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"Three of my sheep dead I tell you! And you promised me it never comes out of the house!"
"This is the first time, the first time ever", said Bertha "I'm always so careful. Someone else must be letting him out behind my back, someone else must have a key".
"You're damn lucky no humans have been killed, that's all I can say", said the old shepherd "I've heard the rumours in the village, how an evil spirit roams the corridors of this house at night. I wouldn't live in this house if you paid me!"
"Please leave", said Bertha, imploringly "I'm sorry about your sheep, but what's done is done".
"You're a crazy woman", said the shepherd, spitting on the ground in disgust "If anyone dies on this estate because of that thing, then I don't rate much for your chances, that's all I can say".
This conversation was taking place at the door at the foot of the staircase in the tower in the West Wing, the door which led to the outside world. Whilst it was going on the Indigo-ites had gone up to the padded room and found it was still empty. Tamaz though had overheard the entire conversation, sitting as he was a few steps up, obscured from Bertha's view by the wall which bordered the staircase on its lower levels. He listened to her leaving the tower, via the door which connected it to the Service Wing.
"Tell me now, the truth", he said to Mieps, who had joined him "Was it you who got those sheep?"
"I've had one chicken, one chicken!" Mieps protested.
"I'm just checking", said Tamaz "Whatever this thing is they're all chasing, we can't risk getting blamed for anything it does. Because that'll be the end of you, out in the cold for good, and you needn't think I'd come with you!"
"Freaky!" Julian bellowed, coming down the narrow staircase towards them "No wandering off I said, and what do you do? Wander off! I may ask to see you later".
Tamaz knew what this meant, and gave a whimper of alarm.
"But he overheard an interesting conversation", said Mieps "Tell him, Tamaz".
Tamaz told him.
"That's it", said Ransey, joining them "That woman tells us everything, even if we have do have to torture her to get it out!"
Bertha sat in her sitting-room, facing the massed ranks of Julian, Adam, Ransey, Hillyard and Kieran.
"Let me see if I've got this right", said Julian "You have been keeping a Reptile Man in the tower in the West Wing?!"
"A huge bloody great Reptile Man", said Hillyard "One that's capable of tearing people's heads off with one movement!"
"He's been there for 20 years", said Bertha "With never any trouble at all. I found him as a baby, abandoned in the forest. It was a winter's day like this, and he would have died if I hadn't taken him in. I knew as he got bigger he'd be dangerous so I've never taken any risks. He's been locked in at all times, and I sedate his food every morning so that I can clearn up both him and his room. I always go in there armed".
"Exactly how many know about its existence in this house?" said Adam.
"Myself, the doctor, and the old shepherd I was talking to earlier. He found him with me in the forest all those years ago", said Bertha "None of the other servants have ever known. I simply barred them from going into the tower in the West Wing".
"Did Woll know?" said Hillyard.
"No he didn't", said Bertha "Mr Woll rarely moved out of his own suite of rooms at the other end of the house. Occasionally he or the other servants heard cries in the night, but in old houses like this people don't make a fuss about such things. It's almost expected really".
"The fact remains though that someone has been letting it roam the house at night these past few weeks", said Ransey.
"But I swear I know nothing about that", said Bertha "Whenever I went up there in the mornings Freddy ..."
"Freddy?" Julian mouthed, in disbelief.
"Freddy was always back in his room, with the manacle on, often fast asleep on his divan", said Bertha.
"Exhausted from shrieking, screaming and running about all night no doubt!" said Julian, dryly.
"Freddy can't speak", said Bertha "Reptile Men just can't be civilised in any way I'm afraid, so he couldn't tell me what was going on. All I know is that someone got my duplicate key, and has been letting him out".
"I would dearly like to have seen the original of this key, as well as the duplicate", said Ransey "You should have handed it over when I asked to see them all, and then all of this could have been stopped".
"I think we'd better concentrate our efforts on finding this creature before someone gets hurt, or worse", said Kieran "The recriminations can follow later".
"You have been an extremely foolish woman!" Ransey thundered, and left the room angrily.
Bertha looked white with exhaustion and shock.
"I'm rather afraid he's right", said Adam "When I think what might have happened if someone had confronted 'Freddy' when he was at large, well I could get pretty angry too!"
"Logically, Reptile Men would head underground", said Mieps "Any wells, underground tunnels or caves in the area for instance would be the first places to look, failing that, the forest is another prime place".
"O.K", said Julian, looking at everyone assembled in the kitchen "The plan is this, we track it and kill it, it couldn't be simpler. I've certainly no intention of bringing it back here so that Bertha can carry on treating it as a pet! We form three columns of search and pursuit. Most of us forming the central column, going up through the estate and down the central track in the forest. Kieran and his monks can go round the outskirts of the forest and will meet up with us on the other side, into the mountains. Tamaz and Mieps will go into the denser parts of the forest, the undergrowth, and act as beaters to flush it out. They have the eyesight and tracking skills that are necessary. On ahead of us will go an advance scouting party on snow-shoes, who will warn us via hunting-horns if the creature is sighted. The scouting-party will be made up of the clowns and Lonts, shut up Adam! Lonts is vital, he can move better than anyone on the snow. Ransey will now go into the gun-room and sort out weapons, and Dolores is going to the stables to get horses and sledges prepared. Now we are very short of daylight, so let's get moving".
Consumed with rage at Julian's high-handed use of his beloved boy, Adam went into the pantry to sharpen axes and machetes on the big knife-grinding machine. Bengo was turning the handle for him as he worked. A hearty knock came on the door and a cheery shout of "grocery delivery!"
"Oh very amusing", said Adam, waspishly, when Hillyard came in.
"Just my way of lightening the load", said Hillyard "You've got to admit Julian's right, Lonts is invaluable at times like this".
"I don't have to admit any such thing", said Adam, selecting another axe for sharpening "If anything happens to Lo-Lo today I'll..."
"Make Julian's life not worth living", said Hillyard "He already knows that!"
"Oh dear, I'm being a pain aren't I?" said Adam, pausing in his work.
"By the end of today", said Hillyard, comfortingly "You'll be as proud as punch of Lonts. You'll see".
"I always am", said Adam "He doesn't have to risk his life to make me so!"
"I'll ride astride", said Dolores, standing in the frosty courtyard of the stables "I'm borrowing Glynis's little roan mare, as she really can't come out with us in her condition".
"That she certainly can't", said Julian "If that baby of hers has to be born at all it might as well be born safely with no hitches".
"I've never ridden over snow before", said Dolores "I'm quite looking forward to it".
"Dolores, this isn't a cross-country steeplechase", said Julian "I don't think you quite appreciate how dangerous these creatures are!"
"Of course I do", said Dolores "A few years ago No-Name was plagued by one. It kept coming out of the bush at night and attacking our geese and chickens. And one of the local men fell asleep in the bush one afternoon after having too much to drink. He was found later with his throat torn out, so yes I do realise the dangers!"
"What happened to that particular creature?" said Julian.
"Lady Red organised a shooting-party, much as we're doing now", said Dolores "It was shot cleanly and with little trouble, but then to be honest we weren't working under these conditions!"
"Yes, deep snow and half-light", said Julian, wryly "Superb!"
An hysterical scream went up from the house. Julian and Dolores glanced at one another and then ran towards it.
Sherilyn was crouched on the stone stairs by the pantry. Her apron and the steps around her were covered with blood. She was holding out her hand and screaming in total terror.
"It got me!" she cried "It just came out of the corridor up there and got me!"
"It was in the fucking house all the time!" said Ransey, emerging from the gun-room.
Adam sprinted up the steps towards Sherilyn, who was now fainting through heavy loss of blood. It was hard to tell exactly what damage the creature had done to her, but from the bloodied pulp that was now her hand, it was clear it had savagely torn out a couple of her fingers in passing.
"Bertha!" Adam yelled "Get up here and look after Sherilyn! Finia, see if you can staunch the flow somehow. Get her cleaned and bandaged up until the doc gets here".
"Everyone else get after the damn thing!" said Julian "It can't have got far".
"It's not right to kill, under any circumstances", Levka, the pacifist vicar, was shouting in the kitchen "Do not resist such things! It is the will of God!"
Adam didn't reply. Instead he pushed him into the larder and locked the door.
The creature was pursued through the estate and into the forest. Lonts and the clowns ran ahead on ski's and snow-shoes, the others advanced on horseback, foot, and horse-drawn sleighs. The scouting-party could see it in the distance, as a shambling dark mass, staggering clumsily on all fours, unused after all its years in captivity to moving great distances out of doors. Even so, it could travel fast. Lonts skiied on ahead with speed and agility, every so often giving a short burst on his horn. As they cleared the forest at the base of the mountains, the posse of monks came round the other side and effectively blocked its passage. It shrieked horrifically, and for a moment Lonts was hit with a pang of sympathy for it, although this passed quickly when he remembered what it would more than likely do to him if it got hold of him.
It went to scamper in the opposite direction, but Tamaz and Mieps burst out of the snow-covered undergrowth, dragging a large net behind them, which they had unfurled and intended to throw over it. It lifted its huge, hairless head towards Lonts, its yellow eyes glinting with both fear and greed, its long tongue licking its face frenziedly. It had sensed Lonts's fear. "Oh God, it's going to attack me", Lonts thought, and instinctively put his hands to his neck and throat. If it knew he was afraid, its blood would be fired up, and he'd be done for.
There was a loud thud of musket fire and a strong whiff of smoke. The creature looked around, almost quizzical, wondering why it had been smote in the back. It fell to the ground, with the same absurdly questioning look on its face. As the smoke cleared Lonts could see one of the monks breaking the barrel on his blunderbuss.
Tamaz and Mieps moved closer, intending to throw the net over the creature, but Kieran emerged through the gloom, looking like an elemental spirit by the light of the burning torches carried by the monks. He raised a machete and then brought it down vigorously, cleanly severing the creature's head from its scaly shoulders. Finia's comments the night before about voodoo had stuck in his mind. He remembered talking to Ebuali, the witch-doctor in Husgalonghi, and the methods he had informed him he used. So for good measure, he sliced off the feet too, to stop its spirit walking after death.
"The bleeding's stopped", said Finia, leaning over the back of the sofa in Bertha's room "We just have to change the dressing every few hours. She's lost three fingers".
"You poor wee darlin'", said Kieran, stroking Sherilyn's forehead "Are the painkillers the doc gave you working?"
"Slowly starting to kick in", said Sherilyn, groggy from heavy sedation "How am I going to do my job? I can't wash up with one hand!"
"That's the very last thing you should be thinking of", said Kieran "You know you've got a home here for as long as you need it. But of course if you're really desperate to work ...!"
Sherilyn caught his jokey tone and gave a weak laugh.
"Oh no!" came an anguished cry from the kitchen.
Kieran followed it, and found Joby standing at the entrance to the larder. Inside, Levka was sitting on a stool, with a large empty bowl on his lap, like little Jack Horner.
"He's eaten all the Christmas pudding", Joby wailed "I was looking forward to that. You sod!!!"
"He looks like he's had a fair bit of the cooking sherry too", said Kieran.
Levka staggered to his feet and advanced on Kieran, knocking the pudding-bowl to the floor as he did so. Kieran backed into the kitchen, and Levka followed him.
"You can't judge me!" he cried, drunkenly "You've just gone out and taken an innocent life, someone who knew no better".
"They had to", said Lonts "The creature would have killed me otherwise, or any of us".
"Kill or be killed, that is what you should always ask yourself", said Levka "And the answer should always be, be killed!"
Lonts's bottom lip trembled, and he looked on the verge of tears.
"What did you have to say that for?" Joby roared at Levka "You're upsetting him with a lot of high-falutin' bollocks! If the world had been left to the likes of you we'd still have the Nazi's putting people in gas chambers and ovens!"
"He says I should have been killed to let the Reptile Man live!" Lonts wailed "But the Reptile Man would have killed others as well!"
"And don't tell us to take no notice of him, Kieran", said Joby, pointing at Levka "Because I can't, not after the day we've had!"
"Levka", said Kieran, running his hand through his hair tiredly "Sherilyn's lost three fingers and is in a lot of distress about it. But even that's small beer compared to what could have happened".
"Don't try talking sense to him, he's a nutter!" said Joby.
"I know all about you", Levka pushed his drunken face up against Kieran's "How you decide to have people bumped off who disagree with you ..."
"Me?! Nah!" said Kieran "I knee 'em in the balls instead".
He was as good as his word. When Adam came into the kitchen to see what all the noise was about, he found Levka staggering towards the dresser, bent-double.
"He had it coming to him", said Joby, indignantly.
"He said I should have let the Reptile Man tear my head off!" said Lonts.
"The problem with you lot is you haven't eaten all day", said Adam "Joby, get started on some breakfast. Levka, sit down for heaven's sake. I don't suppose any long-term damage has been caused".
"It wouldn't matter if it had", said Kieran.
"And you can go and make a confession to the Arch-Pater", said Adam, sternly "Julian's just been thanking the monks for all their help today, and apparently they say they would do anything, absolutely anything, for you! And in return you behave like a complete and utter thug".
"Adam, that's unreasonable!" Lonts boomed "Levka was upsetting me, so Kieran sorted him out. If you're going to be like that, I'm going to go the hall and dance to the gramophone!"
He left the room, scowling at his adored one.
"Well", said Joby, looking at Adam with great satisfaction "That told you, didn't it!"
"You should have come out with us today", said Dolores "All hands were required, and I think you would have redeemed yourself greatly if you had. All you've done since we arrived here is drink and eat, and generally try to be as offensive to everyone as possible. I'm deeply disappointed in you. People could accept your outrageous sense of humour if you tempered it with a little kindness occasionally. I don't know what's wrong with you, Thierry. Look at you, you're drunk now aren't you? You drink so consistently you're never sober, the alcohol never has a chance to leave your system".
Dolores and Thierry were standing at a window of the huge first-floor ballroom, a magnificent chamber decorated entirely in gold and gilding, with a double row of windows overlooking the front of the house. This room had gone entirely to waste during the whole of Woll's ownership, as he hadn't exactly been a party-giving person.
"I suppose you'd rather I was like Simeon?" said Thierry, bitterly "An I.Q in single figures!"
"At least Simeon has made a great effort to fit in here", said Dolores "He puts himself out to help people. He's a hard worker".
"A hard worker!" Thierry sneered "He's a retard! The only work he should be doing is pushing a broom!"
Dolores slapped him hard across the cheek, and the blow seemed to ring out around the empty ballroom. Thierry ran away from her, towards the big double doors which stood ajar. As he got nearer he saw Mieps watching him from the other side of them.
"What are you staring at, eh?" Thierry cried.
Mieps's amber eyes were peering into his inscrutably. Thierry gave a cry of drunken fear and pushed him aside. He made for the flight of wide marble stairs which connected with a magnificent red-tiled corridor which ran from the far end of the East Wing to the Service Wing. Thierry hurtled down them and at the bottom ran smack into Joby, who was carrying a basket of logs towards the rear door in the Yellow Salon.
"You clumsy great arsehole!" Joby roared, as the logs scattered "Why don't you look where you're going?!"
"It's him!" Thierry pointed at the top of the stairs, where Mieps was standing in silhouette in front of the full-length landing window, through which the full moon had already risen and was shining in like daylight.
"What about him?" said Joby, irritably.
"He's a gorgon", Thierry panted.
"No he's not", said Joby.
"He is, I'm turning to stone!" said Thierry.
"What the hell are you on?" Joby exclaimed "Mieps has been living with us for months, I think we might have noticed by now if he could turn people to stone! You're a pain the arse, you are. I'm sick of hearing your poncey voice!"
Joby got down on his knees and began to collect the fallen logs.
"Even in a house this size you get on my tits", he said "What is it with you? Why do you think anyone's impressed by you? 'Cos I tell you this, we're not!"
He had finished re-stacking the logs and was about to get to his feet, when he was assailed by a cry of "Joby, get down!" from Kieran.
"Now what?" said Joby, as two gunshots whistled past him.
Thierry was face-down on the tiled floor, and at first Joby thought he'd been killed.
"He's o.k", Kieran ran towards them, closely followed by the stout form of the Arch-Pater. Both were carrying pistols, and smoke was coming from the barrel of Kieran's.
"What the hell's going on?" Joby felt he'd cry if the situation wasn't explained to him soon.
"Watch out for the spiders!" Mieps yelled from the stairs.
Joby felt one, a big hairy bastard, climbing up his leg. He screamed and kicked out.
What had happened was this. Kieran and the Arch-Pater had been discussing together earlier what they needed to do if The Thing reappeared again. Kill it with silver charms, fired as bullets, blessed and dunked in salt and holy-water. Their opportunity to do this had come much sooner than they'd expected. For a lot of the afternoon they'd been prowling the house, with some of the other monks, ringing handbells and burning strong-smelling creosote on shovels, to coax it out of the shadows, knowing it was attracted, like all spirits and elementals, by loud noises and strong aroma's. They had been walking down the long corridor when Kieran had sighted the Thing standing only a few feet from Joby in one of the door recesses. He knew he wasn't putting Joby at risk from firing the gun. Even if Joby had got hit, the worst he'd get was a bruise.
The unusual bullets had impacted on the Thing, and it had dissolved into a vaporous black mass, spewing spiders. Kieran knew he could handle rats, mice and snakes with no problem, but spiders he had a phobia about, and now the bloody things were running everywhere! As big as a hod-carrier's fist, some even the size of cats.
"The salt!" he yelled at the monks "Chuck the focking salt!"
Some of the things were trying to get up his leg, and he afterwards joked that he began to do a frenzied jig worthy of Michael Flatley! Bengo and Bardin had now appeared, carrying birch-brooms, with which they had been clearing snow from the doorways around the back of the house. They scurried about, sweeping and bashing at the spiders.
"Saturate this whole place with salt!" Kieran yelled "Get all the bastards!"
He knew the invasion wouldn't stop though, until he'd approached the remains of the Thing itself. He waded through the disgusting melee, to where a black heap lay slumped in the doorway. It had lost its assumed resemblance to the Barlazzi Constable, and was now a foaming black tentacled mass, trying to assert its dying power in the onslaught against it.
"Joby, your penknife, quick!" Kieran cried "This bastard isn't going to be tearing anyone to pieces!"
He nicked his arm with the knife, and let his blood drop over the mass. It shrank slowly and gradually congealed into a tiny solid shape.
"Bell-jar!" Kieran yelled at a nearby monk, like a surgeon performing an operation.
The monk scurried over with a small glass jar, containing a wooden removeable base.
"I hope it fits", said the monk.
"I thought it'd disappear completely", said Joby.
"I'll explain in a moment", Kieran got the small lump into the jar and sealed it "We need an iron container really. I'll get the blacksmith on the estate to knock one up for us. It'll form into its true shape in a little while. It was Julian talking about genies that gave the the idea, genie in a bottle and all that".
"It's forming now", said Mieps, swishing through the mass of salt on the floor. The spiders had mercifully disappeared.
"What you're saying is its true shape when it's robbed of it's power", said Kieran "It's a demonic elemental that, unlike some of the others we've come across, does have a tangible base to it, when it's helpless and can't metamorphosise".
"You need to be careful how you dispose of it", said Mieps "It'll be no good taking it into the mountains. That's where it'll draw power".
"How about locked in an iron casket at the bottom of the ocean?" said Kieran.
"That'll do", said Mieps.
"Hark at that wind out there", said Kieran "I'm beginning to wonder if we're trapped in a land of permanent winter, like in 'The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe'".
"Have another mince pie", said Adam, sitting next to him at the kitchen table.
It was late and they were alone in the dimly-lit kitchen.
"Now we've just got the haunting up above here to sort out", said Kieran, glancing up at the ceiling "Does it bother you much?"
"Hardly at all", said Adam "Not like Freddy and his nocturnal antics anyway! Most of the time we're so busy, and it's so noisy in here, that it would have its work cut out to get noticed! At times like this though, when it's quiet, then I become aware of it. The whole idea of a sealed room directly overhead is so sinister".
"It's as if all the secrets in this house are coming out into the open at once", said Kieran "Freddy, and whatever the history to the room above us is, although I'll bet you any money you like it's something horrific and unsavoury!"
Joby came into the room and made for the larder, without saying a single word.
"Oh dear, what's the matter with him?" Adam whispered.
"Not too happy with me plans to keep the demon in our room until we sail", said Kieran "I can't blame him, but there's nowhere else we can leave it safely. He doesn't trust Mieps, but I said at least Mieps'll keep an eye on Tamaz and stop him playing with it. Tamaz would probably see a demonic elemental as a nice substitute for a cuddly toy! Before we know it he'd be carrying it around with him, like Lonts does Snowy!"
Joby emerged from the larder, carrying a dish of cold sausages embedded in lard, and a large jar of piccalilli. He sat down at the table and proceeded to smother one of the sausages in the spicey dressing.
"Are you pregnant?" said Kieran "It would explain a lot if you were. Your hormones playing up and all that!"
"Would you like some cocoa?" said Adam, getting up to fill another cup from the saucepan.
"Yeah", said Joby "I need some comfort".
"I hope you two aren't going to keep this up for long", said Adam.
"It's not me!" said Kieran.
"It never is you!" said Joby.
"I'm very glad I haven't had to put up with you two all on my own all these years", said Adam "You're both still the same loathsome little brats you were in the cell at Henang, endlessly squabbling all the time".
Joby muttered something inaudible.
"What was that?" said Kieran, sharply.
"Nothing", Joby mumbled.
"Stop being so sulky, Joby", said Adam, stirring his cocoa for him "Or I shall have to put you over my knee!"
"I'm entitled to my own opinion!" said Joby.
"No you're not", said Adam "You're my assistant, and so have to do everything I say with blind obedience. Having your own opinion is not part of your job specification. You wait 'til we're out on the high seas once more, and I'm galley master and you are my slave. You will be trapped then, nowhere for you to run!"
"And it's got to happen now", said Kieran, reassuringly "We have to go out there to dispose of the Thing. Think on that".
Three pairs of eyes, grey, blue and amber, were staring into the glass jar, where the small shape had gradually formed into a tiny, hideous, brown gargoyle-ish creature, complete with talons, scales, wings and a dragon-like face.
"It won't get any bigger then?" said Joby.
"Not as long as it stays sealed in that jar", said Kieran "I'll bless the jar everyday just to be on the safe side. When the iron casket is made we'll put the jar inside that and seal it up with triple locks".
Kieran pinged the glass with his finger, and the reverberation obviously annoyed the Thing, because it pawed at the glass, opening its jaws in an agonised grimace.
"Aarh!" said Joby, sarcastically.
"You probably will start feeling sorry for it and all", said Tamaz "Before we know you'll be letting it out for a run!"
"Like they did with you, you mean?" said Mieps, who was practising juggling with some juggling balls Bardin had loaned him "I would never have let you out of the cage, that's for sure".
"No one asked you anything, you old snake!" said Tamaz "You're in here on sufferance. We should really give you chores to do so you can earn your keep".
"It's a great shame we can't shrink you and put you in a glass jar", said Mieps.
"I wouldn't be any use to you that size", said Tamaz.
"You'd have a little squeaky voice!" Joby laughed.
"Yes, and we could put a tea-cosy over you when you get on our nerves", said Mieps.
"I think we should put something over that", said Joby, nodding at the glass jar "I don't wanna keep seeing it all the time".
Kieran pulled the embroidered cover off a cushion and slipped it over the jar.
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