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I was standing on the desert sands, having a conversation with a talking snake. The sad part is, that was the bright spot of sanity in my day. And right in the middle of our exchange, the world ended. At least, that was how it felt to me.

First, a shadow passed over us. Telluris started babbling that the moon was falling from the sky, Metus buried his head under the sand. I looked up to see a massive celestial body passing overhead, a fragment of which slammed into the head of one of the two giant robots. The robot fell, and the impact knocked me off my feet. I made no effort to get up. If the world was coming to an end, might as well face it lying down. The second impact was, surprisingly, not as severe.

After a few moments, when no more robots were falling or moons flying through the sky, I lifted my head. Telluris was saying that Spherus Magna was whole again. He seemed excited about that. I didn’t join in his celebration. You might wonder why I wasn’t overjoyed to have the three segments of my planet one again. As anyone who has been on Bara Magna after dark can tell you, it gets very cold in the desert. I grew very cold over a hundred thousand years ago, and now all I could think of was that if the beings who unleashed the dreaming plague on my people were on Bota Magna, they were now within my reach again.

I got to my feet and brushed the sand off my armor. It was time to leave. “Let’s go,” I said to my two allies.

Telluris wasn’t listening. He was still caught up in the miraculous return of Aqua Magna and Bota Magna – but then, that’s why I have the whip.

“You know what comes next,” I said to both of my companions. “After the celebration is over, the Agori will start wanting to clean up the mess. Anyone who doesn’t fit into their well-ordered little social structure will get shoved aside or trampled over. I don’t intend to be either.”

Metus looked unsure of what to do. He had stopped dreaming some time ago. The sickness had him. Within weeks, maybe days, he would be a raving lunatic – but before then, I needed him. As he started to slither toward where the Agori and Glatorian stood, I brought an armored foot down on his body and pinned him to the sand.

“Think about it,” I said. “I heard all about you. You think they’re going to welcome you back? You’re an embarrassment to them at best. They let you off with your life last time. Show your face again and they’ll make a pair of boots out of you.”

“What do you want of me?” the serpent, who had once been an Agori, asked me.

“I want to know everywhere you’ve been since you left Roxtus, and everything you’ve done. I want to retrace every inch you’ve crawled. Somewhere along that route is a clue to what happened to you and to my people, and we’re going to find it.”

Immediately after the battle in Roxtus, Metus had headed north into the mountains. Some of those mountains were gone now, reduced to pebbles by the battle between the two robots. But he said it wasn’t until he had passed through them that his dreams ceased, so perhaps whatever I was looking for lay beyond.

He showed us where he had camped, near a pool. Had he drunk from it? No. What had he eaten? Rodents, he said.

“Did they taste strange in any way?” I asked.

“They were rats!” Metus snapped. “Of course they tasted strange!”

“There must be something here,” I said, looking around. “Something that infected you.”

“Maybe it’s not something physical,” said Telluris. “Maybe it’s a… curse or something. Anyway, no one from our tribe would have traveled this far from the village, so how can this spot be the cause?”

“Perhaps whatever caused the plague moved on after its work was done,” I answered. “Or maybe…”

I stopped. I had spotted something not far away, mostly hidden under plant growth. It was a scar in the earth in the shape of a rough triangle, perhaps three feet wide at its base. I crouched down to see if there was a hole, but none could be seen, just a pattern carved into dirt and rock.

“Look around,” I told the others. “See if you can find another mark like this.”

We searched for an hour. There was no sign of any other triangle on the ground, nor any sign of who or what might have made this one. Was it a footprint? The track left by a mechanical device? Or some natural phenomenon I simply had not seen before?

I turned to ask Telluris his opinion, since he had seen much in his travels in the Skopio, but he was gone. Metus insisted he had not seen where he went to.

I followed my tribesman’s footprints in the soft earth until they stopped in the middle of an open patch of ground. The dirt had been disturbed here, as if something had swept it clean. I heard a soft sound behind me. I turned to see a sickly red tentacle covered in spines slithering up from beneath the soil. Before I could speak, it had wrapped itself around Metus and dragged him down into the ground. I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream as a second tentacle briefly appeared to brush the dirt back into a normal pattern before it, too, vanished underground.

I aimed my Thornax launcher at the spot and fired. It blew a hole in the ground, sending a shower of earth and rock into the air. When the dust has cleared, I saw no trace of my two allies, or their attacker. Whatever had taken them was gone.

I was furious, frustrated, stymied at every turn. Just when I had found the first sign of an answer, it might be snatched away from me. At any moment, the tentacles might return. I had no way to reach Telluris or Metus, and no hope of survival if I stayed. But if I left… If I left, I might never solve the mystery that plagued me. My people would go unavenged.

I stood, right on the spot where Metus had disappeared. “Come then!” I shouted. “Attack! Drag me down! But before I die, creature, I’ll know your truth.”

I was still standing there as three tentacles groped blindly from the earth and wrapped themselves around me. There wasn’t even time to yell as the sky above me was replaced by earth and clay, as I was ripped from the realm of light and sent hurtling down into a world of shadows.

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