Darek's War Part II
© 2004 by pantherevolution

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
This is the second part of a work already in progress. Please read the first part first. The original disclaimer applies, but messages get stronger. You may want to read that again.

By the way, if you don't know history much history, just know that the Revolutionary Calendar was part of the French Revolution, it had ten day weeks, and it declared the year 1 to be 1792 by the Gregorian calendar (ours).

And now, since you're still reading, the story. I hope you enjoy it.


Darek's War: Part II

Darek just stood there, outside in the night air. The giant iron box of the prison sat crouched a few feet away, as if waiting to pounce on anyone who tried to escape. he guessed it was blind, the poor thing; it missed three creatures right in front of who were most deserving targets.

He was smart enough to get the two lions and himself a few hundred feet away from the building containing the entire lion population. The lack of external activity surprised him. He guessed they weren't really prepared for an escape such as his; if they had even recognized it as an escape at all.

BUt calm as the three of them were, Darek was also fascinated. He could feel the stars shining down on him gently, their emanating glow from the sky touching his face like warm dots in the cool breeze. It always inspired wonder in those humans, he remembered; he once again wondered how human he was if that was the measure.

"What do we do now?" the voice of the aggressive lion suddenly demanded on Darek's left flank. "You two go to sleep. I'll stand watch first," he added, anxious for some nocturnal daydreaming. "Fine," the lion grumbled. "Just go to sleep," the passive lion growled from his right flank, "and be glad we're getting any sleep at all."

The three of them were in grassland, for such was the terrain as far as the eye could see. The aggressive lion grabbed and pulled out a few claw-fulls of grass to attempt to cover himself up somehow, but to no avail. After grumbling and growling about it, he just smashed down a patch of grass in a circle with his body, and curled up on that. The passive lion just copied his idea, and both of them were quickly snoring.

It was Darek's job that was hard. Not that daydreaming was hard, but trying to do it at night without letting it turn into full-blown dreaming was. So, Darek just lay down on the ground. He didn't bother flattening the grass because he didn't want to get too comfortable; that would let him fall asleep. He just stared up at the stars. The plains were no good to stare at; it was very seldom that a rock or even a tree peeked out from them. He could see the holes of flat grass where the two of them slept, and spotting those holes was the trick to living life out here if you didn't have a city. The resistance must be very good at it; no doubt the three of them would be detected in an instant were they stumbled upon. he wasn't sure how long there had been free lions. Surely since he started releasing them, but on the other hand, not quite all of them could have been captured. Even the panthers, as much as they hated to admit it, had members of their race that ran away from the cities and just lived off the land in the primitive sense, hunting prey like their ancestors. But these nomads posed a threat to no one, for such solitude could not teach one much more than one's essential skills, and a nomad would surely not attack another being unless it was hostile, regardless of where it came from. Not to mention the fact that a single nomad was not big enough to be his own force in the world.

Darek just glanced at the two holes in the grass again. They slept so soundly, all of their cares seeming to dissolve. He felt he had to protect them. He didn't really think the panthers were coming after them; they would never expect a real escape, so they wouldn't know what one looked like. They would think it was assault, and would just check the city to see where the solider ran off to. It would take them quite a while to realize that he took two prisoners with him. But when they did, he would definitely need some hiding and aid from somewhere.

He found himself starting to shiver a bit from the cold air and blustery wind, suddenly turning from cool to frigid. At least it would keep him awake. There was a half moon, not allowing much to see, but night vision could do the rest. he left his gaze up at the stars, since all of the earthly things could be put on hold for the time being. "I believe in God as he believe the sun has risen," a human once wrote. "Not because I can see it, but because by way of it, I can see everything else." But there were some humans who were so daring as to look directly at the sun as he recalled. The most ancient human race to his knowledge, the Egyptians, declared one of their men to be a God when he died. Further, they worshiped Darek's ancestors. Oh what a marvelous thought that was to him! Having a whole bunch of humans serving his every command would indeed be satisfying. He wondered what it feels like to mate with a human. Alas, it is a question he would never answer, so he forgot about that sort of idle speculation.

He just lay there, looking at the stars. He knew it was possible nature did all of this. Why did this invisible thing need to be there, anyway? It just plain didn't make sense. Never the less, the idea of a life after death was appealing, and if the humans wrote so much about it, and some of them believed it, why couldn't he? He guessed it's wishful thinking, though. He wished he wouldn't have to die someday, but what choice did he have? This life was all he had. The stars shall burn for an eternity compared to his life, he thought, seeing all of the generations to come, and surely many since. He was sure that many probably even stared down at the humans during their days here.

He then took a deep breath of the cold air, the icy wind biting his lungs as he realized just how short his life was.

He began getting depressed. What words will follow his name in the sentences spoken after he died, he wondered. Not much, and he'd never know, anyway. Since he can't hear it, shouldn't he give them something to talk about? Of course, but what? Well, he was helping the resistance, he continued, but why would that be noteworthy to panthers? He was born a mere 20 years ago, becoming mature after 5 of them, and he had only probably 15 ahead of him, unless he was above average in constitution. He had always lived his life foolishly, when he thought back on it. He was drafted at maturity and decided to stay on. He fought tooth and claw, only to retire his leather and start scratching on parchment. He never got a chance to do anything truly important. He never found a dream job. And now that he was outside of all that, it felt like then end of an era.

Then, it hit him. He realized the time that he had lived before this, he was living one day at a time without too much time to think, and now he found himself searching for answers to the unanswerable. At the same time, he wondered how essential the city was, now that he was out of it. He had felt a growing resentment all along, but was so wrapped up in it that he never had time to step back and look at it. Oh, how stupid it all was when he really looked at it! His highest aspiration was a job. But for what purpose? What would it really gain him besides continued work for the rest of his life? Nothing! What has the military gained him? Pain and papers! That's virtually nothing! What did most truly acquire for themselves? Nothing!

Why should he even participate anymore? What good could he possibly do? What would he stand to gain after his death? Not a thing. He was dooming himself by staying there! he was sentencing himself to a life of pain or papers and an eternity of solemn silence after his death, if he were to continue living in it. No one could build a true legacy by working within their society. Why do we so idolize that first generation smart enough to use human technology, he thought, the ones who built out city? Because they built a legacy in that brick that would have their name carved into our history forever. Many humans have said those very words, and they became true; the panthers respect many of them as much as those in their own time did. Both the legendary humans and the legendary panthers got their names enamored in time forever precisely because they escaped society. If they hadn't, they would never have done the things they did. His conclusion to all this was simple: society is one step behind. If one wants to get ahead, like him, he should step out of it.

Then, another thought hit him: Ross was planning something, probably getting rid of the head of state. If he could stop that, he'd be a hero commemorated for all time! That would be great! he could lead a life of people knowing who he was, and after death, they would wish for him after every tragedy, much as many yearn for the return of those first city builders, with their ingenuity, to solve current crises.

He slapped himself. He was back in society again. He had to twist this point the other way. So, he worked his mind over this along better lines: he would be given much for being a hero, no doubt about it. Money, certainly! He never knew how many Marks were made from that strange and rare mixture of iron and other metals, the amounts strictly controlled by military force, but he bet he would get a large amount. That life would be brilliant! No more work, writing, or worries. He could buy anything he needed with what he got for his heroism. Even better, he could escape society without reproach! He could have it both ways; the benefits of being out of society, but still being able to draw upon its resources when he needed them. He could live outside the city, maybe hire a few guards to watch his place, and be in calm solitude.

As he painted the picture, beautiful sunrises, the lone building, and peace and quiet, all of his problems of life seemed fade into the fuzzy haze of yesterday. It not only felt like the old era was over, but that a new one was born, much older than the last. Rather than going from something to nothing, he felt himself drifting from something to something better.

He ran out of things to think about after that. The stars, his life, his freedom, society, and even God all seemed sorted out as the gentle, calm, cool breeze soothed his mind. The stars were still about wonder, but with so many questions already solved for him, their power over him seemed to wane. What remained were questions that could surely be reasoned out the freedom of this new era, he was sure. And then, just looking at the two holes in the grass, their snores wafting across the planes, overcame him with sleep, his mind no longer needing to remain awake.

***

Darek awoke slowly to a blinding sun. It forced his eyes shut, but he struggled to at least squint and see the new day. He could only see blurry waves of grass blowing in gentle gusts of wind as they went past his face. As he was slowly coming to know this new environment, however, he was immediately being yelled at by a familiar voice. "You fell asleep!" the aggressive lion all but roared. "How could you fall asleep and risk all of our lives?" The question was as shattering to Darek's brain as it was his ears. Both fragmented, and started trying to reconstruct themselves. "Now wait a minute," Darek demanded, covering his ears reflexively. However, the lion didn't. "How could you fall asleep like that!?" he repeated. "You could have gotten us all killed!" THe subject of keeping watch, the second time it was mentioned, got Darek to remember last night. He did fall asleep! How could he have been so lax with himself? He stood up, his eyes still adjusting to the light, as he saw the aggressive lion standing at full height over him. "I'm sorry," he snarled, his charisma not awake yet, "but --"

"Sorry is no excuse! If you panthers are so superior, you wouldn't ever say --"

"Stop it!" the passive lion demanded, jumping up to full height from behind the aggressive and turning aggressive himself. "He said he was sorry! Even you aren't in perfect control of yourself, and you know that!"

"But I'm just a lion," the first retorted sarcastically, "so he can't control his -- "

"Why don't you just shut up!" the second yelled, and shoved the first to the ground. THe first jumped to his feet, and with a roar, pounced at the second. THe second managed to side step it, but barely.

Darek's wits and commanding charisma returned to him as he saw a fight. "Stop!" he yelled, jumping over to the first lion and tackling him. He managed to pin him in the middle of struggle to get up, and put a claw to his neck. "Now stop!" he commanded, "and you too!" he snapped, holding out a claw as the passive one attempted to make a move on his target from the corner of Darek's eye.

He felt that it was time for a lecture. He needed some authority so these two lions wouldn't kill each other. "Now look, you two," he began sharply, bringing out his drill instructor again, "if I don't get some cooperation, we'll never find the resistance! Now will both of you shut up and follow me!?" Even he was surprised at how loudly he yelled the last line. The two lions did respond to that, fortunately. Even though it was with a snarl, they stood behind him double file in normal marching pattern. How could these two possibly have lived together -- and one of them do what he did -- for so long, Darek wondered. It seemed like, now that they were free from their cells, their brains were free to hate each other. Perhaps they were in control of each other because they knew there was another authority over them. That made sense, but it didn't help matters.

Darek called for a march, in his drill instructor style, and started moving out, keeping time with his right paw. He went in the direction which he guessed to be north, based on the position of the sun. It wasn't a hot day in particular, but he soon started feeling fatigue, even after a few steps. It was a manifestation of the burning need to go back. He thought he sorted things all out last light, he told himself, but his mind was stubborn. It wouldn't let him go. He forced his legs to move mechanically, sharpening his calls all the more from his internal strife as he kept himself moving, trampling over the golden grass. He didn't dare look back. To do so would probably have been just about fatal, for the loss would become visual. He hated the society intellectually, but he knew in his guts it was all he had. Everything he had ever known was in either the city or the prison. The desire for stability fought tooth and claw with the desire for finding the truth in the universe, and oh what collateral damage they caused.

In fact, his brain was so busy, his eyes failed to see something hiding behind a rock until it was upon him. He watched himself fall to the ground, a high, sharp, trill-like, snarl rushing up to his ear, and hovering there. A matt of what felt like a thick sheet of unspun cloth hit his back, as two fuzzy paws and a knee kept him on the ground.

He did the first thing that a commander would do. "Get him!" he shouted to the two lions behind him. He heard a head turn, and a mighty, throaty roar of a lion behind him. The knee and paws sprung off of him. He managed to roll away, and jump to his feet, ready to attack the threat to him. However, the passive lion, whose name was getting less and less accurate, was engaged to the strangest creature Darek had ever seen.

It was obviously male, and built like a panther, but instead of solid black fur of tiny length almost painted over the skin, this creature had rough fur of varying length in shades of brown. His face was covered with light brown fur which was almost an orange, tufts of it sharpening his cheeks to points aligned with his whiskers. The color darkened at his neck, turning more golden, and got rough, bushy, thick and overgrown on his chest, arms, and paws. At his pelvis, however, the fur got a shade lighter again, and each strand became well-groomed and about an inch long.

Darek was trying to figure out what this creature was when he saw another out of the corner of his eye, trying to sneak up on him from his left. So, attempting to surprise it, he spun and bounded at it, claws fully extended. It was rather shocked, but managed to extend its claws and dodge, trying to trip him. He managed to avoid it, and dodge a swipe, before he got to his hind legs in a defensive position.

However rather than trying to land blows, this creature crouched and sprung, trying to tackle Darek . When Darek easily dodged it, the creature almost managed to pull him down. The creature, on the ground already from his own missed tackle, was simply pinned by Darek, the work having been done. It was the strangest, and stupidest, battle tactic Darek had ever seen.

The passive lion ended up on the ground thanks to his target; apparently he didn't see a flying leap coming. But what got to Darek was that the aggressive lion was just standing there, chuckling! "Attack him!" Darek ordered, but it didn't do any good; the lion turned to outright laughing. "Attack him!" he demanded again. "You fool!" he cackled, "They are the resistance!"

It wasn't until then that the thought occurred to him: were these wildcats? He had never seen one; only heard about their various atrocities, some of which seemed rather unbelievable. If these were in fact wildcats, the fighters of the resistance, he had made a terrible mistake.

However, Darek couldn't admit that out loud. "If they're resistance fighters, why did they attack us?" He knew the answer: because he was a panther. He was waiting to hear a much more vile version of the same thing from the aggressive lion, but the wildcat pinning down the passive one said something first. "How should we know if this isn't a trick?" he demanded rhetorically, his voice much higher pitched and a bit raspy and growly in tone. Darek found the lack of race's mention rather amazing. He just sighed, and put his arms behind his back, turning himself in. THe previously pinned wildcat took his opportunity, leaping to his feet and grabbing his folded arms. With that dramatic scene now over, his charisma feeling at an all-time low, the two lions and he were marched to the west.

***

The five of us walked for quite a while, the warm sun slowly turning hot as fatigue set in over Darek. He was the only one also next to a hot body, that of the first wildcat. His henchman, apparently because of his tasks, was taking up the rear, keeping everyone moving.

"Why don't you explain why you're out here with these two lions," the voice in his ear insisted calmly in its high snarl, "and then I'll decide what to do with you." That wildcat's scent, rather dirty and dingy like all of them, started changing a bit for some reason when he asked the question. A sharp overtone was suddenly coming through. He simply stated what he knew. "I'm Darek, and I've been helping hundreds of lions escape ever since the prison was built, and I'm now leaving himself."

"I'm Carl," the wildcat stated, mocking his form, "and I don't believe you." His lack of overt racism struck Darek; perhaps he could reason this one out. "So why do you think I'm here?" he asked calmly. "Oh, I've got an idea," Carl said calmly. "You're here to join the resistance, figure out where we are, leave, and tell your commander."

"That's ridiculous," Darek snarled, but he got the feeling the two of them both knew that, knowing how commanders thought, it was probable. "So what are you going to do with him?" he asked, continuing in the logical sequence, since he seemed to have his mind made up already. "I'm going to put you in a prison cell in the middle of our hideout." Darek couldn't help but chuckle. "Let me get this straight," he said, trying to keep a straight face and failing miserably, "you're going to take someone who -- you are convinced -- wants to figure out where your hideout is, and put them in the middle of it?"

"Well, that's just it; I'm not absolutely sure." At least that was good, Darek thought; it was a chance. "I figure if you are, you can stay there forever, since any attempt to escape, when you are surrounded by grassland and wildcats, wouldn't work." He had a point; it was a bit obtuse, but he did have one. Darek knew he hadn't been tracking where exactly it was they were going. He knew it was generally west, but how far west, and at exactly what angle of west made all the difference, since this hideout was probably not too visible.

It seemed like hours that they marched. Darek was sweating quite well when the wildcat finally stopped at a small boulder just lying there in the middle of the grass. It was roundish, three feet high and four feet side, and had countless sides, continuous tracks of jagged edges in asymmetric layers running around its sides. It seemed more like a weapon dropped on someone than a rock at all. Darek was tired enough that he immediately sat down on non-sharp top of it, but Carl pushed him off without even a word. Darek landed in the grass, feeling a few of the razored edges cut him as he fell, and just watched Carl pick up a corner of the countless-sided rock from underneath and rotate it in a semi-circle, moving it a foot or two, and revealing a large hole in the ground as deep as he could see. Hanging at the top of that tunnel, what the rock held up, was a strange ladder, apparently made of the surrounding field grass, woven from here to the bottom. It was rather amazing, Darek thought, considering how little the wildcats knew about such things. The wildcat started climbing down without pause. "Well, c'mon," he taunted, "haven't you ever seen a ladder before?" Not like this, Darek thought. But as he faded from sight, Darek started climbing down.

It got darker and darker, the dirt around him seeming to absorb the light that came from above, even as it got ever smaller. At the bottom, Darek could see torches burning, the red light floating up gently to his current position. After a few more rungs, Darek jumped down the remaining half dozen feet.

He landed comfortably. THe wildcat stood up on his hind legs again, his eyes showing a desire to hold Darek's arms again. Darek stood up the same way as he had been, conceding. The two of them then walked down the hall, the torches changing Carl's light brown fur to a rather bright orange. When Darek glanced at his own shoulder, he had all but disappeared into the surrounding darkness; his black fur would probably make him invisible were it not for the reflectivity of his green eyes.

This tunnel led to a modestly sizeable complex, if Darek could call it that. The ceilings everywhere were only a few inches above his head when he was on his hind legs. He felt closed in, the hall barely even wide enough for the two of them. They had to form single file a few times to let other wildcats through, each of whom gave Darek a dirty look. He thought that was understandable.

THe wildcat, as if on a tour, showed him the first room. A shadow was bent over an iron block, pounding a large plate of metal heated in a dirt fire box on the corner of the room. It appeared to be a panther, amazingly. "This is where we try improve on your kind's work," the wildcat sarcastically introduced right into Darek's ear. "Henry has been quite busy as of late. One of your own working against the rest of you isn't good odds, but we all think Henry will do fine. He was quite a loss to you." With the last sentence, the panther turned around. Darek could now see the eight sky-blue stripes of a specialist in the flickering fire, at least he thought they were blue; his own stripes looked red thanks to the light. The panther raised his hammer in acknowledgement to Darek, but with a glare from two guards who walked over from hidden corners of the room, he returned to his hammering.

Carl walked Darek down the hall, past the second room without a word. It contained little other than a hole in the ground. Darek could guess what that was. "The third room is a surprise," the wildcat playfully snarled as they walked toward the entryway, This room actually had a door on it, made of solid metal. The wildcat slid an inch-long bolt open it to reveal the surprise: the room was empty. There was only a torch in the corner over a tiny hole, and nothing else. "This," he said with a gesture, "is where you will be kept until they can figure out what to do with you." He suddenly shoved Darek with all of his might, sending him sliding into the room. Before Darek could even roll to his feet to respond, the wildcat had the door shut and the bolt in place.

***

The same thoughts went through Darek's mind over and over again. He figured he'd never get out of here. They had no reason to let him go, since he had no useful skills. How could they get proof of who he was? He had no choice but to wait.

He just paced in the room painted a reddish orange by the torch. He soon found his thoughts return to his planned new life. He needed to survive this, or the new life he had made all his mental preparations for would never come to be. Sure, he thought the old life was over, but the new one would not begin until Ross was dead or captured. Right now, he had no reason to exist other than getting from the old to the new; this was a period of transition.

He was worried to sleep. The eternal present loomed, time only seeming to pass when he used the hole in the corner. It was as boring as the prison cell in the prison of his own kind, except here he didn't even have anyone to talk to. He though he'd never be lonely again, that all serenity was to be enjoyed, but he couldn't enjoy this. There were too many concerns on the opposite side of that steel door. Perhaps being alone isn't the absolutely best thing, he thought.

It was far after he lost track of the time that the bolt slid open again. He stood up expectantly, hoping they had found something to convince them he was okay. But in stepped the other wildcat, Carl's escort, built far better than Carl. Two more wildcats closed the door behind him. "Now, why don't you tell me who you are," he snarled. "I am Darek, and I was the one who let all of the lions escape," Darek sighed, remembering he had told Carl the same thing. "You're lying!" the wildcat yelled, taking a strike at him. Darek managed to dodge the first blow, but he failed to see a second and it hit him squarely in the chest. "Now who are you!?" wildcat snarled viciously. Darek guessed a wildcat's voice box was higher and sharper than a panther's, regardless of size. "I'm not lying." He grabbed Darek by the shoulders and shoved him against the wall. "Yes you are," he snatched, a sadistic smile starting to spread over his face. Darek wasn't sure if he should struggle. On one hand, it would make him look guilty. On the other, it would avoid getting him injured more. Before he could make that decision, however, he was slammed into the wall again. Pain broke out on his back, shoulders, and head simultaneously as they all smashed into the surprisingly hard, rocky dirt. "Why don't you just admit it?" the wildcat teased with an evil grin. It was now apparently he didn't even believe Darek was lying. "I am telling the truth!" Darek insisted, trying to get out his charisma to make him stop. But fear was too strong in him. It failed miserably. "Oh sure," the wildcat slyly growled, and dealt the wall another blow with him. The pain upon pain was starting to build up, and as a result, Darek was starting to break down. He didn't think he could avoid all out trying to kill this wildcat in a few more moments.

Then he realized in those few more moments, he didn't think he could do anything. The swelling began, the blows catching up. The clenching pain started knotting itself together, bundling up in the newly created lumps on him. Darek found himself gritting his teeth. "And I'll keep doing it until you tell the truth!" the wildcat snarled fiendishly. Should he lie, Darek asked himself. It would stop the pain. What would the wildcat believe? What would he want him to say? "Please," he found himself pleading, trying to delay the next blow, "stop." No tears were coming, but he knew their supply lines were en route to his eyes. "Tell me what I want, and I will," he restated calmly, his evil smile now full grown.

Well, at least he said it, Darek thought. What did he want? Darek was turned facing the wall, hands forced behind him. The next blow would damage him worse; it would be to his face, his knees, and even his male parts if he hit it badly. He then realized there was a two inch wide rock right where his left shoulder blade was hit! No wonder that hurt so much! He didn't know what to say. he was too scared by the proposition of facial damage. he braced, closing his eyes, expecting a sharp pain shoot through his nose.

Then, as he was pulled back, about to be slung into more pain, the sound of salvation. "Stop it! Stop it! What do you think you're doing!?" a familiar wildcat's voice shrieked. The wildcat's hold on him was suddenly grabbed away. Darek just fell to the ground on his knees, the drop quite unexpected. He opened his eyes when he heard fighting noises behind him, but by the time he turned around, the first wildcat already had his less friendly companion pinned to the floor in a very odd way.

After Darek managed to fall back onto all fours, because he didn't feel skilled at balancing with his shoulders clenched in pain, the wildcat led him to one of the sleeping quarters. It was a small room, only one torch again. The "beds" were just the steel double bunks from the prison separated into two individual beds. He took the double bed (which was two beds with decapitated sides jammed up against each other) as opposed to the single, because he wanted to spread out. Whether the design had been copied or these had been stolen he could not tell.

He gently laid himself down on his stomach. He heard the wildcat leave and come back, and then get water running from something like a cloth rag. he closed his eyes, finally wincing when cool cloth blotted his wounds. "Just take it easy," the wildcat reassured, even though his tone ended up rather hostile.

Darek asked the first thing that ran through his mind. "What got you to believe him?"

"One of the lions corroborated your story, and when asked so did every lion you released," Carl explained coldly, the tone not matching the words at all. "In fact, you seemed to rather enjoy lying down with many of them," Carl added, an evil smirk on his face he could hear. Darek had to defend my actions, hoping he wouldn't find out about the few males he had forced to perform for him. "Well, when you've got a whole lot of girls under your control, it's very tempting, you know," was his simple justification. "Then why did males claim the same thing?" Carl shot back sharply. Whenever he did coax a male to perform, Darek remembered, it was always because there was something different about him from all the rest. His personality was nicer, like the passive lion. But he couldn't explain that. He couldn't explain not being a wrong-way mater while still having different contact with males, either. So, he pushed the only line he could. "That's ridiculous!" he snapped, right as the cold wash cloth got more pain out of my lump on my shoulder. "So, you're telling me they're all lying?" the wildcat retorted. "Over two dozen said the same thing: in exchange for your freedom, you made them lick you." That was difficult to defend against, indeed. Darek wasn't sure if, at that point, with all of the evidence to the contrary, he should just admit it. He wasn't sure what else he could do, so he did. "So what if I did?" he asked sharply, seeing what Carl would say. "I would say, who cares and don't lie to me," Carl snapped back. It was rather surprising to Darek that Carl had his priorities straight. However, he seemed pretty tense about it.

Then, something rough and wet swiped across the wound on his shoulder. He couldn't help but yell out in pain. "What was that?" he demanded sharply. "I'm just trying to clean you up," Carl retorted in an identical tone. It felt like a tongue. Was it his tongue? Why would he do that? Another lick and sharp pain confirmed it: it was his tongue. "Ouch! Use the cloth, please!" Darek demanded. "I'm trying to clean you up properly," Carl repeated with a snarl. Wildcat saliva probably killed bacteria too, just like ours and just like our ancestors', Darek though, but it was just so painful he hated it.

It was about two dozen strokes and controlled shouts later that Carl finally stopped. "Ouch," Darek moaned, the residual pain still there. "Have you wildcats got anything for pain?"

"Our research isn't as good as yours, mighty panther," Carl chuckled condescendingly. Darek started to stand up, another urge striking him. It was rather painful to use those shoulders again, but he finally managed to get onto four legs, moaning and grimacing all the way. "Where are you going?" Carl demanded. "Where's that hole?"

"RIght here," Carl answered, stern faced with a smirk, dragging from the darkest corner of the room a fat, clay pot Darek didn't even see. "Oh," Darek sighed, annoyed he had gone to all the trouble of standing for nothing, since it was shorter than the bed, "thanks."

The wildcat just waited there, staring at him. "Uh, would you turn around, please?" Darek requested. He wore that strap all the time for a reason besides getting attacked, he had to admit to himself. The wildcat did oblige, though, so it wasn't too bad. After he finished his business, the wildcat turned around too quickly! It was all Darek could do to jump onto the bed and do a mid-air flip to roll and face the wall, setting off all of the pain land mines still kept in his otherwise quiet wounds. He curled up into a ball in pain and embarrassment, moaning in agony, hoping staring at the wall would keep him from seeing him. It didn't help much. "Oh, I'm sorry," the wildcat said, cold tone suddenly sounding half way apologetic, "I didn't mean to startle you." Startle him! It was just about the opposite! "It's okay," Darek sighed, carefully taking credit where it was given to him, "I understand."

He worked his strap back on, feeling eyes on the back of his neck, still. When he finally got it on, he rotate himself around horizontally, staying on his stomach so as not to exacerbate the pain again, so he could look at Carl, and began to ask questions.

"If you'll tell me," Darek began rather casually, "where are the lions kept?"

"Oh, they're in a different place completely," Carl answered flatly, "That doesn't much matter." Darek wanted to talk to the passive lion again. He seemed nice enough, and he would understand the situation better. "Suppose I wanted to talk to --"

"I'm afraid you can't," was the sharp, straight reply, "because I can't tell you where it is."

At this point, this cold and sharp message which seemed to reflect Carl's entire attitude towards Darek made him feel as if he should make amends of some sort. He knew that distrust was rampant, and Carl was no exception. He had to get them working on the same side as he was, and for the same cause. Their cause, as best Darek could tell was far too broad: hurt the panthers at every turn. Darek needed it to be far more specific: get rid of Ross so they don't have to hide or have to hurt the panthers anymore. Convincing this one it was a worthy goal would be the trick.

"May I talk to you?"

"Sure," was the cynical answer, "but whether I listen is up to me." Well, it was start. "What if I told you I could solve all of your problems?"

"Wow," was the sarcastic amazement answer, "I haven't heard such a good deal since -- the last panther who came here and who is now working metal." Whether it was eternal optimism or lying, Darek didn't know and knew that neither would take very wall to the wildcat mind. "I'm not promising to solve all your problems, really," Darek explained, "I'm just trying to solve the problems you're having with the panthers. You see, I know of the leader who started all this. He started the war with your race, and he continues to hunt you down with patrols. But if I could get rid of him, the Head of State, Charles, would have his hands free."

"And why can 'Charlie' as you call him be tied up by Ross in the first place?" Carl retorted. "Because we have a republic," Darek found himself saying, trying to appeal to Carl's sense of loyalty to the Emperor, whoever he was. "Ross would keep Charlie from getting re-elected. However, if we can get rid of him --"

"And what makes you think we can do that?" The skeptical tone of voice was driving Darek up the wall, but I endured. Instead, he explained his plan: with the assistance of the lions he had released and the troops that were not immediately loyal to Ross, he could remove him from office through a stealth operation.

Suddenly, something remarkable happened: Carl started listening. He just stared at Darek as he talked, which was rather unnerving, but better than being cut off by cynicism at every turn. Darek explained in great detail how he could return to the prison through his secret entrance, and then wing by wing, take it over, using the guards, lions, and wildcats as a force to storm the panther' own prison. He didn't really invent the plan as he went along, but he didn't really have it already in mind; it was a combination. He simply was finishing thoughts he had started long ago. He took battle tactics, a map of the prison in his mind, the way he was taught, finding the panthers' prison very subject to their own tactics. In the end, Carl was rather impressed with what was coming out of Darek's mouth. Carl either was awestruck or tired by the time Darek finished, deep in some sort of thought in any case. His eyes were aimed toward Darek with a rather vacant look in them.

That was amazing, Darek thought. As he ended the conversation, he felt Carl's glassy gaze changed from a stare to a stroke, running up and down him like a massage. When Darek turned to look at him, Carl's eyes were staring over at his own feet. Darek's question was if it was he or the wildcat who had the problem, whatever it was. He tried to think of what caused this behavioral pattern. It's not a disease as far as he could think of, and such a thing as a tick wouldn't be so drawn out.

But then, by some brilliant chance, he dredged up his old girls of the mind. That was how he stared at them.

What was he thinking!? Even if it were, that means Carl would be --

Darek so startled himself, he just about stood up to avoid the look of shock on his face. He would have completely, in fact, had his shoulder wound not reminded him why he was on his stomach in the first place. He slunk back down, feeling suddenly helpless as the pain ground into his shoulder. "Are you okay?" was the consoling voice that walked over to him, one with a bit of a smirk in it. That didn't help things. "Yeah, I'm fine," he commanded through clenched teeth, trying to come up with an explanation fast. "Why don't you just relax?" the wildcat purred, and started rubbing his neck. That was worse! "No no, stop," Darek demanded. "Just relax, okay?"

"No, I will not!" Darek snapped. "Shh! Relax!" Carl growled quietly. Darek jut had to get rid of him until he could figure out what to do. "Go away," he demanded sternly. "Why?"

"Because I want to be alone." Darek was worried he wouldn't make any headway. The wildcat wouldn't understand. "What for?"

"I need to think a few things over." It would be hard convincing him. "Why can't you think with me here?" Carl asked with a smile, the look of which Darek didn't like. "Go away," Darek repeated. "If you don't trust me, just stand outside the door," he added, thinking of why Carl might not leave.

It was another voice that spoke next. "Carl," came another wildcat's yawn from the door, "would you and this -- " He waited until his voice was overflowing with spite before speaking of that race. "panther please let me get some sleep?" he spat. "It's only morning," Darek protested, sleep farther back than the pressing problem of Carl. "All I know is that I woke up hours ago, and want some sleep. So could you two shut up?"

"Sure," Carl said gently, a smirk Darek could feel.

The other wildcat, now that Darek turned to look at him, was a bit bulkier. He was not much taller, but every single part of him was fatter than Carl's, from arms, to legs, to chest, to even the unmentionables, of which Carl's were decent size already. The wildcat flopped down on the single bed, and Carl yawned again. "I think I'll get some sleep too. Would you mind sliding over?" Darek saw a trick coming. He knew what it was, but he knew he couldn't explain saying no. Besides, he thought, his strap covered both sides of him thoroughly. What could he do?

With the problem of Carl solved, Darek suddenly started to tire a bit, mainly from all the talk about sleep. He concentrated on all of his tiredness, dredging up his lack of sleep from when he fell short on his watch last night. Right as he was getting in the mood for sleep, Carl started whispering in his ear. "It's me, isn't it?" he whispered. "You're worried about me taking off that strap in the middle of the night, aren't you?" Darek hadn't even gotten that far in his thought, but he realized it was quite a possibility. "What if I am?" Darek whispered to the wall. "Then you need to know that I don't work that way," the wildcat whispered, starting to pet his back between his wounds, "I make you take your own strap off." That was ridiculous! Darek felt certain he could avoid doing that.

Carl crawled right on top of him, leaned over him, and started licking his neck. Somehow, he missed all of his bruises as well. "Carl," Darek demanded in what amounted to a stage whisper, "knock it off!" Carl just snarled playfully, and kept licking, moving his tongue strokes down on his back. "I might consider your plan if you shut up," Carl whispered. What a bribe that was, Darek thought. THe rough cool sensation was not too bad but, it also started something beginning in him. That sensation of a tongue and the smell of a grimy scent brought back the lion. It brought back his work, as well, how good it felt from beginning to end. How good this would feel now if the wildcat would just --

But that would be giving in, he knew. He resolved to discourage the wildcat. "Carl, stop that!" he repeated. Carl just snickered in the back of his throat as he kept on licking, the tongue marks now approaching Darek's tail. "Think about the plan," Carl whispered in an almost ghastly tone, "think about the plan."

Darek was just plain unable to help but think about that tongue. That rough, sticky tongue as it stroked his sensitive hair, saliva succulently sliming his fuzzy fur down against his skin. His strap got tighter, making the idea even more appealing, wanting to just succumb to the pleasure which he believed was as close to divine as one could get.

When Carl's strokes went around his haunches to the underside of his legs, Darek couldn't stand it anymore. Before he knew it, he was begging Carl to get under him as he struggled to unbuckle his strap.

Carl curled himself under Darek with surprising ease, and nuzzled the leather of his strap. Darek had it hanging on its final ring his tail again in no time at all, and Carl began wryly working him over with his tongue and mouth without pause. Oh, it felt so good! His cock kept growing, the nerves sending him wave after wave of sensational sucks on the sides and strokes under the skin. Darek just lay there, suppressing his vocalizations and just panting out in time as the pressure built. However, in the middle, Carl stopped his motions. "What are you --"

"Shh!" Carl covered Darek's mouth, muzzling his demand, apparently so he wouldn't wake the room mate. Darek let Carl get up, and show him what he apparently wanted to.

Darek had no idea what he would do, but in this state of emotional turmoil, his device in a fiery red anger, he would try anything just to relieve the strain. Carl got up, turned himself around, and pushed Darek down. However, he didn't realize exactly what it was Carl was up to until Carl got completely on top of him. Being careful not to touch his painful wounds, Carl then crammed his organ right in. All of the nerves inside of Darek fired at once. "Ohhh," Darek moaned as he felt the nail driven into the wood of his backside. Carl hushed him quickly, so he just panted, heart suddenly going double time. The gap, naturally empty for so long, gave him such a powerful, hot feeling as it was suddenly filled it was beyond words. Neither pleasure nor pain, this strong sensation just wrapped his brain up in it. The wildcat's constant rearrangement made it feel even better, the nail being pulled out and pounded in again over and over. It kept getting longer and longer, covering more and more territory each time. Every inch of him it covered made him feel just that extra bit better as more nerves were bumped. Before long, Darek was panting furiously. Then, the wildcat started greasing him up really good, flooding his insides with a warm, gooey gel that felt outright bizarre as he growled and snarled in contentment. But before Darek could react to it, the pure strong feeling combined with his empathy of his enjoyment, pushed him over. He gasped, exploding with another groan, mouth still muffled. His seed spurted uncontrollably all over the cloth mattress he was lying on. He could do nothing but feel the puddle in and under him growing, his senses taking in too much to let him even think about it.

It seemed like forever before the nail was taken out, the feeling of the void turning the greasy feeling from bizarre into purely and simply disgusting. Carl got off of him without a word. Darek fell asleep, even his own mind stunned by the news: he was now a wrong-way mater.

***

Darek sat up in a familiar office when his superior addressed him. "Alright, Darek," Sigmund said to him as he leaned back into his chair, a soft smile drifting across his old, frayed face, "what did you wish to see me about this time?" Darek knew, but he didn't want to tell Sigmund about not coming back to society. That would surely get him thrown out. Instead, he talked about the residue hanging in his mind -- and bowels. "Sigmund," he sighed, "I've done it this time. I mated the wrong way. It was incredible; it was indescribable. What's wrong with me?"

"Well, the only thing wrong with you is that society will look down upon you now. What did I say before?"

"That there was nothing someone could do that could make you insane."

"No, I didn't say that."

"Okay, so you said there was nothing one could think that made him insane."

"I didn't say that, either." Darek growled, getting frustrated at this. The impression he got was that nothing was wrong, or there were some small exceptions but nothing he would do was wrong. It was something like that. "Fine," he growled, "what did you say?"

"I said, it doesn't matter as long as it doesn't do others -- the rest of society, in other words -- any harm." Darek didn't care about society, and was burning to say that, but he felt he shouldn't. Sigmund, however, simply tilted his head sideways a bit, studying his face for a moment. "You're holding back something," he stated gently, obviously able to read Darek like a book, "you can go ahead and say it if you want to." Darek felt so pressured by it, and the fact it would change all of Sigmund's lessons made him spit it out. "I'm leaving this society. Then what makes him insane?"

"Now wait a minute," Sigmund said gently, but making sure he stood up, "that would be a bad idea. You can't do that; what about your duty? Why were you recruited in the first place?" Darek was not a day younger, but apparently to Sigmund's eyes he was. "I've been working with the resistance anyway. I'll surely be punished for that if nothing else."

"Well! What choice do I have but to turn you in declare you insane, then?" he growled, his tone somehow still remaining as gentle as when he first started. "I'm sorry, but I've got to protect society by turning you in right n--"

"No!" Darek snarled, bounding out the office door and down the hall of the compound. Since it was the city barracks that he was being interviewed in, there was no solid floor, so he sprinted away quietly on the well-trimmed grass. He kept running, navigating the familiar hallways, running past countless offices and their occupants, until he got to the main entrance. The heavy stone door was over seven feet high and several inches thick. He felt it was a miracle that it swung at all, even though half-foot iron hinges bore its weight. But he stopped such observations to make a far more important one: he heard spinning gears, and saw the guard on the inside turning a crank. He was closing it! It was only half way open, leaving Darek mere seconds to get over there at the rate it closed! He sprinted with all his might, heart pounding like mad and lungs panting. After startling the guard considerably, based on the look on his face, he took a final flying leap, only inches to spare between him and the door frame. He watched the door and the wall pass by him. He made it.

But he wasn't done yet. He ran less in panic and more in determination, his lungs yelling at him all the way, over to his favorite tree, where Stephanie was waiting for him. He saw her white fur standing out against the brown bark almost when he could see the tree. "So how did it g--"

"Steph, we've got to get out of here," he panted, not even letting her finish as his heart still beat in double time. "What?" she demanded. "Steph, please," he panted, "they called me insane! I'm not! He just want to leave! I'm not insane for that!"

"No," she replied hesitantly. He wasn't sure whether she believed him or not based on the look on her face, but he just kept talking. "Look, they're going to lock me up or kill me or something! We need to get out of here!" She still seemed skeptical. "Steph," he begged, "please. Let's get out of here please. We can hunt for ourselves. We can start a new life. We can live as our ancestors did." Memories from the future flooded back to him, as he remembered all of his conclusions. He tried as hard as he could to persuade her. "Steph, what would you gain by staying here? A life of work. You would be catching food anyway, probably, but for the whole city. You know how good at that you are. You would be a food catcher until you couldn't run, and then you would rot into old age and death! You know that! Think about that!"

She stood up and started sauntering off. "Where are you going?"

"The city gate," was her calm reply, "but not because of what you said. It's because of my own problems." He didn't really care why she was going; he was only glad she was.

He didn't say a word about a new society even as they approached the gate, sauntering so as not to draw too much attention, even though Darek's heart hated him for that. When the giant iron gate opened to let the army out to fight the war, the experimental electric motor turning a block of geared mechanical complexity, they slipped out. The wall guards spotted tem, and ordered them to stop, but never sent anyone after the two of them when they didn't. Stephanie and Darek left it all behind, bound after bound, and a few miles out, Darek chose a new favorite tree. He wasn't sure what would happen as he looked into her eyes, but he knew it would be better than whatever army life would have been like.

***

Darek awoke suddenly, eyes popping open, and realized it was all a dream. He felt the same way, though; he was glad he was out. It was a very liberating feeling; why should he care about insanity? Panthers cannot prove it. Why worry about wrong-way mating? It felt strange, it was so strong he probably wouldn't want to do it again, but he knew he shouldn't feel ashamed. He should be ashamed of nothing.

He should, even more, break out of the panthers' life of perpetual work. But the dream reminded him of a simple and grim truth: he needed ways to get food, water, supplies, and so on. How could he do that if he didn't use the society? No one else that he knew of was outside society, and if they were, why would they help him instead of themselves? This problem was becoming troubling to him as he roamed his brain for a solution. Being outside of the society was tough, alright.

It was then that the solution came to him in the form of another question. What do you mean 'the society', he demanded of himself. Who says there can be only one? Why not build your own? What a great idea that was! He could set up social rules that were far better than those established in the city. Those rules were for survival, such as the taboo about wrong-way mating. Now that survival seemed to be all but ensured, why weren't the rules thrown out? He realized the answer was simple: because not everyone wanted to throw them out, and there was no central authority to throw them out by force. The system was not centralized enough. That was why. THat was a problem he could fix.

Oh, what a beautiful dream. He could see it all: he would leave, he would have simple rules, ones without all of these ridiculous standards. THose who were more open minded, especially those in contravention with the current society, would surely flock to his new order. He would be their new master, one with a code easy to follow; simple yet open, obedient yet accepting, just yet gentle. He would make a great Head of State for his new state, surely.

Feeling the urge to just walk around, he realized his night vision was working now. He saw the wildcat next to him, gentle breaths making his chest rise and fall as he slept. The room mate, whose extra relation Darek didn't know but had a few guesses at, slept just the same on the opposite bunk. However, the wildcat was directly in front of him, keeping him up against the wall. He decided to try a risk, and slowly climbed over him, the pain of his shoulder and back suddenly far less severe. He guessed the wounds had finally closed up.

The wildcat's dilemma, the one which surely influenced his dream, seemed solved. He was not insane, but more open-minded than most. It was fun, but he strongly hated that feeling of just losing control, exploding just because a piece of flesh rubbed all of the nerves the right way. He swore he would never submit to that again.

-- I TO HE CONVERSION --

It was when Darek got as far as the center of the room that his tail was grabbed. A familiar paw covered his mouth with a paw to avoid yelling in shock as he instead turned it into a violent jolt. "Come back here," the voice attached to it whispered from behind him. Darek lay down on the bed once again, now feeling trapped. He felt Carl's furry arms wrap themselves around his waist. That made him worry he would try what he did last night again. "You know what?" Carl whispered, "I don't think you're so bad." So it took some submission to convince him of that, Darek thought. It was about time. "And you know," he added after a moment, "your plan sounds like it might work. I'll think about it." That would be great. "Thanks," was all Darek whispered back, a gentle smile creeping over his face he couldn't hide. As he was hoping, Carl then let him go.

Darek managed to get out of bed, then, Carl's arms seeming the last bonds which held him. He crept out the door, stalking imaginary prey on four legs. Carl never got to finish giving him the tour, so he thought he would give it to himself. He wasn't sure where he was in this long corridor to begin with, so he chose a direction and headed down it. he decided to go toward the bright red light he saw, coming from one of the rooms, thinking it was the forge. That would let him orient himself, and thus help him figure out where everything else was.

The red light was streaming out of the doorway five doors down, two of which were on the right side. Darek just walked toward it, almost memorized by the light in the hall of otherwise scattered and dim light from the few torches that were still burning.

In fact, he barely heard something from one of the doors on the left when he crept past it. It was a horrible whisper, hoarse, weak, and sounding far away: "please help." Darek just stopped and turned around. The room appeared dark, not even a torch in it. But again, he heard the quiet call. "Please help," came the voice. He walked into the darkness, suspecting a trap. His night vision thrown out of whack by the red light, so he was all but blind in the darkness.

As he moved into the room, feeling his way along the left wall up on two legs, his leg suddenly bumped, as if by accident, by a soiled paw. The fur was short, about the length of a panther, so he knew it must be of his own type. "Down here," the voice whispered slowly, dragging the words in so much pain he could feel it. "It's okay," he whispered in reassurance, quite concerned for the poor creature he couldn't even see. The voice was from a throat so dry, he didn't think it could be faked; the creature was obviously in need of water. "Can you walk?" was his next question. "No," came the answer, the voice seeming to deteriorate already. he felt downwards, and found a furry, greasy body. As he started moving toward the neck, he felt a missing slit of skin, and then he felt a wince. Too late, he realized it was a cut. "I'm sorry," he whispered, so full of pity that he almost cried, causing a creature who must have been through so much even more pain. Given the treatment he had received in that cell, he could not imagine what would have happened had Carl not stopped him. "Where's your neck?" he asked, not wanting to hurt him anymore. A paw grabbed his arm, and guided him upwards on the body, ending with his arm touching a concave ridge. Continuing to try and get a grip on the fellow, he asked where his haunches were, holding out his hand in the dark for him to find. He found it quickly, and dragged it way down under himself. It was slick and slimy down there; he couldn't get a good grip anywhere under him at all. Even if he could have managed to lift him, he couldn't have held onto him.

His empathy and pity turned into anger at whoever did this, and Carl for allowing it to happen. "I'll be right back. I'll help you," he whispered sharply, and marched out of the room. He bounded back into the bedroom where he had slept. "What is it?" Carl growled, apparently reaction to the expression Darek's face. "I want you to help him get someone in here."

"Who?"

"THere's a panther you've been neglecting for who knows how long, and I want it stopped."

"You did it to us, panther," his room mate maliciously replied, "so why can't we do it to you?"

That got him burning with rage. "Look," he demanded, his charisma coming out in full force, "I never did anything like that. He never did anything like that. The last time we did anything like that, as a race, was before he was mature, and probably before you were too! Why take your vengeance now, when such a primitive emotion that isn't even smart!?" Darek wasn't sure if the wildcat could understand the logistics of torture without asking questions, but his face indicated he believed it if he didn't know. "Sure, we were stupid, even I think so! But does that give you a right to be stupid too!? Of course not! So why don't you just help Carl out while you're at it!?" It was rather amazing. Darek was in awe of himself asking for help after that lecture. He could feel the words resonate throughout the room, just like Ross' did in that office. But even more amazing was what happened next: that wildcat said yes! That sort of charisma, he was convinced, was a talent. He was glad to have it. How he got it so suddenly was rather simple: by first watching and now copying that Ross's sharp manner.

Carl started getting up. He was mumbling something under his breath, but he was getting up. Darek jumped ahead of him eager to lead him and his room mate down the hall. The two of them followed him when he started walking, although he got the sense that they already knew where it was. When he arrived at the door, and motioned to them, they walked in straight away, and lifted something within seconds. The two of them soon dragged a panther in horrible condition into the dim torchlight. He had numerous bruises on his face, and a pair of red striped cuts on his chest that were healing over. Meanwhile on his arm, there were four stripes of white paint. In addition to the bruises on his face, Darek could see dried trails of salt where tear streams once flowed, when they reflected barely in the torches. On top of all this, he was surprisingly thin, his hanging skin seeming to shrink back nearly to the bone as what real mass there was of him was picked up by the two wildcats.

The poor panther was taken into the bedroom, and layed onto the double bed on his back. The wildcat, for some reason Darek must have missed, slid the panther the clay pot. The panther used it rather quickly, his lack of water now apparent by the dark hue of the stream. It was short lived, but it was obvious to Darek this was more of a relief to him than just feeling it. "Get some water," Darek demanded Darek Carl. Carl silently walked out of the room like he was a rank below him. he figured if he could moisten his throat, then this poor panther could talk. Carl's room mate also stepped out. Perfect, he thought.

He just couldn't but stoke the poor cat's head, letting his ears twitch with every touch. Darek felt gratitude radiating from him, even though he was unable to do anything but smile gently. Darek couldn't help but do it for him; his empathy was too strong. The panther was about 15, well past the hump of maturity, but there was something about him that made him seem as gentle as a kit. His dark eyes looked up at Darek, staring at his face as the only desire for help he had. "It's going to be okay," Darek found himself repeating as he petted his head, the only part of him that wasn't slimy or slick.

However, it was as Carl returned with the water that Darek realized just what it was that was so slick when he tried to pick him up. He bolted out the door in disgust, hoping fervently that the wildcats had figured out some sort of proper cleaning lest he keep his forepaw dirty for all time. Fortunately, the wash basin in the bathroom there had one. Whew! As he washed his forepaws, he felt the three wildcats in here staring at him, their eyes stuck to his neck. It felt awful, but he silently finished washing up, and walked out of the room.

When he returned to the bedroom, the panther was being cleaned up with half of the water, and drinking the other half. As Carl continued cleaning him up, seeming to rather enjoy it, the panther just looked up at Darek, smiling with his eyes. The clear signal was reassuring: "I'm going to make it."

***

Raw meat. That was what Carl's room mate brought back into the room for the four of them. It felt good to really sink his teeth into something, unlike the soup Darek had eaten for so long. Darek was worried that stuff was starting to affect his dental health from the lack of chewing involved. He would have raw meat caught for him in his society.

The panther chewed down quite slowly, almost painfully. Darek's guess was that the panther's teeth were in terrible condition. It seemed like torture to him, really. He could imagine how hungry this poor creature was, yet was unable to eat very fast.

But quickly enough, the four of them finished that meal. The panther hadn't said a word, but the way he was swallowing down that water, it had to have done something for his voice. Darek just asked him if it did, dying to talk to him. "Can you speak?" was the question that came out. The panther said yes, but with a nod. "Could I ask you some questions?" Another nod. Darek figured he was saving his strength, which made sense.

So, Darek asked the first question, the one most obvious. "What is your name?"

"Ryan."

"Rather a nice name," Darek said without thinking. It fit the kit-like aspect of him perfectly, somehow. It seemed playful, the kind of name that squirmed happily when you heard it. He didn't know where the kit-like aspect came from, though; his best guess was his face. It was so fuzzy and fluffy, despite the tear stains, that it must have reminded him of a kit.

IN any case, Darek wanted to know what happened to Ryan, but he had to ask the question so as not to put him off. "If you wouldn't mind telling me," he asked, becoming rather sympathetic and concerned both in appearance and genuine empathy reach, "what did they do to you?" Ryan seemed to take it all in stride. "Oh, nothing really," he sighed nonchalantly, "they just roughed me up a little. And they tied me to that bed. And they starved me." Darek was feeling the true emotions coming out as Ryan's calm started cracking at the seams, his face getting less casual by the second. "And they parched me. And they wouldn't let him move, not at all, not even to find a hole and go to the bathroom. They beat me more than once. They didn't even let me recover from the last one --" Ryan just fell apart into tears, suddenly rolling toward Darek on the bed, and grabbing his arms around Darek. Darek just pulled Ryan gently up to his shoulder and let him cry. He felt all of the pains from the pangs of starvation to the sharp slices of flesh removed by claws. Oh, how horrible it must have been, Darek thought! But at the same time, Darek detected some hope. He knew Ryan was out of there; he would recover. Panthers always do, Darek thought. Ryan was leaving all of his sorrow and agony in the rivers of tears on his shoulder.

Darek waited until it was all over. When Ryan finally pulled back, and let go, he lay back down. Ryan still seemed depressed, but it was an empty sadness instead of a full one. Darek just stroked his head gently, reacting to the kit in him. "I'm sorry, sir, I -- "

"It's okay," Darek interjected gently, "I know. You couldn't help it. And call me Darek, please."

"Could I have some more water?" His voice whined just like a kit! This was starting to annoy Darek now, as he passed the bowl to Carl, who snarled and leapt out of the room with a disgruntled look on his face.

He wanted to tell Ryan about Ross to see if he could get him on his side. He'd need all the help he could get. "You know," he sighed, "Ross is going to kill Charlie."

"What? Ross?" Ryan perked up as much as he could. Apparently he knew who Ross was, Darek thought; that was a good sign. "Why would he do that?"

"Because he wants to take over."

"Wow. Well, I bet you wouldn't help him, would you?"

"No, I wouldn't," Darek conceded gracefully, a little smile slipping out from under the blanket of his calm inquiring face. "Then I won't either, don't worry. I'll follow you forever; you saved my life." Uh oh, Darek thought; that was a rather dangerous promise. "You don't need to do that," he chuckled. "Yes I do. It's the least I can do to repay you." This was bad. Not just because he wouldn't be able to be alone after this was all over, but because he needed to figure out if Ryan really would be so loyal to begin with. "Give me one good reason," he half-way ordered, getting quite frustrated at Ryan's devotion, kit-like as well in its idealistic fanaticism. "Because you saved my --"

"No, one well-thought-out reason."

"This is well thought out," Ryan whined. "No it's not," Darek growled. Why couldn't Ryan separate his emotions from his thinking like every other solider Darek had ever met, Darek demanded of himself? "Look," he snarled, "get your emotions out of this!"

"They are," Ryan whined again. Darek was just about to the point of striking him. But when he sized him up, the kit aspect of Ryan sapped all of his strength. Darek knew he couldn't strike a kit, even though this kit was a solider, and much older than Miles or Scott. Darek realized what it was: it was his eyes, his face, his voice, his motions. In short, he had a personality that was submissive and playful.

As he was pondering over this, Carl returned rather melancholy. "I've got the troops ready," he sighed. Darek was about to simply thank him and be done with it, but Carl continued before Darek could start. "You're right," Carl confessed, "we have been too bigoted. We should change our ways so we could be better than your race, not worse. Perhaps having a panther lead some of our soldiers will help show them a glimpse of what you really are like when you're open minded, and convince them to be the same."

Darek was feeling better, able to move quite freely, and with only mild pain. Panthers are usually fast healers if they can get time to do it in peace. "Well, alright," he almost sighed, his attempt to match Carl's mood ending up sounding rather resentful, "I'll lead." He wasn't expecting to have to lead anyone this soon, so it was actually quite a shock internally. But, he felt it would indeed be a good learning opportunity for whatever troops he got. At the very least, they would learn that enlightened panthers like him do exist, and that they are a good example.

***

Carl took Darek up to the surface again, up the old and suddenly rather ragged-looking grass ladder. When he arrived at the surface, it was night. Thank goodness, Darek thought; the daylight would have blinded him for sure yet again. The change was never easy for him.

All of the clouds seemed to have blown over as he got a great view of the stars. It was as he was starting to wonder, however, that Carl interrupted his skyward gaze. "These are your troops," he snapped, formal rather than angry. Darek looked down at a column of a dozen wildcats and lions, standing at attention on their hind legs.

Darek was rather surprised the wildcat could gather all of this so quickly. He realized he hadn't even had time to make a plan of attack. But it was as that thought came upon him that his wits took over; he felt he would make the best of it. "At ease," he ordered, and all of the dozen bodies relaxed in a giant, unified sigh. It was about time for his lecture, which he always gave to new troops.

"Soldiers, you have been chosen for a special mission, one which will impact all of your lives, and the lives of your companions. You are going to save the panther city from one of its commanders. Now, while I'm sure you have not liked them in the past, and some of you may not like them in the future, let him tell you this: that future would be much worse if our mission fails!" Darek found himself pulling up his complete drill instructor personality. He figured he needed every last bit of it to avoid any deserters. "If Ross is allowed to complete his goal of killing Charles, then everyone -- and I mean every one last of you! -- will be searched for. You will be hunted down to the ends of this world. With Charlie, at least, he will let you slip through his fingers, and maybe even let off this entire nonsense someday." Darek wasn't sure how true that was, but it was what he had seen so far as he understood it, so he didn't think it was enough of a lie to count. Hoping to get to the mission, since their faces seemed more reasonable than before, he wrapped up. "Now, we march."

Darek led them in time through the fields, Carl pointing him directions from the rear. He ended up following the moon, almost. The wind was amazingly calm, only a rare gust blowing now and then. Darek thought while he marched, getting the orders to become automatic, having done it so many times before. He had to get used to giving orders again, he thought, for when he had his own state. As for location, he figured he would just move it far enough away from the city they would never find it. They hadn't actually explored almost at all outside of sight range form the top of the walls. He would then build his buildings with materials he requisitioned for purposes whose results could not be tracked, and then, one day, he'd disappear with them. It would be simple.

Through the grass they marched, the tiredness by everyone of the same muscle movements over and over quickly turning it into a rhythmic trudge. It rook probably an hour. But never the less, we saw something standing out on the horizon. It was a black hole in the blackness of the night sky. It must be the building, he thought, since they must have gone that known number of miles. Now that they had returned to it, he figured the hideout must be just about due east from the prison, but a long distance, at least three miles.

Darek ordered them to be quiet, and they crept up to one of the walls. He searched for his secret door, feeling along the side of the iron wall for the slightest score. He found too many surface scratches to count, but none would work even bend the rest of the plate. As he moved to the next wall, he could feel the eyes on the back of his neck; boy, he must look stupid, he thought. Fortunately, right as the thought occurred to him, he found a long mark which did in fact warp a plate the size of a door.

"I'll go in first. You two," he whispered, pointing to the two wildcats closest to him. "Watch for me to get jumped. When I do, jump in. Everyone else, jump in right behind them. Got it?" Darek turned around and saw all of the individual single nods. "And Carl, get in the back of the line. I need you in file too." Carl sighed quietly as he obeyed his command. Darek guessed Carl didn't think he was giving Darek command of the troops entirely. But now Carl saw it that way, Darek thought.

Darek shoved the piece of wall, and his secret door opened. He jumped through, into the familiar hallway of the east wing. Immediately, the two elites in their cubby holes jumped out at him with nothing but a roar. They brought him down, but his followers took them from behind, and whirled them onto the ground. Darek ran over to the supply room as the elites struggled to get up and the rest of his troops came pouring in through the door. He grabbed a few chains, and threw them to one of the lions, who chained up the two elites rather thoroughly. "I didn't expect you to use all eight on two panthers," he said, rather surprised. So the lion removed two from each, and worked the remaining two around their forepaws, tieing them behind their backs with the clanking of metal. THe elites did have the common sense to stand up on two legs at this point, so at least they would be easier to handle.

Darek figured the easiest way to make his way through this was to get all the troops he could. So he continued over toward the eastern wing, hoping to get prisoners, or maybe even guards, to join him.

He moved slowly down the hall, troops a few feet behind. There seemed to be no one else ahead of him, which was rather surprising. As he approached the outer ring's hallway intersection, however, the guard there jumped him, sending him tumbling to the floor with a snarl. HOwever, he was surprised when the two nearest wildcats leapt out, pouncing upon that guard as sharply as the guard had upon him. They got Darek released from his pin, flipped the guard over, and pinned him to the ground. It was a rank one guard, Darek then noticed; no wonder he all but fell over in such advanced combat. The lion with all of the chains ran up and slapped one on the guard, wrapping the end around him like a cocoon so he couldn't move either of his arms. Darek wish he had thought of that at some point. He also started taking the guard's armor off, hoping to protect myself a bit better with it.

But it was as this was occurring that he found a rank three guard bounding toward him. Darek knew he was done with training completely, and that would be a tough opponent. He waived the lion and wildcats back, letting the guard come to him. He wanted to see if he could still fight, and this would be his perfect chance, he thought, as his heart accelerated in anticipation.

The guard was smart enough, first of all, not to try and tackle him from the front; if he had, Darek could have just sliced him all the way down his body in midair, which would probably have been even more damage than he would have wanted to deal. He knew that even Ross' charisma couldn't persuade a dead body to work on your side.

The guard then jumped up on his hind legs, and started throwing punches. Darek dodged quickly, but barely couldn't a few times, waiting for an opening when he was tied up. The guard was also smart enough to only punch with one paw at a time. Darek just kept dodging, and tried to slash his arm on one of his punches. Alas, it was a mistake, for the guard's other arm quickly came down upon Darek's, drawing a short gash. Darek felt the pain hit him, but suppressed it; that was part of being a good fighter too.

Fortunately, the guard soon did a kick, allowing Darek to take a swipe at his back. He ended up knicking the guard's tail as he spun around in the exit of the maneuver, and his attempt to flip himself quickly and slice Darek's arm again failed. There was not even a yip from him as his tail started bleeding.

Darek was slowly coming to the realization as he dodged punches, that the guard was just too careful. The guard was being an offensive fighter, but doing it right; his reflexes were too good, and Darek's openings for an attack were too few. Darek kept dodging, trying to run though his memory and figure out what kind of training this guard didn't have, needing something he couldn't handle.

As a blow to his ego, there was only one major category, learned at rank four: multiple opponents.

He suddenly felt his bloody arm losing its strength; that was a bad thing, but he couldn't help it. Bruised ego in tow, Darek kept moving backwards as he dodged, until the two front wildcats got the message and jumped at that guard. The guard reacted and tried to spin and slice them both with outstretched arms and claws, but ended up losing his balance and toppling over. The two wildcats merely kept him pinned. The lion made sure to do the same trick with the chain, which kept the guard tied up. Darek was glad, not knowing what that guard would try to do in order to escape.

"Alright," he demanded of his four prisoners, "who's willing to help me prevent Ross from killing CHarlie?" he asked the question in such a stunning fashion on purpose. Their faces took on a look of confusion. "What are you talking about?" one of them finally said, the rank one regular. "Ross is going to kill Charlie!" Darek repeated sharply. "Do you want that to happen?"

"What makes you so sure?" demanded the rank three. "I've got proof, or just about as close as you can get," he snapped back, and gave the command to follow as he headed toward his office.

As he went down the hallway, he noticed Gareth's door open. He figured he would drop in and have a chat; he would be a great commander for the resistance. Darek walked into his open office to find him lying on his desk, apparently asleep. IN an attempt to wake him in the most entertaining fashion possible, he had his front two wildcats wake him up with a gentle pat on the arm, and a growl.

FIrst, he did nothing, and then bolted awake, jumping to his feet in panicked and dazed surprise. Darek couldn't help but laugh as he could see Gareth's mental failing. The rivalry between them was friendly, but this little prank was wroth it.

"Oh, they're with you," Gareth finally said after a few seconds of being unsure whether to stand up or sit down. "What are they doing here?"

"Well, they're here to get rid of Ross before he can get rid of Charlie. Why don't you take command of some of the troops, since I know how good a commander you are."

It was at that moment, however, that Darek suddenly started feeling a bit weaker. He hung himself over Gareth's desk, trying to balance. "ANd why should I help you at all?" Gareth demanded, "how do he know any of this is true?"

"THere's proof in my office an--" Gravity did a back flip suddenly, dropping Darek onto the desk. WheN he picked himself up, he saw the source of his weakness: his arm had been bleeding for several minutes, and the bloody smear which had just appeared on the desk matched the pattern of the wound.

A feeling suddenly came over him: that he was going to die. He felt the blackness of death what seemed to be a claw-width away from consuming him. He was balancing on a tightrope, waiting to fall into the pit of wherever was beyond this life. He was intellectually afraid, but his guts told him it was okay, somehow, making him want to panic even more. "Gareth, take Scott and get yourself out of here. Head for the hills and the resistance will find you." he was gasping out his last breaths as he felt his eyesight start to leave him. "I'm not going to make it," he gasped. Gareth stood up, and tried to hold him upright in support. Darek could feel his concern barely through the sea of fear and dizziness. Gravity waved, back and forth, like a ship at sea trying to throw him down. And then, finally, the whole world caved in.

Continue with Darek's War - Part III