"This is ridiculous," Phoebe muttered, her foot making a sucking noise as she pulled it out of the latest puddle.
"I would have said 'disgusting'," Iplis disagreed, skirting the same puddle. "What about you, Penny?"
"Hmm? Oh." Penny shook herself. "Yes," she said vaguely, and then her brow furrowed again as she lost herself in thought.
Iplis kissed the Assassin quickly on the cheek, shooting Phoebe a 'what can you do?' look. "We have to catch up with them soon," she pointed out, gesturing at the footprints they were following. "You can see for yourself they kept stopping – and we haven't."
"Assuming they're from the OFU at all," Phoebe said, scowling. "They could be anyone's footprints."
"We're in the Ankh-Morpork sewer system," Iplis replied. "Do you really think anyone would come down here?"
"But not by choice." Phoebe couldn't disagree with that. They'd been halfway through their second lap of the city when a huge black raven had divebombed them, forcing them to dodge – and fall down a concealed hole into the sewers. Elven grace, it turned out, was no protection against knee-deep waste.
"I hear someone up ahead," Iplis said suddenly. "Wait here and I'll scout." And off she dashed like a rather smelly shadow.
Phoebe edged closer to Penny in the dark. "Is this as creepy to you as it is to me?" she whispered.
"Yeah..." Penny murmured, staring off into the darkness. Phoebe sighed. Well, it had been worth a try.
She became aware of faint voices. The acoustics of the tunnel system had combined with her enhanced elven senses to, apparently, let her hear snatches of conversation between Iplis and the unseen Someone.
"Yes, waiting back there," said the vampire in response to some question, and then, "No, too far back." Phoebe strained her ears to hear more.
What she made out was one side of what seemed to be an intense debate – specifically the losing side. "I'm not sure I want to-" she heard, followed by, "No, I know. I'll stick to the plan," and some time later, "It just feels like there should be a better way."
Phoebe frowned, turned to Penny, and opened her mouth to speak – but closed it again at the sight of her friend's vacant expression. She was quite clearly so far gone in her infatuation with Iplis that she'd be unable to hear a word against her – and Phoebe didn't even have that. Just unformed suspicions.
Eventually Iplis returned. "It's Yukimona and Mercuria," she said, a strange look on her face (or was that just Phoebe's paranoia?). "They're out as a scouting party for... well, most of the class has made it here by now."
"Everyone fell down that hole?" Phoebe queried. "Penny, you've lived here – is tumbling into the sewers a common occurrence?"
"I don't... think so," Penny replied, brow furrowed. "I remember once, me and... thingy. My friend. What was her name again?"
Phoebe frowned. "You mentioned her that first night... Vemi, was it?"
Penny's face spasmed as if with pain, and Phoebe heard the shock of indrawn breath from Iplis. "Yes," Penny said slowly. "Vemi. How did...?" She shook her head in a sharp motion. "It doesn't matter, anyway."
"No, it doesn't," Ipis said, an edge to her voice as she crossed to Penny's side. She stroked the other woman's hair gently, ignoring Penny's initial flinch and waiting until she'd settled down – like a skittish kitten, Phoebe decided. "It doesn't matter," the vampire continued in a calmer tone, "because none of us fell down here by accident. This is the way to our next class."
"What, so the OFU hired a crow to drive us down here?"
Iplis smiled thinly. "Something like that," she said enigmatically, and took Penny's hand. "Come on."
The tunnel they were in led out into a tangled junction, filled with the smell of wet earth, the reek of sewage, and the stench of the filth-spattered students. Only Hawkelf had managed to stay clean (and she had certain advantages in that respect), but there were a handful of other non-odorous inhabitants in the chamber.
First up was the Administrator, who nodded in satisfaction as Phoebe's group arrived. "That's the lot of them," he said to the second figure, which nodded its robed head, lifted its scythe, and scrabbled up the side of a crumbling pillar until it reached eye-level. SQUEAK, it said into the silence.
As the rest of the class listened with bewildered attention to the Death of Rats' lesson, Phoebe found her gaze drawn to the third dry occupant. It was studying the class with interest, and noticed her attention immediately. "What?" croaked Quoth the raven. "Are my feathers ruffled?"
Phoebe guiltily snapped her head back to the pillar, and the glaring skeletal rat. "Yes, sir," she said. "Sorry, sir."
There was a snigger from the raven. "You could offer to polish his scythe," it offered. "I bet he'd really appreciate that."
Phoebe didn't really have a response.
Disclaimer: All Discworld canon characters and locations are the creations of Sir Terry Pratchett. The Official Fanfiction University concept is the creation of Miss Cam. Phoebe is based on an application to OFUDisc by Fawkes Phoenix. All other students are based on applications to OFUDisc. All details of (and mistakes in) plot, narrative and dialogue are mine. Thanks to the Irish Samurai for betaing.
Author's Note: My view of the sewers of Ankh is drawn in large part from Discworld Noir, which, appropriately enough, also had the Death of Rats down there...