Tightening his grip on the rifle Nightstorm found a pistol pointed at him.
“Don’t even think about raising that gun,” the leopard smiled. “Now come along, the two of you won’t be hurt. We need some bargaining chips for supplies. You’ll do nicely.”
“You do realize that the ARF does not negotiate or really even care about its workers, don’t you?” Black enquired as he straightened up, shouldering his pack.
“Then we’ll keep taking the hunters that come to our city.”
“So that’s what’s been happening to them? How many are still alive?”
“Put it this way, you’ll join them if you don’t start moving.”
Night appeared to relax, levelling the hand that steadied the rifle at the leopard. The cat pulled the hammer on his pistol into lock. “Move.”
A flash of blue lanced across the room. A wet splat sounded as the wall behind the big cat turned red. Surprised it stared down at the hole in its body, intestines slowly slipping over the edge to coil on the floor.
Night took the opportunity and closed the distance, his rifle clattering to the floor. Taking the leopard by the shoulder he pointed a gun active fist at the cat’s head. “We were sent, because we can defend ourselves.” The horror of realization only had a second to show on the leopard’s face before another flash added grey to the glistening red wall.
Letting the body collapse to the floor, Night took a quick look around the corner, ducking back as bullets clattered against the wall. Looking back at the rat he saw him standing, one hand on hip, shaking his head. “I didn’t really think that through.”
“No, Nightstorm, you didn’t.”
The stoat winced at the reprimand of his full name. “Any other ways out?”
“We could try the lift shaft.”
“Alright, get ready to run.” Turning back to the doorway, Night aimed both hands at the stairwell. “Climb these.” A twin blast shook the floor as the shots impacted. He didn’t wait to see the results; pelting for the lift shaft he could hear the screams and yowls as the stairwell collapsed onto the waiting cats.
Black was ahead of him, pulling on some heavy duty gloved, the rat, launched himself through the open lift doors, swinging himself round the cable, he allowed himself to spiral down the shaft. Night leapt into the hole, taking hold of the steel girders at the side, he jumped down one floor at a time, back flipping to land next to Black on the roof of the dead lift.
The ground floor doors were closed, half obscured by the lift. Black took out the bar he had used to lock the manhole cover. Slamming it between the doors he lay on his back as he kicked the release catch at their top, twisting the bar, to produce enough room for Night to get his fingers in and force the doors open.
They entered into a reception hall, now full of cats looking at the dust cloud emanating from the stairwell, one heard the noise of the doors. Reaching the street just ahead of them, the rat and stoat ran for their lives as almost twenty cats of various types chased after them.
Turning the corner of the path, Night spun and let off a shot at their followers without stopping. Their running took them straight back to the first building they had entered on their journey.
Night dove through a window as Black used the door. Again they set their route over the piles of rubble. The cats were close on their heel, leaping through the window and door after them, none caring about the route they too. Those on the clear floor soon realised their folly. The floor collapsed under them, opening onto a spiked trench. The wails of pain filled the building, but only five fell to the traps. One managed to take hold of Black’s tail. Claws extended it swiped down to tear at his throat.
At the last moment Black felt his hand touch the tube, quickly touching the light, a blue-metal blade shot from its end, accidentally going straight through the cats heart. Both Black and the cat were equally surprised. Without thinking Black wanted the cat off the blade. A blue ball pulsed along the visible blade, splattering the cat on all around; its head, arms and legs fell to the floor, leaving Black red and sticky. The arrival of another cat didn’t give him time to feel disgusted, swinging the blade it sliced through the cats descending arm like air and he got a face full of arterial blood.
Shaking the hot liquid from his face he saw Night tear another cat in half with the claws from his gloves, before pointing the sword at the crumbling pillar. “Split!” he yelled as the blue ball shot across the room. The sound of shattering concrete stopped the cats as Black and Night fled the building. Without pausing, they opened the entrance to their base. Closing the cover as the rubble of the collapsing building slammed onto it, grey dust, shooting through the holes.
Landing heavily at the bottom of the ladder, the two collapsed to the floor panting. It took them a moment to recover their breath. Catching each other’s eyes, they couldn’t help laughing with the relief of survival.
“Hey, Black, you need a new name.”
“That black ear after which you’re named is no longer black.”
Curious the rat reached up and felt his ear, it was sticky, and looking at his paw he was reminded of the blood that covered him. “Eugh! Dead cat.” Looking down at himself he picked a piece of intestine from his belly. “That is gross.” He flicked it into the pool. Fully recognising what his eyes told him, he doubled up in laughter. “Your not much better yourself, Night. You didn’t just paint the wall with that leopard’s head.”
Night rose a paw to his face and felt the sticky mess. “Augh, that’s not funny.” Examining the rest of him, Night was relived that he wasn’t half as much covered as Black. “Shotgun the pool first.” He was up and in the water before Black could reply.
Stripping off the backpack, Black yelled at the water, “It’s big enough for the both of us,” and jumped in himself.
By the time Black had finally decided he was clean, Night was already fully dry and had cleaned off their equipment. Taking their clothing from the heating rails, Night laid them neatly on the worktop.
“I’m going out to see if I can clear the entrance. Or find a new one.”
“Alright, but shouldn’t I be going? I’m the one who’s still wet.”
“You dry off and train with that sword of yours. Maybe you won’t get covered in so much gore next time.”
“Oh, lay off, you’ve been ribbing me with that this last hour. I didn’t mean to make him explode, I wanted him off the sword, and it got him off.”
“That’s what I mean. These things seem very advanced, they know what we want, and do it. So practise, I was practising all the while you were out the other day.”
“Be careful out there. If the dust storm was two days ago, another is due. Keep your ears sharp.”
“I will. I’m taking the glove weapons too. Just in case.”
“Alright, get going. I’ll see you later. Hopefully.”
Night activated the gloves and dove into the water once more. His lithe stoat form slipping through the water with ease. Swimming down to the hole in the pipe. He checked for the presence of others before kicking off the hole and swimming otter-like down the pipe. The moment he was out in the estuary he shot to the surface, unable to hold his breath any longer. How he envied Black for that ability. But, he reasoned, he could train himself up to the same standard.
Smoothly swimming along the surface he located their makeshift ladder. Apparently random bricks missing from the walled embankment. Pulling himself up to the walkway, he gave a vigorous shake before taking a moment to revel in the power of the evening sun as it baked the water from his fur.
A deep breath helped to settle his mood as he strode out for the surface entrance. It wasn’t long before he found the site. A cloud of dust still drifted around the site, though it was clear enough to breath well. Trotting over the broken walls, and stabbing a foot on some glass, he managed to make it to where he figured the entrance was.
Examining the rubble he thanked the fates that most had fallen straight down. Only a small section of wall had actually fallen into the road, but even that was enough to completely alter the landscape.
A cough interrupted his musings. Spinning round, he saw no one. It echoed about again, but now he was listening for it, he narrowed down the origin. Readying his blades, he crept towards the collapsed building. As he drew closer he saw the source, a grey feline, though what markings or colours it had beneath the concrete dust he couldn’t tell, trapped beneath a section of wall. He deactivated the blades as he made the final approach.
“Are you alright there?”
“I’m alive, at least,” the voice was female, the feline faced him and her expression darkened. “You! Back to make sure we’re all dead?”
“Yes me, but no. Anyway, we were just defending ourselves. You lot did the attacking.”
“We followed orders.”
“Commendable. But after taking the last five teams sent here, the ARF decided to send a team that could fend for itself.”
“I suppose that was wise. The others flesh was a welcome break from constant rat, but I at least, hated each mouthful. How could we fall to eating other anthros?”
“Necessity, I suppose. Though I agree that the constant diet of rat is appalling. I can tell my companion hates it even more, being a rat himself. He jokes about it, but his eyes say he cries for the necessity.”
“I suppose those that come here all share that common ground.”
“True! Anyway, back to my first question. Do you think anything is broken under all that? Would it be safe to get you out?”
“I don’t think anything is broken, but the constant pressure has made my legs go numb. And do you mean safe for me, or you?”
Night chuckled at the distinction. “I meant, for you.” Reaching for the wall segment he paused and faced the cat again. “Would it be safe for me?”
“Yes. I’m highest ranking in my clan now. In fact, the only one of the clan left. I’ll join you as a soldier if you release me and return me to health.”
“That’s a good offer. I accept, though I’ll have to find out what my partner says about it. Try not to think of the pain. Crouching a shoulder under the masonry, Night tried to lift, but the wall didn’t move. “Alright,” he said, collapsing, “let me try something. You’ll need to cover your eyes, but I can’t guarantee your legs safety in this plan.”
“Just get me out from under here.”
“Alright.” Taking a couple of steps back, Night levelled his arm at the wall. The brickwork exploded as the blue ball struck, sending shrapnel in all directions. The feline let out a full throated roar of pain as blood surged back into he legs, and, Night noticed, because her arm had a couple of large brick shared embedded in it.
Looking at her arm the cat smiled up at him. “I’m glad you told me to cover my eyes.” Then she looked down her body. The sight of her completely crushed foot brought a lump to her throat and she let out an audible sob. “No, no.” she looked pleading, at Night. “How can I serve my promise with only one foot?”
Nightstorm quickly thought, as it looked as though the cat was ready to slit her own neck. “We can give you a new foot back at ARF headquarters, but I’ll need to cauterise that quickly.” Night looked around for something he could burn.
“Use my clothes, they’re clan marked anyway. And I would rather the clan died completely today.”
“I wasn’t going to ask, but they were the only flammable things I could see.”
As she gave him her garments they revealed the colours of a snow leopard. Tearing the clothing into strips, he set some aside for bandages, the other he piled together ready to set alight.
“I’m no doctor, but I know how to field dress a wound. I have no way of dulling the pain. You might even pass out.”
“Just do what you’ve got to do. I’ll kill you later.” She laughed to take the threat from her words.
Piling the clothes to burn next to her dead foot, Night extended a blade from each glove and struck them together, the unusual sparks they gave off set the clothes alight instantly. Moving quickly he held the leg and used one blade to slice the foot cleanly from the leg. The slow leopard’s scream made him wince. He forcefully had to hold he leg over the flames, sealing the blood vessels, fighting as her instinct made her try to pull form the heat.
Her howls of pain were too much for him, shoving an arm between her jaws he ordered her to bite down. Tears of pain trickled down his cheeks as he held the cat’s leg in place, only just thinking he should have saved more clothing for bandages.
With the wound sealed he brushed the burning pile away, extinguishing the fur that had caught fire with the operation. With the removal of the fire, the female released her jaw hold on Night’s arm. He winced as he felt her teeth pulled from his flesh. With both hands free, he quickly dressed the wound with the bandages he had made. “That won’t hold long, I’ll get you down into base and get some proper dressing on that. Up you come.”
Night threw one of her arms over his shoulder and pulled her to her foot. Even with his support she wobbled feebly. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I feel feint. I’m not strong enough.”
“You’ll get strong enough. Now, what’s your name?”
“Well, Rraji, get behind me a moment.”
Needing two hops to place herself were requested she hung on, almost choking Night with her arm. Raising his arm to another piece of rubble on the middle of the path, he fired. His guess proved correct as the masonry shattered it revealed the manhole cover.
“Alright. Here we go, just a few steps and we’re there.”
Sitting her down beside the cover, Night pulled it open. “Black, you down there? I need assistance.”
The rat appeared at the bottom of the ladder, activated sword in hand. “What kind of assistance?”
“I have wounded. One of the cats survived. Though she’s lost a foot. Be ready to catch us should we fall off the ladder.”
“What?” Black loaded all the scepticism he could into that one word.
“Just brace yourself, alright.” Turning to Rraji, Night spoke more gently. “Alright, I’ll go down first, you follow closely, like two steps above those I’m standing on. I’ll help you steady yourself on the ladder. Ok?”
“I hope you know what your doing.”
“Come on.” Climbing onto the ladder he helped her shaking form find the rungs. “I’m here to support you should your arms not be strong enough to hold you as you go down each step.”
“What if sat on your shoulders? I could support my weight while you concentrate on getting us down.”
“That could work. Mind that tail and settle yourself. Pull your legs back so you’re hooked around my arms, that’s it.”
Night had to admit that her plan was easier than what he had been trying to do. As Night arrived at the base of the ladder, Black helped lift Rraji from his shoulders. Both taking an arm, they helped her hobble to their sleeping room. “We only have the one bed, but you can keep it until we leave.” Black explained. “I’ll go get some proper bandages for both of you.” Black indicated for Night to follow him. The stoat threw a suffering look at Rraji that made her smile before he left the room.
As they crossed to their first aid kit, Black admonished Night. “What do you think you are doing helping one of them? They’ve killed ten ARF members already. What makes you think she won’t turn on us?”
Night vented his muted reply as Black wrapped the bandage around his arm. “For one thing, she can’t walk. And we have these artefact weapons if she tries anything. Secondly, she promised her services as a soldier to us, and was honesty heartbroken when she discovered her foot had been crushed. Also, she doesn’t want to belong to a clan who’s number is now one. I say, we keep her, help her, you don’t have to trust her; just don’t be sharp to her. We destroyed everything she had, and she didn’t even like what she had, or what they made her do…”
“Alright, alright. You feel strongly about it. But that also means, you can play nursemaid. Go bandage that leg of hers properly, and see if you can find some clothing that fits her.” Black grabbed Night as he walked off. “First, dress yourself before you go back in there.”