"C-C'mon..." Richard muttered, scraping a small pocket knife against a piece of rock he had found on the cave floor. Above, a small hole in the ceiling of the cave could be found, through which a loud, windy whistling could be heard. White flakes, each one crystalline and frozen solid, drifted down from the hole, the frigid air following it and chilling the atmosphere inside the cave itself.
"C-C-C'mon..." He muttered again, now growing frustrated by his unnaturally smooth hands. Whatever kind of strange, blue substance his skin was shifting into, it was becoming more and more difficult to maintain a firm grip on the extremely blade. More than once, the knife had slipped, almost cutting into the hand holding the rock before he managed to regain control. Just next to the rock lay a medium-sized pile of dry sticks, all that he had managed to collect from the few trees that populated the area. Thanks to the hole in the roof, he had enough of an exhaust route for smoke to turn this pile of sticks into a warm, cozy campfire- something he had been unable to make for the past few days.
"C-C-C'mon you mother f-fucking pile of g-g-god-d-damn sticks!" He growled with a shiver, punctuating each word with a swipe of the knife, desperately trying to kick up enough sparks to light the mass of wood before him. Richard had spent almost an hour outside in the sub-zero temperatures of the storm and his core temperature was now dangerously low. If he was unable to get this fire started soon, he would go into hypothermic shock and almost certainly die.
For a second, his eyelids began to droop closed, as if he had stayed up for three nights in a row, only for them to instantly shoot open once more. No, don't even start! He thought to himself with a growl, swiping the knife across the stone once more- with only a scraping noise answering the blade. Cold is nature's narcotic! Fall asleep without heat and you will die, Rich! But resisting the allure of sleep was easier said than done, especially since, as stated before, cold was a natural narcotic. Eventually, no matter how hard he resisted, he would pass out from the lack of heat and die.
But only if I can't get this damn fire burning! He thought with another growl, slashing the knife almost viciously across the rock. He'd survived five days out in this frozen hell with thirty-some black-suited bastards and half a dozen... things following him. The suits were worrying, yes, but he'd already whittled down their number by at least a dozen since that trap he'd come up with on the third day using a natural avalanche hotspot, an alcove with a second exit outside the avalanche zone, and a pair of stolen fragmentation grenades. They were more cautious now, but, for the most part, they had kept their distance and proceeded with maximum caution, slowing themselves down enough for Richard to move on to the next (hopeful) shelter.
But those creatures... oh, those creatures. They just would not die! He'd managed to hit one of them, a hulking eight-foot-tall rhino-like beast, in the center of mass with a magnum .45 round, and it had fucking bounced off! What kind of ridiculously strong armor did that thing have to deflect magnum bullets?! Those things could punch a hole through steel plating, but they bounced off that titanic... thing as if they were nothing! It's allies were just as terrifying, even if they weren't quite so invulnerable to bullets- a second magnum bullet to the arm of a smaller black weasel-like creature with knife-like claws had made that perfectly clear.
Richard winced at that particular memory. Up until a few days ago, he had never seen blood, or gore, or any of that. But that one bullet alone had been almost enough to completely take off the weasel-creature's arm from the elbow down. Instead, through some sort of inhuman muscle density, the thing had only had an inch-wide hole punched in its arm, splintering the bone beneath into little more than a whitish-red pulp. And the screams- oh, fucking hell, the screams! They sounded human! They actually sounded human! Cries of pain, agony, and complete suffering all echoed through his ears once more, the haunting memory of that voice reminding him just how far he had been forced to go. After something like that... he'd be lucky if they didn't just kill him on sight. But yet...
No! Don't think like that! He scolded himself for such thoughts. His paranoia had helped him survive this long. Every little noise, every shadow out of the corner of his eye, was enough to set him off, but, if he hadn't been paranoid, he would have been captured the very first day- by the suits, no less. Risking everything on a simple hunch that maybe, just maybe, one of the two factions trying to catch him wasn't doing so with malicious intent... well, it was absurd. Without any more information, deviating from his current path would be like playing a game of dice with his life on the line. There was no way in hell that he was just going to leave something like this to chance.
Still... Richard couldn't shake this feeling that there was something... different about those creatures. They weren't like the suits, who moved like predators hunting a rat. No, these creatures were cunning, careful, and professional. But, most important of all... they were like him.
Slowly, he raised his right hand, the knife gripped tightly between its long, webbed fingers. Ever since that day, that goddamn, accursed day, his hands had been shifting, changing into something reptillian- froglike, even. And the changes had only spread over time; already, almost his entire torso had transformed, the changes having consumed his arms and moving down his legs. The only things left unchanged so far were his feet and head- and he was worried about those. If his feet changed the same way his hands had, then his would have to completely discard his snowshoes, and that would make his life extremely difficult. And his head... he didn't even want to think about what would happen to him when it reached that point. For all he knew, it'd make him go crazy, or feral, or something like that- well, more than simply paranoid, at least.
With another tired sigh, he placed the knife back against the rock- and froze. The blade touching stone had produced a light tapping sound... but he had heard a slightly heavier sound off the tunnel to his-
Frantically, he scampered into cover behind a stone column as a pair of humans- the government guys- crept out of one of the west side passage, guns raised and flashlights brought to bear. They practically flew into the small cavern of his little shelter, waving around a nine-millimeter handgun each- Glocks, from the look of the blocky slides.
"Got anything?" One of them asked, reaching up with his flashlight hand to remove the goggles and scarf over his face. From what Richard could see, thanks to the illumination from the overhead vent hole, the man had a hairless, clean-cut face with gleaming blue eyes. He moved like a professional, but without quite the same... spring in his step.
The other man, whose face was more gruff and angular- asian, from the looks of it- bent down and inspected the hiking pack that Richard had been unfortunate enough to leave out in the open. "Yep." He said, with a slight trace of a British accent. "This is his pack. He must've been setting up camp here." The man turned to the neat pile of sticks Richard had set up just underneath the opening in the cave ceiling. "Looks like he was trying to set up a campfire. Couldn't get it lit, though."
"Think that was the scratching we heard?" The first agent asked, the smooth-faced man keeping his Glock at the ready- although, it was visibly shaking. Whether that was from the cold or from simple fear, Richard did not know. A closer look at this man's face revealed that he could not be more than twenty, twenty-five years old at the most. Damn shame that a kid had to be caught up in this... Richard thought to himself, doing his best to keep all sounds to a minimum.
The asian/british man nodded. "No doubt about it. Probably trying to light it through friction against rocks." Richard winced at how close the man was to the truth- he'd have to change things up to avoid becoming too predictable. Predictability led to being outmaneuvered, which would inevitably lead to him being captured, one way or another.
"So what, did he just run off?" Smooth-face asked, lowering his pistol slightly. Richard held his breath- if they figured out that he wasn't gone, he wouldn't be able to escape. He wasn't close enough to either of the two tunnels to make a run for them, and any attempts to do so would end with a bullet to the back. If they searched the small cavern, they would find him. C'mon you sons of bitches... take the bait...
For a moment, the cave was silent save for the whistling and howling of the sub-zero winds blowing across the ceiling vent. Then, finally, the other man nodded. "Looks like it. Probably left the minute he heard us coming." The first man sighed in relief, a sentiment shared wholeheartedly by Richard. That had been far too close for comfort. He'd have to be a hell of a lot more careful, or else this situation could end up repeating with very different results.
Holstering his gun, Smooth-face pulled out a small short-range radio and clicked it on. "Victor One-One, this is Victor One-Seven, over." The talk button was released, but only static answered the call. A few seconds passed by, then Smooth-face tried again. "Victor One-One, this is Victor One-Seven, do you copy?" Another few seconds of silence passed, then Smooth-face sighed and put away the radio. "Storm must be messing with the signal." He sighed, the asian man nodding grimly in response.
Of course, Richard knew better- radios functioned by sending waves of electrical signals through the air to a reciever. A snowstorm such as the one outside would cause some interference, but not nearly enough to render the radios useless. No, what was making the radios fail was the cave itself- down there, the electrical signal would simply bounce off the walls and echo, ensuring that the signal would never reach a reciever. As for the roof hole, it was pointed straight up- perhaps a craft flying above the storm (which was extremely unlikely) would catch the signal, but the aperture wasn't wide enough to permit ground-to-ground transmission.
With a sigh, Smooth-face sat down on a rock and pulled out a small nutrient bar, taking off his gloves and unwrapping the foil-covered edible block. "This mission sure went to shit, huh David?" He muttered before taking a bite of the nutrient bar. In spite of himself, Richard found himself salivating; it had been a full day since his food supply had run out, and the only thing he'd had to drink was the contents of a half-filled water canteen he had looted from one of those humans who had died in the avalanche a few days before. Admittedly, he had only finished that off a few hours before this point, but he was nonetheless quite thirsty. Hell, he'd even take one of the tasteless nutri-bars if it'd ease the ache in his belly.
The asian man- David- nodded and pulled out a flask of amber-colored liquid. Whiskey. Richard realized, equally amused and concerned that this man would be drinking on a mission. Alcohol gravely impaired one's judgement in large doses, and whiskey did it even faster. Even worse, drinking alcohol lowered one's body temperature- not by much, mind you, but it could be the difference between frigid and hypohermic in the kind of conditions raging just outside the cave.
And yet... Richard still found his gaze caught by the clear, block-shaped bottle. He had never been an alcoholic, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he did occasionally indulge himself with a glass or two of Jack Daniels. Something about the texture of whiskey seemed to... call to him. But, in conditions such as this, that kind of indulgence could easily cause him to freeze to death...
Maybe I could make it into a molotov or... something. He thought, trying to divert his mind away from the thought of drinking himself into a stupor. As nice as it would be to escape this frozen hell, even for a few minutes, he could not afford the risk. At this point, being on his A-game was top priority. If his judgement failed at the wrong time... that could be it.
"How many have we lost so far, Lucas?" David asked his partner, unscrewing the cap from the flask before taking a small swig from the clear plastic container.
Lucas just shook his head and sighed. "Eleven dead from that avalanche trap, only Tyler made it out alive. Last I checked, they're still digging out the bodies." Richard winced- he knew that that particular trap had done a lot of damage, but hearing it confirmed from someone who knew the victims...
"Shit..." David replied, putting the cap back on his whiskey flask and screwing it closed. "And now the bastard's gotten away again."
Lucas nodded grimly, taking another bite of the nutrient bar. For a moment, the only noises Richard could hear were the wind blowing and the near-silent pattern of his own breathing.
"Maria." Lucas whispered, his voice hoarse and nearly inaudible. Maria... what's that name got to do with anything? The transforming human thought, slowly creeping into a better position to strike. He'd have to kill these two quickly to have a chance of getting out alive. Carefully, he took cover behind a large stalagmite, reluctantly thanking his changing, lighter body for the near-silent footsteps he now possessed.
Apparentely, David was just as confused by the sudden name from his companion. "Maria? What does she have to do with-" Richard could feel the tension in the air as the asian/british man's eyes widened. "You don't mean...?"
Lucas just nodded. "She was on the patrol that was hit." He took a ragged, hoarse breath. "They found her body first."
"Fuck, man..." David muttered, rubbing his forehead subconciously. "How long had you two been dating?"
Richard froze the instant he heard those words. A name popped into his head, accompanied by a face. Alice, a twenty-seven year old woman with a fair face, obsidian-black hair, and a heart of gold. He couldn't even imagine what he would do if he lost her... and apparently he had been responsible for this "Lucas" guy losing his own love.
The next words from Lucas were inaudible, so quiet that even David could not hear them. Then, seeming to realize this fact, the smooth-faced man repeated his answer. "Six months."
David was silent for a moment, contemplating his partner's words. "Goddammit, man..." He muttered, punching the ground out of frustration. "Sounds like you've got a better reason than any of us to want this guy dead."
Lucas nodded, then said "I know, it's just..." A sigh escaped his lips and he buried his head in his hands. "I want to kill him, I want to make him pay for taking her life... but... at the same time..."
David seemed to do a double-take at this. "Are you serious, Luke? He killed your girlfriend!"
"I know, David, I know..." Lucas responded, tears actively running down his face at this point. "But... I'm not sure I can really blame him for it."
All activity in the room stopped.
Richard practically felt his heart skip a beat.
"Wha- WHAT?!" David yelled, his jaw dropping in shock. Richard practically did the same, only he was much quieter about it. This man's girlfriend was dead, murdered by a runaway, but he wasn't seeking revenge...? "That's insane, man! He killed your-!"
"I know, David!" Lucas shot back, trying to stem the tears flowing from his eyes and failing miserably. "I know he killed Maria, and a part of me wants revenge, but... at the same time..." He slammed his fist into the stone floor, then cradled his head in his hands. "She wouldn't have wanted... this!" He waved his arms around the cave. "This mission's already gone to hell! Maria's dead, along with ten others, our target's on the run, we're practically racing the Pokèumans to catch him, and our CO's just about lost it!"
"And..." He whispered, so quiet that Richard could barely hear his broken voice. "I can't shake the feeling that all of this is just one, gigantic, fucked-up misunderstanding." Before David could speak up to ask the inevitable question, Luke cut him off with a wave of his hand. "I know he's a pokèuman, I know why we're chasing him, but... for all he knows we're trying to kill him!" First time I've heard otherwise. Richard thought to himself bitterly, waiting in case these soldiers leaked any more valuable information. Quite frankly, he knew glorious fuck all about what was happening to him, and this was the first chance he'd gotten to learn anything else; he'd be damned if he just let it pass.
"I know our orders are to capture him, but he doesn't know that!" Lucas continued, his voice getting more and more distraught with each sentence. "And, to top it all off, I'm fairly confident that Colonel Chaplin's bucked the chain of command and actually is trying to kill him now!" There was silence for a second, then "I'm almost certain this 'Richard Gyles' thinks he's acting in self-defense. And... well, can we really blame him for that when we're doing the same?"
The cave was as quiet as a grave, even the omnipresent whistling of the wind having faded into the void of sound. Finally, David sighed and placed his hand on his forehead. "This mission is beyond fucked..."
Lucas nodded, wiping the last of the tears of his face and finishing his nutrient bar in a last, quick gulp. "Maria and I... we joined Pokèxtinction to make a difference... we thought we'd be helping people, but after this, this... clusterfuck," He spat, the words sounding more acidic that a vat of vinegar, "I'm honestly not sure anymore."
For a second, David opened his mouth to retort, then closed it just as quickly with a weak nod. "The fuck have we gotten ourselves into..." He sighed, taking out a lighter and cigarette and putting the latter in his mouth. Richard knew he wouldn't get a better chance to attack than this- both of them were facing away, their backs toward him and almost assuredly lost in thought. He had a pocket-knife sharp enough to slit a hundred throats and a rock heavy and small enough to serve as a throwable weapon.
But... he just couldn't bring himself to kill the two men. From the sound of it, they'd both been through just as much hell as he had, if not more. This Pokèxtinction sounded corrupt as hell, and he wouldn't hesitate to kill the bastard in charge if he ever met him, but he just couldn't find the will to kill these two in cold blood- hell, given that the poor bastard had just lost his men, he probably wouldn't even be able to kill this "Colonel Chaplin" with a clean conscience. What to do... what to do... He couldn't kill them, but... what could he do then? He couldn't just hide here forever- and one swipe of those flashlights across his hiding spot would reveal him immediately.
And that's when he realized there was only one thing he could do.
Lucas was just sitting there, mourning his lost girlfriend, the person he could have spent the rest of his life with. In the background, he could hear David doing his best to cope as well, taking long, ragged drags from his cigarette in an attempt to calm himself. Neither of them had signed up for something like this... All of this death, Colonel Chaplin defying orders, Maria's passing... What was the point of all this? How could capturing any one man be worth all of this hell-
A loud, echoing crack split the near-silent air, accompanied by David screaming out in pain. Looking up from his lap, Lucas had a perfect view of his partner falling to the floor, a mid-sized rock having hit the back of his head. "What the fu-!" Lucas managed to get out, his right hand going for his holstered gun-
And a large, heavy mass collided with him, pushing him to the ground on his back and slamming his head into the rocky floor. Stars shot across his vision as he felt something heavy land on his chest, something blue-ish. His eyes widened as he realized who had attacked them, his hand diving for his gun once more-
And freezing mid-motion as a small, razor-sharp blade pressed against his windpipe. It was strange, really. Lucas did not feel a need to beg for mercy, or a panicked instinct to fight back, or even a simple, futile sentence. All he knew was that it was over. He was dead. The knife would slide across his throat, digging through the blood vessels and into his windpipe, maybe even into the nerves around his spine, and that would be it. He'd be gone, off to whatever lay beyond to join Maria. He just closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable... but it never came.
Slowly, he opened his eyes to see a half-reptillian, half-human being sitting with one knee on his chest, a troubled look on its face. Clutched in a blue-skinned, unnaturally smooth, webbed hand, was a gleaming switchblade, the very edge of which he could make out being pressed against his throat. Its eyes stared into his, and, for a second, the two understood each other fully.
"Gun." The transforming human said in a cold, quiet tone. Slowly, Lucas complied, reaching down towards his holstered Glock and setting his hand on its grip-
In an instant, the pressure on the knife doubled, drawing a bead of blood from the taut skin of his neck. The message was clear- don't try anything. Carefully, Lucas adjusted his grip to grasp the slide of the gun rather than the handle, slowly pulling it off his belt and raising it into the air, where a reptillian hand took it from him in an awkward grip. Slowly, finding himself staring down the grey barrel of the deadly weapon, the creature stood up, removing the razor-sharp blade from his neck as it did so.
Richard's paranoid side was cursing him and everything he loved as this happened. You stupid fucking fool! Never let your enemies go! Never run the risk of survivors! What the fuck are you DOING?! But he refused to kill this man, not even if his own life depended on it- and there was a good chance that it did. Finally, he said "Get up." Cautiously, Lucas did so, keeping his hands up at all times to avoid the misconception of suspicious activities.
"Take your friend," the transforming man said, doing his best to keep the shivers he felt from the cold from influencing the gun in his hands, "and leave. Go back to your camp and don't come back." Carefully, Richard backed up to David's prone form and kicked off his backpack off, then removed his Glock as well- even if he was breaking a major rule of survival, he wasn't about to make any other stupid mistakes.
Lucas blinked in shock, then looked to his partner. Sure enough, there was no blood around his head, only a large welt- David wasn't dead, just knocked out. Given a day's rest, he'd be right as rain. Gradually, step by step, Lucas made his way over to the unconcious man and picked him up, draping him heavily over his own shoulders.
"Now get out." Richard said, waving his stolen Glock towards the tunnel from which the two agents had arrived. "Leave me in peace." The smooth-faced man nodded and walked towards the exit, carefully adjusting his weight to keep David from falling off.
Then, just as he reached the mouth of the tunnel, he stopped. Richard felt his heart rate quicken, tightening his grip on the pistol in case something went wrong. Slowly, Lucas turned around to face the half-reptillian hiker. "Why?" He whispered, his voice barely audible in the near-silence of the cave.
Richard blinked in surprise. "Why what?" he retorted, doing his best to mask the slip in his composure.
"Why are you sparing us?" Lucas asked, confusion contorting his face into an unreadable expression.
There were a million different answers for that question swirling around in Richard's head. Some were lies, some were half-truths, some were random movie lines, but only one was the truth. "Call it a hunch." He said simply, keeping the gun pointed at the other man's chest.
Lucas seemed to accept this as an answer, turning back towards the cave to leave. But he only took three steps before the transforming man's voice called "Wait!"
The agent turned around to face the frog-like man, only to see that the other was no longer pointing a gun at him. He whispered something so faint that Lucas only barely caught his words, but they echoed in the grieving agent's ears like the loudest bells.
"I'm sorry about your girlfriend."
The cave was quiet, all life seeming to stop their noises to yield to this unofficial moment of silence. Then, after about half a minute, Lucas whispered "Thank you." Through a haze of tears, he turned back around and walked down the cave to carry his partner to safety.
A minute passed. Two minutes. Three. Only when a total of five minutes had passed did Richard finally dare to move once more. Slowly, he walked back over to the pile of sticks on the ground-
And cursed as his foot slipped on something smooth and metallic, staggering a good five feet before regaining his balance. Looking back at the spot where he had tripped, he saw a glint of light off a small, rectangular steel object- David's lighter. With a careful hand, he reached down and picked up the stainless steel object off the hard stone floor. Two clicks yielded a steady, glowing orange flame, and heat that felt almost heavenly to his near-frozen body.
Slowly, Richard sat down next to his hiking pack and pile of sticks, holding the orange flame against the latter for a few seconds to let the fire transfer between the two. The fire spread across the dry kindling faster than Richard had thought, quickly turning the entire pile into a roaring, cozy campfire, the little smoke being vented through the ceiling hole above, where it was quickly dispersed and rendered invisible in the icy maelstrom above.
With a flick of his wrist, the cap clicked closed on the lighter, extinguishing its flame until the next time it would be needed. For now, he had all the fire he needed in front of him, warming his blue-skinned body and causing him to sigh contentedly. It would be at least two hours before those two would return to their camp, and another hour before they would make their way back here: three hours for him to sit, warm up, and finally relax.
Reaching into the pack that he had removed from David, he found a supply of... almost twenty nutrient bars! Enough to last him for days! Quickly, he ripped open two of the bars and scarfed them down in under thirty seconds. It didn't matter if the bars tasted like cardboard, it didn't matter if they were atrociously unhealthy for normal consumption; it was food. Having swallowed both of them, he tossed the wrappers onto the fire and watched as they ignited and drooped over the flaming wood beneath.
It wasn't much.
But it was enough.
And that... that was all that mattered.