The Challenge: An Exitium Excerpt

“What now, Proeliator?” Stohn fought back the urge to wince as he awaited an answer to the question he’d finally worked up the gumption to ask.

Latro steepled his fingers on his desktop. Outside the window, cloudskimmers zigzagged to and fro across the night sky like bacteria in a Petri dish. He waited for a long time before finally speaking.

“The conquest of Kadal,” he breathed, speaking the campaign’s title with the utmost of reverence.

“I was nineteen years old,” he continued. Cocky young thing, I was.” He chuckled. “Granted, it was warranted.

“Our stormer had just been taken out by snipers lurking just outside the Capitol. They’d gotten hold of some particle rifles, from, somewhere, I don’t remember. Anyway, tore our armor right off, peeled it like it was an overripe verntas. Three of my tribe were killed in the blast, and the others, besides myself, of course, were all killed as they ran–shot in the back.

“I crawled to safety behind one of those tall, yellow furry plants that dominate the landscape on most of the planet. You ever been to Kadal?”

Stohn shook his head.

“Beautiful place,” said Latro. “Wasted on its wretched inhabitants, though. Or, at least it was, before I leapt onto the back of one of their zipper pods as it soared past me to the city, which was protected by a forceshield whose impenetrability had long frustrated our scientists.

“The pod was admitted without incident, its operator none the wiser, and there I was–inside the city! The first Bellumite to set foot within its walls, I might add. Although, as you’re no doubt already aware, not the last.

“I already knew the layout of the city well enough to find the field control center, and after killing a guard and taking his uniform, I made my way to the main generator and opened fire upon it.

“I assaulted it with several full-strength bursts before it finally gave up the ghost, as they say. Field came down, our tribes flooded in, and the rest is, as they also say, is history.”

“And now they serve at your feet, my Lord,” said Stohn, his voice brimming with admiration for his Proeliator.

“After that,” Latro went on, “they immediately promoted me to Warmaster. I went on, as you know, to become the youngest Proeliator in history. Forty years later, I’m still here, and never long does my sword’s thirst for the blood of my challengers go unquenched.”

“You have defeated all of them with ease, my Lord,” said Stohn.

“Yes. This is the first time I’ve faced defeat.” He scowled and spat upon the floor. A slave rushed over to wipe it up and Latro kicked him in the rear as he scurried away.

“Wait!” he called to the slave, who froze in his tracks, trembling.

“Yes, master?”

“Weren’t you here yesterday when I had to, eh, discipline your companion?”

The slave turned slowly toward him, his hands balled into fists. “Yes, that was me,” he affirmed. “And he wasn’t my companion. He was my brother.”

Stohn laughed. “These people are so hard-headed. Listen to him, mouthing off to you so after what he’s just witnessed. They don’t learn!”

“No,” said Latro, locking eyes with the slave, who met his gaze dead on, all traces of fear replaced by anger. “They don’t. What’s your name?”

“Tarq.”

“Well, Tarq, I apologize for my outburst. Let my apology serve as a reminder that I am a merciful Proeliator.”

Tarq bowed. “Thank you, master.”

“Dismissed. Get out.”

Tarq turned to leave again, but stopped when once again Latro stopped him.

“Wait!”

“Yes, master?”

Latro eyed him with a curious grin. “You despise me, don’t you? You’d like to kill me. I can see the fire in your eyes. Don’t see that too often in your kind.”

“Yes. To both questions, master.”

Latro laughed. “Brave, too!” He elbowed Stohn in the ribs. “Have you ever seen the like?”

“No,” said Stohn. “Never. Look at him. He quakes in fear of you! Cowardly lot, they are.”

“Not this one,” said Latro, looking his servant up and down with new eyes. “He quakes not with fear, but with rage. He has the soul of a warrior.”

“And the tongue of a fool,” countered Stohn.

Latro’s smile drooped. “Speaking of tongues, perhaps you should learn when to hold yours.”

“Of course,” said Stohn, his face suddenly several shades paler.

The smile returned. “Tarq,” he said, once again addressing the slave by name, a heretofore unheard of practice, “I need better a better strategist. I’ve surrounded myself with yes men who tell me only what they believe I wish to hear.”

He cast a reproachful glance at Stohn.

“You, on the other hand, spoke your mind believing I would likely kill you for it. Didn’t you?”

“I did,” said Tarq. “It was the truth.”

“And that,” said Latro, curling his arm and shaking his fist for emphasis, “is what I need. I’ve suffered a great loss, Tarq. My reign shall forever be tarnished by it if it’s not eclipsed by an even greater victory.”

Tarq was momentarily startled by this turn of events, but surprise was quickly replaced by skepticism. Was he toying with him?

“Stohn!” barked Latro. “Get up! This young man challenges you for your rank. Get up and prove you’re still worthy.”

Stohn shot to his feet. “My Lord!” he protested. “This is absurd! You’ve had too much fogwine, and it’s muddled your senses. Please, Proeliator.”

Latro walked over and stood toe-to-toe with his current chief strategist, looking down on the man as a child would an insect he was about to crush.

“Fight or I’ll kill you myself.”

Stohn, his forehead slick with perspiration, nodded that he understood. “Forgive me, my Lord.”

“All will be forgiven should you successfully slay Tarq. Should he slay you, he will, as you well know, assume control of your position.” He grinned and shot a wink at Tarq. “I think I’ll even give him your wives.”

Stohn’s eyes blazed with the fury of a wild korta. “Fine! As the challenged I invoke my right to select the weapons. I choose sarūhd!”

Latro raised an eyebrow. “An intriguing choice. Tarq, do you know what a sarūhd is?”

Tarq shook his head.

“A sarūhd is a non-sentient but highly intelligent creature native to the firebogs in the skyroot forests of the northern hemisphere of Bellum. It possesses a mild power of telepathy, which it utilizes to mentally daze its prey just before it strikes.”

He opened his desk and put on a pair of thick black gloves. “We used them in sport here, for many, many years,” he said, walking to a steam-filled aquarium on the other side of the office.

Mounted on the wall beside it were two metal staffs, each of them with a chain attached. At the end of each chain was a ball-shaped metal cage.

“It’s a form of combat that’s fallen out of favor in recent years,” he continued, grabbing one of the objects from the wall, “but any warrior worth his salt is skilled the art of Sarūhdam.”

Steam escaped from the aquarium when he slid the lid atop it aside. He reached in with his free hand, grimaced, and pulled out a rotund, vicious-looking little creature that might easily fit in the palm of one’s hand. It was armored by black, flexible shell with a dozen or so sharp, bony protrusions on its surface. between those protrusion, six or so sets of wings beat so rapidly as to almost be invisible, thus giving the animal the appearance of hovering mid-air by some indeterminable means. It hissed, snarled and wriggled, baring a mouthful of tiny, razor-sharp teeth. It had no eyes–none that Tarq could see, anyway.

Latro crammed it into the ball cage, which it clearly didn’t like–its protests became louder and more aggressive, and it thrashed wildly about in a futile attempt to free itself.

“The key to controlling these things,” said Latro, swinging the sarūhd around and making it even angrier, “is to have a will much stronger than the one they will try to impose upon you. Right now, for example, it’s burrowed into my mind with its telepathic tentacles, filling it with an anticipation of immense pleasure upon my releasing of it. A weaker-willed man would submit. I, however…”

He held the sarūhd up at arm’s length and smiled warmly at it as if it were a beloved pet. “I know better.”

He closed his eyes in concentration as the creature snarled gnawed at the bars of the ball cage.

“My mind is stronger than his, you see. I’ve taken the signal that he’s transmitted to me and turned it back on him. He is now my subject.”

The sarūhd relaxed and ceased its struggle. Latro poked his finger inside of the cage and stroked what Tarq could only assume was the mini-beast’s head.

“There now,” he cooed. “You’re a good boy, aren’t you? You hungry?”

It growled an affirmative.

“The chain itself is razor-sharp,” continued Latro, selecting a large green oval-shaped piece of fruit from the bowl on his desk. “It’s covered with millions of tiny hooks that slice through human flesh like fire through ice.”

He ran the fruit along the tightened chain and sliced it in half. Its juices flowed down the chain, and the sarūhd eagerly lapped them up.

“It loves fruit,” Latro stated unnecessarily, “but make no mistake–it’s omnivorousNotherbivorous.”

He handed the staff to Tarq, who took it with great caution. The creature stirred and zipped about for a moment before returning to a docile state.

“Very good,” said Latro. “I’m impressed. I really am. You show the soul of a warrior.”

The glow drained from his face when he turned to Stohn. “Take your weapon. Let’s see if you can still tame it.”

Stohn reached in with no glove and pulled a bloodied hand out of the tank, grasping the creature that gnawed away at it.

With his other hand he pried the sarūhd loose and shoved it into its cage. He wiped the bloody hand across his forehead, his crimson-tinted sweat running around his eyes and down his cheeks. The sarūhd was at once in subjugation.

Stohn licked his lips. “Come on then,” he spat at Tarq. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Latro ushered the combatants into the adjoining room, a personal gymnasium he’d had constructed years back. It came equipped with a regulation challenge ring.

“Get in the ring,” he commanded. “And Tarq, remember: be one with the sarūhd. Use it as an extension of yourself, but follow its instincts.”

Tarq nodded and matched Stohn’s piercing, unblinking glare. He reached into the sarūhd’s mind and wrapped it in a desire to defeat Stohn at all costs. It shot forward, growling and screeching, as did Stohn’s.

Tarq ducked the first swing of his opponent’s razor chain, dropped to the ground rolled across the ring before thrusting his arm and his own sarūhd towards Stohn.

The chain wrapped itself around the old man’s leg three times, and Tarq yanked hard, severing the foot.

Screaming and slipping on blood, Stohn stood on one foot and charged at Tarq with an almost comically lopsided run.

Tarq dodged and then tripped his attacker, lashing out at him with the sarūhd as he fell. The chain wrapped around his wrist this time, taking the hand with it.

Blood was everywhere now, and Tarq was careful to avoid falling as he approached the dying man whose job he was about to take.

“Finish him off!” cried Latro.

Tarq stalked Stohn as he moaned and tried to crawl away on his hand and knees. He lashed out with the sarūhd and wrapped the chain around the old coward’s neck. When he jerked it back, the now-former Chief Strategist’s head rolled off of his neck and tumbled down his chest to the ground.

He looked at the head, staring hard into its lifeless eyes, and then he looked at his bloody hands.

He felt… joy. It was a new sensation for him, having been raised in brutal captivity by the very man now shouting at him to unlock the cage.

He obeyed, and the creature inside flew over to where Stohn’s body lay, hovered for a moment and then landed on its headless neck.

It burrowed down into the bloody, mangled flesh and disappeared.

“Well done, Chief Strategist Tarq. Come, let us go and celebrate. It will take the sarūhd a couple of hours to devour the body from inside. It’s not a pleasant process to witness, I assure you.”

As they went to leave, Latro stopped and turned to look back at his constant companion of thirty-seven years one last time.

This is what now, old fool.”

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