The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book IV: The Whispering Mirror
Episode 4: A Game of Cat and Rat
part 2 of 2
Trapped in blackness, Breen fought down panic and struggled to understand what had happened to him. He realized that the whole room, Ebbern included, had not grown. He had indeed shrunk! That frightsome concept made his whiskers bristle and his tail twitch, even as he forced himself to accept it.
Wait, I don’t have any whiskers, much less a tail!
Shuddering in the grip of an uncanny feeling, Breen began to feel himself with his paws. He did indeed have whiskers, as well as a long furless tail. His body was covered in sleek but greasy fur and...
Dark Lady Theba preserve me! That rat-faced swine has changed me into a rat!
In sudden panic he struggled furiously to claw and bite his way out of the sack. Logic was long fled and even his grasp on sanity was tenuous. Panting, he gained enough control to realize that no matter what claws and teeth did to the leather, he was not going through chainmail.
The mind he set to thinking was still his own, not a rat’s. Unnerving as it was, he could not complain that Ebbern’s “magical disguise” was not effective. Indeed it could well be the solution to his problem. This way he might well be able to effect a settling of accounts with Druin.
One cheering aspect was that rats could not talk. Therefore Breen need not worry about being returned to his normal form. Ebbern had to do that, if he wanted to hear what his unwilling spy had learned.
Gods and stars, the youth thought as a measure of calmness returned, this is monstrous ironic, I’ve come full circle! Become a rat! Breen thought, from the bottom of a sack that swung gently as he was carried to an unknown destination.
For all his fears, he remained the streetbred optimist and opportunist. Since the day last week when Druin had mysteriously reappeared, his bastard cousin Breen had known that he must somehow destroy him.
Now perhaps he had a chance to accomplish that, retain his new wealth, and gain the king’s favor into the bargain. For a long moment Breen focused on that happy prospect. He had been worried about Uster’s health. Lack of food was more cruel to the elderly than to any. If Breen could win King Thilloden’s favor, he and Uster could join the privileged few who feasted at the palace.
Now if I can—
The sack he occupied ceased its swaying.
Have we reached our destination? What? Where?
New panic surged in, dark as the domain of Drood of the Thousand Arms. The bag opened and Breen blinked at the influx of moonlight. Then a huge hand grabbed him and he was hurled violently through the air.
Sailing over a high stone fence, he saw a grassy lawn rushing rapidly up at him. An instinctive twitch of his tail brought Breen the rat down on all four widespread feet. This new body, he exulted, has some great features!
He reared up to survey his new surroundings. Now what am I supposed to do? Directly before him bulked a stately manor house. At a guess: Druin’s headquarters. The home base of his sworn enemy!
Breen hesitated, whiskers twitching as he reflected. He had small reason to trust Ebbern. Still, it was hardly likely that the callous wizard would go to so much trouble in bringing him here if that house did not hold something well worth learning about. For a youth with curiosity and an adventurous spirit, the choice was easily made.
Breen padded silently forward on four wee paws, approaching the medium-sized house. He soon saw that gaining entry would be no problem. A small hole had been cut in the bottom of the door, obviously intended for a cat. Cats in Ermont had long since gone to the stew pot.
* * *
Breen approached the door without a second thought, the coolest rat in Ermont. Just as he was about to enter, his rat’s nose warned him.
The musky odor was undeniably male, and Breen could not help imagining a powerful, huge-pawed animal skilled at rat murder.
It might be just a pampered housepet, though — and whatever it is, I’m not making myself any safer by standing here shivering. Breen moved not as rattus rattus but as homo usually sapiens. The rat passed in by the cat’s entry.
Within the house he stared about, startled and puzzled. The place was seemingly deserted. Dark it was, dark as Drood’s gaze, save for the moonlight streaming through broken windows. A ghostly lacery of spiders’ webs sagged under the dust that was thick on the floor. From all appearances no one had been here for years, decades...
Except that someone had. Human footprints marked the dust of the floor, fresh tracks. Each was longer than Breen’s new body. Now he saw that strands of cobwebbery hung loose here and there, torn. Last night, perhaps the night before, someone had been here. Judging from the footprints and the fact that so few cobwebs had been disturbed, that someone had been moving with surreptitious care.
Breen gulped back curiosity and refused to rush off on the trail of this previous invader. Instead he examined the cobwebs. His bright red rodent’s eyes saw clearly, despite the darkness, and what he saw was disturbing. These strands were... not quite right! What their origin might be he could not guess, but of one thing he was sure: no honest spider had spun these ghostly threads that laced the room.
Moving with utmost care, he followed the footprints,
Through a sitting room full of long disused chairs they led him, into a dining chamber. He ran up a chair to inspect a table elegantly set with silver cutlery, crystal in goblets, ornate porcelain plates. All were covered in cobwebs and dust. Someone had planned a big party, set the table, and rushed off to leave it here for twenty years worth of spiders.
The trail of footprints ended in a corner with a fresh corpse.
Feeling about as comfortable as a wine taster in Naroka, Breen recognized Lord Hrucial of Wellstream, a favorite of King Thilloden. His Majesty’s boon companion in drink and womanizing — and, some dared whisper, the man Thilloden relied upon when a discrete assassination was needed. The handsome wretch’s dagger still shone silver in his cold hand, but what had laid him low was a mystery. There wasn’t a mark on the body.
A stroke or a heart attack, perhaps, Breen mused without cheer. ’Twould seem that I’m not the first Ebbern has sent to this spiders’ house.
Fear’s chill fingers clutched at his little stomach and his rodent’s body quivered with nervous excitement. Now Breen knew he was in the very thick of a dark, unholy war between wizards: Thilloden and his mage Ebbern against Druin and whatever direful powers he was allied with. Hrucial must have come here in the dead of night to murder Druin. Instead he...
The spiderwebs! They’re alarms! Touch one of them and Druin knows he has an uninvited guest.
Breen had a moment to feel profoundly grateful for the instinctive caution that had kept him from disturbing the webs. Then he moved on.
Probably, he mused as he scurried along, this whole downstairs area is a trap. So what’s above stairs, so well protected?
The main staircase he assumed had to be a trap: In the kitchen, however, he found what he sought. A back stairway wound upward, a narrow strait into the unknown.
He crept upward. Soon he was rewarded by the sight of dim lamplight and the sound of human voices. At the top of the stairs he saw a topaz bar of light across the bottom of a closed door that, to a rat, looked a hundred feet tall. Freezing in place, he listened to the muffled voices from the far side of the door.
“Yes, grandfather, I appreciate the risks. Still, given our other options, I think it’s the best gamble.”
Druin! the youth thought, and excitement swelled huge in his tiny body. The reference to “grandfather” puzzled him — until he remembered: Was there not a rumor that Druin’s maternal grandfather was a black wizard? Something vastly important was afoot. Go close enough to peek under the door, and I’ll see what.
He was just starting to leave the stairhead when it struck.
Abruptly and only for an instant the very air seemed alive, glowing with power. Wild, ultra-vivid colors flashed before Breen’s eyes and his fur bristled in fear. It was as though the very nature of reality had been warped for a tiny moment, and instinctively he knew what it was. Magic. Black magic. Some sort of dire spell had just been cast.
As Breen cowered back, the door slowly creaked open. From the protective darkness Breen watched fearfully, little red eyes bulging while he wondered what unearthly horror that opening portal might reveal...
They came forth. Without cheer Breen beheld a shriveled old man and a large black cat. A tom, lean and long, with big, dangerous paws. Breen could see only menace in those slanted slits of green that were the cat’s eyes.
Quoth the oldster to the animal, “Remember, Druin, you must be back here before dawn.”
Drood’s eyeballs — my cousin’s transformed himself into a cat — the natural enemy of rats. Us rats!
Galvanized by terror at this utterly unnatural event with its dread implications for himself personally, Breen bolted down the stairs. He was near the bottom before he realized how incongruous his fear was. He had matter-of-factly accepted his own transformation, precisely because it was a matter of fact: a situation he could not change but could use to advantage.
Equally a matter of fact was that his enemies also used magic. Best to direct his worry and fears to his real problems — of which he had plenty. To begin with, in seconds the cat would descend that narrow stairwell, and nothing he could do would prevent it from scenting him.
If it corners me, I’ll just have to fight, Breen thought.
* * *
Even as he raced off the stairs, through the kitchen and under the grate of the long abandoned fireplace, he considered the idea. Here was a good place for a stand. In these tight quarters his opponent’s size would not be so great an advantage.
Still... He thought about those huge paws and shuddered. To a rat the claws of that unnatural feline must be like daggers. Brrr! All a poor rat has going for him is his vaunted courage, which is a bad bargain. Who’d want to be the one to fight like a cornered rat!
Terrified but ready to fight, he cowered in the absolute darkness under the big iron grate, listening.
Softly, on almost silent feet, his foe was coming toward him. He saw it emerge from the stairwell, sleekly gliding with that sinuousness some called beautiful. Not a rat! It did not seem to be sniffing the floor. His hopes rose — and the cat bent its nose downward. One sniff and it turned to pad directly toward Breen.
Its eyes, almond shaped but looking big as unripe pears, flashed like emeralds in the moonlight that sneaked into the room. Could it see him, here in these darkest of shadows? It was easily twice his size, and instinct kept telling rattus rattus to flee, flee, while intellect told Breen to wait, wait.
Now the cat was much closer. Still it was not looking directly at him. Abruptly the flattened feline head turned ever so slightly.
Their eyes met...
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon