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It snowed steadily over the next few days, and the whole village seemed to retreat into itself. Everyone moved about the business of their day in a numbed fashion. The initial feeling of relief that the Gorgon had been recalled had been replaced by a growing sense of unease. The Winter Palace was playing games with them for its own amusement, so what would they think up next?
Adam grew daily more exasperated. His gut feeling hadn't changed, and that was that they should leave Marlsblad and head south to the City, even though he knew that that would effectively mean running away. But Kieran refused to leave. Instead the Irishman spent his days drinking plum brandy, and trying to work out a way to the Winter Palace which didn't appear riddled with extreme danger. Adam in turn paced around like a caged animal. He visited the masseur once more, and he shared meals with Joby in which he ranted about Kieran's impossible behaviour. And always, wherever he went, Rooly seemed to appear in the background like Frankenstein's monster haunting his creator.
Hillyard was kept awake at night by the man in the room next door, who groaned incessantly in his sleep, so he took to frequenting the bar at late hours like a lost soul. Adam watched him with mixed feelings of envy and foreboding. He felt that if positive things didn't start happening in the near future he would finally lose his self-control and take once more to the bottle himself.
"If Patsy doesn't decide soon what he wants", he said, over a late night supper with Joby "Then I shall knock him unconscious and drag him out of the village with my bare hands".
"He's drinking too much", said Joby "And he's hardly eaten a thing these last few days. I wish Fobbett had never said all that bullshit about the Vanquisher of Evil".
The following evening Adam went into Hillyard's room and found him getting dressed. Any hopes of a heart-to-heart talk were dispelled when he learned that Hillyard was intending to entertain yet another new friend to supper.
"I hope he's a bit older than the last one", said Adam, caustically.
"Same age as me", said Hillyard "He arrived here soon after we did. Got a job as a masseur. Surprised you haven't come across him".
"I might have done. But I've been so pre-occupied I've hardly noticed what they look like. Just let their hands do the tricks".
"You've got to do something about him soon", Hillyard pointed towards the room Adam had emerged from "Kieran I mean. I've told you before, he's going the way of Stombal".
"Stombal believed that he was the Vanquisher of Evil didn't he? So perhaps Patsy may be mistaken too".
"Stombal didn't have the effect on vampires that Kieran has. If Stombal had had that kind of power he might have survived the attack on him on the tundra", said Hillyard "No, Kieran's the one alright. Right down to the blonde hair and blue eyes".
When Kieran woke up halfway through the evening, he felt as though he was emerging from a dense fog. He got out of bed and lined up on the blanket chest the two-and-a-half bottles of plum brandy that he had in reserve.
"You'll start seeing spots in front of your eyes soon", said Adam, as he entered the room "First sign of cirrhosis of the liver".
"I've had enough for now", said Kieran "I'm sorry if I worried you".
"Worried me!" Adam exploded "It's a long time since I've felt so fucking miserable as you've made me these last few days! How dare you shut us out!"
"I was frightened. Still am".
"So are we all. And we have more cause to be than you, seeing as we don't have this wonderful gift of reducing vampires to vapour that you have".
"Sometimes", said Kieran, quietly "It's felt like I've been diagnosed as terminally ill. However hard I try I can't shake off this feeling of despair. That I'm being pushed towards a fate I don't want, and am certainly not ready for. I was so bloody sure a solution would come to me, but it hasn't".
"Fat chance when you've been pissed all the time", Adam snapped "Are there any more of these bottles hidden around the room?"
"Certainly not. Why should I hide booze?"
"Don't play innocent with me. You're talking to an old-hand, remember? I know all the tricks".
"I'm not a focking alchy!" Kieran reddened with embarrassment the instant he had said it.
"That's exactly what they all say. And the next lines are 'I never really get drunk', 'I can take it', or 'I never drink before ten in the morning'. It's a long career of self-delusion".
"It was just a little bender that's all".
"There's no such thing as a little bender Patsy!"
"Are we having a row?" Kieran asked, whimsically, peering out through his hair.
"Yes well ... I'm trying to stop you for purely selfish reasons", said Adam "You'll lose all your looks if you drink, and then I won't fancy you anymore, because you'll get all coarse-featured and red-faced. You could even end up like Rooly. After all, he might've been one of the beautiful people once".
"I seemed to lose all track of time. I spect Joby's fed up with me by now. Mind you, he always is".
Joby was leafing through a magazine in the foyer. Sheer boredom had driven him to analysing the soft pornography on offer. He found it pretty dire, being endless pictures of men with their bare essentials on display.
"Getting ideas Jobe?" said Adam, walking down the main stairs with Kieran in tow.
"Boring", said Joby.
"I suppose you'd rather it was tits and cunts?"
"At least there's beauty in the female form", said Joby "This is all about as erotic as a display on a butcher's counter".
Adam peered over his shoulder at the magazine.
"None are as attractive as Patsy", he sighed.
"He'd never make a nude model", Joby jeered "After all, who'd want to look at a pencil stub! Talk of the devil, are you back in the land of the living then Flannery?"
"Of course it's all done with computer graphics you know", said Kieran "None of 'em are really as big as that".
"Have you met Hillyard's new friend yet Joby?" asked Adam.
"Poseur", Joby said, firmly "Fancies itself summat rotten. I mean, no one but a halfwit or a poseur wears shorts in this weather!"
"Hillyard's waving to us now", said Kieran, peering through the doorway of what the landlord referred to as a 'discreet side-room for intimate suppers' "I think he wants us to join him".
Artuul certainly looked a fine specimen of manhood. From his glossy brown hair to his long shapely legs he was a living specimen of sleek good looks. Adam though didn't remotely find him a turn-on. He was simply too perfect. It was hard to imagine taking him to bed without having to take his nail-file kit and cotton-buds as well. He completely lacked any sexuality or earthiness. Artuul though greeted Adam as though he had been waiting for his presence all his life (he had perfected this approach down to a fine art). He was distinctly less enthusiastic about meeting Kieran. Artuul hated competition.
"We can't join you Hillyard", Adam protested, as Hillyard dragged in chairs from empty tables nearby "Whoever heard of an intimate table for five!"
"Please, I really don't mind", said Artuul "I'm simply delighted to meet Hillyard's friends. Strangers to this place just as I am".
"You might be seeing Adam down your place", Hillyard boomed, to the said man's embarrassment "He particularly likes the cock massages".
"My speciality", Artuul simpered "What a coincidence".
"Dunno how you can specialise in something that just involves slapping scented oil round someone's knackers", said Joby, sourly "Wouldn't have thought that required a lot of skill".
"It takes intense training over several months", said Artuul, patiently "The massage is an ancient and skilled art-form. I also like to think of it as a form of healing. Healing the soul by soothing the body".
From that moment on there was no stopping Artuul. Somehow he always managed to tell people his life-story within ten minutes of meeting them. How he had started his career soaping men's faces in a barber's shop, but had been selected by a fitness guru purely on his appearance, which resembled that of a racehorse. He was then employed by a health salon, solely in the capacity of his good looks luring customers in. His big breakthrough had come when he was hired by the Ministry to train as a masseur, and then eventually to work for their famous massage centre at Marlsblad.
"I wouldn't have thought being out here in the sticks would suit you", said Adam.
"No one turns down a chance to work for the Ministry do they?" said Artuul "It opens doors. Besides, purely between us, I reckon they had a hidden agenda for sending me out here".
"Then should you be telling us about it old love?" said Adam, sarcastically "We are complete strangers after all. Mustn't go giving away government secrets now".
Artuul looked momentarily put out. He was a compulsive fantasist, who liked to believe every moment in his life was of some great significance, not just to himself but to the world in general. It was true that the Ministry had hired him, but on the health salon owner's recommendation that he had the makings of a top masseur. Not, as Artuul liked to believe, because he could do work of vital importance to them.
"I won't be giving anything secret away", he said, recovering his composure "I think after you've known me some time, you may realise who I really am. There are many imposters, but ... well, less said for now perhaps".
Kieran cracked a handful of walnuts in reply.
In the main bar a fat comedian, his thick make-up sweating in the stuffy heat, insulted his audience. They clapped or booed in turn. The cheers and catcalls swept over Joby as he impatiently leafed through one of the porn magazines in the foyer, looking for something that had caught his eye earlier. Then he sensed someone watching him. He looked up to find Caln peering down over the bannisters at him, with a puzzled expression on his face.
Joby returned the stare without blinking, but a chill ran through him. Caln was peering in a sly fashion from under his long eyelashes which successfully hooded his eyes, and enabled him to stare almost in private. Joby's unease grew. There seemed to be no soul behind those eyes.
"Can I help you mate?" he asked, sounding braver than he felt.
Caln didn't reply. Instead he moved silently on up the stairs. Joby stayed rooted to the spot until he heard a door shut firmly above him.
"There! I thought you looked familiar", Joby spread out the magazine on the table, open at a picture of a hunky man lying sleeping with his genitals exposed, but with the area between his neck and his navel concealed by a large long-haired white cat "That's you isn't it?"
"You're a nude model Artuul?" Adam said, his mouth puckering into a snigger "Well I never".
"A guy has to live, and it pays well", said Artuul, defensively "Most of it isn't me anyway, it's enhanced by computer".
"Told you", said Kieran.
"So I should hope!" Adam exclaimed "If your cock was that big Artuul you'd know yourself out everytime you had an erection!"
"Everyone has to do things occasionally just to get by", Artuul shut the magazine firmly "Even me. So many of the great men in history have at some time or another had to perform menial or undignified tasks".
"And you're a great man in history?"
"In his dreams", Joby grunted.
Hillyard looked embarrassed. He had read somewhere once that a man was only as good as the lovers he had. He uncomfortably felt that to the others it must seem as though Artuul was yet another in a long line of loser Hillyard's nutters.
"I said to you earlier that there was no point in me camouflaging the truth", said Artuul "Such things will be immediately apparent to some, and to others will eventually become so. You see, I am the Vanquisher of Evil".
"I only wish he was", said Joby "Then we could cheerfully point him in the direction of the Winter Palace, and then bugger off to the City and start re-building the rest of our lives".
"It's poor old Hillyard I feel sorry for", said Adam, stirring his coffee "He'll take this personally. Like he takes everything personally. He's rather like you Joby. He regards the whole world as a gross affront to him. It's a good thing you don't go for him. You two would have a perfectly wretched time together. You'd both sit around all day having complexes and getting paranoid about what the other one was thinking".
"Are you saying I'm tight-arsed and repressed, again?" Joby snapped.
"No, just a bit prickly and defensive. You're like I used to be. In dire need of two strong arms to hold you and say everything's alright".
"Isn't that what everyone needs? I expect it's exactly what Flannery needs at the moment".
"Patsy needs a good hiding actually", said Adam "Oh lor, I'm beginning to sound like you! Do you want another beer?"
"No", Joby drained his glass "If I have another I'll be getting up all night".
"I hope we don't have to spend too many more nights here", said Adam, as they climbed the main staircase "That bed has got to be one of the most uncomfortable I've ever slept in, and that's saying a lot!"
The landlord, who had been dimming the lights above the staircase, overheard this and looked rather hurt.
"I've been bored ever since we got here, what with Flannery shutting himself off and not being any fun", said Joby, when they were out of earshot "But sometimes I wish we never had to leave. At least it feels safe in here".
Jem was up and working long before daylight had kicked itself out of bed. Even though it was the only life he had known, other than the children's camp, he still felt the odd pang of resentment when trudging outside to bring in fresh logs, burdened with the knowledge that most of the inn's guests were still cosily between the sheets.
His second job of the day was to take the jugs of hot water up to the rooms, along with the clean towels. This was a task he hated. The best he could hope for was that the guests were still asleep when he went in, and that they stayed that way. Otherwise they could be stroppy, complaining or, the very worst, in a "lunging" mood. Even at the tender age of thirteen a cynical Jem found it incredible that anyone could be thinking about sex at seven o'clock on a bitterly cold winter's morning, no matter how impressive the erection was that they had woken up with. He himself looked and felt like a block of ice at this hour.
Occasionally though he had a chance to earn some extra money in a way that did suit him, such as polishing boots, darning socks or delivering messages. This morning he had one to pass to Adam, who was already half-awake.
"He handed it in about an hour ago", Jem whispered "Said it was very important, and I wasn't to show it to anyone else but you. As if I would anyway!"
"Thank you Jem", Adam reluctantly exposed a bare arm to the cold air and retrieved the slip of paper "You'll find some coins on the mantelpiece. Take ... well take whatever you require".
Adam waited until the boy had left the room, and then strained his eyes to read the brief message by the dying light of the fire.
"MY DEAREST ADAM, (which set his teeth on edge as he had guessed who it was from), HAVE NEWS OF THE VERY GREATEST INTEREST TO YOU. I REPEAT, VERY GREATEST INTEREST. PLEASE COME TO MY COTTAGE AS SOON AS YOU CAN. IT'S ENTIRELY TO YOUR BENEFIT. YOUR AFFECTIONATE ROOLY".
Hillyard had lain awake for some time. The man in the room next door hadn't stopped groaning all night, and it was extremely hard to tell if he was enjoying himself or in the deepest pain. Occasionally Hillyard heard another voice, so he knew the man wasn't alone. For some time now he had been listening to this, and developing a tension headache of alarming proportions. He wrapped his pillow around his ears, cursing his neighbours for impinging on his space, but the noise still came through, albeit muffled.
"Tell them next door to belt up!" he cried, when Jem appeared with his jug "They've been at it all night, it's not natural".
"They're not making any noise are they?" said Jem, nodding towards the communicating door.
"I meant the other side".
"Room Four?" Jem said, nervously "I don't go in there. I leaves theirs outside. Horrible room that one is, I don't like the atmosphere in there. I went in the other day to collect the piss-pots, and I was stung by a wasp. A wasp, at this time of year! I've never heard anything like it".
"You must see the blokes in there though?"
"The new one's downstairs most of the time. He was the one that turned up out of the blue the night She walked in the village. Life and soul of the party he is. Always surrounded by a gang of mates. Might have summat to do with the money he's always flashing round. No one has to buy their own drinks when he's about".
"But the other fella?"
"Been in bed for days. Doc reckons he's nothing but a malingerer, but he hasn't seen him except the once. I think he's got a bad dose of flu meself".
Adam was shocked by the deterioration in Rooly and his cottage. Rooly hadn't washed or shaved for several days, and his hair was starting to smell. His shirt bore the evidence of burn-marks and drink stains. The cottage was littered with smoking sandalwood joss-sticks, which were very giddying in the confined space. One of the obligatory silk scarves had been torn down from the wall nearest the door, and replaced with a picture drawn directly onto the whitewash. It was a large reproduction of the Gorgon's head, which he had already sketched several times before. Adam found the image even more disturbing on a large-scale, and tried to keep his back to it all the time he was talking to Rooly.
"The Ministry make deliveries to the Winter Palace every six weeks or so", said Rooly.
Adam recalled Hillyard's description of the sinister boxes he had seen in the City warehouse.
"There is one due this afternoon", Rooly paced the room in agitation "Around dusk. I have it on good authority from Bist, he runs the massage centre next door. Although you'll probably notice that the knowledge becomes more widespread as the day goes on, as no one likes to be out and about when they bring the cargo through. Not because it's dangerous, but I suppose we all get a bit superstitious about seeing it".
"This is all very interesting Rooly, but what has it particularly got to do with me?"
"They take the cargo up through the forest", Rooly explained "To do so they have to limit the range of the Gorgon for a few hours. They usually confine her to some remote part of the forest which is nowhere near the route they take. This only lasts a couple of hours though. If you wish to get to the Winter Palace safely you'll have to be damn quick".
"That was very useful information Rooly. I appreciate it", said Adam, and turned to leave.
"How much do you appreciate it?"
Adam instantly felt trapped. His natural instinct was to tell Rooly to take the appreciation on offer and shove it somewhere warm and tight. But Rooly now held too many cards. He knew what their plans were, and could blow the whistle on them at any time. Rooly was now genuinely dangerous.
"Alright", Adam faced him "Tell me what it is you want, but I warn you I have a filthy temper so I'd advise you not to make any excessive demands".
"You know what I want", said Rooly "I simply want to travel with you".
"You're mad Rooly, you know what the risks are".
"It doesn't seem to stop you taking them".
"We're doing it for Patsy".
"He must be a good lay! ... I'm sorry, please forgive my personal remarks, but I'm desperate to get out of here".
"I can understand that, but there must be less drastic ways than to risk encountering the Gorgon".
"I've had a pretty lousy life one way or the other", Rooly sighed "When I think of all the precious time I've wasted, years and years of it, I shudder! You can forgive a desperate man his last fling. And you see I do love you".
"You hardly know me!"
"I love you, and I want to be with you, whether you treat me with contempt or not. It's my last chance to do something worth remembering. I would like to be there when your cute little friend finally vanquishes the Devil. I'm sincere in what I say".
"And how much hold does She have over you?" Adam waved his hand behind him in the direction of the Gorgon mural.
"I wish to be free of her".
"By possibly walking into her arms?"
"At least then I'd be free", said Rooly "She can only gorgonise me once. Just once that's all. And then I'm out of it. She's evil, as evil as the Devil himself. All his satellites - the Gorgon, the vampires, the giant worms - they're all as evil as he is. Like poisonous snakes attached to a central monstrous skull. A Gorgon motif in itself".
Rooly crossed over the mural and looked up at it.
"Have you noticed?" he said "How phallic the snakes and worms on her head are? They could almost be amputated cocks, couldn't they?"
"Yes", said Adam, feeling uncomfortable "It's grim Rooly. You'll go off your head if you don't snap out of this obsession".
"Which is precisely why I need to travel with you. Get away from this prison. I won't be any trouble, I promise you".
"Somehow I have great difficulty in believing you".
"Please. I've helped you haven't I? I told you about the deliveries".
By now Rooly had grasped Adam's arms and was staring at him intently. Adam found himself gazing into the eyes of total despair. Suddenly he saw himself as he had been a few years ago, a mixed-up wreck, existing on artificial stimulants and hopeless yearnings. Only in his case the yearnings had since been fulfilled. It wasn't too much of an exaggeration to say that he had become a different man because of Kieran. He doubted if he could create the same miracle on Rooly, simply because he felt nothing for him. Even if Rooly forced himself onto him, as he himself had done to Kieran in the beginning, he could only imagine himself responding with, at best, boredom, and at worst, disgust and anger.
"You put me in a very difficult position", he said, disentangling himself forcibly from Rooly's grasp "If I walk out and leave you now I'll feel guilty, and you'll probably end up killing yourself. If I take you with me, I'm peddling you false hopes and dreams".
"I'll take the false hopes and dreams", said Rooly.
Kieran woke up to find that Adam had disappeared, Joby was splashing noisily in a bowl of tepid water, and Hillyard was standing at the foot of the bed looking thuggish.
"Where's Adam?" Kieran asked, groggily.
"He crept out earlier, clutching his boots", said Joby.
"Well where's he gone?"
"You're focking useless you are. He could be anywhere!" Kieran tossed the bedclothes aside, and shuddered as his bare feet touched the bare boards "And why are you looking at me like that Hillyard?"
"I think you should see the fella in the room on the other side of me", he said.
"Why, does he need an exorcist or something?" said Kieran.
"I don't like the sound of him. He's been groaning for days, and it's been worse this past night".
"Then get the landlord onto it. It's his pub. Why have I got to sort it out?"
"Some of the sounds I've heard in there", said Hillyard, awkwardly "Well they're unearthly. If it is something evil then you'll have a better chance than any of the rest of us".
Kieran got dressed and went across the landing to Room Four, followed by Hillyard and Joby. He rapped on the door a couple of times but received no reply. He tried the doorhandle, and was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to find it was unlocked.
The room was so stuffy that it felt like walking into a tomb that had just been unsealed after 4000 years. There was an abominable smell, which came from vampire excrement left on the floor. Two wasps buzzed around the windowsill, which made the atmosphere even more sordid and depressing. The truckle bed had been stripped of its bedlinen, as though no one had ever slept there. From the main bed came an ominous rattling sound, which Kieran realised he had heard once before.
"It's alright mate", Kieran leaned over the recumbent body "We've just come in to see how you are".
The Moustachioed One seemed to have shrunk to about half his normal size. When Kieran had last seen him, in the bar several days ago, the other man had been broad and full of colour in his face. He bore no relation to the emaciated, pale creature now before them, who appeared to be in the last throes of life. Bony, mottled fingers reached out shakily and tried to pull Kieran nearer.
"It really is you", the man said, in a rasping whisper "They always said you'd appear. I felt there was something different about you when I saw you downstairs ..."
"What's happened to you?" said Kieran.
"Evil did this", the man said, using up his very last reserves of energy "He did this to me. The fools ... they let him in! Invited him in. The worst thing you can do, invite a vampire over the threshold. I used to be a strong man".
"I know, so what happened to you?"
"He ... he has been supping on me for days", the last word came out as a strangled cry "I can't breathe very deeply ... I can't find the breath".
"Where has he gone?"
"But where has he gone?" Kieran said, desperately, realising that there was only a matter of seconds left.
"B-back there. Where he came from. The Winter Palace. Destroy him".
The man lay back on his filthy pillow, turned his face to the wall and breathed his last.
"Is he dead?" said Hillyard.
Kieran nodded. He tugged at the edge of the blanket and went to pull it up over the man's face. He noticed though, almost with a feeling of terrified resignation, that the man's skin seemed to have turned a strange colour in parts. Slowly he pulled the blanket back and took in the lurid purple marks that blotched the man's body from head to foot like a form of skin cancer. The man had been bitten to death.
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