Reggie pondered as he stared blankly into his latte. At last he looked up at Helen, opposite him across the table, and enquired, 'When did you start noticing it?'
'Almost as soon as we got back from Eden. He was hot next to me in bed, as if he had a fever. But he never showed any other symptoms of being ill. The wasting away only became noticeable a few weeks ago. You must have seen it.'
'I thought he was thinner in the face and paler. He's nearly eighteen, it coulda just been that he was growing out of adolescence. But you don't think so.'
'No I don't. His bones are sticking out of him.'
'You have to have mentioned it.'
'Oh, I have. But don't underestimate Daimey's capacity to laugh things off and change the subject. He's clever like that. He blocks and distracts me. He's not apparently weakening physically. He's just burning up.'
'And you think he'll eventually wither away.'
Helen's eyes filled with tears. 'He's dying, Reggie. Not in the usual way, yet he's dying all the same. I can see it in his eyes sometimes. It's as if he's looking at me from a distance.'
'What happened in Eden to cause this? He came back as the Talisman, able to heal the world. Are you saying it came at a cost?'
'It's the only explanation. His human body can't deal with all it has to channel. It's being consumed by the power. Not only that, but I'm pretty certain he knew it before he took the Talisman.'
Tears were now in Reggie's eyes. 'So very much in character,' he murmured. 'What can you do with a man like that?'
'Only love him.' Helen half-sobbed, then laughed. 'But he isn't going to get away from us that easily, not my Daimey.'
'I wish Lance were here. He'd know what to do.'
'I'm sorry, Reggie. I forgot you have your own worries. Have you heard anything?'
'I had a text early this morning. He and Mike are with the Sixteenth. He told me he loved me … and would love me forever. I … think he was scared … just a little.' Tears were coursing down his cheeks now.
Helen reached out and took him in her arms. After a while she hugged him and said firmly, 'Let's focus, Reggie. Time to go find Daimey and have it out with him. We need answers.'
Henry blew the dust from the latest garrison report. Dust and stone fragments fell continually from the bunker's ceiling as the shells impacted on the surface above. Even though the Horde's foot soldiers had not yet reached the base of the Kaleczyke Horja, there had been casualties. An unlucky shot had penetrated an eastward-facing caisson, killing the gun crew and injuring dozens more. The hospital on the fourth level was busy. Henry would go down shortly to visit the wounded.
Somewhere out there far worse carnage was being visited on the invaders, who now filled the pass of Andreshalch. They must be digging into whatever shelter the rugged terrain offered, which was not much. Henry's artillerymen had digital maps showing every piece of ground in a twelve-kilometre radius around the fortress, and they could place their shells with merciless accuracy.
The Horde's legions, pulverised all day by the guns of Kaleczyk, would find no relief when the sun went down. Henry was assured by his officers that if the Horde moved its own artillery any closer to the pass it would be annihilated. As it was, the projection was that the enemy had already suffered a thirty per cent attrition rate on its guns. The fire was measurably slackening from what it had been at its outset. Apart from the destruction wreaked by the fortress's counter-fire, Henry's artillery officers believed it was because surviving pieces which were readily mobile were being moved further to the rear.
Communication with Rudi's HQ at Luchau was thus far unimpaired. The Horde had no electronic countermeasures to deploy. Henry's communications officers reported enemy radio traffic was minimal. The Horde's generals seemed to have worked out that the fortress had the linguistic capacity to translate their signals, so key orders were probably being passed on now by means more old-fashioned than radio.
Lance and Mike's deception had enticed the Horde into a reckless assault on the pass, which must be producing casualties on a scale to intimidate even Malik-rammu. But the Horde was committed to the battle now, and its master would be urging his generals to even greater sacrifice. The pass had to fall or his pincer attack on Rothenia would fail.
With night coming on, Henry was determined that, small though his force might be, he would ensure the Horde did not sleep quietly. He had to. Kaleczyk must appear too dangerous for the enemy to simply take its punishment and bypass the fortress.
Rudi looked after the tall figure of his uncle who, hands raised, was entering the conservatory where Atib held the duchess at gunpoint.
Justin was at Rudi's shoulder. 'What you think he can do?'
'His duty, for once,' his friend answered quietly.
'What does that mean, Rudi?'
Voices could be heard beyond the door. The duchess of Glottenberh was loudly expostulating, though whether with her captor or her husband could not be said with any certainty.
'Rudi, I can try a snatch raid while that guy is distracted by your uncle. We might get Ellie out.'
Rudi's tension was growing. 'Wait!' he commanded.
There was a sudden altercation and the bang of a gunshot. Swearing, Justin headed for the open door with two of his commandos.
'Stand still!' roared Rudi.
Justin turned, and as he did, there was a shattering explosion from inside the conservatory. 'What the fuck!' he cried in his native English.
Rudi had drawn his pistol. He motioned to the commandos and went to the door. At his signal, the soldiers entered first. Justin followed on immediately afterwards, gun in hand. Amongst blood and broken glass he found Ellie Peacher, shot through her temple. The duke and Atib lay like ripped and broken dolls not far away.
Justin stared at the prince. When words came, he stuck to English. 'Yer knew this would happen, Rudi.'
The prince was contemplating the scene dispassionately. 'At least he went to his death like an Elphberg. Yes, I gave him a grenade. No one was to come alive out of this room. Better by far for Rothenia and our families that they should die here. There will be no trial and no disgrace. This is a terrorist incident whose outcome was tragic. It will seem that the duke died vainly trying to save his wife.'
'Who shot her?'
'Good question. Shall we hope it was Atib? Too much damage to the scene to be sure. I'll leave the coroners to make try to make sense of it. It's time to get to HQ. We've wasted too much time here. I'll ring Harry and Lennie en route. They at least must know the truth of what happened here, so the calls won't be easy ones to make.'
Reggie squeezed into the back of Damien's sports. Helen slid into the passenger seat as Damien took the wheel. 'Home we goes then, guys. Good day?'
'So so,' Reggie muttered. 'I had a long talk with Gabe about the Tobias incident. Rafe was sulking at me, but his brother isn't quite ready to break off diplomatic relations with Helen's friendship network.'
Damien chuckled. 'Yeah. Heard what me girl had to say to the little gits. Nicely phrased I thought. So what's Gabe's take?'
'He doesn't know much more than we do, although he did admit that the Tobias he met was not the old Tobias. Too human, he said.'
'And definitely out of things from now on?'
'So it seems. All we have to do now is worry about the Horde and er … you.'
There was a pause. 'Whass that supposed to mean?'
Helen took over. 'You're burning up, Daimey. We've both noticed. What aren't you telling us?'
'Nuffink much to tell.'
'It's the Talisman, isn't it. It's killing you.'
Damien frowned. 'Prob'ly. Iss happening a bit quicker than I fought it would.'
Helen swore in a most unladylike way, adding, 'Why didn't you say anything?'
'What's to say? Dinn' have any choice, did I?'
'But Lance might have been able to do something! What about Yuri? She knows an incredible amount about physiology, and she's learning more every day. She's already worked out the avian lifecycle.'
'She has? Get away! Good on the little chick.'
'So talk to her.'
'Look babe. There's not much point. I had it from Lady Fenice herself. I ain't gonna survive long carrying the Talisman. Can't say it helps me much knowing exactly how little time I has, so why bovver asking?'
'And there's little Maxxie. I'm pretty sure there's not much he couldn't do if he set his mind to it.'
'Yeah, well, that was one obvious place to go.'
'So you did try.'
'The kid shrugged. He was nice enough and all, but he pleaded ignorance. He wuz lying of course. Kids do, even child messiahs. He knows sumfink alright, but he wuznt gonna tell me. He seemed a bit embarrassed, oddly enough. Prob'ly 'cos he was forced to lie.'
Helen took on her firm look. 'Then there's only one thing left to do, Daimey. And you know what it is.'
'Sure. But I can't. Can't do a fing till all this war business is over.'
Reggie looked puzzled. 'What're you two on about?'
Helen looked over her shoulder. 'The Talisman is killing his human body, but it won't have any effect on his avian one. I'm telling this stubborn ape to transform and stay transformed.'
Damien shook his head. 'Sure. If I did, I might last longer. But staying avian, I'd find it harder and harder to get back to being human. I'd end up living under cover, hiding myself away. So whass the point?'
'The point is you'd be alive!'
'Yeah, and useless. Sorry babes. My horns'd be the dilemma.'
'Always the joker.'
'Gotta love it, doan'tcha.'
Rudolf, prince of Elphberg, took his seat at the head of the table in the fortress of Luchau's conference room. The tab on his battledress now displayed the crossed batons of a Marshal of Rothenia, a rank he had re-assumed the day he returned to effective command of his nation's armed forces. He had held it otherwise only as king, in an honorary capacity. It was a rank not enjoyed by any Rothenian soldier since the death of Count Bernenstejne at the beginning of the twentieth century. The significance of its re-appearance was not lost on the high command gathered around the table.
The marshal-prince addressed the table. 'Gentlemen, things will move fast from now on. Therefore, this is the last chance to finalise our strategies. Kaleczyk has been under assault since 08:35 hours this morning. It is now 16:00, and the defences we put in place are holding firm. General Atwood has successfully duped the Horde as to Kaleczyk's strength, and its guns have inflicted – and continue to inflict – huge casualties on its assailants. Not, of course, that there aren't plenty more where they came from. The main point, however, is that the Horde's commanders assaulting Andreshalch are daunted. The momentum of their onslaught has collapsed as their troops dig in to whatever shelter they can find.
'Now we must turn to the Starel frontier. We have a few drones in the air over the Danube basin and reports from the Bundeswehr around Sopron. This morning, the Horde engaged with German and Austrian troops in northern Hungary, but instead of pressing home the attack, they did something new: they dug trenches and fortified positions.'
The prince signalled an adjutant and a slide appeared on the screen above him, illustrating the current positions of NATO and Horde troops on the Danube.
General Antonin spoke up. 'It looks to me like Malik-rammu intends to launch the expected direct assault along the Danube and into the Starel basin. These are tactics designed to stave off a counterattack on his flank from the Germans.'
'It's more or less as we projected,' Rudi continued, 'though his opening moves show a worrying tendency to learn and adjust to new circumstances. He no doubt hoped and expected his attempted assault through the Glottenberh massif would draw our strength northwards or force us to fall back to the line of the Arndt. He also had plans to infiltrate marauders behind our lines to disrupt and distract our communications. Neither strategy has worked. Several hundred Turkic commandos have been taken into custody over the past few days as they attempted to penetrate our frontiers in the guise of refugees.
'So, despite Malik's best efforts, we have the bulk of our army concentrated in the Starel Gap, and it's there we'll fight. We will not sacrifice our eastern provinces. Though we're outnumbered, the odds are not suicidal. And we have our own new tactics to deploy. Now, gentlemen, the Horde can't be prevented from entering the Starel gap this evening. What is our current status?'
Near the bottom of the table, Ed Cornish was keeping one eye on his smartphone as his colleagues addressed the evacuation of the civilian population from the lower Starel basin. The news was breaking on Eastnet about the death of the duke and duchess of Glottenberh. It had temporarily displaced the live updates on the Horde's movements and the assault on Kaleczyk.
Soon enough, however, Eastnet cameras at Wendel-zu-Glottenberh were showing National Guard units barricading the approaches to the city. They were dwelling on the spires of smoke rising from the direction of the pass of Andreshalch. Ed stared at the pictures. Henry, Lance and Mike were in the heart of that battle, and he wished his duty had taken him there too. But regrets were vain in a soldier. He forced his attention back to the discussions around the table. If Rothenia and the West had a future, it would be settled in this room in the next hour.
Lance and Mike Atwood sat with their section, gripping their assault rifles. Mike's face was as impassive as ever under his helmet. Lance wondered indeed whether his warrior brother was capable of fear. He on the other hand was. For all his powers and abilities he was mortal, and his death would be as real as it would be for one of his new comrades. It might well be that he at least could face his extinction with sure knowledge of what came after, yet strangely that did not help him much. The bitterness of death remained in what you lost; what you gained was neither here nor there.
Lance's mind focussed on small details. He smelled leather, gun oil and male sweat mixed with the tang of high explosives from the artillery emplacements ceaselessly firing on the levels above them. It was the unique scent of battle and unlike anything he had ever experienced as human or angel.
The corporal went along the line tapping helmets. Lance checked his rifle and gave the required thumbs-up. He caught a slight smile in Mike's eyes, which somehow reassured him. Whatever else happened this evening, he knew his back would be covered.
A call rang down the corridor where they were sitting. By sections and platoons, E company of the Sixteenth Battalion rose to do battle with the enemies of its king.
Henry scanned the black tide that now filled the valley beneath him like a disturbed ants' nest. The legions of Malik-rammu had taken frightful losses but still reached the slopes of the Kaleczyke Horja in daunting numbers. His heavy artillery was already slackening its fire, concentrating on suppressing the bombardment from the Horde's distant emplacements rather than on turning the emptying pass of Andreshalch into a hell of flame, shrapnel and stone splinters.
His field glasses caught the toiling figures raising ramparts of earth and stones behind which to mass for an attempt on the mountain. Henry anticipated little delay in their assault. They must carry the fortress or their losses would have been in vain. Indeed, though the sun was westering, he expected them to mount the first push before it set. He and Major Ruprevic ducked by reflex as a Horde shell exploded on the Red Army monument behind them, though there was only a minimal chance of damage to their fortified observation post. The Rothenian tricolour still floated from its pole beside the great obelisk, which was now pitted with shrapnel scars.
'They'll start exploratory attacks pretty soon, I'd guess, looking to penetrate our emplacements and seeking entry points into the fortress. I think I saw flamethrowers down there, as well as the usual RPGs and mortars.' Henry frowned. 'This is where the going gets tough, and you know what they say.'
The major knew his boss. 'The tough get coffee?'
'Won't say no, Marcus. How about you, Fritzy?'
'I don't suppose there's more than filter on offer?' mused Colonel the Prince of Tarlenheim, his helmet emphasising the line of his facial scar.
'Doubt it. Lieutenant, bring us up a flask if you please.'
The four officers were half way through their first cup when Major Ruprevic drew attention to the movements of the Horde soldiers, massing for an assault. Mortar fire arced up all around the mountain, seeking to strike where smoke indicated Rothenian artillery emplacements.
'Time to test their equanimity,' Henry commented. At a signal, the concealed heavy machine guns on the lower slopes opened up, demonstrating the inadequacy of the Horde's defensive preparations. As the black-clad legions attempted to locate the Rothenian positions and retaliate, Rothenian RPGs began falling among them, doing what must have been terrible slaughter.
Although Henry knew his sons were down there amongst the defenders, he was taken aback when a sudden gulf opened in his stomach. He suppressed the wave of anxiety that rose inside him, concentrating furiously on the new wave of butchery he had just unleashed. He lost interest in his coffee.
The firefight lasted till the sun went down. The Horde's soldiers were forced back by the ruthless impact of bullets and explosions that ripped into their massed battalions. Leaving mounds of corpses behind them, they took up more distant positions in the woods and defiles of the pass for the night. Not one succeeded in passing the mass of the Kaleczyke Horja.
As Lance and his comrades returned to the Sixteenth's quarters, they were passed by a squad of men in digital black and grey camos, night-vision lenses up on their helmets. The distinctive flashes on their shoulders marked the Ultras going to war. Two of them saw him as he passed and pulled him out from the ranks, giving him most unmilitary hugs.
'Cheers Uncle Terry! Uncle Davey! Take care!' he called after them, then turned to follow the broad shoulders of his brother back to quarters. Their positions had been taken by the Twentieth battalion, equipped for night fighting.
The Ultras went deeper into the fortress, however. Terry knew the way well, for their path led him to the ancient tunnels that ran far below the Kaleczyke Horja and up into the Pass of Andreshalch. These were the byways through which years ago he had pursued Clive Dressner to his death. Now he led his squad into the long passage that once had been used by Albanian gangsters to traffic human cargo across the Slovak frontier.
The Ultras filed in silence through the tunnels. Eventually they passed beyond the illuminated area and helmet torches lit up the way. The going was easy. The walls and roof may have been native rock, but the floor had been rendered level and cemented flat. After twenty minutes they reached a subterranean checkpoint where a section of alpine jäger was awaiting them.
Terry synchronised watches with the jäger lieutenant, while his Ultras settled along the corridor wall. Conversation amongst them was subdued. Chris Wilshire sat silent next to Pete Lewis, gripping his rifle hard. Finally Pete enquired, 'You, okay love?'
'Yeah … sure.'
'Juss never thought it'd come to this. Me going to war an' all. Could do with a dump.'
'Do it in your pants later.'
'Everybody else will once the fighting starts.'
'Just stick close to me, love. You know the drill. We've been though it half a dozen times. It'll be no different tonight.'
'Other than the fact that there're thousands of fanatical death commandos all around the hill.'
'Yeah, apart from that.'
Terry raised his arm. 'No more talking from here on. Juss listen for my instructions on yer helmet radios. Got it?'
Thumbs went up along the line. When the command crackled in their ears, they stood, extinguished their helmet lights and brought down their visors. Then they followed Terry through the narrow dark space that opened up in front of them.
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