Ed Cornish and Benedikt, Rudi's NATO aide, leaned over the conference table in a briefing room of the Ostberg Palace. Files and photos were littered around an open laptop. General Cornish, who had become the liaison between the Rothenian General Staff and NATO High Command, and his counterpart were examining the latest reports from the Balkans.
'It's remarkable how you get any information out of the region.'
The Polish captain smiled and answered in good Rothenian, 'In some ways it's easy. The Confederation has little counter-espionage capability. It counts on the lawlessness of its own dominions to impede the collection and spread of intelligence. There is no landline or Internet traffic out of there, and satellite cover is patchy for smartphones. There are no diplomats left in any of the areas it controls, other than Russian and Ukrainian special envoys. They'll sell what they know, but mostly we rely on ex-NATO military whose loyalties remain with the West. They find ways to send us material. The Confederation stages the occasional public execution to try and keep the population in line, but our people are brave and enterprising. We don't ask them to go out of their way to penetrate the Confederation's structures, of course, just to collect whatever information comes their way.'
'So do we know anything new?'
'Other than troop movements northwards and growing incursions along the Macedonian frontier, nothing apart from this.' Benedikt offered a thin folder.
Ed perused the contents with some interest. 'Could I have a copy? My partner Henry would be very interested. He holds a brigadier's commission in the army reserve and top security clearance.'
'No problem, sir. I'll get a staffer on it. But what do you make of it?'
'A developing death cult amongst the Turkic militias? It sounds ominous, but it's the veneration for a supernatural Nameless One which is most alarming. It's clean counter to any Islamic or Christian theology. It's gnostic. It almost sounds like devil worship. I can't imagine any respectable imam condoning it, yet these black banners are everywhere in Malik-rammu's army, in which I must assume there are no chaplains.'
Theo Lobowicz pulled his little boat up on to a stony beach and tugged it into the trees, cursing as the occasional sharp rock hurt his bare feet. All was still on the island, with none even of the colourful birds which flitted around everywhere else in this mysterious land. Indeed, the remarkable hush reminded Theo of the intimidating solemnity he knew he would feel in a great and empty church.
He began climbing through the trees. The island was like a small, wooded hill emerging from the lake, with the buildings rising from the summit through its cloaking greenery. He soon encountered a dusty path which led him upwards. It was crossed at one point by a small but rapid stream which danced its way down to the lake waters. He was about to stoop to take a drink when a movement of something white in the trees drew his attention. A moment later, he gave a sharp exclamation and snapped his eyes back to what he'd been doing. Where his hand had been briefly in the water, it was now white and numb with freezing cold. He chafed at it as he pursued the flitting movement through the trees.
Emerging on to a green lawn starred with golden flowers, Theo found himself face to face with a pure white stag. Gazing at him knowingly, it slowly approached across the grass. He stood rooted to the spot while the large creature snuffled at his face and licked him. He was not alarmed particularly, despite being a city boy from Baltimore and unused to animals.
The stag seemed to have made a decision. It ambled away from him and back into the trees. Theo felt certain he was supposed to follow.
Their path took them farther up the hill and into a lane between climbing buildings, which were built of large squared stones, rather like the Inca houses Theo had seen in a number of National Geographic. The lane wound upwards by ramps and shallow steps until, looking back, he realised he was high above the blue waters of the surrounding lake. The scenery reminded him of a summer excursion he had once made with his Rothenian boyfriend to Lake Maresku.
At last the stag halted, and settled itself down like a watchdog outside the door of a stubby tower. Theo patted the tolerant creature on its head as he peered past it into the structure's interior.
The room within was high and vaulted, with tall windows giving plenty of light. A round slab of a table was set in its centre, surrounded by numerous great throne-like chairs, each elaborately carved from freestone. When Theo entered he was sure they were empty, but as his eyes adjusted to the dimness within, he discovered a young man observing him from the throne farthest away. Although Theo had nearly forgotten his nakedness, the sudden appearance of the stranger brought his hands by reflex over his genitals.
It took a while for him to get a proper look at this manifestation, whose image, after initially seeming vague, had since firmed up somewhat. That he was young and male was obvious, as also was the fact that he was robed in some dark material.
'Er ... hi?' Theo began tentatively.
The figure gave the impression of smiling, but did not answer.
'Like ... where am I?'
This time there was a reply, though Theo was pretty sure he had not heard it with his ears. 'Some call these the Isles of the Blessed, but they have many other names, as does the land of which they are a part. Would you like to sit?'
Theo took a chair opposite the man, and found the stone chilly on his buttocks. He was happy for some reason to get no closer.
The stranger seemed unthreatening. He was slim and dark of colouring, with a slightly receding hairline. Although not particularly good-looking, he had eyes that were strikingly large and almost luminous.
'Who are yah, dude?'
The smile broadened. 'A friend of Rothenia and its people. There are things I must say to you, and we don't have very long. When Tobias returns, I don't think he will be happy to find you here. Indeed, he will be deeply suspicious of what you have been doing.'
'Who is the kid anyway? Why's he so scary?'
'He is not what he appears, so much must be obvious to you. He is a being of cosmic power who takes that form for sentimental reasons as much as anything. For you see, he first felt the stirring of sexual passion inside himself when he put that form on, long ago on your world, and seeks always to recapture that feeling. He is a terrible paradox. He seeks to destroy all that is physical, despite being perversely enamoured of physical lust. He wishes to love, but each day distances himself further from the possibility that he ever can. He is tormented and in his torment is falling into terrible evil, yet thinks he acts for the good. He sees all, while being blind to what it signifies.'
Theo quirked a smile. 'I think I get the paradox thing.'
His companion gave an answering laugh at this. As he did, his image appeared to become more fixed.
'Hey! I know you from somewhere, yeah?'
The stranger shrugged. 'It may be so, although I don't believe we've met in person.'
'So this Tobias. He says he wants to talk with me, but what's he really after?'
'I've no idea why he brought you here. I would guess, however, that his inner confusion grows daily, and you are the sort of male he lusts after: one who can offer a form of crude physical domination which calms his disturbed spirit for a while. And he deeply craves sexual intercourse, if only on his own terms. Despite his desire to learn from you and your like, in fact he cannot. As I said, he is a terrible paradox.'
'How can I escape?'
'A friend will come ... is coming. One you will be glad to see, though he too is not what you thought he was, for he is a greater being than Tobias ... far greater indeed, even if weaker in immediate power. He truly can love and so acknowledges limits to what he will do, though none to what he would sacrifice. Tobias, on the other hand, cannot love as humans love. Thus no deed is beyond him, however black, if it meets his end.'
'And what would that be?'
'Why, the termination of all existence and the extinction of humanity.'
'Jesus fuck! Pardon my expressive and colourful language, dude.'
'Think nothing of it.' The stranger projected courtly amusement. 'But you can play a part in his defeat. When your old friend comes, you must greet him in my name, then tell him to come to this very place, and here he will find what he needs and would give his life to gain, if he had to. Not for himself, but for those he loves.'
'And what is your, er ... name, guy?'
'I think you may indeed know it.'
'Me? No idea, though you do look a little ...'
'You once took a tourist trip with your lover to the royal Schloss of Zenda, did you not?'
The M-Ms were again in conference in Fridricsgasse, though this time without Lance's brothers. Damien and Helen sat together, she looking anxious. Luc, Marky, Mattie and Barry apprehensively eyed Lance where he sat, Reggie clutching his hand.
'So your brothers are ill?'
'That's what Maxxie said, and he also said that whatever had infected them had infected me too.'
'Infected?' queried Helen.
'I think they were implanted with this virus when they were incarnated, by the same person who constructed their bodies at the Council's order.'
'Tobias,' Reggie concluded.
'Has to be. Not only did he vote them out of the World Beyond, but he made sure their stay here would be brief; they're dying of a virus that is fatal to them and any other incarnated angel. Tobias made sure it was infectious, knowing they would bring it straight to me.'
'This is horrible!' Barry had his hand to his mouth, and Luc had taken him round the shoulder.
Lance looked grim. 'In human form, our bodies are weakening and shutting down. The worst thing is that I can escape it, but they can't. Their transformation was permanent, but because of Maxxie's actions, mine was temporary. I can return to an angel form in which the disease will have no power over me, but they can't. However, if I do transform, I'll have to depart this Universe for good, because once back in my human body I will perish. So Tobias will force the Satan to abandon his brothers to death amongst strangers and leave this world to his mercy. Doing that will also break up my relationship with Reggie, a vicious sideswipe at me, the human boy, Lance Atwood.'
'Can't Maxxie fix this, like he fixed my Lucky?'
'I don't think so. He has power to heal the hurts of this world, but not something devised by a warped mind in the World Beyond.'
Damien rallied. 'Okay guys. Time to think hard. Rafe's already down and Gabe is complaining of headaches. Yuri and Mike seem alright so far, but it won't be long before they are bed cases too. How long do yer think we got, Lance?'
'No idea. Could be days or weeks, but not long I'd bet. Tobias wants us out of the way quickly.'
Reggie winced at the news.
'The other fear I have,' Lance continued, 'is that this virus might ... er ... cross species.'
Helen looked deeply shocked. 'You mean he's contemplating biological warfare against humanity?'
'Wouldn't put it past him. This news is very disturbing. I hadn't realised the lengths - or rather the depths - to which Toby would go to achieve his ends, but on this evidence I'd say that genocide is not beyond him. With us as the agents of contamination, he kills three fat birds with one pebble - me, my brothers and the human race.'
'Holy shit,' cursed Mattie. 'Poor little Yuri. He ... she ... was so enjoying physical existence.'
Marky nodded. 'Mikey seemed to be getting there too, apart from the toilet thing.'
Reggie's head was pulsing and he was sick to the heart. 'Guys, there's gotta be something! And if the answer's not in Rothenia, it won't be anywhere else. The most sophisticated biological lab in the world can't help us.'
Helen piped up. 'Think back to the Ultras and their struggles. There was once a great power in Rothenia.'
'Yeah,' agreed Lance. 'But the Icon is gone. It had to be destroyed so Maxxie could come into the world.'
'Could the Icon have helped us?' queried Reggie.
'Not really. My brothers are mortal now, and contact with it would have killed them.'
'Not much help then,' sighed Helen, Suddenly her face changed. 'Hey! What about the story of Fritzy, y'know, the one we're not supposed to know about, but Daimey's dad blabbed about anyway after five cans of lager.'
'Whatchu mean, Helen?' asked Mattie.
'How Fritzy and the king fell out over Harry, and they fought a duel in the Residenz ... oh, it was so romantic! Fritzy was run through, but then Gavin Price ... did something and healed Fritzy, though everyone thought he was dying.'
'Oh! You're right, Helen!' exclaimed Lance. 'How could I have forgotten? Gavin! Who's in with him?'
They looked around each other. Eventually Reggie put up his hand. 'Well I guess I am ... we're both on the Facebook Demons page.'
'What!' Luc stirred. 'There's a Demons page? Since when? No one told me. Fils de salope!'
'We need info, fast!' urged Damien. 'Use my machine, Reggie.'
Reggie scampered up to Damien's room, Lance in hot pursuit. They were gone for a while. In the meantime, the debate continued in the lounge. Although it was fitful and with no result, Damien, Marky and Luc clearly wanted action - and soon.
The return of Lance and Reggie caused hopeful looks to be cast in their direction. The two indeed seemed brighter. 'Gavin was cool,' Reggie announced with a grin. 'He told us what happened at the hospital, even if he couldn't help us with our immediate problem.'
'So what did happen?' Helen demanded.
'Okay!' Lance began. 'It was like this. Helge von Tarlenheim was once a Levite, a keeper of the Icon, and the mark of her office was a silver skull-shaped badge. Only it wasn't made of any ordinary silver. It had been in contact with the Icon itself, and it therefore existed in two worlds. When Helge saw her brother was close to the end, and recognised Gavin as Enoch, the prophesied Warrior, she produced the token of her order. In Gavin's hand it channelled the healing power of the Icon, not its destructive power, and Fritzy was brought back from the brink.'
Faces brightened round the lounge. 'Great!' exclaimed Damien. 'So did he say where this skull thingy is?'
'Er ... no. He has no idea. But Helge might!'
'She's not a Facebook sort of person,' Helen mused. 'How do we talk to her? What do we say?'
'I think that's down to me,' Lance observed. 'She knows me for what I am. I'm sure she'll co-operate when she recognises what's at stake. I'll ring her tonight.'
Damien confirmed the decision. 'Okay then, first thing tomorrow, you, me, Reggie and Helen are heading out to Templerstadt.'
Mattie chipped in. 'What about your brothers? What do we tell Henry and Ed?'
Lance looked solemn. 'I'm counting on you guys to stay with them and care for them. I'm trusting them to you. Henry and Ed have got their own problems, so we'll leave them out of it for the moment. In any case, I have a feeling that if Helge can help, whatever comes next will happen quickly. Guys, we must do this thing. And something else ...' The tone of his voice caused eyes to snap to him. 'I have a feeling - call it an angel sense - that the crisis has begun with us, and that ... well, things will change forever after tomorrow. I don't say they'll change for the worse, but we won't be the same in the end.'
Dazed, Theo Lobowicz stared across the lake to the dark hills beyond. He was still coming to terms with the revelations his mysterious visitor had provided. He had answers now and they were beyond scary. At least he was not dead, as he had feared, but was instead caught up in a titanic struggle between good and evil, trapped in a place between worlds with a creature more corrupt than the most debased of humans.
He didn't need the prickling of his neck to realise that Tobias had appeared behind him; it was as if the temperature had dropped. He turned.
The boy was naked once more, and Theo was astonished to see the evidence of violence on his body. There were dark bruises on his thighs and his neck showed the purple marks of strangulation. He stank of sex even at a distance. He looked strangely pathetic and childlike in his damaged and filthy condition.
'What the fuck! Can I help?' Theo was moved, despite himself.
The boy was preoccupied. 'No, no. It seems I cannot remove these marks, and my ... interior ... it's hurting.'
'Let me look. I've got basic first aid.'
'None of your human remedies will work on me. I fear it is this place. You should not have come here. How did you get here in any case?'
'There was a boat moored in the stream, and the current led me here.'
'Curious. We must leave immediately. This island is a very dangerous place.'
'Why? It seems very peaceful.'
'Yes, as the grave is peaceful, and the parallel is not at all out of place.'
'Where are you taking me?'
'To continue our talk. Come hold my hand.'
Theo did so and within the blink of an eye found himself once again on the stream bank where he had started, with birdsong and the rustle of leaves around him.
Lance insisted on using his car, rather than suffer the discomfort of fitting into Damien's, which was only designed for two. But first he took leave of the twins, both now sick in bed. Rafe was in and out of consciousness, and Mrs Willerby was suggesting to Henry that the doctor was needed. 'It's a very bad fever, Mr Atwood. I'm a little worried. Nothing gets the boy's temperature down, and his brother is going the same way.'
Henry consulted with his son before Lance left to pick up the others. 'Is this something associated with their metamorphosis, baby? Is this an angel thing?'
'Yeah, I think so. Look, dad, I'm going off to talk to someone who might be able to help. I should be back this evening sometime. Hopefully, I'll have some news. Bazza and Luc will sit with the twins.'
Henry gave his son a considering look. 'Something's up, isn't it, Lance? It's okay. I don't expect you to tell me all yet ... but soon.'
Lance smiled, despite everything. 'Yeah, sure, dad. Did I ever tell you how much I love you? Never more than now.'
'Every day, darling, you tell me in one way or other. Off you go. Good luck.'
Damien and Helen were already in the back of his car when they picked up Reggie from outside the US ambassadorial compound. The four friends were mostly silent on their journey out to Husbrau, unusually so for them. Helen did tell them that Yuri thus far showed no sign of the disease, so she had allowed him to go over to Mattie's. 'He really likes Mattie a lot. Just Mattie's luck, a hermaphrodite falls for him. Pity he's not gay.'
They reached Templerstadt at eleven-thirty. Lance knew from Helge that Pete and Oskar were out of the country, having left her there to look after their children, Piotr Oskar and Eupheme.
Piotr, age two, came bursting out of the house as soon as Lance's car parked in the courtyard. 'Lance! Daimey! Come see my pony! Daddy gave it to me! Can we play? Hi Helen! Hi Reggie!'
Lance picked up the little blond heir to Templerstadt and the title of Modenehem, who babbled away happily as they went into the house to find Helge, Piotr's aunt. They discovered her in the lounge, and took seats. The conversation was in Rothenian.
It did not take long to get to the point, as Lance had already briefed the countess over the phone. 'What can I say? Once Enoch came, my office ended. I kept the token of my order for several years, since the lore of the Levites gave no indication of what to do with it. But the fall of the Icon at Biscofshalch changed things. The talisman had been docile till then, but suddenly it turned highly volatile. It was clear to me that, without the Icon, it had become the only direct channel into our world of the great power it once had been in contact with. Since it could not be mastered, it had to be sent out of this Universe to the place beyond.'
'How did you manage that?' Damien asked.
'There are places where the barriers between worlds are thinner, several such here in Rothenia. The Tarlenheim mausoleum once housed the Icon and it was there that my brother was able to find the clue which located the hidden Crown of Tassilo. I played my part that day, for I used the Icon to open up a path from the past to let someone into the present. Afterwards I took the talisman to the Chamber of the Princes in the mausoleum and laid it in a certain spot where I knew a door had been opened once before. I invoked its own power to send it elsewhere, and my prayer was answered. When I looked up, the talisman was gone, but where it went I have no idea.'
Lance looked intent. 'This was done in a chamber of the dead? And the person you let into reality was also dead?'
'Mother Maria Nativitata, a Levite in her day, and a member of my family. But she was not buried in the mausoleum.'
'Are you sure it was the past she was brought from?'
'I ... don't know, Lance. Are you saying she came from elsewhere?'
'There is a place between worlds, forbidden to my order, but we know something of it, for the erelim can approach it and they tell tales, strange ones. It's the only location where the Dead can still commune with the living. It is a portal to the afterlife and sometimes the purpose of the Creator allows ... traffic.'
'Wow!' exclaimed Damien. 'So there are ghosts! Real ones! My dad says he saw one once.'
'Oh yes. But they're not what you think. They come back changed and unpredictable. They can seem to be exalted and fey, or can be grim and terrifying. They no longer fit into this existence. They've developed and changed in another unguessable place.'
Helge pondered this. 'So are you saying the talisman was taken by the Dead to their own place?'
'That's exactly what I'm saying. So there I must follow.'
Reggie protested. 'But you said that angels can't go near their kingdom!'
'And that's why you must come with me, for though it may be closed to me, it won't be to you humans, only ...'
'The dangers for you will be enormous. The Dead won't forbid your approach ... it is after all your ultimate destination as humans. But they may be reluctant to let you go once you're there.'
Helge was astonished. 'How can you do this, Lance? Can you take your friends out of this world?'
Lance looked hard in their eyes, one by one, as if seeking to divine their willingness. 'I can do this, but only if you all freely consent, and there will be a price to pay. Your lives will be different afterwards; not worse, but changed.'
'Tell us in what ways,' Helen demanded.
'I have to do to you what was done to Gavin ... not kill you, but transform you. You'll be as he is, never entirely of this world again. I can't change you back.'
'And will we be like him afterwards, able to change form, to fly and have powers?' Damien's eyes were glittering and his face eager.
'I'm not sure. As for my ability to do this thing, I could not have done it before I was exiled here. But I know I've developed over the past years. No angel has ever attempted such a transformation; it's seraphic in its ambition. But I seem to have gone beyond the angelic state, or so the Council thinks. I feel I can do far more now than once I could.'
'I'm game!' exclaimed Reggie. 'If you're with me, I know I'll be alright.'
'Same goes for me, Lance mate. This is an adventure we'd be idiots to walk away from. We'd never forgive ourselves for missing out on this. Stuff the risk!'
'Thanks, Daimey.' Helen was smiling.
'What, what've I done?'
'You said "we". You never for a moment thought of ruling me out.'
'No way! The fact that my girl's with me makes it complete so far as I'm concerned. You're my girl, so like no other. Rules don't apply to you.'
Helen beamed. 'Do your stuff, Lance. We're off!'
Lance looked solemn and nodded. 'Then into the car and away to Terlenehem. How do we get into the mausoleum, Helge?'
'We keep a key here. I'll get it for you.
Half an hour later, the two couples stood hand-in-hand at the wrought-iron gates of the mausoleum. Despite a sense of imminent danger, Damien chuckled. 'If anyfing looked like the gate of death, iss this place! Kiss for luck, girl, an' we're on our way!'
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