Run Again?

Eternal life, that’s what they said.

Somewhere, deep in an ancient temple forgotten by time and lost to civilization, there rests a small golden idol.  What it looks like, no one can say, but the man who possesses it lives forever.

Come on.  Guy Dangerous isn’t about to pass on something like that.

It took over a year of research to get here.  A full year of listening for rumors in the marketplace, of traveling to remote, barely inhabited villages, of learning the local language to get the story directly from the natives.  (Translators are for amateurs.  Naive, trusting amateurs.)  Finally, at the end of that hellish year, I gained the trust of the tribal elder, and after some sacred ritual nonsense that involved eating something I didn’t examine too closely, he took me back to show me his ancestors’ greatest treasure: a stone slab covered mostly in incomprehensible symbols.  If you looked at them just the right way, some of them could almost be faces.  If you looked at them just the right way, they could almost be screaming.  I stepped closer, gleefully focusing on the center of the slab, on the one clearly recognizable feature.

It was definitely, beyond all doubt, a map.

Without hesitating, I knelt down with my notebook and began to draw.  The elder placed a wrinkled hand on my shoulder.  “Look only,” he creaked.  “What sleeps inside can never be released.  It has been foretold.”

“Sure, sure,” I said.  “No problem.”  I’d dealt with enough silly superstitions to get this far, but only a fool would actually take that sort of thing seriously.

In short order, I had a reasonable facsimile of the map, the last piece of my painstakingly assembled puzzle.  I went back to my little hut, but was unable to sleep.  Visions of fame, glory, success flitted across my eyelids whenever they closed.  At the first hint of sunrise, I gathered my belongings and set out.

The journey through the jungle might have been difficult for someone else, but I’ve been around a forbidding, deadly wilderness or two, and I made good time.  It only took me a couple of days to find the entrance to the maze, where the jungle floor dropped away into murky water, leaving only a narrow rocky ledge winding into the distance.  With the help of my sketched map, I easily navigated its twists and turns.  The track featured a rather astonishing number of gaps; at first I thought that the rock had merely crumbled away, but the yellow stone path built through the swamp between the rocky outcroppings just stopped cleanly more than once.  None of the gaps were all that wide, and I jumped them easily and didn’t worry too much at their existence.  I clambered over the roots that grew in the way, and crawled underneath some particularly odd root systems and the really nasty fire arches, with two statues spitting a steady stream of flames at each other.  No idea how something like that would even work, let alone still be working after all this time, but I’ve seen weirder in my travels.  You just stop questioning it after a while.

Finally, near dark, here I am, at the mouth of the temple.  Literally, the mouth.  Two wide, staring eyes flank the moss-covered archway, which juts out from the stone wall in sharp points.  Subtle.  I pull the flashlight from my pocket and walk inside.

My footsteps echo off stone that probably hasn’t witnessed any sort of movement in a couple hundred years, maybe longer.  I run my incandescent beam over the walls, which appear to have been carved out of the rock, reinforced by wooden pillars bound with rope and adorned with skulls.  The wooden platforms in the swamp had the skulls, too.  One at every joist, like they’re a standard building material, and more just tied to spikes sticking out of the water for no apparent reason.  Skeletons and that sort of thing don’t bother me too much anymore in general, but this many of them does start to get a little creepy.

The map didn’t say anything about the inside of the temple, which would worry me if I were a lesser man.  But I’m not, and it doesn’t, especially since the passage continues straight into the earth without branching.  I follow it deeper and deeper inside, until the corridor widens and the cramped ceiling flings upward into the distance.  Torches stand at intervals along the cavern walls, burning with their impossible flames.

The firelight flickers off the little golden figure sitting on a pedestal in the center, the focal point of the room.  I walk slowly forward, unable to look away.  It’s only about six inches high, roughly spherical.  As I get closer, I can see it in more detail: legs crouched, hands on its face, its broad, flat teeth bared in a frozen grin.  I reach out and caress the brilliant, ugly cheek.  It doesn’t look all that different than some of the other treasure I’ve found, but I know better.  I know this one will change everything.

As if to confirm my thoughts, an electric shock races up my arms when I pick it up, so strong that I almost drop it.  I weigh it in my hands for a moment, vaguely aware that I’m grinning like a fool.

A low sort of growling sound cuts in and disturbs my reverie.  I slip the idol into the pouch on my belt and glance around.  From little niches in the cavern walls–niches I’m absolutely certain weren’t there a moment ago–emerge close to a dozen creatures.  My first confused impulse is that they’re gorillas, but no, gorillas don’t have those long, sinewy fingers, narrow and ending in bright claws.  And I’ve never seen a gorilla with the flesh stripped from its face, leaving instead a bird-like skull.  They advance on me slowly, staring at me with clouded, milky eyes in those horrible bleached faces.  Growling.

Screw this.  I turn and leg it.  I appear to have dropped my flashlight somewhere in the cavern, but it’s a straight shot back to the entrance of the temple.  I don’t want to think about the maze, not yet.  The thundering footsteps behind me are quite enough of a problem at the moment.

My legs pump like an efficient machine, fueled on adrenaline and fear, as I put the tunnel behind me and emerge into the twilight.  The demon monkey… things are still on my tail, but maybe I can lose them in the maze.  The maze has to have been put here to hold them.  I can do it.

I leap the first few gaps and overgrown roots, even the huge roots as tall as me, as if I’ve become some sort of superhero like in the comic books.  Maybe it’s the idol, but I’m not complaining.  I risk a glance backwards; I’ve pulled ahead of my pursuers, but not by much, and they show no signs of losing interest.  I return my attention forward, just in time to see that the path has turned.  I try to make the bend, but my momentum carries me over the edge.  It’s a long way down, but maybe I can swim through the murky water and evade the beasts.

I hit the dank water and start sinking.  I try to kick upwards, but it’s thick like porridge, and quickly I can’t see anything.  My vision goes dark, and I feel the filthy liquid slide its way into my lungs.  Funny, I never thought it would end like this.

Run Again?

A low sort of growling sound cuts in and disturbs my reverie.  I slip the idol into the pouch on my belt and glance around.  From little niches in the cavern walls–niches I’m absolutely certain weren’t there a moment ago–emerge close to a dozen creatures.

No wait, what?  I’ve done this before.  The gorilla creatures chased me, and I fell, and–

Oh look, here they come.

Again I run.  Again I jump.  This time, I don’t bother looking back, keeping my focus ahead, paying attention to the turns.  It’s almost like something else is taking over, like some other impulse is controlling me.  Good, I’ve got quite enough to do with trying to keep breathing, to keep my limbs moving.  Another quick turn, and a tree stands directly in my path.  I don’t have time to figure out how to react, and I hear a wet, sickening crunch that I realize dimly is my skull hitting the hardened wood at full speed.

Run Again?

A low sort of growling sound cuts in and disturbs my reverie.  I slip the idol into the pouch on my belt and glance around.  From little niches in the cavern walls–niches I’m absolutely certain weren’t there a moment ago–emerge close to a dozen creatures.

This can’t be possible.  This can’t be happening.

But it is.  I have no choice.  I run.

This time, I focus on the obstacles.  If I can keep going long enough, if I can survive long enough, perhaps they’ll lose interest in me, and I can worry about getting back to the jungle then.  I jump roots and gaps, rocket around corners, leap up onto the rocks and down to the series of wooden bridges, slide painfully under trees and skull-slung beams.  I’ve been running for miles, it must be.  I can’t hear anything over the sound of my heartbeat thundering in my ears, over my labored breathing.

My concentration slips, and so does my footing.  I land a jump just barely wrong, and I stumble.  I feel hot breath on my neck, feel the stone walkway shake beneath my feet with the weight of the massive, hairy beasts.  I’ve come so far, how can they be right behind me?

In trying to process this, I miss the tiny root threading its way across the yellow stone.   It catches my foot, and I stumble again.  That’s all they need.  I scream, and all I can see is gleaming teeth, black claws, bright spurts of crimson.

Run Again?

The cavern.  The torches.  The gorillas.

“No,” I hear myself whimper.  “Please no.”

Once more, I turn and flee.  Once more, it’s all I can do to keep ahead of the monsters.  Over and over, some cruel trick of fate defeats me.  I hear the crackling of my own roasting flesh in the arches of fire.  I trip and get devoured by the relentless, tireless creatures, never more than a few steps behind me no matter how long and far I fly.  I plow into the tall roots or the poorly-placed trees.  I miss my jump and plummet into the mire; sometimes I simply drown, sometimes I’m eaten by something living in the depths, and sometimes I just fall and fall until my mind breaks.

And every time, just before the light of this world dims its last, the words drift across my consciousness.

Run Again?

I stand once again in the cavern.  No idea how many times it’s been.  Before I slide the idol into my pouch, I take a look at it.  It’s not grinning, I know that now.  It’s screaming.

As I watch the monsters advance, the legend that brought me here replays in my head.

Eternal life, that’s what they said.

I start laughing madly, uncontrollably as I run.  I can’t do anything but run.  Run again.  Run again.