HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
With nothing much else to do, Max and Gavin spent Monday in bed. Neither of them initiated full sex. Instead they kissed and cuddled, expressing their love for each other in whispered words and delicate touches. Max dozed from time to time, and occasionally got up for a snack from his store of pilfered food.
Lije worked at his desk, scribbling away for hours on end and adding to the stacks of paper scattered about. Then, late in the afternoon, he took up his guitar.
Hearing melancholy chords fill the tower, his friends drifted into his room, where Gavin sat in Max’s lap as they listened. ‘He’s really good,’ Max whispered in his lover’s ear. Gavin nodded but did not otherwise reply.
After an hour, Lije put down his instrument and turned to the others. ‘Better light the candles.’
So, they lit up the tower and settled on the common-room sofas, each aware that their time had nearly run out.
Eventually Max asked, ‘What do we do when they – y’know – come for us?’
Gavin replied, ‘There’ll be an alarm of sorts that you’ll feel more than hear. Hellhounds can’t pass the bounds we fixed and mortals can’t even get that far. But the Antichrist … he probably will push through and bring his followers with him. At least we’ll have time to prepare a defence.’
‘With what weapons?’
‘Our strength is all we have.’
Lije added, ‘… apart from this spear.’ He indicated the weapon propped up in the corner by the stairs, giving it a look of distaste that Max could not interpret. ‘We don’t know what to do with it though.’
‘You gotta poke the bastards with the sharp end, haven’t ya?’ Max made a jabbing motion with his arm.
Gavin gave a weary chuckle. ‘I suppose. I’ll give it a go. There’s no doubt it’ll penetrate their armour.’
‘The supernatural has a fondness for antiquated weaponry … it’s the symbolic content, I guess.’
‘What shall I do when they come for us?’
‘Stay by me, sweets. You’re here for a purpose; we just don’t know what it is.’
‘I can fight.’
‘I know, sweets. And you will. If we go down, it’ll be together.’
Max got up and stared out of the window on to the moorland, whose sombre colours were darkening as the twilight closed in. It was going to be a clear night. Not surprisingly, he was on edge and couldn’t sit still. He knew – they all knew – that tonight they would meet their fate. So this was how a condemned prisoner felt on the eve of his execution.
He turned from the window. ‘I suppose they’ll attack in the dark, being evil and all.’
Lije nodded. ‘They like the darkness, especially because we don’t.’
Two hours passed, during which Max’s despair gradually left him. At some point he shifted into a sense of resignation. It was with a certain calmness when he realised the Enemy had found them, and was already at the tower gate.
Henry zipped up his camouflage jacket and settled his peaked cap carefully on his head. He had reappeared sensationally in the middle of the courtyard of Belvoir in full sight of an astonished garrison. Trying to look as if this sort of thing was an everyday occurrence, he had walked over to find his equipment and bags where Ed had left them in the old chapel.
‘It’s not straight,’ commented Davey Skipper as he struggled with the unfamiliar webbing he was trying to put on, while simultaneously dropping his assault rifle with a clatter.
‘Davey, darling, see this crown and these two stars?’ Henry pointed to the tab hanging from his left breast pocket, below the name tag which said ATWOOD. ‘Know what they mean?’
‘Yeah, course, you’re a colonel.’
‘Well you may notice a total lack of stars, crowns or any other rank insignia about your person, not even a corporal’s stripes. Which means you don’t criticise my appearance.’
‘Bollocks. I’ve still got my scout’s colour-coordination and catwalk badges. Must count for something. Talking of which, you can’t seriously expect me to wear this!’ He swung a steel helmet from his right hand with distaste. ‘Think what it’ll do to my hair! Do you know what I pay for a trim in Knightsbridge?’
‘Something tells me you’re not taking this exercise entirely seriously, Davey. Major O’Brien!’
‘Sir?’ Terry grinned as he gave a passable military salute.
‘Can you sort out this … volunteer?’
‘Delighted, colonel. C’mere Davey, yer stiff. Yer do it up like this. And stop fuckin’ whining.’
Henry surveyed the squad of friends who had considered it the highest of honours to stand with him in the final battle. Eddie Peacher winked in his direction, very much looking the part of a soldier. He was in the process of professionally stripping and reassembling his rifle – but then, Eddie was an American.
Matt White was grinning at Davey's antics and looking as good as ever, his astonishing beauty emphasised if anything by the unfamiliar military gear. He was taking his role rather more seriously than Davey, with whom otherwise he was usually much in sympathy.
Fritz von Tarlenheim, a descendant of marshals and generals, not only was born to wear a uniform but had received military training along with his brother Oskar. They had strapped swords to their thighs, for they were accomplished fencers, Fritz to Olympic standard. He had suggested to Rudi that the nature of the enemy forces might be a mystery, but their susceptibility to cold steel could be anticipated. They knew their king was going to wear the ancient sword associated with his dynasty.
True to his promise, the king had provided Rothenian uniforms with a distinctive pink shoulder-flash for the volunteers. A Greek letter Omega stood behind an Elphberg lion and the Latin phrase, ULTRA ULTIMA, which Fritz had told Henry meant: ‘Beyond the end of the world’. Henry’s and Ed’s shoulders were adorned with the same flash. Rudolf Elphberg didn’t miss a trick.
Henry found Ed Cornish at the doorway of the castle’s chapel, holding a mug of coffee while discussing some details of the fortifications with an engineer lieutenant. ‘Hey, little babe!’ he greeted Henry – in English so as not to raise eyebrows. Even so the lieutenant gave them a sideways look as he saluted and left.
‘How’re things coming along?’
‘The engineers are digging in. They had ready-made caissons flown up from Strelfurt to serve as instant gun emplacements. The old castle ditch has been very useful – more so than the walls, it has to be said. I’ve had the guard company and commandos cutting back the eaves of the woods for a good fifty metres all around. You may have heard the chainsaws … no? They’ve used many of the branches to make nasty, sharp stakes sunk deep in the bottom of the ditch. It’ll slow the bastards down at least. My extensive research in horror movies has indicated that demons don’t like stakes in their guts.
‘Now look up there. You’ll see the artillery has deployed batteries of computer-guided missiles to cover a 360-degree sweep of the area. They’ll provide us with a certain amount of air defence if we need it.’
‘Where’s the command post?’
‘Bottom floor of the keep. Rudi’s up on the mound if you want a chat.’
Henry climbed a new set of steps the engineer detachment had constructed, returning the salutes of the garrison as he went, oblivious of the many eyes following him. He had stumbled into his role as royal aide, but had assumed the duties imposed on him as conscientiously as everything else he undertook in life. He had accepted a reserve commission in the Guards because Rudi had insisted his equerry have the status and a uniform. Since Ed Cornish – inspired by the king – had followed a military calling, Henry had continued to apply himself to his part-time career. It was giving back something to Rothenia, a country which had given so much to him.
So Henry had graduated from basic-training and reservist-officer summer schools, then progressed up the ranks, often ahead of Ed. Ed himself had pronounced Henry a better-than-average officer perfectly capable of command. For the past two years Henry had regularly been given charge of a battalion of national guardsmen and led them on manoeuvres, first as major and now as colonel, so far without disgracing himself. The part-timers had in fact grown very fond of their young English commander, whom they knew from the TV and who they were aware was a personal friend to their king.
The experience meant he was happier wearing the rank badges and decorations which he believed came more from his association with the king than from any ability as a soldier. Those who knew him well might have disagreed with his internal modesty.
Still, deep in his heart Henry was not a soldier. He had rarely fired a weapon in anger. He was not at all sure modern weapons would have much relevance to his coming struggle with the being which called itself Bishop Jack James.
King Rudolf was at a desk in the technology-crammed room, chatting amiably with a communications sergeant. Wearing his general’s uniform, he looked thoroughly in his element, a born soldier, the descendant of warriors. He had made his constitutional role as head of the armed forces peculiarly his own. His prestige, organisational ability and heroism had raised the reputation of the Rothenian military in NATO, lifting the army’s morale to unprecedented heights.
Rudolf greeted Henry and indicated he should take a seat. A nod sent the sergeant off to another corner of the room to do something with blinking lights and headphones, or perhaps to monitor the generators humming in the basement of the tower, powering the lamps and electronic systems. ‘Nice day for the apocalypse.’
‘I don’t think it’ll be today.’
‘The last text from Anthony Willis said they were leaving St Edwards and heading north. I think the bishop will attack the Icon tonight. It’ll be tomorrow he turns his attention to us.’
The king looked grim. ‘Can you sense anything at Biscofshalch?’
‘No. The Icon is pulsing brighter. For me to try to penetrate it would be like attempting to stare directly into the sun. The Icon knows the end is coming too. I almost feel as though it’s preparing itself, as much as we are.’
‘Is it sentient?’
‘No. It’s just a channel, but there is an intelligence and goodness behind it which the Antichrist cannot touch. He can only try to close the window the Icon represents, to the great increase of his own strength and the weakening of ours.’
‘Fascinating. Ah well, let’s hope for a quiet night and some decent sleep then. Does he know we’re here at Belvoir?’
‘No. Until the Icon is destroyed he can’t see me, but once it goes I think all will become clear to him. You’ll know when that happens, I fear.’
‘What can we expect? Flying monkeys? Orcs?’
‘I wouldn’t rule anything out. You should be able to spot the Antichrist though.’
‘He’ll be red, and in armour.’
Rudi looked serious. ‘There's one last preparation to make.’
‘The Guards chaplain will celebrate mass for the garrison at sunset in the court below.’
Henry frowned. ‘Ask him to say it for the good of the souls of our friends Mark Tolmie, Gavin Michael Price and Maxim Josep Jamroziak.’
Anthony looked across the moonlit moor towards the tower. ‘Where are we?’ he asked Bishop Jack, standing meditatively beside him.
‘I think I just told you,’ was the reply. ‘It’s called Biscofshalch, though you won’t find it on any map of Rothenia, for here the enemies of God do their evil work and hide themselves from heaven’s gaze.’
‘How did you know about this place?’
‘Come, Anthony, you surely realise I have powers beyond those of other men. You’ve seen the cures and can attest to the truth of the prophecies I make. No more pretending, please. You know of Enoch and Elijah.’
Cold hands gripped and squeezed Anthony’s heart. So this was it. His treachery was known and was to be brought out in the open.
‘When did you find out?’
‘You are somewhat transparent, dear boy. But it was clear when we got back from America last summer that you had been in contact with the Enemy and were hiding something – other than the obvious.’
‘And you knew I was …?’
‘Homosexual? Of course. That’s why I wanted you as my chaplain.’
‘I don’t get it. I’m everything you seem to despise: queer, weak and a traitor to myself as much as to you. Why me?’
The bishop gave a low laugh. ‘Have you heard of Marcus Cocceius Nerva the elder?’
‘A Roman civil servant, a very good man. He was however a member of the household of the very bad emperor Tiberius. People always wondered why the emperor maintained such a steady friendship with Nerva. The point was that Tiberius needed Nerva to act as a measure to set against the cynical, vicious flatterers and opportunists around him.’
‘And you needed me for that reason?’
‘Well, yes! For all your defects, dear boy, you are a good man. You’re well-intentioned and – sexuality aside – you’re painfully honest and wonderfully hard-working. You’d walk a mile barefoot on broken glass rather than deliberately hurt someone. I value that.’
‘But I talked to your enemies!’
‘You’re so gullible, Tony. But I can forgive you that. Look what else I have to put up with!’ He gestured at the huddled figures of the Wilmots and Bishop Lewis, staring confusedly around.
‘Why are we really here?’
The bishop smiled. ‘Your associates seem to have made you suspicious. The truth is, this is where acolytes of the Beast Mendamero have their headquarters. It is time for me to begin the fight for the Kingdom here in this benighted realm of Rothenia.’
‘And why you?’
‘My dear chap, isn’t it obvious? No? Oh well, we’ll get back to it after I have dealt with Enoch and Elijah. Gareth!’
The security man loomed black behind them. For the first time since Anthony had known him, Gareth was giving off signs of excitement and a small smile seemed to hang about his mouth.
The bishop pointed to the distant tower. ‘I shall go in alone, you understand?’
‘We don’t need your particular talents at this point, Gareth. But watch them.’ He indicated the Wilmots and the other bishop.
‘Now, Tony, walk with me a while.’ Bishop Jack set off briskly across the grey grass. Anthony followed him, stumbling over unevennesses in the ground. There came a point about four hundred metres from the tower, as the path descended to the black thread of a small stream, that Anthony became disorientated. The bishop seemed to sense it and turned.
‘Ah, you feel it? Good. The barrier is still up then. It won’t be in a few moments more.’
‘What is this?’
‘Enoch and Elijah have power to prevent any approach to their fortress. I can break through it, but it would alert them. Gareth and his men have not the strength to push past it, and it clearly makes you sick and confused. But soon it will be lifted. You see, I have managed to reason with the creature Elijah, rather more sensible and less debased than the demon calling itself Enoch. It sees the reign of evil is ending and wishes to repent and seek God’s pardon while it may.’
‘So it will lift the barriers?’
‘Exactly. And I believe it has just done so. How do you feel?’
‘Excellent. You will stay here. And now to battle. I have a really good feeling about this. It’s time to go to war for the sake of light and goodness!’
Bishop Jack raised his right hand high, and Anthony blinked. The bishop’s form grew more bulky and taller. When he brought down his hand, it clasped a great, barbed mace. He had taken the semblance of an armoured warrior, the moonlight glinting on the metal. He strode across the brook, and as he went, Anthony could have sworn a tail of some sort trailed behind him.
Anthony thought of turning back to the group around the cars, but found himself rooted to the spot. All he could do was watch the large, dark figure climb the hill to the tower. After a while the boom of a concussion rolled across the moor to smite his ears, then further sounds of battering.
The bishop disappeared. The moorland waited expectant beneath the moon.
Max started up. ‘They’re here!’
Gavin had stood with him. ‘But how? The defences failed.’
The tower shook as a heavy blow beat at the door, two levels below.
Gavin grabbed the spear. ‘Down to the crypt!’ They pounded down the stairs as the tower trembled once more. They hesitated at the entrance, where timbers had splintered and hinges were bent.
Max shouted, ‘Can we fight here?’
‘No! Too much space for them. Down to the foot of the stairs!’
As they reached the next level below, they heard the crash of the door, followed by silence. Gavin looked at Lije. ‘It’s time,’ he murmured.
The two changed as Max looked on, and two winged figures stood where his friends previously had. Gavin’s dark hair and golden wings were matched by Lije’s bronze and blue. When Gavin’s black eyes caught his, Max felt a shock run through his body and he too transformed, great silver pinions arching out from his shoulders.
Gavin flexed his arm and balanced the spear, glowing in his hand. ‘So now there are three of us … one more than the Antichrist will expect.’ His voice was as delicate and warm as ever, but with a resonance and depth it had not had before. Max himself felt a strength and power in his arms that he did not recognise.
An echoing clash and heavy steps sounded from above. Something was descending to the crypt. The three stared as a broad foot shod in red metal became visible on a stair, followed slowly by the rest of an armoured body.
‘The spear!’ urged Max, but as he breathed the words, he found himself pinned. Lije had seized him from behind and held a slim blade at his throat. Max resisted but Lije was too strong for him, so his struggles only succeeded in forcing a yelp out of him as the blade penetrated his skin.
‘Surrender the spear!’ Lije commanded.
Gavin looked bewildered. ‘Lije? What …?’
‘Drop the spear!’
‘Drop it or I cut Max’s head off. I’ll do it too.’
‘Why … ?’
A new voice cut in, smooth and conversational, which nonetheless echoed loudly in the confined space of the upper crypt. ‘Really, you people do organise things so badly. It should be obvious.’
The Antichrist had emerged from the stair. He was above human height and stooped slightly under the vault. He looked to Max more like a samurai warrior than anything: a figure cased in bright red armour, holding a long kite-shaped shield on his right arm and swinging a wickedly barbed mace with his left. As the creature moved, Max became aware that he drew a great tail, spiked like a dragon’s, which scraped dully as it dragged across the floor. There was no sign as yet of the Hellhounds.
Gavin shifted his gaze from Lije to the Antichrist and back.
The thing that had been Bishop Jack rested casually on his upright mace. ‘I marvel at the fact you people were happy to see the boy Tolmie perish in pain, then resurrected him to his own personal purgatory, and still have the arrogance to think he’d be happy to go back into the blackness once more! That’s the sort of cruelty my people would be ashamed of. No wonder he had rather make a deal.’
‘He’s right, Enoch. I couldn’t go through with it. I’ve had no life. Dressner destroyed the first one so I couldn’t bear another day in pain. Then you brought me back as a … non-human thing. I breathe but I don’t live. I can’t have any of the ordinary pleasures: a woman in my bed, children, a home … even fucking food! And you expect me to give up even this pale imitation of existence!’
‘But, we’re friends! We have a cause! We are Guardians.’
‘So I go into the blackness again hand-in-hand with my queer mate, all for the cause? Point is, I’d rather not go into the dark at all, and he says he can give me a normal life.’
‘You can’t trust him! Think what he is!’
‘He says he can give me everything I’ve been denied by your people. It’s the thing you at least have. They allowed you Max. I just got a Friday-night whore! Well thank you!’
Although the Antichrist had a mask rather than a face, somehow it expressed amusement. ‘I have a use for that spear, so I’ll thank you to do what your former colleague suggested and drop it.’
‘Why’s it so important to you?’
‘It really is no concern of yours. Just put it down on the floor. If you don’t, your boyfriend will be very slowly and painfully dismembered before your eyes.’
Gavin stooped, his wings folding against his body, and placed the spear flat beside him.
‘Now step back.’
As Gavin retreated into the crypt, the Antichrist chuckled. ‘A perfect means of accomplishing my aims, and through an act of treachery as well. I impress even myself.’
Sensing his captor relax and the blade move from his throat, Max suddenly summoned all his supernatural strength to burst from Lije’s grip. He swooped down on the spear and, as he landed on his back, lifted it and hurled it hard at the Antichrist.
But it was not the creature he struck. Lije screamed ‘No!’ and attempted to place himself in the way. The spear took him in the midriff, pinning him to the monster’s shield. Crying and writhing he tried to pull it out from his body, but his lifeblood was draining down the shield and pooling on the floor.
Seized by horror, Max scrabbled towards Gavin and clung on to his legs. There was nothing they could do but watch as Lije arched in agony, his body hanging there like a broken puppet. The spear glowed bright as it fed off his blood. His life draining away, Lije lost his supernatural form and withered to no more than a pale, limp human corpse.
The Antichrist stood, seemingly as surprised as his enemies at the turn of events. He held the shield away from himself, untroubled by the weight of the dead body impaled on it. Finally he dropped his mace, reached round and pulled the spear out from his shield and from Lije’s belly. The corpse slid to the ground with a thump, leaving a dark bloody stain smeared across the shield’s face.
The creature stepped over the inert form. ‘Now that was unexpected,’ he observed mildly, ‘but really it could not have been managed better had I tried. The spear is mine and I don’t have to pay the traitor’s price. So the time has come to deal with you two.’
The great weapon still glowed. The Antichrist put back his head and uttered a stream of words, ancient and deadly, designed to summon the forces of chaos and hatred. The spear began sparking red as Gavin and Max huddled against the wall. A brilliant red bolt suddenly burst from its shaft to flash in their direction. Max felt arms draw him back before Gavin took the discharge on his own chest, his body arching and his hair flaming in the sudden heat. Then he crumpled back in his lover’s arms, drained of power, naked and lifeless.