HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
Max held close Gavin’s still-warm body, now a limp, dead weight in his grasp. It was a few moments before the strangest thing registered in his head. Amazingly, wings still arched from his shoulders, his skin was golden and his arms were strong and muscled beyond what they normally were. The fall of Enoch had not ended his transformation. He still had his powers!
‘Now what are you?’ the Antichrist’s voice grated into his grief and woke him to his surroundings. ‘Not one of the orders, I think. You smell human, but you don’t look it. Speak, boy!’
‘I’m gonna take ya down, ya bastard!’ Max growled, an unaccustomed anger beginning to burn in his chest.
‘Definitely not one of the orders. I’ll dissect you afterwards, if I have time. It is curious. Enoch and Elijah I knew about, but where did the Icon find you? But for now …’
The great spear was raised again, red sparks crackling from it.
‘I’ll have you, you cunt!’ Max swore, taken back to the hormonal violence of his adolescent years. His wings, flexing and beating of their own accord, lifted him even in the confined space of the crypt. His wrath was intensely physical, feeding on the appalling tragedy of his friends’ deaths. It pressed out from him, dislodging stones from the vault and shifting the walls, and still it grew. As he rose, Max screamed his anguish and despair. The ceiling and floors above him, unable to withstand the hurricane of his passage, bulged and then exploded upwards. He cared nothing for the devastation he was creating. There was some relief in destruction and he rejoiced as the tower shattered about him, an avalanche of stone smashing down the red form of the Antichrist as it did so.
Max noticed a glowing shape in the debris. He raised his hand to summon it, and the spear leaped obediently into his grip. He would not leave this grim weapon for the Enemy to use again.
Holding Gavin’s inert form in one arm, he soared up into the night air through the collapsing tower. He hovered briefly above it, then beat eastwards, buoyed up by his fury and grief. His mind reached out to seek the only person who could bring him help and comfort: Henry. Instinctively finding the mind he sought, he homed in on it, beyond mountains and lakes. His wings flexed, urging him forward. All the while he kept Gavin clasped hard to his body, sheltering him as much as he could from the cold air.
Anthony Willis stared astonished as with a great rumble and crash the tower of Biscofshalch collapsed, not inward but outward. Watching it split, its walls reeling and falling, he realised something was coming from deep within the building. A glowing golden shape on huge pinions burst out of the ruin, flinging stones and timbers away from it as it rose shrieking despairingly. Then the tower beneath it vanished into a cloud of choking dust that flowed down the hill towards Anthony. Before he was briefly swallowed up, however, he saw the shape arrow away to the east, beating its wings furiously.
The bishop? He must still be in the ruin. Anthony staggered forward up the hill into the now thinning dust. A crater yawned where the tower had stood, a jumble of masonry fragments filling it. Dust and vapour still ascended from the wreck of Biscofshalch.
For a while there was comparative silence, then the wreckage stirred and heaved. Shifting stone rattled loudly as something massive and armoured climbed from under it. ‘Sir?’ Anthony called weakly.
More fragments rumbled aside and there was a crack as a great timber shattered. The metal shape was gone now, replaced by the familiar figure of Bishop Jack James picking his way through the jumble of masonry, brushing himself off as he came.
Anthony reached down to haul the bishop up the last slope to the surface. The man seemed to catch his breath. ‘Well, this suit will never be the same.’
‘Sir, are you alright? What happened?’
‘You might say job done, though not the way I intended. The Icon is crushed and extinguished, and a source of evil is gone from the world. Can’t you feel it?’
‘What was that winged thing?’
‘You saw it?’
‘Yes, sir. It burst out of the ruin and flew away in that direction. What was it?’
‘A demonic ambush I had not expected. Still, Enoch and Elijah are no more.’
‘Yes. The demon who bewitched you is defeated, consigned at last to the hell that spawned it. You’re free, Anthony. It and its companion are dead. There is no stain of their filthy minds left to befoul the world that I can sense. But now we have a new danger. Mendamero is unveiled, and the demon you just saw is returning to its master. The forces of evil and chaos are gathering not far away.’
The bishop led Anthony back down the hill. He seemed preoccupied, humming to himself as he went.
Henry was reclining on a camp bed attempting to sleep, albeit without much hope of success. Heavy breathing from the next bed indicated that Ed Cornish had been luckier. But his slumber was not destined to last.
A troubled Henry had experienced a distinct shudder and emptiness a few moments before. Something had changed in the world around him, and he felt suddenly like a stranger in an unfamiliar place.
At that moment an alarm erupted from the keep of Belvoir. As men leaped to their feet and cried out around him, Henry sprang from his cot, grabbed his winter coat and searched for his shoes. By the time he found them, Ed was already dressed.
They ran out of the west wing heading for the great tower, where arc lights had powered up and the antennae of the missile batteries were rotating, looking to acquire a target. They encountered Rudi with night glasses on the top of the castle mound. ‘Incoming,’ he informed them laconically.
‘Which direction?’ panted Ed.
‘It’s low in the west. No more than ten kilometres away now and closing fast. It’s the size and speed of a missile, but …’
Henry focussed. ‘It’s no missile. Look! That blaze of light!’ A golden shape pulsed in the sky coming towards them at treetop height. ‘I think … let it be, it’s friendly!’
The king barked into his mic, ordering the missile batteries and anti-aircraft guns to power down. The soldiers stared in wonder at what was beating in from the west, its great silver wings thrashing the night sky. It halted above the castle, hovered and then landed in the courtyard, gently laying its burdens on the ground.
Many soldiers had gone to their knees, crossing themselves. Henry, however, was running down from the mound shouting, ‘Max! Max!’
The golden shape looked around, its burning blue eyes sweeping the crowd that cowered away from it. The wings folded, shrank and vanished. The light dimmed out of the figure and all that was left was a naked, fair-haired boy on his knees, weeping over the body of …
‘Gavin!’ wailed Henry.
The bishop and Anthony reached the huddled group back at the cars.
‘Jack? What’s going on? We saw lights and heard explosions!’ Bishop Lewis was confused.
Bishop Jack ignored him. He sent a staccato burst of instructions at Gareth and his minions, although in no language ever spoken by a human being, Anthony suspected. The security men growled back, and two loped towards the wreckage of the tower.
Finally Bishop Jack turned to the others. ‘You’d best settle in your car for the moment. There’s been a great battle in the Spirit, which has forced me to reveal myself.’
‘Reveal yourself? What do you mean?’
‘For heaven’s sake, Alun! You’ve seen the signs and wonders. Surely it’s obvious.’
‘Obvious? Not at all. Yes, I’ve seen the cures and exorcisms. Are you suggesting …?’
Wearily, Jack nodded.
‘You’re … the Prophet?’
‘The Anointed One. The Lamb. All those things. Who else could do such miracles? Now get in the car. There are arrangements to complete before dawn. Gareth, take Mr Willis and make him comfortable in the van.’
Anthony sat dazed in the rear seat of the Volkswagen. He sipped automatically at the bottle of water Gareth had silently handed him, with which he cleared the dust of the collapsed tower from his throat. Then the security man searched him thoroughly, removing his mobile and checking his wallet and pocketbook. Afterwards he moved to the driving seat, staring fixedly in the direction of what once had been Biscofshalch.
So Enoch was dead. Anthony was numbed by the news. That beautiful, lithe body with which he had made love was no more than carrion. That laughter and those profound eyes were extinguished forever. Defiantly, he prayed for Gavin’s soul, not a thing his form of religion usually favoured. He realised by now he was in deep trouble, his own soul’s fate hanging in the balance. He thought he understood at last what kind of creatures he was dealing with.
Time passed, and despite everything he dozed. He awoke to find the security detail, returned from the tower ruins, in earnest discussion with their boss. Bishop Jack was scrutinising a sheaf of torn papers, which he then scattered on the ground in disgust. He appeared disappointed about something.
A pearly greyness was gradually growing in the sky beyond the hills as dawn approached. The bishop turned towards the sun and began singing in a very strange voice. It seemed the landscape leaned over to listen.
A gusting wind scythed across the moors, thrashing the scrubby trees and thickets of broom. With a grinding noise the earth opened. Monolithic grey stones emerged to arrange themselves in the grouping of a giant throne, a slab of granite acting as a footstool or altar before it. Two of the black-suited security men –– one of them Boris –– flanked the table.
Anthony heard exclamations from the Wilmots’ car. Ann Wilmot’s white face was pressed against the side window, her mouth open with astonishment. Indicating that Anthony should get out of the van, Gareth pushed him roughly into position before the throne, then directed the Wilmots and Bishop Lewis to join him. Lewis’s whining and questioning voice was ignored.
Bishop Jack, who had been musing on the landscape before him, now strode in front of the throne. ‘My friends, this is the hour when I must declare myself. You shall be the witnesses of what has been accomplished and will have the joy of being the first to hail your lord and king.’
There was a stunned silence in response that announcement. Bishop Jack smiled benignly around the group, as if he were addressing one of his seminars or conferences. He raised his hand. Slowly and subtly he changed. He kept his face but his body seemed to swell beyond its normal size. His clothes became white robes and his hair shone golden. He was now a kingly and noble figure, youthful yet wise. From somewhere he drew a gold chain and placed it around his neck, then produced a jewelled diadem which he set on his head. At last he ascended his throne, seeming to fill it as if they were of the same proportions.
‘Please kneel,’ he commanded gently, and all four were pushed down in front of the table by Gareth and his men. ‘You know me now, for I am the One, the Lord. Greet God, the Prince of this World. Bow to the Lamb in whose hands lie healing and salvation, but death and damnation for the sinner and unbeliever. Yes, my children, this is the Eschaton, and I am he who will bring the heavenly Jerusalem to Earth. Hallelujah!’
The black-suited men echoed his acclamation with guttural fervour.
There was silence from the four humans on their knees before him. Boris appeared with a square black object, a painting in a heavy frame, which he placed in front of them. It was a Byzantine image of the Virgin Mary, her face pale staring out of her black robe adorned with dull golden stars. His heart sinking, Anthony recognised it as the Black Virgin of Ranstadt. So Gareth’s activity in the cathedral that night was now explained.
The Antichrist seemed disappointed at the reaction to his self-coronation. ‘My dear friends, I have offered you the great favour of being the first before my judgement throne, the first to taste my love and mercy, for you have been faithful to me each in your way. Alun, I address you. Who am I?’
The bishop’s voice stuttered, ‘You are … I mean you were John James … but er, clearly there are other considerations. For God’s sake, Jack. Can I trust my eyes?’
‘Believe in me and you will live forever. You see this pathetic object of superstition before you? Spit on it! Then acclaim me as lord and God.’
‘Well … if you … you seem to be one foretold in prophecy. I … er, call you lord and God.’ A security man took him up by the scruff of his neck and the bishop, looking embarrassed, obligingly spat a dribble of saliva on the icon.
The Antichrist pondered the man and held his gaze silently. Sighing, he next questioned Ann Wilmot. ‘Woman, do you know me?’
In a shrill, nervous voice she echoed the man beside her. ‘You are my lord and my God.’ Without help from the Antichrist's sinister acolytes, she spat on the virgin and then wiped her lips with a tissue.
Again the Antichrist looked disappointed. He turned to Gerry Wilmot. ‘And you?’
The man was more decided in his reaction, his answer bordering on being eager. ‘You are the foretold Lamb. You are my God.’ He sent a volley of spit across the face before him.
This time the reaction brought forth a pale smile from the crowned figure. His gaze finally rested on Anthony, who for some reason believed he caught the edge of keen anticipation in the eyes that fell on him from the throne. ‘Now, Anthony, my faithful disciple, I ask you. You have seen my wonders and the extent of my works. Knowing me as you do, who am I?’
The world reeled around Anthony’s head and fear rose in his throat like bile. He first looked up at the kingly, smiling figure, then at the sad-faced woman whose image had been placed in front of him. She caught his eyes with hers, their gaze speaking of suffering but, beyond the pain, ultimate hope. She seemed to smile encouragingly. He could not spit in such a face.
All the events he had witnessed came back to him: Bishop Jack’s friendship and cruelties, his monumental ego and lust for power, his enigmatic relationship with dark forces and corrupt men. Was this God’s way? It was not. Before he could be stopped, Anthony leaned forward to kiss the face before him.
‘You are the Antichrist. The evil one. You I will not worship.’ He had sealed his fate.
Henry knelt beside a sobbing Max. When he took the boy's hand, Max collapsed against him shuddering.
‘Henry! Lije is dead! He betrayed us. Then Gavin saved me, and now he’s dead. And I escaped and I brought that bloody spear. Do something, Henry! Bring him back. You can do it.’
Henry’s eyes too were full of tears. He raised the boy and threw his coat over his shoulders. Holding Max hard, Henry finally understood the true tragedy of the oath he had dared to take. ‘I can’t, Max. It’s not allowed, at least not to me. I’m not permitted to play the game of life and death.’
Max pushed him away exclaiming, ‘What? But you must!’
Henry went to his knees again beside Gavin’s body. He touched it with his mind and inspected it carefully. Amazingly there was still life in it. Max had been wrong!
As this sank in, it occurred to Henry that what he saw was a body he knew all too well, in its blemishes and imperfections. Blemishes and imperfections? He started with surprise. Hang on, his mind suddenly announced, this is the self-same body you slept with and made love to all those years ago. What lay on the ground was not Enoch, the transformed and perfect being, full of strength, confidence and power.
Henry grinned and looked up. ‘Max! Listen to me. This isn’t Enoch.’
‘I know that. It’s Gavin. Why are you smiling?’
‘You don’t understand. This is the real Gavin – my Gavin – the boy with spots, verrucas and a red, runny nose every February. This is Gavin Price before he touched the Icon. This is a nineteen-year-old human boy and he’s alive, if not firing on all cylinders.’
Max stared. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Enoch has been burned away, leaving the boy he once was. He’s out for the count but he’s alive, truly alive. This Gavin may well need the loo and certainly could do with a shower. He’s been returned to us by the Icon.’
He shouted in Rothenian, ‘Medijces!’ His command brought orderlies who stretchered Gavin to the improvised field hospital below the east range. Max trailed after them, pulling Henry’s jacket tightly around himself.
Henry looked at Rudi, Ed and the friends who had crowded round them. ‘So Elijah and Enoch have perished, but Gavin lives. I wonder about Mark?’ He stooped and picked up the spear which Max had retrieved from the wreck of Biscofshalch and discarded without a thought on landing at Belvoir.
Rudi briskly ordered the senior officers to a conference on the mound. Henry trailed after them, deeply pensive. As he walked, he inspected the spear carefully. It felt very different from the weapon he had first held. Blood and scraps of flesh clotted the blade and the first foot of its length. It had killed, so much was clear. He suppressed a shudder. This was Lije’s lifeblood. That tragic young man was finally at rest. But had he died a traitor? Knowing Lije, Henry could not believe it. There was more to all this than appeared at first sight.
He hefted the weapon. Its emanation of power was still very much to be sensed, although the vibrant personality that inhabited it seemed subdued now, turned inwards on itself. With a grimace, he carefully laid it on the conference table. As the other officers of the garrison entered, they glanced at it with a mixture of caution and disgust.
When everyone had found seats, Rudi called the meeting to order. ‘So Henry, your thoughts, please.’
‘The Icon is destroyed, as we knew must happen, and both Elijah and Enoch are no more. However, their deaths were not what we were led to expect. Enoch perished, certainly, but Gavin lives thanks to the Icon’s gift and Max’s love and courage.’
‘… is clearly dead, yet … I wonder if again his departure is more complicated than the prophecy would lead us to believe. I must get more information from Max, once he recovers from the shock he’s in.’
‘We really don’t have much time. We need to know what happened at Biscofshalch. Can the Antichrist perceive you now?’
‘Oh yes, I can feel his malevolence beating on me. He knows we’re here and he’ll be coming soon. At the moment, though, he’s preoccupied.’
‘I have no idea. Gathering his forces, I would imagine.’
‘And the boy Max is more powerful than we guessed. Can he aid our fight?’
Henry shook his head. ‘He’s empty now of the power the Icon lent him in its last moments. He’ll not fly again. His part is done, I would guess, apart from sitting by Gavin’s bedside.’
‘I see, then we go back to waiting.’
‘Yes, sir. Perhaps you’ll excuse me. I want to go down to the sickbay and try to get more out of Max. Would you take care of the … cleaning and care of this weapon? I wouldn’t advise anyone's holding it too long. It’s very dangerous.’
Henry got up, replaced his cap and walked down to the west range. The medics had found a tee-shirt, military coveralls and boots for Max. He sat looking dishevelled and handsome, holding Gavin’s hand.
Henry sat on the other side of the bed, inspecting the two. It was astonishing to see Gavin lying there, his appearance exactly the same as when they had been students together seven years before. Time had stopped for him. In effect, he had been granted seven years of extra life. Henry felt almost envious until he remembered the cost to his former lover. Yet in some ways the balance was now being restored. Gavin had been given back his life and form, together with a lover of some courage and desirability. But how would Gavin deal with it when he awoke?
Henry glanced across at Max and smiled. A shy grin answered him. ‘How are you doing, Max?’
‘Confused, Henry. But I feel safer now, and happier. Will he be okay when he wakes up?’
‘I hope so, babes, I hope so. But I don’t know. I’m afraid it’ll be painful. He has to come to terms with Lije’s death and the loss of his powers.
‘Now I need your help. Can you gather your thoughts and talk me through the last hours of Biscofshalch?’
Max first looked uncertain, then clenched his jaw like a determined little boy and began his account. Although it was not always articulate, Henry was patient and eventually had what he believed was the full picture.
‘So the spear was used against both Enoch and Elijah … that’s very interesting.’
Max blurted, ‘I feel so guilty.’
‘I killed Lije. I didn’t mean to, but he stood in front of the spear. It was almost as if he wanted to die. I can’t get over it.’
‘Don’t waste your time in recriminations. I think you might even take some hope from it all. The spear is not exactly what it seems, and it’s clear that when the Enemy used it against Gavin he made a big mistake. It wouldn’t cooperate. It burned away Enoch while leaving Gavin unharmed. There’s more to learn about this yet, Max, but for now neither of the two who could tell me are able to.’
‘Gavin’s out of it, and the spirit which inhabits the spear isn’t very talkative in this universe.’
‘Never mind, Max. Just don’t blame yourself. Lije got himself into this, and maybe it was for a reason. I don’t know what, but time will tell, you can be sure of that.’
The boy looked comforted and returned his gaze to his lover on the bed, hooked up to all sorts of monitors. Though still pale, Gavin seemed unharmed.
Henry left and sought out the army doctor, a major in green scrubs. To his request for information he got the response that Gavin was apparently in fine health, with no breakages or bruises, just in a profound healing sleep, which the major thought had been induced. ‘He will wake when his body wants to,’ was his concluding observation.
Having uttered the fatal words, Anthony attempted to project bravado by stared up defiantly at the Antichrist.
The being sat on its throne staring back at him with what seemed to be mingled annoyance and resignation. ‘So. That’s a pity. My victory depends on several conditions. The easiest one is that a good man will recognise me as the God I am. A pity I chose such a benighted and superstitious fool as you. It was always a long shot, but though you might call me lazy, I had hoped you would cooperate, Tony.’
He nodded to Boris. The Black Virgin’s image was punched through and hurled into the bushes.
Anthony felt puzzled enough to find the boldness for a question. ‘Why, if you have had three others defile an image of such goodness while hailing you as lord and God, did you need me as well?’
The being shook its noble head. ‘You fail to understand. Alun here is a hypocrite, a lecher and a serial adulterer. His acclamation is worthless, as is that of the harlot his mistress, who merely echoes his self-interested whining.’
Bishop Lewis began to protest, but the Antichrist held up its hand and the kneeling man fell silent. The figure on the throne seemed amused again as it gazed down at the man on Anthony’s right. ‘Of course, Mr Wilmot here had no idea of what his wife and the bishop were up to.’ Anthony glanced at his neighbour, whose mouth sagged in shock at the revelation. ‘Now Gerry’s acclamation is not so worthless, for it was made with conviction. As a result, his fate will be different from the others. Unfortunately, he’s not what you might call a good man. He’s a vengeful, small-minded bigot with an ambition to control and little moral compunction as to how to achieve it. It is power he loves, not God.
‘No, Anthony. Your endorsement was the one I needed. But you would not oblige.’
Lewis found his voice again. ‘Look here, Jack – if you are indeed Jack – let us up, there’s a good fellow. I’ll pass over this nonsense about me and Ann. I’m sure you’ve been … misinformed.’
The Antichrist leaned forward. ‘I did mention this was a judgement throne, did I not? And now it comes. You are a lecher and so you will experience the fulfilment of lust, but not your own lust.’
The Antichrist nodded and Boris transformed into the half-bestial form of a Hellhound. Its claws clamped on the back of Bishop Lewis’s neck while its other paw ripped his clothes from his body, forcing him naked and face down over an edge of the table.
Anthony gagged at the stench from the Hellhound, which howled as it thrust itself deep into Lewis. Screams went on and on, the noses of the appalled witnesses filling with the smell of excrement and burning flesh. Lewis took several minutes to die and was conscious and whimpering until the end.
Anthony and the two others found their necks clamped by muscular, irresistible fingers. They struggled uselessly in horror from which there was no chance of escape.
The Antichrist watched the death of the bishop with real interest, and applauded as he died. ‘And now his whore.’
Ann Wilmot was thrown on her back, stripped and disembowelled in her turn. Although her agony was less prolonged, she died looking down at the obscenity being inflicted on her body.
Anthony had vomited several times by now, spattering the front of his clothes.
Hellhounds hauled Gerry Wilmot gibbering on to the table, where he squirmed flat on his back in the blood left by his wife’s evisceration. His clothes were ripped away and a monster took each of his limbs, holding his arms stretched out while pushing his knees back into his chest.
‘Now, Gerry. There’s no need to be so concerned. Your fate is not as theirs, for you have committed yourself to my service.’
Somehow Anthony was not reassured by the Antichrist’s soothing tone. The malicious amusement was all too obvious.
‘You never were a father, were you Gerry, though you wanted to be? It’s my pleasure to grant your wish.’
Anthony had been pulled back from the table. He watched horrified and fascinated as the spread-eagled man writhed in torment. Wilmot’s potbelly swelled and he howled in agony. With a spurt of blood, out from between his buttocks crawled a large, wet shape not unlike a woodlouse, which rolled off the table and fell to the ground. Slowly it stood on its rear legs, growing apace until it became an armored dwarf warrior, neckless and hunched, wielding a halberd. It took on a reddish hue.
Gerry’s abdomen had in the meanwhile swelled once again; the agonising process was repeated perhaps fifty times. When the Hellhounds finally released him, it was clear that his sanity was a thing of the past. He fell off the table with a thud and crawled away. Anthony flinched from a glimpse of the gaping red hole in the man’s backside.
Apart from Gerry’s sobbing and hopeless wails, silence fell around the sacrificial altar. Finally, having collected itself, the Antichrist addressed Anthony. ‘You have seen the fate of those who have been in their way helpful to me, Anthony. Now you may be wondering how I reward traitors.’
Anthony found some strength at that point. He would not beg for mercy as the Wilmots had done. It was useless before such a creature. He took comfort in reflecting on the early Church, his mind recurring to a first-year essay he had done on the subject of the early martyrs. What struck him now was the naivety of his approach to their motives under suffering. He had failed to take any account of the terror that rooted a man to the spot.
‘Unfortunately, there are rules about this sort of thing. Boris!’
Anthony’s arms were gripped behind his back, pushing his chest up and out. Gareth, still in human guise, placed himself in front of Anthony, smiling broadly now behind his shades.
‘Unfortunately for me, I should add,’ continued the Antichrist, ‘for it has to be quick.’
A flashing knife buried itself under Anthony’s ribs. As he died he marvelled at the lack of pain. His last conscious thought was to wonder if he would ever find out whether his contribution to the fight against evil had made any difference.