Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1072967-The-Mid-Hills-4
by jeff
Rated: E · Other · Fantasy · #1072967
Please read the first three installments of The Mid-Hills, it will help. I hope!
King Rat

Rain pooled in the dark alley, drawing rats to its oiled surface to drink. One of the rodents, old and crippled, scorned the polluted water. He would have had to wait his turn anyway; pecking order left old Rad at the bottom. Once king of rats, now forgotten monarch, Rad was less than a mouse to the hoard. It was long ago, of course, that he had wielded power. Many decades passed since the plague devastated millions, and the king was at his peak. His family had not been idle, on the contrary, it flourished; rats were on every continent, doing what they do best, spreading disease and fear, going about at night conducting their business.

But Rad was no longer a factor in the affairs of his former subjects, exiled to anonymity. The masses had always been inferior to his superior brain, but shear numbers and stupidity outweighed his influence. Power, now waning, had been granted to him at birth and Rad knew someday someone would come calling for payment. Over the centuries most of his kin died quickly while he lived on. Others with Gifts crossed his path on occasion, some good, most not, all on paths of their own. Several of his own kind he communicated with, though most were not thinkers. There were very few in the city with his intelligence; a score of rats, a few other rodents, and of course the damn birds. There were probably others besides, but Rad had mostly fallen out of the network. Age, it seemed, was finally catching up with the old gray derelict, and he longed for the days of his youth, or perhaps, the oblivion of his future.

A youngster skittered past him on its way to drink, pushing him aside, squirting a quick shot of urine at the elder. Disrespect, he got it from all.

Rad sighed and turned away from the crowd. He would find a nice warm place for the night up alley, away from his brain dead progeny. The way ahead was clear of others of his kind, but dark. Something darker than the night was there, consuming the once familiar alley.

It called to him, this living inkblot. Coaxed and cajoled he followed, and then he was caught. The city’s scurry was gone behind him, only the dark thing mattered. It pulsed ahead of him, an anti-light in the dark.

This was a Power, Rad thought, if thinking it could be called in this grip of miasma. And then he knew this Power; he had served it before. He had never seen it, only felt it and feared it, never knowing its true self.

“Little creature,” It called to him.

Rad didn’t hear it as much as feel it inside his head.

“You remember me.”

“I thought you were long dead,” Rad responded bitterly, “You left me holding the bag for your last little blight on the world.”

“That is your lot, vermin.” The voice, or tone, was calm and restrained, “You serve those of us, me in particular, that influence. I have need of you and yours in my latest venture.”

“I serve myself these days,” Rad turned his back on the inkblot, starting to walk away. “I am old and near dead, and have no time for shadow kings. Kiss my hairy little ass.”

Suddenly Rad found himself face down and drowning in a pool of the same water he’d turned up his nose at. He lay paralyzed, not breathing, merely gurgling. An icy grip held him there; crushing pain, cold and unrelenting. He held his breath until what he saw inside his little rodent brain turned to red, then black, and only a tiny dot of light held death at bay, threatening to wink out in an instant. He concentrated on the white spot, willing it to grow larger. It faded then grew like a twinkling star in his mind, or a bit of fairy dust. Then he could breath again, gasping for air on the oily pavement, released.

“You will never turn your back to me again. I spare you only because I can use what’s left of you.” The voice was calm and controlled as before. Confident. “You have a choice.”

“What choice would one such as yourself give me?” His voice rasped in pain. His body was wracked again with paralysis, and he could not breath. Rad’s will collapsed with his body. Life crept into his tortured soul; his breath came in long draughts.

“It seems I have already chosen,” He answered, “If I wish to live, and I do.” For now, anyway, he thought to himself.

The inkblot quivered in ecstasy, then released the old one from its grip.

“What?” the old rat began, pulling himself up onto all fours, wheezing, “What is it you want of me?” He was old, and ragged, and beaten. Blood dripped from his nose and mouth into the oily water he stood in. One ear was torn ragged. Rad paused for just a moment in his mind and swore to himself to one day set the score even.

“Obedience,” the shadow answered, “And loyalty. You will be my agent, making contact with those that will not, or cannot, speak with me directly. You shall be my spy.”

“I am too old to do anything of value,” Rad lamented, bargaining. “I am lame.”

The blot quivered once again, and Rad was taken with tremors not unpleasant. His arthritic joints smoothed along with his fur. He stood taller, breathed easier, and he could see without squinting.

“Lame no longer. I have given you your youth for a time. You will need it in your duties. You know what to do. Now go.” The shadow ordered, and was suddenly gone.

The alley way became less dark, though still not light. Rad, renewed, looked on the city and he did know what to do, though he still didn’t want to do it.

The Three

“It’s not,” Sary interrupted Penn, “What you think it is.”

“What isn’t what?” Penn uttered, his brows arching. He had been going on to Lindy about a job he was starting, painting some mural in an underground nightclub, and the last thing he expected was Sary, talking. Sary hardly ever talked. She spoke often, but never really said anything.

Sary flitted around the table finding her place closest to the hearth. She was soaked to the skin from dancing in the square. She sat, pushing away the cold espresso she usually drank, and asked for something hot.

Lindy and Penn exchanged concerned looks; they had never seen her drink anything other than cold espresso at the café. They had never seen her wet from the rain before either; Sary always danced between the drops.

“What isn’t what?” Penn repeated.

“It,” she said, “The thing.” She sounded annoyed. “The reason we're here.”

“You mean there’s a reason other than the three of us have nothing better to do.” Penn muttered, unsure of the direction of the conversation.

The waitress brought Sary hot chocolate in a huge mug with whipped cream piled high. Sary cupped it in her hands, absorbing the warmth.

“Okay dancing girl,” Lindy ventured, “What is, it?” She leaned back in her chair with her crystal glass of spring water, waiting for an answer, expecting Sary to babble something nonsensical, and then jump to another subject entirely.

“It isn’t a talisman or charm, I don’t think,” Sary shivered and closed her eyes. “I don’t know if the reason we’re here, if there is a reason we’re here, is because of a thing, or not.” She shook her head, her wet hair throwing showers at Penn and Lindy. Both of them sat dumbfounded. Sary, in the months the three had known each other, had never even acknowledged believing in any of what the other two suspected, or held a conversation for more than two sentences. Still unsure themselves of what was going on, or if anything was going on, Penn and Lindy listened to Sary between her sips of cocoa.

Outside the shower grew to a downpour. Sary moved her chair closer to the fire.

“I’ve listened to you two go on and on about darkness and mystery, why things are the way they are,” she started, sounding annoyed again. “You guys really don’t have a clue do you?” She closed her eyes. “You talk about it, but have you done anything about it? Penn, have you contacted your grandfather’s attorney yet? You’ve been in the city for almost six months now.”

Penn just sat with his mouth wide open. Lindy snickered.

“You’ve been here how many years Lindy?” Sary smiled at her, “And you still don’t know why you’re here.”

Lindy had nothing to say to that, arching her eyebrows in Penn’s direction.

“I’m here,” Sary began, “I think because the two of you are here. And the two of you have something to do.” She sipped her cocoa again. “But, I’m not sure. Maybe I get to help.”

“Help with what?” Penn and Lindy asked together.

“You tell me.” She gazed out the window. “I’m not the ones on some sort of search. Was it supposed to snow today?”

In the few minutes occupied by Sary’s curious conversation, rain transformed to heavy snow. The afternoon turned dark and conversation in the café fell to whispers. Soup for three came to their table without the usual banter from the waitress, her head was down with slumped shoulders, as if a great weight was crushing her.

“I had a run in with a bad nasty last night when I was at the Wall,” Penn ignored the snow, changing the subject. “One of those big rats they’ve been talking about on the news. It came from behind a dumpster, seemed totally unafraid. It looked straight at me, sniffing the air, then hobbled off into the dark. His ear was torn, and he really looked like crap.”

“I saw a rat in my garden the other day,” Sary added, “Never seen one so old, and torn up. His ear was torn too, the right one. He was eating the last of the apples rotting under the tree.”

“I hate the dirty little rodents,” Lindy threw in to the conversation.

“The rat at the Wall was big and strong,” Penn answered, “And it was his right ear, too, that was torn.”

“I gave it some clean water and the rest of my sandwich,” Sary replied, “He ate and drank it all, then wandered off, stumbling. I think some of the apples had fermented.” She giggled at what she said, and turned to look out the window.

“Were closing early,” the waitress interrupted, “the snow’s coming down pretty good.

“What in the world? “ Lindy said, “It’s only October, it’ll be turning to rain again before you know it.” Lindy had lived in the Emerald City long enough to know that the weather changed every fifteen minutes, and a serious snow storm this time of year was ridiculous. The City, however, was well known for its rain and gloom, and overcast that lasted for weeks sometimes without relent. They finished their meal quickly, and bundled up to face the incredible cold and snow descending on the city.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Penn said quickly, turning to go, “I’ve got that appointment tonight at the club. Meet me at my attorney’s office and we’ll see what there is to see.”
He grinned sort of, stopped, as if in thought, then turned up the collar of his long coat and walked off without another word.

“Can’t wait to see what his grandfather has in store for him,” Lindy said to herself, though Sary heard and responded.

“Probably more mystery.” Sary looked sad, and walked off into the falling snow.

Late For Dinner

Ruthy looked out at the snow one last time as the pale sun dropped below the tree line, casting an awkward orange light across the pastures. She noticed that the few ponies huddled close together in the center of the nearest field, when they should be sheltering under the sweeping cedars above the creek. Odd.

She was anxious about her visitor. Maybe lost in the forest, Ruthy considered, knowing that was the direction he would be coming from, if, of course, it was a he. She was almost certain of who it would be, even though the dice hadn’t confirmed it. But then, she thought, they hadn’t denied it either. Reading the lay of the dice was always a tricky exercise, like reading Tarot, or tea leaves left in the bottom of a cup. Might as well read the patterns of coffee grounds tossed into the compost, or find meaning in the tracks left by a three-legged dog.

Ruthy-Ru was certain something was wrong. Captain Stubbs stood one-eyed watchful at the window when he would normally be curled on the couch by the stove. His tail instead did the curling, beneath him tight and the growl of a feline wanting to attack emanated from his gut. Ruthy shuddered as a scream ripped across the valley. The Captain growled louder, quivering as cats do before they pounce, then he pissed the arm of the couch where he stood, any thoughts of attack forgotten.

Her eyes grew wide when Ruthy saw what Stubbs saw. In the field was now a massacre of her favorite pony. She called him Spot; not very original or cute, but he was a pinto and his fat ass was covered with dark brown spots. A number of large things were ripping the pony into pieces, tossing limbs like bleeding branches across the virgin snow. She thought she saw, but couldn’t be sure, a figure fall into the stream. The things finished with Spot, then turned screaming, and headed downstream.

The Captain by now was under the couch, and Mouse was down the closest hole and headed for deep earth.

Ruthy-Ru’s guest, it seemed, had received an offer he couldn’t refuse, and wouldn’t be making dinner. She went to the pantry and grabbed one her many lanterns, never relying on flashlights, lit it with a stick from the stove, and reached for the knob of the front door.

“Don’t do it Ruthy”, a voice whispered from behind her.

© Copyright 2006 jeff (penngray2 at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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