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Kieran crept on all fours round the back of the sofa. He had found his way back to the room by following the sound of Joby and Hillyard's snoring. When he reached the sofa he pulled himself upright and leaned over the top. Joby was fast asleep, locked away in his drunken dreams. Kieran reached down and touched his lips softly with his fingertips. Joby brushed them away irritably.
"Hillyard, no. No".
"Hillyard?" Kieran clambered over the back of the sofa and sat on Joby's stomach until he was straddling him "Are you being unfaithful to me Joby Long?"
"K-Kiel?" Joby woke up "You were gone a long time".
"You know how it is", Kieran shrugged.
"No I don't. Not any more", Joby snapped.
Kieran clambered off him, much to Joby's regret, and knelt amongst the bottles on the floor.
"If you carry on moaning Joby I shan't kiss you".
Joby, in the long-gone parlance of romantic novelists, Struggled Manfully With His Feelings.
"We waste a lot of time in our lives", he said, awkwardly "Worrying about doing the right thing. When we should really just enjoy ourselves. But it's all too late now. I was thinking earlier that wouldn't it be nice if we all got back, to our own time I mean, and then we could just be with each other. You and me could share Amy on alternate days, and you go to Adam on the days when I'm with Amy. 'Go to Adam' - sounds like a curse doesn't it?"
"There are problems with that little fantasy", Kieran rested his chin on Joby's stomach and blew a raspberry into it "Would you still want to sleep with me at nights? Adam might not mind, but Amy ..."
"It don't matter", said Joby, dolefully "We're not getting back anyway. It'll have to stay a fantasy. We'd need a big house anyway, and I don't spose we could afford it".
"I can't imagine any woman in her right mind wanting to live with three fellas", Kieran exclaimed "Particularly three scruffy animals like us".
"I didn't mean to upset you Kiel. Talking about Amy. I forget sometimes that it's even worse for you".
"If I never talked about her", said Kieran, running his finger down Joby's stomach "I'd go mad".
Joby propped himself onto his elbows, and gave Kieran a look that he could only translate as white hot longing.
"I'm not Amy you know", said Kieran, softly.
"Me brain isn't that addled!" Joby remarked "I know what I want".
"No you don't Joby, that's the trouble. But to hell with it, I'll kiss you anyway", Kieran brushed Joby's lips lightly with his, and then abruptly pulled away.
"Is that it?" Joby cried, sick with disappointment "Is that all I get?"
"You're dangerous Joby".
"No I'm not", Joby laughed, nervously "I would never hurt you in that way, not ever. I could never force meself on anyone".
"You're a powder-keg".
"That's rubbish, rubbish", Joby buried his face in Kieran's chest and wept "Oh help me Kiel. You're the only one that can. I know you must get sick of hearing that, but I don't want you to vanquish my evils. Just help me cope with 'em. Please".
"You haven't any evils", said Kieran "You're decent, and loyal (in your own peculiar way), and caring, and reliable, and a thousand other things, and I love you very deeply".
This time when they kissed it was with a fierce intensity, as though each wanted to consume the other's soul. Joby wanted him with a painful urgency that he knew he couldn't fulfil. That the mental blockade would always be there. At times he had believed he would die under its yoke, and yet on this occasion the black treacle in his sexual subconscious cleared. He was finally accepting his feelings.
"How much easier it is", he said, as they came up for air, tugging saliva from each other's lips "When you stop fighting it".
"What held you up?" asked Kieran, as Adam finally appeared, now dressed.
"I had a shave".
"Oh. I thought something unusual had happened".
"Other than general boozing and fornication you mean", said Adam waspishly, standing amongst the bottle debris "Isn't it about time you put your clothes on Patsy, and is Hillyard planning to stay in a coma?"
"Dunno", said Joby "Why don't you ask him? You'd probably get about as much sense as when he's awake".
"Don't be a misery Addy", said Kieran, appeasing him marginally by putting on his shirt, and buttoning it the wrong way "We can't be the only ones to have a bit of fun".
"Yes well, if getting pissed out of your brain and sliding into unconsciousness can be regarded as fun".
"Oh hark at him!" Joby exclaimed "Typical of someone who's given it up! He's like those reformed smokers who practically turn a hose on you if you light up in front of them".
"Or like people who've given up sex and turn into tight-arsed prudes", said Adam, tartly.
"Pack it in the pair of you. You're doing my focking head in", said Kieran "And stop harping on about Joby's sex-life Addy. You're getting boring".
This last comment disturbed Adam more than he cared to show, because an ex-lover from some years back had once said Adam's drinking had turned him into a "fucking bore and a boring fuck". He also deeply resented the way Kieran had sided with Joby, particularly after coming into the room to find him kneeling beside him. Kieran though wasn't in the mood for trying to placate him.
"You could try and be a bit more understanding where Joby's concerned", he hissed at Adam, as he collected up the empties "He's going through a difficult time".
Adam glared at him in disbelief.
"And the rest of us aren't?" he whispered, hoarsely "What makes Joby's feelings any more sacrosanct than yours say?"
"Because I've got you to help me".
"And you help him".
"Yes, but I can't help him in the way he needs. I can only go so far. I can't make love to him the way you do to me. He won't let me".
"That's his problem then isn't it?"
"Oh alright", Adam sighed "I promise to be nicer to Joby in future".
Lonts startled them all by silently entering the room at that moment. Even Hillyard seemed to become aware of his lightfooted presence, and began to clamber around to consciousness. Lonts was hugging his rolled-up coat to his chest as though it was a life-belt. He moved over to Kieran without saying a word, but displayed no outward sign that he was aware of anyone else.
"We're safe in here", he said to Kieran "The old man said we'd be safe as long as we stayed behind the mirrors. And I got rid of Krik. He won't bother us now".
His face crumpled and he started to cry. The tears made fine tracks down the dirt on his face.
"I want to go home", he sobbed.
Kieran remembered the cold eerie twilight world that was now Kiskev, and concluded that that would be the very worst thing that the boy could do.
"Your home is with us now", he said, softly "You're ill. We have to take care of you. You trust me don't you? And Hillyard too, he would never harm you".
"Let's give him a bath", said Hillyard, easing himself off the sofa "That'll make him feel better".
"There now. How's that for four-star service?"
Kieran scrubbed at the boy vigorously with a wire-brush he had found in the basket of sex-toys and Hillyard soaped Lonts's hair. Lonts had remained silent and immobile throughout this operation, sitting in a shallow part of the hot spring.
"I just wish he could be happy", said Hillyard, gently pouring clean water over the boy's dark hair "But I remember thinking that about Stombal too. Some people just never get peace of mind".
"Some people, or rather certainly some in my time, believed that human beings were owed happiness, it was their fundamental right in life", said Kieran "The right to be happy. I suspect that belief caused more misery than anything else".
"You seem to manage alright, most of the time".
"I've felt a lot of sadness at times, but he's a very dreary friend, and he makes you dreary in turn. He beats you round the head, and if you don't give him your undivided attention he'll drag out your pet monkeys and load them onto your back. But I suppose I just argue with him. Say fair enough, make me sad from time to time if that's what you want, but you can't stop me enjoying meself either. What the likes of your Stombal never realise is, that nobody can force you to carry these monkeys. We put 'em there ourselves".
"Like me with me guilt", said Hillyard "Over Stombal. And now Lonts".
"But nobody said to you that you had to take care of these people. Nobody would have scolded you if you hadn't. But you decided that they were your duty", Kieran lowered his voice to a whisper, although Lonts could still have heard him clearly enough if he had been in the same stratosphere "Lonts is insane Hillyard. He might be cured one day. He's young enough to stand a good chance, and we can all help him. But at the end of the day he can only rejoin life if it's what HE really wants. Only he can get himself out of this dark house he's in. And the things that happened that put him in there certainly weren't your fault by any means".
"Krik had gone to all that trouble just to get revenge", said Lonts suddenly, as though entering in the middle of a completely different conversation "An eye for an eye".
Lonts proceeded to give them a blow-by-blow account of his meeting with Tomce and the subsequent liaison with Krik. Kieran and Hillyard listened as they lifted him out of the water and towelled him dry.
"This Tomce", said Kieran "Did he do anything to you? Did he touch you at all?"
"Touched my arm", said Lonts, tapping Kieran's lightly "Like that".
"And that was all?"
"Well that's something anyway", said Kieran "And where is he now?"
"I took him to the tower room. Krik wanted to meet him there. It was a room full of money, I've never seen so much in one place before. I reckon they all stole it. It can't all be theirs".
"And then Krik ordered you to go?"
"He wanted to be alone with Tomce. Up to no good I expect".
"Krik must've been the boy in the old photographs", said Hillyard, quietly "The ones we found at Tomce's cottage".
"Tomce was the one who sealed all the time-cusps", said Lonts.
"I've never yet heard a single, redeeming feature about that man", said Kieran.
Caln had waited outside the mirror for hours, clapping his hands together in frustration. The meat showed no sign of coming out. He began to wonder just how many times Braw had tricked them in this way, secreting meat behind the mirrors to evade their teeth and clutches.
Braw would bloody well pay them back and no mistake, Caln vowed. Somehow he would make Braw retrieve the meat. He had no idea how he was going to achieve this act of manipulation, he only felt that Braw must somehow be forced into submission. He located the old man in a nearby corridor. Incredibly, Braw seemed to be carrying on his duties as normal. He was busily collecting vampire shit from the floors and shovelling it into a bucket.
"You're fucking insane!" Caln exclaimed.
"Well you'd know", said Braw, pushing past him "You made me that way. This is the only way of behaving that I know now".
Caln followed the old man out onto the top floor of the atrium. The worm had now reached the top of the first floor steps, crushing the bannisters in its wake. Braw was seemingly oblivious to it.
"You get that meat for me", the vampire hissed, slamming Braw against the landing railings "Or I'll throw you down to that thing there".
"I'm not going to give you that meat", said Braw "You destroyed one Vanquisher, you're not doing it to that one. Not now. Not when there won't be any more. You throw me down to it if that's what you want. It won't gain you nothing".
"You wanna be crushed to death Braw?"
"No, but my life means nothing, except for one thing. Alive or dead I stand between you and the Vanquisher. Whilst he goes unharmed there's a very real chance your days are numbered. If I can protect him my time won't have been wasted".
"Alright", Caln spat, in a blinding rage "You asked for it. You're gonna get it".
With one shove Caln sent the old man sprawling backwards over the railings. He seemed to take a long time to fall, but Caln was satisfied to hear his tortured screams as he landed amongst the bone-crushing coils of the worm. The vampire fancied he could almost hear the old man's bones splintering as the worm frenziedly wrapped itself around his spindly form and squeezed his feeble life out of him. Braw was no more.
Krik could feel the power leaving his body and he was terrified. Something nearby was draining him of his psychic energy, was feeding on it in fact. He hadn't expected this to happen. Not at all. Once dead, he had believed he would be even more invincible than he had been alive. Not so. His head was swimming. Tomce stood a few feet away from him, and Krik could tell that the older man's initial fear was being replaced by confusion. Krik knew that if he got much weaker then Tomce would soon look triumphant.
"What are you doing?" Krik shouted "You're trying to make me weak, like I was as a kid. That's what you're doing".
"I'm not doing anything", said Tomce.
With a huge effort Krik staggered towards the other man. Suddenly he was swiped viciously across the face by an unseen force. The impact sent him reeling backwards. When he tried to move again he was hit even harder. He fell against the wall. He felt as though he was crumpling up like paper, and was powerless to stop it. He was dissolving, and very soon he really would be facing the oblivion he had so dreaded.
The last thing he ever saw was a blurred outline of Tomce standing over him. He then ceased to exist at his feet.
Lonts, swathed in towels, was led back upstairs. Clean and smelling nice, comforted by Kieran's close presence, he almost had a glimpse of peace.
"We'll get some grub inside him", Hillyard had said "That'll do him the power of good".
When they got back to the room they found Adam and Joby sprawled on one of the sofas. Their feet, encased in socks that were more holes than wool, were held out to a brazier for warmth. They had both been eating their way through a large box of chocolates.
"Lonts could have done with some of them", said Kieran, standing over them disapprovingly.
"Well he can't have 'em now can he?" said Joby, eating the last one.
"Can you think of any good Irish jokes?" Adam sniggered.
"You two are focking hopeless", Kieran roared.
"But Patsy", Adam protested "You wanted me to be nicer to Joby!"
"You drive me mad sometimes Adam", Kieran shrieked "Why can't you ever just behave yourself!"
"That is a question I have often pondered, old love".
Kieran snorted like an impatient racehorse, and went to help Hillyard feed Lonts with what was left of the buffet.
"Callous bastards, the pair of 'em", Kieran muttered.
"S'alright", said Hillyard, spooning cream into Lonts's mouth "There's nothing going on between them".
"Oh well that's alright then!" said Kieran, facetiously.
"You shouldn't let them wind you up. It just means it's your turn to be the butt of the joke".
"It's always my blinking turn. I told you before, I'm the whipping-boy".
"Well that's the price you pay for being beautiful".
"You are daft Hillyard", Kieran giggled "I don't know how I managed before you came along. They both have a cruel streak when it comes to teasing. And now they've started ganging up together I've really had it".
"They won't harm you will they?" Lonts looked saucer-eyed with horror "They could do serious damage".
"I'd like to see 'em bloody well try", Kieran exclaimed "Hillyard and me were only having a little joke, you mustn't believe everything we say Lonts".
The boy looked appalled, riddled with confusion.
"How do I know when to believe you then?"
"You have to trust us", said Hillyard.
"Because we care about you".
"And we wouldn't see you come to any harm", said Kieran "Or we'll try not to anyway, but we need your co-operation. No running off for instance. Stay by us at all times".
"Will I be safe then?"
"You'll be safer with him than with anyone else", said Hillyard "Hang about, what's that noise? In the distance ... listen".
"Something's trying to get in", said Kieran, nervously.
There was a loud cracking sound, and a splintering of wood. Adam and Joby jumped to their feet.
"It's coming from the direction of the green room", said Adam "Where we were earlier. Come on!"
They half-ran half-crept along the dimly-lit corridor which led down past the green bedroom and beyond. At the far end of it were two large wooden doors which communicated with the less hospitable part of the Palace. Braw had kept these firmly bolted from the inside, but they were now bowing and buckling under an onslaught from an unknown assailant. The wood had splintered right across.
"What is it?" asked Lonts "You've got to tell me what it is".
"We don't know ourselves", said Adam, testily.
Swamp water began to filter under the doors, lapping around their feet. There was an earsplitting crack and one entire panel of the door gave way.
"What the fucking hell is that?" said Joby, as a fragment of the worm slid through, crushing the rest of the door under its weight.
"Get back!" Hillyard cried.
The worm detached part of itself into a smaller one and wrapped itself around Hillyard's ankle. The man screamed in agony. It felt as though his foot had been trapped in a vice. He fell to the ground and began to slide towards the huge mother creature. Joby and Kieran grabbed each of his arms and tugged him back, but the suction power of the creature was immense.
"Adam, what are you doing?" Kieran yelled, as the other man nudged past them.
"Hold onto him as tightly as you can", Adam directed "I'm going to try and cut him free".
He flicked a small pocket knife and stabbed it into the creature. It's flesh was tough and at first resisted the attack, but Adam repeated the movement until the smaller worm, sensing it had located fresh prey, closed around the metal of the knife and crushed it into dust.
"Good job your reflexes are fast", said Joby "Or that would've been the end of your artistic career. Can't do much drawing with no fingers".
They had retreated upstairs to the mirrored audience chamber, barring every door behind them that they came across. In the chamber they all collapsed on the floor. Hillyard was rubbing his ankle, which had rather inconveniently kept giving way under him as they climbed the stairs, and Adam was flexing his fingers, unable to believe his luck that he had each one still intact. What was a bigger shock though was Joby suddenly reaching across and touching them gently.
"Is your ankle in a bad way Hillyard?" asked Kieran.
"It doesn't seem to be working properly", Hillyard joked uncertainly "I think the worm must have crushed a bone or something. If Adam hadn't got in as quick as he did though I would have had more than me ankle to worry about. I can walk alright, it just sometimes seizes up on me".
"That little knife had been very useful", said Adam "For sharpening pencils and things".
Noises from the room below indicated that the worm seemed to have gathered momentum. It was now crushing everything in the room where they had previously feasted and gotten high with such abandon. There was only one staircase now separating them from it, and from the thumps and bangs coming from directly beneath the floor it sounded as though it was preferring to find a short-cut.
"We've got to get out of this whole damn place", said Kieran "Otherwise we'll run out of levels to climb up".
"Yes I know", said Adam "I just hope there is a way out left".
The floor began to vibrate under the repeated hammering as the creature hurled itself blindly at the structure, trying to batter its way through. At times the hammering was so violent that they were tossed around the floor like fish in a net. Lonts clung to Kieran and begged him to lead them away. In turn Kieran felt like screaming that he would if he could think of a way, but there was a darkness coming down around him and he was shit-scared.
"We'll get out the way we came in", said Adam "Hillyard, you said you could walk alright?"
"Long as I remember not to put all me weight on one foot".
"Fair enough", Adam stood up as best he could with the turbulence going on beneath him "Joby, take charge of Lonts. Don't let go of him".
"No-o-o", Lonts clung onto Kieran who, rather worryingly, seemed to be slipping into a catatonic trance "I want to stay with Kieran".
"Now listen", Adam barked, impatiently "Joby is Kieran's oldest friend. You're as safe with one as you are with the other".
Joby felt that this wasn't the time to argue that this wasn't strictly true, particularly as Lonts showed tentative signs of trusting him. He prised him away from Kieran, who was now completely locked into a catatonic state.
"What's happened to him?" said Joby, sick with fear.
"Now isn't the time to try and find out. We've got to get him away from the vicinity of that creature. He'll be alright, he's got to be".
The worm hadn't penetrated as far as their old rooms, and they headed there quickly to collect their few belongings. Joby had kept a firm grip on Lonts all the way, and felt as though he held a rare bird in his bare hands which could take wing at any moment.
"What's happened to Adam and Kieran?" asked Hillyard, taking a brief moment to rest his foot on the bed.
"I don't know", said Joby "All that with Kiel is scaring the shit out of me".
"He's got to be alright", said Lonts "Hasn't he?"
Kieran was so light that Adam was carrying him through the corridors with no difficulty at all. In fact, Kieran felt almost weightless and not quite real. It was a horrible sensation to feel in someone you loved, as though you were carrying a sack of hollow bones.
"Don't you do this to me Patsy", Adam paused to rearrange him so that he was now slung over his shoulder. In that position he could just about hear Kieran's breathing, which was disturbingly faint. He was being drained and drained fast. Adam had never felt so scared in his life.
"Don't you dare give into this", Adam hurried down the corridors, all the while administering firm smacks on Kieran's buttocks, as though he was a newborn baby "Fight it Patsy, whatever it is".
All too slowly Kieran's breathing grew stronger. He was wheezing like a severe asthmatic, but at least it was growing louder. Adam got the impression he was trying desperately to come up for air. He was relieved to see their old room at last. By the time he strode through the door Kieran had lifted up his head, and was gasping frantically, as though he couldn't get enough of the air he breathed.
"Joby, get some water", said Adam, and put Kieran onto the bed.
"I never expected this to happen", said Hillyard "The evil is trying to drain him isn't it?"
"Well it won't succeed", said Adam.
Joby had managed to wring some dregs of water out of the wash-jug. He held the cup up to Kieran's lips and he made some effort to drink. His breathing was beginning to even out and he showed signs of awareness.
"He can hear us, I think", said Joby.
"He probably could all along", said Adam "Just whether he can see properly is the question. Patsy, how many fingers am I holding up?"
"Fifty-five", Kieran gave a low giggle, which degenerated into a cough and a splutter.
"What happened?" said Joby.
"I felt like I was drowning", Kieran whispered "It was like swimming too far out to sea and then panicking that I might not get back to the beach. I could vaguely hear all you lot on the shore, but I couldn't reach you. It felt as though all my senses were being shut down, one by one, but Adam pulled me back".
"Saving two lives in one day", said Joby "The man's a marvel".
"Yes, and I don't want to have to do it again! Now, in spite of the fact that we have two members of the walking wounded on our hands, I think we should leave this place, before all our means of exit get sealed-off".
"What about the money?" asked Hillyard, abruptly.
"The money in the tower room. Lonts mentioned it".
"Hillyard, you cannot seriously be thinking of your expenses at a time like this!"
"Look Adam, when we get to the City we're going to need money. It's not cheap there, and we'd never survive on the streets at this time of year. We've to to think of our future security".
"Future security!" Adam exclaimed "We're about to be crushed to death by a giant worm, and you're talking about pension plans!"
"He might have a point Adam", said Joby "After all, we haven't got any money at all. We used the last of your drawing money to pay the bill at the 'Moon and Stars'".
"Joby, get real!"
"That's what he is doing", said Hillyard "If there's as much money in the tower as Lonts said we could be well set up. Wouldn't you like one less worry in life?"
"Now you're talking like an insurance salesman! Look, all I'm worried about at the moment is putting as much distance as possible between ourselves and this place".
"We could have been getting on with it by now if you didn't insist on arguing the toss", said Joby.
"Lonts", said Adam, with forced patience "Can you remember where this tower-room is?"
"And I've got the key to it", said Lonts proudly, standing in front of the tower-door "I had to have it you see, because Krik told me to lock him in".
"And I bet he's still in there", Adam growled.
"No he's not", said Kieran "There's nothing evil down there now. I would've picked up on it immediately, the way I am at the moment".
"I wish you'd try and block yourself off, the way you used to", said Adam.
"I can't", said Kieran "To be honest with you, I haven't got the strength".
"He doesn't have to come down", said Joby "He can wait on the stairs. Keep an eye on Lonts for us".
"You did well to remember the way here Lonts", said Kieran, sitting with the boy on the tower steps. A few feet further down Hillyard was struggling to turn the key in the rusty lock "Do you think perhaps you're feeling better?"
"I-I'm alright with you", said Lonts, and promptly laid his head in Kieran's lap.
Kieran found this news a mixed blessing. He himself had never felt so vulnerable. The way he had recently been manipulated by evil had come on him without any warning at all, leaving him emotionally and physically stranded. If Adam hadn't been around he was convinced he would have been turned into a vegetable. To be alive and yet never feel anything again was about the worst fate he could imagine.
Hillyard finally managed to unlock the door and pushed it open.
He saw the remains of Tomce immediately. The sight hit him like a punch in the face, and the bruise from it would stay forever imprinted on his mind. He saw it for a split second before he turned away, but he would never forget the sight of the body propped against the wall, with the gold coins lodged mockingly in the eyeless sockets, and the testicles torn off and stuffed into the mouth.
"Make sure Lonts doesn't come in", said Adam, pulling Hillyard out of the doorway "I'll try and cover it somehow".
He pulled down a limp rag of curtain that was hung haphazardly over the narrow window. He got as close to the body as he could without having to actually touch it. Fortunately when he threw the curtain it covered a substantial part of the body at once. Joby had followed him in, finding that the horrific initial sighting was by far the worst and not repeated.
"I don't know how people do jobs like this all the time", he said, quietly "Finding bodies like this".
"Neither do I", said Adam.
"I don't feel any pity for the corpse though".
"Doubtless you feel as I do. Rather Tomce meet this fate than anyone else. Another Fobbett, say".
There were messages scrawled in Tomce's blood on the stone walls. "SUCK ON IT" being the most favoured slogan.
"Krik certainly hated him", said Joby.
"It wasn't Krik who did this", said Kieran, from the doorway "It was Angel".
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