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Ully taped his wig to his head when they stopped outside the City walls. When he opened fire on any of Gabriel's supporters that might still be lurking around, he wanted to be looking his best. The others had lined up the wagons in a row, and hid the animals and those who were remaining beyond it, so that they could have some protection if any of Gabriel's forces opened fire from the City walls.
Ransey escorted Vanod at the point of a revolver to Julian's tent, where the said man was waiting for him with another one. Vanod sat down sulkily and waited until Ransey had left before speaking.
"He'll fail", said Vanod, abruptly "And they'll all be killed. Does the dear Vanquisher really think that Gabriel's going to hand his power and his life over to him on a plate?"
"We'll have to see how the day unfolds won't we?" said Julian, sitting down opposite him.
"They'll be killed", said Vanod, again "And then I won't ever have to do this again".
"Do what again?" said Julian "Be held hostage at the point of a gun?"
"Sit under the same roof as a creature like you", Vanod snarled.
"Ah, now we're coming to it".
"Eat and wash and sleep in close proximity to creatures like you", Vanod went on "Now things are coming to a head there'll be an end to it. To men like you".
"We'll have to wait and see", said Julian, caressing the barrel of the gun "That's all you and me can do now".
"But I have plans", said Vanod "Big plans. They may take some time to evolve, but by the time I've finished your precious Vanquisher will face a foe the likes of which hasn't been seen on this planet for a long time. And this foe will be invincible, I can assure you of that".
The City was populated by bones. Silent, staring bones. Kieran and his large party prowled the streets in mute horror and dismay, appalled by how far things had gone. The buildings were empty. Shops, offices, apartments, hotels, bars and restaurants stood lifelessly in the summer heat. And out of the doorways, windows and even hanging from the rickshaws, bones peered, their huge empty eye-sockets staring at them with desperate curiosity. Some of the bones had been bleached white by the sun, some had been swamped by the dusty, ragged clothes they still wore. The silence of death reigned absolute.
"Is there nobody left?" said Ully, relaxing his grip on the gun. There was no one there to leap out and surprise them after all.
"This must've been what the Massacre of the Women was like", said Ransey.
Kieran didn't speak. He stumbled along the dusty roads, occasionally crunching over bones accidentally. He barely saw them through his tears.
"How is it possible?" he said, eventually "For one man to do all this?"
Gradually everyone relaxed their vigil. The City was dead, there was no one on the streets for them to fight. Not until nightfall that is, when the zombies would patrol again, hungry for any stray life-form that they may have previously overlooked.
Hillyard pushed open the glass door of a food shop. Apart from the dust everything was still as it had been when the last customer had walked out. Apples and potatoes in sacks on the floor, mouldy bread on the shelves behind the counter. Everything stale. Everything rancid.
They crossed one of the bridges over the river. The sun glistened on the water, and the crazy sights continued. Over-turned rickshaws, blood smeared over the stone parapets of the bridge, and bodies washed up in the mud on the riverbank with huge bites taken out of their flesh.
The baroque splendour of the Ministry Headquarters hove into view. There were more bones and the odd fresh corpse lying on the wide steps sweeping up to the main entrance. By now Kieran had stopped weeping. In the end saturation horror produces merely a numbed result. On into the huge marble foyer of the building. In normal times this was a cacophony of noise and bustle, as the main business was carried out here. But now the silence was extraordinary. Papers curled on some of the desks where they had simply been left. It was hard to tell how long it had been like this.
The first sign of any life were the snakes on the first floor. They slithered dispiritedly along mantelpieces, and drooped from curtain-rails. One crawled snidely across a desk-lamp and dropped in a lethargic fashion onto the table below. Stuck around the room at strategic intervals were spikes secured to the ground. Each was topped by a bleached-white skull. Worse was to come. Three huge tomes lying on a desk turned out to be bound with human skin. In another room they found a large refrigerator, which when opened revealed racks of human heads, all deep frozen. The tongues had been cut out and placed on a separate plate.
"What the hell did he want those for?" said Kieran.
He had little time to answer his own question. He pressed on, searching for the tunnels where he was certain Gabriel was lurking.
When he finally found it he recognised it from his dreams. Long, dark tunnels sloping sharply downwards, with a faint light glowing at the bottom. He knew instinctively that the light was where Gabriel could be found.
"I'll follow it alone", he said, firmly "Don't go giving me grief now. This is the way it has to be".
"But Pats ..." said Adam.
"No Addy, you stay here and mind Lonts. He needs taking care of, and you're the best one for that".
"Then at least take Ransey with you", Adam protested "He's armed, and he knows what to do".
"Alright, but he follows at a distance".
Kieran set off without anymore preamble. The others stood at the mouth of the tunnel and watched silently. He was some way down before Joby caught up with him.
"Don't argue", Joby grunted, when Kieran opened his mouth to protest "I let you go off alone to fight Angel, and I swore to myself at the time I'd never let you do that again. I'm in with you this time".
"But if it turns nasty ..."
"Then I don't want to live without you".
"Alright Joby", Kieran smiled "Then let it be so".
It was a small, damp chamber, full of steam rising from a pool in the middle of it. Gabriel lay beside the pool. He was so weak that at first it seemed as though he was already dead. But then his body twitched and he threw off the blanket that had been covering him. He looked like a candle that was rapidly melting down. There were no lines to his body, no edges, no defining shape. A man of molten wax. He was slowly burning himself from the inside.
He sat up and looked directly at Kieran. His hair was still long but sparse. It had come out in handfuls, and there were large bare patches where his skull showed through. His face was sweaty and rubbery, and his black eyes gave the impression of sliding down his face. They were out of alignment, and gave him the most distressing appearance. Added to that he looked as though he was slowly being skinned. Whole strips of his flesh were missing.
"What happened to you?" Kieran whispered.
"I knew you'd come", said Gabriel, in a voice that had become so light and wispy it was almost transparent "You think you've won don't you? Well take a good look around you outside. There is nothing left for you to win. It's all gone. I destroyed it all when I knew I couldn't win it properly for myself. I was determined you weren't going to get anything. You've inherited a charnel-house, nothing more".
"What happened to you?" Kieran asked again.
"I sold myself to a voodoo elemental. He made me part-snake, part-salamander, part-man. With my new supernatural powers I could have anything I wanted".
"So what went wrong?"
Before Gabriel could answer a horrid gargling sound came from behind a doorway on the other side of the chamber. There was a grille in the door, at which a ragged mouth sporting a formidable array of teeth appeared. Gabriel stared at it pensively. Then slowly he pulled himself to his feet. He stretched out a dull brown arm and tore off a large strip of his own skin. He tossed the skin through the grille, and the mouth disappeared. It could be heard chomping on it from the other side.
"You're in thrall to that?" said Kieran.
"I thought I could control it", said Gabriel, anxiously "I thought I would always be the Master. That is not so. It tricked me. It wants more and more of me. I'm slowly, day-by-day, feeding myself to it. I thought I could appease it with bloodshed. I fed it so many victims I had got off the streets, but in the end it would only be satisfied with me. I'm skinning myself by degrees to feed it. I keep it locked in there or it would swallow me whole. I no longer dare give it a form. But now you're here, I can give you to it! That should appease it. I'll feed you to it whole. Not just any old sack of skin and bones, but the Vanquisher of Evil himself".
"Get down the pair of you!" Ransey shouted from the entrance to the chamber "Kieran, Joby, do as I say!"
The two men flattened themselves on the floor, and Ransey blasted a huge hole in Gabriel's stomach with the high-velocity weapon that he carried. Gabriel was thrown back against the slimy wall, and his stomach shot out of his body in one lurid pink and red mess. There was a burning smell as his flesh began to roast, and he spontaneously combusted like burning paper.
It was some while before Kieran dared look up. When he did he found he had a length of Gabriel's entrails hanging in his hair. He plucked it out squeamishly and crawled to his feet.
"Is that it?" said Joby, unable to believe his luck "Is it over?"
"No", said Kieran "For me the hardest part is about to begin. I have to destroy that Thing through there. And Ransey's blaster won't help me this time".
"You're going to go in there with that Thing?" said Joby, faintly "And how the fuck are you going to destroy it?"
"I won't know until I get in there", said Kieran "Ransey, go back now. You've done your part. And you've done it well".
Kieran pulled back the bolts on the outside of the door and swung it inwards. There was a scuttling noise from within as the creature retreated to the far side of the chamber. Kieran walked into the room, and Joby followed him.
"What the fuck is it?" Joby cried, staring at the creature which faced him. He felt as though he could die from the sheer horror of it. It was the most repellent creature he had ever seen, an entity from a million nightmares and phobias.
"We are looking at pure evil", said Kieran, quietly "In it's natural state. This is what Gabriel conjured up in the jungle. This is what he hoped he could control. The fool! It was controlling him all along. It's an elemental. Like the one we released at Gurran Island. When it killed Noni it appeared in human form. But this is it, as it really is".
It was half-solid half-liquid. It swirled against the far wall. At times seeming like black vapour, a thick black smoke. In another blink of the eye it could seem almost solid and furry with long tentacles, like an enormous black spider. At others it seemed more slimy than furry, like a many-headed serpent. It pulsed and throbbed, waving its many vaporous arms at them as though beckoning them onwards.
"W-What are you going to do to it?" Joby stammered.
"Walk into it", said Kieran.
"You can't! It eats human skin, it'll destroy you".
"It's our only option Joby", said Kieran "If I don't, it'll take over completely, and eventually suck everyone in. This would be how the world would end, dragged into a vacuum of evil. It'll either eat me too, or spit me out. It's a gamble and I have to take it. I have no choice. This is the place where choices fail. Chances are strong it'll absorb you, so you'd better stay out it".
"I'll take that risk too", said Joby.
"You'd do that for me?"
"Do you really need to ask?"
"You always were too sentimental for your own good Joby".
"Oh shut up and let's get it over with".
They linked hands and walked into the blackness.
They nearly choked on the acrid stench. They nearly froze against the feel of the icy tentacles. They felt as though they were being crushed in its hideous embrace, revolted by the feel of it against their skin. In the thick darkness its million-and-one eyes stared at them forbiddingly, making them convulse with terror. And yet still they walked on, until the blackness enveloped them completely.
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