A/N- It is time for all things to come together...but don't be fooled by what you read. Keep an open mind to all possibilities; after all, behind closed doors one never knows the reality.
Also, bonus points to whomever can tell me the meaning of the title :)
It's the second before the end
The moment all things fall
Time cracks and balances shift
And the world holds its breath
It's time you faced the truth of all
That sometimes, mortals fail
For each of them is merely a single speck
A thread in tapestry grand
These threads are made of good and vile
Though they chose the colors they wear
And both can rise and both can stumble
In the role they only can perform
When one is pulled out of its place
The rest may or may not remain
Imperfect though the piece may be
Until the maker weaves renewed
Lotera didn't dare slow for well over a minute (and therefore several miles zigzagging out into the forest), but as Nick finally succumbed fully to his tranquilizer the Thylacine was also forced to face the fact that he'd been compromised himself. Enough of whatever had been in the syringe the damn fox was holding had gotten under his skin to start causing problems, and the shot the tiger cop had gotten off was making his shoulder throb agonizingly from the searing gash the bullet had left behind in its passing.
Ducking into a shadowy alcove among the roots at the base of a notably large tree, Lotera threw up a small self-sustaining cloak (just enough to cover himself and his prize, he couldn't afford to use more energy than that) for a second and then dropped the sleeping vulpine in favor of focusing on his now nearly non-functioning arm. Whatever the compound was, it acted fast, as he was beginning to feel the building of a tidal wave of nauseated drowsiness rising as the compound made its way into the rest of his body. Lotera knelt down and with his good paw he dug into the fox's pockets in hopes of finding another syringe to tell him what he was dealing with (and get rid of Nick's weapons in the process, just to be safe).
Unfortunately, the tubocurarine he found definitely wasn't what he was suffering from. This was too fast-acting and less suffocating.
"Dammit," Lotera hissed, sitting back and focusing hard on the prick in his thumb. "Wide sweep it is, what would they use to try and bring me down? Carfentanil maybe? Has to be." A chemical neutralizer formed in droplets along the hairs surrounding the tiny wound, and he directed it to seep into the hole. Just like the Gifteds, Lotera couldn't really directly heal himself or purge poisons (a drawback he hated), but in his time practicing his arts he had learned that just like any other object chemicals could be produced with enough focus too, so making antidotes for toxins and flooding his system with them worked just like a hospital administration would in cases like these. He only hoped that he'd guessed right, otherwise the antidote would become just a second poison momentarily.
Thirty seconds later the Thylacine breathed out with relief. His theory was correct, as the sensation of movement and touch slowly returned into his arm, and after a sudden burst of extreme nausea that made him nearly vomit right there the drowsiness lifted back away as well, and Lotera returned his gaze to Nick, sneering in disgust. "Damn pain in the ass," he muttered. "You'd better be a worthy Catalyst for all this."
Then, he reached into a pocket on the breast of his shirt and pulled out a com unit, putting a battery in and turning it on.
Desireigh obviously noticed immediately. "Lotera? I thought you said you didn't"-
"Got the fox, heading in," Lotera cut her off, silencing the lizard. "Keeping this short so your foil doesn't find the signal. Get everyone else heading back to base if they don't run into the agents first; if they do, kill the agents, but otherwise fortify the rift area. Once I'm there I'll need time, and cannot be disturbed until the process is finished. Understood?"
"Got it. Clicking out and relaying now."
The line on her end went dead, and Lotera immediately pulled the headset off and took out the battery again so it had no risk of being traced. Then he reached down to pick up the fox, but the wound on his shoulder made itself known again with a scream of protest.
"Dammit!" Lotera snarled, placing the opposite paw over the gash. "Stupid bitch! Now I have to…urgh!" It was going to hurt, but he couldn't afford to have the gash bleeding away or getting infected, or distracting him just from the pain while he worked later, so he picked up a small chunk of wood nearby and bit down on it, before placing two fingers over the wound and heating them to a searing temperature. The pain lanced up his arm and through his neck, making him want to scream, but shortly after the job was done: the gash cauterized and no longer bleeding, and once it cooled the pain died to a more manageable burning throb. It would still limit him if he had to fight, but hopefully once he got back to the base that wouldn't be a worry anymore.
Now with everything squared away again, he bent down once more to pick the fox up, hoisting him over his uninjured shoulder and deactivating the cloak (it wouldn't be much use to him once he started on the move once more), and took off. Thunder crashed somewhere above his head, signaling a storm was moving in, but he couldn't worry about being slowed by a bit of rain now. Everything was too close to being in place for that.
Samantha was fuming. She hadn't had a good fight like that in years, and sure, she was sporting a few scratches (and maybe the tip of her right wing was burning a little from where it had been clipped by a beak much larger than hers), but she just knew she had been that close to finally catching Avery in a spin around a small tree and spearing her with one of her special feather blades (a weapon the macaw only had a few of, and so only pulled them out when absolutely necessary, like when finishing off an adversary was the goal).
And then without warning, the eagle had flared and altered course, and Sam barely had the chance to catch the crackle of a headset that definitely wasn't her own before Avery was rocketing off through the shadowed branches. The macaw threw out a couple of insults to try and lure the raptor back, but it was for naught.
Instead, Sam had resorted to shooting up above the trees, zigzagging back and forth to throw off any Primalists waiting for a shot from down below as she scanned the forest in hopes of catching sight of either the eagle or Lotera himself (she'd already heard the dispiriting call from the others shortly earlier), but after a couple of minutes of nothing, she resigned to falling back toward the semi-clearing where the others in her team were gathering.
Everyone was forming up in a loose circle, Wolfard and Fangmeyer still keeping watch in case there were more Primalists waiting in the wings to sweep in (without Lotera to keep a protective cover or scan up for, Embron and Scarlet had been quite free to make short work of the remaining eight or so that had still been shooting at them all after Saber had gone down, but another wave could have been hiding further out), but the rest looking between each other for answers. A bit of movement nearby made them tense up again momentarily, before they relaxed when they saw Kelia Ringston drop down from the trees; small as the ringtail was, they'd all but forgotten she'd been out taking shots at some of the Primalists from within the trees in the battle earlier too.
Samantha noted with a derisive and dismissive sneer the body of the ungulate assassin lying nearby all but ignored by the others as well, disappointed only that she hadn't been the one to take him out in the end (especially with the Haast's Eagle out on the loose and away from her wrath; now she itched for some recompense), before landing on the closest branch to Embron's head. Unsurprisingly everyone's weapons came up a second time to aim at her arrival, but she didn't flinch a whit.
"So I more or less caught the gist of the relay," the parrot said as the guns and blades lowered, "but I was kinda with my wings full and missed the details in it for moving forward. Nick was nabbed after all, Rocky found some friends, and the Sparrow doubled down on covering our positions while the others are working on catching up to us. What's the plan now exactly?"
"Our last resort, unfortunately," Embron quipped. He turned and began to haul himself up one of the few big trees nearby that hadn't been shredded by bullets or knives. Knowing the odd looks he was likely getting, he explained, "Rocky's trick with Nick's magnetic signature is going to become useful now, so long as Lotera is focused on running and not cloaking the two of them fully from view, but MacIntyre kind of forgot one detail: those of us who can see it, we need to be in actual line of sight of the general magnetosphere above the trees to get an exact location otherwise it's just a very general direction. Right now all I can 'see' is they went somewhere that way." He waved his paw across the general northwest direction, and then vanished past the leaves into the canopy.
Sam turned her attention then to Scarlet, and then Jack when the ocelot's eyes roamed to the rabbit. "Rocky and his team stumbled into a native," Jack elaborated, "and turns out not only were the singing dogs the only tribe that the Primalists managed to conscript to help them navigate the jungle, but apparently the rest of the locals stayed none too fond of them all, especially of Lotera." He looked up at Samantha, eyes hard. "They were wary of doing anything themselves because of what that Thylacine can do, but another mammal with sparking paws seems to have swayed them to act, or at least help us out. Rocky's team is already being led toward the rift, and it would seem more or less toward us in the process, so as soon as Embron pinpoints Nick we'll all be heading likely to the same place. Skye's team finally replied as well; Vela's injured and they have prisoners for her and Mack to interrogate at the airstrip, but then the rest will be moving to catch up with us. We'll have to relay plans with them though once we and Rocky's team are together."
"Okay, but important question still," Sam prodded, ruffling her feathers in an anxiety that she almost never felt. "The damn marsupial got Nick, and he's gonna get back to the rift and get whatever place they've built up fortified long before any of us can get there, especially 'cause he's got a really good head start. What happens if he's able to do whatever he plans to do before we can even get moving?"
"Pray that's not the case," Scarlet said softly. Unsurprisingly, the words weren't reassuring. Sam looked at her worriedly, very unused to hearing the cat sound so unconfident, but when Scarlet looked up again there was fire in her eyes. "Embron and I are already fairly certain that at best whatever Lotera wants to do will be a fight for him to pull off, if he even can, so we pray we're right and get moving as fast as possible, try and disrupt his plan before it's complete. Maybe even turn off this one rift somehow; it's obvious he needs one actually present in order to implicate whatever he's got going or they wouldn't have bothered trekking all the way out here, so with it no longer in place or active his glorious endeavor goes out the window."
"Got him!" Embron suddenly called somewhere above their heads, before just as suddenly dropping straight to the ground among them. He pointed straight northwest toward where they knew a couple of ridges and rivers converged from their map, and almost perfectly in line with the road they'd been trailing adjacent to in their search before. "Bend in the field is back up; Lotera must have stopped earlier and cloaked himself and Wilde for whatever reason, possibly dealing with Wilde's little gift to slow him down if we're lucky, but Wilde's signature is back in view and heading rapidly that way. No doubt whatever Primalists are still out in the forest here will be called back to protect their base too, or slow us down, so weapons out, and let's move."
Silence was the standard.
She'd seen Desireigh get dropped off and briefly pass through the room only to disappear elsewhere (not that she knew per se who Desireigh was at this time, of course, having been caged for days and away from the action), and Bhoot had come by a few times again picking up or rearranging things in the space. But neither had cared to or dared to, respectively, speak to her.
Thus, Judy was starting to go insane from the monotony of it all. With still nothing around to help an escape (she'd even toyed with trying to pull something off of her outfit to see if it could help but quickly found that what she'd been left to wear would either never come off no matter how much she bloodied her fingers pulling on it, or would never be useful as a lock pick or cutting edge), she'd studied the area she was kept in. Over. And over. And over. And occasionally put quick naps in where she thought she could, but every sound woke her back up anyway.
The one set of stairs on the northern side of the room, four doors on the bottom level where she was and pretty much bare walls otherwise up to the rickety metal railing around the second landing, and she'd been able to locate at least six other fairly decently blended-in doors up there as well along with the crisscrossing structural support bars lacing the ceiling a decent distance even above the second floor. Judy thought that with a good running start she might be able to reach the latter, but then question was what good would that do beyond maybe getting a vantage point and then getting shot at in a fight. At the least, she needed weapons especially if going toe to toe with Lotera, or whichever other highly skilled allies might eventually show up at the base (she didn't know the blue tree monitor's capabilities, Ravelis' either for that matter but at least the latter had supposedly left the base some time ago), but a broom handle and maybe a syringe she'd spotted on the one short counter nearby earlier (though it seemed to have disappeared since the last time Bhoot had come by; the little wolf pup had probably been sent to clean things up in the space and make sure sharp objects were well away) were about all that were actually lying about.
And she still needed a way out first and foremost before any of her other notions could be even remotely useful.
The southern door on the ground level slammed open, causing the rabbit to whirl around with her ears pinned on high alert. When she saw who walked in, her heart dropped.
It stopped beating entirely when she recognized what (or more specifically, whom) he was carrying too.
Lotera was dripping wet, as apparently a storm had started up outside (Judy could faintly hear thunder somewhere beyond the surprisingly thick walls of the "rift room"), and slung over his shoulder was an obviously unconscious and also rather waterlogged looking Nick. The Thylacine began plodding toward Judy, his stony expression fitting with his soggy and exhausted appearance, and Judy was caught suddenly between the conflicting urges to scramble away from the deadly presence of the mammal and to run to the bars and reach out for the fox she hadn't seen in far too long. The result was a frozen wide-eyed stance, broken only when Lotera reached the cages, unlatched and opened the one next to hers, and dumped Nick unceremoniously inside.
As he slammed the door shut again and locked it, Judy broke from her paralysis and ran to the bars of the two cages and reached through, just barely able to flick the tod's listless tail. "Nick? Nick?!" she exclaimed, trying to wake him up and get his attention. "Oh my God, what did he do to you? Nick, can you hear me?"
"Save your breath, rabbit," Lotera finally spoke in a leaden tone, violently shaking the rain off of himself that he could manage to remove in such a way and turning toward the makeshift counter nearby. Judy barely noticed him stumble in one step, focused as she was on Nick. "I tranqed him; he won't come around either for a few hours or until I administer a…" He trailed off, staring with a growing confusion that soon turned toward exasperation at the nearly empty counter.
"Kijka goona!" he spat. "No one told him to clean…mmmmhhhh!" Whirling, he stalked toward the western doorway, exhaustion apparently temporarily overridden in his irritation as he muttered under his breath.
As soon as he'd disappeared, Judy went back to trying to shake Nick awake, even though with what Lotera had said she knew it was to no avail. That was the point of a tranquilizer after all, to ensure nothing would wake him up, but it did nothing to reassure her. All she saw was her fox, drenched and battered-looking, lying on the bare floor of the second cage next to hers with only the slightest of gentle breaths visible in the rising and falling of his chest to claim he was even alive. For all her panicked mind could think right then he could have been lying there in a coma.
Two minutes after he'd gone out, Lotera returned with a syringe in his hand and headed for Nick's cage. Again, the urges to fight and flee warred in Judy, but this time she grabbed hold of the push to confront the Thylacine when he opened Nick's cage.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing-!"
Lotera snarled and flicked his hand at her, and Judy felt just enough of a something hit her to send her stumbling backward into the middle of her own container. "One would think that you also would have an interest in having the fox here awake," he quipped, grabbing Nick by the front of the suit he was wearing and hoisting him up. "So shut up." He jabbed the syringe into Nick's neck and pushed the plunger, then dropped him again and closed the door.
"Damn pup put all our supplies away," Lotera continued to mutter, before turning to sneer at Judy. "So you might as well enjoy what few minutes you have when he wakes up again. I'll be back soon enough to get the extraction started." With that he plodded off again, shoulders slumping as weariness returned to him, and out of spite Judy glared after him for a moment. The Thylacine stopped just outside the exit he was heading for, and Judy watched him reach up and massage his temples like he had a migraine. One could hope, she thought bitterly. Then Lotera straightened up again and disappeared for the second time since he'd gotten back.
There was a slight groan in the next cage, and just as quickly Judy's mind (and shortly thereafter her body) flew back toward Nick. The tod was stirring where he lay, tail twitching and the digits of his paws doing the same.
"Nick!" Judy called cautiously, though her heart was screaming at her to just yell his name to the heavens to get him to wake up faster. What rationality she was holding onto told her that was probably a bad idea, so she just repeated, "Nick? Can you hear me?"
Another thirty seconds went by before Nick's head finally shifted, angling toward Judy, and the fox's eyes flickered. "J…Juuuddd…?" he slurred, ears twitching every which way before finally locking on her direction.
Then his eyes opened, glazed and unfocused, but slowly centering on the rabbit as well.
Judy's heart leapt and she pressed against the bars even more fervently. "Nick!" Yes, it's me, Judy! Are you okay?"
Nick groaned again, rolling slowly and trying to push himself up. He failed the first time, and turned to stare groggily back at the lapine. Ignored by both of them, in time with Nick's slumping to the floor the rift rippled blue.
Three seconds later, it looked as if someone had suddenly plugged Nick into a wall socket.
"Judy!" the fox exclaimed, eyes flying open and his body rocking violently up toward a semi-sitting position. He wavered then, tranquilizer still not quite fully neutralized, and Judy was afraid for a moment that he would fall over again. In a way he did, but it was straight toward her, arms catching the bars and his head slumping forward at just the right angle for his snout to slip between the bars and his lips to crash into hers.
For that singular moment, both of their minds went blank, and everything felt right. They were both there, together, unharmed (relatively), and sharing a moment of passion they'd been starved of since that night on the ridge outside of Zootopia.
Then Nick's mind woke up fully, the tranq antidote finishing its work and everything about their situation slamming back into place in his memories. Much as he didn't want to, he broke contact and leaned back slightly, ears pinning back as he looked at Judy with a painfully serious expression. "Judy? Where are we?" he asked flatly.
Then the fox's left ear twitched and he looked toward the center of the room. "And…what is that…feeling? It's like something is pulling at me, and it's been happening since we basically landed here."
"Nick…this is where the rift is," Judy answered slowly, bringing her paws together and wringing them in nervousness. "The Primalists built this place around it; it's right where you're looking, flashes odd lights occasionally and sometimes buzzes."
As if to prove her point, a spherical shimmer of reddish lines glowed into existence for a moment above the rock bowl, and then just as quickly vanished again.
Nick's shoulders slumped, and his hands dropped to his sides. "So," he said quietly, "they managed to get both of us after all then."
"Hey, no, I just got you back, don't you give up on me now!" Judy admonished, ears lying flat too but in exasperation as she brandished a finger at the fox (no, her fox). "Look, the two of us always do our best thinking when we're together anyway, and maybe you know something about these locks that I don't, so let's get thinking of a way to get out of here before the stupid marsupial comes waltzing back in, 'kay?"
Nick blinked at her, taken aback a bit by the sudden chewing-out, before his eyes set hard and his ears popped back up. "You're right," he muttered. "Game's not over until it's really over. I've done enough of finding the easy way out anyway. Hell, I thought up the would-be trap that let Lotera get to me –would have worked too had Saber not jumped in Scarlet's way I'd bet, but beyond the point." He leaned over and began looking over the locking mechanism on his cage. It was obvious of course that from the outside it required a key of sorts to unlock, but inside, he could see a couple of flaws that they might be able to put to use.
"Hmmm…spring-loaded and held in place by multiple pins," the tod mused, tapping on his chin before poking at the little opening that he could see the gears through on the back of the lock. "If I had a good lock-picking kit I could probably manage it, but gonna need a few sturdy, thin objects first here anyway that will have to make do." He turned again and began shuffling around his cage, peering at the floor and all the conjoined parts of the bars. "Were you awake when you were brought here?"
"Yeah," Judy said, turning to look about her cage too (though she knew she probably wouldn't find much this round either, just like any of the other attempts). "Place is a big box; two floors, lined around the outside of this room by smaller spaces, and they've got supplies, weapons storage somewhere, probably a couple of communication rooms since they've got to be talking with everyone they sent into the field somehow."
"Yeah, blue tree monitor named Desireigh who's being a pain in the ass for the Sparrow," Nick muttered. When he noticed Judy stop looking around and stare his way, he continued, "Right, you don't know about everyone else yet. The Canistons dug up a bunch of friends to help out, including an old buddy of mine named Rocky who's another Gifted as it turns out and Mack Mallupe, who's the tech genius behind the Sparrow alias. Also a couple oddball pilots who're apparently also good fighters. But Mack's back with our plane right now keeping the teams covered and Desireigh from pinpointing them or messing up the jets. Really asocial guy, fun to tease."
"You would," Judy sighed, to which Nick only shrugged. Then they both started searching about again. "Anyway," the rabbit continued, "Each door out of here leads to a hall running to the perimeter corridor, and at least one exit on each face I think." She paused, reaching down and picking up a short stick that was lying in the tray below her cage. "Hey, would this work?"
Nick looked up, and frowned. "Depends on how sturdy these pens were built to be," he said, glancing at the lock again. "Considering how bad the loonies want us staying put though I'd wager we'll need something more, but we can try if nothing else shows. What I'd really like though is…aha!"
Turning back toward where he'd been looking before, he spotted something promising: a loose nail, hanging slightly out of the wall behind the cages. Problem was, even for him it was just out of reach.
"New plan for the stick," Nick said, looking back at his partner. "Toss it here."
Judy handed it over (not wanting to risk actually tossing it; if they lost the little branch that could be it for them), and Nick took it and reached out between the bars to hook the end under the bent head of the nail. The metal spike was still fairly tight in the wall even if it stuck out more than it should have been tough, and in the awkward position he was reaching through Nick strained to wiggle it out bit by bit. The little stick creaked and crackled in the process too, and both mammals prayed that it wouldn't snap.
Thin as it was, it eventually did…but right as the tip of the nail slid out of the wall. The nail fell to the floor, luckily rolling toward the cage instead of away from it, and Nick snatched it up with glee.
"Okay! Now we're getting somewhere…see any others, Carrots?"
They both looked back along the wall sections behind each of their respective containers, spotting a couple more that were more firmly in the wall a little higher up. Nick climbed precariously up the side of his cage to get one (now with a stronger object to lever with, he didn't have to worry so much about it breaking either), and then handed Judy one of the nails so she could reach one hammered into the boards behind the far side of her container. Then they both leapt back over toward where the lock on Nick's cage was.
"Okay," the tod started to instruct, "see the spring here?" He pointed inside the little opening, where Judy could just spot a little coiled metal wire. "If we break it nothing's gonna work so we need to avoid that at all costs, but we've gotta squeeze the nail tips past it here and push each of those little pins back. Once they're out of the way we can turn the latch and open the door no problem. Ready?"
Judy nodded, following Nick's guidance as they carefully picked at the mechanism. It took several tries, and several minutes, as the nails would slip out of place or they'd have to reorient themselves to keep pushing at the pins without breaking the spring. Finally though, they got all three pins to move out of the way of the deadbolt. With Judy carefully holding two of the nails, Nick held the third and then took his free hand and reached carefully, gently out and around to turn the latch.
The door popped open, and their hearts soared.
Another door on the second floor then slammed open, and it took all the willpower the fox and rabbit had not to scream aloud. Nick didn't waste time, scrambling out of his cage and running to Judy's lock, but Judy did look up for a moment to see Lotera walking in, stomping toward the stairs with a furious expression plastered on his snout.
"Other syringe seems to have disappeared," he called out in an almost sing-song voice as he started walking down the steps, but the spite in the words couldn't be missed. "Had to fill another from the rest of the supply, but still, it'll work all the same. I'll kill the pup for making me search around like this la…"
The Thylacine trailed off as he reached the bottom, looking up to see Nick out of his cage and working fervently to try and open Judy's. "How the hell did you get out?!" he spat, marching their way at a now much more rapid pace.
Nick, now knowing there was no way he was going to get the lock undone before Lotera got to him, took one of the nails and passed it hurriedly to Judy, before hiding the other two in his own paws. He kept the same hunched position though, and acted like he was still trying to fiddle with the lock.
"These were supposed to be non-tampering locks," Lotera hissed, reaching down to grab Nick around the neck. "And I took everything off of you two! How-AAARRRRGGGHHH!"
Nick had ducked just as Lotera was about to clamp his paw around the fox's throat, spinning and lashing upward with the nail. Lotera had pulled away in reaction, but not quite fast enough to avoid the metal spike scraping a bloody line along his forearm and part of his palm. Not a deep wound, but burning enough to make Lotera scream and clench his arm to his chest, barely avoiding nicking himself with the syringe he held. But he didn't back off for long.
Nick knew he couldn't just run and so lunged forward again in hopes of getting another good scrape or two in with his makeshift weapons at least, but the Thylacine had lost whatever patience he'd had before in that instant. The fox left the ground of his own accord, but then stayed there and reversed direction at a flick of Lotera's ear.
"You two are almost more trouble than you're worth!" Lotera roared, slamming Nick against the open door of his cage and holding him flat there. "I need all the energy I can spare for the last bit here, but clearly you're going to force me to use some up anyway just to get you prepared, aren't you?" He lifted up the syringe, stalking toward Nick again, and the eyes of the fox and rabbit both glued to the needle. Their hearts dropped.
The beautiful and yet sickeningly deep blue-violet hue of Night Howler concentrate was impossible to mistake for anything else, and the syringe was loaded with it.
"No! Nick!" Judy screamed, slamming her fists against her cage, but Nick was out of reach, and thereby Lotera and the savagery-inducing serum would also remain so until he was done with the fox. Lotera briefly shot Judy a look as he walked up right in front of Nick, nothing but a promise of pain in his eyes, and then he drove the needle into Nick's shoulder.
The fox screamed in pain as the rabbit yelled in both anguish and fury, and then Lotera flicked his finger and tossed Nick back into his cage, slamming the door shut again. A second later the lock on Judy's cage clicked and her door flung open, only for her to also get pinned against the bars as Lotera rounded on her, bringing the syringe up and then into her shoulder as well. Then her door shut and locked again too and the force on her dropped, leaving her kneeling on the floor clutching her shoulder.
"Step one," the Thylacine sneered, though breathlessly, "override your bond with a little chemical insanity."
Judy stared at him, gripping her shoulder and feeling her muscles spasming around the injection site. A wave of disorientation and adrenaline spiked through her veins. Nearby she could hear Nick groaning and breathing in rapid huffs that were starting to increase in rate, thrashing about under the same influence, and she put every ounce of focus into fighting against the toxin.
As seconds began to morph into the first minute though, Judy felt her control slipping. Her vision blurred and sharpened haphazardly and she dropped to all fours, conscious mind beginning to battle and then slip under an advancing wall of adrenaline and a furious haze, and then thoughts ended and she was swept into a violent nothingness.
It was mostly with an impassive lack of care that Lotera watched the two cops switch form (though he couldn't deny there was some enjoyment in it considering how much pain these two had caused him, including the burning gash now across his arm), morphing from panicked individuals to hissing, growling wild things. Timing was everything, and he dared not move a muscle as fox and rabbit both shook off the starting daze and took note of each other, both seeing not their partners but some combination of threat, meal, or other foe to be taken down. Their hackles rose, claws extended (on the fox at least) and scratched the bars making up the floor of the cages, and then they tensed up to leap at each other with full intent on clawing the other to shreds.
That was when he reacted, swinging his injured paw out first to pull the fox away and pin him against the inside of the door, where he could not reach the rabbit or vice versa. Then with his good paw he set the Night Howler syringe aside and pulled out another, empty one from his pocket. With a flip of his claw the cap on the needle flew off, and he carefully (far more carefully than with the other syringe) inserted it into the back of Nick's neck.
The harvest was a delicate process, all the more reason why Lotera had fully pinned the fox; first he needed a drop of spinal fluid, then the blood of the mammal now tainted with Midnicampum. Nick unsurprisingly squealed at the pain of both pricks, but could neither escape nor twist as his deluded mind actually wanted in order to bite the offender until Lotera was done and let him drop. The Thylacine repeated the process with Judy next, using a second syringe to make sure he got what was needed, and then turned to leave both savage mammals where they were while he finished.
Then, Lotera paused, and turned back just so he could shove the cages far enough apart that the two couldn't kill each other while he was busy. After all, this last and most critical step, one that he'd learned years ago but was never able to quite finish after looking through an old tome he'd managed to find about the rifts (and one written by another long-dead Empowered roe deer, likely the only book of its kind that escaped the ancient purges), was a precision matter and took time, and if he got it wrong it would be necessary to have the two alive to extract from again.
He only hoped he had time enough after the delays before the blasted agents showed up to finish the Catalyst serum so that he wouldn't have to disappear and finish the process elsewhere. This rift was the first he'd found in years, and it would be no small feat having to track down another.
The door to the Primalists' jet opened as Skye and her group walked up to the runway, and a flicker of movement showed before Mack apparently decided to turn the cloak off and converse visibly with them all. "So the others are probably going to reach that base real soon," he said as they walked up, dragging their prisoners behind them (most of whom were awake again if they'd been tranqed before, and loudly protesting). 'You guys are gonna be hard-pressed to catch up if you're gonna help. I've got the drones with them ready in battle mode, but they probably won't last long."
"Don't worry, we've got a plan," Skye said, kicking the dhole she was dragging to make him shut up for a moment. "Vela's been hit pretty bad, so we're going to get her patched up properly here, then adequately restrain these bastards so you and her can interrogate them. Vela can't fight until she heals anyway but she should be able to still handle flying a plane, so we're gonna drop in from overhead. You crack into the new craft here?"
"Can a trout swim up a river?" Mack retorted as if insulted. "Of course I hacked it. Stupid reptile doesn't have a clue yet either, though if you plan on borrowing their plane I'll wager Desireigh will notice the moment you leave the ground, even with the current cloak. Some things just don't quite hide. Not that she could do much once you're in the air though." He looked northward, and frowned. "And methinks you may have some issues flying right about now, considering a storm's sweeping across the mountain range this way, right where the base is."
"That's why I'm flying us in, and Vela will take over when we reach the drop point," Dax replied, marching up to the steps. "Storms ain't a problem for an Archangel. We know you're not a fighter, so you can either choose to hang with our jet or help Vela fly, but we're commandeering this one and putting the POW's wherever you are. You can see if they've got any juicy bits to wring out about the financer behind all this or whatever else. But, no time to waste; scoot!"
The ottsel skittered up the steps and past the wolf, who paused a moment at the door's edge before jumping down to the tarmac, checking in on his tablet the status of the drones before looking up again.
"You're right," he said, heading for the other plane, "I ain't a fighter. Doesn't mean I can't throw a mean punch now and again, mind you. But I can help direct the plane from here, and track the storm. God knows Embron's probably already using the weather to his advantage, electro-maniac he is, but the rest of us won't exactly get much off it."
Skye directed Vela to head into the commandeered craft to help Dax ready the plane, and then followed Mack with the others and their captives. They climbed into their own jet just a short ways away and thoroughly secured the Primalists to the walls of the seating area (making sure in the process that none of them had or were in reach of any useful tools). Then the vixen looked toward the cockpit, where the Sparrow was fiddling with the tablet once more.
"They shouldn't be going anywhere any time soon," she said, walking up to him. Then, lowering her voice, she asked, "You think you can actually get anything out of them? I can give you a few interrogation tips."
Mack snorted, and held up the tablet for her to see. "Not a need Ms. Wellinger. This is a world run on tech, and if they've got even a fuzzy image online anywhere I can find them, and all the info I could personally want linked to them with just a quick selfie of each of them." He grinned, and looked back toward the prisoners. "You'd best get moving; we don't want to give Lotera any more time to play than he's already had to finish his harebrained scheme –and no offense to hares there. I'll have these nuts cracked by the time you drop in, so long as dear Desi doesn't come up with some new gift for me to play with first."
Skye nodded and turned around, leaving the red wolf to his devices (literally) and following Fangel and Forsythe out of the plane, shutting the door behind them.
The other jet was already starting to power up as they boarded, and the agents all quickly pilfered the parachutes stored away in the cargo hold (why use theirs when they could just make use of the opposing side's, after all) and strapped in as Dax maneuvered the jet to a takeoff position on the runway.
"We have enough fuel to make it?" Skye called up to the mustelid, and Dax just laughed.
"Oh, plenty if the gauge ain't broke," he shouted back over the growing roar of the engines. "And should be more than enough to cruise it about for a while after even. Nice craft actually, though kind of a disappointingly easy system compared to mine and Sam's. Anyway, hang tight, I ain't pulling any punches here!'
He wasn't lying. The jet began rolling, and quickly ramped up to rocketing down the runway, before tilting upward into the sky in a stomach-dropping motion and almost immediately banking into a sharp curve northwest, sharp enough to collect several G's in the process.
Skye gripped the straps she was buckled into with whiter knuckles than usual, and as the jet screamed through the air toward the dim haze of the storm ahead she realized she was finally getting a better taste of why Dax and his friend had been called the Archangels.
Dammit Embron, if I survive this flight in one piece I'm gonna strangle you and Scarlet for dragging so many clinically insane friends into our lives!
Rocky had warned them about possible surprises coming up in reference to his friends. There were other Gifteds among their team after all, which meant just about anything was possible.
But, as they approached the river bisect that was just south of the Primalist base even he, never mind all the natives surrounding him, nearly had a heart attack when the storm drenching them suddenly threw a half dozen lightning bolts down to the same spot not a quarter mile away, each barely half a second behind the last and the thunder compounding in a violent echo across the landscape. It was only after he managed to flatten his water-spiked and raised hackles down that he was able to turn to Aeto and the other locals and reassure them that nothing yet had gone wrong.
"It's only friend of mine!" he said. "Preparing for the fight!"
Though I wish you could have at least given me a fucking warning first, Embron!
Unsurprisingly, the more recently arrived locals looked uncertain. Rocky couldn't blame them either, but then he wasn't going to ask them to fight, just lead them to the base. Now that they were close enough though, he could also pick up Nick's magnetic signature, as well as that odd feeling he'd only rarely encountered when he or other Gifteds approached a rift, that would lead them straight toward where the parrots had said the base was.
Just as he was about to explain to the natives that they didn't need to go any further themselves though, an arrow whizzed past Treba's ear. It would have hit her dead on, had one of the snakes that had joined them from Aeto's tribe not yanked on her foot and made her stumble aside too. She yelped and turned to snap about the trip, before she noticed the shaft of the arrow quivering in the tree another two feet back.
A shout went up amongst the natives even as Rocky, Harrison, and the other agents brought up weapons toward the unseen assailants. The fox would have taken a shot when he fixed his eyes on a shadow flitting between the trees, had Aeto not shouted his name sharply in that same instant. He snapped his head down to regard the reptile questioningly.
"We take care of the Singers," the elapid said tersely, slithering past him and many of the other natives following suit (Rocky did notice Aulani and a few of the birds, and several larger marsupials staying back with him and the agents though). "You follow the way to the vision-maker, take care of the bad ones there. Go!" Then he was gone within the brush, and though a few more arrows sang through the air a moment later (these ones Rocky was expecting at least, burning them to ash as they neared the group), yelps and shouts in several dialects soon began to echo through the rain and trees.
"Guess we hadn't scared the other tribe off as much as we thought," the Arctic fox muttered, before turning in the direction they'd been traveling again and ordering, "Alright, back on heading! "Aeto's got this one, we get the rest."
It was a relief to hear the volleyed shouts and cries of pain fade behind them as they moved away, and fifteen minutes further found them crossing a narrow bridge over the river. Just on the other side, they found Jack's team. As expected, Rocky could practically feel the static coursing through Embron even from thirty feet away, and as the storm continued to move southeast and the first rays of morning began to tint the shrouded sky, the two groups paused to take stock of each other and plan.
"Avery's still patrolling the area no doubt," Jack said, turning on his com to make sure Skye's group was included in the exchange and hear any suggestions from them or Mack and then looking up at the birds among them. "Psitticoney, you and the native aerial individuals fan out and find her, and you know the rest. For those of us on the ground, Embron said Wilde's signature is still emanating from approximately five hundred yards that way, and no doubt they'll be armed and waiting for us."
He pointed at the coyote among them. "Embron, you just scared us all half to death with that damn lightning rod stunt you just pulled so I hope to God you have enough juice now to knock out whatever electrical systems they might have, or can give Mallupe a jumpstart into their systems so he can take them down from within and maybe find something helpful in the process. Scarlet, Rocky, remove any exterior weaponry that you see installed and dig a hole into whatever building they have set up, and the rest of us including Skye's team when they arrive, we fight whoever comes pouring out at us until the base is penetrated and we locate the Catalysts and the rift. This is end-all here, do not show mercy or we will lose ground we can't afford to lose. Ask questions now."
There was a pause as Rocky translated what he could to the natives, and then silence.
"Alright then," Jack said, checking the magazine in his pistol to make sure it was fully loaded, and then locking it back in place. "Positions, now!"
Sam, Aulani, and the handful other local birds took to the skies as the rest of the group pushed forward as one unit through the brush. Subtlety was almost useless now, though they stayed as quiet as they could, weapons trained in all directions.
A hundred yards from their targeted clearing the first counter attacks came in, a dozen animals sweeping in and laying down fire at them from both sides. The remaining natives, Ringston, Treba, and Lubella split off to engage them, letting the rest push on, and barely a minute later they reached the edge of the clearing.
Ahead of them, dripping from the rain that was only just starting to let up, was the boxy makeshift base they'd been seeking, and it was ringed with guards of a couple dozen species and individuals; mammal, reptile, and even a few more avians. All of said guards immediately drew weapons when the agents appeared, and did not hesitate to fire or run forward with blades extended.
"Want to start us off?" Rocky asked, looking over at Embron.
The coyote nodded, folding his ears back as he took up a fighting stance, both hands pointed palms-up toward the base. The air around him began to snap and crackle as electric streamers started rolling up his body and whirling around his arms, and though the bullets weren't getting far thanks to Scarlet, every Primalist present had started firing directly at him in reaction.
"Kind of wish the storm had come by a few hours earlier, so Nick could watch this," Embron mused, "but still, this I do with pleasure." He grinned, and let loose.
A reverberating crack of thunder shaking the walls of the building violently was Lotera's first clue that time was about to run very short.
His second was an echoing scream of fury from outside in another room as Desireigh found the components of her tech system either fried or going haywire and getting torn open by a secondary focused attack meant to let the Sparrow right in the front door.
All of it was a distraction that the Thylacine could have really done without right then, but he forced himself to do his best to quell his twitching ears and maintain focus on the swirling, bubbling solution being manipulated and energized in the little container under his fingers. The process was nearing completion, but every ounce of concentration was needed for every step from start to end; he could not slack off now.
Gunfire filtered through the walls into the space around the rift, and yells from injured animals and the exertion of paw-to-paw combat were starting to rile up the two savage cops that had only recently started entering a sort of tonic silence, but still Lotera kept his head down over the bench, focusing hard. A few more minutes, he just needed a few more minutes.
The distracting though of and a decent nap worked its way into his head, making his eyelids droop for a moment and his vision waver, but Lotera snarled and shook his head fiercely, throwing the drowsiness he could not afford to acknowledge off again.
Two minutes later, the sound of squealing, ripping metal signaled a breach, and the noises of gunfire and clashing blades got that much louder. A moment later, something that sounded like the engines of a plane passing just a touch too close by for comfort also joined the din temporarily.
"No, no, no no!" Lotera hissed, redoubling his efforts. Two more modifications, an energy signature and a molecular recombination within the solution, that was all that was left, but the Gifteds and agents would be likely reaching the room within 30 seconds, tops. The energy for the reaction rushing off his fingertips intensified, trying to speed the binding process while not compromising the needed integrity of what had already been put in place, even as the Thylacine could feel his body screaming protest. He was at the last length of his rope now, he knew. Everything, or abject failure.
The last alignment of the molecules between the Midnicampum serum and Catalyst spinal extract fell into place.
A door slammed open in a corridor somewhere, and another sounded like it was removed violently from its hinges.
Lotera was vaguely aware that he'd bitten his tongue somewhere in his laser focus.
Then, finally, the last little quantum-level energy signature rippled through the solution and set in place, and two doors slammed open into the rift room.
Lotera grabbed the serum and stumbled to his feet, lurching his overtaxed self toward the rock bowl in the middle of the room. Embron was among the first to have entered, and swept his paws up in the Thylacine's direction. A wave of force smacked viciously into Lotera, sending him rolling until he came to a stop flat on his back in the middle of the bowl. The treatment made his shoulder and scratched arm burn in protest, and several other bruises made themselves known at the same time pulling a groan out of his throat, but still Lotera focused on finishing what he was so close to getting done. He reached up while ignoring the screaming pain it caused in his shoulders, thrusting the little vial in to the air above him and popping the cap off, and then sent one last spark of energy into it to spray it up into the rift itself.
The air cracked audibly, and the world washed over white.
A/N- Bhoot's being a pain for the Primalists, apparently...but was it enough? It would seem Lotera succeeded in his missive here...but the question remains, what does that really mean? What will that entail for the future?
As always, would love to hear thoughts, predictions, etc. in your reviews! And I have decided: close as we are to the end of this book, I will at least finish updating this one on here before starting the second of the series on AO3 alone.
Until next time, HawkTooth out!