Here is Part I of Darkness on Daen, my upcoming science fiction novella based on the legend of Beowulf.
Planet Daen gleamed against the dark of space. A red and green and blue orb of beauty, it sparkled with refracted light like a multi-color jewel nestled in jet black velvet. Decker Baywolf started his approach sequence. His ship, the Rezagard, flipped over in preparation for the approach.
“Initialize ground thrusters,” he said evenly to the flight computer.
“Ground thrusters initialized,” the feminine voice of his computer responded and he felt the dull kick of the rocket stabilizers as they fired up, slowing the ship’s descent into the planet’s atmosphere.
“Deploy landing struts,” he barked to the computer over the mounting noise as his ship broke into the upper atmosphere. A sharp, mechanical grinding rattled through the ship as the landing pads dropped from their stowage on the underside of the ship, the pistons and pneumatic joints hissing as they pressurized.
“Landing struts deployed,” the computer responded calmly once again.
Decker settled back and waited for the landing sequence to finish. He’d programmed most of the ship components to fire off automatically at varying altitudes but had kept the thrusters and struts on manual. It had saved him more than a few time, evading capture by firing thrusters at the last minute to throw off pursuit. He gazed out the window as the ship gently passed the five kilometer altitude mark and through the haze of clouds that had previously obscured his vision.
The landscape of Daen was a menagerie of topographical features. Arid deserts bordered with dense rain forests, which then gave onto open prairies and the rolling waves of the planet’s single, massive ocean. Decker punched a command into the heads up display. Text and images flashed to life across the viewing dash as information about the planet streamed onto the screens.
“Planet Daen is the second planet of four in the Daenor system. It is the only inhabited planet and is home to the Wraithgaar Group, a splinter organization from the Galactic Exploratory Commission. The Wraithgaar Group is responsible for the settling of the planet with the goal of continued settlements being established,” read the computer. Decker absorbed the information, knowing it would come in handy at one point or another during his mission.
“What was the charter status of this Wraithgaar Group?” he asked. A new set of data flashed onto the holoscreen in the dash of the cockpit.
“The Wraithgaar Group received a mineral and fossil fuel charter in 2647 from the Terran Republic. The charter colony of Wraithall is the sole settlement listed under the charter. In addition to the settlement, there are several observation sites for ore and oil collection, located inside a 30 kilometer radial perimeter around the main settlement. The colony was originally home to nearly 10,000 residents. The most recent population reports in Republic charter archives are over one year old, and place the population at the time near 5,000.”
“Christ, they lost half their population in twelve years,” Decker wondered aloud. “What are the reports of indigenous wildlife?”
“Initial science survey probes detected no sign of self-aware species. Several thousand species of insects and reptiles have been documented. Less than 20 species of mammals inhabit Daen, not including the colonist Terrans and Rideliss.”
“Doesn’t sound too bad,” Decker chuckled as he wiped the holopad and cleared up his cockpit view for landing. “I’ve needed an easy mission for a while now. Maybe even a bit of a vacation while I’m at it.”
“Touch down in ten seconds,” the computer intoned. The landing struts flexed as the ship landed lightly on one if the six open pads in the shambling string of shacks that passed for a spaceport.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” Decker grumbled as he ambled down the gangway, gear in hand.
He set his pack down against the front strut of the ship and began the cathartic routine of strapping on his equipment and checking his weapons. Plasteel bracers snapped closed as they were clasped over his forearms. He fitted a matching pair of shin guards into the tongues of his boots. His personal body armor was Republic Special Forces standard, a gift from a friend long ago. The burnished armor slipped snugly onto Decker’s trim frame. He flipped open his various scopes attached to his RZ-23 Battle Rifle, checking each function. The weapon was his old Infantry Division model. Careful upkeep and constant retooling had kept the rifle in superior condition, something he was thankful for, given what he had heard about planet Daen. His final checks were interrupted by a clattering of sheet metal as two figures emerged from the darkness, headed purposefully toward him and the Rezagard.
Decker glanced suspiciously at the approaching strangers. He clicked a control on his belt to secure his ship in the hangar. The cloaking device he had installed on the flight over kicked into gear and the ship vanished from sight. Decker was cautious by nature, a product of years doing odd jobs for everyone from the Terran Republic to the Korvana smuggling ring. The two strangers approaching him had the look of mercenaries, adorned with a hodgepodge of equipment that despite appearing filthy, was all clearly well maintained.
Best not to underestimate these, he thought warily.
He finished strapping on his gear as the two came to within speaking range, careful to keep his pistol from becoming tangled in the process. The two figures strode into the light, but halted several meters from Decker.
“You Baywolf?” asked the first, a tall, brutish warrior with curly black hair that fell past his shoulders and a scar that ran from brow to chin through his left eye, milky white and blind from the wound. Decker nearly laughed at the man’s stereotypical appearance, the large stature and disfiguring scar. Almost, that is, until Decker saw the massive weapon strapped to the man’s back. It was definitely a firearm of some sort, but the size and dimensions made it impossible for Decker to even guess what the make was. In all likelihood, it would reduce him to a puddle on the floor. Not to mention the cudgel hanging at the man’s waste, riveted with three-inch spikes.
Definitely do not want to underestimate these guys, he reaffirmed. He smiled at the men, half affable, half challenging.
“Baywolf is my last name. You can call me Decker,” he replied, still intent on fitting his gear. He wasn’t going to be pushed around by these two, but he wasn’t going to try and cop a feel on the first date either. “Are you all they sent? I heard this was a dangerous place, I figured they’d send more than two overgrown children to escort me.”
The brute fumed at the remark, barely held in check by his companion. The other man was nearly a foot shorter than his large, angry friend. Platinum blond hair fell just to his collarbone, curly and apparently resistant to dirt; it practically glowed even in the murky atmosphere of the starport. He sported a full beard, healthy and thick, and his green eyes shimmered with mischievous light.
“You’ve got quite a tongue, Decker Baywolf. I just hope you’re as good with that rifle as you are with your wit. Xolf here is one of the more timid specimens planet Daen has to offer,” the blond stranger said. “My name is Soren. Yes, we are all Lord Wraithgaar could spare, troubled as we are by the Gren. But come, we’ve a journey ahead of us and night falls quickly here.”
Decker examined the two for a moment. The one called Xolf still had an angry look in his eye, but he seemed to be settling down, the firm hand of Soren still restraining him but with less force than before. Decker trusted few beyond himself and one other. Rex had personally requested Decker take this contract, a favor for the man who’d save Decker’s life more times than he liked to admit. If Rex thought this mission important enough to ask only Decker, it must have been for a good reason.
Not too many options here, he thought glumly.
“Very well,” Decker replied quietly as he tucked his last dagger into place on his left bicep. “Lead the way, Soren and Xolf of Daen. Show me why I am here.”
* * *
The small party had been walking for three days, across a barren plain devoid of even the slightest sign of life. His guides called the desolate plains the ‘Badlands’.
Can’t for the life of me see what they call it that for, Decker chuckled silently to himself.
The plain really was desolate; he hadn’t even seen signs of water for all their walking. He’d asked several times how far they would be traveling. His hosts simply laughed. Perhaps they thought he was tiring, that maybe this was just a test of his resolve or stamina. Either way, his own physical abilities weren’t in question, as far Decker was concerned.
The third night, the trio stopped to make camp as the sun was striking the horizon. Daen was a strange planet, even in Decker’s experience. He’d been to hundreds of worlds, his travels taking him from one side of the Republic to the other and into every known system settled by humanity. Daen was the first world he’d visited that had no moon or space station in orbit. The pure and utter darkness of the night was strange, like being underground with no lights, save tiny specks that were stars. Despite there being no major cities or light in the vicinity, the stars seemed muted, as if they too were dampened by the oppressive darkness. His hosts seemed oblivious to all this, building their fire as they settled down to eat. Trail rations seldom held good flavor, but made up for it with high nutrition.
“Fear not, Decker Baywolf, your nights of tasteless road food will soon be over,” Soren reassured him as they ate, backs to the fire as they watched their campsite.
“Aye, we’ve a grand feast awaiting you, we’ve been assured,” Xolf grunted.
Decker couldn’t tell if the last comment had been sarcastic or not, but he let it pass. He had been pleased to find the men were not fools. They sat with their backs to the flame, eyes facing out into the bleak darkness, ever vigilant, unlike so many who spent their nights watching the hypnotic flames of the camp fire leap and fall in the night sky. Fire blinded more than it illuminated at night, a fact these men seemed very aware of. It also played tricks on the mind, casting shadows in places where none should dance.
A screech split through the darkness and brought all three of their heads around. It echoed across the dark plains from somewhere in the distance, off between where Xolf and Decker sat. It seemed to carry on the wind, ghostly as it drifted past the three by the fire. Decker could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing up as he instinctively began to raise his battle rifle in the direction of the threat.
“Stay your weapon, fool!” Xolf hissed, though it felt oddly like a yell.
“Whatever that was sounded dangerous, I’ll keep my weapon out thanks,” Decker growled, ill at ease with anyone calling him a fool. Few had lived to brag of that feat.
“Xolf speaks truth, Baywolf,” Soren said calmly, though Decker could feel the edge of nervousness on his voice. “The Gren are not to be trifled with and they’ve grown used to the sight of our weapons. It is likely a scouting party and three of us are more than a match for anything less than ten of them.”
Decker slowly lowered his weapon, but did not relinquish his grip. He’d be damned if he’d sit here waiting for death to find him unarmed. If these Gren indeed did decide to force a fight, Decker would make sure to be ready. Answering screeches sounded from all around their position, some fading in and out as if the creatures were running circles.
Odd that you feel such apprehension, you’ve been through far worse than this, he chided to himself.
True, the forests of Garafoss had been rife with dangers. The swamplands of Voralon II were populated by multitudes of venomous beasts. But something about being in this open desolation, without so much as a rock or tree as cover, made Decker feel very much more vulnerable than he had before, perhaps ever in his life.
The screeches and grunts from the creatures grew increasingly frenzied. They seemed to be getting closer to trio around the fire, but just out of visual range.
Intelligent tactic, Decker mused.
Then he did something that made his companions gape, whether in surprise or horror, he couldn’t be sure and didn’t have time to check. He reached his hand into the fire, pulling one of the burning logs from the flames. His gloves were made of Drakon hide, bound like leather and resistant to temperatures over a thousand degrees celsius. Reaching his arm back while holding the flaming wood, he hurled it into the darkness, a fireball that set alight the stark wilderness and finally revealed the horrors that circled the men.
Several of the Gren seemed completely caught off guard by the sudden flare soaring over their heads and in that moment of confusion, Decker could see why the two locals were so terrified of them. Hideous beasts, they looked something like men, though they walked upon all four limbs, like animals. Rust colored hair gleamed in the firelight, their bodies covered in a thick mat of the stuff, like fur or nearly so. Black eyes, as if their pupils were permanently dilated, gleamed like obsidian in the firelight. Fangs, both upper and lower sets, protruded from their mouths, stained with a black residue Decker could only assume was blood, most likely human at that. The most frightening aspect of the Gren, however, were the horns. Long and antler-like, they were tipped into forked spikes nearly a foot long, and gave the impression of serrated spears ready to harpoon any unwary soul who got within striking range.
Demons, Decker nearly said aloud.
He could sense fear, there in his own gut, but he didn’t let it rule him. He smiled savagely at the creatures, the flames illuminating his grin and his own stark features. His short, ashen, hair was cut closely in the style of his former military life but for a lock that fell over the right side of his face to cover the scar of a battle passed, blazed like red smoke in the firelight. His skin was the color of cream, a soft complexion that masked the titanium beneath. His teeth gleamed a brilliant white, reflecting back into the night, like stab of light against the dark, bleakness of the Gren eyes that watched him cautiously. Then he reared his head back, letting out an ear splitting howl that startled all who heard it, Human and Gren alike. It was a savage, primordial sound, one that reverberated and echoed across the empty plains for all to hear. As he lowered his head back down to face the creatures now cowering in the darkness, his eyes seemed to blaze with inner fire.
The growling and screeching turned into yelps of fear as the Gren bounded away into the night, beating the dusty earth with all their strength in an attempt to put as much distance between themselves and this strange newcomer. The Gren were used to humans who simply huddled together and awaited the light of dawn, not ones who challenged their supremacy in their own territory. Decker was different and he had just made sure they knew that. Then the rage was gone and fire went out of his eyes. He turned to face his companions, shouldering his weapon as he did so. Their faces were white, their eyes wide with what Decker took to be a mixture of fear and awe.
“It’s a little trick I picked up along the way. Releasing your inner beast, so to speak,” he said, having a small chuckle at their expense. After a moment a glimmer appeared in Soren’s eyes and he began to laugh, a light almost melodic sound that drifted across the plain. A moment later Xolf boomed out laughter. The three laughed into the darkness, laughed at the Gren, as if they were laughing at Death himself.
As their mirth subsided, Soren looked pointedly at Decker and said, “Remind me never to let you near our women. Should your ‘inner beast’ become an outer beast around them, I’m afraid we’ll have to either kill you or crown you king.”
Then he was doubled over again, laughing himself to tears, now at Decker’s expense. He had the good grace to laugh at the barb and the complement. A howl broke through their hysterics and instantly the three men were quiet. It wasn’t the aggressive howl from before as much as a warning to the men, that the Gren still watched, even from a distance. Xolf nodded to the other two.
“I’ll take first watch. You two get some rest. I’ll wake you in three hours Decker,” he said as he turned to face the source of the howling, simply folding his arms across his chest as he watched the darkness.
“Night moves slowly here, Decker Baywolf. Absolute darkness for many hours can drive a man insane. I suggest you get some rest,” Soren said and within seconds he was snoring quietly, back to the fire.
Night passed slowly indeed. Decker remained vigilant, until the first rays of sunlight crept over the edge of the horizon to the west. The warmth of the sun was immediate and Decker rose to greet the pale red dawn. His companions rose as well, the two rising quickly and gathering their belongings as if they had been awake for hours. Decker, for his part, was impressed with their endurance and ruggedness. Few were Decker’s equal in surviving the elements, but he felt these men might even rival his heartiness.
To live in a place like this, you have to be tough, he reminded himself as he surveyed their surroundings once more.
The plains stretched on, but for the faintest hint of a hills in the west, outlined as they were against the rising sun. The morning was cloudless, the strange purple-tinted ceiling of the world reminding the trio just how small they were, in the grand scheme of it all. Decker hitched his combat webbing a little higher onto his shoulders and swung his rifle out in front of his body.
“How much further until we reach Wraithall?” he asked his guides.
“You see, Soren, the offworlder tires easily, for all his mighty prancing and play acting,” Xolf chuckled darkly.
“Yes, he does seem quite concerned with getting to the colony, doesn’t he?” Soren replied merrily, a glint in his sea green eyes. “Fear not, Decker Baywolf, we are but another day’s journey to our settlement. Until then, I suggest you bring up the rear.”
Soren and Xolf set off before Decker could think of any kind of retort. He resigned himself to his rear-guard duty, his eyes scanning the barren plain as they set off once more.
* * *
“The Forest of Bounty,” Soren proclaimed as they approached the treeline, hands in the air above his head like he was showing off a new starship in an emporium.
The vegetation had been visible for some hours, but it had mostly seemed a muted, dark mass, like a wall rising up from the red dust of the Badlands. Where the plains they had travelled for three days were devoid of almost any sign of life, the jungle ahead was brimming with movement and the ambient sounds common to environments dense in fauna population. What struck Decker as strange, even by his standards, was the color of the growth.
The forest was black, with various shades of greys and reds intertwined through the growth. He pushed aside his anxiety, something he seldom felt, though the worry had been creeping up since his landing four days past.
“Looks peaceful enough,” Decker mused aloud as they passed from the arid red dirt path into a field of bright yellow foliage.
“Ha! Peaceful, he says,” Xolf barked with laughter.
“Aye, Baywolf, peaceful it looks indeed,” Soren replied lightly, though his vigilant gaze into the upper reaches of the trees betrayed his caution. “Keep your wits up, and perhaps we’ll reach safety in time.”
“In time?” Decker asked as he subconsciously checked his weapon. “In time for what?”
“Stay close and keep sharp,” Soren replied as he bounded into the dense mass of trees, Xolf close behind.
Decker dashed after them. Whatever concerned them was clearly nocturnal. Given the utter darkness he had experienced over the last several night, Decker was inclined to agree that trying to survive in the woods at night would be an experience he’d rather not be forced to endure. Thankfully, Xolf’s massive form loomed ahead of him, his massive rifle strapped to his back in favor of a long machete that seemed to have appeared out of thin air as they entered the trees. That fact made Decker uncomfortable, that Xolf had been able to conceal such a large weapon so easily, for days on end.
More and more dangerous, these men, he thought as he stepped over the greenish-blue vines that snaked across the barely visible path through the forest.
The three men hacked their way through the dark vines and boles for hours, but Decker had the distinct feeling that they weren’t making particularly good time. The jungle seemed to close in at all times. The wind moaned through the upper branches of the canopy, though the softwood nature the trees let the towering giants stand nearly silent against the buffeting forces of the breeze.
The sounds from the darkness beyond didn’t help the trip through the forest or Decker’s mood. Eerie screams and howls echoed off the ebony boles of the jungle. Skittering insects flitted in and out of sight as they scurried amongst the branches and vines, their enormous husks the size of Decker’s chest armor plating.
“Interesting wildlife you’ve got here on Daen,” Decker said conversationally.
“Oh, you noticed, did you?” Soren chuckled from the front of the party. “That was the reason Lord Wraithgaar decided on the charter here in the first place. He’s a botanist by training, after all.”
“Your charter officially states this is a mining expedition, though,” Decker replied, eyes watchful.
“Indeed. We needed money for the venture,” Soren replied.
“DrillX Industries dropped the dough for the check on this place,” Xolf said. “It’s pricey to get all the way out here to the Hexian Rim, but they’ve been getting ten percent of their investment back each year.”
“At least until the raids began,” Soren interjected. “We’re running under capacity, but DXI knows that already. They saw our plight, listened to our request for help, and here you are.”
“Here I am,” Decker repeated. “So tell me, what are your official positions, exactly? If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were security, but it sounds like you have a pretty solid grasp on the political and economical situation?”
Soren stopped to look past Xolf at Decker. His face held a mixture of suspicion and surprise. Xolf, for his part, kept his eyes open as he took the moment’s respite to check the immediate vicinity for threats.
“Very astute observation, Decker Baywolf,” Soren said in his ever-present verbosity. “I am a linguist by trade, brought on as part of the legal team for the venture. Xolf is, or rather was, the lead surveyor for the mining facilities. Despite our appearance as mere mercenaries, you are in fact being escorted by two men who hold galactic doctorates.”
“Well you certainly fit the part of rough riders,” Decker said, impressed with Soren’s frank speech. “Does this mean I’m going to be surrounded by lawyers and geo-geeks for the rest of my stay?”
“Alas, so sorry to disappoint you,” Soren began, his constant smile now dour, “but Xolf and I are the last of our teams.”
“Did they really pull everyone out and leave you two alone?” Decker asked, bewildered. Leave it to corporations to cripple support infrastructure in favor of a profit margin.
“I only wish that were so,” Soren replied, his voice filled with regret, his smile turned into a dark, sarcastic smirk. “Even working for DrillX would be better than the gory fate our friends met at the hands of the Gren.”
Without another word, and before Decker could get out and apology, Soren set off at a run. Xolf graced him with a sour expression before lumbering off after his companion, leaving Decker to contemplate what Soren had told him. He had little time to do so, however, as he leapt to follow his escort deeper into the darkness of the woods.
* * *
The bellowing cry split the monotony that had followed the three travellers for the past hour. Decker jumped and the animal scream, surprised in a way he hadn’t been for years. The dense, dark vegetation of the forest had kept his nerves on edge, but now they sizzled with adrenaline as he prepared himself for a confrontation.
“What the hell was that, Soren,” Decker asked, his eyes scanning the thick trees and vines for any sign of movement.
“Gods save us,” Soren said quietly, his eyes wide as he searched about, a look of pure panic on his features. “I thought we had purged the forest of the grendoc.”
“Grendoc,” Decker said out loud, as if to confirm the word to himself. “What the hell is a grendoc?”
“They are beasts closely linked to the Gren, though less intelligent,” Xolf said, his voice resonating with fear. “Though it doesn’t particularly matter, since they are about the size of your ship.”
“Well that’s reassuring,” Decker replied, as he reached behind him and grabbed at an item attached to his battle harness.
“Our weapons will have little effect on this beast, Baywolf,” Sore said without so much as a glance back at Decker.
“I’ll take that as a challenge,” Decker replied, his feral grin once again plastered across his face as his combat adrenaline kicked in. “Mark-82x plasmacid cannons are banned by every organized government in the galaxy. I happened to acquire one before the ban. Glad I brought it along now.”
He patted the cannon he had just clipped onto the bottom of his rifle, like the grenade launchers of Earth in the 21st century, before the invention of interstellar drives led to the abandonment of projectile weapons. plasmacid was a military creation of the Terran explorers in the early days of space exploration. In an effort to match weapons with more advanced species, Terran scientists created, or rather accidentally discovered, plasmacid. It was a substance that behaved like plasma, but with an added effect of being extremely corrosive in almost any environment. After the establishment of the Republic, the substance, along with the weapons used to deploy it, were banned under an arms treating with the Empire of Koloth and the Council of Eradria.
All thoughts of his weapons vanished, however, as the trees in front of Decker began to violently shake back and forth. Flying beasts the size of sheep, and what appeared to be a cross between a bird and a serpent, burst from the branches of the trees, their elongated black bodies slithering into the sky as they fled the terror approaching the three men on the ground.
“I’m guessing this would be an appropriate time to run, Soren,” Decker asked over his shoulder, never taking his eyes off of the rumbling vegetation.
“No, we must wait until it approaches close enough for me to deploy this,” the slight man replied, holding up a small canister with a yellow strap attached to the top.
“Bringing a party popper on a safari,” Decker snapped sarcastically. “Seriously, what’s the plan.”
“Guns aren’t the only way to win a fight, Baywolf,” Soren replied, his voice surprisingly stern, his expression hard. “We brought you here to help us, not act like you know what it is to live on Daen. This device is an aural detonator. Grendoc hear at a higher pitch than humans, much like dogs back on Earth. This will send out a blast that will befuddle its hearing, which also happens to be the primary hunting sense of the grendoc males.”
“And if it’s a female,” Decker replied, half curious and half humbled by Soren’s serious demeanor in the face of the nameless terror that approached.
“Then may the gods protect us,” Xolf said.
As if to summon the beast with the prayer, the grendoc burst through the trees and slid to halt facing the three men.
“Holy shit,” Decker said with bewilderment in his voice.
Nothing could have prepared him for the behemoth that loomed above the trio of men. The beast was the size of his ship, just as Xolf had indicated. That made it nearly twice the size of the male bull elephants Decker had hunted during his brief stint as a safari guide on Mars. The similarities to anything he had ever encountered nearly ended with size. The scope of the creature was almost too overwhelming to take in, but Decker forced himself to study the monster before him.
The face was looked much like those of the Gren he had encountered out in the Bad Lands, though it was nearly as large as an entire Gren specimen. Huge horns, similar to those of the Gren, jutted up from the top of the beast’s skull, their ebony tips twinkling like obsidian. Massive fangs the size of Kinyxjan battle sabres jutted vertically down from the upper rack of teeth, each easily three feet long. Where the fangs were swords, the rest of the grendoc’s teeth shone like rows of daggers, three deep as it let out a bladder-voiding bellow at the men on the ground. Foul saliva spatter their feet, but Decker ignored it.
The body did nothing to lessen the impressive might of the grendoc or the potential for the violent death of its prey. Four massive limbs rested on the ground, holding up the bulk of the vast torso. The proportions reminded Decker ever so vaguely of a silverback gorilla. The feet of the grendoc were massive clawed monstrosities with talons that hooked at the tips, ready to eviscerate anything that got near them. Plates of some sort of tough enamel ran down the beast’s spine and back.
Pretty much rules out attacking it from behind or above, Decker mused. Then again, that tail could take care of you just as well.
The tail in question was something no human had probably encountered, unless they had a time-travel device. Massive spikes jutted up at the end of a long, whipping tail, like bone stalagmites of death that twitched back and forth effortlessly. Everything about the beast screamed one fact: death to anything that tried to do anything but run away.
“I think now would be the opportune time to use that party popper of yours,” Decker said quickly, his eyes glued to the towering giant before them.
“I believe you have it right,” Soren replied.
He yanked the cord attached to the aural detonator. He lobbed it toward the grendoc, who, to everyone’s amazement, leaned its head down more quickly than Decker would have thought possible, and caught the canister in its mouth. With one loud gulp, the detonator disappeared down its gullet. A moment later, the beast cocked its head to the side and let out an ear splitting howl. Its massive head bent down towards the ground as it pawed at small holes just in front of the base of its horns that Decker guessed were the ears.
“Now do we run?” he asked his guides, already busy securing his weapon’s sling to the webbing of his harness.
“Now we run,” Soren replied.
Decker leaped into a sprint before Soren finished his sentence. Decker flipped down his long range targeting scanner, a device of his own making that used hyper magnification sensors to scan the surrounding wilderness for up to a kilometer distant, and chart a course on his heads-up display. The golden virtual reality path lit up in front of his eyes, guiding his movements through the dense vegetation. A quick glance behind him informed Decker that Soren and Xolf had followed him as he traced his route between the dark boles of the forest.
Decker stumbled as a sonic blast buffeted his body like a fierce wind. The roar of the grendoc echoed through the forest. The earth vibrated beneath his boots as he pushed on. The beast bounded behind the three men, loping easily through the trees despite its massive bulk. Another quick glance over his shoulder told Decker that, though the beast appeared somewhat discomforted by the internal detonation of the canister, it had the anger-fueled strength and resolve to pursue the men.
“I don’t supposed either of you has another trick up your sleeve?” Decker shouted at Soren and Xolf as they caught up to him.
“That was our only chance, Baywolf,” Soren shouted.
“Unless you’d like to volunteer to stay as a snack while we keep going,” Xolf shouted, somewhere between a joke and a serious request.
“Shit!” Decker shouted in frustration as he slid to a halt.
The two men sped past him as he slipped a round for his plasmacid launcher from his combat harness and slammed it into the chamber of the weapon attached to his rifle. He turned toward the rampaging beast as the grendoc burst through two trees as thick as a man. It paused, as if readjusting its bearings, then focused on Decker and let out another ear splitting roar before it charged.
“Try this on for size, you big son of a bitch!” Decker snarled.
The bright blue plasmacid round blasted out of the launcher tube. Barely a second later, it splattered across the right side of the grendoc’s face. A sizzling, searing sound, like dropping water into a pan of boiling grease, filled the forest, but only for a moment. Then the bellowing screams of the grendoc split the air and drowned out the crackling of the plasmacid as it burned and melted the flesh of the beasts face.
Massive paws swept up along its face as the monster tried in vain to wipe the sticky, boiling substance off of its face. The side effect of that was that some of the plasmacid spread to the grendoc’s paw. It bellowed again in rage as it slammed its injured appendage into the soil, shaking the forest like a small earthquake.
Steadying himself, Decker retrieved different projectile from his belt and slid it home into the launcher. He flipped up the targeting reticule on top of his rifle, tabbing several buttons as he forced his breathing to relax, trying to keep his heartrate down. As he found the correct setting, he quickly gazed through the reticule for a moment. The beast’s skeletal structure glowed a ghostly white against the green-tinged background of the x-ray imaging setting on the scope. The plasmacid on the grendoc’s face glowed red hot, hundreds of degrees celsius as it burned the terrible visage into an even more horrifying, boiling ruin.
“Hold still for a few more seconds, you big ugly bastard,” Decker whispered as he steadied the weapon while the onboard computer calculated the proper angle for his desired shot.
Five seconds later the computer beeped sharply in Decker’s headset. He snapped the trigger and loosed the second projectile. He didn’t wait to see if it had struck home; he knew it would. The immediate area was about to get very messy and very hot, two environmental factors he had no desire to experience first hand.
The high-impact detonator blasted through the grendoc’s skull, through the melted eye cavity to be specific. The behemoth rumbled and roared as its head was snapped back by the force of the projectile slamming into the back of its skull from inside. As Decker slid behind the cover of a massive bole, he took one last look at the gigantic beast. It stared at him, almost quizzically, as though it was unsure what was happening inside its skull. It didn’t have long to wonder, as the plastique inside the grenade activated.
Decker barely tucked his head around the tree as the grendoc’s head disintegrated, blown into thousands of pieces from inside. The secondary explosion the followed was even stronger, as the heat from the grenade and the plasmacid incinerated the body of the beast and every tree and branch within 30 meters was turned to cinders. Decker carefully raised his head over the trunk of the tree. It had charred of the side exposed to the explosions, but the mighty trunk held fast against the brutal heat.
The blast site held nothing of the grendoc. The massive, snarling animal that had nearly killed them only minutes before, was completely gone. Several inches of the ash on the ground was the only indicator that anything had occupied the blackened earth only moments before. Decker squatted down and rubbed the hot ash between his fingers, steadying himself as the adrenaline of the moment flooded out. He felt hollow, as he always did after a fight. Danger brought a feeling of life to him, but the aftermath of battle always left him feeling gutted and empty inside.
“Gods protect us,” he heard Soren mutter behind him after a few moments.
Decker turned to see his two guides standing at the edge of the blast radius. Both men’s eyes opened wide as they stared at the destruction wrought by the explosions. Xolf made some sort of sign across his chest, perhaps a ward against evil.
“I don’t think your gods had anything to do with this,” Decker said quietly as he rose. “I don’t think they’re doing a very good job of protecting you, either.”
“How can one man visit such destruction by himself,” Soren said, still gaping at the destructions.
“Don’t count on any more shows like that,” Decker replied, hitching his rifle strap up over his shoulder. “That was my only detonator grenade. I was saving it for a special occasion. This seemed to be about the type of occasion I’ve been waiting for.”
“We should be -” Decker started.
A snarling shriek echoed through the forest as a man-size form leaped out from the bushes to Decker’s left. Decker felt claws pierce his body armor as he let himself be thrown to the ground. He used his momentum to to roll, kicking the thing off of him with all his strength as he hit the ground. His breath exploded from his lungs and he wheezed in an attempt to breath once more. As he struggled to a knee, he regarded the hulking form rising up in front of him.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Decker mumbled as beast rose up.
Another grendoc, this one much smaller and much more strangely proportioned from the one Decker had just destroyed, hissed at him as it crouched low to the ground. Paws, head and tail seemed oversized compared to the rest of the body, but otherwise it looked like a smaller version of the behemoth he had just faced down.
Soren darted in suddenly, stabbing with the machete that had materialized in his hand at some point in the past minute. The grendoc dodged aside before smashing its paw into the slight man. The thundering blow lifted Soren off his feet completely. His crumpled form hit the dirt several yards away, unmoving. Xolf, seeing his companion on the ground, and perhaps thinking him dead, let out a warrior’s bellow as he charged the beast, his bastard sword unlimbered behind him, its twin blades glowing with electric radiance, as he readied for an upward swing intended to gut the beast from crotch to throat. Instead, the animal charged him, its small, but still deadly sharp horns slicing through the body armor, the right horn goring the large man just below his ribs. Xolf let out a scream as he folded over the head of the grendoc. The beast slid to a halt suddenly, and the large man in turn slid off of the horn, unconscious from the shock of the grievous injury.
The grendoc seemed to consider its two victims for a moment, perhaps wondering if it should feast now or finish off Decker. After a moment it turned to him, once more crouching low to the ground and hissing. His two companions down, Decker understood he almost certainly wouldn’t make it through this alive. He slid his knife slowly out of its sheath, ready and willing to gut the monster, ready to take the beast down with him. The glint of the steel caught the grendoc’s gaze, the sudden movement spooking the beast into action.
The shadow of the predator loomed over Decker as it leaped toward him, claws extended in a way that meant certain death in seconds as it fell toward him. Time seemed to slow for Decker, the sounds of the forest amplified as he absorbed his surroundings. Every sensation, every smell and sound, the feel of the damp moss beneath his bloodied hands, felt more clear and real than anything he had ever experienced.
So much for my life flashing before my eyes, he thought irreverently as he bared his teeth and prepared for the end. Bring it on, asshole.
The grendoc jinked to the side in midair, its flight path altered, and tumbled into a heap a meter to Decker’s left. As it rose, he saw a gaping hole in the beast’s neck, its throat open just behind the jaw, tongue severed and lying on the ground. The grendoc screeched as it swayed its head side-to-side, seeking the source of its pain. It spied Decker once more and lunged, the last desperate animal instincts kicking in as it sensed its own eminent demise. Decker flipped the knife in his hand, catching it by the back of the blade for a moment, before flinging it end-over-end at the creature charging him.
The blade struck home, sinking deep into the exposed windpipe of the creature. The grendoc blinked in surprise as its supply of oxygen was suddenly interrupted by the steel blade capping its air intake. The fordgredial stumbled, all thoughts of attack gone, as it tried desperately to breath. The beast’s chin struck the dirt with a jarring snap as it collapsed in oxygen-deprived delirium, its neck snapping with a sound like sapling trees being broken over a man’s knee. A moment later it heaved one last time, and died.
Decker sagged to the ground, lying back in a mix of relief and shock. The trauma to his extremities was serious, but he judged with a little rest he would mend well enough. Assuming he survived long enough to get patched up. He glanced over to where his companions lay. Soren was still out cold and Xolf was barely moving, groaning as he attempted to rouse himself. Blood seeped from the wound to his abdomen, but Decker didn’t see any obvious organ damage.
“Very impressive, Decker Baywolf,” an unfamiliar voice said from somewhere behind Decker.
He rolled up instinctively, surprised by the sudden emergence of the stranger. The swift action, however, caused a churning in his stomach and he wretched onto the verdant soil between his legs.
“Fear not, we are friends,” the stranger said as he knelt next to Decker, a firm hand placed on the injured man’s shoulder to steady him. “You took quite a beating. Then again, that’s the first time I’ve seen someone take down a female grendoc alone. Impressive.”
“Thanks for the compliment,” Decker grunted. He wiped a sleeve across his hand and flicked the remaining vomit onto the ground. “Do I have you to thank for not being mauled like a goat on a chain?”
“I’d like to think I gave you the opportunity to equal the terms of engagement,” the man said with a laugh. His accent sounded similar to the lilting inflection of Soren’s voice. Though he was kneeling, Decker gauged the man at an even six feet tall. Long limbed and gracefully built, he looked like a slightly larger version of Soren.
Brothers, perhaps, Decker wondered as he studied the stranger.
The man’s hair, unlike Soren’s, was raven black, cut short in a style reminiscent of the Terran military, nearly shaved on the sides, closely cut on top. His face was a scattering of scars, one that might have been called handsome in a roguish way.
Not that I’m much of a judge of good looking men, Decker thought sarcastically.
“Well you certainly gave me the opening,” Decker replied after a moment of study. “Not that I was in particularly great shape before that, though.”
“You certainly look a bit worse for wear,” the raven-haired man replied. “Now, we’ll need to get you patched up and back home. Soren and Xolf look a little worse for wear as well, eh?”
“You could say that,” Decker chuckled gruffly. “What does the man who saved my life call himself? I owe that debt to few men and I like to make a habit of knowing who to thank.”
“My name is Sephan Vitali, Captain of the Wraithall Militia, at your service,” the man replied with a slight bow and friendly salute. “Now lie back and get some rest. This should help you feel more at ease.”
Before Decker could protest, he felt a slight pinching at the base of the neck, just above his collar bone. The synthophine spread through his system and Decker felt himself slip away into soft sleep. His last vision was that of Sephan Vitali’s amber eyes crinkled into a smile.