To underestimate a foe,
Can be a lapse that ends you quick,
If you survive, then change your ways,
A deadly gift might do the trick.
An eye of eyes like black berries clustered on a branch. That eye was blind, for none of its constituents could see. Arachnid-like, but only in this feature of superfluous multiplicity. The rest of the creature was like a bear or a bull or a giant ape, the underlying factor being the sheer bulk of the torso, thick and tough and quite immovable. Short hair in places. Rough skin like scored leather in others.
How many appendages from that mammoth trunk? Four? Five? He counted six: four arms and two legs, judging by the spacing and the way it crouched like a gorilla with two fists upon the cement and two hands gripping the bars of its cell. And its feet were longer and wider: creepily humanoid—as with the hands—and made deadly with pointed nails.
It grunted, and the smell of its breath came in a pestilent cloud, flaunting the stench of its rotten flesh diet. Zuron choked and brought a handkerchief against his nose to filter his inhalations. It didn’t work, but he endured. This was the first time anyone had set eyes on a Tetroll, at least since they’d become such wretched monsters. They’d not been so bestial back when they were known as Conclorians of the lost galaxy, Conclore.
The galaxy was lost because one of its stars was said to have died and rebirthed as a black hole, sucking up the entire system and spitting it out in some unknown corner of the universe. Fortunately, the great Zuron Sheb had formulated a conquest of the region before that had happened, and had captured a great number of the natives calling themselves Conclorians. They were of minimal intelligence—basic survival skills and a simplistic speech-based language, not much more—so they had to be destroyed, but their size and brute strength had been too appealing to ignore.
Sheb had brought them back to Drotrolia and thrown them in the Tetroll Forest—named after the fearsome, dragon-like predators that ruled within. Suddenly, with the Conclorians fighting to survive, the Tetrolls were no longer at the top of the food chain, and so they died off. As the years stretched on, the Conclorians lost any bit of civility they had, becoming monsters in the purest sense of the word. They took on the name of the creatures that they’d exterminated, and carried on the legacy of the perilous Tetroll Forest. There they’d thrived for thousands of years, protecting the Zuron throne, killing any intelligent being that came in contact with them and could have reported just how gruesome they now were. That mystery had remained such for some time, but now Zuron Troy had grown curious. Too curious.
His people made traps, and these traps worked, and now he had himself a room of 100 cages and 100 fuming Tetrolls. It was a scene of thunderous commotion, filled with the putrid odor of their hot breaths, plagued by their roars and their grunts and the violent thrashing of their fists against the bars. This feeling they had—this captivity—was unfamiliar, uncomfortable, unwelcomed.
“My lord, General Kruxor awaits your presence in the meeting hall.”
Zuron cringed at the sound of his assistant’s voice budding in to interrupt his thoughts. The room was loud, but the message was in his head, not his ears.
“Thank you,” he replied in thought. “I’m on my way.”
Zuron pulled a dead tillidor from his pocket and dangled its tiny, furry body by its tail. It was a small creature—a rodent in fact—no bigger than one of the Tetrolls octagonal eyes. As a treat, it would be as filling as inhaling a fly. But, even so, the beast would eat it. This was reliable. It was already sniffing at the air, interpreting the new smell as food, groaning a low and rumbling groan of longing. For 20 feet in all directions, this lustful groan was rising up from hungry Tetrolls that gained the scent.
Zuron tossed the tillidor and jumped back at the sudden roar of reeking sewage. Quite instantly, the Tetroll before him had sensed the movement and lunged forward with a vicious chomp: a deadly accurate attack. The rodent landed like a speck of dust upon the monster’s tongue and disappeared into the dark abyss of its throat. The sight of its ingestion went unseen, for the jaws had opened and closed in a blur that left no trace but a frothy string of saliva dripping from the lips.
So fierce. So ravenous. So absolutely lethal. Zuron grinned with a glint in his eye that was the birthing of a glorious idea deep within. He inhaled a full breath and indulged in the scent. It’s not that he enjoyed it—for in fact he thought it utterly despicable—but rather it was the reality that this particular stench was one that no other soul could manage to smell and interpret before being torn to shreds. How privileged he was. How impregnable. How god-like.
“Yes, my lord, the transaction has been completed.” General Kruxor stood with his back to a stone wall, his floating head a dominating sphere within the space of Zuron’s meeting hall.
Zuron leaned back within his throne, his fingers clasped upon his lap, his lustrous purple robe twinkling in the light of the fire across the room. “Good. That’s good. And any troubles?”
“With the transaction or in general, sir?”
“Tell me both, Kruxor.”
“We took some casualties during the exchange. Eleven. But their lives will have saved many more if the plan succeeds and the intelligence proves valuable.”
“I understand. An unfortunate loss, but necessary . . . I hope.”
“Indeed, my lord.”
“Do ensure that the original is kept in sufficient health. If the operation is compromised, then torture will be the alternative.”
“I assumed such, sir.”
“Of course you did. And of the overall operation? How did the offensive play out?”
“The humans are stronger than I’d anticipated. Even with their inferior weaponry, they were able to hold our forces at bay. But I didn’t deploy the entire mass of our army. The greater numbers may have allowed our victory, but I couldn’t risk the possibility of the humans utitlizing some secret weapon we don’t know of. This is the dilemma of an attacking force. The defenders have the benefit of preparation. We have the disadvantage of ignorance in that we know not what tricks they have at their disposal.
“No, this attack I saw as a testing of the waters. I dipped our army’s foot into the muddy pond and pulled it out without the toes. Fortunately, the toes are but a luxury. We need only correct for our new imbalance and the militia will be prepared to fight again.”
“I see. Your chicanery amazes me, General. You spin the bad in such a way that it nearly seems good, but I can’t be so easily outwitted. We lost the first battle. This is the bitter truth, and it must be embraced, albeit with much umbrage. Victory is the goal, but a small defeat can grant the wisdom needed to reach it. This seems to be our current state.”
“What wisdom have you gleaned, my lord?”
“Foolish Kruxor, you seek to flatter by allowing me to reach the same conclusion you’ve already come upon. Yet more chicanery, but it is appreciated. Of course, the wisdom I speak of is the importance of our numbers. You said it yourself. If a one-to-one ratio did not serve us well, then let’s see how we fare when our number’s raised to 50.”
“My lord, your acumen impresses. Nothing gets by you. I apologize for my guile. You are right that I had reached the same resolution, but your numbers seem a bit farfetched. The humans are not so lacking in forces. The truth is that, at most, we have two soldiers for every one of theirs.”
“You’re thinking too literally. The absolute numbers are indeed closer to what you’ve said, but a battle is fought in one place, with one region’s supply of warriors. Our mistake in the initial assault is that we spread our greater numbers thin. Imagine if all deployed soldiers were sent, instead, to a single human fortification. Those maggots would have fallen swiftly and with much lesser damage to our own numbers.
“You will amass the whole of our forces within the great capital of Duvanon. From there, you will arise from the earth like the head of a great serpent and lead our forces forth in an infinite column, bending and coiling until the vast Duvanon Valley is overflowing above. The mere sight of our strength will be enough to instill a paralyzing fright within the enemy, and the unrelenting flow of Zetas will overcome them in a wave of death. This snake you will guide in a ruthless conquest across the surface of Hitra, consuming, one-by-one, each human colony until none remain. Our numbers will wane over time, but they will always far exceed those of the enemy at a single location. As a united force, we will prevail in venerable fashion. Of this, I am confident.”
A smile spread on Kruxor’s face. It was an ominous smile, for the fuel of its spreading was the thought of human blood and the way he’d bask within the bountiful puddles of it. He wanted to gnaw upon the throats of human generals. He wanted to slurp their veins like runny spaghetti, drive his fingers through their innards, peel their flesh from the muscle and muscle from the bone, claim their heads for his king as a pleasurably-gruesome keepsake.
“That grin of yours is enough to cool even my heart, General.” Zuron was no longer slumped back casually. He was leaning forward, staring intensely at the image of Kruxor’s wistful face. “I can see it in your eyes, in your aura. You know this will work. You love that this will work.”
“My lord, you read me too well.”
“Your thirst is unmistakable, Kruxor. Maintain it, for it will serve us well.”
“My thirst is a part of me. I do not think I could lose it if I wished it so.”
“And this is why you are so near to being a king, yourself. A king needs that thirst. Reticulum needs thirsty kings.”
From far down the halls, the echo of a Tetroll chorus roared and shook the high king’s throne. The vibrations of the cries stirred from his depths the wondrous idea that he’d nearly forgotten. Again, a glint rose in his eyes.
Kruxor noticed. “I can read you as you me, and something says you have more to say.”
“Indeed, I do. Begin the assembling of our troops. In the meantime, I’ll be sending some surprise packages for our dear human friends. It should make things quite . . . interesting. Two days. They’ll arrive in two days. That’s all for now, General. Go and do not call upon me again until the army is prepared.”
“Yes, my lord. It shall be done.”
With Kruxor’s final words, the image of his face dissolved to nothing but the open air above the hall’s golden table. With yet more vigor, another bout of Tetroll anger tore through the walls and tingled Zuron’s amphibious flesh. Their rage was mounting. This was clear.
In their world, in their jungle, they were kings. Now, they were prisoners, and the relegation was far from well-received. No problem. It was for but a short time. Soon, they’d be released again. Free to run. Free to hunt. Free to reclaim their high status in a new world, with a new set of prey, unsuspecting and far from prepared.