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

October 9, 2007

80. Endless Escape

The Croton Road seemed to go on forever, an unbroken highway of brick stretching endlessly through the underworld in a perfectly straight line. In some places daylight peered through cracks in its ceiling; in others, no luminescent fungus lined its walls, and the road was as dark as a wild and moonless night. Sometimes it widened into circular chambers like that where they had encountered the King Beneath, although only a very few of those boasted a stone bridge across the waters. The walls of the road were riddled with countless tunnels, some too small for any squirrel, others big enough for a human to walk without stooping, but the squirrels avoided them. All these side tunnels stank of Rat.

Despite their omnipresent scent, there were almost no rats to be found along the Croton Road. On the two occasions they did hear rats squeaking and scurrying in the distance, the squirrels were able to backtrack to where roots hung thickly from the ceiling, cross the water on those sky-roads, and hide tense and breathless in the dark mouths of side-tunnels until the rat-sounds were gone.

At first Patch was grateful for this paucity of rats; but it occurred to him, the first time they stopped in a dead-end side-tunnel to sleep, that it had to be because rats deliberately avoided the Croton Road. Perhaps because they found its spaciousness unnerving, too much like being aboveground. Or perhaps it was because they knew that hunters lurked along the road. Snakes, or caiman, or centipedes ... or something unimaginably worse. Patch slept poorly that night, if it was night.

Whenever they saw rippling movement in the water, they fled for a side tunnel, but they never found what swam in that darkness, and never encountered either the King Beneath or the daughter-King caiman. They smelled snake, several times, and promptly crossed the water by root-road if they could, or sprinted as if pursued if not. They encountered any number of other underworld scents that they could not name at all. A few smelled warm and welcoming. Most made their fur stand on end and their teeth shiver.

There were several places where the ledges ramped down into dark pools, and they had to swim across. On one paw, this was welcome, as the only other sources of water were the damp and fungal bricks; on the other, the water was cold and terrifying, and they twice had to swim into utter darkness without knowing what if anything waited for them on the other side, or if this might be an underwater sea in which they would freeze and drown. Both times, fortunately, they discovered ramps that led back to the road.

There was almost no food. There was no edible fungus here as there had been in the chamber of bones. They tried to nibble at a dead frog they found on the road, but its flesh tasted sour and poisonous, and they gave up. What saved them was that some of the roots hanging from the ceiling were edible, if bitter and chalky. Patch had to be careful when he climbed to eat; he had to relearn his whole sense of balance, now that half his tail was missing.

At one point, after their second sleep, the entire Croton Road turned into a gigantic metal tunnel. They splashed their way along its corrugated length, and then the previous architecture resumed, and they climbed up onto the ledges and continued beneath the arched brick ceiling. It was at this point Patch gave up hope of ever seeing the outside world again. He saw no reason that the Croton Road should not continue forever. He kept moving in a daze, only vaguely aware of his weary paws and legs, and of the countless wounds turning to scars throughout his body. He hardly spoke. Nor did White or Silver. Conversation consumed valuable energy. They needed their strength to keep moving.

It was well after the third sleep - indeed, Patch was on the verge of suggesting a fourth - when they reached the thick metal grate that walled off the entirety of the Croton Road. The squirrels halted before this discontinuity. The grate did not stop or even slow their journey - the gaps between its rusting bars were easily big enough for them - but beyond it, the arching roof of the Croton Road descended suddenly towards the water. On this side of the grate, a human could have walked on the road; on the other, they might barely have crawled.

Patch became aware that there was no glowing fungus on the walls here. They had been travelling through total darkness for some time now, but here it had diminished, lit by a dim and distant light far away on the other side of that grate. And the air - it wasn't full of the usual wet and fungal smells of the Croton Road. It smelled, however faintly, of oak trees, and grasses, and the north wind.

They did not dare breathe a word of hope. Instead they moved silently on, slipping through the grate, along this low room - and towards a glowing square of open light in the distance. But they did not reach that glowing square. They did not have to. A tree's-length before, a side tunnel full of water led off from the Croton Road. This was not unusual. What was unusual was the fresh air that burst from that side tunnel like a flower in bloom.

Silver was in the lead. She looked back at White and Patch, and smiled. Then she leaped down into the water, and swam down the side tunnel. White followed, and then Patch. The tunnel led to and through an arch that seemed full of white light. Patch's eyes were so accustomed to the underworld that this light was as blinding as utter darkness, he could see nothing at all. He felt dry stones under his paws, and scrabbled up a dry gully. It took a good dozen breaths before his eyes began to adjust, and he realized that the light was the sun, and the blue canopy above him was a cloudless sky, and they stood outside a ruined, crumbling human building in the midst of otherwise high and dense forest. They had escaped the Kingdom Beneath.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

YAY!! *clappy* oh, i am SO glad about that. *does a little happy dance* I was sure something was going to make another attempt at eating them, i'm incredibly happy that they're out of the sewers. Now all they have to worry about are the problems above ground...

awesome chapter as always!!

October 10, 2007 at 1:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Woo hoo!

Now, the only thing left (I think) is to find out if Patch is going to become the king himself...or live quietly with White and his mother. :-)

October 10, 2007 at 5:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

but what about poor siva and the kabooti man?

October 10, 2007 at 6:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It can't be that simple, now ... can it?

October 10, 2007 at 7:26 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Stephen: But of course not.

October 10, 2007 at 11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh jeez, you're going to kill him off!

October 10, 2007 at 3:47 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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