Earth and sky rumbled, the hellish magma-filled fissures radiating out from the necromancer's crumbling manse.
Darvin pulled himself up, hand over hand, from one of the terrible rents as more of the stronghold fell into the inferno. A tower tumbled and broke not a dozen feet from them, showering the cleft with bricks and certain death. Darvin ignored the sweltering heat, intent on saving the plump maiden on his back, her ebony arms around his neck, her squeals of panic tickling his ears.
Fife, his halfling companion, was already standing over them, pulling Darvin up with as much muster as his diminutive strength allowed. Suddenly, Fife screamed and pointed past Darvin. A mass of amputated hands, animated by the necromancer Malificar, crawled out from the labyrinth of passageways exposed by the fissures and tremors.
"There must be hundreds of them!" Fife said as Darvin cleared the edge of the fault with the maiden Charlotte in tow.
Darvin only needed to glance at the hands that scrabbled and vaulted up the rock wall to know, "Five-hundred and forty hands to be precise."
"How many arrows do you have left?" Fife asked.
"Two," Darvin said through gritted teeth. "I'll make them count."
A deep rumble shook the land and almost sent the trio to the ground. The tremors widened the fissures, a blast of heat like the breath of some dragon smelling of sulfur and hot death with a side order of rancid. Charlotte squeezed his arm and pressed it between her bosoms.
"What's happening?" she screamed.
Darvin looked into her soft black eyes and stroked her cheek. He said nothing, but his eyes spoke volumes and promised: Ignore the flood of hands cresting the fissures with the sole intent of adding six new hands to their numbers. You're safe with me, Darvin, now. By the way, this is my half-brother, Fife.
She nodded calmly but Fife screamed, "Run!" Two dozen feet ahead of the half-brothers and the woman, the ground burst open and giant fingers emerged from below, each as large as a human knight, and armored too. The fingers dragged the giant amputated hand out from the manse's undercroft, digging trench-like troughs in the soil. The large monstrosity blocked their escape.
"The Hand of Malificar!" Fife said.
Darvin surveyed the dire situation. Behind them skittered hundreds of hands, ready to slice them with bladed fingers before overtaking the sleeping town below. Ahead, the enlarged appendage of the very necromancer they'd just killed blocked their escape.
"Well, old friend," Darvin said, drawing his bow. "Looks like things have finally gotten out of hand."
∗ ∗ ∗
Everyone stared at Darvin, blinking uncertainly. Tankards thunked wood softly, voices murmured, the smell of clove ham wafted from the kitchen and mixed with the rich tobacco smoke of long pipes.
"Looks like things have finally gotten out of hand," Darvin repeated more slowly. Again, no reaction. Darvin glanced at Fife. "Uh."
"You're not speaking their language," Fife whispered. He pushed his chair out, careful to avoid the steady drips from the ceiling.
"Aren't we all speaking Taldane?" Darvin asked.
"Honestly," Fife said, shaking his head. The halfling looked at the crowd of mill workers who now stared at him. "What my brother meant to say was"—Fife lowered his voice in the best impression of Darvin he could muster—"Fife, old friend, our asses are on the chopping block."
Cries of "Oh!" and "Why didn't he say so," exploded from around the table, the listeners suddenly all smiles and laughter. "Go on!" others cheered, encouraging Darvin.
Darvin glanced at Fife, his expression wide and lost.
"The Lumber Consortium rules here," Fife explained with a smile. "Know your audience."
"Save me!" Darvin hissed.
"With what? My, um, what did you call it? Ah yes, ‘diminutive strength?'" Before Darvin could respond, Fife headed deeper into the crowd, blissfully ignoring him.
"Go on!" a patron demanded. "Get to the plump wench!"
Fife chuckled and moved out of earshot, sidling closer to the rock-rimmed fire pit in the center of the Sawhorse Inn's common room as the fire drove the damp cold from his bones. The others seated around the flames looked miserable. The river town of Oregent survived on schedule and order, but the long rains had muted the complicated system of bells that regulated the lives of Oregentans (Orangutans? he wondered). Now the rain-pregnant waters of the Arthrosh River had overrun their boundaries and flooded the mills and lumberyards.
In short, life for the highly regulated employees of the Lumber Consortium had been thrown into chaos. No work meant no money, no money among the commerce-savvy citizens meant no investments or earnings. That left them to brood and squabble.
A low argument slowly filtered into Fife's consciousness, the words becoming clearer over the thrum of rain and the crackle of fire.
"The clattering take you both!" a woman proclaimed. "I tell you we're in for trouble."
Fife turned to the exchange, trying not to eavesdrop, but curious. A human woman with wide shoulders, black hair, and the arms of a mill worker sat with a burly man with a wild red mane for a beard and a gray-haired gnome woman who smoked on a long cork pipe and blew smoke from her button nose.
"It's a flood," the man said. "Nothing anyone can do about it."
"It'll be a week before my employees can work and that's after the rains end." The human woman bit her thumb.
"You and everyone else," the gnome replied, taking sage puffs from her pipe. "But the Consortium is primed for a shake-up. Perhaps not among the inner guilds, no, but among the cousin guilds there's room for expansion, growth... acquisition for Woodland Enterprises." The gnome's gold eyes glittered.
"You're talking about reopening the mills before anyone else does," the man said.
"I'm talking about stealing contracts out from under some of your rivals. Like Dannigan Lumber?"
"But that would mean predicting when the floods will retreat," the man argued, "and not even Dannigan can do that until someone reaches the blasted knife gates."
The trio at the table fell silent and Fife almost drifted away from the table when the human woman cursed softly: "Damn monsters."
Fife was instantly at their table with a smile and a heart beating fast at the mention of...
The gnome waved Fife off. "Go away, child. This is grownup talk."
"Hey!" Fife said, indignantly. He showed them the soft hair on the roof of his feet. "I'm halfling."
"As I said," the gnome replied, smiling sharply.
"You're the same height as me!"
"Whatever you're selling, we're not buying," the man said, barely glancing at Fife.
Fife grinned sweetly. "I'm offering my brother's and my services as experienced monster hunters."
"The last ‘hunters' who entered the sewers included a wizard—" the woman began, but Fife interrupted her.
"Our work is pro bono, payable at completion of the contract against five percent projected gross earnings of your mill over a one-month period, in addition to operating expenses for equipment and a food allowance."
All three eyed Fife through squinted and suddenly wary eyes. The human woman leaned forward. "One percent against one week's projected gross earnings, and an allowance limit of 10 coppers a day."
The four of them were quiet, staring at one another like gladiators wielding their favorite weapons of war. Fife cracked his knuckles and smiled in anticipation of the coming fight...
∗ ∗ ∗
Years later (or perhaps an hour later; it was hard to tell when it came to Fife), Darvin would remember the moment with horrible clarity, his mind refusing to forget. It was inexorable, like one of the three certain tragedies in life: Death, taxes, and Fife's desperate need for adventure.
Darvin remembered regaling the Sawhorse Inn with his exploits in "Malificar and the Hands of Doom," the audience enraptured by his skill in hand-puppetry and how it made shadows on the wall. Then, in mid-pantomime of his great battle against the legion of hands (and honestly, if anything shadow puppets were made for was the showing of a war of hands), Darvin turned to see...
...Fife extending his arm to shake the hand of a seated woman. A sudden dread hollowed him. He bolted from his chair all too slowly, as though trapped in amber, like time congealing. He extended his arm out, his mouth opening to scream, "Nooooooo—"
The chair clattered to the ground in slow motion, Darvin pushing past patrons. Drinks flew from their hands, Orengentans (or was that Orangutans?) pushed backward as Darvin barreled past them and Fife gripped the woman's hands.
"—oooooooooo—" Darvin continued. He brushed by the serving wench, upending her tray and marveling for a moment at the sparkling rain of mead and ale that hung in the air. Fife's hand began pumping the woman's hand in return.
"—ooooooooo!" Darvin leapt and skidded across a tabletop, arriving at Fife's side just in time to hear the halfling conclude with the three words Darvin feared most.
"It's a deal."
∗ ∗ ∗
"I don't see the problem," Fife complained as they made their way through the wet streets.
The rain had polished the cobblestones slick, but closer to the river, Darvin knew they'd start hitting the flooded and muck-covered streets. He wanted to punish his brother with good dose of the silent treatment, but he was too angry. From beneath his hood he glared at the halfling.
"We discussed this," Darvin said. "We deal in stories. That fiasco with the hands," he said, waggling his fingers. "We agreed after that, no more misadventures."
"No more misadventures!" Fife said, cheering.
"Fife! We're not cut out for the real thing!"
"This won't be like that business with the hands. Ah!" Fife glanced down at the iron grate set by the side of the road. "This should be it. Help me."
Fife removed the iron spanner from under his cloak and wedged it between the grate's bars.
"You're beyond help," Darvin said and sniffed. He refused to budge and he refused to be budged.
Fife shrugged and used the spanner as a fulcrum with his body as the weight. For a moment he hung there, his feet scurrying through the air, before the grate shifted. Fife struggled it off the hole and peered down while cinching the cloak tighter around his body, shifting his backpack and books.
"Ooo," Fife said, but Darvin refused to be baited. "Look."
"It's a sewer."
"It's a flood drain."
"Where the sewers empty. I am not swimming in that."
"We won't," Fife said, grinning. "There's a small boat down there. The mill owner said so."
"Then let her go sailing in that." Darvin motioned toward the hole.
"She'll be grateful," Fife sang.
Darvin swallowed hard and shook his head. "No, I don't care how plump she is. We're not—"
A chuckle interrupted them. A stranger seemed to materialize out of the rain, his wide shoulders cloaked in gray, his face hooded but for the stub of small tusks poking out past his thick, green lips.
Half-orc, Darvin realized as the stranger spoke.
"Are you the agents of Woodland Enterprises?" the half-orc asked with a voice as grizzled as his chin.
"No," Darvin said.
"Yes," Fife said at the same time.
The cloak split open. "Then Dannigan Lumber regrets it must terminate your position!" His hand flashed out and Darvin watched in horror as the blade struck Fife in the chest.
Fife looked down as well, startled and pained. "My... book," he gasped, opening his wool cloak to reveal an impaled journal in his breast pocket.
The half-orc snarled and flung another dagger with the flick of his wrist. Darvin tried to push Fife out of the way and only succeeded in spinning him around. The dagger struck Fife in the back.
"My other book!" Fife cried. "He's after my books!"
"He's after us, you idiot!" Darvin shouted back and, before he could reconsider, pushed himself and Fife into the exposed hole. Darkness surrounded them, and the roar of the flooded sewers enveloped them...
Coming Next Week: The perilous sewers beneath Oregent in Chapter Two of Lucien Soulban's "The Tides of Blood!"
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 Michael Rookard