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"This is no time to tell us you're afraid of the dark", Kieran snapped at Joby.
They were standing on the bank by the underground stream, where Angel had scavenged before his untimely death. The bank was littered with rocks, rotting wood, and what looked horribly like the remains of human flesh.
"I'm not", Joby protested "It just seems daft to me. You've got no proof that that stream is the way out, and it looks bloody dark in the tunnel. We don't know what might be lurking there".
"If we all stick close together we have nothing to fear", Adam picked his way gingerly down to the water "I'm no happier about it than you are, but it seems to be the only way. The fact remains that the stream must lead somewhere, so let's assume it leads outside".
"Oh yes, let's play!" Joby said, sarcastically.
"Joby", Adam sighed "I always thought you were the sensible one. At the moment you sound just like Angel".
"Because I feel just like Angel!" Joby roared "I don't know why we couldn't go along the coastline".
"You can't see a fucking thing out there ..."
"And this is better?"
"Now you're just being boring", Kieran muttered, and grabbed Joby's elbow "We could've been out of here by now, if it wasn't for you bleating".
It was hardly a comfortable journey, sloshing ankle-deep in freezing cold water, with only a slime-encrusted wall to hang onto, but at least it was brief and held no unpleasant surprises. Daylight encroached on the tunnel mercifully quickly, and before long they were emerging into the misty graveyard that Joby had seen from the top of the tower. Here, the feeling of being watched was stronger than ever. It was easy to imagine dark shadows moving through the mist, as though a wall had broken down between this world and the next.
The lettering on the gravestones was long obliterated, and the stones lurched drunkenly over their mossy mounds. Some had been deliberately forced from their moorings, and lay abandoned nearby. The same angry presence that had destroyed the Loud House had been at work here.
"Who's buried here?" asked Joby, standing over one desecrated tomb "I don't remember a graveyard at Green Ways".
"It suspect it came much later", said Adam "When people stopped leaving Green Ways so easily".
Joby shrugged and stepped over the graves towards the broken arch.
Marshland stretched smoothly towards the horizon. It was a sight to deaden any heart. Miles of walking across bleak landscape lay ahead, with no guarantee that the distant horizon would see anything but yet more of the same. There was no shelter, and no sign of life (human or otherwise).
"I thought there might be something out here", said Joby, in disgust "Anything".
"This close to the Loud House?" Adam said, and set off at once on the gloomy trek.
"Well there's no going back I suppose", said Kieran "At least if there's any evil bastards out here, we should see them from a nice way off".
About half-a-mile into the walk, he stopped and turned for a backward glance at the Loud House. The building itself was now only a large, dark shape behind the fog. But there was something standing by the broken arch, a tall figure swathed in white, like an Egyptian mummy in bandages, or a ghost in a shroud. Kieran blinked his eyes rapidly, as he had once been taught to do on a ghost-watching course, (if you blink the image usually disappears, proving to be insubstantial). When he looked again the figure had indeed gone.
The camp-fire burned like a sore pimple on the face of the featureless marsh. It hadn't gone completely dark, simply that the over-riding gloom had got denser. It was what passed for night in these parts at this time of year.
Adam dug up sods of watery moss from the ground and boiled it over the fire. Liquid had to be found somehow. He was the only one of the three who seemed to be able to apply himself to anything practical. Joby was edgy, convinced they were being watched and hating the sensation.
Kieran couldn't rid himself of the image of the white figure. As he lay down to sleep by the dying light of the flames he thought he heard something in the distance. A rustling noise, like a large creature stalking through the undergrowth. He sat up quietly, but nothing moved on the marshes, and yet the noise had been so real.
He lay down again. When morning came no one was more astonished than he that he had managed to sleep at all.
The journey that morning was a depressing affair. They set off with empty stomachs, enlivened only by water that looked and tasted more like the juices from a stewed cabbage. They said little to each other, but the over-riding atmosphere was one of hopelessness. They each knew what the other was thinking. That the immediate future had never looked so bleak, so pointless, so why didn't they just lie down and let starvation take its natural course? The pre-Loud House days, with Angel and the prison buggy to rely on, now seemed like luxurious travelling by comparison.
But they kept moving, as humans are wont to do, until a sheer insurmountable weariness with life will cause them to lie down and abandon themselves to fate. They were three, thin, ragged figures advancing slowly towards a bleak horizon. Only the thought that something - anything at all - might lie on the other side kept them going.
The sea had eaten its way into the land beyond the horizon, taking out vast chunks of it as though it too didn't see any point in it simply lying there unused. But there was an old causeway which waded out into the waters, and gave an hysterical feeling of hope to the scarecrow creatures. At the end of it lay a large, humpbacked island, like a slumbering sea monster.
"There must be something out there", Adam's pinched face almost lit up with excitement "Or why build a causeway?"
He strode briskly in its general direction, followed swiftly by Joby. Kieran looked behind him first, as he had grown accustomed to doing in their trek across the marshes. The figure was there again. Tall and white. As always standing just that sufficient distance away to be indefinable.
Kieran stood, almost mesmerised by it. It, in turn, refused to be daunted by his stare, and merely waited for him to turn and walk on, so it could follow at its nice, safe distance. Kieran felt a moment of exasperation, and had almost decided to confront the figure, when a shout came up from the direction of the causeway.
Somebody was driving a sea-tractor along it, one hand on the wheel, the other gesticulating wildly. For once, this stranger didn't look threatening.
"You're a long way out for nomads aren't you? You don't normally go much further north than the City, but still, that's your business isn't it? I'm just so glad to see somebody. Days it's been since anyone's been in touch. Days. Normally I get a visit from the Ministry bods twice a week, but no one's been. No one at all. And no one's answered my communications at all, and I've been sending them every half-hour almost. Ever since the lighthouse went dark. I mean, they should know about these things. They've never done this before, not in my experience anyway. Very irresponsible I call it. I know we don't get much traffic out this way, but the fact remains that the Skirra Fludd is a dangerous rock ..."
"Excuse me", Adam cut short the narrative "Who are you?"
"Buskin", the chubby-faced man with the keen manner wiped his hand on his jacket and held it out.
"Is that your first or second name?"
"Only got the one name mate", Buskin roared with laughter, as though this was the funniest thing he had heard in ages (it probably was) "Buskin of the Weather Rock that's me. I predict the weather, so I'm the one you blame when it doesn't rain when it should".
"You live out here?"
"Someone has to mate. Someone's got to do it. Nurse the machines, make sure the Ministry get their reports on time. They get a bit jumpy if I'm late sending them down the line, which is why I can't understand this lack of communication recently. It's not like them at all".
Adam remembered the discs marked "weather" in the prison governor's study. So they had originated from a jolly little man living on a remote island, dangerously near the Skirra Fludd light and the Loud House.
"You live out here alone?" asked Joby, in astonishment.
"Well it's a job for one person like, and this area's not everyone's cup of tea. But I keeps meself to meself and none of the things out here bothers me".
"Things?" said Kieran, gravely.
"Oh there are a million tales about this place", Buskin laughed "But I can't be doing with 'em. People look for trouble sometimes I think. I would've expected better from the Ministry though. I know they don't like the Skirra Fludd rock ... Oh there I go again, and you're probably tired. And you look hungry as well if you don't mind me saying so. The tide's coming in fast, so if you wants to take advantage of my hospitality I'd advise you to decide now".
"Won't the Ministry mind you having visitors?" asked Adam.
"Well it's not as if it happens everyday is it? You're the first people, apart from Ministry staff, I've seen since I came out here two years ago. As I said, you nomads don't normally come up this far".
"You never get time-crossers here?" Adam saw the warning look the others gave him, but ignored it "I mean, when a cusp opens".
"Ha ha!" Buskin gurgled "There are no cusps here I'm glad to say. They'd play havoc with me equipment if there were. Nearest one is at the prison, and that must be 200 miles away, at least. They sorts 'em out pretty sharpish there I can tell you".
"So we've heard", said Adam, dryly.
"C'mon, don't hang about", Buskin bustled "This isn't the weather for loitering, and the tides starting to cover the causeway already. Hop on!"
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