The sewer rats had bound their captives’ wrists behind their back, had taken their weapons and packs, but otherwise did not molest them. With the female Lord at the head of the group, Justin and his friends were being shoved and goaded through the labyrinth of tunnels. Most of the huge sewer dwellers departed into various side passages during their journey, Drasta’s newly appointed second-in command amongst them after he had received whispered orders from his mistress. In the end, the group consisted only of the leader and seven of her warriors.
Justin and the others felt numb with confusion.
‘Why do they have weapons?’
He did not know what to answer to Julia’s whispered inquiry.
‘And a female rules here. This is totally different from what you told me.’
‘I know,’ Justin muttered, ‘none of this makes sense.’
A burly brown-furred male rat wearing a tanned vest and wielding a vicious mace scuffed Justin’s head.
From the front of the group came the female leader’s familiar sneer.
‘Leave them be. Just keep them walking and watch them. You mark them, the Overlord won’t be happy.’
At that the surly guard actually swallowed hard and touched his throat protectively. The gesture did not go unnoticed by the three prisoners.
‘An Overlord. That’s something new as well,’ Justin mused a bit more audibly now.
Before Julia could comment Drasta, from the front, gave a nasty snigger.
‘Oh, you will see that the Deep Sewers have changed a lot, dear visitor. I am sure you will be amazed by the time this day is out… if you live that long.’
Suddenly, the male warrior rat in front of Justin, who was the first in the row of captives, stopped without warning, making the smaller rodent walk right into his back. Oddly enough, the much larger sewer dweller did not make a sound, or even turn his head. The brutish rat’s attention was fixed at something in front of them.
As the bound rodents gathered their composure each of them strained to see past those of their captors in front of them. What they spied simply added to their bafflement.
In front of Drasta stood another set of the violent rodents, assorted bits of clothing and weaponry outlined in the torchlight. These rats though did not show any deference to the fierce female in charge of their jailors. Drawing herself up to her full height and baring sharp teeth Drasta was arguing with the apparent leader of the other pack.
‘Then get your Lord down here. Tell him Drasta wants passage to the Overlord.’
While the rat she had addressed was larger than herself something in her confident bearing must have convinced him to follow her demands. With a curt order the leader of the sentries, because that apparently was the duty of these Stagg warriors, sent one of his rats down into the darkness of the main tunnel.
Both groups waited. Justin noticed the silent tension between the two sets of towering rats. Each pack was eyeing the other with barely contained suspicion, weapons gripped tightly. Finally, minutes later, the sound of approaching footsteps and an angry rasping male voice broke the quiet gridlock.
From the distant end of the tunnel in front of them came an even larger assemblage of sewer rat savages. More weapons and waving torches gave the surroundings an almost fluid luminance. At the head of the new arrivals was a male that stood apart from those he lead as much as Drasta did from the group holding the three surface dwellers. This male was tall, half a head taller than Brutus even, although of less bulk and somewhat stooped in posture. A dirty-grey pelt was crossed with countless scars, giving the newcomer a menacing aspect. His body was covered with a sophisticated black cloth tunic, something which would not have looked out of place in the Thorn Valley Colony. But over his looming shoulders the imposing male carried the pelt of a rat, fashioned into furry cloak, very reminiscent of the female rat Lord’s attire. But what really caught Brutus and Justin’s attention was the immense hammer-pickaxe combination the creature was carrying over his shoulder.
‘Cassius, how sweet of you to see me,’ cooed Drasta.
The male lowered his hammer and let its head hit the ground at the female’s feet with a loud clang.
‘You have some nerve, invading my territory, Drasta. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t gut you right now.’
Not answering, the female Stagg removed Justin’s sword from her belt and threw it at the other Lord’s feet. Cassius looked down at the weapon, which seemed like a child’s toy compared to the two immense rodents facing off against each other. Finally, he bent down to inspect the sword more closely. Then, after some consideration, he eyed the female suspiciously.
‘You found this?’
Drasta’s muzzle spread in a terrifying grin.
‘It, and those who carried it. That’s why I need to pass your lovely territory. Balak needs to know.’
The male’s eyes lowered to slits.
‘Show me the ones who carried this.’
Stepping aside with a mocking bow the female Lord waved her followers aside to reveal a good look at their captives.
Cassius’ eyes light up in amazement, and then a toothy leer. He handed his own weapon to a subordinate and Justin’s sword to Drasta as he stepped forward to take a good, long look. His leer became exuberant as he walked by each of the three prisoners and then back to his female counterpart. Once standing next to Drasta he barked at his own followers,
‘Lord Drasta and her kin have free passage through my clan’s holdings.’
There was muttered acknowledgement from the various Staggs in all groups.
Then the scarred monstrosity winked at Drasta.
‘Mind if I come along? This I have to see.’
Caught up in her rival’s joviality the female chuckled.
‘Sure, we so rarely get to have fun these days.’
With that both of the cloaked Lords headed the now much larger group through yet another set of tunnels, Justin and the others being shoved and dragged close behind. Whatever was going on here, none of the three bound rats doubted that it was bad, very bad.
Cynthia’s head was throbbing.
The young mouse lifted herself into a sitting position, and immediately wished she had remained prone. Holding her flat palms to her temples and breathing slowly she tried to soothe the headache that was threatening to tear her skull apart. After a few moments of silence her head had cleared enough to make an attempt at coherent thought.
The water had carried them off. She remembered that clearly. They had been dragged and pulled through the cold flood, barely able to remain with their heads above water. It had been so dark that Cynthia had not been able to make out whether her mother and brother had been washed away in the same direction, or whether their respective rats had managed to hold on to them.
She looked around and tried to take stock of where she was. It was still dark. Whatever part of the sewers she was now in, she had no ability to penetrate the absolute lack of illumination. Cynthia carefully padded her own body down, trying to see whether she had incurred any injury. After a few seconds she realized that her cape and bag were missing. What was even stranger was that she was covered by a rough but warm blanket and was completely dry. Something odd had happened between the moment she had passed out in the flood and now.
Where were the others?
It might be possible that they had survived as well, maybe even dragged her to safety and dried her off. But if that was the case, where would they have found a dry blanket? Mulling over possibilities as she sat in the darkness was not doing her any good. As a matter of fact, Cynthia did not want to think about what might have happened. If she did, she might conjure up all sorts of nightmares of her family having died and her now being lost.
There was a scraping sound to her right.
‘Hello? Is someone there?’
Her only reply was a soft groan and a new sound, as if something draped in cloth was being moved over the floor. Slowly, the female moved her paw towards the sound until she encountered the texture of another blanket, like the one she was still wrapped in. Below the cloth she could feel the shape of a body. At her touch the shape under the blanket suddenly startled and gasped awake.
‘Mom? It’s me, Cynthia!’
The other mouse, her mother for sure, sat upright immediately, momentarily disoriented in the utter darkness. Cynthia, flooded with relief, moved up to her and embraced her, tears in her eyes.
‘Mom! I am so glad you’re okay.’
Mrs. Brisby responded automatically and reciprocated the embrace.
‘Cynthia! Thank goodness! Are you hurt?’
‘No,’ her daughter sniffed, ‘I am alright. Are you alright?’
It took the older mouse a few seconds to check herself, but she appeared unharmed apart from a few spots that would certainly be bruised.
‘I’m fine, sweetie. My clothes are gone, though. Did you put me in this blanket?’
Still holding on to her mother in the absence of light Cynthia shook her head.
‘No, I just woke up myself.’
Mrs. Brisby detangled her right hand from her offspring and patted the area around her blindly. Suddenly, to the side opposite to her daughter, she encountered the fabric of yet another blanket. She carefully tugged at it. It resisted as the shape lying underneath it pulled back, drawing the cloth with it.
The covered shape moved again and then groaned.
‘Oh mom, I don’t wanna get up yet.’
Cynthia immediately let go off her mother and scrambled to her feet, trying to find her brother. Sidestepping her parent she felt around for the recumbent shape of her sibling. Once she found what she was looking for, she pinched a random part of what she thought might be Timothy’s hindquarters.
The effect was immediate. His hands groping in the pitch black environment, trying to slap whoever had pinched him, the male mouse was instantly awake.
‘Cyn! Stop that! You wait ‘till I get my hands on…’
Timothy stopped in mid-diatribe as he realized just where he was, or better said, when he realized that he had no idea where he was.
‘Cynthia? Was that you?’
His sister answered by getting down on her knees and embracing him.
‘You’re okay! Timmy, I was so worried. Mom is here too.’
In response, Mrs. Brisby drew up to her two children and gave them wide hug.
‘I’m here Timothy. Are you hurt?’
‘If Cynthia can stop throttling me for a moment I can check.’
His sister relented and sat back, trying to make out the shapes of her family in the surrounding murk. She found that her eyes did adjust, and that her ability to catch her mother’s and brother’s scent gave her a good spatial understanding, at least of her immediate surroundings.
‘I think I’m okay. Got some bumps, but nothing bad. Where did you put my clothes?’
‘Honey,’ his mother replied, ‘we just awoke ourselves. We don’t know who took our clothes.’
‘Or where these blankets came from,’ added Cynthia.
Timothy grumbled and searched the floor around him with questing fingers.
‘I can’t even find my glasses.’
Turning her head, Cynthia tried to get a better sense of what their location might be. It felt and smelled like a huge room or cave.
‘In this darkness it probably doesn’t make a difference, Tim.’
‘Cynthia,’ she heard her mother chime in, ‘I get the feeling we are in a very large cavern of some kind.’
‘Yes, this place feels huge.’
‘Mom! Cyn! I found something.’
The two females scooted up to Timothy, whose hands were eagerly exploring something lying to his left.
‘What is it, honey?’
‘My bag, I am sure of it, and yours too, all of our gear.’
Cynthia sighed in relief.
‘Did you bring anything that can make some light?’
There were sounds of clanking metal tins as the male mouse rummaged through his belongings.
‘Just a minute. Ages gave me a water-proof tin with some of those matches he made … Aha!’
Suddenly, a rasping sound was followed by a painfully bright light. Timothy, dry but unclothed, was holding a handmade match, fully aflame, next to his head.
The scenery was breathtaking.
The mice’s impression of being in a large structure did not prepare them for the immense vaulted chamber they now found themselves in. The cavern was so expansive that the flickering match was barely able to reveal it. Walls of carefully set masonry and a floor of intricate tiles and mosaics were reflecting the flame’s spare’s luminance. It reminded the mice of the Council Chamber back in the Thorn Valley colony. There were pillared columns and vaulted passageways leading into further darkness. Then, the light vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, with Timothy cursing and shaking his hand painfully. So transfixed by the panorama had the young mouse been, he had not noticed the match burning down, until it had burned his fingers.
‘Are you okay, Timmy?’
‘Yes… man that hurts… let me get another match, Cyn.’
‘Honey,’ they heard their mother, ‘I saw something that looked like a lamp standing next to our bags, just before the match burnt out.’
Another scratch heralded the second match being lit. As soon as the light had returned Cynthia and Timothy stared in the direction their mother had indicated. She was right. A sturdy metal oil lamp with glass panes, perfectly rodent-sized, was resting next to their baggage. Cynthia, being the closest, made a grab for it and opened a glass pane so that her brother could light the lamp with the dwindling match. Then, the group had a steady source of illumination.
All three of them stood up, gazing at the distant ceiling.
‘This place is huge.’
‘Huge,’ Mrs. Brisby nodded, drawing the blanket tight across her shoulders, ‘but very empty.’
Moving the lantern in her hand in a circle as she turned to look around, Cynthia illuminated the various part of the chamber in turn.
‘Do you see those draperies,’ Timothy pointed at an immense wall-hanging.
‘Yes,’ Cynthia answered with a dry swallow, ‘almost looks like the ones at home.’
The empty hall was vaguely rectangular, with two galleries of passages leading off at the longer sides. There appeared to be a second floor with a balconied walkway lining the walls. Even from the ground the three mice could make out distant shapes of cobwebbed furnishings, like chairs and mouse-sized tables behind the railings.
‘This feels like our meeting hall in the colony.’
The younger mice nodded silently to their mother’s comment.
Despite the place’s grandeur there was a sense of abandonment and desolation about it. Dust covered every surface. Cobwebs and mold were visible in the draperies and masonry. The chamber felt as if it had not been filled for a long time.
Timothy walked to the edge of the hall, where a bundle of glass orbs were suspended from ornate fastenings.
‘How much do you want to bet,’ he mused, ‘that these are electrical lights?’
Cynthia, who had remained in her spot while turning around, still tried to take in the vastness, but answered nonetheless,
‘How did we wind up in a place like this?’
‘Someone,’ Mrs. Brisby replied, ‘brought us here, dried us off, and left us blankets and a lamp, probably whoever made this place.’
Timothy tapped one of the walls with his knuckles,
‘Who could have made all this? This doesn’t look like the work of any of Justin’s ‘sewer monsters’.’
‘Children, I think I have found our clothes.’
Both mice immediately faced their mother, who was standing next to a stone bench, which was situated underneath one of the chamber’s columns. There, in three neatly folded piles, lay there vestments, including the two pairs of glasses.
‘So,’ Cynthia ventured as they all approached the bench, ‘someone rescues us, drags us all the way in here, leaves us blankets, dries our clothes, and then just vanishes?’
Mrs. Brisby, after having pulled her gloves over her scarred palms, buttoned her cloak as she looked back at the second floor gallery.
‘I am sure whoever it was, is watching us.’
Timothy, who had just managed to pull his shirt over his tussled head, nodded before putting his glasses on and then took the lantern from his sister to allow her to don her poncho.
‘So what does he, or she, or they want from us?’
‘Well,’ Cynthia mumbled from underneath the folds of her clothes, ‘at least they seem friendly enough. Nothing here feels like someone wants to see us hurt.’
That was a relief. Cynthia’s sense of things was always accurate. At least it had always been that way so far. As the crème-furred rodent dressed Timothy surveyed the masonry with more scrutiny.
‘I’ll be darned!’
His mother and sister turned to him as they had started making their way back to their bags.
‘What is it, son?’
Adjusting his spectacles, Timothy tapped a small, roundish pane of glass secreted in between the grouting of two huge stone blocks in the wall.
‘That is a camera lens of some sort.’
Mrs. Brisby walked up to him, her head cocked as she stared at where her son was pointing.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Mom,’ he grinned, ‘you know me and machines.’
Cynthia, who had proceeded to retrieve their gear and had carried it back to her family, sighed appreciatively.
‘Timmy and his machines. It doesn’t matter if he has no clue how they work. He can get them to work. So that thing is watching us?’
The male mouse tapped the round glass again and then put his right eye against it. There was a mechanical sound coming from behind the wall.
‘Hear that? It must have some sort of focus adjustment, since I put my eye so close. This has to be a camera.’
He drew a step back and surveyed the cavern in the light of the lamp he now held. Then the mouse raised his free hand and pointed to various places in the vast room.
‘I see at least six… no… eight more places where there are cameras like this one.’
The other two mice followed his gaze and managed, on a few occasions, to see tiny flashes of reflected light sparkle from between stone blocks, just where Timothy had claimed other devices to be hidden.
Mrs. Brisby turned to face the camera closest to them.
‘Hello in there? If you can see us, you can probably hear us too. We thank you for saving us. May we meet you?’
There was no answer forthcoming, only another whirring sound as the machine’s focus adjusted again.
‘You know what else is weird,’ asked Cynthia.
‘What,’ her brother replied.
‘If whoever brought us here can work the cameras, why didn’t they turn on those electric lamps you saw? It would be better than having to carry that oil lamp all over the place.’
Timothy looked at the lantern in his hand and then back at his sibling and parent. He did not know what the answer to this riddle might be, but he had to agree that Cynthia had a valid point. There was an additional layer of strangeness to this already surreal tableau.
Mrs. Brisby, in the meantime, had kept on looking at the camera, waiting for an answer. Since there was nothing that could be interpreted as a reply, she addressed the unseen observer or observers once more.
‘If you do not wish to talk to us, then we should probably leave. We are grateful for all your help, but we have lost some friends in that flood, and need to find them again.’
With that being said, the brown mouse turned and gestured for her children to follow her.
‘Cynthia, you always know where to go. Which one of these passages leads out?’
The younger female rubbed her chin and then pointed to an archway on the left side of the hall,
Leading the way Mrs. Brisby tried to radiate more confidence than she felt. The whole situation was terribly disturbing. They had been saved, but whoever their savior was seemed content to watch them from a distance. It felt like they were being observed, like those laboratory animals at NIMH Justin had always talked about. This place may not mean them harm. Cynthia was likely right about that. But it still felt wrong and they probably should try to get out of here as fast as they could.
As they approached the archway Timothy suddenly called out.
The other two mice halted.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked his sister.
The male mouse, still carrying the light, pointed at an inconspicuous area on one of the columns.
‘There is some sort of trap mechanism in that passage.’
His mother peered at the stones, yet could not discern any difference between them. Her son had a knack with machinery, just as Cynthia had an incredible sense of intuition. If he said there was a trap, she believed him.
‘What kind of trap?’
Timothy rummaged in his shoulder-slung back and produced a small screw-driver. He threw the tool towards the passage.
The moment it passed within inches of the archway, jets of red flame, hot, smelling of oil, erupted from somewhere beneath the floor tiles, bathing the entire hall in a ghastly orange glare. Mrs. Brisby and Cynthia instinctively jumped back and gasped, only the male mouse stood still, gazing at the inferno with a strange kind of awe in his eyes. The flames disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, leaving no trace of their presence apart from some dissipating smoke and a terrible stench.
‘Okay,’ Cynthia offered, ‘let’s try a different way out then.’
Cautiously, her mother right behind her, she moved to a passage three archways farther to the left. Her brother, following slowly with his eyes on every exit they passed, sighed.
‘Every single one is booby-trapped.’
‘You mean,’ his mother turned,’ we are trapped in here?’
Cynthia swallowed hard as Timothy nodded with a frightened expression on his features.
Mrs. Brisby’s gaze travelled around the large hall’s rows of passages, all invitingly open.
‘Then this place is a cage, a cage without bars.’
The rats’ journey continued. The prisoners from the valley were amazed how easily the sewer dwellers were able to navigate this maze. After a while though, Brutus gave Justin a nudge with his shoulder and motioned with his head towards one of the walls. There was a symbol made from gashes in the concrete. Justin nodded.
‘That has been on the tunnel walls ever since we met up with Mr. Big-Hammer.’
Julia, who had followed Brutus’ gaze, muttered.
‘In the pipes that belong to the female, Drasta, there was a different mark, shaped like that jewelry she wears.’
‘Clever,’ Justin mused.
Apparently, the rat Lord named Cassius had been listening in on the captives’ conversation. Unexpectedly, he and Drasta appeared, walking next to them. The scarred leader glowered at them while his female counterpart simply grinned in the background.
‘Yes, we have become clever. And we also know who you are.’
That statement, delivered in Cassius’ icy voice, sent a chill down Justin’s spine and startled him enough to stop in his tracks. That, of course, made Brutus walk right into him, adding to the group’s confusion.
‘How do you…’
The slender brown rat did not even get to finish as Cassius, accompanied by a nasty chuckle from Drasta shoved him forwards.
‘Just keep moving. You will get answers when the Overlord orders it. Now, you walk.’
With that, the two fur-cloaked Lords headed back to the front of the group and neither Julia nor Justin felt much like talking anymore.
About twenty minutes later, the whole pack came to a gradual halt. This time, the assembled rodents found themselves in a much larger sewer drain, wide enough for ten of the large Stagg warriors to stand side by side. It was easy for the captives to see ahead in the light of the torches. A short distance away from Drasta and Cassius, still at the head of the group, was an intersection of three smaller sewer pipe openings. At the central drain a group of sewer rat guards similar to the ones in their own entourage were waiting with torches. The concrete walls here showed a new symbol, a circle with an ‘x’ crossing it.
Not wanting to risk the ire of their wardens, Julia just nudged her nose towards the symbol as she gently shouldered her male companions. Justin and Brutus nodded and gazed from the etched marks to the new pack of rats.
Unlike before, when they had encountered the sentries of Cassius’ domain, neither Stagg Lord made any attempt to approach the rats stationed at the central tunnel entrance. Drasta and Cassius simply let their followers wait at a distance. There was an odd sense of apprehension and nervousness about the two leaders, wholesomely out of character to their behavior thus far. Not a sound was being made. Every single one of the Staggs in their group was silent, eyes intent on the sewer entrance ahead.
Finally, after five minutes of waiting, a surprisingly small shape, shorter even than Justin, wearing a grubby grey robe similar to a monk’s, came towards them, flanked by two of the much larger rat warriors.
Still, Drasta and Cassius remained silent, almost deferential, as the diminutive rat approached. Once he had arrived, the newcomer raised his cowl and revealed the middle-aged features of one of the scrawniest rats Justin had ever seen. Hooded yellowed eyes were surrounded by a sickly grey-green pelt. Even the rat’s voice had a frail tone to it when he bowed slightly and spoke.
‘Welcome, Lord Drasta, Lord Cassius. What brings you to the seat of the Overlord?’
The larger male rat Lord looked almost imploringly at his counterpart. Apparently, facing this weak member of the Stagg rats was uncomfortable for Cassius. The female did not appear to be at ease either but cleared her throat nonetheless.
‘We bear news for Balak. We have found some of those we were told to watch for.’
Cassius, who had taken possession of Justin’s sword while leading the group, handed the blade to the robed rat, who carefully took it into his slender paws for examination. A few glances at the weapon and the thin rat nodded to the two Lords and bowed.
‘I will relay the message. Wait.’
The scrawny rodent hastened away, definitely agitated, his two body guards in tow.
This time it did not even take two minutes until the grey-robed rat returned, in as much haste as he had departed in, which left his guards following him in an undignified scamper.
The short rat stopped in front of Cassius and Drasta, who seemed much more confident now in light of the apparent excitement of their host, as he gesticulated for them to follow him.
‘Come quickly! The Overlord is most anxious to see you, most anxious indeed!’
‘Dim the light.’
The voice echoed through the deserted hall, coming from every direction at once. It was male, but distorted by obvious electronic feedback.
Mrs. Brisby and her children, who had sat musing on their awkward situation, startled and stood up, heads turning this way and that way.
‘Where is that coming from?’ asked Cynthia to the empty space.
Timothy pointed to a number of the chamber’s columns.
‘Electronic speakers. No way to tell where he is.’
‘Dim the light.’
Cynthia and Timothy looked at their mother, unsure how to proceed. Elizabeth rubbed her chin in thought and then nodded to her son, who was closest to the lamp. Timothy pushed the oil lamp’s regulator down until there was barely a glimmer coming from the wick. The three mice huddled closer together.
The brown mouse did not know what to answer her son. Cynthia suddenly chimed in.
‘He’s in here. I heard something coming from over there.’
All three strained to make out any sounds in the surrounding gloom.
‘Cynthia,’ her mother urged, ‘are we in danger?’
‘Whoever this is doesn’t want to hurt us, but…’
‘But what?’ muttered her brother.
‘Be quiet. If any of you move, I will have to kill you.’
That had the desired effect. None of the Brisby mice spoke or moved. Even their breathing came in rasps to avoid excess body motion. There was the sound of cloth and very light steps at the group’s periphery. In the sparse luminance of the lamp a mouse-sized shape, dark and indistinct, appeared facing the three stunned rodents. Three pairs of eyes looked at the newcomer in trepidation, nobody moved. The stranger appeared to be wearing a long hooded robe or cloak, his features difficult to distinguish. In the red glow of the wick the Brisby family was able to discern the figures head moving slightly from side to side, as if listening. The sounds of air being sniffed came from the shadowed cowl. Finally, the obscure shape settled down, sitting on an opposing bench. There was some odd object protruding from the outline where one would expect a right hand to be.
‘Turn the light up, slowly, until I tell you to stop.’
Without the distortion from the speakers the voice sounded younger than the three mice would have expected, but there was also hoarseness about it, as if the speaker suffered a sore throat.
Timothy returned his hand to the lamp’s adjustment knob and slowly turned it up. The flame in the lamp grew, shedding more light around the Brisby family and onto their peculiar captor. Just as the other’s shape became distinct he spoke again.
‘Enough! That’s enough!’
The individual before them was a mouse, or at least a mouse-sized rodent. There was very little visible of him. The robes actually turned out to be more a kind of heavy, belted overcoat with countless pockets. A hood was drawn over their host’s head, but from beneath the cloth they could only discern a full-face mask with mirrored glass hiding the eyes. The nose was protected by some sort of filter in the mask. Gloves covered the hands and somewhat awkward looking shoes or boots were draped over the feet. A little bit of the creature’s tail, which poked out from the behind the bench, also looked as if it was covered in fabric. There was no skin or fur visible at all. The mouse, if that was what this creature actually was, held what looked like a plastic pistol in his right gloved hand.
Despite the weapon, there was something pitiful about the hooded appearance, which compelled Mrs. Brisby to take a step forward. Immediately, the muzzle trained on her head, the masked head of their captor swiveling around.
‘Don’t move. I can hear even your muscles twitch.’
Timothy was feeling angry at his mother being threatened.
A small popping sound came from the gun, just some expelled air. But right in front of Timothy’s foot a small metal needle stuck fast in the crack between two tiles. The hooded mouse rasped again.
‘They are poisonous. One little cut means death. Do you understand? Nod if you do.’
All three mice, sufficiently cowed, nodded.
‘I found you in one of the canals. You had clothes and materials. The one in front, answer me. Who and what are you?’
Mrs. Brisby swallowed hard.
‘We are mice, who live with rats. These rats, and we, have been changed by humans. We can do things normal mice and rats cannot.’
The mask and hood swayed as she spoke, ears within the cowl moving with each word. Then the robed mouse nodded.
‘What are your names?’
‘My name is Elizabeth, Elizabeth Brisby. These are my children, Cynthia and Timothy.’
The gun’s muzzle lowered and the covered mouse’s head leaned forward.
‘I have heard that name before. My parents told me about a mouse named Brisby.’
‘Who,’ the brown female ventured with another cautious step forward, ‘are you?’
Their seated interrogator put the weapon on the bench and folded his hands in his lap, the concealed face lowered.
‘My name used to be Brendan. But nowadays I am just known as –The Ghost-.’
The robed rat led the procession down a number of tunnels. The warriors Drasta and Cassius had brought along had been asked to remain behind in a large assembly area surrounded by make-shift buildings, all located at an intersection of two immense sewer pathways where raised human walkways presented level ground. There had been a great number of Stagg rats of all ages and sizes, including females and smaller males. This was the first time Julia, Justin and Brutus had gotten to see the actual habitations of the sewer dwellers. They were not what they had expected.
Despite their rag-tag appearance, the buildings were clean and stacked in an organized fashion. The huge rats they had encountered thus far obviously constituted a warrior class. They were found overlooking the hustle and bustle of rodent-sized alleys and hovels, standing watch bearing weapons of various degree of manufacture. But in difference to what Justin had learned as a feral animal, the towering rodents did not openly abuse their smaller sewer kin. Smaller, less physically able Stagg males and females carried goods around, some were seen in corners weaving primitive cloth or preparing food. Julia made a point not to look at the food items too closely once she spotted an older female cutting meat off a rat skull. From some caverns cut into cracks in the aging concrete walls sounds of metal being forged could be heard. Clearly, this was final proof that the sewer rats of Baltimore, somehow, someway, had changed in the same way the original Rats of NIMH had.
Only Drasta, Cassius, and their guide remained to push the bound surface rodents towards a round tunnel, carved into the native earth in a cement wall fissure. The entrance was framed by the circle-and-cross symbols they had observed ever since they had entered this particular domain. Two immense Stagg warriors, each having their heads covered with cloth hoods, giving them the appearance of executioners, stood at attention at the entrance, bearing intricately forged halberds that could have just as well been found on a member of the Thorn Valley Guard.
Neither of the sentries gave any attention to the six rats as they entered, the guide followed by Drasta, then the prisoners, and Cassius bringing up the rear. The tunnel was light by small oil lamps set into crevices of the smoothed walls, giving it an eerie red cast, as if they were descending into the bowels of a vast beast. The end was cordoned off with a huge red curtain, properly made from purloined cloth. The stooped rat halted at the drapes, waiting for the two Stagg Lords to line up in front their prizes. Then, he pulled a cord that parted the curtain as if in a theater.
The hall beyond was the audience chamber of the Overlord. There were no remnants of human manufacture present here. The entire circular room had been carved from the earth and stone surrounding the sewage system. Along the walls were more lamps, orange light flickering within. To the Thorn Valley rats’ distress, these lamps had been manufactured from emptied rat skulls, the hollow eye sockets radiating the only light available. Facing the main entrance, bathed in the macabre illumination was an immense, yet empty throne. If the lighting was disturbing, the throne was even more so. It was difficult to tell on first glance how many rats had given their lives to fashion the imposing construct with their skulls and bones. The seat was testament to cruelty and violence, the center of this chamber, and obviously, the center of the world the Stagg rats lived in.
Three smaller passages were visible behind the throne, two covered with cloth drapes, a third to the right with the curtain drawn aside. It was from that third passage, carved steps leading into distant gloom, that footsteps could be heard.
Justin observed, as did his friends, that all of their remaining captors had their eyes glued to that tunnel. They were not paying any attention to them. They could easily try to make a run for it, back down the tunnel, or even try to knock their adversaries out first. If there was a chance to overpower them, it would be now. He gave Brutus a knowing glance and nod. The larger rat looked around, then back at Justin and slowly shook his head. Something about this set-up disturbed the large guard enough not to risk an escape attempt. The brown rat sighed and nodded as well. Julia, like their jailors, had been busy staring at the figure coming down the steps into the hall.
This had to be the Overlord.
He looked younger than what Justin would have expected. He was not the largest of all the sewer rats he had seen down here, but there were other aspects to this creature that set him apart. The new arrivals pelt was the color of old blood and fell from his head down his shoulders in an unkempt mane. In bulk he was comparable to Brutus, but radiated violence in a much less controlled manner. A heavy chest and massive arms exuded an air of power and confidence as the Overlord strode into his throne room. His yellow-green eyes were small, yet glowed with an intelligence and intensity that was more frightening than his stature or attire. The only true clothing this rat wore was a heavy fur cloak, fastened around his neck by heavy pieces of armor made from a peculiar dark metal. His arms were sheathed in studded bands of the same material and his hands covered in massive metal bucklers. Leather bands secured the armor across the Overlord’s chest, and where they met they had been adorned by another polished rat skull.
The face of the Stagg rats’ supreme ruler turned up at the corners, but not in a smile. A vicious snarl revealed sharpened teeth and one of the massive rat’s clawed hands pointed at the two Stagg Lords.
‘The last time you were in my presence, I promised you that if you ever sought audience with me again for one of your border disputes, I would personally remove your heads and appoint others to lead your clans.’
Both Drasta and Cassius, who stood taller than his apparently unhappy master, were hard-pressed not to shiver. Their master’s voice was both cold and loaded with menace at the same time. They both nodded and lowered their gaze to the ground, not daring to speak.
The blood-furred rat regally made his way to the throne. Once seated, he waved a hand at the grey-robed rat that had guided them here.
‘Quaestor tells me you have found the ones I instructed you to watch for.’
Both Lords looked up and nodded, trying not to betray the unease they felt.
Suddenly, the Overlord’s angry scowl changed into an amused smile.
‘Well then, show me.’
Drasta and Cassius stepped aside so that the sparse illumination of the throne room could reveal the three bound rats to their liege. The enthroned rat gazed upon Justin and his friends with chilling amusement. The supreme ruler of the deep sewers reclined in his chair, a finger stroking his chin as his smile deepened and his attention turned once more to his diminutive major domo.
‘Their possessions are being studied, I assume?’
The robed rat called Quaestor nodded in supplication.
‘Yes, my Lord.’
His master tapped his own chin as he looked upon the prisoners once more. Then his right arm reached to the side of his throne and from there placed Justin’s sword, delivered to him by his servant earlier, on his lap. He caressed the blade, which looked ridiculously small to his own bulk, in his hands.
‘Tell me, Quaestor, from what you saw of their gear, what purpose do you suppose these trespassers have in my realm?’
Clearing his throat the beige rat mused for a few moments.
‘Their bags contained equipment suited for exploration, my Lord. There were ropes, grappling hooks, materials for making torches, some small tools, and supplies to treat injuries. Apart from the small male’s sword and the large male’s pole weapon there were no weapons I could see. There were no supplies for camouflaging or spying either.’
The Overlord rose from his seat, still smiling and toying with Justin’s blade. He first passed Drasta, placing a hand on her shoulder and giving a gentle squeeze. Then he stepped towards Cassius, repeating the gesture with a smile.
‘You have both done very well, my friends. These are indeed the ones I told you to watch for. And you brought them to me without your old quarrels interfering with your duties.’
Stopping in front of the three captives now, the poisonous green eyes of the Stagg master sized up each. Then, the Overlord pointed his clawed finger at Justin.
‘You are Justin.’
The look of shock on the brown rat’s face spoke volumes. He had not revealed his name to his captors, nor had Julia. Before he could rally his thoughts behind how this monstrous leader of a monstrous society of rats would be able to know his name the smiling rat Lord pointed at Brutus.
‘This must be Brutus.’
Julia and Brutus shared Justin’s sense of surprise and disbelief, leaving the two smaller rats unable to speak. Finally, the pointing claw came to rest on Julia.
‘You were not mentioned or described to me. What is your name?’
None of the bound rats spoke up. With a sigh the Overlord’s free hand gently raised Julia’s chin, only to suddenly grip tightly and raise her off the floor, choking for air.
Justin and Brutus both tried to turn to do whatever they could with their hands bound to free her. But Drasta and Cassius had, as their ruler had begun his inspection, stepped closer to the captives and, as soon as the small female had been grasped, put knife-blades on either male’s throat. Despite their rage, both Thorn Valley rats stopped their advance, but Justin yelled.
‘Julia! Her name’s Julia!’
The Overlord let her drop to the ground unceremoniously and walked back to the skull-throne. Justin, his hands still bound behind his back, went on his knees next to Julia, who was coughing loudly.
‘Are you okay?’
She nodded as soon as she had regained enough breath to do so. Then she was yanked upright by Drasta grabbing on to the ropes that bound her hands.
‘You stand in the Overlord’s presence!’
‘That’s enough, Drasta.’
The red rat had seated himself again and was observing the scene with obvious delight.
‘I think we can dispense with the formalities for now. Justin, you are the leader of the Rats of NIMH. Why have you come here?’
Once more, Justin was at a loss for words, which only served to increase the Overlord’s amusement.
‘Yes, Justin, I am very much aware of the Rats of NIMH. I know about your history and that quaint little valley you now reside in. I ask you once more, why are you here?’
Instead of answering, still dazed from the revelation, the former Captain of the Guard asked a question himself.
‘How… how could you know of us?’
Now the seated rat could no longer contain his glee. Roaring laughter echoed through the chamber as he tilted his head back. Cassius and Drasta sniggered and chuckled as well. Slowly regaining his composure the Overlord actually winked at the captives.
‘Please, call me Balak. We will get to know each other quite well; that I can assure you of. As for how I know about you, some of your own people told me.’
That answer only deepened Justin’s confusion, which was mirrored on Brutus’ face as he looked to him for some sort of support.
‘Come now, Justin, I was told you were smart despite your obvious shortcomings.’
Still, despite Balak’s taunt no insight presented itself to the brown rodent. Finally, the Overlord shook his head in mock disappointment. He turned his massive head to one of the curtained off passages behind his throne.
‘I don’t suppose he will understand on his own, my Love. You might as well show him.’
As if on command the curtain on the left passage parted and a looming shape, easily as tall as Brutus or Balak, draped in a tan-colored hooded robe, cowl raised, stepped out gracefully into the audience hall. The face was hidden, but the newcomer’s movements had a definite feminine grace to them. Both Stagg Lords and Quaestor took a respectful step back as the towering shape approached the group, but Drasta and Cassius were now grinning broadly in anticipation. The hooded figure stopped in front of the former Captain of the Guard and a resonant feminine voice wafted from the cowl.
‘Has it been so long that you do not even remember me, Justin?’
It was Brutus’ ears that perked up immediately in recognition. But his superior had made a connection as well. Justin’s features were filled with terrified wonder as he tried to peer into the folds of the hood.
‘Dora? Is that… you in there?’
With deliberate and slow movements powerful yet slender hands, tipped in vicious black claws, raised themselves to lift the cowl. They revealed the face of an immense female rat, taller even than Drasta, although of rangier physique. Intricately forged bands of metal covered her wrist, neck, and bound her hair in a raised ponytail. The lean features and dark grey fur framed a set of large eyes, from which sanity seemed to have departed long ago. Bloodshot and devoid of pigmentation the pupils were ruby windows into a world of pain and hate.
‘Dora is dead, Justin, without ever having been able to grow up fully.’ the female cooed at the much smaller brown rat, ‘You finally killed her when you drove her and her family out of Thorn Valley.’
Without giving Justin a chance to reply the female’s hand jerked outwards, grabbing him by the neck as the Overlord had done with Julia only moments before, and single-handedly raised him off the ground. When Brutus attempted to lunge at the attacker she turned her insane gaze on him and snarled.
‘Move and I will crush his spine. Back down, Brutus! Your turn will come.’
Reluctantly, with some persuasion from the feel of Cassius’s blade at his back again, Brutus forced himself to remain calm. Justin was slowly lowered to be at eye level with his female assailant, the choke hold loosened enough for him to speak.
‘Dora… did… not cast… you… out.’
A serene smile spread the female’s features and she lowered her captive to the floor with exaggerated care, where he strained to remain upright and regain his breath.
‘I told you before, Justin. Dora is dead. I am Rapta now.’
She bent down so their eyes could meet. Smiling the female’s voice betrayed the madness that apparently had warped her mind.
‘You may not have cast out Victoria and her daughters personally. But you did nothing to prevent the hounding and persecution from those hypocrites in your colony. You did not stop Verilla and her ilk from making Thorn Valley a prison of shame for them, and for what? Was it not enough for you to have killed Jenner? Did it give you a warm feeling seeing his family disgraced as well?’
Justin did not get to finish his sentence. Once more Rapta grasped his throat tightly, this time ready to crush it, when her maddened gaze locked on something on the brown rat’s throat. Her grip loosened and she stood back. The look on her face had changed again. Neither the crazed glee nor the vicious hate was visible now. Her features revealed only surprise, and something that might even be fear.
‘What’s wrong, my Dear?’
Balak, who had watched the proceedings with clear enjoyment now leaned forward, his own face betraying concern. The female looked at him and, with a hoarse voice, muttered,
‘My mother needs to see this. He’s got the blight.’
Justin’s neck, revealed by his collar having been dislodged in the huge female’s hold, bore a wide patch of fur that had turned snowy white. The Overlord’s eyes narrowed to slits as he listened to Rapta and caught a glimpse of the discoloration. More disturbingly, Drasta and Cassius were now casting worried glances at each other and Justin, all swagger and jeers forgotten. Balak tapped a finger to his temple.
‘Has he had this before he ventured into our realm?’
Rapta turned to face Justin, rage and fear intermingled in her voice.
It was Julia who found her voice first.
‘Yes! That is the whole reason we came here. Everyone is getting it. And if we do not stop it, it will kill us all.’
For a moment, nobody moved or spoke. The looming female and the seated Overlord exchanged glances. Then Balak nodded.
‘Take him to see your mother. I want to know exactly what their reason is for being here, in exhaustive detail.’
He raised himself from his throne, walking towards Justin. As he did so, the bound rats noticed that the Overlord was rubbing a space on his left arm. Once he reached them, all three were able to see a tiny patch of bleached fur poking out from underneath the metal band covering his upper left arm. Now standing at Rapta’s side, Balak glowered at Justin.
‘If I do not like what I hear, I will let Rapta do all the things to you she has dreamed about ever since she arrived here. You will beg for death.’
Before anyone could reply, the monstrous female grabbed Justin’s bonds and dragged him behind her towards the passage she had first entered from. Brutus and Julia, once more under the attention of two curved daggers, could do nothing but stare. Minutes later, both Rapta and their friend had disappeared from view.