The toad’s laughter is echoed sycophantically by its smaller brethren and Mark grinds his teeth, his hands curling into fists. “What’s so funny about that?” he asks as the throbbing laughter starts to subside, kicking off another round of batrachian hilarity.
The toad clutches slick wet claws to its abdomen and its mouth gapes for a moment, the boy’s slimy face appearing for a brief moment between its lips. The toad gulps him back and then inflates its throat-sac in a series of pulses that leave it massively distended and almost transparent, giving Mark a good look inside. The boy’s eyes are wild with fear. “Help!” he calls, the sound of his voice strangely muted and distorted. He pounds the membrane with his fists, each blow making a deep bass-drum THUMM. The toad croaks out one long gasp of laughter and its throat deflates again, muting the kid altogether. Silence falls except for the wet sound of blinking eyes as Mark is examined by the amphibian horde.
“And how will you do that, worm?” the toad asks at last. “I could give the order and you would be eaten in moments.”
Mark opens his mouth to speak and then realises he has no answer. He is unarmed and surrounded by nightmarishly large creatures, any of which could swallow him in a single gulp. He clenches his fists and grits his teeth, surprised to find that his chief emotion at this realisation is not fear but intense annoyance.
He sticks his hands into his pockets to keep them from shaking and closes his mouth with a snap. He’s not unarmed after all.
“Too afraid to eat me yourself, eh?” he sneers at the toad, walking with a swagger to the very edge of the water. “You’d rather swallow little boys than something that might fight back.”
The toad puffs itself up angrily, its eyes seeming to throb with annoyance. “I’m not afraid of you, worm!” it blusters, and the floor trembles as it slaps the floor in emphasis.
“Well, you’d hardly admit it if you were!” Mark shouts. “But actions speak louder than words.” The audience of amphibians senses weakness and turns its gaze on the toad. One of the poker-playing frogs slips an ace out of his throat-sac while his opponents are distracted, surreptitiously trading it for one of the cards in his hand.
The toad hisses and what happens next is almost too fast for Mark to comprehend. Its mouth snaps open and a pink blur stretches across the water to Mark. It smothers him in stinking wetness and wraps around his upper body. He is wrenched into the air and whipped across the water, his spine making a worrying popping sound as he goes.
Everything goes dark and Mark is pressed on all sides by wet, muscular tissue. The breath is almost squeezed out of him and he feels something bony poking him in the side, hears a quiet sobbing next to him. His hand is trapped by his side by the wall of thick, leathery skin but he fumbles desperately for what’s in his pocket.
There’s a rush of malodorous air as the toad’s throat inflates again and Mark loses his footing and falls to his knees. The flesh walls of his prison rush outwards and he uses the freedom of movement to open the blade of his Swiss Army knife. As the sac reaches full distension, Mark looks around in the sickly green light that makes it through the membranous toadskin wall. He lunges for the sprawling boy and grabs his grubby, slippery hand, the feeling of lurching instability reminding him of a bouncy castle.
The toad begins to throb its sac, the sound a deafening cacophony that makes Mark’s entire body vibrate. He jitters across the rumbling floor and clumsily strikes out with the comically small blade of his knife.
Small it may be but it’s also razor sharp.
The small slit blossoms into a catastrophic tear, the rapid escape of air propelling Mark and the boy some distance away from the toad as it recoils in horror with a wet BLAAARP. They arc through the air and plunge into the waters below, the breath slapped from Mark’s body by the impact. His knuckles are white around the handle of his penknife and it takes no conscious effort to hold on to it even as he spins in the turbulent flow, his other hand grimly holding the boy’s.
The toad bellows angrily, the sound of it distorted by the water in Mark’s ears and a gush of blood stains the river pink. He and the boy are whirled around and along by the current and swept downstream into the tunnel before any of the toad’s lackeys can respond.
“Four aces!” says the cheating frog, in the moments before chaos erupts. “Fancy that!”