The Doomsday Toad
A Tale of the Blackwood Empire by RB Pierce
Lots of weird things go through a man’s mind when he hasn’t moved in twenty four hours. He begins to question things. It starts with “what am I doing here”, in regards to the task he is currently performing. That then leads to the same question, only in regards to existence. Eli had gone past both points and back again.
He fidgeted with the heavy leather mask he wore. He hated the mask. It made him look a bit like a fly, with its domed, black tinted lenses. It also compounded the oppressive humidity that enveloped him. Currently going through his mind were two things: one, how could the air of the jungle around him hold so much moisture without coalescing into, say, a lake. The other was how the collective stench of two days worth of sweat and dirt wafting off of his partner could only not repulse him, but in fact have the opposite effect.
Violet lay on the ground five feet in front of him, scanning an opening in the jungle foliage where she had placed the butchered carcass of a wild hog. Eli himself couldn’t see the carcass, as Violet blocked his view, but he could see the cloud of flies filling the air above it. That is, he would have been able to see it, were his attention not planted firmly on his bored thoughts and Violet’s backside.
Focus, Eli, he told himself, taking a breath and for the moment pushing aside personal desire. The Ephemeral Cartographers weren’t monks, but they were disciplined. Eli and Violet had a job to do and very short time to do it in, lest the Toad get away.
And God help them if the Toad got away. God help everyone.
Eli fussed with his mask again, wondering if the Cartographers included their mistakes and failures into the calculations. Surely they must, being as fastidious about accuracy as they tended to be. Perhaps the failures of their Surveyors were necessary to achieve the desired outcome.
Perhaps the Seniors wanted the Toad to get away, thus ensuring the ecological and economic ruin of the region. So, they sent out two inexperienced Cartographers after it…inexperienced, young and attractive Cartographers, if one really wanted to get specific.
That way, when disaster inevitably struck, the Senior Surveyors who held positions at court could point and say, “Look, we tried…but not every outcome is foreseeable.”
Which of course was 99.9 repeating percent true, 99.9 repeating percent of the time. Which was a complicated way of saying the idea of the Cartographers not knowing something would happen was complete bullshit.
The general populous remained ignorant of this, of course. Most people thought of the Cartographers as little more than a myth. Others just considered them as being really good at what they did, which they believed was simply surveying minerals.
Which, in truth, was largely what the Cartographers did. But what they also did, and what very few people knew about, was track resources and predict the effect those resources would have on the development of a given region. They then took that information and used it to produce an outcome favorable to the organization.
Sometimes this meant transplanting resources. Like a highly venomous amphibian into a non-native environment, where other creatures in the area would have no natural defense.
Violet’s stomach rumbled. Eli’s answered. They hadn’t eaten in two days. They hadn’t moved in twenty-four hours, when they heard the last croak. They had just been laying here, listening.
“Do you think it’s dead?” Eli asked, his voice barely audible behind his mask. Violet didn’t answer. He asked again, and again got silence. One more time, a little louder, for good measure…
“Shhhut-it,” she hissed. James did so. She didn’t like him, he could tell. Everything he said was met with a cold disregard, and she hadn’t spoken to him much since they’d been given their assignment a week ago. She probably knew that he liked her, wasn’t interested, and didn’t want to lead him on. It was quite kind of her, really. Didn’t mean they couldn’t be friends…
A loud CROAK rolled over the silence of the jungle. It rumbled through the ground and shook the foliage.
Violet shifted to her right and crawled deftly away, barely disturbing the plants around her. She was quick, too. In his mind, Eli had begun to think of her as “The Snake”. He’d never tell that to her face, though. Or to anyone else as the academy, for that matter.
Eli couldn’t hope to keep up with her while maintaining the peace, so he didn’t try. He stood slightly, at a crouch, and began moving in parallel with her. He was quiet, and quick, but more visible this way. Best case scenario, the Toad made a move and Eli kept it occupied long enough for Violet to sneak around and deal with the creature from behind before it killed him.
Worst case, well…worst case, he got eaten. He didn’t want to be eaten. Not today, nor tomorrow, nor any day for that matter. He wasn’t even too keen on being eaten by worms when all was said and done. When he joined the Cartographers, they had him work up a last will and testament, part of which included disposal of his corpse should anything happen to him. ‘Cremation’ had been his choice, despite it being staunchly forbidden by his family’s religion and knowing that his mother would likely faint if she ever found out.
None of that mattered, though, not if he got eaten by a Toad.
Another croak rolled through the trees. Violet froze and Eli did the same. She looked behind her, then around. When her eyes settled upon him, Eli thought he saw disappointment at his continued existence but he couldn’t be sure. He was really quite bad about reading other people, women in particular.
“Get down!” she rasped. “You’ll call it over!”
Eli slowly lowered himself to the ground, keeping his eyes on the trees around him. He saw no sign of the Toad, but that was not surprising. The Toad could be anywhere.
The humidity of the jungle pressed in around him. It was suffocating. He couldn’t wait until they returned to the Divide, where the air was dry, and the land a deep, ruddy hue.
Something shifted in the foliage nearby. He thought maybe it had been Violet, but she hadn’t moved. He looked over his right shoulder…
The air was filled with teeth, and bright red flesh, and sticky yellow streamers of saliva. He dropped down flat, and the Toad, an amorphous blob about the size of a pony, bounded over him.
It hit the ground ten feet away. Mucous spurted across the foliage as it landed, its body spreading out in a grotesquely shapeless manner before bounding back into the vague form of an oblong with frog legs.
It wasn’t actually a Toad…that’s just what they had taken to calling it. Eli couldn’t see why. Aside from the jumping and the form of its legs, it didn’t much look like a toad.
It looked more like a misshapen ball of pearlescent goo, with a mouth that could swallow a man whole (he’d seen that first hand, nasty bit of business, that). It had two small eyes barely visible within sockets set deep into the moist flesh of its face.
And on top of everything else, it stank to high heaven, or low hell. Take your pick. A potent mix of sewage and decaying gourds permeated the area and, combined with the heat, made Eli dizzy.
The Toad turned, a slow process that appeared to take a great deal of effort. Its insides swirled under the translucent top layer of its flesh before the rest of it caught up. Eli met its beady gaze and the lower half of its neck expanded to three times its normal size. The Toad then let rip with another croak.
The sound was ungodly loud. It had been loud before, but now, in the clearing, with the Toad in front of him and nothing to break the sound, Eli had to cover his ears and squint against the pain. It left his ears ringing and his balance out of whack. When he pulled his hands down, blood mixed with some other fluid covered his left hand. Worried about what this meant, and wondering why the left side of his body felt like it wasn’t there anymore, Eli barely had time to notice the thing pulling its hind legs up in preparation for another lunge.
Eli tried to dodge, but his leg folded ineffectually beneath him and he fell. The Toad attacked, its mouth spreading open into a horrible gaping maw of teeth.
Violet leapt into the fray then with a flying side kick. Her foot sank into the Toad’s right flank and got stuck, but her momentum was enough to knock the beast off course and face first into the tree next to Eli.
Eli spun away, shaking his head and pounding on his ears in an attempt to get his equilibrium back. Violet and the Toad both lay sprawled on the ground. Violet’s leg remained stuck in the creature’s side. The skin had not broken, as far as Eli could tell. It had only stretched inward and puckered tightly around her knee.
An unintelligible moan of disgust escaped her as she fought to pull her foot out. The creature struggled on the ground, its gelatinous legs scrabbling feebly against the foliage. It turned what passed for its head to the left and tilted it down, catching Violet in its gaze.
The creature’s tongue flicked out and wrapped around Violet’s head. She tried pulling it away and only made it worse as the tongue slipped down around her neck. Its sticky surface plucked one of the lenses from her mask, exposing her right eye. The creature’s saliva dripped from the rim and into her eye. Her body tightened with pain and her fight became more desperate. She probably would have screamed, if the Toad’s tongue had not been wrapped around her throat.
Eli looked hurriedly around him for something to use as a weapon. He found a stick that looked like it might do but it dissolved in his hands, rotten from the jungle’s humidity.
Violet still fought, her body at an odd angle. The Toad was trying to pull her out of itself. Eli paused for a moment to consider that thought, and how it was the most absurd thing ever to run through his mind, before returning to the situation at hand.
He had no weapons to speak of, except for his hands and feet. The tongue was pulled tight, and thin with strain. It looked about ready to snap.
Eli rushed forward, fighting dizziness every step of the way, and grabbed the tongue with his hands. Yellow slime coated his palms and oozed through his fingers as he twisted and pulled, trying to rip through the muscle. It displayed an unparalleled elasticity and refused to break. The creature made a barking sound, deep in its chest. Eli imagined it was an attempt at another deafening croak, or perhaps just a cry of pain.
Eli’s attention settled upon the creature’s mouth, and the rows of sharp teeth that lined it. The solution was simple, even elegant. It was also completely wrong on some fundamental level, but if he didn’t do it, Violet would choke to death soon.
Eli let go of the tongue and ran forward, fixating on the animal’s lower jaw. He pulled back with his right foot and drove it up into the jaw bone. The jaw snapped shut, right onto the tongue. Dark red blood oozed out of the creature’s mouth and the tongue loosened.
He heard coughing behind him, but did not turn, keeping his attention on the Toad’s mouth. The flesh of its face twitched and something like a whine escaped from deep down within the Toad. Eli pulled back his fist and drove it into the animal’s eye, up to his elbow. It was warm in there, and his stomach turned. The creature’s entire body tightened up, then went limp.
Eli pulled his arm out of the Toad’s eye socket, his sleeve caked with chunks of gray flesh and blood. He grimaced at it and tried wiping it on his pants, a mostly futile gesture.
Sure that the beast was now dead, he turned and saw Violet pulling her leg from the blob of the toad’s body. She reached up and yanked away her mask, revealing a right eye swollen shut. The tissue around it was a sickly mix of purple and green. Tentatively, she reached up and probed it, pulling her hand away with a sharp hiss of pain.
Her good eye landed upon the corpse of the Toad. She grimaced, then pulled her leg back as if to kick it. Remembering her recent ordeal, however, she instead chose not kick the Toad. She looked up at Eli.
Eli thought he heard her say, “Thanks,” but as his left ear was turned toward her, he couldn’t be sure.
“You’re welcome,” he said anyway. “Let’s get out of here.”
* * *
Early the next day, Eli and Violet made it back to the town of Renalto in the Southern Empire. They went their separate ways at the town limits, and Eli went to see a doctor. He assumed Violet was doing the same.
The doctor gave him a thorough examination, despite Eli telling him precisely what was wrong. He didn’t ask any questions about the right sleeve of Eli’s uniform being stained with blood, though. One of the perks of working in the Southern Empire.
“The ear is damaged beyond all repair,” the doc explained. Eli paid him and left, then headed for the rendezvous point.
He got there early, but both Violet and their contact had already arrived. He was a tall, shaggy looking sort in a tailored suit, and he looked absolutely bored.
“Oh, how delightful,” the Contact said. He sounded bored, too. “Everyone is here, a full afternoon ahead of schedule.”
Eli ignored him and looked at Violet. Someone had seen to her eye. The swelling had gone down and she wore a patch.
“It’s gone,” she said, catching him staring, and left the matter at that.
“Let us get this nasty business out of the way,” the Contact said, and walked over to a makeshift table constructed from a couple of barrels and a plank of wood. From beneath the table he pulled a bag. From the bag he pulled two weather beaten wooden boxes, which he in turn placed on the table.
He waved them over, and Eli and Violet complied. The Contact opened the boxes, revealing each to contain a pair of silver six-shooters. Eli looked at Violet and smiled. She simply nodded.
“Time for your final test,” the Contact said. “Pick up a gun, and kill the other.”
How could this be? Eli wondered. He didn’t want to kill Violet, but…if he didn’t, surely she would kill him. Her hand was already going for one of her guns…
Eli’s hand shot out, grabbed one of his six shooters, and pointed it at Violet. He saw her hand pause just above her case, but it was already too late to stop. Eli had pulled the trigger.
The hammer fell on an empty chamber. Violet blinked in disbelief. Her hand hovered just above her weapon, then dropped.
Eli didn’t understand…she had stopped. Why had she stopped?
“Interesting,” the Contact said. “Not the outcome we expected.”
Eli wondered just how true that statement was as the Contact reached out and grabbed Violet’s gun, cracked open the cylinder, and removed six cartridges.
The Contact reached into his jacket with the bullets in his hand. Eli heard the bullets clink together as they were dropped into a pocket. When the Contract pulled his hand back out, the bullets had been replaced with an envelope, which he threw on the table. Stamped across its front was the word “ORDERS” in big red letters.
“This should prove to be the beginning of an…entertaining…relationship,” he said, and walked away, leaving Eli and Violet standing across the table from each other with four six-guns, no bullets, an envelope, and a whole heap of unfinished business between them.