Chapter 2

Sometimes a hero takes me
Sometimes I don't let go
Hello, hello.

-- Stories for Boys

Late October lakewater heaved up onto the shore and slopped around Simon's ankles. Wet pantleg bottoms made him unhappy, but he didn't move away from the assault.

Cyril sat cross-legged on the sand a few metres away from the rocks where Simon stood, puffing away on a pipe and watching the boy. A large bonfire sputtered in front of him and tattooed LIL BNDT's finish with a mirror of hell.

"Come here, Simon," Cyril finally called out. "I don't need you getting sick."

Simon decided it was nicer to brood in front of a fire anyway. "I'm hungry."

"So am I, but you don't hear me complaining."

Simon took a seat as far away from LIL BNDT as possible. The Jeep was docile at the moment, but things had a way of changing very suddenly in Hinterland.

"Why are we stopping, anyway?" Simon asked.

A ring of smoke escaped from Cyril's pipe and went home to the fire. "Because LIL BNDT refuses to travel another click. And I've had enough of that bloody monster for one night. You want to motivate him? You're welcome to try. I hope you're not fond of any of your important bits."

Simon flopped out on his back. His head was outside the safety of the fire's warm radius, but no atrocities claimed his offering. He watched as the moon gradually drained itself of its blood and turned jaundice.

LIL BNDT started to open and slam his doors for no apparent reason.

"Flying Jesus, shut up!" Cyril bellowed.

The moon swelled rapidly and yellow light doused the beach.

"Quiet night," Simon observed.

"Stop trying to get us killed."

"Can I go fishing for something to eat?" Simon decided fire was a dull thing without some variety of flesh roasting on it.

"No you may not," Cyril said. "I don't feel like sorting out which species will nourish us and which ones will come back to life in our bellies and eat our innards. You kids these days are such fat, greedy hogs. Miss one meal and you're wailing like the dead. When I was your age -- "

Simon let the ignited soldier burn out. He was glad for the noise. The old man was prone to stony bouts of silence that didn't suit Simon well in such lonely surroundings. Anyway, there was no hunting music quite like geezer chatter ...

" -- and we were damned appreciative!" Cyril concluded. "Also, I -- Good Lord! Simon!"

The Son of the Emperess launched himself at LIL BNDT's driver-side door and ripped it open. He lunged inside the deadly unknown and grabbed something before the evil Jeep roused himself and slammed his door shut in an attempt to break Simon's legs. Simon evaded his fate by ducking out in time, but he was bucked into the edge of Cyril's inferno, and his hair quickly caught on fire. Sputtering, Cyril flung Simon away from the fire and threw his body on the boy's head, burying it halfway to China. Simon's rowdy mop was barely singed. Cyril grabbed a handful and pulled Simon's face up.

"Little fool!" he blasted, along with a few more choice words. Simon produced a gritty grin and said nothing, but something crinkled in his right hand.

"What're you up to?"

"You can have one if you want."

Cyril's eyes grew wide. "Did you nick those from LIL BNDT?"

"I told you I was hungry," said Simon as he struggled to sit up. He handed the stiff foil bag of animal crackers to his chaperone. "Have one."

LIL BNDT seethed at the sight of his stolen bounty. Cyril didn't miss the car's tone. "Maybe we should give these back to BNDT," he muttered, but he popped open the bag. A dry, lemony smell wafted out and took him back years. More intense than his hunger was the squashed homesickness that soaked up the scent and filled out to crowd his other thoughts.

"Animal crackers never change," Simon thought aloud. He pawed through the bag and pulled out one of the cookies, shaped like a Gorgon's head. He stared at it for a second, shrugged, and bit off a mouthful of snakes.

BNDT growled, but Cyril helped himself to a cracker in the likeness of Sodom in flames.

"See, they're good!" Simon was holding up a two-headed bull, which he accidently dropped when the fire popped and startled him. He started to pick it up, then thought better of eating anything claimed by Hinterland's dirt.

Cyril said nothing, but stuffed the last handful of cookies into his mouth and wiped the crumbs out of his mustache. "Get some sleep," he crunched, tapping out his pipe. "We're starting out very early tommorow. We've already lost a lot of time."

Simon curled up in front of the fire, but he wasn't tired. Cyril refilled his pipe and tossed the empty cookie bag into the fire, where it blackened and writhed in a tormented dance. Evidently, he wasn't tired either. The duo's frequent caller, Thoughtful Silence, sat up with them and watched the fire grow old.

Simon opened his eyes and a banshee gull opened its cruel, hooked beak and screamed directly in his face. Bits of decomposed fish leaped from the bird's dead gizzard and slapped Simon in the face before the gull flapped away in a whir of disease-blackened feathers.

His day off to a great start, Simon sat up and shook what sand he could out of his hair. A bovine smell nearly knocked him over, a scent that was too strong to have anything to do with the paste of fish drying on his face. The spoor, Simon discovered quickly, came from the two-headed bull that dozed beside him.

Birthed by the impulsive sands of Hinterland and the animal cracker Simon dropped the night before, the huge beast was wreathed in an abominable pong. Simon scratched the bull around its left set of horns and watched it come to life. Its heavy eyelids heaved, revealing huge brown eyes. The bull snorted softly, and grains of sand blew away from its moist snouts. It showed no interest in moving.

Cyril was wrapped up tight in his ugly green trenchcoat like an old cabbage roll. He came to shortly after Simon and gave the bull a long stare.

"Quite a stink from that one."

"Hm," Simon agreed.

Cyril suddenly froze and sucked in his breath. "Simon."


"How long as LIL BNDT been gone?"

Simon shrugged. "I dunno. I woke up and he was gone."

Cyril was livid. "Gone? Damn that oily red enema bulb! Why in the name of hell's gates would he leave us stranded?!"

"Maybe he got angry that we took his animal crackers?"

"Oh, so now it's 'we', is it, my little heir of Hinterland?" Cyril puffed and unwrapped himself from his bundles.

"Well, you ate them too," Simon said mildly.

"Wait, I know exactly why he left us here," the soldier said. "He's LIL-buggery-BNDT. He'd run over his engineer for an oil change. It's a miracle to God that he didn't douse us in gasoline and fling some sparks on us while we slept. That doesn't matter. What matters is, we're stranded. Madame is expecting you in an hour or two."

Simon dragged some sand over the smoldering fire with his shoe. "Cyril, please stop calling my mother 'Madame.' It freaks me out."

"I'm not employed for your comfort, young Miller."

Simon smiled hopefully. "I guess I won't be seeing my mother this weekend, eh?"

"Ho ho. You'll be spending time with your dear mater, don't you worry none. Either BNDT will come home empty saddled, or she'll notice we're late and put some sums together. But she'll send for us."

"And in the meantime?"

"We start walking and hope we don't die." Cyril yanked on his sandy gloves and started down the beach with Simon in tow.

"How well do you know this beach, Cyril?" Simon himself knew little about it except that Widerstand avoided it for reasons their leader Schroeder didn't see fit to disclose to the son of his mortal enemy.

"I know it's a death trap."

"So why don't we just wait by the fire? You said my mother'll just send someone when she notices we're late, right?"

"The Lord helps those who help themselves," Cyril said grimly. His heavy boots made a pulpy, mashing sound in the sand, which seeped deeper around its visitors' ankles with every step. Simon felt like he was trying to walk with twenty pounds of hamburger tied to each shoe. In a few minutes, both the man and the boy were panting like lizards. But they desperately pressed on. When something in Hinterland struggled to hold you, the smart thing to do was not allow it the opportunity.

The sun was climbing the sky, but it couldn't find a place to poke through the heavy grey sheath of clouds. The air was cool and dry. Sweat poured down Simon's neck and his skin itched, wet under his fleece jacket and heavy cotton shirt. The beach glittered, friendly, happy and white in a cruel trick of illusions.

"My feet keep sinking, Cyril."

"Keep walking, Simon. Don't slow down for anything." Cyril's voice was low and had the focus of a veteran in trouble.

"The sand wasn't doing this last night," Simon grunted.

A dead cry rattled overhead.

"The gulls weren't hungry last night," Cyril said.

Six of the large off-white birds wheeled overhead, half-zombied, dropping bits of rotten flesh and feathers on their quarry. The murder's leader looked down at the pair with one glittering bead of an eye and one gouged, infected eyesocket. Unique blue talons pronged his shrivled webbed feet and their host made a great show of flexing them. The gull's gurgling hunger-cry rang out again, and three more of the banshees joined the dinner party.

Cyril and Simon gazed up at the scavangers. Cyril was not one to waste an opportunity for education, even while tying up his bootlaces for his long walk with the Reaper. He pointed up. "See that big fellow in charge, Simon? With the blue gut-slitters?"


"That's the one we call 'Battlecry Tom.' He's as old as Hinterland itself. He'll probably dive for our eyes first."

"Well, are you going to do something about it?" Simon missed the bonfire. There was a ball of ice in the pit of his stomach that refused to be thawed by anything less.

"Think clearly, Simon. I didn't become your mother's right hand by surrendering to birds and sinky-sand." Cyril allowed himself a shallow smile as he unholstered his Luger and pointed it at the wheeling gulls. One of the tortured jokes plopped to the ground immediately following Cyril's action.

"Good shot, Cyril."

"Don't be smart, Simon. You know damn well I didn't even fire."

The gull, buoyed in the sand by its feathers and mouldy webbed feet, struggled back into a standing position. Its left wing had evidently dropped off shortly before its fall. It took a few tottering steps to where Cyril and Simon were trapped, opening and shutting its razor beak with keen clacks. And then the bag of rot-sucked bones and feathers was crushed under a huge hoof.

Simon's bull pressed down on the furious gull, unconscious of its actions while focusing on complicated tasks like breathing and blinking two stupid sets of eyes.

"Well I'll be." Cyril was impressed. "Looks like he followed you."

The deep sand didn't bother the bull, and he didn't balk when Simon borrowed his prongs to hoist himself out of the sand and onto the beast's brawny back. With his sower in place, the monster began to shuffle away. Cyril shouted, wrenched himself free, summoned his strength and took a few mighty steps. He heaved himself up behind Simon. "Hoi now," he said. "You weren't gonna leave me behind, were you?"

"Of course not, Cyril."

The cloud of gulls studdered angirly as their meal escaped on a walking rump roast. The bull was a bit too much for the gaggle to brave, and they broke up to find easier breakfasts. Battlecry Tom speared a fish in no time, but he merely gouged out and swallowed the animal's dull, slippery eyes. He left the flopping remains for his squalling fellows and watched Simon disappear into the new sun.

Simon, tuckered out from his brush with death, was rocked to sleep on the bull's broad back. And he snoozed while Cyril led the animal, well upwind, by a toaster cord wrapped around one set of horns. The toaster had been one of the long-tailed species and was minding its own business when Cyril brought it down from its sunbathe on the roof of a beachfront house. He was reluctant to shoot sleeping dogs, but necessities were exactly that. Besides, toasters were notorious for plugging up airvents and a little species-thinning never killed anything.

Cyril de-tailed the dead toaster and snipped off a bit of the trophy to bind Simon's hands so the boy "wouldn't try any monkey business." The rest was the two-headed bull's leash. The bull was as obedient as an old dog, but Cyril wasn't taking chances.

"The bull" had been christened three hours earlier.

"I think we should call him 'Korky," Simon had said from his mount.

"There's a dull name," Cyril retorted. "Why 'Korky?' Gads, a boy in Coching would jump out the window for a chance to create and name his own monstrosity, and this is the best you come up with?"

"I like it."

Cyril raised an eyebrow. "You never read many fairy tales as a little one, did you?"

"Fairy tales? What for?"

Korky it was.

And now, the sun was setting in the northeast and the night sky was rising to the occasion like a slow tidal wave of mire water. Cyril stopped. Mrs. Miller hadn't sent for him and Simon, and her custody was over in 24 hours. Either something had gone horribly wrong or, more likely, Mrs. Miller had lost immediate interest in them. Since Simon's birth, she'd shaken her son like a dry cow. She was convinced that even a miserable half-breed could inherit her powers and brood by her side as she ruled her alternate realities and those unfortunate enough to have been trapped in them like skittish coyotes in life-sucking leg traps. Simon had powers, she was sure, magnificent powers that she wanted to flag as her property. But after 15 years of consistent prodding on every third weekend, she never uprooted any sign of magic in her boy. Not a speck. So maybe, on this particular weekend, she allowed her priorities to shift and something else caught her eye. Maybe a cat with a solitary head crossed her path, and she decided that such an abomination shouldn't be allowed in her sight. Maybe she had business to attend to in Wicked Blue. Maybe ...

Oh, blast it anyway. Night was coming, and Cyril felt hollow when he started to look for a place to camp. A camp only felt good after a day of productive travel, but the entire day had been wasted travelling the streets and waiting for signs like a band of tarts looking for God and earning some pocket money between pilgrimages.

Cyril came across a non-threatening playground, marked as "Bluegrave Park" by a nearby oak sign. Gentle green hills surrounded the pit of sand and tangles of jungle-gyms, and they looked inviting. Cyril lit another fire to push back the unknown. Korky tucked his legs under his huge body and kicked up a duet of content sighs. Simon, amazingly, didn't budge from the monster's back or even wake up, and Cyril decided to leave him while he pondered their next move.

There was no move without Mrs. Miller's help; that much was easy. No one, not even Cyril, knew exactly how big Hinterland was. Mrs. Miller never found it necessary to tell him, and he knew better than to ask. But he did know it extended beyond Coching, however far, and there was no point in searching for Mrs. Miller because Coching Hinterland's borders were patrolled by hideously narrow-minded vehicles, such as Mack trucks. Mack trucks that didn't give a fart in the wind about Cyril's loyalties. They just wanted to smash things all over the road.

Cyril rested his chin on his folded hands. There was only one creature, besides Mrs. Miller herself, who had the authority to jump borders. And that was LIL BNDT. And that didn't do Cyril any good. Mrs. Miller had no fixed stronghold, at least not in Coching. So all that could ever be done was wander and hope for the best.

Cyril began to light his pipe when a stirring in a nearby tree caught him. He looked up sharply. There, matching his stare dagger-for-dagger and flexing blue talons was Battlecry Tom. The gull took wing immediately and Cyril's hand stalled halfway to his pistol.

The passion for for a good smoke flew off with Tom. Cyril put his pipe away and swore, despite his aching joints, he wouldn't fall asleep.

A bawling sob woke Cyril up. Sputtering, he leaped to his feet. Simon and Korky were gone and the fire was low.

"Steady old man, they've just relocated."

Cyril turned on his heel. The "Bluegrave Park" sign, once jovial, was now down a leg with one corner anchored sadly in the grass. A freakishly large creature with a hide like weathered roof shingles leaned on the stable side and used the amputated limb to scratch at the thick, overlapped scales on his back. Korky dangled from the monster's other paw, and Simon, now awake, was tucked under the same arm which was as broad as a tree trunk.

Cyril's mind flashed him an image of Mrs. Miller lopping his head off. "Simon! Are you all right?"

"Sure, I'm fine," the boy called down.

The creature blinked his glittering, beady eyes in the firelight. His neckless, reptilian head shifted and oozed on his massive body and a slow grin overtook its blunt snout. "I do get so tired of cars, you know." His voice was like a runaway train. "I'm not as young as I used to be, and their oily innards have a way of settling in my stomach. So when this nice side of roast beef walked into my park--" Korky was shook to the tune of more wailing -- "I blessed my lucky stars. There's nothing wrong with something different of a Sunday, you agree?"

"This is your park?"

"Yes, this is my home. Isn't it lovely?"

Cyril's gloved hand dropped to his holster. The monster looked amused. "Well now. That's a winning attitude towards your host." He leaned over and, in a fluid manner that should've been impossible for such bulk, flicked Cyril's forehead with his thumb and forefinger. The landscape whirred past Mrs. Miller's right hand before he smashed the half-frozen soil with his back. Cyril's battered head decided that a fine view of the stars wasn't worth retaining consciousness over, and the lights blinked out.