'So thass it across the water, mate? The Land of the Dead?' Damien asked, as they stood on the pebbles of the lake shore.
'No. But the Dead hang out there. I guess we have to swim, as there's no boat anywhere.'
'Not a problem for you, Lance mate.'
'Nor you, Daimey. You're a strong swimmer. I guess it's about a mile to that big island with the buildings on. Only one handicap, though.'
'My head's splitting and I have the shivers bad.'
'Whatever Tobias infected me with is getting a grip. I can't even see straight, and I feel as weak as the tea my Reggie makes.'
'Shit indeed. But swim we must.' Lance began walking out into the cold waters of the lake and was soon surging along, driven by the powerful and economical strokes of the superb swimmer he was. Damien followed on, doing his best to keep up with his friend.
They were less than a third of the way from the shore when Damien began gaining on Lance. As he came level he was alarmed to see the grim effort his friend was making just to keep going. Two-thirds of the way across, Lance foundered. Damien was instantly there for him, taking him under the chin and towing him the rest of the way. He had to drag Lance's dead weight through the shallows.
They lay together on the shore, Damien's chest heaving and Lance semi-conscious. It was a while before Damien could rouse him and lever him to his feet. Once up, Lance leaned heavily on his friend, who hauled him slowly up through the trees to the ramps of the buildings above. Like Theo Lobowicz before them, they eventually came to the tower room at the top of the island. It was empty.
Damien gently lowered Lance into one of the seats, then stoodlooking round, stymied. Lance collapsed across the table, arms outspread. When Damien shook him, he found his friend was out of it. Only then did he became aware that they were no longer alone.
The stone thrones had filled. Most of the forms occupying them were indistinct and unfocussed, but three at least were clearer. The sharpest was a female figure, garbed in black and smiling at Damien. She was very familiar, and Damien grinned back.
'Ullo again, missis!' he greeted her.
She gave a very amused laugh. 'What a handsome young man you've become, Master Macavoy, not that I had any doubt you would.'
Oddly enough, Damien's nakedness in front of these solemn presences didn't bother him in the least, but then he never had been body shy.
Two other distinct figures were regarding him. The more striking of them was a fierce, blond young man, so like Damien's friend Fritzy von Tarlenheim in appearance that you could not doubt a family connection. He wore a green uniform, not unlike those Damien had observed at the Rothenian court, where he himself held a minor office.
The third figure was a dark, slim young man with a receding hairline. Damien felt certain it must be the shade of the Prince Leo everyone was talking about.
Lance was unconscious, so the advocacy of their cause was up to Damien. Addressing the assembled presences he began, 'Yer knows why I'm here, doanchu. Me mate Lance can't speak up cos of what that bleedin' Tobias dun to him, so iss up to me.'
The Lady Fenice held up her hand. 'Damien, we know what brings you here and how it came to be. We welcome you as our kin. You will find nothing but friendship among us. That does not apply to the Satan, however. His presence here is not welcome, any more than was that of the seraph calling himself Tobias. They bring their power games to this place where they are not appropriate, and seek to use us for their own ends.'
'Dunno about that, missis. All I know is that this is me best mate, an' he and his bruvvers need that talisman really bad.'
'To give you the talisman would be to take sides, Damien. How do we know the angels are any more to be trusted than their seraphic rivals on the Great Council? They both have their agenda for humanity. The Tobias creature is malevolent and daily grows more insane, but we know his plan at least. He offers a solution of sorts for the human dilemma, which is to end all life and seal the doors of Death behind mankind. That to him would solve the problem of pain and end for once and all the misery and grief which must go with life's gain and growth. Now his plan is wrong and we will not permit it, but can you show us first that the Satan's plans for humanity are any better?'
'Yer can't compare that fookin' cosmic terrorist wiv Lance, missis. He's the most decent man I know, apart from the fact that he's an archangel.'
'You love him.'
'I do. He's my mate. The best guy I've ever met. I'd give my life for him.'
The Lady smiled. 'Tobias sees only the agony of life, and not the joy. He does not understand that without the fear of loss there is no fullness of love. The Satan, on the other hand, has learned about love, for he has clearly earned the fullness of yours - and you, my child, are one of the most admirable of humans. He could not do that had he not become fully human himself. And in your journey here, he ignored the pain of his disease, resisted the chance to slake his lowest desires on your body, and abandoned his own lover to apparent danger, all for you, for his dying brothers and for the greater love of humanity. We watched all that, and for your sake, Damien Macavoy, and for what he himself has grown into, we welcome Lance Edward Atwood here as our kinsman, even though these isles are no place for the Satan. He may stay and welcome; we will do your friend no harm.'
The Tarlenheim male frowned. 'Lady, the archangel may be worthy to walk this island, but that does not mean we should grant his desire and hand over the talisman. We do not know what solution he might have for the injustice of life that the Tobias creature sees so clearly. Sending back the talisman would be finally to take sides against the seraph. But would we be wise to do so? It will cure the plague with which Tobias intends to destroy human society and which has already infected this boy who stands before us.'
'What? I've got it too now?'
'Yes, you and all your associates. The Satan's magic in changing your form passed on the infection to your body, as also to your own lover and to your friend Reginald. The sexual relations between the Satan's brothers Michael and Uriel and their human mates have passed it to your friends Marek and Matthew. Once it incubates in human receptacles, the disease will pass quickly into the population. That is Tobias's plan. The talisman is the only way to stop it now.'
Prince Leopold intervened. 'If we are to give you what you ask for, Damien Macavoy, we need some assurance that the angelic faction of the Council has a better plan for humanity than the erelim. Is that perhaps asking more from you than you can give?'
'I dunno what's in Lance's mind, but I do know he serves Maxxie. Lance has confidence in the One.'
Prince Leopold smiled. 'Had I only been aware that my support for the Elphberg succession would end in the Second Coming, I might have been too terrified to continue with it. The blindness of mortal life is a great advantage.'
Fenice shook her head. 'But sometimes very inconvenient. There are a number of paths leading away from this place where you stand, Damien, and we know something of the quality of man you are, as well as your prophesied fate. It was said that one day you would come forward as humanity's advocate, and here indeed you stand before us. It was also said that you were to be the greatest hero and leader of your generation, which has not yet come to pass. To me it seems the second prophecy leads on from the first. Great deeds will soon be expected of you, young man ... if we give you what you ask. But to do that is for us an act of utmost faith in a boy of seventeen years.'
Quietness filled the chamber, though to Damien's ears it seemed there was a susurration all around him from the whispers of unseen presences.
It was Prince Leopold who broke the silence, and Damien sensed he was addressing more than just the audience present in that tower room. 'There comes a time for bold decision, and this is it, I believe. Brothers and sisters, we have long watched with concern the fate of our living kinsfolk. Long now have we worked to establish Rothenia among the nations and peoples of the world as a place of harmony, decency and faith. With Icon, Crown and prophecy we have assisted the rise and preservation of the Elphberg family. Now our long endeavour has borne wonderful fruit in the boy-king Maxim, who was once one of us. He knows us and is aware of our purposes, and for our sake he suffered a double death as Mark Tolmie and Elijah. Now that he is once again mortal, we must trust in his faithfulness, and in his ability to deliver that Universal Peace on Earth which humanity has desired for as long as it has been able to understand its dilemma.
'I urge that the talisman be given to this worthy young man - after first being attuned to him so he alone can use it. Only thus may it be tamed.' He turned to Damien. 'But there will be a cost, and it is this: You and two of your friends have already been altered by angelic and seraphic power, as have two other humans before you. When it becomes part of you, this gift - if gift it is - will alter you further. You will be the Talisman. By accepting it you will accept a short life as a human. You will not be long able to sustain the frame in which you stand before us.'
Damien remained silent, head down. He seemed to be brooding, yet when he looked up his face was clear and - above all - noble. 'A short life and a merry one, mates? That's what I've always wanted. Go for it. Cos if everyone I love will live on happily because I gives up me pension, then it's a good deal.'
The table and all the island became hushed. The Tarlenheim soldier stood, removed a silver object from his cartridge pouch and came round the table. Looking up at the tall, handsome figure as he approached, Damien awaited his fate quietly. The soldier bent down and kissed the boy affectionately on the lips, then placed the cold metal on his forehead. Before he drew back he whispered in Damien's ear, or so it seemed to Damien, 'You will be a great king, my child, though not on the world of your birth. Go with my blessing.' At that, a blinding pain seared through Damien's head and he fainted.
Henry took Yuri with him in his car as he followed the military ambulance to the Queen Helge Memorial Hospital high on the bluffs of Strelsener Anhöhen. 'You okay, baby?'
'Yes, father.' She was sitting next to him on the front seat. Henry smiled to himself. Of all the challenges life continually threw at him, the sudden acquisition of a daughter came near the head of the list.
'Father, I'm in love, I think. He's Mattie Oscott.'
Henry chuckled. 'This is fast-forwarding the entire father-daughter relationship, baby. Thank you for telling me. Does he love you?'
'Yes, he does. It burns in his eyes. He is a very worthy man, though I don't believe he has much in the way of economic resources at his command. Marriage may yet be far in our future.'
'Baby mine, you're sorta fifteen, and he's seventeen. You have a long time to sort out your future together. I've known Mattie since he was small. There is no more steady and reliable a man. You could do no better.'
'And he is a good lover.'
'You're having sex already?'
'We're being careful. I understand you might not be happy to be a grandfather in your thirties.'
'You're right there, baby! Umm ... I don't want to come the heavy father, but I'd give the sex thing time to work itself out a bit before indulging anymore in it. I can't let you have sex with Mattie in our house. It's not just because an argument could be made that you're physically underage. His parents are good friends of ours, and their opinions count.'
'I understand, my father. But it may be the case that my time of existence is short, and I did so wish to experience full human intimacy. Mattie understands. We've only masturbated each other the last two occasions. I climaxed four times and fell off the bed. It was very powerful!'
'Er ... too much information, Yuri sweets. It's not necessary to go into details to a third party of what you do with Mattie.'
'Except with one's coevals. I believe sexual matters are a major topic of conversation amongst female teenagers.'
'There you might have a point, but too much frankness may give other teens the wrong impression.'
'How so, father?'
'They might think you're a tart, and no Atwood girl will ever be called that.'
'I shall bear that seriously in mind, my father.'
'Now, how are you feeling?'
'I have the disease my brothers have. I can feel lassitude and rising body temperature. It will not be long till I am in the same condition as Rafe, since I am smaller and weaker than he is.'
Henry took his daughter's hand. 'Oh, Yuri! I'm sorry. Lance and the others will be back soon, I'm sure. They'll have found a cure, I'm confident.'
'I love and trust my brother Lance. He will not let us down.'
The car turned into the hospital casualty bay. Henry watched as Rafe and Gabe were stretchered in, drips connected and oxygen masks placed over their identical, flushed faces.
'Incoming!' shouted Reggie to Helen.
She looked up. A great winged figure was gliding down towards them from the direction of the lake. Her heart surged with relief. 'It's Daimey. Look at the wing colours! He's transformed again. I think he's managed it. And he's carrying Lance.'
Damien landed effortlessly and elegantly, gently placing the unconscious body of his friend on the river bank. 'You alright, babes? No problem wiv any wandering man-eating hillocks?'
'What are you on about, Daimey?' Reggie asked, going down on his knees next to his lover.
'Nuffink,' Damien replied with a grin. 'How you two feeling?'
'Okay,' Helen said.
'The bad news, babes, is that we've all got angel-flu. Lance is in the advanced stages.'
'What?' Reggie cried.
'The good news is that our mission wuz a success, and the Dead have handed over the talisman.'
'Brilliant, Daimey! Well ... where is it?'
'Er ... thass where the problem begins. They dint so much hand it over as sorta turn me into it. I'm the Talisman now.'
'Okay ... er ... that wasn't in the plot,' Helen observed. 'What do we do now?'
'I has a feeling it might be embarrassing, but here goes ...' Damien leaned down and closed lips with Lance, kissing him deeply.
The moment he broke contact, Lance opened his eyes and struggled to his feet. 'Daimey! What did you do? Where am ...' He looked round wildly.
'Just cured you, mate. Did a Maxxie. Say thanks! Now come here, darling!' he demanded. He closed lips with Helen in a kiss that became a major snog. And kissing, her swan wings burst out of her back as she transformed.
'Oh! That wasn't painful this time.'
'Nope. As long as you do it wiv me, it'll never hurt again. C'mere Reggie!'
Hesitantly, Reggie limped over, to be caught up in Damien's powerful brown arms and kissed thoroughly. He too transformed in the tight embrace of his friend. 'Hey! My ankle's fine!'
'Looks like I'm a cosmic flu jab, me. Wings, Lance! We gotta fly. I'll fill you in as we go. Up, up and away, me mates!'
The command centre of the Alliance at the Ostberg Palace was tense. Rudi and Ed were monitoring what little intelligence could be gleaned from overflying aircraft and radio traffic.
Rudi sighed. 'Bulgaria and Macedonia have gone. The last word from Sofia was of a city in flames. Skopje's fate has been equally brutal, I fear. Two more provinces have been added to Malik's empire, and Bosnia has sued for his protection. Finally, the Serbs and Croats are talking to us, but it's too late. We haven't the resources to offer them much help. I advised them to resort to insurgency tactics and play for time, but the Serbian General Staff won't give up Belgrade without a fight. You can admire them.'
'How about our alleged allies?'
'The British make noises, but their military capacity collapsed years ago. Their army has suffered the death of a thousand cuts. They have no air force capable of more than home defence. They have no navy capable of more than fishery protection. The French are mobilising, but it's only their own frontiers that concern them.
Italy is scared by what's happening across the Adriatic. Malik's not messing around. There was a missile attack today on two Italian destroyers off Corfu; one was sunk, the other's limping home. The missiles were Greek, and the NATO signature fooled the Italian radar. But at least they're moving a division into Venezia. They've realised that they're on Malik's menu. The problem for them is the disorder in the south, where immigration has destabilised the cities, and insurrection has begun. They'll be an easy target when Malik gets to Trieste.'
'What happened to the Bulgarian army, Rudi? It wasn't a small outfit like the Macedonians, yet it just melted away.'
'My staff are still analysing the last communications, but it seems they relied almost entirely on their mechanised units, which they had no capacity to keep fuelled. Malik's commanders know how to deal with armour. It was a rapid rout, with their unsupported, immobile infantry overwhelmed by superior numbers.'
'Food for thought then, Rudi. I'll pass the details on to our general staff. We're in conference this afternoon. General mobilisation is set for next week, with the reserve called up in stages. It's like the nineteenth century again. The fortification of the key border sites will begin once the reserve brigades are under arms. General Antonin is at Kaleczyk today, repossessing it for the army. It's a historic moment in so many ways.'
The four friends quietly resumed the clothing they'd abandoned in the Tarlenheim mausoleum. Lance gave a small grin as he pulled up his jeans. 'You'd better 'fess up to Helge about smashing that dome, Daimey.'
His friend chuckled. 'Did her a favour. It needed washing bad. You still got the key? We'd better drop it off at Templerstadt on the way back home.'
It was apparent to all four teens that Damien's ascendancy over the group had been reasserted since their trip out of the world. Lance seemed happy enough to resume the back seat in their relationship. He was not a natural leader any more than Reggie was. But direction had always come naturally to Damien.
As Lance drove them back to Strelzen, Damien rode shotgun, speaking intently into his handij as they went. 'Okay, Lance mate. Head for the military hospital. The twins is on life support, and Yuri's sickening fast. They needs me first. But Marky's pretty sick too, Luc says, so he's the next call.'
Henry was pacing the ward when the four arrived. He hurled himself into Lance's arms and was enveloped by a hug. 'Glad you're back, baby!'
'There's a lot to tell you, dad,' his son replied. 'But first Daimey's got to do his magic.'
Henry stared. 'You've got the talisman, Daimey?'
'I am the Talisman, Uncle Henry.' Grinning, he pushed aside a protesting nurse and went through into the intensive care unit, where the twins were lying in adjacent beds. He pulled off the oxygen mask and kissed Rafe first. 'Wake up, Rafael Atwood,' he ordered.
The boy's eyes shot open. He smiled and called out sleepily, 'It's you, lord king!'
Damien was puzzled. 'Nuh, s'me ... Damien!' But Rafe, healed now in body and mind, simply laughed. Soon he had his brother Gabe in his arms. The two boys, dressed just in hospital smocks, were whispering together and joking in the disturbing way some twins have.
Damien in the meantime was kissing Yuri, rather more enthusiastically than Helen liked.
Lance and Reggie stayed at the hospital while Henry took Damien and Helen on what he called 'the doctor's rounds', getting an update as they went on what had happened in Eden. 'Gavin'll be interested in what you have to say, babes.'
'He and Max are already on their way to Rothenia, though getting here ain't easy at the moment. Airline flights cost way more than they can afford nowadays, and the Eurotunnel service is pretty erratic.'
'Why doan' they sprout wings and fly, then?'
'Cos, babes, they're bringing luggage. They're planning on seeing out the crisis here.'
'Thass good news, Uncle Henry. I wants to talk to Gavin after whass happened to us. There's stuff he knows that'll help us a lot.'
They found a disconsolate Mike at the chancellery. He had been excluded from Marky's bedroom, as the Von Lauerns did not know yet of his relationship with their son. Indeed, Mike was being made to feel like an inconvenience. 'You'd better come back with us, son,' Henry decided. 'But first, Damien needs to fix you.'
Somehow, kissing Mike Atwood was the hardest of his tasks for Damien to accomplish. Observing the reluctant embrace between the two men, Henry concluded that Alpha males must tend to push apart emotionally the way like magnetic poles do. Damien did it, nonetheless, before going upstairs with Helen to heal Marky.
When the boy came round, Damien relayed his instructions. 'M-M board meeting first thing tomorrow, Marky, at Château Atwood, okay? We've a lot to talk about and plans to make. Now I gotta get home. Me and me girl needs to have a rest. All this adventuring is doing me in. You take Mike, Uncle Henry, me and the girl will walk it. Iss only up the hill.'
'No, Daimey,' Helen intervened. 'I need to talk to Marky for a while.'
'What about curing Mattie?' Marky asked.
'Fatso'll meet us at our place. Me and him have got some catching up to do, it seems, now he's got hisself a chick.'
'Mattie and little Yuri!' Helen exclaimed. 'They seem such an odd couple, especially as I was convinced Yuri was a boy ... and I had good reason for my belief too.'
'It's the truth.' Marky was sitting up on his bed. 'And there's something else ...'
'I've found him ... the guy I've always wanted.'
Helen was breathless. 'Who?'
'Oh! The big one. But he seems so unemotional.'
Marky shook his head. 'No, no. He's not! He's so full of love, it just shines out of his eyes, and the tenderness when he holds me in those big arms ...'
Helen took her friend's hand. 'So is he the one, the strong, silent, loving guy you always wanted, the one you could surrender yourself to utterly?'
'God yes. And he just took control of me. It was the sex I've always dreamed of. You should see his dick! I thought he was going to split me open. Is it like that with Daimey?'
She laughed. 'Daimey certainly likes to be in charge when we make love, but you wouldn't believe the sensitivity and tenderness he tries so hard to pretend he hasn't got. Of course, you'd never say he was unemotional or taciturn. He loves me to talk dirty too.'
'Oh yes, I'd blush if I ever repeated the things he gets me to say. But it gets him excited.'
'And you'd do anything for him?'
'He's my man, the only one I could ever imagine sharing a bed with. He's beyond special.'
'I feel like that.'
'How was the sex ... I mean, I know it was good. But how did it feel?'
'Do you and Daimey do ... er, anal.'
'Oh yes, a lot. Right from the beginning. But I wonder if it's the same for you. I mean, it feels great, but it can't compare with the climaxes I get from Daimey inside my vagina. It's amazing the way he works me up to orgasm, again and again. I'd swear he gets as much from seeing me bucking on the bed with his fingers inside me as he does from coming.'
'Once Mikey really got pumping in my ass, I came hands-free. I suppose that qualifies as a major orgasm. The pressure from his dick inside me was awesome. I just shuddered and shot a load up to my face. But the main thing was the excitement from having that big body using me. I quite lost myself in being his mate.'
Helen gave a narrow look at Marky. 'It's comparable for me. Your feelings are way closer to mine than to Daimey's. I lose awareness of anything but him when he takes me. I'm not saying that you're girly, Marky, but we've always been so sympathetic to each other and shared so much.'
Marky entwined his fingers in Helen's. 'I love having you to talk to. We never hold anything back. You're better than a sister. You've been so good to me.'
'I love you, Marky.' They kissed chastely on the lips.
'Now, tell me about what happened at Terlenehem.'
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