For what seemed like hours the party traveled down the tunnel at a pace just brisk enough to leave Jeremy wearied but not winded. The passage was large, and reasonably high, it was also wide enough to comfortably allow traffic to pass in the opposite direction, so Jeremy didn’t feel closed-in. Every so often a tile number was set in the wall, apparently marking off miles travelled. While they encountered people moving the opposite direction, back towards Water Gap, he was surprised they never caught up to anyone else moving in their direction. He even occasionally glanced backward, expecting to find other travelers behind his group, but neither saw nor heard anyone coming from the rear.
“We’ve passed people heading to Water Gap, but we haven’t met anyone going the same direction as us. Why is that?”
It was Walter who answered, which surprised Jeremy as he’d been quiet ever since they began down the tunnel. “Ah, lad, that’s because we got a late start. If you get my meaning.”
“I’m sorry, Walter, I don’t. Down here I’m not sure what ‘late’ has to do with anything.”
“Well, now, it just folks’ superstition, but people don’t like to be in the tunnel after dark. They either leave very early and pass all the way through before the sun sets, or stop over night in Shelter.”
“Where the highway robbers live?”
Ama cut in with a smile. “I’m afraid young Jeremy takes your words a bit too literally, Old Fox.” She turned to Jeremy and continued. “Walter, ever aware of his bottom line, doesn’t like to pay the rates to stay in Shelter, even though the accommodations are quite comfortable.”
“It ain’t my bottom line I’m worried about, Meddle. It’s the principal. Takin’ advantage of people who’re literally a captive audience don’t sit well with me. And that’s the truth.”
Jeremy smiled, “So they charge a lot?”
“A lot!” Walter roared, sending a chilling echo down the passage. “What they do is legal theft, it’s bad enough ya gotta pay for food and to water the animals before goin’ on. Staying overnight with those thieves ain’t gonna happen!”
Walter’s declaration made Jeremy suddenly aware of the throbbing in his feet. “How much longer to Shelter, anyway?”
“Well, we just passed mile 16 a bit ago. So it should be coming up soon. Shelter is about half-way through the tunnel.”
“What’s it like?”
Despite his his personal feelings for the people of Shelter, Walter betrayed a brief smile. “Well, I won’t say Shelter’s not impressive, lad, ‘cause it is. Best if we leave it as a surprise.”
“Well, OK, if you say so.” Jeremy glanced back around behind him, hoping again to catch a glimpse of people who might be coming up along the passage. As he looked over his shoulder he thought something seemed out of place. It wasn’t until he stopped and turned fully around that he figured out what it was.
Walter and Ama stopped and turned to Jeremy, “Yes, lad? We have to keep moving if we don’t want to get caught out here after nightfall. Do you mind talkin’ while walking’, if you get my meaning?”
Jeremy didn’t move. “I guess, but, do evertorches ever… go out?”
Ama answered. “No, Jeremy, they don’t go out. As least not that anyone has ever witnessed.”
Walter stopped and turned. “Lad, why are you askin’ that?”
Jeremy pointed back down the passage. “Because they’re some torches back there which aren’t glowing any more.” Walter and Ama moved back toward Jeremy and glanced to where he was pointing. There, unmistakably, were several evertorches which had been dimmed. Ama gasped suddenly, and Walter pushed Jeremy back behind him.
“Jeremy, move. Move now!”
Jeremy asked, “What is it?” but quickly moved to follow Walter’s instructions. Ama was clearly flustered, and the old trader picked up to the point where Jeremy was beginning to become exhausted.
Again, Jeremy asked, “What’s going on, Walter?”
“I don’t know, lad, but nothin’, nothing, dims an evertorch, and that is the truth.”
“It can’t be them, Old Fox, can it? They’ve never be able to tolerate the evertorches before.”
“I don’t know, Meddle, and I don’t want to find out. Shelter’s comin’ up and the quicker we get there the better.”
After several minutes Jeremy dared a quick glance back over his shoulder. The space of dimmed evertorches was still behind them but, despite their increased pace, it’s hadn’t receded at all. The darkness was following them.
“Walter, I think that shadow is following us.”
“I know, lad, but it ain’t getting closer either. Let’s just keep moving.”
For two more miles the group walk at a pace just below jogging. And then, suddenly, Walter stopped. Jeremy looked over his shoulder and felt a sudden pang of fear.
There was now a shadow in front of them, as well as behind.
As the party stood still in shock, the two shadows began to move closer. Sensing something alien approaching, the horses began to whiny in fear. Walter directed Jeremy and Ama to grab tightly to their reigns, lest the animals bolt and be lost. Slowly the shadows approach, and the three companions pressed backwards into one another. The two adults tried to protectively place Jeremy in-between them. Goosebumps formed over his body, and he felt the temperature drop as the shadows approached.
“Whatever happens, lad, stick with Ama. She’ll take care of you.”
Finally the shadows washed over the companions and the honey glow of the evertorches was replace by shadow. All was darkness and the temperature dropped even more as the evertorches were engulfed. No one spoke or moved. The sounds of now terrified animals, however, broke through the silence – though now oddly muted. Jeremy was just aware enough to wonder why the horses had ceased struggling at their reigns, but didn’t have time to do more than note it’s oddness. Suddenly, out of the darkness, Jeremy felt a voice address him.
“Why did you break the window? Why have you come?”