• Author:Julian C. Brooks
  • Series:Arcan
  • Genre:Fantasy/Sci-Fi
  • Word Count:7,465
  • Version:2.0.1
  • Edited by:Damien Taylor
EPOCH Background
Julian C. Brooks

A company of gray-clad marines meandered about a desert cemetery where they’d made camp. They smoldered in their boredom. Butchered insurgents littered the ground, a testament of the troop’s recent victory. But, though the marines were proud of their siege, their trophies had begun to stink.

“Tidy up, ladies!” The lieutenant shouted. “We’ve got Omegas inbound.”

“Black suits never seen a few dead bodies?” the smug lancer joked.

“Spades definitely have.”

The marine’s posture became momentarily stiff. He spun the dial on the ear of his helmet and opened its visor jaws, revealing his deeply unsettled grimace. “We’ve already got this place locked down and they’re wheelin’ in Pointy Tips?”

“Redstorm is less than five minutes out,” the lieutenant said. “Get these bodies in some kind o’ pile. Make it neat, at least.”

But the minutes were vaporized by the sudden urgency. A loud growl filled the air as a carrier ship streaked across the distance and wheeled around the perimeter. Like quiet gunfire, several dots spluttered from the belly of the aircraft and descended just beneath the horizon. The lieutenant’s gaze switched to his miniature guests as the carrier departed for the distance once again. His visor tagged each of them with a digital ring that identified their allegiance.

The newcomers zoomed across the desert sky with the propulsion thrusters on their backs, their black suits camouflaged by the shadows of the distance. They alighted upon the edge of the cemetery and entered the camp on foot. At the forefront of their formation was their decorated Spire, the renowned Captain Thax. He marched through the gray soldiers, the X-formation of stars on either of his shoulders commanding a salute as he passed. He greeted the gray lieutenant with his imposing stature, standing nearly two heads above him.

They bumped fists, igniting a holographic sphere that surrounded their united gauntlets, officially confirming their rendezvous. They then saluted one another at the corner of their visors. “Spire.”

“Lieutenant,” the captain tittered. “Hope the ‘infestation’ didn’t cause you and your boys too much grief.”

“Hardly. Nothing like getting our hands dirty for you guys.”

“That’s what the gray is for, i’int it?”

“Our armor’d be murky brown, if that were the case,” he retorted. “What’s the deal with this place? There another layer to this mission?”

“The details are above your level of authority, kid. But, to be honest, I’m surprised the princess called for a Gamma strike at all. If it was just a skirmish the Royals were worried about, they could’ve sent the Alpha Corps to get some exercise. Whatever the case, it’s time for you all to pack it up, lieutenant. Redstorm is going to finish the rest.”

“Understood,” he discreetly acknowledged. “That’s a pretty big step to take, though, eh? From Gamma to the tippy top of the Omega Corps. It must be serious. Sure you don’t need the extra manpower? This place ain’t all that friendly.”

Thax sneered, “Are you suggesting I leave a man or two to watch my back? Your troop is a crowd. After all—” He stopped, silenced by a distraction. The lieutenant turned around to see a four-man squad marching into the camp. They were suited in black armor as well.

“Halt!” the lieutenant yelled, his Firefly rifle flipping over his shoulder into his hands. The entire company did the same, the throats of their fliprifle barrels glowing with ether. “You expecting extras, sir?”

“My force is all present and accounted for.”

“I’m not getting a read on them,” the lieutenant said.

The four strangers stopped in their tracks at the sight of the star-like dots ahead of them. Their leader knelt down, eliciting an identical action from two of her subordinates. Only one stood until his companion yanked him by the arm.

“Sergeant Vega, Spade tier, A.G.O.C.,” their leader greeted. It was an esteemed name throughout the Araunian Guard Omega Corps.

“You sure about that, sergeant? Easy name for an imposter to snatch,” said the Spire.

The lieutenant winced as more reticles suddenly encircled each of the strangers. Their digital profiles panned across his visor in rapid succession. “Stand down,” he ordered. “They’re clear, Spire.”

“As you were, Spades,” Thax commanded, ordering the squad to resume their upright posture.

“That interference is coming from a significant ethereal spike several yards due south of this location. We noticed it when we were flying over,” Vega explained.

“That doesn’t explain what you’re doing here. Redstorm is here under specific orders. We weren’t briefed on any other involvement.”

“Liger Black is here on recon. They cut our orders maybe ten minutes after yours.”

Thax scoffed. “That’s absurd. Where’s your C.O. then, sergeant? Can’t send a troop without a chaperone.”

“With all due respect, Spire,” Vega said. “Ligers do things a little differently than Redstorm.”

The Gamma lieutenant smirked beneath his helmet. But, the Spire didn’t wince with the same amusement. Every Omega knew how reckless a Redstorm trooper could be, and the sullen captain was embarrassed. “You need to answer the question, Sergeant Vega.”

Vega paused with contempt. “Spire Vance is monitoring from the carrier overhead.”

“Ugh, Vance. Just like him to butt in. So, what else have you found? Anything important we should know before we proceed?”

“That powerful ether signature that’s messing with our instruments is rising from underground. Its intensity is increasing exponentially by the hour.”

“It’s coming from the graves?”

“Deeper,” Vega explained. “We believe one of the graves is an access to a subterranean vault. The insurgents you all so carelessly disposed of were guarding it.”

“We were following orders, sergeant,” said the Gamma lieutenant.

“Clearly, they were vague orders, eh, lieutenant?” Vega said, a tinge of snark in her tone. “We need to find the grave. Let’s spread out and search.”

“As long as you’ve not been given authority otherwise, you’ll show some regard for a superior officer,” said the Spire. Vega disregarded the remark and started away.

The marines proceeded to search the camp, using large, syringe-like energy pumps to clear the sand in the graves. Dust began to fog the entire camp until naked visibility was scarce. After an hour, they’d vacated nearly a dozen graves and had found nothing. Thax was becoming exceedingly frustrated with the intrusive Ligers. The pumps’ serrated proboscis stopped spinning as they shut down and the silence returned.

“Well, Vega? Where’s that smug attitude of yours now? That’s valuable time that just floated away, just in case you thought it was dust.” But the Liger sergeant was hardly concerned with his contempt. She continued to scout the camp, her suit relaying the fluctuating energy fields upon her visor.

“Sergeant Vega! The Spire’s talkin’ to you,” barked the Redstorm sergeant, Sergeant Cord.

“She’s in direct transmission with our captain, meathead. Pipe down,” retorted the Liger lancer. He was the one who refused to yield when they had entered the camp. The thriving aggression had agitated the lancer, beckoning his primal temperament. Aggression agitated his primal nature. 

“I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, corporal, but this insubordinate behavior better come to a screeching halt right now, before you nosedive over a cliff o’ real hurt. I’ll nute all six of the links on that badge. And that goes for the rest o’ Liger Black, too.”

Everyone knew the Redstorm were high-strung and proud. They were capable marines in all fairness, but everyone knew they were a volatile bunch, quick to establish dominance. Neutralizing the rank of other troopers was an easily abused and efficient method of placing themselves at the head of the hierarchy.

“Spire Vance is conducting an energy sweep from the carrier. And, right now, instead of him, all I hear is your nonsense,” he reprimanded.

“Quiet, both of you,” Vega ordered, her foot plunging deep into the gravel of a tombstone-devoid grave. She was onto something. “You reading anything strange up there, captain?”

“How can he tell with the Redstorm super-sergeant running his mouth over here?”

“That’s it—” the disgruntled sergeant blurted. He stomped toward the mouthy lancer. “I see you’re going to need Redstorm courtesies training.” They stood visor to visor, but the corporal did not so much as wince in the face of his adversary’s menacing posture. He hovered in wait of the lancer’s yield, but did not achieve even a plea of mercy. The vexed sergeant shook his head and freed an angry sigh. He then slammed his fist into the tally marks glowing beneath the spade echelon on the Liger’s chest. He was promptly made aware of his mistake. The lancer retaliated with a sudden strike, channeling explosive decibels of energy into his foe’s chest. With a sonic burst, the sergeant went careening across the camp.

“Unikade,” Vega called. Her lancer trooper immediately reached back toward the sheath in his spine. His lance’s haft extended from the slot beneath his nape and the long, tapered cone flared in a sequence of twists as he snatched it free.

“You’d dare draw your weapon on a ranking officer?” Thax exclaimed.

Unikade glanced at the ailing Sergeant Cord and sneered. “No, sir. That’s part of the Liger Black courtesies ‘deluxe’ training.”

Vega knelt upon the suspicious bed of gravel, hovering her hand above it like a metal detector. The sensors in her gauntlet fed her more intricate details of the earth’s strange biology.

“Poke around a bit,” she ordered.

Unikade then took his lance and plunged the tip into the gravel, sinking it much deeper than he expected. With nearly the entire cone submerged, he hit a solid surface at last; a floor. “It’s completely empty,” he said, his tone unsettled and suspicious.

Vega stood up and turned her gaze to the Gamma trooper with the pump in his hand. “Pump that out.”

“—You don’t order my men, sergeant,” said the Gamma lieutenant.

She turned her gaze to him next. “Excuse my tone, lieutenant, but, why are you still here? If you and your men are not here to cater to our every need then we have no need to vouch for your unsanctioned involvement at this point.”

Though the lieutenant’s face remained concealed beneath his rippling, crustacean helmet, his posture suddenly went stiff with suppressed fury. He marched toward the black-clad marine. “I am a Corps Officer, sergeant, and I will be regarded with the proper respect by any and every subordinate trooper. Your insubordinate behavior jeopardizes the mission, which I will not allow,” he reprimanded. “Spire, correct me if I’m wrong, but field discipline has not been dissolved from Omega regulation, has it?”

Thax forcibly arrested Vega’s shoulder. “It has not, lieutenant.”

Immediately Unikade spun, twirling his lance, placing the tip precisely at the Spire’s throat. The Ligers defended their own. “This is me drawing my weapon on a ranking officer,” he confirmed.

Vega stepped toward the lieutenant. “Where do you think you are, L.T.? What order are you trying to maintain? The only order is the one the mission dictates. The mission determines the friend or foe. And if the mission calls for death, then the deadliest pull rank.”

“You assume you’re the deadliest between the two of us.”

“I wear a black spade over my heart, just over my left boob. You wear pearly diamonds on your shoulder and an ugly gray suit. I think my assumption holds some merit,” she said. “Quite frankly, I don’t care to squabble with anyone here. But, you all had better determine who the enemy is for your own good. I suggest you choose wisely.”

“Vega! Breach!” Vance’s frantic voice blared in the Ligers’ earpieces.

She spun around to the vacant grave to see the gravel trembling and leaping. “Breach!” she echoed frightfully. Everyone’s eyes and head darted, their stance readying. But they weren’t quick enough for the startling eruption. A column of sand and gravel rocketed into the sky with a loud explosion. True adversaries had arrived.

A small army of Goblins emerged through the eruption and landed on the cemetery surface. Their pale, pink flesh was tailored around their lean muscle. Their large bald heads were horned and knobbed with grotesque bone. Their skin was thick and callused by the rugged wasteland. Their faces, though humanoid, were grotesque. Their maniacal eyes were spotted with green; their snarls were cursed with jagged, rotten teeth. Their ears, if they had any, were gnawed. And they were as rabid as they were short.

They attacked the marines with large, broken horns fashioned onto dense, wooden shafts. The Gamma troop’s armor eventually punctured under the incessant hammering. No less than ten goblins swarmed every marine at once, hacking and battering their armor, ripping apart what they could. They were too agile for most gunfire and their numbers were overwhelming.

The Redstorm company fared well, their gunshots more precise than the Gamma troop’s. But against the explosions of the goblins’ grenades, many of them lost their footing and were buried by the horde. The Ligers fell back to the edge of the camp and spread the horde thin with the few that pursued. The few Spades and their arsenal cleared small spots with splashes of ether, or ruined the minions’ footing with blasts that elicited violent tremors. Vega zapped each stumbling imp with unparalleled marksmanship. She could shoot a needle into her victim’s pupil from a hundred yards—or, so they said. Unikade, however, embraced the sport and depleted their numbers with wide sweeps of his lance. He skewered up to three goblins at a time, fired the cannon at the opposite end of his lance on a rushing ambush, and then flung the corpses from his weapon. If not for his companions clearing chunks of goblins at a time, his dance might’ve been more hectic.

If only the other marines had fared as well. Unikade spun and hurled his lance across the graveyard, impaling the goblin that hacked and bashed at Thax’s helmet. He dashed to the Spire’s aid, ripped his lance out of the monster’s chest with a squelching yank and extended his hand to his comrade.

“The lieutenant!” he exclaimed.

Across the camp, the Gamma lieutenant held onto life with the few breaths he could drag through his lips. Half of his helmet was gone and his armor had been crushed by the goblin that continued to hammer his torso. The lieutenant forsook the rest of his body, conserving his strength for the fight against death. But the goblin’s horn-made pickaxe had nearly chiseled into flesh. Unikade zapped the goblin and dashed to the marine’s aid, cutting down the goblins that rushed to intercept him. But, he was too late to spare the helpless lieutenant from the few goblins that happened upon his body next.

“Kyran! Get down!” Vega cried all of a sudden. Unikade obeyed. There was no reason to turn and see what evoked her distress. And the Liger code forbade it anyhow. Instead, he buried his face in the ground and waited.

Another frenzied wave of goblins was clambering to freedom. With the cannon on her shoulder, Vega mortared the empty grave with a whistling capsule. The spiraling canister arced through the air and plummeted through the opening. Upon detonation, a roaring vortex of white fire surged high into the air, so bright that it could blind the naked eye. Every goblin, including the few that had reached the surface, were drawn into its twisting shaft by its incredible winds where they disintegrated entirely.

No trooper rose until the vortex subsided. Only remnants of the Gamma and Redstorm troops remained. Everyone stood up at last and took mental count of their personnel, much to their dismay. The few Gammas that spied their mangled lieutenant were petrified. Even the Spire was distraught at the reduction of his numbers. But, the Ligers endured. They stowed their weapons and proceeded with the mission.

“Good work, Ligers. Proceed to the access point,” Vance radioed.

“Any more strange readings we need to be cautious of?”

“The southward energy field spiked momentarily during the skirmish, but it’s returned to normal. My guess, the energy field below the surface may be too potent for your suits. The interference will likely scramble your instruments.”

“The suit’s filtration should protect us from any poison, though, right?”

“It’s only daiku. As long as you make it out of there in a timely manner, we can purge any ailments on the ship before it ever becomes harmful. Proceed with caution.”

“Acknowledged, Spire.” Vega turned to the Redstorm Spire then. “Sir, we’re proceeding below ground. If your troop has sustained critical loss, it may be wiser to withdraw. There’s no telling what we’re going to face down there. Could be another goblin ambush.”

The Spire scoffed. “You think I’m going to bow out and let Ligers reap all the glory? Redstorm’s reputation is the pride of our unit. I’ve got more than enough capable men.”

“Sir, if you think pride’s keeping the Ligers going, you’re wrong. We respect every mission enough to know when it’s time to bow out.”

“That’s ‘cause they’ve got a woman leading them. Redstorm, we’ll die before we turn tail.”

“And that’s exactly what’s going to happen. You’ll die a bunch of fools rather than martyrs if you don’t consider your next move wisely,” Vega warned solemnly.

The Spire erected his upright posture and stuck out his chest in front of her. “You’re out of line, sergeant. And when we return to base, I’ll be filing for executive penalty against you and your men. General Lavanche will hear about this. For now, because I am the ranking officer on the ground, I am taking charge of the foot mission.”

“You can’t do—!”

“I can, and I have.”

“He has ranking authority, Llayne,” Vance said in her ear. “Spire Thax, you get my men killed and you’ll answer to me before you ever file any report.”

The Redstorm Spire ignored the threat and went to the edge of the empty grave. He gazed down into the pit and the dark abyss beneath it. For a long moment, he remained still, ruminating the consequences of his decision. He then slung his fliprifle into his hands and charged the next Gigavox round. “Gamma squad, hang back to board the Liger carrier,” Thax ordered. “Redstorm, Ligers… pucker up. We’re going in.”

Vega glanced at her squad, rolling her eyes with disdain behind her visor. No one else would ever know, but her troop knew. The Redstorm sergeant shouldered her as he went to Thax’s side. He then turned back to Vega.

“Run your mouth down there and I’ll take care of you personally,” Cord swore. Vega looked at him and then looked away, saying nothing.

“Wow. I thought you were dead,” said Unikade.

They descended into the pit, hovering just slowly enough to scan their surroundings before they landed. The shaft below was so deep that the light of the surface had shrunk to the size of an eyeball. At the bottom was a large round door made of layers of wooden planks and a rim of dark metal, hanging open as the goblin horde had left it. The Spades proceeded with haste, going south, even deeper into a tunnel of stone. Nebular haze and wisps of mana clouded the air, and condensation made the walls glisten. The marines’ visors read incredible heights of ether in the climate, so much that it was daunting. Perspiration began to layer their suits, becoming viscous soon after. Yet despite the elements, they forged ahead.

“Captain, if we’re going to proceed, we’ll need to mitigate the climate,” said Vega.

“Doing that requires increased expenditure of our instruments. That increase decreases our allotted time, Vega. And we don’t know how much time we’ll need.”

“Sir, we should plan a withdrawal regardless.”

“Negative,” said the opposing sergeant. “We don’t leave ‘til the job’s done.”

Rather than sulk, Vega programmed her suit, setting a timer according to the ether fuel it burned. She announced her actions to the rest of the troop, but only the Ligers cared to emulate the precaution. The nodes in her armor began to hiss as they freed a vapor that eliminated the condensation on their suits. It was a costly necessity that depleted her battlesuit’s daiku. And it only worsened the further they went. The air within the tunnel was beginning to feel like water; their movements felt as if they were swimming. The digital display in their visors became pixelated and fragmented, flickering intermittently. The light distortion stretched blinding shapes worse than glares. Their instruments were failing.

Profanities spewed from the Spire’s mouth as he cursed the inconvenience. “We’re proceeding without our tech. Keep a wary eye out.”

“Our suit integrity will hold up longer without it,” Cord concurred.

“But we’ll be blind, more or less,” said Unikade.

“Your eyes work just fine,” the Spire spurned. “Let’s keep moving.”

After a several-mile long trek they approached the end of the tunnel. It was the entrance of a vast cavern. The sudden expanse of space was a lung that diluted the miasma and allowed both them and their suits to breathe once again. Holographic information appeared upon their visors in a series of blips and the battlesuits’ virtual comfort returned to ease their passengers. For Vega, however, there was more information than she wanted there to be. Red was the color of ‘bad’ and her display was messier than fresh butchery in a slaughterhouse.

But the worst of their apprehension lied ahead at the very edge of the tunnel, where their view of the cavern could be comprehended in its entirety. On every shelf, every outcropping, every rocky balcony or other platform, there stood or squatted a goblin. There were at least ten times the number of the horde they narrowly defeated on the surface—and then some. At the heart of their colony was a spectacle of a different sort of daunting. It was too far for the troop to see without first having to magnify their optics. Once they could see, they’d earned another piece to the mission’s puzzle.

A huddle of orcs occupied a wide clearing upon the cavern floor. They were undoubtedly the leaders of the horde. Orcs were of the same breed as goblins, as much as a boar was to a pig. They were more than three times the stature of their lesser kin, just as much more robust, and had horns and tusks of more completed form. Their lean skin was as tough as hide and blacker than tar. It was difficult to measure their intelligence. Most to ever encounter them quickly fell victim to the beasts’ barbaric savagery. But as the Spades watched them then, ambling in a small circle, their heads bowed, it seemed that they had an intelligible side, too.

The marines retreated from the edge of the cave, just out of sight of the goblins nearest the entrance. They had to regroup and revise their simple firefight plan. Fortunately, their helmets allowed them to converse regularly without emitting a single sound outside of them.

“That’s way too many to fight,” said the Redstorm sergeant.

“No. And the amount of daiku in the climate makes any explosive put us at risk just as much as one of those goblins,” said Thax. “Vega, what about that cyclone shell you used up top? Drop one of those in the center of those giants and let that be the end of it.”

“We’re in a tunnel. The winds from one of those cyclones will suck us right out of here like a straw,” she replied. “Besides, my suit’s practically outta’ gas; nowhere near enough daiku for any kind of targeting. And you’re all going to need every gigavox cell you can spare if you want to make it out of here alive.”

Unikade immediately opened the storage compartment on his leg and plucked one of the three glowing, green gigavox capsules free. Despite her efforts to fend him off, he opened Vega’s repository and inserted the cell.

“You almost ran out of batteries,” he joked flatly.

“You bought me a few more minutes and cut your own time in half.”

“It just means we need to get this ordeal over with that much faster,” he replied nonchalantly.

They went on for a short while, hastily thrashing out ideas. But, there was little they could do given the circumstances. The pollution of the climate rendered their suits useless, and consequently, many of their tactical devices. Stealth and camouflage were off the table. The adhesion tech that would allow them to climb the walls like insects would be too intermittent to risk. But, Vega managed an idea, though she knew it wouldn’t be all too well received.

They decided to deploy a diversion. Thax hardly condoned their plan and refused to enlist his men to the brunt of the risk. Unikade volunteered instead, relishing the opportunity to step out on his own for a moment. He skulked into the cavern. The Goblins’ eyes were trained hard on the orcs in the distance, and their vision was shoddy. As long as the marine kept his black armor in the shadows and remained silent, he’d go unnoticed. He maneuvered half way into the cavern before they noticed him. What started as a few raspy shouts became a hoarse chorus of howling and then they began to rabidly pursue.

Unikade dashed. He zigged and zagged around the pillars and stalagmites in his path. He vaulted and somersaulted from every surface in an effort to abruptly change direction. But soon there were too many of them for his acrobatics to avoid. He fought them as they came, first with his fists and knees and boots. But when the throng continued to grow he returned again to his lance and raked them away more. He had decided that he’d lingered long enough. He could only hope that his comrades had taken advantage of his exemplary performance. For the final act of his half-assed plan, he wheeled around in a violent circle, his lance stretched wide, and cleared an entire circle of goblins from around him. He then stabbed the tip into the ground and fired a cannonball of white fire into the ceiling. The rushing goblins halted in their tracks and stretched a wide-eyed gaze at the shower of blunt and tapered rocks that descended upon them.

The orcs roared furiously, but did not leave the clearing, even as the pieces of the ceiling above them were rattled loose. One stone split over an orc’s horn while another orc backhanded another. As the dust began to settle they spied the shimmering dome at the heart of the rubble. The barrier vanished and Unikade stood upright, unharmed by a single stone. The mere sight of him filled the orcs with rage. Just as they started toward him a volley of gunfire showered them from behind. The Spades advanced, their rifles blazing. But the blasts only thumped the orcs, the splashes of ether hardly scathing them. They began to march toward the marines, forging through scattered gunfire. Only Vega managed any success. She hammered her target in the chest, like beating a stake into the ground, deepening the cavity in its hide. The gunfire burrowed a hole in its flesh and the beast toppled over.

The Redstorm troops were in grave danger. The first orc met its adversary with a deadly haymaker that spun his head around and hollowed his helmet. The other orcs pummeled the rest of the Spades. Not even the Ligers could maintain their finesse.

“Vesper! Faze! Aim for the ground!” Vega ordered. Weakening their footing seemed the best tactic to bring them down. The tremor buckled the orc to its knees, allowing them a few more gunshots to cripple it. But another dagger fell from the ceiling and crushed her comrade. Only a pair of orcs remained, but even they proved exceptionally formidable. Vega and Cord were cornered, as were Thax and his men. The Ligers were easily more elusive, but the Redstorm troopers slowed each other down. The orc met the Spire who retired his Firefly in favor of the batons in his hands. But there was no fighting at all. Thax’s strikes only placed him in arm’s reach of his monstrous foe.

Thax buckled under the orc’s fist. He fell to his knees, but was promptly slammed to the cold, stone floor. The monstrous beast pinned his helmet beneath his massive palm and continued to press his head further. Soon he would flatten the Spire’s skull, while utter panic rendered him defenseless. But crackling lightning suddenly zapped the beast from behind. Llayne leashed his torso with a tether of writhing ether and wrestled him off of the Spade captain. The beast’s strength endured, but not when she multiplied her tether’s energy. The orc was paralyzed.

In his primal frenzy, Thax climbed to his feet, drew his Firefly and extended the steeple-like blade concealed along the barrel. He was poised for the kill, his bayonet tilted with the point between the orc’s frowned eyes.

“Captain,” Vega suddenly interrupted. “Wait.”

“Have you lost your damned mind, sergeant?” he shouted. “This beast wasted my entire squad!”

“He may have valuable information for the Empire. Kill him after.”

“Those aren’t my orders, Vega! To hell with all that passive, recon shit!”

“Killing this beast compromises our mission! You’d be condemning Liger Black!”

Thax snorted with disdain, “Fuck the Ligers.”

“Our orders are to learn what we can. There’s more to what’s going on here. I need you to pull it together and think about what you’re doing!”

“Why would I tell any of you anything?” the orc suddenly spoke, his voice guttural. He startled everyone.

“Because I’m sure you don’t want to live the rest of your life with all of your body parts in a variety of jars,” Vega retorted. “Araunian science could benefit quite a bit from your contribution. And they’re very good at keeping your important parts alive—so you get to see the experiments for yourself.”

The dull-witted beast had fewer faculties than what was needed to best Vega’s cunning. Against her energy leash he was helpless anyway. And so, Vega pried him apart like an onion, until the information began to spook their entire huddle. The orc, and their goblin kin, were the descendants of an ancient tribe of disciples, who kept the Dogara dragon as their messiah. Since the end of dragon reign, a race of unique, fire-breathing wyverns survived the Dogara, called the Kuvaro’shi. The cave was the tomb of the orc’s ancestor and the nest of a wyvern egg. Such a magical beast could rekindle an entire race that would cripple the Empires, leaving the ruins to the marauding orc and the riches to the pilfering goblin. For them, the Kuvaro’shi beast meant their return to power, and they would stop at nothing to ensure it.

“If what he’s saying is true then we need reinforcements,” Unikade warned. “We retreat now and take this one with us.”

The orc chortled. “Do with me what you will. The ether has begun to rise, and by now every orc has seen it like a pillar of light. The hordes are coming now.”

“That means nothing. We have a carrier on the surface that can vaporize an entire army. Let your hordes come.”

The orc’s laughter spiked. “Your ship will mean nothing. Our forces travel beneath the earth, which means the longer you stay here, the more certain your death becomes.”

They were uncertain of whether or not they should heed his ominous claim. With no way to relay the message to the carrier ship, their options were limited.

“We can’t sit here, Vee,” said Unikade. “Let’s get back to the surface and drop a Spark into the cave. We’ll bring this entire cave down.”

“Unikade’s right,” Thax said. “Staying here in any scenario is the wrong move. Finish the mission and let’s head home.”

“No,” Vega replied.

“You kidding me?”

“Goblins are burrowers. We leave now and they’ll still make it to the egg.”

“They’re fanatics, Vega. There’s no wyvern. There’s no horde,” Cord said. “Spire said we’re finishing the mission and heading home, so that’s what we’re going to do.”

“But the mission isn’t finished. Not if there’s a wyvern down there,” she argued. She turned to the orc, “I want you to free your ‘messiah’.” The huddle winced with a unanimous shout. “They weren’t here for nothing, and there’s a compelling amount of daiku breaching the surface that renders technology useless. Whatever it is, it’s coming from this cave and I’m not leaving until I put an end to it.”

“I am the ranking officer, and I say what you will and will not do!”

“We have our own orders, Spire. You and Sergeant Cord can pull out. Please inform Spire Vance that we’ll need reinforcements.”

“I’ll inform your captain that his insubordinate sergeant has conspired against the Araunian empire! Do this and all of the Ligers will be regarded as traitors when you hang!”

“Call us what you will, but the source of this energy, whatever it may be, will threaten the very fabric of the empire if it’s unleashed. That’s my primary concern. If it’s a wyvern, I’m going to kill it.”

The orc roared with laughter, “Fool.”

“You release him and I will kill you myself,” Thax growled.

Vega turned to him, but said nothing. She then keyed the helmet clamps beneath her ear, releasing the rings that constricted her neck. She then lifted her helmet from her head and revealed herself. She was of a fair complexion, with an ivory colored eye, and short brunette hair that poorly concealed her eye patch. She wanted him to see her utter indifference toward his threat firsthand.

With a twist of her wrist, the electrical cinch around the orc’s torso vanished. Freed of the agony, he stood up again. But his breathing began to accelerate, his back quickly rising and falling. He clenched his fists, and in a furious fit, he turned and punched the marine nearest him. Sergeant Cord careened into a tall stone, the face of his helmet ruined by a deep crater, his face crushed underneath it. The orc backhanded Thax to the ground and then lunged after Vega. Unikade preempted the attack and impaled the beast’s side then spun and swept his feet from beneath him. As the giant hit the floor, Vega cinched him with her energy tether and electrocuted him once more.

“Try that again and you’re going to regret it,” she hissed. Unikade concatenated her warning by stabbing his leg and wrenching it free. Only then did Vega release him again.

Another fit of rage broke the silence all of a sudden as another foe rushed to subdue Vega. Like a boulder, Thax shouldered Unikade to the ground as he barreled past. Startled, Vega dove to the ground and rolled out of the way. Thax spun around, swinging the bayonet at the end of his fliprifle, missing her throat only barely. Unikade seized him by the waist, lifted him into the air, and slammed him to the ground. A quick retaliation smashed Unikade’s helmet, but succeeded only in momentarily blinding him. Unikade disposed of his helmet and rushed after Thax. He retrieved his lance from the ground and sparked their duel. Though he respected Thax’s ability with a bayonet, Unikade’s lance was his primary weapon and the reason his technique was a step above his opponent’s. He parried nearly every blow until his opportunity arrived and he impaled Thax in the seam in his midsection. The fliprifle fell to the ground, the Spire’s hand twitching with numbness. Unikade lifted his body into the air at the end of his cone, until he suffocated completely. The Spire could see the wildness in his amber eyes, their light remaining as everything else grew dark. He breathed his final breath and Unikade discarded him.

No sooner than the Spire’s body hit the ground, a loud clunk struck the air with a resonating echo. The crippled orc made the final twist of the sword-like key, triggering the last mechanical sequence of the vault. The sixth, outermost ring of the vault rotated and the tertiary mechanisms tumbled into alignment deep beneath the floor. Each ring then descended into a pitch-black abyss, leaving a vast, round aperture as broad as a river. The spectators became tense, staring at the darkness as if the very shadows of the portal would come alive. Not even the orc knew what to expect of its stillness. The blackness did not move.

The pit grumbled. A quiet, undulating growl emerged from the throttles of an incredible beast and reverberated throughout the cave. From the pit, a creature clambered. A pair of long, hooked talons stabbed the edge of the pit like grapnels and the wyvern hoisted itself to freedom. It moved like a serpent with wings, until its mighty legs emerged and its feet stomped upon the ground. Its long neck was cloaked in a mane of black bristles and its longer tail had a ridge of black spines. Its beak was the point of its spade-shaped crown and a pair of long, cambered horns reached backward. It was a ravenous adolescent with more than forty years of strength and hunger powering it. With barely a glance at its surroundings it began thrashing its wings until it flew into the air. It was searching for a way out, yet wary of the few in its midst.

Both Vega and Unikade became pale with astonishment as they marveled at the sheer existence of the creature. The orc raved with jubilance. To the young messiah, however, his energy was a threat to be extinguished. And so, it clenched onto a stalactite and, from the jet-liked glands on either side of its forked tongue, it breathed a lance of purple fire that turned the eight-foot giant into waste. His flesh became viscous, his bones liquefied like molten steel until the flames could burn the rest. Within seconds he was no more. By association, the Spade troopers were guilty of menacing the beast as well. As a consequence, they too faced a column of fire, though they were smart enough to take flight from their blazing demise.

Behind the wall of fire, they made their retreat and took cover between the rocks. Still, there was no time to linger. The wyvern was equipped with a keen sense of smell, thermal vision, and the bristles on its body were whisker-like antennae. It snaked across the ceiling, traversing the cavern in leaps, growing ever closer to its prey. Soon, it would be impossible to elude the beast.

Vega took aim with her rifle. But as she charged its white glow, Unikade lowered her muzzle.

“You really want to point that thing at that thing?” he exclaimed. “Neither of us have helmets.”

“Then it should be easy for ideas to float out of your head,” she scorned.

“Ideas? Have you never read a fairytale? That rifle is an insult. You slay dragons with a sword.”

She glanced at his lance, “That ain’t a sword.”

“Yeah, well, that ain’t quite a dragon.”

“Then you’d better win.”

“Win? Hell, if running was an option, I’d suggest running. This creature is ancient. Just the thought of fighting it is disrespectful,” he brooded.

They steeled their nerve and engaged. Vega blasted the ceiling and brought the beast to the ground. It was onto her then. But when it attempted to take flight, another cannon blast showered it with more of the ceiling’s sharp stones. Unikade skulked ever closer until he was able to spring an ambush. He leapt onto the wyvern’s back and impaled its neck, but did not achieve a fatality as he’d hoped. The beast squealed with agony and rage. It beat its wings and spiraled into the air in an attempt to loose its assailant from its back. Unikade held on just barely, until it slammed into the ground and flung him. He was acrobatic enough to land on his feet, but then found himself in the worst situation yet. He was face to face with a soldier of nature.

It was hardly a contest at all, even for Unikade, as nimble as he was. The wyvern was too big. Its tail was too long. With its long neck, its snapping jaws could reach across the small arena effortlessly. And Unikade was small enough to be crushed by its footfalls. And when the beast missed its foe, it breathed more flames to lessen the space.

Though it had no scales, its hide would not tear against slashes. When Unikade punctured its flesh, its flesh clenched his lance, stifling his agility. He dealt what cuts he could, but dove and rolled in an effort to stay in its blind spot. Finally, it flared its wing, swatting him across the arena, breaking him. Without its power, Unikade’s suit could not secure him when he broke his fall and his arm buckled. He cried out a long, painful wail, his arm rendered numb by an excruciating sensation of fire and needles. The wyvern could smell his agony and marched on him, fire churning in its maw.

Unikade scooted away, trembling, his broken arm tucked against his torso. He watched the wyvern with a ferocious glare that barely concealed his fear. He was just moments from a scorching fatality. The towering beast was upon him when Vega dove into its path, her shoulder cannon aimed at its breast. Her finger held the trigger tight, caging a cyclonic shell that would bring ruin to the entire cavern. Still, against the eminence of such a beast, it was a gambit.

The Kuvaro’shi beast excited the flames in its mouth as it prepared to finish its foe. And then Unikade surged in front of her, bashing the barrel of her cannon. He roared a manic and furious holler, exhausting all of the panic he’d garnered. The amber rings that surrounded his pupils shone hot with a primal glow. He’d captured even the wyvern’s attention. Their eyes locked, both teeming with rage and reverence. For some reason that neither marine could fathom, the feral beast was frozen with restraint, its flames quelled. It then spread its wings as wide as it could and wailed a long, screechy cry of superiority. It was a powerful gesture that could only mean it felt some degree of rivalry from its foes. But, the frail cavern hadn’t the strength to endure the vibrations of the incredible creature. More steeples and boulders began to fall until the integrity of the cavern could no longer hold.

“Kyran!” Vega cried. She fell over under the force of the tremors, her finger slipping off the trigger. She fired a cyclone shell that ricocheted across the cavern and darted into the pit. The Spades were petrified by the imminent menace. They dove to the ground and covered their heads. And then a tall white column of fire erupted from the pit, pulling everything in the cavern into it. The winds caught the wyvern’s wings and the flying rocks pummeled it closer and closer toward the cyclone’s snare. With a squealing cry, the beast crashed into the pit, plummeting again into its depths. The stones buried it to the brim, until the beast’s cry was no more.

Only then did the Liger pair sit up and confirm that they were still among the disaster of the living. The ground continued to tremble and there was still more that could fall upon them. They freed their relieved sighs and got to their feet.

“We need to go. Now,” Vega said gravely. “We need Vance to drop that Spark.”

“Why? We killed it,” Unikade said.

“A few minutes ago, I’d agree with you.”

He could not deny her newfound reasoning. With what strength remained, they hurried to the surface.

Vega fired her emergency beacon, signaling Vance’s immediate rescue. It would be only moments before the hover carrier swooped in and retrieved them. It was silent until then. They could hear the growl of the engines as it grew near, and then it faded. Just as the ship appeared, they heard a cavernous howl rise from the bowels of the cave. The two turned their gaze to one another and quickly boarded the black ship.

It climbed to a lofty altitude and then dropped a shimmering light like a star from the bay underneath it. The Spark descended deep into the cavern and ignited within minutes. The explosion made the barren desert surface leap. And then it cratered. It was the most appropriate burial they could muster on such short notice. But the winged beast had earned that stretch of land.

Julian C. Brooks

Julian Brooks is an author driven by a vision grown from the imagination of his childhood. Though an assertive visual artist, words have always proven fulfilling instruments of story-crafting. Like many authors, his origins reside with various stories conveyed through books, video games, film, and music. Chicago, his home, has sculpted an artist appreciative of numerous art forms. His wife, children, and German Shepherd are the fire that drives him. His love for fantasy and consciousness of others like him were the foundation of what has become EPOCH Studios. His mission is to build a universe with his peers of fellow creators.