By this time James had recovered. His gun was also trained on the group ahead of them, but through his earpiece he thought he heard something behind them. He got halfway turned around before he felt something big, wet, and hairy engulf his head and slam him into the side of the pipe. He tried to cry out, to warn Dutch, but the hulking were-rat was too fast, and he went down in a crumpled heap.
His vision went dark for a moment, then cleared and he saw the massive thing swing its fist down and catch Dutch in the side. He was nearly put into the concrete, and James saw cracks radiate out from where he’d hit. His head was swimming, but he brought his gun up and fired into the things back.
The giant roared in pain, its eyes shining red in the darkness of the sewers. As it turned to face him, Dutch slid to the floor, bringing up his own gun. The two agents fired in unison, filling the pipe with thunder. The were-rat turned back to Dutch —figuring in its tiny mind that it’d have a better chance to take down the closer target—and kicked him square in the gut.
Dutch gasped as the wind was driven out of him, and grimaced as he heard cracking in his chest. That’s definitely a rib, he thought.
James was back on his feet, ignoring the blood running down the side of his face, and emptied his magazine into the monstrosity. It screamed as the bullets tore into its back, then sagged, seeming defeated. The younger man wasn’t about to give it time to get back up, and reloaded in record time. He took aim again, firing until chunks of flesh began to fly, and the interior of the pipe was spattered in gore. He hadn’t realized it, but he’d been screaming. The giant were-rat fell forward, nothing more than a mound of dead meat. James, however, wanted to be sure. He walked over to it and fired into the back of its head, making certain that it would not be troubling them again.
Dutch stood, breathing heavily, and changed the magazine in his weapon. He felt the place where the monster had kicked him, and it was tender. His breath hitched as he probed. I’ll be feeling that in the morning.
James looked over at him. “Y’all right, boss?”
“I’ll be fine, nothing I haven’t had before. How about you?” He motioned to the cuts on James’s head, bleeding profusely.
James touched his head, wincing when his fingers found the wounds. “I’ll be fine. Let’s just get out of here before my head gets infected.”
“Right.” He tapped his earpiece. “Michael? We found some rats.”
“Did they have the kid?” their tech operator asked.
“Nah, not these. But now we know they do. Idiots admitted as much.”
“Well keep going, Dutch! We don’t have a lot of time! The cops are gonna be all over that area soon!”
“We’re moving, we’re moving! We’re also fine, by the way.” He cut the connection and they trudged off again, making steady progress.
They didn’t run into any more raiding parties, but eventually they began to hear loud chittering, and the padding of many paws. They regarded each other, nodded, and emerged from the pipe into a giant cavern strung with walkways and makeshift houses. It must’ve been a hundred yards around, and it was full of ratmen.
“Dutch…” James began haltingly, “I don’t think we brought enough bullets for this…”
“Yeah, me neither, kid,” Dutch agreed. “But we’re not backing out now. Follow my lead.”
He stepped down onto the wooden walkway leading from the pipe into the town proper. He could see a guard up ahead leaning against the first of the houses. It wasn’t paying attention and seemed to be dozing. Dutch drew his Bowie knife and threw it overhand. It arced end over end, taking the vermide in the neck. Its paws grasped at its throat, but it couldn’t scream, only gurgle as its lifeblood spilled on the planks. Dutch retrieved his knife, wiping the vile fluid on the creature’s coat, and rolled the body off the walkway into the darkness below. He turned back to James, who was staring at him in awe.
“What?” Dutch asked.
“You gotta teach me that move.”
“It’s all about practice, kid. I’ll teach you some time, but for right now, we need to get into and out of this rat city without being seen. So follow my lead, and keep quiet.”
“Right. Let’s do this, boss.”
They crept through the town, Dutch dispatching two more wandering guards with his knife, until they made it near the center of the cavern. They stopped and crowded into an alley as a group passed them, apparently heading to the large building where all the thoroughfares met. It looked to be a temple of some kind. They had arrived just in time for the ceremony.
“This is bad,” Dutch said, rubbing his stubble. “I was hoping we’d get here before this. Now we’re really up against the clock.”
“I don’t get it,” James said. “What is that place?”
“A church. But these rats ain’t good little Christians like you and me, James. They got their own dirty little religion, and it ain’t a loving one. They’re gonna turn that kid into another one of those big meatheads like the one we took down on the way here. We gotta get in there. Fast.”
They looked around. James noticed a ladder leaned up against the side of the building. He patted Dutch’s shoulder and pointed. Dutch nodded. They glanced around to make sure that they wouldn’t be observed and hoofed it over to the ladder. Up they climbed, Dutch ignoring the pain in his chest. He didn’t have time to worry about that now.
They topped the ladder and found themselves on a walkway or balcony that ringed the derelict and ramshackle cathedral, with openings every few feet to the interior. They found one of the more shadowy apertures and crept inside. Below them was a gathering of vermide larger than any they’d been led to believe existed in this part of the world. There had to be at least 70 of them packed into the church, and James boggled. Thankfully the chittering and scuffling was loud enough to cover their movements. Their earpieces allowed them to communicate in whispers and still be heard.
“What’s the plan here, boss?” James asked, sure that they were dead. He looked around the cathedral, noting the statue made out of garbage in the shape of a giant rat that filled one end of the room. In front of this was an altar on a raised dais. A vermide in flowing robes and a conical hat stood over this, practically drooling over the child laid on the altar. It was still wrapped in its blanket, dirtied from the sewers, but otherwise looking unharmed.
Dutch thought fast. “Okay, gimme some of your mags. I’m more injured than you, so you have to be the fast one, here. Besides, we don’t wanna deafen the kid. Now, here’s what we’ll do. We’re gonna creep over there,” he pointed to where the platform extended above the altar. “The jump to the altar doesn’t seem much more than ten feet or so. We’ll go together. I’ll land right behind the priest rat, or whatever he is, and put iron to his head. Don’t know if they respect hostages, but someone important like that might be worth more than your average rat. You jump with me and grab the baby. We’ll make our way to the door and then run for it. You remember the way we came. Take the kid and get out. I’ll be right behind you, but someone’s gotta hold them off.”
“You guessed it. Ready?”
James nodded grimly and they crept above the altar. Below them, the ritual was starting. The rat priest was chittering and squeaking while madly waving its arms around. The gathered throng yelled as though they were in the grip of a religious fervor. Dutch and James couldn’t make it out, but they did know that the time for them to act had arrived.