Chapter 41 – In the Face of Death
Cloudhawk’s thoughts were slowly being consumed by this terrifying possibility. Had the giant rats been spying on the mercenaries during the past few days? Had they first gotten a handle on how the mercenaries were behaving, then set a special trap to wipe them all out at one go?
Impossible. He had to be imagining things. This idea was shocking, ridiculous, impossible, and unbelievable. But when Cloudhawk took another glance at the rat hair, then at the local geography, he couldn’t help but turn even paler. The only way the little bastards could’ve set up a trap like this is if they are almost as intelligent as human beings!
Giant rats were amongst the lowest type of mutabeasts in existence. In both the Old Times and in the modern era, they were at the very bottom of the food chain. Cloudhawk refused to believe that rats could come up with a scheme like this. This entire world has gone mad!
The unsteady look on Slyfox’s face suggested that he had the same thoughts as Cloudhawk, even though neither voiced them. Still, Slyfox was a very experienced man who had experienced many dangerous events in his life. He didn’t hesitate in the slightest as he immediately called out, “Withdraw!”
Everyone came back to their senses. Right at this moment, a series of noises could be heard from the entrance to the valley. A pair of gunshots could be heard, followed by miserable screams. The mercenaries stationed outside were in trouble!
Mad Dog immediately ordered, “Cooke, Woola, go take a look!” Woola was the fastest member of the mercenary squad, his six legs allowing him to bound forward with the speed of a cyclone. Right behind him were eight wastelander cavalrymen riding their bigfoot birds, with the other mercenaries frantically running towards the entrance to the gorge.
That uneasy feeling in Cloudhawk’s mind grew stronger and stronger. Something really bad was going to happen!
Just a few minutes later, Woola came bounding backwards. His body was covered with wounds, and only six of the eight mercenary cavalry came back, with Cooke supporting an injured one. The injured cavalryman’s chest was torn apart with bite marks, and it looked as though they had chewed their way into his innards. The most deadly wound was the one on his neck, where it looked as though his carotid artery had been severed.
“I need a medic!”
Several mercenaries frantically ran over, wanting to help, but the man’s injuries were catastrophic. There was no way to stop the bleeding, and blood continued to spew out of him. He struggled to open his eyes, then reached out with a mangled hand to weakly clasp a nearby mercenary. He summoned all of the energy he had to say: “We’re completely surrounded outside. I’m not gonna make it. Leave me and… get the hell… out of…”
Right at this moment, a tidal wave of strange squeaks suddenly rang out from outside. These were the sounds the giant rats made… and it seemed as though there were countless rats right outside! The mercenaries all felt as though they had been doused in cold water as the final strand of hope they had felt was extinguished!
“What the hell is going on?” The furious Mad Dog charged straight towards Cooke, grabbing him roughly. “Where are the others? What happened to the others?!”
Cooke just shook his head, a bitter look on his face. Just as Mad Dog was about to launch into an enraged tirade, the worst case scenario happened.
A large number of giant rats began to flood into the gorge, surging towards them like a tide. Some were burrowing under the ground while some were crawling on the walls. There had to be at least five or six hundred of the critters at a minimum!
Damn. This is almost as bad as a beast wave! Although the mercenaries were quite powerful, how could they possibly deal with such a large-scale attack by so many giant rats? The mercenaries began to withdraw, not even thinking about stopping to fight. Slyfox moved to grab the heavily injured cavalryman, only to discover that he had already passed away just a short while ago.
The countless giant rats around them continued to surge closer and closer towards them.
“Screw it, withdraw!”
The twenty-plus mercenaries all began to frantically retreat. While withdrawing, Cloudhawk stared wide-eyed as the dead mercenary on the ground was dragged like a ragdoll into an entire pack of savage giant rats. It was like he had been dragged into the hands of a horde of murderous children, and just a few seconds later the corpse had been completely torn apart.
Cloudhawk had spent roughly a month and a half at Blackflag Outpost. By now, he knew and was very familiar with every single mercenary in the Tartarus mercenary company. They loved to tease and torment him… and now, one of them had just died in front of Cloudhawk, with his body torn into shreds. Cloudhawk couldn’t help but feel miserable. Although he still really didn’t like Blackflag Outpost, he had to admit that he truly had become a member of the mercenary company.
One of his comrades had just died in front of him, and there hadn’t been a thing he could do about it. This induced a sensation of rage and grief as he powerlessly tightened his grasp around the black tri-bladed staff!
Cloudhawk’s eyes were completely bloodshot by now. Right at this moment, one of the dog-sized giant rats pounced straight towards him, its mutated claws and fangs as sharp as knives. These creatures were incredibly deadly; if he allowed himself to be knocked down, he would be doomed.
Cloudhawk lashed out with his staff, and the blood-splattered giant rat came crashing down to the ground. Alas, the creature was incredibly tough and tenacious. Although it had been heavily injured, it didn’t retreat; instead, it moved to attack in an even more berserk fashion. Right at this moment, two more giant rats appeared next to Cloudhawk. They were as agile as panthers and as savage as wolves, launching a pincer attack on Cloudhawk.
“Fuck off!” Cloudhawk brandished his tri-blade staff, managing to just barely beat back two of the rats. The third one managed to make it past his defenses, leaping onto Cloudhawk and pouncing onto him, using its hooked claws to dig an enormous tear on the back of Cloudhawk’s leather armor.
Cloudhawk spun his tri-blade staff backwards, using it to stab towards his own back! Several bloody wounds appeared on the giant rat’s body, but it continued to obstinately maintain its grip on Cloudhawk. It even attempted to climb upwards and tear at Cloudhawk’s neck! Right at this critical moment, the six-armed Woola came charging over. Woola grabbed the giant rat, threw it to the ground, then delivered a crushing bite to the giant rat’s head.
“Let’s run, Woola!” Cloudhawk stabbed to death a giant rat which sought to ambush Woola. The creature’s foul, pungent blood spurted onto his face, but he didn’t even have any time to wipe it off. They were completely surrounded by giant rats, all of which were leaping towards them.
Crack! Crack! Crack! Three cracks rang out as Slyfox turned to fire off three shots in their direction. Three of the giant rats toppled to the ground. Cloudhawk and Woola hurriedly took advantage of the opening to follow after the rest of the mercenaries.
“Don’t panic, rookies! Don’t panic! All of you, stay close to me!” Slyfox fired repeated long-distance shots, killing several of the deadly acid rats which were hidden amongst the many other giant rats. “Cooke’s up ahead searching for a place for us to hide!”
Mad Dog was like a windmill meat grinder, swinging his snow-white machetes in every direction as he hacked open a path for the others. It didn’t matter how ferocious the giants rat were or how many of them attacked; all of them were hacked into mincemeat by Mad Dog’s deadly dance of machetes.
Several of the wastelander cavalry on the bigfoot birds led the vanguard in their breakout attempt. Cooke led them through various twists and turns, somehow actually managing to discover a cave.
“There’s a cave up ahead!”
“Quick, into the cave!”
The mercenaries fought their way all the way to the cave entrance. The cave was large enough for the mercenaries to hide themselves in. If they barricaded themselves inside and just defended the entrance, their chances for survival would be exponentially higher!
Just as the mercenaries were about to go into the cave, five particularly muscular giant rats came flying out from inside the cave. The vermin had actually set up a small ambush for them! However, there weren’t enough of the rats to actually pose a danger to the mercenaries.
“GRAAAH!” Mad Dog was like a maddened beast as he hacked all of the nearby giant rats into tiny pieces. Just as Mad Dog chopped the final giant rat apart, one final rat came bounding towards them from within the darkness. Without even pausing to think, Mad Dog moved to chop this rat apart as well.
Slyfox’s eyes widened as he stared at the giant rat from afar. He let out a loud roar, “Blast rat! Dodge it!”
This giant rat was smaller than most giant rats, but its fur was completely red. Under ordinary lighting, it would’ve stood out quite easily. Much like the acid rats, blast rats were a special type of mutant rats. They weren’t large, but their bodies contained an enormous amount of explosive materials inside. If it suddenly exploded, not only would Mad Dog and the surrounding mercenaries be caught in the blast, even the very cave itself would be collapsed.
Without the protection of the cave, the mercenaries would be doomed! They’d be swamped and torn to bits by this endless wave of giant rats!
Doomed. We’re doomed. It’s too late! But right at this critical moment, an incredibly agile black shadow shot forwards, using its mouth to bite down on the blast rat. The black shadow’s six arms propelled it outwards at incredible speeds as it instantly charge outside of the cave.
Cloudhawk shouted loudly, “Danger! Get back here!”
Woola shook his powerful head, sending the blast rat flying into the air… but it suddenly detonated just a second later. The rat had flown less than two meters away before exploding, and it was like a grenade had detonated. An enormous ball of light and fire burst out with terrible power, blasting a crater into the ground. As for Woola, he was blown backwards by the force of the collision and knocked sprawling to the ground. His six arms twitched spasmodically, but he was unable to clamber back to his feet. Clearly, this wound was an extremely heavy one!
“Woola!” Cloudhawk’s eyes instantly reddened. Cooke hurriedly moved forwards to grab him and stop him from moving. “Don’t be rash!” Unexpectedly, Cloudhawk was so strong that Cooke wasn’t able to grab a hold of him. Cloudhawk ran forwards in a near-hysterical manner, his steel staff knocking aside five giant rats that were about to attack Woola. Several of the giant rats had torn multiple gaping wounds in his body. By now, the ten-plus nearby giant rats had already completely focused their attention upon him and Woola.
Slyfox raised his guns up high. The sound of gunfire rang out unabated, causing one giant rat after another to fall down. Alas, more of the giant rats quickly charged forwards to surround Cloudhawk once more. The sound of gunfire and bowstrings twanging could be heard. Thanks to the screening fire provided by the mercenaries, Cloudhawk finally managed to drag Woola back into the cave, his own body now covered with wounds.
Slyfox roared angrily towards Cloudhawk, “Are you mad? That was suicidal!”
Cloudhawk turned to glare right back at Slyfox, his eyes still crimson. “I had to save Woola!”
Even Slyfox was stunned by what he saw in Cloudhawk’s eyes. However, he quickly recovered. “Mad Dog, block them at the entranceway. Everyone else, help out!”
Everyone frantically ran over to inspect Woola and see if they could treat his wounds… and their faces quickly turned grim. Woola’s injuries were absolutely grievous!
Woola’s head had suffered the brunt of the explosion, and half of his face was missing. One of his eyes was gone, as were two of his legs. They could even see his open, exposed skull! Woola was furiously panting for breath, but it was clear that he was at the verge of death.
The mercenaries had raised Woola since he was young. He was a human, but was so highly mutated that there was no difference between him and a wild animal. They normally treated him as nothing more than a guard dog, but in their hearts Woola was an inseparable member of the Tartarus mercenaries.
Woola was an ugly, savage, bloodthirsty cannibal… but when the mercenaries were in danger, he had ignored his own safety and charged out to protect them. He had traded away his own life to give them a chance to live. He was nothing more than a wild animal, but he was far better than many ‘humans’ of this day and age!
Cloudhawk wanted to help Woola, but had no idea as to what he could do. “Hang on, Woola! Where’s the medicine? I need medicine! We need to treat Woola!” But the only response was silence.
The mercenaries sighed silently. As for Woola, he opened his remaining eye and let out a low, mournful gurgle.
Right at this moment, Slyfox walked over to Cloudhawk, then pulled out a dagger and tossed it to him.
Cloudhawk stared at Slyfox in disbelief, then glanced at Woola. “What are you saying?”
“Woola’s in a lot of pain right now.” Slyfox’s own pudgy face was also covered in grief. “He viewed you as a friend… which is why we’re gonna let you send’m on the final leg of his journey.”
Send him on his final journey? Cloudhawk dumbly accepted the dagger, then turned to look at the horrifically wounded Woola. Woola stared at Cloudhawk with his one good eye, a look of grief and agony in his gaze.
“Woola wants to keep livin’, but he can’t live much longer. There’s no place in the wastelands that can treat injuries like this… and even if he did by some miracle manage to survive, the only thing waiting for him would be a life as a cripple. You know exactly what that sort of life would be!” A heavy look on his face, Slyfox explained to Cloudhawk, “As a man, ya gotta make sure you live up to the trust your battle-brothers place in you. This is Woola’s final wish, and a chance for us to relieve’m of his pain.”
Woola was beyond rescue. Cloudhawk knew this… he just couldn’t accept it. The powerful vital energy which made this mutant so strong was now a curse that was trapping him in a cage of agony, preventing him from dying. The one and only thing they could do for him was to relieve him of his pain.
But… Woola saved my life! How can I kill him?
Slyfox said heavily, “You grew up in the wastelands. By now, you should’ve learned to look death straight in the face. This is something every wastelander has to learn and experience. It is a crazy world we live in. Stayin’ alive aint always a good thing, and dying can be a form of release. D’ya unnerstand what I’m sayin’? Don’t waste any more time. Woola’s in a lotta pain right now!”
Cloudhawk was silent for a few seconds as he waged a mental war against himself, then slowly lifted the dagger up. He murmured softly, “Farewell, Woola. Make sure you aren’t reborn into the wastelands in your next life.”
As the dagger descended, Woola opened his remaining eye one final time. The only look in his eyes was that of gratitude.