The light might have been heaven, but that its opacity was harsh and unforgiving. Its disorientating radiance surrounded him, sheathing him in thick layers of gossamer – intangible yet unyielding in their bulk.
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.
With a ruffling of chalky feathers, the owl alights on a broken arch, and watches as the man climbs the mountain of rubble. He grips at pitted creases in the rock, pulling himself forwards and upwards, his muscles quivering with the sustained effort. Sweat soaks through on his back and under his arms, but his limbs do not give, and his nerve does not falter.
Whatever the rock used to be, precisely, is beyond the recognition of owl or man. The surface the man climbs is charred and melted, and coated black with a shroud of soot. Vague shapes are outlined in the shadows, overlaying any details that might once have been beneath. Bits of jagged metal poke out here and there, like sharpened nubs of bone in a dusty graveyard.
His hands bleed from the roughness of the handholds, torn skin perforating his knuckles, but that will not be why he dies. Nor will he die from the lack of water he carries, or from the silent heat of the midday sun that beats down on his back.
He is already dead, she fears.
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.
I do not understand. But still I hug the screaming boy.
Adam flails in my arms. He screams and tugs and kicks, and all I can do is hold him gentler as I kneel gingerly on the dusty concrete. The floor is cold and hard.
“Master Adam,” I say. “Please do not cry. It will only cause your health to worsen.”
But his bawling only intensifies. I cannot move, for his short arms are wrapped around my midsection, and the yellow icon pulsing in the corner of my vision tells me that excessive movement would be unwise.
A stifled sob from the entryway prompts me to look up. My mistress’ head is buried in my master’s shoulder. I look to him for answer or direction, but instead he turns to study the rusty automobile to his left. His cheeks glint bright in the sunlight. I find myself confused, and return my attention to the boy.
The car sped swiftly down that dark road. The tunnel wasn’t completely devoid of light, as it had initially seemed. Soft glows, regularly spaced on both sides of the road, emanated from ceiling panels. Together with the reflection of the headlights, there was just enough illumination to paint the interior of the Uber into thick, shadowy shapes. The only other light came from the screen of the driver’s phone; a rectangular block of faux light bobbing up and down above the gearshift.
The display of the navigation app hadn’t changed significantly for a long time. The tunnel appeared more or less straight with neither exit nor end, and the little vehicle icon followed it diligently. Where normally would be the driving directions and remaining travel time was left blank.
After the initial screaming and cursing had left him with a throbbing headache and an aching throat, the backseat had become a flurry of scratching and scrabbling as Howard had tried to break free of his restraints. But the seat belt had constricted further, making it impossible to squirm his head and shoulders through the bottom gap. He had tried to grab the seat in front of him, but, oddly enough, it was too… distant. His outstretched hands were just a tad too short to reach it, even as the dimensions of the car appeared normal. Eventually, he had given up, and, staring at the headrest in front of him, he again considered all that had occurred.
The morning sun did little to warm his bones, Howard regarded dismally, as he shifted his weight on the stony tiles. A light breeze made its way up the street, sending leaves and detritus swirling aloft. People strode on by, their trench coats and briefcases flapping about noisily in the early winter chill. They navigated around each other with adept ease, gaze unmoved from phones or floor.
There was something to be said about the casual mundanity of a near-death experience in the big city, Howard pondered. Oh yes, there had been a hue and cry, and the shouting and shrieking had maybe lasted a good ten seconds, but after that you would have scarcely noticed that an accident had happened, apart from the odd pile of rubble. One lady might have even whisked her phone out to call the police, he had noticed, but then again perhaps she had called her friend – named James, he thought – to tell him about the scaffolding that had came loose from its host building and crashed down onto the sidewalk below.