The Providence of Rats

Bhode deliberately took her time wiping down the bar’s mirror finish, though she paid little attention to the chore itself, hands moving with the habits ingrained by years of routine. Instead, she let her gaze rest softly around the club’s vacant dancefloor.

The Nest closed an hour ago, but she could still feel the music, a wub-thumping heartbeat echoing off the walls and through the warren of corridors, awash in green light. Even through the quiet, the memory of music infused the place, trapped inside by the same wards that kept influence of the outside world at bay. It skipped and sparked through the air like static, crackled sour-sweet on her tongue, and smelled of sweat and longing and arousal and deeply buried fear.

Even after all these years, she still found herself tapping time to the memory of music. Here is security, it sang. Here, you can relax. Outside is death. But here, there are no barriers. Here, you can be wild and free. At least for this moment, you are free to be yourself. When the world outside gets too rough, child, return home to my nest and you shall be safe.

That lingering wild magic, lingering life, helped keep The Nest the sanctuary that it was. It was her home, but more than that, it was her temple. Open to all, she asked nothing but that those who take shelter offer up their revelry and community to her. Once, such celebrations in were held yearly, in her name of old. Here, they were held nightly – though her name was neither spoken nor remembered. But they paid her for drinks. Alcohol imbibed on sacred ground, exuded as sweat and passion, while secrets and stories were shared in the dark corners, offered to her in exchange for succor in silence. That was the compact she had with mortal kin and ancients alike. In return, her nest was inviolable.

But while The Nest weathered all the storms that churned beyond its walls, the rest of Toronto was not so well protected. Its concrete and steel bent, the spirit of it cracking as it was battered, again and again, like the rocky shore around a lighthouse. A lighthouse whose purpose was to obscure as much as it was to illuminate, but a lighthouse nonetheless.

“Mother! We bring new-news of dire-danger.” Laxman squeaked, the rat running circles around her feet in distress. His white fur was unkempt, one red eye lidded and swollen, but he scampered up her jeans and into her comforting hands without difficulty.

Though she hadn’t heard his approach, she wasn’t surprised. “What happened?” She stroked his fur, smoothing it out and soothing his wounds with her touch.

Laxman closed his eyes and curled up, little body going limp. Instead of words, he shared in the way of spirits: pure thought and idea, memory made manifest.

Hunt-running with the pack. Sniff-sneak-search through the constructions of the mortal kin. The sewer-scent reminds us. Worked stone, untamed wilds. Walls rise and fall, but only rarely do we care-stop to notice. Ancients or mortal kin, what does it mean-matter under whose halls we creep-run?

But we sense-feel it now, near the broken-torn body of a mortal kin. A new scent-smell stains the poured-stones around it. It smells like nothing. Like no-thing. Empty with hate and hunger-fury.

Fear! Bristled-back, cried out in death-pain! We are hunt-hunted. Devoured but not for food-hunger. Flee-run! Escape the no-thing! We…

“Of us, now there is only me-I.” The rodent nuzzled her palm for comfort.

Tenderly, she hugged Laxman to her breast before giving him a reassuring lick across his head. “I’m so sorry, child. Thank you.” Tensing, she gently let Laxman to the ground before pressing her palms flat against the bar, eyes closed. The scent of the ‘no-thing’ burned in her son’s shared memory. She focused on it, breathing in deeply, holding it – only to find she was holding nothing at all. The scent lingered, but refused to be caught – acrid and pungent the moment it was noticed, then escaping to the periphery of her senses like a skulking beast, until she was left with the barest memory of a memory. Until she wasn’t even certain she smelled anything at all. Had Laxman and the others been left alone, they probably would have just forgotten all about it.

Her stomach turned, a spirit-deep chill shuddering through her bones. This was not a thing of wild magic, but it bore more than a few hallmarks of necromancy. And it was preying on her people. Toronto, as a whole, was not her responsibility, but she would not let the world crumble around her chosen sanctuary. It would take time and lives, but she and her children would track this creature down and find a way to destroy it.

When she opened her eyes, they were the beady red of a white rat. Transformed into featureless black pits by the green light illuminating the dance floor, thousands more tiny eyes stared back, waiting.