Chapter 40 - A Trap
The blue skies were clear and devoid of all clouds, but sand continued to descend upon the world like snow. The golden rays of the fiery sun filled the wastelands with light, causing the grit to crackle and pop under the heat. The brutal heat baked the ground so much that cracks could be seen everywhere.
The searing heat of the sun was many times more intense than it had been during the Old Times. The vast majority of the creatures who had lived in the Old Times would be unable to survive such temperatures, but those weaker creatures had long ago been transformed into dusty, dry bones. The only creatures who could survive were those who had already adapted to this new, brutal environment.
Wild Dog let out a bestial howl as he swung his two machetes. Two of the giant rats next to him were instantly chopped in half, and a large amount of foul, corrupted blood sprayed out of their bodies.
Right after he had dealt with these two, another one suddenly charged towards him. Mad Dog dodged sideways, avoiding the giant rat's furious charge. Cloudhawk seized the moment to nimbly charge forwards, giving the giant rat no time to flee as he thrust his tri-bladed staff into its head.
"Another acid rat!"
Cooke led the bigfoot cavalry in a hasty retreat from the front lines, a large group of giant rats chasing behind them. One of the rats looked somewhat smaller, but it was rounder and its skin looked an oily green color. Anyone who took a closer look at the rats would be able to notice that it looked rather different.
Acid rats were a type of special mutated rat. They contained numerous acid sacs inside their body, and they normally would slowly build up and store powerful acid within those sacs. When they needed to fight, they would be able to spit acid up to several meters at their targets. The worst thing was that not only did they have acid sacs in their bodies, their skin was covered with large amounts of acid as well. Any ordinary weapon used to stab one of them would be instantly corroded and rendered useless, and the acidic blood spraying from the wound would also be enough to cause enormous harm to anyone splashed by it.
One of their iron hedgehogs had been ruined yesterday by one of these creatures!
Pff. Pff. Two globes of acid came flying towards them! Cloudhawk and Mad Dog hurriedly dodged, and the two giant rats they had slain just moments ago were hit head-on by the acid. Their tough fur and flesh quickly began to steam and hiss as it melted into a puddle of bile, leaving only the bones behind... but a few moments later, even the bones started to melt.
Mad Dog howled, "Kill it, quick!"
Cloudhawk switched the tri-blade staff from his right hand to his left hand, then pulled out his revolver. Just as the acid rat was about to attack a second time, Cloudhawk shot it straight in the mouth. This was a lethal strike. The creature instantly slumped to the ground, its entire body starting to dissolve as the acid began to pool around it and corrode a hole into the ground.
Now that the acid rat was dead, Mad Dog had nothing else to worry about. His machetes rose and fell as though he was chopping vegetables, and he instantly chopped four of those enormous rats into mincemeat. Woola came bounding over as well to help out, and soon the giant rats were finally and completely disposed of.
Cloudhawk wiped the blood off of his tri-bladed staff. As he was doing so, Cooke came riding over on his bigfoot bird. "Slyfox found a cave for us. We've already swept the perimeter clean. We can go hide there for now."
Mad Dog and Cloudhawk followed Cooke towards the cave. It had been a vicious battle, and a number of them had been injured. The mercenary company looked a bit bedraggled.
Mad Dog's irascible temper had been thoroughly aroused. He crushed a large rock to pieces beneath his boot, then began to curse loudly. "The mission report was complete bullshit. They estimated around two hundred rats, but there has to be at least five hundred of the little fuckers!"
Not only were these giant rats tough to deal with, there were several times as many of them as had been report. Right now, they couldn't even be sure as to exactly how many of the creatures existed.
Rather tired, Cloudhawk slumped against the entrance to the cave as he inspected his revolver. He had used up a total of three bullets. He reloaded the revolver, then re-holstered it by his waist.
This location offered them a good vantage point, allowing them to clearly see everything in the area off to a distance of ten kilometers. From here, the ruins in this place looked like giant centipedes that squiggled in the ground, forming a large number of squat 'mountain' ridges.
From here, he could see a large number of strange buildings and destroyed statues. One squat mountain was particularly eye-catching; it looked almost as though it had been sliced through by an enormous shearing knife, leaving behind a smooth, slick surface on top. However, right on top of it there was a sharp pyramid that was roughly ten or so meters long that 'grew' out of the mountain in a strange manner.
The metallic pyramid had been severely corroded. In both material and form, it looked very different from the other buildings of the Old Times. It looked more like it had been created in another world and planted here.
"Weird, right?" The bear-sized Cooke walked over to Cloudhawk. "This place is a classic example of dimensionally overlapping. Supposedly, long ago our world suddenly began to suffer from dimensional overlapping for some strange reason. The clash of dimensions resulted in the destruction of the old civilization and changed our world. All sorts of strange things were brought into our world. That thing over there? It's a good example of something from another world. That's why it looks so bizarre."
"How do you even know these things?" Cloudhawk looked skeptically at the man. "You are just making this stuff up."
"Bah! Two years ago, when I was out on a mission, I encountered a bunch of weirdoes who called themselves 'seekers'. They were the ones who told me all this. Hell, I don't know if any of it is true either!" Cooke lit a cigarette as he sat down, then offered one to Cloudhawk as well. "World's gone to shit. Doesn't really matter, I suppose. Cig?"
Cloudhawk now had a little more experience than before. This time, he took a much smaller puff on the cigarette but he still ended up coughing a few times. "Seekers? What are seekers?"
"No clue. Bunch of crazy dudes that spend all their searching for the 'truth' and the 'answer'. All they want is to bring back the civilization and the technology that was lost to us ages ago. Still, they seem to be pretty influential in the wastelands." Cooke shook his head, then tossed another canteen over to Cloudhawk. "You'll find all sorts of weirdoes in the wastelands. Nothing to be surprised over."
"True. Nothing to be surprised over." Cloudhawk took a sniff, first verifying that it was water before he took a large gulp from the canteen. A cool, refreshing feeling permeated his body.
"Come to think of it, you didn't do half-bad just now. I didn't expect that you could fight, kid."
Cloudhawk responded rather irritably, "You guys spent a month beating the shit out of me every day. Is it really that surprising that I learned a few tricks?"
Cooke began to roar with laughter. "Not bad, kid. You hid it from everyone. Let's spar a bit once we get back home."
Cloudhawk snorted. "I'll knock your teeth out."
"That's a pretty ballsy claim. I'll remember it!"
"Everyone, gather around!" Slyfox summoned everyone to him, then proclaimed: "This mission is more complicated than we expected. We have no idea how many rats there are, but judging from the current situation there has to be at least five hundred of the little bastards. This place is too big; there's no way for us to scout out the entire place."
The mercenaries began to mutter and curse. Mad Dog said irritably, "Then have you come up with an idea? You can't seriously expect us to fight against this many giant rats."
Slyfox was the first captain of the Tartarus mercenaries, and he was also their principal mastermind. Generally speaking, it was his job to find solutions to any thorny problems they encountered.
"A very stupid idea."
"A stupid idea?"
"There are twenty-five of us. So long as we can avoid fighting more than forty of those giant rats at once, and so long as we can avoid making any major mistakes, we won't suffer any casualties in battle." Slyfox hesitated a few seconds, then continued. "I've already scanned the local area. There's a couple of flat-topped mountains in the area around us with very few places for the rats to hide. We still have plenty of water, and we can eat most of the ordinary giant rats. In my opinion, we can fight and win a war of attrition against them."
"Starting now, we aren't going to go any deeper into this place; the only thing we're gonna do is hunt down small packs of those giant rats. If we encounter large swarms of them, we'll figure out a way to split'm up and then trap them in batches. We'll slowly wipe'm all out in a safe, stable manner as we advance... and in the end, we'll find that rat king!"
So the plan was for them to slowly wipe out the rats through attrition? After they killed a few hundred of the critters, they would then come up with a way to kill the rat king? This really was a pretty stupid idea. But, it also was a potentially effective one.
Cloudhawk let out a yawn. It looked like they were going to be busy.
The Tartarus mercenaries were elite wastelander warriors. Each of them had their own unique skills, giving them tremendous power and flexibility as a group. Slyfox made a few special arrangements, then ordered the entire company to begin to move.
Woola was given a very important task. They were going to depend on his sense of smell to find the various rat packs, while the mercenaries would then bait the ones they found into traps and wipe them out in batches.
By the end of the day, they had slain over a hundred of the giant rats. The total value of that much rat meat alone was quite significant. As for the mercenaries, they had suffered no casualties at all. This was an absolutely dazzling achievement!
They continued with the program the next day. However, Cloudhawk noticed that the number of giant rats in the area had noticeably lessened. By nightfall, they had only killed around fifty of the giant rats... and by the third day, there were virtually no giant rats to be found anywhere.
The mercenaries were all rather puzzled. Still, they didn't spend too much time pondering this. Most likely, these giant rats were territorial in nature. After they wiped out all the giant rats in one area, the giant rats in the other areas wouldn't immediately come pouring in, resulting in an empty region for a period of time. This actually wasn't that uncommon in the wastelands. Since they had already wiped out the giant rats in this area, the mercenaries decided that they would begin to slowly wipe out the rats the surrounding areas as well.
"Woola!" Cloudhawk had Woola on the leash. Woola was running up ahead while the twenty-plus mercenaries were moving through the exposed parts of the wastelands. Woola spent more than an hour running forwards before he suddenly came to a halt in front of a valley, then began to bray and bark towards it.
"There's a small group of giant rats up ahead." Cloudhawk wore a pair of protective goggles and had swathed his face in cloth. His shotgun was on his back, his staff was in his right hand, and he was dressed in leather armor; he rather looked like a proper mercenary right now. "There are roughly twenty to thirty of them."
Mad Dog didn't even hesitate. "Then what are we waiting for? Let's go in and wipe'm out!"
Cloudhawk gave the gorge another glance. It looked very dark and narrow. For some reason, he had a bad feeling about this place. "Something feels off."
Mad Dog didn't understand what Cloudhawk was saying. "Woola's sense of smell is never wrong!"
"The four of you, wait here. Report back immediately if something happens." Slyfox also trusted Woola's judgment, but his cautious nature led him to leave behind four mercenaries to stand guard. "We'll go in and deal with them as quickly as we can." Twenty or thirty giant rats were nothing to this group of crack mercenaries.
This gorge was extremely dark, narrow, and deep. As Cloudhawk followed the mercenaries in, the bad feeling in his heart only grew stronger and stronger. He had the nagging feeling that something was wrong, but was unable to put his finger on it.
Finally, they reached the deepest depths of the gorge.
"What the hell is going on?" Mad Dog stared at the empty gorge, his hideous black face twisting into a scowl. "Did Woola really fuck up?"
The region was completely empty. The ground was covered in rubble, and there was nowhere else to go. Not a single giant rat was to be seen everywhere. This made no sense!
Cloudhawk suddenly saw something in front of him. He immediately charged forwards, using his staff to bash aside a few rocks. When he saw what lay hidden underneath the rocks, his face instantly turned white.
The other mercenaries crowded around to take a look. When they saw it, strange looks appeared on their faces as well... because a large pile of rat hair and rat dung could be seen beneath the rocks. Woola's nose had been functioning perfectly. These things had been left buried no more than a few hours ago at most.
Even Slyfox and Mad Dog stared jaws agape at this strange sight. Cooke, however, didn't seem to understand the gravity of the situation. The burly mercenary actually began to roar with laughter: "Are you shitting me? Don't tell me that these giant rats set a trap for us, that they schemed to trick us into this place? Ahahaha..."
But just a heartbeat later, he stopped laughing... because he realized that no one else was laughing with him. He felt quite awkward!
Cloudhawk wasn't amused in the slightest. Instead, he felt a cold chill go down his spine. Although he had experienced countless terrors during the past two months, this time was different. A strange, terrifying thought was floating through his mind...
Did these damn rats really set up a trap... and succeed in tricking humans into falling for it?!