by Michael Arram
‘A lift, Lord and Father of our House?’ Henry Gretason’s imagined script of his meeting with the great Mendamero had not run like this.
‘I just love it when you modern kids talk like Sir Walter Scott. Yes, babe, a lift. No wings, notice? I need to fly, and you’re the perfect mode of transport.’
‘But, excuse me lord, I’ve been told you come and go from Rodinija as you will. Why do you need me?’
For a moment baffled amusement danced in the seraph’s eyes. He relaxed. ‘I think I see why it was you the prophecies pointed to. Yes, don’t look amazed! You, young Henry Gretason of House Atwood, are a child of prophecy, and you have a great thing or two to do ... with my help of course. The fact you’re quite happy to talk back to the Lord Mendamero is a very good sign. You don’t take things on trust from anyone. The point is this, kid. I gave up my human body many, many years ago, so I have to build one from scratch when I appear to mortals. I don’t take it with me when I leave; it’s like a disposable razor you can drop in a hotel bedroom wastebasket.’
‘Never mind. But this body’s special and it’s not quite so disposable, so I will be travelling by wormhole, and I need wings to get me up to it: your wings, son. It’ll be dangerous, so I’m gonna give you military kit. Not a gun; your parents probably wouldn’t approve, but I think this will make you look quite the dashing Petakh warrior.’
Henry’s heart went into overdrive and his body flared for the first time into premenja. His cock reared and pressed tight to his belly while his balls were fully absorbed into his crotch. Then his rippling new muscle was magically encased in powered body armour from toe to neck, all in the regulation military shade of gun-metal grey. He was given a few moments to flex his limbs and marvel at the technological artistry of his people which had produced such a potent and protective second skin.
‘Very impressive, though you are a little short for a stormtrooper,’ Mendamero observed, and for some reason found the words highly amusing. Henry just stared down at him and silently accepted the helmet and pike the seraph was offering. Mendamero was still chuckling when a blue rift opened in the night sky, high above them.
‘Now are we ready?’
‘Erm, yes, I guess so, lord. Can I ... er, pick you up?’
‘Thought you’d never ask, cutie.’
Gritting his teeth at the feeble ancestral pun, Henry picked up the seraph and found him lighter than he expected, in fact the seraph had barely any weight to him at all as he placed him on his shoulders. ‘Where are we going, lord?’
‘Well, I thought that would be obvious, our kid. To Earth of course.’
There was a pause. ‘Wish I’d not asked,’ the boy finally replied with a quirky look his ancestor would have recognised all too well had he seen it. The Lord Mendamero was still guffawing as Henry beat his wings and they soared into the night sky towards the waiting portal.
Rudi Elphberg snarled to himself as he paced his room. Communications were down and news was suddenly hard to come by. But he knew Europe, the centre of the Oecumene, had been hit hardest by the unprovoked alien attacks. London and several other cities were gone. Judging by the direction of the last flashes in the sky and the subsequent earthquakes, Manchester and Birmingham had been hit: ancient and historic cities packed with cultural treasures, now evaporated.
He tried once more to access the secure channel of his mobile, but the screen would not link. He suspected the military channels were still live, but he had no line to them. The teachers were amongst the younger kids, comforting and reassuring them. The older ones were told to stay in quarters and keep their heads down.
There was a timid knock on Rudi’s door and young Atterboy poked his head round. ‘Er ... can I come in?’
Rudi could not resist softening towards the loser. ‘You almost are in, aren’t you?’
Realising that he was not being excluded, the kid gave a hesitant smile and sidled through the door. ‘I just wondered if you had any more info.’
Rudi shook his head. ‘There was a message day before yesterday that I was to be collected by Imperial Security, but then the cities were hit. It’ll be bloody chaos out there.’
‘What sort of creatures could do these things?’
‘No news, but I expect we’ll find out soon enough.’
‘These aliens didn’t so much as deign to communicate with the Oecumene before they unloosed hell on Earth. Looks to me like they’re out to exterminate humanity, in which case we can expect to be at close quarters with them soon. They’ve wiped out a lot of humanity already; now comes the fun part for them, hunting down the remainder.’
‘Rudi, it seems to me like you know more about them than you’re letting on. Is this to do with that Codex thing I heard you talking about? Oh, and sorry for earwigging and all. It was bad of me.’
Rudi looked hard at this trembling boy, perhaps the first time he had really looked at him, and saw something that moved him: there was an intellectual courage here which overrode the boy’s natural timidity. That Atwood was gay was neither here nor there to Rudi’s opinion of him. Homophobia was very much a minority pursuit after centuries of the Oecumene, and the repudiation of the moral power structures of organised religion across its world.
‘What the hell, Atterboy. Come and sit down. Let me tell you a story you’re not going to believe.’ The boy scooted over gratefully and took a seat on the rumpled bed. He looked up earnestly, and for the first time Rudolf Elphberg smiled at Henry Atwood.
Rudi settled on his study chair and began.
‘My ancestor Maxim the Great, the Second Emperor, was an even more mysterious and miraculous man than the most awestruck biographer has suggested. But they have no access to the private papers of the Elphberg family. Amongst them is a notebook Maxim wrote in his own hand. It’s never been digitised. It’s never been archived ... it’s too dangerous. It proves him either to have been a delusional lunatic or something far more than a man. That’s the Codex. It’s been in the personal possession of every emperor and empress since his day and only they have read it.’
‘Wow! So, er ... how do you know what’s in it?’
‘I don’t, not exactly. But I do know what it says in general terms, as my grossmutta has discussed it with the Prince Imperial, my tatta, and he’s dropped some hints about it to me and my elder brother. From what I could gather, long ago in the early days of the Oecumene, before he was even emperor, the young Maxim and a brother of his, whom history has forgotten, travelled by some arcane means beyond this world to another. There they were guests of an extraterrestrial race – a winged people – and fought a great battle with an evil alien species: black monsters, predators and cannibals. They triumphed, and the brother stayed on ...’
‘Would that be Leopold of Radelngrad?’
Rudi paused, a little taken aback. ‘Oh right, you and your genealogy mania. What do you know about him?’
‘He’s in early pictures and videos of the First Emperor. Quite a cool ... er ... looking dude, not unlike you. An Elphberg redhead but gay, quite unlike you in that way, Rudi. Then all of a sudden he drops out of the picture. There was the odd rumour of drug and mental problems. He turns up later in Rothenia off and on at family occasions, always close to his brother and sister. It was assumed he otherwise lived a withdrawn hermit life in the country for whatever reason. The last time he turns up in the record was at his mother’s funeral with his boyfriend, not much of a looker – excuse my shallowness. I think he was super-sap like his brother, ‘cos he still looked twenty when he should have looked aged. But after that, super-sap or not, he never appeared again. There’s no tomb or memorial for him at Strelzen or Zenda’
Rudi was smiling. ‘Well that’s the oddest thing, you knowing that. It tends to confirm the Codex’s account of him, that he settled beyond this world and became a great prince there. The warning the Codex contains is that the evil aliens are still out there; a vast murderous armada of them. You see where I’m going with this.’
Henry sat quiet a moment. ‘I do believe you Rudi, and I’ll tell you why. Weird things have been happening to me lately. About a month ago, I was hiding out at the pavilion in my sad, nerdy way and I met a guy. The odd thing at the time was I thought I recognised him, though I couldn’t then say why. He said he’d once been at our school. But only a week ago I met him again, and this time it was really weird. I was in the chapel moping after our ... er ... disagreement. He just appeared out of thin air. He claimed to be my relative: don’t laugh, he said he was my “fairy godfather”. Look, I said don’t laugh! ... Better now? Anyway he said some stuff – which is personal and I won’t go into it. Then he disappeared into thin air. I mean, one second he was there laughing at me, then he was not.
‘I thought I was going nuts. But as I was sitting there, somewhat stunned, it came to me why the guy looked so annoyingly familiar. You been to Old School lately? There’s an old display you can summon up in the library: The Elphbergs and Medwardine. It’s an ancient and now long outdated promo made to impress parents. I must have been the first to look at it in centuries; great for my research of course. There were lots of pictures of the First Emperor when he was a kid at school here. Now in one of them the emperor was sitting with his friends, and one of those friends was unmistakably the guy from the pavilion, a bit younger, but definitely him. And he told me that he once knew a Rudolf Elphberg.’
Rudi was undeniably struck by what he had heard. Eventually he asked ‘And who was this guy?’
‘I worked hard at finding out. The school records from those days were unobtainable, but I had more luck tracking him through the First Emperor. They stayed friends, and he moved to Rothenia. You find him popping up in pictures of state occasions. Get this, he was the officer commanding the Rothenian forces at the siege of Kaleczyk.’
‘Oh! You mean ...’
‘Yep! Chancellor Atwood of Rothenia. The original Henry Atwood, the gay younger brother of my ancestor.’
It was the next day as the school was stirring that the worst happened. A general alert came from the police in Bridgnorth that the town was under attack. Then Ludlow went silent. The overwhelmed staff began dividing up the terrified younger children into groups and assigning Year 11 and sixth form boys to comfort and look after them so far as they were able. Several of the staff had military training, but in the peaceful Oecumene they had no access to weaponry of any power. Silently, several senior boys rifled the kitchen for knives.
Rudi and Henry had a group of Year 7 boys to take care of, ten of them. They had a good dynamic between them. Henry could amuse and comfort the little lads, while Rudi had the authority and poise to get them to do exactly what was required. Early in the afternoon of that terrible day, Rudi took Henry by the shoulder and handed him a backpack.
‘Food, a power cell, drink and medical supplies. I’ve filled two. Over there are sleeping bags; the little ones can manage to carry them with some other food supplies.’
‘We’re leaving, Atterboy.’
‘But the head, the staff?’
‘Are as out of their depth as anyone else. We sit here and we’re just part of a tasty larder of boy-sized snacks for these monsters. If there’s any safety it’s in going guerrilla and scattering into the deep country. I told the year tutor this but he just said to sit tight. No chance. You ready?’
Henry looked at this confident and formidable young man. ‘Yes, your highness.’
‘Imperial and royal highness, but let’s not stand on ceremony. We’re friends.’
‘I think so.’
Henry’s heart glowed quietly at this signal act of acceptance from such a boy. Rudi gave his orders to the little ones, who were instructed to dress in country walking gear and to bring waterproofs and collect any small items that meant a lot to them. Half an hour later the little party crossed the sports field at speed and disappeared into the woodland beyond, Rudi leading the way with Henry bringing up the rear, over his shoulder a broom handle with a long knife fixed to it by metal ties. The little kids were understandably apprehensive and nervous. Great palls of smoke were hanging in the southern sky where Ludlow was, or had been.
The refugees took the hill that overlooked Medwardine school and town, keeping to the dense furze thickets for cover. As they were going over the crest into the wooded ridge beyond Rudi motioned Henry to take the kids onwards into the trees, while he went down on his belly on the hilltop and produced field glasses. Henry got the little ones to take a drink and sorted out any boot and pack problems. A little blond cutie looked up into his eyes and asked plaintively, ‘Are we going to my mummy, Henry?’
He kissed the boy’s curly head, hugged him and told him they were going somewhere where they’d be safe for now. After a long half hour Rudi returned, silently recovered his pack and led them deep into the woodland.
They walked westward under the trees for a good two hours, Rudi navigating confidently with his mobile. He seemed to know where he was heading. He called a halt. It was late on a cool June afternoon, and not that hard going along beaten woodland paths. He broke out sandwiches and the hungry little ones chomped on them, reviving under his calm leadership and talking amongst each other, even laughing.
Rudi settled near Henry and began talking to him in a matter-of-fact way. ‘The things are black, like dragons. They even fly.’
‘How do you know this?’
‘A flight of them descended on the school not long after we left. Quite silently, swooping down from the sky. The kids who ran across the field were the first to go, they swept them up, tearing at them and part consuming some and throwing away the remains. Then they began burrowing into the buildings after the others. It was a terrible thing to see, and I could hear some of the screams even from that distance.’
‘My God. My God. I won’t tell the little ones. Did any escape?’
‘Some maybe, but like us they’ll be hunted across the landscape after the bastards have finished with Medwardine town.’
‘Where are we heading, Rudi?’
‘Wales. Unlike most of the European Oecumene, the Welsh keep up a serious military establishment; it’s one of their few natural resources. They rent it out for peace-keeping missions. If there’s any resistance locally to these monsters, it’ll be in the Marches. Their Dragon Guards have a major base at Welshpool, or Y Trallwng as they call it. I doubt the aliens would initially detect it as a centre of potential resistance. We should make the border tomorrow. Maybe there I can contact the Imperium.’
Satisfied, Henry marshalled the kids for the trek and they marched onwards, taking now to sheltered country lanes. They met no traffic even when they scampered across the Shrewsbury Road. The human survivors of the alien onslaught must have been hiding out in their homes or basements, hoping for the horror to pass over their heads.
Well before sunset the little ones were exhausted, as the land rose into rounded and wooded hills. Rudi informed them that it would be dangerous to take shelter in any building, so they should keep to the country. He selected a deep, wooded dale with a stream rushing through it and called camp. It was dry and Henry sorted the bedding on a lawn by overhanging trees. Rudi set up the power cells, remarkable innovations from the time of Maxim the Great, batteries with a seemingly endless stream of power that once charged lasted months. They provided the footsore refugees with lighting, recharging facilities and hot water. Rudi cooked a rather fine meal of hot soup, sausages and bacon without much help from Henry, who was impressed that an imperial prince could be so practical. The children ate up appreciatively, went downstream a little to relieve themselves and subsided on their return into a grateful sleep in their insulated bags.
The two elders divided up the night into watches. In the dark of night Henry was roused by a strong grip on his shoulder. The little ones were still asleep in their bags.
‘A craft just went overhead in the dark.’
‘Ours or theirs?’
‘Impossible to tell, Henry. Wake me if anything occurs.’ Rudi sought his own bedding and apparently slid straight into sleep.
In a blink, Henry Gretason, with his seraphic cargo perched on his armoured shoulders, was high above the surface of a strange blue and brown planet: the Mother Earth of avian legend. They were just in the troposphere, perhaps twelve kilometres above the surface. A broad land spread below, with a distant glimpse of sea to the west of their position. In his high-tech armour the cold and sparse atmosphere was no problem for Henry; his helmet simply detected a problem, sealed itself and pressurised. He flared his wings to slow their descent through the thin air.
‘Are you okay, lord?’
‘Why do you ask?’ Mendamero shouted back through the buffeting wind of their descent.
‘You’ve got none of those human clothes on, and no protection against the cold.’
‘I’m okay. I told you this body was a little special. But I’d better get dressed in something I suppose. I’ll give it some thought. Now look up, young Henry.’
Henry did, and was struck dumb. Far outside the atmosphere, but still visible as dim blue shapes, were the vast hulks of the giant transports of the Yaahl armada. Then he looked down again, and this time saw, not far below, the more familiar shape of a Yaahl mound-ship: part battlecruiser and part interplanetary shuttle. Henry had seen images of the one that crashed on Selene. But this one was in commission, and part of a squadron strung out in a line across the land below.
‘Damn the creatures,’ Henry cursed. ‘They’ve done so much damage already. They’re well into the second phase of the operation.’
‘The bastards take out the bigger settlements in the first phase, then they move to counter any continuing military resistance. Third phase is when their packs divide up the landscape into hunting parks and go on their killing sprees with the natives.’
‘How do you know this?’
‘I’ve visited a dozen systems they finished with and left barren of any life but their own vicious and corrupt colonies. Only one I found had any native survivors, and its people were hanging on to a precarious existence in hiding from the Yaahl packs.’
‘What did you do, lord?’
‘What I had to, sunshine. And what I pray I do not have to do here.’
‘Then how are we going to help our human cousins out?’
‘That’s to be seen, young Atwood. Head for that tin can below us, I have business with it.’
Obediently Henry went into a steep descent spiral. Maybe they were a half kilometre above it when its sensors appeared to detect them. A flight of Yaahl issued towards them from its portals. Mendamero did not mess around; the black figures suddenly dropped out of the sky as dead as stones, tumbling to land in the fields below. As for their craft, it lurched as its power failed, then began to fall, faster and faster, to explode on impact far below on an empty hillside.
‘Why take that one out, lord?’
‘Cos it was hunting Shropshire. Now kid, see those wooded hills? Head down directly north west of our position, I’ve put the targeting data in your screen display.’
The display came alight as Mendamero said the words and Henry followed the coordinates it indicated. The data took them to a small town with a complex of some sort outside. A number of Yaahl were flapping about, diving on to running specks below.
‘Oh fuck!’ Mendamero swore. ‘This is not going to be pretty. Fly in among them Henry!’ Down the avian swooped, his great bronze wings making him far faster and more manoeuvrable than the black draconids. Almost before they were aware of the avian’s appearance bolts of energy were tearing into the Yaahl, and those they caught exploded into gouts of flesh. They fell snapping impotently at their enemy.
Henry landed on a sort of terrace as one last Yaahl emerged glaring from a gaping hole it had made in a building, a human youth still alive and writhing in its jaws.
‘You sick bastard!’ the seraph screamed. ‘You’ll never hunt again.’ The monster’s red eyes dimmed and it keeled over into the pile of debris it had made. Henry lifted Mendamero down and he raced to the boy it had mangled. Light flared around him. ‘Get those jaws open, Henry.’ The avian used his pike to lever the creature’s mouth wide. Then he reached for the bloodied but now whole boy and pulled him out. The kid, about fourteen, stood shakily with his support.
‘You okay?’ Henry asked him. The boy stood dazed and uncomprehending.
‘Try English,’ the seraph suggested.
Henry repeated his request. The kid, quite a slim, handsome specimen as Henry’s eye noted, nodded. He continued to stare.
‘Is there something wrong with me?’ Henry asked Mendamero.
‘I don’t think he’s used to flying robots, kid. Take your helmet off.’
Henry complied and folded his wings neatly behind him. He shook out his thick brown mop and smiled at the human.
‘There are angels!’ the kid sighed, and fainted.
Mendamero sat on a pile of bricks. He’d adopted an odd sort of garb to Henry, a blue upper body cover and darker blue leggings. Apparently they were called a ‘tee shirt and jeans’, and they were a ‘timeless classic’. Henry didn’t argue the point, never having worn clothes in his life. A crowd of humans had come out now the source of danger had become lifeless black carcasses littering their school grounds. But they kept their distance, mesmerised but clearly intimidated by Mendamero’s winged companion. Henry, though adolescent and not fully grown, was as tall as a well-grown human, and in premenja was highly muscled; the musculature emphasised by his body-clasping armour. He had no idea that it was as much the transcendent and miraculous beauty of his face as his wings that made them want to keep their distance. To them he was ethereal and inhuman in his proportions and features, for Henry Gretason was good-looking even for an avian, which was one reason the straight boys and girls of his lodge loved to have him in their mouths.
The reluctance of the human onlookers to approach had a curious effect on Henry. He was suddenly aware of something missing, something valuable. As he put his hand to his brows to feel the two centimetres of gold horn that had emerged there, he momentarily felt nauseous. He shook his head. What now? Then it hit him. All the familiar presences in his head: his parents, sisters and usakamaradij were no longer there. He was utterly and absolutely alone in a way he had never been in all his life. A second wave of nausea made him reel, a black emptiness welled up in him. He turned, staggered to a ruined wall and threw up over it.
Mendamero came up behind him. ‘Urgh! Angel sick. Not any nicer than the human variety.’
‘What’s happened to me, Lord Mendamero. I feel …’
‘Desolate, abandoned, lost?’
‘It’s terrible. I can’t stand it!’
‘It’s what it feels like to be human, kid. I’m sorry. I should have warned you.’
‘No you’re not.’
‘Then kill me.’
‘Certainly not. Your parents would never forgive me.’
‘This is no joking matter, lord. Please help me.’
‘Don’t you worry. I intend to. There’s only one cure on this planet for your problem, and you have to go find it.’
‘I’ll tell you where to start, then the rest will be up to you. You see that hill beyond the grounds? Fly up and over it. Beat on along the wooded ridge on the other side and somewhere between here and Wales you will find a little troop of lost boys, in some danger. You need to go save them, and especially one very special boy amongst them. For along that ridge is the Twelfth Emperor, Rudolf IV Elphberg, though he doesn’t yet know it. One prophecy is that you are to bring him safe to his throne.’
‘Feeling like this? Armed with just a pike?’
‘You are a hero, kid though you may be, so yes. But you’ll get help on the way, as heroes always do. They’re never a solo operation. You’d best get moving, the sun is beginning to go down.’
‘Then what are you going to do, lord?’
‘Me? Just save the world, or at least this part of it. Seraphs shouldn’t play favourites, but somehow I can’t stand the idea of a Universe without England. I have to hold off the entire Yaahl armada till the Petakhij arrive in a day or so. Wish me luck, kid.’
The avian boy fell to his knees. ‘A blessing, Lord and Father of my House.’
Mendamero obliged, and kissed the boy on his forehead. When he had done so, in a distinctly fatherly way he whispered in the boy’s pointed ear, ‘There! Go make me proud, young Henry Atwood of Rodinija, golden child of my House.’
As dark fell, Henry Gretason had to give up the chase. He used his avian senses to find a clearing among these strange terrestrial forests, so unlike those of his home world; the trees, he thought, like nothing so much as giant stalks of broccoli, a vegetable the avians had brought to Rodinija with them.
He knew how to release the armour, which responded to thought command. He stripped himself of the plates with a certain relief to be naked once more. He relaxed premenja and his dick flopped down over his large and re-emerging ball sac. It tingled mercilessly as it seemed to inflate between his legs like a balloon. He was at last able to let loose his bladder with a great sigh and sprayed the grass in front of him for a very long time. Then he squatted for a dump, since there was no alternative.
That done, Henry distanced himself for the consequences of his evacuation and looked up at the strange stars of this alien, yet in some ways familiar sky. He knew of Orion from his schooling in Terrestrial Studies, and found the distinctive constellation in the southern sky. He was not hungry, and doubted his ability to eat even if he had wanted. The melancholy and loss washed over him in periodic black waves. How long could he keep this up? He just wanted to crawl into a hole.
The stars above him occasionally flickered out as the bulk of unseen Yaahl transports moved station and occluded them. There must be hundreds of the monster ships up there. How on Earth could Mendamero pit himself against such might, for all his own awesome power? The seraph was just one ex-human pitted against millions upon millions of vicious alien predators with a whole world to prey upon. Henry was unable to sleep. Soon after midnight, a craft crossed the sky not far above him. With his avian night vision he was able to recognise its outline. It was a Yaahl fighting platform on a search pattern.
Groaning, Henry reassumed premenja and then his armour. He slumped back on to the grass as a further wave of depression and loss debilitated him, and sat there head in hands for ages.
He did not put on his helmet, and as night was passing into day he was suddenly glad he had not. For all of a sudden, as he looked up in despair, he felt a new presence in his head. It was not usakamarad or family, or even an echo of the Great Mind of the People, whose centre was the emperor. Then what could it be? But unmistakably his mind had established a link with another, and there was a pleasant flavour to it he had not before experienced. His black panic ebbed somewhat and he regained control of himself. Not only that, but he had a fair idea of the direction from which the mind signature was coming, like a dim glimpse of a lighthouse through storm-wrack to a lost mariner. With no other options open to him he allowed his empathic sense to direct him to its source. He resumed his helmet and rose above the trees, pike in hand, as the dawn paled the eastern sky through the smoke of burning England.
Henry gently shook the little ones awake. Tousled, yawning and lost-looking they got up. Several of them went for a pee and others splashed cold stream water in their faces. Rudi already had hot water on the boil. Tea followed.
‘Nice day for the end of the world,’ Rudi commented as Henry picked up his mug.
‘I’d keep that sentiment quiet were I you,’ Henry replied.
When they’d repacked, the refugee crocodile climbed back up the dale into the woods along the ridge, heading for the Welsh border. Rudi checked the navigation fixture of his mobile, or handij as he insisted on calling it, and estimated they’d make it by midday. There came the drone of engines in the sky again, and the little ones didn’t need any warning to take cover instantly.
Henry’s heart sank. It was no human craft that was tracking in a leisurely fashion across the blue sky above the trees. It was quite low and though no crew could be seen in its sleek length, there was no doubt that aliens were on board scanning the ground below for prey. He let out a long breath when it eventually disappeared eastward. But it plagued his mind somewhat that a relatively noisy craft like that would be used in the hunt. Surely hunters used stealth and silence. ‘Er ... Rudi?’ he called out as the column began to reform. ‘There’s something wrong here.’
‘What d’you mean Atterboy?’
‘That craft didn’t care if it was seen or heard.’
‘Then the hunting’s being done by other means, and whatever’s doing it’ll be close by and in communication with the flying ship. That thing’s quartering these hills. It’s a command post.’
Rudi frowned. ‘You’re right, Henry. Kids! Over here. We keep together and under close cover from now on.’
The scared-looking children took him literally and clustered close to Henry and Rudi. They were under a stand of trees at the top of the ridge by this time so they had a good view of what happened next. Low across the ridge above them flashed a squadron of human skimmers, crescent-shaped fighters, making little more noise than a whine of exhaust. Their green and red livery proclaimed their origin.
‘It’s the Dragon Guard!’ exclaimed Rudi. ‘Go for it boys!’
The Welsh did. Missiles arced and machine guns coughed. Fire bloomed along the flanks of the alien cruiser. It appeared that human armaments were up to the job, though the return fire downed at least one jet they could see. But the power and remarkable agility of the human craft were apparently too much for the alien targeters. What appeared to be their bridge erupted and the cruiser began to list, sliding into a death dive, alien draconids abandoning it but then being carved up by the human guns as they tried to flee.
‘Thank God!’ Rudi muttered. ‘They can be taken down. We’ve got the technology to match them. If only there were more of our guys.’
The conflict absorbed their attention, regrettably so, for the scream of one of the Year 7 boys alerted them too late to the alien who had sidled up behind them. They turned in horror to find themselves at close quarters with the creature. It had a squirming child in its claw and was idly ripping at his clothing, apparently curious as to what it was; blood was welling from a gouge in the boy’s exposed lower body.
Henry had his makeshift spear in his hand and, to his own surprise at his coolness, made a thrust at the thing’s head in hopes that it would distract the draconid from its immediate prey. It was only a partial success. The creature kept hold of the screaming boy, but it snapped fiercely at Henry, who leaped back with the thing’s jaws closing in front of his face. The odour from its mouth was quite horrible. Then it screeched. A rock projected by the strong and accurate arm of the school’s best fast bowler took it directly in the eye. It dropped the boy this time, but gathered itself to pounce and massacre the party.
It never made the leap, for down from the sky in a buffeting of bronze wings came an armoured warrior angel, as if he had flown directly from a Renaissance canvas of St Michael. His long spear took the monster through the brain, then he gripped the writhing thing round its neck and nearly ripped its head from its shoulders with an awesome display of power and inhuman muscle.
The angel regarded his coiled and twitching victim dispassionately through his helmet, which he then swept off, shaking out his long brown hair. Small horns of bright gold jutted out from his forehead. He was handsome beyond anything human, and he swept the stunned boys with his sunny smile.
‘Hi kids!’ he said pleasantly in Rothenian-accented English. ‘Any-vun here called Elphberg?’