31. A New Challenger Has Appeared

Even though I was the primary target, the others followed me back into the woods. They didn’t really have a choice if they didn’t want to be trampled to death by little furry feet. It would have probably been a good idea to check which direction I was running in. It quickly became apparent it wasn’t the way we came. Not that I had time to worry about little things like that.

We thrashed our way through a large expanse of shrubbery, getting whipped in the face by twigs and branches. We broke through into an area full of very thin trees with even thinner branches covered in bright green leaves. No time to stop and admire the beauty of nature, we had a ton of shit-covered rabbits with horns after us.

I had thought running through the trees would slow them down, but these bunnies did not respect the laws of physics. They leapt over logs and bounced off trees. They came up alongside us, springing through the air like gazelle. We were flanked right and left, a classic pincer movement.  

There was light ahead. The trees started to thin out and I saw a lake ahead. I didn’t stop, I ran into the water. Of course, there were probably as many nasty things in the water as their were on land—piranha with antlers, knowing my luck—but beggars can’t be choosers. I was up to my waist before I turned around to see where the others were. They had followed me into the water and were wading towards me. All along the bank, the bunnicorns were massing, dozens of the fuckers, waving their horns at us like tiny Zulu warriors. Fortunately, they didn’t seem keen on getting wet.

I also noted that Dudley and Maurice had taken off their sacks and were carrying them over their heads to keep the contents dry. I felt a slight twinge of guilt. I always treated them like they were clueless, but they’d done the smart thing even with the threat of being impaled from behind. Would I have had the presence of mind to make sure the blankets and torches didn’t get soaked? Probably not. So who was I to look down on them?

Feelings of remorse could wait. First we had to get away.

The lake had little islands on it. Some even had trees growing on them. I waded towards one and clambered onto it. There was enough space for all of us, and we could at least get our bearings and sort out what to do next.

The others pulled themselves out of the water and flopped down next to me. We were all out of breath and soaking wet, although at least my little swim managed to get most of the shit off me. When I had got my breath back and sat up, the bunnicorns had gone. I looked around and realised it wasn’t really a lake but a large pond. I could see the shore on other side and more trees beyond it. But that’s not what caught my attention.

Kneeling by the water, apparently washing some clothes, was a figure about the size of a child, a ten-year-old maybe. But not a child. Not even a human. In fact what it most resembled was a large rat. Covered in white fur. With a tail.

I nudged Maurice next to me and pointed. He slowly pushed himself up onto his elbows and looked in the direction I was indicating. His mouth fell open.

“Is that a rat-woman?”

The rat-person did look like a female. Not because she was doing the laundry (I’m not that sexist), not even because she was wearing a long yellow skirt, like a sarong (men wear them, too), but because of the six breasts on her chest.

The others all sat up and gawked. We were far enough away, and the foliage on the island was thick enough that she couldn’t see us unless she really had a good look. Still, I think we all felt like it would be best to keep quiet as much as possible.

“Actually,” said Dudley in hushed tones, “I’d say more likely a mouse-woman.”

“How can you tell?” Maurice whispered back.

“Mice have longer snouts, and their ears are bigger in proportion to their head. In addition to which, rats have naked, scaly tails. That one has a hairy tail.”

“This is your area of expertise?” I asked him.

Dudley shrugged. “One picks these things up.”

I returned my focus on the mouse-woman. She picked up a basket and walked away into the trees. I slipped into the water.

“Where are you going?” said Claire.

“That’s a fantasy creature I feel I can deal with. Half my size and no weapons growing out of its head. I’m going to follow her. “

“What if there are others? With weapons.”

“Then I hope they can’t swim.”

“Actually,” said Dudley, “mice are excellent swimmers.”

I ignored Dr Moreau and swam to the other side of the pond. After a few seconds I heard the others drop into the water behind me.

I climbed out of the water and listened carefully for signs of life. The sun was high in the sky and the air was hot and humid. Sounds of wildlife filled the air. Once everyone was out of the water, we headed off in the direction we’d seen the mouse-woman go, weapons at the ready.

We slowly moved through the trees until we came to a clearing. The mouse-woman was hanging up her washing on a line tied between two trees. They were plain squares of cloth, white and brown, maybe sheets, maybe more sarongs. We watched from behind the trees. She finished, picked up the empty basket and pushed aside some bushes to reveal a hidden cave. She disappeared into it, leaving the swishing foliage in her wake.

Was this the entrance to a dungeon? Had the others found it? Were they deep inside, battling their way through various levels and boss monsters? There was only one way to find out.

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