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"It's every bit as awful as I remembered", said Joby "What bloody awful memories this place holds".
"But do you remember when it transformed itself into Green Ways?" said Kieran.
"Yea, and then transformed itself back again", said Joby.
They dragged the casket containing Vanod's, or rather the Devil's, corpse on the trolley across the courtyard. The Loud House hadn't changed at all in the eleven years since they had last seen it. It was still swathed in its perpetual fog, the masonry was broken, and the windows blank and unseeing. It was suffused with anger still, and in spite of its dead appearance gave the impression of hearing and seeing them constantly. They were moving through it like maggots through a corpse.
Angel stepped out of the fog ahead of them, looking like one of the gargoyles come to life. He beckoned them on across the courtyard, and they followed him, with the trolley bumping across the rubble. They nervously followed him into the building. Strange shadows in the distance told of the silent presence of Reptile Men, but Angel kept them back by hissing, snarling and flexing his claws.
"I'm glad he's on our side", Ransey whispered.
"Angel was killed by a Reptile Man", said Kieran "Here, at the Loud House. Even if he felt nothing for us he'd still want to deprive them of a meal".
They travelled deep into the bowels of the Loud House, until they came across the underground stream that Angel had once informed Kieran was "the mouth to Hell". They paused to light the candle-stubs on their hats, and then laboriously dragged the casket down the rocky bank to the stream. At the bottom they floated it in the water, wading in their oilskins to take up position on each of the four corners. Kieran passed them all a silver coin and told them to wedge it between their teeth.
In this way they travelled down the dark tunnel for a long demoralising way. Everyone was keyed up, wanting to get into the Pit of Darkness and get it over with. And now it seemed they were cursed to drag the Devil's coffin around this dark, damp tunnel for all eternity. Angel unnervingly appeared and disappeared at will, beckoning them ever onwards.
"Kiel!" Joby exclaimed, suddenly stopping in the middle of the tunnel "I think I've swallowed my coin!"
"Don't worry", said Kieran, taking out his own coin and placing it on Joby's tongue "There's plenty more".
The tunnel opened out into an eerie yellow mist, which coated the area in which they now found themselves like poisoned gas. They could see nothing through its thick sulpherous haze.
"Are we here?" said Ransey, after taking out his coin.
The others followed suit, in order to converse more easily, and set down the casket on the ground.
"Seems that way", Kieran shuddered in the cold dampness "I'm sure glad we didn't bring Adam. This would have killed him off".
"But it's just nothing", said Ransey "Nothing at all".
"Now isn't the time to question it Ransey", said Kieran "We have to inter the creature and get out before it's too late".
The ground was soft and springy, covered in a dreary sort of yellow grass, as though it had been left to parch too long under a hot sun. Hillyard unhooked the shovel which he had been carrying across his back and dug a reasonably deep pit. The casket was lowered into it. They took snippets from each other's hair and threw them down onto the coffin lid, along with the piece from Lonts's vest, and small squares cut out of their own sweaters.
"Haven't you forgotten something before we cover him over?" said Ransey, pointedly.
"If you can do it all alone at the top of the Skirra Fludd lighthouse, you can do it here", said Hillyard.
"But I'm not a machine", said Kieran "I can't just go wanking off with you three standing there all watching me. You make me feel like a cow in a milking-parlour!"
"We'll turn our backs", said Ransey "Joby'll give you a hand".
"I'm not a fucking machine either", said Joby "You should've gone in a tube before we left the ship Kiel".
"I couldn't think of everything!" said Kieran.
"Get on with it", said Ransey, as he and Hillyard turned away.
"This is a demeaning way to earn a living", said Kieran "And to think nobody in the outside world has a clue as to what we're going through".
Joby kissed him awkwardly, although he could hardly feel relaxed with Ransey puff, panting and sighing with impatience only a few feet away.
"Keep that up though", said Kieran, softly "And we might just be in business".
They re-located the entrance to the tunnel that they had come in by and went through it with confidence. They had interned the Devil in Hell, surely that meant it was all over? They should've known better. They emerged out of the tunnel, which was shorter than they remembered, and found themselves not in the broken wastes of the Loud House but ... a seaside resort.
It could have been anywhere in the old world that Kieran and Joby remembered. Britain, Ireland, the Mediterranean, the quieter parts of California. It was gaudy, like an early Technicolour film, and had that curious two-dimensional feel that Green Ways had had, as though it was a pop-up illustration in a children's book. The sunlight was also muted, as though a thick veil had been draped over the sky. Across the road from them the long, thin strip of beach was populated by masses of people, of both sexes, although their ages seemed to be limited to the years between forty and eighty.
"Have we time-slipped?" said Joby, nervously.
"I can't believe that", said Kieran.
"But the vampires might have missed a cusp".
"I expect you two'd be pleased if we had", said Hillyard, sourly.
"No I damn well wouldn't", Kieran exclaimed "I want to get back to Adam and the baby, not be stuck in some strange new world full of overweight geriatrics".
"This isn't real", said Ransey "Does it look real to you?"
"Everything seems flat", said Joby "And this strange light, it's really peculiar".
They crossed onto the prom. The people on the beach seemed strangely incurious about the presence of the four, even though they were dressed in oilskins and wore candle-strewn hats. That was the other peculiar thing. Although everyone else was comfortably wearing swimsuits and bathing-trunks, the four didn't feel hot in their heavy arctic garb.
The beach-scene looked normal at first glance, but little things gave it away. Such as the way everyone was sitting on the beach, but not swimming or playing in the surf.
"It's like that scene from 'Jaws'", said Joby "Where everyone stays on the beach because they think the shark's in the water".
"Except this lot seem to be waiting for something", said Kieran "As though it's going to suddenly appear on the horizon".
"Perhaps we should ask someone where we are", said Joby.
"Go ahead then", said Ransey.
The nearest person was a fat middle-aged woman sitting on the edge of the prom, bulging out of a lurid swimsuit, and exhibiting her full ration of crepe bosom, cellulite and varicose veins.
"You ask, Joby", Kieran giggled "She might be a rich widow who thinks you're cute and wants you as a pet".
Joby shot him a venomous look and then approached the woman cautiously.
"Excuse me", he said, tapping her on the shoulder "I'm sorry to bother you".
"Yes, what is it young man?" she said, in an accent that seemed to combine British, American, South African, and even some Australian strine.
"We're lost", he said, awkwardly "Could you tell me where we are, please?"
"It's obvious", she said, as though suddenly confronted with a simpleton "We're at the Loud House".
"Well that leaves us none the wiser", said Ransey, when a bewildered Joby rejoined them.
"Angel did say Hell would look as we least expected it to", said Kieran "Let's go and poke around in that hotel over there. We need to keep looking if we're to find our way back into the Loud House we know".
The building he was referring to was a large seafront hotel. They walked into the foyer to find it lit by two roaring log-fires and scattered with people (once again of both sexes) all wearing sweaters and clutching glasses of brandy. The four were ignored in here too as they made their way across to the reception desk. Waiters and waitresses, all wearing kilts, swirled around with laden trays. The women were heftier than the men, and looked as though they'd be more capable of caber-tossing.
"Where the fuck are we now?" said Ransey.
"Looks like Scotland to me", said Joby, casting an apprehensive glance at Kieran whose face betrayed nothing as to what he was feeling.
Hillyard, picking up a bottle of beer from a nearby table, which bore on its label a picture of Landseer's 'the Stag at Bay'.
"Brewed locally", he said, reading from it "Bloody informative".
"Look for a newspaper or a magazine or something", said Joby "That might tell us more".
"E-Excuse me", said Ransey to the slim brown-haired girl on the reception desk. Making enquiries could be difficult when you had never spoken to a woman before in your entire life "Could you tell us where we are?"
The girl looked at him with ill-concealed irritation. This was hardly surprising as Ransey had addressed her in a loud, slow voice as though he was talking to a half-wit or an extraterrestrial.
"The Loud House", she snapped in a soft Edinburgh accent, tapping a photograph of the hotel on the desk.
"Thanks", said Ransey, turning away "I might have known really".
"We're on the east coast of Scotland", said Kieran, suddenly "I think you'll find that that skinny young waiter over there is called Magnus, and if asked very nicely he'll play the bagpipes for you after dinner".
As if on cue one of the hefty waitresses bellowed the name "Magnus", and the said be-kilted young man sprang to her attention.
"Have you been here before?" said Ransey, suspiciously.
"I want to talk to Joby alone", said Kieran "You two wait here. We'll only be by that fireplace".
"Peculiar really", said Joby, as they sat down on a deep two-seater sofa by the log-fire, with nobody raising a single eyebrow about them soiling the furniture with their filthy oilskins "You'd think after all these years we'd go mental over the sight of a woman, and yet I don't feel anything".
"It's a bit hard to", Kieran muttered "When they're not real".
"What is this place Kiel?" said Joby "Have you really been here before?"
"Surely you remember that I had my honeymoon in Scotland?"
"You mean, this is where you and Amy came?"
"Oh yes", said Kieran "Well it's a projected illusion of it really. After all, the real hotel is presumably still where we left it. In our time, that is".
"So, are we living your memories, your dreams, what?"
"You're living a part of my deepest subconscious", said Kieran.
"I don't understand. This is meant to be Hell, so why are we being shown what would have been a happy memory of yours? Not that you've ever told me much about your honeymoon ..."
"No, and I damn well won't either", Kieran snapped "I don't want to ever tell anyone about it. It stays buried. It was an awful time".
"It can't have been", Joby protested "I know Amy could be a bit of a case, but yours wasn't a bad marriage. You loved her. You got on well. I remember you saying how much you missed her when we first crossed over, and she always seemed happy enough".
"If that's the case why did she let you screw her?" Kieran exploded. Hillyard and Ransey looked over at them anxiously, although no one else took any notice.
"Do we really have to go through all that again?" said Joby, numbly.
"No, no we don't", said Kieran, calming down "I'm sorry. You'll have to forgive me".
"What happened that was so terrible?" said Joby "I know when you came back you were a bit quieter than I expected. I thought you'd be full of it, but you weren't".
"Let's just say Amy had ways that weren't dissimilar to some of the tales you've heard Adam tell us about Julian in his younger days".
"On your honeymoon?" Joby exclaimed.
"On our honeymoon".
"You silly idiot, why the fuck did you put up with it?"
"Because I was a fool", said Kieran "And I was too hurt".
"But if me or Adam carried on like that with anyone else you'd have plenty to say".
"Then perhaps my pride was hurt, but I didn't care as much as I thought I did", said Kieran "The fragile male ego and all that. Perhaps if I'd cared enough to get angry she might have stopped. Perhaps that's what she wanted all along, someone to care. What we all want, isn't it really? And I let her down Joby, in a BIG way. This is my guilt you're seeing. My guilt writ large. You remember what I was like in me younger days. Irresponsible Kieran. Didn't want the worry of caring. And I should've damn well cared!"
"I'm sure she'll have forgiven you Kiel", said Joby "Amy had her problems, I know that for crying out loud! But I can't believe she was a vindictive or spiteful person. She was just insecure and mixed-up".
"She should've married you", said Kieran, sadly.
"I'd have been no good", said Joby "I'd have just got bewildered and gone into a long sulk, or started bellowing and making a prat of meself. She should've married Adam actually! He sorted you, me and Lonts out, I'm certain he could've done the same for her".
"Yes, he probably could", said Kieran "And she would've had no cause to get him sexually jealous. He thought a lot of Amy".
"Is this conversation going to go on for long?" said Hillyard, as he walked over "Only me and Ransey have had enough of this place".
"We have a good chance of getting out of here when he's let go of it", said Joby.
"I think I'll be alright now", said Kieran, feeling like a whipped puppy.
"Good", said Joby "Because if you can let go of it, so can I".
"Have you been carrying it around with you too?"
"Like an old trunk!"
"Come on", Kieran stood up and pulled Joby up behind him "Let's leave this place behind us".
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