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 Post subject: Re: Dark Earth: 1947
PostPosted: Sun Oct 09, 2016 9:23 am 
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Location: Darkest Eyre
Notes on Easter Eggs:

- Direct references to Atlantis and hints as to the background of a green Sahara within folk memory.
- The US forward deployment in Casablanca is one of the earlier moves that shows that there will be a residual postwar presence in Europe.
- Mercenary companies play a role in Central and South America similar to the 1950s-1970s in Africa and are sometimes employed for plausibly deniable operations.
- The East India Company still has its own limited (para)military forces and armed merchant ships, which are used as an arm of British policy; Air America would be a parallel in some ways.
- The Alsatians, Swiss, Ruritanians and Liechtensteiners are of course Germans; the burn scars should be simple to interpret.
- Wozzeau: A reference to the bizarre director of 'The Room'; Joakim: Lead singer of Sabaton and tank lover; Ben Hawkins: Main character of the sadly-cancelled Carnivale; Luck: Luck of the Legion from The Eagle; LeBlanc: Stewart Grainger's character from Commando/The Legion's Last Patrol; Ilya Drago: inspired by the big Russian bloke in March or Die; MacLeod: Highlander
- Hawkins' tale of a man without a face refers to one of Nick Stahl's earlier films
- Mr. Carrington = Blake Carrington from Dynasty
- When Luck informs LeBlanc of the presence of Bedouin, the voice is supplied by Nigel Green from Zulu
- The battle scene was inspired by the climax of 'March or Die'.
- The dark elves are trying to summon Yog Sothoth. Do not try this at home.


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 Post subject: Re: Dark Earth: 1947
PostPosted: Sun Mar 05, 2017 3:03 am 
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Location: Darkest Eyre
Chinese Surprise

South China Sea, July 6th, 1947

The warm waters lapped gently against the old and battered hull of the old and battered ship. These had once been some of the most storied seas on the planet, having seen first seen the great swanships of elvenkind cruise serenely through their waves almost two hundred centuries ago, followed millennia later by the smaller yet infinitely more numerous vessels of men. The junks of the Middle Kingdom had been chief among these since the early years of the Han Dynasty, criss-crossing the eastern seas laden with the trade goods and commerce of the richest lands in the world. The Empire of China had turned its face to and from the seas many times over its long history and it was in one of the former periods when the glorious treasure fleet of Cheng Ho set out to explore much of the known world and reach even the very borders of the Mediterranean world. In the long years since this last time of oceanic supremacy, the ships of other lands had come into these seas to seek fortune and conquest – Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, France and above all England and then Britain. It was the trade ambitions of the East India Company and the power and might of the Royal Navy that began the last great opening of Imperial China to the world in the late 18th century and theirs would be the dominant force until only a scant eight years ago.

The fleets of the Rising Sun had eclipsed all others in the Orient as first China and then all of Asia were to loom large in their greedy gaze. For a few, brief months, the Imperial Japanese Navy was the sole and unchallenged power in the Chinese seas, until such time as the undersea hunters of America and Britain became the first to bring the blows of vengeance to bear directly upon the abodes of their bloodstained and guilty foes. More was to come as Japan, having sown the wind, reaped the whirlwind. Where once but two ships escaped the fall of Hong Kong in May 1942, well over one hundred times that number returned in mid 1944 as the Grand Fleet came north towards Formosa and victory. From the east and the sunrise came the even more vast ‘Big Blue Fleet’ of the United States Navy, whose aircraft were so numerous that it seemed they could blot out the sun. War was driven from these seas and trade could return, or so it was hoped.

SS Ker Ys was plying familiar seas once again and it seemed as if the old girl recognized them. For a thirty-six year old tramp steamer that had survived two world wars, she was almost sprightly as she stuttered along at the princely speed of 9 knots. She’d spent most of her life in these eastern waters on the China run and after a wartime career that had taken her from Singapore to Normandy, it was good to be back home. Like many East India Company merchant vessels, she still carried her wartime gun armament - two old 4 inchers that were twenty years older than the ship itself – but had barely a dozen shells for each in the kind of logic that only made sense to a bean counter back in Bombay. It was a good thing that these waters were safe ones now, unlike the Atlantic and those bally rogue U-Boats.

Captain Nicholas Sinden had spent most of his war on corvettes in the North Atlantic, where he had developed a particular horror of tinned sausages and the cold, so the relative warmth of the Far East made for a pleasant change and he was hundreds of miles away from the nearest snorker. They were making good time and were just two days out of Hong Kong if Ker Ys could continue at her current speed. Her cargo was mostly typical of a Company ship – machine tools, jute, textiles and a ballast load of coal. The only atypical item in Sinden’s hold was the small matter of 8 million pounds in gold bullion, but that certainly didn’t appear on the manifest. He knew secret business when he saw it and this consignment stank of spies and their shadowy games. John Company had long been used by the Crown for jobs it wished to officially deny and this had all the hallmarks of their handiwork.

His additional security for this voyage came in the form of four former soldiers in mufti, which seemed barely enough to rebuff the approach of an overfriendly pod of dolphins, let alone the type of pirates who had plied their wicked trade here before the war. For many years, the efforts of the Royal Navy, the other fleets of the great powers and the armed merchantmen of the East India Company had provided a fulsome measure of protection for shipping through the South China Sea, but the age-old scourge of piracy had never been fully expurgated from these waters as they had been from most other parts of the world. Now even the mighty Andrew was diminished by the requirements of the aftermath of a world war and the Americans had chosen to concentrate much of their strength to the north of Formosa, where great matters were afoot. According to the last bulletin, there was only a single cruiser charged with patrolling this area.

It came then as no surprise when the cry came down from the lookout that two junks were closing on the Ker Ys at great speed. Raising his binoculars, Sinden saw them motoring in on his vessel from the blind spot of his guns directly amidships, obviously driven by concealed petrol engines gauging by the black smoke spewing out behind them. He shifted his gaze to the decks of the pirate vessels and his eyes widened in horror. There were at least thirty men armed with swords, rifles and pistols aboard the closest junk and what appeared to be an old short barreled Japanese 3” gun on the forecastle.

Aimed directly at the bridge.

“GET DOWN!” Sinden threw himself to the floor as the first shot screamed past and exploded no more than 20 yards away on the other side of the ship, the blast shattering one of the bridge windows and sending glass flying across the room, slashing into the leg of the first officer and almost severing it. As he crawled over to try and help the stricken man, he heard a loud announcement in accented English.

“Heave to and prepare to be boarded! Resistance is useless!”

Captain Sinden was not paid enough to die a hero, gold or no gold, and barked out orders to comply, whilst he pressed a small, unobtrusive button on the side of the ship’s wheel. He had no idea what it would do, but there was no harm in hedging his bets; besides, if, as he suspected, the pirates were to kill him and his crew regardless of their actions, then hopefully the would reap the whirlwind of their ill deeds. Despite his efforts, the first officer had expired from massive blood loss and shock, leaving the bridge looking like a charnel house. Sinden slumped back against the wall in despair before remembering his station. He picked up his blood-soaked cap, placed in firmly on his head and strode out to meet the pirates who even now were pouring over the side of his ship. Before he could say a word, the lead rogue smashed the hilt of his dao into the side of his head and he slid to the deck and knew no more.
………………………………………………………………………………………………

Chi Yung Gi had been at sea as a sailor of fortune for over ten years, but he had never seen as big a prize as this. It had been a career truncated by the Japanese, who had proved quite the impediment to business, not to mention the enforced leave of absence when the Grand Fleet dominated these waters during their operations off Southern China, but now it was as if the golden age had come once again. Quite literally, in this case. Certainly, they had hidden it well and a few of those foolish guards had tried to interfere, costing him two men and them their fingers, toes and lives, in that order. The pleasant sounds of their agonized screaming from the deck above bought an even wider smile to his face; the sharks would eat well, this day.

There before him was what they had come for. Crates and crates of gold bullion. Enough for a king’s ransom, or at the very least for the comfortable retirement of an enterprising seaman currently engaged in the hostile acquisitions trade. Their tip had been right and now all would share in the bounty; it just so happened that his share would be by far the greatest. However, the time for gloating would come later, when the gold had been removed to their island lair and the merchant steamer sent to the bottom by scuttling charges, another mysterious disappearance in the South China Sea. With more than a tinge of regret at leaving behind the riveting sight, he turned to climb up direct the removal of the booty and perhaps to enjoy a little bit of the torture if he had time.

He was halfway up when a series of tremendous explosions rocked the Ker Ys and sent him falling back to sprawl on the hard deck of the cargo hold. Shaking his addled head to gather his senses, he raced up into the bright sunlight and humid breeze of the outside world. What he saw turned his blood to ice.

Steaming in towards them over the horizon at flank speed was an enormous grey warship flying a huge Union Jack battle ensign and bristling with guns, most notably including two massive twin turrets trained directly on the Ker Ys. Three smaller torpedo boats loaded with Royal Marines bounced across the waves as they sped towards the captive steamer and a pair of jet seaplanes screamed overhead. Where one of the pirate junks had once been, there was no only a smoking collection of flotsam and jetsam, her sister vessel only saved from such a brutal fate by her proximity to the British merchant ship. From out of the air above the pirates and their wretched victims, an impossibly loud sorcerous voice boomed out in command in English and Cantonese, over and over again.

This is HMS Surprise. Surrender or die.

“Bah!” spat Chi in defiance. “They will not dare attack us if we are holding the crew hostage! Now, my brothers, seize them up and hold them close – it is our only hope.”

“Not so fast, pirate.” A voice spoke from behind him. Chi spun around, raising his sword high to strike at the prisoner who had the temerity to speak such bold insolence. He froze when he beheld a tall, powerfully built blond-haired man in the blue uniform of a Royal Navy captain leading a squad of ferocious-looking seamen and Royal Marines armed to the teeth with cutlasses, pistols, rifles and even a double barreled blunderbuss. A silenced helicopter hung back behind them, the crew training a large machine gun through the open doors directly on the pirates. The naval officer was pointing a large revolver directly at Chi and his steely blue eyes brooked no tolerance for trouble. “Drop the sword.”

“Who…who are you?”

“Salmon you should know.” said the officer evenly with only the faintest hint of a grin as he stepped forward and smashed his pistol across the side of Chi’s head, sending him crumpling to the deck in an unconscious heap. The other surviving pirates dropped their arms and were swiftly bound tight and herded towards the port side of the Ker Ys, whilst other sailors and Marines came streaming over the sides of the ship to provide aid and succour for the horrified crew and secure the vessel from any further threat. The torture-wracked guards were swiftly attended by an expert band of medical assistants and clerical surgeons as they were carried off on stretchers.

Salmon you should know?” A short, slight dark haired man wearing a broad black hat and whose pale blue eyes were hidden behind a pair of tinted sunshades stepped forward to join the satisfied captain, who looked down upon the scene of well-trained activity with more than a little pride.

“It worked to confuse him long enough for me to subdue him, Stephen. We need to get them to talk before we deal with them.”

“Successful or not, it was terrible, Jack. And why did you have to insist on leading the boarding party yourself? Not really the role of a senior captain.”

“Honestly, we’ve had this discussion before. A leader must lead.”

“You could have been killed. It was an unnecessary risk.”

Captain Sir John ‘Jack’ Aubrey, V.C., KBE, DSO and three bars turned to face his long-time friend and companion, Doctor Stephen Maturin, and raised an eyebrow to match his crooked grin.

“After six and a half years of world war, unnecessary risks are familiar friends. One cannot refuse to eat just because there is a risk of being choked on omelettes of broken eggshells.”

With that, he strode off to talk to the revived Captain Sinden, barking orders along the way to prepare the Surprise’s yardarm for the prisoners. Maturin shook his head ruefully as he watched him go.

Call a man ‘Lucky Jack’ and eventually he’ll start believing it himself.
………………………………………………………………………………………………

An hour later, the yardarm of Surprise was loaded down with the swinging corpses of pirates, a silent testament to the swift and terrible justice meted out by Captain Aubrey. Only a few were still under interrogation by the stern and pitiless Royal Marine truthseekers, including the thoroughly discombobulated Chi Yung Gi and his surviving deputies. Their rendezvous with the hangman would have to wait until the arrival of a Sunderland loaded with intelligence officers and EIC agents, much to the disappointment of the cruiser’s witchfinder, who had been eying off potential immolation locations on the quarterdeck with an enthusiasm that alarmed his colleagues and terrified the Chinese pirates. Aubrey had been quite definite in his refusal – there would be no burnings on his ship, on account of the smell if nothing else.

HMS Surprise was a lucky ship and a happy one to boot. Commissioned in May 1941 as one of the first batch of the Tiger class heavy cruisers, she displaced 24,567 tons, she represented the apex of conventional Royal Navy cruiser design without any of the treaty limitations that had constrained the earlier County class vessels. She could reach a top speed of 32.5 knots, which had been stretched to 33 in the latter stages of the Pacific War. Protected by an armour belt of six and a half inches of super-hardened Vickers steel, Surprise was built to go up against the toughest opponents and take punishment. With over 1800 men on board, the ship had a larger and more varied population than many small towns, although few small towns could boast of quite so much firepower. Her main armament consisted of eight 9.2”/56 Mark XVI guns, capable of firing a 375lb shell over a distance of 58,000 yards with extraordinary accuracy thanks to her arcane and RDF guidance systems. These were far from the only weapons carried by the Surprise, which sported a dozen QF 4.5” dual purpose guns, 24 QF 3.75” automatic anti-aircraft guns and 16 25mm Maxim Guns, in addition to four 48” Helmover and eight 24.5” torpedoes and eight Fairey Stooge anti-aircraft guided weapons. For both offensive and defensive purposes, the cruiser packed one heck of a surprise for any opponent.

Her first months of war had been spent in the North Atlantic, countering the attempted break-out of the Bismarck and containing the vestiges of the German fleet-in-being. She had then been part of the final group of reinforcements to join the Grand Fleet at Singapore before the Pacific boiled over and her devastating firepower had been instrumental in warding off the waves of Japanese air attacks in the grinding naval battles off Malaya and Singapore. Surprise had then headed south as the Anzac Squadron was built up into the Commonwealth Pacific Fleet by British and Canadian contingents and took part in the pivotal engagements of the Coral Sea, Solomon Islands and New Guinea campaigns. She provided extensive naval gunfire support during the British Empire advance up the coast of Indochina and played a key role in screening the landings near Hong Kong and the invasions of Hainan and Formosa. In the Battle of Okinawa, she sank the much larger Akaishi and fought outstandingly in the last climactic Battle of Sagami Bay, downing 11 Japanese planes. In the postwar years of unsteady transition that had followed, Surprise had been the flagship of the Hong Kong Squadron of China Station and had been busier than ever. Throughout her six and a half years of commission, she had been under the command of Captain Aubrey through thick and thin and both the ship and the man had secured their place in the naval annals of Great Britain and the Far East.

Yet now, the missions ahead of both man and ship were ever more complex and convoluted, mirroring the situation in China itself. The First Chinese Civil War had been bloody and confused enough, coinciding as it did with the Great War, but this new conflict made it look as clear cut as an English garden. There were at least five major factions, ranging from the loyal Imperialists and the modernist Republicans to the Soviet-backed Communists and the quite bizarre Neo-Taiping. The forces of the new Emperor had been dealt a series of stinging defeats by the Republicans in Henan earlier in the year, but the Communists were weakening along the Manchurian front. Although the majority of the fighting at this time was north of the Yangtze, Southern China had not been spared from the chaos and disorder and the border with Hong Kong and Macau was increasingly heavily fortified.

Hong Kong itself had thus taken on even more importance than its prewar role as the premier entrepot and commercial centre of Canton Province, now becoming the major means of access to the outside world for a number of regional factions. The physical damage of two years of Japanese occupation had been largely repaired, but the scars on the spirit and confidence of the colony would take rather longer to heal. In many ways, British forces had never truly left, with several commando units and stay-behind groups causing no end of trouble for Imperial Japanese Army forces in the hinterland of the city and the regular flights of RAF Lancasters and Yorks high above on their way to far-off targets reminded the inhabitants that they had not been forgotten. The re-establishment of British rule had not been without its problems and even now, various criminal, nationalist and communist elements were labouring tirelessly to push the Hong Kong Police, Royal Constabulary and garrison to breaking point. The Hong Kong Squadron then had several major roles – regular patrols to intercept smuggled consignments of arms, illicit drugs and cash; the provision of landing forces to react to any sudden unrest or civil disturbance; the clearing of the mines and detritus left by the war; and to serve as a physical reminder of British power and determination in the Far East.

It was in the service of the final objective that HMS Surprise had been operating prior to the distress beacon from the Ker Ys. Eliminating the scourge of piracy as much as humanly possible was a major priority for the Commander-in-Chief, China, even if it dispersed his already small cruiser and destroyer forces more than was his preference. One of the first principles of enforcing order was to be seen to do so and a particularly visually striking means of this were the messages currently dangling from the cruiser’s yardarm, which would remain there until after they returned to Hong Kong.

It was these matters and much more that Captain Aubrey contemplated as he brooded long and darkly in his stateroom. There was undoubtedly a connection between the gold, the campaign against the pirates and the rapidly shifting fortunes of the civil war. He had built up his own informal intelligence network around the Pearl River Delta from early on in the cruise of the Surprise and many of their previous reports pointed towards something very strange and secret going on in the Chuanshan Archipelago; a sort of meeting of different groups of monks of some sort. Perhaps now would be the time to investigate, subject of course to the requirements of the service. So far, his requests for authority had been denied without further explanation.

The arrival of the Royal Naval Air Service Sunderland flying boat from Hong Kong came then as a most welcome development. Within minutes of their arrival onboard, they were seated opposite Jack, who had been joined by Commander Edward Keen, his second-in-command, Major Hurricane, the 7ft tall commander of the Surprise’s Royal Marine company and Dr. Maturin in his capacity as ship’s wizard. The faces of the four men opposite were dour, matching the dark colour of the sober suits and deep blue EIC uniforms that were decidedly unsuitable to the warm conditions of this part of the South China Sea. The most senior of the quartet, a bluff old cove with a walrus moustache and monocle, opened proceedings with a hearty harrumph and got straight down to business.

“Captain Aubrey, I am Brigadier Shelford Ferguson, East India Company. My colleagues are Mr. Drake and Dr. Macgoon,” he indicated two bland-faced intelligence types who looked very much like each other “and Captain Caine, from the naval arm of my own service. You have our thanks for the safe retrieval of the gold.”

“It was bait, wasn’t it?”

“All public denials aside, it was, yes.” Mr. Drake commented in a cold, even voice.

“At the cost of the men of the Ker Ys?” Aubrey’s response was similarly icy.

“Captain, in any war, men will die to achieve the greater objectives of a battle or campaign. They were to be part of the calculated lure to get the pirates interested in the potential for even more easy gold at a particular location.”

“The Chuanshan Islands.”

“You’re remarkably well informed.” Dr. Macgoon observed with just a tiny hint of a Scottish brogue.

“Can we dispense with the nonsense, gentlemen? I grow tired of these backalley games and am not some shrinking violet to be lead up the garden path to go round and round the mulberry bush. Or any bush for that matter!” Aubrey’s angrily mixed metaphor left the others momentarily silent before Captain Caine finally spoke up.

“Yes, that is the target location. There is a gathering of Chinese officials and monks there that His Majesty’s Government would prefer to be…horizontal…”

“Do we get to know why they must be killed?”

“It is a most irregular conclave, called by Abbot Sheng of the Shaolin Monastery. There are some suggestions that the purpose of this group is to shift support from the Imperialists to the Republicans...” began Caine.

“…Which would potentially break open the deadlock in the civil war in favour of the latter group...” continued Aubrey, following the carefully spun threads of intrigue.

“…which is a faction that is rather more inclined towards stronger ties with the United States rather than the British Empire.” concluded Maturin thoughtfully.

“Got it in one. Or three, as it may be.” beamed Brigadier Ferguson.

“The Shaolin on their own wouldn’t be enough to have a decisive impact on the front, though. Major Hurricane had had extensive reports of the fighting from the Royal Marine attaches with the Imperial Army.” Maturin pushed insistently, aiming to get to the bottom of the issue, no matter how much Ferguson and his associates tried to obscure it. It seemed to have the intended affect, as finally Drake dropped all attempts at subterfuge.

“It isn’t just the Shaolin, Captain. The reason that we’ve been force to move is the news that a delegation from the Wutang Mountains is due to arrive tomorrow. That would join together both the Chan Buddhists and the Taoists.”

Aubrey cocked his head slightly, working through the problem until he frowned and nodded appreciatively. “Hmmm…If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wutang could be dangerous.”

“Extremely dangerous. Now that the pirate option seems to have failed, we do have a fallback position – the Imperial Chinese Navy.”

“The Chinese fleet?! What’s left of it would be a joke, only that jokes actually need to be funny.” Aubrey scoffed loudly; Maturin chose that particular moment to be silent and admire the wood paneling on the walls.

“Perhaps not as much as it once was.” Macgoon produced a telegram and passed it over the table to Aubrey. “The Chinese Squadrons are coming home from Singapore. A decision reached by our lords and masters in London and Washington, apparently.” His curled lip spoke of a distinct distaste for the measure.

That tidbit put paid to any mirth. The newest and most powerful capital ships in the prewar Imperial Chinese Navy had managed to escape the southern ports for nominal internment in Singapore in 1938 and subsequently formed a pair of battle squadrons attached to the RN and USN when the Sino-Japanese War expanded into the wider Pacific conflict. Since the end of the war, they had been laid up in Singapore and Manila in something of a legal and political limbo due to the civil war and profound differences between the United States and the British Empire on their ultimate fate. The Dingyuan, Zhenyuan, Jiyuan and Pingyuan were second-line super battleships compared with those of the other Allied powers, but were head and shoulders above all the other remaining battle lines in the world. Together, they could radically alter the balance of the civil war should they join one of the major factions.

“We did of course put up a very strong case that they should be turned over to the Company, but the damned Labourites insisted, carrying on about supporting our free and noble allies and preferring to aid the cause of independence over the agencies of reactionary imperialism. I don’t think I’m alone when I say I smell the strong scent of Bolshevist influence over that decision.” Ferguson fairly bristled as he built up into a medium strength rant.

“Now, now, Brigadier. Not every Labour supporter is a dyed-in-the-wool Comintern agent.” chided Captain Aubrey, the hint of a smile playing around the corner of his mouth.

“What tosh! I’ve never met one who wasn’t Red when you scratched him deep enough!”

“I’m one.” spoke Doctor Maturin quietly. Brigadier Ferguson opened and closed his mouth several times in astonishment, giving a quite creditable impression of a flabbergasted walrus, of which there are more about than one would think.

“Setting politics aside, the plan is for the Jiyuan to assault the conclave on St. John’s Island tomorrow evening. Prior to that, we need you to go in and retrieve our agents.”

“How many?”

“Four undercover former Tulip Force chaps and a section of Royal Ninjas holed up in the bush observing the goings on.” Aubrey and Maturin exchanged a momentary glance of surprise; one would think that the Royal Ninjas may have fallen somewhat from favour after the recent war, but apparently, their particular talents had overcome that.

Jack stood up and clapped his hands together. “Sounds positively straightforward at last. Shan’t be a problem at all. Give us the details of where to meet them and Major Hurricane’s Marines will handle the extraction.”

Caine looked askance at Aubrey’s apparently simple approach. “You’re not going to put together a more subtle plan? We would rather prefer this be handled quietly.”

“If you wanted the whole blasted business handled quietly, then you should have done the whole blasted thing yourselves before getting my ship involved and preferably before you got those poor bastards down there mutilated! There are four men right now lying down in my hospital with their noses hacked off! How are they going to smell?! Terrible! No, we’ll go straight at ‘em and get the bloody job done! Now make yourself scarce so we can get on with the mission.” Aubrey’s thunderous tirade took the wind right out of the sails of the shell-shocked Caine, Ferguson, Drake and Macgoon, who filed out of the stateroom, lead by Hurricane and Keen, who were putting great efforts into keeping from bursting out into laughter.

The door closed and Aubrey fell over, wracked by a spasm of silent guffaws, watched by a disapproving Maturin.

“ 'How are they going to smell? Terrible!’ That is fairly low even for you, Jack Aubrey. Torture isn’t a funny thing.”

Aubrey finally bought himself under control and wiped the tears from his eyes. “No, it isn’t, Stephen. The guards didn’t lose their noses, though. Broken bones and a sickening beating, but nothing severed before we arrived, thank the Lord. I’m going to make sure they get some of that bally John Company gold for their suffering before this is out. Ha! Those desk skippers think they can lecture me on subtlety!”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“The Jiyuan, man, the Jiyuan! She was in Manila with the Dingyuan! You can bet your last shilling that the Americans have loaded her up to the gills with every Chinese Republican sort they could find. They’re trying to set up the Republicans as the ones who blast the Shaolin and Wutang conclave to kingdom come! Any fool worth his salt will see through that in an instant and then we’ll be the ones wearing it at Honkers.”

“I see. And not just in China, Jack. If this breaks, it will bring down the whole government.”

“Precisely. Do these bloody amateurs even realize what game they’re playing? Right, we need to do three things. Firstly, send a signal to Admiral Palliser up at Shanghai to fill him in. Secondly, I need you to hop on one of the Sirens this afternoon and fly over to Hong Kong and see some of your contacts.”

“And do what?”

Aubrey laid out his plan for Maturin in stark, basic terms. It took two and a half minutes and, by the end, both men were grinning.

“What’s the third part?”

“We must have lunch, of course. Killick!” Aubrey called out to his sour steward, who began to trump in with the captain’s luncheon of boiled leg of mutton, sea pie, salted cod, roast beef, an enormous spotted dog, two bottles of claret and of course his favoured soused hog’s face. Aubrey, a man given to worshipping his belly, greeted the procession with loud and thankful huzzahs.
……………………………………………………………………………………………
St. John’s Island, Chuanshan Archipelago, 0432 hours, July 8th, 1947

The inflatable rubber assault boats nudged silently onto the sandy shores of the island, unleashing their black-clad cargo onto the beach. Several Royal Marines crouched warily as the others disembarked, covering the darkness with their the infravision equipped De Lisle carbines. One huge muscular figure strode up onto the silvery sands and looked warily out into the dense undergrowth ahead. A smaller figure joined him, sword and machine pistol in hand.

“Righto, Major. Take your men up to the rendezvous point and meet up with the observer crew and the ninjas. Pull back down to here and stay as long as you can; we may be coming down rather quickly and with company.”

“Yes sir!” replied Hurricane in a barking whisper. “Alright, you bumbling baboons, move out!” He jogged off into the predawn darkness, closely followed by two dozen heavily armed Royal Marines, leaving Aubrey, Maturin and his detachment of ten hand-picked sailors alone on the beach. With nary a nod, they moved up into the tropical woods, heading for the few points of light that twinkled atop the tallest hilltop of the island.

Twenty-nine laborious minutes later, the small group approached the top of the slope and the broken grey stone walls of the temple compound. Aubrey and his men crouched in the undergrowth as he studied it through his night vision binoculars. Two shaven-headed and robed sentries patrolled atop the walls, their monastic appearance slightly offset by the Lee Enfield rifles they toted. It seemed as if they did not expect visitors of any sort.

The snapping of a twig sent him spinning around, leveling his silenced pistol at whatever was there. He paused as he saw two dozen black-clad figures rise up around him, holding dark swords and crossbows at the ready. One advanced forward in a crouch and removed his mask, revealing a rugged, bearded face.

“Morning, sir. Captain Norris, American Ninjas. We got your message.” he whispered quietly.

After sharing a lightning quick glance with Maturin, Aubrey nodded gratefully in greeting. “Good to have some back-up. You know what to expect?”

“A major attack on the conclave by enemy forces.”

“Yes, something like that.”

Their civilized discussion was then disrupted by a series of exploding artillery shells and a chorus of whistles, gongs, bugles and screamed battle cries. Maturin leapt up and sent a conjured lightball of illumination screaming up into the heavens, revealing hundreds and hundreds of charging Chinese sailors, brandishing swords and firing wildly at the temple.

And waving red banners.

There followed the most tremendous battle. The British sailors and American ninjas kept up a withering fire on the Red Chinese as they crossed the dead ground up the slope to the temple, dropping dozens with well aimed crossbow and rifle shots, but they managed to make it to the walls by sheer force of numbers. As they did, the gates opened and over a hundred Shaolin monks and Wutang swordsmen streamed out to meet them, screaming blood-curdling battle cries and throwing themselves about with the most gravity-defying martial arts maneuvers any of the Westerners had ever seen. One monk launched himself into a flying kick that struck off the heads of three attackers, whilst an elderly swordsman sent himself spinning through the air like a bladed Catherine wheel, striking ten men stone dead before he hit the ground and ran on.

With a cheer, the men of the Surprise and the Americans ran forth from their position right into the flank of the Chinese sailors, firing from the hip as they went, while Dr. Maturin sent lightning bolt after lightning bolt after fireball into the other flank and rear of the force from the Jiyuan. Captain Aubrey was in his element, striking swift blows with his sword and firing single shots into his terrified enemies as he forged ever forward. Alongside him fought Captain Norris, a veritable thunderstorm of martial skill, his limbs barely visible as he struck, twirled and roundhouse kicked his foes into oblivion.

Before too long, the moment came when the men of the Jiyuan could take no more, regardless of the negative impact on the proletarian cause. They wavered, then broke and then ran. Back down the hill they streamed as the first rays of the sun crested the horizon, back towards whatever safety remained for them, back down towards a thin red line of silent Royal Marines with assault rifles and Bren guns. In their frenzied efforts to escape the death dealing monks, swordsmen and ninjas, they did not hear the three shouted warnings to halt. Five volleys and twenty-six seconds later, the remnants of the attacking force sat or lay on the slopes, watched and guarded by the ferociously armed fighters of the Wutang.

Forth stepped an ancient, blind Abbot, guided by his reverent followers, who had quickly cleansed themselves of most of the gore of the battle.

“You have our thanks, Captain Aubrey, Captain Norris. Your assistance, although not entirely necessary, made this task much less costly than it could have been. I do not think that these men, or who sent them, was anticipating this surprise.” For some reason, his words did not seem to be synchronized with the movements of his lips, but they paid it little heed.

“You knew?” spluttered Aubrey.

“Of course, young man. Just because we have forsaken the ways of the world and seek true enlightenment does not mean that we do not have a wireless link to Hong Kong. Your honourable Doctor has once again performed a great service for our monastery and for our friends from the mountains.”

Maturin gave a bashful smile and went back to looking imperturbably at the pretty sunrise.

“I trust that your conclave has come to the right conclusions.” Norris stated.

“Of course. It was always our intention to join together to work against…external…threats to our traditional values and culture. Wherever they may come from or whatever…company…they keep. This little display has made things somewhat easier, though.” He smiled enigmatically, indicating that the audience was at an end. He turned and walked back through the shattered gates of the unnamed temple.

The Americans and Britons went off back the way they had came and, upon reaching the beach, saw two lots of boats awaiting them and two large cruisers sitting offshore, the HMS Surprise and the USS Newport News. Norris turned to Aubrey somewhat awkwardly.

“I guess this is so long then, Captain. You’re not that bad a guy for a Limey.”

“I guess it is, Captain. Cheerio, Yank, and good luck to you.”

Norris raised his hand in farewell as he lead his ninjas out to their inflatable boats. Jack thought he saw him walking on water briefly, but it must have been a trick of the early morning light and the sweat of battle in his eyes.

As they motored back out to the Surprise, he grinned over at Maturin. “You didn’t tell me that you’d let the conclave know about the plan, Stephen. You were only supposed to get your Red rabble-rousers onboard the battleship in Honkers to stage a mutiny while at sea.”

“Awfully sorry, Jack. I must have got a bit too excited in all the rushing about. What will happen now?”

“Who knows? Neither we nor the Americans came out on top, no doubt as both had planned; if one of us had, it would have hurt a lot more than just China. As it stands, I wouldn’t want to be a communist around the Shaolin or the Wutang any time soon.”

“And our kindly friends from the Company and intelligence?”

“I dare say they’ll be promoted. They tell me Antarctica is lovely this time of year.”

Both men laughed heartily, but then grew silent for the rest of the short journey, reflecting on the bad choices that all had to make in the grubby business that was peacetime in a civil war. In an uncertain time in an uncertain land in an uncertain world, there was only one certainty - many more would die before it was all over.

In the meantime, Lucky Jack would continue to be full of surprises.


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PostPosted: Sun Mar 05, 2017 5:07 am 
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Ha! Lucky Jack and the Wu-Tang Clan, fabulous as ever. Jack's puns have become even more pungent over the last century and a half.


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PostPosted: Sun Mar 05, 2017 5:25 am 
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Glad you liked it. The notion to use the Wutang references only came rather recently and fitted in well to the background of meddling in the Civil War.


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PostPosted: Sun Mar 05, 2017 12:23 pm 
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Nicholas Sinden, nice. 'Snorkers, good oh.' :D

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Frankly I had enjoyed the war...and why do people want peace if the war is so much fun?


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PostPosted: Sun Mar 05, 2017 3:51 pm 
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Just magical. That were ace, thank you!

FOUR Helmovers? On a Sunday? With Aubrey's reputation?

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 05, 2017 4:14 pm 
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Thanks chaps, always pleased that it hit the mark for some. I wanted to add a bit more to the picture of China, build up the impression of Cold War rivalry, set some wheels spinning within wheels and include some jolly fine chaps.

Jan, I'm glad the snorkers reference wasn't too well hidden; Sinden's role is a small one, but all the more reason to give him something.

Craig, the four Helmovers are a standard fit for the Andrew's cruisers, although that changes by 1950 when more kit has to be loaded. It may be a bit much for the likes of Jack, but there is a fairly sound reasoning behind the decision, as there are more than a handful of potentially unfriendly battleships still around.

Hopefully Maturin's role came together effectively; I pictured that he would end up as a Labour or Radical supporter.

I'll throw some notes together for later on.


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 06, 2017 6:23 am 
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Chinese Surprise Notes:

- The history of Chinese junks extends rather further back than on Earth
- The Swedish East India Company has a rather higher profile, reflecting the greater success and period in the sun of the Swedish Empire
- Cheng Ho's voyages reach some far off destinations, but not quite to the level of Gavin Menzies
- China is opened up from the time of the Macartney Embassy due to a rather more powerful British show of force; this in turn has some interesting affects on the Manchu dynasty in the 19th Century
- Japan takes some fearful losses from Allied submarines; this is balanced by more escorts and a reappraisal of their ASW approach
- Hong Kong holds until May 1st 1942; like Bataan, it is a forlorn hope, but a rallying point. The Hong Kong border is much further inland and is quite heavily fortified
- The Allied offensives in the Pacific meet at Formosa
- Ker Ys was a historical legend of a sunken city off the coast of Brittany; here, it is an actual city in Lyonesse
- As said a few times, the East India Company has a fleet of armed merchantmen and some rather interesting merchant cruisers, a small aerial force of transport planes, fighters and converted bombers and an 'army' of 80,000, made up of former British, Commonwealth and Indian soldiers. Whilst they do not have the same role in India as they once did, the EIC has a big share of Indian and Oriental shipping and sea trade, is the major contractor for Indian Railways, owns several dozen mines, is a largest single shareholder in Indian Oil and operates a lot of plantations, utilities and factories. It is without a doubt the largest and most diverse multinational corporation in the world as of 1947, but not the richest.
- Nicholas Sinden is a portmanteau of Nicholas Montserrat and Donald Sinden, both referring to The Cruel Sea. Same with the snorkers.
- British ships still use the coal ballast business to maximise profit
- The jet seaplanes are Saunders-Roe SR.A1s, whilst the torpedo boats are actually motorboats from the cruiser
- The double barrelled blunderbuss is a personal heirloom rather than official issue
- Of more consequence is the silenced helicopter, which some thoughtful readers will see as connected to future developments and one area where the Rotodyne is improved
- I apologise for all Aubrey's puns; I am personally an inveterate punner and it shows in this story
- RN ships still commonly hang pirates and other miscreants from their yardarms as of 1947
- The witchfinder was keen on burning the pirates due to their use of torture, which is often a crime associated with devil worship and black magic here
- Surprise is one of 16 Tigers which are very handy vessels, just at a sweet spot of armament and displacement; they have proved more useful than the larger Hero class supercruisers
- Vickers super hardened armour is twice as tough as the Krupp cemented armour of the 1890s
- The 9.2" gun has affair bit of growth potential in it, even before base bleed and rocket propelled shells later down the line
- The Fairey Stooge is very much an interim weapon, but is seen as better than nothing
- A few more details of the Pacific War are laid down; by the time I get to writing up WW2, the general structure should be recognisable in many places; I'd relish any questions on it
- The factions of the Chinese Civil War are a mixture of the familiar and the strange, with the Neo-Taiping not being the most bizarre group. On the flipside, China doesn't have a Warlord period, just a pair of wars that largely coincide with the World Wars
- Hong Kong is simmering and there will eventually be some problems in the 50s, when the communists and criminal groups are badly broken
- Commander Keen may be familiar to some, as might Major Hurricane
- Drake and Macgoon both look very much like Patrick McGoohan
- The USA and Britain are both trying to move themselves into poll position in China
- "If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wutang could be dangerous" is from an old Hong Kong kung fu film later used as a source of samples for the Wutang Clan
- The Chinese Squadrons are an interesting story in and of itself; there are two battleships being built in Shanghai, but they will take years
- The Labour-Liberal coalition government doesn't have anything approaching the Nene gift of @, but later in-universe historians view the Chinese battleships as a dubious decision
- The Royal Ninjas are a long story; some hints are available if there is interest
- The EIC and intelligence gambit isn't deliberately designed to bring down the government, at least not from the view of most involved
- Captain Norris. American Ninjas. It is who and what you think.
- Maturin and Aubrey come up with the plan to get the Communists involved; the former has no love for them, being a patriotic Radical Labour man
- The blind abbot's words are not synchronised with his lips...
- A promotion to Antarctica is meant quite literally

Hopefully these help readers appreciate this little chapter.


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 06, 2017 1:32 pm 
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That. Was. Delightful.

Please, continue with the puns. And the writing.

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 06, 2017 3:37 pm 
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An inveterate punner? Did you not know that in the Service, one must always choose the lesser of two weevils?

Ahem :D

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 06, 2017 3:39 pm 
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You are quite welcome and both will definitely continue; another Never Had it So Good will be out in the next few days, followed by something from Korea, something from space and Chapter 11 of the Red Shadow. The next 1947 instalment is entitled 'Reds' and looks at the Soviet Union in 1947.

Craig, weevil be to he who weevil thinks.


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 06, 2017 3:50 pm 
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See no weevil, do no weevil Simon.

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Sir Humphrey Appleby: By the BBC, Bernard.


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 06, 2017 5:50 pm 
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I would imagine that Drake is a man of danger. I just hope that neither he nor Macgoon end up confined in a village. :D

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Exactly what was meant on both counts. The Village will show up.


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Reds! - The Soviet Union in 1947

Proud, enormous, bloodied yet indomitable it stood, the colossus of the East, spanning two continents yet truly being part of neither. It was a riddle, wrapped in mystery, inside an enigma. Born of the fires of revolution under a crimson banner, forged through the flames of devastation and invasion and tempered by glorious victory, the Soviet Union in 1947 was poised at the crossroads of history. Though still wracked by shadows and tempests, it shone forth with ever-growing power and influence from behind the fell curtains of iron that stretched forth to the very centres of Europe and Asia alike. Stalin’s land and people had paid a great price for its triumph over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War and bore this burden with both pride and sorrow. The motherland had called, her sons had answered and now the world was changed forever.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had now ascended above the seried ranks of great states to the new category of superpower, being possessed of the combination of vast lands and population, a huge and powerful military machine and an economic and industrial capacity that, whilst sorely harried by the destruction and vileness of the Hitlerite hordes, was bested only by the United States and Great Britain. The Red Army, already the largest land force in the world before the war, had reached its extraordinary peak strength of 16,432,589 men and 684 divisions in early 1945 as it rolled through Poland and Eastern Germany to reach the Oder, ably supported by the 3,879,426 men and 32,567 planes of the Red Air Force. The gigantic closed industrial cities and vast underground factories of the Urals and Siberia turned out millions of tons of iron and steel and thousands of the world’s most powerful tanks and weapons, including the formidable T-34s and the IS heavy tanks. The Soviet Navy flew the red flag over half the world’s oceans and extended Russian influence far beyond its frozen and battered shores.

War had scarred the land and people almost beyond comprehension. Almost 21 million Soviet civilians had lost their lives and tens of millions were left homeless. Over 1600 cities and towns and more than 70,000 villages had been partly or completely destroyed, mines, factories, power plants and huge dams had been wrecked and great swathes of its most productive agricultural land had been ravaged. The poisonous damage of Nazi chemical warfare and foul black magic would leave a terrible legacy for long years to come and the spectre of famine once again stalked the land. Yet throughout their immense suffering, the spirit of the ordinary workers and peasants of the Soviet Union was unbroken. Beyond the ruin and tribulation of war beckoned the red dawn of a new world.

At the centre of the state sat arguably the single most powerful man on the planet, Iosef Vissarionivich Dzughashvili, better known to the world as Stalin. He had ruled the Soviet Union with an iron hand since the death of Lenin in 1924 and now extended that control over much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the aftermath of the war. Trained as a arcanist monk, he had developed his knowledge of many obscure dweomers over his career as a revolutionist, allowing him to escape many dangerous situations during his many captures and exiles. An all-encompassing cult of personality was centred upon Stalin, who was portrayed as the wise and benevolent father of his people and the genius architect of victory over Hitler. This was reinforced by the cruel and feared secret police of the NKVD and the horrific Gulag prison camps that awaited the enemies of the state. The only one of the ‘Big Three’ leaders of the wartime allies to remain alive and in power in 1947, Stalin continued to weave his long-term plans for Soviet power and the world domination of communism from deep inside the red walls of the Kremlin. He wielded the power of the Comintern across the world, directing thousands of agents and millions of sympathizers along the paths of hundreds of schemes, all of them dedicated towards the triumph of international socialism and the global dominance of the Soviet Union, objectives that Stalin regarded as one and the same. During the Second World War, he had been lauded as ‘Good Old Uncle Joe’ by the people and press of the United States and Britain and this avuncular image had not yet been tempered by the bitter tears of reality for too many.

The Soviet Union was the largest country in the world by area, covering one sixth of the Earth’s surface, or an area comparable to the entire landmass of North America. It stretched over 6000 miles from the gentle beaches of the Baltic Sea in Latvia in the west to the rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean on the rugged Kamchatka Peninsula in the far east and more than 4000 miles from the frozen wastes of the Arctic in the north to the vast deserts of Central Asia in the south. West of the soaring Urals lay the densely populated republics of European Russia, dominated by three great rivers – the Dneiper, the Don and the mighty Volga. Their waters were rich with fish and served as broad arteries of commerce and transport uniting the lands. About them, the fertile black soil of the Ukraine stood as one of the great breadbaskets of mankind, rich with wheat, corn, barley and cotton, while the mighty Donbass held immense seams thick with black coal and many ores. The immense taiga or forests of Siberia were one of the world’s treasure houses of natural resources, containing huge deposits of gold, diamonds, oil, gas and the world’s greatest reserves of timber. It was a hard land of freezing winters and scorching summers, but for those strong enough, it was a land of potential.

Its population of 263 million was the third largest in the world and included dozens of ethnicities and races speaking hundreds of different tongues and dialects, ranging from the Slavic Russians and Ukrainians, who made up over 60% of the populace, to fair Circassians and swarthy Tatars and from Kazakhs, Georgians and Khazars to Mongols, Gypsies and Manchus. Russification efforts had intensified over the last two decades and more disparate cultural identities were increasingly subsumed by Russian dominance. The long and terrible years of war had sorely pressed their great capacity for suffering and taken the lives of millions of their menfolk, but theirs was still a young people with expansive hopes for the future, albeit hopes constrained by the oppressive rule of the communist state. The hardy Northman barbarians were now fully under the control of Moscow and the Goths, Rugians, Jadrians, Utlyr and Cimmerians alike only enjoyed a modicum of their ancestral freedom. Small numbers of elves still resided in the depths of the great forests and great numbers of dwarves and goblinkind dwelt in their ancient homelands in the soaring Urals and Caucasus, most bowing to Soviet suzerainty as subjects of their various semi-autonomous oblasts, voivodeships and krais after the bloody repressions of the 1930s.

The modern condition of the Soviet Union cannot be fully understood without a comprehension of its position in the broader picture of Russian history. The Slavic peoples had dwelt in the cold northern forests since time immemorial, fighting their endless wars against orcs, dragons, giants and the terrors of the wild, interspersed with the rise and fall of dozens of ephemeral steppe empires now forgotten to the memory of man. Out of the epoch of struggle grew Kievan ‘Rus, founded by Rurik the Varangian, first of the Russian realms of the Middle Ages and a bastion against the horselords of the east. Pagan beginnings gave way to Orthodox Christianity, which is the first great pillar of Russian identity, as even the Soviet people of today hold hard to their old faith. No other institution has been as closely intertwined with the nature of Russia and it has enjoyed a new epoch of tolerance in the aftermath of the German invasion.

Rus rose, prospered and then gradually fell apart into a fractured collection of successor states over the course of the 12th century and were ill prepared for the arrival of the Scourge of God. Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde came down upon the Rus like a wolf upon the fold, doing great slaughter at the Battles of Kalka River and Sit River and destroying no less than two dozen great cities in an orgy of unparalleled savagery. There seemed to be no answer to his gargantuan army of over 250,000 horse archers, the terrible witchery of his bloody shamans or the devastating firepower of his ingenious siege engines and the Mongols swept forth over the broad rivers of the Russian land, leaving ruin in their wake. They swept onward into Europe, aiming to conquer all the lands to the Great Sea for their banner. It took the combined might of Christendom’s hosts and the flower of its chivalry to halt the Mongol tide at the Battle of Krakow, where Genghis Khan fell beneath the magic sword of King Richard I of England. Yet this was to provide no respite for the Russians, who would remain under the Mongol yoke for the next two centuries.

Long was the age of oppression under the Golden Horde, although the overt devastation inflicted by the initial Mongol invasion was never quite matched. The deprivations inflicted by the Tatar rulers were great and terrible tribute was exacted from the long-suffering peasantry and nobility alike. The policy of the Mongol khans was to divide and rule, playing one Russian ruler off against another, ensuring that no sense of unity could be restored. In the subsequent centuries, the enduring legacies of the Mongol invasions and the domination of the Golden Horde were to establish the place of oriental despotism into the Russian body politic and to create a burning fear of invasion by the teeming masses of the Far East. The Black Death shook Mongol suzerainty to the core, wrecking the economy of the region and decimating its population as it did to the rest of Europe and Asia. First to challenge their rule after this was Dmitry Ivanovich Donskoy, Grand Prince of Moscow and builder of the Kremlin, whose decisive victory at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380 fatally damaged the power of the Horde in Russia. Muscovy’s fortunes waxed greatly over the next century, gradually absorbing the Novgorod Republic, the Grand Duchy of Tver and Ryazan after protracted civil war and ending the overlordship of the Mongols once and for all at the Great Stand on the Ugra River in 1480 under Ivan the Great.

His consolidation of the lands of the Rus under Muscovite leadership set the scene for one of Russia’s greatest and most fearsome monarchs, the first Tsar of all the Russias –the man known to history as Ivan Grozny, or Ivan the Terrible. Religiously devout, diplomatically astute and highly intelligent, Ivan was also acutely paranoid, ruthlessly cruel and possessed of a furious rage that once lead him to kill his own son. Under his rule, the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan and Sibir were subjugated, paving the way for the Russian conquest of Siberia, but his many wars thoroughly wrecked the national economy through ruinous taxation. He was the primary architect of the system of Tsarist autocracy, concentrating all power and wealth in his hands and enforcing his will through the oprichniki, his ten thousand strong black-clad secret police. Ivan the Terrible can be seen as the forerunner of many later Russian rulers, including Stalin. By the time of his death in 1584, he had unquestionably transformed Russia from a medieval backwater into a continental empire and made it a genuine Great Power on the stage of Europe.

Ivan’s son Feodor was the last of the Rurikid rulers of Russia and spent much of his reign engaged in pious worship and contemplation of the deeper spiritual mysteries. His people looked upon him as saintly and blessed compared with his father, but he eschewed political machinations and left most of the day-to-day business of his rule to his wife’s brother, Boris Godunov. He succeeded Feodor in 1595 and enjoyed a prosperous and peaceful decade on the throne, cultivating foreign relations and seeking to modernize Russia so it could catch up with the more advanced European states, but failed in the key dynastic task of securing the succession with a strong heir. He harried the rival Romanov family mercilessly and drove them into exile in Siberia. It was under his reign that the Conclave of Imperial Wizards began the gradual modernization of Russian magic and established the first of the great many-coloured towers that would be emblematic of their order until their fall.

Godunov’s death and the murder of his widow and son were followed the Time of Troubles, a bitter civil war sparked by a succession of usurpers claiming to by Prince Dmitri, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. These struggles were exacerbated by a terrible famine that killed a third of Russia’s population, a plague of undead abominations haunting the night and an invasion by the Poles. Russia stood on the brink of collapse, until the forces of the Motherland rallied under the leadership of Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitri Pozharsky, paving the way for Mikhail Romanov to be elected Tsar by the Zemsky Sobor, or Grand National Assembly. His accession began the 304 year reign of the Romanov dynasty, when Russia would rise to unparalleled greatness. The second half of the century saw tremendous victories in the east, where the power of the orc realms of the Urals was shattered and the bogatyr Sergey Vladimirov slew the ancient wyrm Zhamban Straculius atop Mount Yamantau after heeding the counsel of Baba Yaga, and setbacks in the west, as the power of the Swedish Empire waxed to its summit.

Rising above the ranks of the other Romanov rulers were two Tsars who dominated the 18th Century, both given the sobriquet of ‘Great’ by history – Peter and Catherine. Tsar Peter lead a Grand Embassy to Western Europe and relentlessly modernized his realm against concerted opposition from conservative boyars and the Streltsy guards, who he ruthlessly destroyed. He defeated the Ottoman Turks and the Crimean Khans at Azov, opening up the first significant Russian naval access to the Black Sea and was victorious over his implacable rival, Charles XII the Great of Sweden in the Great Northern War, seizing Ingria, Estonia, Livonia and large stretches of Karelia. He founded the grand city of St. Petersburg, his imperial capital, on the shores of the Baltic Sea in 1712 and formally established the Empire of Russia nine years later. Peter combined a drive to reform and strengthen Russia’s governance with the long traditions of absolutism with his execution of his eldest son Alexei in 1718 being among the foremost examples of the latter tendency.

He was followed by a succession of lesser rulers, although the reputation of the Russian Imperial Court ascended to new heights under Empress Elizabeth in the 1750s. After her early death came the rise of Catherine and the golden age of the Russian Empire, when the Crimea and Caucasus were finally conquered and annexed, once-mighty Poland partitioned, the Mongols subdued and her influence extended even across the far seas to North America. A patron of the arts and culture, she built glorious palaces and wrote celebrated works which attracted the admiring approval of Voltaire and other notable figures of the Enlightenment, although her taste for new ideas was somewhat tempered by the French Revolution. Once again, Russia’s engagement with the ideas and beliefs of the rest of Europe was truncated by suspicion and autocracy. Upon her death in 1800, Russia passed from an age of expansion and success into a century of conflict and change.

Great suffering and loss came from the Napoleonic Wars, where the armies of Tsar Alexander I were defeated at Austerlitz and beaten back beyond the very gates of Moscow itself by Bonaparte’s seemingly unstoppable Grande Armee. At this hour of trial, the Russian winter came once again to its aid, strengthened by the powerful spellcraft of the Conclave and the enchanted Zimneye Serdtse. It would be the Cossacks of Alexander who were the first of the Allied armies to enter Paris in 1814. The Congress of Vienna secured the power of reaction over Europe for a generation and this consensus was cemented in the Holy Alliance between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Nicholas I (1825-1855) held even stronger to conservatism and autocracy, quashing the troubles of his domains and foreign lands alike with an iron hand and iron will and leading to him being dubbed ‘the gendarme of Europe’ for his obdurate opposition to the fires of revolution. Encouraging the development of Russian and Slavic nationalism, he stoked the fires of future strife. He expanded Russia’s borders with successful campaigns against the Persians and the Turks, but his aggressive policies were to lead to disaster. Nicholas was met with a resounding rebuff in the Crimean War, when the forces of Britain and France inflicted defeat up defeat around the world on land, sea and air upon the hosts of Russia and laid low its reputation of strength and power. Alexander II responded to this hour of trial with policies of peace abroad and wide-sweeping measures of progress at home, including the abolition of serfdom, but Russia’s lack of modernity and growing internal contradictions could not be easily swept aside by reform and a revolutionist bomb laid the Tsar low in 1881. His son Alexander III reversed the domestic liberality of his father and tried to keep the general peace in Europe, despite growing rivalry with the ascendant German Empire that lead to the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892. The scourge of the Red Death wrecked havoc across all of Eastern Europe between 1887 and 1890 and Russia was the worst hit by its terrible effects, now known to be the working of Dracula himself. A new Tsar, the brave yet ill-fated Nicholas II, was crowned in 1896, and his vision for the improvement of the land and its people gave new hope, albeit on unsteady grounds. The Russian Empire stood on the brink of a new century in troubled health with substantial troubles lying on every horizon and unseen enemies looming within.

Of these, the most pressing problems were the most obvious ones. To the west lay the dual threat of Germany and Austria-Hungary and the restive Poles, to the south lay the long cherished Russian goals of a warm water port and resolution of the Eastern Question and a concomitant clash of interests with the British Empire and to the east lay the rising sun of Japan; the dangers of the north were at this time but ancient rumour and legend. Inside Russia’s borders, the great issues of nationalism, agrarian and industrial reform and growing discontent at autocracy festered and burbled. It was on the Russian Empire’s farthest shore that disaster first struck, as the fires of war flared in the hills of Manchuria and the cold waters of the Pacific. Defeat on land at the siege of Port Arthur and the decisive Battle of Mukden were followed by the calamitous destruction of the Baltic Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima on October 27th 1904 by Admiral Togo and the Imperial Japanese Navy. This combined with naval mutinies, most notably aboard the battleship Potemkin, industrial strikes and the massacre of petitioners on Bloody Sunday to spark a revolution against the rule of the Tsar.

The Army remained generally loyal and proved a bastion of the Imperial regime during the perilous months in the first half of 1905, when peasant revolts, a Polish uprising and a general strike threatened a collapse not seen since the Time of Troubles. Under intense pressure from his advisors, Tsar Nicholas finally signed the July Manifesto authored by Count Sergei Witte, granting widesweeping civil rights, promising a constitution and establishing a representative parliament or Imperial Duma. Liberal opinion was satiated by this gesture and the disparate forces of the workers and peasants were crushed in piecemeal fashion by the Army and Okhrana, crushing the dreams of anarchist and socialist revolutionists. The dawn of constitutional reform in Imperial Russia was to prove to be a false one, as increasingly strident repression replaced the promise of modernization, yet the quickening pace of industrial progress and economic growth temporarily obscured the rot within the state.

Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra now came under the dark spell of one of the strangest and most mysterious figures in Russian history, the mystic mad monk Rasputin. He boasted of both mastery of the arcane arts and an apparent talent for healing and swiftly became involved in all manner of intrigues and power struggles within the Imperial Court. By virtue of his deliverance of Tsarevich Alexei from a baffling blood disease, he became the closest counselor of the Tsar and many whispered of otherworldly hypnotic powers being used to manipulate the very fates of empires and nations for unknown malign ends. Several strange incidents involving Rasputin and hallowed ground and direct sunlight were the cause of further rumour and innuendo, encouraged by the agents of certain foreign powers and organizations.

War would prove to be the harbinger of the next Russian Revolution, this time more bloody and more terrible than any that had come before. Russian entry into the Great War was initially welcomed across the Empire, being seen as a means to a final reckoning with the Germanic foe and a swift means of uniting the disparate Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe under the rule and protection of the Tsar. St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd in the early wave of anti-German patriotism. Early successes in the Galician Campaign of 1914 were bought to a shuddering halt by the resounding defeats inflicted by Hindenburg at the Battles of Tannenburg and Masurian Lakes and the Imperial Russian Army, under Grand Duke Nicholas, the Tsar’s cousin, was forced to conduct a Great Retreat from Poland in 1915 to avoid destruction. The success of the Gallipoli Campaign reduced some of the immediate pressure upon Russia with the ease of the supply situation, but losses were mounting and the strategic initiative lay firmly in the hands of the Central Powers.

Tsar Nicholas II himself took personal command of the army at the front, a mistake that was to prove fatal for his rule. His grasp of military strategy was decidedly lacking and his absence left the Tsarina in control in St. Petersburg, where she fell even further under the spell of Rasputin. The last gasp of the Russian Empire came with the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, a massive attack in Galicia against Austro-Hungarian lines aimed at relieving pressure on Britain, France and Italy and possibly knocking Austria-Hungary out of the war. Launched on June 4th 1916, it was to be tremendous success by the standards of the Great War, smashing through to the Carpathians by late August and forcing the movement of German troops away from Verdun and the Somme to stem the tide in the east. The coordination of artillery, infantry and cavalry allowed repeated breakthroughs and only the limits of Russian logistics prevented a far greater triumph. Yet even in this hour of victory, there was to be defeat, as Romania was swiftly overrun and Russian losses continued to mount; the blood price of Brusilov’s blow was no less than 1 million dead and wounded of the Tsar’s soldiery. The German and Austro-Hungarian counterstroke over winter proved to be the final spark that set off the February Revolution.

Years of terrible casualties, desertion, shortages of goods, skyrocketing inflation and the stubborn refusal of the Tsar to contemplate any constitutional reforms created an explosive environment where Nicholas II lacked the support of the nobility, the Duma, the armed forces and large parts of the general populace. Crushing strikes and protests in Petrograd paralysed the railway system and the delivery of war materials and bread. A group of nobles tried to assassinate Rasputin to remove his malign influence, but he somehow survived repeated poisoning, shooting, stabbing and a fall from a third story window onto a spiked fence and was seen to fly off into the night. The downfall of the Tsar was immediately triggered by a strike by the workers of the Putilov Plant on
International Woman’s Day that sent hundreds of thousands of protestors into the streets calling for an end to the war and autocracy. Efforts by the garrison to suppress the uprising were in vain and mass mutinies broke out, preventing the return of the Tsar to Petrograd. A Provisional Committee of the State Duma was established and sent a delegation to urge the Tsar to introduce a constitutional system, but he remained intransigent. The leadership Petrograd Soviet, a revolutionary socialist council of workers and soldiers, was freed from the Peter and Paul Fortress by an armed mob and pushed for more radical action. On March 12th, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne on behalf of himself and Tsarevich Alexei and a Provisional Government was formed under Prince Georgy Lvov, a liberal autocrat. Repeated clashes with the Petrograd Soviet lead to his downfall and replacement by Alexander Kerensky, a minister of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The Tsar and the Imperial Family left for exile in Britain aboard a Royal Navy cruiser from Murmansk on March 20th.

Then entered the man of the hour, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. He had devoted himself to the cause of radical revolution after the execution of his elder brother in 1887 for the attempted assassination of Alexander III and rapidly rose through the ranks of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. He was exiled to Siberia in 1897 and fled three years later to Western Europe, where he became the leader of the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP after the 1903 split with Julius Martov’s Mensheviks and tirelessly worked for the cause of communist revolution. Lenin became one of the most notable voices opposing the Great War and called for it to be used as a means of bringing about a general proletarian uprising across Europe. He was transported from Switzerland across Germany in a sealed train with other Bolsheviks and made a triumphant return to the Finland Station in Petrograd on April 16th 1917, where he made a rousing speech to the assembled masses of workers, soldiers and sailors on the need for a further revolution to overthrow the Provisional Government and establish a true socialist state. Lenin set immediately to work, issuing his April Theses, outlining his radical revolutionary programme and arguing for an end to Russian participation in the war. Chief among his lieutenants were the brilliant and fiery Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Grigory Zinoviev and Joseph Stalin.

Kerensky and the Provisional Government faced a succession of crises as they tried to control the revolutionary situation and keep Russia in the Great War. They secured the passage of significant progressive legislation, but the Petrograd Soviet was increasingly taking on the role of an alternate government. A new push against the Central Powers, dubbed the Kerensky Offensive, proved to be a bloody failure and broke the back of the morale of the armed forces. A series of spontaneous demonstrations by workers and soldiers in Petrograd in July were repressed by forces loyal to the Provisional Government and Lenin went into hiding, while Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders were rounded up and imprisoned; this was to be a short-lived setback, as they were released and their forces rearmed in response to the attempted coup d’etat of the Kornilov Affair in August. By the end of September, preparations for insurrection were largely complete and, at 2145 on the 25th of October 1917, a single shot from the cruiser Aurora provided the signal for the storming of the Winter Palace and the establishment of a Bolshevik regime. The next day, the Congress of the Soviets passed a decree announcing that all power had been transferred into the hands of the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. All private property was nationalized, all foreign debts and treaties annulled and all landed estates of the nobility and Church expropriated for the control of the peasants.

Moscow was seized on October 31st after protracted street battles, but the various counter-revolutionary opponents of the Bolsheviks, armed and aided by the Western Allies, launched a series of offensives even as a ceasefire was established between the Central Powers and Soviet Russia. Finland broke away from Russian control in early 1918 and White armies made significant advances in the Caucasus and Siberia. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed over control of Poland, the Baltic States and the Ukraine to the control of Germany and Austria-Hungary in return for peace even as British, American, French and Japanese forces occupied Russian territory in overt intervention into what was now the Russian Civil War. 1918 and 1919 saw bitter fighting on all of the borders of Russia as the newly established Red Army barely managed to hold off their collected foes under the leadership of Leon Trotsky and supported by the harsh necessities of War Communism and the bloody Red Terror. Grain, iron, steel, coal, textile and armaments production collapsed under the burden of conflict and millions died or fled the cities and countryside alike. A series of pitched battles along the Siberian front began to turn the tide of war in the latter part of 1919 and Allied forces pulled back from Central Asia, Siberia, the Caucasus and Northern Russia as the White Army retreated. It would take almost three years for the final victory to be achieved by the Red Army at the cost of over 10 million civilian and military casualties. The Soviet invasion of the restablished Kingdom of Poland, intended to spark a general advance into Europe to bring about the victory of world communism, was beaten back at the Battle of Warsaw in 1920 in the Miracle at the Vistula and Bolshevik ambitions for spreading the revolution abroad were sharply halted.

Lenin now controlled a vast nation devastated by years of war and privation and introduced a New Economic Policy that instituted a mixed economy to reinvigorate national agricultural and industrial production. His initiative was opposed by Trotsky on the left and Stalin on the right, but proved successful in initiating reconstruction and the rebuilding of the state. He pushed for modernization of the economy, declaring famously that ‘Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country’. Internationally, the Comintern encouraged the spread of communist revolutionary movements around the world, although Lenin took a measured view of the situation following the defeat of insurrections in Germany, Austria-Hungary and France and supported the entry of socialist parties into national parliaments. Central to Lenin’s control of the state was the apparatus of the secret police or Cheka, lead by the fanatical Feliks Dzerzhinsky and responsible for unspeakably bestial tortures and massacres of hundreds of thousands in an extended regime of terror. The captain of the Soviet ship of state increasingly suffered from poor health and after two debilitating strokes, took steps to clarify the succession of power in his final testament, where he dissected the abilities and flaws of the two major contenders, Trotsky and Stalin, at considerable length. In August 1923, he suffered a third stroke, incapacitating him until his death on the 25th of January 1924, leaving behind his wife Nadezdha Krupskaya, five children and a thoroughly transformed Russia.

Control of the state passed to a troika of Stalin, Grigoriy Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, who maneuvered themselves to marginalize the popular Trotsky and neutralize the more inflammatory portions of Lenin’s Testament. Stalin consolidated his power base and secured the dismissal of Trotsky from his position as War Commissar, aided by his argument for securing ‘Socialism in One Country’ against his rival’s emphasis on ‘Permanent Revolution’. Between 1926 and 1928, Stalin defeated and expelled all of his opponents from the Central Committee and then from the Communist Party itself, gathering about him loyal supporters such as Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, Sasha Petrov, Lazar Kaganovich and Arkady Smirnov and increasing his mastery of the secret arts. He managed to ride the tides of the abortive conflict with the British Empire in this time and ascribed many of the setbacks and reverses encountered down to internal opposition and sabotage in order to further cement his position. Upon securing power and effective control of the Soviet Union, he reversed his previous support of the NEP launched into a campaign of collectivization of agriculture and accompanying repression of wealthier peasants or kulaks, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 2.4 million people. An ambitious programme of rapid industrialization in the First Five Year Plan called for massive increases in heavy industrial production and these were achieved at great cost within only four years; coal production rose from 42 million to 120 million tons, iron ore output increased from 9.8 million to 32 million tons, electricity generation from 6500 million kilowatts to 20 million kilowatts and oil production from 4 million tons to 17 million tons. The living standards of workers dropped under the heavy demands of the plan and agricultural production declined by a third as a result of forced collectivization.

The urban population of the Soviet Union had swelled by over forty million in the latter half of the 1920s and the provision of consumer goods rose gradually in the early 1930s. Education and general health improved as a result of mass campaigns by the Soviet government and women enjoyed new rights and social freedoms. All workers were encouraged to emulate the example of Aleksei Stakhanov, who had mined 125 tons of coal in 6 hours in 1935, and general industrial labour productivity rose over the first two Five Year Plans. The growing industrialization of the Soviet Union was most evident in the development of the aircraft and automotive industries and the construction of huge new manufacturing complexes in the Urals and Siberia and the Dneprostroi Hydroelectric Power Station, the second-largest in Europe at the time. Yet this economic progress came at a significant human cost, as a man-made famine in the Ukraine killed over 8 million in 1932 and 1933 and 2.5 million kulaks were killed or exiled to the Gulag prison camps in the drive to collectivize Soviet agriculture.

These terrible tribulations were but the first part of the suffering of the Soviet people in the 1930s, with the second coming in the form of Stalin’s Great Purge, which inflicted a new Reign of Terror that dwarfed the bloodshed of Revolutionary France. The suspicious murder of Sergei Kirov was used as a pretext by Stalin to ruthlessly purge all of his enemies from the Communist Party and Soviet state, firstly focusing upon the remaining acolytes of Trotsky and thence upon the former Left Opposition lead by Zinoviev and Kamenev. Sixteen major Bolshevik leaders were arrested, tortured into confession by the NKVD, convicted at a high profile show trial in Moscow in 1936 and executed in the cellars of the Lubyanka. More was to follow as Stalin turned upon the Rightists and the ranks of the secret police themselves, with the sole exception to the procession of death being the mysterious escape of Nikolai Bukharin through the rumoured intervention of foreign agents, before devastating the high command of the Red Army. Marshals Tukhachevsky, Blyucker and Yegorov were tried and shot, along with 14 out of 16 army commanders, 8 out of 10 admirals, 60 out of 69 corps commanders, 187 out of 219 divisional commanders and all high level army and corps commissars, which inflicted a terrific blow upon the institutional experience and capability of the Red Army officer corps and played a significant part in its poor performance in the first years of the wars to come. Across broader Soviet society, none were safe from accusations, arrest and death and large numbers of the intelligentsia, clergy and former servants of the Tsarist regime perished in the process. The true death toll of the Great Terror is as yet unclear, but some have estimated that upwards of a million and a half people were slain on the altar of Stalin’s paranoia and vengeance. It slowly came to an end in the middle of 1938, as NKVD Chairman Yezhov himself was purged and his successor Lavrentiy Beria progressively cancelled the various mass operations of the secret police.

The Great Purges significantly lowered Soviet prestige among the the Western powers and drove Stalin towards an unlikely rapprochement with Adolf Hitler. One of the great causes of Stalin’s increasing paranoia regarding external threats to the Soviet Union was the increasing threat of remilitarized Nazi Germany and its ally Kronist Austro-Hungary under Rudolf Eisen. Ongoing border disputes with the Empire of Japan boiled over into outright conflict in 1938, culminating in a Japanese invasion of Soviet-aligned Mongolia in May 1938. This limited offensive was gradually contained and then repulsed by eight Red Army divisions and four allied Mongolian cavalry tumens commanded by General Georgy Zhukov at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol in August 1939. The victory was followed by confirmation of the failure to transform the Anti-Comintern Pact into a military alliance, providing some temporary relief from the traditional Russian fear of invasion from East Asia and allowed the shift of some concentration upon strengthening the western Soviet frontier. Economic agreements between Germany and the Soviet Union As the world descended towards war over the Polish Crisis, a surprise neutrality pact was secured between Foreign Ministers Molotov and Ribbentrop in Moscow which included secret provisions for the division of Eastern Europe into Soviet and German spheres of influence, with the former consisting of Eastern Poland Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Eastern Poland and Bessarabia. The Soviet invasion of Poland and its infamous partition seemed to pave the way for the successful absorbtion of their subject territories and only the miraculous Finnish victory in the Winter War halting the march of Stalin’s expansionism as first the Baltic States and then Bessarabia were absorbed into the growing empire.

On May 12th 1941, over 4.5 million German and allied troops in 236 divisions launched Operation Barbarossa, the titanic invasion of the Soviet Union. The ensuing Great Patriotic War would be the most massive campaign in the history of mankind and would cost the Red Army an estimated 12.6 million dead before victory was achieved. Initial disasters in the summer and spring of 1941 gave way to the glorious defence of Moscow as the old Russian ally of ‘General Winter’ came to their aid. Hitler’s attempted strike towards the oil of Baku and the Caucasus was blunted and held at Stalingrad and, in one of the largest battles of all time, the entire German 6th Army was encircled and besieged. The eventual capture of 170,000 starving and frozen survivors was the final blow in the greatest defeat inflicted on the Nazi war machine in the entire of the Second World War and marked the turning point of the conflict. In 1943, the Red Army ground through the Panther-Wotan Line, broke the Siege of Leningrad and won famous victories at Kiev and Smolensk. 1944 saw Stalin’s Six Blows, a series of coordinated campaigns that liberated the Ukraine and the Crimea from the Nazi yoke before the decisive destruction of German Army Group Centre in Operation Bagration. In the final months of the war, the Red Army overran East Prussia, Poland and Romania and occupied the eastern reaches of the German Reich up to the very gates of Berlin itself on the Oder River, bringing it under the fire of their long range 640mm M1942 S-16 superheavy guns, nicknamed 'Stalin's Sledgehammers'. The Soviet invasion of Manchuria in August 1945 was the final body blow to the Empire of Japan and the 2.5 million-strong Far East Command of the Red Army destroyed its largest field formation, the much-vaunted Kwantung Army in a lightning campaign of under two weeks.

Soviet military prowess and victory in the Great Patriotic War was not limited to the rightly-lauded deeds of the Red Army. In the air, MiG-6 jet fighters flown by the elite aces of the Red Air Force had proven the equal of the Luftwaffe’s finest experten and the enormous Kalinin K-10 and Petlyakov Pe-12 superheavy bombers of Long Range Aviation had pounded German cities by night in conjunction with their American and British allies throughout 1944 and 1945. In the last two years of the war, Frontal Aviation Yak-9s had won the air battle against their German and Austro-Hungarian enemies, Tu-2 and Pe-2 light bombers performed admirably across the front and the ubiquitous Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik attack fighter cemented reputation as one of the deadliest weapons of the war. At sea, the Red Fleet was now the third largest fleet in the world behind those of the United States and Britain and fielded a growing carrier force in the Black Sea, Pacific and Northern Fleets. Its potent submarine arm had turned the Baltic Sea into the graveyard of the Kriegsmarine and contained a number of huge long range boats that had proved their mettle in the Pacific. The presence of the Soviet Mediterranean Squadron marked the first time a Russian fleet had operated in those waters since before the Crimean War and Soviet destroyers had done their share of grim duty on the hard convoys in the Arctic and North Atlantic.

As an unsteady peace settled over the world, a new Soviet Empire had arisen in Eastern Europe and Poland, Romania, Prussia and the Baltic States lay under Stalin’s complete control; had the British advance through the Balkans the previous year been stalled even further, then it is quite likely that Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Bohemia and even Austria itself would have fallen under Moscow’s sway. As it stood, almost 100 million souls found themselves under the control of the Kremlin and a new frontier, soon to be dubbed the Iron Curtain, separated the shattered nations of Europe into communist and capitalist camps. The age-old Russian fear of invasion from the West was to be ended once and for all by a new buffer zone, just as the threat of the East had now waned with the emasculation of Japan. In 1946, Stalin moved to further expand his dominion by pressuring the Scandinavian states, in particular Finland, and Byzantine Greece and Ottoman Turkey into extensive concessions for Soviet bases and military cooperation, holding out the offer of protection and aid whilst the threat of the Red Army hung over their heads. These efforts were spurned by their subjects due to extensive Anglo-American counter-pressure and guarantees of security, contributing to the cooling international atmosphere. The first steps towards American financial aid for the nations of Europe were seen as a direct challenge and invitations for Soviet participation were coldly rejected.

At home, the main task confronting Soviet authorities was economic and industrial reconstruction. In four years, the Great Patriotic War had killed one in eight Soviet citizens, destroyed well over a quarter of the prewar Gross Domestic Product and sent per capita national wealth plummeting to the level of 1930. The failure of the 1946 harvest, which produced only 62.5 million tons or 40% of 1940’s total, was due in part due to the Nazi sorcerous backlash and the unnaturally cold winters following the war, lead to widespread famine and the deaths of up to 500,000 people. Limited credits for reconstruction had been obtained from Britain, Canada and Sweden and the main priority was focused upon the rebuilding of heavy industry. A significant proportion of former German industrial plants from Silesia and East Prussia were transported to the Soviet Union as recompense for the extensive war damage inflicted by the Hitlerites and contributed to solid postwar growth, but recovery even to 1938 levels was several years off into the future. Construction of heavy capital ships continued at the fastest pace possible, whatever the cost in lives and treasure as Stalin continued to plan for a grand ocean-going fleet second to none.

Thousands of those deemed to have suspect loyalties were deported to the vastness of Siberia in 1946 and 1947, joining those ethnic groups moved there en masse at the height of the war. Andrei Zhdanov lead a purge of dissident cultural elements that would have a great impact on the artistic and cultural life of the Soviet Union for some years to come. In wartime, repression of the Russian Orthodox Church had been greatly relaxed and the ravages of the undead, foul creatures and lycanthropes that plagued the land in its aftermath ensured that any return to the previous state of affairs would be somewhat delayed. Minority religions enjoyed no such fortune and official persecution of Moslems in the Central Asian republics and Jews in Khazaria resumed at a redoubled rate. Patriarch Alexey I of Moscow called on all Soviet Catholics to renounce allegiance to the Pope and return to the true church to no real effect. The wizards of the SKV (Soyuz Krasnyy Volshebnik) also enjoyed renewed prestige after their contribution to victory and several great projects of arcane artificery were initiated to further the development and power of the state. The influence of Trofim Lysenko and Semyon Azlanov over Soviet biology and alchemy reached new heights by 1947 under the patronage of Stalin and their alternative theories were seen as among the foremost keys to the development of a true New Soviet Man. The highest of all priorities was given to the development of an atomic bomb, jet engines and long range rockets in the light of the most notable developments of the war and the need to catch up to the achievements of the United States and the British Empire. Mikhail Kalashnikov’s AK-47 assault rifle was accepted into Red Army test service in 1946 and general production began the next year, superceding wartime SKS carbines and submachine guns alike.

Soviet prestige and the global influence of the Comintern ensured that Moscow’s influence could extend across the world into Africa and Asia, where subversive ideas, communist propaganda and anti-colonial rhetoric found a ready audience in the restive subject peoples of the European empires. More success was encountered in the Far East than the Dark Continent, particularly in China, where the Communist faction won several key victories in the bitter civil war that raged there. Stalin regarded the international situation as ripe for exploitation – two of the USSR’s major capitalist rivals and security threats in Germany and Japan had been removed, France was substantially weakened and focused on internal reckoning and the United States and the British Empire were stretched taut around the world by their new and ongoing responsibilities. The one matter of vexation for the master of the Kremlin was the growing profile and strength of Trotsky and Bukharin in Brazil and several SMERSH assassination plots were exposed on a monthly basis by their loyal bodyguard corps. Their failure did not greatly irk Stalin, as his was a subtle and long term game, played with thousands of knowing and unknowing pieces around the world.

For deep beneath the Urals, in caverns measureless to man by the shores of a sunless sea, thousands of wretched prisoners and captive orcs continued on a handful of projects so secret and so terrible that scarcely half a dozen men in the Soviet Union knew the totality of them. It would be years before they would reach fruition, but when they did, the world would surely shake at their power and see that the red star was truly rising.

In 1947, though, a half-starved convict who dared look up while passing through certain deep chambers of the hidden city could look from beast to man and man to beast and beast to man again and find it impossible to say which was which.


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 Post subject: Re: Dark Earth: 1947
PostPosted: Mon Jul 10, 2017 4:01 am 
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[b][u]Reds Notes[/u][/b]

- The Red Army fields a larger total force and is better equipped than @
- The Red Air Force is a completely separate arm of service from 1928 onwards, consisting of Frontal Aviation, Long Range Aviation, Air Defence Forces and Transport Aviation. It lags behind the Western forces in modernity, but has the advantage of size.
- It fields several different types of superheavy bombers in small numbers and is starting to produce Thr Tupolev Tu-6 heavy bomber, a troubled Soviet aeroplane that is in the same general class as the B-50, but will only enter full production in 1948 (OTL Tu-85). It will be followed by the Petlyakov Pe-24, which is of a similar size to the B-36, but enters service in 1950 rather than 1945.
- There is no sale of Rolls-Royce Nenes from Britain, nor is there the same amount of German expertise and engines taken as the spoils of war. This sets back Soviet jet aircraft and engine development by 24-36 months, particularly in the Korean War. It evens out by 1953/54 as domestic Soviet engine development catches up.
- Stalin's ocean-going fleet programme was hurt by the war, but began to roll out in 1938/39 and is now expanding into new, larger capital ships. It is one of the major differences in Dark Earth and leads to a range of responses by the West.
- Nazi nerve gas use had some nasty side effects, as did their literal attempts to open up the gates of hell.
- Stalin as a wizardly monk/cleric is s dangerous combination.
- Whilst there is less of a hagiographic approach to Stalin and the Soviet Union in Britain and America, he still has been the recipient of good press.
- Demographically, there are a few differences, such as a larger Circassian minority and Khazaria and the Khazars persisting through to the modern period. Larger than that is the notion of the Northmen/barbarians. These are tribes dwelling in the far north in Nenetsia, Komi and points east who are the descendants of those driven north by the Huns.
- The Mongol invasion of Rus occurs in one fell swoop.
- Baba Yaga will make a few appearances.
- The Crimean War is a global conflict, involving fighting in the Crimea, Baltic, Mediterranean, China, India, Persia, the Arctic, the Russisn Far East, Africa and North America.
- The Red Death is extremely virulent and deadly.
- Rasputin is a very powerful wizard and there is something of the night about him.
- Victory at Gallipoli does not prove to be a panacea for the Russisn Empire, subverting that cliche.
- The Romanovs in exile are the cause of much fuss and kerfuffle...
- Lenin has five children, including two sons who will be heard from again.
- Sasha Petrov and Arkady Smirnov are fictional Old Bolsheviks who survive Stalin's 'friendship'.
- Bukharin's escape from the Lubyanka comes via the aid of an ace of spies.
- Rudolf Eisen is the usurping fascist dictator of Austria-Hungary between 1929 and 1935.
- Finland's victory results in no Continuation War and a narrow supply route to Leningrad.
- The Panther-Wotan Line is the focus of 1943 on the Eastern a Front, with no Kursk. This is one of the factors that leads to the Red Army only making it to the Oder, although Stalin's Sledgehammers cover the interim distance with ease, being capable of firing well over 200km.
- Semyon Azlanov is quite the twisted alchemical super genius...
- The SKV is one of the key factions in the USSR, the others being the Red Army, the CPSU, the NKVD and the Supreme Soviet.
- Something very strange is happening beneath the Urals...


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 Post subject: Re: Dark Earth: 1947
PostPosted: Tue Dec 12, 2017 8:35 pm 
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1947 Part 9C: Sharpe's Hunters

The jungle knows no beginning nor no end. It simply rolls on from horizon to horizon, an unbroken verdant blanket of lush green set against an impossibly blue sky. Were it not for the occasional beam of sunlight that penetrated through the tangled canopy far above, the steaming jungle floor would have been as dark as a twilight hall. Instead, it crawled, multiplied and teemed with life of every kind and the sound of birdsong rang pure and clear through the misty air and the creeping ferns. To look upon such multitudinous marvels of creation, one might never think that it was here that a fiery mountain fell from the sky to end the age of the dinosaurs and bring on the current epoch of mammals, several hairless bipedal specimens of which now slogged their way through the undergrowth. Over root and log and under frond and vine they went, sweat staining their jungle greens. They slogged through the damp tropical haze of the Yucatan with silent determination, scanning the undergrowth ahead for the tell-tale signs of their quarry, for they were the hunters.

Their leader paused and raised his hand to halt the advance of his men. Coolly, he raised up his Lee-Enfield battle rifle and scanned the jungle in front of him through the cold iron arcanoscope mounted atop it. The image of the world before him changed little from the wall of emerald green, save for a few fluttering strands of brilliant coruscating colour. There were none of the marks of sorcery, only the recent passage of several men, heavily laden with some kind of burden. He reached out a hand and touched the small drop of blood that lay precariously atop a cerulean fern with a plain silver ring that now glowed with a faint pinkish light.

Good. Still fresh.

An impassive scowl spread across his tanned, lean face, twisted by the deep scar on his right cheek that his blond stubble could not cover. It gave him a faintly scornful appearance, as if all the world threw at him was worth nought but a mocking grimace, and would have been thought a frightening visage by those who beheld him. His bright blue eyes shone with a keen intelligence tinged with a distant sadness born of having seen too much in his years of war. Shaking his head, he brushed his damp sandy hair out of his eyes and turned back to his second in command, who had moved up next to him and held his wicked-looking anti-tank rifle over his shoulder with deceptive ease.

“No sign of them trying to hide their trail, Harper. What does that suggest to you?”

“That we’re getting close to whatever the buggers are after, Colonel Sharpe, sir.” The heavyset Harper spoke with a lilting Irish brogue that belied the concentrated concern openly displayed on his thick black brows.

“Right. After chasing these bastards halfway across the bloody world from bloody Bavaria, that can’t come soon enough.” Sharpe turned back to the rest of his men. “Five minutes, lads. Then up again and we’ll have them by sunset.”

His announcement was greeted by the hunters with quiet sighs of relief and nods of thanks as they sunk down to the jungle floor and took deep sips from their canteens. Sharpe wiped his brow and leaned back against a massive kapok tree, allowing himself a moment’s respite. Looking out across his exhausted men, he nodded in satisfaction at his choices. Harper had been with him since years before the war, back in India, and Harris and Hagman had fought through each long campaign since the beginning, through Flanders, Portugal and Spain. Sergeant Payne was a tough blighter, never breaking and never complaining and Corporal Sandy Young bought all the hardness he had learned in Africa with Tarzan. Jerome Garvey may have had a face like a kicked meat pie, but had all the tricks that only a decade of fighting could give a man and he had a decent voice to boot, that even gave Hagman a run for his money. Even the two babies of the section, Martin Fraser and George Cowley, were hard as nails and crack shots to boot, befitting their success back in the Rifle Brigade. Good lads, all of them.

They had been on this leg of the chase now for five punishing days and nights, heading steadily north and west after they had crossed the border from British Honduras. Before then, Sharpe and his men had relentlessly tracked their prey for three months across the broken continent of Europe, back through the rugged Pyrenees and the war-wrecked lands of Iberia and thence to South and Central America. It had been a long and hard pursuit.

But whatever its length and whatever its toughness, it was necessary, both for their quarry and what they carried. It was Nazis they were after, but not any ordinary kind. They were the last of the Knights of the Black Sun, one of Himmler’s mad warrior orders who had been thought wiped out in the last desparate fighting in the Alpine Redoubt. Thirty survivors had surfaced on last Walpurgisnacht, when their attempt at opening a Dread Gate atop the Brocken with the blood sacrifice of two dozen terrified children had been disrupted by Allied troops and Templars who saved their captives and put all but three the vile devils to the sword. Their escape had been engineered by none other than Karl Schmerzeilen, foul sorcerer and former Hochmeister of the SS Kriegszauberen, a villain thought perished in the Fall of Berlin. Their crimes alone had earnt them an endless pursuit unto their deserved deaths, but they bore with them certain objects plundered from an old museum in Magdeburg. When the curator had described them to the investigating paladins, it set off such a state of alarm that the Minister of Magic himself flew into Germany to meet in secret with the Allied High Commission.

Within six hours of this conference, Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Sharpe had found himself dragged before a grim faced audience in a windowless chamber deep beneath Hamburg Castle. Facing him were a collection of top brass, intelligence officers and a pair of black suited civilians. His orders were simple – track down Schmerzeilen and the Knights of the Black Sun and bring them back, dead or alive, but preferably dead. And, if in the process he managed to find a small, nondescript gold ring without any apparent markings, then be sure to return that as well; not that it was of any great importance, though. He’d been chosen both for his record of successful Nazi-hunting in the two years since the end of the war and for what he’d done before that; capture one bloody Nazi battle standard and they never let you rest.

Of all the places to end up chasing the accursed remnants of the Third Reich, the jungles of Central America were the last he thought he’d find himself. It had hardly been a hotbed of action during the war, with only the odd U-Boat sighting and the usual trouble with the German diaspora raising any concern. The Canadian battalion in British Honduras and the US Army forces spread across the disparate states of the isthmus had seen only a few twilight actions against Hitler’s agents. For the most part, Central America’s main contribution to the war had been the prized medicinal products of its tropical forests, such as quinine and spacylum. It seemed a strange destination for fugitive fascists to boot – most of the ratlines from Europe lead down to the larger states of South America, where a wanted man could lose himself in the backwaters of a new world.

And of all backwaters within the backwater, the Yucatan was the most unlikely of them all. There simply wasn’t that much here, apart from the jungle and a few plantations, nor had there been since the wars between the Spanish and the Maya had petered out in the late 1600s. The most that had been heard of from the region was the occasional discovery of some spectacular native ruins, of note purely to those of an archaeological bent, which certainly excluded the practical Sharpe. What the Nazis were heading for was a mystery, but in any case, one that would be rapidly solved. The hunters had been gaining on them ever since they had landed in Belize Town and now, by the look of the signs around them, they were less than half an hour in front of them.

Harper crouched down next to him and he looked up to see concern knit across the Irishman’s rugged face as he whispered urgently.

“Begging the colonel’s pardon, sir, but something strange seems to be coming in.” He gestured over at the direction they had come from. A seeping green mist seemed to be slowly but steadily rising behind them out of the roots of a particularly large maga tree, swirling about in intricate tendrils that made Sharpe want to spend forever staring at them, at their beauty and wonder. He shook his head firmly to break the spell of the carnivorous plant and jumped to his feet.

“Up lads, and be lively about it!” Sharpe cried out to his men. “Looks like the jungle is getting a bit hungry!”

His men needed little more encouragement, realising that they had come close to becoming lunch for an overgrown shrub. They pushed on at a steady trot through the green wild, the mist swirling around behind them with an almost plaintive embrace. Within ten minutes, the signs of their quarry became more and more prominent and the trail of spattered blood was plain to see. The slope of the land shifted perceptibly up and soon Sharpe and the others were half climbing, half scrabbling up an overgrown escarpment that had been unmarked on any of their maps towards a faint glow that shone through the trees above.

At last, they reached the crest and stopped stock still. Before them, the jungle opened up into a large clearing dominated by what appeared to be a ruined pyramid and a few other shattered buildings. The glow shone around them in little rainbow ripples that coursed through the stifling air. The signs of the Nazi trail finished exactly where the tree line stopped, having cut off as if by a knife. All around them was suddenly silent, the noise of the birds and insects having died away, and the atmosphere was thick and cloying, like an invisible silken blanket had settled over the men and slowed them. Even breathing was a great effort and, if he hadn’t have known better, Sharpe could have sworn that time itself was running somehow slower. With a deliberate effort, he started forward, calling out to his chosen men.

“Right, spread out and search the place. Garvey, Cowley, stay here and cover us.”

Every step forward was a difficult struggle, but the men were made of stern stuff and pushed through the thick air. They found nothing, save smashed grey stones long abandoned by man and beast and covered in a fine grey moss. Their tramping steps seemed to echo through the glade as they fell upon the ruined masonry, interlopers violating the strange silence. It came as a great surprise when a bullet floated slowly past Sharpe’s ear and slammed into the earth behind him.

That certainly broke whatever terrible malaise had beset the hunters, as they threw themselves for whatever cover was available and returned fire on the source of the shooting atop the pyramid. The solid double explosion of Harper’s Boys rifle stood out over the hail of automatic fire and the powerful rounds blew whole chunks of masonry off the side of the ruined temple, followed by a gout of crimson blood, a strangled scream and a flying leg. It was soon joined by the welcome rattle of Garvey’s Bren gun and the Nazis swiftly found themselves pinned down by Sharpe’s men.

“Fraser! Young! Flank the bastards!” Sharpe yelled as he fired off a burst of five rounds to keep the Black Sun’s heads down before ducking back to change his magazine. Both men peeled off from behind their concealing rocks and scrabbled for the edge of the clearing, but as they did so, they seemed to blur and slow, as if whatever weird warping of reality in the clearing claimed them for their own. After a few steps, the pair seemed to waver and then hold in place in midstep, like bizarre wax statues or insects pinned up in an invisible album. This profoundly disturbed Sharpe, who was a practical man, but consternation took a backseat to survival in a firefight as bullets continued to rain down from on high.

There was nothing else for it – the only way out was straight ahead. With a wild battle cry, Sharpe and his remaining men sprang up and charged forward at the pyramid, blasting away as they went while Garvey and Cowley poured on yet more fire from their Brens. They leapt up the smooth steps as the Nazi gunfire seemed to part around them and within a few heartbeats, found themselves on the narrow, battlescarred platform. The bloody, still corpses of two of the Knights of the Black Sun were splayed on either side of the small shrine, their bodies torn asunder by dozens of bullets and their entrails strewn about in ruin. A third was slumped in the doorway, most of the top of his head smashed off, leaving only his lower jaw and his shattered mouth frozen in a horrific rictus grin.

A gurgling cough from within the darkness of the ancient shrine indicated the whereabouts of their final target. Sharpe moved carefully inside, followed by Harper and the other three hunters. It was cold within, despite the tropical heat of the outside world, and the walls seemed to ripple through the shadows. Schmerzeilen sat atop the bizarre altar, propped up against an intricately carved statue of a winged serpent with a strange leonine head. Blood poured from a dozen jagged gashes in his midnight black robe and even in the murky depths of the shrine, the glint of shattered bone could be seen. Yet even as the life ebbed out of him, the warlock’s maniacal eyes gleamed with fanaticism and triumph.

“You…fools…You…think this can stop me? You…have…failed!” he spluttered, coughing up dark blood with every rattling gasp.

“Who’s the one dying, Nazi?”

“We all are, Colonel Sharpe. But death holds no fear for those who walk beyond.” Schmerzeilen began to rise up, bones crunching as he did so, yet his voice now sounded stronger and deeper. He extended out his right arm tremulously, a gold ring glowing faintly on one bloodied finger, and intoned a vicious incantation in a forgotten, guttural tongue.

Shugga-wath, whath mnuggua! Slubbu-wath, dgo wnhoow! Slubbu-wath dgou wnohow! Fleerdg-noth, douth wnhnoo!”

The shrine seemed to tremble and then shook in earnest as the stillness gave way to a howling wind. Behind Schmerzeilen, the bestial statue shook and, impossibly, began to rise up from its crouched pose, stretching out stone limbs and wings that smashed away the walls. Light streamed in, breaking away the stone that covered the creature and revealing coruscating scales and iridescent feathers that writhed and pulsated in a hundred brilliant colours. Now the winds did swirl and scream like the voices of a thousand thousand damned souls, yet above it all, they heard the voice of the winged serpent in their minds.

CHUMUK AK’Ä AH WAAY, TECH KIM.” It spoke like thunder as it stared down upon Schmerzeilen with glowing golden eyes. A golden green cloud of shining dust erupted from its maw and flowed down upon the transfixed mage, who was frozen in a silent scream. It blasted into his face and melted it away, stripping away skin, flesh and then bone, leaving nothing but dust that fell to the floor. The words reverberated around what was left of the chamber and the stones of the floor and walls began to fly away, spinning around faster and faster and faster.

The temple guardian continued to swell up and rise from the ground, which somehow still supported Sharpe and his men even as the substance of it melted away in the maelstrom. The gold ring floated slowly out in front of him and he snatched at it, closing his fist about the hot metal. Surrounding them was a storm of energy that pulsed with a living green and slowly, effortlessly, they found themselves standing on thin air. Where once was the floor was now an endless smooth pit that stretched down into darkness as they rushed downwards, unable to move, unable to speak and unable to think.

There was nought but the green for an instant as they stood poised between time and space.

And then they fell.

Sharpe felt himself being dragged down at an impossibly fast pace, the green walls now replaced by the swirling white of rushing stars. He thought he saw snippets of action somewhere beyond the white walls, of people fighting, living and dying, yet all passed before it could register on his consciousness. Time rushed by and trees, cities and mountains rose and fell around him, the jungle moving back and forwards. He felt battered like smashed wreckage in the greatest of storms as he careened down towards a new source of light that loomed below. There was a flash, a moment of wetness as if he had passed through water and then he found himself once again on firm stone, gasping and blinking as he fell to his knees.

After he gathered his senses, Sharpe looked about to see that Harper, Harris, Hagman and Payne were alive and with, albeit similarly discombobulated by their journey. The sun above them was bright and the breeze was cool, but that was where the similarity ended.

They were elsewhere.

Around them was an immense stone square, surrounded by huge soaring palaces, dazzling with brilliantly coloured tiles, despite barely any wan sunlight breaking through the grey clouds above. A long avenue lined by carved columns lead onwards to an enormous stepped pyramid that climbed up into the heavens. Before them stood a small delegation of elaborately dressed dark-skinned men covered in ceremonial feathers, precious stones, golden ornaments and intricate body paint. The smallest of them stepped forward and raised his hand in greeting to Sharpe, who still struggled to stand.

“Hail, Strange One. You have come back at last.” As the man spoke, Sharpe could see he wore a bejeweled amulet around his neck emblazoned with the unmistakeable image of the creature from the altar that had destroyed Schmerzeilen.

“Where the bloody hell are we?”

“Hells, Strange One? This is far from hell. This is Kan-Papan, the seat of the Feathered Serpent, the place where your return has been foretold. You bear power, else our ceremony would not have worked. It is written in the heavens.”

Sharpe looked up into the grey sky doubtfully. “I can’t see anything.”

“At night, a wandering star with a tale of fire blazes across the sky as a harbinger of doom that has not been seen in a lifetime.” Sharpe and Harris exchanged a brief look, both men recognizing what seemed to be Halley’s Comet. “The ancient codices said that it would be the first sign of our deliverance.”

“Has he the seed?” One of the others asked eagerly.

Sharpe looked back at Harper, who shrugged helplessly, before he shook his head at the rather disappointed fellow.

“No matter!” proclaimed the leading man. “The prophecy said that the star would come, the skies would grow dark and the earth would shake, and it has. Then the gods would send us strangers from far beyond who would bring the seed of the second sun.” His tone was formal, yet quizzical. He took a step forward and leaned in towards Sharpe. “You are certainly strange, but, I must say, we were expecting someone a bit…grander…”

“Look here, if you don’t bloody well start making bloody sense, then…” Sharpe’s hand slipped pointedly down to the heavy cavalry sword he wore at his side as he left his words hanging.

The chief priest or witchdoctor or whatever he was sighed, stepped back to confer briefly with his increasingly underwhelmed compatriots and then turned to Sharpe with a sigh.

“You’d better come along inside with us. I think we’ll need a little chat.” He then turned around and gave a trilling ululation that summoned a host of other natives from the buildings surrounding them. Before Sharpe or any of his men could object, they were hoisted up on feathered litters and borne forth into the opulent halls of the nearest palace. The crowd of servitors gazed upon them with wonder and many of the younger ones appeared fascinated with Payne’s great protruding ears, a circumstance which lead to him turning bright scarlet in embarrassment. Once they were ensconsced in a splendid chamber on curious stone thrones, they were left alone for a short while. They could hear raised voices arguing vigorously in a room nearby.

“So where are we?” Harper broke the awkward silence at last.

“I haven’t the faintest clue, Harper, but what I am sure of is that we’re not in our time.”

“If I had to hazard a guess, sir, I’d say we’re around the time of the Battle of Hastings.” Harris leaned forward as he spoke.

“1066 and all that. How do you figure that?” Payne rumbled.

“The comet, mainly, and these folk appearing to be primitive Mayans. I haven’t seen any metal tools so far.”

As the news sank in, the old high priest appeared in the doorway, holding up his hand in greeting. He strode over to an empty throne and slumped down in it. After a moment, their host looked down upon them from his raised dais as he rubbed a troubled brow.

“I am Xamaniqinqe, High Priest of Great Kukulkan.”

“Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Sharpe, Rifle Brigade. This is Sergeant-Major Harper, Sergeant Payne and Riflemen Harris and Hagman.”

Xamaniqinqe smiled politely yet incomprehendingly. “The nature of your coming has given you command of our tongue, or us of yours, but the words you speak are empty to me. You are not, I take it, from the gods?”

“No, we’re not.” Sharpe answered truthfully, although some members of the Imperial General Staff might disagree on their lack of divine nature.

“Well, that does complicate things a bit. We were rather hoping you’d know what to do and help us out.”

“Help you out with what?”

“Our people face the end of all things. There have been strange shakings of the land for weeks, the birds have fled and now the sun itself has turned its face from us. No sacrifices can quell this nor change the will of the gods, althought we’ve certainly tried. And now, you, our last hope…” The high priest could not finish his words and proudly blinked away tears. “Tell me, how did you come to be brought here?”

Sharpe haltingly relayed the story of the hunt and the firefight as best he could and Xamaniqinqe looked suitably impressed as he described the workings of their guns, which he dubbed ‘firewands’.

“And then we fell through a bloody deep green hole and ended up here.” concluded Sharpe.

“Do you still have this ring of which you spoke?”

Sharpe fumbled in his pocket, drew out the ring and tossed it to the high priest. There was a flash of green light as it shied away from his outstretched hand and fell heavily to the floor. Carefully, Xamaniqinqe leaned down and whispered an incantation towards it.

Zal’mai, ddalmey, adonnaye!”

It began to glow with a threatening scarlet resonance as it floated up towards him, spinning slowly in a languid arc. He sat back, concern and more than a little fear writ large on his face.

“ Ai! This is a thing of an ancient time before time, something far beyond my ken that does not belong in the realm of men. You say that it awoke Great Kukulkan? Perhaps…perhaps there might be a way.” He rose from his throne and walked over to the open window. He pointed down towards a hill at the other end of the great avenue.

“We must go there now, to the Sacred Cenote. There we will see what can be seen.”

“You’re going to have to make more sense than that if you want us to come along. We might be strangers in God knows where and God knows bloody when, but we’re not bloody imbeciles. You’re after a sacrifice, aren’t you?”

“Perhaps before.” confessed Xamaniqinqe. “This ring changes things. Take it, o Great Lootenant. There is much that is to be done. Its power over time comes from its shape, for time turns and the ages of the Earth pass by and come again, as memory fades to myth and myth are reborn to reality. Time is a circle, you see. “

“The wheel of time.” said Harris quietly, reflecting back on his time in Tibet as they rose to follow their host from the chamber. Xamaniqinqe turned back to gaze at him with one eyebrow raised in recognition.

“Aye. Omhamksha malavaraya.”

Harris followed the others, his mind full of questions.

................................................................................................................................................

The small Mayan led them down the great stone concourse towards the verdant hill that lay at its end. Passing through a glade of tall trees, they saw a dark opening in the earth of the hillside, flanked by twin statues of heroic looking warriors. Hagman quietly placed a hand on Sharpe’s shoulder.

“Begging the Colonel’s pardon, sir, but do you think we can trust this bloke?”

“I don’t think we have any option, Hagman. Trust or no trust, he’s our only way home.”

“Or we are his way to success.” Harper whispered in his lilting brogue.

They emerged into a bright round chamber with no roof, its rock walls leading up to the surface at the top of the hill and the grey skies above. The walls were carved with strange images of men, beasts and gods. At its centre was a perfectly circular pool of deep azure water, whose mirror-like surface was undisturbed by any hint of motion. It was a mesmeric sight and all the sounds and motion of the external world seemed to fade away into nothingness.

“Should I cast it in?” Sharpe said, breaking the stillness of the silence.

“Nay, you need but hold it up while I speak the words. Should this be what I think it, then that will be enough. This is an ancient place, held sacred long before my people, back and back to the Kings from the Sea.”

Sharpe held the gold ring aloft in his left hand, his right sitting firmly on his sword hilt. Xamaniqinqe began to chant slowly, moving his hands in rhythmic circles in time with his words. As he did, the air around them seemed to shift and move, like the flickering of film camera, and he could hear the distant sound of rushing water.

And then, without warning, he found himself falling forward. One part of him remained standing at the edge of the pool and knew that he stood there, but another part of his consciousness flew forth deep into the waters of the Sacred Cenote. Rushing past him through the blue was time, which flew past as he soared backwards on wings of power, dragged inexorably down through the radiance of the pool.

Back

He saw decades passing in an instant. It was like the voyage through time atop the temple, but much clearer. He saw and understood. Great wars and rituals of sacrifice blazed around him as the great Mayan kingdoms battled for dominance. The land and control of it was all and the sea was empty but for tiny fishing canoes. This was an age of power and might.

Back

Great temples were built and the cities grew about them. Fields of maize fed the people with their bounty under a golden sun and vast markets thrived with the rhythms of trade. This then was the glory of the Maya, stretching forth across the verdant lands while the light of civilization across the ocean faded to near darkness. Even now, the sea remained beyond the ken and realm of all, the reasons lost to deep memory.

Back

There were but villages now in the endless green of the jungle, yet as Sharpe flew north, he saw a great city in a mountainous vale dominated by huge pyramids. From it came roads, ideas and the flickering light of knowledge. Clad in raiments of gold and feathers, their priest-lords worked mighty spells to shape the land and worshipped the sun with life. Blood was spilt to bring rain, but the great sea was a still a realm of forgotten fear.

Back

The city fell back to rocks and dust and the people to villages and farms and the wild grew over them all. He found himself drawn now to the south again, to an older land between the mountains and the sea. The dark-skinned people raised up monuments to their hidden kings and worshipped their sacred mountain with profound reverence through the ancient ballgame. Yet always they stayed back from the vast expanse of the sea, keeping it forbidden and distant.

Back

Long had been the years that their people had dwelt here in the fertile tropical lowlands by the side of the warm rivers. Their wise men told of a time before memory when it was not so, but for most, the present provided all that was needed. It was a good time and a good earth. The sun shone kindly upon them and sheltered them from the vast sea of night and the serpents who dwelt within its depths. It had been thus from the beginning.

Back

The wretched remnants of the tribe looked out from atop the mountain, where scant few had been able to flee as the seas rose and swept inland. The water of life had ever been the friend and provider of their village, bringing them fish and the glorious goods that the Great Ones bore forth in their golden canoes. Yet now the skies had grown dark as night, the waves had swelled to the clouds and all good things had gone from the earth.

Back

The war had been raging for ten years now and the cost had been beyond measure. Both Atlantis and Mu had developed terrible weapons that harnessed the very power of the great sun itself. Cities had burnt and fallen into ruin and civilisation teetered on the brink of collapse. Tremors in the earth and beneath the seas spoke of disaster to come. Yet now, after all this, the mighty Atlantean Empire stood on the verge of final victory.

Back


The rushing stopped as his feet finally touched what seemed to be a solid floor once again. Sharpe stood in the corner of a golden chamber. Three white bearded figures in long blue and crimson robes stood gathered around a table in the centre that was covered with an elaborate map of the world. The light that shone through the lone window showed that it was nearly dawn.

“It will be today that the Emperor will speak to the Council on his Great Matter.” began one wizened sage, carefully stroking his beard. “He will brook no counsel that tells him otherwise, regardless of what we have seen through the windows.”

“Aye. All the omens say that this is a most dire portent.” agreed a second wise man, in a deep and heavily accented voice. “Whether it come from the Tower of Scérorbri in the farthest north or Yaghir in the south, all point towards disaster. War and worse.”

“Both Bochica and Enki report that even the elves have sealed themselves off from us. Even the stones of power are waning. The hour draws near when we must act to keep something from what is to come from the heavens.” The third and oldest of the men rubbed his head in consternation. “I fear we know not what can be done. Even our spectral visitor in the far corner may not know.”

Sharpe’s heart skipped a beat as the three wise men turned about to gazed pointedly at him. “Where am I?”

“In my tower in the city of Ẫldarlundye. I am Telak, Arch Magius of the Realm of Atlantis. My friends here are Con-Tici and Osirith. You are obviously one who rides the river of time.”

“If that’s what you call it; it is a bit of a new experience for me and I don’t plan on making a habit of it.”

Telak nodded. “The waters run deep. You are a seeker, then?”

“Yes. I want a way to send my men and I back to our time.”

“To go forward is far harder than to go back, my friend. It will take power.”

“I have this.” Sharpe put out his hand and showed them the ring. For an instant, they were shocked, as if they thought it was something else that should not be and could not be, but they recovered their composure quickly.

“I never thought to see its like again in this age of the world.” breathed Con-Tici.

“Nor shall you, for it lies back in the hand of this man in an age yet to come. It is not the One, but perhaps it is one of the Lost. It has no place in this world and could doom us all with the power of the Stones.” Telak spoke grimly as he fixed Sharpe with an even stare. “It can only be given over out of free will, but we will offer you a fair trade.”

“You want me to give it to you? Then you can have the bloody thing!”

“Tempt me not! We do not want it, nor dare touch it, or its dark heart may yet taint us and turn us from our path. Rather, we would have you go further back in the river of time and leave it at a certain time and place.” Telak then explained the precise location where Sharpe was to leave the ring. “There will not be much time, but that will put an end to it, or else put it out of time beyond the reach of any.”

“We would also have you take something with you, back to the future.” Osirith said quietly. “It is too great a prize to be lost to what is to come and there is nowhere else we dare hide it until man needs it again.”

“Aye. Even the Seven Cities of Gold are not safe enough for this.” Telak proclaimed as he drew forth a small tarnished bronze circlet set with a triangle in the middle.

“The Mysterious Cities of Gold? They are real?”

Telak smiled. “Yes. But they are a tale for another time. Take hold of the symbol and we shall begin.”

As Sharpe grasped the circlet, a warm feeling swept through him and the room seemed to glow and sway. He heard the three magi begin to chant and then he found himself

elsewhere.

He stood in a warm, wet jungle, surrounded by strange alien ferns and trees and buzzing insects. The scents and sounds all around him were unlike anything he had ever experienced. Even the air seemed bizarrely different to breath. A small reptilian creature looked quizzically at this sudden intruder into his domain. His instructions had been very clear. He placed the ring on the ground, stepped back and held the circlet back above his head. Instantly, he was back in the room in Atlantis.

“It is done.”

“Then we shall send you back to your men. Raise the symbol above your head as you enter the pool and the river will carry your forward to your own time.” Telak raised his hand in farewell. “It is well that at least something good can come of this day; may a seed be planted that will grow great. Go with God.”

Sharpe opened his eyes. He stood at the edge of the Sacred Cenote and the circlet was warm in his hand. Xamaniqinqe and his men stared expectantly at him.

“I think we have what we need to make it back to our time and place. My thanks to you, Xamaniqinqe. Sorry we couldn’t help you with the sun and the end of the world.”

“On the contrary, Lootenant. Look up.”

Pouring through the opening above the pool was bright, pure sunlight, shining down like a benediction. From beyond the silent confines of the cinote, he could hear excited shouting and cheering.

“And lo, the Light shall shine again from what has fallen and this shall be the Sign. The river of time flows in a circle, you see.” The Mayan high priest pointed to the opposite wall bowed to him and walked out into the tumult. Sharpe looked across at the carving and stepped back in shock.

There, amid the elaborately stone images stood a figure that looked exactly like Sharpe, down to the scars and the sword at his belt. He held up a hand to the sky, offering something to the sun.

………………………………………………………………………………………………...............................................................

Their journey back through the pool was much easier than Sharpe had expected. One moment they were about to wade into the pool and the next they were standing around a rather smaller, brackish body of water, the smashed stones of the ruined pyramid lying about them. Hhe was relieved to find that his remaining men were sheltering in the outer rocks on the edge of the clearing, none the worse for their experiences with this strange place. Apparently, they had seen Sharpe, Harper and the others charge up the top, then a great sudden explosion had sent them flying for an instant. No time had passed, despite their voyage.

“Do you know how a cenote is formed, sir? Rock is worn away by water over time until the roof collapses, revealing the pool below.” Harris said quietly.

“Aye. Maybe it is that way with time as well. Right lads, we’ve got what we came for! I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend another minute longer in this bloody jungle than I have to. Let’s be off then!”

As Sharpe lead his hunters from the clearing back to the world of jet aeroplanes and fugitive war criminals, of mortgage insurance and wireless advertisements, he did not look back. If he had, then he might have seen, through the rocks and earth, a piece of a small carving. Standing behind a wall of water that flowed around them like a river, two smiling figures, one large and robed and one small and wearing a feathered headress, hands raised in greeting.

………………………………………………………………………………………………...............................................................
The ring felt the ground beneath it. This was good earth where it could rest until one could come again and bear it forth in blood and terror. The mortal fools had left it –

There was a disturbance around like the rushing of wind. The consciousness of the ring sought answers as it swept upwards, casting an invisible eye on the darkening sky.

Hurtling down through the clouds came a mountain of fire.

The ring screamed.

………………………………………………………………………………………………...............................................................

Now the sun had returned and the prophecy was fulfilled. He had come and bought back the new sun. Now there must be payment. The priests spoke briefly and the people heard and obeyed. They picked up their possessions and walked out of their homes, not turning around to give it a backwards glance. Across the leagues of jungle and mountains, others heard the same and abandoned their cities.

For in every beginning, there is an end.


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 Post subject: Re: Dark Earth: 1947
PostPosted: Wed Dec 13, 2017 11:19 am 
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Joined: Sat Feb 12, 2011 3:07 pm
Posts: 319
Wonderful, Yucatan, of course it would be :-)

One of the nine or of the seven?

At least Sharpe did a better job than Boromir

Nice to see what Cowley was up to before his Professional career too.


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 Post subject: Re: Dark Earth: 1947
PostPosted: Wed Dec 13, 2017 4:07 pm 
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Posts: 1124
Location: Darkest Eyre
Indeed. Glad to hear you liked it.

I was thinking about it either being one of the seven or something completely different. In a world where there is Atlantis, much of Tolkien's work would be viewable as historical/prehistorical allegory.

Having a Sean Bean character nonchalantly deal with a ring was simply a bonus layer of deliciousness.

Good spotting on Cowley. There are others...


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 Post subject: Re: Dark Earth: 1947
PostPosted: Thu Dec 14, 2017 8:45 am 
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Joined: Wed Oct 08, 2008 3:29 am
Posts: 4034
Location: BB-16, BB-62
I love the references, even if I don't see them immediately!

Belushi TD


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