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I swung my flashlight into the depth of the room. My breath puffed out in wispy clouds.

Something stirred in the back of the room. Something huge.

Panic struck me as I glanced down at the corpse in front of me. Punctured skull… burn marks, limbs torn… Just like the corpses in the central chamber. What did that remind me of?

I stumbled back over something as I inched my way out of the room and fell onto my rear. A white flake of organic material gently landed on my arm from above, and with wide eyes I jerked my flashlight to the ceiling. Attached to the ceiling were the dry, open remains of a massive cocoon-like skin, something shed by a monstrous creature during metamorphoses. Something that preferred the cool caves to the hot surface of the planet.

Two yellow eyes glowed in the shadows. The thing exhaled, and crawled toward me, hanging from the ceiling, stretching its limbs casually. It had been sleeping, but no longer. The eyes were positioned on either side of a long, sharp beak. Antennae-like whiskers shot out from its face. Boned horns jutted from its head, back, and limbs. It had jagged, curved claws, and a spiked spine. Its tail hovered behind it, and began to faintly pulse along with the creature’s spine with an orange glow. It was impossible to get a grasp of the thing’s shape, as its skin convulsed with each audible heartbeat. And I knew without question what it was.

It was a myrok. The apex predator of Malum. It was what had killed everyone here so long ago. And now its eyes were on me.

Just go! No time

I tried to warn K, but was cut off. Pain exploded from my wrist as a beam of searing orange light shot from its tail. My holo-gauntlet sparked out; it was utterly destroyed, the emitter on my wrist was no more than scrap metal now. I clutched my scorched wrist to my chest as I scrambled to my feet, and the myrok opened its beak wide enough to swallow me whole, howling. Its cry was both deep and screeching, and shook me to my core. The deafening sound echoed through the cavern. Its eyes were murderous.

I had no scanner, no light, and no way to contact anyone.

I bolted down the hall in pitch darkness. I was sweating profusely. I didn’t dare stop to look back, but I could hear the clicking of its claws as it crawled after me like a spider.

I couldn’t see anything. I traced my hand on the edge of the wall to give myself some orientation. Then my foot found nothing but air.

Helplessly, I yelped as I tumbled into the abyss. I hit something hard, and rolled. I was getting bruised all over as I tripped down a set of ancient stairs.

I crashed onto my back, and saw the myrok crest the top of the stairs by the faint glow of its tail. The tail got brighter. It was about to fire. I thought of the skull with its hair burnt off.

I willed my protesting muscles to move. A flash of light and heat grazed me, but I was fine. For the moment, at least.

I withdrew the pistol with my uninjured hand as I sprinted down the hall. It whined to life, and I began charging an energy bolt. The faint red glow began to increase in intensity, giving me barely enough light to see where I was stepping. The myrok clicked its claws on the walls after me.

After a few moments, my gun was going to burst. I swung my arm back, and looked over my shoulder. Thankfully, the myrok was a big target. I fired, and managed to hit the side of its face!

Smoke cleared, and it continued after me. It didn’t even slow down.

My foot caught on a stone, and I fell to the ground. The myrok closed the gap between us within seconds, and skittered to the floor. It reared its head up, beak closed to a spear point. It was going to skewer me with one strike.

I’m going to die, I thought, as I lay there, frozen. And Duhrnan will never be stopped. In that moment, I felt more frustrated than anything. After all that work, this was how it would end? I was too shocked to feel anything other than disappointment.

K disagreed. She shouted, and her sword flew threw the air. The myrok gurgled, and fell on its side, limbs flailing. K’s sword stuck out from its back, deeply lodged between bony spikes. Our eyes met, and I was brought back to my senses.

“Osax!” She cried. She sprinted past the myrok, who was already beginning to rise, and picked me up, shouldering me with one arm. I coughed as she sped us both down the hall, glancing down periodically at her holo-gauntlet, which displayed Jonathan’s position, and had just been tracking mine. My nostrils filled with the scent of sweat. I pressed my hands against her shoulder, relieving some of the pressure from my stomach against her spikes.

“You’re not with Jonathan!” I said.

She leaped over a wide crevice in the floor, and I was jostled when she landed. I heard her say, “Yeah, you’re welcome!”

She slid to a halt, and spun around, propping me on the ground. We shared a quick glance, and I couldn’t help but lift my ears. Sure, we weren’t out of danger yet, but my friend was back, and she’d just saved my life.

The myrok rounded the corner, and K kept her flashlight on it. She bent over and retrieved a large segment of collapsed wall. The myrok’s tail flared, and K deflected the beam with the stone debris. As the myrok approached the crevice, K hurled the misshaped rock like a flying disc, and it collided with the myrok’s legs, knocking it off the ceiling. It fell into the crevice.

“Yes!” I exclaimed. “K, you’ve got an incredible throw!”

She flashed me a grin. “I know.”

“Actually, you almost killed me with it earlier,” I said.

She looked at me confused. “What?”

Then we heard the sound of the myrok’s footsteps echoing out from the pit.

“I’ll explain later, come on! Let’s find Omega and Jonathan, and get out of here!”

We kept running.

“Osax,” she said as we kept pace with each other. “What happened? Jonathan betrayed us… but I must have blacked out right after that.”

I hesitated. “You did...”

No, I thought. You promised not to lie to her.

“...didn’t exactly black out,” I finished.

She stared at me. “Then what the hell happened? Did I get sent through time or something?”

“No,” I said. “You were activated. Jonathan was part of the Brotherhood, right? Well, he made you. And you have an alternate personality, one that is locked away in your subconscious, and is submissive to the Brotherhood’s commands. You’re a sleeper agent, though you don’t even realize it. And you can be activated by being shown a specific set of symbols. Once that happens, your consciousness sort of flips, and the old you is essentially asleep until you get flipped back.”

We ran in silence for a few seconds as she stared at me. “What the shit?!” She shook her head. “How long was I out?”

“A few hours.”

“A few hours ago you found out Jonathan was a member of the Brotherhood, and he turned me into a subservient puppet thing, and yet we’re trying to regroup with him? What happened in those few hours?!”

“We talked,” I said. “And I listened.”

“Are you part of the Brotherhood now?!”

“No!” I said. “He renounced the Brotherhood!” I shook my head. “Look, now’s not a good time to explain. I trust him well enough. Despite everything he did, he risked his life to try to save you, and me.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good enough excuse,” K grumbled.

“Me neither!” I confessed. “But now isn’t the time to make enemies. I believe he genuinely wants to help now, even if he was conflicted before.”

K shook her head. “Well, if you say so...”

We were sprinting too hard to keep talking. A few minutes passed, and though we couldn’t see the myrok, we could hear its movement echoing behind us. A horrible thought occurred to me then. Surely, it was faster than us. So why didn’t it close in? Or shoot us with its tail? I could only think of one reason. It knew we were leading it to a larger meal.

At last we rounded a dark corner and reunited with Jonathan and Omega. Jonathan was shocked to see us, at once relieved to see K back to normal, and horrified at the new predicament with the myrok, which I hastily explained. Jonathan passed Omega’s regenerating body to K, claiming his arms were aching and couldn’t hold them any longer. Omega appeared fully mended, slowly regaining consciousness as we fled. K took their body with care, but kept her eyes trained warily on Jonathan. Even as this all happened, we quickened our pace through the shadows. Jonathan and I tried to navigate using his scanner to find the most direct route out of the ruins. We made our way back into natural caves, and at last we found a ray of sunlight beaming in at us, and the welcoming sweetness of fresh air. But the opening to the jungle was in the ceiling several meters up a shear face of the wall; we couldn’t reach it.

The four of us stood at the foot of the wall, gazing up at the escape. We bathed in the warm light that reached us from beyond the forest canopy outside. Sounds of chirping and buzzing creatures filled my twitching ears. Sunlight! I could hardly believe it.

“That’s our chance!” Jonathan exclaimed. “Quickly, how can we all climb out?!”

I scanned the wall. It was smooth, and sloped back up toward the opening. Not only that, but it was slick with water from the storm a few hours ago. There was a puddle at its base. A few purple vines snaked down the wall, but they looked treacherously flimsy. A tiny lizard blinked at us from the forest above, as if considering how it could help us, before scuttling away out of sight.

“K, what about your wrist cable?”

She nodded to me, then gently set Omega to their feet. Omega blinked wearily, and glanced between us, swaying from side to side. Jonathan and I stabilized them as K splashed into the puddle and fired her cable. The grappling hook soared up and out of the opening. It slid back into the cavern, and she tried again.

“Omega, how are you feeling?” I asked. Jonathan and I looked at their disoriented face with concern.

Their freckled skin was pale and nearly colourless. Our eyes met. “I am hungry,” they said. “You saved me.” They stared at me and Jonathan. “How… are you feeling, Osax?” They blinked.

I felt my mandibles tighten. Jonathan looked at me with furrowed brows.

“We need to leave, now,” he said. “K! What’s the situation?”

“What does it look like?!” She shouted back angrily. She retracted her wrist cable. It was useless. K looked at us, and I could tell gears were turning in her head.

Omega heard it first. Then Jonathan and I followed their stumbling gaze to the tunnel behind us.

Click, click, click.

The myrok had decided it was time to close in, and it was almost here.

“Gah!” Jonathan exclaimed. “K, block the tunnel!”

“No time!” She cried.

I shook my head. “Besides, myroks have super strength too. A barricade wouldn’t stop it!”

K marched toward us. “Alright,” she said, looking me in the eye. “Sorry if this hurts!”

K grabbed me by the chest with both hands, and hoisted me into the air. Before I had time to protest, she took a running start toward the opening. She flung her arms upward, and suddenly I was soaring through the air. My long limbs reached out in vain, trying to grab onto something or stabilize my twirling body.

Ah!

I burst into the colourful jungle and tumbled through the air. I landed on my back on a wet fern, with the wind knocked out of me. I looked up at the dense leaves and branches above me, and the dots of sunlight that snaked between them. Then my lungs filled with invigorating air, and the smell of petrichor. I got to my feet.

I heard Jonathan shout, “Hey, wait-” before screaming as he flew up out of the cave. His long coat swirled behind him. He rolled as he landed, and after a few seconds reoriented himself and groaned as he got to his feet.

I stepped over to the hole in the ground, and peered inside. K and Omega looked up at me.

“Come on!” I cried.

K grabbed Omega, and hurled them up out of the cave. Being Omega, I expected them to land gracefully like a cat, but instead they collapsed loudly onto their side next to me, and I winced. Then Jonathan jogged up next to us, and looked down the hole with me.

“Come on, K!” he shouted. “Jump!”

She hesitated. “I’ve never tried to jump this high!”

“You can do it!” he cheered. “Trust me! The capacity of your leg muscles- The power and leverage, in relation to your overall body mass, should allow you an acceleration fast enough-”

“Yeah, yeah!” she replied. She crouched, bending her legs generously.

“K,” I said. “You can do it!”

She looked up at me, and smirked. “Thanks.”

Energy burst against the wall, and K fell onto her side from the kinetic force of the impact. My heart stuttered. The myrok crawled toward her as the dust from its bio-laser cleared. Omega crawled to the edge of the hole, and gazed down at the scene.

I handed Jonathan his pistol. “Shoot it!” He grimaced, and fired bolts of energy down at the creature. The laser bullets seemed to melt into its body, completely ineffective. But Jonathan caught its attention. It reared its head up, gazing at us with its glowing yellow eyes. It wrenched its gaping beak open, and howled. There was an explosion of sound as the creatures all around the cave opening heard its cry, and suddenly sped off in all directions, wanting to be anywhere but here.

“K!” I cried. “Shoot your cable to me! I’ll grab it!”

She gazed up at me. The myrok was distracted by us, but its body loomed over K’s. She was in terrible danger. She raised her wrist up toward me and launched the grappling hook.

The cable whiffled through the air, and as it began to descend again I wrapped my fingers around it. Pain shot from the skin of my hands as the cable slid between my fingers. But I held the cable. My feet sank into the mud around the lip of the cave, and I reeled K up from the edge of the hole. Jonathan kept firing at the myrok, and its tail illuminated. The cable started retracting itself, and K used her legs to brace her ascent up the slippery incline. In a matter of seconds, she breached the surface, and she fell into my arms. We held each other, and I was filled with relief.

The myrok’s energy beam fired up from the cave, and Jonathan yelped as he fell back, dropping the pistol into the hole. I let go of K, and bent over to help Jonathan to his feet. He was shaken, but unharmed.

“Go!”

Jonathan and I helped Omega stand, and we all started sprinting away into the trees. Jonathan was swift, running ahead of us all.

Then I heard K grunt in pain behind me, and I turned to see what was the matter. She was several meters behind. She clutched the sides of her head and moaned. She was blacking out. She shook, then her body went limp and she fell into the undergrowth. The myrok’s front legs curled out over the rim of the hole, pulsing, and it dragged itself onto the surface. Its soulless eyes locked onto K.

My eyes were wide with terror. I had just brought her back, but K was in mortal danger. I wanted desperately to help, but I was unarmed. I clenched my fists, and inhaled slowly as my eyes narrowed. It didn’t matter; I couldn’t lose her again. My feet dug into the muddy soil beneath me as I poised myself to run for her. I had to try... Even if it was suicide to go up against the myrok… I had to try!

I took one step- then my arm was yanked back.

Omega threw me behind them, tripping me onto my side. Their tail flicked back and forth, and their body trembled for a brief moment. The colour of their skin began to warm slightly. They breathed in through their skin, keeping their lips tightly shut. They struggled to keep their composure, and I knew they had pulled me back for a grave reason. They were holding something in their hands- it was their belt of grenades.

“Omega!” I cried, wincing as I tried to stand. “Its skin is too resilient! And the blast will kill K!”

Omega replied flatly. “Not if I detonate them inside it.”

The blood drained from my face. Omega was going to climb inside its mouth. “N- No, wait!” I stammered. I struggled to my feet. They turned to run, but I grabbed them by the arm. “That’s suicide!” I cried.

Omega looked up at me. “I must. Or K will die. We all will. We cannot escape the myrok.”

I shook them by the shoulders. “Omega! You won’t survive! You weren’t designed for this!”

The sun glinted off their large eyes. They looked at me, and it was as though a sudden clarity had filled their soul. They smiled slightly, and I could tell, the smile was meant for me, to put me at ease. They spoke quietly, and surely. “And I was not created to make friends,” they said. “Yet I did.”

Omega shoved me to the ground with more speed than I could have predicted. When I sat upright, I saw them sprinting toward the myrok, their claws kicking up mud. The myrok’s beak was raised above K, ready to strike. In a second, K would be dead. My chest constricted as I watched Omega trip on their approach. But they bolted up and whipped a hand forward, and threw a shuriken which grazed the myrok’s cheek. Annoyed, It turned to face its new assailant, and shrieked to scare Omega off. Its beak opened wide… wide enough to swallow me whole. And Omega dove head first into its maw.

The creature gagged, and its beak shut. I was paralyzed. Then the ground shook from the explosion. The myrok’s body quivered, then collapsed, still, and silent. Omega had done it. They’d saved us.

Jonathan panted past me, straight for K. I fell to my knees, staring at the corpse of the myrok. I gazed at my hands, and flexed my fingers weakly. I felt cold. If Omega had let me charge forward, the myrok would have killed me for sure. But instead, I was alive. We were alive.

And they were gone.

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