Chapter 25: Stone & Steel

Chapter 25: Stone & Steel

The rat-men were nimble and vicious. Lethal with swords, claws, or teeth and seemingly impervious to conventional weaponry, they were formidable opponents. But forced to fight one at a time on the narrow footpath against Boudreaux, who was armed with silver, their hybrid natural gifts were no match for his superior strength and combat skills. 

The gleaming silver blade liquefied their flesh when he struck. A faint sizzle could just barely be detected beneath the high-pitched squealing that issued from their long crooked mouths with each devastating blow.

It did not take long for Boudreaux to finish off the two remaining assailants. The last of the beasts was still sprawled on the path. He swiftly chopped off its head, before nudging the limp body into the murky river with his toe.

“Always good to take their heads off,” he explained, looking at Waif and smiling darkly. “Halfies like these ugly bastards heal up quick and sometimes come back—unless the head’s gone.” He kicked the head off the ledge, too, for emphasis.

More of the sewer rats had been hovering nearby, but with the death of the fourth and final rat-man, the smaller cousins melted away into the filth.

“We are very fortunate for your knowledge of these beasts, for your skill, and for that silver.” Ohlen intoned sincerely at Boudreaux. “Thank you.”

Arden examined Waif. “That sure is a nasty-looking bite,” he observed. “How are you feeling, how’s the arm?”

Waif looked terrible. He was as white as a sheet and his skin glistened. Perhaps the sewer, the shock of it all, the pain and blood, the headless rat-man, or some combination had gotten to him. But Arden was suspicious of the bite. He poured some water from his skin over the torn flesh, and bound Waif’s arm tightly with some fabric from his bag that he kept just for this purpose.

“Let’s move,” Gnome said grimly.

Arden’s mind was like a catalogue of plants and animals of the natural world. One of his many gifts was pattern recognition, to the extent that he could follow even the faintest track. It was this gift that had spurred his sudden alarm at the unnatural destruction he had witnessed in the forest a few days earlier. It was this gift that told him now, without a doubt, that the passage to their left was the one to follow since it had seen the most foot traffic. And it was this gift that caused his blood to run cold and his spine to go rigid at the sight of organic matter bobbing beside them in the sewer, glistening in the flicker of the torchlight.

“What is that?” whispered Gnome, halting beside him and squinting after Arden’s frozen gaze.

They had entered a wide junction where three large tunnels fed into a round pool. The way they had entered, it was clear from the flow, was the sole drainage line to the sea. In this domed room, the footpath widened to a more significant floor space surrounding the pool on all sides. Four narrow stone bridges arched over each of the slow moving streams. An open doorway, with large stone statues on either side, led into a dimly lit passageway to their left. The stench of the sewer seemed concentrated here, as if the dome distilled and fermented the foul stagnation beneath.

“I don’t know,” Arden whispered back. He wished that he were telling the truth.

“Looks like somebody shaved the hair off one of those rats,” Boudreaux said. He was trying to use a low voice, though it did not quite come out that way.

“There are more floating beyond,” Ohlen added, mournfully.

Waif doubled over and vomited. On his knees, trembling and sweating, the sick was down his front, on the stone floor, and mixed with the sludge over the edge.

Suddenly, from behind them sounded a bone-chilling rasp of stone grating on stone, and the floor shook violently beneath them. All but Waif wheeled around to see what had caused the thunderous noise.

Arden drew his sword instinctually even before he fully registered what his frantic nerves were scrambling to communicate. Gnome dashed like a phantom to Waif’s crumpled form and began dragging him back toward the mouth of the drainage tunnel. Ohlen stretched his senses out in vain at the impossibility before them, but felt nothing beyond a cold empty void. Not always one with an eye for detail, it took Boudreaux a moment to figure out what exactly had happened.

One of the massive stone statues had moved.

It had stepped sideways, barring their passage into the space beyond, and now it was slowly turning its head as if taking stock of those trespassing before it. At least eight feet tall, its motions were slow but totally smooth, like the stone had somehow turned into animated molten tissue.

With its fingers curled into enormous club-sized fists, it took another thunderous step in their direction. It was with this step that Boudreaux’s brain unfroze and helped him interpret the information his eyes were feeding him.

Without hesitation, Arden dropped his torch to the floor and charged the monstrosity. It was a good charge. Boudreaux had faced him day after day in training, but he had never seen the kind of speed-fueled power that Arden sunk into this charge. At the last moment he leapt into the air and swung his blade while twisting from his hips for maximum torque. The sword connected perfectly with the stone guardian’s neck and the clang reverberated throughout the domed chamber. Arden landed nimbly just before its massive legs and rolled away as little bits of stone landed softly around him.

It was an excellent hit by any measure. But it did not seem to phase the living stone giant. The statue instead turned to face Arden, who was still gaining his balance, and raised its arms as if to strike.

The response came with surprising speed. Arden had hoped he would be able to dance around clumsy and lumbering movements. He was wrong. He just managed to slip beyond the first crushing blow, which came from above and ended with the monster’s right fist embedded several inches into the stone floor beneath them. Arden’s counter strike connected with the stone forearm, thick as a tree trunk, and this time sparks flew from the blade as it glanced awkwardly away.

Arden was expecting the stone giant to retract its right hand from the stone floor, because any organic being would have had to do that in order to muster the balance necessary for any kind of forceful assault. But this was no organic being. Even bent forward as it was, its left arm extended with astonishing speed at an impossible angle across its body.

Arden’s finely honed reflexes allowed him to twist and evade the brunt of the blow. But the massive fist glanced off his breast-plate, which was dented by the impact, and blew Arden off of his feet. He spiraled into the air and landed about ten feet away in a clatter of metal-encased limbs.

The horror stood erect and took several thunderous steps toward the splayed and immobile Arden before Boudreaux jumped atop it from behind, his colossal arms wrapped around its head in a choke hold violent enough to break the neck of a large bear.

The high-placed weight of Boudreaux’s impact caused the monstrosity to pitch forward slightly and, for an instant, it appeared it might actually topple forward. But instead it stumbled and managed to stay upright.

To his disappointment, Boudreaux was reminded of the futility of trying to squeeze stone. He exerted the kind of phenomenal pressure few could manage on the huge head and neck, but there was no effect. Stone is virtually impossible to crush. It can, however, be broken or cracked, and some instinct in Boudreaux caused him to change tack and work toward separating the huge head from the massive neck and shoulders on which it rested.

That did not seem to be working either.

The main problem was leverage. Boudreaux did not have a good place to plant his feet to lift properly. He was just trying to sort that problem out, hanging from the head, feet scrabbling for purchase on the legs and waist, when the stone giant raised both arms over its head to hurl him from his perch.

The enormous thumbs forced their way beneath his armpits, and the thick fingers closed like four vise-clamps along the back of his rib cage. And it pulled, hard. Boudreaux tensed his body and his massive musculature, encased in armor plates, became almost as densely immovable as the statue itself.

Boudreaux’s arms screamed, his shoulders nearly wrenched from their sockets, and the iron plates screeched and began to tear from the force.

The stone giant’s second attempt at removal proved successful. It pulled Boudreaux from its back and hurled him like a doll onto the ground in front of it with bone-crunching fury.

But its head came off too.

Boudreaux’s body was caked to the ground, like the monster had flung a big rotten tomato to splat on the floor. The huge stone head, still held tightly in his arms, came crushing down onto Boudreaux’s chest at impact, and then rolled slowly off of him. It came to rest on its side, staring blankly ahead.

The grotesque statue was disoriented, but still very much animated. Arms swinging wildly in the air like the blades of a windmill, it kicked Boudreaux’s prone form forcefully from the ground and launched him, fifteen feet or so, through the air.

Boudreaux’s thoughts were coming very slowly. His armor had saved him from being pierced by the probing stone fingers. It had helped keep his arms attached during the extraction. Gasping for breath on his back, he even had the presence of mind to be thankful for the dwarf helmet that kept his head from cracking like an egg on the stone floor. And thinking of heads, he smiled weakly knowing he had actually yanked the statue’s head off, with a little help from the statue itself.

He was slipping toward unconsciousness when it kicked him. Through his polished steel breast-plate, the jolt of the impact on the left side of his rib cage was enough to awaken him once more. And it was a good thing, too, because moments later he landed with a splurch in the middle of the cesspool and had just enough time for a gulp of putrid air, before his heavy armor tugged him beneath the surface of the thick sludge.

Boudreaux was sinking. Though normally a strong swimmer, the weight of his armor and gear made resurfacing completely hopeless. Eyes squeezed tightly shut to keep out the fetid slurry engulfing him, he flailed wildly before realizing his efforts were futile. He drifted further down into the thick fluid blackness. He was running out of air. An involuntary shudder caused a small amount of sewage to enter his nostrils, and only his most primal instincts for self-preservation kept him from throwing up and expelling the last of his precious breath in the process.

Frantically Boudreaux began stripping off his armor. He unbuckled the plates on his right arm, swallowing hard to assuage his body’s desperate need for air. He then unbuckled and wrenched free his left arm, and immediately began slipping and sliding his breast-plate over his head.

Lungs burning, he lost control and opened his mouth to breathe. What rushed eagerly in was so vile, though, that it may have saved his life, because it instantly caused his jaw to involuntarily clamp shut again.

Boudreaux fell still further.

With all his gear stripped from his upper body, he tried to swim toward the surface. Disoriented, passing out, and without light, it was impossible for him to know if he was actually ascending, but Boudreaux knew he was out of time. With every ounce of strength and resolve available to him, he pulled himself up toward the surface.

The stone monstrosity began lumbering now toward Ohlen, Gnome, and Waif. Even headless, it appeared somehow to sense their presence. Arden was barely stirring against the far wall, and nothing more than bubbles on the surface of the vat of sewage signaled what was left of Boudreaux.

“I will distract it,” Ohlen said solemnly, and he strode forward into the open space with his sword aloft.

The giant’s power was immense. There was no contesting it, only evading the repeated crushing blows. Ohlen felt no spirit within the animated stone to befriend or turn or crush. In that way, it was not unlike the zombie fiend that had accosted him during his meditation.

Lacking a more comprehensive strategy, Ohlen focused on anticipating the giant’s attacks, so that he might keep one step ahead, and stay alive.

Boudreaux erupted through the sludgy surface in a shower of sewage and bile. Gulping for air and sputtering, he thought his starved lungs might never feel full again. Keeping himself afloat despite the drag of his heavily laden legs, Boudreaux stabilized enough to take in the dire scene before him.

Ohlen was dancing around the huge headless stone guardian, narrowly avoiding crushing death with each maneuver. Arden was still recovering from the blow he had sustained, his torch flickering feebly on the ground in the middle of the space. Gnome seemed to be protecting Waif in the mouth of the drainage tunnel. God help us if this thing touches one of them, Boudreaux’s mind was grinding slowly back into motion.

He began to swim. He reached the stone floor near Arden and slid messily out of the cesspool like he was one of the rats that lived here. In a glance he could see Ohlen was being forced closer and closer to the edge, and closer to Gnome and Waif as well.

Suddenly Boudreaux had an idea.

“Arden,” he rasped, “the sewer!”

At the sight of Boudreaux emerging like a dripping swamp monster from the sludge, Arden snapped back to awareness.

“Now!” Boudreaux’s voice was raw from the near-drowning and caustic juices.

Not entirely sure what to do, Arden moved to follow his friend, each step reminding him painfully of the damage his torso had just sustained.

Boudreaux’s plan became clear soon enough. With Ohlen attracting the monster’s wrath at the edge of the cesspool, Arden and Boudreaux were able to crouch and lunge undetected at its huge stony backside. Ohlen skittered out of the way just in time, as the two powerful men poured every ounce of their strength into toppling the behemoth horror into the filth.Halfway in, it began flailing its arms and kicking its legs in a frenzied dance of wild desperation. Its feet collided with the stone edge and cracked off large pieces of the floor before momentum carried them beyond. Still thrashing when it hit the surface of the sewage, it displaced a huge amount of the thick putridity and sprayed it in all directions. Soon enough, it sank heavily and hopelessly beneath the surface, leaving only a few viscous ripples in its struggling wake.

READ CHAPTER 26

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