But the laughter didn’t last long.
‘I’m guessing I won’t be able to go back the way we came?’
Billy shook his head. ‘That’s right through their sleeping place. Only thing that’ll do is make em happy how they didn’t have to waste energy climbin up here again for dinner.’
Max rubbed his temples. There were many questions he had for Billy, prime among them why the hell a child was living with these things, but no time, no time. He needed an out, and he needed it fast.
‘Is there any other path I can take? Any other passage that leads out of here?’
‘Probably is, mister, but I don’t knows em. These paths go on for ever, you’d get lost and be rat food afore findin a way out.’
So what did that leave? Going back on himself? And why not? The hooded things didn’t look all that tough, frail and slow and alive by technicalities, and then there was the sword at his side, waiting, grinning -
‘I hear you’re looking for an exit.’
In the space of milliseconds, Max and Billy had swapped places. The sword leapt to his hand while Billy quivered on his bed.
‘You can lower that weapon, outsider,’ said the creature as it shuffled from the murk, grey cowled and faceless. Max noted that while its voice put him in mind of the rotted cloth being peeled from a mummy, it didn’t refer to itself in the plural, which had to be a positive. It continued. ‘I intend you no harm. Nor, I suspect, could I do much had I intended otherwise. I sense your strength. It... boils.’
Was a strength that boiled a good thing? Max decided not to ask. Instead, he lowered the blade slowly, and had the distinct sense that the weapon was sulking.
‘You were talking,’ he said, ‘of an exit.’
The creature nodded in slow motion. ‘An exit, yes. I may know of such a way that could take you to the surface, to the rocks above, not far from the house that the boy so likes to frequent.’
Off to his side, Max heard a sharp intake of breath. The creature’s pale lips curved ever so slightly up.
‘Yes... we know of your little adventures, boy. But do not worry. Your secret remains safe with us.’ Plural again, the classic sign of a nasty thing. Unless, of course, he was missing some information. More questions, but time enough for just one.
‘This exit. You would take me there?’
‘I would. For a... price.’
At that point, a breeze slunk passed.
No, that couldn’t be natural, not down here. Max’s survivor’s instincts perked up. That breeze was the creatures, had to be. Moving towards them, shrivelled stomachs growling, throats sticky with bile-saliva.
Max looked at the faceless figure. Tried to judge its thoughts, its motives, but with no features to watch and no eyes to read, his attempts proved futile.
So he looked inwards. There was a decision to make, and talk of a price, but the time to talk was over and the time to decide was now.
Max’s decision: ‘Show me.’
The creature did so, and not a minute too soon.
Each twist or turn through each jagged stone corridor brought with it angry whispers that echoed behind them. Max couldn’t gauge distance: the sounds carried and bounced and bred to surround him, until a hushed flow of mutters washed up the walls and lapped at his waist.
Billy was there too, crawl-skipping around them but always deferring to the hooded guide’s direction. The boy’s continued presence here probably wasn’t going to make the mausoleum of things behind them inclined to lesson his punishment.
Those two words and their dots weighed heavily on Max’s mind. As the guide flickered between shadow, he reflected on what its price might be, and whether he would be willing to pay it.
Then he noticed that the mutter flow had become a trickle.
A short while later, it had stopped. And the breeze had disappeared too. Which meant either distance was on their side, or upon discovering Max and the tasty treat he promised gone, the creatures had shuffled back to their coffins. Max wasn’t fussy as to which it was.
The guide provided a third possibility. Its lithe and nimble movement, the way it cut through rock with swift, silent resolve, betrayed qualities concealed by outward, rotten apple appearances. Max wondered if they weren’t being tracked with similar skill, wondered what other attributes weren’t apparent on first impressions. He stopped wondering when he realised that that way lay unhappy thoughts.
Finally they halted before one of the stupidly tight-looking cracks that seemed to serve as this place’s doorways.
‘This is the final path I will take you down,’ said the guide. ‘It is dark ahead, outsider, so you will need to feel your steps and care for your balance. Once through, the passage is straight and will lead you to the surface.’ It turned to Billy. ‘If you would come with us, child, I suggest that you follow behind. So that our visitor does not lose his way. Our sight is not as... limited as his.’ Its face twitched.
For a moment Billy rummaged about in his pockets, then withdrew and presented a treasure that twinkled in the gloom. ‘Here, mister, take this. S’what I used to light the green rat slime on the tree.’
‘You have green rat slime?’ said the guide, its voice suddenly hungry.
Billy shuffled his feet. ‘Sort of... I might’ve a bit, a little bit, but...’
The guide and Billy shared some sort of secret sightless look. Then: ‘Well, anyways. Mister, hold this. Now, you push that top end, and - yeah, that’s it.’
An old cigarette lighter, so that’s what it was. He remembered such things, remembered people using them to set fire to bits of paper stuck in their mouths, remembered a woman showing him how to use one - but no, the memory had flitted away, moth-like, into the dark.
‘Here, mister, you’ll break it,’ said Billy as he pried at Max’s fingers.
Thirty seconds later, his hand had been unknotted, and he flicked the lighter on again. The little flame wavered; held.
‘See, now you don’t have to worry bout the dark any more.’
Max looked at Billy for a while.
Then he said, ‘Thank you.’
‘Touching,’ said the guide. ‘But we should go.’
Snapping the lighter closed, Max nodded. ‘Lead on.’
Darkness stalked them.
Once through the stupidly tight-looking crack, a cramped corridor had quickly widened into a small cave, but it was the darkness which concerned Max. He could feel it, ready to pounce should the lighter’s flame teeter the wrong way and expire; he could see it, scraping clawed shadows from the ground that crept up then fell back, crept up then fell back.
Which isn’t to say that he was happy with the state of everything else. No. In keeping with the ‘dead’ theme of the entire cave system, this place baked like a corpse oven and had the air of a sealed coffin. As a result, breathing was tight and sharp, and sweat streamed down his forehead and clutched his shirt to his back.
They moved in silence. Even Billy couldn’t hum his way through this.
After a while, the guide risked raising its hand, and they stopped.
Billy took the opportunity to lie on his side and pant; Max squatted and scrubbed away sweat. The guide turned to face the way they’d come and stared. Once it had spent some time doing this, it nodded, and they continued.
Several minutes later, the tendrils of a breeze made themselves known. Although both Max and Billy welcomed them, the flame didn’t. Max cupped it to his chest: the poor thing had started to shiver. And by this stage, something inside him was shouting, but he couldn’t quite hear. Heat and bad air smothered it.
Another minute or so passed. The breeze played dead.
Cautiously Max uncupped his hand. The flame looked healthier. Good, he -
The breeze jumped up, kicked the flame to its side, then proceeded to perform battery on it.
The flame’s response was noble, made of falters, flounders, and flares back to upright. But the breeze soon beat it down to a tiny purple glow. For a second, it quivered, then it spluttered red and the breeze finished it off.
And the darkness pounced.
The lighter clattered to the rocks; Max emitted a sound. The darkness stuffed itself down his throat, gripped his lungs in an ice vice, lined his stomach with the purest panic. His skin exploded into cold sweat, he saw galaxies form, collide, collapse, et cetera.
Then there was light, and as if on the bounce of a bungee jump he grazed black eternity then sprung back to his senses. He saw Billy, holding the little silver lighter high in the air, cleaving the darkness asunder with a blade of yellow flickers.
‘It’s only dark, mister,’ he said, lowering his arms and carefully offering the lighter. ‘It can’t hurt you.’
At the present time Max was unable to advance an opinion.
Instead, he took the lighter from Billy’s hand. It would have been nice to have taken the blade of yellow flickers too, but somebody’s thumb slipped and the world flicked off again.
The darkness stuffed itself down his throat, gripped his lungs in an ice vice, took his hand and held it gently, lined his -
Hold on a moment.
‘See, mister?’ said Billy. ‘It’s only dark. It can’t hurt you, and you can shoo it away any time you want. But, mister, why would you want to, when we can play?’ He stamped his feet. ‘Stupid, stupid dark, I’m a-callin you out!’
The subsequent sound described in vivid detail the size and sticky consistency of the dollops of mucus being sucked to the back of Billy’s mouth. The subsequent pause made wet commitments.
Commitments fulfilled with spittle to spare.
The raspberry’s volume and power were such that it resembled a road train crashing through the cave, carrying a cargo of snot and shedding its load in all directions. The floor rattled and air became mist. A juicy bit of phlegm hit Max’s cheek.
‘I think I just made the darkness sad, Max!’ Billy shouted while a film of saliva settled upon Max’s face. ‘I can hear it cryin right now, cryin for its mummy, coz it just got called out by a little boy! A little boy! I reckon its too upset to cause anyone any trouble now, sobbin to itself in the corner. I reckon the next time it tries anythin, it’ll be more red than black, all embarrassed, trying to feel good makin worms jump out of the ground. You hear that, out there?’ Hoarseness made his speech a screech. ‘Go an try them worms, if you’re brave enough. Ever heard a wormy worm laugh? Yeah, me neither, I don’t even knows if they can laugh, but I reckon you’ll teach em how!’ He or the state of his vocal chords lowered his voice to a whisper, ‘Mister, I dunno if it’s gonna risk them worms, though.’
The lighter felt cool in his hand.
He tossed it to the air, tossed it again. Maybe this darkness wasn’t so bad after all. He flicked the lighter on, flicked it off.
An after-image was burnt into the backs of his eyes. Billy, silent, rooted to the ground. Silent? Rooted to the ground?
He flicked on the lighter, held it.
Yes, the breeze should have warned him, but they were so damn quiet, he’d never expected them to be so damn quiet. Three, he counted, empty grey faces floating from the gloom like icebergs, punctured noses flaring, skinned-over eyes staring.
Then the closest parted its slot mouth, and for the briefest of instants a red-black slug of a tongue slimed out, slithered across pale maggot lips, before it withdrew behind two rows of glimpsed glistening razor teeth.
‘Why,’ it said, and Max braced himself for the plurals, ‘we thought we asked you to leave.’