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The balloon twirled up to a height of a couple of hundred feet and then floated serenely over the mud-choked swamp. Below them trees were packed in so densely that it didn't seem possible for anyone to move there. The pathetic thin trickle of river wound its way through the wilderness before simply petering out into one huge waterlogged sponge.
By the time the sun began to set they had left the jungle behind and were floating at a very progressive speed over desert. None of them had the first idea where they were, other than that they were still well bedded into the Uncharted Area. There was nothing below them other than sand and flint, plus the occasional boulder.
"Any idea where we're going?" said Joby.
"Not a clue", said Kieran "It makes you realise just how vast this whole area is".
"There's a vague glimmer of the Thet Mountains on the horizon", said Julian "We should head in that general direction and hope for the best".
"We've got water, brandy, some tinned meat and biscuits", said Hillyard, checking the supplies.
"Mainly we've got guns", said Kieran, picking over the heap of metal at his feet "Looking at this lot I wouldn't be surprised if the Ghoomers did gun-running for the IRA!"
"We've also got a great deal of weight", said Julian, who was manning the valves.
"That doesn't appear to be a problem though", said Adam.
"Not at the moment maybe", said Julian "But if we suffer any damage it means we'll have a helluva job trying to maintain any height at all, and if we get low on gas we'll need little short of a hurricane to get us off the ground again if we land".
"Does that mean we'll have to start tearing our clothes off and chucking 'em over the side?" said Joby.
"Go on then", said Hillyard "You go first".
"Actually we could just chuck Lonts over", said Joby "There must be a lot of surplus weight there".
"No, we'd better hang onto him", said Julian "He might come in handy if we run out of food!"
They didn't bother landing at all that night, and slept in shifts so that someone was always acting as pilot, as well as keeping an eye on Angel. He wasn't the ideal person to be with when you were hovering two hundred feet above the ground, particularly when you were sharing the space with a small armoury of guns and ammunition. To err on the side of safety Ransey tied Angel's hands behind his back. His cusses and kicks were ignored.
It was well into the second day before they came across anything unusual, and that was an oasis of water, which was situated close to another of those mysterious burial cairns that were once so prevalent hereabouts. As they had no idea when the next water-stop would be they descended and dropped anchor. Hillyard was noticeably apprehensive about the close proximity of another catacombs.
"I wouldn't advise anyone to go into those things", he said, when they touched ground.
"I wish you'd tell us what it was all about", said Kieran.
"Not yet", said Hillyard, infuriatingly.
They washed themselves and rinsed their clothes, laying them out on the sand to dry. An unexciting supper of tinned beef and biscuits was consumed. Ransey bemoaned the absence of any handset, as he felt one would probably stand a good chance of working here, when they were no noticeable or immediate barriers in the way. As there was still a couple of hours of daylight left Kieran proposed having a look round the burial cairn, if only to try and convince Hillyard that there was nothing to fear there. The idea was greeted rapturously by everyone but Hillyard himself though, who stoutly refused to even consider it.
"I'll mind the balloon", he said, as the others walked off.
Nobody expected to be long inside the cairn, as from the outside it didn't look as big as the Catacombs near Bandorra. The exploration had a very light-hearted feel about it, even Angel was let loose from his snare, and they all ran amongst the low-ceilinged corridors, whooping and yelling, trying to cause echoes like schoolboys.
It was Lonts who inadvertently discovered the steps. He had been running down one corridor when he came across the narrow stone steps which cut down through the floor, as though they led into the bowels of the earth. He was about to go and locate one of the others and tell them what he had found when he realised Angel was standing behind him.
"I hope you're not planning on going somewhere", Angel sniggered.
"Let me pass, Angel", said Lonts, firmly.
"What's it worth?"
"Please Angel, let me pass or they'll think I've run off again. I'll get into trouble".
"You really haven't got a clue have you?" said Angel "You shouldn't have told me that. You know it only encourages me".
"Let me pass".
"Why go this way?" said Angel, and then pointed at the direction of the steps "Why not go down there? Nice and dark and slippery down there. A clumsy great dollop like you should have no trouble breaking his neck".
"And how would you like a hole in your back?" said Ransey, jamming the nozzle of his revolver into Angel's spine. Julian and Kieran were standing next to him "Take the boy away Julian".
"Can't you stay out of trouble for five minutes Lonts?" Julian sighed "Come along".
The situation was all too much for Lonts. Being threatened by Angel was bad enough, but to be spoken to sternly by Julian was far worse! He shrank back against the wall and began to scream.
"Get him out of here Julian", Ransey repeated "And tell the others to stay out too. Me and Kieran will sort this one out".
With a surprising show of strength for his age, Julian picked up Lonts as though he was no bigger than a cuddly toy and tucked him under his arm. He walked away with the boy, who screamed and kicked relentlessly until only his cries could be heard in the distance.
"It was only a joke", Angel shrugged "Don't know what you're both looking so serious about".
Kieran stepped up to Angel and stared straight into his eyes.
"I can't take anymore of you Angel", he said "I've had enough. It's bad enough when you play games with my life, but I won't have you doing it to anyone else, particularly Lonts".
"It was only a joke, I'm telling you!"
"It was no joke!" Kieran roared "You were going to kill him, at least have the guts to admit it. If anything had happened to Lonts you wouldn't have just destroyed him, but Adam too. And I couldn't have lived with myself. You're going to die Angel".
Angel noticed Ransey prepare his revolver for firing.
"No!" he screamed "You don't mean it. You can't. I'll do what you want. I'll reform. I'll see any therapist you want me to, I'll get rehabilitated. Just say the word and I'll do it".
"I've been saying the word ever since we got back from the Loud House", said Kieran "You'll never change, Angel. Morning, noon and night you're in my head and I can't take anymore. You don't care nothing for me or anyone".
"You're just getting back at me 'cos you can't stand the thought that I saved your life once", said Angel "Remember at the Bone-House eh?"
"I also remember you saying you were going to toy with me for as long as you wanted to", said Kieran.
"I'm the other side of you", Angel screamed "You can't destroy me. I'm your darker side. You need me!"
"It's destroy or be destroyed as far as I'm concerned", said Kieran "And I've got more to live for than you".
"Oh yes, and what happened to all your preachings about the sanctity of life?" said Angel "It was all bullshit wasn't it? The truth is you're like everyone else, you only believe in the law of the jungle".
"Leave now, Kieran", said Ransey "It's time to let me finish it".
As Kieran left the cairn Angel turned and fled blindly down the steps. Ransey pursued him, stumbling, and grabbing the walls for support but managing to hold onto the gun. He was surprised, when he reached the bottom, to find himself in a lower chamber that was lit by a natural light coming up from the floor below. The fact that daylight could be shining UPWARDS in a deep underground chamber wasn't the most startling fact that confronted Ransey though. Facing him in the chamber in the dim blueish light was the Golden Woman. Naked and lovely ... and quite terrible. It was such a shock to his system that Ransey felt he could have died on the spot.
"It was you all along!" he mumbled, pressing his hand up against his mouth "Is it Angel impersonating you, or was it you impersonating him?"
"Are you still going to kill me?" she said, in a velvety voice.
For a moment Ransey was lost. Although he knew the Golden Woman was a demon and evil, and he still vividly remembered the way she had turned into a hideous beast in his bed ... but she was still beautiful.
"You can't do it can you?" she said "You can't be sure that it's Angel you'll be shooting, or me. You just can't do it".
At that moment something clicked in Ransey's mind. He recalled the tales he had heard from the others of their adventures at the Winter Palace. It was where Angel had performed his most dazzling feat, where he had impersonated Artuul so effectively that no one had suspected a single damn thing until he had shed his skin.
"It's been you all along Angel", said Ransey "There is no Golden Woman. There never has been! You fooled Vanod as well as us. It's only ever been you. You're clever, I'll give you that. You even managed to play dead when Lonts stuck that knife into you. You cheeky little bastard!"
Ransey fell against the wall and laughed hysterically. Angel was so taken aback by this that he lost his firm grip on his concentration and slipped back into being himself. Ransey seized his chance, ran across the room and grabbed Angel's throat in a vice-like grip. Angel tried frantically to metamorphose again, but his terror was too great. To change completely he needed total concentration, plus a feeling of being in charge, and it was hard to achieve that when he was so afraid.
"What's the matter Angel?" Ransey joked, jerking the boy's neck roughly "You thought you'd live forever didn't you?"
"Don't send me back out there, please!" said Angel, now sweating so profusely with terror that he felt like a well-greased pole to touch "Not oblivion. Please. It's dark and it's cold. I couldn't bear it again".
"Why the fuck should I do you any favours?" said Ransey "After what you've been doing to me these past few months? Or was that all a joke too? I nearly lost my mind because of you!"
"You're exaggerating, Ransey".
"I am not exaggerating and you know it! You knew exactly what you were doing to me. I'm a celibate man, and likely to always be one. What did you have against me Angel? I should be the last person who reminds you of Tomce, I'm not likely to go messing with little boys. Or was I just an easy target, is that it?"
"I don't want to go back out there", Angel said again.
"Oh don't worry, you're not going to live anywhere", said Ransey "There's no way even you can survive having your head explode".
Without anymore ado he jammed the nozzle of his gun into Angel's mouth and pulled the trigger. There was a large splurge of red as Angel's brains shot out of the back of his head, but it was over. At last.
Kieran hadn't left the cairn entirely until he heard the gunshot. Instinctively he knew that Angel was now gone for good, and he emerged into the crimson glow of evening like a wounded soldier dragging himself from a battlefield.
"Patsy? Is it ...?" said Adam, appearing by his side.
"He's gone", said Kieran "And just for a while I don't want to talk about him. Just for a while I want to forget he ever existed. Is Lonts alright?"
"Yes", said Adam, glancing round him absently "Just feeling sorry for himself that's all. I'm afraid he gave Julian so much trouble as they were leaving the cairn that he got his butt smacked. But he'll live. Oh I'm sorry, unfortunate choice of words!"
"Don't worry about it", said Kieran "Yes I'll admit I feel bad that Angel's gone, but imagine how we'd feel if we were standing here now and he'd succeeded in killing Lonts".
"Would he really have killed him?" said Adam, faintly.
"Yes", said Kieran.
Joby noticed Adam embracing Kieran in a fevered fashion from the other side of the camp, and decided to keep Lonts out of their way for a while. The boy was having a marathon sulk. He sat cross-legged on the floor with his thumb in his mouth and his back to the rest of them. As far as he was concerned dealing with Angel was a doddle compared to dealing with Julian. Lonts had resented being carted around as though he was a roll of linoleum and had bitten Julian's thigh. Incensed by this Julian had given him a public spanking. Lonts felt this was grossly unfair and had blubbed all over Adam afterwards. Adam though, instead of tearing a strip off Julian as Lonts had hoped, had merely patted the boy in a distracted fashion, too concerned as he was by what was happening inside the cairn.
"Would you like anymore biscuits Lonts?" said Joby, holding the tin out to him.
"No", Lonts snapped "You don't care if I have any or not. You wouldn't care if I starved to death!"
"I don't think there's much chance of that in a hurry", said Joby "You look pretty well-nourished to me. Stop sulking for God's sake. The others are going to want cheering up over the next few days, not listening to you bleating on".
"It's not fair", Lonts sniffed "You all stood by and let Julian hit me".
"You should've behaved yourself then he wouldn't have", said Joby.
"I suppose you all think it's funny to watch me being spanked?"
"Not really, no. Now stop being daft and have a biscuit".
Ransey emerged from the cairn. He walked up to Hillyard and placed his revolver in the other man's hand.
"I don't want it anymore", he said.
"But you've got to have it", Hillyard protested "You're security".
"Yea, and I'll carry on being security", said Ransey "But that's the last shooting I'll ever do. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret it. Angel wasn't the first evil little toe-rag that I've had to destroy, but I want him to be the last. I've never taken pleasure out of killing someone before, however unspeakable they were, I saw it as a necessary evil, a job that had to be done. But I enjoyed killing Angel, and I never want to feel like that again".
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