|Down the Rabbit Hole
by Michael Bard
© Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
With a last undulation that stretched out into a final beat of his tail, the man touched the tiled roof of the temple. Gripping the slate with the claws strapped to his hands to make sure the gentle water-filled wind didn't blow him off the roof, he pulled himself down into shelter behind the peak and crouched.
He'd made it!
Here he was, on the roof of the High Temple of the Pilgusez which was said to have been built by the holy Engineers when they had formed The Shell around the Stars of the Galactic Core. Whatever that meant -- it was all lies anyway. Sure, he'd been in another temple, one that drifted with the other buildings above the surface, and heard the words of the priesthood as they chanted the Tale of the Construction, but he didn't believe it. Nobody other than the priests believed. To see if they were right he'd even gone through the glowing silver roof that lit The Shell where he found only more air and another glowing layer far far above. Stars -- what were they? Lights in the sky? The only light was the glowing layers in the endless heavens. And gravity -- everybody knew that everything simply floated, or kept going where one pushed. Nothing was ever pulled down to the surface.
The priesthood was full of lies.
And just as the human priesthood had lied for generations, so he bet the Pilgusez priesthood in their warren temple below him had. Thus he had no qualms about his plan to rob it and make his fortune. After all, the Pilgusez were small, covered in dense white fur and afraid to leave the ground as their arms were too slight and too limited to hold wings to bring them back down. Not dangerous in the least!
Even as these thoughts ran through his mind, with quick athletic twisting he pulled his 7' body around and unstrapped the thin oiled wood tail he was wearing strapped to his legs. It was twice as big as he was, yet massed less than a dagger. After removing it, he took off the smaller wings strapped to his arms which were used for directional control, and then tied the three together and secured the rope around the outstretched edge of a longer tile so that the wind wouldn't blow them away across the sea. A final check of his crossbow, his sword, the claws secured to both his hands and his feet, and then he crawled across the roof and down the side until he found a window.
A twist, a stretch out into midair so that only one hand held him secure against the wind, the drawing of a dagger to press into the shutter and pry it open, a swift pull of his own body, never letting go of the edge of the window, and then he was inside. Knowing it was now safe to drift, he pulled the shutter closed, holding his body motionless with his other arm, and then twisted around in the darkness.
Inside the temple it was warm, curiously warm. Letting his eyes adjust, he cracked the light stick he'd purchased from the wizard. In its dim glow he saw that he was in a small wooden passage, circular, the edges worn and scratched and clawed from the passage of Pilgusez. All around was a dense stink of fur and feces and blood.
Then, in the distance, echoing and resonating through the wooden tunnels, a blood-curdling inhuman scream of pain and fear rose to a hideous crescendo before becoming suddenly silent, cut out in the middle and that was when he remembered that no human had ever entered the High Temple of the Pilgusez and returned. He couldn't help but shudder, and then forced himself to be calm and began making his way down the passage, jumping from side to side, the metal claws strapped to his hands and feet making metallic scratches that echoed into inaudibility. Proceeding as quietly as he could, he felt the rough wood of the wall and occasional slick sections of old and dried blood pass behind him.
Even before he knew why, he stopped and listened, and then he heard it. Somewhere nearby there was a loud thump and the scrabbling of claws on wood. With frightening speed it grew louder, closer. He readied his crossbow and waited, calmly, anchored against the recoil with both legs, as the scratching and the thumping grew louder, closer, louder, closer... and then it was past and fading.
Spinning around to follow it, he realized that it must have been from another tunnel and a light tapping confirmed that the sides were all hollow. All around were tunnels and warrens. Good -- that greatly reduced the chances of his meeting one of the Pilgusez. He proceeded on his jumping flying way, from surface to surface, making small leaps instead of long leaps so that he was almost always in contact with one of the sides and could change his direction if needed.
Time passed and he proceeded deeper. There were no branches, no sudden curves. Instead the passage slowly curved inward and downward, apparently spiraling to the middle of the temple. Another hideous scream of pain and terror, louder, shriller... and this time it sounded human -- the cry of a lost soul watching his own flesh being eaten. Again it was cut off.
He stopped, swallowed, his mouth dry. With his foot-claws he held himself in place and pulled out a waterskin and took a deep sip. The atmosphere was almost painfully hot, and sweat was pouring freely from his body. It was thick with the almost overpowering stink of mobs of Pilgusez. Sealing the skin he paused, again listening as the thump of a body and the scratch of claws swiftly came closer, and again he readied the crossbow just in case. Before him was a staccato scratch of claws... The slight creak of wood as thick muscles pressed against it... And, glaring at him, the glittering red eyes of an approaching Pilgusez. By the Engineers! Pulling the trigger the crossbow fired and the bolt went straight and true into the skull of the white-furred body. There was a scream of pain and hatred that echoed down the passage, and then the glowing red-eyes were upon him.
Still holding the crossbow, he didn't have time to draw his dagger before the creature flew into him and dragged him off the floor and slammed him back along the passage. He could only fumble for his dagger. Finally, he slid to a stop, feeling the scrapping of wood and splinters against his back through the boiled leather. Only then did he realize that the Pilgusez was dead -- his shot must have gone straight into the brain and only a dead body obeying the last will of its soul had impacted with him. Slowly he pushed the corpse off of him, his eyes drawn to stare at the mouth filled with sharp triangular teeth. That had been close.
Then he heard a sound, not a scream or a screech, but the rhythmic thumping of hind legs on wood from all around him. The Pilgusez could not fly in the open, but in these tunnels their immensely strong hind-legs gave them a fearsome power; their slight forepaws could only grasp their prey long enough for their teeth to tear into flesh, but that was more than enough. More thumping, louder. It was time to go while he still could, before they found him.
Now he could hear the pounding of individual hops. Some were below him, some on top, most in front, and even a few behind. By the Engineers there must be hidden doors linking the tunnels! Panicking, he forgot about the crossbow and leapt from wall to wall to wall back up the cramped passage, desperate. All around him he could hear the scratching of claws; he could hear the thumping of heavy bodies as they landed for a second and then leapt off. Behind him, near, he heard a sudden screech of pain. A second a silence and then the faint sound of flesh tearing from flesh as something consumed the corpse of the Pilgusez behind him. He couldn't help but look back into the darkness, and that was enough for him to miss-time his leap. He slammed into the side and scraped to a stop, the wood slick against the leather.
All around him the movement grew louder, more frantic. All he could hear was a cacophonous mob of drums, all scratching to get in and at him. He almost screamed, but he forced it down. He started jumping back for the entrance he'd come through. The entrance to The Shell beyond, to freedom from the darkness and the stink. By the Engineers no! Before him was a form, white, with glittering red eyes of hatred and hunger. Behind it were countless more. He stopped and they stopped, waiting. Behind him he heard other forms approaching, their movement echoing all around him. They wouldn't take him alive! He had just enough time to draw his dagger before they leapt upon him with a loud scratching of claws. Then all was screeching and screaming. Open jaws full of pointed teeth. Flashes of big floppy ears pulled back and out of the way. He was doomed, but he refused to die alone! Striking and thrusting with his dagger, he struck back. Each blow made wounds that oozed blood that drifted in the air around him, blinding him, but there were so many that he couldn't miss. From all directions bodies overwhelmed him. His armour was no protection against the sharp teeth and he felt them digging into his legs, his arms, his thighs... Each point was an exquisite instrument of pain. Flesh was torn from his body as he struggled, the Pilgusez mobbing him with their white furred bodies covered in blood. Most of it his.
He screamed again and again, each scream punctuated by a strike of his dagger.
For some reason he wasn't dead and even the pain he felt was distant and remote. He could feel soft furred hands on his chest; he could feel the bristly round tails against his face, but he couldn't see a thing. Trying to move his hands, his arms, his legs, he realized that they were gone. All were gone! He could feel fur against their stumps and he could feel the stinging saliva that somehow was keeping him from bleeding to death. Surrounding him were the Pilgusez, carrying him with anger and hatred. The only thing he could smell was the stench of their hunger. They carried him for a long time, the only sounds the thumping of their bodies as they leapt from side to side. With each breath he a got mouthful of bloody fur mixed with just enough air to live.
Suddenly the passage opened and he could breathe easily. There was light. Most of the bodies around him left, but a few remained, holding his torso and twisting him around to face the inner sanctum of the High Temple.
At that moment he couldn't have spoken to save his life.
The inner sanctum was huge, looking to be half the temple building. It was round, the walls the same smooth and polished wood that had made up the tunnels. On all the surfaces were crowded Pilgusez, their eyes red and glittering and all looking up towards the centre where the picture was. But the picture wasn't a painting or a drawing, it was a translucent image the took up almost two thirds of the inner sanctum. Its shape was spherical, and in the centre was a massive sea of brilliant lights in all colours -- blue, red, green, yellow, white -- more than he could count. Around them in all directions, after a great distance, was a thin multicoloured shell. It was streaked with colour -- green, brown, blue, tan, silver, all in tiny splotches and crooked lines and patterns.
It was The Shell, a picture of what the priests had described The Engineers had built. The lights at the centre must be the Stars of the Galactic Core.
The picture was immense, staggering, a work of art and beauty. A statement to all of the power of The Engineers. It took him minutes to realize that his body, still tightly held, was slowly moving towards the image of the Galactic Core, where, according to the priesthood, was hell. A terrible nothingness of fire and Vacuum that would consume him. Frantically he struggled, but the Pilgusez that held him wouldn't let go, and together they began to slowly tumble. As the room rotated, he could see the growing translucent Galactic Core and then The Shell, and then the glittering red eyes filled with hunger watching him. All he could do was scream, loud, ragged, and totally ineffectual. He struggled harder. But, with a ponderous inevitability he drifted towards the Galactic Core and his own damnation. Finally he passed through The Shell and felt only a tingling across his skin, and then the rude shoves of his captors as they thrust away from him. They were escaping as he sped towards hell! His screams grew ragged as he tumbled, but there was nothing he could do. Blood began oozing out of his stumps, spreading outward from him in globules of his own death. The Galactic Core grew nearer, brighter, became blinding...
And then he felt the first of the Stars touch him, a burning spark that fell through him and grabbed him and yanked him towards the centre, towards the deepest hell of all. He could no longer scream, could no longer even struggle. A sparkling lightning grabbed him and pulled him deeper, moving from his skin into his body, tugging, pulling, squeezing... Everything went dark as the pain increased. A stabbing pounding splashed into his brain. Then he felt his mind being ripped apart, pulled from his skull and into his body. Pain lanced through him, stabbing, thudding, scrunching him into a too small place, ripping off all that wouldn't fit...
And then the pain was gone. All was black. He tried to inhale but he couldn't breathe! Thrusting out with his hind legs he felt bone and flesh give. And the hunger hit him. He opened his mouth and ripped at the flesh that cocooned him, swallowing the warm blood and began to fill the emptiness inside him. He could see around him a glittering light, a thousand spots of colour moving away, but all he could feel was hunger. He ate the flesh around him, biting, tearing, feeling the love and honour and hunger of all those around him. Love and honour that he had fought to the end, and the eternal hunger that they all felt always. He was moving out of the Galactic Core, out of hell, and into the loving embrace of his fellows. His speed quickened and he frantically swallowed the flesh and bone around him. He didn't want to share it -- it was all his! Too soon he reached the embracing mob of his fellows and they fell upon the flesh he had missed, ripping and tearing to assuage their hunger. A frantic mob of fur and claws and teeth fighting over the scraps. Bodies thrust at him, legs kicked, and finally the last bit was consumed, a fleshy mask of his old face.
With the body gone the mob quieted, their claws digging into the soft wood around their God. Someone began to gently lick the blood from his flesh and he returned the favour on another in front of him. All around him were glittering red eyes; all around him the comforting smell of Pilgusez. Together all shared the eternal hunger as the priesthood waited for their people to throw them the next prisoner.
Website Copyright 2004,2005 Michael Bard. Please send any comments or questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org