It sank under her with a gravel-crunch, and when it halted, a flame roared to life to her left, above her head. She screamed with the jolt it gave her, and blinked like a blinded rat in the sudden stab of light that tore her retinas. In a moment, then two, her eyes adjusted and she saw the hall of the catacombs extend away from her and vanish in the gloom.
The darkness swallowed the meager light, but she stretched for the torch and pulled it free of the wall. She had to remember the numbers now. The indicators of where, in the labyrinth catacombs deep in the bowels of the city, the secret waited. If she got lost, she could roam forever in the tunnels, never be found, die amid the urns and dank.
She shuddered, and closed her eyes. She drew a long, steadying breath and fished for the numbers.
When she felt confident she had them she started down the long hall, a gentle arc bending to her right as she padded away from the stairwell. She treaded with light steps, quiet and delicate, lest she disturb the occupants from their rest, though she couldn’t have said why she felt so. She hugged along the wall, torch upheld in her left hand, right hand hovering over the wall beside her, careful not to plunge it into one of the dark, arched sepulchers by mistake.
She counted as she went. A cross hall sliced her path, and she ticked it off. Again without knowing the reason for it, she cast a furtive glance down each hall before she spirited across in quick, nervous steps. The alcoves in the wall were stacked to the low, claustrophobic ceiling, and the lower sepulchers sparse inches from the floor. She ticked off as another path of pitch-hued corridor interrupted the central hall. A third, then a fourth came along. She was deep in the catacombs now, and when she counted the fifth crossway, she turned to her left and the hall narrowed.
She felt her midsection tighten when the walls crowded in on her. She froze, caught her breath a moment, then hitched on. She ticked off still other crossing corridors, and when she found the tenth of them, turned to her right and found the hall yet more narrow.
She found herself perspiring, breathing in tight, ragged breaths, as if the air were too thick or heavy to draw into her lungs. But the fire of the torch burned as always, though weaker than she would have liked. She could only see a few meters down the hall in each direction. But the walls so pressed in on her, the feeble light flickered to the back of the shallow, clammy sepulchers.
She counted more cross halls … three, four … when she reached the ninth one, she turned to her left. She stopped dead in her tracks, heart hammering like vicious hoof beats. Her ears rang with the sudden adrenalin.
Something flickered, reflected the licking flame from the torch ahead of her for a moment. Then it vanished, soundless, and left the air in the tight passage undisturbed, as if it were never there at all.