Distant Reaches - The Curious Matter of the Rat King Papers

Imperial Archives / The Curious Matter of the Rat King Papers

The Curious Matter of the Rat King Papers

The Curious Matter of the Rat King Papers
It was as if some dark, overriding force — some malign entity — had infected the feeble minds of the city’s rats.
To Head Archivist Ternus Wrenwell, Magist Imperial University Archives, October 3, 842:

This box and its contents were found this morning with the Treym-Bright collection. However, it seems to have been a later addition. Accession records list eight boxes, but now there are nine. The content is related and appears authentic but is of a somewhat unsettling nature.
            Please advise.
                        Assistant Archivist Dara Boyle

Transcript of an interview with uncontaminated Rattus Amaluricus specimen by Dr. Eudosia Bright, Resident Binder and Associate Junior Fellow of the Magist Imperial University, Amalcross. As dictated to Undermage Walther Treym. Recorded this day, March 16, 782, Amal Era.

            Eudosia Bright: We’ll start with the simplest questions to determine if the binding is working properly. What is your na— no, I suppose that won’t do at all. It probably doesn’t have a name. Scratch that part, Walther, please. Well then, what are you?

            Rat: Scuttleswift.

            EB: Hmm, the words are understandable as words. However, its comprehension seems to be lacking.

            Rat: You can call me Scuttleswift. We do not speak our names as you do. It is close enough.

            EB: Oh. Well, maybe it did work after all. Did you get that, Walther?

            [I nodded]

            Rat: Let me out.

            EB: Absolutely not.

            Rat: Let me out.

            EB: No. I’m not losing the only uninfected rat in the city because it asked to be let out.

            [The rat stared at us for a few seconds, unblinking.]

            Rat: Let me out. I will not run.

            EB: You won’t run? [She laughed.]

            Rat: No.

            EB: And why wouldn’t you run, when it’s in your nature to?

            Rat: I came here because I wanted to. Smelled the other one here. It has helped before. Might help again.

            EB: Other one?

            Rat: Yes. The big one there.

            [Here it looked at me.]

            EB: Hmm, I always did think you were a bleeding heart, but helping vermin is strange even for you.

            [I said something to the effect that I hadn’t done much — only gotten it unstuck from behind a cabinet and taken it outside.]

            Rat: You will help?

            EB: What do you want him to do?

An inkwell with accoutrements.
The careful hand of Walther Treym transcribed all of the Scuttleswift interviews.

            Rat: Not sure what has to be done. You big ones can maybe understand it. It has my children. It has all of us except me.

            EB: What does?

            Rat: I don’t know what it is. It’s big. Bigger than the big one over there. It smells like our people but not. Some other smell too. A bad one. Smells like sickness.

            EB: Tell me, what does this sickness smell like? Does it smell differently from other diseases?

            Rat: Like sickness. Bad.

Excerpt from Dr. Bright’s research diary, dated March 16:

There is valuable information locked in that rat’s minuscule skull. If only I knew how to reliably extract and transcribe it. So far, the creature proves maddeningly vague, but I am reluctant to attempt any more extreme methods to probe its mind. It is unique, from what I can tell. The other rats move as synchronously as a well-trained regiment, but this one walks alone. Why?

Second interview with uncontaminated Rattus Amaluricus specimen “Scuttleswift,” conducted by Dr. Eudosia Bright. Walther Treym transcribing. Dated March 17, 782:

            Eudosia Bright: We’ll begin where we left off. Hang on — are you really calling it that?

            [I explained that it was the name the specimen had asked to be called by. Thus, it seemed sensible to call it that.]

            EB: Fine, fine. Well, don’t get too attached.

            Scuttleswift: Let me out.

            EB: We’ve been through this. I’m not letting you out.

            [I reminded EB that the rat is bound to both of us by the same spell that allows us to understand it, and that it won’t get far if it runs.]

            EB: That doesn’t mean we should just let it out. People are dying, Walther, in case you’ve forgotten. The city is under siege. They won’t even let us leave our houses! We can’t waste time chasing a single rat.

            [I grudgingly agreed.]

            S: I won’t run. I told you that. Did you forget?

            EB: Yes, yes, because you’re such a noble, selfless creature and doing all this for the sake of your children.

            S: Not sure what “noble” or “selfless” are, but yes. For my children.

            EB: Alright, then let’s make a bargain. You answer all my questions, and then I’ll let you go. That seems more than fair, doesn’t it?

            S: Yes, seems fair, as long as you feed me too.

            EB: Easy enough. Well, then why don’t you start at the beginning.

Narrative of Rattus Amaluricus specimen “Scuttleswift,” condensed and clarified by Walther Treym from a series of interviews conducted from March 17-22, 782.

By Dr. Eudosia Bright. Prepared for inclusion in an official report on the origins of the Rat War and its associated diseases. Humbly addressed to the Senior Council of Binders of The Magist Imperial University.

I am doing this for my children, even if you don’t believe me. There were once many of them. I don’t know how many remain. They smell just the same as all the others now. Even I could not tell them apart once they joined the swarm.

The smell was the first strange thing. It was a smell I didn’t know yet. There was rot there, but also something else. Something bad. I don’t know how the others couldn’t smell it. To me, it was so strong that even your kind would notice.

We should have all left as soon as I noticed it, but I had just given birth again. My pups didn’t even have their eyes open yet, so they couldn’t be moved. I decided to try to find out where it was coming from. I did not like to leave my young ones, even with my daughters there to feed them with milk, but I had to make sure our colony was safe.

Two of my children went with me. Not because they believed me, but because I was their mother and they wanted to make sure I came back. Our colony was under the flat stones, where there are many tunnels. Some of them are made by us, but this one was made by your kind. I don’t like places like that. They’re too big and there aren’t enough places to hide. We walked and walked. I don’t know how long, but we had to stop and rest and eat sometimes. The smell got even stronger the more we walked, but my children still couldn’t smell it.

We got to a place like I never have seen before. The ground was so shiny and black you could see your face in it. There was no food here and no other rats. It was a bad place, with nowhere to hide. I didn’t want to go in there. I had seen enough and wanted to start looking for somewhere to start a new colony. My children wanted to go further in, though. I told them no. They should have listened.

We slept outside of it, in a safe corner away from the bad things that walk in the tunnels. There were strange sounds outside. Sounds made by big things that walked. Not your kind. Bigger. Walked with many feet. Smelled like sickness. I slept badly and woke up cold. My children were both gone. I was alone.

Excerpt from Dr. Bright’s research diary, March 18:

Now we’re finally getting somewhere. I’m especially interested in the place where the ground is “shiny and black.” I have no idea where it could be, but maybe Letizia can find out more. She still has access to the Conclave’s records, last I heard. Gods willing, she hasn’t thrown out the message stone I gave her. The guards are doing their best to keep us all off the streets until the rat problem is resolved, which makes communication rather more difficult. Walther and I ought to have enough food for a few weeks yet, if my wards continue to keep the rats out. In truth, I’m more concerned about Walther than our provisions. He seems to have an inordinate fondness for the specimen, despite knowing what we must do once we’ve gleaned all the information we can from it. I’ll make its death as painless as I can, for Walther’s sake, but we must know for certain what makes that rat different from the others. I know he understands this, even with all the arguments he makes to the contrary. Despite his softheartedness, he is no fool.

Unsent letter from Walther Treym, March 18th, 782, addressed to Senior Binder Artema Carrold, The Magist Imperial University:


It is with great trepidation that I write you this letter, especially given its likely unconventional messenger. However, I believe that the council ought to know my concerns regarding the fate of our research subject, the rat known as Scuttleswift.

A rat standing on its hindquarters, mouth open and pleading.
“Scuttleswift came in search of our aid, godsdamnit!”

Undoubtedly this will seem like madness to you. Gods only know it would have to me even a week or two ago. However, as I have transcribed our interviews these past few days, I have been struck by this rat’s intelligence and capacity for selflessness. It — she, I could even say — sought me out solely because she believed that I would be able to save her children. She has consistently expressed fears for her children and told us that she has endangered herself for their sake. Dr. Bright has tried several times to catch the rat in a lie, but her story and motives have remained consistent throughout.

I am fully aware of the scientific value of dissecting such a unique specimen, but it does not seem right to me to do so. She has already given us so much valuable information. To kill her would be a monstrous ingratitude, especially when Dr. Bright told her she would be freed. What’s more, even if we were to find out what makes her unique, there’s no telling whether we could replicate it in other rats. I certainly doubt it would be scalable either. There are simply too many of them. I have told my colleague all this, but she will not hear it. Of course, I want to end this terrible infestation, just as she does. However, I believe we can do so without harming this extraordinary creature who we already owe a great deal to.

Respectfully yours,
            Walther Treym

Narrative of Rattus Amaluricus specimen “Scuttleswift,” continued:

It was not hard to follow my children’s trail. I knew their scent, as any mother would. They had gone together into the bad place, and I was afraid to go after them. Our kind must always be cautious and ready to hide, and there was no place to hide there. I stood in front of the bad place for a long time, sniffing the air and listening. The bad smell was there as always, but the only sound I heard was my own heart. This frightened me more. You do not seem to hear the skittering of spiders above us or the beetle crawling across the ground, but I hear these things and many more. There is nowhere that should be silent for me.

That place was.

I knew then what had happened to my children. There was no place to hide or to sneak there. They would have been prey for any creature that passed that way. It was a trap, as surely as the ones your kind set for us. It would do my children no good if I joined them, and then there would be no one left to warn the colony. I had no idea where we would go, but I knew I had to get them away from this place. We were far too close.

Message from Balladmonger Letizia Bright, better known as Letty One-Eye, sent on March 19, 782, apparently transcribed in its entirety by Dr. Bright:

You know, I almost didn’t answer when I heard the chime. You’re the last person I’d expect to ask me for help. That’s Dosey for you, always thinking the world owes her one. I’ll search the archives, sure, but I’m not doing it for you. The city needs to fix this rat problem fast or there won’t be a city left. You’ll probably take all the credit as usual, but it beats getting gnawed to death. I do expect rights to the rat’s story though. Any decent bard would kill for that.

Off the top of my head, the description you sent sounds a lot like the Black Vault, and I don’t mean the prison. I mean the older site the prison was named after. What and where precisely that site is I can’t say for sure. It’s the kind of place that collects stories like a ship collects barnacles. All I can tell you now is that it’s very, very old, and that it’s a place no one ever returns from. Or so the tales say.

I’ll have to do more research, but I can at least give you that much. Oh, and don’t think my response means we’re on speaking terms again. I kept your stone for professional reasons alone. Your being my sister has nothing to do with it.

Narrative of Rattus Amaluricus specimen “Scuttleswift,” continued:

Something had happened while I was away. I could tell long before I reached the colony. The air felt different. Harder to breathe. And that smell was everywhere. It wasn’t so much that it had gotten stronger, but that all the usual smells had faded away. Strange things walked in the dark. Great creatures of prey that I have no name for, all of them scrabbling on many feet. I hid and I waited for them to go by, but sometimes they stopped to sniff the air for me. It was a terrible sound, a sickly wheeze that sounded too big for any animal I could think of. And then they would pass by. I would wait and wait until I was sure they were gone. When I looked out of my hiding place again, the tunnels would be empty, with only that smell remaining. That smell that was both like us and like sickness too.

There was no other sign of others of our kind, or of anything living. Even the insects were gone. I was hungry then. So hungry that it was difficult to think of anything else. That was what made me careless, and that carelessness almost killed me. I ought to have heard it coming long before, but I only heard the gurgling of my belly.

I had found a small crumb of food lodged between two stones and was trying to fit my paw into the crack. It was the first food I had found in some time. Everything else had been scoured away. I thought I heard something behind me, but it was so hard to think of anything but food. My paw closed around the crumb and I was pulling it free when I heard a skittering sound that was much louder than it ought to have been. Something was coming. It wasn’t one something, though. It was many things, all tangled together as one. I dropped the crumb and ran.

The tunnel behind me echoed with sharp-nailed feet scrabbling for purchase and sharper voices crying out in wordless agony. Something swiped at my tail, but I didn’t dare turn around to look. There was a familiar scent amid all that sickness and rot, and I could not bear to see what had become of my poor children. There was a small opening in the wall up ahead, and I dove for it. Many claws grasped for me, trying to pull me back, but they were too knotted up with each other to reach me. It was a long time before those many feet finally scurried away, and an even longer one until I finally peered out into the tunnel again.

Excerpt from Dr. Bright’s research diary, March 20:

Walther showed me the narrative he’s been compiling out of our interviews. It is somewhat well-written, but I don’t like how eloquent he’s made our specimen. You would think it was a bereaved mother speaking, not a common (or uncommon) sewer rat. I’ve spoken to him again about not getting too attached, but he seems determined to do so against all advice or reason. More ridiculous, he seems to think it’s the “right thing” for me to keep my word. As if one can make a promise with vermin! The poor fellow has the soul of a bard, not a scientist.

However, there has been one bit of information that has made it worth the aggravation. The entity our specimen described seems highly promising. My first thought is that it’s some sort of Uncanny, but I’ve never heard of one that was an assemblage made up of other living creatures — a Rat King, if you will. I asked Letizia, but she seemed as puzzled as I was. More research is required. At any rate, it’s a sobering thought that such a thing might exist in the world. I wish I could warn the city guards now, but my word lacks the sufficient authority to make them listen. However, if such advice came from the Council… An Associate Junior Fellow is not much, but it’s enough that they’ll hear me out. That’s why this report must be perfect. There is no room for error here. The city may depend upon it.

Message from Letizia Bright, sent on March 20, 782, and transcribed by Dr. Bright:

It wasn’t easy to get to the archives with the city in such a dangerous state, but let’s just say I’m putting the cost of an armed escort on your tab. Two of the mercenaries were overcome by the rats; the other one is currently lying in a makeshift hospital bed while our resident mage tries to figure out how to Bind her a new right leg. I’ll be adding her treatment to your tab as well, by the way. If you’ve got any doctorly words of advice to share, by all means share them.

Since I’m pretty much stuck here for the time being, I’ve had plenty of time for research. Good thing too, because most of the sources I’ve found are hundreds of years old. Reading them is slow going, and I’m not always sure if I’m getting all the meanings that were intended. I’m working on assembling a bibliography for you to include in your report, but I’ll give you the gist of it for now.

I told you before that the Black Vault is very old, but that was an understatement. The earliest mention I could find of it was in Chronicle of the Hundred Houses, which was written sometime in the Second Century AE. It states that a sealed structure of polished black stone was partially unearthed after the Great Quake of 113 AE. An expedition was later organized, but Empress Tatiana III abruptly scrapped it and ordered the dig site filled in with Bound earth and cobblestones.

There have been other records of magically sealed buildings here and there, the most recent in the early years of Rorei’s reign (I don’t need to tell you how spotty records have become these past few decades), but they always end in roughly the same way. There’s often a reference to calamity or disaster befalling anyone who has come across the site, whether or not they went inside. If you want my guess on where it is, I’d say it’s probably connected to the sewers under the Old City somehow. But I wouldn’t recommend going down there to look for it. Based on what your rat friend says, whatever Bindings kept that thing shut aren’t sealing it anymore.

It’s not clear if your “Rat King” is the thing that was sealed in there, but there’s a pretty good chance if you ask me. I’ve found records of powerful Uncannies that were sealed away because they couldn’t be destroyed. That is, assuming that’s what it is. I can’t find anything like that in the records, and neither can the archivists.

Excerpt from Dr. Bright’s research diary, March 21:

While I had originally intended to eventually dissect our specimen, a better idea has presented itself. Its immunity does not seem nearly as important now as finding this Rat King and its source. With the specimen’s superior sense of smell, I have no doubt that it will be able to lead a group through the most labyrinthian of tunnels. Of course, those tunnels are also full of murderous rats, but with the council’s help even that might be overcome. Walther and I will have to risk the danger of the streets to get to them, but at least it isn’t far.

Fifth interview with uncontaminated Rattus Amaluricus specimen “Scuttleswift,” conducted by Dr. Eudosia Bright. Walther Treym transcribing. March 22, 782:

            Eudosia Bright: All right, Walther, hopefully this will be our final interview. Our specimen’s story seems close to the end. Then we’ll have follow-up questions, of course. And then–

            Scuttleswift: Then you’ll let me out.

            EB: Er… yes, then I’ll let you out.

            S: And you’ll help my children?

            EB: As much as I can.

            S: Yes?

            [Yes, I said.]

            S: Good. Knew the big one would help again.

            EB: Now, you said that this creature, the one composed primarily of other rats — of your kind — do you know how many of those creatures there were?

            S: Just one. One creature. One smell.

            EB: You know this for certain?

            [Here Scuttleswift paused, as if in thought.]

            S: No, not for sure. But felt the same. Many bodies but just one creature.

EB: I see. Did you see it again after the encounter you told us about?

            S: No. Only smelled it. Its smell was everywhere. Our colony was filled with it.

            EB: Were the other rats there when you returned?

            S: No, they were all gone then. Even… even my pups were gone. I was alone.

            [Another pause.]

            EB: And were the other—

            [Here I asked Dr. Bright to allow a few minutes for our subject to compose herself, as this clearly distressed her.]

            EB: It’s a rat, Walther. It isn’t really talking to us. It’s just the Binding that mimics speech. You know this. Stop being so– Are you really writing that down?

            [I explained that it’s still a part of the record, and that it’s important that it be accurate to what was said.]

            EB: That’s going to probably end up in the archives one day, and you’ll come off looking like a fool.

            [I shrugged, as I don’t particularly care what people think of me after I’m dead.]

            EB: Well, fine then. I’m not going to keep–

            [She waved her hand vaguely, then turned to Scuttleswift.]

            EB: So, to be clear, you didn’t encounter any other rats in your colony, or on the way to your colony, correct?

            S: I told you. I was all alone. My kind, us “rats,” as you call us, were all gone.

            EB: So, what did you do, once you had determined this?

            S: I knew I couldn’t stay there. It wasn’t safe. So, I started looking for other places, where the sickness smell wasn’t so strong. I walked and walked. There was not much food until I came aboveground, and even then, most of it was gone. Sometimes I saw others of my kind, but I hid from them. They weren’t like me anymore. Then I smelled that one [looking over at me] and remembered. I cannot help my children alone, but maybe others can. And so, I came here.

            EB: Do you think you could find your way back to your colony from here?

            S: Yes, I could.

            EB: What about the place where the ground was black and shiny?

            [Scuttleswift hesitated.]

            S: I could find it, yes. But I would never go back there. It’s a bad place.

            EB: Could you lead us there?

            S: No, it’s a bad place.

            EB: Let me rephrase that. Do you know how to get there?

            S: Yes. But it’s–

            EB: Yes, I’m aware how you feel about it. We need to know where this place is, and, right now, you’re the only one with any idea of how to find it.

            S: I won’t go back there.

            EB: That’s not your decision to make.

            S: Don’t make me go back there.

            [I tried to intercede here, but Dr. Bright cut me off.]

            EB: What about the creature you saw? Do you think you could find it?

            S: Please, don’t make me go back there. Things that go there don’t come back.

            EB: Answer the question.

            S: Please don’t!

[The transcript ends abruptly. Several drops of dried blood are spattered across the bottom of the page.]

Fragment of what seems to be from a rewritten version of Scuttleswift’s narrative. The handwriting clearly belongs to Walther Treym, but seems oddly sloppy and forced in comparison to other samples of his handwriting.

The specimen was asked for further information regarding the entities that control the other rats. It believes this creature to be a single entity because of its shared scent. There is no evidence of whether this is true. It stated that it found no other rats in its burrow or elsewhere, other than those that were controlled by the entity. When asked whether it could lead us to the place previously theorized to be the Black Vault, it replied in the affirmative.

Newspaper clipping from the Amalcross Post, dated March 24, 802:


A dark passageway far beneath the city of Amalcross, leading ever further into an impenetrable blackness.
Few return from the Black Vault.

Magist Imperial University unveiled a new statue today, commissioned for the twentieth anniversary of the sealing of the Black Vault. The life size bronze sculpture depicts Walther Treym driving back the Rat King with a wide arc of flame. Athlin Petrus, its sculptor, said he interviewed several survivors of thirty-five member team of Binders who descended into the Vault that fateful day to make sure his depiction was accurate.

“The one thing they all agreed on was just how fearless he was,” said Petrus. “He was completely calm the whole time, even when his body started being eaten up by the spell. I wanted to show people what that kind of self-sacrifice really looks like. From afar it looks like a straightforward thing, but if you get up close, you can see where the muscles and sinews are starting to be eaten away.”

The statue will be placed in the university’s Black Vault Memorial Garden.

Letter in a shaky hand somewhat resembling Dr. Bright’s. Dated April 3, 842:

History sometimes has a way of sanding down the edges of even the most terrible events. Books recount it in the dry style of something long determined. Children play-act terrible events as grand adventures. Memorials are erected, then slowly recede into the dull haze of familiarity.

I am the last of the thirty-five Binders who ventured into the warren of tunnels beneath the city. Any knowledge that has not been committed to print will die with me. It will not be long. I’ve made arrangements to have this box delivered upon my death, so if you are reading this I have likely already passed into the Deathless Fields. My reasons for such a cowardly delay must remain obscure. This is not intended as a confession, but as a warning.

The Rat King was not utterly destroyed. No being so unnaturally made can be. There will always be remnants of it. I have lately felt it stirring again in the dark, probing at the bindings that we sealed it with.

This box contains the better part of sixty years of research. Historical records, geological surveys, anything that might be remotely useful. Such information is scant and difficult to track down, but if it can provide even a slight advantage to the city of Amalcross, I will consider it worth the many years it took to acquire it. The Rat King may not break free from the Vault in this generation, but it does not need to. It has the patience of one that existed for unknown ages and that will live on long after we frail humans are gone.

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