Squibble's Journey into the Underworld
At first I could not even remind myself I was dreaming. I kept having those weird, stupid dreams about death and suffering and all the awful things I kept seeing in our future (everyone dying of starvation, for example). But my chi gung seemed to stabilize me, and I would drift off to sleep with my mind focused on only one thing: to remember I was dreaming. Nemo said that was the beginning of lucid dreams, which were the beginning of the power to leave one's body for real.
I got it on my fourth try. I was dreaming of my poor mother when all of a sudden I realized she was dead. I realized I was dreaming. (Ears perked - heard something!) My momma in the dream then smiled sweetly at me, told me she was proud of me, and faded away. All around me was mist and darkness. I counted my fingers. I looked at my body. I was here, and still asleep. Groovy.
I knew that before my bad dreams had come, I could fly, levitate, move things with my mind in dreams. Nemo had told me all such powers were the mark of an advanced soul in the astral plane (dream world). Well, as stupid as I had been, I counted myself pretty advanced, Yessir, and so I set out to fly over all this mist.
And I did!
It fell away below me, and I could feel wind in my fur. Stars appeared above me, and they were spectacular. I saw the moon and the city below me in the mists. I saw the ocean, and the moon's silver path across it. I banked and went the other direction, not wanting to die just yet, and headed for the mountains. It had always been much too far for any mouse to travel, though some knights had tried on their pilgrimages, and I had always wanted to see them. Now, I reached them in minutes. The snows were gone, leaving the forests bare and the high rock's peaks exposed. I landed on the very top of the highest peak, and looked out over the world. Normally, I knew, it would be cold up here, even in late summer, but in the dream I wanted it to be pleasantly cool, and so it was.
I spent a few minutes gawking at the glory of it all, forgetting everything my waking life had piled on me. It was beautiful. I felt free and happy. Then I remembered I was dreaming again, and snapped out of it (almost woke up in fact, but forced myself back into the dream). I wasn't here to sightsee.
"Mike, Bigfat," I called out to the heavens, "We need your help! The safe house is starving, the human is missing, and I'm a dummy. Please help me find Nemo. We need him now more than ever."
Without a pause, a cave formed in the cliff side of the gray rock. It was an ominous cave. It felt ominous. And furthermore, I knew Nemo was down there. I don't have any rationale or reason to it, but I'd learned to trust my gut instincts the hard way. I just knew.
"You're kidding," I said out loud.
"Nah," came a voice behind me.
I turned and saw Bigfat! Glowing, sparkling, radiant with his golden aura Bigfat! I was so happy. I was only that happy once before - when my master had gotten his beloved name.
"Bigfat!" I cried. "Oh, everything's gonna be okay now! You gotta help us!"
"Help is on the way, kid. And it's you," he said, grinning.
"What!" I exclaimed. "No no nonono. Not me. You and Mike gotta help everyone in the safe house!"
"You kid," he insisted. "You wanna help Nemo? He's down there. Go get him."
I looked into the evil cave.
"Ummm...Nah, I'll pass," I said. "You bring him here, K?"
"Not how it works," he shook his huge head. "You gotta go get him."
I snaffed, displeased. "Where is that anyway?"
"The Underworld!" he said ominously. Lots of ominous 'round here.
"Oh. Okay. Definitely not going in there. You go."
"Not my job, kid."
"Oh yes it is!" I claimed. "You're the Mousegod!"
He sighed and put his face in his paws. Then he straightened up, thrust his big chest (belly!) out at me, and boomed in an echoing, thunderous voice, "Then I command you to go, mouse! Go and find your friend, I say unto thee! Thus speaks the Mousegod!" And he pointed down the tunnel. He seemed a thousand feet tall. I was agape in awe and fear. I ran lickety-split down the tunnel, mouse instinct taking over and fleeing to the one dark place with cover. Only once inside did I realize I had been duped. Darn that Bigfat! The Mousegod has a weird sense of humor.
And, of course, once inside, there was no way out.
So let me tell you this story. It isn't original. It's about this guy, Orpheus. The humans named a reeely expensive pair or headphones after the guy, but besides that he was a Greek hero kinda. My master told me about the Greek myths 'cause he really loved reading them. This one isn't happy (what a surprise, huh?). It goes like this.
This Orpheus guy loves this chick. Real love an' all that. They get married, and I think at their wedding this other guy named Pan (not Peter), tries to get the chick to sleep with him. Well, she says no, of course, and so he curses her, and she gets bit by a snake (snakes...why did it have to be snakes?) and dies.
Bummer for Orpheus on his wedding day, so he freaks out and goes into the underworld to get her back, even though everyone tells him not to. The rules are, only heroes can enter the underworld, but only great heroes come out again! Basically, no one ever comes back. But in he went, on account of he wasn't thinking straight probably.
So down he goes, until he comes face to face with Hades, the lord of the underworld (kinda like Greek Satan), and he goes, "Hey dude, gimme back my wife." And Hades goes, "Oh yeah? How bad you want her?" And Orpheus says, "Bad. Gimme." So Hades says, "Okay, but here's how it works. You turn around right now, and walk out of here - all ten thousand miles of it (uphill), and never once look back. She'll be behind you once you exit my domain, but if you look back once to check, she's mine forever."
Well, it's not like the guy had a choice, but he agrees. So he turns around, and marches all the way back up to the surface world. The whole way back, he doesn't hear even one sound behind him. He begins to freak out, thinking, what if Hades lied to me? What if she's not back there at all? (Hades was known to do this to people...he wasn't a nice man). So, just before the exit, as its right in front of him and he's about to make it, he looks back! (At that point when my master was telling the tale I let out with "NO WAYY!") And sure enough, there her spirit is, right behind him, but the Underworld swallows her up and she fades away, forever.
So the guy totally blows it, and if that wasn't bad enough, when he comes back into the light of the real world without his wife, a bunch of people get pissed and chop his head off! But wait... this gets better... his head doesn't die, and he lives his entire life unable to die, as just this head! (Shoulda quit while he was ahead...sorry, couldn't resist!) So he's totally veed (slang for "vetoed"), and on top of it, he loses his whole body.
Greek myths are kinda like that.
And now, thanks to lazy-ass Bigfat, here I was. Right in the Underworld. Whee ha. I wished he was here so I could bite his ear like I used to. It always kept him in line. Now that he's the Mousegod, he's gotten full of himself...and that's alot of full, let me tell you.
The entrance was gone. The only way was down. I could see the stairs appear before me like phantoms. That's all the underworld is. A place of scary phantoms, illusions, and shadows. Everything tries to trick you. You're never sure of what's real. The darkness has horrible faces and makes weird noises. I remember my master saying that Orpheus had to stay on the path. If you leave the path, you're done. Veed!
So, cautiously descending the staircase, I did not stray one inch. On one side of the stairs it was a sheer dropoff into an endless (I was positive) chasm, and on the other side it was a cliff face, but that ended after the first oh, hundred miles or so.
There's no way to tell time or distance in a dream. There's no need to eat, and of course you're already asleep. In the underworld there's no sun, so I had only gut instinct to go by, and it told me I had traveled a very long way. And it had taken a very long time. Except there was no time. But if there was...you get the picture.
My master had greatly under-exaggerated the scariness of the stupid place. The faces in the dark were monsters - grotesque snakes and mutated lizards, bleeding zombies of mice I knew and screaming bodies without skin. Those were the nice ones I saw. The dark noises that I couldn't see were so bad they couldn't have belonged to anything better than something straight out of H.P. Lovecraft's stories of horror. I read one of those once...the human had it sitting around. I didn't sleep for three days. Now those gibbering terrors were just out of reach...waiting for me to miss one step and fall from the path. I knew if that happened, that was it for 'ol Squibble, asleep or not.
The shadows shifted and changed, and there was never any one reliable light source. Just the dark reds and blues of that nightmare place, and the dim illumination of the path.
The path that went on forever. I walked ten thousand miles. I was sure of it. Then another ten thousand, and another. I passed through dark forest, and black mountains, though frigidly cold desert and empty haunted mesas. I passed by dark waters with no waves on a dead ocean, and through graveyards covered in mist (that might have fooled a human, but the path had a very faint smell that kept me on it, even if I couldn't see it). I was always, always going down. I descended thousands of staircases, passed under hundreds of archways into caves. Most of the time my senses told me there was no ceiling above me - that this place had no roof. I was in another dimension... a cursed dimension of damnation.
My travels in that place could fill books, but eventually I came to a flat plane that went on for many long miles. All around me the light was steady, although the shadows still flickered, and I could smell brimstone (How did I know what brimstone smelled like? I just did, O-KAY?). No faces or noises accosted me, and after becoming so used to my grim companions, I felt lonely and small. I walked in that silence forever, and my feet became heavy. Fatigue descended upon me, and I felt then as though I'd been walking the forever that I had. By the time I reached the gateway I was on the verge of collapse.
The twin mountains rose like horns, up, up and into the dark sky, to points bending over ground below. They looked as if they were a million miles tall, and maybe they were. At the very tips a huge, ancient chain stretched across the gap from one to the other. It swung back and forth ever so slowly in some dark wind that I could not feel so far beneath. Before me, between the mountains, was a giant throne. And on the throne was a giant.
Now, I'm used to things being big to me, okay? I'm a mouse. But this guy would have been a mountain himself to the tallest human. Hundreds and hundreds of feet tall. And he was in armor. Dark, engraven, ornate armor that was wrought with decay and a feeling of being older than the earth. On his head he had a great helm, through which deep, burning red eyes gazed at me. At one side he had a mighty sword that could have cleaved the safe house itself in half just by falling, and on the other side was a magnificent shield made of rusting metal that still somehow looked unbreakable. His chainmail glittered all about him under his black surcoat, though it, too, also looked rusty and decrepit at the same time.
The lord of the underworld gazed down at a tiny mouse. Hades looked down on me.
"Ummm...Hi?" I could think of nothing else to say. And I was kinda scared.
The ground shook and his armor made thundering noises as he leaned forward to peer. His burning eye slits narrowed. He removed his helm. I saw this cartoon once about Hercules where Hades had blue flaming hair and he was kinda funny. Well, this guy had hair on fire, alright, but it wasn't funny. It was scary. Scary big giant guy on fire. I wanted out, but I knew why I had come.
"Mouse," he boomed. "Why do you dare to disturb me?"
"Oh..." I said meekly, "I'm sorry. Wrong address?"
He glared. I summoned spine immediately.
"I need Nemo back," I said.
"Indeed?" He said, growing by a few hundred feet. "And how much do you desire this soul?"
Oh...Oh, no way. But what was a mouse to do? I had come this far.
"Bad," I sighed. "Gimme."
He laughed then, the ceiling (there was one!) raining stones down from the earthquake his booming caused. He leaned down to me, looming over me, and the glow of his eyes lit me all around. The great, empty sockets of those fiery caverns burned with cold light - and like the fire on his head - shed no heat. Overwhelmed but unable to look away, I shivered in the slithering mist.
"You know what you must do," he said.
I nodded. "Yep."
"Then go, little mouse. Do not look back even one time."
So I turned to go. I went.
The way back was ten times as long as the way there. All the way back the weight I had felt there at the bottom of the underworld grew on me, like this favorite story of my master's about a short guy and a ring. The weight stayed, and grew...and grew. It was all uphill. I felt hunger, then pain, then fatigue. I kept going. I'd gotten my knighthood by going on when no one else could. Hades didn't know who he was talking to back there! I wasn't any ordinary mouse...I had made it across the Fields of Fate. I was good at suffering over long miles. Good ol' Bigfat... he knew that. I was a fool to doubt him.
And, sure enough, the entire way the only thing I ever heard was my own footsteps. Not one hint that anything, or anyone, was behind me. No faces in the dark, no noises in the shadows. Nothin. Not one scrape of a foot or sound of breathing. Not one peep. And I wondered if Hades had tricked me. I yearned to look back. Was Nemo really there? Was my entire epic journey for nothing? I had to look!
Ahead of me I saw the light of the night sky. I saw the real world. The exit. And more than anything I'd ever wanted, I wanted to look back!
Well, more than almost anything. What I really wanted most was to be a great hero.
Remembering this, I caught my head in mid swing, as it was turning to look behind me, and snapped it back forward with every ounce of my will.
"Orpheus," I said. "Thanks, man."
I stepped out into the starlight.