The hostel room was empty when Joanna got back, except for a note on the desk that said:
‘you may not give a shit, but there’s a cabinet in a castle near a town with a giant chessboard in the main square, the castle possibly built on the ground where the spine girl demon’s cottage used to be. Though the castle also seems to be on top of a hill so that might be wrong. Anyway, that’s where I’ve gone. Not that you care. I expect you’ll be gone by the time I get back. Two months and nothing. Just Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Ljubljana, every single day. No wonder you don’t have any friends.
Fuck it, do what you like, I don’t care.’
Joanna read it once and then half of it again, instinctively making defences in her head:
He’s too self-absorbed to have insight
He doesn’t know what I’ve lost
I said sorry for the hill thing
He’s a child
and all the defences were strong enough to ossify a wall around herself and everything she’d done, though she only needed two defences for those 22 other men.
They were sleazy assholes who wanted sex
I didn’t kill them, the Krsnik did.
She put the note back on the desk and picked up the little blade she’d bought in Ljubljana eleven months earlier.
After indulging in a few seconds of wai gau, she washed it in the sink with hot water, dabbed some alcohol onto a cotton bud and sterilised it. I should probably clean it more, she thought, but it’s only me using it, sometimes the child too, no big deal.
The vial of grey vasic was in the same place she’d left it that morning, untouched. She only needed two drops to get her through the rest of the evening, though part of her wondered if there was really any point. The only thing she’d be doing would be sitting on the bed, or maybe lying on the bed, reading a German book, and even when she did move around outside, it didn’t seem to change much.
In fact, she’d gone all the way from Denmark to Italy and remembered pretty much everything.
Was the effect of it wearing off on her?
There was no surprise about where she found herself anymore. A little disorientation, one or two short term memory gaps, sure, but not always. Mostly it was just a brief sense of, ‘oh, that happened,’ followed by a dull feeling in her head.
Maybe it would be that way again now.
Or maybe not.
Maybe this time she’d come round back in Ljubljana, on the hill, the Krsnik waiting with its hand out, claws retracted.
This way to the cave, Joanna.
Down the hill, quickly, he’s waiting for you
skinnier than you remember, perhaps
not a skeleton.
She picked up the vial and eked two drops out onto the blade, enough for five or six hours.
‘… … … … … …’
Just as the blade was being lined up against her left forearm, the door opened and Sila stumbled in.
‘… … … … … …’
Joanna watched him through the sink mirror as he staggered over to the bottom bunk, making no move to help him.
Did he even need it? He’s probably exaggerating, she thought. There’s no such thing as Professors of Dark Light, which meant the only thing he could’ve met in the castle was a junkie. Or a wild animal. Did Italy have bears or wolves?
Sila mumbled, ‘thanks for your help,’ and peeled off his jacket and then his King Matjaž hoodie. There didn’t seem to be any damage, until he rolled up his sleeve and four, long red lines appeared.
‘You were attacked?’
‘Thought it was a statue…fucker moved when I turned my back. Hit me so hard I fell…’
‘Lucky that it did…lucky it did that. Gave me time to get the knife. Stabbed it when it came at me second time. Fucking ugly, like the other one. Maybe a cousin or something. Italian cousin…’
‘Cousin of the Krsnik?’
‘Yeah, that guy.’
The grey vasic blade dropped into the sink basin, Joanna turning to face the bunk directly. ‘It was the same creature?’
‘Pass me that alcohol will you?’
‘Was it the same creature?’
‘Yes, the same. Or similar. Alcohol please.’
‘Did you kill it?’
‘I’m bleeding out here…’
Joanna took the bottle out of the bag by the sink and threw it roughly towards the bed, so roughly that Sila was forced to reach out and catch it with his injured arm. The effect was immediate, a half-muffled scream and then fuck in Slovene as the wounds stretched out.
‘Try not to move, it widens the wound.’
‘Then why did you move?’
‘Cos your throw was shit. And I’m fucking delirious. Fucker was going for my throat the second time, just like the other one…’
‘Somehow. Pure luck probably.’
‘Did you kill it?’
Sila rode out the last of the pain spasms by rotating the bottle, either scrutinising the liquid or the label. ‘Maybe. I don’t know. It stopped moving.’
‘Almost…its eyes were open, but…’
‘It was still breathing?’
‘Maybe it’s just injured…badly hurt. Yeah, it was still breathing. Doubt it’s gonna make it to a hospital though.’
Sila finished with the label and tilted the bottle over his wounds, but not enough to let any alcohol drops come out.
‘You have to turn it more,’ Joanna said.
‘I know how to do it.’
‘You’re not turning.’
‘I am, slowly.’
Joanna grabbed the bottle away from him before he could stop her and tipped it for him. Six or seven drops spilled out quickly, covering all four marks.
Sila punched the bed three times and said fierce things in Slovene. Joanna put the bottle back on the bed and went over to the desk, picking up the blade, adding an extra drop of grey and slicing her forearm.
‘You’re doing that shit now?’ Sila asked, folding a tissue and putting it over his wound.
‘Which bus did you take to the castle?’
‘I don’t know. The one with the town’s name on it.’
‘What is the town name?’
Sila gestured with his face towards the Italian Monogatari book. ‘There’s no point going, it’s dead already.’
Joanna flicked through, found the page with a giant chessboard and made a note of the town’s name. ‘You said it was still breathing.’
‘Yeah, and bleeding out. It’ll be dead by now.’
‘How long does the bus take?’
‘Even if it’s not, it won’t say anything.’
‘The bus journey, how long?’
‘It’s not even human. Seriously, Jo, it’s dead, there’s no point. And there won’t be any buses going there now anyway, it’s nearly midnight.’
‘Then I’ll get a taxi.’
‘Yeah, in the middle of the night, a Chinese girl on your own, going to a deserted fucking castle.’
‘You don’t need to wait for me.’
‘Wait for you? I can’t even…’
Sila stood up and reached out with his arm to stop her but it was the wrong arm again. And it didn’t matter anyway, as the grey vasic had started to work its spell in Joanna’s blood, even though she’d cut no vein and before she could figure out how to ask the taxi drivers to take her to the town and get to the castle she
was standing next to a bus with the town name above its windscreen and there was a clean-shaven Italian guy with a huge chequered scarf erasing his entire neck beside her, saying something in broken English about taking her there personally, making sure she was okay, and she thought about saying no, there’s really no need, but by the time she’d mapped out the words she was
getting off the bus in front of a stone arch and the Italian man was still next to her, still…no, wait, it wasn’t the Italian, it was Patrice, in his bubble black Roma jacket, and he was pointing to a castle on the hilltop that had to be the castle she was aiming for and there was a path nearby and what the hell was Patrice doing here, it wasn’t the station, or a café, so she turned and asked him if he just happened to be on the bus or…
‘You ask me this same thing three times now,’ he replied, holding up three fingers to emphasise. ‘Then you go to sleep or…your eyes are open on bus, but you look like sleep…I don’t know the word for this.’
‘I can’t remember…’
‘You ask about the Italian man too.’
‘On the bus.’
‘He got on the bus? The Italian man from the bus terminal, with the big scarf?’
‘He is on the bus. Then, later, he is off the bus. You don’t remember?’
Joanna turned to the forest surrounding the town and stared at the pockets of darkness between the trees. She recalled an old TVB drama where the female police officer would be struggling to remember something important and to trace the past she would close her eyes and put two fingertips to her temple and if it worked for her then…
‘What are you doing?’ asked Patrice, zipping up his jacket right to the top.
‘You see something in the trees?’
‘… … … … … … … …’
‘I don’t have time…need to focus.’
‘Is that Chinese?’
Joanna tried to cast out a net and drag back the last memory but the only thing willing to be dragged was the bus terminal and the Italian guy.
‘We are still going to the castle, no?’
She dropped her fingers and looked at the medieval-looking construct looming on the hill. ‘This is wrong.’
‘I ask you this before, you don’t answer to me.’
‘Whichever part decided to-…ended up doing this. The darker pockets.’ She turned to Patrice and gripped him by his upper arms, which wasn’t easy as his jacket was mostly padding. ‘You have to go.’
‘For the castle?’
‘I don’t know why I dragged you here…what exactly I said…but there is a dangerous monster hiding up there, in the castle. You know monster?’
‘Oui, many. Usually offer to me something. Why?’
”This monster, in the castle up there, is not human. And it only kills men. Or takes them, not kills. Wounds and takes them, kills later. It does not harm women.’ She moved him backwards a few steps, surprising him enough to let her do it. ‘You stay here, wait for me. Do not come up.’
‘You move me like a doll.’
‘Do not come up, okay?’
‘Can I use my arms now?’
‘You promise not to come up?’
‘Promise…this is like a vow?’
‘You want me to stay here? In this place?’
‘Just until I come back.’
‘Je sais pas…’
Patrice looked up at the castle. To him, and to anyone who’d ever seen the Roger Corman Eddie Poe adaptations, castles on hills equalled psychopathic rich people, and Patrice had seen that film fourteen times so there was no way he wanted to go up there, especially at eleven thirty at night, but then if he didn’t, he’d be letting Joanna go up there alone, and…what if, somehow, Vincent Price or a Vincent Price fanatic or, worse, an Italian man with a large scarf, really was up there…
‘Are you listening?’
‘Stay here. Do not come up.’
‘Yes, I hear you.’
‘So you won’t come up?’
Joanna released her grip on his arms and watched him go into thinking mode again, but she didn’t have time for this, her head was already starting to throb, and it wouldn’t be long now, she’d already been lucky enough to have the minute or so she’d been given to warn him about the monster and if she didn’t keep him down here then
‘It seems closer when we are down there,’ said Patrice, panting a little.
Joanna muttered ‘no’ and put out a hand to stop the castle ahead, its entrance gate already half open.
‘You think someone is inside?’
She closed her eyes and opened them again and without turning told Patrice to go back down the path she couldn’t remember climbing up.
‘You have to.’
‘We talk about this before.’
‘And somehow you managed to twist it back around and play the sacrificial clown.’
‘… … … …’
She looked at the castle door, ran her eyes round its entire frame, then breathed out hard and told Patrice to fuck off, she was sick of the sight of him.
‘Fuck off?’ You want to say this?’
‘Yes. Please, fuck off.’
‘I do not understand. You told me it was okay, come up.’
‘Don’t care. Fuck off now or I will tell the police you tried to attack me.’
‘Stop repeating my words.’
‘Why you talk like a football player?’
Joanna moved forward and pushed him in the chest, as hard as she could, so hard he tripped, fell backwards and rolled down the path a little.
Brushing powdered snow off his jacket, Patrice got up fast and shouted something in French, more to the sky than her.
‘Get out of here, fuck off.’
‘You fuck off!’ He picked up a stick and threw it at a tree. ‘I fucking help you and you say fuck off.’
‘So fuck off then.’
‘Oui, I go…’
‘I’m tired of looking at you. Stupid blank face.’
Patrice said something in French, a few things, picked up another stick, aimed to throw it at the same tree then stopped, broke it in half and threw both parts on the ground.
‘Are you going or not?’
‘I don’t want you here. Go. Leave me alone.’
‘You’re a crazy bitch.’
‘Stop talking and go.’
Patrice looked at the castle without lights and the trees without visible green. ‘It is too dark, too dangerous. There might be more Italian men in there.’
‘I stay with you.’
‘You can say fuck off again, I don’t care.’
Joanna didn’t say fuck off, she just moved forward and pushed him again. He was ready for it this time, and moved his arm to intercept, but she was ready too, hooking one of her feet round the back of his left leg, pushing again and sending him awkwardly onto the ground.
‘I’ll roll you all the way down if I have to.’
‘Putain,’ shouted Patrice, crawling back a bit then standing up. ‘Kung fu now?’
‘Drag you down by the hair…’
‘Que fait tu? I don’t have hair.’
‘…by your sleeves…tell the police you tried to take my money.’
‘Tried to take my money and hit me.’
‘Je comprends pas.’
‘Why you change like this?’
‘… … … … …’
‘You drink something?’
‘… … … … … … … …’
‘You need pills?’
‘… … … … … … … … … …’
Patrice brushed more snow [quite easily] off his Roma jacket and looked at her, putting all the threats to one side and trying to do what his wife always told him to do with public lunatics: calm down and look for the root of the anger. From everything she’d done in the last two hours, he guessed she was probably on drugs. It made sense, the sudden mood swings, the marks he’d seen on her arm, but if it was drugs, it still didn’t make much sense. Why were they here, at this castle? Why would drugs make her do that?
‘… … … … … …’
‘I do not understand Chinese.’
Joanna picked up a twig from the ground and threw it at him, missing by a mile.
‘You try to hit me with that?’
Joanna picked another twig and made the motion to throw it, but stopped halfway and kept it in her hand like a knife.
‘You want to use the branch?’ Patrice was staring at the twig. ‘You…’ he mimed a stabbing action to his stomach, ‘do this to me?’
Joanna looked at the rough patches of bark on the twig, the jagged tip, and tossed it on the ground.
Patrice took a step forward, hands raised and out flat. ‘We calm down first, okay?’
‘I don’t want you here.’
‘We calm down and go to bus stop.’
‘We go to hospital, or to your l’hostel, everything is okay.’
‘I’m going inside. Alone.’
‘No, not inside. We go now, to the bus stop. I forget the tree thing and the fuck off…you help me before, I help you now.’
‘I have to go in there alone.’
‘But when we go to l’hostel you tell the man I’m your friend. If no, I have a problem.’
‘… … … … … …’
‘This is Chinese for yes?’
Joanna picked up another twig and threw it at him, replacing his head with the Polish asshole in Ljubljana, telling him in Cantonese he wouldn’t feel so fucking noble when the Krsnik had ripped his throat out, but it was useless, he didn’t even know the word for he let alone rip your throat out, so she went back to bouncing twigs off his jacket and he just stood there and did nothing until the third stick when his head divided into four and then eight and spun around a castle wall and