A children's book for grown-ups by Jon Evans

August 29, 2007

42. Follow the Enemy

The underworld was painfully bright. The stairs led down into a large chamber with tiled walls and concrete floors. The ceiling's fast-flickering lights reflected off the white tiles, giving Patch a headache. A line of widely spaced block-shaped metal things, from which spokes and bars protruded, stretched across one end of the chamber; beyond them, Patch saw another strip of concrete floor, and then darkness. A human sat in a tiny boxlike building at the end of the series of metal things. The air down here smelled old and strange and musty, and it was laced with Sniffer's scent.

There was plenty of room between the metal blocks. The area on the other side was a concrete strip that extended for a considerable distance to either side, but ended only a few dozen squirrel-paces beyond the blocks, at a cliff that dropped down into darkness. Another concrete platform was visible on the other side of the dark abyss that smelled of smoke and metal. Pillars were stationed at regular intervals all around this underground space, angular metal pillars that rose from the abyss and circular concrete ones along the platform. Patch didn't like having something solid between himself and the sky, not at all, but Sniffer's scent was fresh, and it led him to his left, along the platform, towards the tiled wall at which it ended. The abyss continued past the platform end, became a tunnel into darkness.

He was stopped suddenly by a horrible noise of grinding and screeching, the most awful thing Patch had ever heard. It grew louder, came closer, until his ears actually hurt. A great wind began to blow. Then lights flickered and a colossal machine emerged from the tunnel. Lightning flashed beneath its metal feet, and its screams were deafening. It was made of a dozen huge, solid-walled, shining metal cages, all linked together in a long line, and through its many windows Patch caught glimpses of a few human shapes. The machine ran on one of four sets of metal rails that ran along the base of the abyss. Patch was very glad that it shrieked past without stopping and soon disappeared into the other end of the tunnel.

He still smelled Sniffer. He also smelled rats; many, many rats. Patch hesitated. Then he followed Sniffer's scent right to the end of the platform. He walked right to the edge of the abyss and peered around the corner of the wall, down into the tunnel, and at the farthest edge of his vision, he saw the silhouette of a squirrel surrounded by rats. He heard fragments of voices: "birds…battle…slaughter…king…Ramble."

Then the squirrel stiffened, sniffed the air, and turned to look straight at Patch.

"By the moon in her stars," Sniffer said, amazed. "Patch son of Silver."

Patch winced at his own stupidity. He should have known that Sniffer's extraordinary nose would soon discover his presence. He realized he had no idea what he was going to do now that he had found Sniffer. A concrete ramp led down into the tunnel, but he certainly didn't intend to charge at Sniffer, not with all those rats beside him, rats with whom Sniffer was obviously conspiring.

Patch heard scuttling sounds from above. He looked up. Something, no, many somethings were moving on the framework of metal girders that hung high above the platform and just below the ceiling. He realized these girders acted as a sky-road for rats. Many, many rats.

Patch turned and ran – but from the other end of the platform, and from little holes in the platform wall to his right, rats were beginning to emerge, huge rats nearly as big as Patch, warping and contorting their bodies to squeeze through the small holes into which Patch could never fit. Patch heard rats moving about in the abyss to his left as well.

"Hold him!" a rat voice cried from behind Patch. A familiar rat voice. "I would speak to this squirrel before he dies."

A wall of rats formed up across the platform about two-thirds of the way back towards the metal blocks. Patch halted and looked around wildly, seeking some avenue of escape. None was apparent. A river of rats was streaming onto the platform behind from the tunnel below. Sniffer was among them. There were rats above, rats below, rats on both sides. And he recognized the rat that strutted next to Sniffer, the largest rat he had ever seen. Other rats were squinting and looking away from the lights and tiled walls, but this rat seemed unfazed by brightness.

"Patch son of Silver," said Lord Snout. "You're supposed to be hawkmeat. How is it that you're still alive?"

Patch ignored Snout and looked at Sniffer. "You led them to Jumper, didn't you? You gave them the food we all buried so we would starve. You told the hawk where to find me."

Sniffer looked very uncomfortable.

"Didn't you?" Patch demanded. His voice was brittle with rage and terror. "Tell me! Tell me, you traitor, murderer, brother to rats!"

"Patch," Sniffer said, "you must understand, everything I did was for the greater good. We couldn't go on the way we were. Certain sacrifices had to be made. And those sacrifices included lives. Necessity is a cruel and terrible thing. But it cannot be avoided."

They stared at each other in silence for a moment.

"Enough talk," Snout said. "I suppose it doesn't matter how you came to be down here. I promised you some time ago that I would eat your eyes from your skull. Now –"

Then Snout fell silent and took two sudden steps back. He was staring past Patch's shoulder.

Patch turned around just in time to see the charge of Zelina and her seven cats.

The wall of rats between Patch and the cats broke almost immediately, and suddenly the platform was a screeching, squeaking, maelstrom of rats, running panicked from the cats, scurrying past and around Patch as if he was an inanimate obstacle. For a few moments Patch couldn't move, the rats were too thick around him.

"Hold!" Snout bellowed. "In the name of the King Beneath, attack! Attack and kill them all!"

The rats began to reform around Snout just as the cats reached Patch, their mouths and claws smeared with rat blood. They didn't have time to run. Snout countercharged, Sniffer beside him, and the rat army followed.

Patch gaped at the rat nearest him, the rat running straight towards him, fangs open and glistening. For a moment he was too frozen with fear to fight.

Then Alabast leaped into the oncoming wave of rats. The big white cat raked his claws across the eyes of the rat coming at Patch, while biting another and knocking two more off their feet with his pale and massive body, and the battle turned into a yowling, screaming melee, a chaos of blood and fangs. Patch howled too, with growing fury as much as fear, and when another rat was thrust towards Patch by the current of rat-flesh behind him, Patch lunged forward and bit its throat. His mouth filled with sour blood and Patch immediately let go and spit it out. The rat screeched with pain and fled.

Through the chaos Patch saw Sniffer not far away, and Patch felt his rage blossom within him like a flower, expand into an awful and terrible thing like a burning sun in his heart. He charged through the sea of squalling rats towards the squirrel that had once been his friend. He was close, so close, he could see Sniffer's shocked and frightened eyes, and Patch opened his mouth to bite and charged faster –

Something white-hot burned into Patch's left hindleg. He screamed and turned to see Snout's yellow fangs sunk deep into Patch's flesh. Then Alabast loomed above them, and Snout released Patch and fled from the big white cat. The rat army followed their leader and pulled back from the battle. But they soon reformed a short distance away.

A dozen rat corpses lay on the floor, and a dozen more who still lived but could not move twitched in agony, and Patch and all the cats still stood. But there were still teeming masses of rats on either side, and all the cats were bleeding, most from multiple wounds. It was apparent that Patch and the cats could never win this battle, nor fight their way back outside before being overrun.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

nnnnnghn! Yay, that was such a cool chapter!! Awesome battle, so much fun to read. :D And i'm very happy to be up to date again, i've been missing this story while i've been away from my 'puter. :D

can't wait to find out what happens next!! tactical retreat, anyone?

August 30, 2007 at 1:30 AM  

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Jon Evans is the award-winning author of the thrillers Invisible Armies, Dark Places (aka Trail of the Dead), and The Blood Price. See his web site rezendi.com.

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