Chapter 57: Rats (乾燥したヴァンパイアにはスキンローションが必要だ。)
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- [Schtill] -
Level: 34 Elf

 

Social order has always been a delicate thing, even in the times prior to the apocalypse that has befallen the world. Amongst the many nations of the world, the prime objective has always been to maintain stability and prosperity within their own borders. Yes, in many cases, the desired result of such an effort was to outpace the other — the nations of the enemy or the ally — in order to establish a position of dominance. However, the end result is the same.

Growth.

Like the great world tree sprouting toward the sky from a single seed, empires too rose from hamlets and villages of old, which were only given the chance to spread so far and wide in their power, far beyond the imaginings of those first ploughshares, because of the boons social stability has allowed. A stable society can grow, and its people can grow. Generations can focus their lives on the pursuit of knowledge and wealth instead of warfare, further feeding into this cycle. The longer a society remains stable, the faster it grows, following a sort of snowball effect.

In the inverse, the faster the foundational facets of this society crumble — things such as social trust, faith, and community — the faster this society will, too, topple. Whether a hamlet in the backwaters of the world or the greatest capital of the mightiest empire, the law and the people who follow it are what maintain stability.

As a grand, overarching societal calculation, this is all well and good. Everyone does their part, and everyone gets to prosper in equal measure over the course of generations. However, this way of thinking ignores the fundamental truth that a society, of any size, is made of individuals. Individual people have their own desires, needs, and wants that are often far more immediate than thoughts of their grandchildren or their legacy—thoughts of the prosperity of potential generations to come in a time they will never live to experience. These individuals desire more security, more wealth, and more power, which hold firm in the hearts of many. The reasons for crime are as infinite as the reasons for anything else. Perhaps a person has unusual needs that cannot be met through conventional lifestyles — things such as overly expensive medicines or care. Perhaps a person is simply indifferent to others and wants only for themselves and their own, placing the prosperity of their family unit over that of the greater community. Perhaps a person is just willing to ‘win’ at any cost because of the wiring of their mind. It is impossible to say why just yet. But what it all boils down to is that there will never be full, perfect cohesion in any society. There are too many individual factors, too many individual hearts and dreams, all of which are fundamentally incompatible with one another in some fashion or another, if one digs deeply enough.

“So why the hell is someone making counterfeit money already?” asks Schtill, walking there next to the human man with her crossed arms, folded to hide the sweat stains below her shoulders. She hates this. She hates being outside. She should have kept her mouth shut and just sat there quietly in the meeting. But that would have led to even more problems. She has to achieve a very specific result here in this situation and be subtle about it too. If she's too direct in her finger pointing, Tango will know that she's onto them and play their hand. But if she does this right, she'll be able to spring her trap before they spring theirs.

Lesson learned. Never go out of your way to appear competent and useful.

“We can only assume that it’s for wealth,” replies Officer Shalan, walking through the street with her. He looks around the area that they’re in, the manufacturing district of the fresh city. “Most of the coins we’ve found have been from here,” he explains. “Only ever from small vendors.”

“Smart,” replies Schtill, looking around the area. He's got the location down, but not the reason.

The new settlement follows zoning guidelines, describing specific areas of the settlement as zones in which only specific industries are allowed to be built. The exception to this regional plan is housing, which is allowed to be constructed in any zone except the industrial zone due to health concerns. She spent many long nights at Pilot’s behest, figuring out the best way to have a fresh city built. This is all her own fault, really. Why did she get mixed up with that man? She should have just kept her hood down and stayed hidden in a tree somewhere.

“There aren’t any houses here, but there are a few small kiosks and shops,” remarks Schtill, looking around the long street, which is lined with workshops and open craftsman’s stalls. The workers work here day and night. But in order to fill an economic need, that is, their hunger, a small portion of the zoning has been made free to allow for a few specific vendors to open food stands. During the busier lunch hours, people with carts come through as well. “Dispersing the coins like this is a great way to move them into the economy unnoticed.”

Shalan nods, walking until they reach a store. “We assume the same,” he replies. “Bigger purchases would have names and faces attached to them, but some bread, some sausages…”

“- Nobody will ask questions, and nobody will check these small denominations of money,” finishes Schtill, the two of them looking at the storefront of a small bar and restaurant. “But what are they getting out of it?” she asks, trying to get him to take a leap of faith toward where she already is in her knowledge.

“Food?” guesses Shalan. “A free meal is a free meal.”

Schtill waves him off with her fingers, not lifting her arms as she stands there stiffly, rolling her eyes. Wrong answer. The elf looks down at her robe, looking at the obvious stains on it from that night. Does she smell bad? She feels like she smells bad. “Nonsense,” snaps the elf. “Nobody is going to put in the effort to counterfeit money to get some free sausages,” she explains. “It’s just not worth the risk.” She thinks for a while as they stand there, watching the world around them move and flow. Hammers strike against metal as carriages and people move down along the street in both directions beneath the sunlight of a new, promising day. She thinks about it for a while before coming up with her results. “We have two options,” 'guesses' Schtill, looking up at the soldier. “Either they’re starting small or ramping up to a larger operation,” she suggests as being her first thought.

“— Or they’re playing at something that isn’t about money,” considers Shalan.

The elf nods, looking toward the storefront window and at her own reflection that looks back her way, staring into her eyes, which is very bold of her to consider doing after all of these years of neglecting her.

If the money itself or the purchased goods aren’t the reason, then there must be another reason.

And the one that she knows as she looks into her own eyes, wondering if they’ve always looked this way, is that of destabilization. Someone is perhaps trying to make the people of the valley lose faith in the new currency and, so, in their new society, by damaging the core foundations on which it is being constructed. In preparation for the future, metaphorical rats are already carving tunnels into the wood framing before the house has even been fully corrected.

“I need to do some reading,” says Schtill, walking away, sweat heavily beading on her forehead and soaking into the bandage that covers the side of her head. The droplets come from being outside, where people can see her. Her hands are pale and her fingers are tingling from her best efforts to tightly regulate her own anxious breathing, which constantly verges on becoming too strong for the lax situation she is actually in.

“Wait, what about the vendors?” asks the soldier after her.

Schtill lifts a hand behind herself, trying to look collected and cool as she walks off. “You handle it,” says the elf, wondering if her arm was too stiff just now. It was too stiff just now, wasn’t it? Did someone see her sweaty robe? For sure. She has to get out of here before they see the sewer-spots on it. She should have washed this. There are too many people here. Why are there so many people in the city? “Come see me tomorrow when you know more,” says Schtill, scooting around the first alley that she comes across and catching her breath as soon as she is out of sight, having made her escape.

She hates being near people.

Intending to go through the alley instead of taking the main road to get back home, Schtill realizes something very terrible.

It’s a dead end. The alley doesn’t go anywhere. It’s just a gap between two buildings that shouldn’t exist because they planned the city without alleys. But reality doesn’t always match the plans.

Her only choice is to walk back out into the street, but then someone will see her again. Someone will see her come out and know that she walked the wrong way and that she’s an idiot. Schtill can feel the droplets dripping down her forehead. What if that man, Officer Shalan, is still out there? What if he knows this alley is a dead end? What if he’s just standing there in front of the shop, awkwardly waiting for her to come back out?

The longer she takes to turn around and go back, the worse it’s going to be.

Oh gods, why is she still standing here?! It’s been a minute, hasn’t it? At this point, she’s going to look like a weirdo if she walks out of the alley. What the hell will they think she was doing in here for a whole minute? She should have left on the first chance she got. It’s too late now.

Schtill does what any reasonable person with crippling social anxiety would do in this situation and hides behind some random barrel, out of the view of the street. The elf sits down on the ground, pulling up her hood to cover her face as she catches her breath, trying to keep up with the rapid striking of her heart in her chest.

She should have never left her home that night.

— A rat runs by, scurrying from one house to the next, crawling through a hole. Rather than being disgusted or terrified, she silently hopes that it will come back and take her with it.

However, the rat does not do such a thing. It would be very strange if it had. At least, a second time.

And so, she sits there for hours and hours on the ground in the alley until nightfall, until everyone is gone, the shops are closed, and she can run back home in quiet terror of being seen by anyone, even long after leaving the alley.

 


 

- [Below the World Tree City] -

 

The rat jumps, leaping over the gap between sewer pipes. Its matted, damp fur gracefully flows as it glides. A moment later, the animal’s sharp, scratchy claws rung out aloud against a metal pipe, full of sewage, as it scamper-scampers through the darkness of the long tunnel system with twitching whiskers.

All around it move shadows, bouncing around this way and that way as faint glimmers of lantern light shimmer down from the streets above, through crevices and grates every now and then, together with the shine of the full moon that bounces around the sewer, giving the tunnels an oddly mystical look that strongly contrasts with their actual nature. These shadows belong not to the constructs of man and elf but rather to the forms of hundreds and thousands of rats that scurry to and fro, acting upon the orders they have been given — acting at the behest of… her. These silhouettes bounce and sway in the ever-changing and ever-reflecting light that shimmers down from one piece of wet metal to the next, giving the impression of a great waltz rather than the vermin pitter-pattering that is really occurring. The particular rat stands on its hind legs, looking around as it reaches a central chamber into which hundreds of metal pipes run, all criss-crossing and connecting this way and that way in something akin to a labyrinth, suspended above a massive pit into which sludge drops and flows. As it stands there, sniffing the air, it watches the work being done for a moment before returning to its journey, having completed its task.

People and rats have always coexisted together. Many people, many rats. The more people, the more rats. People are the reason for rats — even if they don’t quite always get along. But they have found a way to cohabitate in their great cities and hives.

The people live above.

The rats live below.

— An offensive trade, if one were a human, but as a rat, this is a fair bargain that the two kinds have come to inadvertently create. There was never a pact between kings and legions, rules or treaties — no. Rather, this system of life simply came about; just as humans agreed to let the birds live in the trees and the fish in the waters, so, too, do rats live in the underground below human populations. It is an uneasy truce. If a rat comes to the surface, it might well be killed.

If a person comes to the underground, they might well be killed.

Water flows all around it. The newly built underground already carries the marks of years of life despite only being a month or so old, as more rats move through it than there is space in many places. Pipes and openings are blocked and jammed by the sheer mass of thousands of fighting, angry bodies, each trying to press through and out at the same time, with sewage and runoff water collecting behind them and drowning those in the back.

But there are always more rats.

Squeaking fills the air, reflective, sleek fur somehow carrying loose strands of moonlight deeper and deeper into the underground — so deeply that it almost seems impossible for it to have bounced this far, but there it is nonetheless. All the way down to the grand chamber, to the throne room, comes the light from the surface world, together with this particular rat, who scurries quite readily to deliver the news it brings of the enemy.

The old enemy, who they war with even now in these days of dry roots that are unpleasant to nibble. But humans are resourceful; even in times like this — like rats, they remain. It is truly an odd brotherhood that neither side is really ready to accept.

Down at the bottom of the sewer is a central chamber, where all the pipes collect into a machination of some sort that it does not understand — it is just a rat, after all. Untreated water runs down its walls on all sides as a great entryway moves toward a single, central platform, lined with metal constructs and creations — perfect. It is perfect, as if it were ready-made for her. It is as if this chamber itself was made in anticipation of her arrival. Perhaps it was happenstance, and the design serves another purpose; perhaps it was fate, bringing old powers together again.

But here, now, deep, deep below the last city that remains within the reach of rats, sits a throne-room — the last of its kind.

Rats in uncountable numbers swarm all around the bridge and ramps, moving this way and that as they flow against the outsurge of water, crawling in and throughout every pipe that exists within the city. From here, from this central part of the underground, they travel and disperse into every nook, cranny, and household with their little scampering feet, sharp teeth, and keen eyes – always doing as they’ve been ordered.

For while all animals exist only for the sake of their presence in nature, rats are a little more… interwoven with the deeper faculties of the world’s true nature. They aren’t monsters, mind you. But human perceptions and magic go a long way toward making things more than they ought to be. Or maybe there is a history here to her person that it does not know — it is only a young rat, after all.

— The particular rat leaps over a tiny tip, a wayward root of the world tree, that spans across the chasm’s bridge, as it slows its sprint so as not to anger her and so as not to be seen as a threat.

But what is certain is that rats are somewhere more than animals and somewhere less than monsters. What is certain is that they are in their infinite desires; to place it in human terms, it is complicated.

The chamber squeaks and rattles with the shrieking and arguing and bickering of millions of rats as they all vie against one another to take center stage. Hundreds and thousands of them fight and bite and scratch and gnaw at one another in order to secure a place in the center of the room, where they form together into a construct — a throne. Endless rats maim and kill one another constantly, if only to become an inch of a living, writhing seat.

And sat there, her face held in her hand, as she thinks and plots and schemes — as rats love to do — sits the highest power that all rats know and bow to. All rats that remain, all rats that are, all rats that were — all of them follow her commands.

It has always been this way, ever since times of antiquity. She has guided the nests of their kind ever since the dawn of the first sun and will rein until the fall of the last moon. Nobody knows where she came from, nobody knows how she achieved her title, just that it is.

The Rat Queen.

Two sharp and cold yellow eyes look through the gaps in her fingers like a demon’s gaze, locking onto the rat as it stands on its hind quarters before her throne, bringing news from the human city above.

“The enemy?” she asks through a coarse, heavy growl, speaking of the invasion to come, the chamber falling immediately silent, as any single squeak that would dare to utter itself while she speaks is a willing acceptance of death. Only the sound of rushing water can be heard — no rats move, no rats scamper, no rats do anything at all except stand in total, unnatural silence in reverence of her voice and power. “Do they suspect us?”

A single rat squeaks, answering her.

Her eyes drift away, still imprisoned behind her hand against her face as she stares into the distance. A million rats all turn that way too, each of them trying to see what she sees — not that there is anything there. “Good,” she remarks, rising to her feet and off of the throne of bodies. The bony, sharply clawed woman lets her hand drop from her face as she approaches the scout. Bending over, she roughly grabs the damp rat in her fist, lifting it up and looking around the chamber. A million jealous voices scream and shriek in protest at not being the one chosen to be touched. “Prepare for war,” orders the Rat Queen, ignoring their treacherous cries. “But not a damn one of you better show yourself before I give the order!” she yells, her harsh voice echoing around the chamber.

It all moves to life, every rat within the sewer palace scampering to be the one to fulfill her order the best, to be the next one to be chosen, as there have been so many before.

She looks down at the rat in her grasp, grabbing its head with her other hand and twisting with a loud crunch, before she bites in through its wet fur and toward its liver — which she eats first.

This is a great honor for a rat.

She’s old. But she’s ageless. As long as there are rats, there will be a rat-queen and as long as there are people, there will be rats that follow after them. Blood dripping down her face, she stares up toward the collection of pipes that leads up toward the last city, which is far, far above her head. Bones crunch as she chews.

They don’t suspect a thing, fools.

They don’t know the danger that is upon them now.

 

 


Schtill sure is acting funny these days.

Sick people who read my first story, Respawn Condition: Trash Mob, (Don't. It's bad) for some reason will recognize their favorite queen back in the flesh!

 

乾燥したヴァンパイアにはスキンローションが必要だ。 Dry vampires need skin lotion.

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