Chapter 1 – Lentil
The room was small and grey and dusty, and so was the little girl in it.
Moving aimlessly, she ran her fingers along the dingy wall, leaving four parallel tracks in the dust. She stopped for a few moments to gaze listlessly through the room’s one grime-dimmed window before drifting to the bed to sit. The bed was also small and grey and dusty. Perched on its edge, she sat staring into space, lost in thought.
Where am I? she wondered. She had no memories beyond waking up in the small, grey, dusty room. She couldn’t even remember going to sleep the night before, and although she had a feeling that she had awakened in the room many times before, it was only a feeling, for there were no memories to support it. No memories of anything.
No, that wasn’t quite true. She remembered the dream. Her recollection of the dream was quite vivid, but since it was only a dream she didn’t think that it really counted as a proper memory.
“I don’t even know who I am,” she said in a small voice, the words hanging, tiny and forlorn in the dry air, just another scattering of dust-motes in the dim light. Then something – a name – drifted through her mind like a leaf tossed by a breeze. Lentil. Lentil - it was an odd name; odd, but familiar.
“I’m Lentil,” she said aloud, and her voice no longer sounded quite so small. “Lentil,” she said again, savouring the word. It was a good name, a strong name, her name. Then the butterfly of hope fluttering in her breast flickered and died as she realized that it was only a name. There was no identity to go with it. No family, no home, no past and as far as she could determine, no future. All she had were a name, a dream, and a sad little room.
Lentil sighed and flopped back onto the bed. Her head gave a muffled thump as it bumped against the wall, but she didn’t care. What’s a little pain when you don’t even know who you are? She licked her lips, and dust, dry and tasteless, clung to her tongue. At least she wasn’t hungry or thirsty. She suspected that she was never hungry or thirsty in this place, which was probably for the best since there seemed to be nothing to eat or drink in the room. Or a table on which to eat. Or a chair on which to sit.
Or a toilet, for that matter.
In fact, there was nothing in the room but the bed, a window, two doors and a small, grey, dusty girl. There wasn’t even a lamp, and the light filtering through the layer of dust on the window cast the room in tones of dull grey.
She thought about the dream. It had been bright and warm and full of colour. It had also been full of people. She wasn’t really sure who they had been – some had seemed to be family, some friends and some, she suspected, enemies - but all that really mattered to her was that they had been people and she had not been alone. She had gone to school, eaten meals with her family and played with her friends in that dream world, and while such things might seem dull and ordinary to most people, they were wonderful beyond belief to a dusty grey girl trapped in a dusty grey room.
But was she trapped? She was sure that she was – her heart told her that it was so – but she could see no evidence to support her certainty. There were two doors in the room and she had no reason to believe that she could not just walk over to one of them, turn its tarnished knob, and leave the room. But believe it she did.
Still, there was no harm in trying.
And how many times have I tried before, she wondered, and found that the doors are locked? ‘Cause here I am, still in this room.
This having-no-memories business is extremely irritating, she thought.
Heaving a dusty sigh, she rose from the bed and approached one of the two doors that faced each other from opposite sides of the room. They seemed smug to her, as if silently mocking her for thinking that they might actually deign to open for so insignificant a little girl. Undeterred, she reached for the doorknob. As her fingers brushed its cold brass surface, she hesitated.
What if she wasn’t just trapped, but was actually a prisoner? If she were being held captive, then surely someone must be doing the holding. Someone or something.
Could her captor be on the other side of the door?
And where would she be if she opened it? She tried to remember what she had seen when she’d looked out through the window, but the memory slipped away from her like a half-seen shadow. Had there been anything out there? What if she opened the door, and there wasn’t anything there? What if this small, grey, dusty room was all there was?
“That’s just stupid,” she said aloud. “Of course there’s something out there. There has to be. And anyway, I’m Lentil and Lentil isn’t afraid of opening a door.” With a deep breath, she turned the knob and pulled.
The door opened...
...revealing another small, grey, dusty room containing one bed, one window and two doors.
Chapter 2 – Night Visitor
Although an imaginative boy, Grayling was unaccustomed to seeing the impossible, yet there, standing on the windowsill before him, large as life and twice as purple, was something that was clearly should not exist.
He rubbed his eyes briskly with balled fists, then risked another look through half-closed eyelids.
Nope, still there.
He rubbed harder and bright yellow stars flashed and danced across the red sky of his closed eyelids, but the rubbing did no good: it was still there, still grinning at him, and still impossible.
“What-ho,” it said.
Grayling jumped. He hadn’t expected it to speak. Actually, he hadn’t expected it at all, but now that it was here, he supposed there was no reason why it shouldn’t speak. It seemed to him that if you were dealing with things that had no business existing, you couldn’t very well start off by making assumptions about them. And at least now he could do something other than just rub his eyes and hope it would go away. He could say hello.
“Umm... hello?” he said uncertainly.
“Does that work?” it asked.
“Does what work?”
“Rubbing your eyes like that,” it said. “I’ve never really understood why people do that. Supposed to make the unexpected easier to deal with, I guess.”
“That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do,” he said, “and no, it doesn’t work. You’re still here.”
“Ah, but then I’m not that easy to get rid of. You try it on someone else and I bet it’ll work a treat.”
“Look, can I do something for you? I’ve got studying to do and I don’t really have time for imaginary... thingies. Big biology test tomorrow, and I’m not ready for it. And, no offence, but I’m not really sure that I believe in you. I don’t think I should be seeing you, and frankly it worries me a bit.”
“Yes, I can see that it would,” it said, “but you can relax. You’re not going crazy, and I’m not imaginary... well, not exactly.” It furrowed its plum-coloured brows and looked up at the ceiling for a moment, thinking. “Or maybe I am. I’m not exactly sure how these things work. In any case, you’re Grayling Soup, and I’m here to meet you.”
It hopped down from the windowsill and started toward him, one hand extended before it. Grayling could only assume that ‘hand’ was the correct word for the purple-furred, three- fingered thing that it presented to him, just as he could only assume that he was supposed to shake it.
He was not at all pleased at the prospect of shaking hands with a possibly imaginary... thingy. Grayling’s mind faltered as he searched for an appropriate label for the creature. ‘Dragon’ was the best he could come up with, but it didn’t seem quite right. Could a dragon possibly be that small? And what about the fur? Still, if it wasn’t a dragon, it was at least dragonish, and he couldn’t just continue to think of it as a ‘thingy’.
Anyway, shaking hands with a possibly imaginary dragon was not something he was prepared to do on the night before an important biology test, so he uttered a small yelp of alarm, stepped back and sat heavily on the edge of his bed. The bed, apparently irritated at the treatment, squeaked in protest.
The dragon-thing stopped, and looked at its hand as if trying to understand how so tiny an object could frighten something so relatively large as a boy.
“I’m sorry,” it said. “I thought that’s how you folks do things. How you say hello.”
Abashed, Grayling rose to his feet. His mother had raised him to be polite, and there was no excuse for rudeness. After a commendably brief hesitation, he bent over and took the dragon- thing’s small hand in his own.
“Pleased to meet you, Mister...?” he said.
“Oh, pardon me,” it said, “I should have introduced myself. Most remiss of me. Don’t know what I was thinking. I hope you can forgive me.”
It paused and looked at Grayling, its purple eyebrows raised in inquiry.
“I... um...” said Grayling, “Yes, of course I forgive you, Mister...?”
“Idiot,” said the dragon-thing, and it gave its head a little slap with the heel of its palm. Grayling was alarmed to see a tiny puff of smoke jet from its nostrils, but here at least was some evidence that the creature might, in fact, be a dragon.
“Mister Idiot?” he asked.
“No, no,” it said. “Mister Plonk. Or rather, just Plonk. I’m not a mister: never have been.”
“Plonk, then,” said Grayling and, still holding its hand, dropped into a squat to bring his face closer to the diminutive creature’s.
“So Plonk,” he said, “I don’t want to be rude, but are you a he or a she?”
“Why’d you call me Mister if you didn’t know if I was a he or a she?”
“I umm... I don’t really know.”
“Well I’m a he. All this fur and you have to ask?”
“Sorry,” said Grayling, but he was feeling a bit confused and was not exactly sure why he was apologizing. Was he supposed to know the difference between male and female tiny-purple-furry-possibly-imaginary-dragon-things? “Anyway, you are a dragon, aren’t you?”
“A dragon? Good heavens no. Not a dragon. Never that. No, no, no... well maybe. What do you think?”
Grayling gave the little creature a long appraising look. It had many dragonish attributes, there was no denying that. It had, for instance, a long muzzle containing a collection of wickedly pointed teeth that would have been truly frightening if they hadn’t been so tiny, and the curved horns poking through the purple fur on its head would have looked out of place anywhere but on the head of a dragon. The baby bat-wings that sprouted from just behind its shoulders, and the long tail that tapered to a graceful Indian-arrowhead point were decidedly draconian, as was the smoke that still trickled wispily from one of its nostrils, but there was also much about it that did not say ‘dragon’. The fur, for a start. As far as Grayling knew, dragons were supposed to be clad in iron-hard scales, not ratty purple fur that looked to be in need of a good brushing. And what about its size? The top of its head was only about a foot above the floor, and it couldn’t have been more than twenty-four inches long, tail and all: hardly a creature capable of making off with fair maidens and eating knights whole.
“No,” he said, after a moment’s thought, “I guess you’re not a dragon.”
“Well,” said Plonk, somewhat mysteriously, “you’d know better than I.”
“You mean you don’t know what you are?” asked Grayling, but before Plonk could answer, there was a knock at the bedroom door and a deep voice boomed from the hall beyond. “I thought I told you no TV until you finish studying,” it said.
“Cripes, it’s my Mom,” whispered Grayling, and without so much as a by-your-leave, swung Plonk by the hand and threw him under the bed. The non-dragon squeaked with surprise, and twin contrails of smoke marked the path of his flight. Grayling winced as he heard the tiny creature thump into the wall.
The door opened and, accompanied by a rustle of stiff tweed and a waft of oddly masculine perfume, Grayling’s mother stepped into the room.
“What’s going on?” she asked. She clutched a golf club in one meaty hand, and although Grayling knew that she had been polishing it – she often did – she brandished it like a cudgel. The sight of her, weapon in hand, caused a thrill of fear to run up the boy’s spine. She often had this effect on him. Not that she had ever given him reason to fear her – she didn’t believe in corporal punishment and was a practicing pacifist – but she was an intimidating woman, and always appeared to be on the verge of erupting into unimaginable violence. Almost everyone was afraid of her to some degree or another. Grayling’s father certainly was. Grayling himself was more frightened of her than of any other human being on the planet - with the possible exception of a schoolmate named Flower Buttons. The girl saddled with this incongruous and slightly silly name was a large, loud, bullying creature who had taken it upon herself to make his life as miserable as possible, and he lived every day in fear of crossing her path. And, of course, there was Mister Fusterman, the Gym teacher. How could you not be afraid of someone who insisted that all his students climb ropes to the very top of the gymnasium, even though certain thin young boys had clearly demonstrated that they had no aptitude for such activities and were risking life and limb in the attempt? Oh, and there was Albert Borsini – Grayling was afraid of him too - and Mary Costers, and that strange-smelling man who hung around the library, and...
Come to think of it, Grayling was afraid of a great many people. The difference was that he didn’t love them the way he loved his mother.
“Nothing, Mom,” he said.
“I heard voices, and you’re not at your desk. You can’t study unless you’ve got your nose in your books. I will not have a son of mine failing biology because he won’t spend a few hours studying.” Her massive fist tightened on the shaft of the club, and the metal creaked faintly. She threw a searching look about the room, her red-rimmed eyes smouldering. “Who were you talking to?” she asked.
“No one,” said Grayling. “I was just... just practicing my... my biology tables. Reciting them.”
“Biology tables? I’ve never heard...”
“They’re new: only recently discovered... by biologists.” Grayling winced. He prayed that she would not ask to hear him recite them. He had a fertile imagination, but doubted his ability to invent a convincing set of biology tables on the spur of the moment.
Scepticism fluttered across his mother’s granite features, and she stood silent for a moment, breathing heavily through flared nostrils and waving the golf club before her in a decidedly alarming manner. Many a boy of Grayling’s age – and most grown men for that matter – would have backed away from her in fear, or even thrown themselves screaming from the bedroom window, but Grayling had had eleven years to get used to his mother, and merely took a deep breath and waited for her to speak.
“Very well,” she said at last, “Carry on.”
She turned back through the door, slamming it behind her. The pictures on the bedroom wall jumped, and a small plastic model of Badger-Man toppled from the desk into a wastepaper basket.
Grayling started to bend to look beneath his bed, but before he could complete the manoeuvre, the door opened again and his mother’s ruddy face appeared around its edge. He stood in a half-crouch, looking up at her, guilt written in every line of his face.
“Love you, Pumpkin,” she said, and with another slam, was gone.
He waited until her heavy tread had receded down the hall before dropping to his knees to peer under the bed.
Of course Plonk was no longer there. A search of the room revealed no tiny purple non-dragons whatsoever.
Sitting back at his desk, Grayling wondered whether he had really seen the creature at all. Wasn’t it more likely that he had drifted off and dreamed the whole episode? After all, he didn’t like biology very much, and could easily imagine himself falling asleep while studying it. He also wondered why he had felt it necessary to lie to his mother. He was a fairly truthful boy by nature, and strayed from the truth only when absolutely necessary.
And what was I supposed to say to her? he asked himself. That I was just having a little talk with a purple, furry non-dragon named Plonk who might, or might not, be imaginary? No, on reflection, lying had really been his only option.
Feeling more than a little bewildered, Grayling settled back into his books. Non-dragons or no non-dragons, he did have a big test the next day, but no matter how hard he tried to concentrate he couldn’t shake Plonk from his mind. What bothered him the most was the feeling that he had seen the little creature before. Finally, after a full hour of staring at his biology text without reading a single word, he gave it up as a lost cause and began to leaf through a Badger- Man comic.
Grayling was suffocating. The last heat-ray blast from the Anthracian cruiser had punched a neat hole through the canopy of his fighter, and the air had escaped into the cold of space with a whistling roar. His helmet was strapped down on the empty seat behind him, and he wrestled to release his seatbelts, certain that he would lose consciousness before he could reach it. Should have been wearing it, he thought. Every Space Merc’ knows you don’t engage the enemy unless you’re wearing your lid. But here he was, about to die alone in the frigid vastness of space, and all because he hadn’t bothered to take the most basic of safety precautions.
He opened his eyes; suddenly wide awake, but still unable to breathe. Two inches away and staring into his, were a pair of golden eyes in a field of purple fur.
Plonk was sitting on his chest, pinching his nostrils shut with one hand and holding his lips tight with the other. Grayling sat up and grabbed the little creature with both hands. He pushed him away from his face and held him at arm’s length while gratefully pulling air through a now unobstructed nose.
“What-ho,” said Plonk cheerfully.
“What-ho nothing,” said Grayling when he had breath to speak. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Waking you,” said Plonk, with an expression on his face indicating that he thought it was pretty obvious what he had been doing.
“By suffocating me?”
“Worked, didn’t it?”
Grayling shook his head, trying to clear it. He might still be asleep and dreaming, but he didn’t think so. Well, he thought, it looks like the annoying little creature isn’t going to leave me alone. I guess I might as well treat him as though he really exists.
“What happened to you when my mom came into the room?” he asked. “Why’d you leave?”
“I ran as fast as my little legs could carry me,” said Plonk. “I’m surprised you didn’t. That was your mother, was it? She just about scared the horns off of me.”
“Yeah, she’ll do that. But where’d you go? I didn’t see you, and Mom can’t have or there’d have been a fuss.”
“I’m very fast. I was out the window before the door opened.”
Grayling put Plonk down on the bed and turned to the lamp on the side table. Just as he clicked it on, he realized that he could see Plonk in the darkness because the non-dragon glowed with a light purple luminescence. Why this struck him as strange when there was nothing about the little creature that was anything but strange, he wasn’t sure.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“Wrong question,” said Plonk. “What you should be asking is, “What are you and where do you come from?”.”
Grayling sighed. “All right,” he said. “What are you, and where do you come from?”
“Can’t tell you.”
“Witch? No, I’m not a witch. Why, do I look like one?”
With an heroic effort, Grayling successfully resisted the impulse to slap Plonk across his irritating little face.
“What I meant,” he said after taking a deep breath, “was, which question can’t you answer: ‘what are you’, or ‘where do you come from’?”
“Oh, I see. I meant I can’t tell you where I come from, but I suppose the same answer goes for what I am. I know I’m a Fig, but I’m not exactly sure what that is. I’m fairly certain I’m not a witch though. In fact, there are all sorts of things that I know I’m not. I’m definitely not a croquet mallet, or a cowboy, or the queen of Germany, or vodka, or tall, or...”
“No, a Fig.”
“That’s what I said.”
“No, you said fig – with a lower-case F. It’s supposed to be capitalized.”
“How could you possibly tell whether... never mind. Just tell me why you can’t tell me where you came from?”
“Ah, that’s a tricky one.” Plonk scratched beneath his furry chin with a delicate claw. “The truth is, you won’t believe me if I tell you. I’ll have to show you.”
“You’d be surprised what I might believe right now,” said Grayling.
“Never-the-less, I’ll still have to show you. There are rules.”
“Rules? Whose rules?”
Plonk cocked his head to one side as though considering how best to answer. “That,” he said, “you’ll also have to see for yourself.”
Grayling was becoming increasingly irritated by Plonk’s evasiveness. He was tired, and really did need his sleep. Big biology tests didn’t write themselves, and a sleepy boy is a biology-test-failing-boy.
As it happened, he wouldn’t pass his test the next day. He wouldn’t fail it either. It’s just that he wouldn’t show up to write it, and strangely, his teacher wouldn’t notice. In fact, Grayling would miss all of his classes that following day, but none of his teachers would notice, because they would have forgotten all about him. As would his friends and his family. Even his terrifying nemesis, the massive and, in his mind, demonic, Flower Buttons, would have no idea that he had ever existed.
“Well,” he said, “if you’re not going to tell me anything, then maybe we can call it a night. You can come back to see me tomorrow after school so I can ask you some more questions you won’t answer.”
“There is one that I’ll answer,” said Plonk.
“What do you want?”
“But that was the first thing I asked and you said... Oh. never mind. Okay – what do you want?”
If Plonk was amused by Grayling’s frustration, he gave no indication, for he suddenly grew very serious.
“We need your help,” he said, his voice low.
“Help?” said Grayling. “What kind of help – and who’s we?”
“We need a fighter, a warrior. There’s been some... trouble... and we’re not sure what to do about it. You’re just the type we need to put things right.”
“Fighter?” said Grayling. “What do you mean fighter? I’m not a fighter. I’m just kid. I run away from fights.”
“You’re a mercenary, aren’t you?” asked Plonk.
“Only in my dreams,” said Grayling.
“Perfect,” said Plonk.
Chapter 3 – A Shadow Hunts
The moon was bright, and cast deep shadows beneath the trees and hedges that marked the limits of the field. The field was lying fallow this season, but in other years it had grown tall with a thick coat of cornstalks, rich and green. Now a ragged scrub of weed and bramble claimed it.
At the northern edge of the overgrown acreage, the chaos of nature gave way to the manicured order of a suburban housing development. Row upon row of almost identical brick-clad boxes stretched away into the distance, the monotony broken only by the occasional school, church or parkette. It was in this grid of bland uniform comfort that Grayling’s parents had chosen to make their home. Their house, number seventeen Lakeview Mews, backed onto the fallow field.
Beyond the field lay a quarry. Like most abandoned quarries, this one was deep and dark, and its stone walls were sheer, but unlike the others of its kind, it was not irresistible to children. Their happy laughter never echoed from its walls, and they never swung, shrieking gleefully, from old tires suspended from tree branches above its dark, chill waters. Their fishing lines never plumbed its secret depths and they never lay, wet and goose-pimpled, to dry on its rocky outcrops. In fact, they avoided it like the dark, dank hole it was, and it was a brave child indeed who had the nerve to explore its mysteries. There was something about the place that kept them away, for the gloom that filled its depths was oppressive in a way that could not be attributed solely to a lack of sunlight. It was dark and unwholesome, like a cavity eating its way into a rotting tooth.
As a rule, the only time that children did actually pay it a reluctant visit was in their nightmares.
It was from this dark pit that the black shape emerged. About the size of a small car and low to the ground, it seemed featureless in the inadequate light of the moon. Like darkness made solid it flowed along, hugging the gloom at the edge of the field, almost indistinguishable from the shadows in which it hid. At one point it looked as though it might move out into the field, to cross the open space under the full light of the moon, but it hesitated and then, as though changing its mind, resumed its path around the perimeter.
It reached the low wooden fence that marked the rear yard of Grayling’s house and, with a sharp crackle of splintering wood, forced its way into the garden, the large hole that it left behind providing stark evidence it was made of something more substantial than mere shadow.
It crossed the yard and, like thick black liquid unconstrained by gravity’s law, began to flow up the wall of the house toward one of the second storey windows – the window that opened into Grayling’s bedroom.
Just as it reached the open window the lights went on in the ground floor. Grayling’s parents, awakened by the sound of the shattering fence, peered through the kitchen window, trying to see what might have caused the noise. Lights in neighbouring houses also snapped on, and two doors away a dog began to bark.
The shadow was too large to fit through the window, but it contracted and oozed through the opening like thick black ink. After a moment a low, chilling sound, something between a moan and a shriek, spooled out from the open window. The wail, thin and harsh and completely un-human, sounded as though it consisted of equal parts of rage and frustration.
In the kitchen, Grayling’s parents hunched down in terror at the cry, and it was some time before even the formidable Mrs. Soup could summon the courage to mount the stairs to investigate. When she opened the door, she found Grayling’s room empty. There was no sign of the shadowy intruder, but a strange smell, musty and damp, like old socks and sickness, hung in the air. She stared for a moment, the thought that something was missing, something was wrong, tickling at her brain, but she couldn’t quite get a grip on the errant notion, and with a sigh, closed the door and stomped heavily back down the stairs.
Chapter 4 – Over the Edge
What on earth am I doing here? Grayling wondered. It was well past midnight and he had an important test the next morning, yet here he was, stumbling about in the dark at the urging of a strange little creature whose existence he still doubted.
I must be dreaming, he thought, despite his earlier resolution to accept Plonk as real. Yes, that’s it. So if I’m dreaming, it’s perfectly safe for me to be wandering about in the middle of the night with an imaginary non-dragon. Even his overprotective mother would not have denied the logic of this. Besides, no one dies in his own dreams, so what’s the worst that can happen? He had once heard that if you died in a dream, the shock of it would be so great that it would actually stop your heart, but he had never believed it.
They were crossing the moonlight-dappled field behind the Soup house, and it occurred to Grayling that he could hazard a guess about where Plonk was taking him.
“Hold on a minute,” he said. “We’re heading toward the quarry.”
“Yes,” Plonk said.
“You didn’t say anything about the quarry. There’s no way I’m going in there.” Although Grayling thought himself protected by the invincibility of the dreamer, there were limits. “Not at night, anyway,” he added. He wouldn’t have gone in broad daylight either, but he didn’t want Plonk to think him too cowardly.
Plonk gave him a ‘what are you – a little girl?’ look, and continued across the field. Grayling stood for a moment, tapping his foot in indecision, then shrugged and followed. They soon stood at the quarry’s edge, gazing over the stone lip into unfathomable darkness. Grayling was still dressed only in his pyjamas, though he had taken the time to don a pair of slippers. He remembered, too late, that his pyjamas were covered with luridly coloured depictions of Badger-Man battling various nefarious foes, and was embarrassed that anyone should know that he, a boy at the worldly age of eleven, was still wearing comic-book-hero pyjamas. If Plonk noticed, he made no comment.
The pit looked deep. Actually, it looked bottomless, as though a stone dropped into it would fall until the heat of the earth’s core consumed it. It looked...
“Hang on,” said Grayling. Where’s the water?”
“Water?” asked Plonk.
“Yes, water. The bottom of the quarry is full of water. I’ve seen it... Well, everyone says it is, anyway. Mom and Dad told me to stay away from it because if I ever fell in I’d never be able to climb out, and I’d drown.”
“Well there’s none there now. It must have drained away when the Rent opened. I wonder where it went. Probably ended up in Coppleford’s cellar. Most things that go missing seem to wind up there. I’ve always attributed it to Coppleford’s sticky fingers and shaky moral code, but he always has some explanation that...”
“Yes, Rent: tear, hole, whatever you want to call it.”
“I don’t know what to call it, because I don’t know what it is.”
“No, of course you don’t. Not yet, at any rate. Just think of it as a doorway, because that’s how we’re going to use it. And now, if you’ll follow me...”
Without another word, Plonk hopped over the edge of the precipice and dropped into the void.
Grayling blinked once, shook his head, and looked down into the gaping hole in the earth. He thought he saw a faint purple glow deep down in the quarry, but it wobbled and disappeared
before he could be sure. If it had been Plonk, then the non-dragon was far deeper in the ground than he had any right to be. The quarry couldn’t possibly be that deep, could it? It made him uncomfortable to think that he was standing at the edge of so dizzying a drop, and he took a step back from the brink.
“Follow me,” Plonk had said.
“And now I’m supposed to just jump in after him, am I?” said Grayling. He said it aloud, somewhat to his own surprise, and looked around guiltily to see if anyone had heard him talking to himself.
Stepping carefully forward, he looked again into the seemingly bottomless darkness.
“Forget that,” he said, and turned around and started back toward home and the comfort of his bed.
As he walked, he thought about Plonk. Perhaps the little creature had been hurt. If he had survived the fall – unlikely, but perhaps possible – he might be injured and Grayling was the only one who knew where he was. Should I call the police? he wondered, and then thought, And that’s going to go well, isn’t it? I can just imagine:
“I’d like to report an accident, or possibly a suicide.”
“Is the person still alive?”
“I don’t know: and it isn’t a person.”
“Not a person? What is it?”
“Well it’s not a dragon. I’m reasonably sure about that.”
No, he would not be calling the police. So what was he to do? He had no idea.
As he walked back across the field he played with the idea of telling his parents about what had happened. They would know what to do: they always did. The challenge was to think of a way to tell them that wouldn’t lead to another lecture about spending too much time reading science fiction and watching horror movies, and not nearly enough engaged in wholesome activities such as sports and yard work.
He was half way to the gate when he noticed something odd.
There was a hole in the fence. A big one. He was sure it hadn’t been there when he and Plonk had left the yard only a few minutes before, but it certainly was now. It looked, to his night-fuelled imagination, as though some large creature had forced its way through the fence. Then he saw that the lights were on in the kitchen.
Now I’m for it, he thought. Mom and Dad must have discovered that I snuck out.
He was just beginning to fabricate a story that he hoped they might find at least partially believable – one that did not involve non-dragons and midnight visits to forbidden quarries – when he heard a terrifying sound. It was some sort of cry, and it seemed to be coming from his house. It sounded very angry. Although he didn’t know what kind of creature could possibly make such a noise, he was fairly certain he didn’t want to meet it. But it came from his house, and his parents were home, so he broke into a run, covering the remaining distance in seconds. He reached the gate and had his hand on its latch when he froze.
Something very large and very dark was oozing out of his bedroom window and slithering down the wall. He couldn’t imagine what it was. It didn’t move like any animal he had ever seen. It flowed rather than ran, and he could see no sign of legs. It was so black that the moonlight was unable to illuminate it, and he had no doubt that if he were to touch it, it would be cold and sticky and very, very unpleasant.
It dropped onto the ground and began to roll across the grass toward the hole in the fence. It was coming toward him, and Grayling decided that there was nothing in the world that he would like less than for it to find him. He turned and ran back across the field and before he had taken more than a dozen steps he heard the sound of splintering wood behind him.
Apparently it can’t be bothered using the same hole twice, he thought. He tried to run faster, but the field fought against him. Brambles snatched at his legs, as though trying to trip him, and the ground was hummocky and uneven, threatening to send him sprawling with every step.
He risked a glance over his shoulder and saw to his horror that the shadowy... thing... was flowing over the field behind him, and seemed to be chasing him. It was shockingly fast. The tangles, bumps and tussocks that were proving so hazardous to Grayling presented no obstacle to it, and it flowed over everything in its path without a ripple. It would soon overtake him.
With a start, he realized that he was running directly toward the quarry, and in that direction there was no escape. He swerved to the left to angle away from the quarry, and almost fell when a jolt of pain lanced through his ankle. He must have twisted his foot on some irregularity of the ground, but he ignored the hurt and ran on.
He sensed rather than saw that the thing had changed course behind him, and was moving quickly to cut him off.
Grunting each time his sore foot pounded into the turf, Grayling corrected his path and found himself once more running straight toward the quarry.
He reached the edge of the abyss and slid to a stop just before hurtling over its lip. One foot slipped over, and he dropped onto his rear to sit on the edge, both legs dangling into the void. His teeth clicked together at the impact, drawing blood from his tongue, and one of his slippers fell from his foot, dropping end over end into the darkness.
Leaning back on his hands he turned his head to see the shadow-thing bearing down on him, only a few feet away. He had an impression of dark shapes writhing within its inky depths, but even this close he couldn’t make out any of its features.
His fear compelled him into an action that his common sense tried its best to discourage, and he pushed off from the rocky lip and dropped into the quarry.
The shadow-thing did not hesitate at the edge, but sailed out over the boy as he fell. As it passed above him, part of its lower surface brushed against his head. He might have been gratified to know that his earlier assumption had been correct – it was cold, and sticky and very, very unpleasant – but the shock of its touch swatted all thought from his mind and he was unconscious even before he realized he had been struck.
His body, flopping bonelessly, followed his slipper down into the depths.