The boy once called Kurt Osterwelle - now renamed Amir, according to what had been burned into his butt - sobbed to himself on his mattress. The agony from his backside was awful. It was afternoon, and he dreaded the coming night, when the villa's guards would stop off after their drinking binge and terrorise him. His growing experience of his kidnappers was that his expressions of pain merely excited them to devise further torments.
They kept him locked up. He had nothing except some rags he had found and wound around his waist to cover himself, the only meagre comfort left to him.
One of the bastards who spoke German took every opportunity to gloat with a perverted delight that Kurt was to be altered, which the boy had worked out meant that his genitals were to be removed. He was to lose every sign of his manhood, to become a eunuch in Malik's growing entourage. That morning he had been held down over a table and the branding done. The stench of his own burning flesh was still in his nose.
Kurt needed to pee, so he lifted his homemade loin cloth, went to the corner and let loose into a stinking bucket. He had no alternative.
He'd given up attempting to flee. He'd tried praying, but no help had come. He was still there. Only one way out of his prison was left to him, and he was getting ready to take it.
At that point he heard a small cough from the other side of the cell, and a child's voice said apologetically, 'Well actually, the help would have come sooner, but I had to ask my mummy first.'
A long silence followed as Kurt stared in astonishment at the small boy standing in the doorway. 'Where did you come from? You're German. Is there a tunnel?'
'I'm Rothenian. You're Kurt, yes?'
'I think we need to get you away from here, but it can't be too obvious, or that wicked man will work out I had a hand in your escape.' He brightened. 'Daimey taught me that.'
Kurt sat down on the bed again, wincing from the pain in his butt. He decided he was hallucinating, a product of his loneliness, bereavement and despair.
The strange child was looking expectantly at him. 'Any ideas? Pity Daimey's not here. You'd like him. He's your age and even looks a bit like you, 'cept his hair's dark.'
Kurt managed a weak laugh. 'St Paul escaped when an earthquake shattered his prison.'
The apparition brightened. 'You're brilliant! Course! And they have lots of earthquakes here too, don't they?'
'Famous for it,' Kurt observed.
'Okay. Get under the bed.'
'You're supposed to stand in the doorframe in a quake.'
'You are? I didn't know that. Okay I'm already by the door. You're really clever, Kurt.'
'Thanks. What's your name, little vision?'
'I'm Maxxie. Okay then! Come on!'
Kurt stayed where he was, not being about to humour this pushy hallucination. Suddenly the solid earth moved and a deep growl filled the air, as if a jet was flying low overhead. Kurt leaped for the door.
Theo Lobowicz had been lying on a flat rock staring up at the deep blue sky. He was a serviceman and more philosophical than most about the prospect of death. It occurred to him that there were a lot worse places to spend one's last moments ... he had been going to say 'on Earth,' but he was confident he was not on the world of his birth, wherever else he might have been.
He was idly watching some unusually large birds circling high above him. The only others he had seen in the surrounding forest were small, colourful and quick. These were bigger than eagles, though just as highly coloured as the little ones, with green, blue, white and gold flashing from their wings.
Theo felt rather than saw Tobias's reappearance. He slowly got to his feet to confront the murderous boy, who was wearing black and looked very elegant. The colour suited his blond good looks rather well. Theo wondered whether Tobias had selected black because it was customarily worn by executioners.
Theo had his last request prepared. 'Can I have my uniform?'
Tobias twitched an eyebrow. 'I'm not putting you up against a wall to be shot.'
'The point is, I'm a Marine, and I'd rather die wearing my dress blues than naked.'
Tobias shook his head as if bemoaning to himself the eccentricity of humanity. The next Theo knew he was in Marine full dress, even down to the gold chevrons on his sleeves. Sitting on the rock he had just got up from was his white cap, which he dusted off and placed squarely on his head.
'So, how's it to be done? Will you return my body home?'
'You'll just wake up dead. I'll drop the body in the Chios strait, where so many of your friends now lie. Can't leave it here.'
'Get on with it then,' Theo growled. And spare me any more of your psychotic ramblings, he added in his head.
Tobias put his hands on his hips and made ready for something, but as he did, he glanced up. Shadows swept across the sun. There was a flurry and buffeting of huge wings and Theo was lifted bodily into the air. Powerful strokes took him rapidly high above the stream bank. 'We gotcha mate!' exclaimed a birdman, in what was undeniably English.
Theo looked wildly around. Two avian creatures had him each by an arm. One was definitely female and the other proudly male, with red horns sprouting from his head. His blue and red wings were beating strongly as he effortlessly held Theo in mid-air, grinning down merrily at him, blue eyes alight with excitement and fun.
Far below Theo could see the small black figure of Tobias being confronted by two more winged figures, one huge and dark, the other bright and white.
Mattie Oscott awoke from a doze. For the first time in his teenage life he was not alone in his bed; a sweet little face was in repose next to his own. He stared mesmerised by the beauty of Yuri's features and her flawless skin. He could see her pearly little teeth through her pink lips as she slept in his arms. Her slim, petite figure was surrounded by his embrace and she looked heartbreakingly vulnerable. She had given herself to him entirely. She was his responsibility, and he half-hoped a dragon might appear on Domstrasse, so he could go out and defend her with his life.
He lay there blissfully happy for quite a while. This was no casual lay. There had been a deep connection with this angelic girl which had bound her to his emotional core. The sex had only been part of it, though was it good! Finally he knew what his friends had been experiencing and enjoying, and it was amazing. As he lay there a small hand began stroking his intimate parts with instant results. He heard a giggle in his ear. Yuri sat up next to him and threw the covers back. She lovingly kissed and suckled the head of his dick, before manoeuvring herself across him and settling on to his erection. He was too dozy to register that he was without protection, as she shuddered and orgasmed continuously on his impaling cock, making sweet little animal noises as she moved on him. Finally, feeling his own orgasm boiling up, he made a superhuman effort and pulled out, spattering her slim belly liberally with the result, threads of his sperm tangling in her small snatch of pubic hair.
'Yuri, gotta be careful, baby,' he scolded. 'You can get pregnant, can't you?'
She wiped some of his ejaculate from her skin with a finger and ostentatiously sucked it off. 'Don't know, Mattie. Maybe. I think everything's settled in place, but I've not ovulated yet, so it should be okay for a little while without plastic on your lovely thing.' She scooped up more of the pearly liquid from her belly, then massaged it into her vulva while staring into his eyes. He'd never seen anything so daringly and shamelessly sexy, even on one of Daimey's porn videos.
He laughed and pushed her down under him. 'So! Cool! Better make the most of our opportunity then.' He was already hard, and when he came again, he kept inside her and shouted out his joy to the world.
Harriet, queen regent of Rothenia, stared at the apparition in her lounge. A dirty, near-naked teenage boy was looking wildly around him. His hair was matted and there were dark bruises on his face and inner thighs. The only covering he had was a rag twisted round his waist. A terrible burn had etched angry, Arabic letters into his left buttock.
Her sheepish son said apologetically in German, 'Sorry, mummy. Didn't know where else to bring him; this is Kurt.'
The boy stank of stale sex and human waste. His feet were soiled with filth, marking the carpet beneath them.
The mother in Harriet immediately took over. 'Kurt, look at me. You're safe. I'll try to explain things in a moment, but first I need to clean you up. Can you understand me?'
The boy stared at her and slowly nodded his head. Her experienced eye caught the intelligence in the face under the dirt. She held out her hand and he clasped it. Holding tightly, she led him out into the corridor of her apartment in the Residenz. Mercifully she encountered no one. She took him to the nearest bathroom, where she set the shower running, pointed out towels and toiletries, and told him to get on with things.
Once outside, she collared her son. 'Most little boys bring home stray puppies, but not my Maxxie. What's happened to him and where did you find him?'
Maxxie did his best within his limits, enough for the queen to work out most of it. 'Can you do something about his burns?'
Maxxie looked very reluctant.
'What's the matter?'
'Well ... I usually kiss the place better. No way am I gonna kiss a big boy's butt.'
The queen laughed. 'I should make you, Trouble. Can you do it some other way?'
'I'll give it a try. You mad at me?'
'No, lambkin, of course not. Besides, from what you say, I think daddy may be interested in meeting young master Kurt. He's been in the entourage of the mysterious Malik-rammu for over a week. Terrible things have been done to him, but he's a strong and intelligent boy and he's survived. He'll have noticed a lot which may help daddy.'
Maxxie beamed. 'I'll go see if he's cleaned himself up, and look at his butt ... I mean, see what I can do to make it better.'
The queen saw a very different boy re-enter her lounge ten minutes later, a blond youth with a clean white towel wrapped round himself. He had washed and brushed his long hair, and looked quite as handsome as he had seemed under the grime and marks of abuse. He was fully cleansed, for his bruises were gone along with the dirt; his face was flawless. Maxxie had done his magic.
'Kurt, take a seat. I think you know who I am, is that right?' He nodded silently. 'So you'll not be surprised when I tell you that you're in the royal palace of Strelzen, as a guest of my son, the king. How's your burn, by the way?'
Kurt put his hand to the towel covering his backside. 'Oh, Maxxie gave me some ointment to rub on it, and now it's no longer hurting.'
The queen caught the eye of her son, who returned an exaggerated wink. She stifled a grin. 'Maxxie, as by now you'll have worked out, is no ordinary boy. In fact he's the most extraordinary boy ever born.'
Kurt glanced at Maxxie. 'He saved me from Malik and the Nameless One. I can never thank him enough. But I can't work out how he did it.'
'That may be hard for you to understand. Maxxie isn't bound by the physical world the way you and I are. He goes where he wishes - though only if he asks me first - and there are no barriers to him. He is also a healer.'
'He caused an earthquake!'
'You did?' Harriet stared at Maxxie, who seemed a bit smug about it.
'Only a little one. Enough to bring down walls in Malik's villa. I made sure the man who burned Kurt won't do it again to anyone.'
'You killed him, baby?'
'No, no! But he won't see again till he's a better person.'
'You blinded him?'
'No mummy, I ... I don't know how to say it. He could still see, but he won't until he understands what he did to people. I put him in the dark so he could think.'
Harry turned her attention back to her visitor. 'Kurt, my husband is leading the fight against Malik-rammu, and you may have crucial intelligence which can help him. He'll want to talk to you about it. In the meantime, I've sent for a relative of mine who can take charge of you, and protect you too.'
'Uncle Justy?' Maxxie piped up with a grin.
'He'll be here in half an hour and take you to his home. He has a boy your age and size, and will bring clothing over for you. Your shoe size is eight, yes? Good. We'll meet again this evening.'
Kurt looked shyly at her. 'Will you bring Maxxie when you come?'
'Of course, Kurt. He'll be very happy to evade his bedtime.'
Tobias and Lance surveyed each other silently.
Reggie, watching the faceoff, wondered if some cosmic contest of wills was going on between them. His peacock wings flexed and shivered, reflecting his uncertainty.
Tobias cast a sidelong glance at Reggie. 'What have you done, Satan? The Council will have your horns for this. You've mutated three humans. And how did you do it? Which traitor seraph helped you?'
Lance rested on his great spear. 'Things have changed, Toby, myself along with them. The One has altered all the boundaries. I serve him now, but who do you serve, seraph?'
'The Council, as ever.'
'So how does kidnapping this human soldier serve that end?'
'It was necessary.'
'I no longer believe you, Toby. You're the first of the orders I have found able to lie, and I wonder what it is you are changing into.'
'I do not suffer the questioning of an angel, Satan. You know my power.'
'I've also learned what power can do to some beings. This is no place to bring a human, and you know why that should be. I am the Satan, and you forget that though I may be just an angel, the Creator fashioned me to seek out all treachery and evil and to protect his realms.'
Reggie butted in. 'The louse was gonna kill the guy, Lance.'
Tobias appeared startled. 'How can you say that, mutant?'
Lance's brow darkened. 'Look on the beauty of my lover's form, seraph. You should know what that means. Don't call him mutant; the Creator's mark is all over him. His change has brought new powers with it, and he can read souls. In yours he sees only blackness.'
Tobias stepped back, patently shocked. 'This is nonsense. I serve the Creator's ends, and in him there is no evil.'
'Leave this place, seraph.'
'You don't have the power to make me. You know this realm is within the seraphic domain. It's you who are the intruder.'
Lance's great wings beat while fire crackled up and down the spear he wielded. Suddenly he raised the weapon above his head and called out harsh phrases in a language unknown to Reggie. The sun of that strange world was obscured as if by a cloud, while a strong wind swayed the trees around them. The fire forked down from Lance's spear and struck Tobias, who vanished before their eyes.
Damien and Helen landed with their burden. Lance turned to examine him. 'Bloody hell! Theo Lobowicz!'
The corporal stared in his own turn. 'Lance Atwood?'
Marky and Mike lay together. Snorting a little in his sleep, Mike was spooned up around the smaller youth, his big arms holding Marky tight. Marky wasn't in the least sleepy, he was just enjoying the feeling of being held by such a powerful man. The sex had been stupendous and there had been a lot of it. Mike's originality in the ways he had taken Marky seemed endless, as if he had spent a teenage eternity fantasising on just how he would do it if he ever got the chance.
Afternoon was passing into evening and they had been out of it all day. Reaching over for his handij on the bedside table, Marky found no texts awaiting him. With Mike breathing in his ear, he began despatching messages to all the M-Ms. He tried Helen first, as there were things he had to talk to her about. He and Helen had long been the closest of friends. It was with her he talked through his emotions and disappointments. They were on the same wavelength.
No Helen. There were only responses from Luc, Bazza and Mattie. He couldn't raise Damien, Reggie, or Lance. He arranged to meet the others at the Atwood house, where Bazza and Luc currently were. Thinking he needed to know what was going on with the twins, a sudden anxiety about his own angel-boy's state of health gripped his heart. Maybe that was why Mikey was so horny. He might reckon the chances of repeating his sexual experimentation were limited.
Mike Atwood stirred and tightened his embrace. Feeling a kiss on the back of his neck, Marky turned to face his lover. 'Time to get up and dressed, baby. We need to go over and see your brothers at Atwood Central.'
'Yes, Rafe and Gabe.'
'Yuri's ... different and may wish to embrace a different sexuality.'
'Really! It's possible for you to choose, just like that?'
'Yuri can, and has chosen Mattie for a lover. The rest is likely to follow'
Marky levered himself up. 'What? Yuri's in love with Mattie?'
Mike shrugged. 'The boy is more perhaps than you see. He has a good heart. That would appeal more to Yuri than ... ripped abs.' Mike dwelt on that last phrase, which he had recently acquired.
'Yeah, yeah. No one's ever suggested he wasn't a good guy. I'm happy for him. He always seemed the odd one out with Daimey and Lance, both such hot and sexy men. Time to get up and going, Mikey.'
Marky dressed and went in search of clothing for Mike. He hoped his mother had not checked in the guest bedroom, to which Mike had not returned after their sex at the Osraeum. Perhaps she learned her lesson after walking in on me and Bazza going at it last year.
He returned unobserved with a selection of gear. Mike brooded over what was there before deciding on a simple white vest, sweat pants and black espadrilles, ignoring the socks and underpants. He picked up a military cap from Marky's shelf and stood before the mirror to set it on his head at a well-calculated angle. He looked desperately sexy with his ripped body and the undisguised outline of his big package.
All these angel teens had amazing style, Marky concluded. What a boyfriend! He allowed himself a certain smugness when he compared Mike Atwood with his previous, Barry Hignett. It was like comparing Abercrombie and Fitch with H&M.
Driving along Lindenstrasse in his BMW sports was even more wonderful, as passers-by stared at the male model Mikey had become. He just looked moody and cool, apart from when he caught Marky's eyes in the rear-view mirror. Then his face lit up with that same expression of love Marky had seen during their first sex in the Osraeum. He hoped Mattie Oscott was seeing an identical look in his angel lover's eyes.
'Lance Atwood? Is that fucker still playing with my head?'
Lance looked down on the Marine. He frowned for a moment, then appeared to shrink into his human self.
Theo goggled. 'Christ! It's you alright. And as beautiful as in any of my J.O. fantasies.'
'Yeah, well. Make the most of the free show. You know Reggie Mayer.'
'Reggie? That you?'
'S me, jarhead.'
Lance continued the introductions. 'The other members of my heavenly host you may not know: Damien and Helen.'
'Cool horns, and thanks for the rescue.'
'Ta, mate. No probs.'
'So ... you guys are angels like the bad dude?'
'Only me,' said Lance. 'Reggie and the rest are ... er ... human upgrades. So tell me how you got here, Theo. Guys! Try to pull back into your human forms. You gotta learn. It's okay, the return trip is painless.'
With a bit of effort, the three found the internal trigger which returned them to their original state. Helen looked uncomfortable unclothed in that place, so Lance explained that they might assume clothing by an act of will, demonstrating for them.
They sat companionably on the rocks while Theo told his tale, and it was Lance's turn to look astonished. 'You penetrated to the Isles of the Blessed! Do you know what they are?'
'Sure. The guy told me. It's the place where the Dead and living may commune, the only part of their world which strays into others.'
Lance let out a deep sigh. 'It's the place most forbidden to angels; even seraphs go there reluctantly.'
'Yeah, I saw what it did to that Toby dude. His body wasn't pretty there, but battered, diseased and somehow stained.'
'There is only truth in that place, in all its brutality. You saw what Toby's become, and it's heartbreaking. This guy you met on the isle, who was he?'
'That's weirder than everything else, cos I knew the dude. Not that I'd ever met him of course. But he told me where I'd seen him ... at Zenda in the mausoleum when I went there with Radu last summer. He took me to see this amazing tomb.'
Reggie looked startled. 'You mean the grave of Prince Leopold and his lover, Martin Tofts?'
'Yeah, that's it Reggie. Two guys hand-in-hand lying on grass, and just so happy to be with each other in love. It made Radu cry, cos I'd had my transfer orders through that day. Shit! When I get outa this place just don't let anyone get between me and Radu. He's still waiting for me, he says. If I've learned anything here it's that love is all that counts. That dude loves me, and I just let my career take over. Well, now I'm retired from the service, honourable discharge through death. So my new life begins as of tomorrow.'
'Who did you meet, jarhead? Leo or Martin?'
'He was the prince, or his ghost or whatever.'
'No, not a ghost,' Lance demurred. 'He was the prince in his fulfilled form. You met the real him alright. What did he have to tell you?'
'That you are expected. You must go to the isle and there you will find what you came for.'
Lance's face fell. 'Sounds easy, doesn't it? But it won't be. The isles are truly forbidden to angels.'
Damien broke in. 'Maybe to angels, but not humans, since Theo's been there. And in that form you're the most human of guys.' Helen and Reggie agreed. 'Sides,' continued Damien, 'you're not going there alone. We're coming too.'
Lance looked round his friends and gave a reluctant grin. 'Then we'll go together. But not you, Theo. You're going home. Where does Radu live?'
'Strelzen. Ninth District. Terlenehemgasse 344.'
'We'll look you up when we get back, tell you how it went. Bye, Theo!' And the Marine was gone.
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