The Ballad of the Rat King
You have served the high priest well. He has requested that following on from our last meeting, you undertake a reconnaissance quest to the previously specified location and report back. Successful completion of this task will be considered strongly in your acceptance as a knight of his excellency's church”
The letter was tucked in the breast pocket of the adventurer's tunic. He had kept it with him as a reminder that there was an end in sight. An end to countless quests to dangerous places, to sleeping on the roadside, to scraping funds together for a hot meal. A final quest to secure his future.
Unfortunately, that quest involved scouring the abandoned tunnels underneath a mountain. A rumoured to be cursed mountain, upon which no plants grow and no animals live. Finding the mountain, and the entrance to the tunnels had been quite simple. It was only after hours of aimless wandering through subterranean tunnels, that the adventurer understood the magnitude of his task.
It was as he entered a small chamber that something caught his eye. In the darkness ahead, he saw a figure crouched down. As he moved towards it he saw a flurry of movement. The light from his torch didn’t reach where the man had moved. Instinctively, he raised his sword in front of him.
“Who goes there?”
There was no answer.
“I was sent under the orders of high priest Phiron to investigate these tunnels. You will answer my questions, or die for defying his holy will.”
The tunnels remained silent. The adventurer wondered if he'd imagined the figure. After a few moments, he felt awkward brandishing his sword at the darkness. As he lowered it, a quiet voice answered him.
“What does he want with these tunnels?”
The adventurer took a step forward, lifting the lantern in a vain attempt to illuminate the figure.
“The king of Thuria hasn't paid his tithes to the church in months. The last two messengers sent to demand payment never returned. The high priest has questions”
The adventurer pressed forward. “There have been rumours that the King's gold is being moved into the mountain in secret. I've been sent to verify these rumours. If you're involved in this, speak now. I will consider sparing your life, in exchange for your help.”
There was no response. Instead, the sound of a soft footstep alerted him to his targets location. Maneuvering around a crumbling pillar, the figure came into view. To the adventurer's surprise however, he had not been conversing with a man.
The lantern illuminated the creature in front of him. It was huddled against an ornately decorated wall, dressed in filthy rags. Smaller than a man, it’s hands and feet were bent into sharp claws and it's shoulders were heavily hunched. Most striking was the beast's face, which had the grotesque likeness of a rat, in everything but it’s eyes. These which shone with an eerie human like intelligence. In all his travels, the adventurer had never seen anything like this.
“What are you?” said the adventurer, lowering his sword. “How did you end up in this place?”
“Shhh!” the creature hissed back. “Please be quiet, and lower your lantern. If we’re too loud, we'll be found”.
The creature turned to look the adventurer directly in the eye. “The Rat King will find us”
The adventurer was unsettled by the creature. He had expected to find smugglers and bandits, but nothing like this creature. Furthermore, why were these tunnels so ornate? He had expected mine shafts, or smugglers runs. Who could have built all this?
“You need to explain to me what's going on here” the adventurer said, as he covered the lantern with his cloak.
“I can tell you what I know of this mountain story of the Rat King, but you must promise to let me go.” After a moment, the adventurer nodded his agreement. “Then please, listen carefully”.
“I don't know the whole history of the scorched mountain. But what I do know begins with the Rat King. Remember these words, so you can bring the story to the realm of men.”
“This story does not begin with a rat, nor a king. No, to understand how the Rat King came to be and to understand the creatures of the mountain, we must start with a man known as Suggs Malacas.”
“He was born in the Thurian region, in a small coastal town. His father had been the local lord, a very respectable title. This title, as well as large swathes of land and a small castle would someday serve as Sugg’s inheritance. But this was not enough to satisfy him”
The adventurer wondered what this had to do with his quest. Given that the alternative was to kill the creature and return to wandering the tunnels aimlessly, he reluctantly opted to hear the creature out.
“Sugg devoted his teenage years to learning the craft of a court wizard. By his earlier manhood, he had gained a reputation among the higher nobility for his willingness to perform dangerous and unethical experiments. There were even rumours that he had created the plague that ravaged the western plains.”
“Eventually, the King of Thuria requested that he join his court in Caspria. At that time, tribes from the Red Valley mountains had begun to attack the city and surrounding farmland. The king, feeling desperate, needed an advisor who would ensure the city's survival, no matter what. Suggs accepted the advancement in position, with the provisions that he needed as many lab rats as could be fit in the courts basement and access to the mountain just West of the city, known locally as the Scorched Mountain”.
A low grumbling from behind the adventurer startled him. He turned to gaze back into the tunnels he had come through. The rat creature didn’t miss a beat however, and kept moving on with the story.
“It’s hard to tell if Sugg’s had planned the experiment, or if his original plan was more scientific in nature. In some ways, scientific experimentation and dissection would have been a kinder fate for those rats. However, the questions that Sugg’s really wanted to answer concerned the hearts and minds of men, and he saw great parallels with rats in this matter. He believed all men craved domination, either to dominate or be dominated. The rats held in that basement lab were his key to understanding this. So began the rat society experiments”
“The first experiments involved putting all the rats into a single cage, and pouring enough feed in for roughly half the rats, once per day. Some rats fought to the top to be fed first, while others huddled at the bottom, hoping to get the scraps. Then, there was him. He did not have a name at this time, yet we all knew him. He was ruthless in his pursuits of food, ripping the throats out of any rat who got in his way. It was here he established the rank and order of our society.”
Beads of cold sweat had formed on the back of the adventurer’s neck. Where was this going?
“In later experiments, the rats were placed in wide interconnected cages, with small labour exercises connected to the food dispensers. Here the rats would push wheels or pull ropes, which would activate the dispensers for food. He wasted no time in reminding the other rats of his place in the hierarchy. On that first day, he forced a small rat to push the wheel to feed him. Whenever the rat stopped, he would nip at them, biting chunks of flesh off. This continued until that rat died of exhaustion. From then on it was accepted that a portion of our food would serve as an offering to our nameless ruler. Sugg’s was elated - his experiments were proving his theory.”