Lori hammered at the door of the dark house of dubious reputation. Even in her anxiety, she managed to admire the dragon’s head door knocker she was using to make the door vibrate in tune to the sense of urgency she felt.
The door opened and a person dressed all in black peered out.
‘Do you have an appointment?’ they asked.
‘No, but I need your help.’
‘You must make an appointment.’
‘I don’t have time for that. This is urgent.’
‘Everyone thinks that, but, very well, you may come in.’
They stopped in the hall, and Lori sensed that it would take some persuasion to get any further, but she was ready for that.
‘What is the nature of your request?’
‘Well — oh, I don’t know your name?’
There was a long pause before Lori got a reply.
Really? Lori thought, but made no comment.
‘I’m Lori. I have lost one of my friends.’
‘Missing or deceased?’
‘Er, just missing, I hope.’
‘There is a very good dowser in town who would be able to help you. Our services are very specialised.’
‘Ken, yes, I know him — but he wouldn’t be much help in this case. You see, my friend, the missing one, he’s an urban explorer—.’
‘What is that?’
Lamia’s confusion was obvious.
‘He likes to look around abandoned houses, factories and so on—and tunnels.’
‘Yes, and he was telling me all about how the whole of Shuckleigh is riddled with underground tunnels. Very old, no-one knows who built them, and so on. Well, he told me that there is an entrance to the tunnels below this house.’
‘Why did he think that?’
‘He’s been researching it all for a long time. Well, obviously you weren’t going to let him access the tunnels from here.’
‘No,’ said Lamia, with the finality of a door slamming shut.
‘That’s what he thought. So there was no way of getting down there or of proving that they actually exist.’
‘They don’t exist.’
‘Don’t be silly. Of course they do, and a few days ago he told me that he’d found a new way in and he was going to go down there and try to map them out.’
‘Where is this other way in?’ asked Lamia, narrowing their eyes in suspicion.
‘If I knew that, I wouldn’t be bothering you, would I? Anyway, two days ago, he set off to do his exploration. I haven’t seen him since.’
Lamia stood quite still for at least thirty seconds, then abruptly turned and took the stairs two at a time, leaving Lori standing alone in the creepy dark hallway, but Lori was used to creepy so she waited patiently.
Above her, a door slammed on the first floor, and there was the sound of somebody running further upstairs. Lamia came down again and stood with Lori in silence while they waited. A little while later a thin man in a tweed suit, followed by a tall woman with flowing dark hair and a green velvet gown, came down to join them. Lamia introduced them as the Professor and Madame Nina.
‘Go home,’ said the Professor. ‘We’ll deal with this.’
‘No,’ said Lori. ‘I’m staying.’
There was a short silence, an exchange of glances, and no more was said on the matter.
‘Fetch Brindle,’ said the Professor, and Lamia walked into the gloom of the far hallway, through a door, returning a while later with a yellow-eyed creature that looked like a cross between a wolf and a bear. Fortunately it was on a leash.
All of them went through a second door, leading to stairs down to the basement, through some poorly-lit passages, and though another door with stairs going down into pitch darkness. A strong musty odour flew up towards them, borne on disturbingly warm air.
‘Lamia, take the rearguard,’ said Madame Nina, taking Brindle’s leash.
‘You,’ she said to Lori, ‘stay behind me and do not be tempted to look around. Don’t speak, either.’
Lori nodded, and touched the back of her neck under her hair, where there was a small tattoo, still fresh and sore, the only tattoo on her body.
Madame Nina and Lamia had electric torches, even though this felt like the place for flaming brands, held high.
Lori did look around, but there was little to see in the tunnels — rough-cut earthen walls held up by sturdy wooden beams. As they went down, the walls became rock, moist and musty. Sometimes a shadow flitted by. Behind her, the Professor kept up a steady chant, which she did not understand.
Whenever the tunnels branched, and they did often, Brindle pulled at his leash one way or the other, and Lori wondered how and what he was tracking, since he had not been given any scent to follow. She did not ask, though.
Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. There was no wind blowing but it felt as though they were at the centre of a maelstrom. Lori sensed a multitude of invisible beings swirling about her. The Professor’s chant grew in volume, though not in comprehensibility.
Brindle growled. Both Madame Nina and Lamia joined in with the chant. Lori felt the maelstrom enter her head. She touched the tattoo again and the swirling storm receded from her mind, but still there was the feeling of a screaming force all around.
What is this place? What are these tunnels? How will we ever be able to find our way out again? These questions tumbled around in her mind, chased by a fear that Lori wanted to say was irrational, engendered by the darkness, but which she really felt was perfectly reasonable.
She strained her eyes to see into the darkness beyond Madame Nina, and at last, there in the light of the torch, was a pale figure, frozen still with one arm reaching out.
Madame Nina stopped.
‘Is that him?’ she asked.
Lori stepped forward.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘yes.’ She tried to go to him, but Nina grasped her arm. They advanced together and as they did, Lori thought she saw a shadow, like a giant maggot, retreat from the oncoming light and Nina’s chanting.
Gabriel was covered in flimsy stuff like white cobwebs. Lori pulled it away from his face and spoke to him, but he did not respond.
‘Professor,’ said Nina, and the Professor came forward and picked Gabriel up in a fireman’s lift. Lori would not have thought he had the strength.
They went back the way they came, Madame Nina in the rear and Lamia leading the way with Brindle. All the time they were in the tunnels, something scuttled behind them, following.
Back in the house, the Professor deposited Gabriel on a chaise-longue in the hall and Lamia called for an ambulance. Madame Nina brought a glass of water and tried to coax Gabriel to drink. He took one swallow and she seemed satisfied.
She offered Lori brandy, which Lori tried to decline, but it was pressed on her so insistently that she took it. The others watched, even Brindle, as she raised the glass to her lips and pretended to swallow some. A tiny drop did seep between her lips, and it tasted rather unusual. She touched the protective sigil on the back of her neck and her mind cleared, with only a bit of fuzziness left at the edges of her consciousness.
The door knocker sounded. Lamia went to answer it and the others withdrew out of sight.
As they came in, Lamia told the paramedics that Gabriel had been found wandering and confused after being missing for two days, and that Lori was his friend.
She went with him to the hospital. After a day in bed on a saline drip to rehydrate him, Gabriel returned to himself, but remembered nothing of the past three days. Whenever Lori tried to talk to him about the tunnels he would just look at her blankly and begin to talk about something else.
Lori remembered, though she knew that she was not supposed to. She decided that she would try to find out as much about the tunnels as she could, short of actually going back down there. She did not want to find out first hand just what followed them all the way back through the tunnels, always beyond the reach of the light.