HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
Morning broke over northern Rothenia, bringing with it a certain relief to the garrison of Belvoir. The courtyard filled with the smell of frying and baking, while shifts of soldiers took breakfast in the temporary commissary.
Sitting at a table with Ed, Henry tried not to be aware of the stares. ‘D’you think they believe I’m weird?’
‘Yup. That guy over there just made the horns sign.’
‘You mean the one to ward off evil? Fucking cheek! I’m good, me!’
‘Yeah, but scary. You were awesome last night, little one. You gave everyone confidence. It was great the way they looked to you, even Rudi.’
Henry shook his head. ‘That’s the power of Mendamero. Let’s see if they feel the same way by the time the sun goes down … if the sun goes down.’
‘Don’t say that. Where’s the Antichrist at the moment?’
Henry didn’t even need to make an internal check. ‘Biscofshalch still. He’s up to something too. I can feel it. He’s really enjoying himself. Bastard!’
‘Can he sense what you’re doing and thinking?’
‘Maybe … I don’t know. But I ought to do something to find out.’
‘Oh no … Henry!’
‘We’re pretty short on intelligence, babe. First, though, I’m going to check on Gavin. Coming?’
‘Let me finish this bacon sandwich. I’ll bring the coffee.’
The two colonels strolled down to the hospital, where an armed commando stood guard at the entrance. There was no change in Gavin, and Max was fast asleep in his chair by the bed. Eddie Peacher, who was keeping watch, gave them a wave and put his finger to his lips.
Henry beckoned him to join them outside the ward. ‘Anything new, Eddie?’
‘Naw, dude. Sleeping Beauty’s still dozing in the castle. Hey, that really is Gavin the way he was when we were in Finkle Road. S’amazing! I’d swear that’s the same vile zit on the back of his neck he had seven years ago. It’s like he time-travelled.’
‘In a way he did. If we ever get out of this, it’ll take ages to sort it all out. His parents think he went to Indonesia to work for a charity and disappeared in the jungle. He’s not contributed to National Insurance. He looks a decade younger than his passport says he should. I wonder if we can make out that he’s got some rare virus that makes him look like a kid?’
‘No way,’ observed Ed. ‘Everyone will want to catch it.’
Henry shrugged, then suggested they report to Rudi.
‘He’s up,’ Eddie remarked. ‘He didn’t sleep last night. He was working out fencing with Fritzy upstairs in the keep half an hour ago.’
Henry and Ed left Eddie to resume his place on the ward and went up to the great tower.
The king was back at the command post, frowning through the steam rising from his coffee mug. ‘Morning,’ he grunted. ‘I’ve just been on the line to Wenzelsberh. The queen decided to leave the capital last night to stay with Andy until this business is over.’
‘Is that a problem?’
‘Not really. It’s just that she's farther from medical care than I’d like. She wouldn’t hear of taking the gynaecologist with her.’
‘How’re things back there?’
‘She’s a lot happier with the kids around her. She loves that maniac Damien to bits. I just don’t get it. Otherwise, Justy has things under control. I sent him a temporary captain’s commission so he can order my troops around. He’s a bit delighted. I really must stop drafting my friends into the Rothenian military, though, or the Defence Ministry will start complaining about lines of command.’
Henry laughed. ‘You could do a lot worse. Just don’t make Damien a general. He’d declare war on Disney World.’
‘So what’s up? Any Gavin-related news?’
‘No. He’s still out of it. Rudi, I need to go and do something reckless.’
‘You want to scout the Enemy, don’t you.’
‘Oh! Well, yes.’
‘I’d have suggested it. Here, these are aerial photos of the Biscofshalch area taken last week. As you see, it just seems to be empty moorland while the Icon is functioning. Now these are surveillance shots of the same area an F-14 took from eight kilometres above it earlier this morning.’ The colour photographs showed a blackened crater and debris spread over a wide area. ‘I think we can assume from this that the Icon is truly destroyed. We’re on our own now.’
‘Okay, I’ll be off then.’
‘You’re not going to do the thing with wings that Max did, are you?’
‘Did you see the size of his cock while he was transformed? It left me feeling totally inadequate. If I saw you like that, I’d just about be ready to give up on masculinity.’
‘Rudi! Are you sure you’re not gay?’
‘When he’s back to normal, spank him for me, Colonel Cornish.’
‘With pleasure, sir.’
Henry materialised on the hill of Biscofshalch, where he stared with awe at the ruin of the tower. Max’s terrifying anger had done that. There was nothing else to see, though somewhere down below in the rubble was the body of Mark Tolmie. Henry pondered whether he should recover it. The boy deserved a Christian burial at least. Later, perhaps.
He cast around and saw two cars parked at a distance under the eaves of a plantation, near what appeared to be some standing stones. This triggered his caution. He did not remember those stones from his previous visit.
Walking towards the cars, he zipped up the coat he had recovered from Max. He was in his guard officer’s battledress, his gold-laced peaked cap pulled down low on his head. He was armed only with the regulation pistol as far as conventional weaponry was concerned. But would that be of any use against the foes he might possibly face here?
A feeling of trepidation was growing on him. He could sense the presence of the Antichrist close by, although as yet there was no sign of him or his minions.
When Henry reached the top of the rise and the rutted track that led into the forest, it was as if he’d walked into a slaughterhouse. The stones he had seen from a distance formed a rough chair, with an altar in front that was splashed with blood and the remains of human bodies. Crows flapped resentfully into the sky as he came near, protesting at the disturbance of their breakfast.
Trying not to gag, Henry approached the nearest, least-damaged body. It was Anthony Willis, his blue eyes staring sightless into the high, grey sky. He had been stabbed in the chest, leaving a look of surprise still on his face. He was cold, dead for at least two hours. Henry said a prayer for the man’s soul and closed his eyes.
Two naked, badly mutilated bodies lay close to the table: a middle-aged man and a woman, both with their lower abdomens burst and charred. They had plainly died in great agony. Henry was startled to recognised Ann Wilmot from St Edwards. How had she got here? The man’s face too looked vaguely familiar, though Henry couldn’t immediately place him.
There was one further body at a distance beyond the crude throne, also naked and prone. Henry went over, looking with disgust at the great gaping wound which used to be its anus. Then with horror, Henry realised the man was still living, keening quietly to himself in agony.
‘Oh my God!’ he exclaimed. The man turned his face towards Henry. ‘Mr Wilmot!’
‘It said it was God!’ Wilmot moaned. ‘But it did obscenities to us. Oh God! The pain! It made … things from me. Horrible things!’
Henry kneeled by the man. ‘Where is it?’
‘The pain!’ Wilmot sobbed. ‘The pain! It won’t let me die, it said.’
‘Did you put yourself in its power?’
‘Did you accept it as your God?’
‘I … yes.’ Wilmot collapsed in shame and agony.
Henry did not know what to do. Perhaps he could help, but he had a feeling there would be conditions if he did.
Then he remembered the words of the baptism service. ‘Do you repent of your sins?’ he asked quietly.
‘I repent them,’ agreed Wilmot fervently through gritted teeth.
‘Do you renounce evil?’
‘I renounce it.’
‘Do you accept the God of Abraham and Isaac, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’
‘I accept Him.’
‘Then you are forgiven.’ Henry put his hand on the man’s head, and found he had power to cleanse, calm and purify this stricken man. Wilmot’s sobs ceased. He looked at Henry wonderingly, his face cleared of its agony. ‘Thank you,’ he breathed, and so saying, he died.
Henry was shaken. He stood and looked around. The insight he had just had into the depths of the Antichrist’s brutality and sadism was utterly shocking. This thing had to be defeated, and it was apparently up to him. But where was it?
A square, torn object caught Henry’s attention. Lodged in some furze bushes a short distance away from the altar he found the vandalised remains of one of Rothenia’s most precious religious treasures, discarded and spattered with filth. His heart was sick at the sight. This should not be. They would not let him use his powers to restore people to life, but try to stop his resurrecting the spirit of a nation! His mind seized the object, mending its rips and cleansing the stains from it. Once again the Black Virgin of Ranstadt looked out on the sinful world with a sad smile.
Henry grinned to himself. Perhaps the faithful of Rothenia deserved a miracle. Focussing on the object he sent it on its way. The next time the attendants opened the golden doors behind the high altar of the abbey of St Vitalis, they would find the icon restored. Henry just hoped the monk who found it didn’t have a weak heart.
That done, he began walking past the cars towards the forest track. A prickling in his neck warned him to turn. The throne was no longer empty.
‘Mendamero, I believe.’ The occupant was in the form of a king, white-robed and crowned. The face was sensitive and noble. ‘I think we have met before. Mr Atwood is it not? I am surprised. You see me before you, shocked.’ It chuckled amiably to itself. ‘You look rather well in uniform. A man of so many parts … parts which I have to say I would like to see distributed around this landscape.’
Henry chose not to rise to the bait. ‘I’ve just met your victims.’
‘Ah, yes. The poor things. What can I say? A sad necessity, like the deaths of Enoch and Elijah, regrettable preliminaries to my final coronation.’
‘Do you have to enjoy it so much?’
‘I value my work.’
‘The purification of vice and iniquity from the world. I have dealt with four wicked people here who deserved no less than they got. I will bring order and peace to a troubled world, a New Jerusalem. I have to say, I’m surprised you oppose me. Don’t you want the same?’
‘There’s a profound difference between telling people what’s good for them, and forcing them to accept it whether they like it or not. People have to choose the good in order for the world to change, otherwise it’s called tyranny.’
The Antichrist favoured him with a lazy smile. ‘That’s been tried. This is my way. It will work. One day, the world will thank me as well as worship me. For I am God.’
Henry rolled his eyes. ‘It’s all so simple, isn’t it?’
Now it was the Antichrist’s turn to look startled. ‘What?’
‘You see it so clearly. I felt like that once; it’s the clarity of adolescence. Reason divorced from experience. But then, you have no soul and thus no ability to sympathise or to learn as a human would. You are thought without emotion, except perhaps when you enjoy the pain of others just a bit too much. I wonder why that is?’
The thing on the throne looked darkly on Henry. ‘So, you really are Mendamero. The Great Council’s puppet. I’ve heard it all before and am not convinced. If they were right, the world would have changed long ago, but it hasn’t.’
‘You haven’t yet said it.’ Henry smiled. He was getting the measure of this thing.
‘That you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Somehow, with your sort of mind, it all comes down to that metaphor. Facile reasoning and lust cloaked as a simple passion for truth. The fact is, eggs don’t feel and can’t learn, while people can and do.’
‘You tire me.’
‘I am distraught. Now I know you, I no longer fear you.’ Henry turned away, pondering whether to leave at this point.
The Antichrist caught his intention. ‘Wait!’ he called urgently, almost desperately. ‘Whatever you say, we’re actually alike. I have no serious wish to harm you. I could spare the world. A single act would save it.’
‘What would that be?’
‘Your homage. Did they mention that? Kneel and surrender the world to me and I shall be merciful. That’s written in stone somewhere. For if you do it, I shall make you its prince and you will rule in whatever way you choose. Leave the fools in their ignorance and sin if you wish. It’s up to you. I shall withdraw to other, higher struggles.’
Henry was shaken. For all the thing was a liar, it was, in its way, not hypocritical. It meant what it said. It was offering him immortality, power beyond measure and the ability to save the world from chaos. Henry did not however hesitate. He was little Henry Atwood, the country boy, the untidy homosexual, the journalist and the apple of his mother’s eye. He knew what he was, and he was not the material of which emperors were made.
He looked at the figure on the throne and shook his head. ‘It’s not for me.’
It returned his gaze coldly. ‘Then die forever!’
The ambush was sprung. Henry was but human, and it had taken all his concentration to deal with the devious intellect enthroned before him. He had not been aware of the trees behind him filling with wolfish skulking figures until the pack launched upon him with appalling speed.
Henry spun on his heel. It was his military training that saved him, as he was glad later to acknowledge to the king. He found his gun in his hand without thinking about it and as he went down on one knee he snapped off a shot. It took the leading Hellhound in the throat, knocking it back into one of its fellows with a spray of black blood. Although both fallen demons were soon struggling up again, Henry had by then airlifted himself to the remains of Biscofshalch.
He tried to still his hammering heart. That had been too close. If ever the Hellhounds had reached him, Mendamero’s all-too-frail mortality would have been his downfall. They would have bitten out his throat with ease. Distant yelping indicated they were scenting him and casting around to pursue, but he was in no immediate danger.
He focussed on the wreckage below him and found what he was searching for. An expression of sad concentration was on his face as he salvaged scraps of a former life, lifting them to him. He would not leave them for the Hellhounds to scavenge and eat.
Lije’s body, soiled and streaked with dust, was partly crushed, but his face at least was peaceful and beautiful. Tears in his eyes, Henry knelt and kissed Lije on his cold forehead. The body was too heavy for Henry to carry, so he squatted next to it, taking the dead boy’s hand.
He was abruptly in the operating theatre of Belvoir’s temporary hospital. A military nurse shouted with alarm.
Henry rose to reassure the orderly. When the major in command raced up, Henry mutely indicated what was left of Lije. The doctor nodded. ‘I’ll have the body prepared for burial.’ Henry thanked him, asked after Gavin and, when told there was no change, went out to find his friends.
Henry sat next to Matt White in the otherwise empty commissary. Matt looked at him sympathetically. ‘Bad huh?’
‘You wouldn’t believe.’
‘You’re right, I have no idea what you’re going through, but you’re doing amazing things, sweetheart. I’m so proud of you.’
Henry sought comfort in Matt’s arms. He felt a kiss on his hair and was grateful. After some moments’ silence, Matt cleared his throat and asked gently, ‘Baby, I need to know. You have these powers, and I rather suspect they include the ability to resurrect the dead, as Gavin once did. Can’t you bring back Lije or Anthony Willis?’
Henry sighed. ‘Don’t suppose I haven’t thought about it. But Tobias warned me very severely against giving in to that temptation, however hard things get. If I brought Lije back to life, what would I be doing? Condemning him to further pain and guilt, worse now because he’s earned our contempt. And he would have to prepare himself to die once more. He would go mad. Wherever he is now, he must feel some sort of peace. Or so I can hope.’
‘How can I tell what might occur if I intervened in his fate? All sorts of things which need to happen might not if he reappeared in existence, or things might happen which ought not to. I have no idea what the dead do after they die. There may be a further existence where his presence is needed more than here. He’s run his course and I think he lived for a good purpose. He seems to have died as a brave man should. I mustn’t change what’s once been accomplished by his life.’
‘I understand. You poor Henry. No human should have to make these decisions, and I worry …’
‘I worry about how you’re ever going to be able to deal with life after all this is over. I’m alarmed.’
‘These angelic beings may have the best interests of the universe in mind, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into your best interests.’
Henry shrugged. These were his own concerns too. ‘Someone has to stand up and accept the challenge, Matt. But you’re right, Tobias made no promises to me about happy endings. I’ll just take what comes, as it comes. Are you ready?’
‘Yes. The Ultra Team will be the pallbearers.’
‘Davey’s little joke. It’s from the motto on our shoulder flashes: ULTRA ULTIMA.’
‘Hmm. It works for me.’
The two men went out into the courtyard, where a detail of Guards were drawn up at attention while the chaplain, a purple stole round his neck, stood waiting before an altar improvised from ammunition boxes. Henry and Matt joined Rudi and Ed Cornish waiting at the field-hospital entrance. The coffin containing the remains of Mark Tolmie emerged on the shoulders of Davey, Terry, Fritz, Oskar, Eddie and Max. As it did, the king, Matt, Ed and Henry, hats under their arms, fell in behind.
The military funeral, conducted in Rothenian, was brief and poignant. After the Guards fired three volleys over the coffin, the remains were laid to rest in a grave the engineers had dug in the crypt below St Fenice’s chapel. It was filled in by the Ultra Team, who stood silently for some time after the job was done.
Rudi called his friends to order. ‘It’s afternoon, friends, and still no sign of the Enemy. Will he come tonight, Henry?’
‘Perhaps. His Hellhounds are certainly more terrifying at night, so that will enter into his calculation. He may have other auxiliaries too. But he will attack. Before he can begin his conquest of the world, he needs to destroy me. Fortunately, he’s an impatient sort of being, which is one thing that gives me hope.’
‘His intellect is entirely focused on the end result. He sees what he wants and goes straight for it without always thinking things through. His mind has no fine shades. Everything is very simple for him, which means he can miss important distinctions. I wonder …?’
‘His celestial adversaries are much more subtle and sympathetic. I wonder if they know his weakness. If so …’
‘Come on, Henry, give.’
‘I really need some additional information, but the only people who can tell me aren’t talking.’
A scuffle of running steps on the crypt stairs drew their attention. An orderly appeared. ‘Sir! The man Gavin Price is waking!’
‘Right on cue!’ smiled Henry.
Rudi ordered the Ultra Team to keep back and sent Eddie and Henry into the hospital first. Max had already raced ahead; there was no stopping him.
Although Gavin was still linked up to the monitors, his eyes were flickering now and there were small movements as he regained consciousness. Max was leaning over him staring intently into his eyes, gripping the hand that wasn’t wired to the machines.
‘Gav? Can you hear me?’
There was a more decided stir in the bed. Gavin’s eyes opened, blinked and focused. ‘Max?’
He was answered by a broad grin, followed by a kiss.
One of Henry’s internal questions was answered. Gavin had returned with memories of his period as Guardian. But did he recall everything?
Henry pushed forward to survey his former boyfriend. It was uncanny how time had stood still for Gavin. Henry was greeted by the same shy smile he used to meet when they woke together in the morning. How must he look to Gavin?
‘Hey, baby. You feeling okay?’
‘Like I was out last night on the booze but got away without a hangover. Lije is dead, isn’t he?’
‘Yes, we’ve just buried him. I’ve got a lot of questions about his death.’
‘How did I get to … wherever we are?’
‘We’re in Belvoir Castle, and it’s been less than a day. It’s the afternoon after Lije was killed. Max hauled you out when the Antichrist blasted you.’
‘The Icon is dead and gone too. I could always feel it, in all its moods, but I can't anymore.’
‘It had moods? Never mind that. Lije?’
‘He was so brave, Henry. It was that spear.’
‘You knew there was a being inside it, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, I discovered it at Biscofshalch that time. But what it had to tell me was unsettling, to say the least. It told me it was sent to kill the traitor … to kill Lije.’
‘Lije was no traitor!’ Gavin spat out. ‘He was a hero.’
‘But he betrayed the tower to the Enemy!’
‘He unlocked the creature from the spear, and it told him what would happen – what he must do to help destroy the Antichrist. But it was horrible. I couldn’t see how he could do it. We argued for hours.’
Max interjected, ‘I heard you! You were at it in the crypt.’.
‘He wouldn’t listen to alternatives. I think he wanted to die. It was Dressner all over again. I was sure we’d got beyond his suicide kick, but no.’
There was a silence. Max stroked Gavin’s slightly greasy hair. Henry waited for more.
Eventually Gavin recommenced. ‘The Icon couldn’t be saved and had to perish, but there were ways it could be arranged to our advantage. The spear-being told Lije his blood – the blood of a revenant – was a peculiarly mystical substance. The Antichrist is deadly but not invincible. When he goes armed to battle he carries a red shield which is impenetrable. No weapon can pass through it, so nothing can stop him getting to you, Henry, and crushing you.’
‘But he’s not invincible.’
‘No. The spells laid on his armour and shield can be corrupted and unbound by the blood of an immortal. So Lije sacrificed himself. He went to Bishop Jack in Ranstadt and offered to betray the tower and shut down its defences. In return the bishop would give him his life back.’
‘Apparently, he was very convincing.’
‘The bitterness in him was genuine enough. But his love of me and his sense of duty were always stronger.’
‘He loved you?’
‘Not that way. He was straight, alright, but he cared deeply for me and was a true friend. I’m going to miss him so much.’
‘So when he died it was a setup?’
‘Yes. The spear-being …’
‘It called itself the Destroyer, for good reason.’
‘…said it would happen, and it did. That’s why we couldn’t tell you, Max. There was no way you could have done what you did in cold blood. I’m sorry.’
Tears were by now coursing down Gavin’s sallow cheeks. Max gripped Gavin’s hand so hard his knuckles whitened.
‘So now the Antichrist is vulnerable but doesn’t know it. Can any weapon pierce his shield?’
‘I don’t know. The spear perhaps?’
‘We have it here. Max salvaged it.’
‘You did? We didn’t expect that.’
Max relaxed a bit, giving him a troubled smile.
‘Do you want to get up, baby?’
‘I feel okay. Not like I did when I was Enoch, but I can manage alright.’
‘Good. I’ll go see the doctor. He’ll find you some fatigues and boots.’ Henry left Gavin to talk things through with Max. There were clearly going to be issues between the two.
Henry had retreated to Ed. They stood together on the windy battlements of the keep of Belvoir, both pensive and withdrawn. The sky above them was leaden and bleak.
‘There he is,’ Ed observed.
Gavin had emerged below on to the courtyard. He was walking with Max, talking earnestly as they went. Both were in plain green military fatigues, all the garrison had available to replace their clothes.
‘Where’s he off?’
‘Going to visit Lije’s grave, I think.’
‘You’re reading his mind. Shame on you.’
‘No, no! It’s not like that. I just needed to see what was there. His mind is quite different now. It’s fully human. It lacks the depth and strength the Enoch persona gave him. He’s our Gavin again alright. I just wonder if he’s the Gavin Max fell in love with. I have a feeling all may not be well there.’
‘That’ll be sad if it’s true. There’s no doubt about Gavin’s feelings for Max. I hope you’re wrong.’
‘Me too. The kid deserves better after all he’s gone through. So what’s your reaction to the latest intelligence about the Antichrist?’
Ed looked around at the roof of the keep. Two computerised missile batteries were whirring and ticking behind them, searching the skies for enemies. ‘I’ll give these babies every chance of frying his arse.’
‘Won’t hurt to try, that’s for sure. It’s the spear that’s the best hope, though. The only problem is, the thing’s treacherous. It called itself the blade that cuts both ways for a very good reason.’
Henry and Ed descended to the command centre. Rudi was still there, talking earnestly into a headphone set. They didn’t disturb him, going instead to the table where the spear had been placed. It had been cleaned and the broad, figured blade shone silver once more.
Henry stood the spear upright on its butt. He knew he needed to talk to the Destroyer, but Spearboy was not communicating. Henry frowned, making a real effort to break in on its isolation. The spear glowed in his hand and bright sparks leapt from the haft as it resisted him stoutly.
Henry grew stubborn. He visualised the faun-like child and seized him by the scruff of his neck.
‘Geroff!’ The word burst from the spear, causing Rudi and the communications staff to jerk round.
‘Get out here, you little bugger!’ Henry swore.
‘You’ll bloody well do what I say. I’m fucking Mendamero!’
‘And I’m the Destroyer, so get stuffed!’
‘Wait till I tell Tobias!’
‘Hah!’ The weapon vibrated in his hand. Showers of sparks hissed from it into the tower room, causing two nearby electronic monitors to explode. Technicians leaped to get extinguishers.
The spear’s shaft was very hot now and Henry had to drop it. As he let it go, the spear vanished.
‘That went well,’ Ed observed in the sudden silence.