The Alkaline Sea, April 14, 5083, under and on the sea, the battleground


Sir Pangolin dug and I climbed in his wake with the caustic sea pressing us on all sides. He unerringly took us upwards, his claws slicing through the soapy mass. I kept my eyes closed to keep them clear and as there was nothing to see but blackness. Fragments of the suff caked into my ears until I paused for long enough to tear a strip from my sleeves and stuff bits of cloth into my earholes. As we rose upward, the tunnel we dug slowly constricted behind us. There would be no way back but at least I couldn’t fall very far down as I struggled up the slippery surface.

With a grunt and a woop of joy, Sir Pangolin carved through a crust and out into an open space. He hauled me out from the hole. Around us was still an all consuming blackness. We had surely reached some cavern inside the ocean, a bubble of air frozen by the alchemy of the place or perhaps, I considered more morbidly, we had cut into the belly of whale that had been caught in the ocean all those years Ok when it had been transformed.

“Breathe,” said Sir Pangolin perhaps more for his own benefit than mine.

Then I looked up. Above me was light. Small bright pin pricks. The fires of the souls of the dead shining up there in the sky of Unfolded Hades. We had made it. We were on the surface of the sea and the darkness was simply night.

Now, I could discern a soft glow at the horizon. Dawn was not yet here but that pre-twilight glow was promising its arrival.

“We made it!” I said, “but where are we?”

“That’s your department,” said Sir Pangolin and sat down. “I’m going to have a big rest. You can scout around and find out where the hell we are.”

It wasn’t Hell to be sure but as I looked around I could make out a familiar shadow.

“It’s the ship!” I exclaimed. Which could only mean we had reached where we had intended to reach: the battlefield of the civil war. But whether the great battle had happened or was due to start I had no idea.

“Great,” said Sir Pangolin, “that means I can definitely have a nap right here while you fetch breakfast.”

“But the war!” I said.

“Nobody is fighting in this dark,” replied Sir Pangolin, “go and find out. I’m sleeping.”

I stumbled off into the dark but I hadn’t gone far when I realised that ahead of me was more than just the sea. As the light grew on the horizon I could begin to make out that there were shapes on the surface. Long, prone shapes. Bodies. Many, many bodies. Further ahead, a shifting shadow — a battle standard impaled into the ground and leaning askew.

Suddenly a groaning noise to my left. I rushed over. Somebody was alive.

I stooped to find a man laid out on the ground.

“Water…” he gasped, his voice oddly muffled and distant.

“I have none. I’m so sorry.” I said.

“Bloody oath,” said the man, “I’ve an arse of a headache.”

“Are you hurt badly?” I asked.

“Hurt?” the man sounded confused, “I’m bloody hungover.”

Behind me there came the noise of somebody retching. I recalled the cloth in my ears and pulled them out. Now that the spectrum of sound was greatly enhanced, I could here the sound of hundreds of people snoring. In the ever improving light I could see bottles and flagons and that some of what I had taken to be corpses were wearing makeshift party hats.

I had stumbled onto the aftermath of a massive party.

Closer to the ship came the flicker of torchlight.

To get closer, I had to pick my way through the sleeping bodies of hundreds. They’d each regret the burns on the skin and clothes that they’d get from lying to long on the sea’s surface but this multitude was alive.

“Carto!” an astonished voice called. I looked around and there was Amx, carrying a bucket of water.

“Amx!” I cried and ran over.

“You’re alive!” she said and then looked behind me an unspoken question on her lips.

“Sir Pangolin is back that way!” I pointed, “We came a long way. He’s fine, just tired!”

Amx dropped her bucket and ran off to find him before I could quiz her further. I considered running after her but instead pressed on towards the ship.

Not far after I could see a tent aglow with torches. Somebody was awake early. I rushed inside only to find General Emlet at a map bestrewn desk.

“Good grief,” said Emlet.

“Hello!” I said relieved to find somebody who might know what was going on.

“Good grief,” said Emlet again, “When did you get back? And where have you been? And where is Esquin and that pangolin?”

“Esquin was a traitor!” I said not knowing where to start.

“Oh we learned that quickly enough and one of his men was a saboteur. Either demons or working for demons. One of them had been stealing our instruments.”

“Bernard murdered Varney,” I explained.

“Ah…well that explains a lot of things. But where the bloody hell have you been?”

“Briefly in Hell and in Greenwich. Look, it doesn’t really matter. Esquin was after the Sphere of Healing and we found it!”

“Really?” said Emlet paying greater attention.

I fished the sphere out of my bag and place it on the table. “I had to use it though. It won’t be good for anything for a very long time. I’m afraid. But never mind that. What happened? Was there a battle? Who won? I guess you can’t have lost but…can you just tell me what happened? Where was the other army?”

The general sat back and looked at me and sighed. “We won the battle but in truth there was never much of a battle to begin with. Some of Argyll’s forces turned up here early and staked out a position but yesterday when the battle was scheduled to start the rest of their armies hadn’t appeared.” he paused and motioned me to sit down. I sat and he continued. “The armies of Narb had turned around and headed back.”

“What? Why? What happened to the armies from the Annexature of Hell?”

“Good question. They double crossed them. Once Argyll and Narb had marched towards this battlefield, the armies of Hell made use of the diversion to invade their neighbours.”

“Shit.” I said, resorting to swearing.

“Exactly. We easily won the civil war but in the process Hell claimed two more provinces.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t make sense of it all. All that effort. All those people marshalled and sent off to fight a great battle as if the story was set and the outcome could be forced by the weight of their passion. Yet none of it was how anybody but Hell had planned.

“It seems to me,” I said, suddenly feeling a great weight of tiredness, “that everything I did was to no end whatsoever. I found one of the great artefacts of our world but used it to heal a bullet wound that my friend only got because of the sphere of healing in the first place. I travelled the length of the inner cosmos, only to arrive in the same place I would have been if I had simply sat on the deck of that ship!”

Emlet sighed. “You’d be surprised how often war is filled with such events. Heroic acts that when summed against the totality of the conflict amount to nothing. You have yet to tell me what happened to Esquin.”

I reached inside my bag and removed the blue, leathery egg. I placed it on the General’s table, who stared at it suspiciously. “This is Esquin?”

“It is, I think, an imp egg,” I explained, “from it will hatch an imp. A kind of demon like thing but with a form and a body and no powers of possession.”

“And that’s Esquin?”

“It’s what the sphere made of him. He wanted to be healed. He wanted to be a demon and to be a human but that’s not really possible. So the sphere made him a third kind of thing.”

“An imp?”

“An imp egg. I think the imp is still gestating inside the egg. He’s probably not fully cooked yet.”

“Well I never.”

“Me neither,” I replied.

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