They came gambolling out of nowhere – man-sized shadows a shade lighter than the surrounding darkness. Twin glints flashed, and then another pair, and soon there were hundreds of pale slits reflected in the light of Phil’s lantern-staff. The animalistic cries came from all sides now, forming a chaotic medley of howls and screeches that intensified as the unknown creatures drew nearer. Howard felt his unease burgeon into a blistering panic.
“Phil!” cried Howard, his dead lantern swinging uselessly as he spun around. The blackness all around them roiled and seethed with movement. “Wh-what are these things!”
“The natives,” replied Phil. The side of his face that Howard could see was cast in shadow, but his voice remained calm as he beheld the approaching hordes. “Stygians. They seem to be particularly agitated today.”
“What do we do!”
“We?” said Phil, almost lazily. “They’re not here for me.”
A creature leaped into the perimeter of the light. It was vaguely humanoid, but its limbs were long and stick thin, and its gait was hunched and quadrupedal. Its outline was blurred and smoky, and as it crawled forwards, bits of its grey skin flaked off and evaporated into wispy tendrils. It paused and hissed at Howard, baring a too-large mouth that was lined with yellow needles for teeth.
“No,” repeated Phil. “They’re here for you.”
And Howard yelled as the creature sprung off its haunches and dived at him, talons outstretched. He raised his hands as if to ward off the blow, and fell backwards as his foot caught on a small crevasse. His doom rushed forward, all smoke and sharpness.
This is it, he thought, and shut his eyes.
The slicing talons never came. Howard forced his eyes open. The creature wriggled weakly on the floor. Its torso, severed at the waist, grasped in his direction, while its bottom half kicked and spasmed wildly. Dark smoky fingers issued from the devastating wound.
Phil brought his staff upright. Instead of a lantern, a white, curved blade of energy protruded from the end, glowing with a painful brilliance. He gripped it with both hands, and it pulsed brightly as more of the hideous creatures came into view. His suit now hung about him like a voluminous drape, billowing in the wake of his movement, and it came all the way to his head in a dark cloth hood.
Death, Howard thought, but Death exploded into motion, and he could only stare.
Phil moved with prodigious agility, darting among the creatures with inhuman speed, his form becoming almost as indistinct as theirs. His scythe carved a dazzling trail in Howard’s vision as he slashed and pivoted, cutting into the shadowy figures as they rushed forward. Creatures fell to the ground with each stroke, sporting sizzling wounds that bled miasmic shadow.
A pair of creatures approached Howard from opposite sides. They circled him with measured paces, and even as he tried to look at them both at once they charged him. But Phil was there on his left, and then his right, and the white lightning of his weapon swept through both of them in a seamless strike. None of the creatures could touch him, thought Howard in wonderment, as he stupidly watched his defender weave a blazing net of safety around him.
“Move!” shouted Phil, as he spun his scythe in a full arc. Limbs tumbled to the ground in feeble puffs of smoke.
“What?” said Howard, as he got to his feet.
“Move out! Away from here!”
Howard looked about for an exit route, but the creatures came from every side. “Which way?”
Phil didn’t reply. A feral snarl in his ear startled Howard, and he spun around. A gaping maw greeted him, not a foot from his face. The sallow eyes of the creature were the slits of cat pupils, and they stared at him with earnest hunger. From its nest of sharp fangs a warm stench emanated, assailed his nostrils with a pungent, rotting odour. The creature came an inch closer, then with a soft humming and a coruscating sweep, its head fell harmlessly at his feet.
Howard began to advance into the blackness, towards monsters that shrieked and sprung and died. Without his own lamp, he walked a blind path, but the darkness was identical in all directions. In any case, he thought as his heart thumped loudly, his life – or what remained thereof – was entirely in Phil’s hands. As it had been from the beginning of this journey.
The onslaught of creatures seemed inexhaustible. Their persistence was unfaltering, even as Phil them cut down in droves, like chaff in the wind. Sometimes, the creatures exhibited a measure of primal shrewdness in their assaults – teaming with others, coming from different angles, diving low and high – but none of their ploys were successful in allowing them to penetrate the guard of his staunch defender.
Presently, Howard came upon a small structure. It was an arch of stone, just a foot taller than him, and stood by itself with no surrounding architecture. Amidst the piercing sounds of the creatures and the sporadic flashes of scythe-light, Howard saw that the wedge-shaped stones that built the arch were old and worn, and its keystone was unadorned.
“Phil, look!” cried Howard.
The rhythm of the light slowed as Phil glanced at the arch, and then with a great sweep he cleaved through three and whirled his scythe overhead. A blinding surge of light eclipsed the darkness, and even the creatures hesitated in their rabid offensive.
“Avert your gaze,” shouted Phil, and he brought the blade down into the ground.
Even through eyes squeezed shut, Howard saw the flash of power that blossomed outwards, and felt the shockwave that knocked him prone. The brightness became a force; it clasped him and shook him and swallowed all other thought, but its touch was not cruel, and it swaddled instead of gripped. As darkness returned and the light released him, Howard warily opened his eyes.
Phil was adjusting his suit, his lantern-staff tucked in the crook of one elbow. There was no more sign of the creatures, save for a series of dark stains on the rocky ground, pointing inwards towards Phil. A slight acrid mist lingered on for a moment, then dispersed into the waiting darkness.
The archway was now filled with a soft white light, like a doorway to another world. Flecks of dust passed in front of it, making its rays shift and scintillate. Howard squinted, but, like the darkness, there was no feature within the light to distinguish shape or distance.
“Well, I hope you weren’t too alarmed,” remarked Phil, as Howard got to his feet and dusted off his trousers. He didn’t reply. There seemed to be nothing to say to that.
Phil tapped the butt of his staff against the archway. “Here you go. This is where I leave you.”
Howard started. “Leave me?”
“Where does this go?”
He chuckled. “You’ll see. In the meantime, though, I must get back to my car. There are other poor souls waiting to be picked up.”
He unhooked the lantern from the end of his staff, and handed it to Howard, who accepted it perplexedly. Phil turned and began to step away from its light, his suit blending into the blackness almost immediately.
“Wait, Phil,” said Howard, stepping forward and putting a hand on Phil’s shoulder. It was unexpectedly cold, and he nearly withdrew in shock, but Phil stopped and turned. His gaze was inscrutable from behind his shades.
“What did this all mean?”
He shrugged. “It meant whatever you felt it did. Or whatever you wanted it to feel. How should I know?”
Phil – his erstwhile chauffer, guide and defender – faced back to the darkness, and Howard let his hand fall. The silence drew long.
Phil sighed, and his head twitched, almost involuntarily. “Good luck, Howard. Perhaps the next place will be more forgiving.”
He continued to walk, and quickly disappeared into the shadows. Howard waited until he could hear no more footsteps, and the only sounds were those that he himself made. He looked about for a long moment, but no monster came to harass him, nor did Phil return. He was, at last, alone, at the end of the road.
The glowing arch beckoned. With a squaring of shoulders, Howard let out the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding, and stepped into the doorway.
Next part: Stygian Road [Epilogue]
// AUTHOR’S NOTE – This story part was inspired by a writing prompt on Reddit at /r/WritingPrompts by /u/IxamxUnicron. The prompt is: After you die, you learn why the Grim Reaper is portrayed holding a scythe. It isn’t to harvest you, it’s to protect you from something on your journey.