Deep in the cages of the recaptured Empire cats, death and hopelessness was thick in the air.
Somewhere down there, an African golden cat lost her sanity.
A leader struggled to reclaim her throne.
A snow leopard was dying in her attempts to raise her newborn litter.
But Scaeden wouldn’t know about any of them, because he hadn’t been down there once since he had returned from Rome. The thought repulsed him. He couldn’t fathom meeting their gazes, feeling their hate for him seep through their bars and through his fur and settling into his chest. He had somehow managed to get out of every guard or check-up duty Thanatos had assigned him. Honestly, he didn’t think Thanatos really minded if Scaeden didn’t do his duties every now and then. There were at least some perks to being the previous leader, and the current one’s best friend.
But the lynx had recently started to feel some sort of urge to go down to the dusty, filthy cages and just look. Just see them. Part of him wondered if he was starting to get over his fear, if finally being permanently located in Massilia again had somehow settled him back into the carefree Bounty Hunter mindset he had grown up with. Another part of him worried that he was losing himself again to the nasty Bounty Hunter career, but either way, he thought he was ready again to look at the destruction he could cause.
The stone floor was cold and damp against his paws. He had put on his armor, as if that would somehow emotionally protect him from the cats behind the bars. It was quiet, save for a few whispers from a corner of the dungeon. Scaeden’s face was cold and dead, as if he was just on another guard duty. He passed the first cage, where a light-furred liger slumbered in the corner, her fur cut and bloodstained. He let out a breath; she was fighting. Just like the cat a few empty cages away, a bright-furred smaller cat with blue eyes. She watched him with contempt as he passed, and he was relieved when he felt hardly any sympathy for her.
Apparently, there had been a recent break-out. Scaeden had always been so irked by break-outs. They were in cages. How the hell did they manage to slip by those?
Another large, weird hybrid sat in silence towards the back of her cage. Her face was dead, and she barely even blinked when he paused in front of her. She was fixated on a spot on the floor. Scaeden scoffed. She looked strong, she probably could have been a good fighter.
As he continued and walked past the various empty or occupied cages, the nerves in his gut settled. This wasn’t as bad as he had been expecting. It was probably because he didn’t recognize any of the cats behind the bars, but some feeling of relief washed over him every time he passed a cage and didn’t have a mental breakdown.
He was reaching the end of the line of cages, and the whispers had stopped. He wasn’t even looking forward anymore. His eyes were scanning the cages beside him, but he wasn’t really looking for anything. Just observing the sad lives of these cats who had worked so hard for freedom…ugh, he still just didn’t get it. Why even try if they were just going to end up back here again? What was the point?
The lynx was so busy in his own thoughts, he almost missed the furious yellow eyes piercing him from behind the bars of one of the last cages. But he did notice, and he froze in place.
The snow leopard was sitting oddly, as if her back legs were broken. It looked like she had been lying down and tried to sit up, but didn’t have the ability to move the last half of her body. And, judging by her long and sagging fur and skeletal structure sticking out, she didn’t. But she did, however, have enough energy to give the lynx the most hateful glare he’d probably ever received. Maybe it was just because of who was giving it.
“Thalia?” Scaeden whispered.
She didn’t say anything, or move. For a moment, Scaeden thought maybe she was just a very life-like statue. But something on her moved, and Scaeden almost leaped back in surprise. The humans usually didn’t keep more than one cat in one cage…but this was a special case. It was a cub, hiding behind her front paws. The cub’s eyes caught the very little light that was in the place, and his light blue gaze caught Scaeden completely off-guard, but he shouldn’t have been surprised.
“Laertes,” he whispered, and Thalia snarled. “No, Thalia, I—“
More movement. Another cub, this one golden-furred with even bluer eyes, rolled out from behind Thalia’s frail form, wrestling a light-furred cub with dark paws. He did a quick scan, and saw another dark grey cub with bright yellow eyes huddled with a yellow-gray cub in the corner, hiding behind Thalia’s tail. His eyes widened.
“Five,” Scaeden said, almost in complete disbelief.
“There were six,” she hissed. “Six.”
Scaeden didn’t reply. His expression hardened, and he straightened up, but his gut felt like someone had dropped a boulder in it. “Never speak to me that way,” he said sternly, so that most of the other cats in the dungeon could hear him. Then he spun on his toes and strutted out of the area.
He didn’t slow down when he left the building, or when he reached his owner’s home, or even when they called for him for a meal. He walked through the halls wearing the same cold expression he had when he had faced Thalia. He went to the quarters of the house that was dedicated towards him, and went immediately to his pillowed bed. His paws reached under the cushion and his claws hooked on a thin piece of fabric. He pulled it out and laid it out on the pillow.
It was the ratted old bandana he had discovered on his way back from Rome. He examined the torn edge where the strings frayed and pointed out in every which direction. He imagined for a moment Laertes in Shadow Empire, wearing the other half of the bandana around his neck, waiting for his mate and cubs to come home. Hoping every day that Scaeden would follow through on their deal and protect his family.
“Five cubs weren’t part of the bargain, kid,” Scaeden whispered, his cold expression finally falling into one of loss and anxiety. “I can’t get them all out on my own.”
What would Caelina say, if she knew that Thalia was actually captured? Well, Scaeden knew. She’d tell him to let it go, forget his stupid pact with the stupid Empire cat, and not waste his time or risk his career. He would be putting everything on the line if he actually tried to get her out…if he was caught, he was done. It wouldn’t matter how many cats he had captured in his lifetime, or how many leaders he took down, or anything. He’d be dead for sure. His children would be left without a father, and he wouldn’t be able to do anything to protect his friends anymore.
Scaeden couldn’t help Thalia. There was nothing he could do, even though he wanted to. He still wanted Laertes to trust him. Even if Laertes was an Empire cat, and even if he was just a stupid kid who could barely fend for himself, Scaeden did care about him. Unfortunately, Taze knew a lot of information about Scaeden that the lynx didn’t really want getting around. But it was more than the information. The Hunter, for some wild reason, wanted to see the leopard succeed. Maybe it was because Scaeden had always been a sucker for wild, unlikely stories, but he wanted to see Taze be with his love and live a good life.
Scaeden sighed and pressed his face into the pillow.
“You better appreciate what I’m going to do for you, Laertes,” Scaeden whispered, his voice tinged with the type of annoyance one would hear passing from a father to a son.