Standing in the cool dawn light, Teredal finished wiping the blood from the claws strapped to his wrist. It was a motion heavy with ritual from the distant past of his people, before civilization. Before technology that allowed thought to be focused into blades of pure energy. This simple action brought clarity and a sense of peace. Peace brought focus.
Use this focus.
The scarred zealot crouched and, with his finger, marked three dots in the sand. The three arms of the protoss fleet, waiting for signals from his fallen aexilium—signals that would never come. Under those three dots, he traced one long line, and then another. Two lines: one Saalok day and one night remaining until the fleet would launch its inevitably failed attack. A rotation on Saalok was short; the moon was not tidally locked to Aiur, and its full revolution took place in roughly half the duration of a day on Teredal's homeworld. There was not much time.
Next Teredal drew six slashes in a circle around his marks. The six beacons. Crystalline constructs carried by each zealot in the team, compact tools designed by Nerazim artisans to provide precision flares of psychic energy. These would have led the fleet to critical enemy hives with surgical exactness. They now lay spattered with blood in the pale sand around him.
Teredal's orders had been to assist the dark templar in setting the beacons. Then he was to escort the Nerazim away from the zerg swarms that would be drawn to the signal, away to the preset rally points, where they would coordinate the reavers' scouring of Saalok. The aexilium would be picked up after the moon had been cleared of zerg; extraction was a tertiary concern for the executor. The primary goal in this mission was to provide the fleet a commanding position in lunar orbit around Aiur—a position that would set up the final push to retake the protoss homeworld.
In the event of mission failure, surviving members of the team were to convene at the nearest rally point. Teredal rubbed the heel of his hand against the scar where his left eye had been; it ached whenever he was still for long. Perhaps he could signal the fleet from the rally point with a beacon. Maybe the executor would take the sign as a distress signal and send him a shuttle. No, it was too much of a risk, and the psychic noise would bring more zerg down on his head. Besides, by the time he reached the rally point, the fleet would be committed to the assault. The capital ships would have shown their positions, arrayed around a thinking enemy in a vulnerable formation.
It was... hopeless. In another sunrise, the last arm of protoss power would be extinguished. On an impulse, Teredal reached down and drew a circle around the six slashes. The Zealous Round, sign of his order. The perfect circle of Saalok. A symbol of purity, of focus, and of thought.
And suddenly it was clear. A way to deliver the message to the fleet. It was a simple plan but was shadowed in certain death. Teredal's will faltered, and his psi blade surged with sympathetic light.
He would place the beacons along the path of a perfect circle, using the navigation tools in his armor to map them at calculated distances. As each crystal screamed into the sky, its psychic paean would draw zerg to the epicenter. This was expected. The executor waiting in the fleet above would observe this, would assume all was going to plan.
And here was where Teredal would depend on the clarity and intelligence of his people: he would need the fleet to note the placement of the beacons, an odd symmetry blatantly atypical in zerg formations. Certainly in feral zerg. But that was not what would convince the executor of the zerg's unexpected sentience, not entirely. Teredal's blade surged again, bathing his face in flickering blue light.
The executor would be convinced when she saw the zerg predict the pattern. When the zerg moved to intercept the final beacon in the arc, showing the cognitive ability to read the circular path and calculate where the next signal would fire. And that was where Teredal would most certainly die, torn apart in an ambush that he had created for himself.
It was... not what he had been ordered to do. This action went against everything that a zealot stood for, was an audacious attempt to circumvent tactical matters that stood high above his stewardship. Teredal traced his finger around the circle, the Zealous Round.
It is no mistake that our people have looked to its purity for guidance and clarity throughout the darkest ages of history.
Teredal began gathering the beacons from the bodies of his fallen brethren. The crystalline orbs were no larger than his hand, heavy and crafted with curious workmanship. He ran his finger along the access groove on each construct as he lifted it, and each gave the welcome glow of blue light, which signified function.
Even the smallest measure of an arc fulfills the greater circumference.
Words his master had often repeated, and now Teredal felt the meaning. He would need the odds to lean in his favor if this was to work. Returning to where he had drawn in the sand, to where he had received his epiphany, Teredal took measure of his own state. His arm still hurt, but the dull throb would not be too much of a distraction; he was familiar with pain. The ambush had taken a degree of energy, but nothing Teredal was unaccustomed to. Another blessing: his legs were unhurt. He would need their strength today. Teredal had always been a powerful runner and was about to run his swiftest race. Most assuredly his last.
He swung his arm, testing the length of his new claws. They were bulkier than the psi blade, and less armored with the gauntlet missing. But they were deadly sharp. It had been deeply satisfying to see them rip into that hydralisk, the serrated edges tearing through alien flesh with incestuous ease.
Because he now carried six beacons, he would not have a full range of movement. The beacons attached magnetically to his armored belt. They would be bulky and restrict his pace, but that would only be at the outset. As each was placed, the burden would lessen, and the danger would grow.
The sun had almost cleared the horizon. Time was running out. Crouching, Teredal wiped his markings clear from the sand and then placed the first beacon. He touched the arming groove, where hidden sensors tasted his cells and acquiesced. Red light began to shine from the beacon, soft pulses that indicated a signal would fire after one hundred and one flashes. Teredal stood and prepared to run.
A sound came from the rocks to his side. He spun and ignited his blade. Nothing there but the fallen bodies of his comrades entwined with dead zerg. Had one of the monsters survived? He almost went to investigate—
No time. The beacon is set.
Teredal ran. The distance to the next beacon's arming location was a shorter chord of his overall run, but he wanted to be far enough away from the first beacon when it went off. It was going to be heard by every zerg on the moon, and Teredal knew that the surprise signal from an enemy presumed dead would bring the monsters coming from all directions. Luckily, this leg of the journey would take him through a narrow canyon, and he wouldn't have to spend too much time dodging curious zerg. He hoped.
The sand hissed beneath his swiftly moving feet, and Teredal let the rhythmic pace carry him across the white face of Saalok. Aiur began to rise on the eastern horizon, and it was more beautiful than he could have expected. From here, the vibrant greens and browns and blues that marked out the continents and oceans of his homeworld seemed pristine, untouched. Broad strokes of whiskered clouds swept across the poles, and Teredal felt a yearning for Aiur that was undiminished by time.
Then the beacon went off.
A scream, a roar, a terrible hurricane of psionic noise that raged across the Khala. The dark templar had prepared him for this, had warned him about the shockwave that would follow the release of each beacon. Kehdana had suggested that he move to a minimum safe distance and then kneel to put up a mental barrier before the beacon fired; its signal had the dual purpose of sending a message into space and creating a violent ripple in the local psychic fabric that would call to any of the feral zerg on Saalok. Teredal had been prepared for some degree of disorientation but had not expected such furor. He stumbled and then pitched forward into the sand. For a moment, he could not see or breathe, his entire soul struggling against the buckling chaos that had been the Khala. And then, as quickly as it had come, the signal was spent.
If that does not call the Swarm, I do not know what will.
He looked up into the star-strewn skies and called out to his people, a lone voice lost in the storm.
Mark this beacon, brothers. And mark those which follow.
And then Teredal stood and ran. He wiped blood from his eye and shook his head clear.
The sand grew thinner, and Teredal's path turned to gravel and stone. It was easier to maintain his speed now, but more treacherous as his noisier footfalls increased the odds of alerting the zerg. He would have to be more careful as he sped along the narrow chalk-lined arroyo.
As he counted his paces, the zealot organized the concerns that had been flying through his thoughts. Some of them he could address. Some of them were beyond his control.
First, there was the worry that the zerg might see the pattern too early. If they predicted Teredal's course before enough beacons had been set, the protoss might not be able to interpret his message. Teredal would have to set the beacons quickly. He would have to keep this pace and complete the circle before the next dawn.
Second, the beacons would need to have a significant distance between them for their placement to be legible from the fleet's location. He had already calculated the coordinates, the vectors for each path from beacon to beacon; such figures came naturally to the trained zealot mind. But knowing the path and being able to finish the grueling run at full speed were two very different things. The beacons would need to be triggered in respect to Saalok's rotation. If Teredal simply ran the circumference of the circle, placing the beacons as he went, this hemisphere of the moon would spin away from the fleet's viewing angle before he could complete the path, for the second half of a circle's contour curved back toward the origin. He would have to place the remaining five markers on either side of the origin, running diagonally back and forth to increasingly distant points to assure that the growing circle started and ended within the fleet's view. It meant that Teredal would be running a greater distance than the actual length of the perimeter. The run would be hard, even for a zealot. A day and a night with no time to stop and rest. Teredal was not some young recruit. He was a veteran who had already fought a battle this morning. He had to accept the fact that this run itself might cause one of his hearts to burst.
Finally, there was a chance that the mind or minds controlling the zerg would see through his ploy and would not respond, or would respond in a fashion crafted to appear random. Then the zealot's plan would fail. Teredal shook the thought from his head. It was paranoid—and ultimately useless—thinking. If the zerg were canny enough to feign feral behavior, then why had they not done so when his team had landed?
For now, there was only running.