She stared, willed her eyes to penetrate the murk. She could not.
She held her halting breath, ears tuned to the point of ringing. No sound carried back to her.
She moved forward, stopped, listened.
She shook hard enough to make the torch flame flicker, and tried to steady herself but felt unnerved. She closed her eyes, shook her head to clear it. The presence of death and the cramped quarters had her spooked. She needed only remind herself of the thing awaiting her, and within a moment, her resolve steeled.
She paced forward full of bravado but for whose benefit she did not know. She ticked off another hall … and again froze.
Was this the first? Or the second?
The experience in the last corridor had her rattled, and she panicked when she realized she’d lost count. Eyes bulging with fear she racked her brain, tried to force the recall.
A moment later and she eased back. She’d taken the ninth course, as indicated, and this was the first of this ninth. She breathed deep and long, slowed her pounding heart, her pulse throbbing in her eardrums. In a moment she went on.
Two corridors … a third … a fourth. She went fifteen down this time then turned again to her right. She ignored the shiver that raced up her spine and almost shook the torch from her hand.
She turned to her left, and stared at the dusty, monochrome coal color of the sepulcher before her. A smile pushed the corners of her mouth back, and a tear of joy welled in her eye.
There, beside the acorn-shaped urn, lay a dust-encrusted scroll, the fine-crafted wooden handles hidden behind the centuries of undisturbed grit. She scanned the wall with quick and eager eyes, found the holder for the torch mounted in the stone, and set it in place.
Her eyes traced the hall in both directions, as far as the light would go. It wasn’t far enough, but she had the secret now. The Secret. And she would be the most powerful woman in all the city, as soon as she retraced her steps out. She reached out a trembling hand toward the scroll.
A click-click-click behind her to her left, from whence she’d come, startled a yelp from her, and she yanked her hands back.
The blackness in the corridor seemed to move, shift, then began to reflect the torch, and clicking, clacking, ticking things emerged from the darkness. Things of hard, smooth matter, shiny, like obsidian, stretching toward her. She struggled to see, backed a step away, and saw the mandibles as it approached the light, filled most of the passage and scraped along the walls as it came. Those myriad, jointed little limbs around froth coated, opening and closing maw-covers, tiny nibs and spikes gleaming evil and with sinister intent, the orbs above, unblinking and without emotion … she screamed then, screamed to wake the dead and turned to run but the long forelimb snatched her cape and ripped her backward with such force she launched from her feet and her shoes skidded to a stop where she left them. And her scream swelled like tide in the tight, dank, lightless catacombs until it died in sharp silence.