'Er… er… er…' said Nourishing. Darktan took a deep, fiery breath. 'Think, you… miserable widdler!'
'Er, er… it's all rusty… er… Rust everywhere! Looks like… er… could be a… Breakback…' There was a scratching noise behind Darktan. 'Yes! I gnawed the rust off! It says Nugent Brothers Breakback Mk. 1, sir!' Darktan tried to think as the constant, dreadful pressure squeezed him further. Mk. 1? Ancient! Something out of the dawn of time! The oldest he'd ever seen was an Improved Breakback Mk. 7! And all he had to help him was Nourishing, a complete drrtlt with four left feet. 'Can you… see how…?' he began, but there were purple lights in front of his eyes now, a great tunnel of purple lights. He tried again, as he felt himself drift towards the lights. 'Can… you… see… how… the… spring… ?'
'It's all rusted, sir!' came the panicking voice. 'It looks like it's a non-return action like on the Jenkins and Jenkins Big Snapper, sir, but it hasn't got the hook on the end! What does this bit do, sir? Sir? Sir?' Darktan felt the pain go away. So this is how it happens, he thought dreamily. Too late now. She'll panic, and she'll run. That's what we do. When we're in trouble, we bolt for the first hole. But it doesn't matter. It is just like a dream, after all. Nothing to worry about. Quite nice, really. Perhaps there really is a Big Rat Deep Under The Ground. That'd be nice. He drifted happily, in the warm silence. There were bad things happening, but they were a long way off and they didn't matter any more… He thought he heard a sound behind him, like rats' claws moving across a stone floor. Perhaps it's Nourishing running away, part of him thought. But another part thought: perhaps it is the Bone Rat. The idea didn't frighten him. Nothing could frighten him here. Anything bad that could happen already had. He felt that if he turned his head, he'd see something. But it was easier just to float in this big warm space. The purple light was darkening now, to a deep blue and, in the centre of the blue, a circle of black. It looked like a rat tunnel. And that's where he lives, thought Darktan. That's the tunnel of the Big Rat. How simple it all is… A shining white dot appeared in the centre of the tunnel and got bigger quickly. And here he comes, thought Darktan. He must know a lot, the Big Rat. I wonder what he's going to tell me? The light grew bigger, and did indeed begin to look like a rat. How strange, thought Darktan, as the blue light faded into the black, to find it's all true. Off we go, then, into the tunn- There was noise. It filled the world. And the terrible, terrible pain was back. And the Big Rat shouted, in the voice of Nourishing: 'I gnawed through the spring, sir! I gnawed through the spring! It was old and weak, sir! Prob'ly why you weren't cut in half, sir! Can you hear me, sir? Darktan? Sir? I gnawed right through the spring, sir! Are you still dead, sir? Sir?' Rat-catcher 1 leapt out of his chair, his hands bunching into fists. At least, it started out as a leap. About halfway, it turned into a stagger. He sat down heavily, clutching at his stomach. 'Oh, no. Oh, no. I knew that tea tasted funny…'he muttered. Rat-catcher 2 had gone a pale green. 'You nasty little-' he began. 'And don't even think of attacking us,' said Malicia. 'Otherwise you'll never walk out of here. And we might get hurt and forget where we left the antidote. You haven't got time to attack us.' Rat-catcher 1 tried standing up again, but his legs didn't want to play. 'What poison was it?' he muttered. 'By the smell of it, it's the one the rats call Number Three,' said Keith. 'It was in the bag labelled Killalot!!!'
'The rats call it Number Three?' said Rat-catcher 2. 'They know a lot about poison,' said Keith. 'And they told you about this antidote, yeah?' said Rat-catcher 2. Rat-catcher 1 glared at him. 'We heard them talk, Bill. In the pit, remember?' He looked back at Keith, and shook his head. 'Nah,' he said. 'You don't look like the kind of kid that'd poison a man to his face…'
'How about me?' said Malicia, leaning forward. 'She would! She would!' said Rat-catcher 2, clutching at his colleague's arm. 'She's weird, that one. Everyone says so!' He clutched his stomach again, and leaned forward, groaning. 'You said something about an antidote,' said Ratcatcher 1. 'But there's no antidote to Killalot!!!'
'And I told you there is,' said Keith. 'The rats found one.' Rat-catcher 2 fell on his knees. 'Please, young sir! Have mercy! If not for me, please think of my dear wife and my
four lovely children who'll be without their daddy!'
'You're not married,' said Malicia. 'You don't have any children!'
'I might want some one day!'
'What happened to that rat you took away?' said Keith. 'Dunno, sir. A rat in a hat come down out of the roof and grabbed it and flew away!' Rat-catcher 2 burbled. 'And then another big rat come down into the pit, shouted at everyone, bit Jacko on the on the unutterables and jumped right out of the pit and did a runner!'
'Sounds like your rats are all right,' said Malicia. 'I haven't finished,' said Keith. 'You stole from everyone and blamed it on the rats, didn't you?'
'Yes! That's it! Yes! We did, we did!'
'You killed the rats,' said Maurice, quietly. Rat-catcher 1's head turned sharply. There was an edge to that voice that he recognized. He'd heard it at the pit. You got them there sometimes, high-rolling types with fancy waistcoats, who travelled through the mountains making a living by betting and sometimes making a killing by knives. They had a look to their eye and a tone to their voice. They were known as 'killing gentlemen'. You didn't cross a killing gentleman. 'Yes, yes, that's right, we did!' babbled Rat-catcher 2. 'Just go carefully there, Bill,' said Rat-catcher 1, still eyeing Maurice. 'Why did you do it?' said Keith. Rat-catcher 2 looked from his boss to Malicia and then to Keith, as if trying to decide who frightened him the most. 'Well, Ron said the rats ate stuff anyway,' he said. 'So… he said if we got rid of all the rats and pinched the stuff ourselves, well, it wouldn't exactly be like stealing, would it? More like… re-arranging stuff. There's a bloke Ron knows who comes up with a sailing barge in the middle of the night and pays us-'
'That is a diabolical lie!' snapped Rat-catcher 1, and then looked as if he was going to be sick. 'But you caught rats alive and crammed them into cages without food,' Keith went on. 'They live on rat, those rats. Why did you do that?' Rat-catcher 1 clutched at his stomach. 'I can feel things happening!' he said. 'That's just your imagination!' snapped Keith. 'It is?'
'Yes. Don't you know anything about the poisons you use? Your stomach won't start to melt for at least twenty minutes.'
'Wow!' said Malicia. 'And after that,' said Keith, 'if you blow your nose, your brain will well, let's just say you'll need a really big handkerchief.'
'This is great!' said Malicia, rummaging in her bag. 'I'm going to take notes!'
'And then, if you… just don't go to the lavatory, that's all. Don't ask why. Just don't. It'll all be over in an hour, except for the oozing.' Malicia was scribbling fast. 'Will they go runny?' she said. 'Very,' said Keith, not taking his eyes off the men. 'This is inhuman!' shrieked Rat-catcher 2. 'No, it's very human,' said Keith. 'It's extremely human. There isn't a beast in the world that'd do it to another living thing, but your poisons do it to rats every day. Now tell me about the rats in the cages.' Sweat was pouring down the assistant rat-catcher's face. He looked as if he, too, were caught in a trap. 'See, rat-catchers have always caught rats alive for the rat pits,' he moaned. 'It's a perk. Nothing wrong with it! Always done it! So we had to keep up a supply, so we bred 'em. Had to! No harm in feeding 'em dead rats from the rat pits. Everyone knows rats eat rats, if you leave out the green wobbly bit! And then-'
'Oh? There's a then?' said Keith, calmly. 'Ron said if we bred rats from the rats that survived in pit, you know, the ones that dodged the dogs, well, we'd end up with bigger, better rats, see?'
'That's scientific, that is,' said Rat-catcher 1. 'What would be the point of that?' said Malicia. 'Well, miss, we-Ron said… we thought… I thought… we thought that… well, it's not exactly cheating to put really tough rats in amongst the others, see, especially if the dog that's going in is a bit borderline. Where's the harm in that? Gives us an edge, see, when it come to betting. I thought… he thought…'
'You seem a bit confused about whose idea it was,' said Keith. 'His,' said the rat-catchers together. Mine, said a voice in Maurice's head. He almost fell off his perch. What does not kill us makes us strong, said the
voice of Spider. The strongest breed. 'You mean,' said Malicia, 'if they didn't have ratcatchers here they'd have fewer rats?' She paused, head on one side. 'No, that's not right. It doesn't feel right. There's something else. Something you haven't told us. Those rats in those cages are… mad, insane…' I'd be too, Maurice thought, with this horrible voice in my head every hour of the day. 'I'm going to throw up,' said Rat-catcher 1. 'I am, I'm going to-'
'Don't,' said Keith, watching Rat-catcher 2. 'You won't like it. Well, Mr Assistant Rat-catcher?'
'Ask them what's in the other cellar,' said Maurice. He said it fast; he could feel the voice of Spider try to stop his mouth moving even as the sentence came out. 'What is in the other cellar then?' said Keith. 'Oh, just more stuff, old cages, stuff like that…' said Rat-catcher 2. 'What else?' said Maurice. 'Only the… only the… that's where…' The ratcatcher's mouth opened and shut. His eyes bulged. 'Can't say,' he said. 'Er. There's nothing. Yes, that's it. There's nothing in there, just the old cages. Oh, and plague. Don't go in there 'cos there's plague. That's why you shouldn't go in there, see? 'Cos of the plague.'
'He's lying,' said Malicia. 'No antidote for him.'
'I had to do it!' Rat-catcher 2 moaned. 'You've gotta do one to join the Guild!'
'That's a Guild secret!' Rat-catcher 1 snapped at him. 'We don't give away Guild secrets' He stopped, and clutched at his rumbling stomach. 'What was it you had to do?' said Keith. 'Make a rat king!' Rat-catcher 2 burst out. 'A rat king?' said Keith sharply. 'What's a rat king?'
'I – I – I' the man stuttered. 'Stop it, I – I – I don't want to-' Tears ran down his face. 'We-I made a rat king Stop it, stop it… stop it…'
'And it's still alive?' said Malicia. Keith turned to her in amazement. 'You know about these things?' he said. 'Of course. There's a lot of stories about them. Rat kings are deadly evil. They-'
'Antidote, antidote, please,' moaned Rat-catcher 2. 'My stomach feels like there's rats running round in it!'
'You made a rat king,' said Malicia. 'Oh, dear. Well, we left the antidote in that little cellar you locked us up in. I should hurry if I was you.' Both of the men staggered to their feet. Rat-catcher 1 fell through the trapdoor. The other man landed on him. Swearing, moaning and, it had to be said, farting enormously, they made their way to the cellar. Dangerous Beans' candle was still alight. Beside it was a fat twist of paper. The door was slammed behind the men. There was the sound of a piece of wood being wedged under it. 'There's enough antidote for one person,' said Keith's voice, muffled through the wood. 'But I'm sure you can sort it out-in a humane sort of way.' Darktan tried to get his breath back, but he thought he'd never get it all, even if he breathed in for a year. There was a ring of pain all around his back and chest. 'It's amazing!' said Nourishing. 'You were dead in the trap and now you're alive!'
'Nourishing?' said Darktan, carefully. 'Yes, sir?'