Werecat Collectors 4

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Werecat Collectors 3

The group went their separate ways.

Rey's calls to Lyla and Chaska went unanswered, so she called the Sprocket. When she asked to speak with Chaska or Lyla, the phone was handed over instead to Zeke. He told her that neither Lyla nor Chaska were there, and that Chaska had stepped down as alpha of the pack, permanently, and was leaving the area with no set time on his return. Zeke said he was running things for now.

Zeke listened to Rey's warnings about the potential showdown between the Jaguar Lord and the Master of Mythic, and assured him she had no intention of asking the pack to get involved beyond answering her questions. He appreciated it, and said it was a bad time for the pack. He hadn't yet solidified his position as some of the "young pups" were thinking they could lead the pack better than he could.

When asked about jaguar activity, he said there wasn't any he'd noticed in town, but they'd noticed some odd scents in the hills. They didn't recognize it, but now Rey mentioned jaguars, it did smell like some kind of big cat.

They chatted for a short time afterward, and Rey got the feeling there was more that Zeke wanted to say. He didn't, so she told him what she said she'd told Chaska and Lyla: if he needed help, or wanted to talk, to give her a call. She made sure he had both her cell phone, landline and email addresses, and got his number, in case he needed to call her - she didn't always answer the phone when she was working if she didn't recognize the phone number on the display.

Before lying down for a quick nap, she called Chase to see how he was doing, and mainly to "check in". He wasn't able to come over, but that was fine with Rey. All she wanted to do was sleep, so they talked a bit dirty, making promises and "threats" about the next time they were together. When their conversation was over and she rested her head on her pillow, she fell asleep with a little smile on her face, worries about the future at bay for at least a little while.

Deal with the Devil

Less called Imogen. It was before dawn when he called, but Imogen was already up. Sounding bright and chipper she greeted his voice pleasantly. When he brought up shape-shifters lurking beyond the bounds of the city, she admitted she'd had a couple run-ins already in past couple days. She invited him to come out to her place and that yes of course his friends were welcome, too. She hinted there might be something he would like to see out there but would not discuss it over the phone.

Mira began her search for her special ingredients and spent the rest of the night in the Fae Realm near the Spring Hollow. Luck was with her and she made excellent progress. Having noted in the journal the things that seemed most likely to aid someone against the Jaguar Lord's power over women was a little better than a pure guess but she still wouldn't be positive it would work. Once she had time to put it together and bind it with magic, the effect would be stronger and she would either have to find a way to test it or just hope that it worked.

Mira had returned just before dawn to Less's apartment. She looked clean, but a little tired. Her new blue dress looked just as good as it did before, but her bare arms and one bare shoulder revealed scratched she'd earned from digging around in the Fae Realm after the items she wanted. She had done her hunting without the dress or it surely would have been torn and dirtied. Less called Rey and they made arrangements to head to Imogen's rebuilt cabin in the mountains.

Rey relayed what Zeke had told her - no jaguar activity in town, but confirmed their presence in the hills. The pack had encountered only their scents, sometimes very fresh, but had never seen anything more of them at all.

Less was tired, but he enjoyed visiting Imogen and the thought of seeing her little cabin again energized him. "How was the foraging last night, Mira?" he asked.

"Scratchy, but productive," she replied. "I found a lot of things I need except for the bleeding blackthorn." She didn't feel very vindicated by the the werewolves' report on the presence of the jaguars. She knew they were there, but some small corner of her mind had held out hope this wasn't such a big deal. It was a stupid corner anyway. " Do we have an appointment with Imogen?"

"Yes, but I suspect she would object to calling it an appointment. We are joining her for tea and a chat. She does like her privacy, but she welcomes the few visitors she has."

"Did she give you any idea of what info she might have?" Rey asked. She'd liked Imogen, and felt if not a kinship, then a certain mutual acceptance. While Rey had followed a different path as a witch than Imogen had, there still enough for them to understand each other.

"She has encountered the jaguars," Less pushed the implied attempted rape out of his mind, sure that she could defend her home. "Apparently there is something near her cabin that we need to see for ourselves."

Rey nodded, her thoughts drawn to other things for a moment.

"Okay," Mira said. "I'm ready to go now if everyone else is."

Rey drove the trio to Imogen's, her radio turned to a local rock station. A couple of times, she hummed along with the music, and once or twice she sang the lyrics, her voice barely above a whisper.

Mira was quiet, but that wasn't unusual. Her attention was turned inward, however, while she stared at the passing terrain. She'd taken the back seat and let Less ride in front with Rey, so by the time they pulled up the long fire-trail that brought them near Imogen's remote little cabin, she'd been dozing off.

It was a clear, cool morning in the mountains. Rey parked in a place that was about as close to level as they were likely to get and they walked the fifty feet or so to the little cabin. The scent of burning wood and the wispy trail of grey smoke lazily drifted out of the cabin's newly-built stone chimney. When they knocked on the door, Imogen called for them to come on in.

This cabin was a simple, one-room affair built in the style of the western mountain frontier rather than southwestern adobe. The stout logs forming the walls were built of pines from lower slopes. Windows looked modern, however, and a nice job had been done putting them in.

Inside the cabin it was a one-room affair. In the corner on the other side of the fireplace was a little bed, handmade of a wooden frame with rope to hold a hand-stitched, stuffed mattress. At the foot of the bed was a large trunk. On the other side of the fireplace was a table on which Imogen had various food-prep implements. Along walls hung pots, pans, and shelves containing canned goods, herbs, and spices. A wood stove stood next to the wall and vented directly through a pipe that punched through the wall rather than using the fireplace's chimney. It looked to be the newest addition to the little cabin. There was a pan in which eggs and bacon were sizzling on the stove. Several handmade chairs were gathered around another, rough table for dining.

"Hi," Imogen said with a smile. "Please have a seat. Breakfast is coming up! Would you all prefer tea or coffee? I have both I just took off the fire."

"Tea, please." The smell of the food made Rey realize she was hungry, and she was glad her stomach was being quiet in its anticipation of being fed. "How have you been?" she asked Imogen.

"Good," she said. "Once the cabin was rebuilt, I was able to relax a little bit except for the usual Fall business of collecting wood for fuel and canning food. At least, until lately." She flipped some eggs and turned the bacon.

Less was familiar enough with Imogen and the cabin that, once he had hugged her hello, he set about helping with the breakfast and served the drinks. He took coffee himself, to shake off the recent late nights. "You mentioned on the phone there was something we had to see for ourselves."

She smiled and nodded. "Yes. I believe I found something that will interest you. I'll take you there once you've all had a chance to eat something; it's a bit of a climb so you'll want to have your fast properly broken." She passed him some plates to set around and then added the finished bacon to a pile she'd been making.

Less typically avoided eating in public - at least among other fae. It was more about his own sense of manners than about the sqeamishness of others. Despite that the fae were the very definition of oddity, only Ogres seemed not to shy away from his mastication. He felt it all the more keenly since the disastrous kiss with Mira. His mouths had repulsed her. Still, the smell of fresh bacon and eggs had him starving and so he took his fair share.

Rey took a reasonable amount, though a bit heavier on the bacon than the eggs. It wasn't that she didn't like eggs - she did, but lately she'd been wanting meat, and so no reason not to indulge in her mild craving.

After the light breakfast, she suggested Mira should change. The blue dress looked expensive and they'd be hiking a while. She agreed and put on a rustic skirt and blouse that looked like they would fit in on an old west movie set. Less had been asked politely to wait outside since there were no privacy curtains or walls in the little cabin. When Mira was ready, the four of them set out up the mountain.

It didn't take long to skirt the edges of the big, ancient spring that was a source of power for Imogen. Here and there she pointed out tracks of large, pawed creatures she claimed where not wolves and definitely not coyote. According to Imogen, they were also bigger than the rare mountain lion tracks she occasionally found.

She took them on a route that sent them away from the spring and she apologized for the lengthy hike. It would have been much easier on horseback, she told them, but unfortunately, she didn't have any. They traversed rocky terrain heading north for a couple hours before she stopped the group.

"Up ahead is what I wanted to show you. I discovered it by accident when I was out looking for some rare cactus flowers. Now, there are old indian ruins there, abandoned for over 500 years but that's not what I wanted to show you, exactly." She waved them to follow and keep low as they came around some gigantic, leaning stones. When they stopped, they had good cover as they looked down on an ancient cliff dwelling.

Ladders leaned against the cliff wall from old paths along a canyon floor. Curtains made of leather covered many open doors, and new timbers had been placed to repair ancient, crumbling ceilings. Smoke curled from holes in the center of the square buildings set into the hollow of that cliff. "Those tracks we found of the big cats at the spring never leave, but human prints do. And I've tracked the prints all the way to that place right there. They are taking water from the spring and probably carrying it all the way back. I sent some... spies to look in on them to see if they might be friendly. They aren't. They have some kind of rigid pecking order. There are bosses that pretty much order everyone around like slaves. In turn, they have one boss that treat them all the same way."

"The Jaguar Lord," Mira whispered breathlessly. "He's here?"

Imogen shrugged.

Rey was both excited and worried. They'd found what was likely the werejaguar's lair, but it confirmed , without a doubt, the Jaguar Lord and his people had settled in to the Mythic area. It made the danger in the future for everyone living in the Mythic and Santa Fe area that much more real, and urgent.

"How many, do you reckon?" asked Less.

"My informant had it at about a dozen. Most of them are female and a couple of them obviously pregnant. The one in charge is male, and so are his under-bosses, but all the rest are female." Imogen made a face. "It smacks of some kind of misogynist cult to me. I don't know if they are all shapeshifters, either. At least, not necessarily the kind that can control when and where they shift to jaguar form."

"Cursed, perhaps," Rey whispered.

Imogen nodded. "Maybe cursed, maybe feral, and maybe both. Neither have much control, although Ferals might learn some control eventually. All I know is that I wouldn't want to get cornered by any of them. In control of their shifting or not, they can be a real handful just one on one. But sixteen? No thanks."

Now they were there first hand, they could see the layout. On one hand the Jaguar Lord had chosen kind of a dead end to hole up. On the other, they could probably hold out against anything short of explosives -- and maybe even that depending on if there are caves that go in deep behind the buildings they could see in the cliff's hollow.

As they watched, they saw a woman come out of one of the houses carrying a hoe. She climbed down a ladder and set about digging at the ground between the cliff face and the river at the bottom of the canyon. It didn't look like anything from here, but one supposed a garden might take shape down there in time. It stood to reason, though, that those people were on land that belonged to someone, either the government or private individual, and one had to wonder if the owners were aware.

Less' utilitarian mind immediately calculated that poisoning the spring was the best way to even the odds. Unfortunately, Imogen also relied entirely on the spring and Mira, a water elemental, would likely be opposed to the willful destruction of her element. "This many apex predators, and so close to werewolf territory, must be stressing the ecosystem something fierce," said Less. "I guess the females stay here exclusively. Do the males roam to the city often?"

Imogen shook her head. "That I don't know. I really just discovered these in the last couple days. They could even have a bunch of other places they use for all I know. This is just the one I found. I'd like to think this is the only band, but." She shook her head again. "This is bad business. I guess I'm going to have to figure out a way to coexist with them. I don't know how but I'll figure something out. I always have."

"Um no I don't think so," Mira said.

Imogen looked at her.

"You said yourself they don't treat women worth a crap. And I can tell you their leader is a rapist who you do not want to have lay eyes on you."

Imogen looked irritated at Mira's lack of faith in her negotiating skills, but the look in Mira's eyes stopped her short of saying something she might regret. "You know that guy, don't you."

"No, but parts of me remembers what he can do far too well," Mira said coldly.

Imogen swallowed and looked back at the cliff dwelling. "Bad business," she repeated.

Mira wished she'd brought binoculars. Turning to Rey and Less, she said, "One way to delay or prevent this guy from meeting up with his princess might be to weaken his position. Anyone have ideas on how to remove a dozen were-jaguars from his control?"

"The best way would be to wrest control of their beasts from him," Rey replied almost immediately. "If that can't be done, then finding a way to pacify them, make them unwilling to fight, or harder for him to command to fight for him."

"Do you mean like gas them?" That seemed like a great idea to Mira, though she had no idea how to make such a thing or where to get it.

"Trying to contain a gas effect in an area like that would be problematic," Rey said. "I was actually referring to controlling their Feral spirits. Pacify their jaguar, and there's a good chance they won't be up to fighting." If they were wolves, she thought, she might be able to have some influence, but she had no control over cats.

"How would we go about controlling Feral spirits?" Less asked.

"I can do that," Imogen said. The others all looked at her. "Well, not me per se, but rather the ghosts[1] of beasts I've befriended. I don't like to do it because while it can calm things down in the short term, those that get affected tend to come back at me. And then they are really, really pissed. I usually only do that in order to make good an escape. And then I make sure I never return. If you can guarantee they won't be coming after me later, I'll do it."

Rey looked at Less to see what he'd say to that.

"Are you talking about the spirits themselves coming after you, or the corporeal people who the spirits are attached to?" asked Less. "Because if its just the people, we are planning on dealing with this infection rather harshly."

"Sorry, yes that's what I mean. That the people will come after me. But if you will deal with them, then I'm certainly willing to help any way I can. These people are not going to be good neighbors, at least with their current leadership." Imogen had been thoroughly convinced by Mira's painted picture of the kind of person the Jaguar Lord was in conjunction with what she'd already heard from the ghosts[1] she'd sent as spies.

Mira put in, "And I can ask around to see if someone I know might be able to field some kind of force to hit those were-jaguars. If we can time everything right, then maybe we could weaken them enough and anger them enough that if he finds his princess he won't be able to get his revenge. And if we play smart and safe, maybe we will even get a chance to make sure he's taken down."

"A couple RPG's into the building where the JL is would do the trick," Rey muttered.

"Works for me," Mira said, with a shrug. "If you don't mind all the women that would be killed, including the pregnant mothers. I can ask about the rpgs."

If Rey had to choose between destroying the Jaguar Lord and saving Mythic and Santa Fe, or saving the pregnant women and unborn children in the building with him, she would mourn the innocents for the rest of her days. She said none of this aloud, but nodded in agreement to Mira, though hoping it wouldn't come down to that.

Mira turned to Less. "I have a special request for you. A dangerous one. I'm still working on some charms to help protect us against the Jaguar Lord's power in case we need them and can't afford the time that trying to do the oracle thing out here would take." Nor could she afford to pay the consequences such power always afflicted her with. "Can you search for a gate out here without being spotted by the jaguars? We should have a fast exit plan just in case."

"Yes, I should be able to manage that. I'll make sure to add a glamour to cover my scent." He'd made that mistake before with shape-shifters.

While Rey and Mira made the trek back, Imogen stayed with Less while he searched for a gate usable to make an escape to the Fae Realm. While he was concealed and searching, Imogen couldn't follow him, but she could keep an eye on the were-jaguar compound. If anything unusual happened, she said that she could send a ghost to whisper the message to him. Since ghosts didn't "see" with eyes, his invisibility didn't affect them.

Invisible and scentless, Less crept along the canyon, hunting for a ShadowGate. With all the comings and goings of daily life, it would be difficult to pick out his footprints in the sand but he used an old faerie trick to make his passing look like cat-prints all the same. He kept his distance from the jaguar people, crossing the canyon floor and back-tracking if a group came near to his investigations.

He extended his perceptions beyond reality into the land of Dreams. Colours shifted, dripping and draining out so that all was shades of grey, only to suddenly return more vivid than before. The harsh light of the desert sun took on a muted, more even illumination, though the sky looked as black as night. Shadows flitted in his peripheral vision, and strange shapes coalesced out of thin air and swam about like the grey thread-like floaters across his normal vision. He expected to find the tell-tale warping of reality that indicated a Gate to Faerie somewhere near the centre of activity of the settlement, but nothing caught his attention. He hoped he would not be forced to enter any of the dark cave dwellings in his search. Despite his confidence in his Glamours, he did not want to have to pass a jaguar person in a narrow tunnel. As luck would have it, after passing the strange vertical village, he took a rough path that wound through several large boulders on the hillside. Carved in the shadow of a boulder was a spiral that seemed to shift back and forth to his dreaming eyes. Touching it, his attention was drawn behind him. He could suddenly see that the boulders were not placed naturally. They formed a straight line, the ancient path like an arrow beside them flying due east. As he followed the path, the boulders began to hum and stars appeared in the dark sky, turning and shifting as if the seasons were changing before his eyes. And then the sun crested the horizon directly ahead and the road led directly into it. Here was the ShadowGate. Less could feel reality draining through, like a strong wind pushing at his back but moving through him and tugging at his very blood. It was as if he were shedding chains. The freedom of Faerie skies were promised to him.

With a step, he had moved from the dry baking heat of the desert to the humid shores of a shallow primordial sea. Huge dinosaur-like creatures lumbered in the water dredging their shovel mouths through the mud full of wriggling things or pruned the thick, juicy vegetation that towered over him. The forest of primitive trees was open enough to pass through but there was no telling what was hidden in its dark depths, or if Less was merely standing on an island in the warm sea. Still, it allowed for a possible escape. He didn't have the time to carefully explore at the moment. When he returned to the Mainland the sun was setting. After a pause to reorient himself to reality, checked that his Glamours were still in place and returned to assure Imogen of his safety.

When he got back, she told him that at end of day she noticed a Jeep pull up and unload bags of stuff, probably food and other supplies, so they must not be self-sufficient yet. The Jeep left again with two women riding in it. Or maybe long-haired men. She was really too distant to determine gender very clearly. Less sent the description of the Jeep and the women to Worm, in hopes that he could scare up the jaguar-people's contacts in the city.

Over the course of the day, Less ferried some necessities of survival in bags from Imogen's cabin. He tucked his cache of dried food, matches, hatchets, blankets and the like, into a crevice behind the boulders. It would take but a minute or so to grab the stuff as they fled through the ShadowGate, but it would have been risky to leave the items unattended within the Realms for such a long time. Who knew what they might become of them in the meantime, touched as they would be by Faerie.

Mira was quiet on the way back and so was Rey. Both had a lot of work to do and the truth was that neither of them could really test any of their protective charms they hoped to create. So, it had to be done right the first time. Rey also needed to quickly collect components she needed; Mira suggested employing Arya, the sprite at the Hollow, and also maybe Johnny to help search for what she needed. They had both been a big help to Mira when she sought components for the anti-arousal amulets.

What Rey settled on was working on something that would boost a person's natural defense against feral infection. After gathering some rare and difficult to harvest items from the Fae Realm local to the Hollow, she settled down to put something together. She decided a brew or potion that could be quaffed might be best. After drinking it, it couldn't be stolen or broken. The protection should remain in place for as long as they need it. It was very late at night when she put the ingredients in a pot and let it simmer until morning.

The next day was mostly devoted to finishing what she'd started and then putting them in small water bottles and stored in the refrigerator until they would be needed. She ended up with enough for five full doses.

She began planning the next thing she thought would help, namely something she hoped might help deflect a curse, but first she needed to make a call. She rang Chase and told him all about the Jaguar Lord and the threat he posed to the city, and the consequences for ignoring that threat. She told him she wasn't sure when they would strike, but when it did it would happen fast. She wanted him to know about it before she had to go.

Chase was silent on his end of the line for a long minute. After Rey queried if he was still there, he said, "You shouldn't be doing this. I know why you feel you have to so I won't argue. Instead, I'd ask you to let me know when you are heading out for this planned strike of yours. I'll try to put together a crew and find my way out there, but we won't be there to get in your way. We will be there, though, to pull your ass out of the fire when you realize you're in over your head. Love you."

He hung up then, probably to kill any chance of argument.

"No extra pressure there," Rey muttered bemusedly. "Now we have to win, if only to keep you from saying I-told-you---" She stopped speaking as the last thing he said to her finally registered. "No," she said with a shake of her head. "He couldn't have said that. I know he does, but he'd never say those words." She thought about it again. "No, I must have misunderstood."

At home, Mira worked on her amulets. Having most of what she needed, she just needed to spend time making them. Three amulets against the Jaguar Lord's power over women were absolutely a necessity. She managed to complete one of them. She stopped only late that night. The next day she continued to work.

But sometime in the middle of that day, she called Rey and Less, telling them she'd arranged, via a friend, for a strike force. When they were ready they would inform her; she would in turn call both of them. She wanted to be there when it went down.

For Less, she had a special request. She wanted him to ask Imogen, when it was time, to do her thing that would slow down the were-jaguars.

Then she called Drake. She let him know what was happening, that they'd found the Jaguar Lord at last and were preparing to confront him. Mira wanted her revenge, but she told him she would settle for hurting the Jaguar Lord, destroying his people so that he wasn't a threat anymore if she had to. Drake canceled his classes and left work early to spend time with her and to help out. Mira was surprised, but couldn't say no.

She was nervous. Drake assumed it was because they would soon face the Jaguar Lord that had so occupied her thoughts and nightmares. He was half right. He wanted to make love, hoped it would calm her, but she didn't react like she used to. She kept apologizing as if she hadn't pleased him. He thought she was going to cry, but then the call came. The look she gave him as she listened to the unknown caller froze his heart. What emotion made her so pale with fear, her eyes so sad, and yet so excited at the same time?

She turned away from him. "It's time," she said in a whisper. "I have to call the others."

She called Rey and gave her the news, then Less. The strike time would soon be in position and waiting for them, so they need to move quickly and get to Imogen's cabin.

As soon as she finished talking to Mira, Rey quickly typed in a text message that read "It's time. Love you too." and sent it before she had a chance to change her mind. Maybe she'd heard what he'd said correctly. And if she didn't walk away from this fight, she wanted her last words to him to be how she felt.

Once they had gathered (Drake coming with Mira), the four of them headed back out to Imogen's place. It was night and the going was hazardous if they didn't drive with care, but they arrived without incident. Imogen had been waiting for them and had some flashlights ready. Running around in the high desert mountains was hazardous even at full light, so she cautioned everyone to take care. They marched out into the night.

An hour later, Imogen announced they were close so they aimed flashlight down at the ground and looked about. Mira made a call on her (new) cell phone and two men dressed in black and heavily armed crept out of the black. They looked efficient and deadly. Their eyes were cold.

The first looked at them but didn't address them directly. Instead he spoke into throat mike. "They're here sir. Five of them." He looked at Mira. "Yes, sir. We are ready whenever you give the word."

Mira didn't realize he was talking to her and started. "Oh. Uh, yeah. Rey, I have this for you." She gave Rey a little figure she'd made. "You can just keep it in your pocket. Somewhere close by should work." She turned to Imogen and looked apologetic. "Imogen I'm really sorry, but I don't have one for you."

Imogen waved it off. "No worries. I don't plan on going any closer than this. Seeing the village is good enough for me and then I'll back away. I don't want any part of the fighting."

Mira smiled. "We'll leave it to the professionals," indicating the two of the mercs present.

Drake looked at Mira for a moment, puzzled at what she'd said. He knew she'd made three of those little things. If one wasn't for Imogen, then who was it for?

Rey opened up her backpack and handed Mira, Drake, Less and Imogen a water bottle filled with a thick, black liquid that almost looked like molasses. "This should help protect us from getting infected," she said softly. "Either by the animal spirits of the cursed shifters, or if we somehow get bitten." She looked down at the bottle in her hand. "It should last until after dawn. It smells bad, and tastes worse, and you have to down it all at once or it won't work properly."

She gave them a little smile, then opened up her bottle and quickly chugged the contents. The scent of rotting pig manure reached the others as Rey finished and wiped her mouth on her hand.

Mira removed the top from hers and the smell stung her nose. But with a determined look, she pinched her nose and then chugged the potion.

Imogen watched and followed suit. She kept making lip-smacking noise like a cat trying to get rid of something especially strong smelling or strong tasted.

Drake lifted the bottle to his lips and drank quickly. When he was finished, there was an odd look on his face as he glanced at Rey and took in the little smile on her lips. He shook his head, put the cap back on his bottle and returned it to Rey, who tucked it back in her backpack.

After downing his own potion, Less wanted a sketch of the plan. "So, Imogen will deal with the Feral spirits and these guys..." He indicated the armed commandos. "...will shoot as many of the, uh, contagion, as possible. The rest of us just pile on?"

The merc commander spoke up. "Our orders are to wait until she gives the signal. The we go in. I'll hit them with gas first, take down as many as possible without a struggle. One of my teams will go in and neutral whoever doesn't go to sleep. If the targets prove tough we'll engage as needed, pulling back if we meet tougher than expected resistance. My second team will then hit them from concealed positions with heavy weapons. There won't be any need for any of you to get involved."

Mira said, "Uh huh. Less, we aren't here to get in their way. They'll do their thing. We'll watch from safety. If something happens where we need to intervene, we need to give this strike team every opportunity to deal with it. If they can't then we are the last line of defense. So I guess we catch runners. To do that, I guess we need to spread out?"

"How do we keep in contact with each other?" Rey asked. She certainly didn't have a headset, and if she remembered correctly, there was no cell phone coverage out here.

Mira wasn't sure. "Flashlights?"

"Bad idea," said the merc. "He thought you might need these." He gestured at the second guy and he opened a satchel and doled out three headsets with boom mics. "These radios are set to our frequency. Their secured and I'll want them back. For now you can use them, but no chatter. My teams will be on them so I'd appreciate it if you used them for necessary communications, only."

Rey nodded as she accepted a headset. "Do you have some kind of click code we should be aware of?" She knew that military groups often had a one click for yes, two clicks for no, that kind of thing. She probably didn't use the correct term, but it was the only thing she could think of to call it.

"I don't think you'll need to worry about that," he said. He clearly thought of them as civilians, probably because they weren't carrying any obvious weapons, wearing any kind of desert gear or operations clothing, or anything else like that. To his eyes, they were just ordinary people who whom he'd rather not waste time and men trying to protect. Fortunately, his orders didn't include playing baby-sitter. "Any other questions?"

"I could spot from the air," said Less. "But it won't be easy to see in the dark."

Rey looked at Less, wondering what was going on in his head. Just how was he going to explain how he could do the spotting?

Mira put in, "You mean from high ground? That might be good." She glanced at the mercs, but they just didn't seem to care what the "civvies" did so long as they didn't get in the way.

"All right. I need to get back in position." He addressed Mira. "Orders are, you say go." She nodded and he looked at her longer than was socially necessary. He wasn't looking at her face, though. Finally he turned to go.

His friend turned to go with but paused sniffing around a bit. The leader said, "What?" But after a shake of his head, the man told his leader, "Nuthin'. Guess some flowers must be in bloom or something."

Rey bit back a smile, and turned her attention back to Mira and the others.

Once the mercs were gone, Mira found the talk button of her radio and made sure it was off. She then put it on, but it really didn't look natural on her. "Okay, so Less you want to keep watch from the air, then? What if they see you? Cats have good night sight. Maybe were-jaguars are different but I wouldn't count on that. Can you keep yourself from being seen, too, for a while?

Less turned back from watching the mercenaries leave and nodded to answer her question. "What are these guys costing you?" he asked suspiciously.

"I'll know when I settle the bill," she said.

Mention of a bill had Rey thinking about Chase, and some things he'd said to her in the past. "Are you sure it's such a good idea to split up? Yes, we won't be able to cover as much ground, but still...."

Imogen put in, "Well, Less knows the canyon pretty well by know so he can correct me if I'm wrong, but I see that if any of them make for an escape there are three possibilities. East along the canyon, west along the canyon, and south -- straight up this side of the canyon. They can't get out climbing the cliff wall, so that makes just three possible ways. The way with easiest footing at night looks like the route going east." That incidentally headed in the direction of Mythic City.

Mira put in right away, "I'll move down to guard that end."

"I'll go with you," Drake said, and moved to stand next to her.

"The east end is where the ShadowGate is," reminded Less.

Mira thought about that and didn't like the idea that one of her friends might have to go an awful long way to escape. "Okay. So what if we say that if they head west we don't care? Just guard south and east? Besides we don't have the people to guard everything."

"Sounds good," said Less. "Going west just leads into werewolf territory anyway."

Imogen volunteered, "I'll be ... pretty much right here." This was the southern location overlooking the canyon and looking across toward the cliff dwelling. "At least until I send a big cat spirit out to suppress whatever they can. Keep things calm."

"I'll stay here with you, Imogen. Keep an eye on things. Right now, though, I need to call my friends," Rey said. "Let them know it's about to go down, and to keep an eye out for any runners." She turned her back and took a few steps away for the illusion of privacy before she pulled out her phone and called Zeke. The call went straight to voice mail, and she told him to keep an eye on their borders for possible werejaguar intrusions.

Less faded from view and silently ascended. From above, he could begin to see what he could not from the ground. First, there was the glow of fires visible through smoke-holes in the cliff dwelling compound. Slight movement near the front showed it was not unguarded. He saw groups of men, several four-man teams armed with automatic weapons, waiting downwind of the place. They at least understood what they were up against. He saw a pair of two-man groups hidden along the ridge opposite of the dwelling as well armed with long tubes. Rocket launchers of some kind. It seemed a very good idea not to hover anywhere between them and the cliff dwelling.

Mira headed west with Drake and sought a path to the canyon floor. It required use of flashlights, but keeping them aimed low and using the natural cover of the rough terrain should help keep them out of sight of were-jaguar guards.

Imogen and Rey settled down, crouching low and kept watch on the dwelling while Mira and Drake got in position.

It seemed like a long time. Then quickly suddenly the headset crackled to life. Mira's voice reached out. "Imogen, please begin."

"Coming up," Imogen said.

A minute later, Imogen reported, "It's done. They won't be sluggish for long."

Mira's voice spoke again. "Strike team, begin."

The strike team leader issued quiet orders. Responses usually weren't given, but simply a series of clicks as men switched their mikes rather than risk the noise a verbal answer could cause.

Werecat Collectors 5


  1. 1.0 1.1 I'm using ghosts and spirits somewhat interchangeably here because I'm not really sure if they should be treated as different things in Shadowgate. In general, though I say ghost when referring to the spirit of a dead person and spirit refers to either the "spirit" of a living person or a spirit of something that has never been alive. I know, confusing...