HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
Henry slowly turned. He had recognised the voice behind him, and the dangerously handsome face of the boy Jed Scudamore did not surprise him when he saw it smiling back at him. Except this was not Jed, it was something else which just used Jed’s appearance.
Henry was so inured to the uncanny by the day’s experiences that he was not going to allow himself to be outfaced by yet another supernatural being. ‘Why do you copy Jed’s appearance?’
The being pouted. ‘You liked him, didn't you?’
‘That’s neither here nor there. I’m trying to figure out what it really is I’m talking to. Who or what are you?’
‘You ask the most difficult things, Henry. I don’t actually have a name.’
‘Oh, humans give names to beings like me, but we don’t have names amongst ourselves. What we have are more like personalities.’
‘I don’t get it. What are you behind the disguise?’
‘Anything you like, really. I have no form. Your mind will just fill in the blank.’
‘Great. Talking to you is like reading a book on post-structuralism.’
‘Pardon me? Was that humour? We’re not good on humour.’
‘There are quite a few of us, though we very rarely come into contact with people.’
‘But you and I have met before. It was in the abbey of Medeln, the day …’
‘Yes, the day Enoch was taken from the world. I was there to warn you, and you listened to me. You were very brave, Henry.’
‘Are you an angel?’
‘Purrlease!’ The being gave a rather camp giggle. ‘Heavens no! By the way, was that humour?’
‘Heavens? Angel? Not really, more of a wordplay. So if you’re not an angel what are you?’
‘Humans have called us erelim, seraphim, thrones … it doesn’t matter. You cannot approach what we are, for in general we are a bit above the likes of you. I’m sorry … that’s not meant to be dismissive, it’s just that our concerns are not earthbound. I have to say it’s a real effort to hold my position here.’
‘We are from outside the turning Universe. I’m very conscious of standing here on a spinning ball of matter turning around a rather small star, itself in rotation with another and wheeling on a galactic axis. If I let my concentration relax, I could zip off in the direction of Alpha Centauri, just like that.’
Henry laughed, while the boy-seraph gave a winning smile. ‘You know, I think I’m beginning to get the hang of it. It’s being with you that does it, Henry.’
‘I don’t suppose I’m going to get any worthwhile answers from you, am I? So what is it this time?’
The seraph sobered. ‘We need to have a long talk, Henry. Are you ready?’
‘For what …?’ Henry looked around the room, at his friends frozen in time. The blaze of light took him by surprise.
The shattering of a glass by the French window caused the group to leap to its feet. Ed shouted, ‘Henry!’
‘Jesus H Christ! What just happened?’ Eddie yelled.
‘He’s bloody gone! A second ago he was there,’ Phil added.
They ran to the window, where the dark splash of a spilled drink and slivers of glass marked Henry’s point of vanishing.
Ed was clenching and unclenching his fists. A dangerous look was in his eyes as he gazed towards the distant lights of the bishop’s house. ‘We weren’t as clever as we thought. The bastard sussed us. He’s taken Henry, and God knows what will happen now. One thing I’m sure of, though, I’m going after him.’
Eddie Peacher gripped him by the shoulder. ‘I’m with ya, dude. Let’s kick some supernatural ass.’
Phil held up his hands. ‘Look, wait a sec. We don’t know it was the bishop and his demonic friends.’
Ed spun on him. ‘Fuck that, Phil. We have no time. How could it be anything else? We were in his lair this afternoon, then this happens a few hours later. Bit of a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?’
Max looked lost and appalled. ‘Pity Gavin didn’t give me his mobile number,’ he muttered.
Davey took him by the waist. ‘Max has a point.’
‘If Henry had been snatched by the likes of the bishop, I think Enoch or Elijah would somehow be here helping, or at least telling us what’s going on. They have done in the past. Don’t be hasty. Sit tight.’
Eddie shook his head. ‘No way, dude. If we’re going to do something, we do it now. Who’s coming?’
Ed Cornish held up his hand. ‘Only Eddie and I are going.’
‘But I’d like to go!’ Max complained. ‘Look, I defeated that demon guy in London. And though I don’t know how I did it, still, I’m the only guy with a track record here. You gotta take me. ‘Sides, I’ve got a brown belt in karate.’
Ed frowned. ‘Keep behind us then. Davey and Phil: you need to get in touch with Rudi in Strelzen. It’s time to go on the alert there. Colonel Wagram’s number is in my address book. He’s got good English, he’ll be able to understand your report.’
Davey Skipper looked undecided. But events were under way now. Eddie opened the French window, the cold night breeze whipping the drapes. He led Ed and Max out on to the lawn and through the trees that surrounded the grounds of Fairview, towards the lights of the bishop’s house.
Max found the grass slippery under his new Converse high-tops. There had been an early dewfall. A half moon was sailing in a troubled sea of clouds, giving the three men some light until they penetrated the blackness under the trees. Then Max had to follow the dim bulk of his friends as they slipped with a surprising degree of quiet through the undergrowth. The trees sighed and moved slightly above them, eclipsing the stars with their waving branches.
There was an eight-foot brick wall round the perimeter of Fairview. Eddie led them unerringly to the section that bordered the bishop’s garden, where they paused to debate strategy in whispers.
‘Up you go, Max, and tell us what you see.’
Max found himself hoisted to the top of the wall. It was lighter on the other side. Below him and along the wall was a planted border, beyond which was nothing but grey moonlit lawn till the grass reached the balustraded terrace of the big house. Lights were on in the offices and lower lounges. As he watched, Max saw a man pass an upstairs window. ‘Not much cover,’ he murmured.
Ed ordered him down, to be caught by powerful arms before he reached the ground.
Eddie Peacher questioned him. ‘Any way to get closer to the house further along?’
‘There’s sheds and stuff about thirty metres to the right. Guess we could skirt the border.’
They scrambled to the top of the wall, hoisting Max up last this time, before dropping into the shrubs on the other side.
All three felt it at the same moment. Ed hissed at Eddie, ‘There’s something wrong!’
‘What is it, dude?’
Max was sure he had the answer. ‘We crossed a barrier. Something’s aware of us, seeking for us.’
‘How do you know?’ Ed wondered.
Max shrugged in the dark. ‘I just do.’
‘Whatever protected us this afternoon isn’t doing it any longer.’
Eddie’s voice expressed concern. ‘Do we go on?’
‘For Henry’s sake, yes we do.’ Ed led them round the garden’s perimeter, their backs brushing the brick wall.
They were within five metres of the sheds when they became aware of pursuit, though they could not see their pursuer. But eventually, a dog-like shape came round the far corner of the house, though it was not a dog. It paused as if scenting the air, though it was not sniffing. Then, with sudden speed it loped into the shrubbery.
‘Shit!’ growled Eddie. ‘Run for the sheds and hope they’re open!’
They ran, heedless of observation. The shrubs and plants behind them thrashed as the beast closed upon them. Ed collided with a door whose catch opened at the blow of his shoulder. Eddie hurled past him into the darkness. Ed pulled Max in with him before slamming the door in the face of whatever it was behind them. There was a thud and a snarl. A slavering pant came from the crack beneath the door. Ed braced himself against it, but for the moment there was no further assault.
Max in the meantime was trying to make something of the dim interior, which smelled of old pots of paint, creosote and dust. But it was too dark to see much. His chest heaved as he caught his breath. Backing farther away from the besieged door, he yelped when he collided with another warm human body. ‘Shit, Eddie, you scared me!’ He reached out and another hand caught at his, squeezing it.
Then Eddie’s voice came from in front of him. ‘Me? Max, dude, I’m over by Ed.’
With a little laugh in the dark a young voice asked, ‘So, who’s saving whom?’
Anthony was working late at his desk as usual, and also as usual thinking about Enoch. Had he really possessed that supple, responsive body? Probed that small, tight, muscular backside? Kissed those entrancing crimson lips? His erection naturally followed. Standing up to adjust himself, he glanced out at the moonlit garden. His attention was distracted by movement in the corridor as Gareth strode past his open door, looking determined.
Anthony resumed his seat and put his head in his hands. When he raised it again he nearly fell off his chair, for there sitting opposite him, with that sweet smile on his face, was Enoch.
‘How in God’s name ...?’
‘Good evening, Anthony dear. I must say you look harassed.’ The boy was casually dressed with a brown denim jacket, anonymous jeans and white trainers. His thick hair spilled into his fathomless eyes.
‘I just appear and disappear. Simple as that. Look, I really do not have much time. Friends of mine are in trouble, and I need your help.’
‘They’re agents of the God whose name you just took in vain, though they don’t know it, bless them.’
‘No, I’m not having this. Your rubbish about Bishop Jack ...’
Enoch looked disappointed. ‘Have there been none of those moments of suspicion I said to look out for?’
Anthony remained stubbornly silent, stifling his memory of the events of three nights ago, and the odd things he had increasingly begun to notice about the bishop’s appearance and practises.
‘Oh dear, then it’ll have to be the hard way. I’m sorry, Anthony, but my friends really must be saved, and I need you to do that for me.’
There was a moment of vertigo. Anthony reeled as he found himself in the cold air under the stars in the front garden. Where was his office? Had he suffered some sort of stroke or seizure? A hand caught at his arm to steady him. Enoch was still with him.
‘Just a shortcut. Can’t waste time.’ The hand propelled him with irresistible strength round the corner of the house.
‘Wait, I ...’
‘Shh! What do you see?’
Anthony’s eyes, which had grown accustomed to the half light, picked out the unmistakable square bulk of Gareth standing at the far corner of the house. He was swaying from side to side, and Anthony got the distinct impression that he was searching for something.
All of a sudden the man went rigid. He stretched his arms above his head and uttered a word of many hissing syllables which Anthony could not understand. His shape in the moonlight seemed to tremble, contract and melt. He fell forward onto his hands, which were no longer hands. Hackles of dark hair lifted along his back as his rear legs stretched. Even in the dark, Anthony could see how obscenely male were the hanging genitalia of the creature he had become. The stench of something vile made Anthony momentarily gag. Then the thing padded on to the lawn, cast around and loped away.
‘Follow it!’ urged Enoch, and Anthony stumbled forward.
When they reached the lawn, the creature could not be seen, though there was a flurry of activity down by the gardener’s shed in the opposite corner. Anthony could dimly make out three men emerging from the shrubbery to hurl themselves into the black opening of the shed door. The reason for their desperation became evident when a dark shape leapt after them, only to rebound from the closing door with an audible thump. The beast that had been Gareth paced up and down, scratching at the entrance.
‘So now you know,’ Enoch whispered.
‘What is it?’
‘A demon doing his master’s bidding. If he gets through the door he’ll rip those men apart and gorge himself on their internal organs while they’re still living. And when the police come, they’ll assume it was done by a group of maddened Dobermans escaped from one of the other houses in the neighbourhood.’
‘What in the name of heaven can I do to stop such a thing?’
‘It’s very simple, though it may take a little courage.’
Henry came back into focus. He had no idea where he was, but it was certainly sunny and balmy, with trees and running water. If he was still in the same time frame, which was by no means certain, he assumed he must be in America or even New Zealand.
‘Where am I?’
The seraph smiled. ‘Nowhere of any significance, actually. I just thought you might like a pleasant place to chat.’
‘Chat? You want to chat?’
‘What word would you prefer? This isn’t a formal interview and, really, time isn’t important here. We have as long as we like to talk, and I don’t mind where we do it. Deserts can be imposing and quiet; I rather like deserts.’
Henry paused to take that in. Eventually he said, ‘Here’s fine. But where exactly are we?’
‘You do have something of a literal mind, Henry. But we’re outside time and space, so “where” is not a valid concept.’
‘Fine. So we’re in a nice place, you’re nice looking and we’re going to have a nice chat.’
‘I think that was irony, not humour.’
‘Actually, it was sarcasm.’
‘Who says you can’t learn, even if you’re a master of multidimensional space and time?’ He cracked a very fetching grin, and soon they were both laughing, the seraph wiping his eyes with mirth. ‘This is really more fun than I thought it would be. Anyway, Henry, what would you like ... something to eat? A drink maybe? One of your famous gin-and-tonics?’
‘I see no restaurant.’
‘There doesn’t need to be.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Reality is unusual here. It can be shaped and formed. An effort of will is all you need to make something happen or exist.’
‘You mean, if I think a thing, it’ll happen?’
‘Pretty much so. Take that pebble over there by the stream. If you just concentrate, it’ll turn into whatever you want.’
Henry contemplated a bluish pebble next to the crystal waters of the stream. He thought of the cool sweetness of his favourite beverage, and as he blinked, there was a tall, frosted gin-and-tonic, ice but no citrus, just as he liked it. He strolled over, picked it up and sipped. It was a Tanqueray.
Henry sat down on a boulder with the seraph next to him, close enough to touch. ‘Fancy a swim or something?’
‘Trying to get me naked?’
‘Er ... why would I do that?’
‘Why did you choose Jed’s appearance?’
‘As I said. It’s a shape you’re comfortable with.’
‘That’s only part of it, isn’t it? It’s more that you’re comfortable in his shape.’
‘You’re fascinated by human sexuality, and I rather suspect the sexuality you’re most intrigued about is mine. Jed was gay, and when you take on human form, so are you, sunshine.’
The seraph looked annoyed, then shocked. ‘They told me you were sharp. I hadn’t quite realised what they meant.’
‘You admit it then?’
‘This isn’t relevant.’
‘Oh, I think it is, and who are “they” anyway?’
‘None of your concern, Henry.’
‘People are not just bodies, sweetheart. We come with all sorts of desires, experiences and needs. A man is not just skin, bone and sinew. Er ... have you the full equipment?
‘You mean ...? Oh yes.’
‘Then you have the hormones of Jed, his brain shape and desires. And what’s more, you like it that way too.’
‘Enough of this ...’ The seraph’s image shimmered, rather like the bishop’s had. For a moment Henry saw a vast smoking mountain moving like an iceberg through a grey sea. Then the Jed shape was back, raising his hand. There was another flash of brilliant light.
Max wrenched his fingers from those of the stranger in the shed. ‘Who’re you!’ he squealed.
The voice belonged to a man who seemed to be enjoying himself. ‘A friend, which is more than I can say for that thing outside.’
Max sensed Eddie at his shoulder while Ed still guarded the door. He could dimly see now a third figure close to him. ‘You’re not Gavin.’
‘Then you’re that dead guy.’
‘Lije, yep, and less of the “dead guy”. I’m alive enough at the moment. Just as well for you too. I’m here to tell you to sit tight.’
‘What? Are you going to do some stuff and get rid of it?’
‘No. Well, not I. You guys were pretty stupid just running in here like this.’
Ed called over, ‘Where’s Henry?’
‘Disappeared right out from the middle of us. We thought the bishop had taken him.’
‘No ... he’s not done that. At least I don’t think so. He can’t know yet who Mendamero really is. Enoch will be puzzled to hear about this. It’s too early.’
‘Too early for what?’
Eddie was simmering. ‘Look, dickweed, forget the fucking riddles and tell us what the fuck is going on.’
‘You’re Eddie Peacher.’
‘So fucking what?’
‘Nothing. It’s just nice to be dealing with a straight for once. It’s some cosmic irony that a bunch of pansies are all that’s between the world and its extinction.’
Eddie growled, ‘No one calls my buddy Ed Cornish a pansy! Just come a bit closer and I’ll teach you some fucking manners.’
‘Hey! No offence. Apologies and all. But can we focus?’
‘Then watch your fucking mouth, asswipe!’
‘D’you know, I might just leave.’
‘Yeah you do that. Go the fuck back to wherever it is you guys come from.’
Ed intervened. ‘You want us to stay here. But either that thing’ll get in or one of the bishop's staff'll discover us.’
‘Leave it to Enoch, he’s got a plan. Now, job’s done, so I can fuck off as you so nicely put it.’ The dim presence of Elijah was suddenly no longer in the shed.
The air Henry breathed was fresh and very cold, but thin. He looked down and his stomach lurched as vertigo claimed him. He was standing on an intensely green sward high on a mountainside. The ground fell away steeply beneath him into great gulfs of empty air. Far below there were what could have been large wheeling birds, and beyond them tumbling hillsides green with trees. Around him all was silence, apart from the whistling of a thin wind. Lesser peaks serrated the horizon, mantled in shadow and distant cloud.
The seraph had taken his arm as they materialised. He seemed now to be looking around for something.
‘Where are we?’
‘Hmm? Oh ... we're in what you call the Canadian Rockies. It’s full daylight here while it’s dark in Cranwell, of course.’
‘So we’re back in real time?’
‘Oh yes, for the moment at least.’
‘So why are we here?’
The seraph laughed. ‘Would you believe to gain perspective?’
‘There’s nothing much I wouldn’t believe at the moment.’
‘Well then, here we are. And we have a vantage point. Tell me what you can see.’
Henry replied, ‘Mountains, snow, air ... Is this a game, like “I Spy”?’
‘No. Look harder.’ He pointed to the east.
Henry peered in that direction. Suddenly the horizon opened into a panorama of sweeping plains, a huge river, vast towered cities and an ocean. His mind briefly encompassed millions of people and their concerns, belching industries and busy airports: all the apparatus of a great modern state and economy. He blinked and shook his head. ‘What kind of a vision did I just have? Was that the way you see the world?’
‘When I contemplate it, yes. And it’s the same way he sees it too.’
‘You mean the Antichrist? He’s one of you?’
The seraph shook his head. ‘No. He’s bound to the world ... to this world. His existence is not like ours. To compare us is like comparing a tapeworm to a condor. However, we do have something of the same perspective on reality. That is indeed the world the way his mind perceives it. And he lusts to control it, or “put it to rights” as he would say. Try again.’
Henry looked once more. His mind took wing and he hovered high over the earth. He could see parliaments in session, armies in motion, forests of missiles pointing at the sky. The workings of the world’s leaders were open to him, their doubts and confusions, their corruption and ambition. Curious, he touched on one, a secretary in a leading European government. He sensed briefly the man’s anxiety for control, his desire to dominate women, his treachery. Henry recoiled.
He concentrated again and found himself contemplating Rothenia, his adopted homeland. There something was different. Minds were ordered and concentrated on the commonwealth. A certain amount of blackness was present, of course, but it was etched by a brightness and calm in the centre of the realm that beat back the shadows to spread an even glow of serenity. Henry disengaged.
‘What did I just see?’
‘The influence of the Icon, I imagine. I’m not surprised your mind sought it out. You have been exposed directly to its light. It became part of you.’
‘It did? How?’
The seraph looked a little sly. ‘Oh, it didn’t make you a better person, Henry. You’re not perfect. But it gave you a sensitivity few other humans possess. Your communication with the Lady Fenice is one result of this. It’s because you were both touched by the same light that she can talk with you over the centuries. The light bridges the ages where it seeps into the world. It’s the reason why you can stand here with me and see what I see. To that extent, my dear, you are not like other men anymore. Surely you must have sensed this.’
‘I’m like Gavin?’
‘Yes, you are ... at least in how you stand in relation to the world beyond its visible reality.’
‘And the Antichrist? Is that why he’s drawn to Rothenia?’
‘Yes. He can sense the Icon and know where it’s to be found, though it blinds him and distorts his perception. There’s no hiding it from him, despite the way it masks his view of its servants ... for the moment.’
‘Could I see this if you weren’t with me?’
‘Perhaps. If you worked at it. I don’t know the answer to everything, Henry. You are quite a mystery to me, you know. I’m not human in the least. I just don’t really understand what makes you tick at times.
‘So anyway ... today you’ve learned something important, I hope. Now I must ask you to make me a promise.’
‘You will increasingly be aware of your power. As you realise this, temptation will grow on you to use it. This you must not do. The Universe has its order which is not for you to change. There is a spirit at work in it, and although the world may seem to you a mass of tragedies and injustices, the balance is being kept in ways you can neither see nor comprehend. Stay Henry Atwood. You would not be Henry anymore if you started taking the fate of nations and individuals into your hands. You would be something else.’
‘Something like the bishop of Cranwell?’
‘Infinitely worse, for he never had a soul to lose. Will you take your oath on this?’
Henry nodded solemnly. ‘As God is my witness.’
‘He is your witness.’
Anthony drew a deep breath. ‘What do I have to do, Enoch?’
‘Simple enough. Go out on to the lawn and call for Gareth.’
‘That’s not simple. He’s a monster. He’ll rip me apart.’
‘There is a risk. The bloodlust is on him. He might attack you, but most probably he won’t. Your death would be ... inconvenient for his master.’
‘I call him, then what?’
‘Tell him the bishop wants him, or there’s someone on the phone for him. But you must do this now.’
Anthony gave a scared look at Enoch, swallowed and staggered out on to the grass. He wasn’t even sure why he did it.
‘Gareth!’ he gasped, then his voice strengthened. ‘GARETH! You out here?’ There was a silence from the other end of the garden. ‘There’s a call for you upstairs. You got your mobile on?’
An audible growling came from the area near the sheds. The bushes threshed and Anthony felt a moment of fear. But it was the bulky figure of Gareth which emerged, not the nightmare creature.
‘Phone for you. What are you doing out here?’
‘God! Not those kids again. I’ll get the police.’
‘I’m on it.’
‘I said, I’m on it! Stay out here and keep your eyes on things.’
‘Er ... fine.’
As soon as Gareth disappeared indoors, Anthony raced to the shed. He found a stranger peering round the door, a tall man, rather military looking, whom he recognised though he couldn't remember the name. The man had been the minder who had come with the journalist Atwood that afternoon. ‘Get out quick,’ Anthony hissed. ‘He’ll be back in a few minutes.’
‘What's going on?’
‘Never mind. Get out, and do it now!’
The man looked back and exchanged some words. Two others emerged whom Anthony had never seen before: one stocky and strong, the other little more than a boy – a rather attractive boy as Anthony registered.
Acknowledging Anthony with only a nod, they dashed into the bushes and shinned over the wall to vanish amongst the trees.
As they disappeared, Anthony became aware that Enoch was again with him and seemed happy. ‘Gareth is talking to one of his associates, or so he thinks. His intellect is capable of being confused away from his master’s presence. They’ve escaped, good. Now it's time for me to thank you and go.’
‘Wait! Is this it? Will I ever get answers? Will I see you again? What am I to do?’
‘Were I you, Anthony, I would get out from this place fast and never come back.’
‘No. I want to help ... to help you, Enoch.’
‘That’s brave, and I thank you. The fact you offer the help freely is worth a lot, for there is much that you can do. So stay, but do only your job and no more. Don’t try to find answers. Just keep your eyes and ears open.’
‘How do I contact you?’
‘You don’t. But I will contact you.’
Then Anthony was on his own again.