31 July 2009

A Ratcatcher's Tale Part 2

Rolf ventures further into the darkness

A Ratcatcher’s Tale– Part 2By Graham McNeill (read part 1)

     THE SHADOWS JERKING on the wall moved further down the tunnel, and Rolf heard what sounded like muffled screaming, like someone trying to shout with a gag in their mouth. Rolf had lived in Altdorf long enough to know that sound. Had footpads set upon Ol’ Nenny? That seemed unlikely, as no-one in their right mind would think a ratcatcher had anything worth stealing.

     He moved gingerly down the tunnel, Mandred keeping pace with him and sniffing at the filthy ground with agitated snuffles. Rolf dropped to one knee and put his hand on Mandred’s collar as the shadows halted. Hugging the tunnel wall, Rolf eased forward to get a better look at his quarry.

     Two hooded figures in tattered, filthy robes struggled to drag a third figure behind them, moving with hurried, jerky motions. Hunched over, they talked in rapid, high-pitched chitters. One held a strange, orb-shaped lantern – the source of the green glow – while the other carried what looked like an elaborately embellished Hochland longrifle.

     After a rapid exchange of squeaks and hisses, they set off once again, and Rolf had to use every ounce of his considerable skill in moving silently to keep up as his pursuit took him deeper into the warren of tunnels. The strange orb-lantern bathed the tunnel in an oddly unsettling glow, the water throwing back strange reflections onto the wall. The rippling shapes seemed to form leering mouths, and Rolf made the sign of the hammer to ward off the evil eye.

     At last the shadows stopped, and Rolf pressed his back to the damp stonework. He heard the sound of an iron grating being opened, and the hooded figures dragged their prisoner into a smaller side tunnel. The light went with them, and Rolf let out a relieved breath.

     He waited for a while before unhooding his lantern, its warm glow reassuring in its normalcy. Moving along the tunnel towards the opened grate, Rolf lifted the lantern to the arch’s keystone, looking for the mason’s mark. He ran his fingers over the stone, feeling a circle with three vertical cuts in its bottom right segment, bisected by a horizontal cut with an arrowhead on the right.

     ‘Eastern tunnels, third circle, second quarter,’ whispered Rolf. ‘We’re under the grain houses of Unterzeit, Mandred.’

     The terrier looked up at him, its back stiff and its hackles raised. Mandred had smelled rats and wanted to kill them. Rolf patted the mangy dog as he knelt before the grate and looked along its darkened length. Every instinct told him to turn back. He was alone in the sewers, armed only with a skinning knife and some caltrops. Not exactly a Reiksguard Knight or a shining hero like the ones in Detlef Sierck’s plays.

     For all that Rolf was a lowly ratcatcher, a man most quality folk would look down on, he prided himself on trying to do the right thing where he could. Not easy in a city like Altdorf, but a man did what he had to do to survive. He remembered Hansi, the ratcatcher from Wolfenburg who’d discovered that pleasure cult in the sewers under the docks some years ago. Hansi had brought Sergeant Mueller and twenty watchmen back with him, and they had dragged the screaming cultist to the surface, where they were strung up outside the Gallows Head tavern.

     Hansi had earned himself a couple of gold coins for his trouble and the prospect of some easy cash was a greater lure than the notion of a ratters’ fraternity. Rolf bent down and made his way along the tunnel, keeping his eyes peeled for any sign of the unsettling green glow or anyone lying in wait.

     The base of the tunnel was slimy and an inch of stagnant, stinking water soaked his thin boots. He saw prints in the slime, elongated like a man’s bare foot, but with what looked like claws on the toes. Rolf was reminded of the far-fetched tales of sewermen who claimed to have seen monsters in the tunnels; monsters with the faces of rats, but who walked like men. He put such nonsense from his mind as he saw faint light spilling into the tunnel. As he made his way to the source of the light, Rolf saw the brickwork ahead had collapsed inward; the base of the tunnel filled with crumbled mortar and bloodstained bricks.

     Rolf carefully eased his head around the hole in the tunnel, seeing a large chamber filled with workbenches and shadowed cages. There were things inside the cages, but the light was too dim to make out what they were. Animals? People? The workbenches were crowded with all manner of strange and hideous artefacts. Brass rods, drills, enormous shears, brightly coloured placards, swirling globes of greenish yellow fluids and jars of staring eyeballs.‘What is this place?’ he wondered aloud. ‘It’s a wizard’s laboratory or somesuch. I think we’re in over our heads, Mandred.’

     Hearing its name, the terrier bounded into the room, circling the nearest cage and making wheezing, soundless barks as he bared his yellowed teeth. Rolf beckoned Mandred to return, but the dog was having none of it, silently growling at a lumpen shadow in the cage. Rolf saw the shape move, heavy and gradual like a slowly waking farm animal. As game as Mandred was, he wasn’t brave enough to squeeze through the bars to get at whatever was in the cage.

     ‘Damn it, Mandred, this is a job for the watch, not us!’ hissed Rolf, ducking through the hole in the brickwork to fetch his dog. The air inside the chamber stank of burned meat and hot iron, a place of death and despair. Mandred scampered farther into the chamber, sniffing at the ground, which Rolf now saw was streaked and spattered with blood.

     An ill-fitting door of warped planks was wedged in a hole in the far wall, just beyond a wide slab-like table. Moving closer, Rolf saw it was caked with brownish stains and fitted with thick leather straps. It looked like a butcher’s block or barber surgeon’s table, but it was surely too large for that.

     Mandred circled the table with angry snarls, and Rolf took a moment to study the objects strewn across the workbenches. Numerous coloured bone cubes, decorated with strange symbols – hourglasses, skulls, comets and the like – were scattered alongside numerous sheets of paper covered in tightly-wound script. The longrifle lay on the bench too, its workings far more complex than any blackpowder weapon he had ever seen.

     ‘Come on, damn you,’ hissed Rolf, scooping up his dog. The terrier struggled in his grasp, but Rolf was in no mood to hang around this place of death. He turned and made his way back to the hole in the wall when he heard the creak of warped wood scraping on stone.

     He looked over his shoulder in terror as the door to the chamber began to open.


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