Sparks flew from the front wheels of the mine cart as Aira leant heavily on the break in a futile effort to slow the wild careening plunge of the minecart. They were going too fast for the ancient breaks to be of use and the cart flashed across the curve at the bottom of the incline so quickly two wheels momentarily left the rails! Only the desperate action of the party as a whole hurling their weight against the side leaving the rails got the cart back on the tracks. Clinging to the side of the cart Orel pushed Morty off him and clawed his way up besides Aira and threw his weight behind the cleric's on the brake lever. Metal screeched, sparks flew and the cart jerked uneasily as they flashed along the length of ancient mine track.
Old mine shafts littered with debris and propped up with ancient wooden pilings rose up out of the darkness on either side, illuminated for a brief moment before they vanished behind. The mine cart screeched, their speed reduced, negligibly at first but with increasing surety. Sobbing from the effort of holding the brake lever Orel's muscles strained against Aira's but fate was a fickle thing. Just as they were beginning to slow down properly the light Jay had conjured revealed a stretch of track that leapt over a large crevasse that had opened across the tunnel sometime in the distant past. The track bowed under the sudden weight, the cart left the tracks as their speed carried them across the gap. For a moment they were detached from the tracks and Orell could hear Jay whimpering under his breath as the otter clung to the cart's edge.
With a bone jarring clang they slammed back onto the tracks and careened forward but as the mine cart juddered forward forward both Orel and Aira were flung back as the brake lever snapped. The whole party went down in a tangle of limbs and equipment and it took a couple of minutes to untangle themselves, it was a task made more difficult when the whole cart jerked sideways without warning. Orel was finally able to get back into a position where he could raise his head and look ahead.and instantly wished he hadn't. The cart was racing along a long gallery, tall archways on either side showed him a black void and their light briefly illuminated writhing pink flesh.
"There's a whole nest of those worms down here," Orel hissed at his friends, "We really... really don't want to stop."
In wide eyed silence they trundled past the openings into the cavern beyond, watching warily in case the noise of their passing pulled the hideous worms down atop them. They were ridiculously over sized, with thick purple skin that writhed and burrowed mercilessly through the earth. With shaking paws Aira picked up his mace and leant out of the cart and with grim determination struck a metal construct to the side as they rolled past. Turning to look quizzically at the fox Orel was in time to see and hear the points clunk into position ahead of them. The cart rolled forwards, still shedding speed from it's trip along the long gallery then jolted over the points and swung toward a tunnel opening leading away from the worm's gallery.
"I figure we don't want to go in there," Aira muttered as he gripped the cart firmly in one hand, "Hold on... it's another slope."
Grimly clinging to the cart Orel braced himself and cursed as they dropped through the new tunnel entrance onto a steep incline and immediately started to pick up speed again. Looking ahead into the gloom Orel squeaked and threw his body weight against the right side of their cart, "Lean right, lean right!"
Jay and Morty obeyed the rat just as it started around a sharp, left hand curve. For a moment the right wheels lifted from the tracks and Orel closed his eyes, expecting them to tip over but Aira threw his weight against the others and the cart thumped heavily back into place. Twice more they had to use the weight of their bodies to right the cart as the tracks followed the zig-zagging tunnel that descended into the depths. The end came upon them without much warning and their wayward cart plunged across a large chasm atop a rickety, creaking trestle bridge. For a moment the light from the shuttered lantern and Jay's stuttering spell reflected off rock walls and dark water foaming past below and then another cave mouth swallowed the party. Tunnel walls sped past and the cart began to slow once again as it ratcheted along the flat expanse of mine. Leaning forward intently Aira tried to judge where they were but the few side tunnels they saw had no tracks leading into them or other identifying marks. It seemed as if they really were heading in a straight line, slowing down with each metre passed until the tunnel ended.
Orel swung the lantern around and cursed, "End of the line, Jay try and stop it!'
Jay nodded in understanding and hefted his staff over Aira's shoulder and shoved the long length of wood into the remnants of the brake system. Sparks flared and with their light added to the lantern they could see the cavern they had entered. It looked like an incomplete version of the terminus they had started their journey in. The only track leaving the chamber was the one their minecart was jouncing along and there was a single, small turntable in the centre of the cave with a couple of sidings full of more old carts. Swaying with the motion of the mine cart Aira grabbed his pack and motioned for the others to grab theirs, Orel seized his but Morty pulled his lute up first and it twanged in protest as the cart jounced from side to side.
"It's not going to stop in time," Jay shouted pulling his staff clear of the brake mechanism, "Jump!" he dug his staff into the ground and the sudden change in momentum pulled him out of the cart and tossed him into the air, "Feather Fall!" he screamed desperately as he fell behind the cart as it rushed up upon the turntable which was not aligned to accept them.
"Jump!" Orel screamed and rolled over the side of the cart, pushing off with both feet to increase the distance between himself and the tracks. He hit the floor and rolled, bouncing off several rocks uncomfortably before ending up in a heap of tangled limbs and belongings. The clatter of Aira's mail was proof that the cleric had jumped free and as he sat up to watch he saw the blue fox tumble to a halt nearby. Morty however was still in the mine cart, swaying from side to side before striking a chord on his lute. The tone hung beautifully clear in the mine's dry air and with a faint pop the dog vanished and reappeared off to one side just as the cart tipped over and scraped across the turntable in a shower of sparks and wrenching metal.
The minecart was reduced to a crumpled lump in a matter of moments and with a pained groan Orel clambered to his feet slowly and limped over to Aira and helped him up. "What was that?" the rat asked Morty, a frown marring his filthy features.
"Escape Chord," Morty mumbled sheepishly, running a paw through his bedraggled hair, "Teleports me out of range of a dangerous situation. Not got much range but is enough to pull me back and let me swap weapons or such."
"Lucky you," Aira muttered as he gathered his stuff, wincing from the bruises he'd picked up tumbling out of the cart, "Now... what have we learnt Morty?"
Ears wilting Morty hung his head and idly scuffed one of his boots against the floor, "Do not light fires underground they might explode and summon a ton of horrible subterranean monsters to try and eat your friends."
"We also learnt that we should really make sure everyone knows this in advance," Orel chimed in then looked over the stained tatters of Morty's once gaudy outfit. "Also to dress in sturdier and robust clothes we don't care about getting filthy."
"Yeah I can back that," Aira muttered, uncomfortably shifting his chainmail shirt, "This thing is nasty to wear without a layer over the top. If we make it back to the city I'll wear something a bit more sensible."
Grinning Orel shook his shuttered lantern then opened one side so he could reach in and adjust the ensorcelled quartz, it had slipped during the mine cart ride and was giving off a lot less light than normal. As the warm yellow light started to once more push back the gloom Jay cancelled the fitful remnants of his light spell and started to cast a new one. Aira meanwhile had dug some rations out of his bag and was handing them out for everyone. It was just biscuits and jerky but the party welcomed it regardless as well as the fresh water the fox cleric summoned for them. Somewhat more refreshed than previously they cautiously approached the only tunnel leading from the unfinished junction. It started off like others, bare granite or basalt mined clear of the majority of coal and supported by large wooden braces.
The tunnel undulated up and down for about three hundred yards then came to an end at a wall of unmined coal. The pit head was split open by a huge six foot crack and Orel carefully sidled forwards through the gap and cautiously held the lantern out into the room beyond.
"What do you see?" Aira asked quietly as the brown rat hesitated before moving forwards.
"Cavern... stalactite and stalagmite pillars everywhere," he squeaked and moved to one side warily as his friends followed. Jay's light globe mixed its light with the lantern and started to refract through the crystalline deposits in the pillars that filled the natural cavern. It was breathtaking and as the rat and fox moved forwards they were able to see a large plinth set up in the middle of the room. It looked like someone had hacked a pillar in half to make it and heaped around it were a series of chests. Jay padded past the others, feet crunching on the stone dust covering the cavern floor and peered at the chests and haphazardly piled treasure. Eyes alight with greed Jay got closer and peered over a chest to get a good look at the object lying quietly in the middle of the plinth.
"Is this it?" he reached out a hand and froze as the smooth oval shaped onyx burst into red light and flame. It coiled angrily in the air and the otter had to pull his hand back or risk being burnt.
"I'd say so," Orel squeaked, he had knelt down by one of the chests and was examining the lock for traps. His fingers and lockpicks at work as he carefully probed the locking mechanism, his long naked tail swishing back and forth behind him.
The discordant twang of Morty's lute however made Orel's ears prick up and he turned his head to see what the bard was doing. He was standing still, lute lying on the ground and his hands holding what looked like the stone foot of some statue. Orel frowned and then came slowly to his feet and hissed at his companions and pointed toward Morty.
"What... Morty?" Jay took a half step forward, his light dispelling the shadows about the dog, revealing that he was now a lovely piece of statuary. His whole body was grey granite and his eyes were locked open in surprise, "How..." Jay gaped and looked around worriedly, "What happened?"
"Basilisk!" Aira whispered, "That's what," turning this way and that he brought his shield up before his face, "Look at the floor, find it! You must not look it in the eyes."
"We can't kill a basilisk, it'll turn us all to stone and eat us," Jay whispered back, a twinge of panic in his voice, "We have to get out of here."
"Not without the stone," Orel growled, "Or Morty, think come on you must have a spell that would ahhhhhhhh." thick, undulating coils snapped down from above and wrapped about the rat, jerking him off his feet and up into the darkness. Eyes closed the rat struggled to pull an arm free as the scaled bulk undulated about his body. The filth coating his fur helped him slip against the constricting coils and he was able to plunge one of his daggers into the beast's hide. An angry hiss above him and a loosening of the coils allowed him to slip and slide through the basilisk's grasp and fall free to land with a thump on the floor.
As the rat went down several glowing purple stones whizzed up and struck the basilisk as Jay unleashed a storm of magic missiles. The snake like creature hissed in anger and it's shadow danced across the floor of the cavern as it began to wind its way down the stalactite it had climbed.
"Mortalssssssh, your doom issssss here," the voice was low, sonorous and filled with a delightful glee, "You will die, yesssss become assss sssstone and then I sssshal feast."
"It can talk!" Jay shouted as he dashed away from the slithering coils, "How can it talk!"
"They're not dumb animals, they're .... monsters!" Orel shouted, peering sideways cautiously as the shadows shifted as the basilisk slithered out onto the floor.
"In Lathandar's name, scimitar of flame!" Aira's spell set a crackling blade of incandescent orange fire shooting across the room.
The magical blade attacked on it's own, causing the monster to hiss and cry out in anger at the magical assault. Keeping his head down Orel ran behind a stalagmite and pounced a large loop of coiled flesh and drove his dagger into it. The creature howled and thrashed it's heavy tail, twatting Orel firmly in the face. One of his front incisors snapped and the rat screamed in pain as he rolled backwards across the floor. Dazed, his upper lip throbbing in pain the rat remembered to keep his head down and pulled another dagger from his belt.
"Where is it! I've lost it," he shouted, scuttering forward on all fours into the shadows; Orel found it surprisingly easy to move like that, his body had never been that good at running around like a feral before. The disparity made him pause for a second and look down worriedly at his body, freezing in place as horrible thoughts of what the King might have done to him rose in his mind. Everything seemed the same so he shook his head, trying to clear the panic that had seized him before peering around carefully. In the flickering light of Jay's spell and the flaming scimitar he could see slithering coils a few feet away. Aira was in the thick of it, beating at them with his mace though from the wild nature of his attacks he was doing it with his eyes closed. His scimitar was the thing doing the most damage but Orel wasn't sure if it would be enough.
Jay leapt out from behind a stalagmite and thrust his staff at the basilisk's body and screamed, "HOLD PERSON!" The ball of light attached to the end of his staff leapt forward and hit the snake like monster. It thrashed for a moment then it's coils went eerily still. Jay also stopped moving, his eyes growing blank, lifeless, his flesh and robes freezing as stone. His staff was still held in place, thrust forward in attack, wooden, untouched but now grasped by a lifeless hand.
Orel squeaked in anger and leapt forward, scrabbling across the slick floor of the cavern to throw himself upon the coiled bulk of the basilisk. Aira was similarly enraged, his mace coming up and down, smashing with a heavy thwack into the magically immobilized flesh. Orel had a better idea, he hauled himself up the length of the monster's body, using a dagger in each paw to make handholds up the creatures scaled hide. When he reached the top he wrapped his legs about their neck and reached around from the back of its head. With a dagger in each paw he plunged the blades into the creature's eyes, extinguishing the golden light the rat could see reflecting off Jay's muzzle.
The monster shrieked the hold person spell cast by their mage breaking too late to save it! Orel drove the daggers in again, pushing them as deep as he could and the terrible beast dropped like a stone to flail and twist and scream in defeat. Orel rolled clear and watched as the horrible creature twitched and shook and fell still, it did not die easily or quickly. Panting heavily the rat turned to Aira, the fox was battered and bruised but his mace was covered in thick green blood, he'd clearly given the damnable snake what for from below.
For a moment they were quiet, just watching each other and then Aira dropped his mace and walked over to the rat. "You're injured... let me..."
Raising a paw Orel felt his nose and the sticky blood oozing out of it. His tongue curled out, licking at the jagged remnant of his incisor and he winced in pain. "I didn't really notice, healing would be good... thanks."
Aira's cast his spell, warmth suffusing the rat's muzzle, repairing, restoring his broken nose and snapped tooth, taking away the pain and the oozing blood. Shivering at the uncomfortable feeling of his tooth growing Orel clicked his jaws together then turned to look at the statue of their friend Jay.
"What do we do now?" Aira asked quietly as he healed himself, "We will never make it out of the mine on our own."
"I... have a way," Orel walked over to the middle of the room and frowned at the boxes and the onyx stone, "King... placed a word of recall on me, it'll take me and everything within five feet of me back to his audience chamber."
"He... what," the fox shouted in disbelief, "Were you... planning to maybe tell us at any point! That's... Orel we are meant to be a team!"
"He told me not to tell anyone!" the rat screamed back, stalking past the fox and retrieving his third dagger, "He can control my mind! Literally... I have to do as he says!"
"Well maybe when this little adventure is over we should consider going our separate ways. If you cannot be trusted then..."
Aira was cut off as Orel thrust his face up close to the fox's and squeaked angrily, "He can control your mind, Morty's, Jay's... none of us are safe! He fucking owns us you idiot! We're lucky he didn't eat us and just sent us down here! We're also lucky he bloody well gave us a way out or we'd be fucked even worse. Now help me drag Morty and Jay over to the loot and then we can get out of here."
Spluttering in indignation Aira glowered at the rat and walked over to grab a hold of Morty's granite body, "You said you have to do as he says, I'm not compelled to obey him and you can fight it off if you just give yourself over to Lathandar's grace."
"Do not preach at me Aira, now is not the time," Orel growled, "In case you didn't fucking notice I'm a rat, my mummy and my daddy were also rats and they fucked in the cabin of my dad's boat and several months later I popped out. This makes me a rat and rats belong to the Rat King, it's in the fucking legends."
"I... will... Lathandar will protect you, just accept him into your heart," Aira tried again but Orel just squeaked and grabbed the other side of the frozen dog and help Aira drag him over to the centre of the room.
"Very well Orel... we'll talk about this later... as a group."
"Yeah fine whatever," the rat muttered as he went back for the lute before moving Jay as well, once they were all together he collected his shuttered lantern from where he had dropped it and waited for Aira to get his mace.
"What do we do now?" the cleric asked as he joined the rat and their companions by the plinth and the treasure chests, "You aren't a mage how can you even cast a spell?"
"It was cast on me and it has a very simple trigger," reaching out a paw he held it above the onyx rogue stone, "I just have to pick this up."
Taking a deep breath Orel held out his paw and sighed in relief as it glowed blue and allowed the rat to pick it up. The effect was near instantaneous, the dark, dank cave wavered, the air grew cold as the mines faded from sight.
How long they travelled through the void like darkness Orel would never know. It felt like an eternity before green light washed over everything as the Rat King's chamber appeared around them. Orel staggered and grabbed hold of Jay's arm but otherwise he felt fine, at least until he looked up into the red eyes of his liege. That stare obliterated his thoughts, trembling in near worshipful delight he knelt and held out the gently glowing onyx stone. King reached down, his grey skin hand closed around the stone, pulled it up and away and his presence leached out of Orel's mind, letting him be himself once more.
"Well done Orel, Aira," King congratulated them, "Your transgressions against my domain has been forgiven by your actions in my service."
Holding up the rogue stone the Rat King grinned whilst his tail was at work, dragging the treasure chests the party had recovered over to his horde.
"Those are ours," Aira protested, stepping forward, "We won those with....." he trailed off and gulped as the King leant forward to glare at the fox.
"I believe you will find they are mine, I said I would reward you and so I will. But I see two of your companions have... suffered a misfortune of sorts, that is a shame."
"Yes... can you... do anything to help them?" Orel asked, still kneeling before the King.
"Me? I have no obligation to turn them back, saving them from total petrification was not part of your sentence." grinning he leaned back, idly turning the Rogue Stone back and forth between his claws, "I may be able to procure the correct scrolls however, for a price, do you have enough?"
Aira looked at the rat worriedly then blinked as Orel pulled a fist sized sapphire out of his bag. The fox had clearly forgotten about their little windfall from the first worm assault. The one that had seen them frantically fleeing to safety in a minecart, quite how the rat had found time to loot anything he didn’t know. Orel held Aira's gaze for a long moment then held the sapphire out to the Rat King, "What about this?"
"Splendid," King laughed and took the sapphire from Orel with his free hand and held it up to the wan light of one of his green lanterns, "Such a big uncut gem, yes this will do."
A chest was opened and two scrolls pulled out by a large dire-rat that scampered out of the shadows. The rolls of parchment were given to Aira and with a wary glance at the King he began to read from them. The scroll crumpled to dust as the fox reached the end of the incantation but life and colour flowed back into Morty's form. The dog staggered and yelped as he was caught by Orel, he then went quite still as he found himself looking up at the massive bulk of the Rat King.
Aira repeated the spell over Jay, the second scroll collapsed into dust as the magic flowed into the otter and returned him to life. He gawked at the King then looked around stupidly for any sign of the basilisk.
"It's ok Jay," Orel whispered, "We killed it and... the King's magic brought us back here, we're safe."
The otter flopped onto his arse and sat there staring up at the colossal grey rat and barked softly, "Fair enough... uhm... so do we get paid now?"
Chuckling quietly King picked up a large pouch and tossed it into the otter's lap, "I like your otter Orel, has his priorities straight. Now one of my minions will lead you to the surface, I suggest you ask one of my subjects before venturing down here again. Next time I will expect the fine in full. I'm only that charitable once."
"Charitable," Aira cried gaping at the Rat King, "You threatened to eat us unless we went into that mine!"
"I know cleric, it was very charitable of me when I could have had fresh meat, now get..." he turned from Aira then and offered Orel a toothy grin of approval, "You did well my rat, until next time."
"There shall be no next time," Aira declared, pulling Jay to his feet and helping the disoriented otter toward the way out, "Our business with you is concluded."
"We'll see," King rumbled quietly in a voice that only Orel heard.
Looking back over his shoulder he watched the King but he had already turned back to contemplating the Rogue Stone, his free hand playing with some of his scurrying court of feral rats. Turning away Orel smiled at Morty and helped the dog along, "I got your lute by the way,"
"You did? Thanks... that was expensive."
"I know... now what say we go have a bath in an inn then you can regale everyone with out story in song," Orel grinned as he listened to the excitable dog. The danger was already fading into the past, for the dog it would soon be just a good story. It wouldn't fade so easily for Orel, at the back of his mind was another set of thoughts, he was connected to the King and he'd be back to these sewers soon... he had a feeling.
The adventure hadn't even started yet.
~fin Arc 1
So welcome one and all to the end of the First Arc of the Rat King's Court!
It has been quite an adventure, both to write and to see what you all thought as we released each chapter!
I do hope you'll give us some feed back! We'd love to hear what you thought and what you'd like to see more of in the future!