Razorback is hardly the most graceful of riders, but he manages to stay astride his Varas Lizard as he approaches the valley suggested by Fluffpaw the day before. He comes to the valley entrance and relaxes his gentle pull on the reins, allowing a pair of blinders to snap shut over the reptile’s eyes. His knowledge of the local area might be lesser than that of his companions, but his tracker’s sense of smell has revealed the presence of the herd long before he could see them.
The large bumbler herd is meandering ploddingly through the valley, flowing riverlike between the dune ridges on either side.
Whitepelt whirs along on an elegant silver and blue hoverbike, accompanied by a pair of gruff-looking bodyguards on their own cycles. One of the guards, a patch-eyed Demarian named Spotchaser, wears a rifle slung over his back. The other, a scarred Grimlahdi named Unthan, wears metal knuckle rings topped by sharp spikes.
They slow to a stop as they reach the overlook with the view of the herd in the valley.
“Here’s hoping the herd is cooperative,” Whitepelt says.
Whiptail rides the Varas Lizard like a seasoned pro, keeping the beast headed towards the valley. As he looks out at the bumbler herd, he takes off his hat and brushes off the dust from his jacket. “I ain’t had one be reasonable yet.” the old cat says. “Ya jes gotta turn ’em to your way ah thinkin’.”
Fluffpaw’s ears flick back and forth as she nudges her Lizard forward enough to get a good view of the herd. “How many did you need?” she queries, casting a glance in Razorback’s direction. Her whiskers twitch and the Cliffwalker and Whitepelt both get semi doubtful looks. “Have you ever herded before?”
“As many as possible,” Razorback rumbles, his ears canted forward as he watches the herd. “And … to a degree… I have driven bumblers before, but in hunting, not on a long trek. Do you think if I flush them out of the canyon from the other side, the five of you can continue guiding them to our destination?”
From a shadowed cave on a ridge about a half mile from where the wranglers led by Razorback are gathered to confer, a scar-snouted Demarian lowers his high-powered binoculars and looks toward his companions – a calico-patched Demarian and a human female with spiked blue hair and a heavy rifle cradled in her arms.
“Notify Lady Coldstar,” Scarsnout growls. “We’ve confirmed Greenwater’s saviors are on the move. Tell her…we’ll deal with them.”
“Ain’t gonna be a problem, least fer me.” Whiptail says, his paw idly fingering the rope coiled over his shoulder. “We just box ’em in, and keep ’em headed the way we want. So you flush ’em, we’ll wrangle ’em. Once you got ’em flushed, you’d best take up the rear and watch for stragglers.”
Fluffpaw gestures towards Whitepelt. “The bike will help spook ’em in the right direction,” she suggests. “If you both got started, we can then start to keep them boxed in until they run themselves out.”
“I think we can manage that,” the dark-furred noble responds with a purr. He bobs his snout to his companions, then nudges the accelerator as he arcs the hovercycle around.
The Cliffwalker nods quickly, then guides his mount towards the far end of the gorge. Once he arrives, he motions for the bikers to turn off their engines while he gets close enough to get the herd moving without stampeding them. His ears swiveling about in a state of alert, and his nostrils reading the air, he makes his way silently though the scant desert brush as he approaches the bumblers.
Although the bikers comply, Scarsnout’s minions at the high ground are less cooperative. The calico-patched Demarian finishes assembling a shoulder-mounted plasma launcher, which he hefts and aims down into the gorge. He targets a rocky gully behind the lumbering bumblers. Pulls the trigger. With a WHOOMP! and a HISS!, the plasma torpedo descends into the gorge. That noise alone is enough to set off the bumblers. The ensuing blast leaves them confused in their panic, so that the herd scatters in mad clumps of stomping doom. Whitepelt cries out in alarm as his Grimlahdi companion and the hoverbike are trampled in the stampede.
Whiptail gets his lasso ready to start roping stragglers, but with the blast from the unwanted guests, and the sudden stampede, his mount rears in panic. It takes all his strength to hold on. “WHAT IN TARNATION!?!? WHOA THAR!!! WHOA!!!!” he hollers, trying to get the frightened reptile settled down.
Fluffpaw has trotted her mount off in preparation to take up the far side of the herd, staying upwind and away from anything that might spook them prematurely. The first sounds of the blasts and the herd swerving in directions not previously anticipated peace marks of panic on her feline face. Paws take up a much firmer hand on the reins, struggling to control the jittering, bucking, upset animal. It’s all she can do to yank it out of the way of the stampede and not share a fate similar to the unfortunate Grimlahdi. “Get around them on the outside, ” she cries loudly to her companions. “Get ’em together!”
Razorback’s ears snap towards the direction from which the “whoomp” sound comes and is already racing there quadripedally when the detonation occurs. Seeing a stray bunch of bumblers crossing his path, he looses a predatory roar at them to send them scurrying back towards the others as his nostrils follow the scent of the torpedo’s propellant.
Scarsnout watches through binoculars from the ridge as chaos unfolds below. He sees Razorback fixing on their location. Then he lowers the binoculars and nods to the human female. “Target incoming. Aim for the killshot.”
Whiptail finally manages to get his mount under some semblance of control. Once he’s assured himself its relatively calm, he gets his lasso ready once again, and throws a loop around the nearest bumbler that appears to be one of the lead ‘troublemakers’, hoping if he can get some of the leads settled down, the rest will follow suit.
Not exactly the gunslinging type, Fluffpaw keeps her head low and focuses on the herd, ears flicking back and forth wildly in distress. She veers her mount to intercede with a bumbler starting to swerve off, ready to take some of the herd with him. She bares her fangs and gets a menacing growl. Knowing what’s best for him, the bumbler rejoins the herd with an anxious rumble. It would prefer to not be lunch for a Demarian today. Her dark eyes scan the heads of bumblers to search for any more strays seeking to remove themselves from the pack.
Razorback finds the time to flick the switch on a little device at his belt before he begins to take the side of the gorge in a series of tremendous leap, his claws scrabbling across the rock as he launches himself upwards bit by bit. His ears and his nostrils still search out the as yet unseen foes.
The human female crouches so that she can use a small boulder as a mount for her rifle as she stares down the laser sight and pivots the barrel as she waits for the perfect shot at Razorback – the crosshairs lighting on the front of his head once or twice, but never quite locking on as he jumps to and fro. “C’mon,” she mutters. “Sit still a second.”
Whiptail notices that Razorback has taken off towards the ridge, but keeps a firm grip on the bumbler he has lassoed. “Give ’em hell!” he hollers as he works the bumbler to where he wants it to go.
Back and forth Fluffpaw sways with her mount, snapping and snarling as necessary to discourage strays from diverting from the main body and to keep them running straight. It’s hard though, with just one person covering a large side and the occasional bumbler does escape, swerving off and taking a friend or two with it. “Keep ’em running til they tire!” she shouts to Whiptail. She slows a little to approach the rear of the herd to keep better eyes on how they move, and where they’re all headed.
The Cliffwalker begins to zero in on the scent of the launcher, the shifting of clothing against stone, a muttered word. He bursts upwards over the boulder hiding his would-be sniper. His claws slip out, his jaw stretched wide, he looses a roar that echoes throughout the gorge as he descends towards the human female.
The woman’s finally got a lock on Razorback, cool and seemingly untroubled by the massive felinoid descending toward her as she’s about to squeeze off a blast into his face with the rifle. Unfortunately, the shot goes wild as the calico Demarian to her left gives a harsh jab with his rocket launcher to knock her onto the ground. Scarsnout, furious, pulls his own weapon – a plasma pistol – and aims it at the traitor, preparing to fire.
Whitepelt, meanwhile, is using his bike to help corral the panicked bumblers.
Whiptail tugs on his lassoed bumbler, trying to steer it and catch the attention of the rest of the herd, with the hopes that he can get them into a better position to get them stopped and rounded up.
The bumblers begin to tighten up under the pressure from three sides – Whiptail, Whitepelt and Fluffpaw. Skittish and stampeding, they cramp in on themselves, which causes them to start slowing down. From each side, some of the bumblers have made an escape into the brush but the majority have accepted their inevitable fate. Fluffpaw wilts slightly in the saddle as the initial round up so far seems to have been at least a semi success. The herd is still moving and so onward goes the youngest of the Demarian in the group.
Razorback doesn’t question the sudden intervention of the new “ally.” Not yet. He touches down on boulder the sniper had been using to brace her rifle, his legs coiled beneath him for barely a moment before they launch him swiftly forward towards Scarsnout.
The female sniper’s gun is about three feet away from her now. Raging, she scrambles for it. The turncoat Demarian, either oblivious to Scarsnout’s gun (or ignoring it), leaps to grab the woman’s leg in an effort to slow her progress.
Scarsnout, of course, cannot ignore the impending pounce of Razorback Cliffwalker. His fanged mouth falls open in frustrated dismay before he turns and bolts toward the cave in search of shelter.
Whiptail keeps working the lassoed bumbler to act as the guide of the herd, hoping that Razorback’s intervention has prevented any further projectiles from afar. “Derned idjits.. ” he mutters to himself.
Flick. Flick. Fluffpaw’s ears swivel back and forth, seeking out sounds that might be of use to them in the settling of the herd. Their pace is starting to slow now that the initial panic has worn off and the interest in moving is dwindling. Her own mount has slowed into sluggishness from the hard run and quick change movements. She looks to Whiptail for further direction.
Predatory instincts are fully engaged in Razorback as he leaves the turncoat to deal with the sniper. He pounces after the fleeing Scarsnout, trying to close the distance before the other Demarian can gain enough room to bring his pistol to bear. His ears remain canted forward however, testing the sound from the cave for evidence of ambush.
Scarsnout doesn’t waste the steps slowing to aim or fire at Razorback. Instead, he disappears into the shadows of the waiting cave ahead of his pursuer and is quickly gone down one of three divergent passages leading away from the entrance chamber.
Outside, the woman lunges for the rifle and almost grabs it, but the calico Demarian tugs her leg, thwarting her this time.
Down in the gorge, Whitepelt eases alongside the calming herd. He then looks toward the wreckage of his stampeded companions. “I should see to them,” he says, dismounting from the hoverbike.
“Let’s keep ’em rounded up, watch for stragglers.” Whiptail says. “Damned if I’m gonna let these varmints get loose again.”
Fluffpaw rubs a paw over her mount’s neck, a gentle encouragement to keep moving. She urges the animal back into a steady pace as she loops around the rear end of the herd.
The Cliffwalker scents the air ahead of him, barely pausing for more than a moment before taking off down one of the three passages, closing his eyes for an instant to help them acclimate to the darkness, while his ears also chase after sound of his quarry’s flight.
The sound of Scarsnout’s flight is obscured by a gurgling, burbling noise – water flowing in a cavern stream that parallels the passage Razorback follows, leading down deeper into the ridge.
Still following scent as well as possible, his eyes squeezing every possible available photon of light from the passage, Razorback continues to chase down his prey.
Back in the gorge, the herd seems managed. The sniper on the ridge draws a knife from a concealed pouch behind her neck and stabs the calico Demarian in the chest as he tries to pounce on her. He tumbles over onto his back, lung filling swiftly with his own blood, coughing violently and wincing at the pain. She picks up her rifle. He holds up a hand in vain. She squeezes the trigger. The blast scorches a hole through the Demarian’s palm before hitting him between the eyes.
She takes a few deep breaths, then looks down into the gorge at the relative tranquility. She considers the cave where Razorback chased Scarsnout. And then her gaze settles on the rocket launcher.
Razorback, completely unaware of these events, continues to give chase.
The herd has slowed from its panicked stampede and has more of an interest in returning to their grazing in a more tightly clumped group, making it far easier to start their moving up at a later point. Fluffpaw rides a circular loop around the perimeter, both checking for problems and cooling her mount down at the same time.
For a moment, the sniper woman aims the rocket launcher down into the gorge – targeted on Fluffpaw’s back. Then Whiptail’s chest. Then Whitepelt’s legs as he crouches next to one of his fallen comrades.
But finally she turns fully around to fire the rocket down the gullet of the cave passage, where it explodes: sealing both Razorback and Scarsnout inside.
The Cliffwalker hears the explosion and skitters to a halt for a second. Left in nearly complete darkness, he finds himself forced to depend only upon sense of smell to continue his pursuit, while looking ahead in the darkness for any evidence of a light being used by the other Demarian.
“Sands take that lunatic woman,” Scarsnout growls in the shadows. He stops just in time to hear a scattering of pebbles tumble over a ledge into a drop below – hard to say how far, but probably deep enough to hurt plenty. Possibly maim. Or kill. He presses his back against one of the side walls and listens for Razorback’s approach. He tries to keep silent. Maybe the interloper will just tumble into the abyss like a worrisome pebble.
In the gorge, Whitepelt peers up at the smoke coiling up from the ridge: “Our friend’s in some measure of trouble, I think.” He looks toward Whiptail and Fluffpaw, drawing his blades. “Coming along?”
The Cliffwalker, having slowed his progress, also hears the shuffling of gravel ahead of him. He sniffs the air carefully, stalking in the dark while his ears swivel about in search of his prey.
Whiptail narrows his eyes. “Sounds like th’ fats in’ the fire now.” he says, drawing his pulse pistol. “Reckon we oughta go check it out.”
The sniper, run out of rockets, tosses the launcher aside and retrieves her rifle from near the corpse of the fallen Demarian. “Time to act like a professional and deal with this problem once and for all,” she mutters. She kneels behind a boulder, aiming the barrel down into the gorge toward the chest of the approaching Whitepelt.
Inside the cave, Scarsnout hears movement in the darkness. “We should work out an accommodation, friend,” he growls.
Fluffpaw’s ears flicker with uncertainty. “Y-yes, we should go help,” she replies slowly. “We shouldn’t take the mounts too close though. They could get hurt.”
The Cliffwalker smiles silently in the black as his ears zero in on a voice. The muscles in his legs and arms coil beneath him, ready to pounce at the slightest confirmation of Scarsnout’s exact location as he stalks incrementally closer.
Whiptail kicks his mount in the sides, and gets it going at a good sprint towards the cliff. Once he gets a bit of distance from the herd, he draws a bead on where Razorback had headed, and catches a small glint of something in the rocks reflecting the desert sun. A quick series of shots are fired at that general location, the old cat knowing full well he won’t have much accuracy at this range.
Whitepelt flinches and ducks at the sound of gunfire from behind. He turns and nearly flings one of his knives at the source. Seeing it’s Whiptail, and noting that the Demarian is firing up toward the ridge, he decides instead to turn his attention toward the rocks above.
Up there, the sniper curses and ducks below the rim of the boulder while cradling the sniper rifle. Her cover blown, the enemy approaching at an advantage of numbers, she decides to cut her losses. She makes for a narrow mountain passage that leads off toward a promontory where her small runabout shuttle is parked.
In the cave, Scarsnout makes no effort to conceal his location. Instead, he says: “I know a way out.”
There’s a notable hesitation for Fluffpaw, paws clenching on the reins of her mount. Whiptail gets a good distance on her before she is pulled out of her freeze and nudges the lumbering beast forward. Her head ducks low to make her body as small as possible.
Without a word, the dark-furred hunter launches himself at the benighted vassal of Coldstar, tooth and claw stretched out to rend what flesh they can find purchase upon.
Scarsnout’s eyes bulge wide as the silent Razorback hurls himself into an attack. Clearly, he had expected an opportunity to negotiate. And, clearly, he had misinterpreted the conversational terrain. Now he only knows *one* way out. He struggles with Razorback and lets himself fall away from the ledge, gripping the thrashing attacker, into the waiting chasm.
Whiptail gets up to the ridge, and spots dust settling indicating recent movement. Following it, he gets on the sniper’s trail.
A mounted figure emerges from across the valley in the direction of Huntsekker. Stubtail, out of pure grit or ignorance, risks skylining himself atop the ridge as he surveys the scene. The lynx drives a wicked spur into his varas lizard’s flank and the beast snarls raw hatred as it hurtles down a narrow switchback to the valley floor below.
Whitepelt follows Whiptail along the path leading up to the ridge, clutching a knife in each hand. “Strategy?” he inquires.
Fluffpaw is not far behind Whiptail but she does not possess much in the way of weaponry. “Where did the big one go?” She asks meekly.
The Cliffwalker feels himself start to go over the ledge even as his teeth bite down where he judges Scarsnout’s throat to be. His right arm stretches out, claws grasping for some sort of purchase in the rock to stop or slow his descent.
Razorback’s fangs find their target, tearing into Scarsnout’s throat – the other’s pained outcry is drowned in gurgling blood as they fall away from the ledge – but no luck snagging at the rock before tumbling into the darkness below.
A shower of sun-bleached pebbles and red sand precedes Stubtail’s mad dash down. His mount leaps that last six feet to the ground, staggers, then rights itself. Before it can fully regain its footing a spur sinks into the beast’s opposite flank and it cries in furious shock, whipping its head around to snap at the cruel rider. Stubtail yanks the reins and the lizard’s snapping maw misses his throat by inches, “Hiyaaah! Run you bastard! RUN!” With no other channel for its rage, the lizard surges ahead, kicking up a cloud of dust in its wake and rapidly closing on the stampeding bumblers.
Razor uses his tail and his legs to try and rotate his body so that he is less likely to end up underneath his falling companion, meanwhile keeping a solid grip on the throat of his victim.
“Not sure ma’am.” Whiptail says, following the trail. “But I have a feelin’ the varmint who was shootin’ at us is makin’ a break fer it.”
The two tumbling Demarians – one quite alive but the other well on his way out – splash into brackish water, about 20 feet deep, at the bottom of the chasm.
Meanwhile, the sniper woman scrambles into the cockpit of her small transport and revs up the engines to prepare for launch.
Fluffpaw’s ears flicker back and forth, even as she tests the air gently, seeking some sort of scent. She’s no fighter, but she tracks prey well. Stubtail gets a searing look. “Don’t you dare stampede that herd now that we got it settled,” she hisses loudly.
Pushing away from Scarsnout, Razorback flounders towards the chasm wall. He clings there for a moment to catch his breath while calculating the climb out.
As Whiptail rounds a corner, he sees the shuttle beginning to start up. “Thar’s the varmint!” he hollers, raising his pulse pistol and starts firing towards the ship, aiming particularly at the engines themselves.
One of the transport’s exhaust nozzles flares as the blast from Whiptail’s gun ruptures a fuel line. An explosion booms down through the gorge, louder than it is destructive.
Below, the bumblers spook and scatter.
The sniper in the cockpit frowns as she assesses the damage. Relying only on atmospheric thrusters, she lifts off.
Deep within the ridge, Razorback will find the climb is long, arduous, and deadly. But he’ll also notice a narrow but passable gap in the rock that stretches above and below water level.
Stubtail casts Fluffpaw a withering glare. “I know what I’m doing,” he says, just as the blast casts the herd scrambling into disarray. The Demarian spits a curse and steers his mount to catch up with the nearest cluster of spooked bumblers.
Sighing, the Cliffwalker decides against scaling the chasm and begins to pull his way through the stale water down the passage.
Fluffpaw hisses angrily at Stubtail, tail lashing. It may not be his fault but she’s apparently blaming him. “Find the big one,” she says to Whiptail and Whitepelt before turning her mount to go after the newly spooked herd.
Whitepelt nods to Fluffpaw, then looks toward Whiptail. “I hope he wasn’t severely exploded.”
The sniper woman, meanwhile, jets away from the ridge – intent on returning to Lady Coldstar to report on how everything went awry, and probably to blame it all on the now MIA Scarsnout.
As Razorback proceeds down the narrow passage, he’ll eventually catch the scent of fresh air and notice light growing brighter. Daylight. A crack will deliver him back into the gorge, where a lazy bumbler chomps impassively on gray grass stalks.
Razorback pulls his sopping-wet self irritably into the comforting dryness of the desert. He pauses at the crevice opening to scent the air and satisfy himself that combat is still not ongoing. He moves off towards where Fluffpaw is located, following the sound of the herd.
Whiptail curses as he sees the sniper getting away. “That derned varmint will blab everythin’ to Coldstar, just you wait.” he says, shaking his head. Bringing around his mount, he goes down to help get the herd settled once again.
“I did not expect to be burying my friends today,” Whitepelt mutters as he returns to the site of their broken bodies.
“Newbies don’t belong on a drive,” Fluffpaw complains loudly to Whiptail. Her attention is on the herd, chasing it to try and slow it back down again, completely unaware of Razorback’s approach.
Stubtail misses the slight or chooses to ignore it, his focus firmly directed at a particularly plump bumbler several of the smaller beasts have taken to following in their mad scramble.
Like a big overzealous cattle dog, the Demarian’s mount nips at the large bumbler’s flanks, driving it and, by extension, its followers into a shallow arc toward Fluffpaw and Whiptail.
Razorback moves in, blocking the bumblers’ last avenue of escape. He immediately starts counting the heads of his companions, his ears folding tightly back as he spots the newcomer. His expression changes when he finds that two of Whitepelt’s friends are down. “Thank you for your assistance, sir,” he says to the newcomer, his brow furrowing with a healthy amount of suspicion, “And I would speak with you when there is a moment to be spared.” He begins to move towards the fallen bikers, though. “Can the two of you keep this lot together while I help our comrade bury his men?” he asks of Fluffpaw and Whiptail.
“We’ll keep ’em rounded up.” Whiptail says. “Though that varmit that whar shootin’ down at us got away in a shuttle, but their engines ain’t in workin’ order… flew off on thrusters only. Though ya can bet that bitch Coldstar is gonna know what went down soon enough. We’d best watch our tails.”
Whitepelt gnashes his fangs, resting against a twisted column of rock near the bodies of his companions. He looks toward Whiptail and replies: “Lady Coldstar better watch her *own* tail.”