CHAPTER TWO - The Thing in the Hut
“Why do all grown-ups always look tired?” The kid pipped up. 
It took Rae a moment to realise he was including her in that sentiment. Grown-up? When did that start including her? She looked over to the kid, Jackson, and winced. He’d said he was sixteen (not that she had asked) but looking at him now, fourteen would be a push. He was a round kid with bad skin and a worse haircut but despite herself she was enjoying his company. Maybe he reminded her of herself at his age, about ten years ago. 
She blinked.
Christ, she was old.
“You’ll understand when you’re older”, she replied and shut her eyes, leaning back against the bus window. Jackson, bless him, took the hint and didn’t try continuing the conversation. He took out his earphones and soon the sound of tinny rap music joined in the rhythm of the bus journey.
Her day had started out on the other side of the country. Thanks to her, there was a c-tier cult that had stumbled onto something they would never be able understand that wasn’t about to end the world with midday ritual. Rae opened her eye and glanced at her cracked watch.
11:59.
The second hand ticked closer and closer to the top of the clock face and Rae realised she was holding her breath. The minute passed. The world continued.
God she was good, she thought to herself, and went back to resting her eyes.
On the coach back to her room (that she was only just getting comfortable in) she had been intercepted in her sleep. One minute she was drifting off, the next she found herself in a vast chamber, in tense conversation with the head of the Order.
As was the way with dreams, she’d awoken with only the vague notions of what had been discussed, with even those soon dispersing, and the knowledge she had a mission. The coach had been rerouted to Kingsport, which she knew to be a bloody long way, and a duffle bag had appeared on the seat next to her. Adjusting to wakefulness, she rubbed her eyes and opened the bag, finding a map, a photo, a clean set of clothes identical to the ones she was wearing and a dagger in an obsidian sheath. Rae quickly put that back and looked around - none of the other passengers had noticed. Neither the dagger nor that their local bus service being sent down to the south of England. Rae shook her head. Somehow, she was actually getting used to this.
The downside to Dream Meets, past the egregious invasion of privacy and complete disregard for your time was the fact that they were exhausting. If you were looking at someone attending a Dream Meet, they’d appear to be sleeping peacefully - resting and recharging.
Inside their head the exact opposite was happening; when they’d wake it would be as if they hadn’t slept at all.
Hence; always looking tired. Maybe every grown-up ever was attending dream meets in their sleep: tiring unconscious bureaucracy about nothing important. Rae contemplated this as her eyelids grew heavier and the bus window she was resting her head on more comfortable than even the bed in the Courthouse B&B she had last slept in.
Okay sleep, she heard herself think. I surrender.
She fell back, embracing the descent into the enveloping abyss of sleep and dreams and rest and
Jackson tugged on her arm.
“We’re here.” He told her.
***
After brief stroll from the bus stop, during which Jackson had told Rae more than she ever needed to know about the social hierarchy of his school they had come across a clearing in the bushes.
Blissfully, the marshes were dry. It had been a hot summer and the grass was yellowed, with the more tropical fauna flourishing - specks of pastel green and purple amongst the reeds. Even the stagnant waterbodies of green-blue sludge seemed as if they were retreating. Rae followed Jackson’s lead, enjoying the satisfying crunch the grass made under her black combat boots. As they walked, Rae noticed that Jackson had gone quiet, stare firmly fixed on his meet.
“What’s up, mush?” She caught up to him, copying what he had said to the bus driver. Jackson stopped and turned to her, as if he had forgotten she was with him.
“What are you doing here?” He asked her. Rae cocked her head.
“Looking for that hut. I told you.”
Jackson shook his head, not convinced, and puffed his gut out.
“Because you hear things about that hut. Weird things. And I have no idea who you are.”
“I’m not forcing you to be here.” Rae answered, raising her arm in a keep the peace gesture. “I’ll give you the fiver back and you can go back to school.”
Jackson shook his head.
“People have disappeared.” He said quietly, barely audible above the breeze rustling the grass. Rae watched as he turned to look over his shoulder. Shrouded in a shock of tall yellow grass behind a pathetic wire fence, a stone hut stood prominent. A black, open window was incised on the protruding wall most facing them, fixating them both with a relentless gaze. Rae looked back to Jackson.
“Go back to school, Jackson.” She told him and strode past, leaving the kid standing alone in the marsh.
He waited to be sure he was out of her eyeline before he turned back and hurried away.
***
The door was locked, naturally. Rae had unsheathed the dagger and was examining it, resisting the urge to run her finger across its silver blade. The Order had a habit of supplying her with the tools she’d need, but she figured this had more to offer than just serving as a lockpick. She turned it in her hand, now examining the white hilt with a decorative crown at the end. It felt like something akin to ivory, though firmer and with an intricate graving of a dragon on the one side.
Rae swore as she realised what she it was she was holding and hastily returned it to its sheath.
She hoped and prayed that for once, rather than providing her exactly what she needed to complete her assignment (and no more), the Order was being overzealous. There was a chance, right?
At least the kid had gone. He was nice enough, but the psychic defences for this place were bad enough even at that. There was something in there that didn’t want to be found and was intelligent enough to convince you that you didn’t want to find it either. It had spent a long time doing that to the people in the city.
If she focused, she could feel it too, like a voice in the back of her head; telling her, pleading with her, to do anything other than to go inside. You’d need to have a lot of conviction to come to this place after hearing that for so long - Jackson had no chance.
It very nearly had her too.
Rae kicked the door, her boot colliding with the lock, the damp wood tearing from its lock like paper. Disturbed dust motes floated about in the sun light, wondering what all the fuss was about. Stepping forwards, Rae pulled her face mask up, just a bit too late to avoid the rancid, musty smell rushing up her nose. She placed a hand on the scabbard attached to her belt and stepped inside.
***
What had he been on? Jackson hurried forwards, as quickly as his short legs could take him and he rasped for breath. There’s no smoke without fire, as Mr Patel used to say in Science while Jackson tried to light a fag on the Bunsen burner, all those stories had to come from somewhere.
Jackson stopped running, gasping for breath. If he were in school, he’d be doing PE right about now. This was definitely more effort.
The hut was cursed, no doubt about that. Then this stunning lady appears out of nowhere, with a probably made-up name and a bag she might have stolen and wants to visit it?
Jackson breathed deeply.
She had no idea what she was getting herself into.
Jackson started running again.
What had he been thinking, leaving her to get into it alone?
Through burning lungs, he ran towards her.
***
The room was round and looked like it was going to collapse at any given moment. Rae stepped in tentatively, judging the strength of every floorboard as she placed her foot down. Examining the walls as she walked, Rae came to rest her hand on a broken chair, recoiling as she felt it grip her skin back.
Waiting a moment to be sure it wasn’t going to try grabbing her again, Rae touched the wood with a pointed finger, squirming at the sticky film that covered it.
A memory of her Grandmother’s study through childhood eyes flashed into her mind, bringing the lingering smell of old tobacco smoke that turned itself physical, coating everything in the room. Like in the study, a layer of grime was permeating every visible surface. It was thick enough to almost block out the light entirely from the window opposite leaving the afternoon sun shining through the high up open window the only light source.
Rae softly kicked a glass bottle with her foot, watching it roll across the floor to the others that had accumulated. It must have been a very attractive location for vagabonds and the wayward over the years, and Rae wondered what made them move on.
If they moved on.
She wasn’t sure if it was her or the voice suggesting it at this point but getting out of there felt like a very good idea.
***
The front door had been torn apart by something with superhuman strength. Jackson squinted at the open frame from a distance, crouched down in the reeds. He couldn’t see anything within and for the first time in his life he found himself wondering about binoculars.
He wanted to turn and run, run away and never come back, but he had gotten his breath back now and was using some of the techniques he learned from his Anger Management Tutor to keep calm and grounded.
“She needs your help,” He actually said out loud and he quickly glanced round to check no one had heard him. The fact that the Marsh was barren, save the odd drone of the fly, wasn’t the relief he thought it would be.
Keeping low to the ground, he circled towards the hut. If whatever had torn through that door had got Rae, it would have been waiting behind the front door, so that was out. He needed to be smarter.
The other side of the hut was a single flat wall, with a single window, boarded up with wood. Far from the front door, it seemed to be the best option to investigate, so he crept closer.
The boards covering the window looked soft, perpetually sodden, probably easy to move. Was he really going to do this? He paused for a moment, as if waiting to hear Rae screaming, crying for help, but the only noise he heard was the gurgling of a nearby brook. He wanted to get away. He wanted to save Rae. One of those was going to trump the other, he supposed and walked to the wall. Jackson watched the boards swerve and sway, pulsating in the breeze and it wasn’t until he had his hand on one, removing it from its place he realised there was no breeze. The plank was heavier than he expected, and Jackson nearly fell backwards before he dropped it, landing in the mud with a thud.
Run, Jackson thought to himself, as he moved closer to the opening he had created. Everything is wrong. Get out of here.
The wood had stopped bulging, frozen like deer in headlights.
Holding his breath, Jackson cupped his hands and peered through the gap.
Inky gloom met him, an unilluminated murk of darkness containing a still multitude of undecipherable shapes that weren’t any clearer no matter how long Jackson focused on them. He let out the breath he was holding, exhaling into the abyss.
An inch from his face, the darkness writhed and warped, and a piercing white eyeball twisted opened in front of him.
Jackson through himself back, landing in the mud and comprehended the Shoggoth.
CHAPTER THREE COMING 19/04/2021
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