This short story is part of Galactic Chronicles, an ongoing space opera based on our multiplayer campaign in Paradox’s space grand strategy game, Stellaris. Events and characters, while embellished heavily in some cases, are based on actual events and characters encountered during gameplay. These entries do not have to be experienced in a specific order, but the “Earth Standardized Solar Date” header will indicate where in the galactic timeline a particular entry falls.
This story concerns the Ztrakpor, an pre-spacefaring insectoid race from the planet Yltar.
[EARTH STANDARDIZED SOLAR DATE 2269.06.06]
Zuzzur ducked his head low against the war worm’s rough flesh as he clung to the saddle with three of his forelimbs, sheltering his sense-parts from the rush of dry, desert air. In his remaining hand, he held a ceramic globe of flash sand. Casting it to burst on the dunes was unlikely to harm his opponents, but it might at least spook their own war worms enough that his side could get the upper hand.
These Sikki from the lowlands had too long sought to extract tribute from Zuzzur’s proud people. A council of the brood-clans had been held, and now they rode to war with allies from both sides of the Long Divide. Their war worms had been reared in the depths of the mountain caverns. They were strong and ruthless, as big around as ten adults and long enough to encircle a sandskiff and crush it in their grasp, unlike the lowlander riding maggots that were more pet than tool of war. The lowlanders made themselves slow and complacent, girding their carapaces in plates of bronze and wielding long pikes in tight-knit formation. It would only prolong their slaughter.
Zuzzur and fifteen of his brood-clan crested the last ridge and saw that another group had already engaged the enemy, skirmishing with their worms and positioning themselves to harry the flanks of the gleaming-armored infantry. This angered Zuzzur, and he could tell it angered his siblings as well. It was not so much that this unappointed vanguard endangered victory by not following the plan, but that they would have the gall to seek glory for themselves before the other clans arrived. This was to be a day for all of the Ubnar, and standing alone as the first into combat was not an honor these upstarts had earned.
Zuzzur was the first to send up a great buzz by vibrating his leg parts together, and the rest of his brood-clan joined in. The vibrations told of their anger, but also of the thrill they felt at the prospect of venting that rage in glorious combat. As they streamed down the hill, the sand exploded before them and a line of enemy war worms reared up, each carrying a skirmisher. The riders held slings with their mouthparts, which they used to hurl globes of burning oil at Zuzzur’s formation. One of his brother’s worms hissed and dove beneath the sand upon being struck and ignited, but they had failed to halt the charge.
Zuzzur’s own war worm closed on one of the enemy’s, cleaving its head clean off with one slice from its massive mandibles. Its rider was sent sprawling to the sand, where he was swiftly devoured by the worm of one of Zuzzur’s allies. The tame, runtish mounts of the enemy stood no chance. As the line of skirmishers was eviscerated, Zuzzur turned his senses to the main body of the enemy. It seemed the assault of the other brood-clan had broken their line and split them into three groups. Easy prey. He urged his worm toward the carnage.
Soon, his brood-clan joined him, and their mounts whipped and snapped at the disorganized enemy as hums of exultation mixed with those of terror across the basin. The full host of the clans was engaged now, and it seemed the Sikki stood no chance. Unless…
Zuzzur’s antennae twitched, and it took him a moment too long to realize why. Their enemies had given ground and divided their force on purpose. They had herded the Ubnar riders into a three-sided snare, and with a sharp change in the pitch of their buzzing cries, they expertly wheeled the three formations and turned their pikes inward on the now surrounded, rampaging worms. Zuzzur chittered out a command to his siblings, and their worms rose up to dive into the earth and escape… but were met with a jarring, halting impact a mere meter beneath the sand. Bedrock. The enemy must have known of this place. They chose the spot to spring their trap well.
With no avenue of retreat, the pikes pressed closer, and even the might of the violent, ferocious worms could not break the enemy formation on any side. The venerable beasts collapsed by dozens, often crushing their killers beneath them. But it was not enough. Every one of the Ubnar who had joined the battle would sink into the deathlands before the sun itself joined them beneath the earth this day.
If Zuzzur would not return to his brood-clan, he resolved, he would make sure that as many of the enemy as he could reach would not be allowed to either. He spurred his worm into a whirling frenzy, knowing it would take more than a few jabs from a spear to halt its wrath. This one was old and mighty, reared as a grub by his great-great-grandfather and passed through the generations to the most promising warrior in each new brood. Its flesh was calloused with scars of battles past, and it feared no weapon. It had tasted much ichor of the foe today, and its thirst was far from quenched.
The executions seemed to go on for hours. The buzz of Zuzzur’s dying allies started to be drowned out by the triumphant hum of the enemy and his mount was finally starting to slow, so many jabs had it endured, when he caught a vibration on the wind that caused him to turn his sense parts upward. It was wholly unfamiliar to him, like a carrion-flyer but without the telltale rhythm of wing beats. And it was very large.
Commotion began to arise from both armies. Chitters of confusion. Cries of “Illub!” The Illub were fabled spirits of the air, and more a cautionary tale for children than something you would expect a soldier to exclaim in his dying moments. But Zuzzur’s puzzlement at the use of the word was banished by a much deeper confusion when he became fully aware of what had caused nearly every living ztrakpor left to cease fighting.
The Illub was sleek and clean, glinting like starlight on the surface of an oasis. It moved with great swiftness, emitting a bright light from its hind end and appearing to have no moving appendages of any kind. It swooped with impossible agility around the outskirts of the battlefield a number of times, before coming to hover just above the thick of the killing grounds and lowering itself to the sand. Both armies dispersed to make way, giving no mind to the conflict they had come here to resolve.
The Illub opened its mouth, and from it stepped a single, solitary figure in cloud-grey robes, hemmed in fabric of colors Zuzzur had never encountered before. It was a slight-framed, frail-looking thing, but it proceeded out among the war beasts and ruthless warriors with a calm confidence. Perhaps this was the true appearance of the Illub, and the flying things were merely their mounts?
Before his comrades could stop him, one of the worm riders hurled a globe of flash sand at the unknown being in fear. A deafening silence overtook all present when it raised a talon and tilted its head slightly to the side. The projectile froze solid, in mid-air, mere inches from the visitor. After a moment’s pause, the weapon was lowered slowly to the sand by the same, unseen force that had stopped it.
The robed creature met eyes with Zuzzur. They were the sharp, multi-colored eyes of a predator, and their attention stirred a primal fear in him. But then, he felt calm. This being was somehow sending feelings from itself into him. Seconds later, he could hear its thoughts in his own mind, though it did not speak. They were not words or chitters or hums. It was communicating with him in raw concepts, and beseeching him to translate it into a form his people would understand. He felt compelled to obey.
“This one comes from the sky,” he communicated as loudly as he could manage. “The gods are displeased with our incessant conflict. If we do not put an end to it, they will be forced to intervene and bring peace.”
The reaction to the proclamation was mixed, but one of the warriors who had formed the Ubnar vanguard lashed out, spurring his worm toward the Illub. A blade of the same, star-bronze that girded the intruder’s mount, curved and pristine, flashed from under its robes and the Illub leapt several vertical meters onto the back of the massive war beast. The furious warrior was dispatched with a lightning-quick flick of the blade, and a second, sweeping cut beheaded the worm with unnatural precision. Robes fluttering, the Illub effortlessly bounded back to the earth amidst the thrashing of its dying prey.
Zuzzur dismounted swiftly and lowered his abdomen to the sand in a gesture of supplication. Soon everyone, Ubnar and Sikki alike, did the same.