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"You're not Kiskevian".
"We're nomads", said Adam "We got stranded out on the marshes and made for here. What's happened to your friend? He's bleeding all over the place".
"He was attacked".
The well-built young lad who had spoken settled his wounded friend on one of the wooden settles. His friend was barely conscious. His rabbit-like features were almost indistinguishable beneath the streams of blood that flowed from a vicious-looking head wound.
"We only came here on the off-chance", the burly lad busied himself with damp cloths, trying to stem the torrent of bleeding "We'd heard about what had happened here, but Stombal was so badly wounded I just wanted to get us under shelter for a while. I didn't know what to think when I saw the lamp in the upstairs window here, but I was so desperate I thought I'd risk it".
"Who attacked him?" asked Joby.
"What more like", the lad grunted "Look, I'd better explain. If you're nomads you won't drop us in it. We're poachers, right? We'll trap anything people want us to, and now the fur trade's in crisis we were hoping to clean up in that department. That's why we've travelled all the way out here. This evening was the closest we'd got to Kiskev so far, and we decided to put up in a wolf-shelter".
"There are some still intact then?" said Adam.
"Of course there are. Out on the tundra anyway", the lad continued "Look, there's something else I've got to explain. My mate here, Stombal, he's been acting strange lately. It was one of the reasons I decided to get us clean out of the City for a while, before he attracted attention. He got a Bible on the black market, been quoting bits of it at random. But there's more to it than that. He's convinced someone's been trying to possess him".
"Demonically, you mean?" asked Adam.
"I think that's what you call it. That's what made him get the Bible. He thought it'd protect him. I was furious when I heard he'd got it on the streets. He carried it home with him on public transport. Imagine if he'd been caught! Anyway, things went crazy from then on. He would only eat unsalted food, and then only if it was prepared and served on wooden plates, with wooden utensils. All kinds of crazy shit. We hadn't been hunting for a while, so I suggested this trip, hoping it'd clear his head".
"But what attacked him?" said Joby, impatiently.
"I don't know, but it scared the crap out of me I can tell you. We were lying in the wolf-shelter a couple of hours back. Stombal was nearest the doorway. I'd fallen asleep, and I only woke up when I heard him screaming and yelling. Something, I can't even begin to describe what it was, had him by the hair and was dragging him out of the door. I managed to fight it off by stabbing at it with my hunting-knife, and got Stombal back inside. But don't ask me what it was".
"You must have some idea", Joby protested.
"No I don't, that's the trouble. It was just this shape. All dark. I think it had fur".
"The Abominable Snowman I suppose!" said Joby.
"There are huge scratch marks where he's been bleeding", Kieran was gently examining the unconscious boy's head "Some of his hair's been pulled out as well".
"There must have been where it dragged him out. I'm surprised he wasn't scalped, poor sod".
"Look um ... what was your name did you say?" asked Adam.
"Hillyard. What happened here at Kiskev? Where is everyone? Why has the Ministry declared it a no-go area?"
"You don't know?"
"We're strangers here".
"They all killed themselves", Hillyard explained "Some nutcase set himself up as a kind of missionary, and came out here whipping up trouble. Told 'em they was all doomed. The whole village, including the nutcase, topped themselves. Set light to each other in a huge bonfire".
"No one survived?"
"One, a kid of about fourteen. The Ministry have got him locked up in the City Assizes Court for his own safety, so they say anyway, to stop him doing himself in. I think really they're scared that if they let him go he'll roam the City, trying to spread the Gospel. I doubt he'll see daylight again. He's there for good now".
"It's cold in here", Kieran shivered "I think I'll go and make us some coffee".
"I'll help you", said Joby, quietly.
After they had left the room Adam leaned across to Hillyard.
"So it was you I heard earlier?" he said.
"You what?" Hillyard looked blank.
"Trying to attract attention out on the tundra. I heard a whistling noise in the distance. It was you wasn't it?"
"No. Weren't me mate".
In the kitchen Kieran made coffee whilst Joby sat at the table, staring moodily into space.
"Bit of a strange pair aren't they?" said Kieran, trying to start a conversation "I don't like the look of Screwball's wounds at all. What if they turn gangrenous? We can't treat him for it out here can we? And I don't know how much to believe this Yeti story either. Are you listening to me?"
"It all makes sense", said Joby, almost dreamily.
"Why I haven't sensed Angel so strongly here".
"No, listen to me", Joby continued "It makes sense. He must be near because I keep picking up traces of him, you know, like distant radio signals. Yet I don't believe he can come into the village".
"Because of what happened here! The mass suicide. It was caused by religious fanaticism, which accounts, of course, for the crosses we found drawn on the wall over there. The whole place is saturated with the lingering traces of it, so Angel cannot come in. Because vampires don't like Christianity", he finished, triumphantly.
"Why would it bother Angel though?"
"What do you mean?"
"Why would Christianity bother Angel? He's never had any experience of it whatsoever. So even if crosses and other religious artefacts do really deter vampires, why should they affect Angel?"
"I don't know, but I believe that's what's going on".
"So what do you intend to do then? Stay in Kiskev for the rest of your life? Somehow Jobe, I don't see you as Eskimo material", Kieran poured the coffee into a large jug "You're getting too damn airy-fairy for my liking. Let's just deal at the moment with the problems we can see for real. Like we find ourselves in a while new world strewn with pitfalls, 2000 years away from home, and with a complete stranger now on our hands who gives every indication that he's dying. I tell you Joby, you're no damn help to me keep going on about Angel. I believe what you're saying, but the trouble is I can only deal with so much at one time".
"You're knackered aren't you?"
"Aren't you too then?"
"Yea", Joby crossed to the window and stared out. There had been a fresh fall of snow, and it stretched unsullied for as far as the eye could see "Bloody oppressive place. No wonder they all went fucking mad poor bastards, living out here. We've only been here a few hours and I feel like I'm losing me brain".
"Did you hear something then?" asked Kieran, suddenly "Something outside, in the distance, like a whistling noise?"
Joby listened intently, and caught the end of a faint shrill sound, very far off.
"What the fock was it?" asked Kieran.
"I don't know, but let's join the others".
The darkness seemed endless. It was gone nine o'clock the following morning before the first fingers of daylight began to penetrate the gloom. Joby woke under his fur quilt, but still shivering in the cold dawn. He pulled on a fur-lined wrap, one of a pair he had found in the linen chest (Adam wore the other one, a far grander effort made out of red brocade silk). Kieran was still asleep in the next bed, Adam likewise in the armchair.
Without disturbing them Joby crept down the wooden staircase. His socks had worn loose in bed and now slapped clumsily on the slats. In the room below Hillyard was blissfully asleep by the stove. Stombal seemed to be twitching in his sleep on the wooden settle. He looked feverish and uncomfortable. His appearance wasn't helped by the makeshift bandage that Kieran had tied round his head, and which was now liberally stained with blood.
Joby unbolted the back door and stepped down into the snow-covered yard. He pissed on the ground, nervously scanning the view at the same time. It was the first time he had properly seen the tundra in daylight. Crisp, cool whiteness stretched to the horizon, bathed in the brutal reddy-pink of the rising sun. Towards the horizon the mountains began, the mountains which separated Kiskev from the Uncharted Area. There was nothing at all to indicate what had caused the strange whistling noise he had heard the night before. All was still. Joby went back inside and bolted the door.
Kieran was woken by Adam gently kissing his black eye. To Adam's relief the younger man didn't react with an attack of the vapours. He merely lay there, obviously determined that he wasn't going to be the one to speak first.
"I felt I had to do something", Adam said, softly, and retreated back to the chair. He pulled a thin cigar from the pocket of the fur-trimmed robe and lit it in a leisurely fashion.
"Where did you get that?" Kieran asked.
"Bar stock, that our poor kamikaze hosts never got round to using. It's a bit rough around the edges ..."
"It smells it!" Kieran exclaimed "Not exactly rolled on the thighs of a virgin".
"No", Adam chuckled "More like rolled out of bog peat actually. Still it's better than nothing".
He passed the cigar to Kieran, who drew on it, spluttered, and then giggled and winked.
"Hilly, Hilly, help me", Stombal tossed the rug that had been covering him to the floor "I can't feel my feet".
Blearily Hillyard got up and crossed over to his friend. He yawned and picked up the rug.
"You're probably just cold", he said.
"I can't feel my feet!" Stombal, in spite of his weak condition, was using his little remaining energy to panic "Are they alright? Tell me. And my arm. My arm keeps going numb. What's happening to me?"
You're dying with any luck, Hillyard thought, and then silently cursed himself for his disloyalty. He was very fond indeed of Stombal, but even so there was no denying that just lately the boy had been nothing but a sore trial. He had seriously endangered their freedom back in the City with his black market Bibles, and his increasingly odd habits. On the journey up to the tundra he had whined incessantly at Hillyard, when he wasn't quoting the Bible at him anyway. Hillyard, who had found the countryside unnerving, was finding everything increasingly difficult to handle. The incident at the wolf shelter had thoroughly scared him, and on top of that he was tired of coping with Stombal on his own. When he came across the three nomads at the inn, he had been too delighted to find himself in sane company to query what the nomads were actually doing miles out of their usual way.
"Please Hilly, look at my feet".
It had been like this for weeks now. His daily life dictated by a soft-voiced feeble-minded wimp. He fought down an insane urge to break Stombal's leg (similar to the occasion back home when Stombal had demanded a head massage, and Hillyard had slapped his ears, telling him it was all part of it). Hillyard eased off the boy's socks, gritting his teeth all the while as Stombal, in his opinion, made a right meal out of wincing with pain.
The sight that greeted him nearly made him scream, but Hillyard had grown used to concealing his feelings, and he merely put his hand to his mouth instead.
"What is it Hilly? Tell me".
"I don't know", Hillyard breathed as slowly and deeply as he could "I don't know Stombal".
Stombal sat up, stared at what had once been his feet, and screamed shrilly. Hillyard clamped his hand over the other man's mouth.
"For fuck's sake", he hissed "We don't want any of them knowing about this. They'll throw us out".
"I'm a freak", Stombal wept "I'm a fucking freak. Oh Hilly, help me".
Joby had seen it all through a crack in the kitchen door, attracted by the raised voices and the urge to know more about their mysterious guests. When what had once been Stombal's feet had been unveiled he had almost reeled with shock.
Whilst Hillyard had been trying to calm his friend Joby had sprinted back upstairs. He burst into the bedroom to find Adam engaged in an energetic snog with Kieran. In a rage Joby slammed the bedroom door behind him, and the sound seemed to reverberate all over the entire village.
"Calm down Joby", said Adam, infuriatingly in Joby's opinion.
"You!" Joby pointed at him "You go downstairs and see what I've just seen. We have got some weird shit here, and on top of that I come up to find you slobbering over him!"
"What have you just seen?" asked Kieran.
"Stombal", Joby panted with anger "He's got no feet! No fucking feet!"
"What? Did they drop off with frostbite or something?" Adam laughed.
Joby grabbed Adam by his robe and pulled him off the bed.
"You go and see", he said "He's got little stumps where his feet should be, all blackened and yellow, as though they've been burnt off. Go and see. Now!"
Adam did as he was told. Once he was gone Joby paced restlessly up and down the room, until Kieran was almost dizzy with watching him.
"Joby, will you calm down please".
"Calm down!" Joby went and stood over Kieran like an avenging angel "I don't feel like being bloody calm!"
"That much is obvious".
Joby stared at him. Suddenly the tension went out of his shoulders, and he sat down, slumped on the end of the bed.
"Is it true about Stombal's feet?" Kieran asked.
"Why would I make it up? I know you think I'm going mad ..."
"No I don't".
"I wouldn't blame you if you did. Sometimes, like with the problem of Angel and all that, I think I am too. But this is different. I saw them".
"Blackened stumps?" said Kieran, quietly "Like they'd been burnt off?"
"Fucking weird isn't it?" said Joby "And as if that wasn't bad enough I come up here to find ... I thought you had more bloody sense Kiel, I really did".
"He's not as bad as he's painted Jobe, just a bit misunderstood".
"He beat the shit out of you!"
"I know. You don't need to tell me that", said Kieran "But we're none of us perfect".
"Oh Christ!" Joby put his head in his hands "You must be desperate for it to let him ... after ... desperate that's what. I don't understand people like you. Fucking masochists".
"No I am not! I hate the idea of aggression and pain. Love and affection, that's what makes the world go round. But how can I help Adam if I shut myself off from him?"
"Oh St Kieran of Assisi now is it?" Joby sneered "You should have been an evangelical missionary you should. Flirty fishing they used to call it didn't they? Selling your body to save people's souls".
"These are not normal times Joby", Kieran said, patiently "We seem to be surrounded by dark forces, monsters even. Don't you think that it all needs to be tempered with a little love and humanity towards each other?"
"Bollocks. What it means is you've got yourself locked into a relationship you can't get out of".
"Remember back at the Loud House? 'I can't handle him Joby' and 'I think he's broken me ribs'! And now I have to sit here and listen to you spouting shit about love and humanity".
"Listen to me", Kieran grabbed Joby's hands firmly, and held them so that he couldn't pull them away "None of us knows how much longer we're stuck in this crazy place. And I don't just mean Kiskev, but this whole set-up. We only have each other. You, me and Adam. We can't afford to lose that. I think Adam's changed anyway. He's calmer within himself somehow, less obviously screwed-up. He seems to have a sense of purpose about him. I've never seen the real him before, only the bitter and twisted ex-soak. I happen to like the real him. Almost as much as I like you in fact".
"I agree that we need each other", Joby swallowed hard "But I don't see how we can help matters by setting ourselves up as some kind of eternal fucking triangle ... with me as the bleeding lodger by the looks of things".
"You daft eejut, you feel threatened by everyone don't you? All we have to do is accept each other".
"So what do I do at night in bed? Block up me ears whilst you two paw each other?"
"Adam won't come between what we've got. You mustn't fear on that. You're me best mate. Isn't it the case that I have to protect you at night ... from vampires, cannibals and such like?"
"You fucker", Joby snorted "You know I need you. So you know I'll put up with you shaking your arse at him. But I warn you now. I'll kill him if he hits you again".
"I don't think he will somehow. I've told you, he's less at war with everyone now, so he's less inclined to hit out".
"People don't change that much in a few days".
"They do when they're living in ... er ... interesting times, such as we are".
"Seems Joby was right", Adam entered the room in a swirl of fur-trimmed brocade "Screwball has no feet".
"Poor little sod", said Kieran "How in God's name did that happen?"
"I don't know. But it must have happened between the wolf-shelter and here. Hillyard's distraught, but I think to be honest that's more at the thought that we might abandon him than anything else".
"Oh great", said Joby "So we're stuck with a deformed invalid and Mr Muscles, his nursemaid".
"I don't think that young Stombal will be with us for very much longer", Adam sat down wearily in the chair, and re-lit the butt of his cigar.
"He really is dying then?" said Kieran.
"He seems to have some kind of creeping paralysis. He couldn't feel his feet when he woke up - that's how Hillyard discovered what had happened - and now he says he can't feel his right arm. His breathing doesn't sound too clever either".
"Poor little bastard", said Kieran, softly "He must be terrified".
"The way things are going it won't take long".
"You're talking as though he's got cancer or something", Joby protested "Instead this is weird shit. He could be turning into something".
"No", Adam sighed "He's dying. I'm sure of it. We just don't know what caused all this".
"Exactly", said Joby "I mean, whatever it is we could get it, couldn't we?"
"What bloody contagious disease is it that causes your feet to burn off?!" Kieran exclaimed in disbelief.
"The same thing that caused the woman at the Loud House to age so drastically", said Adam "The same thing that accounts for the weird creature you saw that killed Angel. Then there's the blind man at the inn who had green blood. Likewise the giant insect-like creature that Buskin saw on the marshes. And possibly the beast that attacked Stombal yesterday as well. Something is stalking this land, deforming people and animals, and making them into freaks".
"A force for evil", said Joby, recalling the Governor's description of the being that allegedly lurked at the lighthouse "The same thing that turned Angel into a real vampire?"
"As opposed to a psychological one".
"It has no shape or form", Joby went on "We can't fight it, that's what the Governor at the prison said to me. We cannot fight it".
Downstairs Stombal whimpered that he could no longer feel any part of his body. In a little over a couple of hours he had become completely paralysed. He muttered prayers under his breath, until he could no longer force the words out of his throat, and his lips were left quivering silently. As Hillyard held his hand and watched in shock and disbelief, the boy died.
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