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Mouser 5-16

*Chapter Sixteen*
Fafhrd, although he came down the temple’s wall fast, found the battle once more considerably changed when he reached the bottom.
The Gods _of_ Lankhmar, though not exactly in panicky rout, were withdrawing toward the open door of their temple, thrusting their staves from time to time at the horde of rats which still beset them. Wisps of smoke still trailed from a few of them — ghostly moonlit pennons. They were coughing, or more likely cursing and it sounded like coughs. Their brown skull-faces were dire — the expression of elders defeated and trying to cloak their impotent, gibbering rage with dignity.
Fafhrd moved rapidly out of their way.
Kreeshkra and her two male Ghouls were slashing and stabbing from their saddles at another flood of rats in front of Hisvin’s house, while their black horses crunched rats under their hooves.
Fafhrd made toward them, but at that moment there was a rush of rats at him and he had to unsheathe Graywand. Using the great sword as a scythe, he cleared a space around him with three strokes, then started again toward the Ghouls.
The doors of Hisvin’s house burst open and there fled out down the short stairs a crowd of Mingol slaves. Their faces grimaced with terror, but even more striking was the fact that they were thin almost beyond emaciation. Their once-tight black liveries hung loosely on them. Their hands were skeletal. Their faces were skulls covered with yellow skin.
Three groups of skeletons: brown, ivory, and yellow — _It is a prodigy of prodigies_, Fafhrd thought, _the beginning of a dark spectrum of bones_.
Behind the Mingols and driving them, not so much to kill them as to get them out of the way, came a company of crouchy but stalwart masked men, some wearing armor, all brandishing weapons — swords and crossbows. There was something horribly familiar about their scuttling, hobble-legged gait. Then came some with pikes and helmets, but without masks. The faces, or muzzles rather, were those of rats. All the newcomers, masked or nakedly fur-faced, made for the three Ghoulish riders.
Fafhrd sprang forward, Graywand singing about his head, unmindful of the new surge of ordinary rats coming against him — and came to a skidding halt.
The man-sized and man-armed rats were still pouring from Hisvin’s house. Hero or no, he couldn’t kill _that_ many of them.
At that instant he felt claws sink into his leg. He raised his crook-fingered big left hand to sweep away from him whatever now attacked him … and saw climbing his thigh the black kitten from _Squid_.
_That scatterbrain mustn’t be in this dread battle_, he thought … and opened his empty pouch to thrust in the kitten … and saw gleaming dully at its bottom the tin whistle … and realized that here was a metal straw to cling to.
He snatched it out and set it to his lips and blew it.
When one taps with idle finger a toy drum, one does not expect a peal of thunder. Fafhrd gasped and almost swallowed the whistle. Then he made to hurl it away from him. Instead he set it to his lips once more, put his hands to his ears, for some reason closed his eyes tight, and once more blew it.
Once again the horrendous noise went shuddering up toward the moon and down the shadowed streets of Lankhmar.
Imagine the scream of a leopard, the snarl of a tiger, and the roaring of a lion commingled, and one will have some faint suggestion of the sound the tin whistle produced.
Everywhere the little rats held still in their hordes. The skeletal Mingols paused in their shaking, staggering flight. The big armed rats, masked or helmeted, halted in their attack upon the Ghouls. Even the Ghouls and their horses held still. The fur on the black kitten fluffed out as it still clung to Fafhrd’s crouching thigh, and its green eyes became enormous.
Then the awesome sound had died away, a distant bell was tolling midnight, and all the battlers fell to action again.
But black shapes were forming in the moonlight around Fafhrd. Shapes that were at first no more than shadows with a sheen to them. Then darker, like translucent polished black horn. Then solid and velvet black, their pads resting on the moonlit flagstones. They had the slender, long-legged forms of cheetahs, but the mass of tigers or lions. They stood almost as high at the shoulder as horses. Their somewhat small and prick-eared heads swayed slowly, as did their long tails. Their fangs were like needles of faintly green ice. Their eyes, which were like frozen emeralds, stared all twenty-six at Fafhrd — for there were thirteen of the beasts.
Then Fafhrd realized that they were staring not at his head but at his waist.
The black kitten there gave a shrill, wailing cry that was at once a young cat’s first battle call and also a greeting.
With a screaming, snarling roar, like thirteen of the tin whistles blown at once, the War Cats bounded outward. With preternatural agility, the black kitten leaped after a group of four of them.
The small rats fled toward walls and shutters and doors — wherever holes might be. The Mingols threw themselves down. The half-splintered doors of the temple of the Gods _of_ Lankhmar could be heard to screech shut rather rapidly.
The four War Cats to whom the kitten had attached himself raced toward the man-size rats coming from Hisvin’s house. Two of the Ghouls had been struck from their saddles by pikes or swords. The third — it was Kreeshkra — parried a blow from a rapier, then kicked her horse into a gallop past Hisvin’s house toward the Rainbow Palace. The two riderless black horses followed her.
Fafhrd prepared to follow her, but at that instant a black parrot swooped down in front of him, beating its wings, and a small skinny boy with a puckered scar under his left eye was tugging at his wrist.
Mouser-Mouser!” the parrot squawked. “Danger-danger! Blue-Blue Blue-Blue Audience Chamber!”
“Same message, big man,” the urchin rasped with a grin.
So Fafhrd, running around the battle of armed rats and War Cats — a whirling melee of silvery swords and flashing, claws, of cold green and hot red eyes — set out after Kreeshkra anyhow, since she had been going in the same direction.
Long pikes struck down a War Cat, but the kitten sprang like a shining black comet at the face of the foremost of the giant rodent pike-wielders as the other three War Cats closed in beside him.
The Gray Mouser lightly dropped off the back of the golden couch the instant Hisvin and Hisvet got within stabbing distance. Then, since they were both coming around the couch, he ran under it and from thence under the low table. During his short passage through the open, Glipkerio’s ax crashed on the tiles to one side of him, while Elakeria’s bundle of wands smashed clatteringly down on the other. He paused under the center of the table, plotting his next action.
Glipkerio darted prudently away, leaving his ax where he had let go of it from the sting of the blow. Plump Elakeria, however, slipped and fell with the force of her clumsy thwack and for the moment both her sprawled form and the ax were quite close to the Mouser.
Then — well, one moment the table was a roof a comfortable rat’s-span or so above the Mouser’s head. The next moment he had, without moving, bumped his head on it and very shortly afterward somehow overturned it to one side without touching it with his hands and despite the fact that he had sat down rather hard on the floor.
While Elakeria was no longer an obese wanton bulging out a gray dress, but a slender nymph totally unclad. And the head of Glipkerio’s ax, which Scalpel’s slim blade now touched, had shrunk to a ragged sliver of metal, as if eaten away by invisible acid.
The Mouser realized that he had regained his original size, even as Sheelba had foretold. The thought flashed through his mind that, since nothing can come of nothing, the atomies shed from Scalpel in the cellar had now been made up from those in the ax-head, while to replace his flesh and clothing he had stolen somewhat of that of Elakeria. She certainly had benefited from the transaction, he decided.
But this was not the time for metaphysics or for moralizing, he told himself. He scrambled to his feet and advanced on his shrunken-seeming tormentors, menacing with Scalpel.
“Drop your weapons!” he commanded.
Neither Glipkerio, Elakeria, or Frix held any. Hisvet let go of her long dagger at once, probably recalling that the Mouser knew she had some skill in hurling it. But Hisvin, foaming now with rage and frustration, held onto his. The Mouser advanced Scalpel flickering toward his scrawny throat.
“Call off your rats, Lord Null,” he ordered, “or you die!”
“Shan’t!” Hisvin spat at him, stabbing futilely at Scalpel. Then, reason returning to him a little, he added, “And even if I wished to, I couldn’t!”
The Mouser, knowing from his session at the Council of Thirteen that this was the truth, hesitated.
Elakeria, seeing her nakedness, snatched a light coverlet from the golden couch and huddled it around her, then immediately drew it aside again to admire her slender new body.
Frix continued to smile excitedly but somehow composedly, as if all this were a play and she its audience.
Glipkerio, although seeking to firm himself by tightly embracing a spirally fluted pillar between candlelit chamber and moonlit porch, clearly had the grand, rather than merely the petty twitches again. His narrow face, between its periodic convulsions, was a study in consternation and nervous exhaustion.
Hisvet called out, “Gray lover, kill the old fool my father! Slay Glip and the rest too, unless you desire Frix as a concubine. Then rule all Lankhmar Above and Below with my willingest aid. You’ve won the game, dear one. I confess myself beaten. I’ll be your humblest slave-girl, my only hope that some day I’ll be your most favorite too.”
And so ringingly sincere was her voice and so dulcet-sweet in making its promises, that despite his experiences of her treacheries and cruelties and despite the cold murderousness of some of her words, the Mouser was truly tempted. He looked toward her — her expression was that of a gambler playing for the highest stakes — and in that instant Hisvin lunged.
The Mouser beat the dagger aside and retreated a double-step, cursing only himself for the wavering of his attention. Hisvin continued to lunge desperately, only desisting when Scalpel pricked his throat swollen with curses.
“Keep your promise and show your courage,” Hisvet cried to the Mouser. “Kill him!”
Hisvin began to gabble his curses at her too.
The Mouser was never afterwards quite certain as to what he would have done next, for the nearest blue curtains were jerked away to either side and there stood Skwee and Hreest, both man-size, both unmasked and with rapiers drawn, both of lordly, cool, assured, and dire mien — the white and the black of rat aristocracy.
Without a word Skwee advanced a pace and pointed his sword at the Mouser. Hreest copied him so swiftly it was impossible to be sure it was a copy. The two green-uniformed sword-rats moved out from behind them and went on guard to either side. From behind _them_, the three pike-rats, man-size like the rest, moved out still farther on the flank, two toward the far end of the room, one toward the golden couch, beside which Hisvet now stood near Frix.
His hand clutching his scrawny throat, Hisvin mastered his astonishment and pointing at his daughter, croaked commandingly, “Kill her too!”
The lone pike-rat obediently leveled his weapon and ran with it. As the great wavy blade passed close by her, Frix cast herself at the weapon, hugging its pole. The blade missed Hisvet by a finger’s breadth and Frix fell. The pike-rat jerked back his weapon and raised it to skewer Frix to the floor, but, “Stop!” Skwee cried. “Kill none — as yet — except the one in gray. All now, advance.”
The pike-rat obediently swiveled round, releveling his weapon at the Mouser.
Frix picked herself up and casually murmuring in Hisvet’s ear, “That’s three times, dear mistress,” turned to watch the rest of the drama.
The Mouser thought of diving off the porch, but instead broke for the far end of the room. It was perhaps a mistake. The two pike-rats were at the far door ahead of him, while the sword-rats at his heels gave him no time to feint around the pike-blades, kill the pike-rats and get around them. He dodged behind a heavy table and turning abruptly, managed to wound lightly in the thigh a green-uniformed rat who had run a bit ahead of the rest. But that rat dodged back and the Mousler found himself faced by four rapiers and two pikes — and just conceivably by death too, he had to admit to himself as he noted the sureness with which Skwee was directing and controlling the attack. So — slash, jump, slash, thrust, parry, kick the table — he must attack Skwee — thrust, parry, riposte, counter-riposte, retreat — but Skwee had anticipated that, so — slash, jump, thrust, jump, jump again, bump the wall, thrust — whatever he was going to do, he’d have to do it very soon.
A rat’s head, detached from its rat, spun across the edge of his field of vision and he heard a happy, familiar shout.
Fafhrd had just entered the room, beheaded from behind the third pike-rat, who had been acting as a sort of reserve, and was rushing the others from behind.
At Skwee’s swift signal the lesser sword-rats and the two remaining pike-rats turned. The latter were slow in shifting their long weapons. Fafhrd beheaded the blade of one pike and then its owner, parried the second pike and thrust home through the throat of the rat wielding it, then met the attack of the two lesser sword-rats, while Skwee and Hreest redoubled their assault on the Mouser. Their snarl-twisted bristles, snarl-bared incisors, long flat furry faces and huge eyes blue and black were almost as daunting as their swift swords, while Fafhrd found equal menace in his pair.
At Fafhrd’s entry, Glipkerio had said very softly to himself, “No, I cannot bear it longer,” run out onto the porch and up the silver ladder, and sprung down through the manhole of the spindle-shaped gray vehicle. His weight over-balanced it, so that it slowly nosed down in the copper chute. He called out, somewhat more loudly, “World, adieu! Nehwon, good-bye! I go to seek a happier universe. Oh, you’ll regret me, Lankhmar! Weep, oh City!” Then the gray vehicle was sliding down the chute, faster and faster. He dropped inside and jerked shut the hatch after him. With a small, sullen splash the vehicle vanished beneath the dark, moon-fretted waters.
Only Elakeria and Frix whose eyes and ears missed nothing, saw Glipkerio or heard his valedictory.
With a sudden concerted effort Skwee and Hreest rammed the table, across which they’d been fencing, against the Mouser, to pin him to the wall. Barely in time, he sprang atop it, dodged Skwee’s thrust, parried Hreest’s, and on a lucky riposte sent Scalpel’s tip into Hreest’s right eye and brain, slipping his sword out just soon enough to parry Skwee’s next thrust.
Skwee retreated a double step. By virtue of the almost panoramic vision of his wide-spaced blue eyes, he noted that Fafhrd was finishing off the second of his two sword-rats, beating through by brute force the parries of their lighter swords, and himself suffering only a few scratches and minor pricks in the process.
Skwee turned and ran. The Mouser leaped from the table after him. Way down the room something was falling in blue folds from the ceiling. Hisvet, midway along the wall, had slashed with her dagger the cords supporting the curtains that could divide the room in two. Skwee ran a-crouch under them, but the Mouser almost ran into them, dodging swiftly back as Skwee’s rapier thrust through the heavy fabric inches from his throat.
Moments later the Mouser and Fafhrd located the central split in the drapes and suddenly parted them with the tips of their swords, closely a-watch for another rapier-thrust or even a thrown dagger.
Instead they saw Hisvin, Hisvet, and Skwee standing in front, of the audience couch in attitudes of defiance, but grown small as children — if that can be said of a rat. The Mouser started toward them, but before he was halfway there, they became small as rats and swiftly tumbled down a tile-size trapdoor. Skwee, who went last, turned for one more angry chitter at the Mouser, one more shake of toy-size rapier, before he pulled the tile shut over his head.
The Mouser cursed, then burst into laughter. Fafhrd joined him, but his eyes were warily on Frix, still standing human-size behind the couch. Nor did he miss Elakeria on the couch, peering with one affrighted eye from under the coverlet while also thrusting out, inadvertently or no, one slender leg.
Still laughing wildly, the Mouser reeled over to Fafhrd, threw an arm up around his shoulders, and pummeled him playfully in the chest, demanding, “Why did you have to turn up, you great lout? I was about to die heroically, or else slay in mass combat the seven greatest sword-rats in Lankhmar Below! You’re a scene-stealer!”
Eyes still on Frix, Fafhrd roughed the Mouser’s chin affectionately with his fist, then gave him an elbow dig sharp enough to take half his breath away and stop his laughter. “Three of them were only pikemen, or pikerats, as I suppose you call them,” he corrected, then complained gruffly, “I gallop two nights and a day — halfway around the Inner Sea to save your undersized hide. And do so! Only to be told I’m an actor.”
The Mouser gasped out, still with a snickering whoop, “You don’t know how undersized! Halfway around the Inner Sea you say … and nevertheless time your entrance perfectly! Why you’re the greatest actor of them all!” He dropped to his knees in front of the tile that had served as trapdoor and said in tones composed equally of philosophy, humor, and hysteria, “While I must lose — forever, I suppose — the greatest love of my life.” He rapped the tile — it sounded very solid — and thrusting down his face called out softly, “Yoo-hoo! Hisvet!” Fafhrd jerked him to his feet.
Frix raised a hand. The Mouser looked at her, while Fafhrd had never taken his eyes off her.
“Here, little man, catch!” Smiling, she called to the Mouser and tossed him a small black vial, which he caught and goggled at foolishly. “Use it if you are ever again so silly as to wish to seek out my late mistress. I have no need of it. I have worked out my bondage in this world. I have done the diabolic Demoiselle her three services. I am free!”
As she said that last word, her eyes lit up like lamps. She threw back her black hood and took a breath so deep it seemed almost to lift her from the floor. Her eyes fixed on infinity. Her dark hair lifted on her head. Lightning crackled in her hair, formed itself in a blue nimbus, and streamed like a blue cloak down her body, over and through her black silk dress.
She turned and ran swiftly out onto the porch, Fafhrd and the Mouser after her. Glowing still more bluely and crying, “Free! Free! _Free_! Back to Arilia! Back to the World of Air!” she dove off the edge.
She did not seem to enter the waves, but skimmed just along their crests like a small, faint blue comet and then mounting toward the sky, higher and higher, became a faint blue star and vanished.
“Where is Arilia?” the Mouser asked.
“I thought this was the world of Air,” Fafhrd mused.
——–

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