The Thing in the Sewers (Novel Excerpt)

This is the second excerpt from my upcoming novel tentatively titled “Elder Rites” which was begun on November 1st, 2020 for National Novel Writing Month and is intended to be the first volume of an as yet unnamed dark fantasy series set in a world of myth and magic which now finds itself on the brink of a bizarre apocalypse.

Fink slipped through the shadows, as stealthily as any fey. Armoured only with faded brown leather bracers and greaves, and a weathered, bloodstained hide cuirass bound tightly across their chest, the androgynous sneak-thief moved silently, barefoot, with sharp eyes and ears in the near pitch darkness. The tunnels beneath the city were not devoid of life—or for that matter, unlife. Was that the right word? Perhaps “undead” was better. The stuff of fairy tales, and yet here it was, rotting, yet walking the earth. They’d not seen anything like it in all the twenty years or so they’d been alive. It was a nightmare.

“’Cept it’s real, Fink,” the rogue whispered aloud. They’d been so often alone over the past few weeks they’d taken to talking to themself. “Shhh… what was that?”

Fink stopped short and stood perfectly still. Up ahead they could just barely discern with their finely tuned senses an end to the tunnel, where it appeared to open out into a larger space. The sound they had heard was perhaps just a dripping of water or the faint scuffle of a mouse or rat, but it could have easily been something else. There was no haste. Nothing was chasing them. They could afford to wait and listen before moving on.

The thief wore a black cloth mask that covered their nose and mouth. Not only had this once been useful for the purposes of obscuring their identity and making it harder for city officials and their patrols to pin any crimes on them, like the hood they wore drawn up over their head, obscuring the top half of their face in shadow, in these strange times it perhaps also served as an added protection against the undead. After all, many of the plague doctors who had come to the city in response to the outbreak had at first surmised that the affliction that was causing the living to sicken and die only to rise again as soulless walking corpses was in fact airborne. Fink no longer believed that, but continued to wear the mask just in case.

Nervous fingers fondled the handle of their favourite dagger. They also had a hunting knife, a boot knife (hidden in one of their greaves since they weren’t wearing boots at the moment), and a fair amount of throwing knives. But now they wished they had a light crossbow as well. It wasn’t always possible to retrieve throwing knives when one used them on the undead; in fact it was more often not.

That was the concern when it came to the undead: having enough ammunition. Not only did the animated corpses tend to multiply as they swept across the city by adding those they killed to their number, but you also didn’t want them to get too close, lest they infect you. Fink wasn’t exactly sure how they truly infected the living—but it seemed to be by physical contact, which usually involved the drawing of the blood of the living victim. Even the smallest of wounds had proved fatal with every one of their former companions.

Of course, when it came to retrieving spent ammunition, the same would be true of crossbow bolts. But those at least were less expensive, so Fink would’ve had a lot more of them to waste. In fact they had already amassed sixteen of the spent bolts of others who had tried to fight off the hordes of undead, found here and there throughout the city’s surface streets. But without the bow to shoot them these were pretty much useless, and once Fink had retreated into the tunnels beneath the city, there was virtually no chance of acquiring one.

Fink didn’t know who built the tunnels and they weren’t sure if there was anyone alive who did—at least not the oldest parts of the system; the deepest parts, where they found themself now. They supposed they must have originally been used as sewer systems; an intricate maze of aqueducts, pipes, and tunnels designed to transport waste to some deep chasm which they had no intention of stumbling upon today or any other day. They supposed they would be able to smell this unsavoury reservoir long before then, but one could never be too careful. If it was ancient enough it might not reek of anything foul and yet prove deadly nonetheless—for example, if they were to unwittingly fall into it. Fink wasn’t a bad swimmer, but there would likely be more than just water to deal with. Think quicksand or tar pits.

“No, don’t think of that,” they muttered to themself. “Just watch your footing, fool.”

As Fink had learned fairly early on, fighting the undead is wearying. Not just physically—or even mentally. It’s soul-wearying. You feel it in your limbs, you feel it in your head, but mostly, you feel it in your heart. Your spirit wanes. Your morale begins to break down. You start to develop a fuck-it-all attitude. Part of you wants to lie down and die. But then you know you’ll just become one of them. So you keep going, almost impossibly, only to find that your brain can’t always catch up with your feet. You’re prone to making mistakes, any one of which might prove fatal.

The upper tunnels had been less of an unknown than these lower ones, as the thief had managed to find a map in an abandoned office in the city’s municipal centre. It was locked up tight in order to keep it safe from any of a number of Thieves’ Guilds that might’ve made good use of it, but without any living guards left to actively oppose them Fink had found it easy enough to get past not only the mundane but even magical wards that had been implemented long ago by the City Watch. Then it was just a matter of getting out again, since by the time they’d looted the place the undead had somehow sensed—perhaps smelled—the living mortal’s presence and had descended upon the partially ruined building in search of this fresh meat.

Fink shuddered to think of it now. But satisfied of their relative safety they took themselves to one corner of the vast chamber, pulled their breeches down, and made water.

A spider crawled up the wall at eye-level, not such a loathsome beastie to one who had seen far worse things, and even a bit comforting to behold. Just another reminder that there was still some life left in this world, no matter how tiny or seemingly insignificant.

Fink pulled their breeches back up and headed down the west portal, eager to smell fresh air again, and above all, the sea. It wasn’t until they got to the end of the tunnel that they realised it had also been leading downwards. The incline had been so slight, and their senses so focused on other things, in addition to their mind wandering a bit, that they hadn’t noticed that. But now at the edge of an ancient stone staircase that plunged into darkness, it occurred to them that they were about to enter a third, even deeper level of this benighted dungeon.

With a whispered word and a clap of their hands, a ball of light appeared in the air before them, illuminating the cracked and mildewed roundish walls of the tunnel, the slightly crumbling dusty staircase before them, and not much else. If they sent the globe of light down the steps into that black abyss perhaps they could see more, but they were cautious about doing such a thing since they had no idea what might be lurking below.

There was nothing to be done but proceed carefully down the stairs, keeping the globe before them at a short distance—arm’s length, perhaps, or double that. But no more.

The staircase seemed to descend endlessly as they made their way down it, slowly, painstakingly, wary of traps or other unknowns. The ceiling arching overhead was covered with some sort of translucent slime. There was, however, a notable absence of cobwebs. It reminded them of the recurring dream they’d had every night in the weeks prior to the rise of the undead.

The dream was always the same, with little variation. First there were the strange voices crying out in the whispering darkness… they would think these were children at first, then perhaps grown women, then perhaps… something else. Something not human. An eldritch wailing in the void.

Then Fink walked down dark windowless corridors, clad only in a linen under-tunic. The stone floors felt cold and damp beneath their naked feet. A single candle they held in one hand was their only source of illumination, and it was burning down far too quickly. Hot wax flowed over their hand but they paid it no heed.

Large cobwebs billowed between the walls and ceilings in this maze of a castle, they could see by that flickering amber glow. But aside from the voices, of any other form of life besides themselves there was no trace.

Still unaware that they were dreaming, they wondered briefly if the voices were only in their head. Then they invariably woke up.

What did it all mean? No one could tell them then, and there was no one left to tell them now, dream-sayer or otherwise. But in any case they had no time to think of that at the moment. They were slowly becoming aware of a growing sound coming from behind them; a faint scurrying sound, and beyond that a kind of squelching noise almost like someone greasing a wheel, only much louder. They turned their head to look over one shoulder into the darkness they had just emerged from into this dim circle of bluish-white softly glowing magical light they had created using what little bit of arcane spell-casting they’d been able to pick up during their journeys with Mugwort and Toadstool’s Travelling Carnival, and felt a chill run down their spine as they peered back up into the hellish abyss of that vast unknown they had only just come from.

It was then that a horde of rats came pouring out of that darkness toward them, fleeing some nameless horror. Frozen in fear, Fink didn’t so much as flinch as the frantic rodents scurried past them, even as a few scrambled over their bare feet in blind terror.

Well, at least I’m headed in the right direction, the thief thought. After all, one wouldn’t want to be going toward whatever them rats are fleeing from.

Now as the squelching sound grew louder, Fink could glimpse its apparent origin; a greyish wall of slime so large that its every side touched and slid along the walls, ceiling, and stairs of the downward slanting tunnel. Tendrils reached out from its front—like tentacles or the antennae of insects, they seemed to be navigating the blob’s way through the darkness of that horrid dungeon. Fink didn’t know what sense they had to detect them there, but they understood that those twitching feelers somehow knew they were there, just below and ahead of them, in the direction they were not-so-blindly groping.

A lump formed in Fink’s throat, which only served to remind them of the thing that now squeezed through the tunnel behind in pursuit of them, and they were filled with revulsion. They could not stop to throw up, so they did so in the midst of running down the stairs. Vomit spewed forth and upwards and immediately fell down and back upon the hide cuirass they wore, and in their head they swore and swore, and then threw up some more.

Now above the smell of their own vomit Fink noticed a slight whiff of decay drifting up from below, and thought of their earlier fear of happening upon some vast cesspit, and perhaps even falling into it. But this was more akin to the smell of ancient skeletons or mummies. The decay of the tomb, but not the reek of the recently dead—and certainly not of the undead, which smelled about the same only fouler.

Then at last the thief could see ground—an ancient stonework flooring the colour of sand, not unlike the shade of their own skin. As they neared the bottom of the staircase, the scent of decay grew stronger, almost stifling. This was a pit into which fresh air and sunlight had never deigned to venture.

As Fink reached the bottom of the staircase they could see before them a vast vaulted chamber, all built with the same ancient sandstone as the floor itself. There were alcoves built into the walls on either side, like the cells of a honeycomb. They could tell by the remnants of broken pieces of sarcophagi that these once held corpses. These were catacombs for the dead. A vast network of tombs. The thief had entered the tunnels below the city in order to escape the undead, and now they found themself here in a literal deathtrap. They could see no movement up ahead, even given the considerable range of the circle of light the magical globe cast, but doubtless this underground cache was now teeming with ancient corpses animated by whatever had brought the dead back to life on the surface.

And now they were faced with an impossible choice: turn back and face the eldritch horror behind, or go forth and likely get devoured by the living dead before finding any way back to the surface. At least when it came to the latter they knew just what it was they were dealing with. Well, more or less. Without another thought, they pressed on.

The corridor was narrower than Fink would’ve liked, but in one way it served them, giving them a slight advantage against the many animated corpses that were soon vying with each other for a front row seat at the banquet. Had these the sense to come at them single file, or even two or three abreast, the mortal might’ve had a harder time of it. But as it was, the undead’s awkward scramble to climb over or crawl under or squeeze past each other was making it difficult if not impossible for any of them to bite or scratch their would-be prey, and needless to say that was a very good thing, because in Fink’s experience it only took a single bite or scratch to infect the living.

The downside of all this, however, was that it was taking a lot longer than it should have for Fink to move ahead and away from the aberration that was slowly—and yet all too quickly—slithering its way toward them in the dank darkness of the catacombs. They dared not look over their shoulder to ascertain how close it had already gotten lest they let down their guard just long enough to sustain a life-stealing wound, but they could hear the awful sound it made growing louder and louder and knew that all too soon it would engulf them and the horde of undead right along with them.

Fink couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to be taken into that wall of slime, surrounded by it, subsumed by it, thence to be (as they supposed) slowly digested by it. Perhaps mercifully before that happened they would be smothered to death by it—drowned in it—for there could be no air within its depths, could there? And yet to swallow, to breathe in, to have one’s lungs filled with that—horrid—loathsome—substance…

Made frantic by these panic-inducing thoughts, Fink hacked and stabbed and kicked more vehemently, recklessly even, several times coming within a hair’s breadth of getting grabbed or scratched or bitten by the mindless animated corpses. But they were grateful these undead specimens were so ancient, since time had made their bones dry and brittle. Unlike the fresher sort, it didn’t take much to put them out of commission. Also, unlike the surface of the world, down here there was bound to be a finite number of the undead to encounter. There were no living mortals below to be turned other than Fink themself, and thus no new recruits to be added to this army of the dead.

When at last the last corpse fell beneath their blade, Fink had only moments to spare. Silently praying to whatever gods there were that there were no more animated corpses up ahead, they plunged into the pitch darkness with all speed away from the oncoming gelatinous cube, escaping its greedy clutches so narrowly they swore they could feel the tickle of those tentacular feelers brush against the heels of their bare feet.

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

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