"Rat Mage", by Rebecca Kemp. (c) 2003.

(Click picture above to visit the artist's website.)
 

A Very Clean Fellow
by Sean Hower

 

By all accounts, Thomas Grayweed was a good fellow. He had made his home in the Drunken Wolf, a pub located in the Lower House district in the City of the Windy Mountain. Though Thomas had come to the city on an anthropological mission, he managed to spend most of his evenings at the pub entertaining its patrons. He would join in on celebrations and generally help everyone have a good time. He also enthralled them with the myths and legends he had learned on his journeys. For that, he managed to gain tolerance and acceptance, a worthy accomplishment considering humans did not react well to his kind.

"You're a wonderful lad for a giant rat," the pub's proprietor, Bartleby, said one afternoon. He was good-natured man in his late forties, with a round face, stubby blond hair, and blue eyes. "You're very clean."

Thomas was at a table adjacent to the pub's hearth on a chair he had had made for his short stature. He wore a baggy shirt and pants, an outfit that marked him as an academic among his people. The outfit was comfortable and hid many of his rodent features from the casual observer. He was busy recording his recent observations in one of his journals, a task that he had become far too lazy about to suit him.

"Why thank you, my good Bartleby." Thomas reached over his journal, the firelight playing across his claws and the white hairs on his paw. "You're a wonderful human," he said, clasping Bartleby's hand.

Bartleby was pleased. "And what stories will you be telling tonight?" The toil that was carved into the man's features softened into youthful anticipation.

"Nothing, I'm afraid," Thomas sighed. "I have work to get done."

"Wouldn't your quarters be a more comfortable place for that? It gets rather merry down here on Friday nights."

"We Kitani prefer company to solitude."

"Is that so?" Bartleby's brow furled in contemplation. "I never would have guessed. By any rate, can I get you a drink? Your usual?"

"Yes, apple beer will be fine."

"Very good, Mister Grayweed." Bartleby scuttled off.

Thomas settled himself into his chair to continue writing. He barely noticed Bartleby delivering the apple beer, so involved was he in his work. He barely noticed the people that wandered into the Drunken Wolf as midday became early evening. A handful of times, patrons asked him for a story, which he regretfully turned down. He didn't take a break from his work until long after the sun had set and the Drunken Wolf was rumbling with activity. He closed up his journal, stretched out, and finished his drink.

"All done, Mister Grayweed?" Bartleby asked, dropping off a second pint.

"For now," Thomas smiled. He took a long pull from the drink. Bartleby's ability to predict his customers' needs always amazed Thomas. "After a bit of rest, I shall relate the Tale of Argonische."

"Excellent, excellent," Bartleby said. "Well then, I look forward to --."

Ignatius, Bartleby's apprentice, came up to him and clutched his shoulder. He was a small sprout for a boy of fourteen but he knew the pub business better than most.

"What is it, Ig?"

Ignatius stood on his toes, leaned into Bartleby and began whispering into his ear.

"Fetch the Constable straight away," Bartleby said, flustered. "And let's be quiet about it. No need to worry our guests."

Ignatius nodded and pushed his way through the crowd. He left the pub.

"Is there a problem?" Thomas asked.

"Nothing the Constable can't handle, Mister Grayweed." He glanced up the stairs that led to the pub's quarters. "Excuse me."

Thomas watched Bartleby absent-mindedly bump through the crowd then go up the stairs. He couldn't resist a riddle, so he tucked his journal into a pack he kept near at all times and followed after the man. He weaved through the crowd on his hind legs, mostly out of a habit designed to avoid unnecessary attention. He rarely went around on all fours, and then only when he was in a hurry or after he had had too much apple beer.

On the second floor, Thomas caught a faint smell, something akin to a fresh lightning strike. It was familiar, but he couldn't recall why he should know it. He came upon Bartleby standing at the threshold of a room. Tess, one of the pub's workers, was sitting on the floor inside the room beside Bartleby, resting against the door jam. She was sobbing and rubbing her left arm. Her dress fanned out around her, hiding her svelte frame.

Thomas stepped up beside Bartleby and peered into the room. It was as any other room at the pub; a claustrophobic box sparsely furnished with a bed, chair, and small desk beneath a solitary window. A traveling pack had been tossed onto the bed. A cloak and gloves were mixed among its ruffled sheets. An old man appeared to be dozing at the desk. He wore a sleeved shirt and jerkin. His boots and shabby pants were stained with fresh mud. A walking stick, half the size of the window, had been carelessly tossed onto the sill.

"Mmm," Thomas uttered. He entered the room and approached the man. There was no life about him. "The murk has claimed him."

"Too many winters you mean," Bartleby said. "Why'd the fool have to pick my place to die in?" Then, realizing that Thomas had followed him, "Mister Grayweed, you needn't bother yourself with this."

"It's no bother to help my kith."

Thomas looked over the man's body. Faint red marks traced around the man's neck and down to his sternum where they ended in a soft bruise.

"What's all of this, Bartleby?" It was the Constable. He was a stocky, bearded man, decked in a leather tunic that bore the crest of the City of the Windy Mountain. A pair of gold, leaf insignia were pressed into either shoulder, marking his rank. Two deputies accompanied him, both like eager hound dogs waiting to prove their skill. "Ignatius said one of your guests died and that Tess saw his ghost?"

Ignatius pushed by the Constable and went to Tess' side. He took up her right hand and began stroking her curly, red hair.

Thomas turned his attention to Tess, fascinated.

"Aye," Tess said through tears. "I've never seen nothing like that. It slipped out from underneath the door, knocked me down, and went like a fire through the window down the hall. I felt an awful cold in my arm when it hit me, and now I've got this." She lifted her hand away from her arm. A purple-and-white bruise ran along its length. The edges were trimmed by what looked like splinters of ice; the kind that forms on windows during winter.

"It's Eidolon frost," Thomas said. "Caused by touching the spirit world."

"Who are you?" the Constable asked, suddenly aware of Thomas. "What are you?"

"This is Mister Grayweed, Constable," Bartleby said cordially. "He's an honored resident of my pub."

"He's a rat."

"Kitani," Thomas corrected.

"He's very clean, isn't he?"

"Yes, very," the Constable said. "Why is he here?"

"To lend emotional support to dear Tess," Thomas said, going to her side.

The Constable sighed with disapproval. The deputies parroted him. "Is that the old man, then?" he finally said, pointing a thick finger at the man's body.

Bartleby nodded.

The Constable let loose the deputies. One moved about the room, picking up things, examining them for some clue then tossing them clumsily back into place. The other went to the man's body and pressed his ear against his chest. After a moment, he shook his head. Meanwhile, the other had retrieved the cloak. Upon the announcement, he covered the body with it. Then, both of them returned to the Constable.

"Report?"

They stood at attention. "Nothing out of the ordinary."

These two make poor hound dogs, Thomas thought. There was plenty out of the ordinary. If they had understood their world a bit better they would have known that.

"Right," the Constable said. "Then let's get Tervy over here to collect the body and be done with it."

"What about the haunt?" Bartleby said nervously.

The Constable shivered. "I don't know about that sort of thing. Get a priest over here. But from what Tess has said, it sounds like the man's ghost won't be a bother. Probably already sailing to the Golden Plains, lucky bastard."

The Constable shook his head. He made a quick rounded motion with his hand and snapped his fingers to round up his men. They left, satisfied with their work.

Thomas eyed Bartleby. The man was clearly unsatisfied. He was no doubt thinking about what it would cost to have a priest bless the room. He was also no doubt worried about gossip. It wouldn't take much talk of a haunting before he'd be out of business. Thomas had learned long ago that humans wanted nothing to do with the dead. He was about to suggest a blessing he had learned from a tribe of wanderers to the east when Bartley cleared his throat.

"What about you, Tess?"

"My whole arm is stiff. It's hard to move."

"That will go away in time," Thomas reassured. "What you need is rest, a warm fire, and some blackgrave tea."

"How do you know that, Master Grayweed?" Tess asked.

"That's a story for another time. It's already midnight and I should get going. Blackgrave is best harvested at night. Ignatius, while I'm gone why don't you take Tess down to the fire. The warmth will do much for her health."

"All right." Ignatius helped Tess up and led her away.

"Bartleby, my good man," Thomas said after the two were gone. "If I may suggest something. You should keep this door closed and locked. And keep an eye out for anyone messing about."

"What is it?" Bartleby said. He surveyed the room before the two stepped out into the hallway. He closed and locked the door.

"There's something not right here. And while I know a great many things, I just don't remember them all. I'll have to study my journals when I get back. But first, can you fetch me a basin of warm water. I want to clean up a little before I go."

 

* * *

 

After washing up, Thomas left the Drunken Wolf. His mind was busy searching for the bit of information that was taunting him. There was something about the smell of lightning that was locked away in the memory of his travels. He was still trying to uncover that bit of information when he left the city through the Lower House Gate, and even while he was searching for the blackgrave.

Thomas finally gave up on his ruminations and decided to enjoy this little adventure. While he found humans an intriguing species, he did like getting away from them. About a half mile outside of the city, he found a cluster of blackgrave nestled in the cracks of a granite outcropping. It was a tiny, red plant with silken leafs like blades of grass that turned black at night. He took a sample of the plant, tucked it into his pack, and returned to the city.

Thomas passed through the Lower House Gate and made his way down the main street back to the Drunken Wolf. There were several night watchmen patrolling the streets, more so than usual. He was wondering what was the matter when one of the watchmen stopped him at sword point. He was an anxious young man, much the same as the deputies earlier. He held up a lantern to get a better look at Thomas.

"What's your business?" he said, clearly disturbed by Thomas' appearance. He brandished his weapon with strained authority.

"I'm a guest and acquaintance of Aleked Bartleby, the proprietor of the Drunken Wolf. One of his workers, Tess, has been hurt and I went out into the fields just outside the city to gather some herbs for her wound. I'm returning now." Thomas hoped that would satisfy the man. He didn't want to waste time with an inquiry.

"I've never seen your sort around here," the watchman said. He had managed to turn his fear into brusque suspicion. He squinted his eyes in accusation. "What are you?"

"Don't worry about him. He's not the thief." It was one of the deputies that had accompanied the Constable at the Drunken Wolf.

Thomas was thankful for the luck and the intervention.

"What is it then?"

"Kitani, I think," the deputy said.

"Gruesome creature."

"But it's very clean."

"Thief?" Thomas interrupted.

"They're out in force tonight," the deputy said. They've struck several of the shops in this area. You better get on back to the Drunken Wolf before they decide to turn to mugging."

"Yes, of course," Thomas said. "Good luck on your hunt, gentlemen." He hurried away.

It was nearly two when Thomas arrived back at the Drunken Wolf. The crowd that had filled the pub earlier had dwindled to just a few of the regulars. Tess was sitting in front of the fire, Ignatius dutifully watching over her. The boy had been showing great affection for her lately, but she returned that affection as an older sister would.

"How are you Tess?" Thomas asked.

"Better. Just a little numb."

"May I see your arm?"

Thomas took up Tess's arm and examined it. The bruise was still a nasty-looking thing, but it hadn't spread. He had heard of these wounds consuming a person's body like the rot, incapacitating and eventually killing its victim. But her wound would heal and Thomas was thankful for that. He just wondered what other affects it would have on her.

"Ignatius, would you come and give me a hand in making this tea?"

"Yes, Master Grayweed."

The two went into the kitchen. Ignatius filled a kettle with water and placed it on the stove while Thomas washed his face and hands. Satisfied that he was rid of the grime from his trip, Thomas retrieved the blackgrave from his pack. He began chopping the plant into small clippings. It secreted a sticky red oil with each slice. The oil got under his claws and matted the fur around his paws.

"So, this blackgrave tea will get rid of that bruise?"

"It will help it to heal faster, yes."

"But Tess will get better. I mean, that frost stuff will go away and she'll be like she was."

"The Eidolon frost will clear up," Thomas said, "but Tess came into direct contact with another world. It's hard to say what affect that will have on her."

"What do you mean?"

"The world we live in is separate from the world of spirits and gods. We are not meant to have contact with it." Thomas finished cutting the blackgrave. He gathered up a handful of the trimmings and dumped them into a mug. "But sometimes, it can't be helped. For whatever reason, the barrier between the two worlds may weaken, allowing them to mix. What we know as real can become, well, confused. If a person is caught up in that confusion, he could lose his senses. He may become blessed. Or cursed. We can never really know what will happen when we touch a world we're not meant to."

Ignatius lifted the kettle from the stove.

"Tess's contact, however, was brief and shouldn't bring about any permanent harm. Prolonged contact would be far worse. It could easily kill someone."

Ignatius dropped the kettle. "K-- K-- Kill?" He was trembling.

"Only with prolonged contact. I should think that death would be the most pleasant of possibilities actually. But we don't have to worry about that in Tess's case."

Ignatius filled the kettle again and set it on the stove. The boy was distracted by a fearful thought. He groped at a hidden object beneath his shirt. "I should very much like to have a sample of this tea." It had taken him a great effort to force those words out. He looked at Thomas. "Just to have a sample I mean. This is all very unusual to me, Master Grayweed, and I'd like to have a better feeling for it. For Tess' sake I mean."

"For Tess' sake, yes," Thomas said. The boy was lying, that much was clear to him, but Ignatius was not by nature one who bent the truth. Something had clearly rattled the boy. Thomas watched Ignatius pat his chest again. He thought he could make out the outline of a pendant under Ignatius' shirt.

"Problems with your chest?"

"What?" Igantius' voice cracked. "Wh-- why do you ask?"

Thomas tapped his own chest.

Ignatius looked down at his hand, unaware of what he had been doing. "Just a little dust I think," he said. He gave a weak cough. "Must be dust or something."

The water began boiling again.

"It's ready."

Thomas put some of the blackgrave clippings into another mug. "You should have a drink then," Thomas said, carefully watching Ignatius for any reaction. "Maybe some of the tea would do you as well."

"Thank you, Master Grayweed," Ignatius said. He appeared as though he had been freed from a deadly burden.

He brought the kettle to the table once again and filled each mug. He was still trembling. As he bent over, his shirt billowed slightly and Thomas caught sight of a small, blue jewel dangling from a leather necklace. Thomas had never seen it before, and he could tell it was something the boy couldn't afford on the stipend he was earning from Bartleby.

"I'll take this to Tess, Master Grayweed," Ignatius said. He grabbed both mugs. "You're a guest here after all. It's getting late and you should get some rest."

Thomas agreed. "One thing, though. Be sure that Tess drinks all of the tea. If she doesn't, it won't have any benefit."

Igantius nodded and left.

Thomas noticed that faint smell of lightning trailing behind Ignatius. A subtle understanding began to rise in the back of his mind as he washed his hands. He would have to make some hasty preparations if his suspicions proved true.

 

* * *

 

Ignatius spent most of the evening with Tess and didn't finish his chores until four in the morning. He blew out the last of the candles and yawned, glad for an end to the day. He saw movement along his peripheral vision near the hearth. The fire's dying embers set the area in a red glow.

"We're closed for the evening," he said. "Go on home."

There was no answer, but he could hear someone whispering. He walked towards the hearth. "Look, buddy, I'm in no mood to play with a dawdling drunk."

A shimmering fog spread across the floor. It moved like a wolf towards Ignatius.

The boy yelped and stumbled back.

"You'll have to do," a voice whispered.

The fog rose up from the floor and fanned out to engulf the boy.

Ignatius tried to scream but the sound died in his throat.

The fog shrank back from Ignatius, rolling over itself like a wounded predator. A low, pained moan echoed about the pub's rafters.

"You can't have the boy," Thomas said, emerging from his hiding place behind the bar. He had spent the late hours of the evening tucked behind a keg and a stack of trays. It was only by luck that Ignatius hadn't spotted him. "I've put a blessing on him. You won't be able to take his body, and you won't get back into yours."

The fog boiled with anger.

Thomas went up to Ignatius, never taking his eyes from the intruder. "This is what you want," he said, using the claw on his index finger to cut open Ignatius' shirt. The boy was still wearing the pendant; a piece of aquamarine set in a redwood mount and fastened with threads of silver. Fine fissures crisscrossed the interior of the gem like spider webs. Tiny runes were carved into the mount, the area about most of them charred.

"Your body is locked away in your room upstairs," Thomas said. "And here is the pendant you need in order to return. But by the looks of its gem, its power is just about spent, and I'll wager much more contact with this world will destroy it. That would leave you trapped in the spirit realm forever, wouldn't it?"

The fog spun in on itself, then burst out upon a chair, crushing it in a rage.

Another fissure cut its way through the gem and another rune charred. Ignatius flinched as more Eidolon frost burned itself onto him.

"Careful. You've only two runes left," Thomas said, fascinated by all that had happened. "If my guess is right, once they are all charred, you can't return to your body at all."

The agitation in the fog settled. "What do you want?" the voice whispered, defeated. Did Thomas detect treachery there too?

"I want to know who you are. I want to know what an old man has to gain by meddling in magic of this sort?"

"Ah, you want a share in it, is that it? Everyone takes advantage of easy profit when it presents itself."

"Why not? These are hard times. Even children are learning to take advantage when the opportunity presents itself." Thomas shot a scolding glance at Ignatius.

The boy recoiled under the rebuke. "It was for Tess," he whimpered.

"You still have not answered my questions."

"Alguther and thievery," the voice hissed after a long pause. "I played lookout and undid the locks for my mates so we could enter and leave quietly."

"Well, Alguther, I gather you meant to sneak out through your window, but what happened?"

"A wind came up and knocked it shut just as I finished the incantations."

"Then what?"

"I realized I could get under the door without having to touch anything. I didn't want to waste any of the magic. I didn't expect that girl to be there. She got in my way."

"And for all of this, what was your cut?" Thomas said.

"A fair portion."

"The whole truth or you won't see this world through your own eyes again."

Alguther hesitated. "One-third of the pickings."

"And how were you to collect this?"

"We were to meet tomorrow morning north of the Hedge Water Crossing. We were going to take our shares and be done with each other for good."

"Then I shall want to go with you and take half of your share."

Alguther hissed.

"That's more than a fair percentage for the one that holds your fate in a delicate gem." Thomas pointed to the pendant. "You don't have many options."

"Very well," Alguther said. "Half of my share. Now get me back to my body."

"You will go first to your room. We will follow," Thomas said. "I shall open the door for you. The boy shall replace the necklace he stole. Then you shall return to your body. From there, we will meet your friends. I warn you. I won't tolerate trickery. I placed a blessing on the boy and myself that will protect us from you while in your current form, and I've placed a charm on your body that will return you to the spirit realm if I do not remove it within one day."

Ignatius gawked at Thomas, amazed.

"Are we all in understanding?"

"Yes, now let's get this done with."

The fog rolled along the floor, spilling up the stairs. Thomas and Ignatius followed closely behind. The boy was about to say something, but Thomas placed one of his claws to his mouth to silence him.

They arrived at the entrance to the room. Thomas unlocked the door and pushed it open. He gave Ignatius a gentle nudge into the room. The boy walked up to Alguther's body, now lying flat on the bed, its arms crossed in preparation for the undertaker. The fog slipped into the room and hovered over the body. It crawled about itself, distressed.

"Be quick," Alguther shouted, his voice filling the room.

Ignatius lifted the body's head and slipped on the necklace. Before he could step back, the fog engulfed the body and sank into it. The pendant shattered. The smell of lightning and burning wood filled the room. Alguther sprang up, gasping for air. His eyes shot wide open. He shuddered as senses slowly began working again.

The Constable and several deputies marched into the room. Bartleby followed them in. Before Alguther could gather his wits, the deputies clamped his arms in shackles. They pulled him from the bed.

"Deceiver," Alguther shouted. "Trickster!"

"I only do what is the right thing to do," Thomas said. "It is the only thing any of us can do. I would expect someone of your esteemed age to know that lesson."

"Come on," the Constable said. "We're off to meet your friends." He turned to Thomas. "You're a good...fellow," he said.

"And very clean," Ignatius said.

"The people of Lower House will be grateful to you," the Constable added.

"Then we are in mutual debt, for I am grateful to them. They have welcomed me as one of their own, and so I treat them as one of mine."

The Constable and deputies dragged Alguther from the room. Bartleby, Ignatius, and Thomas remained.

"I'm rather disappointed in you, Mister Ignatius," Bartleby said after a time. "You broke the most fundamental rule that I've tried to teach you. You took advantage of the trust of your guests. For that, you will not receive pay for two weeks, and your duties will be reduced to cleaning and kitchen chores until you can show me that you are trustworthy again."

Igantius frowned. He began to protest but thought better of it.

"And for you, Mister Grayweed," Bartleby said. "How did you figure this out?"

"The key was the smell of lightning. I had encountered it once before, during a ritual performed by the Hombaaden. The ritual gave the practitioner the ability to leave his body. When I saw the pendant that Ignatius was wearing, I realized it had to have belonged to Alguther. The marks I had seen on Alguther's body were probably a very mild case of Eidolon frost, caused by Alguther's collision with Tess."

"It's right smart," Bartleby said. "And quite amazing to my mind. You are a marvel, Mister Grayweed. A wonderful marvel that I'm happy to know."

"Why thank you, dear Bartleby. Now, if you could just draw me a warm basin so I can wash up."

 

 

Story © 2003 by Sean Hower hokumhome@freehomepage.com


Illustration © 2003 by Rebecca Kemp beckyg@wildlife-fantasy.com
"Rat Mage" used with permission. Please do not distribute. Details at http://www.wildlife-fantasy.com.

 

 

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