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There was a gasp from Peaches, but Dangerous Beans went on, in a small voice: ‘The world is big and dangerous, indeed. And we are weak, and I am tired. Together we can be strong.’ Indeed! ‘But what of those who aren’t strong, please?’ The weak are food. That is how it has always been! ‘Ah,’ said Dangerous Beans. ‘How it has always been. Things are becoming clearer.’

‘Don’t listen to it!’ Peaches hissed. ‘It’s affecting your mind!’

‘No, my mind is working perfectly, thank you,’ said Dangerous Beans, still in the same calm voice. ‘Yes, the proposition is beguiling. And we would rule the rat world together, would we?’ We would… co-operate. And Maurice, on the sidelines, thought: yeah, right. You co-operate, they rule. Surely you can’t fall for this! But Dangerous Beans said: ‘Co-operate. Yes. And together we could give the humans a war they won’t believe. Tempting. Very tempting. Of course, millions of rats would die…’ They die anyway. ‘Mmm, yes. Yes. Yes, that is true. And this rat here,’ said Dangerous Beans, suddenly waving a paw towards one of the big rats that was hypnotized by the flame, ‘can you tell me what she thinks about this?’ Spider sounded taken aback. Thinks? Why should it think anything? It is a rat! ‘Ah,’ said Dangerous Beans. ‘How clear it is now. But it would not work.’ Would not work? Dangerous Beans raised his head. ‘Because, you see, you just think for many rats,’ he said. ‘But you don’t think of them. Nor are you, for all that you say, the Big Rat. Every word you utter is a lie. If there is a Big Rat, and I hope there is, it would not talk of war and death. It would be made of the best we could be, not the worst that we are. No, I will not join you, liar in the dark. I prefer our way. We are silly and weak, sometimes. But together we are strong. You have plans for rats? Well, I have dreams for them.’ Spider reared up, quivering. The voice raged in Maurice’s mind. Oh, so you think you are a good rat? But a good rat is one that steals most! You think a good rat is a rat in a waistcoat, a little human with fur! Oh yes, I know about the stupid, stupid book! Traitor! Traitor to rats! Will you feel my… PAIN? Maurice did. It was like a blast of red-hot air, leaving his head full of steam. He recognized the sensation. It was how he used to feel before he was changed. It was how he used to feel before he was Maurice. He’d just been a cat. A bright cat, but nothing more than a cat. You defy me? Spider screamed at the bowed form of Dangerous Beans. When I am everything that truly is RAT? I am filth and darkness! I am the noise under the floor, the rustling in the walls! I am the thing that undermines and despoils! I am the sum of all that you deny! I am your true self! Will you OBEY ME? ‘Never,’ said Dangerous Beans. ‘You are nothing but shadows.’ Feel my PAIN! Maurice was more than a cat, he knew. He knew the world was big and complex and involved a lot more than wondering if the next meal was going to be beetles or chicken legs. The world was huge and difficult and full of amazing things and… … the red-hot flame of that horrible voice was boiling his mind away. The memories were unwinding and whirling into the darkness. All the other little voices, not the horrible voice but the Maurice voices, the ones that nagged at him and argued amongst themselves and told him he was doing wrong or could be better, were getting fainter- And still Dangerous Beans stood there, small and wobbly, staring up into the dark. ‘Yes,’ said Dangerous Beans. ‘I feel the pain.’ You are nothing but a rat. A little rat. And I am the very SOUL of ratdom. Admit it, little blind rat, little blind pet rat. Dangerous Beans swayed, and Maurice heard him say, ‘I will not. And I am not so blind that I can’t see darkness.’ Maurice sniffed, and realized that Dangerous Beans was widdling himself in terror. But the little rat didn’t move, even so. Oh, yes, whispered the voice of Spider. And you can control the dark, yes? You told a little rat that. You can learn to control the dark. ‘I am a rat,’ whispered Dangerous Beans. ‘But I am not vermin.’ VERMIN? ‘Once we were just another squeaking thing in the forest,’ said Dangerous Beans. ‘And then men built barns and pantries full of food. Of course we took what we could. And so they called us vermin, and they have trapped us and

covered us in poison and, somehow, out of that wretchedness, you have come. But you are no answer. You are just another bad thing humans made. You offer rats nothing except more pain. You have a power that lets you enter people’s minds when they are tired or stupid or upset. And you are in mine now.’ Yes. Oh, yes! ‘And still I stand here,’ said Dangerous Beans. ‘Now that I have smelled you, I can face you down. Even though my body is shaking, I can keep a place free from you. I can feel you running round in my head, you see, but all the doors are closed to you now. I can control the dark inside, which is where all darkness is. You have shown me that I am more than just a rat. If I am not more than a rat, I am nothing at all.’ The many heads of Spider turned this way and that. There wasn’t much left of Maurice’s mind to do any thinking now, but it looked as though the rat king was trying to reach a conclusion. Its reply came in a roar. THEN BE NOTHING! Keith blinked. He had his hand on the latch of one of the rat cages. The rats were watching him. All standing the same way, all watching his fingers. Hundreds of rats. They looked… hungry. ‘Did you hear something?’ said Malicia. Keith lowered his hand very carefully, and took a couple of steps back. ‘Why are we letting these out?’ he said. ‘It was like I’d been… dreaming…’

‘I don’t know. You’re the rat boy.’

‘But we agreed to let them out.’

‘I… it was… I had a feeling that-‘

‘Rat kings can talk to people, can’t they?’ said Keith. ‘Has it been talking to us?’

‘But this is real life,’ said Malicia. ‘I thought it was an adventure,’ said Keith. ‘Damn! I forgot,’ said Malicia. ‘What’re they doing?’ It was almost as if the rats were melting. They were no longer upright, attentive statues. Something like panic was spreading through them again. Then other rats poured out of the walls, running madly across the floor. They were much bigger than the caged ones. One of them bit Keith on the ankle, and he kicked it away. ‘Try to stamp on them but don’t lose your balance, whatever you do!’ he said. ‘These are not friendly!’

‘Tread on them?’ said Malicia. ‘Yuk!’

‘You mean you haven’t got anything in your bag to fight rats? This is a rat-catchers’ lair! You’ve got plenty of stuff for pirates and bandits and robbers!’

‘Yes, but there’s never been a book about having an adventure in a rat-catcher’s cellar!’ Malicia shouted. ‘Ow! One’s on my neck! One’s on my neck! And there’s another one!’ She bent down frantically to shake the rats loose and reared up as one leapt at her face. Keith grabbed her hand. ‘Don’t fall over! They’ll go mad if you do! Try to get to the door!’

‘They’re so fast!’ Malicia panted. ‘Now there’s another one on my hair’

‘Hold still, stupid female!’ said a voice in her ear. ‘Hold quite still or I’ll gnaw you!’ There was a scrabble of claws, a swish and a rat dropped past her eyes. Then another rat thumped onto her shoulder and slid away. ‘Right!’ said the voice at the back of her neck. ‘Now don’t move, don’t tread on anyone and keep out of the way!’

‘What was that?’ she hissed, as she felt something slide down her skirt. ‘I think it was the one they call Big Savings,’ said Keith. ‘Here comes the Clan!’ More rats were scrambling into the room, but these moved differently. They stayed together and spread out into a line that moved forward slowly. When an enemy rat attacked it, the line would close up over it quickly, like a fist, and when it opened again that rat was dead. Only when the surviving rats smelled the terror of their fellows and tried to escape from the room did the attacking line break, become pairs of rats that, with terrible purpose, hunted down one scurrying enemy after another and brought them down with a bite. And then, seconds after it started, the war was over. The squeaking of a few lucky refugees faded in the walls. There was a ragged cheer from the Clan rats, the cheer which says ‘I’m still alive! After all that!’

‘Darktan?’ said Keith. ‘What happened to you?’ Darktan reared up and pointed a paw to the door at the other end of the cellar. ‘If you want to help, open that door!’ he shouted. ‘Move it!’ Then he darted into a drain with the rest of the squad pouring in after him. One of them tap-danced as he went.

CHAPTER 11

And there he found Mr Bunnsy, tangled in the brambles and his blue coat all torn. – From Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure The rat king raged. The watching rats clutched at their heads, Peaches shrieked and stumbled back, the last flaring match flying out of her hand. But something of Maurice survived that roar, that storm of thought. Some tiny part hid behind some brain cell and cowered as the rest of Maurice was blown away. Thoughts peeled back and vanished in the gale. No more talking, no more wondering, no more seeing the world as something out there… layers of his mind streamed past as the blast stripped away everything that he’d thought of as me, leaving only the brain of a cat. A clever cat, but still… just a cat. Nothing but a cat. All the way back to the forest and the cave, the fang and the claw… Just a cat. And you can always trust a cat to be a cat. The cat blinked. It was bewildered and angry. Its ears went flat. Its eyes flashed green. It couldn’t think. It didn’t think. It was instinct that moved it now, something that operated right down at the level of its roaring blood. It was a cat and there was a twitching squeaky thing and what cats do to twitching squeaking things is this: they leap… The rat king fought back. Teeth snapped at the cat; it was tangled in fighting rats, and it yowled as it rolled across the floor. More rats poured in, rats that could kill a dog… but now, just for a few seconds, this cat could have brought down a wolf. It didn’t notice the crackling flame as the dropped match set fire to some straw. It ignored the other rats breaking ranks and running. It paid no attention to the thickening smoke. What it wanted to do was kill things. Some dark river deep inside had been dammed up over the months. It had spent too much time helpless and fuming while little squeaky people ran around in front of it. It had longed to leap and bite and kill. It had longed to be a proper cat. And now the cat was out of the bag and so much ancestral fight and spite and viciousness was flowing through Maurice’s veins that it sparked off his claws. And as the cat rolled and struggled and bit, a weak little voice right at the back of his tiny brain, cowering out of the way, the last tiny bit of him that was still Maurice and not a blood-crazed maniac said, ‘Now! Bite here!’ Teeth and claws closed on a lump made up of eight knotted tails, and tore it apart. The tiny part of what had once been the me of Maurice heard a thought shoot past. Noooo… ooo… oo… o… And then it died away, and the room was full of rats, just rats, nothing more than rats, fighting to get out of the way of a furious, spitting, snarling, bloodthirsty cat, catching up on catness. It clawed and bit and ripped and pounced and turned to see a small white rat that had not moved throughout the whole fight. It brought its claws down- Dangerous Beans screamed. ‘Maurice!’ The door rattled, and rattled again as Keith’s boot hit the lock for the second time. On the third blow the wood split and burst apart. There was a wall of fire at the other end of the cellar. The flames were dark and evil, as much thick smoke as fire. The Clan were scrambling in through the grating and spreading out on either side, staring at the flames. ‘Oh, no! Come on, there’s buckets next door!’ said Keith. ‘But-‘ Malicia began. ‘We’ve got to do it! Quickly! This is a big people job!’ The flames hissed and popped. Everywhere, on fire or in the floor beyond the flames, were dead rats. Sometimes there were only bits of dead rats. ‘What happened here?’ said Darktan. ‘Looks like a war, guv,’ said Sardines, sniffing the bodies. ‘Can we get round it?’