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By Sarah Hapgood

The next morning Kieran announced that he was going into the village, and that nothing and nobody was going to stop him. Even if Julian put him under house-arrest he’d simply climb out of the bedroom window. Adam said quietly that there was precious little point arguing with him when he was like this, and ordered Joby and Hillyard to go with him.

“Don’t take your eye off him for a moment”, Adam said to Hillyard outside “Not even to mind the horse”.

Kieran insisted on driving the dog-cart through the forest. Sitting up front, next to him, Joby tried to get it out of him what was wrong, but Kieran remained inscrutable.

“It’s the gloves”, he said, cryptically “The gloves, that should have given me the clue. Jaysus, I’ve been so dense!”

The village street was surprisingly quiet for mid-morning, which was normally when most of the locals went out and about doing their daily business. An old lady kissed Kieran’s hand and raptured that she was so relieved to see him there, which made Kieran feel worse than ever, as though he had been neglecting everybody. He then made for the First Man’s house. Joby had had a sinking feeling that he would.

Hanzi answered the door.

“Lila still not up and about?” said Kieran, pushing past him.

“You know she isn’t here at all”, Hanzi sniggered, in his own inimitable way.

Joby peered through the living-room door, but could see nothing amiss, other than that the room hadn’t been tidied up lately, as dirty plates and old newspapers abounded on the floor.

“Then where is she?” said Kieran.

“She is happy where she is”, said Hanzi, waving his gloved hands airily and sashaying into the living-room “Why do you want to bother her? She is where she wanted to be”.

“Is she alive?” said Kieran, abruptly.

“Of course she is alive”, said Hanzi, unperturbed “And taken to where she wanted to be. As I said, why disturb her? She’s got what she wanted”.

Kieran stared at him intently for a moment, without saying anything. Suddenly he snapped at Joby and Hillyard.

“Alright, seize him!”

Joby and Hillyard didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on, but they knew instinctively that they had to do what was required. They both grabbed Hanzi, Hillyard pinning his arms behind his back, and Joby grabbing his knees to stop him kicking out. They both wrestled him to the floor.

“Now what?” said Joby, breathlessly.

Kieran roughly rolled Hanzi onto his side and wrenched at the gloves. Hanzi gave a cry of alarm, but Kieran persisted with the de-gloving.

“I thought as much”, he said.

Hillyard blanched. Joby gave a whispered exclamation of “Christ!”

Most of the skin was missing from Hanzi’s hands. It appeared to have been gnawed away. It was hard to tell if he had inflicted the damage on himself, or someone(thing) else had done it, or both.

“Damn me”, Kieran muttered under his breath “We should have brought Tamaz with us”.

He didn’t mutter it so low that the other three in the room didn’t hear it though. Hanzi immediately set up an anguished screaming, like a hysterical child.

“Now what do we do with him?” said Hillyard.

“Get some brandy down him”, said Kieran, off-handedly.

Enough brandy was poured into a glass to tranquillize an elephant, and Hanzi was forcibly subdued in this way.

“I repeat”, said Hillyard “Now what do we do with him?”

“We take him back to the Old Mill-House”, said Kieran.

“What for?” Joby exclaimed.

“We’re taking him in for questioning”, said Kieran.

Hanzi was dragged out to the waiting cart. Hegley and Josh, alerted by the screams coming from the house, had ventured out onto the pavement.

“What are you doing with him?” said Hegley, meaning Hanzi.

“We’re taking him in for questioning apparently”, said Joby.

“Blimey, who do you think you are?” said Josh “The Sweeney?! Huh, Dixon of Dock Green more like!”

Tamaz had been looking out for their return ever since they had left. When the cart returned to the Old Mill-House once more, he had been sitting hunched up on the window-ledge nearest the front door, with his face pressed up against the glass. When he saw them he let out an elongated yodel.

“Oh what’s he doing here, Patsy?” Adam groaned, when he saw them pulling Hanzi down from the cart.

“We’ve brought him in for questioning”, said Hillyard, feeling that Joby really didn’t want to have to say it again.

Inside the house, Julian was yelling for Adam from upstairs. He had been halfway through shaving when he had heard the cart return, and had gone to the clowns’ window to see what was going on.

“What the hell is THAT doing here?” he demanded to know of Adam.

“I know as little as you do, Jules”, said Adam.

“This place is degenerating into a complete and utter shambles”, said Julian, wiping his face “It’s high time I took charge again, and got us out of this bastard hole!”

“That’s hardly fair to Bardin, Jules”, said Adam.

“Bardin is not well”, said Julian “How can he be, after what he went through out there? You and I both know that experience was too damn personal for him for comfort! Well I’m not proposing that we hang around here any longer so that whatever this force is messes up all our heads!”

Bardin had overheard all this from out on the landing, and went downstairs looking grimly resolute. A seriously doped Hanzi was propped up on a chair in the middle of the room, and some of the others, including Ransey, were looking down at him as though he was some interesting novelty that had been brought in from the forest. Bardin grabbed Tamaz’s wrist and dragged him into the pantry.

“You don’t have to say anything”, said Tamaz “It’s time I went to the Winter Palace, I’m glad you’ve finally come round to seeing my point of view!”

“I’ll take you within the hour, when we’ve sorted out …” Bardin began.

“You’re not coming”, said Tamaz, firmly “None of you are, except Kieran, it’s too dangerous”.

“But …” Bardin tried to begin again.

“Think about it!” Tamaz hissed “Think of the danger involved. It could be chaos there, and you’d only have to look into my eyes for a split second and that would be it!”

“He’s right, Bardy”, Bengo had shuffled over to them to eavesdrop on the conversation.

Bardin stood helplessly for a moment, making puffing noises.

“O.K”, he said, at last, with what felt like superhuman effort “But now we have to find out what to do with Hanzi”.

“There’s nothing you can do with him”, said Tamaz “He’s a ghoul, can you understand that? He took to eating the flesh off his own hands because he couldn’t get enough of anyone else’s. He’s not human. Ransey’ll know what to do with him”.

“I guess so”, Bardin muttered. “Do it soon”, Adam said to Ransey “Whilst he’s still sozzled, then he won’t know much about it”.

“All this concern for a ghoul!” said Mieps.

“Well some of us round here regard ourselves as human!” said Adam, emotionally, and he went upstairs to the back bedroom, where Tamaz was sorting out what he regarded as his lucky underwear.

“I’m glad someone round here has finally listened to me”, said Tamaz “I’m treated like such a worm that no one ever does, and you always treat me like a child!”

“I’m damned if I’m going to apologise for being protective of you!” said Adam.

“You don’t have to be SO protective of me”, said Tamaz “I’m not the insane thing in a cage anymore”.

“I know that!” said Adam “Really Freaky, you’re being tremendously unfair. If we don’t handle you with kid gloves you accuse us of treating you like a worm, and when we do handle you with kid gloves you accuse us of treating you like a worm! This must be your female side being most prominent!”

Tamaz looked highly distraught for a moment. The magnitude of what he was about to do had overwhelmed him.

“Kieran said that in the old days”, he said “The vampires kept Evil, the essence of it, in jars at the Winter Palace. I’ve seen that stuff, once before, I mean long before it erupted from the island off Zilligot Bay. It was back at the Ministry”.

“You saw it at the Min. H.Q?” Adam exclaimed.

“Yes”, said Tamaz “Late one night I was going up to the top of some stairs, and I saw it there, thick and black, like treacle, only not quite so solid, hanging in the air. It made me feel really sick”.

“Good heavens”, said Adam “It must have been some remnant from Father Gabriel’s time. Even though we pulled down the old Min H.Q it must have survived from then. I’m surprised we never came across it ourselves when we lived there. Patsy would have exorcised it if we had”.

“It was in a remote part of the building”, said Tamaz “Hardly anyone went there. I only went there because I was exploring”.

Adam heard the front door open, a sound of shuffling, dragging and muffled voices, and then it closing again. They were taking Hanzi into the nearby forest, to be disposed of.

The plan was that Kieran and Tamaz go to the Winter Palace, and everyone else wait behind at the remains of Resz’s old hut for half-an-hour, before following them in. Dobley was to stay behind to mind the house, even if Bardin did voice the concern that he wouldn’t put it past him to burn it to the ground in a fit of pique! Bengo said he didn’t care if he did, as then they could definitely all go up to Wolf Castle.

At Resz’s old hut, very near the Winter Palace, the other Indigo-ites concocted a brazier of burning wood to keep themselves warm for the duration, Kieran’s watch was wound and synchronised, and Kieran and Tamaz went into the Winter Palace.

The half-hour passed. Kieran and Tamaz didn’t return, although no one seriously expected them to have finished in such a short space of time. The remaining Indigo-ites advanced on the Winter Palace. The main doors were standing ajar, and they progressed into the courtyard, which was ankle-deep in a fresh fall of snow. Stood holding onto one of the pillars was the gorgonised remains of the old woman who had attacked Julian with the whip, her arm flung across her eyes in terror. Joby quipped that this at least proved that Tamaz had been here recently.

Directly opposite the main doors, on the other side of the courtyard, was another set of double doors leading into a part of the castle that none of them had been in before. These were also standing ajar. They approached, with great unease, into a wide corridor advancing steadily ahead of them. A heap lay on the floor, covered in a thick shawl, two slender bare legs and feet sticking out of the end. The body hadn’t been turned to stone, so they surmised that the person concerned had already been dead before Kieran and Tamaz had arrived, and Kieran had covered the body himself.

At the end of the corridor yet another door stood ajar, with a glimmer of candlelight coming from within. Another hastily-shrouded corpse lay on the polished floor just inside the door. The room was huge and extensively lit by banks of candles and chandeliers, which was just as well as the room appeared to be completely devoid of windows. Stone pillars supported the roof, and at the far end a huge staircase led up to the next floor, and then branched off into two opposite directions. This room was furnished in a style to match its size and baroque splendour. Silk sofas with big plump velvet cushions abounded, there were fur rugs on the floor, and a grand piano in one corner. An enormous fireplace seemed to be burning the remnants of an entire tree.

Standing in the middle of the room, with his back to them, facing the staircase, was Tamaz. Most of him was concealed by a thick fur coat, and only his reddish-brown hair was visible, catching the glow of the candles overhead.

“Tamaz”, said Adam, cautiously, holding back Lonts who was all for charging up to him “Is it safe for you to look at us, old love?”

“It is safe for me to look at you”, said Tamaz, before slowly turning round.

Lonts and Joby rushed over to him.

“Where’s Patsy?” said Adam.

“Gone to get us a drink”, said Tamaz.

“I might have known!” said Ransey.

Kieran emerged from a side room carrying a tray with a bottle and two antique glasses on it.

“Ah there you all are”, he said “I should’ve looked for some more glasses”.

“There are times like this when I think you’re insane!” said Joby.

Kieran put the tray down on top of the piano, and kissed Joby on the cheek.

“Have we finished here?” said Ransey.

“No, I’m afraid not”, said Kieran “Me and Tamaz were just taking a wee breather. The worst is yet to come”.

“What is this stuff?” said Ransey, holding up a glass of thick brown liquid.

“Hungarian Tokay”, said Kieran “She must have brought it with her”.

“She?” said Julian.

“Erzebet Bathory”, said Kieran.

“The Hugarian Blood Countess?” said Adam “She is here?”

“Somewhere upstairs I reckon”, said Kieran, glancing upwards, as though the Countess was lurking directly overhead ready to drop on them.

“You mean she’s come into this time?” said Joby “Like Sade did?”

“Mm”, said Kieran “Only she’s even more trouble than Sade”.

“Who is this person?” said Ransey.

“The biggest female mass-murderer of all time”, said Kieran “She killed over 600 young women in the 16th century, believed that bathing in their blood made her young and beautiful again. Someone, possibly Angel, I’m not sure, no doubt thought it would be a real laugh to move her into the Winter Palace at Marlsblad”.

“How many has she killed here?” said Adam, gravely.

“We’ve yet to establish that”, said Kieran.

“We saw two as we came in”, said Adam.

“There are two more nearby”, said Kieran.

Cautiously, Adam and a handful of the others, moved around the big room. They found one young woman tied with her back to her pillar at the far end. Her front torso was covered in lash marks. Erzebet liked to have some of her victims whipped on their fronts, so that she could see the agony in their faces. In a small side room a small girl had been pushed into what looked like a Medieval instrument of torture, an iron cage fitted with spikes, and then raised on a pulley up to the ceiling. The spikes had ripped into her flesh, and the Countess had evidently washed in the dripping blood, going by the improvised shower cubicle set up underneath.

“Where did these girls come from?” said Adam, returning to the main hall.

“Some would have been local”, said Kieran “Others possibly brought in by train from the outside world”.

“But what the hell would have possessed them to come here?” said Julian.

“In her own time she managed to con daughters of the nobility to her castle by saying that she was starting up a sort of finishing-school”, said Kieran, draining his first glass “Grim humour I know, but in a literal sense it was true!”

“Kieran!” said Joby, glancing nervously at the bodies.

“I’m sorry”, said Kieran “It’s me nerves getting the better of me, it’s like the insane urge to burst into hysterical laughter when you’re deeply upset”.

“The old hag which attacked Julian”, said Ransey “Did we pass her on the way in?”

“Yes I’m glad to say Tamaz got her”, said Kieran “I think she was probably a sorceress. Erzebet relied on the likes of them in her own time, not just to help her procure girls, but to practice the Black Arts with. For all we know, the old crone might have come with her”.

“No, she spoke English”, said Adam “To be one of Erzebet’s contemporaries I would have thought she would spoken Hungarian, or whatever local dialect …”

“Adam for Christ’s sake!” said Julian “Let’s not have a lesson on old languages!”

“I’m sorry, I’m rambling I know”, Adam sighed and sat down on one of the nearby sofa’s.

“Is this person a vampire then, Kieran?” asked Lonts.

“Not in the sense Angel, Caln and Mullawa were”, said Kieran “No, Erzebet is human, believe it or not. But she’s crazy, driven mad by her obsession with blood”.

“She’s a murderer, plain and simple”, said Julian, abruptly “And a sadist to boot”.

“There was some tale I heard once”, said Adam “That when she went to stay in her town house in Vienna, that the screams of her victims were so terrible that the local church had to ring the bells to drown them out”.

“They couldn’t do summat useful like go in and rescue ‘em instead?!” said Joby.

“Is that her?” said Ransey.

He was looking towards the stairs. A figure had appeared on the landing where the stairs split off in two different directions. She was perfectly still, staring down at them inscrutably. Dressed in floor-length black silk, relieved only a long rope of pearls around her neck. Her hair was long and black, her skin the translucent paleness unique to her race. From a distance she still looked beautiful. Up close her eyes were like black marbles, and there was a depraved bloated impression to her chin. As they watched she turned calmly and went back up the stairs on the left-hand side. She moved almost noiselessly, as though she glided. She gave no sign of being remotely perturbed by their presence. She disappeared out of view at the top of the stairs.

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