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

October 4, 2007

75. The King Beneath

Just as Patch was beginning to wonder why they had seen no rats, even though their stink made it clear that the Croton Road was a rat highway, the walls began to curve and bend outwards, expanding into a vast circular space. On the other side of this disc-shaped pool, the walls narrowed back into a tunnel and the Croton Road continued. The ceiling above rose from an arch into a dome, and there was enough luminescent mold on the walls of the dome that Patch could see the stone bridge that spanned the chamber crosswise, level with the ledges on either side. On either side of the stone bridge, smaller dog-sized tunnels continued into darkness.

A vast and tangled forest of roots dangled from the dome like willow branches, like an upside-down tree. The deepest tendrils almost brushed against the stone bridge. In their shadow, the things lying in a ragged line across the very center of the bridge were difficult to see, and their smell was drowned in the invasive maelstrom of Rat and that other, terrible, nameless scent; but Patch and White knew them the moment they saw them. The things on the bridge were the limp and lifeless bodies of more than a dozen squirrels. And there was something moving among them.

Patch didn't hesitate. He ran along the Croton Road and onto the stone bridge.

The figure among the fallen squirrels was a lone and shadowed rat, who had stopped moving and now faced down into the water as if staring at its own reflection. It didn't seem to have heard Patch's approach. The fur of one of the squirrels seemed a little brighter than the others, and he caught his breath. Silver. He crouched, ready to charge.

"The King Beneath is here," the rat said coolly, without looking up at Patch. "It is death to look upon the King Beneath."

Patch said, "I don't care if you're King of the whole world."

The rat laughed with genuine mirth, then took a few steps towards Patch, coming close enough to recognize. Patch blinked with surprise. The rat was Lord Snout.

"Oh, this is too delicious," Snout chortled. "You actually thought I was the King Beneath. You really have no idea."

Patch hesitated, uneasy. That terrible nameless scent was intensifying.

"Where is Sniffer?" he demanded.

"Sniffer is dead," Snout said. "His usefulness ended, and he died as you will die. You should have died thrice over already. What shadow fell over your destiny, squirrel? Who sent you to find the Queen of All Cats? What brought you to the Kingdom Beneath? ...It doesn't matter. The King Beneath laughs at destiny. The King Beneath is the killer of fate. I hope you don't think you've won the war. I would hate for you to die with such a wrongheaded belief. Cats can't save your doomed kingdom. Too many of you have died already. You are too weak to survive what comes next. All creatures of darkness serve the King Beneath. All of them. And when he comes, all will flock to his command."

The water beneath the bridge began to shimmer and ripple. There was something moving in it, something pale and enormous, drifting through darkness towards the stone bridge. Patch took an involuntary step back.

"You are greatly honoured to die in the jaws of the King Beneath," Snout whispered.

The pale reptilian thing in the water was bigger than any human. Its scaly and sinuous tail, as long as a large dog, widened from a sharp tip into a thick, flat torso armoured in pebbled white scales, from which four stubby limbs protruded, topped by claws the size of Patch's paws. Its broad snout was mostly mouth: flat and triangular, big enough to swallow a small dog whole, adorned by vast, barbed, serrated yellow teeth. Behind and above this gigantic maw, two dark protruding eyes like lay half-concealed behind a bony ridge.

Patch stared, frozen with absolute horror, as the King Beneath rose towards him. He couldn't move. He felt rooted to the bridge. He heard Snout speaking in a hissing, slithering language that was neither Mammal nor Bird. He saw the King's maw open wide, saw its enormous muscles coil and tense, ready to lunge and devour. Its eyes were like black abysses, and Patch couldn't look away from them, he felt dizzy, about to topple, about to fall into those black pits that were eyes, fall into them and keep falling forever...

White screamed, "Patch, run!"

Her shout broke the spell. The King Beneath leaped from the water like a lightning bolt; but its gargantuan jaws clashed together on empty air as Patch jumped away, back onto the brick ledge that surrounded the room. The monster fell back into the pool. Dark water fountained up, soaking Patch where he stood. The resulting wave rippled across the pool - and as it did, Patch thought he saw something else moving in the water; something white and scaly, something much like the King Beneath, only much smaller, or perhaps younger.

"Run!" White insisted.

"Oh, no, it's much too late for running," Snout gloated. "There's nothing left for you now but dying."

The water erupted again; and this time, to Patch's horror, the King Beneath launched itself completely out of the water and onto the stone bridge. It flailed clumsily with its stubby limbs for a moment before righting itself and turning its massive body towards Patch. Its white scales and yellow fangs dripped with water.


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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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