by Trevor Hopkins

My next port of call was also in the upper world but it would have taken half a day to get there by surface transport. It was much quicker to return to the caverns below, take the transit tubes to a closer point, then return to the surface. Human transportation is just so slow.

Even so, it would be a long journey for me today. My destination was a long way from the nearest egress from the lower realms, a fact which would make many Goblins - even those intimately familiar with the upper world - think twice about undertaking such a journey. I wasn't looking forward to it much, myself.

The one I was intent on visiting had deliberately shunned society, both human and Goblin. Urquhart Garrick was an artist and a scholar of the old school, a school where the search for truth always outweighed such transient fidelities as good taste, political correctness or even legality. He was one of the very few Goblins who had elected to live permanently top-side. This was not something that was itself actually illegal, as I understood the law, but somehow a thing so strange, so out of line with societal norms that no-one had quite gotten around to legislating against it.

I emerged from the exit hidden in the weatherworn Victorian brickwork of an arched railway bridge, in a run-down industrial area of a city somewhere in the northern part of England. I looked around cautiously but there was, as I had expected, no-one about. It was already dusk, the waning light punctured by the yellow glow of streetlights turning themselves on. A human would have thought it dark and spookily unnerving under the arch - exactly the kind of place that is regularly chosen as a portal to the lower realms.

Water from a stalactite formed from a hundred years of seeping mortared joints dripped onto my hat then neatly ran down the back of my neck. I shuddered briefly, then tugged my coat collar higher and set off on the longer part of my journey.

I turned a corner onto a more populous street: stragglers from the rush hour on the way home in one direction, and chattering groups of youths on their way to the pubs and bars for a night out in the other. It was a brisk walk up the hill to the railway station. I purchased a ticket from the machine with a credit card - I'm sure Visa has no idea just who they issue their cards to - and then made my way through the automated barriers.

I kept to the shadows and quiet spots on the platform, more from force of habit than anything, until the correct train pulled into the station. It was one of those modern diesel-powered motor-carriage sets that feel like a bus mounted on steel wheels, although without the benefits of spring suspension or a great deal of padding on the seats.

The carriage was not particularly crowded even after the station in the city centre and emptied steadily as the train clattered its way up into the hills, stopping frequently at places of increasing obscurity and desertion. Finally, I reached my destination and alighted, ignoring the only remaining passenger, an overweight human in a worn suit who was snoring in his seat.

The platform was dark and deserted as I made my way up the steps to the road. The place was tiny; just a pub called the Strawbury Duck, and a grand total of five houses - all once barns and farmhouses, but now of course tastefully converted into homes for those who like to view their countryside from the inside of large and expensive four-wheel drive vehicles.

It was now truly dark, any moon or starlight hidden by low stratus, but the soft glow in the sky formed by the clouds reflecting the distant lights of the city was more than enough for me to see comfortably by. My target was a cluster of tumbledown farm buildings a quarter of a mile along the winding lane from the hamlet which had somehow managed to resist the tide of relentless gentrification, no doubt to the disappointment of the well-heeled neighbours.

The old buildings were hidden from passers-by by thick and untended hedges which threatened to encroach on the road and were probably only kept in check by friction from the paintwork of passing vehicles. In a narrow gap in the hedgerow, a wooden gate was wedged slightly open, so entangled in brambles that I doubted it had moved in a decade or more. I slipped though the gap between gate and foliage. There was a soft noise, like an exhalation, right in my ear. I froze as what felt suspiciously like the barrel of a gun pressed against my kidneys.

Part 24 Part 26