Saturday, November 27, 2004

Chapter 36

As they entered the Church of St. Ninian at dagger-point, Seamus and Cassidy were instantly accosted by hordes of other vermin, all jostling and shoving to get a better look at the two strange creatures that had been taken prisoner. A weasel jabbed a claw into Seamus' side, and Cassidy smelled the rank breath of a rat that had thrust its sniffing face into hers. Another creature tried to grab at them, and their two original captors had fight off the pressing crowd.

"Get outta the way, ya scum!" shouted Ragear, kicking aside a rat and shoving a ferret out of the way. "These are Cluny's prisoners, an' he'll have your guts for garters if any of you lot so much as scratch 'em."

Mangefur grabbed a small cudgel from a nearby rat and started laying into crowd. A few of the beasts were knocked down or sent scurrying and the rest backed off, leaving them a path. As the prisoners were marched through the church, they could hear rats whispering and muttering all around them.

"… never seen anything like it…"

"… where's all their fur, now?"

"… don't look like they could put up much of a fight, eh?"

Seamus glanced next to him at Cassidy. Like him, she had a few scratches, and was probably feeling a bit battered by the initial capture, but she seemed more or less alright. No serious injuries at least. She was staring resolutely ahead of her, ignoring the looks and jeers of the rats around her. Seamus started to lean over to her, to whisper something encouraging, but Mangefur gave him a shove that sent him stumbling forward.

"Eyes front!" the rat shouted at him. "And no talking!"

They came to the back of the church and headed up a curving flight of stone stairs. At the top they found a wooden door that Seamus guessed must have lead to the Churchmouse family's old home, that Cluny had now taken over for his headquarters. Ragear seemed to gather his courage, then knocked on the door.

"Enter!" boomed a voice from inside. Ragear cringed involuntarily but quickly caught himself, not wanting to show fear before the captives. He opened the door and marched in as boldly as he could, with Mangefur prodding Seamus and Cassidy in after.

"Sir!" said Ragear, snapping to attention. "We have brought you the prisoners you wanted!"

Inside the room was an enormous rat, far bigger than either of the two that had captured Seamus and Cassidy. He was completely black, and covered with scars, and his long, whip-like tail thrashed about him as he paced the room. One eye was covered by a black patch, and he wore a black cape fastened with bones. He was Cluny the Scourge, and he looked like it. He stopped pacing and glared at the two rats and their prisoners.

Looking around the room, Seamus could see a few pieces of smashed furniture, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Churchmouse's bed, which didn't look like it would last much longer in use by a giant rat. In one corner stood Cluny's war standard, a banner pole with the skull of a ferret on top. And in another corner, sobbing quietly, was Gabriela.

She was tied up, and obviously frightened out of her mind, but she seemed unharmed. When she saw Seamus, she called out to him but was quickly silenced by a menacing glare and snarl from Cluny. She tried to push herself farther back into her corner, and continued crying quietly.

Cluny swung back to face his newest captives, studying them intently while Mangefur and Ragear grew more nervous.

"Leave them here with me," he growled at last. His voice was a dark rumble of sound. The two rat soldiers shifted uncertainly, still hoping for some praise on a job well done, and reluctant to leave their prisoners.

"I said LEAVE!" Cluny roared, lashed out with his tail and catching Ragear on the shoulder with it. The two panicked at that and scampered out the door, slamming it behind them and jostling each other to be the first back down the stairs.

Cluny stared at Seamus and Cassidy for another minute, then began pacing again. As he paced, he muttered to himself. Finally, he spoke to them.

"I don't even know what you are," he said with contempt, his foul whiskers brushing their faces.

"We're…" Seamus started to respond, but was cut short.

"Silence!" Cluny gave him an effortless shove with one paw that sent him stumbling into the wall behind. He started pacing the floor again. "There's something wrong about you. You don't belong here… you don't belong anywhere. You shouldn't even exist… and yet you do." His voice was growing softer now, as though talking to himself again, but they could still make out the words. "I don't even know how I knew to find you. The first one was an accident, but then I knew that others would come after her and that they would be the important ones. But what are they? Why are they important?"

Cluny stopped short and jerked his head up as though he had just had an idea. He strode over to Seamus and Cassidy again and grabbed them each by the front of their shirts, pulling them in close and onto their toes.

"You are important…" he muttered. "No…" he sniffed at them each in turn. "Just you," he said, looking at Seamus and flinging Cassidy aside. She landed in the corner over by Gabriela, but Seamus' field of vision was filled by the evil rat's face, and he couldn't see if she had been hurt.

"Yes, it's you," Cluny said, still sniffing at Seamus. "But why? What is it about you?" Then he froze for a second and his eyes seemed to glaze over. Then he shook himself and focused on Seamus again. He set him back down, releasing the grip on his shirt, which now had several claw holes in it.

"Ah, yes," Cluny said, with an evil grin spreading over his face. His voice seemed different now, smoother and less rat-like, but still menacing. "Welcome back, Seamus."


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