Chapter 3 - The Hidden Kingdom

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Cages

The human grasped Patch with a hand wrapped in thick material that smelled faintly of dead animal skin. Patch was too weak and delirious to struggle. He only trembled as his trapped paw was released from the snare and he was thrust into a small wire cage. Zelina and Talis were treated similarly. The humans, there were three of them, took extra care with Talis, and spoke to one another for a little while after caging Zelina.

Patch’s cage was large enough for three or four squirrels. It was made of a fine mesh of strong wire. The wall which had opened to allow him entry had afterward been clamped shut by some small human device made of metal, but it rattled a little as Patch was passed over the wire fence to another human, who in turn put Patch into the back of a sleeping death machine. The interior stank of animal pain and fear.

The cages were stacked, Zelina atop Patch atop Talis. After some time the death machine stirred and began to move. Patch curled around his wounded leg and licked the blood from his paw. He couldn’t think, his mind felt trapped in mud, he had no sense of time or place, only of terror. A little sensation began to seep back into his paw, but that sensation was agony.

At some point the death machine stopped, its back was opened, and humans took a dozen empty cages from it. Shortly afterward the cages were returned. Most now contained rabbits, but there were also two squirrels, and one imprisoned a dog so small it was hardly more than a baby. The dog whined and bleated for the rest of the journey. The other animals remained silent.

Patch didn’t so much fall asleep as fall away from the world.

When he next became aware of his surroundings, he was no longer in a death machine. He was inside a huge, dim space that smelled overpoweringly of blood. There was no sky above, only metal and brick. There were dogs in the shadowy distance; their voices were terrible, but he could not make out what they were saying. Patch’s cage was part of a wall built three or four cages high and he did not know how long. All the cages were occupied by small animals – mostly rabbits, but amid the thick miasma of blood and pain and fear-smells, he made out the scents of at least half a dozen other squirrels. Zelina was now below him, and Talis above.

‘What happened?’ he whispered to Zelina. ‘Where are we?’

‘I don’t know,’ she whispered back. ‘Oh, my leg hurts so much I can’t even stand.’

Patch tried to stand, and discovered that he could – but the pain of doing so was so excruciating that he quickly slumped back down onto his belly. He began to lick the blood from his paw and leg, trying to clean the wound.

Something moved near the cages. A rat.

‘Soon we will sup on your blood too,’ the rat said to the animals in the cages, and chittered loudly with laughter.

Other rats, dozens of them, emerged from holes in the walls behind the wall of cages, and scuttled around the cages and toward the center of the room, toward the strongest blood-smells.

‘What is this place?’ Patch asked weakly. ‘What happened to the sky?’

‘We’re inside a building,’ Zelina said. ‘I’ve never been in a room this big before.’

Patch gasped as he understood. He was actually inside a human mountain. Like being in a drey inside a tree. Humans had captured them, caged them, and taken them into a mountain. But why?

The answer was not long in coming. Bright lights winked on across the ceiling, lights that flickered so fast that they soon gave Patch a headache. The rats fled into the darkness, out of the immense space revealed by the sudden illumination, a hollow so big that it could have encompassed several large trees – if they had fallen, that is, for while the length and width of the room were very great, the ceiling was lower than the height of a small tree. The nearness of this wall between Patch and the sky made him even more unnerved and frightened.

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