Rats in the City
Part Five – The King Below
The tunnel meandered along with seemingly no apparent course, making turns here and there at random. While it was a more comfortable fit, it did not make matters much better. The pungent aroma of rodent still infused the air and now Blade could better make out what he was crawling though. Shuddering, he looked ahead, trying to ignore the soft, squishy sensation beneath his gloved hands.
Then the tunnel separated into two different directions, and down the left hand route he could see it split apart again. He stopped, looking back and forward between the two ways.
“What is the hold up?” Peregrine asked from behind.
“The tunnel splits here and I don’t know which way to go.”
“Go right,” Peregrine told him. “Always go right.”
“The left always ends in failure and misery I have found.”
Blade shrugged, not quite following the logic of her reasoning, but with no better option to mind, he plunged on into the right hand tunnel.
Whether by luck or otherwise, Peregrine’s advice soon proved to be prescient. Blade detected a faint light coming from ahead, and so he dimmed the glow of his orb to the point that it appeared little more than as low burning embers. Shuffling along, the light ahead growing brighter, he came upon another exit. This one opened into a chamber, one not empty and with more than just rats in it. Something more than rats, he corrected himself.
The things in there were rats, of a kind, but far larger, and walked much like men, albeit short men. They were covered in dappled fur and had long tails and the heads of rats, but they walked upright, to a certain extent. Their fore claws appeared, and operated, much like hands. Some of those hands were carrying tools, or weapons, it being hard to tell in some instances. Others were more obvious. The grey furred ratmen, slightly larger than the rest of their kin, carried spears and wore leather armour. They stood at the back of the chamber, guarding what appeared to be a throne.
The chamber itself was a dazzling display of wealth and opulence, thick with carpets and candles, tapestries and statues and all manner of other items. Paintings hung from the walls and the whole of the place was bathed in bright light from dozens of candles stationed around the room. Pride of place went to the throne, gilded and polished until it glowed in the candle light. A man sat upon it, and not a rat, though he had a scrawny, scraggly quality about him that reminded them in some ways of a rat. A crown sat askance on his head, while a leg draped over one arm of the throne. He wore a set of ruffled robes of a deep purple, almost being black.
Blade crawled out into the chamber, hanging around at the back behind an old wooden cabinet, joined by Peregrine. She stared at the scene and shook her head. Then she left the cover of the cabinet and strode out into the chamber. Squeaks came from the ratmen, and they scurried away at her approach, except for the grey ones. They shuffled in closer to the throne, placing themselves between her and the man on it. He sat up straighter before rising to his feet.
“Ah, visitors. Do come in, please.”
More cautiously, Blade followed Peregrine out into the room, and as he did, he noticed that the splendour was not all that he had first thought. It appeared scavenged, and much of it was damaged or marred, of a ramshackle quality and put together from different parts. The throne looked like it was a simple chair over which bronze plates had been hammered out and nailed down, not being of gold after all, and the crown the man wore was missing a number of prongs.
From the tunnel behind them, more ratmen came squirming out, the hooded figures that had pursued them, still clutching at their rusty weapons.
“Who are you?” Peregrine asked boldly, eyeing off the guards and fingering the sword she had taken.
“Who am I? Who am I? You do not know who I am?”
“We are new to the city,” Blade explained, “And have not yet been introduced to your truly majestic majesty.”
The words seemed to please the man. “Ah, visitors doubly so. For your sake I shall be lenient and let you know that you are in the presence of the Sultan of Qaiqala Below, the King of Rats, High Mage of the Sprawl, Lord of the Lake and more besides.”
“Delusional is what he is,” Peregrine muttered aside to Blade, to low for the man to overhear.
“Your Supremeness, we are but travellers who have stumbled into your realm by accident,” Blade said. “We meant no harm by it. I have not seen or heard of the likes of your subjects before. From whence did they come?”
“Nor is that a surprise, for my children only go out to collect tribute for me from the pitiful subjects who dwell above. Alas, they have not yet learned to differentiate as to what is truly valuable, and so they return with gewgaws and knick-knacks, and seldom with anything real worth. And so they have taken to waylaying people in the streets and taking all that they carry.”
“That explains the Night of Tails then,” Blade mused. “Those are the nights your children are active, but cloaked, so that none see them but for at times their tails.”
“My children must take care, least they reveal their true presence, for if they did then they would be seen as little more than vermin and hunted down.”
“With good reason,” Peregrine stated bluntly.
The scrawny man brought himself up to his full height, the effect spoiled by the fact he had not an imperious bone in his body and that his lack of height meant he still had to look up to them. “You dare say such things about my children?” he said, trying to sound outraged, but his voice came across more as squeak.
“You call them your children,” Blade interjected with haste, in an attempt to soothe the situation. “Where did they come from?”
“Why from me, of course. I brought them into being, taking ordinary rats and working upon them with hidden knowledge until they were as you see before you.”
“You did that? You are a… a…,” Blade started saying, struggling for the word he sought.
“A genius?” the man supplied.
“No, not that. The other one. Insane.”
“They have called me that before, insane. And yet here I am, king of my own realm. Who is the insane one now?”
“You are,” Peregrine retorted. “You hide in squalor and filth, the king of degenerates who prey on people during the night and who bring you garbage that you believe is wealth.” A harsh laugh slapped the man in the face. “No wonder you were forced to make your own friends and children, for none other would have you.”
The man’s face reddened while his eyes bulged and nose twitched. He hitched up his robes, overly large for his body, and gestured at the pair theatrically. “Dispose of these two. I no longer desire their presence here.”
“You had to say that,” Blade commented aside to Peregrine. The Aedring woman simply laughed with a fey mirth that had been brought on by too much drink and the prospect of a fight. She dropped down into a fighting crouch, her left arm pointed at the foe while she spun the short sword about in her right hand. The grey ratmen began a slow advance upon the pair, keeping close together, seeking safety and support in the pack.
Peregrine responded with a crazed cry and launched herself towards the ratmen, running on rage and alcohol and a total indifference to anything else. The ratmen saw her coming at them like some form of wild hunting cat and they faltered, for theirs were not the most courageous of hearts, and in so doing they gifted her the advantage. Before they could react, she was among them, her sword slashing out. One ratman span away, his grey coat crimson with blood. She drove the sword deep into a second of the guards. Trying to pull it clear of the twitching body, the fragile, rusty blade snapped, leaving her with little more than a hilt in her hand. She hurled it at another of the ratmen, snatching up the spear from the one she had stabbed as he fell.
Spinning the spear about, she pressed on. Blade scurried after her, taking up the spear from the first of the ratmen she had felled in her advance. Though unskilled in its use, he considered himself smart enough to make use of it. After all, it was simply a matter of stabbing the foe with it while staying out of reach of them.
He lunged forward at one of the guards who was trying to scamper around a set of old, battered wooden drawers, atop of which sat some chipped crystal glasses. In his efforts, all he managed was to sweep them from the top of the drawers, knocking them to the ground where they shattered.
“My treasures!” the King of the Rats wailed at the sound of them breaking.
Squeaks and squeals sounded as Peregrine drove a path through the guards, for they could not stand before her in the mood she was in, her spear driving into bodies and thrusting them aside. Blade did what he could, trying to keep up with her, yet he could but watch on as the mad woman went about her bloody work.
The ratmen were quick of the mind that to hang around was to face death, and thus they scurried away, leaving the king to stand alone. He had scampered back to his throne during the carnage and hid behind it. With blood dripping from the point of her spear, Peregrine advanced on him. He snatched up an object from behind the throne and pointed it at her. He held in his hands a carved length of wood, atop of which had been set a rat’s skull.
“Back,” he warned, “Back, least I blast your soul from your body.”
Peregrine kept up her relentless advanced, and so the king began to hum a tune, one in which were heard the memories of dark places, and the skittering and scratching of rats. The eyes of the skull began to glow red and then a beam of deep crimson light erupted from the rod, arcing towards Peregrine. She flung herself aside, tripping over her own feet as she did, to land sprawling on the floor.
The King of the Rats danced and capered at the sight of her lying there. He moved around from behind the throne, unleashing another burst of light at her prone form. She rolled across the floor, the beam striking the carpets where she had been lying moments before. It burnt through the carpets, and the ground beneath, sending tendrils of pungent smoke drifting into the air.
Peregrine rolled back to her feet, hefted the spear in her hand and cast it at the king. The spear hummed through the air to strike him in the chest. It punched through, driving into the throne behind him and nailed him to it, slaying him before he had even realised. The rod fell from his hand, shattering as it struck the floor.
At his death, chaos descended upon the chamber, for the remaining ratmen went into a mad frenzy of squeals, dashing this way and that. Into tunnels they dove, their tails the last sight of them as they disappeared, leaving the chamber empty but for the dead.
Peregrine looked about, prodding at some of the treasure with a foot.
“What was that all about?” she asked, picking up one item. She inspected it closely before tossing it aside.
“Madness,” Blade told her. “The mage’s mind was mad, and in that madness he devised a means to create and control these ratmen, through methods I do not want to consider or know. They were under his control and so when he died, it set them free, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Peregrine grunted acknowledgement, lifting up a bent metal tray. “What happens to them now?”
“No doubt they will continue to lurk in Qaiqala below, to become a blight upon the city in time, should they survive.”
“Rats survive. It is what they are good at.”
“True, but that is a problem for others to worry about.”
Peregrine laughed and tossed the tray away as well. “This is mostly junk,” she said, “But I am certain that if we look we can find something of value, at least enough for a purchase of some swords, and a drink or two. All this running and fighting is cursed thirsty work.”
“And a change of clothes as well,” Blade added. “These are ruined.”
Peregrine laughed again and clapped the man solidly on his shoulder. “You may be a lowlander, but you are a good man to have around,” said she. “This city has much to offer for the likes of us. What say we together seize what we can?”
Blade laughed as well. “We’ll rob them blind.”
“To wealth. To friendship. And to drink.”