The Arena shook. Locke cast about from his perch at the head of his slavering orc army, the lights from their Jack-Hats beeping in steady rhythm as they marched, but even from atop C.A.G.E.’s massive shoulders he was unable to see anything threatening. Well, nothing beyond the hordes of flaming candle golems they were currently wading through. Locke filed the tremors away under “Junk to deal with later.” For now, the young gnoll had a tournament to win. A wicked grin split his face as the hot air from a thousand flames ruffled his fur, and he set his Zap-Trap to “Crackle and Pop.”
“So many candles to blow out,” Locke said brightly. “It must be my birthday!” A dozen small candlekin hopped at C.A.G.E.’s feet, shaking their fists and kicking ineffectually at his shins. Their tiny, waxen fingers tried to pull at the robot’s wiring, but unable to reach through his heavy plate, there was little the candlekin could do besides singe the occasional orcish toe and track the two of them with beady little coal-like eyes. C.A.G.E. half-heartedly stepped on a few, leaving a pile of waxen footprints and some smoldering wicks in his wake, but for the most part he ignored them.
“But it is NOT your BIRTHDAY, Locke.” C.A.G.E.’s voice crackled like an old radio sliding in and out of tune. “Your BIRTHDAY is 127 cycles FROM now.” He reached up with one massive metal hand and gently booped Locke on the nose. His skull-like grin rattled suspiciously like laughter. “I remember.”
Locke made a face and tossed the Zap-Trap into the outstretched hands of a medium-sized candlekin. Bolts of unrestrained energy rippled along its length, and with a high-pitched squeak the candlekin exploded, scattering white wax everywhere.
“When we are done here, remind me to build you a new sense of humor,” Locke muttered, sourly wiping the sticky wax that flecked his goggles with an oil-cloth. “This one suck—”
The sky fractured like lightning made from shattered glass, and a wave of force rippled through the air, making C.A.G.E.’s iron frame sing and Locke’s teeth ache. Everything slowed for a moment, as if a giant had thrown a stone into the smooth waters of reality, and a massive, inky-black portal rippled through the air right in front of them.
Incandescent tentacles sheathed in black flesh burst from the portal, grabbing orcs and candlekin alike. Strange, alien bones shone through the flesh, flickering in a mad rainbow of color. C.A.G.E. jumped back to avoid the thrashing limbs, and the sudden movement caused Locke to lose his balance with a startled yip.
He tumbled from C.A.G.E.’s back, nearly smacking his snout on the cold arena floor, but luckily his Catch-All deployed its tiny clockwork arms and broke his fall inches from the blood-soaked ice. Some of the smaller candlekin moved in, but the Catch-All launched Locke back onto his feet before folding itself neatly into one of his many pockets. Locke slapped his wrist, quickly powering up his Electroclaw with an ominously high-pitched whine, and the few candlekin who got too close fell back with weeping, oozing gashes down their fronts.
“What the heck was that!?” Locke spun, trying to get a better look, but as quickly as it came, the portal and its inhabitants had vanished.
“The ARENA is full of TRAPS,” C.A.G.E. buzzed. “Perhaps this IS another ONE?”
“I mean, it’s possible,” Locke mused, stabbing an errant candlekin in the eyes. “I wonder how they work?” He grabbed a piece of his work leathers with his mouth and pulled, scribbling furious notes on his sleeve. “Still,” he mumbled, “we should fall back for now. Whatever that was, it did a number on our front line.” He tucked his stylus back into his many pockets and spat out the rest of his sleeve. “We are exposed.”
“Lumos’ light uncovers all, cur.” A fiery blonde in red and gold blazed at the far end of the arena. Her hair floated in the updraft from her candle army, cradling her face like a halo, and her voice cut through the battlefield like a clarion call. “You shall not hide so easily!”
The Scion raised her flaming staff aloft, pointing at Locke with its eerie, red-flamed candelabra, and a musical roar split the heavens. The dragon Lyvaanth, like a burning cathedral, wheeled through the stormy clouds above. Burning wax dripped from her wings and a crown of blazing candles ringed her golden horns, their flames sure even in the whipping wind. With a deep cry that was half smoke, half pipe-organ, Lyvaanth plunged to the ground.
Ice and orcs fractured at the impact. Steam rose, a hissing counterpoint to the delicate chime of Lyvaanth’s scales as she drew herself upright. Locke looked on in horror, frozen in place, as the great wyrm towered above him. All around her, candlekin grew larger and more zealous. She closed her eyes, as if in prayer. Then, like a cobra, she reared back, spitting fire and death at the little gnoll.
Ah. I really should have invested more in fire suppressants. Locke thought, closing his eyes. I’m sorry, Father.
But instead of melting flesh, Locke felt a warm metal hand on his shoulder. “Run,” C.A.G.E. said softly, and with mechanical precision, shoved Locke behind him. “Succeed.”
C.A.G.E. grinned defiantly up at the blast as it engulfed him. Iron bubbled and cracked, his joints twisting and fusing as his armor sloughed off in a pile of molten metal. Alarms rang in his frame as the flames rolled off him, shunted to either side of Locke’s cowering form. Sparks showered from his wiring, and the ruby lights that flickered in C.A.G.E.’s skull flickered once, twice, and then out.
“C.A.G.E.!” Locke howled, tears streaming down his face. He nearly looked back, but the intense heat and his friend’s last words forced him away from the blaze. He ran, coughing up smoke and a sorrow that he couldn’t even begin to put into words. “Everyone, fall back!”
He ran, and he seethed. If they want fire, I will bring them fire. White-knuckled, Locke’s claws dug painful scratches into his palms. I will watch them all burn.
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