Comhghall McKeating’s Winning Short Story. Photo Source: Fresh Eye Solutions.
Queen’s University Science Fiction and Fantasy Society & The Gown’s Writing Competition Winner
“All I’m sayin’ is, there’s millions of us, Syd, untold fuckin’ millions.”
A loud snap echoed through the corpse-strewn pit as Rigger broke a couple of purple-nailed, bone-white fingers to get the rings off them.
“No need to feel shame ‘bout it,” continued the big man, pocketing the rings, waving away a rat that had scuttled too close. “Plenty out there like us who just need a bit o’ quick cash is all, and besides, not like these poor fuckers are gonna do much with their gold now is it?”
Despite Rigger’s reassurances, Syd couldn’t help but feel ashamed. They stood ankle deep in muck, blood, piss, and shit, breathing the heady scent of each, mixing together into a gag-inducing musk. Hundreds, maybe thousands of rats chittered and squealed as they too searched among the dead, scuttling in and out of the dark tunnels that yawned at the edges of the pit, leading deeper into the sewers. High above it all, an azure sky was visible, streaked here and there by white clouds. The streets of Lashraph, of Qivir, its poorest district, where normal people worked for a living. Not the best of people, most of the time, not doing the best of jobs either. But not at the bottom of the Wounds robbing the dead.
“We’re graverobbers,” muttered Syd, frowning as he rifled through the pockets of young boy, stiff and cold.
“Oh here we go again,” said Syd, straightening from his labour, wincing and rubbing his back. “This isn’t a fucking graveyard, it’s a rubbish tip. We’re not being sacreligious or nothin’. Just picking through the junk. And you know what they say about junk- ow!”
Rigger kicked a rat away and shook his hand.
“Little bastard bit me!”
He continued shaking his hand, growling in frustration, then turned his attention fully to Syd, who couldn’t help but wither a little under the big man’s glare.
“Now don’t you go getting soft eh?” he said, wagging his bloody finger at Syd. “We’re alive because of me, eh? It’s my plans that keep food in our bellies.”
They hadn’t eaten for days. But Syd didn’t remind Rigger. Instead he turned back to his grisly work, unable to meet Rigger’s eyes. There was no escaping the bastard. Syd had thought about running but he did owe Rigger, and Rigger did come up with plans to get money, to get food. Syd just wished they didn’t involve robbing the dead.
He turned over the body of a young man, with a narrow, pinched face, dressed in rags. Various vials, and bottles, all empty, clinked as they rolled from under his frayed brown cloak. Poor lad had been stabbed it seemed, and not too long ago. Syd leaned forward to search for anything valuable. Moving the shirt aside, he spotted a rare find indeed. A silver amulet, its pendant in the shape of a rat. A pretty bauble. Worth a pretty penny. Shame evaporating at the thought of a full belly and a full purse, Syd reached for the amulet.
The corpse shuddered, it’s eyes opening wide, and a cold hand clamped over the amulet. Syd yelped and snatched his hand back as the corpse began to splutter blood. Rigger rushed to his side.
“I don’t fuckin’ believe it,” breathed Rigger. “If it ain’t that bastard mage, Beggarman.”
“He’s still alive,” said Syd, heart pounding from the shock of it all.
Rigger squatted by Beggarman, and began going through his pockets, even as the young man twitched.
“Finally fell afoul o’ someone eh?” said Rigger, grinning. “And here I thought you were the thief that couldn’t be caught. Able to slip away through any sewer grate, disappear with all your magic tricks?”
Beggarman said nothing, trembling, pale from blood loss. He opened his mouth, but only blew bloody bubbles. Then Rigger saw what his ashen hand clutched.
“Oh hello, what you got there Beggar?”
Somehow, the permanent frown on Syd’s face deepened. The whole scene depressed him, made him wonder how he had sunk this low. He glanced at the sky, and wondered again about the people up there on the streets.
“Please…” managed Beggarman, fingers being peeled away from the amulet. “No… you… don’t understand.”
“What’s there to understand?” asked Rigger, tugging the amulet free. “You’ve got something you ain’t using no more, and we want to make use of it. Simple as that.”
More choking, bubbling sounds.
“No… Rigger…don’t… take… it.”
Syd found his voice.
“Don’t take it Rigger, leave it with him, come on.”
Rigger glared, snatching the amulet from Beggarman’s neck. When he spoke, his voice was menacing in its softness.
“Don’t be fuckin’ stupid. We need this money. Pay off our debts, make a start into honest thievin’.”
“Honest thievin’?” asked Syd, his courage building.
“Well you’re the one complainin’ ‘bout robbin’ the dead!”
“You said we weren’t robbin’ them!”
Rigger winced, perhaps realising he’d made a mistake. He waved a meaty hand.
“Look, I’m not gonna sit here in this shithole and argue philosophy or whatever, whether what belonged to a man in life is his in death-”
“But Beggarman is alive!”
Raising his brows, Rigger turned back to Beggarman, almost as though he had forgotten he was there. The young man was pale, and completely still. No more choking noises came from his throat, and his eyes stared up to the sky, sightless. The rats, sensing fresh meat, began to scurry over to him, hundreds of them.
Rigger puffed out his cheeks, offering Syd a shrug.
“Well he’s dead now, so that settled things.”
“But you robbed him when he was alive!”
“Shut your mouth Syd,” said Rigger, stepping close, looming over him. “Shut it before I shut it for you.
Syd wasn’t sure why a backbone had suddenly spawned in him, forcing him upright, forcing him to look into Rigger’s eyes, but he was glad for it.
“Put the amulet back,” he said.
Rigger held up the fist holding the amulet.
“Make me, runt.”
Launching himself at the big man, Syd tackled him onto the pile of bodies, sending them skidding lower into the pit in a tangle of limbs, both their own and others. Rats squealed, skittering away as the pair rolled. Syd landed a couple of blows, but Rigger got the upper hand, shoving Syd’s face into the muck.
“You stupid bastard,” said Rigger, grunting from the effort. “After everything I’ve done for-”
A yelp cut him off. Syd bit down on Rigger’s finger as hard as he could, mouth filling with coppery blood. He struggled to his feet, searched in the pile of bodies for something, anything. Maybe a sword, or a dagger. His hand closed round a loose brick. There was an audible crack as he smacked Rigger across the head with it, sending the big man to the floor of corpses, limp-limbed, still.
Syd let the brick drop with a clunk, breathing deep, taking greedy lungfuls of abattoir stink as though he’d never tasted anything sweeter. The shame still lingered, of course, but for once, without the need for Rigger’s reassurance, he felt he had done the right thing. Got rid of an evil, cruel man.
He moved to Rigger’s body, fished the amulet out from his limp hand as he had done to Beggarman. The rats moved in around him, oddly slow, as if wary they might be next. Syd took a look at the amulet. Now that he felt its weight, he realised it must be pure silver. Worth an awful lot. He shook his head, climbing through the corpses and the rats back to where Beggarman had died. But with each step, he couldn’t help but glance at the amulet.
Worth a pretty penny, and maybe more. Beggarman had been a mage after all. Perhaps there was something more than silver to it. Able to disappear through any grate. If he could find an honest way to use it, he could start a new life, have a steady income, never go hungry again.
Trembling, hands shaking, standing before Beggarman, who still looked up to the sky, Syd looped the amulet around his neck.
An eerie silence filled the Wounds as the rat-shaped pendant settled cool against his chest. At once, all the vermin stopped their mad scramble through the bodies, and turned, staring at Syd with a thousand beady eyes. Something froze Syd to the spot. Sweat began to bucket from him. His chest worked furiously as his breathing became frantic. His heart began to beat faster and faster, all from terror, he thought, until his heartbeat became a near hum, then it split. Two heartbeats. Then four. Then eight. His vision too split. And his lungs. And his limbs. And even his mind. In a chorus of chittering squeaks, the rats spoke, a thousand tiny voices moulding into one, moving in a seething carpet towards the bodies of Beggarman and Rigger.
“Don’t fret Syd. There are millions of us,” they squealed. “Untold millions.”