Natalie didn't want to be here.
Very few people did. The lanky brunette stood firm, doing her best to keep calm, to look stoic. She was probably failing.
She stood before the storm drain, her silver flute in hand. Before her, a rat, the size of a small dog, crawled out of the drain, covered in shit and muck, its eyes blood-red.
"Piper!" The rat venomously hissed. "What business do you have here?"
To Natalie's credit, she didn't piss her pants. "I'm here for questions, rodent. About the rats who raided the church."
"I'll tell you what I told your putrid cousin, the Saints, and the authorities! Me and mine had nothing to do with that! They were not of my clan! They did not use our tunnels! We did not help them! However they entered the city, however they attacked those people, we did not have a hand in it."
"And you expect me to believe you?"
"Your cock-sucking cousin used his pipes to force me to tell the truth, so yes, you imbecile."
Natalie didn't respond. How could she? She could barely hold it together.
She managed to keep a brave face. "What do you know then, rat?"
"Nothing else. My clan does not know anything. If you want more information, ask another rat. This conversation is over."
The giant rat turned to leave.
"Wait!" She called out.
The rat hissed at her. The brunette jumped back.
"Piper! This conversation is over. Understand? You do not command us! Fuck you, fuck your fucking family! One day, the rats will rise against your putrid household. Your inbred line shall fall! Mark my words, girl, I look forward to feasting on your flesh."
The rat left, leaving Natalie alone.
She puked. No doubt the rat would find the pool of vomit later and laugh. She didn't care. She wanted to get out of there.
She walked away from the storm drain, buttoning up her coat and adjusting her scarf to withstand the cold winter night. Her flute safely tucked away, she walked.
Nobody knew who the Rats were who attacked the church three nights. Common sense dictate they would be out of towners. If so, why? Why come here? Why attack a church? Why kill those people?
The Rats usually had a reason. Starvation, survival, vengeance, territory dispute. And even then, they would act in such a way as to not disturb the local population or bring about the attention of the Gottschald family - her family.
They'd lose every time a confrontation happens.
Natalie picked up the pace. A Gottschald might be able to defeat a single pack of rats, but if they got the jump on one...
The streets were empty. Not surprising, given that it was three o'clock in the morning on a snowy, winter night. There wasn't much snow on the ground, but it was piling up.
New York City is a city that does sleep. At least in Long Island City, Queens.
She turned the corner and wished to the gods she hadn't.
On the sidewalk lay a homeless man. His intestines were laid out on the asphalt, dragged from the hole from his stomach. A rat the size of a cat was eating his digestive tract. A bigger rat sat on his chest, its paw reaching deep into his open mouth, in the act of removing his tongue.
The man was still alive.
Natalie fought the urge to vomit. Trying not to heave her stomach's contents, she couldn't hold back an audible retch, and the rats turned to face her.
One of them sniffed the air. "Gottschald," the smaller of the two growled.
Red eyes appeared in dark parts of the street. From alleys, from under cars, from the fire escapes that decorated the building.
She was surrounded.
She grabbed her flute.
A rat leapt, taking the instrument in its jaws and scurrying away.
"Little bitch is neutered," one rat said.
"Let's eat her," another said.
"Why rush? Let's have some fun with her."
"I've seen prettier."
"I've seen uglier. Doesn't matter. Pussy is pussy."
"But I'm hungry now!"
Natalie ran. They gave chase.
Without her flute, she was good as dead. She knew other spells, but nothing that would effectively take on so many rats at once.
"Skin her alive!" One shouted from far away.
"Down with the pipers!"
She reached into her pockets. She retrieved a whistle and blew on it. Screams followed as some of the rats turned on their own.
It'd slow them down but what she needed was her flute. It was far more powerful than the whistle.
She searched her pockets for more items. The compass? Not useful. The coin? Maybe. A piece of string-
She wrapped the red string around her hands as she ran, speaking between gasps for breath.
"I, Natalie Gottschald, daughter of Peter and Marlene Gottschald, call for my pipes, which were taken from me by someone who is not of Gottschald blood. I-oh God," she nearly tripped as a rat jumped and landed near her feet. She kicked it and ran faster. "I call for its safe return to me."
The spell was cast. It might not arrive in time.
She found what she was looking for. An old cell phone, dead. She spoke into it. "I am Natalie Gottschald. I ask for anyone, please anyone to help me. The rats are-"
She stepped on a patch of ice and lost her footing. She landed hard, her glasses skidding across the snowy sidewalk.
Stupid, she thought. She always made fun of the people who tripped in horror movies. A rat hopped on her face. She elbowed it off her. Jumping to her feet, she grabbed her glasses and a nearby trash can lid.
A dog-sized rat hopped on a car. It screeched at her, saliva flying.
"I warn you," Natalie said, her voice breaking, holding the lid in front of her as a shield. "Do not come any closer."
"You're nothing without your flute, meat," the giant rat said. "Should we kill you? Or should we take you to our Rat King? Use you as a bargaining chip? Hmm?"
"I want her tongue!" One rat shouted.
"I want her eyes!"
"Silence!" The large rat glared at her, its red eyes hungry. "The church wasn't enough, you know. We're hungry, piper. This whole city shall be our feeding ground. All we need to do is take care of the rattenfänger and we will be free to spread."
"You won't succeed," Natalie breathed.
"You won't live long enough to see either way."
As if on cue, the rats sprung.
Natalie smacked one away. She back away, kicking one rat away, reaching for the coin and throwing it in the air. Under a suggestion spell, half the pack turned their eyes on the flying coin.
The young mage used her shield to crush the skull of the largest rat near her. It wasn't as big as the dog-sized leader, but a danger nonetheless.
A rat that wasn't enthralled by the coin jumped and bit her arm. Natalie cried out. She bashed the rat against a brick wall, cracking its skull open with the force.
The coin had dropped to the floor. Out of the trance, the rodents continued the assault.
The mage ran away. She picked up her whistle and received a rat biting her wrist for her troubles. She dropped the whistle and struck the rat with the lid.
The rodent let go. The whistle was lost.
"I'm going to make you scream, cunt!" The dog-sized rat yelled. "Get her!"
The rats ran as a unit. Natalie screamed and held the lid up. They stopped. Natalie followed their gaze. Behind her.
A woman in her twenties. Her skin pale, her black cut at jaw-length. Her coat was dark blue, her scarf red. She held a knife in one hand, a wand in the other.
"Sonia," Natalie breathed. A crow flew above her. It swooped down and dropped a silver flute in her hands.
Her silver flute.
"Stop-" the dog-sized rat didn't finish. Natalie played the flute. All of the rats froze, entering a trance. She continued playing, fighting through the pain in her arm and wrist, compelling the rats through force of will to group into pairs, face each other, and bite each others necks.
Within a minute, they were all dead. Natalie stopped playing the flute and faced her savior.
Sonia walked towards her, the crow perched on her shoulder. "You okay?"
Natalie nodded. "You heard my call. Thank you."
"I was tempted to leave you to die."
Natalie winced. She couldn't blame her. Her family hadn't been kind to Sonia or her coven.
"They knew who you were," Natalie said. "They froze."
"We attacked their nest earlier."
"I'll fill you on the way. We need to get those wounds looked at."
"Put the flute away. If I see you play it-"
"I won't. And even if I wanted to, I can only control one species at a time." She looked at the crow. It remained absolutely still, despite the chill winds. Whatever the crow was, if Natalie did try to control Sonia, the bird would deal with her.
"Okay. Come on."
Sonia walked. Natalie, who used the string to bring back her coin and whistle, followed her.
• Aziz Ansari Accused of Assaulting Anonymous Admirer
• Is it complicated to say "No" to men?
• Oprah Winfrey for President?
• Things you can say both during sex and at a family dinner