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

October 16, 2007

87. Burning Bright

"Sun and moon and stars," Toro breathed, awed.

Patch could hardly hear the bluejay over the homicidal howling of dogs. They had flown and climbed through a broken window into this vast and empty space covered with bloodstains. On one side of this enormous chamber, scores of small animals lay trapped in stacked metal cages that Patch knew all too well. On the other, a dozen huge dogs snarled murderously and clawed frantically at the insides of their cages, trying to get to Patch; and at the end of the line of dogs, in the largest cage in the room, a cage with bars as thick as branches, sealed by three mysterious devices, stood Siva the tiger.

"Kill you and eat you!" the dogs roared, but Patch and the birds ignored them.

"I dared to hope," Siva said softly to Patch. "I dared, and my hope has flowered. You have come to me, little squirrel. Do you bring my human brother? Has he come to free me from this terror?"

"Not yet," Patch admitted. "That's next. Daffa! Toro! Come here."

The pigeon and bluejay flapped over to stand next to him.

"Take this," Patch said to Toro, and gave him the glass ball he had carried all the way from the Endless Empire. It fit perfectly into the bluejay's claws. "Daffa, take him to where you first met me. Find the kabooti man. He speaks to animals. I think he can speak Bird."

"He can," Siva interjected.

"Bring him back here. As soon as you can. Hurry."

Toro, his eyes wide with wonder, nodded his understanding; and Daffa led him out of the chamber's one shattered window, into the sky, and towards the Kingdom of Madness.

"When do the other humans come?" Patch asked the tiger. "The ones who keep you here?"

"The war-drinkers," Siva said softly. "The blood-feasters. They will not come tonight. Tomorrow there will be killing, so tonight they starve us, they try to steep us in hate. It would be so easy to hate them. But I will not. I will pity them. They are lost and starveling creatures themselves, and their cages are of their own making, impossible to escape."

"Do you think your human brother can get you out of here?" Patch asked.

"I don't know," Siva said. "I hope."

They waited. The sun set, and the colossal chamber was lit only by a single red light above a door. Patch and Siva spoke for a long time. Eventually Patch fell asleep, curled up beside the tiger's cage.

He was woken by a shattering of glass, and came tensely to his feet, ready for battle and disaster. There was a new smell, a human smell - but not entirely human -

"Do not be afraid," Siva said. "My brother has come."

A small adult male human dressed in rags appeared in the main doorway. Its dark skin was stained red by the light above. The dogs began to bark again; but this time they sounded more unnerved than enraged. "Who's there? What's that? Is it human? Kill it? Eat it? What is it?"

"Siva!" the human cried out, in Bird, and the tiger growled softly in reply.

The human raced to the cage, thrust its arms fearlessly between the bars, and the tiger pressed himself against the bars and allowed himself to be stroked.

"I thought you lost," the human said. The Bird it spoke was heavily accented but understandable. "I thought you dead!"

"They set many dogs to kill me. I had to kill to live."

"Patch!" Toro said, fluttering into the room. "The human brought me here! The human speaks Bird! The human hid me and took me in an underground cage, and then in a death machine! Patch, I rode in a death machine! Can you believe it?"

"You are Patch," the human said, stooping. "You sent me the glass ball."

Patch shuddered, warring with his instincts, as the human reached out its hand and gently stroked his fur.

"I am in your debt forever, noble squirrel," the human said. "My name is Vijay."

"Hello," Patch said awkwardly.

"The squirrel needs my aid," Siva said gravely. "And I would grant it to him. But first I must escape from this cage. Can you free me, Vijay? It is sealed, it is solid steel."

Siva stood, and reached into his rags, and Patch recoiled as a bright light winked into being. The human aimed the light at the cage and examined it carefully, paying particular attention to its three steel seals. Then he shone it at the wall behind the tiger.

"Brick," he mused aloud. "Much weaker than steel, but still too strong."

Then he shone it at the floor, and Vijay's eyes lit up, and he said, "Wood."

Patch looked down at the wide bloodstained planks that made up the floor. They disappeared into darkness as Vijay turned and explored the rest of this killing place, muttering to himself in human language. A cry of discovery came from a distant corner; and then Vijay returned, holding a metal bar that was very thin at one end, and thick and curved at the other. He inserted the thin end between two planks that protruded beneath the wall of the cage; then he pushed on the thick end, pushed with all his might; Patch could smell his sweat, and hear his thudding heart - and suddenly one of the planks sprang from the ground like a startled chipmunk.

Vijay pulled the plank free and aimed the light downwards. The space beneath was deep and laced with pipes and cables. It stank of Rat, and Patch saw a half-dozen scurrying things race away from the pool of light as it stabbed into the darkness.

"Yes," Vijay said, pleased. "They built this cage to keep you in, Siva, not to keep a determined human out."

He pried another plank free, and another - and soon there was a tiger-sized hole in the floor of the cage, and Siva simply stepped down into the darkness, then leaped up into the open chamber, free. Vijay wrapped his arms around Siva and held him tightly for some time as Siva licked tears from Vijay's face with his rough tongue.

"Come," the human eventually said. "Come outside, and then help this squirrel with what he needs. Whatever he needs. Anything I can do for you, Patch, name it, and it is yours."

Patch and Vijay climbed carefully through the shattered window and out into the night. Toro flew through, and Siva simply jumped through the open space with a single bound. Once outside the tiger took a deep breath and looked up at the stars.

"It has been so long since I have seen the open sky," he said, his voice trembling. "So long. I owe you a debt immeasurable, Patch son of Silver. What would you of me?"

Patch said, "I need you to come to the Center Kingdom and fight for me."

Siva only nodded. "Show me the way."

"Follow me," Patch said, and began to run westwards - but was stopped by Siva's low and throaty laugh.

"I think you will find, my little friend, that we will go considerably faster at my speed," the tiger said, amused. "Climb onto my neck and ride. Don't worry about your claws. I've suffered much worse in the pit from which you just freed me."

Patch took a moment to digest the offer. Then, hesitantly, trying not to draw blood, he leaped up and used his claws to climb up the tiger's flank to his back, and settled in on the bulge of bone just behind Siva's neck.

"Toro," Vijay said, "can you follow them, and then return to me and tell me where they went?"

Patch hardly heard the bluejay's assent. He could not believe he was riding a tiger.

"Tell me the way," Siva said, "and hold on as tight as you can."


Anonymous briangc said...

Why didn't Siva & Patch just ride in Vijay's Death Machine?

(Just realized that ranks among the very strangest sentences that I have *ever* typed.)

October 17, 2007 at 6:26 AM  
Blogger perlhaqr said...

I have to admit, I'm a bit concerned about what's going to happen when humans find Siva in Central Park.

I can't imagine even a place as nauseatingly pacifistic as Manhattan letting flocks of crows and a crocodile and a tiger run loose for long.

October 17, 2007 at 9:36 AM  
Anonymous Rakie said...

now, how cool would it be to ride on a tiger? for real, i can't think of a single thing in the world that would be cooler. This chapter made me wish i'd been able to read it back when i was like 12 or something, that would have been awesome. :D And i am so looking forward to seeing what siva's going to do at the park... you gotta love overkill, it's like bringing a tank to a knife fight. :D NO ONE is going to mess with Patch if they think he has random access to a tiger. *giggles*

October 17, 2007 at 12:33 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Brian: heh. The problem is, Vijay's death machine was actually a taxi: smuggling a bluejay on board is one thing, smuggling a tiger is quite another.

October 18, 2007 at 5:12 AM  
Anonymous briangc said...

Ah, makes sense.

The evidence was there too, as Vijay was dressed rather bedraggedly, so it's not likely he'd own a car.

October 18, 2007 at 6:09 AM  

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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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