Race Of Royals – Part 2

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.

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Lord Hishth woke from his slumber, and it took a moment before he realized he was still in the tree he’d climbed for refuge from the enormous serpent hunting him. He steadied himself against the branch and took stock of his situation.

It was nighttime, but not too late based on his internal calculations. There wasn’t a moon but the full splendor of stars was bright enough to cast shadows. He listened intently to the forest floor below, but couldn’t hear anything over the cacophony of insects singing in the dense vegetation. At the moment he took that as a good sign as they often stopped when something large passed by. He would pay heed to their singing.

His mind reeled with how far behind he likely was after being treed for most of the first day. He would have no choice but to travel at night. He slowly inched his way to the ground, stopping periodically to check for sounds of slithering or anything a predator might make while hunting. Nighttime was usually a period of intense competition for food and resources as darkness helped hide creatures from spying eyes. He would have to stay alert. He decided he needed a weapon if he was to navigate through the forest at night.

He hit the ground silently and crouched while listening for anything through the insect noise. Nothing registered, so he began searching the forest floor for a stick that could be carved into a rudimentary spear. Even a spear could keep some large animals away. Even the slightest injury could often be a death sentence within the forest, so predators usually avoided confrontation that might result in injury. He would use that to his advantage.

After a few minutes, he located a stand of young trees reaching into the empty sky once occupied by a dead tree now scattered across the forest floor. He pulled several from the ground and after careful deliberation, chose the one that suited his needs. He pulled out his dagger and began hacking off the limbs before carving the larger end into a deadly tip. It was crude but would inflict real harm if yielded by an expert. Fortunately, he was an expert.

He took a smaller branch from the ground and carved it into a similar but smaller stabbing weapon that would serve as a knife. He refused to use his ceremonial dagger for fear of losing it. A family heirloom such as that would not gain him forgiveness if lost. Satisfied with his work, he slid the smaller one into his belt and felt more secure knowing he had something other than his dagger. He hefted the spear and found its balancing point to carry it. It wasn’t too heavy, but strong enough to pierce even moderately tough hides if need be.

He felt ready and was about to begin his run through the forest when he noticed the sound of insects had fallen silent. Something was nearby, and he wondered if his machinations had drew in some predator looking for an easy meal. He slid into cover under some heavy vegetation and remained frozen as he listened to the sounds of the night air. Nothing moved or made a sound, and he could almost hear his own heartbeat pounding in his chest. He rapidly went through a quick focusing technique that prepared his mind for battle. His senses expanded and he searched through the forest for anything he had not heard, smelled or felt before.

Suddenly he smelled it. It was a scent that was almost sour in nature and it made him think about the small creatures of his home world that would spray such a scent from a special gland in their necks to ward off predators. He didn’t believe this was a creature like that. This felt more ominous within the silent darkness.

He waited patiently and scanned for additional clues using his heightened senses. He strained with effort to hear even the tiniest sounds. Only the occasional click of insects scurrying up trees could be heard. He was almost certain the smell had come from the direction of the tree he had been in earlier, and that made sense considering the scent of his oil would be all over it. It was tracking him by smell. As soon as feasible, he would have to eliminate the oil and camouflage his scent with local products.

He peered through the dense undergrowth but couldn’t make out any movement. It was so silent, he felt like it must be near. Too near. He eyed the opposite direction from his hiding tree and decided the only way to escape was speed. He could make a dash for it and if something pursued him closely, he could always take refuge in another tree. It was a gamble, but staying put would eventually lead the animal straight to him. He cursed himself once more for the oil he’d applied before the race.

He strained his senses one last time and decided he could make a break for it. He firmly gripped his spear and leapt into action. No matter how hard he tried, he would make a great deal of noise as he ran at nearly full speed through the dark forest. It was unavoidable, but the predator would suffer the same disadvantage.

His speed increased as the forest thinned slightly and he doubled his efforts. His breathing and heartbeat were loud in his ears, but the crashing of trees was deafening. He heard something in the distance crashing through the forest behind him and knew he was being pursued. As soon as he ran, he had tipped his hand that he was quarry. He needed a secondary plan.

He eyed the large trees looming ahead and decided he could easily scale them and hide in the canopy as before. Unfortunately, it would track his scent and wait at the base of the tree far longer than he cared to wait. Worse, it might be able to climb. By then he might die of hunger or thirst himself. That plan would lead to a tactical failure and he thought hard about other options.

He had his spear and could risk confrontation, but he didn’t really know the size and ferocity of his pursuer. It might be over before he even mounted an offense. Based on its sound, it was gaining on him, and he realized that meant something larger than himself. He needed a plan and quickly. He passed underneath the large trees and wove his way through them as quickly as was possible. His sound had decreased through the sparser vegetation, but that only made the sound of his pursuer even louder, and it was closing in.

He rounded a rather large tree and startled a bunch of smaller creatures grazing on the sparse vegetation. They scattered like a heard in a single direction from him and changed directions to pursue them as his mind quickly cobbled together a plan. He counted five of the creatures running ahead of him and decided their noise was sufficient to mask his own. The larger creature behind had made a course correction and was still following. He was beginning to tire when he spotted a tree that would serve him well. As he neared it, he jumped and sprang through the air catching the lower branch. In a single motion he swung up into the tree and took up a position behind the trunk. The creatures he had pursued continued racing away from his position while the predator closed in quickly.

He steadied himself and calmed his mind to time this perfectly. The sound drew closer and he realized it was moving fast. The speed would make his attack more risky, but it was the only logical way out of his predicament. His mind tracked the sound as it ran along the same path he had just navigated. The creature’s footfalls and his visualization provided a near perfect re-creation of the creature’s path as it neared the tree.

He timed his jump and leapt into the darkness with spear held high as a dark mass appeared below him. As he fell towards the enormous animal, he aimed his spear at a point he assumed would be the creature’s spine. Gravity and the creature’s own momentum caused the spear to sink deep into its backside. He held on with all his strength as the creature reared in pain and panic as it realized what had happened. He was barely straddling its large midsection as it swung around in circles trying to dislodge him. He dared not let go of the spear as the creature could not dislodge it through its wild gyrations.

It seemed an eternity as the creature fought against the inevitable, bucking and rearing to remove the pain from its back. Finally, the damage from its movements caused it to falter, and he knew he had won this battle. Within a couple minutes the creature fell on its side and its breath was expelled for the last time. Lord Hishth fell to the side and sprang to his feet lest the creature make one last valiant effort. It lay motionless, and he tried to calm his breathing.

The creature was covered in a course black hair and in the darkness of the forest, it was nearly invisible. It was easily five times his own size and would have ripped him to shreds had he attempted a direct confrontation. He was relieved his plan had worked despite the obvious risk of poor timing. The creature sported large tusks protruding from its mouth and he was quite happy to have avoided them. They would have easily disarmed him and made short work of him.

He did not recognize the beast, but it looked similar predators he’d seen on other worlds. Large, fierce, and heavily armed, ready to attack anything that was smaller and less defended. It likely ate anything, and because of that, it would taste delicious. He pulled his ceremonial dagger from his belt and marched towards the carcass. He had spared his own life and his reward was enough sustenance to get him through most of the race.

* * * *

The daylight streaming through the trees was warm against Lord Hishth’s scales. He relished the energizing rays as he quenched his thirst from the small tributary he would easily cross when finished. It had been two days since his near death experience at the hands of serpents and the tusked creature and nothing had bothered him during that time. He’d long since washed the oil from his scales and rubbed a mixture of local tree sap, moss and dirt all over his body to mask his scent. It also served as additional camouflage, especially at night.

The Issgire were did not naturally emanate a scent, but considering the size of the hunters on this planet, he would take no chances. He checked his handmade store of leftover meat he’d cooked after carving large chunks of muscle from the creature and it was running low. He would switch to some of the local plant life he’d identified as edible and extend his stores as long as possible. He felt strong, alive, and ready to reach the end of the race before anyone else. Despite the earlier setbacks, he was making fabulous time and easily crossed most of the tributaries he’d encountered. His plan was actually working, and he hoped everyone else was suffering large rivers, deltas, or worse, swamps.

He peered into the pale green sky and the compass sprang to life from his implant as promised. The finish line was still blue indicating no one had yet crossed it. He was wrapping as close to the mountains as was feasible without moving into the boulder field. At one point, he’d spotted some of the large herd beasts that resembled boulders themselves. They were dark in color and enormous with thick skin that looked impossible to pierce with a spear made from wood. He doubted his dagger would even scratch such a hide. He kept clear of them lest he be trampled during another panicked run. Besides, if giant serpents were hunting them, he wanted as much distance from them as was possible without changing course.

He had made a quick calculation based on his observations and estimated his course along the mountains would add an additional forty kilometers to his already lengthy race. It was a tradeoff, easier navigation but longer path. He still felt confident his gamble would pay off, though he was slightly nervous that he had seen no other racers along his route. Either they were smarter, or he was much farther ahead of them. Only time would tell.

He estimated he had about a day and a half before he would near the area of the finish line. Assuming no other setbacks, he would finish in a respectable time considering the obstacles presented on this world. That motivated him and he hopped across the tributary to the other side before picking up his steady pace. He guessed he was moving at about a fifteen kilometer per hour pace, and that was perfect.

He already had blown his original estimate of two to three days to complete the race but still didn’t fret. Everyone else would be making the same slow progress either through forest like him, or across water obstacles that would be difficult to navigate. Nobody would finish in less than four days, himself included.

He easily moved through the underbrush at a steady pace with spear held at the ready. If he saw prey he would use it to kill them, and if he saw predator, he would use it to defend himself. He hoped he didn’t run into another black tusked hunter, that fortunate attack would be hard to replicate. Thankfully, he assumed such a predator would roam a large area for prey and would not likely tolerate others of its kind within its borders. The serpents however, no telling where they might pop up? For the moment, he felt relatively safe.

He traveled during the day and slept at night in trees. He had figured his odds of meeting predators might be lower in daylight than at night, and he didn’t need another incident like the one with the black beast. This limited his travel time since the days on this world were so short. The spin of this world was fast, and nighttime came far too quickly. Still, he was making great progress.

He came to an opening in the forest and slowed to a stop as he peered into the large expanse. It was a natural place for a predator to lurk. Anything passing through the opening would be highly visible from the confines of the surrounding forest. He eyed a way around but decided he couldn’t take the time hit if he was to stay on schedule. He would have to risk running through the open area as quickly as possible and hope nothing was waiting in ambush.

The large expanse was sparsely littered with strange plants that seemed to wither in the direct sunlight. It was as if all the large trees had been suddenly yanked from the area and the dense undergrowth had wilted under the direct gaze of the sun beating down on them. However, considering how sparse it was, he could easily double his pace and make up time.

He eyed the surrounding forest and listened intently before deciding to make a run for it. He leapt from his cover into the hot sun and sprinted once more to a steady twenty-five kilometer per hour pace that would clear the open area within minutes. He darted his gaze from side to side looking for any movement in the tree line but saw nothing. So far so good.

The ground was hard and dry, containing what looked like dead vegetation barely clinging to life under the intense sunlight. He would be happy to be under the trees once more to avoid the heat and barren conditions despite the speed he was able to maintain. Still, he felt something was wrong with this open expanse and he wanted to get past it as soon as possible.

He was nearing the midpoint of the area when a gnarled mass of vegetation began to block his path. He tried to veer off to the side, but it was everywhere. Before he could react, he was knee deep in it and sharp pain radiated through his legs as pin pricks of thorns pierced his scales. This was new and he stopped to assess his situation. He slowly backed out the way he had come but it seemed an eternity as his mind slowed and the world around him spun in an eerie dream state.

He spotted other racers flashing by waving at him, and he panicked until he saw Assil hobble by at a slower, older pace. He shook his head and tried to clear the visions clouding his mind. He couldn’t focus despite his best efforts and he wandered around in circles trying to decide where to go. He was lost in his own mind and ran aimlessly in one direction. The pain in his legs increased, but he refused to stop until his legs finally gave out. He fell to the ground in a heap, and his mind swirled in confusion as colors and lights flashed like a kaleidoscope in his eyes.

Finally darkness embraced him, and he welcomed it for its cool, calming peace.

* * * *

The sound of something breaking woke him suddenly, and his eyes darted about unfocused as he tried to ascertain where he was and what was happening. Something grabbed his arm and he swung around violently trying to free himself. It was no use and his mind swam with black dots as he fell back to the ground in a heap. Only gray, non-distinct blobs appeared through the swimming dots and he panicked.

“It’s okay, your safe!” A voice called to him through the haze, and it spoke his language.

“What happened?” Lord Hishth demanded.

“You succumbed to poisonous plants. I think you will live, but you may not recover so quickly.” The voice responded.

Lord Hishth didn’t remember poisonous plants and wracked his brain trying to understand what had happened. He had been running, he remembered that, but where and what he had run into was a mystery.

“Who are you?” He spoke directly to the largest gray blob in the vicinity of his blurred vision. It moved, so he knew it must be the person.

“I am Lord Thrriis.” The voice said. “You?”

The name meant nothing to Lord Hishth, but then he had only known a couple dozen racers. “I am Hishth.”

“Hmmm. I have heard of you.” Thrriis said knowingly. “Incredible tactician, I hear.”

“You heard right!” Hishth said sounding more confident than he felt. “I haven’t heard of you.”

Thrriis laughed lightly. “I would hardly expect you to. I am stationed on the opposite side of the Empire from you. I am part of a subjugator force. Subjugation and enslavement is my mission.”

“I thought we abolished that to get others to help us!” Hishth spat in disdain. “Rubbish if you ask me. I applaud your efforts and hope you continue.”

Thriiss remained silent for a few minutes before finally responding. “They may stop us soon, and I might just as well be glad of it.”

“Really? Why?” Hishth demanded imagining some soft commander who couldn’t stomach the misery of other species at his own hands. Too many of these liberal Issgire had taken control of the Empire and filled the Emperor’s mind with nonsense about enlisting others to help instead of forcing their cooperation. If he won his Dukedom, he would be a voice of reason against those soft and weak liberals.

“I have seen the other side of it, and it works far better.” Thrriis said calmly.

Hishth was taken aback and realized this was a soft liberal. “Nonsense, we are far superior to any other species and should domesticate them to our and the Empire’s needs.”

“I once thought as you, but I have seen firsthand what can happen to the oppressed when the Leran march in to liberate them. They turn on us and collude with our enemies much to our detriment.” Thrriss said. “We will lose if we continue down that path. The Emperor was wise to change tactics.”

Hishth was upset by these liberal views and wished his vision was clear enough to see him face to face. “You will excuse me if I don’t see your point of view on this. I think the Emperor was unduly swayed by weak Issgire bent on enriching themselves at the expense of the Empire!”

“Believe what you want, I have seen the truth.” Thrriis said quietly.

Hishth was beginning to see more details, but Thrriis was still more blob than Issgire. He would not let on to his current disability. “Why did you save me?” He asked.

“You would have done the same had it been me.” Thrriis said. “Commanders never let their troops be left behind to die.”

Hishth didn’t believe that either, but decided it best to not argue the point. There were always situations where the life of a single soldier was expendable in the quest for victory. He decided being in the subjugation and enslavement end of the war was not conducive to smart, tactical commanders. It was likely why Thrriis was in such a unit. He was unable to make the hard decisions that would ensure victory.

“Yes, I suppose you’re right.” He said without much commitment. “Where are we?”

“Still a day or so from the finish line, but not far from the open expanse where I found you.” Thriiss said without emotion.

It was clear Thrriis didn’t have the killer instinct that would win him a Dukedom. Still, he had taken the same route which meant he was at least smart enough to navigate. Perhaps there was something more to his compassionate gesture than met the eye. Hishth would take care to watch this one. He may only be playing the fool to force Hishth’s guard down, and when the time came, his ruthlessness would win the day. After all, it was hard to believe that anyone running in this race would be so compassionate towards a fellow competitor.

Suddenly Hishth’s stomach rumbled and he realized he was incredibly hungry. As though Thrriis realized his situation, Hishth’s store of meat landed in his lap.

“Thought you would want this back.” Thrriis said. “Can’t finish this race without sustenance. How did you come by such a bounty?”

Hishth had been about to accuse him of stealing his meat, but realized the weight felt about right. “I ran into a hungry beast that pursued me, but I guess I was more hungry.” He said boldly though he knew  the real truth of it.

Thrriis stood up and Hishth eyed the large blob carefully. “Impressive.” He said. “I, too, was fortunate to acquire a beast that had been stalking me, though mine yielded far less meat than yours. Still, I am alive and it is dinner.”

Hishth smiled tightly. This was no fool and he must be careful. “This world is full of surprises.” He said. “Did you happen to travel on the path of boulders at the foot of the mountains?”

Thrriis moved off to Hishth’s right and sat down once again. “I did.” He replied. “Incredible beasts roaming them. I was nearly trampled to death by one that saw me as a threat to its youngling. Nothing short of a monster will pierce their hide.”

“My thoughts exactly.” Hishth said. “I have seen such a monster hunt them.”

“Really?” Thrriis said with an edge of concern. “What did it look like?”

“It was a serpent about a hundred or more meters in length.” Hishth said. “There were several of them. I was treed temporarily by one of them flanking the herd in the forest. Thankfully it either didn’t want to climb after something as small as me, or it cannot climb vertically because of its weight. Either way, I have been keeping a keen eye out for them since that encounter.”
“Interesting.” Thrriis said. “I had seen what looked like the remains of a large serpent’s skin after molting, but it was not nearly that large.”

“A young one perhaps.” Hishth said hoping there wasn’t another species of serpent that large.

Thrriis laughed. “Let’s hope so.”

Hishth looked around and was beginning to see more detail in the dim light of the stars. “When did you find me?”

“Close to nightfall.” Thrriis said. “I was ready for a stop anyway, so I carried you here and let you sleep off the effects of the poison. Honestly, I wasn’t really sure you would survive, there were a lot of thorns stuck in your body.”

Close to nightfall meant he had lost at least a half a day because of his folly. Now he had a competitor catch up with him, so the competition would be difficult. How should he approach this situation? Let Thrriis know they would part ways and may the best commander win? That didn’t seem quite appropriate after he’d saved Hishth’s life.

“How do you think the others are doing?” Hishth asked curious.

Thrriis remained silent for a minute or two before answering. “I believe that unless they are following our route, they will not make it before us. There are too many unknown variables further to the east. The water there might be quite expansive and slow down anyone’s progress. Closer to the mountains, the rivers and tributaries are relatively small and easily crossed, but you already knew that.”

Hishth looked up into the sky and his compass sprang to life. It was too blurry to see details, but the finish line was still blue indicating nobody had yet crossed it. They both still had a chance to win.

Thrriis knew what he was doing. “Yes, no one has yet crossed the finish line. I check quite often. Once it turns red, I will no longer feel compelled to keep up such a brisk pace.”

“You think someone will beat us?” Hishth asked.

“Doubtful, unless someone was ahead of you.” Thrriis said. “Did you see any signs of that?”

“No.” Hishth said curtly almost insulted by the suggestion. Still, he had been in that tree for the better part of a day. But if Thrriis had been lagging a half a day behind him and had not been treed, that meant he was maintaining a much faster pace. He suddenly felt exhilaration at the thought he could still win against this adversary.

Hishth pulled out some meat and placed it in his mouth. His body responded immediately to the needed sustenance. He would regain his strength and then leave this commander behind and take the win and the Dukedom. He only hoped his sight would return before morning. “How late is it?” He asked between bites.

“Midnight, I think.” Thrriis said.

That meant at least a few hours left before sunrise. That would give his body time to fully recuperate, he hoped. Once that happened, he would set off on his own and leave Thrriis behind. He finished the last of his meat and laid down on the ground. It was not comfortable, but he only needed rest to regain his strength, sleep could be put off till after he won.

“I will see you at first light.” Hishth said.

“Yes, see you then.” Thrriis replied.

* * * *

Hishth had left their small encampment an hour before first light. It was now midday, and he was making remarkable time considering his incident the day before. He felt better than before the poisonous plants, but his vision was still impaired. It was a risk traveling so fast without his full faculties, but it was worth it if he could put many kilometers between him and Thrriis. He briefly stopped only a few times to relieve himself, take on water and eat a small portion of meat wrapped in local plant life.

His body was operating at peak performance and he needed little to sustain that. Perhaps those poisonous plants had special medicinal uses if you survived their initial poisoning. Whatever it was, he was happy to have it. He was easily clocking at twenty or twenty five kilometers per hour despite his blurred vision. It was as if he could sense obstacles before he actually saw them. Perhaps his other senses were compensating for his defective vision.

Every now and then he would peer skyward and adjust his course angling ever closer to the finish line now close at hand. He would finish today even if it killed him. Of course he didn’t think it would kill him based on how he felt. He would not stop to rest other than to take on more calories to get him to the end. He had already taken a gamble and threw out half of his remaining meat to lighten his weight. He had also cut down his spear by at least a third to more easily navigate the forest floor. He was making incredible time and would win this.

He never saw Thrriis or heard him. All was quiet ahead and behind, but he kept his senses alert, especially for serpents or other beasts intent on killing him. He believed daylight would prevent that from happening, but you could never tell. He slowed as he heard water up ahead. The low roar indicated a waterfall nearby. He burst into the open in front of a large river moving at a very rapid pace. To his right, the river poured over an enormous drop and the water thundered loudly on the depths below. To his left, the water cascaded over several series of small falls, each one deadly treacherous considering the enormous current. He had never anticipated something this large so close to the mountains.

If he went right, he would have to travel down a large cliff to the river below and then continue downstream until the water slowed or the river widened. Neither was appealing. If he went left, he would have to scale uphill for who knew how far before the river narrowed enough to cross. No telling how far that would take him into the mountains or whether it would ever narrow.

Damn! He was stuck without a plan. He grabbed some meat and picked dried grasses from around the rivers edge. He wrapped the meat in the grasses and took small bites to give him energy. He would have to think about this obstacle, and he needed food to help. When he had finished his small meal, he leaned over to the water and scooped plenty in his mouth until he had his fill. He didn’t want to weigh himself down with too much water.

Unfortunately, he still didn’t have a plan. He eyed the treetop canopy, but the trees never crossed over the edge of the river far enough to climb across. If he had wings, no problem. If he had rope, maybe he could rig a swing which might get him further across, but he had neither. Suddenly, his quest to finish today seemed near impossible.

However, he knew he couldn’t stand there all day in indecision, so he chose a direction and took off. As he moved up the hillside along the river, he slipped several times as the moisture from the falls coated everything with a fine mist. He would never make it up under those conditions, and he worked his way further back into the forest until drier footing could be attained. He found what looked like a game trail, and though it was risky to travel such a route, it would cut off an incredible amount of time. He charged uphill along the trail at breakneck speed, but his footing was sure and he soon crested the top into the boulder field littering the base of the mountains. Damn!

He eyed the open plain of rock and small grasses. There weren’t any signs of animal life, so he set off back towards the river to ascertain its condition from this height. If it was too wide or strong to cross, he would continue towards the mountains until he found a place. It could be frustrating, but what choice did he have?

He neared the water and it was too swift and wide to cross. Though the water flowed around large boulders, none were close enough to hop across. He looked upstream, and luck was on his side. A large wall of rock had the softer material of its middle washed out by the river creating a natural land bridge. If the top of the rock wall was navigable, he could cross there. All was not yet lost.

He quickly sprinted across the distance to the crossing and slowed as he neared it. Something was on top of it making its way across. Their limbs were splayed out on either side of the wall as they shimmied slowly across. As he drew closer, he could see it was likely Thrriis unless another competitor had caught up with him.

Hishth yelled over the sound of rushing water. “Hello!”

The figure turned its head and located the sound of the voice. “Ah, Hishth, there you are!”

“Seems my attempt to elude you has failed!” Hishth called back.

“You didn’t know something I did!” Thrriis said loudly. “I knew this river was here and that I would have to travel on the boulders if I wanted to cross it. Fortunately, this land bridge was close to where I ended up!” Thrriis said. “I am afraid crossing it isn’t as quite as easy as it looks. The rock is soft sandstone and narrows to an edge near the top. I am afraid my weight might break off a piece and I will fall with it into the river!”

Hishth shook his head and didn’t want to know how this guy knew the river was there. Thrriis was still not ahead of him by much, but it seemed he might never shake this guy. He would reconsider his plan to go it alone after they crossed over the river.

“I will be right behind you, so leave me some rock to climb!” He yelled at Thrriis who was suddenly making better progress.

“No promises!” Thrriis yelled back, his voice now muffled by the water rushing below them.

The natural arch was probably twenty meters tall at its highest point and spanned a section of the river that was at least fifty meters wide. If he fell off, he might either hit a large boulder or the water. He would have to be careful.

Thrriis was right, the wall narrowed to nearly a blade’s width near the top, and the edge hurt as Hishth slid across it slowly. Finally, he was beginning the descent and the rock wall widened appreciatively. He was soon standing on it and walking to the other side. Thrriis was waiting patiently on a rock.

“You didn’t want to gain advantage?” Hishth said wondering why this guy wouldn’t leave when he had the chance.

“It seems to me, we might be better off traveling together, at least for a while. I know about a few other obstacles we might encounter and you are an excellent tactician. I am willing to forego advantage for the benefit of teamwork.” Thrriis said matter of fact.

“Really?” Hishth said dubiously. He had already suspected there was more to this guy than met the eye, so he was doubly suspicious that he knew about upcoming obstacles and still wanted to team up. What was his game? “How do you know so much about this planet? Did someone tip you off?”

“On the contrary, I deduced where this competition would be based on the current holdings within the Empire. Did you know we are not actually in the Empire?” Thrriiss said knowingly.

Hishth was disturbed by what this commander was saying. He deduced the location? That seemed impossible, especially if it wasn’t in the Empire. “Where are we?”

“Thirty-two parsecs from the Empire’s control.” Thrriis replied. “We are in an area the Leran have been eyeing for decades. It is close enough to key assets of the Empire, yet capable of sustaining life. Oh, it would have to be domesticated first, but would prove a strong fortification to build a base on this flank of the Empire. They would gain real advantage if they took it.”

“Why haven’t they?” Hishth asked.

Thrriis laughed lightly. “Actually, because of you and your units. You have depleted much of their resources near this area in your epic battles. They haven’t the forces to take this new area, even without us battling them along the way. They had no idea we used this planet for our competitions.”

“How did you know?” Hishth pressed concerned by what this guy was telling him. Something wasn’t adding up.

Thrriis smiled a toothy grin. “I told you, I deduced it. Oh, and I intercepted a communique from a Leran spy that talked about this world and how the Issgire used it for military training. Needless to say, I knew there were no military installations in this region, so I naturally assumed it must be where the competition was being held. After that, I simply perused the Empire’s archives for any information on this world. Guess what I found?”

“A topographical map?” Hishth replied.

“Not quite topographical or accurate, but a crude map created by ancient Issgire searching for fortunes outside the Empire.” Thrriis said. “It contained enough details of this area to help me choose my route.”

“You cheated!” Hishth said forcefully. Maps of any kind, from any source were forbidden in the competition.

“Oh, no.” Thrriiss said. “I actually discovered this information long before I was a commander and eligible for this competition. Before I was a subjugator in fact.”

“And you want my help?” Hishth nearly spat. “I can’t trust you!”

“Really?” Thrriis said. “I saved your life! I could easily have left you to die in those plants, slowly eaten as your carcass rotted in the hot sun, but I didn’t. I need you.”

“But why?” Hishth demanded.

Thrriis looked at the ground and sighed. “I am a terrible fighter. It is part of the reason I am a subjugator and not part of the elite troops battling the Leran on the fronts like you. There is reason to believe there are formidable predators up ahead blocking our path to the finish line. Together, we may be smart enough to outwit them, but alone, neither of us would likely make it.” His head dropped low. “My father took this route and failed. He was killed by something large just as he was closing in on the finish.”

Hishth considered this. His father had also failed, but at least he hadn’t lost his life in the process. If there was some enormous monsters up ahead, teamwork would certainly prove useful. He thought about what Assil had said before the race and realized this was his moment to stop thinking about himself. Nonetheless, after they cleared the obstacles, it would be every soldier for themselves. He would win this race, that he was certain, even if meant fighting and maybe killing this guy.

“Very well,” Hishth said, “tell me what you know about what lies ahead?”

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