The quake continued for several minutes, coming in waves that you could literally see as the earth buckled. Thoughts of capturing or evading capture were put on hold as everyone’s focus was brought to bear on not getting smooshed to pieces. Cracks opened up large enough to swallow a person whole, and rats two at a time.
We all skipped and shimmied trying to stay alive. It was the perfect opportunity to ease my way nearer the exit, if there’d been one. The tunnel into the haunted zone was completely blocked off by a mound of rocks and rubble that looked like they’d been carefully stacked to leave no gaps. The tunnel we’d come through to get here looked the best bet, but that led back to Ratopolis.
Not my preferred destination, but it was better than staying here. There was a very real chance of a cave-in and if I wasn’t crushed to death the alternative was even more grisly. Like one of those mining disasters where thirty men get trapped underground and only twenty-eight are found.
“What happened to Jorge and Luis?”
“No idea. Anyone got a toothpick?”
I fell, got up again, fell, got up again. It was like trying to walk on a treadmill that kept switching direction. Sonny and his surfboard would have had an easier time than I was managing.
Thoughts of Sonny made me wonder what they were up to in Boys Town. They had to be suffering the same conditions as us, maybe worse. They were a lot nearer to the lava lake than we were, or at least I assumed so. Schneed had led us quite far to dump us outside Ratopolis, although connected tunnels probably meant the lava would find its way to us eventually.
As the tremors subsided, the salamander shaman screamed, “The ancestors want your blood!” He might as well have just shouted, “Told you so!”
Everyone was still frazzled from the quake and could barely walk in a straight line. Rats slowly approached me, leaning from side to side to stay upright. I could have made a run for it, but where to? I didn’t have much choice but to give myself up and take my chances in Ratopolis.
There was a loud crack and a fissure next to my foot split wider. A geyser of foul-smelling steam shot out it, followed by a jet of yellow liquid. I dived out of the way, as did everyone else.
However far from the lava lake we were, it had found its way to us. I imagined the pressure had built up enough so that the whole cave network was ready to pop. More jets shot out of the ground like champagne bottles of a very unpleasant vintage.
The rats descending on me had scattered. Marv, unfettered, ran this way and that as she zig-zagged between fountains of death. Acidic magma fizzed off the cavern roof and sprayed in every direction. Rats screamed as they got hit, the smell of burning hair rising above the sulphurous stench the lava brought with it.
I wasn’t panicked, well, not in the way I would have been a few months ago. Death was more than likely, but there wasn’t much I could do about that so no point fretting over nothing. Disaster far in the future can completely immobilise you. Imminent death right in your face is actually quite centring. You can feel time slow down to let you consider your options. Every route, every obstacle was clear to me. If there had been a way out, I’m sure I would have found it. Sadly, there wasn’t.
There was a roar, deep and hollow, like a drunkard’s belch. The ground jumped. The rockfall in front of the tunnel went flying in all directions.
Even Nicopez’s shield wasn’t able to deflect all the rocks and stones. Rats were knocked off their feet like they’d been hit by cannonballs. They were just standing there, shocked, waiting to get pinged. They obviously hadn’t accrued their ten thousand hours of hauling arse when the shit starts to fly, like I had.
I ran towards the tunnel. The mouth was clear, at least partially. It probably wouldn’t stay that way for long, and even once through, the tunnels could collapse, be blocked by rocks or be filled with burning magma. And of course, there was always the chance of ghosts. Personally, my hope was for ghosts. Preferably the ones that look like bed sheets. Very useful, sheets. Sleep on them, wear them, use them as a towel or a table cloth. And if they’re haunted, you don’t even need a washing line to hang them up to dry.
None of the rats tried to stop me, but Nicopez cried out, “Don’t let him escape!” Not even in a crisis could he give up on his blood sacrifice, the fucking tryhard.
With all my might, I dragged my ball of light from his staff, the effort causing a sharp pain in my head. As soon as I felt it fall into my grasp, I popped it.
There was a large flash of brilliant light behind me, and then darkness. There was still a yellow glow from the numerous lava fountains springing up to see by, but it was dark enough to make grabbing a skinny English kid a tricky prospect when you’re half-blind and trying to avoid a jet of acid shooting up your jacksie.
I made it to the tunnel. I ran in, not caring how dangerous it might be. I tripped and stumbled and repeatedly fell, scraping hands and knees, but I kept going. The light behind me quickly faded and it was pitch dark. I slowed to a stagger, feeling my way, taking turns left and right without knowing where I was headed. The tunnels groaned and creaked making it impossible to hear any pursuers. Rocks and dust fell on me in showers. I didn’t want to light up and give away my position, but eventually I had no choice.
I produced a soft glow between my hands and turned around.
“They did not follow us,” said Marv.
“We are free to explore the catacombs of the haunted zone,” said Nyx.
For fuck’s sake, what did it take to lose these leeches? They were worse than gum stuck on the bottom of your shoe.
“Go back,” I said to them both. “This isn’t safe for either of you.”
“You think I’d be safe back there with them?” said Marv.
She did have a point, but I was done trying to help her. Especially as it did nothing but make things more difficult for me.
“I thought you wanted to kill Sonny. I’m pretty sure he isn’t down here. The last thing they’ll be expecting is for you to double back now. Use your assassin skills—hide in shadows, sneak attack, backstab—you can do all those, right? Being in a group will just hold you back.”
She looked at me in a way I would describe as sympathetic. Although I could also describe it as pitying. “I know how you feel about me. I cannot return your affections, but I appreciate the sentiment. You don’t have to worry about my welfare, we can survive this together. As friends.”
Oh, brother (and/or sister). All I needed. I took a deep breath and told myself to just allow it. I would be able to use her misguided belief that I had the hots for her against her at some point. Hopefully before Jenny found out.
“What about you?” I said to Nyx. “Your father won’t be happy you disobeyed him.”
“Adventurers are under no one’s authority but their own, and I am an adventurer, “ he squeaked. “He won’t miss the seventh of the seventh, he never has before.”
Two in rat years definitely equated to somewhere in the teens.
“Okay, well then which way to Fengarad?” At least Nyx had some knowledge of these tunnels and wouldn’t be completely useless.
The rat hesitated, looking around. “I have never been this far into the haunted zone before.”
“How far have you been?” I asked, already suspecting the answer.
“I haven’t actually been in any part of them before.” Perfect.
The holy trinity for exploring dungeons in an MMO was the tank, DPS and healer triumvirate. Our party comprised of a misanthrope, a trannie and an emo teen. Not exactly what I’d call optimised.
I could at least handle the healing requirements, but the only damage being dealt would be psychological as these two idiots slowly drove me mad. As for tanking, does it count if pulling aggro immediately gets you and everyone else killed?
“We must be careful,” said Nyx, “we aren’t alone down here.”
“The ghosts of your ancestors?” I asked.
“Not only them. There are also many denizens of the dark. Fearsome creatures that are savage and ruthless.” He inhaled sharply. “There’s one now.” He pointed into the gloom.
I increased the light from the globe in my hands, ready to fight, even more ready to run, but saw nothing. Then I noticed movement on the tunnel floor. It was low and flat, and gave off a green glow. It was moving slowly towards us, sliding across the ground.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A slime,” said Nyx. “Poisonous, probably. Once they attach themselves to you, they don’t let go. Vicious.”
It looked like one of those robot vacuum cleaners, but rather than cleaning up, it left a trail of jelly in its wake. It didn’t seem particularly menacing. Slipping on the slime’s trail was probably the biggest danger; might have twisted an ankle. It didn’t give a shit about us being in its way. It didn’t react to my movement or the light, just kept on keeping on.
It slithered and stretched, contracted and elongated. We stood to one side and it slid past, no time to be bothering with the likes of us. This was a slime with places to go.
“Let’s follow it,” I said. I had no reason to think it was going to lead us to freedom, but at the very least it would avoid dead ends and dangerous creatures. And I just had the feeling there was some purpose to its journey. “Don’t make any sounds, we don’t want to spook it.”
I had no idea if slimes were sensitive to noise—deaf as a doorpost, for all I knew—but I’d had quite enough of my two companions. If they wanted to tag along, they could keep their mouths shut and their annoying thoughts to themselves.
We chased after the slime. Well, we strolled after it; it wasn’t moving very fast. But it did seem to be following a particular course, not just aimlessly wandering about. When we came to a junction or fork, it didn’t pause or hesitate, it immediately took one direction or the other.
The longer we followed it, the more convinced I became that this slime was on a mission. Whether that would bode well for us or not, only time would tell.
Using my ball to light the way, we were able to keep our guide in sight. The tremors had stopped and the tunnel walls seemed fairly solid. Occasionally there was a howl or wail that could have been a ghost, or the earth settling, or deadly gasses whistling out of cracks. The slime didn’t seem bothered by them so why should we?
We could have been going around in circles while our mindless Roomba hoovered up grit and dirt off the floor. Maybe this was its life and we were just wasting our time.
When the second slime appeared and tucked in behind the first, it felt like there was a definite purpose to their sojourn. When the third one joined the convoy, I was convinced I’d made the right call.
We passed through a chamber connected to more tunnels and more slime trains joined, all moving in the same direction. Dozens of them. I had to be careful where I stepped.
There was, of course, the possibility they were leading us to somewhere terrible. A giant mummy slime that would swallow us whole. Still, it wouldn’t be so bad. I had two sacrifices to use as decoys.
A sound, steady and rhythmic, came from ahead of us. It could have been rushing water. An underground stream might be a way out, or at least provide a drink. I skipped through the slimes to find out what was up ahead and came to an abrupt halt when the underground river turned out not to be of the aqua variety. A red-hot stream of lava rolled from one end of the cavern I had run into, and out the other.
It was as wide as Sonny’s lake, but moving swiftly and not on fire (yet). There was no way across it and nowhere else to go.
The slimes didn’t seem concerned. They headed straight into the river but they didn’t burn up or disintegrate. They floated on top and weren’t even swept away. The lava flowed under them, leaving them bobbing in place as they travelled to the other side.
I increased my light to see where they were going. On the far bank, there was another tunnel. But this one was different, it looked much larger and more artfully built. The shape of it was symmetrical and the walls looked more robust. It reminded me of the tunnels the trolls made. If they were nearby, they would definitely be a better destination than my other options. But first, I would have to cross the river of hunka hunka burning death.
I looked at the slimes blithely skimming across the molten surface. Time to get myself a pair of slime shoes.