slim brunette

Skirina awoke slowly, her head feeling muggy. She was lying on a hard surface, not her usual pallet, and it took a few moments for her to gather her thoughts. The last thing she remembered was taking a drink from her canteen… she had felt woozy, stumbled a short distance, and then collapsed. Somebody had poisoned her canteen? Yes, that had to be it, and now she had woken up somewhere else.

The shocking realisation brought her fully awake, and she tried to struggle upright. No sooner did she do so than she realised that her hands were bound in front of her, tied together with some thick cord. She had been captured! But how, and by whom?

None of it made any sense. Why would anyone want to imprison her, and how could anyone have possibly drugged her water supply? Nobody else should have had access to it, except possibly the other members of her warren, and they were hardly likely to do such a thing.

She shook her head, trying to clear it of the last remnants of the drug, and used the wall to haul herself to her feet as best she could. She was in a small chamber, so dark that even her vision, naturally suited to a life underground, could hardly make out any details. There were no windows, and, when she tried it, the only door seemed to be bolted or wedged shut from the outside. She was, she could tell, still underground, somewhere in the maze of passages beneath the city, but not, she thought, a part that she recognised. Perhaps if she had more light?

At least it was only her hands that were bound, so she was free to pace the confines of her cell, trying to find anything she could use. It soon became clear that the room was empty, simple bare stone in every direction — including the low ceiling. None of her own things were here; in fact, she realised with another jolt, she was barely dressed. While she had been asleep someone had removed her shoes, her dress, and everything that she normally carried. All she wore now was her threadbare shift and panties, leaving her arms and most of her legs bare.

At least there was one thing she could do, to escape the bonds. Something that her mysterious captor had presumably not counted on: she closed her eyes and concentrated on shifting into rat form.

Nothing happened.

Her eyes snapped open, and she barely managed to stifle a gasp. Concentrating harder now, she tried again, but her body refused to respond, remaining firmly stuck in human shape. She was beginning to panic now. How could this be? She was a wererat, had even been born already carrying the disease of lycanthropy. Her mind was effectively fully human, but her rat shape seemed as natural to her as her human one, changing into it no different from putting on a new set of clothes.

She tried, in desperation, changing into her hybrid form instead, but, of course, that did not work either. She raised her bound hands to her face and bit into them, gnawing with blunt human teeth, trying to cut through them, but all to no avail. She let out a little sob of despair and beat her fists against the stone walls in frustration. This couldn’t be happening!

She sank down onto her haunches, huddling into one corner of the room, where she could at least see the doorway. She wanted to cry, but that would not achieve anything, and besides, she was still a wererat, no matter that she had somehow lost her powers of transformation. Wererats didn’t cry, not once they grew up, and she would be no exception. Somehow, her warren would find her, and she could escape. These dark subterranean passages were her home, and surely not that of her unknown captor. That meant she still had some sort of advantage.

So she remained sitting in the corner, looking for all the world like some lost waif. She was, like all of her kind, slender and a little on the short side, with something of the look of a street urchin. Her long brown hair fell about her shoulders, the uncut fringe flopping down over her forehead and her wide brown eyes staring out nervously into the gloom. Only the occasional twitch of her lips and cheeks, or a slight fluttering of her fingers gave any indication of her rodent heritage, and they were mild enough that nobody not specifically looking for lycanthropes would likely even have noticed them.

At last, she heard footsteps outside, and pulled herself to her feet, trying to put on an expression that made her look more defiant than she felt. There was some scraping behind the door as whatever was obstructing it was removed, and then it opened, letting in a little meagre light from the passageway beyond.

And, of all people, Myrek stepped into the room. Her brother had come to rescue her! She should have known that the other members of the warren would be out looking for her, that nobody could keep her prisoner down here without her relatives finding her before long.

She almost threw herself at him, rushing towards him in relief. “Thank the ancestors!” she said, “I knew you would find me. I don’t know what happened… I was drugged and someone brought me here… I don’t know who… quick, we need to get out!”

Myrek held her at arm’s length, and it dawned on her that his thin, bearded features showed an expression of amusement, not of relief. They had not always been the closest of siblings, but he was still her brother — even now, her twitching nose could pick up the familiar tang of his scent, undetectable to a human, yet clearly indicating their relationship, the deep ties that held the warren together.

But Skirina was confused by the way he was acting. “What’s happened?” she asked, “I don’t understand… we have to get away.”

“Who do you think drugged you?” he asked, his eyes hard, his hands firmly gripping her shoulders.

“I don’t know, that’s what I’ve been telling you. Please, Myrek…” his hands dug into her flesh, holding her fixed in place. “Ouch! You’re hurting me.”

He leaned his face in closer to hers, those features almost more familiar than her own. “It was me, you stupid little tart,” he said. “Who else could get close enough?”

Skirina’s eyes went wide. It couldn’t be… he had to be lying. Wererats were not the most moral of beings, with very little respect for those other than themselves, but the bonds of the warren ran deep, were so sacrosanct that breaking them was almost unthinkable.

“No… no… that can’t be right…” she whispered, the fear rising in her again. This was her brother, there could be no doubt about it, yet he was acting in a way that went beyond what she could imagine, as if this were all some terrible nightmare, not reality at all. Despite her protests, she somehow knew he was telling the truth, yet still she cast about for some way to explain it, something that didn’t involve the betrayal of one of the few trusts that her kind regarded as inviolate.

“You had better learn that it is exactly right,” sneered Myrek, now shoving her up against the wall, pinioning her there and grapping onto her chin with one hand, pinching her hard and forcing her to look him in the face. “I drugged you, and, as you have probably already discovered, I subsequently administered a potion that removes all of your lycanthropic powers. It isn’t permanent; your true nature will re-assert itself in forty eight hours or so… not that it will matter by then.”

“You never were a very good wererat, were you?” he continued, his voice full of disapproval, “never quite as determined as the rest of us. You were weak, and too much prey to soft, human, emotions. And don’t think the others will come looking for you. They think you’re with me, which means they think you’re safe. By the time they find out otherwise, you will be dead, and I will be more powerful than you can imagine.”

She tried to speak, but her sounds were distorted, because of her brother’s hand holding her jaw in such a tight grip. He grinned slightly, and relaxed his hold, “you wanted to say something?” he asked, regarding her with evident amusement.

“What are you doing? What can possibly be worth this? I am your sister, your warren-mate… I have never let you down. What has gotten into you, Myrek?”

“A fair question,” he said, “although the second part is not so easy to answer. But you know what lies beyond the sixteenth passage, what we call the Hungry Swamp? Well, it’s going to escape, and I’m going to help it. Oh, I can’t do anything from down here, as you know, but the wards are just weakening enough that a ceremony from up above, in the human city… well, that can free the bonds for good. My new friends and I just need a few things first. Most of them are well in hand, but my task has been to find a human sacrifice.”

“I should say, perhaps, a sentient sacrifice,” he continued, clearly smiling as he looked on her horrified face. Her intended fate was becoming clear, made all the worse by the terrible betrayal that it was her brother who would send her to it. “You’re close enough to human to count,” he continued, “an element of treachery has to be involved, the breaking of a solemn trust, and I rather think this counts, don’t you?”

Try as she might, Skirina felt hot tears beginning to well up in her eyes. This was beyond any horror that she could have imagined, and her façade, that of the fierce and cunning wererat, the monster that haunted the night and subterranean tunnels, was crumbling in the face of evil beyond anything she had envisaged.

“Oh, you’re crying,” said Myrek, not a trace of pity in his voice, “I always knew you were too weak for the warren. But you haven’t even got anything to cry about yet. Let me tell you what is going to happen to you before they conduct the sacrifice. There are thirteen of us; rich merchants, prominent magicians, nobles, and so on. You’re going to be stripped naked in front of them, and held down while they take turns raping you, over and over again.”

She let out a strangled sob, the tears flowing freely now, but he hadn’t finished talking, his face virtually pressed against hers so that she could feel the warmth of his breath on her cheek. “And guess what? I’ll be watching every second of it, staying there, and maybe giving them advice… although I hear they’re pretty inventive. And you know, I am going to so enjoy watching the expression on your pretty little face, with all those soft, weak emotions of yours, as some fat, middle-aged magician fucks you brutally up the arse. What do you say to that?”

Skirina bit her brother hard on the nose.

Her teeth were not those of a rat, but even human teeth were painful enough when clamped down really hard. Myrek screamed, as much in surprise as pain, and she shoved him away from her, making him stagger back, with blood now pouring down his face. And then she ran for the door, not stopping to see what he was doing, and out into the passageway beyond.

Her brother was swearing, shouting at the top of his lungs, but she ran on and on, not even paying much attention to where she was going. She was somewhere in the old passages beneath the city, one of the areas where the wererats rarely ventured, and not as familiar to her as she would have wished. But as long as she could outrun him, she would eventually be back to safety. She could find the warren, and make Myrek pay for his crimes. Then, she knew, they would show him as little mercy as he had shown her.

Her bare feet slapped on the stone flagging, sometimes almost slipping in grease or detritus that littered the floor. She could hear running feet behind her, as Myrek tried to track her, and she knew that she had to keep going, as far as she could — perhaps even up to the surface, Yes… there had to be some access to the human city somewhere, making it much harder for him to pursue her, especially if it were daylight up above. All she had to do was find one.

She reached a stone channel full of the hot, steaming water that ran beneath the city, a narrow ledge down each side. She continued running, her breath starting to come hard now, but her muscles driven on by her adrenalin. Myrek would have to stay in human form, relying on his longer legs to try and maintain his speed, so at least there, they should be even. Skirina ran on.

Too late, she realised where she was. She was close to the Hungry Swamp… where else would Myrek have kept her prisoner, but near the place he hoped to liberate the Dark Heart from? And that meant… that meant that the passage ahead was blocked.

In fact, there it was now — a crazy profusion of grey plant-like growths, sprouting from the canal and filling the passage. Great leaves that never saw a hint of sunlight snapped ferociously, their edges lined with sharp teeth. Bulbous, foul-smelling growths rose like mutant mushrooms, full, she knew, of poisonous and deadly spores. Nobody knew why the Hungry Swamp was there, blocking the sixteenth passage, but they all knew that it was essentially impassable. Especially for what was now essentially an unarmed human woman with her hands still bound together.

She turned round, hoping to be able to dash back to the last intersection, and find a different route. But up ahead, between her and the crossing, she saw Myrek. He slowed down, catching his breath as she caught her own, one of his three steely daggers held in his hand. She noted with satisfaction that his face was bloody, and he looked to be in some pain.

“You’re going to pay for that,” he snarled, “my dear little sister. The sacrifice doesn’t need to be intact, so maybe after they’ve finished gang raping you, my knife and I can have little fun.” He slowly advanced towards her, knife held outwards and his silhouette outlined in yellowish light.

Wait… there was light behind him? Down here?

He seemed to notice the light just seconds after she did, turning round to see what was coming up behind him. There, just turning the corner, was a group of five people. They were not wererats, nor had Skirina seen them anywhere before. There were two humans, an elf, a dwarf, and a gnome, and two of them at least were in full metal armour.

“Help!” she screamed with all the breath left in her lungs. Whoever these strange intruders were, it would surely not take them long to decide that Myrek — an armed man bearing down on a partly bound and barely dressed young woman — was the true threat here.

“Drop your weapon!” shouted the armoured human. It was a woman’s voice, something that was surely further to her advantage. Now that she could see them more clearly, it was apparent that the elf and the gnome were also women.

“He tried to rape me,” she called out, feeling in that instant not a speck of remorse for setting these people on her own brother. Besides, it wasn’t that far from the truth.

She needn’t have worried, though, as Myrek’s first action was to throw his dagger at the approaching group. His shot was unerring, striking the dwarf and drawing blood. A split second later a burst of silvery light illuminated the darkened passage as the elven woman cast a spell, causing something small and indistinct to hurtle back down the passage. It struck Myrek, vanishing with a burst of energy, and almost knocking him from his footing.

The wererat cursed, realising that he was hopelessly outnumbered. His body rippled, clothes vanishing as fur began to sprout in their place. In barely more than a second, he changed from a human-looking man in dark leathers to a crouched over bipedal form with the head and tail of a rat, clothed only in thick brown fur — only his knives, sword, and their accompanying belts remained free from the transformation.

To Skirina this was nothing; Myrek’s hybrid form was as familiar to her as his human one, his new facial features just as recognisable. But nonetheless, she managed a scream, hoping that the darkness would hide the fact that her expression was surely not as surprised and frightened as a regular human’s would have been. From the others’ perspective, she would be seeing an assailant unexpectedly turn into a monster.

But if he had been relying on his sudden change to unnerve his opponents, Myrek had clearly miscalculated. The two humans moved rapidly down the corridor towards him, while the others provided cover further back. Drawing his shortsword from its scabbard, Myrek backed away from them, heading towards Skirina.

She knew that she had to play the part of the helpless human, and so pressed herself back against the wall, raising her hands in front of her face as if afraid to look at the rat-monster in front of her, but actually peering through her fingers to see what happened. Myrek was, for the moment, ignoring her, and pushed past her, glancing about to try and find a means of escape. Skirina could already have told him that there was none, as well he should have known.

Myrek reached the mutant plants, batting at them with one clawed hand as a leaf over a foot across snapped at his head. A tendril thrashed out, beating at him with razor-sharp thorns, but his broken skin re-healed almost instantly, mundane weapons unable to harm him. Skirina realised he was going to try and escape through the swamp, surely a risky proposition, even for a wererat. Perhaps he thought that the thing beyond it — what the warren called the Black Heart — would help to protect him.

But before he could do anything, the human woman was upon him, and he was forced to parry her blows with his sword. The other stranger — who, now they were up close, Skirina saw was a half-elf, not a human — cast a spell that filled the tunnel with golden light, eliminating the advantage that Myrek’s dark-adapted eyes would otherwise have given him. The wererat flinched at the sudden illumination, but the human woman did not bat an eyelid, using the opportunity to deliver a slashing wound to one of his arms.

Skirina could not help but notice that the wound did not heal. Now that the tunnel was properly lit, it was obvious to her that the blade was not edged with silver, which could only mean that it was magical, and perhaps quite impressive magic at that. The strangers had to be adventurers; something she would have realised much earlier, had she been thinking straight. Although why they were here at all was still a considerable mystery.

Myrek snarled, spittle flying past his long orange teeth, and drying blood already adorning his muzzle, for that had not vanished with his transformation. He stabbed swiftly, sword clanging against the woman’s armour, but failing to penetrate the heavy metal. The flurry of sword blows continued, as the half-elf sought to gain a good angle to cast an offensive spell, hampered by the narrowness of the passage.

The human woman and the snarling wererat seemed evenly matched, but Myrek’s back was close to the distorted plants that choked the tunnel, and at a crucial moment, a whipping vine snapped across his face, blinding him for a split second. Skirina let out an involuntary gasp as the woman’s blade plunged into her brother’s body, slashing up into his ribcage, blood spurting as he screamed in agony, a terrible high-pitched wailing.

Myrek fell to one side as the woman yanked her blade free, and toppled into the steaming water channel that occupied the centre of the passage. The hot water splashed across the stonework, drenching their legs, and the wererat flailed about with his one good hand, dropping the sword as he did so. The water around him began to bubble, something moving rapidly below its surface. Weed-like tendrils erupted, grabbing onto him as his blood continued to darken the water.

And then both the thrashing and the high-pitched screaming stopped. The rat-like features softened, reshaping into human form, giving Skirina one last glimpse of her brother’s face before it was dragged beneath the swirling waters. His final expression was one of shock and horror, yet still his death had been far cleaner than the one he had planned for her.

August 2018
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