We waited. No one said anything. Nothing happened.
“Who are we hiding from?” I asked eventually.
“The Queen’s Guard,” said the rat. Unlike the other rat’s I’d heard speaking, this one had a lighter voice and a more refined accent. A posh rat.
“The Queen’s Guard?” said Marv. “Down here? That—”
“I don’t think he means your queen, right?” It was tricky holding a conversation in the dark and not being able to see anyone’s expressions, although it also made it easier as I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep my cool talking to a giant fucking rat. Swings and roundabouts.
“I mean the Queen, my mother. She ordered me to stay in my room, and it just isn’t fair.”
This was who the rats had been in a frenzy to find? Some spoiled brat rat?
An orange glow flickered at the other end of the tunnel with rat-shaped silhouettes running up the lit walls.
“Quickly,” said the rat as he dived into the wall and disappeared. I rushed towards where he had jumped and found a gap between floor and wall, barely wide enough to slide through. I heard footsteps running and threw myself at the gap.
I fell through, scraping my face and hands against the uneven stone, and landed in a small confined space. The rat was under me. Marv landed on top of me forcing the air out of all of us. No one dared inhale.
Shrill, chittering voices spoke just above us.
“Did you see where he went?”
“Nah, no sign of the runt.”
“Hey, watch your mouth. It’s Prince Runt to you.”
Laughter followed, which then drifted away. They were heading back the way they came, it sounded like. I finally breathed again and shoved Marv back up and out of the gap. She disappeared into the tunnel. If the rats were still about, they could have her.
I waited a second and then clambered out after her. I lay on my stomach but there was no sign of the rats. I could sense Marv lying beside me, her breathing coarse and ragged. We both shuffled to the side as we were joined by the rat.
“They’re really searching this hard for you because you wouldn’t go to your room?” Rat society was obviously very strict.
There was a scuffle as Marv quickly scrambled over me. “Who are you? Tell us the truth, vermin!” she hissed. Which was probably racist.
Some struggling followed and I felt obliged to produce a ball of light to see what was going on. I did consider taking this opportunity to make a run for it and leave them to it, but once I realised rat boy (also probably a racist term) was my best hope for finding a way out, I decided to intervene.
The light, glowing at the lowest possible brightness, illuminated an awkward scene of rat-man-woman (rat-man/woman?) intimacy. Marv straddled the rat and had him pinned on his back. He had his tail wrapped around her throat. It was like I was witnessing the birth of a new porn genre. Except that Marv also had a stiletto dagger held behind and thrust under her, towards the rat’s groin. Not something you see in many pornos. Well, not outside of Belgium.
“Get off him.” I kicked Marv in the backside with the heel of my shoe, knocking her over. It was not a light tap.
“He is our enemy,” snarled Marv, twisting around to face the rat with the stiletto aimed at his terrified face. Which reminded me to get another spike made. Ah, the good old days when it had been just me and my spike; that weapon had served me well. I made a mental note: one spoon on a chain, one metal spike with a handle. No point trying to beat an RPG without the correct loadout.
Marv looked ready to skewer the princely rat right in the face. That’s the trouble with people who claim to be good at what they do but screw up when they actually have to prove it—they overcompensate and try to prove their worth in other areas where no one actually gives a shit.
“He isn’t anyone’s enemy. He’s a kid. How old are you?”
The rat scurried backwards until he bumped into the wall. His long almond shaped ears twitched nervously (I’m guessing). “I’m two.” He said it like he was suggesting he was no kid. Two in rat years was probably more in human terms, but there was no way of knowing exactly without a conversion chart.
“See?” I said to Marv. “He’s only two.” I don’t know what I hoped to gain by telling her that. Draw out some long dead and dust covered mothering instinct
“Vermin,” she insisted.
The rat stared at the ball of light floating next to me. “You know frog magic?”
“Yes,” I said and a darkness settled in my chest. I had learned magic from Nabbo and had made the mistake of teaching it to a non-frog. The beast people of this world liked to keep their abilities firmly divided between the races, as I had learned in the most horrible way possible.
“What’s your name?” I asked him in my most friendly voice. He was my only hope of getting out of here alive and I intended to make friends. If it came to choosing between the two, Marv and her crotch-seeking dagger were headed for a short ride to the kerb.
One eye still on Marv (his eyes were set wide apart, either side of his snout, so he could do this quite well) he gave me a defiant look. “Nyx Hura’nyx. Seventh son of the seventh litter.”
“And you’re a prince?”
He nodded. “But seventh son of the seventh litter carries little weight in the royal household. I must make my own way in the world.”
Very noble. With that many siblings I was surprised they even noticed he was missing.
Marv shook the stiletto at him, but I think she was stretching her arm out because it was getting tired being held in that position.
Nyx flinched back, banging his head against the wall behind him and squeaked. If Flossie had been here, no doubt she would have pounced on him and smothered him in her breasts instantly.
“Why are your females so aggressive,” he said with a pained expression.
“Good question. Wait, you can tell she’s female?”
He rubbed the back of his head and looked at Marv. “It is a bit hard with this one, but she has those ridiculously large teets.”
Marv instinctively looked down at her chest. She didn’t have massive boobs but the point was Nyx could see them. At least that was the takeaway message for me. For Marv, the fact someone thought she was well-endowed seemed to be the important thing. She blushed and lowered the dagger.
Yes, it’s extremely sexist to suggest a highly-trained assassin would lose her concentration just because someone said something flattering about her body, but this wasn’t a highly-trained assassin, this was an unstable idiot trying to prove she was something she wasn’t. I’m not a psychologist but I’d guess she had Daddy issues. Being brought up in a society that marginalised and oppressed its male citizens couldn’t possibly have anything to do with it.
Personally, I think he only thought they were big in comparison to rat tits. And he’d probably be very disappointed to discover she only had two.
“You don’t seem very surprised to meet two humans down here,” I said.
“I’ve encountered your kind before,” said Nyx. “I’m an adventurer, too. You are on a quest, aren’t you? I can help you.”
He didn’t look like much of an adventurer, but I got the feeling he was as desperate not to be caught as I was.
“Okay, Nyx, we need to get out of here. Do you know a way to the surface?”
His small black eyes sparkled and his ears twitched. “I know the way to Fengarad. There are tunnels that lead directly there, but…” He hesitated.
“It’s through the haunted zone. My mother refuses to let me go and the guards know it’s where I’m headed, so they keep cutting me off.” He bared his tiny white needle-teeth in frustration.
“You aren’t afraid of the ghosts?” I asked.
He patted his tiny hand against his chest. “Nyx Hura’nyx fears nobody and nothing, living or dead.”
“Then Nyx Hura’nyx is an idiot,” I said. “I don’t need any more reckless fools taking unnecessary risks.” I turned to crawl away disdainfully, which is hard to do on your hand and knees.
“Wait...” squeaked Nyx.
Of course, I was the one who needed him, but it would be better if he didn’t know that. If he could get me to Fengarad that would be even better than returning to Requbar, where the women wanted me neutered and the acid lava was coming to the boil.
I turned back. “Fengarad is overrun with refugees from Monsterland. Doesn’t matter if you’re man or beast, there is no guarantee of safety and only staying alert and on guard can get us there in one piece.”
He nodded. I looked over at Marv. “If you want to go back to Requbar, or find Sonny to finish the job, we part ways here.” Please part ways, please part ways.
“I will come with you.” Damn it. “For now.” Well, it was a small window of hope, my hope being at some point I’d get a chance to throw her out of an open window.
“I too,” said Nyx. “You will find no truer, or braver, companion than Ny—
The ground began to shake. Only a slight tremor at first, then rocks and dust fell from the tunnel and outside three were even louder sounds of destruction. If this was the big one, flaming lava could come bursting through the walls at any moment.
Nyx fell to the floor, bounced back to his feet, turned his horrified eyes every which way, and then ran for the tunnel mouth the rat soldiers had come from. I managed to grab him before he got away.
“Where are you going?”
“The ghosts are angry,” he screamed at me. “We have angered the dead. We must return to Ratopolis, it is the only safe place.”
The tremor subsided and I could hear the distant screams of rats in distress.
“That wasn’t the dead and this is the perfect time to escape. They’ll be too busy to stop us getting into the haunted zone, and then we’ll be free. This is what adventurers do—face their fears. Are you truly and adventurer, Nyx Hura’nyx.”
I was giving him the full bullshit treatment, turned all the way to eleven and a half. His panicked eyes stopped oscillating and his furry little jaw set his mouth into a hard line.
“Yes, let’s go.” Nyx crouched low, and ran to the end of the tunnel, away from Ratopolis. I followed and Marv was right behind me. Our little train left the tunnel and set off across the wide open cavern, my small ball of light hovering over us like a spotlight.
The ground shook again. “Keep going!” I shouted, hoping he wouldn’t lose his nerve; also hoping a fiery death wasn’t headed our way.
We ran into a large tunnel, dodging falling debris. Despite the continuous rumbling, Nyx kept moving. As we proceeded deeper into the tunnel, the ground sloped downwards and it felt noticeably cooler.
The tunnel we were in opened into a large cavern, the walls of which were out of reach of my light.
”Which way now?” I said.
Nyx didn’t move. “I… I’m not sure.”
I increased the brightness of my light and sent it upwards to better illuminate the area, and quickly wished I hadn’t. On the opposite side of the cavern was a small army of fully armoured rat soldiers standing in formation in front of a huge tunnel opening.
“That way,” said Nyx, indicating the tunnel behind the army.
A huge rat made its way through the ranks, his armour shining brilliantly. He stopped in front of Nyx. Next to the giant rat was a smaller rat in a hooded robe, carrying a wooden staff. I noticed the small rocks falling from above us bounced off some invisible shield surrounding them.
“Nyx,” he bellowed. “You have angered our ancestors.”
“Erm, hello father,” said Nyx quietly. “Didn’t think I’d see you here.”
“And who is this frog magician with you?”
All eyes turned to me.
“Wait, my lord,” said the hooded rat beside him. “It is he the one we have been searching for. The King Killer.”
There was only one king’s death I had caused, and probably deserved to be punished for. Were mice and rats related? Did they get on? Maybe they wanted to thank me for getting rid of a rival.
“Take him,” said the big rat. “He will be judged in Ratopolis.”