Thomas Visser slowly parted the long grass with the glinting blade of his machete, peering through the wild undergrowth towards a clearing. It seemed quiet and safe, but he had been in this situation enough times to know never to rush headlong into open spaces in dangerous terrain. Creeping slightly forward, he craned his neck to inspect the area, carefully lifting the binoculars which hung around his neck. Placing them to his eyes, he scanned for suspicious movements; anything which might be caused by something other than the elements.
Tall, bare trees surrounded the small clearing, but the wide, flat leaves and thick lush reeds suggested an unseen water source. Parts of the clearing could be stagnant swampland or an overgrown pond, hidden beneath a blanket of wild, tangled greenery. The thick silence of being miles away from civilisation was broken only by indigenous bird calls and the occasional whistle of a light breeze. He would have to move cautiously and quietly across, making sure not to be swallowed by sudden sinkholes or to disturb any wildlife which might be hiding from view, camouflaged amongst the brush and bracken. Still, he would have to move quickly, using all of his experience of dangerous situations and his knowledge of the perils of nature. Time was running out before the inevitable call would come in, putting an immediate end to the assignment. He was determined to see the mission through before that happened.
Thomas had recovered treasures and artifacts from every continent, from previously unexplored corners of places that were deliberately omitted from the maps you find in books or online. These were not tourist traps and centers of commerce, but held beauties and wealth beyond even the limits of most fiction. He had mapped out unknown lands, discovered natural wonders and found the relics of lost cultures. The awe and splendour of the long-untouched lands and the honour of walking untrodden paths were matched only by the perils of unimagined hazards. Every day was an adventure, filled with enough life for a hundred villages and swelling with more stories than a mortal man could ever read. Yet, it was never enough to satisfy him. There was always going to be another expedition, usually grander and riskier than the last.
He tensed his jaw as he silently lowered the binoculars to his chest. Pushing against the dirt beneath him, he eased himself to his feet. Still crouched, he placed the machete back into the holster at his ankle and scanned around for a fallen branch he could use as a makeshift walking stick to test the ground ahead of him. Spotting one, he edged across through the thick grass, some of which stood almost as tall as him. As he bent to pick it up, the radio hanging from his belt swung gently out, twirled and returned to his side, catching a button as it bounced back against his thigh.
“Chshhhhh!” The static blared in a deafening burst, tensing every muscle in Visser’s body as he momentarily panicked, throwing himself bolt upright with stick firmly in hand. Every possibility passed through his mind in a microsecond. Was he under attack? Was it the call coming in to bring him back home? He stifled his breath, suddenly very aware of his lungs. His eyes shifted as he listened intently, making sure nothing had changed in the quiet soundscape as a result of the mishap. Everything was fine. Still undisturbed. Still almost silent. He let himself breathe.
Creeping out into the clearing, his feet crunched the carpet of twigs and dried leaves which had fallen at the roots of their living kin. He tested the ground with his mossy branch, then replaced the stick with a foot, then repeated the process. Every movement combined stealth, caution and a determined purpose which was almost mechanical. He was almost exactly half way across when he saw the eyes glinting between two oversized leaves.
Thomas stopped dead in his tracks. It would be useless to run, even on familiar ground, let alone here. He stared straight back into the demonic yellow eyes as they narrowed on him. He could only hope for a bird-call or distraction from another more natural prey, but the silence around the clearing was only getting thicker. He was completely frozen to the spot as a scraggly-furred, talon-clawed paw stretched forward between the leaves. It was followed by another, along with an open mouth full of razor sharp spearheads for teeth and a long, sleek body. The pointed ears and long tail were reminiscent of a tiger, but the beast was covered in mottled grey fur, unlike anything he had ever seen in a zoo or wildlife show.
Their eyes were still locked as the thing emerged and stretched, twisting its muscular frame and lowering its haunches. It sat, transfixed on Visser, like a tightly coiled spring, then lowered its front end and began a slow, commando-like crawl towards him. Each liquid movement was eerily graceful, but as the front claws sank into the mud and it pulled slightly closer, he could picture his skin being carved and torn. His grip tightened on his branch, but the wet moss coating gave way beneath the increased pressure and it slipped out of his hand.
Thomas remained perfectly still as the branch fell to the floor, making a hollow thud and slap as it bounced off a stone into the mud. The cat-thing jumped at the noise, leaping into a more upright stance and turning its head slightly to follow the sound. As soon as its eyes flicked away, Thomas fell to the floor and broke into a commando crawl of his own. His shoulders burned under the pressure of his weight and urgency. His eyes were wide beneath his crumpled brow and he winced with every sharp stone and stick taking aim at his forearms and elbows. Within seconds, he was next to a large plant, which he knew would offer little shelter, but might shield him from view if the creature had lost him in the scrub. He pulled himself into sitting position and grabbed the machete from his ankle holster.
Pressing his shoulder against the base of the plant, he craned his neck. The beast had gone to investigate the stick after the sudden noise it had made. It seemed to be jabbing at it with one of its paws, but his obscured view meant he couldn’t see for sure. He turned away and looked towards the far end of the clearing. It was only meters away now. Beyond the clearing, at the foot of the tallest tree, was a cave. He could just about make out the entrance from his new vantage point, but he knew he would never make it with that thing out there, waiting for him. Just inside the cave was the artefact he was here for. So close, yet so impossibly out of reach. As he started to turn his head back, he heard the crunch of a paw coming down on the dead, dry leaves just a few feet away.
“Tooommmm-mmmeeeee,” a high, melodic voice pierced the air, shattering the moment and shrinking everything back to its usual size. “Tommy, are you coming in for dinner?”
The tallest tree turned back into the lamppost behind the back fence, and the cave was just his father’s toolshed again. The plant he was leaning against went back to being potted, the fallen branch was just a broom and the clearing was back to being a concrete yard with freshly trampled flower beds along one side. The machete in his hand reverted to being a trowel he had found in the flower bed.
Thomas turned towards the back door in time to see his mother come out to make sure she‘d been heard. She looked him up and down and tried to force a serious expression as she put her hands on her hips. Her mock disappointment was nearly given away by the twitching corners of her mouth and the raucous laughter behind her eyes.
“Thomas Visser, what on earth have you been up to?”
“Not much,” he replied, looking everywhere except his mother’s face.
He was sitting on the edge of the potted plant, with a muddy garden trowel in one hand. His knees and arms were smeared with soil from the flowerbeds and potted plants, his shorts were ripped and his t-shirt was all stretched out and hanging awkwardly off his shoulders. But it was the bizarre props he had used to accessorise himself which she found most amusing. The yellow sun hat almost matched the luminous plastic binoculars around his neck, which she suspected was the reason he had chosen that particular set at the market stall that day. She had wondered why he was so insistent that he get the yellow binoculars. Along with the Batman walkie-talkie hanging from his belt and his choice of bright blue wellingtons in the middle of summer, it was all she could do not to erupt in hysterical laughter.
“And what the bloody hell are you supposed to be?” She asked.
“An explorer,” he answered, with a very serious expression.
“Well, you’re absolutely covered in mud!” She said, putting on the best version of a stern voice that she could muster. “You’d better wash up before your father sees you.”
She motioned towards the house, stifling a snigger. He jumped to his feet.
“And take your kitten in with you. He could do with a bath as well!”
Thomas scooped up the cat, who meowed grumpily and gave a very weak attempt at a struggle before resigning to being carried into the house.
“Don’t worry,” Thomas whispered to the kitten as they approached the delicious smells drifting out of the kitchen. “Tomorrow we’ll have a whole new adventure.”