Posted tagged ‘survival’

Race Of Royals – Part 2

February 26, 2017

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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Race Of Royals – Part 1

November 26, 2015

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 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.