Werecat Collectors 5
It began suddenly. Weapons coughed and 40mm grenade round arced in the night and burst in and around the cliff dwelling structures. Explosions were muted and something like the scent of Pinesol was heavy in the air as the tear gas spread around the compound. Startled cries and screams issued from the stone and mud houses as doors were thrown open. Half naked women stumbled forth coughing and choking, some wailing in confusion.
"Rubber bullet magazines. Put them down." It was the strike team leader.
One woman who'd run out first encountered the first of the team members. Gunfire, muzzle flashes. "One down. Securing with zip ties," reported a cold female voice.
A minute later another male voice said, "Minimal success on the tear gas. Only three came out. Looks like the gas is being carried right out those roof holes with the rising heat of hearth fires."
"All right," the team leader said. "We go in. Alpha team, secure those ladders. Bravo, prepare to ascend. Charlie team with me. We'll cover them. Deltas, maintain oversight."
The first team rushed forward and grabbed the bottom of two ladders, two mean each. They were closely followed by Bravo team who quickly slung weapons and ascended ladders. Two men went up each wooden ladder. They paused there while Alpha team joined them.
The sound of smashing wood echoed in the canyon, quickly followed by gunfire and screams. First one dwelling, then another was attacked and secured by the strike team.
Then something roared. The volume was incredible. The sound of it bounced around the canyon, echoing back on itself. One of the men was heard to say, "What the fuck is that? What is that?"
Gunfire spat yellow flame in staccato flashes in the cliff dwelling. More screams erupted as the strike team leader ordered his men to switch to lethal ammunition. The screams were not just that of women attacked in their sleep now.
It was too dark to see in detail what was happening, but one large, furred yet humanoid form was glimpsed leaping from one level, catching the lip of the next level and swinging himself up as if normal physics didn't apply. It disappeared as fast as it appeared into a larger, two-story building. More screams. Then a body was flung through a wall on the lower level to flop sickeningly, bonelessly down the cliff face. It was black clad -- one of the strike team members.
"Casualties! Request reinforcements. Now!" screamed a half-panicked merc.
The strike team leader responded with, "Deltas, did you see that? Do you have eyes on that?" "Negative sir, it was too fast!" The team leader swore. "This place isn't that goddamn big. Charlie with me. Up the ladd-- Shit!" The ladders Charlie team was about to use suddenly were pulled up into the cliff dwelling. Less saw Charlie team pull back watchfully to avoid any hurled rocks from above.
"Alpha, Bravo, what's your situation?"
"Resistance, sir! Lots of--" his voice was cut off in a scream. Another roar echoed in the night.
Then the shooting stopped.
"Alpha? Bravo? What's going on up there?"
No answer. Another roar joined the first. Mortal men were shaking in their boots. This wasn't right. None of it was, neither the assault on what was mostly women, nor the probably gruesome end of eight men.
One could almost hear the team leader grind his teeth. "Deltas. Free to fire. Wipe that fucking place from existence."
Explosive hisses announced the launch of a rocket from each of the two delta teams. They flashed toward the cliff dwelling, each impacting on another part. A fiery roar exploded portions of the dwelling, then two more rockets arced to their marks. Silence fell over the canyon once rock finished falling.
The strike team leader suddenly reported. "We have movement. Coming fast! Three... things!"
There was more gunfire and then someone screamed. The silence that followed was broken by a roar that sounded like a mix between a jaguar's roar and the sound of a diesel-electric train engine. It sounded pained, but mostly really, really pissed. The sound startled or terrified every living thing that that heard it.
Something heavy landed not far from Rey and with a start she realized the sound came from somewhere near where one of the rocket teams had hid. Gunfire erupted and it sounded like it was coming from every direction. Yowls and screams followed, then silence.
From Less's perspective there was a lot to try to keep track of and it was hard in the dark. There was a lot, he knew, he was missing. Two huge cats had climbed the rock wall near Rey's position, heading directly for the rocket launcher teams. The men had died in moments, but the were-jaguars were taking hits and from their yowls and limps, they were hurting. One of them sniffed around in the general direction of Rey, but didn't pursue. Most likely, they were following the scent of burnt gunpowder. One slunk away into shadows west of Rey's position. The other limped in a generally southern direction.
A couple single gunshots drew Less's attention back to the bottom of the canyon. A man was walking among the fallen and wounded tactical team and putting an end to them. As he watched, the man walked up to the strike team leader, who seemed incapable of standing.
"Damn you, you son of--" The strike team's curse, heard over the radio, was cut off with a gunshot.
Then Less saw a massive beast slink out of the cliff dwelling. A huge, black jaguar, an actual black panther the size of a family sedan, silently dropped to the canyon floor. It growled and it was an unearthly roar, even though it wasn't as loud as the first, terrifying roar. It seemed to be vocalizing at the killer who'd shot the strike team leader. The man immediately bent over, falling to all fours. At the black jaguar alpha's command, he transformed into a huge jaguar about half the size of the black one.
So. The giant black panther was the Jaguar Lord.
The other ran full tilt to the east, back toward Mythic City. He'd be upon Mira's position very soon. The Jaguar Lord followed at a more leisurely pace.
Drake drew his sword and stood in a ready position a half step ahead of Mira. He was determined not to let anything get past him.
Remy stepped out of the darkness behind Mira, and she sensed his presence and recognized it a moment before she felt one of his hands cover her mouth, the other came to rest on her shoulder. "I am sorry, ma petite," he whispered. "The Lord is coming, and we need this strength." As he spoke those words, he slipped a bloody fingertip between her lips.
Mira stiffened in surprise, but when she tasted the power of his blood, her body reacted immediately. The touch of it on her tongue caused a tingling sensation of power that flowed from her. She gripped his hand, sucking all she could take. In that moment, the blood was everything, her entire world. There was nothing so good in it as the blood and the rush she felt.
Then something changed. The mesmerizing power of his vampiric blood transformed. It was as if this vital fluid had formed a portal in her mind. It opened and suddenly ‘’he’’ was there. The blood frenzy she’d felt fast coming on was calmed. His reassuring presence soothed her frayed nerves and transformed her driving, overwhelming need for his blood into different. She felt powerful but in control. Her mind cleared and she became aware of who she was and where she was once more.
She blinked and then suddenly knew she could tap some of that power to grant her sight in the darkness. She did and her world brightened, transforming into shades of grey in which she could see in detail everything that was happening. She still felt him inside her, a hidden strength she instinctively knew was there to call upon.
Less relayed what he could see through his radio. "Rey, one injured jaguar has left to the west and another to the south. Neither are tracking you. Mira, Drake: there is one jaguar coming right at you - fast! The Jaguar Lord is coming your way too. He's huge! A massive black panther." He swooped east, trying to keep the Lord in sight and help keep Mira out of trouble.
"Understood. Appreciate the heads up," Mira said back. A moment later she said, "I see them."
The temperature dropped more than thirty degrees around her as she turned her body to ice. Red veins appeared in her smooth, crystalline form, glowed and then faded until they were barely visible.
Something was running toward them at a full charge. Drake heard it more than saw it, but Mira could see it. She stepped up just in front of him and dropped into a defensive crouch, something Drake had taught her. Her fighting instincts had always been good; he’d only needed to show her a few techniques to become deadly.
Because of their practice together, Drake instantly knew what she was doing. She was preparing a defensive stance; she’d take the brunt of an attack and focus on pure defense. Between her skill and the icy armor that now protected her, she was nearly as tough as a tank in some ways. This allowed Drake to drop into an offensive stance and concentrate on finding his mark.
Less continued to pursue but quickly realized those cats were moving much faster than he could fly. Each long stretch of their legs silently covered yards of ground. The smaller of the two came into their sight first.
When the were-jaguar leapt, it targeted the closest person, which was Mira. It slammed into her, driving her to the ground, but she rolled with it, kicking it high into the air in an impressive move of strength and leverage. Drake had his chance and took it; his sword licked out and flashed along the huge cat’s flank, drawing blood.
When it landed, it scrambled to its feet and bellowed angrily, a roar that only the biggest cat of North America can issue. Mira had rolled to her feet as well, shaking off the initial shock of the cat’s impact with her so she was ready when the cat put its head down and charged at them. But it stopped short and took a few swipes at Drake who was trying to put the greater reach his sword gave him to use.
He took the chance for a quick thrust when he saw the cat lurch to take another swipe. He felt the point of his weapon strike and sink in but before he could turn it into a lethal cut, the cat slammed the sword out of his hands with a massive slap of it’s other paw.
Now bleeding from multiple cuts, the cat decided to take the opportunity to escape instead of trying its luck with the frozen nymph. It fled into the night as Drake recovered his weapon.
Less saw that cat flee in a south-easterly direction at high speed but then lost track of the big black panther, blending as it did in the shadowy canyon. Then a noise near Mira and Drake caught Less' attention. He sailed in their direction, noting that now both Drake and another man had joined her, as fast as his umbrella allowed. However, he could see that the panther would beat him there by a unhealthy margin.
A deep growl that vibrated through their bodies stopped Mira and Drake cold. A thump that they felt more than heard was the only warning they had when the Jaguar Lord attacked. Mira barely had time to turn and roll out of the way; Remy and Drake weren’t so lucky. They were bowled backwards and sent flying into the canyon wall where each hit hard.
Drake grunted, the wind knocked out of him, but he managed to keep his feet when he slid down to the ground. That impact had cracked at least a few of his ribs, and the pain made it difficult to breathe.
The only sound Remy made when he hit the canyon wall was the clang of the hilt of his sword hitting the stone. He too had injured his ribs, but as he didn’t need to breathe, it wasn’t quite so debilitating.
Mira turned and hammered the panther’s flank with precise blows of her fists, aiming to shatter bone. She managed to annoy it enough to give her its full attention. As Remy and Drake watched and regained their feet, it pounce on the petite nymph but she reappeared suddenly when she physically threw it off her. It landed twenty feet away in a boggling display of raw strength.
The Jaguar Lord scrambled to its feet and stared her in surprise, with ears back. Then it turned its head as if curious and produced soft rumble. Mira staggered, then fell to her back with a startled cry. She seemed like she was choking as she writhed on the ground, but Remy could tell she was not choking. Not at all. She was trying to retain control of her body which had, in response to the Jaguar Lord’s command, decided to welcome activities a little different than battle but no less physical.
When she collapsed, the black panther slunk to her squirming form, put a paw on her chest and began to slowly crush her.
“Mira!” Drake rushed toward his fallen love, heedless of the danger to himself. The Jaguar Lord turned his head and slashed at Drake, sending blood spraying into the air. The blow spun Drake around and the dragonkin swung his sword, the momentum of the spin adding power to the blow. Like some kind of miracle, Drake’s blade struck the giant panther and severed the Jaguar Lord’s right foreleg at the shoulder.
Drake’s body twisted then fell next to Mira, his sightless eyes staring into the night sky, and the last of his life’s blood streamed from his torn out throat.
The cat’s agonized bellows filled the air as it reared back and scratched at the air. It’s hot blood spraying, it weakened, then toppled back. It’s moans faded as the ancient creature struggled to retain hold of its centuries-long life.
Next to Drake, Mira rolled over onto her side. Her face was a mask of shock. “Drake?” She couldn’t understand what she saw at first. “Drake!” she shrieked. She sat up and then covered his ghastly wound with her hands. “No, no, no, Drake!” Her heart breaking, she began shrieking, “No don’t! Drake! Don’t leave me! Don’t go!” The sound of her sobbing screams were the only ones to echo through the canyon.
Less landed hard amongst them with a whump from his umbrella and a grunt from him as he fell to his hands and knees from the force of his impact. He gave only the barest of glances to the immobile jaguar before scrambling over to Mira and Drake. The wound was far worse than Less had expected. Why hadn't they thought to bring one of the Duchy's healers!? He activated his radio and put out a desperate call for help, "Drake's down! He needs immediate medical attention. Anyone! Quickly!"
He did his best to help Mira stop the flow of bleeding and then did the only thing he could think to do: he entered Drake's dreams. He would do whatever he could to save the poor, brave man's subconscious somehow. And if he couldn't do that, at least he could let Mira communicate with her lover one last time.
(Less will use Dreaming. He would like to somehow store Drake's mind in his sword, say, or in Less. Maybe they need to get through the ShadowGate. If that is just too wacky, then he will just connect Drake and Mira's minds or just allow Drake to communicate through him.)
(That's a remarkably kind thing to do. Because Drake's concession was to sacrifice himself, I can't justify his continued existence in different form, but I think that just maybe Less can open the connection between Mira and Drake, as Drake fades away. This will give them a chance to say goodbye, which is probably the very best thing Less could do; a remarkable gift.)
Less reached out with his power and found Drake's mind already fading away. In the space of a thought, Drake would be gone forever. But time is perception and perception lies within the mind. For one frozen moment, Less touched both Drake's and Mira's minds, forming a tenuous bridge of thought between them.
Drake's voice was warm and filled with love. "I love you, Mira. Live for me. For us. Find the green and blue inlaid box in my bedroom. A last gift for you." His voice got softer and fainter as he spoke, like he was speeding away from her into the distance.
"I will, my hero," Mira said aloud in answer to all he requested. "I will never forget." Her sobs faded, though tears still rolled down her face, sliding off her crystalline skin.
He was gone then, no more connection for Less to hold open. Mira's normal flesh and blood form reasserted itself as her ice body disappeared, until she looked to be a vulnerable, flesh and blood nymph. She'd grabbed a fistful of Drake's bloody shirt and rested her forehead upon his still chest, but with one hand she reached out and grasped Less' hand. She knew what he'd done and had no words to express how grateful she was that he'd done it.
Remy stepped out of the shadows, holding himself awkwardly, and if Less didn't know better, the vampire looked a little bit shaken. "If you will permit me," he said softly, "I will arrange for the cleanup of the site, and to transport your fallen companion's body back to Mythic. I can have a death certificate issued, with the cause of death being something believable to everyone."
As he finished speaking, everyone could hear the sound of running footsteps behind them as Rey came to a sliding, scuffling halt. "Oh my god," she breathed in dismay, and knelt down in the bloodsoaked dirt at her friend's side. She put a hand on Mira's shoulder but said nothing, knowing from her own experience there was nothing anyone could say right now that would help with the pain.
There was the sound of shifting gravel that drew the attention of everyone but Mira, who didn't react. The giant panther morphed and shifted, shrinking until he was just a man; one missing an arm and very deceased.
Less had one last request of Remy. In a weary whisper, and not lifting his head enough to meet his eyes, he said, "Do you mind giving that thing a good swift kick in the nuts for us?"
Remy looked at Less with a raised eyebrow. "Would it not be more satisfying to do it yourself?" he asked in a bored tone.
Imogen also finally arrived, concerned at the sounds of pain and sorrow. She looked around carefully at those present. Several here she already knew to be fae. One, however, was not and further scrutiny showed him to be something dark, a man that walked between life and death. Vampire, she thought. From his stance, she could also tell he was injured. But did the others here know what he was? An injured vampire was, to her recollection, a very dangerous being for they would heal only through devouring the life blood of the living. She maintained some distance.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Imogen said softly. Then she touched Less' shoulder. "Less? May I speak with you alone for a moment?"
"Yeah," whispered Less. Looking up at Remy, he said to him and Mira, "No debts should be paid tonight. It can wait." He gently extracted his hand from Mira and withdrew from the group to speak to Imogen. He spoke in hushed tones. After the loud chaos of the battle, the silence of the dead was oppressing.
Imogen had a worried look on her face. Her eyes stared into the place where the eyes of his mortal face would be; she could not see his true form. She stood close to him so the others would not see the small movements she made with her hands along with a whispered command. When she spoke, he heard her even though her lips were not moving. She was using some kind of telepathy.
"Less! I'm sorry for the way I'm communicating with you but I could not take the change we might be overheard or that they might realize I'm a witch." Her eyes shifted past his shoulder. If Less had to guess, she was looking at Remy Depres. "That man is a vampire, and I don't think he's a young one, either. You and your friends could be in grave danger!"
"Yes," replied Less across the telepathic link. He wished he had this ability to maintain security. "We are aware of Remy's nature. He is a good...friend of Mira's. I am not happy that she associates with vampires but I cannot control her, or him for that matter. I do not know what his stake is in this were-jaguar business - Mira and Remy have very carefully kept it secret from us - but I don't like it. The vampires have been known to kidnap werewolves for some despicable reason and I'm sure this is related, though Remy denies involvement. I am worried that Mira now owes Remy a large debt for all of the mercenary support tonight and how she will be required to pay it."
Imogen's expression showed a mix of pity and revulsion as she imagined what horrible things a vampire might demand. Would he take her blood? Her life? She tended to believe the worst of a vampire's intentions purely out of self-preservation. Her knowledge of them, which wasn't great, was filled with horror stories of their victims (learned by speaking to their ghosts) plus the knowledge that they are quite literally animate corpses that feed upon the living.
"I too fear for your friend," Imogen confided. "I hope she learns the kind of danger she puts herself and others in by associating with those... fiends before it's too late."
"My fervent wish is that it is not already too late." He sighed and looked into the darkness of the canyon for a moment. "I have to return to Mythic tonight to inform the fae of our fallen warrior. I will visit again in a day or two to make sure you and your property are not in any danger from all that we have stirred up."
Imogen smiled and ran a hand through her hair. The gesture was flirtatious but not consciously so. "I look forward to your visit."
They returned to the others to pick up on the conversation.
Others began to feel anxious. Out here sound carried and sooner or later there might be curious ranchers, rangers or others drawn to the sounds of battle out here. The longer they remained, the more likely they would be to be found.
"We need to get out of here," Rey said, reminding everyone of the situation they were in. She was still frightened by the Jaguar Lord's roar, and even though she was sure the other jaguars had fled, she couldn't help but think they might come back and be waiting to ambush her and her friends.
Mira nodded, then picked up Drake's sword. She kissed the blade and put it back in its sheath, then picked up Drake's body. She stood with him cradled in her arms as if it was easy to carry him, despite him being half again her body weight.
Several figures holding flashlights stopped a half doze paces away. "We're friends," they said by way of announcing themselves. They were soon revealed to be Chase and a few of his bounty hunter buddies. "I guess we're too... late." He stopped when he saw Drake's still form, a man he recognized. "Damn." After a nod and a solemn "Hey," to Rey, he went to Mira and said, "Why don't you let me carry him."
But Mira shied away, not letting anyone else touch Drake's body. She stopped next to Remy.
Imogen bit her lip, but then put in. "Rey is right. We must leave this place. I will search for survivors, women taken here against their will, and get them away before authorities arrive."
Chase walked over to Rey and gave her a hug, murmuring, "Glad you are okay."
Rey returned the hug, holding him a bit longer than she normally would. "Me too," she whispered, her voice catching a bit at the end.
To the rest of the group, Chase said, "Yeah, my guys and I can help with whatever cleanup there needs to be. Chuck was saying he saw a lot of bodies cooling in his infra-goggles. You all have a way out of here?"
"Nothing's that close," Rey said. "My friends and I walked in."
"I have a vehicle nearby," Remy added. "And the mercenaries I hired won't be needing their SUV's anymore." He looked directly at Chase. "If there's any equipment left in the field or the merc's SUV's, you and your friends should feel free to keep it."
"Appreciate that," Chase said. "We'll clean up what we can here."
A little discussion got things sorted. Remy's extra vehicles were much closer than Imogen's house. Imogen would remain behind working cleanup with Chase. When authorities arrived to check things over, Chase expected to be long gone by then and Imogen stated she would be able to cover tracks to avoid attention or tracking back to her home. Between them, they'd get Rey's car back home to her if she wanted to leave now in one of the extra SUVs.
But Rey decided to stay and help Chase, Imogen and Chase's buddies. She didn't say so, but the experience with the Jaguar Lord had really rattled her and she wanted to be close to someone with whom she really felt safe. She said not to worry about the car; she and Chase would come get it when it was a little more convenient. Given that there would be many cars available between Chase, his buddies, and what Remy was leaving behind, it was agreed Less could go back with them. In fact, there was an extra vehicle that no one else really wanted. They could get rid of it of course, but it was offered to Less in case he might have a use for it.
Remy went with Mira, guiding her to where one of the SUVs his strike team and he had used were parked about a mile away. They disappeared together into the night before the rest had even begun looking for were-jaguar survivors of the attack.
There were four were-jaguar women that lived. Three had been shot with rubber bullets and then zip tied. They were very sore, but they'd live. One had actually survived the rocket attack up in the dwelling. Timbers, mortar and smaller pieces of stone had covered her when the explosions happened, and other than various small cuts and bruises, she was fine.
They mostly stood around in shock while people looked for any more injured. Eventually, though, they began asking if they were free, if the "monster" was gone. Their elation at the news he was gone was dampened by the fact that his lieutenants, "cruel masters" as they described them, had escaped. Their mood fell further when Imogen explained that if they had been affected by what the Jaguar Lord did to them (in other words, inflicted a feral jaguar disease upon them), that wasn't going away. They mourned the dead women who hadn't survived the attack, though they understood the men who did it were all dead.
None of them claimed to be capable of controlling if or when they shifted into a jaguar form. Most knew that it happened sometimes, but thought it was because the Jaguar Lord commanded it to happen. Without him to control their shifting, however, no one could predict if, when, or why they might shift. Imogen recommend they not try to return to their old lives or even contact their families.
Perhaps understandably, not one of them would agree to that. They wanted to go home.
There was just one woman survivor that was pregnant. Four others had been, but they were dead. The pregnant survivor was named Tia Deacon.
The group finally had to clear out when lights were spotting moving along the ridge. There were still bodies, but weapons and ammunition had been stripped. Everyone but Imogen headed for the SUVs and returned to Mythic.
Less was worried about Mira. She'd left immediately with the vampire Depres. Clearly the strike team had been his and the costs for acquiring military equipment and fully training mercs on short notice had to have been very high, but the reason why he had done it was a question left unanswered for now. Did it have something to do with Mira's visions? Had she simply asked him a very large favor? She'd done such things before, even granting wishes to a known witch.
When he contacted fae of the Golden Mesa, he understood that the Countess had retired for the evening. His news of Drake's fall visibly hit them hard, however. They asked for a full written report knowing the Countess would be greatly saddened to hear of his death and would want to understand the circumstances.