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“Come on, keep up!” Bardin shouted over his shoulder.
“I’m gonna wring his neck in a minute”, said Joby.
“Bardy!” yelled Bengo, over the bracing fresh wind “Slow down!”
Bardin had got a bee in his bonnet about seeing what was over the top of the hill on the other side. A few days marooned at the bunker-like hillside house had left him restless to an unbearable degree.
“Everybody needn’t think we’re staying here for all eternity”, he had said, waspishly.
“Who said anything about eternity?” said Hillyard “We’re just taking a breather that’s all”.
“I don’t trust it”, Bardin had confided to Bengo in the privacy of their cabin “That house. It feels like a trap”.
“Kieran says it could be a Sanctuary”, said Bengo.
“With respect”, said Bardin “Kieran didn’t recognise Pabbio was a demon did he! He doesn’t always recognise Evil when he sees it. Sometimes I wonder why he was ever made Vanquisher of Evil”.
“Bardin!” said Bengo, in a shocked voice.
“Oh don’t get me wrong”, said Bardin “I admire him, and I’m very grateful to him …”
“So you should be !” said Bengo “If it wasn’t for Kieran we’d still be listening to you moaning on about your damned crooked mouth! In fact, we wouldn’t be standing here at all!”
“I’m just saying …”
“Oh you’re always Just Saying. Kieran is magical”.
“I know that”, said Bardin “But he’s also naïve. I want to see where that nun went too. I don’t believe she’s a ghost, or a guardian spirit. I think she’s real, and she went somewhere. And the only place she could have gone is over the brow of the hill”.
So that was why the customary six (Bardin, Bengo, Hillyard, Ransey, Joby and Kieran) were now trudging up the hillside behind the back of the house.
“I dunno how that nun managed to skim up here so fast”, Joby panted “She must have legs like a mountain goat!”
“You’re out of condition”, said Bardin, standing above him, arms akimbo.
“I’ll give you a good hiding in a minute”, said Joby “That’ll show you how out of condition I am!”
“Just think of our Julian back down there”, said Hillyard “Having sex in the big carved wooden bed”.
“Rather that than he’s up here with us!” said Ransey.
Bardin had reached the top ridge of the hill and gave out a shocked “bloody hell!”
“I don’t like the sound of that”, said Joby.
“Good job I blessed you all before we left home”, said Kieran “And made you all wear crosses”.
“Yeah thanks Kieran, that makes me feel a lot better!” said Joby.
“Bardin! Wait!” shouted Bengo.
The hill on the other side dropped down sharply to a narrow valley, which ran between two steep, partially wooded slopes on either side. The valley was only wide enough to accommodate a rough single-file track which led to a huge monstrosity of a building in the rear distance.
It looked like a semi-derelict castle, several storeys high, with row upon row of small arch-shaped, glass-less windows, which stared out black and intense like a myriad of hostile dark eyes. The castle/fortress (impossible to call it something so prosaic as a house) was hung all over with huge blankets of moss and dead lichen. It was a dramatic, off-putting sight.
“I knew there was something here”, said Bardin, when the others had joined him “I could feel it!”
“Oh great”, said Bengo “Another abandoned building”.
“It’s more than that”, said Kieran, in a quiet voice.
“Yes, you can feel it too”, said Bardin “This place holds the key to everything we’ve experienced in this area. All the desolation, the deadness. It’s here”.
“I don’t like where you’re going with this”, said Bengo “You want us to go inside that hellhole don’t you!”
“We have to”, said Kieran “Or we’ll never know what’s happened up here”.
“Would that be so bad?” Bengo exclaimed.
“You don’t have to come”, said Bardin, chewing his bottom lip anxiously “You can go back down to the ship if you wish”.
“Do you honestly think I’m gonna do that!” said Bengo.
Bardin looked quite faint with relief.
“Come on guys”, said Ransey “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it. I take it you’ve all got your guns with you?”
The castle, that towering edifice of rottenness, stank of damp and decay. They stood in the main entrance hall and looked around them at the dust, the crumbling statues and staircase, and the pitched roof high overhead, from which bats could be heard rustling. Joby found himself looking down at a statue of what appeared to be a small child, holding its hands up in a begging gesture.
“These statues”, he said “Too bloody lifelike for comfort. Has a gorgon been in here?”
“Probably not just a gorgon”, said Kieran.
“Kieran, I meant that as a joke!” said Joby.
“There doesn’t look much to joke about in here”, said Ransey, grimly.
Ahead of them was a long dark corridor. Bardin was pacing around near the entrance to it, when suddenly something vile and dark, like the legs of an enormous tarantula, thrust out of the wall and wrapped its tendrils around him, pulling him backwards.
The others all shouted at once and ran towards him. Bengo seized him around the waist, Joby and Hillyard grabbed his legs and feet. Kieran stormed up to the vile thing.
“Leave him!” he yelled “I order you, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I order you to set him free!”
To the astonishment of everybody, not the least Bardin, the creature was sucked back into the wall, as though it was being hovered up. As a precaution against it appearing again, the others dragged Bardin across the dusty floor, away from the vicinity of the wall. Bardin felt as though something had been trying to tear him apart.
“That worked!” he exclaimed breathlessly to Kieran “What you said just then, it worked!”
“That thing was demonic, I should damn well hope so!” said Kieran.
The others helped Bardin to his feet. His trousers, which had become disarranged in all the furore, fell down.
“I should’ve known that was going to happen”, he said.
“I can think of easier ways of getting your trousers off you, Bardin!” Hillyard joked.
“Reminds me of when Toppy nearly got pulled through the wall that time”, said Joby.
“Ugh, what is this stuff?” said Bengo, picking at shiny, black, gelatinous globs which had got stuck to Bardin’s coat and hair from the thing in the wall.
“Residue from it”, said Kieran “Me and Joby got covered in stuff like this when Ransey shot Father Gabriel”.
“This is no time for reminiscing”, said Ransey.
“My trousers falling down and getting covered in sticky stuff”, said Bardin “I’m clearly going to be the stooge on this outing”.
“Oh don’t worry, Bardy”, said Bengo “I’m sure I’ll manage a pratfall at some point!”
“Right”, said Hillyard “Let’s go home”.
“No, we’ve got to down there”, said Kieran, pointing at the corridor ahead.
“I had a horrible feeling you was going to say that”, said Hillyard.
The corridor seemed to go on forever. At times the darkness was so intense it felt tangible. The six of them linked hands and arms, and stayed close together, to avoid a repeat of one of them being hauled through the wall, so they walked in an awkward crablike motion.
Eventually a hazy, purplish-orange light appeared and they shuffled awkwardly towards it. It came accompanied by the sound of wailing and screaming.
They emerged into a vast area of sand, overlooked by a purplish sky. Arrayed all over the sand were naked bodies of people writhing in agony, screaming, shouting and begging for release. Above them swarmed balls of light, like the one that had perused them back at the abandoned house. In the far distance a gaping black hole hovered on the horizon.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God”, said Kieran.
“I don’t know what I was expecting”, said Bardin, in a whisper “But it wasn’t this”.
He noticed a woman lying on the sand nearby. She was rolling backwards and forwards, and screaming endlessly. Like all the other naked bodies she was oblivious to their presence.
“What’s the matter with her?” said Bardin “Nothing’s touching her. Why is she in pain?”
“It’s not physical pain she’s in”, said Kieran.
Suddenly, as if some invisible force had snapped its fingers, the awful cacophony ceased, and the people rose to their feet. They turned and faced the far horizon, and began to walk towards it in a simplified state.
“Where are they going?” said Bardin, turning to Kieran.
“Further into Hell”, said Kieran.
“B-but can’t we stop them?” said Bardin “Kieran! There must be something you can do, like when you helped me just now”.
“I can’t”, said Kieran, softly “I would never be able to reach them. They’ve been robbed of their souls”.
“Those lights ….” Bardin looked upwards, where the glass balls of light were still hovering around.
“We’re too late for all of those here”, said Kieran “We might as well leave”.
“I don’t understand”, said Bardin, when they had got back outside. The fresh bracing air had never felt so welcome.
“Bardin”, said Kieran, tiredly “We were at the mouth to Hell”.
“I know that”, said Bardin “I meant where did all those people come from? We’ve barely seen anyone in this entire area since we got here … or is that why? They’ve all been taken in there”.
“I think they’ve been brought here from all over”, said Kieran “They’ve had their souls removed, and are now being sent down into Hell”.
“OK”, said Bardin, as though squaring up for a fight “These are demons doing this, right?”
“Yes”, said Kieran.
“Why?” Bardin barked “What do they want with people’s souls? I don’t get it”.
“Nourishment”, said Kieran “They need it in the same way humans need food and drink. Without it they can’t survive, they’d wither and perish. They feed off people’s souls”.
“And what’s going to happen to those people now?” said Bengo “Will they die?”
“No they’ll continue”, said Kieran “Sadly”.
“Without souls in Hell”, said Bardin “And there’s nothing we can do for them?”
“They are like animal carcasses”, said Kieran “There is nothing we can reach”.
“Here, come on”, said Hillyard, pulling out a hip-flask “I brought this in case we needed warming up”.
“We do, in a way”, said Kieran.
“But what are we going to do about all that?” Bardin persisted.
“Bardy, shut up”, said Bengo “Just be grateful we rescued you”.
“I am but …” Bardin began.
“We’ll burn it”, said Kieran “As we did Lixix”.
“’Cept this’ll be easier”, said Joby “We won’t have to evacuate a whole town first”.
“Molotov cocktails?” suggested Ransey.
“And afterwards”, said Kieran “The ground sewn with salt”.
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