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In the pearly moonlight Rooly saw a pair of breasts for the very first time. They were more beautiful than anything he had ever seen before, and he felt a yearning so intense that it hurt. He didn't want to waste another moment of his life. If he was to die now he at least wanted to experience the smooth flesh of the breasts against his lips first.
The Woman parted her cloak even further. Her head was completely obscured by a large hood which overshadowed her face, and her lower half was hidden behind a fall of silk, but Rooly was only interested in the breasts. He didn't want to fuck this woman, he wanted to be suckled by her like a baby. As if she could read his thoughts she traced a delicate path around her nipples with her talons, silently promising him that this would all be his if he would just cross the moonlit glade towards her.
He didn't hesitate. She held out her cloak and he ran into her arms like a child being comforted by his mother. Her breasts were warm against his lips, and she smelt of hot milk. He pressed his face further into her flesh. Her breasts were damp where the snow had fallen onto her bare skin. Gently but firmly she placed her hands on either side of his head, and raised his face upwards.
At the last moment Rooly panicked and struggled to free himself, but the Gorgon had him in her grasp. He closed his eyes, he tried to look away, but at the same time he felt compelled to gaze into her terrible face. His dreams hadn't deceived him. She was truly monstrous, and from that moment on he was slowly turning to stone.
Lonts had seen it all. Hiding behind a tree a few feet away he had watched the cloaked figure of the Gorgon enfold Rooly like an enormous bat. He himself had been playing a cat-and-mouse game with her ever since he had been living rough in the forest. By day he felt safe, although he was often disturbed when stumbling across a weather-beaten stone figure found clinging to a tree, or a curled up in a ball on the ground. As soon as darkness came he usually located a sturdy tree and climbed up it, where he pulled his coat over his head and vainly sought sleep. Last night he had climbed onto the roof of the hut and spied on the others, but since then he hadn't been able to shake off the feeling that he had been seen.
By now he was wide-eyed and nervy from lack of rest. It had been impossible to sleep, because he was terrified of falling from a tree and waking to find Her leaning over him. The only consolation was that the demon inside him was firmly suppressed by this all-pervading fear. Instead the child-Lonts was to the fore. He wanted to be out of the forest. He wanted to be warm again. He wanted a full belly. He wanted to sleep. He didn't want to hear another wolf in the distance. But most of all he wanted to be safe from Her. He often wished he had trashed his cell at the Assizes Court, or attacked a warder, or attempted suicide. Any of those actions would have ensured his continued incarceration. He would have been truly safe then, and Krik's spirit would have withered and died through lack of an arena to play in.
All he could do now was to keep walking and walking, and hope that one day he would run out of forest. It was all a nightmare, and he was caught up in its ghastly net. As Rooly began to die in the Gorgon's arms, Lonts silently retreated and looked for another tree to climb.
At first light Kieran emerged from the hut. He sat down on the woodpile and stared into the trees. He too was suffering from a lack of sleep. He had heard noises all night, shrill whistles and screams, and had repeatedly told himself for the sake of his own sanity that he had imagined it all. He was certain by now that Rooly was dead, and he tried to imagine what it must have been like for him to stare into the creature's face. At that moment did Rooly suddenly regret his rash decision to run into the forest, knowing there was no way back?
"I want you to drink this", Joby appeared, holding out a mug of coffee "Not chuck it over me".
"And why should I do that?"
"'Cos you look as though you might".
"Why do people always take on greater significance when they're dead?" Kieran sighed.
"I dunno, but at least Rooly won't haunt us the way Angel does".
"I damn well hope not anyway".
"They're shedding crocodile tears over that pathetic masochistic loser", said Artuul, who had been watching the boys from the doorway.
"Those were long words for you Artuul", said Adam "Anyway they care about people. I dare say it's a concept you wouldn't know much about".
"I don't believe in hypocrisy that's all", Artuul picked up a spoon and critically gazed at his blurred reflection in it.
"Tell me Artuul, why do you want to be the Vanquisher of Evil so badly? It can't be out of concern for people, or a desire to see goodness prevail. It must be just your ego working. That's the only reason I can think of as to why you wanted to kill Patsy".
"He what?" Hillyard was alerted from the other side of the hut, where he had been watching Resz sharpening his tools.
"He tried to drown Patsy in Resz's water-butt".
Resz glanced up, but then resumed his honing. Even potential murder on his doorstep held little of interest for him. The authorities had done their job well. Artuul didn't like the expression that had appeared on Hillyard's face though, and decided to beat a diplomatic retreat from the hut.
"I thought Kieran was supposed to be your babe?" Hillyard exploded at Adam "If someone had tried to drown Stombal I would have buried 'em in shit! Why haven't you done anything about it?"
"Because I ... I couldn't think of anything bad enough that's why!" Adam cried, passionately.
"Well I can", said Hillyard, and he grabbed the toasting-fork from the edge of the fire.
Adam made no attempt to stop him.
"What is he to you anyway?" Artuul squawked, when Hillyard cornered him round the back of the hut.
"He's what's going to put this arm-pit of a world right", Hillyard shouted "He is what's going to make some point out of all this craziness, put some meaning into why Stombal died the way he did. And I'm not going to have you fuck it up for us all".
Hillyard moved towards Artuul, and held the toasting-fork so close to his face that Artuul could still feel the heat from the fire.
"This is the worst thing that could happen to you isn't it Artuul? To be scarred for life. You'd hate it. You'd look like a freak. You'd feel like topping yourself then wouldn't you?"
"That's enough Hillyard".
Kieran walked over and held out his hand. Hillyard reluctantly handed over the toasting-fork. Artuul took advantage of the situation to beat yet another retreat. This time back to the hut, as he was running out of other places to go to.
"I was doing it for you", Hillyard mumbled.
"You were doing it for Stombal", Kieran said, wearily.
"And for you".
"For me as the Vanquisher of Evil, or for me as Kieran? Don't answer that, it wasn't a fair question. I suppose that's something I've got to get used to. People reacting to me as the entity, not the man".
"You'll always have my full support ... as the man".
"Thank you", Kieran tapped the toasting-fork "But I'll do me own sorting-out in future".
Rooly slithered through the undergrowth like an injured snake. His right arm and one side of his torso had gone completely numb, and grey bits flaked off his skin when he rubbed it. He had heard of this happening, of men taking many hours to completely gorgonise. He wished it had been quicker. When it is a certainty that you're going to die, there seems little point in prolonging life by a mere few hours.
He was in complete agony now. There was an intense pain in his chest and his stomach which almost asphyxiated him. He reached the horrifying conclusion that his brain would be the last part to go, and so he might be aware of the process almost right to the very end.
He rolled onto his back and rested for a moment, marvelling at the startling winter blueness of the sky through the trees. Nature played abhorrent tricks by making life so vivid right at the very end. He gathered his breath and crawled on. The hut was now in sight.
Joby had found him, and dragged his half-gorgonised body out of the forest. He took him into the hut and wrapped him in blankets, more as a way to stop himself feeling helpless than because it was of any use to Rooly.
"Adam", Rooly gasped, forcing the word out through cracked lips.
"He's here", said Joby, as the said man appeared in the doorway.
Adam approached him, horrified at what he saw. The gorgonisation process was now so advanced that Rooly could barely move his eyes or his lips. Adam placed his hand on the man's right arm and felt cold stone.
"Why did you do it Rooly? Why?"
"I w-wanted to see a Woman".
"But she's not a real woman", Joby protested.
Adam shushed him, but Rooly seemed to be beyond caring.
"S-she's near as ... " Rooly swallowed with difficulty, and threw the words out with sheer frustration "near as dammit as I'll ever get".
"Was there something else you wanted to say?"
"K-Kieran is The One. If he destroys the Devil he will lead you all to the end ... the end of time", Rooly managed a small laugh, dredged up within a small part of himself still untouched by stone "I've seen him, and Her. I've done well".
They buried Rooly on the edge of the forest, and Kieran improvised a cross out of twigs. No one argued with the fact that Rooly had died through his own foolishness, but at the end he had died with dignity. Adam remembered the drawings in the cottage. Rooly would never have got the Gorgon out of his system. It was inevitable that she would ultimately be the cause of his death.
Resz watched the funeral from a distance. Rooly's death had come as no surprise to him, and yet occasionally something penetrated the dense fug that now encircled his brain. Up until the operation his life had been dictated by anger. Violent, intense anger. Sometimes he had imagined that he could see it, this destructive emotion, like a thick black cloud curdling around his insides. That black cloud was no longer there, but as he watched Kieran bash the cross into Rooly's grave, he realised there was still something he could do. And he should have done it before.
As was his custom Lonts had spent the night shivering in a tree. He replayed Rooly's murder over and over in his mind, and he was now completely terrified. As terrified as he had been when the travelling preacher had ignited the flames in Kiskev, as terrified as he had been the night Krik was executed. Krik's demon voice had been silent inside him for some time now, but Lonts knew he was only taking a respite. Sometimes he dared to hope that he had gone for good, but he knew it was only a matter of time before he heard it tormenting him again.
He had watched the others bury Rooly, and had desperately wanted to join them, to beg for their protection. But such an action would only rouse the dormant Krik, and before he knew it he might be attempting to harm Hillyard again. He knew that Krik was scared witless of the one they called Kieran, and Lonts wished he was brave enough to carry Krik's spirit towards him and demand an exorcism. But he doubted if he could defy Krik long enough for it to cause any good.
The burial over, the others went back inside the hut. Lonts watched them, and felt like a ghost. He was separated from them by an invisible wall, namely that of Krik resting in his belly like a demon seed. Rooly's grave reminded him that he did not want to spend another night in the forest. He had seen the way She had hypnotised Rooly, and was mortally afraid that the same would happen to him.
Lonts moved as close to the hut as he dared. The low murmuring voices from within were like a knife in his heart. He felt like an unwanted child, barred from the inner sanctum of the grown-ups, unable to be trusted with the secret knowledge they possessed. He almost fancied that he could feel Krik's spirit stirring from re-awakened interest. If Lonts walked into the hut now, as he was sorely tempted to do, then Krik might have unlimited scope for destruction. Whilst that malevolent killer was still tucked up inside him he had to keep him removed from people Lonts cared about, and thus deprive Krik of the oxygen by which he flourished.
He had long since heard about the Winter Palace, and when it hove into his line of vision he knew that that was the answer to his problem. A castle of vampires, the evil rotten core at the heart of their society. If Krik wanted a playground Lonts was going to give it to him. Let him fight other evil instead of picking on more innocents, he reasoned.
The Winter Palace rose on a grassless mound out of a lake which had lone since gone putrid. No one knew why. Theories ranged from the fanciful (the evil had contaminated the water), to the revolting but practical (all the human remains that had been tossed into it were bound to have an effect eventually). The vampires' careless dumping of their victims was occasionally a serious problem for the Ministry. After a "glutting session" it had been known for the corpses to get washed downstream, and become entangled in the dam by the main energy station. This powerhouse provided electricity to the civilised world, and so it wasn't just lack of sufficient resources that caused so many powercuts in the City.
When it was first built, 500 years before, in the early aftermath of the Warming, the Palace had been the holiday retreat of the City bishops. In those days it had been a strikingly-beautiful place, with gilded ceilings, cool white-painted walls, carved doorways, and exotic plants trained to grow up the bannisters of the staircases. When religion was outlawed it became a research establishment. But when the vampires moved in the Palace seemed to close in on itself and surrender to decay. It was no longer a shimmering castle proudly perched atop a glassy lake, but a seedy fortress rising out of a swamp.
Lonts emerged from the trees and paused to gaze at this ugly biscuit-coloured monolith. The windows had no glass in them, although some were shuttered against the softly falling snow, and he thought he could see someone watching him from one of the corner towers. The figure had disappeared before he could focus on it properly. The whole view filled him with terror, and yet Lonts was beginning to take some pride in his ongoing survival. He had endured burning, prison, and the Gorgon. He was now determined he would eject Krik into the Palace and leave him there.
"You might frighten people half your size", he said "Let's see how you get on with some real evil bastards for a change".
As he stood at the entrance to the bridge which led over the swamp to the Palace, Lonts heard a noise behind him. He turned to find a covered litter, pulled by a plodding bullock, bearing down on him. The litter was covered with fur hangings which concealed the occupant, and kept him insulated against the wintry blast outside. Lonts could imagine the comforting snugness within those curtains, and felt the cold himself even more.
He shook his damp hair out of his eyes and hastily stepped aside to let the driverless litter pass. As it neared him it slowed to a standstill as though on an unspoken command. The fur hangings parted and Caln peered out. He waved his hand irritably at the boy, and gestured him to move closer.
Lonts did so. Inside the litter Caln was wrapped in furs like a cosseted invalid. His robe was warm and heavy, and wrapped snugly around him. To Lonts, who had spent several nights shivering in a tree in the depths of winter, the whole image was enough to make him go weak at the knees. It was as if he wanted to do nothing more with the rest of his life than climb into the litter and pull the hangings shut behind him.
"Are you looking for something?" demanded Caln.
"The Winter Palace", Lonts replied, guilelessly.
"What do you want here?"
"I-I've got an evil spirit inside me. I want to get rid of it".
"And you think the Winter Palace is some kind of fucking dumping-ground?"
"I thought that was exactly what it was".
Caln scrutinised the boy carefully. Incredible though it was to believe Lonts wasn't trying to be a smart-mouth. Lonts saw everything as a stark truth and didn't know how to act otherwise.
"Who are you?" Caln snapped.
"Where are you from? And how did you get through the forest?"
"Kiskev originally, and I hid from the Gorgon".
"So", Caln bit his lip thoughtfully. (He liked doing this, because if he bit it hard enough it was quite painful) "You're the Kiskev Survivor. I'd heard they'd let you out. And what's this evil spirit then?"
"Krik. They executed him, only trouble was at the point of death he got into me".
"Krik The Child-Mutilator", Caln bit his lip even more.
Lonts's sodden clothes were sticking to his firm young body. The sight excited Caln, and presented him with an interesting dilemma. Should he leave the little Bible-thumper to perish in the snow, with Krik to torment him to the last, or should he invite him into the Palace for some amusement? The latter held more scope for prolonged pleasure. New excitements were getting harder and harder to come by, and Caln couldn't always satisfy his blood-lust completely by just mindlessly gorging. The initial euphoria was starting to wear off too quickly these days. It was worrying.
"You look cold", he said, smiling "Why don't you jump up here with me and get warm?"
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