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Kieran sat watching the beer cool as he smoked his early evening cigarette. They had been on the road for nearly a week, travelling in a battered cattle-truck they had hired in Port West. The rest of the time Ransey drove. In spite of his trepidations about meeting Vanod, Kieran had quite enjoyed the nomadic lifestyle once more. It made him realise how much he had been holed up in the Ministry Headquarters these past few years.
This wasn't to say that it was all plain sailing within the group. Kieran couldn't help but notice the growing closeness between Adam and Julian. He had even overheard them discussing how Julian would move in with Adam when they all got back to the Ministry, and it bothered him greatly.
He had then gone off alone to cool the beers in the river that bordered this particular end of the Yzel Park. They were at last in Vanod territory, although they had another day's travelling before they would reach the Sacred Rock.
"Joby", he said, jolting out of his reverie as the said man drew near.
"I think the others could do with their beer now", said Joby, fishing the bottles out of the river "Adam's giving his oft-repeated speech about how you shouldn't wander off alone".
"Things are changing too much Joby", said Kieran.
"Didn't they always?"
"Adam once said to me, at Julian's house ironically, that I was the love of his life".
"So?" said Joby "Oh you're not getting jealous of Julian after all these years!"
"Julian's going to move in with him".
"Yea, and I think it's a good thing. Adam's not as young as he was, and his health's not brilliant. So he's going to need help with Lonts over the next few years. Anyway, you've got me, or aren't I enough for you?"
"Joby, you're my darling!" Kieran exclaimed.
"And Adam's not going to drop you is he? He'll still come into our suite and annoy us. We'll be his light-relief I expect".
"It's the getting old I can't stand".
"Old? You might think you're old at thirty-one, but I don't think I am".
"But we're not the kids we were when we crossed over. We've been here eleven years".
"Done a fair bit in that time haven't we?" said Joby, nudging him playfully "Come on, dinner must be nearly ready. I made the mistake of calling it tea just now, and I got a lecture from Julian on how the definition of the word 'tea' was from the leaves of the camellia's plant or something like that and wsn't meant to be used to describe a meal. He just thinks I'm common".
"That makes two of us then", said Kieran.
"Good match, you see".
They had set up camp in a woodland clearing, where the Yzel Mountains could be glimpsed in the far distance through the treetops. Although it was autumn the days were still relatively hot in this part of the world, and would be so until almost the first snows arrived. Kieran knew the outdoor lifestyle of old: Adam poring over maps, Hillyard sulking because he wasn't allowed to cook, Lonts scowling about some imagined slight. Kieran suddenly wanted to cry for all the times past which would never come again, such as the circus days in Pepuaah, the 'Moon and Stars' in Marlsblad, the island, even the cold winter days when they had travelled in the litter from the Winter Palace to the Valley of Freaks.
"Cheer up", said Hillyard, giving him a cursory hug in passing.
"Do you ever think about dying Hilly?" said Kieran.
"I suppose everyone does at sometime or other, why do you ask?"
"Nothing, I just get sad for the times past that's all".
"I do sometimes", said Hillyard "But then I say to myself, what's the point? Why not go on enjoying 'em, in your own mind. After all, no one can take them away from you".
"What's been going on between Lonts and Finia?" said Joby "Talk about daggers drawn".
"Neither of 'em are happy about Julian's moving plans", said Hillyard "Lonts doesn't want to live with a eunuch, and Finia doesn't want to live with a nutter. It's going to be no honeymoon for Adam and Julian with those two around. Finia's already mentioned The Banned Word in Lonts's hearing. Pills".
"Oh no", said Kieran.
"Watch out", said Joby "Something else seems to be happening".
Lonts calmly walked over to Finia who was sitting by the fire, and emptied his bowl of soup down the front of the eunuch's dress. Finia screamed as the hot liquid seeped through to his skin. Kieran grabbed a towel and ran to the eunuch's aid. He tore the dress away from Finia's burning skin and began to mop him down as as hastily as he could.
"You stupid little bastard!" Finia screamed at Lonts "You should be doped to the eyeballs. You're not safe to be allowed out. You're a basketcase. A fucking basketcase!"
"Why do you have to do it?" Adam yelled, as he dragged Lonts into their tent "You let me down, you let Patsy down, but most of all you let yourself down".
"He said earlier in the evening that he didn't want to live with me as I should be in a ward for cabbages", said Lonts, crying with a mixture of rage and anguish.
"You haven't exactly given him any reason to think otherwise", said Adam "He could have been seriously hurt Lonts! If you're going to chuck soup over someone, at least make sure it's cold first! Well, as you're obviously not hungry, you can get undressed and go straight to bed. Particularly as you're not fit to be allowed in company".
"Adam!" Lonts wept.
"I'm not going to be appeased Lonts. You could have caused him a great deal of agony. I'm ashamed of you, now get undressed".
"But he insulted me".
"And how many fucking insults do you think I've had in my life? Far worse than what Finia gave you", Adam dug a clean nappy out of his rucksack "It's quite appropriate you having to wear one of these, as you carry on like a great baby".
He spanked Lonts, put his nappy on him and sent him screaming to his bed-roll.
"I hope that unholy racket means he's been chastised", said Julian, coming into the tent "Finia has a horror of being burnt. He still has nightmares about what those men did to him in Husgalonghi".
"I'm aware of that Jules, and I'm sorry. I don't know what got into Lonts this evening. I'll try and keep him away from Finia as much as possible from now on".
"Won't that be rather difficult when we get back home?" said Julian "As we're going to be living in three rooms".
"I'll sort it out Jules, don't worry".
"If he tries anything like that on Finia again I'll sort him out", Julian leaned over Lonts's bed "I hope you heard that Kiskev! Believe me I can smack a lot harder than Adam can, and I'm not so susceptible to pleading".
Lonts responded by rolling himself into a ball like a hedgehog.
"Is little Lonts alright?" said Brinslee, poking his head through the tent-folds.
"Not at all", said Julian "But then we've just thrashed him soundly, and next we're going to take turns in rogering him!"
"I was only showing concern", said Brinslee, and withdrew again backwards, like the Cheshire Cat.
"Julian", said Adam, trying not to laugh "You shouldn't upset Governor Brinslee".
"Well if he had his way he'd stick 'little Lonts' on the mantelpiece and polish him every morning. Absurd old fool. He's almost as daft as you where that Kiskevian savage is concerned".
"I'm not daft where Lonts is concerned".
"Yes you are, you brazen hussy", Julian slapped Adam's bottom playfully "Almost as potty as you were over Tinkerbell when you stayed at my house in the jungle".
"Patsy", Adam breathed in sharply "The great love buried under a welter of complications. Sometimes I feel it's getting submerged under them".
"Then you'll just have to do something about it then, won't you?"
The others ate their meal, with it punctuated occasionally by whispers and giggles coming from Adam's tent. Kieran found the situation nigh-on impossible. In his younger days he wouldn't have been able to sit still, but this time he had no choice. Hillyard tried to make it up to him by groping his knee surreptitiously under the makeshift table, and pointing out the eerie beauty of the mist rising amongst the trees. Occasionally wolves and wild dogs howled in the distance, competing for volume with the bats and the cicadas.
"Nobody should be alone tonight", said Kieran, eventually "Angel told me Gimmit was in this area, and by all accounts he sounds pretty psychopathic".
"It's not a full moon though", said Joby.
"There is no reason to assume Gimmit's a conventional werewolf, anymore than Angel's a conventional vampire", said Kieran "And don't forget this is Vanod's stamping-ground too. And we've yet to fully assess what he's capable of".
"It's getting chilly", said Ransey "I'm for turning in".
"Now don't forget", said Kieran "Even if any of you needs a quick pee in the night you don't go alone".
"We have been in this situation before", said Joby, heading into his tent.
"Goodnight all", said Kieran "Tomorrow we should be in the township of Yzel. Hopefully it won't be so spooky there".
"Personally I don't think it's the likes of Vanod and Gimmit we need to worry about", said Finia, going reluctantly towards Adam's tent "But certain nutcases already in our midst".
"Unfair", said Brinslee, once he was alone with Trixie under canvas "That eunuch was goading Lonts all evening. I don't think the boy should have been punished for what he did".
"Adam knows what he's doing Brinslee", said Trixie, tiredly "Lonts can be frightening when he's unchecked. He has no control over his actions sometimes. If Adam didn't discipline him there'd be no knowing what Lonts might do next. I'm more concerned as to what games Vanod might have in store for him. He's after Lonts, Brinslee. Lonts is the weakest link in our chain, and I know Vanod of old. He'll go for that link".
"There is no need to make snide comments when I'm giving a pep talk", said Kieran crossly, as he lay down next to Joby in the small confines of their tent.
"And there's no need to take it out on me because Adam's carrying on", said Joby "I'm not his whipping-boy, although I might as well have been at times these past few years".
"Joby", Kieran wailed "You're very important to me. Don't think like that".
"Do you know what you should have done this evening?" said Joby "When Adam was giggling over there with Julian like some oversexed schoolgirl? You should have asked me to come in here with you. That would have given the rest of 'em something to chew on".
"In front of everybody?" said Kieran "Joby, you're getting quite decadent in your old age".
"It would have been an improvement on Hillyard groping you as though you were a bag of chips".
"He was just trying to cheer me up that's all", Kieran cuddled up to Joby and wrapped his legs around him "I love you Joby".
"You're as bad as Adam", said Joby "I love you too, now go to sleep. You missed your chance this evening. I'm too tired now".
"Then I'll just have to wait for the customary three a.m arousal", Kieran giggled mischievously "Your erections are always so wonderfully regular, me old darlin'".
Ransey hadn't been able to settle. His intuition for danger was working overtime, and eventually he gave up sleep as a lost cause and re-loaded his revolver by the light of his torch.
"Ransey, what are you up to?" said Hillyard, sitting up sleepily.
"I keep hearing things outside", said Ransey.
"It's probably one of the others going for a piss".
"This is singing Hillyard".
"Singing? What are you talking about?"
"Some kind of singing. I can hear it close by".
Ransey climbed out of the tent and stood by the dying embers of the camp-fire with his revolver poised.
"I can't hear anything", said Hillyard "Anyway, so what if there was. This is a public place, anyone can camp here".
"This was unearthly singing".
"Unearthly? Now where are you going?"
"To see if Kieran's alright", said Ransey "I am supposed to be in charge of his personal security after all".
Joby woke up suddenly to feel Ransey climbing up his body with his gun in his hand.
"What the fuck are you playing at Ransey?" he said "You scared seven tons of shit out of me!"
"I want you to take this", said Ransey, placing the revolver in his hand.
"I don't want it", said Joby "What the hell's got into you?"
"Take it Joby, for Kieran's sake. We're in the realm of darkness here".
"What's going on?" Kieran rolled over.
"Ransey's puddled", said Joby "Got a bad attack of Lonts-itus from the sounds of things".
"Do you think you could put that gadget away Ransey?" said Kieran, pushing the nozzle of the gun to the floor "Only it makes me nervous".
Hillyard rushed into the tent breathlessly, nearly knocking it over in his agitation.
"You're right Ransey", he panted "There is something out there. Come and look Kieran, I've seen nothing like it before".
They stood as quietly as they could in the bushes, watching as the creature in the clearing turned aimlessly from side to side, as though searching for something, but without any great certainty as to what it was. It was shapeless, almost formless, like a creature that had developed slowly out of vapour. It had no face, not even any arms or legs to speak of. It was completely without identity.
"Strong smell of sulphur in the air", Kieran whispered.
"What does that mean then?" said Ransey, keeping his voice as low as possible.
"It's a demon of some kind", Kieran replied "Talk about textbook stuff! The smell, even the weird singing you heard just before we saw it. All classic old symptoms of a demon's appearance".
"So Vanod's having a bit of fun at our expense?" said Joby "Perhaps if we rushed out and clapped our hands it'd disappear".
"You do any such thing and we're done for", said Kieran "Just because I said it's textbook stuff doesn't mean it's harmless. A demon is still a demon. If you go out there and confront that thing it's probably quite capable of tearing you limb from limb with one glance alone".
"But it has no face!" Joby protested.
"That's not going to stop it", said Kieran "A demon can have the power of a nuclear warhead".
"What do we do then?"
"The one thing Vanod's hoping we won't do", said Kieran "We ignore it".
"What?" Joby exclaimed.
"It's the best weapon we have at the moment", said Kieran "We reserve what we have for the big gun himself and no one else".
"It's forming into something", said Hillyard.
They watched intently as the vapour developed into a definite shape. As the outline formed they couldn't believe what they were seeing. Out of the dense mist was born a woman, naked and fair, almost perfect in the beauty of her body. Nipples that were almost black and as hard as coal, a blurred triangle of pubic hair ...
"Oh shit", Ransey gave a cry of anguish and made to move towards her, but Kieran grabbed both his arms and pulled him back.
"She's not real Ransey", he said.
"Let me go", Ransey wept "I've seen pictures. I know what I'm seeing".
"Ransey please!" Kieran begged him "It's a cruel trick of Vanod's. You must trust me, she isn't what she seems. It's one of the oldest tricks of pure magick in the world".
"Are you telling me she really is a demon?" said Ransey, thick-voiced.
"Yes my love, I am", said Kieran "You won't get no sweet kisses out of her. All she's looking for is a sacrifice. You must trust me Ransey, I've read up on this kind of thing, I know what I'm saying".
"A naked woman", said Ransey, quietly.
"Hilly, do you think you could get him back to our tent?" said Kieran "He looks like he could do with a drop of brandy".
"Cheer up Ransey", said Hillyard, breezily "At least you can now say you've seen one in the flesh".
"She's fading", said Joby.
"Round One to us", said Kieran "Just".
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