Sunshine and the Sphere: Part Six
Rae pushed Emie and Val behind himself, slowly backing away from the silhouetted Lutari above them, heart beating like a drum. “There’s a door,” he whispered. “A door. Somewhere behind us. Find it.”
Val turned and scrabbled along the wall while Rae watched the towering shape above them. He heard the faint scrape of a rusty metal doorknob being turned. “Here.”
Rae felt his throat tighten as three other shapes appeared beside the Lutari. “Let’s go!”
Turning swiftly, the Kougra pushed his two friends through the doorway, slamming it behind them. Fumbling in the dark, Rae’s paw landed on a bolt. He quickly shoved it into its slot, relieved that, though rusty, it was still in one piece. Leaning against the rotting, fractured door, he tried to think. Pouncer was the fighter. Pouncer was the street-smart loner. Pouncer could have- and most probably would have- taken on the Lutari without blinking. But Rae wasn’t Pouncer. He was a checkout boy at the local supermarket, whose life revolved around paying his rent on time. He had no doubt how a fight with Copper would end.
The silence was broken briefly by a loud thump, and Rae knew Copper had jumped into the basement.
“Rae?” Val spoke quietly, but he could still hear how stressed she was. “What now?”
Rae raised a paw to his face and took a deep breath as he evaluated his options. Well, not so much options as only option. Keep away from Copper long enough to find Pouncer.
Three more thuds from outside the locked door warned Rae that Copper wasn’t alone. “Search,” he hissed urgently. “Look for a door, a candle, anything.”
“I have a candle,” Val said, rummaging in a pocket. Rae’s fur suddenly stood on end as he heard the faint sound of metal grinding on metal. Copper was trying to open the door. Rae pressed his back against the wood, bracing it, and trying not to think of what would happen if it didn’t hold long enough.
There was a faint hiss and the candle was lit. The flame was small and illuminated little other than Val’s tense face, but it was better than nothing. An old lantern lay on the ground. Val scooped it up and shoved the candle into it.
“A door,” Rae hissed nervously, and he felt the weak wood behind him shudder as someone shoved against it. “There’s got to be a door.”
“Here,” Emie stood in a gap in the wall. The wooden frame and door had rotted away entirely, leaving only a gaping black hole.
“Okay! Go, go, go!”
Rae jumped away from the door and ran after the other two Kougras. Behind him he could hear someone beating against the door. It was old and rotten. It couldn’t last more than a minute.
Rae quickly drew even with Val and Emie, scanning ahead of them by the light of the weak flame. They were running down a long, stone-lined corridor. Occasionally there were other rooms coming off from the wall, but they all had metal doors, and Rae didn’t waste time testing them. His breath came in short, sharp gasps, and his eyes darted across the stone walls and floor, and metal doors, looking for some clue that Pouncer had come this way. There was a dark patch to the left, suggesting a new corridor.
“Down there! Quick!”
They turned and found themselves in a similar corridor, but much shorter. It ended after only a dozen meters, offering a metal door. Rae grabbed the handle, and to his immense relief it opened. He waved the other two through first, and then closed it after himself.
Val obediently raised the lantern, and they squinted at the shadows, trying to make out shapes. It was a largish room, and seemed to hold what had used to be bookcases and display cabinets. Now, tree roots had cracked through the roof, and it was filled with the distinct earthy, rotten-wood smell that haunted the basement. Five other entryways led out from the room. Only three of them still had doors.
Rae chose the nearest one, pulling the decaying wood open quickly. Val raised the lantern again, but they were disappointed. It was a study, with part of the wall caved in.
“No good.” Uncomfortably aware of how little time they had, Rae hastily turned and tried the next door. This one opened into another passageway, and they set off at a run. First to the right, second to the left, they found themselves in another room, similar to the last one.
“Do you think we’ve lost him?” panted Emie, looking around the room.
“Don’t count on it,” Val said. “I had no idea there was a basement this size under the museum. It’s like a maze. We could be going in circles for all we know. It’s just a matter of who we find first- Pouncer, or Copper.”
Rae’s ear twitched as sounds echoed out of one of the doorways. It was almost so faint that he couldn’t hear it- the rustle of clothes, the brush of feet on stone, the whisper of someone breathing. The fur on the back of his neck stood on end, and he stealthily nudged Emie and Val towards another door.
The faint sounds stopped suddenly, and Rae held his breath and listened, one paw on the doorknob, his eyes on the entrance opposite them.
The harder he looked, the more convinced he was that he could see a shape standing in the heavy shadows. His suspicions were confirmed as the flame flickered and reflected, for a second, off a pair of sharp, grinning teeth.
Emie shoved open the door and they ran through it. Rae didn’t bother preserving the silence now; the race was on, the only thing that mattered was keeping far enough ahead of their adversary. The sound of thundering feet and his own beating heart filled his head; the lantern in Val’s paws was in danger of being broken against the walls. The weak light fluttered across the uneven stone, creating shadows that wavered and moved and grew.
The doors to either side of them were steel and had locks. Rae ignored them. At the end of the hallway was a wooden door. They hit it at a run, and it collapsed inwards.
They were in a room again. This one only had two doors. Rae instantly ran to the one on the opposite wall and tried to open it, but it was locked from the other side. Panic rose in his throat and chest, and he turned back to the door they’d come in by.
It was blocked by the tall, menacing Lutari.
Rae gasped and swept the other two behind him. The light from the lantern flickered over Copper’s eyes and teeth as he smiled at them. It wasn’t a nice smile.
“Well, well. It seems your luck has run out, little ones.”
Rae’s fur prickled and stood on end. He could hear Emie’s frightened breathing behind him. “Let the girls go,” he tried desperately. “Please. They haven’t done anything to you.”
“That decision doesn’t lie in my hands.” The Lutari’s cold smile widened a fraction.
Rae felt confusion descend on him. “What?”
Copper stepped to one side, and three pets emerged from the shadows. Rae recognised two of the Chia laborious from Arcane Park, and one remarkably familiar Bori.
“Alden?” he gasped.
The Bori smiled smugly. “Please, call me Inspector Reynolds.”
A cold numbness descended on Rae’s mind as realization hit him. Alden- the Alden he’d worked beside for the past four weeks- formal Alden, composed Alden, smart Alden- was all a lie. Alden wasn’t Alden. He was a spy.
No, Rae’s mind argued. Not possible. It couldn’t be.
And yet, here he was. No longer Alden, but an enemy.
Rae’s mouth had gone dry. “Alden... no...”
“What’s the matter, Rae?” Alden’s voice was no longer kind or soft. It was deep, commanding, and incredibly cold. Even though Rae was taller, he seemed to be looking down at them. His smile was smug, self-satisfied. His eyes glinted with triumph. He wasn’t the Alden Rae knew anymore. He was something else. He was Copper.
Rae backed up, pushing Val and Emie behind himself. Emie whimpered quietly.
“Don’t.” Rae licked his lips and tried to speak in something louder than a whisper. “Alden... Inspector Reynolds... you don’t want to do this.”
“Oh, I think I do. Very much, I do.” Copper motioned to the Lutari. “Grevan, I think our friends have overstayed their welcome. Deal with them, would you?”
The Lutari drew a cruel, jagged knife from his belt and leapt towards them.
There was a crash as the door behind them was smashed in half, and a black blur collided with Grevan. The Lutari yelled as the force of the impact threw him against the wall. Almost as soon as he’d hit the floor, he was up again, hissing his anger at the newcomer.
“Pouncer!” Val shrieked in delight.
The massive shadow Kougra crouched between his friends and the Lutari. His fur was bristled and his teeth were bared in the classic attack pose. It was obvious he meant business.
The Lutari’s eyes narrowed and he raised the knife. “Scum!”
The two pets collided in midair, and collapsed onto the ground in a snarling, biting, kicking heap. Pouncer moved with a speed that belied his size, but his opponent had the advantage of a weapon.
Rae was in something like a state of shock. When Pouncer had smashed his way through the door, he’d dropped a wooden box onto the ground at Rae’s feet. The red Kougra bent down and picked it up carefully. It was a discreet wooden thing, with a lid that was held down by a lock. Unlike the rest of the building, it looked as strong and reliable as the day it had been made. He didn’t even need the elaborate carving of an orb on the wood to know what it was.
He glanced up at the fighting Kougra and Lutari. Pouncer had found it. And now he was buying them time to open it and escape.
Looking back at the box, Rae tried to prise it open. It was locked.
“Give it here.”
Rae handed the box to Val, who had spoken. She grasped it firmly and slid a claw into the lock. Rae was scarcely daring to breathe as he glanced back at Pouncer and Grevan. The Lutari had two deep scratches across his face, and they were circling each other, breathing heavily.
Val had jimmied the lock. She tentatively opened the lid, exposing a beautifully carved silver ball resting on crimson velvet. It seemed to be exuding a cool, shimmering light.
Rae swung around to the source of the noise. Inspector Reynolds was staring at them. “They have it!” he yelled. “They have the Sphere! Grevan, stop them!”
The Lutari raised his knife and leapt at them. Pouncer dived between them and braced himself. The blade came down, there was a scream, and Pouncer fell to the ground.
Time seemed to stop. Rae’s breath caught in his throat as he stared at Pouncer. A bloom of deep red was spreading over his dark clothes and fur. Behind him he could hear Val screaming, but it sounded faint... so faint...
Not Pouncer. This couldn’t happen to Pouncer. It couldn’t.
The Lutari let out a growl of satisfaction and raised his knife for a second time. Anger and horror and fear swirled through Rae in a single heartbeat. There was no other choice. As the Lutari brought down the knife again, Rae reached out and touched the Sphere.
To be continued...