Our dragon train soared away from Requbar, probably keenly observed from inside the palace.
Vikchutni was the biggest of the four but the other three weren’t much smaller. It must have looked quite an impressive sight. With a few more dragons, you could probably take over the whole planet. If you were into that sort of thing.
We weren’t aiming for world domination, we were headed for the crack in the earth that would take us up back to the tunnels beneath the city. Flossie rode up front and the rest of us sat on Vikchutni’s back. No one wanted to ride on one of the other dragons without Flossie to control it, even though she insisted it would be fine.
It was a bit crowded, but we all squeezed together and nobody really minded. Things got a bit less comfortable when we started to descend. On the way out of the tunnels, with a near vertical ascent, it had been a very scary ride as we clung to the blades on the dragon’s back, trying not to fall off.
On the way down, it was much faster, which meant it didn’t take as long, but still somehow managed to pack in just as much terror. And with so many more people, the screaming was much louder. I’d say, overall both trips were well worth shitting your pants for.
The dragon folded its wings and we plummeted through the crack, into darkness. The cascade of lava that had been there last time I was here had gone, leaving behind cold, hard rock.
I created a ball of light to see more clearly but Vikchutni seemed to know where he was going. His wings snapped open and we landed on a ledge. He let out a long, deep moo which I assumed was the equivalent of, “Honey, I’m home.”
There was an equally loud, possibly more annoyed return call that had a, “Where the fuck have you been?” quality to it.
Vikchutni started turning around, but there were three dragons right behind him blocking the way. On purpose, if you ask me.
“Why are we here?” asked Claire. “To hatch more dragons.”
Flossie had told them about our escapades under the crust, so they knew about the dragon eggs down here, but that had nothing to do with why I had returned.
Vikchutni reluctantly ambled off, followed by his bros. I’m not an expert on dragon social habits, but I could have sworn they were sniggering.
I turned to the others. “Nyx, you lead the way.”
“Me?” His infatuation with me had faded away and he was nervous and jumpy every time I said something to him. Now, he stayed close to Claire and gave her the full puppy dog treatment.
“Yes, you. We’re going to see your dad, so you know the way best. You’re going home.”
If you’re going up against a Rat Queen, get some help from the Rat King. Seemed like a solid plan to me. Admittedly, our last meeting hadn’t exactly been cordial, and there was the matter of wanting to sacrifice me for the sake of a new Mouse King. But these were just minor details. I had a bunch of trolls with me and the King’s own son, even if he was from the less well regarded seventh litter.
“I… I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” said Nyx. He looked worried.
“Consider your objection noted. Now, let’s go.”
Claire and the others (but mostly Claire) still weren’t very happy with my treatment of the young rat prince, but they weren’t in charge. I was.
“He really doesn’t know anything,” said Claire as we set off down the tunnels. “His mother was already queen when he was born. He doesn’t know how she got there, or how her magic works. He’s just as scared of her as everyone else.”
“Okay.” I didn’t find what she was saying to be very hard to believe. “None of that makes him a good person, though.”
“None of it makes him a bad person,” answered Claire.
“No, but pretending to be on our side while actually working for her, that’s a bit suspect, isn’t it?”
“I already told you, he’s scared of her. What was he supposed to do? Refuse?”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s going to do what I tell him, and then he’s free to go. I’m not going to do anything to him, Claire. I’m not the evil one here.”
She gave me a look like she wasn’t so sure, but this was no time for quibbling. I was just getting the job done.
“And don’t lead us the wrong way. If I think you’re wasting time, I’m going to throw you in the first lake of lava we come to.”
And maybe I liked freaking out the little shit.
Every time we came to a junction or multiple exits, I could see him hesitate, deciding whether or not to lead us astray. From Claire’s face, I could tell she was watching him, too. She might have wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard not to be cynical when you can see the bad thoughts flashing across a person’s mind.
“This is very sloppy tunnel-work,” said Raviva as we navigated our way through the tunnels.
“Do you know the Rat King?” I asked him.
“We have met, although not as myself. I once scared him half to death when he was a boy.” He chortled to himself. “Thought I was one of his ancestors, come to take him to the darkness beyond the veil.” The other trolls joined in the laughter.
Nyx’s ears twitched as he listened in.
It took over an hour, but we eventually found ourselves back at Ratopolis. There were some rock falls blocking the way, but nothing a bunch of troll couldn’t handle. We emerged into the large cavern that housed the city’s tall buildings. Rats scurried across the walkways and rode around on lizards. Armed rats were positioned at each entry point, which they hadn’t been before, and there was some building work going on. It looked like the earthquakes had destroyed a number of buildings.
We were spotted immediately and soldiers came running to challenge us. They weren’t very keen, though. They recognised the trolls as a superior enemy and didn’t want to engage, so kept back with spears lowered but remained in our way.
“What is your business here?” asked a better armoured rat, probably an officer of some kind.
“They wish to see my father,” said Nyx, taking the initiative.
The rats recognised him but continued to block the way forward. “Prince Hura’nyx, you have brought outsiders to Ratopolis.”
“Yes, and my father will wish to see them. Please inform him of our presence.”
It was amazing how quickly Nyx could go from nervous to regal and all points in between. A good actor.
Rats were dispatched to pass the message on and we waited. No point trying to rush things along and start an incident when things were moving in the right direction, if a little slowly.
The King didn’t come to meet us. Instead, a messenger was sent to bring us to him. The soldiers parted to let us through and we marched through Ratopolis, watched by rats on the streets and rats hanging out of windows.
It was a strange city, built out of living rock to strangely appear artificial and natural at the same time. Tall stacks like termite mounds towered over us, like Tokyo after a being breathed on by Godzilla. There were shops, barbers, public baths. Food was being sold by street vendors and children were playing games.
Of course, everything stopped when they saw us, a gaggle of alien visitors marching into their city, their army apprehensively tiptoeing behind us.
The Rat King was in the central building, the largest by far. We were led inside, the trolls having to duck a bit, to a big room with the obligatory throne. The Rat King was decked out in robes and crown. There were more soldiers beside him, and Nicopez, the shaman salamander, stood at his right hand.
“Why have you come here?” bellowed the King.
“Father…” began Nyx, ready to make his move as important person in this scene, but he was quickly shut down.
“Quiet, Nyx. This is not the time. Have you come to declare war?” His question was aimed at Raviva, naturally.
“Yes,” I said. No one had been looking at me, so they were a bit surprised when I started talking.
“Kingkiller!” shouted the shaman, suddenly remembering me.
“Alright, take it easy. The Queen of Requbar, your wife, I’m going to remove her from the throne. The one up there. Do you have any objections?”
The room was suddenly awash with confusion. It took maybe ten minutes for things to settle down. I waited patiently. The shaman was dispensing wisdom into the King’s ear the whole time.
“It is not a thing easily done,” said the King. “She is more powerful than you imagine.”
“No, I imagine her fully off her rocker. Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to fight her, I can see how much she scares you.” Little kick in the nuts, let him know who’s boss. “By the way, I’m looking for someone to replace her once we prise her out of her seat. Interested?”
I didn’t know if he was a good monarch, but someone had to take over, at least in the short term.
“You are confident,” said Nicopez, hunched over and leaning on his staff, “but her magic is of the highest order.”
“Yes, but it doesn’t work that well on Visitors, does it?”
The shaman nodded.
“What I need from you is information. What can you tell me about this?” I took out the gem she had given me.
Everyone on the King’s side of the room moved back. Even the King leaned away in his throne.
“Where did you get that?” hissed Nicopez, his staff raised to ward off the bad juju or something.
“She gave it to me. You know what it is?”
“It is the magic of the ancestors,” said the shaman. “An Elf’s Stone.”
“Your ancestors were elves?” I asked him, quite interested in their history for once.
“No, they were elfs.”
He was confusing me. “Plural of elf?”
“Wait,” said Maurice, stepping in front of me. “The plural of elf is elves. Elf, elves, elven.”
“Elfen,” said the shaman.
“No,” insisted Maurice, “Hey!” he shouted at the roof. “Whoever’s in charge of the translating device, you got it wrong.”
“Is this really that important?” I asked him. The look he gave me suggested it was.
“The same thing happened with dwarf. Tolkien said the plural was dwarves and everyone believed him. Now we have dwarfs for people who suffer from dwarfism, and dwarves for characters in fantasy books. Not again!”
“What wrong with that?” I asked him. People were waiting, but for some reason I couldn’t stop this conversation.
“Nothing, but there are real dwarfs and fantasy dwarves, so it makes some sense, I suppose. Elves aren’t real. We don’t need two words for the same thing.”
“They’re real here,” I pointed out, although did that mean if we met a dwarf here, we would have to call them dwarfs?
“Nobody knows what you two nerds are talking about,” said Claire.
“Okay,” I said, realising I was quickly losing any authority I had. “This Elf Stone…”
“Elf’s Stone,” corrected Nicopez.
“Whatever. What can it do?”
“My wife is the only one who was able to understand the workings of such ancient relics,” said the King, “and it drove her mad. She became obsessed with wiping out all who stood in her way and forming her own government.”
“Don’t you mean guffernment?” asked Maurice petulantly. Claire eased him away from the crowd.
“Fortunately, her ambition grew larger than our tiny kingdom, and she left to pursue greater glory.” The King seemed quite distraught.
“But she comes back from time to time, doesn’t she?” I said. “To give birth and get pregnant.”
The King seemed hesitant to confirm or deny. “It is… our nature.”
“It’s bloody disgusting. You’re enabling every terrible thing she does, all because you can’t show a little self-control.” I looked at Jenny. I was being somewhat hypocritical. Whatever Jenny wanted with regards to children, I could always stop by just not having sex with her. But that was never going to happen.
“It is not your place to criticise the King,” said Nicopez, angrily. “It would be best if you rid yourself of that before its curse drives you mad, also. Leave it here and I will see it is returned to the tomb she took it from.”
“There’s more in this tomb?”
“Yes, much more,” said Nicopez.
“Can I have a look?”
The King and shaman exchanged looks.
“What?” I asked.
“The tomb is currently… occupied,” said the King. “By humans.”
“They are led by an insane man who refuses to leave,” added the shaman. “He is desecrating and defiling the ancestors with his evil ways. ”
“Does he have yellow hair, by any chance?” The reaction from the King confirmed who it was—Sonny. “No problem, then. I know him and will gladly do a deal with you. Help me with getting the Queen off the Requbar throne, and I’ll help you get rid of Sonny.”
Two nutters with one stone. Now there’s value for you.