I dispelled my light and we were plunged back into darkness. The sounds of the rats speaking echoed through the tunnels and around the chamber we were in, making it hard to tell exactly how far away they were, but they were definitely getting closer.
Their sharp tutting voices, like small hammers bouncing off the walls, shifted from one tunnel to the next, sometimes many at once. There were several groups and in all directions.
Footsteps and banging and the occasional shout, even what sounded like laughter, shrill and high-pitched. Flickering lights would appear at the far end of one of the tunnels, come closer, then turn into a side tunnel.
My heart was in my mouth—it was only a matter of time before they finally decided to investigate our hiding place.
“Schneed,” I whispered, “what are they doing?”
“They are still searching,” he whispered back. “Whatever they look for, they have yet to find it. The tunnels are crawling with patrols, I’ve never known so many to come this far into the haunted areas. They are usually too scared of the ghosts.”
Normally, I would have taken a few moments to worry about the ghosts being real and deciding to make an appearance, but I didn’t have the time. Maybe if we could pretend to be ghosts, we could scare the rats off.
“What do the ghosts sound like?” I asked.
“They don’t sound like anything,” said Schneed. “There’s no such things as ghosts.”
I was about to get annoyed—it didn’t matter if ghosts existed or not, only that the rats thought they did—when there was some kind of excitement in the tunnels. Shouts at one end were followed by a triumphant yell at another and then lots of running. Some kind of chase was taking place.
“Schneed,” I hissed. “We could get to the surface while the rats are distracted.”
My guess was we had to be close to the surface because of that dead dog. The Queen’s Guard sent them down thinking they had a rat problem, but there weren’t any rats in this part of the tunnels, not usually. Which meant the men were to blame for the holes that were appearing in Requbar.
I also suspected the men loafing on each street corner were lookouts. The way they had started an unwinnable fight with the Queen’s soldiers smacked of deliberate misdirection. Most likely they had been trying to keep the women away from where the digging was going on.
There was definitely contact between the surface and Boys Town and Schneed was one of the go-betweens. He could lead me out of here, if I could convince him to do it.
The rats weren’t looking for us, which meant we might get by them if we kept quiet, moved quickly and got lucky. So, no chance. Although, if we all went into the tunnels at the same time, one or two of might get through in the ensuing confusion.
I didn’t like that plan either. Especially since I had no idea where to go even if I did avoid the rats. But Schneed did.
“The rats haven’t gone far,” said Schneed. “No p—”
The ground shook and rocks and stones fell around us. It only lasted a few seconds but it was long enough to knock me off my feet and onto all fours.
There was some moaning and coughing around me which might have given our position away except that the rats had reacted to the tremor with shrieks and yells that drowned out any noise we might make.
There was a drum roll of small feet fading into the distance as they made a run for it. Probably a good idea.
“This is our chance,” I said, producing another ball of light. “Can you find a way to the surface while the rats are panicked?”
“It is better to stay here and wait to see what fate has in store for us,” said Schneed, sat on the ground like he was perfectly at home. The men huddled around him grumbled in agreement.
Great, the perfect time to give up free will and self-determination. Let’s sit around doing nothing and let the universe decide; bunch of useless hippies.
“Schneed! Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get up. We can make it out of here if we move now. There’s an exit to the surface, isn’t there? Those dead dogs they keep dropping, they come out around here somewhere. We can get out the same way.” It was hard not to sound desperate (because I was desperate).
There was some muttering among the men.
Schneed narrowed his eyes at Marv and then turned his attention to me. “There are two possible exits. One is quite close but will require some digging which will likely attract attention. The other is much further and leads directly to the surface, but will almost definitely mean encountering patrols. I will lead you and him…” he glared at Marv “...her to the further one. We will not go quietly, we will not avoid the rats. We will make a ruckus and drag them away, giving the rest a better chance to make their escape.”
It was a reasonable offer, although I was tempted to suggest he just take Marv and I’d stay with the men, you know, to help with the digging and provide better lighting, but I suspected my offer might be misconstrued.
“Fine,” I said. “We’ll provide the diversion. You just get us to this exit.” It was the sort of long shot that they always manage to pull off in movies, although tragically one of them usually doesn’t make it. I looked at Marv.
Schneed stood up, as did the men around him. They all began hugging him, patting him on the back and shaking his hand. Marv watched from over my shoulder, like she was witnessing some alien ritual. This was how men were. I assumed.
“This way.” He turned and ran off down one of the tunnels. Not wanting to lose him, I ran after him. Not wanting me to be burden-free, Marv ran after me.
At first, were just running down empty tunnels. There was no sign of the rats, no sound, no lights. Within a few minutes, though, we heard the familiar chittering.
“Ho, dirty rats!” shouted Schneed. “We come for your women!” He hollered and whooped and then ran away in a mad scramble.
He really meant to go full decoy. Sounds erupted all around us. Lights flickered in side tunnels as I stumbled and fell to catch up.
I produced more balls of light, extra-bright, and threw them down side tunnels to draw some of the attention away from Hollerin’ Hank. He wasn’t letting up, shouting abuse about rat genitalia (“I’ve seen mice with bigger winkies!”), their sisters and their mothers, as he darted left and right.
The balls exploded in blinding flashes, hopefully delaying the rats some more. I was fine with Schneed’s plan, but I wanted to make sure we stayed the decoy and not the duck.
The light I was carrying was dimmed to match the rats’ torches, hopefully making them think I was just another rat passing by. It only illuminated the ground in front of me and Schneed’s feet kept disappearing into the darkness ahead.
He was surprisingly quick and wasn’t waiting for me to catch up. I knew he was still upset about the whole betrayal thing, but that was more Marv’s fault than mine. He really shouldn’t have blamed me for her indiscretions. Mind you, he may have been blaming me for setting fire to their lake of molten acid, ruining their plans to take over Requbar and causing the deaths of many of his friends, in which case, it’s a fair cop.
I nearly ran into Schneed crouched down at the mouth of the tunnel we were in. It opened up into a small cavern with many other tunnels leading from it. He signalled me to get down.
“Put out that light,” he whispered.
I extinguished my glowing ball and immediately got hit in the back as Marv ran into me.
The chittering of rats could be heard in the distance, although there was no sign of any torchlight.
“We need to get to the tunnel directly opposite,” said Schneed. “We can’t use light. There are too many tunnels here and we’d be bound to be seen. Can you make it in the dark?”
It wasn’t that far away, although if you lost your bearings you might easily go into the wrong tunnel.
“Yes. The one directly ahead, right?”
“That’s right. I’ll go first. Wait ten seconds and follow as fast as you can.” The next thing I heard were his footsteps rushing away.
Marv’s panted behind me. I counted ten of her breaths and then ran after Schneed.
It was completely and utterly dark. Nothing to guide me and nothing to stop me running into a wall. I strained to hear Schneed’s footsteps but it was hard to make out anything over my own.
Something changed, the open air around me shrank. I put out my hand and felt a wall to my side. On both sides. I was in a tunnel. I hoped it was the right one. Could I use my light now? Probably best to wait. I kept going, jogging now.
I still couldn’t pick up Schneed’s footfalls, although I did hear Marv behind me. I began to slow down.
“Shneed? Schneed?” I called out warily.
Something didn’t feel right. Marv caught up and I felt her outstretched hands strike me in the back.
“What is it? Why are you stopping?”
“Where’d Schneed go?” I said. Had I missed a turning or a side tunnel?
“He must be up ahead. Look.”
In the distance there was a glow. Light at the end of the tunnel. But it couldn’t be the outside world, we hadn’t gone up at all.
Slowly I made my way forward. The light was a lot brighter than anything I’d encountered down here so far. As I reached the opening I was blinded by the glare. It took a few seconds for my eyesight to adjust, and then I saw where the light was coming from.
It was a huge city. Tall buildings like skyscrapers, every window shining brightly, every golden roof glimmering.
Spires and domes and walls. It was in a huge cavern and our tunnel was high up on the wall with a ledge that stretched out on either side, met with other ledges sloping up and down the cavern wall. Bridges connected to other platforms, all circling the city, closer and closer like someone had spent way too much money on Scalextric sets and stuck them all together.
And everywhere I looked, every surface, every building, every window, there were rats. Some armed, some wearing elegant gowns and fancy hats, some riding large lizards that leapt off platforms and ran vertically up the walls.
I backed away from the opening, hoping I hadn’t been seen, pushing Marv along as she stood there, open-mouthed.
“What… Why are we… Did we take the wrong tunnel?”
I doubted it.
“Give my regards to the rats!” called out Schneed from the far end. “You deserve each other. Hahhahaha.” His laughter faded away.
Whoever said revenge is sweet didn’t know what they were talking about. This didn’t taste sweet at all. I may be misunderstanding the quote. In any case, Schneed had stitched us up good and proper. Instead of leading us to freedom, he’d taken us into the heart of the rat kingdom—straight to Ratopolis.
I’d never find my way out without Schneed to guide me, and there would be rat patrols everywhere.
Good thing I’d been in this sort of position before or I might have started panicking.
“Fuck. Shit. Bastard.” I produced a ball of light and looked around but all I could see was Marv looking desperate and scared. “Shit. Shit. Shit. Out of the way.” I pushed her aside and ran to the other end of the tunnel. The light made me visible but I had enough problems without stumbling around in the dark.
The cavern was empty. There were seven other tunnel entrances, including the one we’d come from. There was no way of knowing which led where, so it didn’t really matter which I picked.
“Our best bet is to split up,” I said. Which it may or may not have been, but I was tired of having Mata Hard-carry in tow.
“We should stick together,” she insisted, unsurprisingly.
If she’d been a seasoned pro, there’d be no problem. I’d have welcomed the help. But she just wasn’t any good at this sort of thing. Whatever training she’d had in the art of dealing death from the shadows, I’d be willing to bet she didn’t come top of her class. She’d choked when she’d tried to kill Sonny and her confidence had been dropping ever since. She was a liability.
“We just make an easier target together. Here.” I gave her my ball of light. “Take this.”
She recoiled from it.
“Look, it’s just a ball of light. If you’re okay with the Queen using magic, I don’t see why you’re so worked up about me using it. You realise the Queen must be a Visitor too, right?”
Marv pulled an even more appalled face. I shoved the ball into her hands. It would help her see, but more importantly, it would help me see her, so I could go in the opposite direction. And if she got spotted by the rats, well, I wouldn’t mind the distraction.
“Now, come on.” I got up before she had time to think and ran for one of the other tunnels.
She was right behind me, of course. I’d have to put some of that cardio I’d been doing to good use to lose her. I sprinted into the tunnel and was immediately knocked over by a figure coming the other way. And then slammed for behind as Marv fell on top of us both.
I pushed her off and sat up.
Sitting opposite me, trying to shake his head clear, was a rat. About Flossie’s size, dressed in a green hooded cape and with a hairy brown face. And all the other features you’d expect from a rat-person. He was alone, though, and didn’t look armed.
He looked at me with his beady black eyes, then at Marv, and then at the ball of light.
“Put that thing out,” he said in an urgent but hushed voice. “Do you want them to find us?”
I immediately extinguished the light and we sat there in the dark. Me, the useless hermaphrodite assassin and the rat man. Worst sitcom idea ever.