ONE AMONG the clutch of crimson eggs quivered. Stilling his hand from the gel holding back an acidic inundation, He Who Does Not Sleep peered into the crystalline vat.
"Look at this one."
At the sound of his rasping voice, the juvenile mantis at He Who Does Not Sleep's elbow chirped. He skittered along the incubator's edge, his head twisting, his faceted eyes unblinking.
After a second pulse of blood passed through the laboratory's walls, the crackled uncurling of leathery leaves, and the glug of another beast feeding, the lone live egg inside the incubator trembled. Within the crimson skin, a dark curve swirled. The form thrust up and the egg burst. The tip of a yellowed beak pushed through.
While ruddy ooze spread, the mantis darted beneath the cowl of He Who Does Not Sleep and nestled behind his neck.
"You see," whispered He Who Does Not Sleep, "the strong always survive."
With a wiggle and squirm, Slime slipped from the egg's casing. Writhing in the ichors of her birth, she snapped at the smoke coiling into the air and the talons along her underbelly thrashed. The point of her beak struck a neighboring egg and a fresh puddle glistened around the corpse of the weakling spilling out.
Slime wallowed in her brother's juices. She chopped into his limp flesh, devouring her sibling with a crunch and gulp.
He Who Does Not Sleep drew his tongue across his jagged teeth. "Yes, my Slime, feed."
Slime flopped to the next egg, bit through the skin, and slurped the contents down. She suckled on the remains of her kin, one after the other, consuming each until she bulged.
Once fattened, He Who Does Not Sleep reached into the vat and plucked the swollen Slime. Her fluids seared his swallow flesh and she wriggled in his grasp, her talons scratching for purchase.
"Do you suppose she's still hungry?"
The mantis chirped. He cocked his head, his antenna waving.
"Yes," said He Who Does Not Sleep, "so do I."
He peeled back the film on the next vat. The clawed maggots within skittered from his hand when he lowered Slime, creating a cleared ring of packed ash marred with their tracks. Slime rolled on the ochre dust, the dull powder sticking to the amnion coating her body.
Towering over the vat, He Who Does Not Sleep breathed in the stench from his scorched skin and watched Slime wade in the acrid fluid dripping from her pores.
"Now you shall see what she is really made of."
The mantis chirped from his shoulder perch as the maggots approached, drawn by the smell of sullied flesh. Slime hissed, but her warning and the glint on her pointed beak failed to keep the horde at bay.
The maggots gathered and lunged as one.
Slime retreated with a scrape of talons and crinkle of ash, and shoved her pudgy body against the vat's inner wall.
"A fine advance," said He Who Does Not Sleep.
The stream Slime left behind, however, dissolved the maggot's pointed feet. Their screeches raked through the ambient din of heartbeats and gurgles.
He Who Does Not Sleep leaned close while the maggots trampled atop their dead, their quest undaunted by corpses or pain.
Slime's beak flashed. She ripped through exoskeletons and slashed legs, leaving entrails leaking and disembodied claws twitching in dust. One wave after another perished until maggot bodies fenced her in.
The maggots scaled their brethren nonetheless and dove upon her, snouts down, thoraxes shivering.
A final tussle and muffled screech from the frenzied heap preceded a growing hush. The mass quit shifting and after another moment, the pile collapsed.
He Who Does Not Sleep stroked the mantis' head. "Not all are as strong as we'd like."
The mantis chirped and raced around his throat. He Who Does Not Sleep closed his eyes, envisioning the spurt of Slime from her egg, her first feed, her hiss at the outnumbering odds. He shook his head at the loss.
"Perhaps next time."
He reached for the gel to release a flood of acid but again, movement caught his eye and stilled his hand.
The mantis trickled along his arm, his body rigid. He didn't chirp, and the others within their leathery cocoons quieted, leaving the laboratory's pulse the lone sound.
Through the mound of maggots, Slime's beak emerged. She gnawed through the bodies on top of her, crunching their chitin and inhaling the soft meat underneath. With every morsel, her body expanded until she shrugged off the dead and flopped, free, onto the ash.
"See? The strong do survive."
He Who Does Not Sleep gave Slime time to consume the twitching corpses, to tear scales to shreds, to excrete her sizzling ooze over the debris. She had fattened herself ten times over by the time the maggots were nothing but steam and powder, their tracks the sole evidence of anything but her once living within the vat.
The mantis chirped and He Who Does Not Sleep patted his tiny head.
I know, I know. She must have another test."
Cradling the vat, he carried the crystal across the lab, the crunch of molted skin and brittle bones beneath his feet, the hem of his cloak gaining a rubbish trail. As he neared the wall of vines, Slime hissed and the mantis chirped. Others within their cages matched their calls until the leathered leaves vibrated and the crystals chimed. Behind the sealed film and translucent rock, shadows skittered, some throbbed, while others pawed at the sides.
He Who Does Not Sleep perused the menagerie. "Who shall it be?"
The mantis skittered down his arm and quivered on the back of his hand while He Who Does Not Sleep passed his fingers over the leaves. The occupants stirred when his touch neared. Most chattered, flopped forward, and scraped at the air separating them. One, though, threw his armored body against the skin coating of his cocoon.
He Who Does Not Sleep stopped his hand. The mantis turned its head about and He Who Does Not Sleep smiled.
"No sense in being gentle."
He dipped his finger into the pulp alongside the cocoon. The leather-leaf skin parted, releasing the stench of defecation and disease. With Slime tucked under his arm, He Who Does Not Sleep slid out the wooden shelf and pushed back the crystalline lid.
Two sets of jaws snapped and a poisoned tail swung. Heedless to the dual chomp on his forearm and the talon sinking deep into his blistered flesh, He Who Does Not Sleep upended Slime's vat.
Slime hissed during her slid along the sloped crystal. Her slick fluid sped her tumble, and distracted the double-maw of bleached fangs and pointed tail.
He Who Does Not Sleep set the vat aside and loomed over the cocoon where Slime squared off with her next foe, her next meal, her next check of strength.
The mantis crept back to his ear, antenna flicking.
"This one will grow strong," said He Who Does Not Sleep as he rubbed the mantis' head, "she must, for her true test is yet to come."
TITANS TACTICS: THE GAMES BEGIN. Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen A. Magner and Imbalanced Games, LLC.