling snapped at its pack mate, and then the noise gradually became fainter. The zerg were moving on. Teredal stood in the darkness.
Now to see if—wait!
There was something up there. A hydralisk. The zealot could hear its tail sliding against the rock overhead.
Odd that one would remain. The feral zerg do not leave scouts behind.
The creature was moving slowly. It was... feeding. Teredal felt the word pierce his mind like an icicle. The hydralisk was feeding on protoss warriors, champions of his people and noble guardians of Aiur's lost children. As he had done countless times before, Teredal reined the boiling anger that threatened to overwhelm him. As he had done countless times before, he channeled it into a cold, focused rage, a sharp blade bent toward duty.
He crouched low and took measure of the situation. Zerg fed only when they were far from creep, the nourishing bio-terrain that carpeted the ground surrounding a hive. This meant that the zerg encampment was distant, possibly a several rotations' journey. It was conceivable that this ambush had been devised by an isolated group that would either return to the hive after victory or continue traveling along some sort of patrol. Regardless, if Teredal just stayed silent, the remaining hydralisk would move on. With only one functioning blade and the shield batteries in his armor empty, he knew it would be the safest decision. Maybe he could emerge from the tunnel after the creature had left and try to complete the mission. That would be the wisest course of action.
But it would be futile.
The mission had been constructed around the idea of a mindless population of feral zerg inhabiting Saalok. Hives of animals—dangerous animals—that could be scouted out, mapped, and then swept clean from the moon by the fleet parked in extrasolar orbit. It was a costly fleet, one composed of light transport shuttles loaded with hive-scouring reavers. The force poised to drop down on Saalok was perfectly honed to destroy an infestation: reavers bearing explosive scarabs, automatons programmed to crawl toward marked enemy units and installations, then explode. Reavers were highly effective against ground forces, and orbit intel had made it clear that the feral zerg on Saalok were almost entirely land-bound zerglings, hydralisks, and roaches; the few overlords floating above this rabble were hardly considered a threat. The reavers would arrive with minimal air support... and they would be torn to shreds by a tactically sound adversary. An adversary prepared for their arrival and armed with mutalisks, the winged aerial beasts that the Saalok hives were most certainly spawning now that they knew of the protoss' presence. Or perhaps had already spawned, an armada hidden in the deep lunar canyons that wormed through the moon. It was a deviously irresistible lure, and the executor had not seen through the guise.
Teredal felt the doom of his people like a shadow over his head, thunderclouds gathering beyond his reach. Even a light force of mutalisks would tear through an army of land-bound reavers. The fleet was set to land by the next lunar rotation—dawn, from Teredal's location. This would be catastrophic.
Regardless, I am no use in this condition.
In the claustrophobic dark of the tunnel, ringed by dead zerg, Teredal set to work removing the broken armor from his right arm. The creature feeding overhead was making too much noise to hear him, and the zealot was worried about the wound he had taken. He could tell that his gauntlet was a ruin of bent metal. Not one, but two hydralisk quills had struck the ceramic bonding spine that ran along his forearm. It was a wonder that he could still feel his fingers. Teredal flexed his hand, felt warm blood dripping from his elbow.
This will require some light.
Teredal ignited the tip of his remaining psi blade, holding the blue light above his arm. Yes, the gauntlet had blocked the monstrous spines... and cut his arm as it twisted under the force of impact. The bleeding was minimal due to the compression provided by the intelligent servos in his armor, but his arm was bleeding nonetheless. He had to fix the wound.
The zealot lifted his blade, casting his gaze around the tunnel. Behind him, the passage turned slightly before ending in the crumpled form of the dead roach. In front of him, a slope of fallen rocks and the creature responsible for the cave-in. The decapitated hydralisk lay half-buried under the stones that it had pulled down in its death throes. A layer of pale dust blanketed the monster. Scowling, Teredal crept over and pulled its severed head away from the body. More black fluid soaked the surrounding gravel. Teredal silently pushed some of the larger rocks aside and set to disemboweling the hydralisk. Its tendons would serve as bindings for his wound, would help staunch the flow of blood. He had used them during the Black Grass Raid on Tepperus, had saved the life of a praetor years ago. The zerg tendons would save his life now.
While he worked, he considered what he had seen in the ambush. Were the zerg truly moving under the command of an intellect? Was he sure that this wasn't his imagination? Teredal had to allow that a score of uncontrolled zerg could have ambushed his veteran party, even destroyed it under the right circumstances. Perhaps he was confusing bad luck with tactics. Five Aiur zealots, three stalkers, and three dark templar all dead by claw, spine, and fang in a matter of minutes. A barrage targeting the more mobile and well-armed stalkers first, followed by a rush of zerglings to confine the dark templar. And the overlord that had remained just out of range, the floating dropship of the zerg army, no more sapient than a zergling. But its presence had lent a skein of pack-animal cognizance and psychic sensitivity to the minions swarming below. Bad luck?
An ambush too perfectly executed by creatures that should have been in a state of savagery.
I know how feral zerg act. I have been scouring them from our worlds ever since they were set wild. These ones moved in concert. They were being controlled.
It was not a question for Teredal. He had fought against the zerg when they had been under the command of their biological demigod, the Overmind. Teredal had adjusted to new alien tactics when the upstart human Kerrigan had taken control of the Swarm, and he remembered the sick aftertaste of youngling terran strategies woven through the old zerg patterns like mold on fossilized bone. More recently, Teredal had adapted to the madness of the zerg deprived of their bastard queen—a chaos of claws and hungry rage that made the previous engagements seem tame.
Teredal knew the zerg and how they fought. He knew their instincts and he knew their weaknesses. The lessons had been earned with countless scars, a map of experience charted in jagged lines across his body. Even Teredal's eye, lost during the Plaza Strike, had paid for a lesson in killing the mighty zerg ultralisk. Teredal considered it a worthwhile price for the wisdom received—wisdom, and an enormous monster cut into pieces across the holy prayer-tiles of Nelyth.
These hard-earned lessons were why he had been selected. Why he had been ordered to escort Kehdana to a zone where the executor presumed zerg activity to be the hottest, to protect the dark templar while she set her beacons. Command knew that Teredal could lead Kehdana through the center of a hive if it was asked of him. Teredal knew zerg.
And he knew that the executor was wrong. The zerg were being controlled. He could not say by whom or what. Not yet. The beasts' formation in the ambush had felt different than Kerrigan's maneuvering, but it was definitely familiar. A rougher version of the Overmind's control—the same organic feel, but without the smooth, practiced grace that Teredal remembered from those earlier battles.
Has a new cerebrate been spawned to take the fallen queen's place?
Regardless, this cast a heavy shadow over the current plan to retake Aiur. Teredal had to speak to the executor, had to halt the invasion at dawn. This was more than just a simple mission. The protoss were already fatally diminished, their numbers a fraction of the shining empire that had once stood proudly astride the stars of the Koprulu sector. This foray was their last gambit, an expensive all-or-nothing assault to gain a foothold on what had seemed to be an untended enemy stronghold.
If Teredal did not warn the fleet, it would show its belly to an enemy poised to strike with speed and ferocity. The protoss needed to pull back, to reconvene the council and align their tactics against a thinking foe.
Only he had no way to tell them. Teredal furrowed his brow, considered screaming his thoughts in the Khala as far as he could. But he knew it was no use. The fleet was deliberately distant. Deliberately beyond his range.
This mission had been specified as a silent strike, a request from the Khala-free Nerazim in order to keep the feral zerg from honing in on the more powerful psionic waves the protoss required to communicate and to warp off-planet. Zerg, even in a bestial state, seemed to have the uncanny ability to sense stronger psychic emissions. Teredal wasn't sure why. Perhaps the protoss wavelength resembled the Overmind's frequencies? It was not a zealot's job to puzzle out mysteries best left to the high templar. But he knew that the zerg were drawn to powerful psi-emissions like moths to a flame. In fact, some theorized that the creatures were more sensitive to psychic energy because they lacked the discipline or the biological ability to construct mental filters. These filters were necessary in an intelligent society that spoke telepathically; young protoss were taught how to dampen the often noisome thought-fabric at an early age. The zerg had no such need.
So the shuttle that had dropped his team onto Saalok had been mute, an automated vehicle programmed to deliver its cargo and then return to the fleet stationed just outside of psychic range. The fleet would most likely see what had taken place here; visual-surveillance scanners aboard the capital ships would certainly be capable of observing the results of the ambush, since this hemisphere of the moon was currently facing the fleet. But Teredal knew that the attack would not concern the executor, at least not in a tactical sense. The plan, clearly expressed to him at the outset, would be to move ahead with the scouring of Saalok regardless of his team's success. Too much had been invested into this engagement to pull out based on a fumbled first strike. If the aexilium's failure to complete its mission meant that the subsequent strikes would move less efficiently, so be it; the reavers would simply be set on hunting patrols throughout the cavernous face of Saalok instead of targeted toward the beacons Kehdana and her dark templar were supposed to have placed.
Teredal shook his head, tried to cast away the hopelessness threatening to overwhelm him. He took a step back from the wet lengths of tendon laid out across the tunnel floor. There was nothing he could do.
The zealot leaned back against the cool packed stones that made up the passage wall to consider his situation, attempted to bring greater focus to the problem. This was how he had lived for so long, survived so many battles when others had crumbled under fear and indecision.
Young one, did you know that the moon of Aiur is a rarity amongst the stars?
His master's voice echoed in his head, not merely as memory but as the vibrant remnant of a soul woven through the Khala. It was a knowing that permeated the threads of the universe. Teredal was too far from his brethren to communicate with them in any deliberate manner, but he could sense their essences—living and dead—even across light-years. He could hear the voice and feel it in his bones. His reply was both a prayer and a whispered plea; he spoke to himself and the resonance of his master that existed inside him still.
Master. I see the doom of our people, the beginning of the end. My weapons are damaged and I am alone. What can one old zealot do against the hives of Saalok?
Then, thinking that his master would chastise him for sitting idle, Teredal bent over and began wrapping the tendons around his bleeding arm. The tough, moist flesh clung to his skin, and it stung where the alien tissue touched his open wound. Pulling the bindings tight, he tensed as pain ran up his shoulder. The pain was good; it would keep him focused. When the wound was wrapped, Teredal flexed his hand to make sure he still had a full range of motion. The bleeding had stopped.
The zealot looked down and, in the flickering light of his psi blade, noticed that he had extra lengths of tendon left over. Hydralisk tendons were strong and practically impenetrable, but flexible as leather. The zerg's frightening adaptability put their flesh and bone on par with any of the armor and weaponry forged by human or protoss. Teredal flexed his hand again, regarded the long hydralisk claws lying discarded in the blood-soaked dust.
You approach the answer, Teredal.