Talons in the Night

May 8, 2008
The mission had been an utter disaster. The entire regiment had been decimated, save for five battle-weary survivors. They had managed to escape, and sought shelter in the steep cliffs around them. It was a daunting task, if one less so than the battle they had just survived. Rocks made a habit of falling nearby, and a fierce, chill wind threatened to blast them off the narrow crag on which they walked. Every one of the exhausted, fully armored climbers was a soldier of decent rank.
Captain Tobias Upton was relatively young, with medium-to-dark brown hair and stormy-sea-blue eyes. He was not naturally athletically built, but training over the years had toned his body to a point where he was clearly muscular, but not grossly so. His grim, determined features provided a portal into his mind, where his thoughts raced around one important point: Keep everyone safe. On his back, in addition to the servo-augmented armor that they were all required to wear, was a pack full of standard-issue field gear.
Just behind him was the First Lieutenant Chitose Miyagi. Her slanted, brown eyes watched her comrade concernedly beneath knit brows. She, like Captain Upton in front of her, was well-toned in addition to being naturally slender. Though she carried the same weaponry as the rest, she was not of a fighting temperament; rather, Lieutenant Miyagi was essentially the team’s medic. She always carried first-aid equipment in the place of some of the weapons that were standard-issue.
Behind her was Sergeant Major Kyrie Frost, who was holding on to a crack in the rock face for balance. She glared into the biting wind, her bright green eyes fiery and resolute. She, if no one else, was the fiercest soldier of the team, though sometimes her hot temper got her into a little deeper trouble than she thought. Major Frost was also a skilled knife wielder, and carried at least three blades at all times. No one ever saw her without them.
Fourth down the line was Private Trent Tellers, who was panting and trying to not to betray his panic to the rest of the team. Technically, he was not supposed to even be in the regiment when they were sent to this desolate place. But he had made the mistake of cutting training and stowing aboard the transport, not thinking that it was outbound to a place like this. His blue eyes shone with a terror he had never felt so intensely before, and sweat dripped down the side of his face, despite the fact that the armor was built with an internal temperature control.
Finally, in the back of the line, was Second Lieutenant Nathaniel Stryszyk, an equally fit, if slightly stockier, man as Tobias. He looked down at his feet, his gray-blue eyes noting how far one would have to fall if they took a wrong step or tripped. Lieutenant Stryszyk was the captain’s best friend, and had been since before they joined the military. They had their arguments, but they trusted each other in a pinch. He was also the demolitions expert of the troupe, always carrying a few extra grenades of assorted varieties.
“Hey! Why’d you stick me back here again?” Nathaniel asked of Captain Upton, using the communications system built into their helmets. Without so much as turning around, the captain gave a swift reply.
“Because you’re the one most likely to punch a hostile off the cliff if it scares you.” This was a true statement, and one that Tobias had not bothered to conceal from the group. It elicited a few chuckles from Chitose and Kyrie, who both glanced back over their shoulders at the second lieutenant. “Hey guys, I found a place where we can stay for the night,” came the captain’s voice again. “It’s just around this corner.” Everyone looked forward anxiously, hoping it was safer than the narrow walkway they were standing on. Tobias disappeared around the corner, and Chitose peeked around, following the captain with her eyes.
“What is it?” the private asked, almost unnecessarily as the rest of the group rounded the rocky corner.
“A cave, cadet,” Major Frost replied, not quite irked enough to spit fire at the mention of what was a stupid question in her eyes. “Doesn’t look very big, Upton,” she added, crossing her arms as the five stood staring at the rather cramped entry to the cavern, on a ledge covered in dry brush.
“She’s got a point there, Toby,” Lieutenant Stryszyk agreed. Miyagi turned to the two and narrowed her almond-shaped eyes.
“You haven’t even been inside yet. Don’t judge it. It may well be the only safe spot out here in this godforsaken wasteland,” she snapped. Obviously the first lieutenant was of short temper at the moment. She stepped towards the mouth of the cave. “I’ll investigate it.”
“No, you won’t, Lieutenant Miyagi. You’re our medic, and you’re staying out here while I check it out,” Captain Upton argued sternly, holding onto her shoulder and pulling her back. She sighed, looking back at him.
“Fine. But be careful. We can’t afford to lose you. I don’t want to lose you,” she cautioned, pausing before saying the last sentence on a private channel. Tobias nodded, then ventured into the black interior of the hole carved into the cliff’s face. As if on cue, the wind stopped. The air grew tense, then a light shone out of the darkness, and the captain’s voice was audible through their comlinks.
“You guys, bring in a bunch of those dried-out bushes before the wind picks up again. We’ll need them for the night ahead.”

An hour later, night had fallen, and there was a small, comforting fire crackling on the floor of the cavern. The cave had turned out to be a lot larger than it seemed. From the entry, it formed a tunnel large enough for one person, or several in single file. The tunnel curved at the end of its thirty-foot-long span, then opened into a large chamber, and other pathways led deeper into the cliff from this central hub.
However, the vastness of the cavern and the small circle of light the fire provided made for an eerie environment. The wind had picked up again, howling past the opening of the cave. The group had been split up into watches, with the private taking the first watch by luck of the draw. Or, in his case, bad luck.
Trent gripped his gun tightly, his helmet removed and by his side. The gales outside almost seemed to be of a hurricane force. A rock skittered across the cave floor, startling the jumpy soldier. He fumbled with his rifle, aiming shakily towards the sound. I wish I hadn’t cut practice. I wish I wasn’t here! he thought desperately. Another sound, from deeper in the cave, caused Tellers to stand and move to investigate it. Every sound, even his own footsteps, seemed amplified as he approached a pathway branching off from the central hub. The sound occurred again, making him jump slightly, but drawing him towards it like a moth to a candle. His heart was pounding, and the sweat-slicked hairs on the back of his neck prickled unpleasantly.
After Trent was a good twenty yards down the pathway, a mouse-like creature scurried across his path, pausing and staring up at him. He jumped at first, then chuckled in relief as he saw what this was. “So you’re what scared me?” he asked rhetorically, crouching down and looking at the creature, laughing at his own fears.
Splat…Something wet and gooey hit the back of his head. He touched it, looking at it. He turned slowly to see what was behind him, but only caught a glimpse of shiny black claws. He had no time to even scream as the talons ripped him apart, breaking through the armor and sending the pieces flying against the wall with a wet smack. A low rumble traveled back to the cavern, where Stryszyk was awakening.
“What in God’s name was that?” he wondered, rubbing the sleep from one eye and looking around. After a moment, he realized that the private was gone. He uttered an oath, looking around and calling the soldier’s name. But there was no reply to be heard; only the echo of his own voice. Trent’s sudden disappearance unsettled the lieutenant, who glanced around one more time before poking the dying fire and adding another dead bush to it.
Even though the team had thought of the young man as a nuisance, he was still a human life. And for all the team knew, he was now a casualty or MIA. Nathaniel looked to his right. Wait… That’s Tellers’ helmet! Why did he leave it here? Now Stryszyk was genuinely alarmed. He nudged a sleeping Tobias, telling him that the private was missing and that he was going to look around for him. But the captain was hardly a nice person when awakened against his will, as his words soon proved.
“Go jump off a cliff. I’m sleeping,” he muttered subconsciously, turning over and leaving the lieutenant to go about his watch. Nathaniel sighed, then picked up his rifle and began to walk towards the cave mouth. He was still in full regalia, partially for the warmth provided by the internal temperature control of the suit. He looked around, holding the gun close. Something tapped his shoulder, startling him. He turned violently, nearly smacking Major Frost in the head with the rifle.
“Don’t DO that!!” he exclaimed, lowering the gun and clutching at his heart.
“You’re jumpier than usual, Strits,” Kyrie commented, crossing her arms and calling Nathaniel by a shorter, easier-to-remember nickname. “Why’re you out here?”
“The private’s missing, and he left his helmet.”
“So? I won’t miss him.” Frost lived up to her last name with that comment. The lieutenant shrugged.
“We may not miss him, but still, he was on the team, and now he’s gone. He’s either dead or MIA…” A black flash suddenly passed over the two, causing Nathaniel to curse and aim his gun upwards. Kyrie did the same, ready to put a knife or a bullet in whatever owned that shadow. Something sounded like wings, but the two hardly paid any attention to any other noises other than the frantic beating of their hearts and the screaming wind around them. “What in the name of…” Another black flash passed over with a sound like shrapnel hitting the metal of their armor, and took the lieutenant with it, leaving Major Frost on the ledge alone. Not a scream or a yell accompanied Second Lieutenant Stryszyk’s sudden departure. Naught but silence, till it was broken by the sergeant major’s hurried footsteps back into the cave to awaken Chitose and Tobias.
“Captain! Lieutenant! Wake up!! Strits is gone!” she cried out, shaking Lieutenant Miyagi’s shoulder.
“Chikusho…What, now?” muttered the team medic, looking up groggily.
“Stryszyk is gone! Something took him off the ledge out there!” Kyrie repeated, moving backwards as Miyagi sat bolt upright. She looked around, taking note of the two missing members and shaking the captain awake.
“Tobias, get up!! I don’t care how much of a bear you are when you’re awakened. This is serious!” she urged. The captain finally woke up, then looked around with an angry, sleepy glare on his face.
“You let the fire die,” he noted irritably.
“Forget about the fire! Your best friend might be dead!” These words from Chitose jolted Tobias awake.
“Nath is dead?!” he asked incredulously. He swore, then got up and went outside without a thought.
“Tobias! I said ‘might’, not ‘is’!” Miyagi yelled, chasing after him. This left Kyrie all alone inside the chamber, and an unnamed beast was coming out of its lair, having been awakened by all the shouting.
The black-taloned, draft horse-sized creature focused its senses, catching the scent of sweat and fear emanating from a small, alive thing on its living room floor. It snorted, alerting the sergeant major to its presence. She automatically drew her knives, glaring at this black-clawed, red-eyed beast before it lunged at her. The jet talons rent the air where Frost’s head had been two seconds ago.
Kyrie had dodged to the side, almost dancing forward and returning the swipe with her knife. The blow connected with the creature’s shoulder, causing it to growl and snap at her with rank-smelling, fang-filled jaws. Come on, you…Kyrie taunted in her mind. It lunged again, trying to bite her, but instead getting a slash across its bony muzzle. However, it swung its head, knocking Frost to the side and sending her skidding for a bit. Then, she saw the spike-tipped tail coming towards her. She had no time to move, and it smashed into her chestplate, denting it and spider-webbing it with cracks. Major Frost gasped, and yelled out in pain.
The yell caught the attention of the remaining two soldiers, who merely glanced at each other, hearts racing and minds flooded with anxiety and fear, before rushing back into the cavern to see the beast hammering away at Frost’s armor.
“Major Frost!” Their shouting attracted the beast’s attention, and it swung its heavy tail at Tobias, catching him full in the chest and slamming him into the wall. Captain Upton collapsed, face-first, onto the floor.
“Captain!” Miyagi rushed to Tobias’ side, turning him over and realizing that the beast was still there, and bearing down on her position. Her heart was liable to burst out of her chest as the jaws came rushing towards her. Her body was paralyzed in a fear she had never known before. Am I really going to die? Oh Lord, am I going to die?
But the jaws never closed on her. Kyrie, amazingly, had gotten up and body slammed its head, clapping its jaws shut and executing a few kicks to its head.
“Chitose! Take Toby and get out of here!” she yelled, pushing Miyagi to get up and take Upton with her.
“But Kyrie, what about you?!”
“Never mind me! Just GO!!” With an understanding, if painful, nod, Chitose stood, hauled Tobias to his feet, and hauled him outside. As soon as they were out of the cave, all sounds of struggle stopped, and Chitose hung her head. Kyrie had been crushed by the creature, as was evident from the sounds that could be heard from the cavern’s depths.
Miyagi dug out the radio from the captain’s pack, then sent out a distress call to an orbiting craft, telling them to come pick up the survivors of the mission. She tended to Tobias’ wounds, keeping him on the same side of the plane of existence as her. She looked up towards the sky. No one would ever believe the tale she would be able to tell, about what took the lives of their comrades; about the talons in the night.

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