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“Can you grab onto anything and make it further up?” Astor asks.

“No,” I shake my head as I star to panic.

I could not have ended up in a worse place. The rock I hold to juts out just enough that I can maintain my grip, and there is nowhere else to go from here except down. I start mapping a route in my mind, but I become discouraged when I realize that I will have to backtrack almost halfway down before I can start climbing up again. The creatures might reach me before I can even start heading back up.

“Helena?” I call out, turning my head again toward Astor.

“She’s fine,” he says. “Brogan grabbed her and took her behind some rocks, but they’re pinned down. The rest of Dalton’s men got to higher ground before we did.”

Another round of heavy gunfire suddenly begins, and Astor has to rush away. Then things go silent.

“Astor?” I call out. “Please tell me you’re there.”

Nothing for a long moment. I look back down and realize I have no choice but to figure this out on my own. I descend quickly, taking a lot of risks and slipping twice to beat the creatures to the point I need to reach before I can pivot upward. But surprisingly, they don’t seem to care that I’m getting closer. Each one continues its own course, not one diverting even a little to get a better angle to reach me.

“You’re still alive.” Kat exclaims, standing on the edge above me and drawing the creatures’ attention.

In her hand is another line of rope, this one not nearly long enough to reach me. An

d even worse, my muscles are reaching the point of exhaustion. I don’t know if I have it in me to get high enough for them to pull me up.

“I’ll get to her,” Astor says, reappearing next to her and stepping off the edge with the rope to help him rappel.

Helena appears as well, yelling encouragement to me and grabbing onto the rope with Kat. Astor descends quickly, but the creatures immediately start clawing his way with much more haste and urgency.

I use all my remaining strength to stay ahead of them as Astor reaches the end of the rope and holds his hand down. Just as I reach him, the nearest creature springs up to claw at us. Astor grabs my wrist, but before the others are able to pull us to safety, the creature gashes its long nails into his side. He groans in pain as I strike the creature with enough force to knock its grip free, sending it plummeting into the massive horde below. I then use my free hand to grab the rope and hold to Astor, who is about to lost grip himself.

“We’re going to make it,” I reassure, looking into his panicked eyes.

He nods, and we climb rapidly with the assistance of Kat and Helena, who pull us up to safety. My heart sighs in relief as we near the top, but then I hear another familiar voice and realize that there is no hope of escaping this night.

“Not so fast,” Dalton says, and a shot is fired.

The tension in the rope is immediately gone as Kat lets go. Helena tries to pull it tight again, but the extra weight makes that impossible, the rope slipping helplessly through her

hands. In that moment, everything becomes weightless, timeless, as Astor and I fall toward certain doom.

A number of things happen, all seemingly at once. More gunfire. A scream from Helena. Astor’s hopeless silence, which sounds within me louder than anything else. It seems like a lifetime passes before we hit the bottom, the light above slowly dimming until we crash into waiting hands.

Astor immediately cries out in pain, but I feel nothing. In fact, it feels like I have been caught and set down. Yet I have become paralyzed, left observing my last moments in a totally numb state. Gunfire blazes from above, and the creatures that are climbing fall one by one in a bloody heap. Several soldiers aim their fire down the wall of rock and dirt while Helena calls out to me, but my voice will not answer her even as I stare up through tears and see her glow in the spaces between the creatures that stand all around me.

“We have to leave her,” Brogan shouts above the noise.

Kat is nowhere in sight. I want to see her as a couple more soldiers appear and continue firing, but she never comes. Then, in an instant, they all vanish, and I am left alone in the red glow of the flares that surround me.

I notice a number of shadows moving up the wall, creatures trying to give chase. A few eventually make it up and over the top, but the vast majority turn around and begin rushing out of the cavern the way we came. A distant gunshot echoes here and there, but little more. I hold on to hope that the others are okay as I lie on the rocky floor, lifeless.

It is a strange sensation I feel. At first, I wonder if my back is broken, but as I start to slowly move, I realize that I have full control over my body again. Something else took over it, a power that completely seized me the moment the creatures touched me. But it is gone now, and I am able to get back to my feet with no tenderness or pain.

A groan draws my attention. Astor. He is still alive.

I pick up a flair and approach him, immediately covering my mouth in shock at the state he is in. His little body is mangled, covered in cuts and deep gashes. Yet his face is only slightly scraped. The gunfire must have stopped the creatures from attacking him, and then they let him be.

“I’m glad… you’re okay,” he coughs out.

I want to say the same thing back because I want so desperately for it to be true, but it isn’t. He won’t last much longer. He is going to die. My heart aches as I begin crying.

“I don’t know how,” is all I manage back.

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