The blackness was nearly complete, but for the dim electric glow of the tunnel lights. It was incredibly disconcerting to look away from the light, for with no contours or shading to provide perspective, the consuming darkness made Howard feel as if he had his eyes permanently closed.
He let out a tentative cough. The only replying echo came from the rock of the tunnel mouth; from the vast expanse of murkiness before him came nothing. They had to be in a cave of mammoth dimensions, he thought, for no sky was this devoid of stars, and no surface air was this stale. But then he looked back at his underworld taxi and the man rummaging through its boot, and realized that he could never again count on the usual rules of reality.
Phil emerged from the rear of the car holding two stout, black cylinders. He handed one to Howard, who saw that it was a pop-up electric lantern of dark matte colour and rugged make; in fact, he had taken this model on a camping trip once. He pulled the handle upwards, and a bright cylinder of light slid out of its sheath. In the darkness, the stark white light from the LEDs was nearly blinding to look at directly, but it cast a steady, pale halo around him, driving back the dark at least a small way.
His erstwhile driver had put on a suit – a suit? – and was now pulling at a long rod. Howard squinted. The boot didn’t look long enough for the rod, which now, fully visible, was about seven feet in length. It ended in a large metal hoop, like a big butterfly net sans the net, with a freely-swinging hook at its apex. Phil activated his lantern, hung it on the hook, and brought the staff upright. He shut the boot and fished out a set of car keys. The car doors locked with a merry chirp.
“Okay, let’s go,” said Phil. He strode forward into the darkness, lantern swaying with the rhythm of his step, not even glancing back to check if his passenger would comply. He probably knew it wasn’t necessary, Howard thought moodily.
Where are we going? he nearly said, but by now Howard was sure he wouldn’t get a useful reply from his caretaker. As he set off after Phil, he shot a backward glance at the car and the tunnel – his prison for so long, yet now that he had to leave their safety he found that he was loathe to do so.
He followed a couple of paces behind Phil, who had taken off at a seemingly random angle. The ground was hard and unmarked, and Howard wondered how his escort knew which way to go. As they walked, his eyes searched the black landscape for the tell-tale greys that might indicate surfaces and details, or for the faint glimmers of distant light sources. Presently, he became aware of something in the nearby darkness. Something large.
“Phil, there’s something there,” Howard whispered, uneasily extending his light towards the spot. The darkness stayed as it was.
His guide shrugged. “Let’s go check it out,” he said carelessly, and changed direction. A hunk of rock loomed out of the darkness, and Howard stifled a cry, for as it emerged it looked as if it had been moving out of the gloom towards them.
The face of the rock was smooth yet weathered, as if it had been polished once and left to ruin. The entire structure was arched in a convex fashion, forming a great, hunched mountain of stone. It was tall enough that the its top remained out of the reach of the light, even as Phil stretched his lantern-staff to its fullest height. If its curvature was anything to go by, it was easily at least sixty feet tall, probably more.
“Interesting,” said Phil, walking up to the surface and examining a small crack. “What do you think this is?”
“You don’t know? I thought you’ve brought many people down here,” asked Howard, scrambling to his side. Up close, the rock didn’t seem that smooth at all; he saw that there were patches of strange, rough bumps encrusted to its side, like puckered scabs or shells. A flat sheet of rock poked out from the main body at a strange angle, touching the ground some distance away.
Phil was already walking around it. “I have, and I’ve seen many a curious thing. This particular one I haven’t seen before, but do not concern yourself overly. The River Styx, as you know it at least, is a strange place, but trust me when I say that nothing down here is alive.”
As they walked under the flat protrusion, Howard said, “It… it looks like some sort of sea creature. This wing-like part could be a fin. And here, this bit up ahead. See how it forks? This might be a tail.”
“Mmmm,” replied Phil, but the disinterest in his tone implied what he thought of Howard’s conjectures.
They left the mountain behind, and now smaller bits of stone began to appear out of the gloom. The floor was now covered in square tiles – not arranged neatly as a builder would, but strewn about haphazardly across the flat ground, sometimes even overlapping. Large spherical stones five feet in diameter were scattered amidst the squares in sparser number. At one point, a pillar jutted out from the ground. It had a thick, stumpy base and a thinning shaft that tapered to an end about twenty feet up. It looked like a club or a bat of sorts, but made for a giant.
His guide made no comment on these, and onwards they trudged. The stone was now shaped into a medley of humanoid figures. Busts, statues, and bas-relief carvings of human bodies writhed and twined around each other in uncanny embraces. There were plenty of hands searching and groping, and too many mouths – mouths meeting mouths and chests and other forbidden parts. The scene would have been erotic, but for the contortions of the faces – they looked to be in an exaggerated state of agony or pleasure, but the caricatures were taken just a hint too far to be realistic.
Despite the chills running down his spine, Howard couldn’t help but look closer. There seemed to be two main subjects depicted, a male and a female. The carvings looked oddly familiar, yet they were executed with such a grotesque slant that he could not place them. Phil spent a little more time studying these, and as he turned to move on, Howard could have sworn that his caretaker had a faint smirk on his lips.
“Nothing. Keep moving. We’re more than halfway there.”
Where? But again, he kept the question to himself.
They passed through more tangled landscapes of frozen stone, each stranger than the last. A series of stone chairs, arranged in a grid with military precision, facing a section of wall that had frenzied scratches on its face. A deep crater with jagged spikes of rock lining the bottom, like the open maw of some unholy beast. Towering columns of white rock that stretched into the darkness above, foreboding and silent, like the columns of some great, deserted hall.
That last one brought to mind a happy memory, despite the inappropriate circumstances. The tall columns reminded him of the redwood trees in California, in the woods of Muir. They had walked there once, Hannah and him, among those majestic giants that held up the sky. He had watched as she danced through the forest, barefoot in the soft earth, and drunk deeply and giddily from its green air. In fact, it was there that he had asked her, and he remembered the radiance of her smile as she pulled him to his feet.
Of course, she had said. Of course I’ll marry you.
Howard choked back an involuntary sob of bitterness, but neither the darkness nor his indifferent guide acknowledged his sentiments.
And then Howard spotted a faint glow in the distance. It was yellow and orange instead of white, and flickered so dimly that he rubbed his eyes twice before realizing it was actually there. Phil seemed to have spotted the same, for he was headed directly towards it, and together they came upon the skeleton of a plane.
It was a small propeller plane made of stone, of size comparable to a real one. It was stuck nose-first into the ground at an awkward angle, and the ground around it was dug up and cracked. Tongues of flame welled up from the point of impact, though there seemed nothing to burn. One broken wing lay twenty feet on the floor to one side. The fuselage was busted open in many places, the missing plates scattered about the crash site. But the name of the plane, engraved on one side in stylized typeface, was still intact, and as Howard shone his light on the letters his breath caught in his throat.
Garnet Goose. The name of his uncle Thomas’ plane.
The plane that his uncle Thomas had been flying, on a fateful morning in February last year, when something had malfunctioned. The engineers had later called it an example of “catastrophic engine failure” due to “propeller separation”. Howard’s understanding was that a propeller blade had come loose, clipping the engine on its way out. The engine had promptly burst into flames, and the Goose had become a burning comet over Jacksonville, unresponsive to Thomas’ attempts to direct it.
It had spiralled down in a smoking helix of death, and landed not twenty yards from a petrified Howard, who had been there to watch his proud uncle fly. He had been knocked to the ground by the resulting explosion, but his injuries had been determined to be minor, unlike Thomas’.
Even now, the memory brought a wave of bile to his throat, and he took an involuntary step away from the stony replica of that fatal incident. “Phil, what is this place? Why is this here!”
“You were fond of your uncle, were you not?”
Phil looked at him, through his ever-present shades. The light of his lantern-staff cast half of his face into deep shadow.
Howard replied, despite his disorientation. “Yes. He was my favourite relative. He would always give me sweets when mom wasn’t looking, and later on he was the one who convinced me to stick it out through college. How… how did you…?”
Phil ignored his question. “And the mountain at the start. A beloved toy?”
Howard stared, and then realization dawned. His memories raced. “The mountain at the start… the sea creature… Dolphy?”
Howard thought back. “Then, the squares and spheres and bat were… a sport? Baseball? I used to play in the Little League. And then…”
He examined in his mind the collection of weird statues in strange positions, then realized what they represented. His face was suddenly hot and uncomfortable. “Oh.”
“No, she was… another. I didn’t meet Hannah until college.”
The scenes and landscapes from his underworld trek began to join with diffuse memories from a past that seemed so distant now. A furrowed look of contemplation came over Howard’s face, and he began to stalk back and forth.
“So this place,” he said, gesturing about, “shows me stuff from my life?”
“It would appear so,” said Phil, watching him pace.
“Why?” spat Phil, a sudden exasperation in his voice. “Why? If there’s something that my time here has failed to teach me, it’s that. Why indeed?”
The light wavered as he gestured forcefully. “I get so many people down here. More than you’d care to imagine. And as they stand on the precipice of life and death, they look at their experiences and accomplishments, yes, but then they look at the rest of it all. They look at the things they did and regretted, and the things they didn’t do and regretted still, and realize how much they’ve squandered.”
The butt of the lantern-staff struck the ground with a dusty thump. “I’ve talked to scholars and drunks, explorers and secretaries, presidents and peasants, and so many of them wish they could live their lives again. But – and you might find this to be profoundly ironic – they fucking can’t.”
His voice rose towards the end of his declaration, ending on an odd note of bitterness. He turned to gaze at the Goose, which was now being consumed by the licking flames. “So, to answer your question, no, I do not know why the Styx bothers to show you any of this.”
A sudden shriek, unexpectedly loud and piercing, made Howard jump. His lantern slipped from his grasp and tumbled to the floor, even as he cursed aloud and fumbled to catch it. The supposedly durable glass pane broke with a loud crack, and the light went out.
Phil thrust his lantern-staff in the direction of the sound. There were now other cries in the dark, some high and shrill, some low and growling, forming a ghastly cacophony that seemed more bestial than human.
“Ah,” Phil said. “It’s about time they found us. Here they come.”
Next part: Stygian Road [P4]