Jack was alone in his now empty cell, with a creeping sense of foreboding. Joe and Charlie had been gone a long time now, and the eerie shadows cast by the lamp over the rough walls sent cold chills down his spine.
What if he was trapped in this cell for his whole life? What if the children never let him go,and slowly let him starve to death? Rumbles of hunger consumed Jack's stomach, and the back of his throat felt like sandpaper. At one point he had been tempted to eat the smelly mess of kelp and fishbones on the cavern floor, but had hastily changed his mind after smelling it.
At that moment Jack heard footfalls echoing down the passageway, and a boy about his own age with shoulder length black hair appeared outside the cell door. He took a large bunch of keys from his pocket and unlocked the door.
"I'm here to collect you," he said.
The relief Jack felt on realising that he wouldn't be trapped in the cell forever was quickly replaced with a terror at what being 'collected' meant. He had been here long enough to know that the boy wouldn't be setting him free any time soon.
"Where are you taking me?" he asked apprehensively as the boy took his arm and led him, stumbling, down the dark, winding passageway.
"It's time for your ritual," the boy explained.
"To freeze you in time, of course, so that you can join our ranks. You'll never grow up!" The boy gave a nasty smile as he led Jack through a high archway and into the hall into which Jack had first entered. Children walked here and there, none of them giving Jack a second glance. The boy led Jack off the hall and made Jack walk infront of him as they began the descent down a flight of stone stairs spiralling down and down, until Jack gauged that they must be far below the sea. There was no light, and Jack had to feel for each stair with an outstretched foot. It didn't help the the stairs were slippery, and once or twice Jack nearly fell.
At last they reached a tiny stone room, smaller even than the cell Jack, Joe and Charlie had been in. It was freezing cold and Jack shivered in his cotton shirt. There were no furnishings in the room except for a lantern hanging from the ceiling emitting a faint yellow glow, which illuminated a low block of stone shaped like a bed in the centre of the room.
"Lie down," directed the boy, pointing at the block of stone. Jack glance hopelessly around, before lying slowly down on the cold stone.
"Please don't kill me," he said in a small voice.
The boy merely laughed. "Oh, I won't kill you," he said, his eyes glinting like glass in the lamplight.
At that moment there came the sound of running footsteps, and a girl came into sight, jumping the last of the stairs. "Henry," she said, "here's the clock. Guess what? The supposed 'clock makers' have been sentenced to death." She gave a cold, high laugh, which was joined by Henry's.
"An execution's always good fun," he said, taking a heavy gold object from the girl's hand.
Their laughter rang on and on in poor Jack's ears. Joe and Charlie, sentenced to death? He tried to sit up, but the boy forced him back down. "Don't move," he said warningly.
Jack felt a cold object being placed on his chest; the clock, from what he could tell. He felt a coolness stealing over him, that sort of heavy stupor that comes after a hot drink or a warm bath.
He found that he could not move. His limbs felt weak and heavy, and the stone seemed much softer all of a sudden. He heard the boy's footsteps going away up the stairs. "I'll be back in one week," he called. "You won't need food. You'll never grow again! You'll be one of us."
Misery overcame Jack. What could he do? How could he save his friends? They would be dead by the time he was allowed to move again, and by that time he'd be a child forever.
Then an idea came to him. He had been left alone with the clock. The clock seemed to be the source of the children's power. Perhaps it was what they had used to summon Charlie and Joe with? If so, he could try and summa some people using the clock's power to help save him and his friends.
The trouble was Jack didn't know how to summon people using the clock. Though he couldn't move, the clock was resting on his chest, so he supposed that as long as he maintained physical contact with the clock its powers would still work. But how would he summon people, and who?
If he were to summon anyone an adult would be best. From what he had heard from Joe and Charlie, the children seemed to fear adults. But would an adult hear his summons, or understand what he was trying to tell them? No, it would have to be a child, and they would have to bring an adult with them to the cave.
Then again, who would it be? He had plenty of friends from school, but they were all too far away. The person would have to be close at hand, and would have to know the cave, too. He wracked his brain trying to think of anyone who may know anything about the lost children of Shell Bay. And then it came to him. Those four children in the passageway who had given he, Joe and Charlie the seaweed had been talking about how they had tried to capture four children, who had escaped into the forest nearby. They would know the cave, and would know about the Shell Bay children! He could only hope they were close at hand.
Now came the problem of how he was to summon them. He didn't even now the children's names. Having said that, the cave children couldn't have known Joe and Charlie's names either or they wouldn't have summoned them.
So Jack closed his eyes, and imagined with all his might four children in a forest. Please come and save us, he begged. Please bring an adult, too.
Lizzie awoke from the strangest dream. She had been traveling along the lonely beach they had visited the day before, though the ghostly children were absent. She had climbed, weightless as air, over the shelf of rock, and had entered into the gaping mouth of a cave concealed in the shadow of the towering cliff face.
Into the cave she had went, until she reached a stone basin. She pulled a shell from her pocket and dropped it into the basin. There was a rumbling like thunder, a flash of light, and Lizzie found herself in a wide stone hall with rough hewn walls, darkness stretching out of sight. Weightlessly she had floated across the uneven floor until she reached a spiral staircase.
Down and down and down she went, right into the depths of the earth. And then she came to a room, a small dark room lit only by the feeble glow of a lantern. In the centre was a low stone block; on this lay a young boy with sandy hair, a large gold clock with a smashed face resting on his chest.
Though his lips did not move, Lizzie heard the boy's voice, echoing through the room. "Please, find an adult. Find an adult and bring them into this cave. Destroy the clock…" The boy tried to say something else, but the dream was fading, and Lizzie could smell the sweet scent of pine and feel the prickly needles on her side.
She sat up, rubbing her eyes and trying to capture the details of the dream. Maggie was sitting up too, looking confused. "Oh Lizzie," she said in a serious tone, "I think being so hungry is making me go mad. I had a dream all about a cave and a strange boy in a dark room. Why, what's the matter? You've gone all white. Are you hungry too?"
"No," said Lizzie. "Nothing." But her mind was working fast. Why had she and Maggie had the same dream? She reached over and shook Hattie awake.
"No no no," mumbed Hattie. Her eyes blinked open, and she took in Lizzie and Maggie, staring down at her. "Why did you wake me up? The little boy was just about to tell me what the clock was." She looked a little confused at Lizzie and Maggie's shocked faces. "It was only a dream," she said.
"So…" said Lizzie, "where was the boy?"
"On that beach we visited," said Hattie. "In a cave. I walked down lots of stairs, then came to a little room. He looked sad."
Ben was shaken awake in the same rough manner. He pouted and began to sniff. "I'm hungryyyy," he moaned. "I want food." When pressed as to what he had dreamed about, he looked thoughtful. "I'm not sure," he said. "Oh, there was a big hall, with lots of stone. And I was all floaty. Oh yes, and there was a boy with a clock. He told me to find an adult. We can take him mummy and daddy, can't we?"
Lizzie sat in silence. What should she do? They needed food badly; that was the most pressing issue. But then there was the thing with the dream. It had been strangely vivid, more like a vision than a dream. Perhaps they should try and rescue the little boy. She glanced around at her siblings, and knew that ether was no hope of getting them to help rescue anyone without first eating food.
The shopkeeper was standing behind the counter, watching the morning sunlight drift through the open door. In the distance the faint rolling of the sea could be heard over the whirring of the cabinets holding fizzy drinks and ice creams. He was just debating wether he should put the ice creams on special on such a sunny day when a small, fair haired girl walked through the door. Silhouetted in the doorway she looked almost angelic, in a white lacy dress with her curly hair fluttering in the faint breeze. As she drew closer to the counter, however, he saw that the white dress was dirty and had a singed hem, and her face was dirty and her hair unbrushed.
"Please," she said in a small voice, "I'm very hungry, and so are my sisters and my brother. Do you have any out of date food or anything we could have? You see, I don't have any money."
The shopkeeper would have normally told her to clear off, but there was something so innocent and charming about the little thing that he found himself saying, "No need for money, I'll get you something tasty. Plenty to spare. Here's a loaf, and you can have some crackers and a bag of crisps. I'm sure we might have some sweets too." He peered around, when his eye was caught by a newspaper on the counter. Below a huge picture of a burning house there were four smiling faces; children's faces. And the first of them, a small girl with curly fair hair…
"Wait," he said slowly, "You're not…" But the small girl had vanished.
Lizzie slipped back into the shelter of the pine trees, where her three siblings were waiting. "Eat slowly," she warned them, presenting the boxes and foil packets. She might as well have not spoken at all; her three siblings ripped open the various packets and began systematically devouring every last crumb as fast as possible. Even Lizzie soon found herself cramming her mouth with food. Once finished, Lizzie led them out of the pine trees (being careful not to be seen), over a low fence and to a small park where a drinking fountain stood. They took it in turn to splash the deliciously cold water into their mouths, then returned back to the forest.
"We've got to try and save that little boy," said Lizzie. "Even if he doesn't exist, we should at least go and see if there really is a cave there." She gave a small involuntary shiver at the thought of returning to that grey, haunting beach.
"We've got to find an adult too," said Maggie. "Let's go back to our house. Mummy and Daddy might be there."
Hattie began to cry. "I don't want to go back, Lizzie," she sobbed. "It's going to be all b- b- burnt, and there won't be anything l- left…" She broke down into sobs. It hit Lizzie for the first time how totally gone their house was. Everything she owned, that framed photo of her grandmother, Binky her toy rabbit from when she was a baby, her bike, her pretty bedside table, all of that was gone forever.
And yet they needed to find their parents. The fear of the fire was subsiding, and she realised how worried their parents must be.
"I'm sorry Hattie, but we've got to go back. We've got to find our parents, and once we've found them we can see if we can save that little boy."
They walked back in the direction of the park with the drinking fountain, and Lizzie recognised the street which ran alongside the park. "I know where we are!" she said. "It's only a little walk home from here." She led the way around a few blocks, down a long, wide road and into their own street. But when they reached their house, all that was left was a few piles of charred wood and indefinable objects, and a large blackened square of cinders on the grassy ground. Ben began to cry, and even Lizzie's eyes felt wet. Through her tears she saw the empty lawn surrounded by the neat picket fence, and… she blinked and wiped her eyes. There was a person, wearing a long hooded black coat, in the garden. The figure stood, with their back to the children, surveying the non existent house.
Lizzie hushed Ben, but luckily the woman hadn't heard his crying. She felt a tug at her skirt. "Lizzie," Hattie whispered, "is that… is that mummy or daddy?" Lizzie peered closer. Yes, it could be. It looked most like her mother; a tall slim build. Taking a deep breath, she opened the gate.
The person turned. It was a woman. But it was not their mother. The woman was taller, with dark hair partly obscuring her face. She turned slowly, with a slight smile on her lips. Her eyes came to rest on Lizzie, and behind her Hattie, Maggie and Ben. Her smile vanished.
"You… you're alive? But… why - how?" Then her face took on an ugly leer. Quick as a flash, she grabbed Lizzie's arm. Her grip was so tight that Lizzie gave a yelp of pain.
"Let me go! Leave me alone! You're hurting me!"
The woman gave a cold, mirthless laugh. "Ah, no, Mary Wren doesn't forgive easily. You children are meant to be dead. I thought I'd killed you when I set the house alight."
Lizzie gasped. "You… you set our house on fire?"
"Maybe," said the woman, giving her mirthless chuckle again. "The good thing is, you're all meant to be dead, which makes it a lot easier for me."
Lizzie struggled. "Maggie, Ben, Hattie, run!' she shouted, but the three little children had climbed over the fence and were holding on to Lizzie's skirt, crying loudly.
"Please," begged Lizzie, her voice growing high in terror. "Could you let us go, just for an hour? We need to rescue a little boy… he's trapped in a cave… "
The woman gave a laugh. "Let you go?" she said in a singsong voice. "Oh, but how would poor Mary Wren know where to find you? How would she know where to look? No, little tricksy children will go off crying to mummy and daddy and tell them about poor Mary Wren, burning down their house. But I've got plenty of time. Let's go on a little walk, shall we? We'll go into the woods where no one can find us. Don't worry dears, the pine needles will soak up your blood fast enough." Lizzie gave a whimper as the woman dug her nails into her forearm and led her towards the pine trees behind where the house had once been. Lizzie desperately signalled at her siblings, but they trailed behind her, refusing to run away. "So tell me," said the woman in that same singsong voice, "who is this little make believe friend of your's who's trapped in a cave?"
"His name's Jack." This was Ben, piping up from behind Maggie's legs.
"He's in a little room at the bottom of a long stairwell," said Lizzie, desperate to keep the woman talking for as long as possible. "He's in a cave, there's a sort of chamber, and the stairwell's off to the side. The cave is by the sea, it's in a bay called… I think it's called Shell bay."
The woman gasped and stumbled backwards as if she had received a slap in the face. In her horror she released Lizzie, who darted away from her massaging her forearm. "Shell bay?" whispered the woman. Her eyes were bulging and one hand clutched at her heart. "Shell bay? But…" she turned on Lizzie. "You're making this up! You're lying!"
"No we're not!" This was Hattie. "We're telling the truth, aren't we Lizzie? We all had the same dream, about the cave and the little boy. There was this clock thing on his chest so he couldn't move, and he told me we had to bring an adult with us to touch the clock to make time work again, so all the children would grow up."
"Children? What children?" asked Mary Wren. There was an eagerness on her face, almost a hunger.
"Well," said Hattie, who, out of all of them, seemed the most fearless, "he said that there were these children, lots of them. And that they were all from the Shell Bay mystery. He said they'd frozen themselves in time, and that they were going to try and freeze all the other children too, and he was going to tell me more but Lizzie woke me up." She glanced balefully at Lizzie.
The expression on the woman's face was unreadable, but Lizzie could sense a sort of sad anger in her. "Take me there," she said. "Take me to this cave."