The rag men swarmed in from all sides. Four of them grabbed Sophie and Benjamin and dragged them kicking and screaming towards the black curtain. Before Joshua could shout two rough hands grabbed him and held him tight. They seized Heathcliff and Lucinda too. One rag man had both the twins, one under each arm. Only little Dina remained free. She stayed by Joshua and hugged the hidden kitten close to her body.
Sophie and Benjamin were pulled through the black curtain. Joshua remembered the poor man in the yellow shirt. They never saw what had happened to him. They only heard his tortured pleas, the ominous creaking and then finally those haunting screams.
He remembered his plan and tried to focus his thoughts.
Will this work if I can’t see them? Will this work at all?
The curtain parted. The Rat King stood there and glared back at Joshua.
He bellowed, “Bring them. Let them watch!”
The rag men shoved them forward.
Joshua looked down at Dina.
“Stay close to me.”
She attached herself to Joshua’s hip.
“It’ll be all right,” he told her.
I can make it right. I just have to focus.
He concentrated harder.
The twisted men pushed them into the darkness past the black curtain. Beyond was a circular chamber ringed with brass braziers. In the center was a pit. Above the pit was a rusty pulley strung with a frayed old rope.
“Now you will see,” the Rat King roared.
These children needed to be shown his terrible strength. They had to understand what defying that strength meant.
From the day he was born he’d been stronger and bigger than anyone else. Nature meant for him to rule over all the others. Laws and rules were what the weak hid behind. He tossed them aside as he did anyone else who got in his way. The constables of the city knew this was true. That’s why they never bothered him when he lived on the surface. Back then he took whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. It took those cowards banding together in treachery to force him down here into these tunnels. But even after that he wasn’t defeated. Far from it. He reached out from the tunnels and grabbed as many as he could and in the darkness he forged his own kingdom. He made this kingdom with his own two fists and placed himself at the top where he always belonged. The only laws were the ones he laid down. Here people had only the rights he gave them. He could deny them the sun itself. Nothing could withstand his strength, not law, not society, nothing.
Certainly not these pathetic whelps.
“Bring them forward!” he yelled.
The Rat King stood at the edge of the pit.
The rag men pushed the children to the edge of the pit.
At first all they could see was black. Then they saw the movement. The blackness below them squirmed. Then they could see form and texture in the black. They saw the rolling mass of fur, teeth and red eyes. And then they heard the low evil squeaking noise as it came up the pit.
“Rats!” Sophie screamed.
“Yes,” said the giant.
“When I came down here, this was their kingdom. And they defended it with a hundred thousand ravenous mouths with sharp teeth. I beat them back with nothing but these two hands. Their bodies I crushed until they were thick under foot. The survivors I cast down into the pit below you. Now this is MY kingdom. And here is the penalty for breaking my law!”
The Rat King pointed at Benjamin and Sophie.
The rag men took them to the pulley and tied them together.
“Time to feed the pit!”
Benjamin and Sophie both screamed.
Dina screamed even louder. Joshua hugged her tightly to him.
“It’ll be all right.”
He saw Sophie’s terrified face.
You think you can save her with just some boiled corn and daydreams? Are you insane?
But he thought harder.
No. This will work. Just focus. Think. Concentrate.
Sophie and Benjamin were swung out over the pit, their feet kicked wildly as they dangled in midair. The rag man on the rope lowered them slowly. The terrible creaking noise returned.
The pulley creaked. Sophie and Benjamin screamed as they went lower and lower beneath the lip.
They sank towards the mass of hungry teeth.
Lazlo, please help me.
The rope slipped down another inch and then another.
Sophie and Benjamin were now just a hair away from the rolling mass of black fur. Just a few turns of the pulley and they’d be engulfed.
This isn’t going to work! I failed!