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The horn sounded again, this was the third short blast and we hastily clambered aboard the ATV’s. Winston was sandwiched between Smooch and myself. Pandora was with Humphrey and Parsley with Amber as we cruised silently along the labyrinths stinking, fetid passageways littered with rotting carcasses of creatures unknown, rancid pools of grimy water with bugs as big as your paw buzzing just above the surface, and enough rubble and rubbish to cause purroblems at the local landfill.
The ATV’s silently sped on, twisting and turning as per Pandora’s instructions as she guided us along the route we chose. The hunting horn blared out twice more, but seemed to be far far away, though I knew that was no true indication of anything and we could be ambushed at any time.
The light started to fade the deeper we travelled into the depths of the labyrinth, and it got to the point where we couldn’t see more that 15 yards in any direction. Humphrey who was in the lead, slowed to a crawl and signalled fur an ALL STOP.
We came to a stop next to him and I said, “Dude what’s up?”
“Basil I’m just getting a really hinky feeling,” he replied glancing nervously around. “It’s like something is watching us, my hackles are bristling like neffur before.”
I glanced around and let my extra-speshul senses reach out like invisible tendrils. Closing my eyes, I could see the wispy silvery tendrils eek out and spread like a spider's web up and offur the walls each side and outwards in all directions until they came against slight resistance. A sticky, icky putrid veil blocked my way like an invisible force-field, I pushed harder and my senses breached the veil and suddenly I felt the utter hopelessness reaching out towards me, the desolation, despair and sheer volume of trapped souls surged forward clawing to latch onto me like a stampeding herd trying break free of corral. I instantly pulled back, closing the invisible gateway and took a breath to steady myself.
Winston, sitting behind me said softly. “Basil are mew ok dude?”
I shook myself as a profound coldness gripped my body in its icy clutches. “Winston,” I replied quietly. “What the fluff is going on here, and how long do mew think mew’ve been trapped here?”
He sighed. “Basil I don’t know how long I’ve been here, sometimes it feels like I just got here and others it’s like I’ve been in here forever...” he paused and then asked me pointedly. “Basil, how long have I been here?”
It was my turn to pause, did I tell him the truth or what? I saw my entire team looking at me in the dim light waiting fur my response as I climbed off the ATV. I answered looking him straight in the eye. “Winston, mew have been trapped in here 5 earth years.”
The silence was deafening as I watched Winston process what I'd just told him. His eyes were as wide as saucers as he stared at me, mouth agape. He tried several times to speak but no wurds came forth, in the end he gulped hard and pointed to my vest. I knew instinctively what he wanted and I passed him my hip flask and he took a huge swig of my nip Scotch, then he offered it to me. I joined him, as it would have been rude not too and waited while his mind processed the awful truth.
I scanned my team and saw the sorrow on their faces as they watched my old F.I.B. buddy visibly reel in the knowledge that he’d been left, abandoned and discarded like last Sunday's prime rib dinner.
“CJ,” he started, but then stopped.
“CJ didn’t tell me Winston, he set my youngest memfur up to buy that clock a few days ago...” and I explained the entire turn of events of how CJ had led me to believe that they’d all been wiped out on a mission in the Congo years ago. Winston listened avidly, I could see the sadness in his eyes, the betrayal, the anger and a whole host of other emotions grip him in their awful clutches.
I put a firm but gentle paw on his shoulder and said. “Winston, do mew think fur one moment if I’d known the truth that I wouldn’t have been here instantly regardless whether I was with the F.I.B. or not?”
I saw the tears well in his eyes and he let out a choked sob. “Basil if there was one purrson I could always count on... it was mew.”
“Dude, I’m so sorry and I’m so angry with CJ, that he let mew and the rest of my old team be trapped in here fur all this time, and don’t think I won’t be taking care of things when we get back,” I said trying to keep my own anger in check as I looked at the pitiful cat in front of me, a shadow of his former magnificence, it broke my heart and made my blood boil simultaneously; I hated conflicting emotions and I seethed inwardly as I said with as much calm as I could muster. “Winston if it’s the furry last thing I do I’m getting Fudge, mew, my old team and anypurrdy else out of this rancid hell hole, I purromise mew that.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Humphrey give me the look and I knew what it meant; neffurpurromise what mew might not be able to deliver... I knew what I’d just said was beyond stupid, but in that moment I had to give Winston something, and that something was hope and a future.
Winston straightened up and looked around at my team properly fur the furst time, his keen eyes appraising each of my elite kitty commandos, he made eye contact with each one in turnand each of The B Team respectfully saluted him. He saluted back and turned to me saying. “Basil that is one formidable team mew have assembled there, I can just tell they’re one mean fightin’ force!”
I nodded, “Winston dude, mew are looking at the best of the best, apart from mew and my old team of course.”
He gave me a sad grimace and then looked down at himself; his matted,durty fur, skinny as a kitten frame and let out a weary sigh. “Oh Basil, just look at me now dude, I’m nothing...”
Pandora had edged towards us and she took Winston's paw in hers and said in her odd, little foreign accent. “Vinston, mew are truly magnificent and mew vill be restored to your old self in time my new furriend,” she paused, as though weighing up whether she should reveal her next wurds or not, but then she said. “I vas in The Resistance and I saw many, many bad things and purrsons who much like mew had been abused and starved in the most heinous purrisoner camps, I ‘elped to free many and rehabilitate those that vere saved, mew my furriend ‘ave your second chance vith us, ‘elp us to free your team, save Fudge and let’s get them back to safety and then ve can ‘elp mew heal from your trauma.” She gave him the kindest smile I’d effur seen cross her face and in that moment I realised and understood so much more about Pandora Von Der Plume and her previously hidden past.
Winston stared into Pandora’s lucid, pale green eyes; they were the colour of green amethyst and twinkled in the low light. “Mew my dear are quite extraordinary,“ a statement of fact and he continued. “And yes I can help mew, but The Wild Hunt is on the loose and we need to get some cover before darkness completely engulfs this place turning it into free fur all abattoir!”
“Tell us about this Wild Hunt?” I asked quickly.
“The Old One unleashes them once a month and any captives running free in the labyrinth are fair game,” Winston began as the hunting horn sounded in the distance. He flinched and took a step closer to me. “They are creatures of the like I’ve neffur encountered before, they ride on the backs of the ugliest, winged insectoids mew’ve ever seen,” he said with fear in his voice, “The riders, or Yelfshave 4 spindly arms, translucent white skin that has a clammy pallor, long gangling legs... they have a razor-like ridge down their spines and they are covered in tufts of spiked bristles... their faces are so disfigured and mis-shapen... they have three bulbous eyes in the middle of their foreheads, and their pointed teeth are like razors,” he squeezed his eyes tight shut, his voice raised several octaves as he said. “And... and they wear armour and trophies... made from the skins and body-partsof their victims!” He let out a pitiful wail and buried his face in his paws.
Pandora and Amber gasped in horror. Smooch murmured something to Parsley, who then nudged Amber, who in turn tapped Humphrey on the shoulder and whispered. “Smooch says do mew have the RPG’s and if so can we get them stat dude?”
Humphrey nodded and rummaged in his pockets as Winston continued. “They ride in a huge pack but send scouts furst to see which part of the maze is most viable, that’s why the horn keeps sounding; it means the scouts are looking fur prey, when the horn emits one continual long tone it is the signal they’ve found a target or targets and The Wild Hunt really begins.”
“Uhuh!” I answered turning to Humphrey and spied the now full-sized RPG’s resting against his ATV. Turning back to Winston I said. “Will those stop them?” Pointing at the weapons.
Winston peered around me and looked at the line-up and ammo. “How the fluff did mew get those in here?”
“Humphrey has the technology dude,” I answered. “But will they be enough or do we need something bigger?”
Smooch and Parsley grinned at that and I could see they wanted Winston to say we needed more. “Basil they fight with spears, knives, axes... well let’s say primitive weapons as they’ve neffur needed anything more because they’re one of the top purredators in here, so I think the RPG’s will blow them away quite literally.”
Smooch and Parsley let out a sigh of disappointment but then I saw Parsley whisper something to Humphrey and wink.
“What else have mew seen in here?” I pressed as the darkness continued to fall, shrouding us in an inky blanket.
“There are a few creatures who have magical powers, but they tend to keep to themselves hiding in tunnels they built underneath here,” he tapped his paw on the ground. “Though ninety nine percent of the things in here want to kill mew, or rip mew apart and eat mew while they’re killing mew, there are no rules, and the only safe place from the creatures is at the centre where the Old One keeps all his prize hostages in cages suspended off the ground.”
“And how do mew know so much about what's in the maze when mew only just escaped?” Parsley asked.
Winston sighed. “This is not my furst escape, in total I’ve escaped 9 times but the Old One always seems to capture me moments before some vile, stinking, carnivorous beast is just about to have me fur a snack, I’m then shoved back into my cage and the arduous torment begins again...”
The hunting horn rang out again, in one continuous long tone.
I turned to my team. “I think we’ve been rumbled, Humphrey can mew send up a camera drone and get a visual above the maze? Then we’ll know what direction they’re coming from and be ready to unleash retribution because if they’re airborne our tracking system won’t pick them up until they’re right on top of us.”
Humphrey set up the drone in two shakes of a lambs tail aftur zapping it with the ray gun and the drone whizzed up above the walls, Pandora tapped her tablet and a new window appeared with the live infrared feed constantly scanning 360 degrees as it hovered above our location.
Picking up my RPG, I loaded it and rested it against my shoulder, I checked all my guns were loaded and watched as everypurrdy did the same, even Winston as Humphrey gave us each a set of ear plugs, aka ear defenders. Not those squishy things mew stuff in your ears to sleep in if another kitty snores too loudly [not mentioning any names, Amber!] but the kind that dampen the gunfire to furry low levels yet mew can still hear other sounds.
Amber was staring unblinking at the screen while Pandora got her weapons ready and she saidaftur a few minutes. “Basil look at this.”
I peered offur her shoulder and looked at the screen. “UH OH, incoming at 2 o’clock,” I advised.
“Weapons ready and dudes don’t take any prisoners.” I glanced at the screen again and it looked like a bee swarm was headed our way at top speed, the tablet suddenly started to beep faster and faster and that’s when I heard the buzzing, high-pitched and whining. “B Team aim high, on my mark,” I hollered as The Wild Hunt swooped towards us.
~ Chapter Eleven ~
Conflict and Casualties
“Hold the line!” I yelled as the huge winged insects zoomed towards us. I waited until they were 30 feet away, and believe me when I tell mew it was a truly pant-wetting moment, I screamed. “FIRE!”
The RPG’s payload hit the furst wave of incoming hostiles, blowing them to smithereens. “Reload!” Smooch shouted as the acrid tang of burnt cordite filled the air and the sky above us suddenly raged with fire as Humphrey and Parsley used flame throwers on the angry swarm. The good thing about using the flame throwers was that we could see the targets in all their face-melting terror, the bad news was we could see how many therewere in the flesh as they circled above.
Amber and Pandora reloaded the RPG’s, I was firing my Uzi’s with much abandon,ducking as the massive red insectoids were crippled by a hail of bullets andcrashed to the ground behind me, splattering on impact. Fluorescent blue fluid sprayed up the walls and was intermingled with the pink life-blood of the Yelf riders; In actual fact it was a really great arty-farty effect and if Fudge had been with us, he’d be gushing about the tonal depth, how the colours merged, dribbled and transformed into something completely new, adding a completely unique purrspective to the original meaning which the artist wanted to convey, and thereby creating conflict adjacent to the authenticity in-turn which creates a casualty of art, he'd purrobably call it ‘Conflict and Casualties’ too! Jeez that ginger ninja has been reading far too many art appraisals of late, I thought and smirked to myself as I reloaded my Uzi’s.
The Wild Hunt was really wild as they dive-bombed us, throwing spears, axes, knives and firing arrows, but our weapons kept them from getting too close and took them down before their aim became accurate.
Pandora shouted something, I turned to see what her boggle was. A spear had gone through the shoulder-loop on her tactical vest and had her pinned to the ground. I glanced in effury direction at once taking in the entire scene in all of its gut-wrenching glory. The gun smoke was getting thicker, intenseflashes as grenades exploded lighting the scene in that passageway creating a chilling shadow-movie offur the grimy, stone walls.
Humphrey and Parsley were alternating between RPG’s and the flame throwers while Amber reloaded for them. Smooch and Winston were using the spray and prey tactic and to be honest it was wurking great. The Wild Hunt was stacking up around us faster than mew could say ‘I’ll have a cheesy cracker platter with fresh cream nip dip’ I checked my six to make sure that none of those vile, fluffing freakers was going to take a sneaky shot at me and then I yanked the spear out of the ground. Pandora jumped up in a blink and started firing directly behind me, I spun to see the biggest muther fluffer of them all standing not fifteen feet away. From my brief glance, he must have been the leader Yelf as he had the most elaborate head-dress of skulls, feathers, fur, beads and teeth; he stood about eight feet tall and was holding four spears all aimed at me, I lifted my Uzi’s and squeezed the trigger emptying the magazines in seconds, spent brass tinkling on the ground around my paws.
I heard Pandora ready her RPG and I dove behind a pile of rubble, a second later she landed next to me as we heard...
“Did mew get him?” I asked.
She peeked out from ourtemporary blast shelter and replied. “I think so.”
“Mew think so?”
“Vell, there’s a piece of him offur there,” she pointed and then pointed in several other directions, adding. “And there and there and there and there.”
“Vell it vould appear that ‘is body is going to reassemble and reanimate, as its all moving towards the remaining bit of its torso.”
I shook my head and then I had to see fur myself, and OH MY COD; if the fluffing Yelf’s body-bits weren’t moving, crawling or whateffur mew want to call it, towards one another.
We watched in fascinated horror as all the icky, broken, pink splattered pieces began to shift into place, the head rolling along the ground as two of the three bulbous eyes glared at me as if to say, ‘mew’re toast’, the third eye was missing and its snapping jaw makingguttural,snarling sounds as a magickal glow began to emit from the behemoth Yelf. I’d reloaded my Uzi, Pandora had another grenade ready when Humphrey appeared through a cloud of burning gun-smoke his Katana drawn and glinting menacingly in the light.
He made light wurk of the Yelf leader and in less time than it took me take a medicinal swig of nip scotch the fuglymuther fluffer was mince, and the oozing flesh sizzled like beef on a barbecue. [It didn’t smell like BBQ beef, more like rotten, months old offal].
“That fluffer won’t be using any magickjuju to get up again,” Humphrey growled wiping the pink smeared blade with a silk square.
“And how’s that?” I asked, and to be honest I was really curious.
“This is the Sword of Angels,” Humphreyanswered. “It is blessed by the divine light and by all that is pure, there is no more indomitable weapon against pure eveel than this blade.”
Pandora was furry impressed as she blasted another grenade at two more smaller hostiles who tried a stealth approach of creeping down the wall behind us. Suddenly, the hunting horn blared out; four short blasts and in seconds the remaining stragglers of The Wild Hunt fled into the darkness and disappeared like wraiths in the night.
I clambered offur fresh rubble and foul, rapidly decaying body-parts to reach the rest of The B Team and was so relieved to find them all in one piece, I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding and then noticed our way forward was now blocked due to another pile of bodies.
Smooch paw bumped Winston and beamed. “Dude, that was the best!”
In that moment I saw Winston, the Winston of old; decidedly dangerous, formidable and without a doubt one of the meanest dudes in a fight mew could effur meet. He had that glint in his eye and I knew, I could feel his fear was diluted; this win, this small success had restored his confidence, not all the way but I could see he was changed by our victory, he had real hope now.
* * *
Snowie had turned off the volume on her headset and peeked through her paws as she watched the direct feed from inside the labyrinth back in the control room at BB HQ. Those creatures, the Yelfs as Winston had called them were some of the same creatures she had seen in her nightmares.
Posie entered the control room and said. “What’s the latest?”
Snowie sighed. “I think I need to tell mew something...” she paused and then said. “I’ve been having nightmares fur weeks...”
Posie’s ears pricked up, her eyes widening. “Well that’s not right, nightmares are illegal at the RB and I think one of the elderMage cats would have noticed the energy change and something was wrong.”
Snowie nodded. “That’s why I thought my mind was just playing tricks on me, but then seeing that place and those vile creatures,” she pointed at the live feed on six screens. “That's what I’ve been dreaming about.”
Posie gulped. "Did mew tell Basil before he left?”
Snowie shook her head and stared at the floor. “No because at that point I wasn’t sure, but aftur watching that live feed, I'm 100% positive that it is the same place...”
“If that's the case, what were your nightmares about?” Posie asked, pulling up a chair.
“They are all furry similar,” Snowie answered quietly. “Death, eveel creatures, bad juju happening and that anypurrdy that goes there neffur comes back.”
“Oh my...” Posie said, her voice trailing off. “What are we going to do?”
Snowie looked her sisfur in the eye. “I really don’t know, purrhaps we could ask Horice if he’s feeling any better?”
Posie straightened in her chair. “I don’t think Horice can help us, he’s sleeping,” she said. “I gave him a mild sedative as he was so upset and distressed aftur the incident with the clock...”
“Oh,” Snowiemurmured. “Any other idea’s then?”
“Well we could always send in the orb thingummy,” Posie said suddenly. “The one the Creator dude gave to Basil when he got sucked into that pocket universe when we were stranded in 1683 or the box that Bob gave us on Catopia last year, maybe one of those things would help?”
“Do mew know where Basil keeps them?” Snowie asked.
“No do mew?” Posie replied.
Snowie shook her head, then she said. “What about on the new bunker level, the one only Basil has access too?”
“Let’s go, but bring the tablet so we can monitor what’s happening in the labyrinth,” Posie said jumping from her chair.
* * *
Humphrey was shrinking the ATV’s and weapons as I heard Parsley say to Pandora. “So what was that little surprise mew had in store fur those?” He pointed towards the pile of bodies.
She glanced at the ground and hesitated before she spoke. “Let’s just say I ‘ave a few upgrades of my own.”
Smooch edged closer and asked. “What kind of upgrades, hardware or organic?”
She sighed. “Neither, my great, great, great grandmother was a pure blood Romani Cat...”
“OH MY COD!” Amber blurted. “I was just reading a book about that blood-line, they have magickalpowers right?”
Pandora stared at the ground, not meeting our curious glances and she said with a heavy sigh. “Yes, they ‘ave powers.”
“Do mew have powers too?” Smooch pressed.
She nodded sadly. “Tell us!” we all said at once.
“Mew purromise mew won’t ask me to leave or burn me at a stake or anything?” she said in her odd, little foreign accent.
“What?” I almost choked on the wurds. “Of course not Pandora, mew are with The B Team and we are your furmillyfureffur...” Pandora must have been through quite an ordeal, and this explains so much, I thought, before saying. “Pandora whateffurspeshal gifts mew have should be embraced and nurtured, and mew neffur have to wurry about anything with us, mew know that right?”
Pandora didn’t meet my eyes, so I continued. “Whateffur happened to mew before, will neffur happen again I can purromise mew that.” And I made a mental note to find out as much as I could about her past tormentors when we got back home.
Pandora sighed heavily. “Basil, I know that mew are the most ‘onourable feline along with...” she indicated to the entire team. “Before I ‘ad the luck of the gods to end up with mew, my past lives were not so nice and when others ‘ave found out about my powers and the things I can do, they changed... they became frightened and if I wasn’t chased off, I was threatened or wurse...”
I clamped my jaws tight-shut as what was about to leave my mouth could wait fur another time, so I said. “Pandora I am so sorry that ignorant, small-minded purrsons in your past did not treat your gifts and mew purroperly, but mew are part of The B Team and whateffur gifts mew bring to the pawty we’ll embrace with open paws, mew are our sisfur and always will be, ok?”
She nodded and I saw a tear roll down her cheek. Winston had been listening intently moved closer and put a paw, effur so gently on her arm and said. “Miss Pandora, purrlease tell us what mew can do?
OH MY COD!
See mew same time, same place next week fur the next thrilling chapters