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"Fucking brilliant idea this was of yours! I don't know why we couldn't have stayed a few more days with Buskin", Joby peered out at the drizzle in disgust.
"And would leaving it a few more days have made this any more bearable?" said Adam "Anyway, for all we know Buskin may be having visitors right at this moment. Much as we appreciated his hospitality, we couldn't risk being caught there by the infamous Ministry".
They were sheltering below a large rock in the middle of the marshes. It had been a noticeable landmark when they first saw it, sitting as it was in an otherwise featureless landscape. It was a large, rambling edifice with nooks and crannies, situated next to a dead tree, the roots of which were creaking in the breeze like the upended corpse of a giant tarantula.
In spite of a camp-fire and Buskin's generous provisions it was a cheerless way to spend an evening. Outside their rocky niche the marsh mists and an irritatingly relentless drizzle had conspired to make the night both uncomfortable and unnaturally dark.
"We could catch our deaths here", Joby went on, morosely "All this damp gets into your bones you know, and your chest".
"It's only for one night", said Adam, as patiently as he could.
"How do you know? These marshes could go on forever. How do you know we won't be spending weeks living like this?"
"Because I have a map", Adam unravelled a large scroll of paper which Buskin had presented him with on leaving, like an award for valiant service "And whilst you were moaning about stopping here earlier, I was looking at it. Very carefully. There is in fact a small settlement only a few miles to the south-east of here. A day's walk if we're energetic. It's called Kiskev".
"It's right on the edge of the Uncharted Area", said Kieran, looking over Adam's shoulder.
"Exactly, so it should be an interesting place".
"So it means they might not welcome nomads", Joby pointed out "We could be walking into anything. They might be a bit peculiar living right out there".
"You should fit in well then", said Kieran.
"I heard once about blokes who worked on polar stations, in the days before they allowed women out there", said Joby "It weren't unknown for one to get cabin-fever and run amok. One bloke committed suicide after getting home, because he couldn't shake the place off. They're probably all like that in Kiskev, fucking potty".
"You'll probably find the whole country's like it", said Kieran "After all, if it can produce people like Angel, and creatures like the Reptile Man ..."
"I wish I'd seen that as well", said Adam "I wonder what on earth it was. Was it human do you think?"
"He had a tongue like an ant-eater's", said Joby "I think he was some kind of freak".
"A hybrid perhaps? I did read in Buskin's log about him seeing strange creatures out on the marshes. Could have been monsters even".
"That's a comfort!" Kieran exclaimed "Now we're out here as well".
Joby tossed another stick from the dead tree onto the fire. The dampness caused the flames to hiss violently.
Kieran dozed, whilst looking into the flames, occasionally startled into wakefulness by something glimpsed fleetingly through the mist and drizzle outside. A quick flicker of light. A glimpse of silver.
"Your imagination could make you go off your head", he said to himself sternly, and tried to sleep.
Kiskev sat on the edge of the wilderness, like Pluto, the last planet on the rim of the Solar System. With its back to civilisation, and its face timidly yet resolutely turned towards the unknown Kiskev had been there far longer than anyone could remember. It was one of the oldest hamlets in the world. People had settled themselves there soon after the Warming, and enjoyed a prosperous living out of the fur trade.
It had been a hard and simple existence, sufficiently far removed from the rest of the world not to be bothered by the latest eccentricity of the Ministry, or too many meddlesome visitations from them. The Kiskevians had come to value their privacy as something unique in the modern world. Then came the Massacre, and even Kiskev had failed to remain untouched by it. The villagers made desperate attempts to shield their women, even taking them miles out into the frozen wastes of the tundra, in the hope that they wouldn't be traced. But the long arm of the Ministry reached everywhere, and no one was safe. All the females were destroyed, from babies lying in fur-lined cradles, to the old women, whose teeth had been worn down to the gums from the constant snapping of thread, a legacy from a lifetime of making up furs for the Ministry to sell at extortionate prices in the City.
Since the Massacre life at Kiskev had been barely bearable. Night fell at the end of November, and the sun didn't rise again until March. Snow and ice stretched for miles, and the low temperatures seemed to attain brand new low records each and every winter. The fur trade, lucrative as ever (ironically the Warming had only served to make winters even colder) paid very well. But the high earning power sat uneasily with the lifestyle of the locals. Kiskev was a place where insanity had become the norm, and where it was more noteworthy to see someone sober on the streets than drunk.
The mass suicide at the lunar eclipse had finally closed the book on Kiskev's twilight world. There was no one now to ply the essential fur trade, and no one who would likely want to in the future. With the prison service in disarray, and now the fur trade completely out of business at the very beginning of another winter, the Ministry were increasingly fearful that the whole structure of their fragile civilisation was falling apart.
And now the village stood empty. The distinctive wooden buildings, which were raised on stilts and had metal spikes on the roofs in case of an avalanche, were nothing but shells. There was a rectangular, whitewashed building which had, years ago, been the village chapel, and in recent times had been used as a communal shelter for the snow-dogs (these poor animals had been slaughtered and buried prior to the mass suicide).
All that remained of the villagers themselves was a large grave near the forest. Hastily the charred bones and flesh had been tumbled in together by the Ministry representatives. There was a large patch of scorched earth on what had been the central meeting-place, the village square. After burying the men, the Ministry had taken any finished furs and departed in haste, spurred on by strange noises they had heard out on the tundra. It was an eerie place. It was unclean. The Ministry men vowed they would resign, forsake their entire careers, even become eunuchs if necessary, rather than be sent out there again.
The three time-crossers had found a road that began abruptly on the marsh and led directly into the centre of the village. It had originally been an old trolley-track used for dumping rubbish out on the marshes. Darkness was falling when the travellers saw the village for the first time, along with a few flurries of snow.
"It's like a Bruegel scene", Adam gasped in wonder, his normally pallid complexion toned pink with the cold.
Joby, who had never heard of Breugel and at that moment didn't care to hear about him, made for the village bar. Like all the buildings it stood on stilts, the main floor reached by a wooden stairway.
Under normal circumstances the bar would have been a warm, cheering sight. It had a central wood-burning stove, plenty of stripped pine and red tablecloths. Basic and functional, yet warming. In Kiskev's heyday its walls had rung with the sounds of laughter, as trappers discussed their trips out onto the tundra, their good humour enforced by the welcome knowledge that they were once more safely home again. Corkboards on the walls were decorated with dusty rosettes and medals, awards for long service or exceptional output. It had been a long time since any new ones had been added to the collection, not because they were no longer being awarded, but because the Kiskevians had long since stopped caring enough to exhibit them.
The three visitors had grown accustomed to finding deserted places, and this particular deserted place had a familiar tone to it. It FELT empty, as the prison had felt empty on the morning they had woken to find their cell door mysteriously unlocked for the first time. The only merciful thing was that there was no feeling of being watched, as there had been at the Loud House.
"Hang about", Joby exclaimed "Someone's left a message".
He picked up a small visual handset from the bar-top, which displayed the words "MESSAGE WAITING" on its tiny screen. Joby opened the file.
"To anyone reading this", he read "Kiskev now operates under Ministry law. It is a closed area to the public at large. This is in the interests solely of public safety. Anyone currently reading this message is instructed to move on forthwith".
"Cancel that file", Adam snatched the handset and selected the relevant digit himself "When you read it there might have been a message sent automatically down-line to the Ministry that someone was here".
"Don't panic. By the time they get out here we could be anywhere", said Joby "So, this is a ghost-town then".
"Just like everywhere else that we seem to come across", Kieran lit an oil-lamp, having first ascertained that electricity had never found its way out to Kiskev "You know what frightens me, is that we could disappear just as easily. All of us, or just one of us".
"Oh shut up, you're giving me the creeps", Joby went behind the bar and examined the beers on offer "I don't care what the Ministry say. We're from the 21st century, so they've got no power over us. I suggest we stay here tonight".
"First of all", said Adam "I'm going to check that there's a decent lock on the door".
Both the front and back doors were locked and bolted, the wood-burning stove lit (it belched out a plume of smoke, but otherwise warmed up the room quickly), and a scratch meal prepared. In the small, back kitchen Kieran had found a dirty plate and cutlery on the draining-board. Remains of the last meal clung to the surfaces. Bags of rubbish lay stacked neatly in the rear porch. An empty cash-box was found behind the stove, indicating that someone had burnt all their money before disappearing. All in all, it was evidence that the exodus had been anticipated and planned.
By far the biggest surprise had been found in the food store though. On one wall someone had drawn three crosses in yellow chalk, with the words "REMEMBER CALVARY" scrawled underneath.
"Calvary", Kieran whispered "The hill outside Jerusalem where Christ was crucified".
"It means Angel might stay out of here at least", Joby said, nervously.
"You've not sensed anything since leaving the Weather Rock?"
"Not a thing, but somehow I don't think he's far away", Joby shivered "Food stores do tend to be cold places don't they?"
"Generally", Kieran sighed "You're letting him obsess you".
"It's easy to let him obsess me! I feel like I've got me own private assassin on me tail".
"Think about it objectively. What is the worst he can do to you?"
"Suck out me blood, and tear out me heart?"
"He won't do that".
"You just won't listen will you?" Joby snorted "Well, when you find me bloodless corpse lying about, don't be surprised if you hear a ghostly voice saying 'I told you so'".
It had gone midnight. Several hours had passed since sunset, and several more hours had yet to pass before dawn. They were buried deep, entombed in fact, in the heart of the cold night. Adam sat in front of the stove, watching the flames through the grille. His feet were swathed in a blanket, as were his legs, lap and shoulders. And yet he still felt numb with cold. He had thought that being behind lock-and-key might enable him to sleep more peacefully. There was after all a thick wooden door between himself, and the nocturnal noises he had heard on the marshes the night before. Just thinking about those sounds now was almost enough to make him, the ex-prisoner, consider turning agoraphobic.
In the deep stillness he thought he heard a distant shrill whistle. If it was real, if he hadn't imagined it, then it was coming from several miles away. Adam turned, to reassure himself that the window-shutters were still in place. He then sank lower into the chair and yearned desperately for sleep.
There was one room upstairs, with a sloping floor and two single beds draped with fur quilts. Kieran slept in one. Joby lay wide awake in the other. He knew that deep down Kieran was right. He was letting Angel obsess him, but the boy seemed to be always there at the back of his mind. He found that whatever he was doing he would stop every so often and take stock, asking himself, was Angel near at that moment?
The very stillness of the night seemed to produce sounds all of its own. Odd, isolated pockets of noise, too weak to be identifiable, and yet strong enough to be noticed. There were distant voices, as though a radio was being played very softly in another room. Every so often he would catch the tail-end of a voice and realise, with a sinking heart, that the sound hadn't gone away as he had hoped.
Kieran was breathing heavily in the next bed. For the first time Joby wished that his friend snored heavily, loud enough to rock the house. At least then he would only be able to hear that and nothing else. It would drown out the other noises. But no, Kieran merely breathed deeply like a pair of old bellows.
None of this was bloody fair, thought Joby, as he slid resentfully back into the bedclothes. He wasn't supposed to be the psychic one. Kieran was the one who sensed presences as a rule, Adam was good at atmospheres (he could grasp the detailed ambience of a place very quickly indeed), but he, Joby, was the practical one. The one who queried and questioned (complained, Adam usually called it). So why was Angel latching onto him? How had he opened his mind enough to let the little bastard in? And why wasn't Kieran picking up on him? Had he successfully closed himself off? Why? Why? Why?
Joby curled himself into a foetal position under the fur quilt, his body too stiff and tense to even remotely grasp at sleep. Then the answer came to him. The reason Angel had locked onto him was because in his lifetime he, Joby, had been the only one of the three not to terrify the boy. Adam had reminded him of the mysterious man who had abducted him as a child (Joby felt a pang of sympathy for Adam, it wasn't his fault he shared his age and hair-colour with a paedophile). Kieran had reacted, understandably, to Angel's bizarre offers of help like a frisky racehorse on a busy road.
"You're not like the others are you?"
That was what Angel had said to him, way back at the deserted inn. At the time Joby had brushed it aside, convinced that it was a ploy, to try it on with him as he did with everyone else, just to get his own way. You idiot, you wanker, he silently berated himself. He wanted you to help him! How was I supposed to know that? Joby retaliated. The boy was a tart when all was said and done.
In spite of all this mountain of realisation Joby didn't feel anymore reassured. The presence that he had sensed wasn't benign. Angel wasn't after his help anymore. His spirit was bitter, resentful. He wanted to get back at Joby for not taking the trouble he should have done to understand him. ... plus the little matter of his deciding to kill of course. Not very friendly and understanding that. Joby had no longer wanted the inconvenience of travelling with Angel in his deteriorating condition. That was the truth of the matter, and he found it as hard to accept as the boy did.
Joby tossed and turned, feeling fairly consumed with resentment himself. To his dismay he now found he was desperate for a pee. He knew where the lavatory was, in a small room halfway down the stairs. Not far. A few feet in fact. But it meant getting out of bed and stepping out through the cold darkness. Here be vampires. They were the predators in the dark. Legend had it course that they had exceptional eyesight in the dark. But how much was he supposed to believe the old legends? Would Angel be frightened of crucifixes (hard to believe, as he had grown up in a religion-free society), would garlic repel him? Could he turn into a wolf, or a bat? Could you see his reflection in a mirror?
None of it seemed remotely plausible at all. Angel was Angel. A scrawny little brat who had joyrided stolen vehicles for kicks, but who cowered in terror if anyone spoke harshly to him. Hardly the stuff of Gothic romance, the midnight intruder in the black cape. No feverish beauty with big breasts spilling out of a soft nightdress would lie in scared but delighted anticipation for him, even if the busty beauty had been at all a possibility in this crazy new world. All these thoughts enabled him to take his mind off his bladder for a few minutes, but the little problem hadn't gone away.
"Hell's bells", he said to himself "He can get me just as easily lying here as anywhere else".
He was halfway across the room when the door opened. His stomach turned over, but it turned out yet again to be only Adam. He was carrying the oil-lamp from the bar, and Joby's naked form was illuminated in its soft orange glow.
"How lean you are Joby", said Adam "Built like a greyhound".
"Fuck off Adam", Joby pulled open a linen chest that stood against the wall. Inside lay a selection of workmanlike furs and woollens. He chose a sweater, knitted out of a coarse grey wool that made it resemble a hair-shirt. He slipped it on. It reached to his knees, but he ignored the size and the scratchiness in favour of the warmth "What are you doing up here anyway?"
"Truth to tell I got scared sitting down there alone".
"Well there isn't much peace of mind to be had up here".
"Where are you going?"
"To the karsey! Got any objection?"
After he had gone Adam made a nest for himself in a dilapidated armchair. Kieran was turned away from him, still sleeping undisturbed. Adam longed to go over and kiss him, stroke his hair too. He wanted to beg repentance for his brutality at the Loud House, although he had the feeling that the Irishman would get bored with that very quickly. It was so difficult trying to reach someone so mentally different to himself. If Kieran had been as intense as he then they could have hugged and forgiven each other to distraction (or until the next outbreak of violence, as his realistic side only knew too well). But with Kieran he had to accept the bald fact that the beating had happened, and it was now firmly shelved in the archives of experience. Adam found that harder to take than any amount of scenes of bitter recrimination. He felt disgusted with himself. But such heated emotions bored Kieran. He still spoke civilly to Adam, even fondly at times, and each warm word went like a knife into the older man's heart. He loved Kieran. He wanted him back.
"You still here?" Joby grunted.
Adam was jolted out of his reverie.
"I-I'd rather not sit down there alone", he stammered, feeling a fool.
"Have you seen anything?" Joby said, sharply.
"No. Nothing. But it's pretty cheerless and disturbing all the same. I'd rather be with you two if you don't mind".
"I don't care", Joby shrugged "As long as you sleep in the chair".
He didn't care to admit it, even to himself, but Joby was glad of Adam's presence in the room. Adam had also sensed Angel at times. It was reassuring to have a fellow believer close by in the middle of the night.
"Open up! Open up!"
The voice yelled desperately from outside the front door, shattering the silent blackness of the still watches.
"Please! If there's anyone there you have to let us in. I know there's someone there, I can see a light. Please! It's a matter of life and death. Come on, open up!"
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