Chapter 22: The Seawall

Chapter 22: The Seawall

Waif cautiously slowed their pace as they emerged from the Grotto into the southern edge of Fish City. The low-slung buildings, temporary stalls, and makeshift sea shacks offered much less in the way of cover from prying eyes than the huddled mud tenements they had threaded their way through in The Grotto. 

As far as they could tell, though, the area was deserted. The driving rain must have sent the sailors and dockhands scurrying for cover in the seedy Fish City bars or rocking boats in the harbor.

The moon was hidden by a thick blanket of clouds hanging ominously overhead. The docks to the north of them were somewhat protected by an ancient breakwater surrounding the harbor, but here, unhindered, the massive waves crashed into the seawall, causing spray that exploded up and out of sight into the night.

They crept to the steep tumble of boulders that made up the coast here, and the roiling sea itself came into view through the slanting rain. It swirled angrily—like some huge titan had stirred the inky blackness into a frenzy.

Gnome felt nauseous. He did not like any form of water outside of a drinking skin. He hated being wet and had an unnatural fear of swimming at any depth. But this was like a nightmare. The waves were loud, menacing, and very, very wet. Even worse for Gnome, however, was the sight of the huge rolling mass of the sea beyond. The deceptively slow undulation of impenetrable mystery daunted him like little else.

“What are we looking at, Waif?” Boudreaux shouted over the pounding rain and crashing waves. Ohlen had fallen to one knee and placed a hand on the nearest boulder. Arden squinted down toward the water.

Waif pointed at the rocks below. “It’s hard to see at night from here, sir,” he shouted back, wind whipping his thin face, “but do you see that big rock jutting out right there? The opening is just under it.”

Either he had not heard them, or he was pretending not to, but Gnome just stood there with his eyes squeezed tightly shut, as if hoping it was all a bad dream.

“Is that water coming out of it?” Arden yelled, to no one in particular.

“Looks like it,” replied Boudreaux, squinting now himself. “Must be seawater washing back out.”

Arden turned, “Is that what you saw coming out of there, Waif? Water?”

“No, sir,” protested Waif. “What came out had legs, sir.”

A moment or two passed.

“Well, I guess we should go down and check it out then,” groused Boudreaux. “It doesn’t look like easy going, though, and it’d be one hell of a night for a fall into the drink.”

Gnome came to life. “I’m not going down there,” he said staunchly.

“None of us want to go down there, Gnome,” Ohlen’s rich baritone emanated through the elements, “but go down we must.”

Waif, Boudreaux, Gnome and Arden all turned to Ohlen as he struggled to his feet. Ohlen, his white cape flowing around him, seemed somehow to be clean and almost dry, unaffected by the torrential wind and rain swirling around them.

“But…” Gnome began.

“She’s here, Gnome,” Ohlen explained firmly. “X’andria is here, and so are others held against their will. We must venture within.”

Normally so fleet of foot, Gnome felt like every step might be his last as they picked their way down the craggy, sea-soaked descent toward the mysterious opening. All his lessons had abandoned him. See through the skin of your fingers and toes, The Master had said. Your hands are liquid, your feet are jelly was another common refrain. But Gnome was too distracted—glancing nervously below at the churning froth—to employ his training this night.

And then there were the rats. Rockmoor had plenty: they could be found scavenging beneath the boardwalks of Westwood, rooting through trash in the alleys of Hillcrest and Watertown, swimming in the filthy Torrent River, and scampering all over the Grotto. But here, it seemed as if the wall was made partially of rock, and partially of rat. And so with every shaky grip and every tentative step, another huge furry body was dislodged squeakily from its dark, wet hiding place.

Boudreaux led the way. Having himself been imprisoned more than once, he knew that every moment counted for X’andria.

Boudreaux was also the first to nearly slip and fall into the watery depths. Naturally, he blamed the rat. One moment he was methodically stepping, stretching, and groping his way along, and the next he found himself face to face with the giant varmint. Man, they make them big around here! he thought as the glowing eyes in the rocky crack before his face raced toward him to reveal the enormous body they belonged to.

The rat hissed at him. At least that’s how he interpreted the noise it made. Most rats seemed scared of people, but this one appeared more annoyed than anything else. Seeing the rat was not the direct cause of Boudreaux nearly falling into the sea. The rat’s rapid approach toward his face, however, did cause him to lose focus and place his left foot on a patch of glistening algae, from which it slid instantly. The next thing he knew, Boudreaux was hanging precariously, holding on with the fingers of just one hand while his body, heavy with armor and weaponry, swayed dangerously over the hungry waves below.

The opening was larger than they thought it would be. The boulder protruding above it provided a very effective camouflage for what now appeared to be a man-made entrance. It was large enough that Boudreaux and Arden had only to stoop to gain passage.

It smelled bad.

Even with the cleansing rain and crashing waves and gusty winds, the odor snaked its way into their awareness before they actually entered. Mixed, as it was, with the fishy, salty mélange of the sea, only Arden recognized the smell right away.

“Is this a sewer?” he exclaimed breathlessly as soon as he arrived on the landing. Arden was in the rear of the group, so they were all standing on the relatively flat and firm footing when he swung down to join them and made this helpful pronouncement.

“Is that what’s flowing out of here?” Gnome asked incredulously, looking down at the liquid running several inches deep around his ankles and over his precious eel-skin slippers. Whatever it was, it dribbled down the shelf of rock behind them before being lapped away into oblivion by the waves.

“Let’s get on with this,” Boudreaux urged.

At one time there had been a grate. But all that was left were rusty nubs where the bars had long been torn asunder.

In spite of himself, Gnome sloshed forward into the vile opening. The smell was overwhelming, but almost as soon as he was within, and the imminent danger of falling to a watery death was behind him, his wits returned. So too, with earth and rock above him, began to prickle his natural senses for depth and terrain underground.

He was just starting to feel stable when he was shoved unexpectedly from behind. Gnome sailed face-first into the trickling stream of foul filth.

“Gnome? Was that you? Sorry, I can’t see anything in here,” Arden was trying to explain as Gnome extricated himself slowly from the sludge, dripping frustration, and who knows what else.

“You should go back, Waif. This is not your fight,” Gnome murmured gravely as they plodded on through the shallow murky stream.

After the unfortunate shoving and falling incident, Arden had—with some effort—lit a torch from his leather field satchel. With each spark from the flint, uncanny reflections jumped all around them. It seemed that tiny mirrors, or little jewels, made up the walls and ceiling of the cramped tunnel, and even floated along by their feet. Seconds before the torch sputtered to life, Boudreaux realized that all the bright little spots were, in fact, in pairs. They were not jewels at all, of course: they were eyes.

The rats did not scatter instantly out of fear, like some do when surprised by light and large presences. They slunk away, but their gait was a slow amble, more out of preference for dark than fear. One particularly large beast tarried longer than the others, and seemed to size up the five interlopers, as if calculating its odds, before scurrying deeper into the blackness before them.

“I’m staying with you, Mister Gnome,” the boy’s voice trembled back through the half-light. His leather sling swung gently like a limp tail from his right hand; in his left, he had hefted an oblong stone bullet from a bag he wore around his waist.

After several minutes, the compact round drainage tunnel they were wading through opened abruptly into a large sewer main. The expanse was covered by a slow-moving dark liquid of unknown depth. Thankfully, running along the far left wall was a narrow elevated path.

The footpath did not connect to the drainage tunnel through which they’d entered. There were four or five feet separating the slimy, semi-filled mouth of the drainage tunnel from the end of the footpath. The level of the path was also slightly higher than the drain.

Boudreaux jumped.

It was not a graceful leap, and he landed with a noisy clatter of metal on stone, but somehow Boudreaux managed to keep his footing.

Waif was next in line. “Throw him, Arden,” Boudreaux called, “I’ll get him.”

The young rogue’s eyes widened as he took in the expanse of muck separating him from his destination. Arden passed the torch he was holding to Ohlen, and maneuvered awkwardly to get his hands under Waif’s armpits for the toss. Lacking room to move, however, he had to edge his way to the grimy lip of the tunnel, so his elbows could protrude into the dank air of the sewer main. Waif’s feet were dangling over the muck. Realizing the direction things were going in, Waif hastily tucked his sling and bullet back into his bag, and had just managed to buckle it securely when, with a grunt, Arden launched him into space.

All things considered, it was a pretty good toss. The power was definitely sufficient, and the alignment was even true. But Waif, in anticipation of landing, adjusted his body into a pike position so that his feet would land first. This made it difficult for Boudreaux to get a clean hold on his upper body.

Waif’s feet did, in fact, connect with the path, but his backside was so far behind him, that he could not stabilize. Instinctively he threw his hands out toward Boudreaux, who grabbed hold of them like an iron vise. But Waif’s feet slipped from the path and he dipped, waist deep, into the disgusting cesspool beneath. Boudreaux quickly pulled him out, but the damage was already done.

“Whew! That is really gross,” Boudreaux exclaimed as he deposited the whimpering thief on the path beside him. “Now at least we have a sense how deep this thing runs.”

“You ready, Gnome?” Arden asked with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.

“It’ll be the last thing you ever do,” Gnome growled dangerously. And he disappeared upward around the edge of the tunnel, slithering like an enormous salamander while the others watched in amazement.

Arden and Ohlen each leapt and landed, with a little steadying from Boudreaux, without incident.

The path forward seemed firm. At odd intervals, they passed holes of varying sizes and differing heights, some of which deposited copious amounts of rainwater into the sewer main, while others were dry or dribbling.

After several minutes, with Arden and his torch in the lead, they came upon a stone staircase leading upward. Arden stopped and turned to his companions with a questioning look. But he found himself staring beyond them, instead, eyes wide. The others turned to follow his gaze.

Rats pursued them. Staying just beyond the range of the torchlight, there must have been hundreds of them. But these creatures were even larger than those they had encountered in the drainage tunnel, and they were much, much larger than those outside on the seawall. These were the size of small dogs, and their intelligent eyes burned with hungry intent.

Unable to control himself, Boudreaux raced at the nearest of the rats, to kick and stomp on them, or scare them away. In perfectly choreographed waves, however, they slipped noiselessly off the ledge into the murky black sludge as he approached. This would have been satisfying, had they not quickly scuttled back up onto the path behind the newly exposed forward ranks. Feeling foolish, Boudreaux skulked back to the party, as the rats filled in methodically behind at a safe distance.

“Should we go up?” Arden asked hopefully.

“Up takes us to street level,” answered Ohlen. “X’andria and the others are that way.” He pointed forward along the path.

“Would have been nice to know about this entrance,” Gnome muttered as they passed the stair and continued onward.

Not only were the rats huge, they were fast, ferocious, and seemed to be all sharp teeth and claws when they attacked. For the most part, they were not terribly difficult to kill or wound mortally, but there were just so many that when they finally ambushed the party, it was hard to defend against the multifarious onslaught.

The attack began from two of the dry drain holes. The party was walking by when Waif suddenly shrieked, a grey, furry body clamped bloodily onto his left forearm. Gnome, lightning fast, drove and twisted his dagger lethally into the squirming body, which caused it to release the shocked Waif from its jaws. Gnome hefted the twitching hairy mass into the sludge behind him, but the shrieks of battle were already echoing from all sides.

Boudreaux had been itching for engagement. His heavy protective gear made him a difficult target for claws and teeth. Rather than use weapons, he elected to stomp and grab and twist and throw. Broken bodies slid and flew from him in all directions like he was a human tornado. The few nips that landed between his plates only spurred him on to more fury. He was so successful, in fact, that from the rear of the party, his progress through the attackers separated him slightly from the others as he pounded his way back toward the staircase they had passed just minutes before the attack.

Waif was struggling. He had a knife in his right hand, but the shock and pain of bite on his other arm had left him disoriented and slow. The rats were low targets, and it was all he could do to kick and stab feebly to protect his skinny exposed legs.

Thank goodness for Gnome, though. Low to the ground, spinning like a dervish, Gnome’s dagger slashed through the air with awe-inspiring speed and precision. Gnome’s personal mission was to see Waif safely back above ground, and he stayed near his charge, methodically dispatching one threat after another. He was particularly grateful for the ornate dwarven bracers still fitted tightly around his forearms, making his lethal appendages nearly impervious to the savage claws and teeth slashing and gnashing all around him.

Ohlen sensed evil here: it lay beyond, deeper into the unknown. Rats were survivors. Killers. Merciless in their drive for self-preservation. But they were not evil. Not the kind of brooding, calculating, sadistic evil that Ohlen knew awaited them.

This current fight consisted, therefore, of tactics and steel. Ohlen had engaged several of the filthy dripping critters, when he noticed Arden struggling to hold his torch aloft while wielding the shorter of his two weapons.

“Arden,” Ohlen shouted, taking some clawed damage to his legs as he raced to his companion undefended, “let me take that!” and he wrested the torch free from Arden’s grasp.

Taking his second blade to hand, Arden became a mesmerizing windmill of whirring steel. He advanced forward, clearing the way before him like one might sweep dry leaves from a walkway. Cleaved slices of rat flew from his blades in all directions.

This was a turning point. With Boudreaux squishing, squeezing, and tearing three or four rats at a time in one direction, and Arden shredding his way through the other, Ohlen, Waif and Gnome were soon left with nothing to fight in the middle, apart from the occasional varmint swimming up from the sewer to scrabble over the ledge before them.

“Let’s have a look at that bite,” Gnome was saying to Waif, when they heard something totally unexpected.

The clang of steel on steel.

Turning to the sound, they saw that Arden was engaged in melee combat.

He was fighting some kind of abomination. On two legs, it was the size and shape of a small person, a bit bigger than Waif. It was covered with swirling wisps of grey hair, thicker in some places than others, and clutched a rusty short sword with a stubby clawed cross between hands and paws.

As the creature fought, it wheezed and grunted noisily. Its grey-pink mottled face was wrinkly and hairless apart from whiskers and tufts in and around its pointy ears. Long canine lips stretched around a row of razor-sharp teeth, bared in a perpetual snarl.

Arden was the superior swordsman by far. His blades danced and darted, and he landed blow after blow. With each cut and stab, the creature grunted and became more ferocious, but somehow it seemed largely unhurt. There was no blood, and it did not slow. Not once was it able to get through Arden’s expert defenses with its sword, but occasionally it lashed out with a free claw and sliced at his face and chest.

Breathing heavily, rat-blood glistening on his fingers, Boudreaux clomped up behind Waif, Gnome, and Ohlen to see what all the ruckus was about. Three more of the horrid rat-people were now slinking up behind the one engaged with Arden. Arden was beginning to show signs of fatigue.

“Ugly bastards, aren’t they,” Boudreaux observed. “I’m gonna need to get by,” he said matter-of-factly, as he pushed his way past the others on the narrow stone ledge.

Boudreaux leaned casually against the grimy wall behind the struggling Arden.

“Nice technique, Arden!” he shouted amiably to his friend.

“What the hell?” Arden managed between lunges, “I’ve hit this thing enough times, it oughta be in little pieces by now.”

“Want me to show you how it’s done?” Boudreaux taunted, while the others looked on in horror.

“All yours, tough guy,” Arden squeezed through gritted teeth, and he gave a powerful lunge to allow for time to shift positions.

Boudreaux pushed himself easily from the wall and reached over his head for the ornate short sword he had picked up in Bridgeton.

His first back-hand blow knocked the blade clean out of the grip of the beast that was holding it. He swung forward next, in a downward arc that separated its snarling elongated head from its body.

“The thing is, Arden,” Boudreaux said conversationally over his shoulder as the second creature rushed forward to engage him, “and believe me, I learned this the hard way.” He stopped talking for a moment, while he ended the second assailant with a powerful thrust just below its neck.

“You need silver for half-human freaks like this.”

Arden, suddenly reflective, received this bit of sage wisdom with a mix of emotions.

Get them. The words ceaselessly beat like a drum in its head. Oblivious to the screams of the woman it passed on the street, heedless of the rain, it tracked the aura like a dog following a scent. 

They were just here. Not far now. Mutilated feet with missing toes slapped carelessly onto wet and pointy rocks. It did not feel its flesh being punctured here and there. The objective was all that mattered.So close. The need urged it forward into the darkened tunnel, leaving the sea crashing behind.

READ CHAPTER 23

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