Fingers of Death—No, Doom!
by Lucien Soulban
Chapter Two: Idle Hands
"Ohhh," Fife groaned. He tried moving, but the world refused to comply, spinning underneath him the way it did. His bones ached and his skin felt like someone had rubbed it with the uncomfortable side of a bar of pumice. He opened his eyes and stared up at the sky—specifically, at the distant hole in the ceiling that revealed the wet gray skies of Andoran.
"That's right..." Memories began to fall back into place for the halfling. The desperate townsfolk who bought their fake luck charms. The murder of farmers. The ruined necromancer's manse. And...
"The hand!" Fife sat up from his throne of rubble, looking for the amputated hand that had sheared Darvin's rope and sent them both tumbling through the weakened floor into the darkness below the manse's basement. He saw no sign of the hand in the brick-lined cistern, but dark waters and shadows lapped at the islands of debris and ribs of shattered timber. Darvin lay atop one of the mounds, eyes closed and body utterly still.
"Darvin!" Fife scrambled over to his compatriot. Darvin didn't respond, even after Fife pulled at the lapels of his beaten leather coat. Left with little recourse, Fife drew back his arm and slapped Darvin hard enough for the sound to echo through the cistern.
"OW!" Darvin shrieked, his eyes flying open. Fife, however, did not let go. "Fife! What in—?
"You know those moments in the story when one hero thinks the other dead, begs him not to die and shares some deep personal truth?"
"Vaguely," Darvin said.
"And then it turns out the other one was only faking his injuries?"
"Oh, yeah?" Darvin said, this time a touch sheepishly.
"This is not one of those moments," Fife said, shaking his brother.
Darvin did nothing to stop him. "But I love those moments."
Fife let go of Darvin's coat and stood. "You weren't unconscious."
"Fife is rarely the hero of his own stories."
"I'm hurt you'd think that," Darvin responded, propping himself up on an elbow and cradling his aggrieved cheek.
"Darvin," Fife warned, looking around. They were well and deep under the manse, the walls too sheer to scale. He leapt to another small island to get a look at a nearby passageway.
"I just want to be held!" Darvin called after him.
Fife ignored his brother. "The hand...?" he asked.
"Somewhere up there, no?" Darvin stood and dusted himself off. Fife could tell he was trying to act unworried, but it was still an act.
"Let's hope so," Fife said; a shiver tore through him.
"It's not really a spider, y'know." Darvin said gently.
Fife waved away his friend's concern. They weren't supposed to talk about the incident—before Darvin's mother adopted Fife as her own and the pair became siblings. He had never told Darvin how his own mother died, but his brother knew it involved a... a....
"It's close enough," Fife said, his voice cracking. He sniffed the air, smelling the earthy stench, and pointed down the rounded corridor. "There's a breeze coming from that direction."
"You mean the breeze with the slightly pungent aroma of rotting meat?" Darvin grabbed the collar of Fife's jerkin and spun him in the direction of another corridor. "That's why we're going down the one that doesn't smell like Death's warm armpit"
But Darvin made his way, rather awkwardly, along the small islands to the other corridor. He jumped into the cold water at the head of the corridor and tried not to grimace as the brackish liquid sloshed around his waist. "Oh look!" he said. "I can stand here." He grinned back at the halfling.
Fife glanced at the other corridor. Something scrapped against rock with a light echo, the sound dying quickly. Darvin seemed not to notice, but the halfling suddenly doubted the wisdom of his own choice. Fife turned, took a few quick strides, and launched himself onto his brother's back.
"Changed your—" Darvin began.
"I'm keeping the books dry, you oaf," Fife grumbled.
"Of course." Darvin said as they waded into the waterlogged corridor with its irregular bricks.
The corridor eventually ended at a brick wall with a sluice gate at one end and a moss-covered brick platform with a door to the right. The water reeked of stagnation and decaying sewage. The door bulged out, the wood splintered and cracked under weight.
They stood well to the side as Darvin struggled to pull the wedged door open. When it finally gave, it popped with a rumbling force that slammed Darvin into the wall. The stone and wood spine of a collapsed ceiling tumbled out.
The pair examined the landslide a moment, noting the gaps between timber beams and under larger rocks.
"You can crawl through there," Darvin said, pointing to one of the larger rabbit holes.
"What?!" Fife shouted, barely stopping his voice from squeaking. "Why me? It's large enough for you, too."
"Because you're tiny," Darvin announced.
Fife glared at him. "The gods curse you for that."
"Are they tiny gods?" Darvin asked, grinning.
Fife didn't bother bruising his already soiled dignity, and instead removed his backpack, shoving his cloak inside. "Remember, if I die, it'll be on your head."
"It'll be a tiny funeral," Darvin said cheerfully.
The tunnel was small. Not so tight that Fife felt pressed in, but not so wide that his breathing didn't rabbit faster. Darvin would have a hell of a fit inside, and that made Fife smile.
Obstructions jutted out at sharp angles. Fife crawled over and under them, elbow over elbow, pulling and scraping skin, snagging clothing and tearing fabric in small nicks. Every foot deeper into the burrow tightened a fist around his chest, and panicked thoughts butterflied in his head. He stopped, almost gasping, wanting to crawl back out before the tunnel snapped its teeth around him.
He stared ahead and squinted; did the passage open up, or was that the illusion of desperation? Fife wanted to push forward, but as he watched, a shadow moved against shadow, pebbles clattering in its wake.
Something waited for him just past the opening. He froze.
Darvin considered lighting a torch to see better; Fife had vanished up ahead, the darkness swallowing him up.
"You okay up there?" Darvin shouted down the throat of the tunnel.
"Shh!" came the response.
"You ‘shh!'" Darvin cried back.
"SHHH!" Fife hissed more urgently.
Darvin almost shouted back at his companion, but a splash caught his attention. He spun around as more splashes followed, echoes that danced along the walls of the tunnel and up his spine... then nothing.
Darvin tiptoed to the edge of the platform. The dying ebb of waves lapped against the stone. Something coursed under the water, casting ripples, heading straight for him.
Unbidden, his memory suddenly offered up a crystal-clear image of the severed hand dancing on the fraying rope, finger-blades flickering.
Darvin bolted for the small hole, shoving Fife's bag in first and crawling after it. Rocks and the tips of broken timbers poked and jabbed him. The bag snagged and he struggled to push it forward despite the tearing sound that followed. The tunnel pressed against him, and he wrenched his shoulder pushing himself through.
"Fife!" Darvin shouted.
"For the love of our mother, shh!" Fife cried back.
"Stop telling me to shush! The hand's behind me!"
"No it's not," Fife shouted, far closer than Darvin would have thought. "It's in front of us."
"Behind!" Darvin insisted. The bag hit resistance, and Darvin looked up at the blackened soles of Fife's feet. Something scampered in the tunnel behind Darvin, and more stones tumbled from their perch. He couldn't see past his own body, however, and opted to push instead.
Fife felt something press against his feet and almost shrieked in terror. He raised his head to see Darvin shoving his bag—shoving Fife—toward the opening a handful of feet away and the noise that had turned into an impatient clicking, like the tapping of metal fingers.
"No, Darvin!" Fife shouted. He pressed his hands against the rocks and kicked at the bag.
"Stop that, you lout! Something's behind me!"
Before Fife could protest, Darvin gave another shove, sending the halfling toward the hole and pinning his hands under his body, squashed tight against rock.
The mummified hand leapt into the opening, its tensing fingers covered in blades. Fife screamed. Darvin screamed in response, though unlikely for the same reason. Or maybe it was. Fife didn't care.
The hand scampered forward on its fingers, and Fife struggled to free his arms. Darvin pushed him another inch closer. The hand was, for the lack of better measurements, only a handful of feet away.
Fife rolled to his side, pressing his back painfully against the rubble until his arms popped free, his fingers aching and bruised. The hand sprang toward him, fingers propelling it forward. Naturally, Darvin pushed him again, screaming something about the thing at his feet and life having failed his expectations. Fife couldn't reach the dirk at his belt, but in the attempt his hand rubbed against the bamboo quill in his breast pocket. He grabbed it and swung hard, stabbing the amputated hand as it came within an inch of shaving his eyebrows.
Fife stabbed the hand again with the sharp quill, his vision red pinpricks of focus and flushed hot with blood. Suddenly, the lip of the tunnel loomed and he found popping free like a cork, shoved out by a panicking Darvin. He barely had time to roll nimbly away before his human companion came crashing down as well, almost crushing him.
Darvin pushed to his feet quickly, pulling on his sheathed dagger to defend himself, the stuck weapon flopping uselessly against his leg. The skittering in the tunnel grew louder.
Darvin glanced up just in time to catch a scurry of movement and the gleam of red eyes. It took him a second to register that second part before several large and frightened brown rats tore out of the tunnel, screeching in protest. They ran past Darvin and a prone Fife, who pulled away from the rodents, before scrabbling through cracks in the wall.
"Rats!" Darvin exclaimed, laughing in relief. "All that nonsense for rats!" He noticed the amputated hand, its fingers curled up like the legs of a dead spider. "When did I do that?"
"You?" Fife stood and drew himself up to his full three-foot height. "That was me!"
"Really?" Darvin said. "That sounds more like something I'd do."
"I killed it!" Fife said, then seemed to startle as he realized what he'd said. "Me! I did that! I killed it! I'm the hero of the village." He held his bamboo quill aloft like a champion wielding a blade, or at least a really big turkey leg. "The quill is mightier than the sword!"
"Now that's just silly," Darvin said. "Hyperbole will get you killed. Especially in a sword-versus-quill fight." He looked around the chamber.
The world seemed to slow, dread flowing back into him like cold water into an empty cup. "Fife," Darvin said quietly, "don't turn around."
Of course Fife turned around. As soon as he said it, Darvin realized how foolish the statement was. Turning is precisely the first thing one does when told "don't turn around." It was an inherent contradiction, much like when someone says, "This tastes horrible... here, try it."
They stood in a circular domed chamber, a door against the curve of the opposite wall. In the center rested a huge table with its sides flanked by drawers and the top covered in beakers, jars, books, powder packets, measuring tools, and innumerable other instruments. Above the worktable hung a wood-wheel chandelier crusted in wax.
Twenty tables lined the curving walls, and upon each lay a corpse in some advanced state of decay.
"Darvin," Fife whispered.
Darvin touched his brother's shoulder. "I told you not to turn around." In retrospect, though, Darvin wasn't sure how he expected Fife to continue without turning around.
"No," Fife said, nodding to the bodies; all manacled, Darvin now noticed. And all missing their hands.
"Oh," Darvin said.
And from all the dark places in the room and the large cracks in the floor came a scurrying of movement.
Coming Next Week: Things get further out of hand in Chapter Three of Lucien Soulban's "Fingers of Death—No, Doom!"
Lucien Soulban is an accomplished fantasy and science fiction author who's written shared world fiction for White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, Black Library, and more, including the novels Blood In, Blood Out and The Alien Sea. For more information, visit his website at www.luciensoulban.com.
Illustration by Daniel Masso.