Locked in a life or death struggle with his assailant Orel had no idea if the wider fight was going in his team's favour. The tiger he was struggling with was all muscles and scars in rough cut clothing that stank of tar and salt. It was strange what the mind latched onto; in the heat of battle you'd think things like scent or the cut of someone's clothing wouldn't really be important. But here he was worrying about how bad the tiger stank even as he strained against his muscled bulk. With his claws scrabbling on the rough planks of the jetty beneath his feet Orel grunted and stopped resisting, letting his body drop, hands tugging on the tiger's arms, jerking him off balance.
He cursed, a low growl of anger as he pitched over the rat and landed roughly and awkwardly on the planks. Orel didn't give him time to get up, not even trying to go for the dagger he'd lost when he first engaged the large feline. He leapt on his back and looped his sinuous tail around his neck and heaved on both ends. Scrabbling at the rat awkwardly, his target tried to reach him but his own bulk kept the rat out of reach. He rolled onto his back but Orel clung to his own tail and pulled harder even as he was squashed beneath the stinky sailor cat. The tiger squealed and clawed at the heavy tail crushing his windpipe, desperately trying to dislodge the rat but Orel hung grimly. Then as the tiger scrambled and tried to sit up and dislodge him Orel dug his feet into the cat's back and jerked backwards with all his weight.
There was a snap, a wet gurgling mewl then Orel had to squirm and kick his way out from beneath two hundred pounds of tiger-rug. Skittering to retrieve his dagger Orel bounced back to his feet and looked around the hidden wharf. It had been built beneath a warehouse, set back from the forest of public wharfs and jetties but with it’s own slipway carved under them to grant easy access beneath the berths of the big merchant ships.
The cool artificial cavern was filled with cries, shouts and clashing weapons as the slavers and smugglers who made the wharf their home clashed with Orel's party. They outnumbered the group by at least two to one but they'd been taken by surprise. As they had been tying their black hulled craft up to the jetty Jay had lobbed a ball of ice into the wheelhouse.
They'd taken out about five in that opening salvo but that still left about twelve who'd come charging up the wharf toward them. Orel had engaged a pair of marmots then got tangled up with the tiger and lost track of what was going on. Aira and Morty were standing side by side fighting a tightly packed knot of pirates. The duo were aided by the flickering katana of fire that the cleric had summoned which was helping them drive the group toward the water.
Darting forwards, heavy dagger held low Orel left the cleric and bard to it and came up behind the deer menacing Jay and rammed his dagger into one of their kidneys in a classic sneak attack. The cervine stiffened then slumped to the floor as the rat pulled his blade free and unceremoniously shoved the buck off the wharf into the water.
Jay lowered his staff and nodded to his leader, "Thanks, should we get back to it?"
"I'll cover your back," Orel murmured, "You rip the fabric of existence into obeying your every whim," the rat caught a sloppily thrust marlin spike and interposed himself between Jay and the ragged squirrel who'd just jumped off the boat as the Mage started to mutter his next spell. The sailor clearly had no real training and Orel ducked past his guard and shoulder barged him backwards. The rodent fell between the wharf and the pirate scow and Orel winced as his sudden squeal was cut off as the boat lifted on a swell and crushed the squirrel between wharf and hull. It was an unpleasant way to go but Orel was too busy fighting for his life to care as he had to duck the eager swipe of a curved sabre as a huge bear made his way off the boat.
Jay's staff crackled and lighting slammed into the knot of pirates pressing Aira and Morty as Orel started to dodge and duck the grimy bears assault. A dagger was no weapon to try and defend against a sabre but the rat had other tricks up his sleeve. Jay's magic lashed out, a stream of magically propelled rocks staggered the bear and before he could recover Orel was inside his guard and using his tail to tangle his sword arm whilst his dagger drove up through his gut. He bellowed in pain and fell over as Orel jerked him off balance and struck again and again with his heavy blade. As he fell over the rat darted backwards on nimble paws and fell in besides Jay as the Mage advanced on Aira's position but the fight on the jetty was mostly over. Their last assailant stiffened as Morty ran his rapier into their side then dropped as Aira clouted them over the head with his mace.
The sounds of battle ended abruptly with the fall of their last opponent and Aira looked around then sniffed as the others joined him, "Well victory is ours, what little there is to be had against such an uncouth band of ruffians."
"Yeah but they won't be slaving any more will they," Morty panted and started back up the jetty toward the boat, "I'll let search the hold, Orel can you scuttle the boat?"
"Mmhmm," the rat murmured as he put his dagger away and followed the dog aboard, "Aira, Jay, you two see if anyone is alive to take prisoner," he then ducked through a hatchway and descended into the depths of the boat leaving the bard to search the cabin and hold for anything of value. Clambering through the stinking bilges the rat found the tar and wax sealed bungs in the bottom of the boat and knocked them out. With the drydock cocks removed the boat was screwed and the bilges were already flooding into the hold as Orel scrambled up the ladder heading topside..
Hurrying back onto deck the rat walked over to where Aira was waiting, the cleric was frowning but Orel just slapped him on the shoulder and grinned, "Let's get out of here before the city guard turn up."
"We shouldn't have to run, we've just stopped these smugglers from harming honest traders, we should be being rewarded," the fox grumbled as he followed Orel toward were Morty and Jay had lifted one of the sewer grates at the back of the hidden wharf.
"King rewards us to not be noticed," Orel said firmly before he ducked into the tunnel and nodded to the large dire rat waiting there, "He knows the right people to get word too so the Guard don't claim all the credit. The traders know someone is looking out for them, the criminal underworld is being undermined and the right people get to hear about it, not the corrupt elements of the guard."
Aira eyed the large feral rat warily as it scuttled off and trudged after the rat leaving Morty and Jay to close the grate behind them, "It still doesn't feel right."
"What's not to like?" Morty asked as he caught up, "We're doing good deeds, being paid for our services. What does it matter if we're not being sung about in nobles halls? Enough people know it is us, real people who live normal lives, not in the fantasy world of the nobles."
Aira frowned at the bard, the usually foppish dog was dressed almost soberly, grey and brown linen trousers, a decent sensible jacket and not a scrap of lace to be seen. The fox sighed and shifted the weight of his chainmail, "There is just something I dislike about working for the King, his motives are unclear."
"He pays us," Jay stated, "Nothing he's had us do is evil or harmful, at most we've upset the whole criminal underworld and made things better for the people of the city."
"Yes but, why?"
"Why does it matter?" Orel asked, the rat walking backwards, bare feet splashing through the sewer's stream, "We're stronger than we were a year ago when we first met him. He's hired us when no one else would touch us, helped us develop our skills, given us advice when we need it."
"Without him we'd be fucked," Morty continued, "People trust us, have seen us doing good deeds seemingly for no reward. You've seen how they're offering us work, coming to us with tip offs like that hidden dock. People I actually care to work for are being helped by our actions as opposed to fat merchants or spoilt nobles."
Sighing Aira pulled his plain,.serviceable habit up around his knees to keep it out of the stream, "Maybe I am worrying over nothing," he adjusted his scroll case and looked left and right as they reached an intersection, "Does the king require our presence?"
Orel tilted his head as if listening to something, his thick whiskers swaying as his nose twitched, "Nah," the scraggly dressed rogue said, "Let's go to the inn and relax, we stink."
Laughing softly Jay walked past Orel and thumped the rat on the shoulder, "We always stink, our employer keeps making us walk around the sewers."
Buck teeth on display as he grinned widely Orel fell in besides the mage and started down a side tunnel, "At least you've all learnt to dress sensibly for these missions.."
Jay flicked his tail and adjusted his blue robe, "I'm wearing what I always wear, Morty now, he's certainly learned."
"You may be wearing a blue robe," Aira said with a soft smirk, "But I saw how much money you spent on it. It also seems suspiciously good at repelling muck and grime, blood and water."
Grinning Jay waggled his webbed fingers at the cleric, "I'm a wizard, but you're one to talk, I've not seen you wear your fancy vestments in weeks."
"A plain brown habit is a sign of humility and a pious mindset."
"You bought it in the same shop as Jay," Orel squeaked, "I still say you should just dress like me."
"In rags you mean?" Morty quipped, “ragged cast off and a bandana that make you look like a pirate."
Smirking the rat shook his head, "Clothes I don't care a damn about and can throw away at the end of a mission."
"Like I said, rags," Morty barked and adjusted his coat, "You really should spend some of your coin on enchanted clothing like ours."
"He'll never change," Jay said with a fond smile, "He's a rat, I think it's like part of their heritage to be scruffy."
"Mmhmm, makes us irresistible to women and men alike, none can resist the suave natural charms of the rat. If I dressed up all nice I'd steal all the hot guys and gals for myself."
Chortling softly the rat's companions followed him through the winding tunnels of the sewer, banter bouncing back and forth as in high spirits they made their way back to the inn that had in recent months come to be home.
The inn was called the Silent Keg and was built into a decent sized warehouse a few streets back from the docks in Forn district. Outside there were no signs or street level windows, nothing at all to indicate that through the side door, past the bulky forms of Trev and Tal lay a rather nice inn. It spanned three floors and had sewer access through a large basement level tunnel that served as the entrance of choice for quite a lot of the patrons.
The black furred panther Louisa ran the Keg with a firm but fair hand and had some deal with King to make the sewers under Forn accessible as long as folks were going to or from the Keg. The kitchens, storerooms and wine cellar where all in the spacious, vaulted basement space and there was even a rat way, a narrow tunnel that folks could use, for a price, to reach the docks without having to go above ground. The ground floor was split into a couple of rooms, there was the common room where food was served, the tap room that had the bar, and a smaller room that had a raised platform at one end for performers. When he'd first started coming here after King told the party about it he'd asked Lou how she kept the guards from finding it. Turned out the walls were lined with a very thick layer of cork and she had an arrangement with the Forn detachment of the guards. Upstairs there were private bedrooms, a bunk house, bathrooms both common and private and Lou's apartment and the swanky set of fancier bedrooms that Orel and the guys had moved into about six months back.
Nodding to the guys on the basement entrance Orel showed them his teeth in a big grin as they straightened up. The huge bear Rob and the wiry mouse Gyan were big fans of their work. There had been a big issue with one of the criminal gangs who made up the network of underworld powers, they'd started abducting children to sell to miners as labourers. Gyan's little brother had been taken but Orel's group had put them down and made it back with the kids. A bonus was they'd come away with the proof of which mines had been buying children and records showing the owner, Lord Darrington had been involved personally. The scandal had gone all around town and the Darrington family had fallen very hard on the magistrates displeasure.
"You guys did it?" Rob asked with a grin as he clasped Morty's arm in greeting, "The Tarvench is sunk?"
"Yup, the crew is mostly dead too or tied up and paying court to the guards we summoned. Captain Yulda is going to a nasty surprise when Colonel Ferrington's squad arrest them all."
"One less corrupt guard getting paid to ignore criminals," Gyan said with a grin, "I can live with that, come on in," he wrinkled his nose, "I'll have someone get the bath house ready."
Orel squeaked and grinned widely then headed on in, soon enough Lou's efficient staff had them ensconced in large tubs full of soap and hot water. Clothing vanished toward the laundry room or in Orel's case the rag pile and the big brown rat sighed happily as he settled into the water. Jay and Aira were talking quietly about an unidentified magical object they'd found on the boat whilst Morty was splashing about and singing quietly to himself.
Lifting his feet out of the bath the rat stretched then permitted himself to sink down beneath the water. The world echoed gently as for a few moments he permitted himself to just relax, to forget all his obligations and duties to his King. It had been a busy year since their first filthy foray into the coal mine and quite a few of their early trips had been just as filthy, cold and miserable. Lifting his head every so gently out of the tub he watched his companions, the jobs had toughened everyone up, they'd been forced to grow or die and they'd all chosen to grow. King's motives were beyond their grasp, even Orel only had flashes of insight but it'd be impossible to detach themselves from his schemes now, whatever they were.
Cleaning his fur took a while and he had to empty the bath twice and refill it with hot water from the cauldrons over the fire. Still when he was done he felt good, dressed himself in actual decent clothing and joined his friends in the common room. The evening passed with good food, ale and a dramatic recounting of their latest adventure by Morty. The bard knew how to spin a tale, he got better with every trip, he knew exactly what tone to use, how to adjust his voice and even mimic everyone else's voices, he was an expert at his craft these days. Grinning into his drink Orel downed his ale and joined in the general mirth and camaraderie, it was a good night and there was more fun to be had later, once things quieted down.
We rejoin Orel and his adventuring party a few months after their first successful mission for the self styled Rat King!