718 Ymiden 25...
When Graciana had informed him he would be heading down into the depths of Plenty, she hadn't been very clear as to what it was he would be doing. In the recent seasons, he'd been handling more and more of the mundane requests people sent her; glorified babysitting, cleaning rooftops and preciously placed heaps of trash, and providing the occasional use of his more magical services to those seeking an advantage over their peers in organized magical duels - all in good fun, of course. There were, of course, the more involved cases. Those he particularly enjoyed, but they were dangerous enough that he understood why it was he had yet to be sent on one alone. The excitement was only something he was interested in if it was something he could conquer - the last time he and she had worked together, a particularly frenzied becomer had very nearly removed a substantial third of his body.
He was content to continue his tutelage under the Madame, even if it meant-
"...rats, and you'll-"
Blinking, his thoughts coming to halt, Mads stared at the red-gloved woman whose expression shifted from disgust into one of surprised confusion as she was interrupted by the hitherto quiet young man who'd been following her for a solid twenty some bits as she'd explained what it was he'd been hired for. "How many rats did you just say?"
"How many rats?"
"Th-" Thoughts clearly scrambled, she seemed to stumble about in her own head for a trill or two before she finally managed a far more collected, "Thirty, as far as we were able to count. Maybe more, maybe less" There was a hint of annoyance in her voice.
Mads liked rats; in fact, he liked animals. The warmth of their blood; the frantic manner in which they tried to escape, knowing full well they were already well along their way to becoming a fresh corpse; their unadulterated emotions, clean and simple and beautiful. They were nothing like humans, all cluttered together, tangled and twisted and complicated. An animal knew what it wanted; it invariably chose life. They couldn't be manipulated, not like humans, and for that reason alone, he found them both fascinating and worthy of his respect.
"Exce-? Look, I dunno if you were listening, batty-boy, but you're here to kill these fat feckers. Not make friends."
Batty boy. Mads' head tilted at the moniker, hand subconsciously moving to tap at the back his ear. "Oh yes, I am aware." His face took a trill or two to shift into the pleasant smile he intended, but the woman didn't seem particularly put at ease by it as he'd expected from her.
"Eh... yeah, okay." In a quick pivot on her heel, she waved a hand that he should follow, calling over her shoulder a sigh of, "This way."
Plenty was aptly named. There was "plenty" of room in the sprawling, cavernous caves. There were "plenty" of various crops, all who grew without the aid of the sun's light, sustained by the literal blood of the people of Quacia. There were "plenty" of red-gloved figures who dotted the carefully tended fields. And, surprisingly, there was "plenty" of noise. The stone ceiling and walls both amplified and reflected even the smallest of sounds - from the little trowels that turned over the well-worked earth to what otherwise would have been the gentle conversations in low voices, everything joined together into what was essentially the hum of life.
And how very lively a particular corner was indeed.
There were shouts, screams, snarls, and the occasional clang of metal upon stone, all emanating from a large fracture about the width of two full-grown men standing side by side. Several men and woman had gathered about its mouth, iron spades and hoes and other tools of their trade in hand, all jabbing at the writhing shadows that seemed to stay just out of the ruddy orange pallor of the bloodlights that had been hung to better illuminate the area.
"They only sent the one." The woman - his guide - stopped beside a lanky, flaxen-haired woman who stood about a head and a half above him.
Her piercing blue eyes settled on him as her thin and wiry arm extended outward, the almost skeletal hand at its tip beckoning him to join them. "Dragoons are too busy to help with this- not that it's urgent, mind you, but I appreciate you comin' all the way down here...?"
"Mathias Moreno. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance...?"
"Elisabete; just Elisabete."
"Elisabete." He offered a shallow bow of his head which was received with a shallow smile from both women. Decorum was often politely received but almost never returned in like, something he'd learned about his people long ago. "And that, I presume, is the entrance to the nest?" There was no gesture needed. The screeching of the creatures had whipped up into a frenzy, but from the general collection of expressions of those gathered, it was clear the noises were so expected as to be monotonous - not dissimilar to the new plague of carefully timed sound that had risen up out of the depths beneath the city, though far less painful on the ears.
"Ye-up." Elisabete let out a sigh as she handed over a long, thin metal pole to the dark-haired woman who'd fetched him from the streets above. "Bastards are about the size of a suckling pig and as aggressive as the damn creep." The cacophony had died down somewhat, and several weary-looking men and women took the opportunity to fetch various flasks and flagons of water, a lucky few ravenously tearing apart pale loaves of Quacian bread.
“Problem is,” the dark-haired woman continued, patting Elisabete on the small of her back as the taller woman headed away with several others who, presumably, were being relieved by several more arriving. “The little rat-bastards have a wicked bite. We can’t get close without losing fingers.”
“So you want me to… exterminate them? That should not be an issue.” He didn’t bother adjusting his blank expression as he peered into the shadowy gash in the smooth stone of the cavern wall. “Do you know how far back the recess goes?”
“Nope.” The woman shrugged. “It started with the Screech, but there were never this many of them. I don’t know where they’re coming from, but everyone on rat duty just wants them gone.”
Clearly, the woman was out of patience, and Mads had just finished layering his ether armour about himself. Without any further questions, he stepped forward, his hand extended toward a young man who handed him his knife without protest. Though most remained in their positions around the fracture’s face, they were accommodating of his advance, allowing him to pass without too much difficulty. As he stopped in front of the shadowy chasm, he could hear the frantic scrabbling of worn nails against stone and feel the uncomfortable warmth of so many bodies writhing in the darkness ahead.
Plucking one of the bloodlights from its place against the wall, Mads slipped into the fissure, his footsteps quickening. His shields were strong, thick, able to withstand quite a blow, but they were not impervious to whittling. The sooner his job was done, the better chance he had of coming out unscathed. He could only imagine the smug grin Graciana might greet him with if he returned even the slightest bit haggard.
At first, it wasn’t too incredibly difficult. The rats didn’t seem to like the light, falling over one another to escape it. The few unfortunates who were too slow found their tails trapped beneath a firm boot and throats slit. They struggled, of course, and most fought back brilliantly with tooth and claw and rage and fury, but their fear that made them all the more dangerous isolated them, forced scapegoats out of the unwilling.
The difficulty arose when they reached the tunnel’s end.
With just a cursory glance, it was simple enough to piece together a rough idea as to where the rats came from and why they remained. The initial Screech had opened up the chasm in the first place, with the subsequent causing the tunnel’s ceiling to collapse farther in, trapping the creatures, their frenzy rising with hunger, confusion, and their enviable ever-present desire to survive.
And it was that desire that reared its head as the creatures realized they had nowhere else to run.
As one, they turned on him, their beady eyes wide and panicked, their squealing screams rising to a deafening tumult. Like a wave, the washed over him, their teeth gnashing and nails slashing. He could feel them tearing away at the protective layers of his hardened ether, each strike a trill closer to, as the quiet voice in the back of his mind calmly pointed out: a potentially life-threatening situation.
He stabbed quickly, calmly targeting the rats who sought to topple him first, working his way down the swarm. There were perhaps twenty or so left, and he was forced to back away for fear they would completely overwhelm him. Frantic as they were, they continued their wild assault, charging after him, their screams of rage mingling with those of pain as his knife ended their struggles. Eventually, he was overcome, their writhing, furry bodies toppled him to the ground, but still, he hacked away. His shields held; layer after layer was lost, but though they were able to knock him to the ground by their sheer numbers, they were so large only so many could tear away at his defences at a time.
Finally, he managed to dig his way out of the pile of bloody corpses. His breathing was heavy, laboured, and he’d long since stained his shirt with sweat. The bloodlight had been knocked from his hand early on, but it remained lit, its crimson light casting the shadows all the more macabre. Gathering up the light, he spent the next half break searching the tunnel for any survivors and summarily executing them.
The rats had put up a good and noble fight, but there were far too many for him to invest the time and energy into taking them apart, in truly examining their differences, their eccentricities. Instead, he kept one of them for himself, holding it aloft by the base of its tail as it screeched and screamed. Though his shielding had kept his clothes relatively clean, the blood of the creatures that had piled over him still clung to the outer shell, giving him the appearance of having bathed in their collective gore.
No one moved as he exited the cave, squealing prize in hand. “The rats are gone now.” Wide eyes watched him as he casually handed the knife back to the young man he'd borrowed it from before making his way back down the path that led to the streets above, his living siren alerting the vast majority of Plenty to his passing. But he was too busy pondering over just what exactly the undamaged insides of the abnormally large rodent might look like to pay them any heed.