Umwelt: Darkness Flows Like A River Episode 20: The Dogs of War

The enemy gathers off shore, blocking out the light with the looming ease of a thunderhead. They range the whole horizon, sea and sky. Fleets of Ghoric pirate ships, the great sweeping breadth of Alhabra battle-galleons and amongst them, deadly as sharks in a pod of whales, black as tar and oddly dimensioned, the spike-bowed clippers of the Mengel.

Squadrons of War-Volitare, fixed with cannons and menacing armour, belch steam, their collective churn of piston a hungry roar upon the air, more deafening than thunder. Swooping between, wings bracing like sails, come Yor-men, their eyes crackling blue fire, their chests bearing copper coloured armour tight as a second skin, delineating taut muscle, powerful and ridged.

Zipping amongst the belching steam and whipping wings are small, whip-like figures on hover-boards glowing with thaumic energy. Faces fierce with battle lust and painted with blood-red stripes, the Witches of Kel create runes across the sky, foreshadowing doom upon Londinium. Their laughter is crazed as the cry of gulls.

Ranked along the brow of the rearing White Ladies, the line of cliffs standing sentry against the sea on Great Britannia’s East coast, are the colourful 105th, barely a battalion of men. Barely even a fighting force. Behind them, coming fast as they can in a full thousand Volitare, are the 76th, the 102nd, the King’s bolt-men and the small cadre of Witches bound to the throne. They won’t be enough; the forces on the horizon count in the hundreds of thousands.

They have other troops coming in from Yorkminstburg, Cambride of the Shires, and Oxonborough, but they won’t be here in time for the first, vital, melees. Much as the Queen’s Men somewhere out there across the channel working to rally a few pitiful battalions of their allies for a rear attack, it will be some days before they are able to lend their might to this particular clash with titanic forces. By then, these small troops of Britannia’s will likely have been decimated, or worse.

Arch-Brigadier Morton watches with grim eyes as the storm of danger approaches fast.

‘We’re sorely outmanned,’ he tells Brigadier-General Blythe over the echo-fon.

His voice crackling as it reaches across the distance between them, Blythe responds with heavy gravity, ‘But we are bound to fight to the last man.’

‘That we are,’ Morton agrees heavily. ‘And so we shall.’

‘Has the Royal Navy arrived?’

‘They’re on the way.’

The Royal Navy comprises perhaps three thousand ships, a good half of that fighting force is out on the continent, they will bring the Queen’s Men and their allies to this battle and hopefully be in good shape to join the battle at sea once that duty is complete. Of the rest a good four hundred are in dry dock undergoing repairs. They will not be sea-worthy for months.

So it is they are left with just over a thousand ships. These paltry few must stand against the might of the Ghoric fleets, the Alhabra in their imposing ocean-going war-machines and the devious, lethal Mengel until, and if, the rest of the Navy can join them. It brings teeth of ice to gnaw at Morton’s gut, fills his heart with lead and lends his spine an unwelcome instability, because should those enemies reach their shores, they will unleash pure horror upon Londinium. But he will not run. None of them will.

News of the Queen’s Men and their victory against a battalion of Sleathe has reached the shores of Great Britannia. Those men who fight for the Queen alone may be her finest, may be fearless, peerless and prodigious gifted in the art of battle, but every man standing, sailing, flying here on this home soil would feel shamed to their very bones to turn tail when the Queen’s men so bravely stood and fought impossible odds. And so they will honour the victory of their finest with their own refusal to succumb, even in the face of oblivion.

#

‘Where are my man-bitches?’ Margo demands, white lightning riding the surface of her skin and crackling beneath, illuminating veins beneath the surface, delicate and elaborate as lace.

Leek shrugs, curled up in Kitty’s arms. They’re lounging on the bed, deep in a well of luxuriant silk cushions. ‘Not sure.’

‘Well how did you find me?’ Margo paces furiously at the far end of the caravan, it shakes in perilous movements, threatening to throw loose from the wooden blocks wedged at its wheels.

‘Dangerous magic,’ Kitty replies softly. ‘I used a spell to transform myself back to my usual form, as I was locked into the body of my cat alter ego. Some of the residual energy enabled me to send a trace out on just one life force. Yours is the strongest, and so I chose you. Your gifts were muted, hidden beneath the Melisante persona, but the even residual energy of that spell was powerful enough to seek them out. Such magic is unstable, untrustworthy. I wouldn’t happily play with it again, especially not so soon. It lingers. If I use the same amount or the same kind, they may collide, create something unexpected, perhaps even uncontrollable.’

Margo quits her pacing. She stands there staring at him, her lightning slowed to a mesmerising crawl. ‘Who gave you this magic?’

Kitty rises slowly from the cushions, pulling Leek with him. ‘You cannot be asking me this question.’

Her eyes narrowing dangerously, Margo drawls in soft tones, ‘Why can’t I?’

Kitty blinks. Then he smiles, his incisors glittering in the lamplight. ‘I had forgotten what manner of creature you are,’ he says. He leans toward her. ‘If I introduce you to Solomon, there will be ripples throughout universes you have never seen. He is like you are, an anomaly, a dangerous animal.’

‘Scared to have us in the same room?’ Margo asks sweetly.

‘My dear, I’m scared to have you in the same universe.’

Margo bites her lip. ‘Oh my,’ she breathes. ‘Sounds like my kind of party. Where do we find him?’

Kitty sighs. ‘Thankfully, it’s not as simple as that, Margo. You don’t find Solomon. You send a request for him, and he comes, if he feels like it. He came to me because the magic I requested intrigued him; he likes to see me playing with fire. It amuses him, because I am not like him. I tow the line on the whole. He may not feel like visiting this world again. He has a short attention span.’

‘Well I think he’ll want to meet me. I’m very interesting,’ she replies, her cat green eyes sparking little white bolts across the caravan. ‘Let’s ask shall we?’

Kitty groans, raising his eyes in helpless frustration to the caravan roof. ‘Why did I think being honest with you would be a good idea?’

‘Because,’ she tells him with a wide, toothsome grin, ‘despite all your protestations, you like a good party as much as I do.’

#

Imalia stands on the roof of her castle, facing East. At either side of her stand her daughters, prim and proper in military cut riding habits, their bonnets plain black and dressed with smart green feathers. Imalia’s purple veil flutters like the three Royal pennants gracing the wall before her, but otherwise she and her daughters are utterly still. A chance observer might catch sight of them and think them naught but statues.

All their movement is within. They reach forth; reach out, their minds scraping the skies, hunting. First they look beyond the White Ladies, regard the opposing troops with blatant hunger. When this battle begins it will feed them such power. The blood, the ruin, the mayhem, it will fill them to brimming. Oh and what they will do with that power.

They move their sight to the edges of this world. There, muted but unmistakeable, Imalia’s other daughters wait, pushing at the fabric of this world, testing its strength, its resistance. When war comes, Imalia and her twins will let them in and, with them, the darkness that flows through the veils. Imalia lifts her head, opening her senses as wide as they can go.

‘Beautiful,’ she murmurs. ‘So very beautiful. Such power. Such hunger to destroy.’

© Ren Warom 2012

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