Henry Atwood surveyed with some interest the last relic of the Warsaw Pact in Rothenia. Every other trace of the Red Army's occupation of his country in the nineteen-fifties and sixties had been effaced, but not this one. That was due in part to its remoteness, on the summit of the Kaleczyke Horja in the alpine region of Rothenia. The poignancy of the monument was an even stronger reason.
The great obelisk had been raised on the site of the former Kaleczyk state prison, levelled by the Red Army as the site where thousands of Soviet officers were liquidated by SS death squads. For all the Rothenian hatred of its subjection to Communism, the nation's innate generosity honoured the memory of the murdered men the monument commemorated. So Henry was able to inspect the reliefs of Soviet soldiers bayoneting fleeing Wehrmacht troops, and being garlanded by liberated populations, though he couldn't make much sense of the Cyrillic inscriptions underneath them.
The roar of a Humvee below told him his moment of reflection was about to end. Strolling to the end of the monument's podium, he picked his way across the tumbled walls that were the only vestige of the fortress built by King Henry the Lion of Ruritania against an earlier invasion threat from the east. Now the modern Henry had been tasked with refortifying this highly strategic rock.
That morning he'd already had the satisfaction of pointing out to a major of engineers the precise location of the caissons of the eighteenth-century gun emplacements built into the mountain, which had been blocked up by the Soviets. The engineer had been unable to conceal his surprise. Henry did not confess that he owed his knowledge to his part in breaking the human-trafficking ring which had once used the tunnels below the old fortress as its staging post westwards. It didn't hurt his reputation. Even in the Rothenian army there were regular officers who looked askance at a young brigadier with a reservist commission, whose only acquaintance with Alfensberh was through summer schools.
Two men were making their way up towards him. Henry observed that Rudolf Elphberg was not even breathing heavily as he reached the platform. Henry was impressed.
General Antonin stared eastwards to a notch in the Glottenberh massif. 'So that's the pass of Andreshalch?'
'The old invasion route into Rothenia; the one Kaleczyk was built to seal,' Rudi observed. 'Our projections are that Malik-rammu will make two assaults on our borders: the main one directly up the Starel, the other a flanking thrust through this pass. What do you think, Niklas?'
'From the beginning he has demonstrated one tactic: find a weak point, hit it hard with overwhelming force and keep hitting. He seems to have studied warfare at some point, for that was Napoleon's way. Malik's worked out that the armour and attack helicopters we used to employ to keep warfare mobile are too vulnerable nowadays to low-tech missiles and countermeasures. The old days of using jet fighter-bombers in any numbers are gone: they're beyond our resources to fuel and maintain. Malik takes out armour, so on his battlefields infantry is once more king, and he has as much of it as he needs and wants.'
Rudi nodded. 'He may have forgotten that new problems can have old solutions, and the first of them is the fortress. He will strike hard here ... but if we ride out his first assault from behind fortifications, what then? Has he the resources, patience or equipment for a siege?'
General Antonin meditated for a while. 'You'll be in charge, Henry.'
'It'll be an honour, sir, for me and my brigade. What else can you offer in the way of garrison?'
'There will be more artillery units, and I'll be putting the regiment of alpine jäger from Rechtenberg under your command. You understand that you musthold Kaleczyk. Bottle Malik's advance up here, and we'll be dealing with less of his horde in the Starel basin. When we do we'll have the main part of our army at our disposal.'
The general turned to his former king. 'How long have we got, sir?'
'Eight weeks at best. He has done a new thing in Bulgaria. There has been straightforward pillage of the cities. Their population has been driven into the countryside. There is already starvation and disease. Refugees are choking the roads and pouring into Romania and Hungary.'
'You think it's deliberate, sir?'
'Oh, yes. It's a message to Hungary and Croatia, the next on his menu. Serbia is already engulfed by its many enemies. Belgrade is under siege. Some in the Serbian army have listened to us and taken to the hills, but the population is suffering grievously. The government is trapped.
'Croatia I think will fight hard. Its army has put itself under my direction, and its generals are taking NATO orders. It's the first good news we've had in terms of strategy.'
'And Hungary, sir?'
'Is going to fight its own fight, the way Bulgaria did. A proud nation, but a victim of its history. Once Malik has fattened off the corpse of Bulgaria, he and his allies will move north, directly up the Danube. I doubt he cares much about the flanks of his advance. His black columns will march through Budapest to Vienna and though Slovakia to Strelzen, pillaging as they go. The fall of Vienna and Strelzen will be the end for the West, and he knows it. What he plans next, who knows? The logic of his strategy is that he must push onwards to the Atlantic and Baltic coasts, but since we won't survive to see it, that contingency is for the French to worry about ... and indeed the British, if even they can survive for long on their islands.'
Smoke still hung heavy over the city of Sofia. Black spires of it were rising into the summer sky in several locations. Even the reek of burning, however, could not disguise the more pervasive stench of death. Corpses lay unheeded and unburied in the empty streets. The population had fled or was being herded southwards, for the Confederation had found a new economic resource. It was trafficking people on a scale unknown since the ancient world.
Malik-rammu found the stink annoying enough to take up his quarters in the hills to the north. His elite guards - dedicated to the Nameless One - were quartered in the surrounding countryside, enjoying their women and boys. A little reward and recreation were necessary from time to time, even though these units worshipped a god of Death. There were rumours that human sacrifice was part of their developing cult, a possibility Malik chose not to enquire into. He had never had any interest in gods, especially after sleeping with one. He found the Nameless One pathetic and needy, for all his power. If that was a god, then Malik-rammu was self-evidently greater than one.
Today was his business day. He had just dealt with his Balkan begs - none of them the Anatolians and Kurds he had begun with. He used Albanians by preference, but two were Greeks, former generals of their army, who had known better than to complain about lack of resources and power.
The Beg of Achaea had troublesome news of insurgency, but that did not bother Malik. The beg had to raise his own militia to deal with it in whatever way he might. The Great King expected his satraps to be enterprising as well as utterly ruthless. Disease seemed to be a developing problem as healthcare broke down and food supplies became limited. To Malik's mind, that was something another day could solve. Conquest and empire came first. He would pick up the pieces and reassemble them another time.
He now had to deal with his generals. It was mildly interesting to him how these men - nobodies a year ago - jostled for status and its trappings. Hierarchy had grown up without much input on Malik's part, as long as it was understood he was the Supreme Leader. So the table in his council room was surrounded by black uniforms adorned with a variety of symbols, but declaring by the number of stars on the collar who had seniority. Those few with five were all Malik's oldest associates, men who knew his mind best. They did not question his orders, they carried them out. It tended to be the ones with three stars and a lot of ambition who dared to debate.
A Turkish general who lacked the experience to read the growing impatience in Malik's body language was currently holding forth. He was asking about supply lines, seeking no doubt to demonstrate his professionalism. How was the army to be fed and its ammunition replenished? How about maintenance of the mobile artillery? Where were the fuel dumps? They were moving away from the ports that had supplied them from across the Aegean. Railways were not functioning adequately. The troops were too dependent on captured munitions.
Malik caught the eye of his old comrade Rafiq and gave a slight nod. Rafiq cut the man off abruptly. 'Do you doubt the wisdom of the Great King? Do you have better plans and strategies? Fool, keep quiet.'
The man went white, finally realising he had gone too far, and his life was on the line. He needn't have worried. Malik rarely executed his military. He simply wanted them terrified that he might. That was why the drive up to the house had been adorned by a line of the crucified bodies of Western agents, or at least men and women who might possibly have been Western agents. It was the lesson they represented that was important.
Barry Hignett pulled his sweater on. Clothes felt seriously weird after who-knew-how-long without them, his trainers particularly so. He had just realised that a lifetime in shoes had narrowed his feet. His avian toes had been splayed out, which somehow improved his sense of balance. His dick felt good, though, nestled into his underpants in a very familiar way. He was so glad to be male.
He caught a glance from Marky, who pretty clearly was not happy to be back in his human skin. Barry had for a while been his boyfriend, and they remained affectionate, so he went over and sat next to him on a patio recliner. 'Okay?' he asked, taking his arm.
'Very confused, Barry my friend. What used to be so familiar seems now strange. I feel as if I am forced back into a prison.'
'Sorry, Marky. I know you got into being, like, sorta ... a girl.'
Marky shook his head. 'No ... that is not it, Barry my friend. I don't want to be a human girl, but I was happy as a female avian.'
'Sorry, don't get it Marky.'
'I can't explain it better.'
'Still, it's good to have your best friend in your underpants again, yeah?'
Marky shrugged. 'I don't need a penis to be me.'
Barry had to think about that. While he was doing so, Mike Atwood came up and took his lover solicitously around the shoulder. Marky rested his head against Mike's chest and seemed comforted. Giving an internal shrug, Barry went off to find his Lucky.
Bogdana Tsvetanova straightened her father's bedding and surveyed her tiny domestic empire. They had only the one room, but they were at least lucky to have that much after escaping from their native Bulgaria. Father even had some work as a carpenter at the moment. Although she couldn't follow the news in this foreign country and they had no TV, she had picked up that her country was in chaos and terrible things were happening there.
Since she could not go to a Rothenian or German school, she was bored. She was not supposed to leave the apartment. Staring out the window on to the back yard of the tenement was not much amusement. Poring over old Rothenian newspapers printed in a strange alphabet had not offered much of an entry into the new culture with which she was surrounded.
Eventually, Bogdana left the room and climbed cautiously down the stairwell to the door to therear of the house. It was midafternoon and the hum of traffic from the busy city of Strelfurt reached her: the sound of distant cars and the sudden, blaring horn of a barge chugging by on the river. Finding a quiet little lane which wound down to an abandoned wharf, she skipped lightly across the greasy cobbles, through the abandoned furniture and bent bicycle wheels to the waterside. She sat on the timber dock, watching the wide, green waters slide past her. Except for the barge's wake still surging up the brick walls of the derelict warehouses on either side of her, all was quiet. Therefore the plunk of a stone in the waters below her made her jump to her feet and spin around.
'Sorry,' apologised a boy her own age, who had appeared behind her. 'Couldn't resist it.'
Bogdana stared, registering two things. The first was that this was a very handsome, well-tended sort of boy. The other was that he had spoken not just in Bulgarian, but in the dialect of her own home province. 'You're ... from Svishtov?'
The boy grinned and shook his head. 'No. Just good with languages.' He came up and took a seat on the wharf, dangling his legs over the waves lapping below.
Bogdana silently sat beside him. 'What's your name?'
'Maxxie. Who're you?'
'Bogdana. Where do you live?'
The boy didn't answer directly. Instead he observed, 'You're not happy.'
She shook her head. 'My father's working all the time, we don't have much money, and I've got no friends.'
'Where's your mummy?'
'She left us when I was little. It's been me and father ever since. I worry about everyone back home, especially Karol.'
'My cousin. My best friend. His mummy wouldn't leave Svishtov.'
The boy looked grim. 'Terrible things are happening, and they have yet to get worse before they get better. But they willget better, Bogdana. You'll play with Karol again. And there'll come a time when you and your father will be given a chance of a better life, one you can't even imagine.'
'How can you know that?'
'I just do.' The boy looked across the water. 'This is the river Starel. Do you know where it goes if you follow it? Down to my city of Strelzen and on through fields and past mountains till it joins an even bigger river.'
Bogdana nodded wisely. 'That'll be the Dunav. It flows past Svishtov. I could see it from our old home'
The boy stood and Bogdana scrambled up beside him. He smiled at her and handed her a small golden flower. She looked at it wonderingly. 'Here's some hope you can give your people. Throw it in the water ... go on.'
She looked between him and the river, then turned to drop the flower in the waters. When she glanced back, the boy was gone, as if he had never been there.
Bogdana returned her gaze to the river and gasped in amazement. For now it was covered with drifts and floating shoals of golden flowers, all flowing steadily south, towards the Danube.
'Henry my Henry!'
The former lovers kissed and hugged happily. Then Gavin broke off and held Henry away from him. He grinned. 'There's grey hair at your temples, but don't you look handsome in uniform!'
'You still look like a teenager, baby, which is unfair.'
'No it's not, I earned the rebate on my aging process.'
'Who brought you out here?'
'Oh, Fritzy did. Max, Tommy and Rupe are out the back. Matt and Andy have put on quite a spread.'
'But you waited on the drive for me.'
'Course. Where's Ed?'
'On his way. He had to sort out the problems with our guests. You've heard that Lance's angel-brothers have been drafted into Clan Atwood? I've suddenly acquired three more teenage sons. The fourth of them decided she'd rather be a daughter, and very sweet she is. It's hard knowing where to put them all.
'I have to say, Luc's been great about it. He's decided that since he and Bazza are heading for the Rodolfer anyway, they'll move out a little early and into the flat we found for them in the University quarter. So Bazza's dad and Ed are driving them across with their possessions stacked in the back of the cars. Mrs Willerby, who quite took to Luc, was a bit upset. She sent him off with boxes full of her baking and swears she'll be around to clean their flat on a monthly basis. It'll be an easier job now Luc's decided to quit smoking. That took us all aback. He said he'd learned to appreciate clean air at last. Kids are odd.'
Henry and Gavin linked arms and walked through the house to the back patio. There were umbrellas, chilled drinks and a lot of friends occupying the garden seats. Eddie Peacher was the first to notice the new arrival. 'Hey, Henry! How's it hangin', dude? Hey, Gavin wuss!' He came over and gathered up his friends in a giant hug. 'Don't think you've met my Tanya, Gav baby, though you know her aunt well enough. Hon, this guy is one of my oldest friends.'
A very beautiful woman had come up to take Gavin's hands. 'We did meet a few years ago, Gavin, at the time when I was Eddie's housekeeper. I still do the same job, but I'm no longer paid for it. It's the spirit that made the Peachers great.'
Gavin, for all his dislike of attention, always responded well to confident women. He was happy to link arms with Tanya and be led off to discuss the finer points of demon hunting.
Henry smiled after Gavin, then checked his texts. Ed had dropped off the boys and was on his way out to Wenzelsberh. Henry sidled over and got a beer before parking himself next to Davey Skipper, who pecked him on the cheek. 'How long you been in Rothenia, Davey?'
'Only arrived two days ago. I'd have rung but you were with the army and I heard you and Ed were busy with even more kids. Who'd have believed little Henry Atwood from Trewern would ever have gotten this seriously into the parenting business? And now you have a girl too! What's she like?'
'Yuri? Alarming. Incredibly sweet and pretty, and she's already having sex with a boy. My head's spinning. Lance was never like this. Believe it or not, he was a very easy lad to deal with most of the time. The new four are living life at a frenetic pace, as if they want to pack an entire adolescence into a few weeks. Well, Mike's more or less missed it, having been incarnated old enough for a driving licence. The twins, on the other hand ... serious trouble. First they almost die on us, then they turn out to be the mischievous and moody sort of teen, as well as openly incestuous.'
'They're not really brothers, even though they look identical, so theoretically their necking on the sofa and sharing a bed shouldn't be a moral problem. But it looks deeply troubling. Ed's had to caution them firmly about where and how they do their thing. I don't want us all arrested for loose morals ... or at least for sexual misconduct and bad parenting I'm notguilty of.'
Davey rolled his eyes. 'I for one have not given into the temptation of raising kids. I know what Terry would say.'
'Well, Pete and Oskar are happy enough, and the fact that Oskar took to it surprised me no end.'
'Oh, I dunno,' Davey mused. 'There's something of the dad in him ... the Captain Von Trapp sorta dad, I guess, but he's a natural with his little Piotr. Here, put down that beer and have a gin. When I see you with it in your hand, I'll know you're really my Henry instead of a very short soldier I'm trying to chat up.'
Henry laughed, and took the offered drink. As he sipped it, he looked round the gathering. Almost all the original Ultras were there, along with some new recruits, principally Gavin's Stevenage crew and Nathan's cousin, Gus Underwood, together with his partner, Danny Hackness.
Henry mingled, catching up with Terry and Max. It was as he was discussing the situation in Bulgaria with Matt that Ed Cornish arrived, wearing his green fatigues. As soon as Matt caught sight of him he called out for everyone to head indoors.
The reception room at the front of the house was big enough to take the whole assembly. Henry and Ed found themselves in the centre of the circle, though Matt was in the chair.
'Ed, the Ultras have come together because it's pretty obvious to all of us that this is the other end of the Eschaton process. Can you confirm this?'
'Yes, guys. It's Armageddon. We have it from the archangel Michael Atwood himself, who's currently snogging on our sofa with his boyfriend, Marky von Lauern.'
'Funny old world,' observed Henry.
'You said it, little babe,' Ed agreed. 'It's now the beginning of August. NATO projects the next onslaught will fall on Hungary within a month or two, and Malik-rammu's armies will bulldoze on up the Danube towards Vienna and Strelzen. We'll be battling for survival well before Christmas.'
Matt nodded. 'We'd more or less worked that out. I think I speak for most of us when I say we're ready to suit up again. We just need to know where we can be most useful.'
Henry looked around the group. 'Last week I was appointed by the General Staff to take command of the fortress of Kaleczyk. It'll be where the Turkic onslaught will first hit Rothenia, and it must be held. I'd be happy to take you all on as volunteers, no problem. But it won't be like the siege of Belvoir when last we fought together. This'll be a bloody and grim affair. Ed won't be with us. He'll be by Rudi's side with the Army of the Starel.'
Justin called out, 'Do I get to keep my captain's commission?'
'Yes, Justy. Rudi never took it back, did he? And Terry's still a major, as far as I know.'
'Cool. I get nicer duds, with some fancy insignia.' Justin grinned across the room at his Nathan, who raised his eyes in disbelief.
'Tell us about our new enemy, this rogue seraph,' requestedTerry O'Brien.
Henry pondered a moment before replying. 'Most of you will know of Tobias, but apart from me, only Ed has met him face to face. I first encountered him way before the Eschaton while I was still in university, at the time when Gavin was taken by the Icon. In that first encounter, Toby assumed the guise of the dead boy Jed Scudamore. I think he did it because he knew I found Jed very attractive. Looking back, it seems to me that his choice might have been more significant than I could have understood then.
'Anyway, he appeared to me in the choir of Medeln abbey. He warned me of what was to come in the struggle with Bermann in the Tarlenheim mausoleum, and gave me the hint by which I was able to penetrate the Icon's hiding place. He also paved the way for our Gavin to become its Guardian.'
Henry called over to Gavin, sitting next to his Max. 'I never asked you, baby. Did you ever meet anyone like Toby in your time in exile?'
'No, Henry. The Icon itself was our contact with the Creator. We needed no middleman. I never met an angel till your Lance fell from heaven.'
Henry nodded. 'The next time Toby turned up was during the Eschaton. He airlifted me out of Eddie's Cranwell mansion and took me to Eden. He still looked like Jed at that point, dark and seductive. He explained that he had no real shape and indeed seemed uncomfortable in the physical world.
'From Eden we travelled to the mountains of the Canadian Rockies, and then back in time to Jerusalem in 1942, where we stood atop the Temple Mount. All the while he was feeding supernatural powers into my mortal frame, unsuspected by me until it was too late. When I returned to the real world, I found I had the powers of a seraph myself - the ability to transform the material world, and move outside it.
'It was in Jerusalem that he did a thing I only now realise was significant. He decided to cast aside the Jed shape and construct his own body. And he made me give him a name.'
'Why was that significant, Henry?' Nathan called out.
'It was a sign that Tobias was being seduced by the material world, and was developing ideas of himself as an individual, rather than as one of the seraphic choir in the World Beyond.'
'So he was corrupted?' Nathan pursued.
'Lance thinks he began to be puzzled and intrigued by physicality when the Creator first sent him into the material Universe ... and as we now know, he was particularly taken with the idea of emotional love.'
'Er .. howzat?' Justin queried.
'It's like this, Justy. Toby made a pass at me as we walked the streets of Jerusalem. He was hot for sex. He constructed the body of a sixteen-year-old - without realising the consequences. He couldn't control the powerful urges that went with hormone-fuelled physicality. Now our Lance could. He had the advantage of incarnation as a child, and grew into his sexuality as any other boy would. We think this is the reason for Toby's fall into insanity.'
Ed chuckled. 'And it's not because he's fixated on Henry's little bod.'
'Scuse me for being so attractive!' Henry exclaimed to laughter. 'But yes, he is over the edge. Rudi's had some seriously disturbing intelligence about his place in Malik-rammu's entourage. Toby's the Nameless One.'
'Their god of Death?' Fritz called out. 'The news reports talk of it as a suicide cult amongst his horde.'
'It's Toby. He's careless of concealing his powers from humanity, and Malik's soldiers have made the obvious deduction about him. That can only mean he's playing for the end-game, where secrecy no longer matters, because the extinction of humanity is his objective. Malik-rammu is probably unaware that Toby's using him, as much as he's using Toby ... they're lovers, you know.'
'Oh! Gross!' Max snorted. 'You'd think a seraph had better taste.'
Henry sighed. 'That's the problem, isn't it. Toby's never been rendered fully human, not the way Lance and his angel-brothers have been. He's obsessed about sex with men, but won't stoop to experiencing it as a mortal human. So the sex he's getting has nothing to do with love. It's not pretty ... kinky is one word for it!'
'Abusive is another,' growled Ed. 'Appallingly so.'
'How do you know this?' Eddie asked from the sofa.
'Our source was close - too close - to what was going on. But Maxxie stepped in.'
'Maxxie? Is he active now?' Gavin, surprised, spoke out for once.
Oskar dealt with the question. 'Active, yes - but fitfully. He has little control yet over what his visions tell him, but he tries to help.'
'So tell me, dude, why he can't turn Malik and all his horde to dust?' Eddie pursued.
Gavin answered boldly, 'It's not in his nature. He won't intentionally kill or hurt anyone. He was put in the world to try to cure its blackness, not add to it.'
'But while he does nothing, thousands ... maybe millions will die!' Matt objected.
'And how would his liquidating Malik and his horde be any better?' Ed countered firmly. 'This is our world which wecreated, not God. Its problems are ours.'
Eddie by now had the bit between his teeth. 'Yeah, yeah. But this seraph and his meddling set up Mad Malik. So where was God in that?'
'His other creations have free will too. The angelic orders can choose to go to the bad, as well as do good. And maybe their fall is worse, because they fall lower,' Gavin persisted, his voice strengthening as he expounded his case. 'The sad creature will be very difficult to save. But we must try.'
'SaveToby!' Henry was stunned. 'It'll be all we can do to save ourselves, baby!'
'Even the most debased creature can be reached in its pain ... maybe throughits pain. So I believe anyway.'
There was a long silence. It was broken by Nathan calling over from the doorway. 'You guys! Come look at what's on Eastnet!'
They crowded into the front lounge where a muted TV had been on. The screen showed an Eastnet reporter on Strelzen's Neuebrücke, whose pavement was crowded with people pointing down at the river, astonished. The river was a bright, golden carpet of flowers from embankment to embankment, with black barges stopped dead in the middle. The scrolling headline ran: ASTOUNDING SUMMER ALGAE BLOOM TURNS STAREL GOLD. DRIFTS HEADING DOWN TO DONAU.
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