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Mixx was given a simple burial on a small hillock behind his hut. In the meantime Lonts was despatched to wash the breakfast dishes in the stream. He was startled when he got there to find Angel sitting on the opposite bank, seemingly trying to eat his fingers, whilst tears poured down his cheeks. Lonts paddled across the stream towards him, all the while guarding himself against a sudden attack. But Angel looked too wretched and defeated to do any such thing.
"I'm all done for", said Angel, gulping with the effort as he spoke "I can't live anymore".
"Where have you been Angel?" said Lonts, standing ankle-deep in the clear mountain water.
"Why?" Angel snapped "Don't tell me anyone's missed me!"
"We just wondered that was all", said Lonts.
"Get out of my way!" Angel pushed Lonts backwards, until the boy was left sprawling in the water "Now go and tell your old boyfriend I did it. I hate little tarts like you, do you know that? Ones who creep round older men for what it can give them. How can you bear it, that's what I want to know. Cock-sucking, that's usually what they want. Do you have to do that for Adam?"
Lonts couldn't think what to say. He didn't understand what was causing Angel's hatred, and in the face of the full torrent of it he could only cry. Kieran came running over when he noticed Angel's presence, and waded into the stream to help Lonts to his feet.
"Go and find Adam", he said, as Lonts picked at his sodden shorts.
"Angel was upset", Lonts sniffed and wandered off.
"Come back to the hut Angel", said Kieran, sternly "I want to talk to you. Ask you a few questions, and I want some straight answers".
Angel was seated firmly on a stool in the middle of the hut, and Kieran, Joby, Hillyard and Ransey stood around him as though they were about to start a monastic chant.
"This an interrogation is it?" said Angel.
"Yup", said Kieran "That is exactly what it is. First question first. Did you kill Mixx?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" Angel sneered.
Kieran slapped him so hard around the face that Angel fell backwards off the stool. He picked himself up and re-located his seat.
"I don't even know who you're talking about", he mumbled through sore lips.
"Where have you been these past few days?" said Kieran.
"Further up in the mountains", Angel replied.
"There are some coca shrubs up there".
"Might have known", said Ransey.
"Whole fields of 'em", said Angel "Junkie's paradise. Endless dope and it's all free, provided you know what you're doing".
"Why did you come back down then?" said Kieran.
"I got scared".
"Oh dear", said Joby, sarcastically.
"And what would you know?" Angel exclaimed "Have you ever tried living in a region like this all by yourself? 'Course you haven't. You've always had your bloody family around you. You don't know what it's like".
"Why did you cut my hair?" said Kieran.
"I'm not telling you with this lot here", said Angel "I want to talk to you alone".
The other three reluctantly vacated the hut, and left them alone together.
"So", said Kieran, pacing around him "Why did you cut my hair? Was it all to do with some spells you were weaving eh?"
"Don't be daft", said Angel "I cut off a bit of it for good luck. You see I had no intention of coming back. I was going to do what you wanted and get out of your life. Only I found I couldn't. I need a bit more than your hair to get by".
Angel stood up and pressed against Kieran.
"I've got an idea", said Angel, breathlessly "Come with me. There are places in the world you've never seen. I visited them all during my vampiring days, although I found it a bit easier to get around then! You and me travelling together. A legendary team. We could do it".
"Just you and me?" said Kieran.
"Yea, why not?" said Angel "You don't need those others. Adam's too wrapped up in that nutcase anyway, and I can't believe anyone'd miss Joby that much. I can be all the company you need".
"All of it?" said Kieran "I don't think so".
"Are you talking about sex?" said Angel "You don't need that as much as you think you do. Everyone goes on about it as though it's the be all and end all, but it isn't. You can live without it. Your mind is better than that".
"I can't live without it Angel", said Kieran "I need it. You know that. I remember you taunting me about it at the Loud House that time. It was one of the few things you ever got right. I'm not giving it all up just to follow you into the wilderness for a life of ... what exactly? Endless roaming around as far as I can see, living aimlessly with no one to comfort me".
"You're soft!" Angel roared, pressing his face up against Kieran's "Fucking soft!"
"Get out of my life Angel!" Kieran roared in desperation.
He pushed him away and ran out of the hut. He didn't stop running when he got outside but continued on into the forest, pursued by Joby.
"Joby, for God's sake help me", Kieran collapsed into his arms and sobbed all over his shirt.
"Ignore him Kiel", said Joby "Whatever he says just ignore him. He's out of his head, he's mad. Don't let him do this to you".
"Sometimes Joby, I want to just press a gun against his head and squeeze the trigger", said Kieran "And then I nearly go out of me mind with guilt for thinking such terrible thoughts. I just want to be free of him! I feel like I'm going to spend the rest of me life dragging him around with me like a ball and chain".
"We'll sort it out", said Joby "It won't be like that, I promise you".
"Patsy?" said Adam, approaching through the trees "You shouldn't have agreed to be alone with him, it was a silly thing to do".
"Don't have a go at him Ad, he's in a terrible state", said Joby.
"I'm not having a go at him", said Adam, stroking Kieran's hair gently "I just want to limit Angel's potential for causing trouble".
"Is Lonts alright Adam?" asked Kieran.
"Yes, he's absolutely fine", said Adam "It's you I'm concerned about".
"I-I'm alright", said Kieran.
"You're not though are you?" said Adam "I suppose you're going to fob me off with some excuse that you don't want to worry me. Usually it's my chest that suffices as a reason, or that I should be concentrating on Lonts. Well dammit Patsy, I'm not buying that. You may be President, lord of all he surveys, but I'm still here to look after you. That's been my job ever since we crossed over and nothing's going to change that".
"It'll be easier when he stops being President", said Joby.
"It certainly will", said Adam.
"Roll on those days", said Kieran "And then I can be the one who looks after you two".
"God help us", Joby smiled.
Angel was sitting by the side of the stream with his back to them. They ignored him and walked on towards the hut. The scene outside was relatively normal. Ransey, Julian and Finia were watching Lonts perform a whirligig of a dance, which involved a lot of leaping about and clapping of hands.
"I think it's meant to be an ancient Kiskevian sun-dance or something like that", Ransey explained to them.
"Yes, and it probably lasts for several days", said Julian.
"It's better with music", said Lonts, coming breathlessly to a stop.
Hillyard came out with a tray bearing several cups of coffee. When he noticed the others were back he said he'd make another three.
"No hang on a minute, you'd better hear this too", said Ransey "I've come up with an idea for getting beyond the wall. It's very simple really. We don't try and get over it. We go through it".
"If you think I'm spending hours down there in that heat with a pick-axe", said Hillyard "You can think again".
"I wasn't thinking of that", said Ransey "I meant dynamite it".
"Very good idea", said Adam "Except we haven't any gelignite".
"We've got plenty of gunpowder", said Ransey, pulling out a box from under his chair. He opened it to reveal a neat row of shot-gun pellets "Empty out these for a start. Mixx had boxes of the things".
"Don't know what he wanted them for", said Hillyard "It's not as if he ever went hunting".
"That's neither here nor there now", said Ransey, dismissively "But the fact is we can make up a substantial gunpowder cake out of the contents of this lot. Enough to blast that wall to smithereens".
"All very well", said Adam "But it seems a bit reckless to me to go blowing up a wall when we don't know what's behind it".
"Then you don't have to come down do you?" said Ransey "You can stay up here and wait patiently for us to return".
"You can forget that", said Adam "I'm on this expedition, all the way".
"Glad to hear it", said Ransey "You come in useful for doing the cooking and the washing. Bit like the old circus days really".
Adam looked close to exploding himself after hearing this. Hillyard retreated to the hut to make some more coffee.
"Poor old Ad", he said, as Hirrid put the kettle back on the small gas-stove "Can't be easy for him. He was our skipper and spokesman in the early days, and now he's a glorified skivvy-cum-nursemaid".
"A man in his condition shouldn't be living like this anyway", said Hirrid, stiffly.
"It'd be more stressful for him if he had to sit at home and worry what we were up to", said Hillyard "At least this way he knows what's going on".
"Now that Mixx has gone", said Hirrid "Perhaps you and I could sleep down here tonight. He's got quite a big bed".
"Alright", said Hillyard, cautiously.
"You don't sound very keen".
"It's not that, it's just ... well he only died last night. It doesn't seem decent somehow to take over his bed so soon".
"It's not going to worry him now is it?" said Hirrid.
"I suppose not".
"It could be the only privacy we get for some time", said Hirrid "And I do miss sleeping in a proper bed".
"If that's what you want", said Hillyard.
"Yes", said Hirrid, brightly "That'll be very nice. Very nice indeed".
Kieran spent the evening helping Ransey to empty some of the shot-gun pellets. It was job that required a lot of patience and concentration, but it helped to keep his mind off Angel. Hillyard sat outside, gazing at the pine-trees against the night-sky. He felt depressed, which was a state that visited him infrequently enough to confuse him. He could well understand how trapped Kieran felt by Angel, as he experienced the same sensation concerning Hirrid.
Possessed of a mercurial temperament, Hillyard wasn't a man to give way to feelings of hopelessness, frustration and despondency too easily. And yet he now felt all three with Hirrid. He still had no wish to hurt the little man, and was even still fond of him, yet he was also driven to desperation by him. He wished with all his heart that Hirrid had stayed behind at Bandorra or the Castle, as his presence was casting an even bigger blight over the trip than the remembrance of his night in the Catacombs.
"Angel's been sitting by that stream for so long you'd think the Gorgon had turned him to stone", said Joby, returning with a bucket of water.
"That happened to a settlement near Lixix a few years back", said Hillyard.
"What?" said Joby "It got turned to stone?"
"No, it got stoned", said Hillyard "It was surrounded by coca shrubs. The locals kept getting so stoned on them that they lost the urge to survive. Stopped doing things for themselves, they just sat around all day with glazed eyes. The Ministry had to step in and evict them for their own good".
"I wish Angel would just give up", said Joby "I tell you, when Kieran finally abdicates I'm throwing that gutless ex-vampire out on his ear. I don't care what Kieran says about how he once saved his life. Kieran was really unhappy today. I don't want to see him like that again if I can help it".
"Perhaps Angel will run off with Hirrid", Hillyard smiled, weakly.
"Like that is it?" said Joby "Hirrid might be a brilliant room-steward, but he isn't half a whingeing old queen isn't he? Forget I said all that. Kieran would have a fit if he knew I was talking to you like this. He blames me entirely for Hirrid's depression as it is".
"It's not just you", said Hillyard "I get the distinct impression Kieran's sworn the whole family not to comment on our relationship".
"He doesn't want us to be seen influencing you in any way", said Joby "It's got to be entirely your decision where you go from here".
Things came to a head between the star-crossed lovers that night when Hillyard, normally the personification of "anything for a quiet life", finally exceeded the bounds of his patience with Hirrid. And the little man hadn't even said anything to set him off this time.
It had started with Hillyard feeling trapped, stuck downstairs with the "whingeing old queen" as Joby had called him, whilst the others shared a bottle of brandy in the loft. The feeling of being trapped spilled over into gross irritation as soon as Hirrid got into bed. There was just something about the way he lay there with his hands behind his head, looking so insufferably smug, that finally drove the nail into the coffin of their relationship. Hillyard, in the process of removing his shoes, picked one up and flung it at him. Hirrid was struck across his face. The feeling of wanting to hurt him was strong in Hillyard's mind. He hadn't felt such a disturbing sensation since the days when Stombal had been at his most trying.
During the ensuing tumult, when Kieran came downstairs to see what was wrong, Hillyard fled outside.
"Never again!" he bellowed at Adam, who eventually followed him out there "I don't want a relationship like that ever again. That's it. It's the end. No more monogamy for me. It brings out the monster in me".
"Good, I'm glad you realise it", said Adam "Now can we just get on with this trip?"
Hirrid's feelings were pushed very much into the background the following morning. Ransey's "gunpowder cake" was completed and ready for attaching to the wall. The best that Hirrid could manage to gain attention was a small grumble that it seemed a shame to leave such a comfortable little house, just to go trekking off into the unknown.
"You really don't understand men do you?" Adam sighed "Men will always want to go trekking into the unknown. It's what made our sex great".
They went down into the humid basin of the village and set up the explosive device with great ceremony. A long discussion followed as to who would get the dubious honour of lighting the fuse. Ransey was reluctant to do it himself, and had to admit publicly that it was his eyesight which knocked his confidence.
"Just as I'm running away I expect my specs will fall off", he said "And I'll spend my last moments on earth floundering around in the dirt looking for 'em. Who's the other fast runner here?"
"Lonts", said Hillyard "He's pretty agile".
"You're not using him", said Joby "Adam'd never recover from the shock. I'll do it".
"No you won't", said Hillyard "I'll do it".
"Hopeless", said Joby "Your fat'll slow you down. I'm doing it".
"For God's sake just get on with it!" said Julian.
The build-up by now had been so intense that everyone was expecting an explosion of nuclear proportions. But when Joby had lit the fuse and retreated, the bang that followed was more like a crisp bag bursting. When the smoke and the heady aroma of gunpowder had died away, a small ragged hole was found scorched into the stonework. It was just big enough to crawl through.
They helped each other through the aperture and immediately found themselves in a depressingly darkened, steamy world, a damp swamp stretching for as far as the eye could see. On getting through the wall they sank up their knees in a mud-choked river, which was a very dispiriting start to the journey.
"We need some way of getting up the river", said Kieran, trying to move a few steps through the water, but severely happened by the pull of the mud "It's going to be bloody heavy-going otherwise, and we don't know what's lurking around here".
"I know where to get just the thing", said Ransey, crawling back through the hole "A boat, or two boats I should say with all of us here. Come and give me a hand".
Ransey had seen half-a-dozen boats stacked upside-down behind one of the houses. Some were damaged beyond repair, but two were fine.
"I wondered what they were here for", he said "The wood's rotted so we'll have to be careful".
The boats turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help. A lot of time was wasted punching out a bigger hole in the wall to get them through, and when they did finally launch them the wood was in such a fragile state that they couldn't trust all their weight in them at once. In the end they piled their gear in them and used them as pack-mules, stumbling through the swamp-water, pushing them in front.
Kieran tried not to recall the crocodile nightmares he had suffered during Gabriel's Terror, but it was difficult. Not that there seemed to be much sign of life anywhere. The whole swamp was as dank and lifeless as the village had been.
"It doesn't help that we don't know what we're looking for", said Ransey "An idea of animal, vegetable or mineral might be a help".
"I feel like falling to me knees and screaming I want to go home!" said Joby.
"You do and we might not get you out again", said Adam "The suction power on this mud is quite incredible".
"I don't know why we're insisting on doing it in this laborious way", said Julian "Why not travel overland?"
"He's got a point", said Joby "Whatever's lurking on land can't be any harder to deal with than this".
After they had been wading for some time they came to a bend in the river. The euphoric anticipation of encountering a new scene gave way to acute disillusionment when they realised it was only yet more of the same. Groaning, they finally decided to abandon the river and head for the shore.
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