Chapter 42 – A Man’s Choice
By now, Mad Dog had already hacked countless giant rats to pieces at the entrance of the cave. He was so soaked in gore that looked as though he had been dragged out of a lake of blood, with bits and pieces of flesh plastering his entire body. It was impossible to tell how much of it was his and how much of it belonged to the giant rats.
These terrifying mutabeasts were individually much weaker than the rotwolves, but they were actually even more savage and suicidally bloodthirsty.
Slyfox patted Cloudhawk on the shoulders, then called out to the nearby mercenaries, “Help out!” No matter how powerful he was, Mad Dog was close to spent. The giant rat blood was both poisonous and bacteria-laden, and Mad Dog’s entire body was covered with both wounds and rat blood. He was already in very bad shape. Once he fell, the rest of the mercenaries would be in trouble!
Cloudhawk picked up his shotgun, then followed the other mercenaries as they charged towards the cave entrance. He seemed to let his fury explode alongside the shells of the shotgun, firing blasts that instantly knocked down multiple attacking giant rats.
Suddenly, there was a shift within the ranks of the rat swarm. Multiple green-furred acid rats and red-furred blast rats began to stealthily advance. Once these dangerous and highly mutated rats reached the entrance of the cave, they would inflect grievous injuries upon the mercenaries. These creatures were the bane of all close-combat fighters. No matter what, they couldn’t let them get closer to Mad Dog!
Slyfox didn’t waste a single bullet. Each shot came out with perfect accuracy and struck one of the special mutant rats dead-center, ensuring that they were disposed of safely and outside the ‘critical zone’. The battle around the entrance grew increasingly frenzied, with blood and gore splashing everywhere. Rat corpses were piling up into miniature hills, and there was a literal river of foul blood flowing out!
They had to have killed at least sixty or seventy of those giant rats. This was an absolute slaughterhouse, an unprecedentedly calamitous wastelands battle!
The mercenaries had suffered extremely heavy casualties, and their total combat power was slowly falling. Slyfox didn’t have many bullets left either. The worst part was, more and more giant rats continued to replenish the ranks of the fallen. From start to finish, their numbers had not diminished in the slightest!
The swarm of giant rats was like an endless sea of chattering darkness. The mercenaries did their best to fend them off and stay alive, but were like a tiny boat that was constantly at risk of being capsized by the stormy waves of the sea.
Slyfox’s twin customized pistols continued to spit furious death, but this was of almost no deterrence to the fearless dire rats and the vermin continued to swarm forwards. By now, Slyfox only had a single ammo clip left, while Mad Dog had suffered more than fifteen wounds. Even though he was an incredibly powerful metahuman, he was at the break of collapse.
As for Cloudhawk, he had long ago thrown away his shotgun. He held his tri-bladed staff in a double-handed grip and used it to continue the fight.
By now, eighty or ninety dire rats had perished. The mercenary ranks were beginning to shrink as their casualties mounted as well.
“Ahhh!” A bloody hole was torn into one of the vanguard mercenaries by the fangs of a giant rat. Slyfox hurriedly shot dead the offending rat, but even more giant rats swarmed the injured mercenary before the others had a chance to pull him out. He collapsed as his legs were torn to pieces, leaving behind virtually nothing besides his leg-bones. The mercenary did his best to clamber into the cave on his hands, but the giant rats dragged him backwards, his fingers leaving bloody marks on the cave floor. In the end, he disappeared into that endless sea of darkness.
“DAMNIT!” The enraged mercenaries redoubled their efforts against the rats.
The battle had already devolved into a war of attrition, a bloody fight where either side would win only a pyrrhic victory at best. It was clear, however, that the rats were present in such great numbers that they would be able to crush the mercenaries in the end. If this continued, it would only be a matter of time before the humans faced their doom.
However… right at this moment, something completely unexpected happened. A shrill squeak rang out from within the rat swarm. The squeak was loud and incredibly sharp, boring straight into the ears of every single person and carrying with it an aura of majesty and dignity. It was as though the swarm had received orders from its king, as all of the rats instantly halted their attacks and retreated a few dozen paces.
The rat swarm suddenly parted, and a giant rat that looked very different from the rest emerged from within. Its fur was completely white and slick, almost silken. It was able to both crawl around on all fours as well as walk upright on its hind legs. It was triple the size of an ordinary giant rat, almost on par with an ordinary human.
A certain distance separated the two sides. The giant silver rat stood up straight on its high legs, then swept the humans with its beady black gaze. Every single human present could sense what that gaze held: intelligence, cruelty, remorselessness, and cold hate.
Animals shouldn’t have gazes like that… and they shouldn’t look like that either! Judging from its head, its eyes, its nose, its ears, its mouth, and its knife-sharp claws, it looked just like an ordinary rat… but its gaze, demeanor, and posture marked it as human!
The rat king! This had to be the rat king! Even the most of mercenaries who had often ventured into the wastelands, when faced with this strange creature, felt a sense of terror slowly seep deep into their very bones.
The rat king stared at the stunned, exhausted, and heavily wounded mercenaries… then its sharp mouth slowly hooked upwards, almost in a mocking smile.
Was it a smile? Perhaps it was. Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps the rat king didn’t really know what this expression signified, and perhaps it was just an automatic reflex on its part… but the effect was striking and bizarre.
None of the humans present would ever be able to forget this sight. They felt stunned, shocked, horrified… and most of all, they felt disbelief! By now Cloudhawk had seen many terrifying sights, but none of them could hold a candle to what he saw in front of him right now.
Finally, the mercenaries understood why they were in such terrible shape. This mutant rat king their employer was interested in… it clearly was an intelligent ratling!
Although they had already thought of this possibility once they had been trapped and ambushed, for it to actually become real before their very eyes was something else entirely. Both rookies like Cloudhawk and experienced figures like Mad Dog and Slyfox all stared in disbelief at the rat king.
Hell, who would accept this? This world really had gone mad. Otherwise, how could even rats have evolved to gain human-like intelligence?
Slyfox was filled with bitter regret. If he had known how what a freak this rat king was, he never would’ve dared to accept this mission no matter how bold or greedy he was. This completely overturned his worldview and surpassed his imagination!
The rat king had been commanding its army to attack, but had suffered extremely heavy casualties due to these humans being much stronger than expected. Although the rats had more than enough numbers to drown these humans under their weight, they would probably be forced to pay a calamitous price in doing so. As a result… the rat king wanted to use a different method to deal with these humans.
The rat king stared at the mercenaries in that callous, weighing manner, almost as though it was looking at a flopping fish on the chopping block. The mercenaries couldn’t help but feel a sense of fear and dread.
CRACK! Suddenly, without any warning, Slyfox fired his pistol!
The dire rats were under the control of the rat king. So long as he was able to kill the rat king, the dire rats would have lost their commander and would fall into a state of chaos. At that time, the mercenaries would have a chance to escape. This was what Slyfox was thinking… but as soon as he fired his pistol, the rat king dodged aside with shadowy grace.
A different dire rat perished instead, its head exploding into tiny pieces. The other dire rats seemed to be enraged by this and immediately began to grow restless, as though they were about to once more initiate their swarming attacks. The rat king, however, charged forwards and tore apart two of the more disobedient rats while continuously squeaking warnings at the others. Only then did the restless swarm once more grow calm.
The rat king’s shrill squeaks seemed to carry more than ten different types of sounds and tones. This virtually fulfilled all the prerequisites necessary for something to be classified as a language!
Speaking and writing; these were the seeds of any civilization! In other words… if given enough time and numbers, these creatures might propagate into a new and intelligent race. The very thought of such a thing brought shivers down the spines of the men present!
The rat king was extremely cautious. It had spent a very long period of time inspecting the mercenaries, and by now knew just how powerful each mercenary was. There was no way Slyfox would be able to hit it… and if even Slyfox was unable to hit it, the other mercenaries could forget about even trying.
Cloudhawk stared at the endless masses of dire rats, his heart filled with utter despair. They had no chance at all! Mad Dog was heavily wounded and exhausted, while Slyfox was almost out of bullets. Under the guidance of the rat king, the rat swarm could simply choose to keep them surrounded and starve them out. After two or three days without access to food or water, the mercenaries would collapse without the rats needing to lift a claw!
The rat king suddenly ordered the giant rats to split apart. The hundreds of dire rats continued to keep the cave entrance surrounded, but they left a wide empty space at the very center.
The mercenaries looked at each other. What was this all about? Was the rat trying to lure them out and then surround them? They weren’t fools!
But right at this moment, the rat king suddenly crouched downwards and scuttled forwards, all four limbs on the ground. It looked almost like a cat as it stared warily at the humans. Slyfox wanted to fire upon it on multiple occasions, but every time his fingers so much as twitched the rat king would move slightly in response. He simply didn’t feel any confidence in being able to hit the rat king!
“The freak has come out on its own!” Cloudhawk immediately said, “This is a good opportunity. Lets charge out and kill it!”
Yeah, not gonna be that easy to kill the rat king, kid. Everyone knew that it was obviously a trap! Slyfox shook his head. “Don’t be rash. Let’s see what it wants to do!”
After moving closer to the humans, the rat king suddenly stood up on its two hind legs… and then it did something which completely flummoxed all of the humans. It raised an arm… extended a finger… and then pointed it at one of the mercenaries. The rat king let out a few ear-piercing screeches that were filled with mockery and disdain!
Was it… was it challenging the mercenaries to one-on-one duels?
The mercenary the rat king was pointing at was Cooke. Cooke was still in fairly decent shape right now; he wasn’t nearly as injured or as exhausted as Mad Dog. He was also incredibly burly and muscular, and so he was quite prominent amongst the mercenary ranks.
“Fucking rat.” After being dazed for a brief moment, Cooke began to curse as though he had just suffered the greatest of insults. “Fuck! You wanna solo? Let’s solo, you little fucker! Do you think I’m actually scared of you?”
“Don’t take the risk!” Slyfox immediately moved to stop Cooke. “We aint got any idea as to how tough it is!”
Cooke gave Slyfox a hard look, the meaning in his eyes clear. “Boss, this is our only shot.”
Slyfox still refused to agree. “Nuh-uh. Too risky!”
Cooke argued, “We only have a chance to kill it if we fight it in close combat. All of the rats here are under its command. If we can kill it, we’ll have a shot at survival!”
His words made sense. The mercenaries had no chance at breaking out by force. Their only shot was to kill this rat king… but this ‘duel’ entailed an enormous amount of risk! Was Cooke really a match for the rat king?
Mad Dog was sitting off to one side, panting raggedly. “Even if you kill it, you won’t be coming back either. You know that, right?”
They were completely surrounded by giant rats, and the duel would take place within their ranks. Even if Cooke really did kill the rat king, the other giant rats would immediately descend into a state of chaos and swarm him. There would be virtually no chance for him to escape.
“Hah! No shit.” Cooke let out a fearless laugh, a relaxed, sincere look in his eyes. There was no hesitation or fear in his gaze at all.
“Slyfox… Mad Dog… If the two of you hadn’t rescued me from those slave traders all those years ago, I probably would’ve ended up dead and buried under some rock in the wastelands by now. Thanks for taking such good care of me for so long. We’re all men, so I’m not gonna get all emo on you with some fancy-arsed speech. Hell, I’d blush if I did. Just lemme go and don’t try to stop me!”
The mercenaries all fell silent, while Mad Dog and Slyfox exchanged a glance. Finally, Slyfox let out a long sigh.
“It’s not your job to die for us. You can’t go!” Cloudhawk shot to his feet in opposition. “Chances are that none of us are going to survive. Let’s just fight together and die together!”
“Listen up, newbie. We haven’t known each other for all that long, but I can tell that you’re a pretty decent kid. Problem is, you’re still too young… but I’m sure that if you survive this rite of passage, you’ll eventually grow up to become a real man!”
Cooke’s enormous, tall, and muscular figure made the skinny Cloudhawk look even smaller in comparison. He clapped Cloudhawk on the shoulders, then let out a loud laugh. The burly wastelander picked up a pair of axes, his armor so caked in blood that it looked as though it had been dyed a new color. He strode forwards firmly and without hesitation. He didn’t look like he was walking forwards to his death; he looked as though he was walking out onto to the most important stage of his life.
“When that happens? You’ll understand the choice I’m making today.”