CHAPTER FOUR - Into the Pit
With slack jaws and wide eyes, Demo, Streak and Nightshade sat on their respective bunks in a stunned stupor. What their commander had just offered them defied all logic. Truth be told if it weren’t for the mission papers Ziro wouldn’t even believe it himself.
“Let me get this straight,” Demo questioned, scanning the official documents Ziro had brought back. “Colonel Black just up and invites you into his office and tells you he’s giving us a shot at an Elite field trial? Just like that?”
Ziro collapsed into his chair, kicked off his boots and nodded.
“I still can’t believe it,” Demo muttered, holding the papers up in front of himself.
“Let me see those,” Streak said snatching the papers out of Demo’s hand from the top bunk. He glanced them over. “What’s not to believe? You can’t argue with a shrew’s instincts. The Colonel used to be an Elite himself, remember? I mean, he’s practically a legend. He obviously recognizes talent when he sees it.”
Nightshade looked bewildered, “I assume he was aware of our current simulation record? We haven’t ranked on the leaderboard yet, you know.”
“Actually,” Ziro replied, propping his feet up on his desk, “it’s one of the reasons he wants to test us. He said he doesn’t trust the simulators. I think he believes we’re better than our record shows. He called us diamonds in the rough, or something like that.”
At this, the faces of his squad members lightened. Could it be someone had finally taken notice of them?
Ziro continued, “The only way to find out for sure was to give us a field test. That’s why he’s sending us on a little recon mission up in Liwa. If we complete the mission, he’ll consider us for promotion. Oh and we each get 10,000 Marks, just for going.”
“10,000? Each?” Demo choked on his own words. “I’ve never had that many Marks at one time.”
“You will tomorrow,” Ziro said confidently. “That is, if we take the job. So, what do you guys think?”
“When do we leave?” Streak asked anxiously.
“We suit up in the morning,” Ziro said.
At this, Demo stood up, snapped his fingers, and waved a claw at Ziro expectantly.
“Wait a twitch, are you saying I get to pilot a real Mech Suit?”
Ziro leaned back in his chair and tried to act casual about the news, “Well, we wouldn’t be a proper squad without some serious firepower.”
Demo’s face beamed brighter than ever. For the first time he allowed himself to embrace the idea. This was really happening.
“Ka-Boom!” Demo shouted, clapping his hands together loudly and laughing. He was so enthused, he snatched Streak right off of his bunk and squeezed him like a teddy bear.
“Whoa! Can’t breathe here,” Streak squeaked.
“Sorry about that, little buddy,” Demo apologized. He released his hold on Streak and set him back down on the top bunk. “I’m just can’t believe all this is happening so quickly.”
Amidst all the commotion, Nightshade silently pondered the opportunity carefully. Like a computer, his mind methodically processed the data. A moment later, his eyes shifted to the only unclaimed bunk in the room. It was going to be a problem.
“We can’t go,” Nightshade decided firmly. “We don’t have a…”
“I’m way ahead of you, Shade.” Demo boasted, “We’re going to need a real squad name. I’ve been thinking about it all day. What do you guys think about, The Fangsters. Eh? Sounds dangerous, right? Like gangsters…get it?”
The room was silent.
“Oh come on, it’s a good name,” Demo whined.
Nightshade continued, “It is not our name I’m concerned about, it’s our number. We lost Lefty, remember. As of this moment, we’re one member short. I doubt the Colonel would allow us to go if he knew we didn’t have a full squad. It wouldn’t look good on his report if things go wrong.”
Ziro dropped his feet and jolted forward in his chair. All eyes shifted toward Lefty’s empty bunk. His stuff was gone, but his name was still displayed on the digital nameplate.
“Crumbs,” Ziro said. His face went blank. “I totally forgot about Lefty.”
Streak wasn’t going to give up the dream that easy, “Maybe we could ask him to come back?”
Ziro shook his head, “No, he already turned in his transfer papers. We need somebody who isn’t attached to a squad already.”
“Well, we better hurry. Curfew starts in just a few hours,” Streak pointed out.
Ziro stood and wandered toward what used to be Lefty’s bed. He reached for the digital nameplate and pressed a button to erase Lefty’s name. As he did, he started talking aloud to himself.
“We need a mouse with real field experience. A tough recruit with killer instincts...Somebody who will stop at nothing to win.” His voice started to drift a bit.
Then, all of a sudden, the answer hit him.
“Get your boots, boys. There’s only one place to find a mouse like that. We’re going to the Pit.”
Demo drove like a maniac, but that was nothing new. The Armadillo transport tore wildly across the rugged surface of the meadow toward the outskirts of the Academy grounds. It’s wide wheels dug into the ground, throwing bits of dirt into the air behind them. Ziro clung to the handlebars in the front seat and tried not to let his motion sickness get the best of him. Nightshade and Streak sat behind him in rear facing seats. Soon, the ride got even more bumpy as they entered the throat of a small rock cave. They were nearing their destination.
The Pit was a notoriously brutal fight club for off-duty soldiers who wanted to engage in a more aggressive form of paw-to-paw combat training. It wasn’t exactly a sanctioned event by the Academy, but leadership didn’t exactly seem in a rush to shut it down either.
“Are you sure about this, Chief?” Demo asked as he slowed the transport to a stop near the Pit entrance. From the surface, it looked to be little more than a hole in the ground between a pair of rock spires. There were rodents passed out on all sides of the spires, from various injuries. “Talk is that it gets pretty rough in there. One mistake and you walk out without a tail. Nobody ”
It didn’t need to be said. The place was rough. Enough to make Streak squirm in his seat.
“Listen guys,” Ziro said, hoping to still their nerves. “We only have one chance at this mission assignment. If we don’t find a replacement for Lefty tonight, we’re through. This place is our only hope.”
“Forgive me, Commander,” said Nightshade, “but the Pit hardly qualifies as a breeding ground for ‘winners.’ I fail to see the logic in directing our search here.”
“I can appreciate that, Nightshade, but the way I see it, we’re looking for a recruit who’s both available and motivated. In a place this rough, we’re bound to find a few unclaimed mice with something to prove. If we’re lucky, we might even land someone with a bit of experience.”
“Yeah. Um. Are we talking like mission experience or cut-of-tails experience?” Streak asked nervously reaching for his tail.
Ziro just chuckled. “We’ll be fine. Besides, it’s not like we’re here to start a fight.”
“That’s what they all say,” Demo mumbled.
The four team members unloaded and made their way toward the Pit entrance. Inside a narrow, zigzagging stairway led them down toward a lower level where the fight floor awaited. The sounds of a raucous crowd cheering echoed up from below. At times the passage was a tight fit, almost too tight - especially for Demo.
Having reached the lower level, Ziro led his team into the heart of an irritable crowd of dubious looking rodents. There were tables strewn around the outer edges of the room where grim looking mice played cards, threw darts and eyed each other with devious glares. Wooden support beams jutted up from the dirt floor giving the room a more rustic look than anything you’d find in the Academy burrow.
In the center of the room, a horde of spectators gathered in a buzz around the perimeter of a sparring floor where pair of mice were already engaged in paw-to-paw combat. Ziro took in the fight. Immediately he noticed these weren’t the rehearsed maneuvers they taught in sparring class at the Academy. This was the real thing. The kind of sparring that left you with black eyes and a broken snout if you lost.
A massive white Albino with fiery pink eyes was set to face off against a jet black mouse only slightly smaller in size. The two viciously clobbered each other to the crowd’s delight. From the looks of things the fight had been going on for quite some time. The Albino was gaining the upper paw quickly over his tiring rival. His punches were coming harder and faster than the black mouse could keep up with.
Then, a misstep. The black mouse saw his chance. He stomped hard on the Albino’s foot and swung his elbow up into his opponent’s snout…hard. The Albino was in a momentary daze and the black mouse took his chance to kick him dead center in the chest leaving the Albino flat on his back.
The crowd went wild. The black mouse raised his paws in victory, but the moment was short lived.
In a rage, the Albino recovered, grabbed hold of the blackie’s tail and yanked hard. Before the bewildered mouse could react, the Albino was on his feet and began to swing his opponent in circles by the tail. The helpless mouse went airborne as the Albino spun him faster and faster. Then, with a devilish grin, he released his hold on the tail at the peak of his flight. The black mouse soared over the crowd and collided into one of the wooden pillars scattered throughout the room. There was a loud and sickening “CRACK” before the limp form of the black mouse slid to the ground.
A collective gasp rose from the crowd as all eyes turned to the now motionless creature on the floor. For a moment, nobody moved. Then, slowly, the black mouse spat a few teeth on the ground and weakly raised his paw in a whimper before passing out.
Another cheer erupted form the crowd as the Albino claimed the final win. Marks exchanged hands as the winning bidders collected their earnings.
Ziro nodded to his team.
“Okay, let’s pair off and see if we can find anyone. Nightshade and I will take the left side,” Ziro said, “Demo and Streak, you circle around the other way.”
The team split up and started rounding the room in search of their new recruit. The further they wandered, the more Nightshade became agitated by the caliber of the crowd.
The first thing he noticed was the slack dress codes of everyone else in the building. There were no uniforms here, the few that were on display were worn in sloppy disrespect. He searched the scene for anyone with team potential, his gaze fell on two mice arm wrestling at a table. For a moment he watched to see which might win. Just as one seemed to be gaining the upper hand, the other up and walloped him in the face with this free arm. Despite the clear violation, his small audience cheered him for his efforts and carried the now unconscious victim out of his chair.
Nightshade shuddered at the sight and muttered under his breath. “Uncivilized brutes.”
No sooner had the words left his lips than a mouse standing a little too close to him took notice and grabbed him by the collar.
“Who you calling uncivilized, beatnik.” He was an ugly grey mouse, with a giant pink tumor covering one eye and a toothpick wiggling between his crooked fangs.
Nightshade fumbled for an appropriate response. He tried to catch Ziro’s attention, but the commander had continued walking and was quickly swallowed up by the busy scene, oblivious to Nightshade’s predicament. Nightshade was flustered. He had never been good at talking his way out of things. Social skills were not his strong suit. It wasn’t that he meant to be rude, he just said things straight.
“I didn’t intend to insult you personally. I was merely making an general observation about the kind of mice that seem drawn to this establishment. They wouldn’t know real fighting if it hit them between the ears.”
Nightshade’s response hadn’t made things better. Now, instead of one angry mouse, he had attracted a small posse of them. Before he could be lynch mobbed, a pair of massive paws took hold of him from behind and lifted him clear off the ground. Spinning around mid-air, Nightshade finally focused on his newly offended friend. It was the Albino. His cockeyed gaze led Nightshade to believe he had been hit on the head one too many times.
“You talk pretty tough, for a little lady,” the brute said.
“I’m no lady, sir, and I can assure you there is no need for things to get out of hand.”
If the big brute heard him, he paid no mind.
“Listen up, around here if we have an issue with someone, we let our fists do the talking. Now get out there.” Before Nightshade could respond again, he was shoved out into the middle of the Pit floor, followed by three angry mice. The crowd roared at the sight of another fight about to start.
“Well, that was uncalled for.” Nightshade reasoned with nobody in particular, as he stood back up and brushed himself off. “But if that’s the way you want it.”
Nightshade calmly studied his assailants. There were three of them – one of them the monster mouse who had tossed him out here to begin with. The advantage was clearly not on his side. He was unarmed, but far from defenseless.
First things first, Nightshade quickly labeled his threats. The black mouse was short, but well built. He had a nervous twitch that made him flinch ever few seconds. Nightshade named him Tremble.
The lumbering albino was by far the strongest and biggest threat in the group. His shoulders were as broad as Nightshade was high. Brute would be his name. Nightshade made a note to take him out first if he got the chance. With any luck, he’d still be winded from his last fight.
The last of the three was the tumor plagued grey mouse. He looked sly and a bit over anxious for a fight. His jagged teeth hung out of his mouth even when his lips were closed. He was probably the most prone to bite. Nightshade hoped the tumor wasn’t contagious if he did. The name Fang seemed to fit him well enough.
Nightshade narrowed his eyes and waited for their next move.
“Trust me, you don’t want to fight me,” he said.
Apparently they didn’t believe him.
As expected, Brute rushed first. When he was within an arm’s length, Nightshade dropped to the ground and hurled himself at his opponent’s knees. The top-heavy mouse was caught off guard by the low hit and stumbled head over heels to the ground. Nightshade spun around and placed a well aimed kick to the back of his head, rendering him unconscious in seconds.
One down, two to go. The crowd began to exchange Marks in response to Nightshade’s quick performance.
With the albino out of the match, the remaining two spread out in hopes of surrounding their victim. Nightshade used this to his advantage. He targeted Tremble, the weaker of the two assailants, and stepped forward into a forced close quarters attack. Tremble hadn’t expected to be singled out so quickly. In a flash, Nightshade unleashed a rapid series of fist punches at the mouse’s snout. Shocked, Tremble’s mind immediately switched to defense mode, as he struggled to deflect the blows. Nightshade grabbed his wrists, pulled him forward and head butted the mouse in the nose.
That was two.
Unfortunately, Fang jumped him from behind a bit earlier than expected and twisted both of Nightshade’s arms behind his back.
With Nightshade neutralized, a recovering Brute, who wasn’t nearly as unconscious as first hoped, wound up to land a shot on Nightshade’s chin. Nightshade didn’t struggle, he let the big mouse coil for the blow. Then, at the last second he kept his arms loose, bent down and spun himself back under Fang’s left arm. The leverage forced Fang to release his hold on Nightshade’s right wrist, and to step forward into the Albino’s punch. By the time he realized what had just happened, Brute’s heavy fist pummeled the tumor-mouse right in his good eye, knocking him out cold.
The crowd roared with excitment, hungry for more action.
Ziro finally took note of what was happening, but he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“Nightshade?” he gasped. Of all the mice, Nightshade was the last he thought would pick a fight. Ziro tried to push his way through, but the crowd wouldn’t move.
Brute was angry now. He hadn’t been expecting Nightshade to be able to fight. He attacked with new found vengeance. Nightshade countered every move, blocking punches and wearing his rival down. His only mistake was forgetting where he left the fallen bodies of the other two. Nightshade stepped back and stumbled over the tumor faced mouse. The Albino wasted no time pinning Nightshade to the floor. He pressed his forearm into Nightshade’s neck and began to strangle the breath out of him.
“Time to sleep,” the Albino taunted.
Nightshade struggled, but the more he moved the harder the Albino pushed on his throat. His vision began to darken and blur. Then, just before he might have passed out, Nightshade spotted another figure leap into the fray.
Nightshade gasped for air and rolled on his side to watch the phantom mouse take on the Albino. He couldn’t see much through his blurry vision. It wasn’t Ziro (the figure moved too quickly) and it wasn’t Streak (it was too tall). Nightshade sat up and rubbed his eyes, hoping it might help restore his vision quicker.
It did a little. Enough to realize the mystery mouse who had just saved his hide was…a girl. Nightshade stared in disbelief as this doe, dressed in a black jumpsuit, made quick work of the beastly Albino who had bested him a moment ago. In the end, she twisted the Brute’s arm behind his back and drove him face first into a wall.
The crowd ate up every minute of it. The girl noticed Nightshade was standing up again and sauntered over to where he stood. As she neared, Nightshade got his first good look at her. She was an attractive mouse. Too pretty for this crowd. But it was a dangerous beauty. The kind you could never trust. Her green eyes looked like they were up to no good already.
As she approached, Nightshade extended his paw, swallowed his pride and said, “Thanks for the help…for a moment there I thought…”
Without warning, the doe who had been his savior only moments ago, gripped his paw, leaned her hip inward and face planted Nightshade into the floor…hard. She pressed her knee into his back and pulled back on his arm. Nightshade grimaced.
She leaned down and whispered in his ear.
“I didn’t do it for you,” she said in anger. “I did it for me.”
To say Nightshade was confused would be an understatement. He was flat out stumped. What on earth could this doe have to do with his situation?
“Do you know how much you cost me?” She asked.
“I...I don’t follow,” Nightshade groaned, his mind spinning for answers.
“A thousand marks! I bet a thousand marks on the Albino to lose his next fight - a fight he was supposed to have with me! Thanks to you, the whole thing is off.”
“Sorry…I didn’t realize…”
She bent his arm back a little more, just to prove she had the upper hand.
“Don’t talk,” she demanded. “And don’t ever steal my fight again, got it?”
Nightshade nodded the best he could. The doe narrowed her eyes as if examining if he were telling the truth. She released her hold, wandered off the sparring ring and disappeared into the crowd.
As the crowd began to disperse, Ziro and the others rushed to Nightshade’s side. Streak was the first to talk after it was clear Nightshade was okay.
“Dude, you were awesome,” Streak said, “Right up to the part where you were schooled by that girl.”
Demo and Streak burst into laughter. Nightshade didn’t see the humor in it at all.
“Speaking of which,” Ziro asked anxiously, “did you see where she went?”
“No, why,” Nightshade asked. “I hope you aren’t thinking…”
Ziro nodded. “I am. And if she’s who I think she is…she could be the answer to all our troubles.”
“Or the start of new ones,” Nightshade muttered to himself