Where Old Logs Go To Die
Sargum Rat was a rat catcher. Lord of the rats they called him, and he hated it. The Duke of Elton Shire would pay him a pence for every dead rat that he presented at the close of the Saturday market. Sargum Rat was not allowed to go into the marketplace, the people hardly tolerated him at all with his matted black hair dripping from his stained, flea bitten scalp. His nose was flat and crooked, broken from too many beatings as an unwanted child. His eyes were shifty and dark. Women, children and gentlemen alike got shivers up their backs whenever they turned away from Sargum Rat. When they noticed him, he was never looking at them, never made eye contact. But with their backs turned Sargum's eyes bore straight into the backs of their heads, or more correctly, the backsides of the women of Elton Shire. Sargum was twenty-two years old, practically middle-aged and he had never had a woman. He had not known the warmth of another human's touch for many years now. His family had all died in the plague, all except Sargum. The Black watch found him as a child, surrounded by corpses, rats, fleas and feces. He was thought to be immune, hence, he was Sargum Rat. Sargum the Rat catcher.
Sargum was very good at catching rats, or so the townspeople thought. At one time he had gotten too good, and the Duke had lowered the ransom on rats from a pence to a quarter. But then little Mary Butcher, only 3 months poor dear, had been attacked by a swarm of ravenous rats in the middle of the night. The constable had boxed Sargum Rat about the head and ears for letting that happen, but quietly the bounty was raised back to a pence. Poor little Mary, now 4 years, would never find a husband with one eye and that chewed up ear. Poor little Mary.
No one could have guessed what a promising entrepreneur Sargum Rat really was. His hovel in the woods looked so dilapidated that no one, not even the daring Rockwood boys would dare go near it. From the surface it looked like a dirty pile of timbers. But underneath, Sargum had excavated a series of tunnels. Tunnels for a crafty Sargum Rat. It was in these tunnels that Sargum Rat lived with his mangy nameless cur that would howl and bark whenever anyone came near Sargum's lair. It was in these tunnels that Sargum raised his rats. Sargum raised them, fed them and slept with them. In the very cold winters he would eat them. And when the Duke lowered the bounty he locked them in a cage until they began to rend each other. Then he snuck under the Butcher house and let them loose in little Mary's room. Poor Mary, Poor little Mary.
Oh Sargum Rat caught rats alright, but that was difficult work. He had to crawl under houses and through the fetid muck. He had to outthink them, corner them and kill them. And wild rats had fleas, dozens and dozens of hungry fleas, waiting to leap from their tiny crowded rat home to the penthouse scalp of a human host. Sargum Rat disliked the itching and he could see the way the townspeople looked away when they saw the scabs on his arms and face. And worst of all, the fleas would get into his beloved colony and he would have to kill the lot just to get rid of them. No, it was much easier to make a show of banging around in the backs of houses while he carried around his sack of dead rats, killed hours earlier at his home. It also provided him ample opportunities to peek into windows and through cracks in walls. He liked to watch the pretty ladies. Occasionally he would be discovered by a madam or a constable, but he was always quick with a phantom strike. He would then reach and whirl with a dead rat in hand, thrusting it in the interlopers face. The interloper was usually too disgusted to administer and admonition or beating and Sargum Rat would be left to his devices.
But Sargum at was lonely. Though he loved the rats, coddled the pups and tickled the adolescents behind the ears, they were not his friends, any more than the shepherd was friends with the sheep. They were his livelihood, nothing more. The cur was the closest thing he had to a friend, but the mangy beast was nearly blind and bit him whenever there was fresh meat around. Sargum Rat needed companionship. Female companionship.
Tonight was to be Sargum Rat's night. He had saved his pence and purchased a used but clean pair of breeches and blouse from the farmer across the river. He washed himself as he did every afternoon before returning home, but this time he did not retreat to his hole. He took out the shiny piece of metal that he found behind the mill and looked at his reflection. He used his knife to cut the worst of the matting out of his hair, and he brushed it back with pitch the way he saw some of the nobles do. He used a stick to pick away the worst of the color from between his teeth. Over his shoulders he put the simple coat that he had bought off the journeyman. For a moment he concentrated on losing his usual wrinkly scowl and practiced a closed lip, wide eyed smile. In the mirror Sargum Rat thought he looked not altogether different from the many other common men that he saw frequenting the brothel. Grunting, he set off into town.
Sargum Rat looked into the brothel window, trying to get a glimpse of the activities inside. He was nervous because he had never before been inside. He was trying to work up his courage when a strong hand clapped him on the back.
"What are you doing there son?" a booming voice inquired.
Sargum Rat turned to face John Miller, one of the local farmers. Sargum avoided his eyes, ready to slink away.
"Don't be bashful man," Miller took Sargum Rat by the elbow, "come on in, the ladies are waiting." Miller led him inside the Brothel. Sargum Rat thought he had stepped into a flower petal. Previously dulled by the smell of earth, his own stench and rat poops, Sargum Rat’s nose came to life in the heady perfumed environment of the brothel, and his eyes began to water. Miller set him down on a couch in front of the fire. Sargum Rat simply lay there, stared into the burning logs and inhaled the daises, marigolds and musk that filled the room.
He was drawn out of his sensation by a hand on his shoulder. A soft, light hand. A woman's hand. It slid to the nape of his neck and Sargum Rat's back arched in response. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt human contact other than the fists that smashed into his face when he ran afoul of more Rockwood boys then he could fight off. His body felt like a feather was tickling him from the inside and he moaned slightly. A soft breathy voice whispered into his ear.
"Hmmm, it must have been a long time stranger. I haven't seen you around before. Did you just get in town?" Sargum Rat could only nod. The warm breath in his ear made his skin crawl toward those cherry lips. The madam slid around the sofa and sat gently on his lap. Her white wig was powdered and her lips stained blood red by the wine. Her dress pressed her bosom up and toward Sargum Rat's face and he could only stare into the crevice of her cleavage. He wanted to lose himself and fall forever in that soft chasm.
The madam leaned into his ear again, pressing her breasts closer to Sargum Rat's face. His breath was hot on her chest, hers moist in his ear. "Would you like to go upstairs?" Sargum Rat just nodded slowly. "Five quid for you then." Nearly two months pay. But well worth it for this lovely. He pressed the coins into her hand and she led him up the staircase. He looked down at the sitting room and saw the envious glances of other men with fatter, older and more toothless ladies. John Miller tipped his glass at the lucky stranger.
Inside the room, the lady talked as she undressed. Sargum Rat heard the sounds, but the whole of his attention was focused on her round and soft body as more and more skin was exposed. Never before had he seen such a thing this close and in full view. But he had watched the other gentlemen through cracks and dirty windows, and he knows what to do.
As he took off his own clothes, his body felt awash in scalding ice. Every nerve ending was firing and heat radiated off his person. When he pulled off his breeches he elicited a small gasp and an "oh my!" from the lady. He looked down at her soft round chin, her full pink breasts, her flat stomach and her furry warren.
"Uhhg," Sargum Rat's member barely brushed her thigh but it was too much and he climaxed, falling to her side twitching.
"Aw guvnor, you've gotten a bit excited there now and…" Through his haze of pleasure Sargum Rat could see the lady studying his face. His forced smile disappeared, wiped away by the rattle of the little death. With every twitch his mask of scowl was redrawn deeper into his face. With the horror of recognition, she leaped from the bed, screaming.
"The rat catcher, the rat catcher! Help me it's the rat catcher. Help!" She covered herself with her dress and retreated to the corner. Sargum Rat rolled off the far side of the bed as the door bursted open and the constable, dressed in his breeches, hairy gut and chest leading the way, bursted into the room with his dirk drawn.
"There, there," the lady points, "he's over there." Sargum Rat rose to his knees and held up a hand to the constable.
The constable stalked forward leading with the dirk. "Sneaking into the house and sullying one of our ladies, eh rat catcher? Well this will be the end of you!" The constable lunged at Sargum Rat, but he was too quick. He dove under the bed and emerged from the other side. Bare assed, he lurched down the stairs in three strides, bowling over three men who gathered at the bottom. Turning as he swung the front door wide, he could see the constable raising his dirk high as if to throw it. Sargum Rat leaped though the door and heard a wet thwack followed by screaming. The constable's aim was not true.
Sargum Rat raced through the night and dove under a stoop. The town was coming alive and Sargum Rat needed to find a place to hide. Men with torches were already running down the street and his hiding place was poor. He knew how these things worked. Last year, a thief was discovered at the mill. The town tore itself apart looking for the criminal. When discovered, he was flayed by daggers and punctured by pitchforks. This time would be no different. But Sargum knew a good place to hide.
When he saw a pause in the passing torches, he scuttled on his belly from beneath the stoop. Naked and covered in mud, he wished he had a coat of black fur to mask him. In the pale moonlight, his bare bottom shined like a stone. He slinked past the stables and behind the inn to the row of benches with holes cut in them. He had thought to make the woods, but there were torches and shouting at the treeline. He had no choice. He held his breath and slid into the trench full of warm muck. He tried as long as he could not to breathe, but eventually he had to inhale the fetid stench of the slit trench latrine. He slid in up to his head and resolved to wait it out.
Several times during the night, torches closed on his position and approached the toilets. Sargum Rat held his breath and disappeared under the muck. When his chest demanded it, he slowly surfaced and opened his mouth, tasting foulness but breathing yet again. He always expected a dagger to the neck, but the torchbearers could not tolerate the stench for more than a moment.
As dawn approached, the activity died down and Sargum Rat felt safe enough to slink from his hiding place into the safety of the forest. He found a far finger of the creek and washed the town’s filth from his body. Naked and chilly in the morning air, he began to shiver and headed for home.
He cautiously approached his hovel, for he could smell smoke and expected an ambush. What he found was cages strewn about, his hovel burned to charcoal, his belongings looted. And his rats, his rats were dead or run away. His rats were gone. His cur was nowhere to be found. But there, over by the tree was a man. A boy. A sleeping boy. Sargum Rat walked over and picked the boy up by the throat, pinning him against the tree. The boy, no more than thirteen and failing miserably in his first watch, tried to scream but found his throat impinged by Sargum Rat's hand. Sargum Rat leaned in close to the boy's face.
"Where's my cur?" he spit. He just wanted his dog back and he'd go. The boys eyes flicked up and then back to Sargum Rat's face. Sargum Rat turned and looked into the trees, slowly lowering the boy to the ground. His cur was hung by the tail ten feet off the ground. The skin had been sliced about the animal's anus and pulled the length of the body. It's fur hung about it's neck, as if the cur was wearing a stole of itself.
Sargum Rat dropped to his knees and frowned. Tears rolled from his eyes and into his mouth. "Ya did na' have to kill the cur. It was all a mistake. Ya did na' have to kll the cur. He did na do nothing to you." Sargum Rat's sobbing was interrupted by a jolt in his back. He looked down and saw a six inch piece of steel protruding from his side. The steel slid back into his body and he crumpled to the ground. The boy had run him through.
"I got him, I got him," the boy yelled to the vacant forest. Looking back at Sargum Rat trying to rise, he raised his short sword high for the mortal blow. Sargum Rat rammed the bottom of him palm underneath the boys chin as hard as he could, feeling the reassuring crunch as the boys teeth mangled themselves on each other. Sargum Rat screamed in his face as the boy crumpled to the ground. Hearing shouts and footsteps, Sargum Rat snatched the boy's cloak and scampered off into the woods.
The Rat fled his home, wounded dearly and loosing blood. He scampered and hid as rats are wont to do, but he had no illusions. He was pierced through the gut and he would not live the night.
The rangers pursued him to the edge of hells canyon, so named because the rapids at the bottom there terminated at a high stone cliff. At the base, the water churned and swirled and crushed logs, eventually sucking them down. Sucking them down into hell. How appropriate for a Rat like Sargum.
Chased to the edge of the cliff, the Rat was faced with a choice. He could stay and let the rangers carve him up. Or he could cut out the middleman and go straight to hell. He jumped. The water was cold and sucked the air from his lungs. He churned for a bit at the base of the cliff, finally managing to surface one last time. The men at the clifftop had their bows out and were firing. One quarrel struck a log near the Rat's head. The Rat reached for it, wrapped his arms around the log and sank out of sigh, sucked down by unseen talons.
Down he went, down into blackness and ice. Down, twisting, spiraling wrapped around the log, hugging it like he had wished to hug the pretty lady. He could still smell the flowers, taste her warm breath and feel the warm fire. Oh how he wished for warm fire. But hell was not fire as the priests had said. Hell was cold and wet and dark. In hell you breathe cold liquids.
The Rat was fortunate to hold on to the log. Somehow it confused the Overseer, for it took him not to the human hell that he had been expecting, but to the place where old logs go to die. Deep in the heart of the mountain, Sargum Rat finally popped to the surface and takes a desperate breath. Panting, and unable to feel, Sargum Rat just wanted to let go. His numb fingers wouldn’t comply and he was forced to look around at the burial chamber.
The large domed room was illuminated by a single crack that ran the length of a man's body across the ceiling. This let in the light that illuminated the swirling pool full of jammed up logs. More logs than the Rat had ever seen. Forests worth of logs.
At one end new logs would occasionally pop up from the underground river that ran below. As he floated to mate with the jam, the Rat could see logs piled tight by the current, covering the entire surface of the pool. Wincing as he held his side, the Rat simply climbed on top and scuttled across the logjam to the chamber at the far end.
The Rat stumbled through the tunnel, hardly noticing it to be far too smooth. And strange glowing bugs rested on the walls, stinging his fingers when he tried to touch them. The tunnel opened up into a large chamber that was simply magic. Light beetles became agitated as he entered and lit up the entire space. At one end was a black dragon, split open down the middle to reveal its silvery core. There were cages and cages full of light beetles along the far wall and near the dragon was a burial stone. He knew this because on it lay the skeleton of a man, long since gone. The Rat swept the bones from the burial stone and sat down. This was to be his stone, his place of eternal rest. The dragon and the Rat, forever. As he lay down, a fog descended over him and a bright light shone in his eyes. The Rat felt pressure on his wounded side and then all went dark.
The Rat awoke some time later. How long he could not tell, but his beard had grown out the length of his small toe. The wound on his side was covered in cotton patches and when he removed these he found small pieces of thread woven through his body, pulling the skin together. He picked at this thread, but it hurt so he left it alone. He guessed that this was what they did with you when you died. They stuffed you full of straw and sewed you back together. He felt very hungry and terribly thirsty.
Climbing back over the logs to the water, he looked down into the bubbling mass below. The sun was shining through the crack behind him and he could see down into the subterranean river. He had been diverted for some reason, diverted from hell. He did not know why. Nestled in the logs, he found a fish that wasn't too rancid and some fresh moss. A meal fit for a Rat, a dead Rat.
The cave, he figured, must have been the residence of a mage. That, he decided, was the former owner whose bones he now honored with a shrine on a rock ledge. It was full of light beetles and strange knobs and things talked to you when you pushed some of them. In one cupboard he found smooth metal jars. When he bashed them open with a rock, there was food inside. There were many such jars and much food. But there was no way out of the cave. The only way out was the way he came in, and the Rat wasn't about to go back in Hell's river. The Overseer might not make the same mistake twice.
After a time he learned how to do some of the mage’s magic. He could make the light beetles glow or not glow by saying the magic words. He could make the angels dance in front of him and though he could see them from all sides, though when he tried to touch them they were not really there. He found many objects that had no useful function, but they made noises and had many light beetles. Some of the objects were dangerous though. When he put the food jar into the cupboard with the window and pushed on the surface, the food jar began to shoot sparks. It was a good thing he hid behind the dragon because the jar burst into fire and shot glass all over the place. He could imagine that such magic might be useful to use on one's enemies, but the Rat would have to get them to stand in front of the clear cabinet, and alas, there were no more. Yet, he was channeling the mage's magic better every day.
The best discovery came when he finally opened the silver trunk and found the mage's robes. The loose black cloak seemed that it would not fit him, but when he put it on it shrank to fit his body. When he wore the suit he was never cold. Not even when he dangled his legs in the chilly water.
There was also a pair of magic boots that shrank to fit his feet. The Rat felt as if he was walking on a cloud. But the magic helm was the best. Though it covered his face, when he put it on he could see all around himself, even behind his head. He could see better than even when he was a young Rat. Without the helm, he realized everything was blurry. With the helm on, he could see the logs all the way on the other side of the cave. And best of all, when he turned off the light beetles, he could see in the dark.
The Rat was slowly mastering the magics, but the food jars were running out, and there were no more fish, not even rancid ones. As he opened his last food can, he looked suspiciously at the dragon and wondered if it was edible. He had always tried to be quiet, even when the food jar caught fire and popped. He had always given the dragon a wide berth, for he felt it best to let sleeping dragons lie. But now he was facing the end, and if he didn't find food, he would have to face the swirling blackness of Hell's river.
He thought it best to prepare himself in case the dragon was not in fact dead, but sleeping as he suspected. He donned his suit, boots and helm and sharpened a piece of driftwood into a spear. Cautiously, he approached the dragon. It was the size of a small boulder and black on the outside. Its scales were like the armor the knights wore and cool to the touch. Small bumps studded its sides. Its legs were like a bulls and seemed to be folded up under it. At its sides were clawed arms that were flush against its body. Its rear was snuggled up against one of the counters. In the middle, it was split in two. Inside the dragon, its color was lighter and there were many bumps and protrusions and many light beetles. They must have been dead though, because they would not light up, even when he rubbed them. Cautiously, he took off the helm and sniffed the dragon. It smelt like the bog where children would sometimes go to see the ground burn. He went a few times to poke a hole in the soft ground and hold a torch to the hole. The ground would indeed burn, sometimes fiercely. One time a child was consumed by the fire and the Rat had shied away from that place ever since. It made him think of hell.
The Rat decided that this must be a bog dragon and he suspected it to be a firebreather. Perhaps he wasn't so far from hell after all. That night the Rat sat in the mages clothes and helm and stared at the mages remains. He tried hard to channel the mages power, but he felt no new source of strength. He slept that night with his head on the dragon, the smell of the bog fire in his nose.
That night the skeleton mage visited him in his sleep. He held the rat down while the dragon rose to life. The gaping wound across its middle closed up and the beast sprang to life, its maw opening to spit fire, its powerful claws reaching for the little Rat. The Rat tried to run to the corner and hide, but he dragon easily caught him, raised him up and swallowed him whole.
But the dragon did not chew him into pieces. Instead the Rat ran around inside the dragon's belly, ran and ran and ran until he wasn't in the belly any more. The Rat was in the dragon's head. The dragon spat fire and shook and shook, but still the Rat was in its head. And best of all, when the Rat said stop, the dragon stopped. When the Rat said fly, the dragon flew. When the Rat said die, the dragon blew flame from its nose and incinerated anything in front of it. The Rat was very happy. He had been reincarnated as a dragon. And the Rat knew just what to do.
At first the farmers didn't know what to make of the black shape in the distance. If it was a bird, it was unlike any that they had seen before. It hung there in the distance, a black speck against the blue sky. Then it charged. It was upon them before they knew what to do. It landed on the run and took one man's head off with a talon. The farmer behind it raised a pitchfork to stab the monster, but only broke the tool on the beast’s scaly hide. The dragon snapped the handle with a swipe and kicked, tearing out the man's abdomen and felling him where he stood. The plowmen left their horse and ran, but it was no use. The beast gathered itself and snorted a line of flame at the men, catching them in the back and bowling them over. The flame stuck to them as they ran about before falling over in smoldering piles. The rest of the farmers hid in the trees, save one young woman who collapsed in the field sobbing. The dragon gathered her gently under one arm and, with a roar launched itself into the air, scorching the ground underneath it. The barley field burned.
Every month or two, the dragon would descend from the sky around Elton Shire and steal a young woman from the fields. Anyone who resisted was immolated, decapitated, or worse. But the dragon only killed men. One poor old gent was carried high aloft by the lizard, only to be dropped to earth, his blood staining the field where he had dug all his life. His daughter was taken away, never to be seen again.
The Duke ordered militias raised and all young women were hidden in their homes. This just drew the dragon to the towns. At first it was timid and howled when the first arrows bounced and shattered on its coal black hide. But when it realized that the meager iron tips and broadswords couldn’t hurt it, it strode brazenly through the center of town, throwing fire everywhere before ripping open the brothel and seizing a comely lass. It departed to a hail of spears and shafts, all useless against its armor.
The people of the Shire retreated to the castle, seeking protection from their Duke. To reassure the townspeople, the Duke spoke at Mayday. He showed the folk the ballistas that his knights had built. They were huge, three person, mounted crossbows that could penetrate any armor known to man. He showed the nets strung about the castle to catch the beast. Mounted knights with lances would be on watch all day and night to pierce the dreaded beast. His speech was greeted by cheers and much applause by the happy townspeople.
The dragon dropped straight out of the sky and onto the platform in the town square. It had been high above, backed by the sun, listening to the fine speech. It showed his applause by seizing the Duke, holding him high and belching out a perfect thin line of flame high into the sky. The Duke's head was burned clean off. The dragon tossed the body at the nearest mounted knight, knocking him from his steed. The dragon moved too fast for the terrified crowd to see, slashing and clawing at the knights about the square. Before the folk knew what happened, the battlements were afire and the knights were bloody armored coffins. One surviving ballista poked out from behind a curtain and loosed it's bolt into the dragons back. The five foot long shaft jolted the beast forward but simply exploded into a hail of splinters which splayed into the crowd. The dragon casually turned and shot a fireball into the balcony, exploding limbs, wood and stone out over the crowd. The folk cringed and turned to run. The beast rose up on its hind legs, fully twelve feet high, and for the first time anyone could recall, spoke.
"Stop!" It commanded. "No more killing!" The folk froze, some on the margins trying to casually slink away. The dragon turned and pointed a scaly finger at them. "You, leave, you die!" The beast’s voice was the loudest anyone had ever heard. It's voice sounded like an echo from within Hell’s canyon.
The dragon stepped down from the creaking platform and kicked away the Duke's body. It rotated its head left and right before settling in the crowd. Mothers and fathers tried to hide their daughters from the beast’s gaze. Again, it spoke.
"No more killing!" It commanded, voice booming. "In exchange for no more killing on the first day of each solstice you will bring me one virgin." The dragon squatted and extended its neck, going face to face with a minor noblemen. "One young and beautiful virgin. And believe me, I will know!" The dragon pointed at the nobleman's nose. The man fainted dead away. The dragon rose again to stalk the crowd. "In exchange for these tributes I will protect this shire and all who live here. But defy me and you will all die!" The beast swung its head back and forth now. "Try to follow me and you will die! Try to raise an army and you will die!" The beast swung its head to stare at the terrified people. "Understand!" it commanded.
The folk all nodded, still shooing their daughters behind them. "Excellent. I will take my first prize now." The dragon strode through the crowd, knocking people aside. It parted a man and woman with a hard shove and gathered their young waif of a daughter into its arms. It crouched ready to fly away as people scattered to avoid its firey behind when a lone voice called from the crowd.
"Stop, I challenge you to combat for that woman's honor."
"Who says that?" the dragon bellowed.
A young strapping man stepped forward, "I did," he said, trembling.
The dragon paused a moment before speaking. He let the young woman go and she fell to the ground. Gentle hands tugged her away. "Yes!" the dragon said, "a challenge! Tomorrow! At the jousting field. Bring the girl or you will all die! And you," it said, pointing a talon at the strapping man, "tomorrow you will taste my wrath." The dragon blasted into the air and was gone. Deflated, the crowd broke into sobbing, panic and terror.
The next day half the town was missing. The dragon brought them back in armfuls of twos and threes. Some he had dissuaded with fire throughout the night as they tried to flee. Others he had stashed away on mountains and hills. But he brought most of them back, and by midday the population on the jousting field had swelled. At on end stood a mighty steed, the young hero in plate armor atop it, holding a lance. On the other end was the dragon, black and twitching. In the middle was the girl, tied to a post by the town fathers despite the protests of her family. The horn sounded and the duel was on.
The dragon was quite sporting, not using its flame nor its flight. But it snatched the hero's lance with ease and snapped it cleanly in two, scaring the steed so badly that it bucked the hero off. Dazed, the hero swung his broadsword mightily, but the dragon caught it high and raked low, tearing at the hero's thighs and felling him to his knees. The dragon then walked behind the hero, raised a talon high and pierced the hero clean through the back and belly. Maimed and bleeding vigorously, the hero collapsed to the ground. The dragon gathered up the girl, post and all, and landed in front of the crowd. It raised her high like a trophy and spoke.
"No more killing if one young virgin is placed on this field every solstice. I will allow…no, demand that one champion face me in mortal combat for her honor. Defy me and you will all die."
And so it was, the dragon would come every six months for his virgin. And every six months a man was forced to his knees and pierced through the back, low and on the right side. For six years this continued.
The Rat looked down at the girl. Her skin was creamy white, the outline of her body barely visible through the gauzy fabric that she arrived in. She was quite lovely and had not screamed as much as most of the others. When he wrapped his Rat claws around her throat, she had barely resisted, simply grasping his wrists tightly, then not at all. Her pretty neck was tainted by the bruises there.
He hefted her body as he made his way across the tangle of logs and to the Overseer’s portal. It swirled and burbled, just like the first day that he had arrived here. He thanked the Overseer for allowing him to come back and extract his vengeance on the town and the Rat offered him this sacrifice of a young, not so virgin girl. Her body floated lazily around the whirlpool before sinking under, her pure white hand going last, fluttering as if to wave goodbye.
Six months later the Rat donned the magic suit, boots and helm. He walked over to the dragon and sat down inside. The battletank recognized its owner and sealed the cockpit, charging the primaries and warming up the systems. It drew power from the service station its backside was docked to, drawing in energy and kerosene for its flamethrowers. The Rat long ago used up the supply of explosive slugs, they were so much more fun than the flame. But the kerosene had a huge reserve, not even a quarter depleted. The dragon could breathe fire many, many more times.
The Rat could not get beyond the analogy of taking over the dragon's mind, and could never hope to understand how the battletank sensed neural impulses. The Rat simply thought ‘go,’ ‘fly,’ ‘hit,’ ‘kill,’ and the dragon does. The Rat wanted to go to the jousting filed, so the battletank opened the louvers in the top of the cave and flew him to the field. It tried to tell the Rat that there was a problem, that it was hurt and needed to stop, but the Rat wouldn’t listen. Even an injured dragon could best a man. The Rat would not be stopped, not when it ran a dragon’s mind.
The dragon looked across the jousting field at the hero, perhaps a boy, perhaps a man. It looked across the crowds assembled on the lawn. Under its protection, the town had actually flourished, free of the overtaxing Nobles, raiders and robbers. They even sold tickets to this event and the crowd was swollen. In the center of the field stood a girl, tied to a post, sobbing. The dragon thought she was beautiful and wished he could smell her tears. Maiden tears smell like heaven and taste like dreams of heaven. But dragons can't smell, only rats can. Soon enough. Soon enough.
The dragon's bottom hurt again. The dragon was showing off and took a hillside in the bottom and ever since it had hurt. But the Rat couldn’t be distracted by a little pain. He again told the dragon to ignore it. He had a hero to dispatch. The dragon roared, belched fire into the air and waited for the hero. The hero stood his ground, arms beneath his cloak. The dragon had seen this before. A few just stood there and the dragon had to give a little show for the folks. His folks, all his folks.
The dragon stalked the hero. The dragon feinted and charged, coming up short and leaping over the hero. He bellowed and blew smoke at the hero. Finally he settled for knocking the hero over. The hero just sat on the ground.
The dragon heard a murmur from the crowd. A chant came up, mostly from the visitors, though a few of the folk joined in. It was soft at first, but then became a steady roar.
"Dra-gon! Dra-gon! Dra-gon! Dra-gon!' His folks wanted him to win. They wanted him to finish the hero. The dragon took to the air, swooping and soaring and belching fire. Playing to the crowd, giving them a show before lining up for the kill.
The hero had seen this before. His older brother Dale stood in silent protest after being chosen in the town lottery. The dragon swooped and spun before coming in low behind Dale, forcing him to his knees and spearing him in the gut. It had taken Dale three days to die from that wound. He died like an animal, panting and full of pus. He died in a fever. He died like a rat.
The hero knew about striking low in the back. He knew about men on their knees and he knew that somewhere inside that dragon is a Rat. He also knew that the dragon smelled like the firey bog. He also saw the fluid that dripped from the dragon's ass, puffing bits of flame behind the beast.
The hero waited for the dragon to line up behind him before parting his cloak and striking his tinderbox. He wrapped his arrow in rags and coated it with the sludge from the bottom of the fire bog. He lit his arrow and held it in front, his back to the bellowing dragon. The virgin screamed.
The dragon succeeded in rousing the crowd and they were in a frenzy. Not wishing to lose his fans, he turned for his final strike. He approached the hero from behind and ten paces away reached out his left talon to force the hero down. He raised his right talon to strike. The hero spun in place and raised a longbow in his direction. The dragon knew this is futile, even though the arrow was flamin. Then the hero smiled, his cracked and smashed teeth giving him a jack o lantern grin. The Rat remembers that mouth, smashing those teeth.
The Rat remembered his cur, his friend, his only ever friend. The dragon howled and lunged to strike.
The arrow struck true directly in the notch where the Rat's reckless flying ruptured the secondary fuel line. The flaming pitch ignited the kerosene and a tiny bit of air was drawn into the tubing. This firey bubble was sucked into the main tanks where it caused the fuel inside to explosively combust. The computer detected this explosion and did its last duty by ejecting it's driver away from the disintegrating battletank.
The hero dove to the side as the stumbling dragon lunged past him. The dragon turned slightly before snorting a giant stream of fire from its face and haunches. Fire burst everywhere and a black object flew in a parabola across the field. Through the smoke the hero saw a giant sheet attached to the object by ropes as it floated gently to earth. The hero knows what that object is. It is a man; or more correctly, it is a Rat.
The hero stumbled through the firey wreckage and drew his short sword. He pawed through the collapsed fabric. He found the black suited Rat underneath and drew it to its knees, stabbing into its lower abdomen. The point of the hero's sword snapped off on the Rat's thick hide. Determined, the hero threw away the sword and pulled out his dagger, rolling around the grass with the struggling Rat, stabbing, looking for an opening. Wedging one hand under the helm, and a foot on the Rat's shoulder, the hero yanked off the Rat's helm. The Rat was bleeding from the nose, but there was still fight in him. The hero bashed the Rat in the teeth with the pommel of his dagger, hearing a reassuring crunch. Slipping around behind the Rat, the hero lifted up the Rat’s chin and slid the dagger cleanly into his neck. The Rat choked and fell to die slowly, just the way a Rat should. The hero rose.
The crowd, stunned by the sudden turnabout, explosion and melee was deathly calm. Then the noises started. The hero raised his arms in victory, thinking they were cheering for him. But these were boos and catcalls. Rotten fruits and vegetables arced out of the crowd to pelt the hero. Disgusted, the hero shielded his face and walked to free the weeping virgin. Behind him, a small child retrieved the Rat’s helmet and paraded it for his friends.
The Rat lay on the great field, the site of so many of his victories. He tried to rise, but his strength failed him. Felled by a boy, he watched the crowd taunt his slayer, throwing curses and rotten food. He saw this before, but it was always the Rat who skittered and ran from the townsfolk. Even as he freed the maiden, the boy had to incur the wrath of the citizens. Sargum smiled and died, content knowing that all the folk in the world were indeed rats like him. But unlike them, he would go to the Overseer not as a common rat, but as a mighty dragon.
Hell might become his home, but the firebreathing would be done by him. He would see the townspeople again and he would pay each their due attention.
Several miles away, in a small, unnatural cave, a mage on a shrine sits and waits for an apprentice that will never return. In the next chamber, another log pops to the surface of the pool and is pushed by the current to join its jumble of brothers that are already there. Nestling in with the older, swollen timbers, it is once again quiet where old logs go to die.