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For the rest of the journey Kieran dozed in the litter. He was so exhausted he barely realised he had slept. When he finally awoke in the twilight he remembered his conversation with Adam and Joby. He had felt like a weary boxer, hanging on the ropes, being urged to do just one more round by his seconds. The analogy made him laugh. He couldn't imagine anyone less like a boxer than himself at that moment.
"Except I could be a featherweight I suppose", he said.
"You talking to yourself?" Joby poked his head round the drapes.
"We've stopped moving", Kieran struggled to sit up "Are we here Joby?"
"Yea, but we can't see much. The Valley of Freaks is below us, down a sharp incline. We can probably get the litter down there though. It's tricky, but I suspect Caln used to manage it. Trouble is, the area's blanketed in freezing fog. We're not going to risk it tonight. We're going to take the litter into the ruined church and set up camp for the night".
"Oh thank God", Kieran fell back against the cushions in relief.
"We wouldn't have gone down tonight if you hadn't wanted to", Joby pouted "What sadists do you think we are!"
The church must have once been a splendid affair, indicating that the area that it overlooked had at one time been a substantial town of some sort. Miraculously the roof and the main part of the structure was still intact, although the interior was choked with dust and rubble. They managed to steer the litter through the main doors and into the central area where the congregation had once sat. Hillyard tethered the bullock to the thick stone pillars, although the beast showed no inclination at all to wander off on its own. For such a huge animal it was pathetically docile.
The important things were done quickly. A fire was lit in the middle of the floor, the bullock was fed, and Hillyard concocted a runny dish of rice and eggs for the humans to eat. By the firelight the interior of the church looked vast. Bell-ropes swung eerily at one end like aimless ghosts, iron railing indicated where the stairs to the crypt led down, and an owl fluttered high amongst the rafters.
Kieran lay listening to the usual evening sounds of the camp, such as the hiss and crackle of the fire, the tinny rattle of the billy-cans, the striking of matches and the occasional mumbled comment. They were all comfortable sounds, and yet he felt tense and nervous. He wanted to get out of the litter and join them, but he hadn't the energy.
He dozed, it can only have been for a matter of seconds, and then came blearily to consciousness, aware that there was something else in the litter with him. At first he thought it was a small animal, tentatively creeping across the fur quilt. He slowly sat up to get a better look, hoping that he wouldn't disturb it. In the gloomy confines of the litter it was hard to make out shape or form. Then he realised that in fact it was moving under the quilt, creeping up alongside his body. He felt its fur brushing against him. Then it was against him, pressing down on him heavily like an unwanted lover. A hand closed against his mouth. Kieran felt the nails pressing into his flesh, and was revolted by the clammy tickle of the furry palm against his lips.
Angel's startling blue eyes seemed to fill the litter. They were the only part of him that remained unsullied, immune to decay. The vampire stared at him unblinking, as though trying to bore a hole in his face. Slowly he let his hand slide down from Kieran's face to his throat. Kieran arched his back, but the vampire stayed firmly in place. Angel's hand was firmly around his throat now, his talons pressing into his windpipe. He pressed harder, and Kieran gasped for air. Angel had only to apply a fraction more pressure and his neck would be broken, and to the vampire it would be almost effortless.
Kieran was scared that his eyeballs would pop under the pressure. He imagined them bursting out of their sockets and splattering Angel's face with his blood. His brain was swimming, and he heard the same words intoning in his mind again and again. "This is it, I'm going to die". All of it, every part of him would cease to exist from now on. Every word he had ever spoken, every kiss he had ever given, would be firmly relegated to the archives. He felt as though he had been ejected from an aircraft without the benefit of a parachute, and was falling through space. He tried to pray, tried to recall the words and phrases drummed into him as a child, but could only remember some stupid song about not getting out much anymore. Absurdly irrelevant, surely he wasn't going to die thinking of that!
The vampire was giggling. He had relaxed his iron grip, and was half-giggling half-squealing, an extraordinarily irritating sound, like a stuck pig having its testicles tickled. Kieran no longer felt afraid but antagonised. He pulled his hands up and made to push Angel backwards, but his palms hit thin air.
Angel had gone. For the time being.
"Don't tell Joby about this".
"I feel he has a right to know Patsy".
"He'll only panic", said Kieran, in as low a whisper as he could manage "He'll only insist on sitting up all night with the chopping-knife or something equally daft, and I don't think me nerves could stand it. This is our secret".
"I don't like keeping secrets from Joby", said Adam "He wouldn't keep any from you".
"Oh wouldn't he just!"
"I wasn't talking about screwing Amy. This is not the time to start an enraged husband's vendetta".
"Daft eejut", Kieran laughed, softly "It's a bit late for all that! It's just that I know him so well, I know he'll fly into a rage and get himself all frustrated".
"But we're a three Patsy".
"Yes, and sometimes the peace of mind of two of us cancels out the finer feelings of the third, or I mean something like that anyway. What's the big deal anyway? So Angel's not afraid to touch me anymore, so he wants to kill me. It's hardly come as a surprise".
"He didn't kill you though", said Adam "And yet it would have been all too easy for him to have done so. There and then, all over. I don't think he wants you dead Pats. If that was the case he could have killed you a dozen times over by now. It makes sense really".
"Yes. If you're dead that could make you as powerful as him. You'd have nothing to fear. The final barrier removed. Instead, I think he wants you alive but destroyed. Hence what happened at the Winter Palace, when you nearly slipped into veggie land".
"But he's just tried to blinking throttle me!"
"He was showing off. He took it as far as he could without actually doing it, and then let go. He's playing with you. I suspect he'll try anything to drive you over the edge Patsy. He wants you as weak, confused and vulnerable as Lonts is. It's exactly the same as what Caln and his ilk did to Braw".
"Well he can forget that!" Kieran punched a cushion "If anything this latest antic of his has made me stronger, and if it's true as you say that he doesn't want me dead then I've got nothing to lose".
"Don't get too carried away. There are still plenty of other ways he can destroy you. He's probably not short of imagination".
"Oh yes, but I'm ready for him now. The little bastard's picked on the wrong fella this time".
"As you're feeling so positive perhaps you'd like to eat your supper now", Adam held out the tin-mug of eggs and rice he had entered the litter with.
Kieran glanced at it and pulled a face.
"You really know how to upset someone don't you?" he said.
"Come on, make an effort. Hillyard's practically in tears at the way everyone keeps reacting violently to his cooking. I've already had the 'what do you expect with these rotten ingredients' speech".
"Alright, I'll try and force some down, even if it does look like something you'd find in a baby's nappy. But I'm going to come out and sit by the fire. I don't like it in here at the moment".
"Wait a moment", Adam uncoiled one of the numerous scarves that adorned his neck "Wear this. If you don't want Joby to know anything, you'd better cover up those new love-bites of yours, caused by Angel sticking his talons into your neck".
"Lonts keeps on that he wants to take a look at the crypt", said Hillyard.
"He should feel at home down there", said Adam.
"It'll only be old tombs Lonts", said Kieran "Nothing much to see".
"Will they have dead bodies in?" said Lonts.
"Why don't you climb in one and take a look?" said Joby.
"You'll take me down there won't you?" Lonts approached Kieran.
"No I won't", said Kieran "Crypts aren't my scene".
"Oh go on!"
"I'll take him down", said Joby, rooting in Adam's rucksack for their only torch "It'll stop him whining at least".
"Don't go wasting valuable batteries on him", said Adam "I doubt if we'll ever be able to get anymore".
"I'm not planning on being long. I'll take him to the bottom of the steps, he can have a quick look from there, and then we're coming straight back up".
"Joby I'm not happy about this", Adam grabbed his sleeve as he passed "Angel might be pulling his strings, so be on your guard".
"He'll be out of luck if he tries anything with me, so stop worrying".
The crypt was a very long way down. Once out of earshot of the others Joby didn't feel quite so confident. What on earth was he doing heading down to a bone-house in sub-zero temperatures with a teenage lunatic, was a thought that repeatedly occurred to him as they turned another corner and found yet more steps plunging below them. Lonts though was like a child at Christmas.
"I would've thought you'd had enough of corpses in your life", said Joby, as they came to an iron gate at the bottom.
"Yes, but these are peaceful corpses", said Lonts "I won't dream about these".
The gate was opened with a banshee-like scream. Joby stood on the bottom step and shone the torch around in a perfunctory manner, like a bored usherette. It highlighted in short snatches the vaulted roof, and the large stone caskets housing long-dead heroes and eminents. The tombs, as far as he could see, were all untouched by vampires. But he reasoned that the dead here were so ancient they couldn't have offered much sustenance to the likes of Caln.
"No, I want a proper look", Lonts suddenly snatched the torch away from Joby and ran further into the crypt.
"Lonts, you little bastard! Get back here!" Joby stumbled blindly amongst the tombs, cannoning into each one with a hard thump.
He came upon the boy suddenly, standing up against one of the largest tombs. Lonts shone the torch against his chin, and it lit up his clean-shaven face and his dark eyes.
"Do you think I'm good-looking?" the boy asked "Do you think I'm better-looking than you?"
"That wouldn't be hard", said Joby, grabbing Lonts's wrist "Now c'mon, I don't know what you think you're playing at".
"Would you like to kiss me?" said Lonts, leaving Joby gaping like a goldfish.
"Alright Joby", Adam appeared, carrying a candle stuck on a plate "I've come galloping to your rescue".
"I don't know what he's playing at", said Joby, wearily.
"Neither does he I suspect", Adam placed the candle on top of the tomb "It's Angel talking out of him".
"No it's me!" Lonts protested "I want to know about sex".
"You do pick your places", Adam sighed "Joby go on up. We're following. If you're desperate to kiss someone I'm sure Patsy will oblige".
"Don't leave me alone with him", Lonts exclaimed.
"I am not a rapist!" Adam cried "And if you're that nervous you shouldn't go around offering kisses to just anyone. Joby's right, I don't know what on earth you think you're playing at. Now come on upstairs now or I'll lose my temper with you, and I can assure you that is not a pretty sight. I already feel like smacking your butt for stealing my cigars".
"Nobody'll tell me anything", Lonts began to cry "They just fob me off, treat me like a child".
"You are a child, Lonts", said Adam, grabbing his hand and dragging him gently back upstairs.
"What's going on?" Kieran said sharply, when they returned to the main part of the church "Why is Lonts crying?"
"Because he's a pillock", Joby grunted.
"Well? Did something happen down there?"
Joby pulled Kieran over the other side of the room, until they were beyond one of the pillars.
"Lonts", he mumbled "He made a pass at me".
"Is that all?" Kieran laughed "I thought something dreadful had happened. What's the matter Joby, did he get you going?"
"That's not funny! Oh don't look at me like that!"
"Angel's been trying to get at you for ages, so it doesn't come as any great surprise".
"He swears it wasn't Angel".
"What does he know?" said Kieran "He's raving mad".
Joby looked crestfallen. Kieran peered into his eyes intently.
"He's attractive isn't he? Lonts, I mean".
"Yea", Joby nodded "He's an attractive BOY. And I don't think he knows what the hell he's doing sometimes".
"I told you, he's mad".
"His skin Flannery, so smooth, no bristle on it. Like a girl's. Except he isn't a girl".
"No he's not. I've seen proof of that. What he's got anyway which is even less than me!"
"It's time we got some kip", said Joby "I've had enough for one day".
Kieran could only agree.
Lonts made a scene, because he wanted to sleep next to Kieran. Adam though banished him to the other side of the litter.
"You're just trying to punish me", Lonts wailed "That's all it is".
"Oh belt up", said Adam "I'm sick of hearing your voice".
"Perhaps just for this one night Adam", said Kieran, disturbed by the sight of Lonts's heaving shoulders.
"No!" said Adam, firmly "We keep giving into him and it doesn't do him any good. Before long he would have us all under his thumb, jumping through hoops for him. One of us has to be strong about this".
By the time morning came Kieran had to admit that Adam had been right. He had badly needed rest, and if Lonts had been lying up against him he would have spent the night sharing his phobias, fears and nightmares. As it was Adam had placed Lonts opposite himself, in a strategic position to nudge the boy with his foot if he started causing trouble. Eventually though Lonts had grown too tired to start any fresh scenes and had fallen into an exhausted sleep.
Kieran slept solidly, and when he woke again it was daylight. He could hear a small animal scuttling about in the dust of the church, and the bullock pulling gently on its chain as it stamped aimlessly around one of the pillars. Other than that Kieran was unsettled to find that he was alone in the litter. The others had abandoned him and he found it most annoying. He pulled back the fur drapes, and remembered just in time to slip on his shoes before stepping out onto the cold floor.
Winter sunlight shone through the arched windows high up in the walls, highlighting thick tunnels of dust. The remains of last night's fire winked at him, and the bullock only showed a marginal interest in his presence. Kieran poked the fire into renewed life, and wondered where the others were.
They hadn't gone far. They were in fact standing a few feet from the church, on the edge of the precipice overlooking the Valley of Freaks. The fog had cleared, and they could see with startling clearness in the December sunshine. Adam had Lonts practically in an armlock to stop him wandering over the edge. He had woken him up and ordered him to come outside with them. Kieran needed his strength, and Adam wasn't going to let the Kiskev Fruitcake drain a single drop of it.
The Ministry community that made up the Valley of Freaks resembled a small army barracks, with dreary hardboard huts dotted about in a harsh, snowy landscape. It did not look impressive, and there was nobody roaming about. There was no perimeter fence or security of any kind that they could see. Towering over it all was the oppressive presence of the mountains, dominating the landscape for as far as the eye could see.
On another side of the church Reuton drove his Ministry-issue buggy up the mountain path. The people on the hill had been picked up by the establishment's sensors. Reuton drove up towards them, not anticipating any trouble. It was rare for travellers to stumble this far off the beaten track, but not unknown. A few gentle, but firm words of advice that they were in a Ministry-run restricted area, and at a possible risk of contamination, was usually enough to make them move on.
To Reuton this was an all-too-rare chance to get out in the sunshine. In the Valley of Freaks the majority of the population spent their days and nights miles underground. When he had originally chosen the career of doctor (specialising in rare and exotic diseases) he had never anticipated feeling like a miner instead, but when you showed such exceptional promise as he had done as a student it didn't pay to ignore the Ministry's request that you work for them. He spent his life nowadays doing research into the effects of the Virus, and surreptitiously trying to find a vaccine or a cure. This extra work was carried out in a pathetically underhand way by the Ministry, in the hope that the vampires would not get to hear about it.
Underhand research, his own underhand Christian principles (which the Ministry knew about but expected him to be discreet in his practice of), practically summed up by the fact that he spent almost his entire life underground. One day, one elusive day, he promised himself that they would all be free, that a cure would be found which would combat the vampire's threats once and for all. No more Virus, no more freaks, no more vampires. He could then emerge permanently back into the sunshine, and prepare himself for Communion with God. Being such a committed Christian (he had joined the Union of Honorary Virgins which had upset his employers somewhat) Reuton saw his whole life as a preparation for the Hereafter.
He believed passionately in the arrival of the Vanquisher of Evil. All his life, ever since he had been a clean-cut child with a sunny disposition, entrancing his Elders at the camp, he had experienced strong dreams about the Vanquisher. He knew as a result of these dreams that this Being would one day arrive on earth and save them all. He had filled endless white pages with drawings of the Vanquisher, but only as he had appeared in his dreams, earthy and sensual, not the prissy immaculate figure he had come across in clandestine illustrated prophecy books and old artwork. Reuton realised there was a strong erotic charge to these visions, and that was why he had embraced the life of celibacy that being an Honorary Virgin demanded. He saw his final embrace of God in the after-life as the ultimate orgasm of them all, and he couldn't see how any mortal man could live up to his dreams of the Vanquisher.
He parked the buggy round the back of the church and slipped in through a side door. He didn't want to startle the travellers by making a grand entrance. There had appeared to be a number of them, and he didn't want them turning on him out of fear. He took off his identity bracelet and hid it in his coat pocket. They would know instantly that he was Ministry anyway, so there was no need to labour the point with forbidding-looking accessories of office.
The Vanquisher had been in his thoughts all the way up the mountain path, he always was whenever he had a moment to spare from his work, and so at first he believed he was seeing an hallucination. It seemed the Vanquisher was actually standing there, right there in front of him, in the middle of the church, surrounded by sunlight and dust. Reuton felt his heart go into overdrive, his skin prickled like electric static, and he had a wild hope that he wouldn't disgrace himself by having an orgasm and ejaculating there and then. The Vanquisher was so thin that his body seemed almost translucent. His hair, that gorgeously silky long yellow hair that had so dominated his sketches, sometimes eerily hiding the Vanquisher's face from view, was real. He could have touched it, if he had dared.
Kieran stared back at him, uncertain how the stranger was going to react. He didn't appear to be armed, but who knows what they possessed in the way of weapons these days? The man was young, clean-shaven, and very good-looking in a shiny-faced choirboy kind of way. His short fair hair was ruthlessly tidy, his skin looked as though no dirt or spots would ever dare appear on it.
"I hope we're not trespassing", said Kieran cautiously, stifling an insane urge to say 'take me to your leader!' "We stayed here last night, and we have important information for you".
Reuton though was barely listening to a word he said. He had often wondered what the Vanquisher's voice would be like (he had never spoken in the dreams), and now he wasn't disappointed. It was so soft, so musical, and with the most exotic accent he had ever heard. In fact he had never heard one like it before. It was melodious, soothing, and everything he had ever expected.
When Reuton didn't answer him Kieran felt a surge of panic. Suppose he spoke a different language! Just because everyone they had met so far had spoken English was no guarantee everyone would. This person might even speak a language that had yet to be invented in their own time!
But then Reuton did a very disturbing thing indeed. He fell to his knees.
Reuton had felt the tingle of the Vanquisher's skin against his own, as the Being gently took his hands and raised him to his feet. He was now peering down into the Vanquisher's face, and entranced by his vivid blue eyes. He noticed there was a faint scattering of freckles on the Vanquisher's nose, and that his lips were moist and soft.
"I have to tell you", Kieran began "That the vampires are gone. As you can see we have been using their transport. I'm sure you wish to check this for yourself, so I advise you to contact the Winter Palace".
"They haven't responded to our enquiries for days", Reuton blurted out "I-I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. A-Are they really gone for good?"
"All except one", said Kieran, quietly "He's the one I still have to fight".
There was a rumble of voices approaching the main door. The others walked in and stopped dead on seeing the stranger.
"I told you we had visitors", said Joby to Adam "I saw the buggy go up round the side of the building".
"Who's the new friend Patsy?"
Kieran introduced his crowd, using only their first names where relevant, and murmured that Reuton was From The Ministry.
"You must come down and meet everyone", said Reuton, enthusiastically "I-I-If you want to, that is".
"We'll make our way down", said Adam "Eventually".
"I was thinking that the Vanquisher might like to come down with me", said Reuton "In the buggy".
"I'll travel with this lot", said Kieran, not having any wish to be separated from them before it was absolutely necessary.
"They won't believe me at first", Reuton gushed "A-And we will check with the Winter Palace, but I am sure you have destroyed the vampires and ... oh this is just too much!"
There was considerable confusion when Reuton tried to decide which was the best way to leave the Vanquisher's presence. It seemed positively indecent to turn his back and simply walk out, so he backed out, managing by some small miracle not to walk into any of the pillars. Once Reuton had gone Kieran breathed out in relief. He sat down by the fire on the remains of one of the pews. Adam gently massaged his neck for him.
"I don't think I can take too much of that", said Kieran.
"Just enjoy it", said Joby "You never know it might mean free drinks when we get down there".
"But I haven't done anything yet!" Kieran protested "I mean, here we are taking full credit for destroying Caln and his lot. And we had nothing to do with it!"
"I seem to remember Hillyard getting rid of Caln pretty effectively", said Adam.
"I know, and that's all to Hillyard's credit", said Kieran "It had bugger all to do with me. In fact, I was doing a pretty good job of getting meself killed at the time. This is all a terrible mistake. I'm nothing special at all".
"Everybody can't be wrong Patsy. Even Angel thinks it's you".
"I don't know what you're bellyaching about", said Joby "You never know what goodies we might get out of this".
"That's all you focking care about!" Kieran angrily jumped to his feet.
"Patsy, calm down", said Adam.
"Well he doesn't give a shit about me!"
"That's utter bullshit and you know it", said Adam, sharply "Don't let me hear you talking such drivel again. You're getting overwrought".
"I think we should have some breakfast before we go down there", said Hillyard "We've got a bit of grub left".
"Good idea", said Adam "I could do with some coffee".
Kieran sat silently watching everyone as they busied themselves doing different things.
"They're going to take you away aren't they?" said Lonts "When we get there".
"Not if I have any say in it", said Kieran.
"It's a trap. They'll kill you".
"And would I be talking to Lonts or Angel at the moment?" Kieran watched the customary look of bewilderment cross the boy's face "Nice try Angel, although a touch pathetic by your standards!"
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