Henry and the Eschaton

XI

By Michael Arram

'Leave the fucking Audi!' Ed yelled. 'Pile in the back!'

The hire car was already waiting with the engine running. Eddie was at the wheel. The back door was open and Ed all but hurled Davey and Henry in on top of a protesting Phil.

Ed turned as if by instinct and his fist connected with their pursuer's face with bone-splintering force. The demon reeled back momentarily, shook its head and then fell to the ground as it began a rapid transformation. But Ed had now jumped on top of Max in the front seat, shouting, 'Drive!'

The car screeched off, the front door still open. Max reached out to drag it closed with a clunk. 'Bloody packed in here!' he groaned under Ed's weight.

'Look out the back, someone!'

'The fucker's after us!' Davey yelled in panic.

Eddie drove like a maniac along the service road threading through the industrial park. Something dark and large was loping easily after them.

'Fuck! It's right behind us!'

It leapt over the car and landed facing them. There was a momentary glimpse through the windscreen of a hideous, fanged face and glowing eyes. Before the beast could attack, the world swerved round as Eddie pulled off an almost suicidal turn into an adjacent car park. The car slewed and straightened, then powered out of a further exit on to a well-lit urban boulevard, full of evening traffic heading for the Avon bridge.

Davey stared behind them. 'It's not followed us out!'

Ed released a pent-up breath. 'No. It can't afford to expose itself... yet. Oww! My hand hurts! Eddie, head for the King's.'

'On the way, colonel dude!'

'And fucking brilliant driving, if I may say so.'

A further chorus of approval came from the back.

As they were crossing the city bridge, the adrenalin began leaking away. Max was grousing about being crushed under Ed's weight.

Looking out of the car, Henry noticed the streets seemed a little quiet. Thursday was the big student night in Cranwell, and by that hour the roving gangs should have been out. Even before the car turned south on to High Street, he realised something was deeply wrong. Blue lights were flashing from a side road, along which the shop fronts were glowing red. A reek of burning filled the car.

'Oh no! Not the King's!' Davey was craning forward to see.

Eddie pulled the car up on to the pavement despite a double yellow line. They all bundled out, Max groaning with relief to have Ed off his lap. Davey ran round the corner and stopped dead. He would not have got far in any case, because police were forming a cordon and beyond them the fire brigade was at work. The King's Cross was an inferno of flame, belching black smoke at the sky.

Ed looked for the ranking police officer and got his attention. 'This is the owner, Davey Skipper. He'll want to know what happened.'

The inspector gave Davey a look-over, and not a particularly friendly one, Henry thought. 'We got called out just fifteen minutes ago. Not much I can say. The place was already well alight. The brigade could only try to contain it.'

'Anyone injured?'

'Too soon to say.'

'Is it arson?'

'No way of knowing.'

Ed snapped, 'Well, could you find out?'

'Look here, Sonny Jim, we've got our work cut out already without you wasting our time.'

Ed cursed himself for letting his frustration get the better of him. He pulled himself together. 'You see that sign there, inspector, the one that says "O'Brien Enterprises"? That would be Terry O'Brien, son of the Assistant Chief Constable of Wiltshire. Now perhaps you could sum up for Mr Skipper here, the co-owner, just what you know.'

The inspector visibly sagged. Ed concluded he must be new to the area or he would know the story of the King's Cross. 'Oh er... right, sir. The thing is, we really don't know a lot. But one of the regular drinkers who got out said there was a sudden flare of flame and a smell of petrol. Could have been a firebomber. Won't be the first locally. A gay bar in Reading was hit yesterday.'

'Did anyone claim responsibility?'

'No... but it may be linked with the anti-gay rioting in London. Four deaths just last weekend. Then there was the gypsy camp shot up yesterday outside Newbury and the attack on the immigrant hostel in Salisbury... it's getting out of control. We simply don't have the manpower. It's like it's being co-ordinated by some mastermind who knows just how unprepared we are for violence at this level.' The inspector left them and went to his men, talking into his mic.

'He didn't say if there was anyone inside.'

Henry looked sick and said quietly. 'Yes there was... but it's too late.'

Ed turned round and stared. 'How do you...?'

'It was Will Thomas, the barman. He stayed to make sure everyone was out and then choked to death trying to crawl to an exit.' Tears were in Henry's eyes and running down his cheeks. 'It's too horrible. I don't want this.'

The others were looking at Henry with alarm. 'Are you alright, Outfield?' Davey took his arm.

'Henry, is Tobias doing this?'

Henry shook his head. 'It's what he left with me. I can see things I don't want to see, do things I don't want to do.' His head drooped, and he looked defeated.

They stood silent. Then slowly Henry's head rose again. Now there was a look of determination in his small face. 'Fuck it. It's a job that must be done. Ed, we need a plane to get us home, and as soon as it can be arranged.'

Ed looked at his lover with some trepidation. 'Are you sure?'

'Yes, my big babe. The battle here's already lost. The next one will be in Rothenia.'

***

A cold wind whipped Henry's dark hair and the sun was shining in his eyes. It was ten in the morning and they were at a private airfield just off the M4. The Royal Air Force had refused point blank the Rothenian government's request for a military aircraft and fighter escort to ferry Henry and his group to Strelzen, so Eddie had put a call through to his father and a Peacher jet was just touching down. A party of armed Rothenian security men had come storming down the motorway from the London embassy in an SUV to establish a perimeter. They were not being shy about displaying their submachine guns and flak jackets. Ed was chatting with their commander, a former colleague in the Guards.

Eddie, Davey and Phil had found time to pack their bags and travel documents. Davey had recovered his Audi and driven up to London through the night with Max. Phil had made his farewells to Ben, after they agreed to a nostalgic reunion in Strelzen. Max, who had been supposed to return to Stevenage, had become stubborn and refused to stay in England. Sighing, Davey had brought him back down to Cranwell for Henry to deal with.

Max was pleading, 'But you gotta take me! I mean, I'm the guy Gavin talks to. I got power too... or something. You can't leave me behind. 'Sides, you said Britain was already lost!'

'Max, there's no problem with the others, they're their own men. But you're a student in full-time education, and it's your final year. Your parents and tutors may have an opinion on what you want to do.'

He was met with a sudden smirk. 'That's okay then, Henry. Dr Phil is my tutor, so I'm sorted. He's in loco... something. 'Sides, how could I concentrate on my studies now with all this going on?'

'Tell me this isn't just about you having the hots for my late former boyfriend.'

Max looked simultaneously offended and sheepish. 'No! I mean, like he's super-cute and totally brave and... all the rest. But I'm sorta like nothing to him. Why'd he look twice at me? No chance there, and he's sorta dead too, which is like terminal for a relationship. I just wanna help!'

Although far from convinced, Henry gave in. Max was way too lovable to be denied anything, and it was probably for the best he was still unaware of his own charms.

Henry knew Gavin intimately. They used to sit in the Union bar, their tongues hanging out as they discretely eyed up their fellow students, so Henry recognised exactly what sort of boy turned Gavin on. Max, close to six feet, sweet of nature, thick curly blond hair, slim, with an amazingly small behind, was just Gavin's sort of lust object.

'Great!' The boy beamed. 'Going back home!'

'What?'

'Well sorta. Actually home's Harpenden, but my dad was born in Hofbau. He got out of Rothenia in the seventies. Quite an epic actually. Over the mountains into Austria with mum.'

Henry stared. Why hadn't this occurred to him before? 'You're Rothenian?'

'Yeah! Got a passport and all. Look, see! Is it important?'

'You speak the language?'

'Oh yeah. Well, not much... in fact very little. But I can say hello and goodbye and stuff.'

Henry was confused. His new instincts were telling him he had just heard something important, though he couldn't as yet work out what it might be.

Ed was at his shoulder ushering them towards the plane. 'Max is coming?'

'Yes, and keep your eye on him.'

'Hmm?'

'There's something odd here that I can't quite put my finger on.'

'Sorry?'

'I've got to think about it. We're loaded up?'

'Yup. Everyone's on board.'

'Then let's say goodbye to England.' Henry gazed around the landscape beyond the airport. The day was chilly, with pale sunlight and racing clouds. His native land looked faded and washed out, as if its strength and colour had bled away. If there was any hope for its future, it lay now in Rothenia.

***

'This is weird.'

'What isn't nowadays, Ed?'

'I mean, little babe, here we are in Rothenia, and you've got to feel it.'

'You mean the normality, serenity, peace?'

'You do feel it then.'

'I more than feel it. I can see it. I can tell you the direction it's coming from in the way a blind man can point straight at the sun beating on his face.'

'Bloody hell! What's happening to you?'

'I've been cosmically fucked, that's what. That bastard Tobias did something to me. I've been Gavin-ed!'

'But you're not... dead.'

'No, but I am pissed off no end.'

Ed suddenly laughed.

'What's funny?'

'Well, you are. Oh come on, Henry. You're discovering you have amazing supernatural powers, and... it's just so Henry. You're crabby! Go on, do some magic.'

'What, like turn you into a slug?'

'No need to get mean.'

'Something tells me it's not as straightforward as you seem to think. Tobias made me swear to resist using the power, so as not to risk losing myself.'

Henry followed his friends out on to the tarmac of Strelzen Municipal Airport. Black cars were drawn up, their drivers unmistakably operatives of the RSS. Max was gazing around with apparent delight, sharing a joke with Davey. Phil and Eddie were in deep conversation, as usual.

By reflex, Ed saluted an adjutant who had joined the group, before addressing him in Rothenian. 'Captain Lucowicz? A message from the palace?'

'Yes sir. You, Colonel Atwood and your party are to meet the king at two. I'm sorry if this doesn't give you time to freshen up, but his majesty was most insistent.'

Henry smiled. 'As impatient as ever.' He called over to Max, 'Tuck your shirt in, kid, you're about to meet the king of Rothenia.'

Max raised his eyebrows, pointed at himself and feigned a dramatic faint with his hand across his brow.

Henry laughed. 'That boy is a real queer. I'm proud of him.' He addressed the captain. 'Any other news?'

'Some strange reports from various world capitals, sir. A widespread rash of terrorist incidents and riots.'

'And Rothenia?'

'Everything's quiet, sir.'

'Let's hope it stays that way.'

***

Anthony Willis knocked on the doorpost of the bishop's open office.

'And how are you this fine morning, Tony?' The bishop himself was breezy and in obviously high spirits.

Anthony did not know how to respond. He tried evasion. 'I've been watching the news with some concern, sir.'

'Hmm? What news is that?'

'The arson attack on the pub in the city centre. A young man was killed, and three fire fighters injured.'

'Which pub?'

'The King's Cross.'

'Oh, the gay pub. Not one I know at all. Ha ha!'

Anthony could not have said the same himself. Vainly cruising it six months before, he had been flirted with by the pretty young barman who was now dead. 'Of course. But there have been at least a dozen attacks on gay venues and immigrant hostels over the past two days. The police suspect a coordinated and increasing attack on the margins of society. The Guardian's news desk was asking us for a comment this morning.'

'Us? What has it to do with us? The liberal media is out of control, as I was saying to the PM only last week. It's a worse danger than the terrorism now ingrained in our society.'

'The rhetoric of the Conservative Coalition has been attracting some blame, the Guardian says, and you're one of its vice presidents.'

'Just refer it to the press office in Church House. We haven't time to waste on conspiracy theories. The Cause must go forward. Last night saw the Spirit in force in the world! You must feel the change in the air. The wind of Pentecost is blowing through men's minds. The rest is so much trash.'

Anthony took a deep breath. 'What exactly did happen last night, sir?'

The bishop spread his hands. 'Only what was prophesied: that the Spirit would come once more and wonders would be seen in the land. A pity the Guardian correspondent was not there to see that, eh? I have to say, Tony, I marvel at your surprise that such things should come to pass! Was it not foretold? "He doeth great wonders, so that He maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men." Those days are surely now come. Believe it!'

Anthony refused to be daunted at the look of concentrated power on the bishop's face. 'But you, sir. You did that! Are you the Prophet?'

'You yourself said it.'

Anthony was astonished. Though he came from the part of the Church which believed in the imminent descent of the Spirit, his employer's sudden avowal that he was the expected Prophet took him aback. Could he trust this man? Yet he had seen signs and wonders with his own eyes, and those manifestations were evidence of the Spirit at work in the world.

Then at the back of his mind he felt Enoch's warnings. Should he ignore them? He had seen the crippled walk and the dying healed. He had heard the repentance of thousands as they knelt before this man. How could evil do such good? It made no sense. If there was good, then God was in the action. How could Enoch deny it? And where was Enoch?

The bishop's intent gaze did not leave his chaplain's eyes, beating them down with the pure power of his charisma.

Anthony stammered out, 'I have the travel plans for Eastern Europe.'

The bishop relaxed. 'Take me through them.'

'We go in the first week of November, starting at a Faith Convention in Prague with Bishop Alun, and then moving to Bratislava for the interfaith dialogue. We continue on to Strelzen in the second week and travel about the country for a few days. I've programmed in some tourism, as you requested.'

'Good. All work and no play makes Jack a dull bishop, eh?'

Anthony gave a dutiful chuckle. Having obtained the signatures he had come for, he was leaving when the bishop called out, 'Ring down for Gareth and Colin to come up. I want to go through the... er, driving rota with the boys.'

Recalling Gareth's blank viciousness and sinister abilities, Anthony was again overcome by doubt.

***

Max was at last nervous. 'Like I mean... ohmigod! Not just... I mean... if he was just any king, but he's king fucking Rudi!'

Phil was in the back of Max's car. 'He's straight, sweetheart.'

'You've met him?'

'Indeed I have.'

'Is he as sexy in real life as in the mags?'

'Oh, yes. And scary too. Not the sort of man to cross.'

'Yeah... the creepy Dressner guy! I remember the story. That's when you met Lije first, wasn't it, in Hofbau? Poor old Lije, what's gonna happen to him?'

'I thought you and Lije didn't get on.'

'Aw... that was before Gavin told me how unhappy he is, and why. I mean, you gotta feel sorry for Lije, and he is quite cute, even if he's straight and all.'

Phil smiled. It was pretty plain to him that Max was besotted with Gavin, whose every word he was cherishing, and every opinion adopting.

The convoy of cars sped under the plane trees of Gartengasse along the Classical front of the Osraeum, approaching the royal palace from the west. Without any pause for a security check, they drove directly into the rear entrance of the palace gardens.

The motorcade halted in a courtyard, where the RSS men covered Henry and his party as they got out. Captain Lucowicz ushered them along the familiar route through the gardens to the domestic wing. They were met in the king's private office by Oskar von Tarlenheim, the chief of staff, with his partner Peter Peacher standing by.

Henry looked bemused. 'Where's Rudi?'

'There's been something of a scare with Harry and the pregnancy. He's with her at the military hospital.'

'Oh God! Nothing serious, is it?'

'Hey, I'd better get over there!' exclaimed Eddie, the queen's devoted twin brother.

Peter soothed him. 'No, it's okay. It was only a scare. The latest news is that everything's under control. She'll just spend a night in observation and be back here tomorrow. Can we go through into the dining room? Oskar needs a full update, and there are some things I want to ask you too.'

They settled round the long, highly polished table. Max's head rotated like a carousel as he took in the furnishings and numerous Elphberg portraits around the room.

Henry began his account, abetted by Ed Cornish in some places. Max, called on to describe his encounter with Gavin, rather thought Peter Peacher was as astonished at the tale as he had been at Henry's account of meeting Tobias the seraph.

Peter shook his head. 'This is all too much for me. I'm just a simple capitalist out to make my billions. So does this mean the end of the world and the Second Coming?'

Henry pondered deeply. 'D'you know, Tobias was evasive on that point, and so was Gavin. Tobias said the prophecies had been made but the interpretation of them was a different matter.'

Phil gave something of a sigh. 'That sounds hopeful at least. For a while I thought we were all doomed... end-of-the-world-is-nigh sort of thing.'

'We're on a cosmic rollercoaster ride, sweethearts, and no one knows how it's going to end.'

A drumbeat and bugle call echoed up from the direction of the palace's grand staircase. Seeing everyone look at each other, Max didn't need Oskar's hint to the group to know that he must stand to meet the king of Rothenia. A footman rolled back the door and Rudi stalked in. He was in army officer's undress uniform, his trousers dark blue with a gold stripe, the star of the Rose glittering on his broad chest. Max felt like swooning.

The king hugged Davey in greeting, calling him 'Bounder' for some reason and offering his sympathies on the loss of the King's Cross; clearly someone had briefed him. Phil got a smile and a firm handshake.

Then he turned to Max. 'So you are young Mr Jamroziak.'

'Er... yeah, sire.'

'I know the name from somewhere.'

'My dad and mum are Rothenian, sir. So I am too.'

'I'm glad to hear it. But the name is familiar from another context.' The king shook his head briefly. 'It'll come back to me. My grandmother made me memorise so many Rothenian genealogies and legends, it's no wonder my recall is crap. Too much data.' He turned round to the group. 'Now, gentlemen, you'll be glad to know that Harry is fine, just peeved to have to spend a night in the hospital. She and the baby both have a clean bill of health.'

Everyone smiled and offered their best wishes. The king took the armchair at the head of the table that Oskar had vacated, signalling the others to resume their own seats.

Oskar gave an efficient précis of the details Rudi had missed. While the king brooded on what had been said, he played with an object that Max - being a good Catholic boy - recognised as a rosary.

Eventually he gazed around at his guests. 'Let me sum up the position. A being whom we can call the Antichrist is loose in the world, and from the British press this morning it seems he has successfully engineered civil anarchy in that country. Their prime minister has declared a state of emergency and several cities are sealed off. Worse, his confederates around the world are having a similar effect in North America, Central Africa and the Southern Cone. Continental Europe is less affected, though there is unrest in industrial France, Germany and northern Italy.

'Meanwhile, my country, although under threat, is currently free of this infection. Why? Because it harbours the sacred icon which embodies the force of good in the world. But this in turn makes Rothenia vulnerable and the ultimate point of attack for this devious and evil creature. So far so bad?'

They all nodded.

'Now then, what assets do we have? The Icon has guardians, notably the boy Gavin and his confederate, Mark Tolmie, who have chosen Enoch and Elijah as noms de guerre. They seem to be powerful, though not a match for the Antichrist and his auxiliaries. The Icon can also protect itself, as we have reason to know. Nevertheless, it is foretold that Enoch, Elijah and the Icon will ultimately be destroyed, which leaves us with... you, Henry - or Mendamero, the warrior of God, if you prefer.'

'That sounded like irony, your majesty.'

'I remember what a feeble little nerd you were at Medwardine, and to tell the truth, Outfield, you haven't changed much to the outward eye. I'm a bit alarmed that the fate of my kingdom depends on a guy who can't hit a cricket ball with a bat without being allowed three goes.'

'Coordination isn't everything,' Henry sniffed. 'There're one or two other things you've missed out. The bishop's chaplain seems to have some sympathy for our side, and he assisted Ed's escape from the bishop's house in Cranwell. We should try to contact him if ever we can.'

Ed added, 'The bishop is planning to be in our country soon. I'd say it was a priority to discover his plans and movements.'

The king looked quirky. 'With the UK in disorder, we can't count on MI5 to assist us. But our RSS team is currently based in Cranwell, and I've put it under the command of the best person available.' Henry looked a question. 'That's Terry O'Brien. He arrived there this morning and I believe his intention is to eliminate the people who destroyed the King's and murdered Will Thomas. I'm happy to assist him to the limits of my power. I'll feed him the information about the chaplain. Now there's another question, Henry.'

'Sir?'

'The strangest thing amongst all these strange things is the seraph-boy, the being you call Tobias. Is there hope he will intervene?'

'No, sir. He is powerful beyond anything we can imagine. He can stop time and reverse it, travel thousands of miles in an instant. But that is because he is not of this Universe, whose fate means nothing to him. I think he would say his responsibilities lie elsewhere, in realms we simply cannot comprehend.'

The king leaned forward intently. 'For an angelic being, he sounds pretty much indifferent to Creation. Are you sure he's a creature of good?'

'Yes, I truly believe so. The oddest thing about this whole business is that he's involved in it at all. Seraphs only get pulled into time when...' Henry suddenly dried up. 'Oh my! Now I understand.'

All stared at him. Henry had literally gone white. 'What is it, babe?' Ed looked very concerned.

Henry got up abruptly and fled the room. The rest glanced at each other. The king nodded to Ed, who pursued Henry out the door. He couldn't find him immediately, but soon located him in the nearest toilet, throwing up in a bowl.

'What is it, baby?' He laid his hand on his lover's shoulder.

Henry rose shaking. He snuggled into Ed's body and croaked, 'I'm screwed!'

'What? Why?'

'A seraph only communicates with humanity in one capacity.'

'Yes?'

'As the very mouthpiece of God. Tobias was more than he seemed.'

'You mean...?'

'I was talking to the organ grinder, not the monkey.'

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