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"Are you saying I'm a bad person?"
"Lonts, why would we be preparing to release you into the community if we thought you were bad, hm? We have the welfare of the public to think of".
"But you just said I was off my head!"
"Oh you poor boy, you get so easily confused. If it wasn't that we needed your cell so badly we would be greatly worried about thrusting you into the world at all. As it is all prisoners who are not a danger to the public are being released on parole. What I was actually saying was that you WERE a disturbed young fellow when we first brought you in here, prattling away to yourself in Biblical terms ..."
The Minister for Justice broke off to chortle with his sycophantic friends.
"But in the past few weeks", he continued "You have proved yourself to be an exemplary prisoner. You have made no threats to the staff, and have proven to us that you are not a danger to yourself. Therefore it seems singularly pointless to keep you in a cell at all, let alone on Suicide Watch! We feel we cannot reasonably hold you responsible for ... for the things that happened in your home village".
The fourteen-year-old Lonts stared at them in bewilderment. In his native Kiskev he had heard many damaging tales about the corrupt and incompetent administration in the City, but he had still naively expected someone more impressive than the Minister for Justice had turned out to be. Tintally was thin and consumptively pale, with a sleek head of patent black hair. He was immaculately dressed, although this suave exterior was rather marred by his propensity for wearing lurid lip-colour. His voice was cultured, and his whole demeanour reeked of languid sophistication. As he lounged on the sofa in front of a dreary coal fire, he looked an extremely unlikely head of law and order.
Behind the sofa stood his assistants, two giggly young men whose main duties seemed to be to laugh approvingly at his every word. Lonts felt horribly conspicuous standing in the middle of the office in his regulation white linen pyjamas, as though he had woken up to find himself walking naked in the street.
"I haven't got anywhere to go", Lonts protested "Everyone I know is dead".
"You're a bright, attractive boy. I cannot believe you won't be able to take care of yourself", Tintally paused to light a cigar which, from the colour and the smell of it, seemed unbearably to Lonts to originate from Kiskev "I think you'll build a good life for yourself in the City".
"I'd like to go home actually".
"Don't be absurd, there's no one there".
"I'd like to go back all the same. It's the only place I know. You're going to need someone to do the fur trade now".
"Yes well you can hardly do that all by yourself. There is no question of you returning to Kiskev in the foreseeable future. At the present time it is under government control, and no one is allowed in. That situation is not likely to change in a hurry. I don't see why you wish to return anyway, after all that happened there. No, your home is now in the City, and there'll be no more arguments".
"Am I free to leave now?" asked Lonts, numbly.
"Er ... no. First thing in the morning. No one is allowed in or out of the Assizes Court until seven o'clock tomorrow morning, not even me. You will be released then".
There was a knock on the door, and the overweight man who Lonts recognised as the Chief Warder entered.
"You may go now Lonts", said Tintally "And do stop worrying! You have your whole life ahead of you".
"I really don't think he's ready sir", said Osk, the warder, after Lonts had left "He's never been in the City before".
"That is not our problem Osk", said Tintally, briskly "Grand ideas of rehabilitation went out of the window when the crisis occurred at Henang. Until that little mystery is cleared up we have a shortage of room on our hands. We have to keep the dangerous ones behind bars, that is our sole aim now, not to wet-nurse the likes the Lonts".
"I understand that sir, but ..."
"What is the mood down below this evening?"
"Restless sir. They're all aware of the three a.m execution".
"Dammit, I don't see why anyone should be getting restless about Krik departing this life".
"They're scared sir. Wondering who'll be next".
"That is still under consideration. We had trouble enough finding someone to pull the trip on Krik, let alone a prisoner that might be human! There might not be another execution at all. It's just that we're desperate to be rid of Krik. The Assizes Court isn't escape-proof as the penal colony was, particularly to a cunning bastard like Krik. After all, he did manage to evade justice for fifteen years, in spite of twice being called in for questioning".
And how that rankled with them, thought Osk, with forgivable sarcasm. They couldn't wait to see him fry now, not purely for the sake of his dead victims, but because they would finally get revenge for all the trouble and downright embarrassment he had caused them.
"I came in", said Osk "To tell you that the ... er ... contraption is being tested now sir, if you'd like to come and watch".
"Oh yes I suppose I have to", Tintally uncoiled himself from the sofa like a snake "I do care what happens to Lonts you know".
"I'm sure you do sir", Osk's voice contained merely the tiniest whiff of sarcasm.
"The big city will be a daunting place to such a simple Kiskevian peasant as himself".
"Our only simple Kiskevian peasant now sir".
"And he will adapt", said Tintally, firmly "As we all of us adapt".
"It seems extraordinary to me", said Adam "But I wouldn't have thought the lake was deep enough for a monster, or a giant worm, whatever the hell it was".
The four of them were seated around the refectory table, eating their way through a pile of fried fish.
"I DID see it", said Hillyard, tearing out the spine of his fish with one swift movement.
"I'm not disputing that Hillyard, merely intrigued that's all".
"The monks must've seen it too", said Kieran, with his mouth full "At some time or another. For all we know they might've seen it on a regular basis. Are there any old records in this place? You're usually good at sniffing out the archive stuff Adam".
"It's hopeless I'm afraid", Adam replied "I had a look in the tower earlier today, whilst you were all outside. There are plenty of books in there, but in a terrible state. The damp and dust has got at them so bad that the pages disintegrated when I tried to touch them".
"Did you look all over the tower?" asked Joby.
"As far as I could. There was no way I could get to the top as the stairs had crumbled, but there is something I wanted to show you, only we got sidetracked".
"There's a trapdoor in the tower floor. I didn't see it at first as someone had pulled a trestle table over it. The trouble is it's got a hefty chain and padlock on it. I need Hillyard's beefy muscles to get it undone".
"Sounds to me like someone went to a lot of trouble to lock it", said Kieran "So it's a good argument for keeping it locked".
"After all this time I don't see that whatever's down there is going to give us cause for concern".
"How long do Reptile Men live for Hillyard?" asked Joby.
"A fair old span, but certainly not a 100 years or more".
"Who knows what it is?" said Adam "It might be the abbey treasure".
Whilst Hillyard wrestled with the rusted lock, (watched by an admiring Adam), Kieran prowled around the tiny scullery with a candle in his hand. He was scrutinising the skirting-boards for tell-tale signs, large holes in the brickwork perhaps that might indicate how Joby's nocturnal visitor had entered the abbey.
"What are you up to?" Joby asked, appearing around the door.
"Looking to see where your friend got in last night".
"That was a harmless little thing", Joby grabbed Kieran around the waist and tickled his ribs "It's the other creepy-crawlies you've gotta worry about!"
Kieran put the candle down on the draining-board and turned to face Joby. They leaned towards each other and brushed their lips lightly.
"That's a point!" Joby exclaimed, breaking off.
"What is?" Kieran asked, testily.
"What about them?"
"We haven't seen any since we've been here".
"Don't tell me you're disappointed!"
"You'd expect to though wouldn't you? Old place like this, stuck in the middle of a lake. You'd think it'd be swarming with 'em. Only I haven't seen a single one".
"You're impossible Joby", Kieran snapped "Only you could break off from a potentially interesting snog to discuss vermin control instead! I never know where I am with you from one minute to the next".
"I have messed you around haven't I?"
"Just a bit! At least Adam gets on with things".
"I am trying", said Joby, looking penitent.
"Very!" Kieran bellowed.
After much sweating and swearing Hillyard managed to prise off a great quantity of rusty chain from the double trap-door. It was ready for opening by the time Kieran and Joby had joined them.
"Where have you two been?" asked Adam, suspiciously "On second thoughts don't tell me, I don't want to know".
Hillyard pulled open the doors with a great flourish, and then peered through, using his candle as a guide.
"There's a spiral staircase going down", he said "I can't see the bottom. Not to be recommended if you've got claustrophobia".
They went down in single file, each carrying a candle and treading cautiously. The steps were narrow and slippery, but surprisingly intact. The candlelight flickered on the damp brickwork, showing up the black void ahead in a spectacularly unwelcoming way. Eventually the stairs came out onto a small triangular-shaped landing, surrounded on all sides by low, narrow doors. The lake was directly underneath their feet, and the water could be heard lapping below them.
As soon as he saw the landing Kieran was hit by a wave of human misery so strong that it almost knocked him off his feet. He felt walloped by it, and could almost hear the wails of anguish and despair that had once echoed off the walls.
"Are you alright Patsy?" Adam grabbed the younger man's elbow "I think you'd better go back up".
"I'll be alright now. It just threw me a bit when I first came down".
"It isn't a good place", said Joby "Even I can sense that".
"The air's bad which doesn't help", said Adam "Try not to pass out on us again though Patsy. You've been doing it a lot lately".
Hillyard pushed open the nearest door and instantly stepped back.
"Not very nice", he said, after recovering his composure "Some poor bastard copped it and no mistake".
"It's what we all come to", Adam sighed, peering in "A pile of dusty old bones".
Joby lifted up another trapdoor in the floor to expose the black murky depths of the lake.
"What would they have used this for?" he exclaimed "A downstairs privy!"
Suddenly the Tower of Babel seemed to explode in Kieran's head. A wave of voices rushed at him in a whirling stampede, desperately pleading for help. The voices all hurtled into one another, making it impossible to distinguish one from the other, or even how many there were. He blindly fell back up the stone steps, wanting distance between himself and the massed wall of human pain.
"Didn't they used to do that sort of thing in the Middle Ages?" said Adam, once they were all sitting back round the table again an hour later "As a penance wasn't it? They'd wall up monks and nuns alive to make them prove their dedication to God or some such nonsense".
"Sounds typically pointless", Joby remarked.
"I don't think it went on as much as the sensationalists would have you believe", said Kieran, wearily "And I don't think it went on down there either. What I heard ... well I don't think those men rushed eagerly to their deaths to prove their faith. I think we're talking wilful murder here".
"They were shut down there and left to rot?" said Adam.
"Those are the last victims down there", said Kieran "I think there were a lot more before them".
"But why?" Joby shrugged "What happened? Had they done something they shouldn't, was that the punishment block?"
"Sacrifices to the lake monster perhaps?" Hillyard laughed.
"That's it in a nutshell", said Kieran.
"Sacrifices to the lake monster", Hillyard repeated, dubiously.
"Something alone those lines. I believe they were ritual sacrifices of some kind. Whether it has anything to do with the giant worms I don't know, but those men did not go to their deaths willingly".
"Are you certain we have enough power to see this thing through?" Tintally asked, staring at the formidable array of dials and switches, and wishing it was all over.
"Enough to charcoal him", said the executioner, bluntly.
"I sincerely hope it doesn't come to that", said Tintally "I do hope we don't have to do too many of these. I don't think the economy could stand it for one thing. Electricity is at a premium as it is".
"Bring back garotting I say", said the executioner "Neat and effective. No bloodshed".
"Quite ... Is he really the best we could find?" Tintally asked Osk.
"He's quite sane I assure you sir", said Osk "But if I might speak boldly, he does have a point. We're using a method here that hasn't been use for 2000 years, and in those days from what I can gather it wasn't completely fault-proof. I would've preferred that hanging be used myself, a clean quick death, and it doesn't involve using any valuable electricity".
Osk, like many a citizen on the subject, spoke with feeling. Those lucky enough to have power installed in their homes were fortunate indeed if they could enjoy its benefits even three days out of seven. And now they were going to waste precious amounts of it putting a monster like Krik to death. In Osk's private opinion Krik's crimes were so terrible that they might just have turned him loose in the market square, and offered a reward to the one that got to him first.
"The Ministry agreed all this", Tintally was saying "I'm only obeying orders".
(The eternal cry down the centuries, thought Osk).
"They decreed that it had to be the electric chair, because it's the most horrible means of execution. And it was hoped that by using it potential criminals would be so horrified that there would ... er", Tintally began to trail off with embarrassment "subsequently be no further need to use it".
Osk raised his eyebrows in a way that spoke volumes for his opinion of the Ministry.
"I'd better go and see to the prisoner sir, if you'll excuse me", he said "Time marches on".
Krik displayed an eerie calm in the hours running up to his death. He sat in his cell and listened to the sobbing and wailing that went on around him. They weren't crying for him, they were crying for themselves, terrified it would be their carcass frying next. He despised them for their fear (some were even tearing up their bedding). Death was all in the mind, thought Krik, with an effort of will it could be overcome, like a head cold. Nevertheless it was still a formidable barrier to cross, and concentration was needed to overcome it. Krik had fasted for three days, and his nerves were now positively zinging. He felt ready to fight any amount of voltage.
The absence of sustenance in his stomach though caused his mind to go off on wild tangents. He particularly remembered his childhood. He had been a problem to the authorities even then. Expelled from one camp for torturing a toddler (he had protested that it was a "scientific experiment"), he had been moved to one for Difficult Children. Once there he had been taken under the wing of one of the Elders, and his behaviour had calmed down for a while, and his natural intelligence had come to the fore instead. Everyone had been so relieved to find him malleable at long last that no one had objected when the Elder started taking him into the countryside for short holidays. He had learnt a lot from that Elder, sadly little of it positive.
But now he didn't want to think of him anymore, so he did what he had always done when the Elder had intruded on his thoughts. He bullied someone else.
"You needn't think you're getting rid of me Good Boy", he yelled at his nearest neighbour "I'll be back to see you later".
"That's where you're wrong!" Lonts stood in his cell and shouted at the wall "You're going to die Krik. Die! A life for a life, the Good Book says, and that's exactly how you're going to pay".
"My word Good Boy, you do have spirit after all".
Krik began to mutter what even the naive Lonts recognised as filth. He had never seen Krik, only heard his voice and heavy breathing through the partition wall. He found it hard to imagine his appearance. To him Krik was a demon, an evil elemental, a disembodied voice that mocked him. He thought it incredible that by sunrise that taunting voice would be silenced forever. Even so, he clung on to that thought tenaciously, to see him through the next few hours.
His thoughts would never be that close to reality again.
At three o'clock in the morning a unanimous silence descended on the building, as though everyone in it was holding their breath. In each cell the inmates listened intently for Krik's footsteps as he made his final walk. They sensed his presence when he silently passed their cells and cowered against the walls.
Forty members of the general public, selected at random, were invited in to watch the proceedings. All grim-faced and silent, all possessing the knowledge that they were privileged to watch justice administered.
Tintally removed himself mentally from the proceedings. He absented his mind from it completely, and instead did as he always did in difficult situations, planned new decor for his apartment. No one else from the Ministry was present.
"Give up now Tilly", Krik uttered his first words since leaving his cell "I can't be slain like a sheep, and you'll soon find that out".
Tintally pulled his expensive winter coat around him. In spite of the close proximity of so many nervous bodies, the extermination cell felt unnaturally cold.
It had originally been estimated that Krik would take, at the very very most, eighteen seconds to die. By the time a full minute had passed he was still conscious. His guts were seering with pain, a white heat ran through his body like a rabid rat, and he had a headache of monumental proportions, but he was still alive. More volts were pumped into him. All over the City those that had electric lights watched them dim. Nobody sat outside the Assizes Court in a candlelit vigil for Krik, but the power plant reminded people anyway. Night-workers, insomniacs, and the merely ghoulish, who had wanted to be awake and aware at the precise moment Krik fried, watched the frantic flaring and dimming, and panicked. What on earth was going wrong? It should all be over by now, shouldn't it?
In the seats reserved for the public, the privileged few watched the roasting of Krik's carcass in mesmerised horror. Two minutes had passed.
"What's happening?" Tintally asked.
"The bastard's going to stay alive", Osk exclaimed "He's making himself stay alive".
"He must be in complete agony. This can't go on".
"You can't stop it now sir, it's gone too far. It's got be finished off".
In his cell Lonts had wrapped himself into a ball, and was groaning with pain, wishing that the agony would stop. But instead it kept coming, relentlessly. When the final pain surged through his body, he felt as though he was being flayed alive with red-hot whips.
"Three minutes", Tintally was standing under the bleak four a.m glow of his office light as he poured two brandy's "It's beyond belief".
"I never want to go through that again", said Osk, slouched in a chair and mopping his face "I'll resign before I go through that again".
"When the Ministry receives my report I should think it's very unlikely they would even dare consider doing it again", Tintally sipped his drink, like an invalid sipping broth "Overcrowding or no overcrowding".
"I still don't believe the bastard's dead, even now", said Osk "Even though his body burst, I still think he's in it somewhere, laughing at us".
"The M.O registered that his heart had stopped. To all outward appearances he was dead".
"It's not his heart that concerns me. That wasn't what kept him alive during those three minutes".
"No", Tintally agreed "It wasn't".
Lonts lay on his mattress and stared wide-eyed at the grid over his head. He had stared at it many times before at this hour, trying to guess exactly when dawn had broken in his grey, subterranean world. It was to be his last invisible sunrise though. This morning he was to be released into the world at large.
The thought made him smile.
"He's been sat there like that for ages now", said Hillyard, from the scullery "I don't like it. That's how Stombal behaved. You'd better make sure he's alright".
Adam went over to the refectory table, where Kieran had been sitting with his head in his hands for some time, as though he had been turned to stone. Adam crouched down beside him, and stroked his hair.
"It's the helplessness I don't like", said Kieran "I know I should be holding a seance, directing their spirits to the light. But I'm afraid you see. I don't feel strong enough. I'm afraid of what else is here, that somehow I might let it through. Some Vanquisher of Evil huh?"
"You can't assist every single soul in torment", said Adam.
"I don't seem to be capable of helping anyone! They all pass in front of me in a deadly procession, with Angel taunting me as the biggest failure of all".
"It's ridiculous how we all feel guilty about that little turd", Adam exclaimed "Never was anyone less worthy of wasting emotion on".
"Yes, but if we'd helped him Fobbett would still be alive. I know he was dying anyway, but at least he could have had a dignified death, not what Angel did to him".
"If! If! If! Just let it be".
"I can't. There has to be some point as to why we're here Adam".
"The point is old love that we're here because we accidentally passed into a huge time-slip".
"There has to be more than that!" Kieran protested "Otherwise we'll just roam around like a pack of wild dogs until we find a resting-place".
"I'm not saying it'll be like that. Perhaps the point is that not everything can be avenged or vanquished, and so you have to concentrate on the prime things".
"And Fobbett's death wasn't a prime thing?" Kieran snorted "Tomce's perversion wasn't a prime thing?"
"No", said Adam, causing the other man to look startled "Perhaps not when compared with destroying the power that links all those things".
"Angel, you mean?"
"Well, whatever it is that's controlling him, and any others like him too".
They had been awake all night, nervous about separating to go below to the cells. Since opening the trapdoor there was a difference in the atmosphere at the old abbey. A feeling that "something" had been released, and was now lingering nearby.
The dawn was bitterly cold. Noticing that they were nearly out of fuel for the kitchen fire, Hillyard went into the tower to chop up old bookcases. Feeling ill-at-ease in there he hurried the job, not enjoying the sensation of being watched that pervaded the area. When he guessed that he had enough kindling he lay down the wood-chopper and turned to leave.
He halted, frozen with terror. That he wasn't alone in the room was now a feeling so strong that it couldn't be ignored. There was definitely someone following him. He could hear the footsteps, a scampering noise like a large dog. Bravely trying outwit it he stopped suddenly, and turned to face it.
Adam heard the cry immediately, and bolted into the tower, where he found Hillyard kneeling on the floor, nursing his shoulder, the kindling scattered around him. Somehow he got the beefy lad into the kitchen.
"Me shoulder!" Hillyard cried, in agony "Look at it for me!"
Adam pulled the boy's shirt down over his shoulder, to reveal a large bruise already forming on the skin.
"How did you do that Hillyard?" he asked, incredulously.
"Something touched me", Hillyard winced "Touched me that's all. If you'd been watching you'd probably have said it only nudged me. But to me it felt like I'd been clouted with an iron bar".
"What hit you?" said Joby.
"That's just it, I don't know! All I saw was like ... this huge black shape, taller than me it was. A lot taller. And, well I SENSED it sort of reach out to me. And that's when I felt this bloody pain".
"Was it like the creature that attacked Stombal on the tundra?" said Kieran.
"No, nothing like it. That was a wild animal, a creature, well you know that I really think it was your friend Angel. But this, it wasn't a creature of any kind I don't think. It was a Thing. It didn't have flesh and blood. Oh I don't know what it was, but I don't want it touching me again!"
Lonts was released from the Assizes Court at the stroke of seven o'clock. He was dismissed perfunctorily, any charges against him instantly repealed. He was kitted out with a shirt and trousers from stock (the shirt had a few buttons missing, and hadn't been washed since its last wearer), plus a heap of disreputable-looking jumpers. He was given a small amount of money for "immediate expenses", and literally shown the door.
The atmosphere in the building was subdued, and if they used their imaginations everyone could still smell the roasting flesh. This no longer concerned Lonts, in fact nothing now concerned Lonts, as he stepped out into the fresh morning air.
The world was now his playground.
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