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"Is he dead?"
Kieran entered the garden, wearing an old blanket slung across his shoulders for warmth. He had found the other two standing over Angel's broken body, like shabby mourners at a very cheap funeral.
"Yes", Adam muttered, not taking his eyes off the corpse "But it wasn't our handiwork".
"Dunno, we found him like it", said Joby "At least you're alright though".
"Shouldn't I be?"
"Well whoever did this is still at large somewhere", Joby explained "And it suddenly occurred to me that you were alone in the Loud House".
"It's probably the work of this Reptile Man you've both claimed to have seen", said Adam "Our only chance is to stay together and leave here".
"We have to do something with Angel. We can't just leave him lying around", Kieran pointed at the boy "It's not decent".
"Bury him at a crossroads with a stake through his heart?" said Joby, tartly "Isn't that usually the way with vampires?"
"I don't think that will be necessary", Adam sighed "A simple hole in the ground will suffice. Perhaps Patsy could gabble a few words gleaned from his Jesuit upbringing".
"I don't spose it'll be much use to him", said Kieran "seeing as religion had been abolished long before he was born".
"It's the thought that counts", said Adam "Such a bloody waste of a life!"
A shallow grave was dug, and Angel's body laid into it as gently as possible. The original idea of wrapping his corpse in the blanket Kieran was wearing was abandoned, on the practical grounds that it would be of more use to the living in the near future.
Kieran's mind went blank when he was called upon to "say a few words at the graveside". In the end he mumbled as much as he could remember of the Lord's Prayer, and added an "ashes to ashes, dust to dust", for good measure.
Joby watched his own breath in the icy fog and shivered, not just with cold. The feeling of being watched by unseen eyes, which had never completely left him at the Loud House, had increased markedly. He could only assume that Angel's killer was close by, watching his victim's burial. Joby urged Kieran to hurry up.
As the first handful of dirt was thrown directly onto the body, Joby noticed that Angel's eyes were still open, a look of terror frozen on the mesmeric blue orbs.
"Just a minute", Joby reached down and forced the eyelids shut. The coldness of the boy's skin sent shock waves through his body. He felt that the clammy chill would never leave him again.
"Perhaps that's what terrified him so much about this place", said Kieran "Perhaps he was getting premonitions of his own death".
"I don't think he was bright enough for that", replied Adam "Angel's only thoughts were about where to get his next fix. That was his sole concern. This place frightened him simply because, long ago, he'd been told ... well that it was a frightening place. He didn't have the nous to make up his own mind about it".
"It's gonna seem strange not having him around", said Joby "bellyaching about everything".
"It's just as well", said Adam, in a resigned voice "We have enough to cope with".
They were walking down the dark corridor where Angel had earlier been disturbed by the rustling sound. They knew that their way out must be via the old graveyard which Joby had seen from the tower, but they had no idea how to reach it. Instead they moved in the general direction of it, only too aware of how vulnerable they were, how threatened by every dark corner, every twist of the way. One single crack of the neck had killed Angel. It must have taken a mere second to achieve. It wouldn't take any longer to kill one of them.
The corridor spun itself out into the candlelit chamber that Adam had previously discovered. The candles had burnt considerably lower, and not for the first time he quietly speculated as to who it was who tended them. He fancied that he caught the tail-end of something, a scent? (like sour milk), a presence? (a being just gone by) a sound? (of wordless female singing). There was a sharp rush of air, which lasted a mere moment, but was enough to tell him that someone, or something, had just left the chamber.
Adam recovered the broken glass from his back pocket, and silently motioned the others to follow him. There was a sharp hiss, like a snake sensing either prey or peril. Adam wasn't confident he could discern which.
The low door with the stone overmantel was in front of him once more. And this time he knew he had to go in. He entered the room alone.
It was a small, triangular room. Windowless and devoid of furniture, its boundaries blurred by darkness. A cheerless, comfortless bolt-hole for the woman who stood with her back to him. A hideously enlarged silhouette of her outline was thrown against the wall by the muted glow of the candlelight through the open doorway. She stood completely in shadow. The piled coils of her matted hair were the only discernible part of her.
"We mean you no harm", said Adam, forgetting the shard of glass which he held tightly in his hand "We're from the past. Long, long ago. We are nothing to do with the men of now. You are a woman aren't you? I saw you in the hall a while back, or at least I saw part of your face".
The woman breathed in sharply, making an unearthly noise, rather like a death rattle. Her shoulders shook.
"We need your help", he went on, uncertainly "To get out of here. That's all. Nothing more".
"The other one", her voice came out, low and rusty, as though she hadn't used it for some time "Has been killing the demon children".
"He's dead now", said Adam "We weren't sure there was anyone else here, or we'd have watched him more closely".
There was that noise again. The sigh like a death rattle.
"It makes no odds to me", she said, sharply, and moved deeper into the shadows "I felt nothing for them. It is not possible to truly care for anyone when you live this way".
"What happened? Were you at Green Ways once too?"
"I was the guardian of Green Ways", there was a scraping sound as she dragged her fingernails restlessly along the stone walls "I was the carer, the keeper. The watcher on the shores of time. The comforter of time-crossers, such as yourself. I provided a haven for the lost. Until the day It passed through, as I had always been warned it might. The force for evil in the Universe that we are all told about, but never entirely believe in ... until we meet it for ourselves. It passes through time and nothing can stop it".
"Unless a cusp closes up", Adam took a step forward, and was surprised when she didn't move away from him.
"I don't wish to talk to you", she said, firmly "Please leave".
"You have to tell me more!"
"You will sense it when it is near", she cried "You will get a feeling of revulsion, of loathing, of extreme tiredness. Both before and after you see it. You will never be the same again. It destroys people. Mocks the essence of their being. Destruction. All is destruction".
Suddenly she turned to face him, and stepped out of the gloom.
For a long while after Adam was ashamed of the way he had reacted. She had trusted him enough by this time to show herself and he had responded with horror and revulsion. After the deed was done he had felt nothing but pity for the creature who had so bravely faced him, but at the time his baser instincts had got the better of him.
Reptilian skin. Breasts wrinkled and empty like those of a shrivelled bat. The most gaunt of faces with flesh stretched over bones like aged parchment. Small, flinty eyes that burned like red coals. Everything sagged and reeked of mould. This was a woman who had aged 100 years in one night.
She stepped up close to him, as though to catch him in an embrace, and Adam panicked and rammed the shard of broken glass into what remained of her right breast. The shock spread slowly over her face like a videotape in slow motion.
"Finish it", she said, in a voice heavy with shock and fatigue "Finish it now".
Adam crooked one arm around her waist, as though in a grotesque parody of a dance, and with all his might rammed the broken glass further into her body. Her skin was rough like orange peel, and so cold to the touch. She let out a sigh, almost contented as though at a job well done, and slumped in his arms.
"I'm so sorry", he whispered, apologising not so much for himself, as for the Being who had inflicted this fate on her. He braced himself mentally, and kissed her forehead. It was like kissing a marble statue in a church. She was dead.
He looked up to find Joby standing in the doorway. He stepped uneasily up to Adam, and breathed in sharply at seeing the woman close to.
"She came to me at Green Ways", he said "She wasn't like that then. What happened?"
"She encountered the Devil", Adam replied, quietly "The Being we will have to face ourselves ... before we reach home".
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