The small white figure advanced on a retreating Malik. The man kept backing away from the menace emanating from this improbable child until he collided with a tree and there was nowhere further to go. 'What are you … another djinn ?' he asked hoarsely. Fear was clogging his throat, a fear the like of which he had not felt in many years.
The boy paused and folded his arms. His very insouciance before a dangerous man three times his size was itself deeply intimidating. Eventually the child's puzzled face cleared. 'Oh … you mean Toby? He wasn't a djinn . Don't be silly. There're no such things … well, there are things a bit like djinnī , but you wouldn't want to meet them. Not sure I would either.'
'Then what was he?'
'Toby? Just like the rest of us, someone looking for love, except his big mistake was that he became someone, which he never should have done. He wasn't ready for it. But he's getting better. He's learned about true devotion and felt the pain of loss. He's a lot more human now than you ever were. And that's a problem.'
'Well, what do I do with you? I don't do the killing thing. I do the curing. My mummy says I'm really good at it. If I did kill you, my people wouldn't have you, which would be awkward. Don't need any more of those pesky demon things running around. Urggh! Much worse than rats. Don't expect you to agree, of course, you being totally evil and all. Or are you? I suppose you're more than a bit mad, the horrible things you do. But can you feel? Atib's another problem for me. You see, he really loved you. And if you can inspire love in someone, I can't easily abandon you.'
Malik gaped at the apparition as revelation followed revelation. This singular child seemed to know the fate of the Universe and all its secrets. Surely he couldn't be … it was not possible.
'Okay,' the boy eventually said. 'Let's try a thing.' He concentrated momentarily. As he did Malik glanced down, to find the Hungarian twins he had abused sprawled naked on the woodland floor, apparently asleep amongst the leaves. Malik's sadistic work was plain to see on their bodies; there were the inventive fixtures defacing their sleeping faces and groins.
'You did this,' the child said with a grimace. 'Two fine, loving boys, horribly torn about just for your amusement. You laughed at their pain and humiliation. I think you know you'll never do it again. Can I get you to feel sorry that you ever did?'
Malik glared as he was confronted with the evidence of his monstrous lusts. The child hunkered down between the boys. He kissed their foreheads, causing their chains, clamps and rings to fall away from them as they healed. Whole and perfect once more, they slept on.
The child looked up. 'This is a bad one. To heal them fully, I've got to take away all their memories of you and what you did to them. I have to make a hole in their lives which shouldn't be there. I think these may be two more for the Great Uprising. Until then they'll sleep where neither you nor anyone else can touch them.'
The twins were gone again. The child straightened. 'So, do you feel sorry?'
Once more there was no reply from Malik.
'Right, then.' The child dusted off his hands and straightened his jacket. 'We'll try something else. Last chance, mind!'
' Lieutenant general!' Henry marvelled at the news which came via his handij .
'Yup! Star number three. Two more to go and I've got the whole collection; then I can swap them for a baton.' Ed sounded unusually smug.
'Yet another battlefield promotion?'
'Harry was most kind about confirming it. Also I got the Rose at last.'
'Arise, Sir Edward.'
'Sounds right somehow.'
'Did you round up Malik-rammu?'
'Our cavalry are scouring the Danube basin. But he may be one of the bodies in the Starel, or dead in a ditch somewhere. It's a pity. Death really was too good for him.'
'After what I saw at Kaleczyk , I can only agree.'
'And how are you, baby?'
'Me? Still reeling. We're having to burn the bodies of the Horde soldiers in the pass. Just too many of them. The stink's incredible. The Czechs have taken responsibility for the ones that surrendered. A lot simply killed themselves outright. The sight of what appeared to their deranged minds to be their Nameless One on the mountain top, smiting them with lightning, sent the worst of the death commandos over the edge … literally in many cases.'
'And our Lance?'
'He's not gone back to being human. None of them have. I've cleared the garrison out of Kaleczyk, apart from the hospital, and handed the place over to Damien; me and the boys are now sealing the perimeter of the zone and using the barracks at Wendel as our brigade base. The press are already sniffing around the story, but this is one that even I realise must be kept from the public. Fortunately my colleagues are happily distracted by the aftermath of the victory at Ostberg. Most of them are following you guys as you liberate Hungary and Croatia. Where are you by the way?'
'Saddle sore in Györ. It's where Rudi has set up NATO central command temporarily. He's already planning the next moves on Belgrade and Skopje. The speed of the Horde's collapse is causing problems, but I won't go into that. How's the tribe sorting itself out?'
'Kaleczyk's perfect for them really. They seem to like spending a lot of time in the sky, and there's no shortage of that in the mountains. They can do what they like best without spectators.'
'Hard to say. He's lost Terry, though I think he'll come to terms with it. He was an international celebrity, fashion guru and successful entrepreneur, and now he's a naked, winged tribesman … though actually he may be a tribal chief, so far as I understand their society, which is already getting complex. He loves his wings, and – my God! – is he gorgeous in his new body! How we sort out his affairs after this I really do not know, because he can never appear as a human again. Terry left him all his estate too.'
'What did you do with the remains of Terry and young Rupert Wemmyss?'
'I sent Rupert's body to his family at Piotreshrad. Terry … well, he had so many friends, and there's his mum and dad. I've left it to Davey to sort.'
'Still in a coma in the fortress hospital. Justin's by his bedside. Justy's started speaking to Damien again, at least. There was an almighty row between them when he arrived. I learned some new bad words.'
Danny Hackness hobbled out of the fortress on his crutch, blinking in the sunlight. Finding a convenient flat rock to sit on, he eased his aching right leg, which itched like mad. Gussie was on patrol with the other remaining Ultras, leaving Danny feeling lonely at a bad time. He had loved Terry O'Brien as much as any of the man's older friends.
The familiar sound of children shouting and laughing as they played caught his attention. There were a half-dozen human youngsters from the group of released captives still on the base. UNHCR had already bussed those who could be identified as having relatives to a transit camp, but those who had no one left to claim them had stayed in the fortress, where they felt secure.
In amongst the kids was a tall winged figure, one of the avians , his skin warmly striped in gold and brown, his eyes glowing bright blue. He was laughing and joking with the kids about something rather personal. Their unselfconscious nudity exposed the avians to comment; all their males were well-endowed but this one was hung like a Percheron stallion. Danny caught the face, and suddenly realised he was looking at Barry Hignett, his former pupil. The young man saw him too, waved, and fluttered over to his side on raven wings.
'How you doing, Mr Hackness ... er, sir?'
'Barry, I am not your teacher anymore.'
'Can't break the habit … er …'
'Danny. Call me Danny. And in answer to your question, I'm healing slowly. But I'm not dead, thanks to you and the rest of your people. How's your Luc?'
Barry gave a happy laugh. 'Getting very responsible. The Radkornatij – our High Council – is in session in the command bunker, and if you have horns, you're on it. Who'da thought my Lucky would turn into a community leader and elder?'
' You can take some credit for that, Barry. And you're good with kids too. Had you thought that teaching might be your thing?'
'Uh huh. So has our queen. I've been appointed Warden of the meledhij .'
' Meledhij ?'
'That's our teens. From fourteen up, they're going to live together as a group till they hit full maturity at sixteen or so. We're still wondering how that works. Our adolescents are bundles of energy but it's obvious that, unlike you guys, they don't have the massive sex drive which so ravages human kids' lives and complexions. Our kids aren't without sexuality and their junk works alright, but the irresistible urge to rut doesn't seem to kick in with us till later. Though when it does it makes human libido look pitiful by comparison. All day bonking in the sky with any available aperture! Amazing!'
Danny was gripped by this glimpse of an alien society. 'Where is your meledhij now?'
Barry scanned the sky to the north, and pointed to what looked like only black dots to Danny. 'They're up above the Streckhirjn, there. Young Konstantin's got this idea for a sorta aerial volleyball. Great kid. He's working out the rules with his usakamaradij … his wing-mates: it's a word they just invented for themselves. It's a seriously cool game. Mikey and Marky are getting dead keen on it too. Quidditch ain't in it. Stops the kids pestering the wildlife at least; they just love buzzing the local buzzards.'
Blessing his avian reflexes, Reggie caught the vase an instant before it crashed to the floor. 'Watch the wings, Karol!'
The boy turned and smiled uncertainly, then saw the vase he was unaware he had brushed off the table. Folding his wings neatly and giving a sheepish grin, he poured out a stream of Bulgarian. Reggie did not understand, but guessed that Karol was apologising. He held up the vase and pronounced, ' Vasa! ' The boy nodded and repeated the Rothenian word.
Reggie checked on Lance's spear, which was safely secured to its wall bracket. Karol was fascinated by that rather dangerous object. He kept making it give off sparks by stroking it, despite being told not to do so. Reggie sat down on a stool and began scanning the news channels on their TV, looking at the latest pictures of the Rothenian army's advance into Hungary.
Needing a little reassurance perhaps, Karol squirmed on to Reggie's lap and demanded a cuddle and kiss, two other Rothenian words he had acquired. The boy was as affectionate as he was beautiful. His wholehearted embrace of his new identity was speeding his healing from two month's relentless abuse by the Chernemenschij , as the children called the hated Horde soldiers who had blighted their young lives. Nonetheless, Karol woke sweating and crying plaintively in the night unless he slept between Reggie and Lance. Neither of the young men objected to having him in their bed, despite occasionally getting facefuls of Karol's feathers in the night as he tossed and turned. Sleeping in a bed was a difficult exercise for avians.
Mike and Marky had taken three of the novachekij while Mattie and Yuri adopted another three. That left Karol. Reggie and Lance had volunteered to foster him, touched by the boy's exceptional beauty and tragic experiences. He was the child who had been longest in Horde captivity and had been the most physically and emotionally damaged by the experience. He had been within minutes of death from terrible injuries when Damien had changed him into an avian and awoken him to a life of wonder. Yuri said Karol still more than half-suspected he had died and become an angel.
Reggie changed programmes for Karol's sake. The pair sat together on the sofa and watched the Disney channel, Karol lolling back on his foster father and sucking his thumb, which seemed to be a habit he had carried over from his human state. There were many other things Reggie could have been doing, but he strangled his work ethic for once. He loved this boy, who so needed to be with adults he could trust.
For the first time, Karol had not put on briefs but was running round their quarters naked, which was an advance in avian terms. Outside was a different story, and Reggie suspected the other novachekij were making comments about it to Karol. His peer group had quickly adopted avian nudity once their elders in the meledhij had made it the fashion, but not Karol. Reggie could guess why.
Reggie applied himself to increasing Karol's vocabulary. He had come out with his first Rothenian sentence that morning, and progress was gratifyingly rapid, as it was with the other novachekij . Yuri had suggested that the rewired avian brains acquired a linguistic facility from Lance and Damien when they were changed. She had observed the ones Lance transformed picking up meaning and language noticeably faster than the others. Karol was one of Damien's creations, but he nonetheless retained words with great facility. Reggie reckoned he'd be fluent in Rothenian in just a week or two.
Reggie was glad of Karol for another reason. It was more and more obvious that there would be no return to his human state. The time was coming when he would have to break this news to his mothers, and it would be a painful thing to do. Karol was a compelling distraction from the looming crisis in Reggie's life.
Rudolf, marshal-prince of Elphberg, supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe, felt somewhat annoyed after his meeting with the cabinet of the Magyarország Third Republic. They seem to have entirely missed the point that their state had been brutally ravaged by the invading Horde, their beautiful capital was a smoking ruin, and their army was non-existent. All he had got from them was complaints about the lack of promised foreign aid and their paranoid and violent suspicions that their Croatian and Romanian neighbours were about to invade their weakened nation in pursuit of old grudges.
Benedikt, his trusted chief aide – now a Polish brigadier-general at Rudi's insistence – gave him a small smile. He had sat through the same meeting. 'Business as usual, sir.'
'It's tragic. ' Rudi shook his head. 'How can we have survived the Horde, only to have the reconstruction blighted by these spiritless, corrupt, visionless placemen?'
Benedikt was silent for a moment and then adopted a musing tone. 'The only reason the politicians escaped to Sopron after the disaster at Mohács was because one of their major generals disobeyed orders by withdrawing his division before Malik's trap closed and placing it between the Horde and the refugees fleeing westwards. He then fought the bastards to a standstill and saved Pécs. He's a national hero and these are no times for apparatchiks.'
'What are you suggesting, Ben?'
'I think that in the circumstances you might very well refuse to deal with this republican administration and recognise instead a government of national emergency until appropriate arrangements can be made. The general's waiting outside.'
'It's okay, sir. He does have a certain legitimacy.'
'His name is Lajos Habsburg.'
'Archduke Ludwig Luitpold!'
'Hmm, yes. Though I think Lajos III, Apostolic King of Hungary, would sound better.'
'Course, you could buy a Mercedes sports … I think blue's a cool colour.'
'Kris, where would I put it, and that yacht thing you said's an absolute essential?'
Kristijan laughed and pushed his small backside hard against Tovyan's groin. They were on another bed, but this time in a more upmarket establishment, the Holiday Inn in Linz. Also they were naked, after their first sex since Vuk's death. Tovyan's cock was still rock-hard and swollen in Kris's rectum as he hugged Kris to himself, kissing his shoulders and caressing his firm little nipples.
It had slowly dawned on Tovyan that he loved his devoted companion. It was not the trusting submission which had been the basis of his relationship with Vukašin Ciric, yet it was most definitely love. It was a lighter and more quirky emotion than what he had felt for Vuk. Kris made him laugh and seemed only to want to bring him happiness.
Also , Tovyan was now the boy on top in this new relationship. Kristijan had no desire to mount him, having only done that in their refugee days because the others had, he said. It had been the encounter he enjoyed at Rechtenberg with Vuk and Tovyan which had taught him what he most wanted out of sex.
Being under Tovyan had caused Kris huge sexual excitement just then, as the state of the coverlet demonstrated. At first the idea of topping had been difficult for Tovyan to get used to, because he had loved being under Vuk. For the time being, however, he would do what Kris wanted of him. It was not as if he hadn't really enjoyed both occasions he had taken the boy.
He knew Kris was joking with him about the money the Queen of Rothenia had put at his disposal, but it was an issue for them. It was more than sufficient to keep Tovyan, and indeed Kris, for many years, certainly until they might secure their own incomes. In more serious moments, Kris and he discussed plans to rent a home in a nice city and enrol in a local college. They would live as partners and make themselves a home. When they had qualifications, they'd move on to university or medical school.
It was a seductive future, but before it could happen, Tovyan had to confront the Cirics. He also needed to find the lost Cubs – their friends Radovan, Marsin and Klement – and work out what he could do to help them. He could not settle until he knew they were safe and living in hopes. He loved them too.
'Fookin' leave it out, dad!'
'If you weren't so big now, I'd do the spanking thing you somehow avoided as a kid. No, wait! A fucking fly swatter might be more appropriate nowadays.'
'I wanted to tell yer, but y'know … it wasn't easy, and it happened so fast. Yer juss pissed yer didn't see it coming. But, be fair! If I hadn't done it, me other dad'd be the late Nate.'
'Don't fucking joke about that! And you're a king!'
'Not my choice, wazzit? Blame the Dead.'
'Wings or not, you don't change. It's always someone else's fault.'
Father and son simmered at each other for a while longer. Neither was good at backing away, and it had been Nathan's gift to head off the confrontations between them. But Nathan Underwood was now flat out and comatose in the bed that separated Justin and Damien.
Finally, in a quieter voice, Damien asked for the latest medical bulletin.
Justin sighed. 'They took an eight-centimetre sliver of steel casing out of his head. They have no idea what damage it's done. His body'll heal maybe, but it's touch and go if he'll regain consciousness. Time alone will tell. I'm thinking of moving him to Strelzen.'
'No! Don't do that, dad. I won't be able to visit him there … not like this.'
Justin softened. 'I know. Your metamorphosis has its downside, doesn't it.'
'Dad … I could do it to him. He'd be whole again, better than ever.'
Justin gave his son a sharp glance. 'And you wouldn't be so lonely, would you. You'd have one of your dads with you. But what about him? Is that what he'd want? I know me Nate's a bit of a hobbit, but you'd be turning him into Gwaihir the Windlord!'
Damien relaxed into a smile. The Lord of the Rings was the one work of fiction his father had ever finished reading, and he re-read it compulsively. 'Dad, it's about losing me and Terry at the same time, isn't it.'
His father shot him a keen look across the bed. 'When did you get so wise, kid?' He looked down at his partner of many years. 'It's that, and now maybe losing my Nate too. There's been too much death around lately, and it's been too close to me. Let me think about it.'
'Okay, dad. I'll be back.' Damien went round the bed and swept his father up, hugging him long and hard. 'Things'll get better, I promise.'
Justin wiped his eyes. 'I think it's me who's supposed to say that.'
Damien walked out of the room, dipping down to get through the human-size door. He found several men waiting for him in the corridor beyond: Pete Lewis and his Chris, Danny Hackness and Gus Underwood.
'Can we have a word, Daimey?' enquired Gussie, who had a fair claim to be Damien's oldest friend.
'Sure, guys. Whassup?'
'We've been discussing what's happened and we have a lot of questions about the avian species. I'm finding it utterly absorbing, not least the aerodynamic impossibility that you can actually fly. '
'S mystical not mechanical, Gussie. Ain't no rules.'
Danny took over. 'Daimey, the four of us have been thinking this through. We none of us have much to tie us to the human state. Gussie lives in his head for one thing. I have a teacher's job, but I can take my skills anywhere. Pete and Chrissie are both unemployed, Chrissie long term.'
Damien's lambent eyes flared. 'You saying you wanna sign up with my tribe?'
'That's exactly what we're saying,' Pete Lewis affirmed. 'I miss Gav and Max. They're my best mates.'
'Yeah … and we saw how Mattie Oscott lost his gut when he became a birdman,' Chrissie asserted. 'Can never get rid of mine.'
'Point is,' Danny continued, 'you can do with us. You have a growing number of kids who'll need schooling, which is my vocation. I'd love to work with the teens of your meledhij . Gussie's totally brilliant, and he'd be your first avian uni prof, no competition. Pete's an amazing organiser, and Chrissie … can cook.'
Damien mused, 'You want to do this now?'
'Damn right!' the four men all exclaimed.
'Then follow me to the outside, oh … and strip off. We don't do clothes.'
The four complied, and walked away from their piled up clothing to stand naked in the sunlight. The avians currently in the sky swooped closer, Gavin and Max landing beside Pete.
'Right , guys. With you it'll be possible to go back to human if this don't work out … at least for a while. But the longer you stay avian, the harder it'll get. Er … another warning. You'll get amazingly horny after you transform, so … clear your diaries for the next couple of days. Okay, men, embrace each other in couples, and here goes!'
It was dark and, somewhere close by, water was tumbling with an echoing rush. Slowly a pale light grew, seeming to seep out of the white-clad figure of the dangerous boy who now held him prisoner.
Malik-rammu realised he was standing in a huge cavern. 'Where is this?' he demanded.
'You're still in my kingdom, but not in a part of it anyone would ever come to, even if they could. It's a bit of a secret.'
' Why have you brought me here?'
'Oh, you need to meet someone. You and he have a lot in common ; I'm sure you'll be great friends.'
The boy stood still, as if concentrating. Desperate, Malik lunged at him. He never made it. He was caught by the scruff and hoisted in the air, struggling.
The boy looked up and gave a smile over Malik's shoulder at whatever was holding him up. There was a horrible stench.
'My, you're looking better!' the boy chuckled. 'Almost got a face now!'
Close by Malik's ear, a sobbing, ghastly voice moaned thickly, 'Lord! Lord! Free me. Mercy, lord!'
'You've had your mercy, Dressner. Enoch placed you here till you changed. If you change enough you'll be released amongst men once more, as was promised. Now, this human can help move you along! You're more likely to learn how to do it by studying him than by just brooding here in the dark. Believe it or not, he's way worse than you, for all your wickedness. Once he disgusts you, you'll know you're on the way. How about that? You two will be together for … oh, such a long time. But together – after the madness – you may both find peace, and maybe a cure. Oh, and don't try to kill yourself, Mr Rammu, 'cos it won't work here.'
There was a sickening wheezing from behind Malik, and something viscous was beginning to trickle down his back. He lost control of his bowels. Was it tentacles which started pawing at him and tearing away his clothes? Then he was hanging naked while wet, stinking things began sucking and fumbling insistently at his genitalia, swallowing and pulling at them, tugging harder and harder. His anus was levered open and began filling with … something: more and more of it till it was too much for a human body to bear.
He had been screaming a while before he realised the light was fading. A shapeless thing with the hideous caricature of a human face, its tongue lolling, was the last his eyes saw as it lunged to close on his mouth.
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