The ebony bird perched on a swaying branch above, giving a low caw. The signal sent the first group into action, uncoiling their ropes to set a border around the camp. A smaller group began their search of the empty but far from abandoned campsite for the live trap containing our comrades.
They unraveled the coils of rope from their shoulders, threading it until it could be tied to another rope end. An anchor point was created around a nearby tree. As the slack length of rope came down, we pushed soil and leaves over it.
I nervously scanned the area, cursing that the rangers’ horses were nowhere to be seen. Eddie would have to do his work of convincing the horses to escape in front of the poachers. I hoped the group in the tents would find all the guns and unload everything in time.
There was an excited scurrying as a rat happily waved from the tent farthest from us. He stood in front of the fold entrance, giving a thumbs-up signal. The trapped rats have been found. Justin looked up enough to give a return signal and went back to tying rope. The rat disappeared back into the tent.
Morale all around jumped to a new level. I gave out a sigh of relief. At least one part of our mission would be solved without incident.
But of course, I had spoken too soon.
Our already alert ears perked up in unison, our noses picking up the pungent scent. The crow above us gave a second caw, this time the sound sending a chill down my spine. He flew from his perch in a ruffle of feathers.
“Everybody down!” Justin yelled.
Without questioning, the tiny soldiers lowered to the dark soil, our bodies pinned as flat as we could go.
My heart raced, my breathing echoing in my ears. A tickling started in the back of my throat as the smell of human sweat, and general filth filled my senses. I remembered Nancy’s comment on how humans had a very specific scent. Now I knew for myself and only hoped that my own human form did not offend her as I was being offended now.
Stan, The younger of the two poachers lumbered into camp with one of the horses, their bounty weighing heavy. Exhausted, he tossed the reins onto a shrub, continuing towards the tents as he rubbed his weary face.
The hard work was wearing thin as did being in the wilderness too long. His face also betrayed the annoyance for his partner and for a split moment I found myself feeling sorry for him.
The need to do something was powerful but we couldn’t reveal ourselves so soon. I forced myself to slow my breathing, trying to clear my head and not allow impulsive behaviors to take over. My fingers curled tightly into fists, my claws digging into my palms.
The noise was enough to snap Stan out of his stupor, spinning in the direction of the storage tent. He said nothing as he listened for the sound to repeat itself.
My hands were shaking. To think that the plan was about to come to an end so soon!
The poacher returned to the horse’s burden, the smell of freshly skinned hides overwhelming. There was a soft rustling as Justin rose from the ground. We continued our work slower and more cautious than before.
All the rats froze as the banging noise echoed through the campsite again.
What is it with them?! I thought with urgent frustration. We’ll get caught for sure!
Justin watched the supply tent with a stern grimace that turned to a nervous snarl. Stan decided not to dismiss the sound the second time around.
Picking up a fallen branch he inched his way towards the supply tent. He studied the entrance, poking at the fabric then pushing it aside.
“What the? Holy…!”
The tent exploded as rats burst through, scattering each way they could around the human. One lunged at Stan but I couldn’t tell if it was accidental or a deliberate attempt to get him out of the way. Stan stumbled back, punching at the rat that clung tight to his shirt. With a frenzied swing, the brown body fell to the ground stunned.
Stan staggered back, glad to have rid himself of the attacker but he was not finished yet. Catching his breath he raised the stick.
The branch came down with a forceful swing and a primal growl.
A sickening thud met our ears, blood splattering against the ground. I snapped my head as a large blur rushed through our group with Justin attempting to grab at him. The loyal guard ignored his leader.
Brutus clutched his poleax with a strength that turned his knuckles pale, a guttural screech emerging from his throat. Stan swung the heavy branch unaware of the beast coming towards him as others ran away.
The steel spear was brought down in a rain of rage, piercing the hard leather boot. Brutus didn’t react to the thrashing as Stan realized he was impaled. Gripping the handle, the dark rat continued his revenge.
With a forceful pull, the axe came out, splattering blood from its points. He swung the blade in a wide arch towards the ankle finding its mark in the poacher’s achilles’ tendon. Brutus gave a wicked smile as the human fell back in searing pain, the foot useless beneath him.
There was no time to think. We rushed forward with coils in hand. Although now quiet, Stan’s shock in being surrounded didn’t do much for keeping him still.
As the ropes encircled his wrists and feet, he began to strike out. We held fast, using all our strength to tie the knots. My arms ached and my hands burned but I refused to abandon my task.
Inspired by Brutus’ example, another large rat jumped forward with his spear. Frustrated with the unruly human’s movement, he brought down his weapon going through the hand we were trying so hard to tie down.
“No! No more!” Justin screamed, enraged and horrified by how quickly the plan was disintegrating into bloodlust. “No killing! We are not here to kill them!”
Whether anyone was listening was yet to be seen.
“What the hell is going on here?!”
Time froze as the second poacher burst from the wood. Stan arched his neck. He lay pinned, unable to move, as his body stood conquered by the rats over him.
Like a wave we charged. Unsure as to what was going on yet still aware of what he had to do, Ray dodged our initial attacks, slapping away the nooses we attempted to get on him.
Confused, he bolted to the side. As he reached the perimeter, rats still hiding in the brush popped up, heaving taut a rope tied to a tree.
As his boot slipped under the rope, they bolted from their positions, crossing the lines. With every ounce of strength they pulled as they ran, digging their claws into the earth.
There was the sudden wave of arms then feet tossing debris into the air. The second poacher was down but our job was far from over. He was determined not to be as easily caught as his partner.
Looping my rope I began to run towards them. As I neared, the ground exploded with a roar and I felt myself being hurtled. My ears rang as I shook the stupor off, my side and head aching with dull pain.
A pair of hands grabbed me, pulling me underneath low-lying growth. As my blurry eyes cleared I saw everyone scattering as another concentrated gust of leaves and soil erupted from the ground.
Ray was tied but was far from incapacitated. In his trembling hands the revolver jerked back violently with another boom.
“He’s shooting us! He can’t!” I lunged forward only to feel the hands grab at my arms. Jinnai held me fast, refusing to let me leave from the makeshift shelter.
“No! There’s nothing you can do!” he yelled, his grip tightening. “You’re already hurt, I’m not going to let you get killed!”
“He’s going to kill us anyway!” I screamed back, the panic overwhelming me. “We have to stop him!”
Justin’s voice rose above the fray. The nooses flew to catch the gun, one lucky throw encircling the muzzle. The rats yanked the rope, throwing Ray off guard. He jerked his hand back, sending the quartet of rats flying. Without enough leverage could not hold the movement in check.
They crashed into a nearby tree, the force sending them violently bouncing towards the ground. Ray aimed his gun in their direction.
“Justin!” I jumped from my hiding spot into the frenzied commotion, not even realizing I had fallen to all fours as I ran.
Bodies in motion blurred all around, no one stopping for me to recognize the smallest of details. My ears roared with incomprehensible noise, my muscles burning with desperate energy. The brush engulfed me and I clutched at broken branches trying to find someone, anyone from that group.
Especially Justin. I had to find Justin!
I screamed his name, finding myself unable to compete with the sounds that surrounded us. My voice cracked, my throat turning painfully hoarse.
Why won’t he answer?
I took a few more panicked steps, finding my hand covering my nose in an instinctive motion. The dull metallic smell clung in the air, not enough to be overwhelming but enough for my sensitive rodent senses to pick up. My eyes ached as I stared at the base of a tree root. A glint of sunlight reflected off of something partially hidden underneath.
I didn’t want to get closer however I forced each move. A slow gasp hissed from behind my hand as I recognized the relic hiding in the dirt, the gold ring with the ruby stone at its center.
With trembling hands I picked up the Stone, the gold surface marred by dark, streaking stains I hoped was mud. My wrinkling nose told me otherwise.
I stared at the stone, gripping at its edges tighter as I shook harder. My eyes clouded up and my teeth bared in a tight snarl, my rage flowing.
“No, it’s not going to end this way,” I growled, not recognizing my own voice. “I refuse to end it this way.”
You can unlock any door if you only have the key…
Raising my head I encircled the unbroken chain around the neck, the stone dangling with an unusual lightness for its size.
Narrowing my gaze I gripped the hilt of the sword at my waist, the unblemished steel ringing as it unsheathed from the scabbard. With a low crouch, I turned, facing Ray’s direction. He had managed to finally empty his gun but still struggled with his rodent captors.
Dragging the sword I drew a line before me in the soil. Before me was my door, The silver blade my key.
“It stops now.”
I rushed towards the poacher. Reaching out, I leapt into the air, a fistful of flannel meeting my grip. Ray continued squirming but I held fast. I heard my name echoing below me but this piecemeal was mine. Unsure of my grasp I decided to reinforce my position. With a swing I plunged the sword through the fabric onto flesh, using the leverage to continue my climb.
I rode the waves with a skill that I refused to question. My mission was clear as I pulled the sword and repeated the gesture. Gripping more fabric I made it to the horrified poacher’s chest, my sword slick.
The ropes pulled tight against him. He could only raise his head and stare at me with a combination of horror, rage, and fascination.
“Get off of me!” he screeched as I inched closer. “You fucking lab freaks, I’ll get every single one of you!”
The stone gave a bright shimmer, just enough for me to notice but I disregarded the display as a play of light.
“SHUT UP!” I screamed back, raising the sword, swinging it close enough to slice his chin open.
Ray froze slack-jawed. At first I thought it was because of his bleeding face, but I realized there was another look in his eyes.
It was comprehension.
I spared no time to marvel at it. I jumped forward, placing my foot over his mouth, digging into his tough lips with my claws.
“So now you know our secret,” I replied to him. I lifted the sword blade down like a cane, resting the point right between his eyes. A muffled whimper leaked from beneath my toes.
“Despite everything you’ve done, despite all you know, we’re going to remain a secret. Do you know how?” I leaned forward, adding pressure to the blade. A trickle of blood began to run down his nose.
“Well?” I stressed, pushing further.
Ray whimpered again. He nodded slightly but the steady ropes kept him from moving.
“I’ve heard that once the human jugular is severed, you only have 2 and a half minutes to live. Do you think that’s true?”
“No please…” he replied, trying not to move.
“What happened? Death only convenient when it’s not you?” I mocked. “Only rangers deserve that fate? Photographers? Rats?”
I leaned in so close Ray squinted tightly. “Filthy murderer. It’s the least you deserve.”
I jumped hard onto his throat, Ray choking on the pressure. I looked over, seeing the throbbing vein that was my target.
I grabbed the hilt with both my hands and raised the stained blade.
Two minutes would be too long.
“Anna! No! Don’t do it!”
I stopped mid swing, my head snapping up. “Justin?”
I looked down and saw the face I had tried to find, only to find the Stone instead. Justin stood below me battered, his shoulder bleeding but all right. The thick leather armor had done its job but had become worse for wear.
He held out his arms, his hands opened wide to punctuate his pleading. “Don’t do what you’re going to do,” he repeated, his voice stern but worried.
“It’s the only way,” I replied. “They’ll only come back! They’ll destroy us all!”
I felt a presence come up from behind me, gently encircling my tight hands with his own, pushing the sword down.
“No one can destroy us,” Jinnai’s voice answered. “We are Rats of N.I.M.H. We live and die on our terms, not theirs.”
My body weakened and my hands began to tremble but this time not of rage. With my blade safely down, Jinnai lifted me into his arms and leapt down onto the ground. Justin rushed to our side but kept a slight distance to not be suffocating.
“He has to die…” The words came out hesitant, the conviction of moments before gone. I buried myself in Jinnai’s embrace, the Stone shimmering around my neck.
Justin smiled. “You were right, Anna. We don’t have to be afraid. Not anymore.”
Clutching at Jinnai, I looked up at him as I felt myself breathing faster. I thought I was having a panic attack. I looked down and new tears sprang forth as the Stone glowed with a light I had never seen before. My head grew heavy and my grip tightened but I couldn’t feel myself. Unlike the first time I knew what was happening.
“You were right…”
And in the background a dog started barking.