Thunder cracks up in the sky, a heavy downpour cascading down over the world in what may be the first real, strong rain in weeks. Water runs rampant, leaking down every storm drain and pipe of the world tree city into the underground.
The end of a thick, braided rope falls down the shaft, uncoiling as it descends into the darkness below the streets. Moments later, a hissing like that of a warning viper fills the air as gloved hands slide down the rope and into the hole. One after the other, black-clad bodies drop down into the sewers, the thick soles of black boots striking the damp stones below as they make contact with the world below.
“Clear,” says One, the light projected out from the barrel of his trench gun projecting around the dark tunnel. Water from the river and lake runs here below the city in man-made tunnels, used to carry away raw wastewater from the people and industries above. Given the nature of the industries, ranging from alchemical laboratories to off-products from metalworking, the water down here is far more than toxic. Sewage and industrial byproducts mix, flowing down the wide channel toward a central processing chamber before being expelled from the mesa through a massive pipe that leads outside of the safe zone inside the mesa.
The lead fairy holds his gun at the ready, taking cautious, meticulous steps forward with one foot after the other as the other five members of his team slide down the rope behind him. Someone sniffles loudly behind him. Six. The ‘medicine’ gives her the sniffles, and they never seem to leave her. The more she takes, the more her nose runs.
The trench gun is a new design. While the rifles and pistols they have been equipped with thus far serve their purpose extremely well, they have some weaknesses. Suffering from poor aiming abilities, large clusters of Tango, close contact situations — such things are the clear weakness of the bolt action longarm rifles they’ve been equipped with thus far. This new experimental weapon, instead of firing a single bullet, fires a pellet-loaded shell that ruptures and releases its contents out into a wide arcing spray over a significant distance. It is hardly an accurate weapon at long distances, but at close to medium distances, it’s impossible to miss a single thing, given the nature of the metal spray it releases. It’s the ideal close-quarters firearm.
— Something scratches in the distance. He turns his aim there immediately.
Attached to the barrel is a new-fashioned lantern, another one of Pilot’s designs. Using a mixture of ordinary quartz from the mines that was strongly polished into a lens, together with a glowing alchemical mixture stored inside the hollowed-out mineral, a beam of light can be projected outward in the aimed direction. Through use a metal housing, the light can be covered or opened as desired.
There’s nothing there where the light falls. Just more sewer.
Two fairies walk on either side of him, each covering one direction as he aims back ahead of them. The remaining three cover the rear, with number Five – their logistics and communications member — marking their path with chalk as they go. A large antenna prods out from behind her back. She's wearing a square, metal-clad radio pack. It's quite a hefty construct for a fairy to lug around, but nobody goes anywhere without one. It's hard to say if it will work down here, but it's better to be safe than sorry.
One shines the light up toward a plaque, marking their current position. “Primary section Three-B,” he reads off of the metal plate, holding up a single fist. The group stops. “Five?” asks the leader, eyeing the many passages.
“Left,” replies Five. “Fifty meters. Then right. Section Three-A is that way. Then another fifty meters to Two-C.”
The squad moves in tactical unison, with water rushing around them as the storm drains work in full force. The sound of their going is muffled by the raging of the natural world as it flushes its body out, purging all of the befoulment out through countless pipes and channels. The construction of this ‘sewer network’ in the time they had was an incredible feat, but Pilot set it as a priority for the best teams of artisan masons and metallurgists, even before people had houses to sleep in. It’s an impressive construct, to say the least.
“Hate being underground,” mutters a voice, followed by a sniff. “Nowhere to fly to,” begrudges Six, hoisting her machine gun up and watching the area with twitchy eyes. Each of them has a role to play in the squad. Six is their heavy ordinances specialist, carrying a modified Kerzenzünder shrunk down into a mobile, fairy-sized package. It feeds into her backpack, which is loaded with a heavy ammunition canister that sits next to some hexogen explosive charges. The fairy-guns use special types of ammunition of a much smaller caliber than the normal human rifles, for the most part. There’s no other way to arm them reliably. However, given their magical affinity, these smaller rounds do not lose much impact as fairy projectiles are augmented significantly by their own innate magic, resulting in the destructive force of the bullet being drawn not from the physical impact and structure of the bullet itself but rather from the empowering forces enveloping it. Her wings twitch audibly, buzzing over the roaring drone of water. “- FUCK!” shouts the fairy suddenly, her light shooting toward a corner across the channel.
The others look at her, aiming their guns at… nothing. “…Thought I saw something…” mutters Six, rubbing her face as her nose keeps leaking as five pairs of eyes turn her way.
Four pushes her with her shoulder. He’s the team’s medic. “Get off the pills,” he says. “They're making you sick.”
“Quiet. Move,” orders One, his eyes scanning the distance, looking at the next plaque, marking their position in the underground labyrinth. He nods his head, the others following him as they move step by step deeper into the underground, walking alongside the stormwater.
Now and then, something sounds like it scurries nearby, but nothing is ever caught in the rays of light shining toward the dark corners from which these noises are perceived to come.
They cross over a bridge, following one channel after the other, moving deeper and deeper into the underground. Amethyst lights flash around the wet brickwork, never finding anything to land on except dripping walls. Six mutters about seeing something that they don’t again, getting shushed by Four again, who reluctantly shoves a blister package with a single amphetamine pill into her hands so that she'll calm down.
One moves. He hates being underground, too. All fairies do. Fairies are, by nature, eager to be in open places with easy ways in or out. They like to live in trees and on high cliff faces, places where they can hide and escape from both predation and cruel people. But in days such as these, old instincts must be suppressed. Black leather must be clad around feet that would rather touch forest soil, and eyes must be narrowed down dark tunnels instead of staring with childlike joy toward the blue sky. Being in a place like this makes him paranoid. He feels like a bird moving through a snake’s den.
They turn, moving around one more passage, a soft purple light carrying across brickwork that is tinged — the dull gray taking on an almost green hue, which then mixes in with the shine of the flashlights. The barrel of his gun freezes, locking onto a silhouette that stands there not far away — a man. He’s facing the wall, his hands trying but failing to scratch into the brickwork.
“Freeze!” barks One, the other fairies behind him spreading out, all of them aiming his way. The large human man stops where he stands, his hands and fingers pressed against the wall, as he turns his head to look at them.
His face looks off, grotesque, and pale. But he matches the description. This is their man. This is the missing stonemason, Winter — their suspect.
“Get on the ground, Winter!” yells the fairy, stepping forward and holding the trench gun aimed at the elven man’s strangely heaving chest that rises in and out with labored breaths, as if he had forgotten and wrongly relearned the art of inhalation. He stares, having not blinked once, scrunching his face and nose together, pursing his lips as he makes a face like a man mimicking a rodent.
— The crack of a shot of gunfire fills the air as someone screams. One turns his head with a jolt toward the noise, looking at a silhouette that is wrapped up in a writhing mass that has pressed itself out of a pipe, like an excreted coagulation. Two drops his gun, his hands flailing to fight against the strange tide of living water that has washed over him — rats. Hundreds, thousands of rats have poured out of a pipe next to the fairy and covered him from head to toe. Screams fill the air, with the others firing their guns as the tide spans out from the lost fairy, spreading immediately in all directions like the stormwater they splash into. A shadow bears down over One, who turns back forward just in time, pulling on the trigger of the trench gun. A loud thunder echoes down the tunnels, hammering down against the squeaking voices of an endless wave of rats. The body of the mason who had lunged toward him, Winter, is sent propelled back from the impact of the shot. The human’s chest is peppered from top to bottom with pellets.
“RATS!” yells Six. “I TOLD YOU I SAW SOMETHING!” she yells, bearing down with her weapon onto the swarm that charges against the walls like a wave of uncontrolled water. She pulls down on the trigger of the light machine gun, flashes of illumination painting her white mask vividly orange again and again as a spray of bullets is propelled outward, ripping through the swarm. The tunnel flashes in and out as the weak light of their lanterns is overpowered by the vivid shine of chaotic gunfire. The fairies recollect, reforming and firing their guns in all directions.
“MOVE!” barks One, reaching back and hoisting Three, who had fallen, up onto his feet. He runs, reaching into his belt and pulling out a grenade. The fairy team rises into the air, not having anywhere to fly but being faster on their wings than on their feet now that stealth is out of the question. Five silhouettes rise up, shooting down the tunnel together in flight as the walls of the passages themselves seem to pulsate in and out, compressing like bowels expelling their contents — rats — hundreds of thousands of rats move and writhe as they surge after them. Bodies upon bodies, crushing those lowest, shriek and squeak and scamper with their clawed feet and matted, sewer-soaked fur as they pursue the intruders into the underground. A literal wave of rats pours out from behind them, from the tunnels to the left and the right.
The grenade rattles as One drops it, looking back at the body of Winter that it lands next to. The man twitches and lifts his head for a moment to stare his way before he is crushed by the mass of rodents.
— A rat falls out of the side of his head.
The grenade explodes, and the tunnel erupts into wildfire as the flammable gases that fill the sewer immediately ignite, sending a massive fireball out in all directions, the violent flames burning along the length of the channel. “What the hell?!” yells Six over the roar, clutching her mask as they round a corner, pulling into a dry niche as the blast wave erupts past them as it burns along the flammable channel of tainted water. “RATS! Did you see that?!” she screams, grabbing Five and shaking her. Five pushes her off. “THEY FUCKING ATE TWO!” shouts Six, turning toward One and the rest of them. “We need to get out of here!”
— The back of a hand strikes itself against the forehead of her mask, knocking it halfway off of her face.
“Negative!” barks One, shoving her away again and pulling fresh shells for his trench gun out of his bandoleer. “We’ve confirmed Winter’s location,” he explains. “But Winter isn’t our problem anymore,” explains the fairy. “The situation has changed," he says, leaning against the wall toward the corner. "We need to deal with this.”
“Sir!” calls Five. “Permission to leave and inform the council and guard?” asks the fairy, saluting. “They need to know the city has been infiltrated.” She strikes the radio pack on her shoulder. It’s clearly soaked in sewer water, with the electronic contents having been destroyed.
One looks at her for a second, nodding. Five is their fastest flyer. “Granted. Get back here asap!” he orders, pointing. Five salutes, rising back up into the air. “We’re still moving to the original target,” explains One, pointing up at a plaque marking their location. “This many rats need to have a nest. Besides,” says the fairy, loading a red shell into his trench gun and closing the breech. “We still have eleven other missing people we need to find.”
“I think it’s safe to say,” starts Four, the team medic, looking over Three’s arm, which has a light burn. “That we aren’t going to find anyone alive down here anymore,” finishes the fairy, looking up toward One. "This many rats isn't natural," he explains. "This reeks of an invasion."
Five rises into the air, leaving her defective radio pack down on the ground to fly faster.
“This isn’t a rescue mission anymore,” says One dryly. “Winter wasn’t alive anymore. The rats took over his body,” explains the fairy, stepping forward to peek back around the corner now that the eruption has settled down into a streak of relatively calm fire that burns along the surface of the flammable channel. Smoke and toxic fumes rise up toward the rounded ceiling of the tunnels, flowing up toward the city above. “Assume everyone is Tango,” orders the fairy.
“Sir?” asks Four, knowing the implication but asking for confirmation. He finishes wrapping the sterile bandage around Three's forearm, who flexes his fingers, looking toward One as well.
“Shoot first; assume all hostages are combatants,” confirms One. “That’s an order. Let’s g-” he starts.
— The water next to them erupts like a geyser, sewage splashing everywhere as a black, writhing mass erupts from below the surface. Hundreds of thousands of unusually clever rats dove under the water to hide from the explosion a moment ago. They rise out like a clawed hand through the fire, crashing down over Five, who had just begun to fly across the channel, ripping her down into the water before she has a chance to react. “MOVE! GO!” yells One as thousands of rats begin to leak out of the pipes, flowing out together with storm water — perhaps even more abundantly than it.
The new dragon’s breath shell that One had loaded into his trench gun bursts as he fires it into the mass as the four remaining fairies divert. An arc of red fire blasts into the mess of bodies and scampering claws, sending burning rats screaming and running in all directions, setting each other on fire in the process. But only more and more come to take their place, the tunnels below the world tree city filled with animal noises and gunfire as the remaining four of them fly, two shooting back behind them and two shooting straight ahead, never having a moment without a mass of targets visible.
Rats are everywhere. He didn't have them pack enough ammunition for this many targets.