Over the years, Klaus had become somewhat used to having mysterious packages appearing gift-wrapped in his bedroom as if by magic, both at the Schloss and at his Bonn apartment. At least on days such as the 1st of January, 14th of February, 15th of May, 17th of June, 28th of July, 1st of November, 24th of December and, on occasion, days containing the letter a.
Of course, for one of NATO's top men in intelligence random surprise packages might not necessary be such a great thing - some of them might go boom. The first few times he found a box he had alerted the bomb squad, as was common procedure in such cases. That got old rather quickly, as members of the squad began commenting on the quality and love that had obviously gone into the gifts. Also, after Klaus nearly pulled his Magnum on an unfortunate bomb squad member, the squad took longer and longer to show up. The young man (who hadn't realised that Klaus had been standing right behind him at the time) had commented that Klaus would probably look really hot in the red silk pyjamas.
Some part of Klaus wondered why he didn't just trash the presents as so much rubbish, but he informed himself sternly that he wasn't about to let that foppish Earl get the better of him. So, he learned to act as his own bomb squad - and the skill actually served him well on later missions. Point being: when Klaus arrived at his Bonn apartment from a long, boring day with ridiculous amounts of paperwork at the office and found a large, thin packet propped up against his bed, he didn't find this at all strange. It was a Tuesday, after all. He just brought out the stethoscope, the explosive detector, the mini x-ray machine and the special gloves, turned on his favourite recording of the Panzerlied and relaxed.
Nope, no bomb this time either. Another painting. He had a pile of them already, ranging from half-decent drawings of tanks - including a really odd one by some Vinci guy who had obviously never seen a real tank in his life, but who had some interesting ideas - to more frivolous ones of huge, red roses twined like barbed wire around Magnums over to half-pornographic ones prominently featuring blond- and black-haired men. All now carefully stowed away in the attic and only ever glanced at when he added something new. This one, though ... was different. It was some kind of demented portrait of himself, that much was obvious - but one he had most certainly never agreed to sit for. Lay for. Sleep for. Whatever. Half-nude! And giving every impression that his clothes were, in fact, made of some liquid material in the process of sliding right off him, as if he was only seconds away from being buck naked. Not that he would let himself be blackmailed into wearing such a foppish, indecent outfit.
The setting was acceptable enough, he supposed, though he certainly wasn't in the habit of hiking out in some forest just for a nap by a lake. The water looked still and serene, though, almost sacral. In the picture was also the front of a white horse with its head lifted in an alert manner, as if standing watch while "he" slept. Klaus catalogued the clothes as medieval, some sort of wide-sleeved tunic in green and gold; billowing red, gold-lined mantle and silver-grey leggings as tight and sheer like a woman's stockings. He felt embarrassed just looking at the picture. Should he ever wear something like that he would only have himself to blame if the Earl tried to feel him up. The Eberbach boar trotted briskly along the embroidered borders - and, on closer inspection, Klaus saw the small, yet tell-tale bump of a shoulder holster under the arms.
He could, vaguely, appreciate that the painting had been made with near photographic accuracy. Not that he was into art of any kind, but he could judge proportions and depth and see how realistic something looked. Apart from that he, again, certainly never had posed for it, the painting had been done by someone with considerable skill.
The fop must have paid a fortune to have it made, he thought, then revised his own statement: Nah, probably just wriggled his arse or blinked those big eyes of his at someone and they did it for free. He felt a little unfair in his assessment, but refused to revise it a second time.
After having studied the painting a few minutes longer, to properly disapprove of it, he rewrapped it and carried the packet up to the attic, where he put it with the rest. Before he went back down again he looked through them all once, just to remind himself of how indecent some of them really were, especially the half-pornographic ones.
The Gohst Kumbakonam he'd bought at Taste of India on his way home had gone a bit cold, but still tasted good enough. Indian was, in Klaus's opinion, the second best food in the world, even if it was far inferior to standard German fare. He mostly ate it when he felt a little out of sorts, so he would have something to blame.
With his belly pleasantly full and his mouth burning faintly from the spices, Klaus settled in front of the television, to FC Köln vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach and reading the last chapter in The Age of Alexander, by Plutarch, followed by World Tanks and Reconnaissance Vehicles Since 1945, and having a cold Kölsch to better enjoy the game. After FC Köln's rightful victory he worked out for 75 minutes and then was finally tired enough that going to bed would be of any use without writhing in the sheets, thinking of duty and family and fops and longing and hope and duty.
Sleep came like a friend.
Sometimes Klaus's nights were plagued with strange, inappropriate dreams. Often he would do his best to forget them as soon as he woke, especially the dreams that aroused him in his sleep, teasing him about things that he otherwise tried not to think of, leaving him hard and wanting. In some dreams he was aware enough to try to force what happened in a different direction, trying to turn the embarrassment to something more appropriate, like his ever-favourite dream of outsmarting Mischa and taking down the entire KGB network.
His current dream was so odd that even if he felt aware he wasn't sure just how he could turn it to something better. At least it wasn't a sex dream.
"--demon. Major demon. A major demon. Major demon. Major. Demon. Major. Demon. A. Major. Demon. Major. Major. A major. Demon. Demon. Major. A major demon. A--"
The witless rant came from a boy, well, a teenager, in rugged clothes who knelt by a large campfire. He held his hands up, but less as if to warm himself and more as if he wanted to press something towards the heat. His eyes were firmly closed in fierce concentration. He had dark hair, a triangular face and huge ears, jutting out from his head. Over a blue shirt he wore a brown jacket with a red kerchief around his throat.
Ignoring the guy for a moment, Klaus assessed the situation. They were in a forest, similar to the painting he remembered clearly from before falling asleep. There didn't seem to be any horses about, white or otherwise, but he saw the lake, exactly as in the painting. Quickly Klaus looked down and almost sighed with relief when he saw that he still wore his trenchcoat and that the disciplined fabric showed no sign of slowly slipping down his body. A clench of his triceps confirmed that he was wearing the shoulder holster with his Magnum.
"--just one, mind you. A major demon. A major. Demon. A. Major. Demon. A major demon. Major. Demon. Major. A major one. Demon. A--"
Klaus wondered vaguely why he was dreaming in English. That had happened before, of course, there was just something wrong about the Earl telling him to, "Spreiz die Schenkel für mich, Klaus, dann besorg, ich's dir, wie du's noch nie erlebt hast", that his brain refused to even contemplate the possibility of. But he didn't recognize this guy, so there didn't seem to be any reason for the foreign language.
Apart from that and the surreal situation in itself, the dream was highly detailed. Klaus felt the unevenness of the soft, grass-covered soil he stood on; a lazy wind pressed against the back of his trenchcoat; he heard the crackles from the dancing fire - and that direction was definitely warmer too. In a near-by tree sat a small, black bird with a yellow beak. Sunlight made the lake glitter. Small waves rippled the water surface, now a spark from the fire flew a short distance, but died in the dew-damp grass. The chanting kid had a rip in the side of his jacket and specks of mud on his face. A deep breath through his nose gave Klaus a layer of scents: burning wood, smoke, tree, water and - yes, a distinct hint of equine.
"--demon. Now!" And then the youth threw back his head, with his eyes open and burning like gold.
Something tugged violently at Klaus's stomach and then the wind hit him again, hard this time. He stared at the otherworldly eyes, even as the gold faded. They stared back at him in turn, wide even as the kid's chin fell, mouth hanging open in astonishment. "A-a-are y-you a, a ma-major demon?"
Klaus snorted. Then he mimicked the kid's speech-pattern and the wide-eyed look. "A-a-are y-you a, a, ma-major idiot?"
The idiot gave him several blinks, followed, strangely, by a tentative smile. "They do call me that, sometimes. An idiot, that is. Hello! Ah, I'm Merlin, by the way." He held out a hand, broke off the gesture, rose to his feet and then held out his hand again. Klaus stared pointedly until it was lowered again. "Eh ... You're sure you're not a demon? Only, I was trying to summon one, a major one."
"You're sure you're not an idiot?" Klaus retorted. "There is no such thing as a demon." Even if this might be a dream, he insisted on some ground rules. No demons was one such rule.
"Eh ... Uhm," said the youngster. "Actually, you know, there, there, there is. That is - small ones exists, anyway. Minor ones. Seven of them attacked me and Arthur when we were out riding this morning and, and they captured Arthur. I tried to, eh, stop them, but there was nothing I could do. So I, eh, found this book on magic and I can't do magic at all, whatsoever, but the book said--"
"Magic doesn't exist either." Another ground rule Klaus insisted on, very firmly.
The kid looked at him a bit funny, opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, then just sighed. "My book, eh, I mean, the book I found, yes, the book I found said that only a major demon can combat minor demons. Panging them. So I thought I'd try to summon one. Only, there was nothing about how to summon a major demon in my book and I didn't think there was time for me to go back to Camelot to do more research. So I thought I'd improvise and--"
"Camelot? Arthur and Camelot? Like in King Arthur and The Round Table of Camelot?"
The guy blinked. "Eh ... No? Must be some other Arthur of Camelot you're thinking of. Arthur isn't king yet, only a prince. And he doesn't have a round table, just a square one. I know, I serve him breakfast on it every morning. Dinner too, sometimes. In the evening, that is. Obviously."
"But we are in England?"
The kid's own name also sounded familiar. Merlin. He was sure he had heard it before, and definitely in connection to King Arthur. I must cut back on Indian food. Obviously it gives me strange associations. Many Indians did live in England, that he knew - it probably had something to do with that.
"Right. Whatever. So, my mission is to free Ki-- Prince Arthur." Klaus's best dreams - the ones that didn't end in him licking the Earl's thighs and various other parts of his body - often consisted of missions and while they weren't necessarily in the name of NATO Klaus always saw them through, on pure principle. Just because he was dreaming was no reason for slacking off. "Fill me in on all pertinent information on these so-called minor demons."
A few hours later:
The impressive realism of the dream was beginning to bug Klaus. It didn't even gloss over the boring parts, such as the lengthy horse ride - though the horse Merlin had fetched from the side of the camp had been a bay, not a white one - and huddling in the forest opposite the demon lair, a cave on a hill, to wait for the supernatural creatures to become visible by moonlight. And all throughout Klaus got a steady input of smells, sights, sounds, even tastes when the Merlin-character split the meagre contents of his backpack. Touch too - the trip had made Klaus determined to take up riding again - his arse definitely needed the work-out. I better never mention that in front of the fop, though.
After a long wait, the night finally set and humanoid shapes started to glow within the cave mouth. Soon they shone like green-tinted lanterns and in their light Klaus could make out another shape, further inside the cave, that of a man sleeping, unconscious - or dead.
"He's still alive," Merlin whispered, his tone excited. He lay next to Klaus and fairly vibrated with eagerness, like a puppy.
"We can't tell from here."
"I'd know if he was dead. Besides, they won't hurt him until midnight. My book said so."
Klaus vaguely remembered some stupid so-called horror movie he'd been subjected to at some American safe house. "No feeding after midnight?"
"No, no, they eat at midnight. They'll suck out his soul then and make him one of them."
"Whatever. Right. Panging them, you said? More like Bänging them." Midnight deadline or not, Klaus saw no reason to wait until the last minute to accomplish his mission. Only amateurs did stupid stuff like that. The shapes were all outside the cave and he saw them clearly. So he pulled his Magnum.
A correction of aim to find the next target and another soft squeeze ~Bang!~ and he had the second shot off before he even had time to judge the impact of the first.
They started to move towards him. Oh, neat, the first demon had just disintegrated in a cloud of glowing, yellow dust!
There went the second one! A bit of a delayed reaction, but shooting court targets was never this fun!
The remaining two had come halfway across the field separating the cave hill and the forest.
The last was coming in very fast. Nice.
And seconds later the very last minor demon exploded merely meters away from the forest line. Some gold dust wafted towards them, but Klaus rolled on his feet and moved away, avoiding the possibly hazardous material with ease.
Big Ears, on the other hand, ran, full tilt, towards the cave. Through some of the still lingering yellow, so if nothing else they'd shortly find out of if the material was toxic or not. Klaus considered yelling at him, but by then it was too late anyway and, besides, it was just a dream.
Amateur, Klaus thought. He followed, but took the longer route through the forest edge, taking no stupid chances even in a dream. Closer to the cave the yellow dust had already settled like a powder on the ground, so he ventured to cross it. Merlin - a rather foppish name, wasn't it? - was already inside, pulling frantically at the prince's bonds - tightening them rather than loosening them, as was probably his intention.
Klaus pushed the kid aside to deal with the knots professionally.
"Is he fine? He looks fine, doesn't he? He's just asleep, isn't he?"
Klaus stopped to locate the sleeper's pulse. The guy was around 25 years of age, blond, strong-looking, clean-features. "Yeah, just out of it. That was all of them?"
"Yes. Seven demons. Very traditional. A gaggle of them. Just the thing. Yes, he's just sleeping - snoring a little too. That's Arthur for you. Thank you. For, um, you know? What you did. Panging them. So, are you a magician too? Eh ... A magician, I meant. Not 'too', I don't know why I said 'too'. No other magicians here. At all."
His words were accompanied by a classic case of deer-in-headlights. Klaus filed this away for future pondering - this dream was really, really stupid, and much stranger than his usual ones, most sex dreams included. "Fine. Whatever. You're an idiot."
Merlin smiled at him. A boyish smile, a bit like Z's and seemingly genuine enough. "But I mean it. Thank you. I'll, um, I'll try to find a way to reward you, something really nice. A painting, maybe? Gwen loves to paint, she can help me. Um ... Anyway, I think I better get him back home to Camelot. Gaius will know what to do now, I think, he always does. It was really nice of you to help out, though."
Gayus? That's it, Klaus Heinz, you're not allowed to look at those paintings again just before going to bed. "Whatever," Klaus repeated. Then he added, with what he felt was well-earned pride: "I always accomplish my mission."
As soon as he said the words, a noise attracted his attention. A ... creaking? Close by. A shifting of weight? Another one, this time wooden by nature. Heard through his left ear only. Yes, because he was ... sleeping on his right side.
Through a sheer effort of will, Klaus lifted himself through the blankness surrounding the dream and out the other side, with his ears almost painfully on alert for whatever had woken him.
Then he heard something new - only the faintest sound imaginable, cloth on cloth, probably from the turn of a head or lowering of an arm. Klaus opened his right eye, just the tiniest slit. Just enough to see a hint of his surroundings.
He was in bed, all right, in his Bonn apartment. Enough light spilled in through the tinted, bulletproof window to lend faint hues of washed-out green and blue to the walls and various other objects. The room was swathed in Klaus's preferred colour scheme, apart from the curly swell of yellow that obscured a considerable portion of his field of vision - and did so even when he opened both eyes.
He didn't even consider that there might be some other blond, curly-haired burglar who had broken into his apartment and now sat on the floor by his bed. The only thing he wondered about was why it wasn't him that Dorian was ogling.
"It's exquisite," said the fop, his voice hardly more than a hushed breath.
Klaus shifted his weight, rising up carefully to see what held the other man's attention. When he saw, he undid his own stealth with a heart-felt: "Was ist denn das für eine Scheisse?!"
Eroica turned towards him, with his blue eyes wide and shimmering with eagerness. "I must have it, Klaus! I need it! I'll pay anything for it!"
The painting. The one Klaus had hidden so carefully among the other presents in the attic.
"It looks like early medieval. Beautiful workmanship, though, among the best I've ever seen! And he looks just like you, Klaus! Look - he even has the Eberbach boar on the trim! Where did you get this? Is he an ancestor of yours?"
The painting, which apparently wasn't from Dorian after all. "Da scheisst doch der Hund ins Feuerzeug!"
"Klaus?" Now the Earl's voice held a hint of concern. "Are you all right?"
His mind cast out for the right term, finding it with effort, dragged up from some mostly forgotten lesson in secondary school. "Arthurian legends. King Arthur and those thugs of his. You know the story?"
"Ah ... Yes? Yes, of course. Really, Klaus, thugs? But why do you ask?"
"Was there ... There was a guy named Merlin with him. Wasn't there? Young bloke, big ears?"
"Ah ... No, my love. Quite old. Beard and mysterious past. Greatest magician of all ages. I don't ... I never heard anything about his ears. Ah ... Klaus, are you feeling well?"
Klaus blinked, ignoring the chatter. He had spotted something else. On the chair by his desk. His trenchcoat. Which belonged in the hallway, by the door - he would never put it on the chair - and he most certainly hadn't, the previous evening. And, at the chair's foot - his boots - covered with a thin layer of yellow dust.
"Fuck me, I think I saved the life of King Arthur," he said and laid back in bed. "And Merlin did have big ears."
Unfortunately - or maybe fortunately, depending on one's point of view - Eroica only heard the first two words.