Darvin wasn't sure whether the bluff worked or not, but the result was the same. The sewer rats were chasing Darvin and Fife and the two storytellers were chasing the assassin, trying to make him believe the pack was under their control.
In the face of the swarm, the half-orc panicked and clambered up the blockage of branches, tree limbs, uprooted clumps of soil, and stones. When he reached the top of the embankment, he began kicking at the debris in desperation.
He's trying to dislodge the rubble and flood the tunnel, Darvin realized, but that could collapse the whole dam, washing them all away.
"Grab him!" Darvin shouted, snaring one leg while nimble Fife leaped up to grab the other. The half-orc screamed in his mad scramble to dislodge rubbish. More water poured through the opening.
The rats were less than ten feet away now, the king among them screeching furiously and driving the rats forward.
Fife planted his feet against the slopes and yelled, "Pull him down or the rats will never eat his eyes!"
Darvin gave him a look and shook his head, but the half-orc screamed and dislodged more debris in his panic.
A rumbling followed that shook the tunnels themselves, and a big beam of timber shifted, firing a jet of compacted mud and slop that shot down the passageway.
Darvin and Fife stumbled back, and only then did Darvin remember the rats. The rats had come to a stop, water roaring through the small gaps of the dam, wood creaking under tremendous pressure, the half-orc crying triumphantly.
Then it all came down, the pressure of the dam firing smaller debris like arrow shot. A chair leg shot past Darvin's head, and he yanked Fife away just as the top of the dam disintegrated and cut a trough down its center. A V-shaped cascade of water shot through, and Darvin was running down the slope, grabbing a handful of Fife's damp cloak.
Debris-strewn water punched straight down the spine of the tunnel, cutting a line through the swarm. The rats were scattered, and even their king turned its eaten tail to the flood and ran along the side, pulling its retinue with it.
Darvin and Fife stuck to the walls of the tunnel, but the breach widened and Darvin watched in horror as the flood fanned out toward them.
∗ ∗ ∗
Fife pulled behind his half-brother, the flood splashing around his ankles and almost shoving him into Darvin. Debris tumbled past them, along with the half-orc who screamed as he sailed past.
A moment later, the assassin disappeared over the arc of the tunnel's slope and Fife and Darvin followed on their butts.
"Wheee!" Fife cried, throwing his hands up.
Around them, dozens of rats scrambled for purchase and vanished back under the churning tumult. Some climbed atop Fife and Darvin and dug in with teeth and claws, but the pair tore them off.
From behind them came a roar that shook the tunnel, and Fife realized that the rest of the dam must have given way. In his mind, he saw the wall of pent-up water and timber from the mills that had fallen into the storm channels. Anyone caught inside that avalanche would be crushed utterly.
"Darvin!" Fife shouted, but his brother had already understood the danger. They grabbed at walls, at grooves and rough stone. Darvin tried to hook the edge of a side-feeder, but only slowed himself enough for Fife to slam into him and send them both spinning around.
Rats bit at them, and pebbles and stones sent flying stung them as the avalanche bore down. Fife spun in front of Darvin as his half-brother grabbed at the edge of another side-tunnel and lost his grip. A log toppled end over end past them and down the slope. They were on the verge of getting swept away.
A dark spot loomed on the wall and Fife threw his weight behind his bag. The momentum hooked him on the side-feeder's edge, his legs kicking against the flood that tried to yank him back out. A great weight struck him. Fife almost lost his grip, the pressure of Darvin's weight crushing. A moment later, the weight was gone. Fife almost cried out in panic, but Darvin was pulling him into the collector.
Pieces of the broken plug rumbled past them, timbers and rocks slamming into the wall with crushing force. The ceiling groaned, the walls shook, as the sewer collapsed under the sudden punishment.
Fife was horrified as masonry crashed down around them, water pushing into the side passages like geysers. Fife didn't feel Darvin pulling him until he himself scrambled to his feet and began running.
"Are we heroes yet?" Darvin yelled over the tumult.
"Shut up!" Fife said. The rising water raced past his shins, panicking rats clambering up them both. Fife spun and scraped the walls to dislodge them. Sometimes Darvin struck rats from him, and sometimes he from Darvin.
There was no way around it, however: the waters pushed them along and they had no recourse but to follow the flow down the spiral of the sewers. Rumbles followed elsewhere as parts of the flooded and strained tunnels collapsed. Then a thundering that sounded all too close was followed by a horrific crash.
The brick wall behind them exploded as a battering ram of a tree smashed through, followed by a surge of water that swept over them. Fife was off his feet instantly and, in the tumult, he could see Darvin fighting to swim. Fife extended his backpack to Darvin, sputtering and screaming for him to grab hold...
∗ ∗ ∗
Darvin blinked, blinked again. He was... somewhere. A domed stone ceiling stretched overhead, held in place by the ribs of arches. His head thundered, his sides hurt, his right arm numb.
"Fife?" He raised his head, looking around. His numb arm was wrapped around the strap of Fife's sodden bag, but no Fife. Despite the pounding in his head, he sat up. His head swam before the room steadied. Fife squatted next to a pile of rags, a makeshift torch in his hand.
Not rags... a body. "The assassin?" he asked.
Fife shook his head and continued thumbing through the tome next to the body. "The wizard from the first group our employers sent," he said. "It's a spellbook, I think."
Darvin groaned, his back popping and snapping as he stood and stretched. "Is that safe? Wizards are tricky."
Fife shrugged. "I don't think he was all that good. Most of the baubles were colored glass, and not all that impressive."
"You searched his body?"
"I'm so proud of you!"
The persistent thundering Darvin heard was the runoff from the feeder tunnels emptying into the circular chamber. A wooden grate braced with iron brackets covered the floor and sieved the water pouring in to somewhere below, but splintered logs, large rocks, shattered crates, and more covered the floor, all too large to fall through the grate.
Three bodies in total, torn and cut and savaged, lay in indignant repose. Darvin dropped Fife's bag next to him and searched through the bodies, plucking at coin pouches.
"How'd we get all the way there?" he asked, nodding to where he'd awoken. The nearest tunnel was a good dozen feet away, the castoff a steady gush of noise.
"I dragged you to the side."
"Pff, you're not strong enough."
"Okay, I kicked and rolled you like a barrel," Fife said, engrossed in the book.
"That I believe. Can you read that?"
Fife smiled. "No, but I get the gist of it. Now this symbol is either warmth or fiery death."
"I'm sure the wizard carried around a spell of snuggly warmth." Darvin found a beautiful stiletto blade weighted expertly. He slipped it into his belt.
He reached for another body when he saw the pair of large gleaming red eyes glaring at him.
"Uh," was all he managed before the eyes, teeth, and claws were on him.
∗ ∗ ∗
A shout shook Fife from his studies, the rubble around them a sudden fury of rustling and squeaks. Darvin thrashed, something large and brown and glinting with teeth clawing at him.
More rats darted forward, leaping nimbly toward them, and Fife swung his torch, striking the closest. The angry embers of red eyes surrounded him. He raced to his brother who wielded a stiletto blade Fife had never seen before. The king rat leaped away as the halfling jabbed the torch at it, but Darvin managed a slash across its hind flanks.
The large rat hissed and darted off, sending the other rats into a panic.
"Get it!" Fife said. "Before they rally!"
Fife and Darvin scrambled over logs and clumps of moss. The large rat darted from hole to niche, but Fife jammed his torch into the shallow warrens, driving it back out. Darvin slashed at it and any rat too brave for its own good, helping Fife outflank the bigger rodent and kicking down precarious hovels to scatter the packs.
The king rat ran for the nearest tunnel a dozen feet away along the curved wall. It vanished under a plank and Fife jammed his torch beneath; something sharp and unforgiving stung his hand. He yelped, dropping the torch as he fell back. The large rat was atop the plank in a blur of fur, leaping for the halfling.
The stiletto flashed by, overshooting the king. Suddenly, it sheared down sharply, impaling the rodent through the back and into the wood.
The rats stopped suddenly, Darvin and Fife themselves stunned silent. The king rat thrashed against the blade momentarily, and then stilled. With that, the rats vanished into the nearest holes, the spell broken.
"Did you see that?" Darvin shouted, exultant. "The way I made it curve down?"
"I think the dagger's magical."
"It's that wrist thing that I do."
"The one that makes you miss everything? Birds, bottles, the sides of barns? The dagger's magical."
"I was incredible," he was flicking his wrist appreciatively.
"Magic will do that," Fife said, touching the pommel. He pulled it from the rat and handed it back to Darvin.
Darvin sheathed the dagger as Fife collected his backpack and the book of spells. He had much studying to do.
"Come on," Darvin said. "We have a knife gate to open."
Fife smiled. "Really?"
"Yeah. Heroes don't leave such things unfinished, right?"
"Right," Fife said, beaming ear to ear.
∗ ∗ ∗
The rains stopped two nights ago, leaving the stars free to shine brightly over Oregent. The streets remained muddy but traversable, the bells sounding out loud and clear as lumber workers returned home from a day of repairs.
Along the portway, crews had erected a lattice of wooden beams to repair the street that had collapsed into the sewers. As Darvin and Fife moved past the construction, the Halfling tore down a wall poster: a drawing of them as the heroes who had opened the knife gates and saved Oregent from flooding. He folded the poster, and pocketed it with a grin.
"Are you sure you don't want to stay and enjoy the celebrations?" Darvin asked, looking back. He'd never had a party thrown in his honor, but there was only so much mead he could drink.
"I'm sure," Fife said with a smile. "Besides, who was it who taught me to leave when the going was still good?"
"Did I? That sounds entirely too responsible to be me."
"Well, you didn't exactly say it as you did live it by outstaying your welcome."
"Which time?" Darvin said, defensively.
"Every time," Fife pointed to the river lands beyond. "Shall we?"
Darvin smiled. "More misadventures await."
"To more misadventures," Fife agreed, shouldering his pack and stepping in line with his brother.
"You still made me taste poo water," Darvin said.
Fife merely smiled.
Coming Next Week: The River Kingdoms await in a sample chapter from Michael A. Stackpole's The Crusader Road
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