"Are you ready, brother?" Kruq'nov asked Nrsah at the threshold of one of M'karh's fancier saloons. It was built near the center of town, where the better-off Prides lived. Whoever designed the place had an ancient fortress keep in mind more than a place where a Kilrathi could obliterate his worries with strong drink. Being in the wealthier part of the city, poor and low-based Kilrathi were actively discouraged from entering it. Most did not even bother venturing into the neighborhood, much less laying eyes upon the establishment.
At midday, when the sun pounded the ground from its zenith, many males have crowded into the saloon. Kings of wealthier Prides, males with nothing better to do in the middle of the day. In the lower rungs of society's ladder, males who take a Pride usually earned it the hard way. By the looks of some of the Kilrathi inside, they did not. Kruq'nov scowled at all of them in disgust. "They are so complacent."
Nrsah noticed the same. "They would not last a single day in the trenches with that lack of situational awareness." Kruq'nov could not argue. These were Kings of the higher rungs, ones who did not expect a challenge to just stroll in off the street.
Kruq'nov judged the attitude as most unfortunate, for he planned on doing just that. The instant he crossed from outdoors to in, several pairs of eyes shifted to him. None of the gazes were in the least bit friendly. The saloon's interior was decorated with Imperial paraphernalia, such as banners, propaganda posters, and even a portrait of the Emperor. It was the sort of place only a scion could enjoy. Kruq'nov would take the dingy saloon not far from his apartment, with its war souvenirs, over this trap. It might as well be a colonial office.
One of the office's guards swiftly approached Kruq'nov. He was around the old Second Claw's age, perhaps a Shrik younger. His eyes were fierce with anger and the promise of pain. The lack of scars upon his face or arms did not back up this promise, not in Kruq'nov's view. He was nothing more than a ceremonial guard, one who has never seen combat. Did he fancy himself an impersonation of the Imperial Guard? "You do not belong here!" his growl carried an air of finality.
He might have thought himself equal of the Imperial Guard, but Kruq'nov would prove him wrong. Only the greatest of warriors had the honor of transfer to that legion. Even with his own loathing of the Imperial Pride, Kruq'nov recognized the honor as high. Far higher than a simple saloon peacekeeper could aspire. When the guard pressed his muzzle into Kruq'nov's face, the veteran grabbed it tightly in his left hand, claws fully extended. He gave the guard a short, sharp shove, sending him flying into the nearest table, and sending the table's contents shattering to the floor.
When the guard made a move to rise, Nrsah was upon him with a savage kick. The kick would have broken bone had he been wearing army issued boots. Instead, he had to settle for the claws on his bear feet cutting into the guard's ribs. The guard snarled curses at Nrsah, only to receive another kick and another. Kruq'nov restrained his brother's enthusiasm as another Kilrathi approached them. She was an old queen, likely the matriarch of the Pride who owned the saloon. As Kruq'nov's eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see the gray-haired queen approach him with the confidence and air of a legion commander.
"I thank you and your brother to not cause my Pride any trouble and leave," the old female spoke as if she were announcing an Imperial decree. For her, it was such. After all, matriarchs ruled their Prides no less so than the Imperial Pride ruled the Empire.
Had she been a male, Kruq'nov could have answered with a slash across the face and throat. As such, he was forced to take a more diplomatic approach. "Honored queen, our trouble is not with your or your esteemed Pride, but with a male named Shrok, and his males in tow."
The matriarch growled menacingly at him. She knew she could not beat him in a fight, but her honor would not be satisfied any other way. She took a moment to assess Kruq'nov and Nrsah and the threat they might pose to her own offspring. Males were in the habit of killing male cubs when they took over a Pride. Seeing that Kruq'nov's ambitions were far higher, she jerked her head in the direction of Shrok. "Over there. Take your fight with him elsewhere."
Kruq'nov smiled viciously. "I intend to." He and Nrsah walked past the old female without another word. Other males in the saloon looked suspiciously and anxiously at the two. They flattened the peacekeeper, a male who probably fancied himself a tough fighter. The Apes would have tagged him his first day on the front.
Kruq'nov found the three males sitting at a table in one of the darker corners of the saloon. The table was big enough for eight, and naturally only the three sat there. Shrok sat looking away from Kruq'nov, with his back to the door. Kruq'nov bristled at the insult. Did this male think himself so immune to challenge that he did not even have to keep his eyes open. He would pay for his hubris. He would pay most severely, then he will die.
"I seek Shrok," Kruq'nov declared, towering over the siting Kilrathi.
Shrok did not even bother to look up. "What makes you think he seek you?" he asked, taking another drink.
In fury, Kruq'nov slapped his hard in the hand, sending the tankard of drink crashing into the nearest wall. The King whirled at this, bolting up to his full height, around the same altitude as Kruq'nov. His two brothers joined him, kicking back their chairs to stand. Kruq'nov growled in the King's face. "You have something I want."
"I have something a great many males want," Shrok spat back at him. He took a second to finally survey the Kilrathi who stood before him. A scarred veteran. "I've heard of you," he growled in recognition. "You're the male who has been sniffing around my females."
His words struck Kruq'nov in the heart. The very thought of this– functionary, this scion, in the bed chamber of Keitcha, it was enough to send him into a frenzy. He was a male unworthy to breath the same atmosphere as Keitcha, much less touch her. Kruq'nov would like nothing more than to sink his own teeth into Shrok's throat. He held back his own killer instinct. That time would come, he must be patient.
Other patrons of the saloon muttered amongst themselves, all paying attention to this standoff. For the moment, it appeared little more than a distraction in an otherwise uneventful day. Did these upstarts truly believe they had the right to challenge those clearly above their station in life. In a word, yes, Kruq'nov did believe as such. "I am Kruq'nov, and this is Nrsah. We say that you are not worthy of such females."
As one of the younger Kings made a move to flank them, Nrsah stood poised, with all his claws out for the world to see. The city-dwelling scions, or whatever these Kings were, did not even notice the scarring around the claws of one of his hands. They were so unaccustomed to war, that they failed to spot the tiniest detail. On Repleetah, that mistake alone would have killed him.
Shrok ignored Nrsah, considering the younger male beneath his notice. He thought the same of Kruq'nov, but had little choice but to spend his time facing him down. "You are new here, so you don't know who I am. I fought with the fleet in the Tanhausen Nebula, killing more than two-eights of Ape fighters."
By the snarls of agreement from the rest of the patrons, they must have heard his stories more than a few times. It was a mild surprise to Kruq'nov, who had him pegged as a staff officer at most. He knew one of the faces of war, good. They also expected his prowess in space to impress the newcomers. They were about to be disappointed. Taking a half-step closer to Shrok, Kruq'nov announced his own accomplishments. "We are veterans of Repleetah."
Just uttering the name of such a legendary battle brought a quick hush over the saloon. The silence was so complete, that Kruq'nov's ears picked up the sounds on the street. He spotted a flicker of doubt in Shrok's eyes. The soon to be former-King just realized he has bitten off more than he can swallow. He knows that Kruq'nov has ever intention of challenging him and his brothers for the M'krah Pride.
Kruq'nov was not about to disappoint. "And we demand Thrakrik," he sealed the challenge with four claws across Shrok's face.
M'krah Battle Arena
Every city in the Empire had its own battle arena. The stadiums were constructed sometimes from local stone or high quality steel, depending on the local's wealthy. Sometimes, they were nothing more than pits in the ground. M'krah sported what would have been a small arena by the standards of Kilrah and the worlds of the Eight. It was a stone structure built in one of M'krah's parks, large enough to house a few eighties of spectators. It was used for blood sports, as well as formal challenges.
Less than eighty were in the arena now, all of them the more prominent females of the M'krah Pride. They accepted the challenge more readily than their Kings. Both Kruq'nov and Nrsah were considered worthy males, though Nrsah was a bit on the young side, and both would be accepted as Kings if they are victorious. If? Kruq'nov wanted to laugh at that. He knew they would win, but did not allow his confidence to evolve into arrogance. Just because victory was certain did not mean he would take it for granted.
He stood next to his brother, on the opposite side of the dirt pit as the Kings. "Three against two." He said with a muse.
"It is but a temporary imbalance," Nrsah replied. Kruq'nov could see the eagerness in Nrsah's eyes. He was ready to kill. After all, how often did a male of his age get the chance to be a King. Most young males would have to wait two or more Shrik to even risk it. Nrsah was no common male. The trenches of Repleetah matured him greatly, as well as toughened him like fire tempers a blade.
"Do not grow over-confident, brother," Kruq'nov advised. "Celebrate victory after our enemies are dead at our feet."
Nrsah gave Kruq'nov a shocked look, as if he thought doing anything else were insane. "If I learned anything from you, it's not to leap before you look. I see the younger King, the one on the left, he is not so sure of himself. Killing him will even the balance."
Kruq'nov saw the same uncertainty, almost hesitation. Perhaps he gained his position on the tail of his older brother, and had not expected to defend his Kingship so soon. They could, naturally, run from the fight. Should they do that, not only would they lose the Pride, but not a single Pride female would ever except a challenge from them again. At least not on Ghorah Khar. They would have to leave the planet and start anew, always looking over their shoulder for the disgrace that my haunt them.
Kruq'nov eyed the other two males. "You stay away from Shrok; his life is mine."
Kruq'nov's attention turned towards his audience. They were all fine females, a Pride he would be more than pleased to call his own. He caught the eye of Keitcha, who watched with great interest. Perhaps greater than her sisters. Kruq'nov's desire was for her, and her alone. The rest of the females, they were just a bonus.
As the time of combat approached, he scrutinized his foes. The younger two showed no sign of ever experiencing a real fight, one where the enemy intended to kill you. That worried him more than it would most males. Apes appeared unimpressive, but their minds made them dangerous. Could these males be planning tricks of their own. Even their leader, Shrok, was not a figure of awe. Wearing nothing but a half-robe, Kruq'nov saw no visible scars on him. That proved not as much with a fighter pilot as it might with a ground pounder. Still– Kruq'nov dug his toes into the sand, anxious for the battle to began.
With a wave of her hand, the M'krah patriarch, the battle began. Before Kruq'nov could land upon Shrok, Nrsah bolted straight towards the weaker of other males. He bolted on all fours, either oblivious or indifferent to the level of insult that offered. His target need not feeling insulted for long. In the space of eight blinks, he pounced the male and sank his teeth into his throat. It was the kill of a masterful hunter, one who should have succeeded far more often than Nrsah. Unless– he was holding back so Kruq'nov would do all the work. He would have to hash that out with his brother, after the fight.
With one male already dead, and an excited buzz in the crowd, Kruq'nov knew he would not have to worry about a knife in the back. Figuratively speaking, of course, since unnatural weapons were forbidden during Thrakrik. Nrsah, blood dripping from his snout, looked for his next victim. Shrok shifted his own attention towards Nrsah, surprised at just how fast the younger challenger killed one of his brothers. Shrok's shock turned to rage. He charged at Nrsah, roaring for vengeance.
He never reached Nrsah. Kruq'nov barreled into him, knocking him off his feet. Before he could stomp down on the King's neck with all his weight, Shrok rolled out of the way and pushed himself from laying to standing in a single move. A pilot's reflexes, no doubt about that. They would do him little good in a ground fight against a ground pounder. Kruq'nov lashed out at him, hand open, with enough force to take the head off an Ape. Shrok leapt back, the claws sailing harmlessly in front of his face.
Instead of waiting for another slash, he grabbed Kruq'nov arm while still outstretched. He gave a great yank and side-stepped him. Shrok attempted to get behind Kruq'nov and rake his claws across his throat. Kruq'nov counted with an elbow to the snout, hitting the King with such force that teeth broke. The hit should have staggered most, but Shrok was quick to shake off the daze. He saw Kruq'nov's other hand slashing at him. He dodged again, only not as fast as before. Claws ripped into scalp, taking a chunk of fur off his head.
Shrok did not even flinch. Kruq'nov had to give him credit. He might have carved out a niche in society thanks to an accident of birth, but he fought like a warrior to hold on to it. It accomplished little more than buying him a moment more of life. Shrok did not waver from the fight. He lunged with claws extended, intent to kill in his eyes. Bloodlust filled his eyes, clouding his judgement. Had the King fought one who was not a veteran of planetary combat, he might have won.
Kruq'nov dropped below the grasping claws with a twist of his ankles. The move risked injury to his feet, a dangerous move in the middle of a fight, but was well worth the risk. Shrok sailed harmless over his head, his momentum carrying him too far. Kruq'nov thrust up with his claws brought as close together as possible. The natural spear penetrated flesh beneath Shrok's rib cage, granting a killing blow directly to the heart.
Shrok let out a mighty roar. Not one of pain or fear, but one of rage. His eyes told the whole story. The King did not wish to stop. He did not want to die for fear of it; he did not want to die, because he wanted to live long enough to kill the challenger. His face was one of furious disappointment. Kruq'nov marveled how much the express was the same as an Ape full of hate and rage. Kruq'nov gave a quick, sharp yank, removing his hand and letting the body slump to the ground.
With his opponent dead, Kruq'nov remembered the third King, the youth left to Nrsah. Both he and Nrsah were cut and bloody, both ragged with breath. Kruq'nov circled the two, waiting for his own shot at the last King. "Hold, brother!" Nrsah snapped. "I will finish him."
Kruq'nov took a step back, ceding the battle to Nrsah. If his brother should falter, Kruq'nov remained posed to pounce and end the battle. He would not enjoy rising so far, only to lose Nrsah right at victory's doorstep. Imperial propaganda speaks of sacrifices that win battles, but dying only moments before the enemy is defeated is a fear that lives among all who fight on the ground. In a final act of desperation, the last King threw himself at Nrsah, knocking both to the ground.
The two rolled across the dirt, locked together with claws and teeth. Thrashing lasted for only a moment. Kruq'nov hissed in pride and delight as Nrsah disentangled him from the mortally wounded King. He had not much time left, not with the amount of blood pooling beneath his body. Nrsah delivered a deep gouge across his throat, opening it for all the world to see. Not as clean a kill as his first, but just as effective.
Kruq'nov surveyed the carnage. It was unlike any of the fights in the trenches. Thrakrik was brutal, but it was quick and decisive. No more running back and forth between trenches, capturing one, only to abandon it the following day. The days of ambiguous battles lay behind them. With his enemies dead, the Second Claw now found himself a King of the M'krah Pride. With a might roar of triumph, Kruq'nov welcomed himself home.