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"Mister! Mister! Come and look at this!"
The landlord paused in the foyer, buckling under the weight of a large tray laden with boiled eggs.
"Can't you see I'm busy Jem? I've got the entire village to feed".
"There's been a message from the Winter Palace", said Jem, excitedly.
The landlord looked around for somewhere to plant the tray. With a "make yourself useful" he handed it to a passing eunuch. He pursued Jem into the communications office.
"When did it come through?" he asked, winding his hands in his apron in an agitated fashion.
"Three hours ago".
"This is the first chance I've had to check the messages", said Jem, reproachfully "You had me cutting bread, remember? Although how you could think that was more important's beyond me".
"Yes alright, what does it say?"
Jem scrolled up the message, which had been sent only once, and obviously expected no reply.
"IN RECEIPT OF YOUR MESSAGE", it read "REGRET DISTRESS CAUSED. THIS WAS DUE TO CLIMATIC CONDITIONS. CREATURE IN QUESTION NOW CONFINED TO FOREST ONCE MORE. ANTICIPATE NO FURTHER PROBLEMS - WINTER PALACE. END MESSAGE".
"The cheek of 'em!" the landlord exclaimed "And if they expect us to believe all that rubbish about climatic conditions then either they're daft, or they think we are. We've had a bit of snow that's all. It's never caused her to come into the village before now".
"Nutters the lot of 'em", said Jem.
"Oh no lad, never dismiss powerful men as nutters. They may be unhinged, but anyone with power is too frightening to be brushed aside as a nutter. Right, somehow we have to convince that lot in there that all's safe again. It won't be easy".
The doctor finished his examination of Caln, which had been requested by the Constable, as though to reassure himself that the stranger wasn't turning to stone at all.
"Well?" Caln grinned, sitting up in bed "Am I at death's door?"
"No. You are in fact a very fit young man", the doctor replied "It is all thanks to your health and youth that you managed to survive your ordeal in the snow last night. Not even a trace of a cold either, the bug doesn't seem to have developed into anything. If all my patients were as pink-skinned and clear-eyed as you then I could do more mountain-walking myself".
"Just luck that's all Doc. Especially good luck that I didn't bump into that creature! I'm glad I didn't know she was around when I was out there".
"All is well again on that score, so I am told. Although if it is true that a flurry of snow can now bring her into the village at any time, then there is precious little cause to be reassured I find".
"Doc, Doc", came a pathetic cry from the other bed "Could you have a look at me whilst you're up here?"
The doctor sighed inwardly. The Moustachioed One was a confirmed hypochondriac, and one of life's complainers. After forty years in the practice the doctor was able to recognise such time-wasters on sight.
"And what exotic disease do you think you have today?" said the doctor, dragging himself reluctantly over to the other bed.
"I feel weak and tired".
"That might have something to do with lack of sleep. Why don't you go downstairs, have some breakfast, and then come back up and catch up on your rest?"
"I couldn't face food".
"Oh, a hangover is it?"
"I didn't touch a drop last night", the Moustachioed One snapped "I felt fine when I came to bed, and was enjoying my sleep, until they woke me up bringing him in! Now I feel so listless. Do I look listless Doctor?"
"You look a little peaky that's all. Entirely due I suspect to a lack of fresh air. There is no reason now why you shouldn't take a little turn around the village sometime today. Get some cold, clean air blowing through your lungs. Look at Caln, a picture of rude health, and entirely due to a good dose of fresh air".
"Take it from me", Caln shouted across from the other bed "I know all there is to know about a sound body!"
"There you are", said Adam, coming up the main staircase towards Kieran "I thought you'd got lost".
"I want a word with you", said Kieran. He tugged the other man into their bedchamber, and shut the door "Where's Rooly gone?"
"I don't know", said Adam "Now that the Gorgon has retreated for the time being, I assume he's crept back under his stone".
"There's something up between you two, and I want to know what it is".
"Nothing remotely enjoyable I assure you", said Adam, bitterly "That man is a creep of the first order".
"Then why do you act cowed whenever he's around? Normally you'd have his sort for tea. He's got some kind of hold over you, and I'm entitled to know what it is".
Adam sighed, and in a mechanical fashion explained all about the unpleasant discussion between himself and Rooly of the night before.
"Is that it?" said Kieran, in disgust "You let him bully you for that!"
"Patsy, if he had whipped up some of those bastards down there last night, then things may well have happened as he predicted", Adam exclaimed "I couldn't risk that happening. Those men last night were like a barnful of dry straw, waiting for someone to strike a match".
"Well he can't do much now can he? The danger's past. Even if he did tell everyone all about me now, chances are they'd laugh him out of the room".
"You're right!" said Adam.
He made to lunge at the door, but Kieran got to it first and flattened himself against the woodwork.
"You're not going anywhere near Rooly", he said "He's not worth it. You get yourself into trouble here, and there's no knowing what the authorities might do. Don't risk anything for Rooly".
"I need to do something", Adam protested "I can't just let the little shit get away with it".
"Then use him to your own advantage".
"How do you mean?"
"He's the jungle drums around here. He seems to know an awful lot about what goes on, simply because blokes relax after the odd blow job or joint, and then they blab. He must have all the secrets of this place at his fingertips".
"So we could do with some help, information, as to how we get out of here".
"We don't need Rooly to help us with that. We just head south through the mountains, and on down to the City".
"No we don't", said Kieran "Or at least I don't".
"I see", said Adam "And where were you thinking of going then?"
"To the Winter Palace".
"What the hell for?"
"If I'm really supposed to be this Vanquisher of Evil then it's high time I did some vanquishing, and you don't have to be a genius to work out that there is a strong possibility that the Devil, the one who's controlling every freak and monster in this land, is lurking up there".
"Even if it is, what are you going to do to it?"
"I won't know that until I see it".
"And how do you propose we get there?" said Adam "Our way is blocked by a rather formidable opponent".
"I don't know, I need to talk to Rooly. He must know more about this creature and how it works than he's letting on".
"For Christ's sake Patsy, you can't be serious about going to the Winter Palace, you don't know what you're up against!"
"Can it be any worse than some creature that can turn you to stone with a glance?"
"Strangely, I don't find that very comforting", said Adam.
"Then I'll do it alone. Somehow I'll find a way through the forest to that place, or I'll swim up the lake if needs be, whatever monsters are in it. I'll do it, with or without you and Joby. This land, for all its faults, and even though its on its last legs, is now our home for the foreseeable future, whether we like it or not. If I have it in my power to make it better then I will. You can knock me out, lock me up, do what you want, but I will sort this thing".
"You won't be doing it alone. I can't say I'm looking forward to any of it ..."
"And you think I am?"
Adam looked at him carefully. Suddenly Kieran seemed frightened and very vulnerable. A thin young man with startling beauty, a soft voice and a sensual personality. He also just happened to be the Vanquisher of Evil. Adam kissed him slowly and tenderly. Kieran responded with the enjoyable urgency that always made Adam adore him even more.
"Come on", said Adam, eventually "I'll take you to see that slimeball Rooly".
Rooly opened the door a fraction, and then instantly tried to slam it shut. Adam jammed his foot in the door and pushed it inwards. Kieran followed him into the windowless cottage, which Adam noticed today felt stuffy and oppressive. Rooly paced the room in agitation.
"There is nothing I can say", he stammered "Nothing I can say to undo what I said yesterday. But it was exceptional circumstances, and I was desperate. I didn't want to be left behind when you went".
"Sit down Rooly and listen", Adam pushed him in the chest, and Rooly fell backwards onto the sofa "Patsy wants to talk to you".
Kieran stepped out from behind Adam's back, and Rooly instantly felt old and seedy. He tried to think of a put-down to say to him for the sake of his own self-esteem, but it wasn't merely fear of Adam which stopped him. Kieran didn't look so much cute this morning as ethereal. It was unnerving.
"Looks like we have another artist in our midst Adam", Kieran said.
"Patsy?" Adam queried, wondering what on earth he was talking about.
Kieran reached down and pulled a wad of paper out from behind a cushion, like a magician retrieving an egg from behind a punter's ear. He smoothed out the paper, and then visibly blanched on seeing the first drawing.
"Did you do these Rooly?" he asked, sounding shaken.
Rooly sat on his heels and looked at the floor, the image of helplessness and despair. Kieran scanned through the drawings, passing them to Adam as he finished with them. The drawings were identical, and were without exception all highly disturbing. They showed a face full-on, a face of quite startling depravity, ugliness and evil. Eyes bulged with harsh pupils of an inhuman orange colour, the lips were bruised and torn, the skin a hideous unnatural pigmentation of dark grey, the scrawny neck shot through with thick angry veins. The face was surrounded by a halo of thick, slimy red worms where the hair should have been.
"Is this the Gorgon, Rooly?" said Kieran.
"I keep having this nightmare", Rooly wept, still staring at the floor "Everytime I sleep the face appears. Monstrous. Evil. I thought that if I drew it, well it might help somehow. Reduce it to a sketch on a piece of paper".
"How long have you been having these dreams?"
"Every night for the past forty days".
"Including last night?"
"No", Rooly looked up, and stared directly at Kieran "No, not last night. But I wasn't alone last night, so that was probably why. You must see that is why I don't wish to stay here. It's bad enough having that creature lurking out there somewhere, but now she's started creeping into my sleep as well".
"Don't read too much into this Patsy", warned Adam "He stuffs his brain full of dope, so I expect it's not surprising his dreams can be a bit lurid".
"The drawings are so vivid though", said Kieran.
"Everyone must have a vague idea of what the Gorgon looks like, just from classical descriptions of her", Adam snapped "The snake hair, the hideous face, the piercing eyes and evil expression ..."
"But these drawings aren't just translations of a description", Kieran protested "They are so startling, so evil. Like an illustration of the Devil".
"That is how she appears in my dreams", said Rooly "She hisses and spits, torments me. W-what worries me is that in recent dreams I feel as though she's taunting me. I think she's trying to get me to go into the woods at night. I think that's how she sometimes gets her victims. Some of the murders lately you see, well they didn't make sense to me. The men were all locals, they knew all about her, knew all the dangers, and yet for some reason they had voluntarily gone into the forest alone at night. Now no one from around here would do that willingly, or in a sound mind. They would know that it was certain death".
"I understood she'd been put there to serve as some kind of guard dog", Kieran sat down on a silk-covered stool "Just to keep us out of the forest, away from the Winter Palace. So why, if what you're saying is true, has she suddenly developed psychopathic tendencies? Can they not control her anymore, is that it?"
"Oh no, they're still the ones that are doing the controlling", said Rooly "They're behind all this. They deliberately let her loose in the village last night".
"Because it amuses them to do so. Because that's the sort of mindless, pointless behaviour that evil does. It plays with people's lives, their sanity, all for it's own amusement".
"Tell me who these people are at the Palace".
"They are vampires", said Rooly "Vampires that have tremendous power. For several years now they've infiltrated the Ministry, until the whole corrupt lot of them are bowing to the vampires' every whim. Everyone's scared of them. And now they sit in the Winter Palace like bats hanging from the rafters, and the Ministry feeds them flesh to keep them alive".
"The crates that Hillyard saw at the warehouse", Kieran recalled "So they must have contained bodies. And this lot control every demon, freak and monster in the land?"
"Have you ever seen them in the village?" asked Adam "The vampires, I mean".
"Not to my knowledge", said Rooly "Although that's not to say they don't come here under a different guise. We get so much traffic passing through here that it would be easy for them to slip in unnoticed from time to time. It probably gives them a kick, and of course it enables them to search for fresh sacrifices in peace".
"And do a lot of people go mysteriously missing around here?" said Kieran "Never to appear again?"
"It happens, that's all I can say".
"And what is Marlsblad's function exactly?" asked Adam.
"Originally, in the pre-vampire days, the Winter Palace was a research establishment. I'm not sure exactly what they did. Some reckoned it was research into cloning foetuses. Some believed they were trying to perfect sex-change operations, in order to make eunuchs more like real women. You know, so that they could conceive and give birth naturally, and menstruate etc. Not just be like men in dresses with their cocks missing as they are now. It was important work but I don't think any of it was particularly sinister. And Marlsblad was the support community. It fed the staff, provided extra hands when needed, entertained important visitors, all that sort of thing".
"And you're still the support community", said Kieran "Except you now help to lure people here, to be turned over to Them. This place is simply a trap, a spider's web, isn't it? Does anyone ever leave?"
"Of course. It's only a few that go missing. Say four or five out of every dozen men that pass through".
"And the Gorgon helps keep everyone in line".
Rooly nodded helplessly.
Kieran rose suddenly and went to leave the cottage.
"Patsy", Adam cried "Don't you want to ask Rooly anymore?"
"Forget it", came Kieran's voice, as he emerged once more into the village streets.
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