The group slowed as soon as they'd reached section five. Thomas panted hard, lungs squeezing inside of him. The burn was nowhere as bad as it used to be when he'd first started running. It was almost welcome now, a rewarding feeling, letting him know that he was giving this his all.
He couldn't, however, say the same for Isaac.
The kid was retching, his hands scrambling like crabs on his stomach. To Thomas, it looked like he was trying to tear something out of his own skin. Wincing, he pressed his flask of cool water against the boy's chest. Isaac grabbed it, his eyes grateful, and chugged from the flask.
Minho shook his head. "Why didn't Newt give you a Runner's brace?"
When he could speak, Isaac shrugged, coughing, "No idea. Said I didn't need one."
Thomas took his flask back, swigging from it carefully as he glanced around. The walls surrounding them didn't look familiar, but when did they ever? The large, flaking painted number five glared down at him from one of the walls.
"Same as ever," he sighed.
"Not true," Minho stated. "We haven't seen any Grievers yet."
They were still sections from the Griever hole. That, however, didn't mean squat. The Grievers roamed around whenever and wherever they wanted to. Which made it really odd considering they hadn't seen any for the two hours they'd been running.
Isaac paled further at the news. "What?" He squeaked. "Are you kidding? We'll see an actual Griever?"
"Like it or not, probably," Thomas admitted.
"You might even live to tell the tale, like Tommy did here," Minho said.
Thomas sighed. He was more fed up with being looked at like he was some sort of Messiah than being looked at like he was a freak. People being frightened of his differences didn't faze him. People who congratulated him on them made him want to run away.
A loud moan echoed through the Maze, followed by a series of clicking. Isaac twitched, his hands automatically grabbing at the knife tucked away in his back pocket. Thomas resisted the urge to roll his eyes; like a tiny knife would do anything against a Griever.
"Okay," Minho said, crossing his arms. "Do we camp here for a while to see the new Grievers or do we keep running to see if there's been any changes?"
"We should stay here. The changes are always the same--we know that much by now." As much as Thomas hated to admit it, someone had to say it. The changes were monthly, following the same routine in every section every single month. Had been for the past two years; not that he'd been around to see that, of course.
But while Minho nodded, Isaac turned an even paler shade of white and started shaking his head.
"No way," he whimpered. "No way, man."
Minho whirled, ramming Isaac up against a wall. Face twisted, he snarled, "Listen here, shuck, if you want to be a Runner, then you gotta do what we tell you, whether you like it or not. Deal?"
Isaac weakly shoved at the Keeper, whimpering quietly. Minho kept his ground, ramming the boy once, twice more, before storming away.
Thomas chewed on his lip. The Keeper could be unnecessarily harsh, and Thomas knew about that firsthand. But picking on the poor kid was hardly fair; the Maze had been getting weirder and weirder over the past few weeks. Now was not a great time to learn how to become a new Runner.
He knelt beside the boy. "Hey, it's okay. I get that your scared, kid--god knows we all are. But nothing will happen to you, okay?" He knew playing the "we all feel the same way" card was pretty cheap, but the rewarding sniff and nod was all he needed to know it had worked.
The shout echoed throughout the mess of concrete walls and without thinking, he bolted in that direction, Isaac swiftly on his heels. He yanked a long knife from his brave and whirled round another corner.
Minho stood, motionless, back turned, in the centre of a corridor. Lungs burning, Thomas slowed, coming to a halt beside the Keeper.
A mass of blubber and metal lay in a heap two feet from where they stood. It looked broken, almost; the fat was a pale, fleshy colour, and the metal spikes protruding from the body were snapped, or ripped clean out, leaving gaping, bloody holes. Looking at the motionless body, it was easy to see that the Griever was dead.
Minho dropped into a crouch to prod at the body warily. The point of his knife jabbed into a wad of fat and it burst, white liquid exploding all over Minho. He leapt back, swearing loudly.
Thomas snorted with laughter. The shocked look on the Keeper's face quickly disappeared and he swatted at his face, scooping the liquid off.
"Shut it," he growled, slapping a handful of gloopy mixture against Thomas' leg. He jerked back, still laughing, and offered a hand. Minho got to his feet and kicked the Griever, grunting, unamused.
Thomas slapped him on the back and laughed, "Aw, c'mon, that was pretty funny."
The Keeper just scowled. Isaac looked as though he was barely holding back the laughter, but he managed better than Thomas.
Minho grabbed a dirty cloth from his pocket and rubbed at his face and arms. The liquid came off in streaks, making Thomas' stomach roll. The mixture looked thick and pus-like, like a burst spot.
Whatever happens, don't throw up, Thomas begged himself. The laughing hadn't really helped his clenching stomach.
They stared at the fallen Griever, retrying to figure out what to do next.
"I don't get it," Minho said finally. "Nothin' changed."
"Well, it's dead for a start," Thomas pointed out. "That's new."
He knew that Minho was in a mood and being cheeky probably would get him punched in the mouth, but he was fed up. Wow, they'd found a dead Griever which had projectile vomited over Minho--but they hadn't found a change. Nothing about the Griever was updated, apart from the fact it was lying dead at their feet.
The excitement in Isaac's voice made Thomas' head snap round. The body of the Griever was wriggling--no, a part of it was. Part of the fleshy blubber jerked, while the rest stayed still. The fat was shoved up at different points, as if there was something inside of it, pushing it's way ou--
Thomas quickly shoved Isaac back, just in time for the first metal spike to poke through the pale blubber. More of that gross white liquid poured from the punctured skin, forming a pool underneath the body. Thomas' eyes grew wide at the sight. A few more metal spikes rammed through the flesh and, finally, a small body tumbled out.
"Awh, hell no."
The baby Griever shook, the gunk from the stomach of the bigger Griever flying off of it. It snarled, and something inside of it beeped.
Well, that couldn't be good.
"It's kinda cute," Minho snorted, bending down to poke at it.
It squeaked, backing away. The pincers at the front waved viciously at Minho. He laughed, straightening, and his knife danced from one hand to the other.
Unease settled in Thomas' stomach. Despite the baby Griever's size, it didn't look at all innocent. "Kill it before can kill us," he ordered, not taking his eyes off the abomination.
Minho just rolled his eyes. "I wanna keep it as a pet. Think Newt and Alby want a mascot?"
The two looked back to see the baby Griever coughing, spluttering, it's body heaving unnaturally. Thomas' eyes narrowed. The Griever shook and the beeping got louder.
The Griever exploded, gunk flying everywhere. Thomas dashed behind a wall, tugging Minho with him before they could get hit by the liquid.
But he'd forgotten Isaac.
The agonised screaming echoed through the Maze. Thomas slammed his hands over his ears; the noise was almost unbearable. It singed into his brain, shuddering through his veins. Beside him, over the screaming, Minho groaned, his own hands pressed to his ears. They shared a panicked glance.
The screaming suddenly cut off with a liquid gargle. A smell filled the air, raw and coppery.
"What the hell?" Minho hissed. "I thought the Griever exploded?"
Thomas swallowed past his dry throat and braved a glance around the corner off the wall. Automatically, he regretted it.
Blood was splattered up the dirty walls. Bloodied meat which looked far too much like innards lay strewn on the ground. There was no sign of Isaac, so the mess presumably belonged to him. Thomas' stomach clenched, threatening to push everything he'd eaten in the past day back out of his body.
But Isaac's missing body wasn't the worst part.
An enormous Griever stood in the place of the baby one, groaning loudly. This one had no visible blubber; metal armour lapped over its body, creating the shape of a giant insect. Long spikes--like pincers, Thomas thought--clicked along the ground in front of it.
Almost like it was licking the last of Isaac up.
He quickly rolled back round the corner. Minho stared at him expectantly.
Bile burned the back of his throat. He tried to find the words, but when he opened his mouth, all that came out was: "Isaac."
The Keeper sighed, rubbing at his face. "Man," he groaned, "Newt is gonna kill me."
He was gonna murder both of them. Losing a kid on the first day of training? Big no no.
"Minho," he whispered. "The Griever? Didn't explode. It's still there, only bigger."
Panic whipped across the boy's face and he crawled over to take a look for himself. After a second, he turned back, face pale. "Shuckin' great."
"You know what we've gotta do, right?"
Minho nodded. "We gotta kill it. Just...how?"