“You’ve led me on quite the chase, Joshua. Where the blazes are we anyway?”
Hodmedod took a step forward. Joshua backed up. The others backed up with him.
“It’s incredible. It’s its own little town down here. How many people does this underground burg have?”
Joshua looked for a side tunnel or a large pipe, any avenue of escape. But there was none. There was only the way they came.
“It’s rather nice down here. Except for the smell. That is a stink. Do you know what I’m talking about? Or have you gotten used to it?”
He kept himself between Hodmedod and his friends. Whatever happened he wouldn’t let this monster near them. He took a step forward. His friends warned him not to in hushed whispers.
“What do they do down here if it’s raining really hard? Or worse if everyone flushes at once?”
Joshua felt the knives in his leather pouch.
Hodmedod saw him do this and stiffened.
“Now, I’ve already killed two full grown adults on my way down here. What do you think you’re going to do?”
He reached out with his thin hand. His twig like fingers wrapped around Joshua’s neck with a grip as hard as the Rat King’s.
“I’ll make you a deal. Come along quietly and I won’t hurt your friends. You make trouble and I’ll make pain. And I’m much better at making pain than you are at making trouble.”
Joshua started to go slack with despair. There was no escape.
Just then there was a roar at the other end of the tunnel. They all whipped there heads around to look.
They saw the Rat King’s massive form in silhouette at the other end. The edges of his shadow looked frayed and chewed. He rumbled forward like a wild bull.
“Now who is this?” Hodmedod asked.
“The Rat King!” they all shouted.
“The Rat What?”
With Hodmedod focused on the approaching giant, Joshua moved. His hand grabbed his knife and it flew out of its pouch.
He cut Hodmedod’s hand deeply, as easy as cutting a slab of meat. Hodmedod yelped and let him go.
The others poured past the stunned Hodmedod. The assassin swiped at Joshua as he ran down the tunnel.
Before he could follow, the Rat King barreled down and crashed into him.
The two fought.
Joshua paused to watch.
The bloody, tattered Rat King threw Hodmedod against the wall with so much force Joshua was sure the thin man would snap like a twig.
Instead of snapping, Hodmedod bounced off the wall. He threw a punch in midair. The Rat King staggered backwards from the blow. The two battled in the tunnel and traded monstrous blows. The Rat King had arms like battering rams that crashed against Hodmedod’s thin chest. Hodmedod’s limbs were like iron chains that whipped and lashed the Rat King. Joshua was unable to look away.
Something touched his arm and he jerked back to reality. It was Benjamin.
“Come on. The exit. It’s this way!”
They caught up with the others and ran. Joshua stayed at the rear with his knife just in case. He heard the sounds of the battle in the tunnel behind.
Benjamin led them down one turn, then another. He hesitated at one junction then sped down the tunnel on the right. They all followed.
They reached a giant yawning pit with a narrow walkway around it. At one end of the walkway was a rope ladder. High above was a circle of weak light.
“What’s that light up top? That’s not bright enough to be sunlight,” Joshua said.
“It’s moonlight,” Lucinda exclaimed.
Joshua realized he’d lost all track of time down in the gloomy tunnels.
They sent up Dina and Benjamin up first. She looped one arm around his neck and both her legs around his body. With her free arm she cradled the kitten.
“When this is over, she’s your responsibility,” Joshua said as he wagged a finger at her.
She kissed the top of the kitten’s head, then gave Joshua a quick peck on his cheek.
“Don’t you let her go,” Joshua told Benjamin.
“I won’t,” Benjamin said sincerely.
He climbed with Dina on his back. He moved quickly and steadily up the ladder, but Joshua thought he was moving too slow.
We have the others. What if the twins can’t climb? Lucinda and Sophie can’t carry them. Can Heathcliff? Will Benjamin have to come down again?
But the twins surprised him. They rushed forward and scrambled up the ladder. They moved faster than Joshua had ever seen before.
Sophie was next. She’d stopped trembling. She gripped the rope firmly and pulled herself forward.
Joshua looked up to check on the others. Benjamin was nearly halfway to the top with Dina still wrapped around his neck. The twins were just below him. Sophie was slower but steady as she climbed.
We’re still not going fast enough!
Lucinda started up when they heard a bellow from the tunnel.
“Where are you?”
Lucinda hurried up the ladder. Joshua stepped towards the tunnel with his knife. Heathcliff stood beside him with his reed pole clutched like a saber. Joshua pushed him back towards the ladder.
“What about you?”
“Nevermind about me. I’ll be all right. I promise.”
Heathcliff stayed where he was.
Joshua pointed up.
“They’ll need you. Go!”
Heathcliff gritted his teeth and started up.
“You’d better be all right!” he shouted down.
Joshua turned to face whatever came out of the tunnel.
Out of the darkness came the thin wraith like figure of Hodmedod. Blood dripped from his spindly boney hands. His red eye glared at Joshua.
Joshua brought up his knife.
Hodmedod held up his stiletto.
“That’s wasn’t nice! That hurt. You want to know much it hurt?”
“Stay back,” Joshua warned.
Hodmedod took a stepped forward. His sneered.
“Or you’ll do what? Filet me?”
The assassin threw back his head and laughed heartily.
“A trout can’t stab you back.”
Joshua caught sight of something. It moved in the dark just behind Hodmedod, something as large as a bear.
The Rat King. Hodmedod doesn’t see him. Keep him talking.
Finally, Hodmedod thought. Time to put this nonsense to bed.
He moved slowly and arrogantly. He savored every step. The boy was in his power. No need to hurry things.
This one whelp had caused him more trouble than all his other targets combined. But now he was caught. He had no where to go. No more tricks.
“Actually a trout can stab you back,” Joshua said.
Was the boy trying to delay the inevitable with small talk? Hodmedod had seen that many times before.
“The spines of the fins. You can poke yourself with them and they can break off inside your fingers.”
Maybe this wasn’t small talk. Hodmedod remembered why the boy was so valuable. Somehow, Lazlo Cippolini was inside that tiny noggin of his.
Hodmedod let him babble some more. Maybe he’d let something slip.
“It’s very painful.”
“You know this how?” Hodmedod asked, genuinely curious.
The boy smiled at him.
More false bravado.
“I have no idea. Do you?”
The whelp’s taunting me. He knows how I’ve tried to figure him out. He’ll pay for that.
Hodmedod laughed back.
I’ll give you to Gorgette all right. But only after I’ve had some fun of my own.
“No, I don’t know. Though not for lack of trying.”
Hodmedod let out a guffaw. The Rat King inched closer and closer to him.
The Rat King wouldn’t to stay down. Nothing could keep him down. Not the boy’s treacherous poison, not his own pets that he had to crush with his bare hands, not this strange straw man before him. He was strength itself.
And nothing would stop him now. He’d break this puny twig man over his knee. He was strong, stronger than any foe the Rat King had faced before. But he wasn’t stronger than him.
He couldn’t be.
The Rat King sprang forward and tackled Hodmedod. The assassin spun around.
He dodged on that Rat King’s massive fist and thrust his stiletto under his arm pit. The giant still didn’t go down. Hodmedod cursed.
“Being stubborn, eh?”
Joshua ran for the ladder and climbed up. His friends were now already far ahead of him. In seconds he was up the first few rungs.
He glanced back down and saw Hodmedod stab the Rat King again.
Joshua climbed. He grabbed the next rung and pulled. Then the next and the next. His arms ached.
Hodmedod gave the Rat King one final stab to the heart. The large man toppled over with a shocked look on his face. Hodmedod had seen that look before many times. It was the face of a man convinced he was invincible suddenly discovering he was anything but.
“Now that he’s finally taken care of.”
Hodmedod looked up and saw Joshua struggle up the rope ladder. He laughed out loud. He’d over take him easily.
Hodmedod ran to the wall and looked for a spot to grip. But here was none. The wall was water slicked concrete, smooth as an egg shell. He’d have to use the ladder.
It makes no difference.
He looked up. The boy was already halfway to the top. He decided to give him ten more seconds before he started, just to make it interesting.
Hodmedod ascended the ladder as quickly as a spider up its web. He grabbed rung after rung and flew upwards almost as if he could float on air. In seconds he closed in on his quarry.
“Where are you going, Joshua Sage?”
Joshua looked down. He saw Hodmedod racing to catch him. He checked on his friends. They were far ahead of him now, almost to the patch of moonlight above. He had to keep them safe from this monster below.
He took his knife and sawed at the rope. The twine resisted the blade. Joshua sawed and sawed with desperation.
“You’ll never cut through with that thing!”
Hodmedod was only a few rungs away from his feet. He’d never out climb him. He had to cut the rope. There had to be a way.
There is, said the voice inside him.
The knife knows how to cut better than you. Just listen to it and let it guide you.
Joshua balked. This was no time for fantasy.
Hodmedod advanced another yard. One more leap and he’d have Joshua by the neck.
Now is the perfect time for fantasy. Reality doesn’t have anything good to offer!
Joshua closed his eyes. He felt the knife in his hand. He made a picture of the knife in his mind from the handle to the tip.
And the knife told him what to do.
His hand made one single swift slash and the knife went through both ropes.
Hodmedod fell into the darkness screaming.
Joshua watched the assassin fall into the dark pit below and disappear. He put his knife away and continued to climb. He reached the last rung and a dozen hands pulled him the rest of the way. They came out of a drain on a moonlit street in Rustington. They all hugged for a moment.
A boisterous street fair could be heard just a few blocks from them. Fireworks exploded overhead. A band played. People danced in the street. The cart vendors lined the street from end to end. Smells rolled over the air and into their nostrils, meats, pies, stews, soups, pastries, cakes, and candies.
They said nothing as they walked towards the sounds and smells. They looks they shared with each other said all that was needed. Finally Joshua spoke up when he noticed their newest member lagging behind a little unsure of his place.
“Benjamin, you’re welcome to come with us.”
“Thanks. Where are you going?”
“Yeah, where are we going?” Heathcliff asked.
Joshua thought about that. He had to deal with Gorgette. There were still questions. Questions that the Lazlo inside of him wouldn’t or couldn’t answer. Who had warned him back in Cippolini’s study? Who had written those letters and had helped Cipollini and his father all those years ago? He had a long road ahead of him and no clear idea how he’d do it. He didn’t know if he could even bring his friends with him. It might be far too dangerous. But for now they were safe. For now they were alive.
“For right now, we’re going fair.”
A line of people danced passed them. Joshua joined the chain of people, followed by the others. And they all danced in the streets under the night skies.