After the Canian had started screaming, it didn’t take us long to realize the problem was simply that he was tied down and freaking out. So we let him go and followed him when he ran. Which was…here.
It was a broken place, even five years later. No one wanted to get near anything the Succubus Queen had touched. Oh, the surface looked clean enough, the fallen ‘scraper had been cleaned up within a few months, and a nice big automated factory churning out shoes was built.
But in the sewers, where Adonides had led us, it was another story entirely.
It was a big sewer, even for Domina, so it was like a green, smelly river with two equally smelly banks on either side. Christmas lights—long since burned out—twined around the bridges like vines, probably meant to light the way in the gaudiest way possible. Hedonistic artwork covered the walls, only barely decayed by half a decade of humidity and filth.
We had left the Canian at the entrance, with the retinue. Other Necessarian forces would be arriving soon, and they’d be able to follow us down, but right now we needed someone watching our backs.
I was in front, my sword out, with Adam just a few steps behind me. Laura was in the middle, with Derek and Ling bringing up the rearguard.
I thought it was a little silly bringing Adam and Laura along, but Derek wouldn’t budge. Adam’s guns would be invaluable in this enclosed space, and he already had his headphones on, just in case. Laura was here both in case Lizzy needed a medic, and because she had a much better sense of direction than the rest of us.
He had a point on that last one. He and I had gone sewer-diving before, of course, but we got lost a lot. If there was a way to avoid that, I was all for it.
We hadn’t seen any enemies yet, which wasn’t really that odd—we weren’t far from the entrance—but it still had me on edge.
Adam stopped, a confused look on his face, and the rest of us followed suit.
“Something wrong?” I whispered.
He frowned. “I think I heard something…scratching, I think.”
I nodded. Rats would be extremely common down here. It was a good sign, actually. If there were screamers, they would probably have already killed off any competition.
Of course, with those headphones of his, Adam hardly had the best hearing in the group. It could have been just a burst of glitchy static, but it was best to be careful anyway.
But he quickly turned out to be correct—I could hear something up ahead, past the bend in the passage.
I signaled the others to stop and sped forward, fast enough that I would be a blur to anyone watching. I peeked around the corner, cursed, and fled back.
“Report,” Laura snapped a little bit harshly. She looked on edge, which was surprising. Was that because she didn’t like being on the front lines, or because she was worried about Lizzy?
Either way, I complied without hesitation. “Clawed jumper swarm ahead. Big one. And where there are jumpers…”
“There are leapeaters,” Derek finished. He brushed his hair back in frustration. “Wonderful.”
Adam started loading some type of shot into his St. George as the scratching sound grew louder. He was learning; that was perfect against swarms. “Anyone going to tell me what clawed jumpers are?”
“Evil frogs,” Ling replied, limbering up.
Adam rolled his eyes. “Anyone else?”
Then a swarm of evil frogs rounded the corner.
Each one was pretty big, for a frog; about the size of a fist. Both their hind- and fore-legs ended in sharp claws, both for defense and to help them latch onto things. They were all purple with big black eyes, and they advanced forward like a rolling carpet, each individual amphibian jumping a few feet at a time.
The claws, however, were only an annoyance. The real danger was that they were extremely poisonous. They secreted a dangerous toxin through their skin, which was absorbed by touch. While the dose you would get from a single frog was only enough to make you queasy, there were dozens in a swarm, which was enough poison to kill you in minutes.
Well, there were dozens in a normal swarm.
This one had a couple hundred.
I stepped back, my mouth set in a grim line, and Adam took the opening I gave him to fire his St. George. The shotgun roared, echoing around the sewer loud enough to hurt my ears and belching forth flame, taking out ten or more of the little monsters. The second I heard him eject the spent shell, I activated my speed and rushed forward.
Normally, of course, a sword is all but useless against a swarm. A bunch of tiny foes, all close to the ground and biting at your legs is simply not the type of enemy a blade is designed for. Jumpers are a little bit easier. Since they spend half their time in the air, it gives you a perfect opportunity to slash them. The only problem is that they’re probably faster than you are, so you need superhuman reflexes to be able to consistently fight them.
Luckily, I had super speed.
Half a dozen frogs leaped towards me as if in slow motion, almost like they were just waiting for me. I didn’t disappoint; I slashed each one in half quickly and efficiently, then fell back. I had enough left in my reservoir to kill dozens more, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I had suffered jumper poison once, and it wasn’t an experience I intended to repeat.
Derek stepped in front of me as more frogs jumped, catching them on the glowing blue shield he had on his arm. I wasn’t really quite sure how that worked; its not like he could strap it to his arm or anything. Regardless, he was able to wield it like a normal shield, using it to fend off the jumpers and throw them back in the direction they came.
“Back up,” Adam barked behind us. His tone made his intentions clear, so we did so quickly. The bland man raised his shotgun towards the opening we had created and pulled the trigger, sending another echoing burst of flame into the swarm. He cursed as the gun nearly bucked out of his arms, but he managed to hold onto it.
Over half were gone now, either sliced in half or burned beyond recognition. The rest jumped into the artificial river flowing through the sewer. No one saw any need to stop them.
I heard a sound behind me, and turned to see Ling shrugging off Laura’s restraining hand angrily. “What the hell? I could have helped.”
“You would have brought the roof down on our heads,” the sharp-faced girl said bluntly. “Or gotten poisoned.”
“You’ll have your chance in a minute,” Derek noted. “The leapeaters will be here any second.”
Adam sighed as he loaded another shell. “I know I’m going to regret this…but what are leapeaters?”
“Evil birds,” Ling said with an admirably straight face.
Derek coughed in a way that was certainly not covering up a laugh.
The bland man glared. “Any useful information?”
Laura smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “Lighten up a little.” The smile faded. “Silver and gold, we all need a laugh.”
Everybody sobered up a bit at that. Whether we needed it or not, this wasn’t the place to be making jokes. Even if Lizzy hadn’t been harmed by the Composer, the monsters roaming around were dangerous enough by themselves. She wouldn’t hurt a fly, but unfortunately that wouldn’t stop them from hurting her.
“Leapeaters are featherless ostriches,” Derek admitted. “Territorial and aggressive. They’re immune to jumper poison, and eat them.” He shrugged. “They’re the fey’s cleanup crew.”
Adam looked around at all our serious faces and raised an eyebrow. “Ostriches? Really?”
“Normal ostriches are dangerous,” Laura pointed out. “Though they aren’t very aggressive. Leapeaters are buffed, both in strength and aggression. Stay back and let Akane handle them.”
Adam slowly lowered his shotgun, finally realizing we were telling the truth. He shook his head in befuddlement. “Ostriches…”
Derek chuckled. “Hardly the strangest monster. Remind me to tell you about the fire-breathing chickens one day.”
I smiled at that as well. Now I was getting hungry for some. If you killed pojoes just right, you didn’t even have to cook them first.
Ling frowned, stepping away from the rest of us and cocking her head. “That’s weird. I don’t hear them.”
She was right. Normally, leapeaters are easy to hear coming. They have this sort of barking squawk when they’re hunting. It’s very distinctive, and they use it constantly.
“That’s a good sign,” Adam said. He was wrong, of course; he didn’t have enough experience fighting monsters. Leapeaters always followed jumpers. “But if there are monsters, does that mean the fey are the ones who took her?”
Derek opened his mouth to retort, then closed it again, looking contemplative. He glanced at me.
I knew what he was thinking. Wild monsters are quite common. If a fey loses control of one of her creations, she doesn’t even try to catch them. And sewers were the natural environment of jumpers; they like wet places.
But if there weren’t any leapeaters chasing them, that could mean they were brand new, released by a fey specifically to guard this passage. Unless the fey set some of the birds after them, they’d be able to survive down here indefinitely. Jumpers breed true, but leapeaters don’t; without a few minor alterations shortly after birth, they’re just featherless ostriches.
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Laura noted without much emotion. “Let’s keep moving.”
As we continued down the passage, I kept expecting the leapeaters to attack us at any moment. But they didn’t. There was only the soft sound of rushing water, as well as distant dripping sounds. The normal sounds of a sewer.
It was unnerving me more than I care to admit.
“How much farther does this thing go?” Adam muttered after a couple hours. He had stripped off his sweat-stained shirt, but had wisely kept on the armor he wore underneath. It might be a bit cheap, but it was much better than nothing. He had tried to take his headphones off, but we had all told him that was a bad idea.
“This system goes under the entire district,” Laura said, consulting the map on her pad.
Adam wiped moisture from his forehead. “What are the chances we took a wrong turn somewhere?”
“None,” Derek answered immediately. “Akane and I might not be as good a tracker as Alex, but sewers are easy. There’s only one used path, and we’re on it.”
Adam stared at us both. “How is a sewer easy?”
I snorted. “Moisture on the ground.”
He looked at the wet concrete beneath our feet. “There’s moisture everywhere.”
I rolled my eyes. “People have been through here in the past few days. Seen a good amount of traffic. The side passages don’t have any of the right signs.” I shrugged and turned my eyes forward again. “Ask Alex to teach you. We don’t have time now.”
“Blood,” Derek noted, dropping into a crouch.
Musashi’s sword, he was right. I was in front, but I had missed it because of Adam’s questions. There was indeed a watery runnel of blood flowing under my feet, from the corner in front of us.
I drew my sword. “How fresh?”
“Hard to tell,” he muttered. “Alex would probably know, but…”
I understood. With the water keeping the blood from clotting, it was impossible for amateurs like us to estimate how fresh it was. Or, indeed, whether the source was human or something else.
Confronting an injured, angry monster was hardly ideal, but my speed was still useful here. I sped forward, around the corner…and immediately stopped.
Cursing again, I let my speed go and stepped back into the view of the others. “Dead.”
As they joined me, I shook my head and stared at the corpse, sitting on the ground with his back to the wall, a large and bloody wound in his chest. He was a Nosferatu, with thick armor and big claws. Probably one of Halifax’s brood; he looked a lot like him.
The vampire was very dead, though I wasn’t sure for how long. Probably less than a day—it didn’t look like anything had started eating him yet.
“What’s a ferret doing down here?” Ling asked, poking the body lightly with her boot. He slumped to the side, and she jumped back in fright.
“The Nosferatu were important participants in the Battle of Shendilavri,” Derek explained. “They sometimes come down here to pay their respects to the dead, or just see what’s left of the battle.” He shrugged. “It’s a tourist trap for them, basically.”
“I hear Obox-ob has been making inroads into the region,” Laura noted. “Or he was, a couple months ago. No one’s really heard much from him since, but maybe he did this.”
“How long?” I asked, after Derek finished muttering a quick prayer. I pretended not to hear the exact words; he was always a bit embarrassed by his choice of religion.
The blue-eyed man blinked, then nodded. “Ah…I’m not sure. Laura? You’d probably know better than me.”
She crouched down next to the corpse and studied it closely. Ling, I noticed, had turned away. She had killed dozens of screamers, maybe hundreds. This was squicking her out?
“No less than an hour,” Laura noted, sticking her finger into the large chest wound. She sniffed the blood on her digit and nodded. “An hour minimum.” She stood up, walked over to the sewer, and stuck her hand in briefly. Then she nodded again. “Five hours max. The mudfish haven’t smelled him yet.”
Derek nodded, eyes hard. “So…about when Lizzy went missing.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” she admonished. Then she grimaced. “But, yes. Most likely.”
Adam frowned. “Maybe he followed her kidnapper into the sewer?” He looked at the wound a bit closer. “What killed him, anyway? This doesn’t look like a monster’s handiwork.”
“A human hand,” Laura said bluntly. “Or at least, something the rough size and shape of a human hand.” She pointed to the wound, where on closer inspection it was clear the the ribs had been broken outward or simply pushed aside. “Someone thrust their hand under the ribcage and ripped out the heart.”
Ling stumbled over to the sewer and threw up.
I rolled my eyes. Seriously? I had watched her squash a man’s skull like a tomato. How was this worse?
She wiped her mouth and smiled weakly, still trying to avoid looking at the corpse.
“Sorry,” she said quietly. “First time in a sewer.”
I nodded in sudden understanding. It got everyone the first time.
“We’re wasting time,” Derek muttered. “Ling, your stomach settled?” When she nodded, he mimicked the gesture. “Good, good. I think we’re getting close. Be on your guard.”
As it turned out, we weren’t close. At all. After two more hours and three more (much smaller) jumper swarms, it seemed as though we had walked under the entire district. I’ve done some long jobs before, but this was getting ridiculous.
Luckily, while mentally we were exhausted, physically we were fine. That was one of the benefits of the package; increased endurance.
“I need to stop,” Adam muttered, sliding to the floor. “Just…give me a minute.”
He had it harder than the rest of us, even without the power difference; he was still wearing all four of his guns, and maybe ten pounds of spare ammo, plus that armor. It was a wonder he hadn’t collapsed sooner.
Laura carefully sat next to him and handed him a water bottle, which he drank from greedily. I kept an eye on the Spanish girl. She had the package, sure, but she also wasn’t as fit as the rest of us. But still, she seemed fine, or at least she did after she took a few gulps from her own bottle.
After ten minutes or so, they both scrambled back to their feet.
“Good,” Derek said with an encouraging smile. “It’s not much farther.”
Adam just glared. “You’ve been saying that for four hours.”
Our leader just shook his head. “This time I’m sure. The path leads off the main sewer now.” He indicated one of the dark side passages that popped up periodically. My trained eyes could indeed see that the trail led that direction. “I think we’re getting near the lair.”
Adam grumbled, but nodded, and took out his Caedes, just in case. I drew my sword, Ling cracked her knuckles, and even Laura pulled out her gun.
I wasn’t afraid. I was never afraid. Derek was leading us; he wouldn’t make any major mistakes. This was going to end with at least a few questions answered.
Derek smiled. “Good. Be ready for anything. A horde of screamers, a fey and her monsters…whatever. We can take it.”
He led the way into the dark tunnel, and whatever lay beyond.
Behind the Scenes (scene 107)
I think I managed to get the proper dungeon-crawling vibe here.