A children's book for grown-ups by Jon Evans

September 25, 2007

67. To the Gate

"This is madness," Zelina said, "you're hurt, Patch, you're exhausted, you have a head wound, you can't think right, you need to sleep! At least wait until dawn."

"I can't. By dawn it will be too late."

"No, Patch, don't do this. This is dark-mooned madness. You can't save her."

"Maybe not," he said, "but I'm going to try."

"How? Where are you going to go?"

"A place I know."

"Even if you find her, even if you singlehandedly kill all the rats in the Kingdom Beneath, and Lord Snout and the King Beneath too, she has the blackblood disease, how can you save her? You'll never be able to bring her out to the surface to be healed."

Patch shook his head. He knew Zelina only wanted to protect him, but she didn't understand. This wasn't a time for sensible questions and answers, this was a time for action.

"There is a way," White said.

All eyes turned to her.

"If you find her, there is a way to save her."

"How?"

White took a deep breath. "I will show you. I will come with you."

A silence fell over the watching cats and squirrels.

"You know I can't come with you," Zelina said quietly to Patch. "I am a Queen. I have my duties to my people. I cannot abandon them to join you in your madness."

He nodded.

"Are you truly set on this?"

He nodded. After a moment White did too.

"Very well." She sighed, and then said in a ringing voice, "Alabast, go with them as far as the underworld, keep them safe as long as the moon smiles on them."

Alabast nodded shortly, then turned to Patch and said, simply, "Which way?"

Patch said, "South."

He hesitated before he left, then turned to Zelina.

"In case I don't come back," he said, "go to the stone spire. I think you'll see something there."

Then Patch turned and began to run to the south, towards the Great Sea, moving at a staggering run, and White and Alabast followed. They ran through the night. Weariness descended on Patch like a heavy cloud, and he soon felt as if his very bones had gone weak; he had to rest for longer and longer periods to recover his strength; but all through that night he refused to stop and sleep.

"Something is following us," Alabast said softly, as the three of them rested in the narrow forested passageway east of the Great Sea.

Patch blinked. "What?"

"I don't know. It's staying downwind and far away. It's bigger than a rat. And it either has cat's eyes or a dog's nose to be tracking us from so far away."

Patch thought of Sniffer, the arch-traitor and architect of all this ruinous war.

"Maybe the Queen sent another cat to watch over us?" White asked hopefully.

Alabast shook his head. "That's not her way." He looked to Patch. "I can try to go run it down."

"No," Patch said. Another possibility had occurred to him. Maybe it was Coyote.

They continued moving; even after the moon sank beneath the horizon and the night's darkness was pure and absolute, they followed Alabast's night-eyes around the Great Sea, alongside the human highway that spanned the Center Kingdom, and into the slope walled on one side by old bricks. Once there Patch did not need to look for the hole. Its scent of festering alien decay was unmistakable even amid the enveloping stench of Rat.

"What is that smell?" Alabast whispered, and for the first time, Patch heard fear in the big white cat's voice, and his fur began to bristle like pine needles.

White said, "The Kingdom Beneath."

Alabast stared at the gateway as if the darkness itself might leap out and attack. A few heartbeats of silence passed. In them Patch heard a scuttling sound.

"There's something moving in there," White whispered.

"It's guarded!" Alabast said. "Back away, now!"

But he was too late. As he spoke, a score of rats poured out of the utter darkness of the gateway, and charged at the two squirrels and one cat. They had just enough time before battle was joined for Patch to realize that despite Alabast's strength and ferocity, the rats were far too many.

Then something big and sleek and fast leaped down from the top of the ditch into the heart of the rats. Patch, too consumed by immediate peril to wonder what it was, tried to dodge a charging rat, but moved too slowly. He stumbled and fell, and there were two rats on top of him open - but then both were swept away by the long, sharp claws of a slashing paw. Patch struggled to his feet and stared flabbergasted as his unexpected savior and Alabast fought the guardian rats until a dozen were dead and the remainder had fled.

"Talis!" he gasped.

And indeed it was the same fox he had met in the Hidden Kingdom, who had first trapped him and Zelina in snares, then helped them to escape from the metal cages. But Talis looked different now. He was gaunt and scarred, and he looked at Patch with wild eyes on the edge of madness.

"Patch son of Silver," he rasped. "Oh, how I long for your death."

Alabast quickly interposed himself between the fox and the squirrel.

Talis smiled grimly. "You're brave enough, cat. You wouldn't last more than a few breaths, if I could fight you. Don't you waste your life on his."

"You shall not pass," Alabast said softly.

"Oh, please. Don't be so melodramatic. It doesn't matter. I long for his death, but I cannot act against either you or him. I am moon-sworn to protect him, and to never again attack cat or squirrel." He turned his staring gaze on Patch. "You can't imagine what it's like. I have been searching for you for a whole moon-cycle now, and through every day and night, every breath and heartbeat, that oath has burned inside me like I swallowed a living flame. And when you are in danger it worsens. Last night I felt like the sun itself burned inside me. I prayed for your death as I ran to find you and save you. But the moon laughs at me. I arrived too late and yet somehow you survived. You don't know what I've been through, what sacrifices I made for the sake of this sun-cursed oath. I hate you with all my soul, Patch son of Silver. Before I met you I lived a life of song and poetry, I supped every day on sweet warm blood. Now my life is nothing but ashes and gnawed bones. Now all that I am is madness."

Patch didn't know what to say.

"I swore to protect both you and that cat. How I hate you both, my twin torturers. How can I fulfil both oaths when you are no longer together? It's pulling me apart. I can't even sleep without dreaming of you both. You have made of me a mad and starving thing. You are cruel, Patch son of Silver, you are a cruel and evil creature."

"I am not!" Patch protested. "I didn't know! I'm sorry! I only made you swear because otherwise you would have eaten me!"

"Better you had killed me. I would have ended my own life long ago, but that too would break the oath."

"You should not have sworn," Alabast said unexpectedly. "An oath by the moon is nothing to trifle with."

"Don't you think I know that?" Talis snarled. "Don't you think I have brooded and will brood on nothing else for all my days until the last forgetting?"

"I'm sorry," Patch said. "I thank you for saving us. And I wish I knew some way to release you. But I have to go."

"Go where?"

"The Kingdom Beneath."

Talis arched his back and hissed. "I could stop you. I could grab you and take you to a safe place and keep you there forever, you and that vicious cat-queen both. That would protect you, wouldn't it? I could keep you both safe and caged until you die. That would fulfil my oath."

Patch tried to walk to the gate; but Talis leaped to intercept him, and stood between him and the sighing darkness. Alabast tensed, ready to pounce.

"No," Patch said. He turned to Talis. "You wouldn't be able to do it. Not without harming us. That would break your oath."

"I'm a fox. I'm clever. I'll think of some way. I won't let you go from me, Patch. You can't understand. Even the thought is like swallowing poison."

Patch said, "If I die, the oath dies."

Talis hesitated. "True."

"I'm going into the Kingdom Beneath. And that hole is too small for you to possibly follow."

"The Kingdom Beneath," Talis said, and his burning eyes turned thoughtful for a moment. "Why?"

"That's my business," Patch said.

"Am I correct in surmising that you have virtually no chance of survival?"

Patch sighed. "I'm afraid so."

Talis considered. Then he stepped aside. "It seems I am permitted some interpretation of the oath's execution ... Go, Patch son of Silver. Go and know that I burn and pray through every breath and heartbeat for your death."

Patch looked at White. She was shivering, but she nodded. He looked up to Alabast.

"I can't fit in there either," the big white cat said. "And I'd rather fight a thousand rats than whatever is beyond that gate. Don't do it, Patch. Don't go. You'll never return."

"Say goodbye to Zelina for me," Patch said.

Then he marched through the gateway, and into the Kingdom Beneath; and White followed.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Rakie said...

aaaaaaaaahhhh TALIS!! *glomp* i am SO happy to see him again, even if he's mental now... ohhhh, that was so cool, i had no idea his oath would affect him like that. Poor fox. *pets, carefully* Not sure how you're doing it, but somehow this story is getting better and better. :D

September 26, 2007 at 1:15 AM  
Anonymous briangc said...

I'm with rakie...this is a fantastic tale you've got going here...

I gotta admit too...everytime I see a squirrel now (like yesterday on a bike ride with my son), I think back to little Patch. :-)

September 26, 2007 at 6:49 AM  
Anonymous Karenza said...

A squirrel was tapping on my patio door and peering through the glass this morning... truly! I'm pretty sure I don't live at the gates to hell, though.

September 26, 2007 at 1:57 PM  
Blogger Phayona said...

This story is like a drug to me I dont want it to end. Very fullfilling and entertaining.

November 3, 2009 at 3:02 PM  

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Jon Evans is the award-winning author of the thrillers Invisible Armies, Dark Places (aka Trail of the Dead), and The Blood Price. See his web site rezendi.com.

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