They struck the raging sewer river hard, the cold lacerating them and the turbulence spinning them around. The rushing water caught them in its torrent and Fife scrambled for purchase. His fingers scrabbled slimy brick and then water, and then brick again.
"Darvin—" he half-managed before he swallowed a foul mouthful of their surroundings. The halfling coughed and tried to gasp down air, but the waves closed around his head, his books and sodden wool dragging him down. Fife reached up, panicked.
A hand grabbed his and pulled him up and over rough wood.
Fife spent a few minutes coughing and waiting for the pain in his shoulder to subside. He looked up at Darvin, who was wet and huddled on the bench of the small boat that rocked at the end of a taut rope.
"You're going to say I told you so," Fife said, unable to meet his brother's gaze.
"I... swallowed poo water," Darvin said.
"Go ahead. Say it."
"You made me swallow poo water."
"You pushed us in," Fife offered.
"Nothing will ever taste the same again."
"The assassin!" Fife suddenly looked around. A shaft with iron rungs stretched above their heads, heavy runoff pouring down from the hole. The tunnel itself was well past half-flooded, the curved ceiling within reach.
"I'll taste things," Darvin continued, his eyes hollow and unblinking. "Honeyed ham, ale, warm sourdough bread, salted beef, sugar figs. And suddenly I'll remember that this tongue also tasted poo water. And then the taste, that taste, will return. The taste," he whispered. "The taste..."
"Darvin! The assassin is up there!"
"If he knew what I'd tasted..."
"You're annoyingly melodramatic." Fife pulled his knife and cut the mooring rope. A knick from Fife's dagger was all it took to unravel its taut braids.
The boat lurched and careened down the sewer passage, jolting Darvin from his shock. "Wh—what are you doing?"
"Committing us to a course." Fife grabbed one of the peeling gray oars and handed the other to Darvin. "Keep us off the walls."
∗ ∗ ∗
Keeping them off the walls was easier said than done, Darvin knew. The waters spun them around and sent their boat scrapping and thudding against the tunnel's brick-lined flanks. Then the route ended at the junction of another passageway with them hurtling toward the junction wall.
Darvin screamed, "Left or right?" against the roar of the water. It wasn't until he looked back and saw Fife's eyes go wide that he realized Fife didn't know.
The joint of the passageways surged the water upward before the merge, and both Darvin and Fife ducked as the ceiling rushed down to scrape their heads. Then the torrent dipped into the new corridor with a lurching drop, and Darvin fell off the bench as the rush twisted them to the side. The prow of their boat slammed off the wall, a jarring crunch that splintered wood.
As Darvin righted himself, he heard, "Uh oh."
"‘Uh oh,' what?" Darvin screamed.
"Nothing," Fife said, fighting with the oar and doing his best to grin amiably.
"‘Uh oh' is never nothing!" Darvin said. "‘Uh oh' is code for run or duck or—" and then he realized the bottom of the boat had vanished under rising water. "—or that! We're sinking?"
"It's just a small crack," Fife said, pressing his naked foot against the bloom sprouting in the bottom of the boat.
"You know what you call a bucket with a crack? Broken!"
"A bucket holds water in," Fife said, his brows furrowed. "A boat keeps water out. I don't think you're making the point you were hoping to make."
"Wall!" Darvin shouted. The boat surged on a swell and the two brothers pushed hard against the wall with their paddles. The boat scraped the greenish brick, splintering jagged bits of wood. More water spilled into their boat, but they managed to push off all the same, the muscles in Darvin's shoulders screaming in exertion.
"Oof!" Fife said, sounding like the wind had been knocked out of him.
Darvin looked back; Fife was no longer in the boat.
Fife's oar was sticking out of the wall, the spade half buried between the bricks, and Fife hung from it, his feet treading water.
"How—?" Darvin cried, and then saw. The oar was wedged in a large crack in the wall, and Fife had accidently thrust it in when he tried to push them off.
Darvin scrambled to grab Fife, but it was a fool's notion. Too many yards separated them, and the gap was increasing rapidly. They locked eyes, Fife's large circles of panic mirroring the ‘O' of his mouth.
Darvin dove into the water.
∗ ∗ ∗
Fife almost lost his grip on the oar. Darvin had gone under and had yet to surface. "Stupid," Fife muttered, almost in tears, fighting to stay up. He'd wedged the oar into the wall and it'd sheared him off as the boat slipped away.
"Stupid!" he screamed at the tumult, desperately searching the rapids as the boat careened and spun and slammed into a wall farther down. A moment later, it was gone, pulled around the corner by the torrent. He was alone.
Fife's shoulders hurt, his joints pulled by the weight of books. He had to let go, to swim downstream and find Darvin.
A hand grabbed the brick wall, slipped on slime, and grabbed again. A face emerged from the white surf: Darvin struggling to pull himself forward brick by brick.
"Grab my leg!" Fife cried, pushing his foot forward.
"Grow longer legs!" Darvin shouted back with a grin, and was almost swallowed under.
"Stupid!" Fife shouted again, but now it was with a fierce smile. "Why'd you jump in?"
Darvin clawed forward another couple of feet, his fingers jammed into the groove between bricks. "You're welcome!" he managed.
"The boat had rope!" Fife shouted.
"Did it?" Darvin managed between gulps of air. "Fancy that."
Darvin was a few feet away now, a look of sheer determination on his face as he pulled on bricks against the surge. Fife thrust his legs out again despite the ache in his shoulders. Darvin pushed forward from the wall with a desperate look and grabbed the cuff of Fife's trousers.
Fife wriggled, his shoulders crying out at the sudden pull.
"Stop bucking," Darvin said, holding on to Fife's pants.
"You're pulling my pants down," Fife screeched. He was trying not to laugh, but he couldn't help it, the ridiculous of the situation hitting home as his pants steadily lost their grip on his hips. It was all too much, and Fife's fingers came undone at the same time his trousers did.
A year passed, a moment, time irrelevant in the chaos, all of it spent spinning, upturned, in the foul-tasting water. Hands grabbed for him, pulling him up. A moment later, he was pulling Darvin up. They were each other's ladder in the tumult.
"Trying... to... save you!" Darvin gasped.
"Saving you!" Fife retorted.
And down they both went again.
Fife wasn't sure when it happened. He didn't know who found the ledge first, who pulled whom up, or if they both clambered up. The tunnel here was higher, or maybe there was less water; the ledge was only an inch submerged. It hurt to breathe. Darvin sucked in heavy gasps next to him.
"How'd they... send an assassin... after us... so quickly," Fife said between gulps of air. He could still see the half-orc materialize out from the storm, throwing daggers.
"He was at the... inn. Likely spying on... your clients."
"Our clients," Fife said. "You're in this mess now."
"A detail I'll rectify later. I call it ‘flogging the halfling.'"
"I've heard that about you."
"Pervert," Darvin said, giving his brother the measure of a half push.
"Besides, I'm already half-flogged," Fife said after a moment. He managed to draw measured breath but still coughed as the water pooled around them both.
"You all right?"
Fife nodded. "You?"
"Have I mentioned? You made me taste poo water."
"Trust me, that part won't make it into the tales."
"What about the part where you lost your pants?" Darvin asked.
Fife raised his head and looked down at his small clothes, his hairy legs and large feet. He waggled his toes and groaned. "Heroes are supposed to wear pants."
"My heroes work best without their pants," Darvin replied, waggling his eyebrows obscenely.
Wet pants hit Fife in the face before he could retort.
"I held on to them," Darvin continued.
Fife nodded and slipped them on, freezing as they were, and looked around. Better with them than without, he thought, despite the chill.
"You have no idea where we're going, do you?"
"I don't need to." Fife pointed to where the water fled. "The water flows to the knife gates. We need to get them fully opened to flood the lowlands."
"And why isn't the city handling this problem?" Darvin asked, getting up slowly.
"They sent people down to clear the knife gates, including a wizard!" Fife said, checking his books. The water-resistant ink and candle-waxed pages had protected the writing. "The men never returned."
"Excuse me?" Darvin said. "Define ‘never returned'!"
"Um, you know?" Fife said, trying to look nonchalant in a manner that suggested he was completely chalant. "I thought I'd mentioned it."
"You did no such thing!"
"Oh... fancy that."
"Don't play coy. I saw you hesitate."
"Well," Fife said, smiling up at his brother. "I knew you'd overreact."
Darvin motioned around them. "Really! I wonder what would coax such mortal terror from me?"
"Certainly not a fear of hyperbole."
"No, no, no," Darvin said, pointing. "It's the terror of being your brother!"
"See? Hyperbole. We're half-brothers at best."
"We're in the flooded sewers!" Darvin said. "Lost, cold, hunted by an assassin, and whatever killed those men..." He trailed off.
Fife sighed deeply and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Something is behind us, isn't it?"
Darvin nodded and backed away one step.
"The thing that killed the men?"
Darvin took another step back. "Things. What do you fear other than spiders?"
"Gnomes," Fife admitted softly. "In fool's motley."
"Good," Darvin said. "This isn't that."
Fife turned, knowing he'd regret it, and instantly at that. He was right on both counts.
A wall of black bodies covered the ledge not two dozen yards behind them. Wet fur in mangy tufts, diseased scabrous skin in brown and black patches, thousands of red beady eyes, fist-sized bodies, yellowed fangs bared. More disturbing still, the largest one measured the size of a dog, with a long, wormlike, chewed and bitten tail. They made no sound, no hint at motion, just watched.
"Are those...?" Fife whispered, backing away.
"Rats," Darvin said.
"And the bigger one?"
"I was wrong," Fife said, almost apologetic.
The swarm of rats took a step forward.
"About coming here?"
"No," Fife said. "Gnomes dressed in fool's motley has now dropped to fourth-worst fear."
"What was second, then?" Darvin asked.
"Another time, perhaps? I don't want to give the fates ideas."
"Point. Shall we run?"
Fife looked down at his own hairy feet. "Oh," he said in a hoarse whisper. "I thought we already were."
Fife and Darvin turned and ran in earnest. Behind them, the sound of rushing water was drowned out by the new din of scrabbling claws...
Coming Next Week: Desperate tactics in Chapter Three 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