Stuttering gunfire raddles the sea air and whips into the waves, throwing up red frosted fans of black water. The deep boom and thud of cannon fire resounds through the melee as a bass note, thrumming in the chest, the bones. The Mengel warships plough the waters swift and deadly as shark fins, aiming for the coast, seeming to shrug off the heavy pound of return fire as easily as they part the water with their prows.
Aboard the Penhallion, Captain-General Wade roars into the wind, straining his voice above the might of mutual fire to set his men turning the ship about. Until now, The Mengel have stayed at the rear, pounding his fleet with a bombardment of missiles formed from what seems to be gristle, or bone. These hideous projectiles strike and splinter, like nests of needles, eradicating wood and flesh with equal ferocity. But now the heavy, bizarre ships are moving at last, heading for the White Ladies.
He has to try to catch them, try to stop them. They’re almost too far ahead already, but he will give chase now he’s able and fire Penhallion’s cannons until her stores of ammunition are empty, until she’s pounded to charred scraps and fed to the hungry sea. Too many of his fleet have been lost to these malignant crafts and their obscene barrage. He can’t allow them to reach land and loose whatever foul contents they hold in their belly upon the troops ashore, upon the people of Great Britannia.
‘Make ready the cannon!’ he shouts. ‘On my order…’
The Penhallion is old but swift, and she’s his, he knows her, knows what she’s capable of. He had her built this way, to his exacting specifications. Like many of the fleets Captain-Generals, as a man of wealth and good family he was allowed such luxuries. Other Captains in his fleet, his subordinates, are not. They have only warships, slow and ponderous, fitted with too few cannon for such as battle as this. They can’t aid him now. They can barely aid themselves.
This is his fight, personal and private. It will be Penhallion’s last manoeuvre. His too. This battle is all but finished, and they will not be the victors. But she’s a fine, fleet vessel, more clipper than warship, and she hides many cannon in her breast. She is in a ship what he most desires in a woman, slender, graceful, and lethal. Lost they may be, forlorn wreckage for the gulls to make perches upon his Penhallion most assuredly will become, but she won’t go down alone, and that’s all a fighting man can ask for. He grins as the wide, unnatural sides of Mengel warships loom into view.
‘Ready…’ he roars. ‘Fire!’
The deck beneath his feet trembles and his ears ring as the cannons unleash all at once into the strange, liquid formation of the Mengel vessels. An unearthly shrieking erupts as gouts of black liquid splatter into the sea, hissing in the water as if boiling. Wade watches in astonishment as the very hulls of the Mengel fleet hit by her cannon fire rear from the water like startled horses, their sides trembling and gouting great fountains of that viscous, hissing liquid.
Unable to believe what he sees, yet knowing it for the advantage it is, he shouts, aware his men will have already reloaded, ‘Fire!’
Another shudder and volley of booms. Cannons rip through the air, screaming as they go, and tear into the sides of the ailing Mengel. More of that shrieking erupts, and the Mengel fleet unfurls like wings, hulls unravelling to reveal great flat heads rimmed with a thousand eyes and studded with teeth thick and horny as tusks. Wade hears the screams of his men, faces the churning of his own gut, and refuses to back down.
‘Stand fast,’ he yells. ‘Re-load! NOW. And fire at will!’
His men follow orders, ingrained with obedience to their very last cell, and unleash another barrage into the Mengel fleet. One of those flat heads rises up toward the heavens, mouth opening to reveal those tusks studded all the way down to a yawning maw of a throat. It lets out a scream of pain and fury that almost deafens Wade, before those thousand eyes roll to whites and it crashes down into the surf, sending up a slick wave of fouled waters to spatter him from head to toe. He wipes water from eyes and mouth, slicks it from his hair and roars at his men.
‘Keep firing, damn you, we can kill these hell-blasted things!’
But how wrong he is, for only that one Mengel ship goes down. The others surge in the waves and rise up in concert, like their fellow, but not to die. Their bellies clear the water and, as those flat heads lurch, keening, toward the sky, an explosion of slick, clawed tentacles boil out from beneath the backs of their hulls to lash blindly at the Penhallion, tearing holes in her sides through which men and cannon fall screaming to their watery death.
The Mengel ships rise ever further, straining upward, and toward their bows, behind the knot of tentacles, appear bulbous heads large as navy warships with vast milky-grey orbs, half-blind and lifeless as fish eyes. Wade yells alarm and stumbles backwards against the helm. Not one beast, but two, these Mengel ships; the beasts above providing weapons and, doubtless navigation, too, with those thousand eyes, and the beasts below, monsters of the deep, they are the engines, now risen to defend their masters. Implausible it may be, but he sees it with his own eyes as they lash out their tentacles again and again at the remainder of his fleet, smashing all they touch to smithereens.
Wade feels The Penhallion’s deck shudder again beneath his feet. Not cannon fire, this, he knows, but death throes. His lady is finished. Water pours through her lacerated sides and into her belly, and she begins to groan as she sinks. His heart sinks with her. One vessel, only one out of more than five thousand, that is the sum of their spoils. How can he die with honour knowing he has done so little? He wanted to take so many more. Wade forgets in this moment the hours of battle before, the hundreds of Alhabra and Ghoric vessels Penhallion has sent to their death because, for this failure, this failing, his heart can know no rest.
A whistle breaks through the thunder of guns and the shrieking of the Mengel. It reaches him in his despair and he looks around in bewilderment, hunting for the source
‘Up here, gorgeous!’
Wade looks up. There, flying above, are five figures. One man, with eyes like a cat, flies alone and two women hold two other men. He recognises those carried gentlemen as Lucian and Alexander, the leader and second in command of the Queen’s men.
‘My god, Luce,’ he cries. ‘What’s this?’
Lucian grins. ‘I do believe, old boy,’ he drawls, ‘that this might be the fucking cavalry.’
He points. Behind him, ranged along the waters, somehow miraculously here, are over a thousand ships, the rest of the Royal Navy.
‘My dear chap, that’s not going to be enough,’ Wade says, and points to the Mengel. ‘We’re fighting monsters and witches. We need more than a few pitifully armed ships.’
Lucian smiles and points now at one of the women. A small creature she is, with a figure Wade, in other circumstances, might have described as voluptuous in tones of unbridled admiration. Her hair floats upon the air like blood woven to silk and green eyes all but slay him where he stands, filled with fire and brimstone more violent than any cannon fire he’s ever witnessed or given order to unleash.
She blows him a kiss from poppy red lips and turns her head. He sees those lush lips purse once more, but another whistle bursts forth, and with it the bulbous heads of the tentacled engines of the Mengel fleet burst, one by one, disgorging yellow bile and flaccid chunks of steaming grey matter into the ocean. The beasts above them writhe and moan and with pops loud and staccato as gunfire their eyes roll and burst in chain reactions. Inhuman shrieks pierce the air once more, followed by the crash of water as the Mengel fleet collapses into the waves, spilling their crew into the boil of red upon the black.
‘Like I said, dear fellow,’ Lucian drawls when the last is reduced to floating gore. ‘The fucking cavalry are here.’
‘So, are you going to stand there gawping?’ says the man with eyes like a cat, flying to within a few feet of Wade and extending his arm. ‘Or are you going to join the fight?’
Wade takes one last long look at his lost lady, her hull dipped almost entirely beneath the water, the waves lapping, unnoticed, at his feet. ‘Sorry old girl,’ he murmurs, ‘ but it looks like the Captain’s not going down with his lady today. I’ll think well of you.’ He lifts an arm and says to the man with eyes like a cat. ‘Let’s go and do some killing.’
‘Oh I like him!’ The green-eyed slayer of Mengel squeals, clapping her hands and almost dropping Alexander, who yelps and slaps at her breasts, much to Wade’s amusement. ‘When we’re finished, I’m so keeping him!’
© Ren Warom 2012