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Kieran lay back on his pillows and listened to the activity in the next room. There was a lot of mumbling going on, and occasionally the scraping of a chair against the floor. To say he felt disheartened would be an understatement. It wasn't very nice to have a young boy cower and scream at your approach, and for no apparent reason either.
Joby came through the door which connected the two rooms.
"I didn't do anything", said Kieran, defensively "Not a thing. All I did was look at him and he started squawking like some demented wild animal".
Joby calmly leaned over the bed, grasped Kieran's face in both hands, and kissed him full on the lips. This action turned Kieran to liquid, and he lay back and enjoyed the sensation. All too soon it ended. Adam came through the door, and Joby sprang to the end of the bed as though he was on elastic.
"He'll be alright now", said Adam, glancing at the two men suspiciously "Hillyard's managed to calm him down. That strange boy has obviously got some dark secret to hide. Otherwise why would he panic so in the presence of the Vanquisher of Evil?"
"I think I need a drink", Joby sighed "All this is too much to think about when you're stone cold sober".
As he turned the twist in the main staircase Joby caught sight of something that made his heart leap. A pair of neat bare ankles beneath shapely shaven legs. Painted toe-nails. The hemline of a long, flouncy skirt. In bewilderment he climbed slowly down to the foyer. The apparition, as he thought it must surely be, had her back to him. Her well-rounded frame was topped by a head of short, glossy red hair, combed back neatly to her skull. Joby swallowed hard, uncertain what to do next. He was afraid that if he moved towards her too suddenly she would disappear.
She became aware of his presence and turned to face him. The disappointment almost left him breathless. This was no entrancing ghost of some long-lost voluptuous beauty. There was no mistaking her masculine origins. The heaviness of the jaw would have betrayed her anywhere. She ... he .. was a eunuch. Not a fully-fledged transsexual as she would have been in Joby's time, but simply a man who had had his penis amputated and now wore women's clothes.
"Hello", he said, smiling at him pleasantly.
Joby replied in a grunt that came out as "irno". He then backed away so suddenly that he almost walked into the wall behind him. The close proximity of the eunuch made him want to squirm.
"Oh dear, did I startle you?" said the eunuch, teasingly.
"You must get a lot of pleasure in taunting men", Joby snapped, feeling riled that the eunuch had detected his disgust so easily.
"Normally they call me an abomination", he replied, with a bitter smile "So there isn't a great deal of pleasure to be had in it. You see, I had my penis cut off, and a lot of men, including you, simply cannot cope with that".
Kieran overheard Hillyard saying he was going down to the bar to get something to eat. Adam had gone down a few minutes before so, for a brief while, he would have Lonts to himself. He opened the communicating door, and found the boy sitting on the floor with his elbows on his knees. He glanced up sharply as Kieran came in, and scrambled to his feet.
"You needn't bother starting all that squawking nonsense again", said Kieran "There's no one here but us two so there's no need for you to show off".
Lonts stared back at him silently. Kieran couldn't decide if the boy showed fear, anger or revulsion. Possibly all three.
"Just what have you been doing Lonts, to be afraid of me? Only vampires are normally afraid of me. Are you a vampire Lonts?"
"I'm not a vampire", the boy's voice came out deeper than normal, more rough around the edges "I am not the Undead. I live!"
"So, why are you frightened of me then?"
Lonts gave a sidelong glance at his bag which lay near Hillyard's chair. Kieran was quick enough to anticipate what his next move would be, and had grabbed the battered holdall before Lonts could reach it.
"Something in here that you want is there Lonts?"
Lonts went to move towards Kieran, then thought better of it and flattened himself against the wall, as though hoping it would magically disappear behind him and let him escape. Kieran pulled open the bag. Underneath a sorry selection of unwashed clothing he found a bundle of knives, all different sizes, all honed and polished like surgical instruments. The boy's eyes flashed, almost with an intense desire and yearning, on seeing the metal objects.
"And just what were you planning to do with these then?"
Kieran walked the length of the bar, cutting a swathe through the crowd. When he reached the alcove that Adam had now appropriated for his own use, he dropped the rolled-up jersey he was carrying onto the table. He unravelled it to reveal Tintally's collection of missing kitchen knives.
"I can understand someone wanting protection when travelling alone in this land", said Kieran "But why does he need his own complete butcher's kit?"
"I have a horrible feeling that we have another little Angel on our hands", said Adam.
"Oh no he's not like Angel", said Kieran "He's not a vampire, I had it from his own lips. He's disturbed, possibly schizophrenic as we originally thought Angel was, but I actually think he's possessed".
"Why?" said Joby, who was still brooding on what the eunuch had said. The image of castration had been difficult to shake off and had haunted him for the past hour.
"Because his voice changed as he was talking to me. He didn't sound like a fourteen-year-old boy anymore. The voice was harsher, stronger, much more sure of itself".
"Demonic possession, Patsy?" said Adam.
"Is it anymore far-fetched than some of the things we've heard since we crossed over?" Kieran sat down, and began to roll the knives back up in the jersey "I'm not saying it's a demon, but I believe something is inhabiting his body".
"Where's Lonts now?" asked Joby.
"I locked him in the room. I left the key on the outside of one of the doors so that Hillyard can reach him if necessary. Although I'm not happy at him continuing to be with Lonts. It's not healthy. I think he sees him as a substitute for Stombal".
"Ssh, he's coming over", said Joby.
Hillyard stormed over, with a face like a furnace. For a moment he was so angry he couldn't find the words to speak. When he finally did he pointed vengefully at Kieran like an Old Testament prophet.
"It's all your fault", he cried "You terrorised him. He was scared stiff of you. I spect it was you who conjured up that vampire fiend too".
"How did I manage that then?" said Kieran, plaintively holding up his hands.
"And now he's gone", Hillyard wept.
"Gone? How? I locked him in".
"Climbed out through the skylight. He'll probably break his neck falling off the roof, and it's started to snow as well".
Kieran and Joby left Hillyard in mid-snivel and hurtled towards the main stairs. Precious seconds were wasted as their way up was blocked by a troupe of eunuch dancers who came hurtling down in a flurry of netting, feathers and tulle, like a stampede of buffalo in drag. By the time they reached the room Lonts had long since vanished across the rooftop. The skylight was open to the elements, letting in cold air and flakes of snow.
"Hey, you!" the Moustachioed One shouted from the doorway.
"Oh it's you again", Kieran groaned.
"Yes it's me. I happen to have the misfortune to have the room on the other side here. I am fed up with your young friend in here keeping me awake. I am trying to get an early night, and he's been gabbling away to himself in here. Arguing with himself and shouting even, I ask you! You want to get him seen to".
"You've got no more problems with him", said Joby "He's legged it".
Hillyard was distraught. He blamed everyone he could think of for Lonts's flight into the snow, including himself. It was well past midnight when Adam and Joby finished searching the village streets for the missing boy. They had even called in on Rooly. Unfortunately Rooly was in no condition to do anything but giggle inanely, after smoking hashish. He complained that his legs had turned to lead, and that he couldn't move from his sofa, and apparently, sad to tell, no young boy had been in his house for years, let alone that evening.
Kieran was warming his hands over the wood-burning stove in the foyer when they returned to the inn.
"You're supposed to be looking after Hillyard", Adam said to him.
"He made it clear", he replied "in no uncertain terms that he could do without my company. Is there no sign of the lad at all?"
"Not a whiff", said Joby "He must be able to move like a cat to have got across the rooftops in these conditions".
"Where the hell could he have gone?"
"Anywhere", said Adam "Into the mountains probably".
"We should organise a search-party", said Kieran "He'll perish out there in this weather".
"Huh, you'll be lucky!" Jem emerged from under the stairs, where he had been collecting fresh candles "You won't get no one to go outside the village after dark, not for anything. If he's mad enough to have run off, I'd leave him to it. If he's left the village tonight you won't be seeing him again".
"What a cheery little person he is", said Adam, as Jem passed through into the bar.
"Then we'll have to search for Lonts ourselves", said Kieran.
"Not at this time of night I'm not", said Joby.
"He's right", said Adam "This isn't the time to go exploring the locality".
"But nothing Patsy. There is no need for you to try and assuage your conscience, and that is what you're doing. Lonts can take care of himself, he's proved that by travelling up here in the first place. It's not your fault if he's so potty he has the screaming ad-dabs whenever he sees you".
Adam's words failed to reassure Kieran. That night he lay awake into the still watches, wondering whereabouts in the surrounding wintry wastes the boy had gone. The fire had gone out in the bedroom, and now it was impossible to get warm. Joby had fallen asleep clinging to Kieran's back and providing much-needed heat. But since then he had rolled over to face the opposite direction, leaving Kieran in a draught.
The inn had slowly settled into a four a.m slumber. The eunuchs had long since stopped dancing, the musicians had stopped playing, and even the drinks had been locked away for a few hours. The whole building seemed to be whistling, farting and snorting. It was a very long time until it would come fully alive again, and the sun's rays would struggle through the small window to pierce the rooms once more.
After lying stiffly in the cold for several minutes Kieran became aware of distant voices from the foyer below. They were raised in whispered agitation. Carefully the Irishman crept out of the room, painfully aware of every creak in the floorboards.
He was approaching the bend in the stairs before the voices became clear. One was the landlord, sounding terribly upset, the other was unknown to Kieran, but it sounded dogmatic as though the speaker was accustomed to people instantly obeying him.
"If the silly little bugger's gone into that part of the forest", said the dogmatic one "Then there is nothing we can do. I doubt if he'll be seen alive again".
"You can't just leave it at that", the landlord was having trouble keeping his voice at whisper level "What do I tell his friends for one thing? They're strangers to Marlsblad, and one of them is ..."
"I know all about who he is. All I can say is at least all of them had the good sense not to follow him. Young lads run off all the time, without any reason, they'll just have to accept that", the officious one made a sound, as though turning to leave.
"Look please, Constable, he was very young. Not much older than our Jem. Is there no way this Thing can't be removed whilst we search the forest?"
"A proper search will be made in daylight hours. I can't get any men to go wandering through it at night, as well you know. Not only because of the Thing, but it's too close to the Winter Palace. Some object even in daylight".
"Yes, but surely someone at the Palace controls this creature? Whoever created it can dissolve it. Only temporarily of course, just so's we can search for the boy".
"They wouldn't even consider it! You make an exception for one, you have to make an exception for every idiot that accidentally strolls over the boundary. The boy's probably already dead for all we know. I have never known anyone come face-to-face with it and survive".
"S-some are beginning to believe it enters the village", mumbled the landlord.
"Who's been saying that?" the Constable demanded.
"It's just a rumour".
"As you are landlord here I hold you responsible for rumours".
"I can't stop men talking now can I!"
"No, but you can squash any gossip at source".
"Is it true though, that it enters the village like?"
"Don't talk rubbish. Don't you think it'd cause a few deaths if it did!"
"You're not convinced I can tell. You believe it really does, don't you?"
"Now you listen to me", the Constable hissed "If this gets out you could cause a riot. It is essential life in Marlsblad stays calm. I have already noticed how deserted the streets are after dark. It's not right and it's not healthy. THEY won't like it".
"No I bet they won't! In which case they should do something about it. Like dissolve this creature ... or perhaps they can't. Is that it? Can't they control it anymore?"
"Goodnight to you landlord", said the Constable, firmly "A search-party will set off from here at nine a.m, but don't hold out too much hope".
"A word of advice to you Constable", said the landlord "Things aren't straightforward anymore. HE'S here now, and if he wins you might very well find yourself out of favour with the new power. We have to tread carefully from now on".
By the time of the appointed hour Kieran had ensconced himself outside the main door of the pub. Dogs barked in the frosty air as the search-party assembled. The landlord and Jem circulated with glasses of brandy for the participants. Some of the men were openly blaming Lonts for wandering off as he had. A small minority, who were sceptical of Kieran's status, blamed him and his friends for losing him. Kieran felt it was fortunate for him that those feelings weren't universal.
A middle-aged man wearing a Don Quixote-style brass hat turned out to be the Constable Kieran had overheard the night before. The officer was finding himself barracked on all sides. Some wanted to know exactly how far into the forest they were expected to go, others objected to the early hour, because they felt it wasn't fully daylight yet. It was true that the sun had only just risen, and the village was still bathed in a murky half-light, but the Constable reasoned that the days were now so short it was getting difficult to find a time of day when the light was strong enough to please everyone.
"Oh good, they haven't gone yet", said Hillyard, appearing next to Kieran.
"Are you coming too?"
"It seems only right. I'm sorry I went on at you last night, but I'm beginning to feel a jinx where people are concerned. They get close to me, and then suffer an awful fate".
"We don't know anything has happened to Lonts yet", Kieran protested "He could be anywhere. He might not have gone into the forest at all, I'm going to look though just in case".
"That's kind", said Hillyard, awkwardly "I might need a bit of support, in case they find him, you know what I mean".
"Have you noticed something about this place?" said Kieran, staring up at the inn's facade "All the windows are above eye-level. I hadn't noticed it from the inside".
"That's nothing unusual. Every building in the village is like it. Some don't even have any windows at all".
The search-party, complete with dogs, set off down the cobbled main street of the village, watched over by a wintry red sun. Their breath was visible in the frosty air, and many of the men passed hip-flasks to one another. Rooly watched them from his doorstep, as he devoured a whole loaf of bread in one sitting. It didn't escape his notice that Kieran was amongst the number.
The view from the end of the village was breath-taking. A lake stretched as far as the eye could see, towards the mountains on the horizon. The lake was bounded on all sides by snow-dusted woodland. The edge of the forbidden part of the forest began rather suddenly, not even a fence served as a warning to the curious. On a very dark night it would be frighteningly easy to stumble across its threshold.
A spray of flowers was pinned to one of the trees, making it look like a shrine. Many had died in the forest, and the flowers served as a tribute to them. They were replaced every other day, even in the depths of winter when sometimes a handful of bare twigs had to suffice.
If it hadn't been for the presence of the dogs it was doubtful if any of the men could have been persuaded to enter the area. But the dogs bounded into the trees with enthusiasm, serving to reassure everyone that for the moment it was a safe area.
Snow mingled with the crisp dead leaves. There was nowhere better than a forest to mark the changing of the seasons, but the sheer beauty of their surroundings only made the presence of any lurking monstrosities all the more abhorrent.
"At least it isn't part of the Forest of Deception", said Kieran to Hillyard "Or we'd all be lost by now".
"She walks there too", said a little man with a froglike face.
The little man gave him a strange look, and skirted off in another direction.
"She?" Kieran repeated in disbelief "Hillyard, does this mean the entire village is scared of ... of a Woman!"
"It don't make sense", Hillyard agreed.
"I suppose this demon-thing could in fact just be a woman", said Kieran "In which case there's nothing for us to be afraid of".
"Why don't I find that reassuring then?"
"Oh you lot believe too much in superstition that's your trouble! We had all this about the Loud House before we went there. It was a terrible place, no one got out alive etc etc. And when we got there it was some poor woman who'd been turned into an old hag, by the force for evil which stalks this land".
"And the Reptile Man had been put there as a guardian, to discourage people from visiting?" said Hillyard "Like in Tomce's well".
"No one'll go any further Constable", came a shout from someone at the front of the party.
"Alright", the man in the brass hat sighed "We'll call it a day. If we haven't found him now we never will. Back everyone!"
"Your cute little friend's gone on a teddy bear's picnic in the woods".
Rooly had been crossing over from the baker's when he saw Adam and Joby walking towards him. Rooly was carrying a paper bag full of buns, which he was mindlessly eating his way through as he headed back to his windowless cottage.
"What's he burbling about?" asked Joby.
"Nothing", Adam snapped "He's still out of his tree I suspect".
"Him and the strapping one have gone looking for the one you were looking for last night", said Rooly, almost incoherently "Except they won't find him. Not as flesh and blood anyway. Lucky for them it doesn't walk in daylight, or at least they don't think it does anyway".
"What doesn't walk in daylight?" said Adam "Have you seen it?"
"Of course I haven't!" Rooly laughed derisively "I wouldn't be standing here talking to you now if I had. Relax Adam, as I said your cute little friend's safe in daylight hours. We think".
"Do you know what this Thing is? You do, don't you? Do you know what it does?"
"I'll tell you", said Rooly, mischievously "For a small fee of course".
"Of fuck off, you make me sick".
Adam stormed away down the street, hotly pursued by Joby.
"He would've told us if you'd let him!" Joby protested.
"I paid his small fee yesterday, against my better judgement. He's not getting another one out of me".
Kieran and Hillyard stood overlooking the lake. Neither spoke for a long while.
"Do you think there's a giant worm in this lake as well?" said Kieran, eventually.
"I hope not", Hillyard grunted "There's enough to cope with round here".
A scream went up from deep within the forest. An unnatural silence immediately followed it, which seemed to last for some while. It was shattered by agitated cries coming from all directions.
"Do you know", said Hillyard, quietly "I have a horrible feeling someone's copped it".
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