ABOUT THREEweeks later, we came to the edge of a huge swamp - the area marked on the map by the circle. It had been a relatively easy trek. The map had been plainly drawn and was simple to follow. Though the terrain was tricky to negotiate - lots of wiry bushes to cut through - it didn't present any life-threatening problems. Harkat's wounds had healed without complications but he was left with three very noticeable scars on the left side of his face - almost as if he'd been marked by an especially eager vampaneze!
A foul smell of putrid water and rotting plants emanated from the swamp. The air was thick with flying insects. As we stood and watched, we spotted a couple of water snakes attack, kill and devour a large rat with four yellow eyes.
"I don't like the look of this," I muttered.
"You haven't seen the worst yet," Harkat said, pointing to a small island off to our left, jutting out of the waters of the swamp. I couldn't see what he was talking about at first - the island was bare except for three large logs - but then one of the "logs" moved.
"Alligators!" I hissed.
"Very bad news foryou," Harkat said.
"Why me in particular?" I asked.
"Iwrestled the panther," he grinned. "The alligators areyours ."
"You've a warped sense of humour, Mulds," I growled, then stepped back from the edge of the swamp. "Let's circle around and try to find the toad."
"You know it's not going to be - on the outskirts," Harkat said. "We'll have to wade in."
"I know," I sighed, "but let's at least try and find an entry spot that isn't guarded by alligators. We won't get very far if that lot get a whiff of us."
We walked for hours along the rim of the swamp, without sight or sound of a toad, though we did find lots of small brown frogs. We saw plenty more snakes and alligators too. Finally we came to a section with no visible predators. The water was shallow and slightly less pungent than elsewhere. It was as good a place as any to wet our toes.
"I wish I had Mr Tiny's - Wellington boots," Harkat grumbled, knotting the hem of his blue robes above his knees.
"Me too," I sighed, rolling up the bottoms of my jeans. I paused as I was about to set foot in the water. "I just thought of something. This stretch of swamp could be full of piranha - that might be why there are no alligators or snakes!"
Harkat stared at me with something close to loathing in his round green eyes. "Why can't you keep stupid thoughts - like that to yourself?" he snapped.
"I'm serious," I insisted. I got down on my hands and knees and peered into the still waters of the swamp, but it was too cloudy to see anything.
"I think piranha only attack when - they scent blood," Harkat said. "If there are piranha, we should - be OK as long as we don't cut ourselves."
"It's times like these that I really hate Mr Tiny," I groaned. But since there was nothing else for it, I stepped into the swamp. I paused, ready to leap out at the first hint of a bite, then waded ahead cautiously, Harkat following close behind.
A few hours later, as dusk was lengthening, we found an uninhabited island. Harkat and I hauled ourselves out of the swampy water and collapsed with exhaustion. We then slept, me sheltered beneath the deer blanket I'd been using these last few weeks, Harkat beneath the fleshy map we'd stripped from the black panther's stomach. But we didn't sleep deeply. The swamp was alive with noises - insects, frogs and the occasional unidentifiable splash. We were bleary-eyed and shivering when we rose the following morning.
One good thing about the filthy swamp was that the water level remained fairly low. Every so often we'd hit a dip and one or both of us would slip and disappear under the murky water, only to bob up spluttering and cursing moments later. But most of the time the water didn't reach higher than our thighs. Another bonus was that although the swamp was teeming with insects and leeches, they didn't bother us - our skin was obviously too tough and our blood off-putting.
We avoided the alligators, circling far around them whenever we saw one. Although we were attacked several times by snakes, we were too quick and strong for them. But we had to remain on constant alert - one slip could be the end of us.
"No piranha so far," Harkat noted as we rested. We'd been working our way through a long swath of tall reeds, full of irritating sticky seeds which had stuck to my hair and clothes.
"In cases like this, I'm delighted to be proved wrong," I said.
"We could spend months - searching for this toad," Harkat commented.
"I don't think it'll take that long," I said. "By the law of averages, it should take ages to locate anything specific in a swamp this size. But Mr Tiny has a way of fiddling with laws. He wants us to find the toad, so I'm sure we will."
"If that's the case," Harkat mused, "maybe we should just - do nothing and wait for the toad to - come to us."
"It doesn't work that way," I said. "Mr Tiny's set this up, but we have to sweat to make it happen. If we sat on the edge of the swamp - or if we hadn't marched west when he said - we'd lose touch with the game and would no longer be under his influence - meaning he couldn't stack the odds in our favour."
Harkat studied me curiously. "You've been thinking about this - a lot," he remarked.
"Not much else to do in this godsforsaken world," I laughed.
Flicking off the last of the seeds, we rested a few more minutes, then set off, silent and grim-faced, wading through the murky waters, our eyes peeled for predators as we moved ever further into the heart of the swamp.
As the sun was setting, a deep-throated croaking noise drifted to us from the middle of an island covered by thick bushes and gnarly trees. We knew at once that it was our toad, just as we'd instantly recognized the panther by its roar. Wading up to the rim of the island, we paused to consider our options.
"The sun will be gone in a few - minutes," Harkat said. "Perhaps we should wait for - morning."
"But the moon will be almost full tonight," I pointed out. "This might be as good a time as any to act - bright enough for us to see, but dark enough for us to hide."
Harkat looked at me quizzically. "You sound as though you - fear this toad."
"Remember Evanna's frogs?" I asked, referring to a group of frogs that guarded the witch's home. They had sacs of poison along the sides of their tongues - it was deadly if it got into your bloodstream. "I know this is a toad, not a frog, but we'd be fools to take it for granted."
"OK," Harkat said. "We'll go in when the moon's up. If we don't like the - look of it, we can return tomorrow."
We crouched on the edge of the island while the moon rose and illuminated the night sky. Then, drawing our weapons - a knife for me, a spear for Harkat - we pushed through the damp overhanging fronds and crept slowly past the various trees and plants. After several minutes we came to a clearing at the centre of the island, where we paused under cover of a bush and gawped at the spectacular sight ahead.
A wide moat ran around a curved mound of mud and reeds. To the left and right of the moat, alligators lay in wait, four or five on each side. On the mound in the middle lay the toad - and it was amonster ! Two metres long, with a huge, knobbly body, an immense head with bulging eyes, and an enormous mouth. Its skin was a dark, crinkled, greeny brown colour. It was pockmarked all over, and out of the holes oozed some sort of slimy yellow pus. Thick black leeches slowly slid up and down its hide, like mobile beauty spots, feeding on the pus.
As we stared incredulously at the giant toad, a crow-like bird flew by overhead. The toad's head lifted slightly, then its mouth snapped open and its tongue shot out, impossibly long and thick. It snatched the bird from the air. There was a squawk and a flurried flapping of wings. Then the crow disappeared and the toad's jaw moved up and down as it swallowed the hapless bird.
I was so taken aback by the toad's appearance that I didn't notice the small clear balls surrounding it. It was only when Harkat tapped my arm and pointed that I realized the toad was sitting on what must be the 'gelatinous globes'. We'd have to cross the moat and sneak the globes out from underneath it!
Withdrawing, we huddled in the shadows of the bushes and trees to discuss our next move. "Know what we need?" I whispered to Harkat.
"The world's biggest jam jar."
Harkat groaned. "Be serious," he chastized me. "How are we going to get the - globes without that thing taking our heads off?"
"We'll have to sneak up from behind and hope it doesn't notice," I said. "I was watching its tongue when it struck the crow. I didn't spot any poison sacs along the sides."
"What about the alligators?" Harkat asked. "Are they waiting to attack the toad?"
"No," I said. "I think they're protecting it or living in harmony with it, like the leeches."
"I never heard of alligators doing that," Harkat noted sceptically.
"AndI never heard of a toad bigger than a cow," I retorted. "Who knows how this mad world functions? Maybe all the toads are that size."
The best we could do would be to create a distraction, nip in, grab the globes, and get out again - fast! Retreating to the edge of the island, we waded through the swamp in search of something we could use to distract the alligators. We killed a couple of large water rats, and captured three live creatures unlike anything we'd seen before. They were shaped like turtles, except with see-through, soft shells and nine powerful fins. They were harmless - speed was their single natural defence. We only caught them when they became entangled in weeds on a mud bank as we were chasing them.
Returning to the island, we crept up on the monstrous toad at the centre and paused in the bushes. "I've been thinking," Harkat whispered. "It makes more sense for only - one of us to move on the toad. The other should hold on to the - rats and turtles, and throw them to - the alligators to provide cover."
"That sounds sensible," I agreed. "Any thoughts on who should go in?"
I expected Harkat to volunteer, but he smiled sheepishly and said, "I thinkyou should go."
"Oh?" I replied, momentarily thrown.
"You're faster than me," Harkat said. "You stand a better chance of - making it back alive. Of course, if you - don't want to ?"
"Don't be stupid," I grunted. "I'll do it. Just make sure you keep those 'gators occupied."
"I'll do my best," Harkat said, then slipped off to the left, to find the ideal position to launch the rats and turtle-like creatures.
I nudged my way around to the rear of the toad, so I could sneak up on it without being seen, and wriggled down to the edge of the moat. There was a stick lying nearby which I stuck into the water, testing its depth. It didn't seem deep. I was sure I could wade the six or seven metres towards the toad's base.
There was a rustling motion off to my left and one of the turtle creatures went zooming through the air, landing amidst the alligators on the far right side. One of the dead rats was quickly hurled among the other alligators on the left of the moat. As soon as the alligators began snapping at each other and fighting for the morsels, I lowered myself into the cold, clammy water. It was filled with soggy twigs, dead insects and slime from the toad's sores. I ignored the disgusting mess and waded across to where the toad was squatting, its eyes fixed on the bickering alligators.
There were several jelly-like globes near the edge of the toad's perch. I picked up a couple, meaning to stuff them inside my shirt, but their soft shells were broken. They lost their shape and a sticky clear fluid oozed out of them.
Glancing up, I saw another of the turtles flying through the air, followed by the second dead rat. That meant Harkat only had one of the turtles held in reserve. I had to act fast. Slithering forward on to the mound, I reached for the shiny globes lying closest to the giant toad. Most were covered with pus. It was warm, with the texture of vomit, and the stench made me gag. Holding my breath, I wiped the pus away and found a globe that wasn't broken. I sifted through the shells and found another, then another. The globes were different sizes, some only five or six centimetres in diameter, some twenty centimetres. I packed loads of the globes inside my shirt, working quickly. I'd just about gathered enough when the toad's head turned and I found myself on the end of its fierce, bulging gaze.
I reacted swiftly and spun away, stumbling back towards the island across the moat. As I lunged to safety, the toad unleashed its tongue and struck me hard on my right shoulder, knocking me flat. I came up gasping, spitting out water and bits of jelly and pus. The toad lashed me with its tongue again, connected with the top of my head and sent me flying a second time. As I came up out of the water, dazed, I caught sight of several objects sliding into the moat beyond the mound. I lost all interest in the toad and its tongue. I had a far greater threat to worry about. The alligators had finished with the scraps Harkat had thrown them. Now they were coming after a fresh snack ?me !