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Ransey alerted them all to Hillyard's absence soon after dawn the following morning. The fact that all his belongings were still in his tent, including his vital water-gourd, told them that he wouldn't have wandered far into the desert.
"Not unless he's completely flipped", said Joby "And anything's possible with him".
He joined Ransey and Kieran, and they descended the narrow stairway down to The Catacombs. For a long while it felt like a pointless search, as they trawled the myriad chambers and corridors, all of which were bare, all in total darkness, apart from the light emitting from their torches.
Joby found Hillyard eventually, sitting huddled up against the far wall in a chamber within a chamber. Hillyard was whimpering so much that Joby began to believe that his friend really had lost all his reason. He yelled for the others and then approached him warily.
"It's alright mate, it's only me", said Joby, kneeling down in front of me "You remember me, don't you?"
"Of course I remember you Joby!" Hillyard sniffed "Do you think I've gone off my head or something?"
"Well I must admit it did cross my mind", said Joby "What happened? Why did you come down here? Have you been here all night?"
"The longest night of my life", Hillyard mumbled.
"You're braver than me then", said Joby "I wouldn't have been able to sit down here alone. Why did you do it though? What was the point?"
"I don't know", said Hillyard, awkwardly "I suppose I just got fed up with making people unhappy".
"So you thought you'd worry us half to death instead?" said Joby "I would never have thought of you as the suicidal sort before".
"My life's such a mess Joby. I've got Hirrid on my back, wanting things from me I can't give. I upset Lonts, which I can't forgive myself for, and now on top of everything else I'm going to lose you lot".
"Who says?" Joby exclaimed "Seems to me everyone's getting paranoid about this trip".
"Are you hoping there'll be women where we're going?"
"Yea. But not just 'cos it's the best solution, but then I might finally convince that dense Irishman that it's him I want. He still thinks I'm only coasting along with him because I've got nothing better to do. In spite of the fact that I've risked my life walking into evil with him, and going into Hell with him".
"There you are!" said Ransey, his voice echoing as he entered the chamber, closely followed by Kieran.
"We'll save the questions and explanations until we've got you outside", said Kieran "I don't like the air in here. It's bad. You were a fool to stay in here Hillyard".
"I know that now", said Hillyard, quietly.
They emerged into the hot sunshine, and it became noticeable at once that Hillyard had suffered some kind of massive shock during his sojourn in the burial chamber. His face was white and drawn, but most outstanding of all was the fact that his hair had become flecked with grey.
"What the hell happened to you down there Hilly?" Kieran whispered.
"Don't ..." Hillyard broke off and tapped Kieran's arm gently "Don't ask me to explain Kieran. I don't want to talk about it. In fact, I doubt I'll ever want to talk about it".
Ignoring the shouts and questions of the others Hillyard retreated to his tent. Adam followed him.
"You've got to tell us sooner or later", said Adam "It takes some shock to make a man go grey".
"I'm not completely grey am I?"
"No, but even so ..."
"I can't discuss it Adam", said Hillyard, as he began to re-pack his rucksack "It was too real. I need some distance from it. I need to bail out from it for a while".
"I understand", Adam sighed "Although you've got me completely curious now".
"Is Lonts alright?" said Hillyard "I can't believe the way I carried on at him last night. I can't tell you how relieved I am he got down the steps again safely. If anything had happened to him I think I would have killed myself".
"Hillyard, what's got into you?" said Adam "All this melodramatic talk for God's sake! All that happened last night was that you got pissed, and so in a maudlin frame of mind - which I remember only too well from my own boozing days - you snapped at Lonts. Who in turn very foolishly decided to go rock-climbing in the dark. A singularly stupid act of recklessness for which he's been soundly spanked. He's perfectly alright today, in fact he was quite alright last night too".
"Can't we all go home Ad?" said Hillyard "Back to the Castle. Forget all this rubbish about lost colonies of women. I mean, what the hell are we going to do if we do find them?"
"That's up to the women I would've thought", said Adam "We won't know how to proceed until we get there and see what they say. But I'll tell you this, it's not going to make any difference to us whatsoever. I wish you'd believe that".
"But Joby ..."
"This is all about Joby isn't it?" said Adam "You think he's going to abscond with a woman? He's not going to leave Patsy, I can assure you of that. If ever a pair were made for each other it's those two. Even I've known that all along, in my subconscious at any rate. I think that's why I kept pushing Joby onto him in the early days, even though I'll always be crazy about Patsy myself".
"I can't get him out of my system", said Hillyard "Joby I mean. I know he's a surly little git, and I don't know why I want him so much..."
"He's kind", said Adam "Basically, deep down, kind. He's a nurturer, that's why he's so good at gardening. He tends to things, and that's why you want him. You want to be looked after".
"If it was solely that then I'd want to be with Hirrid", said Hillyard "Except Hirrid's a hypochondriac, and he nags".
"Joby complains", Adam laughed "Incessantly sometimes".
"Yea but you can get round him with a kiss. I've seen you and Kieran shut him up that way loads of times. Kieran's always doing it. It tames Joby quicker than anything".
"Have you tried that technique with Hirrid?"
"Yes I did once. He was going on full-throttle about something of nothing as usual, so I did what I've seen Kieran do to Joby more times than I can remember. I planted a smacking kiss on his lips".
"What did Hirrid say after that?"
"Oh classic Hirrid", said Hillyard "He said 'I suppose you think that puts everything right do you?'"
"Oh dear", said Adam "Not much to work on with him is there? Even Julian isn't that unreasonable. He might say that sort of thing, but it would be as a joke".
"It's called style", said Hillyard "And Hirrid hasn't got any".
"It seems to me you two had better call a halt to this relationship before you end up hating each other", said Adam "It speaks volumes to me that after you've had a traumatic night in the Catacombs you didn't go straight to him for comfort and solace".
"I knew I wouldn't have got any that's why!" said Hillyard "He'd have just turned round and had a go at me for worrying him, and told me yet again how selfish I am. And after the night I've just had I didn't want to hear it!"
They were more than grateful to leave the Catacombs behind, and by noon they had reached the vicinity of the tiny hamlet of Grup, the only known settlement within the Uncharted Area. Grup was one of those places, rather like Kiskev had been, that always made visitors wonder how anyone could live there all the time. It was a scattering of wooden houses, dwarfed to toy-size by the close proximity of the Thet Mountains which loomed up immediately behind. In the winter it looked like a village on the Moon, and in the summer it just looked defeated, as though the mountains had come life one night and kicked the houses around contemptuously.
The total population now numbered seventeen. These were men who chiefly earned their living acting as sherpas to visitors who wanted to explore the mountains. The Bandorra Legend, as it was inaccurately called, enticed visitors to the area, but the locals were always strangely reluctant to act as guides for anyone searching for the lost colony. In fact, some locals had even deserted Grup in very recent times, and a few of the houses now stood empty. In the absence of an inn or a hotel, Kieran chose one of the empty houses to squat in for the night. Even if he hadn't been the President, no one in the village would have raised a murmur about this, as they were well used to the empty buildings being commandeered as temporary shelters.
"It's not bad actually", said Joby, after having toured the simple one-up one-down dwelling "This is the sort of place we should have Kiel".
Upstairs, the main sleeping area was open to the roof with the main beam studded with candle-holders. Downstairs there was no kitchen as such, only a bowl for washing in, and three glass containers for storing food. Water had to be fetched from the communal pump in the village.
"You can have a place like this on one condition", said Kieran "We have a privy installed. In this place it's a hole in the ground in the shed next door".
Kieran left the others to settle in and went with Hillyard into the village to collect water. The small community was taking an early afternoon siesta. One man sat outside his house, propped against the wall with his hat pulled down over his eyes like a cartoon Mexican.
"I'm glad he's sat there", said Kieran, as they rested for a while on some chairs left next to the pump "Otherwise this place'd remind me of Xuste".
"I think we're alright. Unlike Xuste this place looks lived in to me", said Hillyard, indicating a small heap of empty beer bottles which had been tossed on the dusty ground.
"Yes, the pump seems to be quite the little social centre of the village", said Kieran "They probably come out and sit on these chairs here in the evenings".
"I know why you've brought me here", said Hillyard, abruptly.
"To get some water", said Kieran.
"No, you want a heart-to-heart with me. Get me to spill the beans about what happened in the Catacombs", said Hillyard.
"We would like to know Hillyard. If you keep it all to yourself you're just going to carry on being haunted by it".
"I will tell you, but not just yet. You're under too much pressure already".
"But if it's something I should know", Kieran protested.
"Believe me, it's nothing that can't wait".
"Oh alright", Kieran sighed, and picked up an old newspaper which had been flapping against the base of the well "I'll catch up on me reading then. Even if this paper is a week old".
"You do understand don't you Kieran?"
"I understand", said Kieran, trying to sort the scruffy newspaper into a readable state "It'll be hard to contain me curiosity but I understand".
"How's life in the City?" asked Hillyard.
"There's a water shortage", said Kieran "I bet that's keeping everyone in a sunny disposition!"
"Not a good sign this early in the summer", Hillyard sighed.
"No it's not, but then again I seem to recall we have this crisis every year".
"I don't understand it. We get enough bloody rain in the winter. Why don't we just issue everyone with water-butts, and then they could conserve their own?"
"Not a bad idea", Kieran chuckled, and turned back a page so that the front headlines were visible to Hillyard but not himself. Hillyard noticed the banner words at once and had to clutch Kieran's arm for support "What is it Hillyard?"
"Look at the front page", Hillyard whispered, hoarsely.
Kieran re-sorted the paper until the unwelcome words 'MEDUSA ESCAPES' were revealed to him.
"What's happened Kieran?" said Hillyard "Where is she?"
"According to this she 'evaded Manada's clutches' whilst he had temporarily left the door of the cellar unlocked", said Kieran "What the bloody hell was he thinking of? There can be no room for human error when we have such a creature as her in the world. I only left her with him because I could think of no safer place. After all, I could hardly put her in the Assizes! And this report is over a week old! Why the hell wasn't I informed? Nobody contacted me about it in Bandorra".
"You know why", said Hillyard, scanning the front page article "This is because it didn't happen in the City. Unless she actually marches through the market place they're not going to want to know".
"I should still have been informed", said Kieran.
"This is a local paper you see", said Hillyard "And according to this, even though she escaped in Quipignon, many fear she may be heading for these parts".
"Why?" said Kieran, sharply "Why do they fear that? Or is it just paranoia? Has anyone seen her?"
"Oh come off it", said Hillyard "No one sees her and lives".
"We've seen her", said Kieran "I even stared up into her face once, although she was masked at the time. Perhaps she keeps herself masked now".
"And stumbles around like a blind person? Her eyes cause the most damage of all".
"That's true", said Kieran.
"The worrying thing is this bit here", said Hillyard "It claims that there have been unconfirmed reports of her being sighted in ... in Thetislog".
"Very weak, which is something. A local bod's gone missing, and so far his body hasn't been located".
"That could mean anything", said Kieran "But not necessarily her. If he had fallen foul of her, you can be sure they'd have found traces of him by now. How the blazes did she get from Quipignon to Thetislog in one week? It doesn't make sense".
"How did Angel manage to follow us to Wolf Castle so quickly?" said Hillyard "There's a lot going on that doesn't meet the eye".
"Too bloody much! Why wasn't I told?" Kieran banged the arm of his chair in frustration "Christ, I'm so angry. Someone's going to suffer for this".
"It might not mean anything. You know how they get their knickers in a twist at the Ministry. Each of 'em probably thought someone else had told you. That sort of thing is always happening".
"Not on something as important as this", said Kieran.
"And I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't appreciate just how dangerous she is", Hillyard continued "Remember how men queued up to see her at the circus? We all thought it was the danger element that turned them on. Now I'm not so sure. I'm beginning to wonder if they fully realise what she's like".
"Hillyard, she turns men to stone just by showing her face!" said Kieran "That's pretty bloody dangerous in my book".
"There are some dense blokes about", said Hillyard, simply.
"We need to get back and talk to Ransey", said Kieran, folding the paper haphazardly "No one's going to have even thought of issuing public safety notices. God knows how they're going to manage when I retire. It doesn't bear thinking about".
Joby was sitting alone in the downstairs portion of the house when Julian walked in.
"Oh it's you", said Joby, and went back to cutting his toe-nails with the First Aid scissors "What's everyone else doing outside?"
"Just lolling around in the hot sun", said Julian "Waiting for the others to get back with the water. You have very nice legs Joby".
"Really", Joby gave him a brief glance of distrust "They match my soft, kissable lips. That's usually the chat-up line you favour most".
Julian moved so fast towards him, that Joby jumped to his feet and backed away.
"Don't look so scared", said Julian "I'm not a vampire".
"You might as well be as far as I'm concerned", said Joby.
"Why? What have I ever done to hurt you?" Julian stepped up close to him and put his hand on the wall, so that Joby was effectively cornered "I find you quite fascinating Joby. You have me intrigued. Sometimes when I see you I just want to tear all your clothes off. I expect your reaction would be quite delicious".
"Look Julian, I 'm sorry if I've given you the wrong idea", Joby stammered, nervously "But I can't. Not with you. You scare me too much".
"I bet you were scared of Adam at one time weren't you?" said Julian, caressing Joby's face softly "You can admit it. And then you realised he was quite human after all".
"But I can trust Adam", Joby protested "Not to do anything I don't want him to".
"Well what do you think I am, a serial-rapist?" said Julian, sharply.
"No, but I don't play your sort of games", said Joby "Y-You and Adam get rough".
"We do not!" Julian exclaimed "Adam doesn't get rough with you does he? If he does, then he's not the man I've known all these years".
"You get rough with each other".
"Who's been telling you such lies?" said Julian "Was it Angel?"
"I've got the evidence of my own eyes", said Joby "Back at the Castle one day, Adam was limping. He said you'd slippered him".
"You've got entirely the wrong idea", said Julian "Adam and I don't spend all our time whacking each other. It's not S&M for God's sake, we've never been into anything like that. When I was very young I did get mixed up with some barbaric practices, but it was straight after Adam had been put away and I wasn't in my right mind. Doubtless there's some deep psychological reason for it, but I've never been into all that so I don't know".
"I'm sorry", Joby muttered "I didn't realise. You must think I'm daft, but sometimes it upsets me, the thought of you beating Adam".
"It's time I put you right on a few things", said Julian "Adam and I are just pathetic old soddo's who occasionally like re-living their schooldays".
"Why?" said Joby "I wouldn't wanna re-live mine".
"Adam and I first got close then. We didn't try analysing right from wrong, we just enjoyed being with each other. It was before the temptations and prejudices of the outside world encroached. You must understand, Adam was a very lonely boy. His home-life was a travesty of what families should be. He had been completely starved of affection. He was devastatingly beautiful in those days, but lonely and terribly mixed-up. I sometimes think that's why he understands Lonts so well".
"Could be", said Joby "I hadn't thought of that".
"One day he had to come to me to be disciplined, and it all went from there. I can't remember how it all came out about his home-life, but I know I was appalled, and my parents weren't perfect by any means".
"Whose are?" said Joby.
"It was a very romantic time", said Julian "Probably hard for you to understand, but it was. We were in a world of our own. For a time the powers-that-be considered splitting us up, thought we were getting too close to be healthy. But Adam had been what was called a 'disruptive influence' before I took him under my wing. He was relatively well-behaved after that, so they let us stay together. Which was remarkably intuitive for our school".
"It all reminds me of Lonts again".
"They are very similar at times", said Julian, and he pulled gently on a strand of Joby's hair "So you see I'm quite human. I'm just like anyone else. Most of the time I'd be quite happy with just a kiss and a blow-job, but occasionally I want to pep things up. I thought you'd understand that, especially as Kieran rather likes having his bottom smacked. But I forgot. He doesn't get that from you does he? Perhaps you should. Invigorate your love-life".
"It doesn't need it", said Joby "Me and Kieran are fine".
"Perhaps you should suggest it to him one day".
"I did", Joby laughed "He threatened to start crying!"
"He really is extraordinary ..."
"This is all very cosy", said Adam, who had appeared in the room "What are you up to Julian? Joby, are you alright?"
"Of course he's alright", said Julian, irritably "What do you think I've been doing to him?"
"As far as you're concerned it could be anything", said Adam.
"That is just the sort of comment that makes Joby think I'm the fifth millennium's answer to Miss Whiplash", said Julian.
"Joby, I'm getting seriously worried about you", said Adam "First Hillyard, now Julian. Where will it all end?"
"You've either got it or you haven't", said Joby, loftily.
"What's going on here?" said Kieran, entering the room with the newspaper screwed up under his arm.
"Joby's been a naughty boy", said Julian "The sight of him cutting his toe-nails was too much for me, and I simply had to get him into a corner".
"Let's get one thing clear", said Kieran "You may have a grace-and-favour lifestyle at my expense, but Joby's body isn't part of the fixtures and fittings! He's mine and no one else's".
"Alright", said Julian "So I take it we shouldn't mention the use Adam gets of it too, or the repeated attempts of Hillyard?"
"That doesn't mean you can invite yourself in on the act", said Kieran "Anyway, you'd all better sit down, I've got something to tell you".
To Kieran's annoyance, Ransey told him that it would be impossible for them to get a handset message to the Ministry from their present location, as the close proximity of the mountains would severely curtail transmission.
"We'd be better off carrying on up into the mountains as we planned", said Ransey "And signalling from there. Or we could go back to Bandorra and forget all about this lost colony".
"No, we've come this far, we might as well satisfy our curiosity if nothing else", said Kieran "It can only be another day's journey to the location given in the book. As it is, any message I send to the Ministry is going to take three days to get there from this location. The blessed wonders of fifth millennium technology!"
"And meanwhile the Gorgon lays waste to the countryside", said Julian "Who'd have thought the world would end by everybody being turned into blocks of masonry? That'll give any aliens visiting in the future a mystery to ponder!"
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