Rat Key (Updated Version)
Author's note: This is the revised version of Rat Key and let me tell you, it is much improved. I'm still... Show full author's note »
And so the Tunnels are splitI wake up alarmingly early the following morning. All I hear are a couple of far off shouts and one booming voice that echoes throughout the Tunnels. “Looks like Grand got up early today,” I grumble, speaking aloud to myself as I often did, “What a pleasant surprise.” I almost laugh at just how funny that was; Grand being pleasant in any way. What a joke.
I hear his thunderous voice over all the others that seem to be bickering amongst themselves and then they all quiet down, allowing Grand to speak. They sound closer than usual. I’d say about 100 feet or so. Normally I can’t hear Grand and his gang, which is partly why I chose this spot as my home, but they are certainly near now. A little bit too near for me to be comfortable. “Now just what does Grand think he’s doing over here?” I ask either myself or the shadows. Grand gives out one exceptionally loud shout and the others shout at once after him. “For the love, we’re not starting a revolution here! Or at least, we better not be.”
Grand continues shouting, but I notice a crescendo in his voice, which means one of two things; he’s taken an interest in music and the theatrical arts or he’s getting closer. I lean toward the latter option as the more reasonable of the two. That makes me quite wary. The last thing I want is for somebody to find my secret home, especially Grand of all people. If you can even call him a person.
He proceeds to get closer and closer and I tip-toe to the entrance, hiding in the shadows and preparing to eavesdrop. His voice is very close, sounding as if he were right on the other side of the wall, which I certainly hope he’s not. Then his voice stops abruptly and I grow slightly nervous. But I’m saved by a familiar voice.
“Grand, what made you decide to bless me with your presence this morning?” Hearth says, sarcasm dripping off her words like melted ice cream. I cover my mouth to stifle a laugh.
“Save your sarcasm for someone who cares, Hearth,” Grand replies, “Where is he?”
“Where is who?”
‘Oh, please don’t let it be me. I don’t want to deal with Grand this early.’
“You know who,” he growls.
“Do I?” Hearth asks with fake innocence.
“Rat, Hearth! Where is Rat? Tell me now or prepare to face my gang,” Grand threatens. Boy, he’s just got oodles of patience.
“’Fraid I don’t know, Grand,” Hearth says, “And might I add that you are in my territory without permission, so you are in no position to threaten me.”
“What territory?” Grand asks.
“The territory we set up with the boundary lines,” she says.
“There are no boundary lines in the Tunnels!” Grand declares.
“Well, actually, there are boundary lines. We set them up April 24, 2076. We made them official April 26, 2076 and therefore they applied to all gangs in the Tunnels,” Ary states as plainly as the food we eat.
“What a load of crap! We never agreed to that!” Grand insists.
“In fact you did, sir, at the same time as all the others,” Ary continues. ‘Maybe if you didn’t go to the meetings drunk, you’d know things.’
“Who says I have to care?” Grand then asks, as snarky as possible. I can’t see him, but I just know he jerked his big head forward to challenge Ary.
“I do,” Hearth says and I guess that she stepped in front of the teenager.
“Oh really?” he says, trying to be intimidating.
“Yes.” Hearth is much more intimidating. A silence follows Hearth’s last word and it’s clearly a baffled one on Grand’s part. If he has a brain, I bet he’s racking it for a response to that. But that’s the thing. He doesn’t. ‘What an idiot,’ I think, ‘He can’t fight Hearth. He’d never win.’
“Well, fine then. I guess me and my men will just leave,” he huffs, talking as if that isn’t what Hearth and probably anybody else in the Tunnels wants. I hear the shuffle of their clothes and boots as they depart, leaving Hearth, Ary, and I in peace.
“Thank God,” I whisper, sinking onto the floor. After the coast is clear, I exit my room and flee to the Surface to steal some breakfast, but what I find is far more interesting than a piece of burnt toast.
As I walk past countless grey, broken, and overall down trod buildings, almost all of them out of business, I hear a low roar in the distance. I hurry forward to investigate. There’s a crowd of people standing in a circle in front of the only open hotel in the city, shouting out questions to someone. As I approach them, my curiosity surfaces and I join the crowd, trying to see over people’s heads.
“Mr. Barry, what brings you here to Maw?” somebody asks.
“I had heard about some, oh, how to put it, troublesome gangs here and decided to lend my talents,” a man says smoothly. ‘Boy, does he sound like government,’ I think. I catch a glimpse of him as I push myself up on the shelf of my feet. He’s a rather tall man with neat blonde hair and a nice black suit and glasses combo. He’s surprisingly young looking and carries a brief case with him. ‘Yup, government.’
“Oh, Mr. Barry, just what do you plan to do about the gangs?” another asks.
“I’m going to bring them to justice of course,” he says in a rich, convincing voice.
“How will you do it?” somebody shouts from the outskirts of the crowd.
“By any means necessary,” he says and just as he does, he looks directly at me, making sustained eye contact. His ice blue irises burn into my grey eyes. I feel threatened and like I ought to give fair warning to the Tunnels, so I run.
I sprint to Hearth’s grate to tell her first. Ary’s at the grate again and he lets me in without question.
“Where’s Hearth?” I ask quickly.
“She’s in the left wing, I believe. Something wrong, Rat?” he replies, picking up on my urgency immediately.
I take off running toward the left wing, yelling, “Government,” behind me. Normally, that’s all the explanation one needs. I pass several members of Hearth’s fire gang before I finally reach the left wing where I find her sitting in a chair talking to Croc, the leader of the Earth gang, who sits opposite her. Croc’s a somewhat odd man. He always sits in chairs sideways with his legs crossed and dangling off the sides. He tucks his arms behind his head and usually closes his eyes, only opening them for things that are of more importance than normal. His dark brown hair is cut short and his cheeks are sunken in. He wears are light brown cape that’s very tattered and worn. His loose brown pants that are tucked into his dirt encrusted boots make a swishing sound with every stride. His skin tight black, sleeveless shirt covers most of his neck but shows his muscly arms. To top off his whole, classic Tunnels outfit, he wears large black gloves on his hands. Often times he has an array of knives and daggers strapped to his belt, but not today.
“Rat, I’m talking to Croc. Hold on a minute,” Hearth says, rising from her chair.
“No, Hearth, this can’t wait,” I tell her, “You listen up too, Croc. I’ve got bad news. Some guy from the government showed up on the Surface today.” Hearth’s jaw drops and her eyes widen dramatically.
“You can’t be serious!” Croc opens his eyes and I know this is worse than I thought.
“I assure you, Croc, I’m as serious as a rat can be on this one,” I tell him, placing my hand over where my heart should be.
“How do you know? Did he have a suit?” Hearth asks. Her questions feel like a drill.
“Indeed he did. He also had a brief case and glasses,” I say.
“We’re sunk,” Hearth says, putting her hand on her forehead as if she has a fever.
“He looked like a good threat. He might be able to pin the public against us,” I say, thinking aloud.
“If that happens we’re doomed. The only reason we can live here at all is because the public fears us,” Hearth replies. All goes silent for what seems like forever, but eventually Hearth speaks up. “We need to call a meeting of the gangs.”
“Right, who all would come?” Croc asks.
“Even those heartless Ghosts?” he hisses.
“Even them. This involves all of the Tunnels and therefore all of the gangs. And you too, Rat. You were the one who saw him. We’ll need you there,” she says.
“Oh, I think I’m busy that day,” I say, taking a subtle step backward. ‘As fun as this meeting sounds, I think I’ll wiggle my way out of it.’
“We haven’t set up a day yet.”
“You don’t want me there anyway, really. I’d just get in the way. You know, be under foot, just like rats are,” I’m trying desperately to sound convincing.
“You’re coming to this meeting and because you tried to get out of it, you get to go tell the other gangs,” Hearth says.
“No thanks. I like my head where it is, thank you very much.”
“Then you don’t have much of a choice. Rat, go tell them,” she demands.
“No, Hearth, I’m not going to tell them,” I say, nearly shouting. She informs me politely that I am.
“I’d listen to her, Rat. She might accidentally swing her knife at your neck,” Croc says, grinning at me.
“Yeah, well, I’d rather lose my head to her than Grand,” I tell him.
Croc lets out a short laugh. “Don’t blame you on that one.”
“Enough talking. Rat, go,” Hearth says.
“Why don’t you have someone else do it? Why do I have to?” I complain.
“Because I told you to and because I’ll stew you if you don’t,” she says, raising her eyebrows briefly.
“Rat stew, my favorite,” Croc says, jokingly rubbing his stomach.
“Fine!” I say as I storm off to go inform the other gangs of the meeting. Hearth shouts after me, telling me what the time of the meeting is. I can almost hear the smile on her face. I take a sharp left, heading toward the Lightning gang first. I fly past Static, one of the Lightning gang’s grate keepers. He turns in alarm.
“Whoa, Rat! Where you headed in such a hurry?” he calls after me.
I’m mad and pouting like a three year old so I don’t feel like answering him. I just keep speeding on by everybody and turning corner upon endless corner before I finally get to the heart of their territory where I find their leader, Spark. He isn’t a very tall man, but he isn’t short either. He has dirty blonde hair, possibly literally, and is said to be the fastest man in the Tunnels. He wears a tight yellow shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. A black X is prominent on his chest which corresponds to his two thin swords that are strapped to his back. His black pants billow out when they meet his boots, making him look bigger than he is. He looks at me curiously.
“Hearth and Croc are issuing a meeting of the gangs tomorrow at dusk,” I tell him, composing myself enough to speak clearly.
“What for?” he asks.
“We have to discuss an upcoming issue,” I say, not wanting to get him all fired up by telling him about this government guy.
“Alright, tell them I’ll be there,” he says.
Then I take off running again toward the Ghost gang. Nobody really likes the Ghost gang because they never do anything. They always just sit there and watch everything unfold like a piece of paper, but whenever they’re attacked which doesn’t happen very often, the attackers never come back. ‘Let’s see if I come back.’
As soon as I arrive in their territory, I feel a chill crawl down my neck and spine. “Intruder! The rat is intruding,” says a voice from somewhere in the darkness. It’s impossible to tell where it came from because it sounds like three different voices talking at once and almost hissing.
“I’m no intruder,” I say, raising my voice to make sure they hear me, “I’m only here to pass on a message from the Fire and Earth gangs.”
“The rat has a message, the rat has a message,” they, or it hisses.
“There is going to be a meeting of the gangs tomorrow at dusk. You are expected to be there,” I say before muttering under my breath, “If you’re even here right now.”
“A meeting of the gangs says the rat, a meeting of the gangs. The memory will be there,” it says, referring to its leader. At that I just turn and leave, running back through the Lightning territory, heading for the Water territory. “God they’re creepy,” I say to myself, “How is that even possible?” I shake my head and keep running until I nearly run into a rather tall and muscular man.
“What’re you doing here?” he asks in a very low voice.
“Watt, how nice to see you,” I say, backing up slightly.
“You just came from the Ghost gang, didn’t you?” he says, looking past me.
“Indeed I did, but that’s really none of your business, so I’ll be on my way.” I try to squeeze past him only to be pushed back.
“Tell me why, Rat,” he demands.
“I’m just going around telling everybody about the meeting tomorrow, don’t panic,” I assure him.
“Those ghosts are no good, Rat,” he says, almost sounding like he’s grunting.
“Yes, I am fully aware of that,” I say, trying to squeeze by again, but instead he simply pushes me into the wall with his shoulder and refuses to let me move. ‘Blast these narrow tunnels.’
“Tell me why you were really over there,” he booms.
“Do you have ears? Watt, I told you, I’m telling everybody about the meeting,” I choke out.
“What meeting?” he asks.
“The meeting of the gangs,” I answer, “Hearth and Croc issued it.”
He eases up the pressure on me, saying, “Run along then.” And that I do.
“Brainless oaf,” I mumble as I run. Of course, I made sure I was out of ear shot. I’d rather not have Watt angry at me. He’s a bit too muscular for that.
Soon I enter the reaches of the Water gang. I’ve always liked their territory, because somehow, they manage to tint the walls blue. It’s nice to look at since all the rest of us look at a dirty beige and grey city all day and dark, lonesome tunnels all night. There’s a reason that the Water Gang has the lowest insanity percentage. These Tunnels aren’t too healthy for the mind.
I pass a large group of people, having to squeeze by them. A few of them look at me, but make no effort to stop me. After all, I am nothing more than a rat.
I walk all over the Water territory in search of their leader, Well. He’s a good man, very kind-hearted. Makes you wonder what the heck he’s doing down here. I’ve heard a rumor that he used to have a nice family, but they were killed by Grand and his toadies. So, Well decided to form a rival gang and oppose Grand in everything he does. ‘Good for him,’ I think.
At long last, I decide that I’m not going to find him. I walk further, grudgingly deciding that I’d have to ask somebody. I hate talking to people. ‘Sure seem to do it a lot though.’ I soon find a young man with light brown hair leaning up against the wall.
“Where’s Well?” I ask as I approached him.
“I think he’s up on the Surface today,” he tells me.
‘Great,’ I thought, ‘I actually wouldn’t have minded talking to Well.’ “Well, that’s great.”
“Who are you talking to?” he asks, looking to his right and then back at me. He’s very clearly confused about something.
“You,” I reply, not understanding what was so hard to grasp.
“I’m not Well,” he says.
“I didn’t ask about how you were feeling,” I say, starting to get confused myself.
“I know you didn’t,” he says.
“Well, why did you say that then?” I asked.
“Because I’m not Well!” he says, half laughing, half angry.
“I’m sorry that you aren’t well,” I say. ‘God, are we even speaking the same language here?’
“Yeah, me too, he’s a great man,” he replied. ‘He?’ I thought. Then it hit me that I had been saying ‘well’ this entire time and he thought I was referring to Well. ‘That actually makes sense.’
“You guys don’t say well that much do you?” I ask.
“What do you mean? Of course we say Well. He’s our leader, so we should call him by name,” he says.
“That answers my question,” I told him, “Well, wait, scratch that, when Well gets here, tell him that there is a meeting of the gangs tomorrow at dusk, okay?”
“I will,” he says.
“Thank you,” I say, turning on my heel, “Well, see you around.”
“I told you, I’m not Well!”
“Shut up! I know you’re not Well!” I yell back at him. Then I take off again toward the Air gang.
Once I get there, I jog straight to their leader’s ‘room’. The Air gang has a pretty organized system in the way of housing. They’ve built individual rooms for each of their members and, of course, their leader, Gust, has the biggest room. I figure that they had to build rooms for everybody because all of them are too aggressive to share.
As I approach the ‘throne room’ I’ll call it, I discover that getting to talk to Gust will be harder than I expected, for there at the door stand my favorite trouble-makers.
“Ew, it’s a rat,” Sirocco says playfully, brushing some of his blonde hair out of his eyes.
“I’ll go get the poison,” Zephyr says, referring to the Poison gang. He’s the taller of the two and has greyish blonde hair.
“You guys want them here just as little as I do,” I say.
“I don’t know, if you’re here, maybe we could start a war. What do you think, Zephyr?”
“Oh, that’d be such fun! War, what a marvelous word!” Zephyr replies.
“Yes, yes, I’m well aware that war is all the Air gang is interested in, so no need to tell me again,” I say, hurriedly.
“Hey, now, that wasn’t very nice,” Sirocco says.
“Do you expect me to be nice?” I ask, raising an eyebrow at him.
“Fair enough,” Zephyr says, “Now, what brings you here today, Rat?” I tell them I need to talk to Gust.
“Oh, do you?” they ask in unison. I say yes.
“Well, what if I said that’s not going to happen?” Zephyr says.
“Then I’d punch your nose and go in,” I say.
“Oh ho! Look at that, Rat’s resorting to violence!” Sirocco says.
“Better watch it, Rat. I could tie you into a knot if I wanted to,” Zephyr says.
“You think so? I sure don’t,” I tell him.
“Is that right?” he says, pulling his arm back and clenching his fist. He tries to punch me, but I dodge his attack easily. After punching his nose as promised, I slip on past him and Sirocco is too shocked to do anything to stop me, so I burst Gust’s room.
“Haven’t you ever heard of knocking? And what happened to Zephyr and Sirocco?” the brown haired man before me asks.
“There’s a meeting of the gangs tomorrow at dusk. I’d suggest being there,” I say.
“Well, doesn’t that just sound like loads of fun,” he says as I leave. I walk on past Zephyr and Sirocco. Zephyr curses after me, but I’m just happy to be getting out of there. The Air gang is not my favorite.
Once again, I continue walking and soon arrive at the Ice gang’s territory. I find their leader, Spear, talking to a man who’s a lot shorter than him, but that doesn’t take much. Spear’s quite tall. He’s a very stern looking man with his snow white hair which is all too appropriate and his piercing light grey eyes. One of the most intimidating men in the Tunnels, I’d say.
I approach him and he looks at me in an almost frustrated way. “What is it, Rat?”
“There is a meeting of the gangs tomorrow at dusk. Your presence is requested.”
“Alright, you can expect to see me there. Who issued this meeting?” he says.
“Hearth and Croc,” I answer.
Spear simply nods his head and returns his attention to the man he was previously talking to. I take that as a dismissal of sorts and continue walking down the tunnel and turn left, thinking to myself, ‘I may not like Spear that much, some of his decisions are…cruel, but he certainly is a man that I respect.’ I take another left turn and head to the last of the gangs. ‘Oh, joy, the Poison gang. This’ll be interesting. I’ll have to be careful not to start World War IV.’
After a few more turns and straights that I may have dragged out a bit unintentionally, I reach the Poison gang’s territory. The stench of their people and “habits” immediately penetrates my nostrils. I pass several people, each and every one of them giving me a dirty look or whispering something to somebody else. I can’t help but assume I’m the subject of the whispering. I don’t look at any of them, though. It’s not like I want to see that ugly bunch. I turn sharply and come face to face with Grand.
I look up at him, for he’s taller than me. He has tanned skin and black hair, but you could only tell because of his eyebrows and mustache which, by the way, is the only truly impressive thing about the man. The rest of his head’s completely bald. He frowns down at me, clearly trying to be intimidating.
“What’s a rat doing in here?” he says, almost snarling.
“I’m here to tell you that there is a meeting of the gangs tomorrow at dusk,” I reply, staying calm and not getting angry just yet.
“You’ve been causing trouble, Rat,” he says, spitting some on my name.
I wipe my forehead free of his saliva slowly and disgustedly. “Yes, I’m sure, and as to not cause more, I’ll be going now,” I say, turning to walk away.
“You’re not going anywhere, Rat,” he says from behind me.
“Oh, I really think I am,” I say, but just then several men step in front of me and I just know Grand’s right behind me. ‘Oh, this is bad.’
“Heard that you weren’t all that nice to Green,” Grand says, his eyes burning into my skull.
‘What a little tattle-tale,’ I think. “About that,” I say, scratching my cheek where I have a long vertical scar.
“You know what happens to people who disrespect my men,” he continues. I turn around just in time to see his rather enormous fist flying toward me. I lean to the right and dodge it, all the while trying to think up a plan on how the heck I’m going to get out of here without fighting back and thus starting World War IV.
“I’m not going to fight you, Grand,” I declare, although I know I might have to.
“Well, I’m going to fight you,” he says, throwing another punch. I evade his blow easily and look for an opening in the tunnel that I could slip through, but there’s not enough space for me. I’ll have to fight. As Grand attacks for the third time, I dodge it by stepping back, being sure not to step into the goons behind me. In response, I jam my elbow into his chest with force I rarely see out of myself. He’s caught off guard by the attack and I take the opportunity to slash his face with the key that hangs around my neck. Blood spurts from the long diagonal cut and his hands immediately grasp his face. Slipping past him like snake, I make my escape.