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"We have to cut him open".
"Why? Hasn't the poor bastard suffered enough?"
"He won't know anything about it will he!" said Adam "He's out of it now. It's us we have to think of".
"But what will you be looking for?" asked Hillyard.
"We'll know when we find it. It'll only be a little cut. Just enough to make him bleed. It's important we do it as soon after death as possible".
Adam held an enamel bowl carefully under Stombal's arm, and made a small nick in a vein. The blood came out slowly and thickly ... and a lurid shade of green.
"As I thought", he whispered "And very much as I feared".
"What the fuck is that?" Hillyard shouted, in mounting panic.
"Have you ever heard of rabies Hillyard?"
"Yea. It's a disease carried by animals. That wasn't what ...?"
"No. But it seems to be carried in a similar way. The victims of whatever this disease is are bitten or attacked by an infected creature, and it poisons their blood stream. Turns it green and deadly".
"You're assuming a lot aren't you?" said Joby.
"It's the only thing so far that makes sense", said Adam "Stombal dies in a horrifying way, hours after being wounded by some creature, and then we find all his blood has turned green".
"What about his burnt-off feet?" said Kieran.
"It's just an assumption at present", Adam tied a cloth securely around Stombal's wound, to stop the blood escaping "I'm grasping at straws because that's all we can do at the moment".
He carried the bowl of green blood carefully out into the back yard. He was loath to simply throw it away, uncertain what it's real dangers may be. So he dug a small hole in the snow, and buried the bowl, complete with contents.
The question of what to do with Stombal's body was a far thornier one. In the end it was decided unanimously to take it over to the old village chapel and leave it there. It would be a nasty surprise for any future visitors, but at least it would be safe from vampires, they hoped.
"We haven't been too disrespectful to him", said, Kieran, pulling what had once been an altar cloth over the poor wretch's corpse "Better than he would have had out on the tundra in any case".
"You know, there are times in the past few weeks when I hated him", said Hillyard, quietly "He never seemed to give me a moment's peace. He churned me up so much I sometimes felt he was pulling me brain apart, but no way would I ever have wanted this for him".
"He must have always been a bit peculiar from what you've said", said Joby.
"Sensitive I suppose", said Hillyard, reflectively "He was a good bloke, but he got bored easily. Always wanting to interfere in something new".
"Hence the recent religious kick?" said Adam.
"Quite. He really got me angry with that one. We'd have faced the penal colony for sure if we'd been caught, and no one ever gets out of there. I told him that until I was sick of hearing me own voice, but he wouldn't listen. And his illnesses! He was always bloody ill. He'd been delicate as a child. They'd made a fuss of him in the camp because of it, and so he'd convinced himself that that was the way to get affection out of people. It really pissed me off at times. But now he's gone, and I can't quite believe it".
Hillyard's voice was choked with emotion. He left the chapel without a backward glance. Kieran wrapped his arms around himself and gazed round at the desecrated building. All the religions artefacts and ornaments had gone, leaving the walls and surfaces depressingly bare. The pews had long since been chopped up for fire wood. In fact all that remained the show the building's original purpose was the decayed altar cloth which now covered Stombal's body.
"Where do we go from here?" he asked, his voice ringing hollow amongst the rafters.
"If it's alright with you I suggest we keep on heading south, down through the forest", said Adam.
"As soon as possible I think", said Kieran "Before Joby takes up residence under the kitchen table".
"If I'm nervous about moving on it's for a good reason", said Joby "This whole village at present is offering us sanctuary. Whilst we're here Angel can't reach us".
"The whole village could also imprison us for that same reason", said Adam "As surely as Henang did. I for one do not wish to spend another night here, being spooked by whistling noises from out on the tundra. And if we stay here too long we could end up being cut off for the rest of the winter. Apart from the fact that we do not have the provisions to sustain such a siege, I do not find it easy living in a place where the entire former inhabitants committed suicide!"
Joby opened his mouth to protest and then shut it again.
"Come on", said Kieran "Let's leave Stombal in peace here. With all the other ghosts".
"There's an old railway terminus here", Hillyard pointed at a clearing in the forest, marked on Adam's map "It's only a few miles into the forest, so we could easily be there by sunset".
"When you say old I take it it's disused?" said Adam.
"Oh that hasn't been used for about sixty years. Even then it would have been used only by the fur traders as a convenient access to the City, not by the general public. Now the Ministry uses air-buggies when they can't get anywhere by sea, except they're no bloody use! The key-card system's hopeless. They keep running out of juice in mid-flight. There've been endless crashes with the things".
"Why did the Kiskevians stop using the railway?" asked Joby.
"They didn't. The Ministry put the tin-lid on it. Said they weren't going to fund it anymore".
"Don't tell me", Adam exclaimed "It wasn't economically viable! Isn't it peculiar how no matter how much the world changes, governments stay the same in spirit. Fatuous and incompetent".
"They said that in public", said Hillyard "But a lot of us reckon they was already getting nervy about coming out here. There were too many times when the tracks got snowbound and the Ministry men were stranded out here. They hated that".
"The locals got 'em pissed on the jungle juice I suppose?" said Joby.
"Probably, although I spect they wouldn't have minded that so much. It was more ... well you've seen how eerie this place is. It was like that even before they all topped themselves, and it was getting worse. Half the time the locals were bombed out of their brains on moonshine. It wasn't a nice place to walk into if you were an outsider, and particularly a government outsider. So they decided to scrap the railway, took to flying out here. They'd literally drop in, pick up the goods and then leg it again".
"If we follow the old railway line", said Kieran "Which isn't marked on this useless map, will it take us to the City eventually?"
"I suppose so", Hillyard shrugged "Although it's probably not all still there in parts. That line goes through some pretty dodgy areas".
"In what way are they dodgy?" said Adam.
"The railway runs down past a village a long way south of here", said Hillyard, quietly "It's about halfway between the end of the forest and the edges of the City. It's called Marlsblad".
There was a frantic scrabbling amongst the other three to get hold of the map.
"You won't find it on there", said Hillyard "It's not marked on any map".
"How do you know about it then?" asked Joby.
"I've heard things about it. In the City. For a while recently, I had a job in a warehouse belonging to the Ministry. It was there that I heard about what had happened here. I spent all day loading boxes onto air-buggies and carts, usually with the same destinations on them. Port West, the penal colony, sometimes Kiskev, the Weather Rock. One day, when things were quiet, there was only two of us on duty. Me and an old fella, who'd worked there for years. He wasn't far off retirement so I think he decided to cause a bit of mischief. He asked me if I wanted to know their darkest secret".
"Their?" said Adam.
"The Ministry. Anyway I went along with it to humour him, like you do with old codgers. He took me into a 'No Unauthorised Person' section. I don't think he was an authorised person, but the security was pitiful at that place. Anyone with half-a-brain could work the locks. Inside was all these crates, all bound for Marlsblad. I'd never heard of the place. The old man said 'no and you won't have either. No one outside the inner circle at the Ministry knows about Marlsblad'. He started going on about the government's mistakes. He said my generation would be left to clear up problems left by his".
"Did you look inside the crates?"
"I wanted to, but the old fella stopped me. Said it was enough for now that I knew Marlsblad existed, and that I was never to forget its name, because it was our legacy, or some such dramatic rubbish. Then he made us leave".
"I think we should make a move", Adam glanced out of the window, noting that the day was already well-advanced "I refuse to spend another night here".
A path, long worn by the villagers' heavy boots, had been beaten through the trees in the forest. It had also been used by someone else in recent times. The travelling missionary, Kiskev's very own angel of death, had drawn yellow crosses on some of the trees as he passed by.
"It must have been weird", Joby paused in front of one "To come walking up all this way, with the intention of killing everyone, and yourself too".
"There's no point trying to get inside the head of a fanatic", said Kieran "They don't operate on the same rules as everyone else".
"They should've knocked him over the head as soon as he started spouting his rubbish", said Hillyard "And dumped his body out on the tundra, before he could cause all the damage. This religious revival's been nothing but trouble so far".
At the old railway terminus Fobbett was brewing hot water over an ancient stove, and watching it nervously in case it died on him again. If that happened he would have to spend another half-hour on his knees, puffing through the grille at the bottom, like a eunuch reluctantly administering a blow-job on a client.
The comparison made him giggle with embarrassment, even though he was completely alone there. Not that he'd ever been with a eunuch, or anyone else for that matter. As a forty-eight-year-old virgin he often found the whole subject of carnal matters merely comical. The way everyone carried on as though it had only just been invented for goodness sake! Getting themselves into ridiculous and often demeaning positions for a sensation so painful that impalement would seen a relief in comparison. Besides, the whole thought of an orgasm terrified him beyond all measure, as though he himself would get swept away on a sea of ejaculated sperm. He didn't see how it could possibly compare with the pleasure or satisfaction of a bowel movement.
The fire seemed to have caught at long last. Fobbett slammed the little door and prepared to wait patiently for his cup of tea. It would be a good excuse to meditate, here in the old station-master's room, having had to previously run around getting the place ready before darkness fell. Violent bursts of activity always left him feeling mildly depressed, and he needed to sit quietly afterwards to recapture his languid equilibrium.
His fifteen minutes of peace were not to be though. In the near distance he could hear voices, and they were getting nearer. He didn't know whether to feel pleased or disturbed. He had travelled alone for some time now, through the bleakest of areas, and he would welcome some human companionship, to hear a voice other than his own. On the other hand these people could present a huge threat to his freedom.
"You can't hide from people forever", he told himself "Just say nothing if doubtful".
Fobbett straightened his woollen top, and smoothed it over his narrow hips. He went out onto the disused platform. The air was getting darker and colder by the minute in the setting sun. He peered intensely at the trees through his small round spectacles. His eyesight was appalling, and he only got a clear view of the four men when they were standing on the platform with him.
"It's you!" he exclaimed "So someone else did escape from the prison!"
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