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This article, Really Big Scary Monsters, contains the following:

Swearing, Adult Content, Drug Use.

Reader discretion is advised.

Once upon a time, Prince Kuriza took his Katchiguri Force to the local IHOR (intergalactic house of ramen) for a spot of lunch. That was the best place he could think of to tell them the bad news because he was literally a child.

“Everyone’s been dying on Planet Kuriza 73 recently… Uncle Icer thinks it’s a good idea if I send you over there to see what’s up. How about it, guys?”

Blue-furred Dhuak and the hairless warrior known as Pukcoläsic were in the middle of a bout of competitive thumb wrestling, cussing each other out, not listening to a word their prince was saying. Kracchus leaned back in his chair, slapping the four-armed feline in the back of the head. That shut them up quick.

“Hey, what was that for?!” Dhuak growled. “I was just about to win!”

“You couldn’t beat me if you trained for one hundred years straight,” Pukco replied arrogantly.

“Oh yeah?! Why don’t we go–”

“Enough,” Kracchus interrupted. “Listen to Prince Kuriza when he speaks to you. Would you like to end up on the executioner’s block again, Pukco?”

The lanky, lithe alien shook his head dispassionately, sniffling.

“As I was saying,” the boy began again in a polite and patient tone, “I would like the four of you to go to Planet Kuriza 73 to check out what’s going on. It may be space pirates… or maybe it’s space real estate agents looking for an easy job. A monster could be eating everybody too, allegedly.” The boy shivered horribly, slurping up his space ramen to calm himself. The bowl steamed up into his face, the soup a brackish yellow color, smelling like fresh plastic. “Gaah… ew!” He spit it all out over the floor. “What the heck is this horrible stuff?! Waiter!”

Aranya eyed the two newest members of her squad again. Dhuak and Pukcoläsic did not like each other. She would have to watch them. In the past, tensions like these had led to officers attempting to take each other out during combat assignments. Considering that Pukcoläsic had been recruited from the Galactrix Arena (where he had been the reigning Premier League Champion who had overthrown the gladiator pitlords to become its errant ruler), she did not know his morals very well. But given that he was a gladiator, and a wildly successful one at that, she did not think much about his capacity for sympathy or compassion.

Dhuak, on the other hand, was a vicious warrior who had served Lord Cooler back in the day. It was rare for Heolik to have blue fur–white fur was more common, and she had even met one with black fur before. But never this color. Apparently, he was more feral than most of those creatures, all of whom had to be nurtured off-world in order to serve in the galactic army, lest they develop a tolerance for their planet’s icy cold liquid oxygen sea (it was unlikely that any Heolik who grew accustomed to their homeworld’s frigid cold could ever be transported off-world afterwards).

Both were recent recruits, and they had only been on one or two missions together so far. Nothing major, either. This would be a good experience for all of them, she knew, looking down at her own paws, striped aqua and black. Her fur was a lighter shade of blue than Dhuak’s, yet she felt no sense of kinship with the brute.

There were no waiters to be found in that run-down shop. Stains on the carpet, mold on the ceiling, a few holes in the walls (covered by pictures of past managers and famous people who had eaten there), the decrepit old restaurant chilled Aranya to her bones in its bleakness.

The boy was retching on the floor, while Kracchus, with his grey-white fur and pronounced muscles giving him an ancient, godly appearance, stood over the poor boy, his arms folded, scowling at the unmanned register across the room.

“Let’s destroy this place and get it over with, my lord.”

“N-no…! I want a refund!” the boy hacked, his shoulders shaking.

Standing, Aranya noticed that no one had ordered any food save for the boy. Kracchus had ordered a cup of now-melting ice, while Dhuak and Pukco had each ordered two shots of synthetic Nyarin Gin. Their shot glasses were empty, she noticed, unsurprised.

Kicking open the door, Aranya the Nyarin made her way into the IHOR kitchen. There was an egg-headed quivering beast lurking inside, stirring a big pot of broth. When he saw her, he squeaked and tried to flee. She pinned him to the ground in a flash.

“Careful now. Running away won’t solve your problems.”

“L-lemme go, I didn’t do anything!” he cried out, his voice muffled against the dirty metal floor. He shat himself.

“Prince Kuriza wants a refund for his meal.”

“Wh-why…?! That was good ramen, that was g–”

She snapped his neck without a second thought, standing up. No one else was around. The one who had been manning the register beforehand, a green-skinned and hairless Jolean, was probably on lunch break. She returned to the register, ripped it open, and took out precisely twenty-two space woolongs–just enough to pay for the prince’s meal.

He was sobbing in Kracchus’ arms when she returned. “I-I-I wanted a nice lunch, a treat, a real tasty meal!” Kuriza pouted. “Take me somewhere else! Where’s the nearest Sonikku?! My belly’s rumblin’ bad!”

“We have to get going, my lord. Are we not needed on Planet Kuriza 73?”

“Oh, right. Yes, yes… Good. My apologies, Aranya. Please… all of you, go. You too, Kracchus. Lingon will take me somewhere else,” the boy said with grace, jumping from her second-in-command’s arms to the ground, his tail flopping about excitedly.

“What should we expect to find there?” she asked the boy who had saved her life, who had given her back her sight, who had restored her honor.

“Death, and monsters. Governor Nippi sent the report to me last night. Nearly everyone’s dead. You must find out why.”

“Is it really a monster?”

The boy shrugged, not looking at them, wiping away his tears. She knew his mind was on the parking lot outside, where Lingon, Kuriza’s bodyguard, was watching over their space pods. “I don’t know, I don’t know! Whatever it is, find it, kill it, and make it stop! I want that planet restored to its previous state! It was producing food for me… for the empire. It’s important! We have to return it to proper operational capacity, do you understand me?”

“Yes, my lord,” they answered.

He drew himself up very regally then. Though Kuriza’s eyes were red and wet, he nonetheless looked kingly to Aranya’s artificial eyes. “Go now, my Katchiguri Force. Save that planet, or something!”

“I’m Nippi, and that’s Punbry,” the governor said, greeting them enthusiastically on the abandoned, dusty landing pad. “Welcome to Planet Kuriza 73, Captain!”

Aranya wanted to be professional, so she merely replied, “What’s been the trouble here, governor? We’ve had reports–”

The space-badger with the mangy red fur quipped, “Down by the bubbly!”

Bounding off down the road, he left them alone with the red-skinned governor with the white hair and broken nose. “Sorry about Punbry, he doesn’t get out much.”

“What’s the bubbly?” Kracchus asked impatiently.

“Oh, it’s the freshwater lake located just south of the outpost. Been bubblin’ up recently, so that’s why we started calling it that.”

Dhuak clicked his tongue, stepping in front of Aranya to address the man. “Show us.”

She tried not to lose her cool. The governor led them all down to the shore, which indeed looked like any other beach. The planet was mostly a desert, but the oasis that had formed around the bubbling lake was not much of a surprise. Crimson-leafed trees sprouted up around the water’s edge, and the outpost, though of modest size, appeared to be completely abandoned. Aranya was struck by the fact that there were no visible signs of wildlife, let alone of other soldiers.

“Where is everyone?”

“Eaten up, every last one!” Punbry tittered as he sat on the edge of the shore, throwing rocks into the lake. “It just started happening… people disappearing at night, ahah!” he laughed madly. The space-badger was also not particularly adept at skipping rocks, she thought.

“Used to be more than two thousand soldiers garrisoned in town. Now we’re all that’s left,” Nippi said, pulling a bottle of liquor out from under his cape. “Punbry and I had an election just last night to determine the new governor. I don’t want to be capricious, but I did win in a landslide. Heh, you guys want any?” he asked, offering the bottle to the Katchiguri Force.

Dhuak grabbed it first, taking a long swig from it before passing it to Kracchus. The older officer scoffed and passed it on to her. Aranya took a moderate swig herself, in spite of everything, before handing it to Pukcoläsic, who downed the rest of the bottle in a single swallow.

“That’s good,” Dhuak murmured, exhaling in a hard cough. “Ah… my nose is purified. I feel reborn! That’s real good. What is it?”

“Pisswater rum,” Pukco shot back. “Too weak, too flavorless. I’ve had a lot better than this. The Galactrix Arena offered much finer spirits to their champions.” He dropped the bottle in the sand.

“That’s Dalon’s Curse,” the governor hiccuped. “A tad common, you’re right, but it beats nothing.”

“Damn right, you’s right, you’s always right, baby,” Punbry sang. “Baby, why’s you never wrong?”

She flushed, and feeling heat growing from beneath her fur, Aranya shivered. Her artificial eyes itched, and her throat burned. She could not believe that Pukco had managed to down half a bottle without so much as coughing. His eyes weren’t even watering. She exchanged a look with Kracchus.

“So anyways, as you can see, the water’s bubbling,” the governor said, pointing to the lake, just off the shore, where a stream of bubbles was seemingly rising up from deep below. “It goes down far. Three feet in and it’s more than a mile deep.”

“Not a natural lake?” Kracchus asked.

“Who the hell knows?”

“I knows, I knows, I seen it!” Punbry cackled, lobbing another piece of stone far into the lake, beyond the bubbles. “Comes out late at night, draggin’ em in kickin’ and screamin’ till it paralyzes them. Ooh, that’s the sad part. They don’t feel no pain no more after that. Shame. Shame, innit?”

The space-badger was picking his nose brazenly.

“No power level readings coming from down there,” Aranya murmured, performing a scan with her scouter. “Have you ever recorded a power level of this supposed monster?”

“Monster?” the governor asked, puzzled. “What monster?”

“The one that ate all of your comrades. The one you were panicking about, begging Lord Kuriza to send us here to deal with.”

“Oh, yeah, that one. Almost forgot. Yeah, that one’s a bitch. He’s here, alright. But he disappears… dunno where he goes. He goes out in flashes. Never know when he’ll be back.”

“And you think this is tied to the bubbling, somehow?”

“Oh, no. We just love to come down to the bubbly. It’s the only scenic spot in this Frieza-forsaken place.

Kracchus cracked his knuckles. It was swelteringly hot out, but a moderate wind was blowing. His fur was standing on end, but Aranya couldn’t tell if that was because of the wind or not. It was not humid, at least. Still, it was so hot. She suddenly envied Pukco’s hairless, ripped body. “What was your rank before you became governor, Nippi?”

“Private Second Class, sir!”

Dhuak snorted. “Got anymore Curse?”

“I thought you’d never ask, Heoli.”

Another bottle was passed around. This time, Aranya did not partake. Dhuak took a bigger swallow; Pukcoläsic took a smaller one. The governor and Punbry each had a long swallow themselves. She wondered vaguely if perhaps there was no monster at all. Could not everything that had happened be merely a result of the drunken antics of a incompetent garrison of overly-bored aliens?

That was a foolish assumption, for just then, the lake’s surface broke when a spire of rocketing water flew up into the air in a rushing gush of foam and steam. Punbry screamed and scampered off on all fours. The monster landed with a slimy thud in the place the space-badger had been sitting.

“Aw, fuck! Oh shit, oh mercy, oh bless you, Katchiguri, bless ya laddies!” the governor sobbed, dropping the empty bottle and stumbling back, attempting to run. He tripped on his cape and fell onto the bottle, shattering it against his head. Shouting out, bleeding, writhing in pain, Nippi became nothing to them. They had their foe standing before them now, and that was everything.

Its power was off the charts. They all wisely turned off their scouters except for Pukcoläsic, who, unfamiliar with such devices, let his overheat trying to read the beast’s power until it exploded against his ear. Those things weren’t cheap, so Aranya was moderately annoyed by his recklessness.

“Oy, who’re you?” Dhuak sneered.

The monster was vaguely bipedal, twelve feet tall, eyeless, pale, smooth-faced, with slits for a nose, thin pointed ears, and web fingers and toes. It even possessed what looked like vestigial wings. Its mouth split open like a pinkish sore, and it was groaning deeply and somberly. Its pale skin was partially scaled, but mostly smooth, save for the scars that dotted its face and body like half-attempted tattoos. Indeed, so scarred was the beast that half of its chin had been cut off, the wound having healed poorly to create a misshapen look for the creature. It had six fingers and six toes apiece. And so too did it possess a tail, long and slimy, wriggling about in the sand like sunburnt one-eyed snake.

“Power’s above 300,000,” Pukco alerted them. “Careful now, everyone. Dhuak especially–”

“You little sh–”

“Quiet!” Aranya snapped. “Focus!”

“Kill it! Kill it! Burn it with fire!” the governor screamed. “I want that thing gone! It must go! It must burn, yes! Burn it to ash! Burn it to a crisp! Burn it up!” he cried, pulling a third bottle of Dalon’s Curse out from under his gold and white armor. As he tore the cork out with his teeth and began to drink deeply from the indigo bottle, a pillar of white energy exploded from the sands below him, rushing up as the geyser of water had.

Before he had time to remove his lips from the bottle and scream, the governor was vaporized.

“So that’s how it’s going to be?” Kracchus asked, cracking his neck and stepping forward.

The creature cocked its head to the side. It could not see them. That sent a shiver down Aranya’s spine. At the same time, a sense of pride and patriotism welled up in her. Lord Kuriza had trusted them to this task–he had trusted her to lead his Katchiguri Force. She would not fail him.

“Lord Kuriza has sentenced you to death!” Aranya snarled. “You’ve killed everyone stationed here, haven’t you?”

The beast shuffled on its webbed feet, sloshing in the muddy sand. It beat its chest and roared, spitting acid at them. They dodged, all of them at once, and yet as they did, four pillars of energy shot up below them. Again, the four soldiers dodged this petty attack. Taking to the air, they surrounded the creature from above.

Pukcoläsic, the Premier League Champion, was without fear. He moved gracefully, and his personality was just as cool. Dhuak, half-drunk and seething with bloodlust, nonetheless kept his head. Kracchus, the veteran warrior, was unphased. He folded his arms, staring down at the beast disrespectfully. No doubt all of them had fought foes stronger than this one before… and yet…

Aranya closed her eyes and saw only the psychotic Surgeon facing off against her and Vegeta. They had thrown all they could against him, and in one flick of his wrist, he had made her eyes explode. Her lip quivered. Since that day, she had faced very few foes in open combat. The Arcosian boy, bless his heart, had trained her, had made her strong, had toughened her up… but she lacked the real-world experience that her comrades had.

It was a mistake to have made her their captain, she knew. Or was it? Was Kuriza really dumb enough to put the least-experienced in charge? Would he not have realized that? He made her their captain anyways. A tingly, burning feeling was spreading in her veins like corruption.

The sound of them popping echoed endlessly in her ears against her will. She swallowed, letting the pain and shame and fear wash over her. These were merely thoughts. She was not beholden to her thoughts. Aranya was in control of her spirit and body.

Everything washed over her in a shivering heat and then was gone. In the emptiness, she felt the excitement of potential tingling in her fingertips. “Now,” she nodded to her team.

The beast croaked and jumped at them, swinging a deformed tentacle claw at her. But Aranya was already rushing it, having left her terror behind in tatters.

There was no reasoning with it, no talking things out, no negotiating or getting to know it. They were here to put this beast down, whatever it was, at whatever cost. None of them had a merciful bone in their bodies. Her comrades had always been like that, she suspected.

Dhuak had gained a reputation as one of Lord Cooler’s most fearsome hunters, liable to not only clear a planet of all life in a matter of hours, but to feast upon the bones of his prey after having reduced them to piles of bloody meat for no other reason than he wanted to.

Pukcoläsic had grown up in the fighting pits of the Galactrix Arena. He had had no choice but to be decisive and merciless, lest one of his foes attempt to trick him in a dishonorable way, leading to his death. He had never been beaten. Of all the cruel and dangerous aliens who had fought in the arena’s various leagues, he alone had risen to the top, had held his spot, and had never faltered. Such results required a certain mode of thinking.

Kracchus too was like this. Everyone knew of the story of how he had saved Prince Kuriza from space-badgers during the Nikkarin War, how he had destroyed their king by causing his stomach to explode, how he had hunted down every last vermin until Frieza’s palace was safe again for his son to live in. He had stopped rebellions on his own, ended pirate princes’ dreams, eaten the beating hearts of those who had dared to stand up to the Planet Trade Organization, if the stories were to be believed.

And who was she? A Nyarin girl, previously the sparring partner of Vegeta, chosen only after her brother had been killed while in service with the Saiyan boy. And on her first real mission, she had failed. The Surgeon had taken her eyes, and Vegeta had been forced to fight him alone. Of course the Saiyan had won, shaming her further. Who had she fought since then? All she had managed to do was make Prince Kuriza bleed a few times while sparring, yet she suspected that most of the time, that was because he had taken pity on her and thrown the matches.

The monster looked pretty messed up. It was damaged and grotesque and not altogether natural in appearance. None of that mattered. They weren’t about to ask it to recount its life story. They were just there to kill it. That’s what the Katchiguri Force did.

It came for them. The four of them closed in on at once. Its lunging claw strike barely missed Aranya. That was when Pukcoläsic appeared behind it, releasing four sonic boom attacks that throttled the creature high into the air. It twisted in midair, spitting acid at the tall yellow alien. He vanished, and Dhuak came down from above with a backflip kick, followed up by a teleport deep gut punch from which he released a ball of black energy into the beast’s belly.

Eyeless, its scarred mouth split open in a grunt of pain. Tendrils and tentacles shot out of its skin, around its jaw, shoulders, and back, and as this happened, a wave of acid energy exploded outwards. They were forced to flee or dodge, and in that moment, the creature was on Dhuak, elbowing him hard in the face before claw-swiping him into a crater below.

That was when Kracchus attacked it with an energy blade in either hand. His body split into three forms, all surrounding the creature. Undeterred, the monster spun about, its claws thrust out. Its acceleration caught the old warrior off guard, and he was thrown back, his afterimages shattering to falling sparks of light.

It jumped on him, its tentacles latching onto his neck and chest. Crying out in pain, Kracchus struggled to break free as Pukcoläsic again came at the creature, battering it from behind with a series of kicks and punches in a sequence as elegant as a water dancer’s movements.

It let go, growling, turning around, and was kicked in the back of the skull by Kracchus. Though his fur was burnt black where the beast’s tentacles had touched him, his frown had grown into a grimace, his teeth bared, and his speed had grown as well. They truly had no idea how strong this monster was, but that didn’t matter. There was no time for fear.

Catching its claw, Pukcoläsic used his free hand to gut punch the creature several times in a row while Kracchus charged up an energy attack from behind. As the wretched thing fought riotously to break free, suddenly the gladiator disappeared. It went to face its remaining foe when the monster was blasted in the face by a blue-white Truefire attack.

It was her turn now. She swallowed, watching the monster fly towards her. Her attack was already ready, the energy warming up her fingertips. As it came flying like a lifeless corpse towards her, Aranya peppered the beast with a slew of purple finger beams that all homed in on its heart and face. She was somewhat annoyed by the fact that it didn’t have eyes–for if it had, they would now be gone.

Blood and flesh flew into the air as the creature let out a roar of sheer agony. Catching itself in the air, dripping blood black as night, it swung its claw amateurishly at her. She blocked the first attack and kneed it in the chin, jumping over it as it swung wildly again, missing her hard. Pukcoläsic reappeared in front of it, gut-kicking it, spinning around it, wrapping his leg around its leg while she unleashed a torrid tempest of energy on the beast’s back.

Light flashed, flesh tore, the smell of blood was in the air. She felt very warm, and not just because the planet was a miserable desert. It was as if she were whole again. She hardly noticed her eyes scratching against her sockets.

With a roar, Kracchus came down upon the beast’s head, cracking it open, sending another spurt of blood into the air. It sailed brutally to the ground, and this time did not move from its crater next to Dhuak.

“Excellent work, you two,” she smiled, catching her breath. “That was some nifty teamwork we employed.”

Pukcoläsic rubbed his nose, looking away. “Not bad.”

“It’s not dead yet,” Kracchus said, grimacing as he gingerly felt his burnt chest. “Shall I finish it, Captain?”

“I think Dhuak’s one step ahead of you, look!”

Below, the blue-furred Heoli had stumbled out of his crater, making his way over to the bleeding, incapacitated beast. Though it wriggled and growled, it did not so much as lift its head as he approached it.

“Oy, didja kill it, mate? Yeah? Yeah?!” Punbry asked, poking his head out from behind a rock. He sounded very drunk, and indeed, he was holding a half-full bottle of some substance.

“It’s as good as dead,” Dhuak replied, walking past the spasming monster to the space-badger and snatching the bottle from his grip. “Lot of help you were, little craven bastard.”

“H-hey, I’m alive, eh?! That makes me the governor!”

“Fat chance. Lord Kuriza’ll know all about what you did here… there ain’t a promotion in your future, you cowardly little rat.”

He took a deep swig, finishing off the bottle.

“That’s not nice! That’s not nice at all! Here I am givin’ ya the last of my space whiskey fer nothin’, and that’s what you hafta say to me? I swears, I swears, no good people left in the universe. Not since my buddies Kroko and Tanobari the Tuberculosis Machine were eaten up!”

“Are you even a real soldier? You seem to be kind of feral,” the Heoli responded bitterly. “Bet you got marooned here after hitching a ride on a ship, the vermin you are–”

“Dhuak, look out!” Aranya screamed, but it was too late.

The monster had risen and reached them. Dripping acid from its bleeding mouth, it swiped the Heoli hunter aside, sending him flying face-first into a rock. Setting its sights on Punbry, the beast lunged. The space-badger tried to flee, but he wasn’t fast enough. Caught in its mouth, Punbry was covered in a layer of acid that sizzled and popped, making the air reek of burning fur.

Yet, before the creature could swallow Punbry whole, Pukcoläsic teleported behind it and came down upon its shoulders with a flying kick. The beast staggered, spitting up its meal, and went to attack when Kracchus appeared on the other side of it and blasted it with another Truefire attack, this time hitting it so hard that its tentacles were blown off in bloody bits and pieces. Howling, the monster swung its claws at them wildly for two or three more seconds, the two merely dodging it as it attempted to get them good.

Then, without warning, the monster collapsed, smoke rising from its body, and it did not move again.

She landed, scanning the creature again with her scouter. “No power level coming from it,” she observed. “Excellent work, you two. It’s dead!”

“What about that space-badger?” Kracchus sighed. “Where’d he…?”

But that was when they saw it. Punbry’s body glowed a sickly greenish-black, coated in the monster’s acid. He was still alive, and he was standing opposite them, his shoulders thrust forward, his head down, acid dripping to the sand, instantly rendering it to glass wherever it landed.

“Punbry?” she asked, hesitantly, stepping forward. “Hey… are you okay? Do you need us to take you to a rejuvenation tank?”

“His power level’s spiking,” Kracchus warned.

“Just great… I’ve seen this before,” Pukco lamented. “This is really no fair. This is game over man, game over!”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look… his eyes are rolled back in his head… his stance has changed. It’s all wrong. He’s not there. That’s not the same space-badger as before. He’s about to–”

And that was when he grew to be around fifty feet tall in the blink of an eye. The space-badger groaned long and low, as if exhaling under pressure, as his fur flew out, his body sprouted abnormal, asymmetrical growths, and his bones split and snapped and amended themselves into new shapes and positions. His knees buckled; his shins splintered; his legs now bent in the opposite direction from before. Tentacles sprouted on his back, throat, upper chest, and face. All of his fur was gone. So too did tentacles grow out of his eyes. Punbry screamed like one who was dying, like one who had given up all hope, as his eyes were taken from him.

Aranya shivered involuntarily.

“Dhuak, you good?!”

“Yeah, I’m here,” the Heoli murmured, sitting up, rubbing his forehead. There was a clear purplish sore just above his left eye from where he had made contact with that last rock. “Let’s end this thing, alright?”

“Sounds good to me.”

Aranya nodded. “Yes. Surround it! Quickly!”

They were into the air again. She could feel her heartbeat rising, could feel her palms slicking over with sweat. She had to calm herself. Aranya was stronger than this creature. They all were. It was just a space-badger. It was big and scary-looking, but it was their job to kill things that looked like that. What was she afraid of anyways? Of failing? She had already failed big time.

Prince Kuriza had given her new eyes. She could see again.

The corpse leaked black blood on the beach. Its offspring trembled and shrieked uncertainly, its voice low and terrible enough to make the outpost’s buildings shake. Like its father, the monster was normally slow, but deceptively quick when it wanted to be. It swung its claws this way and that. Tentacles and tumors now covered what had once been the furry paws of a space-badger. The four of them dodged through the air. As it focused on Kracchus and Pukco, Aranya and Dhuak assaulted it from behind, the Heoli coming in with a ki-armored fist, punching it so hard in the back of the head that his energy exploded, sending the monster to a knee as it attempted to swat them from the air.

Tentacles waved about. She blew through them with precision and determination. It was coming easier now. This was nothing she should fear.

The corrupted space-badger vomited a putrid mouth beam at them, arcing it around in a circle, wiping out half of the outpost in the process. They all managed to dodge through the air with little trouble at first. But the lethargic attack finally homed in on Pukcoläsic, who descended to the ground, raising a milky white shield around his body.

“Do it now!” he shouted to them. “I’ll hold it back!”

The space-badger’s concentrated attack was heating up their comrade’s energy bubble, causing it to turn a worrisome pink color, but there was no time to fear for Pukco’s safety. They had to be decisive, had to act without thinking. They had jobs to do. Now was not the time to second-guess his strategy.

Grunting from between her teeth, Aranya gathered up what energy she could into a bright indigo Ahsan Ball. Her fingertips tingled and tickled; her heart fluttered, taking her breath away. Dhuak’s beam was emerald green, shining in the desert sunlight. Kracchus’ own attack was a split beam of white energy. Together, they threw their attacks with shouts and jeers, sending spit flying in an all-encompassing emotional release, cathartic as tears.

The creature noticed and stepped back, relieving Pukco of the barrage. Swatting aside her ball and Kracchus’ energy beam, it moved to block Dhuak’s attack when the gladiator did what he had always done: finish the fight. She had to admire his ruthlessness and speed. Dashing off straight at the creature’s throat, he created a light beam that appeared to glitch out of reality momentarily before reappearing behind the space-badger’s engorged, infected head. A moment later, the beast staggered back, vomiting black bile, as the hole left in its neck was now visible to all of them. Pukco’s attack had nearly decapitated the beast.

Then, Dhuak’s attack slammed into its head, sending it stumbling towards her. Gritting her teeth, Aranya closed her eyes and found her energy, which had been sailing off into the sky to be lost forever. Focusing, she regained control of it, flicking her wrist exactly how Kuriza had taught her to, and brought her Ahsan Ball back down upon the giant monster’s head from behind.

Energy exploded roughly. Boiling blood sprayed up and out, and a thick, low, pained groan nearly deafened them.

Nevertheless, it was over in a second. The giant space-badger’s head was charred black, massive chunks missing from his skull just behind the ear and above the eye. Swinging blindly, the creature took two steps forward, and then fell into the lake, sinking out of sight within a breath.

“Precise,” Pukco whispered, rubbing his nose as he looked up at Dhuak, who was hovering above him, a little to Aranya’s right.

“You served as an ideal distraction,” the Heoli responded, grinning half-drunkenly. “I always like it when the shield can function as a sword when pressed.”

“It’s over,” Kracchus stated simply, sweeping the planet again with his scouter just to be thorough. “Captain, contact Lord Kuriza and relay to him the good news and the bad news. We rooted out the evil that was plaguing this world, but a new garrison must be sent here at once to resume previous operations. There were no survivors, after all.”

“Oh yeah… you’re right. Yeah, I’ll do it Kracchus, don’t worry. Thanks for reminding me.” She too was smiling broadly. This heat… this heat she felt so strongly in her veins was not due to the Curse. Aranya had gotten drunk countless times before–countless times since life had soured for her. She knew that feeling well. This was something entirely different. The heat rising in her chest now was a more primal sensation, one she hadn’t experienced since before her brother’s death.

Let it go, you bitter, sad fool, you silly, naïve girl. Your emotions do not control you. They cannot–they will not. You are the captain of the Katchiguri Force. He believes in you. You should too.

The Nyarin swallowed hard, pulling up Lord Kuriza on her scouter’s contacts menu. It was true that the team had successfully completed a handful of missions already–this was not exactly the first time they had been sent out on a combat assignment together. Still, up until now, they had never faced such powerful and daunting foes, nor had they been forced to work together in the midst of battle. She believed in them now–they believed in her now. Pukcoläsic and Dhuak were not going to try to kill one another, she knew. Kracchus had her back. And Aranya could hold her own, too.

She was suited to be their captain after all. The realization sent a flush of emotions down her spine and up her cheeks, enough to make her beam again, despite everything. She choked back tears and took a deep breath. It’s just like Lord Kuriza thought… he knew it all along, even when I didn’t… even when I didn’t have the courage to believe in myself. Now we all know, she thought, and in that thought, Aranya knew the Katchiguri Force had truly been born.

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