“The rats are gone.” Spoke a rat girl, arriving with a group to the center of their great network of burrows. Nuri, was her name. “No sign of them on the way there or even on our way back, all hundred meters of the trip.”
“Predators got them?” Asked the rat girl they had approached, the de facto ruler of all, or at least of the little band of rat girls she lived with.
“Don’t think so, we didn’t see anything that’d point to that. Everything’s in one piece, not a single drop of blood or even a scratch on the walls. Couldn’t have been migration either, their food was all intact. Nothing to imply poison, and after my girls checked, we took it all here.”
In confusion and frustation, Ryada brought a hand to her mouth as a sigh escaped her lips, thinking it over and over in the relative silence of the almost-deepest room of the burrows, rivalled in depth only by the storage ones.
“That isn’t natural behavior for sure.” Said Ryada, lowering her arm. “Keep that food separate from ourself, I don’t want anyone touching it more than necessary. We’ll–“
Frantic steps interrupted her words, with both Ryada and Nuri turning heads to the source; from another tunnel, a rat girl arrived in haste, panting.
“Intruders in the second tunnel!” She said, arriving to Ryada. “They’re new, hardly ever saw them before. Slimes, as if.”
“They?” Asked Ryada.
“The nearest river is still over a kilometer away…” Remarked Nuri.
With a nod aside from Ryada towards the center of the room, Nuri followed her there, to then reach a fragment of wood where a torn paper lay on top. Stolen objects finding their use, as was almost the culture of the scavegning group of rodents; coal, graphite shards, anything that stuck to paper well enough, found itself used to draw a crude equivalent of the tunnels all around them. All eyes now fell on the tunnel connecting to the surface, the second to be built from all seven which existed.
Rumbling. A clear sign that the first of many segments of the tunnel had been caved in by her girls. As the vibrations subsided, however, more footsteps came to be heard approaching.
“Intruders in the first, fourth, and fifth tunnels!” Announced a rat girl, arriving in haste to the room.
“Slimes?” Asked Ryada.
“Slimy skin, yes.”
“What the hell are those things…”
And yet, another series of footsteps came in rush. Third one now, stressing Ryada over potentially more infiltrations.
“They got through!” Screamed another rat girl. “We caved in the first segment of the second tunnel on top of them, but the slimes just snuck through the earth!”
“What?!” Exclaimed Ryada in absolute stupefaction, a feeling shared unanimously by all those in the room through their expressions. “Alright, fuck it! Collapse every segment of the invaded tunnels! Can’t risk it, go!”
At her command, all rushed away in haste to deliver the orders. Though a cacophony of steps followed, as the last one escaped sight, it quickly subsided into relative silence. Now, only Ryada, Nuri, and a few others remained within the room, all staring at the crude excuse of a map.
Then, rumbling. One after the other, dead give-aways of the mass collapse of tunnels. One after the other, those within could feel the entrances shut for good, blocking all passage to and from.
And then, dead silence.
None dared say a word. All looking upwards in various directions, expecting to hear any manner of noise to hint to any activity, they still could heard nothing. No cave-ins, no frantic steps, nor screams that’d signal the infiltration successful.
Nothing, at least yet.
The questions lingered in her mind. How long would it take for them to get through, if they could? Minutes, hours, days? Hardly a way to check if they were still alive within the pile of dirt, either. And that was only if they didn’t find the other entrances.
But a noise came to be heard at last. Steps, much like those earlier. A chill ran down Ryada’s spine, fearing the worst, be it the discovery of the other tunnels or the breakthrough like before, turning to see a rat girl arrive. Didn’t seem in panic, however.
“Whatever they were, they’re retreating.” She said. “Sixth tunnel saw them leaving from the others. They’re heading to the manor, though.”
“The manor?” Asked Ryada, exchanging glances with Nuri. “Are you certain they’re heading to the manor?”
“Yes, direct route. Either they’re going there, or somewhere else has it in their path.”
A second of thought passed, after which Ryada turned to Nuri.
“You’re in charge in case those things return. Once night falls, I’m gonna go check what’s going on.”
“You alone?” Nuri asked in surprise. “Why not take us with you? Or why not have us go instead?”
“I need to see this with my own eyes, and the more that go the more one risks getting caught.”
Night. The cover of the darkness served enough to avoid predators, allowing her a relatively safe route to the manor.
A great building, both wide and tall. Opulent and imperial, gazing imposingly from the hill which overlooked all four cardinal directions of the fields past trees and roads. And yet, its size served as remarkable contrast to its purpose, as it all still housed just a single man.
Ryada arrived to the side, finding no obstacle in her path in addition to her luck of the man’s lack of pets to prevent her approach, to reach a segment of the manor’s wall. A false wall, a façade hiding a hole behind it, one she quickly rushed through before putting it back in place.
A familiar sight greeted her as she entered the corner of the living room just beside the staircase, that of a relatively desolate building. The lights remained on, although she could not hear a noise to hint as to where the owner would be.
The noise alerted her; a noise unlike anything she had ever heard in the manor before, but still fitting a certain description. A slimy noise. Seemed to come from a room to the side, heading directly into this one.
Couldn’t risk detection, if her fears turned true. In haste she jumped up the staircase step by step, a flight of stairs running along the wall to end in a balcony overlooking the living room. Careful, she dropped to the ground and crawled to the edge where the wooden balustrade stood, to then peek at what it could be that made the noise.
Her eyes widened upon seeing it. A creature of slimy exterior, but not as small as the tunnels of her home burrows, but as tall as a human standing like one. A mess of a slime, opaque and dark in colors with details bright in contrast. Its exterior resembled a human woman in part, though eerily enough the slimy exterior by its torso shared similarities to clothing in aesthetic, of a long dress hiding what legs there’d have been for a human. A maid, as if.
Her fears had been confirmed. What it was to the owner of the manor, she knew not nor cared, as it still made itself known as hostile to the rat girls. She had to get out and alert the others to then figure out what to do, as dealing with a human-sized entity would be impossible already, and that it knew of their burrow’s location already discarded the option of avoiding it as much as possible.
Perhaps it had done something to the normal rats, explaining their disappearance.
She crawled aside to the steps of the staircase, aiming to wait for an opportunity to run out as fast as she could, only to find multiple miniature equivalents of the slime already climbing the steps. Her heart almost caved in, beating as fast as it had ever beaten, knowing that she had been discovered; the slimes, however, seemed to take their time, advancing at a crawling pace step after step of the stairs. Seemed taunting, as it still blocked the way she had entered the manor through.
Standing up in an instant, she ran further inside.
Through the hallway, into a random room. Zero chance of hiding, if they already knew of an intruder. The very first thing she noticed turned out to be the window, with a flower in a jar sitting by the window sill. A clear way out, with a tool to smash through. Quickly she ran and jumped, to then tilt the jar and empty it of water and plant before grasping it by its neck. Heavy, unwieldy, at least for her size, but little other alternative did she have the luxury to search for. The slimes would be here at any moment, and so she took a deep breath, grasped the jar firmly, moved it away from the window, and then swung it against the glass with all her might.
It struck, but it did not break the glass. It did not even leave a crack, neither on the glass nor on the porcelain surface of the jar itself, but most strikingly, both objects seemed to end up stuck together somehow. Ryada pulled, but as if connected by the point of impact with an unbreakable sudden bond, she could not move it at all. An illogical outcome shattering her expectations.
Frightening her to the core, she came to realize that her hands had also become stuck. The porcelain surface refused to let go, despite any logic pointing that such a surface would not be sticky at all. At least, until she saw the jar’s structure weakening and malforming, as if its consistency had become like a creature she had seen before.
Before she could even scream, a massive tendril shot forward against her from the jar’s surface, grasping her head and blocking eyes, nose, and mouth. What scream she wanted to let out turned silent, hardly even muffled, left without anywhere to escape from. She struggled to escape with all her strength, kicking and screaming to let go, yet despite all her attempts, soon her consciousness began to fade by asphyxiation, all as her body slowly was engulfed by the slime.
Numbness. Fleeting mind, slowly returning to clarity. Aching muscles, heavy eyes, waking up from her slumber. Disoriented, couldn’t remember what even happened, till images of slime came to her mind. Slowly but surely, she began to remember what led her to this mess, though at the same time just as she tried to move, the feeling of slime all around her prevented any movements. Opening her eyes, she found herself restrained by a hardened surface of slime covering her up to her chest, keeping her where she sat with arms and legs petrified.
Raising her head, however, she found the slime she had seen earlier. The towering creature standing as tall as a man, present before her not even a meter away, looking down upon her with those eerie glowing lights by her eyes in the near-absolute darkness of the room. Dread, terror, horror, all manner of fears brought Ryada to absolute full wakefulness, heart beating, eyes widening, of prey condemned as the predator’s plaything.
But as much as she dreaded the worst, she saw the slime not moving at all, other than the slowly wriggling tendrils which surrounded the surface of her being.
“Yͬouͥr̕ kin̷ is̸ ṳn̏l̯ike ̊t̗h̓e rͨe̿st ̎of̀ t̔he̩ vͫer̝m͐i̍n.”
The words shook her to the core. It came not from the slime, but as if it were a chorus of a hundred million voices talking within Ryada’s mind. Voices of men, of women, of children, and of unspeakable horrors in distorted manners incomprehensible to her psyche.
She could do nothing. Too shocked to even be afraid, left blank-minded in her entirety, staring at God-knows-what that stood right in front.
“Master requir̋es a̩ll verm̩in b̐e re̢m̮o̢v̙ed̤. ͡Yoͭu ̼m͋ḁy be ͊o̙f a͟i̫d in ̹this̔ ̏uǹd̮erta̍kin͝g̯, or ̀f̸a͋c̺e ex̊termi̝na͞t̤io͋n ͕w͂i͑t̷h ̴t̜he͆ r̸e̚st of̂ yo͇ur̮ kin̋.”̀
“W… What? Extermination?!”
The slime remained as she was, silent, staring without a mere hint of blinking, leaving her questions unanswered. Granted those few seconds to recover her composure, even if just a minuscule fraction of it, Ryada swallowed her fears.
Something crept up the side of her neck. A slimy substance, a tendril, making her heart skip a beat as she attempted to escape by reflex alone, only to fail. It kept on climbing on and on, creeping her out with chill after chill running down her spine, jerking her body about in desperate, even if knowingly hopeless, attempts to break away, yet all was for naught, for the tendril immediately jammed itself into her ear with a yelp escaping her lips.
Imagines burned themselves into her retina, noises drilled against her ears, her flesh felt like it was burning. A flurry of sensations contradictory to each other, her mind hijacked to see and feel events that weren’t there.
But she saw it all.
Rats, a few of those Nuri had found missing completely, experimented on with slime surrounding them entirely. Minds hijacked, spasming and convulsing, only to then escape into the fields back to their home burrow. Still, the aftermath stalked them, minds and bodies afflicted, turning into aberrations of eerily high intellect for mere rodents, growing hideous to the eye with teeth and claws turning dagger-like each, not unlike nightmarish versions of themselves.
And it spread to the others, infecting the population without exception, to then migrate elsewhere. Attempt after attempt by the slimes to eradicate them ended in failure, driven off by brute strength rather than intellect and strategy like the rat girls had defended their own.
Mutants. Monsters of tales untold. And they had reproduced, a vermin tide only God knew the size of.
And then, the flashing images ended as the tendril retreated.
Dazed, disoriented once more, mind barely able to recover from the ordeal, Ryada found herself with confusion overshadowing any semblance of fear by the situation.
“̏Th͓e̙ ̵eͬx̺p̿erim͝ent to extr̩a͊c̓tͣ the͛ ̖l̍o͇caͦti̯on o̡f̧ ͐thͪeͥĭr ͨb͉u̼rr̤ow͕s̹ a̙n͋ḑ ͭthe̝ láyoͨuṯ ȯf͉ t̘he̝i̪r tͮunnͩel̂s enḏḛd in fa̿il̥ure, gr̭anting ̯th̓em̗ kňow̓l̦e̴dgͩe ̹instead ͒o̕f e͓xt͊r̿act̅i̳ng it.̙ Y͓oͪur̿ k̅iͭn’̾sͤ int̸u̙i̳tĭon as͏ r̈at̫s, ̀a̖long ͙with ͫy͇o̻u͟r̽ ̍în̴tell̶e͚ct and ͦsͣtr̸at͡egy̑ ͤwil̰l ͊p̬ro̸v̵e̟ us͈eful̀.͆
“I… You… It’s– you… Useful?” She shook her head, migraine threatening to settle in. “What do you want us to do?”
“B͂ri͇ng̥ ̀mͨe thos͜e ͝of̃ ̛y͂o̲ur̀ ͖kin a̤b̦lè ̄to ̅tͧa̹k̺e͋ ̙p̥a̬rt in ̅ṯhi͇sͅ ͭend͂e̩aṽou̴r. T͙he̅y̞ w̙il̬l bͪe̢ ta̹uͭgh̳t̟, ̴t̿he̷y̢ wil̔l̆ be eq̻uipped̗,҉ a͌n̠d ̈t́hey ẇillͮ fu̇l̛f̽įl̳l ̙the̟i̜rͅ purp̓os͌e͟ ͇i͖n̢ ̞Masterͪ’̉s͎ ̓ser̂v̼ic͜e̺. ͍Y͜ou wi͠l͉l̦ prͤo̠ve ̍to ̛Ma҉ster i͙f̥ yo̿ur ̟ki̹n͂ d̪es̡er̤ves ̉a ̂fͣat̡e bͦeͣtṫer̰ t̼h̯a͎n̔ ̆ẗ́hat̾ whic͋h aw̒a̖its͈ the ͉óthe̓rͧs̿,̄ rat͋ gir̒l.”
Slowly yet steadily, the slime surrounding her had begun to soften.
“S̤h͉ow̠ ́M͔aͮstͩer ̴yo̺u͍r͐ wo̠r͘t̥h, a̡n̞d̎ yòu̠r̍ ͉ki̩ṋ ̺w͉ill ́he͒ncefoŗth̛ ̒b͂e ͧűnde̽r̗ ͓his ̽prot͎eͯc͍tion,̜ sa̛f̪e̳ from ̜fͤămine ͦan̹d ͂fr̽o̾m pͬredaͣtͩo͇rs̕.̈́”
The slime, almost a liquid, withdrew in full, releasing her from the miniature prison. Pristine clean, without a mere hint of dampness in her crude clothing or skin, left sitting where she was still finding it hard to comprehend all that occurred.
“Y̴oư h͑a̜vę ͤtẉo d̫aýs̘ t͖o c̰h̖oͩo̜se.͡ Se̬rvi̒ce, or o̒̍҉b͙͑͘͟ḽ̲̍͗̀í̡̧̥͉ͩ҉ͥ̈v̳͚̜̬̾͠i̙̣ò̢͍̫͖̤̼ͣ́ͨn.̠͕”͎̯̻ͫ̚͞͝
A creaking noise alerted Ryada, turning in place only to be blinded by the light of dawn from the door which had stood behind her. A line of light flooding in, with the door opening just enough to grant her space to go through. Turning back to the slime, Ryada found her standing quiet, still, merely staring at her; from the events alone, Ryada took hint as to what she was expected to do. Not like she wished to spend a single additional second in such place, and so she quickly stood up and ran away.
“…’Bring me those of your kin able to take part in this endeavour. They will be taught, they will be equipped, and they will fulfil their purpose in Master’s service’.”
So repeated Ryada, sitting in the great room of the burrow with a great many others around her, all listening anxious and stressed. A dead silence followed, none daring to say a word after what ominous date the slime had given as limit, but soon enough a few murmurs came about. The murmurs grew greater in quantity, with others slowly joining in till murmur turned to talk, intensifying further and further till a ruckus threatened to form. Though Ryada still sat on her own pondering over the words and the next course of action, in due time the cacophony turned too loud for her to concentrate at all.
“…Enough!” She shouted, standing up and silencing all in the room. “We still have two days, don’t panic like this if it’s not going to help anyone at all! When the time comes, we’ll decide for good!”
Sixth tunnel. A near vertical incline, steep in most of its design save for the precautions to make rainfall not flood it all, and the traps set for any intruders. She climbed on and on, searching for the one she had found missing down below in the burrows, and upon exiting at the very top, she found her. Nuri, solemnly staring at the starry sky up above, moonless yet so full of colors and shapes of stars and cosmic clouds up ahead.
“Predators might see you.” Said Ryada, though still approaching her and sitting down next to her, staring high above as well.
Though aware, Nuri remained in silence.
“Do you ever get tired of this?”
“No.” Answered Nuri.
And then, a pause.
“I’ve always wished that the predators just went away, so that I could come out here any time I wanted to.” She added. “So that I didn’t have to hide down there with the others every time we weren’t looking for food.”
Almost sharing her wish, Ryada let out a sigh through her nose and she lowered her eyes.
“Do you think the slime is telling the truth?”
“Protecting us, if we do it what it says. Letting us go out at night, do what we want without fear of being eaten alive… being free, for once.”
“I don’t know. It knows where we live, so if it wanted to exterminate us, chances are it’d have tried again already.”
“I say we listen to it, just to see what happens.”
“Hm?” Wondered Ryada, turning her head at Nuri. Nuri, in exchange, lowered her gaze to Ryada with a smile.
“What’ll happen otherwise? Either we’re dead meat, or we run away and nothing changes. I’m tired of living like this. I’m tired of hiding, of running, of fearing. I can’t speak for the others… but were it up to me, I’d take the risk. Not because its a risk I’d want to take, but because the alternative is just that much worse, in my eyes.”
Ryada kept on staring, letting her words sink in till Nuri raised her eyes once more to the stars in the dead of the night. Ryada soon followed suit, raising her head high above.
“Tomorrow’s the last day.” Mentioned Ryada.
“So it would seem.”
“Are you really willing to go? Those things… are scary.”
“I really, really don’t want to go, but… Sometimes, we all have to do things we don’t want to do.”
Silence followed, reigning to hear the faint breeze moving the tall grass about in serene oscillations. In due time, Ryada slowly stood up to return back to the burrow, yet as she stepped into the entrance of the tunnel, Nuri’s voice prompted her to halt.
“When the time comes, don’t be afraid to choose for the rest of us.” She said, Ryada turning her head back to her. “I know there are many who will follow you without hesitation, no matter where you lead them to.”
Though thoughts began to bombard Ryada’s mind, still the silence of the night remained. After a few seconds, Ryada lowered her head, then turned back to the tunnel and marched away.
The day had passed. Ryada expected no peace in the last day they had, though still the noises drew her out of her room. A ruckus, as imagined, but even though she could tell what could be the topic, she could still discern no voices. Tunnel past tunnel, she made her way from her room downwards till she arrived to the great room of the burrow. There she found a massive concentration of rat girls, all arguing with each other in an extremely uncomfortable cacophony, making her wince as her ears immediately ached over the intensity of the arguing.
“Are you really thinking that thing won’t stab us in the back?!” One voice shouted louder than the others, an argument among a group Ryada had found herself closest to. “We need to run! We could’ve left yesterday but noooo, we wasted this much time already!”
“Run? You’re a wimp!” Shouted another. “We sent those slimes running once already, we can do that again just fine! Why do you think it’s trying to threaten us instead of coming here again? It knows it can’t do a thing!”
“And what if it fails?! Are you really willing to toy with the lives of everyone else like that?!”
“You people really need to spend our last day alive arguing…” Ryada came to hear a mutter up close, turning to find the source as a sorrowful rat she could just catch the whisper of.
Ryada came to figure that they knew she was here, though their focus lied elsewhere in the argument to care too much. Surely each came to this room to find her, either individually or as a group to talk about the next course of action, but inevitably others with differing plans came as well, and thus the fight ensued.
By the room’s wall she managed to spot Nuri, leaning against it cross-armed in silence, meeting Ryada’s eye and staring solemnly, as if waiting.
Still the arguing continued, the shouting, the screams, the verbal violence threatening to turn into physical, the two rats she saw arguing getting closer to each other and beginning to push one another. The echoing only worsened it, turning painful to the ears, yet none seemed to care. Anger, scorn, terror, doom, all manner of emotions boiling in so close a space.
She could not bear the sight. The rats she had lived with, all turned into maniacs.
“…Everyone, shut the fuck up!” She shouted as loud as her lungs allowed.
Those closest to her heard in full clarity, silencing them in an instant before all others followed through by the abrupt pause of the arguing about. Startled, attention caught, distressed yet silent, all turned their heads to Ryada who breathed deeply while making no effort to hide her frustration.
“What the hell is everyone arguing here for?! It’s the slime, isn’t it?!” She shouted in equal manner, caring not to lower her voice with none even whispering.
Yet, at her question, none dared say a word. And nobody said a ‘no’. At least, in the silence her composure calmed a fair share.
“I know what’s in everyone’s minds.” She said, tone returning to her usual self. “We can’t go back to the days before we met it. Either we’re exterminated by the slime, or sent to die against the mutants. Running is not an option; we don’t know where to go, if predators will pick us off one by one on the way, or if the slime won’t follow us and find us again in the first place. I don’t blame you for being afraid… but I can blame you for your fear to get the best of you to the point that you’re screaming at each other like it’s going to do anything but waste time for the inevitable!”
Her voice echoed about ever so slightly, a noise out of place compared to the cacophony of seconds ago. The silence, the discomfort, the apprehensive atmosphere of impending doom swallowing the burrow whole, there was nothing to hide it. So many rat girls in one single place, and with none to say a word about what topic all no longer wished to speak of.
“It was yesterday that the slime gave us a choice. I know many of you don’t trust the slime, and I know those who do don’t imagine the mutants being too kind, but I’ve come to think about the slime’s offer ever since that time. Did it not offer us what each and every single one of us always wanted? What we said we’d go through pain and misery so many times, but so off-handedly over believing it would never come?”
Still, silence, yet it was not their words that Ryada wanted. She saw it in their expressions. Sorrow, fear, anxiety, frustration, all it had been at the start, noticing now some changing to wonder.
“Have we all not wished to live free from predators? To be able to go outside without having to fear being eaten alive at any moment?! Without the only places we have to set up traps being our own bedrooms, with how predators can even sneak into out burrow and eat our own?! You all wished for it once! You all imagined what you could go through, given the smallest possibility! This is your chance, this is your offer! Are you going to do what you told yourselves you’d do for it, or let it pass by your own fear?! Are you going to stay as prey, or will you try to take the title of predator from them for perhaps the first time in all of our history?!”
Hardly a voice, till murmurs began to be heard. Whether it did good or not, it mattered little, only that it did something. At least the silence began to wane, leaving way to whisper after whisper among them, a more civilized discussion than the unfiltered rage and terror from before.
At that moment, Ryada came to see something. Among the crowd, a little rat girl that couldn’t have even been half of Ryada’s age. Wondrous, curious, puzzled and confused after the chaos subsided so suddenly. And yet, still someone who would face the worst…
…If those who could fight decided not to.
As everyone spoke with themselves, Ryada slowly made her way to her, who stared in surprise at the realization that she was the one Ryada had on her mind. Half her height, even if that, a size difference that could hardly be hidden as the two stood in front of each other, with the rest of the rats wondering what could be on Ryada’s mind.
“What’s your name?” Asked Ryada, dropping her aggressive tone.
“…Lily.” Answered the little one, timid and quiet.
“Upsy daisy.” She said, to embrace her with her arms and lift her up, both now reaching to the same height. “I don’t think anyone heard you.” She added, raising her voice for all to hear. “What’s your name?”
“You’ve all met Lily today!” She said to all those around her, now in the heart of the crowd. A pause followed, in which Ryada allowed silence to reign for just a few seconds. “I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone that kids like these live with us.” She continued. “Regrettably, many of us have lost someone just like her, a daughter or sister, cousin or niece. Others have lost someone in that age, much like my parents to stray dogs back when I could hardly speak this well… Many of us, on the other hand, certainly wish we could have a daughter of our own if we don’t have one already! But the day may never come, if we don’t act today. That is our one and only task here. To those of you who are willing, to those of you who are able, to those of you who can fight, will you ever in your wildest dreams send a child like this against the mutants before us? Or will you fight for the sake of those who can not?!”
Boisterous and proud, her words ended in echo for all to hear in full clarity. And yet, as a second passed, and then two, her grin ever so slowly subsided; what cheers she’d have expected, what spirits roused she’d have imagined, simply did not come to pass.
“I’ll go!” A voice tore through the silence. Ryada knew it well, that of Nuri as she found once she turned her head, finding her stepping forward. “To bitter end if I must!”
“So will I!” Another shouted in proud defiance, a rat girl Ryada recognized as another of those who had accompanied Nuri in so many of her scouting tasks.
“Count me in!” Yet another added in equal tone.
And so, another, and another, at first slowly yet soon sky-rocketing in frequency, turning from claims in clarity to an outright cacophony as before. This time, however, with no terror, no dread, no anger nor scorn, but pride and defiance instead. The grin which had dissipated returned in full, hearing the shouts turn unintelligible over how many cried out in support, till ever so slowly the crowds began chanting as one, chanting her name, the one who had managed to stop the descent into madness.
“Guess you’re gonna stay comfy here, Lily.” She said, gently letting her down. Afterwards, she took a deep breath, but not before indulging in the blissful experience of so much attention granted to her, as if she were a little hero of the moment. “Alright!” She shouted, silencing the crowd once more, all visibly eager in what her words would be. “I want everyone willing and able ready by nightfall. When night comes, we’ll all go to the manor! Use the rest of today to think it over thoroughly, I don’t want anyone suddenly deciding to turn tail and run when we’re halfway there!”
The great doors of the manor creaked before them. Fifty rats, with Ryada and Nuri at the front, witnessing it open just as they arrived without a simple knock be needed. That they were expected down to the second, though understandable, still sent a shiver down everyone’s spine. The point of no return had arrived, with the doors just open enough to let them all through, and with an absolute darkness waiting past it.
None could bring themselves to step forward. None found themselves willing. Not Ryada, not Nuri, not the others; perhaps Ryada least of all, knowing very well what titanic monstrosity lurked in the darkness. But despite her jaw shaking, she swallowed her fear, and forced her legs to move, taking a step forward. A little behind, Nuri followed, and on by one the rest did so as well.
But at the very moment her steps passed from the porch to the floor of the interior, the lights turned on and illuminated each and every corner of the room, blinding her eyes which had gotten used to the darkness already. And yet, what she saw froze her in place, as did the rats behind her with a few gasping in dread. Right at the inner end of each door, clones of the slime stood facing one another in two rows, over a hundred flanking the path inside; it led within further and further, ending in more arranged in a circle in the middle of the room. Past them, over the balcony where the staircase ended up high, behind the balustrades the great slime herself stood, gazing directly at them all.
Time seemed to freeze. None could move a muscle, nor did anyone see the slimes move at all. Statues, as if, all patiently waiting, the ones in rows gazing only where they faced.
But the invitation was clear.
With stiff tail and uneven breath, Ryada once more forced herself to march ahead. Once more the one to set the example, and with the rows of slimes doing nothing as she passed, the others found their strength to follow in her steps. Little by little they marched ahead, till the door creaked close once the last one had set foot in, startling them all to look back in unison.
The line had been crossed. No turning back now, and so their quiet march ahead continued, all the way to the circle of slimes. Little by little, each arrived and stood still, till all found themselves within the circle.
“Wi҉se ̻deciͮs̖io͟n̋.” Greeted the slime, a chorus of a hundred million voices startling all present enough to bunch up in an instant, looking in all directions after the voices which seemed to speak within their own minds. Still, Ryada stood as she was despite so gruelling a discomfort, having already experienced it before. “͔Ȟo͍wͨevér,ͫ ̑y͒our҉ task͌ ̋h̖aͦs͎ ̀o̰nly̵ ̒b̤eg̼un͜.̚ Yơu̎ ̬wilĺ bͬe tͪau̚gh͒tͨ, you w̠il̽l bͫe͋ eq̙u̘iͫp͌p͍e̫d, ͫand yo̖u̹ ͯẘil̡l̞ ̑carͫr̐y͇ ͯout ̓y͗o̰ur͂ ͖t̏a̋s̙k ̕i̻f͑ ̌you ͅwͯi̕sh tŏ ̛re͈ap ỹou̪r͑ ̓rew͋árͥd̩s͗.”̙
Slime in one’s ear never felt terribly comfortable. Twice already, and Ryada felt it even worse than before as she tried to scoop it out of her ear; perhaps the lessened terror only gave way to greater focus towards the discomfort. Still, strangely enough, that was the only slime she felt; her new equipment, despite being made of such, felt anything but. Clothing like uniform, boots, a helmet, and what an equivalent of what humans referred to as a ‘gun’, all provided by the slime. Eerier still was the knowledge of it all, of what they were called, of their purpose, of the mechanisms, of the hows and whys, all knowledge driven into her mind, much the same to the others around her in the manor’s garage.
And though she knew how a proper gun worked, the slime’s was nothing but a mere recreation, perhaps just for aesthetics; still the principle remained, to throw objects against their foes till it died. Though one part of her mind surged in self-confidence at this new weapon granted to her, the other could feel nothing but absolute dread at the chance that the slime could’ve created these right before the raid on their burrow.
Were the mutants so strong that it required these implements be created?
Well, they weren’t even meant to destroy them for good. That task would’ve fallen onto what lied over a remote-controlled car she stepped towards. Modified heavily, allowing her to drive it from the driver’s seat like any human car miniaturized, and with a canister of gas taking up most of the back. That was the key of the plan:
To drive it into the heart of the mutant burrow, and let it loose. All else boiled down to escorting it there.
Slime clones equipping themselves the same, and fifty rats. Lord knew what mess they had gotten themselves into.
Separated from the rest, brought up high with just a select few. The slime’s method seemed efficient enough that she was not aware of what she had been granted knowledge of until she saw it, and there in front of Nuri on the roof of the manor, it made her realize what she now knew. Dimly lit by a few light bulbs scattered about, wires leading up to them and converging elsewhere, she saw a remote-controlled toy plane. And yet, there would be no remote-controlling, as it had been modified for her to fly it herself from within, much like a real plane. Propeller-driven, of an old design from a war over half a century ago, armed with the equivalent of two machine-guns on its nose with a so carefully made mechanism to stop it from shooting its own propeller.
And yet, it only made her feel a chill down her spine, to realize that the slime knew of her morbid interest in the predators that flew. Of so great a freedom to fly as one pleased, contrary to the tunnels she had been condemned to live in since birth.
It knew. And it chose her, most likely like it chose the few rats accompanying her, no more than four.
A great many other planes lay about, nearly all of them already with a miniature slime in the cockpit and no attempt at hiding its nature as slime-made machinery, though still the ones reserved for the rats seemed pure metal and circuitry.
As she climbed onto her own, the eerie sensation of rusty muscle memory came to her. Memories she never had, things she never did, methods she never learned, all in her mind as the cockpit felt like a second home. Placing one hand on the stick and the other on the throttle, the familiar sensation she never had before came to her, knowing not only what they did, but even an expertise to use it to its full potential.
No time to keep wondering. Had to put it to the test. With the press of a button, the propeller began to spin. With another, the lights at the root of the wings began to shine forward. With a gentle push of the throttle, it spun with enough force to pull the aircraft forward, and with the rudder pedals, she nudged it towards the rows of light bulbs up an elevated ramp. Aligned, and seeing all around her the dozens of similar planes gathering around for the same purpose, she pushed the throttle to its limit, and drove onwards between the lights.
From length rows to barely any at all, she passed them all till her plane’s wheels passed the edge of the ramp, sending her into the air and taking off in full.
Excitement. Adrenaline. Joy. Disbelief. She was flying, something she never before would’ve believed would happen. Like angels carrying her, she saw the lights of the makeshift runway from so high above, along with those lights of the other plans taking off as well. Despite all else being only dimly lit by the starry sky, still she found it almost overwhelming; who knows how it would be if she looked at it in a bright sunny day, of seeing the treetops, the roofs, the eternal fields of green, gazing past the horizon without a blade of grass to obstruct her view. She needed to see it.
She needed to see the light of day, to see it all in its color.
She needed to survive what was coming, and upon seeing down below the various lights coming out the garage, including those of the car carrying the canister of gas, she knew it all too well:
The hardest day had begun.
Eyes ahead, and there was hardly anything she could see. A night attack by plan rather than by chance, if the floodlights mounted on drones that accompanied them was anything to go by, thought Nuri. Didn’t get any darker either, was it past midnight already? Hardly a way to tell the time any more, though reasons to do so felt lacking. For now, she flew with the others towards their objective, acting as the eyes in the sky for the convoy a little distance behind.
Their objective: The old train station. Abandoned mid-building, its reasons for being built disappearing midway and condemning it to abandonment before completion. The mutants had migrated there and made it their home, after the slime had failed in her experiments with them.
And they had been reproducing ever since then. Their current numbers, unknown.
She caught glimpse of the station, its beams exposed and walls unfinished, lacking the roof which had never even been started to be built. Time and the elements had done it no good, leaving it looking more like ruins from the silhouette in the dark Nuri could hardly see.
But her eyes narrowed as her silhouette seemed to change. Movement, and too high for terrestrial animals.
“…Anyone else see something come out of the station?” She asked through the radio, inevitably of a slimy origin turned into solid material.
“I see it too. Birds?” Another rat girl answered.
As they flew closer, the floodlights on the drones shined with greater intensity towards the station. From little blurs in the dark, slowly the contour of the entities could be seen. Birds, for sure, but as they approached further to the massing numbers coming out of the station, and the lights shined enough to reveal them partly, Nuri’s eyes widened as a frown formed in her expression. The radio silence certainly betrayed the shock of the others as well.
Mutated eagles, with a mutated rat as rider on each of them. The rats had caught them and spread the mutation, without a doubt.
Now it was no wonder that the slime had prepared planes for them.
“…Weapons free!” She said, pushing the throttle. “Clear the sky of them!”
Assault. Draw as many as possible outside. The slime clones would feign an assault through every tunnel while the rats fought those outside, except for one. Ryada would break through into the tunnel with the car, and drive into the heart of the burrow. Couldn’t afford to siege, if the mutants would just carve a hundred tunnels in any direction to get out.
The best plan available, but by no means a terribly brilliant one.
Tracers in the air, and gunshots both close and afar gave away the start of the first phase of the plan. Most rat girls now found themselves in true combat they had never before been in during their lives, but not Ryada. Far away from danger, requiring the canister be hidden till the time was right, with a few other rat girls with her as escort, headlights turned off under the cover of a bush. It’d take time for the rats and slimes to get to the tunnels, time which only made Ryada more and more uncomfortable as seconds passed, gripping the steering wheel.
The mutants. She had seen them through the slime’s visions. Frightening, dangerous, things she’d honestly sooner run away from than fight, and her kin up ahead fought them on land and air. Her heart ached, to be made to leave them, to not be by their side in such terrifying moment, but another part of her begged to not be sent in. It was still only in the visions that she saw the mutants after all, never face-to-face, and very little did she wish not only to fight them, but also to drive into their home. Seconds turned to minutes, and minutes to hours, trapped in a discomforting sensation of impatience to be called in, and dread for the same.
And then, a chill ran down her spine as the radio made its noise.
“The slimes are in position and moving!” Said a rat, gunshots almost drowning her voice out. “Tunnel three has been secured, now’s your time!”
Tunnel three. The one at the furthest back of the station. She saw the logic in it, as the rats would defend the ones at the front with greater ferocity expecting them to be invaded first, but to drive so much more distance did did not cheer her up too much.
“Got it!” She replied, turning the headlights on. “Keep a path open, and stick to the plan once I’m in!”
“Is it time?” One of the rat girls with Ryada asked, to which Ryada nodded.
“Go and regroup with the others. Keep the mutants busy.”
With the pedal to the metal, Ryada departed in full speed.
Gritting her teeth and furrowing her brow, she found it difficult enough already to keep the car in a straight enough line. The grass and earth, it made it feel like what humans called a rally road, though a hundred times worse with the uneven terrain and lack of any road at all. Tumbling left and right, vibrating, hardly able to keep herself on her seat were it not by the tight seatbelt, though at least the wheels had been purpose-crafted for this treacherous terrain.
The gunshots turned louder, clearer, as the tracers up high turned from a distant view to directly above her. Contours of planes dogfighting contours of eagles, the roaring of the engines and the pounding of the machine-guns, all came closer and closer, until she finally caught glimpse of the rat girls by the station.
Upon spotting her, a few waved their way, act Ryada immediately saw as guiding her towards the decided tunnel. Already the fury of combat pounded against her ears, of shouts in war-cry or in order, seeing the sight of carcasses and disturbed dust and ruin, though for all the carnage that’d take place, she’d only be there for seconds.
Entrance, terrain now even though still with garbage and dirt making her car shake. She drove through in haste, dodging mutant and rat as all desperately secured a path, seeing both rat and slime beside each other accomplishing the same task. The abandonment did not aid in the layout, nor the mutants doing, turning it all into a mess of a ruin, too changed with mounds and elevations to consider it mere act of nature.
Turn, accidental drift, ride up and down mounds, witnessing all the rats attempting to get to her yet fought off as she passed, sending a chill down her spine over the possibility that they very well knew what the rats and slimes were attempting to do. But still she accelerated, till the tunnel lay in sight. Cleared as she had heard, she lined up her car and drove her feet to the greatest extent possible down the pedal.
Five meters, three meters, one meter, and into the absolute pitch black darkness she plunged into, only illuminated by the headlights. The gunfire turned muffled, leaving only the roaring of the engine to drown out all noise.
No time for caution. Still with the same speed she drove down the tunnel, split after split choosing that which the slime had let her know in the manor.
Then, a mutant could be see up ahead, but she did not slow down. Bracing herself, and knowing it to be a possibility taken into account in the plan, she kept course and struck it, the low front end causing it to be sent against the reinforced front, then upward, and finally over the car to be left behind.
Ryada saw another mutant up ahead, and still drove against it to meet the same fate. Hardly any space to maneuver in a burrow’s tunnels. Still, there she struck another mutant, and another. The increasing frequency led her to believe she was getting closer to the heart…
…till falling dirt had begun to lightly rain on her wind shield. She knew well what would happen, as if she had not nearly perfected the craft in her burrow. Traps- Cave-ins, specifically. Couldn’t do much else than keep pushing forward, but as the light rain ended with a great muffled cacophony behind her, she knew she had outrun it.
But there she struck another mutant, this time a tenacious one gripping onto the side of the car. Though Ryada swerved left and right, it refused to let go. Even hitting another mutant and causing the flying body to hit it did nothing to break its grip.
More light rain, and more mutants ahead. Too many for comfort, all hitting the car to create an awful cacophony as her vehicle felt like the interior of a pounding drum. Too many to even see forward in full clarity, her sight obscured be it by a mutant or by the earth falling.
At that moment, another mutant clung onto the car. The added weight and awful aerodynamic properties of the fuzzy beasts didn’t do many favors, and proving her fears true, the intermittent light rain of dirt intensified ever so slowly. A disproportionately long tunnel with so many cave-in traps, leaving her to wonder in morbid horror what manner of maniacal animals they had to be to do so such a thing in just a few days.
Couldn’t afford any more slow-downs. Taking her pistol from her waist, she pointed it at the arm of the mutant to her left which held onto the front. Breaking the glass would do no good, but it still was the lesser evil of all options. At the pull of the trigger, the glass shattered into a million pieces, and the mutant let go betraying what injury must’ve befallen its arm. To the other, she pointed at its head, horrid and abominable as it was in the visions, and shot. Glass shattered, mutant let go, and once more she drove onwards outrunning the rain.
But the following mutants grasped onto the opening by the lack of glass, caring not to bloody their hands with the shards that stuck to the sides. One, two, three mutants, all of which she had begun shooting, but more clung than she could get rid of. Swerving left, she could hardly lose them, and swerving right, the same lack of result showed.
At least, till a final mutant hitting the front of her car send the already terribly damaged nose downward, digging into the earth despite so tremendous a speed. She screamed in terror, her car front-flipping, blood rushing in and out of her head by the wildly changing centrifugal forces, and with the subsequent impacts against the tunnel, all turned black.
Sweat had begun to build up. Hand on stick, other on throttle, feet on the rudder pedals, adrenaline intoxicating her, and mind losing itself in the myriads of turns and pulls of her aircraft. The muffled gunfire of her weapons turned as natural as her own breathing and heart’s beating, and the violent movements throwing her one way to the other in each and every maneuver had been so familiarized as to feel alien without them. Couldn’t even look at the ammo counter, with all the carnage occurring around her. To her left, to her right; up front, behind; above, and below, everywhere a deadly display of tracers like fireworks.
And yet, Nuri’s drunkenness in adrenaline left her in perpetual anger, gritting her teeth on and on with each new target she acquired. The differences between her aircraft and the eagles the mutants piloted had already begun to show, of how they could come to a complete halt and make sharp turns the likes would stall her plane and send it to the ground spinning, needing each pass to be calculated to get a good firing solution, only to still fail to get guns on target and be left to fly on for another pass.
But still for every eagle she shot down, another took its place. Didn’t make sense. Frustration grew to pure fury, unable to understand where they all kept coming from; she could swear she herself shot down more eagles than she knew frequented the general area, and still the entire makeshift airforce still continued racking up kills.
Her eyes widened, catching glimpse of an eagle descending from above towards her, crash course inevitable. With a swift movement of her arm and feet, she made the plane violently turn aside; though still it flew in one piece, something struck against it, a loud and ugly thud undeniable along with a sudden added weight affecting her aircraft. Looking aside while levelling the plane, she found the cause: Though the eagle had missed, the monstrous mutant had jumped and latched onto her cockpit.
Immediately she yanked the stick all the way to the side, pushing her foot on the pedal of the same side at the same time to send the aircraft into a violent hardly-controlled roll. Much to her dismay, the beast still refused to let go despite the spinning which had already begun to point the aircraft’s nose closer and closer towards the ground; worse yet, as if driven mad in anger, the mutant let out a screech with its saliva hitting the glass before punching into it with its claw. First punch, nothing; second punch, a great crack showed. Third hit, and it pierced through the cockpit’s glass, raining shards on both while letting the merciless winds and its noise within.
Unwilling at first, Nuri let go of the stick, losing control of the aircraft as she rummaged her waist. The mutant attempted to reach in, gnawing towards Nuri, but before it could reach her in full, Nuri took out her pistol and shot the monstrosity at point blank several times till it let go and fell away.
Looking ahead, a gasp escaped her, finding herself in a direct crash course towards the ground. In desperation she let go of her pistol and grasped the stick with both hands, pulling with all her might. Couldn’t even stall the damn thing if she wanted to, with the great speed in the dive erasing it as a limit. All that remained was her strength, and her consciousness, already feeling her head pounding over the g-forces involved as blood rushed out of her head. From a near vertical dive into the ground, it began to level, but still to close for comfort to the earth. The closer she got, the more she wondered if she’d make it, till right at the moment of truth of whether she’d crash or not, the plane struck the tall blades of grass. Shaking, vibrations, mown grass entering her cockpit, but the nose of the plane pointed upwards anew and escaped the grass, almost losing control over the fields of green impacting against the wings and fuselage.
Close call, but she needed to regain altitude. An eagle catching her so low would only spell doom.
“The mutants overran the slimes in tunnels two and four!” A voice cried out from the radio, with a white noise of static eternal past it. “Fall back, fall back!”
“They’re pouring out of tunnel eight!” A distant voice shouted, low enough to almost be muffled by the static and gunfire.
“Regroup towards tunnel five!”
Her head kept on pounding, drifting from awake to unconscious and back. The radio kept on ringing out, rats shouting within it; a malfunction, picking up distant frequencies? Although it sounded like quite an uncomfortable situation, wherever she was, it seemed peaceful, without a noise to be heard other than the radio itself. With how heavy her eyes felt, opening them felt a titanic effort, but little by little she came to see that she still was in the tunnels. Last she remembered was driving ahead past mutant and cave-in, and yet, there she was now in serene peace, only now coming to the realization that she wasn’t sitting exactly straight.
The seatbelt had kept her in place. Regaining her mind partly, she found herself almost upside down. Now she remembered it, crashing. Glancing around, she saw the answers to the question she had even yet to formulate, that of why she was still alive despite the rats that had clung onto her car: scattered about, they lay bleeding and dead if not buried. The car must’ve struck them as it spun around, killing them on the spot. Certainly lucky for her.
“We’re taking losses!” Spoke another rat through the radio again.
Ryada brought her hand to the buckle of her seatbelt and pressed it. Freed, she fell down to the cold dirt floor; the car no longer had a roof. She didn’t have the strength to crawl out, nor that many reasons for the time being. It had been rendered unusable. One of the wheels was further down the tunnel, and the other one missing must’ve been buried in the dirt that cut the tunnel not far behind. Several pieces of the car lay scattered about as well, making any ideas of repair turn into a faint dream at best, as if a good half of the car wasn’t already buried as well.
“They cut us off from the main force at the north-western part of the station!” Said yet another rat through the radio. “Where do we go?!”
“Regroup at the rally point! I repeat, regroup at the rally point!”
“The rally point is already overrun, we were just pushed back from there!”
“Shit, new rally point at tunnel three! Go there with the others!”
Tunnel three. What were they trying to do there, wondered Ryada. It was already caved-in, useless. Hardly a need to defend it so much any more.
They might as well just retreat. It’s not like she was going to make it out alive at this point with this failure. Then again, looking further down the tunnel, she couldn’t help but wonder just how far away she was from the heart of the burrow.
Something dripped onto the floor. Couldn’t have been water, this deep, and it certainly looked too dark. It pooled right beneath her, and after another drop falling, she suspected a certain source. She brought her palm to her head and then moved to see it, only to see her own blood. A head injury, leaving her with a morbid grin at how ridiculous it was that she was the only one out alive from that crash, and even then perhaps by pure dumb luck. By all rights, she should’ve been dead.
“They overran tunnel five! We can’t hold them, we’re taking too many losses!”
Still with her morbid grin, Ryada came to know. Death didn’t take her, because it was busy taking the others. Ironic, she thought, that the one who brought them here was spared, while they were not.
What a mess. Maybe the ones calling to run away had a point. Can’t say they knew more than her after the vision the slime granted her, so how did they guess it? Was the choice so obvious to all, except for her?
Maybe that was the case. She never considered her exceptionally smart. Reckless, maybe, and lucky most certainly, but that was all she could describe herself as. A choice was bound to backfire in horrible ways.
Recklessness. Was it because of being so reckless that she ended up like a leader figure? Was it over being the loudest in the room, over talking when others did not, over dumb ideas spoken holding more weight than brilliant ideas left silent?
“All units, regroup at tunnels three! The mutants have overrun the exits, I repeat, the mutants have overrun the exits! Do not separate from your units!”
Guess that was the end of it. She brought her rats to a sacrifice. At least she’d not return to look at the others in the eyes, after wiping out so much of the burrow.
And then, dead silence. The radio no longer made any noise, leaving her alone on her own. She left her head to gently drop on her forearm, as if it were a cushion while she rested.
“Come on, you god damn…” Spoke someone through the radio, with the characteristic noise of a propeller bleeding through the static. The familiar voice left Ryada to erase her smile, and raise her head a bit to look at the radio lying on the ground in front of her, separated from the car. Then, machine-gun fire broke out, till it ended with a maniacal laugh. “Got you! Got you!” Cheered the familiar voice to herself.
Dead give-away of mental exhaustion. Ryada certainly never imagined Nuri behaving like that, going berserk. She was still alive, at least.
“How many of you parasites are there…” Muttered Nuri between her teeth, past grunt and machine-gun fire intermittent. “–Kara, behind you!”
“–What?!” Answered another rat girl, this time the static of Ryada’s radio and Nuri’s radio combined. “Shit! Shit, get that damn thing off me!”
The propeller spun faster, leaving way to the furious howling of the engine intensifying. Machine-gun bursts and curses to herself rang out through the radio, all until a distinct ‘click’ could be heard.
“What now?!” Nuri asked herself, only to realize. Ryada as well know it, with the absence of gunfire from then on. Her ammunition had run out.
“I can’t shake it off!” The rat girl at the radio cried out. “I don’t have enough speed to just fly straight from it!”
Silence, other than the propeller and the static. Heavy breathing, still with the subtle clanking of the controls.
“…I didn’t come this far just to give up.” She muttered, furious and berserk, for Ryada to then hear the propeller raging on to maximum. Then, she heard the screeching of the mutant eagle and rodent rider, clear give-away of so quick an approach.
Without ammunition, Ryada came to know the implications of her actions.
“For the burrow!” Nuri cried out at the top of her lungs, with a maddening mutant screech following immediately before the twisting sound of rotor and machinery in impact, till a violent and abrupt end of the radio for good.
Now, only silence remained.
“Nuri…” She whispered to herself, staring on at the radio which no longer gave even a static.
‘For the burrow’. Perhaps her last words.
To depart so defiant. At least, she departed as any rat would want, killing off the predator instead of just running away to die tired.
But, Nuri fell fighting. Meanwhile, she was in a closed-off tunnel, patiently waiting for her end. Was this the fate she wanted for herself? Where everyone fought to the last, while she gave up like this?
Did she have any right to take the luxury of deciding her own end, after what massacre she led her kin into?
Of course not.
She had to keep going, no matter what. Be it bleeding, swarmed, with limbs missing or even condemned to die by the canister, she had to do it whether she wanted to or not. It was her task, and her task alone. Even if she died regardless, she had to do it.
A grunt betrayed the pain she felt, though still she crawled forward to get out of the flipped car. Body aching, she pushed herself up till she stood, as unwieldy as her legs were at the moment. Looking back, it looked like with a firm pull the canister with detach from the car and the dirt it had become lodged into; at least a little bit of luck smiled on her. She walked up to it and pulled, feeling it give in partly yet still holding to where it was, and so she pulled again. A third time, and on the fourth time with great effort, it broke from the car and dirt to then land onto the ground, rolling a bit by its cylindrical shape.
Back to the car, she rummaged but her pistol had been nowhere to be seen. Sucked out of the window and now buried underneath the earth, most likely. At least, she found her rifle. Rummaging more, she found the magazines which had fallen off her vest, and arranged them in place. Then, she took out some rope, approached the canister, tied it on both ends just tight enough to prevent it from slipping away, and pulled to test it. It rolled as it was pulled, knowing that her idea worked. Now, she turned on the flash light by the end of her rifle, granting her illumination further into the tunnel more than just the immediate vicinity her eyes could see in the dark, and pulling the canister as she went, she departed further into the burrow.
She couldn’t make sense of it, of how she saw no more mutants any more. Were the ones she ran over coincidentally the last, or did they immediately back off to head to the other tunnels and support the defense above? Better if she didn’t know, in a sense; if the rodents had mutated enough to have a grasp of tactics and strategy of this level, there’s no telling what else they had at their disposal.
At least, she saw the tunnel’s end into a great area. All she heard was the rolling of the canister and her own steps; no screeching, no scurrying, nothing that’d hint to the mere presence of the mutants here, even though this would be the room that the canister needed to be placed on. True to her suspicions, once she arrived to the massive room, she saw nothing within that’d amount to life. Not even corpses, discarding the possibility that the slime clones had somehow managed to break through one of the tunnels and wipe out those within rather than just be overrun like the rest.
Pulling the canister to the center, she stood it upright and began to tinker. A timer was required before activation–
–till she came to realize, it was just an over-glorified choice between the gas or the mutants.
Might as well leave it to luck, and so she set it up. Enough time for her to get out.
Not on foot.
After the arranged time, the canister would open and expel all, ridding the burrow from all that lay within.
Something felt wrong. An eerie feeling, a chill running down her back, but she knew she had set everything up right. It wasn’t fear of failure, but rather, the feeling of being watched. Hardly ever her gut had been wrong, to make matters worse.
Before she could turn around, a violent hit to her side sent her flying away front the canister. One, two, three hits onto the ground like a skipping stone before she stopped for good, to then turn aside and find a mutated rat where she once stood. It had her rifle, grasping it in both hands to then break it in half; a damn shame, for she had never even shot it. And then, it let out a howling screech, echoing throughout the cavernous tunnels and drilling into her ears.
Nothing good would come out of that. Still, puzzling her, instead of charging towards her, the mutant headed to the canister.
Her heart almost sank, skipping a beat as she realized; it was attempting to deactivate it. She could not allow that. All would be for naught, otherwise. But to charge against a mutant? To willingly throw herself against one, rather than be thrown one to defend against it? To have the choice to fight or not, rather than be thrown into it with the freedom from choice?
Gritting her teeth, she knew she could not let her fear get the best of her. For too long she had been prey, for too long had she run away from predators, and now was the day it’d change, even if it was the last. Reaching for her waist, she took out her knife and jumped forward up to her feet, charging at the mutant who still messed with the canister.
Grasping it with both hands, with all her might she lunged against the mutant, only for it to turn at the last second and strike at her with its swinging arm, sending her stumbling back. The mutant advanced towards her, prompting her to fall back in equal manner, but as long as she kept the mutant away from the canister till the timer ended, it all served its purpose. The timer must’ve been at a minute, and surely at least ten seconds had passed. Fifty more, and it’d all end.
At that moment, she came to realize all the dead weight she was carrying, of all the magazines in her vest. Taking one, she threw it at the mutant, who covered itself with its arms against the projectile, but only served to anger it. With a screech in fury, it charged forward at Ryada, who immediately turned and ran as fast as she can elsewhere.
But after a second of chase, she came to realize that it was no longer after her, the mutant immediately turning back to the canister. It knew of her plan, making her grit in anger.
“Come back here, you piece of shit!” She shouted, taking another magazine and throwing it at the mutant, who refused to react.
Then, rumbling. Far away, yet too violent for comfort. Hints of numbers, of sources all around her rapidly approaching.
So that was what it howled loudly for, just seconds ago. Seconds, so precious a time frame, with barely around twenty passing. There was no luxury of half a minute to wait for the timer to end, as the room would crawl with them in half of that, and be deactivated.
The canister needed to open.
The crash had left it still in one piece, though dented and weak. A solid blow in a dent, along with the pressure inside, would do the equivalent of detonating it with the weakened material and the sudden escape. Inevitably, it’d be painful to get caught in it at point blank.
But there was no escape from pain. Once more the choice was hers: Die by the mutants, or die by the canister.
The mutant horde’s cacophony turned clearer and clearer, their approach no longer allowing her the luxury of time. But time she needed not, as she had already committed to her decision. Gripping her knife tighter, she broke running forward just as the innumerable mutants began to flood from every tunnel connecting to the room. No step back, no reconsiderations, nothing but full and absolute focus to what had been decided, right or wrong, brilliant or idiotic.
And with a defiant shout at the top of her lungs, she let a war-cry out as the back of the rat by the canister remained turned to her, the rat attempting to deactivate it.
“For the burrow!”
The rat turned and swung its arm at her, though Ryada dodged it as she jumped over it, holding her knife up high to then lower it with all her might and weight upon the weakest dent she could see.
And the last thing she heard, was the ear-splitting piercing of the gas escaping, before a loud bang occurred.
A wreckage of a plane. In pieces, inoperable, beyond repair, on the ground with a trail where it skid through. Against its side, Nuri sat, profusely bleeding and with pistol in hand and several mutant bodies scattered about. Peaceful, serene, looking from a distance towards the old station where no gunfire could be heard any more, with the night starry sky no longer disturbed by the tracers. All that remained was a solemn silence, along with rising trails of smoke.
The canister had been activated. That’s all she knew.
It was all over. For better, or for worse.
She then heard the rustling of the grass not too far away, signs of movements the likes she had now gotten used to; the crash-landing had not occurred with any subtlety, her location known to the mutants. More were coming, she figured, but at least she had a few more rounds to take as many as she could with her. Didn’t even have the strength to stand up. All she could do was raise her arm, aiming her pistol at the closest rustling, and wait till the mutant would show up.
Now, she saw the grass moving. There it was, coming closer, but as it approached, Nuri couldn’t help but find its blurred contour strange. The closer it came, the more she couldn’t tell if it was a mutant at all, till she came to see what it truly was.
A rat girl. Strength depleted, she let her arm fall, lowing her gun.
“I see her!” Shouted the visitor, rushing ahead to Nuri. “She’s alive!”
The numerous other noises approached, which Nuri then saw as more of those once sent to the old station. The first one arrived to her and quickly inspected her, though Nuri couldn’t even find the energy to whisper a simple hello.
“This bleeding…” Said the rat, taking off her backpack and rummaging within. “You, check for broken bones.”
Another arrived to her side, examining her body while the others grouped up around the wreckage. The first one then took out a few tissues and miniature bottles, to then begin cleaning the bleeding at the surface injuries.
“What… happened…?” Asked Nuri, to which the one treating her paused momentarily.
“We heard a screech, and suddenly every mutant ran back into the tunnels. Next thing we know, gas was pouring out.”
“Into the tunnels…? Where is Ryada…?”
But she received no immediate answer, just an uncomfortable expression from those around her as they averted her eyes.
“…We don’t know.”
The void. Cold. Desolate. Floating, she drifted in the nothingness, a strange place without light nor dark.
“T̗his ̆h͓a͟s bͤee̦nͧ dͫa͐r̸k w͟o͕rk, ̄R̮ýada.”
That chorus of voices. Seems it followed her to wherever she now was.
“Ìtͨ ̇s̰ee͉ms ́y̎ŏu we͕reͨ wi͆lͪl̗ing ̫to̾ ̴mͤa̱k͘ȅ ̧th̪e̽ ͆ul͌t͋im͙a͌te s̺ac̔r͑iͥfi̪c̽e͔.͙”
Ultimate sacrifice. Last she remembered, she was stabbing open the canister. Was she dead?
What a dumb question to ask. Of course she was. If the detonation didn’t kill her, the gas would have.
Perhaps this was her punishment, for leading all others to their deaths. Or was it just a reward? To not have to be the only one left alive, to be made to go back to the burrow and have everyone stare at her as they patiently waited for news on those who would never return.
But a reward, for what? She didn’t understand it. What did she do to deserve it? Stab the canister? Such a thing didn’t demand a reward, it was the task she was meant to do since the very start.
Where has everything go so wrong, that death felt more like a reward than a punishment?
“Are the mutants all dead?”
A sigh in relief escaped her as she closed her eyes. Though she may not be able to wind back time, at least the others in the burrow would be safe. She and the others fulfilled their end of the deal. Now, it was all up to whether the slime honoured her end, or not. If the slime didn’t, she’d not be able to blame her; it was her that convinced everyone to accept the slime’s offer, after all.
“Can I… ask for a favor?”
“Yͨouͯrͩ effo͕r͛t̰s ̚m͌ay͎ ̽hav͖e͓ e̊aͩr̼nͧe͙d ҉it.̲”
“Tell the others… Tell them that it’s fine if they want to hate me. I may have died with the rest, but it was still me that led their loved ones to their deaths.”
“Ǐ ̸und̨e̚ŕsta̩nd… b̽u͡t ͎I͑m afr͇aͨid ͙I ̶càṉ ̊n̈o̩t͉ do ṯhͯat.̢”
What relief she once felt dissipated. Her heart caved in, leaving her feeling hollow as her fears turned true.
“I… see. Then, do as you must.”
“̵A̍s y͢o̫u̖ w̝is҉h.̹”
Too bright. Her consciousness returned partly, woken up purely by the brightness hitting her closed eyes. Felt like she had fallen asleep on a bright sunny day, as dangerous as it was for rats like her to be outside like that. Almost in reflex she brought her arm over her eyes, just to find it terribly aching. Not just aching, but feeling strange, a sensation she couldn’t properly describe, leaving her unknowing as she still did not wish to open her tired eyes.
As her mind returned, she came to feel the little back-and-forth motion of whatever she rested on.
And the greatest realization: She wasn’t too dead, it seemed.
Little by little she forced her eyes open, to find in an instant that a slimy film covered not only her arm, but her entire body as well, face included. It felt strangely comfortable, allowing her to breathe just fine as well. Turning her head aside, she came to see the old ruins of the station around her, with the light of dawn shining upon it. She was being carried, as she found out, by two slime clones each holding an end of a stretcher.
“Ryada!” She heard a shout from afar. Then, another, till a cacophony of voices cried out as if surprised to see her.
In reality, she was in as much surprise if not more, to hear the voices of those she had imagined dead. As the slimes took her out of the station, the murmurs and voices drew closer and closer, till all around her she saw the rats gather and keep up pace, yet still keeping a fair distance. Though they all kept silent in surprise, soon enough a voice afar began chanting, ‘Ryada! Ryada! Ryada!’. Another joined, and another, till the small group that remained standing joined in chorus.
And it was at that moment that Ryada caught glimpse of one rat in particular arriving to her side, to then march at the slimes’ pace. Heavily bandaged, one eye covered in bloodied rags and an arm resting on a cloth going around her neck.
“Nuri…” She whispered, pained and exhausted. “You’re alive…”
“You’re alive too.” Replied Nuri with a smile. “We all thought you died down there when the gas started coming out.”
“What happened? I thought everyone was dead…”
“Whatever you did down there apparently got everyone in a frenzy and ran back into the tunnels. They didn’t come out before the gas did, so all the mutant must be dead by now. As for you… The slime must’ve wanted you alive. That film must be the only reason the gas didn’t get you.”
“So… it’s over?”
At the question, Nuri lightly laughed to herself.
“It’s over, Ryada. We won.” Replied Nuri. “Hear the chorus? You brought us here, and you saw us through. If the slime got you out of there alive when it could’ve just left you for dead, then it means her words are honest. Thanks to you, we’ll never have to hide in the shadow.”
“Yes, Ryada.” Smiled Nuri, hardly able to hide her teary eye. “We’re free. For the first time, we’re free.”
A month later…
Step, step, step, all in rhythm as the group of rat girls in full equipment ran in file down a course. Young ones, newbies in what their task would later on be, overseen by Ryada and Nuri beside the course as they passed. No longer were they in the tunnels, but rather in the bright over-world where the sun of summer shone upon them and the gentle breeze blew intermittently.
“The slime can give them the knowledge, but couldn’t really give it the stamina, did it? They couldn’t run this far without gear when they started.”
“The visions of the mutants must’ve motivated them.” Replied Ryada.
After her words, the two kept on watching. They still needed to abide by the slime’s deal, sending to her those willing and able to carry out eternal pest control. At least they’d face common vermin, rather than the mutants which had nearly killed them to the last. After surviving the ordeal, they had already instantly guaranteed themselves full retirement at least.
“Say, how are your girls doing?” Asked Ryada.
“They’re lazying about whenever they’re not teaching the newbies what little wasn’t already shoehorned into their heads. The slime really did a number on the vermin around before it got to us, even from the sky my girls have been seeing nothing lately. I just fear that without so many predators now and little to no competition either, their numbers will suddenly explode out of control.”
Ryada let out a snicker. “That will be our job. We are the predators now.”