|A Ratcatcher's Tale | Published 07 August 2009|
THE SOUND OF the door opening was the single most terrifying thing Rolf had ever heard. Though he had no idea of the true function of this place, he had seen enough to know that no good could come of being caught here. Mandred still struggled to squirm out of his grip to get to the great butcher’s slab of a table, but Rolf held him fast by the rotted leather of his collar.
The hole in the wall through which he had entered the chamber was too far away; he wouldn’t make it in time. Rolf looked for somewhere to hide, seeing plenty of shadowed areas of the chamber, but not liking any of them overmuch. Knowing he had seconds at best, Rolf ducked down behind the cluttered workbench, clamping one hand over Mandred’s jaws.
The door creaked open and Rolf peeked over the edge of the workbench, curious despite himself, to know who would work in a place like this. The hunched figures he had followed here entered the chamber, robed in long hooded hassocks, such as a novice in the Church of Sigmar might wear, though these ones reeked as though they had been lifted from ten-day-dead corpses. The restless hands of the taller figure were laced together at its chest within the sleeves of its robes, clicking as though long nails or talons tapped impatiently on one another.
The other figure carried a cloth-wrapped bundle, tied with twine, and dumped it on the blood-streaked slab before moving subserviently behind its master. Both figures began to converse in a chittering, squeaking language, and Rolf offered a silent prayer to Sigmar to deliver him from these fiends. The reek of them was vile, a mix of diseased animal and backed up sewer culvert, and Mandred struggled furiously in his grasp.
The taller of the two figures slid his hands from his robes and Rolf saw they were bound in weeping bandages. Its fingers were sheathed in brass rods, clicking rings and whirring, spinning devices that looked like the tools of a watchmaker. A thin blade, like a barber-surgeon’s scalpel, extended from its fingertip and neatly sliced the twine securing the bundle on the slab. Rolf felt his gorge rise and stifled a gasp as the cloth fell away and he saw a monstrously muscled arm that was surely too large to have come from any man.
The arm was covered in a coarse black fur and the meaty fingers ended in filth-encrusted talons that looked like they could disembowel an ox. The arm ended in a neatly sliced stump, a polished nub of bone protruding from the shoulder. The tall figure hunched over the arm as the scalpel withdrew and a number of clicking instruments like forceps extended from its fingertips.
Horrified, Rolf’s grip on Mandred slackened and the little terrier broke free, bounding from their hiding place. Rolf tried to grab the dog, but it was too late. Mandred skidded from behind the workbench and rushed towards the figures, silently barking and snapping his jaws. Without thinking, Rolf rose to his feet, all thoughts of his own safety forgotten in his desire to save his dog.
Mandred pounced at the nearest figure, the one that had carried the arm, and fastened his small jaws around its ankle. The hooded figure jumped, squeaking in surprise. It spun around at the sudden attack, and Rolf saw a tail protruding from beneath the figure’s robes, a vile pink tail with wiry bristles all along its length that was segmented like a worm.
The figure spun around, trying to dislodge the furious dog. Its hood fell back over its shoulders, and Rolf was stopped in his tracks as surely as if he’d been punched in the gut.
Its head was not that of a man, but that of a loathsome rat, its elongated snout and rotten teeth snapping in pain over its lower jaw. Its eyes were yellow and diseased, its fur mangy and discoloured.
Like all ratcatchers, Rolf had heard the stories of giant rat-men in the sewers, but had never really believed them. Such talk was to scare newcomers and laugh at around a beer in the Gallows Head.
But this was horribly real.
He steadied himself on the workbench, feeling his legs sag in shock as the horror of these creatures threatened to overwhelm him.
Mandred bit and clawed at the rat-thing, as the second figure looked up from its work. Rolf saw that beneath its hood, it too was verminkind. It wore what looked like brass-rimmed goggles that magnified its sickly yellow eyes, and seemed more irritated than angered by the sudden attack. The first rat-thing reached down and snatched Mandred from the ground, drawing a long dagger from its rope belt.
Rolf’s paralysis was broken at the sight of his dog in danger.
He reached for his skinning knife, but before he drew it he saw something much better.
The elaborate longrifle still lay on the workbench amid the clutter of papers and bone cubes, and Rolf swept it up, bringing it to his shoulders, the way he’d seen Sergeant Mueller do when he’d been showing off his watch-house’s newest blunderbuss. The bone cubes fell to the floor, rattling around on the damp, bricks with a strangely unsettling sound.
The rat-thing squealed and Rolf said, ‘Put my dog down or I’ll shoot you dead.’
His voice was surprisingly calm, despite his heart hammering in his chest. He’d never used a weapon like this, and didn’t even know if it was loaded. Was he even using it correctly and would anything happen if he pulled the trigger?
He couldn’t think like that. He just wanted his dog and to get out of here alive.
The rat-things regarded him curiously, and Rolf thought he saw a glitter of amusement in the eyes of the one wearing the goggles. The other held Mandred down on the butcher’s slab, its serrated knife blade an inch from the terrier’s neck.
Rolf aimed the longrifle at the rat-thing holding Mandred. ‘I don’t know if you can understand me, but I’m a-tellin’ you if you don’t put that pig-sticker down, I’ll kill you, just see if I don’t.’
He took a step forward, feeling the bone cubes beneath his feet and glanced down.
In his moment of inattention, the rat-thing with the goggles pounced over the butcher’s slab, faster and more agile than Rolf could ever have imagined. A long dagger glinted in its fist. It was fast, inhumanly fast, yet all Rolf had to do was squeeze.
He pulled the trigger, and a blast of green light erupted from the weapon as the firing mechanism exploded in his face. Rolf screamed and fell to the floor, his face bathed in hissing emerald fire that slithered around his skin like liquid. The pain was incredible; yet even in his pain he saw the bone cubes lying in a scattered pile beside him.
Each cube displayed the same image, like the luckiest roll a gambler could make. Though Rolf knew in his gut there was nothing lucky about the black, eight-pointed star showing on each cubes’ uppermost face.
He felt rough hands on him as he was rolled onto his back.
The leering rat-creature looked down at him, the yellow hate in its eyes magnified by the brass-rimmed goggles.
‘Yes, yes,’ it said, holding its knife at his throat. ‘Quick, quick. Man-thing shouldn’t be here. Man-thing not know how to shoot jezzail. Broke it. Bad, bad. Man-thing will die down here.’
It hauled him to his feet, surprisingly strong for something so hunched, and deposited him on the slab. ‘Not meat for swarms, no, no,’ it said, brandishing the scalpel and forceps that extended from its fingertips. ‘Man-thing’s flesh for experiments…’
Surprise, surprise, a giant rat in a story about a rat-catcher....