History, Politics And Current Affairs

Opinions expressed here are personal views of contributors and do not necessarily represent the companies, organizations or governments they work for. Nor do they necessarily represent those of the Board Administration.
It is currently Thu Feb 22, 2018 1:16 pm

All times are UTC - 5 hours




Post new topic Reply to topic  [ 10 posts ] 
Author Message
PostPosted: Sun Feb 28, 2016 4:09 am 
Offline
User avatar

Joined: Thu Oct 09, 2008 2:03 pm
Posts: 1122
Location: Darkest Eyre
Dark Earth Chapter 8 - Streams of Scarlet

54° 16' N 31°11' W

The first rays of the sun came upon this place as they had always found it – calm in a magnificent desolation and untouched by man and his petty works. A light wind blew over the deep blue water that stretched as far as the horizon in every direction and was seen by neither bird nor beast, which pleased it well. There had been times, not so long ago, when these ancient waters had been covered by vast sheets of ice and the winds of winter howled across the northern world. These times passed, the ice receded and the sea endured. Then came those curious land creatures known as men, who came to feed, to journey and to conquer. Countless of their tiny forms went into the waves, never to emerge. Their tribulations and triumphs spanned their centuries yet all the while, the sea endured. Their craft of wood became craft of iron and steel and now their turgid quarrels spanned out into the farthest extents of the whale road. Blood was shed and lives were lost, all in what amounted to an instant in the long ages of the trackless sea. Man had come, man had died and now man had left once again. Now, this place continued on its own eternal cadence and neither ship nor aeroplane disturbed this particular patch of the vast North Atlantic ocean.

Or so it would seem.

Half a mile beneath the surface, a huge black vessel silently crept on its secret dance through the dark depths of the sunless sea. Its long and rounded curves were broken only by its great tail fin and the rounded conning tower that rose up like some donjon of the deep. Those that had seen her on her brief sojourns in the world above likened her to a dread shark greater than any whale or a teardrop of purest midnight falling down from the eyelid of creation. Whatever her resemblance, she was raw power incarnate. As long as the Great Pyramid was tall and displacing as much as a heavy cruiser, she was home to one hundred and eighty souls, two galleys, an extensive library, and a quite marvellous model car track around Sherwood Forest, the array of tall tubes that encased their twenty four strategic missiles. Each of the English Electric Green Knights carried a thermonuclear warhead two hundred times more powerful than the bombs that had levelled Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Toyama and Zhongma and were capable of bringing instant sunshine anywhere from Central Africa to the Urals.

Large as a leviathan, deadly as doomsday and stealthy as a shade, the nuclear ballistic missile submarine, or bomber as it was known to its crew, moved along at barely two knots, an almost imperceptible speed to those within her double hull. For all intents and purposes, once out in the open sea, she was invisible. Her atomic reactors were powerful enough to travel around the world for years at a time, only needing to surface for vittles and other such mundane requirements. Although she carried a potent battery of torpedoes, her primary defence was not to be noticed or even perceived, to simply be a silent hole in the sea, sitting, waiting. Her mission and that of her five other sisters currently somewhere else beneath the North Atlantic was a vital one - the ultimate defence of the Realm and the Empire. None could assail her home and avoid the eventual wrath of the watchers beneath the waves and the certainty of Britannia’s vengeful trident striking back. She was Retribution.

Captain Sir Robert Jackson, commanding HMS Retribution on her fourth patrol, was a steadfast veteran of thirty-two years in the Royal Navy Submarine Service and had commanded Warspite on her famed war cruise in 1956. He had made a name as one of the Andrew’s hardest captains, a man with a cold sense of duty and honour that was well suited to his great task. His standard procedure for the beginning of the eighty-first of their 120 days atomic deterrence of the enemies of the realm was much the same as those before and found him in his great cabin listening in to the BBC Home Service. Its protracted absence was one of the appointed events that would lead him and his executive officer to the opening of the wizard-locked safe in his quarters that contained a letter of last resort from the Prime Minister. What it read was a mystery he hoped he would never find out.

He sat back in his chair and closed his eyes as the first of six electronic pips sounded over the wireless, signalling that the world would continue for another day.

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

The dark of night gave way to the first wan light of a fey dawn. A discernible current of raw tension hung over the waking city, embracing it like a smothering blanket or gargantuan incubus, but, underneath its malign embrace, life continued on inexorably like so many blithely scurrying insects unaware of the boot descending towards them. The thronging early morning multitudes, iniquitous and innocent alike, scurried about their business in the trackless warrens and sleepless markets of the city. Many more slept the undisturbed sleep of the just and true, unmarred by wars and rumours of wars. To the few who held the empire’s fell peril in the breasts, it seemed more merciful to let them slumber or continue the business of life for a few more precious hours. Let them see the last unsullied dawn in all its brilliant purity; sufficient unto the day was the evil thereof.

Such was the lot of four figures who had walked without word through the doors of Ratcliffe House shortly after two o’clock in the morning, their faces fixed in fell focus, their raiments bearing the scars of battle and the still waters of their counsel running deep indeed. The flurry of initial inquiries and desperate searching through memory and government files for clues as to the nature and identity of those behind the crisis had come to precisely nothing. They had come no closer to the answers they needed and this vexed Ratcliffe mightily as he passed a fitful few hours in a vain attempt at restorative sleep in his sumptuous bedchamber. As the sonorous chimes of Big Ben sounded five, he gave up his assayed slumber, rolled out of his mighty oaken four poster bed and padded quietly over to the window. His scarred limbs ached as they always did, amid the dozen quiet pains familiar to any old soldier. The night world lay still outside, broken only by the occasional hum and burr of far off traffic and the distant echo of the dregs of mankind that populated the witching hour.

Pulling his night dress about him against the chill air, he gazed out at the streets of London, silhouetted as they were in the lightening deep grey of the predawn hour. Five years. He had been away for far too long. The comfortable rhythms and pulse of the city and its people had palpably altered from what it had been in days gone past, ever since he had clasped the blade and sworn the soul-searing words. Once he had been of the land and it had been of him, a land apart, a precious pearl of great price set in a silver sea. The world changed, the world altered, yet here? Here the cadence of ages long past carried on in the deep land, despite the gradual ebb and flow of its people. Neither war nor industry nor the clash of worlds had marred the grace of a thousand years, but now he felt a profound difference through the agency of his fey office. Had the land changed so or was it simply his own troubled soul? What did they know of England who only England know? No, he decided, it was him. A broken receiver does not mean the message has disappeared, just that it needed retuning. The heart of the land rang true, deep down, beneath the discordant swell jangling chords of modernity and uncertainty. His friends, the kingdom and the people all relied upon him and trusted that he knew the right path to take when he was just as bereft and confused as the rest of them, if not more so.

It was taken for granted that he would find a way to victory yet again and do so with such insouciant panache as to make the endeavour seem a lovely little picnic in the Cotswolds rather than stark, bare terror. As he had done many times in the last twenty-five years, Sir Charles Ratcliffe ruefully cursed the brash rashness of his youth and the burden of living up to his own image. It had cost him his friends, his youth, all chance of family. And it had cost him love. A flicker of long buried memory jolted through his consciousness – dear Anna, her angelic head thrown back in peals of heavenly laughter and her tresses of gold falling down over in her lithe shoulders, dear Anna, chastely demure in their heartachingly few walks through the garden maze and dear Anna, her battered corse lying swathed in her grave clothes, her wedding dress for envious Death that hid the scars of the German bomb. She was gone now, beyond the gates of infinity where time nor the world could harm her ever again, leaving only memory, memories which haunted him still. They were with him all the course of his walking days and of his restless sleep, as did all the dead that walked beside him in their serried ranks. The thought seemed to rouse the iron in his soul from its momentary malaise. There would be time enough for melancholy and reflection when he finally joined them. The dead could wait. For now, the world of the living was in danger again and there was no one else to turn to. His land and duty called to him, like the horns of Elfland faintly blowing across wild cataracts and the long halls of time. Now was the hour to answer that call as best he could in what time he had left.

Turning from the lightening sky, he momentarily gave thought to wakening the others, who had collapsed in exhaustion into the welcome beds of his guest chambers. Better to let them rest for a few more brief hours before the day to come. Fell deeds awaited them and danger beyond measure. For the life of him, he could think of only one more thing that could be done to find the trail of their dark and elusive foe and he did not at all relish the prospect of doing that again. Still, needs must when the Empire calls. It would take the peculiar talents of all four of them to make this particular journey. It would be a black and terrible path, dangerous to their reason and souls alike, but it firmed in his mind as the only blade of grass that their desperate scrabbling grasps had not yet touched.

The other two chaps and the cat could sleep until dawn, he decided as he pulled on a silk shirt, a red brocade doublet and of course his lucky questing trousers. He could spend the time in the best possible preparation he or any knight of the realm knew – bladework. Taking up his sword from its position beside his bed, Ratcliffe unsheathed it and began to work through the forms, at first slowly and rhythmically and then faster and faster as he turned into a whirring whirlwind of sliding movement and flashing steel. The dance, the dance, all was the dance. He was one with the blade and it was one with him, heart of steel and touch of death. All the time, he was soundless as he thrust, parried and danced with his invisible foes. At last, without a scintilla of warning, he threw himself into a backward somersault over the grinning tiger skin rug on the floor and landed with cat like grace, bringing his razor sharp blade down in a double handed cut that stopped abruptly and held unwavering in mid-air just above the head of the tiger.

He was ready.

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

It had been a long, difficult night, the dark figure thought as he limped across the windowless chamber that served as his makeshift lair. That confounded fop had been annoyingly successful in unravelling his finest plans thus far, but he was safe for now, surely. Nemesis would come and the Dark would come with it, bringing the hour of his glorious triumph. And his vengeance upon their pitiful world, their pitiful Empire and Ratcliffe. Him above all else. The vengeance burned in his veins like molten gold and his palsied face twisted into a bestial snarl that would have been hideous to behold had it not been covered by the tatters of his dark mask.

With a few guttural phrases and practiced gestures, he cast the protective dweomers to mask his presence and guard the room against detection and intrusion. His preparations done, he lay his mighty staff upon the floor and stretched back in his leather armchair and relaxed for the moment, closing his eyes and enjoying one of the few comforts of life that remained to him. Wheels within wheels and mirrors within mirrors, the game went on as it always had, but this time, there would be no rematch. This time, he had ensured he would win. The fools had thought that it was only an assassination and then only a single bomb, no doubt. Looking over to the corner of the room, his lips drew back across sharpened teeth in a rictus grin as he gazed upon his masterwork.

A whimpering sound from the opposite corner disturbed his contemplations and he flicked a silencing charm across the room at his bound and gagged female captive in vexation. Her end would come soon and be both bloody and agonizing, but in the meanwhile, the bitch was of no consequence to him, just like the rest of her pathetic species. Once there would have been a time when the sound of screaming or tortured pain would have disturbed him, or given him more than a moment’s thought in the blessed night, but that was something he had set aside long ago when he rid himself of the troublesome burden of his soul.

It would be magnificent. The deaths of millions of innocents would send a scream through the worlds and planes so powerful as to wake what must be woken, as had been promised. For a hundred years, he had searched for the secrets of the grave and of ultimate power, through pyramids of utmost depravity and the darkest corners of this miserable world. And now it was so close he could almost touch it. The delightful crackle of magic roared through his veins like a sea of fire and ice, an exhilarating omen of what was to come.

There were a few hours to go before the war to end all wars would begin. Conjuring motes of scarlet energy, he got up from his chair and walked towards his terrified captive.

Time enough for a little fun…

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

Shortly after dawn, it was a relieved and relaxed-looking Ratcliffe who sat at the head of a handsomely appointed table as the decidedly bleary Flint and Mandeville clumped through the golden archway into his sunny breakfast room, having been awoken by the piercing Nahuatl screams of Sir Charles’s many novelty pyramid alarm clocks and guided along overgrown corridors, through half a hundred antechambers and soaring halls and down brobdingnagian staircases by the stolid Tea to where they could at last break their fast. Their visages spoke of dire moods and growing exhaustion.

Ratcliffe beamed at them as they entered and put down his copy of the Beano as he rose in welcome. A few cheeky motes of sunlight danced around his head in streams of many colours that flowed down from the high stained glass windows and the gentle sound of trickling water emanated from the remarkably realistic looking waterfall in the far corner of the room. It was a singularly beautiful chamber of white marble floors and walls decorated with Grecian murals and pervaded by the faint scent of apple blossom. The entire effect of the room was calming and meditative, something he appreciated on this morn more than ever. The island of calm before the gathering storm.

“Morning, chaps. Sleep well? I kipped like a log, myself and a particularly tired one at that!” His cheerful tone did not seem at all forced or unnatural, belying the dark night that had passed before.

Mandeville merely hissed at him in utter feline disgust, jumped up onto a cushioned seat and began to nibble on a conveniently placed dish of trout a la crème, at first tentatively and then with great relish. Flint, on the other hand, rose to the remark with a mixture of resigned frustration and quiet outrage.

“Sleep well? Sleep well? I had barely drifted off when that thrice consarned pagan idol started shrieking the bally room down! Where in blazes did you get such a cursed object?!”

“A lovely little shop just outside Teotihuacan. I tried to get the charming ululations fixed, but it only seems to make the thing even more…enthusiastic…”

“You don’t say.”

“Mmm. You see now why I keep the little blighters in the guest rooms. In the new wing. On the other side of the lake.”

“That’s another thing. How do you have an estate ten times the size of Hyde Park inside a town house? I swear I saw hills in the distance!”

“Magic, my dear boy. A whole lot of crazy, wonderful, baffling magic. This place has been in the family since 1520, but its particular internal properties were first noted about fifty-five years late, shortly after the Grand Conclave and the beginning of the Arcane Revolution. It seems that Lord Tarquin Ratcliffe, my seventh-great grandfather, was not only quite the patron of the mundane arts and hammer of the goblins, but helped defeat a troublesome walking statue that threatened to disturb the wizard’s celebratory feast. The result was this pocket dimension, which the family has been trying to find its way around ever since, with somewhat mixed success.”

Flint nodded. For once, things were making sense. A bizarre, fantastical, mad sense that had well and truly skipped over the rainbow from the surreally sublime into the remarkably ridiculous while yodelling the collected works of Shakespeare in Qatabanian and balancing infinite walruses on the end of a pinstripe suit, but sense all the same. Ratcliffe and his attitudes and lifestyle of a previous century were predictable, in his own certain fashion. It was quite fitting that such a figure, part charicature and part legend, would have a manse of such mystery.

“Anyways, good Brother Flint, sit yourself down and grab a spot of breakfast. We’ll need it today and a long way to go.” Ratcliffe picked up a small bell and rang it. Within a moment, the wooden doors through which Flint and Mandeville had entered were flung open once again as several liveried servants entered the chamber, carrying groaning silver platters of assorted delectable foodstuffs, shepherded by Tea and Mrs. Eckythumpe, a formidable looking old lady from Lancashire attired in a severe fawn bodice and corsage hemmed in arsenic-treated old lace. She served as Ratcliffe House’s chief housekeeper, mistress of his laundry, warden of his bathtub and seneschal of his fan mail, but her most vital role was the provision of his meat and daily bread, which she had severely supervised since 1923.

Sir Charles dove in enthusiastically, sawing several thick juicy ruby rare slices off a huge roasted rib of beef and piling them onto his ample plate alongside a dozen rashers of sizzling bacon, a string of plump sausages, some folorn kippers and enough bubble and squeak to smother a small child. He then proceeded to slip his customary seven soft-boiled eggs into miniature steam-powered automaton cups shaped like dancing frogs, flicked a copper switch and smiled contentedly as he lined up his toast soldiers by rank and seniority. With a whir and click of gears, the eggs were neatly decapitated while the mechanism played a jaunty version of God Save the Queen. Mandeville had moved on from his piscine delights to several choice morsels of cheese that he batted about the table with amused distraction and Flint picked at a wan crescent of truffled ham and some delicately buttered crumpets. He tried to identify the nagging sense of forboding that screamed politely in the depths of his subconscious.

Tea, Mrs. Eckythumpe and the servants gracefully withdrew to leave the heroes to their repast and they all tucked in with great gusto. After several minutes of merry munching and crunching, there was a flash of light in the corridor and a light crackling sound. Gallows floated into the room and took his place at the table, a carefully wrapped bundle of oilskins in his arms. Pouring a cup of tea, he visibly relaxed, as if the burden he had been carrying was more than merely physical.

“I brought what you asked for, Charles. I hope it does not cost us what it could.”

“Thank you, I know how hard this was. Simon has been back over to the British Museum for us, chaps.” Ratcliffe said quietly, pushing his last sausage to the side of his plate, knowing that the moment to reveal his plan had come.

“Why did you have to go there?” Flint asked slowly, already suspecting that he would not like the answer.

“To fetch this.” Gallows opened up the wrappings to reveal an ancient book bound in
what appeared to be faded dark brown leather. The spine was embossed with intricately carved brass symbols and on its cover bore an eyeless demonic face screamed its soundless fury out at the world with an intensity that sent a chill down Flint’s spine. It emanated a creeping sense of cold dread and disturbing corruption, as if simply looking at the thing could endanger their very souls and a faint buzzing sound echoed in his mind, reminiscent of insects or singing sand. Even the light in the room itself took on a vile yellowish tinge.

“Behold, the Necronomicon.”

“ARE YOU INSANE?!!” shouted Flint, hurling himself back from the table in aghast shock while crossing himself. Sir Jingles had similarly sprung back through the bumptious fronds of a bonsai triffid and dug his claws into Ratcliffe’s elegant plaid numdah, his tail sticking up dead straight in alarm as he emitted a low, suspicious caterwaul.

“No, Brother Flint, no more than usual. The fate of the world lies in our hands and the hour calls for desperate measures.”

“There are desperate measures and then there is downright demonic lunacy! You know what lies in those pages!”

“Yes, I do.”

“What happened to all that high talk about being against demonology? We might as well sell our own souls right now and be done with it!”

“Do not jest of that.” Gallows’ sotto voce remark was barely more than the lightest whisper.

“There is a reason, John. It is not something I do easily. As well as the foul black arts, that is one of the few grimoires that contains the procedure for opening a gate through the Astral plane to the outer dimensions.”

“Oh, dear God…you can’t mean to…that is more than lunacy.” Flint sat back in his chair, shaking his head in despair.

“Yes. It is the only way to find the true enemy. We must travel to the Shadowlands.”

The Shadowlands. If the name of the vile book before them had evoked outrage, that of the dark dimension that paralleled their worlds bought a single word to mind – nightmares. This was where dreams came true. Not the hopeful dreams of youth, full of the bright future, nor the kind and homely dreams of humdrum existence, where one forgets to put on clothes before leaving the house. These were different dreams. Bad ones. All of humanity’s collected unconscious dreads of millennia haunted its dusky alleys and stormy whale-roads in a twisted reflection of reality. To sleep in the Shadowlands was to know the true meaning of torment, the greatest measure of madness. The natives of the plane were enough to break the strongest man into a gibbering wreck – sinister lobsters that feasted on the brains and inner ears of the unwary, terrible floating heads with eyes that wept fire, crystalline manifestations of murder and the giant Death Snails of Karn. No man, dwarf or creature of good heart and free will would willingly make the journey into the acme of tenebrosity and the elves had no need, treading the silvered paths of Faerie and the rainbow bridge.

Yet it was in the Shadowlands that the colours of magic could shine through most clearly, belying the faded night and dank day alike through the proximity of the mystical aether far beyond the bounds of the world and reality. The trail of sorcery lasted far longer there than on Earth or the other planets of their own dimension, sometimes marking the very land for centuries like the scarlet storms of Jupiter itself. This knowledge tempered Flint and Mandeville’s horror like the cool oil of a bladesmith’s forge quenches the ardour of a newly born sword – suddenly and with much sound and fury. Whilst both knew they were far from masters of the lore of the seven colours and the secrets of high sorcery, their knowledge of the Ars Magica was sufficient to know that the plan cobbled together by Ratcliffe and Gallows would work. It was worth the risk. They sat around the table for several minutes, the cold remains of breakfast ignored.

“How?” Mandeville finally asked.

“I’ll read the words of the spell from the Necronomicon and Charles’s sword can cut the air to open the gate. We’ll need to burn some of your black lotus to speed the way through the Astral Plane, Sir Jingles. Don’t blush, pussycat.” Gallows concluded with a savage grin, cutting off Mandeville’s outraged attempt at an outraged explanation of why such an outrageous imputation that he, he was in possession of such a substance was utterly outrageous. The cat sat on the mat, utterly outraged.

We’ll need a little something from the both of you as well, though.” Gallows leaned forward, slightly grinning.

“What?” Flint met his stare coldly.

“From you, holy words of power to hold the gate behind us and stop anything truly eldritch from coming back through while we’re busy. Something old and profoundly sacred designed for this exact purpose.”

“You mean the Incantation of Khosrovidukht? You are remarkably well informed for a wizard.”

“News travels far, Brother. The first in five hundred years to handle it? An impressive feat like that makes all sorts of people sit up and pay attention.”

“Only three other men in the world know about the Incantation, Doctor Gallows. Three. Two of them are archbishops. As I said, remarkably well informed.”

“A state of being that Jingles and I would welcome.” Ratcliffe observed drily, moving to break the tension.

“’Tis an ancient lay of the deeds of an Armenian saint from the early days of the Church. It was hidden in a lost monastery at the foot of Mount Ararat and bound against easy use. With it, a man of faith might do many things…including barring the way of nightmares from beyond the gates of infinity.”

“And how did you know of it, Simon?”

“I came across a reference to it while researching the Emerald Tablet in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad last year. It intrigued me, after a fashion.”

“See, good Brother, just a matter of professional curiosity. Now, if we can set aside the eternal battle of the Church and Wizardry, perhaps we can go about saving the Empire?”

There was little more that had to be said. Girding their loins with the accoutrements of adventure and enough assorted weaponry to level Fort Knox thanks to the ever attentive Tea, they moved through into the sparse conjuring room, which was marked only by several mosaic Agrippan circles. The cold iron door slammed shut behind them with a ringing echo. A single solid iron plinth stood in the midst of the innermost symbol and Gallows placed the Necronomicon in its cradle. As he opened the book, a low groaning sound filled the room. He began to chant in a twisted, eldritch tongue as Mandeville lit the four braziers filled with his precious black lotus and the room filled with an acrid, swirling smoke almost immediately.

“Iä! Iä! Ols luvokädön! Ob luvokädön! Obs valik luvokädön at koldik krem!”

Ratcliffe stood ready at the north point of the circle, sword in hand while Brother Flint held the south, clutching his mace and softly mouthing the words of the Armenian princess against whatever would come to pass.

It began with a sharp off-key whistle that sounded like a distant train coming in from the netherworld and gradually took form in the smoke of the black lotus. The colours shifted from a dark morass of despond to an ever-faster swirling scintillating rainbow. The groans and whistles took form in a discordant yet somehow angelic chorus of strange alien words that grew ever louder until they overwhelmed the ears of the four. Above all, there was the wind, the wind, the terrible wind that pulled and pushed and rushed through them like the cold of deepest winter and like the fiery heat of the mountains of the sun.

“Asanisimasa! Asanisimasa!”

“Naekti verata klatu! Naekti verata klatu!”

“Banomena! Düdaedådydy! Maanämanä!”

The rainbow began to form into a shape that tore at their minds and sanity with all manner of non-Euclidean shapes that pulsed and wobbled and danced around them with ever greater speed. The disgusting blobs changed once again into an enormous vibrating great dirhombicosidodecahedron that swelled further, swallowing all space in the room before turning itself inside out into a kaleidoscopic explosion. The very walls of the room had now faded and only the glowing golden fire of the sacred circles on the floor stood between them and the utter chaos of the place beyond the doors of perception. They were moving now, rushing forward at a tremendous pace that tore the flesh from their bones and the substance from their souls. There was nothing but the light streaming past them now in pure solid lines and the white dot that lay an infinity in front of them. Then, when all seemed lost, Gallows spoke in a voice like thunder and fire, echoing through time and space.

“Iä! Iä! Miestaslaovoviro, estaslaovoviroj, miestaslarosmaro!”

With a flash of lightning and an anticlimactic thud, they fell into a pool of cold, black mud. All around them was a strange half twilight, like darkness at noon or a total eclipse of the heart. Ratcliffe sighed with a mixture of resignation and relief.

Once again, he was back in the Shadowlands.
....................................................................................................................................

The dark blue waters of the North Sea were relatively calm in the dawn’s early light as the huge grey ship cruised through them towards its station off the Broad Fourteens. She was the southernmost ship in the east coast defensive line and covered most of East Anglia and the Thames Estuary from her current position. The sea barrier was centred on the Malta and Gibraltar battlegroups, with smaller task forces based around King George V, Prince of Wales and Duke of York on their flanks. The RDF display was rather pleasingly quiet on this morn, with no extraneous activity over Denmark, the Netherlands and the far reaches of the Baltic Sea, with both the Soviets in Prussia and the Germans wisely keeping their aircraft on the ground in such strained international circumstances. Hood’s new radar was their ace in the hole, giving a clear picture of aerial activity upwards of five hundred miles away and adding to the strategic depth of Britain’s air defences. The initial mission as planned under Operation Sable had been altered to reflect the demands of the evolving crisis and the deployment of the Grand Fleet to northern waters and Hood was now positioned to play her particular role in the Strategic Imperial Operational Plan.

If the wireless signal came through, then she would let loose with her two dozen strategic missiles and forty flying bombs on the most threatening Soviet airbases in Byelorussia, Prussia and the Ukraine to clear the way for Bomber Command stroke of vengeance. This was a circumstance not unrecognized by the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel'noye Upravleniye and Captain Sutherland fully expected that the brief suspected submarine contact of last night was but a brief harbinger of what was to come. It was for that reason that he now had no less than four frigates and three old destroyers operating in close escort around them, their Wessexes and Rotodynes ceaselessly circling and hammering the silent waters with their dipping ASDICs. There would be no interruptions to his purpose.

In the meantime, she was scheduled to launch her Sea Harriers in twenty minutes to relieve the pre-dawn patrol from the light antisubmarine carrier Ethalion. If this experiment proved to be a success and the world did not come to an abrupt and regretful end in a disastrous atomic orgy of fire and blood, then it was planned to introduce them across the battlefleet, restoring something of the prewar distribution of airpower at sea and providing new capabilities to the fleet. A single Soviet reconnaissance Bison had attempted to shadow Hood from a respectful as she entered the North Sea, but the tender attentions of RAF Lightnings forward deployed to the Netherlands soon set the spooked plane scurrying for home. It was ironic really, considering how the whole business had started back in January. A single East India Company Canberra on what had been described as a routine training mission had been shot down over the Caspian Sea by an experimental Soviet rocket, ruining the January summit meeting of the great powers in Constantinople. The next four months had seen one incident after another increasing tensions and pushing the world to the brink of war where it now teetered.

Hood continued her steady progress through the sea. Sutherland did not know when they would next see home.
......................................................................................................................................

The sky was boiling above them and thin, streaky clouds streaked back and forth, as if they were eager not to be caught by something that lurked above them. Through the dimness, Ratcliffe perceived a massive stagnant sewer that could only be a perversion of the Thames and the rising wreckage of long destroyed buildings overgrown with black tendrils of vegetation. A rickety bridge swayed and wobbled out across the river in a random zig-zag pattern, sometimes even turning upside down on its random track. It felt simply wrong.

Around him, the other chaps and cats were picking themselves up out of the dark ichor and trying to make some sense of the strangeness around them. From far away, a bleating sound like a chorus thousand goats echoed all across the wan horizon which flashed with blue lightning.

“Did…did we make it?” ventured Mandeville.

“Welcome to the beauty spot of Shadow London, home of such attractions as the Running of the Morlocks, the lovely Shubb-Niggurath Avenue, Baba-Yaga Circus and of course Caligula’s Column. Where we have Big Ben, here there is a chained banshee that screams blood and death on the hour. Where we have Her Majesty in Buck House, the Shadowlands have a fortress of black ice that none can approach wherein sits an empty throne. This is the London that was destroyed by Nazi and Soviet bombs a thousand times over, the London ravaged with dragonfire, plague and jazz down the ages, the London that falls and suffers every night. The London of our worst dreams. As luck would have it, we are currently in the exact parallel location to where our mysterious chum disappeared last night.” Ratcliffe rattled off the description, his poor attempts at wit acting to control his rising sense of disquiet and terror.

“I think we have a trail.” Gallows indicated a thin, barely discernible wisp of red mist heading away into the chaotic buildings. “It is the Red. A magic that thrives on anger, fire, blood…and death.” He waved his hands is a series of complex, esoteric gestures, intending to conjure an elemental torch to light their way. Nothing happened, save a disappointing fizzle that sounded distinctly to the three others like the dimension itself giving the good doctor a raspberry. After a second attempt and a series of tersely proclaimed phrases failed to alter the outcome, Gallows blanched in unaccustomed doubt and an emotion even rarer in his experience, fear.

“My…I...I cannot work even the simplest of spells. There is ill witchcraft at work here, Charles, far worse than I thought.”

“Now that is a first. I’ve never known you to be affected by the planes before, Simon.”

“It is beyond me, Charles. And if it is beyond me, then you can bet your last penny that we are up against an ipsissimus of the highest rank. My many talents are for the moment reduced to my pithy wit and glowing personality.”

Flint bit back on a bitter retort, remembering the arrogant mage’s expansive boasts of the previous afternoon before deciding that whatever benefit gained from being right was of no consequence to the success of the quest.

“Can you get us back?”

“I think so. I hope so.”

Ratcliffe drew his sword and gave a silent prayer. It began to glow with a pure blue light from within that stretched out to envelop them in an azure sphere that stilled their doubts and comforted their souls. Even so far away from home, there was hope.

“Then for now, we are in the capable paws of our redoubtable scout. Sir Jingles, can you lead us along the red path in these shadows?”

“I’ve found my ways through darker dives and opium dens than this, boys! Never fear, Mandeville is here!” With that, he took off, his keen feline eyes picking out their objective as it ebbed away into the land of the shadows. His morning dose was still hurtling around his body and made him feel as if nothing in any world could stop him. Finally he was in his element and he revelled in it.

They began to pick their way through the least uncooperative sections of the rubble and insane ruins, over anthill and slug-dale, all the time following the scarlet traces of their quarry. Onward they went and the trail became thicker and stronger and smelt foul, like a rotting corpse left out in the sun. It wound down alleyways filled with whispering shades and shuffling mounds that were once living creatures and past huddled groups of dark beings with eyes glowing red with hatred and envy. Several times, the shadows closed in around them in a threatening halo of darkness. Only the faint blue light of Sir Charles’s blessed blade and Flint’s murmured benisons kept them at a distance, cocooning the party in a sorely pressed globe of radiance.

It seemed like they walked for hours, for days. Every step was a heavy struggle against the cloying, unnatural gravity and the foul miasma drained their fortitude and will until all they could do was simply struggle onward silently. The streets of Shadow London loomed about them like the walls of a vast cavern, blocking out even the contemptuous half-light of the wan sun. They began to perceive the streets were now angling downwards and that they were heading into a new, fouler area. The trail of red then became thin, a gossamer thread of crimson hanging in mid air like Ariadne’s yarn marking the way for Theseus to return from the dread Labyrinth now strung out past the Dark Tower and into the twisting alleys of Shoreditch and Whitechapel. Soon enough, it came to an abrupt stop at a collapsed building.

“Well, that’s done it now. If I’m not mistaken, this is St. Mary’s Whitechapel Road Station. Or was.” murmured Sir Jingles.

Ratcliffe winced. “Closed in 1938. Wrecked by a bomb in ’40. Destroyed by a V-2 in ’44.”

“Is there no other way down?” asked Flint.

Ratcliffe looked at Gallows, who shook his head sadly. “Not in this realm. There is no Underground in the Shadowlands and even if there were, none of the trains would ever be on time. We must go back.”

Back? There is no back, meat.

“Who said that?” gasped Mandeville.

The remaining light around them flickered out and darkness covered the earth.

Long have I waited for one from the line that murdered my child. Centuries have I tarried here, beyond the gates, waiting, hating, never forgetting. And now, you have come, Scion of Lambton. I have you now. Despair and die!

The words came as an icy whisper of hatred in their minds as the cobbled streets about them rose up in four barbed claws and the collapsed wall of the station shifted into the maw of a titanic white wyrm in a shower of stone and dust. With a scream from a thousand damned throats, the creature fell upon the companions, gnashing fangs the size of Land Rovers narrowly missing the agile Sir Jingles and talons of stone smashing into their blue globe of protection. It shuddered, splintered by a hundred cracks, but held.

Ratcliffe sprang forward and dealt it a savage blow that lopped off part of its scaled lip before pirouetting to the side to avoid the blast of its poisonous breath. Flint and Mandeville dodged behind piles of fallen masonry and awaited their chance to strike at the dragon that now reared up before them. Gallows, having seen his attempt at summoning a mighty bolt of arcane lightning to smite the beast into atoms, stepped back and began a new incantation, one that he knew would not fail, wherever he was. As he chanted, Ratcliffe delivered another tremendous two handed blow to the dragon, severing one of the beast’s awesome paws and drenching himself in a tide of disgusting ichor. His circle of protection wavered once again, cracks of darkness now almost overwhelming the sky blue.

The wyrm’s head snapped down at Ratcliffe again with sudden speed and he barely parried the serrated fangs with a desperate overhand swing of his blade. Dancing to the side, he lunged forward in an attempt to skewer the creature through the neck, but was knocked of his balance by a swinging blow of its long, barbed tail, which had now emerged from the streetscape. Gallows, Flint and Mandeville looked on in despair as the monstrous mouth hurtled down on the scrabbling Ratcliffe and enclosed him from their view. There was an awful muffled crunching sound and then a low, rolling chuckle from within the dragon. With a cry, the priest and roguish cat sprang forward to avenge their comrade or to sell their lives dearly in the process.

Out of nowhere came a flash of purple light and the dragon was instantly frozen in position, its bones glowing through its skin, before it disappeared in an enormous explosion. Gallows was flung back and his wish spell died on his lips as a rolling boom echoed around the dank streets of the shadow city. As the dust cleared and the others could see again, there was the sound of hacking coughing. Out of the debris strode Sir Charles Ratcliffe, his outfit quite askew, his elegant cloak in tatters, his skin covered in burns from acidic draconic saliva and hat utterly ruined, but alive nonetheless.

“Thanks muchly, Simon. Never thought I’d make it out of that one. Terrible breath, even for a dragon.”

“Charles…That wasn’t me.”

Ratcliffe stopped in his tracks, eyes widening in alarm.

“Then who the devil was it?”

“I dare say that would be me.” A laughing American voice from behind them. They turned to see a tall fellow in a long brown leather flying coat with an upturned collar, a raffishly ruffled white shirt covered in intricately bound webbing and Sam Browne belts, shapely uniform trousers and sturdy adventurer’s boots. His tousled and heavily Brylcreemed chestnut hair was nonchalantly swept from his sparkling brown eyes and his teeth flashed in a perfectly white smile. A pair of copper goggles lay on the brow of his battered pith helmet that was tucked under his left arm, a katana was on his belt and he held a shining ray-gun in his right hand, still smoking from its recent shot. He was dashingly handsome, self-assured and casually relaxed in the face of danger. Flint felt he hated him already.

“The name’s Swiftsure. Captain William Swiftsure. What brings you guys to the Shadowlands?” He sauntered forward and extended a gloved hand with a broad grin.

“The usual. Fighting evil, serving the Empire and saving the world before lunch.” Ratcliffe returned his handshake warmly.

“Limeys, eh? Still acting like you rule the worlds, I see.”

“We like to think of it as keeping in line with reality, Captain Swiftsure, but that is a bit of a moot question out here. Love to stay and chat, but we’ve got a war to stop.”

“Sounds like we are in the same line of business, old boy. Uncle Sam’s got me out trying to stop a war and save the worlds.”

“Who are you, Swiftsure? CIA? SOG? FBI?”

“Something a bit quieter and less formal. You could say I’m an explorer and scientist who likes to fly.”

“NASA. I see.”

“Got it, mac. You look familiar. Have we met before?”

“Charles Ratcliffe.”

“Oh. You. I mean…sorry General, sir.” For the first time, Swiftsure blanched slightly beneath his tan. He’d heard of this particular Englishman. Who hadn’t?

“Field Marshal, actually, but let’s not stand on ceremony. Best of luck, Swiftsure, but we’re hot on the trail of someone or something and must be getting back to the real London. How long until we can be off, Gallows?”

“I shall try to begin the ritual, but there is something affecting my power here. It is as if someone predicted our coming and set a spell trap on the place. That would take dark magic of truly incredible power.” The usually jaunty wizard was rather quietened by his current arcane constraints.

“I could be of help there, Sir Charles.” Swiftsure offered.

“How so? We had to mess around with the Necronomicon and assorted holy verses to get here.” Mandeville miaowed.

“My planoscaphe is parked one block away. It’ll be a bit of a squeeze, but I could give you a lift.”

Ratcliffe looked around at the others, who nodded.

“Lead on, o Captain, my captain.”
………………………………………………………………………………………….........................................................

The skies above the northern seas were rather busy in the early hours after dawn. In happier times, they would have been far from empty. British, American and Canadian Valiant and Stratojet strategic bombers and their attending fighters grimly cruised the skies northwest of Iceland and, to the east, Soviet Bears, Bisons and Fiddlers flew in slow racetrack patrol patterns over the Barents Sea. Both sides were controlled by radar-equipped airships and kept in position by a steady shuttle of aerial refuelling tankers. Between the two sides flitted the Norwegian and Swedish fighters from Bodo and Kiruna, keeping close watch on the titans while circling the icy waters south of Bear Island. Each player knew their place in the delicate dance of the Arctic sky and every step by every aeroplane was a well-rehearsed ritual designed to be seen and understood. The borders were invisible on every map and display, but writ in iron in their minds. This was a formal quadrille that had formed part of the delicate balance of this icy Cold War, particularly as the Soviets had caught up to the West in leaps and bounds in the last half decade.

As the sun rose over the eastern horizon, the ranks of Western aircraft above the Arctic Circle were swelled by newcomers from their far off home bases. The huge figures of over one hundred and twenty USAF B-52s steadily crept into view to join the three wings of smaller B-47s steadily orbiting at the edge of Armageddon. Their wings were heavily laden with four Hound Dog rocket bombs apiece and far more powerful hydrogen bombs lay within their cavernous bomb bays. From airfields in Ireland and Scotland came eighty looming delta-winged aircraft shining in their coats of anti-flash white as they took up their positions over Jan Mayen Island. The eight engines of each Avro Vulcan pushed at full power to keep the mighty superheavy bombers at their operational altitude of 60,000ft with their heavy loads of Blue Steel missiles and bombs as they took up their places alongside the Vickers Valiants and Vulcans already on airborne alert. Flanking both groups of bombers were squadrons of Fighter Command Avro Arrows and SAC F-108 Rapiers long range escort fighters, the American and British Empire forces assiduously ignoring each other while tacitly cooperating.

The VVS was not lax in their response by any means. Scores of Tu-28 and La-250 fighters gathered over the freezing expanses of the Barents Sea, guarding the serried ranks of bombers arrayed behind them. Far above them flew the all-seeing eye of the magically boosted radar of a dozen Tu-126 early warning aeroplanes, petulant directors of the grand ballet. Closer to the coast was the preserve of the raketonosets of Soviet Naval Aviation, ready to pounce upon their prey from the West. The aerial armadas warily observed each other, not knowing what was to come.

Far beneath the gathering aerial storm and away to the south lay the Grand Fleet, quite possibly the strongest single naval force on the seven seas until such time as the United States Fleet was formed anew. At the centre of the formation lay the atomic supercarriers Ark Royal, Invincible and Eagle, and their conventionally powered older cousins Courageous, Glorious, Audacious and Irresistible. Four guided missile super battlecruisers operated close in with the carriers for heavy area defence along with a dozen cruisers, twenty-six destroyers and eighteen frigates. The main long range striking power of the fleet came in the form of the battleline. No fewer than eight battleships steamed forth under the command of Admiral Sir Richard Osborne, VC, the largest battlefleet the Andrew had put to sea since the final apocalyptic battles off Japan in 1945. He lead his two battle squadrons aboard his flagship HMS Vanguard some fifty miles ahead of the carrier task force alongside twelve more cruisers, thirty-two destroyers and twenty frigates, far beyond gun range of the enemy, but close enough to strike Moscow, Leningrad and most of the Western Soviet Union with their strategic missiles. The anti-submarine screen of the fleet was provided by five light ASW carriers and their supporting frigates. Beneath the waves, twenty British and Canadian atomic hunter-killer submarines coursed out far ahead of the fleet, preparing to strike any Red boats that crossed the line of no return.

Osborne looked out through the arcane glass of Vanguard’s flag bridge. Soon, he would have to go down into the dark depths of the ship to the Operations Direction Room, where the DATAR screens would allow him to coordinate the movements of the fleet. He currently had enough naval firepower to sink virtually every other fleet in Europe put together, he reflected in a rare moment of fleeting amusement. His objective after they had left Scapa Flow the previous evening was to make for the Grand Fleet’s intended fighting ground in the islands of Northern Norway. There, within the protection of the fjords, they would smash Murmansk, the Kola Peninsula and Archangel with strikes from over six hundred carrier aircraft while the gunfire of his battleships struck targets out to 250 miles away. The sortie of the Red Banner Northern Fleet had changed matters only slightly, with the fleet now heading for the Lofoten Islands. From there, he could count on almost two hundred RNAS fighters and bombers that were even now landing in Norway and Sweden. He’d have preferred to have the extra Maltas, Hood or some of the Canadian ships that were even now speeding their way across the North Atlantic, but this crisis had escalated out of control far quicker than any in the Admiralty or Imperial War Cabinet had considered possible. They always did, Osborne thought grimly.

The reports from the patrolling Handley-Page Poseidons out ahead of the fleet indicated that the Soviets had put everything that could float out to sea from Murmansk. Six battleships, four battlecruisers, five and three light aircraft carriers, fifteen cruisers, fifty six destroyers, eighteen frigates, a dozen atomic submarines and three times that number of fast conventional boats. Enough to give pause to any reasonable man, but Admiral Osborne had not made his name in forty seven years of service through being reasonable. In the atomic age, war at sea was a matter of using it or losing it. He intended to do the using so the Reds could do the losing.

A few more hours and they would go to full action stations. Already, the first British and Soviet naval fighters were circling within visual range of each other above the North Cape.

For now, they watched and waited. For now.

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

Rounding the last corner, Ratcliffe halted at the sight of a strange brass sphere with three spindly legs. It had several round portholes arrayed at regular intervals around its middle, five silvery engines on the underside and its upper half was largely covered by a huge US flag.

“She’s a beauty, isn’t she? Curtiss Wright body, IBM difference machine, Colt guns and General Thaumaturgic engines. She can do the Minerva Run in under 12 hours in little ol’ Annie Belle. Best of all, she’ll get us back to London by the rainbow faster than you can boil an egg.” Swiftsure’s voice showed his obvious pride in his ship.

“We will be quite indebted to you, my dear fellow.”

Ratcliffe had to grudgingly agree that it was quite a glorious vehicle and a clear sign that the Americans were ahead of Britain in planoscaphes and rocketships. Still, it did have a certain utilitarian aspect rather than its more beautiful British counterparts, in his completely humble and considered opinion. It didn’t even appear to have bayonet lugs.

Swiftsure pulled a cord on the side of Annie Belle twice and whispered a word, opening the hatch to reveal an interior filled with shiny instrument panels, dials with dials on them, a crystal screen and various whizz bangs. Ratcliffe politely bowed Mandeville into the craft and clambered up, followed by Flint and Gallows. Their new American chum sprang up with practiced ease and sat coolly in the leather pilot’s chair as they strapped themselves in to the passenger seats. As the hatch hummed closed, he started flicking switches, pushing buttons and tapping furiously at a keypad, gradually starting up the planoscaphe with a whirr of gears and engines.

“You might want to hold on, guys.” Swiftsure smiled slyly.

The ship took off with an immense jolt, throwing them back against their seats and making conversation impossible. The tremendous acceleration slowed after a few seconds as they reached the height necessary for planar flight. Swiftsure flipped the lever and the shadowy clouds were replaced by a rushing rainbow of colours as they translocated into the aetheric rivers of the astral plane. He then set about his most vital job of the flight, pushing a large red button and typing in a long set of directions on the crystal screen, hoping and praying that it would work. Half a minute later, a small hatch on the forward panel opened and a steaming cup slid out.

“Cup of coffee?”

Ratcliffe looked at him with a look of aghast horror that verged on apoplexy.

Coffee? We’re British!”

“Sorry, I forgot about your crazy Old World ways.”

“Barbaric. Simply barbaric.”

Flint and Gallows shared a silent look of amusement while Mandeville went about cleaning himself with typical feline insouciance after finding the articles in the in-flight magazine quite pedestrian. The rest of the short journey passed silently as each steeled themselves for what they hoped would be the final pursuit and Ratcliffe wondered which one of the others was descended from the slayer of the White Worm. His musings were ended by a loud ping that indicated that they were back on Earth.

Swiftsure opened the hatch and gulped.

“Did we make it?” Ratcliffe enquired, leaving the issue of the demonic beverage.

“Yes. We did. Very close to the planned landing zone, keeping in mind the plane jump.”

“What’s the problem then?”

Swiftsure smiled apologetically.

They looked outside and saw that they had indeed landed in the East End of London as planned. In the ruins of the kitchen of an open mouthed middle aged couple who sat at their breakfast table with their morning paper and tea looking at them in utter horror, to be precise. A few mending spells, copious verbose apologies and one large cheque for their troubles later, they made their way down Jamaica Street with the happy waves of Mr. and Mrs. Garnett following them. Ratcliffe lead them through the now teeming streets of Stepney until they reached their goal, a small cake shop that stood on the site of the former St. Mary’s Whitechapel railway station.

“How do you propose to get down to the platforms?” Flint asked.

“I could blast down there with lightning.” Gallows suggested hopefully.

“No, as much as it would be visually attractive, I don’t think that the owner would appreciate it and, more importantly, it would be too obvious.” Ratcliffe stood in thought for a few heartbeats and then nodded. He drew out a silver whistle from his pocket, placed it to his lips and blew it, making no sound. He stood, waiting and smiling.

“What was the point of that?” asked Swiftsure, pointedly baffled by Ratcliffe’s apparently pointless action.

“Just wait.”

Sure enough, less than a minute later, three well-dressed young urchins scampered up the street towards Ratcliffe. They all seemed to have seen the passage of a dozen summers and had wide smiles on their bright, eager faces and tousled mousy brown hair. They all carried cricket bats and looked like they knew how to use them.

“He has a whistle that summons twelve year old boys?” Swiftsure commented to Gallows, sotto voce.

“Of course. Standard government issue.”

“Sir Charles!” the boys chorused in greeting.

“Harg! Riain! Rylé! I am most pleased that you are still around. Have you been getting my Christmas cards?”

“Oh, yes sir! The lollies and pudding were great!” Rylé, the smallest lad and leader of the trio, replied happily, a twisted grin showing a keen and twisted intelligence.

“Capital. Now boys, I’d love to stay and have a natter, but I have a little favour to ask of you. I need to get down to the old platform and from there…” Ratcliffe paused meaningfully and raised his eyebrows.

“You want to use the Thieves’ Guild passages.” Riain nodded in wide-eyed earnest understanding, taking care to pronounce the apostrophe correctly.

“Absolutely right, my dear boy! You’re getting good at this! I take it that the Whitechapel ones are still open?”

“Sure thing, Sir Charles! We can guide you there. For only a small cover charge, of course.” Harg grinned goofily, jumping around from one foot to another, as if he found it difficult to stand still for more than a second.

“I wouldn’t have expected anything else.”

The boys grabbed Charles by the hands and hauled him off down the street, Swiftsure, Gallows, Mandeville and Flint having to half-jog to keep up with their lively guides. They wound their way through a series of alleyways and backstreets, entered a dingy boarding house and descended down to the cellar, where a drab grey door lay behind a pile of cardboard boxes and tea chests. Riain fumbled with an elaborate key and opened the door with a resounding creak. A long staircase wound down into the inky darkness.

“There you go, Sir Charles. I’ll send a note to Tea for our fee.”

“You are too kind, boys. Run along now and stay safe.”

The strange trio took to their heels and disappeared, nattering about sport and life as boys will tend to do. Ratcliffe saw Swiftsure’s raised eyebrow and waved his hand airily.

“Sons of some of my men who have died over the years. I pay for their schooling and they act as my eyes and ears around the place. You never know when a child comes in handy; people always ignore them and never take them seriously enough.”

“OK, that much I can understand. The Thieves’ Guild, though?”

“We have things a bit more organised than you colonial types in that regard. Do you have any idea of what would happen if the Thieves’ Guild went out on strike?”

“No.”

“Exactly.”

Without waiting for a reply, Ratcliffe headed off down the stairs. Gallows glided after him, sensing the touch of magic nearby and relishing the thought of avenging his earlier inexplicable loss of power. Flint and Mandeville hurried along next to each other, their minds full of questions. Captain Swiftsure briefly scanned the room to commit the detail to memory, pulled on his infravision goggles, unsheathed his katana and followed the crazy Englishman into the Underground. In due course, they emerged at a bricked off doorway that had once lead to the old St. Mary’s platform. A single shot by Ratcliffe’s Webley put paid to that obstacle and within a few heartbeats, they gazed out onto the silent railway tracks.

“Simon, can you find the trace?”

Gallows’ lips twitched and his pointed teeth glinted in the light of Ratcliffe’s sword and Flint’s electrical lantern. He closed his eyes and began to chant coldly and terribly in a tongue unheard of on Earth for five thousand years. The air began to crackle with power and a warm nausea began to grow in their stomaches. His voice grew louder as his eyes flew open, revealing completely red orbs that glowed with sorcerous fire. Lines of light sprang out from him and hit the other side of the tracks, outlining a hitherto concealed door on the wall. It glowed red with the trail of their enemy.

Weapons out, they crossed the tunnel and, pushing open the portal, made their way into the labyrinthine depths of London. Far below the Underground, far below Bazalgette’s wondrous sewers and far below even the deep level atomic shelters lay a different world, one of catacombs and trackless warrens thousands of years old. These tunnels and caverns held lost secrets beyond measure from long dead slavers, spies, smugglers, wastrels and wizards and dank ancient passageways to everywhere and neverwhere. This was the uppermost level of the Underworld and home in this day and age only to thieves and the insane, the more monstrous elements having been driven down into the depths of the earth by regular sweeps of Scotland Yard commandoes.

Down and down they went into the damp and cramped bowels of the city, their way lit only by their own flickering lanterns and the strange blue luminescent moss that grew in random patches and cracks in the ground. The cold bit deeply into their bones and numbed their flesh and the silence did the same to their souls. Ratcliffe and his companions wound their forward way for hours, following the strange trace of the red mist. Eventually, they began to see signs that they were not the only ones who had passed this way of late, first through the sight of the thick dust disturbed by several sets of footprints and then more awful and definite sights. Blood, broken bones, fresh corpses blasted beyond recognition, crumbling walls scarred by sorcery, but above all else blood.

“What manner of devilry is this?” whispered Flint, crossing himself for the third time that hour. They had came to a junction that had been decorated with a ghastly panoply of smashed bodies smeared over the floors and walls and a strange symbol formed on the floor by gore and…lungs? Dear God.

“Blood magic, Brother. The foulest and most vile kind of necromancy. It is all coming together, but I cannot yet to what end.” Ratcliffe replied, trying to keep from gagging at the charnel stench.

Mandeville held a nosegay of cloves, valerian and Martian redweed to his mouth and nose and gripped his sword ever tighter. The difficult part was coming.

“Are we getting closer?” asked Swiftsure, unclipping the holster of his raygun.

“We must be. I sense we are finally moving up closer to the surface.” Gallows answered, after checking his arcanocompass. “We are also some distance to the northwest of where we started.”

The atmosphere became increasingly tense as they headed west from the junction, the passageway now clearly angling upwards. It became more difficult to breath and a palpable sense of impending doom lay thickly upon them. Each of the five prepared themselves mentally for what they knew must be the confrontation to come.

Gallows raised his hand and they halted in their tracks.

“Strong protective magics. Fifty foot ahead. There is some sort of sealed doorway or portal.” He paused, his eyes widening. “Very, very nice. I count no less than forty-six separate dweomers or enchantments other than the four traps on the door. Most of them from the Red. We are facing a high level archmagi indeed.”

Swiftsure looked at a gadget on his belt and slipped next to Ratcliffe. “Sir Charles, that isn’t all of the bad news. My atomic detector is showing up large amounts of plutonium up there, along with tritium and deuterium.”

“Layer cake?”

“Yep.”

“Well, needs must. If we can handle whoever is in there, then we can deal with them bomb or send it out into the Atlantic as before. Gallows, prepare to dispel as much as you can. Mandeville and Flint, take the flanks. Swiftsure, you and I will face off with the dark wizard. May God defend the right.”

They crept into position and readied their weapons. This was the hour.

Gallows spoke a Word of Power, sending a crashing tide of arcane force forward, smashing away the spells protecting the room with a mighty roar and flash of purple, blue and green lightning and blasting the barred door to matchsticks. Ratcliffe leapt through the wreckage, his sword flashing forward at the shadowed figure in the midst of the room, who reeled backwards from his upturned chair. In one corner of the room, a large object was propped against the wall and in the other, a terrified and bloodied woman screamed through her tight gag.

Sir Charles’ first blow from his mighty blade caught it in the face, tearing away its black mask with a flash of blue light. It revealed a sickening visage of ancient, yellowed skin drawn tightly over a leering skull and red, glowing eyes that burned with pure hatred. It was like a vile vision of death and madness screaming back at life for all eternity.

“Ratcliffe!” it growled in a blood curdling voice from beyond the grave.

You?! You’re dead!”

“Death is no bar to the call of Nemesis, fool! Now it is time for you to die!”

With that, it conjured a scarlet blade of glowing magical force and thrust forward at Ratcliffe with inhuman speed. He parried smoothly and slashed down at his foe’s sword hand, severing two fingers and sending the creature reeling backwards, howling with pain and fury. Flint and Mandeville sprang forward into the room, but were sent flying back by a single sorcerous syllable and smacked sickeningly into the walls. A blast from Swiftsure’s raygun narrowly missed the creature’s head and disintegrated most of the leather chair, leading it to shriek so piercingly that the daring astronaut had to fall back, blood streaming from his ears. Gallows hung back behind the doorway, chanting and drawing eldritch glowing symbols in the air with his staff.

Ratcliffe and his foe now circled each other, one panting in insane fury and the other in growing triumph.

“You should have stayed dead, James. God knows you deserved it.”

“Call me not that, human!”

“What would you have me call you? That ridiculous title? The Scarlet Necromancer? I don’t think I could do it without laughing.”

The Scarlet Necromancer screamed in hatred once again and threw himself forward, his crimson blade a blur as it flashed through the air. He seemed to grow with every step, looming up towards the low roof. Ratcliffe was beaten backwards, barely holding his own against his sorcerously augmented foe. He blocked several deadly thrusts at his head and then kicked his enemy square in the side of the knee, shattering the joint and sending the Scarlet Necromancer crumpling to the floor with a gurgling scream. As he closed in for the killing blow, dozens of spectral hands grabbed him and held him back, casting his blade into the corner of the room next to the now unconscious female captive.

The wizard rose with a sickening crunch, his twisted face grinning insanely with pain. Black fire danced at the end of his hand as he lowered his sword to gloat at the helpless Ratcliffe. At that moment, a burst of rainbow lightning slashed through from the corridor as Gallow’s finished his incantation and blasted the roof clean away, revealing streaming sunlight and blue skies above. The Scarlet Necromancer recoiled momentarily, giving Ratcliffe enough time to break free from his sorcerous bonds and to spring towards him, hands reaching for the undead monstrosity’s throat. Flint and Mandeville hammered in from the sides, smashing mace and rapier into its voluminous robes as Swiftsure staggered forward towards the bomb.

The Scarlet Necromancer let forth with great gouts of black fire, scattering them back and giving him the scant half second needed to rise up into the air above with an impossible leap that launched him out of their grasp. As he hung in the air, a black gyrocopter piloted by a robed swathed figure swooped down out of nowhere, trailing a wire ladder.

“Master! We must flee!” screamed the loathsome wretch. The Scarlet Necromancer did not hesitate and grabbed at the ladder, hauling himself into the craft which wobbled away out of sight, followed by several despairing shots from Ratcliffe, Mandeville and Swiftsure.

“Ratcliffe! This is not over!” echoed the voice as it disappeared through a green tinged portal in the middle of the sky.

Ratcliffe sank to his knees in anguished failure, wordlessly watched by the others. Swiftsure and Gallows moved over to check the bomb, the latter summoning a team of bomb disposal wizards with an urgent sending spell. Mandeville busied himself with untying and tending to the distressed damsel in the corner as Flint finally laid a hand on Sir Charles’s shoulder in silent consolation.

“Who was he?”

“The Scarlet Necromancer. Once known as James Craggen. Possibly the most dangerous and evil dark wizard in the world, at least until I killed him five years ago. It all makes sense now.”

“Have we done it? Stopping the war, I mean. ”

The heroic cavalier rose to his feet and adjusted his hat. “Yes, Brother. This is all the evidence that the Prime Minister will need to pull things back from the brink. That evil bastard may have escaped, but now the whole world will be after him. Simon! Get onto the authorities. William, get in touch with your chaps in Washington. We need to get things moving as quickly as possible.”

“They’re already on their way. I think that they may have noticed that we’ve been up to something.” Gallows indicated that they should move up to the surface with a jerk of his head.

Climbing out of the hole and shattered masonry, the companions saw the unmistakeable outline of the gates of Empire Stadium and, rising above, the wire latticework of the Great Tower of London, now bearing a great gaping hole in one side from the blast of sorcery.

“Let’s get going.”


Last edited by Simon Darkshade on Sun Feb 28, 2016 7:01 am, edited 1 time in total.

Top
 Profile Send private message  
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Sun Feb 28, 2016 5:10 am 
Offline
User avatar

Joined: Thu Oct 09, 2008 2:03 pm
Posts: 1122
Location: Darkest Eyre
This one has been a while in coming, but was a lengthy chapter as can be seen. A new character has joined from across the Atlantic and the identity of the vile villain has been revealed. World War 3 has been seemingly avoided for the moment, but there is much to still be done to put the world to rights.

Who is the damsel in distress? What is Nemesis? What role does the Necronomicon play? Will Swiftsure ever persuade Ratcliffe to try coffee? All shall be revealed in time.

Notes
- The structure of the RN has undergone a few changes since I first started on this in 2007. I'm going to go back over the older chapters and rewrite appropriate bits and pieces to make them internally consistent in due course, but for now, the newest stuff should be presumed to be the most accurate.

- NASA is much more than a civilian space agency, mixing elements of a military space force with a clandestine paramilitary intelligence service.

- The incantations are a bit of a fun puzzle. The first one is in Volapük and evokes a song from 1927; the second should be straightforward for those who can count to eight and a half; the third is a nice mix up from a lovely picture featuring an Oldsmobile and boomstick; the fourth is a nod to a little song sung by Muppets, among others; and the final one is in Esperanto and is best read while sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun.

- The wyrm that attacks the heroes was the mother of the Worm of Lambton, which was slain by the ancestor of someone in the group.

- I had been thinking of an airborne "stand-off" since before the beginning of the story back to the roots of Dark Earth in 2001, but I feel I should acknowledge a story from Mike Kozlowski's TIPOTsverse set in about 1990 which detailed smaller numbers of USAF, RCAF, RAF and French AF bombers operating in airborne alert 'across' from their Soviet equivalents up inside the Arctic Circle. Reading back, it obviously seems to have influenced my ideas, so I must extend my sincere thanks to those originally responsible for the concept or idea.

The broad difference here is the lack of an alliance/NATO coordination, so that US/British Empire cooperation is rather ad hoc and the cause of potential accidents; this will come into play later on.
The position of the bombers does come down in the end to logic, geography and the curvature of the Earth, as they are very well positioned roughly halfway from home airfields to their target countries and, in the USAF case, coming in from forward airbases in Greenland, Iceland and Labrador. The Vulcans, B-52s and Bears, usually held back close to home or elsewhere, going up is a sign of how close things got here to the balloon going up.

The Soviet bombers up from the Kola are targeted primarily on Britain, the Atlantic and Canada, with the main threat to the USA coming from a different axis straight over the North Pole and through Alaska, which also has a rather busy and complex Anglo-American-Canadian defence arrangement.

- A few here will no doubt recognize the Grand Fleet's bastion strategy bears a strong resemblance to that outlined in Battle for the Fjords by Eric Grove, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Here, British defence ties with Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark are extremely close out of mutual self interest and these are matched with a free trade agreement that has shades of EFTA from @.

- The Handley Page Poseidon is a four Conway engined MPA with a secondary maritime strike role. It is broadly similar to the Nimrod, but has more conventional podded engines, a rear gunner with several ADENs and the capacity for underwing air-to-air missiles.

- The elderly couple on Jamaica Street will stay together until death does them part.

- Watkin's Tower ends up being a full sized 1250ft tower that shares some elements of the seventh, eighth, twenty-seventh, thirty-first and sixty-sixth designs. It is one of the great landmarks of London, along with the much larger St. Paul's Cathedral, Tower Bridge, the Palace of Westminster, Blake's Statue of Britannia, the Tower of London and the walls of London, among others.

There is a fair bit more in there; it will be interesting to see if it gets picked up.


Top
 Profile Send private message  
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Sun Feb 28, 2016 8:38 am 
Offline
User avatar

Joined: Sun Oct 05, 2008 6:48 pm
Posts: 4299
Location: UK
I'm a bit, uh, overwhelmed...

But, it's fun, fun, fun !!!

_________________
'P for Pleistocene' A camp-out goes impossibly wrong...


Top
 Profile Send private message  
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Mon Feb 29, 2016 4:44 pm 
Offline
User avatar

Joined: Thu Oct 09, 2008 2:03 pm
Posts: 1122
Location: Darkest Eyre
Thanks Nik, all commentary is appreciated.

Are there any addendums, information or in-universe documents that could ameliorate the feeling of being overwhelmed? I've been working on a few over the last few months at the same time as this.

There should be a few other shorter pieces from the other storylines following up soon enough; Red Shadow chapters always take the longest to write.


Top
 Profile Send private message  
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Tue Mar 01, 2016 4:54 am 
Offline

Joined: Tue Feb 08, 2011 7:41 am
Posts: 6483
Location: Cambs, UK
Also, what colour are the lucky questing trousers, and are the Bash St Kids still in the Beano?

_________________
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Bernard, Ministers should never know more than they need to. Then they can't tell anyone. Like secret agents, they could be captured, tortured.
Bernard Woolley: You mean by terrorists?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: By the BBC, Bernard.


Top
 Profile Send private message  
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Tue Mar 01, 2016 4:44 pm 
Offline
User avatar

Joined: Thu Oct 09, 2008 2:03 pm
Posts: 1122
Location: Darkest Eyre
The trousers are royal blue (naturally) and a somewhat tamer version of the Bash Street Kids are still there, although Ratcliffe prefers Lord Snooty.

Hopefully the small military scenes made sense; all the focus points of the vignettes were chosen for a reason.

Unfortunately, the world has not heard the last of the Scarlet Necromancer and his dreadful Red Shadow.


Top
 Profile Send private message  
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2016 11:15 pm 
Offline

Joined: Sat Feb 12, 2011 3:07 pm
Posts: 318
Fantastic!!!!


Top
 Profile Send private message  
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Fri Mar 04, 2016 8:37 pm 
Offline
User avatar

Joined: Thu Oct 09, 2008 2:03 pm
Posts: 1122
Location: Darkest Eyre
Thank you kindly and glad you enjoyed it.

First incantation: I scream, you scream, we scream for ice cream.
Second incantation: Asa nisi masa; nonsense phrase from Fellini's 8 1/2.
Third incantation: Reversed misspoken magic words from Armies of Darkness, which in turn copies it from The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Fourth incantation: Mah Nà Mah Nà in a rather messed up fashion
Fifth incantation: The chorus to I am the Walrus in Esperanto.


Top
 Profile Send private message  
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Sun Mar 06, 2016 12:02 pm 
Offline

Joined: Tue Oct 07, 2008 7:00 am
Posts: 13709
Location: At the computer, or tablet.
Simon, I take my hat off to you again. Dark Earth always leaves me blown away.
I find to really appreciate it the chapters need to be read several times. I know I've certainly missed a number of references first time around.

Don't know quite how you do it.

_________________
Adrian Carton de Wiart, VC wrote:
Frankly I had enjoyed the war...and why do people want peace if the war is so much fun?


Top
 Profile Send private message  
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Sun Mar 06, 2016 4:40 pm 
Offline
User avatar

Joined: Thu Oct 09, 2008 2:03 pm
Posts: 1122
Location: Darkest Eyre
Thank you kindly, Jan and glad that you liked it. It is always wonderful to get comments and to see others enjoying the world as much as I do. My aim, which is a fair way off, is to provide sufficient detail and arouse sufficient interest so it can be opened up for others as a shared universe in the manner of some of the other tales around here and elsewhere.

I tend to put a lot of planning and thought into each Red Shadow chapter, even moreso than the other works. Now that the story is out of the early doldrums, it will hopefully continue to be a rollercoaster ride through to the end.

Coming up shortly will be the history of the American tank, so more from Never Had it So Good, a return to 1947 and the Orient Express and a few other tidbits; in my secret backroom, I'm labouring away on a day-by-day timeline of 1946-1949 to cover the period between WW2 and Korea, as well as an in-universe encyclopedia entry on Britain c.1960/61. I took a short break from mid January to mid February to recharge my batteries and get started with the school year, but hope to be even more productive than last year.


Top
 Profile Send private message  
Reply with quote  
Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Post new topic Reply to topic  [ 10 posts ] 

All times are UTC - 5 hours


Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Jason and 1 guest


You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Search for:
Jump to:  
Powered by phpBB® Forum Software © phpBB Group