I looked up in surprise to see K’tarsgh standing there, gazing at me with a sour look on his face, encased in what looked to be machine armor… an augmented exosuit? He still used makeshift crutches to walk, and aimed one at my face. “Friend Nijol… I tried to warn you. It’s to my shame that I didn’t. Now look at you. Eaten alive with k’neth. Why such transgression? How do you think you can help us against this Challenge when I find you like this? You who speak so highly of your Walk… you fall!”
I looked at my hands, and I was shocked to see my body was rotting like a cadaver. My clothing was ancient and eaten up in tatters, my skin peeled away, decaying, and oozed with putrid fluids and pus. I began to shake, my mind reeling with panic - how had this happened! And then I jumped as an arm reached for me to draw me back down, and it wasn’t Seri’s, it wasn’t Adjaha’s as K’tarsgh reprimanded me, but it was a woman’s voice I heard. “Ni! Gel! Fox! How could you!” He threw his right crutch at me which caught me smartly across the forehead, the jolt of it jarring me awake—
I jerked in the bed, blinking, and tried to fathom why my cabin looked like a rustic old manor, with sunlight streaming through the window to my left, when the memory of what happened yesterday came slowly back into focus with my vision. “I don’t like these alarm clocks,” I muttered, wanting to pull the covers over my eyes, but then I remembered something else which happened last night. Outside was the sound of Vy’keen gathering for some definite purpose, which I definitely need to see about.
I made to peel out of the girls’ embraces, which caused them to moan and whine in protest. “Go back to sleep… I’m just a dream,” I murmured as I gingerly, and awkwardly, tried to climb over Adjaha who stroked at my leg. They both snuggled together as I drew the blanket over them, both of them mumbling some thanks. I had to admire them for a moment, as they were both such beauties, and in a rare moment of quiet peace. The quiet peace was broken by a gentle knock on the door which sounded rather loud in the relative silence, making me jump.
“Sir Nijol?” It was Resh, who went on, “Grabas is about to face his Challenge.”
“Yeah, I’m just getting up,” I replied with as much volume as I thought would make it through the door as I fumbled into my suit. The tension of what was about to happen had me waking up pretty quick. I still needed a cup of energy to fuel a bit more of that, and to possibly soothe an empty stomach as there was no time for food. Thankfully there was a pot of that chickory stuff downstairs.
It wasn’t hard to find the location, between a few stragglers coming to watch, and quite a hubbub from those already gathered. It was in an open area near K’tarsgh’s home in the center of the village. There was a small hill the crowd had surrounded, seeming to have separated into groups. I was surprised, thinking that they were of one clan, but clearly not. It made it easier to make my way to the front as they stood apart from each other. Atop the hill stood Grabas who bellowed, “Pirates! Many gerark! I have ruled in the stead of K’tarsgh as his trusted aid! And now that rule has been challenged! This one!” He pointed at Grn’deth, standing with his troop off to one side. “Has laid claim to it! He finds fault with our pact with the Interloper-Pirate who gave us his own generous riches to buy it! All have benefitted, even Grn’deth! But he wants more!” There was a rumble of contention from all of them. I couldn’t tell how many favored it, but a few leader types fixed me in what looked to be disapproval. And I thought every Pirate lived for money. He continued, “He wants to rule you himself, when K’tarsgh couldn’t rise up! A Vy’keen the likes of which we haven’t seen for many cycles! He presumes a lot of greatness! But the Challenge has been made! I will not back down! I only yield to give him his say!”
A roar of approval went up from the crowd as Grabas left the peak, and the ruffian strode atop it with his boots chanting his name loudly with each step. And damn it, he looked bigger than I remembered. Had he huffed grah grah, did that have an effect on him? Or was fear working on my perception?
He lifted his fists high as if in triumph already, which irked me. “Hirk’s blood and flesh! Yes, I want to rule! K’tarsgh himself grew weak as years went by! He even sent an Interloper to do his work for him in that derelict! One Interloper! Who did what K’tarsgh and eleven good boots couldn’t! One Interloper! What kind of leader is that! And we’re supposed to respect his lesser? Bah bah bah! Baby talk! No! I don’t! And that one!” He pointed right at me. “That Interloper is trying to tame us! Hands us money like we’re cubs to be pampered! Wants to slap our blades from our hands! Make us into workers serving others! And keep the Great Beasts for himself, like he took our pochwa! For what? Pets? And here she comes now!”
I turned with the mob in bewilderment as Seri and Adjaha came running up to me in their suits, armed in case of trouble. “Honey, what are you doing here?” The sight of thousands of Vy’keen looking at us with disdain and a frightening bit of hunger was most discomforting to us. I wished they had their helmets on, as I didn’t want to deal with the mystery of another Human around, and a pretty girl.
Seri pressed herself to me hard, murmuring in a tense voice, “I want to know this fate.”
Grn’deth gave us a derisive laugh, overhearing that. “Fate! A good word for today! The fate that took our pochwa may give us another! If I win, I’ll be taking that one as my own!” My blood boiled as he was looking at Adjaha.
If mine was boiling, she blew a valve as she screamed at him with a savagery I’d never seen except in her Dragon form. It not only stunned me, but silenced everyone there, including him. And then even more, as she spoke. “I’ll kick your ass till you’re shitting yourself, you asshole!”
That caused quite a long silence, and when I found my voice, I was both proud of her and afraid for her safety. “Adj, hon, remember, you’re not a Dragon, just a Traveler in training.”
“I know how to fight them,” she growled, which left me speechless. How the hell did she have a clue, when she hadn’t been a Human for little more than a week! I popped a lozenge as my stomach was churning from nerves. Seri touched my hand, wanting one for herself.
Grn’deth finally found his tongue again, beginning to chuckle, then to laugh. “Spirit which even the brave Interloper doesn’t have! But a spirit I can break! And two females to bed at once! Yes, Fate is a great word! It’s time that Fate decide who leads us! A strong leader, a real Pirate, like me? Or a lap dog to a foolish rich Interloper, a second to a sleeping corpse like Grabas!”
Both leaders and their people began shouting, though Grabas and his cohort were outraged at the insults leveled at them. I felt bad for him because in essence, everything that bastard said was true. I wanted to neuter the Pirates, turn them into workers, craftsmen… good people, civilized people, following some sort of Walk that would lead them to Heaven, not Hell. And that very thing was what caused Hirk to break off a huge group from the other Vy’keen so many centuries ago, centuries that evidently hadn’t dulled that thirst for combat one bit. I began to despair of these people ever truly being anything but warriors at heart, save for a precious few.
Grabas came to me, saying in amazement, “Your woman - friend,” he amended quickly at a look from Adjaha and myself, “she has the spirit of a Vy’keen! Thank you for only speaking for yourself, young woman. I had to say this… if I should fall.” He turned to my mate, looking very contrite. “And you, Seri, freed from our abuse… I don’t deserve anything but hate and spit for how we treated you. But… would you please pray to your God for my victory? It will mean nothing but evil if I fall.”
She swallowed down a moan, saying to him, “I will… I will pray as hard as I did for my man.”
That satisfied him. As he went back to his men, beginning to strip out of his armor, I crossed myself . I had a feeling it wasn’t particularly connected to whatever creed I had adhered to in that other life so far removed from this mad world, but it felt pious and I needed spiritual strength and encouragement badly. I caught Adjaha repeating the motion, and I brushed her arm as we shared a smile.
Those smiles died quickly as the two combatants faced each other, armed only with their blades and clothing for protection. They stood about twenty feet apart, smacking their blade-weilding fists to their chests, took a few breaths, crying, “Blade to blade! Let only the right strength, the true strength stand!” And then they ran headlong for each other with loud cries, falling on each other with brutal fury.
A small part of me was captivated with the display of raw ferocity in these two seasoned warriors as their knives flashed and clashed, ringing with the song of steel. The rest of me was scared to death. I was heartened as Grabas seemed to have the upper hand early, drawing first blood and landing hard blows, but wounds began to appear on both as those blades found their way to flesh, and blood began to flow down those tight, well muscled bodies. Grn’deth wasn’t about to yield to him though, and being thrown down a few times only seemed to make him angrier, more determined, and Grabas was unable to deal a decisive blow. I heard Seri beside me, whimpering with eyes squeezed shut and hands clasped tight, almost sobbing out words I had never heard before, and I felt her spirit around me strong, like a shield. I prayed that shield would extend around my new friend. Please… for the sake of a semblance of peace with these misguided folk, Father, please…
Grabas made a desperate attempt to end the contest once and for all, making a broad slash that Grn’deth blocked, and my heart nearly stopped as that brute delivered a hard puch to his face, staggering him. My voice joined with his cohort as I had to watch him on the defensive, struggling in vain to recover enough to go back on offense, but it was all he could do to fend off strike after strike with that deadly blade. I wilted as the scoundrel landed ever deadlier cuts across his chest, his stomach, and then another fist drove him to the ground in a daze.
“No!” I cried, and lost all reason, running to the scene of the fight amidst shouts of shock and outrage, and the girls both screaming for me to stop. But I just couldn’t stand by and let Grabas be killed. Grn’deth had a gloating look on his face as he plunged that awful short sword they called a knife down at the helpless opponent at his feet. And then blinked in surprise as I dashed into view, blocking his strike with the flat of my blade braced with both hands. I cringed as that strike could well mean my death too, and it took everything I had to stop it, but the blade was made super strong, not brittle as other metals could be, and it held up to the blow. I ducked as the tip of Grn’deth’s shortsword snapped off, spinning over my head. He gaped at me in confusion and outrage, as did all the other Vy’keen, and then they began to howl in protest.
I began speaking, hoping my mouth would rescue me, as well as my two girls which had to draw their weapons to hold the angry mob near them at bay. “Listen! Listen to a mere Interloper! But I’m not! I’m one of you now! Grn’deth has won! I can’t deny that!”
“Then let him finish!” one of his men shouted hotly.
I continued, heedless of the great outcry that followed. “But he has insulted me, and my mate, and my friend! A brave warrior, threatening females weaker than him! My companions, right in front of me! Threatening me! He thinks he knows so much! He doesn’t know that K’tarsgh and his men ran from a devil god straight from gautakht! With more power than entire fleets of ships! Than a whole planet! I was nearly destroyed! Devoured like prey!” My voice became shrill, full of the terror of that awful moment. I must have looked as horrific because they all gaped at me in shock and a little fear themselves. I didn’t dare look at the girls, I needed to stay resolute. Still sounding unhinged, I kept screaming. “This one would have been a treat! Not even a mouthful! Not even I could kill such a monster! We had to drop a bomb while its mere spawn attacked us, killed some! A bomb which would have left nothing of this village but a smoking hole thousands of units across! And this one has the shit to mock me! Mock my friends! To mock K’tarsgh, who led you without challenge because this dog knew he couldn’t beat him! K’tarsgh, who faced death and took it without hesitation for me!” Tears of outrage and pain began to flow down my cheek. “There is no greater courage or strength! And this one doesn’t have it!”
One by one, they looked impressed, and then became vocal about it, the area beginning to ring with battle cries mingled with my name. Grn’deth began to look concerned as he saw his support being whittled back to his own boots. I must be one hell of a speaker to them. One of his aids tried to rescue him. “Great words, great deeds! But we have laws!”
“I am my own law!” I bellowed over him. “Who can say they faced a demon from gautakht! Who of you! Only K’tarsgh! His boots! And me! Twice! I declare The Challenge against Grn’deth by right of deeds no one else can match! Not even Hirk! And especially not him!”
This caused no small uproar among them, but even then, I heard Seri scream my name clearly. It was hard to see the look of stark fear on her face, reaching for me in tears as Adjaha held her back, with her own expression of worry and pain clear on her face. What the hell was I doing! I said all that without half a thought behind it, and now I was risking my life against a monster that could possibly tear me to bits with his bare hands. But I was caught in my own half-clever trap now, waiting to see how it played out.