Chapter 7: The Deep

CHAPTER 7: THE DEEP

The rest of the ride was relatively quiet. Few passengers got on the bus on their way to the city of Baltimore and nobody bothered with the cramped seating at the rear. Having eaten all the peanuts the rodents soon became lulled by the rocking of the vehicle and their general lack of sleep. Even Justin, who once again offered to keep watch so that they would not miss their stop, dozed off despite himself.

More than two hours into the ride matters became interesting once more.

Once the bus left the rural areas behind and entered more urban districts, the steady rocking of the ride changed into the stop-and-go roller-coaster of heavy traffic. The first of many sudden breaking incidents was more than sufficient to not only wake everybody in the group, but have all of the mice and Julia tumble across the bus floor. So rattled were the rodents that even Mrs. Brisby forgot to scold her children for a number of uncouth curses uttered as they flailed to regain both wakefulness and balance.

As soon as everyone was adequately awake and oriented they all huddled together in the right back corner of the bus again, trying to use the struts of the seats as back support to minimize any additional sliding. Justin removed the hand-drawn map from his sleeve and showed the group what route they would have to take once they had reached their stop.

‘So, we’re just going to hop off the bus when we get there?’

Cynthia sounded doubtful.

‘Once we hear our stop announced we move over to the seat next to the door and hide underneath. As soon as we can get out, we run for it.’

‘Simple,’ replied Timothy to Justin, but did not look like he believed his own words.

Justin nodded his head towards the front of the bus.

‘It won’t matter much if anyone sees us getting out. We just have to be quick and run for the nearest gutter or sewer drain.’

The brown rat looked at Brutus and Julia.

‘We head to the right as soon as we hit the ground. I’ll take the lead. Brutus, you take the rear.’

The big rat signed –OK- with his fingers.

‘How will we keep from getting separated?’

Justin turned to Mrs. Brisby.

‘Each rat will be responsible for a mouse, and vice-versa. I will take your hand, Julia will take Timothy’s. Cynthia will be with Brutus.’

‘As usual,’ groaned the young female in response. Brutus just rolled his eyes.

‘Any questions?’

Brutus raised a hand and got out his writing tablet.

Can we get a drink?

Cynthia and Timothy had to giggle.

‘Serves you right, big guy,’ Justin chided with a grin.

‘You shouldn’t have eaten all those peanuts.’

The larger guard pointed accusingly at his superior.

‘Uh-uh, Julia and I had only two peanuts each. That’s called –moderation-.’

Cynthia sniggered, ‘I don’t think he knows that word.’

Brutus simply stuck his tongue out at the crème-colored mouse, to the amusement of all.

***

Getting off the bus was not as difficult as they had expected.

When their stop was announced, a heavy-set human woman squeezed herself through the aisle with a rolling bag in order to be the first person at the door. The human was so large, particularly in width, that everyone else who wanted to exit at this time was unable to pass her or look around her. The lady’s circumference also kept her from being able look underneath with ease, which made it an easy task to hide between her bag and her feet. Once the bus had come to a stop and the doors had opened, the large woman needed some assistance to navigate the steps from a gentleman behind her. That took even more attention away from the diminutive passengers as they jumped the distance between the lowest stair and the pavement.

Justin made sure to catch each mouse as they jumped and, once Brutus had made the plunge, lead the group as quickly as he could over the sidewalk behind two battered garbage cans resting next to an old plywood fence.

Mrs. Brisby sniffed the air with a scowl.

‘All these human vehicles make it hard to breathe.’

Julia nodded and coughed.

Timothy tapped the metal of one of the garbage cans with a knuckle.

‘And that aroma sure doesn’t help.’

Justin peered out from between the cans along the sidewalk. Behind the tall wooden fence, appeared to be a huge open area, since there were no shadows that would indicate any buildings.

‘We’re in luck. The dump is right here.’

‘Great,’ replied Cynthia as she held her nose.

‘There!’

Justin pointed to a portion of the fence where a board had its lower portion missing.

‘Follow me!’

In a dash the six rodents left the metal containers behind and made for the opening in the fence. If the smell of the city had been offensive before, what awaited them at the other side of the fence was far worse. They had reached the garbage dump.

‘Good heavens,’ Timothy gasped.

The waste disposal area was huge. Mountains of debris of all kinds were piled as far as the group could see. Crows, seagulls, and other birds were screeching and fighting each other for territory and semi-edible scraps of what had once been food. The smell of decay was so overwhelming that everyone except Justin and Brutus covered their faces.

‘How can you stand this stench?’

Looking back at Julia Justin simply shrugged.

‘I grew up with it, I guess.’

The larger Guard tapped the metal head of his weapon against an old soup can and pointed to the side of one of the garbage heaps. The brown rat squinted and held a hand to shield his eyes from the sun.

‘I see them.’

‘See whom,’ Mrs. Brisby wondered.

Justin nodded towards where Brutus was still pointing.

‘Rats. In a place with so much free food, you’ll always find rats. Brutus, you keep back for this and stay with the mice.’

With that being said Justin simply strolled into the expanse of the waste hills. Julia, who had not been told to stay put, followed close behind.

***

Five wild rats, three females and two males, all around Justin’s size, were busy digging for something hidden underneath an old refrigerator door. The older male, a grizzled grey veteran with a bristling mustache, kept watch. He soon spotted the two rats that openly walked towards them. He whistled through his teeth and called to his compatriots at the door.

‘We got company!’

Immediately, the remaining four rats, apparently a family, stopped their digging and jogged to the older male’s side. One of the females, the oldest, was a tan-color and heavy-set and looked at the newcomers disapprovingly.

‘What do they have on their bodies?’

The two younger females, one light grey, the other dark, were just now reaching adulthood and looked at the approaching rodents with trepidation. The second male, a dark-brown young adult folded his arms across his chest.

‘Run or talk, dad?’

The older male rubbed his chin.

‘Stay put for now. The brown one in the front is waving and smiling. Those rags they wear are strange. Be ready to bolt if I give the signal.’

Everyone nodded silently. Even in a place like this, where the waste of mankind provided ample nourishment, there was competition and danger.

Justin, sporting his most amicable expression, walked up casually, arms at his side.

‘Good day! Sorry to bother you, but I wonder if you could help us?’

‘Depends,’ the grey rat grumbled, ‘on what you want from us.’

Smiling and bowing slightly at each rat in turn, the clothed newcomer explained.

‘I once came through here, a long time ago. I am sure the place has changed since then. I need to find a certain sewer pipe.’

At the mention of the sewer the two young female rats drew back with a gasp and the young male hissed angrily through his teeth. The old rat’s eyes narrowed.

‘What do you want at the pipe? Nothing good ever comes from there.’

Justin looked at the ground apologetically.

‘I know it is a bad place, but my companions and I need to go there. It’s a matter of life or death.’

The older female pushed her mate aside and confronted Justin, poking a finger into his chest.

‘What do you know about it, sonny? Life and death? If you go there and take your sweetie with you, it will be your lives and your deaths.’

The grey male nodded and muttered, “Staggs are still down there.’

Julia, who had watched with interest, now folded her arms over her chest.

‘Justin, what are they talking about?’

It was the younger male rat who gave a dry laugh and folded his arms across his own chest in response.

‘You haven’t told her, have you, Romeo?’

Trying to keep the conversation reigned in Justin raised his hands in supplication.

‘I am aware of the Staggs. I have come that way before. My friends and I are able to deal with them.’

‘Your –friends-?’

The older male’s face was now shadowed in suspicion.

Justin sighed.

‘There are others with me. We are able to deal with the sewer folk. Even if they come up from the deep, we can drive them off.’

‘Oh yeah,’ the matron rat chuffed, ‘you and who else?’

It was Julia who took the cue before Justin could stop her and yelled over shoulder.

‘Brutus! Come here quick!’

Justin stepped in front of the white female, a careful eye on the rat family and waved his hand in placation.

‘Please don’t freak out when you see him. He’s…’

Before he could finish Brutus came sprinting around a corner, cape flying and his weapon at the ready.

The younger wild male pulled the older female back and then pushed the two younger ones, which seemed paralyzed as they gazed at huge rat closing in on them.

‘Move,’ he yelled at his family.

‘Everyone stop!’

Strangely enough, Justin’s shout was obeyed by all.

Brutus came to a halt, still holding his pole-axe ready and looking confused. The rat family, obviously terrified, stood in a tight group behind the older male.

Slowly, his arms raised in surrender and his eyes on the wild rats, Justin walked up next to the giant rat with the spear. He patted Brutus’ shoulder.

‘This is Brutus. He is our friend and protector. He is not a Stagg. He will not hurt you.’

Doubt shining in his face and disregarding the grasping hands of his mate, the old grey rat took a step forward.

‘You managed to tame one of them?’

Justin shook his head.

‘Brutus makes his own choices for how he wants to live.’

The large Guard looked from his former Captain to the rat family and, understanding the situation, dropped his weapon to the floor, raised his empty hands in the air, and nodded emphatically. This soothed the frightened family a bit and the rodents all came a little closer.

Then the three mice came around the corner as well, breathing heavily.

‘Everything,’ gasped Mrs. Brisby, ‘alright?’

The arrival of the clothed, much smaller mice finally broke the spell of fear on the wild rats. Mice were nothing to be scared of. But having a group of them travelling with rats, especially one of that size, was unheard of.

‘You,’ the mustached rat rubbed his chin, ‘are a strange group wanting to go into a strange place. There have been stories…’

‘The strange rats,’ the older female whispered in awe.

The younger rodents simply nodded to themselves.

The old rat stepped right in front of Brutus and Justin, tilting his head.

‘The stories have been told from father to son and mother to daughter. A long time ago, many rats and two mice came from the deep, from where normally only the killers come. They used things on sticks, made from garbage, to keep the monsters at bay, they said. They had been different, and left soon after, never to return.’

He carefully grabbed the hem of Justin’s tunic, looked at it carefully as he rubbed it between two fingers. Then he looked up.

‘You are strange too?’

Justin nodded.

‘We come from those rats and mice. We need to go back from where we came. We do not fear the Staggs.’

The grey rat closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and nodded. He pointed to the south.

‘Past the big mound there, pass it on the left side until you come to the shoreline. At the shore, move left. The sewer pipe is there.’

The patriarch gave the hulking Brutus a questioning glance and then turned around to walk back to his family. Over his shoulder he called out:

‘I hope you are right. The ones from the deep have gotten worse, much worse.’

***

‘Okay,’ Julia looked at Justin accusingly, ‘what was that all about?’

The rodents were making their way over the uneven terrain, mice sheltered between the two smaller rats up front and Brutus in the rear.

‘Yeah,’ Timothy added, ‘and what’s a –Stagg-?’

Justin sighed and rubbed his neck as they continued towards the riverside.

‘I grew up close to a dump, similar to this, but smaller. In a human city you get rats living everywhere, cellars, attics, roofs, the sewers, everywhere.’

Now it was Cynthia who felt a shudder run down her spine.

‘And…?’

‘Rats living in different places had different names. We called the ones living in attics

-Lofts-. The ones that stayed in the streets and cellars were –Getters-. We, who lived in and around the garbage dumps, were called –Canks-. There were a lot of different places and names for rats.’

‘And the –Staggs- were another group of rats?’

Mrs. Brisby tried to keep her voice calmer than she felt.

The brown rat nodded, more to himself than his companions.

‘Staggs are the rats that live in the deep sewers, way, way down.’

Julia’s eyes had lowered to slits when she spoke accusingly.

‘And those are bad, I would assume.’

Justin swallowed and nodded.

‘How bad,’ urged Mrs. Brisby.

Their leader stopped and turned to the rest of the group.

‘The story older rats up here tell their children is, simply put, that the Staggs, the rats from the deep sewers, are monsters.’

‘But every place has its monster stories,’ Timothy objected.

Justin sighed again, more deeply.

‘In this case, they are true. I don’t know why, but the Stagg rats see the world differently. Maybe it’s because down in the sewers there is less food, but Staggs are cannibals.’

Every other face, except for Brutus’, was etched with disgust and outrage. Nobody else knew what to say, so the brown rat continued.

‘They said that Staggs lived in clans, or large families, that hunted each other for food and females.’

Now Julia’s face became more frightened than outraged.

‘Why hunt females?’

Justin smiled apologetically.

‘Down there, females are treated as property. The strongest male of the strongest clan will have the most females. The biggest male leads the clan and is often called –Lord-.’

‘That’s terrible.’

Cynthia’s voice was barely a whisper.

The brown rat turned his head back towards their destination and slowly resumed his pace.

‘Down there, the strongest, cruelest survive and rule. Most Staggs are much bigger than the rats you get here at the surface. Parents here will always warn their kids not to go down into the deep sewers. My mom used to sing me this lullaby…’

It took him a few moments as he rummaged in his memories.

Don’t stray my child.

Don’t go to deep.

Stay safe, my child.

Stay in the street.

Down there, my child,

Down in the deep,

They wait, my child,

With hungry teeth.

‘And that is all true?’

Timothy’s voice had a hopeful tone, trying to hide the tremors he felt.

It was Brutus who supplied the answer. As their leader had recited the old poem the bigger male had taken out his writing utensils again. Once finished he wrapped a knuckle against the tablet to get the others’ attention, who stopped again to look at the guard’s writing board. On it were only two words.

All true

Julia and the mice stared from the tablet to Brutus’ face, which looked as cold as ice.

‘Jenner,’ Justin interrupted, ‘came from down there.’

All eyes swiveled to him again.

‘That would explain why he was so nasty,’ Timothy sneered.

Brutus snorted loudly, as if clearly offended.

‘Brutus father also came from down there.’

The male mouse looked at the big rat with an embarrassed smile.

‘Sorry.’

Mrs. Brisby patted her son’s shoulder.

‘You have met Brutus’ dad, Titus before.’

Her son looked at her and then the large Guard incredulously.

‘Titus is Brutus’ dad? But he’s the most peace-loving fellow you could ever… oh.’

Brutus, still holding his tablet in his hand, folded his arms across his chest and nodded solemnly.

‘That’s why,’ Justin continued, ‘Titus left the deep sewers. He hated all the cruelty and the violence. You have seen him. He is as big as Brutus. That is his Stagg heritage.’

‘Okay,’ Cynthia conceded, ‘I get that. But if life down there is so horrible, why don’t more of the Staggs come up to the surface where there is more food and space?’

Now their leader looked at Brutus questioningly. The grey rat unfolded his arms again and began writing quickly. A few moments later his writing board had been covered from top to bottom and his chalk worn down to a nub.

Lords rule the clans.

Cronies serve the Lord for females and food.

Weak smaller males get beaten or eaten.

Nobody leaves.

You try, they catch you and eat you.

‘Then how did Jenner get out,’ Mrs. Brisby wondered, ‘and why?’

‘Jenner was a big guy,’ Justin conceded, ‘but compared to the biggest Stagg rats he was a runt. I doubt he had a good life down there. And he was always sneaky. If anyone could get away, he could.’

The brown mouse nodded, but her daughter turned to the huge rat at the rear.

‘And your dad?’

Brutus remained silent, avoiding Cynthia’s gaze and busying himself cleaning his tablet.

The smaller rat explained.

‘From what Titus told me, they did try to stop him. But you know how big and strong he is. Let’s just say they could not stop him.’

Turning to face Justin the young mouse was still full of questions.

‘Did he have to fight them?’

Justin raised a hand imploringly.

‘That’s not for me to tell. Let the story rest. We need to get moving again.’

With that the lanky rodent turned on his heels and resumed his pace towards the distant sewer pipe.

***

‘Doesn’t smell any better in here.’

Timothy’s whiskers twitched has he stood in the gaping maw of the sewer pipe’s exit hole.

It had taken the expedition only a few more minutes to reach the edge of the garbage fields, where the facility grounds met the river. Finding the sewer pipe had taken a little longer. Navigating the dump had caused the rodents to veer off course a bit, so when they reached the water’s edge they were still some ways away from the cement tunnel that led into the bowels of the human city. Now, the six of them standing on the lip of the pipe, gazing into the awaiting darkness, nobody seemed particularly eager to continue.

Julia nudged Justin’s elbow.

‘If the Stagg rats are in there, why are we taking that route?’

The other smiled.

‘The Staggs are in the deep sewers. They hardly ever venture up to the pipes just below the surface.’

‘But what if some of them do,’ mused Cynthia.

To answer the question, Brutus lowered his backpack and, after some searching, produced two large, cloth-bound torches. Justin nodded approvingly.

‘They are brutal, but they are also primitive. Fire is something they don’t understand and stay away from. And if the fire doesn’t do it, this will.’

The brown rat removed a sword scabbard from his own gear and attached the weapon to his belt.

‘Back when we first came through here, we used bits of sharp metal tied to sticks to keep a group of scouting Staggs off us. To them the weapons were like magic. A few cuts quickly scared them away.’

Timothy looked up at Brutus, who was just shouldering his backpack again.

‘Then Brutus swinging his spear will probably scare them to the center of the earth.’

Mrs. Brisby could not help but chuckle as the big rat improvised a smile that was supposed to look endearing. But that was one thing Brutus’ sharp teeth never managed to convey very well. In the meantime Justin walked up and light the torches in the larger rat’s hands, taking one for himself. With the other, he drew his weapon and motioned Julia and mice to follow.

‘We keep close together. Brutus and I will take care of anyone getting bold despite the torches.’

***

The sewer pipes were dark, damp, and smelled worse than anything the mice had encountered yet. Mrs. Brisby covered her face in her cape while her children and Julia simply held their noses. Cynthia, always trying to make the best out of every situation, sniggered nasally.

‘Hey Timmy, remember when you tried making that engine fuel from cabbage juice?’

Her brother rolled his eyes, but refrained from commenting. Julia, on the other hand, looked at her with interest. Anything to distract herself from the stench down here.

‘What happened?’

‘Well,’ the light-furred mouse grinned, ‘the stuff exploded in the process. It stank up the laboratories and half the colony.’

There was a humorous snort coming from the rear of the group, probably Brutus. Timothy decided to ignore the conversation and stared straight.

‘The Counsel banned Timmy from continuing that research and claimed that it had caused the worst smell ever.’

‘And?’

Cynthia waved her remaining hand graciously around.

‘If they could smell this, I bet they would let him blow up more of that fuel.’

Her brother simply groaned.

Mrs. Brisby, who was walking next to Justin and holding the map and a small compass in her other hand, peered ahead at two round openings in either side of the sewer drain. They had reached another intersection.

‘Which way now?’

Justin looked back at the mouse.

‘What direction are we going towards?’

The smaller rodent checked, her glasses reflecting the torch light.

‘Northwest.’

The rat pointed his torch into the right-hand passage.

‘Then we need to go this way.’

That stopped the conversation again. Even Cynthia could not conjure up any more smell-related humor in this depressing atmosphere. Two more intersections, one they simply passed by, the second they took a turn to the left. After what seemed like hours of walking Justin motioned for the group to stop and leaned his rump against the pipe’s wall rather than sitting down in the murky sludge.

‘Let’s rest for a bit.’

‘Thank goodness!’

Timothy slumped against a wall, clearly exhausted as he no longer even cared to cover his nose.

‘This place is a maze.’

‘A stinky maze,’ Cynthia added helpfully.

Their mother stood a bit apart, gazing into the darkness still waiting for them.

Then the sound started.

If was a deep metallic screeching noise, reverberating throughout the entire tunnel, as if somewhere an immense metal door had been opened on rusty hinges.

The brown mouse turned around to look at the semi-recumbent Justin.

‘What was that?’

The rat’s face looked back in surprise, then in fear. Suddenly, the slender rodent jumped up, sprinting towards Mrs. Brisby.

‘Julia! Brutus! Grab a hold of your mouse, fast!’

The white rat quickly stepped next to Timothy.

‘What’s wrong?’

As if in reply the sound of water, gushing, racing water filled the pipe behind them. Bare seconds later, a wall of foaming liquid was rushing at them, dousing torches and sweeping everyone off their feet.

Rats and mice tumbled helplessly in the currents, everyone trying to hold their breath as long as possible. The waters were too turbulent. Only moments after the current uprooted them, one rat after another lost its grip on their mouse companion until all six were randomly pushed against each other in the torrent. All sense of direction was lost as the flood dragged the group through pipe after pipe, deeper and deeper. Finally, a mesh grating blocked the water’s path.

The mesh wasn’t fine. The mice were flung through it like mist through a net. The rats, being larger, were pressed against the wire loops, their bodies straining with the pressure that the onrushing current still exerted. Then the waters receded. As suddenly as the flood had appeared, it abated into nothing more than a trickle. Coughing and gasping, the three rats fell to the ground, anything that hadn’t been strapped to their backs having been carried away by the deluge.

‘Where…’

Another choking cough expelled water from Justin’s lungs.

‘Where are the mice?’

Julia, recovering more quickly, spit out water as well and hit the wire mesh with a fist.

‘They went right through. They’re gone.’

‘Brutus!’

The bigger rat was only now shaking his head back to normalcy when Justin called out.

‘Can you cut the grate?’

Blinking in confusion for a few moments the large rodent looked around for his weapon. The pole axe was lying covered in muck. Luckily, as Brutus had lost his grip, the long weapon had managed to wedge itself sideways rather than getting sucked through. Holding the weapon’s blade to the mesh, moving and angling it around, the huge rat finally shook his head. He removed his backpack and began searching for something sharp and more maneuverable. After a few moments, he produced a large, jagged dagger of the same dark metal as his main armament, and began slicing at the wire mesh. Justin, whose sword had been sheathed when the water had hit them, joined in with his own weapon. Still, it took precious minutes to cut enough of the wire away to allow the two smaller rats to squeeze through and even longer to make the hole large enough for Brutus. Once everyone was through the rats began sprinting into the darkness. They had to find the mice.

They made it as far as the third intersection of pipes. Without proper light, the compass and the map, which had been lost along with the Brisby family, they had no clue in what direction they were headed. They tried to follow the trickle of water downward, reasoning that this would be the path the current had swept their friends in. But then even that trickle stopped.

Justin stopped and leaned his brow against the cold, wet concrete of the tunnel wall. He was hard-pressed not to cry out in rage and despair. This was not supposed to have happened.

To comfort him Julia put a hand on his shoulder as he attempted to regain his composure.

‘We’ll find them. They’ll be looking for us too. The water receded so fast. They’re bound to be okay.’

Justin, his eyes closed, his breathing slowing, nodded, his brow still resting against the pipe.

Brutus, standing behind them, was looking around nervously, his ears and whiskers twitching. Taking a cue from the bigger male Justin opened his eyes and focused on their surroundings as well. Something was wrong.

There were sounds coming from one of the side tunnels, the sound of rodent feet.

Julia’s face light up.

‘They found us.’

She was just about to head towards the sound when Justin grabbed her shoulder and, while putting a finger to his mouth to indicate silence, shook his head. Brutus walked up beside the pair and sniffed the air, his face grave and foreboding.

‘Staggs?’

The bigger male nodded gravely to Justin.

Drawing his blade again the brown rat nodded to Brutus.

‘Give her your dagger.’

Julia did not even have time to protest when the viciously jagged weapon was pushed into her hands. She grasped the blade with both hands, the metal feeling heavy and awkward to her. What served as a dagger for Brutus might as well have been a two-handed scimitar to her.

‘I don’t know how to use this,’ Julia hissed at Justin’s shoulder.

The other kept his gaze at the tunnels in front of him, trying to get a fix on the approaching sounds and muttered.

‘Just hit them with the sharp end. That should be enough.’

The female was just about ready with a smart retort when the scratching of rodent feet and splashing water suddenly increased in volume. A moment later the Stagg rats arrived.

There were five of them, each easily two heads taller than Justin and heavily muscled. The largest almost rivaled Brutus for size. As they splashed in from the side tunnel on the left the waiting rats, who had readied themselves for the impending ambush, stepped in front of Julia. But when their adversaries became visible, Justin and Brutus both startled.

The snarling rats of the deep sewers carried their own weapons. Grasped by clawed hands huge clubs studded with metal spikes, large axes, and even a jagged sword glinted balefully as the Staggs rushed their intended prey. In the few moments before the combatants reached each other, Justin also realized that these rats, these Staggs, also wore rudimentary clothes. Loincloths, simple vests and tunic, made from coarse fibers and what looked like fur pelts covered the hulking shapes of their assailants. There were also glimpses of bones and teeth worn on strings as ornamentation. These rats were not mere animals.

The three rats had no time to ponder the mystery as the charging band reached them. For all their weaponry, the sewer rats attacked like a frenzied mob, teeth bared. Justin ducked underneath the wide blow of the first Stagg to reach them. The attacker’s club swung wild and managed to hit the charging rodent to his right, slamming it against the sewer wall. The smaller brown rat looked as if he was dancing, dodging clumsy blows from all sides while slashing with his own blade in carefully aimed jabs. One of the attackers was hamstrung and fell to the ground, raging and thrashing. Justin weaved forward until he faced the two Staggs at the rear of the group.

Those of the sewer rodents that Justin’s athletics and blade did not incapacitate were faced with the enraged force of nature that was Brutus. Two of the Staggs, the group’s leader and the one that had been accidently clubbed by him, were now charging into the huge guard, who was more than ready to receive them. Trapping the second Stagg’s axe with the blade of his halberd, Brutus turned on one leg and deftly kicked his would-be attacker in the chest. The first rat had, in the meantime, aimed a blow with his club at the Guard’s exposed head. In the same motion that carried Brutus’ foot into the ribcage of one rat the butt end of his pole-axe intercepted the other’s attack, ramming the club-wielding rodent’s wrist. Howling in pain he lost his weapon, which clattered to the ground. Brutus’ kick had managed to slam the other Stagg into the wall again, leaving it dazed. That allowed the Guard to focus on the remaining attacker, who had just picked up his club again and charged once more.

Justin, in the meantime, was hard-pressed to hold his own against the two larger, more powerful sewer rats. His assailants had become weary of his agility and were now attempting to use their longer reach to simply wear him down by relentlessly pummeling him with their weapons. It was when one of them managed to embed his club into the sludge beneath that Justin took his chance. As the Stagg was straining to raise the bludgeon he jumped on the weapon’s shaft, running up towards his enemy’s head. The second attacker, following Justin’s movement, brought his own cudgel around in a wide arc, ready to crush the smaller rodent to a pulp. Only when the club had reached towards the target, did the nimble Captain of the Guard jump over the other sewer rat’s head. The Stagg’s eyes went wide as he saw his partner’s club coming towards his face. Then the lights went out for him.

Brutus’ halberd crashed into his opponent’s club again, sending violent electric discharges against the concrete walls. The sewer rat roared in anger and attempted to press the bulkier rodent into the ground by sheer force of will. As their weapons locked Brutus decided to end the confrontation and suddenly head-butted the other. The impact was tremendous and the Stagg toppled like a felled tree. Brutus looked around to see what had happened to the second attacker, the one he had slammed into the wall earlier.

That’s when Julia’s shriek echoed through the pipe. The axe-wielding sewer rat had apparently decided to make the female his target while his fellow was tackling the larger male. With a wicked grin on his muzzle he lifted his blade to sewer Julia’s neck from her body. The female appeared paralyzed with fear, not moving as the axe descended, holding Brutus’ dagger in a limp hand.

Then something in Julia’s eyes seemed to flash into focus. As if suddenly charged with unknown energies the female let herself drop and slide on her back, right underneath her attacker’s swing. The Stagg’s axe crashed into concrete and the surprised rodent had barely a chance to turn about face. Julia was moving with almost unnatural speed. Once clear of the male she immediately jumped to her feet, the dagger clenched in both hands. Then she charged. Her blade was cutting graceful swathes in front of her as if it was the most natural thing in the world. The sewer rat barely managed to block the twirling blade with the haft of his axe. But Julia was not done. Using the momentum of her blade being blocked, she flexed her arms and propelled herself up towards the amazed Stagg’s head. She somersaulted in the air, catching the attacker’s head between her legs. Then, in one smooth motion, her slender arms slammed the edge of her hands into the male’s skull, right into the vulnerable part behind his ears. Despite her small size the impact rattled the sewer rat’s skull and inner ears so hard that he passed out.

Julia twisted around and back-flipped off the huge rat’s neck as it slumped, coming to a graceful stand just where Brutus’ dagger had landed. As she gingerly picked up her dropped weapon Brutus and Justin were staring at her wide-eyed and open-mouthed, their own opponents dispatched moments before. The white rat looked back at them as if in a daze, apparently not able to recognize them. Then, something in her gaze shifted once more. She looked down at herself, muddied, scratched, but alive. Julia looked over her shoulder at her prone opponent and gasped in realization. Then she dropped her weapon and passed out.

She came to as she was being hoisted by her two male companions, their arms under her shoulders.

‘What happened?’

Justin looked at her blurred expression in amazement.

‘Are you sure you never fought before? You sure took that Stagg down easily.’

Julia looked from one rat to the other, her face full of confusion.

‘I did? I did, didn’t I?’

She closed her eyes and shook her head.

‘I don’t know. When he came at me… everything seemed to happen by itself.’

Justin simply nodded with a smile.

‘Well, keep it up. We’re not out of the woods yet.’

The two males had not waited a moment after their victory and immediately dragged Julia away, in the opposite direction from where the assault had come. They were splashing wildly through the foul puddles of the sewers. The female soon found her own legs again and the three rats made good speed, even though they had no idea where they were going, as long as it was away from the Staggs.

‘They,’ Julia gasped as she jogged, ‘had weapons.’

‘Yeah,’ Justin replied with concern, ‘and clothes. Something’s very wrong here.’

As if on cue the running group cleared a bend in the sewer pipe, only to come face to face with a second group of the deep’s violent denizens.

The three rats skidded to a stop. There, right in front of them, were at least twenty more of the towering, armed monsters. Some of them held torches, and all gave the impression of having been waiting for them. The one in front, arms folded over a chest of greenish-brown fur crossed with two bands of leather that were studded with rats’ incisors, grinned balefully at them with orange eyes.

‘Now what do we have here? Seems like our visitors managed to get away from our scouts.’

Justin urged the others to back off and try to head back the way they had come. But when he turned his head he saw that another, equally large group of sewer rats with weapons and torches had closed in behind them. Somehow, they had wound up in a trap.

The Stagg’s leader savored the moment as he surveyed his captives more closely. His eyes glowed with delight as he spotted the white-furred female behind Justin.

‘How nice! They brought me a new female too.’

He moved in on Justin, grabbing a one-handed axe from a loop at his belt. The Stagg towered more than two heads taller and at least twice as massive. The smaller male crouched low and drew his sword. Justin had a feeling that this opponent would not be as clumsy as the ones they had bested before and while combat against such horrendous odds was suicide, he would not let Julia be molested without a fight. Behind him, Brutus raised his pole-axe.

The advancing male did not falter. His face was confident and vicious when he swung his weapon to try and swat Justin aside like a gnat. That was a mistake.

Ducking easily under the larger rat’s swipe, Justin kicked the Stagg’s ankle from the side, causing the much bigger rodent to topple, but not fall over. Once his opponent was off balance Brutus delivered a blow with the butt end of his weapon to the sewer rat’s chest, which caused him to tumble over backwards, right into the remaining Staggs. There were gasps of anger and even some laughter from the monstrous rodents at their leader’s humiliation. The stunned hulk

regained his composure quickly, his face now showing barely concealed rage. His teeth were bared and his voice a resonating growl.

‘We will tear you limb from limb before I take your female, you surface runt!’

‘Horog!’

The shout came from behind the Stagg leader’s group, commanding, deep, but also clearly female. The giant rats turned to look at the direction of the voice as if stung and the group facing Justin began to part, making room for one rat that was making its way towards the front. The humiliated leader glared disdainfully at the new arrival.

What came into view was even more surprising to Justin than encountering sewer rats with clothes and weaponry.

An immense female, only half a head shorter than Brutus, broad of stature, but lithe, and definitely not subservient, came into view. She was shorter than the male with the axe and of lighter built, but compared to Justin she was massive and over-powering. What made her even more imposing was her attire. More than the simple robes and pelts of the other Staggs this female was wrapped in an elaborate pattern of cross-woven cloth around her chest, a fur loincloth, and a huge pelt cloak around her shoulders. Her hair was braided in a number of pony-tails and both her cloak and fur skirt were held together by intricate golden broaches inlaid with rat teeth. The female’s pelt was a silvery gray in stark contrast with the male’s dirtier colors. Her eyes were blazing angrily at the axe wielder.

‘You disobeyed again. I told you to keep your hands off them.’

The male, apparently named Horog, pointed his axe at Julia.

‘I claim the female.’

The newcomer put one hand on her hip, the other brandishing a wickedly curved dagger that was so large it would have easily served Justin as a sword.

‘I am Lord here, Horog. Get used to it. This female is off limits.’

Horog looked from the large female to his fellow males, and then bared his teeth.

‘I claim the female, Drasta.’

The other leaned forward, eyes narrowing, and her voice taking on a nasty edge.

‘Is that a challenge, Horog?’

Again, the towering male with the axe gazed at his fellow males, looking for something. Finally, his face hardened and he nodded at the female called Drasta.

‘Yes. I challenge. With tooth and claw.’

Brutus, having turned his head away from the group facing him to look over his smaller companions’ shoulders tilted his head in surprise. Julia, leaning close to Justin, whispered,

‘You said females were property down here?’

Justin, not taking his eyes off the drama unfolding in front of them, slowly shook his head.

The two Staggs, in turn, had dropped their respective weapons to the ground and begun circling each other. The male, half a head taller and much heavier, still did not look certain of his superiority and watched his opponent with caution.

‘What’s the matter, Horog? Lost your guts already?’

That was enough for challenger to charge with a swipe of his right arm, claws ready to tear the female’s throat out. Drasta, rather than ducking or side-stepping, grabbed a hold of the other’s arm at the shoulder and used the male’s own momentum to catapult him into the sewer wall. Then she stepped back and waited for Horog to get up again.

The male, now drooling over bared teeth and seething with rage, did not charge immediately. The combatants circled each other again. This time it was Horog who taunted through clenched teeth.

‘No female should ever rule. I will be Lord.’

The silver-grey female simply smiled at her opponent evilly.

Then, she charged.

Aiming her right claws at the male’s throat Horog had no problem seeing her attack coming. Ducking to the side and ready to have his own clawed hands tear at Drasta’s midsection he was unprepared for the female throwing herself to the ground before his claws could connect, and biting him on his right leg.

A howl of pain and anger issued from Horog as tried to tear his foot away from the female’s teeth and, at the same time, made a grab for her neck. The moment the male was bent over her, Drasta’s arms shot up to grap a hold of the other’s shoulders, claws digging in and pulling the heavier rat down with such force he toppled forward, somersaulting until he slammed flat-backed into the floor.

This time the female did not give Horog time to recover. Springing up even before the male had come to rest she jumped on his chest, pinning his arms with her knees and grabbing his neck in a vice-like grip. Then, muscles bulging, she gave both her arms a quick, violent twist.

Julia covered her eyes, but her ears still heard the loud crack of Horog’s spine snapping. The male twitched once, twice, and then lay still.

Drasta stood up, her clothes and fur covered with dirt, but her eyes shining with triumph. She gave her dead opponent a disdainful kick and then retrieved her dagger. Once she turned her eyes on the remaining Staggs the males became pensive.

‘Who,’ she asked in a low growl, ‘is Lord here?’

There were a few mutters of the female’s name.

‘I can’t hear you,’ she roared.

‘Drasta!’

It seemed every Stagg was now intent in outdoing his fellows, careful not to risk the female’s ire.

‘Drasta! Drasta!’

‘Enough!’

She waved her followers into silence and stepped towards Justin and his friends. Unlike Horog, she did not approach with her weapon brandished or a particularly evil visage. Drasta’s gaze was calculating as it passed over a defiant Justin, a frightened Julia, and a clearly confused Brutus.

‘You are outnumbered. There is no way to escape. You do not know the sewers. We do. Obey, and you may live. Disobey, and you are food. Now, drop your weapons.’

Drasta spoke without malice, simply stating obvious facts.

Justin looked over his shoulder at Brutus. The bigger rat looked as lost and frustrated as he felt. There was no way for them to beat these odds. The smaller rodent turned back to face the female Stagg and, after a few moments, threw his sword on the floor. Brutus and Julia followed suit. Drasta, her features still coldly neutral, simply nodded. Then she motioned for one of her male followers to approach. The male, a black-furred brute of lanky stature, but incredible height, hustled over immediately. The female pointed to the weapons. Wordlessly, the black rat picked up the armaments. Once upright again the male saw Drasta waving a hand towards their captives.

‘Terk, tell me what you see.’

The black male swallowed twice and then muttered,

‘Clothes and weapons. They wear clothes and use weapons.’

She patted the taller male’s shoulder.

‘Good. And do you obey your Lord?’

Terk nodded immediately, obviously cowed by the smaller female.

Drasta waved a paw at the prone form of her vanquished challenger.

‘Then you are the new Second of the Clan. You may have Horog for meat.’

A cruel smile came over the black-pelted male’s face and he motioned with his head to Staggs near his fallen predecessor to pick up his body, which was immediately obeyed.

Drasta, in turn, focused her attention on the rest of her people.

‘Did you hear that? They wear clothes and use weapons. Do you remember what that means?’

There was reluctant nodding from some of the fearsome rats in the crowd. Drasta turned back to face Justin and the others, but this time her features spread in a nasty smirk.

‘You, my lucky friends, are going to meet the Overlord.’


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