It was close enough to hear them now. The clacks and clicks of a thousand bones…
His eardrums ached, but the membranes were no more rattled than Nudge himself. The Skeles are coming.
He was a kid again, eight years old—lying in his bed in the dark.
The sound had been subtle, in time to his heartbeat. Like an unwary click of his own bones, until it had grown louder, more insistent, more demanding than a heart could tolerate…
The first time. At least, that's how he remembered it. Sometimes it seemed he'd been hearing it forever.
And it had happened so often he'd named it—them. Skeles—after their clacking bones. Now, in this moment, in this cave, with sound and air and confusion winging his way through the darkness, the Skeles were real once more.
Nudge dropped like a stone, hands on his head, fingers in his ears. Killing the noise. Killing the fear. He was too petrified to run. He was stone like the rock layer beneath him. Just one more rock in the tunnel…
Don't see me. Don't see me. Don't see me.
They were on him. Clicks, clacks, flapping wings. Bumps, slams, scrapes, squawks.
Real. Nudge choked, sneezed, coughed, sucked a feather, stirring panic in his attackers. Feathers drifted across his face, his neck—cast-offs in the moment of flight.
Flight. Feathers. Birds. Nudge shielded one eye with his fingers, to risk a quick peek. Cave swiftlets. Panic dropped from him in shuddery waves. I read about them. He lay there, the adrenalin sweat soaking his shirt. A shaky smile creased his lips.
He snorted at his own foolishness, sucked up more feathers and choked again. Dammit! Renewed flappings, a slam with a small beak, a set of small talons scraping his scalp…and so much dust and dander and feathery bits he couldn't breathe.
The birds were trickling past him still, but they were thick in the entry, spiking, diving, swooping. He could hear the clicking of their sonar down-passage.
Well, if they were going out, Nugent Reginald Bradford was going in. Nudge pushed himself up and began to crawl as fast as he could, palms slipping and sliding on swift leavings, knees quickly coated.
What he wouldn't give right now for a breath of cool, clean air.