Powerful people adamantly believe two things. First, that they deserve more power. Second, other people want to take their power away.
If you claim not to be interested being the boss, they won’t believe you. “Ah,” they’ll think, “the old ‘I don’t want power’ power play.”
It’s difficult for them to consider a world where the things they prize above all else are treated as worthless. Not because of a difference in how those things are valued, but simply because of the inferred insult. You like things that are shit. Hard not to take that personally. Even if it’s true.
“You want me to help you remove my wife from the Requbar throne?” asked the Rat King. He had obviously heard what I’d said, but repeating it helped underline the inherent stupidity of my request.
“Yes,” I said.
“And you’ll take care of the infestation of humans in the Ancestor’s tomb?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem.” Having a bunch of trolls would help. Hard to barricade yourself in, when there’s a bunch of portable bulldozers ready to smash through any defences.
“But you don’t wish to be involved in the governing of Requbar, above or below ground?”
“That’s right.” I could sense his suspicions growing.
“Why is it you want to remove the Queen from her position if you don’t wish to replace her?”
“Revenge,” I said. A nice, solid reason any egomaniac could appreciate.
“Revenge for what?” asked the King, leaning forward. Gossip is usually seen as a female failing, but men are just as easily seduced by it, I’ve found. It’s just frowned upon to do it openly, so men do it in small groups, whereas women prefer to do it in huge crowds with megaphones.
“It’s personal,” I said, getting his juices running, “but it involves my woman. Her.” I pointed at Jenny. “She belongs to me. My private property, you understand? And the Queen tried to steal her. I can’t allow that to go unpunished.”
How could the King not accept my logic? Clearly everything I was saying made total sense. I didn’t have to turn around to know the kinds of looks I was getting. You might think it impossible for someone to roll their eyes and maintain a death stare at the same time, but you would be very wrong.
“I see.” The King turned to the shaman. “Do you believe him?”
Nicopez blinked slowly and flicked his thin tongue in and out of his mouth. “I believe he wishes to defeat the Queen. After that... “
Sure, I could suddenly decide to make a claim for the throne once the mad bat had been kicked off, but I presented more of a sneaky threat you just had to keep your eye on rather than a powerful foe who was going to crush you with his mighty thews. Whatever thews were. I was manageable.
“Whether you help me above ground or not is up to you, but first show me this tomb or crypt of whatever it is.”
The King hesitated, looking to his shaman.
“If I really wanted to make a power grab, I could just attack you now,” I pointed out. “You wouldn’t last very long against the trolls.” I had no idea if the trolls would agree to fight a whole kingdom of rats, but it sounded like a reasonable threat.
“No, it isn’t that,” said the King. “We have left the humans where they are because we do not wish to offend the Ancestors. If we were to disturb their remains, their wrath could destroy us all.”
So the nub of the matter was much more simple and straightforward. They were scared of ghosts.
“Wouldn’t the Ancestors approve of us throwing out the infidels squatting in their tomb?” I looked at the shaman. “Isn’t that what they’re telling you to do?”
“I have not been able to commune with the Ancestors of late,” said Slippery McNewtface. “I fear the humans have already defiled the altar of the Ancestors.”
“The altar?” I pressed him.
“It contains the knowledge and wisdom of the Ancestors. It is a beacon and a conduit.”
“Then I think it’s obvious what we have to do,” I said. “We don’t need any rats to come with us.” A look of palpable relief spread around the room. “The shaman can lead us to the altar. As the chosen spokesman of the Ancestors, no harm will befall him. And he can help guide us to do the Ancestors’ will. He can probably get a much better signal once we’re down there.”
The shaman looked nervous. Well, he blinked slowly and flicked his tongue, which always made him look nervous, but I thought he had an extra-worried tinge to it this time.
“What say you, Nicopez?” asked the King. No one had looked more relieved than him not to be paying a visit to the tomb, but he didn’t seem to mind sending the priest off to deal with the ghosties.
Ghosts were the one thing I wasn’t worried about. Everything the rats put down to the tunnels being haunted had an explanation. The earthquakes and tremors had been caused by me. The ghostly sounds and voices were the trolls being trolls. And the messages received by Nicopez were due to him being a religious nut.
“Don’let yourself be found wanting,” I said to him. “The Ancestors may be testing you.”
Vague, unsubstantiated and irrefutable. All solid religious fundamentals.
“I will take you,” said Nicopez. “But be warned, human. Your fate is not your own.” He slammed his staff against the stone floor and it boomed dramatically. That’s the thing with priests, they’re all desperate to be in show business.
“I will go, too,” piped up Nyx. “Someone should be there to represent the rats of Ratopolis.”
The King seemed impressed by this offer. I saw it as Nyx trying to get another foothold on his ambitions. Sometimes, the person who claims to be acting without self-interest is as full of shit as everyone assumes he is.
“So be it, Prince Hura’nyx. You shall represent the city.”
Nyx was very pleased with his appointment and was positively glowing by the time we set off.
“You shall see my true worth,” he said as he walked past me to lead the way. “If you can become a hero, why not I?”
A bit of a backhanded compliment, but fair enough. He might surprise me yet.
We had a rat escort to the bottom level of the city where there were very few dwellers and the streets were like canyons between the base of the buildings. There were many tunnels going off in all directions, but one that was far bigger than the rest.
Big black hole? Must be the right way.
It wasn’t black for long. The rat soldiers stayed at the mouth, doing their best to stop shaking in their boots, and we marched on under the biggest ball of light I could create.
Nyx led the way, happy as Larry, with Roland and Gabor keeping him company. I couldn’t say I knew those two very well or understood their motivations for joining us, but I did consider them to have a decent level of common sense. If they fought, it was probably for a good reason. If they ran, time to book.
Myself and my group followed, with Laney and Biadet on either side, avoiding each other, which was probably for the best. Then came the shaman, jumpy as hell and moving surprisingly quickly, and behind him were the trolls.
“These tunnels are remarkable,” said Raviva, admiring the polished walls.
“Not built by trolls?” I asked him.
“No. This is the work of the Ancestors.”
It was very quiet and very still. The air had a dank, heavy quality to it. The tunnel wasn’t very long and led to a large set of doors. They were made of stone and inlaid with metal. A bright, orange metal.
The trolls backed away.
“You didn’t mention the doors were made with brass,” I said to Nicopez.
“Yes,” said Nicopez. “I forgot.” He was so jumpy and nervous I actually believed him. However, it did make things more tricky. The trolls weren’t going to mess with brass and that meant kicking the doors in wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d hoped.
“They’re in there?” I asked Nicopez.
“Yes. For three days, now. There is a mechanism to open the doors, but it can be locked from the other side.”
“Any ideas?” I asked Gabor.
“You could try knocking,” he suggested.
Actually not a bad idea. I banged on the door and shouted, “Hey! Sonny, are you there?” I put my ear against the door. I could hear voices but couldn’t make out what they said.
I turned around. “Whatever I say, just go with it. Remember, I don’t mean half of what I say, and the other half is physically impossible.”
“What do you want?” Sonny’s Australian accent easily identified him.
“I want to come in,” I shouted back.
There was a long pause, and then: “You bastard, how dare you, mate? How dare you?”
“Cut it out, Sonny. We’re going to take down the Queen and I need your help.”
There was a longer pause. “What’s in it for me?”
There are some people you can always rely on. “Requbar’s going to need a new ruler. The job’s yours if you want it.”
There was a hideous, grating scraping sound as the doors opened a crack. Sonny’s face emerged from the dark, as did a very unpleasant odour.
“You must think I’m mad.” I wasn’t going to argue. “You’re going to make me King of Requbar?”
“Nobody else wants the job. Believe me, I asked.” Which was more or less true. “How many of you are in there?”
“You’re upsetting the rats by stinking out their holy place. They won’t help us defeat the Queen while you’re down here.”
“And then you’re just going to hand over the keys to Requbar, are you mate? Do I look stupid?”
Say nothing. “The only thing is, you have to agree to an arranged marriage. For political reasons.”
“Oh, yes?” said Sonny, squeezing his face further into the opening between doors. “Marry who?”
“Her.” I pointed at Laney. I could tell by Sonny’s face I’d got his attention. I could tell from Laney’s face, I was about to lose my liver. “Remember Princess, this is to save the King.”
I had no idea how her shacking up with Yahoo Delirious would save anyone, but I just needed her to play along.
“Yes. We will rule together,” said Laney, through very gritted teeth.
“Can I be a bridesmaid?” said Biadet innocently.
“I’m sure he has a mentally ill brother,” said Laney. “We can make it a double wedding.
“Open the door and let us in,” I said.
Sonny could just about get his fat head through the thin crack. “What about them?” His finger appeared below his chin, pointing at the trolls who had taken human form.
“They’ll stay out here.” I couldn’t see them taking one step closer.
“And them?” He pointed at Roland and Gabor.
“They’re Visitors. You should talk to them. Probably more your kind of guys than mine to be honest. You know, more action, less nerd .” I really only wanted a quick look at the altar to see if it told me anything about the device the Queen gave me. Getting into a fight was the last thing I wanted to do.
“Wait a minute. Is that a rat with you?”
“Yes, he’s my pet.”
“I am master’s pet,” said Nyx, hopping up and down like a bunny for some reason. At least he was doing his bit.
“Hmm. I’m going to trust you mate, so don’t let me down.”
He was the one that couldn’t be trusted, but Biadet would be more than enough to keep us safe. Assuming she felt like lending a hand.
“Are you going to open up then?”
“Hold on.” His face disappeared and there was more creaking and scraping. The door moved a few more inches. “Okay, come through.”
“Nyx, you go first.” He wanted to play the hero, far be it for me to stop him.
Nyx nodded, tensed up, and slipped through the opening. “I made it!” he shouted jubilantly.
We had to squeeze through one at a time, which was quite smart of Sonny. Once on the other side, we found ourselves in a large chamber with guttering torches on the wall. There was a breeze coming from somewhere, probably the three tunnels at the back. The main feature of the room, though, was the huge statue standing over an altar.
It was humanoid, with pointy ears, so either an elf or a Vulcan. “Is that an Ancestor?”
Nicopez was on his knees with his head touching the floor. I took that as a yes.
There were about twenty or so men in the room, sat against one of the walls. They looked pretty miserable.
“What’s through the tunnels?” I asked Sonny.
“Better you don’t know.”
He really was a huge pain in the arse. “Really? You think I can’t handle it? What is it, a monster? A ghost? A huge pile of crap where you guys take a dump?”
“All three, actually,” said Sonny in a flat voice that made it impossible to tell if he was taking the piss or not, but going up at the end like a question to make him sound even more retarded.
“Nicopez, is this the altar?”
He raised his head from the ground and nodded.
“What do you want with the altar?” asked Sonny. He had moved over towards Laney, who gave him such an intense scowl, he moved back again.
“It’s supposed to explain the Queen’s power. If I can stop her magic, we can get rid of her and her crack troops of boy band wannabes.”
I examined the altar. It was made of stone and was also inlaid with brass. It was built like a box with the top like a lid. I tried it shifting it but it didn’t budge.
“Do you think you can lift this?” I asked Roland.
He stepped forward and gave it a try. There was some give but it wouldn’t rise more than a few millimetres. It was very awkwardly made, probably on purpose.
“Anyone have any rope?”
Sonny signalled one of his men who went over to an area with various bits of kit and supplies in a big pile. He pulled out a rope and brought it over.
“If we use the statue as a fulcrum, we should be able to make a pulley to get the top off.” I turned to Gabor. “That’ll work, right?”
Gabor gave it a long, hard think. “Yes. Chances look good.”
I wound the rope around one end of the altar and then looped it over the arms of the statue. We split up into two groups and each took hold of one end of the rope.
“One, two, three, pull!”
The rope strained.The altar top moved slightly. The statue leaned forward and came crashing down. Everyone jumped out of the way. Some screaming took place. No names.
The statue landed on the altar, making it even harder to get the top off. The statue’s head slammed into the tomb’s doors and wedging them in place.
“I thought you said it would work,” I said to Gabor.
“Sometimes there is statistical variance,” he replied.