“Do you think this is one of them?” asked one guard.
“I dunno, when we get to the Citadel, we’d better take her to see the boss and find out.”
The two guards marched through the waning forest, moving their silent captive ahead of them with the tips of their halberds. They had bound a heavy chain about Foxglove’s neck with each guard keeping a secure grip on one end, to prevent her from flying away. They had spotted her wandering aimlessly near an old cave while out on patrol. The disconsolate bat had offered no resistance, nor had she spoken a single word since her capture.
Presently they reached the stone road that led to the Citadel, and the trees thinned out. “We’re here,” the guard announced. “Take a good look, this is the last time you’ll ever see the outside.”
Wordlessly, Foxglove raised her head and looked. Ahead of them was a massive castle-like fortress, constructed of coal-black basalt. The outer walls were entirely featureless but for a row of heavy iron spikes near the top, punctuated at regular intervals by hideous gargoyles. Raised battlements poked above the wall, commanding every approach to the Citadel, and rising above the wall was a single, huge, forbidding black tower. The structure was coarse and angular, and grimmer and bleaker than anything she had ever seen in any of Dale’s movies. Foxglove let her gaze drop back to the ground immediately in front of her. She had seen enough.
With a rusty screech accompanied by the clank of chains, the massive iron portcullis ground opened at their approach. The guards pushed Foxglove roughly forward into a long stone passage lit by iron braziers, and the portcullis crashed shut behind them. Arrow loops and murder holes lined the walls and ceiling, any uninvited guests would be in for a rough time indeed. At the far end were heavy doors of wood and iron. The guards stopped, and one of them rapped on an iron plate with a heavy leather gauntlet. The plate swung open, and a voice within demanded, “Who goes?”
The guard responded, “Western forest patrol, with prisoner.” The panel shut with a clank, and a moment later, the door swung open, revealing more guards within, armed with crossbows. They stepped back to admit their comrades and their captive. The doors swung shut behind them with the echoing slam of finality.
“Sir, we believe that we have captured one of the Rescue Rangers.”
“Oh really,” came the voice behind the chair. Fat Cat swiveled the chair around to face the guards who had entered his office. Catching sight of their dejected captive, a puzzled expression crossed his face. In a tone of annoyance, he announced, “That’s not a Rescue Ranger.”
The guards looked uncertainly at each other, then one spoke up again. “Sir, witnesses at the mine reported a bat seen in their company. She appears to answer the description given.”
“Yeah boss,” Meps added, “and she looks like the bat we saw in the Belfry too.” Mole and Wart nodded in agreement.
“You both have bats in your belfry,” Fat Cat told them. Getting up from his chair, he walked past the table where Meps, Mole and Wart were engaged in a game of tiddly-winks to stand in front of the captive bat. “Well, how about it? Were you with those miserable Rescue Rodents?” Foxglove sullenly kept her silence. Fat Cat placed a paw under her chin and lifted her head to his line of sight, extending his claws as he did so, letting the threat hang unspoken in the air. “It’s rude not to speak when spoken to,” he purred menacingly.
“Yes,” she whispered, still not meeting his gaze.
“And I don’t suppose you would happen to know where they are now, would you? Think carefully and answer truthfully.” Foxglove shook off the gangster’s touch, returning her gaze to the floor. Fat Cat frowned and turned his back on her, adjusting the collar of his suit. “I don’t know who you are, but I’m only going to warn you once; don’t try my patience.”
“They’re dead,” Foxglove sobbed, still looking at the floor.
Fat Cat’s ears pricked up with interest, and he snapped his head around. “Is that so? Pray tell me how.”
Foxglove hesitated before answering, the memory still too painfully fresh. “They were eaten by a snake.”
“Eaten by a snake you say?” Foxglove nodded wordlessly. Fat Cat faced front and began to pace back to his chair. “My, my, isn’t it interesting that forces of nature accomplished the very feat that you pathetic pinheads continually failed at!” With that, Fat Cat abruptly flipped over the table that his henchmen were seated at, momentarily leaving them nothing else to do except fidget uncomfortably. Fat Cat resumed his seat, and began toying with an elaborate key hung on a chain about his neck, trying to hide his disappointment at not having done the job himself. It made gloating so much harder. Still, the Rangers’ extinction did at last clear the path to the power and wealth he’d always felt he’d deserved. “It’s a shame, really,” he said, letting the key drop, “that they fell victim to such an unappreciative palate. I had so many . . . delicious plans for those pests.” He licked his lips and laughed at his own joke.
“Heh-heh, that’s a good one boss,” Meps said, trying to restore his good graces.
“Yeah,” Mole added, “you’re real hard-core.”
Foxglove raised her head and looked at Fat Cat’s eyes for the first time, her face an unreadable mask. Whether it was his words or the gleefully callous manner in which he had uttered them that did it, something inside her snapped, and she felt a powerful new feeling rising within her, one that was not familiar to her. Her vision blurred, and before she had time to realize what she was doing, she uttered a high-pitch shriek that hurt everyone else’s ears, and wrested free from the guards’ grasp. Chains or not, she then lunged straight at the vile gangster’s face! The force of the collision caught Fat Cat completely unprepared, knocking both him and the chair he was seated in flat. Foxglove flailed, scratched, bit and kicked, and generally did anything she could to mar her tormenter, while Fat Cat yelped in unexpected pain and tried to push the frenzied bat off of him. It took the combined efforts of Meps, Mole, Wart, and both guards to finally remove her, and even then she was difficul t to manage, Meps and Wart particularly also came away with their share of tooth and claw marks.
Fat Cat stood up, and touched the side of his face, where Foxglove had nailed him pretty good. His paw came away wet with blood. Furious now, he unsheathed his claws and advanced on Foxglove with a low growl. Foxglove met his enraged expression eye-to-eye, with grim determination. Fat Cat stopped short, not out of concern for his safety, but because of a dawning realization. A look of surprise crossed his face, followed by a cruel smile.
“Oh my, but this is too rich. Is it possible that you were sweet on one of the deceased, my dear?” he asked, baring his teeth in an insincere smile. Foxglove’s reaction told him all he needed to know as she renewed her efforts to break free, but her captors held her tight. Well, well, here was an opportunity to gloat after all! “Well why visit your vengeance on me, child,” he said in mock sweetness, “I wasn’t the one who killed him. I just wish I had!” Foxglove abruptly ceased her struggles and fixed Fat Cat’s eye with such an icy stare that even he fancied the room temperature dropped a few degrees. He turned to one side, more to get away from that look than anything, and assumed a tragic pose with the back of one hand to his brow. “And now you’ll never see him again, boo-hoo-hoo,” he finished, drawing a handkerchief from his pocket and pretending to dab at his eyes. Foxglove was positively trembling with rage, the look in her teary eyes promising Fat Cat far worse if he ever crossed her path again. “Put her in the dungeon for a while and let her savor the flavor, boys. I’ll figure out what to do with her later.” He applied his kerchief to the wound on his face. “Pleasant dreams,” Fat Cat purred sarcastically, as the door to his office closed, finally cutting off Foxglove’s glare.
Out in the great hall that circled completely around the central tower, roughly pushed along by the guards and Fat Cat’s henchmen, Foxglove finally began to cool off, though she was still crying and trembling. What was that feeling? she wondered to herself, Was that hatred? Is this what it feels like to hate someone? Such a terrible, empty feeling . . . Gradually she calmed down and the trembling subsided, but fear gnawed at her, fear of the new feeling. Never before had she so much as raised a wing to someone, or even wished violence upon them, not even Winifred. But this feeling had changed her. She didn’t know what she’d do if she ever saw that cat again, but she was sure he would suffer from it.
But it seemed so hollow, because she knew that it wouldn’t bring Dale back.
Once at the dungeon entrance Fat Cat’s henchmen left, and the guards took her through the heavy wooden door with its iron fittings, down and still deeper down into the bowels of the Citadel, past rows of iron bars framing downcast and hopeless faces. The guards removed Foxglove’s chains and left her in a dark, cold cell; miserable, frightened, and all alone.
A pile of rubble and dust shifted in the darkness. Monterey Jack pushed himself out from under the stones and coughed violently, expelling the dust from his lungs. As soon as he was able to breathe, more or less, he pawed through the debris and located Zipper, also coughing up dust, but otherwise none the worse for wear. Dale sat up beside him, wheezing from the dust, and Chip also got up, helping Gadget out from under the shifting pile as he did so. Monty took a quick look around. “Everyone all right?” he asked. Gadget coughed explosively, it was all she could manage at the moment.
“We’re not dead, are we?” Dale asked with a cough.
“Naw, just buried, that’s all,” Monty replied, standing up and brushing the dust off of himself and Zipper, “but I think we’ll survive.”
“What happened to the snake?” Chip asked.
“Dunno,” Monty answered, looking around for it in the darkness.
Chip stood up and brushed himself off, wincing slightly at a tender spot in his ribs where Monty had tackled him. “If we only had a light,” he mused, helping Gadget to her feet.
“Hold on a sec,” Gadget said hoarsely. She fished around in her pocket, and pulled out the large red crystal that she’d picked up in the mine. Its faint red light eerily illuminated the immediate area.
“Monty! Look out behind you!” Dale yelled.
Monterey spun around, ready to fight. “Crikey!” He leapt back. The snake was not there, but he was uncomfortably close to the edge of the landing, or what was left of it. About half of the ledge was missing. “What happened here?” Dale joined him, cautiously looking over the edge.
“Well,” said Gadget, trying to clear her throat, “it looks like the snake lost its grip on the surface and fell down the hole.” She sounded okay, but by the faint light cast by her crystal, Chip could see that she was still trembling. The friends peered cautiously over the edge. Neither the snake nor the bottom were to be seen by the faint red light the crystal cast.
“Now that’s what I call a narrow escape,” quipped Monty. Zipper buzzed in agreement.
“Well then,” said Chip, “let’s get out of this hole.”
“Umm, we might have a problem there,” Gadget said pointing to the steps, or rather, pointing where the steps had been. The snake’s abrupt passage had erased most of them, accounting for the rubble and dust that had pelted them.
“Now how do we get out?” Dale asked.
“With this!” Chip said, producing a coil of rope. “Zipper, see if you can find something up there to tie the rope off to.” Zipper saluted and, taking one end of the rope, flew up the shaft. Unfortunately, he ran out of rope long before he ran out of shaft. He searched around for something else to tie the rope to that would hold everyone’s weight, but it wasn’t long before he was fatigued from dragging the heavy rope behind him.
“I hope Foxglove got away all right,” Dale said to himself, looking up at the dim cavern entrance far above them. He wouldn’t dare admit it aloud, for fear of the teasing it would inevitably draw from Chip, but he was actually very worried about her.
Gadget meanwhile looked around the wall of the shaft behind them, using her crystal for illumination. “Guys, over here!” she called out.
Monty joined her. “’Hello, what have we here?” Gadget had found an old, heavy wooden door with iron fittings and an iron grate recessed into the wall of the cave.
“What’s a door doing all the way down here?” Dale asked. Zipper landed panting nearby, having exhausted himself carrying the rope around.
“Well it makes sense, don’t you think? Why else would someone have put those stairs here?” Gadget remarked.
“It must be a secret entrance of some kind,” Chip observed.
“A secret entrance to what?” asked Dale.
Monty surveyed the door. “One way to find out mates,” he said. He took a hold of the handle and pulled, but the rotted wood gave way. Monty stumbled backwards, still holding the handle. “Strewth,” he muttered disgustedly, tossing it away. He backed up a few more paces, then ran at the door and put his shoulder into it. The door gave way with remarkable ease, the wood having become almost entirely rotten from the dampness in the cave. Beyond was a long, narrow stone corridor littered with dust and cobwebs, clearly disused. The others peered in as Monty regained his feet, rubbing his shoulder. “That used to be easier when I was younger,” he observed. Gadget held her crystal up in the passage, but the faint light from it wasn’t enough to see the other end.
“Do we have to go down there?” Dale asked nervously. It looked awfully spooky.
Just then the ledge shifted a bit, apparently having suffered more damage than was immediately apparent. “It’s either that or follow the snake,” Monty explained, “rather easy choice to make in my view.”
Everyone agreed that an unknown horizontal passage was a far better choice than an unknown vertical one, so they all went inside the corridor. The ledge did not shift any further. Gadget led the way, using her crystal to see where she was going. Zipper hitched a ride with Monty; carrying that big, heavy (to him) rope around was tiring work.
The passage was very long, and twisted randomly left and right, and even up and down stairs. The only other branches off of it that they could see were very short, and led only to quiet storerooms whose stores had long since rotted away or been picked clean by scavengers. In time they lost almost all sense of direction, except for their continuous movement forward, wherever that led. Just when it seemed that they were doomed to wander this dusty subterranean catacomb forever, Chip thought he saw a light ahead, and said so. Everyone came to a stop, and Gadget tested Chip’s theory by putting her crystal in her pocket. In the absence of the crystal’s ghostly red glow, their eyes became aware of the dim, guttering flicker of torchlight ahead. Moving cautiously forward, they discovered that the light came from a torch on the other side of a set of rusty iron bars. The lock was very simple, and picking it presented no real challenge to Gadget at all. Finishing, she smiled and pushed the ba rs open with a rusty screech that made them all jump.
Everyone froze, but when it became apparent that the sound had attracted no unwanted attention, they resumed breathing again. “Oops,” Gadget said with a sheepish smile. They had emerged into a rough stone corridor with the walls punctuated on both sides by sets of iron bars like the one they had just come through, and the occasional brazier supporting a burning torch. It was only slightly cleaner than the tunnel they had just been in.
“Where are we?” Dale asked.
“Not the first-class accommodations, that’s for sure,” Monty observed.
“It’s a dungeon, obviously,” Chip said with a little exasperation, pulling down the first torch from the wall.
“Just tryin’ to lighten the mood a bit, Chip,” Monty said defensively. “This place could do with a little brightening up if you ask me.”
“Sure,” Dale said, catching Monterey’s sense of humor, “A new carpet, fresh coat of paint, some pictures and a floral arrangement or two, and you’d hardly recognize the place.” He giggled nervously and pulled down another torch from a wall. As he did so, it illuminated the inside of a nearby cell. The occupants of the cell had clearly been there a long time; only dry old bones remained as testament to their existence. “YIKES!” yelped Dale, leaping back in fright, and continuing to back up until he fetched up against the bars of the cell across the way.
“SSHHHH!” the others hissed in unison. Again, everyone froze until they were sure there wasn’t anyone coming.
Dale, who had clamped a paw over his own mouth, took a deep breath and explained quietly, “I got scared.”
“We noticed,” Chip remarked dryly. “Look, let’s find a way out of here, and let’s attract as little attention as possible until we know where we are, okay?” Dale nodded. Everyone started moving up the tunnel again. Dale started to follow, but was seized roughly from behind.
“HELP! They’ve got me!” he cried. The others turned in alarm, which dissolved quickly when they saw who had Dale.
“Foxglove!” Gadget cried in surprise, for it was indeed Foxglove whose cell Dale had backed into, and who was now clinging to him through the bars and weeping.
“Oh Dale,” Foxglove bawled, “I cried myself to sleep, and then I heard your voice and I thought I must be dreaming, but then I looked up and saw it was you and I still thought I was dreaming, ‘cause I saw the snake chase you into the cave and I heard Gadget scream and so I thought you were dead, and I was so mad at myself for running away when you needed me and I was so scared, and I’M SO HAPPY YOU’RE NOT DEAD!” she wailed, dissolving into tears. Dale turned around to support her because she seemed to be on the verge of fainting.
“Sshhh, it’s okay Foxglove, we got away from the snake,” Dale reassured her, “but geez, you scared the willies out of me. Don’t worry, we’ll get you out of there.” Dale looked at Gadget pleadingly.
“Right,” Gadget said, and went to work on the lock on Foxglove’s cell.
“Foxglove, do you know where we are?” Chip asked.
Foxglove sniffled and nodded. “This is the Citadel. We’re in the dungeons beneath it.”
“Whaddaya know, we made it!” Dale enthused.
“Too right,” Monty added, “now we just have to get into the central tower and stop the Nightmare King’s plans.”
“I assume this place is pretty well guarded, right?” Gadget asked. Foxglove nodded. “So we’re going to need either a lot of luck or a lot of help to do that.”
“I’d like a generous helping of both actually,” said Monty.
Foxglove stood up and relinquished her grip on Dale, moving towards the door. Monty assessed the situation and backed up a couple of steps, motioning for Chip to do likewise, which was a fortunate thing. No sooner than Gadget had the door open, Foxglove rushed through it and ran straight to Dale, throwing her wings about him and kissing him repeatedly. Had anyone been in the way, they might have been run over.
“Hey, what’s all the commotion down there?” a voice up the tunnel asked. Again everyone froze, until Chip took his torch and peered cautiously up the tunnel to see who had addressed them. There were no guards apparent. “Over here,” the voice said helpfully. Chip walked up to the next cell, which held three mice that seemed somehow familiar. One was tall, dark-furred and fairly muscular, one was not quite as tall and very skinny, and the last was shorter and overweight. “Who are you?” the overweight mouse asked.
“Sshhh, we’re the Rescue Rangers,” Chip said. None of the mice in the cell showed any sign of recognition. “I thought you guys might be guards.” The others joined him in front of the cell.
“Naw,” said the muscular dark-furred mouse, “those jerks never come down here except to drop off more prisoners or these buckets of slop that they refer to as feeding time.” He disgustedly indicated a wooden bucket half-filled with an unappetizing and unrecognizable lumpy gray gruel.
“How’d youse guys get out?” the overweight mouse asked.
“Actually, we just got in here ourselves,” Monty answered him. “You know, I seem to remember you guys, but I can’t quite figure out from where.”
“You ever been busted?” the skinny mouse asked. Monty shook his head. “Then maybe you saw us in the station or something.”
“We’re cops,” the overweight mouse explained. “I’m Detective Spinelli, and these guys are--”
“Kirby and Muldoon!” Dale exclaimed in a shock of recognition
“That’s right,” said Officer Muldoon. “How’d you know?”
“We’ve seen your pictures in the papers,” Gadget explained after an awkward pause. It was a half-truth, but the full truth would have been far too complicated and taken far too long.
Chip was beginning to get an idea. “Say Detective, how large would you say this dungeon is?”
“I dunno,” Spinelli said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, “we must’ve passed, what, a couple hundred cells coming down here?” Kirby and Muldoon nodded in agreement
“Were they all full like this?” Chip asked.
“Some were fuller,” Muldoon answered.
“Gadget, let these guys out. They can help us let everyone out.”
“Are you going to help us get out of here?” Kirby asked.
“Yep, and you’re going to help us take over the Citadel!” Everyone looked skeptically at Chip.
With a lookout stationed near the top of the tunnel to watch for guards, Chip explained his plan to the other Rangers and to the group of police officers they had let out. Trusting to providence to iron out the details, everyone spread out and began picking locks, explaining the plan as they went. Some people looked at them as though they were nuts, but the majority of people they talked to figured that any kind of action was preferable to rotting away in the dungeon. It took a while to let everyone out, but luck was with them. The prisoners had just been given their evening “meal”, and the guards apparently felt no need to check up on them until the next meal. Finally it was time to try the plan and see if it would work. The first obstacle to be overcome was the stout wooden door with its iron fittings that separated the dungeon from the rest of the Citadel. Gadget took a look at it first. The door opened inwards and was secured by heavy throw bolts on the other side. Picking the l ock was clearly out of the question; there was nothing on this side to pick. It was built well enough to resist a determined battering, and Monterey Jack and Muldoon estimated it would take even them the better part of a day to knock it loose with tools, and they didn’t have any. The bars were too close together for Zipper to get through. Chip’s plan seemed stalled before it even got started.
“Why don’t we just ask the guard to let us out?” Foxglove asked. Even Dale thought she was coming unhinged.
“What makes you think they would?” another prisoner scoffed.
“Nothing,” she replied, “but they’d have to open the door and come in here to put us back in our cells, wouldn’t they?”
“Excuse me,” came a voice from the door to the dungeon. One of the guards turned towards the door and was surprised to see a face framed in the bars of the window. It was the bat they’d just brought down a few hours ago.
“Hey! How did you get out of your cell?” The other guard also turned towards the door.
“The lock was broken. Can I get some water? I’m kinda thirsty.”
“Bloody typical,” muttered the other guard. “What do you think we are, bleedin’ room service? Back away from the door,” he ordered gruffly. Foxglove did so. “Don’t try anything stupid now.” The guards looked through the window into the dungeon. Aside from one rather nervous-looking bat, there was nothing else to be seen except the same old cells full of prisoners. “I tell you what missy, you stand there quietly, and I’ll get you a nice new cell with a working lock.” The guard chuckled at his own joke as he drew back the heavy throw bolts and pushed the door open.
“Hi there,” said Monty, stepping from behind the doorframe. It was the last thing the guard heard for a while, as Monty’s fist rendered him unconscious.
The other guard leveled his weapon at Monty. “You! Back up now!” Monty raised his hands and did as he was instructed. As the other guard moved carefully into the dungeon, he looked around cautiously, but kept the majority of his attention focused on Monterey Jack and Foxglove. “Get on the ground, now!” He reached for the door and started to close it.
“You first,” Monty replied.
Officer Muldoon had played varsity football in high school. His coach would have been proud of the way he hit the door, driving it into the other guard with enough force to knock the guard completely off his feet and out of commission. He joined his comrade on the floor.
Monty and Muldoon pushed the door back open as the cell doors opened and the people in the cells rushed out. Foxglove kept up as best as she could, and as soon as she was in the main hall, she took flight along with Zipper. There was only one other guard outside the anteroom for the dungeon, but seeing the mass of people running towards him, he did the sensible thing. He ran for a large bell on the wall and rang it repeatedly. He didn’t even have time to bring his weapon to bear before his angry former captives engulfed him. But the ringing of the bell was soon repeated from other locations around the great hall. And still masses of people thronged out from the dungeon.
In the armory on the other side of the Citadel, the watch captain heard the alarm and began yelling at the guards of the Citadel garrison. “Right you lot! Hurry up and move out now, it’s a general alarm!” The garrison sprang to their feet, grabbed pikes and crossbows and streamed out into the hall from the garrison barracks. “Half that way, and half that way!” the watch captain ordered, “We’ll encircle them and cut them off!”
From her aerial vantage point, Foxglove saw the massed ranks of well-armed guards approaching rapidly from both directions. “Here they come Chip!” she yelled down. By now almost everyone was out of the dungeon.
“Which way?” Chip asked.
Chip waved to Foxglove and yelled out, “Bucket brigade forward!” Dale repeated the call, and the captives made way for their fellows carrying the wooden buckets from their cells to advance to the front.
Dale watched to make sure that everyone was in position on the right, while Chip watched the left. When they were, he yelled out, “Ready!” The guards came at them yelling.
“FIRE!” Chip yelled as loudly as he could. The prisoners with the buckets cast their sloppy gray contents over the polished marble floor in front of them, instantly turning it into a slippery wet mess. Immediately the lead ranks of guards were skidding and falling. Their fellows in the ranks behind them, carried forward by their own momentum, tripped over their fallen comrades, and the orderly ranks quickly dissolved into chaos.
“CHARGE!” yelled Chip, and Dale echoed the cry. With a roar, the prisoners leapt upon the guards and the battle for control of the Citadel was joined.
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