by L. D. Claw
Rats. There were thousands of rats in Hamelin. The vermin gnawed on everything not made of metal or stone, shat on everything that was, and devoured anything edible.
The people of Hamelin hated the rats and they had tried everything they could to get rid of them, without result. They had brought cats into the city, but the poor animals had been skeletonized within days. They had tried to burn them with steam and fire, or crush them with Machines and traps, but the rodents had continued to pervade every part of the city.
Disease ran rampant. Even the best of Hamelin's physicians could not slow the spread of infection. Additionally, they were running out of medication and treatments. Steamcarts traveled the city, picking up the dead from the latest pneumonic plague epidemic. The only solace that the dying could find was to try and take as many rats as they could with them to the grave, by any means possible.
The biggest problem, however, was that the railways into and out of Hamelin had been quarantined - other cities feared what the rats could do to their economies and people. The doctors could not get more medicine, the bakers were unable to acquire flour, the machinists oil and coal and iron, the fishermen cloth for sails and rope for nets, the soldiers munitions and powder, and even the alchemists were unable to receive their shipments of ingredients necessary to poison the disgusting vermin in their attempts to stem the tide of the furry menace.
It was upon this scene that a foreigner arrived, sharply dressed and driving a heptapodal contraption. He appeared to be of the prestigious machinist caste, for the people of Hamelin could see his calloused and oil-stained hands. Understandably, his suit was black and dark grey in a pinstripe motif, probably to hide any oil stains he may have had upon it. His shirt was also a dark grey, but was significantly lighter than the shade making the stripes on his suit, and was adorned with a bright red bowtie. He wore heavy metal boots, as was the norm for machinists, and a monkey wrench stuck out of his breast pocket. His black and bushy moustache met with his sideburns, and his strong, naked chin and thick neck were counteracted by his nose which, while it may have been handsome at one time, appeared to have been broken quite often when he was younger. Upon the bridge of his nose, covering his right eye was a silver-rimmed monocle that appeared to have tinted glass - it only added to his mysterious aura.
His Machine was very spider-like in appearance, despite it having one leg too few, and was a magnificent shade of polished gunmetal and had a lot of beautiful chrome. Upon its head rode its maker, and on the thorax rested the boiler system which gave the Machine its power and life and spewed steam and smoke into the atmosphere. However, the abdomen was what really caught the eye. The rear of the steam-powered beast was actually a large pipe organ; the polished brass pipes gleamed even in the smog-choked sunlight. The ivory and ebony keys appeared to be well-kept and immaculately clean.
The man directed the Machine down the road, occasionally crushing the odd rat that failed to notice the seven-legged monstrosity. He took off his top hat and scratched his head, doubtlessly curious as to the large number of vermin that appeared to carpet the very streets of the once-fine city. Replacing his hat atop his scalp, he shifted gears on his Machine and lifted his feet from the throttle pedals, bringing it to a complete stop, its forward-most leg resting on the white line marking the beginning of an intersection. He nodded at the driver of the Steamcart, who appeared to be a mortician, judging by the grim cargo his wagon was carrying.
The man turned to his left to view the urchin standing just outside the range of his Machine's legs. The boy was holding a blood-crusted mallet, and all the vermin around him appeared to be dead or avoiding his reach. The man raised an eyebrow at the child.
"You have a question, son?"
"What'cha doin' here in Ham'lin? Nobody wan's ta come here."
"Is that because of the rats?"
"Yeah! Dem rats drive off all de pe'ple from outta town. So, why ya here, Mistah?"
Smirking, the man leaned back in his seat as the boy crushed the cranium of another rodent foolish enough to scamper within range of his mallet.
"I am here because I heard of Hamelin's little infestation and I figured I could help, but I did not expect it to be this bad."
"Oh," replied the dirt-crusted kid, not quite so confused anymore.
"However, that does not mean that I will not try to exterminate the vermin here." The child's face perked up at that, so much so that he missed one of the furry, worm-tailed creatures scramble along behind his legs. "Tell me: do you know where to find the City Hall?"
The street urchin told him.
Within half an hour the man and his Machine were approaching the steps to the city's central government building. As he expected, the rumors of his appearance and purpose drew a crowd to the square in front of the City Hall in much the same way that a pile of cadavers draws scavengers.
The Mayor himself stood on the balcony overlooking the square, and was flanked by the leaders of the local guilds and members of Hamelin's Council of Elders. Most of them were older gentlemen of well-to-do families, though the leader of the Machinists' Guild looked to be no older than thirty. Interestingly enough, the Mayor's left eye socket was covered with a scrap of leather.
"Welcome, Stranger, to Hamelin," boomed the Mayor's voice, which carried rather well across distances and was impressively strong, considering the owner's age. "We'd offer you our hospitality, but the vile rats have taken whatever was worth anything from us."
"I have a question," began the leader of the Alchemy Guild. "By what name may we call you?"
The stranger stood in his seat and bowed to the political entities of Hamelin. "I am Dr. Sebastian Braghi, and my expertise lies in sonic waves. I was called the 'Piper' once when I was younger, due to my talent for music."
"Whah use woul' a mus'cian be in riddin' Ham'lin uv its lil' furry prob'um?" asked the wizened leader of the Fishermen's Guild.
The other men upon the balcony stole quick, scornful glances at the old seaman, but they remained silent as Dr. Braghi gave a short laugh.
"Are you willing to wager on that?" asked the strange foreigner as he descended into his leather chair, visibly amused by the circumstances. "Let's say I lose - it would cost your city nothing, but instead it might gain a few laughs at my expense."
"And if you win?" asked a green-suited old man with a cane, obviously an Elder. "Our coffers are all but bare - we will be unable to pay you if you succeed in this endeavor."
Dr. Braghi grinned. "A favor can be repaid with a favor, no? Hamelin is home to the most efficient steam engine in the world - the secrets of such would be sufficient payment for services rendered."
The Mayor turned to the Master Machinist standing behind him.
"Let him do it," said the man. "If need be, we can just renegotiate later."
Returning his attention to the strange musician/doctor, the Mayor told the man that they agreed to his terms for the time being.
Smiling a little too widely, a little too quickly, Dr. Braghi flipped a couple of switches and removed himself from the head of his Machine. He scrambled along the walkway next to the boiler, taking some coal from the armored coalbox with a small shovel and feeding it to the fire. Closing the grate, he turned a dial, which increased the pressure of the steam. He then opened one valve while closing another, redirecting the steam from the head of the Machine to the abdomen. He then scampered to the keys of his organ, a look of complete euphoria gracing his features.
After plopping himself on the small leather-covered stool, his fingers began to dance across the controls, fine-tuning the device. Some small bursts of steam went through the pipes, making a hauntingly beautiful chord on occasion, before the man cracked his knuckles. He then swung his head from side to side, making a few sickening popping noises before touching his fingers to the keys.
The melody, if one could call it that, was relatively dissonant at first, before it began to pick up in beat, revealing a pattern in the core of the melody. The various rats all around town began to go still.
Then the harmony suddenly kicked in, causing the vermin to move, slowly at first, in concert to the strange music. As Dr. Braghi picked up the pace of his performance, it began to vary little by little.
And then his Machine began to move. And the rats moved with it. The tired people of Hamelin couldn't get out of the way of the stampede of furry creatures quickly enough.
As the Machine began walking backwards towards the bluffs on the coastline, its rumbling footsteps stomping to the irregular beat of the cacophonic song, the millions of rats were keeping pace, and the crowd left behind in the Main Square could only incredulously watch the parade pass along, too stunned by the incredible spectacle taking place in front of their eyes.
Once outside the city, the foreign doctor began to chuckle, before replacing the sound with a mad laugh as he neared the edge of the sea cliff. The music changed slightly, and the Machine stopped its progress towards the ocean's waves, though it did not stop its rhythmic stomping. While the Machine and its maker did not continue towards the hundred-foot drop towards the sea foam and jagged rocks, the rats did.
The vermin dove headlong over the edge like lemmings, giving squeals of delight reminiscent to possessed swine, and dying similarly. As the last of the disgusting rodents plummeted to its doom, the music ceased, though Dr. Braghi's mad laughter did not for the next several minutes.
After recomposing himself, he switched the controls back to the head, and replaced himself upon it, giving an odd chuckle. His triumphant return was met with cheers and shouts and fanfare. Somewhere, a brass band played a joyful song for all to hear.
The government officials, on the other hand, were anything but celebratory. As the crowd quieted down, the Mayor began to address the Piper Hero, as much of the common folk were calling him.
"We of Hamelin are grateful for the service you did today in eradicating the plague of the rats in our fine city." This was met with cheers, to which the musician stood and bowed to. "We mean no offense, but we would like to renegotiate the terms of payment with you, for we find that the price is a bit steep."
Dr. Braghi's face became stonier than the cobbled street his Machine stood upon. His voice was raspy and emotionless. "You're backing out of your word?"
"Well, we did say that-" began the Mayor, only to be interrupted.
"I refuse to work with liars," stated Dr. Braghi, his voice slowly rising to a crescendo of rage. "Either give me the agreed payment, or I shall extract it!"
"LEAVE!" shouted the leader of the Militia. "We will not stand for threats levied against us!"
"Very well," replied the cold voice of the musician, his eyes narrowing. "I will take my leave." He began directing the Machine towards the road leading out of the town before turning in his seat to shout back at the government officials. "IN THE END YOU WILL HAVE WISHED YOU PAID THE PIPER!"
He was escorted out of town by two dozen armed men.
In the end though, Dr. Braghi was right. The next dawn broke with the faint sound of music, waking literally every person in Hamelin. As if they were marionettes, they began to dance, every last one of them. Some parents found themselves carrying their children who were not old enough to move about on their own yet, while other parents who were too old to be up and about found themselves carried by their children. The deaf among the citizens were immune to the insane dancing, but they were mobbed by those with better hearing and carried off.
Horror began to dawn on the people of Hamelin as they realized that their hearts were beating in time with the almost silent song. Horror gave way to pure terror as they found themselves dancing along the same path the rats did on their way to the sea. They screamed themselves hoarse upon realizing what lay in store for them.
As they drew closer to the bluffs, the music became louder and more painful to bear, but they still danced closer and closer. Soon, they heard a man laughing maniacally while ranting.
"Liars always get what's coming to them! I told you I'd extract the payment! But it is too late now!"
Shrieking and gibbering, the people of Hamelin continued dancing madly towards where the rats had pitched themselves into open air, and then the sea.
As the Mayor of Hamelin, the last one to the cliff's edge, hurled himself to his death, screaming wordlessly the whole time, Dr. Sebastian Braghi's face was plastered with a manic grin.
One way or another, they always paid the Piper.
He removed the plugs from his ears as he stood up from his stool and stretched. Changing the control scheme again, he directed his Machine towards the ghost town that was Hamelin, and searched its corpse for the schematics on the super-efficient boiler technology which he craved.
Thank you Mr. Fix-It-NAO for being my beta, and extra-special thanks to Dumbledork for giving it a second opinion.