Malik-rammu, Chosen of God, surveyed the ruins of his mountaintop headquarters. The guards were mostly unhurt, though one had been blinded and crazed by the collapse. Pity, as he was the one who had been the most persuasive with prisoners.
A search party had returned. 'There was no trace.'
Malik snarled, 'How could he get away? He didn't have so much as a pair of underpants! Did you check beneath the collapsed walls?'
The commander of his bodyguard nodded. 'We can look again. We'll get dogs.'
'Yes, get the damned dogs! Search the houses in the village. Someone must be sheltering him.' Malik turned on his heel. He wanted his plaything back; the boy had been special. Though the German teenager had been tortured and abused, Malik had still seen resistance in those blue eyes, and he valued it. Breaking that sort of defiance was always fulfilling.
Malik had a feeling he would not now have the pleasure. He calmed himself by contemplating the next step in his progress to world empire. A couple of his divisions were stationed on the Macedonian frontier, but they were only there to draw the defences. His Kosovar allies would in fact deliver the death blow to the isolated, friendless state. Skopje would fall within days.
Malik's real target was Bulgaria. Once its high command was absorbed in Macedonia's death-throes - probably wondering whether it might not usefully take its own bite out of its neighbour - his main force massed east of Thessaloniki would engage with the Bulgarian troops, launching a new sort of warfare they could not repel. The few planes of their air force lacked fuel, and their regulars relied too much on their armour, just like all the NATO ground forces. Their reserve was too weak to put up much resistance.
Malik was about to get into his four-wheel-drive vehicle when he observed a familiar figure picking its way through the tumbled walls of the villa. His guards noticed too. Several fell to their knees and lowered their eyes. It was believed by many of his men that to look directly at the Nameless One was to court death.
The boy seemed paler than usual. 'What happened here?' he demanded.
'Earthquake. It brought the roof down. I was in the city at the time. There weren't many injuries, though your friend the German boy used the distraction to make his escape. We're hunting him down now.'
The boy looked as though he'd smelled something unpleasant. 'Kill him slowly for me.'
'It's my plan. Why don't you find him for me, so we can get started on it? No one can hide from you, Nameless One.'
The boy looked rattled. Malik knew he hated being told what to do, but at the same time he craved to be dominated, at least by Malik. The boy's eyes turned inward briefly before he said, 'There is no trace of him, which can only mean he's dead.'
'Shit!' Malik responded. 'It'll be hard to find another toy as pretty as he was. Still, soon there will be Serbia, Croatia and all the cities of the north beneath my feet.'
'As I promised, but Strelzen is the city which remains the target. I have several acquaintances there I would be delighted to see adorning your stable.' The boy looked for an instant quite different, murderous and hideous. 'I'll see that city in flames and I will laugh,' he growled, 'for the sack of Strelzen will herald the end of the old world, and the beginning of your empire.'
Malik gave a deep laugh, and took the boy's arm. 'Come with me. You can tell me more of your pleasant little plans. I'd like to know in detail what you'll want me to do to your Rothenian friends when we have them.' He caught the excitement in the Nameless One's eyes as the thought absorbed him. Malik could read this boy.
They drove down into the city, the banner of the Nameless One fluttering above the vehicle. When it drew up in front of the Government House, troops idling in the yard saw who was in the car with Malik and many fell to the ground, prostrating themselves.
The pair's mutual excitement was evident to both when they reached Malik's temporary quarters. Malik wasted no time throwing the boy to the ground and stripping him roughly. The Nameless One used none of his powers to escape any of Malik's inventive torments in the subsequent hour. Malik felt comforted for the loss of his German toy, though he could have wished the writhing body under him would scream less and resist just a little more. He preferred a challenge.
The angels able to function were in conference with the rump of the M-Ms at the Atwood-Cornish house. Henry was upstairs with the twins, while Ed was still busy at the Ostberg Palace with Rudi.
Everyone looked at Luc, who had come to occupy a leading place in the gang. 'No trace of the other four, mes amis,' he pronounced. 'No one's seen them all day. Nathan and Justin are bending my ear. My feeling is that our friends found what they were looking for in Husbrau, and it's led them farther away in the search for a cure. How are you two anyway?'
Mike, his arm around Marky's shoulder grunted and shrugged. Yuri, sitting on Mattie's lap, shook her head and whispered something to her lover.
'She said she's alright, as far as she knows. She certainly seemed ... er ... fit enough this afternoon.'
Luc resumed. 'Rafe's unconscious, so Henry said. Ed's gonna organise transport for the pair of them to the military hospital. Rafe may need life support if he goes into organ failure.'
Yuri hid her face in Mattie's shoulder.
With a grim look, Mike said, 'I think we must consult Mendamero ... our father. He will know what to do.'
Luc surveyed the group, and caught the mood. 'Lance left us no instructions; we were just supposed to hold the fort. Alors! We'd best talk to Henry. He might have ideas.'
Henry appeared with Luc soon thereafter. 'The twins are no better,' he confirmed. Then, observing the general gloom, he added, 'but this isn't about them, is it?'
'Yes it is, Henry,' Luc began, 'if not directly. Lance, Reggie, Daimey and Helen have gone to Husbrau to see Helge von Tarlenheim. They think she knows where a cure might be found for the disease that Lance and his bro... siblings have.'
Henry cast a glance at a very feminine Yuri clasped in Mattie's arms. 'Yes I know. Lance told me where he was going before they left. Gavin was in touch too a couple of hours ago. Have you heard anything more?'
'No. It's all gone quiet. Which makes us think they've taken off for somewhere beyond the possibility of contact.'
Henry stood up and paced. 'Dammit. Any ideas, Mike or Yuri?'
Mike shook his head. 'I've no idea what it was they were in search of, my father.'
'That at least I do know. It's the talisman of the Levites which Gavin used to cure Fritz many years ago.'
Yuri perked up at that.
Noticing, Henry asked, 'Do you know anything about it, sweetheart?'
She replied with her customary shyness. 'Yes, father. I was a healer before I became human. The talisman was of interest to me. I know it left this world several years ago. It could not stay here, but neither could it come to the World Beyond. Unfortunately, I have no idea where it was sent, or who guards it now.'
'Then we must assume Lance has found an answer to that question.'
'Walk? No way! If we can conjure clobber, we can fink up a boat. Theo Lobowicz did.'
'Try it, Daimey.' The friends were contemplating the journey ahead of them, and Lance's pronouncement had not found favour.
Damien scowled, and not so much as a punt appeared.
'Now we're heading downstream, this land has turned against me because I'm an angel. It won't welcome you either while you're hanging out with me. It won't co-operate.'
Helen shrugged. 'So we fly then.'
'Why? Anti-angel guns ringing the island?' Reggie smiled.
'No, baby mine. They'll make us walk, and on the way, they'll test us.'
'How did Theo get there so easily?'
'He's human and they wanted him. They may let me in there too ... eventually, when they work out what manner of being I've become.'
'And who're "they"?'
'I have no idea, other than they were once human. But there are powers which are greater even than seraphs, and we're on the borders of the land of just such beings. They make the rules here. Let's hike.'
It was a long toil once the density of the woods forced them off the banks. They hopped from rock to rock in the stream, occasionally taking advantage of banks of gravel. They became hot.
'Lance mate, should the temperature be climbing like this?'
'No, Daimey. Ouch!' He slapped at a buzzing insect which had targeted his neck.
Helen shrieked. 'My head's crawling with midges! They're biting!' She scratched frantically at her scalp.
They began stumbling faster through pools and across sandbars. 'Oh fuck!' yelped Reggie as he went down, his foot caught between two rocks.
Tormenting midges or not, the others turned back. Damien inspected the ankle as Reggie squirmed with the pain. 'Iss twisted bad, mate. You ain't going nowhere on that.' He and Lance hoisted Reggie out of the stream course and on to a ribbon of sand.
'Put him over there,' Helen directed. 'There aren't so many insects under the trees.'
With some discomfort to his lover, Lance removed Reggie's trainer. 'Put your foot in the water. That should fix it, baby.'
Reggie did as he was told. 'It feels cool, Lance. What's supposed to happen?'
'It's the River of Life, baby. It should wash away all pain and injury.'
'Sorry, Lance. My ankle still hurts.'
'Blast! It's begun. They're trying to slow us down.'
'If that's the case, you'll have to leave me and go on. I'll be okay, just a bit bored.'
Lance demurred. 'I don't know about that, Reggie. This is not a safe land. There are things roaming here that it'd not be good for a mortal to encounter.'
'Then leave him with me,' declared Helen. 'You and Daimey must carry on.'
It was Damien's turn to disagree. 'If there's bad shit here, Lance, I'm not leaving me girl to face it alone.'
Helen looked affronted. 'Don't be an ape, Daimey. This is no time for primate behaviour. Lance needs you. Reggie and I will be fine.'
Damien took one look at the determined set of his girlfriend's jaw and subsided. He had learned to respect a will as strong as his own, and a judgement superior to his in some respects. 'Okay then, but Lance and me wants yer to keep yer heads down. Humour us.'
With kisses for their respective partners and a reluctant lingering backward look, the two continued on downstream. There was no working along the banks, which were too thickly overgrown, so they had to stumble through the stream as Theo had done before them. Soaked, Lance began undressing and threw away his clothing. Damien followed suit. Being naked made it easier for them to breast deeper stretches of water and splash through shallows. They avoided the rocks where they could. Scuffing and scraping as they clambered along led to bleeding knees and shins, which the stream stubbornly refused to heal.
Damien, being lighter and shorter, found the going less difficult, though that produced a new problem. As his friend pulled ahead of him and climbed up and over a rock, Lance was taken forcefully back to his childhood when he first fixated on another body sexually. The body had been Damien's, as it hauled out of the pool in his backyard, the curves of its brown buttocks and its perfect proportions causing Lance's first sexually-inspired erection. Months of obsession with his straight friend followed before Lance finally came to terms with his fate.
Now a more adult version of those buttocks was fully displayed to Lance's view, with the occasional flash of the dark opening between them. Lance was increasingly riveted by the beauty of his friend's body. His erection could not be suppressed, and it curved hard up against his belly. Damien looked but did not comment.
Eventually, they took a rest. Sitting side by side, thigh to thigh, Damien finally broke the silence. 'Yer needs to jerk, mate.'
Lance coloured. He and Damien had never wanked together, though they had often occupied the same bed when younger.
'S'okay, I've got a stiffie too.' Damien's straight thick cock was jutting up out of its dark bush. Almost reluctantly Lance took his dick in his hand and began stroking it, as did Damien. Lance wondered at Damien's sexual excitement, observing his toes curling into the sand and his jaw slack. He was startled, then deeply excited, when he found Damien reaching over to fondle his balls. Then Damien was on his knees swallowing Lance's cock. That was beyond awesome.
Damien climbed up him and they joined mouths, Lance noticing the undeniable lust in those sharp blue eyes. 'Fuck me, Lance. I want you so bad. I've always wanted you, you're so beautiful.' He broke off, laid himself over a flat stone, belly down, and displayed his rear, pulling the cheeks apart.
Something screamed in Lance's head, Whoa! Whoa! This is wrong! He drew back from the invitation, as if burned. It was Reggie he loved. This was just lust for another male body.
Damien was still staring back at him and coaxing, so horny he was rubbing his groin gently against the stone below him. 'Do me, Lance. I've always known you wanted me. For you, I'll be gay. Reggie won't mind. He's too generous.'
Generous, yes, that he is, Lance's internal voice answered, but he'd be hurt and confused. Hurting my Reggie is the last thing I want.
Damien went on as if he'd heard Lance's thought. 'Then don't tell him. It'll be our secret. We can fuck away as much as you like.'
'What about Helen?' he forced himself to say. 'What about your loyalty to her?'
'It's sex, Lance, don't make a big deal over it.'
'But it is a big deal!' Lance's was detumescing fast. 'If I've learned one thing about being human, it's that you can't lie without consequences, and the more you lie, the less of a man you are. Especially if you love the one you lie to.'
'Wassat, Lance?' Damien was scrambling over a rock in front of him. He looked puzzled, and not in the least sexually aroused. What had just happened?
Lance, heart beating hard, forced himself to reply evenly, 'Er ... nothing. Looks like we're nearly at the end of the trees.'
Indeed they had come to the joining of streams, where the trees gave way to grasslands and the river ran between low, rounded hills.
They plunged into deeper water and swam to the grass on the left bank of the stream. At the top of the first rise they looked back. Dim in the blue distance upstream were the mountains where the river rose, with the tangled forest stretching down from them like a great carpet. Somewhere back there were Helen and Reggie.
Damien seemed to be thinking the same thing as Lance. 'Hope our babes are okay. How dangerous is this place?'
'I only know stories. I've talked to seraphs who mention elemental spirits ranging across this landscape.'
'Not that I know of. It's too close to the Creator for them to be comfortable here. Elementals are something else. They're embodied principles; gods, you might say, were you a more primitive human being.'
'What are they like?'
'I'm not sure you can even see them,' Lance commented. As he said it, he wondered if he had not just blundered into an elemental while he and Damien splashed their way down the river. If so, it was Lust he had encountered. This place really was dangerous. The seraphs knew what they were talking about.
For a while they stood there. The heat had abated, now they were out of the trees, and a cool breeze reached them on the hilltop. Damien suddenly pointed back the way they had come. 'Lance, I doan' remember that hill.'
Lance gazed across the treetops. Far away was what looked to be the shaven crown of a blue and distant hillock. It was difficult to make out details, but one thing was clear, the hill was moving ponderously downriver on the left bank.
'Wha' the fook!' Damien exclaimed.
'Holy shit!' echoed Lance. 'It's monstrous! Insane! And it's got a face!'
'Iss heading straight towards our babes.'
'We've got to go back!'
'Lance, no! We can't!'
'But Reggie and Helen! Who knows what that thing might do to them!'
Damien gripped Lance's right deltoid so hard his friend cried out. 'Focus, mate. We have to push on. Fink of your bruvvers. How long have they got if we can't get hold of the talisman? My girl's as tough as they come, an' your Reggie's smarter than a faculty full of foxes. Fink, Lance! What would they want us to do?'
Damien took Lance's hand, gripping it hard. He pulled him down the other side of the hill, dragging him. Then they were both jogging across the springy turf. The trainers they had retained when they had discarded the rest of their clothing thumped the ground. Lance, eyes blinded with tears, kept his head down and followed Damien's tanned and muscular butt.
They must have run in silence for three miles across the grass before the landscape changed. A hill in front of them became steeper, and having breasted it they paused. Below them was a valley, its slopes falling down to a blue lake, and rising from the waters were a number of wooded islands.
Kurt Osterwelle seemed completely different, looking very handsome and cool in some of Damien's designer denim and boots, as if none of the horrors he'd endured had ever happened. He sat in the lounge of Justin's Fridricsgasse home, nibbling at a pizza his host had heated up for him. Justin had acquired a decent amount of conversational German, and chatting in Kurt's native language had settled the boy somewhat.
Justin was good with teens, having a way about him that inspired trust and affection. He was the M-Ms' favourite dad. He could always be counted on to say something shocking but hilarious, especially after a few beers.
The sound of cars outside caused Kurt to start, and revealed to Justin's acute eye that the kid was more on edge than he tried to let on.
The lounge door was opened by Ed Cornish in his fatigues, holding it for Rudolf Elphberg. Kurt stiffened at the sight of the uniforms, then noticeably relaxed when the queen and Maxxie followed after. Maxxie ran over to Kurt and squirmed happily up on his lap to be hugged.
The Prince of Elphberg introduced himself in German and shook Kurt's hand in the serious Rothenian way. He took a seat next to his wife. 'Can I first say, Kurt, that we're so sorry for your suffering and your loss. The German embassy is contacting your grandparents in Stuttgart, and the Rothenian government will repatriate you tomorrow. Before you go, however, you can help us very much.'
The boy gulped and put his head down, but though there were tears in his eyes when his head came back up, his face was determined. 'Thank you, sir,' he replied firmly. 'If I can help you against Malik, I will.'
'Maxxie, I think it would be best if you ran off and talked to Nathan out the back for a while,' Harry insisted.
The little boy looked up at Kurt, kissed his cheek, then trotted away obediently out into the property's extensive back garden.
Rudi continued. 'We know how you came into Malik's clutches in Thessaloniki, and that you spent a week in captivity. We need to know as much as we can about his associates. If you have any information relating to his plans and capabilities, that will be a huge bonus.'
'There's the Nameless One.'
Rudi was startled. 'He exists? I thought he was some sort of religious cult figure.'
'He's a boy, or at least he looks like a boy. I was kidnapped because I resembled him in build and colouring. He's Malik's lover and he's terribly dangerous. He has ... power, like Maxxie has, but he's very evil. Malik's guards go rigid with fear whenever he appears, and they're bad enough themselves. I know a bit of Greek, though I didn't let on, and some of them speak that, not Turkish. From their comments, I learned the Nameless One has been with him for nearly a year, advising and guiding him.'
'This is excellent. Did you hear any more?'
'Oh yes, sir. It was the day Malik's men took me from the street. He ... raped me that evening, and I was still in his bed when the Nameless One appeared, just like that, out of thin air. They started talking in Turkish, but went out on to the balcony and continued in English. I understand enough of that language to figure out a lot of what was being said, despite the pain and shock. Malik is planning a rapid strike through the Balkans as far as Hungary. He has to. He's finding it difficult to maintain order in his huge army, and only war keeps it together.'
Rudi looked grim. 'So this Macedonian business is a feint. Ed, get on to Command. The projections need to be reassessed. We may not have much time to respond.'
Ed nodded. 'It'll be Bulgaria then. I'll have them contact Sofia, for all the good it'll do. The Bulgarians have been only too happy to see their neighbours under pressure, and Malik has been careful to give the impression that his eyes are on Serbia. These Balkan nations can never unite. Too much history.'
Rudi returned to Kurt. 'Can you tell me anything else?'
'Only the names of people close to Malik and a little about them. I drew up a list.'
Rudi nodded. 'You're a good, brave lad, and I can't tell you how deeply we're in your debt. You may have done more for our cause than several armoured divisions. Your misery hasn't been in vain.'
'There's one thing else, sir. The Nameless One is a strange creature. He's very erratic. He seems to think he loves Malik, but he's horribly abused by him. Malik even got me to join in his sick games, to humiliate the boy more. The point is, the creature is really looking for love, I think. But he doesn't know what love is.'
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