by Robert Douglas
A howl broke the cold morning's silence. It was a lonely sound, distant, meaningful in suffering and despair from the Cotswold Hills. Another lost soul, thought William Nye grimly. The chilling sound hadn't wakened him. He shuddered, not against the dawn's cold, but fear - who could even sleep in this hellish land? Indeed, his night was spent in the throes of a nightmare, plagued him till he dispelled the grotesque images by screaming to self-awareness. To be greeted by a nightmare so painfully real than his burdened imagination could create.
He flicked a bedside switch. The electric lamp blinked, Nye's cabin was suddenly awash in a bright, sunshine hue; it did little to relieve the stark grey walls. God! he sighed, and gazed dismally at his surroundings. Is this what my life is all about? To endure life behind solid walls and closed doors? Trained hard, only to lead brave men against invulnerable demons? What good is our cause! Humanity? Hah! We don't deserve to exist - none of us do. Not after Plassey...
"Enter!" he barked.
The door squeaked open. An officer poked his head around the door. "Sir? Forgive this intrusion. Major Tilton's compliments. Would you be so kind as to attend upon him in the Briefing Room?"
"Alright," he nodded slowly. "Well, don't be so damned formal, Dan, come in!"
"Very good, Will."
"And close the door, will you!"
Lieutenant Daniel Bloomfield almost seemed amused by his superior's familiar nature; but they had been childhood friends, after all. "'Tis a cold morn. But there's no sign of it raining. A fair day for travelling, I'd reckon."
The other cocked an eyebrow in reply. It was enough.
"Aye, aye," he sighed again, "like yesterday, and the day before that - for the past hundred and fifty year! You could have lied for me, though, Dan."
"A pointless ruse, Will," laughed Bloomfield.
"It would have brightened the start of my day. Even if not the weather." He reached into his tunic pocket, produced a dog-eared cigarette packet. Tobacco was hard to come by these days; the Civil Council had banned the substance in favour of more important commodities, such as food. Sacrilegious! thought Nye. He lit the precious weed, sucked the nicotine into his lungs. It helped calm his frayed nerves. Nearly out, he observed with a frown: better save these two for the return journey. "Where the hell are we, anyway?"
"Hmm," he narrowed his eyes, took another drag, "how far till we reach Oxford?"
"We're having to go by the back-roads, Will. By my judgement, I estimate we'll gain the outskirts in just under two hours. That is, if we don't meet any 'Shadows'."
"Pah!" Nye waved a dismissive hand, spilling ash over the dark brown carpet. "The Mars will take of 'em, Dan. She's a beauty, this dreadnought, built in Hull. She'll see off any Shadows."
Bloomfield shrugged. "If you say so, Will."
"'Course I do. What's this daft assignment all about, anyway?"
"Not sure. It's classified, that much I do know."
"This Major Tilton. Intelligence?"
"Aye, I reckon so."
Nye stubbed out his smoke in a nearby ashtray. "Well, if he has a death-wish, I hope he doesn't include us in it. Oxford's a Thuggee hive, doesn't he realise that? Curse the man!"
"Well, whatever his reasons, he's waiting."
"Let him wait!"
"The sooner we see him, Will, the better for us. Besides, Warwick ordered us to specifically escort Major Tilton."
"Curse Warwick..." he stopped, sighed, and rubbed his tired face, quick to compensate for his hasty remark: "What news of Warwick?"
"We received a telegram early this morning. Another attack successfully repelled with minimal loss."
"Do these demons ever give up?"
"Apparently not. The Colony has commented how more frequent the Thuggee offensive is becoming. They're stepping up the attack, Will."
A sudden sense of hope rose within Nye, although from exactly what he couldn't guess. Instinct, gut feeling, hatred for the minions of Kali. But it fuelled his desire for vengeance. "I've noted the change, too," he smiled, "as if the enemy is desperate to be rid of us. Now, what has perpetuated such an increase, eh?"
Nye ran some water into a porcelain bowl, splashed the coolness on to his face, forced the sleep from his eyes. He threw the remains of red wine away, filled the tin mug (standard army issue) with more water, drank deeply. "Ah, that's better!" he gasped, then plucked the small towel from Bloomfield's grasp. "Thank you, lieutenant, very kind of you."
"Er, aren't you going to shave?"
"Shave?" he laughed harshly, whilst buttoning up his khaki tunic. "For whom? An intelligence bod? Come off it, Dan!"
The rectangular windows of the Briefing Room were bullet-proof, reinforced with iron bars. Yet Major Paul Tilton could still make out the distinct outlines of houses, against the backdrop of dark hills veiled in mist. He was amazed they stood at all; most villages and hamlets had suffered the same fate as all of Europe's surface cities. The answer to such destruction could be found in most history books. The Curse of Plassey. It sounded dramatic - rather like a Shakespearean play, Tilton often thought - but every schoolchild knew the horrific calamities that befell the world following Robert Clive's victory. Because of the victory.
First, the demonic onslaught. It took civilization completely by surprise. In Britain, an island nation, the populace were readied to imminent darkness. Nevertheless, the English Channel was crossed. Muskets and culverin were useless against the supernatural enemies. The militia was wiped out. Citizens were routed. No matter how hard they tried, not one haven sought could protect them from the ravages of Kali. Many were caught unawares, resting in isolated areas such as abandoned farms, hamlets, open fields. It seemed as if the demonic hunters could sniff them out like ravenous blood-hounds.
Then, the lack of supplies. Without people working there were no factories in operation. Without produce the population slowly starved, denied shelter, clothes were ripped, torn, and shoes worn and holed through continued use, letting in the rain and cold. Winter came, claiming thousands more. Hunger and depravation forced many to become insane. By this time, the Thuggees had invested their demonic powers into the rotting corpses of countless victims, raising them once more - but as un-dead zombies! This provided the evil Kali a cruel, sadistic jest upon the 'lucky' survivors. Some, believing their friends and relatives to be alive, instead fell foul of the claws. Such human anguish on a grand scale revived Kali's power upon Earth, and she rewarded the loyal Thuggees by granting them land, titles, and considerable power over her hellish minions.
Finally, disease itself. Spread by malnutrition and made worse by lumbering zombies, the land was unfit for the few survivors to live on. Certain villages and castles had somehow avoided the Blight, as it came to be known. Thus, they retreated to the lower vaults. Extended partitions with high walls and overhead grilles provided vegetable patches and orchards. Livestock was rounded up in daring raids; cows were milked, pigs bred then slaughtered to provide meat, sheep sheared for wool and cotton. Workshops were located underground: smithies, carpenters, masons, along with hospitals, schools, and libraries. The militia occupied a particularly large area necessary for barracks, training centres, briefing rooms and fully stocked armouries.
Not questioning their salvation, but definitely taking the advantage, these communities gradually began to re-build and take stock of their new lives. Many still suffered from shock, refusing to believe their former homes had been crushed by a demonic invasion, that Great Britain could ever be conquered by a ruthless enemy. But denial slowly became defiant hatred. Before the hordes could find them, defences were rapidly prepared, while science was fully explored, searching for an answer to end the Blight. None were found. Castles became impregnable fortresses. Hamlets grew into mighty citadels. Still the quest for justice continued. Over the years, science afforded a means to improve weapons, the food supply, domestic facilities. The demons were successfully held off, but never truly defeated. Until 1876...
Harold Blake, resident of Warwick Castle, had discovered the magical substance he befittingly named 'Blakrite'. This was a major breakthrough in sorcery. The only chemical requirement was Co2: water. Once this ordinary element was tainted with Blakrite by chanting an ancient, almost forgotten verse, it became a lethal demons-bane. Bayonets and swords were soon being coated with the Blakrite during an Alert or dangerous missions. However, one drawback was that the magical coating wore off after three days. Blades needed to be replenished in good time. There was ample water supply, but precious few magicians.
This was soon remedied by the ruling Council of each colony. A new Magicians Guild was set up to establish a programme in tutoring likely candidates in the arts of sorcery. By then Blake had made several new discoveries to help fight the demonic foe. He laid down the details for each of his students. They learned well - but then they had to. Time was of the essence, thus their need to aspire from novice to master status vital. However, it was during his eighth experiment that Sir Harold Blake (knighted for his superb efforts) was tragically killed.
Following the funeral service in 1885, the Blakrite Guild absolved themselves from the Council's authority, claiming they now had the only key to resolving the Blight. The Council stood down before their plausible argument. The militia now had a secular liaison to help in the war against the Kali Raj. Science, they agreed, was progressing very well since the Blight began, but Sorcery was by far more powerful in achieving first priority goals. Both governing factions went hand in hand. The latter had been responsible in aiding the construction of deep underground tunnels linking all the colonies. Although Guild members communicated telepathically, it saved a lot of time and effort simply using the wireless to send telegrams. Music was something else sorcery couldn't provide. Only the human heart was capable of keeping lonely troops company on assignments...
Tilton turned back from the window, strolled over to the wireless, switched it off. The acoustic melody performed by Black Cat - a dazzling mandolinist - stopped dead. He wasn't a big admirer of the latest musical wave, preferring hymns revived in the mid 80's by a pianist known as Reverend Hayes. Can't stand any noise this time in the morning, he thought wearily, glanced at his desk clock: 07.32 WEDNESDAY 2nd SEPTEMBER 1904. Where in God's name is he? Tilton got to his feet, made for the door, but needn't have bothered: a sudden knock announced the late arrivals. The major tugged it open. Brusquely, he ordered both men into his office.
Major Tilton was a surprisingly short man, of stocky build. His stern face betrayed a little apprehension; answerable to years of being undercover, endless briefings and de-briefings, thorough training in the arts of espionage - not forgetting the nightmares he suffered. Nye easily recognised that in Tilton. It was like looking at a psychological mirror. The major's green eyes, almost malevolent, barely regarded the two soldiers stood to attention before him.
"I'm your commanding officer on this foray, gentlemen." The last word was uttered with distaste. Obvious to both men, Major Tilton plainly disapproved of Nye's unkempt appearance: "I am no footman. Have a care to be more punctual in the future."
"Captain Nye was just enquiring about the nature of your presence, sir."
Nye shot Bloomfield a warning glance. The latter offered but a mischievous grin. The major was befuddled by this curious exchange.
"Excuse me, sir, but are you Intelligence?" asked Nye.
"It's taken you this long to arrive at that assumption, Captain Nye? Well, you are correct nonetheless. But that little fact shouldn't concern you. Our main objective lies in the ruins of Oxford. What it is exactly, I cannot divulge, but trust me: it could tip the scales in our favour. If what we're looking for still exists."
Nye frowned. There it was again. A feeling of hope. Whatever Tilton spoke of aroused in him a sense of mixture of hope and dread. He fought down the ambivalence; either could get you killed. "Then what can you tell me, sir?"
"Precious little else, I'm afraid. You'll have to wait until we get there." Tilton paced the floor slowly to his chair. With an exasperated sigh, he slumped into the padded leather, rubbed his forrid damp with sweat. "At ease," he said. "Being a soldier, Captain Nye, you have experience with firearms. That is so?"
"Yes, sir. Most weapons."
"Quite so, quite so." He pursed his lips, thoughtfully. "You are aware that our strike team units use Suffields?"
"Pump-action pistols sir. Use clips. Faster, more efficient than revolvers. Also equipped with silencers."
"You know your guns, Captain," Tilton smiled, almost respectfully. Well, Nye thought, it's a start. The major continued, "That's just as well. You'll be pleased to hear our ballistics experts have perfected a silencer to match the machine gun's rate of fire." Nye's ears perked up. Tilton smiled at this small response. "I thought that would interest you."
"Excuse me sir," interjected Bloomfield, "but what is the relevance of all this?"
"Patience, Lieutenant, patience. I'm just coming to that particular point. The fact we'll be sufficiently armed may well decide on the outcome of our mission. You are aware our destination lies deep within Shadow territory?" Both men nodded grimly. "Firearms are ineffectual against the demonic foe, only serving to slow them down. But we have kept this certain zone under constant surveillance. The information gleaned form an unusual pattern in enemy activities. There are numerous Thuggees, but very few Shadows."
"Drawing back on resources?"
"Perhaps, Captain. But for what reason? We - Intelligence, that is - have deduced the most logical answer: they are looking for the same thing. This is somewhat disturbing, gentlemen. Our mission to retrieve the item in question will be made more difficult to accomplish. The place will be crawling with a barely human, but very determined foe. We must tread carefully, discretion is our watchword. But time is of the essence. We cannot afford to linger, for fear of being discovered, and losing our goal forever. Should the Thuggees get their filthy claws on..." he hesitated, checked himself just in time. "You understand me?"
The two officers nodded. Bloomfield ventured, "Is this something you discovered at Powys, sir?"
"One of our Blakritists stumbled upon its existence purely by accident. We thank our lucky stars for his idle meanderings in the castle library. I only hope that, should we succeed, this turns the tide against them, and deliver us from Kali forever."
Tilton, Nye and Bloomfield were to accompany a team of six professional commandos. Hardened troops with battlefield experience and weapons training, including unarmed combat. They were adept at stealth and speed. Faces were blackened. Each of the strike squad possessed infra-red goggles; Major Tilton wanted this mission to be completed before noon, but entertained precautions in equipping his men with night-sight devices. Like the ingenious silencers, they were a latest innovation that captivated Nye. The wonders of science supporting a righteous cause to be rid of Shadows, Thuggees and Djinni. Slung around their shoulders were light-weight Anderson machine guns - like the Suffields both clip-loading and accurate. If necessary, the commandos could fire quickly from the hip once threatened. Each man also carried a belt attached to which were ten spare ammo clips and two grenades. These explosives were to be used only under the most direst of circumstance; Tilton made his wishes at this being a discreet mission known to everyone:
"The Mars will halt two miles from the outskirts. I apologise for the hike," they all smiled at the half-jest, "but secrecy is imperative from the outset. We stand a better chance of staying alive if we remain undiscovered for as long as possible. I only hope no demons come sniffing around."
He'd barely finished the final briefing before sirens confirmed his worst fears. Strobe lights splashed yellow and reds across the dull grey walls. A tremendous weight rocked the dreadnought, sending men to the floor with a painful thump. Staggering like a drunk, Major Tilton managed to reach the radio-set fixed nearby. He snatched up the receiver.
"W-we're under attack sir!" The man was young, barely out of his teens. "Two demons, sir. S-skull-kites!"
Tilton swore vilely. That was all he needed. "Turn off, man, turn off!" he shouted urgently. "The last thing we want is to attract unwanted attention. We don't want those bastards in Oxford warned. Turn off, man!"
He replaced the hand-set. Another thump!, this time fortunately a half-hearted attempt to terrorise the dreadnought's occupants. They're toying with us, Tilton realised: Sadistic scum! A figure suddenly pushed past him. Heading for the gun turret.
"Got to hold 'em off, sir!" yelled Nye, almost losing his footing on the stairs from another assault.
Tilton just nodded. "Go!" he ordered. "Keep them off our tail." And that was all they'd be able to do. Major Tilton cursed all Shadows, for these two Skull-kites were responsible for ruining the mission. It would take all their ammo and fuel just to escape their determined clutches. "Sit tight," he ordered the men.
"Where are you going, sir?"
"To help Captain Nye, Bloomfield. Stay here, all of you! No sense in all of us putting ourselves at risk."
He ascended the steel steps. Ahead, Nye was sat in the raised cockpit, thumbs pressed hard upon the firing buttons sending a fearsome barrage from the heavy duty machine gun. It was a double-barrelled monster, but couldn't hope to match the terrifying demons outside. They both had the wings of a gigantic bat, leathery, that flapped so loudly both men could hear such noise from within the cockpit. At the end of a snaky-neck was a reptilian skull. It's cold, blood red eyes betrayed the signs of a ruthless intelligence, an anticipation to send the swerving dreadnought, and all those inside, careering into a crash. It's grasping talons scraped the metalwork, doing little damage. The Skull-kite never intended to breach the roof, but taunt the humans. Another terrible burst from the machine gun slowed it down, yet it didn't falter, and swooped once more. Demons knew no fear in the face of gun shells. Bullets passed straight through the black-blue, hairy body, and did little physical harm to the unnatural beast.
Tilton rushed over to the nearby gun cabinet, used one of his personal keys to unlock it. Deftly, he plucked a sniper's rifle from the rack. In one fluid move he expertly loaded two cartridges from his pocket. Nye just caught sight of the major opening the ceiling hatch.
"What the hell are you doing, sir?" he yelled. "Are you mad?"
"Watch your tongue, captain!" he retorted. "And keep that devil busy. Distract him, man!"
Nye swore once, then turned upon the Skull-kites once more. Another burst made the second demon dive to one side - an attempt to draw his line of fire from its ailing confederate. The captain grinned knowingly, however. He realised the demon's trick in time and pulled back to face the first again. The two Skull-kites ululated a screech of utter frustration. His grin broadened: not so cocky now, eh? I've got the measure of you vultures from hell!
Suddenly, the first Skull-kite's tone pitched, as it convulsed in obvious pain. Nye stared, open-mouthed, hoping, unbelieving. I got him? he thought. I can't have... It's another trick? But no. Certainly, the Skull-kite rolled and rolled, wings wrapped around its repulsive body like a burial shroud. The machine gun was silent, it three muzzles smoked, drifted on the swift air current. His hands steadied over the firing mechanism. The second Skull-kite, clearly surprised at witnessing the first assailant's death; then recovered from the momentary shock, to be replaced by vengeance. It zeroed in on the Mars at terrifying speed. Then, the same incredible thing happened again. Likewise, it convulsed in mid-dive, leathery shroud wrapped tightly, snaky neck dropped the grotesque head forwards. The demon was dead before it hit the trees, scattering leaves as in a freak storm.
Tilton descended from his vantage point. Nye peered in astonishment at the Intelligence major. "H-how in God's name..?" he stammered.
In answer, he produced from his tunic pocket a couple more cartridges. Their tips glowed a familiar luminescence. At once, Nye discovered the implication of what had happened. "Blakrite-tipped bullets," confirmed Tilton. "A little idea of my own, I daresay."
"Capital idea, sir!" gasped Nye in absolute relief. "It should revolutionize our fight against the demons. We won't have to depend on pikes or blades anymore. No more close combat! The tide is turning. Kali's days on Earth are numbered!"
"Oh, thank you for reminding me, Nye," he smiled, then spoke into the hand-set: "Driver, in case you hadn't noticed, the threat has been eliminated. Kindly resume course for Oxford."
Heavy-duty tyres gouged deep furrows in the muddy earth as the Mars came within sight of Oxford. Now, most of the former buildings showed as a jagged silhouette against the skyline. Testimony of the ultimate price suffered for Britain's victory in the Seven Years War. Several Kaliate palaces had been erected soon after the Blight: the rusty green-brown stone was not native of this world. They were vast monoliths, sprawling like heaving parasites across the land. They seemed alive - yet purely evil. And in their dominant shadow the strike team disembarked, all of whom felt a sudden, unnatural chill grip their very souls.
Nye blew into his cold hands, while Major Tilton consulted his map. A street plan of Oxford, circa 1750. A memento from another age now forgotten. Such a priceless document was always kept next to a lighter to prevent it falling into the wrong hands.
"That's our destination," he tapped a finger upon the faded parchment.
Nye was puzzled: "Why does the University still exist, sir? The Shadows desecrated every other building here."
"We have our suspicions, captain, that the University is a Thuggee stronghold. I should imagine it's because of the library's academic importance."
"Books?" he frowned. "What would they want with musty old books?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, Nye. But we won't discover the truth by standing here, scratching our heads," he rolled up the primordial map, tucked it away safely into his tunic, "let's move out."
They managed to infiltrate the ruined city via an old sewage pipe, now washed clean by the endless rains. Their footsteps echoed in the dark confines, water dripped into puddles, and the faint scrabbling of rats kept them company. It was an ominous undertaking to be sure. Major Tilton was painfully aware that Kali's demonic servants came in many forms and sizes. If such a dire threat lurked in the shadows, they wouldn't see it coming until it was too late. The dilapidated pipe continued far beyond the place that Tilton pointed out: iron rungs, mottled with rust, ascended in an unfaltering line towards a circular grille. They climbed up and emerged into a small courtyard.
"Maintain vigil for the enemy, Nye," said Tilton, "I'm just going for a leak."
"His blood will be the only stuff that leaks," grumbled Bloomfield.
"What's up with you?"
"Nothing, Will. I just don't enjoy these daft missions. Playing hide and seek with the Shadows. It's just asking for trouble."
Nye smiled. "Well, soon it'll be our turn to...shit!"
He just caught the lurching figure out the corner of his eye. His response was swift. The Blakrite blade bit into the zombie's putrid flesh; the revolting corpse collapsed, its head rolled away.
Machine guns spat lethal streams of bullets, a silent death to any Thuggee assailant. A dozen zombies twitched as if at the hands of a malevolent puppet-master - yet the un-dead performed this dance of death with familiar indifference. No sooner were they thrown back, than they leapt forwards again, rotting claws outstretched, thirsting for human blood. Screams, snarls, gasps and curses filled the air.
A decayed skeleton attempted to crush Nye's skull with its morning star. He suffered a slight graze, hardly mortal, but enough to fuel his fury. He barged into the rib-cage, knocking his gruesome opponent off-guard. The skeleton stumbled and suddenly dropped through the open drain. Nye heard the bones clatter far below. He didn't have time to show his amusement, however, for a Thuggee charged him, screaming an arcane battle cry. The thrust bayonet passed too close for Nye's liking. He leaped aside and slashed down with his sword. The Thuggee's scream rose in pitch, his swarthy face, now split, one of agonised shock. Blood soaked Nye's tunic.
A body count revealed four commandos had been killed in the ambush. One other soldier had suffered a deep gash to his arm; not a serious wound in itself, but Bloomfield was on hand to administer with antibiotic needles against possible infection. That was one danger of fighting the hellish forces of Kali. Major Tilton had by this time returned, issuing orders to strip his men of ammunition. They hid the bodies in the sewer. Which reminded Nye...
"You took your time, sir."
"Constipation, Nye, constipation."
It was by some minor miracle the baker's shop still supported a firm roof, yet it was filleted with holes. The rain managed to get in. Sheltering from the torrential downpour were five soldiers, battle-weary, save for Major Tilton; despite the serious loss of four commandos he seemed unperturbed. This concerned Captain Nye: maybe he's cracking under pressure, he thought. Not that he blamed the Intelligence Officer. They all sat in silence, in the shadows, smoke from cigarettes drifted lazily on the chill air. If thoughts could be heard, mused Nye, the Shadows would hear them for miles around.
"Y'know, I'm in the mood for some fresh bread," said one of the surviving commandos, pointing to the antiquated ovens ranged along the opposite wall.
"Don't bother," replied his wounded mate, "I've already checked. Rock 'ard."
Bloomfield smiled at the exchange. "He could have been baking rock cakes."
"You'll get rock cakes, lads," said Tilton. "He's listening."
He rewarded the injured man's frown with a knowing smile. "The proprietor of this place."
"But he's been dead a hundred and fifty years, sir."
"Just because you can't see him, that doesn't mean to say he isn't watching you, and listening to your every word."
"Ghosts?" one mocked. "You're afraid of ghosts, sir?"
He shrugged, turned back to watch the rain. "I'm afraid of things I don't understand."
With no prospect of bread, they made do with hot soup from thermal flasks, and raw carrots grown in Warwick's conservatory gardens. It was a small meal, but one well received. Nye refused to eat; he had trouble enough digesting the grisly scenes of that earlier engagement, still fresh within his fatigued mind...
He looked down. Bloomfield was offering him a piece of chocolate. He smiled, nodded, and popped it into his mouth. He sucked on the sweetness, as if hoping it would dissolve the bitter taste of war. It didn't. He drained the rest of his tea, packed away the tin mug, and hauled up his kit bag.
"Rain's stopped," Nye said. "Hadn't we better move out, sir?"
Tilton shot a glance at him. His expression betrayed slight annoyance, but it soon passed. "Very well, lads," he nodded, "let's get this assignment finished with."
The streets were little more than quagmires, rubble-strewn, with shattered remnants of houses and other establishments poking through the depressing landscape. The stone had been worn down gradually by fierce storms that now ravaged this alien land. Precious few of the original mid-eighteenth century buildings were even half-intact, only to be dominated by new bastions of dark overlords. No people lived here any more. Any who'd remained during the Blight were mercilessly slaughtered.
Kali was a Goddess and a butcher. She had no interest in human affairs whatsoever, only to exterminate Mankind and impose her will upon the Earth. To her, human beings were expendable, an irrelevance, a civilization to be eradicated - even, at times, those who served her devotedly.
Nye recalled from his history studies that armies of bygone times referred to casualties as a 'Butcher's Bill'. When the human sanctuaries began to thrive and grow, it had changed to 'Kali's Count'; indeed he could well imagine the un-dead atrocity, upon her throne in her black kingdom, idly counting off innocent souls upon her skeletal fingers. Well, Nye promised, she'll soon be counting the Shadows thrown back in her leering face. Smug bitch! So many, she won't be able to keep up.
The next moment he was on the ground. His trouser leg was aflame with a supernatural red fire, but total shock numbed his five senses. The force of the fireball had winded him, his ears rang. He couldn't determine where the attacker was. His vision a blur. He then began to panic, believing he was permanently blinded. But his sight returned swiftly, the terrible ringing subsided. He groped with his hands. They found a puddle, he scooped water on to the licking flame, then got up, groggily.
Both commandos had opened fire upon the Thuggee wizard, a threw a grenade, to little effect. He sneered and conjured another fireball. But the fiery missile went awry. The wizard had screamed in pain, then looked in astonishment at Tilton's throwing knife skewered in his thigh. The Blakrite blade had penetrated the wizard's magical barrier. Thus distracted, Tilton ordered a hasty retreat. He spotted Nye, grabbed his tunic, pulled him along.
"What about Bloomfield?" he yelled. "Where in God is-!"
"He's dead!" snapped Tilton.
"We should check-"
"No time! If we stay here, Nye, we're also dead. Keep moving!"
Nye had by now regained his senses, and fear lent him speed. But the rubble-strewn path made him stumble. He risked a backward glance. The wizard was ranting and cursing, trying to staunch the flow of blood that soaked his black gowns.
"Catch them!" he howled. "Hunt them down. If you fail, Kali will have your skulls for a necklace. Now get them!"
Nye didn't understand the language, but intuition told him it sounded like a threat, possibly an order - even both. Desperation drove the three survivors on. But God, it seemed, had forsaken them. There was no-where to run, no-where to hide. And the odds weighed heavily in Kali's favour. The demonic horde seemed to converge from all sides, their focus the three ailing humans. Another grenade was hurled, throwing a clutch of the enemy back. But they soon recovered their feet. The Andersons spat volley upon volley into the shrieking ranks of shaggy-haired humanoids. Their blood-red eyes regarded the men with pure hatred, fangs dripping with saliva, their lust for human blood overcame any fears they may have had.
"I'm out!" said the commando, reaching for his Suffield and knife.
"Me too." Tilton threw down the empty machine gun, hot barrel smoking. His hand went to the hilt of his sabre, unsheathed the Blakrite blade. Nye did likewise.
One of the demons had leapt from behind them, over the their heads, and landed upon the commando with deft ease. He fell heavily to the sodden ground, was trampled, and torn apart by the snarling multitude. Death came swiftly. The demons edged closer, but now with a degree of caution in sight of the Blakrite swords facing them. This gave both men new heart.
"Cover my back, sir!"
Nye suddenly charged the beasts behind, catching them off-guard. His sword swung down, catching one of their number on the shoulder. The demon howled its pain and spat foul ichor from its mouth. Nye shouldered a second, drove the blade into the third, elbowed a fourth. A claw drew blood from his cheek. He paid no heed, pulled out the blade, slashed any foolhardy foe aside. One demon attempted a sudden leap - a manoeuver which had cost the commando his life - but Nye narrowly avoided the attempt. His opponent growled in frustration. It scrabbled in the dirt, winded, but undeterred. A claw grabbed at his sleeve. It tore, exposed flesh. Nye plunged the blade in deep again, made to pull it out - but it had stuck fast!
The slain demon fell back. The invaluable sword was far beyond his reach, so Nye punched and kicked his way into a side alley. The demons gave chase. He only hoped there wasn't a dead end, or even more of their hellish kind awaiting him. However, such concerns distracted his observation. They chose their moment well. He'd forgotten how agile the demons actually were, but was rudely reminded of their prowess at climbing and leaping like monstrous mountain goats.
They dropped nimbly from the low outhouse roof, knocking him to the cobbles. He gasped, trying to suck in air. Sharps claws tore his clothes as they roughly turned him over. He tried to struggle, but his hands and feet were swiftly caught in a vice-like grip. One of the demons squatted on its haunches, red eyes stared into his own, as if trying to psyche him out. He smiled complacently at his nemesis, almost desiring to be rid of this insane existence. The claw flexed, raised on high. Nye readied himself for the final blow. I'm not going to show these bastards I'm afraid, he thought. Then, the fated talon curled into a fist. It came down fast, connecting with his skull.
Lights flashed violently.
Then darkness cloaked his mind.
Captain Nye awoke to find himself staring at cold grey stone. His eyes fluttered, blinked away the haziness. His head ached terribly; the left side of his face numb, a bruise the size of an egg had appeared. Footfalls on flagstones, soft echoes. He was in a hall of some sort. The marble slab was cold against his back. Low voices a few paces away - one he recognised as Major Tilton. Tilton? He was alive. The Intelligence officer had saved him from death! But what was that strange dialect? He frowned, tried to place it. A man of his position, Tilton could speak the language fluently. Indian - it had to be. Oh, God no! Nye's heart sank, as the realization hit him like a bucket of iced water. He can't be a...
He turned his head towards the conversation. Both men stood close together. The Thuggee, garbed in black flowing robes adorned with gilt symbols, had a sharp glare. His hands gestured wildly as he spoke with equal vigour. Two guards flanked this lord of Oxford, rifles slung upon their shoulders. Meanwhile, Tilton was nodding, stood relaxed, hands clasped behind his straight back; obviously by his apparent treatment, not a prisoner. Was he trying to bargain with the enemy?
Nye got to his feet...well, he tried to. His attempts in doing so were rudely checked when a large scaly hand clamped on his shoulder. He was unceremoniously shoved down again.
"You'll keep your place," growled a deep voice from behind, "or suffer the full price for your insolence."
Nye craned his neck to see the demon. It stood over eight feet tall, its muscular body covered entirely in blood-red scales. The fiend had a maw of fangs, acidic saliva dripped to the bare flagstones, where it foamed and burned. Three coal-like eyes glowered down upon him. Pure evil. Nye was momentarily silenced by the unnerving sight. Like gazing through the Gates of Hell. He licked his lips, then smiled, pointing to the skulls strung across the demon's chest.
"I've got a similar trinket," he said, "only it's made of Kali's teeth. She lost them when I smacked her in the mouth."
"You dare to insult our Goddess!"
Nye ignored the menacing retort. "I thought she was much stronger than that. Of course, with all her snivelling and begging, I spared her."
The claws dug deep into his flesh. Nye gritted his teeth against the pain. "Kali is all-powerful. She cannot die, pathetic mortal! Your foolish words are mere empty threats, nothing more!"
"Then why are you reacting to them?"
"Behlis, that'll do!"
The demon flinched at the sharp command. Reluctantly, it released him. Nye offered the demon another irritating smile. Its eyes regarded him with simmering hatred, but obediently stood, unprovoked.
"Captain Nye," said the Thuggee lord, "please calm yourself. All this squabbling is really tiresome."
"You speak good English...for a Thuggee."
He frowned, contemplated the captain's remark. "Well," he shrugged, "such linguistic skills prove essential as to my role in serving Kali." Nye was puzzled at this; the Thuggee explained further: "Let's just say, that the good Major Tilton and myself, Lord Azalan, share something in common."
"Your faith in Kali?" he spat, giving Tilton an icy, accusing glare. The major simply looked away, paced the floor.
"No." Azalan smiled. "We are both gatherers of information. I am ecstatic at finding a worthy ally in Major Tilton, who has liberal views on demonology, and believes the war against us cannot be won. Clearly, he is a man of wisdom and discretion."
"Perhaps," Azalan shrugged.
"How does it feel, sir!" Nye barely controlled his anger. "All those deaths - human deaths - on your conscience? I hope it was worth it. Whatever that might be!"
Tilton offered Nye a blank expression, regarding him for a tense moment. Then, he crossed the floor, boots reverberating loudly. A gloved hand grasped the hilt of his sabre, reassuringly.
"I forgot," he said, "that I didn't tell you from the outset, Nye. I'm offering my services to translate Madame Bouville's ancient texts."
Nye suddenly wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all. "Books!" he exclaimed. "Musty books."
"Yes," Tilton nodded, his aristocratic countenance verging on impertinence. "Knowledge, captain Nye, is nothing if not practised. All this," he cast an arm at the surrounding bookshelves, "is priceless - in the right hands."
"You mean Kali's hands?"
He shook his head, slowly. "I thought you understood matters, Nye. What does Kali want with all this? All she cares about is subjugating the Earth to her rule, letting the Shadows ruin everything in their path. What's between her and total domination of the world? A few piffling sanctuaries, few and far between, people skulking behind walls and below ground, like trapped rats!" Tilton paused to compose himself. "So," he finally concluded, "what need has she for such knowledge? Human knowledge."
"You're scared, Tilton," Nye grinned, soon changed to a grim look of contempt. "You're without hope. Humanity has done well so far."
"Who knows what tomorrow may bring, Nye? For God's sake, I'm trying to help humanity. Don't you see?"
"You're helping yourself," he retorted, "by concocting an elaborate scheme to achieve your own ambitions. Bloomfield was a good friend, we knew each other since childhood. He was in his prime. Can you give those years back?"
"Save it - major! They all died for your heartless greed."
"I am being far from heartless, captain." Tilton fumed, losing patience. He rubbed his face, irritated. "Yes, I admit to formulating a ruse. I'm sincere about our men being lost, but understand they all died for the greater cause of humanity. In the long run. It's true, that Azalan promised me personal quarters within the palace itself, but only because I couldn't possibly return to Warwick. The authorities back in Warwick and Powys would think we perished in Oxford."
"You made a deal with Kali. The Devil, the Anti-Christ."
"Perhaps, but to secure a better future for us all."
Until now, Azalan had kept quiet, but listened to the exchange between both men with some interest. "Allow me, major," he said, "you seem a little tired." Tilton allowed himself to be led aside. "Captain Nye, I assure you that he speaks the truth. Please understand what's at stake here."
So saying, he stepped back. For the first time, Nye saw the open book lying upon a brass lectern. Spluttering candles nearby threw a wan light upon pages browned with age. "This tome," continued Azalan, "chronicles the incantations necessary to controlling the portal to the Demonic Realm. Once Major Tilton has translated the scripture, we'll be allowed to open and close the doorway at our leisure."
"Won't Kali have something to say about all this? To be honest, I can't see her standing back letting you usurp her power over the Domain."
Azalan ignored the sarcastic jibe. "You must understand, there are actually two portals. Kali has full command over one; and we shall hold sway over the other. By closing the Earth-side door, we shall prevent more demons coming through."
"Why should you want to do that? I assumed all Thuggees were loyal to Kali, and want more demons, not less."
"Not all Thuggees are loyal. Because of your steadfast defence against us, we can anticipate nothing but centuries of blood and toil. Major Tilton here implored an audience with me, suggesting I limit the number of demons at our disposal, while we retain a comfortable number to safeguard all Thuggee interests. In return, British citizens will suffer no further attacks nor aggression from our demonic forces."
"Christ, do you really believe all this, Tilton?" Nye stepped closer to the him, the demon seized his shoulder once again. "For God's sake, as soon as you give this power-mad Thuggee what he wants, he'll betray you, then all of us."
"Sorry Nye," he shook his head, "I'm willing to take that chance."
"I was hoping you'd be willing to join us, Captain Nye." Azalan's smile infuriated him even more, made him edgy. "I'm not as 'power-mad' as you think. I'm quite satisfied in sharing the responsibility."
But Nye had heard enough. The very proposition of being offered a slice of demonic pie disgusted him. The demon had slackened its grip. Good, Nye smiled, good...
"Are you thinking on it, captain?"
Tilton came closer. "I urge you to consider such a generous offer, Nye. Contemplate the perilous consequences if you don't. You're hardly in a position to-"
Nye darted forward. Tilton's eyes widened, totally shocked - his face paled when a firm boot was planted in his crotch. As he doubled over in agony, Nye leapt upon him. Although proficient in unarmed combat, Tilton had been caught by surprise. He was no match for an enraged and desperate man. Blows continued to rain down on the major's cringing form.
While the Thuggee guards were obviously amused, and did little to help the ailing Tilton, Azalan eventually signalled to Behlis. "I grow tired of the whole affair, captain. If that is your final answer, then so be it. We're wasting precious time with him, Major. Your death will not be wasted, Nye - we need human blood to unlock the sorcery contained within Bouville's book. Your blood to be precise."
Nye was instantly plucked from Tilton. "I was hoping you'd do that," he smiled.
Tilton's Blakrite blade flashed briefly in the candle-light. Behlis the demon barely had time to detect the fatal weapon. It plunged, without hindrance, through the thick scales, deep into its stomach. The fiend howled its pain, a ghastly wail that shook the very walls. Nye twisted the knife out, black blood gushed out like some revolting waterfall. He then sliced the sorcerous blade clean across the unholy beast's throat for good measure.
It's flailing claws sent Nye crashing into both the advancing Thuggee guards. Rifles clattered to the floor. Nye was of tougher mettle, incensed by hatred and fear, and a need to survive. He booted one in the face, breaking the man's nose. His knife stabbed the second in the chest, skewered the heart.
Suddenly, he was knocked again to the floor. The next moment, Nye was struggling against the infamous Thuggee garrotte. Azalan had chosen his moment well. Nye gasped, clawed for breath. His legs kicked wildly. Tilton was stood well away, watching the duel with bemusement, letting his evil associate do all the dirty work. Then, with tremendous strength, pushed the lectern over. With a resounding crash! the ornate brass struck the floor, throwing the fabled book across the room. However, one of the candles was also struck from its niche, flames now licked at the ancient parchment.
"The bloody thing's on fire!" yelled Tilton.
Azalan was completely distracted - which Nye had hoped for. He reached for the nearby bayonet on one of the prone guards; fumbled, found, unsheathed it. The cord binding him was sliced. He grabbed Nye's hand, but soon the Thuggee was screaming when teeth sank into his flesh. The knife fell once more - this time, into Azalan's chest. Blood gurgled from his mouth, he spasmed, then was still.
Tilton was busy quenching the flames, aghast Madame Bouville's work had been ruined. He was so pre-occupied in examining the pages, that he failed to notice a bolt-loader being picked up.
He turned, then realized...too late. The bayonet took him in the stomach. He doubled-over a second time, gasping his pain. Hands gripped the rifle tightly. Nye cursed him one last time, before pulling the trigger. Blood spattered the wall behind, the book fell from his fingers. Tilton lifted his pale face, sweat-streaked, breath bated and laboured. Then, he fell to his knees, and collapsed, dead.
Nye fumbled through the dead Major's tunic pockets, located the map and lighter. He decided to add new flame to Madame Bouville's black book. Old paper burned well. Such an evil artefact, he knew, must be banished from Earth forever, thus preventing the likes of Tilton ever seeing it as an opportunity to power through greedy eyes. Because of it, good men had died in vain. Perhaps it could have been utilized against Kali, but she would be beaten without resorting to witchcraft and taming demons. Tilton had wasted his time: the whole mission had been a farce from its very beginning. Nye watched the conflagration, the relief he felt was immense.
While the pages smouldered and blackened to charcoal, he set about depriving Azalan of his dark robes. Thus disguised - with the added protection of a bolt rifle, and a Blakrite sword obtained from Tilton's corpse - Captain Nye stole from the university. He was startled to be greeted by darkness. He clipped Tilton's night-sight into place, and used the Oxford street plan to guide him through the evening gloom.
The dreadnought's CO was a gruff sergeant major. But he greeted the lone survivor with utter disbelief in his piercing eyes. He was instantly downcast at the mission failure, and saddened to hear of the unfortunate commandos who had sacrificed their lives.
"And what of Major Tilton?" he asked.
Nye responded with a lie. That he died in preventing evil from claiming the book. The full truth was best not uttered here. Perhaps, one day, when the world is ready to hear it. But that era would be a long time in coming. In the meantime, Nye reckoned, the Guild is the only means by which to achieve that aim: through hard work and selfless effort to preserve humanity. But, given the diversity of human nature, he suspected it was a good thing the book was lost. So, perhaps the mission had been a success after all? Nye thought so. It might be a concern viewed differently back in Warwick. But what did that matter? He alone knew the truth, and was content to keep it locked within for the sake's of morale, if for nothing else.
He stripped off the Thuggee robes, threw them away, remembering how Azalan had strangled him. He could still feel the evil on him. Have a shower when we get underway, he promised himself.
"We'll depart for Warwick immediately, sergeant-major," he ordered, "and I don't wish to be disturbed until we get back safely. I'll be in mourning for a dead friend."
"Bloomfield, sir?" he asked. "Lieutenant Daniel Bloomfield?"
"Yes," Nye peered carefully, "did you know of him?"
"Seen him half an hour ago, sir. Poor man's exhausted, he is, sporting a number of cuts and bruises-"
"You seen him!" he cried. "Christ...in there?"
Without waiting for a reply, he clambered aboard the Mars, grinning from ear to ear. And, at the same time, he wept. He knocked upon the lieutenant's door, entered, heart-pounding.
Both men exchanged a weary smile. Saying nothing, savouring a moment of pure joy and relief. Bloomfield had also lost two fingers in the fireball blast; his right hand completely swathed in bandages. The dreadnought's engines started, a slight hum vibrated its chasse. Nye sat at the foot of the bunk, reached into his tunic pocket. Two left, he remembered. Held out the rumpled packet to his friend.
"Smoke?" he grinned.