'All right, all right,' said Victor. 'I'll go a little way in, perhaps.' He looked around desperately at the dried-up trees around the hollow. 'And I'll make a torch,' he added.
He'd expected spiders and dampness and possibly snakes, if nothing worse . . .
Instead, there was just a dry, roughly square passageway, leading slightly downwards. The air had a slightly salty smell, suggesting that somewhere the tunnel was connected to the sea.
Victor took a few paces along it, and stopped.
'Hang on,' he said. 'If the torch goes out, we could get horribly lost.'
'No, we can't,' said Gaspode. 'Sense of smell, see?'
'Gosh, that's clever.'
Victor went on a little further. The walls were covered with big versions of the square ideograms that featured in the book.
'You know,' he said, pausing to run his fingers over one, 'these aren't really like a written language. It's more as if-'
'Keep movin' and stop makin' excuses,' said Gaspode behind him.
Victor's foot kicked against something which bounced away into the darkness.
'What was it?' he quavered.
Gaspode snuffled off into the darkness, and returned.
'Don't worry about it,' he said.
'It's just a skull.'
'He dint say,' said Gaspode.
Something crunched under Victor's sandal.
'An' that-' Gaspode began.
'I don't want to know!'
'It was a seashell, in fact,' said Gaspode.
Victor peered into the moving square of darkness ahead of them. The makeshift torch flared in the draught and, if he strained his ears, he could hear a rhythmic sound; it was either a beast roaring in the distance, or the sound of the sea moving in some underground tunnel. He opted for the second suggestion.
'Something's been calling her,' he said. 'In dreams. Someone that wants to be let out. I'm afraid she's going to get hurt.'
'She's not worth it,' said Gaspode. 'Messin' around with girls who're in thrall to Creatures from the Void never works out, take my word for it. You'd never know what you were going to wake up next to.'
'You'll see I'm right.'
The torch went out.
Victor waved it desperately and blew on it in a last attempt to rekindle it. A few sparks flared and faded. There simply wasn't enough torch left.
The darkness flowed back. Victor had never known darkness like it. No matter how long you looked into it, your eyes wouldn't grow accustomed to it. There was nothing to become accustomed to. It was darkness and mother of darkness, darkness absolute, the darkness under the earth, darkness so dense as to be almost tangible, like cold velvet.
'It's bloody dark,' volunteered Gaspode.
I've broken out into what they call a cold sweat, thought Victor. So that's what it feels like. I'd always wondered.
He eased himself sideways until he reached the wall.
'We'd better go back,' he said, in what he hoped was a matter-offact voice. 'There could be anything ahead of us. Ravines or anything. We could get more torches and more people and come back.'
There was a flat sound from far down the passage.
It was followed by a light so harsh that it projected the image of Victor's eyeballs on the back of his skull. It faded after a few seconds, but was still almost painfully bright. Laddie whimpered.
'There you are,' said Gaspode hoarsely. 'You've got some light now, so everything's all right.'
'Yes, but what's making it?'
'I'm supposed to know, am I?'
Victor inched forward, his shadow dancing behind him.
After a hundred yards or so the passageway opened out in what had perhaps once been a natural cave. The light was coming from an arch high up at one end, but it was bright enough to reveal every detail.
It was bigger even than the Great Hall at the University, and must once have been even more impressive. The light gleamed off baroque gold ornamentation, and on the stalactites that ribbed the roof. Stairs wide enough for a regiment rose from a wide shadowy hole in the floor; a regular thud and boom and a smell of salt said that the sea had found an entrance somewhere below. The air was clammy.
'Some kind of a temple?' muttered Victor.
Gaspode sniffed at a dark red drapery hung on one side of the entrance. At his touch it collapsed into a mess of slime.
'Yuk,' he said. 'The whole place is mouldy!' Something many-legged scuttled hastily across the floor and dropped into the stairwell.
Victor reached out gingerly and prodded a thick red rope, slung between gold-encrusted posts. It disintegrated.
The cracked stairway carried on up to the distant lighted arch. They climbed it, scrambling over heaps of crumbling seaweed and driftwood flung up by some past high tide.
The arch opened out into another vast cavern, like an amphitheatre. Rows of seats stretched down towards a - a wall?
It shimmered like mercury. If you could fill an oblong pool of mercury the size of a house, and then tip it on its side without any of it spilling, then it would look something like this.
Only not so malevolent.
It was flat and blank but Victor suddenly felt he was being stared at, like something under a lens.
Then Victor realized what it was that was making him uneasy.
It wasn't a wall. A wall was attached to something. That thing was attached to nothing. It just hung in the air, billowing and rippling like an image in a mirror, but without the mirror.
The light was coming from somewhere on the other side of it. Victor could see it now, a bright pinpoint moving around in the shadow at the far end of the chamber.
He set off down the sloping aisle between the rows of stone seats, the dogs plodding along beside him with their ears flat and their tails between their legs. They waded through something that might once have been carpet; it tore wetly and disintegrated under their feet.
After they'd gone a few yards Gaspode said, 'I don't know if you've noticed, but some of-'
'I know,' said Victor, grimly.
'-the seats, they're still-'
All these people - these things who had been people - sitting in rows. It's as though they were watching a click.
He'd almost reached it now. It shimmied above him, a rectangle with length and height but no thickness.
Just in front of it, almost underneath the silver screen, a smaller flight of steps led him down into a circular pit half filled with debris. By climbing on to it he could see behind the screen, to where the light was.
It was Ginger. She was standing with one hand held above her head. The torch in it burned like phosphorus.
She was staring up at a body on a slab. It was a giant. Or, at least, something like a giant. It might just have been a suit of armour with a sword laid on top of it, half buried in dust and sand.
'It's the thing from the book!' he hissed. 'Ye gods, what does she think she's doing?'
'I don't think she's thinkin' anythin',' said Gaspode.
Ginger half turned and Victor saw her face. She was smiling.
Behind the slab Victor could make out some kind of big, corroded disc. At least it was hanging from the ceiling by proper chains, and not defying gravity in such a disconcerting way.
'Right,' he said, 'I'm going to put a stop to this right now. Ginger!'
His voice boomed back at him from the distant walls. He could hear it bouncing away along caverns and corridors er, er, er. There was a thud of falling rock somewhere far behind him.
'Keep it quiet!' said Gaspode. 'You'll have the whole place down on us!'
'Ginger!' Victor hissed. 'It's me!'
She turned and looked at him, or through him, or into him.
'Victor,' she said sweetly. 'Go away. Far away. Go away now or great harm will befall.'
'Great harm will befall,' muttered Gaspode. 'That's boding talk, that is.'
'You don't know what you're doing,' said Victor. 'You asked me to stop you! Come back. Come back with me now.'
He tried to climb up . . .
. . . and something sank under his foot. There was a faraway gurgling noise, a metallic clonk, and then one watery musical note billowed up around him and echoed around the cavern. He moved his foot hurriedly, but only on to another part of the ledge which sank like the first, producing a different note.
Now there was a scraping sound as well. Victor had been standing in a small sunken pit. Now to his horror he realized that it was rising slowly, to the accompaniment of blaring notes and the whirr and wheeze of ancient machinery. He thrust out his hands and hit a corroded lever, which produced a different chord and then snapped off. Laddie was howling. Victor saw Ginger drop her torch and clap her hands over her ears.
A block of masonry leaned slowly out of the wall and smashed on the seats. Fragments of rock pattered down, and a rumbling counterpoint to the blare suggested that the noise was rearranging the shape of the whole cavern.
And then it died, with a long strangulated gurgle and a final gasp. A series of jerks and creaks indicated that whatever prehistoric machinery had been activated by Victor had given of its all before collapsing.
Victor eased himself carefully out of the music pit, which was now several feet in the air, and ran over to Ginger. She was on her knees, and sobbing.
'Come on,' he said. 'Let's get out of here.'
'Where am I? What's happening?'
'I couldn't even begin to explain.'
The torch was spluttering on the floor. It wasn't an actinic fire now, it was just a piece of charred and nearly extinguished driftwood. Victor grabbed it and waved it around until a dull yellow flame appeared.
'Gaspode?' he snapped.
'You two dogs lead the way.'
'Oh, thank you very much.'
Ginger clung to him as they lurched back up the aisle. Despite the incipient terror, Victor had to admit that it was a very pleasant sensation. He looked around at the occasional occupants of the seats and shuddered.
'It looks as though they died watching a click,' he said. 'Yeah. A comedy,' said Gaspode, trotting ahead of him.
'Why do you say that?'
'They're all grinnin'.'
'Well, you've got to look on the bright side, haven't you?' sneered the dog. 'Can't go around bein' miserable jus' because you're in some lost underground tomb with a mad cat lover an' a torch that's goin' to go out any minute-'
'Keep going! Keep going!'
They half-fell, half ran down the steps, skidded unpleasantly on the seaweed at the bottom, and headed for the little archway that led to the wonderful prospect of living air and bright daylight. The torch was beginning to scorch Victor's hand. He let it go. At least there had been no problems in the passage; if they kept to one wall and didn't do anything stupid they couldn't help but reach the door. And it must be dawn by now, which meant that it shouldn't be long before they could see the light.
Victor straightened up. This was pretty heroic, really. There hadn't been any monsters to fight, but probably even monsters would have rotted away centuries ago. Of course it had been creepy, but really it was only, well, archaeology. Now it was all behind him it didn't seem so bad at all . . .
Laddie, who had been running ahead of them, barked sharply.
'What's he saying?' said Victor.
'He's saying', said Gaspode, 'that the tunnel's blocked.'
'It was prob'ly your organ recital that did it.'
Really blocked. Victor crawled over the heap. Several large roof slabs had come down, bringing tons of broken rock with them. He pulled and pushed at one or two pieces, but this produced only further falls.
'Perhaps there's another way out?' he said. 'Perhaps you dogs could go and-'