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Mike Arram

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About Mike Arram

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  • Age in Years
    65
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    Male
  • Sexuality
    Gay
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    Fantasy
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    UK
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    History, Red Wine, Travel, Architecture, Crusader Kings II

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  1. Mike Arram

    Chapter 28

    Not quite everything, Doc. Gavin and Max were left hanging a bit, and sorting their relationship is the next episode, but not in Rothenia. Back to the UK and higher ed for them.
  2. Mike Arram

    Chapter 28

    Cheers Buz. Glad you enjoyed. I loved your comments throughout. It adds to the fun. The next excursion deals with the fallout for Gavin from the Eschaton. The Dead are up to something.
  3. Mike Arram

    Chapter 28

    Dawn was breaking in the sky that Damien could see through the windows of the military hospital, which was quiet now the panic was over. He had dozed on a sofa in the maternity waiting room, his hand still grasping the spear. Although it no longer glowed, he could still somehow feel a vitality in it. No one had suggested he give it up. He caught whispers about how he had come by it and what he had done with it. Nathan had come in and out as he had news. Sometime after midnight he woke Damien gently and gathered him into his arms. ‘The baby didn’t make it, love.’ ‘Harry?’ ‘She’s very ill, but she’ll get better.’ He hadn’t cared that Nathan’s tears were dripping on his head. He was crying himself, and must have continued till he nodded off on the sofa under a blanket, overwhelmed by reaction, grief and a feeling of uselessness. Now, in the early morning light, he saw his two dads still asleep on the other sofas. He dreaded meeting Queen Harry and King Rudi, not liking to think how they would feel after losing the child they had so planned for and wanted. He sat up and stretched. He felt painfully stiff from the manhandling he had experienced at the hands of Gareth, which had left him bruised. He went to use the loo, trailing the spear with him and propping it up in the corner as he unzipped. Two orderlies in the stalls looked at him oddly, then went back to talking. Damien realised with acute discomfort that they were discussing the aftermath of the baby’s death. ‘There’s a problem because it was stillborn. We put it in the chapel, but since it was not actually born or baptised, there can’t be a mass. They can’t even toll the city’s bells for it.’ Damien growled up at them, ‘He wasn’t an “it”. His name was Maxim and he was a prince!’ ‘Easy, kid! You with the palace party?’ ‘Yuh.’ ‘They’ll be having prayers in the chapel for the royal family at nine, okay?’ Damien left, dragging the spear behind him. He saw the sign for the chapel and followed it, determined to say his own prayers before anyone else got there. He found the chapel empty. In front of the altar, a heartbreakingly small white box had been placed on a catafalque draped with the red-lion Elphberg banner. A tall candle burned at each corner. Although the coffin was open, Damien was reluctant to approach. He sat on a bench just within the entrance to pray for the baby prince with whom he would never play. As he raised his tear-filled eyes, he became aware that he was not alone. Lance was perched on the next seat, looking tenderly at him. ‘Hi, Daimey!’ he murmured. *** Henry’s knee had been strapped up while Rudi went in to see his wife. The king had been mute on the helicopter trip to the hospital. Mostly he had sat with his head in his hands, only rallying when he had to enter public view after the chopper landed. Henry wondered at the dignity and patience he assumed in dealing with the brigadier who was the hospital director and with the consultants awaiting him, considering all he had on his mind. After the king had gone up to Harry, Henry had stretched out in a side ward and napped. Ed had mounted guard outside the queen’s room to ensure the bereaved couple were left to themselves. It was as the sun was coming up that Henry woke to his shoulder being shaken by a stern-faced king, who had dark marks under his eyes. He looked frighteningly controlled. Henry did not think he had been able to cry, for all his grief. ‘I have to ask you this, Henry.’ Henry knew what was coming. ‘No, sir, please don’t.’ You still have your power, don’t you?’ ‘I do.’ ‘Then you can bring my son back to life. God knows what we suffered here for his sake. He cannot grudge me this.’ ‘I swore an oath.’ ‘Damn your oath! You can do this, give my country hope and continue my dynasty. Harry can never have another child … did they tell you that?’ ‘No sir. I’m so, so sorry.’ ‘Then that bastard of an Antichrist will have won.’ ‘Sir, please, you must have faith. There’s a reason for this.’ ‘Go tell that to Harry!’ Henry now was in tears. This was too much for his gentle heart. He had found he could stand up to his own imminent death, but not to his friends in awful pain. He walked out of the ward and made his way to the chapel. ‘Henry! I’m sorry,’ the king called after him. He turned. ‘Don’t be, Rudi. I’m going to make my apologies to your son. Tell Ed he’ll find me there.’ ‘I’ll come myself, Henry. I need to see the boy just once.’ *** ‘How come yer got out, Lance?’ ‘Oh … that part of my job’s done. You unlocked me when you killed the Hellhound.’ Damien’s mind was working now. ‘I thought yer job wuz to help Mendamero and the king.’ ‘Oh yeah, but I don’t just do destroying, ya know. I also do the other thing … renewing.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘It means I’m nearly there, Daimey! One more instalment and I can be free of the destroying … maybe get my reward. They owe me big time now. Specially after this gig! Is that the baby?’ ‘Yuh.’ Lance got up and padded down the aisle. He was in his usual nude state, his small blue horns sharp on his forehead. He reached the coffin and peered in. Damien was alarmed. ‘Hey! Someone might come in. They wouldn’t understand, Lance.’ The other boy looked at him and smiled, then held out his hand. ‘No one’ll come in, Daimey. I’ve made a spell. Bring the spear over. I need it.’ Reluctantly, Damien approached the ominous box. He found even now he could not look at what lay there wrapped in oyster-white silk. Silently, he gave the spear to Lance. ‘Remember Lije?’ ‘Yuh! Yer killed him, then it turned out he died so the Antichrist would lose his power. So he wuz really a hero.’ ‘He was, but like me he had been cheated again and again. That’s why the Great Council decreed he may now live his full life.’ ‘Yer what?’ ‘I didn’t kill him, Daimey. He was dead to begin with. I took his soul from his resurrected body, and it lives in this spear still. And now I’ve found a new home for it, a place where he can live a long life, loved and loving.’ ‘What? Yer can’t mean …’ Fire crackled up and down the shaft held in Lance’s hand. His smile became a little sad. ‘Bye Daimey! It’s been great. You’re the best friend a guy ever had … could ever have.’ ‘Wait!’ But the angelic boy had turned his attention to the bier. Golden threads of flame snaked out of the glowing spear and sought the coffin. The spear pulsed with light, as did Lance himself. There was a silent flash and three things happened. A baby cried lustily, the spear disappeared, but Lance didn't. He collapsed to the floor of the chapel. Damien was at a loss. Stepping over the prostrate boy, he looked at last down into the coffin. A red-faced baby was moving restlessly in its wrappings, its mouth wide, expressing its outrage. Damien remembered his baby sister and recalled what to do. Picking up the little prince he cuddled the infant into the crook of his arm, making clucking noises and grinning all over his face. A shout brought his attention to the chapel door. With mouths as wide open as that of the crying baby, his Uncles Henry and Rudi were standing there dumbstruck. Damien walked carefully to the king and held up his son to him. Rudi took the baby without a word, gazing down at the miracle. ‘Did you do this, Henry?’ ‘Er … no sir, I didn’t.’ ‘He’s alive?’ ‘Yuh,’ grinned Damien. ‘An’ he needs his mum. Bet he’s hungry.’ Rudolf Elphberg looked from one to the other and then at last wept as he carried his son to meet his mother. Henry took Damien by the shoulder. ‘What happened here? My God! Is that who I think it is? The Destroyer?’ ‘Yuh, me mate Lance. Wass up wiv him?’ Henry and Damien went to stand by the unconscious naked boy and look him over. Damien touched his warm shoulder. ‘Well, he’s alive, Uncle Henry.’ ‘What’s happened to his horns? He looks like a normal kid.’ Then Damien chuckled. ‘So he got his reward. He wanted to grow up, but they’re gonna make him do it the hard way! Lance is a human boy!’ ‘Reward?’ ‘He put Lije’s soul in the dead baby’s body and woke up Prince Maxim! Innit brilliant?’ ‘Oh my God! I’d kill that Tobias if he weren’t immortal. This gets more complicated all the time. Okay, babes. Go find your dads and tell them what’s happened. They’ll probably not believe it at first, but get them up to see Harry and the baby and they will.’ ‘Whatchu gonna do, Uncle Henry?’ ‘I need to have a serious chat with a seraph. Now get going. Oh, and when you see Uncle Ed, send him down.’ Henry took off his coat and bundled up the unconscious boy in it, then lifted him on to a bench, wincing at the pain in his leg. He carefully studied – what did Damien call him? – Lance. The child was perhaps ten years old, quite well-built and very good-looking with the same cheeky face as his friend Damien. He had dark straight hair, not unlike Henry’s. His skin was fine-grained, with a dusting of light freckles around his straight nose. He gave a slight hiccup in his sleep and there was some dried mucus around his nostrils. Clearly he could do with a wash. This was not the idealised angelic creature Henry had first met. Instead, Lance had been rendered fully human. Sitting patiently with the boy while waiting for Ed Cornish, Henry became aware of a subdued uproar as the news spread through the hospital. Nurses and soldiers ran past the open entrance to the chapel. A doctor came in, stared into the empty coffin, looked scared and then ran. It was fifty minutes until Henry’s patience was rewarded. Ed came in, obviously flustered. ‘Babe? Damien just found me. What on earth’s going on? The hospital’s in a turmoil like a disturbed anthill, with people dashing about everywhere. The director’s threatening to have the queen’s medical team struck off! The baby’s alive! I just saw Rudi in tears for the first time in his life. Oh … and listen!’ Henry did. The bells of the city of Strelzen had begun pealing out in joy for the birth of a crown prince to the house of Elphberg. The windows rattled as a double royal salute began to be fired from the park of Bila Palacz. ‘While all this fuss is going on, you and I are going for a trip, Ed.’ ‘What do you have in mind, and who’s this kid?’ ‘This, believe it or not, is the creature called variously the Destroyer of Worlds, the Angel of Death and Nemesis. At the moment he goes by the name of Lance, and apparently he’s one of the Mendamero Men.’ Ed gave a nervous laugh. ‘Seriously?’ ‘Absolutely. Time to have a word with his relatives. Can you carry him? My knee’s giving me grief.’ Ed easily lifted Lance and stood holding the boy in front of him. ‘So where are we going?’ ‘You’ll enjoy it. Some cultures call it the Garden of Eden.’ *** ‘Right here’s where I enjoyed one of the best G&Ts I’ve ever had in my life. Want one?’ ‘Not while I’m carrying this kid.’ ‘Put him down on the grass there. Give me my jacket.’ ‘Then he’ll be naked.’ ‘No, he won’t. Look!’ All at once Lance was dressed in jeans, tee-shirt and trainers. He dozed on. ‘Can I do that?’ ‘Try, sweetheart.’ Ed Cornish concentrated on a pebble. It stayed a pebble. ‘Damn!’ ‘What did you want?’ ‘Oh nothing … just a solid gold TAG Heuer.’ ‘I’m disappointed in you.’ Henry looked around. As usual it was late on a sunny morning. He was standing beside the same stream as before, its crystal waters rushing and chattering over their bed. Unidentifiable colourful birds flew across the sky and between the great tree trunks of the woods bordering the stream. Then he finally noticed a very odd thing: Nowhere in this scene was there any evidence of death or decay, no fallen trees, no leaves spotted with mould. ‘So what are we doing here, little babe? ‘S nice though.’ ‘I’m expecting a visitor.’ They sat on the rock. ‘Attractive-looking kid, that Lance.’ ‘Too much like Damien for my peace of mind. I have the impression they get on like a house on fire. An interesting image, actually, as I would not put deliberate arson beyond either of them. How’re you doing, Ed?’ ‘Still stunned by it all, and hoping it’s over. Er … you don’t think it is over, do you.’ ‘No. I suspect Tobias has more surprises for us, the two-faced so-and-so.’ ‘Really, Henry, you do have the lowest opinion of me.’ Tobias had materialised behind them. ‘Or possibly the highest. How could anyone take Mendamero by surprise? Congratulations to you both. This is Colonel Cornish? A real pleasure.’ Tobias was as he had been in Jerusalem, a beautiful blond teenager in slacks and a white shirt. He offered his hand to Ed, who took it cautiously. Then with a shy smile he gave Henry a kiss on the cheek. Henry, not so crabby as to rebuff him, kissed him back. They all three sat by the stream, listening to the birds of paradise singing around them. ‘Everything seems to be working out well. The Antichrist has fallen and his evil is dissipating fast. The name and works of Bishop John James of Cranwell are already fading from people’s consciousness. I imagine, when they make future lists of the bishops of that diocese, he may even be forgotten. Only in Rothenia will there be a memory of all these events. Which is at it should be, for that nation’s faithfulness and courage must always be remembered with honour.’ Henry was less positive in his assessment. ‘But there have been losses. Rothenia no longer has an Icon to bless it.’ ‘Yes, that’s true, but it now has instead the high and mighty prince Maxim Henry Leopold Ferdinand Louis Friederich Elphberg, duke of Mittenheim, one day to be King Maxim II of Rothenia, and a prince the like of which the world will have never seen.’ ‘Not surprising, since the prince’s soul will be that of the remarkable Mark Tolmie. Will he have any memory of his former life?’ ‘His disposition and intellect will be the same, but he will have no memories of his tragic first stab at existence or his time as Elijah the Guardian. Nonetheless, as he grows he will be found to be wise and collected far beyond his years. You will cherish the tale of his heroism and sacrifice on his behalf. He will live now the best life a man could hope for, full of love, challenge, honour and adventure. And so the world comes into balance once more.’ ‘And talking of balance, what about the Destroyer here?’ ‘He’s long been a problem for the Great Council. It’s a matter of need outweighing fairness. But he hasn’t made any friends over the matter.’ ‘Why have you turned him into a human boy?’ ‘He wished to be a grownup above everything else, and so now he will be. It’s just that he’ll do it the proper way. He has been given the gift of mortality … and it is a gift.’ ‘Will he know who he is?’ ‘Oh yes, that’s part of the challenge, you see. He has few powers left to him, and those he has are mostly rooted in his knowledge. He must be a feeble mortal and learn the joy and pain of an existence bound by time. In that way and no other can he grow.’ ‘Pity the pair that have to bring him up.’ ‘Yes, indeed,’ said Tobias. Then he changed the subject. ‘And now the question of Mendamero. My dear Henry, you must be aware that you are now in a very peculiar position. Do you think you and I can go off and have a private chat for a moment? I’m sure Colonel Cornish won’t mind.’ ‘Don’t worry on my part. I’ll keep an eye on the boy and think seriously about TAG Heuer watches.’ Henry and Tobias walked down the stream together, talking as they went. ‘You see, you’ve done all we asked of you and more, Henry. You have been faithful and the Great Council is very grateful. You did not use the power with which you were invested except in direst need. The utmost test was the death of your friend’s child. You might have revived it but chose not to, and because of that the world will now be trebly blessed. As I said, you have been faithful. ‘This leaves us with a problem, however. For all his evil, the Antichrist was harbinger of a better world to come, and you could be part of it. A significant portion of the Council wishes to leave you with your powers. But if you are, there will be conditions … You follow my meaning?’ Henry brooded at the news, so gratifying and so alarming. ‘You wish me to replace Enoch?’ ‘No. That is not what I meant. There is a vacancy for a much higher responsibility’ They walked along in silence, Henry lost in a deep reverie over the import of Tobias’s words. Finally the seraph broke in on his thoughts. ‘I think you understand what I’m saying, don’t you?’ ‘I do. The Antichrist has been defeated and the One who defeats him is He who may bring the kingdom.’ ‘Yes, Mendamero. But there is always the choice made in the wilderness. You may choose otherwise with no dishonour to yourself.’ Henry looked around. Without his noticing it, Tobias had led him out on to the smooth surface of a pool. Henry saw fish lazily swimming below his feet. It struck him later as perhaps the craziest thing that happened on that crazy day, so crazy that it barely perturbed him at the time. ‘The Antichrist gave me a similar choice,' he replied. 'He offered me the rule of the world in return for my allegiance. Did he mean it?’ ‘I imagine he did. Immoderate ambition was one of his many faults. He would have forged an army to assault heaven, with you as his very able lieutenant. But of course he would have corrupted you. You would have become lower than his Hellhounds and lost your soul, which would have gratified him immensely.’ ‘I’m just not up to this emperor thing, Toby. As for the other, are you serious?’ ‘Perfectly. The Council is of the opinion that you could be the One, should you choose.’ ‘And if I choose not?’ ‘Then you will go back to being Henry Robert Atwood with no discredit. The One must choose his own destiny, and should it not be you, it will eventually be another.’ ‘When will that be?’ ‘The day someone accepts when offered the possibility.’ ‘I suppose you’d calculated that I’m a gay man.’ Tobias laughed. ‘As you acutely observed when first we met, I am homosexual too in this body. Many – though not all – of the inhabitants of this realm are sexually ambiguous, and it comes out when we take human form.’ ‘So that answers the question of the androgynous aspect of angels. You’re all a bunch of queers!’ ‘Glad to be gay, as you would say, Henry. So what will it be?’ ‘The answer is no, Toby. I haven’t got so high an opinion of myself as to take that course with my life. I know my weaknesses.’ Tobias looked regretful. ‘That too is a qualification, as it happens. I’m sorry to hear your refusal, but we are patient and remain expectant. Well, we had better return to the others.’ As they walked back to where Ed and Lance were waiting, Henry marvelled at the choice he had just been given. The Second Coming of Henry Atwood. Astonishing beyond any measure! But it made a sort of sense, just not the sort he wanted anything to do with. He was all too human. To be what Tobias offered, a human would have to be humble and courageous beyond anything he was capable of. They came up with Ed again, who was still staring hopefully at the yellow pebble. ‘Do you think it’s a bit more golden than it was, babe?’ ‘Give it up, Ed. How’s sleeping beauty?’ ‘Looking seriously cute. He’ll make some couple very unhappy one day.’ Tobias’s glance flickered from Ed to Henry. ‘Now there is this last thing.’ Henry caught the edge in the seraph’s voice. ‘You don’t mean …?’ ‘The Great Council would consider it an immense favour if you two would take the boy on.’ ‘What?’ yelled Henry. ‘Fantastic!’ echoed Ed. ‘Hey! Are you serious?’ ‘Well yeah! I’d love a kid, and this one would be an amazing challenge.’ Tobias was grinning. ‘There is also this. He is a member of one of the celestial orders, so as a human he will likely grow up homosexual. You two could have a lot to offer him while he matures physically and emotionally.’ ‘But he’s not exactly my greatest fan. Frankly, I would like my child to adore me.’ ‘You’ll work it out. The man who brought down the Antichrist can bring up the Destroyer of Worlds.’ ‘Maintenance,’ Henry stated firmly. ‘What?’ ‘If the Council want us to take him on, we want some sort of child support.’ ‘I’m sure we can come to an arrangement. How about a Hellhound as babysitter?’ Henry goggled at him. Tobias chuckled. ‘I think I may finally be getting the hang of this humour business.’ *** ‘This place is a tip!’ Lance remained unimpressed with the Postgasse apartment which was now his home. ‘It’s just temporary. Ed … I mean, your dad … is looking for a new place out in the Sixth District. There’s a property near Fridricswejg which looks promising.’ ‘Oh … do I get my own room?’ ‘Absolutely, probably en suite.’ ‘I want a PS3 like Damien’s.’ ‘Would you settle for a PS2?’ ‘Very funny.’ Lance Edward Atwood sat in a shabby armchair staring moodily at his legal parent. Just home from school, he had changed into his favourite skinny black jeans, red Converse sneakers, Strelzen Zoo tee-shirt and hoodie. He had grown to like clothes a lot and looked good in them. Bags of apparel were scattered everywhere. Henry had no idea why children needed so many clothes. He couldn’t remember having been so pampered himself. Since they had nowhere to put Lance’s extensive wardrobe, they left it in carriers. Neither Lance nor Henry was entirely convinced their arrangement was working. Ed was much more ebullient about the whole thing. ‘Your grandma will be round tomorrow when I’m going in to clear my desk at Eastnet.’ Lance gave a little smile. He had been an instant hit with Marjorie Atwood, and the feeling was mutual. He was just the sort of outgoing, cheerful boy she loved. There was no doubt Lance was an affectionate child when he forgot to sulk. He adored chattering away with his new grandmother. The problem was that Lance had not agreed to the Great Council’s solution to his complaint. Needing to blame someone for his unhappiness, he had decided Henry was the culprit. There was a distance between the two which was increasingly uncomfortable to both. Henry was learning about parenting the hard way. The Great Council had been obliging. Lance Edward Atwood had been backloaded into existence with a family and a history. He was the abandoned ten-year-old son of Henry’s uncle Charles, who had in fact died childless in a motorbike accident in Australia at age twenty-six. Henry had never even met his uncle, the family black sheep. If Lance’s DNA was ever tested, however, it would be found to share the right proportion of the Atwood genes. Lance had a British passport and his relatives would slowly begin to recall his existence. He would do well at both Christmas and birthday, having cannily elected to be born at midyear. The Ultras would remember the true story, of course. Justin in particular was agog, terrifying Henry with stories of Damien’s recalcitrant early years. ‘Oh yeah, and the worst is yet to come,’ he gloated. Slowly life was changing for the new family. At the moment, Lance was occupying the apartment’s spare bedroom. Ed was frankly delighted to have a son to play with and take to the sporting events Henry couldn’t abide. There would now be family holidays, a new car, and a big house with a pool in Strelzen’s suburbs. Henry was by no means unhappy about it all. Nonetheless, he and Lance simply had not yet clicked as father and son. In other ways, though, Lance was becoming reconciled to his new life. He had been enrolled in the Strelzen International School in the year above Damien and Reggie. The loss of his supernatural powers didn’t appear to bother him too much. With so much to learn about mortal life, he didn’t seem to have time to miss his previous existence. His knowledge of certain subjects – notably history, religion, maths and astrophysics – startled his teachers, who were equally astounded by his total ineptitude with literature, geography and social studies. He was a natural athlete, already in the under-tens basketball and fencing teams along with Damien. He was, of course, a star swimmer and diver in whom the national-team scouts had been showing interest. Lance and Ed occupied the sofa in the evenings, avidly discussing the sports channels. Henry just wished he could get more into being a parent. He had long accepted that, as a gay man, he was not likely to have much to do with fatherhood. Although he had regretted it, he had learned to live with it. Now he had a family delivered to him on a plate. ‘So … er, how was today?’ Lance brightened a bit. ‘School was good. I had recess and lunch with Reggie and Damien. Did you know Mattie’s dad has been offered a job in the university here, and they’re moving to Strelzen after Christmas?’ ‘Actually, no I didn’t. I don’t have the Mendamero Men’s sources of intelligence.’ ‘What’s for dinner?’ Food was very much a new experience for Lance. He relished it, though there had been painful things to be learned about the consequences of eating. The worst involved embarrassing lessons in toilet training, which Lance and Henry alike had found humiliating. ‘We thought we’d go out to Berwinckels once Ed gets back.’ ‘That’s cool.’ ‘We’ll meet up with friends there.’ ‘Who?’ ‘Justin, Nathan and Daimey to begin with.’ Lance sparkled. ‘That’s great! Daimey’s dad’s amazing.’ ‘You mean Justin.’ ‘Well, yeah.’ ‘There’s also Nathan.’ ‘He’s nice too.’ ‘Have you ever talked to Damien about his two dads?’ ‘Yeah. What’s all this about?’ Henry took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry we’re not getting on.’ Lance glanced at him under his dark brows, but said nothing. ‘I’m really glad you’re my kid, honest! But I didn’t expect this any more than you did. I just wish we could go back and start again.’ Lance seemed to have made a decision. The next words came out of clenched jaws. ‘You could be nicer. You go all stiff and cold when I do something wrong. I’d rather you told me off, like Nathan does Daimey, and …’ ‘What?’ Lance suddenly looked very vulnerable. ‘You don’t hug me, like Ed and Grandma Atwood do.’ ‘I don’t?’ Henry was disconcerted. He was and always had been a physically affectionate man. Then he admitted the truth to himself. He had not once embraced his child in the three weeks they had been living together. It was as if a barrier was stopping him. It was his turn to feel vulnerable. ‘I’m sorry, Lance … but I can put that right.’ Taking a risk, Henry held out his arms. He suddenly had an armful of warm boy, who hugged him tight round the neck and for good measure kissed him on the cheek. Henry answered in kind. Father and son settled into the chair. They stayed there silently for quite a while as their new relationship began to work its way through their stubborn heads. Henry finally got so far as to admit to himself that he and Lance were just too alike for their own good. *** Berwinckels in Mikhelstrasse was a Rothenian institution. Somehow it had survived war and Communist dictatorship intact. It was a chocolatier and ice-cream parlour founded in the nineteenth century by the eponymous Herr Berwinckel, an Austrian whose moustachioed portrait still hung in the upstairs café. It was very much a family-orientated business, and a descendant of the original Berwinckel still ran it. Henry, Ed and Lance found Justin, Nathan and Damien already installed at a table. The two boys grinned and sat close together, immediately engaged in their private joking world of school and family gossip. They only looked up when asked about drinks and the menu. Damien chose for Lance, who did not yet have the background in food to know what he might like. ‘Anyfing wiv fries is good. Extra fries is even better.’ Such was Damien’s wisdom in the matter of diet. ‘How’s leisure then, Henry babe?’ Justin asked. Henry had taken a year’s leave of absence from Eastnet to sort out his new life. This had been assisted by a substantial and not entirely accidental win in the Rothenian national lottery, which was the Great Council’s contribution to Lance’s upkeep. ‘Odd. I’m listless and bored. I may take up writing. At least Magda’s off my back, and I’ve had the satisfaction of sacking Constanzia the cleaner. I no longer give a monkey’s about cleaning the Postgasse flat.’ Nathan rolled his eyes. ‘You never did seem to care much for it.’ ‘True, but I don’t feel guilty anymore. We’re hiring a housekeeper for our new home, a friend of Mrs Atkinson’s who’s happy to move to Rothenia to expand her CV. My mum insisted. She said she didn’t want her grandson dying of food poisoning before our first Christmas.’ Ed broke in with news that he’d made an offer on a five-bedroom executive house in Fridricsgasse, only two blocks from the Peacher-Underwood home. The boys looked up at that. ‘What’s my room like?’ Lance demanded. Ed smiled. ‘Big, with a double bed and your own bathroom. You’ll love it, baby. The main reason I took it is the pool. It’s not only enormous, it’s got a high board you can practise on.’ ‘Fantastic!’ Damien chipped in. ‘Think of the pool parties when summer comes!’ ‘Yup, it’ll be a social centre for the International School’s Years 4 and 5. Next year’s looking good. I’ve been given a desk job at the ministry, so I’ll have regular hours. Major Anders is going to babysit the Fusiliers for the time being.’ Justin looked eager. ‘Shall we all do a special holiday this winter? I really fancies Aspen at Granddad Peacher’s mountain lodge. Wanna ski, Lance? Yer can bring Reggie and Mattie too. I can see it now: the Mendamero Men on snowboards!’ He laughed. ‘New Year’s got to be at Andy and Matt’s. It’s a tradition,’ Henry explained for Lance’s benefit. ‘And it’ll be Christmas in Strelzen. Your granddad Atwood would not be too happy if we missed the services at St Edwards.’ The Right Reverend Robert Atwood had ended up as full-time Anglican Bishop of Central Europe when the ecclesiastical debris from Bishop Jack’s disappearance from history had settled. He had transferred his pro-cathedral from Prague to Strelzen. His first episcopal act had been to issue a form of service for the celebration of same-sex unions. He was much enjoying the controversy he had kicked up. ‘Any news from Gavin?’ Nathan asked. Henry smiled. ‘He’s applied to do sociology at Stevenage in the next academic year. So it’s back to uni for the boy. He seems happy. Max intercalated his third year after all the upset in Rothenia. He and Gavin will be together for at least two years in Stevenage, cos Max intends to do a master’s degree after graduating. Davey is footing the bill, saying he’s to blame for mucking up Max’s studies. Myself, I blame Bishop Josep Jamroziak – may he rest in peace.’ ‘Are they … y’know, getting on?’ ‘They’re living together in Max’s hovel for the moment. They plan to get their own flat next year. Yeah, I think they’re happy bunnies. Gavin’s taking up where he left off. He says his memories of being Enoch are fading fast, which is probably as well. He did and saw things that could only disturb a sane mind.’ ‘You’re in touch a lot?’ ‘I’ve become the big brother he never had. After all, there’re seven years between us. I’m even giving him relationship advice. He seems so young to me now!’ There came a sudden sound in the street outside, a mixture of cheers and applause slowly building up. Henry looked at Ed. ‘Is it them?’ ‘He said he would. It’s what Rothenians do, and the royal family should be no different.’ Damien and Lance ran over to the windows to join the other patrons craning out to see what was happening in Mikhelstrasse below. Lance was excited. ‘It’s the king and queen with baby Maxim in a pushchair. They got half a dozen security guys around them, and Prince Fritzy too!’ Damien called over, ‘They’re coming in!’ Soon enough the royal couple were entering the restaurant, Rudi solicitously assisting the queen up the steps to the first floor. She was carrying the baby, while a grinning Fritz trailed behind with the folded pushchair. The management of Berwinckels was out in force, ushering the king and queen to seats next to Henry and Justin’s party and finding menus. Damien and Lance quickly latched on to Fritz, always good for a laugh, who soon had the two boys howling with merriment. King Rudolf beamed at his friends as he sat down. There had been major changes in him since the events of early November. He had become gentler and more content, barely snapping at Henry for weeks. He was delighted to change the crown prince’s nappies, and thought it the height of happiness to be kept up all night by his crying and to be vomited over. Henry was increasingly glad he had been given Lance ready-made at age ten. Harry sat next to Henry. ‘This is the first time I’ve been out since the hostage incident. You wouldn’t believe the relief it is to be on my feet, Henry. And look! Thin again! Well … thinner anyway. Here, you hold junior. You’re a dad yourself now. Get used to the demands!’ Henry took the baby gingerly. HRH Maxim Elphberg, duke of Mittenheim, was asleep and stayed that way. ‘You guys seem happy.’ ‘Oh we are. Believe me, every day we wake up seems like a blessing. You don’t forget in a hurry such things as what happened in Wenzelsberh. Rudi’s so good, too.’ She looked fondly on her husband, who beamed back at her. ‘The baptism is going to be a week next Saturday in the Chapel Royal, and we want you to be one of the godfathers.’ ‘Well, thanks. Delighted. Do I have to give him something?’ ‘It’s customary.’ Through a private smile he replied, ‘Then I think the boy needs a guitar. I have this feeling he’ll be musical.’ The queen did a double take. ‘Really? It’s not traditional. Oh well, if you like.’ ‘I do. I feel as though I’ve known this little tyke for years.’ ‘I imagine it’s the Peacher resemblance in him. Rudi says he looks a bit like my father.’ ‘Maybe that’s it.’ ‘And how are you and Lance getting on?’ ‘We’re getting there. He’s loving and lovable. I’m beginning to think nothing else matters. I have a feeling he’ll be very good for us, even when we get to the years of hormonal angst.’ ‘Fancy him turning up like that, just out of the blue.’ ‘It astonished me. But for the family’s sake, I had to take him on. Ricky couldn’t since he’s just acquired a small baby of his own, and mum and dad have got their hands full now that dad’s a prince of the church.’ ‘Yes, Rudi told the cardinal the Anglican bishop would be invited to the baptism. That’s a new thing in Rothenia. ‘You know … Lance looks surprisingly like you, Henry.’ ‘He does?’ In fact several people had observed a supposed similarity. ‘But then he is my first cousin. He has the Atwood genes.’ The queen smiled. ‘I hope so. The world needs more of them. Now … I’m going to have my first latte in the best part of a year.’ Henry nursed the baby a while as the queen placed her order. Then he asked, ‘How’s motherhood?’ ‘Worth the effort, for all it was a close-run thing. But to have little Maxim in my arms is just … I can’t describe it. The pain and fear simply fade away when I look in his blue eyes. I love the darling so much. And now you’re a father too, Henry.’ ‘That was perhaps the biggest surprise of the whole business.’ ‘Lance is a beautiful boy, so funny and charming, a credit to the Atwood clan. How is fatherhood treating you?’ ‘I wish I could say the pain and fear fade entirely away when I look in Lance’s blue eyes, but he’d think I was such a prat. Still, I believe we’re getting somewhere. The thing is, they don’t tell you how much you’ve got to change to be a parent. Life just does not go on as before. It’s like a runaway rollercoaster ride. What a challenge!’ ‘Mendamero’s greatest adventure.’ ‘I couldn’t have put it better.’
  4. Mike Arram

    Chapter 27

    Hi Doc. Tricky point, as tricky as any to do with a word that's at the heart of the present culture wars racking the west. The Antichrist said 'The foetus is aborting' and it's a brutal way of telling Rudi his child is dying, which is what you'd expect from such a monster of sadism. He's also implying that he is behind the process and can take the child out of danger, but he is, as Rudi knows all too well, a liar. The verb 'miscarry' I'd agree is more appropriate in most circumstances. Grammatically, the phrase puts the teeth on edge. 'Abort' is an odd verb. It's both a transitive and an intransitive verb: 'I aborted the mission' is transitive, but 'the foetus is aborting' is intransitive (it has no object). The unfortunate implication is that the foetus is responsible for the action. No wonder the phrase jars on you!
  5. Mike Arram

    Chapter 27

    Henry stopped time around himself. It was odd, to say the least. The castle was full of glare and frozen chaos. Aware that his ability to maintain himself amongst such explosive events was limited, he ran to the east side of the castle with fear in his heart. The hideous shapes of Hellhounds had broken through. Two were in mid-air, completing their springs. Another had got among the defenders and taken four men down, one bitten in half. A third was being confronted by the heroic figure of Fritz von Tarlenheim, sword in hand, coolly poised to stab it through its eye. Fritz was covering his brother, who was down under the beast, disarmed, his hand raised. Henry gave an internal cheer for his friends. He was already hunting in the bag to get out the first of the C-4-filled pipe bombs the Rothenian army had rushed to put together during the day. He had requested certain customised features, such as a torpedo shape for the casing, that raised the engineers’ eyebrows and left Ed torn between amusement and disgust. Henry went round the back of the Hellhound poised to savage Fritz and Oskar. Gagging at the vile stench, he rammed the bomb fully up the beast’s rectum. Then, trying not to look at the soldier who had been ripped apart, he dealt the same way with the Hellhound which had landed amongst the guardsmen. He had to climb to deal with another beast crouched on a stretch of wall, looking to pounce. Two more hung in mid-air, one completely out of reach. Although he could not get to the other one's backside, he found it was just barely close enough for him to shove the pipe down its throat if he avoided its foul teeth. Henry was aware his control was slipping. He drew his pistol, took a deep breath, and let go. As he did so, he snatched Oskar from under the threatening jaws of the beast snapping at him. The bombs detonated instantly, filling the area with clouds of the black blood and stinking fragments of four Hellhounds. Fritz gasped with surprise. ‘Get that bastard!’ Henry screamed at his friend as the last of the beasts landed in front of them. Fortunately, the sudden demise of its pack mates and the stream of bullets Henry put in its body distracted it. Fritz saw his chance and plunged his sword straight through the monster’s eye deep into its brain. He leaped back as it convulsed in its death agony, tearing his weapon from his grip. Medics ran to help the fallen soldiers. Rudi, arriving with them, squeezed Henry's and Fritz’s shoulders. ‘Well done, lads! Bloody well done!’ ‘Rudi!’ Henry cried. ‘There’s a problem. We’re missing one Hellhound! We only got five of them.’ ‘Damn!’ Rudi gave orders urgently into his mic. ‘Eyes peeled! There’s one more still unaccounted for.’ Although the M242s were still occasionally thundering on the far side of the castle, things there seemed under control. As the firing died down, Henry went over to check on the rest of the Ultra Team. Matt White’s eyes were burning with the excitement of battle, but no one was harmed except Davey, who had a messy flesh wound in his thigh from a fragment of shrapnel. Terry was comforting him as an orderly staunched the blood flow. Davey looked up with a pale smile. His voice was even, however. ‘Did you do that Henry? Don’t ever let me get on the wrong side of you!’ All fell silent. Henry and the king climbed the castle mound, looking for signs of the next assault. ‘What do you think, Outfield? What’ll be his next move?’ ‘I would imagine he will come himself, and that’s when our problems will really begin.’ Time passed. They sat on the grass listening to the subdued chatter of the garrison below them and the whirring of the radar antennae for the guided-missile batteries mounted behind them. Then both leaped up as two events occurred simultaneously. Away in the forest a great tree groaned and crashed to the ground, while the closest battery rotated and targeted itself. A claxon erupted from within the keep. *** Damien could not resist the powerful grip that manhandled him back into his room. He was tossed effortlessly through the door to land on the bed and bounce off on to the floor, winded. He lay still, seeing the mystical spear containing his friend within easy reach under the skirts of the coverlet. A square black figure in a dark suit entered the room behind him, ruthlessly dragging Queen Harriet by her hair. She was forced to scrabble with her feet to avoid the pain. ‘You kids, over there!’ he grunted, pointing with his pistol. Reggie and Mattie scrambled in silent fear to Damien’s side. ‘Daimey, who is it?’ Mattie hissed. Damien remained doggo, but whispered, ‘Iss one of them Hellhound things.’ ‘What do we do?’ ‘Shuddup, you little bastards!’ The warning growl silenced the three boys. Gareth hauled the queen up. When she cried out, he roared, ‘You, stay there!’ He threw her carelessly on to an armchair where she whimpered with pain, hugging her abdomen. There was a thunder of feet on the stairs outside. Gareth went to the door and shouted that he had the queen and other hostages. The would-be rescuers were to clear the top floor, or the first brat would be shot in five minutes. Harriet had collected herself. ‘You’ll never escape,’ she warned him. ‘Your only chance is to surrender.’ A grating laugh answered her. ‘Escape? Stupid bitch! My death will but serve my Lord. Now shuddup or I’ll put a bullet in your knee.’ Noise and blue flashing lights came from outside, joined soon by the clatter of a helicopter in the night sky. Searchlights swept the house front. It was stalemate. *** Another great tree toppled as a three-metre-tall figure, red in the searchlights from the castle, made its deliberate way through the woodland. It paused at the edge of the forest, seemingly so it could scan the defences. It was heavily armoured, a great barbed mace held casually across its left shoulder. A giant kite-shaped shield, marked by a broad dark stain, rested on its right arm. ‘You see it, Rudi?’ ‘The mark on its shield where Lije died? Yes. What now?’ ‘I think it’ll want to parley. It’s not really a warrior, it’s a creature of words and deceit. I’m pretty sure it will start by toying with us, as much for its own advantage, satisfaction and ego as anything. Let’s go down and say hello to the Antichrist.’ Henry led the way to the castle gatehouse. Ordering the gates unbarred, he strode out under the arch, Rudi and the Ultras following close at his heels. Even Davey, leaning on Terry’s shoulder, limped after the king to show his support. The mask that was the Antichrist’s face seemed to smile. ‘Mendamero, dear fellow. Here we are again.’ Henry shrugged. ‘Is this about your surrender? Your Hellhounds and monstrous regiment failed in their mission.’ A hearty laugh answered him. ‘You haven’t introduced me to the last of the Elphbergs.’ Rudi bristled. ‘I am king of this land while I live, demon. I’ll therefore thank you to show some respect.’ ‘No demon I, your majesty, but the King of kings, and before dawn breaks, you will do me homage.’ ‘I will not, demon. You delude yourself.’ ‘More on that later, I think. For now I wish to talk to Mendamero. Will you approach, Mr Atwood?’ ‘Be careful, Henry, the thing is full of deceit,’ Rudi growled as Henry moved towards the towering armoured figure. ‘Yeah,’ Terry added loudly, ‘it’s a big red can full of shit.’ Henry stopped some four metres from the Antichrist and looked up. ‘So here I am, what now?’ The thing brooded upon him. ‘You did remarkable deeds in the castle, Atwood. Very resourceful. Your masters taught you well. Your powers are great, but never doubt I shall conquer here. There is no weapon, ancient or modern, that can bite upon me. There will be bloodshed and all your friends will die under your eyes. If that is the way you want it, then carry on.’ ‘There is an alternative?’ ‘Of course. Surrender and do homage, as I suggested before.’ ‘I don’t see the advantage for you. You can overwhelm us with your power, so why negotiate?’ ‘Henry … may I call you Henry? There are various sorts of victory. There’s the sort I prefer, which leaves me with able auxiliaries whom I can use to further my ends. Were I to impose myself by brute force, it might take me many years to establish my kingdom and move on to my next objective.’ ‘The conquest of Heaven? The place beyond time and space?’ ‘Exactly, Henry. You see my mind. What better viceroy could I find on earth? Do me homage and you will rule this world, while I and the host I shall then summon take my war to the erelim. I shall assail the ramparts of Heaven and, eventually, ascend my true throne, casting down the usurper who now sits there. You see your importance. In your hand is held the fate of all Creation!’ Henry Atwood, BA (Cranwell), paused to marvel at the lunacy displayed by the brilliant mind in front of him. The Antichrist so wished for Henry to partake of its egotistical dream that it would offer anything to entrap him. Henry did not flatter himself into believing it was interested in his transcendent intellect and gifts. What the Antichrist wanted was simply to drag one worthwhile soul into its cause, thereby glorifying, validating and sanctifying its vision. ‘It’s not going to happen.’ ‘A pity … well, I had to try. You had better get back to your friends. This is farewell, Mendamero. We shall not speak again; your chances are all run out.’ ‘I shan’t miss you.’ Henry turned and walked over to the king and the Ultras. He had no fear of a blow to his back. He doubted the Antichrist could make a move without his sensing it. ‘That it?’ asked Rudi. ‘Yup. No more negotiation. We fight.’ They retreated to the gatehouse, keeping a wary eye on the tall figure brooding at the edge of the woods. ‘How’re we going to do this, sir?’ Terry asked. The king gave instructions into his mic before answering. ‘As soon as it moves against our defences, we’ll hit it with everything we’ve got. Not subtle, but I can’t think of anything else. We’ll just test it out and try to slow it down while we look for a weapon that will penetrate its weak spot.’ Henry and the king paused under the gate arch, leaving the others to return to their positions. Henry abruptly seized the king’s arm. ‘It’s up to something,’ he warned. ‘Something bad! I can feel it gloating. Oh shit … it’s …’ A comm sergeant ran up shouting, ‘Message from Wenzelsberh, sire. A hostage situation at the Peacher house. Sir … it’s the queen!’ *** Damien Macavoy was angry. The thug had threatened and hurt his beloved Aunty Harry. He was also worried. Although he didn’t know much about pregnancy, he had always heard that mothers-to-be were delicate and their condition made them vulnerable. He, Reggie and Mattie were huddled together against his bed. The man in black stood coolly in the centre of the room, keeping both the boys and the queen under surveillance. Damien’s left hand was near the spear, aching for the signal to move. But there was nothing so far from Lance. Reggie kept catching Damien’s eye, seeking reassurance as much as anything. Despite a lack of discernable movement from outside, Damien knew his father was planning and preparing a counter offensive. If there was an attempt to end the siege by force, Damien considered it might distract the Hellhound enough for him to strike. Still, an armed assault would be a terrible risk with the queen in the room. Damien reckoned that would only be a last resort. He became aware of Reggie winking at him in an exaggerated way. Feeling cool plastic prodding his right hand, he discovered Reggie's mobile under his fingers. He quickly took it and, with one eye on their captor, began texting his father: DAD. WE OK. HE HAS GUN. HARRY IN CHAIR BY WNDO. LOOKS BAD. Checking the phone was muted, he sent the text on its way. He felt for the throb that would tell him of a reply. It came in two minutes. HEADS DOWN BABES. NO RISKS. LUV U. So Damien composed himself to await his opportunity, anxiously watching the queen’s pale face and laboured breathing. *** The king stood thunderstruck. The Antichrist chose that moment to move. ‘Sir! Sir! Orders?’ Rudi’s agonised face looked round. ‘Take command, Colonel Cornish! I’ve got to get to the comm centre.’ ‘Understood, sir.’ Ed began barking instructions. With a roar and a burst of flame-tinged cloud the first of the missiles leapt skyward, corkscrewed and came plummeting down on the armoured red figure moving deliberately towards the castle. It took the impact on its great shield. There was a huge concussion and shock wave, but when the smoke cleared, the tall figure was standing both unharmed and unshaken. More orders sent a whole flight of rockets into the air. This time they were not allowed to get near their target, instead being exploded in mid-air. Men ducked as shrapnel rained down from the sky. The M242s had been relocated and now opened up on the Antichrist. There was no more DU ammunition, and conventional bullets simply bounced off its armour, barely slowing it down. It walked with some deliberation into the hail of gunfire. Henry saw RPGs detonate right next to it, leaving its shield and armour unscathed. Indeed the being seemed invulnerable to modern weaponry. It was time for Henry to do what he could. Regardless of having little practice in attempting to manipulate the physical world, he seized a fallen tree trunk with his mind and strained to hurl it at the Antichrist. The tree lifted and rolled, only to fall among bushes as he lost control. The Antichrist noticed his derisory efforts and paused in its assault. Laughing, it raised the hand holding its mace and hurled a ball of red fire like a meteor at the tree trunk, which burst into flame and fragments. It sent another fireball straight at Henry, standing alone in the gate. He desperately scrambled back as the arch collapsed behind him in dust and stone fragments, one of which bounced and hit him a sharp blow on the leg. Despite the ceramic armour plate on his knee which absorbed most of the force, he went down hard and found getting back up difficult. Ed was elsewhere directing fire on the giant figure, so it fell to Eddie Peacher to drag Henry in amongst the Ultras. ‘Cover him!’ Terry ordered, while hauling Henry to his feet. ‘You okay, babe?’ Henry found his leg would take his weight, although it hurt like fury. He hobbled around to ease it. In the meantime, a storm of futile gunfire was striking at the Antichrist with as much effect as a shower of rain. An anti-tank missile directed at it by a commando team managed to rock it back, but it turned and threw more red fire to engulf the soldiers, who screamed as they burned. Henry could do nothing. *** Damien’s anxiety increased rapidly. Queen Harry was obviously ill. She was slumped in her chair, occasionally shuddering as spasms of pain racked her body. Damien knew too little about the mechanics of childbirth to be aware of contractions and what they signified, or the dark wet patch staining her jeans. He texted his father: HARRY’S BAD NEEDS DOC. Damien sat there fraught with anxiety and impatience. When would Lance move? *** As the Antichrist closed with the castle gate, the gunfire slackened away. ‘King Rudolf, come down! It is time for you to do me homage.’ The king appeared behind Henry. ‘What’s going on, Rudi?’ ‘One of his Hellhounds has Harry and the Mendamero Men hostage at Wenzelsberh. The house is surrounded, but there’s no getting at them without risking their lives. This was planned. The bastard had us sewn up before he threw his monsters at Belvoir. He just sacrificed them to keep himself amused and us distracted.’ ‘Are you going out to him?’ ‘What choice do I have? He will have terms for our surrender, I don’t doubt.’ ‘I’m coming too.’ ‘No you’re not. You need to get to Wenzelsberh.’ ‘No, Rudi. There’s no retreat from here.’ ‘What I mean is, I want you to remove the queen from the clutches of that Hellhound. You can do it, I think. All I can do is play up to this monster’s vanity. Now push off.’ Opening his mouth to argue, Henry thought better of it. He wished the king luck, then sought out Wenzelsberh and leapt to the gravel drive below the front. Police cars and troops were standing round, yet Henry’s mysterious appearance in battledress drew no comment. He limped through the troops, who caught sight of his rank insignia, backed away and saluted. ‘Justy!’ Justin was gazing up at the window, mobile in hand. A police captain and an army major were at his side. ‘Henry! Thank God! Have yer come direct from the king?’ ‘Just left Belvoir. It’s going badly. What’s the situation here?’ ‘They’re in Damien’s room. The Hellhound is armed and we can’t get at him. He’s threatening to execute one of the kids if we go near the stairs. I can text Daimey, and he’s getting some info out to us, but otherwise we’re stuck. What can yer do?’ Henry concentrated. Although he found the Hellhound easily enough, it was slippery and evasive. Henry was unable to get a solid fix on him. The Antichrist was screening its minion, having anticipated this move. The queen likewise was impossible to approach. The boys, on the other hand, were accessible. Then to his surprise Henry sensed a further familiar presence in the room. ‘Nate!’ The big man ran over. ‘Have the boys got some sort of spear or pole up there?’ Nate, deeply distressed and looking confused at the question, eventually stumbled out that he’d seen them trailing in from the woods that afternoon with something they said was a radar antenna. ‘What is it, Henry?’ ‘Suddenly, babes, I’m hopeful. We have an ally up there.’ ‘What?’ ‘There’s a powerful force in the room, which I think has befriended your son. But for what purpose I wonder?’ ‘So are yer gonna pull the kids out?’ Henry thought deeply. ‘I’m holding myself ready. Just get your men prepared.’ ‘Are you sure about this?’ ‘I’m sure. Whoa! Something’s happening!’ *** The queen arched in her chair. Her stubbornly clenched jaws gave way and with a moan she slid to the floor, unconscious. Damien convulsively seized the shaft of the spear and drew it out from beneath the bed. It sparked and hummed in his hand. That must be the signal. The weapon seemed surprisingly light as he lifted it. Gareth grunted at the queen’s sudden seizure. He lowered his gun and bent down to examine her. ‘Now!’ Lance’s voice tingled up his arm rather than sounding in his ear. Damien stood, drew back the spear and sent it flying. It seemed to leap forward and direct itself to catch the man in the arse and bury itself half a metre deep inside his gut. Gareth howled and screamed. He could not straighten, impaled as he was. Staggering round the room, he clawed at his own backside but was unable to reach the truncheon. Then out of nowhere Damien’s Uncle Henry was in the room, while heavy feet pounded up the stairs. Gareth the Hellhound fell on his side as Henry kicked his gun away. With one last appalling effort, the Hellhound tried to mutate into bestial form, but it was losing strength too fast and, half beast and half human, it expired in a pool of stinking black blood. Henry was at the queen’s side, looking deeply worried, while Nathan and Justin grabbed the boys and were carrying them to safety. Damien was struggling, however. ‘No! Dad! Gotta get Lance outa that thing’s arse!’ Henry looked round. A military paramedic team were already stretchering the unconscious queen out of the room. ‘Justy, let Daimey go. I need him.’ Putting his son down, Justin was astonished to see the boy set his foot on the monster’s haunches and determinedly extract the spear. The weapon was pulsing gently with light, and the creature’s black blood didn’t adhere to it. Henry went over and took it from Damien. It hummed with vitality. He sensed the spirit inside it, but also something more which he could not explain, though it seemed familiar. ‘Okay, Daimey. Talk!’ ‘Uncle Henry, we found Lance – I mean, this spear – in a pool in the woods this afternoon. He told us all about himself, and promised to help us. And he did! He killed this wolf man and saved Aunt Harry.’ Justin looked at Henry. ‘Do yer know what he’s on about?’ ‘Actually I think I do. So Spearboy came out of his prison?’ ‘Yuh! He said he was allowed out under the water. He’s a Mendamero Man.’ Henry gave a pale smile at that news, before handing the weapon back to the boy. ‘I’ve got to return to Belvoir. Keep the spear, Daimey. Stay with the queen. Get her to help quickly.’ With those words, he was gone. *** Henry materialised once again in the courtyard of Belvoir. It was eerily quiet. Rudi must have ordered a ceasefire. Henry searched around for the king and found him climbing across the broken walls of the east range on his way to confront the Antichrist. He was accompanied by Ed and Terry, both looking grim under their helmets. The king was bareheaded and unarmed, apart from the sword belted to his waist. They looked back when Henry called out for them to slow down. His damaged knee was hampering his progress. ‘Well, Henry?’ ‘It’s over. The hostages are free and the Hellhound is dead.’ ‘Thank God! How is she?’ Rudi’s eyes burned into his, demanding honesty. ‘Not good. She’s being airlifted to Strelzen.’ Silence answered this news. ‘Then it’s time to deal with this monster once and for all. It’s lost its hold on me. Does it know that?’ ‘I can’t tell. But it must know its servant is dead. The connection will have broken. Let’s go find out … and Rudi?’ ‘Henry?’ ‘We’ve proven no modern weapon can touch it, but a spear killed one Hellhound. Fritz dispatched another with his blade, which was just an ordinary sword with no lineage. I think there’s magic in forged-steel blades to unbind their spells.’ The king nodded. Loosening the sword of Henry the Lion in its scabbard, he led the way to the final confrontation. The Antichrist was leaning now on its mace, looking darkly on the party from the castle. ‘So, will you surrender to me?’ ‘Your agent at Wenzelsberh is dead, demon.’ ‘Don’t be tiresome, I am not a demon. I rather thought you were here to offer your surrender. The future of your dynasty depends on it.’ ‘My wife is free from your clutches. There is no longer a basis for negotiation.’ The red figure took on an even more menacing air. ‘Gareth has failed me. I know that. Though I would like to know precisely how it was done. Perhaps I'll torture some of your followers later to find out. ‘What I meant, fool, is that I have it in my power to make sure you are the last of your house. Your queen lies near to death. The foetus is aborting. It will be born dead unless I prevent that. Your choice, then, is to die under my stroke – knowing that at least your son will survive you – or simply die hopeless. Should you choose the former, you will do me homage before I crush your skull.’ Ashen-faced, Rudi turned to Henry. ‘Is this true?’ he demanded. ‘I have no idea, Rudi. This could just be his demented ego talking.’ ‘Henry!’ ‘I really don’t know, sir.’ Rudolf of Rothenia turned to his tormentor. ‘So, king of lies, how can I trust you?’ ‘You can only trust me to do my worst, Elphberg. On that at least you may rely.’ ‘Then, demon, do your worst! No true Elphberg would bow to what you demand. If my son were to live, only to hear how I saved his life, he would think himself dishonoured. You merely toy with me.’ Rudi stood tall as he defied the monster in front of him. Henry thought he had never seen the king more noble or sad as he did it. ‘Fool!’ The Antichrist raised its mace and struck down at the king. Both Ed and Terry had sprung back and were emptying their machine-gun magazines directly at the creature’s face. Although the bullets had no other effect, they at least distracted its aim. Rudi dodged aside as the mace buried itself into the ground. A cheer came from the garrison of Belvoir, crowded together on the fortifications as if they were spectators at a joust held in the olden days of the castle. With a metallic scrape, Rudi swept out the sword of his ancestors and stood poised. The Antichrist did not attempt to retrieve its weapon. Instead, it gathered a ball of red flame in its hand. Henry knew it intended to hurl the bolt at the king and burn him alive, as it had incinerated so many of the garrison. Henry could not dodge; his leg was too stiff and complaining. ‘Behind me, Rudi! I’ll shelter you so far as I can. Then go for the bastard!’ ‘But you’ll …’ ‘Do it!’ The king dropped behind Henry, who looked defiantly up at his nemesis … or was he the creature’s nemesis? He could never work that one out. ‘Two in one!’ the Antichrist gloated. The red fire burst on Henry as he resigned himself to death. He hoped it would be quick, but rather feared it would not be. Curiously, the flames licked all round him yet did not harm him. The Antichrist had leaned forward as it hurled the fireball, holding its shield lowered before its two intended victims. Rudi leaped up and plunged his sword into the centre of the stain where Lije had died. The blade cleaved the red metal as if it were balsa wood, slicing through the arm behind it and into the breast behind the arm. The Antichrist reeled back, wrenching the sword from Rudi’s hand. It staggered, letting out an inarticulate moan. Molten light burned in the chinks of its armour like lava through the cracks of a volcano. Henry caught the dying confusion of its mind as its control relaxed. The predominant emotions were outrage and humiliation. Falling in front of their feet, it twitched and then melted into a variety of shapes, each one smaller than the last, until only the wizened remains of Bishop Jack were left. Henry stared down, barely conscious of the outbreak of cheering from the castle and the pounding of friendly hands on his shoulder. It was over … but something in him was saying this was not in fact the case. ‘Well, you did it little babe, saved the universe.’ Hugged by Ed, Henry finally came to himself. ‘Apparently. Now what?’ ‘Pardon me?’ ‘Well, here lies the Antichrist, the harbinger of the End Time. He has set up his throne and been defied and broken by the forces of good. So … now what?’ ‘Oops. I see what you mean.’ Rudi was accepting the congratulations of the Ultras and his officers. He caught one face however that was not rejoicing. The doctor from the field hospital had joined them. ‘Your majesty?’ There was a sudden hush. ‘Word from the military hospital in Strelzen.’ ‘The queen?’ ‘Critically ill, but out of danger. They could not save the child, however.’ In the midst of victory, Rudolf Elphberg turned on his heel and went to hide his face.
  6. Mike Arram

    Chapter 26

    ‘I’ve got a plan, little babe.’ ‘It’s your strong point, Ed. I’m not surprised. Go for it.’ ‘Time.’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Tobias had a way with it, and you’ve managed to travel through it.’ ‘I was lucky to get back, too. I break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.’ ‘That isn’t what I have in mind exactly.’ ‘It’s not one of those time-paradox thingies is it, like I go back in time and assassinate Hitler as a kid, so we don’t get the Second World War, Nazis, the Holocaust and so on?’ ‘No. The idea of you shooting a kid is not something I can conceive of anyway. What I was thinking about was the trick Tobias used to stop time around him. Have you tried to do it?’ ‘Er … no. You want me to?’ ‘Give it a crack, babe.’ Henry and Ed were in the upper chamber of the keep at Belvoir, looking out over the surrounding woodland. It was late afternoon with the sun approaching the horizon. It would be dark in just an hour or two. Henry concentrated, but was at a loss. While he had managed directional travel through time, this was an entirely different thing being asked of him. He was supposed to stop time for himself and exist in his own personal bubble of causality, yet he had no idea how Tobias had pulled it off. All he could do was strain to extend his control over his new senses. Maybe he would find some temporal finger-hold to cling on to. Ed laughed. ‘What?’ ‘You’d think you’re on the loo.’ ‘Thanks, that’s really helpful.’ ‘Shall I go away and leave you in peace?’ ‘No, no. I need you here in case it works. I have this idea of shoving your gun barrel up your butt if I manage to pull it off, so when I restart time you’ll know how successful I was.’ Ed looked slightly panicked at that malicious suggestion. ‘You wouldn’t!’ ‘Don’t tempt me.’ ‘I’ll shut up.’ ‘You do that.’ Henry went over to the window and gazed out on the castle below. He fixed on a very fit commando doing push ups in a corner of the courtyard. The soldier, nice to look at more than anything else, with a broad back and flexing muscles, sent him off into a reverie. He discovered he had a sense of various objects’ motion through time, but that wasn’t the same as becoming aware of the general drift of time in which he himself was caught. How to accomplish it? Maybe it was about viewpoint. Henry had been taught by Tobias how to move his consciousness independent of his body. Could that be part of the trick? He opened his field of mental view and found himself rising through the atmosphere over the castle into the darkening Rothenian sky till he felt himself perched high above the earth. Wow! This was the weirdest. Some trip! He discovered he could project his consciousness farther through the emptiness of space. He began to sense the motion of the solar system, of the neighbouring stellar arm, even of the rotating galaxy. He was alarmed at how suddenly his consciousness extended into star fields and interstellar blackness. He almost panicked. But his mind was searching now for the operating principle behind the whole process. Noticing a flow of motion coming from a distant point, he seized on its direction and paced it. Suddenly he snapped back into the room in the castle of Belvoir with a sense of the expanding universe and how it affected each and every molecule. Henry laughed. It was so simple, like swimming. Ed looked at him, puzzled. Henry let the stream run past him, no longer floating with it. As he trod time instead of water, everything stopped around him. Down in the yard the hunky commando was arched in the middle of a press-up. A pigeon was suspended in mid-air over the gatehouse. It didn’t take too much effort for Henry to hold his place, though he knew he would eventually get tired. Smiling, he contemplated carrying out his threat to Ed’s butt. Instead, he took a marker out of his pocket and scrawled HENRY+ED=TRUE! across the whitewashed wall opposite Ed’s frozen face. Then he let go and allowed himself to be swept forward once more with the flow of time. ‘Jesus! You did it! You little marvel!’ Henry permitted himself a smirk. ‘By the way, I love the message. Isn’t that the same one you scratched on your carrel desk in the sixth-form block back at Medwardine?’ ‘Romantic of you to remember. Ah, we were such kids then.’ ‘Well that’s Part One of my idea. You want to hear Part Two?’ Ed began his explanation, and soon Henry’s guffaws were echoing down the spiral staircase of the keep. *** Dusk fell over northern Rothenia. Sentries with night-vision lenses scanned the environs of Belvoir castle. A Pave Hawk hovering far overhead sent aerial images down to the king’s command centre. But mostly people looked to the small figure in the colonel’s uniform sitting moodily in the corner as the one most likely to give them warning of imminent attack. ‘Anything, Henry?’ Rudi asked for the third time in half an hour. ‘Yes, but nothing I want to hear. As I said before, he’s able to screen a lot of his thoughts and actions from me. Yet he is active. It’s just not in the direction of Belvoir.’ ‘Oh … that’s a bit worrying. But we’ve made our dispositions elsewhere and we have to rely on the safeguards we’ve put in place. Still, I’d better do a status check. You and Ed go and walk the perimeter.’ ‘Sir.’ Henry and Ed found Team Ultra sitting together companionably at the section of wall they had volunteered to man. Davey’s camp clowning had subsided and he looked wan. Henry squatted next to him and snuggled up. An arm went round his shoulders to hug him tightly. ‘How’s Mendamero?’ ‘Fine. How’s you?’ ‘Scared, if you must know. What are we facing, Henry?’ ‘Nothing we can’t overcome, Davey babe. You’ve got good guys at your back, which is half the trick of victory. Just follow orders and don’t fire till Terry gives the say-so.’ Davey attempted a pale smile. ‘Do colonels call private soldiers “babe”?’ ‘Only if they’ve had sex with them.’ ‘I’m discovering that going to war with your boyfriend at your side is not an easy thing to do.’ ‘What, are you worried about Terry getting hurt alongside you?’ ‘Er … not that so much. I just can’t get used to taking orders from Major Terrence O’Brien.’ ‘Oh yeah, you’ve got an odd sort of relationship.’ ‘More of a corporate alliance.’ ‘Don’t do yourself down, Davey. You two are pretty much devoted, or so it seems from my point of view.’ ‘No, no! I wasn’t saying that. There’s no problem in the romantic department, or the sexual one either for that matter. It’s more that we demarcate our business interests and domestic spaces pretty carefully. We’re like that. So many days at my pad in Covent Garden, so many at his flat in Docklands, alternating with the parents … though given a choice I’d rather stay with his mum and dad any day. The point is, I have my space and ventures and he has his. Apart from holidays, we operate as an equal partnership. But here, I’m very much in his shadow and under his command.’ ‘Which is why you’ve been sending up the whole business so mercilessly.’ Davey looked a little shamefaced. ‘Maybe. I’m sorry if that's the way it came over.’ Henry chuckled. ‘I can forgive anything of the soldier who thought up the idea of the “Ultra Team”. It won’t be for long, Davey. And when the shit starts flying, you’ll be glad Terry’s around to give orders.’ ‘Thanks, Henry. I appreciate that.’ Henry passed on, exchanging jokes and chit-chat all along the line. It was what he’d learned to do commanding the Sixteenth Infantry Battalion of the Rothenian National Guard, his own unit. His men needed to see their colonel calm and relaxed, and Team Ultra were no different. He ended up next to Terry, who was leaning against a column of broken masonry, coolly smoking a cigarette. ‘I can see why so many soldiers are smokers, Colonel babe. With no certainty that you’ll see tomorrow’s sunrise, you don’t give much of a toss about healthy living.’ ‘Did Ed discuss his idea for a strategy to deal with the Hellhounds?’ Terry choked on a mouthful of smoke. ‘Oh yeah. I appreciate the military importance of outflanking. And you're sure the Antichrist can’t do the time thing himself?’ ‘Yup. For all his power, he’s tied to the circles of this world, unless of course he conquers here at Belvoir. Then who knows if there will be any limits to his ambitions and capabilities.’ ‘So all the more important for us to win here, right?’ ‘We’re not just fighting for ourselves, and that’s a fact.’ *** The three boys were crouched over the spear, Damien frowning and Reggie getting frustrated. Only Mattie Oscott was his usual phlegmatic self. ‘We’ve tried everything,’ Reggie groaned as he slumped, ‘or at least everything I can think of: shouting at it, shaking it, spinning it both ways, spitting on it, taking the top off. Nothing!’ Mattie pondered. ‘We could throw it.’ Damien shrugged. ‘Where? They won’t let us out. The place is closed down. Sumfink’s up tonight. Me dad’s got his gun strapped on, the big one with the automatic setting. There’s army troops in the woods.’ Mattie picked the spear up a bit too quickly. ‘Hey! Watch it! Nearly had me eye out.’ ‘Sorry, Daimey.’ Reggie got up too. He was feeling a little odd. Damien noticed and went over to hold his friend. ‘You got one of them attacks coming on?’ Reggie nodded and then put his hand to his face. ‘Nosebleed! Get me a hanky!’ Damien ordered him on to his back as the blood streamed over Reggie’s fingers. Mattie knelt to help, putting the spear beside Reggie and offering a handful of grubby paper tissues. ‘Danks!’ said Reggie nasally. After a couple of minutes the emergency was over. Reggie struggled to his feet, putting a bloody hand on the spear shaft as he did. The weapon glowed and sparked. ‘Fook!’ ‘Knew yud work it out!’ laughed a naked, horned boy sitting cross-legged on Damien’s bed. The other three whooped with joy. ‘Lance!’ Reggie added with a blush, ‘Can we get you some clothes?’ ‘Clothes? Hate ‘em.’ Damien objected. ‘It’ll be easier dealing wiv adults if you’re dressed. Oh, and lose them horns!’ Lance grinned and complied. Damien could see the other boy was remarkably similar to himself in dimensions. He dug into his wardrobe, throwing out jeans, tops, underwear and socks from the vast collection his fathers bought him. Lance was bemused at underpants, falling over with a giggle when he tried to fit both legs through one hole of a pair of briefs. Deciding he needed help, Damien took charge of dressing him. The end result was a remarkably handsome youngster wearing the latest GAP fashion. ‘An’ you can use me new Converse low-tops, too!’ ‘This is cool!’ Lance admired himself in the mirror. ‘Bit scratchy, though, donchya think? Shoes make my feet feel heavy. Never liked ‘em, but I can get used to it, I guess. Can we do play?’ ‘Sure. Ever used a PS3?’ ‘No. What is it?’ ‘Are you in for some fun!’ For the next hour the room was full of laughter and jokes. Lance had a singular capacity for getting on with each and every one of the Mendamero Men, as the episode below the pool had already demonstrated. He engaged Reggie intellectually, and soon had the more stolid Mattie doubled over in stitches. To Damien he was like a twin brother in both looks and disposition, yet he neither clashed with Damien nor attempted to rival his natural gifts of leadership. The two seemed mentally attuned. Actually, Reggie had concluded, telepathy was not necessarily out of the question, given what Lance was. Reggie indeed was increasingly intrigued by Lance. It was not just for his supernatural powers and status. Reggie was becoming more and more aware of other boys’ bodies. He was intensely fascinated by the tight, muscular curves of buttocks, the smooth sheen of skin, and the sensuality of that remarkable piece of equipment hanging between the legs. Lance had the most entrancing face and body he had ever seen. Though not fully aware of what was happening to himself, Reggie was stumbling into love for the first time. He had sensed the beginnings of such feelings for Damien. Now the idea of Lance absorbed him utterly. He wanted and needed to know more about his new friend. Sitting next to the boy while tutoring him in Death Crash 2008 and half-mesmerised by Lance’s extraordinary scent – like incense burning on a seashore – Reggie began probing for answers. ‘Do you enjoy living in a spear?’ ‘I don’t live there, Reggie. They just put me in it for a bit.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Oh y’know … stuff. They give me these jobs no one else will do. It’s why they won’t allow me to grow up.’ ‘That’s not fair.’ Lance replied with some heat, ‘S’true! It isn’t! And they won’t let me have friends. But this time I worked it again so the job involves kids. Hah!’ ‘Why do you have to be a kid? I don’t get it.’ ‘Oh, they say that to do what I do and stay sane, I need the … resilience and clarity of an undeveloped mind.’ Lance pronounced the last phrase in an exaggerated manner, as if he were quoting an adult. ‘You put up with it?’ ‘Do I have a choice? It’s been foretold that one day I’ll be given the gift of maturity. But I’ve been waiting so long now.’ ‘So what’s this job you’re doing?’ Reggie caught a sudden suspicious glance from his new friend. ‘Can’t say.’ ‘But you’re a Mendamero Man.’ When Lance sighed, a quite genuine expression of dispiritedness, Reggie’s heart went out to him the way it had to Damien when he arrived in school as a new boy. ‘Wish I could, Reggie. You guys are so great, I’ve not had real friends like you for years and years. But I gotta do my chores. ‘Sides, it is very important. Lots of people depend on me, and one person in particular.’ ‘Hmm? You mean Damien?’ ‘No. The one I mean is a nice guy who’s suffered the way I have and been cheated. Now I’m gonna put it right for him. He’s what Daimey calls a mate too. And if I do well on this job, I’m thinking maybe I’ll get my reward at last.’ Reggie hugged Lance’s arm spontaneously, then apologised as Lance’s racing car went off the circuit and ploughed into an overpass. But Lance smiled and said he didn’t mind at all. Reggie’s heart fluttered in his chest like a bird trapped in someone’s cupped hands. *** Henry was pacing the command centre when the first inkling of trouble reached him. He had been patrolling the surrounding woods with his mind – which was the best way he could explain it to himself – when he was alerted by a sudden blank in his perception. ‘Rudi! Unexplained activity NNW of the castle. Less than five hundred metres. I think the bastard has airlifted an attack force in.’ There was no alarm claxon. Instead, communications sergeants began issuing urgent instructions from the king, who was standing over their console with his arms folded. ‘Get out there, Henry! They need you!’ ‘Sir!’ Henry was off at a run, strapping his helmet on as he went. He checked his magazine for the tenth time that evening. Not wanting to alert the attackers that they had been detected, Rudi had not powered up the lights, but the troops were readying. The section of the defences exposed to immediate danger was garrisoned by a commando unit which was already using night sights to sweep the area Henry had indicated. That part of the wall, still largely intact, boasted large medieval cannon ports in which heavy machine guns had been mounted. Henry was asking himself why the Enemy would attack there, rather than on the western side where the walls had mostly tumbled, when his question was partly answered for him. The captain in command of this stretch tapped him on the arm and indicated movement on the fringe of the woodland. Henry could see things like giant upright armadillos toiling slowly but purposefully through the trees. ‘What in heaven’s name …?’. ‘When the time comes, captain, concentrate your fire. I have a feeling they may not be easy to take down.’ ‘Sir.’ The creatures lumbered forward awkwardly, as if they were not used to walking. They seemed careless of observation. Just before they reached the lip of the castle ditch, white parachute flares rocketed into the dark sky to etch the whole surroundings in brilliant light and shadow. Immediately afterwards the arc light flared into life. Men gasped with shock. The things had grotesque faces under cowls of armour and several limbs ending with formidable pincers. They carried wicked-looking halberds clenched in their upper claws. The full horror of their appearance was reserved for Henry, who could see in every one of the monsters’ faces a caricature of Gerry Wilmot. He knew it for the Antichrist’s grotesque joke, directed at Mendamero personally. Orders crackled in helmet radios, and suddenly the night was ripped apart by red tracers from powerful M242 Bushmaster chain guns adapted to fire from the cannon ports. The heavy slugs punched at short range into the things, hurling them down. Amazingly, they scrambled ponderously back on to their feet and moved forward again. It was like the effect of a water cannon on street rioters. ‘Dear God!’ choked a lieutenant. ‘How can we stop the things?’ ‘Concentrate fire! Get those RPGs in action!’ Henry commanded. Suddenly he became aware of Ed and Rudi at his side holding ammunition boxes. Behind them came a detail carrying yet more. ‘Any luck?’ Ed shouted over the racket. ‘Barely making an impact on them. What’ve you got there?’ ‘Something we’re not supposed to have. Hey! Look! That was a kill!’ A monster which had lurched to the lip of the ditch stumbled into the crossfire of two M242s just as a rocket-propelled grenade burst behind it. It erupted into gouts of red flesh, bringing forth a cheer in answer to its dying croak. In the meantime, several others had rolled up like hedgehogs and tumbled down the bank into the forest of stakes waiting for them at the bottom. While they could not be harmed by the stakes, they made heavy weather of trying to push their way through. One or two began slashing at the wood with their halberds. The king took command. ‘New ammunition, men! This is the last chance to stop them before it’s hand to claw!’ Boxes were broken open and new belts began feeding into the guns. Ed strained to see if there was any effect. When it became clear what was happening in the ditch, he gave a thumbs up. Grinning hugely, he shouted over the appalling noise, ‘Depleted-uranium bullets, babe! They’re designed to destroy the most modern tank armour, and they’re carving the bastards up nicely! Just hope we’ve got enough. We’ve brought the entire national stockpile in these boxes.’ The ditch was now a killing field, the monsters stumbling into a lacerating fire of penetrative ammunition and grenades. The commandos, finally given the means to destroy their adversaries, were doing so with total efficiency. ‘Henry? It’s time!’ Rudi was holding in his hand a heavy canvas bag which he offered to his friend. ‘What? Now?’ ‘Yes. This Antichrist is an amateur. He thinks he’s drawn off the defence by his frontal assault, as if we couldn’t anticipate his strategy.’ ‘He’s arrogant, Rudi. You can’t learn soldiering from books, as I know all too well.’ ‘Then get over to the …’ An appalling human scream came from the east range, shrieking in its agony over the howl of a gigantic wolf pack in full cry. *** Lance put down the controller of the PS3. ‘Tired?’ Reggie asked. ‘No, but I gotta go soon.’ ‘What? Back in the spear?’ ‘Guys, we gotta have some talk. Daimey, I’m a Mendamero Man, aren’t I?’ ‘Yuh. You’re our mate. You’re in our gang.’ ‘So ya trust me, donchya?’ All three looked at each other and nodded. ‘Okay. Then believe me when I tell ya tonight is gonna be tough for everyone, and there are gonna be things happening you’ll not like. But if you’re brave, it’ll work out, even though it seems really bad. I wasn’t supposed to tell ya all this, but I am your mate, and you gotta know at least that much.’ ‘What have we got to do, Lance?’ ‘Keep me close by ya, Daimey.’ ‘What, like when you’re back in the spear?’ ‘That’s right. In a bit you guys are gonna be in the middle of a battle. Put me somewhere close at hand but not visible. Then, when I tell ya, Daimey, strike hard. You’ll know where. Got it?’ ‘Er, yuh. I think so. Can’t yer tell us any more, Lance?’ ‘Time’s up. See ya. Remember, okay?’ Looking torn between the need to go and his longing to stay, he sadly bowed his head and vanished, empty clothes falling to the floor. Damien went over to the spear and picked it up, balancing it across the palm of his hand. ‘Whadda we do, Daimey?’ Mattie asked. ‘What Lance said. Where can we put the spear so it ain’t obvious but it’s still ready to use?’ Mattie and Damien looked around. Reggie in the meantime took the opportunity to delve in the pile of discarded clothes. Finding the briefs Lance had worn, he shoved them in his pocket. Damien decided on placing the spear under one side of his bed, where the PS3 was. He frowned, biting his lip. Something bad was about to happen. Since it was not in his nature to sit on his hands, he ordered Mattie and Reggie to stay put. He was going to scout. His first thought was for the queen. Stepping out on the landing he looked across to the farther wing. He was immediately alarmed. There was no security man on duty! Grabbing his mobile from his pocket he speed-dialled his dad. It rang and rang. At last he heard it click. ‘Dad! We got trouble!’ He had barely given the warning before a large hand knocked the phone from his hand and covered his mouth.
  7. Mike Arram

    Chapter 25

    The Mendamero Men had to be let out. It was cruel not to, in Nate’s opinion. Justy grumbled but eventually gave in. They were strictly instructed to stay within the grounds and not to talk to strangers, especially if they were clearly supernatural. The Men should also dress up warmly and keep out of puddles. Needless to say, they fully intended to ignore most of the instructions. ‘Depends what they mean by “within the grounds”,’ Mattie Oscott observed. ‘Yuh,’ agreed Damien. ‘An’ how can you tell if some bloke’s supernat’rul or not unless you get up close? Juss doan make sense. Adults!’ Reggie forbore to comment. He had rather stay indoors on a cold November afternoon, but realised his two friends were keen on playing in the woods. The point was, it was not easy to say quite where the plantations in Andy’s grounds ended and the Wenzlerwald began. Reggie knew his maps, and he also knew it was not wise to get lost in the Wenzlerwald, a huge and wild stretch of deciduous woodland that helped give the Green Hills district its name. It covered hills and valleys in a broad belt twenty kilometres wide by six kilometres deep. To be on the safe side, he had privately put a well-stuffed packet of coloured adhesive file tabs in his pocket. As an avid reader of Classical mythology, he had learned something from ancient stories of Theseus’s escape from the Labyrinth. So when the bigger boys evaded the perimeter guards and valiantly led the way over decrepit park palings into the deeper woods, Reggie trailed a little behind them, casually tagging the occasional prominent branch as they wandered. ‘S down here!’ called Mattie. After trekking maybe half a kilometre along paths deep in fallen leaves, they found themselves in a rather beautiful green dell, overhung by ancient twisted oaks, with a deep, dark pool in its centre. Moss-grown standing stones were arranged in a circle round the pool. It was a mysterious and slightly intimidating place. ‘Spooky,’ commented Damien. ‘When did you find this?’ ‘Your dad brought me down here last week when you were back in Strelzen having your hair cut. Nate said he was after these plants; he said they were special.’ ‘What, these?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Why’re they special?’ As usual, both boys glanced at Reggie for guidance. He shrugged. ‘They look like herbs for cooking.’ ‘Oh yeah!’ Mattie agreed. ‘He said he wanted them for a special roast or something. He also picked some mushrooms, but they’re all gone now.’ ‘How deep’s this pool?’ Damien asked. ‘Here’s a stick, push it down.’ So they tested the depth with a two-metre length of willow withy. It didn’t touch bottom. A few large rocks tossed in the pool raised spouts of water and sent small waves coursing from side to side. Reggie thought it rather strange to see the ripples continue coming and going across the surface. Surely they should subside? But no, they kept crossing and recrossing the pool, making odd patterns. He was about to observe this to the other two when a great bubble belched out of the depths, followed by others. Soon the surface of the pool was seething. By now all three had backed away. ‘This looks supernatural. Time to get out, Daimey!’ ‘Nuh! Let’s look. This is weird.’ ‘No. It really is time to go.’ But Damien was getting closer to the pool’s edge, fascinated, so the others warily followed. Then a crack of thunder made them look up. A shaft of light arrowed down from the sky and plunged into the water. The pool sank, then rose in a great surge, washing the three boys off their perch and dragging them down into the depths in the wake of the celestial fire bolt. *** Damien touched bottom without having had time to panic. All at once, three things struck him forcibly. The first was that it should not have been so light down here far below the pool’s surface. It was also warm. Most oddly, he didn’t seem to have any trouble breathing though he was deep under the water. He sat on the sandy floor, staring about him. There were all sorts of objects: glinting gold and jewels, shields and rusty swords, and a great spear standing vertically, from which the light and warmth seemed to emanate. White bulbous objects scattered across the sand proved on inspection to be skulls. ‘Oh, cool!’ he exclaimed, then gaped in wonder as bubbles came out of his mouth along with the words. He struggled to stand up, but the weight of his soaked clothes dragged him down again. Pragmatic as ever, he shrugged them off. Body-shyness had never been a problem for Damien. Naked, he felt more comfortable, so he began investigating the vicinity. He found Mattie and Reggie lying beyond a small thicket of weed. They seemed to be breathing too, although fast asleep. As Damien was shaking Mattie’s shoulder a voice reached him, the words strangely distorted by the water. ‘Hey! Kid!’ He was startled to see another nude boy not much older than he was leaning casually on the shaft of the spear. The main difference was that the other had small horns sprouting from his forehead. Otherwise he seemed a proper boy. Damien grunted and sized the by up. ‘Who’re you?’ ‘I ain’t got a name. Waddja think it should be?’ ‘How the fook should I know? You’re fookin weird!’ The boy frowned. ‘People call me lots of things. My last gang called me Jonas. I liked that, but they never asked me to pick my own name.’ He looked up at the spear he was holding, and grinned. ‘How bout … er, Lance? Yeah, Lance!’ ‘Whatever. You live down here?’ ‘Nah … it’s sorta like a family property.’ ‘Yer supernatural, innya.’ ‘What gave it away?’ ‘Funny bugger.’ Damien could project an air of truculent confidence even when bare-arsed. His new acquaintance seemed to appreciate it. They looked at each other, then broke out laughing. Damien recognised a kindred spirit when he met one, and so, it appeared, did Lance. ‘Come over here,’ Damien invited. Smirking cheekily, the boy calling himself Lance joined Damien. The two sat companionably side-by-side on a flat carved stone, thighs and buttocks touching. Damien grinned at his new friend. ‘So what about yer horns?’ ‘I was born with ‘em, Daimey.’ Damien’s grin took on a harder edge. ‘An’ when did yer get to know me name, Lance?’ The horned boy easily matched him for insouciant confidence. ‘Course I know who ya are. Damien Macavoy. Your dads are Justin Peacher-White and Nathan Underwood. You all are pretty well-known where I come from.’ ‘Which is where?’ ‘Oh, somewhere over the rainbow.’ ‘So what brings yer under this pool?’ ‘I was having trouble with a grown-up bossing me round. They do that. Think they know best, but they don’t. So I lost my temper and came back here. Used to come here quite a lot once.’ ‘Why did yer stop?’ ‘My friends moved away, and my job takes me all over.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Oh … destroying things.’ ‘I do that too.’ ‘What? Stars? Civilisations? Cities?’ ‘Not that ambitious yet, but yer never know, as me dad says.’ They laughed again, boys’ laughter that ended them up with their sides aching. When they eventually subsided, Damien watched Lance cross his leg and pick at the spaces between his toes. ‘Does yer have to have horns?’ ‘Not really. There, better?’ They retracted and the boy now looked more human. ‘Yuh! Wouldn’t want yer to have an unfair advantage.’ ‘Advantage?’ Lance looked hopeful. ‘Yuh!’ And Damien suddenly launched himself on his new friend. Giggling hysterically they wrestled in the sand, throwing up clouds of murk. When Lance tried to break away, Damien grabbed his ankle, pulling him down. He soon had Lance on his back, holding his arms and sitting on his chest. ‘Pee on yer!’ ‘No! You wouldn’t!’ Lance squealed, thrashing his head from side to side. ‘You wouldn’t dare! That’s not fair. Sides, it don’t work like that down here.’ Damien realised their play was at an impasse. ‘Truce!’ he called. Lance nodded, though his compliance seemed unconvincing. Damien got up and, as expected, Lance lunged at him. Damien was instantly off in a slow-motion dash across the sand, but his opponent was quicker. Catching him, Lance wrestled him down and pinned him on his back. Lance grinned with victory, only to be taken aback at the sly look on his adversary’s face. A hot yellow mist seeped up from under his buttocks. ‘Oh fuckin’ gross!’ He leapt out of the urine cloud that boiled up from Damien’s sturdy little dick. ‘I win!’ ‘Draw!’ ‘Okay, draw it is.’ They sat together on the sand breathing heavily. Damien offered, ‘Wanna join me gang?’ ‘Cool! What’s it called?’ ‘The Mendamero Men!’ ‘Oh, him!’ ‘Watchu got against me Uncle Henry?’ ‘Nothing, I guess, he’s just … bossy. And he thinks he knows what’s going on, but he doesn’t. Will he be surprised!’ Damien looked serious. ‘Me Uncle Henry’s a mate, so you gotta be his mate too if you wanna be in our gang.’ Lance glanced down moodily before looking up with his easy grin plastered back on his face. ‘Okay. I guess he’s not so bad. He can be funny.’ ‘What about the others? Why did you put ‘em to sleep?’ ‘I wanted to make friends with you first. You think I should wake ‘em up?’ ‘Sure! It’s great down here. Best place I’ve ever bin!’ Lance looked pleased. ‘I’m allowed out down here.’ He suddenly turned shy. ‘Can we be a gang and do more play?’ ‘Sure nuff. Ever played Tag?’ Lance was delighted. This was clearly the fulfilment of his every desire. ‘I've played wrestling, races, pirates and war with my other gang, but not Tag. How does it go?’ ‘Let’s get their cloves off and wake ’em up. Then we’ll show yer!’ *** ‘Sometimes, Outfield …!’ ‘Okay, okay, I’m a twat!’ Rudi was not happy with Mendamero. ‘That spear was our best chance of defeating the Antichrist, and you pissed it off so much it ran away.’ ‘He just got me annoyed, the wilful little sod! I could have killed the brat! He’s holding out on us about something, I’m pretty sure of that now.’ The Elphberg wrath cooled off a bit. ‘What do you think it’s up to?’ ‘I don’t know, which worries me. Can we just focus? It appears we’ve lost the spear, although it was a dangerous weapon to use in any case. But we're now sure the Antichrist is not invincible; we’ve just got to work out how we take it down. It has a weak point it’s unaware of. Once it reveals itself and marches into battle, we’ll have a chance to destroy it for good and all.’ Rudi nodded, frowning with concentration. ‘My feeling is it will only join the battle line if forced to do so. It’s a king too in its way. Kings normally direct battles, they don’t fight unless trapped by necessity. That means we must ride the first wave of its assault and get the better of it.’ Ed Cornish agreed. ‘It’s down to us … and you in particular, Henry. You have powers you can use, even though you haven’t had time to get the measure of them.’ ‘My disadvantage is that I am mortal, for all the borrowed finery. If they once get a crack at me, I’m dead.’ Rudi looked gloomy. ‘We’ll plan our dispositions accordingly. It’ll be dark in a couple of hours. Go and get some rest, Henry. Ed, we have to discuss tactics. Come and study this map.’ Henry left the command centre and descended the mound. He watched the Rothenian troops going about their business purposefully and confidently, their morale clearly high despite the weirdness besieging Belvoir. Not feeling tired he loitered round the chapel, trying to distinguish the themes of the ancient murals from their smudged and decayed remnants on the walls. ‘Oh … hi, Henry!’ Max had emerged from below. Henry turned. ‘Where’s Gavin?’ ‘He’s in the crypt. He said he wanted some time alone with, y’know, Lije.’ ‘I think I understand what he means. How’re you doing?’ ‘Okay, I s’pose. Bit of an anticlimax after the battle at Biscofshalch.’ ‘You did great, Max, really great. You struck a heavy blow against the Antichrist.’ The praise was answered with a pale smile. Henry continued, ‘But you’re not happy, are you?’ ‘No.’ ‘It’s Gavin, isn’t it?’ Max blushed red. ‘Yeah,’ he replied in a small voice. ‘He’s not the Gavin you met at Stevenage.’ ‘No … he’s different.’ ‘What is it, Max?’ ‘Well, the old Gavin – the sorta Enoch-Gavin – he was confident and powerful … sorta untouchable. Yet he put his feet in the air for me – ‘scuse the crudity – and was desperate for my cock. I mean, such a guy, so strong, just lying down for me. It makes me super-horny just thinking about it.’ ‘And this Gavin?’ ‘I dunno … he’s sorta the same, but different. A bit …’ ‘… wet?’ Max blushed again but murmured, ‘Yeah. God, I feel like such a tart.’ Henry gave a rueful smile. ‘I made a similar mistake about Gavin once, only to learn better in the end. This Gavin here is the same one I fell in love with seven years ago, even though we were hardly sexually compatible. Max, he isn’t wet, he’s just incredibly shy. Although he may seem weak and indecisive, that’s simply because he hates the idea of hurting anyone and doesn’t have the confidence to risk it. ‘In reality he’s as strong as they come, believe me. Back in the Cranwell days I had some success bringing him out of his shell. The bar work was a revelation for me of just how strong he really was. He kept on growing all the time he was with me, until he got swept away by the whole Enoch business. With you the growth will continue, I’m sure of it. Don’t forget, either, that in real terms he’s two years younger than you. ‘My feeling is that, with your support and direction, he’ll become the old Enoch-Gavin once again. Also, sex with him was really good. I mean seriously good, some of the best I’ve ever had. He may be shy in public, but not when he’s naked under you. You wouldn’t believe the passion, and it’s still there. With you it’ll be even stronger because you answer his basic needs: a loving, tender guy who prefers to top.’ Max brightened considerably. ‘You think?’ ‘I’m sure. Take control. That’s what he wants and needs, and when you do you’ll realise exactly what it is you have in your hands. Oh … and go fuck his arse off.’ ‘Should I start now?’ ‘No time like the present, babes.’ Max took on a look of determination. He returned to the crypt whistling. Henry grinned and went off to seek his cot. He had done at least one good deed that day. *** The three bedraggled boys trudged into the house at Wenzelsberh trailing along a pole wrapped in sacking as it seemed to Nathan, watching from the upstairs rear windows. ‘Oh Christ! Look at the mess the little buggers are in!’ Justin joined him. ‘What the hell have they been doing?’ ‘Taking a mud bath, from the look of them. I’ll get down there and sort it. You carry on worrying about the end of the world.’ Nathan encountered the three as they tried to sneak up the back stairs. As usual Damien looked perfectly composed, Mattie shifty and Reggie nervous. ‘Okay, what have you been up to?’ ‘Nuffin …’ commenced Damien. ‘Not you, I want Reggie to tell me.’ ‘Well … er, sir … we went into the woods and er … we had this game, didn’t we, Mattie?’ Mattie gave an affirmative nod. ‘We … um … were playing War, and er … we dug trenches but the ground was wetter than we thought and er …’ ‘What on earth is that?’ Nathan indicated the pole swathed in rags. ‘Umm … I’m glad you asked. It’s our … erm … radar installation. Mattie made it.’ Mattie gave another affirmative nod. ‘Well, it’s not coming in here. It’ll drip mud all over the carpets. Put it out the back yard where it belongs. And look at you. Head for the downstairs bathroom this instant! Strip your outside clothes off and leave them on the floor … I’ll collect them after. Then jump in the shower, the lot of you. I’ll put out some clean tee-shirts and underpants. Got it?’ They all nodded piously. Mattie took the pole out the back. ‘We’ll get it later,’ hissed Damien under his breath as the three were escorted into the bathroom. Half an hour later they were on the floor of Damien’s room, the spear from the pool at their bare feet. Reggie traced the involved pattern on the blade with his finger. ‘It’s amazing,’ he breathed. ‘Like something out of the Arabian nights. Do you suppose Lance is a genie?’ Mattie widened his eyes. ‘Do ya think we coulda asked him for three wishes? Probably too late now.’ ‘Nuh, he’s a mate and a Mendamero Man, he wouldn’t trick us. He can be on our committee. Reggie!’ ‘Mr Director?’ ‘Do a new sign for the door and add: Lance D. Lake: Military Adviser.’ ‘Great! He’s cool. That was such a brilliant game. Underwater too. I can’t believe what we did down there. Best playing we ever had!’ ‘So how do we talk to him, Reggie?’ The boy pursed his lips. ‘Not easy. He seems to live in the spear like a genie does in its bottle. He was alright about leaving the pond, he said, but he did warn us that once we were out in the world he’d have to stay inside the shaft.’ ‘But he also said he wants to play again. So that means he might come out. We’ll have to experiment and see what wakes him up.’ ‘Okay, I’ll make up a list of things to try.’ ‘Cool. You do that. I’m off to see Auntie Harry.’ Damien jumped up and padded across the landing to the other side of the house. He called cheerfully at the Sichertsdeinst security detail sitting in a chair outside the queen’s suite, ‘Hiya, Roman! Can I go in?’ The Rothenian guard stood and tapped on the queen’s door. He nodded to Damien and allowed him through. Queen Harriet was on the bed watching TV. Damien squirmed up beside her and kissed her on the cheek. Then he made himself at home, propping up his head on her bump like a cushion. ‘Watchu gonna call the baby?’ ‘That’s a thought,’ Harriet smiled. ‘He’s got to have at least six names, since he’s royal. Five of them should technically be his godfathers’, but the special one we choose will be his everyday name, the one he goes by. It’ll be the name he uses when he’s king, too.’ ‘So what will it be? Rudolf?’ ‘No, his dad said he doesn’t want him to be Rudolf VII. He said people keep on making reindeer jokes about it when you’re a kid. Could be Henry, I guess. That would make him King Henry III of Rothenia when his turn comes. Leopold is another name Rudi’s wondering about, after one of his German cousins.’ ‘Yuk!’ ‘We might go for other royal names. We like Ferdinand or Louis or Friederich.’ ‘Like Prince Fritzy?’ ‘It had occurred to us. Do you want to know a secret?’ ‘I’m good wiv secrets, me.’ ‘I know. I want to call him Maxim, after the king of Rothenia who was Rudi’s great great uncle.’ ‘Good plan.’ Damien counted off his fingers. So he’d be Maxim Henry Leopold Ferdinand Louis Friederich, and thass even before yer gets to Elphberg! He’ll never remember them all.’ ‘Do you have a middle name?’ ‘Me dad says it’s Trouble.’ ‘Nice. Mine are Helen and Elizabeth.’ ‘Helen’s me favourite name. There’s a girl in me class called Helen Debies. She’s nice. We has a laugh. She’s not like you think girls will be: she dunn shriek or play wiv dolls. She helps me squash snails in the yard.’ Clearly the boy approved of this as a civic duty. ‘She sounds like my sort of girl. You must bring her round one day.’ ‘She thinks you’re ace. She’s got a poster of you in her bedroom.’ Harriet widened her eyes. ‘You’ve been in her bedroom?’ Damien was suddenly flustered. He hadn’t meant to let that out. Nor had he mentioned that Helen was a fresh-faced, active, slim, blonde girl whose presence and smell made all sorts of strange feelings pulse through him. There had actually been a moment in her bedroom when a sequence of increasingly reckless dares had led her hand to encounter something inside his jeans she had not expected to find. But she had not taken it away, nor had he resisted the dare to kiss her on the mouth. It was unfinished business he intended to pursue someday – and soon! He covered desperately. ‘When’s King Rudi coming back?’ The queen paused before answering. ‘In a day or two I think.’ ‘So the battle’s gonna be tomorrow or the day after?’ ‘Fraid so. And a very strange battle it will be.’ ‘Me dad’s ready fer anyfing, he says.’ ‘I’m confident with him in charge here at Wenzelsberh. So … what have the Mendamero Men been doing today?’ Damien was a bit embarrassed to have to evade the question. He had made the queen an honorary Mendamero Man with a straight face, and technically she was bound to keep the organisation’s secrets. He rather thought, however, that her unfortunate status as an adult would mean she would not see the news of Lance in quite the same light as he and his friends had. ‘Oh … we wuz on exercises in the woods. We met another kid.’ ‘Local boy?’ ‘Yuh! His family’s been round here for generations, he said.’ ‘What was his name?’ ‘Umm … think it was something like Hans.’ ‘A German family then. The local foresters are Germans, I believe.’ ‘Yuh. That might’ve been it.’ Uncomfortable at his deceit, Damien got up, offered the queen another kiss and trotted back to his gang. He did not recognise the security detail at the door as he went. Roman had left and a bulky man with shades had taken his place.
  8. Mike Arram

    Chapter 24

    Morning broke over northern Rothenia, bringing with it a certain relief to the garrison of Belvoir. The courtyard filled with the smell of frying and baking, while shifts of soldiers took breakfast in the temporary commissary. Sitting at a table with Ed, Henry tried not to be aware of the stares. ‘D’you think they believe I’m weird?’ ‘Yup. That guy over there just made the horns sign.’ ‘You mean the one to ward off evil? Fucking cheek! I’m good, me!’ ‘Yeah, but scary. You were awesome last night, little one. You gave everyone confidence. It was great the way they looked to you, even Rudi.’ Henry grinned. ‘That’s the power of Mendamero. Let’s see if they feel the same way by the time the sun goes down … if the sun goes down.’ ‘Don’t say that. Where’s the Antichrist at the moment?’ Henry didn’t even need to make an internal check. ‘Biscofshalch still. He’s up to something too. I can feel it. He’s really enjoying himself. Bastard!’ ‘Can he sense what you’re doing and thinking?’ ‘Maybe … I don’t know. But I ought to do something to find out.’ ‘Oh no … Henry!’ ‘We’re pretty short on intelligence, babe. First, though, I’m going to check on Gavin. Coming?’ ‘Let me finish this bacon sandwich. I’ll bring the coffee.’ The two colonels strolled down to the hospital, where an armed commando stood guard at the entrance. There was no change in Gavin, and Max was fast asleep in his chair by the bed. Eddie Peacher, who was keeping watch, gave them a wave and put his finger to his lips. Henry beckoned him to join them outside the ward. ‘Anything new, Eddie?’ ‘Naw, dude. Sleeping Beauty’s still dozing in the castle. Hey, that really is Gavin the way he was when we were in Finkle Road. S’amazing! I’d swear that’s the same vile zit on the back of his neck he had seven years ago. It’s like he time-travelled.’ ‘In a way he did. If we ever get out of this, it’ll take ages to sort it all out. His parents think he went to Indonesia to work for a charity and disappeared in the jungle. He’s not contributed to National Insurance. He looks a decade younger than his passport says he should. I wonder if we can make out that he’s got some rare virus that makes him look like a kid?’ ‘No way,’ observed Ed. ‘Everyone will want to catch it.’ Henry shrugged, then suggested they report to Rudi. ‘He’s up,’ Eddie remarked. ‘He didn’t sleep last night. He was working out fencing with Fritzy upstairs in the keep half an hour ago.’ Henry and Ed left Eddie to resume his place on the ward and went up to the great tower. The king was back at the command post, frowning through the steam rising from his coffee mug. ‘Morning,’ he grunted. ‘I’ve just been on the line to Wenzelsberh. The queen decided to leave the capital last night to stay with Andy until this business is over.’ ‘Is that a problem?’ ‘Not really. It’s just that she's farther from medical care than I’d like. She wouldn’t hear of taking the gynaecologist with her.’ ‘How’re things back there?’ ‘She’s a lot happier with the kids around her. She loves that maniac Damien to bits. I just don’t get it. Otherwise, Justy has things under control. I sent him a temporary captain’s commission so he can order my troops around. He’s a bit delighted. I really must stop drafting my friends into the Rothenian military, though, or the Defence Ministry will start complaining about lines of command.’ Henry laughed. ‘You could do a lot worse. Just don’t make Damien a general. He’d declare war on Disney World.’ ‘So what’s up? Any Gavin-related news?’ ‘No. He’s still out of it. Rudi, I need to go and do something reckless.’ ‘You want to scout the Enemy, don’t you.’ ‘Oh! Well, yes.’ ‘I’d have suggested it. Here, these are aerial photos of the Biscofshalch area taken last week. As you see, it just seems to be empty moorland while the Icon is functioning. Now these are surveillance shots of the same area an F-14 took from eight kilometres above it earlier this morning.’ The colour photographs showed a blackened crater and debris spread over a wide area. ‘I think we can assume from this that the Icon is truly destroyed. We’re on our own now.’ ‘Okay, I’ll be off then.’ ‘You’re not going to do the thing with wings that Max did, are you?’ ‘No, why?’ ‘Did you see the size of his cock while he was transformed? It left me feeling totally inadequate. If I saw you like that, I’d just about be ready to give up on masculinity.’ ‘Rudi! Are you sure you’re not gay?’ ‘When he’s back to normal, spank him for me, Colonel Cornish.’ ‘With pleasure, sir.’ *** Henry materialised on the hill of Biscofshalch, where he stared with awe at the ruin of the tower. Max’s terrifying anger had done that. There was nothing else to see, though somewhere down below in the rubble was the body of Mark Tolmie. Henry pondered whether he should recover it. The boy deserved a Christian burial at least. Later, perhaps. He cast around and saw two cars parked at a distance under the eaves of a plantation, near what appeared to be some standing stones. This triggered his caution. He did not remember those stones from his previous visit. Walking towards the cars, he zipped up the coat he had recovered from Max. He was in his guard officer’s battledress, his gold-laced peaked cap pulled down low on his head. He was armed only with the regulation pistol as far as conventional weaponry was concerned. But would that be of any use against the foes he might possibly face here? A feeling of trepidation was growing on him. He could sense the presence of the Antichrist close by, although as yet there was no sign of him or his minions. When Henry reached the top of the rise and the rutted track that led into the forest, it was as if he’d walked into a slaughterhouse. The stones he had seen from a distance formed a rough chair, with an altar in front that was splashed with blood and the remains of human bodies. Crows flapped resentfully into the sky as he came near, protesting at the disturbance of their breakfast. Trying not to gag, Henry approached the nearest, least-damaged body. It was Anthony Willis, his blue eyes staring sightless into the high, grey sky. He had been stabbed in the chest, leaving a look of surprise still on his face. He was cold, dead for at least two hours. Henry said a prayer for the man’s soul and closed his eyes. Two naked, badly mutilated bodies lay close to the table: a middle-aged man and a woman, both with their lower abdomens burst and charred. They had plainly died in great agony. Henry was startled to recognised Ann Wilmot from St Edwards. How had she got here? The man’s face too looked vaguely familiar, though Henry couldn’t immediately place him. There was one further body at a distance beyond the crude throne, also naked and prone. Henry went over, looking with disgust at the great gaping wound which used to be its anus. Then with horror, Henry realised the man was still living, keening quietly to himself in agony. ‘Oh my God!’ he exclaimed. The man turned his face towards Henry. ‘Mr Wilmot!’ ‘It said it was God!’ Wilmot moaned. ‘But it did obscenities to us. Oh God! The pain! It made … things from me. Horrible things!’ Henry kneeled by the man. ‘Where is it?’ ‘The pain!’ Wilmot sobbed. ‘The pain! It won’t let me die, it said.’ ‘Did you put yourself in its power?’ ‘What?’ ‘Did you accept it as your God?’ ‘I … yes.’ Wilmot collapsed in shame and agony. Henry did not know what to do. Perhaps he could help, but he had a feeling there would be conditions if he did. Then he remembered the words of the baptism service. ‘Do you repent of your sins?’ he asked quietly. ‘I repent them,’ agreed Wilmot fervently through gritted teeth. ‘Do you renounce evil?’ ‘I renounce it.’ ‘Do you accept the God of Abraham and Isaac, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ ‘I accept Him.’ ‘Then you are forgiven.’ Henry put his hand on the man’s head, and found he had power to cleanse, calm and purify this stricken man. Wilmot’s sobs ceased. He looked at Henry wonderingly, his face cleared of its agony. ‘Thank you,’ he breathed, and so saying, he died. Henry was shaken. He stood and looked around. The insight he had just had into the depths of the Antichrist’s brutality and sadism was utterly shocking. This thing had to be defeated, and it was apparently up to him. But where was it? A square, torn object caught Henry’s attention. Lodged in some furze bushes a short distance away from the altar he found the vandalised remains of one of Rothenia’s most precious religious treasures, discarded and spattered with filth. His heart was sick at the sight. This should not be. They would not let him use his powers to restore people to life, but try to stop his resurrecting the spirit of a nation! His mind seized the object, mending its rips and cleansing the stains from it. Once again the Black Virgin of Ranstadt looked out on the sinful world with a sad smile. Henry grinned to himself. Perhaps the faithful of Rothenia deserved a miracle. Focussing on the object he sent it on its way. The next time the attendants opened the golden doors behind the high altar of the abbey of St Vitalis, they would find the icon restored. Henry just hoped the monk who found it didn’t have a weak heart. That done, he began walking past the cars towards the forest track. A prickling in his neck warned him to turn. The throne was no longer empty. ‘Mendamero, I believe.’ The occupant was in the form of a king, white-robed and crowned. The face was sensitive and noble. ‘I think we have met before. Mr Atwood is it not? I am surprised. You see me before you, shocked.’ It chuckled amiably to itself. ‘You look rather well in uniform. A man of so many parts … parts which I have to say I would like to see distributed around this landscape.’ Henry chose not to rise to the bait. ‘I’ve just met your victims.’ ‘Ah, yes. The poor things. What can I say? A sad necessity, like the deaths of Enoch and Elijah, regrettable preliminaries to my final coronation.’ ‘Do you have to enjoy it so much?’ ‘I value my work.’ ‘Which is?’ ‘The purification of vice and iniquity from the world. I have dealt with three wicked people here who deserved no less than they got. I will bring order and peace to a troubled world, a New Jerusalem. I have to say, I’m surprised you oppose me. Don’t you want the same?’ ‘There’s a profound difference between telling people what’s good for them, and forcing them to accept it whether they like it or not. People have to choose the good in order for the world to change, otherwise it’s called tyranny.’ The Antichrist favoured him with a lazy smile. ‘That’s been tried. This is my way. It will work. One day, the world will thank me as well as worship me. For I am God.’ Henry rolled his eyes. ‘It’s all so simple, isn’t it?’ Now it was the Antichrist’s turn to look startled. ‘What?’ ‘You see it so clearly. I felt like that once; it’s the clarity of adolescence. Reason divorced from experience. But then, you have no soul and thus no ability to sympathise or to learn as a human would. You are thought without emotion, except perhaps when you enjoy the pain of others just a bit too much. I wonder why that is?’ The thing on the throne looked darkly on Henry. ‘So, you really are Mendamero. The Great Council’s puppet. I’ve heard it all before and am not convinced. If they were right, the world would have changed long ago, but it hasn’t.’ ‘You haven’t yet said it.’ Henry smiled. He was getting the measure of this thing. ‘What?’ ‘That you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Somehow, with your sort of mind, it all comes down to that metaphor. Facile reasoning and lust cloaked as a simple passion for truth. The fact is, eggs don’t feel and can’t learn, while people can and do.’ ‘You tire me.’ ‘I am distraught. Now I know you, I no longer fear you.’ Henry turned away, pondering whether to leave at this point. The Antichrist caught his intention. ‘Wait!’ he called urgently, almost desperately. ‘Whatever you say, we’re actually alike. I have no serious wish to harm you. I could spare the world. A single act would save it.’ ‘What would that be?’ ‘Your homage. Did they mention that? Kneel and surrender the world to me and I shall be merciful. That’s written in stone somewhere. For if you do it, I shall make you its prince and you will rule in whatever way you choose. Leave the fools in their ignorance and sin if you wish. It’s up to you. I shall withdraw to other, higher struggles.’ Henry was shaken. For all the thing was a liar, it was, in its way, not hypocritical. It meant what it said. It was offering him immortality, power beyond measure and the ability to save the world from chaos. Henry did not however hesitate. He was little Henry Atwood, the country boy, the untidy homosexual, the journalist and the apple of his mother’s eye. He knew what he was, and he was not the material of which emperors were made. He looked at the figure on the throne and shook his head. ‘It’s not for me.’ It returned his gaze coldly. ‘Then die forever!’ The ambush was sprung. Henry was but human, and it had taken all his concentration to deal with the devious intellect enthroned before him. He had not been aware of the trees behind him filling with wolfish skulking figures until the pack launched upon him with appalling speed. Henry spun on his heel. It was his military training that saved him, as he was glad later to acknowledge to the king. He found his gun in his hand without thinking about it and as he went down on one knee he snapped off a shot. It took the leading Hellhound in the throat, knocking it back into one of its fellows with a spray of black blood. Although both fallen demons were soon struggling up again, Henry had by then airlifted himself to the remains of Biscofshalch. He tried to still his hammering heart. That had been too close. If ever the Hellhounds had reached him, Mendamero’s all-too-frail mortality would have been his downfall. They would have bitten out his throat with ease. Distant yelping indicated they were scenting him and casting around to pursue, but he was in no immediate danger. He focussed on the wreckage below him and found what he was searching for. An expression of sad concentration was on his face as he salvaged scraps of a former life, lifting them to him. He would not leave them for the Hellhounds to scavenge and eat. Lije’s body, soiled and streaked with dust, was partly crushed, but his face at least was peaceful and beautiful. Tears in his eyes, Henry knelt and kissed Lije on his cold forehead. The body was too heavy for Henry to carry, so he squatted next to it, taking the dead boy’s hand. He was abruptly in the operating theatre of Belvoir’s temporary hospital. A military nurse shouted with alarm. Henry rose to reassure the orderly. When the major in command raced up, Henry mutely indicated what was left of Lije. The doctor nodded. ‘I’ll have the body prepared for burial.’ Henry thanked him, asked after Gavin and, when told there was no change, went out to find his friends. *** Henry sat next to Matt White in the otherwise empty commissary. Matt looked at him sympathetically. ‘Bad huh?’ ‘You wouldn’t believe.’ ‘You’re right, I have no idea what you’re going through, but you’re doing amazing things, sweetheart. I’m so proud of you.’ Henry sought comfort in Matt’s arms. He felt a kiss on his hair and was grateful. After some moments’ silence, Matt cleared his throat and asked gently, ‘Baby, I need to know. You have these powers, and I rather suspect they include the ability to resurrect the dead, as Gavin once did. Can’t you bring back Lije or Anthony Willis?’ Henry sighed. ‘Don’t suppose I haven’t thought about it. But Tobias warned me very severely against giving in to that temptation, however hard things get. If I brought Lije back to life, what would I be doing? Condemning him to further pain and guilt, worse now because he’s earned our contempt. And he would have to prepare himself to die once more. He would go mad. Wherever he is now, he must feel some sort of peace. Or so I can hope.’ ‘And Willis?’ ‘How can I tell what might occur if I intervened in his fate? All sorts of things which need to happen might not if he reappeared in existence, or things might happen which ought not to. I have no idea what the dead do after they die. There may be a further existence where his presence is needed more than here. He’s run his course and I think he lived for a good purpose. He seems to have died as a brave man should. I mustn’t change what’s once been accomplished by his life.’ ‘I understand. You poor Henry. No human should have to make these decisions, and I worry …’ ‘What?’ ‘I worry about how you’re ever going to be able to deal with life after all this is over. I’m alarmed.’ ‘Why?’ ‘These angelic beings may have the best interests of the universe in mind, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into your best interests.’ Henry shrugged. These were his own concerns too. ‘Someone has to stand up and accept the challenge, Matt. But you’re right, Tobias made no promises to me about happy endings. I’ll just take what comes, as it comes. Are you ready?’ ‘Yes. The Ultra Team will be the pallbearers.’ ‘Ultra Team?’ ‘Davey’s little joke. It’s from the motto on our shoulder flashes: ULTRA ULTIMA.’ ‘Hmm. It works for me.’ The two men went out into the courtyard, where a detail of Guards were drawn up at attention while the chaplain, a purple stole round his neck, stood waiting before an altar improvised from ammunition boxes. Henry and Matt joined Rudi and Ed Cornish waiting at the field-hospital entrance. The coffin containing the remains of Mark Tolmie emerged on the shoulders of Davey, Terry, Fritz, Oskar, Eddie and Max. As it did, the king, Matt, Ed and Henry, hats under their arms, fell in behind. The military funeral, conducted in Rothenian, was brief and poignant. After the Guards fired three volleys over the coffin, the remains were laid to rest in a grave the engineers had dug in the crypt below St Fenice’s chapel. It was filled in by the Ultra Team, who stood silently for some time after the job was done. Rudi called his friends to order. ‘It’s afternoon, guys, and still no sign of the Enemy. Will he come tonight, Henry?’ ‘Perhaps. His Hellhounds are certainly more terrifying at night, so that will enter into his calculation. He may have other auxiliaries too. But he will attack. Before he can begin his conquest of the world, he needs to destroy me. Fortunately, he’s an impatient sort of being, which is one thing that gives me hope.’ ‘Why?’ ‘His intellect is entirely focused on the end result. He sees what he wants and goes straight for it without always thinking things through. His mind has no fine shades. Everything is very simple for him, which means he can miss important distinctions. I wonder …?’ ‘Henry?’ ‘His celestial adversaries are much more subtle and sympathetic. I wonder if they know his weakness. If so …’ ‘Come on, Henry, give.’ ‘I really need some additional information, but the only people who can tell me aren’t talking.’ A scuffle of running steps on the crypt stairs drew their attention. An orderly appeared. ‘Sir! The man Gavin Price is waking!’ ‘Right on cue!’ smiled Henry. *** Rudi ordered the Ultra Team to keep back and sent Eddie and Henry into the hospital first. Max had already raced ahead; there was no stopping him. Although Gavin was still linked up to the monitors, his eyes were flickering now and there were small movements as he regained consciousness. Max was leaning over him staring intently into his eyes, gripping the hand that wasn’t wired to the machines. ‘Gav? Can you hear me?’ There was a more decided stir in the bed. Gavin’s eyes opened, blinked and focused. ‘Max?’ He was answered by a broad grin, followed by a kiss. One of Henry’s internal questions was answered. Gavin had returned with memories of his period as Guardian. But did he recall everything? Henry pushed forward to survey his former boyfriend. It was uncanny how time had stood still for Gavin. Henry was greeted by the same shy smile he used to meet when they woke together in the morning. How must he look to Gavin? ‘Hey, baby. You feeling okay?’ ‘Like I was out last night on the booze but got away without a hangover. Lije is dead, isn’t he?’ ‘Yes, we’ve just buried him. I’ve got a lot of questions about his death.’ ‘How did I get to … wherever we are?’ ‘We’re in Belvoir Castle, and it’s been less than a day. It’s the afternoon after Lije was killed. Max hauled you out when the Antichrist blasted you.’ ‘The Icon is dead and gone too. I could always feel it, in all its moods, but I can't anymore.’ ‘It had moods? Never mind that. Lije?’ ‘He was so brave, Henry. It was that spear.’ ‘What?’ ‘You knew there was a being inside it, didn’t you?’ ‘Yes, I discovered it at Biscofshalch that time. But what it had to tell me was unsettling, to say the least. It told me it was sent to kill the traitor … to kill Lije.’ ‘Lije was no traitor!’ Gavin spat out. ‘He was a hero.’ ‘But he betrayed the tower to the Enemy!’ ‘He unlocked the creature from the spear, and it told him what would happen – what he must do to help destroy the Antichrist. But it was horrible. I couldn’t see how he could do it. We argued for hours.’ Max interjected, ‘I heard you! You were at it in the crypt.’. ‘He wouldn’t listen to alternatives. I think he wanted to die. It was Dressner all over again. I was sure we’d got beyond his suicide kick, but no.’ There was a silence. Max stroked Gavin’s slightly greasy hair. Henry waited for more. Eventually Gavin recommenced. ‘The Icon couldn’t be saved and had to perish, but there were ways it could be arranged to our advantage. The spear-being told Lije his blood – the blood of a revenant – was a peculiarly mystical substance. The Antichrist is deadly but not invincible. When he goes armed to battle he carries a red shield which is impenetrable. No weapon can pass through it, so nothing can stop him getting to you, Henry, and crushing you.’ ‘But he’s not invincible.’ ‘No. The spells laid on his armour and shield can be corrupted and unbound by the blood of an immortal. So Lije sacrificed himself. He went to Bishop Jack in Ranstadt and offered to betray the tower and shut down its defences. In return the bishop would give him his life back.’ ‘Apparently, he was very convincing.’ ‘The bitterness in him was genuine enough. But his love of me and his sense of duty were always stronger.’ ‘He loved you?’ ‘Not that way. He was straight, alright, but he cared deeply for me and was a true friend. I’m going to miss him so much.’ ‘So when he died it was a setup?’ ‘Yes. The spear-being …’ ‘It called itself the Destroyer, for good reason.’ ‘…said it would happen, and it did. That’s why we couldn’t tell you, Max. There was no way you could have done what you did in cold blood. I’m sorry.’ Tears were by now coursing down Gavin’s sallow cheeks. Max gripped Gavin’s hand so hard his knuckles whitened. ‘So now the Antichrist is vulnerable but doesn’t know it. Can any weapon pierce his shield?’ ‘I don’t know. The spear perhaps?’ ‘We have it here. Max salvaged it.’ ‘You did? We didn’t expect that.’ Max relaxed a bit, giving him a troubled smile. ‘Do you want to get up, baby?’ ‘I feel okay. Not like I did when I was Enoch, but I can manage alright.’ ‘Good. I’ll go see the doctor. He’ll find you some fatigues and boots.’ Henry left Gavin to talk things through with Max. There were clearly going to be issues between the two. *** Henry had retreated to Ed. They stood together on the windy battlements of the keep of Belvoir, both pensive and withdrawn. The sky above them was leaden and bleak. ‘There he is,’ Ed observed. Gavin had emerged below on to the courtyard. He was walking with Max, talking earnestly as they went. Both were in plain green military fatigues, all the garrison had available to replace their clothes. ‘Where’s he off?’ ‘Going to visit Lije’s grave, I think.’ ‘You’re reading his mind. Shame on you.’ ‘No, no! It’s not like that. I just needed to see what was there. His mind is quite different now. It’s fully human. It lacks the depth and strength the Enoch persona gave him. He’s our Gavin again alright. I just wonder if he’s the Gavin Max fell in love with. I have a feeling all may not be well there.’ ‘That’ll be sad if it’s true. There’s no doubt about Gavin’s feelings for Max. I hope you’re wrong.’ ‘Me too. The kid deserves better after all he’s gone through. So what’s your reaction to the latest intelligence about the Antichrist?’ Ed looked around at the roof of the keep. Two computerised missile batteries were whirring and ticking behind them, searching the skies for enemies. ‘I’ll give these babies every chance of frying his arse.’ ‘Won’t hurt to try, that’s for sure. It’s the spear that’s the best hope, though. The only problem is, the thing’s treacherous. It called itself the blade that cuts both ways for a very good reason.’ Henry and Ed descended to the command centre. Rudi was still there, talking earnestly into a headphone set. They didn’t disturb him, going instead to the table where the spear had been placed. It had been cleaned and the broad, figured blade shone silver once more. Henry stood the spear upright on its butt. He knew he needed to talk to the Destroyer, but Spearboy was not communicating. Henry frowned, making a real effort to break in on its isolation. The spear glowed in his hand and bright sparks leapt from the haft as it resisted him stoutly. Henry grew stubborn. He visualised the faun-like child and seized him by the scruff of his neck. ‘Geroff!’ The word burst from the spear, causing Rudi and the communications staff to jerk round. ‘Get out here, you little bugger!’ Henry swore. ‘No chance!’ ‘You’ll bloody well do what I say. I’m fucking Mendamero!’ ‘And I’m the Destroyer, so get stuffed!’ ‘Wait till I tell Tobias!’ ‘Hah!’ The weapon vibrated in his hand. Showers of sparks hissed from it into the tower room, causing two nearby electronic monitors to explode. Technicians leaped to get extinguishers. The spear’s shaft was very hot now and Henry had to drop it. As he let it go, the spear vanished. ‘That went well,’ Ed observed in the sudden silence.
  9. Mike Arram

    Chapter 23

    Max held close Gavin’s still-warm body, now a limp, dead weight in his grasp. It was a few moments before the strangest thing registered in his head. Amazingly, wings still arched from his shoulders, his skin was golden and his arms were strong and muscled beyond what they normally were. The fall of Enoch had not ended his transformation. He still had his powers! ‘Now what are you?’ the Antichrist’s voice grated into his grief and woke him to his surroundings. ‘Not one of the orders, I think. You smell human, but you don’t look it. Speak, boy!’ ‘I’m gonna take ya down, ya bastard!’ Max growled, an unaccustomed anger beginning to burn in his chest. ‘Definitely not one of the orders. I’ll dissect you afterwards, if I have time. It is curious. Enoch and Elijah I knew about, but where did the Icon find you? But for now …’ The great spear was raised again, red sparks crackling from it. ‘I’ll have you, you cunt!’ Max swore, taken back to the hormonal violence of his adolescent years. His wings, flexing and beating of their own accord, lifted him even in the confined space of the crypt. His wrath was intensely physical, feeding on the appalling tragedy of his friends’ deaths. It pressed out from him, dislodging stones from the vault and shifting the walls, and still it grew. As he rose, Max screamed his anguish and despair. The ceiling and floors above him, unable to withstand the hurricane of his passage, bulged and then exploded upwards. He cared nothing for the devastation he was creating. There was some relief in destruction and he rejoiced as the tower shattered about him, an avalanche of stone smashing down the red form of the Antichrist as it did so. Max noticed a glowing shape in the debris. He raised his hand to summon it, and the spear leaped obediently into his grip. He would not leave this grim weapon for the Enemy to use again. Holding Gavin’s inert form in one arm, he soared up into the night air through the collapsing tower. He hovered briefly above it, then beat eastwards, buoyed up by his fury and grief. His mind reached out to seek the only person who could bring him help and comfort: Henry. Instinctively finding the mind he sought, he homed in on it, beyond mountains and lakes. His wings flexed, urging him forward. All the while he kept Gavin clasped hard to his body, sheltering him as much as he could from the cold air. *** Anthony Willis stared astonished as with a great rumble and crash the tower of Biscofshalch collapsed, not inward but outward. Watching it split, its walls reeling and falling, he realised something was coming from deep within the building. A glowing golden shape on huge pinions burst out of the ruin, flinging stones and timbers away from it as it rose shrieking despairingly. Then the tower beneath it vanished into a cloud of choking dust that flowed down the hill towards Anthony. Before he was briefly swallowed up, however, he saw the shape arrow away to the east, beating its wings furiously. The bishop? He must still be in the ruin. Anthony staggered forward up the hill into the now thinning dust. A crater yawned where the tower had stood, a jumble of masonry fragments filling it. Dust and vapour still ascended from the wreck of Biscofshalch. For a while there was comparative silence, then the wreckage stirred and heaved. Shifting stone rattled loudly as something massive and armoured climbed from under it. ‘Sir?’ Anthony called weakly. More fragments rumbled aside and there was a crack as a great timber shattered. The metal shape was gone now, replaced by the familiar figure of Bishop Jack James picking his way through the jumble of masonry, brushing himself off as he came. Anthony reached down to haul the bishop up the last slope to the surface. The man seemed to catch his breath. ‘Well, this suit will never be the same.’ ‘Sir, are you alright? What happened?’ ‘You might say job done, though not the way I intended. The Icon is crushed and extinguished, and a source of evil is gone from the world. Can’t you feel it?’ ‘What was that winged thing?’ ‘You saw it?’ ‘Yes, sir. It burst out of the ruin and flew away in that direction. What was it?’ ‘A demonic ambush I had not expected. Still, Enoch and Elijah are no more.’ ‘Enoch?’ ‘Yes. The demon who bewitched you is defeated, consigned at last to the hell that spawned it. You’re free, Anthony. It and its companion are dead. There is no stain of their filthy minds left to befoul the world that I can sense. But now we have a new danger. Mendamero is unveiled, and the demon you just saw is returning to its master. The forces of evil and chaos are gathering not far away.’ The bishop led Anthony back down the hill. He seemed preoccupied, humming to himself as he went. *** Henry was reclining on a camp bed attempting to sleep, albeit without much hope of success. Heavy breathing from the next bed indicated that Ed Cornish had been luckier. But his slumber was not destined to last. A troubled Henry had experienced a distinct shudder and emptiness a few moments before. Something had changed in the world around him, and he felt suddenly like a stranger in an unfamiliar place. At that moment an alarm erupted from the keep of Belvoir. As men leaped to their feet and cried out around him, Henry sprang from his cot, grabbed his winter coat and searched for his shoes. By the time he found them, Ed was already dressed. They ran out of the west wing heading for the great tower, where arc lights had powered up and the antennae of the missile batteries were rotating, looking to acquire a target. They encountered Rudi with night glasses on the top of the castle mound. ‘Incoming,’ he informed them laconically. ‘Which direction?’ panted Ed. ‘It’s low in the west. No more than ten kilometres away now and closing fast. It’s the size and speed of a missile, but …’ Henry focussed. ‘It’s no missile. Look! That blaze of light!’ A golden shape pulsed in the sky coming towards them at treetop height. ‘I think … let it be, it’s friendly!’ The king barked into his mic, ordering the missile batteries and anti-aircraft guns to power down. The soldiers stared in wonder at what was beating in from the west, its great silver wings thrashing the night sky. It halted above the castle, hovered and then landed in the courtyard, gently laying its burdens on the ground. Many soldiers had gone to their knees, crossing themselves. Henry, however, was running down from the mound shouting, ‘Max! Max!’ The golden shape looked around, its burning blue eyes sweeping the crowd that cowered away from it. The wings folded, shrank and vanished. The light dimmed out of the figure and all that was left was a naked, fair-haired boy on his knees, weeping over the body of … ‘Gavin!’ wailed Henry. *** The bishop and Anthony reached the huddled group back at the cars. ‘Jack? What’s going on? We saw lights and heard explosions!’ Bishop Lewis was confused. Bishop Jack ignored him. He sent a staccato burst of instructions at Gareth and his minions, although in no language ever spoken by a human being, Anthony suspected. The security men growled back, and two loped towards the wreckage of the tower. Finally Bishop Jack turned to the others. ‘You’d best settle in your car for the moment. There’s been a great battle in the Spirit, which has forced me to reveal myself.’ ‘Reveal yourself? What do you mean?’ ‘For heaven’s sake, Alun! You’ve seen the signs and wonders. Surely it’s obvious.’ ‘Obvious? Not at all. Yes, I’ve seen the cures and exorcisms. Are you suggesting …?’ Wearily, Jack nodded. ‘You’re … the Prophet?’ ‘The Anointed One. The Lamb. All those things. Who else could do such miracles? Now get in the car. There are arrangements to complete before dawn. Gareth, take Mr Willis and make him comfortable in the van.’ Anthony sat dazed in the rear seat of the Volkswagen. He sipped automatically at the bottle of water Gareth had silently handed him, with which he cleared the dust of the collapsed tower from his throat. Then the security man searched him thoroughly, removing his mobile and checking his wallet and pocketbook. Afterwards he moved to the driving seat, staring fixedly in the direction of what once had been Biscofshalch. So Enoch was dead. Anthony was numbed by the news. That beautiful, lithe body with which he had made love was no more than carrion. That laughter and those profound eyes were extinguished forever. Defiantly, he prayed for Gavin’s soul, not a thing his form of religion usually favoured. He realised by now he was in deep trouble, his own soul’s fate hanging in the balance. He thought he understood at last what kind of creatures he was dealing with. Time passed, and despite everything he dozed. He awoke to find the security detail, returned from the tower ruins, in earnest discussion with their boss. Bishop Jack was scrutinising a sheaf of torn papers, which he then scattered on the ground in disgust. He appeared disappointed about something. A pearly greyness was gradually growing in the sky beyond the hills as dawn approached. The bishop turned towards the sun and began singing in a very strange voice. It seemed the landscape leaned over to listen. A gusting wind scythed across the moors, thrashing the scrubby trees and thickets of broom. With a grinding noise the earth opened. Monolithic grey stones emerged to arrange themselves in the grouping of a giant throne, a slab of granite acting as a footstool or altar before it. Two of the black-suited security men –– one of them Boris –– flanked the table. Anthony heard exclamations from the Wilmots’ car. Ann Wilmot’s white face was pressed against the side window, her mouth open with astonishment. Indicating that Anthony should get out of the van, Gareth pushed him roughly into position before the throne, then directed the Wilmots and Bishop Lewis to join him. Lewis’s whining and questioning voice was ignored. Bishop Jack, who had been musing on the landscape before him, now strode in front of the throne. ‘My friends, this is the hour when I must declare myself. You shall be the witnesses of what has been accomplished and will have the joy of being the first to hail your lord and king.’ There was a stunned silence in response that announcement. Bishop Jack smiled benignly around the group, as if he were addressing one of his seminars or conferences. He raised his hand. Slowly and subtly he changed. He kept his face but his body seemed to swell beyond its normal size. His clothes became white robes and his hair shone golden. He was now a kingly and noble figure, youthful yet wise. From somewhere he drew a gold chain and placed it around his neck, then produced a jewelled diadem which he set on his head. At last he ascended his throne, seeming to fill it as if they were of the same proportions. ‘Please kneel,’ he commanded gently, and all four were pushed down in front of the table by Gareth and his men. ‘You know me now, for I am the One, the Lord. Greet God, the Prince of this World. Bow to the Lamb in whose hands lie healing and salvation, but death and damnation for the sinner and unbeliever. Yes, my children, this is the Eschaton, and I am he who will bring the heavenly Jerusalem to Earth. Hallelujah!’ The black-suited men echoed his acclamation with guttural fervour. There was silence from the four humans on their knees before him. Boris appeared with a square black object, a painting in a heavy frame, which he placed in front of them. It was a Byzantine image of the Virgin Mary, her face pale staring out of her black robe adorned with dull golden stars. His heart sinking, Anthony recognised it as the Black Virgin of Ranstadt. So Gareth’s activity in the cathedral that night was now explained. The Antichrist seemed disappointed at the reaction to his self-coronation. ‘My dear friends, I have offered you the great favour of being the first before my judgement throne, the first to taste my love and mercy, for you have been faithful to me each in your way. Alun, I address you. Who am I?’ The bishop’s voice stuttered, ‘You are … I mean you were John James … but er, clearly there are other considerations. For God’s sake, Jack. Can I trust my eyes?’ ‘Believe in me and you will live forever. You see this pathetic object of superstition before you? Spit on it! Then acclaim me as lord and God.’ ‘Well … if you … you seem to be one foretold in prophecy. I … er, call you lord and God.’ A security man took him up by the scruff of his neck and the bishop, looking embarrassed, obligingly spat a dribble of saliva on the icon. The Antichrist pondered the man and held his gaze silently. Sighing, he next questioned Ann Wilmot. ‘Woman, do you know me?’ In a shrill, nervous voice she echoed the man beside her. ‘You are my lord and my God.’ Without help from the Antichrist's sinister acolytes, she spat on the virgin and then wiped her lips with a tissue. Again the Antichrist looked disappointed. He turned to Gerry Wilmot. ‘And you?’ The man was more decided in his reaction, his answer bordering on being eager. ‘You are the foretold Lamb. You are my God.’ He sent a volley of spit across the face before him. This time the reaction brought forth a pale smile from the crowned figure. His gaze finally rested on Anthony, who for some reason believed he caught the edge of keen anticipation in the eyes that fell on him from the throne. ‘Now, Anthony, my faithful disciple, I ask you. You have seen my wonders and the extent of my works. Knowing me as you do, who am I?’ The world reeled around Anthony’s head and fear rose in his throat like bile. He first looked up at the kingly, smiling figure, then at the sad-faced woman whose image had been placed in front of him. She caught his eyes with hers, their gaze speaking of suffering but, beyond the pain, ultimate hope. She seemed to smile encouragingly. He could not spit in such a face. All the events he had witnessed came back to him: Bishop Jack’s friendship and cruelties, his monumental ego and lust for power, his enigmatic relationship with dark forces and corrupt men. Was this God’s way? It was not. Before he could be stopped, Anthony leaned forward to kiss the face before him. ‘You are the Antichrist. The evil one. You I will not worship.’ He had sealed his fate. *** Henry knelt beside a sobbing Max. When he took the boy's hand, Max collapsed against him shuddering. ‘Henry! Lije is dead! He betrayed us. Then Gavin saved me, and now he’s dead. And I escaped and I brought that bloody spear. Do something, Henry! Bring him back. You can do it.’ Henry’s eyes too were full of tears. He raised the boy and threw his coat over his shoulders. Holding Max hard, Henry finally understood the true tragedy of the oath he had dared to take. ‘I can’t, Max. It’s not allowed, at least not to me. I’m not permitted to play the game of life and death.’ Max pushed him away exclaiming, ‘What? But you must!’ Henry went to his knees again beside Gavin’s body. He touched it with his mind and inspected it carefully. Amazingly there was still life in it. Max had been wrong! As this sank in, it occurred to Henry that what he saw was a body he knew all too well, in its blemishes and imperfections. Blemishes and imperfections? He started with surprise. Hang on, his mind suddenly announced, this is the self-same body you slept with and made love to all those years ago. What lay on the ground was not Enoch, the transformed and perfect being, full of strength, confidence and power. Henry grinned and looked up. ‘Max! Listen to me. This isn’t Enoch.’ ‘I know that. It’s Gavin. Why are you smiling?’ ‘You don’t understand. This is the real Gavin – my Gavin – the boy with spots, verrucas and a red, runny nose every February. This is Gavin Price before he touched the Icon. This is a nineteen-year-old human boy and he’s alive, if not firing on all cylinders.’ Max stared. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Enoch has been burned away, leaving the boy he once was. He’s out for the count but he’s alive, truly alive. This Gavin may well need the loo and certainly could do with a shower. He’s been returned to us by the Icon.’ He shouted in Rothenian, ‘Medijces!’ His command brought orderlies who stretchered Gavin to the improvised field hospital below the east range. Max trailed after them, pulling Henry’s jacket tightly around himself. Henry looked at Rudi, Ed and the friends who had crowded round them. ‘So Elijah and Enoch have perished, but Gavin lives. I wonder about Mark?’ He stooped and picked up the spear which Max had retrieved from the wreck of Biscofshalch and discarded without a thought on landing at Belvoir. Rudi briskly ordered the senior officers to a conference on the mound. Henry trailed after them, deeply pensive. As he walked, he inspected the spear carefully. It felt very different from the weapon he had first held. Blood and scraps of flesh clotted the blade and the first foot of its length. It had killed, so much was clear. He suppressed a shudder. This was Lije’s lifeblood. That tragic young man was finally at rest. But had he died a traitor? Knowing Lije, Henry could not believe it. There was more to all this than appeared at first sight. He hefted the weapon. Its emanation of power was still very much to be sensed, although the vibrant personality that inhabited it seemed subdued now, turned inwards on itself. With a grimace, he carefully laid it on the conference table. As the other officers of the garrison entered, they glanced at it with a mixture of caution and disgust. When everyone had found seats, Rudi called the meeting to order. ‘So Henry, your thoughts, please.’ ‘The Icon is destroyed, as we knew must happen, and both Elijah and Enoch are no more. However, their deaths were not what we were led to expect. Enoch perished, certainly, but Gavin lives thanks to the Icon’s gift and Max’s love and courage.’ ‘And Elijah?’ ‘… is clearly dead, yet … I wonder if again his departure is more complicated than the prophecy would lead us to believe. I must get more information from Max, once he recovers from the shock he’s in.’ ‘We really don’t have much time. We need to know what happened at Biscofshalch. Can the Antichrist perceive you now?’ ‘Oh yes, I can feel his malevolence beating on me. He knows we’re here and he’ll be coming soon. At the moment, though, he’s preoccupied.’ ‘With what?’ ‘I have no idea. Gathering his forces, I would imagine.’ ‘And the boy Max is more powerful than we guessed. Can he aid our fight?’ Henry shook his head. ‘He’s empty now of the power the Icon lent him in its last moments. He’ll not fly again. His part is done, I would guess, apart from sitting by Gavin’s bedside.’ ‘I see, then we go back to waiting.’ ‘Yes, sir. Perhaps you’ll excuse me. I want to go down to the sickbay and try to get more out of Max. Would you take care of the … cleaning and care of this weapon? I wouldn’t advise anyone's holding it too long. It’s very dangerous.’ Henry got up, replaced his cap and walked down to the west range. The medics had found a tee-shirt, military coveralls and boots for Max. He sat looking dishevelled and handsome, holding Gavin’s hand. Henry sat on the other side of the bed, inspecting the two. It was astonishing to see Gavin lying there, his appearance exactly the same as when they had been students together seven years before. Time had stopped for him. In effect, he had been granted seven years of extra life. Henry felt almost envious until he remembered the cost to his former lover. Yet in some ways the balance was now being restored. Gavin had been given back his life and form, together with a lover of some courage and desirability. But how would Gavin deal with it when he awoke? Henry glanced across at Max and smiled. A shy grin answered him. ‘How are you doing, Max?’ ‘Confused, Henry. But I feel safer now, and happier. Will he be okay when he wakes up?’ ‘I hope so, babes, I hope so. But I don’t know. I’m afraid it’ll be painful. He has to come to terms with Lije’s death and the loss of his powers. ‘Now I need your help. Can you gather your thoughts and talk me through the last hours of Biscofshalch?’ Max first looked uncertain, then clenched his jaw like a determined little boy and began his account. Although it was not always articulate, Henry was patient and eventually had what he believed was the full picture. ‘So the spear was used against both Enoch and Elijah … that’s very interesting.’ Max blurted, ‘I feel so guilty.’ ‘Why, sweetheart?’ ‘I killed Lije. I didn’t mean to, but he stood in front of the spear. It was almost as if he wanted to die. I can’t get over it.’ ‘Don’t waste your time in recriminations. I think you might even take some hope from it all. The spear is not exactly what it seems, and it’s clear that when the Enemy used it against Gavin he made a big mistake. It wouldn’t cooperate. It burned away Enoch while leaving Gavin unharmed. There’s more to learn about this yet, Max, but for now neither of the two who could tell me are able to.’ ‘Pardon me?’ ‘Gavin’s out of it, and the spirit which inhabits the spear isn’t very talkative in this universe.’ ‘What?’ ‘Never mind, Max. Just don’t blame yourself. Lije got himself into this, and maybe it was for a reason. I don’t know what, but time will tell, you can be sure of that.’ The boy looked comforted and returned his gaze to his lover on the bed, hooked up to all sorts of monitors. Though still pale, Gavin seemed unharmed. Henry left and sought out the army doctor, a major in green scrubs. To his request for information he got the response that Gavin was apparently in fine health, with no breakages or bruises, just in a profound healing sleep, which the major thought had been induced. ‘He will wake when his body wants to,’ was his concluding observation. *** Having uttered the fatal words, Anthony attempted to project bravado by stared up defiantly at the Antichrist. The being sat on its throne staring back at him with what seemed to be mingled annoyance and resignation. ‘So. That’s a pity. My victory depends on several conditions. The easiest one is that a good man will recognise me as the God I am. A pity I chose such a benighted and superstitious fool as you. It was always a long shot, but though you might call me lazy, I had hoped you would cooperate, Tony.’ He nodded to Boris. The Black Virgin’s image was punched through and hurled into the bushes. Anthony felt puzzled enough to find the boldness for a question. ‘Why, if you have had three others defile an image of such goodness while hailing you as lord and God, did you need me as well?’ The being shook its noble head. ‘You fail to understand. Alun here is a hypocrite, a lecher and a serial adulterer. His acclamation is worthless, as is that of the harlot his mistress, who merely echoes his self-interested whining.’ Bishop Lewis began to protest, but the Antichrist held up its hand and the kneeling man fell silent. The figure on the throne seemed amused again as it gazed down at the man on Anthony’s right. ‘Of course, Mr Wilmot here had no idea of what his wife and the bishop were up to.’ Anthony glanced at his neighbour, whose mouth sagged in shock at the revelation. ‘Now Gerry’s acclamation is not so worthless, for it was made with conviction. As a result, his fate will be different from the others. Unfortunately, he’s not what you might call a good man. He’s a vengeful, small-minded bigot with an ambition to control and little moral compunction as to how to achieve it. ‘No, Anthony. Your endorsement was the one I needed. But you would not oblige.’ Lewis found his voice again. ‘Look here, Jack – if you are indeed Jack – let us up, there’s a good fellow. I’ll pass over this nonsense about me and Ann. I’m sure you’ve been … misinformed.’ The Antichrist leaned forward. ‘I did mention this was a judgement throne, did I not? And now it comes. You are a lecher and so you will experience the fulfilment of lust, but not your own lust.’ The Antichrist nodded and Boris transformed into the half-bestial form of a Hellhound. Its claws clamped on the back of Bishop Lewis’s neck while its other paw ripped his clothes from his body, forcing him naked and face down over an edge of the table. Anthony gagged at the stench from the Hellhound, which howled as it thrust its monstrous penis deep into Lewis. Screams went on and on, the noses of the appalled witnesses filling with the smell of excrement and burning flesh. Lewis took several minutes to die and was conscious and whimpering until the end. Anthony and the two others found their necks clamped by muscular, irresistible fingers. They struggled uselessly in horror from which there was no chance of escape. The Antichrist watched the death of the bishop with real interest, and applauded as he died. ‘And now his whore.’ Ann Wilmot was thrown on her back, stripped and disembowelled in her turn. Although her agony was less prolonged, she died looking down at the obscenity being inflicted on her body. Anthony had vomited several times by now, spattering the front of his clothes. Hellhounds hauled Gerry Wilmot gibbering on to the table, where he squirmed flat on his back in the blood left by his wife’s evisceration. His clothes were ripped away and a monster took each of his limbs, holding his arms stretched out while pushing his knees back into his chest. ‘Now, Gerry. There’s no need to be so concerned. Your fate is not as theirs, for you have committed yourself to my service.’ Somehow Anthony was not reassured by the Antichrist’s soothing tone. The malicious amusement was all too obvious. ‘You never were a father, were you Gerry, though you wanted to be? It’s my pleasure to grant your wish.’ Anthony had been pulled back from the table. He watched horrified and fascinated as the spread-eagled man writhed in torment. Wilmot’s potbelly swelled and he howled in agony. With a spurt of blood, out from between his buttocks crawled a large, wet shape not unlike a woodlouse, which rolled off the table and fell to the ground. Slowly it stood on its rear legs, growing apace until it became an armored dwarf warrior, neckless and hunched, wielding a halberd. It took on a reddish hue. Gerry’s abdomen had in the meanwhile swelled once again; the agonising process was repeated perhaps fifty times. When the Hellhounds finally released him, it was clear that his sanity was a thing of the past. He fell off the table with a thud and crawled away. Anthony flinched from a glimpse of the gaping red hole in the man’s backside. Apart from Gerry’s sobbing and hopeless wails, silence fell around the sacrificial altar. Finally, having collected itself, the Antichrist addressed Anthony. ‘You have seen the fate of those who have been in their way helpful to me, Anthony. Now you may be wondering how I reward traitors.’ Anthony found some strength at that point. He would not beg for mercy as the Wilmots had done. It was useless before such a creature. He took comfort in reflecting on the early Church, his mind recurring to a first-year essay he had done on the subject of the early martyrs. What struck him now was the naivety of his approach to their motives under suffering. He had failed to take any account of the terror that rooted a man to the spot. ‘Unfortunately, there are rules about this sort of thing. Boris!’ Anthony’s arms were gripped behind his back, pushing his chest up and out. Gareth, still in human guise, placed himself in front of Anthony, smiling broadly now behind his shades. ‘Unfortunately for me, I should add,’ continued the Antichrist, ‘for it has to be quick. The sinful are mine to torment, the virtuous I may not.’ A flashing knife buried itself under Anthony’s ribs. As he died he marvelled at the lack of pain. His last conscious thought was to wonder if he would ever find out whether his contribution to the fight against evil had made any difference.
  10. Mike Arram

    Chapter 22

    With nothing much else to do, Max and Gavin spent Monday in bed. Neither of them initiated full sex. Instead they kissed and cuddled, expressing their love for each other in whispered words and delicate touches. Max dozed from time to time, and occasionally got up for a snack from his store of pilfered food. Lije worked at his desk, scribbling away for hours on end and adding to the stacks of paper scattered about. Then, late in the afternoon, he took up his guitar. Hearing melancholy chords fill the tower, his friends drifted into his room, where Gavin sat in Max’s lap as they listened. ‘He’s really good,’ Max whispered in his lover’s ear. Gavin nodded but did not otherwise reply. After an hour, Lije put down his instrument and turned to the others. ‘Better light the candles.’ So, they lit up the tower and settled on the common-room sofas, each aware that their time had nearly run out. Eventually Max asked, ‘What do we do when they – y’know – come for us?’ Gavin replied, ‘There’ll be an alarm of sorts that you’ll feel more than hear. Hellhounds can’t pass the bounds we fixed and mortals can’t even get that far. But the Antichrist … he probably will push through and bring his followers with him. At least we’ll have time to prepare a defence.’ ‘With what weapons?’ ‘Our strength is all we have.’ Lije added, ‘… apart from this spear.’ He indicated the weapon propped up in the corner by the stairs, giving it a look of distaste that Max could not interpret. ‘We don’t know what to do with it though.’ ‘You gotta poke the bastards with the sharp end, haven’t ya?’ Max made a jabbing motion with his arm. Gavin gave a weary chuckle. ‘I suppose. I’ll give it a go. There’s no doubt it’ll penetrate their armour.’ ‘Armour?’ ‘The supernatural has a fondness for antiquated weaponry … it’s the symbolic content, I guess.’ ‘What shall I do when they come for us?’ ‘Stay by me, sweets. You’re here for a purpose; we just don’t know what it is.’ ‘I can fight.’ ‘I know, sweets. And you will. If we go down, it’ll be together.’ Max got up and stared out of the window on to the moorland, whose sombre colours were darkening as the twilight closed in. It was going to be a clear night. Not surprisingly, he was on edge and couldn’t sit still. He knew – they all knew – that tonight they would meet their fate. So this was how a condemned prisoner felt on the eve of his execution. He turned from the window. ‘I suppose they’ll attack in the dark, being evil and all.’ Lije nodded. ‘They like the darkness, especially because we don’t.’ Two hours passed, during which Max’s despair gradually left him. At some point he shifted into a sense of resignation. It was with a certain calmness when he realised the Enemy had found them, and was already at the tower gate. *** Henry zipped up his camouflage jacket and settled his peaked cap carefully on his head. He had reappeared sensationally in the middle of the courtyard of Belvoir in full sight of an astonished garrison. Trying to look as if this sort of thing was an everyday occurrence, he had walked over to find his equipment and bags where Ed had left them in the old chapel. ‘It’s not straight,’ commented Davey Skipper as he struggled with the unfamiliar webbing he was trying to put on, while simultaneously dropping his assault rifle with a clatter. ‘Davey, darling, see this crown and these two stars?’ Henry pointed to the tab hanging from his left breast pocket, below the name tag which said ATWOOD. ‘Know what they mean?’ ‘Yeah, course, you’re a colonel.’ ‘Well you may notice a total lack of stars, crowns or any other rank insignia about your person, not even a corporal’s stripes. Which means you don’t criticise my appearance.’ ‘Bollocks. I’ve still got my scout’s colour-coordination and catwalk badges. Must count for something. Talking of which, you can’t seriously expect me to wear this!’ He swung a steel helmet from his right hand with distaste. ‘Think what it’ll do to my hair! Do you know what I pay for a trim in Knightsbridge?’ ‘Something tells me you’re not taking this exercise entirely seriously, Davey. Major O’Brien!’ ‘Sir?’ Terry grinned as he gave a passable military salute. ‘Can you sort out this … volunteer?’ ‘Delighted, colonel. C’mere Davey, yer stiff. Yer do it up like this. And stop fuckin’ whining.’ Henry surveyed the squad of friends who had considered it the highest of honours to stand with him in the final battle. Eddie Peacher winked in his direction, very much looking the part of a soldier. He was in the process of professionally stripping and reassembling his rifle – but then, Eddie was an American. Matt White was grinning at Davey's antics and looking as good as ever, his astonishing beauty emphasised if anything by the unfamiliar military gear. He was taking his role rather more seriously than Davey, with whom otherwise he was usually much in sympathy. Fritz von Tarlenheim, a descendant of marshals and generals, not only was born to wear a uniform but had received military training along with his brother Oskar. They had strapped swords to their thighs, for they were accomplished fencers, Fritz to Olympic standard. He had suggested to Rudi that the nature of the enemy forces might be a mystery, but their susceptibility to cold steel could be anticipated. They knew their king was going to wear the ancient sword associated with his dynasty. True to his promise, the king had provided Rothenian uniforms with a distinctive pink shoulder-flash for the volunteers. A Greek letter Omega stood behind an Elphberg lion and the Latin phrase, ULTRA ULTIMA, which Fritz had told Henry meant: ‘Beyond the end of the world’. Henry’s and Ed’s shoulders were adorned with the same flash. Rudolf Elphberg didn’t miss a trick. Henry found Ed Cornish at the doorway of the castle’s chapel, holding a mug of coffee while discussing some details of the fortifications with an engineer lieutenant. ‘Hey, little babe!’ he greeted Henry – in English so as not to raise eyebrows. Even so the lieutenant gave them a sideways look as he saluted and left. ‘How’re things coming along?’ ‘The engineers are digging in. They had ready-made caissons flown up from Strelfurt to serve as instant gun emplacements. The old castle ditch has been very useful – more so than the walls, it has to be said. I’ve had the guard company and commandos cutting back the eaves of the woods for a good fifty metres all around. You may have heard the chainsaws … no? They’ve used many of the branches to make nasty, sharp stakes sunk deep in the bottom of the ditch. It’ll slow the bastards down at least. My extensive research in horror movies has indicated that demons don’t like stakes in their guts. ‘Now look up there. You’ll see the artillery has deployed batteries of computer-guided missiles to cover a 360-degree sweep of the area. They’ll provide us with a certain amount of air defence if we need it.’ ‘Where’s the command post?’ ‘Bottom floor of the keep. Rudi’s up on the mound if you want a chat.’ Henry climbed a new set of steps the engineer detachment had constructed, returning the salutes of the garrison as he went, oblivious of the many eyes following him. He had stumbled into his role as royal aide, but had assumed the duties imposed on him as conscientiously as everything else he undertook in life. He had accepted a reserve commission in the Guards because Rudi had insisted his equerry have the status and a uniform. Since Ed Cornish – inspired by the king – had followed a military calling, Henry had continued to apply himself to his part-time career. It was giving back something to Rothenia, a country which had given so much to him. So Henry had graduated from basic-training and reservist-officer summer schools, then progressed up the ranks, often ahead of Ed. Ed himself had pronounced Henry a better-than-average officer perfectly capable of command. For the past two years Henry had regularly been given charge of a battalion of national guardsmen and led them on manoeuvres, first as major and now as colonel, so far without disgracing himself. The part-timers had in fact grown very fond of their young English commander, whom they knew from the TV and who they were aware was a personal friend to their king. The experience meant he was happier wearing the rank badges and decorations which he believed came more from his association with the king than from any ability as a soldier. Those who knew him well might have disagreed with his internal modesty. Still, deep in his heart Henry was not a soldier. He had rarely fired a weapon in anger. He was not at all sure modern weapons would have much relevance to his coming struggle with the being which called itself Bishop Jack James. King Rudolf was at a desk in the technology-crammed room, chatting amiably with a communications sergeant. Wearing his general’s uniform, he looked thoroughly in his element, a born soldier, the descendant of warriors. He had made his constitutional role as head of the armed forces peculiarly his own. His prestige, organisational ability and heroism had raised the reputation of the Rothenian military in NATO, lifting the army’s morale to unprecedented heights. Rudolf greeted Henry and indicated he should take a seat. A nod sent the sergeant off to another corner of the room to do something with blinking lights and headphones, or perhaps to monitor the generators humming in the basement of the tower, powering the lamps and electronic systems. ‘Nice day for the apocalypse.’ ‘I don’t think it’ll be today.’ ‘Really, why?’ ‘The last text from Anthony Willis said they were leaving St Edwards and heading north. I think the bishop will attack the Icon tonight. It’ll be tomorrow he turns his attention to us.’ The king looked grim. ‘Can you sense anything at Biscofshalch?’ ‘No. The Icon is pulsing brighter. For me to try to penetrate it would be like attempting to stare directly into the sun. The Icon knows the end is coming too. I almost feel as though it’s preparing itself, as much as we are.’ ‘Is it sentient?’ ‘No. It’s just a channel, but there is an intelligence and goodness behind it which the Antichrist cannot touch. He can only try to close the window the Icon represents, to the great increase of his own strength and the weakening of ours.’ ‘Fascinating. Ah well, let’s hope for a quiet night and some decent sleep then. Does he know we’re here at Belvoir?’ ‘No. Until the Icon is destroyed he can’t see me, but once it goes I think all will become clear to him. You’ll know when that happens, I fear.’ ‘What can we expect? Flying monkeys? Orcs?’ ‘I wouldn’t rule anything out. You should be able to spot the Antichrist though.’ ‘How’s that?’ ‘He’ll be red, and in armour.’ Rudi looked serious. ‘There's one last preparation to make.’ ‘Which is?’ ‘The Guards chaplain will celebrate mass for the garrison at sunset in the court below.’ Henry frowned. ‘Ask him to say it for the good of the souls of our friends Mark Tolmie, Gavin Michael Price and Maxim Josep Jamroziak.’ *** Anthony looked across the moonlit moor towards the tower. ‘Where are we?’ he asked Bishop Jack, standing meditatively beside him. ‘I think I just told you,’ was the reply. ‘It’s called Biscofshalch, though you won’t find it on any map of Rothenia, for here the enemies of God do their evil work and hide themselves from heaven’s gaze.’ ‘How did you know about this place?’ ‘Come, Anthony, you surely realise I have powers beyond those of other men. You’ve seen the cures and can attest to the truth of the prophecies I make. No more pretending, please. You know of Enoch and Elijah.’ Cold hands gripped and squeezed Anthony’s heart. So this was it. His treachery was known and was to be brought out in the open. ‘When did you find out?’ ‘You are somewhat transparent, dear boy. But it was clear when we got back from America last summer that you had been in contact with the Enemy and were hiding something – other than the obvious.’ ‘And you knew I was …?’ ‘Homosexual? Of course. That’s why I wanted you as my chaplain.’ ‘I don’t get it. I’m everything you seem to despise: queer, weak and a traitor to myself as much as to you. Why me?’ The bishop gave a low laugh. ‘Have you heard of Marcus Cocceius Nerva the elder?’ ‘What?’ ‘A Roman civil servant, a very good man. He was however a member of the household of the very bad emperor Tiberius. People always wondered why the emperor maintained such a steady friendship with Nerva. The point was that Tiberius needed Nerva to act as a measure to set against the cynical, vicious flatterers and opportunists around him.’ ‘And you needed me for that reason?’ ‘Well, yes! For all your defects, dear boy, you are a good man. You’re well-intentioned and – sexuality aside – you’re painfully honest and wonderfully hard-working. You’d walk a mile barefoot on broken glass rather than deliberately hurt someone. I value that.’ ‘But I talked to your enemies!’ ‘You’re so gullible, Tony. But I can forgive you that. Look what else I have to put up with!’ He gestured at the huddled figures of the Wilmots and Bishop Lewis, staring confusedly around. ‘Why are we really here?’ The bishop smiled. ‘Your associates seem to have made you suspicious. The truth is, this is where acolytes of the Beast Mendamero have their headquarters. It is time for me to begin the fight for the Kingdom here in this benighted realm of Rothenia.’ ‘And why you?’ ‘My dear chap, isn’t it obvious? No? Oh well, we’ll get back to it after I have dealt with Enoch and Elijah. Gareth!’ The security man loomed black behind them. For the first time since Anthony had known him, Gareth was giving off signs of excitement and a small smile seemed to hang about his mouth. The bishop pointed to the distant tower. ‘I shall go in alone, you understand?’ ‘Sir.’ ‘We don’t need your particular talents at this point, Gareth. But watch them.’ He indicated the Wilmots and the other bishop. ‘Now, Tony, walk with me a while.’ Bishop Jack set off briskly across the grey grass. Anthony followed him, stumbling over unevennesses in the ground. There came a point about four hundred metres from the tower, as the path descended to the black thread of a small stream, that Anthony became disorientated. The bishop seemed to sense it and turned. ‘Ah, you feel it? Good. The barrier is still up then. It won’t be in a few moments more.’ ‘What is this?’ ‘Enoch and Elijah have power to prevent any approach to their fortress. I can break through it, but it would alert them. Gareth and his men have not the strength to push past it, and it clearly makes you sick and confused. But soon it will be lifted. You see, I have managed to reason with the creature Elijah, rather more sensible and less debased than the demon calling itself Enoch. It sees the reign of evil is ending and wishes to repent and seek God’s pardon while it may.’ ‘So it will lift the barriers?’ ‘Exactly. And I believe it has just done so. How do you feel?’ ‘It’s gone.’ ‘Excellent. You will stay here. And now to battle. I have a really good feeling about this. It’s time to go to war for the sake of light and goodness!’ Bishop Jack raised his right hand high, and Anthony blinked. The bishop’s form grew more bulky and taller. When he brought down his hand, it clasped a great, barbed mace. He had taken the semblance of an armoured warrior, the moonlight glinting on the metal. He strode across the brook, and as he went, Anthony could have sworn a tail of some sort trailed behind him. Anthony thought of turning back to the group around the cars, but found himself rooted to the spot. All he could do was watch the large, dark figure climb the hill to the tower. After a while the boom of a concussion rolled across the moor to smite his ears, then further sounds of battering. The bishop disappeared. The moorland waited expectant beneath the moon. *** Max started up. ‘They’re here!’ Gavin had stood with him. ‘But how? The defences failed.’ The tower shook as a heavy blow beat at the door, two levels below. Gavin grabbed the spear. ‘Down to the crypt!’ They pounded down the stairs as the tower trembled once more. They hesitated at the entrance, where timbers had splintered and hinges were bent. Max shouted, ‘Can we fight here?’ ‘No! Too much space for them. Down to the foot of the stairs!’ As they reached the next level below, they heard the crash of the door, followed by silence. Gavin looked at Lije. ‘It’s time,’ he murmured. The two changed as Max looked on, and two winged figures stood where his friends previously had. Gavin’s dark hair and golden wings were matched by Lije’s bronze and blue. When Gavin’s black eyes caught his, Max felt a shock run through his body and he too transformed, great silver pinions arching out from his shoulders. Gavin flexed his arm and balanced the spear, glowing in his hand. ‘So now there are three of us … one more than the Antichrist will expect.’ His voice was as delicate and warm as ever, but with a resonance and depth it had not had before. Max himself felt a strength and power in his arms that he did not recognise. An echoing clash and heavy steps sounded from above. Something was descending to the crypt. The three stared as a broad foot shod in red metal became visible on a stair, followed slowly by the rest of an armoured body. ‘The spear!’ urged Max, but as he breathed the words, he found himself pinned. Lije had seized him from behind and held a slim blade at his throat. Max resisted but Lije was too strong for him, so his struggles only succeeded in forcing a yelp out of him as the blade penetrated his skin. ‘Surrender the spear!’ Lije commanded. Gavin looked bewildered. ‘Lije? What …?’ ‘Drop the spear!’ ‘No …’ ‘Drop it or I cut Max’s head off. I’ll do it too.’ ‘Why … ?’ A new voice cut in, smooth and conversational, which nonetheless echoed loudly in the confined space of the upper crypt. ‘Really, you people do organise things so badly. It should be obvious.’ The Antichrist had emerged from the stair. He was above human height and stooped slightly under the vault. He looked to Max more like a samurai warrior than anything: a figure cased in bright red armour, holding a long kite-shaped shield on his right arm and swinging a wickedly barbed mace with his left. As the creature moved, Max became aware that he drew a great tail, spiked like a dragon’s, which scraped dully as it dragged across the floor. There was no sign as yet of the Hellhounds. Gavin shifted his gaze from Lije to the Antichrist and back. The thing that had been Bishop Jack rested casually on his upright mace. ‘I marvel at the fact you people were happy to see the boy Tolmie perish in pain, then resurrected him to his own personal purgatory, and still have the arrogance to think he’d be happy to go back into the blackness once more! That’s the sort of cruelty my people would be ashamed of. No wonder he had rather make a deal.’ ‘He’s right, Enoch. I couldn’t go through with it. I’ve had no life. Dressner destroyed the first one so I couldn’t bear another day in pain. Then you brought me back as a … non-human thing. I breathe but I don’t live. I can’t have any of the ordinary pleasures: a woman in my bed, children, a home … even fucking food! And you expect me to give up even this pale imitation of existence!’ ‘But, we’re friends! We have a cause! We are Guardians.’ ‘So I go into the blackness again hand-in-hand with my queer mate, all for the cause? Point is, I’d rather not go into the dark at all, and he says he can give me a normal life.’ ‘You can’t trust him! Think what he is!’ ‘He says he can give me everything I’ve been denied by your people. It’s the thing you at least have. They allowed you Max. I just got a Friday-night whore! Well thank you!’ Although the Antichrist had a mask rather than a face, somehow it expressed amusement. ‘I have a use for that spear, so I’ll thank you to do what your former colleague suggested and drop it.’ ‘Why’s it so important to you?’ ‘It really is no concern of yours. Just put it down on the floor. If you don’t, your boyfriend will be very slowly and painfully dismembered before your eyes.’ Gavin stooped, his wings folding against his body, and placed the spear flat beside him. ‘Now step back.’ As Gavin retreated into the crypt, the Antichrist chuckled. ‘A perfect means of accomplishing my aims, and through an act of treachery as well. I impress even myself.’ Sensing his captor relax and the blade move from his throat, Max suddenly summoned all his supernatural strength to burst from Lije’s grip. He swooped down on the spear and, as he landed on his back, lifted it and hurled it hard at the Antichrist. But it was not the creature he struck. Lije screamed ‘No!’ and attempted to place himself in the way. The spear took him in the midriff, pinning him to the monster’s shield. Crying and writhing he tried to pull it out from his body, but his lifeblood was draining down the shield and pooling on the floor. Seized by horror, Max scrabbled towards Gavin and clung on to his legs. There was nothing they could do but watch as Lije arched in agony, his body hanging there like a broken puppet. The spear glowed bright as it fed off his blood. His life draining away, Lije lost his supernatural form and withered to no more than a pale, limp human corpse. The Antichrist stood, seemingly as surprised as his enemies at the turn of events. He held the shield away from himself, untroubled by the weight of the dead body impaled on it. Finally he dropped his mace, reached round and pulled the spear out from his shield and from Lije’s belly. The corpse slid to the ground with a thump, leaving a dark bloody stain smeared across the shield’s face. The creature stepped over the inert form. ‘Now that was unexpected,’ he observed mildly, ‘but really it could not have been managed better had I tried. The spear is mine and I don’t have to pay the traitor’s price. So the time has come to deal with you two.’ The great weapon still glowed. The Antichrist put back his head and uttered a stream of words, ancient and deadly, designed to summon the forces of chaos and hatred. The spear began sparking red as Gavin and Max huddled against the wall. A brilliant red bolt suddenly burst from its shaft to flash in their direction. Max felt arms draw him back before Gavin took the discharge on his own chest, his body arching and his hair flaming in the sudden heat. Then he crumpled back in his lover’s arms, drained of power, naked and lifeless.
  11. Mike Arram

    Chapter 21

    At breakfast very early on Monday, Anthony found Bishop Jack in full flood of bonhomie in the restaurant of the Hotel Flavia, joking and laughing with the staff, who were clearly much charmed. ‘Have the full Rothenian, Tony!’ ‘Sir?’ The bishop laughed. ‘Oh come on, you’ve travelled enough. The “full English”, the “full American”, the “full Irish”; somehow they’re all the same breakfast: eggs, bacon, mushrooms, sausage of whatever variety, some sort of fried potatoes. In fact, there’s nothing more international.’ Anthony smiled. Even for Bishop Jack, his boss was in a very good mood. ‘Excuse me, sir, but last night …’ Just then Bishop Jack hallooed, ‘Alun! Dear chap! Come and sit down. Elenya here will get you coffee, won’t you dear?’ In a loud aside he confided, ‘She’s a Slovak student, Tony, charming girl, absolutely charming.’ Elenya went simpering off to return promptly with a coffee pot. Bishop Alun Lewis clearly had not had such a good night. In fact he looked dreadful, with bags under his eyes. Before he could say anything, however, the restaurant was distracted by cars and vans, their blue lights flashing and their sirens howling, which zoomed past the window on to the main street of the city. ‘Now I wonder what’s going on out there?’ speculated the bishop aloud. ‘Never mind. Tell me, Tony, when are we off this morning? Pretty early I imagine. We have to be in the capital well before midday. You’re picking up the van soon, is that right?’ ‘I have to be at the office when it opens at eight.’ ‘Less than an hour then. Better eat up, dear boy.’ Anthony noticed the sudden inattention of the restaurant staff and earnest whispered conversations between them. The diners were forgotten. Staff came and went from reception. Eventually Bishop Jack noticed it too. ‘Now what’s up?’ As his breakfast was brought over by a flustered Elenya, the bishop asked, ‘You seem distracted, my dear. What’s going on?’ ‘You have not heard the news, sir? There has been a … a … burglary at the abbey. The whole city is in an uproar. The Black Virgin was stolen in the night!’ ‘My God!’ The bishop took the Lord’s name in vain in a most unprecedented way for him. ‘Terrible, terrible! A blasphemy!’ Bishop Lewis sympathised. ‘Yes sir, the … cupboard in which it was kept was forced open by burglars. The city has been sealed off, but probably it is too late. The theft was only found out at the dawn service of the monks.’ ‘My word! Anthony, do please send a message of sympathy to the abbot, poor man. He must be quite distraught.’ Somehow the mystery of Elijah, the bishop’s late-night visitor, was sidelined by the uproar over the theft of the relic and the desecration of a national shrine. The staff turned on a TV in the lounge and watched the news reports on Eastnet. ‘Sir, it’s that Atwood man.’ And there indeed was Henry Atwood chattering away in fluent Rothenian in a studio group with a variety of specialists: historians, theologians and ecclesiastics. ‘So indeed it is. Any idea what he’s saying?’ ‘Sorry sir, no, the resemblances between Rothenian and German aren’t close enough for me to work out the drift of the conversation.’ ‘How about you, Alun?’ ‘Me, Jack? No, I don’t speak the language.’ ‘How do you get on with the natives?’ ‘I have staff for that.’ ‘I suppose we’d better get a move on.’ He wiped his mouth with a napkin. ‘Go for the van and come back to tell me if we’ll have any problem reaching Strelzen.’ The bishop rose and disappeared upstairs. Anthony’s mobile bleeped. He flipped it open. A foreign-accented female voice asked, ‘Hello, is that the Reverend Willis?’ ‘Yes. Hi! Who is this?’ ‘This is Magda Jovankova of Mr Atwood’s office at Eastnet.’ ‘Yes, I’m just watching him on TV.’ ‘Oh yes. The Black Virgin story. I had to get him in to the office this morning at six despite the fact he’s supposed to be on leave.’ ‘Leave? Surely not. We have an interview scheduled with him this afternoon.’ ‘So I believe, but he is still supposed to be on leave. I don’t quite understand how it was set up; it wasn’t through me, that’s for sure.’ ‘How curious. Is that why you are ringing me, to cancel?’ ‘No, no. I just want to know if you will be able to get to Strelzen in time, or do you wish to arrange a later appointment?’ ‘We have another engagement at five at St Edward’s church, so there’s a little room for manoeuvre, but not much.’ ‘Then I’d be grateful if you could keep me updated as to your progress.’ ‘Not a problem.’ Anthony checked his party out of the hotel and left his bags in reception before hurrying off to pick up the people-carrier. He found the streets of Ranstadt full of groups talking on the corners and watching the police vehicles flash past. Some women were openly in tears. He was aware that the abbey bells were tolling, and as he paused to listen they were joined by those of the cathedral and the city's churches. Ranstadt was grieving. *** Anthony took the wheel of the Volkswagen Sharan he had hired. His party occupied the seats, Boris and Gareth turning up last. Gareth grunted that he had slept late, while Boris just silently piled the bags into the rear. ‘You think we’ll be delayed, Anthony?’ ‘No idea, sir.’ ‘Let’s just make the best of it then.’ The van pulled away and took the A44 southward following the signs for Kesarsteijn-Strelzen. They soon encountered a tailback, in which they were delayed for an hour before coming up with the reason for it. Black-uniformed national police in flak jackets and helmets had blocked off the carriageway and were searching every car and checking papers. The police were in large numbers and heavily armed. Bishop Jack’s usual affability was rattled by their efficient but humourless search of the van and all the baggage. Anthony was intrigued as to how they would deal with the bishop’s minders, but those two proved not to be carrying handguns after all. Gareth and Boris met the police’s efforts with phlegmatic indifference. After that the journey was rapid and, with the help of a GPS navigator, they arrived before one o’clock at their Strelzen hotel. They pulled into the underground car-park just as Magda rang for her second update. She and Anthony agreed to put back the interview till three in the Eastnet studio in the Old City. The company would send a car and driver to pick up Bishop Jack. Anthony went to his boss’s room to fill him in on the latest state of affairs. He found the bishop looking out on the great square of the Rodolferplaz from his fifth-floor windows at the front of the hotel. ‘What a remarkable city, Anthony. You see the palace opposite us at the north end of the square? That’s the home of Rudolf VI and Queen Harriet, the celebrity royals.’ ‘You’re not a fan, then, bishop?’ ‘Kingship in this age is something of an offence to me. There is only one true king … God the Prince of the World.’ ‘Prince of the World, sir? I’ve not heard that name for the Almighty.’ Anthony was troubled. He knew his scriptures well enough to be aware that the title was reserved for someone other than God. ‘Kings and princes shall kneel to Him and then the age of gold will begin,’ mused the bishop. ‘Are you prophesying, sir?’ He started. ‘I suppose I am. Hoping for the best, really. Tell me, Anthony, you do believe our endeavour here will lead to the betterment of humanity and its lot, don’t you?’ ‘Well, yes.’ ‘It’s all so simple really. If the world follows God’s will then everything will be alright, and God asks for so little, just obedience. Scripture gives an infallible template to follow. It really is simple. Why do people make it so complicated? ‘The solution is that they must be obliged to obey, so they can be saved despite themselves. I see that as my ultimate mission: to bring – no, drag – humanity to salvation since it won’t help itself.’ Anthony was not quite getting the bishop’s drift. ‘But sir, surely people must call Jesus saviour and lord of their own will. You must choose the Way, not be herded down it.’ Bishop Jack was impatient. ‘It’s been tried down the ages, Tony, and with what result! No, I’m coming to think the choice the crusaders gave the Jews and the Muslims is the one we should give to the new heathens of the west.’ The man – if that was what he was – brooded for some moments, then gave a nervous laugh. ‘What am I talking about? Just stuff and nonsense.’ But Anthony was not so sure. It seemed to him he had just heard the Antichrist attempt to justify Armageddon intellectually. *** Henry’s day had begun early and ominously, with his bedside phone summoning him to the Eastnet studios as soon as the news broke about the theft of the Black Virgin. ‘Only you can do it, Henry,’ the duty producer reminded him. ‘No one else understands the church perspective and the history around the relic. Can you get a panel of talking heads together? And make it quick.’ Will Vincent had been in the studios at seven-thirty, looking harassed and anxious. He cornered Henry. ‘So is the Antichrist behind this?’ ‘My interviewees were talking about a raid commissioned by a kleptomaniac billionaire collector with a Byzantine-art obsession. But the theft happens the day the chief suspect arrives in Rothenia, so yes, I would say the bishop had a hand in it … and what he’s planning to do with the relic I dread to think.’ ‘Keep me posted.’ ‘Yes, boss.’ Henry had recorded enough commentary and debate to leave the studio by eleven. He was at a loose end after checking with Magda about the progress of the bishop’s party towards Strelzen. ‘I’ll head out for lunch, then.’ ‘Leave your mobile on, Henry. You might be needed at a moment’s notice.’ Since the Eastnet offices and studios were high on the hill of the Staramesten, Henry strolled up one of the medieval alleys that led directly on to Erchbiscofsplaz. He buttoned up his wool coat against the scything cold wind blowing westwards from the Carpathians, the thing that made winter in Rothenia something of a trial. The cathedral was tranquil that lunchtime, since the tourist season was well over. Despite Magda’s warning, Henry turned off his mobile. He wanted some peace and quiet. He ambled along the north aisle of the tall Gothic nave. Barely noticing the monumenst to the Elphberg dynasty and their court nobility, he headed instead down to the crypt to a nook below the north choir aisle where he had retreated at other times of crisis. It housed a small altar with a charming statue of St Hendrik of Esterhwicz, a lesser Rothenian saint martyred by pagan Magyar raiders in the eighth century. He had been a minor clerk of the church of Glottenberh, murdered at the age of fifteen when he put himself between the raiders and the altar they planned to desecrate. The baroque statue showed the boy, all but nude, transfixed to a pillar by a spear. It was both touching and homoerotic. Somehow Henry was always moved not only by its testimony to the fragility of life but also by its confirmation of the abiding power of faith. After privately taking young Hendrik as his name saint, he had gone to the cathedral bookshop and purchased a devotional medal which he kept in his wallet. ‘And now it’s my turn,’ he reflected. ‘Will I meet my fate with that sort of fortitude?’ He settled down to meditate, which meant attempting to turn off the tumultuous thoughts surging uncontrollably round his brain. He quickly found he couldn’t. He was too worried about the eventual fate of Gavin, Lije and Max. Even more worrisome was the impending interview with Bishop Jack, whose identity cloaked a being of awesome powers which were within days of being unleashed on the world. He was soon to cast off his human guise and stand revealed as an apocalyptic figure who would demand homage from the world, and in so doing cast it into chaos. Henry’s gaze had lingered on the statue of St Hendrik. Suddenly his breath caught in his throat. He was no longer looking at a statue but at a human boy impaled through the belly on a bloody spear, his naked figure twisting in agony, his hands tugging uselessly at the instrument of his torment and … the face contorted in a silent scream was Lije’s! Henry rose and swore. What was this? A vision, or a first manifestation of the dark power of the Antichrist rising in the world? Shaken, he fled the chapel. Time had passed faster than Henry had thought. After picking up a stiff shot of caffeine to steady his nerves for the coming ordeal, he barely made it to the studio in time for two o’clock. Magda gave him a disapproving glare. ‘I tried to ring you. We’ve put back the interview recording till three. The bishop’s party was held up by traffic.’ ‘Fine, fine.’ ‘You look stressed, Henry. You really did need the leave of absence. You should go on vacation; the Croatian coast is great even at this time of year. Rothenian Airlines do a very good car-and-hotel deal.’ ‘I’ll think about it. Let me know when the bishop arrives.’ The call came at ten to three. Henry, composing himself, searched out a core of inner strength. This would either be a useful and informative glimpse into the great Enemy’s mind and methods, or a catastrophic mistake which would prematurely unveil Mendamero to his nemesis. The bishop was in a side office with another clergyman, whom Henry recognised from his visit in Cranwell as Anthony Willis. He scrutinised the chaplain, aware that Willis did not know him as anything other than a journalist. Willis was tall and a little chunky, a very English-looking blond. Somehow you could tell he would look much the same as he did now well into his fifties, although perhaps plumper. Henry shook the proferred hand, deliberately resisting the temptation to probe the chaplain’s thoughts. Then he half-reluctantly turned to the bishop and confronted him with as calm a mind as he could muster. Bishop Jack, all affability, had a definite air of genuine cheeriness about him. As with Henry himself, there might have been a certain relief in the bishop that the final battle was at hand. He wrung Henry’s hand like an old friend, projecting a charm so palpable that in an instant Henry knew he was safe. The bishop was working him as if he were just another influential media personality who needed to be won over. The charm indeed was too palpable, evidently one of the bishop’s weapons to attain ascendancy over important minds. He did not know Henry for Mendamero! After outlining the upcoming interview in general terms, Henry passed a list of specific questions to Anthony Willis for discussion, then left the two men with a big cafetière of French roast, hot milk and mugs. He breathed out a sigh of relief and went to consult with his friend Tomas Weiss, the senior producer of Eastnet. Henry, uncertain of the interview’s outcome, had talked him into taking the console. Eventually Henry called the pair out of the office and directed Willis to the production box. He sat the bishop in a studio chair opposite him, remarking brightly that he imagined Bishop James had no nerves as he was so used to the experience. Not at all, smiled the bishop, the day he failed to be nervous before the cameras would be the day he knew he had lost it; adrenalin gave one an edge. Henry quite agreed, all the while feeling round the fringes of the other's mind. It was by no means a safe thing to do, but why else had he got himself into this situation? He was aware of the power emanating from the figure opposite him as if from a great engine idling. The bishop’s real attention was obviously elsewhere. Like Henry, he could cast his mind at a distance, and was doing so at that moment while apparently giving his full attention to his interviewer. What was he concentrating on? Henry delicately followed the indications and sensed a distant limestone tower in the northern mountains, from which a radiance shot out as if from a lighthouse in a storm. So the bishop knew about Biscofshalch already and was trying to probe its defences. The Icon was causing the bishop trouble, so much was evident. It engaged a considerable amount of his strength simply to hold his place and shape, Henry could tell. No wonder he had no time to explore the mind of the journalist opposite him. The Icon was shielding Henry, who breathed a mental sigh of relief. Nonetheless, the bishop gave all the appearance of bending his whole attention on the interview, something Henry found impressive. He fielded Henry’s interrogation on the scandals associated with the Conservative Coalition with practised ease. He was acute and informed while sketching out his perceptions of modern Catholicity and its problems in Rothenia. Bishop Jack came more into focus when Henry asked him, ‘I have heard, bishop, that you see the world’s present problems as indicating the end is nigh. Is that simplifying your standpoint?’ The bishop shot him a sharp glance, and for a moment Henry had to make his mind mirror-smooth as it briefly felt the weight of the bishop’s full attention. It glanced off him. ‘The expectation of the Eschaton – I mean the end of all things – has been a component of the faith from its earliest days. Indeed, Christianity inherited it from Judaism and earlier religions.’ ‘But of course it hasn’t come.’ ‘Which does not mean that it won’t come.’ ‘Why now?’ ‘I could think of several answers for you, but let’s try this. Humanity has broken through so many barriers in the past century and mastered its environment in ways never dreamed of. But has this brought justice, peace or happiness? No, chaos and horrific violence have been the principal results. Humanity itself is toxic to the environment and corrupts the planet’s ecosphere. And it can only get worse. If God is to intervene in the universe, now would seem the logical time. Order is needed, and spiritual renewal. Humanity’s souls must be given a chance to catch up with their minds.’ ‘The Eschaton doesn’t seem a bad thing, viewed like that.’ ‘Indeed. Why should it be? It could be seen as a father’s stern word to his erring children, done in love, however painful it might be in passing. Pain is not all bad.’ ‘Or at least not if one has an anaesthetic available.’ ‘A rather flip comment, if I may say. I could think of all sorts of analogies, but forget them. All the indications of prophecy and expectation say that the Eschaton is at hand.’ ‘And how will it happen?’ ‘Scripture gives a highly coloured vision of the End Time. But its truth can’t be doubted. There will be war and plague, during which a great figure will arise to bring order and hope.’ ‘The Second Coming?’ ‘Eventually no doubt, but first there will be a kingdom established over mankind. Its king or prince will have the rule of the world and justice will be established.’ ‘And when will this happen?’ ‘Why, it may already have started.’ ‘And Judgement Day?’ ‘Will doubtless be part of it, but at a distance in time.’ ‘First the kingdom.’ ‘Yes, as I said.’ ‘And not all will be saved?’ ‘Scripture says not.’ ‘So who will be saved?’ ‘Those who confess God in their hearts and on their lips. Scripture is quite clear on this. All sinners will be saved – if they repent, of course.’ ‘And homosexuals?’ ‘Pardon me?’ The bishop’s full attention snapped once again to Henry. ‘Well, if they don’t consider what they do and how they love as a sin, how can they repent of it?’ ‘I think I’ve made all this pretty clear in the past. Scripture says homosexuality is a sin and it must be repented of.’ ‘So gays and lesbians are damned at the end?’ ‘It’s their choice. Adulterers, murderers, thieves all have a choice.’ ‘I don’t think you can compare a thief’s choice to steal with a gay man’s choice to follow the orientation God gave him.’ Henry was becoming aware that he was pushing too hard, but also curiously that the bishop wasn’t entirely focussed on him, but on … yes … the chaplain next door, a gay man. Reverend Willis was being given a message. ‘Have we time to go into all the varied arguments about the source of sexuality?’ Henry backed off and wrapped up. ‘No, we don’t really. Thank you, bishop, for coming to Eastnet and offering us such a cogent and informed perspective on current religion. I have to compliment you on the intelligence and depth of your responses.’ ‘Thank you, Mr Atwood. I might say the same of your questioning. I do hope we meet again.’ Mendamero gave a quirky grin at the Antichrist. ‘I’m sure we will.’ *** ‘So what was he like?’ ‘Exactly what you’d expect, Harry.’ Henry was making a farewell call to the queen before rejoining her husband at Belvoir. He had taken his car up to the studios that morning before he had woken up properly and realised he had a far quicker way to travel. So he had driven it back down to the palace to leave it in the stable-yard. ‘Damn this pregnancy!’ Harry swore. She looked unusually frustrated. ‘You don’t mean that.’ ‘I sure as hell do! How worse-timed could it be? I should be with you all at Belvoir. Why does my brother have all the fun? He’s only half as tough as I am.’ Henry laughed at the sudden comical expression on her face. ‘I believe you, sweetheart, I really do. But the young crown prince needs his mum.’ She sighed as her mood shifted again. ‘I know, I know. Oh Henry, this is all so maddening. There you are fighting evil and I can do nothing more than sit around being grossly swollen and reading magazines. I can’t even concentrate on proper books.’ ‘Excuse my being flip, but what you’re doing is every bit as important as anything we are. You’re carrying the future of this country and its dynasty; we’re just trying to make certain the sun will come up tomorrow.’ ‘I’m not sure I entirely follow that, but anyway, tell me what happened at the studio.’ Henry obliged, then noted the pensive look on Harry’s face as she commented, ‘Very interesting. He seems to be running with a handicap. The Icon slows him down, even though it can’t help revealing itself to him. Yet it has no impact on you, and protects the boys out at Biscofshalch.’ ‘That’s why he must destroy it. Only then will he be able to take down Gavin and Lije and discover who Mendamero is.’ ‘And the boy Max Jamroziak?’ ‘He’s still a great mystery to us all. Gavin thinks he’s very important, because there are some strange things that happen when the two of them are together. But no one has a clue what his part will be in the final struggle. ‘Harry, I have to go. Sorry to be so abrupt.’ They kissed and hugged. ‘Er … don’t get alarmed; I’m only going to vanish into thin air. Any message to Rudi?’ ‘Only that he’s to make me even prouder of him than I already am.’ Henry nodded, and was gone. *** ‘Did you think that went well, sir?’ ‘Those media types are easy to manage, though Atwood had done more research than is usual for his type … but of course his father is a clergyman, isn’t he? Now I come to think about it, the False Episcopalians are appointing him their bishop in Rothenia, the Czech and Slovak republics and Austria – or so Alun was saying.’ ‘So I’d heard too. We’ve still got an hour before we're expected at St Edwards, bishop. I have the route sorted. It’s down in what they call the New City. Is Boris with us?’ ‘I wouldn’t go anywhere without my security. There should be two more of them waiting for us at the church.’ ‘And the other three, sir?’ ‘I believe Gareth has them following up leads on Colin’s disappearance.’ They left the Eastnet premises and found the car, Boris still sitting sullenly in the rear. Anthony drove off down towards the New City, his sat-nav instructing him in the way to go. They pulled into the cobbled parking space beside the Victorian church with plenty of time, to find an anxious, eager man awaiting their arrival. He was easy for Anthony to classify as middle-class, English and evangelical. His gushing began almost immediately. The bishop was used to it. He smiled and nodded at the man, who introduced himself as Gerry Wilmot. Bishop Jack moved to cut him off. ‘Bishop Alun has told me all about you, Gerry – you and Ann.’ ‘Really, bishop?’ ‘He looks on you as a tower of strength in Rothenia. He mentioned you had hopes of ordination.’ ‘Oh … well … yes, if it’s God’s will.’ ‘And the church here is without a pastor.’ ‘Yes, indeed. It’s our life’s ambition to testify to how the Spirit has transformed our lives – he and your books, bishop. Can I call you, Jack?’ ‘By all means, Gerry. You do that. Now let’s get inside.’ ‘Yes, yes. Though I have to tell you that the congregation is pretty much unregenerate here. They resist changes: too many loyal to the last chaplain.’ ‘Mr Atwood?’ ‘Yes, an apostate of the worst sort, Jack.’ ‘His son’s a friend of mine.’ Gerry Wilmot’s face fell as he realised he’d staggered into a gaffe. He went bright red. ‘Er … Henry Atwood, the journalist?’ ‘The very man. We’ve just been chatting on the TV.’ Anthony couldn’t help but notice a secret smile on the bishop’s face. ‘Is Bishop Alun here?’ ‘Er … yes. He’s just been finishing up a difficult meeting with the wardens. He’s had to inhibit them from their offices.’ ‘Oh? And who will look after St Edward’s in the meantime?’ ‘Myself and my wife Ann.’ ‘Good faithful Christians both, I don’t doubt. You pop along inside, Gerry, there’s a good fellow. We’ll be just a moment. I need to talk to my aides.’ When the man had disappeared, Bishop Jack rolled his eyes. ‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven, Anthony.’ Anthony gave the dutiful laugh required, pondering again how it was that the bishop’s cause attracted such people. Even the bishop seemed to despise them. ‘So what’s today’s event?’ ‘A Seminar of the Spirit.’ ‘Prophesying, interpreting, speaking in tongues?’ ‘I imagine so, sir. I think Bishop Lewis and the Wilmots want to rally the faithful here in Strelzen.’ ‘It takes me back to the beginnings of our movement, Anthony: small gatherings in cold church halls. Yet look at us now, a power in the world which presidents and premiers dare not ignore. Rothenia needs more of this, but its populace is difficult to reach, weighed down with generations of papist superstition. Now let’s go inspire the faithful.’ The church’s north aisle had a group of about twenty of the congregation waiting expectantly for Bishop Jack, craning round to see him as he entered the church. There was polite applause when Bishop Lewis introduced him. Meanwhile, Anthony took a seat at the back of the church. Boris and two other of Gareth’s black-suited myrmidons sat impassively in front of him, obscuring his view of his boss. Anthony was next to the display table and scanned its contents instead. He was impressed by the activity represented there: reading groups, gospel choir, children’s choirs and groups, social action group, and Bible study, all signs of a busy and enterprising church in action. Suddenly it occurred to him that this had all been set up not by the Wilmots but by the journalist Atwood’s father, the one whom Bishop Lewis had ousted, whom he had called an apostate. Anthony began to hate the smug, bearded figure at Bishop Jack’s elbow: self-righteous, hypocritical and ignorant. Anthony’s whole person revolted from his association with the man. He had a powerful urge just to stand up, leave and find a taxi to the airport. But he knew he couldn’t. Not only was he paid to do a job, he was beginning to doubt he would be allowed to resign it in any case. Bishop Jack was hitting his stride down at the front. He had his audience in the palm of his hand, as usual. Anthony tuned in. The bishop was in apocalyptic mode. ‘This is the day! This is the final age! And here is where the battle will be!’ The bishop seemed to swell and the visions came pouring into Anthony’s mind as they tended to in the flood of his words. This time he saw a storm-beset tower amongst mountains struck by lightning. Vast marching hordes trampled the land, though the nature of the soldiers was obscured by the darkness between lightning flashes. A red-clad warrior urged his hosts on to assault the tower, from which radiated great menace. Anthony shook his head to clear it and checked his watch. Half an hour had passed in a moment. The bishop was wrapping up, extolling the virtues of the Wilmots and Bishop Lewis. Suddenly the church door banged and Gareth appeared. His three associates stood as one, forcing Anthony to get up and move from his seat if he were to see anything. Gareth walked straight to the front of the church and talked with unusual urgency in Bishop Jack’s ear. The bishop was glad-handing at this point. He nodded abstractedly as Gareth briefed him, then broke away from the group to came directly towards Anthony. ‘Gareth has a lead in the hunt for Colin. We’re leaving Strelzen now for the north of the country.’ ‘But sir! We have an engagement tomorrow at the university.’ ‘Cancel, Tony. This is too important.’ ‘And Bishop Lewis, sir?’ ‘He’ll have to come too. We’re leaving right now.’ ‘But, bishop! We have no hotel reservations or … anything.’ Bishop Jack gave a strange little laugh. ‘Then welcome to the realm of Chaos, Tony. We’ll see what turns up.’ He spun on his heel, forcing Anthony to follow on dutifully. He left it to Gareth to break the news of the change of plan to the other bishop. So three hours later Anthony was driving in the dark winter night along a road whose signs showed PIOTRESHRAD-CZECHIA. Gareth was beside him craning to look out into the blackness as if he could penetrate it. In the back were the bishop and the three other security men. Gerry and Ann Wilmot had volunteered to tail after them in their own car with Bishop Lewis, who had acceded to the change of plan with very bad grace. Gareth gave a grunt. ‘It’s here on the left.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Turn here.’ ‘Do as he says,’ instructed the bishop. Anthony slowed and swung the van on to a forestry track that appeared in his headlights. The Volkswagen fishtailed slightly, found the rutted core of the track and cautiously moved forward. The way was in fact quite level, apart from the odd puddle that splashed as they lurched into it. The Wilmots’ car bounced after them. The road climbed steadily through trees. Every now and then the white shape of an owl swooped disconcertingly in front of them. Eyes of wild beasts occasionally reflected their headlights from the undergrowth between the trunks. Slowly a feeling of deep reluctance began to grow on Anthony, to the extent that he lifted his foot off the accelerator pedal involuntarily and the car almost stopped. ‘Do you feel it, Anthony?’ the bishop’s voice hissed in his ear. ‘What?’ ‘The presence of pure evil, dear boy. It beats upon us. I shall pray.’ Whether the bishop’s intercession worked or not, the feeling of pressure on Anthony relaxed, though the edge of foreboding did not leave him. The vehicles broke out of the trees on to moorland, where the track ended. Anthony pulled up. By the light of the newly risen moon, he saw they were in a mountain valley. Ahead of them, perhaps a mile away, was the spike of a tower, the one he had seen in his vision at St Edwards. ‘Biscofshalch,’ the bishop stated, with an expectant smile.
  12. Mike Arram

    Chapter 20

    ‘So here we are.’ Henry looked around the high chamber of Belvoir castle's keep. It was empty, but would soon be full of electronic communications equipment and assorted weaponry. ‘Uh huh. Great thing about castles is that they’re organised for defence. I don’t mean we’ll man the walls – they’re too ruinous for that – but the point is, castles occupy defensible positions and funnel enemies the way you want them to go.’ Ed was cheerful. ‘That’s my soldier boy.’ Henry smiled at his lover, back in his battledress. Henry had defiantly kept to his casuals, his instincts telling him it would be several days yet before he was called on to meet his nemesis. He was learning to trust those instincts. ‘I’ll get this place swept out. The troops are bringing in heating units and furniture. We’re setting up dormitories and a field kitchen down in the west range, the one that still has roofs.’ ‘What units are going to garrison Belvoir?’ ‘Rudi’s been on the case. He’s had commando units in training for a fortnight to confront the sort of enemies we think we’ll have to deal with.’ ‘Blimey! How do you train men to fight Hellhounds?’ ‘He’s had them visualising giant, rabid wolves – or more accurately, wargs.’ ‘And they take this seriously?’ ‘These guys are Rothenians, little babe. They operate outside the box more readily than others. Everyone knows this is a strange land. Also, Rudi is their king and as true a hero as any Rothenian monarch ever has been. They’ll do exactly what they’re told and consider it an honour to fight alongside the Red Elphberg, however bizarre the battle.’ ‘Rudi himself will command?’ ‘Try stopping him.’ ‘It’s just I thought that with a child in the offing, he might step back this time.’ ‘That is not the Elphberg way, Henry. He is the king of this land and its defence from pure evil is his business. You know it and so does Harry. Elphberg women also understand how to be heroes.’ Henry nodded. He was well aware you could not judge Rudolf Elphberg by the standard of lesser men. ‘There may be other things than Hellhounds to contend with.’ Ed shrugged. ‘Do you have any idea what?’ ‘None. But the Antichrist will come armed for war, so much is certain. He won’t appear as the nice Bishop Jack at the end. I suspect he may have soldiers of some sort.’ ‘We’ll have contingencies planned.’ ‘How big will the garrison be?’ ‘A company of the Royal Foot Guards to protect the king … the Guard Fusiliers have been outranked this time. My boys will be defending Wenzelsberh. Other than the Foot Guards, there’ll be two companies of commandos here drawn from all sorts of units. We have engineer and artillery detachments. I should say about 400 men in all, a small but élite corps of warriors. And you, babe, where will you fight?’ ‘With you, my Edward. For once, we draw swords together.’ ‘It will be a great honour for me, my babe. Did I tell you how proud I am of you?’ ‘I don’t need to be told. And our guys: how are they to be accommodated in the battle?’ ‘That’s Fritzy, Eddie, Terry, Matt, Oskar … oh! and Davey.’ ‘Davey?’ ‘He put up a fuss about being left out. Terry had his ear bent. Anyway, they’re to be with Rudi as a sort of Praetorian Guard. They’re being properly equipped and armed. Terry is their commander. He’s been commissioned as a major in the reserve. ‘Rudi’s not forgotten any detail; he’s had shoulder flashes made for your gear … would you believe pink triangles? Matt and Davey’ll look gorgeous in battledress. Armageddon as photo shoot!’ Henry guffawed. ‘King Rudolf’s Own Queer Militia. That I just gotta see! Eddie Peacher won’t like it.’ ‘You’ll be in your reservist uniform?’ ‘That’s my plan.’ ‘Excellent. Mendamero is the warrior of God, and should look the part.’ Ed paused to listen. ‘That’s the first convoy arriving. We’d better get out there. The choppers will be flying in soon.’ Henry glanced from the high windows down into the courtyard. The last time he had done so was to see it full of knights and medieval soldiers. Now it was teeming with their twenty-first century successors, garbed in green camouflage, toting assault rifles and armoured with flak jackets. The parallels were very striking for him in his present mood. *** During Saturday night the wind got up on the moors above Lake Maresku. The windows of Biscofshalch rattled in the gale, while cold draughts gusted through the rooms. Max however was cuddled warm against Gavin, who had been sleeping regularly since they began sharing the bed. He couldn’t get over it, he said, and there were no dreams either. Max gradually surfaced from slumber. As his mind lurched unwillingly into motion, it registered the fact that Gavin had abandoned the sleep he so treasured and left the room. Alarmed, Max sat up, stretched, and pulled on sweater and jeans. When he padded out into Lije’s room he found it unoccupied. He checked the common room, bright in the moonlight flooding through the windows, which also was empty. By now thoroughly disturbed, he made his way to the tower’s basement. At the stairs to the lower crypt he paused, uncertain. The stone flags were freezing his bare feet. He was thinking of returning to retrieve his shoes when he became aware of voices echoing up from below. Lije and Gavin were in hot dispute. Max listened, attempting to work out what they were arguing about, but it was no use. He found the idea of entering the lower of the two crypts difficult to contemplate. The Icon's defences did not exempt him and, without Gavin's help, his feet simply would not descend the stairs. Even forcing himself to sit on the topmost step required a major effort of will. The voices continued to funnel up the spiral staircase, sometimes low and earnest, sometimes with a definite edge of anger and annoyance. It was Lije’s voice that seemed to be angriest and even at times desperate. Cold and uncomfortable though he was, Max stayed on the step, hugging himself and shivering fitfully. It might have been an hour before silence fell below. Not long afterwards, the resistance of the Icon to Max’s presence relaxed. He heard scuffling on the stairs and Gavin emerged, surprised. ‘Sweetheart, how long have you been here?’ ‘Quite a while. I woke and you were gone. What were you and Lije arguing about?’ Gavin’s face took on a momentary look of tragedy, then straightened. ‘Strategy, Max. He has ideas I just won’t go along with, not while there’s a hope of getting out of this … I was almost tempted to say, alive.’ He gave a rueful laugh. ‘What’s Lije up to now?’ ‘Oh … what we do – or used to do – quite a lot. Do you want to see? Here, take my hand and come along. The Icon will let you. I think it likes you.’ So Gavin and Max descended to the lower crypt, where the light burned on in the darkness. Max hunched his shoulders and walked out into its full illumination, expecting to feel the transformation which had happened the last time, when his clothes disappeared, his hair burst into an aureole of tangled gold around his head and wings sprouted from his shoulders. Nothing like that happened. Both he and Gavin kept their forms. He saw Elijah kneeling four metres in front of the Icon, eyes closed and arms outstretched. Gavin adopted the same position to his friend’s right, and indicated that Max should take the other side. Max knelt, and it was if he were sunbathing on a hot day. The radiance of the Icon beat upon his face, although this time unaccompanied by any huge surge of images and words in his head. The force was in a softer mood, caressing his troubled mind, soothing him and bringing him peace. He was aware of the smiles on his companions’ faces and found he too was smiling. It was as if he were with an old friend who knew him thoroughly, warts and all, and still loved him – who would always love him and be there for him whatever he did. Max’s mind calmed and fear for the future left him. He was also aware that the light was subtly changing him, though he did not yet know in what ways. He had no idea how long he knelt there communing with the Icon, and with the being for whom it was a conduit into this world. It might have been hours or weeks for all he knew. Eventually the light pulsed lower, dimming from golden to dusky orange. The three stood as if on cue, and hand in hand returned to the tower to find dawn breaking over Lake Maresku, the night’s storm all blown out. *** The carillon ringing of the Sunday bells for mass penetrated dimly through the double-glazed windows to Anthony, who was sitting at his laptop in the bishop’s suite in the Prague Novotel. His own tiny room did not give him much space in which to work, and besides, the bishop preferred him near at hand. Gareth sat impassively on the sofa, paring his nails with a very sharp little penknife. Anthony wondered idly how he had got it through airport security. ‘Er … Gareth, how many of your men will be travelling with us to Strelzen?’ The security man looked blankly at Anthony from behind, or possibly beyond, his shades. Finally he answered, ‘Six.’ ‘Er … seems a lot.’ ‘Oh yeah?’ ‘What sort of danger could justify that?’ Gareth deigned to scoff. ‘Ask Colin.’ ‘Any news about …?’ Gareth shook his head, but did not otherwise answer. The bishop appeared from the bathroom in a robe, towelling his hair. ‘What time is it, Anthony?’ ‘Nine, sir.’ ‘Then we have about half an hour to get to the prayer meeting at the embassy.’ ‘Yes, sir. We’re taking the train tonight, if you remember. The Catholic bishop of Ranstadt sent an invitation through Bishop Lewis to an ecumenical event. It’s a bit last-minute, but I can fix up a hotel in the city if you’d like.’ ‘Train? Why not? Good way to see a new country, and I’ve heard so much about Rothenia. Are there any security implications, Gareth?’ The security man grunted noncommittally. The bishop beamed. ‘Then that’s fine. Book us in and we’ll cancel the first night at Strelzen. Bishop Lewis will be coming with us. Don’t forget my TV interview on Monday, though. We need to be in the capital for the afternoon. Who’ll be at this Ranstadt event, Tony?’ ‘The two Catholic archbishops, some of their suffragans, abbots and provincial ministers, plus several Lutheran and Orthodox leaders. Bishop Lewis backed out on them, so you’ll be the only Anglican face there.’ ‘A good thing one of us will be present. Why did Lewis decline?’ ‘I believe he isn’t enthusiastic about ecumenism. He refers to Catholic and Orthodox Christians as “people of other faiths”.’ Bishop Jack laughed. ‘I’ll be very fraternal to our brothers in Christ. Besides, it’ll give me a chance to … er … scout out the local situation. Lewis will just have to kick his heels in the hotel and feel foolish. Gareth, I’ll want the security crew together for a … prayer lunch after the embassy. Arrange it.’ ‘Sir.’ ‘I’ll have the car downstairs for you in twenty minutes. Which of the security crew is coming?’ ‘Oh, I think it’s the new feller, Boris. Is that right?’ Gareth nodded. Anthony closed down his machine and packed up, wondering how he could get the new intelligence on the bishop’s movements to Terry O’Brien. *** It was Sunday and mass was being sung in the Hofkapelle of the Strelzen Residenz. The king in suit and tie was in the royal gallery. He prayed over his rosary while the choir sang the Benedictus to an arrangement by Mozart. The queen, in her state of heavy pregnancy, had been told by the dean of the chapel not to kneel, so she sat beside her husband. Worship in the Chapel Royal had been restored to a state even better than it had been in the days of the great Queen Flavia in the nineteenth century. The last Elphberg before Rudolf, King Maxim, who had ruled in the days of the Great War, had not revived it. He had resided in the lesser palace along Gartengasse, the Osraeum, which had only an oratory. But Peacher money and the king’s own love of music had restored the chapel’s baroque glory, while introducing a chamber orchestra, professional singers, and university choral and organ scholars. Under Moricz Pelikan, its internationally renowned Kapellmeister, the Hofkapelle was already acquiring an outstanding reputation for choral music. There was quite some competition amongst the cognoscenti of religious music in Strelzen for admission to the Hofkapelle services. The nave was full that Sunday, and the seats behind the king in the royal gallery all taken. Of course, a few were there for the sole purpose of seeing – or being seen in the presence of – the glamorous couple beloved of celebrity magazines, Rudi Elphberg and Harry Peacher. Behind Rudolf sat his equerries for the day, Henry Atwood in his guard uniform and the prince of Tarlenheim in a sober suit. Several of the congregation noticed with approval the intensity of devotion evident in the palace party, as well as the intention of the mass, which was the preservation of the realm of Rothenia from the enemies of God and the safety of its people. After the service, the king shook hands with the bishop of Luchau, the celebrant, and led his party to the domestic wing, where buffet tables were laid out and servants in olive green Elphberg livery were on hand with drinks. Rudi had felt it important for everyone to be together the Sunday before they expected the entry of the Enemy into Rothenia. A helicopter had collected the defenders of Belvoir, while their friends at Wenzelsberh were but a short drive from the capital. Henry was collared by his mother. ‘You look unwell, love.’ ‘Mum, I always look unwell, according to you. Either that or peaky, underfed or putting on too much weight.’ ‘Well, anxious then.’ ‘I’ll concede anxious. How’re you, dad?’ His mother leaped in. ‘You don’t know the news? Your dad’s been asked to organise the Free Episcopalian diocese of Central Europe.’ ‘Really! Does that mean …?’ His father smiled. ‘Yes, the Right Reverend Robert Atwood will be consecrated next month, though it won’t be a spectacular service.’ ‘Wow! My dad a bishop! That’s amazing!’ ‘No salary, of course, and a scattered diocese of isolated congregations, but such as it is, this is a promotion. Archbishop Thornycroft was very nice about it.’ Henry quite forgot his own anxieties in the aftermath of such news. Even as he was insisting he would buy his father the episcopal gear, however, one aspect of his own mountain of developments that he could share came to mind. ‘I’m in Strelzen to interview Bishop Jack James tomorrow.’ ‘I’d heard he was on the continent. The Wilmots at St Edward’s were full of it. There’s to be a seminar on the Spirit in Strelzen tomorrow. That’ll be after your interview, dear.’ ‘Hear that, Ed?’ Colonel Cornish had sidled up. ‘Hear what, baby?’ Henry shared the news with Ed, who offered hearty congratulations to Mr Atwood and a kiss to Mrs Atwood. He then led Henry to one side. ‘Sweetheart, Terry had a text from the Willis guy. There’re at least six Hellhounds travelling with the Big Bad, and they’re stopping off at Ranstadt this evening.’ ‘Ranstadt? That’s a bit close to Belvoir for my liking. Do you think they know where we are?’ ‘Who can say? I tend to just assume the worst. Terry’s already heading back with Davey, Matt and Eddie. We have to get out of here as soon as this social thing’s done.’ ‘No love, I can’t. I have to stay in Strelzen. I’m meeting the monster himself tomorrow afternoon. I’ll join you in the evening after I finish.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘I think it’s for the best, even though there are huge dangers. I don’t know whether I can screen myself from detection without the protection of Tobias. I have no idea how he did it.’ ‘Please can I come to the studio?’ ‘No, Ed. We’ve discussed this. He may or may not be able to read me, but he’ll certainly be able to sense what’s in your head. We can’t risk it. When I stand up at last as Mendamero, it needs to be a surprise to the bastard.’ ‘And the boys out at Biscofshalch?’ ‘They have their defences. They may not be able to hide the presence of the Icon from the Antichrist, but Gavin and Lije seem confident that its strength and their own measures can shield it from the demons and their master, for a while at least.’ ‘So a lot hangs on tomorrow.’ ‘I’ll have a far better idea of the Enemy's capacities and powers after I’ve met him face to face in Rothenia.’ Ed chuckled. ‘What?’ ‘I was just thinking of one secret weapon we’ve forgotten.’ ‘Huh?’ ‘If all else fails we can set Magda on him. She’ll smother him with officious and unwelcome attention, and organise him into extinction.’ *** Anthony Willis sat at a table on the České Dráhy fast evening service from Prague to Ranstadt. They had left the last Czech stop at Budějovice fifteen minutes ago. The winter sun was already below the hills as the train, full of returning weekend tourists and students, clicked and rattled towards the frontier. A vaguely Germanic language which Anthony took to be Rothenian now predominated in the aisles. Opposite him was Bishop Lewis, with Gareth and Boris in the aisle seats. Anthony was grimly delighted to see the bishop was as uncomfortable with the security men as he was. Bishop Jack sat alone at a table across the aisle, working on his papers. Anthony noticed him looking up from time to time. When the train entered a narrow dark valley to run alongside a foaming stony river, his boss looked directly across at Anthony with a strangely fierce smile. ‘We’ve just crossed into Rothenia.’ ‘Really sir, how do you know?’ ‘I just do. Perhaps the air’s different.’ ‘Then we shall be in Ranstadt in only twenty minutes. We’ll be in good time for the ecumenical meeting, which is at seven-thirty. We’ll probably be able to get taxis from the station to the hotel and still have time for a quick bite somewhere.’ ‘Excellent.’ The bishop continued working, although Anthony caught him staring out at the darkening mountain landscape from time to time. Despite how busy the station was that evening, there were plenty of taxis. Anthony’s German was sufficient to deal with the drivers, so the party was soon deposited safely at the Hotel Flavia, where the welcome was warm and the rooms well-appointed. Anthony’s first impressions of Rothenia were very positive. He shepherded the two bishops on foot through medieval streets to the abbey of St Vitalis in the middle of the small city gathered below the floodlit fortress on its granite outcrop. Gareth walked some paces behind them, the invariable shades masking his eyes. For once Bishop Jack was wearing the purple shirt, cincture and cassock of his order. Bishop Lewis, on the other hand, was in a grey suit. He had protested that he had already made it clear he would not be there, but Bishop Jack had overruled him. Lewis had meekly complied. The abbot was awaiting them at the west door of his great Romanesque church. He greeted Bishop Jack affably in passable English, but Bishop Lewis with markedly less cordiality. They had apparently met before. A reception was going on in the south transept, where damask-covered tables offered white wine, fruit juices and a light buffet. Anthony got a drink and retired to the margins, watching his bishop circulate amongst the assembled prelates in their varied and colourful attire. Bishop Jack excelled as usual at the flesh-pressing. Smiles and affable conversation greeted him everywhere. He seemed to know the Lutheran leaders present. Gareth had disappeared, which struck Anthony as odd in view the security scare over Colin. When the gathering broke up into discussion groups, Anthony wandered off to look around the abbey. The high altar was one of those overly elaborate Catholic confections of which he usually very much disapproved. But for some reason he found the ascending mound of statuary in gilded bronze and marble comforting that day, though he couldn’t say why. Behind the altar in the midst of the reredos was set a large double-leaved door, in front of which burned a great blue-and-gold lamp. Anthony rather thought the door was of solid gold. ‘That’s the home of the Black Virgin,’ a voice remarked in his ear in German. A monk of the community had come up next to him. ‘What’s that?’ ‘You’ve never heard of it? It’s one of Western Christendom’s great treasures: an early Byzantine icon of the Virgin which the Emperor Otto III gave to his ally, Duke Tassilo of Rothenia, over a thousand years ago. It’s very rarely brought out for the veneration of the faithful, other than on the high feasts of Our Lady. It has accomplished great cures.’ ‘Indeed?’ Anthony smiled a little loftily, as he always did when he encountered this sort of superstition. Then the smile faded from his face when he remembered who his employer was. The monk, determined to be welcoming, led Anthony off for a tour of his monastery’s antiquities. Anthony managed to keep up a pretence of polite interest, though historical relics were no abiding interest of his. It was over an hour before he could get free and find Bishop Jack. The seminars were winding up. The handshaking and swapping of e-mail addresses took a while, sufficient time for Anthony to retrieve the bishop’s case. He also attempted to find Gareth but could not raise the security man on his mobile. ‘Oh, he’ll have wandered off to a bar,’ the bishop explained. ‘Gareth’s very sociable, though being a teetotaller he won’t have drunk anything more intoxicating than lemonade.’ ‘But I thought the security crew were on high alert here in Rothenia.’ Bishop Jack looked irritated. ‘I’m sure Gareth will have made contingency plans.’ As it happened, Boris was at the west door to greet them. The bishop cast an amused glance at Anthony as if to say, I told you so. They returned to the hotel, where Anthony said good night to the bishops and took to the Internet to check the next day's arrangements. He had booked a people-carrier from Avis to drive them to the capital, where Bishop Jack was to record an interview with Eastnet at 2:30. Bishop Lewis was to stay with friends in Strelzen, while Bishop Jack and his entourage were at the Grand Hyatt König Heinrich II on the city’s main square. The rest of the security crew had driven there that morning as an advance party. Closing his documents, Anthony gave a sigh. He had e-mailed copies of the relevant correspondence and associated files to Terry O’Brien. How was he getting away with this treachery to his employer? The bar was still open, so despite still wearing a clerical collar, he ordered a litre of the local lager. Taking a corner seat, he eyed the other tables, seeing no one of any interest until he had got halfway down his tall glass. Just then a young man of some considerable beauty entered the bar. He was short but nicely proportioned, with light hair and vivid blue-grey eyes. Anthony stared fascinated at the denim-clad butt revealed by the waist-length padded jacket, then was forced to blush when the man turned back from the bar holding a glass of coke and caught his eye. To Anthony's astonishment, the man came over and took the seat opposite. ‘Hi,’ he said with a tight smile. ‘I expect you’re with the bishop of Cranwell, am I right?’ ‘Sorry, who are you? Have we met?’ ‘No. We’re strangers sure enough. I want to see Bishop Jack. It’s important.’ ‘Look, I can’t just knock on his door. He’s gone to bed.’ ‘He’ll want to see me. Just tell him my name.’ ‘Which is?’ ‘Elijah.’
  13. Mike Arram

    Chapter 19

    Max woke to find Gavin still flat out next to him. He sat up and discovered he was human once more. What was happening to him? He grinned to himself. Whatever it was, it was cool. He’d had wings on his shoulders! Real, beating wings that would have lifted him off the bed had he not been twelve-inches deep inside Gavin. He checked his dick. Rats! Back to normal size. Gavin too was in human guise. After gently stroking his flanks, Max cuddled round his warm body and kissed the nape of his neck. Max thought out his situation as he lay embracing his sleeping lover. He knew the Icon had changed him, though the transformation seemed to depend on his proximity to Gavin. When Gavin shed his human guise, so did Max. They had been linked. But for what purpose? And then he thought of Soho. He had manifested power there when he was close to a transfigured Gavin. After his encounter with the Icon, the power was greater, enough to transfigure him too for a while. Then there was the spear the Icon had given them. It stood propped up in the corner of the room. He pondered its significance. A tap came on the door. Lije’s voice called out, ‘You decent?’ ‘Nope,’ Max shouted. Gavin stirred, then sat up suddenly as his situation came home to him. ‘I’ve been asleep again!’ Lije put his head round the door and tutted. ‘I said we weren’t decent.’ Nothing daunted, Lije came in and sprawled on a chair while the other two grabbed briefs and trousers. ‘So tell me what happened. It must have been really something; the tower was shaking.’ Gavin looked impish. ‘That was Max fucking the arse off me.’ ‘Whoa! Too much information.’ Lije shook his head. ‘You slept again, Gavin. Is it sex that does it?’ ‘No, I think it’s the Max effect. He and I are linked. He’s supernatural near me and I’m more human near him.’ Max grinned. ‘I need me some coke. Really thirsty!’ When all three boys laughed, he had a terrible pang of regret. He knew these moments of fellowship would soon end forever. Lije’s eyes seemed to show something of the same emotion as he looked fondly at his friends. ‘Maybe we should give Max a new name.’ Gavin smirked. ‘Call him Ezekiel? We’ll have the full set then.’ Max shook his head. ‘It’d be like a sorta club thing, the E-babes! Nice. But … nah! Don’t wanna. I’d feel sorta like a prat. No offence.’ Gavin took him round his neck and kissed his cheek. ‘Love you,’ he whispered. Max seized and kissed the fingers draped across his shoulder. Lije stood and went over to the corner, where he picked up the spear and weighed it in his hand. ‘I suppose we’d better work out what it is the Icon has given us. Will you come into the common room? It has more light.’ ‘Wish there was more heating too,’ Max grumbled. ‘I sometimes forget you’re human,’ Lije observed. ‘Take that as a compliment and put on a sweater.’ Lije laid the spear on the floor and they knelt around it. It was over two metres long. Its shaft was made of polished ash wood with no mark on it. The blade was less simple, the steel silvered and incised with an elaborate pattern. ‘What do you make of these lines, Gavin?’ Lije asked. Gavin reached out and traced the pattern with his finger, but nothing happened. ‘There doesn’t seem to be any letter or shape in it. It just snakes round.’ ‘Looks sorta, y’know, ancient, like the Romans mighta done it.’ ‘Max has a point,’ Lije agreed. ‘There’s a definite look of acanthus about it.’ ‘Yeah, acanthus. The very word.’ Max was grinning, and Lije reached out to ruffle his golden curls. ‘Twerp. Now how do we find out what powers it has? The Icon hasn’t dropped it off for no purpose. In fact, this is the first time it’s done anything like this.’ Gavin gripped it and they all got to their feet. ‘Never a Hellhound when you need one, is there. Let’s take it outside’ Max shivered as they stepped out into the cold wind blowing up from the lake. The sky had gone grey, turning the mountainside bleak and colourless. Gavin held the spear out to him. ‘You look as though you could do with some warming up, Max. Let’s see how far you can throw this. We need to know how it reacts to a mortal.’ ‘Okay. As it happens I did javelin in sports at school.’ Max hefted the spear, balanced it in his right arm, took a run and hurled it. Lije nodded. ‘Pretty impressive, Max, if not quite Olympic standard. I reckon that must have been sixty metres.’ Max strolled over to recover the spear from where it had embedded itself in a patch of peat. When he returned he handed it to Gavin, who spat rather theatrically on his hands, then smiled as he tried to copy Max’s actions. While there was no doubting the power behind the throw, the technique made Max wince. ‘Fuck! Just missed that sheep! Must have been half a kilometre!’ Lije at least was impressed. ‘The point is, though, it’s your natural – or rather unnatural – strength which accounted for the respective distances. There was nothing uncanny about it.’ ‘You go fetch it, Gav. Hey! Cheating!’ Gavin had blinked out and reappeared as a distant figure beside the shaft quivering in the ground. The others saw him waving his arms as a signal to join him. Lije took Max by the elbow. The next thing he knew they were with Gavin, who pointed mutely to where the spear had struck. It had buried itself in an outcrop of rock to the depth of half a metre. ‘So … er, it isn’t just any old spear then,’ Max commented. Gavin and Lije shook their heads. *** ‘Will you two fuckers stop necking? Rudi’ll see you and won’t understand. Justy, put Henry down!’ Ed was peeved. ‘Never snogged a superhero before, have I! Seems the same old Henry though. Tastes the same anyway.’ ‘Why do you two do it?’ Henry grinned. ‘It’s your fault.’ ‘What? Are you saying I’m inadequate as a lover?’ ‘No. That time in Amsterdam, we could have had group sex if you and Nate had let us.’ ‘Yeah, and since then me and Henry have been … sorta frustrated. So we come to terms wiv it by mouth wrestling to annoy you two. Seems fair to me.’ ‘And me.’ ‘Bloody bottoms! And they say we’re controlling. So how does feeling Justy’s crotch come into it?’ ‘Habit. Okay, okay. We’re apart. Don’t hit me!’ ‘I’m not sure I could nowadays, Supertart. But I think Nate and I should get together for a joint spanking session.’ Both the smaller men’s faces brightened. ‘Nah! You’d never do it! Would yer?’ ‘As if. You’d both enjoy it far too much.’ There was a knock at the door of Matt’s study and the mood sobered. A secret service agent entered and held the door for King Rudolf. The three stood, as was almost second nature where Rudi was concerned. The king was in his usual casuals, which on him somehow did not detract from his air of dignity. He took a seat and gave a smile. ‘Now then. Let’s have an update. There was a delivery this morning from the Arsenal. Do I get to know what it was?’ Ed nodded. ‘Special ammunition and some very illegal anti-personnel mines which the Rothenian army is not supposed to possess.’ ‘Have we decided where the final battle is to be? Here doesn’t strike me as particularly well-adapted for the purpose.’ ‘It’s not, sir, because we have to bear in mind that any combatants will be risking more than just themselves. This creature is ruthless, so we must take measures to protect those close to us.’ ‘Ideas?’ ‘The Sichertsdeinst has Henry’s family in Leeds under close surveillance. There are strike teams ready to defend them if necessary: undercover Rothenian commandos with heavy weaponry we smuggled into the UK. Henry’s parents are guarded equally well. Fortunately, the rest of our group is mostly concentrated here. As you said, sir, the main point is to decide where we will be best placed to meet the enemy and protect our friends.’ ‘Agreed. Henry, what do you think?’ ‘He’ll come for me at the end, Rudi, which gives us the advantage of being able to choose the battleground. I had first considered that meeting him at a religious site might give us an edge. Creatures of evil are supposedly put off by symbols of what is holy.’ Rudi shook his head. ‘That clearly does not work in this case. Your Antichrist is a bishop and seems happy enough in churches.’ ‘Terry’s source says he is not comfortable at a Eucharist and does not wear the cross which is a sign of his office. But yes, he’s not Dracula cowering away from crucifixes. So I suggest that Belvoir castle might be ideal.’ ‘Really? Former residence of a saint of the church, and the site of our victory over a different form of evil, that monster Josseran. Not a bad idea at all, though it’s remote and the logistics will be a bit complicated. Still, not beyond our people, and any collateral damage to non-combatants will be limited. What do you think, Ed?’ ‘Brilliant idea. I’d support it, sir. Who do we take?’ ‘Everyone here who can fight, I would say. The rest will be under heavy army and Sichertsdeinst protection.’ ‘Some will complain, sir.’ ‘What, Damien for instance?’ ‘I’d thought of that, so it’s bad news for you, Justy.’ ‘Aww no, Rudi!’ ‘Yup. You stay here and take command of the defence of Wenzelsberh. Look at it this way: two of the three Peacher brothers will be in the house. Your job is to head PeacherCorp security. Besides, your son is here with his friends. You have a responsibility to Damien and the parents of Reggie and Mattie to protect the boys.’ ‘People always talk about me “responsibility” when they wants me to do sumfink I’d rather not. Okay, but Nate stays too.’ ‘He’s already agreed.’ Justin grumbled but capitulated. ‘That’s sorted at least.’ Rudi heaved a sigh. ‘Time to do the sums, I think. Justy, you had better stay for this; we need to see what’s needed for the defence of Wenzelsberh.’ ‘Er … does that mean I’m not needed?’ Henry was a little miffed at the implied dismissal. Rudi gave a private smile. He was not as insensitive as some of his friends assumed. ‘Yes, Colonel Atwood, you are dismissed. But perhaps you might think of using your powers to go get me a grande freshly-brewed from the Rodolferplaz Starbucks – that’s skimmed milk but no sugar.’ ‘Capuccino for me, taa!’ ‘Skinny latte – well, you know the way I like it. They’ll give you a tray if you ask. Need some krone?’ When Henry goggled at them, they collapsed in hysterics. ‘You bastards! You fucking deserve smiting badly, you do. I hate you!’ He vanished. Justin jumped convulsively. ‘Wow! I’ll never get used to that.’ Rudi raised an eyebrow at Ed. ‘Think he’s annoyed?’ ‘You never know. We may suffer for that wind-up.’ *** The three boys were still out on the moor when Henry arrived at Biscofshalch. Finding the common room empty, he cast his mind around until he detected them and something else besides. He made another hop. ‘Jesus, Henry! You’ll give me a heart attack,’ Max yelped. Gavin smiled and went over for a kiss, while Lije leaned on the spear he’d just retrieved from the stone. Gavin explained their new acquisition. ‘Give it to Henry, Lije.’ Henry took the shaft. ‘And it was half a metre deep in that granite boulder?’ They nodded. ‘Must have been a strain to pull it out again.’ Lije grinned. ‘Nearly did my back in.’ Henry was immediately aware of the spear’s personality. This was no simple weapon. It was more than just alive. Unlike Rudi’s sword, this spear was actually sentient. He dropped it in alarm as its mind reached out eagerly to meet his. ‘Henry! You’ve gone white! Are you okay?’ ‘Couldn’t you feel it when you touched it?’ ‘No. Feel what?’ Henry sat on the rock the spear had just vacated. ‘It’s not a spear, I’ll tell you that much. It might look like one, but it’s something else altogether.’ The three stared at him expectantly. Gavin reached down to retrieve the weapon and handle it curiously. ‘Well?’ asked Henry. ‘I can feel the power in it but nothing else. What did you feel, Henry?’ ‘It belongs outside, baby. It’s from Tobias’s place. That’s probably why I can sense it the way you can’t. Okay, it’s time to test what I’m really capable of. Hand it to me and stand well back.’ Henry seized the shaft grimly and was prepared to meet the mind that leapt to greet his. It was undoubtedly friendly. He felt around it. The personality was contained – even imprisoned – by the spear and could not communicate with him while it was thus confined. There was only one solution that occurred to Henry, the one he realised Tobias had already provided him with. He cast back into his own past to reach a quiet place in an ancient world older than the universe, a place where a pebble could become a rather refreshing gin and tonic. It was open to him. He leapt. It was the same late morning in Eden he had experienced before; perhaps it was always late morning there. He immediately discovered he was not alone, for a faun-like child a little older than Damien was sitting cross-legged on a rock. He was beautiful, naked and tanned brown all over, with an Italian cast of face. He had small and delicate blue horns in his forehead. He seemed rather pleased about something. ‘Er … do you have a name, or do I have to think one up for you?’ The boy stretched his slim arms, the muscles in his flat, corded belly moving with him. ‘Hiya, Mendamero. Name? No. I mean, I do have lots, but most of ‘em I gotta keep to myself. People tend to judge ya by names, donchya think?’ ‘Riddles, again.’ Henry sighed. ‘Very well, kid. I take it you know Tobias?’ ‘Tobias? That’s the name you gave him? I know who ya mean. Sure, he’s a sorta colleague.’ ‘And you know all about the Antichrist.’ ‘Oh yeah.’ ‘So what are you? Another seraph?’ ‘Nah! Nowhere near as high up as that. I don’t do the executive stuff, more of a functionary really.’ ‘And your function is …?’ ‘Sorta like … what wouldya call it? A policeman maybe? Nah … that don’t work. A doctor? Sorry Mendamero, it’s a bit beyond me.’ ‘Helpful sort of kid, aren’t you.’ ‘I’m trying.’ ‘Try again.’ ‘Okay. It’s like this. I’m the Destroyer – kinda cute for that sorta function, wouldn’t ya say? But people don’t understand me. Never have. I mean, if you fear death, Death becomes a monster.’ ‘You’re Death?’ ‘No. The Destroyer. Not the same thing. And see, the deal is this: we destroy to rebuild, so I could be the Renewer. People are so negative, donchya think?’ Henry was beginning to get used to discourse with a partner who seemed not to share his basic assumptions about the universe. It was pointless pressing the boy. Time to get to the essentials. ‘Why have you entered the universe, then?’ ‘I’ve come to collect the traitor. One of my jobs … not the nicest one, I have to say.’ The boy grimaced. ‘You mean the Antichrist?’ ‘Course not. He’s your problem.’ ‘So you’re not a weapon for use in the final battle?’ ‘I’ll be used as a weapon. But my purpose is to renew. I’m sorta like the weapon that breaks in your hand; the blade that cuts both ways. I hope you don’t blame me for that.’ ‘And the traitor?’ ‘Him I will destroy. It’s okay, he knows I’ll do it, or he soon will.’ ‘What?’ This was getting way beyond Henry. ‘Ya see, I have to kill him. Anyone else does and it’ll be a disaster, and I do mean cosmic.’ ‘And who is this traitor.’ The boy smirked slyly. ‘Sorry Mendamero. The Great Council said it’d be best you don’t know. You’ll find out in due time anyway.’ The boy hopped off his stone, jumped in the stream and splashed around a bit. Heaving a sigh, Henry watched him play. ‘Nice to be out of the spear, eh?’ ‘You bet!’ He looked around. ‘I really like this place. Not been here for some while.’ The boy made a reflective pause, as if remembering something. Then he shrugged. ‘I’m not going to be stuck in that spear for long, but I’m not used to being pinned down.’ ‘Was that a joke?’ ‘Yeah, sorta. I’m better at it than Tobias. You wanna get back to your friends?’ ‘I suppose. Nice to meet you, despite the ominous nature of our conversation.’ The boy looked up earnestly into his eyes. ‘I am one of the good guys, believe me. And maybe I shouldn’t tell ya this, Mendamero, but it’ll all be okay if you remember your promises to Tobias. Just trust me. Oh, and be careful what you say to the others.’ Henry gathered himself and felt for his own present moment. The way was clear. He jumped and landed in the common room with spear in hand. His friends looked at him expectantly. ‘How long have I been gone?’ ‘Bout three hours,’ Max replied, as the only one with a watch. ‘What happened?’ ‘I just had an away-day in paradise.’ ‘Henry!’ ‘Now be careful of this thing, it’s sharp.’ He passed the spear to Lije. The troubled faces that met his gaze demanded more than a throwaway comment. ‘It’s okay, really babes. It’s a force for good. I gotta go.’ ‘Will we see you before … y’know?’ ‘Sweethearts, I have no idea. But I guess it’s time for the big hug.’ One by one, Max first, they embraced and kissed Henry, even Lije, and there were tears on the straight boy’s cheeks as he did it. ‘I love you all, you know that.’ They nodded mutely. ‘I know you’ll be brave. I’ll be proud of you. We’ll meet again, I’m sure of it.’ Gavin took Henry’s hand and kissed it. ‘Is that a prophecy from Mendamero?’ he asked, looking at Henry through wet eyes. ‘I hope so,’ Henry said softly. Then, sadder than at any parting he had ever made, he vanished. *** There was a sombre silence in the tower of Biscofshalch after Henry left. No one seemed to want to speak. Eventually Max blurted, ‘I could do with a cup of tea.’ ‘No kettle, sweets,’ Gavin replied with a wan smile. Lije mastered himself. ‘Guys, let’s acknowledge the fact that we’re fucked. But we’re guys, we’re young, and it’s Friday. I think we’re owed this much. Tonight we’ll hit the Wejg in style and have the most dissolute time of our lives, or afterlives in the case of two of us. No holds barred and no limits. We on?’ Max and Gavin stared at each other before nodding. Max decided he’d better be pragmatic. ‘Money?’ ‘Oh, yeah.’ Lije considered the problem. ‘When I died, I had about £300 in my bank account. So far as I know, it’s still there. Not only that, but the bank now owes me interest, or would, if I weren’t dead. So, er … time to be imaginative.’ He was gone for about twenty minutes. When he returned, his pockets were crammed with sterling banknotes. ‘Let me guess, there’s an ATM in Essex that’ll never be the same again.’ ‘Fraid so. Ready for Strelzen, boys? Wanna get changed, Max?’ ‘Me? Oh, sure. I’ve got the party gear Davey bought me. Won’t be long.’ Max was back in minutes, grinning. All three held hands and instantly found themselves in an empty alley just off Strelzen’s Wejg. Max and Gavin kept hold of each other as they strolled out on to the busy, noisy street. Evening was closing in and the neon lights were flashing brightly. They stopped off at a kiosk marked WECHSEL to change the sterling into Rothenian krone. Lije led them to the Irish sports bar, where they occupied a table while planning the evening ahead. Max trotted off to get himself his usual snakebite. Lije and Gavin looked askance at the red litre glass he returned with. Gavin frowned at Lije. ‘Course there’s a big problem with the fact you’re straight. We won’t end up in the same place.’ Lije shrugged noncommittally. ‘Maybe. We’ll see how it pans out. The problem we have to face first is that intoxication won’t be easy, at least for me and you, and I so want to be drunk. How do we do this?’ ‘I tried drinking years ago to find out what happened. I just sicked it up, not nice, so alcohol is out. We can’t even pee!’ ‘Which leaves the option of … substances! Poppers work, I know, I sniffed up the best part of a bottle one night. Though it takes a lot to have an effect.’ Gavin looked dubious. ‘Mmm … not sure I’m happy with that, but we gotta keep up with Max somehow. What d’you think, Max?’ ‘You’re certain about this?’ ‘S’pose.’ ‘Then I guess GHB might be the best option. But I don’t know how to get any.’ Lije stood up. ‘Wait here, lads, leave this one to me.’ He disappeared into the loos, and did not emerge for half an hour. Gavin and Max in the meantime watched the TV, looked at the other groups and made subdued chat. Gavin, noticing some free-access computer terminals, went over curiously to play around on the Internet for a while. ‘Don’t often get the chance,’ he commented when Max joined him to see what he was doing. Max was on his second drink before Lije returned from the toilets. He sat down with a smirk and flashed two plastic bottles. He quickly thrust one into his jacket pocket before slipping the other under the table to Gavin. Max was intrigued. ‘So how did you …?’ ‘Oh, I scouted the minds of the hustlers outside and located the Wejg suppliers. It didn’t take long. I paid for the big size! Ready to move on?’ They nodded. When they reached the bustling street with people elbowing past them, they dithered but eventually headed north to the Gay Village. Max cheered up when they began to encounter more and more men holding hands or embracing. He shot a glance at Lije, who gave him a tight grin back. They opted to go into the dark spaces of Bar Melmoth. ‘It says it’s mixed,’ Gavin informed Lije apologetically. ‘And did you see the sign outside? It’s an O’Brien Enterprises pub. It’s one of Terry’s places.’’ ‘Terry O’Brien?’ It took two more drinks to explain Terry to Max. While they did so, Lije and Gavin occasionally took loo breaks to have a secret swig of the drug, leaving glasses of coke untouched in front of them. It had a rapid effect on Gavin, who was progressively more outgoing and funny than Max had ever seen him before. If Lije felt anything, it was not immediately visible on the surface. Max too was brightening under the influence of alcohol. The impending battle receded into a future he could not control. For now, he was young, alive and in love with a man who sat close up against him and whose scent was excitement in his nostrils. Only the presence of Lije stopped him from taking advantage of their situation and necking away, as another couple was doing in a dark alcove opposite them. After an hour of desultory chatting and some very funny stories from Gavin about Henry Atwood as a student, they began working out where to go next. ‘A straight strip joint,’ Gavin announced. ‘I agree,’ affirmed Max. Lije chuckled. ‘You’re good mates. I’ve never been in a place like that. Now’s the time, I guess, if at all.’ So an hour and a half later they were much farther south on the Wejg, in a shadowy dive going by the name of Club LA. It was full of Rothenians. ‘How could you tell this was the best place?’ Max was intrigued as he watched naked women gyrating round poles on high stages. Gavin giggled a little nervously. ‘I just needed to sense out where all the locals went. They know the best value. Wow! Look at her!’ A stunning topless blonde was heading directly to their table. With a very sultry smile she leaned down to kiss a red-faced Lije and then settled into his lap, rubbing her buttocks provocatively against his crotch. Men cheered and winked round them. Gavin caught her eye and – behind Lije’s back – pushed some very-large-denomination krone notes into the hand she had draped over Lije’s shoulder. She and Gavin exchanged meaningful glances. The lap dancer took Lije’s hand and placed it on her left breast. He was beetroot red by then but didn’t take it away. Meanwhile, her own hand had found its way under his clothing and down the front of his trousers. He all but yelped with shock. ‘Time to go, Max,’ Gavin whispered, tugging him rapidly towards a corner of the bar, where they melted away into the thick atmosphere. In the meantime, the dancer pulled Lije upright, kissed him thoroughly and led him off in the direction of a side door opening on to some stairs. *** ‘Will Lije be okay?’ Max asked as they emerged once more on to blare and chatter of the Wejg. ‘I mean, we abandoned him back there.’ ‘I hope so. She was up for it, according to her mind. She thought he was amazingly hot and cute, and she wanted him; the money just sealed the deal. She’s his for the night.’ ‘How do you know he’ll go through with it?’ ‘I don’t, but at least he’ll have had the chance this once to have sex with a woman.’ ‘You mean Lije is a virgin?’ ‘He was too fucked up by sexual abuse as a boy, and topped himself before he sorted his head. He’s never slept with a woman despite always wanting to. This is the last gift I can give him. But it’s his choice. All I can say is, she’ll have the ride of her life if he makes the most of his opportunity.’ ‘So where now for us?’ Max asked. Gavin smiled. ‘Something’s telling me that the place to be is down here.’ Taking Max’s hand Gavin led him south through the crowds down the lane. After a few block the crowds became thinner and the garish strip joints and bars disappeared. Gift shops and kebab joints took their place, all still open in the late evening. Almost at the end of the lane a line of converted shops on their right formed a little quarter of bars and clubs, the sort which Max recognised from the age and dress of the boys and girls standing smoking and chatting outside them. They had the indefinable grungy chic of student clubs. ‘Here?’ he asked. ‘Why here?’ ‘Well Max, you let me use your iPod and I checked which are the tracks you play most, and more even than those by The Feeling are ...’ ‘... Starcrossed! Well yeah. The definitive gay duo. You missed out on Eurovision 2005 when they outed themselves on stage. Roman and Yuli. My musical heroes and long-term wanking objects, especially that Roman. But why here?’ ‘Research on the web tells me that the club there, the one called Lisztomania, is where they started.’ ‘Really? So what’s this, a pilgrimage?’ ‘Sort of, maybe. But who knows?’ ‘What do you know, Gav?’ Without another word, he led Max up two steps and into the club. Max began to see why as soon as they were in the door and had paid their ten krone entrance fee. It was so familiar: the bare boarded floor, the black painted walls tacked with fliers, the battered tables, benches with torn padding, and the strings of lights everywhere. ‘Home,’ Max breathed. In student terms it was still early and the clientele was sparse, but the club began to fill not long after they arrived and Max had got his bottle of Pilsner and Gavin his coke. Max was impressed by Gavin’s mastery of Rothenian. ‘Gav sweets, you’re waiting for something.’ ‘Not just me,’ came the reply. ‘Come on. Even you must be able to feel it.’ Indeed there was something of expectation in the air, and the eyes of the teenagers around them were continually straying to the stage area at the back of the club. ‘No. It can’t be!’ Max muttered. ‘How did you know?’ ‘Mind powers come with the package, Max. And these kids are just radiating excited anticipation.’ A keyboard struck up as two performers took the stage. ‘Omigod Gavin! It’s them! Starcrossed.’ ‘Yeah. This is their local where they like to perform just for their friends. And tonight is our lucky night!’ *** Mark Tolmie gathered his clothes from odd corners of the girl’s flat where they had been flung. Her name was Karla and she was Czech. He must remember that; she had been the first and would probably be the only woman with whom he had shared a bed. She slept now, utterly exhausted. Her excitement had slowly turned to amazement as he took her again and again, at first frantically, then with more deliberation and care for her enjoyment. There had possibly been six times in all. He had lost count. The orgasms had been powerful for him too, so powerful he was almost insensible at the end, gasping and bewildered with lust. His dick was sore. Mark grinned as he found a can of diet coke in her fridge and drained it. It was time to become Elijah again. He emptied his pockets of all the cash he had left and piled it on the breakfast counter. Although not much, it was the only way he could think of to show his thanks. It was early in the morning. He was not at all sleepy, but then the sex he and Karla enjoyed had not had the mystical content of Gavin’s with Max. Yet she had changed him too in her way. He felt fulfilled as a man at last. Somehow he was readier to go into the dark now, the dark he knew awaited him. He took one last look at the sleeping girl and thought sadly of all the other things he would never know: romance, home-making, a family wedding, fatherhood. None would be his, but at least he now was sure he could have played the man’s part had his life been different – had Clive Dressner not abducted and raped him. Once more Lije, he kissed Karla’s hair lightly and was gone. He found Biscofshalch empty and could catch no resonance of his friends, who he supposed were far away. Noticing the spear leaning in a corner, he grasped it curiously, then sat down to inspect it more closely. Trying hard to commune with it the way he knew Henry had done, he received no response beyond a barely tangible vibration in the reality around it, a sign of power he had come to recognise. He followed the incised patterns with his finger, wondering idly if there was a sequence to tracing the lines which would unlock this weapon’s secret. As Lije stood to return the spear to its corner, he stumbled over a ridge in the carpet. The spear clattered on the floor and he fell to his knees over it, splaying his hands. He hissed as he realised the blade had sliced the ball of his right thumb. Although the pain was not much and would soon be gone when his body healed itself, a fair amount of blood had spilled over the shining blade to collect in the incised pattern and run along the small channels. The hum of power suddenly grew louder in Lije’s head while the pattern on the blade flared into dazzling golden light. The whole spear glowed briefly until, after a further burst of brilliance, it went dead. At that instant Lije’s senses warned him of an alien presence in the common room. He spun around. There, sitting on the other sofa, hugging his knees to his chin, was a naked child with blue horns on either side of his forehead and a very mischievous grin on his handsome face. ‘Important stuff, blood, donchya think?’
  14. Mike Arram

    Chapter 18

    ‘Stop poking me!’ Max giggled. ‘It tickles.’ ‘Gotta check what happened. You seem just the same, but for a moment there I thought it had done to you what it did to me.’ ‘So I’m still alive then?’ ‘Appears you are.’ Gavin looked relieved. The two were naked together on their bed. It was not for the purpose of sex, though that thought was heavy on their minds. Gavin had been making a minute inspection of Max’s body. When the light had faded in the crypt and they had resumed their human forms, both were concerned about what the irradiation had done to Max. Gavin had led him directly to their room. Laughingly declining the opportunity to join them, Lije had gone off ‘to check the perimeter,’ as he said. Gavin sat up and folded his arms around his knees while contemplating his lover. ‘Your pulse is normal; so is your body temperature.’ ‘And tell me how it was you had a thermometer available to stick up my …?’ ‘Never mind that. You don’t seem any stronger than you did before. You also don’t have the mind powers … or do you? Let your consciousness go. Try it.’ Max frowned with concentration, then relaxed his brows. ‘Nothing, except …’ ‘What?’ ‘I really do want to fuck you raw.’ ‘You read my mind?’ Max now sniggered. ‘Course. It’s easy. It’s exactly what I’m thinking all the time, Gav. No, honest. I can’t read minds either, though I do feel a sort of connection with you … like I go hot when I look in your eyes.’ Gavin smiled. ‘And when I do this?’ Suddenly the boy was replaced by the Enoch-being, skin glowing, eyes like obsidian, cloud of black hair floating in a non-existent wind. The great wings spread over them both and then curved down to enfold them, drawing Max half unwilling to the heatless flame of his lover’s transfigured body. In the breathless cave of light Enoch’s huge pinions had created, dark lips sought Max’s. Suddenly, in kissing Enoch, he felt the change come upon himself once more; he was no longer the human boy Max Jamroziak. And before they embraced he looked down to become aware that this form had brought with it a glorious new potency to his maleness. Enoch radiated delight, arching to accommodate Max’s size and the deep penetration it needed. His fresh scent almost overpowered the transformed Max with its heady sexuality. Their shining bodies joined in a coupling of a different order to anything a human had ever experienced, with minds, souls and bodies united in ecstasy. Of their own accord, Max’s wings beat a gale around their heads as he climaxed inside his lover. And this time it was from Gavin that endurance was demanded. *** Ed Cornish was smiling. Matt and Andy had handed over the logistics of Wenzelsberh to him as things began to escalate. ‘Well, at least a lot of our friends are happy with double beds,’ Matt observed. Andy grinned. ‘And the kids are okay with sharing as well, even if they sleep less that way.’ The house at Wenzelsberh had become their operations centre. An army communications unit was parked behind the outbuildings in anticipation of the king’s arrival. Damien and his friends kept hanging around the unit, regardless of what was done to discourage them. Fortunately, the soldiers were very tolerant. Ed had commandeered Matt’s study as his headquarters. He and Henry were sitting at Matt’s desk the morning after Henry’s return from the past, Ed holding a notepad in which he was making random jottings. Henry was intrigued. ‘What’re you thinking, Ed?’ ‘Babes, there’s going to be a battle next week. You’re going to be at the heart of it, but I’m thinking Mendamero’s contribution isn’t all there is to it. All good and loving people have a part to play in this struggle. Our side has some pretty mean dudes to put into the battle. I for one will be right there with you. Rudi, Terry, Eddie, Nate and Justy in particular will also want to fight alongside us, and I ain’t gonna stop them.’ ‘And the more … ahem … intellectual portion of our friendship network?’ Ed chuckled. ‘Davey, Ben and Phil can help too. But it’s not doing them down to say you can’t really imagine them going in with guns blazing.’ ‘Any more than me?’ ‘Come off it, babe. You’ve been through the Rothenian army’s officer-training scheme, and God knows you deserve your uniform. You don't have to be told which end of a gun not to stand in front of.’ Henry pondered this. ‘So what have you in mind?’ ‘The bishop’s chief auxiliaries are these demon dogs. They’re powerful, but both you and Max proved they’re not invincible. On the contrary, it’s clearly within the capacities of a human to take them down, so that's exactly what I propose to do. Any idea of how many there are?’ ‘I could try and find out, I guess. I can certainly sense the filthy things. Trouble is, I’d have to scout out Bishop Jack's vicinity to do it, which might alert him.’ ‘Agreed. They’ll come to us in due course, once poor Gavin and Lije have met their fates. God, is there nothing we can do to help at Biscofshalch?’ Henry looked sombre. ‘No. That battle is not for us, and the outcome is not in our hands. Indeed, if we intervened we might well seriously muck things up.’ ‘It’s a tragedy. Ah well, back to events we can control. So tell me again what happened when you shot the monster which was attacking Max.’ ‘It didn’t like it. On the other hand, I couldn’t swear I actually hurt it as such. Rapid fire knocked it down, but it got up again soon enough.’ Ed mused and made some notes. He turned to his laptop and began typing e-mails. In the end Henry asked him what he was doing. ‘Oh … I’m thinking that modern weaponry can’t be discounted altogether. It’s just how big a bang is needed, and how you deliver it.’ He gave a grim little smile. ‘There’s also the importance of teamwork and training.’ ‘Any suggestion how I can fight the Antichrist while you’re at it?’ Ed shook his head. ‘These Hellhounds are my size of enemy, little babe. The big one’s for you, oh great Mendamero.’ ‘How is it people only call me Mendamero when they want to be ironic?’ ‘Pity the poor superhero.’ ‘Mean sod!’ Henry pouted. There was a tap on the door and in came Terry O’Brien, a knowing smile on his face. ‘Afternoon, supernatural babes.’ ‘Leave me out of it,’ grunted Ed. Henry went over for a hug and was caught up in Terry’s arms, a place he very much liked to be. He was pulled down into an armchair on Terry’s lap. Henry snuggled. Since he had been a boy, he’d always associated Terry with safety and affection, a feeling that strangely enough had never gone away despite age and experience. Eventually Terry pushed him back a bit. ‘Got a question for you, Henry babe.’ ‘Ask away, Uncle Terry.’ Terry laughed. ‘This Anthony Willis …’ ‘The bishop’s queer chaplain. Yes?’ ‘I’m putting together the story there, and it’s a weird one. Gavin baby seduced him in America last summer, forcing him to cooperate and feed us information about his master, right?’ ‘So I understand. Gavin’s idea was to gain intelligence from the Antichrist's own household, and it worked … well, to an extent.’ ‘To a surprising extent, babes. Perhaps it’s occurred to you that the guy should be dead by now. How could he keep his dealings with the enemy a secret from such a master? He should have been sliced into quivering strips of flesh and fed to the Hellhounds. But no, he’s still working on the bishop’s staff. I’ve laid off him recently as I don’t want to compromise him more than he is already.’ ‘So your thinking is …?’ ‘He’s more important than we realise. The bishop needs him for something other than just carrying his briefcase. Now why would that be?’ *** Anthony worked on his files while keeping one eye on the meeting. The conference room of the Prague Novotel was well-appointed but not too expensive for a poor diocese like that of Eastern Europe to afford. Minutes were being taken by Bishop Lewis's Czech-born chaplain. All six Anglican bishops from the province of Europe were present, half of them from what Bishop Jack called ‘the opposition’, the former liberal establishment he had ousted so effectively in England but which lingered on in other provinces. The Bishop of Gibraltar was looking sceptically at his colleague of Cranwell. Bishop Jack was deliberately dressed in an open-necked shirt and slacks, perhaps to annoy him. The bishop of Gibraltar for his part wore a soutane piped and sashed in scarlet, a silver pectoral cross on his chest and a scarlet skullcap on his head. ‘So … er, you believe the end-time is now upon us, John?’ Bishop Jack spread his hands. ‘Aren’t the signs all around us, Peter? Dissension amongst the people of God? Perverts and decadents unchecked in lay life? Persecution of the faithful remnant? Yes, it is clear to me that these are the prophesied days.’ ‘My dear John, those so-called prophecies were the anger and complaints of a persecuted Church under the heel of the Roman imperial authorities. They were a fist to shake at the Church’s enemies nearly two thousand years ago. They have no modern relevance.’ Bishop Jack rejoined silkily, ‘You’re talking of Holy Scripture, Peter, the very Word of God, as if it were no more than a tabloid astrology column.’ ‘I would never deny the claims of scripture to be taken seriously. But they are texts generated by men in their own particular circumstances. They contain their truths, but cannot be accepted literally.’ Two of his colleagues scowled at Gibraltar and muttered beneath their breath, but the floor was Bishop Jack’s. He leaned back and folded his arms. ‘So what parts of scripture would you admit, Peter? Just the ones which suit your own prejudices?’ The bishop of Gibraltar settled into his own seat and eyed his colleague. ‘We’ve been here before, John. You know the arguments as well as I. Who is to say your interpretation of unerring scripture is more valid than anyone else’s? If you wish to use scripture as an infallible rule for life and God’s purposes, why don’t you use all of it? There are a lot of commandments in Leviticus which people like you are very quiet about. The Church in council is the only safe guide to scripture, but you set up your own will as judge.’ ‘And the Church has been silent while sin and perversity has grown.’ ‘Sin? Perversity? It seems to me western society has opened its arms and admitted the outcasts, said it was wrong to exclude them, and offered equality and acceptance. Is the Spirit in how society has changed, or in a persecuting, bigoted congregation such as the one you lead?’ Anthony was mesmerised. This was his first glimpse of the deliberations and disputes among the leaders of his faith, some of whom seemed to share his own doubts. He caught the eye of the Czech priest, who surreptitiously winked at him. Bishop Lewis was red with anger. ‘This is nonsense! There is no salvation but through the Cross. Those who take Jesus Christ as Lord will live forever; all others will perish. Jack is right. These are the days when the sheep will be taken safely home by their shepherd while the goats are driven down to torment. The goats, bishop! The stinking, lascivious pederasts and abominations!’ Bishop Jack caught and held the eye of his angry colleague and quelled him. ‘Of course, no one rejoices in the damnation of sinners, but such is the nature of the end time.’ The bishop of Gibraltar gave Lewis a contemptuous look, then turned back to Bishop Jack. ‘So if this is the end time, tell me about the Scarlet Woman, the horsemen and the Beast.’ ‘The Beast is certainly among us. There have been signs and prophecies – no doubt none you would recognise, Peter, but sufficiently clear to those with the charisma of interpreting tongues and visions.’ ‘Oh yes, this Mendamero being. Is that what draws you to Rothenia?’ Anthony noticed the start Bishop Jack gave before he frowned and asked, ‘Why do you say that?’ The bishop of Gibraltar looked a little superior. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of St Fenice of Tarlenheim, one of the great spiritual writers of the Middle Ages … but of course, Alun here doesn’t read anything other than scripture, so how could he tell you?’ Bishop Lewis's face again reddened with annoyance and embarrassment. Bishop Jack turned a ferocious glare on him. ‘Is this true, Alun? Is there some Rothenian prophecy associated with Mendamero?’ ‘I … er … sorry. I had no idea …’ Bishop Jack collected himself. ‘We’ll pursue this at some later time. For now, we must return to the business of appointing the right sort of primate for Europe.’ Over the tea break, Anthony approached Bishop Lewis’s Czech chaplain, whom he had seen struggling to keep a straight face over his boss's Mendamero gaffe. ‘So, er … what do you know about Mendamero, Tomas?’ He got a grin. ‘I really did tell him about St Fenice. In reply I was given a lecture about papist error and so-called Catholic saints. The man is an idiot. I’ve resigned as of the end of this month. I left the Roman communion looking for a broader and more liberal church, only to end up with this moron and his bigoted friends.’ ‘So what’re you going to do?’ ‘Join the Free Episcopalians like any honest Christian. They have a new leader in Rothenia who’s organising an alternative Eastern European diocese based on Strelzen. No money of course, but then St Paul had none either. The chaplaincy here in Prague is in chaos, with the bishop’s people and his vicar at war with the congregation. The dissidents have found me a flat and are taking care of living expenses. I’m setting up a new congregation in a school hall. It’s quite exciting really. Excuse my saying, but you don’t seem too happy either.’ ‘No,’ Anthony admitted, ‘I’m not. Have you heard what happened to the Conservative Coalition in England?’ ‘The scandals? Oh yes. All of a sudden my bishop’s on the defensive. Quite rightly too. He’s involved with some woman who’s not his wife. And he thinks he’ll be the new archbishop of Europe! Look at him toadying up to Bishop Jack there. His affairs will be in print soon. The Czech and German press are on his tail.’ ‘Seriously?’ ‘He’s not exactly been discreet. He used diocesan funds to send her husband on courses, then took her off to Austria for – what do you call it? – dirty weekends. These people, so secure in their sense of their own righteousness, they think they’re invulnerable to criticism and exposure.’ Anthony pondered this. For all Bishop Jack’s ebullience and achievements, the wheels were plainly coming off his bandwagon. The incompetence and corruption of those drawn to his vision of spiritual power were remarkable and depressing. He should be in England regrouping, but here he was in the Czech Republic and Rothenia, doing what? Anthony needed to find more about Mendamero, so much was clear, both for the bishop and for himself. His Czech friend gave him a quizzical look, but recommended a bookshop near the Tyn church which specialised in Rothenian publications. As soon as the provincial staff meeting ended, Anthony made his way across the city. He soon found himself sitting in a café near the old town hall, with a small stack of volumes in front of him. He had managed to locate a rare abridged edition in English of Fenice’s Revelation of the End Time, together with a number of her meditations translated into German, which he could follow. These had a historical introduction to her life and times. And there was the passage about Mendamero: ‘I, Fenicia, wife of the venerable count Sergius, your sister in Christ and in his kingdom, to all those now living and those yet to be. Know that I was in the high chamber of my castle of Tarlenheim, pondering the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. It was a Sunday and I heard behind me a great voice as of a trumpet, saying, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last,” and “What now thou hearest so write and tell unto thy people.” ‘Hear then ye people and know that the Lord has set up His seat amongst you, and so may ye rejoice. For ye are His favoured ones. He will make of you a great people. Kings will He give you, strong in justice and firm in His faith. A race of saints shall ye be, chosen of the Lord. Though ye doubt and quail in the eye of the tempest, yet stay faithful to the Lord and to His anointed ones, and He shall calm the waters as once He did on the Lake of Gennaseret. Victory shall ye ever have. He will forgive you your weakness and exalt you among nations. His countenance will shine upon you and ye will bask in His glory. Their hair will be red as copper is red and gold as the sunlight is golden. Their race will never fail in their charge. Their line will always be fruitful of Levites. Impious hands may seize your ark, but theirs will be as the fate of the Philistines, for one will come, as bold as Samson, as wise as Deborah, and his name will be MENDAMERO. Yet as Samson suffered mortal loss in victory, so shall he, though his loss shall be the Lord’s gain. For by his sacrifice will a warrior arise, a very David to lead Israel unto great glory. The Lord is with thee, O my Israel. His Ark lieth amongst thee in its chamber of cypress wood. His servants lie wakeful around it, as Samuel in the Holy of Holies.’ ‘Great,’ Anthony groaned to himself. ‘What in heck does all that mean?’ He pondered the passage. The first paragraph was a deliberate adaptation of the opening of the Book of Revelation. The appeal to the self-love of the Rothenian people that followed was as obvious as its intention was subtle. Anthony’s commentary said that Fenice wrote in days of war between the incoming Elphbergs and the dynasty of Glottenberh. Her Revelation was intended to bolster the idea of Rothenians as a united people with a great future, though in fact, over three centuries of disunity followed the accession of Duke Rudolf I. But she was right about the elevation of the Elphbergs to a royal throne, and they were famous for their red hair. But Mendamero, now. ‘As bold as Samson,’ so he was a warrior and leader of the faithful. ‘As wise as Deborah,’ a woman and a judge? Then Anthony remembered Enoch. The boy was homosexual, and so maybe was this Mendamero, for whom perhaps Enoch worked. But then the allusion to a warrior arising from Mendamero’s sacrifice threw him again. The reference to an Ark further confused him. It was mostly impenetrable, he concluded, but one thing he was sure of: in Fenice’s prophecies, Mendamero was not the Beast. Quite the opposite. He was to be the saviour and leader of the faithful, a great warrior for God. So who was lying to him? Bishop Jack was a pillar of the Church, one of the great evangelists of his time, a man who had rebuilt a failing religion and breathed life into it. He had swayed nations and their leaders. He did signs and wonders, cured the sick and prophesied. But it had dawned on Anthony that the bishop’s followers did not measure up to their leader. Gareth and his sinister accomplices were alarming and uncanny, even though Anthony still could not fully believe what he had seen the night Enoch had come to the bishop’s house. Bishop Jack’s Conservative Coalition had attracted and promoted embezzlers, thieves, adulterers and sexual deviants, yet it was dedicated to purity and the gospel way. As Anthony leafed through Fenice’s meditations, a phrase leaped out at him: ‘You shall know the quality of the leader by that of his followers.’ *** It was Friday and the house at Wenzelsberh was on edge. A van had deposited half a dozen Sichertsdeinst personnel, who had assumed positions around the exterior. Army checkpoints had sealed the roads leading to the grounds and a military helicopter was buzzing back and forth in the sky above them. King Rudolf was imminently expected. The boys had complained when they were confined to Damien’s room, but there were too many people about for them to be allowed to get underfoot. Terry had taken pity on them, however, so the ceiling below Damien’s room was bouncing to thumps as the Mendamero Men practised their unarmed combat training by hurling themselves on the hapless security chief. The rest of the party was to be found scattered through the reception rooms. Eddie Peacher and Phil Maddox had cornered Henry and were questioning him earnestly about his excursion through time. Henry meanwhile could not help keeping an eye on the drive, where the appearance of the royal motorcade finally cut off the conversation. The household surged into the entrance hall, while the Mendamero Men poked their heads through the banisters of the upper landing. Rudi was in casuals and greeted the party with every appearance of friendliness. Unexpectedly, Fritz von Tarlenheim, acting as equerry, entered behind the king, beaming all over his handsome face. He was carrying a tubular leather case slung over his shoulder. Something about it attracted Henry’s attention. As the king passed down the line, Fritz held back. He paused to hug and kiss Henry before drawing him to one side. He caught Henry’s gaze. ‘Yes, Henry, it’s a sword.’ ‘You knew I knew?’ ‘Everyone knows how weird you’ve got … but you read my mind and I’ll team up with the bishop against you. My perversions are private to me, thank you very much.’ ‘You have perversions?’ ‘Doesn’t everyone? So tell me, what’s special about this sword, Mendamero?’ ‘I have no idea.’ ‘Thank God! He’s not omniscient either.’ Fritz laughed. ‘The king asked me to show you this. Is that a lounge through there?’ When they entered the room, Fritz closed the door behind them. He unzipped the leather case to reveal a long, straight sword. The scabbard was elaborately engraved and the guard fashioned into a gold lion’s head, the eyes made up of rubies. ‘Are you going to draw it?’ ‘No. This is the sword of Henry the Lion, and only the king of Rothenia may do that.’ Henry stared at the weapon with deep curiosity. ‘Wow! May I touch it?’ ‘No. I was up all night polishing it, and I don’t want your fingerprints all over it.’ ‘Seriously?’ Fritz grinned. ‘You don’t change, Henry. Course you may.’ Henry took the heavy scabbard from him. There were stories about this sword. It was much older than the eighteenth-century warrior-king from whom it took its name. The blade was one of those long held to be Excalibur. A sword of that name, which was reputed to have been old even then, appeared in the inventory of the treasury of Waclaw III, the last reigning duke of the native dynasty of Tassilo. It had been refurbished with a new hilt for the coronation of King Rudolf I, in which it had played a symbolic part. ‘Is this the sword the king skewered you with when you two had a quarrel over Harry?’ ‘Trust you to bring that up.’ Henry frowned. ‘Then it's what gave you the wound Gavin cured you of.’ Fritz lost his easy grin. ‘Yes, I guess so. Rudi says he needs you to … determine whether there is anything supernatural about it. He says that, as you are Mendamero, you may have the privilege of drawing it.’ Henry took the hilt and swept out the blade. Handing the scabbard back to Fritz, he held the steel across his upturned palms. ‘Beautifully balanced, isn’t it?’ ‘I wouldn’t know.’ Henry looked at the straight, double-edged blade whose fuller was engraved with ancient letters. Henry knew that no one had ever successfully deciphered them. He gazed at the steel with its uncanny tinge of blue. When his mind reached out to explore it, he recoiled. Much hot blood had run down its thirsty length. This was not a safe object, nor was it entirely passive in his hands. It had been wielded by Henry the Lion on the day he personally executed a Bavarian assassin who had pulled a pistol on him in his antechamber. Henry sensed that, having dealt justice and death in the past, it was restless to do so again. He turned it to focus on the gold letters let into the trench of the fuller. ‘Time for the weird stuff, Fritzy. You ready?’ ‘Go for it, Henry.’ Henry’s mind felt for the differences in the fashioning. The letters glowed as he isolated and picked them out. He heard a gasp from his friend. The inscription suddenly stood clear: I•N•X•QI•M•TR•M•CT. So far so good. Now perhaps the sword could tell him what they meant. As his mind sought back to that of the one who had fashioned the blade, into his consciousness came the phrase: IN NOMINE CHRISTI QVI ME TRAHIT MALVM CONQVEREBIT. ‘Okay, Fritzy, like all good Catholic Rothenian boys, you did Latin, so what does this mean?’ He repeated the phrase. Fritz concentrated. ‘It could mean, “In the name of Christ. He who draws me will overthrow evil.” But it might also mean, “He who draws me in the name of Christ will vanquish the Evil One.”’ ‘So this may very well be as important as Rudi believes,’ Henry mused. ‘What does he intend to do with it?’ ‘Go hunting Hellhounds, I believe.’
  15. Mike Arram

    Chapter 17

    Henry was bewildered and panicking, but for the boys’ sake he mastered himself. He looked at the Lady Fenice. ‘Is there a problem?’ she asked. ‘I … can’t seem to find my way.’ The lady’s face took on deep concern. ‘Mendamero, you must leave, you know that.’ ‘But the way’s no longer there!’ ‘Oh! But nothing has been changed. How could this be?’ Henry began to wonder if he’d done something wrong in the initial crossing. But what could it have been? Fenice was concentrating. ‘Do you think the apostate has somehow devised a way to prevent your return?’ Henry shook his head. ‘He has no influence outside the present moment. I can’t see him involved in this unless he has assistance as powerful as the seraph’s. No, this is something I’ve done … or failed to do. Rats!’ He could feel the boys shifting restlessly in the box under him. There was no help for it. He got off the lid and opened it. ‘Out, babes! Your flight to the twenty-first century has been delayed.’ The three clambered out and the situation was explained. Damien looked at Reggie, who was recognised as the brains amongst the Mendamero Men. ‘Well, sir, I had a feeling this might be a problem.’ ‘You did?’ ‘Yes sir. One of our research projects was the Director’s – I mean Daimey’s – time travel last month. We have a report on our laptop back in our base; Mattie typed it.’ Henry was intrigued. The fact that a research institute comprising three nine-year-olds was pushing the boundaries of what was known about time and space was unsettling to say the least. ‘So … er … can you summarise the conclusions for me?’ ‘One of our theories was that the box may not have travelled at all, only Damien inside its space.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yes sir. He says he seemed to go into a trance on the journey. With the new evidence we have, it looks like Tobias the seraph put him out and then shifted him, but not the container he was in.’ ‘Sounds plausible. So in your opinion, what have I done wrong?’ ‘To coin a phrase, sir, you failed to think outside the box.’ Henry felt further depressed; the Mendamero Men were even out-wisecracking him. ‘So when I moved the box and you guys inside it …?’ ‘You must have switched boxes, sir. The past box and present box were swapped, which meant you erased the time track as you went. That’s what I’d guess, sir. Maybe collapsed the worm hole might be a more accurate way of putting what you did.’ Damien was beaming at his friend and accomplice. He didn’t seem at all disturbed at being trapped in the fifteenth century. Mattie too looked approving rather than nervous. Henry turned away from the boys and explained as much as he could to the lady. She too appeared less troubled than he felt. ‘You don’t seem bothered, my lady,’ he observed. She gave a small smile. ‘It seems to me this is a problem, but not one beyond the abilities of Mendamero. Perhaps, if we pray for God’s assistance, He may answer through the being you call the seraph Tobias.’ Henry shook his head. ‘Not yet. I must think this through. In a way, we have no shortage of time. If I manage to crack this problem, I should be able to deliver us back to where and when we started. I just have to work out how.’ The lady agreed. ‘I’m sure that’s why your young esquires seem confident in you, excellency. Now, perhaps I can offer you some proper hospitality.’ The lady rang a hand bell loudly at the door, and within minutes a scuffle came up the stairs. The two young pages Henry had observed sleeping in the chamber below raced into the room. Bleary-eyed and yawning, they wore nothing but linen shirts they had hastily stuck their heads into. Inspecting them closer, Henry decided they could have been little more than eleven or twelve. They gawped at their mistress’s unexpected guests. She clapped her hands and ordered them to take the three new boys below and find a bed for them. They led Damien and his associates down the stairs, all the while staring at them in curiosity. ‘As for you, Mendamero, I’ll have an appropriate chamber prepared elsewhere in the castle, unless you had rather stay here and think. I must myself repair to my own chamber. Matins and lauds are just before sunrise.’ ‘I’ll stay here, my lady. If I get tired I’ll sleep in the chair.’ ‘As you wish.’ She took her leave. Henry paced about pointlessly for half an hour, then went downstairs to check on the boys. The pages were back asleep on their pallet. The Mendamero Men were also asleep in a single bed at the opposite wall, their clothes piled on the floor and all three tangled together under a coverlet. Reggie was between Mattie and Damien, who was spooned up behind his smaller friend hugging him comfortingly, as it seemed. Henry smiled, and returned upstairs. *** Henry awoke, stiff of body and confused of mind, as dawn filtered through the cracks in the shutters of the high chamber. After bundling up his jacket as a pillow, he had dropped off on a settle which was long enough for him to lie flat out on. He could hear laughter and shrieks down below. Rubbing his stubble, he went to see what was going on. Buckets of water for washing faces and hands had been brought up by maids. The two pages had begun splashing the Mendamero Men, who were quite happy to escalate the fight. The shrieks were from Reggie, whose pale, skinny body had caught the complete contents of a bucket of cold water. None of the boys had any clothes on. Henry’s attention was drawn to Damien and the large leather pouch he wore on a cord round his neck. Henry’s mind twitched at the sight of it. He had a dawning awareness that he might have a solution, if only he could remember something. In the meantime, he told the boys to sober up and get dressed. ‘I needs a pee, Uncle Henry,’ Damien rejoined. ‘Well, your new friends can tell you where to go. Don’t wander off too far, and I’ll make sure you get breakfast.’ Addressing the two Rothenian pages, he told them of his boys’ requirements. They grinned, bowed and called him ‘my lord’, promising to look after his esquires and then bring them back to him in the high chamber. Henry was still awaiting the Mendamero Men when Countess Fenice arrived, preceded by a party of servants in livery. A table was spread with a white cloth upon which vessels made of maple wood, silver and gold were laid out. The delicious aroma of newly baked bread and pastries filled the chamber. There were bowls piled with fruits and others with meat pies. Great silver flagons, some full of small beer and others of wine, were on offer. The servants were leaving as the two pages and the three twenty-first century boys came in. Apparently Damien had by now established his ascendancy over the Rothenians, despite some initial difficulties of communication. Henry was nonetheless introduced to ‘me mates’ Waclaw and Wladislaw, who gave him the jerky bow Rothenians reserved for their social superiors. They grinned incessantly. The countess sent all five boys over to the window to make their depredations on the food. Damien first asked Henry, ‘They got any juice?’ ‘Sorry no, sweetheart. That flagon there’s got beer in it, you can have that.’ ‘Beer! Oh brilliant! Hear that, lads?’ Henry forbore from commenting that ‘small beer’ was not alcoholic, being little more than a hop-flavoured malt drink. He watched out of the corner of his eye as the boys grinned, took cups of beer, toasted each other, sipped some, grimaced and then reluctantly swallowed the bitter brew, not daring to spit it out on the tiled floor. Damien shot Henry a resentful look. As that sideshow was going on, the countess once more addressed the problem of travel back to the future. ‘I have a possible solution, excellency, though it is very dangerous.’ ‘Any solution has its dangers, my lady.’ ‘The Icon stands outside the universe and yet within it. It’s a fixed point of God’s love and concern with His creation. It is timeless although still within time. It may assist Mendamero to return home, whereas its light would burn up any other who approached it.’ Henry sighed. The idea had occurred to him, but he had rejected it. ‘What would happen to the three children from my time, lady? They could not bear its light, even if I could.’ ‘I would of course take them into my service and they would have the upbringing of noble esquires for as long as they were with me. And it may be that you will soon find a way of reclaiming them for their parents.’ ‘Who knows whether the coming crisis with the apostate would give me time to do that? I must try some other way.’ Damien had regained his good humour. While the boys ate, they all had been leaning from the window as Waclaw and Wladisaw pointed out features of the castle. They were now gathered round the lectern, where Waclaw explained to Reggie the book on display. He was also showing him how to write with a quill. Quill. Writing. Letter! The three ideas suddenly came together in Henry’s mind. ‘Damien? Can you come over here?’ ‘Dun nuffin,’ was the automatic response, as Damien complied. ‘I know, sweetheart. Have you still got Countess Fenice’s letter round your neck?’ ‘Yuh, Uncle Henry.’ ‘Can you hand it over?’ Damien shrugged and removed the pouch from his neck. Henry took it and extracted the familiar square of parchment, the seal still hanging from its silk tags. Countess Fenice smiled to see her letter once more. Henry weighed the letter in his hand. He let his mind caress it, its feel different from that of the iron chest. This had once been a living thing, in which he detected faint traces of the past life it had originally possessed. His mind seized on the track and found it looped away from him in another direction. That familiar disappearing shadow was there. It could take him back. ‘My lady, I think I may be leaving you soon. This letter will be the way.’ ‘And the boys?’ ‘I'm sure I can take them with me if they’re in my arms.’ The countess smiled. ‘Then the time has come for goodbyes. Waclaw and Wladislaw, you must say farewell to your new friends.’ The Rothenian boys startled the modern ones by hugging them hard and kissing them on the mouth. Reggie was the only one who returned the kisses with some enthusiasm. The countess took her seat and Henry sat on the box. He had Mattie and Damien on either knee and Reggie held between them. ‘Ready, babes?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ Henry concentrated, found the track and let his mind flow freely along it. Soon he was rushing once more through time, in the direction opposite to the way they had come. Perceiving how the track bent on itself at a particular point before returning, he fixed his mind on that point, then willed his body and those of the boys together to that place. The universe lurched, and they found themselves sprawled on the floor of Damien’s room at Wenzelsberh, some unknown time after they had previously departed it. In front of them sat the iron box. *** Max and Gavin would have liked to lie together longer and just neck the afternoon away. Gavin could kiss like no other boy in Max’s admittedly limited experience. It was nothing to do with Gavin’s peculiar powers. He was just deeply and passionately in love. He lost himself entirely in sexual play with his Max. But Lije was making banging noises about the tower and coughing outside the common-room door rather louder than was necessary, especially as he was long past being a victim of any virus or chest infection. So Gavin and Max broke off, smiled and walked out to meet Lije’s dissatisfaction with them. ‘Surfaced then?’ ‘Yeah, yeah.’ Gavin rolled his eyes. ‘What’s left to do, Lije?’ ‘We need to sort the defences. Henry breached them without our getting any warning. What if Himself or the dog demons try it?’ ‘We’re bound to know. Henry walked through the perimeter because the spells weren’t made against the likes of him.’ ‘Spells?’ Max was intrigued. Lije nodded. ‘That’s one word for it. We can manipulate the space around this tower. Mortals like you can’t see it, but if they try to push themselves towards us they get badly disorientated and lost … throw up even.’ Gavin added, ‘It’s strong enough to make a Hellhound puke acid, but we guess the Antichrist will be a different case.’ Max wanted to know more. ‘What about the Icon? Henry says it can look after itself.’ Lije shrugged. ‘The Icon can’t hurt us because we’re not exactly part of this world. It would fry you, Max, just as much as it would a Hellhound, though for different reasons. But we know the Antichrist can approach it, because it’s foretold that he will do so before destroying it. Problem is, we don’t know how he’ll manage it.’ ‘No idea at all,’ Gavin regretfully agreed. ‘But we’ve got other stuff; come downstairs and see.’ The three young men trotted to the bottom of the spiral stairs. Max was very much intrigued to be visiting the crypts beneath Biscofshalch at last. When they came to the basement level, Gavin took his hand. ‘Feel it, sweets?’ Max pondered and was about to shake his head when a prickle like a sort of static seemed to tingle on his skin. He nodded, and a squeeze of his hand was Gavin’s acknowledgement. Lije looked quizzical. ‘You’re taking a risk coming down to the level of even the upper crypt, but you survived that close to the Icon when Gavin first brought you here. I’ll bet you’ll feel it more this time.’ Gavin added, ‘Also, we think … well, you’re a Jamroziak, and because of your family’s history there may be more to you than most mortals. I still can’t get Soho out of my head.’ Lije agreed. ‘There’s something about you, Max, which perhaps the Icon will tell us the way it told your ancestor.’ So still holding Gavin’s hand, Max passed down to the pillared crypt and recognised the same dimly lit space where he began his first visit to Biscofshalch. Again he noticed that such light as there was came from no particular direction. This time there was also a definite edge of foreboding in the atmosphere, and it was not just because he knew he was approaching an object of power and peril. He could feel a chill in his bones and a great reluctance to move in one particular direction: toward the stairs leading down one further level. Lije took his shoulder. ‘You don’t want to go that way, do you.’ ‘No. I feel sorta guilty, like I’ve done something wrong and I’m about to be told off. What if I do go down there?’ ‘It’ll get worse and worse. Anything could happen if you still push yourself on past the barrier. You might go catatonic, insane or – worst of all – get caught in its radiance. You have to be a special person to survive that. The old Levites who used to look after the Icon were permitted to live in the light, though it changed them, like sorta spiritual gamma rays. But touch it and you’re definitely a late homo.’ Gavin made a moderating gesture. ‘The idea’s not for you to touch it, but if we can get you as far as its light, it would help us a lot to know what exactly you are, Max.’ ‘Are you sure? Will it be alright?’ ‘Yes, I think so. If something goes wrong, don’t forget I can take you out instantly.’ ‘Well … okay.’ Max unconsciously clenched the beautiful curve of his jaw, making him look like a determined and brave little boy. Gavin’s heart nearly melted at the sight; he loved this man more than ever. He led Max by the hand to the stairs. Max walked as if he were being buffeted by an increasingly strong wind. He reached the first step and faltered. Whatever was slowing and discouraging him was rising from the depths of the crypt. Gavin let go his hand. ‘I can’t drag you down there, Max. You have to want to go.’ ‘How can anyone want to go down there?’ Max gasped. ‘To find answers, sweetheart. Answers.’ Max was biting his lower lip now. He thought of Henry Atwood, who, while a captive of terrorists in the Tarlenheim mausoleum, had forced himself to do the same thing Max was trying to do now. How had he accomplished it? When Max shifted his gaze to the profound eyes of the heroic boy next to him, he knew how Henry had succeeded. He saw such love for him there that his heart pulsed with joy, despite his circumstances. The pressure beating on his mind suddenly eased. He began slowly to descend to the lower vaults of Biscofshalch. *** ‘Well, iss the right place at least, Uncle Henry.’ Damien looked around his room. Henry was a little offended at the implied rebuke. He glanced at the PS3, which was still running, and at the litter surrounding it, which had not yet been cleared. It seemed he had managed to return them to a moment not long after their disappearance. He heard distant shouting outside on the terrace. It sounded like Matt and Ed calling the boys’ names. So they had been missed at least. ‘Downstairs, babes. We’d better tell Andy what you’ve been up to.’ ‘Us? It wuz you that sorta kidnapped us. Sides, you’d never have got back wivout us!’ Henry was beginning to realise there were aspects of his visit to the fifteenth century that were going to take a while for him to live down. It was true. Without the boys he would have found it difficult to return to where he had started. They were in high spirits, all three whooping down the stairs together to announce their return. Henry composed himself. He had finally answered some questions, but new ones had also been raised. The bishop would be in Rothenia soon. The latest news from Terry warned of his departure for the Czech Republic with his staff that very day. Henry had less than a week to prepare himself for the inevitable confrontation – and not just himself. He also had to mobilise his friends. He had unconsciously turned on his mobile as he was pondering what to do next. It bleeped, alerting him to scan the couple of texts that had accumulated since he had been away. Magda wanted him to contact her, urgently. All her calls were urgent, and he always danced to her tune. So he rang. ‘Henry? Good. We’ve had this English bishop – or rather his office – supposedly confirming an interview date on Eastnet you’d arranged. But you’re on leave! You’re not supposed to be doing features.’ ‘Oh … uh! Right. I sorta did. Look, can you arrange to have a team and a studio for next Monday afternoon in Strelzen? Make it at three. We’ll tape it.’ ‘The CEO won’t like it.’ ‘Yes he will, Magda, cos he was the one who told me to do it,’ Henry lied. But just like his mother, Magda could always detect his deceits. Her concurrence was framed in a way that told him she did not believe a word of it. Henry was musing this opportunity on his way down the stairs to the lounge. He could hear a tumult of explanations and exclamations coming from three nine-year-old boys who had an amazing story to tell. As Henry entered preparing to weather the storm, he noticed new additions to the group. Damien was holding forth to the gathering from the lap of his father, Justin Peacher-White, who was alternately kissing his son’s dark hair and grinning across at his own adoptive parents, Matt and Andy. Henry became aware of a presence behind him in the room. Easily recognising the mind, he spun with a grin. ‘Terry O’Brien!’ ‘Hiya, babes!’ Henry hurled himself at his old friend, who hugged him in delight. Suddenly he felt a lot safer. Terry did that to him. *** Max's foreboding and fear returned with greater force at the foot of the stairs. When he began to find breathing hard, he leaned against the stone wall of the lower crypt to try and gather himself. Lije gripped his shoulder. ‘I didn’t think you’d get this far, Max. You’re doing great!’ The arches around them were heavier and the vaults lower. The diffuse light was a little stronger, overlaid with a definite pulse of brighter radiance ahead of them through the piers of stone which upheld the tower. Other articles caught the light and glittered. Great jewelled chalices, patens and bowls were grouped in an alcove. Heavy chests and boxes stood along the walls. In another alcove, further shrouded objects were stacked. Gavin held out his hand once again with an encouraging smile. ‘It seems you’re going to be allowed closer, Max.’ Max lurched forward, finding walking a problem. His eyesight was fuzzy and he felt dizzy. He pushed himself along the wall towards the light. By the time he passed the third stone pier, he knew he could go no farther. He dropped Gavin’s hand and clung to the pillar as if it were the only stable thing in the crypt. It also blocked his view of the brightness that lay beyond. ‘I can’t …’ he croaked. Gavin stood out in the full light. Max gasped. Although Gavin’s image was blurred by the radiance as well as by his lover’s swimming vision, he looked different. His beauty was becoming ethereal now as he shed the vestiges of humanity he usually affected, his body more flame than flesh, clothing no longer present, eyes an incandescent black. The light raised itself like wings above his head. This now was Enoch the Guardian, not Gavin Price. But his love still blazed from his eyes. He reached out to Max, who staggered blindly into his arms and felt himself seized. ‘Look!’ Gavin whispered in his ear. Max turned to stare into the pulsing light. His mind became full of more words than it could comprehend. Random surges of power ran through his body, which he knew was being changed. His clothing had gone, his naked flesh was glowing, his very humanity was burning away in the radiation from the Icon. He felt his hair lift and flair golden round his face, as if he were in a high wind. Wings of light sprang from his own shoulders. Gavin stared wonderingly at him, clearly not having expected this. Great tendrils of white flame began circling round the lovers, causing them to laugh with joy as they looked into each other’s changed face. The light enveloped and caressed them, binding them in spinning ribbons. Max knew they were being joined in spiritual ways to match the physical coupling of their bodies. What he was feeling now was an ecstasy beyond the sexual or physical. Neither of them would ever again be truly whole without the other. Suddenly the ribbons of flame coalesced into something Gavin and Max could grasp with their hands. As their fingers closed on it, the light in the crypt gave a final flare and went out. They were human again, or at least human-seeming. Between them they held the ash shaft of a great spear, its head sharp, glittering and silvered.
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