Lack of rainfall over the last couple of weeks had reduced the flow in the sewer's central trough to a slow meander of thick oily water.
The slime on the walls, instead of being slick and oozing,
now resembled a dried-out field of giant elbow scabs which broke away in clouds of dusty organic particles as all four kids occasionally paused to draw patterns and crude pictures with
their sticks. Or, if you were Worms, just to hack away at it for the pure pleasure of creating the biggest field of scabby destruction he could.
As it turned out, Finny did not need her tree root for anything else.
She and Casper were able to just amble along while Onetooth and Worms happily, and noisily, reduced the rat population between them.
The Underfolk watched with quiet curiosity and not a little amusement at the two boys' excited waste of energy.
The only contact they made with the group of small adventurers was to; first, patiently wag a finger and direct them away from a particular tunnel they did not want Finny and co. to go down.
Then, as the kids climbed the steps to the entrance to the outside,
one of the Underfolk made the four of them wait until their eyes readjusted to the morning brightness before letting them leave.
When the little gang did step out into the sunshine again, it was like stepping into a new world for them. Grass and wide-open space instead of concrete and walls.
Silence interrupted by a random cricket instead of the background buzz of traffic interrupted by doors slamming, babies crying, gunshots and honking cars.
Unconsciously, the four kids moved closer together with their eyes firmly fixed on the mid-distance sprawl of brick and concrete that was everything they knew.
Finny could sense the growing unease. She could even feel it herself, slowly building up to the point where, if left unchecked, would have them retreat back the way they had come.
Finny wasn't about to let that happen. Unlike the others, Finny knew that she had been 'outside' before.
She knew that it hadn't been just a dream, it had been a memory and she was going to find it. She took a step forward and turned to face them.
"We did it. We're outside."
The boys dragged their gaze away from the buildings so far away and looked at her. Finny managed a grin.
"Just wait 'till we get back and tell everyone we went to Hope." That brought a small smile to their faces, but it wasn't enough. Finny played her trump card.
"An' think of all the stuff we can find on the way. Stuff that only proper explorers get to find. Maybe even treasure." It was working. In their eyes, apprehension was giving way to excitement.
Finny looked at the top of the small rise behind them. "Come on, let's see which way we're gonna go."
She walked around them and began to scramble up the grassy bank that housed the cave-like entrance they had emerged from. This was it.
If they followed her now, then she was pretty sure they would come with her. She was banking on bravado winning out over fear. Casper was the key.
If he chickened out, then Onetooth and Worms would probably go with him. She was halfway up the steep bank when she knew they were following her.
Hiding her relief, Finny led them up the slope to the concrete roof of the sewer entrance. Concrete was familiar, a touchstone in the sea of grass.
Finny sat down cross-legged in the middle of the square of roof and reached into the sack.
She pulled out a bottle of water and drank deeply while watching the boys sit down in a circle around the sack. Finny held the bottle out.
"Anyone wanna drink?" It was working. The shock of finding themselves suddenly out in the open was wearing off, and the familiarity of sitting together was giving them confidence.
Maybe it was more ritual than thirst, but everyone took a drink from the bottle.
Now they were looking around, more curious than afraid.
Unfamiliar sounds and small movements in the grass brought questions which Finny did her best to answer, even making stuff up as long as it made them feel safer.
Casper leaned back on his elbows, stretching his legs out. That was a good sign. If Casper was feeling relaxed, then the other two would pick up on it.
Finny had a brainwave.
"Who wants to hold the gun?"
Onetooth's hand was the first in the air.
Finny reached into the bag.
"Ok, you first then Worms then Casp." The pistol appeared in Finny's hand, holding it by the long barrel. She offered the grip end to Onetooth. "Here.
Just don't touch the trigger, ok?" Onetooth nodded vigorously, his hand already reaching for the weapon. Finny pulled it back. "You gotta promise."
Onetooth promised, crossing his heart with a finger. The other two boys followed suit, solemnly promising not to touch the trigger when their turn came around.
Only then did Finny relent and let Onetooth take the pistol.
Onetooth stared at it with something like adoration. He slowly turned it round in his hands, watched closely by everyone as he examined it minutely.
Finny's smile froze on her face when Onetooth put his eye to the end of the barrel, but she could see his fingers were nowhere near the trigger and breathed again.
"Hey, there's no bullet in the barrel." He counted the other bullets in the cylinder. "It's only a five shooter then."
The feeble joke got a feeble laugh, but Onetooth seemed happy with that and passed the pistol to an eager Worms.
The examination of their prize was repeated. Finny's breathing was interrupted again when Worms lifted the gun in both hands and aimed down the barrel towards New Flagstaff.
"PEW!" He lowered the pistol, frowning, and passed it to Casper. "It's really heavy, though."
Casper lowered the gun reverently to his lap and looked at it.
"I wonder what it's like to get shot."
Despite gunfire being a pretty common occurrence in the city, none of the kids had ever seen anyone shot close up...
Except for Finny, who dream remembered people falling all around her when the Devil's Own camp outside of Hope Springs was attacked that night all those years ago.
Nobody had an answer for Casper. Finny lifted the gun off his lap and put it back into the bag.
"We better get started." She stood up and took a folded piece of paper out of her pocket and opened it up.
It was a map, very crudely traced off one of the proper maps in the factory office that also doubled as their schoolroom.
Finny turned slowly around until what she could see lined up with the symbols on the map. She carefully refolded the paper and pointed beyond the crest of the slope they had been climbing.