Davey Skipper struggled to get a grip on his consciousness, but it kept slipping away from him. Whenever he surfaced there was pain and dark. For a while he was conscious of night time and shouts; he knew when he was hauled up and his helmet ripped off his head. Then he fainted once more. Sudden coldness prickled his skin and he was bounced around. For a while he knew he was on his stomach and felt the grit below his naked belly. Then there was pain bursting like stars from his shoulder and especially from his backside as weight settled on his back. He succumbed again to oblivion.
He became aware of Terry talking. '… so here's the thing, sweet babe, it'll pass.'
'What?' Davey had no idea where they were. It was all indistinct to him, apart from his lover's face.
Terry gave his familiar grin. 'Juss gotta be ready to let it go.' He glanced over his shoulder. 'I mean, there's loss. I missed Ramon so much when he went. It was hard, but there wuz you out there waiting for me. Didn't know it, of course, but you were there to take the pain away.'
'Pain …' Davey's body contorted with it. He had been dumped on his back, spread-eagled. He looked up and saw dawn lightening the sky. He realised there were many dark figures busy around him setting up poles, although his dazed mind barely registering what they might be for, until …
'No!' he screamed when his legs were suddenly pulled apart and something huge swelled in his rectum, sending a shaft of agony shooting through his gut. Then he was flailing in open air as his naked body was lifted on a spike, which ripped and settled deep inside him. He screamed again; nor was he the only one howling. It was a dawn chorus of horror.
Unexpectedly his foot found a crossbar and the impalement stopped, but not the agony. His chest heaving, he stared wildly about. He was above head height. Close by him was another spike but it displayed only one small object. Sightless, its jaw sagging and blood in the curly hair, it sported Terry O'Brien's head.
Davey's senses spun, only a brute instinct for life keeping his legs braced on the bar. As the day brightened, his watering eyes blinked at the demented forest that had grown up on all sides of him, immediately below the Kaleczyke Horja. It held hundreds of men, women and children naked and impaled, or nailed to crosses; some were dead and mutilated but most were still struggling for life. The Horde's soldiers gathered with impunity among them, for the guns of Kaleczyk could not fire down on them without destroying the innocent along with the predators.
Ed and Rudi quit the command van parked on a low hill to the west of the city of Ostberg. Gazing down from their elevated viewpoint, they could see the smoke of burning in the eastern suburbs, lit up by the flames below. The detonation of artillery shells periodically shattered the silence of the night.
'It's times like this I wish I smoked,' growled the marshal-prince.
'There are plenty of quicker ways to get yourself killed, sir.'
'A lot of that's going on. Question is, what do we do with victory?'
'Rudi, we haven't won yet.'
The prince grunted. 'Assuming we do, what comes next? What do we do with the Horde's legionaries … war criminals all? How do we put the West back together, and in what shape? Victory's not the only hard thing. There's also the aftermath. Wars have been lost by winning them. Look at Iraq at the beginning of the century.'
Ed pondered as he glanced up at the stars. 'Maybe that's where Maxxie comes in. Healing seems to be his thing.'
'Seems a lot to ask of a child, don't you think?'
Ed shrugged. 'He's not like any child that ever has been … apart from one other, I suppose. Let's win this one before worrying. But I'm glad you're thinking beyond the war. I wonder if Malik is?'
'What do we know of his position?'
'Nothing,' Ed replied. 'The Horde's not a modern army. It's more like the seventeenth century where Malik is. I heard a report that the roads are littered with their corpses as they advance: dysentery, blood poisoning and typhoid kill a regiment of them every week, so it's said. They have no medical corps. Their command structure's equally basic. My guess is that their emperor is with the main force somewhere east of Ostberg. That's where he plans the killer punch.'
'Good. I hope to meet him soon.'
The pair clambered back into the van. The display was showing Horde troops penetrating the city but being held by the well-fortified – if outnumbered – Fourth Division. The Horde had been allowed to form a salient through the lines of the First and Second Army Corps. The Fifth and Twelfth were massed and ready for the counter-stroke through the neck of the salient.
Rudi, arms folded, turned to his staff. 'They're in the right position. Get the artillery targeted. It's time to blow that section of their line to the hell where they belong. Then, at oh-four-thirty, it's a go for Ruric. Any news from Kaleczyk?'
'It's holding, sir.'
'Pray God it continues to.'
Gavin Price slumped against the tunnel wall. Dust was thick in the air. The passage behind him was now sealed and it had closed on many friends. He had seen Terry finally go down over the body of Rupert. Davey and Nate were unaccounted for. Only Gus and Danny survived from the rear guard, and Danny was wounded. Gavin stared through tears as troops and medics ushered the last of the released captives deeper into the fortress, where care awaited them. His friends had at least not died pointlessly.
He looked up as an officer took his shoulder. 'You're Price? You must go to brigade immediately. The general wants a report.'
'The others …?' He indicated the surviving Ultras crouching against the stone walls of the passage, where Danny Hackness was getting a field dressing on his thigh while Gus Underwood supported him.
'They should to go back to quarters. You've done well. A dozen of you held off a battalion of those heathens. You are heroes.'
'I wish I felt like one.'
'Move it, soldier.'
Gavin looked yearningly at an exhausted Max. Tears streaked his lover's cheeks too. They looked their love at each other, before Gavin turned and began a stumbling trot deeper into the fortress. Climbing to the upper levels, he encountered a file of troops coming down. The shout of 'Gav!' stopped him.
It was Lance Atwood, who broke ranks with a nod from his corporal. 'What's happening, Gav?'
Gavin shook his head. 'Terrible things. Terry's dead and some others … I don't think Davey and Nate made it.'
Horror widened Lance's eyes. 'Oh shit! My dad! Those were his best friends. And Daimey … his dad!'
'They died as heroes, for whatever consolation that is. I'm sorry, Lance, I have to go to Henry.'
'Gav … remember! The avians. It may be time to tell my dad. He knows you and I can transform, but he doesn't know about the rest of us, nor about Daimey.'
'Can't you feel it? It's all I can do not to transform here and now.'
'Lance, I've got too much in my head. Gotta go.'
Gavin fled, carrying on blindly to the upper level. An aide saw him approach the bunker door and cleared the way for him. Henry was alone. Gavin fell into his arms in tears as the door closed behind him. They embraced hard, Henry rocking his former lover. He held on to Gavin till the urgency of the situation forced them apart.
'Tell me about it,' Henry said, and listened as Gavin poured out the fear and pain of the night. Henry stood silent and calm. When Gavin had finished he looked down and spoke deliberately. 'They died that others might live. If there's any nobility in death, then it's this: over a hundred abused and tormented people, some just kids, are safe below and out of the Horde's reach. Cling on to that. I know it's what helps me, that and knowing we have to hold out here for at least twenty-four hours. Otherwise, the same hellish abuse will be wreaked not just on Rothenia, but on every land beyond it. When I see the backs of those black-clad bastards, then I'll weep for my friends. Until then, soldier. Dismissed.'
Gavin stared as Henry's eyes fixed on his. There were things he wanted to say, but those dark eyes forbade him. While there was compassion in them, mostly he saw stern command. This was Mendamero before him now, not Henry Atwood.
'Henry … sir, there's a thing you must know …'
A knock on the door halted him. It was Major Ruprevic. 'Sorry to interrupt against your orders, general, but I had no choice. There's movement below from the Horde, and you're not going to like it.'
It was the dark before dawn, though not uniformly dark in the Starel gap. Artillery blasts and reddened smoke indicated where the battle for Ostberg continued in the distance. Malik-rammu, Chosen of God, never played by the rules, and with the advantage of numbers he was quite happy to launch his legions in a night assault. This was the big one. He knew the next twenty-four hours would decide the fate of his bid to destroy the West. By the end of tomorrow he would either be retreating on the Balkans, or poised to become Emperor of the World.
Malik was sitting at ease on the roof of his four-wheel-drive vehicle. Standing below him on a hilltop next to a burning Rothenian village were several of his generals and a praetorian guard of death commandos. The village had been abandoned before the Horde had reached it. Captives so far had been hard to come by, but the fall of Strelzen would change that.
'Lord!' called up an aide, 'a message from the fortieth brigade. They have penetrated the city and are hand-to-hand with the Rothenian troops. The river is in sight.'
'Any further news from General Vashsa in the mountains?'
'They press on the fortress. Casualties have been … heavy.'
'Did I ask about casualties?'
'No, Lord. I apologise.'
'Has he put my measures in place?'
'Yes, lord. He has the usual whores, and enough prisoners scoured from the Slovak area.'
'Then that should give him the advantage he needs. When communications are reopened tell him he must not pillage but fall on the rear of the enemy. That is crucial. His death will be inventive and prolonged should he fail me.'
Malik contemplated the night. Above his head flapped his royal banner, on which was still blazoned the image of the Nameless One. The little bastard had run out on him just when their relationship was becoming interesting. It still rankled, despite the capture of a promising pair of Hungarian twin brothers the past week. The sexual dynamic as they tried to protect each other from what he was doing to them was engaging and enjoyable; it much enlivened his evenings.
But, as he reminded himself, he did not require that pathetic and needy djinn to accomplish his aims, which were now well within his grasp. He was too seasoned a soldier to let externals distract him for long. With his troops engaged to north and west, he was quite aware of the potential danger posed by fighting on several fronts. On the other hand, he also knew how thinly spread the Rothenian lines must be getting. One push at Ostberg would break the containing envelope and his legions would flood the Starel basin.
His mind ticked through his concerns. These Rothenians were different from his previous adversaries. They still retained some of the technological edge of the former Western armies, and their communications and intelligence were formidable. That was one reason to launch his assault on Ostberg at night. Missing amongst the Rothenians, however, was the reliance on antiquated motorised armour he had found in the Balkan armies. It had taken him by surprise and it slowed progress. He was fighting heavy infantry, better-equipped than his own, though less numerous. He guessed that the Rothenian mobile infantry was in reserve, but if so, how was it to exploit the breakthrough that the old-fashioned but now vulnerable tank columns used to provide? This was a puzzle, and his mind kept recurring to it.
With sinking heart, Henry took the glasses from Major Ruprevic. They revealed the horror that had come with the dawn. The Horde had spent the night constructing crosses and stakes on which it was now busily impaling and crucifying its prisoners and the rest of its sex slaves at the foot of the Kaleczyke Horja.
There was no flinching from it. He could see the heads of several men, including that of Terry O'Brien, displayed as trophies so as to demoralise the garrison in fully medieval fashion. And at the front, his naked body white in the dawn light, was Henry's old friend and lover, Davey Skipper, head thrown back in agony as more than a foot of stake pierced his lower body. That he was still alive was evidenced by his legs braced against a cross bar. One arm hung loose and useless. Tears flowed down Henry's cheeks as he observed his friend's awful passion. Alongside Davey was Nathan Underwood displayed on a cross, his body blooded, his head drooping. There was no way of knowing whether he was dead or alive. There were maybe three hundred others in that forest of horror, most still alive, some hanging disembowelled, and the Horde soldiers were dancing and bellowing their defiance beneath them.
Fritz came over to Henry wiping his mouth after throwing up in a corner of the observation bunker. 'Henry … I … what can we do?'
Henry was lost between horror and rage. The Horde soldiers were already beginning to clamber up the slopes, some carrying spikes with impaled torsos on them, like macabre banners. They would be at the emplacements within minutes, and then it would be hand-to-hand fighting with the outnumbered garrison. Safety was already slipping away, and yet to unleash the fortress's fire on the rising black tide would kill so many tormented innocents.
The avians beat in strongly from the west, the night wind behind them. Having made their plans long before, they had raided the armouries of the National Guard before they left Strelzen. Damien, Helen and several others had heavy machine guns hanging from their shoulders, ammunition belts looped around them. The phenomenal strength of the avian bodies made it no effort to carry such weights.
Each horned avian led a group: Luc, Helen and Damien beating at the head of a V flight of a dozen avian warriors. Their latest incarnation had removed their sexual differences, leaving them war machines rather than mutated human youths.
Damien was pleased to see that the high spirits and waywardness of the early days were gone. His people had absorbed his grim determination and intent. They banked and glided as one, their innate empathy enhancing their formational sense in the night sky.
Behind Damien was Reggie. Glancing back, he could see the pale body of his friend beginning to glow with the light of dawn. They were passing high over the lights of Wendel, and the ridges of the mountains were beginning to sharpen with the first greying of the sky ahead of them.
Reggie shouted, 'Daimey, I'm getting strong feelings from Lance and Mike. There's bad things … really bad things happening at Kaleczyk. We're only just in time.'
Damien called back, 'Get him and Mike to transform and meet us on the summit. We go straight in for the kill, and the Satan's got more weapons than just machine guns, as we saw in Eden. Lance is my shock factor. Can you transmit messages?'
'I think … I'll try!'
Lance and Mike were together at a sandbagged emplacement, grimly surveying the approach of the Horde. Suddenly, Lance clutched at his helmet, sweeping it off and throwing it down. Alongside him, Mike did the same.
Mike shook his head looking bewildered. 'My brother! You feel the command? Our king is at hand. We are being …'
To the astonishment of their surrounding comrades, the two brothers dropped their weapons and swelled in the dawn light to creatures other than human. Great wings flexed, and as the Rothenian soldiers shouted with alarm, Lance and Mike beat into the air, soaring up to meet the dawn. They rose fast to the peak of the Kaleczyke Horja and hovered over the memorial.
'There!' Lance called out to Mike. 'They're coming! It's the avians.' Dark lines in the sky heralded the arrival of Damien and their people.
'It's time, Lance. The Satan must reveal himself in power. This is Armageddon.'
Lance nodded his assent. He alighted on the very peak of the mountain, the obelisk behind him. The Rothenian garrison stood open-mouthed or ran from the dark, horned archangel in their midst.
He raised his great spear, calling out in a loud voice, and as he did, his form swelled and grew further, titanic against the sky. His wings spread behind him, and the black legions below paused in their advance, as stunned as the garrison. For a gigantic figure now loomed over them, its wings scraping the sky, its eyes profound and fixed on their destruction. It raised its spear and lightning forked among them, blasting and scattering whole companies. And, behind this awful vision, winged beings rode the morning breeze down from the heavens, blazing death on the men below. So they died in their hundreds and ran in their thousands, demented, calling on their Nameless One, many hurling themselves over precipices or putting their guns to their heads.
In amongst the tortured and impaled flew two horned avians, careless of the Horde's weapons. One with golden horns lifted Davey from his instrument of martyrdom, while another with red and blue wings released Nathan from his torment, gathering him up as if he were but a child and beating towards the hill seeking aid. The white and gold angel followed close behind with Davey clasped to her breast.
Half incredulous, the garrison was rousing itself and rallying to surge in pursuit of the fleeing enemy, but far ahead of them the avians were diving, swooping and dealing out vengeance for all the Horde's tortured and tormented victims. There was no resistance. The black legions of Malik fled like rabbits before eagles.
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