Paul - at last - saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
After he had woken from the sound dream of Ben Robertson's romantic interest (and felt slightly disappointed with the lack of 'romance') he had made himself climb back into the tunnel to continue his arduous journey.
And now, crawling through the tiny space in his arms and knees, dust clouding his vision, he could see the end; he could feel the curse slipping away from him.
He could soon - oh, so soon! - put all this nonsensical, insane twaddle behind him.
He could go back to his old, cynical life.
But then something went wrong.
A sound like a shriek from a microphone screamed in Paul's ears and made him cry out in pain. A cold wind blew from the exit and the pit of Paul's stomach froze. A weight fell on his neck - an invisible, impossible weight - such that his face fell flat on the floor of the tunnel.
“Oh God...” he whispered, his breathing suddenly becoming heavy and stunted - like there was some unfathomable pressure on his throat, “Oh gods... Oh Christ... Jesus, Allah, Jehovah, Ahora, Satan, Buddha, anybody!” he bellowed desperately, praying for the power to raise his head, “Ben!” he called, “Ben, where the Hell have you got to? Help me!”
That cold smooth voice chuckled in Paul's mind, “You accept my existence now?”
Paul gasped for breath, “What's going on?” he whimpered.
“Don't you know? You have a time-limit, Paul,” Ben laughed slightly, “And... you should have trusted your instincts, ridiculous though they might be.”
“What are you talking about?” Paul crawled forward, feeling an invisible tether pull at his neck as he did.
“The curse, Paul, is on all the men of your family - our family - but it isn't activate until you enter this tunnel,” Ben explained.
“So...” Paul gasped and gulped for breath, “You tricked me?”
“If you had left me talking to your mind, my voice would have faded after your twenty-fifth birthday. I would have left you alone. But, like all your other male ancestors, you came here. To me and my tunnel. Those who went back went insane, those who soldiered on died - the same death, mind, just made to appear different to the living.”
“Why are you doing this?” Paul whined in a frustrated manner.
Paul could almost feel Ben's smile, “You should never trust a thief.”
Paul swore loudly, profoundly, for quite some time. Then he sighed and carried forward. He refused to believe that someone as special and important as him could die in a disgusting tunnel, smelling and looking the way he did. He grunted, carrying the weight of the invisible noose with him. He would be celebrated after this. He would be the modern Hercules.
“Shit!” Paul barked, when he scraped his arm across a sharp stone poking out of the tunnel. He stopped to look at the bleeding, painful wound. It would leave a mark. He muttered many things under his breath and then said, “There had better be a Golden Apple of Immortality waiting for me at the end of this.”
He pushed himself forward, finally poking his head out of the tunnel, but didn't drop down before he tore off one of his sleeves and used it as a bandage for the wound.
Then he carefully climbed down and put on his spectacles. Paul looked around and shivered. It was the secret room the hosts of the Flying Shoe kept for thieves. Only, the regulars were very dead. The room stank of years of decay, the fond fungal spores filling Paul's sinuses. He covered his nose with the neck-line of his shirt.
Paul remembered reminiscing Anne sitting in the corner and Edward sitting at a low table and drinking from a metal flagon. They still were - in frozen silence. Edward's skeletal form was drinking from the age-old, dried flagon - throwing the non-existent drink down his decomposed throat. Anne's skeletal figure leaned in the corner, her legs splayed-out, her fleshless skull swaying in drunken lethargy. The teeth smiled involuntarily, but mockingly.
Anne Miller: Paul Miller?
Paul grasped the wall for support.
“The bastard...” Paul murmured.
Ben had said the curse permeated his family - 'our family'.
Paul gulped down a mixture of emotions and stepped towards Anne.
Her head stopped swaying, as if to examine her accidental descendant with eyeless sockets, and then burst into audible laughter - her jaw chattering up and down.
The Edward-skeleton also started laughing.
“He ain't got a chance!” Anne shrieked.
“No chance at all,” Edward agreed - their voices ethereal and echoing. Dead, dead voices - like whispers amplified in sound.
Then they laughed and laughed and laughed.
Paul fell on his knees, covering his ears to block out the sound, but it filled his mind and stabbed at all his senses - jittering his bones, splintering his flesh. He screamed to cover the sound. It didn't work. And all the while, that invisible noose tugged at his throat consistently, getting minutely tighter and tighter by the second...