Snut Halftail cared not for the purposeless title of Contubernium the Human female had awarded him. In his eyes, her selection criterion had entirely been trivial, for those with the most spawn merely raised their hands, and she gave nods without a second glance.
At first, Snut was full of expectation that the sorceress would gift the mischief more than food and water, especially when he saw the Elders of Jildam, Plithf, and Chuluu lap at her secreted elixirs, transforming them into something exceeding mortal Rat-kin.
To Snut's disappointment, their Centurion, Skaz, a Longtooth from the Great Clan of Saaral, was not "Ascended". The rat's jealousy thrilled Snut, for the brute had cared only for the kin from his Clan, barking orders at Snut even though he was no better.
Then— then nothing. No more food or blessings.
Snut expected more; was he not a Contubernium? A leader of his pack? Were he and Skaz not equally sick with some forsaken illness spread by the Humans in the first place? It must be because he was from the minor Clan of Bayajuu.
During the first leg of the march, Snut had already tested his peers' resolves and found that all bar two would happily escape the column. To prove his leadership, Snut had found a solution for their potential snitches. When the mischief fought off the Sand Wolves, Snut had placed the two dissenters on the flank and then waited for nature to run its course.
After the ghosts of the Sawahi with their bean-green glowing eyes had made off with the two dissenters, Snut and his crew anxiously waited for an opportunity to execute their plan.
Now, that time grew nigh.
"Sruot, Qree, this way," Snut said to the rest of his Contubernium, now numbering eight. The other Rat-kin shot them unhappy glares but were too jaded or tired to care. Their reaction was also with Snut's calculations, for he knew well the meek disposition of his battered people in accepting what came without complaint.
Lucky for Snut, there was some commotion happening ahead, something about a child too sick to continue. From what he could see, the Human female was knelt over inspecting the future carcass while her creatures patrolled overhead or fanned out nearer the front of the column. A few of the dogs likewise patrolled the rear, though it didn't take long for the monsters to stray.
Once his group displaced from the column belonging to his Centurion, Snut gestured for his rats to follow, then stepped into the shadow of an enormous arch that split the column four-ways.
Too easy, Snut's nerve gradually relaxed with the growing distance. The sorceress was powerful, but she was a fool. He was glad that they were the first, for if they succeeded, others likewise inspired would soon escape the sorceress's control. By midnight, the woman would have such a volume of desertion that she would be utterly helpless, while Snut's rat-pack would be hours away, hidden in the Badlands, foraging for nuts and insects to eat.
In silence, using all their cunning and stealth, the group continued to travel until the sound of the marching column faded.
"Sruot," Snut called for his second as his hunched body rose from the darkness, his nose stirring with the air of freedom. "How's our rear? Do you smell anyone following us?"
When no reply came, Snut furrowed his brows and craned his neck to hiss at his scout and rear guard. "Sruot!"
"We haven't seen him since the last rockfall." Vixx, a small framed Rat-kin, a tanner by trade, shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe he ran off alone."
Snut furrowed his brows. Sruot was from the same Clan as he was, so fleeing alone would be the height of stupidity. He had set his Clanmate in the rear to observe the others, not the other way around. "Impossible. Qix, Qree, have you see Sruot?"
The other two rats shook their head. These were another pair from an affiliated Clan. "Contubernium, we haven't seen Vaxz and Zazh either."
"Stop calling me that," Snut snapped with annoyance, mindful of the ration bars still in his pouches, then inspected his crew. "… damned pox-bearers, where's Toch— what's that?"
There came the whistle of something swinging on a rope, then—
The sound of wet flesh striking hard sandstone drew their eyes to the base of a monolithic plinth. Snut, who had the keenest eyes, recognised the mangled shape at once.
"Srout!" he inhaled in pure horror. "Scat! Close up on me! Draw your weapons! There must be—"
Before Snut could finish, a shadowy silhouette rose from behind the yelping Vixx. For a split second, Snut saw with complete clarity the realisation in Vixx's eyes as the bone-white edge of an Afaa Al-Halak tooth rested against the Ratkin's jugular.
"VIX—" Snut's warning choked halfway, for the bone blade sunk itself into Vixx's cheek and sliced horizontally across the rat's skull, loping off the front half of his face like a lump of protruding wood.
"GURRRNNGN—!" while Vixx choked on his blood, the shadow reached into Vixx's saddle pouch and withdrew the Rat-kin's blade star, a three-sided throwing knife stitched from the mandibles of the Black-Gold Scarab.
Snut dove for cover a little too late, though thankfully, the target wasn't him.
The triple-bladed weapon sang a song of chitin as it flew, rounding in an impossible arc, missing Qree, who was the closest, to bury itself in the unsuspecting throat of Qix.
"Scat—scat!" Snut scrambled away on fall fours, his finger fumbling for his bone baton. What in pox's name was this thing hunting them? Not a Horse Lord! A Dao? Or was it another one of the Human sorceress' minions?
“YEAAGH—YAAAAA!!!” The rat drew his weapon, then made a sound akin to a banshee. Overcome with rabid, irrational horror, Qree chose to stand and fight the phantom.
The Rat-kin's bravery lasted two seconds.
Their assailant, now entirely at ease with the two foes that remained, stepped from the shadows. From his piebald fur and dark eyes, Snut recognised the rat as a member of Clan Jildam.
"YEAAAAAGH—!" Qree charged, claws extended and teeth glinting, a half-length pilum held aloft in one hand. "GURRK—"
He made it about a dozen steps before a thrown dagger struck his face with such force that Qree's neck snapped back like a deer shot by a Nokud's tendon bow, stumbling forward like a drunk before the other Rat-kin finished the job by opening Qree's abdomen from crotch to chest, spilling the rat's worm-like guts in a crimson, crescent arc.
Snut swallowed the spew swimming in his throat.
Snut wasn't stupid. He knew he was alive for a reason.
"So…" the rat picked up the dagger and cleaned the edge on the dead rat's fur. In the aftermath of their assailant's killing-spree, there were butchered rats strewn across the valley, filling the air with the stink of rotten iron. Yet, the Rat-kin looked as though a labourer finishing another day at the granary. Slowly, the rat produced a length of rope from his cloak. "...You lead, or shall I?"
"Please, sorceress." The pair of Rat-kin parents kowtowed so deep their bodies appear to lower into the ground. "Even if you sell this one and my wife and everyone in my family, we are not worth one strand of your hair, so all we can do is plead. This child has never possessed anything other than life. That's the only thing we could afford to give her."
Gwen's jaws grew as grim as her heart was heavy.
If she were Elvia, perhaps she would heal herself to exhaustion, but she was the Rat-lin's leader, not a Cleric.
A leader made the Rules.
RULES were important when leading a large group.
And an important part of having rules is respecting the minutes, else why bother setting boundaries at all?
Even a leader flouted the rules she had set; how could she then command the Rat-kin and maintain their trust and respect? These rats were meek. But what if they realised her heart could be emotionally blackmailed?
Lucky for the rats, their saviour wasn't a hard-headed bureaucrat. In her old consultancy business, only mediocre consultants looked at the rules and warned their clients. Comparatively, the good consultants circumvented customs, while the high-rollers made side-hustles viable and maximised profitability by writing off lawsuits as proportional expenditures. In the past, she was a single-digit income away from the latter.
Once her plan ripened, Gwen reached out with both hands to gingerly cradle the sick pup. Up close, the Rat-kin child reeked of disease and rot, yet even so, she could see an immutable ember of hope, one present in the feeblest of creatures. She wanted to save the pup, Gwen decided, though she would first wield its suffering like a fist.
"What this child needs... I can provide," she announced. "And yes, there is no doubt that every ounce of flesh on your bodies will not pay for even a smidgen of the gift I may bestow."
As one, the family continued to kowtow, making dull thunks in the dirt.
"Look about you. Many more need to be saved," Gwen reminded the parents. "This child is but one among a thousand, while my resources are limited by time and volume. For one to rise, another must abstain."
She turned to one of the Centurions, the one responsible for the sick child's Contubernium. "Do you understanding, Centurion Ix? Are you willing to forgo the Ascension to save the life of this one under your jurisdiction?"
A hundred and more pairs of eyes shifted from Gwen onto the stunned body of the group's yet-to-be transformed Centurion, a broad-shouldered warrior caste from the Clan Chuluu. At her question, the rat's face twitched, his fur growing instantly dank with nervous excretions. The Rat-kin had looked forward to the "Ascension", as their kind had dubbed the sorceress' gift. Since the transformation of the first twenty Elders and then some, the talk in the ranks had been of little else.
In the Rat-kin's eyes, Gwen could see their thoughts. Give up the Ascension for a child? A useless, mewling babe? It was a foolish thing to do.
The rat swallowed, his throat bobbing with indecision.
"The child shall soon pass the gates of no return and be one with Caliban." Gwen wondered if her coerced morality theatre was too much for Ix. "Make your choice, Centurion Ix. There is no penalty for refusing. What's promised to you by your station will be delivered unless you gift it to save the life of another."
"Mistress, I…" Ix's whole body was trembling. Something passed through the Centurion's eyes. Understanding? Gwen guessed. Or perhaps acceptance? After a brief pause, the rat deflated. "Please save the child."
Gwen nodded with satisfaction.
Before Ix could change his mind, she dipped a finger into the mouth of the child cradled against her bosom. The sorceress' pupils grew briefly viridescent, then a drop of Almudj's primordial Essence passed from her finger into the Rat-kin's throat.
"What's her name?" Gwen asked the weeping parents, who were now kowtowing toward the relaxed Ix.
"Riri, oh Mistress." The father's voice was barely audible through his choked lamentations of joy.
Gwen lowered the bundle of fur in her arms. Mere breaths ago, the fever from the Necromantic Phage was on the verge of consuming the Rat-kin's life. Now, Almudj's Essence had not only banished the tiny motes of Negative mana but utterly infused the child's body with a new genesis, awakening dormant physiological potentials.
Propped by her newly envigored arms, the child sat upright.
"Papa?" Riri's eyes were pure and as blue as the cloudless sky above. Her nose as well grew pink and moist and no longer cracked and infected. The girl's fingers and toes, which had resembled twisted springs, uncoiled.
Gwen released the confused child in her arms, allowing Riri to stand.
The family remained at a distance, too afraid to approach.
"Good work." Standing, she placed a hand on the head of her martyr and ruffled the hair between his rounded ears. "I'll remember you, Ix."
Her Centurion fell to one knee. "Thank you for enlightening me, Mistress."
Gwen stepped back, giving the family enough space to dote on their child while the rest of the Rat-kin watched with contemplative expressions, attempting to digest the morality play that had just transpired.
Gwen trawled her mind for a suitable Shakespearean quote to seal the deal—
"MISTRESS, WE REQUIRE AN AUDIENCE!"
The contemplative silence of the moment was interrupted by a great commotion from beyond. The owner of the resonant voice was Stian, the Ascended Elder from Clan Jildam.
To receive her petitioners, Gwen trod on air.
The mischief parted as a stinky sea, revealing Stian's crimson-cloaked visage. The faded salmon was something her twenty-odd Prefects self-adorned without her bidding to distinguish themselves. Presently, Stian stood beside a younger rat standing half-ahead shorter with the same piebald fur pattern, holding a leash attached to a rat that looked to have pissed and shat himself.
"What is this?" she made her enquiry from above.
"Here is a faithless deserter." Stian pointed to the rat. "While this is my grandson, Strun. He says that he witnessed your grace at the coastal Plague Pits, and he had followed your grace's Flight to Nukus and now, to here."
The Plague Pits? Gwen examined the younger rat. She doesn't recall seeing his likeness at all, else Caliban would have voided the sod.
"At our rear, he caught sight of a Contubernium peeling away. Strun followed them, ascertained that they were deserting and not merely resting, then slew them for traitors. He had brought you a gift, the deserter's leader— Snut of Clan Bayajuu."
"Clan Jildam lies!" The rat Gwen vaguely recalled as "Snut" fell face-first into the sand to grovel like a worm. "We were resting! Is fatigue a crime punishable by death?"
"Faithless worm!" the young man called Strun drew a bone dagger as long as his arm, then pointed it toward the traitor. "O Priestess who reigns over the Afaa Al-Halak, do not trust the worm-tongue of this ingrate." With his other hand, he fumbled for something in his cloak. "Here, I present the scalps of his co-deserters."
A wet and furry bundle landed beside the snot-faced Snut.
The corner of Gwen's right eye twitched as she fought down the bile in her throat.
"This rat is a murderer!" Snut writhed on the floor. "Justice, Great Sorceress! I want redress for my slain kin!"
"Lying slave!" The murderous aura from both members of Clan Jildam could have sliced cheese.
Gwen quickly distanced herself from the rioting emotions on display.
To desert at a time like this? That meant Snut was a scoundrel of absolute selfishness who saw personal survival as trumping his ten thousand litter mates, overshadowing the risk she took in saving their tails. To then lie and accuse his prosecutors in an attempt to turn his fate around—
If anything, Gwen felt impressed by the thickness of Snut's skin.
Circumstantially, she had no reason to doubt Stian, who had been immensely helpful and one of her most instrumental Prefects in organising the Cohorts. The only fate Snut deserved was to be put against the wall and receive a full clip of "Rat-a-tat, tat, tat, tat." Unfortunately, violence committed without instruction may only serve to inspire greater insurrections in her present company.
In place of the satisfaction of voiding Snut, she wanted the rat to instruct his kindred, to temper their obsequious natures with the nurturing hand of dignity.
But she wasn't a Mind Mage like Petra.
Or a Radiant Demi-god like Gunther.
Nor an avatar of empathy like Evee.
She also had no interest in having Stian torture the sod.
Which arguably left her with only one option.
The very one she loathed.
Luckily, her present circumstance did not align with the dread of sliding into indiscretion, for the traitor Snut was a perfect specimen.
Firstly, the rat had chosen his fate and made his choice; what free will Snut could exercise had already been exhausted; all that remained was the consequence.
Secondly, she had anticipated that a betrayal like this would happen and that inevitably, saving the "good" rats meant she had to exercise her full potential.
Thirdly, whatever the outcome, she had no desire to abuse Snut. The moment the rat's usefulness extinguished, she would grant him freedom.
With her mind made up, Gwen cloaked herself with Desolation Aura, then called a Void Hound to attend her side, drooling from a maw half its body length long, dribbling with the Void ooze that served as its teeth.
Her first act had earlier concluded; her second act was now beginning.
"J-Justice!" Snut's eyes grew bloodshot as his body convulsed from extreme vertigo. "I-I am a victim! They're using our lives to elevate themselves!"
"Great Priestess! Give the word!" Strun positioned himself to silence the Rat-kin at the slightest hint from Gwen.
Gwen waited until the crowd grew agitated enough to stink. Once more, she ran her deductions through her head, satisfied that her plan was for the greater good.
Lowering herself to the floor, she landed beside Snut.
"This Priestess will now discern truth from lies," she informed her audience, borrowing the title in Strun's address, for it seemed to resonate with her audience. Kneeling a little, she placed a hand on the warm skull of the thrashing, indignant traitor. "Snut, do not resist, lest you cease to exist."
"M-mercy!" Snut offered a final, futile plea.
Gwen silently spoke the sacred invocations of the dark-skinned Elves her Master had usurped for the IMS, then activated the necessary Sigils within her Astral Body to enable the Necromantic portion of the incantation. From her Elemental Gate, Void matter flooded her conduits, turning her eyes dark as obsidian.
The invisible aura of wretchedness encircling Gwen rippled, tripling in diameter and intensity, sending all the surrounding Rat-kin to kneel, scrap and reel, with at least a half of the individuals refund their breakfast rations, leaving only her Centurions standing among the groaning mischief.
"SOUL TAP!" Gwen proclaimed the final invocation with a tip-tap of her tongue.
A tendril extended from her Astral Body, crossing the metaphysical space of existence to invade the sacred soul space of her victim.
Snut grew instantly rigid, his eyes spinning wildly in their sockets. To the outside observers, Gwen's head-gripping hand glowed sickly green— not the vivid emerald of Almudj's genesis, but the sickly pale fluorescence of deadly fungi busy at decomposition.
A tiny pebbled soon joined that densely compacted mass of Essence held within the metaphysical well of her Astral Body. With every effort, she had metered the strength of the soul siphoning so that it took only the tiniest possible mote from the rat, preventing her victim from being extinguished by existential shock.
With the deed done, Snut slid from her palm to coil onto the floor. The Rat-kin's expression had frozen in inexplicable horror; his eyes were blank, lacking the means to express his internal horror.
Gwen's will bore into the rat's skull.
"Snut, speak the truth," she said, feeling distanced from her following words. "Obey your Priestess!"
The Rat-kin's mouth moved as though manipulated by phantom threads.
"I… am a deserter. I convinced the others to flee with me. Strun killed my fellow deserters and arrested me. What Clan Jildam said is true."
"Stand up and speak up."
Snut performed as told. The will of a slave-rat was far too fragile to resist her compulsion.
After the third confession, the mass of Rat-kin refugees let loose a collective sign. Considering what had happened in front of Saran to doom them all, Snut's betrayal came as no surprise.
"Thank you, Snut." Gwen gave the vermin all the mercy she could afford. "Goodbye, Snut."
The Rat-kin did not resist her Void Dog.
All who experienced Gwen's Desolation Aura first hand understood her kindness and her generosity in giving Snut a painless end implicitly.
"Who is Snut's Centurion?" She asked the crowd.
"Here I am, blessed Priestess of Sawahi!" The neglectful culprit leapt from the trembling wall of bodies. "Skaz knows he has failed you, Priestess. Skaz will take punishment."
Her Centurion's ownership of his offence was pleasing to her.
"Skaz's title is at this moment absolved," she said to the creature and watched his ears droop. "Go and form a Contubernium from the survivors, Skaz, and lead them well. Do not make this mistake again, else what awaits you will be far worse than Snut's end."
"Yes! Mistress!" the Rat-kin quickly retreated.
Gwen turned to their pair from Clan Jildam: as pivotal as punishment was reinforcing positive actions. "You have done well, Stian and Strun. And as you have done Skaz's duty, Mister Strun, I would like to offer you his position as Centurion of his wards. Are you willing?"
"More than willing!" Strun's ears perked up at once. Kneeling, the Rat-kin lowered his head. "I live to serve, Mistress! Not a single kin shall escape my watch!"
The Rat-kin's passion made Gwen hopeful for risking the effort of eliciting positive reinforcement. "Thank you for the confidence, Strun. As an additional boon for your service in paying an unowed debt, I would offer you Ascension. Do you accept?"
Elder Stian kicked the stunned Strun so hard his grandson fell on both hands. "YES! YES, MISTRESS!"
Gwen chucked. Taking a deep breath, she turned to the rest of the rats. "RAT-KIN! WITNESS STRUN—"
"Strun the Swift…" The Rat-kin whispered.
His grandfather boxed the young rat around the ears.
“— STRUN THE SWIFT of Clan Jildam!” Gwen's Clarion Call echoed through the plinth-filled valley. "CENTURION Strun, partake in the gift."
She cupped both hands and circulated her Essence until a small pool formed.
With eyes feverish with worship and reverence, the rat dipped his lips atop her fingers and lapped hungrily at her palm until every drop was gone.
"Blessed fruit!" Elder Stain appeared overcome with emotion.
The younger rat grunted, coiling his body while his bones and joints expanded to accommodate his enhanced sinews. Unlike the others, the Rat-kin maintained a reverent posture of stoic worship throughout his metamorphosis, like a faithful pilgrim supplicating before an ivory idol.
When Strun finally stood, Gwen was doubly impressed to find that he was almost up to her shoulder and was taller than his grandfather, who was already an impressive specimen. Gingerly, the huffing Rat-kin allowed his long fingers to flex, then tested the power of his sinews by bouncing on his heels.
Amazed, the rat knelt, then gazed upward with undisguised zeal.
"I pledge my life, my soul, my being to you, O Priestess of the Afaa Al-Halak," Strun the Swift declared with a voice that had grown resonant and deep. "Allow this one to be your shadow, your dagger, your hand of judgement."
Elder Stian knelt as well, though without the swearing. The pair's actions seemed to inspire the others to do the same.
Suddenly, half the mischief was on their knees, even those who had no idea what was going on and was merely going with the flow.
Gwen felt her scalp crawl.
From their Essence sympathy, she could sense Strun was entirely serious, though someone with her sensibilities, she felt equally stimulated and horrified by the pledge of absolutist obedience.
Was this… Gwen gulped at the unwelcome epiphany. Was this how cults started supply-side churches?
The Sawahi Badlands.
Strun, Stian, and the Clan's surviving senior members sat huddled around a heat dispensing magical device their Priestess had dubbed "Maxwell's Camp Heater". Behind them, the weakest of their kin slept two-stacks deep in windproof canvas tents, likewise provided by their benefactor.
Strun sat with a full belly, listening to his grandfather speak of transpired events.
"If you must blame someone," His grandfather's voice sounded like a ghost's on the wind. "Blame my helplessness. I shouldn't have let her go."
"Nonsense, it was mother's choice to work at the Pavilion." Strun felt torn in twain by the news of his mother's sudden demise, his anguish feeling like a jagged flesh wound. "But her passing, that fault belongs to the Khanate."
"Don't overthink her death, Strun," a voice said in the dark. "Don't dream of revenge. It will only bring more grief."
"She dropped a Djinn-damned plate and was used for sport!" Strun spat, his ire burning a hole in his lungs. "By the Priestess of the Afaa Al-Halak! You'd think mother insulted the Khan to his face, then spat in his food!"
The group remained silent.
"What else do you wish to do?" The same voice from the senior Rat-kin scoffed. "What do you expect us to do? Fight?"
Strun flexed his fingers, watching his elongated fingers unfurl. In the murky dark, the light from the fire cube refracted off his claws and the interior of his aubergine pupils.
With his health improved and the phage in his body banished, Strun wore clean clothes for the first time in months.
Earlier, he and the other centurions had accessed a magical item that produced water when an LDM was inserted. Once their kins' waterskins filled, Strun and a few others sifted through the "Survivor's Kits" to found soap and shampoo. Strun was no stranger to these items, though regular access to such supplies was rare in the Pavilion.
Not wanting to offend the Priestess, whose nose may be more sensitive than even their from what Strun had observed, he had urged the others to bath as well. Most performed the sacred rite of cleansing willingly, though some of Strun's peers had to be convinced with snarls and gnashing teeth.
As the youngest and a trained Shadow Runner, Strun welcomed all challengers. A few warriors blessed by the Priestess obliged, only to be floored by Strun in seconds, a testament to both what the Rat-kin had lost to their life of servitude under the Horse Lords, and the potential of what could be.
"Grandfather…" Strun looked up at his patriarch, one hand resting on the pommel of his teeth-blades. He had been thinking of his following words since his Ascension and in observing his people aiding one another. "What if… there was a better way for our people to live? What if— Clan Jildam no longer returned to the Pavilion?"