Slouched in the small booth at the corner of the inn's common room Orel watched the comings and goings of the patrons. It was early morning but the place was pretty busy. People who had stayed the night where sat at tables devouring breakfast or hailing the serving girls to bring them hot drinks and fried food. A few locals had also dropped in to eat, easily distinguished from the out-of-towners by the long blue cloaks that where a common accessory amongst the townsfolk. It was busy, warm and cozy compared to the heavy, cold rain that he could see assaulting the streets through the windows.
Taking a large bite of bread the brown furred rat chewed slowly, washing the dry stuff down with a gulp of dark, over-brewed tea. Flicking crumbs from his whiskers by wriggling his nose he grabbed his faded velvet purple sash as it started to slip. Winding it carefully back around his shoulders and chest the rat checked the leather thong with the round stone attached to it was still safe about his neck. Satisfied he’d not lost his favourite charm he turned to watched one of his companions descend the stairs that led to the bedrooms.
The otter was dressed in a dark navy blue robe that was wrinkled and though clean had clearly not been folded properly when taken off the night before. The staff he carried in one hand towered over him. It was a good three feet taller than he was and just drew attention to how short he was. His backpack like Orel's was bulging with equipment, his bedroll and supplies. Though he didn’t hesitate to dump it atop the rat’s before sliding onto the bench next to him.
"Miserable morning isn't it?" he said warmly, reaching out for Orel's loaf of dark crusted bread. The rat pulled the plate away from the otter’s paw and squeaked irritably.
"It's mildly horrible yeah, but that doesn't mean I'm about to share my breakfast with you Jay. Buy your own," he broke off another chunk of bread and bit into it and stared at the sorcerer as he chewed.
"Hey now, we agreed to share everything, you know we have to stick together in this place if we want to make a name for ourselves and get anywhere."
Swallowing Orel squeaked softly, "Yeah we share loot and look out for each other. No one ever said anything about sharing food or drink."
"That's sort of implied you know," another voice interjected itself. Turning to look Orel saw it was Aira. The blue furred cleric was immaculately dressed as always. The green and cream habit thrown over his mail-shirt looked like it had just been pressed whilst his trousers and boots were crisp and polished. He unhooked the mace from his belt before sitting down and setting down a tray laden with crispy fried slices of bacon and a large lump of butter. The scent made Orel's nose twitch and he eyed it hungrily. "As long as we are a team we share food too, you bought the bread, I got the bacon," he glanced at Jay and grinned, "What are you buying?"
"Drinks!" the otter shouted and jumped up to intercept one of the serving wenches. Orel shook his head and sighed and pushed his loaf of bread into the middle of the table, "Thanks Aira, he'd just eat all the food and never actually spend any of his money on it. He's worse than me and I'm the rogue in this little party."
"I know what he's like," he offered the rat some of his bacon and watched as Orel constructed bacon sarnie, "Any sign of Morty yet?"
"Yeah he was down here… oooh coffee thanks," taking one of the mugs from Jay as he returned the rat pointed to the door, "The dog went out, said he had a lead on a job for us."
"Good, we're kinda running low on money here," Jay set his money pouch down and watched as it sagged with barely a clink, "I can't afford another night here, can you guys?"
"No, even buying one room for the four of us is beyond me, Orel?"
The rat shrugged his shoulders and bit into his sandwich again, swallowing hastily before speaking, "I got like a piece of silver and a handful of coppers, nothing substantial. We need some income or well... this group is done for."
"Aye, I am not selling any more of my belongings on the off chance that we can get a job together." Jay grumbled, "I want that book back out of the pawnshop so you lot aren't running off again until we at least scrape together enough for that."
Aira nodded glumly and stared into his coffee then looked up as a group on another table got up. They looked prosperous, happy, well fed and from the gear they had they didn't have to worry about making ends meet. Sighing heavily he pushed his mug away and shook his head, "I don't get it, we're not doing anything differently than half the other groups in town. Why can't we make it work?"
Orel watched the other adventuring party head outside and snorted, "We don't have anyone from a noble family or a guild in our group. No nice injection of cash and reputation to give us a boost up." he waved a paw as the group of squirrels went out into the rain, "That black fur, he's a member of the Da-Sanque family I'd recognize that casual arrogance anywhere."
"He may be right; I mean what chance do we stand?" Jay muttered, "The major guilds won't offer us work. I'm starting to think we need to leave town, go out into the countryside and see if we can pick up a job in one of the nearby villages."
"Let's not give up yet, here's Morty, let us at least see what he has to say," Aira pointed at the dog walking toward them. He was a hairless Persian dressed in bright green cotton trousers, a green shirt with billowing sleeves and a voluminous red and blue dyed waistcoat. His skin was a rich smoky grey and the only fur he had was a bright red mohawk and flamboyantly ridiculous eyebrows. A soft whiff of lemon scented soap accompanied his arrival at the table and Orel could see he his stupid lute slung over his back and a short rapier hanging from his belt. Though from experience Orel knew he was better suited to playing music then sticking things with the sword. His salmon coloured cloak was soaked and he dumped it without much ceremony over the bench before swiping one of the coffee cups,
"Morning guys! Wet and horrible out there but I did it! I've got us a proper job, Reginald at the Blacksmith's guild needs a group to transport something he just finished making from his forge in the Garantha District to Lord Tof'Marole's manor in the Over-lodge."
"Well that is good news," Aira replied with a smile, "What is he willing to pay us?"
"Three hundred if we get it there intact and undamaged,"
"Gold?" Orel asked, ears perking up,
"Silver," Morty said with a happy wag of his tail, "Which is better than we got right now. So shall we?"
"I got one question," Jay said as he finished off his breakfast and licked his fingers clean, "How we going to pay the toll on Garantha bridge? It's ten copper a head and well..." he upended his pouch and pointed at the meagre handful of coins, "I can't afford that."
"Ah he may well have a point," Aira said as he opened his own money pouch and looked into it with a frown, "I am rather low on funds as well. Orel, Morty, do either of you have enough?"
"Nope," Orel said with an irritable squeak, "Of course I don't and I know the dog is broke he was begging me for money to use the bath-house last night."
Morty waved his hands from side to side, "Guys, guys, I thought of that ok. We can get from here into Garantha easily, we just take the sewer. I was talking to one of the Ursine gang. He told me that the sewers are easily navigable and we can skip the toll bridge easily. There is a grate out back of this place we can use to get down there."
Jay and Aira stared at Morty in shocked silence; Orel however finished licking his claws clean and stood up. He hitched up his ragged black leather trousers and tightened the belt holding them up and checked his set of three daggers were still settled in place. Satisfied he slung his pack onto his back and grabbed his morning star. Once he was suitably armed he pulled out a large square of faded green cloth and folded it over his head and around his ears to form a bandana.
"Well I'm ready, come on you two," he kicked Aira in the boot, "It's a job and it means we get to sleep in an inn and eat proper food. Rather than you know out there," he pointed at the window where it was still pissing it down, "We won’t get a better chance than this. It’s the sewer for a quick jaunt across town or sleep in a ditch tonight."
"But... the sewers?" Aira muttered as he collected his pack and adjusted his scroll case, "We.... are you sure there isn't another way over there?"
"Nope," Morty said with a grin, "Come on guys, it'll be an adventure!"
"Yeah a stinking adventure," Jay muttered, he scooped up his coppers and stuffed his money pouch back into his robe and sighed, "Ok then, and let’s go do this. If we have to do it we have to do."
"That's the spirit,!" Morty chimed and led the way across the inn stopping by the bar to chat with the hyena behind it. The dog exchanged a few words, bantering back and forth and Orel had to admit he was impressed with how smoothly the dog talked the hyena into letting them have access to the rear courtyard. But then Orel had seen the mutt leaving the bar-yena's bedroom that morning, so he wasn't that surprised he was amenable to letting them through.
Bare feet splashing through a puddle Orel followed the dog to the large iron grate set into one corner of the courtyard. Crouching down he helped to lever it up with Morty and was the first down and out of the rain. His clawed feet quickly found purchase on the slimy stones of the tunnel, the run off from the rain cold against his skin as he hurried down the short cramped passage and out into the main tunnel. The sewer was large, he was easily able to stand upright and the service walkway running along either side of the main channel was in a decent condition. The big rat couldn't help but grin as Jay joined him, the sorcerer had a martyred expression and every time he moved he grimaced slightly. Orel guessed it was probably because under that heavy blue robe the otter only had a pair of very crappy sandals on. The rainwater running down the channel from the inn's back courtyard was probably dissolving the cheap board they were made from.
Aira and Morty would be ok, they had proper boots on but it'd be fun to watch Jay suffer every time he had to squish through a patch of slimy something. His friends still had no idea what was suitable for adventuring in. From the way Aira had a handkerchief pressed to his snout and was eyeing the slimy walls he'd be trying his best to not brush against anything incase his precious habit got soiled. As for Morty, well the dog was a total fop when it came to his clothing choices but at least he didn’t care if they got messy, but then a large proportion of his share of any loot went to laundering his outfits.
Orel however didn't care, a childhood of growing up on the river-docks, climbing ropes, and rigging sails helping out on boats had taught him that shoes were over-rated. Especially when you had dexterous and useful toes like he did. The rogue-guild had also taught him not to put too much stock in appearance. Sure wearing nice things and look respectable felt good but you could feel just as good in scruffy clothing if you took the time to dress for the occasion. You had to fit in to suit the job, out here in the wet and wild doing odd jobs for guild-masters, with the likelihood of running into monsters or worse. Well there wasn’t much point in wasting time on fancy clothes or spending money getting stuff laundered when you were done. He didn't care if these clothes got filthy unlike his companions who clearly put too much stock in looking good regardless of the practicalities.
"Well Morty, which way do we go?" Aira muttered, "The sooner we get there the sooner we can leave this horrible place.
The dog looked around, tail drooping somewhat as he tried to get his bearings, "I... ah.... uhm..."
"This way," Orel said with a squeak heading down the tunnel toward the river, "Really can't any of you navigate underground?" coiling his long naked tail around he hooked a dagger out of his belt with the end and held it low and ready, "Now this looks like a pretty sedate sewer but be ready anyway. You never know there might be something monstrous lurking down here."
"Ugh.... I just stepped in something," Jay muttered, lifting his robe clear of the floor with one paw looking down in disgust, "This better be worth it Morty."
"It will be, come on, hurry," the dog moved past the otter and followed the rat as he led the way confidently deeper into the sewer network toward the river and the tunnels that passed beneath it.
"I am not crossing that!" Aira's loud objection echoed off the walls as he stared at the junction Orel was proposing they cross, "It is all slime and muck and Lathander above knows what! I am not getting in that!"
Orel sighed, already ankle deep in the dark sludge that filled the large round drainage junction, "It's the only way under the river!" he pointed toward one of the tunnels on the other side, "Everything slopes down here. We have to cross and go up to reach the other side."
"Are you sure?" Morty asked edging closer to the steps that descended into the muck. He peered left and right, looking hopefully for a walkway around the edge of the drainage system, "Surely there have to be other ways around?"
"Not that I know of, we go this way and it starts back up, that's all I can tell," Orel snapped, "This was your idea, what did you think it'd be like down here?"
"I don't know, I was expecting these walkways everywhere and we could just stroll along them until we got to the other side."
Jay sighed and shoved Morty from behind, pushing him toward their rogue companion, "Yeah well you should have known better, we're here now so get down there. At least you still have shoes on."
Aira's scream made them all turn as the cleric leapt sideways and crashed into Jay sending the otter slipping over the edge to sprawl in the muck with a soggy splat.
"What the hell!" Jay shouted, pushing himself up, his robe was covered in slime all down one side but he ignored it. Swinging his staff around, arcane energy crackling along the length of wood he was focused on looking for the source of Aira's fright, "What is it? What's attacking?"
"It was a rat! A great big buck toothed thing, it ran right over my boots! It was hideous!"
Lowering his tail and the dagger held within it Orel stared at the cleric and sighed, sliding his dagger back into the sheath on his belt, "Seriously? Have you seen what I am?" he gestured at his body, "If you're not scared of me, how can you be frightened by the feral kind?"
"Ugh Aira," Jay growled, shaking his robe to try and dislodge some of the slime coating it, "You didn't just..." he marched up to the cleric and squished both of his mucky paws into the fox's habit, "Get... go on get! Into the muck with you already and lets go this over with!"
Aira protested and squirmed, trying to get away from the otter but the water weasel herded him past Orel and out into the sludge filled drainage space. Morty sighed and followed, cringing as his boots squished into the muck after his friends.
"We're just lucky the water level is so low,” Orel called after them as he slowly made his way forward, “I bet during the spring and autumn there is a veritable river through this place," he squelched after the dog. Cringing internally he kept his muzzle free of expression as he pointed toward the second tunnel on the right, "That one Jay, it goes up in the right direction."
The otter nodded and started toward the stone ledge, circling the deeper muck that clogged the drain in the centre, "How we going to explain our appearance to this Blacksmith when we arrive stinking of the sewer?"
"No idea, stand around in the rain and hope the worst washes off? Or find a water butt or an outlet pipe and stand under it to get clean?" Morty suggested, "If I can stay relatively clean I can go speak to him whilst you guys clean up?"
"Maybe," Aira muttered, "But I am never getting this mess out of my.... what...." he stopped walking and jerked his arm free from Jay when the otter tried to keep pulling him along. “Stop, did you hear that?" his large, pointed vulpine ears twitched as he turned slowly as if trying to locate the source of some noise, "I am sure I heard something."
Orel squelched over to join the fox and tilted his head from side to side, "I don't..."
"A sort of echoing squeaking noise?" Morty asked, cutting off his companion, "I hear it too now, coming from...." he turned to point toward one of the other tunnels and froze, muzzle hanging open in shock. Orel and Jay followed his gaze and the brown rat frowned, at first glance it looked like a wave of brown water rushing toward them. There were flashes of pink amidst the mass and grey, black and white patches in the otherwise uniform brown rolling toward them. It was moving fast and looked to be about knee high on Orel, he was about to comment that they didn’t have much to worry about from water when his brain registered what he was actually seeing. It was no wave of sewer sludge it was a host of writhing, wriggling, swarming shapes. Each one with bright eyes, pink ears and a naked tail scrambling and pouring over one another as they rushed toward the group.
"RATS!" Aira screamed and took off toward the walkway at a run; heedless of the muck he raced for safety. Morty and Jay followed suit, dashing after the fleeing cleric as the wall of feral rodents rushed closer. The squeaking sound coming from a multitude of different small throats grew louder as they poured out of the tunnel and started across the drainage ditch. Orel was frozen in place, he'd never seen so many of his feral cousins before, nor seen them acting in such a way. It was fascinating and something in him didn't want to move, he felt an almost overpowering urge to stand there and let them hit him.
"Orel! RUN!" Morty's scream pulled Orel out of his trance and he bolted toward his friends. Aira was already up on the walkway and Morty was reaching up to join him. Orel saw all of this before the wave of squeaking flesh and fur crashed around his knees. He stumbled, his balance wavered and then a host of clawed paws ran up his back and side, piled up atop one another and tipped him over into the furry expanse below.
He landed on a bed or moving, rippling, scampering rats; they ran over him, under, crawled and scrambled through his fur and clothing and dragged him along with them! Distantly he heard Jay yell and Morty barking. White light flared and hit the roof of the tunnel and for a moment Orel rose to the surface. He couldn't see Morty or Jay; they too had been subsumed by the rolling wave of rats. Aira was still free, standing on the walkway of the tunnel, hand glowing from the spell he had hurled into the ceiling in an attempt to scare the rats into scattering. It failed miserably, rats swarmed up the wall in a wave, arching around the curve of the tunnel to launch directly at Aira's chest! The stream of swarming rodents bowled the cleric backwards and he vanished beneath the surface with a yelp. Then the rolling wall of flesh pulled Orel down and try as he might he couldn't break free of the swarm as it carried him tumbling, squeaking and trapped through the tunnels toward destinations unknown.
Tumbled, rolled, jostled about and pricked by hundreds of tiny rat claws Orel was thoroughly disoriented. By the time his body was unceremoniously dumped on a cold, slimy floor he was too dazed to try and look up. He lay still, panting deeply and trying to keep his breakfast down as his stomach rebelled and nausea made his limbs tremble. The sound of someone moaning over to his left slowly stirred him into action; he gently twisted his head and peered about in the green gloom at the source of the offensive noise.
"Morty.... is that you?" he blinked and peered, the flamboyantly dressed bard looked a mess. His bright clothing was stained and tousled and he had Jay sprawled on his back, the sorcerer’s robe tangled around his head. They were trying to disentangle each other with some success but Jay was hampered by his twisted clothing. Pushing himself up on trembling limbs Orel searched for Aira and found the cleric crouched against a stone pillar.
The blue fox seemed to not be suffering from the nausea like the rest of the party. Stupid cleric probably had some sort of mystical priestly training bullshit to help him. He was however staring wide eyed at the swarm of rats scampering around his feet. Orel struggled to his knees and followed them with his eyes; there were hundreds of the small rodents streaming past them still. There had black, brown, white, grey and cinnamon fur with eyes that ranged from black to red. They scampered over his legs, broke in an uninterrupted wave across Morty and Jay as they struggled to untangle themselves and rushed toward the fair side of the cavern.
Orel frowned for a moment, staring, the rats were hitting a long length of grey wall and vanishing. Head jerking Orel squeaked in shock as his mind registered what he’d been seeing, their bodies were not hitting a wall but sliding through flesh.... vanishing beneath the surface of a gigantic tail! It belonged to the biggest rat he'd ever seen. As the swarm of smaller rats dived into his tail he seemed to absorb their mass and grow. He filled one corner of the cavernous sewer chamber and the rats adding to his bulk helped him swell to even greater proportions. He lounging on his back with his upper body propped up against a tall stack of treasure chests, tumbled coins, gems, artefacts, crowns, scepters, weapons and... Bones!
For a moment Orel found he couldn't tear his eyes away from the vacant eye sockets of a white, bleached skull staring eternally out of a pile of uncut gemstones. The treasure glittered balefully in the light of the green burning lanterns on the walls but slowly he turned his head back toward the bulk of the humongous rat. There were very few small, feral rats left now. They had poured themselves into the massive, tree trunk thick length of tail. Every now and then he could see a small head or scampering body lift freely out of that tail. They moved in and out of it effortlessly, blending through flesh as if it was as water. The rats that did separate off peered down at the party of four with bright glittering eyes or skittered off into the darkness on some unknown errand. Slowly he had to turn his head, lift his eyes and acknowledge the gigantic rat lounging before him. His red eyes glowed darkly and his crown was huge, tilted at a slight angle with one of the arches snapped at the top. He wore it well however, the crown was no mere after thought, there was a majesty to this gigantic creature that had kidnapped them that made Orel's limbs tremble. There was a legend, a stupid, silly legend told to rat-kin to scare them into bed when they were little. It... It couldn't mean... it couldn't be....
"What the fuck is that!" Morty shouted as he finally got Jay off him and looked up at the rat. Scrabbling on the floor for his lute he yanked it up, wielding it like a club. A casual flick of the creatures tail tip however knocked the dog over onto his back.
"I am the Rat King and you trespassers will speak with the respect due such an august person." The rat's voice was urbane, educated, each syllable clipped, precise and commanding.
"Trespassers!" Aira shouted, forcing himself to his feet and groping for his mace, moving to stand over Morty's prone body, "Your... your filthy rats kidnapped us and brought us here! We didn't trespass anywhere... how... how dare you!"
"Silence," the rat king hissed, his tail tip cracking Aira's mace out of his paws, leaving the fox nursing a smarting hand, "You entered my sewers, all that lies beneath these streets is my domain. Those who dwell above who venture down here must ask permission to traverse my realm."
"You can't be serious," Jay protested, the otter still yanking at his robe to try and pull it straight, "We don't need permission to use the sewers; no one owns them!"
"Ah guys..." Orel interjected, sidling closer to the others, trying to pull his eyes away from the Rat King, "Guys... shut up and listen... this guy can flatten us!" The king’s head turned, red eyes fixed on Orel's brown and the rogue's body stopped obeying his commands, he just stood there, staring vacantly at the King as a slow, insidious grin spread across the giant rat's muzzle.
"I would listen to my subject if I were you," the gigantic rat murmured, his eyes still fixed on Orel's, "He seems to be the smartest out of the lot of you."
"Subject!" Jay shouted, half turning to stare at the brown water-rat, "You mean you knew this monster was down here?"
"No! No I didn't know!" Orel screeched, the pressure in his mind building, "But.... he... is..."
"Is what you stupid rat!" Jay shouted, panic heavy in his voice as he gripped his staff tightly and stared at their rat companion. Orel’s eyes were rolling back in his head, and he was gargling incoherently then his head snapped forward and his incisors click together.
"My King!" Orel screamed and staggered, as the words slipped through his lips the pressure in his mind abated and the Kings voice echoed inside his mind. There was a quiet, triumphant tone to it heavily laden with amusement.
"Do you accept that fact, freely and without reservation? Do you Orel submit yourself as a Subject of me, the Rat King?"
The words echoed in his thoughts, the way he said his name made Orel tremble and gasp. Blinking to clear the tears from his eyes he stared at the King for a moment. Jay was shouting at him, Aira was trying to help Morty to his feet, his companions however where a side show, all that mattered were the red eyes of his monarch. Yes... his monarch, there was no pressure, no compulsion, not now but he knew... he'd been shown. Dropping to one knee, he pressed one of his grimy, furless paws to the stones of the sewer. Head bowed in submission, like a Knight kneeling before their Lord the rogue curled his naked, hairless tail about his waist, took a deep breath and spoke the irrevocable words.
"I am your Subject, Majesty...."
The response was instantaneous; Orel barely had time to glance up as the fluttering green light of the sewer chamber was plunged into shadow. It was the King's tail; it swung through the air and slammed down atop him!
Jay could hear someone screaming as the monster's tail crashed down in a wave of grimy grey flesh atop Orel. It hit the floor with a meaty thwack and then slithered back, scattering their rogue friends clothing and weapons to one side. He was gone, the scrap of grimy green cloth that had adorned Orel's head as a bandana swept out of the pile of clothes to land on Jay's foot.
He suddenly realized that the person screaming was him and with a start he snapped his jaws shut and thrust his staff toward the monstrous rat, "Die Beast!"
"Such melodrama Jay," the Rat King said softly, his eyes turning to look at the otter, "Now I suggest we discuss terms, Orel has shared everything with me."
Jay wasn't listening, he held his staff toward the murderer and screamed, "Scorching Ray," and a jet of incandescent red flame leapt across the intervening space toward the rat. At the same time Aira spread his arms wide and shouted an incantation to the heavens.
"In Lathander’s name, Shield us in my Faith!" a wall of shimmering blue/white light engulfed the three remaining party members as the flames poured over the massive bulk of the Rat King's stomach.
King stared down at them all, a rather amused smile on his face as the flames licked across his fur and did... nothing. Jay's spell stuttered to an end and the otter exchanged a worried glance with Aira. Behind them Morty pulled his lute around and prepared to back up his companions with a bonus inducing melody! He started to play but his starting chord jangled to a stop as the King pointed a finger negligently at the mutt.
“Dominate Mind…..” Rat King squeaked, the words lost in the cries of Morty’s companion’s next magical assault.
“Magic Missile,” was the otter’s next attack, the arcana imbued projectiles bouncing against the Rat King’s stomach.
“Lathander, Lord of the Sun, grant me your Divine Favour!” Aira cried, desperately, light shrouded his mace as he leapt forward to attack with his divinely blessed weapon. It thudded into the flesh of the Rat King’s tail and bounced back. It’d take more than their low level spells to break through the rodent monarch’s magical resistance.
Morty however hadn’t been idle, his clawed fingers plucked at the strings of his lute and Jay grinned. The bard’s magical bonus might be what they needed to break the Rat King’s armour. What the otter didn’t see was the glazed expression of their bard as he began to sing in time to the catchy tune. He did however hear the words and they were not at all what he was expecting.
*"Bash my stupid friends,
Give them a fright,
Oh King of Rats,
Show them your might!
They'll soon learn,
Fighting you is futile,
Nothing we trespasses can do,
It's about to get brutal,
The Noble Conclave will strike
Beat us black and blue
Shatter our fragile psyche,
We are pretty screwed!"*
Jay and Aira turned to stare in uncomprehending shock as their bard sang in the King's favour. Before they could say anything the grey tail of the king swept down and knocked all three of them off their feet. They crashed against the far wall of the chamber in a clatter of weapons, lute and mail shirts then slid to a stunned heap on the floor.
"I do believe my point has been made minions," King murmured as he levered his huge bulk into a more imposing position. The massive bulk of his tail curled overhead, poised and ready to drop down and crush them. They shied back, ready for the end but instead of crushing death the surface of the tail rippled lightly and Orel fell out, naked, disheveled and wild eyed to land on them.
"Now then, let us talk about your fine; I think we have established that the sewers are my domain."
Rolling off his friends Orel stared at them with a blank, uncomprehending gaze. Aira shook his shoulder and the contact seemed to snap him out of his daze, with a sudden squeal he shied away from the fox, "Do as he says! Please Jay... we can't beat him!"
"I... I think he might be right," Aira said slowly standing up and cringing as the sticky, slimy hem of his habit slapped against his ankles, "We... are ready to listen your... majesty."
"Good fox," Rat King mocked as he watched with amusement as Orel scrambled back into his trousers and wound his sash about his torso. The brown rat then grubbed around for his medallion and clutched it firmly in one hand, "Now then the toll for using my sewer as a highway is one silver mark."
"That's Highway robbery!" Jay exclaimed, turning away from offering Orel his bandana, "The bridge toll is only ten coppers! A silver mark is fifteen coppers!"
"Well spotted, but my Sewers are much better value for money no? Quite warm, out of the rain, no city guards to ask awkward questions. My rats guarantee the path ahead is safe and quiet and you can get from A to B with the minimum of fuss."
"Well we can't pay," Morty muttered his tail low and his ears folded back.
"Well no, you can't pay my toll, to pay my toll you find a rat on the surface and send it back to me with a request for permission. You are trespassers; the fine for trespassing in my domain is one thousand gold pieces... or payment in kind."
"One... One thousand!" Aira gaped in disbelief, "We... no one can afford that!"
"Oh my, well then you should have thought before trespassing." King leant forward, smirking softly, his buck teeth on show as he shifted his snout to point toward Orel. "Luckily for you I've decided to offer you a... payment plan. As Orel here seems to think fondly of you all, otherwise well...”
One grey skinned paw picked up a skull from amongst his horde and balanced it on his stomach, "I'd find a nice place for you all in my horde."
"Wha... what do we have to do?" Aira asked, looking questioningly at Orel who just turned away and shook his head.
"Payment for your transgression is quite simple." Rat King said with a wicked grin, "On the western edge of the sewers the tunnels dump their content into an old mine shaft. It used to be a working mine back before the city subsumed the village that used to run the place. I believe the surface dwellers call that neighborhood the Coal Quarter, do you know it?"
Jay nodded his head, "I... I heard about it in the inn last night yeah. But... I thought it was called that because of the warehouses of coal brought in from the countryside?"
"Well yes, now it is. But originally it was named after the coal mine itself. It's been long abandoned. But the village had all these handy coal bunkers so they just carried on filling them with imported coal." Rat King shook his head and smiled, "History lesson aside, there is an item I want, the Rogue Stone. It was hidden on the fifth level of the Coal Mine."
"How... do you know it is down there?" Morty asked, "I mean... if you know it is there why not get it yourself? Or send your rats?"
"An old thief lord hid it down there. It was his greatest treasure. But he is long dead. Now the place is infested with a rather nasty type of slime creature and nests of pesky purple worms. I can't get my Noble Conclave," he held up one paw, showing off one of his feral minions, "In and out, so I am sending you. Do this and you will be rewarded and your fine considered paid."
"Reward?" Jay's ears perked up, "What kind of reward?"
"You'll find out, bring me the Rogue Stone and you shall see. Or you can refuse my generous offer." licking his lips he squeaked, a deep, rumbling noise that made his massive gut jiggle. "If you do... I will not hesitate to eat you."
"We'll do it!" Aira shouted tugging Morty and Orel to him, "Just... show us the way and we'll do it!"
"Good fox," King laughed and pointed, "Orel knows the way, follow him and remember... my eyes are everywhere. Try to back out of our deal and you shall never reach the surface."
"Okey dokey, off we go," Morty bounded out of the audience chamber, dragging Orel after him, "Come on, let’s go..." Aira hurried off after the others but Jay frowned at Orel's back then turned to look up at King.
"What did you do to him?"
"None of your business otter... now git," he snapped his tail over the otters head and with a yelp the sorcerer darted off to catch up with his friends.