His heartbeat quickened as he listened, hoping to hear some hint of the faint cry again, and at the same time wishing not to hear anything, praying it was just his imagination. The scream had carried a great distance. By the time it reached Noel’s ears, the woman’s voice was barely perceptible above the sound of his own breath, yet in the tormenting silence of the pitch-black hell surrounding him, it had been clear enough. His name was borne upon that terrified wail, and while he had plenty of reason to suspect this was more trickery, meant to disorient him and lead him straight into another mind-trap, or worse still, that this cry was the product of his own pitiful death-throes, the seizing of his gut warned him the woman’s suffering authentic, and not another apparition.
After a long minute waiting, and a longer minute spent building up courage as he grew keenly aware of the ache of his knees against stone, Noel got up from the ground, and called out into the darkness, “Hello?”
Though he was certain it was the shifting of his eyes struggling to see anything at all against the surrounding blackness, the shadow seemed to grow deeper, swallowing up his word as silence loomed mercilessly, not even a hint of an echo reporting.
Cupping his hands around his mouth he bellow, “HEEEEELLOOOOO!” straining his voice until his throat burned, hoping the sound would carry, but it was suffocated by the abyss enveloping him. Again there was no reply, only the sullen stranglehold of that ominous void and the whisper of his own harried breath, trapped there with him, growing fainter by the moment.
“I’ve got to keep moving,” he muttered, in answer to the warning that crawled across his flesh.
Lifting his hand in front of him, Noel drew forth a spark of Hestia’s light, just enough that he might search his rucksack for something worthy of a new torch, to carry the ancient goddess’s flame. For a brief moment, the flicker of indigo held true in his palm, though the light it cast barely illuminated the crests embroidered on the cuff of his cloak, a welcome reminder of the outside world, but as he slung his bag from his shoulders, the darkness swelled.
“No, no!” he said as the flame was snuffed and the veil of endless shade consumed him once more.
Noel swore, tugging at the top of his pack as he knelt and began rifling through the contents until he felt one of his shirts and balled it up in his fist. “I’m not dead yet,” he breathed. “Not yet.”
In his youth, in their time off between quarters, he had become rather good at replicating the contents of an old decanter of scotch the elder Foote kept on a spindle-legged table in the parlor at Foote Manor, so good that he had eventually learned to recreate the libation without requiring a single drop to use as a base, a fact on which he prided himself those long winter nights at school, when there was nothing better to do than lie in a circle around the fire with his friends, staring up at the stars, trying to make them move. It had been nearly two decades since he had reason to compose a batch of the stout drink, having long-since become a patron of the Iron Paw and developed a taste for a warmer, peatier version, but he thought he could still manage.
The shirt grew wet and heavy in his hands, and the familiar smoked heather scent of countless evenings spent in drunken laughter lingered in the air, making him wish for simpler times, but this was neither the time nor place for reminiscing. He sucked some of the liquid from his shirt and coughed at the molasses and peppery heat on his tongue mixed with the grit of dirt picked up in Arnhem Land. It was perfect. He only hoped the proof was high enough Hestia’s light would not be so easily extinguished.
Holding his breath, he drew forth the spark once more. The distillate flashed wildly, as the flame rose up, well above Noel’s head, bright enough this time the quartz glimmered beneath his feet. “There you go, lads,” he laughed as he slung his rucksack up over his shoulder and stood.
But as he turned to his left and again to his right, hoping to see some hint of a direction, his chest tightened and his heart began to race in panic.
Beyond the glow of hope, clasped in his fist, there was nothing more than blackness, deep and impenetrable, even by the vast strength of the goddess’s flame, though Noel had come to expect this by now. It was what he saw in the darkness that made his bones ache and his mind real.
“Impossible,” he shuddered, the chill dancing between his shoulder blades.
The shadow of blackness, whatever it was—magic or monster—was moving, pressing in on him. He could see it swirling all around, a gaseous mass, undulating as though it was breathing.
“It’s alive,” he whispered as Hestia’s light began to dim once more.
Noel stumbled backward as the ominous deep moved toward him, swiftly closing in from all sides, the firelight fading fast.
“I… I have to get out of here,” he stammered, turning round, not certain from which direction he came, but for the first time truly ready to run away, ready to give up and let the secrets of the prophecy of the last hope remain a mystery forever.
Hestia’s flame grew smaller and smaller, squelched by the maddening shadow, as the darkness deepened evermore.
“I have to find my way back!” Noel gave a fervent hiss, feet leading him in circles, guilt of failure flooding his chest, but fear winning out over pride. “I’m done with this!” he shouted. “I’m finished! You hear me? You win! Just let me go home!”
But even as he said the words, the flame died, leaving him utterly blind once again, quivering with trepidation.
He drew in a breath, dread tensing his shoulders as he took a step forward and waited, expecting any moment to feel the clench of that treacherous black in his lungs, forcing the air out of him.
Another long minute passed, the silence pulsing rapidly in his ears between heartbeats as he stood trembling childishly.
“I-imagine what Phileas would say if he w-were here right now?” Noel spoke in a hush, dropping his shirt on the ground, hands shaking in front of him, as he felt of the darkness, shoes scraping against the floor as he inched forward, hoping he was headed either in the direction of the woman’s cries, or toward the exit, and home.
What he would not give to be home, he thought, taking another careful step. “Afraid of the dark after all these years?” he chuckled anxiously, his voice scratching at the air, mocking his dear friend. “’What’s the worst that could happen?’ he would ask, before setting off boldly, not standing here like some whimpering coward, waiting for the worst of it.”
Noel laughed at himself, to keep the imagined conversation moving forward. “Well, I could fall off a ledge into the vast nothingness, Phileas,” he answered, finding a little courage in his words.
“Aye, you’d be fairly bad off if that happened, but you’ve mostly accomplished it already, and you have to admit it would hardly come as a surprise now, would it? You can do better than that, Noel. What’s the worst thing you can think of?”
His pace quickened, as he squeezed his jaw. “Death by silence, my friend, but of course, not if I keep talking to myself, and certainly not if I’m already dead, so I suppose there is a bit hope left after all. If I’m still alive, there’s something yet to look forward to, and if I am dead, and this is my own personal perdition, as it seems it must be, the worst of it has already occurred, and there’s nothing I can do about it. There you go mate. Happy thoughts… Christ…” he sighed, at last swallowing the stone in his throat.
He ran a hand over the back of his head, damp with sweat, peering into the deep. There was nothing, nothing to be seen, no brush of air against his skin, no woman screaming his name as she suffered some torture too far away to rescue, nothing at all, he thought. “That is something, though, isn’t it?” he murmured, keeping the idea to himself, just in case. He could not be certain his thoughts were entirely his own anymore. Whatever evil possessed this place, it had been inside his head, pulling memories from his mind. It had forced him to imagine nearly drowning in that sand pit. Now there was only an austere quiet, punctuated by scraping of his feet against the ground.
“You’ll make it through, Noel,” he said, stopping short to gather his bravery. “After all, how did you end up in this place? It wasn’t by accident.”
Back in that lost cave, hidden somewhere in the sacred lands the Yolngu people, he drank the potion Taree gave him, and the Dreaming led him to Namcha Barwa, but he had not been shown the way. In fact, much like his present circumstances, he had not seen or heard anything while he was under the influence of the poisonous tonic connecting him to Wangaar time. He had simply known the answer, at the soul of him. Yet Taree had taught him that in the Dreaming, one could see all of eternity. Noel saw nothing, he heard nothing. Just like now.
“I simply knew,” he whispered, pressing his hands to his face, dragging them slowly over his cheeks to become prayerful fists clutched at his lips. “Is it possible?” he wondered, bending over, leaning against his knees to breathe. “I didn’t get here by accident. I only discovered the entrance to this place by falling, and I had to cause an avalanche and nearly die in order to get inside. The only thing I really accomplished, trying to figure it out on my own, was buggering things up, but perhaps, I’ve never been supposed to find the way myself… not by searching. I didn’t see nothing in the Dreaming; I saw this black madness. All this time, it’s been the Wangaar guiding me, and I’ve only gotten anywhere when I’ve had no choice but to let go.”
He half-laughed at the idea, shaking his head. “It’s foolish… insane,” he answered himself, pulling his rucksack securely over both shoulders.
“So here goes,” he sighed through a smirk, before hurling himself into the nothingness.