Rika was grateful to rest her feet. Her pack’s trek over the rocky, densely wooded foothills of this new territory taxed Rika and her two half-sisters. A week out from their home nest, the trio took the direction of a merchant Ogress in exchange for the location of the home nest. Rika’s mother complained of the nearby town’s sour ale and Ogress’s home-brewed stock was impressive. “Cross at the river and take the path leftmost path,” the Ogress said as they shared in a bottle of her wares. She towered over the pack and Rika guessed the Ogress stood taller than the three Rat girls stacked together. Her skin was like sandstone and her muscular arms carried a clanking collection of green bottles sloshing with alcohol. “It’s a climb, and the road’s a bit rough near the top.” She accentuated with a drunken half-wave over her looming head and horns. “But I ain’t seen one of you’s furry ears n’ pointed tails before if that is whatchya says you uh, is wantin’ for.”
Rika tossed her padded coat over the back of the couch. When she sat down, she noticed how lumpy the cushions were. She kicked her shoes out to the center of the living room, leaned back and felt blood return to her toes. Rika rubbed her bare feet with her soft pink claws. She kneaded the fuzzy digits first, then the furry balls of her feet with even greater vigor, and finally she stretched her short legs out and rolled her flexible ankles opposite of each other. The old couch groaned under the motion. Rika relished the two satisfying pops that echoed in the living space of the abandoned manor.
“That sounded good,” Pina remarked as she picked over another drawer filled with dust and trash. Half a year younger than Rika and intensely curious, Pina was her first packmate and the most knowledgeable Rat girl Rika knew. Pina wore her mother’s travel coat, a worn, brown leather jacket with a dozen pockets and hiding spots, and a small knife at her side. She read through a small book as she shuffled the contents of the drawer around.
“What do ya got there?” Rika asked. The book cover was unmarked, with a tattered spine, and colored a faded red like an autumn leaf. Pina examined the cover again, then set it down open on the wooden cabinet she rifled through.
“I’m not sure,” she said. Her claws gripped at an object in the drawer. With a heft, she pulled the bottom of the drawer free. She regarded the false bottom briefly. Rika got up and stood next to her. They both gasped when they looked inside. In the drawer was a serrated blade as long as her forearms and a folded, yellowed note under the knife’s toothy edge. Both were stained in dry blood.
Pina consulted the book after tossing the bottom aside. Rika processed their find. “How did you-“
“This is a journal,” Pina replied as she guided her eyes with her finger. “The previous owner of this nest, I mean estate, was a Sigmond Gregory.” Pina reached for the knife, but Rika’s hand caught her by the wrist. Pina looked like a child denied her toy.
“Hold it,” Rika commanded. Unease settled in between her spine and the base of her tail. “Who? What’s this knife? Why hide it?” She released her packmate when Pina pulled away from the drawer. The other Rat girl’s tail curled as she pondered on her leader’s questions.
“The journal,” she indicated with a cursory finger. Rika nodded and passed it to Pina. She was the only one who knew how to read either way. Pina flicked back a few pages and recited a passage.
“Captain Morey and his men searched the estate today. They made a dreadful mess despite my best attempts to dissuade their course. It seems they suspect my involvement in the murder of the shepard girl. Yes, of course blame all your woes upon a lone noble isolated in the wood ridden woods. It’s very neighborly. Despite my best stated intentions, the Captain turned down my offer to help with his investigation. Idiot. I told the servants and Gerrad to let the men do as they please. I have nothing to hide.”
“Nothing to hide,” Rika repeated as she passed another glance at the blade.
“I think the book is older than the Change,” Pina offered. “I am unfamiliar with the dates, but I believe that to be Mr. Gregory’s blood on the knife. It is some sort of implement for a spell. He says as much in here.”
“I believe you. I just got a bad feeling is all. Let’s get Neen and then we can decide on what we’ll do.”
Pina agreed with a simple nod. The pair head for the foyer and the broken staircase opposite of the manor entrance. Neen was 13, two years younger than her packmates. She wanted to scope out the upstairs. The girl adored dresses and hoped a few survived in a closet.
Rika didn’t think much of the manor’s danger at the time. The overgrown property was secluded from the path leading down the mountain and no one smelled territorial markers of other monsters. The iron wrought fence surrounding the property was intact if covered in twisting ivy. Pina spotted it from atop the the valley’s path. A place to hole up for the night. A roof overhead and walls on all sides in an unknown woods was too good to be true.
Rika cursed her empty certainty. They should have been more diligent, but Rika’s exhaustion weighed harder than her common sense. She was the leader. It was her responsibility to keep her kin safe. The Rat girls bounded over a gap in the stairs and climbed to the second floor. It split into two hallways leading to the two wings of the house.
“Neen!” Rika called out from the foyer. She waited a second for a response but none came. Rika tapped her foot as she thought. Did she fall? Was she being held by some lurking bandit? Worse and worse outcomes played out in her mind. Her brow furrowed and her paws patted nervously at her waist.
“She’s probably asleep.” Pina grabbed her half-sister’s shoulder with a comforting squeeze. “She was tired too.” Rika took a deep breath of the manor’s stale air. It tasted of mouldering dust and needless worry. No, she needed to keep her head.
“We should stick together,” Rika decided as she turned the knob on the left wing door. The pins on the hinges squealed as she opened the door. The wretched sound of metal on metal scraping sent shivers down her fur. “I’m beginning to hate this place.”
The hallway was short, with a pair of opposing, closed doors flanking Rika and a wider room at the far end of the ruined hallway. The far room was large and packed with towering piles of discarded furniture, chairs and broken tables formed a barricade, but it looked untouched. “I don’t think Neen is here.” The dust on the ground covered the walkway, undisturbed. They turned back to the foyer with the door open behind them.
They doubled back to the foyer and the other door. It was ajar. This wing split off into two branches. Rika noted a pair of clawed footprints heading to the right, and leading to a set of open double doors. “Hey Neen, you up?” Rika called at a moderate volume. She heard something stir in response like a lazy Rat girl tossing in her sleep. Rika and Pina walk to the room, the master bedroom if Rika guessed right, and see their younger packmate bundled up under a large comforter blanket. “What a relief,” Rika sighed. The dust in the air is heavier than elsewhere in the house. The purple comforter, the bed that dwarfed that of her father’s, and the 5 foot long dresser were all relatively clean. Rika fanned the cloud of unsettled dust aside as entered. She climbed onto the bed and walked on her knees to Neen and then shook her sleeping packmate’s arm.
“I’m sleepy, ” the brown furred girl tried to bat away Rika’s hand with a half hearted wave. Undeterred, Rika doubled her efforts, and now rocked Neen back and forth. The young Rat girl stirred again, blinking slowly at her leader and rubbing her face.
“Hey, get up Neen.” Rika kept her voice level. No need to startle her.
“Yeah, I’m up,” she groaned as she tossed the comforter to the foot of the massive bed. A puff of dust followed her as she sat up. Her entire back was caked in the stuff. Rika stifled a laugh. “What’s so funny,” Neen gleamed. She bopped her sister’s arm with a playful jab. Pina was examining the room as they talked. Occasionally she looked to the book before checking something else.
“We’ll getchya cleaned up later. C’mon. We got to decide on something downstairs.”
“What’s that?” Neen hopped off the far side of the bed, and landed without a sound.
“A knife,” Pina started. “Rika thinks it’s dangerous.”
“It has blood on it!” Rika shot back. Pina shrugged off the criticism.
“Oh, that sounds neat,” Neen said. “I want to see.”
The pack scurried back downstairs. Rika was nervous. Like their mothers, arguments were resolved by the group. If Neen sided with Pina, Rika would be stuck.
“Alright let me see,” Neen demanded. They stood over the drawer. Pina slid it open. The blade was still there guarding the bloodied parchment. Neen was quiet. Her her nose and whiskers cringe at the smell of the old blood. “Oh, that’s a mean lookin’ knife. What’s the paper say?” She turned to Pina.
“I didn’t let her look. I’ve got a bad feeling about all of this.”
“I understand your concern,” Pina said. “I am more interested in the paper too. Why not leave the blade alone?”
Rika hummed as she thought. “Fine.”
Pina did her best to avoid moving the blade by grabbing a clean corner of the paper and giving it a quick pull. The paper came free and the blade stayed still. Rika uttered an exasperated sigh of relief as her packmate unfolded the stained parchment.
Rat girls possess an extraordinary sense of sight. In the near total dark of the manor house at the late hour, Rika could make out the jumble of letters with ease. They all looked down when a smaller piece of paper fell onto the floor between them. Rika picked it up. The smaller paper had a drawing on it. Pina seemed interested in the drawing as well. Rika held it in the middle of themselves so her packmates could also see.
“It’s a… key?” Neen half-asked, half-stated. The object depicted on the smaller paper was drawn in charcoal Rika guessed. It was key-like, with w-shaped teeth to open a lock and a handle to grip it by.
“What’s the note say?” Rika asked as she pocketed the illustrated key. Pina scanned through the words, then flipped back through her journal to the end. She studied the text quickly.
“Oh.” Pina flipped to the middle of the book. She ran a pointed finger along an entry.
“Oh? Pina?” Rika’s question distressed herself more.
“It seems there is something trapped under the house and we are stuck in the manor.” Pina’s calm revelation confused Rika. Neen pinched the elbow of Rika’s sleeve. The physical reminder kept the oldest Rat girl grounded.
“What is under the house?” Rika’s wary question hung in the air like the stale dust.
“Mr. Gregory has it here-” Pina turned back a single page. “Ah, here we go.”
“Gerrad’s trap was a success! A deep pit warded with my magic hexes and baited with a bloody flank of deer proved too much for the mindless creature’s instinctual hunger. Even now its pained, warbling screams echo throughout the valley. I invited the Captain to observe his killer’s capture, but he declined. Rudely, I might add.
I initially suspected an insectoid culprit. The nature of its messy killings indicated as much. Three dead, all mangled beyond recognition. A rogue Hunting Wasp from the deeper, wilder woods or, perhaps, a Large Beetle protecting new territory and cross with intruding humans.
No, the beast in the pit is one unfamiliar to me. I have ordered Gerrad to keep watch over the creature while I formulate a method to contain the specimen. Its corros-“
A rumbling beneath the packs’ feet interrupted Pina’s reading. The old manor’s foundation shook. Loose picture frames fall and the couch’s legs give out with a muted crack. Neen jumped into Rika’s arms as the other two steady themselves.
“I’m scared!” Neen cried out.
“I’ve got you kiddo,” Rika brushed the shaking girl’s dark brown hair as she cradled her close to her chest. The dust from her back bothered Rika’s sensitive nose, but she ignored it as best she could. She stuffed her fear down into her stomach.
“Sorry, I-” Pina struggled to speak.
“C’mere,” Rika pulled Pina into their embrace. “We can handle this.”
“The seal’s been- been getting weak. That’s why we were able to find the house. Mr. Gregory used magic to hide the manor. We need to use the knife on the magic circle in the basement and restore the seal.”
Rika nuzzled her nose into Pina’s silver hair. “Okay,” she started. “Will that open the door outside?” Pina was quiet. Rika faked a smile. “It’s okay. We’ll figure it out as we go.”
Rika waited for her packmates to calm down. She needed a plan. Her brain whirred as she retraced her steps through the house. There was the living room, the kitchen next to it, the foyer, the broken stairs, and the two wings she didn’t explore. If the master bedroom was in the right wing it would make sense for other sleeping chambers to also be in that wing. The home nest was similarly designed.
She crossed off the right wing. The basement door should be on the first floor, but there were no other doors save the foyer’s entrance. She glanced at the living room entrance. No, there was a set of broken hinges hanging onto the door’s frame. What happened to the living room door? The tarnished brass pin holes hung loose from the door-frame.
“Pina, was there a way to get downstairs in the journal?”
Pina, still shaken, fumbled through her book. “No, but I have an idea where it might be. Upstairs, left wing.”
“That’s strange.” Rika clicked her tongue on her two sharp front teeth. “You okay to get down?” Neen nodded. Rika carefully set her comrade down. “We’ll have to be quick on our feet. I’ll take the knife and lead. You two should be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary.”
The three Rat girls returned to the left wing of the manor and the barricade of upturned furniture and stacked boxes. A quick check of the flanking doors revealed a pair of storage rooms. The left door was a bare closet save for a collection of moth-eaten wool coats piled on a one-legged ironing board. The carpet didn’t fare the passage of time much better. The smell of wet, musty mold irritated Rika. Back home, trouble-making nestlings were made to clean such stinky mold. She didn’t expect the smell to be nostalgic, ever.
Neen secured the closet door as the other two scope out the other room. This storage room was twice as large as the closet and filled with open crates. Rika pores over the contents of each. Glass vessel in excellent condition, steel tools like forceps and scalpels, and loads of mechanical pens. In another situation this would be quite a find. She could turn around and sell the steel tools for a hefty sum and her pack could live the rich life for at least a little while. Her packmate’s struggle attempting to dislodge a crate distracted Rika from her own digression.
“I found something,” Pina added as she pushed the box free of it’s long resting place. She uncovered a hidden hatch, a steel plate with a single handle. She gave the handle a yank, but the hatch refused to budge. Pina brushed her finger along an indent. “Its locked.”
“And I bet that’s our way down to the basement.”
A shrill, girlish scream sounded from the hall. Pina and Rika both returned a shout as they go to their sister’s aid. They see her on top of an upturned couch, tail in hand, shaking and whimpering as she looked for whatever had disturbed her. As they approached Neen cried out, “Stop! Something touched me.” She pointed to the far part of the large room. “It ran that way.”
“Are you okay?” Rika asked as she watched for her packmate’s attacker.
“Yeah…” She held out her hand. An inky black stain covered the pink of her paw. Particles of the substance gathered like mist and drift to the ground. “It got this on me. It’s gross and cold.” Pina attempted to wipe the substance from Neen’s paw. Instead it transferred to her claw tips in a smear.
“Strange,” she stated. She tested the texture between her fingers. “It feels like charcoal, but it’s cold like mud.” The substance began to flake free and dissipate into the air. Pina dusted the remaining black ink off of Neen. It came off in rolling puffs of black, scentless smoke. It tickled the back of Rika’s throat as she inhaled a small portion.
“The key for the hatch couldn’t have gone far.” Neen’ nervous fiddling gave Rika an idea. “You can keep an eye out kiddo. If you see the monster just point and shout.”
“I can do that,” she murmured.
Rika and Pina drew weapons. Before they left the nest, Rika, Pina, and Neen trained in knife fighting under their mothers’ tutelage. The lessons taught the new pack how best to use their quick hands, sharp reflexes, and low profiles in close combat. Rika and Pina inherited their blades. As the eldest of their kin, they had a right to their mothers’ ancestral, magic weapons. Rika’s knife glowed with a gentle azure light. Pina’s blade rippled with green veins as she readied to strike out at the cloying darkness.
They cautiously advanced in the large, domed room. Never more than a step apart, Rika and Pina studied corners and sight lines and each passing second they itched at their growing paranoia. Whatever thing struck Neen must be small, Rika reasoned as she stepped past an upturned sofa. Pina was behind her now. The path cut through more of this strange scenery. A stack of wooden dining chairs piled haphazardly above their heads loomed over an empty cabinet missing its lower casing.
Only as she followed the stack of chairs upward did Rika see the gilded ceiling. The outlines of obtuse waves reverberated and encircled a mostly intact chandelier. It was the first time Rika ever saw such a fixture and she had no frame of reference for what it was. Awed, and influenced by her nervousness, a sudden creak just around the corner of the cabinet with the missing drawer did not register in the Rat girl’s attention quick enough.
A shadowy creature lunged from its hiding space at Rika. It was the size of a small dog with 4 spindly legs reaching out like whips and its legs’ many joints wrapped themselves at Rika’s hip. She shrieked as its icy, featureless body tightened around her. Pina jumped to her leader’s side and tried to strike the monster with her blade. She jammed the point into the large of the monster’s body, but the point failed to find purchase. Pina tilted the blade inward to the creature’s core and willed the blade’s magic to life. The green veins burst in a brilliant emerald blaze then found the target of Pina’s ire. The green blaze engulfed the creature and soon found the beast’s flesh quite flammable.
The monster held fast to Rika even as the emerald blaze chewed through its hide. Rika tried in vain to dislodge the creature’s grip. It was like an icicle was tied around her waist. “Get off!” She shouted. She carried her first strike into the green flame, and the blue of her blade pierced through the weakened body. Black viscera and smoke erupted out towards Pina and she began to choke on the smoke. She reflexively released her blade, resealing the emerald blaze, and clutched at her throat.
Rika stabbed the creature again and again as each blow loosened its hold. It was her seventh that finally dispelled the monster into a lingering mist. Rika held her breath and scooped up Pina in a panicked rush back to Neen. In only a few seconds, Pina’s eyes took on an angry red as tears streamed down her blackened face. The tears cut through the black, and carried the irritants away in streams.
“Pina! Rika!” Neen was still atop her perch as Rika approached.
“Wa-” Pina choked out in puffs of black smoke. She motioned to drink as Neen jumped down to join them on the bare floor.
Rika unlatched a waterskin from the back of her belt. She undid the lid with a pop, and moved the opening to Pina’s lips. Pina grabbed the waterskin and took great gulps of fresh river water. Relief was immediate as the irritants weakened with moisture.
“I’m sorry,” Rika said as she sheathed her own blade back to her side. She held back her own tears as Pina continued to funnel water down her throat. “I looked away for a second and I-“
“Sh-shut up,” Pina choked out. Her voice sounded dry, but clear. She sucked down more water until the irritation dulled to an annoying tickle. Rika sat silently as Neen examined her leader’s waist. It was coated in the disgusting black substance she only just removed.
“Are you okay?” Pina asked. Her face was still caked in the mist. Her blackened whiskers hung low with the added weight.
“I-” Rika was unsure. She was very cold, but other than that the monster did nothing other than give her a tight embrace. She shivered as she tried to summarize her status. “I’m fine, I think.”
“Here,” Pina said as she returned the waterskin. “Wash it off, please. The mist clings to water.”
The girls spend a short time cleaning themselves of the ichor. It gathered in puddles on the floor and stained the wood where it dried. Pina observed the marks while Neen helped Rika clean up. “Do you think there are more of those things?” The youngest Rat girl meekly asked.
“There isn’t much house left, so hopefully, no,” Rika replied. “We have to find that key though.” Rika grunted as she stood up. Her muscles steeped in exhaustion. “Let’s try this again.”
“Oh, my blade!” Pina exclaimed as she reached for her mother’s knife.
“It fell over here,” Rika directed them to the spot where the struggle took place. Not a trace of the creature remained. After Pina reclaimed her magic blade, they went about looking for the key.
This time Rika and Pina succeeded in their mission. Hanging from a crooked hook on the far side of the domed room was the key ring and 3 silver keys. They head back to the hatch and began testing keys. The first opened the iron lock with a bit of effort and revealed a rusted-rung ladder descending down past where Rika imagined the first floor to be.
“Looks safe,” Pina stated with a mirthful smirk. “After you, Rika.”
“Ha,” the still shaken Rika shot back.
Rika tested the first rung with a foot while her pack held her arms steady. The metal did not give under her shoe and the bolts held it fast even as Rika put more weight down. Natural spelunkers and dungeon thieves, a Rat girl’s light frame was another important asset for survival. Rika recalled her mother’s story as she started her climb down.
Her mother’s pack was scouting out a pre-Change temple belonging to a lich. The lich awoke some time after the Change and locked herself out of her tower and forgot about the various traps she had set. Rather than set them off herself and have to reform after every failed trap, the lich paid her mother’s adventuring group to disable the defenses of the tower.
The group had come to a winding hallway near the middle floors that Rika’s mother said, “If there was ever a trapped hallway, this was it. Tall ceiling. Broken tiles arranged like a body hit by a boulder at the center of the walkway. Obvious trap door situated directly above said broken tiles.” What her group did not expect was Rika’s mother to step over the pressure plate trigger without setting it off. Instead, the human sorcerer activated the plate and crushed him beneath a ton of stone.
The first time Rika heard the story she was upset and confused. The man died. Why was she laughing. Well, it turned out that the lich raised him afterward and according to her mother, they got along quite nicely in the lich’s trap free tower. She even kept an old wedding invitation in her traveling trunk among her other souvenirs. It pictured the two of them reenacting their first meeting. The man flattened like a pancake under a pile of fake stones and the lich holding his severed arm as she, exasperated, attempted to reattach the limb.
The basement area at the bottom of the ladder was a dirt floor, with long stone steps her and her packmates could walk down arm in arm. Her attention turned to a steel slab blocking the entrance to the basement proper. It was featureless. No handle. No key or lock. It was marred by the same inky black substance from upstairs. Rika place her hand against the surface. A gentle warmth surprised her and she pulled back on reflex. She waited for the other two to join her as she examined this new obstacle.
“Is this supposed to be a door?” Rika directed to Pina. She pulled out Mr. Gregory’s journal from the bag on her back. She jumped to the end and read it aloud.
“I have taken Gerrad’s advice to heart. I have sealed the entrance to my laboratory with Weston-Brather’s Seal of Seclusion and the manor with a Lattice powered by the abundance of mana located within the Leyline Convex. The house will be shrouded from view with a spell of my own making based upon my observations of the fae. I bewitched the remaining staff and myself to forget the truth of this place once we leave the Vale.
Provided below are the formula and the application of necessary magics to reseal the manor should the protections I have put in place fail. The ritual blade, the key to enter the lab, and my apology can be located within a false bottom hidden in the living room dresser’s top drawer.”
Rika produced the pictured key from a pocket. The paper glowed with a dull white light in her hand. “Pina, you can do the ritual?”
“Mr. Gregory’s layman’s description simplify what needs to be done. It’ll take 10 minutes at the most. After that, the Lattice will surround the house and prevent anyone else from walking in.”
“And anyone from leaving…” Rika trailed off. Was it better to starve here, or wait for whatever monster lurked in this basement to break free of its prison and kill them? Rika’s face was heavy with worry.
Neen tugged on Rika’s sleeve. She reflected Rika’s concern. A pang of guilt struck Rika’s gut. No, she needed to show resolve. Damn the outcomes, her pack would escape the house. She presented the key to the door. The light overtook the silhouette of the drawn key, undid the door’s seal, and with the sound of a snake’s hiss, air entered the long sealed laboratory. Rika touched the door again. The warmth was gone. With a little effort, she pushed the steel door in.
The laboratory flickered to life. Bright yellow lights from alcoves built into the red-brick wall illuminated a clean space untouched by the decades since its abandonment. The magic light was unnaturally bright and cut a harsh contrast to the dark Rika was used to. She shielded her narrowed eyes as she swept through the room.
“It’s so… clean,” Pina commented as she moved to a table propped up against a wall. She did her best to cover her eyes as they adjusted. Neen hid behind Rika as she stepped slowly over the solid slabs of stones that comprised the floor.
“What are we looking for Pina?” Rika asked. She followed the walls with her free hand. She counted her steps as she moved away from Pina and the table she scoured through. 18 steps to the far side of the laboratory. It was larger than the room they shared back at the home nest she figured. Neen clung close to her still. On the far side of the room her eyes began to adjust. The blinding light became more manageable. She turned back to Pina. The book Rat was poring through a new text on the table. The green cover and spine were marked with gold lettering.
“Rika, it’s a spellbook!” Pina exclaimed as she glanced through the pages. “This could be worth our weight in gold. The formulas are all here.”
“Anything about getting us out of here?”
“No.” Pina’s excitement deflated in her meek response. She shut the book and went back to scrounging. “The rebinding ritual needs a few things from the ingredients Mr. Gregory left around here. I will work on getting everything together.”
“Sure. Neen and I will look for anything that might be useful.”
It did not take long for Rika to trace the outline of the laboratory. Only 10 steps long, she and Neen located another door, a tall stack of empty cages, and a cabinet loaded with glass vessels and containers.
“Look down here,” Neen pointed to a second, lower shelf just out of Rika’s line of sight. Behind a collection of tall test tubes were black marked glassware stashed out of easy access. The substance ate through the glass and deformed it.
“Isn’t that the same stuff the little monster was made of? It chewed right through that glass.”
Pina’s attention was occupied by her search. Rika needed to know. She reached behind the clean glass and took the closest marked container into paw. The sooty marking brushed away easily as she dusted it clean. Still cold, still gross to the touch, but it didn’t hurt her.
She set the glass back onto its shelf. Her instincts told her she was missing something, something important that she was aware of, but not conscious of. She tousled her hair as she tried to make sense of her situation. It was on the tip of her furred feet as her mother used to say.
“Alright, I’ve got everything.” Pina held two bound scrolls, a jar full of dirt, and a smattering of dried out mushrooms in a basket. “We can go back to the living room and do the ritual there.” Pina seemed eager to leave. Despite her calm demeanor, a tinge of unease hung at the end of her every sentence.
“Wait.” Rika stepped next to the other door in the lab. An iron bar as thick as Tika’s leg fastened the door shut. Pina could tell her leader’s next thought.
“We can’t open that! You know the monster is in there!”
“Something’s been bugging me since you found that journal. At first it was just me being afraid, but now I’m not so sure.” Rika set a hand on the iron bar. “I want to see it. I need to be sure that we are making the right choice.”
“If we open that, it’ll get out, and then it’ll tear us apart. Mr. Gregory sealed that thing away because just being around it was dangerous. ” Pina rarely raised her voice, but now she was near shouting.
“It’s been like a hundred years since it’s been down here. It could be dead!”
“What about the little creature?” Neen chimed in. “The house kept everything out, right? That creature could be over a hundred years old too.”
Rika paused. She didn’t have a good answer so she changed tracks. “But it didn’t hurt me or you.” She pointed to the black-stained glass. “That black stuff warped the glass, but the worse it did to us-“
“I nearly choked to death! “
“Only after we killed it. And-” Rika again pointed to the glass “it didn’t melt through us either. The thing only latched on to me but it wasn’t trying to hurt me.”
“It ran away when I shouted.” Neen offered.
“But there are no real monsters anymore. The Change did exactly that. Things like that shouldn’t exist.”
“This whole place was shrouded in a big spell, yeah? What if… what if the Change didn’t work all the way ’cause of that?”
“You can be wrong too!” Pina set her ingredients down in a huff. “You might always think you’re right, but you’re not. And when you’re not, you come to me.” She came face to face with Rika. The leader of the pack only had 2 inches on her subordinate. “I’m doing the best I can.”
“I know,” Rika countered. She hated arguing with Pina. They grew up together and when they argued, both of them knew how to hurt the other. “I screwed up. This place was suspicious. We should have steered clear, but we can’t go back now. If we give up and redo the seal though… that’s just like giving up too. We’ll be stuck in here just like the monster.”
“I could figure a way out,” she contested. There was a distinct lack of confidence in her declaration.
“With time, I know you could.” She wrapped her arms around her half-sister’s arms. “We don’t got the food though. We can make it a week on the rations, and maybe a few more days eating those leather shoes I saw up in the bedroom.” She gave a disarming chuckle. Pina was limp on her arms.
“I’m with Rika,” Neen interjected. “I don’t want to starve.” The youngest Rat girl spun her pink thumbs in circles around each other.
“I guess I’m out voted then,” Pina sighed. “I suppose I was wondering what the monster looked like anyway.”
Rika let go of Pina and gripped the bar. With two pained grunts, she pulled the bar free, but overdid it and the metal clanged as it fell to the stone floor.
“I guess we don’t have to knock,” Neen said as she put her foot down on the rattling bar and silenced it.
The door glided on its hinges as the seal prevented rust from accumulating. Another rush of fresh air greeted them. This air was heavy with moisture and smelled fresh compared to what the rest of the atmosphere Rika encountered today. The door lead to a natural arch of limestone, and a hallway that curved to the right at the end.
“The journal said that the monster was kept in cell in the back here.”
“Wait,” Neen whispered before anyone could take a step. “I hear something breathing.” The girls stood utterly still and held their own breaths. From what Rika knew, Rat girls were better with minute sounds indoors than far traveling noise. She heard the near silent hiss of air entering through teeth.
“Walk on the pads of your feet,” Rika whispered back to her pack.”Slow.” Rika drew her knife again and took the lead. She tested her first step. With the sharps of her toes pointed as high as she could muster Rika managed her first of many quiet steps. It was one thing to practice silent walking, but another to do so under stress, she reasoned as she and the others made their way down to the turn in the natural tunnel. Pat, lift, pick up foot, move, repeat. Pina walked just behind her, and Neen with own weapon, a slingshot and a metal slug, aimed just ahead.
Rika held her breath as she peered around the corner’s end. She spied a series of bars crossing like lattice work, and a lone shadowy figure looming in the room just behind the cell doors. It was only seven short steps away, or so she guessed. Rika tracked its faint breathing, the slow rise and fall of the creature’s form as it took in air, and the way it seemed to shudder as it exhaled. It was tall. Even stooped over and with what appeared to be it’s two legs held to its chest by two spindly arms, it was twice the size of Rika.
Its breath carried more of that black ichor with it. Its whole body seemed suspended in the haze. Rika could approximate the monster’s long arms and legs, but they appeared to be silhouetted in the dark prison. It wore a long cloak that covered most of its body and draped around its sides.
Rika motioned for her pack to remain in place with a gesture of her hand. If she was going, better now than later. With an exaggerated and clownish walk, she presented herself in front of the prison.
“H-hello!” She stammered out.
The creature tried to shrink itself as soon as she spoke. It pushed itself deeper and harder against the wall. Wicked looking claws shot out in front of its face before Rika could peek underneath. Its scramble backwards surprised Rika. She scolded herself as the creature’s breathing became more erratic. Pity welled up in Rika’s chest.
“Who- what are you?” She asked softly. The thing in the cell continued to frantically distance itself away from Rika. She noticed her pack’s fearful reaction to the sound of the creature’s flailing. “Take a look. This thing is scared out of its mind.” Pina snuck a look first, then Neen just around Pina’s shoulder. “Stay there. I’m gonna try and calm it.”
Rika took another step closer to the creature’s cell. “Please, if you understand me, I don’t want to hurt you.” She sheathed her knife. She waved her arms in front of her just like her mother would when wrangling the young kids. The creature froze as it realized Rika was now another step closer.
It spoke, low and raspy like it were cracking under a painful thirst. “H-hel-hello,” it mustered. Its black hood was drawn over its face and it cowered beneath its hands. “Please, I-I don’t know where I am. It-it’s so dark. Why am I here?”
“It’s okay,” Rika cooed. “There, there. I’m sorry I don’t have a light. It’s okay.”
“I woke up here. I don’t remember… a lot.”
“Do you have a name?” Rika asked.
The figure moved under its guise. Rika caught a glint of a blue-green eye scanning over the hall in front of its cell. It did not pause as it looked directly past her and to the other half of the room.
Rika recognized the name, or at least the first part. The Yu clan were famous Lizardmen, capable swordswomen, and a group of them guarded the town the pack’s father was from. Rika even knew a few after her small heist of candy was thwarted. They were nice folks, but a bit to stern for Rika’s taste.
“Yu-Hannah, I’m Rika. Is it okay if I come closer?”
The shadowy figure did not protest or move to indicate otherwise. Instead, she lowered her arms from her face. Rika took another two steps closer to the cell. Now she could make out details of Yu-Hannah. Her arms and hands were dessicated and what few scales she had were chipped and tarnished. Under her hood, she was rail-thin. Bones protruded from her cheeks and nose as though drawn taut. Her skin was covered in the excess soot that seemed to accent her every motion with a puff.
“What else do you remember?” Rika pressed as lightly as she could. Yu-Hannah’s face appeared twisted and distraught as she tried to come up with an answer.
“I just woke up. Someone spoke to me. They wanted me to do,” she bothered her skin with her claw as she spoke, “something bad. I told them no.”
“I’m glad you did.” Rika gave a loving smile.
“I tried to move the bars. I screamed. Rika, I don’t want to be here anymore.” She put her claws to her face.
“That’s okay, I can help, please stay calm.” Yu-Hannah teetered anxiously as she stood up, but after Rika spoke the black robed lizardman nodded as she slowed her uneasy swaying. “I have the key for the cell. You won’t mind if I open it up, yeah?” Yu-Hannah remained motionless as Rika approached with the key ring. With a slow click, the lock opened.
Rika watched as Yu-Hannah collapsed to the cell floor. She couldn’t even jump in time to stop or ease her fall. Neen rushed to the cell door with Pina just behind her.
“Is she okay?”
“I- she just passed out.” Yu-Hannah’s chest rose and fell, but she showed no signs of consciousness. “We should get her out of here. Pina, mind giving me a hand?”
The two of them carried Yu-Hannah on their shoulders. She was surprisingly light, like a folded comforter, but her elongated limbs made moving her cumbersome. With some rope and Rika and Pina pulling, they managed to get the unconscious prisoner to the second floor. Rika, exhausted beyond any tiredness she felt before also wanted to collapse. She felt like she was liable to hit the floor at any point now.
“I got some sleep first,” Neen began. “I can watch our guest. I’ll wake you up if anything happens.”
“Thanks, but I should-”
“No,” Pina interupted. “She’s right. I’ll stay up as well. I usually do night watch anyway. You, my beloved leader, look terrible.”
“I-yeah, but,” Rika yawned, “fine, I guess. Let’s push over two of these couches. Better than sleeping on the floor.”
Rika fell asleep as soon as she got on the couch. The veil of sleep slipped over her tired eyes. Her exhaustion abandoned on the far shores of the waking world, Rika’s sleeping mind orbited the Dream. It was her Dream, she was certain of this, but how she strayed from the currents of sleep she did not know. Uncertain hands reached out around her Dream, and with a gentle pull she brought it close. Her sisters, her mother, her father, her life, and her hopes played out on the little sphere’s glass surface. She cradled the Dream close to her heart. It kept the baying, biting darkness at arm’s length. They drifted together for a time, until a distant light caught her mind’s eye.
Another soul drifting in the shadow, a stranger whose name just stood on the tip of her furred feet, held half a broken sphere in a single hand. Rika tried to call out to her, but the shadows killed and ate the words as they took form. Drift closer, she thought, but the current would not yield. She watched as the stranger held the Dream at a distance. Her eyes were pools of shadow, her mouth stuffed with black ribbon, and her skin chipped like glass. Rika wanted to see what the stranger held onto, what they valued so deeply that, even on the abyss, even as their body frayed and fractured, they could hold onto in the Dream. The silver glass in her hand rippled and changed and borrowed the form of the other Dream. Rika saw herself in a hallway. The reflected Rika was speaking to the stranger as they wracked their mind. Blurry images blossomed at the stranger’s touch, but their contents spilled out like acidic vomit from the vortex that inexorably pulled her deeper into the clawing shadows.
The silver glass changed again. Rika and the stranger were talking. They were laughing. The old images mixed with the new and like a straw of hay in a bale, the new became as vivid as the old. The currents of vague nostalgia swept from underneath her tail and carried her upward to the surface of the waking world and as she passed from the Dream a voice like her own pierced her heart and carried with the Rat girl. “There are others.”