Be thou faithful unto death.
- Revelations ii 10
Tom Pilkington woke up from uneasy dreams with dull throbbing pain in his arms and legs. His head ached too, and for a moment he thought he was back at the campsite with the rest of his friends. Then reality dawned on him and he groaned in anger and dismay. He had been hallucinating; his dreams filled with green hued mist and strange figures that clustered around him as he lay immobile on some hard surface. He remembered fighting to hold his breath; remembered Roger gurgling beside him as his lungs sucked in the strange fog, remembered things begin to go out of focus as his lungs demanded air and he was forced to breathe in the cloud. It must have been a kind of gas, mind altering but not fatal. Surprisingly, it felt cool and minty at the back of his throat and within seconds he was sucking it down greedily. He remembered his senses feeling super sensitized while his physical body slowly froze. His antagonists appeared more detailed and distinct than ever, vaguely unsettling forms under billowing robes, shades of iridescent green and large insect like eyes that seemed to glow from under their cowls. His eyelids felt heavy then as they did now, drooping until he could no longer make out the shapes leaning over Roger and himself. His voice had gone too, or he would have screamed at the prick on his neck that eventually rendered him unconscious.
Slowly he drew himself up into a sitting position, aware that the nightmare was a recurrent one. Thinking about the green fog made his head hurt but he forced himself to go back mentally, rummaging inside his mind for information that might shed some light on where he was. It was surprisingly hard to bring back those memories. They lurked at the corner of his consciousness like a bogeyman and his mind was strangely reluctant to explore them but still he persisted, determined to get to the bottom of this.
In the time following their capture, he floated in and out of consciousness at the whim of his captors, always alone, locked away in a dank cell seemingly carved out of natural stone. Every time his body seemed to be recovering from the effects of whatever anesthesia he was under, they came for him, dragging him kicking and screaming to a room set up like an operating theater, brilliantly lit and tiled in some sort of dull white marble like material that seemed to pulse with hidden veins of light. It was difficult to wrap his mind around those sessions. All he remembered was the pain, extreme, mind crushing pain; more than anything he had ever had to bear before. Mercifully, he always passed out quickly, only to wake up as he had just done, alone and disoriented in this stone chamber that was his cell.
He ran his fingertips gently over his body; feeling for the wounds and scars he knew must be there. Marks that had to exist as a result of the pain he remembered so vaguely. But his body was clean and unmarked. No wounds. No scars. No bruises. He couldn't even pinpoint where his torturers had touched him. Only the faint repressed memories of the pain remained. Always, as his mind cleared, he was filled with a feeling of dread, waiting for his tormentors to return, waiting for the pain to return, and they always did. But now, the dread was gone. He felt strangely calm and alert, removed from the suffering he had endured, and it perplexed him.
Roger must have had a really difficult time with these monsters. He hadn't seen his friend since being brought here and they were surely doing the same things to him too. Thinking about Roger made him realize that that he was no longer restrained. No shackles restraining him every time he woke up. His arms and feet hurt anyway, the phantom weight of the manacles on his wrists and ankles hard to ignore, even in their absence. Ignoring waves of nausea that threatened to engulf him, he struggled to his feet and looked around, mentally assessing his surroundings.
He appeared to be in a small chamber, maybe ten feet by twelve feet, with a ceiling that rose unevenly to a point about twenty feet above his head. It looked like an oval, be he couldn't see whether there was a head or a foot. Enough dim light filled the chamber to allow him to see his immediate surroundings, although there was no visible light source. Closing his eyes, he tried to envision the direction from which his guards always approached him. It seemed to him that it had always been from his left, so, keeping his palm on the wall, feeling the stone smooth then rough under his skin, he began to traverse left, stopping when he came to a small protruding lip than seemed to run all the way from the floor to a distance a few feet above his head. He could see a similar lip about four feet further on. The stone between the two seemed to be depressed away from the rest of the wall. Surreptitiously he pressed against the wall between the sills and to his amazement the stone surface between them disappeared, revealing a small open passage framed in the rectangle. If it was a door, it was unlike any door he had ever encountered, not even in the science fiction novels he had read as a youth. Without thinking, nervous that just as it had disappeared, the doorway might simply reappear, he stepped through into the passageway and took a step forward. Behind him a faint gust of air made him glance back. The doorway had vanished. Quickly he spun around and pushed against the stone, but it remained unyielding. He was out of his cell, with no way back in, and no way of knowing what lay ahead down the passageway. Still, there seemed to be no choice left. Stretching out his hands so that his palms touched opposing walls, he set off down the corridor.
Almost immediately, the light faded. Tom had to rely on his tactile sense to keep from stumbling and he moved forward cautiously, feeling ahead with his bare feet before he took the next step. The passage seemed to twist and turn under his palms, and occasionally he felt a draft of air on his head that indicated the tunnel was ventilated. At least he wasn't going to suffocate in here. After what seemed like a while but could have even been just five minutes, the light seemed to grow brighter and he quickened his pace. Ahead, he could see an indention in the wall just like the one that had given him access to the tunnel. Coming up to it he pressed his palm in the middle as before and wasn't surprised when once again, the stone seemed to shimmer and disappear. He was looking into a small room almost identical to the one he had left a while ago. There was a strange sweet odor coming from the room and he stepped in with trepidation. A shapeless bundle lay huddled in the far corner, wearing clothes he had last seen on Roger. His stomach churned and he moved further into the room, aware that the odor was coming from the figure inhabiting those clothes. The crumpled form was still and unmoving, and as Tom moved closer, he could see that it was Roger. He groaned in dismay and was surprised the echoes the exclamation produced. Quickly he suppressed his voice, fearful of being overheard. No good getting caught just now.
Stepping up to Roger, Tom bent down to examine him. As he knelt down, the smell of corruption grew intense and he didn't need more than a cursory glance to know that Roger was dead. Had actually been dead a while. Good god, what an awful smell. Poor Roger's face was all puffed up and swollen, as was the skin around his ankles and wrists. Roger was still manacled to the wall and the flesh had swollen around the restraints so that they were nearly invisible. Tom was struck by the expression on his friend's face. It was serenely at rest. If not for the swelling, Roger could have looked asleep. The last time he had seen him, his friend's face had been twisted in terror and despair. That had been out on the grass as they were surrounded by the hooded figures, and Tom was filled with a feeling of intense rage as he realized what must have happened to Roger. The same treatment he had undergone, but Roger wasn't so strong. Never had been. They had all helped him along, making excuses and allowances for him because they all loved him, and here he was, dead, killed by those disgusting monsters that had got inside his head so easily. Memories came sweeping back and he shuddered to think of similar torments endured by Roger. They had broken him, drained him and left him a lifeless husk for Tom to find. Tom hoped with all his heart that the tranquil expression on Roger's face meant his last moments alive had been mercifully peaceful.
Hoping to at least liberate his friend from his bonds Tom examined his restraints, but he could see no means of freeing Roger's body from the shackles that were still attached to his wrists and ankles. The extent of the swelling told him that attempting to pry them open would bruise poor Roger's flesh like an overripe fruit. He was going to have to leave Roger behind, still chained to the wall. Reluctantly he unbuckled Roger's wristwatch and put it into his pocket, cringing as his fingers came into contact with soft squishy flesh. Even that slight movement of the body stirred up new waves of corruption and Tom gagged, standing up quickly. I'll get even for you Rog, I promise, he vowed silently to himself and then, sketching a salute to his fallen companion he strode to the depression in the wall, which had closed behind him after he entered. He pressed his palm against the stone and the doorway dissolved silently again in response. Resolutely he stepped out into the tunnels again.
Hours later, he was still walking. He cursed himself for not counting the steps. That might have given him an idea of how long he had been in these tunnels. For some strange reason, neither his wristwatch, nor the one he had removed from Roger's wrist, seemed to work down here. His timepiece seemed frozen at seven thirteen, and the date showed August 29, which was the day after they had left camp, but he had no idea whether it had stopped in the morning or evening, and who knew what the date was today? Roger's watch read three twenty, but it didn't have a date indicator, so it was worse than his own. Idly he wondered if the faces beneath those cowls were ugly enough to stop a clock, and briefly he chuckled at his own joke before turning his attention to the question of where he was going. He had been unconsciously trying to move upwards at every junction he approached, but every choice he made seemed to eventually take him further downwards and away from freedom. His path upwards was being blocked.
It wasn't that the roof had caved in or the tunnel was blocked by rubble or anything. Every corridor he chose that initially seemed to be pointed upwards eventually swung to the left and arced downwards, gently at first, but becoming increasingly steep until he was once again presented with a choice at a fresh junction. In the beginning Tom thought he was just travelling in circles, traversing his footsteps endlessly in some sort of macabre joke at his expense, but careful observation showed that he traveled down different roads each time. He started paying attention to details at the entrance to new corridors and noticed that when he came to fresh openings there were subtle differences in the size, shape and texture of the floor each time. He was being forced slowly downwards and to his left, no matter which direction he chose to follow. Eventually he gave up trying to direct his path and simply picked corridors at random, but still the same dynamics seemed to apply. He was now hopelessly lost, with no idea where he was in this convoluted maze and no hope whatsoever of retracing his footsteps. His feet grew leaden and the effort of placing one foot in front of the other became harder and harder. Still, he pressed on, refusing to give up or give in. He wandered on in a kind of daze, not knowing or caring where he went and had almost reached the end of his endurance when the tunnel he was in abruptly opened out onto a vast chamber whose dimensions he couldn't encompass. Maybe it was of because of all the time he had spent in the cramped confines of the corridors, but this new space seemed so huge that he felt dwarfed in its confines, like an ant in an empty room. Upwards there seemed no sign of a ceiling though a cold green light seemed to dimly illuminate the space from above. To his left and right the walls seemed to run away in apparent straight lines, though his peripheral vision told him that they had some sort of curvature. Ahead, in the distance, there appeared to be another source of the green light, much more intense than the overhead illumination. A shimmering haze surrounded it and seemed to extend out from it in every direction. The light source seemed the only reference point in all that vast space, and not knowing what else to do, Tom took a few hesitant steps forward and then began walking towards it, keeping his eyes fixed on the glow at the center of the radiance.
Halfway to the source of the glow, he realized that there was a figure standing within the light. The brightness of the light made it hard to focus, but Tom was able to recognize one of the hooded figures who had kidnapped Roger and himself so long ago. He couldn't help himself. Screaming with rage, Tom hurled himself at the figure, determined to exact whatever revenge he could achieve with his bare hands. The distance between the two closed rapidly and Tom squinted to keep the intense light out of his eyes. He meant to do this creature some harm but he wasn't foolish. He had seen the power they wielded. Just a few feet more now. He drew his right fist back, prepared to strike with all his might when his hurtling body ran into an invisible cushion. It felt like running headlong into a mass of gelatin. His momentum slowed to nothing and although he struggled futilely he could make no further headway towards the figure standing so tantalizingly close to him. The barrier was transparent but impenetrable, and he flailed vainly, screaming epithets at the creature. He might have continued in this way for a while but he was shocked into silent immobility when the being spoke.
"Tom Pilkington, stop resisting. I have something to say to you."
"You can speak? In English?" Even as he said the words, Tom felt a bit foolish. He hadn't really heard anything. The words had simply reverberated in his head. Determined to maintain some semblance of sanity, he formed another reply with his lips and uttered the words.
"Who are you and what do you want with us?"
"Nothing with you in particular. You found us. We didn't come for you."
Once again the words blossomed in his mind, seemingly uttered with a sonorous intonation, although that had to be impossible given the absence of sound. Tom refused to give in and join in the mental conversation. He articulated his responses firmly, wishing his voice sounded less strident.
"Who are you? Are you human?" he repeated.
"Not as you know it," the being replied. "We didn't originate here, but we've been here a long time. Longer than you can imagine."
"What do you want with us?"
"Just the essence of your pituitary gland. Your and others who come our way of course."
Tom felt himself grow cold. He thought he discerned the trace of a dry chuckle accompanying the words that had so casually dropped into his mind. Maybe that was the reason for the blinding headaches he had felt every time he woke up.
"You killed Roger. Why did you do that?" Thinking of poor Roger brought the rage back. Tome liked that. It helped to keep things in perspective.
"We didn't kill your friend Roger. You did."
The words sounded matter-of-factly in his mind but they had the impact of a grenade.
"You bastard! I saw what you did to him. You sucked him dry, damn you."
"Roger was one of our failures. You are one of our rare successes. It was you who went too far probing into his mind."
Tom screamed. He tried to stop but the sound just poured out of him. He was blind with anger and outrage. Only the screams remained. It took some time for him to stop, and then it was to gasp for breath.
"No! I never touched him." His breath came in whooping gasps but still he forced to words out. "You're trying to manipulate me, but I'm not falling for it." He started to struggle against the restraining air around him, trying to force his way forward. He wanted to tear this figure in front of him into pieces.
"Search your mind. Concentrate. You'll see we speak the truth. You're one of us now, dear Thomas."
The words were delivered with silky smoothness, but the undertone of malevolence was unmistakable. Abruptly, Tom's head began to ache again and he squeezed his eyes shut to minimize the agony. A series of images flashed through his mind, strange unconnected images of people he didn't know. Then suddenly he saw himself, staring back at his own eyes. He was screaming for the pain to stop, but his image appeared grimly unconcerned as it lifted a long thin instrument towards his eyes. This time, he screamed in earnest, forcing his eyes open. Abruptly the barrier holding him disappeared and he pitched forward onto his face, banging his wrists on the floor as he brought his hands up to protect his face. Ignoring the pain of the impact he rolled over immediately, determined to finish off the creature tormenting him.
He was alone in the room. The figure was gone, and so was the light source. Dim green light filtered down from above, so faint that he could only see a few feet in front of him. He had tripped on some form of low pedestal, obviously what the creature had been standing on, but there was no longer any glow and no trace of any other living thing in the space other than him. A dozen paces away from where he stood the light faded abruptly to impenetrable blackness and there was no longer any sense of a presence with him. He didn't know how he knew, but he just knew he was alone in the cavern, alone with his thoughts and a terrifying realization that grew in him. For a brief moment, he had been looking out of Roger's eyes, and he had seen himself, in the process of doing something terrible to his friend. And Roger was dead. By his hand? The thought didn't bear contemplating, but in the silence of that space, it was all Tom could think of.
Who was he? What had he become? Was this why it had been so easy for him to escape? Tom wasn't even sure if he was in control of his actions any more. His desperate attempt to escape seemed to have led him directly to this room and this revelation. He sank down onto the stone pedestal and put his head in his hands, wondering what to do next.