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"Your spots are clearing up Joby. Must be all this wonderful fresh air we're getting", said Kieran "You're beginning to look presentable at long last".
"That so eh?" Joby grabbed a handful of snow and rubbed it into Kieran's nose.
Adam watched as Kieran wrestled him to the ground. He was jolted out of his reverie by Artuul approaching nearby.
"Looking forward to your big moment Artuul?" he said "When you finally rid this land of its pestilence. I can't wait to see how you manage it".
"He wouldn't be the first one who mistakenly thought he was the Vanquisher of Evil", Resz muttered.
This remark startled Adam, as Resz rarely said anything without firm prompting first.
"What did you mean out there?" asked Adam, following him into the hut "Resz, look I know things are difficult for you. I know that you've probably forgotten what it's like to care for someone ..."
"No I haven't", said Resz "Not quite anyway".
"Well then you'll understand that I'll do anything to protect my own".
Resz did understand that all too well. After all, they hadn't destroyed his memory, just made him detached from it. He could remember many angry assaults on his victims, brought on by what he had thought were threats to those closest to him.
"I understand that", he said, mechanically.
"Then tell me all I need to know about the Winter Palace".
"You already know as much as I do", Resz shrugged.
"Oh come off it! You visit there on a regular basis".
"Yea, but I don't see much of ... Them. My main contact is with Braw, he sort of well takes care of the place. I'll tell you about him if you like".
"Please do", Adam pushed the door shut behind him.
"Braw came out here several years ago, long before I did", said Resz "Apparently he had wanted to save society and destroy the vampires".
"He thought he was the Vanquisher of Evil?"
"And a lot of others thought he was too", said Resz "I met him once before, back in the City. He doesn't remember it now. He had something special about him. People noticed him. He didn't even have to say or do anything, but everywhere he went he always caused a stir. Whether he was meant to be the Vanquisher of Evil or not I can't say, but he was convincing enough for most people. Anyway, he believed it. Long and the short of it was he said he was coming out here to destroy Them, and was never seen again. Of course, everyone thought They'd killed him".
"But I take it they didn't?"
"They made him work for them. Menial jobs, dirty jobs. Cleaning up their shit, disposing of the remains of their victims, that sort of thing".
"Why didn't he just run away?"
"Because they'd destroyed him. Turned him into an old man overnight. He can't walk far without help, he can't remember anything for longer than a few minutes at a time. He's the same age as you and me, yet he looks ninety. The reason I wanted to tell you about him is..."
"It's obvious", said Adam, quietly "They could do the same to Patsy, isn't that right?"
"Your friend reminds me of a lot of people. Thin blondes seem to pass through my life every so often, making ripples. You'll know Braw when you see him, and I warn you he'll give you the creeps. If you want some idea of what your friend's going to look like in his old age, you just take a look at Braw".
Resz turned his back and began to rummage in his tool-box, a signal that the conversation was over.
The litter rattled across the wooden bridge and into the central atrium of the Palace. Lonts parted the curtains and stared about him wide-eyed. The Palace resembled nothing so much as a set of rotting teeth, and yet like a raddled old tart it was still possible to get small glimpses of the gilded beauty it had once been.
"Do you live here alone?" asked Lonts "Have you got all this to yourself?"
Caln couldn't be bothered to reply. Lonts was already beginning to bore him, and he didn't intend to keep him alive for any longer than was necessary, unless he could think of something suitably sick to do with him in the meantime. For now he contented himself with pushing him out of the litter. Lonts landed on all fours, straightened himself up, and then eagerly warmed himself on a lit brazier, one of several dotted around the atrium.
An attendant, a very old man, seemed to appear from nowhere. He moved with an extreme limp, which slowed him down markedly, much to Caln's annoyance.
"I swear you get fucking slower each day Braw", he snapped "Hey, Lonts isn't it? You wanna meet Braw? He was once a Bible-basher, like you. Came out here to convert us, silly bastard. Thought you was something special then didn't you, Braw?"
"I was nearly famous once", came the half-witted reply. It was the only comment Braw generally had on his past life.
Lonts followed them both up the central staircase. This had once been the showpiece of the Palace, with flowers arranged along the bannisters to make it seem as though the steps were growing out of an exotic plant. Now the flowers were weeds and the stairs were crumbling. In a whitewashed room at the top Lonts was told to wait by himself. The only item of furniture in the room was a bed, and Lonts was under no illusions as to what was intended for him. Although still a virgin, and a very naive one at that, Lonts was happy to be initiated into the mysteries of sex at any time. He had wanted Hillyard to seduce him at the inn, but the demon Krik had got in the way, urging him to dope the man's coffee. Lonts had since worked out that Krik was wary of him discovering carnal pleasures, perhaps because he was worried that this new dimension in his life would give Lonts added strength to fight him.
Now he was safely out of the forest, Lonts's thoughts turned to ways of subduing the demon. Being seduced by an evil bastard like Caln would be a start, although what would really have been effective would have been to bed the one they called Kieran, the Vanquisher of Evil. He had missed his chance at the inn, had let Krik overpower him too soon, and only now could he understand why Krik became hysterical if he was put in close proximity to Kieran. If Lonts had given himself to Kieran he would have given away Krik's debauched soul in the process, hurling it into oblivion. None of that mattered at the moment though. Instead he felt a thrill of anticipation. He was about to hammer the first nail into Krik's coffin.
Lonts was confused and disappointed. He had no idea if he was still a virgin or not. Caln hadn't done any of the things he had expected. He had merely walked into the room, lay down beside him, and then proceeded to take small nips with his teeth at Lonts's skin, particularly around the neck and chest area. Lonts had found it all to be rather dull and uncomfortable. It was painfully obvious that Caln felt no desire for him at all, and whatever pleasure he gained from leaving the small trail of bite-marks on Lonts's skin was beyond him. Of course he knew that Caln was a vampire and so they took your flesh and blood, but if so he had been remarkably satisfied with a pathetic few drops.
"Don't you like me?" he asked, as Caln made to move off the bed.
"Like you!" Caln exclaimed, as though such a concept was beyond all reason.
"I thought you'd like to do something with me".
"You'll have to wait then won't you? Now you're here you're not going anywhere. It'll keep both of you confused in the meantime".
Caln then proceeded to defecate onto the floor, like a wolf. Lonts watched in disbelief. Caln left the room. Lonts rolled onto his side, facing away from Caln's crap. He felt more homesick than ever for Kiskev, but he couldn't return there whilst Krik still inhabited him. His stomach made a squelching noise, and a sharp pain shot through him like volcanic lava. Lonts clutched his stomach and tried desperately to remember some prayers.
Joby entered the hut to fetch his belongings and halted suddenly. At first he thought his eyesight was playing tricks on him, provoking a cruel mirage. He really couldn't believe what he was seeing, as he gazed upon the half-naked form of Artuul standing before him.
"Artuul", he gasped "You've got tits!"
He moved slowly towards Artuul, who stood facing him, his chest undeniably sprouting a pair of pert small breasts. Joby reached out as though to touch them, and then drew his hand back.
"They're real", he whispered "What are you Artuul? A-are you a w-woman?"
"Would you forgive me for trying to murder your friend if I was?" said Artuul, in his snakiest voice "Yes I expect you would".
"Are you a woman?" Joby repeated, insistently.
Artuul had been reaching for a sweater, but instead he paused and yanked down the front of his trousers. Joby gazed with extreme disappointment at the contents of the man's pants. Although not as physically superior as his magazine photographs would have anyone believe, Artuul was most definitely of the male gender. He laughed at Joby's confusion.
"Then what are you?" Joby roared, like an injured lion "A fucking hermaphrodite!"
"Modelling is a hard profession", Artuul dressed himself in a leisurely fashion "One has to offer something exceptional with one's physique. I took pills to enhance mine. Unfortunately there are sometimes side-effects as you have seen. I'm not the only ravishing hunk to sport ... er ... 'tits' as you call them. It often increases our value on the streets though. Makes the punters feel they are getting forbidden fruit. Would you like to fondle one Joby?"
Joby bolted from the hut in despair.
"I don't think I can take any more disappointments like that. First the eunuch at the inn, and now Artuul. It's not sodding fair!"
"Kicking trees again Jobe" Kieran squeezed Joby's hand, which seemed to have a calming effect on the boy.
"It sounds like steroids to me", said Adam "That would account for his strength, and those psychopathic urges he gets. Uncontrollable rages being one of the other side-effects".
"I don't fucking care", tears had sprung into Joby's eyes "That kind of deception shouldn't be allowed. What kind of a world is this? Nothing but freaks, that's all there is".
"Pull yourself together Joby", said Adam, sternly "You carry on sometimes as though you're the only stranger here".
"That's 'cos I feel like it", Joby sniffed.
"Oh he's in one of his self-pitying moods", Kieran sighed "Anyone would think he had to take on the forces of darkness, not me".
Kieran pulled up his fur hood until it obscured most of his face.
"There", he said "If you were some poxy vampire, would you recognise me as the Vanquisher of Evil now?"
Even though he was hundreds of miles down the cable Gorth found it hard to look Caln in the eye. There was a lot of interference on the line, which at times mercifully obscured the vampire's face. No one enjoyed these weekly contact talks with the Winter Palace, and Gorth always despaired when it was his turn. He knew he was safe on the other side of the t.v monitor, and yet he sometimes had the distinct impression that Caln could reach out through the glass and tear out his throat as easily as if he was sitting in the same room.
"It's a serious problem you see", Gorth continued, laboriously, only too aware that he had Caln's attention under sufferance "We were very fortunate that there weren't more deaths. There might have to be a Ministry inquiry".
"Why?" asked Caln.
"Why?" Gorth repeated, helplessly.
"Yea, why? I mean, it won't happen again", said Caln "It was a technical fault, that's all. The Gorgon's confined to the forest, you have my word on that".
Gorth placed no value at all on Caln's word, but he had no choice than to accept it.
"You'd better be quick now", Caln went on "The picture might break up at any moment".
"Well as you know there's been an official inquiry into the mass disappearance at the Henang penal colony, but we need your co-operation on this matter. Were the Blue Men involved?"
"No", said Caln, wearily.
Gorth was stonewalled. He knew damn well that Caln was lying, but he had no power over the vampire at all. He had no choice than to accept his blanket refusal to co-operate.
"The reason I asked", he said, ploughing on "Was that shortly before it all happened one of the oldest prisoners complained that his cell-mate had been abducted - by the Blue Men".
Caln remembered the cell-mate vividly. The old lag had been dying of cancer, his insides had tasted foul. Such things happened occasionally. It was the price you paid for choosing victims that you didn't think the Ministry would miss, all part of this charade that both sides kept up, of sustaining an appearance of civilised behaviour. All nonsense of course. The mass disappearance at Henang had been audacious and well-executed. Nearly 600 men had disappeared, seemingly without trace, and the Ministry was shown once and for all to be completely powerless against the vampires. Caln giggled, which upset Gorth.
"Can't you just tell us what happened?" Gorth said, in desperation.
"No", Caln continued to giggle "Afraid not. Is that it then, for now?"
"Yes, that's it", Gorth's shoulders sagged. He had asked what he had been told to ask, but no one had seriously expected answers.
"Bye for now then", said Caln, flippantly "And remember ... Pandora's box".
Gorth watched the screen go blank. Pandora's box was Caln's habitual signing-off remark. Pandora's box was what gave the vampires control over them all.
Caln continued to giggle after the screen had turned into the customary black hole. He stopped when Mullawa came into the room. As usual, once in the other vampire's presence, Caln felt an urge to cower under the nearest table. In spite of his cadaverous appearance Mullawa had far more power than Caln, whose own authority was limited to bouts of schoolboy sadism. Mullawa was the real power, and he terrified Caln. There had originally been dozens of vampires when they had first emerged from the green sludge sixty years before. But over the decades Mullawa had destroyed most of them until there was only himself and Caln left. The outside world didn't know this though, and still laboured under the delusion that the vampires constituted a huge army of invincible power.
"There is meat around", Mullawa tied his robe over his naked body. He had been gorging since the caskets had arrived, and so he now bore a slightly bloated look, at variance to his usual ghostly appearance "Live meat I mean. Where is it?"
"He was a boy I found wandering on the bridge", Caln kissed the hem of Mullawa's robe, a gesture that the other vampire barely noticed.
"Oh?" said Mullawa, in his soft, slightly breathy voice "Where was it from?"
"Kiskev. The only one left. I-I thought it was quite funny that he should come here, don't you?"
Mullawa looked at him with an expression not dissimilar to the contemptuous one Caln had given Lonts earlier.
"Where is it?" said Mullawa.
"About the Palace, s-somewhere".
"Well I had a taster, j-just to make sure it wasn't contaminated you understand. It's very young and pure. It's skin is incredibly smooth".
"Find it for me".
Lonts wandered the Palace as the afternoon turned slowly into a winter twilight. Flaming sconces cast eerie amber glows over the bare stone walls, and revealed that the castle seemed to be devoid of any creature comforts. Furniture was at a minimum and what there was gave Lonts the shudders. The dining-chairs for instance appeared to be made out of the remains of gorgonised victims, with carved stone heads leering up over the backs. Gargoylish stone faces peered out from between carved candlesticks clutched in their dead hands. The doors were so huge that Lonts had to reach up with both hands to turn the handles. When the Winter Palace had been a bishops' residence the doors had been painted with Biblical scenes. They had since been re-done with Hieronymous Bosch-style images of Hell, containing much detailed work on scenes of torture, flagellation and dismemberment. Lonts tried not to look at them. They reminded him of the horrific bonfire at Kiskev, in which all his friends had perished.
He met no one on his travels, although he strongly suspected they were around. He could sense other presences, and sometimes heard footsteps on staircases hidden behind the walls. There seemed to be a complete warren of corridors, rooms and stairs that were hidden from view. A legacy from the days, long since gone, when the Winter Palace had employed a whole fleet of servants.
Caln had taken advantage of his own detailed knowledge of the complicated layout of the Palace. Like a mouse in the wainscotting he ran up windowless staircases and along narrow corridors, which had been roughly hewn out of the internal masonry. He followed his nose, instinct telling him where the live meat was now situated.
He eventually ran an unsuspecting Lonts to earth at the top of the building, creeping along a corridor directly underneath the rafters. Lonts was startled at seeing Caln suddenly emerge from a concealed door in the wall beside him.
"You were looking for a bit of excitement", said Caln.
"I was?" asked Lonts.
"Come on. There's someone who wants to meet you. And you'd better not keep him waiting".
The walls of Mullawa's chambers were dotted with peepholes, carved into the stonework and camouflaged by the faces of gargoyles. From these he could see down into the atrium, into the corridor outside his room, and into the dining-room. On this occasion he had concealed himself on the tower staircase outside his bedchamber, and watched in private as Caln brought the live meat into the room.
He was disappointed initially that there wasn't more of it, but what there was looked deliciously tender. In spite of his recent gorging Mullawa found himself becoming aroused. This would be no simple feasting for the sake of it, usually on meat that had become tough and dry. This was a dish to assault the senses.
Caln left Lonts standing in the middle of the room. He knew better than to hang around when Mullawa wanted to absorb a prime cut. The best he could hope for was that some of it might get left for him. He was used to getting Mullawa's scraps.
Mullawa stepped out of the tower and Lonts quailed visibly on seeing him. He had been close to evil before, and he recognised the disgusted sensation in himself that it provoked. What he saw was a vampire who looked personable enough, but the eyes chilled him. The eyes were dead, only to flash fleetingly into life when it desired something. And then the look of desire soon became a stare of gross intensity, as the vampire, with frightening speed, grew desperate to be satiated.
Mullawa approached the live meat, and prowled around it, looking at it from all angles. Lonts grew increasingly more nervous. He wanted to speak, feeling that words would break this hostile silent spell, but he couldn't force them out of his throat. Suddenly Mullawa grabbed the boy's shirt and ripped it open. With that one movement Lonts went from being frightened to sexually excited, although to him there was precious little difference in the two sensations. Not only would this formidable partner be more than a match for the odious Krik (who had been ominously still since Lonts's entry into the Winter Palace), but he might be able to satisfy some of the thoughts which were beginning to obsess this young man. He was fed up with the mysteries of sex, and wanted someone to forcibly hurl him into the maelstrom of carnal knowledge.
Mullawa though saw the nip marks on the boy's chest and was furious, as though someone had taken a bite out of a favourite soft centre and then put it back in the box. For a moment he was angry and repelled, forgetting that Caln had warned him he had tested the meat first. But then he touched the boy's skin. It was, as Caln had said, splendidly smooth. He ran his hands over it, squeezing parts that particularly took his fancy. Lonts felt the touch of the vampire's long fingernails on his skin. Something was battering at his loins, yelling to be pleased. But the vampire seemed to be in no hurry.
For no reason at all that Lonts could see, Mullawa suddenly paused and sniffed the air, like a dog sensing the approach of a thunderstorm.
"What is it?" asked Lonts.
Mullawa laughed. The kind of self-satisfied laugh a vicious person gives when they are at last to be granted a special treat. To Lonts's dismay Mullawa ran gleefully from the room, in pursuit of even more delectable prey.
He met Caln heading in the same direction. Mullawa grabbed his wrist and slammed him roughly against the wall.
"The meat in there", he said, pointing behind him "is mine, understand? Just because I'm going below doesn't mean I've lost interest in it. I'm saving it for later, understand?"
"Yea, alright", said Caln, hoarsely "There's some new meat just turned up".
"I thought as much", said Mullawa "Not Ministry are they?"
"Don't know who they are, but they were at the Marlsblad inn when I was there. Four of them, plus one they've got with them in a hood that I don't recognise".
"All in good condition?"
"Yea, as far as I can tell", Caln had watched their arrival through one of the windows overlooking the bridge "Must be adventurers, coming right out here".
"Then we'll make sure they're welcome. We're doing well for fresh meat Caln. It'll be nice to keep some livestock on the premises for a while, and to take our time over sampling it. Make a change from Ministry fare. Are they time-travellers do you think?"
"Hard to tell. Look I thought we were steadily closing all the cusps off", Caln whined "You promised! After what happened when Braw got through, we couldn't risk another like him".
"We've sorted him out".
"Yea, but next time we might not be so lucky".
"If we've tamed one Vanquisher of Evil", said Mullawa, impatiently "We'll manage any future ones. It is only a matter of time now before they're all sealed".
"And then we slowly starve to death", Caln pouted.
"There will always be plenty of meat Caln", Mullawa cried "Make up your mind what you want. At least like this we may still have decades left, but if just one more Vanquisher of Evil slips through then we could cease to exist overnight. Is that what you want? No, I thought as much. I don't know why I'm explaining myself to you anyway".
"The Ministry are getting more argumentative every day", said Caln "They question us more than ever".
"You're pathetic Caln, it's so ill-bred to be scared of a government official. It'll only take yet another slip from Pandora's box to quieten them for a while. We're not short of tricks. Bear that in mind, and stop bothering me with time-wasting concerns".
Braw hobbled out of the little wooden shack that constituted his dwelling-place. It was inside the atrium, but Mullawa refused to let him sleep in any part of the Palace itself. Braw's power as a Vanquisher of Evil was long gone, but nonetheless Mullawa didn't want him contaminating the brickwork too much.
It wasn't unusual to get stray travellers in this part of the world. The vampires counted on it in fact to supplement their diet, injecting an occasional exotic touch to the menu. Braw greeted them, knowing full well it was unlikely they would ever leave. That wasn't his concern. He had little memory of the ill-fated day many years ago when he had turned up at the Palace. He had inadvertently time-slipped from his own era of 300 years before. Alone and confused in this strange new world of men without women, he had been easily seduced into believing by those he met that he was the long-awaited Vanquisher of Evil. Wherever he had gone he had caused a stir, but he couldn't stand what had happened to his world. When he was told that the source of all the current misery could be found at the Winter Palace he had set off at once. Of course they knew who he was as soon as he had showed his face. But he had been alone, he'd had powers but he couldn't use them to fight the vampires when he had no one in the vicinity on his side. They couldn't risk contamination from goodness by eating him, so they broke him instead, and the wreckage was now there for all to see.
Adam found meeting Braw to be a deeply upsetting experience. Resz had been accurate in what he had said. Braw looked like a sick, elderly, cretinous version of Kieran. His skin was like old paper, and his eyes were blank. His bloated stomach jutted out over a pair of weak, spindly legs. The only aspect of him that hadn't aged unnaturally was his hair, which was still as long and yellow as it had been the day he had slipped into the time-vortex, and which now only emphasised the tragic hideousness of his appearance. The whole sight of him made Adam want to haul Kieran away from the Palace, and leave this brave new world to do its own vanquishing.
"They'll know you're here", Braw's voice was that of an elderly man too, weak and slightly distracted, and yet Adam guessed him to be the same age as himself.
"We don't intend leaving", said Artuul, imperiously.
"You won't anyway", Braw raised a small cigar to his lips, his hand shaking in a palsied fashion "No one ever does".
Mullawa watched from behind the doorway at the bottom of one of the corner towers. What a collection of little goodies! One of the party carried a substantial, and yet young and firm amount of flesh (Hillyard), another was thin but young (Joby), another was hooded and obscured from view (Kieran), he didn't notice Artuul at all, and the last one intrigued Mullawa most of all. He was older, yet his body showed considerable promise, and there was something in his bearing which excited him. It was a long time since he had played games with someone prior to tasting them. He had almost forgotten what a pleasure seduction could be on its own merits, simply because Mullawa was a snob and didn't believe in seducing anyone not on his own level. This created problems, as he had killed all the vampires in his league, and humans didn't normally fit into the equation at all. But he was hungry for something new. Someone to seduce and then break before eating. A worthy opponent.
Mullawa licked his lips in anticipation.
It was nearly dark by the time Resz had finished assembling his equipment. With his blackened fingernails he had dug the jar out from the hole in the ground. It had been given to him originally in order that he could dissolve any unwanted pieces of body that They couldn't get rid of themselves. But as they were intrinsically lazy and preferred to hurl half-eaten bodies out of the Palace windows and into the swamp, he had never had cause to use it. He would now though.
Resz didn't know which part of his violated brain he was getting these urges from. They had destroyed his emotions, his curiosity and his ungovernable rages, but they hadn't destroyed his ability to figure things out for himself, and this was now exactly what he was doing. He was aware that what he was planning to do was dangerous and life-threatening, but as he was now incapable of feeling terror he reasoned he was the best man for the job. Even in pre-lobotomy days he would probably have still taken the task on if someone had dared him to do it. He had lived for the thrill of a knife-edge existence. Now the thrills were gone for him, but he could still get pleasure from seeing a job well done.
Clutching the jar under his coat, he set off into the moonlit forest, cautiously tracing the same path that Rooly had pursued with such reckless abandon only a short while before. When he judged he was far enough into the forest he placed the jar on the low branch of a tree, and then hauled himself up after it.
And then he waited, in the full certainty that She would eventually appear.
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