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Hillyard woke up at dawn, and watched the sky go through its sun-rising metamorphosis through the gap in the tent folds. All last evening he had been looking forward to this moment, to the thrill of waking up excited by the prospect of the day ahead. But now he was consumed by irritability. He had adored Paul back in Lixix, would have done anything Paul had asked, but that was back in Lixix. Hillyard's notoriously short attention-span had come into force once more.
Joby turned over restlessly. He had reached out for Kieran, only to find that his friend had done his usual trick of coiling himself around Adam like a draught-excluder.
"Joby?" Hillyard whispered "Are you awake?"
"No", Joby replied.
"You've got the hump as well. I can tell".
"That's clever of you".
"I didn't ask 'em here".
"Oh stop going on. Anyway, I don't suppose you did much to discourage Paul from coming, did you?"
"I can't help myself sometimes".
"God, how many times have I heard you say that! You've got no fucking self-control Hillyard", Joby hissed "I'm surprised the horse is safe with you around".
"I'm looking for the right person. Someone like you".
"Bollocks", Joby climbed out of his blanket "I've met some women like you. The problem is you see, you always want what you can't have, that's why you're always going on about Stombal. Now he's dead, you want him. You couldn't give a shit about him when he was alive".
"Bastard!" Hillyard jumped to his feet and went to swing for Joby, but only succeeded in knocking the night-lantern off its hook instead.
"Get out of here!" Adam roared, hurling his kit-bag at the two men "Go and have your tiffs somewhere else. You're like a pair of feuding alley-cats, keep spitting at each other all the time!"
"Noni is pestering me for a private chat", said Adam, later.
"What are you snivelling about Joby?"
He had found the boy behind the tent, collecting the water buckets. It didn't escape his notice that Joby was upset.
"I'm fed up", said Joby "I thought last night that it was all too good to be true, that I was enjoying meself too much. And then that lot turn up, and nothing's been right since".
"I know how you feel", Adam sighed "Perhaps I can persuade Noni to take himself and his chums off somewhere else. What's between you and Hillyard anyway?"
"In a perfect world? About a distance of several thousand miles!"
"He's always wanted you Joby, you know that".
"Only 'cos I don't want him".
"Perhaps. I think though it might be because you're so different to his usual type. You're not a lame duck for a start. You're strong and self-contained".
"I don't want to talk about him. Are you alright?"
Adam had been trying to light a cigar for some time, but his hands were shaking too much. In the end Joby did it for him.
"My nerves seem to be shot to pieces this morning", said Adam, as Joby passed the lighted cigar back to him "And it was so nice waking up with Patsy too. You don't know how lucky you are having that pleasure all the time".
"You drink too much coffee that's your trouble. It sets you all on edge".
"I'd be worse if I didn't drink it! I don't get enough exposure to Patsy's soothing company that's why".
"And that's my fault", Joby mumbled "I'm in the way".
"Listen my darling old love, I won't lie to you and say it wouldn't be nice to have Pats all to myself. I would love it to be me and him together like any normal couple. I truly would. But if to do that we have to go without your company as well, then we're perfectly happy with things as they are".
"Do you mean that?" Joby's grey eyes opened wide with astonishment.
"Yes", Adam patted his face gently "You know what a short fuse I have with most people. I'm not full of patience and tolerance at the best of times. Do you think if I didn't want you around that I would have put up with the arrangement that we have for so long?"
"I suppose not".
"Then you catch on a lot quicker than Patsy does sometimes".
"Yea well plain English isn't his first language is it?" said Joby "Actually I don't think he's got a first language!"
Breakfast was eaten in a situation that resembled two enemy sides glaring at each other over No Man's Land. The newcomers weren't invited to join the others, and so each side sat muttering around their own respective camp fires. In the end Joby got so fed up with them keep glancing over, that he rigged up a makeshift washing-line between them, and slung his blanket over it.
"Bloody ridiculous", he said "Miles and miles of open country all around us, and we're all sat here like two sets of warring neighbours in a tenement block. You should send 'em packing Adam".
"I didn't invite them here. Hillyard did that".
"You've got to take some of the blame", Hillyard protested "You were the one screwing Noni. And some people go on about me having no self-control!"
"Oh belt up the three of you", said Kieran "You're like a bunch of sniping old women sitting round a guillotine. Hillyard must talk to Paul, whether he likes it or not. Get the situation resolved".
"What do I say to him?" Hillyard exclaimed.
"I don't care! Just talk to him. Adam had better sort that ... that long streak of nothing out once and for all. And Joby, you can come and help me fetch some more water".
Adam walked further into the desert with Noni, who gazed at him with a kind of perplexed adoration.
"Noni, I don't really know what all this is about when you say some elemental is haunting you".
"Gabriel set it on me because he doesn't approve of sodomy. We all have to sign celibacy clauses when we begin work for him".
"And if you break them he practices some kind of voodoo on you?"
"He has unearthly powers".
"From what I've seen of him I can't say that surprises me", said Adam "But I don't see how mooning after me is going to put things right".
"The other night", Noni began, slowly "When we were together. You said you had fancied me the first time you saw me".
"Well no one's ever said that to me before".
"Oh come off it Noni! Anyway, you're thirty, not seventeen, you know the score. People say a lot of things at the height of passion. Have you never said you loved someone, and it was just your hard cock talking at the time?"
"No. Love isn't a word I bandy around lightly. It is a word of great power. The most influential word in the known language. I came after you now because I believe our love can defeat Gabriel and his demons. I know it can".
"As I said to you the other night Noni", said Adam, with forced patience "I am in a relationship already".
"But it's with the Vanquisher, it can't count! You cannot possibly have a normal relationship with the Vanquisher of Evil. Not an honest one-to-one relationship. There must be too much deference involved".
"Deference?" Adam laughed, remembering the day before when he had had Kieran across his knee, spanking him mercilessly "Hardly, old love".
"I want to know", Noni stepped up close to him "What you want to do next".
"With you? Absolutely nothing", said Adam "I'd say we were finished Noni, but we didn't even start anything. Now please don't force me to get nasty about this".
"You can't do this to me", Noni's face took on a grave expression, which altered Adam's entire perspective of him. He no longer looked like an attractive fool, but something altogether darker and more terrifying "You have to tell me what you want next. We have to move on to the next part of our relationship".
"What's happening now?" said Kieran, lying against the rocks and sucking on a mango.
"Adam's got a face like thunder", said Joby, peering through the binoculars "Noni's brave I'll give him his due there. I'd have run a mile by now if Adam was looking at me like that".
"Is Noni doing all the talking?"
"At the moment. Uh-oh", Joby lowered the binoculars.
"Noni's getting a bit keen".
Kieran snatched the binoculars. Through them he could see that Noni had got Adam in a bear-hug from behind, had pulled his singlet up and was fondling his chest in a rather aggressive manner.
"Time to call in the Cavalry I think", said Kieran.
"No", Joby placed a warning hand on his arm "Play it cool. You haven't got anything to fear from that droning moron".
"I know that, but ..."
"Then play cat-and-mouse with him. You just go storming in now and you'll look like a fishwife".
"Adam would probably quite like that".
"Maybe, but it's Noni you need to concentrate on".
"What do you suggest? I'm not really into jealous acts of retribution. It takes too much out of you".
"I'll help you think of something. But if we are stuck with him on this trip, we might as well enjoy ourselves at his expense".
"You are a sadistic sod Joby", Kieran laughed "I'm glad you weren't the one who was married, and I fooled around with your wife".
"I'd have still forgiven you in the end".
Noni licked the side of Adam's face, and squeezed his flesh. All in all he was showing considerably more animation than he had done two nights earlier.
"You want me", he whispered, sliding his hand down to Adam's crotch "I can feel that you do".
"I don't exactly have much control over that part of my body", said Adam, breathlessly "It doesn't mean a bloody thing, just because I've got a boner ..."
"We will make love together. Love that will defeat Gabriel".
"Make love!" Adam exclaimed, as he finally rid himself of Noni's smothering embrace "You are not even a moderately good fuck!"
"He wants me to exorcise this curse of his", said Kieran, selecting another mango from the pile they had brought with them "I wouldn't help him if he had Beelzebub and forty-nine hounds of Hell after him".
"Why forty-nine?" said Joby, lying next to him at the edge of the water "Seems a strange number to think of. Where did you get it from?"
"Just a number", Kieran shrugged "No hang on. Beelzebub and the forty-nine hounds of Hell. I remember now. I read it somewhere ages ago. Somebody cursed Aleister Crowley, and they sent Beelzebub and forty-nine hounds of Hell to do battle with him".
"I take it they lost?"
"Well what do you think! Oh God, that's it!"
"What is?" Joby squinted up at him, as Kieran leapt to his feet.
"On another occasion, although same curse", said Kieran "The bloke who was out to destroy Crowley (some grand wizard, I can't remember his name), sent a beautiful vampire to tempt him. Only Crowley resisted her. In fact he cursed her back, and she turned into an old hag in front of his eyes".
"So?" said Joby "Oh I get it! Come off it Flannery, Noni is not a vampire. They were all destroyed. Or at least I hope they were, otherwise everything we went through at the Winter Palace was for nothing".
"No I don't think he's a vampire either. But there is something to him that we're not seeing at the moment. He's keeping something back. We'll have to be patient and watch him closely".
Adam had left Noni sprawled on the sand. He had eventually managed to disentangle himself enough to swing round and punch him. Noni was left with a bruised lip, and a feeling of utter confusion. Adam reached the camp feeling no calmer.
Hillyard was sitting by the fire, looking as though he'd taken his brain out and put it away for safe-keeping. Paul was nowhere in sight. Joby was arranging his newly-washed underwear on the washing-line, and Kieran was engaged in curry-combing the horse.
"What a domestic little scene", Adam snarled.
"You look like how I feel", said Ransey, nearby "The sun's almost directly overhead. We should all get undercover for a couple of hours".
Adam looked at the man as though he had never noticed him before. Suddenly he grabbed his elbow and steered him out of earshot of the others.
"Ransey isn't it?"
"We have been introduced", said Ransey, tartly.
"We got off onto the wrong footing, I know. But you may be able to help me. You're a man of facts, not imagination".
"I'm a naffing accountant, you mean?"
"Ye-e-s", said Adam "The point is, I think I'm going to need your help".
"It's about Noni isn't it?"
"We can't talk now though", Adam had noticed that Noni was getting close to the camp "Perhaps later, after we've had a siesta. I need to know as much about him as you do".
"You know more than me! You've been closer to him than I have, I'm glad to say".
"He's never tried it on with you then?"
"He wouldn't get very far. I'm not interested in any of that".
"Oh thank God!" Adam exclaimed "You've no idea what music to my ears that is. Believe me, there are quite enough emotional attachments around here at the moment".
"I've just had a terrible fright", Paul shouted, appearing from behind a boulder "I was ... relieving myself when this huge spider just crawled out from a crack in the stone. It was the size of a balloon".
"We are in the desert Paul", said Ransey, impatiently.
"You wait 'til we get to the jungle", said Adam "But of course, you don't really have to come".
In Lixix Gabriel's conditioned worsened dramatically, so much so that the hotel management became scared that they might have a death on the premises and ordered his removal to the local hospital. There he was kept in a secluded private room. He was now shedding so much skin that he was leaving large flakes of it wherever he went. The nurses had to turn him regularly in bed, to brush whole blizzards of it out of the sheets.
Gabriel was remarkably sanguine about all this, accepting it as a part of life that had to be endured, even though his condition had everyone completely baffled. Likewise, he was disturbingly calm about the sudden disappearance of three members of his closest staff. The only one whom he showed some annoyance over was Ransey, but having been satisfied that the accounts were all in order and nothing was missing, he had retreated back into his placid state. He ordered a telegraph message to be sent to the City, dictating that three members of staff there were to come to Lixix forthwith to replace the missing ones. Otherwise, that was now the extent of his business activities.
"It looks like a bad case of eczema to me", said the doctor, who was standing at his bedside.
"It is not eczema", said Gabriel, firmly.
"That's all I know that can account for it. A course of steroids would be the best thing under the circumstances".
"You're not turning me into an hermathrodite!"
"The only side-effects on this course would be weight-gain", the doctor sighed "And you could certainly do with putting on a few pounds. I hope your business can run itself for a while, as I would like to keep you in here for observation".
"I will stay as long as necessary", said Gabriel, cryptically "I would appreciate it if during my stay here you would turn off those overhead fans".
"Without them it would be quite uncomfortable in here".
"I am uncomfortable with them switched on", said Gabriel. He pulled the sheet closer to him and shivered for effect.
"Alright", the doctor nodded at the waiting nurse, who turned off the whirring overhead blades "Anytime you want them put back on, just say the word".
"I prefer it like this".
"This fixation with heat", the doctor began "You seem to feel the cold in an abnormal way. I do wish you'd let us take your blood pressure".
"There is no need for that. All this is a perfectly natural process. In a few days time I will be fine again. The heat of Lixix will have revived me, as it always does. I want a hot-water bottle to rest on my stomach. I don't wish to catch a chill there".
"Oh very well", said the doctor, who had already decided that a visit from a psychiatrist would not be a bad thing "Finally, I noticed that your medical notes are not very informative. Did you have any serious illnesses as a child?"
"I was a very healthy child. Healthy and exceptionally bright. My Elders regarded me as the great hope for the future", Gabriel suddenly sat up and grabbed the doctor's wrist like a vice. The sheet fell from him, exposing the 3999 tattoo on his chest "It's all been a terrible mistake. I am the Vanquisher of Evil! The other is an imposter, he has taken everyone in".
"I wouldn't know about that, except that he seemed to do the trick".
"He did nothing! Nothing at all. All men see is the blonde hair and the blue eyes. In reality, he is a drunken sodomist!"
"As I said", the doctor removed Gabriel's hand from his wrist "I know nothing about that. Medicine is my profession. All I know is that we no longer have to send corpses to the Winter Palace, otherwise the government seems as corrupt as ever. We certainly haven't seen any increase in our budget. But one step at a time. Perhaps when he finally becomes President ..."
"Never!" said Gabriel, his soft voice cracking "He will die first!"
They had all slept the afternoon away, keeping undercover, away from the worst heat of the sun. Kieran had had a nightmare in which he had dreamt that his legs were being slowly crushed by a mass of snakes. He had woken up to find himself kicking Joby, who had been remarkably tolerant about it, and had gone straight back to sleep again.
Kieran though was disturbed. The dream had been too vivid and had upset him considerably. Without disturbing the others he crawled out of the tent. He was running a dipper of water over his face and neck when Noni appeared, sporting a cauliflower lip. Kieran would normally have made some comment, but he could think of nothing appropriate. He wasn't in the mood for lighthearted banter, and certainly didn't feel like showing concern.
"You can't sleep either huh?" said Noni "Those bad dreams can be terrible, can't they?"
Shaken by this remarkable insight, Kieran nonetheless walked past him silently, and went to check that the horse had enough water in his bucket. Noni followed him.
"I'm not an exorcist Noni", Kieran said, eventually "If you really have got some creature bothering you, then find someone else to unload it onto. We'll be moving into witch-doctor country soon, so you shouldn't have any trouble. Anyway, it doesn't seem to be giving you too much hassle at the moment".
"It's left me", he said "Gone back to Gabriel for the present".
"Then you don't have anything to worry about do you?"
"It may come back at any time", Noni suddenly looked like a man being hunted, as though he was fleeing from something that was snapping at his heels. He leaned towards Kieran, and pointed at his own bruised lip "You see this?"
"Little beauty isn't it!" said Kieran "Nice to see Adam hasn't lost his touch".
"Do you know why I got it?"
"Being a nuisance?"
"He is a passionate man".
"Yes, but he's not into rough sex, so don't try and fool me with that one. Anyway, me and Joby were watching you all the time, so we know what happened".
"Do you never worry that your well is drying up?" Noni startled him by saying "There is a price to be paid for being Vanquisher of Evil. Legend has it that he's an androgynous figure".
"Legend got it wrong then didn't it?"
"I wouldn't be so sure about that", Noni turned to leave "You wanna try looking at yourself properly sometime".
The elemental padded gracefully around Gabriel's hospital bed, its bare feet making no sound on the tiled floor. Even the avowedly celibate Gabriel was impressed by its beauty. The havoc it could wreck when he unleashed its full powers was too awesome to even contemplate. It climbed onto the foot of the bed and crouched there, like some large, predatory bird.
"Go forward", Gabriel whispered "Leave Noni, he is doing well enough on his own. Wait for them at the Husgalonghi township. They will be sure to arrive there sometime over the next few days. They have no choice, any other direction will take them only to the salt-plains. You will know what to do then. Separate them. Isolate him in particular. Fill him with hate for his lovers. That alone will destroy him".
Kieran rooted around in the first-aid bag until he found what he was looking for. In the privacy of the tent he lowered his pants and inspected his penis with the magnifying-glass he had just found.
"Having trouble finding it?" Joby exclaimed, bursting in on him.
"That is not funny Joby!"
"What's the matter then? Has it got sunstroke?"
"Jobe, does it look alright to you?"
"Tell me what it is I'm supposed to say to that", Joby laughed.
"It's still there isn't it? That's all you've got to worry about".
"You don't think it's shrinking then?"
"What is the matter with you?"
"I'm worried", Kieran's eyes began to fill with tears "I'm worried I'm becoming genderless".
"I might be becoming sexless".
"That certainly isn't true! Ask Adam if it'll make you feel better. Aren't you feeling well or something?"
"Noni said I was going to become an ... an androgynous figure".
"You're going to believe something he said?"
"But I am though aren't I? I mean, I'm not manly. I don't have muscles, a big cock, and things like that".
"You're daft Flannery", Joby didn't know whether to laugh, or cry with him "You're a puny little Irishman, always have been. Built like a jockey. But you're still a fella. Dozens of women and Adam Jensen can't be wrong".
"What if I turn into a woman though?"
"Well I'll fancy you even if Adam doesn't! Stop talking like a lunatic. Perhaps if you put on a bit of weight you might feel more manly as you put it. Anyway, you still shave every morning, I know that for a fact, so you can't be in any imminent danger".
"I wish you'd take me seriously".
"I'm not going to. Not when you talk such drivel", Joby snatched the magnifying-glass from him "Noni said that to wind you up, and it worked! He's jealous of you, not just 'cos you're with Adam, but because you're more attractive than he is".
"That's not true, he's very beautiful".
"Not at the moment he isn't. He looks like he's had his mouth caught in a door. Now you listen to me. You haven't changed, and you're not becoming a freak. And that's an end to the subject. If you start having periods and wearing a bra, then we'll worry, but not until then!"
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