Rat King

Across the sea

A half-hour later, Dem sat shirtless on the furred floor while his ankles were secured to two spikes that had been driven into the ground. ”I thought you were joking about tieing me up. ”

The Shaman took note of the impossible amount of scars that adorned his torso. ”Do you like to fight or something? ”

Dem shook his head. ”No, Im small. People never pick on the big ones. ”

”Drink this, ” she handed him a cup filled with dark liquid. It was bitter and warm. When he was finished, she motioned him to lay back. ”Im going to have to tie your wrists also; some people have problems with this part. ”

”Its fine. I trust you. ” Dem took note that two other people had joined Ai and the Elder. They sat at the edge of the tent, watching the spectacle. ”Who are the two women sitting with Ai and the elder? ”

”Ais mother and grandmother. They
e here as part of your family. ” After securing his wrists. The Shaman picked up a curved black feather and dipped it into a jar. ”Any more questions before we start? You have to be still while Im drawing the symbols. ”

”No, I don think so. ” Dem turned his head slightly so he could see Ai and her family. ”Why does Ai look worried? Is this going to be exciting? ”

The Shaman touched the quill to his abdomen and started drawing. ”Most young ones ask if its going to hurt. ”

”You
e blurry, ” Dem should have felt alarmed that his speech sounded slurred to his ears, but a sudden euphoria started to drown out his other concerns. ”Whats happening? ”

The Shaman glanced upward; a brilliant cloud of yellow was already starting to form over the top of Dem. ”You are going to have visions, three or four of them. Try to embrace the memories; these are the events of your life. Theyll progress backward from the most recent. ”

She continued drawing the runes; as each one finished, it would glow with a brilliance that hurt the eyes. When she was finished, she started chanting in an old language that only Tribal Shamans understood.

The four women stood suddenly and took their places, Ai and her mother gripped Dems wrists while the other two held his feet. This was done to protect him. Although tied, the rite of passage sometimes came with a lot of thrashing and struggle. The ropes that bound Dem could dig deep into his flesh if his visions were too disturbing.

Since they were standing in as witnesses, the four women stared at the bright cloud, curious as to the life Demitri had lived.

”Prepare yourselves for his emotions, ” the Shaman whispered.

And so the first vision started.

A dead-end alley, dark and oppressive, something felt wrong. But, with his friends waiting near the wall, Rat pushed forward with the plan. Within moments he was at the window.

Fear, anger, betrayal. The image of Brim accepting a coin pouch and walking away with the other two formed and stayed for several seconds. Its pain brought Ai to tears; Dem had considered those three his family.

The vision continued, out the window to a fall that hurt his ribs. All four spectators jumped and grabbed at their sides. It hurt to breathe. The hunters were closing in; he retreated to the roof.

More fighting… this one with the leader of the hunters. Wearing a black hooded mask, her movements were well trained. A Sabasi fighter, a very good one. They were evenly matched, despite his wound and small stature.

An overly aggressive attack that ended with a strike at her eyes. Her reflexes were good, and she managed to turn enough to keep her sight. Her image filled the vision cloud. She looked down at the street below; removing her mask showed her eyes filled with regret. The fleeting expression vanished, and she turned away.

The vision faded, taking with it the heart-rending emotions that he felt. The spectators were covered in sweat, their breath coming in great gasps. Then, without giving them a break, another vision started.

He was hiding, deep in the shadows of a keep. They could hear the sounds of men and women cursing and grunting. Then, the vision focused on a single man standing in front of a large group.

”Next two, ” he ordered.

The group formed a square, and the two individuals he called both drew daggers. They circled each other warily as if afraid to engage.

”You
e both hesitating. Perhaps you are better suited for Archery. ” The man laughed at them, goading them into attacking until they abandoned caution.

Once they started to fight in earnest, he grew quiet. On occasion, he would have them pause so he could instruct. He pointed out flaws and gave praise when it was warranted. Dem watched from the corner of the roof. Time passed, weeks and then months. New students would come every half-year. He watched and then retreated to the rooftop to practice with the nails he had found.

Contentment. Belonging. He felt both; even though separate, he felt like part of the group. Every day was going to be his last, but it was hard to leave. Until finally, the courtyard was empty except for the instructor.

”Most of my students are only here for half a year. ” The man glanced up at the corner roof where Dem hid. ”Your persistence is admirable. Come down and face me. ”

The man spoke to him, the words were sharp, but they bore no malice. The Sabasi instructor began to teach him the way. Only a few minutes each day and not until the courtyard was empty. This continued for a few months until the man didn appear one day. Dem came back several days in a row, waiting and wondering. Alone again, the life of a street rat.

Sadness, longing, and fear. The four spectators cried freely, sniffing their noses while wiping their tears. Life was hard.

The vision faded, and the cloud grew dark. Almost immediately, another started. This one wasn like the others. The pleasantness of it brought smiles to the tear-streaked faces of those watching.

Warmth. Contentment. A steady rhythmic pounding that Dem found comfortable. He was pleased; the darkness held no danger.

”You are certain? ” A mans voice spoke. It was deep and carried violently cruel undertones.

”Yes, my lord. ” A womans voice, someone wise and educated. ”The rat woman will bear a son. ”

”A son… And you are sure it is mine? ”

”Yes, my lord. I have conducted a birthright test. ”

”I do not remember her, set up a tent for her and see to her care. I will hold you responsible if something happens to my bloodlines heir. ”

”Yes, my lord. ”

The voices faded, but the warmth and darkness continued for a time.

”What is your name, child? I can keep calling you rat woman. ” The woman from earlier in the vision spoke.

”Why do you call me rat woman? ” Another woman spoke; her words surrounded Dem and made him happy. He felt an overwhelming love for her.

Belonging. Kinship. Mother.

”Although diluted, the rat is your beastkin bloodline. ”

”Im not beastkin. ” The sound of her voice brought him warmth and happiness. No matter what she said, it felt pleasant to his ears. ”Im not like him. Ive seen the lord change forms. It was frightening. ”

”You didn answer me. What is your name? ”

”Ember. ”

”We have lost this continent, Ember. If you bear the Dukes son, he will take you both to Duscanti. You will become part of the Beast Kings Empire. ”

”I don know where that is. ”

”Far across the sea, child. Your life will be easier from now on. ”

Darkness, the steady beat of hearts. The passing of many days.

”I can bring you the child after it is born, my lord. ” The wise woman spoke again; the voice now held a certain amount of familiarity.

”No. I will witness this. Even now, my enemy closes in. First, the rat woman will give birth to my son, and then the captain will escort the three of you to my ship. ”

”As you wish, my lord. ”

Disruption. Discontentment. More darkness.

”Rest easy, Ember. One more push. ”

Disruption. Discontentment. The wailing of an infant.

WHAT IS THIS? ” The mans voice shouted, filled with rage and hate. ”THIS IS NOT A MALE! ”

”My lord! I do not understand. The test said that you will… ”

The words were cut short by the sound of fist striking flesh—the thump of a body landing on the floor accompanied by the heavy breathing of an angry man.

”Captain! Ready my ship. We have no more time. ”

Loud steps that sounded like someone stomping their feet.

”My lord! What about the woman and baby? ”

A long pause…

”Leave the rat woman, bring the baby with us. ”

Confusion. Darkness. Loss.

A few minutes pass.

”Im sorry, Ember. Somehow I made a mistake. ” The woman whispered as if worried someone might hear her.

A groan of pain, escalating until it became a wail of agony.

Pressure. Discontentment. Light.

”Heaven preserve us… Another baby. You have twins, Ember. ”

Brightness. Anger.

The vision cloud brightening accompanied the wailing of a child until it shone like the sun.

As suddenly as it started, the vision stopped. The four women looked toward the Shaman. He hadn moved at all during the rite.

”We are all bound by the blood rite oath. These are his memories and his alone. Use them to deepen your relationship with him. ” The Shaman stroked his forehead gently.

”Hmmm… ” Dems dark eyes blinked open. The memory of the rite was fresh in his mind.

The Shamans painted face bent closer, her blue eyes staring into his before she kissed his head gently. ”This is your fourteenth year. Welcome to our clan, Demitri Swiftwind. ”

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