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"What do you think it was?" asked Kieran, sitting on the bunk in Joby's cell.
Joby finished rinsing his face with cold water and looked up.
"Don't ask me, I haven't got any answers. Have you?"
"I've heard of similar things concerning old hauntings. There was that famous one at the old Welsh farmhouse at the end of the last century, sorry, end of the 20th century I should say. I keep forgetting when we are. A tall black shape exuding evil appeared in the kitchen there".
"That's right", Joby recalled "They thought it might have been an elemental, conjured up originally in pre-Christian times. I read the book about it. Fucking spooked me it did. I always hoped we'd never come across anything like that when we investigated a haunting".
"Now it seems we have", Kieran sighed "Just our luck".
"You alright mate? You look pissed off".
"Are you surprised with what's going on around here!"
"I know what you mean", Joby sat down next to him on the bunk, and Kieran laid his head wearily against the other man's shoulder "It's a touch of the devil and the deep isn't it? If we stay here on the island we've got that ... Thing in the background somewhere. If we leave we've got Angel waiting for us".
"I think I'd rather take me chances with Angel", said Kieran "At least we know what we're up against with him".
"We'll be alright anyway", said Joby "We've got the Vanquisher of Evil with us!"
"Oh don't rub all that in! If they was to hold exams in vanquishing evil I'd come bottom of the class".
"You're taking all this a bit too personally I think".
"Well I keep feeling I've failed that's why".
"You haven't started yet! I'm sure what Fobbett was really meaning was that there'd be some big test you'd have to face at some point, not that you were to solve all the world's problems overnight".
"Damn Fobbett. He goes and springs all that on me, and then goes and gets himself killed! Total lack of consideration for others".
Adam and Hillyard's voices were heard on the stairs leading down to the cells. Joby and Kieran shifted apart slightly so that they weren't physically touching, although they didn't know why they automatically did this.
"Oh there you are", said Adam, appearing in the doorway "I find it quite disturbing the way people wander off around here. I never know if I'm going to see them again in one piece".
"As long as we don't wander off alone I don't know what you're worried about", said Kieran.
"How's your shoulder?" Joby asked Hillyard.
"Stiff. I feel like someone's had me in an armlock for two hours".
"What have you two been up to anyway?" asked Adam.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" said Kieran, testily.
"A reasonable enough question in the circumstances, considering the amount of mess you've made".
"Eh?" said Joby, uncomprehendingly.
"Out there", Adam gestured towards the corridor "And all up the stairs as well. Soggy mud everywhere, as though you'd been for a swim along the bottom of the lake and then dragged it all indoors".
"None of that was there when we came down", Kieran protested, looking out into the dimly-lit corridor. Small heaps of damp mud, like cowpats, were dropped at various intervals down the narrow steps, along the corridor past their cells, and on towards the unused ones further ahead "In fact, that must have happened between us coming down here and you two coming down here. And yet I didn't hear a focking thing. And what was worse, I didn't sense anything!"
"Right, that's it", said Joby, firmly.
"Joby?" said Adam, looking puzzled as the boy began to hurl his belongings into his rucksack.
"We're leaving", Joby announced.
"Well O.K I'm leaving, you can do what you like. But I'm not staying in this crazy place a day longer".
"It isn't much less crazy anywhere else", said Hillyard, glumly.
"I don't care!" Joby exclaimed "I've had about all I can take of this place, with giant worms, shapeless demons with leaden handshakes, and now the phantom mud-slinger all roaming about".
"As Hillyard said it's no less crazy elsewhere", said Adam "And we haven't decided where we're going yet. We need a careful plan if we're to avoid trouble, and by trouble I mean such as us getting locked up again".
"Flannery was right the other day", said Joby.
"I was?" said Kieran.
"Yea. He said he felt safer when we were on the move, because it's harder to hit a moving target, and that's how I'm beginning to feel. Stuck on this island, we're almost trapped and I don't like it. I feel shut in. I wanna be out in the open again, where I can see what's coming before it hits me".
"You can't just go roaming off on your own", said Adam.
"I won't be on me own. Flannery's coming too".
"Well I'm not leaving you here", said Joby "And if Adam says 'how touching' in that sarcastic way of his I'll smash his teeth so far down his throat it'll make his arse rattle!"
"I don't think I'll trust anywhere ever again", said Kieran "I was so convinced when we arrived that this would be a haven. It's not often I let me religion get the better of me, but it did in this case. I was so convinced that if this was an old abbey it would offer us sanctuary".
He was standing at the entrance to the footbridge, gazing up at the building. It looked deceptive, with the morning sunlight mellowing the brickwork and softening its appearance. But he remembered all too clearly how threatening it had appeared the previous afternoon, with the clouds massing overhead.
"All it means Patsy is that the monks here dabbled in things that were beyond them", said Adam.
"Sorcery you mean? Hence, the Thing that attacked Hillyard".
"Who knows what it was like towards the end?" Adam sighed "The monks must've realised that their lifestyle would soon be over. Perhaps in extreme desperation they tried to raise some primeval power that would help to unseat the Ministry and keep religion installed. It's not so far-fetched. The Church and sorcery have gone hand-in-hand since religion was invented. I've heard Satanists claim that they've kept the Church in business. So there we are. Only it all went horribly wrong in this case".
"And the ritual sacrifices?"
"We don't know they were ritual sacrifices. Come on, we're leaving. We have to take advantage of Joby's good ideas, on the rare occasions when he has them".
Poel was a hamlet a couple of miles to the south of Gurran Island. It consisted of a handful of ramshackle buildings with tin-roofs, and a couple of engineering sheds. These constituted the main trade of Poel, which was servicing railway engines. Poel was now the end of the line, the termination point, for the only working railway track left in the land.
It was a surprisingly austere-looking place, a village of yellows and browns, overshadowed by the mountains which, on a clear day, could be seen in the background. When the four men arrived in the village at noon they found that a train had just arrived. The contraption looked like something out of a museum, belching black smoke and appearing as though it was held together by rust.
"It's not leaving for another two hours", said Hillyard, returning after a consultation with one of the guards "We can be on it if you like".
"Where does it go?" asked Adam.
"The City eventually", said Hillyard "And any stops along the way".
"How do we pay?" said Joby "Have you got any money Hillyard?"
"Enough to buy us some food", Hillyard replied, looking wistfully at the ramshackle two-storey building which served as the railway cafe.
"What about tickets?" said Adam, patiently "We haven't any money for tickets. Not that there appears to be a ticket office anywhere".
"You buy those on the train, that's if anyone comes round. They don't always".
"No wonder they can't afford new engines then", said Adam.
"Can any of you sing?" asked Hillyard, to everyone's surprise.
"Not a note between us", said Kieran, emphatically, as though one of the others was threatening to start up.
"That's a pity. Buskers do a roaring trade on the train. That's how most of the poorer blokes earn their passage. Can anyone juggle?"
"No, but I can draw", said Adam, tentatively "I'm a bit rusty but..."
"That'd be brilliant. People always like having their portraits done. You could earn yourself a nice little packet doing that".
"Yea", said Joby "'Cept we've got nothing for him to draw on or with".
"Don't you worry, I'll sort summat out", said Hillyard "But can we please have summat to eat first?"
The restaurant (to put it grandly) was the only two-storey building in the village. The others, on closer inspection, turned out to be all converted railways carriages. It was also a rather fragile-looking effort, and gave the impression that if anyone sneezed near it the whole structure would collapse. It was with some trepidation therefore that they allowed themselves to be directed upstairs to the main seating-area. The floor creaked alarmingly underfoot, and also had a distressing tendency to slope sharply towards the window.
There was no menu as such, as with limited local resources for fresh produce, only one meal could be prepared, that of fried lamb. A great show was made of garnishing it with tomatoes (also fried) proudly gleaned from the owner's greenhouse. Poel was nearly a fortnight's train ride from the City, and so any other vegetables were at a premium at all times.
"Don't make sense", said Joby, chomping on the meat laboriously "If the City is over a fortnight away, how come Tomce got there and back in a few days?"
"Perhaps because he didn't go there", said Adam "In fact we only assumed he did. He could've gone anywhere. We did our usual habit of assuming too much".
"Like it?" said the owner, gruffly.
"Very nice", Joby grunted.
"I got you this", he said, handing over large white sheets of paper to Adam, along with a bundle of pencils "Blank pages from my accounts, so they won't be missed".
"I can't pay you", said Adam, awkwardly.
"You don't have to. Your friend already has", said the owner, and stomped away, hitching up his trousers over his large, sagging rear end.
"How did you pay Hillyard?" said Adam, suspiciously.
"I gave him an old bracelet of mine. Cheap old tat I picked up in the market back home", said Hillyard "The clasp's broken, but he seemed happy with it. Well he don't know any better living out here".
When Tintally arrived home from the office (rather too late for his liking, the Ministry did go on so when roused), he found Lonts sitting halfway up the marble steps leading up to his apartment.
"I-I had nowhere else to go", the boy stammered nervously, rising to his feet.
"How did you know I was here?" said Tintally, waspishly, not feeling at all in the mood to play either sugar-daddy or rehabilitation officer.
"Krik mentioned it before he died. He went on one evening about how well the Ministry men did for themselves. He happened to mention you in particular", Lonts muttered in embarrassment "Said you lived in style at Palfrey Towers. All I had to do was ask in the street where it was".
"How on earth did Krik know where I lived?" Tintally exclaimed "Oh never mind that now. You should have sorted yourself out somewhere to stay tonight".
"But I don't know the City at all".
"You've had all day to find your way around. How long have you been waiting here?"
"Couple of hours. Got some funny looks from the neighbours at times I can tell you".
At the mention of his neighbours Tintally deemed it prudent to usher the boy inside. He shut the door behind them and proceeded to walk through the apartment, flicking switches as he went. Lonts had never seen electricity in a private home before, and watched the operation in wonderment.
"You got this place all to yourself?" he asked, gazing around him at Tintally's vast living-room.
"Yes", Tintally sighed "Don't tell me, in Kiskev you all slept twenty to a room, and thought knives and forks were jewellery!"
"I didn't like the City", Lonts peered through the curtains at the frightening metropolis below "Everytime I spoke to people they looked at me funny. They probably thought I had a peculiar voice".
"You have to give people a chance to get used to you", Tintally mixed himself a cocktail, deliberately ignoring Lonts's liquid needs "You're bound to be a bit of an oddity at first. They'll come round. I suppose you'd better stay here for tonight, as it's late, but I want you out first thing in the morning. If anyone at the Ministry hears you're staying here we could both be in trouble. I could lose my job, and you could get put back inside".
"They wouldn't, would they?"
"Yes they would. They are very sensitive about inmates at the moment. Overcrowding has forced them to let non-violent ones like you go, but even so fraternisation between staff and ex-prisoners is greatly disapproved of".
"They are trying to do a difficult job", Tintally poured himself another cocktail "It wouldn't be easy for anyone".
"Is this expensive?" Lonts picked up a china figurine of a eunuch in festival costume.
"Very, it's a limited edition. Put it down. Carefully".
Lonts did so, and moved on to inspect a painting that hung opposite the window. It was a striking abstract piece, supposedly depicting a naked man trussed up in barbed wine.
"I don't like that one", said Lonts "It's sadistic".
"Is that so".
"People shouldn't get pleasure out of violence. It distorts their view on life. There's been enough violence in the world".
"I agree, but people have a right to freedom of expression, and hanging a picture on a wall never corrupted anyone as far as I know".
Tintally suddenly felt exasperated at having to explain himself to a fourteen-year-old boy.
"I am very tired Lonts", he said "I didn't sleep at all last night, and now I'm going to bed".
"Do I sleep in here, on the sofa?"
"Most definitely. And I warn you, every single item in this apartment is fully inventoried, so I will know immediately if anything is damaged or missing".
Tintally retired to his room and locked the door. It wasn't just exhaustion that made him grateful for the solitary sanctuary of his bedroom, but the look in Lonts's eyes. The boy's eyes were too dark, too deep. They disturbed him.
When Tintally unlocked his bedroom door the following morning he found Lonts propped up on the sofa, facing the door as though he had been sitting there all night, waiting for him to emerge. The thought chilled Tintally's bones.
"I think you should make some effort to move on Lonts", he said, as firmly as he could.
He was to repeat that sentence, with mounting desperation, several times over the next few days. It wasn't as if Lonts refused to leave, or even made excuses to stay, he simply remained, as though what Tintally said was of such little importance it wasn't worth commenting on.
Neither did Lonts take over the apartment, and nor did he leave it either. He kept firmly to his own space, but watched Tintally whenever he was in the same room. Tintally felt as though his new lodger was a house-trained but nonetheless sinister tom-cat. On the third day Tintally felt so desperate that he invited two old friends home for cocktails. Normally he valued his privacy so intently that few people, even old friends, crossed his threshold. But he wanted someone else to see Lonts there, if only to reassure himself that the boy hadn't become a figment of his imagination.
Lonts ignored the men when they walked in, and didn't return their greetings. He merely sat on the sofa and stared at them quizzically, in the same way he stared at Tintally whenever he entered the room. His presence cast a pall over the small party, forcing it to break up early. The hashish the men had brought to help Tintally relax was left unsmoked, and once again he was left alone with his dark-eyed guest.
"What is it you want?" he pleaded, running his fingers through his hair frantically. He was so angry that rare spots of colour had actually appeared on his consumptive complexion.
Lonts merely raised an eyebrow in query, but he still said nothing.
The railway carriage was cold and draughty, heated by a single wood-burning stove which the passengers fed themselves. The scenery was predictable (mountains and barren wasteland), and the relentless slow chugging of the train was only interrupted when someone down by the tracks stuck out their thumb and hitched a ride. Nonetheless Adam made a small fortune with his sketching. The sheer unbearable tedium of the long journey meant that his fellow passengers were grateful for any diversion, however small, and were willing to pay for it. He was fortunate that this particular journey was low on decent buskers. His only competition being a rather worthy folk-singer in the next carriage, who did little to lift anyone's spirits.
Every evening Adam collected his earnings together in a napkin and took them along to the sleeping compartment they had managed to reserve. For an extortionate fee they had the inestimable comfort of a large rubber mattress on the floor, shared by the four of them. The rest of the money (Hillyard acted as treasurer, and was able to inform them as to what they could afford each evening) went on the "luxury dining-car". This service was so expensive that few normal passengers could afford it, and made do with the bun-and-coffee trolley. As such there was never any problem with getting a table.
The food was atrocious and predictable. Cheap meat cooked within an inch of its life, smothered in gravy (to try and disguise the taste - or lack of it as the case may be), and a dreary selection of boiled vegetables. Added to that the wine measures were miserly. But this compartment was always well-lit and warm, and as the weather became more and more inclement with each day that passed, even the food began to be seen as a comfort.
"I really just don't know what to do", Tintally was standing at the window of his office, watching glumly as the first snows of the winter feathered down onto the city streets many feet below "I've taken a grave risk in trusting you, Osk. After all, you are now free to tell the Ministry of what I have done".
"It won't come to that", Osk sighed, and shifted his comfortable bulk on the narrow, wooden chair "There's no love lost between me and the Ministry, as you well know".
"I was rather under the impression that your opinion of me was pretty minimal as well".
"I've seen Ministers of Justice come and go, all in all they've been a fairly abysmal lot. And I will admit my opinion of you was a bit low to start with. I thought to myself this 'un won't last long. But first appearances can be deceptive, and I've come to respect the fact that you genuinely care about the inmates. The fact that you took young Lonts into your home, without expecting anything in return, is proof of that".
"I can't take any credit for that. I took him in because I was too cowardly to shut the door on him".
"Yes, but you didn't see it as an excuse to take advantage of him, as many in your position would have done".
"Osk", Tintally protested "He's little more than a baby".
"That wouldn't have stopped some of 'em sir".
"Quite", Tintally poured tea from a samovar into two gold-rimmed glasses, and added a spoonful of jam to each "I had a feeling I could trust you Osk. You're a decent chap".
Osk accepted the tea and the compliment with grave thanks.
"The fact remains though", Tintally continued "I have rather messed things up, but you see the boy has changed. In only a few days he has changed so completely. He stood here in my office last week, it was the day of Krik's execution I recall, and he simply looked very young and very frightened. But since then ... well it's hard to believe he's the same person. He rarely budges from the sofa, and he just stares all the time. I feel his eyes watching me, even when I'm not in the same room. And he refuses to talk about anything".
"I suppose after all he's been through it's only natural the boy should be a bit strange", Osk stirred his tea thoughtfully "He's bound to brood on things a bit. Added to that he's at a difficult age".
"This isn't brooding Osk, it's something entirely different. For example, I've tried provoking a reaction of some kind out of him. I don't keep any food in the apartment now. I have all my meals out, thinking that that would at least induce a normal response in him. But he doesn't eat! As far as I can see he doesn't sleep either, or use the lavatory. He doesn't seem to have any basic human needs. He simply stares, with those deep black eyes ..."
"Deep black eyes?" Osk looked up sharply.
"Is that significant? They are rather intense I suppose".
"It's nothing. Letting me imagination run away with me. It's just that ... well Krik had deep black eyes. I'll never forget the way they stared up at me through the bars of his cell".
"And Lonts only started acting the way he is after Krik had been executed. You don't think he's possessed by Krik do you?"
"That is beyond my thinking sir", Osk coughed awkwardly "I leave anything like that well alone. Stick with what you know is my motto. There's enough unexplained terrors in this world. But I think we should get him to a therapist. Perhaps he THINKS he's possessed by Krik. That would make more sense".
"Easier said than done, short of physically hauling him out of my apartment I don't know how we'd get him to a therapist in the first place. Osk, will you come and talk to him? You have such a calming influence on the inmates, I've noticed it frequently. And perhaps Lonts will open up to a sensible Elder figure such as yourself. Oh please say you will, I don't think I can stand anymore of it".
But by the time they reached Tintally's apartment Lonts had gone. There was nothing to indicate that he had ever been there, apart from an indentation at the end of the sofa, where he had been sitting for several days. Tintally roamed the apartment in bewilderment.
"Anything missing?" Osk asked the ashen-faced man.
"Nothing particularly valuable".
"Pity. We can't reel him in on a charge of theft then. There's nothing missing at all?"
"Yes", Tintally looked as though he was just coming up for air "A jar of sleeping-powder I use sometimes, and my entire collection of kitchen knives".
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