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Fantasy Science Fiction Speculative

This story contains sensitive content

CW {Sexual Themes}


“I'm afraid we can't let that happen.”


“Why?” Tokarov hadn't cared much about leaving until confronted with the possibility he couldn't.


“You know the answer you just don't want to admit it,” The Lord's voice boomed in his head.


“Admit what?” A sinking feeling gripped his gut.


“It, the giant in the room so to speak. I want you to say it.”


“Say what?” Tokarov gritted his teeth.


“Answer your own question.”


“I'm never going to win, because I'm a failure,” He knew it was what had to be said.


“Not just a failure, like your planet, finish the thought.”


“I'm an anachronism, a vestige of a bygone era, a living fossil,” Admitting it stung. Having been OK with just surviving for the past months, the reality of never escaping enraged him.


“And?”


“Fossils are to be harvested and studied...in the labyrinth.”


“Precisely. If you are allowed safe passage, well you know we will have to let them all out, Hmmm?”


“Alright, I get it. What is my next assignment?”


“You have to capture the Sabinarath.”


“So, I get the suicide mission. I thought you needed me.”


“Like everyone on Xenoscythe you too are...expendable.”


Tokarov reinserted the tubes in his nose and adjusted his mouth piece, shifting the oxygen generator on his pack for comfort, he flipped the light on his visor to high and took off in a steady jog down the new tunnel. The rock floor was worn smooth by thousands of feet over the centuries, the clunk of his protective boots echoed off the walls. He had never seen the Sabinarath, but heard tales of its lair, a pit hidden by piles of bones of foolish men and boys. A creature born to destroy dreams and crush souls. His brother called it the 'Evil One', too scared to even utter its name.


The ribs of the passageway widened gradually into a vast cavern dotted with ochre rock formations and shallow pools of the acrid ground water they all drank. Tokarov slowed to a walk and knelt by a pool to replenish his canteen. He removed his mouth piece and sipped the mineral water. It burned as he swished it in his mouth.


Taking in a breath, he tasted oxygen. Removing the respirator, he drank in fresh air, glad to be free of the breathing apparatus, if only for a short time.


Hearing distant footfalls and banter, Tokarov ducked behind a large boulder and drew his dagger. Three distinct voices reverberated in the alcove. Waiting for them he calculated the risk of confronting them. His rations were depleted and there was an unwritten rule among the denizens of the underground maze that none in the competition should go hungry. Gripping his knife he belted out a greeting as they passed the rock.


“Aye!”


The men turned to Tokarov, placing hands on their weapon hilts. “To whom do we have the pleasure?”


Holstering his steel, he spoke, “I'm Tokarov.”


“I'm Alpha, the old man here we call Omega, the youngster is named Ego,” Alpha took the lead and reached out with his hand open, an ancient gesture that reinforced the idea he brandished no weapon.


Taking his hand with a firm grip Tokarov locked emerald eyes on him, “I need sustenance, I ran out of food yesterday.”


“We were making our way to the nearest shaft, our captors dropped a pallet of rations two days ago. There should be plenty left if you care to join our group. Strength in numbers, eh?”


The men walked to the delivery shaft to conserve their energy, stabbing the dark ahead with their head lamps. They had to be careful, Grigglesneeds were known to ambush people when they obtained food. A nasty race of reptilian humanoids, they preferred the taste of humans over rations.


Ego spoke first, “What brings you to this lovely corner of hell?”


“I bested the last trial and was granted passage. Killing two doppelgangers was no easy feat, but The Lords kept their word and allowed me to progress,” Tokarov brushed a shock of sweaty dark curls from in front of his eyes.


“Our group consisted of twelve originally. We three are the only ones left, the rest were slain by the Bog Wraith at our last trial. Since then we have wandered the catacombs waiting to be called up again,” Alpha turned his iron jaw toward Tokarov, gauging his reaction.


“Has anyone told you what happens if one makes it through the next trial?”


Ego slipped a chuckle, “Some say freedom, others death. Either would be a relief to me. Living underground like a grub worm has worn a hole in my soul.”


Tokarov shot a glance at his new companions; Omega's wry smile seemed out of place. The light from the delivery shaft was glowing ahead in the passage. Boxes and packs of rations were scattered about, their yellow mylar pouches reflected in the light.


“Grab at least enough for a few days, the next shaft is miles away,” Alpha and his crew stuffed their back packs with the meals. Tokarov stacked the food neatly into his main compartment on his ruck sack, taking enough for a week.


“There is a table rock further up the cave, we can stop and eat there,” Alpha pointed into the darkness ahead. Standing around the flat stone, the four pulled off their packs and dug out their meals and utensils. Tokarov pulled a chow set out of his side pocket on his pack. The knife, fork and spoon were locked together, The Lord's crest stamped deep into the metal. Pulling the spoon from the set, he gave thanks and cut a pouch open with his blade. Alpha closed his eyes and bowed his head, invisible words dancing on his lips as he pulled apart a dense slice of white bread. Looking on, Ego's dismissive giggle was cut short by a steely glance from Omega. Tokarov spooned the gruel out of the pouch, mushing it with his teeth.


“There is a safe haven a half mile from here. We were headed there when we found you. Would you care to join us?” Alpha heaved his ruck sack onto his back and looked at the new acquaintance.


“Not sure where I'm headed,” Tokarov decided to follow along for now. He knew of a few safe places in the caverns, finding another would be prudent.


They trudged in silence, the food percolating in their bellies. A split in the path caused the three to veer left to the larger more well traveled passage. Stopping Tokarov looked to the right. A thick powdery spider web draped across the middle of the opening. Undisturbed dirt, like dust blanketed the ground. Squinting it almost looked like a bare footprint had been there from some time ago.


“I'm looking for something, I'm going down the trail less trampled," He dared not mention his mission to find the Sabinarath. Knowing the beast's reputation, saying such could lead to a confrontation.


“Be well brother, maybe we will see you on the other side,” The troupe shuffled off towards safety.


Tokarov pulled his dagger out and cut the web from the entry. Putting his lamp on low, he stepped into darkness. The cave seemed to narrow with each step, until it stopped at a narrow slit. Debating whether to turn around, he noticed a cool breeze brush his cheek. Pulling off his respirator and inhaling, a fresh effervescent earthy scent greeted his nostrils. Squeezing through the gap, he followed his nose. After a few hundred feet the cave widened again, the dry rocky floor gave way to damp clay. Reaching down, he dug in his finger tips and crumbled the soil in his palm.


Picking up his pace, he hoped it was an oasis, a rumored place in the vast caverns that was fed light and moisture through deep cracks in the planets crust. Looking at the walls of the cave, spots of phosphorescent green algae were speckled in clumps. The cavern opened up ahead, a soft blue glow ringing the rocks in a corona. Walking through it, he caught his breath.


Swallows were swirling in circles above him, tittering. The roof of the vast cathedral like opening was cracked in the shape of lightning bolts, the glow of Aerialis, a sun that never set on the surface of Xenoscythe burst through the crevices, shining down on vast carpets of brilliant orange and green moss, dotted with massive ferns. A outcrop of igneous rock jutted over a vast lake the color of polished sapphire gems. The rocks were alive with multitudes of orchids and flowering hanging plants, a plethora of life he had not seen since the Earth had died and been harvested by Xenoscythe Overlords.


Walking over to the edge the water, Tokarov cupped his hands and smelled it, touching it to his lips and tongue. Dumping the putrid contents of his canteen, he dipped it in the water and filled it. Rubbing the fresh water on his filthy face with calloused hands tipped by dirty fingernails, he was suddenly confronted with how he looked gazing into the reflective surface of the water. He hadn't bathed in months, grit and dust ringed the areas on his face around where the respirator lay on his skin.


Afraid it was all a lucid dream, he decided to clean himself and his clothes before he woke up. Even a dream of a bath was better than the endless caverns and rock. Dropping his backpack away from the shore on a sleeping mat, Tokarov endeavored to clean his garments first. Stripping naked he found a sandstone rock to scrub the garrison shirt and breeches. Thrashing them about in the crystal clear water, he marveled at his arms flexing. The scarcity of food had chiseled his frame to muscle and bone. Youth provided mere patches of dark curly body hair. He smiled for the first time in weeks, actually feeling good about himself.


Throwing his clothes over a few woody bushes to dry, the water drew him in for a swim. Standing in waist deep water, his bare feet massaged by tiny pebbles, he watched a serpent swim past. Its triangular head dodged back and forth with a frog in its mouth, wheezing, pierced by the fangs. Diving under the water, he felt the filth of his situation dissolving into the water. Swimming until he couldn't touch with his head above water, he no longer felt imprisoned. He treaded water naked, the cool water splashing and plastering his long dark curls to his skull.


Wiggling a now clean finger tip in his ear canal, he craned his head. The distinct trill of a soprano human voice rippled across the lake. Fearing he might drown like a sailor drawn to the sirens, he swam back to the shore and resolved to use a piece of flint and his blade to burn some driftwood and investigate the sound later when he was dry and dressed. The sound was so ethereal and distant he wasn't sure if it was merely a hallucination.


The fire popped and crackled, the embers curling and dying as thin wisps of smoke wafted into the cave whose cracks had dimmed as the sun Aerialis dipped low to the horizon. Roasting some striped yellow fruit on a stick, it was the only fresh food he had in months. Peeling it, the charred flesh was stringy with pulpy seeds and tasted vaguely of bananas and kiwis.


With a full belly and clean clothes, Tokarov almost felt human again. Real, non-cybernetic humans were near extinction. The Overlords deemed them a threat since they had destroyed the Earth with their nascent technology. Testing their ability to survive with other orphaned aliens led to the Trials of Xenoscythe. If they wanted to prove themselves worthy of survival they had to win in the trials.


Tokarov had no choice but to sleep. The swim drained his energy, he snuggled in his survival blanket, his mind drifted back to the song floating across the lake. He sank like a stone in ether. The insects sawed at the silence lulling him to slumber.


The chirping of birds woke him. Opening his eye it was greeted with a purple iris, ringed in long dark lashes, hovering centimeters from his. Reaching for the dagger under his sleeping mat, he crab walked backward away from the interloper. She giggled at this, putting slender marble fingers over a coy smile.


“Hello, what is your name?” What appeared to be a human female straightened to a languid pose with hands on hips, her angular form was draped in a loose fitting robe. Burgundy curls fell around a face with high cheekbones and full lips.


“I'm Tokarov, who are you?” He pulled on his boots and studied her frame. Breast to hip ratio was near perfect, her shoulders didn't slump and her arms were long with toned muscles.


“Call me Lora Lei,” She reached a hand down and helped Tokarov to his feet.


“I thought I heard singing yesterday. I assume that was you,” He sheathed his blade and tucked it in his belt.


“When I stand naked under the waterfall, something comes over me, crashing in waves through my body. I make sounds when I feel pleasure,” The slow closing of her eyes sent shivers through him.


“Follow me,” She turned and curled an index finger, winking.


Leading him on a trail around the lake, they reached a grove of primordial fruit trees. The sweet scent of blossoms and flowers was intoxicating to a man that had been denied the presence of most living things for months.


“Just pick one. They all taste good in their own unique way.”


Tokarov fondled a pomegranate, slicing the skin with his knife and popping the tart swelled seed pods into his mouth. He grunted in approval.


She trembled when he grunted again, making animal noises as he ate. She looked at her hand and felt the claws aching to grow out. Not yet.


Walking over behind him, she reached down and grabbed him. He swallowed rough and hurled the bitten fruit into the grove, turning and reaching down he clutched her posterior. They could feel the match of their curves collapsing into each other in the proper places. Their mouths intertwined like snakes dancing to death.


Wrapping around each other, she ached as he grinded his muscular frame into hers. The right time never came, she was robbed of her opportunity as he drained them both in a simultaneous wrack of shudders.


She rolled over on the grass next to him and let out a sigh, looking at her hand, realizing she now no longer had the strength to morph into the Sabinarath and devour him. Yet she had his seed, she could harbor it for quite some time. Tokarov stared up at the glowing roof of the cave, hoping he had just ensured the genesis of a future human, not even realizing there had never been a non-altered human with purple eyes, or an oasis on a dead planet.


His thought of self preservation returned, dressing himself he turned to the trail and thought of the trials. Alpha, Omega and Ego were waiting for him at the safe haven.


As he hiked the telepathy of The Overlord cracked his mind, “What of the creature? Did you find it?” The Lord seemed impatient.


“No. I found nothing,” Tokarov had learned to hide things to stay alive.


“This will delay your next trial.”


“So be it.” The good and bad often felt the same these days.


July 17, 2022 05:17

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10 comments

Michał Przywara
20:43 Jul 18, 2022

There's some huge world-building behind this story, but you give us hints of it a piece at a time, so it's never overwhelming and things never bog down. I like the pace. This labyrinth sounds like a prison filled with constant adventure, and violence. I liked Tokarov's running into the others. It was a tense moment, balancing the need for company and information, with the ever present danger of the situation. The Sabinarath was also interesting, a particularly dangerous foe if it can change shape like that. I wonder what the ramifications ...

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Kevin Marlow
01:21 Jul 19, 2022

I definitely left some doors open didn't I. I cut my teeth on fantasy as a teen, if an appropriate prompt comes up I will carry on the tale of Xenoscythe, the prison labyrinth for all the orphans of the universe that destroyed their home planets. Thanks for the insightful commentary.

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Mike Panasitti
03:10 Jul 22, 2022

Is there a place for the orphans to go after they finish their terms on Xenoscythe? What happens after they pass their trials in the prison labyrinth? Will the Sabinarath give birth to a hero that takes up the cause of the universe's orphans? Answers would make fascinating follow-ups.

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Kevin Marlow
03:48 Jul 22, 2022

Thank you for the ideas. I was wondering what keys a Human/Sabinarath hybrid would hold.

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Graham Kinross
14:51 Jul 25, 2022

I like the labyrinth trials and the monster. Felt like a Greek myth mixed with science fiction, like a better version of those maze runner films. It feels like the two of them are going to run into each other again, or the three of them? Also felt like there were hints of the temptation of Adam? Lots of scope for a sequel here so I hope you find a prompt that fits. I want some resolution to the many questions this sets up.

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Tommy Goround
00:58 Jul 27, 2022

clapping

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Mavis Webster
21:11 Jul 23, 2022

Honestly, I normally do not read sci-fi, but the way you painted this elaborate world in the frame of a short story (and took such a unique take on the prompt), was enthralling. I also like Lora Lei's character! :)

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Kevin Marlow
01:04 Jul 24, 2022

Thanks for reading. Trying to blend fantasy and sci-fi seems to be the trend. Pure science feels like chewing on erasers in Chemistry class.

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Mavis Webster
02:54 Jul 29, 2022

"chewing on erasers in Chemistry class" is honestly such a vivid description, haha. And I totally agree! (Though I was never super good at science.) I hope you may expand upon this universe you've crafted or even use the same characters!!

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Chandler Wilson
13:58 Jul 22, 2022

A fascinating tale. It pulled me in immediately. I especially enjoyed the setting descriptions and the beauty of your prose. I believe you left several avenues for future tales. Thanks for sharing.

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