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By dusk of the fifth day the train had reached the Thet Mountains. The weather was appalling, and the rusty contraption wheezed its way through the blizzards like an asthmatic dinosaur. Dense mist came down menacingly from the tops of the mountains as darkness fell, and the whole countryside seemed to press on the train and its occupants as though attempting to crush it.
At the Bosgo Pass a heavy drift of snow on the tracks halted the train completely, and many of the passengers decanted to help clear it away. Although wolves howled eerily in the distance and hastened their work, the shovelling was done with much good humour and treated as an eccentric perk of the journey.
"I think we've earned our dinner tonight", said Hillyard, as they sat down in the restaurant car.
"Yes and I'm not putting up with any small measures tonight either", said Joby, hailing the waiter who was doing his level best to ignore him "Oi! I've paid for that bottle, and I wanna see the rest of it".
The waiter walked over slowly, holding the bottle swathed in a napkin, like a newly-bathed baby. Joby snatched it from him and dismissed him with an imperious wave of his hand.
"I don't think he'll be putting you on his Christmas card list somehow", said Adam.
"I'm glad we're in here and not roaming about out there", said Kieran, peering into the blackness beyond the window.
"In spite of the filthy looks we're getting", said Hillyard "They don't think we deserve to eat in here. In fact, if Kieran wasn't with us we'd probably get slung out".
"How do they recognise him though?" asked Adam.
"We've been told for years now that the Vanquisher of Evil would come before the end of the fourth millennium, and that he would be a blond blue-eyed boy, according to legend anyway".
"So it could all just be coincidence then?" said Joby "Flannery just happens to fit the description like".
"That remains to be seen", said Hillyard "But Kieran seems to fit the bill as far as I can see".
In spite of Kieran's presence the rest of the dining-car customers were sitting as far removed from the four as possible, looking askance at the fact that they hadn't dressed for dinner. Hillyard had the impression though that their aloofness may partly have been through fear.
"They think we don't deserve to eat in here", said Adam.
"No one deserves to eat in here really", said Joby, morosely "Except perhaps Angel".
"Snobbery is alive and well at the end of the fourth millennium", said Adam "Strange. That was one of the things I was least expecting".
"You wait 'til you get to the City", Hillyard tutted "You won't have seen anything like it. There's a whole lifestyle there that only those high up in the Ministry know anything about. There are shops and restaurants that only the elite can go to".
"But why is it like that?" asked Adam.
"General shortage of the good things in life", said Hillyard "If you want it, you earn it. That's the attitude down there. The rest of us can whistle and make do. But they're on borrowed time and they know it".
"No need. If we are all at the end of the line, the human race I mean, then there's going to have to be some mucking in together at some point. I can't believe the next generation, the last one probably, will tolerate this divide and rule rubbish. I hope not anyway".
"Do you really believe this is it?" said Kieran "After all, they were predicting the end of the human race in our time, and that was 2000 years ago!"
"The well's run dry", said Hillyard "No more embryo's. None that are undiseased anyway".
"But what about the female time-crossers?" asked Adam.
"It's not happening that much anymore, and those that are ... well I think they're killing 'em".
"Why?" Joby exclaimed.
"I've always wondered if it had something to do with Marlsblad".
"Are they taking them there?" said Adam.
"Just a feeling", Hillyard diverted his attention to his watery lamb casserole "Don't talk about it too much in here. Tables have ears, and I don't know anything really".
The coffee was brought round eventually, and Joby watched in fascination as Adam spooned six sugars into his cup.
"I've only seen junkies do that before", he said.
"Sugar gives a lift", said Adam.
"You're not going to drink that?"
"Well I'm not planning to shave in it".
Somebody started playing on the tinny piano at the other end of the carriage, which led to a rather ragged sing-song amongst a small portion of the clientele.
"If they're all so important and elite", said Adam "What are they all doing out here?"
"Could be anything", said Hillyard "A lot of the hill farms are tenant-holdings, they might be checking up on their property. Even more likely they might have part-ownership in the coal mines that are in the mountains. They've all got money and standing though, you can count on that, which probably means they're all in with the Ministry, which has a finger in most things".
"No one would believe any of this back home", said Adam "In our time I mean. We all had high-flown ideas about the future, images of everyone getting an equal chance in life, a share in the goodies. And then we get here and find most things to be positively primitive, and run by snobbish tyrants like my father".
"He was fairly well-off wasn't he?" said Joby.
"He was also a bully who insisted everyone should see things his way", said Adam "I sometimes worry I'm like him".
"You're not like that at all", said Kieran.
"Oh aren't I? Look what happened to you at the Loud House!"
"Yes and you've faced up to it. I bet he wouldn't have", said Kieran "Anyway, if we're right at the end of the human race we can no longer expect it to be perfect. Excellence is never reached at the end of something. Doubtless like all big things the human race is just going to fizzle out. A victim of its own excesses as usual".
"It seems crazy to me how they never saw it coming when they ... when they killed off the women", said Joby.
"From what I've heard everything went insane during the Massacre", said Hillyard "Nobody was thinking straight, it was an orgy of killing. And afterwards everyone thought we had enough knowledge and technology to produce new embryo's from ones already in stock, and that one day eunuchs could be given real wombs. They might even have been able to manage it if it wasn't for this peculiar disease that keeps breaking out in the foetus banks. Anyway it can't be undone now, whatever daft experiments they may come up with in the future. We're all done for".
Going to the lavatory on the train could be a disconcerting affair. On pulling up the lid the track below was exposed. "Pissholes in the snow", thought Joby, relieving himself over a blast of icy-cold air.
By the time he emerged from the cubicle the rest of the train seemed to have settled into its nocturnal somnolence, broken only by the regular unearthly wailing of the whistle. The corridor outside the sleeping compartments was dimly lit at the far end by a single gas-lamp. The chair below it reserved for the night attendant was empty. For a moment the scene looked entirely innocuous. Then all at once the light from the gas-lamp was dimmed, as though a shadow was blocking it out. Joby glanced away, rubbed his eyes and looked again. There was definitely a distortion in the scene. Something was there that shouldn't be, throwing everything out of kilter.
When the creature appeared he seemed to step directly out of the shadowy distortion, and was suddenly solid in shape and form. He was walking away from Joby towards the twist in the corridor near the attendant's chair. He walked as though unaware of Joby's presence, and yet at the same time swinging his bottom provocatively, as if in full knowledge that it would enrage him.
"Angel!" Joby roared, as recognition dawned, and hurtled after him.
For the first time since Angel's death he felt no fear of him. He seemed too real for that, and his mincing walk was so infuriating, as though he was taunting Joby.
Angel disappeared around the kink in the corridor. Joby pursued him, heading towards the luggage van. As he entered the next corridor he ran full-tilt into the guard. Angel was nowhere to be seen.
"You after something?" said the guard, spluttering the remains of a bacon roll at the younger man.
"I was following someone", said Joby.
"Not in here you're not. This is the luggage van, no one comes in here without my say-so".
"Someone HAS just come in here!" Joby said, angrily "Someone who shouldn't be here, who shouldn't be anywhere in fact".
"Well I've been here all the time and I haven't seen no one".
"You wouldn't, probably too busy stuffing your face", Joby tried to dodge the man, but was stalled by the guard's formidable bulk "Look, I've got to see if he's there".
"There is no one here. I would've seen him. Now I advise you to go back to your compartment and get some rest".
"Alright, but tell me, there isn't anyone staying in the luggage van is there?"
"Staying in the luggage van!" the guard exclaimed in shock "What kind of a train do you think this is? No one stays in the luggage van".
"Good, and you're going to sit back on your perch there aren't you? I mean, you're not going to go ferreting around in there?"
"I will go back to my perch as you call it, when you go back to your compartment".
"Right, I'm going", Joby moved away backwards, casting a final anxious look in the direction of the luggage van.
He disturbed the others on arriving back at the compartment, but was in no mood for apologising. The compartment was pitch-black and icy-cold, as the accommodation fee didn't stretch to heating in the sleeping-car. Joby was resentful that they had all been managing to sleep so peacefully when Angel was at large on the train, and wasn't selective as to where he put his feet when picking his way across their recumbent bodies.
"You're a fucking menace Joby", said Adam "I wish you'd tie a knot in your bladder".
"I'M a menace?" Joby roared "Whilst you're all catching up on your beauty sleep, Angel is roaming this train, probably looking for someone to disembowel!"
"Have you seen him?" asked Kieran.
"Yea, he was walking along right outside here".
"Did he see you?"
"I don't know. He had his back to me, but I got the impression he knew I was around. He went off towards the luggage van. I tried to follow him, but some great ape of a guard got in the way".
"Good!" said Adam "That was incredibly stupid Joby, following him on your own. That's exactly what he wanted you to do I expect".
Hillyard sat up and reached for his shoes.
"And where are you going?" asked Adam.
"To get this Angel you're all on about. He killed Stombal remember?"
"Don't be absurd!" cried Adam "We're all assuming a bit much here. We're assuming he killed Stombal, we're assuming he's around at all. I mean, no one's ever got a good look at him. I've only ever sensed his presence and quite frankly that doesn't mean anything. It's a very dimly-lit corridor out there, so Joby could've seen anyone, and assumed it was Angel. Isn't that so?"
Safely back in the compartment with the other three Joby had to admit that he was no longer sure he had seen Angel. It was late, he was tired, he had been drinking, and the light was dim ...
"And if he is here", Adam continued "We are certainly not splitting up to pursue him individually".
"He was shaking his arse at me", Joby muttered.
"Well you're easily enticed then aren't you?" said Adam.
Joby slept, but he hovered constantly near the borders of consciousness. So much so that he was woken up at dawn by someone coughing three compartments away. He lay in the chilly half-light, feeling no more reassured than when he had gone to sleep. He was now certain that he had seen Angel, and felt a gnawing sense of terror in his stomach. For once he wished Angel was a conventional vampire, one that rested during daylight hours. Then they would at least have a respite from him until nightfall. But it wasn't like that. Angel could prowl the train all day if he wished, taking bites out of people at random.
When Joby finally emerged from the compartment it was to hear a commotion coming from the direction of the luggage van. Immediately he knew that there must have been trouble of some kind, and that it was almost a certainty that Angel had been involved in some way. When he rounded the bend in the corridor he saw the bacon-spitting guard standing in the open doorway of the luggage van, almost completely blocking it with his bulk. From inside the van came the sound of a tormented wailing and hysterical weeping.
"What is it?" Joby cried, dashing towards the van with his heart thumping madly "What's happened? Is someone dea ... hurt?"
"He's having a fit", said the guard, dismissively.
A short, skinny man with greying hair and a haggard face appeared in the doorway, tears streaming down his wrinkled face.
"How could anyone?" he said "How could anything ...?"
"What's happened?" said Joby, anxiously.
"It's my Wuff", the man said "He was my best friend he was. And now ... torn apart. Torn apart as though he was of no consequence and no value to anyone".
Joby peered nervously around the doorway. At first he couldn't see who the little man was referring to. The racks of trunks and packing crates were undisturbed. At the far end of the van were the pens containing various livestock. In one a huge black-faced ram with formidable-looking horns was lying on its side in the straw. Its throat and stomach had been torn out. This was the hapless Wuff.
"You seemed very anxious about the luggage van last night", said the guard, appearing behind Joby.
"I tried to warn you", Joby protested.
"Warn me of what?"
"That someone was in here, but you wouldn't listen to me".
"There was no one here last night, except me ... and you".
"Adam, you've got to help me", Joby cried, breathlessly.
The older man paused in sharpening his pencils in the sleeping compartment, and had just enough time to register that Joby was considerably upset, and being pursued closely by a fat guard and a little grey-haired man. The latter was even more agitated than Joby.
"They think I killed his ram", Joby went on, to an increasingly amazed Adam "Tell 'em. Tell 'em I don't do such things! Tell 'em it was Angel".
"It was you trying to get in the luggage van last night", said the guard, accusingly.
"My Wuff", cried the little man "He killed my Wuff. He wasn't just a valuable beast, he was my best friend. Better 'en any human I know. Kinder than any human I know".
"You are all completely mad", said Adam, quietly.
"You've got to help me Adam! They're threatening to throw me off the train. Tell them I didn't kill his ram".
"Joby doesn't kill rams, you can take it from me", said Adam.
"It was Angel! I wish you'd all believe me".
"And who might this Angel be?" asked the guard, aggressively.
"He's a vampire", Joby began.
"You brought a vampire on this train!" the guard exclaimed.
"Disgraceful", muttered one of the other passengers, as he passed the door of the compartment "As if we don't have enough to put up with from those ghoulish creatures".
"But I didn't bring him on here", said Joby "He invited himself".
"Where is he now then?" asked the guard.
"That's just it, I don't know".
"A vampire killed my Wuff", the little man wailed at no one in particular "Tore out his throat he did, and his stomach. Nothing short of barbaric I call it".
"Believe me, I didn't bring him on this train", said Joby "I didn't even know he was on here until last night. He just happens to be someone I know".
"Nobody just happens to know a vampire", said the guard.
"HE killed my Wuff", said the little man, pointing at Joby "It was him, not a vampire. I know it was him really, he's making it all up. I want him off the train. If you don't throw him off I'll complain to the Ministry. I'll complain about all of you!"
"Thrown off a train because a ram gets its throat torn out! I've never heard anything like it".
"I did give you the choice Hillyard, as to whether you stayed or not", said Adam "You were under no obligation to leave with us".
"Yea well", Hillyard shuffled awkwardly in the snow "I've got used to travelling in company".
"Stop complaining then", Joby snapped.
The train gave a final shrill whistle as it disappeared around a bend in the mountains. They had been dropped off in the middle of the snow-bound Thet Mountains. The sun was shining down harshly and glinting off the crisp whiteness. It was surprisingly warm in the glow of the sun's rays, and they felt comfortable in their Kiskevian furs.
They decided that, rather than delve further into the mountains, they would follow the railway track and look out for any signs of human habitation close by. No one relished the thought of camping out come nightfall, when the temperatures would undoubtedly plummet to frightening levels.
If it wasn't for the growing sense of unease that the hours were slipping by with no further prospect of shelter, they would have quite enjoyed the long trek through the snow. The mountain air was clean and exhilarating.
"Any sign of anything nearby?" asked Joby, as Adam perused the map intently.
"Last night, when the train got stuck, we were at the Bosgo Pass", said Adam, indicating the place on the map "As far as I'm aware there were no significant stops overnight. In fact ... in fact the railway line seems to run for some considerable distance along the edge of nothing".
"The edge of nothing?"
"We're right on the edge of the Uncharted Area".
"Do you mean there's nothing here at all?"
"There must be something", said Hillyard "It just means no one's bothered to chart it".
"Probably for good reason", said Kieran, gloomily.
"Soda biscuit anyone?" said Adam, brightly, extracting a tin-box from his rucksack.
"I hope no one's going to suggest we go exploring the Uncharted Area", said Kieran "I don't know what's wrong with just following the railway line".
"Rest assured Patsy, no one is suggesting we do anything but that", said Adam "But you must admit, being on the edge of the Uncharted Area adds a certain frisson to the journey".
"I don't know what's got into you lately Adam", said Kieran "All this being cheerful, it's not natural".
It was mid-afternoon before they saw anything out of the ordinary. Until then it had seemed perilously likely that they were embedded deep in the middle of a glacial mountain range with nothing else in sight, which wasn't a comforting thought. But as the sun showed unwelcome signs of sinking, the top of a forest appeared in the fold of a mountain several feet down. The trees shone silver in the waning sunlight.
"There's someone down there", said Joby, pointing towards the trees where a light glistened harshly, as though someone was holding a mirror up to the sun.
"Or it could be the window of a house", said Adam.
They half-ran half-slid down the powdery slope. As they got nearer to the forest the strange reflective light dimmed, and then eventually disappeared altogether.
"What a beautiful sheen the whole place has", said Kieran "There's a lovely silvery-grey glow to the trees. Almost unearthly".
"Summat weird about it", said Joby "As though it's not really real".
"I think we're onto summat here", said Hillyard, excitedly "This could be what you've all been waiting for".
"You're not making sense", said Adam.
"This is amazing", Hillyard continued in the same vein "I don't know anyone who claims to have really seen this place! This is the Forest of Deception. I'm actually seeing the Forest of Deception!"
"Sounds like it should be on the Moon or something", said Joby "You know, like the Sea of Tranquillity".
"Or out of Bunyan", said Adam "'Pilgrim's Progress'".
"We used to get told tales about this place when we were kids", said Hillyard, standing and gazing at it in wonder "The Elders said it really did exist, but it was in the Uncharted Area and so no one knew whereabouts it really was".
"It's not that far from the railway line though", Adam pointed out "People must have seen it numerous times".
"Ah, but that's its trick", said Hillyard "It's not called the Forest of Deception for nothing. You see, the trees really change here. Change shapes, types, positions, always changing, even when you're amongst 'em".
"What?" said Joby, incredulously "They walk about you mean?"
"No, nothing so corny. They simply change, you know, like an illusionist's trick. Now you see it, now you don't. People have disappeared here. Gone in to investigate what it was really like, and never reappeared again. Stories like that used to scare the shit out of us, hearing all that when we was kids. But we loved hearing it all the same".
"It sounds suspiciously to me like a time-slip vortex", said Adam "Well, do we risk losing ourselves in the hall of mirrors or not?"
Leaving behind their footprints deep into the snow, the four trudged in their long fur coats towards the Forest of Deception.
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