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Preparations had to be made immediately for the journey through the tunnel, which would be accomplished entirely under the steam of the boiler. The masts had to be completely dismantled.
The tunnel, when it appeared, was an intensely forbidding place.
“What happens if we can’t get out the other side?” asked Bengo.
“Then we reverse back, dumbass”, said Bardin.
The narrow, confining darkness of the tunnel was compounded by the horrendous racket which greeted them when they entered it. It was like the dismal wailings they had heard in the Sea Of Torment, only considerably magnified, bouncing off the slimy, bare walls and ceiling. It was nothing more than a horrendous wailing of what felt like the sounds of voices all desperately screaming to be heard at once.
“Drive us fucking nuts if we had to put up with this for long”, said Joby.
At one point a platform appeared on one side. It was surrounded by myriad tunnel entrances honeycombed into the damp walls around them. Out of these were swarmed a noisy rabble of humanity, of all shapes and sizes. But all yelling, their faces grotesquely contorted with the effort of being heard. It was a barrage of colourful abuse flung in the direction of the galleon.
“I don’t think they like us”, said Hillyard.
“Don’t take it personal”, said Bardin “I get the feeling they’re like this with anyone passing through”.
“You shouldn’t fucking exist!” screamed one hag, jumping up as though trying to claw her way on-board “Die you bastards, die!”
“What have we ever done to her?” said Joby.
“Nothing, it’s some angry despair”, said Kieran “As Bardin said, they’d be exactly the same to anyone who strayed through here”.
Suddenly a grotesque shadow was thrown against the wall, like a huge spider crawling into view. It was an emaciated half-naked woman, nothing more than skin and bone. Her head, crowned by a halo of dry straw-like hair, seemed almost too big for her body. Her skin was stretched tightly over her face, like a cadaver wearing a surgical glove. She was carrying a flaming torch, which threw her shadow against the wall.
“Watch her carefully”, muttered Bardin “I don’t trust her with the torch. If she sets fire to the ship, we’ll be torn to pieces by this mob”.
Ransey fired a volley of shots overhead, which at least did stun some of the mob into silence. They glanced at the creature called Hel, as though awaiting further instructions from her.
“We’ll be out of here soon I suspect”, said Mieps, who was at the wheel “There’s a light in the far distance”.
“Thank God”, said Bengo “I’ve never seen such an angry crowd. Even our shows didn’t provoke this reaction!”
They proceeded through a couple of further rooms. Mercifully, these were less populated, as most of the inhabitants had swarmed hive-like into the previous chamber. Instead these rooms were lined with silent natives, who stood around in niches, staring glumly into space, as if they were living ornaments.
By the time the galleon had reached the second chamber it had left most of the screaming inhabitants behind.
“Why aren’t they pursuing us?” said Bengo.
“I think they’ve forgotten about us”, said Kieran.
“Eh?” said Joby “But it’s only been a few minutes!”
“But they were consumed with rage”, said Bengo “I’ve never seen anything like it! And now they’ve forgotten us already?”
“That’s the way of it here”, said Kieran.
“So what were we frightened of?” said Hoowie.
“That screaming mob, that’s what”, said Bardin “If we’d walked straight into their hands God knows what would have happened to us”.
There was a squawking noise in the distance, as Hel seemed to be giving fresh instructions to her mob.
“Keep going”, said Kieran to the others “Once we’re out of earshot of it we won’t have to care what the fock she’s on about”.
“But who are they, Kieran?” asked Bengo “How did they end up here?”
“I don’t think it was always like this”, said Kieran “The original settlement was probably set up with the best of intentions, but it’s deteriorated over the years. Perhaps it’s the isolation I don’t know. Perhaps they heard too many dark stories from travellers about what was going on in the outside world, and they became obsessed with it. They’ve built up an intense hatred and fear. This forest is cursed, and it’s destroyed them spiritually”.
“They didn’t make it like this then?” said Joby.
“No I don’t think so”, said Kieran “It’s cursed, and it’s eaten away at their souls”.
They weren’t sure if they were to be anymore tunnels after that one. There was no knowing what lay ahead before they left that dreadful part of the forest. When they left this particular part of the forest though they were rewarded with a small glimmer of sunshine trying to break through the denseness of the trees. It was a wintry, sunny type of sunshine, but sunshine nonetheless.
“It’s only just occurred to me that it’s been a long time since we last saw it”, said Bengo, standing up on the main deck with Joby “Are you alright, Joby?”
“Yeah, I still keep hearing that shouting in me head though”, said Joby “What a bloody awful racket”.
“Like the worst catcalls we ever had on stage, but magnified about a 100 times”, said Bengo “God, they were so angry!”
Kieran appeared on deck, looking exhausted and shaken.
“Hey, what are you doing up here?” said Joby “I thought you were having a nap”.
“My dreams were rudely invaded”, said Kieran “That hell-hag back there”.
“She appeared in your dreams?” said Bengo “What did she do?”
“Nothing much”, said Kieran “Just screwed up her ugly face at me and screamed, hysterically, that she couldn’t understand why we weren’t afraid”.
“What, of her?” said Joby.
“Well I think she meant everything really”, said Kieran “Of the world in general. We were supposed to stay in there, in that infernal rabbit-hole with them”.
“They didn’t exactly make us feel welcome did they!” said Bengo.
“They wouldn’t have put two and two together there”, said Kieran “I doubt that rationale is their strong point. Anyway, the old witch screamed at me that we should be terrified, and we must be mentally ill if we’re not”.
“That’s nice”, said Joby “Is she gonna keep that up for long?”
“No I suspect we’ll move out of her range eventually”, said Kieran “I can’t believe she’s got limitless stretch somehow. She’s is very much Queen of this part of the forest, and that’s it”.
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