Shivar awoke with the worst kind of splitting headache—the kind that comes from having your skull actually split by something sharp.
His eyes refused to focus as dark shapes moved over him. He heard the voices of several rats, none of which he recognized. One of them was laughing hysterically, which annoyed Shivar, because it was possible they were laughing at him. He tried to get up, but strong paws pinned him down on either shoulder. He heard Skowl’s voice order, “Stay still.”
Shivar tried to say, “Kill that idiot who’s laughing at me,” but what came out was, “Ugggghhhhah.” His tongue flopped around inside his mouth like a dead trout, which was to say, not very effectively.
The laugh came again, devolving after a few seconds into a rasping cough that directed, “Open his mouth hole.”
Another set of paws grabbed Shivar’s jaw and nose and pried them apart with a decided lack of finesse. Skowl said, “Pour it in,” and Shivar’s mouth was flooded by a thick brown liquid that tasted like twice congealed pork fat. Again Shivar tried to resist, but there was no strength in him. That, and he was pretty sure he was missing one of his arms. Another arm definitely would have helped.
This moment probably should have been the worst of Shivar’s life, but quite surprisingly, it turned out to be sort of okay. Immediately his head started to feel better, and the arm he thought he had lost became warm again on his right side. Pains throughout his body that he hadn’t previously noticed because of the primary offences to his well being rose to sudden prominence, then slunk away as the disgusting, blubberous potion slithered deep into his bowels. His body seemed to swell at the fluid’s touch, like a sponge pulling in water.
Shivar’s vision sharpened suddenly. It was daytime. There were sheets of gray clouds stretched overhead. Something stank of feces. Shivar wondered if it was him.
It took him a moment more to get his bearings. Standing above him were a half dozen rats that he didn’t recognize, including one in a tattered purple robe with nary a hair on his shriveled pink body. Skowl still knelt directly over Shivar with his hands on his shoulders. The chieftain’s verminous features showed some relief as their eyes met. He said, “You’re alive.”
“Get off me!” Shivar snapped. He tried to push the big rat off of him, but even rejuvenated he lacked the strength. He had to wait until Skowl stood away to sit up to try to regain some of his scattered dignity.
Shivar found himself still in his battle armor—rended as it was—in the midst of a gaggle of rats marked with the icons of Clan Rictus. He recognized the treeline on the hill behind them, a forest his plague monks had been savaging for lumber to build new plague furnaces to replace the many that had been lost already during the campaign. Even now he could see two of the enormous monstrosities under construction and smell the fumes of burning warpstone in the air. That could only mean…
“We’re back at base camp?” Shivar demanded of Skowl.
“Yes Lord,” Skowl answered.
Shivar turned in a quick circle, his expression trying to puzzle out how that made any sense.
“Wait, wait,” Shivar stuttered, “We’re back at base camp?”
The clanrats looked to each other for guidance. The bald rat started giggling.
Shivar shot him a glare, “Who the hell are you?” He turned to Skowl, “Who the hell is this? Who decided to let him keep breathing?”
Skowl gestured with an open paw, “This is Master Scabcraw, a chemist sent by your father from Clan Septik. He brewed the Skalm you just drank.”
The bald rat cackled as he bowed, “I flavored it with cat for you.”
Shivar hated the taste of cat just a little more than he hated the taste of everything else on the surface. He probably would have thrown up if the Skalm hadn’t left him feeling so good.
Still, he was disgusted enough to demand, “What happened to your fur?”
The bald rat shrugged, “It fell out.”
Scabcraw made a drinking motion, then began laughing hysterically.
Shivar jabbed an angry claw forward and warned, “If I lose one hair I’m going to have you turned inside out.”
The withered rat kept laughing, “I have a cream for that.”
Some of the other rats started laughing along…at least until Shivar caught their eyes.
Shivar took several seconds to pass his evil eye over everyone in the assembled crowd, starting and ending with Skowl. The big rat was the only one who did not flinch away.
Shivar nodded over his shoulder, “Skowl..I need.a word.”
Shivar walked away from the clanrats as Scabcraw started laughing again. Skowl followed his general, throwing a glance back to his soldiers to tell them they shouldn’t follow.
When they were out of earshot of the others, Shivar turned back to Skowl and leaned close, “Alright Skowl, explain. How did I get back here?”
“I carried you,” Skowl said plainly, “You were injured during the battle.”
“Did we win?”
Skowl’s expression tightened with concentration. After several seconds of thought, the big rat declared, “We killed many elves.”
Shivar narrowed his eyes, “Really? We did so well you had to run all the way back here?”
“It had to seek treatment for your wounds.”
“And how did I get those wounds Skowl? Huh? The last thing I remember was you lifting me in front of you and shouting ‘This is your chance to prove yourself! This is your chance for glory!’ What was that about?”
“You accepted a challenge from one of the elven princes.”
Skowl grimaced, “I encouraged you.”
Shivar beckoned Skowl closer to him with a crooked finger, “I want you to listen to me carefully Skowl…because I don’t want to tell you this again. Can you do that for me? Can you listen?”
Skowl nodded and he bowed closer.
Shivar drew a breath, turned back his lips, and shouted, “I don’t give a SHIT about PROVING MYSELF! I don’t give a SHIT about GLORY! I don’t give a SHIT! Got it?! NOT A SHIT! NOT EVEN A TINY LITTLE SHIT! NOT ONE!!”
The shouts echoed across the field in all directions, turning the heads of a few confused clanrats digging for rabbits.
“You better not be looking at me!” Shivar shouted at them, “Because I’m not one to be looking at right now! You’d best look somewhere else!”
The rats hurriedly turned away.
Shivar turned his attention back to his standard bearer, “Look Skowl, I’m not that hard of a rat to understand. I like eating. I like mating. I like having other rats to order around. That’s it—three things. Everything else I care about goes on the list of things I hate. You’re making your way onto that list Skowl. You’re dangerously close! Dangerously!”
Skowl looked confused, “But I saved your life.”
“You’re the one who put my life in danger!” Shivar balked, “I thought we were clear that that’s not how it’s supposed to work! Other rats die for me, not the other way around. Got it? Next time you have the choice, throw yourself under the bloody sword!”
Skowl bowed obediently, “Yes Lord.”
Shivar deflated with a long, defeated sigh, then shook his head regretfully. He began pace with his paws behind his back, the muddy ground squishing between his toes, “Now what are we going to do about this mess? We’re down another pair of cannons, another abomination, and another horde. And what do we have to show for it? We killed a few hundred elves. Big deal. They’ve got more where that came from.”
“You did kill the elven general.”
Shivar stopped and turned, “Huh?”
“You cut their general’s head off with the Blade of Corruption.”
“You mean Arnoth?”
Shivar wrinkled his nose, “I’m pretty sure that was Fitch, you know, before he got his own head chopped off?”
“That’s not what I told the clan.”
Shivar investigated Skowl’s face with distrustful curiosity, “Wait. Say that again?”
Skowl straightened formally, “I told the horde that you sacrificed your army for the chance to strike down Arnoth. I told them you killed him in single combat. They were very impressed.”
“_Very_ impressed,” Skowl repeated, “They’re calling you the ‘Black Death’.”
Skowl shook his head, “I don’t think so Lord.”
“Huh,” Shivar grunted, “You don’t say.”
“They think you a hero.”
Shivar glanced left and right, “And what about the rats who didn’t see me kill Arnoth?”
Skowl said gravely, “None of the others made it back.”
Shivar couldn’t help but don a conniving smile, his first in many weeks, “That was pretty clever of you.”
“You are an inspiration to the clan Lord.”
Shivar raised his chin, “Yes…yes I suppose I am. Sacrificing everything for a chance to kill our hated archenemy—that’s pretty heroic of me, wouldn’t you say?”
“I would Lord.”
“Okay…” Shivar said with a stroke of his whiskers, “Okay, for saving my life and making me a hero, I guess I can take you off my ‘to hate’ list. But don’t screw up again Skowl. I won’t be so lenient on you next time.”
“Thank you Lord.”
Shivar shooed him away with both hands, “Now go, go spread my legend. Make it good. Tell someone to write a song. Use a minor cord. I don’t hate those.”
Skowl saluted, bowed, then marched away.
As the big rat left, Shivar called after him, “And I was serious about turning that other guy inside out! One hair falls out and it happens! One hair, you hear me!?”
In the distance, Shivar could still hear the shriveled chemist laughing.