The Rat King held up his hand.
The man on the pulley stopped feeding the rope.
Sophie and Benjamin dangled less then a foot above the rats. The creatures leapt into the air and nipped at them with their sharp fangs. They shrieked wildly.
“Up!” commanded the Rat King.
The pulley operator dutifully tugged on the rope.
Sophie and Benjamin rose just out of reach of the gnawing rats. They kept ascending. Soon they were halfway back up the pit. Sophie and Benjamin both slouched in the ropes exhausted from terror. The rag man on the pulley kept hauling the line up and up.
Joshua and the others peered down at their friends with red, teary eyes.
Is he letting them go? Is he showing mercy?
One look at the giant’s cruel smiling face told Joshua different.
No! There’s no mercy in him!
The Rat King held up his hand again.
“Stop!” he ordered.
The man stopped pulling the rope.
Sophie and Benjamin stayed halfway between the pit’s mouth and the mass of famished rats down below.
“Down,” The Rat King commanded.
I have to stop him.
He closed his eyes and concentrated again. His head throbbed with pain, as if the blood inside his brain had boiled and would burst out of his scalp.
With his eyes shut so tight, Joshua saw nothing. But he heard.
He heard the creak of the pulley.
He heard Sophie and Benjamin scream weakly with the little breath they had left in their bodies.
He heard his friends sob.
And then he heard something different. It sounded like an animal letting out a low, lazy cry.
It was the Rat King yawning.
Joshua’s eyes shot open.
He looked towards the giant.
The tyrant stood slouched to one side.
The corn lies in their stomachs. It digests slowly. Their stomachs tell their bodies to slow down as well. Their bodies slow, they get tired and sleepy. Concentrate. See it happen. Feel it. Push it forward. Take them from drowsy to unconscious.
The guard standing next to Joshua yawned. Then the one next to him. And then the next. The whole circle of rag men yawned and swayed on their feet. Then the first of them dropped and crashed to the floor. Then another. They snored loudly as they lay still on ground. One by one they fell.
“You!” said the bleary eyed Rat King. “I will break you!”
He tried to fight back with anger. But there was no force behind his voice.
“Poisoner!” he accused.
“No,” Joshua answered. “Chef!”
The Rat King swayed. He took a step forward, right to the edge of the pit.
“Don’t,” warned Joshua.
He couldn’t stop the process inside the Rat King. His own body rushed to slumber against his will. His knee buckled and the giant pitched towards the pit. His arm flayed about weakly to stop himself. But it was too late.
He shot past Sophie and Benjamin and landed with a soft thud down below. The black forms swarmed over his body.
“Don’t look,” Joshua yelled.
Dina, the twins, and Lucinda turned away
He’s dead. I killed him.
Joshua felt cold and sick inside.
There was only one underling still on his feet, as Joshua had planned. The rag man who held the rope in the pulley stood woozy but still awake. He began to nod off.
Heathcliff had already whipped out the halves of his reed pole and had reassembled them in the blink of an eye. He reached back and whipped it with all his might. The line flew across the pit and snagged Benjamin by the leg.
Benjamin let out a cry.
The minion on the rope collapsed to the floor. The rope ran through the pulley.
Benjamin and Sophie dropped.
Heathcliff pulled back on the line. Joshua and Lucinda leapt to his side and grabbed the pole. The three of them yanked hard.
“I meant grab the rope!” Joshua yelled
“This line will never hold both of them,” yelled Lucinda.
“It’ll hold!” Heathcliff promised.
Sophie and Benjamin fell. Then the line snapped taut. Joshua held his breath. He expected it to snap.
But it didn’t.
Sophie and Benjamin jerked to a stop just a few feet above the rats. The ravenous beasts leapt at them, snapping at them greedily. The line wrapped around Benjamin’s leg, the hook caught on his pants.
“Pull us up!” he begged with a pained voice.
Joshua, Heathcliff and Lucinda pulled with every ounce of muscle they had. The line cut into their hands, nearly breaking the skin.
Benjamin and Sophie appeared over the edge of the pit. Joshua grabbed them and pulled them the rest of the way. They rolled onto the floor. Heathcliff untied them. They were both pale and sweating and had tiny cuts and teeth marks all over them. Benjamin had a spot of blood where the hook had snagged his pants. Joshua checked his leg. The hook had torn the skin of his leg but hadn’t embedded itself in his flesh.
Lucinda and Heathcliff hugged Sophie. Dina knelt before Benjamin. The red kitten poked her head out from Dina’s jacket and mewed softly.
“Thank you,” Benjamin muttered.
He looked around at the circle of sleeping men.
“Did you do this?” he asked Joshua.
Joshua thought about it for a moment.
I did it.
Joshua found the rag man with his knives. He took them and their leather pouch and returned them to his side. Their weight reassured him.
The circle of rag men lay quietly slumbering.
“You put something in their food?” Heathcliff asked.
“It was just food,” Joshua answered.
“Then how?” Lucinda asked.
“I’ll tell you later. First let’s get out of here.”
He pointed to the black curtain.
“Do we have to go back that way?” Joshua asked Benjamin.
“No,” he answered. “There’s a shorter way.”
He pointed to a black tunnel off to the side.
“It’s just a few turns and then there’s a rope ladder that leads to the surface.”
They ran down the tunnel. They stopped after a few minutes. Sophie needed some time to recover. Benjamin claimed he was fine but sat next to her anyway. Lucinda dabbed their heads with a dap cloth.
“This is the way I told you before,” Benjamin explained. “It’s the most direct route back to the surface. The Rat King uses it when he wants to go up top and grab some new subjects.”
“He used it, I should say.”
Joshua flinched. Maybe Benjamin was happy the Rat King was dead but it wasn’t something he cared to dwell on.
“We couldn’t go this way before because obviously we’d run right into him and his little pit.”
Sophie got back on her feet. She still wobbled quite badly.
“Are you sure you’re all right? You don’t need anymore rest?” Joshua asked.
“We can’t stay here,” Sophie shot back.
Her voice was sharp and fearful.
The others looked back towards the pit.
“We have plenty of time. Those men will sleep for at least another hour.”
Despite his assurances, nobody wanted to stay down below a second longer. Sophie and Benjamin got to their feet and they continued onwards.
“You’re positive you know the way?” Joshua asked Benjamin.
“Of course,” Benjamin declared. “You’ve nothing to worry about with me as your guide!”
There was the old arrogance in his voice. But when he smiled this time all he revealed was a top row of bloody gums. He quickly covered up his mouth and marched on in silence.
Up ahead the tunnel forked in three different directions. Benjamin halted. He looked from one to the other confused.
“So which way is it?” Joshua asked.
Benjamin didn’t answer.
“Don’t you know?”
“Of course I do,” Benjamin said defiantly.
Joshua felt Dina tug at his arm.
“Don’t be cross. Give him time.”
“Right. No hurry,” Joshua said.
He glanced back at the tunnel.
There was no hurry. All the rag men were behind them, fast asleep. He knew they’d slumber a long time. And the Rat King…
He didn’t want to think about the Rat King. Yes he’d been unspeakably cruel to Joshua, his friends, and Benjamin. He’d enslaved, tortured and killed dozens of innocent people down here in this twisted kingdom. But Joshua still didn’t feel better about causing his death.
Then he heard a small thump. He tried to find its source. Joshua stared back down the long corridor back towards the terrible rat pit. There was nothing there.
The others seemed unconcerned. Joshua was sure he’d heard a sound.
“Have you got it figured out yet?” he asked.
“Almost. I’m more anxious to get out of here than you,” Benjamin said.
He then pointed to the far right tunnel.
They walked quickly. They crawled over metal pipes and had to splash through a freezing waterfall.
“It’s just up ahead,” Benjamin promised.
He led them down a long concrete shaft.
“Is there anyone guarding the exit?” Joshua asked.
“No. They were all back there.”
“Then who’s that?” Heathcliff asked.
He pointed ahead.
They halted immediately.
A shadow blocked the way forward. It was as thin as a lamppost.
“That’s not a rag man,” Benjamin said.
No, it’s worse, Joshua thought.
“It’s him!” Sophie yelled.
Joshua stepped in front of everyone. He put himself between them and the advancing assassin.
“At your service, Joshua.”