One Boy And His Dog (Part Four)
Mark has to work hard to extract himself from the chilly water, for the purple grass is slippery and he is freighted with wet clothing. Eventually he grabs big handfuls of the long grass and uses them to pull himself slowly up out of the water. The roots make a tearing sound like Velcro coming undone but hold out long enough for him to finally reach the riverbank. He collapses on his back to catch his breath, his palms tingling with a faint burn. When he looks they’re stained with purple streaks.
With a grimace Mark wipes his hands on his jeans and looks at them again. The purple has faded into a smear but a line of small blisters marks each palm, the itch intensifying as he looks. “Typical,” he murmurs disgustedly, voice echoing in the tunnel. He hauls himself to his feet and gingerly follows the trail of slime-matted grass to the arch in the side of the tunnel.
He hugs the wall like a character from a cover-based shooter and peers down the side tunnel, expecting something hostile to be waiting there. He’s aware of a faint perfume in the air, something floral and nauseating. Unseen by him one of the purple flowers begins to turn towards him, its anthers stretching out hungrily. Mark shivers as the water begins to evaporate from his hair, skin and clothes to chilling effect, knowing that he should keep moving to stay warm. He is frozen indecisively for a few seconds more as the flower opens wider in anticipation, its petals dripping blobs of drool-like sap as its anthers brush against Mark’s back.
He shakes his head and advances into the tunnel at last, an unnoticed smear of bright pollen his shoulder the only telltale of his near miss. The flower quivers angrily and then subsides to wait for future prey.
The tunnel curves a few metres ahead so Mark has no idea what he’s moving towards. It’s scary but at the same time it feels good to be walking into the unknown. His life is a web of ruts and routines but in this moment he’s escaped that web and is flying free.
Mark begins to round the bend in the tunnel and hears what sounds for all the world like a susurrus of voices up ahead, like the sound an audience makes while it’s waiting for the play to begin. At last he steps into the open and the noise hushes suddenly, leaving him standing in silence as he tries to absorb the enormity of the scene before him.
The tunnel has opened up into a wide circular chamber with a high, domed roof overhead. Tunnels lead to the left and right with a narrow strip of purple-carpeted land going in each direction. A similar strip of land, matted with slime, stretches across to the middle of the chamber where a round island waits surrounded by green water. On the island is a strange throng of creatures, each of which is staring at Mark in fascination. Foremost among them and lounging on a huge wooden throne is a giant grey toad, mottled and warty and mean-looking thanks to the blank, cross-pupilled eyes set over its comically frowning mouth. It must be thirty feet tall, maybe more, unbelievable in its immensity. Its throat-sac swells and Mark sees a pair of small human hands pressed against the swollen tissue from the inside, sees the hazy, panicked face of the boy as a ghost through the translucent membrane.
Flanking and slightly behind the gargantuan toad is a pair of slug-giants, each of them fourteen feet tall and covered in slime. They are standing at ease with their feet slightly apart and their hands clasped behind their backs. Smaller frogs and toads are gathered around in pairs and trios, some of them in the middle of a hand of cards while others are playing dominoes.
The giant toad’s throat-sac shrinks once more, the boy fading into invisibility as the membrane thickens. “What do you want?” it croaks.
Mark swallows as he looks up at the grey toad and its amphibious acquaintances, each of them towering above him. “I’m here to rescue that boy,” he says as forcefully as he can, pointing with a trembling finger at the grey toad’s throat.
A hideous rasping sound fills the chamber, a croaking buzz like a broken alarm clock. It takes Mark a moment to realise that the toad is laughing.