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Excerpt for Rodent Buttes by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Altered Creatures Epic Fantasy Adventures

Nums of Shoreview Series

Rodent Buttes

Historical Date 4.0649.1128

(4th Age, 649th Year, 11th Month, 28th Day)





Copyright © 2018 by Anthony G. Wedgeworth


Published by Anthony G. Wedgeworth

Cover artwork by Frederick L. Wedgeworth

Illustration artwork by Steve Ott

ISBN-13: 9780463110904

Library of Congress Control Number: 2018904739


Altered Creatures Epic Fantasy Adventures

Historical Date 4.0649.1128

Nums of Shoreview Series

Book 5, Revision 1.0 eBook

Rodent Buttes

www.AlteredCreatures.com


Printed in the United States of America


Without limiting the rights under the copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by and means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of copyright owner of this book.


The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the copyright owner is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyright materials.


Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


No Thrashers or Chuttlebeasts were harmed in the making of this book.



Dedication: To Tami; my wife, my editor, my consultant, and my best friend. Thank you for always being there for me.


Acknowledgments: JoAnn Cegon, Tami Wedgeworth, Darci Knapp, Jennifer Eulgem for editing support, Steve Ott for his wonderful illustrations, and Rick Wedgeworth for his cover art renderings. I’m very fortunate to have you on my team; I couldn’t have done this without you.




www.AlteredCreatures.com

Altered Creatures Epic Adventures continues with the following books:


Nums of Shoreview Series (Pre-Teen, Ages 9 to 12)

Stolen Orb (Book 1)

Unfair Trade (Book 2)

Slave Trade (Book 3)

Baka’s Curse (Book 4)

Haunted Secrets (Book 5)

Rodent Buttes (Book 6)


Thorik Dain Series (Young Adult and Adult)

Treasure of Sorat (Prequel)

Fate of Thorik (Book 1)

Sacrifice of Ericc (Book 2)

Essence of Gluic (Book 3)

Rise of Rummon (Book 4)

Prey of Ambrosius (Book 5)

Plea of Avanda (Book 6)


Tilli of Kingsfoot Series (Adult)

Time Will Tell (Book 1)


Santorray’s Privations Series (Adult)

Hunted

Outraged


Look for other upcoming stories of

Santorray’s Privations

Ambrosius

Tilli of Kingsfoot

Darkmere

Myth’Unday

Dragon & Del’Unday Wars

and more…





Rodent Buttes


by


Anthony G. Wedgeworth




Chapter 1

Gaz and Shadows



In his dark bedroom, Gaz sat on his bed and gazed into a small open chest. Tucked neatly in fine cloths, a flat, polished, hexagonal Runestone sat and waited to be used. Or at least, that’s what Gaz felt. He didn’t know why, but he felt compelled to reach in and touch it.

Rubbing his finger across the skeleton key used to open the chest, he caused the key handle to glow which in turn made the crystal embedded in the center of the Runestone glow bright. The room lit up from the palm sized stone, casting a shadow of Gaz on the wall behind him. The light itself was mesmerizing and Gaz reached nervously forward with trembling hands to touch the stone. His arms and hands slowly blocked the light and created shadows across the other walls that fluttered from the slight variations in the illumination.

It was then that Gaz noticed that the shadows from his fingers were moving long after he had stopped. In fact, each shadow from his fingers were flowing independently as they grew into their own unique shape and released themselves from his hand.

Freely floating about, the shapes manifested into creatures he had seen before. Wings sprouted from one shadow as it formed a large bird, while another twisted into a cloaked man with a staff, and another into a giant rodent. And then a shadow of large, menacing Blothrud grew along the wall.

Gaz snapped his head about, gazing at the dark forms on his walls from the crystal’s light. He didn’t understand how he could create such clear images, and he wiggled his fingers to see if they truly had anything to do with them.

Upon moving them about, each and every shadow halted their casual floating against the walls and then turned to focus on the boy.

A chill ran up his spine as all ten of them began to move in toward him. He didn’t know how, but it appeared they had left the wall and were moving through the room toward his bed. His attempts to scream provided no sound as his voice had been lost. His attempt to jump out of bed in order to run to his pa was prevented by his inability to use his legs. For some unknown reason, they simply wouldn’t move.

There he sat with no way to call for help or go to find it. All the while the dark masses moved closer and closer as they reached out to seize him. Closing his eyes, he waited to be attacked.

The seconds ticked by as he cowered in his bed, until he finally opened up his eyes to see they had vanished. Instead, he looked upon a shadow in the shape of a mountain with the top peak missing. The flat surface made the image appear similar to a giant trunk after the tree had been chopped down.

Unlike any mountain he had ever seen, hundreds of small specks bubbled up from the flat surface and ran down the sides. The amount grew and the size of the specks increased until he could identify what they were. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of Sand Rats racing down the mountain and across his floor as a huge wave toward his bed. Covering his walls and furniture the shadowy outlines of rats surrounded him and rushed at him.

Grabbing the lid of the chest, he slammed it shut to extinguish the light, in hopes of ending the shadows that were being created by it.

All went dark.

“No light means no shadows,” Gaz said to himself as he covered his eyes just in case. Slowly peeking out between his fingers, his eyes adjusted to the soft cloud-covered moonlight shining through his window. “They’re gone,” he said with a sigh of relief.

It was then that he heard the pitter patter of small feet running across his floor. He had heard that sound before and he was not happy to hear it once again.

Leaping up onto the bed was a small wooden two-legged creature with a spear. It was the carved Baka idol he had thrown out into the lake. But it had changed in form to look more like a wooden Sand Rat.

Gaz froze with fear as the idol raced at him with his weapon ready to strike. His attempts to block the miniature warrior did no good as the wooden rat moved quickly with each stab.

After several successful cuts with the blade at the end of his spear, the little fighter launching his spear into the air, impaling Gaz in the shoulder.

Gaz screamed with all of his might and shot up in bed with sweat pouring off him as the morning sunlight peaked in his window. His nightmare was over, although it had all seemed so real.

The door flung open as his father stormed in, expecting trouble, but finding none. “I heard a scream.”

Trying to brush away his fear from the terrible dream, Gaz shook his head. “It was me.”

A stern glare at the boy made it clear he didn’t like the false alarm. “Again, Gaz? When are you going to grow out of this?”

“I don’t know, Pa. I don’t mean to have them.”

“I thought your courage to enter the Traub home by yourself would have given you enough self-confidence to end these night terrors.”

“Apparently not,” Gaz said. “I’m sorry I’ve let you down.”

The Sheriff’s hard features were difficult to read as he considered his son’s words. “You’re getting too old to worry about impressing me. You need to make sure you don’t let yourself down. That will be the key to your success.”

“Yes, Pa.”

“Now, get dressed and eat hearty. We’re leaving this morning to hide that chest with the Runestone artifact. We can’t let that become a weapon in anyone’s war.”



Chapter 2

Making Plans to Hide It



After gathering supplies, the Sheriff, Chasen, Gaz, Bik, and Faun met at the ‘Dare to Trade’ shop before heading out of town. There was more room to gather and make plans in the jailhouse and should have been the logical choice for everyone. However, the building was still under construction and the Sheriff didn’t want everyone to know why he was leaving town. He especially didn’t want the Alchemist in his jail to know, because his prisoner had been told that the Runestone artifact had been swept out in the undertow. However, it was only a deception used to stop the search for the ancient item that was within the chest before them.

Unrolling a large map of the northern regions around Woodlen, Chasen set the chest, as well as a few other heavy items, on each corner so the paper wouldn’t roll back up. “The further east we travel, the more dangerous it will get with the likelihood of running into the Altered Creatures. So, our options are north or west, unless we plan to charter a boat.”

The three young Nums stood around the table gazing at the map as they listened to Chasen and the Sheriff make plans. They were intrigued with all the new locations they had never heard of and wondered what they must look like.

The Sheriff was clear on his thoughts as usual. “No boats. There’s no hiding in the open waters and hiring a captain and crew opens ourselves up to more people knowing about the artifact and where we hide it.”

“Agreed,” Chasen said. “Without making this a major expedition, I would say our best options are the lava tubes of the Angry Sisters’ volcanoes, one of the many small hidden valleys along the Haplorhini Mountain Range, or within the Rodent Buttes.”

The Sheriff crossed his arms at his chest. “The range is filled with primates. Accidently wandering into a territory from a Thrasher’s tribe could be deadly.”

“All these places will have some risk. That is why they are good locations to hide the artifact. The lava tubes are perhaps the best option, but with the recent volcanic rumbling, I couldn’t tell you offhand which ones are still safe to travel through,” Chasen noted. “It sounds like our best option is in the Rodent Buttes. It’s close by and avoided by most travelers.”

The comment caught Bik’s ears. “Why is it avoided?”

“Sand Rats,” Chasen told his son.

Bik found it to be an odd answer. “We have Sand Rats here, but it doesn’t keep away travelers. They arrive here from all parts of the Kingdom.”

“True, we are a key trading port, and being just outside of the Kingdom’s domain, we are not limited by their restrictions, which is appealing to many who wish to trade. But the differences are that there aren’t any cities in that area and they don’t have a few Sand Rats running around like here. Instead, there are hundreds of thousands of them and they are the primary residents of that area.”

“Hundreds of thousands?” Gaz spoke out loud without even realizing it. Flashbacks of his nightmare played through his head of the rats attacking him on his bed.

“How will we keep them away?” Faun asked.

“We?” The Sheriff was surprised that she thought the three young Nums were going. “This venture is not for you.”

Gaz gave a sigh of relief upon hearing he wasn’t going.

“This is something Chasen and I need to finish on our own.” the Sheriff said. “I expect all of you to stay here in the safety of Shoreview.”

“Safety? Here in Shoreview?” Bik asked with a laugh.

Bik’s father held back a grin at the comment that was truer than the Sheriff wished to hear, but he needed Gaz’s father for this mission. “Bik, if I recall correctly, many of the recent events have been stimulated by you three. Perhaps you could avoid any new encounters until we return.”

“The Rodent Buttes it is.” The Sheriff firmly pointed at the area just north of Shoreview on the map. “We’ll need climbing gear to reach the top of the buttes, rations for a few days, standard camping gear, and slow burning oil to surround the camp at night.”

“Slow burning oil?” Bik asked.

His father explained, “Once we’re deep into the rodent infested lands, the only way to keep them out of our camp and off of us will be to dig a shallow trench around the camp, fill it with oil, and light it on fire. They won’t leap over the flames.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve had to test it more times than your mother will ever need to know,” he said with a wink to his son.

Gaz had his own question. “Pa, why do you have to climb the buttes?” The vision of the flattop mountain from his nightmare still created an emotional response.

“We want to know that the artifact will stay safe where we hide it,” his pa answered. “Sand Rats have a tendency to collect objects they find. The ground is littered with holes and tunnels where they could move it to. However, the artifact will be left alone because the rats don’t climb up to the top of the buttes. No one knows why. But, it’s a safe location to hide this artifact and know it won’t be disturbed by them or anything else that lives out that way.”

Replaying the visions of his shadows through his head, Gaz was worried. “I don’t like this, Pa. It’s not safe. Something bad is going to happen.”

“What are you talking about?”

He knew better than to tell his pa about his dream, so he changed his story a bit. “That artifact we found has powers. When the center crystal of the stone lit up I saw something scary.”

He had everyone’s attention and they waited for him to continue.

“I saw a half mountain, like that butte on the map, with rats coming out. Thousands of them.” Gaz trembled from the memories as he continued his story. “A wave of them rolled across my room and landed on my bed!” He suddenly realized he shouldn’t have said that last part.

“Ah, I see,” his pa replied. “So that was the nightmare you had this morning.” He shook his head with slight disappointment. “We don’t need to be afraid of your dreams, son.”

Gaz watched everyone laugh off his tall tale and return to the planning of the journey.

Pulling together his father’s needed supplies, Bik was still unhappy about being left behind. “I’m a very good climber,” he told his father, who nodded in agreement. “I could be very helpful to this mission.”

“It’s not going to happen, Bik. This is far too dangerous and you’re not old enough yet.”

“Can you wait until I am?”

Chasen smiled. “I know how much you want to see the world, but you’re going to have to wait a bit longer. The timing of this mission is critical. We need the artifact hidden immediately, before anyone else gets word of it being here.”

“But the Alchemist was caught and once he tells the Matriarch that it was swept away, then we’re safe.”

“He may not be the only one looking for it. If suspicion leads anyone else here we need to rest assure it’s not in the city to be found.”

“Who else would want it?”

A scoff at the question was released by the Sheriff as he continued to pack his bag.

Chasen stopped stuffing his bag long enough to explain the issue to all three young Nums. “This artifact can be used for many things. It can control the minds of others. The Matriarch wants it for her war, but who is to say that the Dovenar Kingdom doesn’t want it for the same purpose? It could also be used by the Altered Creatures, or by Darkmere himself to retake his throne in Doven. It could be an excellent tool for a thief to obtain what he wanted, or used by a merchant to force others to buy his products at insane prices. The list goes on and on. This artifact must be hidden from our civilization.”

“If it’s that powerful, why not destroy it?”

“These were made by the ancient Notarians and E’rudites. They cannot be destroyed by anyone but them.”


Chapter 3

Sir Newcastle



Finishing up his preparation, the Sheriff stepped outside the shop to ensure the coast was clear before he and Chasen started on their way. To his dismay, there was something wrong on a distant dock. It was an event that he, as the Sheriff, had to address.

Setting his gear back down just inside the front door, he told the young Nums to wait while he and Chasen attended to the issue.

All three Nums followed them to the door and looked down the docks to see what was so important. Like three little ferrets peering out of the doorway, the Nums all stretched their necks out to get a good view. There, beyond Chasen and the Sheriff walking away from the shop, was the answer that towered over the other structures.

Several large ships had docked, all bearing the Dovenar Kingdom flags. It was an uncommon sight, one that Bik had only seen a few times in his life. “Why would the Royal Navy land upon our shores?” Bik asked his friends.

“They’ve come for the artifact!” Gaz said in a nervous cracking voice.

“Not so loud.” Faun placed a calming hand on him. “It could be several different reasons. We won’t know from here.”

“Then we’ll move closer,” Bik announced as he slipped out of the shop and began making his way down the dock, keeping his distance from his father as he hid behind barrels and stack of large sacks along the way.

“Are you going as well?” Faun asked.

“No way! My pa would paddle my backside if he saw me. He told me to stay here.”

“Good idea.” Faun raced back into the shop for a moment before returning to the doorway. “Neither are my father, so you stay here and watch over the artifact. I’ll be right back.” She then headed after Bik before she could get a list from Gaz of all the reasons why she should stay.

Alone in the doorway, Gaz followed his instincts and popped back inside and then closed and locked the door. He was the safest of them all, yet he was the one most scared.

Bik had caught up to his father and the Sheriff moments after they had finished the cordial greetings with the representative from the Dovenar Kingdom. Hiding behind several crates of produce, the young Num was startled when Faun arrived unannounced.

She smiled at Bik being surprised. It wasn’t very often she had seen it happen. Placing a finger over her lips, she convinced him not to ask her how she showed up without detection.

With a suspicious glare, he turned back to listen to the conversation between the adults.

“What brings you to our floating city of Shoreview, Sir Newcastle?” the Sheriff asked.

The representative appeared to be less than impressed with the city. “I had always heard grand tales of this city, but it appears as though they were exaggerated.”

“We are currently rebuilding after a catastrophe that destroyed much of our structures. Is that why you’ve come? Have you brought supplies to help us through these times?”

“No.” Sir Newcastle didn’t seem to care about the Sheriff and his challenges. “Are you aware of the battles in the southern provinces?”

“I am. Tales of the Matriarch and her hold upon the Southwind province have reached our shores.”

“Perfect. So you understand how important it is that we prevent her hold from reaching the Doven province?”

The Sheriff kept his strong chin up to ensure the representative didn’t feel in control. “We are not part of the Kingdom. You’ve made that clear on many occasions when we’ve asked for assistance. Therefore, we do not stay abreast on your internal dealings, nor have supplies and men to spare for your fight.”

“I didn’t ask for any. But I have heard that you may have something that could help us.” Sir Newcastle turned to Chasen. “In fact, it’s our understanding that you, sir, have possession of the item in question.” He eyed the adult Num up and down. “I recognize you from Southwind’s wanted posters.”

Chasen’s eyes tightened, but he restrained himself from interrupting the conversation between the two.

The Sheriff nodded. “Shoreview is the largest trading city in the lands. We have many items. You’ll have to be more specific.”

“I don’t have interest in your diversions and delays, sir. The Matriarch’s weapon was said to be taken by Chasen and brought back here to Shoreview. Our informants tell us that she is sending one of her men up here to retrieve it.”

“You’re too late. He arrived the other day and now sits in our jail after threatening our citizens.”

“Excellent. Then we will be taking the stolen artifact before she sends another.”

“It’s no longer here. There was an altercation with the Matriarch’s Alchemist and by the time we had it under control the artifact had been washed out by the undertow. It’s gone forever.”

Sir Newcastle’s face became tight. “I haven’t the time or patience for these games, sir. The Kingdom requires this artifact to end our fighting between Provinces! This will reunify our people and force the Altered Creatures back into their caves. Now, provide the artifact!”

The Sheriff took a deep breath. It was rare that anyone had the authority to talk to him in such a way, and even though Shoreview wasn’t within the Kingdom, Sir Newcastle had the troops with him to do whatever he wanted. Despite the threat, the Sheriff lifted his chest with pride and strength. “It’s unfortunate that you came all this way to follow a fool’s tale. I have no such artifact, nor does Chasen.”

Snapping his fingers, Sir Newcastle had his troops surround the Sheriff and Chasen. After patting them down and not finding the item he was searching for, he gave further instructions to his troops. “Prepare to invade this appalling city. You know what the Runestone looks like, as well the chest it’s stored in. I want every structure inspected. Check every closet, drawer, and cupboard. Break every lock that blocks your search!”

“You have no right!” the Sheriff protested.

“I have enough soldiers to take over this city and enough oil to light the entire thing on fire and burn it down into the lake. That gives me the right to do as I please!”

The two stared at each other for several intense moments but neither would back down.

“This is your final chance,” Sir Newcastle said. “Give me the artifact and we will leave without harm, aside from taking provisions that we need for our trip. Not giving me what I want will cost you and your city a few days of us ripping this place apart to uncover every rock you have hidden. And if we do find out you’ve lied about it not being here, we’ll burn this city down.”

Chasen turned to the Sheriff and was about to speak, but his friend answered first. “Sir Newcastle, you are making a grave error. We have not conceded with your enemies nor do wish to become one. However, tearing our lives apart to find something not here could cause a rift in our trade with you for a generation to come.”

“Then let my children sail past these shores and see nothing but pylons from a city that once was.” Sir Newcastle turned from the Sheriff back to his troops once again. “Take these two onto my ship. The rest of you can start your search!”

Grabbed and escorted by a dozen of Sir Newcastle’s troops, Chasen and the Sheriff were whisked away and out of sight.

Bik and Faun had heard the entire conversation and knew what they had to do. The question was, how they were going to get back to the shop without anyone knowing that they had been hiding just a few feet away from Sir Newcastle’s conversation. Several armed troops marched past them on their way to the first shops on the dock. Sprinting away would get them caught, or at least questioned.

“Take this,” Faun said as she placed a feather in Bik’s hand. “Hold it tight while I climb on your back.”

Bik didn’t have a clue what she was up to, but it wouldn’t be the first or last time he trusted her without questioning. Bending over, he allowed her to climb on.

“Say ‘celeritas’ and let your voice blow across the feather. Then run as fast as you can.”

Just then, one of the Kingdom’s military men turned and saw them hiding behind the crates. “What are you doing back there?” He approached to grab them.

“Celeritas,” Bik said with his lips near the feather. Trusting Faun, he leaped up and began to run. To his amazement everything else around him appeared to move at a fraction of their normal speed. Flying down the dock, he tore like lightning across the dock and within a few seconds he was at the door of the ‘Dare to Trade’ shop.

Faun jumped off and took the feather from him. “That was too close.”

“How did we do that?” Bik was torn between being in shock and excited. “Where did you get that?”

Tucking the feather away, she smiled. “This is how that Alchemist caught up to you. I happened to find a few of his items that fell out of his cloak when they brought him in.”

The door was locked and Bik was in no mood to wait for Gaz, so he unlocked it with his own key. Once unlocked, they both bolted in before closing and locking it behind them.

Bik ran over and grabbed the small chest still sitting on the table. “We need to get this artifact out of the city!”

Gaz glanced back and forth at his friends. “Why? What happened?”

“The Dovenar Kingdom has arrived and they’re searching for it. Our fathers said it wasn’t here, so if they find it in the city they plan to burn everything down!”

“Where’s my Pa? He’ll straighten this out. We don’t need to go anywhere.”

Faun grabbed him by the shoulders. “Gaz, your father has been captured and held prisoner by them. The only way we can help is to make sure they don’t find the Runestone inside that chest.”

“They have my pa?” It was hard for him to envision anyone holding his pa against his will. “Where can we hide it?” Gaz started looking around the room. “How about in the wall where we found the key to the chest?”

“No, we need to get it out of the city right now!” Bik finished stuffing the wooden chest in his father’s travel bag. “Grab the Sheriff’s pack! We’re leaving!” Poking his head out the doorway he could see a constant flow of military personnel leaving the boats and scattering out across the docks and into the city. Several were heading their way as they stopped at each shop and home to investigate. “We leave now or never!” Bik glanced back as he watched Faun help load the Sheriff’s pack onto Gaz’s back. “Let’s go!”

The three young Nums raced out of the shop, down various streets, up ramps and ladders, across rope bridges, and up staircases until they reached one of the few safe ways to leave the city onto the top of the bluff. Climbing the final ladder, they knew they were on their own and no one would be there to rescue them if something went wrong.

Turning back, they overlooked the entire city of Shoreview as the troops invaded their way in. Additional ships of the Kingdom were anchored out in the water in order to prevent any local boats from being launched.

Gaz gazed at the docked Kingdom’s ships where he assumed his pa was being held. “It will take days for them to search every nook and cranny of such a large city. We can’t return with the artifact until they’ve left.”

“We’re not going to bring it back,” Bik said. “They may leave spies to watch us afterward. Others may arrive later to look for it. We need to end this.”

“How?”

Faun knew exactly what Bik was trying to say. “We need to carry out the mission.”

“What?” Gaz’s heart raced at the terrible idea. “But they said we were too young.”

“Yes they did,” Faun nodded. “Apparently we’re going to have to grow up faster than expected.”

“How fast?” Gaz sheepishly asked.

“Like right now,” Bik answered. Turning from the edge of the bluff, he headed into the tall grass that was twice his own height.

Seeing their friend slowly disappear as the grass fell back into place behind him, Faun and Gaz headed in after him before they lost him.



Chapter 4

The Rodent Butte



After rolling out the map across the ground in the dim light of the setting sun, Bik studied it once again. “I can’t tell if we’re going the right direction. The grass is too tall.”

Faun looked it over as well. “Lift me up. Once I’m up high enough to see, I just need to find these three peaks in order to know where we are,” she said while pointing to the locations on the map.

It was worth a try and they made several attempts to lift her up high enough to see. Once there, she gained her bearings just as a few Sand Rats raced past the boy’s feet, causing them to move and Faun to fall.

“I hate those!” Gaz yelled. “Every few minutes they come at us, each time getting closer and closer. Next time they’ll run up our legs. Then there will be a wave of them flooding the land! I just know it!”

Ignoring Gaz’s panic attack, Faun stood back up with the help of Bik. “We’re not far from the buttes. The first one looks like just a few more hours away.”

“A few more hours?” Gaz was stressed about being so far from home. “It’s nearly dark. I’m not climbing those cliffs in the dark!”

“Relax.” Bik rolled up his father’s map and then began emptying some supplies from his bag. “Sand Rats tend to be nocturnal, so we’ll see more of them as the sun sets. So we’re staying here for the night. It’s been a long day of walking and it is best that we set up camp to regain our strength. We’ll tackle those cliffs in the morning when we’re fresh and the sun is out to help us.”

Images of a wave of rats rolling across the grasslands and crashing down upon them flashed through Gaz’s mind. “Sleep the night? Here with these rodents? Are you insane?”

“What would you like?” Bik was tired of his whining. “You don’t want to go forward and you don’t want to stop. We can’t go back!”

Faun could see Gaz breaking down, and she gave him a hug when he started to cry. “It’s okay. We’re in this together. We’re going to save our city and our parents. You’ll be a hero.”

“I don’t want to be a hero, and I don’t want to be around the rats. I just want to know my family is safe and I can see them every night before I go to bed and that all three of us can get together and play after chores. Is that too much to ask for?”

Faun chuckled at the thoughts. “I think we would all like that, but that’s not always going to be there for us. We need to come to terms that things change and we need to adapt.” Turning, she smiled at her other friend. “Isn’t that right?”

Bik’s expression of confusion was overly played upon his face. “Did Gaz just say he did chores? I’d like to see that.”

“Bik, be serious,” Faun replied.

“I am. It’s like pulling teeth to get him to help around the shop,” he said to her with a slight chuckle. “Tell me, Gaz, what are your chores? Do they make you put on your own pants?”

Gaz scowled at Bik. “It’s not funny. I don’t like being away from my parents especially when we’re away from home.” Tears pooled in his eyes.

Putting his hands up to stop the emotions, Bik gave in. “Nor do I, but dwelling on it won’t help them. Right now the only way we can help is by finishing this mission.”

Nodding, Gaz agreed just as another Sand Rat raced into the area, but this time up his leg. “HELP!”

Faun quickly knocked it off and the rat flew into the tall grass, out of sight. “We need to get this camp put together before it gets any darker.”

Dozens of large rats made their way into camp as they cleared off an area and dug a shallow trench, just as they heard Bik’s father describe it. Once they poured their oil and lit it, their rodent problems were resolved while they finished the rest of their site. Bread was broken and dried meat was eaten before they settled in for the night. The sounds of rats scurrying through the grass filled the night as the partial moon gave the rest of the grasslands a soft blue hue.

The noises from the rats made it difficult to sleep, but all three Nums eventually fell into slumber. Gaz was the last to go as his fear of the Sand Rats continued to grow. Eventually exhaustion forced him to sleep as well.

Incident free overnight, morning arrived and breakfast was enjoyed by the Nums as an audience of rats peeked their little noses out of the tall grass and sniffed the food.

As the sun rose, the rat population reduced and Bik, Faun, and Gaz were soon on their way to the nearest butte. Traveling north led them deeper into the Sand Rat territory and more rodents scurrying about their feet as they continued their trek. Standing still increased their odds of an uninvited guest climbing their legs, so the Nums chose not to stop and rest until they reached the cliff of the butte.

Upon arriving, they realized how much they underestimated the height of the mountainside cliff. Large and small boulders had fallen from the steep sides of the butte littering the base with cracked rocks and flattened grass.

Holes had been dug throughout the base of the mountain and rats climbed in and out as they gathered food and brought it back to their underground nests. Some holes were large enough for a Num to climb into, but none of the youth had any interest at finding out where they led.

Climbing up on a few of the larger boulders to avoid most of the rodents, all three travelers prepared for the climb and the hiding of the artifact.

Bik was the first to start his ascent up the cliff face. Tying his rope to more stable rocks, he improved the climb for his friends. As he climbed he felt cool air flowing out of thin and long vertical cracks in the wall of the cliff, which felt wonderful as he was perspiring from the climb under the strong sunlight.

Being very agile, Bik worked his way back and forth until he reached the top without incident. He then tied off the final rope at the very top before signaling the all clear to his friends below.

Gaz was next. He couldn’t wait to get away from the rodents running around the base of the butte. As much as he didn’t like climbing the dangerous cliff, he was happy to take it over any more little rat claws grabbing at his clothes. Hand over hand, he climbed the rope as he used his feet to navigate back and forth from the footholds Bik had established. Nearly halfway up, he glanced down to see how far he had come, which was the worse thing he could have done. The view down made everything start to spin and he clung to the rope, frozen with fear.

“Gaz! Hurry up!” Bik yelled down. Not only did he want his friend to finish the climb, but he had seen something they hadn’t. From his vantage point at the flat top of the butte, he watched thousands of rats racing through the grass from the other buttes towards theirs. “They know we’re here! Hurry!”

Faun was finding it harder and harder to keep the rats off of her. She began to use the rope to assist her up upon the boulders at the bottom of the cliff. She tried to not pull so hard that the weight of her and Gaz would cause the rope to break free from the cliff,

Gaz watched in horror as the rats filled the grasslands below, surrounding his friend. “Climb!” And yet, he was too nervous to do that same very thing to reach the top.

Racing across the grasslands, the rats piled up upon one another until the ground was covered with over three yards thick of scrambling rats. The mound continued to grow into a wave of rats barreling toward the bluff they were on.

The rodents already at the base leaped up onto the boulder Faun was standing on. They were no longer passive as they were working together to attack her.

Kicking a few away, Faun knew she had no choice but to trust that the rope would hold both Gaz and her long enough to climb to the top. And, in a leap of faith, she grabbed the rope, lifted her legs, and started to climb.

Over a dozen of the rats did the same and a few even clung onto the rope before climbing up toward Faun. Once there, the rodents attempted to crawl onto her legs.

Stopping every few feet, she knocked off another rat that raced up the rope. Eventually she made it up to her friend, who hadn’t moved since she started. “Gaz! Snap out of it! We have to go before more arrive.”

Gaz’s view fixated downward. “It’s too late. It’s real! The wave of rats is here!”

Turning, she could immediately see his concern. The thick layer of rats had swelled so high that it had built up a crest that broke against the butte. Flying up from the crash, like an ocean wave breaking against the rocks, it showered rats up across the cliff, onto the rope, and coated the two Nums.

Gaz screamed and instinctively let go of the rope to protect himself. The action caused him to fall and knock Faun off as well. Still fighting off the rats, they fell over fifty feet to the base of the butte.

“NO!” Bik watched as his friends tumbled down toward the landscape of moving gray animals. There was nothing he could do but watch them disappear in the thick wave of rats, not knowing if they survived the fall.

Much like watching water after a flood, the wave of rats washed away into the holes near the base of the butte until the ground became visible again. Faun and Gaz were gone and there was no trace of them ever hitting the ground.

Bik also noticed that the rats on the rope had also descended and returned to their holes. He was suddenly in a calm setting, on the flat top of a butte in the middle of the grasslands. The oddly serene feeling seemed completely wrong after what had just happened. “My friends are gone,” he muttered to himself in disbelief. “My father was right. I wasn’t ready for this and now my friends have paid the price.”

Resting on his knees, he wasn’t sure how to proceed. “I can’t give up on them. I’m going to have to climb down one of those rat holes to save them.”




Chapter 5

Down the Rat Hole



Climbing back down the cliff face, Bik frequently checked to see if rats were gathering at the base, waiting for their next victim. Instead, he saw the typical amount of rats scurrying about with no interest in his descent.

After halfway down he noticed that the rope had been chewed on and was much weaker than normal. “That’s not a good sign. Why do I get the feeling this is a trap?” he asked himself while watching the periodic rat race below.

Using extra precaution, he started to move again, only to have one of the knots snap apart, due to a rope that had been chewed upon. Falling a few yards before catching himself on the cliff, his pack ripped open and the chest he had brought fell out.

Toppling end over end down the side of the butte, the chest eventually smashed against the ground. The lid popped open and the artifact inside flew out and rolled a several feet away. Landing on the ground with the crystal facing up, the hexagonal stone appeared undamaged.

Bik ensured his footing was stable before seeing if the commotion below had alerted the rats. He was surprised to find out that instead of attacking the object, they raced over to it and then skidded to a stop over a yard from the stone, avoiding the artifact.

“Excellent,” Bik said to himself before making his way to the base of the cliff.

Once there, he jumped from the top of a fallen boulder into the rat-free zone surrounding the Runestone. Snatching it from the ground, he backed up against the cliff just in case he’d have to climb it again to avoid an attack. However, his hopes seemed to be fulfilled as the Sand Rats kept their distance.

Holding the rock near his waist, he walked a random path and watched the rodents separate and disperse to give him free travel. Clearly the artifact repelled the rodents. Pleased with the results, he selected his next test of the stone’s strength as he peered into one of the large rat holes. His confidence suddenly didn’t seem so strong as he wondered if rats would be chewing on his toes as he crawled in head first. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but it was a risk he knew he was going to take.

Bik inspected the chest to see if the damage could be repaired, only to find that the layer of cloths that had held the Runestone in position had come free, exposing something underneath; a circlet. The royal looking metal band had a holder for the stone in the front and was designed to wrap well over halfway around the wearer’s head.

“It would be easier than trying to carry it while I crawl,” he told himself as he snapped the Runestone into the circlet and placed it on his head. Rubbing the handle of the chest’s key, the crystal in the Runestone began to glow. “That should help guide my way through the dark.”

After placing the chest back in his bag, he tied a cloth over his nose and mouth to keep out some of the dirt and smell. Standing at the base of the butte, he made one last check before venturing into the unknown. He was as ready as he would ever be.

The hole was just large enough for Bik to climb on his hands and knees. It was dark and uneven, with sharp corners and drop-offs. At one point the rat hole exposed the underside of a large boulder and the thought of the tunnel giving way and him being crushed was all too real. He had seen side tunnels that had collapsed from the weight and to expect his path to be safe would be foolish.

The sounds of rats squeaking, hissing, and chattering came from every passage he faced. He could hear down small side tunnels as well as following him from behind. He was surrounded. However, the light from the Runestone’s crystal simply wasn’t strong enough to shine far enough to see them.

The deeper he climbed, the more rat droppings filled the tunnel. The smell worked its way through the cloth covering his nose and mouth and his eyes began to water from the vapors. Trying to always stay with the largest tunnel passage, he had taken several turns from the smaller paths heading straight into the center of the butte. He knew it was a risk, but he wasn’t willing to go from crawling on his hands and knees to sliding on his stomach in the smaller passageways.

Eventually, the tunnel before him gave him some hope. It opened up to an area that he could stand back up. After crawling in the filth, he was excited about the opportunity to get back on his feet. Yet, what he saw struck him by surprise.

The room before him was mammoth in width and height. The entire inside of the butte had been hollowed out and made into a miniature city infested with rodents. Thousands of tunnels exited the complex community as Sand Rats raced about on their normal duties.

Thin cracks in the upper butte cliff walls allowed sunlight to enter and brighten the city. Structures were built from clay and rocks, as well as items found from travelers. A broken wagon wheel was used as part of a larger structure and fabric fragments from clothes were used to cover some entrances. Tent fabric had been fashioned to reflect the sunlight and metal tubes were placed to control the flow of water.

Bik could see hundreds of items collected over decades. He could also see that these were not rats running randomly about like he had seen on the surface. There was organization down below the surface. “Perhaps there’s someone in charge.”

Heading in toward one of the central structures, the rats kept their distance from him, just as they did outside. Unlike the streets of a typical city, these were not flat or straight and Bik found himself climbing up and down to reach the central area.

Dust shimmered in the thin columns of light that brightened the structure before him. It was large enough to hold a town hall meeting back in Shoreview. Noises of a crowd chanting and screeching came from within. Bik felt he had found the right place. Back on his hands and knees, he crawled inside the doorway before standing back up once inside.

Dozens of levels filled most of the open hall, each occupied by hundreds of Sand Rats. Along one side was a single level of rats sitting at a long table as though they were holding some type of meeting. Each of these rats had man-made jewelry hanging around their necks.

In the center of the large room sat two Nums who had been tied up. Faun and Gaz turned to Bik the moment he entered, along with all the rats. However, those rats near the entrance immediately raced at least a yard away before stopping. The Runestone’s effect on them was still working.

“Bik!” Gaz yelled. “Help!”

“What’s going on here?” Bik asked, scanning the rats to make sure they weren’t getting ready to tie him up along with his friends.

Faun nodded toward the table of rats across the front. “We’re on trial.”

Bik approached her with an odd look. “For what crimes?”

“Damages from your people!” The voice came from one of the rodents at the table. It was the leader of the Sand Rats and the metal bracelet he wore as a crown made him stand out.

Stopping in his tracks, Bik swiveled around to stare at the talking rat.

“It’s the rat council,” Faun said. “The superior rats that rule this city have been given the power to speak. Their leader, Eck, believes we are here to harm them.”

Bik had to clarify for his own thoughts. “Talking rats?”

“We do more than just speak,” Eck said. “We can understand, plan, and defend ourselves against your people.”

“Defend?”

“We want to live in isolation from the outside world. To accomplish this, we will no longer tolerate you coming into our lands, destroying our environment, climbing our sacred towers, and eating us!”

“Climbing your towers? You mean the buttes?”

Eck stood on his back legs to add more power to his words. “They provide safety from the elements and sun for our cities. They are not to be touched, let alone climbed!”

“I didn’t know! How would we know?”

“Your people have come through our lands for decades, treating us like vermin. We have grown in intellect and understanding, and we refuse to allow your actions to continue. We shall make an example of you for your crime to send a strong message to your people.”

“My crime? Climbing the butte?”

“Yes! You have blocked the holy light that warms our city and broken off rocks from the side of this great temple. For this you shall be sentenced to death!” Eck announced as the rest of the rats cheered.

“But I didn’t know!”

“That is not our concern.”

Bik looked back at his friends and then back to the lead rat. “What about my friends? They didn’t climb to the top, and they were only following my lead.”

“They made the same offense. They shall be punished as well.”

“No! I won’t let you!” Bik stepped toward the rat leader. The action caused him, and the others near him, to retreat as the Runestone in his circlet grew closer. Realizing he had the upper hand, he refused to give in. “I don’t need your permission to leave.”

“True,” Eck said. “But we will follow you and we will come for you when you’re not expecting us. You will only delay your punishment. Remove that crown and we will make your death as quick and painless as possible.”

Bik knew they could follow through with their threat and he didn’t want to live in fear. His mind raced as he thought of options. “I will.”

“Bik! No!” Faun yelled.

“Don’t do it!” Gaz screamed.

Bik kept his eye on the rat leader. “I will give up this Runestone that keeps you at bay under one condition.”

“And that would be?”

“You allow my friends safe passage home to Shoreview and forgive their crime of doing as I asked. They were only following my leadership which caused them to be here.”

“And if I don’t agree to this?”

“Clearly you can’t touch me as long as I wear this. I could leave here and tell my people of this place and your plans. We will return and tear this place down and burn your grasslands down. Is that what you want?”

The rat squeaked and hissed amongst themselves so that the Nums couldn’t understand them. This continued for several moments until Eck turned back to Bik. “Our word is our bond. We will allow your friends to leave if you surrender this item that forces us away so we can punish you for your crime. If you cross us and make an attempt to escape, we will collapse the large tunnels to prevent you from ever leaving.”

Faun and Gaz continued to try to talk Bik out of the deal but weren’t having any luck.

Turning to his friends, Bik gave a slight grin as a tear ran down his cheek. “We’ve been on a lot of adventures, but I’ve pushed our luck one too many times. Now I’ve gone too far and put your life in danger. It’s time I grow up and take responsibility for my actions.” He ignored their pleas as he continue to talk to them. “I’m finishing my father’s request by hiding this stone away from society here in this unknown city. Please don’t tell anyone about it or my death will be pointless.”

A large group of rats grabbed Faun and Gaz and moved them out of the building as they continued to cry out to their friend. They were then taken out of the hollow butte and back to the surface.

Several minutes went by as Bik considered what he had done. He knew it was the right decision even though he would miss them and his parents. The idea of never seeing them again was crushing.

The leader finally stepped forward as close as he could without feeling the uncomfortable energy of the Runestone. “We’ve kept our word; your friends are free in the grasslands. The weapon you hold must be placed in hiding so it can never again be used against us. Once you do, we will end your life and send your body, as a message, to our enemy, the Kingdom.”

“Kingdom?” Bik was confused. “You mean the Dovenar Kingdom is the one causing this problem?”

“Yes. And we no longer will be threatened by your people. We have grown in size and in knowledge. We want to be left alone, but we are ready to fight if you try to conquer us again.”

Reaching his hands up in the air to stop his assumptions, Bik needed to correct him. “I’m from Shoreview. Our city isn’t part of the Kingdom.” He hoped he had cleared up the misunderstanding and he could leave.

“You lie!” the rat leader yelled. “We have eyes everywhere and the Dovenar Kingdom flag flies on ships in Shoreview as we speak. You are part of the problem.”

Bik recalled the flags on the ships that had docked prior to them leaving. “You’re correct about the flags and the ships. However, we have a common enemy. They landed and have captured my father. They are destroying our city!” Bik thought of the similarities. “They are doing the same to us as they have been doing to you.”

“I don’t believe you! Why would they do such a thing? You are not vermin to them? Your city is filled with Humans and Nums.”

“True, but they still see us as vermin, because we don’t follow their rules and obey their orders. You’ve misunderstood their motives. They aren’t prejudice against your species, they simply hate anyone that isn’t within their control.”

The rat leader considered this before adding, “Why did they take your father? What is it your people won’t do that they demand?”

Bik slowly pointed up to the Runestone on his forehead. “They want this. It’s a powerful weapon, as you can tell. They wish to use it for their own war.”

“And now you’re here to use it on us?”

“I have no intent, nor have you seen me do so. Wouldn’t I have done so long ago if that was what I came for?”

Eck glared at the Num as he considered his response. “True.”

Bik’s mind raced with ideas. “Perhaps we can help each other.”

“How so?” Eck was curious and cautious at the same time.

Bik grinned. “I have an idea.”



Chapter 6

Riding the Wave



Under the flag of the Dovanar Kingdom, guards continued to kick down doors and rip apart homes and shops in an effort to find the artifact. It was during this time that a slight vibration could be felt in the streets and floors of the buildings. Unsure of the cause, most stepped out onto the streets to see if the distant volcano was erupting. It was not. It was worse.

A brown wave crested up and arched over the top of the bluffs that surrounded the city. Flowing out of the grassland, it grew in size as it crashed down upon the city. But instead of water or mud, it was a wave of hundreds of thousands of rats.

Riding upon the wave, a large wagon wheel that had been wrapped in a tent carried three young Nums. Bik stood strong with his legs separated for balance. Faun kneeled and clung to the front as she raised her face into the wind, allowing her long hair to flow behind her. While Gaz held onto the spokes and screamed in horror with closed eyes as his nightmare rat wave had come true.

Landing in the city, the rats went right to work; finding anyone in a Dovenar Kingdom uniform. Once they did, they attacked.

Soldiers raced from their duties back to the ships. Those too far away dived into the water to escape the Sand Rats and made an attempt to swim out to the ships not docked.

Local residents stood in fear as waves of rats washed in and then out of their homes and shops, searching for troops. To their amazement, the rodents never hurt them or their possessions.

Moving in from all sides the rat wave converged on the ships docked at the farthest dock. Once there they raced onto the ships to flush out all that were on board. Military were seen jumping overboard in every direction. Lifeboats were released and the ships were abandoned, even by the top ranked officials.

After escaping the rats and leaping into the water, Sir Newcastle gasped for breath as he was helped up into one of the lifeboats. Turning, he looked in horror as the docks and his ships were infested with rats. “Get us out of here! This city has been cursed and taken over by vermin.” He continued to watch as the lifeboat was rowed out to one of his other ships for safety.


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