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The Strange Town in the Middle of the Forest by Max Szredni (Part 46)

CHAPTER SEVEN (continued)  
    Heart hammering, Domei allowed himself a shuddering exhalation before bending over and diving his head into the black porthole. He could see nothing. "Hello?" he called, stupidly surprised his voice did not echo within the wickerwork. He sounded embarrassingly loud in the Tower's compressed tunnel. He waited for a moment, not really expecting a response—was almost ready to get up and leave, when—
    "Hello, child," whispered the carrier. Domei felt an ominous clot in his belly. He had never heard one of the Towers speak. Always he had thought the townsfolk claiming to have talked with them were simply liars seeking attention—but, as Domei lived and breathed so this one now communicated. He was astonished at how human it sounded. "What is it that you wish to know?"
    "Birds-in-the-sky..." Domei murmured.
    "Nothing," Domei said quickly, "I was just talking to myself."
    "Ah, yes."
    The carrier felt uncomfortably near to him...and the smell wafting up from inside the Tower! It was like an outhouse Domei had once been forced to use on an Academy-sanctioned field trip; the smell was almost sweet, as though it wanted to taunt Domei by juxtaposing the pleasant scent of a bakery with the bitter odor of human waste.  Domei would have definitely preferred to confer with the carrier through the Tower's mesh screen, and he compensated for this by holding his sleeve up to his nose.
    "Yes," said Domei politely, "I hear it's a common thing."  
     The carrier remained silent, clearly unwilling to engage in small talk. That was just as well, for Domei did not wish to linger any longer than necessary.
    "Listen," Domei began, "I came to—to ask you something."
    "Right," said Domei, "well—what I want to know is about...guilt."
    Domei waited, then realized he had yet to ask his question. Why was this so damn hard?
    His back began to ache, hunched over as he was. He placed his hands against the porthole's rim, trying to take some pressure off it. The wicker striations were cool against his hands. The twigs shuffled about, creaking under his bodyweight. He felt one particularly thick twig slide like cold rope beneath his palm, separating itself from the tight weave of the wickerwork. The way it was moving felt strange, as though it were trying to pull away from him. Domei looked up out of the porthole and into the blood-red eyes of the white rat whose tail he had been squishing.
    It was the most revolting creature Domei had ever seen. Its ridged tail was the same length and thickness as a large gardener snake, its pink hairless toes were near in size to Domei's own fingers, and its colossal body was closer in sheer volume to a small bobcat than to a plus-sized rodent. Its startlingly white coat emitted a brilliant gleam, almost beyond what could be considered natural, as if the physical laws of light no longer applied to a creature of this Great Albino Rat's august esteem. A sound was pressing into Domei's ears, low and throaty, like the growl of a dog but with more air pushed into it—and Domei realized it was the rat, hissing. Its bared fangs looked as lethal as scimitars dipped in poison. Domei's common sense, which had been laying siege upon double portcullises of shock and disgust, finally battered its way through their heavy gates, beseeching his body to escape. 
     With a high-pitched scream, he jumped away from the Tower, slipping his way across the clearfield. Domei accidentally kicked another Tower but did not bend down to apologize, intent as he was on getting as far away from the foul beast as possible. Domei heard the rat's claws tear the wickerwork as it leapt off its Tower with a screech before thumping through the grass in pursuit of him, a slavering thunderbolt. He had no more breath with which to shriek. All he could do now was sprint—and that's what he did, harder and faster than ever before. His flight through the museum halls had been a light jog compared to this. Now that he was fleeing for his life—not from it—his legs were pushing against the ground harder, his toes were springing him further forward, and his hands were swinging between his jaw and hip with metronomic precision. If the white rat caught up to him, Domei knew he would be as dead as if he had met the Hungry Harvester itself in the clearfield. Would the rat even consider scattering his bits about the field like the Harvester had? Or would it eat every piece of him, using its wicked scimitars to crush his skeleton into a marrowy pulp before swallowing his chunks down its frothing gullet.
    He was at his front door, bile spluttering from his mouth in hideous gouts. Atop their puddles he curled himself into a ball and waited for the Great Albino Rat to find him—Domei, its defeated prey.

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