The walk always took half an hour. Half an hour there, half an hour back, from the outside. But it always felt longer when he actually walked the tunnel. It felt like time was being stretched out, that his quiet footsteps would softly echo for endless miles.
Tonight was a long, long walk. He could feel the weight of the earth pushing down on his shoulders. The air in the tunnel was cold, the smooth concrete walls frigid to the touch. The only thing to pierce the darkness was the bright cone of his flashlight.
This was a very old place. Very old indeed. It didn’t look it. To the eyes it was just a maintenance tunnel, bare concrete, an occasional exposed pipe. There was time stored up in these stones, soaked up like a sponge, filling the place as it slowly oozed out of the cracks in the walls and rust on the pipes.
His flashlight bobbed. He kept walking. Time passed.
Then, finally, already, the arch, where there would have been a door. There was no door anymore. The words carved on the lintel had been worn down long ago. Words had little power here. He stepped through.
He reached the hall, though he only knew it from the breeze, and the feeling of the walls dropping away into the shadows. There was only darkness there. He kept walking. His footsteps did not echo.
Shapes stirred in his peripheral vision. Ghostly lights flickered to life. A graveyard of broken and cracked computer monitors shed their sickly light. Nothing was ever displayed. All around him he could see the dim outlines of scrap wires and old circuit boards and junked towers. He could hear rustling and laughter from the shadows, occasionally see the glowing reflection of an eye. And then there was the throne.
The great seat amidst the rusting, decaying garbage was occupied. As it always was. The form of the king was tall, thin, shapeless and still shaped, somewhat like a man, wearing a pale face and dark clothes. A courtesy. The king wore no crown. The king had no need for one.
Around the throne sat the king’s attendants, waiting at attention, their faceless faces smiling for eternity. They turned to watch the man as he approached the throne, their empty eyes looking as one gaze.
The man stopped. He bowed, and then righted himself.
The king bent down, extending a hand of long, bony fingers. The shadows around it crept and grew like the roots of some gnarled, ancient tree.
The man took a paper bag from his coat pocket. From it, he counted out twenty-one pebbles into the king’s bony hand. The king’s hand closed and the king sat straight again.
The man was free to leave now. He did. The walk back felt shorter this time. He shrugged off the thought.
Twenty-one pebbles for twenty-one children who would be gone by the morning. Maybe not this morning, maybe not next, but some morning. Twenty-one children, delivered every year. That was the deal that had been kept for a long, long time.
Deals have to be kept.