“Father!” cried out Nyx. “These are adventurers. We are heading into the haunted zone to face the ancestors.”
That wasn’t why I was heading into the haunted zone, but I wasn’t going to argue. The rat soldiers had lowered their spears and were advancing on us, which was enough to put me in the mood for an episode of Meet the Ancestors.
There was a distant howl from the tunnel, most likely air moving around the innards of the cave network. It was enough to stop everyone in their tracks. I blessed the ancestors for watching out for me.
“Nyx!” the Rat King said in a warning tone of voice. “This is not the time or place. Do not anger the ancestors and do not anger me.” His tail whipped out from behind him and flicked Nyx on the back of the head. “Here!”
Nyx squealed and then lowered his head as he dejectedly walked to his father’s side, shoulders slumped and adventure over. Well, he tried, give him credit for that. And failed. You can’t win anything with kids.
While not being the greatest fighter or leader or, indeed, human being, I do have confidence in myself with regard to a few things. I’m pretty good at spotting a dodgy situation. Getting away from said dodgy situation, my stats speak for themselves.
Evading capture is something you only get good at with practice and while I didn’t know exactly how much time I’d spent on the run, I had to be close to my 10,000 hours.
Admittedly, this situation, with an army of human-sized rats ready to limit my freedom in a range of unpleasant ways, wasn’t looking good. I wasn’t armed, didn’t have a clear escape route, and only had an incompetent assassin and a rebellious teenager to help me; and they’d both proved to be of no help at all.
I wasn’t panicked, though. My life had been through so many strange turns of late, this one didn’t stand out, particularly. Maybe I was suffering from freak-out fatigue.
The soldiers nervously moved forward again.
“Wait,” I said. Rather surprisingly, the Rat King raised his an oddly human-looking hand to stop his troops. “Is this about the Mouse King?”
“Of course. How many kings have you killed?” He gave me a disgusted glare. This, too, experience had taught me to recognise.
When people first meet me, they tend to assume things about me. That I’m strong, that I’m violent, that I must have some kind of hidden power to have defeated those who challenged me.
They can’t help but judge me through the lens of how they would act or how they’ve seen others act. You don’t survive long in a world as gladiatorial as this one without knowing how to get your hands dirty. Which is true, to an extent, but that doesn’t mean the popular way is the only way.
“I defeated the Mouse King in battle. What is the crime I’m being accused of?” I even had the language down by this point. I didn’t want to play the game, but that didn’t mean I didn’t know how to.
“You are being accused of no crime,” said the Rat King. “As you defeated the Mouse King, so now are you defeated.”
Of course, there’s always more to learn. I had assumed this was some sort of retribution for murdering innocent mice and even more innocent unborn mice babies. I genuinely regretted what I’d done and wouldn’t argue that I deserved to be punished. I would still try to avoid that punishment—it wasn’t going to bring any of those mice babies back from the dead—but I certainly understood the reasons for wanting to bring me to justice.
Although, technically speaking, Maurice had been the one to kill the pregnant mouse. Not that I would try to hide behind that. I wouldn’t throw Maurice under the bus, especially as he wasn’t here to take the focus off me.
However, they didn’t seem to be interested in my murderous acts. Not surprising, I suppose, since killing in this world wasn’t considered so much a morally bankrupt theft of life as it was a convincing way to win an argument.
“But you said you were taking me back to Ratopolis to be judged. What are you judging me for?”
“Judged,” said the Rat King, like that explained it. “Your blood will be drawn from your body. That is judgment.”
This was apparently a definition of ‘judged’ that I wasn’t familiar with. One that wasn’t listed in the Oxford English dictionary, although I wouldn’t put it past Merriam-Webster to include it under common usage. Those hacks.
“What do you want my blood for?” If you were going to drain someone’s blood, you could at least give your reasons.
“You have angered the ancestors,” he said with a clear intimation that this was more than enough reason to empty a person of their vital fluids. “You—”
A tremor interrupted him, possibly at the part where he would start making sense (although I doubted it). Everyone staggered to keep their balance.
The dark, open mouth of the large tunnel was only a few metres away. If I could get past the soldiers and run into the tunnel, their fear of spooky ancestors might make them think twice about chasing me. I would be lost and alone and have no idea where I was going, but still preferable to the current situation.
I pulled the ball of light down close to me. If I could blind them, even being hugely outnumbered wouldn’t be a problem. It might even be an advantage as they all bumped into each other and ran around in a panic.
The tremor ceased. It hadn’t been very powerful, only knocking a sprinkling of dust from the cavern roof, and only lasted a few seconds. The ball of light was now hovering over my head, inflating as I pumped it up a bit. A nice big flash-bang and then run for it.
The ball suddenly jerked away from me. The hooded rat with the staff had his hand up and reached out like he was snagging an invisible string out of the air. My ball drifted over to him.
“This power is not yours,” he squeaked. “It belongs to the frogmen of the marshes and transgressors will be punished.”
My ability to get the hell out of there was, I think, being repressed by my guilt. I felt bad about the Mouse King and even more so about the pregnant female (killed by Maurice, just saying), but it was difficult to stay mad at myself when there were so many other deserving candidates.
“Then how come you can use it? Are you a frog.”
He pulled back his hood and revealed he wasn’t, as I had assumed, a rat. But he wasn’t a frog either. He did look a bit amphibious, though. A newt?
“I am Nicopez, salamander shaman and possessor of all magics. And you are to be my blood sacrifice. So have the ancestors instructed me.”
“Are you sure you didn’t mishear them?” I asked. Nicopez blinked his bulbous eyes at me.
I couldn’t quite recall what a salamander was other than some kind of lizard. This one had yellow and red skin that looked vaguely slippery. He was bent over and leaning on the staff which my ball of light had settled on, ignoring my efforts to wrest back control. Traitor.
“The ancestors speak clearly to their shaman.” A thin tongue flickered in and out of his mouth. “I only follow their will.”
The way he leaned on his staff and the slow, cracked manner of his speech, gave the impression he was very old, although it was hard to tell for sure. He had very good skin. Probably shed it regularly.
The Rat King had stepped to one side when Nicopez began speaking. He obviously held a high position among the beast people and his words carried weight. If he wanted me captured and gutted like a fish, so be it. If he wanted me to be released…
I wasn’t so sure about the will of the ancestors or how well connected this shaman was to them, especially if they didn’t actually exist. So far, they seemed to think all the rumbling and ground-shaking was a manifestation of the ancestors’ ire. I was pretty sure it was just the endless, unstable, flaming acidic magma preparing to explode in the bowels of the earth and kill us all. Nothing mystical about that.
“But I don’t even know the ancestors,” I said. “Why would they want me?”
Nicopez shuffled forward. He might have started to get a little annoyed with me.
“You killed the Mouse King. A new Mouse King will be born, but not until the King Killer’s blood is used in the Ceremony of Kings. I will perform the ceremony. You will provide the blood.”
That didn’t seem so bad. “You don’t have to kill me if you just want some of my blood. How much do you need? I could probably spare a pint.”
“A pint? A pint?” Yep definitely annoyed. “We are summoning eldritch forces to conceive a unique being to lead the mouse people for the next ten generations and you think a mere pint will suffice?”
“Yes,” I insisted. “A pint’s quite a lot, you know? It’s very nearly an armful. I’m sure the ancestors would agree. Why don’t we ask them?”
I felt the earth move under my feet. Another tremor was on the way and I figured it would be the perfect time to bring the ancestors into the conversation.
“Mighty ancestors,” I shouted, “if you’d be happy with a pint of the good stuff, send us a sign.”
Everyone waited expectantly. The earth remained resolutely unmoved. Earthquakes, so unreliable. And then it hit. A strong one that brought rocks falling around us and opened fissures in the floor and walls of the cavern. If the lava had found a way through, we were dead.
“You have angered the ancestors,” called out the shaman. Stones, large and small, bounced off the invisible umbrella over him and the Rat King. I’d have liked a force field myself, would have come in useful as I dodged the falling rocks. I had to settle for holding my hands over my head and dancing around like a loon.
“I think they’re agreeing with me,” I countered. “Very enthusiastically.”
Marv had been stood next to me this whole time, watching events unfold. She had a stunned look on her face, although whether that was due to the Rat King and his army, the slippery salamander or my unique approach to negotiating, I didn’t know. She obviously knew what was really causing the tremors and that I was blagging it wholesale, but I assumed she’d have the good sense to keep her mouth shut as her life was as much in the balance as mine. I know, my naivety knows no bounds. When the ground stopped shaking, she made her move.
“Your Majesty,” she shouted, suddenly announcing herself, “your ancestors are angered by the presence of men in their tunnels. They are gathered not far from here, upsetting the natural order. You must drive these men out if you wish to appease your forebears.”
She included all the old classics: vengeance, anger, righteousness, enemies at the gate, glory for the old country… it was a good effort. And if she could get them to do her dirty work for her, it would lift the geas and make her feel like a natural woman once again.
“Silence your woman,” bellowed the Rat King. Sexism in the animal kingdom? You can’t argue against nature, feminists!
For some reason I blurted out, “She isn’t my woman.” The idea Jenny might find out I let people think I had a different girlfriend made me jumpy. I wasn’t scared, exactly, but the thought of upsetting Jenny was enough to make me come over all defensive.
How did this happen? Had I been indoctrinated? I could just imagine Jenny waiting until I fell asleep every night, and then whispering hypnotic suggestions into my ear. You can’t argue against women’s ability to guilt trip the shit out of you. Well played, feminists!
“They are not mated,” agreed Nicopez. “Females drain the source of magic.” He looked up at the glowing ball sitting on top of his staff. “He could not produce magic of this power if he had partaken in sexual congress. Ever.”
“Hey, wait a minute…” How did I suddenly get my virginity back?
“Clearly this human is not capable of engaging in intercourse,” continued the shaman, his character assassination far more deadly than anything Marv had ever managed. “His frail body clearly lacks the stamina for prolonged sexual activity.”
Hard as it was to not make some sort of rebuttal, I kept my mouth shut. Apparently, beast magic was like boxing, you didn’t bang the missus when you were in training (I think it’s mentioned in the Queensbury’s rules, somewhere near the back). Maybe my abilities would be more powerful if I abstained. I guess we’ll never find out.
It explained why the shaman was so uptight. He might have been quite a chill guy if only someone had taken the time to give him a blow job. Maybe it still wasn’t too late. No, I wasn’t volunteering my services, I was looking at Marv. How do you convince a crazy bint to blow a lizard? Felt like there had to be a way. Something involving jewellery?
“The men are your enemy,” Marv tried again. “They must be vanquished if you want—”
“Quiet!” roared the Rat King, doing some earth-shaking of his own. “The men will be taken care of when the war comes to Requbar. Their time approaches. We will hear no more from you.” He signalled to his men and four ran forward to place the tips of their spears at Marv’s throat from four different angles. Any movement and she would cut her own throat.
“You!” He rounded on me. “You will return to Ratopolis and be judged.”
The salamander looked pleased with himself, the uptight little shit.
“Let the ancestors judge me now,” I said in one last ditch attempt to avoid any bloodletting, especially mine. “The haunted zone is through there.” I pointed at the tunnel mouth. “I will enter, alone, and let the ancestors do with me as they please. A true sacrifice.”
There was a gentle aftershock that dovetailed nicely with my suggestion. I sensed some acquiescence to my plan from the king.
“We can trust in the will of the ancestors, they are wise, they are fair, they know all. Keep my woman as a hostage,” I threw in as a sweetener.
“You said she wasn’t your woman,” said the salamander, his eyelids closing to shape a suspicious glare.
“She isn’t, but like all human heroes, I am secretly in love with my companion. Threatening her life is the cruellest thing you could do to me.” Sounded pretty convincing. Even Marv had softened the death-stare aimed at me. I vehemently hoped Jenny didn’t find out about this.
The Rat King nodded to his soldiers and they stepped away from each other to create a narrow passage through their ranks leading into the tunnel. I didn’t know what was in there—maybe the ancestors were real and lying in wait—and I had no idea how to navigate my way to freedom, but it had to be a better chance of survival than putting myself in the hands of these nutjobs. I took a step forward.
The ground buckled. Walls fell and the tunnel collapsed, leaving only rubble where the opening had been. The ancestors had spoken, know-nothing bunch of bastards.
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“Father!” cried out Nyx. “These are adventurers. We are heading into the haunted zone to face the ancestors.”