The boy whom Marky could only think of as Mike Atwood, apparently the sometime commander of the legions of Heaven, looked around Marky's bedroom and seemed to approve. Pinned across the board above the desk were lists of Rothenian army units and pictures of military hardware in action cut out of the armed-services newspaper Den Levjen. Mike leaned in closer to read them, while Marky unpacked, eyeing his unexpected guest the while.
The job complete, and his bedroom once more barrack-room neat, in his native language Marky asked his guest if there was anything he could get for him. He got a puzzled if not uncomprehending look back. 'Food? Have you a change of clothing? Would you like reading material?'
'I hadn't thought,' came the considered response in perfect Rothenian. 'This body seems uneasy about something. How do you say? Twitchy?'
Marky gave a little smile. 'It's quite some body.' Then he blushed. If Mike knew he was gay, that would be a very leading remark, and Marky was a meticulously polite young man.
Mike just looked at his own forearm, smooth, powerful and bronzed. He flexed it absently.
Marky's heart gave something of a flutter which he strangled at the source, remembering the results of the last time he had let his libido run away with him. 'I think you might need to let off some steam.'
'Exercise. Hey! Give me twenty!'
He got another blank look. 'Twenty what?'
'Uh ... sorry. It's a phrase in common use. I mean do twenty press-ups.' Marky demonstrated, with some fluidity and ease.
Mike got down next to Marky and copied him, with equal ease. Soon the two were matching each other. At a hundred, Marky was nearing his limit, sweat beading his forehead. He finally collapsed at 120, to lie there watching the concentrated power moving his new roommate up and down like a machine.
Mike showed no sign of physical stress at all. He was still going strong when Markey lost count at 200. Shortly after, he moved to one-arm press-ups, at which point his stern jaw began to shape a smile. Then he laughed, and called out, 'I like this!'
Marky was astonished, not so much at the physical prowess as at the transformation that came over Mike's face. He was no longer robotic, but a delighted and animated boy, looking more than ever like his brother Lance.
On the hill of the Sixth District rising beyond the chancellery, a parallel scene was playing out in Damien's bedroom. Rafe was sitting moodily on his host's sofa, his hands thrust deep in the front pockets of his black jeans. He was unresponsive to Damien's leading remarks, or even his commonplace cheeriness.
Eventually Damien leaned in and took the boy by his shoulder, staring into the blue eyes behind the veil formed by emo-like wisps of dark hair. 'Look mate, I'm trying here. Can you tell me what yer fookin' want? Food? TV? Better fookin' attitude?'
Rafe glared back at him. 'I want Gabe. Where is he? Why did you separate us? Get me Lance!'
Damien tried reason. 'Look ... Rafe, mate. We can't put yer all up in one place. Iss gonna be hard enuff keepin' this from the 'rents as it is.'
Rafe's glare became incandescent with anger and frustration. What was worse, tears were starting in the boy's eyes. 'I want my brother! Get my brother, you ... you fucking cunt!'
Gobsmacked, Damien started back. This was not in his internal script about dealing with angels. Lance had been a very different boy. 'Mastered language, ainchya!' he countered weakly.
But Rafe was shaking with sobs now. 'Gabe! Get me Gabe! I want my brother!' When Damien went to try to comfort him he found his wrists gripped and the boy glaring in his face. 'It's all your fucking fault. Stupid fucking monkey! I didn't want this. They made me do it.'
As Damien pulled free, Rafe shot out of the room, down the stairs and past an astonished Nathan. Wrenching open the front door, he was off down Fridricsgasse shouting, 'Gabe!'
'Oh shit!' Damien rapidly pulled on his Converse trainers, and then was after Rafe, trying to raise Lance on his handij as he ran. But Rafe was way ahead of him, already lost in the empty suburban streets of the Sixth District. Damien stood in the middle of the road in despair.
Since Lance lived only around the corner from Damien, he was soon on the spot, with Gabe trailing behind him.
Gabe was furious. 'I told you he was ill! He didn't make the transition well. These emotions and sensations are just overwhelming us. We didn't understand how it would be. My poor Rafael!'
'What do we do, Daimey?'
'Iss a bugger. He's over the edge awright, went for me an' all. Look, if he doan' turn up in the next hour or so, we'll have to go public to the Ultras, like it or not ... either that or use Option Lance.' He looked narrowly at Gabe. 'You got any sorta angel connection wiv the guy?'
'What do you mean?' came the hostile response.
'Yer knows! Spiritual stuff, like what Gavin and Maxxie does'
Gabe shook his head. 'We're mortals now. We possess nothing like that.'
Damien put a hand on Lance's shoulder. 'Then sorry, Lance. It'll have to be Flame On.'
'Oh fuck. I hate this. Look, I'm not ruining another set of clothes. How come it's so bloody easy for Superman?' He ran behind a car parked next to a nearby tree, stripped on the verge of the open street, and threw his clothing over the car to his friend.
Damien turned away at that point, because what happened next always made him nauseous. It was not just the agonising transformation, which he knew caused Lance hideous physical and spiritual pain. The transformation momentarily distorted the very frame of the Universe.
He looked up as a huge winged figure soared between himself and the setting sun, then wished he hadn't. It was as if a gigantic cloud had taken solid form over the city of Strelzen, its vast luminous eyes calling the people below solemnly and silently to judgement. All the dogs in the vicinity of Fridricsgasse were barking frantically.
The archangel ascended some distance, scanning the earth below him. Damien felt rather than saw him swoop on to the houses below, towards Modenehemstrasse. Then there was a sudden quietness as the Universe readjusted. Somewhere close by, Lance was again Lance.
At a guess, Damien headed for the Atwood home. He and Gabe found the door open, but as they clumped up the stairs, Lance called down from his bedroom for Damien to wait. Gabe ran past him and into Lance's room. As Gabe went in, Lance emergedwearing nothing but a pair of sweatpants. He gratefully took his clothes back from Damien, re-dressing as he talked.
'It's as well Ed and Henry are away,' he commented, 'though Ed'll be back sometime late tonight. I had to put Mrs Willerby into alternate space for the evening.'
'She'll reappear sometime after midnight thinking she's been to bingo at the St Aloysius parish hall.'
'Wow! Cool trick.'
'Yeah, but I don't like doing it, though of course she doesn't age when she's there, so she actually gains from the deal.'
'Whass going on upstairs?'
Lance pondered. 'The Council shoulda asked me before sending them here. My brothers are awash with hormonal poisons, and in serious shock of one sort or other. Only Gabe made the transition entirely sane; Rafe's a basket case, as you've seen. Putting those two in a physical form was especially dangerous.'
'Why? Are they really twins?'
'As angels, Gabriel and Rafael were deeply attuned to each other, in quite a beautiful way. The look of identical twins is a material consequence of that, but there's more. As human boys their connection has turned into profound, passionate, physical and emotional love. It's driving Rafe insane; he can't deal with the power of those feelings. If only I'd thought! I should have kept them together.'
'Well, why's Gabe okay?'
'Because in his case his mind is mostly possessed by care and worry for the boy who is going to be his lover. It gives him mental focus.'
'Going to be his ...?'
'I think we'll have to leave them to it. Gabe at least knows now what's hit him, and he has to explain it to Rafe. They'll have to work it out between them, poor kids. I'm hoping physical expression of their feelings for each other will help defuse what Rafe's going through.'
'Er ... sexual healing?'
'I suppose you could say that. It might be a sort of counter-stimulus which'll help re-boot Rafe. I'm seriously worried, Daimey. I think whoever did this was aiming to destroy my brothers in one way or another.'
The evening sun flooded the lounge of the royal apartments in the Residenz with a glorious golden light. The Queen Mother and Regent of Rothenia handed her youngest child over to a nurse and pondered her eldest, who was wrapped up in his latest X-Box game, with Prince Leo peering over his shoulder and making suggestions.
King Maxim II of Rothenia had shot up since his eighth birthday, and had reached that stage of development when his body was growing, yet without losing the innate grace of childhood. His mother watched her boys at play with a smile. There was not a trace of sibling rivalry between them, and they had adapted well to the appearance of a sister, though it could not be claimed that they were more than mildly curious about her.
Leo went to get his box of word cards so his brother could test him on his reading homework. Maxxie was always ready to do that, and the two boys worked away at it until it was bath time for Leo. He toddled off with his nanny while Maxxie snuggled up to his mum on the sofa.
They watched the news on Eastnet, which was reporting the latest events from the Balkans. Maxxie ran over to get an atlas from a bookshelf, and worked out where on the map of Europe the reports were coming from. 'Is Romania in the Balkans, mummy?'
'Yes, honey, though some might disagree. But people lump Romania in with its southern neighbours because they share a lot of history, even though strictly speaking the Balkans begin south of the Danube.'
'That's the really big river our Starel runs into, yes?'
'That's the one.' Harry observed the signs of Maxxie's uneasiness. 'Why do you ask, baby?'
'Oh ... well. It's ... er, like this.'
'You were missing yesterday before breakfast.'
'Oh! You noticed. You didn't say anything.'
The queen cuddled her son close. 'I'm pretty sure that nothing born on Earth can harm you, so what's to be concerned about? I'm luckier than most moms in that regard. The down side is I have to worry that the forces of incarnate evil might take a crack at you. Come on, Maxxie, tell your mom!'
'Okay. Couple nights ago I was ... called.'
'Like someone texted me, but in my head. And it was a boy ... a little Romanian boy called Andrei, and he was in terrible trouble not far away in our city. So I went and helped him, and then yesterday, after I was dressed and before breakfast, I took him and his sister to Romania, to their grandmother's, so she could look after them. Now I'm worried.'
'Because you think the war will reach Romania and they'll be just as badly off?'
'Uh-huh. It's always more complicated than it seems, helping people.'
'You never said a truer word, darling.'
'Did I do wrong?'
'No sweetheart, of course not. Never, ever refuse to help people if they ask you. By the way, how did you know where to take them?'
Maxxie frowned. 'It's difficult to describe, but I sorta saw lines of gold, like links between Andrei and his grandma. So I followed them.'
'And what do you think they were?'
'I think they were prayers she said for her little ones. She thought about them all the time, she loved them so.'
The queen kissed her son's golden hair. 'Then you can safely leave her to take care of your two waifs now. They're where they ought to be, war or no war.'
In the meantime, Ed Cornish was considering a much larger version of the same map in conference with the Rothenian general staff. These were Rudi's men, selected and groomed for their ability and originality - even unconventionality. Some had been fast-tracked for promotion, like Ed himself and his close friend HSH Major-General Tomas Bernenstejne, recently raised by the Regency to the rank of Prince of Orbeck. This had caused grumbles amongst the relics of an older Rothenian army, but had produced command staff of great talent and close comradeship. The spirit which Rudolf Elphberg had instilled into this level of the armed forces had spread throughout its officer corps and enlisted men, to the extent that the Rothenian military was now regarded as the most effective and efficient in NATO.
General Niklas Antonin, chief of the armed forces, was leaning up over the table, gloomily pondering the latest intelligence. 'What does their leader call himself again?'
'Malik-rammu,' came the reply from a young aide. 'That was the name given in the broadcasts from Turkey, when he drove out what was left of the government from Istanbul.'
'Do we have any pictures?'
Another aide chipped in. 'We monitor the few remaining TV channels operating in the major cities of the Near East, but they give little news. Mostly it's propaganda and quiz shows.'
'What intelligence do we have on this man?' He looked directly at Tom Bernenstejne.
'Sir, he is almost a complete mystery. The first traces we have of him are from only six months ago ... if indeed it is the same man. Malik-rammu is a new guise for him. Before then he was simply one of several warlords in western Anatolia, but he managed somehow to gain control of İzmir and establish an ascendancy over his rivals.
'We can assume he has personal charisma, and the defeat of the Sixth Fleet in the Battle of Chios has consolidated his prestige amongst his fellows. But the manner of his victory tells us that the man is a military genius: capable of mobilising his miscellaneous allies and rag-tag forces to do extraordinary things. He may be the West's worst nightmare, a Genghis Khan for our own age.
General Bernenstejne activated a data projector and showed a slide. 'We must look for clues where we can. Refugees from the region say his followers and vessels carry this flag. The picture of it here was taken by a handij camera when his naval forces entered and seized Piraeus. It's black, with a warrior angel wielding a sword in the centre.'
General Antonin looked puzzled. 'Then he is no Islamicist. The representation of the human form in any way is anathema to them.'
'Exactly sir. He works with jihadists and the shadow Islamic government in Ankara, but he shares no ideology with them. The motif suggests perhaps a Zoroastrian background, as that faith acknowledges winged guardian spirits. But if so, it would indicate he originally comes from further east than Turkey, perhaps from what used to be Iran.'
Antonin frowned and commented, as if musing to himself, 'The mode of operation is brilliant, it has to be said. He makes little attempt to govern the territories under his control, as long as they acknowledge his ascendancy and contribute their resources. Though the penetration of the Internet has shrunk with the shutdown of relays outside Europe and the slow decay of the satellite network, we still get some information out of even Turkey.
'There is a shadow government calling itself the Islamic Republic in Ankara, though it controls no forces and governs little except the mosque courtyards. Effective power has broken down to the city level, with each the fiefdom of one of Malik-rammu's warlords. He's duplicating the same system in Greece. A Greek government still sits in Athens, but real power lies with the militias Malik-rammu has quartered on the country. Although the Greek armed forces no longer exist, we're getting some indication that a number of its former units are now incorporated in Malik-rammu's ... perhaps I should call it "horde"? Greece was in collapse before this man muscled in and took it over. It could put up no opposition once the US naval deterrent was destroyed. It's now another building block in his empire ... and I use the term advisedly. What we are seeing in southeastern Europe is an object lesson in how empires rise. The Turkic Confederation is no accidental achievement; it is coming out of one brilliant mind.'
Tom Bernenstejne took on a grim look as he responded, 'Empire is a good word, sir. This man has no interest in ruling the people he has subjected, only in plundering them. His aim is simply to move on and conquer more. It's an imperial Ponzi scam, with as much morality as a swarm of locusts. All he leaves in his wake are devastated cities, displaced populations and wrecked economies.'
Antonin looked even more severe. 'And the logic of his position means that sooner or later this Malik-rammu must strike at the heart of Europe, where we in Rothenia now keep the gate.'
Nathan Underwood had stacked drinks - including beers - and pizza on the dining room table, before withdrawing to his back garden while the evening sun was still high enough to work. Damien sat at the head of the table, with Helen next to him on his right. Flanking her were the rest of the M-Ms, as they now tended to be called, following Helen's agitation for a more inclusive name. The gang presently featured Barry Hignett, Marky von Lauern and Luc Charpentier, who had all been initiated into the secret of Lance Atwood.
Opposite the M-Ms, being eyed curiously, the four newcomers occupied two sofas. Lance sat among them, with Yuri curled up on his lap. Mike, impassive once more, sat nearest Damien. Gabe and Rafe were close together on one sofa, Rafe clasped tightly to his twin by an arm around the shoulder. Rafe's eyes were red, and he looked out of things to a worrying degree. He had been dosed with Valium that Damien had asked Luc to bring over, though where Luc had laid hands on it was a mystery no one felt like penetrating.
'Okay lads and lass, this is the situation so far, if I've got it right. Lance's four ... er ... brothers, have been dumped in Rothenia after being turned into humans. Am I right that it wuz wivout their consent?'
Lance nodded his head. 'They were transformed at the bidding of the Great Council, so refusal was never an option. But Rafe and Gabe were definitely unwilling, and Rafe has suffered badly. Mike says it was orders and so he followed them, as he was bound to do even though he didn't like them. My little Yuri was the only one keen to try the experience, saying he wanted to follow me to Earth, but it's left even him disorientated.'
Mattie Oscott put his hand up. 'Disorientated is one word for it!'
'What are you on about, Fatso?' demanded Lance.
'Tell ya later, angel-boy.'
Lance shot his old friend a puzzled look, then continued. 'My brothers say the decision was made by the Council as a result of what has been judged to be the outstanding success of my metamorphosis.'
'Yer what?' queried Damien.
'You all know the story of how I was made a mortal boy so as to acquire maturity and grow from the childish form in which I had been imprisoned. The point is that I apparently achieved more than just growing up. I'm an unexpected new thing. Tell them, Gabe.'
Gabe kissed Rafe's sweat-beaded forehead, then gathered himself to speak, which he did with a certain formality and grace. He was, after all, in another guise the chief herald of Heaven. 'The Lord Satan, our great prince, was exiled to Earth in some ways as the fulfilment of a promise, though in others as a punishment. He was expected to assume the sort of maturity the Council wished him to have, without the anarchic humour and stubbornness by which he had long troubled the courts of Heaven but endeared himself to us, his angels.'
Damien grinned. 'Yer surprises me, Gabe!'
Gabe was not put off his stride. 'It became apparent, however, that in doing this thing, the Council had accidentally made a new creation, for the Lord Satan has acquired much more than simple mental growth. He has penetrated the heart of the mystery surrounding mortality and mortal existence in a way no other angelic being ever has. He knows the meaning and pain of love in ways we cannot aspire to, and as a result his powers have become ... remarkable.'
'Remarkable?' Reggie raised a pale eyebrow.
'This is hard to explain,' continued Gabe. 'The aura of power he exhibits has shifted into a ... different zone.'
'Whass that mean?' demanded Damien.
'As I said, it is hard to explain. He is a new creation, no longer pure angel. He has acquired a tinge of the aura of ... well, the Creator Himself.'
Everyone stared at Lance. He grinned and twitched his eyebrows. 'Cool, huh? I thought it was just puberty ... in fact it was an apotheosis.'
Damien was back on the case. 'Okay, Gabe. So what about you four?'
Gabe's brow clouded. 'We have been treated as little more than laboratory animals. The Council selected us as the next most senior angels to see if the same thing happens to us. They forget that our prince had long been engaged with mortals. He has far more experience of their lives than we do. But the deciding factor was when the Lord Satan successfully mated with a human, the Mayer boy. This caused a tumult and the Council would hold off no longer. We were transformed and despatched to the forest, with the consequences you see.'
Reggie was stunned. 'You mean it was my falling in love with Lance that triggered all this?'
Lance shook his head. 'No, baby, there are wheels within wheels here. I'm deeply suspicious. With the One in the heart of Rothenia and the rest of the world in turmoil, the expulsion of my brothers from the Council can only be due to the machinations of one devious mind.'
'Tobias?' Damien suggested.
'Exactly,' Lance confirmed.
'What was that crack about Yuri?' Lance demanded of Mattie when the meeting took a break for pizza and drinks. The boy in question was busily engaged in demolishing a large Hawaiian slice, tomato purée smeared liberally around his mouth. He seemed to relish eating a lot.
'Look mate, I know he's your brother an' all. But ya might have warned me he's ... er ... genitally challenged.'
'What the fuck are you on about, Fatso?'
'Like he's a chick, Lance! He's not a dude!'
'He's a female! He's got no dick. He has to sit down to pee. Face it, Lance. Yuri's a sis, not a bro!'
Lance's mouth hung open. 'You can't be serious!'
'I saw it myself.'
'Oh my ... dammit! That complicates matters.'
'What happened, Lance?'
'We're all nominally male but sexually ambiguous. Angels tend to be gay - you know that. But I guess with Yuri his physical embodiment lurched into the feminine.'
'So what? Yuri's a dyke?'
'Who knows? Oh shit! Well ... er ... she can't stay with you. Helen!'
Helen came over and listened with widening eyes to Mattie's news. 'Oh! I guess she'd better come home with me. I have to say, it makes a pleasant change ... a female angel instead of all these males. But Lance, she doesn't look that girlie to me. I mean, she's obviously into boy's clothes to begin with.'
'Tell me about it,' interjected Mattie. 'She gives me mental double vision every time I look at her.'
Lance went and reclaimed Yuri from her meal at the table. She brought a slice of pepperoni with her, and chewed on it industriously while Lance explained things. Yuri looked a little woefully at Mattie, then whispered into Lance's ear.
'Wassat?' Mattie asked.
'Oh! Er ... she said she'd prefer to stay with, um ... the fat boy. Sorry, Yuri, but it's better you're with Helen. Go say hello.'
Yuri walked obediently up to Helen, took her hand shyly, and gave a little smile up through her lashes. She didn't say anything, though, and rapidly retreated to Lance's side, resuming her place on his lap when the meeting recommenced. By that time she was on her sixth slice, and burping repeatedly from swigging a mega-size coke rattling with ice.
Damien called the meeting to order. 'Guys and, er ... gals, I have me doubts we can keep all this from the Ultras for very long. Lance, we'll need heavyweight help to find your brothers and, er ... your sister, homes and a cover story in Rothenia. We may have the deviousness, what we don't have are the resources. So who do we tell and when?'
Lance brooded in the sudden quiet.
It was Reggie who spoke up. 'It'll have to be Mendamero himself. Any weirdness in Rothenia eventually comes home to Henry. He'll maybe have some ideas.'
'Okay,' Lance agreed. 'But we'll give it till after the weekend.'
Finally one of the archangels broke the silence. It was Mike. 'Excuse me, but I think I speak for my brothers in saying that we would like to visit the One as soon as we may. We wish to pay him homage and offer him our services in this reality.'
Luc scoffed. 'Nom de Dieu! Certainly! Let's just knock on the palace door and ask to see the king of Rothenia for tea.'
His lover Barry squeezed his hand. 'My Lucky doesn't mean to be rude ...'
'I think I do,' Luc countered, but with a grin.
'Iss his redeeming quality,' Damien interjected.
Barry shushed them. 'What I'm saying is, you new guys have to realise that you're just kids now, like the rest of us. You can't do anything much without adults.'
Mike gave him a cold look. 'I came here to fight for the One in whatever way I can. Do you people not realise that now is the time of the Last Battle? Armageddon is come.'
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