Orel’s room in the inn was pitch black as he slid out of his stupidly soft bed and on naked paws padded about the room hunting for something to wear. He dismissed the soft shirt, moleskin trousers and silk sash he’d worn last night after his bath and opened a chest at the end of his bed and dug out some of his older clothes. The trousers he picked where blue and white stripes and mostly shredded around the hems so they barely reached his knees whilst the sash was a blue velvet that was so faded and stained with salt most people would have dumped it long ago.
As he belted on his belt and his dagger the figure in his bed stirred and lifted their head, yellow eyes glowed in the faint light slipping through the windows and focussed blearily on the rat, “You are leaving?”
Orel grinned at the lynx in his bed and leant over the bed stead to slide a hand under the covers and squeeze something sensitive, “Sorry I have… to do this morning, if you’re here tonight maybe you can join me again.”
The lynx purred and squirmed and tried to untangle himself from the blankets and reach for the rogue rat but Orel was already moving. He looped his necklace over his ears and tucked his muzzle through the thong to let the stone with a hole in it hang against his chest. Dressed to face the day the brown rat headed out into the quiet interior of the inn leaving his entertainment to snuggle back down into bed.
Morty was down in the common room, the bard sitting at a table staring into a clay mug of black coffee, his bright orange mohawk tousled from sleep as he waited. Lifting his head at Orel’s footsteps on the stairs the dog’s tail twitched from side to side as he laid eyes on the rat and waved a paw idly.
“Morning, do we have to do this so early? It’s like two hours to dawn, it’s practically the middle of the night.”
“King summoned us, we gotta go,” Orel said padding over to a table and investigating the remains of last night's buffet, he snagged a block of cheese, a large croissant and joined the dog at the table, “You ready for this?”
The dog squirmed and stared into his coffee cup for a moment then looked up at Orel and grinned, showing off his fangs, “Yeah, yeah I think I am…” he took a long sip of his coffee and grimaced, “Ugh this stuff is disgusting.”
“Why drink it then?” Orel queried as he brushed his whiskers free of crumbs, “I mean if you hate it why force yourself to drink it.”
“Because it makes me feel more awake,” Morty grumbled as he stood up and brushed off his hands then pulled his tailored yet simple jacket over his cotton shirt, “We ready?”
Swallowing the last of his cheese Orel pushed back the chair and looked Morty up and down, “Come on then it's a long walk to the throne room," he led the dog down into the sewers, nodding in approval as the mutt tied on his rapier and left the lute behind. The bouncers let them pass without comment into the dim, damp gloom of the sewers and after a few twists and turns they left the tame tunnels near the inn behind.
The way grew darker, the stone slick with grime and slime even as the humidity rose and the level of water running through the sewer channels grew deeper, adding its pungent stench to the thick, damp air. Morty's ears drooped, his mohawk wilted and his tail sagged as Orel led the way deeper into the warren of tunnels, streams and dark waterways beneath the city. The dog winced the first time Orel led them through a sluggishly moving stream when they ran out of walkways but he followed without complaint. The second time he waded in without any hesitation, dropping down into the thick, stagnant water and pushing on for the far side of the large interchange alongside Orel. He was alert, eyes scanning the tunnels, watching the side passages and the water and when a small group of wild acid crabs came skittering out of a side tunnel the bard saw them first.
Orel was proud to fight alongside him, the mutt’s combat skills were actually of use, he had ability and form that complimented the rat’s own dagger wielding style. He barked happily as the last crab went down and joined Orel in slicing them out of their shells to retrieve the valuable acid pouches so prized by alchemists. He got his hands dirty and didn’t care that he had to kneel in the slime to work on their downed foes. He had changed a lot in the last year and Orel was rather pleased that he had such a large hand in guiding the bard down a more interesting training route then purely sinking all his skills into bard. Maybe twenty minutes after the encounter with the crabs the rat led them away from the main tunnel they were following into a darker side passage that was dry and warm.
Pausing in a low side-tunnel Orel looked back at his canine companion and tilted his head to one side, “You really should get ready to meet the King, it wouldn’t do to turn up unprepared Morty.”
The dog barked softly and scratched one of his ears idly, "I'm still getting used to this Orel, you remember what happened last time? Even when I finish getting ready it… i’m no good at moving about like that.”
Frowning the rat looked the dog up and down, “You accepted Kings’ gift Morty, you should learn to embrace it only then will you really be able to use it to its fullest potential.”
Whining softly the dog’s tail drooped, “But I am so bad at it Orel, can’t we practice some more?”
“The King says if you are alone with me you are to be presentable,” he frowned again as Morty’s whole demeanour drooped then looked around the tunnel they were in, “Ok ok, sheesh stop with the puppy dog eyes! It’s working… come with me, I think I know how to help. We’ll take the long route, that’ll give you plenty of opportunities to acclimatize to things.
Orel led the way down a different tunnel, the sewer grew cramper, the tunnels smaller and soon there was no ledge to walk along just a tunnel that was full of thick mud that sucked and squelched around their knees. Morty grumbled some but followed obediently and was really glad when the rat climbed out of the mud and crawled into a large stone side chamber that had a huge iron grate set in the floor. "Ok I think it's time Morty, we shouldn't go any further until you've changed this next bit of the sewers is pretty nasty."
"OK... I've trained for this," Morty removed his sword belt and handed his rapier, jacket and supply pack to the rat then closed his eyes and took several deep breaths as he rested his hands gently on the wall and leant forward concentrating.
“Just remember what I taught you Morty,” Orel whispered, “Feel inside, let the fact you are underground flow through you, reach… deep inside, feel what you are… and let it do the rest.”
Muzzle screwed up as he focussed the dog's constantly moving tail stilled, his breathing slowed and then he gasped as if someone had just punched him in the stomach and his eyes flew open.
Morty's gentle, kindly brown eyes were gone, replaced by bright red orbs that caught the light from the shuttered lantern and glowed. His whole body tensed and he screamed a deep, hoarse canine yell that made Orel's blood run cold as the dog's bones started to shift, hands and feet curling, back bending and his skull and muzzle twisting. His jaw cracked, nose widening and buck teeth forcing themselves into place on his top and bottom jaw. As the new teeths settled into place the scream rose several octaves as the changes re-tuned Morty's vocal chords, silencing the pained canine yell for a rodent's squeaking squeal.
Orel watched as the bright ginger fur of Morty's mohawk started to spread, growing darker as it pushed its way through the pores of his rodent shaped head. Fur seemed to pour down his muzzle, engulf the sides of his head and cause whiskers to sprout to either side of his snout in a sudden, drooping rush. It was fascinating yet gruesome to watch and Orel's eyes were drawn to his friends ears as they twitched and grew larger, once floppy points becoming rounded, the thinner skin folding to form the traditional rat ear. They looked hairless, dark chocolate skin visible with a slight fuzziness to them that Orel knew from long experience was caused by thin colourless hairs covering the outside edge of each ear. When his head was properly covered in dark red for it seemed to gather itself around the top of his neck and surge down beneath the collar of his shirt.
The sudden movement of fur toward his feet must have coincided with some new change beginning in Morty's tortured body as he squealed again and collapsed onto his hands and knees. Beating at the floor with his dark skinned hands he continued to change, large canine paws growing thinner, ridges of bone becoming visible, claws elongating, finger joints cracking. Those were the most visible changes Orel could see, whatever else was happening was mostly lost under the dog's clothing though he writhed and twitched, squirmed and gasped as his torso shifted, shoulders broadening to cause his shirt to strain the seams along his upper arms tearing revealing tufts of red fur were before the dog had been furless. The same was happening to his feet, bones lengthening, growing to be smooth dark skinned rat paws even as his legs twisted and cracked into a new rodent configuration.
Moving cautiously closer Orel crouched down, eyes focussed on the nearly changed dog as he lay still, momentarily quiet and still. His head came up, bright red eyes focussed on Orel then he bared his buck teeth and squealed.
“Don’t stop Morty, don’t fight it,” he whispered, brushing a finger up and down Morty’s red furred muzzle, “Let it happen… yes… that’s it… let it happen.” As Orel spoke the magic coursing through Morty’s body finished its job and stripped Morty of the last remnants of his canine nature. This was his tail, the short appendage that never usually stopped wagging was spooling out across the floor in long, undulating coils. Morty squealed and arched his back, clawed paws digging into the sewer floor as he raised his voice in pain yet his expression strangely was twisted in an expression of delight. The skin on Morty’s rat tail roughened, growing layers of thick skin, almost scale like in nature as it snaked back and forth behind the were-rat bard. In the end it stopped growing when it was over four feet long, sliding back and forth on the floor as the former dog lowered his head to the ground, panting heavily. For a rat his skin was dark, not really pink, closer to Morty’s original chocolate brown skin tones and to Orel’s nose he stank of rat, no trace of his former canine scent remained he had completely changed.
Lifting his head slowly, red eyes blinking in the dim light Morty smiled at Orel and stretched on all fours, pawing lightly at the floor, “That always feels weird… like I want to scream in pain and moan in pleasure at the same time…” twisting around he examined his thick set rodent body, paws patting his muzzle, tugging on his teeth, “It’s hard to accept this is really me.”
“It’s you,” Orel squeaked quietly, “Stronger, faster, smarter in every way and this time you managed to finish the change, well done.”
“Thanks…” Morty stood up, he’d lost a good foot in height and his body seemed to want to naturally bend forward ever so slightly to better make use of his new body and legs. He had broader shoulders, strong, muscled arms whereas normally Morty’s upper body strength was severely limited. His was was smaller however, a fact Orel noted as the rat belted his rapier back on, he had to use one of his supernaturally sharp claws to pierce a new buckle hole so he could wear the belt at all. Stretching he tested his limbs for a moment, swaying from side to side and taking a few hopping steps around Orel tail slithering along behind him.
“This feels good, so glad I didn’t get stuck half way like last time, that fucking hurt heh,” he grinned at the other rat, “So we off to see his majesty or you just gonna stand around staring at my ass all day?”
Laughing Orel bent and tugged open the grate in the floor and started head first down the metal rungs stapled into the wall of the shaft below, “Let’s get going, we’ve still got quite a walk ahead of us. I’ll admire you some more on the way.”
Morty smirked and followed his leader, the pair of rats scampering with ease down the ancient ladder into the tunnel below. The air was heavy with moisture and the heat was uncomfortably high but Orel clambered down the ladder and out into a dank sewer tunnel that ran with clear water, the waterline encrusted with algae and what looked liked barnacles. It stank, the humid air made his fur stick to his body and his tail slithered uncomfortably through the thick green slime lining the stones.
“Where the fuck are we?” he demanded sourly, “This isn’t the route to King’s throne… it’s… well it makes no bloody sense.”
“Sorry,” Orel said with a grin, “It is a route to King’s throne, just it goes through the deep sewers, part of the old city from before the Yorgan Crusade torched the original place.”
“Well why the hell did we come this way?” Morty demanded standing up and shaking his body, he then clawed at his throat, claws slicing the collar of his shirt. Sighing at the loosening of pleasure he leant against the wall and eyed Orel, “Also remind me not to wear a shirt when being a rat, collars suck….”
Orel gestured ahead, “It’s an assault course, slimy tunnels for unsure footing, whole areas of it are flooded with water direct from the river. Parts of it are collapsed and need to be climbed over King told me about it.”
Turning to face the were-rat Orel prodded him in the chest, “You said you wanted the chance to get used to this body, well… this is it, come on now,” he started forward encouraging Morty to scamper, to move and weave, to drop to all fours then back to two and put his body through its paces. The route wasn’t an easy one and really tested him, the first tunnel was all water and green slime and Morty fell over about six times before they reached the end of it. Orel just scampered along with ease and Morty squeaked and growled, baring his teeth and picking himself up! Something inside him wanted to prove to Orel that he could do this and it was growing stronger every time he slipped or tumbled or overbalanced and tripped over his own tail.
After the first tunnel there were pits to climb across, a flooded chamber of stagnant water to swim through and rock falls to scramble over. Vents occasionally puffed steam or stagnant gas but Morty refused to let any challenge defeat him. This wasn’t at all what he had been expecting to do this morning. It was… interesting though, scents and sound were clearer, stronger and Orel put the lantern away forcing him to rely on his night vision, which was surprisingly good!
The second chamber he had to swim across proved to be filled with cold water and the far end required him to scramble on all fours after Orel up a steep slope covered in thick, slimy grey mud that clung to his fur and ruined his clothing beyond any hope of repair. At the top of that mucky tunnel there were a series of blocky chunks of masonry they had to climb down then a totally submerged tunnel! Morty thought his lungs were going to burst but it was surprisingly easy to keep his eyes open beneath the water and he was just about able to keep up with Orel and rise to safety for a gasp of air in a tiny, stagnant air pocket before following the rat the rest of the way. At the end Morty was relieved to be able to clamber up onto the rocky remnants of a sewer platform, water streaming from his clothes and slick rodent fur and crouch besides Orel. His muscles ached, his whole body was a throbbing mass of protesting aches and dull pain as muscles he’d never used grumbled at him quietly.
“You’re doing better already Morty,” Orel murmured quietly, patting him on the arm, “The body becomes you, after a workout like that instinct and natural movement take over.”
Panting still Morty licked his buck teeth and glanced at the soggy brown rat beside him, “How do you know so much about wererats? It’s not like you are one… are you?”
“No… I’m a rat, pure and uncomplicated, but King told me all I needed to know to help you with this. It was a brave thing, accepting the infection off King like that.”
Morty shuffled and ran his long, naked pink tail through his claws, “It was a good offer, a way to grow stronger, to learn and be more useful to the team. Besides… it feels really good to squeak!”
Laughing quietly Orel pointed along a narrow passage, tight spaces and cracked slanting walls that leant against one another at crazy angles, “The way to King is through this passage, come on.”
The final stretch of their route was tight, awkward to maneuver and surprisingly Morty had less trouble navigating it then Orel did but squeezing around the last corner of the tunnel the pair wound up standing at the bottom of a long well shaft with a grate at the top. The air was heavy with scents, rat, damp, food and something… really interesting that tickled the back of Morty’s brain pleasingly. Swarming up the ladder after Orel, the were-rat clambered out into a large chamber that was dimly lit by lanterns that glowed with a flickering green flame.
It cast a strange shade over the room that was piled with treasure of all kinds, coins, ingots, jewels, gold and silver, platinum and sapphires… it was heaped everywhere in untidy piles, spilling out of chests and boxes. There were also weapons of all shapes and sizes, armour and rich fabrics. There was however no sign of King, the giant mystical dire-rat who ruled the sewers with an iron squeak, the air was heavy with his scent however and Morty fiddled with his claws nervously as he waited for him to appear.
Orel didn’t seem all that bothered, the bandana wearing rat sat down on an upturned barrel and waited patiently, tail swaying back and forth across the damp stones. It was only a couple of minutes but they stretched on and on and then the soft pattering of paws made Morty look up to the huge grill that filled one wall. Rats were pouring out of it, small ferals, dire-rats the size of small dogs but standing on the lip of the tunnel was a huge dire-rat who had to be nearly four foot tall on his hind legs. He had a silver crown perched around his ears and was regarding the two anthropomorphic rats with baleful red eyes. Orel moved and knelt on one knee and Morty scrambled to join him as King surveyed them from above.
A veritable sea of rats was flooding the floor around the pair of kneeling rats, small feral rats, larger dire-rats, but they just walked and scampered and watched. What really held their attention however was the rat in the crown, he stayed above them, aloof, watching, a sly smile on his grey muzzle as he adjusted his crown. He was no larger than Morty’s head and yet… there was something about King and his scent seemed to bypass Morty’s nose and flip all the switches in his brain that made him want to join the scampering swarm around him in attendance to their king.
“Hello there Orel and my Morty… I am glad to see you are adapting to your job, now sit and tell me how our plans progress and then… then we must discuss many things, I have a couple of simple tasks lined up for you and your friends. It is past time for us to move my plans forward so come, attend and listen… there is much to do.”
Spreading a map of the city out across the table in his bedroom at the Silent Keg Orel weighted the corners with a spare belt buckle, a tankard and a couple of silver coins. Satisfied the map was secure he turned his attention to Jay and Aira who were standing patiently by the table waiting for him.
"The King has two jobs for us this time," he scratched his whiskered muzzle, "Well one job and a tip off."
"Good," Jay said, "I got a little carried away with scrolls at the magic shop this morning so I don't want to sit around not earning. Tell me we got paid for yesterday too?"
"Aye we did," Orel unhooked a heavy pouch from his waist and dropped it on the table, "Price from King and the bounty for the pirates we captured, Colonel Ferrington deposited it in the usual place."
"Yes," Jay exclaimed, tugging the bag open and spilling gold and silver coins over the table, "Brilliant how much did we make total?"
"Four thousand gold, eighty seven silver," Orel grinned at Jay, "We can split it up later and go shopping or whatever but right now we need to focus on the job at hand."
"Shouldn't we wait for Morty?" Aira queried as he sat down, pushing coins off the map so he could examine it, "He should be here for this."
"He's already heard the details from King besides he's still in the bath house," Orel smirked, "The trip to King was rather... unpleasant this morning. A tunnel had flooded and we had to swim through it to reach the other side, he was... not a happy dog."
"Oh..." Aira wrinkled his nose, "Understandable I wish there was a more pleasant way to reach the King's abode. It is... rather distasteful to have to keep going into the sewers."
"As long as he's paying us we go wherever he wants," Jay said, shaking out the sleeves of his robe and gesturing at the map, "So what's the Rat King got us doing now?"
"Two things, firstly he wants us to break into the Tower of Triên here in the city, the warlock who owns the place has a very peculiar staff King wants to get his hands on, apparently it has some very interesting polymorphic and mental domination effects he thinks shouldn't be held by someone of such questionable morals."
"and he's such a moral character of impeccable taste and transparent reasons," Aira snorted, "Petty larceny even from warlocks.... really Orel I'm not doing that!"
"No you won't be, you'll be joining me here in Baren Hill, rumour has it the worshippers of Spinneret the Queen of Spiders have a hidden temple somewhere in Baren. You and I will be investigating that and shutting it down hard if it is real."
“Wait we’re splitting up?” Aira asked, sitting up in his chair and staring at the map, “Is that wise? I mean Spinneret’s worshippers are…”
“Mostly confused city folk, maybe one of two acolytes,” Orel interrupted with a grin and a squeak, “They’ll not pose much of a challenge, we’re to go in, arrest the actual acolytes and then you give one of your goodness and justice speeches to the confused gullible townsfolk and we’re done.”
“And you think Jay and Morty can break into some warlock’s tower and steal from him on their own?”
“Yeah, I mean you’re the sneaky one Orel, I’m more the fwoosh and flames and boom and Morty… well tends to strum his lute and sing encouraging ditties to buck our spirits up.”
“You are exactly what we need, King has got quite a bit of information on this place and he’s sending a specialist to work with you both,” Orel tapped the map with his claws, “This guy is apparently a professional thief, turns out we aren’t the only ones King has on retainer. Dude specifically requested a mage and a bard.”
“Ah, I see,” Jay murmured, the otter grinning behind his whiskers, “King felt pity on you and Aira so is sending you off to spread good cheer and harmony whilst Morty and I get all the action?”
Orel grimaced, “Something like that, stopping some evil acolytes from setting up a dark temple is probably important work but… less exciting.”
“Of course it is important,” Aira snapped as he stood up and adjusted his habit, “Spinneret is an evil god and has no place in a city or any civilized location. I shall take great pleasure in putting a stop to her minions! It is much better than sneaking around stealing from a wizard.”
“A warlock Aira, they are hardly nice people,” Jay retorted, “Anyone who's half way decent doesn’t call themselves a warlock.”
“Bah, you just want to go so you can get your filthy mitts on his magical items, well not for me! I’d rather do some good work, when do we leave Orel?”
Shaking his head at Jay as he rolled up the map of the city Orel glanced toward Aira, “Tonight, Kings information says they are holding a meeting at midnight. So we need to track it down before then and be ready to introduce ourselves when all the real acolytes are present.”
“Very well, I shall go prepare my prayers and see you....?”
“An hour before sunset? So... three hours from now?” the rat offered, Aira nodded and marched out into the corridor leaving Orel alone with the otter who was watching him with a bemused grin.
“He really needs to learn how to bend a little, i’m getting a little bit bored of the perfect cleric routine.” Jay muttered as he tucked his paws into the long sleeves of his robes, “When do me and Morty leave?”
“In an hour, a dire-rat will be waiting to guide you from the sewer entrance, follow her and she’ll take you to where the thief is waiting. His names Tatty and he’ll be your best bet of getting in and out of that tower intact.”
Jay nodded and headed for the door, “Cool, I’ll go rouse the dog out of the bath and see you when we get back!”
Watching Jay leave Orel followed and made sure the corridor was empty before shutting the door and glancing at the bed were a pair of black eyes were watching him, “It’s all set up, I’ll keep the cleric occupied, you take care of the rest.” the rat beneath the bed squeaked and scampered into a hole in the skirting board and away leaving Orel alone with his thoughts as he started to prepare for the journey ahead.
We rejoin Orel and his adventuring party a few months after their first successful mission for the self styled Rat King!