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"Can I take me coat off now?"
"Don't be absurd Patsy. You keep it on".
"I can't keep it on all the time, I'll boil to death! Anyway won't they think it a bit odd if I do? I look like a kinky version of the Grim Reaper as it is!"
Adam had to admit that he had a point. In his hooded fur coat Kieran looked extremely conspicuous in the dining-room of the Winter Palace. Braw had shown them in, fully aware that he was being watched by Mullawa from the other side of the peephole. Not that he cared. Braw plodded about his duties with increasing laboriousness as each day unfolded. This evening he had to settle the guests in, and make sure they were available if Mullawa took an interest. Like Resz, Braw now did everything mechanically. But he knew if he refused to carry out his duties Mullawa would set Caln to carry out some act of sadism on him, such as driving red-hot pins under his toe-nails. Fear he no longer felt, but physical pain was still a problem. It was their one control over him that they still had.
The guests sat uneasily in the distinctive chairs. Hillyard tried to make sure that no part of himself touched the ornate stone surrounds. From the anguished expressions on the faces of those that overlooked the backs he was in no doubt where the raw materials had come from. Braw shuffled around the table pouring dollops of watery soup into silver bowls.
"I wanna know what's in this before I eat it", said Joby, looking at the brown liquid suspiciously.
"Bullocks meat", said Braw "They don't waste their best stuff on guests, not when ..."
"Not when the guests will end up as the best stuff themselves", said Adam.
"You mean they actually want to eat us?" said Joby "They're gonna sit down at a table, look at a plate of human flesh, and think 'right, now I'll eat this'".
"I always thought vampires were only supposed to drink blood", said Kieran.
"Will they show themselves this evening Braw?" said Adam "Welcome us to their larder so to speak!"
"No idea. They does as they please".
Although reassured that the meal contained nothing of the homo-sapien variety, no one really felt like eating.
"Seems we've been in this situation before", said Joby to Kieran "We must be exceptional human beings, you and me, to meet up with cannibals twice in one lifetime".
"No", said Kieran "Just very careless".
Mullawa continued to watch. Most of his attention was riveted by the muscular frame of Hillyard. He badly wanted to sink his teeth into those fleshy upper arms. Once sated by that he planned to move onto Adam. He would take his time with him. Play those delicious games stored at the back of his mind. Occasionally he was distracted by the one in the hood. He could see very little of its face, apart from the occasional glimpse of its mouth. There was a problem with this one, but he couldn't focus on what it might be in particular.
The "guests" were playing with their food, even hunger was not enough to let them forget what their hosts were. Artuul sat on the table and bared his breasts to torment Joby, who rose to the challenge in a highly predictable way.
"Just ignore him Joby", Adam sighed, feeling like a babysitter stretched too far.
"He's a fucking freak, that's what he is", Joby complained "He should be locked up, put away".
Kieran was thoroughly annoyed with Artuul too, and had to resist the urge to stub out the cigar he was smoking on the man's nipple. Artuul's pert tits were having a bad effect on his subconscious, and he could do without it at this stage. He looked to Adam for support but felt guilty for doing so. It was all too bloody complicated. Repressed emotion was everywhere.
And then Lonts entered the room.
Nobody was particularly pleased to see him, apart from Hillyard who at least was relieved to find that the boy was still alive. Lonts skirted the table like a frantic mother searching for a lost child, until he eventually paused in front of the hooded Kieran.
"I knew you were here", said Lonts "You bastard! Why don't you help me?"
Mullawa watched in confusion. Subconsciously he had been afraid of the hooded one revealing itself, and although he now strongly wished to see what was beneath that fur garb, he also dreaded facing it, as much as any traveller in the forest dreaded meeting the Gorgon.
Adam could guess what Kieran's reaction would be and placed a warning hand on his arm. Kieran ignored him. He gently slid back his hood and removed his coat. How he managed it his closest friends didn't know, but he looked more ethereal than ever. He had lost so much weight in recent weeks that his bones seemed almost luminous. His cheekbones stood out like upturned saucers, emphasising the startling Irish blueness of his eyes. To Lonts, he didn't appear mortal, and to Kieran's surprise the boy (who had hitherto responded to his presence by squawking like a bird) buried his head in his lap and cried like a baby.
"Help me", Lonts sobbed in despair "I don't deserve this, I can't handle it. Help me".
Behind the wall Mullawa was almost having a seizure. All too damn late! They had worked so hard in recent months to try and seal off the time-cusps, but it had all been too late. The Vanquisher had slipped through, and was now actually under their own roof! It had been a long time since Mullawa had experienced fear for himself, but he did so now, so much so in fact that he could hardly breathe. He noticed Caln skulking in the background.
"Release the Gorgon!" Mullawa cried, hoarsely "Get her up here, to the Palace. Release the Gorgon, I say!"
"You can't", Caln cried "We'd all be in danger then".
"Just do it, or it'll be the glass jar for you like it was for all the others!"
Caln slapped each of the monitors in turn. There had been no response at all to his pleas. The Gorgon wasn't so much malfunctioning this time, as simply not responding at all to his instructions. This had never happened before, and Mullawa would be sure to blame him entirely. It was imperative that they knew where she was at all times, and now she seemed to have slipped out of contact completely.
"There's no response", Caln panicked, finding Mullawa standing in the doorway "She's not responding. What's happened?"
"Fool!" Mullawa screamed "Instruct Braw to seal up the Palace then. Whilst she's out of our control we cannot take risks. This entire building needs to be as tight as a drum. Do you think you can manage that? As if we haven't got enough to fucking deal with! Now it seems we have to be sealed up with that ... that monstrosity in the dining-room".
"It's not my fault", Caln wept, tears welling in his eyes "This has never happened before. It's not my fault!"
Deep in the forest nothing stirred. Resz lay across the branch of a tree, clinging to it for posterity. He hadn't meant to look into her face as he let the acid fall but, like so many victims before him, the pull of the Gorgon had been simply too strong. She, meanwhile, lay beneath his tree. Her limbs had stopped twitching at long last, some time after the gorgonisation process had been completed on Resz. Her awesome face was gone, burnt off by the contents of one jar. As her remains nestled in the cold grass, it was only her breasts gleaming in the moonlight, which gave the final proof of her legendary seductive powers.
For the rest of the night the vampires were conspicuous by their absence. Unable to locate the Gorgon, and equally terrified of coming face-to-face with Kieran, they prowled restlessly inside the walls. Caln tried to avoid Mullawa as much as possible. He hid himself in an alcove that only he knew about, and tried to distract himself by tying a strip of leather tightly around his penis. It nearly cut off his circulation, and the pain made him feel dizzy and lightheaded. He was also very hungry, and tormented by the close proximity of so much live meat. But he couldn't attack it first, Mullawa always had that privilege. It was the unwritten law, and not one Caln was brave enough to risk flouting. He had seen what had happened to all the others.
Mullawa himself was in torment. Until he was certain of precisely how much interaction the Vanquisher had had with each member of the group, he couldn't risk touching any of them. Trouble was, his desperation was such that he didn't know how long he could hold out. He imbibed some of the contents of the caskets, but with much resentment, like a man forced to eat stale bread when he knows there is a steak dinner waiting in the next room.
Kieran meanwhile was checking on Lonts. A wolf had padded across the palace bridge and was howling like a lost soul below, which seemed to exacerbate the boy's anxieties even more. He sat crouched in a corner of one of the bedchambers and wept uncontrollably. Kieran noticed that although the boy was filthy from several days of living rough in the forest, his face was still as smooth as a girl's, with just the merest shadow of stubble. It all made him look lost and vulnerable, like a baby abandoned in a bus-shelter.
"I can't help you unless you tell me what is wrong", said Kieran, crouching down in front of him. The boy's face looked yellow in the light of a single wall-sconce.
"He's inside me", the boy blubbed "He was inside my head, but now he's inside my stomach".
"Krik. They executed him, but he got into me".
"Who was Krik?"
"He cut up children", Lonts rubbed his eyes "They reckon he hated them because he was abused when he was a child. He didn't want them having a decent childhood themselves".
"But why do you think he's in your stomach?" said Kieran, feeling that this was the most bizarre conversation he would ever have.
"I don't know. He's moving about inside me, as though he's wearing my body as a skin".
"Lonts, none of this is real", said Kieran "I don't disbelieve you, I just think you're confused that's all. Demons can't haunt you if you deny that they exist".
"He makes me notice him though! If I try to ignore him he punches me in the stomach, from the inside. I can't stand it any longer, I really can't. You must help me".
"I will. We all will. Can you feel him now?"
"No, because he's scared of you".
"Well that's something anyway. Will you be alright staying in here with Hillyard tonight, or will Krik torment you?"
"He's not so bad when Hillyard's around. He's not scared of him like he is of you, but he's still nervous around him".
"That's probably because he knows Hillyard cares about you. Demons seem to fear love, so perhaps you're safest with him".
Outside in the corridor Adam was telling a reluctant Hillyard much the same thing. Hillyard was not happy at being entrusted with the custody of Artuul, as well as the boy.
"Can't he come in with you?" said Hillyard "Artuul I mean?"
"No, I've got more than enough to cope with with my two! You keep an eye on Artuul, make sure he doesn't get us all into trouble, and particularly watch Lonts. Joby and I meanwhile will make sure that Patsy stays out of reach of our hostile hosts. You know something Hillyard, perhaps this might finally cure you of your passion for lame ducks!"
The room wasn't bad as bedchambers went. They had slept in far more uncomfortable places. It had a bed, a fireplace (as well as braziers), and shutters in place of curtains to keep the bleak midwinter at bay. More importantly it had a lock on the inside of the door, although Joby doubted this would keep many vampires out.
Whilst he was trying to empty himself accurately into a bucket behind a curtained niche, Kieran undressed under his fur coat (due to the temperature not a sudden attack of modesty), and admired Adam's physique at the same time. The lifestyle, extraordinary though it was, seemed to be agreeing with the older man. Kieran found he fancied him more than ever. Adam's straw-coloured hair need washing badly, it stuck together in clumps around his neck, and his face sported several days growth of beard. And yet he exuded an earthy sexuality that made Kieran want to curl up under his arm and submit his body to pleasure.
"Rough living seems to suit you", said Kieran "You look gorgeous. Younger than when I first knew you".
"I'm hoping that when I finally scrub all the dirt off I'll find my skin in a state of youthful preservation underneath", Adam laughed "Do you ever think about what we'll do when all this is over?"
"Sometimes", said Kieran, cautiously, not adding his general subconscious fear that none of them would be alive.
"I'm beginning to think I'd like a log-cabin, in the country", said Adam "I've always liked the idea of myself as a sort of frontiersman, plus the added bonus of all the time I'd have for painting".
"Would you want me there in this Davy Crockett fantasy?"
"I couldn't bear it if you weren't! You wouldn't have to do a thing all day Patsy. You could lie around blowing smoke-rings, and somehow I'd try and fatten you up ... or at least I'd have a go anyway".
"Sounds heaven", said Kieran, wishing this lifestyle to start immediately "An improvement on this, 'cept we'd have to take Joby with us. We can't leave him behind".
"He can chop the firewood", Adam leaned forward and kissed Kieran on the lips.
Joby chose that moment to emerge from the niche, clanking the bucket noisily.
"I hope you're not gonna keep that up all night", he snapped.
"And I hope you're not going to leave that there", said Adam, pointing at the bucket "I don't want to look at your turds first thing in the morning. I had enough of that at the prison. You never flushed the toilet there".
"Only 'cos the one time I did you moaned your head off that I woke you up".
"Well I've never known someone visit the lavatory as often as you! I'm beginning to think you must have some kind of medical disorder".
"It's going to be peaceful in this log-cabin", said Kieran, clambering into the centre of the bed "Remind me to get some ear-plugs first".
Kieran found sleep elusive, and was amazed at how easily the others seemed to manage it, forgetting for a moment how exhausted they were. No one had slept properly for days, not with the Gorgon being close by all the time they had been in Resz's hut. The Winter Palace may not have been ideal accommodation, but at least it was more substantial than the hut, and offered protection from Her, even if no one could be sure where their hosts might be lurking.
Sandwiched between Adam and Joby, Kieran felt hot and bothered. He had erection that was crying out for servicing, and yet it didn't seem right to go waking Adam to deal with it, when Joby was snoring on the other side. Cautiously he fumbled with himself beneath the bedclothes, and managed to relieve it relatively quickly.
He liked to have a scenario to his masturbation fantasies, a set-piece. In the early days at Henang it had been minor variations on the theme of returning home suddenly and surprising Amy, making the lonely "widow" smile again. This fantasy was now very rare indeed, mainly because he didn't believe he would ever get home and that made the fantasies as bitter as very strong tea, but also because he no longer found it comfortable to think of Amy as a lonely honorary widow. Instead he genuinely hoped she was happy with someone who deserved her, and that she never for one moment thought he had wilfully deserted her. So this night he banished Amy ruthlessly from his sexual thoughts, and turned himself on by remembering the image of Adam, as he had seen him earlier in the same room, and as he had been in the Love Suite at Marlsblad.
Afterwards he had to resign himself to lying a sticky patch of his own sperm. Joby snored even louder for good measure. With deftness born of long practice Kieran elbowed him in the ribs. Joby snorted like a wild boar taken by surprise in a forest clearing. But he didn't wake, and he did turn over to face in the opposite direction.
Gradually Kieran became aware of another noise, coming from the other side of the wall. Lonts was whimpering, and sounded in great distress. Kieran strained his ears to try to hear him above Joby's snoring. Another voice could be vaguely discerned, a low mumbling voice. At first Kieran thought it was Hillyard soothing the boy, but then he wasn't so certain. There was a mesmerising quality to the voice which disturbed him.
"What is it?" Joby grumbled, as Kieran hurriedly nudged him awake.
"Lonts is in trouble".
"When isn't he!"
"I'm going to see if he's alright. Are you coming with me?"
"No, Adam'll be furious".
"Sometimes I'd swear you're more frightened of Adam than you are of the vampires".
"I am", said Joby, and rearranged his lumpy pillow "Anyway, Hillyard'll sort him out".
"Alright, I'll go on me own", Kieran climbed over Joby "Then if anything happens to me you'll have to explain it to Adam".
"God, you always have a way of talking me round!"
"You can't resist my baby blue eyes".
"No, you've got a neat line in emotional blackmail that's all".
Kieran unlocked the door and quailed at the sight of the pitch dark corridor outside. Evil seemed to permeate the very blackness. Joby cannoned into him softly and butted him out into the corridor. Kieran was grateful for this afterwards, as otherwise he was certain he would have lost his nerve and gone back to bed.
Inside the room next door his worst fears were confirmed. Hillyard was unconscious. doped by more of Tintally's sleeping powder. Lonts meanwhile had flattened himself against the wall, and was whimpering in terror as Artuul raked at the boy's naked belly with his long fingernails.
"What the fock are you doing Artuul?" Kieran cried.
"Take him away please!" Lonts wailed "I can't give him what he's after. Take him away!"
"Get away from him Artuul".
To Kieran's shock Artuul turned and spat in his face. That was bad enough, but his saliva felt like a wasp sting.
"What are you?" he whispered "A vampire is that it? Have you been tricking us all along, pretending you're some idiotic day-dreamer when really you're one of these evil bastards?"
"Don't go near him Patsy", Adam appeared in the doorway.
"I want to know what he's been doing to Lonts", Kieran advanced slowly on Artuul, who backed away "He's only a kid Artuul. What have you done to him?"
Artuul seemed incapable of replying in a normal way. He hissed and spat like a rattlesnake caught on the end of a stick. Kieran was reminded uncomfortably of the snakes that were said to protrude from the Gorgon's head. Artuul shrank away when Kieran reached out to touch him.
"Afraid to touch me now Artuul? You weren't so afraid when we were back at Resz's hut. I remember it well. Come on, tell me what you are. You're not really just a common tart are you? Or are you?"
Kieran peeled off his own shirt, which he had hurriedly slung over his naked body when he got out of bed. The cold air in the room almost stopped his breath, but the sight of his bare flesh had a marked effect on Artuul who was now squealing like a pig. Kieran grabbed Artuul's wrist and forced his hand against his bare chest.
"Patsy, what are you playing at?" said Adam.
"Shush Adam", said Kieran, and stepped in closer to Artuul until their bodies were almost touching "He was quick enough to get his hands round me when he wanted to kill me, let's see how he copes now".
Artuul gave a final shrill, unearthly squeal. Kieran stepped backwards hastily as the other man proceeded to shed his skin like a snake. The process took a mere matter of seconds, before what remained of Artuul was only a few items of clothing on the ground, and a substantial amount of flaky flesh.
Out of his skin Angel had stepped. His own appearance was now so decomposed, filthy and depraved that he was barely recognisable as the pretty boy he had once been. The stench of him filled the room, and Kieran caught the full impact of his graveyard breath on his face. He felt like he was going to faint, and a green haze swam before his eyes. It was some time before he realised that the green phosphorescent haze was in fact Angel vaporising. And then he was gone.
"You mean you went through all that and you really had no idea?" said Joby "I thought from the way you were talking to him you'd known all along!"
"I had no idea it was really Angel until he stepped out of his skin", said Kieran "I was as in the dark as you were".
"Well it all adds a new complexion to everything", said Adam, sitting on the edge of the bed "I would never have thought Angel was capable of anything so clever. Quite extraordinary".
"It really was him all along?" said Joby "I never guessed for one minute".
"Cocky little bastard", said Kieran "He had us all completely fooled".
"B-but what about all that business with the tits?"
"Oh I thought the tits would come into it somehow", Adam groaned.
"That was his way of getting at us I suppose", said Kieran.
"But why not go the whole hog and just turn himself into a woman?" Joby protested.
"Because, pillock, he didn't know any women", said Kieran "Not live, intact ones anyway. To fool us so completely the way he did he had to invent a completely different persona, and not just the looks. He must have known this Artuul at one time".
"There was a real person like that?" said Joby.
"It was probably the real one you saw in the magazine", said Kieran "Thinking back now, Angel was a bit uncomfortable when you found that. Probably thought you might spot any difference between the real thing and the imposter. Yes, I suspect there is or was a real Artuul, a nude model with delusions of grandeur who probably liked boasting that he was the Vanquisher of Evil. He may have recently got a job at the Marlsblad massage centre, and Angel seized his chance. Possibly too the real Artuul took steroids to improve his physique, and so developed breasts. That was perfect for Angel. Knowing us as well as he did he knew it would wreck havoc on our minds. So as he didn't have the confidence to impersonate a real woman ..."
"And it would have caused too much of a stir in Marlsblad anyway", said Adam.
"Exactly. Artuul was the next best thing".
"How did he do it though?" said Joby.
"I don't know, but just think what a lucky escape you had Joby", said Adam "If he had impersonated a woman you might well have screwed him!"
It was a very long winter's night indeed, and Adam greeted the first rays of dawn through the battered shutters like a nightmare-prone child, relieved that the bogeyman had been banished back to the wallpaper during daylight hours. After the incident with Angel he had barely slept at all. Kieran though had lapsed into a fatigue-ridden sleep, and was now hanging onto his back like a koala bear up a eucalyptus tree. Reluctantly Adam disentangled himself from his lover's unconscious embrace, and gently rolled him over to latch onto Joby instead. Adam got up and shivered into the rest of his clothes. He was going down to see Braw.
He finally located the pathetic old man after a hair-raising solitary walk through the Palace. Every twist and turn in every staircase and corridor seemed to hold so many dark secrets, that he felt more like he was wandering through a fairground funhouse. Ancient tapestries fluttered from the walls, mirrors (surely not needed in a vampire establishment?) appeared at strategic intervals to put the wind up him, and staircases twisted down around pitch-black bends. Not normally a nervous man by nature, Adam imagined many an unwelcome surprise on that dawn walk.
Braw was outside in the bitterly cold air. He had unbolted the atrium doors, and was standing on the bridge, now slippery with hoar frost, and stirring something in an old oil-drum. Beyond the swamp on which the Palace stood, the forest stretched like a mass of silver nails towards the snowy mountains in the far distance.
"I figured it was safe to open the doors now it's daylight", said Braw "She never walks in daylight".
Adam was too disgusted by the contents of the oil-drum to disagree about the Gorgon's movements. The smell was appalling, and the sight nearly as bad. It was swill, made up of human remains.
"What the fuck do you intend doing with it?" he cried, wrapping his scarf around his mouth and nose to block out the putrid aroma.
"Feed me boar and cattle. I keep 'em on the other side of that strip of trees. She don't go out that far".
"What do you keep cattle for?"
"To feed meself", Braw finished stirring the mess, and placed a lid over the oil-drum "And any visitors like yourself. Sometimes the vampires likes their fresh meat fattened up a bit first".
"You feed your cattle on human remains", said Adam, faintly "And then you feed humans on the cattle. You're as immoral as they are Braw!"
"It makes no odds what I am", said Braw "It'll never matter again what I am".
"What do you mean?"
Braw didn't answer. If possible, he seemed to look even more dejected than ever. He walked past Adam and into his hut. Adam followed him inside. The hut was small, cold and spartan, with few, if any, personal effects.
"It's all pointless", Braw continued, after a substantial pause "What everyone in this place is up to is pointless. You lot come here thinking you're going to change everything, just like I did. Just give it up I say, They're too powerful. They've got the thumbscrews on the Ministry good and proper, and nothing'll change that. Take him away, your friend, and tell him to forget all he's heard about being the Vanquisher of Evil".
"I wish I could", said Adam "But he won't listen now, and he does seem to have an effect on Them".
"So did I ... at first", Braw reached into the back of his mind for the dim and suppressed memories "It soon wears off, 'cos They get desperate. And when They're desperate They're afraid of nothing. If you don't take him away, he'll end up like me. They'll do it to him, it's part of Their games. They love sadistic games. They like to see people destroyed".
Tears welled up in Braw's eyes. A few hours earlier, at four a.m, he had been sitting in his chair asleep by his paraffin heater. He had been woken by a jubilant Caln, bursting into his hut with the news that Braw had dreaded hearing for years. The news that really spelled the end of all hope for him. The vampires had finally located the remaining time-cusps, and sealed them.
"We'll none of us ever get back", Braw explained "We're all stuck here".
"B-But how did they do it?"
"They've been working on it for years, gradually sealing 'em all off. They weren't going to rest until They'd done it all".
Adam walked around the hut, touching items of furniture in a distracted manner.
"But why should They?" he said "By doing so They've cut themselves off from a lucrative food supply, at least as far as I can see. And it's too late to stop the Vanquisher getting through as he's already here, and They know it too. So, what can They possibly achieve by it? Unless it's just power, a way of showing the rest of society what They can do".
"You ever heard of the Skirra Fludd Lighthouse?" asked Braw, putting a small tin kettle on the top of the paraffin heater.
"Yes I have".
"Then you'll know there's a lot of talk about the place".
"There's a lot of talk about most places as far as I can see".
"Yes, but the lighthouse is special".
"A Force for Evil, the Devil, resides there", Adam recalled Joby's description of his meeting with the prison governor "There was a fear that if a time-cusp opened on the Skirra Fludd rock, then time itself would cease to exist".
"And that's what They're afraid of", said Braw "Because everything would cease to exist, including Them. If the Devil was allowed to escape into history we'd all be hurled into a vortex, and crushed by time-matter. In some ways I spose They've done us all a favour in that respect".
"But this Force for Evil, Satan, why doesn't someone just destroy it?"
"Don't know how. You can't fight something that has no form".
"Anything can be destroyed", Adam protested "Nothing is indestructible, you just have to find the key, the Achilles Heel".
"That so?" said Braw, shortly "Well the bugger can do what it likes now as far as I'm concerned. It's all too late for me".
Adam retraced his steps back through the Palace with a heart too heavy to go leaping at dark corners. He wasn't looking forward to explaining his latest news to the others. He had once had to inform a member of staff that one of their close relatives had died. He felt much the same now as he did then.
He reached the corridor outside their room without noticing getting there. He came to Hillyard's door and went in, feeling like a consultant checking on a mental patient. He almost expected Hillyard to be playing the role of Victorian nurse, perhaps sucking toffees and knitting up a cardigan whilst keeping an experienced eye on his charge. Lonts was sitting in the far corner, with his chin propped on his knees. He was grunting away to himself, like a car engine refusing to start on a cold morning.
"How is he?"
"Calm", said Hillyard.
"Did he dope you last night?"
"My own fault. After last time, at the inn, I should've been more careful. I missed the great transformation didn't I?"
"How far did things go between you and Artuul?"
"What do you wanna know that for?" Hillyard exclaimed.
"Because it may be important that's why", said Adam, testily "I'm not asking because I get turned on by other men's sex lives Hillyard. But it's important for all our sakes you tell me".
"I may be contaminated you mean, after going with a vampire?" Hillyard went pale.
"I couldn't say. This is outside my experience".
"It was the whole hog. Fist-fucking".
Adam closed his eyes and sighed heavily.
"I couldn't help meself", Hillyard protested "You know what it's like. He was very attractive, and in those shorts he used to wear, well t-they emphasised his neat bum. He had such energy, such zest. It was all t-too much. I'm only human! Me cock rules me brain half the time".
"Oh c'mon, look how much you fancy the Vanquisher".
"Yes but fortunately Patsy isn't a vampire in disguise".
"Well fucking bully for you, that's all I can say!"
"What was he like, really?" said Hillyard, quietly "The one who was impersonating Artuul. This Angel you all keep mentioning".
"You saw him yourself. At the inn, when he threw the boy down the stairs".
"That creature was who I ...?" Hillyard stumbled into a shocked silence.
"Remind yourself that it was Artuul you thought you were screwing".
"But it wasn't was it? It was that fucking zombie creature".
"When we first knew Angel I'm sure you wouldn't have kicked him out of bed. He was very young. A pretty boy. With startling blue eyes, rather like Patsy's, only disturbing".
"Did you fancy him?"
"Not really, not with any great urge. He was too out-of-it for my liking, too spacey, too abstract. I felt sorry for him sometimes, but I never felt my loins on fire. Come to think of it I don't believe he was a very sexual person really".
Hillyard remembered his afternoon session of passion with "Artuul" at the massage centre. Artuul had been so bursting with sexual energy that even before they had gone into the cubicle he couldn't keep still, skipping around the building like a thoroughbred racehorse in springtime. His bottom, tight as a drum, pressing against the black cotton material of his shorts.
"He was a bloody good actor then", said Hillyard, bitterly.
"I've met Angel's sort before, one of life's rent boys by nature", said Adam "They can be whatever you want them to be with little effort at all. But deep down they're sexually cold. All that stood him in good stead when he impersonated Artuul. What you met was a brilliant mock-up of the real Artuul, wherever he might be. He might still be alive if Angel hasn't been up to his usual tricks with him".
"I don't suppose the real one would fancy me", said Hillyard, glumly.
"Oh don't have an emotional crisis on me Hillyard, not when I need your help".
"Yes", said Adam "I have bad news for my two, and I'm not looking forward to telling them".
He explained what Braw had told him about the time-cusps.
"How can I help though?" said Hillyard "Pick 'em up if one of 'em faints?"
"Be an objective support for me. You don't have to do anything, just stand near me and look solid and dependable".
"Alright. But tell me, why did you need to know if I'd slept with Artuul? Was it just in case I might become a vampire myself?"
"That, and a wild theory on my part. One form of vampirism is to drain someone sexually, from what I can gather it's one of the theories that led to the Massacre of the Women. Women draining men of their vital energies by making love to them. All very tedious and Biblical, you wouldn't understand. Some ancient priests used to castrate themselves to ward against it, like wearing garlic or a crucifix. Sex is a strong form of power".
"You mean this creature now has a hold over me because we had sex together? But what's he going to do then?"
"It's probably already been done. I take it you had sex with Artuul soon after meeting him for the first time?"
"I was a client".
"And that gave Angel energy, a force to keep him going. He had to infiltrate us somehow, and he did it through sex. You're lucky, the first time he approached you at the inn as himself, I'm sure he was intending to tear you limb from limb. But Lonts and Patsy intervened. It was too risky for him to try that again, so he became Artuul and waited, knowing that very soon one of us would be sure to either visit the massage centre, or notice him in the village".
"So it could have been any of us he approached?"
"Chiefly likely to be have been you or me. Joby wouldn't be interested. Presumably he wouldn't dare try it on with Patsy, because of who he is. The irony of it all is that if he'd tried it with me instead of you, he wouldn't have got anywhere. I didn't fancy Artuul".
"So he's got stronger through me?"
"Don't blame yourself. You'd lost interest in him after the attack on Patsy at Resz's hut, so he was steadily losing his grip over you. I think that's why he started blatantly tormenting Joby with his tits. He was getting desperate for one of us to screw him again, and so keep his hold on us".
"Angel could try that again at some point".
"Well he's going to have his work cut out, now we're wise to his methods. He's lost that particular element of surprise", said Adam "Is it going to be safe to leave Lonts alone in here?"
"Yea, I'll lock him in. If we move the brazier out into the corridor, there'll be nothing for him to damage himself on. And we'll only be next door".
"We locked him in once before", said Adam "And he still got out".
"It'll be harder for him this time".
There was only one window, little more than a ventilator grill, stuck high up in the wall. Even standing on a chair, it was doubtful if Lonts could reach it, let alone get out through it.
Adam helped Hillyard move the brazier into the corridor. Lonts took no notice of their movements. He had stopped making any noise at all by now, and simply stared at the floor. His eyes looked large and exhausted, peering out from a grubby face. Whilst Hillyard locked the door on the boy, Adam became aware that they were being watched.
He turned reluctantly to face the far end of the corridor. At first the figure was barely discernible in the gloom. Then it seemed to noiselessly move a step nearer, and Adam gasped in terror. He had never seen such a blatant personification of evil before, it was literally breath-taking. Spellbinding at the same time. He found he couldn't take his eyes off it, this chameleon figure. At first it seemed like an old woman, then a young man, but what was overwhelmingly obvious was the darkness. Its body was swathed in black velvet, its head surrounded by what was either a large black bonnet, or a diabolical halo, or a hideous aura. It was hard to tell precisely which. Against all this blackness the skin of its face stood out like ivory. Shuttered and predatory. The eyes were in shadow. Mercifully.
"Are you alright mate?" asked Hillyard, astonished by Adam's attitude of terror. Adam had stuffed his fingers into his mouth and was breathing very heavily. It almost seemed as though Lonts's behaviour was catching.
"Can't you see it?" Adam hissed.
Adam looked again. There was nothing there.
Joby had woken up alone in bed with Kieran. This blissful state of affairs lasted a mere few minutes, before Hillyard and Adam entered the room. Both looked so grim-faced that Joby almost thought a firing-squad was waiting for them all in the atrium. As it turned out he and Kieran took the news concerning the time-cusps rather better than Adam had done.
Adam though was distracted enough. He found it hard to shake off the image of the figure in the corridor from his head. Added to that he felt like a judge passing down death sentences on two young men. For the first time in the entire trip Adam felt close to his own personal breaking-point.
"It would've been difficult if we'd gone back anyway", Joby mumbled.
"Too much has happened", said Kieran.
Adam marvelled at their acceptance, and could only put it down to the resilience of youth.
"But it's all my fault you're here!" he blurted out suddenly.
"Don't be fucking stupid", said Joby, who at that moment was more concerned with getting into his robe without showing too much of himself to Hillyard.
"But it is. As your employer ..."
"Not anymore you're not", said Joby "You haven't paid us for the past five months for a start".
"Even so ..."
"Stop panicking Addy", said Kieran "It's not as if we can take you to an industrial tribunal now is it?"
"Be serious", Adam pleaded.
"Why?" said Kieran "It's only life".
"Let me out!" came an agonised scream from the room next door "You can't shut me in here, you bastards. Let me out!"
Lonts was kicking violently at the door of his cheerless chamber. There was a splintering of wood, as one of the panels gave way under the repeated onslaught. Hillyard ran back into the corridor and hastily unlocked the door. Lonts hurled himself out of it, his hair partially obscuring his face which was contorted with fear and rage. Hillyard tried to calm him, but the boy pushed him away.
"Where is he?" Lonts cried "I want to see him".
"I think he means you, Patsy", said Adam.
"I'm here", said Kieran, stepping into Lonts's line of vision "Did you mean me Lonts?"
"You come and talk to me", said Lonts, pointing wildly towards his chamber "In there. You come and talk to me in there. Don't want any of these bastards around. Just you and me. Alone".
At that moment Kieran would have been happy for Lonts to foam at the mouth and drop dead at his feet. He had no wish to go secreting himself away inside a cheerless room with an obvious mad boy. Adam had placed a gentle restraining grip on his arm, and Kieran would have been happy to obey, except Hillyard was shooting glances at him laden with emotional pressure.
"Alright Lonts. Have it your way".
"I'll be fine", said Kieran, wishing he believed it.
"We'll only be in the next room", said Hillyard.
"No you won't", said Lonts "You lot go downstairs. To the dining-room, where I found you. I don't trust you bastards".
"Go on", said Kieran "If I really am this ... Vanquisher idiot, I'm going to have to face bigger wankers than Lonts. I can handle it".
Once alone together Lonts insisted on locking the door from the inside, and then placing the key about his person. Kieran watched this operation with foreboding. He glanced at the damage to the door, and wondered if he would be able to climb out through the broken panel in an emergency. He doubted though that even his spindly frame could manage that.
"Alright Lonts", he said, trying to sound bossy "We're alone now, so I as said to you once before, you can stop showing off".
He instantly realised his mistake. Lonts reacted to his stern manner in stark terror, and began to paw at the wall as though he was trying to blend in with it. Kieran approached him as gently as he could, and took the boy's face in his hands. The boy seemed to calm under his touch.
"Tell me what you feel", said Kieran, softly, as though soothing a nervous young lover.
"I'm not mad", Lonts exclaimed "I know you think I am, but I'm not really. I would be alright if it wasn't for him".
Lonts nodded passionately. Kieran stroked the boy's grimy neck and whispered reassurances.
"What is Krik saying to you?" he asked, eventually.
"He's always telling me to do things, like dope Hillyard last night. I told you, he don't trust Hillyard".
"What else does he say?"
"He says I'm to kill you".
"I hope you're not listening to him!"
"He makes me listen! He's in my stomach. If I don't listen, he kicks me and it hurts like crazy".
"Lonts, he cannot possibly be in your stomach".
"He is I tell you. Look".
Lonts pulled up several layers of ragged sweaters. Underneath them his stomach was noticeably swollen, completely at variance to his thin build. Kieran tried to explain it to himself as the result of severe wind, constipation and malnutrition, but however much he tried to dismiss it he always came back to the same theory. Lonts looked as though he was four or five months pregnant! Nervously Kieran prodded the mound of flesh. It was firm and warm to the touch. Kieran lowered his hand and gently touch the area beneath. It also protruded slightly.
"What are you doing?" asked Lonts, confused by the way all his physical sensations went rushing towards his penis.
"Eliminating other possibilities", Kieran sighed "Checking that you are actually what you say you are. He doesn't seem to be reacting to my touch, Krik that is".
"He won't. He wants me to do it. He knows eventually, before this day is out, that I will kill you. I have no choice".
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