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The Swarm's Host
Chapter 7: First Contact
"Uncle Garrow, please."
"No," he repeated, though this time he was much firmer.
"Uncle, I need this. I can't keep going without this, please!"
"No, and since you keep insisting so much," Garrow dropped the bucket of slop down at the young man's feet, "You're going to feed it to him and you're going to stop asking me such foolish requests. We don't have the money to bloat your pet with meat!"
The smells quirked his nostrils. Never had he felt the scent so strongly in his navel cavity. Eragon wretched as he looked away and when he tried to beg one last time, his uncle was already gone.
"I sense failure. Typical."
"Shut up," Eragon snapped back, trying his best not to gag.
To think, only a week ago, Eragon had been worried out of his mind about Garrow's initial impressions of Zaz. He still remembered how the beast introduced itself by leaping up to the barn roof and flying around the farm like a vulture would scouting a dead kill. Eragon had to wrestle with his cousin just so he could explain the situation and by god, what a situation that was.
"Perhaps you should tell your brood of the bond we share. They still think I am an animal."
"No thanks to you," he grumbled, "If you had just waited until I thought of a better introduction, we could have sorted this out properly. Now I have to taste slop!"
He thought he heard it chuckle, but it was manifesting as a hiss rather than any recognizable snicker.
"This feed is not optimal for my metabolism. It lacks necessary nutrition for muscle development."
"It's all we have," Eragon sighed, finally making his way into the barn and more importantly into Zaz's corner. There were several stalls, some with horses and others with pigs. Chickens ran about in the henhouse outside, clucking loudly as they huddled in their claustrophobic and warmed home. The barn wasn't as packed, though it was just as smelly what with the pigs and horses wallowing where they shit. Eragon sighed as he saw freshly laiden piles of dung though when he looked towards Zaz's way, there was no such pile.
"Waste is not efficient," it muttered.
He shrugged, "Less dung, the better."
Eragon gave the first helping of slop to the pigs but swung around to Zaz, dumping the rest. The monster dug in, opening its mouth before dipping a long tongue. It slurped the messy meal and the taste came to Eragon. He distracted himself, taking a look at the monster.
"Maybe we should feed you less," he muttered, "You're growing too fast."
The monster grumbled. Eragon hadn't been lying though; it was growing at a phenomenal rate, nearly pushing itself past the weight of an entire horse. Only a week prior, it had been as big as two pigs, which made the corner cell of the creature's confines that much more fitting. Of course, at this rate, Zaz was going to outgrow its home within a month.
His home? Eragon still wasn't sure what to call Zaz.
"Zerg," Zaz chimed in.
"I know that, but what are you still?"
Zaz shuffled in place, encircling his home as soon as he was finished absorbing the slop with his proboscis.
"I am Zerg. Animal. Reptilia and insecta – utilizing geni of multiple differing species best suited for my role."
Insect, now that was interesting. He had only likened the wings to a wasp, but now he was almost sure of it as he put the pail outside, "An overgrown fly then, should have known. You'd eat anything."
"Limiting one's diet leaves a species vulnerable to diseases or environmental shifts," Zaz leered at the empty trough as though to prove a point, "My species typically turns organic and inorganic material into a … slop, as you would call it. It is not, however, garbage or leftovers. It is the main food source of our kind."
"Gross," Eragon remarked. He was starting to learn some of these bigger words from Zaz, words like Organic, environmental, or processed. For a newborn monster, it certainly had a lot of funny words to use. He did get a wave of the monster's memories, the images of a pink goop flashed in his memory. Now he only had more questions … though he wondered if he even wanted answers for such things.
God, now he was imagining himself taking a person's dead body into an acid pit!
"Stop!" Eragon shouted.
"It is your doing, not mine."
"Burn in hell," he said before suddenly feeling a heat wave roll over him. He was surrounded by mountains of lava, chalky and thick air filling his lungs-
The monster hissed, the bucket flying into the monster's fleshy forehead.
"You have so many memories, it's insane. Are you sure you're not a genetic defect of some dragon's shit?" Eragon asked, proud of himself as he used the alien word.
"No," it muttered, "The word is familiar, and I see your image of it, but our species would never attempt to recreate something like a dragon."
"What?!" Eragon couldn't fathom such an idea. Dragons were the ultimate creatures, the very foundation of life on Alagaësia. Even a passing knowledge from Eragon's mind would have thrown away any doubts.
"Dragons are big, bulky, gestation periods take too long," Zaz began, slowly turning his head towards Eragon's way, "Their possession of psionic abilities do not make their genetic investment viable. A stray explosion or weaponry kill years of potential. Smaller forms are more cost effective and powerful. They are easier to reproduce on a large scale."
"Well, if your kind were so impressive, then they would have taken over," Eragon snapped back, "Say all you want, but you Zerg bug things aren't any special."
Zaz snorted, "Terrans always did have delusions of grandeur."
Getting bored, Eragon stretched for a bit before attending to the other animals. The other creatures were quiet and though they ate, they were far less active now that Zaz was around. At least they weren't going crazy or trying to run.
"Pheromones," it muttered, "Easy to synthesis and subdues unneeded behaviors."
"Really now?" Eragon asked, curiously, "Could that be used in a hunt?"
Zaz tilted his head, "No … it would not work. Adrenaline and increased stressors would force increased blood flow."
Eragon sighed, "Then what did you use to kill all those animals?"
"Intelligence, efficiency, teeth."
Again, Eragon was starting to get bored … but simply thinking about the hunt made Eragon antsy.
"How quickly could you find something for us to hunt?"
It bristled, "Estimation … or under perfect circumstances?"
The answer to the latter, as it turned out, was about an hour, not counting all the small game Zaz spotted and snatched up. Eragon made sure to stop him from killing the doe. He already had an idea of what Zaz wanted to do as it felt saliva gathering in his mouth.
"Could you stop?" he asked in his mind, "It's hard to focus with your hunger."
Zaz didn't answer, only showing him an image of where the doe was. It was resting under a cavalcade of fallen trees and branches. The makeshift den looked warm and comfortable, but Eragon was about to make its grave.
Trudging through the snow, however, was becoming difficult. The snow had begun to melt, but that meant there was heavy, muddy patches every other step he took. His winter footwear felt heavy, though surprisingly enough, he didn't feel as tired as he should have been even as his bow weighed down on his back.
He held fast on a tree, putting an arm against its now moist bark. The mushy texture did little to comfort him. He tried to dry his fingers against his cloak. Any bit of moistness from sweat or snow was bound to mess with his hold on his arrows.
"The air is still," Zaz spoke, "You may progress."
"Um … I am?"
"Oh, I see. I forgot you were this slow."
If only he could see the beast now. It wouldn't be bad trying to do some target practice, maybe trying with a few more arrows than necessary.
"Again, your arrows would not work."
Eragon finally snapped back, "If you're such an expert on arrows, why don't you give me something better?"
He heard a rush of air. It was distant but before he knew it, Eragon ducked away from violent projectiles, cementing themselves in the snow.
"What that for? You could have hit me!"
"You asked. You have received."
He took a moment to look at the projectiles, eyes widening as he came to see barbed tips. Not just that, they were lined atop smooth tubing with ends marked with fleshy fins. All the parts looked fused together, craftsmanship not forged but made from a creature's own flesh. These were definitely a far better alternative to the arrows he made himself.
"You could have hit me."
"If only I were so lucky."
Eragon snorted. So much for keeping him alive as mutual benefit. As he picked the rest of the "arrows" out, he wiped them on his cloak. They had a hollow feel to it, lightweight and yet durable. They felt like feathers from a bird, though how the creature made these things, he could not say. They were as alien and unusual as alien could get.
"Hold," Eragon froze, waiting to take his next step, "It is moving."
"Did it hear me?"
"I cannot tell. It simply is moving out from its den."
He nodded, suddenly more serious now that he was ready to take on the hunt. Even Zaz refrained from commenting, as though the pair of them were properly melded on a singular wavelength. Zaz simply sent a feeling to Eragon and Eragon knew where to go.
Heading deeper into the wood, he made careful steps to avoid deeper pockets of snow. They were tricky, but Eragon's experience was enough to get him moving in the right direction. The doe, on the other hand, seemed to be bouncing around. It was clumsy and foolish. The innocent prancing slowed it down for Eragon's approach.
He only saw it with his own eyes as he approached an open glade. The open expanse of snow was untouched save for the markings left by the doe's movements. He tested a step before taking another, only to find the snow too deep for him. He'd have to take aim now, at least to wound it.
"You are against the wind. You will not have an optimal firing trajectory."
"Not what I'm worried about," he said as he aimed his shot towards the doe. The doe still had no idea. The wind was against him, but if it smelled him, it would run. He just needed the right moment, the perfect opportunity to let his arrow loose. The doe needed to be unaware right up until the moment it felt his attack pierce it's leg or stomach.
"Wind is changing. You should fire."
He remained patient. His muscles holding firm despite the discipline required.
"Wind has shifted. You will miss."
Eragon ignored the monster. He waited a fair few moments more before he let the arrow fly. The projectile soared, screaming through the air in silent hostility. It streaked forward just as the wind came from behind Eragon. The doe, smelling the scent, turned about. He smiled. A mistake by a beast. A mistake that would cost it it's life.
The doe fell suddenly, the arrow jabbing far more accurately than he had anticipated. Eragon sprung to life, wading through the heavy snow as he looked at the dying beast. The doe's eyes were panicked. It was afraid of its death, the finality of having one's heart pierced by a foreign object. Eragon was almost surprised by his success. Never had he been so focused … and so methodical. Now he had the cleanest kill of any creature he had ever attempted to kill.
"I am corrected," Eragon spun up, to see Zaz spiraling around, "You have earned my attention."
Eragon rolled his eyes, "I told you to trust me, beast."
"I said you have my attention. I did not say you have my trust."
He sighed, pulling out his sharpest skinning knife, "The feeling is mutual."
"Do my eyes deceive me?"
Eragon smiled as Roran came around, his cousin giving him a hand as he lugged the meat off his shoulder. If anything, Eragon was still surprised himself by his own success, though he wouldn't let Zaz know that in any direct capacity. Roran looked good - joyful and fun loving as ever. He was all smiles and considering he was coming from Carvanhall, he figured why.
"They do not. I just got it."
"Just now?" Roran said, raising an eyebrow, "How on Alagaësia did you find the time?"
"Zaz helped. Decided to pull his weight about."
Eragon grimaced. He didn't know if he needed to reveal such a fact, but now that he thought about it, the beast hadn't given any physical evidence of its help. Roran's face had soured, his hand brushing his shoulder in an uncomfortable habit of his.
"He gave me a better arrowhead and it helped me track the doe," he said, moving onto a more mechanical and interesting topic, "Here, take a look."
Eragon pulled one of the arrows out, flipping it around in his fingers before he held it still for Roran to admire. He looked impressed, leaning in and even poking at the barbed tip.
"Where's the arrow that killed it?"
"I cleaned it up in some snow," Eragon pointed to his quiver, "It's one of these. I don't know which one."
"And did you cut it right? You got hurt anywhere, Eragon? Feet aching or something?"
Eragon rolled his eyes, "Roran stop it. I can take care of myself."
Roran went serious. His eyes seemed to click into place, focusing his gaze onto Eragon's before slowly dialing back. There was turmoil in his eyes, the kind of turmoil he saw when Roran couldn't see Katrina. Did something happen? He got his answer as soon as Roran put his hands on Eragons shoulders.
"I'm just worried, is all," Roran tried to break his nervousness with a smile and just barely succeeding, "The month's been strange is all and you keep changing. You're nothing like you were. It's like you grew seven years on me overnight."
"I'm still shorter than you, if you're worried."
Roran laughed, slapping Eragon's chest, "You're a lot snappier, a lot less of a brat too."
"Oh, is that it? I suppose a brat is better than a love-struck idiot."
"You little piece of shit," Roran suddenly went for a full-on grapple. His limbs locked Eragon down and soon the younger cousin was flailing about whilst Roran went for a stranglehold.
"HAH," Eragon spat, "Is that … the best … you got?"
Roran answered by squeezing harder, one knuckle rubbing into his scalp. It was nothing compared to what Eragon had been through, but he was wasting daylight. Feeling like it was time, Eragon suddenly shouted.
"ZAZ, WAIT! HOLD!"
Suddenly Roran was leaping away, diving as though expecting an attack. When said attack didn't come, however, Roran got up, his gaze darting about before he scowled.
"You dirty bastard," Roran remarked, "You nearly gave me a heart attack."
He gave a very smug shrug, "What can I say? I'll use what I can."
"Hmph," Roran got back to his feet, wiping away the snow, "So you say. So you say. I still think that keeping that monster is a bad idea."
"You and me both, but it's better with us than out there."
Roran's face suggested otherwise. Ever since their first meeting, Roran could not stand heading into the barn. It was like the monster's presence alone made Roran nauseous. Thus, it had been up to Eragon to take up tasks in the barn, tasks that Roran's superior size and strength were fit for. He thought back to Zaz's explanation of pheromones, wondering if it had been Zaz's doing, but then, why wasn't Eragon affected.
"I'm surprised, Eragon," Roran said, drawing Eragon's attention again, "You're a lot stronger than I remember."
"Than you remember?" Eragon snorted, "You make it sound like you haven't seen me in ages."
"You know what I mean. Bedridden for two weeks, paranoid for a third, then you come out with a monster and you act like nothing's changed."
How ironic. Eragon looked away, peeking at the road leading to Carvanhall.
"I've got to go. Could you take this portion back home? I need to give the rest to Horst. Think this is enough to repay him?"
"Yea. It's a lot of meat. I'm surprised your beast didn't eat any."
Eragon shrugged. Zaz was off doing his own thing, distracting himself with his own hunt. He was surprised he wasn't feeling Zaz's bloodlust or thrill for the hunt, but perhaps things were getting better. Zaz wasn't feeling panic or paranoia, he was just off enjoying his time. That being said, it did raise the question of the creature even knew what happiness was. Zaz was such a curiosity, such an enigma – a monster with a mind … one shared by Eragon no less.
He thought to Brom again and his stories. The tales of dragons and dragon riders always spoke of that mental bond and even if Zaz wasn't a dragon, could Brom help?
"Be seeing you Eragon," Roran said beginning to walk home, "Oh, by the way. Watch the road. I've been hearing rumors about some strangers wandering about."
Eragon turned and waved, though quirked an eyebrow at that. He stood still and shouted back, "Strangers? What do you mean?"
"Rumors here and there – it's the talk of the town. Some tall stranger's been coming around the towns nearby asking questions and directions."
Eragon grimaced, "About what?"
"Not sure. Some random, others about 'unusual circumstances' … like maybe that monster of your's."
He didn't like that, "Did you say anything?"
"No! Just be careful. See you Eragon."
Eragon nodded, turning around as he went along the road again. His mind wandered for a moment and he listened for some sort of call from Zaz.
"Awfully quiet now, aren't you?"
He was busy at the moment. He could take the call later. Zaz was simply enjoying himself, gorging on a rather unusually large specimen of ursine that had the unfortunate luck of being found by Zaz's superior senses. The thick fat and gamey tastes did little ruin his taste, his teeth gouging at flesh and blood. Something about this sensation was pleasurable to him. He didn't know why, but each time he took a bite, it was like he was being fed concoctions of serotonin, dopamine, and hormones, all designed to agitate, relax, and grow him. He didn't know why he had such an instinctual inclination to such a method. Was it an old response from the thing he had consumed? External digestion with a fluid draining proboscis was a far more effective method of nutrition gathering, and yet, it had little joy associated with such an act.
Joy … how puzzling.
Such a concept felt alien, just as alien as his mindset was to Eragon, and yet here he was, feeling this pleasure, this emotional stimulus. It was not to his benefit, as much as his mind told him how he enjoyed it. The mind lied plenty of times. The mind may have enjoyed one thing, but the benefits and costs of said benefits were miniscule and debilitating compared to the optimal answer. And yet, he continued to munch on his meal. He stopped for a moment, looking out from the den's entrance. Zaz felt hot blood slowly chill across his jaw, prompting him to lick it all up. It was delicious … but it was not optimal.
Eragon's influence was affecting him. He didn't like the change. Zerg was superior. Zerg ways were better. Even now, whilst he had taken Eragon's abode and took advantage of said hospitality, he compared it to the warmth of creep and hive clusters. What could compare to the fleshy walls of the hive, the heated ground that came with creep, the tender touch of a queen, the ruthless camaraderie of creatures working together in unison under a singular voice and vision.
That was truly beautiful. This life, this home – it was nothing compared to what he had experienced.
But this was a simple problem, no? All he had to do was recreate the swarm here. He was not a mindless drone nor a brainless little larva, but a creature with true intelligence. With the help of his meal all those weeks ago, he was now smart enough to think and behave like a queen. Such a delicious conceit, was it not? Perhaps this was pride, Terran folly that gave way to foolish acts, but surely, recreating the swarm could only benefit him … and potentially the Terran bonded with him.
Right, yes. How would he explain such a thing? Could the Terran even be made to understand. Perhaps it wasn't even worth discussing such a thing. By the all the broodmothers and the very Queen of Blades herself, he knew what he'd do. Eragon would whing. He would whine. He would complain. The very thought of Eragon's behavior insulted him, rousing him enough for him to raise one of his scythe-like frontal limbs to dig into bear flesh.
Terrans would never understand his point of view. If only Eragon would just listen or be intelligent enough to remain perceptive of his superior logic. Eragon, now bonded to him, was their weak link. Eragon's death would mean … something. Zaz didn't know what. All he seemed to know was that Eragon could not die. Eragon was special to him. They were bonded for reasons beyond his comprehension. The mystery of their bond, perhaps, did sooth his mind.
Perhaps Eragon was bonded to him because he was different. Perhaps he could understand.
Of course, that wouldn't totally get rid of his nightly fantasies about inserting some brain growth hormones into Eragon or perhaps injecting him with some Zerg genetic sequences. He bristled at the thought. It could be mutually beneficial. The Queen of Blades was part human, right? Eragon could emulate that as well. He could be another Queen of Blades … though as he saw things now, Eragon might have been a bit too weak for such a possibility.
Zaz felt a slight warbling in his connection to Eragon, no doubt some message Eragon was trying to send. He disregarded the effect, continuing to mull about in the dead bear's den. Was Eragon complaining about his meat eating? Perhaps Zaz could change something in Eragon's perception of taste. Terrans were so fragile though. If Eragon ate raw meat, perhaps he'd grow diseased and die? Maybe Zaz could change Eragon's stomach then too? No, that would require other changes to his intestines, bladder, spleen – all pathetically formulated for their overtaxed brains.
He had one other thought about Eragon, one where he imagined Eragon growing claws or wings like him, when he suddenly bolted upwards. Something had clicked in his mind, though he could not determine which trigger. The air itself felt heavy, cool winds seeming to die down as he felt a prickling sensation in his mind.
Trapped – he was trapped in the den.
Zaz, not wanting to rush out, slowly inched forward, careful of any sort of traps potentially set ahead. He half expected something more elaborate than the crude human tools he had spotted during his earlier travels. Caution even dictated looking for spider mines or invisible psionic blade masters. And yet, he found nothing of the sort.
As he came out, the light of the sun had dimmed. Red hues curled against purple, stretching against trees still glistening with winter wetness. There was indeed an intruder in his midst, a hooded intruder. The figure was tall, most likely lean. The cloak ran down to his legs, covering his entire body, as to shield him from the elements. Deep in the darkness of the stranger's hood was a pair of blue, sharp eyes … and was that a smile?
"Now what do we have here?" came a feminine voice. Female? No, too tall? But maybe, not human? He immediately thought protoss, but that was impossible. Protoss had no mouth to speak of. The stranger watched Zaz and Zaz remained still. No weapons were drawn from the stranger's side, but Zaz felt strangely uneased.
"Are you going to say anything?" the stranger said. Her hands came forward locked together in front of her as she stood upright. A sign of submission? Or confidence?
"You're a bit far from home, little one. What are you doing out here?"
Confidence. Definitely confidence. Zaz hissed, pressing his belly down into the snow as his wings fluttered. The woman didn't move. She seemed rather full of herself. When she did move, it wasn't for any sort of weapon. Zaz noted a primitive stick to her side, a sword he thinks Terrans called it. As she pulled her hood off, Zaz's attention was on the face.
Terran. Human? Terran. No. Not Terran. Too … beautiful? Too – hard to think. Not human features. Why beauty?
His thoughts were garbled, confused. They were wrong. He was afraid. Zaz opened his mouth, spiting spines out with enough force to penetrate nanosteel. She didn't even dodge. She just stood … or at least, that was what he thought he saw. Her hand was moving. Her cloak flared up, showing off green and silver engraved armor pieces underneath. In a blur, three of his projectiles, three that could kill a Terran marine, were cut down … by the stupid primitive weapon he had just discounted moments ago.
"That was very rude little bug," she said, shadows stretching across her face, "Oh so very rude. I expected more manners from something smart enough to think for itself."
Zaz suddenly inched back, feeling a rising sense of dread. It was the same feeling Eragon felt he did, coming into contact with a mysterious entity he had little understanding of. He, a true Zerg creature, was facing down something he had no idea about. He, in his consumed knowledge, inched himself towards the edge of the den looking desperately to find an opening.
"Don't worry. I just want to ask you some questions, is all," she said ominously.
Instincts roared in him. Flight would not come this day.
This was a fight.