DAY 2 – 1:00AM
The dimness inside the tunnel rendered the truck's tracks almost imperceptible – the grooves left behind were distinct to Rumble's hooves – along with anything more than a few hoof steps away from him as he tentatively made his way deeper and towards a declining slope. He wasn't sure how long the cave went, but after some time he could see light filtering through from the exit on the other side. The opening spilled out into a valley, lush with vegetation indigenous to a jungle, that likely stretched on for miles.
In stark contrast to the stale smell coming from within the cave, the pungent aroma of the soil and flora of the jungle overwhelmed his senses for a brief moment as he took in the scene before him. The illumination of the moon overhead captured the beauty of the plant life. If he hadn't been so pressed for time, this might have made the perfect field trip for him, the crusaders, and all his other classmates at the Ponyville Schoolhouse.
Rumble glanced up at the moon for a moment in contemplation. It had nearly reached its summit, and perhaps within the hour it would being to recede in the sky. He judged the time to be somewhere between late evening and early morning, which would give him a few hours to get the jump on the crusader's abductors.
The feeling of leaves brushing across his knees as he passed under the copse of trees was soft, and the rain forest was brimming with wildlife; he could hear the buzzing of nearby insects, the croak of frogs, and the cries of a bird of prey gliding through underbrush to feast upon their next meal. He could feel the rise of humidity in the air with each step he took into the rain forest.
At the sound of crackling branches from above, he glanced upward. The bright yellow eyes of a black-coated creature, standing tall and menacingly, met his gaze. Launching itself from its perch, it rapidly dove straight for him. He fell back onto his hindquarters and scraped across the ground in retreat. Deftly landing on the ground, the panther looked up to him and snarled, letting out an insidious growl. So much for a school field trip.
Rumble's heart was racing as he rushed to retrieve a knife from his gear and warily held it in front of him. No amount of training seemed to displace the anxious feeling he got right before combat, and he had never went up against anything feral like this before. Its intimidating stature as it approached had him at edge; he wouldn't be able to outrun it, yet he needed to keep it more than a hoof's throw away. If it pounced on him, it would be all over.
His eyes widened with fear as it leaped toward him. He rolled away from the oncoming threat and scrambled to his hooves. Upon its landing, Rumble turned away and bucked its face into a nearby tree. He flung his knife at the beast, which lodged itself into the creature's midsection, who yelled out in anguish and clawed at the foreign object until it dropped to the ground and away from it.
Sprinting through the underbrush, he hopped across rough terrain and skirted logs and other natural debris with a very angry panther in tow. It leaped nimbly across the land with much more ease than he, becoming almost a blur to his eyes as it darted behind trees around him, and it was quickly gaining on him.
Over a log and under a half fallen tree Rumble went. He had to think fast, or else he was going to become food before he got the chance to save the girls. Suddenly the sight of a paw lashing out at him caught his eye. Tucking and rolling, he ducked under the offending appendage and into a dip in the ground underneath a large branch.
An idea springing to his mind, he pulled the branch back as the panther reared back with both of its fore-paws, readying itself for the final blow. Right as it lunged after him, he released the branch, sending it hurtling into it. A twig caught its eye, which closed reflexively, and the panther growled in pain.
Impulsively, Rumble fell to the ground in fright. He trembled as he backed away, momentarily staring at the lumbering animal before he reached for his rifle to silence the beast once and for all. Remembering where he was, he mentally berated himself. If even one colt was out on patrol, he would be detected in no time flat. While a silencer was equipped to the rifle, it would still be loud enough to be heard by anypony nearby.
By the time he planned out his next move, the panther had returned its attention back to him. Dashing away, Rumble looked desperately in every which way for a path to safety. There was none, however, that immediately presented itself to him.
The creature attacked him once more, this time managing to connect one of its paws into his side, and he instinctively fell with the strike, hoping the assault would leave him little more than grazed. It eyed him, licking its muzzle in anticipation.
Cornered! Every step he took backward was matched with a slow step forward by the hungry animal. It was at this point that he realized he had no choice. He would have to use his rifle and hope that it would be quiet enough not to rouse suspicion. Tentatively reaching for his weapon, he continued to back away slowly, hoping that the panther would not strike at an inopportune time as he readied himself.
The abrupt lack of feeling ground underneath his rear hoof distracted Rumble. Over the course of the chase, they had stumbled upon the edge of a cliff. A quick glance down told him that it was maybe a ten to twenty foot drop. Despite the dangerous drop, it may have been the best chance he had to get out of this alive.
Letting out a cry, the panther struck out at him for a final time. He would have to chance it; jumping over the side, Rumble held out his hooves in front of him and plunged to the ground at an alarming rate. Below him was another copse of trees leading farther into the valley. He needed to catch the branch of one of them on his way down, or he would not come out of this unscathed.
In mid fall, he waved his hooves through the air, trying to swim closer to the trees. It didn't really work, but he had little else to lose at this point but to try something to increase his chances of survival. In doing this, he nearly missed his opportunity. His hooves caught onto the branch but only for a moment before it snagged at him and caused him to lose his grip. Landing ungracefully, Rumble let out a groan as he tended to his sore muscles. That had to have pulled one of his appendages in the wrong way, and he rubbed it gently before reinserting it painfully back into place.
Had he still not had the feather flu, the drop would not have been a problem in the first place, but with a glance up at the top, he could see that at least he had put himself out of harms way for the time being. The panther was staring back down at him for a moment before it disappeared from the cliffside.
Breathing heavily, Rumble wiped his brow and pressed himself against a tree. With him no longer being in immediate danger, his adrenaline rush was beginning to subside, and his fatigue was setting in. Having need to rest for a moment to tend to his wounds, he allowed himself the chance to catch his breath and wrap the cuts in bandages and recheck his gear.
That was a close one. He was suddenly thankful of the training Thunderlane and the others had given him. Without it, he would surely have been dead by now. There was more danger where that came from, however, and he needed to get move on before long.
A quick look into the rain forest – the thicket of trees more densely packed than the last – told him that it was time for him to get out his night vision spectacles. They were a quick reach into the pack, and they fit snugly onto the bridge of his muzzle. Taking them out, he flipped on the infrared. The forest seemed to light up a bright green. He would not let himself be overtaken like that again; he had lost too much time already.
The sounds of a nearing helicopter caused him to stop in his rumination. Suddenly appearing over the edge of the cliff, its razor sharp blades spun boisterously as they kept the machine aloft and blew leaves away in their motion.
Hovering in place for a moment, the helicopter shined a light directly onto Rumble. He held a hoof over his face to block out the light, and he couldn't see an object that abruptly struck his head. Letting out a cry of anguish, Rumble rubbed his head that now sported a bruise and looked down to see what appeared to be a communication device of sorts. Upon picking it up, he studied it in greater detail until somepony spoke through it.
“That was a nasty fall back there. Are you okay little colt?”
So alarmed was he that he almost dropped the device. He shouldn't have been startled by the crackling sound of somepony speaking into the it, yet here he was panicking. Pressing down on a red button on the top of the communicator, he said, “Who is this? Are you one of them?”
“One of who?” There was a brief silence before the mare's voice patched through once more. “Oh you mean Raden and Alex? Oh heavens no. I was just on my way to their base for a little pay back for what they did to me back in Manehatten. Why are you here anyway? This is a dangerous place for a foal to be, don't you think?”
Rumble had to stop himself before he broke the device with his tight grip. Didn't she think he already knew that? “I can't let that stop me now. I have three fillyfriends who need rescuing!”
“Wait a second … They're abucting foals now? The nerve!” The communicator cut off into silence for a moment. The helicopter veered a little to the left before it righted itself. “Sounds like the little 'prince' is abusing his privileges again. I pray you never have the displeasure of meeting Dox. He can be a real pain in the flank if you ask me.”
“Sounds like we have a common goal. You mind setting down so I can catch a ride?” he asked into the communicator before looking at his surroundings and realized that the suggestion was impossible to carry out.
The mare affirmed his conclusion. “This terrain doesn't exactly provide me the conditions for setting down my copter. However I can provide aerial support where I can for the time being. And if we're going to be partners in this, we'll need some introductions. I'm Rez, an Equstrian Guard and former Black Panther Merc, although I'm not too fond of that title nowadays. I'm just glad that I got out of that group alive.”
“I'm Rumble, and what do you mean by alive? Just what are they doing?!” There were a lot of missing pieces to this puzzle that he didn't understand. Who was Dox? Why were they here? And then there was the question of the abduction.
“There's a lot to fill you in on, but right now you've got to get a move on. There's a patrol due to arrive on this side of the jungle in just a few minutes. I was just going to go in guns blazing, but if you can take out that patrol, then we can get the drop on these mercenaries before you can make two shakes of a lamb's tail.” The helicopter then elevated itself until the sounds of its rotors were nothing more than a dull whir.
“Understood,” he said before putting the communicator away and shouldering his gear onto his back. He trudged as carefully as he could through the forest with his infrared glasses on. While the spectacles provided him better sight in this dark, he cursed at himself silently at not realizing before that the teeming wildlife was making it difficult for him to spot any dangers lurking nearby.
This proved to be a problem when sometime later he stumbled his way right into the patrol pony's path. He tried to hide before he caught the guard's attention, but he was spotted anyway.
“Who goes there?!” The guard asked as he pulled out a rifle. “I better call this in.”
Reaching down for his knife, Rumble discovered that it was missing. Of course, it was still back where he had left it with the panther. How could he have overlooked that in his check?
“We have an intruder. Yes, I'll dispatch them right away.” So much for secrecy.
Dashing around the trees, Rumble placed himself behind the stallion for a better vantage point. Pulling out his gun, he pointed it at the guard and fired. The projectile's trajectory was low, and it made contact with the pony's hindquarter.
The pony yelped as he dove around behind a tree. “That was a lucky shot you made.”
Choosing to ignore the villain, Rumble hopped and rolled behind another tree, hoping to throw off the guard's sense of his location. Shrubbery rustled underneath his hooves as he crouched and took a few steps alongside some bushes. Daring to peak his head out from the bushes, he was unable to find the mercenary. It had appeared that he had had the same thought in mind.
“Come on out, and you won't have to suffer.” From the sound of the stallion's voice, he could tell that he was still somewhere near where he was last seen. He stifled a chuckle at the guard's mistake. In trying to get Rumble to reveal his position, he had telegraphed his own. He was wise enough not to return the favor.
Even with the knowledge of the guard's position, he was still safely secure behind one of the trees across from him. If only there were some way to get him to come out of the safety of that tree. Surveying the area around him, Rumble looked for a way to flush the stallion out. His eyes finally rested on a pebble beside him. That would do the trick nicely.
Flinging the stone into a bush nearby, he hoped that would be enough to garner the patrol pony's attention. He held his rifle steady as he waited for any sign of his adversary.
“What was that?” The guard steadily made his way over towards the bush with his gun raised. Firing at the bush, the guard smirked and pushed the shrubbery aside to reveal nothing. His grin was replaced with a frown, and he began to look around in search for the intruder. “Where did he go?”
Rumble had him right where he wanted him. He pressed down on his trigger and discharged the rifle. Bullets went soaring through the air, but none of them had reached his target. In his haste, he hadn't properly aimed. Whether it was the infrared sensors throwing off his aim or his nerves, it didn't matter. He had blundered.
He flung his glasses at a nearby tree in frustration. He could hear the glass crackle against the hard surface of the tree, but he didn't pay much attention to it. This was his first true mission since undergoing his training under Thunderlane; heck, he hadn't even fully completed his course yet, but he should have been able to make the shot at this distance.
“There you are.” The guard closed the distance with his gun raised, limping along the way. At the sight of Rumble, who was having greater difficulty seeing in this dense copse of trees at night without his spectacles, trying to shoot at him once more, the stallion fired at his weapon and effectively disarmed the colt. “I've had enough lead for one night, squirt.”
Looking down at the colt, the guard stopped to scratch his head in contemplation. “What are you even doing out here, kid? And why are you armed? Didn't your mother teach you not to play with guns?”
With his shoulders slumped, Rumble shied away from the grown-up. “Heh, I don't suppose you'll just let me leave?”
The pony sighed and cocked his rifle. “Tough luck kid.” He shuddered as he pointed the barrel at Rumble's head. “I've never had to kill a foal before. I'm sure to have nightmares after this.”
Growling was the only warning the guard had before he was suddenly pounced upon by a panther, the same one that had attacked Rumble earlier. In his struggle with the creature, the guard had managed to find himself pinned beneath the panther, the side of his gun the only thing keeping its teeth from digging into his flesh.
The guard gave a guttural laugh as he felt his strength weakening. “Heh. Done in by this mangy cat. Can't say I didn't deserve it, though, for thinking about killing a mere kid. Do your worst, you fleabag.” Obliging his request, the panther drug him by the gun, which the pony held onto as if it were his final lifeline, and pulled him into the bushes. Together, they both disappeared into the night, but the sounds of their fight continued unabated.
Rumble couldn't watch the scene play out before him. Trotting back up to his rifle, he picked it up and walked away from the carnage. Pulling out his communicator, he spoke into the radio. “It's done. But he warned the others before I could stop him.”
“Good work.” Rez gave a sigh of relief before she continued, “And I wouldn't worry too much about that. It was a long shot anyways. The sounds of the Equestrian Copter was bound to gain their attention anyways.”
In spite of her reassurance, Rumble cast a disappointed look at the ground. The plan hadn't gone as smoothly as he liked to thus far. Thunderlane had warned him of this; plans rarely ever went smoothly.
“While you were handling the patrol, I spotted a clearing up ahead where I can land. It's about two miles due east of here. It might not be directly going towards their base, but it will be much faster overall. It's right about a twenty-two mile trek through the forest otherwise.”
“Twenty-two miles?! Why do they own such a large amount of land? How could they have purchased all of this?” Rumble held onto the communicator firmly as he began his two mile hike through the woods. He felt his way around tentatively with each step he took. Once or twice he stumbled, but thankfully he caught himself before he tumbled.
“Purchase might not be the most appropriate word. More like acquired through some underhanded tactic against the royal estate. Something about the fabrication of being the long lost heir of Prince Bloodhoof whose castle stood on this very land. What you're looking at right now is none other than the property of Trench Bloodhoof.
“As for the why, Trench discovered a plethora of priceless jewels deep in caverns beneath your feet, and he's used them to achieve the greatest wealth in all of Equestria. But it's all undeserved, and I will bring Bloodhoof and his operation down.”
“How do you know all of this?” Rumble asked. By now he had grown more accustomed to the darkness, and his steps were taken more quickly. He must be quicker still if he planned to make it to the base by dawn. Luckily, no more predators had surfaced to impede his progress. For now.
“Well, you see … I kinda eavesdropped on him gloating to his friends. It wasn't like I was trying to or anything, but they caught me listening in on them. I was their prisoner for two years, working as one of them. For all I know, the others are too, with Trench holding something over them and making them work for him. Sure, he pays well on the surface, but it's not exactly the kind of field that comes with benefits. Or stability for that matter. Heck, some of the things we did were downright shameful.”
Rumble was at a loss for words as he continued walking along a bumpy trail through the forest. He could once again hear the dull whir of the helicopter's rotors; Rez must be somewhere overhead, though he couldn't see through the top of the trees.
Taking his silence as disappointment, or maybe even resentment, Rez continued in a murmur, “Listen, I'm not exactly proud of what I did, but I'm not one of them anymore. I hope you don't hold it against me.”
Shaking his head in disbelief, he said, “Rez, you were never one of them. You said so yourself. You were a prisoner.” The thought of Rez being forced to do Trench's dirty work, whatever it may be, had him at unease. If she what she said was true, then the guard may have also been coerced. He certainly seemed regretful in hurting him. His blood was boiling at this point. Trench! How dare he use others in this manner and foalnap the crusaders!
“Thanks Rumble. That means a lot.”
Off in the distance he could hear the helicopter touching down and its engines shutting off. He must be nearing the extraction point and one step closer to bringing down their whole operation.