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Kieran had no idea whether it was day or night. He lay on the stone floor, his arms wrapped around a sleeping Lonts for warmth, trying to generate some body heat to stop them both dying from hypothermia. Lonts had cried himself to sleep, and Kieran had formed daft jokes in his head about post-natal depression. Truth to tell, he found the whole thing as far removed from comical as it was possible to get. Here he was, lying on the floor of some evil-infested castle, clutching a grubby, deranged boy in his arms. He sobbed wildly into Lonts's greasy hair.
At first Kieran thought he was imagining it when he heard someone fumbling at the door-handle, as though it was really part of the ongoing cruel dream. Like the ones he had had in Beane's cave when he dreamt he had heard telephones ringing and car-doors slamming, only to wake and find he was still chained to a damp wall by a crazed Medieval cannibal, miles underground and years from modern civilisation.
Someone was now actually knocking on the door, a soft, almost diffident knock, as though anxious not to to disturb them!
"Wait!" Kieran cried, clambering to his feet.
Lonts had put his trousers back on after the "birth", and Kieran fumbled awkwardly in the pockets, hunting for the key. Lonts slept the sleep of the truly exhausted, oblivious to his fumblings. Kieran dropped the key, grabbed it again, and felt as though an eternity had passed before he inserted it into the lock and twisted it.
"Where the focking hell have you been?" he bellowed, pulling Hillyard into the room.
"I fell asleep", said Hillyard, in bewilderment "Aren't the others here?"
"No, you mean they're not with you?"
When Hillyard shook his head Kieran felt like falling to the floor in an hysterical, sobbing heap.
"What a focking balls-up!" he wailed "Right, Mr Sleepy-Head, you can sit with your eejut friend for a change. I've had enough for one day. Why any of us listened to him in the first place I'll never understand!"
Caln slipped off his fur-lined robe. He was naked underneath, save for a studded leather band tied around his penis like a spiky dog-collar. Joby gaped at it in horror, and backed away. He didn't try talking to the vampire, or reasoning with it, there was no point. It would be like trying to reason with a slavering wolf. Caln had a smug look about him, the look of a hunter cornering some long-tracked prey. He stumbled towards Joby.
"I'm going to die", Joby thought. For a moment he had a hysterical feeling that he couldn't understand which would be worse, to be eaten alive or buggered to death. Caln was now so close to him that he could feel the vampire's fetid breath on his face.
Suddenly though the creature twisted its head towards the honeycomb grid. Something outside had caught his attention. He reached past Joby and raked his talons along the wooden wall. The swamp was bubbling, as though something was thrashing about beneath its surface. Caln gave a moan of inhuman anguish, and started to slap the honeycomb with the palm of his hand. Joby literally seized his moment, he grabbed the spiked leather and wrenched it upwards so sharply that he thought the whole delicate apparatus might come off in his hand. Caln screamed and tried to grab Joby's hair, but the boy ducked out of his grasp. Joby ran towards a flight of stairs at the end of the room, and fled down them like a rat down a bell-pull.
For what felt like an age he ran through the Palace, growing increasingly afraid as each corridor turned out to be even less familiar than the last. He knew that vampires could move by supernatural means, that Caln could easily locate him and simply appear, barring his way. Eventually though he found himself in the atrium, looking down onto Braw's hut, where a muted light glowed from the window. He knew he could find his way from there. It was simply a case of going up another flight of stairs, and then taking the corridor which led in an easterly direction, and for once the Palace wasn't playing tricks this time.
Kieran was in the bedchamber, swigging from the remains of a bottle of plum brandy that he had found at the bottom of his rucksack. Joby ran up to him, hysterical with relief, and tried to enfold both Kieran and the bottle in his embrace.
"Where the fock were you?" Kieran cried.
"You'll never believe it", Joby panted "A bloody vampire nearly had me! The evil-looking one I saw at Marlsblad, the one that killed the poor fella in Room Four. Sadistic sod. He had some spiky thing wrapped round his cock".
"I don't know. He went off hours ago", said Joby "We haven't seen him since. He could be anywhere".
"Yes, that's what I'm afraid of. We've got to find him Joby. If you come with me, and stay with me, you should be alright".
"I expect Braw thought he was invincible once!"
"I know, but Krik didn't try and attack me so ..."
"Krik? What are you talking about?"
"There's no time to explain all that now", Kieran regretfully corked the bottle and threw it on the bed "We have to find Adam".
It was almost as if the Palace was trying to put on a veneer of respectability, as though to convince them that there was nothing to fear really. Rooms and corridors simply looked like rooms and corridors. They weren't fooled though. The Palace played tricks the way the Forest of Deception had done. It was impossible to say with any certainty that an item of furniture or a window, or a ceiling or a door, was ever in exactly the same place twice.
"They seem to like their optical illusions", said Kieran, pushing open a door on the first floor "Holy Moses, it's Mission Control!"
They were greeted by a battery of computer screens. Some were blank, others relaying messages from the Ministry.
"So, this is where they control everything", said Joby "Makes you want to smash the lot".
"I wouldn't do that until we know for certain what it is they all do", said Kieran "I wouldn't put it past these bastards to be controlling the air we breathe".
"Look at this", Joby scrolled down one of the screens "Loads and loads of equations. Frightening-looking ones".
"They can't have worked all that out themselves surely", said Kieran "Do they seem like physicists to you? Yet they must get their knowledge from somewhere, otherwise how the hell do they know how to seal off the time-cusps?"
"None of this information originates here. It's a message from elsewhere, only the sender's identity has been concealed. We'd have to lock into the password to work out who it was from".
"So, they're getting help from outside the Palace?"
"And from outside the Ministry I suspect, otherwise why all the secrecy?" said Joby "None of the identities in the other messages from the Ministry are concealed".
"It means someone's helping them who doesn't want to be identified by anyone other than the vampires, even the Ministry".
"Clever bastard, whoever it is", said Joby "Some of these equations are the size of a house".
"Oh he'd have to be a bloody genius to seal up the time-cusps the way he has. After all, no one in our time had managed it. We're probably talking some real clever bastard here, Nobel prize material if they still had it".
"I wonder what he gets out of it then? Whoever it is. I mean, what do the vampires give him in return?"
"Perhaps it's some hold they have over him", said Kieran "Anyway, don't get settled into hacking mode, we've got to find Adam first".
"I can't go down there".
"Why not? Adam could be down there".
"Evil has been there".
"It's been all over the Palace you stupid Irish git! What's so special about this corridor? You've been walking everywhere else".
"Don't ask me to go down there", Kieran clung to the lintel of the doorway.
"It's not there now is it?" Joby peered down the gloomy corridor.
"No, but it's passed through recently".
"Oh, so suddenly you're scared of a psychic impression are you?" Joby exclaimed "Adam could be in great trouble, in fact he probably is, and you're not going to help him, because something evil walked this way in the recent past. God help us, with you as the Vanquisher of Evil we'd better turn out the lights now!"
"I didn't ask for the bloody job did I?"
"No, but you've got it so tough shit".
"This is something worse than anything else Joby, I can feel the imprint of its presence. Suffocating me ..."
"Oh get in there", Joby slapped his bottom, and pushed him roughly in the direction of the dreaded corridor.
"There's no need to get like that!" Kieran yelled.
"There is every need when you start wafting into pixie-land", Joby had a tight hold of the other man's arm, and was hauling him along the corridor "We've got to find Adam, that's what's important. And don't pass out on me either. Do you think I'm any less scared than you!"
"Stop nagging for a moment", Kieran paused at the bottom of a flight of stairs "I'm picking up an impression of Adam".
"I'm glad you're using your airwaves sensibly for once. If you weren't so frisky you'd make a good tracker-dog".
"He's up these stairs".
"He's still alive, isn't he Kiel?"
"I damn well hope so".
They approached the table in the purple gallery in a cautious manner, as though uncertain whether Adam was dead, or about to rise up and take large bites out of them. He was slumped forward in one of the chairs, his head resting on the table. His hair trailed in a pool of spilt wine.
"What's happened to him Jobe?" Kieran stayed about two paces away from the table "Tell me".
"He can't be! He's been dry for the past two years".
"Well it looks like he's just fallen off the wagon".
Joby pulled Adam upright and supported his head against his shoulder. Adam opened and shut his mouth like a goldfish, as though the words he wanted to speak were slightly out of his reach. Joby wrapped his arm around his shoulder and tried to haul him off the seat. Adam was tall, but his build was spare, and Joby could only put his inability to lift him down to his own weakened, underfed state.
"C'mon Flannery, don't just stand there. Grab the other side".
"No-o-o", Adam groaned, and buried his face in Joby's hair "D-don't let Patsy see me".
"You can't be that pissed then if you're aware of us", said Joby, in exasperation "Anyway he's already seen you so there".
"Try to walk Addy", Kieran appeared on the other side of him "We'll have trouble getting you downstairs otherwise".
"Don't", said Adam to Joby "Don't let someone who cares for you see you rat-arsed. It doesn't matter if you see me Joby, because you ... you don't care about me. You never have, have you?"
"I love you, you stupid bastard. Now help me".
Adam made a feeble effort to get out of the chair, then seemed to change his mind and slumped back into it.
"There's blood on his top", said Kieran "Is he hurt?"
"Nothing coming out of him", Joby peered down the inside of Adam's clothing "Must be off something else".
"Fat vampire", said Adam, spitting the words out of his mouth like indigestible gristle "He was bleeding all over the place".
"Did he attack you?" asked Joby.
"No", Adam giggled "You see, you t-tell them Patsy is your lover, and they run for the hills. Worked like a charm. Oh lor, I think I'm going to be sick".
"Well the vomit will go nicely with the bloodstains on your shirt", said Joby.
With a great effort he managed to prise Adam away from the chair. Kieran took his share of the man's weight before Joby collapsed under it. Adam made retching noises, but there was nothing solid to bring up, apart from alcoholic phlegm.
"I want to sleep", he cried, desperately "Just lie down and sleep".
"And that's exactly what you're going to do", said Kieran "As soon as we get you down those bloody stairs".
"No, here Patsy, I'll sleep here. I can't move any further".
"We can't leave you here", said Joby "You come back down to the bedroom, and then we can all keep an eye on each other".
"That ... that is very important", said Adam, laboriously "You see, if we'd kept an eye on Angel, none of this would be necessary. He's paying us back ... paying us back for not caring for him".
"The fact that he's an evil little shit might have something to do with it as well", said Joby.
"Nobody is born evil Jobe, we are what life makes us".
"Or death", said Kieran "In Angel's case".
"What are you doing Joby?" Adam sounded quite scandalised.
"Making sure you haven't wet yourself. I thought you'd find it less humiliating if I did it".
"Where's Patsy?" Adam sat up on the bed, pulling his clothes together around him.
"Checking on Hillyard and Lonts next door. I told him to. You were getting so upset about him seeing you pissed that I thought I'd get him out of the room for a while so I could sober you up".
"I-I'm alright", Adam rubbed his eyes vigorously "Having you ferreting around in my underpants will sober me up quicker than twenty black coffees. The way you were fiddling about I thought you'd lost your car-keys or something! I suppose I'm never going to hear the end of all this?"
"It'll keep", said Joby "For when you next start joking about me being frigid".
"That's only because I worry about you. Anyway, you can congratulate yourself on having seen old Adam in his true colours".
"Oh stop sounding like a wounded old fairy", Joby slammed a billy-can of water onto the brazier and left it to boil "You'll be singing torch-songs next".
"I'm ashamed Joby. I've let Patsy down".
"I don't spose he sees it that way. One thing I know about him is he's not judgmental. He knew your history when he took you on anyway".
"But he needs us to be strong now".
"You're letting that frontiersman fantasy go to your head", said Kieran, entering the room.
"I wanted to be strong for you", said Adam "Reliable. All macho I suppose".
"You are where it counts", Kieran kissed the other man's eyes softly, in a way that Adam had once done to him when he was feeling tired and battered.
"How's the fruitcake?" asked Joby, stirring coffee into the pan of simmering water.
"Shell-shocked, poor little bastard", said Kieran "At least he seems to have forgotten all the ideas he had about killing me though".
"What happened with him exactly?" asked Adam.
Kieran tried to explain it all as coherently as possible, but all the while feeling like he was relating the plot of some obscure film. He could almost picture the type of movie it would be. Shot in black-and-white, soundtracked with disturbing outbreaks of strident trumpet music, with the actors playing him and Lonts doing a lot of staring gloomily into space. It would be shown in seedy forgotten cinemas specialising in "art" films, or put on during the small hours on some non-populist t.v channel which couldn't afford proper programmes. Years later it would have "cult status".
"And you don't know where this Krik character went?" said Adam.
"I didn't feel inclined to follow him", said Kieran "But remember, the silver thread. Said by some mediums to represent a person's soul leaving the body at the point of death. He left his own when he was executed, and got into Lonts's. I have no idea where he's gone now, except I think he's manifesting as himself now".
"Do you think he's got some hidden agenda to all this?"
"From what I've heard about him he was a typical serial-killer. He had an ego the size of the Grey Sea. He would have feared ceasing to exist far more than the agony of the execution".
"But just to carry on killing again?" said Joby "Don't make sense. He motivated Lonts to come all the way out here, well why did he? When there's probably juicier pickings in the City? There must be a reason why he's come all the way out here. He was a child-killer, not a vampire, and there are no children here, unless you count Lonts I suppose".
"Retribution?" Adam speculated "Against what though? Oh lor Patsy, to think you were alone with all that whilst I was getting pissed upstairs!"
"Given half a chance I'd have been getting pissed meself, 'cept Joby came hurtling in, screaming about being propositioned by a vampire".
"That was Caln", said Joby "The fucker who killed the bloke in Room Four at the inn. That could have been me too! Bitten to death ... or buggered. Or both".
"So, for some time today they had us all separated from each other", said Adam "Not good".
"Ah", said Kieran "But we're all here intact aren't we? We outwitted 'em you see".
"More luck than judgement", Joby grunted.
Caln had resorted to the green blood, as he always did in times of crisis. This was a dangerous delicacy that few vampires would have attempted to imbibe. When a victim was vamporised, its remaining blood turned eventually from a satisfying red to a putrid green. This then meant that the victim was considered to be soiled goods from that time on. Tasting them in that condition was about as pleasurable as drinking sour milk would be to a human, and too much of the green blood could have fatal consequences for a vampire.
To some vampires, those who craved excitement and weren't satisfied with simply gorging, the dangers of green blood were perversely enticing. Taken in small quantities it was considered not just safe, but to be actually beneficial, as it reduced the urge to simply gorge for gorging's sake, and so freed the mind to concentrate on other pleasures of the flesh. To some vampires drinking green blood was an enjoyable, decadent past-time, in the same fashion that the Victorians had taken arsenic in small doses to improve their well-being.
Although afraid of Mullawa, Caln secretly despised the more powerful vampire for his utter dependence on human flesh. Originally Caln had taken to green blood to stave off hunger pangs, usually whilst waiting for Mullawa to decide which corpses he was allowed to have. Caln had drank the green blood out of desperation initially, but gradually as his confidence grew he took larger and larger doses. Now he couldn't have left it alone if he'd tried. More than anything he enjoyed the secret feeling of superiority it gave him over Mullawa. All the warnings he'd heard from the now-gone vampires, that some corpses had generated green blood with a malignant life-force of its own, responsible for burning off fingers, noses and testicles, only added to the excitement for Caln. He craved excitement as much as the other vampires had craved flesh. Occasionally he liked to slip out of the Palace and create havoc somewhere, as he had done recently when he'd claimed a victim at the Marlsblad inn under eveyone's noses (and taken several days to do it, leaving the man alive until he had finished with him. Mullawa wouldn't have dared to do that!)
To add to the pressure he'd released the Gorgon at the same time. He was scared stiff of her, yet as he fled through the forest and the village that night he had enjoyed the sensation of being the prey for a change. What a game! Until Mullawa went and ruined it all by re-calling her.
At this present time though Caln was both frightened and frustrated. Deprived of a meal a short while ago (the meat had been rather lacking in poundage, but it was young and therefore tender), and then disturbed by the ripples on the swamp, he had sought solace in his jars of green blood. He shovelled in the thick, glutinous liquid mindlessly, for once disregarding his normal strict precautions about dosage. He reasoned that he had been taking the stuff for so long that a short binge could do no harm.
He took a jar up to the top of one of the towers, where he could gaze down from a very safe height at the swamp below. In the darkness he could dimly make out that it was even more turbulent than ever, slurping about like a lame donkey trying to rid itself of an unnecessary load. For once Caln was excited in a way that he didn't want. With the Gorgon not responding to calls, and now this, he felt as though everything was slowly slipping out of control.
Caln swirled down through the Palace in a haze of green mist. When he reached the atrium he ordered Braw to unbolt the doors. Beyond them Caln found that the swamp waters were now slopping up over the bridge, wetting his feet.
"Been doing that for hours", Braw said calmly, as though reporting a minor malfunction in a piece of equipment.
"But it's dead", Caln protested, against the evidence of his own eyes "Nothing lives in it, nothing can. It's full of death and decay, so why is this happening?"
"There are no fucking worms in this swamp you palsied cretin".
"Could be now".
"What d'ya mean?" Caln grabbed Braw's shoulders and shook him roughly "What have you seen?"
"We've got someone here who wasn't here before".
"You mean ... the Vanquisher?"
"Him as well".
"Who else then?"
"Last seen at Gurran Island, many years ago".
"H-have you seen it here?" Caln stammered.
"No", Braw replied "But I don't need to. I've still got some of my faculties, you didn't destroy them all. I know it's in the building. They're all closing in on you".
"Shuddup, shuddup, shuddup!" Caln felt tears of rage pricking at his eyes.
But Braw was a man with nothing to lose, They had made sure of that. Not dreaming that the fool could use it to his own advantage.
"He's here as well, the Vanquisher", said Braw "And he won't make the same mistakes as I did".
"How can you be so sure of that?"
"I came alone, so you managed to destroy me. But good can only defeat evil with the help of others, and he's got it".
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