'Too hot, boss. Sorry, but we-isn't that Peaches?' She was sprawled close to the flames, mumbling to herself and covered in mud. Darktan crouched down. Peaches opened her eyes, blearily. 'Are you all right, Peaches? What's happened to Dangerous Beans?'
Sardines wordlessly tapped Darktan on the shoulder, and pointed. Coming through the fire, a shadow… It padded slowly between walls of flame. For a moment the waving air made it look huge, like some monster emerging from a cave, and then it became… just a cat. Smoke poured off its fur. What wasn't smoking was caked with mud. One eye was shut. The cat was leaving a trail of blood and, every few footsteps, it sagged a little. It had a small bundle of white fur in its mouth. It reached Darktan and continued past, without a glance. It was growling all the time, under its breath. 'Is that Maurice?' said Sardines. 'That's Dangerous Beans he's carrying!' shouted Darktan. 'Stop that cat!' But Maurice had stopped by himself, turned, lay down with his paws in front of him, and looked blearily at the rats. Then he gently dropped the bundle on the floor. He it once or twice, to see if it would move. He blinked slowly when it didn't. He looked puzzled, in a land of slow-motion way. He opened his mouth to yawn, and smoke came out. Then he put his head down, and died. The world seemed to Maurice to be full of the ghost light you got before dawn, when it was just bright enough to see things but not bright enough to see colours. He sat up and washed himself. There were rats and humans running around, very, very slowly. They didn't concern him much. Whatever it was they thought they had to be doing, they were doing it.
Other people were rushing about, in a silent, ghostly way, and Maurice was not. This seemed a pretty good arrangement. And his eye didn't hurt and his skin wasn't painful and his paws weren't torn, which was a big improvement on matters as they stood recently. Now he came to think about it, he wasn't quite sure what had happened recently. Something wretchedly bad, obviously. There was something Maurice-shaped lying beside him, like a three-dimensional shadow. He stared at it, and then turned when in this soundless ghost-world he heard a noise. There was movement near the wall. A small figure was striding across the floor towards the tiny lump that was Dangerous Beans. It was rat-sized, but it was much more solid than the rest of the rats, and unlike any rat he'd seen before it wore a black robe. A rat in clothes, he thought. But this one did not belong in a Mr Bunnsy book. Just poking out from the hood of the robe was the bony nose of a rat skull. And it was carrying a tiny scythe over its shoulder. The other rats and the humans, who were drifting back and forth with buckets, paid it no attention. Some of them walked right through it. The rat and Maurice seemed to be in a separate world of their own. It's the Bone Rat, thought Maurice. It's the Grim Squeaker. He's come for Dangerous Beans. After all I've been through? That is not happening!
He sprang into the air and landed on the Bone Rat. The little scythe skidded across the floor. 'OK, mister, let's hear you talk-' Maurice began. 'Er…' said Maurice, as the horrible awareness of what he'd done caught up with him. A hand grabbed him by the back of the neck and lifted him up, higher and higher, and then turned him around. Maurice stopped struggling immediately. He was being held by another figure, much taller, human size, but with the same style of black robe, a much bigger scythe, and a definite lack of skin around the face. Strictly speaking, there was a considerable lack of face about the face, too. It was just bone. DESIST FROM ATTACKING MY ASSOCIATE, MAURICE, said Death. 'Yessir, Mr Death, sir! Atoncesir!' said Maurice quickly. 'Noproblemsir!' I HAVEN'T SEEN YOU LATELY, MAURICE. 'No sir,' said Maurice, relaxing slightly. 'Been very careful, sir. Looking both ways when I cross the street and everything, sir.' AND HOW MANY DO YOU HAVE LEFT NOW? 'Six, sir. Six. Very definitely. Very definitely six lives, sir.' Death looked surprised. BUT YOU WERE RUN OVER BY A CART ONLY LAST MONTH, WEREN'T YOU? 'That, sir? Barely grazed me, sir. Got away with hardly a scratch, sir.' EXACTLY! 'Oh.' THAT MAKES FIVE LIVES, MAURICE. UP UNTIL TODAY'S ADVENTURE. YOU STARTED WITH NINE. 'Fair enough, sir. Fair enough.' Maurice swallowed. Oh, well, might as well try. 'So let's say I'm left with three, right?' THREE? I WAS ONLY GOING TO TAKE ONE. YOU CAN'T LOSE MORE THAN ONE LIFE AT A TIME, EVEN IF YOU'RE A CAT. THAT LEAVES YOU FOUR, MAURICE.
'And I say take two, sir,' said Maurice urgently. 'Two of mine, and call it quits?' Death and Maurice looked down at the faint, shadowy outline of Dangerous Beans. Some other rats were standing around him now, picking him up. YOU SURE? said Death. AFTER ALL, HE IS A RAT. 'Yessir. That's where it all gets complicated, sir.' YOU CAN'T EXPLAIN? 'Yessir. Don't know why, sir. Everything's been a bit odd lately, sir.' THAT IS VERY UN-CAT-LIKE OF YOU, MAURICE. I'M AMAZED. 'I'm pretty shocked too, sir. I just hope no-one finds out, sir.' Death lowered Maurice to the floor, next to his body. YOU LEAVE ME LITTLE CHOICE. THE SUM IS CORRECT, EVEN THOUGH IT IS AMAZING. WE CAME FOR TWO, AND TWO WE WILL TAKE… THE BALANCE IS PRESERVED. 'Can I ask a question, sir?' said Maurice, as Death turned to go. YOU MAY NOT GET AN ANSWER. 'I suppose there isn't a Big Cat in the Sky, is there?' I'M SURPRISED AT YOU, MAURICE. OF COURSE THERE ARE NO CAT GODS. THAT WOULD BE TOO MUCH LIKE… WORK. Maurice nodded. One good thing about being a cat, apart from the extra lives, was that the theology was a lot simpler. 'I won't remember all this, will I, sir?' he said. 'It'd be just too embarrassing.' OF COURSE NOT, MAURICE… 'Maurice?' Colours returned to the world, and Keith was stroking him. Every bit of Maurice stung or ached. How could fur ache? And his paws screamed at him, and one eye felt like a lump of ice, and his lungs were full of fire. 'We thought you were dead!' said Keith. 'Malicia was going to bury you at the bottom of her garden! She says she's already got a black veil.'
'What, in her adventuring bag?'
'Certainly,' said Malicia. 'Supposing we'd ended up on a raft in a river full of flesh-eating-'
'Yeah, right, thanks,' growled Maurice. The air stank of burnt wood and dirty steam. 'Are you all right?' said Keith, still looking worried. 'You're a lucky black cat now!'
'Ha ha, yes, ha ha,' said Maurice gloomily. He pushed himself up, painfully. 'The little rat OK?' he said, trying to look around. 'He was out just like you, but when they tried to move him he coughed up a lot of muck. He's not well, but he's getting better.'
'All's well that ends-' Maurice began, and then winced. 'I can't turn my head very well,' he said. 'You're covered in rat bites, that's why.'
'What's my tail like?'
'Oh, fine. It's nearly all there.'
'Oh, well. All's well that ends well, then. Adventure over, time for tea and buns, just like the girl says.'
'No,' said Keith. 'There's still the piper.'
'Can't they just give him a dollar for his trouble and tell him to go away?'
'Not the Rat Piper,' said Keith. 'You don't say that sort of thing to the Rat Piper.'
'Nasty piece of work, is he?'
'I don't know. He sounds like it. But we've got a plan.' Maurice growled. 'You've got a plan?' he said. 'You made it up?'
'Me and Darktan and Malicia.'
'Tell me your wonderful plan,' sighed Maurice. 'We're going to keep the keekees caged up and no rats will come out to follow the piper. That way he'll look pretty silly, eh?' said Malicia. 'That's it? That's your plan?'
'You don't think it'll work?' said Keith. 'Malicia says he'll be so embarrassed he'll leave.'
'You don't know anything about people, do you?' sighed Maurice. 'What? I'm a person!' said Malicia. 'So? Cats know about people. We have to. No-one else can open cupboards. Look, even the rat king had a better plan than that. A good plan isn't one where someone wins, it's where nobody thinks they've lost. Understand? This is what you have to do… no, it wouldn't work, we'd need a lot of cotton-wool…' Malicia swung her bag around with a look of triumph. 'As a matter of fact,' she said, 'I'd worked out that if I was ever taken prisoner in a giant underwater mechanical squid and need to block up-'
'You're going to say you've got a lot of cotton-wool, aren't you,' said Maurice, flatly. 'Yes!'
'It was silly of me to worry, wasn't it?' said Maurice. Darktan stuck his sword in the mud. The senior rats gathered round him, but seniority had changed. Among the older rats were younger ones, each one with a dark red mark on its head, and they were pushing to the front. All of them were chattering. He could smell the relief that came when the Bone Rat had gone past and had not turned aside… 'Silence!' he yelled. It struck like a gong. Every red eye turned to him. He felt tired, he couldn't breathe properly, and he was streaked with soot and blood. Some of the blood wasn't his. 'It's not over,' he said. 'But we just-'
'It's not over!' Darktan looked around the circle. 'We didn't get all of those big rats, the real fighters,' he panted. 'Inbrine, take twenty rats and go back and help guard the nests. Big Savings and the old females are back there and they'll tear any attacker in half but I want to be certain.' For a moment Inbrine glared at Darktan. 'I don't see why you-' he began. 'Do it!' Inbrine crouched hurriedly, waved at the rats behind him, and scurried away. Darktan looked at the others. As his gaze passed across them, some of them leaned back, as if it was a flame. 'We'll form into squads,' he said. 'All of the Clan that we can spare from guarding will form into squads. At least one trap disposal rat in each squad! Take fire with you! And some of the young rats'll be runners, so you can keep in touch! Don't go near the cages, those poor creatures can wait! But you'll work through all these tunnels, all these cellars, all these holes and all these corners! And if you meet a strange rat and it cowers, then take it prisoner! But if it tries to fight-and the big ones will try to fight, because that's all they know-then you will kill it! Burn it or bite it! Kill it deadl Do you hear me?' There was a murmur of agreement. 'I said do you hear me?' This time there was a roar. 'Good! And we'll go on and on until these tunnels are safe, from end to end! Then we'll do it again! Until these tunnels are ours! Because…' Darktan grasped his sword, but leaned on it for a moment to catch his breath, and when he spoke next it was almost in a whisper, 'because we're in the heart of the Dark Wood now and we've found the Dark Wood in our hearts and… for tonight… we are something… terrible.' He took another breath, and his next words were heard only by the rats closest to him: 'And we have nowhere else to go.' It was dawn. Sergeant Doppelpunkt, who was one half of the city's official Watch (and the largest half) awoke with a snort in the tiny office by the main gates. He got dressed, a little unsteadily, and washed his face in the stone sink, peering at himself in the scrap of mirror hanging on the wall. He stopped. There was a faint but desperate squeaking sound, and then the little grille over the plughole was pushed aside and a rat plunged out. It was big and grey and it ran up his arm before leaping onto the floor. Water dripping from his face, Sergeant Doppelpunkt stared in bleary amazement as three smaller rats erupted from the pipe and chased after it. It turned to fight in the middle of the floor but the small rats hit it together, from three sides at once. It wasn't like a fight. It looked, thought the sergeant, more like an execution… There was an old rat hole in the wall. Two of the rats grabbed the tail and dragged the body into the hole and out of sight. But the third rat stopped at the hole and turned, standing up on its hind legs. The sergeant felt that it was staring at him. It didn't look like an animal watching a human to see if it was dangerous. It didn't look scared, it merely looked curious. It had some kind of red blob on its head. The rat saluted him. It was definitely a salute, even though it only took a second. Then all the rats had gone. The sergeant stared at the hole for some time, with water still dripping off his chin. And heard the singing. It was drifting up from the sink's plughole and it echoed a lot, as if it was coming from a long way away, one voice singing out and a chorus of voices replying: 'We fight dogs and we chase cats…'