Putin smiled a bit as he looked over at his psychic cephalopod companion. “Perhaps you did, old friend, but I fear I’ve been distracted by business matters. I barely paid any mind to this growing menace until you brought it to my attention.”
The menace of which Mr. Putin was speaking, of course, was the enormous wolf pack, 400 beasts strong, that was terrorizing Siberia. Never before had such a terrifyingly large band of carnivores been seen. For months this massive pack had been roaming the countryside, devouring entire villages, leaving carnage in its wake on the scale of Kahn and his Mongol hoards. Russia had not known such destruction since the Tunguska event, that mysterious explosion that devastated almost a thousand square miles of Russian forest back in 1908.
Putin pinched his eyes shut, remembering that awful day. “Never again,” he whispered to himself, before looking back at Paul, who was deftly scooping the meat from another oyster and slipping it into his beak. “Scientists and experts say the pack’s massive size has been caused by this brutal winter. With less game available, the wolves have banded together in order to take down larger prey. But we know differently, don’t we, gadalka?”
Paul turned his body slightly so one giant eye was looking directly at Putin. “Indeed. The wolves do not hunt for peasants. Their hunger is for bigger game.” At that moment, the great oak doors to Paul’s sanctuary opened and a shaft of light penetrated the room’s darkness. Silhouetted in the doorway was the figure of a great bear, larger and more noble than any other ursine. It was Snowy the War Bear, leader of the Putin Pals.
“The wolves are coming,” she said. “Red Eye has spoken to his wild lupine brethren, and they have heard the whispering in the forest. Each village attacked is one step closer to the Fortress of Opulence. The wild beasts are fleeing the area, for they know the Wolf Storm is coming. The pack destroys all in its path, and there is no denying that we are its target, though none with whom Red Eye spoke knew why."
Putin frowned. His worst fears confirmed, the Benevolent One’s mind began racing for a solution. Crafty strategist that he is, it was not long before the old colonel arrived at a solution, equal parts daring and cunning. Putin’s frown turned to a devilish smile. “If the wolves want a fight, then we shall bring it to them before they can come to us. But we need the help of another. …” Paul, using his psychic powers, knew instantly what Putin intended. In a flash of excitement, he crushed the oyster shell that had been grasped in his tentacle and exclaimed, “The Flying Ass!”
Putin spun around to face his wise councilor. “Yes! Just as we recruited you from a life of wasted talent, so too shall we now save the ass.” Snowy, though brave and intelligent in her own right, could never keep up with Putin and Paul when they were scheming. Putin saw her quizzical look and explained. “Do you remember after the World Cup, when Paul was languishing in his tank? His gifts were wasted, used as mere parlor tricks to predict the outcome of football matches. Only Black Ops, with his weird goat eyes, saw Paul’s potential. Do you remember, Snowy? We hatched the plot to fake Paul’s death and then whisked him here, to this opulent fortress, to join the Putin Pals.
“As you have been so busy leading my Pals’ adventures, I assume you’ve not heard the story: In June there were reports of an ass who learned to fly. This donkey had a love for the skies, and convinced her owners to hire her out as a parasailing performer. On her first appearance, however, the onlooking crowd, narrow-minded and naïve as they were, mistook her triumphant bellows for cries of terror and pain. When she landed, the authorities moved her to the Kremlin Riding School in Moscow, dashing her dreams of flight. None understand the true power of this ass—none but us, and so she belongs with the Putin Pals! Anapka shall become commander of the aerial division!”
Putin’s mind was racing now, imagining attack formations and crafty schemes that would surprise Sun Tzu himself! “Snowy, send C4 to find this ass. Being a poodle, she is unassuming and will be able to infiltrate whatever compound confines our future champion. Bring the Donkey here, and then we will show the wolves something to make them wish they’d stuck to hunting hares!” Snowy, smelling the coming battle, bellowed in excitement and spun around with barely a nod of assent, racing to find the other Pals. Putin, pleased with his new plan, turned to look at Paul, who was now contentedly cracking open another oyster. “It’s about time the Pals had some air cavalry,” said the bemused cephalopod.
* * *
The recruitment was easier than Putin had even dared hope. C4, master spy that she is, easily entered the donkey’s compound, earning the trust of the guards and then the trust of Anapka the Donkey herself. Together they hatched a plan to fake Anapka’s death using an old Haitian potion mixed from the venom of puffer fish. Anapka’s keepers believed she’d had a heart attack (because of the parasailing, they thought!) and the Putin Pals, posing as coroners, whisked her away. In the ambulance, Rasputin the dwarf horse and Murder Cat took off their disguises and injected Anapka with the anti-venom, instantly reviving her.
Back at the Fortress of Opulence, Anapka was given a tour, shown her new quarters, and then taken to the War Room where Putin, Paul I, and the rest of the team were waiting. Entering the chamber and coming face to face with Putin, Anapka struggled to keep her composure. Within the animal kingdom, the Putin Pals are legendary, but, as with all legends, most believe them fictitious. To actually meet the elite animal commandos, to be asked to join them, and to meet the great Putin himself, was almost too much for a simple parasailing ass to take.
Putin did his best to set the ass at ease, but time was of the essence. “Anapka,” he said, “I thank you for coming here, and in time I know we will become great friends. At the moment, however, there isn’t a moment to lose, and I am eager to put your considerable talents to good use. As I’m sure you know, the Motherland is being ravaged by a wolf pack of awful scale. As Snowy has no doubt explained to you, that pack has this fortress squarely in its sights. They’re coming for us, for reasons we do not yet know. They want to destroy us—but with your help, they will not succeed.”
Anapka was nervous, but her determination was steeled by the valiant creatures surrounding her. She knew not what the mission would entail, but with the Pals at her side, and with Putin’s guidance, she knew they could not fail. “We’ll take the fight right to those damned wolves,” growled Putin, clenching his fist with resolve. “Anapka, you understand the skies. I need you to teach us the ways of parasailing and lead an airborne attack on the wolf pack. We’ll drop down on those bastards like a goddamn Soyuz 11 of doom!” With the last syllable, Putin’s clenched fist smashed down into the palm of his other hand, and the hairs on the back of Anapka’s neck stood on end.
The other Putin Pals looked to Anapka, wondering whether she had the courage to accept the mission. Paul, however, knew what the answer would be, of course, and spoke before any other. “Thank you, Anapka. This is truly a great day for the Putin Pals.”
The next week was a montage of intense training. Anapka taught the other Pals all that she knew about flying as a recreational activity where one is towed behind a vehicle while attached to a specially designed parachute. They practiced attack formations, synchronized descents, and the many other skills possessed by the world’s great air powers. Each day the wolves moved closer to them, until Putin gave the word that it was time for battle.
* * *
The Pack was feeling quite smug as they lunched on the entrails of their latest victims. Their force, now grown to nearly 500, was spread out across a small Russian village where they’d managed to slaughter all of the livestock and most of the inhabitants during a midnight raid. Lazily, some dozed in the sun, letting the heat warm their blood-soaked fur. Other played tug of war with femurs, or dug holes to bury prized cuts for later. None were watching the skies, and that was their final mistake.
Ivan, the pack’s alpha male, was the first to lift up his nose, inhaling the strange scent carried by the wind. Vlad, his lieutenant, turned to look at him. “What do you smell?” Vlad asked. Ivan looked confused, like a priest finding a used condom in a church confessional.
“How far are we from the ocean?” Ivan asked.
“Hundreds of miles,” answered Vlad. “Why?”
“Because I smell blubber,” Ivan replied slowly, and it was then that the shadows blotted out the sun. Vlad looked up just in time to see Peaches the Narwhal mere meters above his snout. The noble monodon, tusk glinting like an ivory rapier, was diving out of the sky and headed right for the befuddled wolf. Before his brain could even comprehend the terrible sight, it was obliterated by Peaches’s mighty horn, piercing Vlad’s skull and then penetrating the earth. With a deft flick of her tail, Peaches sprang into a back flip, landing on her belly and whipping her head side to side, skewering two more wolves before any even understood the slaughter that was upon them.
As the wolves heard Peaches’ great crash and turned to see what the commotion was, they were overwhelmed by a cascading menagerie of elite quadruped shock troops. Ivan reeled from the impact of Peaches’s landing and skittered around the corner of a barn to escape the chaos. Rasputin, machine guns blazing, cornered a dozen wolves and obliterated them. C4 ran in long arcs, tossing grenades at the scattering wolves. Even Blood Stump, though still a puppy, was doing his share, chasing the confused enemies into Rasputin’s punishing waves of hot lead.
The fight was going too easily, however, and Murder Cat knew that the wolves would not go down without more effort. His concern was confirmed when Ivan thrust his head from the bell tower of a nearby church. After a sharp, chest-filling inhale he let out a deafening howl, momentarily pausing the battle and causing all the wolves, as if possessed, to immediately fly to the church. As they arrived, each wolf instinctively, almost robotically, swallowed the tail of the wolf ahead of him. They became a frenzied whirlwind of fur and yelps, the Putin Pals unable to comprehend what was happening, until every surviving wolf had dived into the chaos and the swirling dust settled.
Ivan, letting out a final howl, leapt from the bell tower, into the slowing swirl of wolves, and there, towering above the Putin Pals, was an enormous Mega Wolf, like a vicious lupine Voltron.
The mega beast turned its head and gazed down hungrily upon Peaches, Rasputin, C4, and Blood Stump. The quartet of Putin Pals instinctively moved closer together, and backed away from the looming menace. Mega Wolf took a slow step toward our heroes, and then hunched back, preparing to lunge at them.
Suddenly, a fearsome cry came from out of the blue: “Za Rodinu! Za Putin!” Mega Wolf spun around to see Snowy running at full speed into the village. In her mouth was a bridle with ropes leading back and up into the sky. High above drifted the ass, forming the point of a delta formation. Black Ops, Red Eye, Herb, and Leonardo DiCaprio formed the wings of the V floating under their parachutes. At Anapka’s command they cut their cords and dive-bombed into the fray.
Herb, being Peaches’ twin and a multi-ton, streamlined sea mammal, dove fastest. With his powerful tusk he blasted straight through Mega Wolf’s back. The composite villain reeled up in pain and confusion as the other Pals landed, dealing their own blows. Leonardo DiCaprio, a dagger clenched between his teeth, landed squarely on the massive wolf’s neck and began hacking away. While descending, Anapka spun in mid-air and donkey-punched the wolf monster with her hind hooves.
With this blow, Mega Wolf staggered forward and then bucked into the air, tossing off Leonardo DiCaprio, who landed tumbling upon the ground. Snowy charged forward, leaping to bite what would be Mega Wolf’s jugular, and the two combatants crashed to the ground, rolling over and over. With the beast downed, the other Pals converged, eliminating any scattering wolves who tried to escape.
In the end, only Ivan was left, coughing blood and pinned beneath Snowy’s massive paw. Lowering her head to just above the lone wolf’s, Snowy asked, “Who sent you?” Ivan coughed again, his eyes glazing over as life slipped away. “This is only the beginning,” he gasped. “They will not stop, and your pathetic victory today will only stoke their hatred. Even the ass’s skills cannot save you from …” and with that, Ivan exhaled his last breath and died.
The Putin Pals were victorious, the Fortress of Opulence safe another day, but this attack foreshadowed greater struggles ahead. With the addition of Anapka, however, Putin’s defenders were stronger, ready for battles by land, sea, or air. Back at the fortress, Paul nibbled on another oyster and looked forward to the challenges that lay ahead.