“VERY WELL, DESPOT!” At a full-throated call from Sir Timothy, the Knights Underwood at Prue’s and Curtis’s feet exploded into action and descended upon the gates of the City of Moles. And thus, the great siege began.
Prue and Curtis listened to the clamorous noises of war from their spot behind the wall of the tunnel. They’d been told their signal would be three short bursts from the goat’s horn, and they attuned their ears the best they could for the sound—though it was certainly difficult to distinguish anything from amid the deafening din the siege had already managed to create. Curtis was about to sneak a peek behind the wall when the unmistakable blat-blat-blat of their signal to attack was sounded. Curtis held out his fist to Prue—she reluctantly bumped it with hers—and the Overdwellers emerged from their hiding place, doing their best to act like the ferocious, wrathful demigods they were expected to be.
As they rounded the corner, Prue was feeling sheepish about her performance; holding the lit lantern with one hand, she was brandishing the other arm dramatically, her fingers poised like claws, though the teeth gnashing continued to be elusive. Curtis, on the other hand, was relishing the opportunity and was taking to the part with gusto: Not only was he waving his arms and gnashing his teeth, but he was accompanying his every step with shouts like, “Overdweller ANGRY!” and “I will spit fire and brimstone upon thee!”
However, as soon as they’d come out of hiding and had traveled the few feet down the sloping floor of the tunnel, both of them were struck dumb by what they saw.
The chamber they’d walked into was so massive as to make the ceiling indistinguishable from a dome of sky. Much to Prue and Curtis’s surprise, the lantern they were carrying was superfluous here; little electric lamps affixed to the wall of the chamber flooded it with light. It was the first full light they’d seen in days; their eyes took a moment to adjust. How they’d not noticed this before, even from the reach of their hiding place, was befuddling to them; perhaps the light from the lantern had obscured it.
The most incredible thing about the chamber, though, was the presence of the City of Moles itself. They’d never seen anything like it before in their lives. Given the opportunity to describe it, as Curtis and Prue were both pressed to do when, far into the future, they were asked, they’d each been at a loss for words. They’d fumble for explanation, the poverty of language laid plain to them.
It was as if someone, some intelligent being with a razor-sharp eye for mechanics and engineering, had taken a great crane with a gigantic vacuum cleaner attachment connected to it, and hovered it slowly over an entire city, sucking up every imaginable piece of scrap, fragment, or particle of unwanted, indeterminate junk—be it metal, plastic, or wood; this someone then deposited all of this mass of man-made detritus here on the floor of the chamber and endeavored to find a way in which every piece fit, one into another, to create a structure that used each particle as if it had been designed to be used in that very precise way.
A massive wall, made of aluminum and stone, surrounded a lattice of strange, oblong structures; a tangled series of tracks and chutes wove between them—some of them clearly fashioned from the remnants of toy train sets and race-car courses. A portcullis, made of what appeared to be a flattened colander, barred the gateway of the outer wall. Beyo
nd it, the immediate interior of the city was a grid of boxy buildings, piled next to one another almost haphazardly (Curtis recognized an entire suburb made of cigar tins). Farther along, nearer the center of the city, the maze of structures grew even more dense and tightly knit as the city itself spiraled upward in an almost conical pattern to reach a plateaulike apex, a rise broken here and there by the presence of smaller walls that effectively turned the city into a succession of climbing tiers. At the apex, perhaps six feet tall, a cylindrical tower rose above the clutter, attached to the rest of the city by a series of bridges; the shaft of the tower looked to be a plain aluminum duct, but as it climbed it blossomed little auxiliary towers and turrets from its rounded side. The tower was topped with an onion-domed cupola; there, a flag with the initial D stenciled on it fluttered in the chamber’s very slight breeze.
“Whoa,” said Prue, forgetting herself.
Curtis hadn’t dropped his act so easily; even in his shock at the sight of the City of Moles, he managed to continue acting wrathful. “Prue,” he said through his gnashing teeth, “keep up the angry-god thing.”
“Right,” said Prue, and she set down her lantern, employing both of her arms as she approached this miraculous underground city.
As soon as they’d been spotted, a series of terrified screams came from within the mole compound. The defenders of the city, soldiers clad in what appeared to be suits made of aluminum foil, sensed the two Overdwellers’ approach and shuddered, visibly, in their armor.
“Sally-ho!” came a shout at their feet. It was Septimus, astride his salamander, waving a darning needle wildly over his tin-can-covered head. A tide of foot soldiers, under his command, came tearing after him. They exploded onto the defending moles like the crest of a wave, sweeping away everything in their path. Septimus, rearing his salamander, towered over his enemies like a giant in the fray, and the city’s defenders approached him quaking in their bottle caps.
“Have at thee!” he shouted, applying a healthy dose of old-world accent to his words as he fought. “Stay your blade, cretin!” was also used liberally, as was “To the Overworld with you, scamp!” Prue couldn’t see his face through his helmet, but she could imagine him smiling from pink furry ear to pink furry ear.
While the enemy was thus engaged, the siege towers of the Knights Underwood had quickly made it through the first phalanx of defending soldiers and were now up against the outer wall, emitting a steady stream of knights into the first tier of the city. The multiple-pencil battering ram was pounding against the flattened colander portcullis as a multitude of knights waited impatiently behind it to pour through the gate. It held fast; one of the soldiers on salamander-back turned to Curtis and hollered, “OVERDWELLER!”
It took a moment for Curtis to find the voice among the thousands-strong throng of battling moles. “Yes?” he asked when he’d finally found the source.
“WILT THOU USE THY DIVINE STRENGTH TO THROW THE PORTCULLIS?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Curtis. “No problem.”
Arriving at the wall, which came up no higher than his knee, he reached around the back and, finding the edge of the gate, pulled away the flattened piece of metal. The Knights Underwood yelled a cry of victory and went rushing through the opened gate, knocking down all who stood in their way. Curtis felt a pinch on his finger as he retracted his hand from the scene; it was a red-balled sewing pin, lodged in the fleshy webbing between his thumb and forefinger.
“Ouch,” he said. He looked down; a mole from the opposing side was standing there, needle-less, pointing his snout in Curtis’s general direction. He appeared to be sniveling with fear. For a moment, Curtis briefly considered picking him up and throwing him against the wall, but the tactic seemed too brutal, too inhumane. The idea frankly disturbed him. Instead, he plucked the stuck pin from his hand and tossed it across the chamber. “Watch it,” he said to the mole, who scurried off into the fray.
The Knights Underwood, however, were not so merciful to their foes. Sir Timothy’s warning, that the denizens of the city turn against the forces of Dennis the Usurper or die by the Knights’ swords, was carried out with a marked consistency. Curtis blanched as he watched the moles pile into their enemies, tearing them apart with every weapon or instrument at their disposal. Blood ran freely in the gutters of the city’s narrow streets; screams of anguished pain curdled the air. A baby mole, separated from its parents, sat on a side street and howled in fear; a mole in a blood-spattered dress stood in the doorway of a burning building and wept loudly over the body of a fallen soldier. Curtis looked over at Prue, who had stopped acting wrathful completely and was instead watching the proceedings with a look of disgust and pity.
“Ugh,” she said. “This is terrible.”
Curtis walked back to where she stood at the edge of the chamber and joined her in her witness of the events. The moles had broken through the second wall of the city; thin streams of smoke were now curling up from several houses and churches. The cacophony of the battle, the clashing of pins and bottle caps, echoed in the air.
“Can we stop it?” ventured Prue.
Curtis looked around; the streets of the city were swarming with frenzied warrior moles. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think we just have to let it run its course.”
The third wall had been breached. The lifeless bodies of fallen moles curled limply over the ramparts.
“We have to,” said Prue. Bent on the task, she approached the City of Moles, carefully watching each footfall so as to avoid adding any undue bloodshed to the chaos. She stepped easily over the first wall; the streets at this level were nearly deserted, save for a few moaning wounded; the thrust of the battle had forced most of the defenders up to the apex of the city. She crossed the second wall, then arrived at the third; the city here was too dense to allow the foot traffic of a human. Instead, she stopped and addressed the warring moles. “STOP!” she yelled. They weren’t listening.
Gathering a deep breath, she summoned as much volume as she could muster: “STOP!”
Again, no response. The moles, lost in a stupor of violence and bloodlust, could not hear her. A group of defending moles were launching flaming arrows down onto the approaching army; a detachment of reinforcements were making their way down the spiraling streets to join their brothers-in-arms at the fray. Prue looked up to the very top of the tower in the center of the city and saw a single mole, dressed in what looked to be pajamas, taking in the goings-on indifferently.