Chapter 4:

A Rat's Fate II

The Wolf Among Rats

I'm led like a dog on a leash through the dungeon. I can barely walk. I can barely see. I can barely think. But I've won. All they ever got from me was screams and profanities. You're welcome Ren. You better appreciate this.
I'm pulled up through stairs until we reach one last iron gate. The sky is bright. Too bright. It's warm. And there's finally something other than stone beneath my feet. Never did I think I would miss dirt. The human pulls me along through the streets. Humans and elves alike watch as I'm paraded through the street. If all they saw was my proud smile, I'm certain they would have no idea I just spent any time in a dungeon. I won.

I'm pulled into the centre the city. Where the richer humans live and where the city hangs over the river. Eventually we reach a stage the temple has set up in the plaza, a good distance in front of their main cathedral. I've never been in the cathedral, but if the inside is as grand as the outside, I'm sure I would feel like a rat. Two giant gates mark the entrance with enormous pointed towers on either side. Painted glass windows decorate the entrance all the way up and Sun decorations line the towers.

I'm pushed to my knees and my arms are bound to two posts on either side of me. They're looking to make an example out of me. My arms are tied so tight, that I can't really move the rest of my body. I can squirm a bit, but nothing else.

I look across the stage and notice, maybe three, others in the same position. Looks like a saurian, a jarcoba, and maybe a dwarf? I can't tell, the post is obstructing my view. A crowd starts to form in front of the stage and mummers fill the air. Mostly humans I'm noticing. There are a few demi-humans here and there, but it looks like they're just here because their human master is here.
A good deal of time passes. By midday, marked by the Sun pouring through a crack in the mountains, someone finally comes onto the stage. A high-priest by the look of it. He begins his speel with a prayer to Sol. He continues to drone on with a lesson, blah blah blah.

I can't help but chuckle to myself even though it's incredibly painful. How big a deal am I if they go through such lengths to make an example of me? Drawing in such a crowd, making this big speech? They must love me. Another painful laugh.

Eventually he finishes his speel about heretics and punishment. "Let these blasphemers be marked both, in spirit and body!"

The crowd cheers. Marked how? Are the scars not marks enough? A lower priest beside me asks in a deceptively sympathetic tone, "Right or left, elf?"
I respond by spitting at his feet. He looks down at the small wet mark on his robe-like pants. "Right then."

He walks out in front of me carrying an iron rod. Instead of a normal dark metal rod all the way along, at the end lies a red-hot image of the Sun. Whoa. Whoa whoa whoa, they're branding us!?
I squirm in place out of a primal panic, wait. Is that... Near the front of the cheering crowd stands a horrified fox-blond elf. Hey Ren. I give him a confident smile. Now. How bad could this be? I've been burned before. Sure this might be a little worse, but I can take it.

I stare the priest in the eyes as the iron approaches my chest. Time seems to move more slowly as the iron closes in. Three. Two. I hear my skin sizzle like meat fallen into a fire. I smell my flesh burn. Then I realize-
I throw my head back and roar to the sky! Get it off! Get it off! I thrash and thrash! How long!?

Then it's gone. I can't see anything anymore. My vision is too blurry. Where's Ren? Did you see that? Hope you appreciate it. I try to lift my head to look for him, but it's so damn heavy. Come on, we have to show him we're doing fine.
With great effort, I manage to lift my head and spot Ren. At least that's about where he was standing before. I throw another smile to the crowd that Ren hopefully catches. My head falls back into its drooped state. I listen to the roars of the others on the platform.
Hey, that reminds me. What does the mark look like? A large patch of smoldering skin forms a circle over my right chest with thin lines extending out. It looks like those depictions of the Sun with a face, except the face has been replaced with charred skin.

After the dwarf on the end is branded, the high priest gives a closing speel. I can't bother to try and listen. After he's done, we're untied, dragged off stage, shoved into cages designed to be small for humans, and hoisted up into a tree. I guess I can rest for now. I deserve it.

By the Lords, I'm uncomfortable. Oh, that's right. I've been shoved into a gibbet. My knees are crushed against my chest. The left side of course. Even the gentle breeze is sending massive amounts of pain through my brand. My head has a bit of room to move around, but I have to be scrunched up, which sends new jolts of pain through my brand.
It's dark, but it looks like I'm in one of the trees next to the cathedral. "Oi. Just because yer awake doesn't mean the rest of us want ta be. What's yer name, kid?"

I look around and find the dwarf, almost comfortably, sitting in the cage nearest mine. "When the humans are around, my name is kid. Although right now my name is Kar'Desh."

"The youngins used to call me Elder Naz Karak. They meant well, but stones curse it'all if the damn formalities don't get on mi nerves. Just Naz'll do. How'd you piss off the temple enough to end up here Kar?"

Pretty sure I didn't tell him to call me that. This is the first time I've actually spoken with a dwarf, but he's very clearly old. The parts of his face that aren't covered in a white beard or hair are instead smothered in wrinkles. I imagine he can't see much out of his tiny eyes since he'd usually spend his time in the dark. He has massive round ears which I guess means his hearing is good? Most dwarven beards run all the way to their legs, but his looks like it was hacked off. It's little more than overgrown stubble. For someone who looks like he's been in prison awhile, he has a surprising amount of bulk. "I thought you wanted to sleep? Now you want a backstory?"

"I like talkin' more than I like sleeping. Now answer the damn question before I show ye where I hide mi stones."

I... I'm not sure I want to know what he means. "I got in a dispute with a merchant. Then antagonized the templars who interrogated me."

Without a moment's rest he says, "You a bastard? What for?"

Tsk. Annoying old coot. You're in the same sutuation as me. What do I tell him? I already told him my actual name. Although even if he tells the templars, they can't use it anymore because Ren saw me. If they asked about me, he knows what to do. Maybe just a vague answer will do. "I have my reasons."

He nods and offers a understanding grunt. "A bastard then. What about you lizard?"
I assume he's talking about the saurian. I can't imagine he's talking to a gecko or something. Saurians are the giant lizard men that usually live down river. After the saurian doesn't answer for a second, Naz calls out, "Oi. Lizard."

A growling sigh emerges from behind Naz. "I believe you said, 'Just because you're awake doesn't mean we want to be?'"
His voice would be terrifying if it wasn't coming from a cage. Deep and there's a natural growl to it. I can't see him from behind Naz's cage.

Naz persists. "Sleep is for the old 'nd feeble. We ain't got much time. Might as well spend it makin' friends."

Another growling sigh. "Zuwald'Xith."
I don't think I can recreate those sounds. "Just call me Wal. It's easier for warm bloods to pronounce. I scared a bunch of humans, they reported me to the temple, I fought off some templars."

I speak up. "You fought off templars? I thought demi-humans weren't allowed to carry weapons."

"I don't live here. I was passing through and stopped for a night. Didn't realize I could be imprisoned for being scary."
Unlucky bastard. "Naz. Speak."

Naz laughed then coughed. Probably due to the branding. "Ye don't have to tell me twice. I was teaching the youngins old dwarven customs. Including the Kalth gods. Temple didn't like that much once they found out. Kalth, who the world is named after, is a stoic-"
Now he's rambling. Annoying old coot. I am a little curious about the dwarven religion, but I'm more interested in the jarcoba.

Jarcoba are the race of dog folk that mostly live in the southern part of Solaris. We did have a few in New Town though. I look away from Naz to the cage left of me. It's... Empty? No, I can't see the bars on the other side. How dark is his fur? When he moves his head, it startles me. "Sorry, I was trying to see if you were in there."

It looks like his head whips around to look behind him before looking back at me. He laughs nervously and I'm able to see his dog-like teeth. When he finally speaks, it comes out as a hiss. "Yeah, I've been told I'm unusually dark."

I wait for an uncomfortable amount of time for an introduction. Guess I should ask? "What's your name?"

"Oh! Right. Uhh. My name is Maheed. Sorry, I'm not used to uhh. Yeah."

Damn it, he made me chuckle. That hurts damn it. He reminds me of Ren when we first met. He was a nervous loner kid who couldn't really talk to people. "The name's Kar. How'd you end up here with us?"

He shifts in his cage as he speak-hisses at me. "Well uhh. I claimed I could talk to spirits and was captured because they thought I was a necromancer."
I think a necromancer is someone who raises the dead. That makes sense. He sure acts like one. Well. What I imagine one would act like.

Just before I could ask why, we all turned to look at a rustling in the tree. Too big to be a bird or something. Someone is climbing the tree. Naz softly calls out to the tree climber. "Oi kid. What are ye doing? Get down before a priest sees ya. They don't take kindly to people climbin' their trees."

"Sorry. I'll be quick." I'd recognize that voice anywhere.

"Ren, what are you doing here? Get your stupid ass out of here."

He strains each word as he climbs the tree to my branch. "I come. Bearing gifts."
He sits on my branch and displays a yellow fruit from the bag he was carrying. That stupid idiot! He brought the stolen fruits here!

Instead of calling him an idiot like I wanted to, my mouth simply said, "It's good to see you. You really shouldn't be here though. If you get caught-"

"I couldn't just sit by after... That. Even though I can't free you, I still wanted to do something." He scooches forward on the branch and places the fruit in my outstretched hand. The only part of my body that can escape the cage.
"Your mom's been freaking out. All she knows is that some templars came to New Town and now you're gone. She's been coming to my house twenty times a day to see if we know anything."

I mutter to myself. "Yeah, I bet she has."
I've been trying not to think about it too much but... I turn back to Ren as best I can. "Have you told her anything?"

I can hear him hang his head. "No. I couldn't bring myself to tell her."

"Tell her I'm fine. Tell her that I got into an argument with the templars and now I'm forced to work for them. Nick too."

"Got it. I'll be back tomorrow."

He scoots back and crawls through the tree, handing a fruit to each of the cages. Naz perks up. "The kid has a heart. How'd ya let Kar become such a bastard?"

He laughs quietly as he passes out the fruit. "Trust me, we all tried. He's good to the people he likes, so I figure that's enough."

"Are ya kidding? That's like saying he eats when he's hungry. That ain't an achievement."

I scoff. "Says the person who's keeping us awake."

"I'm old. I'm allowed to be cranky."

Tsk. Annoying old coot. The argument continues in the background as I take a bite of my fruit. It's just as terrible as I remember. My face scrunches up and contorts with each bite. I don't think I've ever had something so delicious. I think I'll start calling my new favourite food a yellow. Ren hands out the last yellow to Maheed and leaves. "See you later Ren. Thanks for everything."

I'm not sure what 'everything' is, but it felt right. As soon as Ren disappears into the nearby alleys Naz looks at me. "Stones curse it all, what is this thing? It tastes like.... In all mi years and I can't even describe it."

I laugh. Damn it, that hurts. "Neither could I. I just call them yellows."

With a strong hint of doubt, all three of them repeated, "Yellows?"

Wal spoke past Naz. "You can't call a food by its colour. If we called xhautls green-reds, no one would know what we're talking about."

Naz and I share a quick look before I say, "We don't know what you're talking about now."

I hear a growling snort from beyond Naz's cage followed by an annoyed, "Warm bloods."

Maheed gags as he eats the fruit. "What if we just called them poisons? That's what it tastes like."

We argued for a long while about what to call those terrible fruits. In the end we settled on a easier version of Wal's weird fruit. Atels.
The following few days were spent like that. If Naz wasn't sharing stories about his students he was arguing with me while Wal called us stupid and Maheed desperately tried to get a word in. I noticed Naz doesn't tell any stories about his own kids, but decided to leave it be. We watched the temple do various things like punish more people, hold small gatherings, and preform some weird rituals. Then Ren would arrive after the Sun retreated and we'd gratefully eat our atels.
I figured out that Maheed looks almost exactly like a dog with slick black fur. Except normally he stands on two legs. He also has an extra layer of fur on his back that runs up all the way to his head. It constantly covers his entire back, shoulders and eyes. And he's always smiling. At least that's what his dogish face looks like.
And according to Naz, Wal has blood-red scales and dark grey horns that could gore a bull. Then a few other embellishments that make him sound like a demon from some legend. Not sure how much I believe from his description.

There's a lot of people here today. I know the humans are supposed to gather at the temple to offer food or money or whatever on a certain day. I guess that's today? Naz looks at massive crowd and scoffs. He says, "The Kalth gods would never demand tithes. They have no need for 'em. The human religion ain't nothing but a shame."

From behind Naz, Wal says, "Tithes? That isn't normal practice for the temples in the East. The humans running this temple must be greedy."

I chime in with, "Wouldn't surprise me. It'd be awfully easy to control a population when you have all their money."

I watch from the comfort of my cage as the rich humans mingle with the even richer humans, presumably attempting to strike a trade deal or scrounge up some favours. I suppose this is a good opportunity for that. There's even vendors set up, selling out their goods and games prepared for the children not permitted in the cathedral. Suddenly, the crowd takes interest in a particular woman, surrounding her and making friendly gestures. Her knights keep the crowd under control, only letting one or two merchants through at a time. The princess of Solaris, patiently speaks with each of them.
This is actually a really good opportunity for them. For some reason that pisses me off. Through her, they'll have connections to the most powerful person in Solaris. The most powerful person...
That gives me an idea.