"Run!" Darvin screamed. Behind them, the wall of rats fell over each other as they raced along the partially submerged sewer ledge.
"I am running!" Fife said, his small arms pumping.
"Run like a human!"
"I'm faster than you!" Fife retorted. "My strides are shorter!"
Darvin struggled to stay on his feet, the wet bricks slick, the runoff from the storm chasing a hard course through the tunnels and spraying everything in a shower of sewage. He heard Fife stumble, but when he looked back, the halfling was already back on his feet, the rats half a dozen feet behind.
"Why... are we always... running... down corridors?" Fife huffed. "The hands, now rats. Heroes don't flee."
"We aren't heroes!" Darvin shouted back. "At best we're unwilling appetizers." He searched, trying to find some escape from the roiling mass of vermin on their heels. The swarm would soon run them down. It wasn't just that the rats were faster (they were in spurts). Or that there were so many (there were). It was that, as rats fell back, more scampered forward, always gaining on them.
Then there was the large one that ran in their midst, the one the size of a dog, urging them on with a grating, high-pitched screech and blood-red eyes.
The passageway narrowed, the ledge thinning, and Darvin saw a glimmer of hope. The rats had gained and were now a handful of feet behind them. Darvin slowed a step, just long enough to grab Fife by the collar and the belt...
...and heaved his half-brother across the seven-foot-wide sewer torrent. Fife screeched and landed on the opposite ledge just as Darvin ran another couple of steps to the edge. Several rats jumped onto his back, trying to bite through the wet wool cloak, but Darvin leaped with a roar.
He struck water, his hands scrabbling across the ledge, the rapids pulling him down the tunnel.
Fife raced to grab his hand, but water pulled Darvin with angry strength, too quickly for the halfling. Inches separated their outstretched hands, then a foot, and then another. In desperation, Fife slid forward, swinging out with his rucksack. Darvin caught the bag, fingers clenched around fabric with an aching ferocity.
"Ow, ow, ow, ow!" Fife said. The sewer waters pulled Darvin along, and bounced Fife across the slimy bricks.
At this rate, Darvin realized, Fife would end up in the foul drink in a matter of yards where the tunnel turned to the right. "Dig in with your monkey feet!" he said.
Fife grunted something that may have been in pain or in insult. The halfling tucked his body into a fetal position, slowing them both down as the yards slimmed to inches.
Darvin grabbed the ledge at the corner of the turn, and Fife helped him back up to solid ground.
∗ ∗ ∗
"We need to stop meeting like this." Darvin lay on his back, panting hard as Fife looked around.
The pack of rats watched them from the opposite ledge. They acted restless, but the leader kept its beady red eyes on the two humanoids. There was something unpleasant in its gaze, something profoundly angry and vicious. Fife couldn't stop staring, until finally, the king rat lifted its head and uttered a series of angry squeaks.
"What did you say?" Darvin asked, sitting up.
"That wasn't me, you idiot." Fife nodded at the rats.
"Ah, yes," Darvin said, calling out to them. "Are the four-legged fiends at a loss? Has their dinner outwitted them?"
The king rat snarled and squeaked louder. The rats broke into two packs, half going back the way they had come, the other half scurrying up the passageway and around the corner.
"Oh dear," Fife said. "I think they're looking to outflank us."
"Ah," Darvin said. "Tactics. That's... upsetting. Run?"
"That would be best." Fife helped his brother up as the packs vanished in opposite directions. "It's just..."
"I'm tired of running. Aren't you?"
"I'm surprisingly good at it," Darvin replied.
"That's the problem. So am I."
Darvin looked down at his half-brother and sighed. "What do you propose?"
"We turn the tables."
∗ ∗ ∗
They followed the water flow, crossing wood bridges over the smaller passages. Of the rats or their king, they saw no sign; the ledges and corridors created a maze.
"Turn the tables how?" Darvin asked, when he realized his half-brother had never added anything.
Fife looked up at him, a flicker of surprise in his face.
"Do you even have a plan?" Darvin asked.
"I had an idea," Fife admitted.
"I hear an 'if.' Or a 'but.' Maybe a 'well.'"
"There it is."
"I came up with one plan," Fife said, "but we don't have a wheel of cheese."
"In this situation, we are the wheel of cheese," Darvin said.
"And then I thought about trapping them in a large maze."
"We are the ones in the maze?"
"Are you suggesting that we're the rats?"
"I'm not that profound. I think the sewers are getting to you."
"And then I thought, why aren't the sewers flooded?"
"Aren't they?" The waters that sloshed at Darvin's feet were a good inch above his soles, and he could barely feel his cold toes.
"For the amount of rain we've had? The water's being dammed up somewhere and that's causing the streets to flood."
"The knife gate," Darvin suggested.
"That's at the lowest point of the sewers. The flooding would back up, not—"
"Yes, thank you," Darvin said. "I have a general understanding of slopes and how they work."
They arrived at an intersection and Fife looked up and down its length. He smiled and waggled a finger for Darvin to follow. After a few minutes of this, Darvin realized what he was doing. "You're heading up."
Fife nodded. "I'm following the streams with the smallest flows."
"To find the blockage. Look, if adventurers failed, with a wizard no less, why don't we just find a way out?"
"Why escape when we could undam the sewer, wash away the rats, and get paid in the process?"
"Hold," Darvin said, putting his hand on Fife's shoulder. "We're getting paid for this? Why didn't you say so?"
"I didn't need to," Fife said. "'We have a deal' means 'we get something in the exchange.'"
"Did you negotiate for the rest of your missing height?"
"I bargained for a smarter brother."
"I guess we both came up short."
Fife punched Darvin in the thigh. From off in the distance came the echo of a rat squeak. Fife hesitated, then started jogging. He kept looking back, the sound of the rats growing louder, and Darvin knew he had to keep his fretting half-brother preoccupied.
"I don't know with you anymore," Darvin said. "You seem intent on jumping into danger. Well... hopping in your case."
"There's nothing wrong with trying to be the hero," Fife said, huffing.
"But we're not heroes."
"We could be," Fife said.
"And the payment? Is that what heroes do?"
"Only to disguise their noble intentions. Besides—never mind," Fife said, his expression sullen.
"What?" Darvin asked.
"It's just... I know you'll never come on adventures with me unless there's money to be made! Or a chance to meet a plump woman."
In response, Darvin reached down and punched Fife in the shoulder, almost hard enough to send him into the water.
"What was that for?!" Fife snapped.
"Coin is nice, and plump women are better," Darvin said. "But you're my brother. You think I'd let you go on an adventure alone?"
"So you punched me because you love me?"
"I punched you because you made me say it."
The rat squeaks grew louder from somewhere behind them, but Darvin saw none of the red-eyed vermin, just rain water rushing off into the darkness. Fife paused at another intersection of sewer tunnels. The larger passage on their right angled up, the water diminished. They took it.
"You love me," Fife said, almost singing.
"Don't make it a thing," Darvin said.
Behind them, the sound of rats grew louder, but at least Fife wore a grin. It was all too easy for the halfling to get lost in the needs of the world, without sharing in its joy. That's why he needed Darvin.
∗ ∗ ∗
Fife did his best to ignore the skittering of nails on brick. Beside him, Darvin followed his lead, tracking the trickle of water back to the blockage.
That was good. It was all too easy for Darvin to distance himself from the world, to ignore it and go about his own affairs. Fife liked to believe that Darvin was better than he thought of himself; all he needed was a little encouragement to perform outside his own narrow motives. Fife could provide that incentive.
Fife glanced back and caught a hint of movement deep in the darkness, perhaps a foot beyond the limits of his vision. The shadows along the ground squirmed, though that could have been the water. He nudged Darvin, and without another word, the pair jogged more quickly.
The ten-foot-wide sewer passage angled up and ended at a large tunnel. This new avenue stretched wider than the others, to nearly twenty feet, with a low arched ceiling and small side feeders angling off sharply at intervals. The slope grew more pronounced, the water a thick ribbon down the center trough and still too little for the rains and flood.
"The portway drain," Fife said. When Darvin glanced at him, he explained. "The portway runs the river's length and links the mills to the river port. If this is blocked..."
Darvin nodded, and Fife led them upward. The rats gained, however, untiring in their advance. By the time the pair had crowned the sloped passage, the rats were within sight, as was the dam of splintered timbers, dislodged topsoil, and nests of roots. It blocked the passage save for the water leaking through the imperfect plug.
Standing before the blockage of castoff stood the half-orc assassin. He'd been examining the dam and the water cascading over the embankment, but he turned at the sound of their steps. His expression of surprise lasted but a moment, then gave way to a sharp-toothed smile. Behind Darvin and Fife, the rats ran and screeched up the slope. A glance back told Fife they were less than fifty feet back, their bodies nearly indistinguishable in the writhing mass, but for their eyes and yellowed incisors.
The brothers shared a glance and Fife knew immediately what his brother was thinking. They were finally in familiar waters.
"Oh, look," Fife said. "It's our favorite assassin."
The half-orc casually pulled his cloak open, revealing the glint of daggers. "No escape this time."
"Yes, about that," Fife said, "we've picked up something along the way."
"Vermin," Darvin said.
"A plague really."
"A plague of vermin."
"Isn't that redundant?"
The rats were thirty feet back and the excitement of blood drove them faster.
"Can you say vermin of plague?"
"I—don't think so," Fife admitted.
"Then I guess it isn't redundant."
"Enough babbling. Why do you keep looking ba—what are those?" the half-orc asked, noticing the swell of rats that had cleared the slope of the tunnel.
"The plague of vermin," Darvin said, not bothering to look back.
"They're with us," Fife said.
"Charge!" Darvin screamed, and the half-brothers bolted forward.
Coming Next Week: Here comes the flood in the conclusion 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