HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
Henry stopped time around himself. It was odd. The castle was full of glare and frozen chaos. Aware that his ability to maintain himself amongst such explosive events was limited, he ran to the east side of the castle with fear in his heart.
The hideous shapes of Hellhounds had broken through. Two were in mid-air, completing their springs. Another had got among the defenders and taken four men down, one bitten in half. A third was being confronted by the heroic figure of Fritz von Tarlenheim, sword in hand, coolly poised to stab it through its eye. Fritz was covering his brother, who was down under the beast, disarmed, his hand raised.
Henry gave an internal cheer for his friends. He was already hunting in the bag to get out the first of the C-4-filled pipe bombs the Rothenian army had rushed to put together during the day. He had requested certain customised features, such as a torpedo shape for the casing, that raised the engineers’ eyebrows and left Ed torn between amusement and disgust.
Henry went round the back of the Hellhound poised to savage Fritz and Oskar. Gagging at the vile stench, he rammed the bomb fully up the beast’s rectum. Then, trying not to look at the soldier who had been ripped apart, he dealt the same way with the Hellhound which had landed amongst the guardsmen. He had to climb to deal with another beast crouched on a stretch of wall, looking to pounce. Two more hung in mid-air, one completely out of reach. Although he could not get to the other one's backside, he found it was just barely close enough for him to shove the pipe down its throat if he avoided its foul teeth.
Henry was aware his control was slipping. He drew his pistol, took a deep breath, and let go. As he did so, he snatched Oskar from under the threatening jaws of the beast snapping at him.
The bombs detonated instantly, filling the area with clouds of the black blood and stinking fragments of four Hellhounds. Fritz gasped with surprise.
‘Get that bastard!’ Henry screamed at his friend as the last of the beasts landed in front of them. Fortunately, the sudden demise of its pack mates and the stream of bullets Henry put in its body distracted it. Fritz saw his chance and plunged his sword straight through the monster’s eye deep into its brain. He leaped back as it convulsed in its death agony, tearing his weapon from his grip.
Medics ran to help the fallen soldiers. Rudi, arriving with them, squeezed Henry's and Fritz’s shoulders. ‘Well done, lads! Bloody well done!’
‘Rudi!’ Henry cried. ‘There’s a problem. We’re missing one Hellhound! We only got five of them.’
‘Damn!’ Rudi gave orders urgently into his mic. ‘Eyes peeled! There’s one more still unaccounted for.’
Although the M242s were still occasionally thundering on the far side of the castle, things there seemed under control. As the firing died down, Henry went over to check on the rest of the Ultra Team. Matt White’s eyes were burning with the excitement of battle, but no one was harmed except Davey, who had a messy flesh wound in his thigh from a fragment of shrapnel. Terry was comforting him as an orderly staunched the blood flow.
Davey looked up with a pale smile. His voice was even, however. ‘Did you do that Henry? Don’t ever let me get on the wrong side of you!’
All fell silent. Henry and the king climbed the castle mound, looking for signs of the next assault. ‘What do you think, Outfield? What’ll be his next move?’
‘I would imagine he will come himself, and that’s when our problems will really begin.’
Time passed. They sat on the grass listening to the subdued chatter of the garrison below them and the whirring of the radar antennae for the guided-missile batteries mounted behind them. Then both leaped up as two events occurred simultaneously. Away in the forest a great tree groaned and crashed to the ground, while the closest battery rotated and targeted itself. A claxon erupted from within the keep.
Damien could not resist the powerful grip that manhandled him back into his room. He was tossed effortlessly through the door to land on the bed and bounce off on to the floor, winded. He lay still, seeing the mystical spear containing his friend within easy reach under the skirts of the coverlet.
A square black figure in a dark suit entered the room behind him, ruthlessly dragging Queen Harriet by her hair. She was forced to scrabble with her feet to avoid the pain.
‘You kids, over there!’ he grunted, pointing with his pistol. Reggie and Mattie scrambled in silent fear to Damien’s side.
‘Daimey, who is it?’ Mattie hissed.
Damien remained doggo, but whispered, ‘Iss one of them Hellhound things.’
‘What do we do?’
‘Shuddup, you little bastards!’ The warning growl silenced the three boys.
Gareth hauled the queen up. When she cried out, he roared, ‘You, stay there!’ He threw her carelessly on to an armchair where she whimpered with pain, hugging her abdomen.
There was a thunder of feet on the stairs outside. Gareth went to the door and shouted that he had the queen and other hostages. The would-be rescuers were to clear the top floor, or the first brat would be shot in five minutes.
Harriet had collected herself. ‘You’ll never escape,’ she warned him. ‘Your only chance is to surrender.’
A grating laugh answered her. ‘Escape? Stupid bitch! My death will but serve my Lord. Now shuddup or I’ll put a bullet in your knee.’
Noise and blue flashing lights came from outside, joined soon by the clatter of a helicopter in the night sky. Searchlights swept the house front. It was stalemate.
Another great tree toppled as a three-metre-tall figure, red in the searchlights from the castle, made its deliberate way through the woodland. It paused at the edge of the forest, seemingly so it could scan the defences. It was heavily armoured, a great barbed mace held casually across its left shoulder. A giant kite-shaped shield, marked by a broad dark stain, rested on its right arm.
‘You see it, Rudi?’
‘The mark on its shield where Lije died? Yes. What now?’
‘I think it’ll want to parley. It’s not really a warrior, it’s a creature of words and deceit. I’m pretty sure it will start by toying with us, as much for its own advantage, satisfaction and ego as anything. Let’s go down and say hello to the Antichrist.’
Henry led the way to the castle gatehouse. Ordering the gates unbarred, he strode out under the arch, Rudi and the Ultras following close at his heels. Even Davey, leaning on Terry’s shoulder, limped after the king to show his support.
The mask that was the Antichrist’s face seemed to smile. ‘Mendamero, dear fellow. Here we are again.’
Henry shrugged. ‘Is this about your surrender? Your Hellhounds and monstrous regiment failed in their mission.’
A hearty laugh answered him. ‘You haven’t introduced me to the last of the Elphbergs.’
Rudi bristled. ‘I am king of this land while I live, demon. I’ll therefore thank you to show some respect.’
‘No demon I, your majesty, but the King of kings, and before dawn breaks, you will do me homage.’
‘I will not, demon. You delude yourself.’
‘More on that later, I think. For now I wish to talk to Mendamero. Will you approach, Mr Atwood?’
‘Be careful, Henry, the thing is full of deceit,’ Rudi growled as Henry moved towards the towering armoured figure.
‘Yeah,’ Terry added loudly, ‘it’s a big red can full of shit.’
Henry stopped some four metres from the Antichrist and looked up. ‘So here I am, what now?’
The thing brooded upon him. ‘You did remarkable deeds in the castle, Atwood. Very resourceful. Your masters taught you well. Your powers are great, but never doubt I shall conquer here. There is no weapon, ancient or modern, that can bite upon me. There will be bloodshed and all your friends will die under your eyes. If that is the way you want it, then carry on.’
‘There is an alternative?’
‘Of course. Surrender and do homage, as I suggested before.’
‘I don’t see the advantage for you. You can overwhelm us with your power, so why negotiate?’
‘Henry … may I call you Henry? There are various sorts of victory. There’s the sort I prefer, which leaves me with able auxiliaries whom I can use to further my ends. Were I to impose myself by brute force, it might take me many years to establish my kingdom and move on to my next objective.’
‘The conquest of Heaven? The place beyond time and space?’
‘Exactly, Henry. You see my mind. What better viceroy could I find on earth? Do me homage and you will rule this world, while I and the host I shall then summon take my war to the erelim. I shall assail the ramparts of Heaven and, eventually, ascend my true throne, casting down the usurper who now sits there. You see your importance. In your hand is held the fate of all Creation!’
Henry Atwood, BA (Cranwell), paused to marvel at the lunacy displayed by the brilliant mind in front of him. The Antichrist so wished for Henry to partake of its egotistical dream that it would offer anything to entrap him. Henry did not flatter himself into believing it was interested in his transcendent intellect and gifts. What the Antichrist wanted was simply to drag one worthwhile soul into its cause, thereby glorifying, validating and sanctifying its vision.
‘It’s not going to happen.’
‘A pity … well, I had to try. You had better get back to your friends. This is farewell, Mendamero. We shall not speak again; your chances are all run out.’
‘I shan’t miss you.’
Henry turned and walked over to the king and the Ultras. He had no fear of a blow to his back. He doubted the Antichrist could make a move without his sensing it.
‘That it?’ asked Rudi.
‘Yup. No more negotiation. We fight.’ They retreated to the gatehouse, keeping a wary eye on the tall figure brooding at the edge of the woods.
‘How’re we going to do this, sir?’ Terry asked.
The king gave instructions into his mic before answering. ‘As soon as it moves against our defences, we’ll hit it with everything we’ve got. Not subtle, but I can’t think of anything else. We’ll just test it out and try to slow it down while we look for a weapon that will penetrate its weak spot.’
Henry and the king paused under the gate arch, leaving the others to return to their positions. Henry abruptly seized the king’s arm. ‘It’s up to something,’ he warned. ‘Something bad! I can feel it gloating. Oh shit … it’s …’
A comm sergeant ran up shouting, ‘Message from Wenzelsberh, sire. A hostage situation at the Peacher house. Sir … it’s the queen!’
Damien Macavoy was angry. The thug had threatened and hurt his beloved Aunty Harry. He was also worried. Although he didn’t know much about pregnancy, he had always heard that mothers-to-be were delicate and their condition made them vulnerable.
He, Reggie and Mattie were huddled together against his bed. The man in black stood coolly in the centre of the room, keeping both the boys and the queen under surveillance. Damien’s left hand was near the spear, aching for the signal to move. But there was nothing so far from Lance. Reggie kept catching Damien’s eye, seeking reassurance as much as anything.
Despite a lack of discernable movement from outside, Damien knew his father was planning and preparing a counter offensive. If there was an attempt to end the siege by force, Damien considered it might distract the Hellhound enough for him to strike. Still, an armed assault would be a terrible risk with the queen in the room. Damien reckoned that would only be a last resort.
He became aware of Reggie winking at him in an exaggerated way. Feeling cool plastic prodding his right hand, he discovered Reggie's mobile under his fingers. He quickly took it and, with one eye on their captor, began texting his father: DAD. WE OK. HE HAS GUN. HARRY IN CHAIR BY WNDO. LOOKS BAD. Checking the phone was muted, he sent the text on its way.
He felt for the throb that would tell him of a reply. It came in two minutes. HEADS DOWN BABES. NO RISKS. LUV U.
So Damien composed himself to await his opportunity, anxiously watching the queen’s pale face and laboured breathing.
The king stood thunderstruck. The Antichrist chose that moment to move. ‘Sir! Sir! Orders?’
Rudi’s agonised face looked round. ‘Take command, Colonel Cornish! I’ve got to get to the comm centre.’
Ed began barking instructions. With a roar and a burst of flame-tinged cloud the first of the missiles leapt skyward, corkscrewed and came plummeting down on the armoured red figure moving deliberately towards the castle.
It took the impact on its great shield. There was a huge concussion and shock wave, but when the smoke cleared, the tall figure was standing both unharmed and unshaken. More orders sent a whole flight of rockets into the air. This time they were not allowed to get near their target, instead being exploded in mid-air. Men ducked as shrapnel rained down from the sky.
The M242s had been relocated and now opened up on the Antichrist. There was no more DU ammunition, and conventional bullets simply bounced off its armour, barely slowing it down. It walked with some deliberation into the hail of gunfire. Henry saw RPGs detonate right next to it, leaving its shield and armour unscathed. Indeed the being seemed invulnerable to modern weaponry.
It was time for Henry to do what he could. Regardless of having little practice in attempting to manipulate the physical world, he seized a fallen tree trunk with his mind and strained to hurl it at the Antichrist. The tree lifted and rolled, only to fall among bushes as he lost control.
The Antichrist noticed his derisory efforts and paused in its assault. Laughing, it raised the hand holding its mace and hurled a ball of red fire like a meteor at the tree trunk, which burst into flame and fragments. It sent another fireball straight at Henry, standing alone in the gate.
He desperately scrambled back as the arch collapsed behind him in dust and stone fragments, one of which bounced and hit him a sharp blow on the leg. Despite the ceramic armour plate on his knee which absorbed most of the force, he went down hard and found getting back up difficult.
Ed was elsewhere directing fire on the giant figure, so it fell to Eddie Peacher to drag Henry in amongst the Ultras. ‘Cover him!’ Terry ordered, while hauling Henry to his feet. ‘You okay, babe?’
Henry found his leg would take his weight, although it hurt like fury. He hobbled around to ease it. In the meantime, a storm of futile gunfire was striking at the Antichrist with as much effect as a shower of rain. An anti-tank missile directed at it by a commando team managed to rock it back, but it turned and threw more red fire to engulf the soldiers, who screamed as they burned. Henry could do nothing.
Damien’s anxiety increased rapidly. Queen Harry was obviously ill. She was slumped in her chair, occasionally shuddering as spasms of pain racked her body. Damien knew too little about the mechanics of childbirth to be aware of contractions and what they signified, or the dark wet patch staining her jeans.
He texted his father: HARRY’S BAD NEEDS DOC. Damien sat there fraught with anxiety and impatience. When would Lance move?
As the Antichrist closed with the castle gate, the gunfire slackened away. ‘King Rudolf, come down! It is time for you to do me homage.’
The king appeared behind Henry. ‘What’s going on, Rudi?’
‘One of his Hellhounds has Harry and the Mendamero Men hostage at Wenzelsberh. The house is surrounded, but there’s no getting at them without risking their lives. This was planned. The bastard had us sewn up before he threw his monsters at Belvoir. He just sacrificed them to keep himself amused and us distracted.’
‘Are you going out to him?’
‘What choice do I have? He will have terms for our surrender, I don’t doubt.’
‘I’m coming too.’
‘No you’re not. You need to get to Wenzelsberh.’
‘No, Rudi. There’s no retreat from here.’
‘What I mean is, I want you to remove the queen from the clutches of that Hellhound. You can do it, I think. All I can do is play up to this monster’s vanity. Now push off.’
Opening his mouth to argue, Henry thought better of it. He wished the king luck, then sought out Wenzelsberh and leapt to the gravel drive below the front. Police cars and troops were standing round, yet Henry’s mysterious appearance in battledress drew no comment. He limped through the troops, who caught sight of his rank insignia, backed away and saluted.
‘Justy!’ Justin was gazing up at the window, mobile in hand. A police captain and an army major were at his side.
‘Henry! Thank God! Have yer come direct from the king?’
‘Just left Belvoir. It’s going badly. What’s the situation here?’
‘They’re in Damien’s room. The Hellhound is armed and we can’t get at him. He’s threatening to execute one of the kids if we go near the stairs. I can text Daimey, and he’s getting some info out to us, but otherwise we’re stuck. What can yer do?’
Henry concentrated. Although he found the Hellhound easily enough, it was slippery and evasive. Henry was unable to get a solid fix on him. The Antichrist was screening its minion, having anticipated this move.
The queen likewise was impossible to approach. The boys, on the other hand, were accessible. Then to his surprise Henry sensed a further familiar presence in the room.
‘Nate!’ The big man ran over. ‘Have the boys got some sort of spear or pole up there?’
Nate, deeply distressed and looking confused at the question, eventually stumbled out that he’d seen them trailing in from the woods that afternoon with something they said was a radar antenna. ‘What is it, Henry?’
‘Suddenly, babes, I’m hopeful. We have an ally up there.’
‘There’s a powerful force in the room, which I think has befriended your son. But for what purpose I wonder?’
‘So are yer gonna pull the kids out?’
Henry thought deeply. ‘I’m holding myself ready. Just get your men prepared.’
‘Are you sure about this?’
‘I’m sure. Whoa! Something’s happening!’
The queen arched in her chair. Her stubbornly clenched jaws gave way and with a moan she slid to the floor, unconscious. Damien convulsively seized the shaft of the spear and drew it out from beneath the bed.
It sparked and hummed in his hand. That must be the signal. The weapon seemed surprisingly light as he lifted it.
Gareth grunted at the queen’s sudden seizure. He lowered his gun and bent down to examine her.
‘Now!’ Lance’s voice tingled up his arm rather than sounding in his ear. Damien stood, drew back the spear and sent it flying. It seemed to leap forward and direct itself to catch the man in the arse and bury itself half a metre deep inside his gut. Gareth howled and screamed. He could not straighten, impaled as he was. Staggering round the room, he clawed at his own backside but was unable to reach the truncheon.
Then out of nowhere Damien’s Uncle Henry was in the room, while heavy feet pounded up the stairs. Gareth the Hellhound fell on his side as Henry kicked his gun away. With one last appalling effort, the Hellhound tried to mutate into bestial form, but it was losing strength too fast and, half beast and half human, it expired in a pool of stinking black blood.
Henry was at the queen’s side, looking deeply worried, while Nathan and Justin grabbed the boys and were carrying them to safety.
Damien was struggling, however. ‘No! Dad! Gotta get Lance outa that thing’s arse!’
Henry looked round. A military paramedic team were already stretchering the unconscious queen out of the room. ‘Justy, let Daimey go. I need him.’
Putting his son down, Justin was astonished to see the boy set his foot on the monster’s haunches and determinedly extract the spear. The weapon was pulsing gently with light, and the creature’s black blood didn’t adhere to it.
Henry went over and took it from Damien. It hummed with vitality. He sensed the spirit inside it, but also something more which he could not explain, though it seemed familiar. ‘Okay, Daimey. Talk!’
‘Uncle Henry, we found Lance – I mean, this spear – in a pool in the woods this afternoon. He told us all about himself, and promised to help us. And he did! He killed this wolf man and saved Aunt Harry.’
Justin looked at Henry. ‘Do yer know what he’s on about?’
‘Actually I think I do. So Spearboy came out of his prison?’
‘Yuh! He said he was allowed out under the water. He’s a Mendamero Man.’
Henry gave a pale smile at that news, before handing the weapon back to the boy. ‘I’ve got to return to Belvoir. Keep the spear, Daimey. Stay with the queen. Get her to help quickly.’ With those words, he was gone.
Henry materialised once again in the courtyard of Belvoir. It was eerily quiet. Rudi must have ordered a ceasefire. Henry searched around for the king and found him climbing across the broken walls of the east range on his way to confront the Antichrist. He was accompanied by Ed and Terry, both looking grim under their helmets. The king was bareheaded and unarmed, apart from the sword belted to his waist.
They looked back when Henry called out for them to slow down. His damaged knee was hampering his progress.
‘It’s over. The hostages are free and the Hellhound is dead.’
‘Thank God! How is she?’ Rudi’s eyes burned into his, demanding honesty.
‘Not good. She’s being airlifted to Strelzen.’
Silence answered this news. ‘Then it’s time to deal with this monster once and for all. It’s lost its hold on me. Does it know that?’
‘I can’t tell. But it must know its servant is dead. The connection will have broken. Let’s go find out … and Rudi?’
‘We’ve proven no modern weapon can touch it, but a spear killed one Hellhound. Fritz dispatched another with his blade, which was just an ordinary sword with no lineage. I think there’s magic in forged-steel blades to unbind their spells.’
The king nodded. Loosening the sword of Henry the Lion in its scabbard, he led the way to the final confrontation.
The Antichrist was leaning now on its mace, looking darkly on the party from the castle. ‘So, will you surrender to me?’
‘Your agent at Wenzelsberh is dead, demon.’
‘Don’t be tiresome, I am not a demon. I rather thought you were here to offer your surrender. The future of your dynasty depends on it.’
‘My wife is free from your clutches. There is no longer a basis for negotiation.’
The red figure took on an even more menacing air. ‘Gareth has failed me. I know that. Though I would like to know precisely how it was done. Perhaps I'll torture some of your followers later to find out.
‘What I meant, fool, is that I have it in my power to make sure you are the last of your house. Your queen lies near to death. The foetus is aborting. It will be born dead unless I prevent that. Your choice, then, is to die under my stroke – knowing that at least your son will survive you – or simply die hopeless. Should you choose the former, you will do me homage before I crush your skull.’
Ashen-faced, Rudi turned to Henry. ‘Is this true?’ he demanded.
‘I have no idea, Rudi. This could just be his demented ego talking.’
‘I really don’t know, sir.’
Rudolf of Rothenia turned to his tormentor. ‘So, king of lies, how can I trust you?’
‘You can only trust me to do my worst, Elphberg. On that at least you may rely.’
‘Then, demon, do your worst! No true Elphberg would bow to what you demand. If my son were to live, only to hear how I saved his life, he would think himself dishonoured. You merely toy with me.’
Rudi stood tall as he defied the monster in front of him. Henry thought he had never seen the king more noble or sad as he did it.
‘Fool!’ The Antichrist raised its mace and struck down at the king.
Both Ed and Terry had sprung back and were emptying their machine-gun magazines directly at the creature’s face. Although the bullets had no other effect, they at least distracted its aim. Rudi dodged aside as the mace buried itself into the ground. A cheer came from the garrison of Belvoir, crowded together on the fortifications as if they were spectators at a joust held in the olden days of the castle.
With a metallic scrape, Rudi swept out the sword of his ancestors and stood poised. The Antichrist did not attempt to retrieve its weapon. Instead, it gathered a ball of red flame in its hand. Henry knew it intended to hurl the bolt at the king and burn him alive, as it had incinerated so many of the garrison.
Henry could not dodge; his leg was too stiff and complaining. ‘Behind me, Rudi! I’ll shelter you so far as I can. Then go for the bastard!’
‘But you’ll …’
The king dropped behind Henry, who looked defiantly up at his nemesis … or was he the creature’s nemesis? He could never work that one out.
‘Two in one!’ the Antichrist gloated.
The red fire burst on Henry as he resigned himself to death. He hoped it would be quick, but rather feared it would not be. Curiously, the flames licked all round him yet did not harm him.
The Antichrist had leaned forward as it hurled the fireball, holding its shield lowered before its two intended victims. Rudi leaped up and plunged his sword into the centre of the stain where Lije had died. The blade cleaved the red metal as if it were balsa wood, slicing through the arm behind it and into the breast behind the arm.
The Antichrist reeled back, as Rudi wrenched his blade free. It staggered, letting out an inarticulate moan. Molten light burned in the chinks of its armour like lava through the cracks of a volcano. Henry caught the dying confusion of its mind as its control relaxed. The predominant emotions were outrage and humiliation.
Falling in front of their feet, it twitched and then melted into a variety of shapes, each one smaller than the last, until only the wizened remains of Bishop Jack were left.
Henry stared down, barely conscious of the outbreak of cheering from the castle and the pounding of friendly hands on his shoulder. It was over … but something in him was saying this was not in fact the case.
‘Well, you did it little babe, saved the universe.’
Hugged by Ed, Henry finally came to himself. ‘Apparently. Now what?’
‘Well, here lies the Antichrist, the harbinger of the End Time. He has set up his throne and been defied and broken by the forces of good. So … now what?’
‘Oops. I see what you mean.’
Rudi was accepting the congratulations of the Ultras and his officers. He caught one face however that was not rejoicing.
The doctor from the field hospital had joined them. ‘Your majesty?’ There was a sudden hush. ‘Word from the military hospital in Strelzen.’
‘Critically ill, but out of danger. They could not save the child, however.’
In the midst of victory, Rudolf Elphberg turned on his heel and went to hide his face.