“No… NO… PLEASE, NOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAIIIIIIII!!”
The shrieks rip Sage away from his dreams and force him into full vigilance. Someone opened the cage, scared the children. Every boy and girl is pressed against the brick walls, wailing and whimpering in terror.
They are trying to get away from the door. The little boy Sage was holding is now holding onto him desperately, yelling and crying convulsively as someone pulls him by a leg. By Sage’s side, the cat stands stiff, ears low, back arched, hair erect, hissing dangerously at the perceived threat.
It takes Sage a moment to snap into action. He pulls the little boy to him with all his strength. The man is by his right, crouching inside the low cage, all the other children trying very hard to sit as far away from him as possible. The little boy tries to kick the stranger with his free foot but the man manages to get a hold of it, use it to redouble the strength of his hold on the child.
“Come here!” the man growls, pulling the boy out of Sage’s grip.
With a loud hiss, the cat jumps onto the man’s face, sprung by its powerful hind legs built to leap onto prey. Its claws dig deeply into the man’s shoulder and into his left cheek, ripping into the flesh, leaving red marks that bleed down his face. The stranger reaches for the scruff of the cat’s neck, trying to pulling it off in that biggest of mistakes driven by panic. The cat digs its claws in again, holding on for dear life, growling and hissing in anger.
Sage tries to catch the boy again but, fueled by his fear, the boy runs away toward the door to the cage and away from him. By the door, Clarence, the albino snatcher, awaits a victim that runs straight into his arms.
“Got him!” he announces, grabbing the child.
By the Bunny, the man finally manages to rip the cat’s claws out of his face, now bleeding profusely, and throws the still raging animal against the wall. The cat hits the brick wall violently and falls on its feet before collapsing with a whimper.
“Don’t worry,” the man tells Sage while pulling a red handkerchief from a jacket pocket to wipe his face.”I will come for you very soon.”
Outside the cage, the little boy still kicks and screams in horror, in spite of the albino’s orders and threats for silence. A violent slap to the boy’s face reduces him to painful, terrified silence.
Terrified himself, Sage finds his way to the cat and picks it – her, the cat is a female –up, lulling her in his arms, stroking her long, silky coat. She has lost a nail on her right front paw and broken off several in the fight. Still, she purrs softly in his arms.
“Ya sure that’s all ya want?” the grey-furred snatcher asks, not even bothering to look up from the small pile of wadded-up twelve-stater bills, large and pale blue, that lies on a wooden crate currently passing for a table. “Da kid wi’ the ears and dat lil’ one?”
“Yes,” the stranger says, wiping his bloody face with the handkerchief.
Sage can see him better now that the haze of panic has faded. Tanned, tall and wiry, the man is dressed in a sharp black suit that must have cost him enough money to feed a small family for a month. Accustomed as they are to seeing in very low light, the Bunny’s eyes can just detect thin blood-red stripes embroidered against the black cloth, a detail that adds wine-colored highlights to the fabric as the man moves in dull, secondhand light of the warehouse. Shiny black shoes and wine-red silken gloves complete the outfit.
He looks nothing like the typical Three Rats gangster, Sage notices. In this ward, gang leaders are often not any better dressed or spoken than Paolo or Eater of Frogs. This man’s suit is no cheap thing, made of some artificial material. However, the bleached-blond hair, cut short and styled to look like something of a very fuzzy helmet, makes him look like he is trying too hard to look exotic. Or maybe, to look like someone else.
“Do we agree on the price?” the man asks, adjusting his metal-rimmed, red-lensed eyeglasses.
The snatcher looks at the old lady and then at his black-furred sibling. A nod between them is all it takes to seal Sage’s fate. Not far away, the little boy still struggles against Clarence, the albino.
“Sure,” the grey furred snatcher grunts. “‘F ya wanna pay that much, dat’s your business.”
“Man, if a bunny’s this pricey, we gotta get us some more somewhere!” the black-furred snatcher exclaims, reaching for a wad of bills and getting a slap on the hand from his dear old mom for his troubles.
“Well, if you do, my employer will definitely be interested,” the man in the suit offers. “In fact, he will be highly displeased if you try to sell one to anyone else.”
He walks to the middle of the warehouse and removes something small and white from his suit pocket. Chalk, it looks like. He then crouches and starts scratching the floor with it, straightening up and moving around, adding to his first drawings as whatever he is writing starts glowing faintly in the twilight.
“Hey, don’t ya draw on the floors!” Clarence bellows, dragging the boy alongside him as he walks up to the man.”Ma says that’s not right!”
The black-furred snatcher grunts again and, suddenly, faster than one would think he could be, he is standing by his pale sibling and slapping the back of Clarence’s head with violence.
“Shuddup, dufus!” he growls. “Can’t ya see he’s one o’dem magicky people? Wanna curse on yer head?”
“But… Ma said…” Clarence whines, rubbing his sore head.
Gripped tightly by his other hand, the little boy screams and tries desperately to pull free.
“It’s all right, Clarence,” the old lady says.
She is slower in her motions but quick for an old lady nonetheless. She is soon standing by the boy and speaking to him, breathing her foul spell into his nostrils. Slowly, the boy stops struggling, stops screaming, hangs his head and collapses into sleep.
“How come ya knew ‘bout dis one, anyway?” the black-furred snatcher asks, more interested in business than on his family’s antics. “We just got’im.”
“I have my ways,” the man replies, still busy scribbling all over the stone floors. Around him, a deep red, sparkling mist already rises as high as his ankles. “Not that your mother made it any easier for me with her no-peeking spells.”
“And how will you get him out of here?” the old lady asks, somewhat beaming with pride at the unwilling compliment. “He’s not exactly easy to miss.”
“Again, I have my ways,” the man says, scratching his last symbol on the stone.
The glittering mist rises higher as he steps out of the circle he has so carefully drawn. He is covered in sweat, Sage notices. Sweat and blood from his fight with the cat. Whether from the effort of conjuring the spell or the heat coming from the circle, it drops off his face and sizzles as it hits the reddish mist. Whatever the spell is meant to do, no good can come of it.
“This little boy will provide the key to my…transport,” the man adds, taking the sleeping boy from the albino.
He carries the boy to the edge of the gleaming circle, lowers him to a kneeling position, holds him by the chin, pull his head back to expose his throat. He reaches for something under his jacket and produces a ceremonial dagger, with an engraved blade and an intricate red-and-black hilt.
He hums his spell, raises the dagger.
And all Hell breaks loose…