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

September 26, 2007

68. Descent

Patch and White passed through the little hole in the ancient brick wall, skidded down a steep dirt tunnel so narrow it scraped against Patch's back and sides, and emerged into empty and absolute darkness. Only the hollow echo of dripping water indicated that they were in some kind of vast cave.

After a few steps forward Patch came to a despairing halt. He hadn't understood that this was what the underworld was like. His eyes were useless, and his nose scarcely less so: the ground on which they stood was damp with rotting sludge, and the reek of decay was overwhelming. For a moment he thought his mission hopeless. He would never be able find anything down in this opaque blackness. He was already lost, he was so exhausted he was stumbling, and his dozen wounds from the battle were hurting more and more.

Patch shook his head, breathed deeply, took a moment to steady himself and adjust to the darkness. He slowly came to realize there was more to this dark air than stagnant warmth. He felt and smelled a cool and sighing breeze, faint but unmistakable, a sickly zephyr imbued with a strange and bitter scent that made him shudder. It wasn't much of a trail, but it was something.

He turned to his left and began to walk blindly into that breath of alien air. White followed. He could hear her quick and nervous breaths. His instincts told him to turn back, run, escape. He ignored them.

"Are you sure this will take us to Silver?" White asked, and her voice was trembling.

Patch didn't reply.

"Because this feels like absolute madness!"

"You don't have to come. It's okay if you want to leave. I'll find a way."

A long time seemed to pass before White answered, "No. I'll stay."

Patch hesitated, asked, "Why?"

At first he didn't think she was going to answer. Then she said, quietly, "My whole life, other squirrels have kept away from me like I was a rat. You don't know what that's like. When you left my tree, that whole day, I kept thinking, this will never happen again, I'll never find another squirrel who will talk to me, my whole life. You're my friend. If I go back I'll never have a friend again. You don't know what it's like. It's better to die."

They walked on in silence. Their paws squished against the mire on the ground, and Patch guessed from the resulting echoes that this tunnel was remarkably spacious, big enough for a large dog. He had the feeling they were descending. They encountered and detoured around collapsed bricks, rotting coils of fallen tree-roots, piled rat skeletons, rusting hulks of twisted metal. It didn't take long to lose all sense of time; it was soon eerily easy to believe he and White had been stumbling blindly through this tunnel forever, that all his other memories were nothing more than soon-forgotten dreams.

The only good news was that everything here smelled old and long untouched. The rat guardians at the entrance must have come from outside. This ancient tunnel was entirely abandoned, not used as a highway by rats or anything else.

"It smells different here," White said eventually.

She was right. The wind they followed, the wind that curled up through the tunnel like a cold and rasping breath, was unchanged: but the stagnant air through which the wind moved had grown thick with moisture, and the muck beneath Pat's paws became damp and then wet. He began to skid as much as walk. Then the tunnel floor ended abruptly, and Patch's forepaw broke through a thick layer of congealed slime and into a pool of water as warm as blood.

It wasn't a puddle. It was a pit. White and Patch walked back and forth across the width of the tunnel - which could have fit a half-dozen squirrels nose to tail - and found no bridge across the stagnant water.

"We'll have to swim," Patch said.

White moaned softly. He couldn't blame her. The layer of sickening and malodorous scum that lay across the water was as thick as tree bark. But there was no other way forward. Patch took a deep breath and eased himself into the warm and stinking sludge. His battle-wounds burned with pain as the muck seeped into them, and he groaned and shuddered, but he swam resolutely across, carving a path through the scum that White then followed.

At least the pit wasn't wide. Patch crawled out of it covered with filth, onto a damp brick floor that continued gently downwards. White squelched behind him, murmuring miserably. The air here was different again. Patch smelled metal, and sensed a few very faint drafts from the sides of the tunnel. A little later he nearly fell into a hole in the ground.

This hole wasn't the source of the wind they were following, but he examined it carefully nonetheless. It was almost perfectly circular, and smelled strongly of rusted metal. He thought of what Silver had told him of her underworld journey, of metal tunnels like hollow branches. He had a sudden image of the Kingdom Beneath as a gigantic tree with this tunnel as the trunk, surrounded by a vast and interconnected tangle of hollow roots and branches that reached out to every corner of the island of the Center Kingdom. The notion that they were inside a kind of tree made him feel a little better.

They continued in silence for a time.

"What's that?" White whispered sharply.


"That scent."

Patch stopped and sniffed. The air was a roiling mixture of strange and repulsive smells. White was right, there was something new here, something that made Patch shiver with instinctive revulsion: not just a smell but a scent, an animal scent, slimy and slippery and cold as winter ice, unlike any Patch had encountered before ... or had he? Something tickled the dim recesses of Patch's memory; a faint recollection of the Kingdom of Madness.

He wanted to turn and run. Instead he forced himself to forge onwards. They walked deeper and deeper into the clinging darkness for what felt like a very long time.


Anonymous Rakie said...

bleah, sewers. :D Love the descriptive stuff here, you make it sound so terrifying! Can't think of anything worse than being stuck in a pitch black sewer pipe... brrrr. I'm interested to find out how the squizzels are going to get back out again, but i'm sure patch will figure something out. He is teh most smart squizzel. :D

September 27, 2007 at 1:30 AM  
Anonymous briangc said...

I've been suspecting for a while now that the "king beneath" is some kind of snake. This chapter, with its references to "slimy and slippery and cold as winter ice" pretty much confirms.

Plus, we've had many of the archetypal animal characters thus far: Squirrels, cats, dogs, rats, several types of birds,...even coyotes and foxes...but we haven't seen any reptiles as yet.

Could "the king" be an escaped pet python that made it's way to the sewer system?

Or maybe one of those baby aligators all grown-up from urban legend?

September 27, 2007 at 8:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian: Old One is a turtle. Turtles are reptiles.

September 28, 2007 at 3:34 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Brian: I couldn't possibly comment. :)

September 28, 2007 at 11:53 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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