During the Meanwhilst
Nicholas Hat was not long upon the road with Samuel York. He must have failed to match the pace set by the Northern gentleman, either through a lack of horsemanship or by cause of the slow healing of the injuries he had sustained in the clutches of the living corpse of Lincolneshire. Relenting of the long ride to London, he recoursed to joining ourselves and taking ship from Exeter. Seeking us in the city streets on the night of 1 January, Anno 1603, he heard the report when I discharged my fire-arm, and ran towards the sound.
As Jonas entered the rude house with lantern held high I noted several clawed gouges in the timber of the door, betokening some creature having burst it inwards. In the wake of Jonas’ cry of horror I steeled myself, stepped to the doorway and myself beheld the carnage within. The main room of the house was all disarrayed, the poor householders having lost their lives in a tempest of violence. Their mortal remains were mere tattered members and shreds of flesh, three severed heads lay hap-hazard ’bout the room and spattered blood still trickled down the walls.
“Back here, back here!” bellowed Jonas to our companions at the end of the street before returning to the room and with his episcopal pistol aloft in one hand, performing a one-handed benediction over the departed with the other.
By this time Tremayne and Bob were some way off to the left and Kato still pursued the right-hand turn. To our great surprise, Jonas’ command was answered by none other than Nicholas Hat bursting in behind us. Uttering a nautical oath at the sight within he drew out his sword and headed on through the second doorway into the householders’ bed room. He declared the place empty, and with the shutters at the window still securely fastened.
I returned to the street and called out to the houses nearby, “The killer is on the loose! Keep your doors and shutters barred!”
Despite this imprecation, as Kato, Tremayne and Bob dejectedly returned, several of the good burghers of Exeter were emerging from their homes. Another murder? they were asking. Was it the Axe-Murderer?
Jonas took control of the situation. “There has been a terrible crime this night. You, stay inside your home. You and you, you stay too. You, fetch the constables. But you,” (this to stoutest-looking of the fellows near by), “you come with us.” The fellow identified the householders as Joe and his wife, and their elder child. But most significantly he exclaimed that there was no sign of the younger. At Jonas’ prompting he told us this was Catherine, a little girl only seven or eight years old.
In ye Shytte Again
During this time, Michael Tremayne and Kato the Cathayan had been laboriously quartering the street, lanterns held low to the ground in search of the killer’s trail. Tremayne gave up and turned to organizing the locals but Kato found a blood-smear that had not been left by any human foot and was most insistent in driving us all to seek further signs. None of us shared his conviction, but as the life of a child might depend upon us we persisted against wanhope (incl. Branston BENNY)… until Nick Hat prevailed. He led us uncertainly through the streets until he discovered a large culvert-grate that had been forced outwards by some not inconsiderable strength.
All eyes turned to Kato, who leant forward with his lantern to peer within before recoiling sharply. “This smell even worse than befo’,” he said, clapping a hand to his nose against an odour more sinister than the simple reek of human ordure.
With wetted cloths knotted over our mouths and noses we lowered ourselves into the space below the level of the streets. Jonas was especially vocal in protesting about ‘lowering himself in such a fashion’. We found ourselves in a circular chamber no more than three strides across, constructed of ancient brickwork bearing occasional fragments of rotted plasterwork and mosaic upon the walls, and a solid flagged floor lay beneath the silt of vile muck. But the waste of the city had burst in, in small trickles from the walls and in fissures astir with sewage which must somewhere join the underground stream leading into the River Exe.
The ordure made the whole place treacherous in the extreme, requiring me to test the purchase of my cane most carefully before trusting my weight to it. But it was not entirely unwelcome, as the soft stuff still showed the slot of our quarry, the which was clearly a four-footed beast at least the size of a large hound.
We rounded a first corner roughly a chain from our ingress and came to a place where smaller tunnels led off to either side. At nearly the same instant, Jonas and I heard a mounting rush of pattering topped by a chorus of piercing squeaks. A writhing, chattering tide of teeth and fur rounded the further corner and we moved smartly aside into a side-tunnel. Nick Hat dived for the same safety, but before Kato could follow suit he was embroiled in a sudden wave of some hundreds of frantic rats, way more than he could fend off with his kodachi sword. The swarming rats seethed on and by, inflicting a bloody mess of bites and scratches upon Kato, but he remained unbowed and urged us all onwards in the direction whence the rats had come, saying that their panic was doubtless caused by the murderous beast that we pursued.
He led us into a square chamber bestrewn with countless small bones, suggesting dozens of corpses of cats and dogs and including several human remains. We four were all stricken by the horror of this charnel house, but our resolve remained firm. By the light of his lantern Jonas pronounced the bones not to have been hacked by any mad man, but to have been gnawed upon by a beast with flat-cutting foreteeth the size of an axe or cleaver.
“This must be a great King Rat,” quoth Jonas.
“A giant rat of Sumatra,” gasped Kato. He passed me his lantern and drew his second, larger katana sword, to lead the way forward once more.
A Rodent of Unusual Size
A little further on the ancient brick tunnel debouched into a circular chamber larger than any space we had thus far encountered, the river-water ending in a stagnant pool of sewage at its centre. And just beyond this pool, our lantern light glinted redly back from the eyes of the beast.
It came at us, a creature with the appearance of a rat but of a size greater than any hound, at least 10 hands at the shoulder.
Jonas surged forward as fast as the monster, thrusting Nick and Kato aside to slip and stagger in the slime as he levelled Black Betty. Be it blind luck, desperation or divine inspiration (BENNY; RIGHTEOUS RAGE) he shot it squarely in the muzzle with the full load of his blunderbuss, halting the rat-monster in its tracks and eliciting an insane, hate-filled grimace as the thunder of the shot echoed through the sewer and brought dust sifting down from the ceiling.
Nick Hat seized the moment and charged unerringly forwards into the chamber in despite of the treacherous muck and slime underfoot. His mighty overhead swing glanced from the matted fur of the monster’s scalp (BENNY). But to Nick’s shock the blow seemed only to bring the beast to its senses after Jonas’ shot. (MONSTER BENNY SOAKED, CLEARING SHAKEN STATUS) I too put my all into making the one shot of my snaphaunce pistol count. (BENNY) The ball struck true, but scarcely seemed to bother the brute. So I besought me to the higher powers, strewing blessed chalk dust in the crudest of circles and commencing an invocation of the angels.
“Uiyu-yu mofo’!” came Kato’s war-cry as he dashed past me, swinging both swords. His katana bit deep but the monstrous rat recked naught of the wound, glaring at Kato with an unholy intelligence in its eyes and responding by sinking its horrible yellow fore-teeth into the flesh of his arm.
Kato gave his all in a barrage of slicing sword-strokes (LAST BENNY). The several cuts he gave it seemed to take no toll (MONSTER BENNY), but his very ferocity fought the advancing monster to a halt. Nick sidestepped away down the great rat’s flank until it could see only one of its assailants at a time, and took full advantage of Kato’s onslaught to land a great double-handed blow of his own long sword across its spine.
The rat was tumbled, its hindquarters giving way under the weight of the blow (LAST MONSTER BENNY) but, kicking a spray of filth in every direction, the maddened beast surged forth anon. Reckless of Kato’s guard it threw itself upon him, those great teeth raking down his shoulder. (SHAKEN) The rat’s head drew back to bite again, the moment having come too soon for the angels yet to have heeded my call. But both the rat and I had forgotten Jonas de Winkler. Cool under pressure the bishop discharged the episcopal pistol at five paces, unerringly striking the rat full in the face and blasting it shrieking backwards (SHAKEN), winning Kato the moment he needed to regain himself (UNSHAKE).
I struggled to keep the cadence of my invocation as the desperate brawl continued. The rat rolled about, just barely avoiding the fervent swipes of Nick’s sword left and (BENNY) right, but unable to gather itself to bite out again. Even Jonas waded in, reversing his grip on his fire-arm and attempting to club the pistol at the rat, but the fire in his belly had faltered, leaving his attacks inexpert. Then Kato threw himself into a final series of strikes, a feint of the kodachi overextending the rat and a perfect impaling blow burying the katana in the monster’s ribcage right up to its disk-shaped guard. I slowed on the last syllable of my invocation. The next swipe of Nick’s sword knocked the rat senseless, before a final blow took off its head.
Of a sudden, the loudest noise in the chamber was the heaving of our own breath. And then this was joined by an explosive sob of release. Lifting our lanterns we saw a dishevelled young girl standing with her back pressed back against the further wall.
“Child, child, be not afraid. I am the archbishop of Bath and Wells and I have come to save you… Err, Catherine.”
The eyes of Nicholas Hat began scanning the chamber for the remains of the beast’s former victims, he being aware that any wealth would be of no use to them now.
Though we were bloodied and battered and up to our knees in shytte, there was a sense that evil had been vanquished and that our usual approximation of normal order reigned once more.