Khodak khan smelled the place before he saw it. It had the sulphurous stench of burning, like a chemical fire eternally ablaze. He had joked numerous times in his travels the place had given him his bad breath. The joke never stuck, but it may have been half true.
Sodalen sweeped from the peak of the caldera, circling the great crater like a black stone crown upon the world. It straddled the volcano's craggy peak, a twisted ring of spires and pointed domes which gave the mountain a twisted kingly appearance. Amidst all the surrounding peaks, even now, Sodalen reared high a stinking, wreathed in the constant volcanic smog that was its eternal companion.
Khodak khan grimaced.
“Good to be home my khan?” Tobaku said from his rear. The old yeoman nudged his flanks sides till he was level with the khan. The beast beneath him hissed in frustration though Tobaku gave no sign of noticing.
“It has been many years old friend,” Khodak said, his voice heavy with weariness. “Maybe it could have been a few years more in the coming.”
“Maybe it will not be so bad, my Khan” Tobaku said. “Maybe she will be happier to see you than you know?”
Khodak grinned despite himself. Behind him three dozen warriors waited, many of them crouched on hissing mounts as he was. They filled the narrow gorgeway into Sodalen, packing the road tight with hissing mouths. Here and there the automated assistants buzzed and whired, agitating the pack mules they led beside their tracked forms.
“Maybe, maybe” Khodak smiled that dark smile he had recently become known for. “But as it stands my friend we are in a bad way. We have trailed all across Venus and found nothing for our efforts. What will she do, do you think, when her vaunted son, her finest and most highly praised explorer, returns with so little?”
Tobaku smiled a weary smile, his face twisting with the marks of vast laugh lines. The sight made him appear decades older than his true age.
“She will welcome back her son. Her son, my Khan! And when she does so she will thank Mother Venus and all the saints of Old Earth that you have returned. Have faith.” he nudged his mount forwards then, causing the thing to hiss beneath him. He paid the temperamental beast no mind, his gaze fixed unblinking on his leader.
“And just look, my Khan! Look at what we bring her!”
Khodak nodded grimly. He turned, his gaze travelling down the length of the column until he spotted it. The thing from the poles glowered back at him, tugging at it’s chains. Warm sunlight played across its slimy green hide, toying across the ebon domes of its massive eyes. The thing was humanoid, that much was easily discerned. That it did not like the hot dry air of Venus was obvious from the way it hunched and shivered in the sulphurous breeze. Khodak watched it for a long moment, trying to ascertain his liege-mothers probable interest in the creature.
“So many,” he said warily. “So many on the forteer have brought back stranger beasts to Sodalen than this. What makes you think the beast will be worthy of all that money, all that politicking, all that time?”
“My Khan is not considering the obvious,” Tobaku smiled awkwardly. “Look at its eyes my Khan, look deep into them. Tell me this is like any other beast brought back from the frontier. We have together ridden further than anyone else. No one else has ridden to the poles and back. Orbital captures mean nothing to the people now. But a beast like this! Intelligent, whiley, slimy and gross!” Tobaku slapped his thigh, causing his mount to shudder in agitation. “How will the crowds not love this? You have finally proved your brother right. You have shown there is intelligent life on Venus!”
Khodak felt the first stirrings of a grin touch his cheeks. He quashed it, his mind still reeling with doubt.
“A beast we found in a cave, Tobaku. Hardly the most intelligent thing between here and Solstiem. I could throw a stone in the capitol and even there it would hit something smarter than this freak of nature.”
Tobaku smiled sadly. Khodak did not notice. His eyes remained on the beast from the poles, the beast he had dragged from the caves beneath the southern terraforming plants. The thing had tried to club him with the broken remnants of an automated servant, causing several bruises and a fresh scar to add to the young explorers growing collection. Eventually he had defeated it, wrestling the mechanical arm from the beast and beating it till it had stopped moving. He had caged it more for personal triumph than for any desire to prove his later brother right. Still the thought was compelling…
“Nevertheless” Khodak said, attempting to shrug off his melancholy. “We go to the city. I will present our capture to my liege-mother. With luck she will see in this beast what you see, old friend.”
Tobaku’s smile broadened.
“Excellent my Khan! That is all I ask. A little faith please. I am sure she will see exactly as I do. She will be pleased with the proof of the old Khan’s theory. She did love him greatly.”
Khodak nodded, his face souring once more. There was always that, the jealous love his liege-mother had held for that painful toad that was his brother. To offer her proof that his crippling, all his suffering, was vindicated…now that was special. That could just cover over the more boring aspects of his capture, the weak limbs, the lack of tusks, the overlarge cranium which seemed to dominate the frail beast's weight.
Yes, Khodak thought to himself, perhaps she will like the prize afterall.
“Come then my friend” he said, reaching over to clap the smaller man on the shoulder. “Sound the advance. I want us in the city and presenting my beloved brother's vindication by nightfall. Let everyone on Venus hear the news! There is intelligent life out there!”