This Science Fiction short story is a lead-up to the book titled, Onyalum Wars. The book is part of the Science Fiction Onyalum Series written by NB VanYoos.
Lord Hishth donned the last item of his accouterments, the ceremonial dagger which would serve as his only weapon. It was an ancient legacy in his family for a millennium, and now it was his turn to use it as his ticket into the vaulted ranks of the Issgire Royals. Being a lord was one thing, but a Dukedom would finally elevate his family to its rightful place among those who ruled the kingdom.
He would no longer be a common lord who did the bidding of the royals they served. He had proven himself in countless battles and campaigns, and now he would prove himself among his peers and take his place among the leaders of the vaulted Issgire Empire. His family and his god would be proud.
“You look the part of one who can win this race, my Lord.” Assil, his family’s oldest attendant said as he stepped back from his charge. “Today may finally be the day your family has long waited for.”
“Yes, thank you, Assil.” Lord Hishth said as he admired his own reflection in the mirror.
His line produced some of the finest military leaders of the empire, and he was certain all that effort would finally be rewarded as he took the royal staff of Dukedom to be his own. Years of training had prepared him for this moment, and now that it was upon him, he felt certain he would win the day.
“Assil, you helped my father and watched his race, what sage advice might you honor me with?” Lord Hishth said, trying to sound as though he needed advice.
“You honor me by asking, my Lord.” Assil said deferentially. “Your father was fast, perhaps the fastest out there, but the route he took delayed him.”
“And you are forbidden to share any of those details with me?” Lord Ashth asked, though he knew the answer already.
“Yes, my Lord.” Assil replied. “However, I can share some advice that does not relate to the details of the race.”
“For example?” Lord Ashth said.
Assil looked down in thought while he gathered his words. “As your family’s history is woven so tightly with the military, you will understand this. There are times when one must work alone and there are times when one must work together. This important lesson will be very apparent during the race.”
“But it is not a team competition it is to see who has earned the right to rule in our empire.” Lord Hishth said.
“Is not a ruler always dependent on his subjects? Do they not only support him, but fight for him and provide for him. A humble leader is one who earns respect and will gather followers who would die for him.” Assil said. “Your father understood this lesson.”
“Then why did he fail?” Lord Hishth said with disdain.
He loved his father and even respected him, but he’d had his chance and failed. His family needed something new and different, something that would change their fortunes forever. He believed he had what was needed and he certainly wasn’t going to help others take that away from him simply to be humble. If you saw something you wanted, you took it, that is what commands respect.
“His failure was a tactical one, not because he understood how to work with others.” Assil chastised.
Lord Hishth bridled at the recrimination. “Watch your tone, Assil, or there may not be a place in the new Dukedom for such an old servant.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Assil said. “Then, I have no further advice for you.”
Lord Hishth ignored the old man and focused on what he would need. The old man had at least provided him one piece of advice, plan your route carefully. He was an expert at doing just that. He had participated in hundreds of troop competitions where navigation was so important to win the day. He felt confident he would succeed.
The competition traced its roots back thousands of years as a way for the Emperor to dole out spoils of war to his faithful and most powerful subjects. Only those of royal blood could participate, or those who had received the title of Lord due to some astonishing act on behalf of the Empire. There were very few of those nowadays, only those born into royalty. Everyone knew royal blood was far superior to any other, which is why they were meant to rule.
The final tally was one hundred participants, ninety-nine of which would fail. The course and its location were a well guarded secret. Each participant had been flown to the planet without knowing where it was. They knew nothing about its terrain, its atmosphere, its weather, or its flora and fauna. It was a total mystery, but that just added to Lord Hishth’s assurance he would win the day.
As a well decorated commander in the Imperial Forces, he had fought battles on distant worlds with all manner of environments. He’d even fought in water, though that was certainly not one of their species’ natural abilities. Many believed there had descended from sea creatures, but their bodies were built for speed and hunting, not aquatic activities. They were an ancient people descended from the giant reptiles that once ruled their world. Now they ruled.
The deep drum beats signaled it was time to line up. He nodded to Assil as he opened the tent into a brightly lit sky with a greenish tint. He spotted two suns, one either smaller or much further away than the big one dominating the sky. He was already acclimated to the oxygen rich atmosphere that he’d discovered when they had landed. He immediately calculated that plant life would be rich and unpredictable in this environment. In fact, considering the light gravity, most of the life on this planet would be big.
They stood on the precipice of a large mountain overlooking a vast distance. Lord Hishth surveyed the landscape of heavy forest and what might have been distant plains. He assumed there would be water in the form of rivers flowing out of the mountains and possibly lakes upon the plains. These would be difficult to navigate.
He took a quick look at his competition, many of whom he’d served with during his military career. They, too, wanted to lift their family up the royal ladder and would race hard to achieve that. Most were formidable competitors, with size and strength that could prove a winning trait. Lord Hishth stood a modest two point five meters tall and possessed a lean muscular body. He treated it like a temple and eschewed the various delights others enjoyed. He wished to keep it clean and healthy. He was born for battle, and his well oiled scales shimmered in the daylight.
With nothing but heavy forest ahead of them, Lord Hishth liked his chances. His family came from a very heavily forested planet and the mottled color pattern on his scales would be a distinct advantage. There were others who also shared similar camouflage patterns, so he eyed them, calculating they would be the ones to beat early on.
Speed was not his greatest asset. He’d been measured at forty kilometers an hour at his fastest, but he could maintain a twenty-five kilometer per hour pace nearly indefinitely. Pace would likely be more important than speed in this race. His greatest assets were navigation and tactics, something honed during his military service. Many Leran wished they’d never met his troops in battle.
Lord Hishth focused on the terrain, trying to map a route though he didn’t know where the finish line was. They would get a glimpse of it before they started, then they would be on their own. He waited patiently while surveying the cliff they would have to scale at the start of the race. It wasn’t too steep, and his claws would easily permit a rapid descent. He felt ready.
The drums stopped and only the sound of wind rushing across his ears focused his mind as he breathed deeply to fill his blood with the needed oxygen. He would start at an incredible pace and only slow as needs dictated. The more distance he put behind him at the start, the more time afforded him should he run into trouble later. He knew he would run into trouble.
An old voice boomed over a loudspeaker. “Welcome all participants to the five thousand, nine hundred and twenty seventh running of the Race of Royals.”
Lord Hishth heard applause, though all of it came from the Imperial Capital where the royals watched the race in comfort. This was one of the largest events within the Empire and it was rumored over six trillion people would tune in. Betting on the race was encouraged and became one of the largest exchange of wealth within the Empire. Lord Hishth could have discovered his odds, but he didn’t believe in that. He calculated his odds at one hundred percent.
“We have one hundred participants this year, the largest in over a century.” The voice boomed across the silent landscape. “We believe this will be the greatest and perhaps most dangerous race we have ever seen.” Again, applause echoed in the background.
Lord Hishth ignored the sounds as he focused on his plan. The voice finally introduced all the participants with their current odds and requisite accomplishments over the span of their lives. Lord Hishth ignored it all. He decided he would make a charge down the cliff as fast as he could and blaze through the forest on a slightly southern route to avoid most of the competitors to his north. Only after he had put a great deal of distance behind him would he stop and equip himself with fashioned weapons.
Spears were the most likely choice and the easiest to create in the dense forest. He would start there and decide what else would be needed based on what he found within the forest. Food and water would be required, and nobody knew what was edible or wasn’t. He would have to make spur of the moment decisions as to what to try and what to avoid.
At three hundred kilometers to the finish, he assumed it would take two to three days depending on the terrain. If the plains in the distance were accessible, he could make great time across that open space, significantly cutting down on the race time. Assil’s comment about choosing routes went through his mind. What if his dad had calculated the same plan? Were his logical choices the same as his father’s? Maybe thinking outside logic might prove more successful.
He barely heard the voice as it droned on about each competitor. After thinking through his plan, he changed his mind and calculated his route. If everyone had the same opinion about the speed they could achieve across the open plains, most would head in that direction. But what if the plains were something else? A marshland? A desert? He eyed the mountain ranges forming a crescent around the forest and distant plains, finally dropping over the horizon to the east. He could take a mountain path.
If the rich vegetation was an indication of heavy rainfall, then it made sense the valley floors would be riddled with rivers and streams. The further down into the valley you went, the larger the tributaries making it harder to cross. A higher route would likely be the fastest as streams and rivers could be crossed more easily.
He eyed the mountains to his north. Most had little vegetation on their tops, but they were rugged and would be difficult and time consuming to climb up and over. That wouldn’t work. It could take him weeks to complete the race doing that. He looked further down the mountainside but only saw forest. Based on the crescent shape of the mountains, the curved path would add many more kilometers to the race. Straight line would always be faster unless you had more obstacles to overcome.
This wasn’t going to be easy, and he suddenly understood why his father had struggled. He thought again about the rivers and streams and where they would head. He assumed out to the plains and most likely to a lake or ocean not currently visible. What if the finish line was at that body of water? If it was, he may have no other choice than to head for the distant plains. But are they plains?
He remembered a distant world they had been sent to scout from their ship. The landscape had looked like a rich, vast plain of grass. However, they quickly found out it was a vast delta where water and plants created a spongy surface that was nearly impossible to navigate, let alone fight upon. Was that what awaited them on that distant plain? It made sense if all the water fed into that area.
What if the water didn’t? He remembered salt flats, the remnants of an ancient seabed now dried up and lifeless. What if that was what awaited them? Damn, he was second guessing and wasn’t sure how to start. There were too many possibilities and he would simply have to pick one based on his knowledge of how most terrain was oriented. He decided the plains were likely a river delta that would be difficult to navigate through. He would take a route closer to the mountains though the dense undergrowth would slow his progress. It didn’t matter, if he needed to, he could always change routes along the way.
The announcer finally finished his litany before having them look off to the distant plains where the horizon line hid everything beyond. “You will now be given the direction of the finish line.”
As he said this, a red line appeared on the horizon just over the northern edge of the plains. Lord Hishth knew this would fool many into believing the plains would be their best route. He believed it was just another hazard to be avoided. Nothing in the race would be easy, so whatever appeared easy was likely not.
“After the first day, your implants will project a compass onto the sky, always leading you in the direction of the finish line. Beware, though, the straightest course may not always be the fastest.” The announcer warned seriously. “There are hazards everywhere, and only the most cunning and adaptable will survive to finish. When the drums stop, you will start your journey.”
The deep, loud bass of the drums sounded an ominous beat while they contemplated their routes. They drummed on for several minutes, the tension building in each racer as they waited. At last, the drums stopped.
Lord Hishth was over the edge of the cliff within seconds and scrambled down head first, a faster, yet more dangerous technique. He caught a glimpse of those to his left and noticed most were descending feet first, a precautionary method that would cost them precious time. He was nearly to the ground after five minutes and already felt the exertions in his arms. Thankfully, the next section of his race would only require legs, and they were strong and ready.
He jumped the last twenty feet and hit the ground running, his claws tearing through the soft soil, propelling him forward at an incredible rate of speed. He dodged trees and leaped over small vegetation as he made his way deeper into the forest.
His plan was to put more distance between he and his competitors before turning north towards the mountains. Close to the mountains but not on the mountains would be the best route considering the water they would likely encounter. He would skirt along the foothills, outside the forest if the terrain permitted. If not, the less dense vegetation against the rocky foothills would still provide him speed.
He’d run for nearly half an hour by his internal clock and quickly made a left turn to work his way back to the foothills. In the distance, he heard others making their way towards the plains, and he thought them fools. He felt certain they would be bogged down by water features while he would remain mostly dry. He also knew the forest would provide more opportunities for sustenance, something they would all need after the first day.
He pressed on, realizing this was the day that would make or break his race. He had the stamina and nourishment to run all day and into most of the night, so he would have to capitalize on this to get as far as possible before having to forage for food, water, and weapons. So far, he hadn’t seen any indigenous creatures, but the trees were large and the forest dense, it could easily hide large animals who would see him as an easy food source.
He would not avail them that opportunity. As he continued towards the mountains, he heard many slashing their way through the forest to his left. Good, they were behind his time and were heading straight into the thickest part of the forest. He ran fast, but found his way getting more difficult as the vegetation increased. He was confused. It should be thinning out as he got closer to the mountains.
It meant the mountains were further away than he had anticipated. He should have turned north sooner despite giving away his strategy. Too late now, he would continue until he reached them, but he veered slightly east to cut off more distance. He plowed through a large stand of yellow grasses and startled an animal foraging on the plants. He made a mental note about the yellow grasses being edible. He would need more than plant life to survive, but it was a start. Perhaps the animal he startled would also make a good meal.
The forest began changing as the vegetation thinned. Good, it meant he was close the foothills. Within a few minutes, he burst from the forest onto a rocky and grassy area at the base of large mountains and cliffs. He followed them, though the going was somewhat hampered by large boulders and rocky outcroppings he had to climb over.
It was not a straight line path to the finish line, but he knew it was probably the safest path he could take. He scaled another outcropping and stopped abruptly as he saw the terrain facing him. He was stunned. For twenty kilometers, an enormous plain of boulders littered his path, extending deeply into the southern forest. It was as if a mountain had been pulverized and its remains scattered across the valley floor.
The boulders ranged from small to the size of houses, and he knew his footing would be challenged if he tried to navigate this field. A broken leg would not only ruin his chances at winning, but might cost him his life. He would have to work his way south into the forest until the boulders thinned.
Suddenly, a deep moaning sound emanated from the boulder field. He couldn’t see anything, but movement in the distance caught his eye. He watched as a whole section of the boulder field began to move, dust rising in the air from the action. He didn’t know what he was seeing until a gnarled brown head rose out of the boulders and surveyed the landscape around it. It issued another moaning sound and the boulders around it changed direction. They were headed for him and he felt the ground beneath his feet vibrate from their movement.
He realized they were herd animals, and enormous from the size and distance they were from him. Something had startled them, and whatever scared them, would be deadly to Lord Hishth. He eyed the horizon and finally spotted flashes of light reflecting off something pursuing the creatures. Whatever they were, they were bigger than the herd beasts.
Finally, he spotted a large section of the body, and it was a massive serpent, its gray-yellow scales pushing it through the boulders in pursuit of its prey. It reared its head into the air to eye its quarry and released a hideous screech that sent shivers down Lord Hishth’s body as it reverberated off the mountains. They were purposely scaring their prey, hoping to separate the young from the parents during the rush for safety.
Another one shrieked to the south of the first one’s position, but Lord Hishth couldn’t see its entirety hidden behind large boulders. They were still ten kilometers away from his position, but closing fast. He had to make a decision. If he remained, he would easily be squashed by the stampede heading for him, and even if he survived, the serpents would finish him off. He had no illusions that he could outrun the serpents.
They were easily a hundred meters long and their heads alone were three times the size of Lord Hishth. He was no match for them even if he had modern weaponry. He finally understood why the death toll in this race was so high. He leaped from his rocky perch and weaved among the boulders towards the forest. He needed to put distance between himself and this herd if he was to survive. He moved into the vegetation and felt better as he clicked off kilometer after kilometer.
He finally stopped and could no longer feel the herd pounding across the boulder field. He caught his breath and eyed his surroundings. Nothing but large trees and dense undergrowth. It would be slow moving, but at least he was clear of the boulders. He eyed the suns and picked a path that would take him east around the boulders. He began marching on his chosen direction when a sound made him stop.
It was like the wind in the trees, but louder. Like something was coming, something that rubbed against the trees and vegetation without breaking them. Crap!
Lord Hishth knew the sound was that of a serpent, its scales brushing against he ground, creating the sound of something being dragged along the ground. He eyed the largest tree he could find and sprinted to it as fast. His footsteps broke branches as he ran and he could tell the serpent had heard his movement.
He finally reached the tree and dug his claws into it as he scaled the rough exterior into its upper canopy. It the serpent was a hundred meters, he would have to be near the top for it not to see him. He climbed quickly, his claws raking deep trenches into the bark as he ascended. Finally, the branches grew smaller and he was forced to stop, wedging himself between the main trunk and a thick branch.
His own breath pounded in his ears and he could hardly hear the progress of the serpent below. He calmed his mind and slowed his breathing so he could hear what was happening on the forest floor. It was eerily silent, and that only increased his fear. It might be at the base of the tree, using the scent of the oil on his scales to track him. He had never considered the oil a bad thing, but now he realized he’d made an enormous mistake.