Long ago, when rats were new to their role as pestilence, the Rattenfanger was a young man. In the full blush of his early power, he was known to be absolutely incorrigible. There was not a risk he would not take, and he had little respect for anything but his own aggrandizement. It was a simpler time.
The Etemenanki had recently been completed, and the Indus valley was growing in stumbling fits. Farmers throughout the floodplains spoke highly of Ratten’s wandering blessing—those that had not met him in person. Thanks to him, the grain stores of Babylon had never been more full. The city prospered. But the rats did not sit idle.
Ratten luxuriated in a floor-set stone bath, enjoying the rarity of hot water. If only he could move into the palace on a more permanent basis, he wished. A servant added scented oils from the lip of the pool. He ran the bottom hem of her robe through his fingers absentmindedly and let himself drift away to sleep. It had been a long day—he deserved this. Unfortunately, the King’s seneschal had other plans. He strode into the room without announcement, his cloak flaring.
“Kakkishu Re’u!” The seneschal shouted the name Ratten carried at the time. It meant ‘Rat Shepherd’ in Akkadian. He would be disappointed when the language went out of style years later. “Why do I find you here while the palace is swarmed by rodents!” Ratten roused himself and cracked his neck. He hung his arms over the edge, and gave a lopsided grin.
“Just to keep you busy,” he told the messenger. He pulled himself from the bath and dried off, wrapping his robes about him. He felt through his pockets and realized his instrument was missing. His smile was cruelty. “They are here, aren’t they,” he said to no one.
“What?” the seneschal asked, but Ratten brushed it aside.
“No bother. Have someone fetch me an ebbubu I can play. Then we’ll go to the pantries and deal with this.”
The seneschal shook his head as Ratten retrieved his sandals. “They are not in the pantries, Kakkishu Re’u, they are stealing metals and goods! We are being robbed while you do nothing!”
“Ow!” Ratten barked, planting his foot onto the end of a wood nail that had been set into his shoe. He retrieved the bloodied nail and threw it aside with a growl. “I’ll find the instrument myself,” he told the man, and limped off into the palace halls.
No one noticed a furred intruder skulk across the bath house floor and retrieve the ensanguined barb. Its task accomplished, the rat retreated to its hiding spot and made its way out of the palace, knowing it would only be a matter of time before the Kakkishu Re’u found a new weapon.
In the months following the palace invasion, the rats of Babylon became more brazen. Ratten scrambled around the city each day, containing one problem while another worsened elsewhere. The rats stole oddities now: bronze candle holders, scrimshaw knick-knacks and decorative beads. It was behavior that he had never seen before. The King was not pleased. The crime spree had even put Ratten out of the palace, which did nothing to improve his daily mood.
Ratten looked around the shop to which he had been called and spotted a small pack trying to hide beneath a pile of furs. They squeaked in alarm and made a break for it, but Ratten played his music. It was a soft thing, with no fight to it, possessing only a minor enchantment. At the time it was his greatest weapon. Three rats slid to a stop, falling instantly asleep. Two others managed to shake off the torpor tune and bolted into the busy marketplace. They carried a variety of ornaments and simple jewelry upon their limbs. His music lacked the force to capture more than a few rats at a time. This was his first concerted vermin plague, and it frustrated him to no end—stopping three had always been sufficient in the past.
“Some of them escaped,” the shop owner told him as the man took a curved knife to the sleeping rats. Ratten looked at him with annoyance.
“You are incredibly perceptive,” he drawled, “I’ll take less wool than normal. A scribe will be by to take accounts later,” At least Ratten hoped so. The palace had been quite reticent in offering even simple services. Hiring a scribe would be a chore, but managing wages was magic only they knew. He pushed into the crowds, blinking his eyes with fatigue. The sun crushed down on the bleached stone buildings and dusty alleys. This was getting him nowhere; come days end he would explore other answers to the city’s rat problem.
The nights of Babylon belonged to cults, cutthroats, prostitutes, and fools. Ratten fell somewhere between two, three, and four. Of course, he’d admit to none. He meandered the moon-kissed streets, avoiding a noisy procession of Baal worshippers. Their smoke and incense choked the still, desert air and the sheep’s blood they flung about had a reputation for staining. A splash snuck his way as a devoted tried to share a “gift,” but Ratten danced aside and down another alley.
Usually his sixth sense would stumble him to answers. It was when he most lacked direction that his instinct seemed to kick in strongest. He could set out on a journey and find himself in the midst of a disaster perfectly suited for his type of solution; perhaps it was a symptom of his nature and job. Tonight, however, there was no familiar tingling of unfinished business.
He passed a shaded hut from which the smell of incense was thick and cloying. A sultry woman further along the alley beckoned him to a much more comfortable looking enclave, but his sixth sense refused to be goaded, despite his best attempts. Grumbling at the recalcitrant faculty, he pushed aside the curtain to the smoky parlor.
The eye carved above the door told him he would find a seer inside, and so he did. The proprietor was a squat figure in tangled robes that obscured his or her face and hands. Gender was impossible to identify; the seer puddled upon a bed of pillows thanks to the loose clothing. The incense was even stronger inside. Sticks of it were scattered about brass braziers, and held in the iron claws of a plethora of small statues. The seer picked up a long smoking pipe – no fingers emerged to carry it – and took a long drag, though no face was illuminated.
“I am Nanghait!” the figure immediately interrupted. The voice was too high to be a man, but too gravelly to be a woman. Ratten found himself trying to peek under Nanghait’s hood. “You seek answers!” Ratten rolled his eyes, but sat down anyway, picking a comfortable mat.
“Alright, go ahead,” Ratten said, “Tell me something, Nanghait.”
Nanghait passed the pipe, and his loose hood jostled about as if the person underneath were rolling their neck. One sleeve brought a small brazier to the forefront, while the other sleeve dumped a few loose bones upon the tiny flame of the vessel. There was a tired pause while Ratten frowned at the lots of nothing that was happening.
“Wait!” warbled Nanghait. A moment later the bones began to pop, and one shattered in the heat, casting bits of debris around the floor. Ratten tapped an ember out on his sandal that had begun to smoke. “Ah ha! Success! You hate hard work and play music for unappreciative audiences,” Nanghait declared with as much flare as its – ‘its,’ the bard decided – voice was capable. Ratten looked at the flute at his side. “How did you guess?” he said bitterly. “I need some insight into the future, not a critic. Tell me-”
“The future!” Nanghait hollered shrilly. Another bone popped on the fire, shooting more sparks. Ratten cursed and patted himself off while the seer rambled. “You will be married twice, once for love, but a fox will-”
“That’s all well and good, but I need to know about the rats. Do you see anything about the rats in your damned incendiary bones?”
“Ooooooh. Rats!” Nanghait giggled. A container of red liquid was produced and poured over the remaining fire and bones. The mixture hissed in protest, before being doused. The seer stared at the bones and whistled like wind through reeds. The light from the candles flickered just a bit, and Ratten was, in turn, a bit more impressed. “The rats stole something from you with which to mock the priests of Babylon. Look to the temples, if you seek them, Kakkishu Re’u, look to the temples!” Ratten could tell Nanghait enjoyed the vague insinuations and muttered nothings of seercraft.
“Can you see -”
“Also, they will steal one of your teeth,” Nanghait threw in. Ratten sighed. Maybe it was better than nothing. Maybe. He stood up to leave, tossing a few loose bits of silver he still had from his days in the palace. If Nanghait had eyes, they were lighting up, Ratten sensed.
“Uh…one last thing!” Nanghait hurriedly shouted the final bit in his grating voice. “We must discuss payment!”
“I just payed you, you pompous little -”
Two poniard wielding thugs appeared, one at the front door, the other from a curtain obscured entryway. Ratten sighed again.
Ratten was up at first light, anxious to see if Nanghait’s advice would prove fruitful. He was a bit bruised and sore from the scuffle with the thieves, but they had gotten the worst of it by far. Watching Nanghait wobble his escape with dwarf-like strides, caterwauling for help had been almost worth the trouble. His first stop was the temple of Shamash; the patron deity of the poor seemed a likely place for some upstart rodents to base themselves. Ratten was feeling rather (over)confident after his unplanned sparring match.
“Kakkishu Re’u,” someone was yelling for him at the end of the street. Sighing, Ratten stomped up petulant. It was one of the well groomed and over-fed scribes of the Etemenanki. His robes had clean whites and pale blues that may as well have been a myth to any but the wealthiest citizens. The scribe’s double chin jiggled about as he spoke, and his eyes were darkened from religious wine. “You are commanded to come with me immediately!”
“Commanded!” Ratten scoffed, “What is it now?”
“The Etemenanki! Marduk’s temple is being desecrated by these vermin! Hurry!”
Ah, so the rats had thought big! Ratten indicated to lead on. In only a few minutes they had navigated the twisting lattice of Babylon and arrived at the base of the Etemenanki. It’s size was stunning, and Ratten still marvelled at its construction. Each tapering floor was a fortress unto itself. The stairs that climbed the front and led to the main temple seemed to march straight to the heavens. Nothing in creation matched the height of it except the mountains of the horizon. He wondered if ever a structure would surpass its scope.
The scribe-priests had been driven from all but the top levels of the Etemenanki. They meandered the gardens outside, complaining to each other about the indignity of their plight. Ratten rolled his eyes. He had no interest in speaking with any of these pampered jackals. “You. What’s your name?” he asked the fat priest that had accompanied him.
“Uh, Gibil, Kakkishu Re’u.”
“You don’t sound sure, Gibil. Right, you are in charge of the knife.” He handed a curved knife to the man, who held it with great trepidation. “It isn’t going to bite you, Gibil. Just stab the ones I put to sleep, got it?
“I think so,” Gibil hawed.
Ratten led them into the ground floor of the Etemenanki. A small group of rats were still there, chewing away at filigree and furniture. Ratten began to play and they scurried in retreat fast as sling stones, down the stairs of the larders. Three of their number did not make the trip.
“Get those ones Gibil. Then down.”
Gibil tottered over and did his duty, while Ratten jogged down the stairs. It was dark. Only the light that passed from the entryway currently illuminated the area, but his eyes were superior. To him it was hardly a concern. He should have wavered then, but a few rats in lightless places were not a threat from which he would hesitate. He would wipe these out, kill the rest of the pests throughout Babylon, and get back into the palace. The wine and women would never stop. And hot baths. Yes, hot baths every morning and night.
Ratten continued to dream as he walked further into the stores and larders. They were empty and quiet, more similar to a burial chamber than anywhere one would keep their food and supplies. Cobwebs filled corners and insects had Babylons of their own in the depths. He spotted the rats turning a corner and jumped after them. They were now trapped in a wide, forgotten room. “Nowhere left to run,” he told his prey as he walked towards them, beginning his tune.
There was a grind of stone behind him, and curious he turned around to look. A section of the wall had been pushed aside, perhaps large enough through which he could crawl. A sea of rats waited within, judging him.
“That…is not good,” he said to himself. He bolted for the exit, but the sea surged out, hundreds of rats ready to pounce. His instrument clattered aside in the fall. He was taken below the tide, drowning in their numbers.
Ratten was dragged along narrow tunnels, bumping and jostling as he went. The rats were not gentle in their treatment. They flowed about him and swaddled him like a liquid blanket. Some rode upon his person like a sled, biting exposed flesh. He tried to fight back but realized lengths of twine, string, and rope had been twisted around him. Each thread was not strong in its own right, but together they had made a cocoon that denied his every escape.
Finally they arrived in a tall amphitheater, though it was still only the height of a man standing. The sandstone walls looked to have been gnawed away, and expensive ornaments were littered about the area in an approximation of miniature furniture and art. Stolen candles offered plenty of light. A simplistic cage of netting had been constructed, barring off one side of the room. He was dumped inside unceremoniously, and the barricade drawn taut
Ratten squirmed about trying to get his bearings, and his face fell at eye level with one of his captors. This rat had collected pieces of jewelry, metal, and cloth and fashioned itself a ragged costume. White and pale-blue robes, a bronze-crown scroll binding, ring bracers, and thimbled boots that made it almost impossible for the creature to walk. It was a ridiculous – but fair – approximation of one of Marduk’s priests. Ratten actually laughed despite his predicament. He received a poke to his nose with a needle-turned-sword in exchange
The priest rat held its paws aloft before Ratten. The other rats watched with hushed awe. Then it turned away and bowed low three times, before retreating, always remaining penitent and prostrate. Ratten’s eyes refocused without the motley rat in his face, and the rest of the cell became clear.
“You have to be kidding me…” Ratten said.
A form shifted in the corner, a mass of shining black fur and muscle. Whiskers twitched at the end of a long snout. Above, onyx eyes; below, pearl incisors as long as Ratten’s hand. The impossible rat drew to full height. Even with its stocky legs and paws it was as big as a tiger. A chain jangled around its neck, connected to a large boulder. Ratten pistoned his legs and pushed himself against the stone wall, getting as far away as he could. The rat audience squeaked in religious fervor.
The huge rat looked out at the assemblage as if it were speaking. Then it gestured with its head to either side. The smaller rats looked almost disappointed, but slowly they flitted away and filtered out, leaving the amphitheater empty. Perhaps the monster didn’t want to be watched as it ate. It approached Ratten with not a care in the world, its leather tail swishing with braggadocio. Ratten booted it in the face. It was like kicking a tree. The rat looked nonplussed. Its mouth opened wide and it stretched out its neck towards the Rattenfanger. Ratten closed his eyes.
A death stroke never came. Instead his bindings became slack after a clacking bite, and he sloughed out of them, rolling to a kneel.
“Ouch,” the big rat said. Ratten looked at it once again; it had shrunk to the size of a dog, and was much more approachable, if it weren’t still a massive rodent. “That was quite rude, don’t you think. Well, don’t add staring to your sins – aren’t you going to apologize?”
“Sorry?” Ratten said, rather confused, “Wait, what?
“That’s better, I suppose,” the rat decided, taking a seat so that its forepaws could gesticulate, “As for the ‘what’ of the matter, I am the god of rats. At least that’s what these rats have tried to create.” The Rat God scratched at its collar, which had changed size along with it, “You would have trouble pronouncing my true name, and we do so hate giving those out, don’t we?”
Ratten still expected to be eaten at some point so he remained silent, frowning.
“No, I’m not going to eat you. Though there is nothing more my high priest would like.” The Rat God squeaked in a chortle, “What a pompous little ass. But clever, very clever. My children are nothing if not that, eh Kakkishu Re’u?”
“How in all the world did this happen?” Ratten demanded. The Rat God chewed absentmindedly at a patch of fur on his chest.
“I’m told they have you to thank partially; they stole a bit of your blood, the critical component. Offered up a child-servant that got a bit too curious as well. The sort of things these rituals always take, eh? It seemed unfair to them that only men had gods and heroes running about, so here I am.” The Rat God looked quite pleased with himself, holding his arms apart to demonstrate his immaculate coat.
Ratten wondered if he had hit his head on the mad scramble down to the abyss. “That doesn’t really explain…well, why you don’t want to kill me.” The Rat God was now rolling on his back to get to a bothersome itch – his attention span was incredibly brief.
“Huh? Oh, well we are something of kindred – ah, that’s the spot – spirits. Not just by the obvious blood. Or that we are belief, or faith, or delusion or whatever made physical, but also that we are both currently prisoners.” He popped back onto his feet like a spring, and pulled the collar a few spaces from around his neck. “I’m stuck here as sure as you, you see. Thought you might be willing to break me out, eh?”
That didn’t make much sense to Ratten. He began to look for a way past the rope gate on his own, but the bindings were corded and thick.
“Ah, look I know it doesn’t make sense,” the Rat God was exasperated, “except that it really does. What do your gods and demiurges and the like do up there, eh? They rarely are beholden to their flock, as it were. My children are clever – they didn’t want some wandering, never-there-when-you-need-it god. Or one that blew down the warrens when it got worked up or drank too much. See, see? I knew you’d get it,” the Rat God squee-chortled again, “Oh, you of all of them would get it.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” But the Rat God was busy tittering to itself before it found something between its toes to chew.
“You’re just a layabout and a bum. Wouldn’t even be around if it weren’t for a pest that’s only a problem because man is so filthy.” he wiped a rat tear from his eye. “Sorry, sorry. Uncalled for, but you don’t have the best reputation. Well, what do you say? Partners?”
“I work better alone.”
“No you don’t. Come on. I’m a god, and I know what other rats know. You don’t ever work that well. You’re something of a joke.”
Ratten frowned again. “Do you ever shut up?”
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’” The Rat God decided. No retort was forthcoming. “And yes, I do have a plan, so stop thinking so sarcastically. I’m going to teach you a tune. A march.”
“I dropped the flute,” Ratten said.
“Yes, I didn’t think they’d let you keep it. But this tune is much more powerful than that drivel you have now. With an instrument you might command armies, but even with a mouthed whistle one rat should be possible. You will whistle up the key to my chains at the next ceremony, I will be free, then I’ll help you escape.”
“I suppose I’ll ask,” Ratten interrupted again, but resigned to following the giant rat, “but why, why, would you want to give me something that would help kill your own?”
The Rat God smiled with a touch of madness, it’s countenance crocodilian. “Isn’t that what gods do, Kakkishu Re’u? Rats often eat their young to make sure the stronger survive. Don’t be too concerned; I have my purposes.”
Rare in those days, Ratten was conscientious enough to wonder if he were making a big mistake.
“Mmm, he sure was tasty!” The Rat God informed his worshippers with unnecessary drama. Ratten would have planted his face in his hand if he weren’t buried under a supine, tiger-sized rat. “Oh, yes, quite delicious. His power now resides within me! Babylon will be ours, and all that!” It wasn’t the most inspiring speech, and Ratten wasn’t even sure the other rodents understood, but they squeaked excitedly.
“Um, yes. Now I must speak only to the high clergy. Go forth and multiply? I like that! Someone should write that down.”
It was almost the Rattenfanger’s cue. Soft chittering began, indicating the Rat God was discussing matters with the ranked rats. The giant readjusted itself just a bit, allowing him better lung capacity. The tune he was about to try was unlike anything he had ever attempted. He could see the notes in his head and wondered if it were safe to attempt. It almost looked as if the music were alive. Even only imagined, it crawled in his imagination, demanding attention. Then again, he scoffed at danger.
The melody began on his lips as an alien shrill, somewhere within but beyond the normal scale. Without warning it reared up and whinnied in victory, trying its best to wrest control from Ratten. He had to bite his cheek until it bled to reign the music back into the desired pattern. He focused in his mind’s eye on the rat with the key, as the Rat God had described it.
“Very good. Yes, bring him a little closer…” the Rat God was offering blind instructions that were of almost no help. He couldn’t even be sure the song was having the desired effect. However, the squealed alarm of the high clergy hinted that it was on the right track.
“Perfect!” The Rat God called. There was a click and suddenly the tiger-rat was a dog-rat again, exposing Ratten to view. “Time to go, ally!” The Rat God said, far too cheerily for Ratten’s taste. Swarms of rats poured in from all directions, intent on binding their god and drawing blood.
The Rat God chewed a quick hole in the cage.
“What good is that with all the damned rats -”
Suddenly pitch darkness eclipsed the room. “Hope you were paying attention!” The Rat God tittered, scurrying away. Ratten clawed along the floor, knowing he would only have a brief head start and chance. He found the tunnel that led back to the Etemenanki and began to belly crawl down the long passage. The enraged rats tumbled to what was happening and started to run after him. His lead was not large. He decided to whistle as he moved; the music brayed vindictively. One of Ratten’s molars exploded in his mouth to blinding pain. He only barely managed to complete a verse, using another rat as a puppet to attack the others. He hoped it would buy a few seconds.
Ahead, the stone that blocked the exit was closed. He reached it just as the quickest rats got to his feet and began to claw, raking his bare feet. He pushed upon the stone while swinging his legs, desperate to keep the enemy at bay and not able to look back to see how bad things really were. More bits of fur began to tickle his legs and back, and stabbing bites joined in.
“Kakkishu Re’u! Kakkishu Re’u!” A confused voice was echoing through the lower levels of the Etemenanki.
“Gibil? Gibil!” Ratten hollered at the top of his lungs trying to pull himself from the gap. The fat priest tottered in, holding Ratten’s flute in one hand. He must have discovered it while searching for the wayward trapper. He gasped when he saw the scene and put a hand to his mouth.
“Oh dear, are you -”
“FLUTE GIBIL! FLUTE FLUTE FLUTE!” The rats were up to his shoulders and snapping at his ribs. Gibil tossed the instrument across the floor and Ratten snatched it up. He brought it to his lips and began to play as fast as he could. The song tried to buck away again, but the Rattenfanger’s rage and fear held it by the throat and smashed it into place. The rats continued to surge out of the gap, biting at his arms and trying to wrest the offending sound from his hands. He began to wonder if the Rat God had tricked him, when the bites slowed and stopped. The angry squeaks died away and the room was filled with silence. An army of rats marched from the hiding place like tiny soldiers. The threat was past.
With Gibil’s help the messy work of culling the herd was completed. However, the high clergy and the Rat God were not among those snared. The former Ratten never saw again. Perhaps they moved on from Babylon and spread their cult elsewhere. Or they simply lay low until Ratten travelled on, as he always did. The latter he would meet many times again, for ages and ages to come.