As though powered by the thought another bat fluttered past in the opposite direction.
But the rats kept nudging Trace along like a mob of penitents shuffling their way through the alleyways of some medieval city. That image called forth another. The Pied Piper. Only Trace wasn’t leading the rats. They were leading him.
When the tunnel reached another cross shaft Trace halted, and the horde stopped with him. He carefully groped his way around this new space, anxious of his footing lest he trip into another down-shaft and fall right through the mass of creatures to his death somewhere in the depths below. But he was becoming more and more certain that that would not happen, that–insane as the notion seemed–the rats would somehow stop him from taking that last fateful step.
The nexus of narrow passages was not t-shaped but an x. Trace shuffled–so as not to step on any of the rats–back into the center of the crossing and waited to see if the creatures would miraculously make the decision for him. But after a couple of minutes it was clear that the rodents were now content to sit or stand or whatever the hell they were all doing in the pitch blackness and wait for him to decide.
“I’m lost,” he explained to the horde.
Why not give them a lecture?
A slapping sound suddenly echoed around him, approaching from the corridor to his right, and he realized it was a whole flock of bats. The flying hairballs swarmed over and past, stirring the air, cloaking Trace in the suffocating smell of guano again. He shielded his eyes, but not one of the blind flyers touched him.
Melodramatically raising one fist like Moses lifting a staff, Trace nodded ahead.
“Onward,” he commanded..
The rats followed.
Moments later he splashed through ankle deep water. He could hear the horde paddling furiously, feel the rats floating and bumping against his legs. But, though they might have drowned, none of the animals clung to his pants to save themselves. When he spotted the faintest reflected glimmer of what appeared to be crimson-soaked sunlight ahead he glanced down at the shadowy animals, their blood-red eyes feverishly aglow.
For just an instant he felt a strange sense of communion with the tiny, verminous band. Their pointy faces seemed to plead forgiveness for a wrong their clan had long ago perpetrated upon him. Trace nodded, and again as one, they turned and pattered away into the darkness.
Trace shook his head.
“Go with God,” he muttered.