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

October 8, 2007

79. Crawling Things

"Something's going to come out of those holes," Patch said, his voice rising. "We have to get out!"

He felt more panicked than he had at any time since entering the underworld. He had faced many dangers since then, but this was the first time since the room full of cockroaches he had been hounded into a corner with no apparent escape; and he was grimly sure that whatever lurked behind those holes was far more dangerous than cockroaches.

"There's no way," Silver said. "We'll have to try to fight them."

Patch felt too weak to fight, and he was sure his mother did too, but he tried to breathe deeply and gather his strength. The acid smell from the holes in the far wall was growing stronger. And did he hear a kind of soft and distant scuttling noise?

"Wait," White said. "Where are we?"

Patch turned and stared with disbelief through the darkness towards White's voice. Had she gone mad?

"We're in the Kingdom Beneath," Silver said gently, "in an ancient human tunnel."

"That's not what I mean," White said exasperated. "I mean, how far is it from here to the Croton Road?"

Patch said, "Not far, but she - it - we can't go up there." He could hear the rough breaths of the daughter-King as she waited for them in the chamber above.

"That's not what I mean either. I mean, how far the other way?"

"The other way?" Patch asked, astonished. "But - but there's -"

"How far?" White demanded.

Patch, taken aback by her anger, tried to calculate the answer. He had run from the King Beneath down the first tunnel that led directly away from the Croton Road; after a short distance, he had taken the right-hand fork, which had bent until it ran approximately parallel with the road, before entering the chamber where the daughter-King now waited; then taken the little tunnel down and to the right, back towards the Croton Road, to this long and narrow wooden chamber. And from the end of this chamber to the bricks of the Croton Road was ...

"Maybe not very far at all," he said doubtfully. "I'm not sure. We might just be a squirrel's length away and a squirrel's length below. But it doesn't matter. There's a wall."

Silver caught her breath as if she had just realized something. "Hardly a wall at all. It's soft and rotten."

"But there's still ..."

"Dirt," White said. "That's all that's behind the walls here. We can dig."

Patch gasped as he understood. She was right, they could dig through this dirt, not to bury a nut, but to open a passage back to the Croton Road.

"There's a brick wall on the other end," he warned them.

"We might not make it," White agreed. "But we can't stay here. You said that yourself."

The acid smell had swelled during this brief conversation, and Patch was now beginning to fervently hope he was just imagining not just the soft scuttling sounds but a kind of faint clicking.

"You're right," he said. "Let's dig."

White led the digging. Her claws tore through the rotting wood even easier than the thick, claylike dirt beyond, but she had excavated no more than a rat's-length worth of tunnel when the crawling things began to pour out of the long wooden wall to their left and into the chamber of bones.

The caiman laughed as a cacophony of soft scurrying and rustling noises swelled towards where the three squirrels huddled at the end of the chamber. The acid smell was rank and biting.

"Hurry!" Patch gasped.

Then the first crawling thing touched him, a soft clinging touch like a spiderweb, a touch that quickly turned into a horrible crawling sensation. Patch convulsed violently and the thing withdrew from his leg - only to be replaced by what felt like a half-dozen more, there were tiny insectile legs crawling all over Patch, it was like being covered by cockroaches again, except these things were bigger and heavier. Patch shook like a soaked dog ridding itself of water, and beside him Silver did the same, and the many-legged things fell away from them; but soon they were back, their numbers redoubled. This time they began to bite. And their bites were like fire.

Patch clawed and bit back. His paws and fangs sank into long, squishy bodies like worms, each one propelled by a hundred little legs. They were centipedes, the squirrels were being attacked by a numberless army of poisonous centipedes, each as big as a finger of a full-grown human. Their bites hurt like acid. No one or even ten or even hundred of those bites would be fatal - but soon enough, the relentless wave of centipedes would cover all three squirrels, kill them with poison, and devour every fragment of their flesh and fur, leave nothing but three more skeletons to litter the floor of the Chamber of Bones.

"Into the tunnel!" White gasped. "Hurry!"

Silver followed White into the tunnel she had dug, and Patch backed in behind her. There wasn't enough room for all of him, and the bites on his head and forelegs continued to mount as he scraped himself against the tunnel walls as best he could, and crushing to death the centipedes who clung to his back and sides, moaning but not slowing each time he stubbed his severed tail.

Dirt began to pile up behind Patch, and he swept it clumsily forward with his paws; and as White dug at the tunnel wall, and Silver propelled the dirt farther back, and Patch swept it into the chamber of bones, he found himself able to back a little further into the tunnel, and a little further, and a little further, until his nose was fully in the tunnel and he was no longer afflicted by biting centipedes. The army of centipedes flowed down the chamber and into the new and narrow tunnel like water trying to leave a bottle - but Patch began to stopper the tunnel end with fresh dirt, building a wall between their excavation and the chamber of bones, until the tunnel was sealed on both ends. They had buried themselves alive. But at least they were safe from the crawling centipedes, and still alive.

"Up," Patch said, his voice so weak from the his many wounds, and the blackblood recurrence, and the centipede poison, that Silver could scarcely hear him. "We want to go up, to the ledge, to the Croton Road."

Silver passed the idea on to White, who began to angle the tunnel upwards as best she could. Patch hoped she had a good sense of direction. It was easy to imagine them trying to tunnel in circles until they died. This wasn't so much a tunnel as a moving bubble, and its air was already beginning to feel thick and lifeless. If they made any mistake they would suffocate and die. And even if they didn't -

"There's something here!" White said, half-triumphant, half-nervous. A few scrabbling breaths later. "A brick! This is it, the Croton Road!"

"A brick?" Silver asked. "Oh, no. We have to go through a brick wall? How -"

"It's very old," White said. "The stuff between the bricks, it's crumbling already."

She worked for a long time. All Patch heard was a rhythmic scratching. He closed his eyes, tried to breathe as slowly and shallowly as possible, and tried to ignore his multifarious pains. The scratching seemed to go on forever as White bit and claw at the ancient mortar around the brick. The thick air was making Patch sleepy. He tried to stay awake, but his eyelids felt so heavy -

"That's it," White said, exhausted. "That's as far as I can reach."

"Is it free?" Silver asked.

A moment passed. "No!" White exclaimed with despair. "It trembles a little, but it's not free. It won't move! We can't get out!"

"Don't give up hope," Silver said, calmly but sternly. "We must work together. Patch will push against me, I against you, and you against the brick. We must all push as hard as we can. Ready?"

At his mother's command Patch roused himself one final time and squeezed himself backwards, pressing himself as hard against her as he could. The pain in his tail was immense, and he moaned a little with every breath.

"Breathe in, then push as we breathe out," Silver commanded. "One, two - now!"

Patch strained with all his might as he breathed out. Nothing happened. He sagged, dejected.

"Again," Silver ordered.

"It's not going to work," Patch said hopelessly.

"Again."

He gritted his teeth against the pain, took a deep breath, breathed out, strained -

- and there was a loud clunk as the brick broke free and fell, and as light and lifegiving air from the Croton Road flooded the tunnel. White scrambled out. She had to descend only three bricks to the ledge that ran above the water. Silver followed her, and then Patch backed awkwardly out. He fell onto his tail and groaned loudly.

"Quiet," Silver whispered. "I'm sorry, Patch. But the King Beneath is somewhere in this water. I know you're weak. So am I. We have to run."

"I know," he said, struggling to his feet. "Which way?"

They looked up and down the dimly lit Croton Road.

"This way," Silver said, and she led the way into the unknown.

7 Comments:

Blogger perlhaqr said...

*gak*

Centipedes.

*shudder*

-Ogre

October 9, 2007 at 6:38 AM  
Anonymous briangc said...

Who called it with the alligator again? Yep, that's right...

Okay, so it's a caiman (and it sounds like an albino one at that), but pretty much the same thing! :-)

October 9, 2007 at 7:47 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Brian: Yep. Good call. Caimans are in fact basically alligators (or at least they and gators form their own subfamily.) And caimans, unlike alligators, actually have been discovered in Manhattan! Yes, really.

October 9, 2007 at 9:34 AM  
Anonymous Rakie said...

thanks, i am now claustrophobic and scared of centipedes. Gahhhh. :D

so... they're out of immediate peril now, right? i mean, there's hardly anything that can go wrong in the last ten chapters or so, right? *big hopeful eyes* :D hee, i am enjoying these chapters tho, they're so much fun... i'm just looking forward to a happy ending and a chance to breathe again. :D

briangc - yeah, yeah, you called it! *clappy* you win an unofficial BoNY hat (it has squirrel ears).

October 9, 2007 at 12:29 PM  
Anonymous Karenza said...

c'mon c'mon c'mon c'mon c'mon already! Enough with the long weekend and catch us up!

October 9, 2007 at 4:12 PM  
Anonymous briangc said...

Thanks, Jon!

And Rakie, I can't wait to get my official BoNY hat! I will wear it proudly.

October 10, 2007 at 5:18 AM  
Blogger Phayona said...

So exciting...!

November 3, 2009 at 4:07 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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