A note from Wutosama


Also, go and read this Otome Fantastique

The Raven's Wail
by  Aluminium Aligattor
(Image for eye-catch only :D)


Uneasy is the head that wears the crown.
The oft-quoted line was one of Gwen's beloved aphorisms, one that she recited to her employees when the office convened to settle bonuses, conduct reviews, and execute firings.
Now, the lives of ten-thousand Rat-folk whose only crime was inadequate healthcare weighed down her slender neck with their hopes for another tomorrow. She wanted to say she felt a smidgen of regret for pushing herself into this particular Gu pit, but that much pragmatism would alienate the old-world sanity she wished to preserve. And though Gwen acknowledged that great power came with responsibilities— she wasn't a web-slinging waif; in the world of realpolitik, power was freedom.
First, there was the "freedom to", meaning the liberty to act on one's impulses for weal or woe, to act on behalf of the silent and the oppressed by exercising the promise of Noblesse Oblige.
Simultaneously, power enabled the "freedom from"— for privilege absolved laws, boundaries, limitation, all the mortal anxieties for food, shelter and comfort.
Both were freedoms, though scant were the individuals ever able to attain both. In either of her worlds, the freedoms of the rich and poor, powerless and powerful, seldom overlapped. The Tasmüyiz dream their whole lives of having enough to eat and not worrying about sudden death— the freedom "from". The Centaurs, on the other hand, dream of space and conquest, of more and more freedom "to".
In her old life, having acquired more wealth than her teenage self could imagine, she often stared at the rolling surf tossing swimmers like dolls and wondered if she would ever touch that stratum of possessing both the freedom to and freedom from.
Now she did.
She was free to save these slaves, Rat-faced and meek they might be.
She was free to bend their fate through sheer willpower, through HDMs or reputation, or the threat of a Wee-Wee-Wee-We'll consume you until there's nothing left unless you comply.
For this, Gwen reasoned, the despair of her labour should inspire joy.
Not wasting time, her first decree was for Elvia to join her as soon as possible, delivered via Magister Taylor, who immediately left to notify Baku with the latest updates from the Steppes.
After that, while she prepared for the handover, a tripartite of observers remained to stickybeak, wondering what the young sorceress would do.
From the Horse Lords, Khudu the Cherbi kept a troop of his Royal Guards on standby, ready to crush the Rat-kin into infectious mince should they seek to flee. So long as Gwen's charges remained in the region of Nukus, any such incidents could be traced to the Khan's guards, meaning the Cherbi wasn't taking any chances with a female he couldn't toss as far as a Rat-kin "Snitch".
Standing apart from the chortling stallions, Major Kotts provided helpful commentary when Gwen paused for too long to figure out the best arrangement for her charges.
Finally, she was joined by the unexpected presence of Lazarus Litvak, Necromancer of the Old Ways, grumbling that since she'd prevented him from harvesting Soul Shards, which were his bread and butter, he had little else to do other than waiting for her wards to die-off en mass so he could perform his natural duty.
Having received aid from the man, her impressions of the Necromancer had improved from loathing to ambivalence. Lazarus was proving to be an existence with greater depth than she cared to admit. More so than those power-mad Necromancers in Shenyang, he far too closely resembled a Tower Mage attached to some local power as an advisor. Even when casting life-draining spells that skirted the Geneva Convention on Magical Warefare established after the Great War, he possessed the attitude of someone watching paint dry, making the taboo merely pedestrian.
Ignoring the unhappy Necromancer and the hostile Cherbi, Gwen drew the Mandala for summoning her Planar Ally, then laid down the crates of HDMs necessary to bring the Wyvern across time and space.
Aloud, she spoke the invocations. Lightning flashed, Mithril sizzled, bursts of fulminating thunder rolled across the pavilion, drawing eyes from everywhere.
Golos, the scion of the Yinglong, unfurled azure wings tipped with vibrant feathers in his usual overdramatic manner.
"Is that horses I smell? I LOVE horses!"
Gwen didn't want to find out which way Golos "loved" horses and so directed his enormous head toward a platter of Sand Wyrm sashimi resting on four tables joined back-to-back. "This isn't horse, but it's better."
"Excellent." The Wyvern sniffed her hair, snorted in her face, then gave her forehead a bop with his snout. "By the by, brother gives his greetings."
"Is he well?"
"Bored. Ruxin is thinking of expanding northward. There's a Thunder Dragon in Bhutan that's bound to challenge him in a century or two."
"I see. I take it things are fine in Kachin and Nagaland, and that Mia and Marong reign without complication? How's Phalera?"
The Wyvern affirmed that her friends were doing dandy, then took a sizeable chunk out of the Khan's loot she had requisitioned with HDMs. She also wanted to ask about Lulu, but the Sword Mage was with Ryxi, and Golos confessed to being preoccupied with populating Ruxin's mountain with harpies.
"… Wyrm flesh?" Golos spoke with his mouthful. "A sizable one, too. A bit lite on the Essence, though."
"Try it with the cumin. It's a local delicacy, so I am told." She grinned at her Wyvern, then flashed winsome smiles at the consternated expressions of the Horse Lords, of the semi-frozen Lazarus, and of the smiling Major who was by now used to such displays.
As Demi-humans go, Centaurs were less vulnerable to the presence of Draconic Essence than mundane Magical Creatures. Nonetheless, the respect Gogo commanded was promised in the rugged bone ridges adorning his scale-covered spine and ending in his car-wrecking mace-tail.
Should Golos and Khudu come head-to-head, Gwen wondered, who would win? Khudu could undoubtedly draw on a thousand Centaurs' worth of power to bring down her Dragon. Conversely, Golos could cut an arc of pure plasma across the herd multiple times if he put himself in range of their pilums.
Both would suffer in the encounter, though Gwen believed that the Yinglong's scion had a fairer chance of emerging wounded but wiser and more powerful for the effort, while the Centaurs would only know the Wyvern's love.
While Golos ate, Gwen explained the situation, the pair of them acting as a living exhibition for the Centaur patrols and the gawking Tasmüyiz. For their quest at hand, she explained, the Wyvern's job was to keep an eye on the Rat-kin. Her greatest fear was desertion, for the re-mingling of what Lazarus called the "phage seeds" with the general population would engender new outbreaks. If that happened, it would seal the deal for the next three generations of Tasmüyiz.
With Golos grunting affirmation between mouthfuls, Gwen then conjured forth her additional aides.
"Shaa-shaa!" One Big Bird.
"EE-EE!" One Kirin.
"Aroooooooowl!" Sixteen plus two Morden's Hounds.
In a row, her army of pets made an impressive and odd-balled battalion.
Taking swigs from a Maotai bottle, she glanced at the Cherbi and the Necromancer and took great pleasure in their hanging mouths and wary eyes. If Richard and Petra were here, Gwen wanted to tell them; there would be another ten to twelve dogs and an Undine to rival a mid-tier Marid.
Was her army enough to crowd-control ten-thousand desperate refugees? "Yes" would be overly optimistic. If she wanted the answer to be a resounding "YES!", she would have to exercise rarer talents.
Shaking her head, she refocused her mind on the task at hand.
Stepping into the air, she walked up an invisible set of stairs until she stood above and over the trembling mischief.
"Tasmüyiz!" her voice rang out across the empty horizon, to the east of which sat a thousand kilometres of badlands and to the west of which Khudu and his troops paced. "By the mercy of Khan Temir Tengri, your lives have been gifted to me. I shall be your Tumen until such time that I deem it safe to return you to your homes. Allow me to introduce myself, for many of you may not know who I am and may yet wonder— what can this Human sorceress do to secure my survival?"
Gwen took a deep breath.
"Let us make some things very clear— I AM YOUR SURVIVAL. You're sick. Within your frail veins burn the phage seeds that would infect the blood of the Khan's kin, and for this, through no fault of your own, you art condemned to die."
A great moan passed from the mouths of the chittering mischief, radiating from the loci of her oppressive figure in concentric waves of resonant misery.
"FRET NOT!" Gwen's voice rang out as a clarion call to hope. "ARE YOU NOT ALIVE RIGHT THIS INSTANT? In your bodies burn not the fever festooned upon you by nefarious foes, but the violent fire of LIFE ITSELF?! HEED ME! You want to LIVE! Do you do not? Can you not feel the unabashed blaze of rioting passion sparking from your souls, crying out for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow?"
Gwen called the Essence to the fore of her Astral Body and allowed the life force to radiate from her black-clad figure, accentuating her point with vivid viridescence. "WHAT SAY YOU?"
"We want to live!" a good number of the rats shouted.
"ARE YOU ALL DEAD?" she blasted them with her fulminating rhetoric. "I said— DO YOU WANT TO LIVE?"
"We want to live!"
"Save us! Blessed Sorceress!"
The volume was low but to her satisfaction.
"TO THE EAST LIES OUR EDEN!" She threw her body in what she hoped was the right direction. "In Shalkar lies a paradise built by Gaia against the ravages of the sand! The Khan has gifted us this happy, happy land to be your abode, and there, you may heal and rest, but ONLY if you endure the march east."
She could see the Rat-kin's ambivalence in their uncertain bodies.
"I know— oh, I know that you fear the pathless journey ahead— but what other recourse do you have? To sojourn here is certain death! Look to the west! See the Cherbi and his men with their polished glaives and barbed arrows. Would you prefer THAT to the exodus east? Prefer EXTINCTION to retire to an oasis blessed with sweet water?"
Gwen did not know if the Rat-kin understood her fancy words, but her delivery did leave a visible impact.
More than anything, the Rat-kin feared and respected the strong while worshipping the powerful. For they who were on the verge of extinction, the hovering presence of a Lightning Wyvern as tall as the pavilions, the glowing form of a godly Kirin and the stark shape of an aberrant Big Bird swelled their tiny hearts with desirous worship.
Why did this goddess of death promise life to lowly, snivelling nothings mangy with phage? If anything, most of the Rat-kin found their new fortune a hard nut to crack.
Gwen felt the moment was ripe.
"But enough talk! The march grows nigh. For now, partake!" Her voice rippled out. "By my decree, share this manna among your kin so that you may have strength for your salvation."
The Rat-kin below her dived for cover as she approached.
Boxes of high-nutrition military rations broke free from the ribbon straps, spilling their precious cargo.
While a section of the mischief swarmed, she moved away from a distance, then dropped a load of cascading SPAM.
She continued until almost half of her supply was gone. Each pallet was two hundred cases of SPAM, with each case having twenty-four cans. The military ration was better flat-packed, with each pallet delivering almost six thousand meals.
Her Rat-kin were many— but their lean bodies were also famous for their ability to live on the most meagre of sustenances.
Gwen hovered, patrolling the perimeter of her whiskered citizenry, cowing the crowd when the mad dash for food grew frenzied with bursts of Desolation Aura. Her pets as well flocked here and there, with Cali using its vitality-sensing abilities to seek out the weak too frail to scramble for supplies.
It took over an hour for the rations to be distributed, a grating affair that foreshadowed the troubles to come. Despite their desperate bid for survival, a significant portion of the Tasmüyiz was too exhausted by the despairing landscape of their homestead to even entertain the common good.
Thankfully, morale improved as the group munched on protein admixtures. While Gwen watched her wards eat, she sorely wished for Gunther's Radiant Aura, for her Brother-in-Craft could likely stir the Tasmüyiz into a fervour with only the power of his presence.
For her next step, she would advocate a system of command for her rat-tag band. Now that she had inspected her wards, she could see that not all of them are old rats. Instead, most of the Demi-humans were just past adulthood, leaving no doubt about their usual life expectancy. One of the reasons the Elementals had picked the rats was their lack of access to hygiene facilities and their propensity for sleeping in tightly packed quarters. Equally lucky was her discovery from Lazarus that the phage called "Blood Fever" possessed a low morbidity rate among the Rat-kin compared to its ravagement of the Horse Lords. When she thought about it, the epidemiological design made sense. Carriers that remained mobile and active made far better spreaders than those actively diseased and dying.
With the demographic of her rats in mind, she would split her marching column into units of Contubernium in the manner of the post-reformation SPQR, meaning one NCO, seven adults, and two elderly or maimed individuals. It was knowledge she had gleaned from her Magisterial course at Cambridge, one she would now put into practice. This Contubernium would be responsible for peer-to-peer surveillance and upkeep. Should even one of them flee, she would threaten collective punishment.
Additionally, as she had roughly counted about ten thousand individuals during her flyover, give or take a few hundred, Gwen intended to form the Contubernium into Centuria lead by a nominated Elder.
A hundred Centuriae? It was a well-rounded number to arrange into cohorts of five Centuria to have twenty Prefects that answered to her.
Therefore, her command pyramid would involve herself— twenty Prefects— then a hundred Centurions to ten Contubernium. The number still frightened her, but she felt confident that the chain-of-command should serve.
Finally, there was another reason why she chose to organise her Rat-kin in such a regimented fashion.
Death March.
A spell thrifted from the Green Skin Shamans, long ago formulated by the Hag Covens to bolster their Warlord's hosts.
Death March was a primitive spell more akin to mystic voodoo than Human arcanistry. The principal reagent was the blood of the controller, while the hallucinogenic materials accompanying the potion concoction served the mystic purpose of pain-killing with the added effect of frenzy. The only caveat was that Gwen wasn't a Rat-kin and thereby lacked the intergenerational Essence taint the Hags administered on their subjects.
Instead, she possessed something far more potent— Almudj's all-encompassing elixir.
In theory, if she could convert the "progenitors" with her bodily-secreted snake juice, she could then empower said parents to empower their "children". What mattered most was lineage and blood— though, in practice, only time would tell.
For now, she'll feed her nominated Centurions Essence droplets and convert them in the same manner Dede was improved. At her current level of Essence Sympathy, she could manage a handful every few hours, meaning she should reign over a hundred healthy and helpful officers within twenty-four hours.
As for those immediately too ill to continue, she had Cure Disease, Healing Potions, and Maotai to tide them over until they reached the oasis at Shalkar.
Then if need be, and only in the direst of circumstances, would she activate her Master's modified IMS variant of Death March, allowing her to act as a conduit between Caliban, herself, and her Centurions.
As for rebellious individuals, there was always Soul Tap.
The Spell's viability was without doubt.
Likewise, she had no reason to doubt the slippery slope that came with its convenience.
Strun, Shadow Runner of Clan Jildam, arrived at Nukus with every ounce of strength drained from his lanky frame.
He was late.
Far too late.
Convincing the Elders of the Western Reaches had taken far longer than what should have been necessary. Persuading his kin to flee from the tyranny of the Horse Lords for the unavoidable danger of the Murk proved too much for his traumatised kindred, who preferred the repression of the present. During his final stop, in Clan Shuloam, his fellow Rat-kin had even drawn daggers and warned Strun that his betrayal would only incite violence and that they would tie him up and deliver him to the closest Nokud. After slaying three overzealous slaves, Strun fled.
Signing and shedding his cloak and depositing it on the still-smouldering fire pit outside, Strun slinked into the Elder's tent.
"Chuach, where are grandfather and mother?" His voice was barely a whisper. "Has it… begun? Or is it finished?"
The dejected silhouette inside the tent opened her eyes. "Strun! By the Khan's Grace! You're alive!"
"Barely, aunty, only by the skin of my incisors." Strun used the last of his strength to reach a skin of water hanging from the wall. He took a long draught, then breathed out as a reborn rat. "I saw… what the Elementals had done to the captives. It's the Blood Fever, but far worse this time. I tried to get back as quickly as I could to warn the others, but none would listen."
"The Elder and your mother." The woman called Chuach nervously wrinkled her whiskers. "Have gone with the Devourer of Shenyang."
It took Strun a few seconds to process his aunty's words.
The flustered woman took several attempts before she successfully retold the story of the Human Sorceress who arrested the Khan's killing hand.
Strun near collapsed with relief. "Mother and Grandfather… they're alive?"
Chuach nodded, then shook her head, then nodded again. "I am not sure. They're making for Shalkar, on foot."
Strun's eyes widened. "Without a scout? To the Easter Reaches where the great Afaa Al-Halak makes their home?! That's a death march!"
"I know—" His aunt's lips pursed shut, then her eyes lit up with a strange wonder. "But the Sorceress leading them is the Mistress of monsters. The creatures under her command, Strun, they're Gods unto themselves! A Mongoose-Dragon that breathes lightning! A black, faceless eagle with human hands! A Wyvern lord greater than even our stoutest Orkok! And her legion of hounds, Strun, you should have seen it! Dogs of living lightning and darkness as large as donkeys."
Strun threw a handful of nuts and preserved berries into his mouth and chewed. "Did this Human also command the Afaa al-Halak?"
"I don't think so, but anything is possible. You should have seen how the Magus organised the sick, Strun. She split them like the Khan's men into groups of ten; then, she fed them precious rations from the lands without sand. She even elected Mingats, which she dubbed Centurions, and awarded them with new life. Your Grandfather was among that number."
"New life?" Strun swallowed. "But of course, those from our Clan would turn to Grandfather anyway. Did you see what happened to mother?"
"I was too far to see." Chuach paused, then changed the subject. "They left before the moon was nigh."
"Then I will find them." Strun stuffed his pouches with more berry pills. "I must go and find father. Few enough know how to navigate the badlands, and I doubt many of us would be among their number— Mmmgnn!"
He quickly covered his mouth with a rag, then coughed.
His aunty reared back. "Strun… are you sick?"
"I am… tired." Strun had no idea if he was infected but knew that his best bet now was to leave. "Go bath, aunty. Speak to no one of my visitation. Burn my clothes and these old rags."
His aunt nodded.
"Fair well, Chuach. You have my love, even if we never meet again."
"Shall I tell Chuchi?" his aunty's eyes lowered in shame. "She's in hiding. Your father thought it best..."
Strun thought of his sister's bright eyes and glossy fur. Chuchi was his surviving sister. When he was a mere pup, their mischief had been twelve strong. Now, there was only him and Chuchi, and mayhap from this day on, only Chuchi. But that was okay. Rat-kin females were strong. So long as Chuchi survived, she could rebuild the Clan from her many children.
"No." Strun gingerly took a new sand cloak from the hangers and wrapped himself, affixing his water skin and pill punches to its interior. "If I return with Grandfather and mother, then all may be well. If not, then Strun the Swift had already perished when the Djinns razed Clan Jildam."
Gwen fought down the throbbing in her temple.
She felt like someone who had swallowed too much sticky rice and was now choking on it.
Four hours into the march, they encountered Sand Wolves, which was itself unsurprising. Before Gwen had even left the Nukus, one of her Centurions from a local Clan called Jildam had warned her that after an Afaa al-Halak hunt, there would be scavengers camped out from the Centaur cities for weeks, hoping to get at the scraps.
Whatever their number, Sand Wolves were Golos bait, but Gwen had not anticipated that the Elder meant camouflaged wolves invisible in the blue dusk of the dunes exploding forth like sand geysers to raid her rats.
Not only that, these were cunning creatures with intelligence, meaning they would stay hidden, then suddenly emerge to snatch at the rats trailing furthermost from the group, or on either flank, then flee into the night.
The first time it happened, she had chased down the damned pack and voided the lot— only to find twice the number of victims upon her return to the main troop.
The same atrocity then repeated like a looped record. No matter Gwen's number of successful defences, at least one troop of Sand Wolves would have their way.
Frustration then clawed at her chest like little rats' feet on broken glass.
To stop and wait for Caliban's life-sensing radar to ferret out the wolves would delay their timetable immeasurably— while moving forward meant inevitable losses. With her column of rats extending some two kilometres long, the constant howls, screams, yelps, whines and cries for help were driving her to the brink.
In the end, she elected to empower more Centurions so that they could self-help their kin. Simultaneously, as a broad arrowhead, the column forayed ahead with Caliban and the Void Dogs leading, becoming the shape of a flatworm.
To Gwen's relief, the troops touched by Almudj's Essence underwent helpful changes in physiology. Perhaps the Rat-kin held untapped potential, Gwen mused, or maybe their body was that starved for SPAM, calorie rations and a single sip of her viridescent gift. Whatever the case, all of her recipients underwent a near-immediate metamorphosis.
To take the Elder from Clan Jildam as an example, after kneeling to lick the elixir from her hand, the Rat-kin fell to the dirt and began to convulse.
Just as Gwen despaired that her first attempt at catalysing Death March would result in their elected leader exploding into gobs of cancerous flesh, the rat tore his smock from his upper body, then stood with the energy of a newly matured pup.
"Milady Sorceress—" The rat's spine creaked as old bones healed and his muscles grew into taut steel cables. Incredibly, Gwen could see the creature visibly growing taller and his fur turning glossier. "This Stian is forever in your service."
Standing upright, Elder Stian was far taller than the nearest rat, even discounting their stooping gait. Her newly dubbed Centurion then introduced himself as a Shadow Runner, a Rat-kin warrior caste— though according to the Elder, his profession had been eradicated after the Rat-kin took on the title of Tasmüyiz.
Compared to the regular rats, who were little better than an adult Human at defending themselves, her Essence-derived Centurions possessed boundless energy. Likewise, they were far deadlier with their salvaged, make-shift weapons, capable of bringing down a wolf without aid.
After the fiasco with the Sawahi Sand Wolves, she straight-away exhausted herself with all of her cohort leaders, then slowed the march until her troops could get up to spec. But even that did not progress as expected. To her shock, the Essence she could spare was enough only to empower six Centurions every few hours, meaning she had considerable time and distance to go before a loyal force of aides could manage the command chain.
Later, before dawn, while her column of refugees rested, they had their second encounter with the local fauna.
This time, their foe was a Tigermaw Land Shark, the improved variant of that very monster that Gwen had fought in the Outback a lifetime ago.
After erupting amidst the unsuspecting column and taking no less than twenty lives, Golos lifted the accursed thing as it nipped and swatted at him with its muscular tail, then tossed the Land Shark at Caliban. Once caught in Caliban's feminine Big Bird talons, her creature squeezed out the early breakfast from the Land Shark, then consumed their foe with extreme prejudice.
Watching the shattered bodies rain down into her company of tired-looking rats, Gwen felt no less exhausted by it all— and to think they were only ten hours into a five-day journey.
Not wanting to attract more wolves, she consulted with Stian and his circle of growing Centurions, then sent the carcasses into the void, erasing all evidence of their existence.
Jadedly, she then urged the group to move once more.
Thirty minutes later, another commotion from the rear halted the column. Finally, the first Rat-kin to perish from the illness made himself known— heedless of Spam, Remove Disease or her most ardent well-wishes.
Strun caught the tail-end of the death march just as the columns entered the badlands.
Along the way, strange signs of battle kept his fur raised and his senses on high alert. Sand Wolf burrows used by the infamous predators to ambush tired travellers lay emptied all around, marked with trails that spoke of a titanic battle yet leaving no bodies to mark their passing.
Later, the hollowed-out shell of a Sand Shark the size of a war chariot furthermore made Strun's heart quicken with expectation.
Nearer the badlands, after Strun darted from shadowy plinths to wind-worn monoliths to dodge the Wyvern circling overhead, the Shadow Runner caught sight of dark bodies peeling from the group ahead, using the shadows as he did.
DESERTERS! The thought came to him at once.
There was a good reason these Rat-kin waited for the landscape to change before they made their move. The column was long, and though the sorceress' eyes were many, her attention was scattered, meaning even should they disappear, it would take until the next muster for her to discover that whole groups of deserters were gone.
Strun understood the ramifications of losing these rats in the context of the Sorceress' promise to the Khan. Even after the blood-boiling showing by Saran, there were those among the Clans whose only desire was sole survival. Now that they'd been given food and water, these vermins saw the Sorceress' inexplicable generosity as something to be exploited rather than respected.
Reaching into his sand cloak, Strun withdrew twin daggers forged from tempered Afaa al-Halak teeth.
Even with the Elementals burning their homes and caging their people, why was it that rats like these existed everywhere, in every Clan? Could they not understand that a small act of selfishness could mean the extinction of their siblings, Elders and children?
If not, then Strun would relieve them of the gift of wisdom the Old Ones had bestowed upon the Rat-folk.
And if they did comprehend and yet refuse to live as honourable rats.
Then Strun would teach them how to die as mice.
A note from Wutosama

Chapter Ref :: Tell me more about the rats, George...

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