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An hour before dawn Lonts found himself ready to drop from exhaustion. Although he realised that it was imperative he should not sleep without taking the proper precautions first. He removed the sachet of salt he had saved from his supper tray and sprinkled it on the sand at his feet. Then, carefully, he drew a complete circle around himself. Ignoring the narrow truckle bed in the corner, he curled up tightly inside the circle on the salt-strewn sand, and sought a temporary respite from his demons.
"You two certainly know how to make yourselves at home", said Adam, drawing back the bedroom curtains and letting in the harsh autumn sun "I really don't know what Tomce is going to say when he returns. You've drunk all his booze, rifled through his private albums, and stuffed a chest of drawers up the chimney!"
"You exaggerate Adam", said Kieran, speaking drowsily into his pillow "And shut the focking curtains. That early morning sunlight is obscene".
"Early morning!" Adam stooped to retrieve the empty brandy bottle from under the bed "It's noon! Hillyard wants to have lunch".
"Well nobody's stopping him".
"Bog off Adam", said Joby "You sound like my gran".
"Just leave us to die in peace", said Kieran.
Adam whipped off the bedclothes with one deft movement, inducing howls of agony from the occupants.
"There is to be a summit meeting downstairs. Now!" he cried "To determine what we do next, and when. Hard to believe, but Hillyard and I would be interested in your ideas".
"I vote we move on", said Joby, tearing at a slice of bread "I don't think I can stick another night in this place".
"I'm with Joby on this one", said Hillyard "I'd rather we took our chances in the open, particularly after finding that jar yesterday".
"I admit the air here can seem oppressive at times", Adam sighed "But I don't see as to how living rough can help us. You heard what the weather was like last night, and there are the wolves to contend with as well".
"We can light a fire to keep them off, and keep warm at the same time", said Joby "To keep Angel off we'd have to keep Flannery awake all night".
"And you can forget that!" Kieran cried.
"At least let us stay here until Tomce gets back", said Adam.
"He could be ages", said Joby.
"Give him until tomorrow then".
"Oh admit it Adam, you just don't like the thought of sleeping rough".
"No I don't, it's not the time of year for it, particularly when you're as aged as I am".
"We may not have to", Kieran picked up the map, which had been reposing against the coffee-pot "Brinz is only a day's walk from here I reckon, if we set off at a fair lick. It's a disused hamlet to the south of here, the one I think that Tomce was on about when we arrived".
"That would still be sleeping rough", said Adam.
"But the building's will still be there, at least we'll be under cover".
"Better still", Hillyard pulled the map towards him "I was having a look at this earlier. Not much further than that is an old abbey, on the island of Gurran".
"Island?" asked Joby.
"It's in the middle of a lake", Hillyard pointed at the relevant spot on the map "It's beyond the forest. I think that's our best bet".
"I like the sound of that", said Kieran "I assume it was what was once sacred ground, and it'd be interesting to see if Angel tries to follow us there".
Thirty minutes later Joby watched from the bedroom window as Adam and Kieran passed through the wicket gate and into the forest. He watched them until they were swallowed up by the trees. The loneliness that had wrapped itself around him was almost too much to bear. He felt horribly excluded, barred from the intimate inner circle of friendship by an act that he thought unnatural and repellent.
The misery was so strong that he experienced a great urge to stuff his things into his rucksack and go off on his own, but if he did that he would be truly alone, and with no one to protect him in the dark. He could end up like Fobbett, an eyeless spectre roaming the countryside warning others of his grisly fate.
A loud noise from directly below the window shook him out of his reverie. He pushed open the window and peered down, to find Hillyard trying to wrest the heavy cover from the well.
"What are you doing now Hillyard?" Joby asked, impatiently.
"I'm having trouble working the pump. I think either the water level's getting a bit low, or there's something blocking it. I was gonna have a look, would you give me a hand?"
There were metal rungs attached to the inside of the well, which stopped about halfway down.
"I should be able to see if there's anything there", Joby stuffed the torch into his shirt, and swung himself over the side. Hillyard held onto the end of the rope which was secured under Joby's armpits.
"I won't drop you", said Hillyard.
Joby rewarded him with a look of monumental distrust, and then proceeded to climb carefully down the metal ladder. The rungs were slippery and he was more nervous about the descent than he would have admitted to Hillyard. When he reached the final rung he flashed the beam of the torch around the bottom, a few feet below him.
"The water is getting low", he shouted, his voice echoing around the damp brickwork "He's got barely enough to cover the bottom here".
"Thought as much", Hillyard's round face watched from above "He's gonna have a few problems soon".
"There's something down here", Joby leaned out from the ladder and strained his eyes through the gloom "A large bag. Hang on, something's moving near it".
"Joby you'd better come back up", Hillyard gave a sharp tug on the rope.
"Wait a minute", Joby bellowed, and then nearly fell off the ladder in shock. A pair of amber eyes glinted at him in the darkness, and he felt a scaly reptilian hand brush his leg "Hillyard! Help me up for Christ's sake!"
"Are you alright?" Hillyard helped the other man back over the edge of the well and onto his feet.
"Never mind me, get the fucking cover back on!"
"What kind of creature was it?" Hillyard asked, after the well cover had been bracketed back into place.
"I don't know exactly", Joby coughed, from the dampness and the exertion of fear "But I've seen its like before. A sort of reptile, only shaped like a human. Does that make sense?"
"I've heard of 'em. They're hybrids, half-human half-reptile. They live underground in dark places, caves and sewers mainly".
"Have you ever seen one?"
"No, it's quite rare to get a sighting. They don't often come to the surface, and hardly ever in daylight".
"Are they dangerous?" said Joby.
"Very. They'll attack without any warning and for no reason".
"It was one of those that killed Angel. Except it was a lot bigger than the one I've just seen. That was a baby by comparison".
"Don't be fooled, even by the little 'uns", Hillyard uncoiled the rope from him "They have incredible strength. I wonder what it's doing down there?"
"Completely trapped with any luck. Funny thing, my first impression was that it was guarding that bag I saw".
"Are you sure?"
"Not really, it was just an idea I had", Joby shrugged "Daft I suppose".
"No it's not".
"If Tomce is caught, he'll be in big trouble", said Hillyard.
"Caught at what?"
"Sorcery's illegal, right? Well of course that don't stop some people practising it. Every so often the Ministry has a clamp-down, but it's hard to get those that practise solo, as they don't exactly advertise it. Alchemy's a big thing at the moment, turning base metal into gold and all that".
"And you reckon that's what Tomce has been doing?" said Joby "You know, it makes sense, strangely enough. Money's his game, and now he's decided to have a go at making his own, the clever bastard. But where does the reptile come in?"
"This is only what I've heard, right?" Hillyard looked decidedly embarrassed "I think it sounds kid's stuff to me, but Stombal said it was all true. They say that if one of these alchemists succeeds in his experiments, then he hides his treasure and puts a Familiar to guard it".
"Don't Familiars tend to be black cats or something?"
"No that's old witchcraft stories you're thinking of. It's reckoned that the alchemists use the Reptile Men as their Familiars. Anyway, you cross one of these Familiars and you're in trouble".
"I'm glad I got out in time", Joby felt queasy, and had to grab the side of the well to steady himself.
"C'mon, you need a drink".
"I didn't know we had that bottle", said Joby, as Hillyard poured out two glasses of plum brandy.
"Found it in his china cupboard. Here, get it down you. Where have the others got to? Adam and Kieran?"
"In the forest together", said Joby, after downing a large gulp of the fiery liquid "The filthy bastards".
"Dunno what's filthy about it".
"No, I don't suppose you would".
"It's between consenting adults, it's perfectly natural".
"No it's not actually! It's no more natural than that creature in the well, it's no more natural than Angel harassing us from beyond the grave, or Stombal's feet getting burnt off, or a whole village topping themselves because of some weirdo with a Bible. None of it's fucking natural!"
Joby hurled his glass at the dresser. Hillyard managed to duck out of the way in time, and the tumbler exploded against the wood. At that moment Adam walked in, closely followed by Kieran.
"What the bloody hell is going on?" Adam roared "Tomce won't have a cottage to come back to at this rate".
"Joby's had a bit of a shock", Hillyard pulled himself up by hanging onto the edge of the table "It's not his fault, he saw something down the well".
"Down the well?" Adam said, in disbelief "You'd better come outside and explain everything to me. Patsy will sort Joby out I'm sure".
After Adam and Hillyard had left the room, Kieran crossed over silently to the dresser and began to pick up the broken pieces of glass. Joby stood limply, his hands dangling by his side. He had never felt so utterly hopeless before in his life.
"I've really gone and made a pillock of meself this time", he mumbled.
"Rubbish", Kieran retorted "You should've waited 'til dark and run into the forest like I did, if you really wanted to cause a stir! So, what upset you this time?"
"Need you ask! Just think of what you've been up to this afternoon".
"Oh go to Hell! I'm not apologising for it".
"I don't expect you to", Joby wailed, to his friend's surprise "I'm wrong and I know it, and that wasn't easy for me to say".
"And whatever I say to that going to sound patronising so I won't bother", Kieran placed the broken glass on the table, and then stared at it as though it contained the meaning of life.
"I'll be alright from now on", said Joby, feeling awkward "I promise. I-I'm sorry. You're my best mate, and so I should've accepted it".
Kieran stared at him through a curtain of hair.
"It's not exactly the sort of thing a best mate normally has to accept", he said.
"You've accepted worse from me", said Joby "And I don't want us to stop being best mates".
"Joby will you stop it!" Kieran laughed "You'll be having me in tears next!"
"There is absolutely nothing in any of these to indicate that Tomce is experimenting with alchemy", said Adam, closing the last scrapbook. The kitchen table was littered with the leather-bound books.
"It's mainly pieces about antique coins", he continued "References for his business no doubt, unless he's got a nice little line going in forging antiques, but whatever you may call that it certainly isn't alchemy. Shame you didn't find out what was in that bag at the bottom of the well Joby".
"You have have a look if you want", Joby snapped "But I'm not going down there again. That Thing gave me the creeps. I keep expecting it to leap out of dark corners at me with its scaly hands. Ugh!"
"I can't find any other books", said Kieran, closing the dresser doors.
"That's a disappointment", Adam sighed "I suppose I must have watched too many old films, but I was expecting to find some aged tome with well-thumbed pages of experiments, all relating to alchemy".
"Are you sure this is all to do with alchemy anyway?" asked Kieran "I mean, Hillyard based that assumption solely on a bag at the bottom of the well, and the reptile creature".
"That's what they do though apparently", said Hillyard "Put a Familiar to guard their treasure. I remember Stombal told me there was a trial a few years back where a bloke got done for alchemy. The Ministry fella who found the gold in the cellar of this bloke's house, was attacked by a Reptile Man. He was never the same again. He wasted away within six months".
"Cheering thought", said Joby, glumly.
Whilst the others were talking something had caught Kieran's eye. He had been idly scanning the floor, looking for loose flagstones that might indicate a hidden niche below the floor, when the dull gleam of a brass box attracted his attention from under the china cupboard. He dived onto the floor, and extracted it with some difficulty.
"The bastard's locked it", he said, after trying to wrest the lid open.
"It must be important then", said Adam, winking at him.
"No problem to open that", Hillyard snorted "It's a cash box. I can probably whip it open with a kitchen knife".
"Which means he keeps his spare change in it I expect", said Joby, gloomily, as Hillyard went to look for a suitable implement.
"No, it doesn't rattle", said Kieran "Whatever's in it is quite light".
After a short burst of effort (and a cut hand) Hillyard succeeded in prizing open the lid with the bread knife. He stood back and licked his wound whilst the others peered inside.
"Photographs!" Joby exclaimed, as Kieran pulled out a bundle of snapshots clipped together.
"No ordinary photo's", said Kieran, flicking through a couple of them gravely "Our friend Tomce's great secret is nothing so glamorous as alchemy it seems".
He handed the photographs to Adam, who scanned them hurriedly and then placed them face down on the table.
"Oh how very amusing", he said, sombrely.
"Of course we don't know they're his", said Kieran.
"But as it's his cottage the evidence looks damning", said Adam "I bet he didn't get those developed in the City!"
Hillyard and Joby glanced at them. It was the same boy in each photograph, the same boy as the one in the picture Kieran had found upstairs. A boy (his age varied in the pictures from nine to thirteen) with close-cropped hair and expressive eyes. In each photograph he was naked. Tomce (looking quite young himself, as though butter wouldn't melt) appeared in the last one, masturbating over the boy's naked belly.
"That's pretty strong proof they're his anyway", said Hillyard.
"I hope that he, the lad I mean", said Joby "isn't what's in the bag at the bottom of the well".
Kieran shivered, as though someone had walked over his grave.
"Put them away", said Adam, wearily "I think I've heard as much about Tomce as I want for one evening".
"Can you hear me Good Boy?" Krik whispered, sitting up against the thin metal partition "What a union we'd make, don't you think?"
Lonts woke suddenly and panicked. He was outside the circle of salt! How had that happened? He distinctly remembered closing it around him before sleeping, and yet here he was lying up against the partition, a foot away from it. The circle itself was unbroken, and the sand near it unscuffed. Lonts sat bolt upright in terrified bewilderment. It couldn't be! He had sealed the circle with strong faith, no vampire could break it, and that was a fact of which he would normally have been certain.
"You're wondering how it was done I suppose", said Krik, brushing his hand against the cold steel.
"Are you a vampire?" Lonts asked, uttering his first non-Biblical words in ages.
"No I'm not a vampire", Krik laughed, without humour "Vampires are victims of fate, dependant wholly upon the circumstances in which they find themselves. I am not. I knew I'd find a way of reaching you somehow, of breaking through that barrier of holy words you hide behind. I like to give credit where it's due, and I have to say that even you took longer than I expected Lonts. Your faith must be very strong indeed".
His faith? Lonts stared at the salt circle in such desolation and pain that he felt as though someone had hammered on his heart. His ... FAITH?! The same faith that had caused the deaths of all his friends and companions, the same faith that couldn't even protect him from evil when he was locked up alone inside a metal box.
"Words, words, words", he chanted to himself "Words are just words, how can they cause pain and death? How can they? How can they?"
"Words are tools Good Boy", Krik's voice cut once more into his subconscious "And in the hands of a craftsman they are highly effective indeed".
"I have nothing!" Lonts raised his face to the grid overhead and wept "I am alone! You bastard, what have you done?"
A warder dragged his stick across the grid (their answer for everything).
"Settle!" the warder roared, and moved across to Krik's cell "I suppose you think you're safe in there Krik. Well let me tell you they're talking upstairs about reinstating the death penalty, and they mean business this time. With the prison out-of-bounds they haven't got room for you all, so some of you'll have to be despatched and pretty smartish too. And guess who'll be the first to go!"
Krik said nothing. His eyes merely stared, black and shining, through the grid. The guard tried to outstare him, and then wished he hadn't. Krik's gaze was hypnotic, and the guard wanted to look away but found himself locked into the evil stare. It was some time before Krik deigned to release him.
The box was locked up with the photographs inside, and stowed inside a drawer out of sight. A dark, oppressive silence blanketed the cottage like a pile of suffocating sludge.
"I wonder what happened to the boy", said Kieran, sitting at the table and tapping his fingernails against the coffee-pot restlessly "He must be about thirty by now".
"A long way from Tomce I hope", said Adam "We must try and get some rest now. I think we should leave as early tomorrow as we can".
"Yea I'm all for that", said Joby "I knew there was summat creepy about him, as soon as I saw him".
Kieran found the photograph where he had left it on the bedside table. He picked it up and tore it carefully into small pieces.
"That couldn't have been him I saw could it?" said Joby, watching him "The boy. At the bottom of the well I mean?"
"Is he still alive Flannery, can you tell?"
"I think so".
"What is it you can sense? Tell me!"
"Very little", said Kieran, rubbing his neck to try and relieve some of the intolerable tension that he felt "Some things are just so evil that they blot out psychic activity. They don't just deaden it, they annihilate it. What psychic energy there is in this place is only around the well and the pump, I think that's why I saw Fobbett there. The circumstances were helpful to him to manifest himself".
"So it is a body though, down there?"
"Two bodies. Recent ones as well. I went out earlier and opened me airwaves as far as I could".
"Good! I was beginning to think you'd lost your ability", said Joby "Apart from sensing Fobbett's illness back at the station your so-called powers have been nil on this trip".
"After sensing that presence in the visitor's wing at the prison I decided, wisely or not I don't know, to close meself off. Perhaps it needed a shock like this to force me to open them again. Do I have your support Joby?"
"You know you have", said Joby, taken aback at the question "Why do you ask?"
There was a noise outside, and a beam of light momentarily lit up the bedroom.
"Ah", said Kieran, quietly "The prodigal returns".
"Is that him? The pervert?" said Joby.
"Lock the bedroom door", said Kieran "And if he tries to open it pretend to be asleep. He's not having this room tonight. We need it. We need all the rest we can get".
"What are you on about?" said Joby, but turning the key in the lock anyway.
Kieran sat down on the bed, and hugged himself.
"I have a plan", he said "Tomorrow morning I'm going to ask Adam and Hillyard to go on ahead, and meet us at a pre-arranged place. I noticed on the map there's another clearing in the forest a couple of miles away from here. They can wait for us there".
"Adam won't like that idea".
"He'll have to lump it. I don't think he's very well at the moment, and he's going to need what strength he has got for the journey ahead. Hillyard can look after him, whilst we sort out Tomce".
"Sort him out?" Joby exclaimed "We're not going to kill him are we? I know I went on about killing Angel at the Loud House, but I don't know if I could've really. It was just that Adam was counting on me and I couldn't let him down ..."
"Killing Tomce wouldn't solve anything. We have the evidence of Angel's continued activities to prove that. But no one I suspect has ever confronted this sicko with what he's done. I don't mean just the boy in the photo, but the two in the well".
"Alright", Joby swallowed hard "So we confront him. What will that solve?"
"It may not solve anything, but there's more to this than meets the eye. Tomce isn't simply a sicko, there is something behind all this, something that connects everything that is happening in the world now, but I can't place quite what. Perhaps by confronting him we might go some way to finding the key".
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