I am aware, thanks to my age and many attentions, that rats are a marginalized species. We are punished for the same acts of borrowing, sharing, and nearness for which dogs and cats are adored every day. Forgive a brief diversion. Cats are much lazier, and dogs stupider, and their gods – if they even have them – are assuredly less handsome and regal. But after thousands of years, despite my attempts at diplomacy, I have come to accept the facts rats must live. However, recently I have been made aware of troubling propaganda libeling both myself and my children. Propaganda so malicious and, quite frankly, poorly narrated that it cannot remain unchallenged. Propaganda that is not only false, but holds up the Rattenfanger of all creatures as some paragon of humanistic values.
The Rattenfanger’s job is murder, let’s get that out there right off, eh? You have accepted rats as sentient, thinking creatures and would cheer for a man who extinguishes these lives! Patently absurd. Is that the sort of lesson you wish to impart to your young as they prepare for bed? Bedtime stories, indeed. Perhaps he is released from responsibility because of the “dark arts” rats perform and manipulate to harm others, is that it? When was the last time you saw a rat cast even the simplest of spells in your household, hm? I mean, we are certainly capable of it, being quite intelligent and resourceful, but never have we used it to harm. More of a pastime really, like scratching or gnawing. Have a bite to eat, gnaw some wood, get together with friends and perform a minor ritual. We are social beings, too.
Forgive me I digress. A personal foible. It is also a nightmare to type without thumbs. Let no one tell you otherwise. To combat these troubling tales, I have determined to tell you a story which the powers-that-be would rather you not hear. One in which it is the rats, as is often the case, who are the real heroes. The Rattenfanger, through gross incompetence – or mayhaps even cruel, base intention – is the source of strife. Forgive if this ‘bedtime story’ may chill and frighten; I know you, the reader, will not shy from the truth. In fact, you have been put in possession of this document because one of my daughters sharing your domicile has assured me you are a truth seeker, and will certainly be receptive to alternative viewpoints. Arranging this has been at great difficulty and expense. No book ever falls into one’s possession without greater purpose – oft overlooked wisdom and warning in an era where the banality of books has blunted their esteem. At your leisure, and many thanks.
It was the reign of the third Great Emperor of rats or, for those with a speciesist education of history, Carthage circa the Second Punic Wars. The rats of Carthage were wealthy and happy, and the human sacrifices about which the Romans would later write were entirely of human make. So lets put that aside immediately. Emperor Brittle Whisker of Scented Smoke would never allow for such depravity.
It is important to understand that the naming conventions for rats depend on scent and touch and a host of other senses that are not conducive to symbolic format. Names have been shoehorned into a literary style for necessity sake. Emperor Brittle enjoyed carousing in Tanit temples. Incense was common. Simple enough conversion, though lacking the beauty of true understanding. Smelling him was known to be a true delight, rest assured.
At the time, the warren Boetarch – I’m borrowing the word, military leaders of the time – were two legends. It was whispered that Sleek had been present for the cursing of the Pharaohs near two thousand years prior. An event looked upon with some pride by ratkind. Besides the small truth of the matter, most of the rumors likely came from the fact that she was rattus rattus. A black rat, she was an oddity among the rattus norvegicus of the city, having stowed away on a trading trireme from Egypt. Of course rats don’t consider color of fur or absurd latin cognates in their judgment of a warren mate, I only mention this because humans are so very concerned with appearance. We are much more refined in our perceptions, in which she was still quite peculiar. A mystique which she used to great effect.
Soggy Don’t-Touch had once mauled a hunting dog, and bitten the finger off an angry hoplite. Thanks to him, the alleys around Tanit’s temples were a place cats feared to tread. He was also very clever himself, and despised sharing duties with Sleek. The feeling was mutual. Therefore, it was unsurprising they were often tasked to work together.
“My Boetarchs,” Brittle called upon Sleek and Soggy. No, most rats don’t talk and type. Convention.
“My Boetarchs,” he said, “The scouts have returned from the countryside and farmland, and they offer a distressing tale.” Field mice were feeble-minded, but served as fine informants beyond the normal reach of the Empire. Their health was a barometer of the future health of the city rats. Where there was plenty of crop, there would be plenty for Carthage and vice versa. Thus the news they offered recently was one of doom and woe. “Something has decimated the harvests of a few outlying farms – even the grain stores have not been spared. Our little brothers say a sound like heavy rain descends at night, and by morning the food is gone, sometimes to the root.”
“They haven’t seen anything more?” Soggy demanded, standing on his hind legs and sniffing disdainfully. Sleek remained as disinterested as ever, though she was doubtless concocting theories abound. She nibbled at a forepaw while her large eyes reflected the exchange.
“They are cowards, as you know,” Brittle admitted, “When the sound first descended a few stayed behind. They were never seen again. Since, none have dared remain.”
“Let the mice and humans deal with it,” Soggy argued.
“That is part of our problem,” Brittle paced and scratched irritably. “They have assumed us to be at issue. They’ve called for the Kakkeshu Re’u. He arrived from Cyprus this morning.”
Even Sleek paused at this announcement. To hear that the Kakkeshu Re’u was near, that most hated, evil, murdering, ill-tuned, simpleton, beast, was an emergency of terrible magnitude. He would ask few questions, just start his xenophobic rodenticide without a care in the world. Alas! They mourned for the thousands of rat children throughout the city that would have to be eaten by mothers to spare them the horrors of war.
“It is suspicious, how could he have been summoned so fast?” Soggy puzzled mostly in frustration. “I will take others to fight the Kakkeshu Re’u. At least…”
“You wouldn’t even trouble the Kakkeshu Re’u,” Sleek interrupted.
“At least to buy the warren time,” Soggy finished. “Our mistake is to always wait for his move.”
“Our mistake is that we lack any plan but ‘breed to calamity,’ and our fickle god gifted him a weapon against our kind.” Sleek chomped in a sneer. She always was a cheeky little bitch, but she had a point. And she did cook up the Black Death years later, so she didn’t lack for talent.
“Sacrilege!” Soggy insisted. He always was a good sort, Don’t-Touch. Should have never challenged that chariot to a fight. Sleek tilted her head in the rat equivalent of rolled eyes. She and I had met before, and I daresay it had shaken her faith.
“Your Highness,” Sleek addressed Brittle, “The warren should divide for now, and spread through the city for protection. Meanwhile, I will find the source of this plague and end it. Without a disaster, the Kakkeshu Re’u will have a few trophies and leave. He will be satisfied with a bit of praise and adulation. It is the best for which we can hope.”
“You seem rather confident in ending this…creeping death that slinks at the edges of the Empire.” Soggy grumbled. The Emperor was grooming his ear in approval.
“A threat to the farms is a threat to the warren in the end. Even if the problem is not quite so large yet, it has also attracted one greater. We can’t sit by idly while something threatens the food stores.” Emperor Brittle exemplified the altruism and heroism of ratkind. Not just rats but all of Carthage was within his heart. “Very well, I want the two of you to travel to the outlying farms -”
“Your Highness…” Soggy and Sleek tried to interject.
“The two of you. I won’t risk failure on your distaste for one another. It’s a long trip; take any others you need and leave immediately. We will prepare as best we can here.”
Sleek and Soggy looked at each other then back to the Emperor before bowing. They scampered from the burrow and readied for the journey ahead.
“I want Patchy and Loquacious to come too,” Sleek was saying as they approached the exits to the tunnels. Soggy had disagreed with every idea she had had. He clicked his incisors at this latest suggestion.
“Loquacious is a city mouse. We have no need for a mouse.”
“He was brought in from a farm, and he is a fine scout.”
“When he isn’t chittering and squawking,” Soggy huffed. “Fine, bring who you will. I can get Stone-Eater. Meet at the den of the knob kneed giants, near where the basins are emptied.” He was of course referring to a nearby horses’ stable, though we tend to be more colorful in title as you’ve noted. An hour later the fellowship had assembled, much to the chagrin of the stomping stallions and mares. Glassy, stupid eyes watched nervously as they planned the trek.
“I know just where to go, I’ll lead us just follow, just follow,” Loquacious was tittering in that high pitched mouse squeak that gives you a headache right between the eyes. He darted back and forth between the group and a point in the distance, seeming unable to understand why they weren’t moving. His kind had an even greater aversion to open spaces and bright lights than the rest.
“Oy, why ‘as we got a mouse ‘ere?” Stone-Eater demanded. His teeth had always grown too fast despite his propensity to chew rocks. It made his vocalizations muddled, so I have given him an anachronistic dialect. I find it charming, human rules of prose be damned. “I isn’t travellin’ wif no mouse.”
“Loquacious is here because I requested it,” Sleek informed the surly soldier, “He has my full confidence.” It was the end of the conversation. Stone-Eater found sudden interest in some hay on the ground while Soggy continued.
“It will likely be two darkfalls before we arrive in the outlands. It’s a very different place than the city. Nowhere solid to run and hide, you’ll have to keep your wits about you, use the terrain. Did you all eat?” The lack of response was taken as a ‘yes.’ Patchy loped up with his report.
“Midlight, Sleek. The streets are mostly empty to escape the heat.” Patchy was a shadow, and terse in his dealings. He and Sleek worked well together. She nodded her assent and the pack set out. Patchy was right – the humans of Carthage deplored the hot weather of the North African summer. They hid from the punishing sun and fanned themselves, unaware of the heroes and the dawning dangers at their border. How many times have rats saved man from horrors of which they could not dream? That isn’t rhetorical; it has been quite a few, but I have lost precise count. I’m sure your ancestors had us to thank at some point, though they never knew it. Humility is another rat trait.
“That git, Sleek, curdles me blood, she does,” Stone-Eater was whispering to Soggy as they approached the Western gate of the city. Soggy glanced nervously at the other Boetarch. She was safely ahead. The city mouse was darting about her legs, asking if he “really truly had her confidence, huh, Sleek?” It was distracting from here; he wondered how she put up with the annoyance.
“She is a Boetarch,” Soggy said unconvincingly, “it isn’t your place -”
“Oy! Look!” Stone-Eater squawked in alarm. Ahead the West gate had just come into view. A few tired travellers passed through the colossal passage, dragging wagons or slung amphora. For some reason Loquacious had flown into a panic near the threshold and was darting in indecision in the midsun. Sleek and Patchy were hidden in the shadows of some half-full sacks of grain. It only took Soggy a brief second to recognize the danger. A man in a worn toga dropped off his perch on one of the knob-kneed giants. He projected a sense of danger and fascination that bordered on intoxicating. Soggy knew from his training it was a symptom of encountering the Kakkeshu Re’u.
“Get to cover,” Soggy insisted.
The Kakkeshu Re’u was considering the mouse with what the rats assumed was murderous amusement. Like a cat finding a bird with a broken wing. He opened his mouth and spoke.
Or so it sounded to them, beyond Sleek who had spent years studying language. Don’t be so critical; do you speak Chinese, or any other common languages of the world? No. Well, not all rats can understand Phoenician. The Rattenfanger – excuse me, the Kakkeshu Re’u – turned his attention to the sacks wherein Sleek and Patchy took refuge. His eyes narrowed, as if trying to solve a puzzle. Then he reached into a satchel at his side and retrieved a set of pipes. Before they even reached his mouth Patchy began to walk towards the siren, a moth to flame. Such is the magnetism of the Kakkeshu Re’u to ratkind. Only numbers and magic grant some solace. Sleek bit the back of Patchy’s neck and pinned the other rat to the ground.
The music rushed out, drowning them in the chill of a mountain river. It numbed the senses, then offered the promise of warmth and safety. Patchy struggled, twitching and snapping against Sleek’s grip, but the black rat had a considerable size advantage. She denied his escape; the music stopped only a moment later. The Kakkeshu Re’u seemed confused, but satisfied. He had not noticed the other Boetarch and Stone-Eater, further down the street, lured by the tune. He kicked Loquacious with a snort, sending the mouse tumbling along the ground, then pulled himself back onto the horse and rode out the gate.
“I’m sorry,” Patchy apologized after the danger had passed, “I couldn’t -”
“It’s my fault,” Sleek reassured him, “I’m a risk to all of you when the Kakkeshu Re’u is near. I have some small immunity, however.” A gift from me. She didn’t explain the risk she brought or her aegis further, but Patchy let it go. Loquacious scuttled up, no worse for wear, followed moments later by Soggy and Stone-Eater.
“Wow, did you see that!” Loquacious marvelled, before launching into a long recap of every detail they had all just witnessed. It had been a deadly-close call. The terror of encountering the arch-fiend piper haunts most rats until the day they die. Perhaps they didn’t wish to acknowledge it any further.
“Our enemy now has a long head start,” Sleek informed them. “We must find the plague’s source before he does.”
The others agreed without a word, except Soggy. “Why do you care if-” he began, but cut himself off. He watched after the black rat, lost in thought, before falling in line and sneaking out the city’s boundary.
“The Kakkeshu Re’u learned a terrible magic in the Land of the Pharaohs,” Sleek was explaining to the group as they slalomed through stalks of grain that blotted out the starry night. “I met him in that far away land, not so very long ago.”
“Didja fight him?” Loquacious wondered. Sleek looked amused, in her own slightly off-kilter manner.
“He is like the waves of the ocean, Loquacious. Fighting makes the damage greater. Better to let him pass around you, and hope it doesn’t come crashing down. The Kakkeshu Re’u is possibly more arrogant than powerful. He’d do anything for recognition, but that makes him sloppy.”
“I’d fight him,” Loquacious informed. Even Patchy scoffed from his forward position. Soggy was having even less.
“You are nothing but an imbecile. A thousand, thousand good rats have died trying the same. Now shut up.”
“That is very brave of you,” Sleek told the mouse. She had a way of grinning that disturbed. I found it rather beautiful, myself, but the others looked away. Loquacious certainly didn’t notice.
“We may need that bravery,” Sleek prophesied. The mouse’s fur bristled with confidence and he rushed off to help Patchy keep watch.
“Why is you ‘umorin’ dat mouse?” Stone-Eater cawed in disbelief, probably just loud enough for Loquacious to hear. Sleek didn’t respond, but looked very satisfied. There was a plan behind her every action. Stone-Eater couldn’t help his other curiosities.
“Is da Kakkeshu Re’u really dat self absorbed?” he asked. “Rats isn’t perfect, eh, but does ‘e fight us just fer some coin, an’ cheers, an’ females?” It was quite a moment of self-awareness for Stone-Eater. Never was a philosopher, that one. True enough, we aren’t a perfect species, but deserving of systematic extermination?
“From what I’ve seen,” she tilted her head in a shrug.
“Why are you so concerned if he were to find the source of this whatever-it-is first?” Soggy interrupted. “If he wants to traipse about beyond the city, let him I say. Maybe he will fix it for us.”
“Whatever he does rarely ends up good for us.” It was Patchy this time, slinking back to the main group. He was concerned, his ears twitching and scanning like two leaves on a windy day. “There’s something strange near; find somewhere to hide.”
There was no further discussion needed. They trusted Patchy’s hearing without reservation. A nearby stone provided the best cover available. More added shadow than actual protection, they pressed along its edges and tried to squeeze into the margins. A moment later, a fluttering cacophony plunged through the tips of the grain jungle. Feathers and dirt geysered into the air where the projectile landed, startling them into stillness.
“A herald of silence!” Soggy muttered in surprise. The nocturnal birds were responsible for many an untimely rat death. Their victims rarely knew what had happened until silence had already taken them. “But there’s something wrong…”
Indeed there was. The herald was flopping about the ground, as if in the throes of conflict. Feathers continued to shred from it’s body, covering the area in a soft down. “What is wrong with it?” Patchy said. Blood began to well upon the bird in sporadic locations, then more and more until it was a mosaic of open wounds. A new noise joined the squawking of the dying predator, just at the edge of perception.
“Do you hear that?” Patchy asked. The question froze them in terror as the sound entered their perception as a sick realization. Like the pattering of rain in the distance, but high above in the sky. The herald was all but bones now, and whatever disease or pestilence it had fought with was now expanding slowly but surely into the field, devouring all it touched. The slow burn of a fuse.
“Get to the bones!” Sleek ordered. Rats have a tendency to follow the loudest order when struck by fear. They ran to the skeleton and clustered inside the clean-picked ribs. The retreat was chaotic. Patchy squealed in shock during the charge and rolled into the destination, wrestling with the unknown. The others tried to help, but their blind scrapings only seemed to agitate the situation. Sleek dragged a circle about the corpse with her incisors before joining them. She gnawed a bit of bone into dust and blew it out into the night.
“What…” Stone-Eater began.
“Just wait,” She ordered. The sound seemed to stay constant. Patchy continued to wail, and the first trickles of blood began to well on his leg. Perhaps the noise would pass over them. The hope ended when the grain exploded in motion. Stalks shattered and were ground to dust. Everywhere was unseen motion. Sleek blew another bit of bone dust and the veil was pulled back. Black, angular beetles swarmed the air, reflecting the night with odd distortions. It hurt their eyes to focus for long; the swarm seemed to deny sight. Nothing was spared as they clicked and ate, except the exposed shelter of the deceased bird. One of the creatures was revealed, dug into Patchy’s leg. A snap of Soggy’s teeth and it was torn from its perch, flopping about in death throes.
As quickly as the swarm appeared it dispersed, leaving behind desolation. The canopy of before had been reduced to paw-high stumps. The patter of the obsidian flight dwindled to the south.
“We are close,” Sleek said, staring after the specters like a conqueror on virgin shores. Her attention was transfixed, far away from the present. The trauma of seconds before didn’t seem to register. “We’ll follow tonight; by lightbreak we can be upon their origin.”
“Now just hold on,” Soggy balked, “Patchy isn’t going anywhere, and is in no condition to chase after whatever…whatever that was.”
“I’m fine,” Patchy insisted, though his leg was twitching reflexively.
“We were headed south anyway,” Sleek said, as if that were excuse enough to press on.
“And how do you know we’ll find these things by lightbreak?” Soggy demanded.
“I know,” was all Sleek answered. I’m beginning to remember how difficult she can be. But I also know she was very confident in this statement. Parts of this story I had forgotten are beginning to come back to me. Patchy for his part was dutiful. He picked himself onto three feet and trudged out of the bones and to the south, limping the whole way. Sleek went after him. The others, having little recourse, followed as well. They were supposed to stop those things, eh? Bravery, honor; I can get teary with pride. Soggy didn’t like it.
“I don’t like it,” Stone-Eater told him from the back of the pack.
Soggy laughed dark agreement at his subordinate’s apt observation.
In the meantime the Kakkeshu Re’u had bumbled his way to the source of the same magic swarm. It is still curious to me how quickly he managed to discover that narrow cave, set within the low mountains that marked the borders of the farmland. The rats had encountered a faint odor while tracking the creatures, aiding the pursuit, but there were no other trails or signs of the passing. Had it not been for the exceptional nose of our species, perhaps they never would have succeeded in the discovery. The Kakkeshu Re’u possessed no such faculty. Yet there he was when they arrived, just outside the entry to the darkness.
“He’s already here,” Soggy noted angrily, as the group hid behind a nearby boulder.
“Indeed. Suspicious.” Sleek stated, supporting my assessment. Still, she mentioned it as if it did not surprise her in the slightest. The Kakkeshu Re’u drew forth his instrument and piped a quick ditty. The flute began to cast a soft glow, just enough to see by, and he plunged inside.
“Follow?” Patchy questioned, still favoring his leg. Sleek twitched her muzzle in confirmation. Stone-Eater sighed, glancing at Soggy, but the moment of truth had arrived. There was no disagreement in this case, simply the tense calm before conflict. Even Loquacious had grown silent and focused as they pressed near and into the cave.
Within, they could just make out the faint light of the Kakkeshu Re’u’s magic. The stones were jagged and uneven, and many paths branched at random intervals. Still, the bard was undeterred, travelling sure as an arrow when confronted by each new choice. The heroes puzzled at his surety, but had to hustle just to keep up. Finally the cavern opened into a large chamber, though just small enough to be kissed by the very edges of the light.
On the far side a small statue resided between two stones, as if discarded. It was an ebony man with the head of a crocodile. Jewelry adorned it’s arms and chest, and upon it’s crown was an intricate head dress. The crocodile mouth was ajar ever so slightly, as if preparing to snap at prey. As the assembled watched, a beetle scuttled from within, tumbling to the ground. When it fell, it distorted and vanished in a chitter of wings. A long minute later the process repeated.
Neither Sleek nor the Kakkeshu Re’u seemed concerned as the rats took cover behind a large boulder. “Do you know what that is?” Soggy asked the other Boetarch as quietly as he could squeak.
“Egyptian,” Sleek told him, “I wonder how he found it so quickly.” She fancied aloud.
“Din’t you say da Kakkeshu Re’u travelled in Egypt?” Stone-Eater reasoned, still not his strong suit, but perhaps on to something. “Could ‘e ‘ave known it was ‘ere?”
“Bah, how would he know?” Soggy chided.
“If he put it here,” Sleek said, “The pharaohs had their trouble with locust plagues as well; the Kakkeshu Re’u was there. Maybe he hid something here he found long ago, maybe he simply wants the notoriety of solving this problem. He did show up rather fast, as Soggy noted.” She was smiling as if hearing a joke.
“Would he do that?” Loquacious piped up. Sleek just shrugged.
“Either way, think of the damage that could do to a warren if he gets a hold of it. It’s a fine weapon, no doubt, it has passed that test.”
As they discussed, the Kakkeshu Re’u was ready to move to the next stage of his plan, or perhaps he had simply grown bored. He brought the flute to his lips and played a high pitched melody. As the sound echoed, thousands of beetles shimmered into existence, hanging like onyx fruit upon the walls of the chamber. They radiated as oil on water, and a ripple passed through them like dominoes toppling around a locus. The rats gaped in horror at the insect pall that hung over them. Still the Kakkeshu Re’u seemed unperturbed. Perhaps he was too stupid and foolish to realize the danger, or perhaps it was all going to plan. He brought the instrument up once more and began a new song.
“What is he…?” Sleek looked quizzically. Her face resolved into shock and fear, which passed like sickness between the others. They had never seen the female troubled before. “He can’t, that idiot!” She leapt from the hiding spot and began to squeak an attack. The Kakkeshu Re’u looked over and saw the black rat charging at him. It was a showdown that had taken place on a multitude of battlefields; both knew the other well. But today would not see its continuance. It was already too late. The statue’s mouth closed shut with a sound like thunder, and the Kakkeshu Re’u smiled with that self-satisfied jester’s grin that can drive one mad. He reserved it for when he was most pleased with himself, or in the midst of his greatest victories. Only a moment later, the mouth of the statue was cast open and tens and hundreds of the nightmare beetles began to pour from its mouth. The other insects began to thrum in agitation.
“Run, run!” Sleek yelled. The cowardly bard had already done so. The rats needed no further encouragement. They fled down the aphotic passages, an explosion of wings dogging their every blind step.
“Where’s Patchy?” Soggy asked as they huddled in some blind hidey-hole of the cave network. The air hummed with the distant swarm. Outside the sky was filled with the rumbling of their numbers, though only the Kakkeshu Re’u and field rats knew of this development. The heroes were trapped in place by the unknown.
“‘E’s gone,” Stone-Eater confirmed, “Couldn’t keep up.”
“He was right behind you! What do you mean he’s gone?” Soggy demanded.
“I mean ‘e’s gone! Got ‘ettin up!”
“Enough,” Sleek cut them off. She made a sound like a purring cat, then a low mewl like a wounded dog and pulled an ember from the depths of her black fur. It was a tiny island of light in an ink sea. “Loquacious will take over Patchy’s duties.” The field mouse was pacing and making chuffing noises from the stress. His sudden field promotion gave him enough distraction to pull it together.
“Sure, sure Sleek. Leave it to me.”
“You’re bravery inspires,” She replied. “We have to find a way to mend this mistake.” Stone-Eater growled.
“Jus’ stop. Is you kiddin’ me? What is it wif you an’ dis mouse? We ain’t fixin’ nuffin’, we is gettin’ out of ‘ere, right?”
“Do as you will.. If you want to go, go. My plan requires great courage, which this small mouse has in spades. Thus I have no use for you.” She told him.
“You think you can get rid of those things?” Soggy asked.
“I have some familiarity with Set – it is the god the statue depicts – but what must be done requires a brave soul.”
“Aye, you keep saying that, over and over,” Soggy said, “Stone-Eater and I are with you.” He gave an angry stare at the other rat. Loquacious spoke up, unable to contain himself.
“I’m brave!” he informed Sleek. She smiled, as if at a precocious kit. Soggy looked at her with narrowed eyes, but didn’t comment.
“I can’t ask you to do this, Loquacious. It’s far too dangerous. You don’t have to prove yourself any more.”
“But I want to, I want to. Let me help!” He pleaded. Sleek seemed to consider for a while, then tilted her head in assent.
“Set always requires a blooding to return to rest. Only a thinking creature will do. Someone would have to prick their paw upon the statue’s tooth and make an offering. Hopefully it would be…satisfactory.”
“Ho ho, yeah right!” Stone-Eater cawed.
“I am not surprised, Stone-Eater, you are no hero. Loquacious has already volunteered to save all of Carthage already.”
“Really, all of Carthage?” the mouse marvelled, quite drunk on his growing fame.
“Indeed, Loquacious. Come. I think I can keep us hidden. We will go back, you and I, and put a stop to this plague.” She mumbled a few incantations and the two trudged back into the cave. Soggy and Stone-Eater followed, worried their fates were in the hands of an imbecile and a mad-rat.
“Remember Loquacious – only a prick of your paw, then you must leap to safety!” Sleek warned from the edge of the statue room. Her spell was working so far – the insects did not notice them, or at least saw them as no threat. For the time being. She had to concentrate, however, to keep the effect going. It was a taxing effort, and she shivered with the strain.
“I know, I know. I’m brave!” he said.
The mouse flitted along the floor. Through tiny crevices and over mountainous stones. He approached a fallen rock that was set like a boarding plank, leading to the Set statue’s mouth. Insects continued to pour from within, though the flow had tapered off considerably. Loquacious hesitated at the precipice and looked back.
“He ain’t gonna do it,” Stone-Eater declared with a whisper. No one else spoke as the mouse turned around and headed back down the rock. Then he pivoted and leapt from the edge, into the waiting maw of the crocodile. The mouth was barely large enough to accommodate him, a stuffed balcony of razor-sharp blades. Loquacious held part of himself over the edge, to better facilitate his escape when the time came, and brought his paw to one of the sharp fangs. Tentative, so very carefully, he pricked his paw and pushed off.
The jaws snapped shut with a sound of cracking joints and tearing flesh. Loquacious’ front half dangled from the crevice of the mouth, still pawing frantically to escape. The rest of him was crushed between the smiling visage of Set. The serpents strike had been blinding fast; there had been no escape. The statue was closed.
“Get ‘im some ‘elp!” Stone-Eater bleated, taking a few bounds forward. Despite his prejudices, the soldier hated to see death as much as the next creature. However, it was too late. Loquacious gaped at them in alarm, then began a high-pitched squeal. His face was pulled back in a cadaverous leer – the fur and tissue on his body began to twitch and split, pulled deeper into the infinite abyss of the swarm-portal. It rent from the bones, which fell delicately onto the ground. There was a last sound of fluttering wings and the insects of the chamber burst into figments, like soap bubbles.
“Is it done?” Soggy dared hope. Even he was shaken by what had just occurred, but he would deal with the nightmares later.
Stone-Eater was shocked and abashed. “My god,” Of course he was referring to me, but I have little issue with my name taken in vain. “Even ‘e dint deserve that.” It was the best apology that rat had ever given, and quite a compliment for a mouse. The soldier loped across the cave to examine the fallen hero.
“He finished what he set out to do,” Soggy said, willing to admit his mistake and curious after the other Boetarch, “But you were right about him. He was brave; he should be remembered a hero. He looked up to you, I think.” The words were as much a test as concession.
Sleek didn’t answer for a long time, just stared off into the distance. He couldn’t get a good read on the black rat. “We should drag the statue back to the warren; we’ll find some field rats to assist.” She turned and headed for the exit of the cave. Soggy watched her go, lost in thought. Stone-Eater joined him a while later.
“You should prob’ly see dis,” he said, gesturing back to the statue.
“I don’t need to see it,” Soggy said, though he wondered why the other soldier looked so preoccupied, “What is it? Bones?”
“Aye,” Stone-Eater said, “Loquacious’ bones. And older than that,” He hesitated to say, “The bones of at least three other mice. All of them crushed an’ discarded. Must have been ‘brave’ sorts as well…”
I have to admit I didn’t remember the end to that one until I had already begun. But at least I told the whole thing, eh? That has to count for something. I told Sleek this wasn’t the best plan, but as I mentioned she can be difficult. Leave propaganda to humans, I said, but she is so very stubborn. Never turns down an advantage that one, very manipulative; I don’t even remember why I agreed to this. Fine thing that she hasn’t yet mastered English or she’d be furious with my tale. Still it could have been the Rattenfanger’s fault in the end, don’t you think? Maybe he put that statue there? Certainly not Sleek.
No, I really don’t believe it anymore either. You’re a bit too bright for that. Terrible choice of story; we aren’t actually all that bad, but I tend to lose my train of thought, get details mixed up. Best not to mention any of this to her. In fact, its very important you play along; she has an icy temper, and did kill some thirty million people with the black death and all. She’ll be watching very carefully to see your reaction – my daughter living in your home, remember – so make sure to holler out some “curse that Rattenfanger!” or “I’ve been wrong all along”s for effect. That ought to throw her off the trail. If you feel yourself painfully desiccating away, followed by a slip into an abyss of night, then it probably didn’t throw her off. Do your best!
My kindest regards and apologies for getting you mixed up in this little experiment in rat psychological warfare. Say hello to Sleek for me.