Into the Unknown

Is this it? It must be the temple, it simply must be. A loud thud echoed through the empty, unnatural darkness before him as the door swung open. He stepped forward, eyes wide and hands held out in front of him. His heart jumped into his throat at every creak that sounded from the wood beneath his leather boots as they spread forth through the silence clinging to the stale air. What kind of temple is this? Why was it ever abandoned? The muscles behind his ears tensed and he caught a faint hiss emanating from all around him, it seemed. His stomach sunk to the darkest pits in his gut and he pulled his hood from atop his head. I need to find some light if I am to continue forward.

He pressed through the empty space, stumbled around numerous pews until his fingers brushed past a carved stone pillar and followed the contour around until his palm met a metal surface. He felt around the cold iron and up around a pair of eyelets. No torch. He ran his hand along to the other side of the ancient support and found a similar fixture -this one carrying a long wooden object that reeked of oil. He pulled the object from the sconce and rooted around in his bag for a small metal canister carrying tinder, flint, and a steel blade.

With a few strikes on the grey stone, he managed to set fire to the saturated cloth at the end of the torch. Within seconds, the flame grew to a sizable stature and revealed the space around him to be the back end of a cathedral -looking up into the pulpit. He stepped behind the lectern, dominated on either side by a choir loft, ahead by the gloom, below by a narrow stone staircase, and above by a mural depicting a number of scenes and persons and deities he couldn't identify. Beyond one of the raised lofts was the obscured outline of a passage partially revealed by the torch light. The chamber shook ever so slightly as the whisper of an unfelt wind whirled into the stagnant air. "The passage, watch out! Hide the light, the darkness will protect you just as it protects these dwellers. Wait for it to pass and hurry below the pulpit!"

"What? Hello?" he called to the empty space. The noisy creak of a rusty hinge drew long and hard against the grating silence before a heavy thud shattered it. The sound faded back to silence and a steady thump of padded feet and the click of claws tapping the tiled temple ground drew from the passage. The shadows seemed to shift before his gaze and he sucked a breath of dust inward as his eyes widened. "Go! Before it finds you!"

He tossed his head to the loft -to the staircase behind him and took the steps down two at a time. He turned a corner into a passage with several crates and barrels scattered about. This must be the storage area…As he pushed his way through the dust illuminated by the light, the beast's haggard breath and the sound of its heavy footfalls mixed with the noisy whisper from his torch as the flame perched atop it burnt on oil and air. Throw it!

He reared back and tossed the light back up the staircase, past the lectern and into the rows of pews. The beast snorted from its hidden location and its footfalls stopped. He scrambled into the hall and crouched behind some of the many barrels littering the hall, sat there quivering as he anticipated his violent disembowelment at the hands of this dweller as the beast just stood there, breathing. He closed his eyes and counted the seconds as they passed by while the beast was doing…nothing? What kind of hell has this temple descended into? The muscles in his gut wrenched inward as the beast gave a long, harrowing howl. A hiss again met his ears and he cringed as the monster rushed off.

"It's gone. Get going, before it comes back." whispered the wind. A gust of air tore through the hall and a door further down the hall than he could see snapped open. "It's not going to be long before it returns. Hurry up!"

A light grew from the open door and he breathed a sigh of relief as his legs pushed him forward of their own accord. He busted through the shadows past the crates, into the space beyond the door and swung it shut behind him. He closed his eyes as he sunk to a sitting position on the wooden flooring. What was that? What horrors could be lurking beneath the omnipresent cover of shadow? Why is it here? I think I'll rest a bit…yes, then I'll try to get out and…get out and alert the monks.

His form fell to the ground as his eyes began to throb. Wordlessly, he let the light soak into him as his limbs shook with adrenaline, fear, and shock.

"No! Don't you see? It's going to come and get you -you need to keep moving!" He opened his eyes and slid into a fetal position in front of the door. Without a sound, he lay there and drew farther into himself as a darkness overtook his sight. The sound of anxious footsteps pacing around him fell on deaf ears as he lay, passed out on the floor.

The Rat

Through his dampened senses, he felt water trickle in from underneath the door. Puzzled, he shook his head and clambered to his feet, glancing about the room. All of the candles had gone out, leaving a useless trail of water as his only point of reference in the now darkened room. He stepped into the opaque black before him, let his vision adjust to the lack of light and took a moment to get his bearings.

Shelves and crates lined the walls, overlooking a number of metal barrels scarcely distributed through the center of the room. Beside him was a table with what could have been wine soaked into its surface. The white wax of a single candle resting on the table caught his attention. As he made for it, a sudden wave of nausea overtook his senses and he doubled over, retching. Fighting back the urge to vomit, he grabbed for the candle and his vision began to blur.

What trickery is this? He shook his head and grasped the waxen thing as he fished around in his bag for his tinder box. Nothing, I'm again stuck in this infernal shadow. A hiss met his ears and he cringed inwardly, dropping the candle with a solid clop on the wooden floor.

"The Rat scurries through the dark of the night, trying not to cause a fright. Then he steals some bread and hopes the King gains not his head…" laughed a light voice. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and he turned to the door -to the source. Kneeling in the darkness before him was a robed figure; dressed in the traditional garb of the Cardinals. He just sat there, hunched over as if he was praying. His arm sharply jerked backward, twisting the figure with the motion. "'Did you come to have fun, too?' asks the Rat, yet he turns and tries to run, clutching the knife that soon would end his life." he sang.

"H-hello?" he called. His hands were clammy with sweat and his legs felt like lead as the figure staggered to his feet.

"The Rat has died for his lies, but what of those who killed him -buried his limbs and burned his pride?" he asked, twitching and jerking from his twisted posture. An icy, dead feeling hung in the air and he stepped backward, wooden flooring softly creaking beneath his boot.

"The-the rat?" he asked. He held his breath.

"And you? Did you come to play with the Rat?" The figure turned to him and he felt his heart skip a beat. This man-this thing was no Cardinal…it wasn't even human, as far as he was concerned. Twisted, swollen limbs extended past the tattered garb at odd angles and the eyes were replaced with dark, bloody sockets. The jaw was mangled beyond recognition and its head rolled to and fro as if its neck was broken. "Did he steal your gold and lie and leave you to suffer and die?" it laughed, pulling a knife hidden in its neck.

His eyes widened and he stumbled back, willing but unable to tear his eyes from the monster faltering towards him. Arms pulled against its torso, knife held close to its being, its sharp cackle permeated the filthy air around him and he spun on his heel, frantically searching for a way to escape.

"Run!" whispered the wind. A dull light filtered through the dark ahead of him and the beast called out in a terrible shriek. He shivered once and spurred his heels forward, into the light. He could hear the thing behind him, heard its bare feet slapping the floor and its muted chortling. He turned a corner and was met with a number of doors adjoining another length of the hall. Rushing by, he passed door after door before he slowed and tried one. Locked! Father, be with me! An animalistic grunt met his ears and he spun to face the dweller looming over him, poised to attack.

He brought an arm over his head and felt a scalding pain spread through it as the monster swung its twisted hand down. He caught a brief flash of light and dropped to a crouch as the rat thrust its knife forward. Now! Plow through him!

He brought his uninjured arm down and hunched behind it, pushing with all the strength in his legs. He drove his weight forward and outward from his haunches and caught a leg behind the robe. Pushing through with his maneuver, his momentum swept its feet out from under it and, without looking back, he urged his legs forward even as he heard the abomination tumble to the ground.

Need to find a door, I need to hide! screamed his frantic mind. He tumbled into a darkened stretch of the hall and turned a corner. Faced again with the eternal obscurity, he slowed his pace and tucked his throbbing arm closer to him.

The dweller's cackle echoed through the gloom and he stumbled into a sturdy crate. A clatter of wood sounded as a loose lid fell to the floor beside it. Maybe I could...but how would that work? I'd be stuck if it found me, there could be...things in it...

The dweller gave its piercing shriek and any reservations he might have had vanished. He grabbed the lid with his good arm and awkwardly clambered into crate –into the silky, sticky material spun within and slid the top onto the box. Rapid footfalls met his ears as the dweller rushed towards his crate and he hunkered down as low as he could. Go away! Leave! He held his breath and covered his ears as he shifted uncomfortably in the sticky material surrounding him. The slap of bare, fleshy feet on stone grew farther and farther away as it left and he breathed his sigh of relief.

A slight prick grabbed at the back of his neck and he froze. He felt two, then three, then more than he could count and he probed a hand to investigate. His fingertip brushed against a long, brittle object that scrambled off at the contact.

"Ah!" he gasped as another crawled onto his hand and yet another made its way down his arm. He broke into a cold sweat and pressed the wrong hand against the top of the crate in an effort to lift it off of the box. A searing pain shot through his injured arm and he twisted and writhed, wrapping and stiffening the silky material around his form. He broke into a panic as more and more creatures worked their way onto him and he bashed the top of the crate with his uninjured limb, sending it flying. Painfully and awkwardly, he jumped from the wooden container and set off running in a direction unclear even to himself.

Son of a bitch! Get them off of me! his mind screamed as his feet carried him. Into the darkness he ran, farther and farther from the light, stumbling over the odd crate or barrel. A resounding, metallic clatter burst forth through the dense silence and his foot caught a rope strung loosely across the hall. He fell hard against the ground, onto his injured limb and through the pulse in his ears and the excruciating throb in his arm, a quiet laugh caught his attention.

"Where is it? Where has it gone?" the dweller snarled. "It is not among this useless waste…" it growled.

He sucked in a breath and staggered to his feet. What? Where did I…where did it Gurgling quietly, the figure limped through the gloom before him and made its way in painstakingly slow lurching movements towards him as he stood there, wide eyed and paralyzed. Is it blind? He waved a hand through the air around him. I guess so…What do you think you're doing? Go, get out! his own voice echoed through his head and he began to shuffle quietly across the ground to a darker stretch of the passage.

"No, no, the Rat can hear it breathing…softly, softly as the cat it is…it is wounded but he knows not where it hides...finding it will be a simple matter if a lowly sound it would utter." the dweller cooed.

He pressed his back to the wall and felt a depression beneath his throbbing shoulder. He ran his hand over the stonework, onto a wooden surface and felt around, searching. His wrist nudged against a knob and he painfully clenched onto it, twisted it, and pushed the door open with a heavy creak to reveal another damned blackness.

He jumped past the doorway, hurriedly kicked the door shut behind him and shuddered as the monster's cackle again pierced the silence. Advancing into the space, cradling his arm against him, he crouched down into a corner and breathed a silent prayer as his skin crawled about him.

"What world is it that the cat flees the Rat? Come and play or you'll survive another day!" cackled the rat. It gave one bash upon the door, then two as its breathing grew more and more haggard. "Why do you hide? Death is not a cruel master; he is much more kind than spiteful laughter!" it sang. The monster beat against the sturdy wood, again and again, and the wind made itself heard once more.

through here; it will lead you to a crossroads. When you reach it, hook left -that tunnel will take you near the remains of the priests' libraries. You might find something to help you defend yourself in there." A creak echoed through the chamber and he turned to face a stone façade hanging open on a set of hinges. He flinched as another impact battered the door and sent a splintering crack through the oppressing gloom. "I can't guide you any further; it drains my power to do so, but you won't be alone, either." whispered the wind. He stepped forward, through the hollow stonework and into the unlit passage beyond. "I'll seal you in so the Rat can't get you, but you can't get back through. You'll have to find another way into the catacombs." He stepped forth, beyond the aged hinges and flinched as the wall fell back into place, sealing entrance -and exit- from the space before him.

What use could priests have for concealing a passage this way? He squinted and could faintly make out a staircase ascending higher, still without giving way to sunlight of any kind. He climbed the steps higher with his hand pressed firmly to the wall. Eyes trained at the stairway, he felt his boot roll along an object and he stopped to investigate it. He reached a hand out and felt it contact briefly with a cold metallic surface. Grasping for the object, his fingers curled around a cylindrical shape. He brought it to his eyes and an imperceptible grin twitched at his features as he realized what this was. A tinderbox! Now all I need is a torch.

Up he went until he broke onto even ground, barely visible through his poor vision. A door sat closed before him and he put his hand out to open it. He gave one hefty pull and the door swung open.

What he saw made him recoil in disgust.

This corner of the Union

The piercing cry of a falcon echoed from its vantage point below the overcast skies, carried through the wind and light rain to assault the ears of passersby. A slight trickle ran down a gutter beside the busy street, sputtering and coughing with the noisy engines of Model T automobiles. One of the anonymous black vehicles pulled up to an equally anonymous man standing amid the shattered cadence of human footsteps. As he stepped forward, a childish voice called out to him.

"Mr. Bradford?" The man turned to face a small, sheepish young boy and forced a smile at him.

"Yes, my boy? What do you need?" he asked.

"Excuse me, sir, but you've got a parcel –from an 'Uncle Gerard'..." he replied a bit more confidently. He passed a box from his satchel to the man and held out an expectant hand.

"Gerard?" he asked with more shock than he had intended. "He's been mis-Oh, right. Erm, how much do I owe you for your services, courier?"

"Five dollars, sir." he chirped.

"Here. Keep what's left." he replied in kind, handing the boy a silver coin.

"Thank you, sir." he called before he turned on his heel and ran back down the side street he had come from.

"Always good with the children, aren't you Derek." his friend chuckled from the taxi in his heavy French accent.

"They just want to be recognized as an important part of the society. They can't work in the factories or the mills, so they'll work in the streets. That's why we've got an abundance of couriers and paperboys in this dreary corner of the Union." he replied as he climbed into the black painted car. The vehicle pulled away, traveling farther down the cobblestone road. "Fifteen-eighty-six, Seventh Street, please." he spoke to the driver, offering a silver coin to the nondescript man.

"Yes, well, they're always scrambling about, aren't they?"

"More than the government is willing to admit. So what have you found? What was so interesting that you had to travel all the way from Italy to see me?" he asked.

"We don't know yet. The scholars we have examining the site think it's some sort of temple, but no one knows anything for sure. We've yet to hit a cathedral; it's about two-hundred feet underground!" he exclaimed. The car lurched to a stop and the harsh cry of the driver calling out the window at a number of passersby split their ears. The two looked upon the scene and indifferently returned to their conversation as the vehicle began accelerating again.

"Who in their right mind would build a temple so far below the surface?"

"We're working on that, Derek. One of our scholars disappeared recently, though, and we found him cowering in the dark recesses of the cavern the damnable place was built into. His clothes were tattered and he was wounded quite badly…but he was also stark, raving mad." replied his friend.

"Oh? What do you think he found down there, Frederic?"

"Again, we don't know. He was rambling about a rat and some kind of snake-like creature and how they'd come to get us if we didn't leave. That's trivial, but he did manage to find a rather strange artifact. No one knows what it is or where in the damn cavern he found it, but that's where we'd like your help." he answered.

"What can I possibly do to help?"

"You're an adventurer and you're skilled at delving into places that are possibly quite dangerous. This I know for a fact -you remember back in '09? You dragged me out of a collapsed mine south of Paris." Derek merely nodded.

"I'd like to ask you, as a close and loyal friend, to come with me to Italy and take a look at what this scholar found and see if you can shed any light on what he was rambling about. Your time wouldn't be without compensation either, Derek." The Frenchman gave a short courteous bow that would have been passable had they not been riding in the back seat of a taxi. "Your investigation would be organized after our arrival."

"I'll think on it. How long are you going to be here?" he chuckled.

"I'm here for another three days while they prepare the boat for the return trip to Spanish docks. From there, I'll be headed across France and into Florence, where we will rendezvous with the rest of the project heads." Frederic smiled.

"I'll let you know tomorrow, how's that?" The car pulled to the side of a road in front of a run-down home scaled by ivy. Much of the paint had peeled back to reveal dark, rotten wood.

"Yes, that's acceptable. What is in the package?" asked the Frenchman.

"I don't know…" replied Derek, tearing the brown paper off the box. He opened it and was met with a carved wooden mask. "Looks to me like some sort of opera prop, Fred."

"Don't call me 'Fred', I resent that." he scowled.

"Of course, Frederic." smiled Derek.

"Thank you."

"Well, this is my stop. Take care." he replied, gesturing out the window to his home.

"You too, my friend."

Derek stepped from the vehicle and the two traded a parting wave as the featureless car rumbled and faltered away. Home…He turned to the old, beaten pile of wood and, with a sigh, pressed towards it. Crooked wooden steps led up to his porch and to his door and he fished in his trousers for a key. With practiced efficiency, he twisted the lock and pushed the door open.

"Home, even if it is empty…" A trip to Italy wouldn't be all that bad…