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Back inside the cottage Kieran sat huddled in the depths of an armchair, shivering violently. His heart was still beating a military tattoo, and his breathing was only just beginning to subside after what felt like a massive asthma attack.
"Be still", said Adam, soothingly, holding him tightly in his arms.
Joby, for once, didn't complain about this show of physical affection. He was too busy bolting the front door securely. Meanwhile Hillyard came in through the back, locking that door behind him too.
"There's nothing out there now", he said "You must've given it a fright when you yelled like that. Gave me one too".
"You must try and remember what it was you saw", said Adam.
"I can't remember a thing", Kieran protested "Me brain must've blotted it out. One minute I was standing there, getting some water out of the pump. The next thing I know I'm in here, and I find I can hardly breathe because something's scared me shitless".
"Then rest for now. Perhaps in the morning it'll come back to you".
"I'm not sure I want it to", he said "Not if it terrified me that much".
"Are you alright?"
"Of course I'm not focking alright", Kieran snapped, standing in the middle of Tomce's bedroom.
Joby pulled him towards himself and held him for a moment, stroking his back in a calming manner.
"Dunno what I'd do if anything happened to you", he mumbled into Kieran's hair.
"I'm fine really. I must have an in-built survival mechanism. Yelling like that I scared it off, whatever the blazes it was".
"You really can't remember?"
"No. Crazy isn't it?"
"I don't think I've ever seen you in such a state before. Whatever it was it must have been pretty spectacular".
"A shock to the system that's for sure", Kieran sighed.
"I found summat earlier that might help", Joby opened a small cupboard by the boarded-up fireplace. He removed a bottle of plum brandy and two glasses "Obviously our friend Tomce likes to do a bit of entertaining up here occasionally".
"It's his house I spose, although he looked to me as though too much excitement might rush him into his grave. C'mon, let's take it into bed with us".
"Christ, these sheets are cold", Joby winced as his skin touched the frigid linen. He placed the glasses in the centre of the eiderdown and poured two generous measures.
"Thank God for the safety of bed", said Kieran, having quaffed a substantial mouthful of the burning liquid "Sometimes I don't like being outside there much. Adam says it's all enough to make you turn agoraphobic".
"He gave me a right bollocking just now", said Joby, resting his glass on his chest "Went on about me letting you go outside alone, and what a useless cretin I was".
"I don't need a nanny".
"I can see his point though. He said ages back that we should make sure we were never alone at any time. Now he's been proved right".
"Maybe, but you're not a useless cretin".
"I haven't been much use so far on this trip have I?"
"Have any of us? Anyway, even if it were true, he had no right to speak to you like that. You can't hold me hand everytime I want to leave the room. It'd get embarrassing for one thing. Life's all about taking risks", Kieran reached for the bottle, which had lolled between them on the bedclothes "This stuff'll give us the trots come morning, but it's better than nothing".
The antique glass clock on the mantelpiece struck three with a short series of soft chimes. Adam wasn't sure whether it was that which had woken him, or the intense coldness in the room. Cautiously, trying not to wake the slumbering Hillyard opposite him, he placed another log on the fire. It spat violently, but Adam felt the glow on his legs, and was reassured by it. Altogether he felt unaccountably nervous, and he pulled his robe closer around him, and sank further into the chair.
The same unnatural chill woke Joby upstairs. Next to him Kieran lay sleeping, but at the same time he was shivering like a puppy. Joby sat up in bed, causing the bottle and glasses to clank in the middle, and pulled the covers up over his sleeping friend. Then he reached for his shirt which hung over the brass rail at the foot of the bed.
Instantly something damp and cold brushed his hand. He pulled it away in disgust, and then sat deadly still on the bed, hardly daring to move. That there was now a definite presence in the room was an indisputable fact. It was all textbook stuff. The unearthly chill, the invisible clammy hand, a feeling of high intensity as the air positively crackled with naked electricity.
The space at the foot of the bed seemed to be getting denser, as though something was trying to form a shape. Joby sat back on his pillow and watched, willing himself to move further but frightened that it might possibly accelerate the manifestation process. He nudged Kieran, but the other man didn't wake. With increasing panic Joby nudged him more and more aggressively.
"Jobe?" Kieran turned over, bleary-eyed and confused "What's the matter?"
Almost immediately the chill vanished, accompanied by an eerie whoosh of escaping air.
"Angel was here", said Joby, his throat felt swollen and painful with fear "I sensed him".
"In this room?"
"Right at the foot of this bed".
Kieran reached for the torch which Adam had placed on the table by his pillow earlier. He switched it on and shone the beam over the bed-rail.
"He's gone now", said Joby, his face as white as chalk "He went when you woke up. I knew he would".
"He's scared of you. What you said Fobbett had told you is true".
"I only told you all that because I thought it'd give you a laugh!"
"But it is true! Angel is scared of you. He won't try anything whilst you're around".
"Oh if you're gonna start all that Vanquisher of Evil nonsense I'm going to have another drink", Kieran uncorked the bottle and upended the dregs over one of the glasses "There is no earthly reason at all for Angel to be scared of me".
"You were the one who was never afraid of him whilst he was alive".
"Neither were you".
"Yes I was", said Joby, quietly "Towards the end, at the Loud House. Both me and Adam were, that's why we planned to kill him. We were frightened we wouldn't be able to control him for much longer".
"You're clutching at straws".
"Maybe, but at the moment that's all I can do. What Fobbett said makes sense to me".
"Fobbett is a very sick man. My intuition doesn't always get it right, but I think I did on this occasion. He is diseased, and who is to say that that disease hasn't affected his brain? After all, what rational man goes up to a complete stranger and tells him he's the Vanquisher of Evil ..."
His voice trailed off, leaving Joby looking perplexed. One moment Kieran was talking at full sail, the next he was speechless and frightened.
"Kiel? You alright?"
"Fobbett", Kieran sounded terrified.
"What about him?"
"Poor sod. Did you sense that just now?"
"No I've just remembered. It's all coming back to me. Earlier I saw him. Outside. He appeared to me in the garden. My God Joby, he'd been killed! His body gutted like a damn fish. And he'd been blinded".
"Like the axeman at the inn?"
"No, no. His eyes had been torn out! There were just bloody sockets", Kieran twisted the bedclothes in his hands "His windpipe was exposed, and he was making the most terrible noise".
"It was Angel wasn't it? Angel what done it I mean".
Kieran crammed the edge of the blanket into his mouth and bit it hard, whilst the tears poured down his cheeks.
"Fobbett was warning us", he sobbed "Warning us of what Angel can do".
Joby held him silently for a few minutes.
"You're sure Fobbett was helping?" he said, eventually "I mean, he hasn't become like Angel now has he?"
"No", Kieran shook his head, and wiped his face roughly with his hand "He meant no harm, I can see that now. Just his appearance was a bit of a shock as you might say. I spose he meant it to be. After all, the poor bastard is now a perfect illustration of what we're up against".
"Yea, but we've got you on our side", Joby squeezed Kieran's arm "To help fight him off".
"And you think that makes me feel better? Say all this is true about me being the ... the Vanquisher of Evil. I've now got it on me conscience that Fobbett died because I wasn't there to protect him".
"Don't be daft, you can't be everywhere".
Kieran pulled away from him and buried his face in his pillow. All Joby could do was hold him and mutter soothing noises, until the dawn came round once more.
"When we first saw this place I thought it looked like something out of a children's book. I almost expected to see the seven dwarves coming out of the front door. And now everything's disjointed. It is as though it's dropped its disguise slightly and I can see through it. Look at it as it really is".
Kieran reached the wicket gate that led into the forest. He leaned against it wearily. Adam put his arm around the younger man's shoulders.
"It's not the cottage that's evil", said Adam "Evil dropped in last night, that is true. But don't make the usual mistake of blaming a building for what people get up to in it".
"I spose not", said Kieran "Perhaps I just don't feel safe here anymore, I don't know. But I feel as though I'm sensing some things for the first time".
"All the cosiness and the prettiness of the place, it's just a surface thing. This morning the house feels like an empty shell. It does not feel like a home".
"That's because Angel has contaminated it", said Adam "You don't feel safe here anymore, it's not a haven".
"It's not just Angel, although I admit he's enough to put you off anywhere. But why does an oily creep like Tomce choose to live way out here? Oh I know what you're going to say. I'm being unfair to someone who's thrown his door open to us in our hour of need, but you've got to admit he's peculiar".
"Patsy, I would expect this kind of thing from Joby, he distrusts everyone. But not you. You're normally the epitome of fairness".
"Perhaps I want to rebel", Kieran laughed "Then I can resign me place as Vanquisher of Evil. No more Mr Nice Guy!"
"Joby told me you were upset for most of the night".
"Poor old Jobe. I was feeling sorry for meself that's all, but I felt so depressed and helpless about it all. I seem to have trouble accepting things at the moment. It's never been a problem with me before, I've always been able to take whatever crap was thrown at me".
"And you still can".
"God doesn't give us burdens we can't carry, you mean?"
"I don't feel qualified enough to judge what He'd say about anything", Adam sighed "But it sounds about right".
They stared at each other, whilst the tall trees rustled soothingly overhead. Adam delicately fondled the ends of Kieran's hair. Kieran noticed a mossy path, like emerald velvet, disappearing through the trees. It all looked so peaceful and inviting in the forest.
"Would you like to come into the forest for a bit?" he asked.
"Would you care to rephrase that?"
"Not in the slightest".
Adam stooped to kiss his lips, but was stalled by an agonised yelling coming from the cottage. Both of them groaned at the same time.
"That sounded like Hillyard", Adam sighed, heavily.
"Perhaps he's had an offer from Joby!"
"Sick! Sick! Sick!" Hillyard was pacing around the living-room like an enraged buffalo.
"Did you find this thing then Hillyard?" asked Adam, staring queasily at the glass jar on the table.
"He was having a wash in the kitchen", Joby explained, as though acting as Hillyard's interpreter "He looked in the cupboards for some soap, and came ... ahem ... eyeball to eyeball with it".
"I'm glad you think it's fucking funny", said Hillyard, almost puce in the face.
"Gotta keep our sense of humour", Joby shrugged "I know I have to, or the little bastard'll send me insane".
"You think Angel did this?" said Adam.
"Bit subtle for him isn't it!" said Kieran "He normally takes huge bites out of people. He doesn't pickle 'em in vinegar. Are we sure it's not the work of our absent host? He looked to me like he might have some strange habits".
"Joby said it wasn't there when he was looking through the cupboards last night", said Hillyard, calming down slightly.
"No it wasn't. I think I might have noticed it".
"Could somebody cover it up?" said Kieran "I find it a bit disconcerting to have Fobbett's disembodied eyes glaring at me from inside a jar".
Adam tossed a towel over the offending article.
"I'll bury it in the garden", he said.
Over supper the other three began what Kieran termed "that Vanquisher of Evil cobblers" all over again. To his disgust Joby's theory about Angel being wary of Kieran was swallowed by Adam as eminently plausible.
"We have to find the key", said Adam "The reason for Angel's distrust and fear. What is it that Patsy has that the rest of us haven't?"
"Good looks and charm", said Kieran, sarcastically "Commonsense, an even temperament, a sense of humour".
"You're not helping", said Adam.
"Well stop talking about me as though I'm some focking commodity!" Kieran jumped to his feet "I'm Kieran Flannery, not a brand of toilet cleaner. All this rubbish is seriously pissing me off".
Without another word Kieran slammed out of the cottage and ran into the night.
Hillyard managed to locate Kieran by the plume of smoke wafting out from behind a tree. He was smoking the butt of one of Adam's cigars which he had found in his trouser pocket.
"Thought you could use this", Hillyard held out Kieran's Kiskevian fur coat "You went off without it, and it's freezing out here".
Kieran took it with a weak smile, and gratefully wrapped it around his shoulders.
"Thank you", he said, quietly "That was thoughtful".
"Got used to it", Hillyard shrugged "I was always having to do things like that for Stombal".
"Did he use to make a bloody fool of himself as well then?"
"He used to go off at times, occasionally without any shoes on, let alone a coat. I was always having to track him down in different parts of the City. Sometimes I used to think he had no idea of personal safety".
"A bit like Yours Truly you mean?"
"I would've thought after what happened last night you wouldn't be too keen on being outside after dark".
"Nor would I. But I really couldn't stand listening to any of that codswallop any longer. I might accept Fobbett's nonsense better if they didn't keep going on about it so much. The whole thing scares me to death. Me - pitched against the Devil. It doesn't bear thinking about".
"Say it's true that you really can help though. Say you have got some kind of power that you haven't detected yet. Will you?"
"Will I what?"
"Get rid of this Angel creature".
"Why does it matter to you about getting rid of Angel? You never met him".
"No, but he tore Fobbett apart ... and ... and I think he was the one that killed Stombal".
"You said he was attacked by a large, furry creature".
"No. It was a shape I saw, a shape with bits of fur on it. It's Joby that keeps on about furry monsters. From everything I've heard it makes sense that it was Angel who attacked Stombal. It happened out on the tundra, but he didn't follow us into Kiskev, and think of those whistling noises Adam said he heard. I reckon that was Angel trying to attract his attention. To lure him away from the village".
"What about Stombal's feet? Angel's a savage beast, he tears people apart. But it doesn't make sense that he should go to all the trouble of burning off Stombal's feet. That's not wild blood lust, more a kind of psychotic malice".
"He didn't do all that on his own. Something that got into Stombal's body did that, and turned his blood green".
"And you want me to avenge Stombal's death, is that it?"
"Yea. I spose you could say I'm trying to stop some of the guilt I feel. I didn't do too good by him at the end".
"You did all you could. Oh I dunno! Sometimes I simply can't handle the idea of so much evil in the world. Things were bad enough in my time. In fact, many people thought they couldn't get any worse. They should've seen this place!"
"Will you do it? For Stombal?"
"Do I have a choice!" Kieran exclaimed "I'll do whatever I can at any given time, and as we don't know exactly what it is we're up against, that's the most that anyone can ask of me at this stage".
"You've got my help anyway", said Hillyard.
"I know, and I spect you'll be more use than those two handbags back there! They seem to be turning into a couple of fussy old bachelors, neither use nor ornament at times".
Adam was alone downstairs when Kieran and Hillyard returned to the cottage. He was sitting facing the door as they walked in, and rose out of his chair on a flood of euphoric relief on seeing them.
"He just needed a bit of space to himself for a while", said Hillyard, bolting the door behind them.
"I can understand that, but did you have to go into the forest to get it!" Adam cried, wresting Kieran's coat from him, as though it was insurance against him going outside again.
"You and Joby had driven me to distraction. Anyway", Kieran planted a light kiss on Adam's nose "I'm back now".
"Is that all you have to say for yourself?"
There was the distant, but unmistakable howl of a wolf, coming from the depths of the forest. The little cottage seemed to close around them like a protective crust.
"That was a near thing", Hillyard grunted.
"Where's Joby?" asked Kieran, anxiously.
"He went up to bed", Adam snapped "Now you can understand how worried I was about you".
"About bloody time too. I was beginning to think you and Hillyard had eloped".
Joby was sitting up in bed by the light of an oil-lamp, holding a magnifying-glass. The eiderdown was littered with leather-bound volumes, one of which was open on his lap.
"Oh I can see you were really worried about us!" said Kieran.
"I was watching from that window actually, until you came indoors that is".
"What have you found that's so fascinating?" Kieran cleared a space on his side of the bed and sat down.
"Tomce's scrapbooks. A whole box of 'em was in the cupboard at the top of the stairs".
"What sort of stuff is it?"
"Nothing very exciting so far, but I've only just started looking. A lot of boring rubbish about old coins".
"It's his job I spose. Anything from our time?"
"Nothing pre-Warming as far as I can see".
"Huh!" Kieran tutted "This lot seem to think there was no world before the Warming. All our civilisation, all the centuries before us even, and the centuries after us, dismissed as 'pre-Warming'. Makes you sick".
"I don't suppose they're fond of history on the whole. It'd remind 'em too much of what they're missing".
"Here's something", Kieran extracted a folded piece of paper from one volume, which had been used as a book-mark "I think it's a newspaper clipping".
"When's it from?"
"May of this year. 'THE LAST INHABITANTS LEAVE BRINZ'", said Kieran, reading the headline "It's all about the evacuation of a small hamlet called Brinz, described here as one of the most remote in the world. There were less than twenty people living there, so the Ministry decided to evacuate them to the City. It was no longer able to sustain itself as a community. Apparently there had been some plan to turn it into a summer camp for children, but it proved, get this, 'unfortunate' when two young boys disappeared in the surrounding countryside. They think they might have been attacked by wolves, even though no remains have ever been found".
"Go on", urged Joby.
"I can't, it stops there. He didn't keep the rest of the article", Kieran sighed and tossed the book to one side "Let's clear some of this stuff away, I want to get into bed".
"Alright", Joby casually pushed the books onto the floor.
"Hey, what's this?" Kieran grabbed at a photograph which fell out of the back of one of the scrapbooks.
The picture had started to brown and curl with age. It depicted Tomce, nearly twenty years younger, with an unlined elfin-like face, his arm protectively around the shoulders of an 11-year-old boy.
"I wonder who that was?" said Kieran.
"His son?" said Joby, in a disinterested fashion, his mind already going off in the direction of sleep.
"Don't be daft, I don't think they have sons anymore, and for another thing there can only be ten years difference between them at most".
"A friend then", Joby grunted, from beneath the bedclothes.
Kieran placed the photograph on the bedside table and turned down the lamp.
None of the guards at the City Assizes Court relished working on the Suicide Watch during the early hours of the morning. When it was the darkest hour before dawn these particular inmates were at their most restless, prowling their cells and fruitlessly searching for peace. It had got far worse since the Henang penal colony had been declared out of bounds for the foreseeable future. The inmates were packed too close together in the limited confines of the Assizes Court, it was too easy for them to influence each other.
The cells were below floor level, with metal grids for ceilings, so that the guards on the walkways overhead could look into these rabbit hutches at any time without having to unlock them. The tiny individual cells did not shut out noise, and the almost constant restless wailing and moaning was the most dispiriting sound it was imaginable to hear.
It took exactly five steps to cross the sand-strewn floor from one side of Lonts's cell to the other, and these five steps he paced ceaselessly from suppertime to breakfast. He refused to lie down and rest at night. He didn't feel safe then, as the smell of roasting flesh that seemed to permeate his cell was particularly strong at that time.
Lonts was the only survivor of the Kiskev mass suicide. Sometimes he doubted that he would ever shake off the dreadful images that crowded his memory. The cries of agony, the crackle of the flames, the remorseless chanting of the religious psalms. One particular image stayed in his mind. That of one man's skin bubbling like brown sugar on his bald head as the flames licked around him.
He had panicked at the sight and escaped from the bonfire. He then ran into the forest and lived rough for some days, until the authorities came and tracked him down. By then the fourteen-year-old boy was beyond caring what they did to him. Haunted by the horrific deaths of the men he had known all his life, his mind had collapsed under the strain. All he remembered from his life now was the human bonfire, and the Biblical quotations that had led to the tragedy.
Uncertain what to do with him, the Ministry ordered him to be taken the Assizes Court and put on Suicide Watch. His clothes were removed, and now he wore the same pair of regulation pyjamas day-in and day-out.
In the next cell a psychopath called Krik was fascinated by the close proximity of the young boy. Kirk had "specialised" in the abduction and mutilation of boys. He had only recently been caught after a spectacular career spanning fifteen years and some twenty-eight proven murders. (Kirk insisted the real figure was closer to sixty).
That Krik's mind was as deranged as it was possible for any human's to get was beyond doubt. It was also doubly unfortunate that his trial and conviction should happen just as the prison service suffered its biggest crisis in living memory. There was no Isolation to put him into and, even though the egotistical Krik had no intention of taking his own life, he was put into the Suicide Wing because that was the most secure. Delighted at finding himself next door to the adolescent Lonts, he proceeded to torment him night and day.
Lonts never listened. As far as he was concerned Krik and the rest of the prison did not exist. In fact, as far as he was concerned, he had died and gone to Hell, and his only hope of salvation was to pray during every waking moment for the souls of his departed friends.
"You can stop that", a guard scraped his stick along Lonts's grill.
"Oh leave him alone!" Krik cried "He's only a baby".
"Another word out of you Krik and you'll forfeit all privileges".
"What privileges would they be then?" yelled an elderly voice, from a cell nearby "Don't get no privileges as far as I can see".
"Your grub for one thing", the guard shouted.
"Lonts is praying for us", Krik yelled, anxious not to be ignored any longer than necessary. (Krik had such a horror of being ignored, that he had been devastated to learn that one of the jurors at his trial had actually fallen asleep during the long, tedious rigmarole).
"And if anyone needs prayers it's you, Krik", said the guard "If there was any justice in the world you would have been put in the Cage".
"Nah, they should've chopped his head off", said the elderly man "Along with his nackers".
Krik paused to consider the idea. He rather liked it. The drama of the scaffold, himself the centre of all attention, a dignified but moving speech in which to blame the bastard who had set him on his life's work, and then the final, agonising but exquisite kill, the ultimate death of all ... his own. Far more memorable than if he topped himself in prison, that wouldn't merit much attention at all. But his execution, now that would be written about for decades to come.
"Trouble is", he said, quietly "You'd never be able to execute me. There isn't a noose or an axe or a poison that could do it".
Lonts meanwhile continued to pray.
Dead leaves, small stones, and twigs, whipped up by the chilly autumnal wind, were hurled at the windows of the cottage. Joby lay in bed in the darkness and cursed the window rattling in its frame.
He looked nervously from there to the fireplace. There was a scraping sound coming from behind the wooden barrier that blocked the hole. At times it could sound as though someone was fumbling at it to get in. There was a tapping, as of fingernails, on the thin wood.
"Winter's come", said Kieran, sleepily, and pulled the bedclothes over his shoulders.
"Can you hear it?" asked Joby, in a hushed voice.
"There's something behind the fireplace. Listen".
Kieran listened intently for a few seconds and then sighed.
"For fock's sake Joby, it's the wind chucking dead leaves down the chimney!"
"How can you say that?" Joby hissed "You remember how you got worked up about the fireplaces at Buskin's house, and now you're being all calm about this one".
"There's a bloody hurricane blowing outside Joby! For once I just happen to think there's a perfectly rational explanation for this particular fireplace".
"Yea well I don't like it".
"Go and sleep downstairs then".
"And leave you here alone?"
"Oh I see, got to safeguard your insurance policy, is that it?"
"Bollocks, you know I didn't mean it that way", Joby got out of bed "C'mon, help me move that small chest of drawers".
"Sod off Joby, I'm not moving furniture at this time of night".
"It's either that or you put up with me moaning until daylight comes".
"Where do you want it putting then?" said Kieran, savagely.
"Up against the fireplace".
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