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And oh how he go-o-orged! After throwing Mullawa's blackened corpse from the window he had set to with a relish. Unlike Mullawa though he felt no need to stuff himself until the blood oozed from every pore of him. He would take his time savouring every mouthful, knowing with relief that it would stop the advance of the frightening scorch-marks. With each mouthful of red meat he was rejuvenated, and he felt sure that in time the burn marks would go down, and his genitals may yet be saved. But he knew full well that he would sleep very little for some time to come, aware that each time he woke he might find that his tender parts had fallen off, like little charcoaled parcels.
In the late afternoon he emerged from Mullawa's room, temporarily sated. He walked out onto a stone balcony at the end of the corridor and breathed in great mouthfuls of the winter air. He almost felt like doing a jig. Mullawa was gone. The king was dead, long live the king!
Soon afterwards he went to the Office, the centre of operations, to test out his new power. He would release the Gorgon into Marlsblad village again (forgetting entirely that she hadn't responded to the last call he had made). That would be fun, especially since the villagers had all been lulled into a false sense of security lately. And then what about a little outbreak of the Virus? Nothing too serious, perhaps in one of the small fishing villages on the west coast. Just enough to cause a panic amongst the Ministry. It wasn't long now until the dawn of the Millennium, so the religious nutters would have a field-day too. Idiots! thought Caln. They were idiots because they never knew when they were being manipulated. It was all their own fault for being so damn predictable in their emotions. Humans were like that.
He received a nasty shock on finding someone already in the room. The unknown person had his back to the door and was feverishly tapping away at the keyboard of one of the communications monitors. Caln sensed an alien presence. This person, secreted under one of the black hooded cloaks that Braw used when tending his cattle in rough weather, wasn't meat. And this fact disturbed Caln. As a vampire he had control over meat. Anything else was an unknown quantity, a potential threat.
"Who are you?" Caln barked, imperiously.
The person eased his fingers from the keyboard, and slowly turned round. Caln saw a man with a full, fleshy face and intensely dark eyes. He was fairly well-built, and Caln bitterly regretted that he wasn't meat. But why wasn't he meat? He didn't understand.
"I said ..."
"I heard yer", the creature replied, in a harsh, guttural voice "When's he coming? And don't ask who, you know who I mean".
"W-we sent a message out a short time ago", Caln replied, in a more docile fashion than he wanted "He shouldn't be long now".
"Good. I wanna know when he gets here".
The creature rose to his feet. As he did so the hood of his cloak fell back, revealing a large close-cropped head. There were small burn-marks on his temples and neck, where electrodes had been placed. He stopped in front of Caln and leered at him. The vampire recoiled and flattened himself against one of the terminals.
"Are you a vampire then?"
"S-some people call us that", Caln replied.
"You eat people", the creature said it more as a statement of fact than a question. He then let out a gust of laughter "You eat 'em 'cos you have to. You need to".
"So they have power over you, not the other way round", the creature snapped his fingers at Caln's face in a mocking gesture "Loser!"
"Who are you?"
"You don't need to know. I took a lot of trouble to get here, and I'm here for one reason. To get even. And if you get in my way at all, I'll start chopping you up and feeding you to yourself. How's that for cannibalism!"
The creature swung his fist through the screen of the terminal nearest him. The machine let off a series of pathetic bleeps, but soon lapsed into injured silence.
"Oh dear", said the creature "Did that do anything important?"
"It linked us to the Ministry".
"Well don't expect them to come running to your rescue. They'll be too shit-scared for one thing".
"You can't just come in here and start smashing the place up!"
"Why not? Destruction was my vocation, Vampire! Tell me, as one member of the Undead to another, how you gonna stop me, eh? Expose me to the Virus? But I can change shape as easily as you can now, so what I look like doesn't bother me. Are you gonna eat me instead?" the creature held out a grey-skinned arm "Have a go".
"You're not meat. You've no real substance".
"That's right. So when you look at me you see a real person, not blood cells, veins and organs".
"This revenge thing", said Caln "What do you think you'll gain by it?".
"Killing is about possession", Krik put his hands on Caln's face and pushed them together, until the vampire's lips stuck out gurney-fashion "When you kill someone you possess them for all eternity. It means they'll never again be free of you. They're your slave. Tied to you with an umbilical cord. And that's what I want from him. He owes me".
"Because he took my life away from me that's why".
"He killed you?"
"Yea, that's right, he killed me, but not in the way you think. Over twenty years before I went to the electric chair, he robbed me of my life".
Nothing but snow, trees and mountains, thought Adam, shivering in the winter twilight. Somewhere out there though lay the beginnings of the Uncharted Area. Somewhere in that impenetrable whiteness lay the end of the journey.
"Do we all go out there together?" asked Hillyard, standing next to him on the tower.
They had all, including Lonts, climbed to the top of one of the corner towers to try and get some idea of where they were going. The four corner towers were linked by walkways, not all of which were still intact. A wolf howled in the far distance.
"I don't expect you to come Hillyard", said Adam "You can call it a day anytime you wish. You may want to take Lonts to the City. He needs help".
"I can't handle Lonts alone. I can't get through to him", said Hillyard "And I don't want to, quite frankly. Sounds rotten I know, but I'm sick of responsibility. I'm tired of nutters Adam, I want to be with you lot".
"I thought you said you were tired of nutters!" said Adam.
"If you don't want me along ..."
"Hillyard, you are invaluable to us. You will be even more so when we get to the City. And we've got used to having you around. Your company's not unappealing. But what about the boy? For what we've got to do he's going to be one hell of a liability to have around. He's not safe to be let off the leash half the time".
"We'll have to manage him between us somehow. I mean, we can't leave him here can we?"
"No, and we can't leave here ourselves without getting some information. We need a map of that area. If it is government-controlled, then I don't believe for one minute it's as uncharted as they say. And we need to know the exact location of the Virus. That information can only be got here, within the Palace. Trouble is, we can't simply ask them".
"All I know is I want us to find it soon", said Hillyard "And then get out of here. My shoulder's playing up again, and I'm frightened about what I've done".
"What YOU'VE done?"
"Sleeping with Artuul".
"We don't know in that sense that you've done anything".
"I gave him strength. This Angel creature ..."
"If it hadn't been you he would've got it somewhere else".
"You said he had blue eyes", said Hillyard "Did he have long eyelashes, dark hollows under his eyes, and ... and was his hair a sort of dirty gold colour?"
"Angel? Yes, as far as I remember. Have you seen him then?"
"No. I-I dreamt about him", Hillyard placed his fingertips on the parapet, and pressed them into the stonework until his nails went completely white "He hasn't said or done anything, although I think he keeps trying to get at my hand".
Adam remembered Angel kissing his hand at the deserted inn, licking it like an affectionate dog.
"That's his technique", Adam sighed "Oh Hillyard, he's going to try you now. As himself this time".
Further along the walkway Kieran looked down at the swamp. It had risen to such an extent that he experienced a very real fear that if they delayed leaving much longer they would never get out of the Palace.
"You should put your jumper on", said Joby, appearing behind him, carrying a woollen sweater over his arm "It's brass monkeys up here".
"How can you think about clothes at a time like this?" Kieran snapped.
"I was thinking about you actually. Don't wanna see you ill".
"Stop fussing Joby, you're not my mother!"
Joby was secretly gratified though when Kieran took the offending jersey and put it on.
"Look at all that down there", said Kieran, trying to point over the parapet and getting his arm caught in his sleeve "What the hell's causing it?"
"Worms, like at the Abbey I suspect. At least they haven't destroyed the bridge yet".
"Well it won't be long at this rate. It's time we were making plans to be out of here, whilst we still have a choice".
"Yea, but where's Lonts gone?"
Lonts had felt surplus to requirements. In an increasingly rare lucid moment he saw the truth. That he was a burden to everyone, the odd number. The fifth member of the group. As always happened at such times all he wanted to do was to go home to Kiskev. The fact that there was no one there any longer was a thought he refused to believe. Was he really the only one to survive the flames? The idea was so obscene that he blocked it out. He knew what everyone was thinking, and had been thinking ever since the Ministry men had found him living like a wild bear cub in the forest. That he should have died too. Then the whole subject of Kiskev could be ruled off, and consigned to the huge dustbin of History's Tragedies.
But no, he had done the unthinkable and survived. And being so young he would be around as a living reminder for a long time to come. No one wanted that, least of all him. He would go back to Kiskev. And if it was true that he really was the only one left, then at least no one there would have to feel responsible for him.
Whilst the others were preoccupied at the top of the tower he had slipped back down the winding staircase. "I am going home", he kept telling himself, repeating it like a mantra "I am going home".
Getting out of the Palace proved to be a problem though. Mile upon mile of corridor, and none of it seeming to lead anywhere. He nervously tried looking in some of the rooms, but stopped after feeling that he was being watched. When he came upon a human hand stuck casually in the top of a brazier he screamed. Satan was walking within the Palace, he was certain of that, and Satan was teasing him. Satan wouldn't let him go back to Kiskev, because he would be safe there from evil. Untouchable. And Satan didn't want that.
Braw was jolted into consciousness by the great brass bell on the bridge clanging. It took him some minutes to collect himself, by which time the clanging had become more and more insistent. Braw pulled on his coat, and regretfully stumbled out of the nice, cosy fug that was his hut.
Out in the atrium he was surprised to find himself wading ankle-deep in swamp water. This had never appeared indoors before in all the years that he had been at the Palace. What the meaning of it was he couldn't even begin to guess. He slid back the bolts on the main doors, using both hands to do so. All the while, in his slowness, he could sense the person on the other side of the door getting more and more exasperated.
"What is going on here?" the visitor said petulantly, as though the rising of the swamp had been done on purpose solely to annoy him.
The swamp waters had made the bridge slippery and treacherous, liable to suck anyone over them with watery tentacles. The visitor had left his buggy parked on the mainland. It gleamed white in the moonlight, like a beacon to safety.
"Answer me", the visitor snapped "What is going on here?"
"Doubtless a side-effect of all your work recently", said Braw, surprised at how strong his anger could still sound, even after all these years "Sealing up the time-cusps I mean".
"Don't be insolent Braw. That work was vital. If we hadn't done it then who knows what might have happened. A time-cusp was imminent on the Skirra Fludd rock, so something had to be done".
"Aye", said Braw, regretfully.
"They would never have let you go home anyway, so you've missed nothing".
"No, but at least before I had me dreams. I haven't got anything now".
Braw followed Tomce into the atrium and slammed the doors shut behind them. Tomce had heard this forbidding sound many times before on previous visits. It had long since ceased to startle him, but this time he couldn't help but notice a dreadful finality about it. He had never felt easy in the Palace, but now he felt trapped, sealed up in a huge tomb. He picked his way squeamishly through the swamp water until he reached the main staircase. He turned to stare down into Braw's face.
"You will never understand will you Braw?"
"I understand what you're getting out of it sure enough. Without the protection of this lot you'd have wound up in the Cage ... if you were lucky. I don't know where you went wrong, but it isn't half a crying waste of a lot of talent. You could have done good with the knowledge that you've got".
"But I did! I saved history from destruction".
"Aye, and sealed us up with the Devil instead. As if we haven't got enough problems. And you do it all to feed your fantasies. Is the risk worth it?"
"Braw", Tomce sighed "To men such as myself any risk is worth it. That's what everyone else has never understood. To the likes of me, there is no such thing as a deterrent".
"Well we've wanked off in a spectacular way and no mistake", said Kieran "Four of us with him and he still manages to give us the slip!"
"We're not cut out for minding nutters are we?" said Joby, glumly "We ballsed it up with Angel, and now the Fruitcake".
"He could be anywhere in the whole damn place", Adam stood at a junction where three corridors met, none of which looked familiar or particularly inviting.
"It was your idea to take the harness of him", said Hillyard, accusingly "He wouldn't have got far if we'd left his hands tied up".
"It was cutting into his wrists", Adam protested "It was sheer cruelty".
"Maybe", said Hillyard "But at least we knew where he was!"
"Hey girls, this mirror moves", Kieran gently pulled a large gilt-framed looking-glass away from the wall. It swung out on hinges to reveal an arched doorway cut into the brickwork behind it.
"I always wondered why vampires would need so many mirrors", said Adam, pushing open the door and instantly being flooded in a pool of light.
"It looks nicer in there", said Joby, wistfully.
They stepped through into a palace within a palace. They had glimpsed traces of this one in the outer parts, such as the fan-vaulted ceilings, and the mural-painted doorways. But this one was warm and well-lit. There was no kind of menace here, only an intoxicating aura of luxury on a baroque scale. It was as if the vampires had never taken up residence in the Winter Palace, and that the red-robed cardinals of days of yore still crept quietly along the deep-carpeted corridors. The mirrored doorway had led them out onto a landing at the top of a wide, sweeping flight of stairs, well-lit by an enormous candlelit chandelier.
"We haven't time-crossed have we?" said Joby, excitedly.
"We can't have", said Kieran "They sealed up all the cusps remember?"
"But don't it remind you of Green Ways?" said Joby, recalling the gentle vision who had crept into his room there. He still carried her stocking everywhere with him.
"That's because of all the comfort", Kieran traced his fingers along the polished handrail at the top of the stairs "It's all so wonderfully bright here. We must all be blinking like moles after being in the rest of the place".
"We've got to look round", said Joby, vehemently "As long as we all stay together we should be alright. Oh c'mon, don't mess us about Adam, say yes".
"You'd probably lynch me if I didn't", said Adam, and opened the double doors at the head of the stairs "This way first I think".
They found themselves in what had once been the City Archbishop's main reception room. The long chamber was lined with dusty mirrors, making the room seem even bigger. At one end a carved chair stood grandly on a plinth. It all appeared to be as it was in days gone by, when the Archbishop had sat there in front of visiting dignitaries, offering his ring for kissing. Kieran tried the seat for size.
"Sad thing about being the Vanquisher of Evil", he said "I get all the hassle, but no grand pleasures like this. At the end of it all I probably won't get the chance to sit somewhere like this, and have you all kow-towing to me".
"We wouldn't anyway", said Joby.
"You might get the chance Kieran", said Hillyard "The Ministry might be so grateful they'll heap you with honours".
"And then start asking a lot of intrusive questions", said Adam "Like who we are and where we come from. For God's sake don't mention Henang, or we could find ourselves back there".
"If that strange mass disappearance hadn't happened we would still be there", said Kieran "All this time we would have been locked in that cell".
"Oh shut up", Joby shivered "You're giving me the creeps. I'll start thinking all this has been a dream or something".
"Was it really bad there?" asked Hillyard.
"Not bad as prisons go generally", said Adam "It was clean, there was privacy, the food wasn't inedible, and the staff weren't sadistic. But no one enjoys being locked up for twenty-four hours a day".
"They never let you out of the cell at all?"
"Joby got summoned once to see the Governor, but otherwise we spent the two months behind one door".
"I'm surprised you didn't all go mad. I would've done".
"I sometimes wonder if we did", said Joby "Things've never been the same since. Let's not waste time talking about that, I want to see what else there is around here".
Through another door at the far end of the audience chamber, they followed a stone staircase downwards. It was lit by candles placed at strategic intervals on narrow ledges. At the bottom the stairs opened out into a large, windowless room. The walls were a soft, butterscotch colour. Two large fireplaces at either end gave the room a warm, cosy feel. A table, covered in a crisp, white cloth, was heaped with bowls of food. Neat piles of oranges, with their leaves still intact, grapes, nuts, apples, bread, cream, butter. Pitchers of wine and pitchers of water. And not a joint of meat in sight.
"We must be in the very heart of the Palace", said Hillyard "Bang in the centre".
"Very nice too", said Adam "But what's the catch?"
"I don't care if there is one", said Joby, tearing the heal off a loaf "I'm fucking starving".
"Never look a gift horse in the mouth", said Kieran, crunching on a bunch of purple grapes.
"They're either trying to dope us or fatten us up", said Hillyard.
"Either way", Kieran mumbled "You're safe with me".
"You do realise this could all be poisoned?" said Adam.
"Ah", said Kieran "And what a lovely way to go!"
Half-an-hour later none of them felt any the worse for wear, and could only assume the food wasn't poisoned. Even Adam began to relax his vigilance and joined in the dig. Although he would have been more appreciative if some cigars had been laid on too.
"Those two months at the prison", said Hillyard, circling with one of the wine pitchers for the third time "Just you three in a cell, right? How come you didn't all try killing each other?"
"Laziness", said Kieran.
"But three's an awkward number", said Hillyard "I mean, one of you is always going to get left out".
"We take that role in turns", said Adam "Joby gets left out when we're being intimate, let's say".
"That only started halfway through our time there", said Joby.
"I get left out often", Adam continued "Being the old fogey of course. And Patsy gets left out when ..."
"When there's any intelligent conversation going on", said Joby "Anything that requires commonsense or a brain".
"So we all have turns at feeling ganged up on by the other two", said Adam.
"Me most of all", said Kieran "I get pushed around from pillar to post, and aren't supposed to have any feelings at all".
"But things must get nasty sometimes?"
"You can say that again", said Joby.
"Things aren't nowhere near as violent as they used to be", said Adam "Sometimes they used to get very nasty indeed".
"He once beat up Flannery so badly", said Joby, gulping down more wine "That we were gonna leave him behind. I'm glad we didn't though".
"Why thank you Joby", said Adam "And I distinctly remember one occasion when you nearly decorated a wall with Patsy's blood".
"See!" Kieran exclaimed "It was all me being picked on wasn't it? Everybody's favourite whipping-boy".
"God knows what it'd be like if we was all still there", said Joby "At the prison I mean. Hard to imagine after all this time".
"Anyway I thought you'd know all about us by now Hillyard", said Adam "You've been with us long enough".
"Yea, but I'm not one of you am I?"
"Course you are. We're not proud".
"Sometimes you talk about things I know nothing about".
"Inevitable", said Kieran "We're from a different time, a different place. Doesn't mean you're not one of us though".
"I don't mind. Long as I'm not alone. Does that make me sound crazy?"
"We all of us run from inner demons", said Adam "Perhaps the prison did us one favour, and made us face ours. Helped to drive out all those invisible wedges we put between us. That was a painful process for us all".
"Bitter memories and confused feelings", said Joby, feeling a tear rolling down the side of his nose "So much that's always been there, and you don't see it. So much hurt we do to people".
"You've been drinking too much of that stuff", said Adam "You're getting maudlin".
"I might have the answer here", said Kieran, pulling the cover off one of the dishes "Smiley cakes".
"Oh a high old time was had by all", said Adam, selecting one "We could've done with these in the prison, that's for certain".
Tomce was waiting in the Office. He had been waiting for some time and, although this generally happened, he didn't find it any the less annoying. There was definitely something wrong here. First the high level of the swamp waters, then Braw's insolence, and now he found one of the terminals smashed. There was a taste in the air which he didn't like. He was starting to develop the very real fear that he would die here.
There was a presence lurking behind the other door. It was brushing lightly against the woodwork.
"Please", he said, in his light, whiney voice "Do come through. It's rather disturbing not to be able to see one's watcher".
The door was pushed open further. Tomce saw a very young boy of slim build. He was filthy and his dark hair hung lank with dirt. He was obviously nervous, because he bit his grimey fingernails constantly.
"No need to be afraid", said Tomce, warming-up considerably "Did you want to see me?"
"There's someone else wants to see you", said the boy "Said I was to take you to him".
"That's a great pity for us. I was hoping we could get to know each other".
"Come now", Lonts tugged at Tomce's sleeve "You've got to come with me now".
"Whatever you wish, my boy".
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