To Steal a Moon

By Erin MacMichael

Sci-Fi, Action & adventure

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261
6 mins

Chapter I, "Raid"

Bálok stared at the blood on his hands. His skin burned where the hot liquid sank through it, racing through his flesh to invade his bones, but he couldn’t seem to move to scratch it away.

The sound of explosions ripping through buildings registered faintly at the periphery of his awareness. Something must be happening in the city. He’d have to go see what it was, after he found Tiga—he needed to find Tiga. She was probably with Bakir and his tutor, or Shim in the nursery. If only he could get up off his knees, he could go find her….

Someone was shouting. He could almost recognize the voice.

“I found him—he’s here!” the man yelled above a volley of weapon fire. A strong hand gripped his shoulder—and the world split apart around him.

“Lord Bálok! Lord Bálok! We’ve got to get out of here!”

The wall to his right blew into pieces and the officer in front of him stepped to his side to shield him from the flying debris before shaking him roughly. “Lord Bálok, get up!!”

The smell of blood assaulted his senses. It was all over him. He tried to raise his arms to get it off, but they wouldn’t move. What was wrong with his hands? He squeezed his eyes shut and looked again, blinking in the dim light of the ruined chamber. It wasn’t his hands he was seeing, but the shredded remains of his wife and eldest son.

A wild scream ripped from his lungs as he bolted to his feet and let the bloody flesh fall off of his hands to the floor. His wrists were bound in front of him and he shrieked like a wounded animal as he backed blindly away, his cries mingling with the rapid whine of weapon fire.

The frantic officer snatched up a knife from the floor and seized his wrists, slashing up through the heavy cord in one swift movement to cut him loose. Bálok grabbed the man’s shirt with both hands, pulling him up close as he trembled and panted brokenly, fighting to anchor his mind on the familiar features of the captain in front of him. “Jimat,” he whispered, slowly easing his grip and staring into the captain’s angry golden eyes. He couldn’t look down or he would be lost again.

“Who did this to you, Lord?” Jimat spat harshly as a dozen elite guards swarmed outside the doorway, taking in the grisly scene.

Abruptly the bombardments and shooting ceased. The smooth hum of vessels preparing for liftoff sounded outside the walls of the palace.

“Get me out of here,” Bálok rasped, keeping one trembling fist clutched in Jimat’s shirt so he wouldn’t trip as the captain led him out into the decimated hall past the silent soldiers. Before he knew what he was doing, he was running, tearing around the bleeding bodies clogging the wide passage and through the demolished entrance out into the open grounds. Jimat and the guards caught up with him just as three unmarked heavy fighters rose from behind the palace and disappeared overhead into the darkening sky. The faint sound of blasts between a warship and their own forces could be heard far above the city. Too little, too late.

Bálok stood and gazed up into the empty sky. He knew the man who had done this. He knew—and he would never forget.

His eyes dropped to the shambles of his father’s eastern palace. “Burn it down,” he ordered as he turned and walked away into the night.

Chapter II, "Arrival"

The Korda hung in suspension above Darban, the massive primary world around Thuban at the heart of the Draco Expanse. Bálok stood at the window of his well-appointed private quarters watching the gray-brown banded planet beneath the long transport vessel and his allotted escort of ten warships. For thousands of years, Darban had been the seat of power for the deteriorating Drahkian Empire, home to Emperor Tashek and the ruling house of Goran Drahks as well as the billions from other reptilian races who served them.

Bálok shifted his gaze out across Darban’s upper atmosphere where he spotted dozens of luxury transports and warship discs holding orbital positions designated by the Emperor’s ground personnel. Above the Korda just within sight hovered one of several small imperial dish destroyers deployed around the planet to ensure the temporary truce between the numerous hostile houses attending the Emperor’s Tournament. And in orbit out beyond the rim of the planet’s faint rings loomed one of the last moon-sized destroyers in the Emperor’s fleet as a pointed reminder of exactly who held absolute supremacy over all of them.

The reptilian nobleman let out a long, disgusted sigh. He had little desire to be here. As head of one of the largest elite houses of crested, lizard-like Ka Drahks, subservient only to the diminishing numbers of short-horned, whitish brown-skinned Goran Drahks in the Empire, Bálok had more important matters to attend to than satisfying the whim of a bored, bloodthirsty ruler. Since his father and older brothers had perished in bitter conflict with other houses, he had taken firm hold of the reins over the entire Eltanin system which his family had controlled for several long-lived generations, steering his house and lucrative warship and arms businesses around a long list of potential enemies through skillful coercion, manipulation, and, when necessary, strategic military force. With multiple situations back home on Sakkara desperately needing his attention, he had no time for this capricious command performance on Darban.

Unfortunately, his wide-spread acclaim for hand-to-hand combat and bloody kills in the ring must have caught Tashek’s attention when these ill-conceived games were arranged. The imperial orders were clear: the best noble fighter, along with one highborn hostage to ensure non-aggression against the crown, were to be provided by each of the top hundred ranking houses within the Empire for Tashek’s entertainment, all hostilities suspended. His personal appearance in the lists had been “strongly advised.”

Bálok held no illusions about the “non-violent” nature of these games—quite the contrary. The warring factions would each see this as an outrageous opportunity to flaunt, scheme, insult, and murder each other, and their jaded ruler had undoubtedly contrived the entire event in order to stir the ever-volatile pot purely for perverse personal pleasure. Bálok wondered idly how many of Tashek’s subjects would leave Darban in one piece.

It was not a battlefield to his liking, but he would make it work to his favor in order to strengthen his position with Tashek and within the Empire. There were a good number of houses already terrified of his armies and quite a few more he could pressure through business, not to mention that his size and fighting skills in the ring were paralleled by few. He fully intended to win the tournament by whatever means necessary. It was rumored that the prize was to be the use of one of Tashek’s powerful dish destroyers for an unspecified amount of time, a strategic asset which he could very well make use of and, more importantly, needed to keep out of the hands of the worst warmongers as well as the enemies of his house.

But the far more tantalizing lure of the Emperor’s Tournament was deeply personal, the secret of which he carefully kept private. He was certain that the one man he needed to kill would either be in the lists or attending the games. He had waited centuries for the opportunity to get close to his nemesis without waging full-scale war. He had been more than patient, methodically eliminating any rival who interfered with the extensive business of his house, biding his time, watching for the most favorable moment to strike. By ordering Bálok’s presence on Darban, Tashek just may have handed him the opening he craved to sink his claws into the flesh of the vile man who had robbed him of reason.

“We have clearance through Darban’s prime portal in ten minutes, Lord,” a quiet voice called from the doorway. “Your shuttle is waiting.”

“Good. And the rest?”

“The shuttles for the five hundred spectators you approved from the Korda and ten warships will descend within the hour. Commander Zirik will be in charge of the large group of Eltanin officers while we’re on the surface. Everyone else aboard the orbiting ships will be able to watch the tournament on screen in the commons and the Korda will relay the signal back to the seven worlds in Eltanin.”

Bálok turned toward the lead captain of his personal guard who stood just inside the doorway with his eyes deferentially lowered. “Keep everyone on tight reins while we’re down there, Jimat. You’re in charge of security for this whole affair. I don’t want to hear of a single incident caused by my people.”

“Understood. It’s going to be a tinder box, Lord. All the ranking nobility in one place. They’ve limited our numbers, but allowed weapons,” the captain grumbled in frustration. “Violence between houses is a given.”

“I know—we’ve all been set up. That’s why I kept any hotheads off the list to attend in person. Spread my orders to Zirik and the other commanders to keep well away from Nakkár’s people or anyone else we’ve tangled with recently.”

Jimat nodded, his crest flexing automatically at the mention of Nakkár’s inept but irritating raids on the Eltanin trade routes a decade prior. “As you wish, Lord.”

“Needless to say, keep the shuttles manned with pilots and my best surgeon, and heavily guarded at all times. We need to be ready to get out quickly if we have to.”

Bálok walked across the room and paused in front of his most loyal officer. “I want you near me at all times, Jimat,” he said softly, “as far as it’s permitted. Make sure you ferret out where the hostages will be held. Your primary orders are to take care of Shim—find him and get him out—no matter what I do.”

Jimat stared at the floor, aware of the unspoken meaning in Bálok’s words. “I understand, Lord,” he replied, bowing his head as Bálok strode past him into the hall.

With Jimat at his back, Bálok stopped at the next suite and opened the door. “Shim!”

Pulling on a finely-cut dark blue jacket, Bálok’s only legitimate son hurried from the bedchamber and halted in front of him with his eyes lowered. “I’m ready, Lord.”

I’m sure you’re anything but, Bálok thought to himself as he sent a quick glance over Shim’s expensive clothing, gold rings, and soft physique. It was his fault that his son was so weak, so unprepared to face the harsh realities of Drahkian rule. He’d never pushed him into the ring or the ranks of his armies like he had his numerous bastard sons. Instead, he’d kept him sequestered, mated him with his own half-sister Rayza to produce legal heirs, and indulged him with any kind of entertainment the man wanted—drugs, women, slaves, fancy technology—just to keep him safe. It was completely irrational and exceedingly foolish.

And now on the brink of being handed over as a hostage in a high-stakes political face-off, his son radiated fear, with good reason. The mongrels on Darban would feast well off of someone so easily intimidated, and if anything happened to Bálok, in the ring or out, Shim wouldn’t live to see the end of the day.

“Shim, listen carefully,” he began. “The Emperor has no reason to harm you and I have no intention of giving him one, but at any point, if Jimat comes for you, do exactly what he tells you. Understood?”

Shim glanced nervously at the captain of the elite guard and dropped his eyes again, his gray skin taking on an ashen cast. “Yes, Lord.”

Bálok nodded curtly, masking his unease. “Let’s go.”



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