The world is at war. The Republic of the Carolinas and the Virginia Freestate have already fallen to the invading Mosul, a ravening, barbaric horde led by an evil fundamentalist priesthood. Only the Kingdom of Albany, with aid from the Norse Alliance of Britain and Scandinavia, remains free to continue the struggle.
Against the hellspawn controlled by the Mosul stands The Four, a supernatural entity comprised of four youngsters from disparate backgrounds: Argo, the back-country hick; Jesamine, the slave-concubine; Raphael the Hispanian cannon-fodder conscript; and Cordelia, the spoiled aristocrat. Together, they alone have managed to combat the Mosul's Dark Things.
The army of Albany moves south to attempt to free Virginia and The Four go along in support. The battle engages cavalry, infantry, and artillery — but the Mosul have other weapons in their arsenal, and as The Four try desperately to protect their comrades from other-worldly foes, they catch fleeting glimpses of two albino children, the White Twins. Even the enigmatic Yancey Slide has no clue as to what kind of threat the twins may represent.
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About the Author
Born in England, Mick Farren grew up in London in the Sixties, where he was in a rock band called the Social Deviants. When he turned to writing, his books achieved cult status, especially The DNA Cowboys. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he writes for the underground press. His current band is quite popular in Japan. Mick's autobiography, Give the Anarchist a Cigarette, was published in England a few years ago.
Mick Farren was born in Cheltenham, England on a wet night at the end of World War II. In the 1960s, he was a member of the psychedelic, proto-punk band The Deviants. His fiction received attention in the late punk seventies with The DNA Cowboys cult trilogy. Through the 1980s and 1990s, he tempered cyberpunk with his own post-Burroughs, post-Lovecraft strangeness, while at the same time functioning as a columnist, critic, and recording artist, teaching a science fiction and horror course at UCLA, publishing a number of non-fiction works on popular culture, including a best-selling biography of Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and the bizarre-fashion history The Black Leather, and also providing Rock&Roll lyrics for bands like Metallica, Motorhead, Brother Wayne Kramer, and others. With Kramer, he created the off-Broadway musical The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, and he scripted a number of TV documentaries. He entered the 21st century with the critically acclaimed and suitably unorthodox vampire saga The Renquist Quartet, and the alternate world epic Flame of Evil. Farren died in London in July 2013.
Read an Excerpt
By Farren, Mick
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Lady Cordelia Blakeney tightened her hold on the gray gelding. The horse could sense the excitement. Its ears twitched, its head nodded, and the animal snorted and dug divots from the already trampled turf with its front hooves. The reins were tautly looped between her gloved fingers, in which she also clasped her silver-mounted crop. She hardly expected to need the whip, however. Despite the gelding, the horse had spirit, and was more than ready to run, given the slightest chance. She had been particular in her selection of a mount. The lieutenant in charge of the remuda had been told to put her on a gelding for her own safety, but a bribe of folded banknotes to the groom made sure it was one with some fire remaining in its blood.
"Easy, boy, easy."
All around her, horses and men were galvanized by an abrupt departure from the routine into which both had fallen during the previous two weeks. The sun was high in the sky, but the Army of Albany had halted. The long columns of infantry and cavalry, men and munitions, machines, wagons, and heavy guns no longer moved south, as they had done for the last fifteen days. Instead, they stood and waited, as mounts grew skittish and a collective excitement mounted. Gallopers and runners came and went, while flankers and outriders moved in close. In the ranks, the swaddies and sloggers exchanged speculation andrumor, while the engines of the motorized vehicles idled, coughed, and belched exhaust. The mounted scouts had returned that mid-morning, confirming the reports already relayed by wireless from the airships. The enemy, in full retreat all the way from Richmond, had finally stopped, and looked to be turning, preparing to face their pursuers. Simultaneously, much further to the south, reinforcements had been observed, coming at a forced march from the Mosul beachhead in Savannah where, three years earlier, the hordes of Hassan IX had first landed in the Americas, bent on invasion and conquest. The battle that both sides had been anticipating all winter appeared to be upon them.
Cordelia did her best to gentle the restive horse, while shading her eyes from the sun and gazing with extremely mixed feeling at the low, wooded hills that formed their immediate southern horizon. The trees were green with first spring leaf. The Virginia countryside surged with unfolding life, but the Albany advance had intruded into this season of growth with khaki ranks of marching soldiers and their trucks and automobiles, the belching steam of fighting machines, and the unnatural insect-noise of the airborne biplanes that buzzed overhead on their mysterious missions. The fresh April grass had been churned under the hooves of two thousand horses, and the boots of more than ten times that number of men, and then double-gouged by rubber tires, wooden wheels, and iron caterpillar tracks. The only excuse that Cordelia could make to the Goddess for the way in which they were despoiling the newly unfolding year was that the Army of Albany was not the first to make its mark. They were only following the scars of destruction already left by the hordes of the Mosul Empire, as they pulled back after spending a grim winter under an intermittent barrage of Albany rocket bombs, starving in the bunkers and trenches they had dug in the frozen ruins of Richmond, the same city the invaders had themselves burned to the ground just two years earlier.
This trail left by the enemy was more, however, than just the imprint of boots and wheels and the hooves of war horses. The withdrawing Mosul had marked their passage with all of the debris of desperation and defeat. Abandoned equipment, burned-out and broken-down vehicles, plus the bodies of the dead or scarcely living, who had been unable to march or even crawl any further despite the commands of their officers, or the barks, kicks, and blows of their squad leaders. In the first days of the retreat, the Albany pursuers saw how the Mosul stragglers had been hanged, flogged, or shot; but then, as the speed of the Mosul flight quickened, they had simply been left to the mercy of Albany, if they were able to fend off the ravens and carrion crows that followed the exodus like nature's undertakers. In the first days, most of these Mosul dead and left-behind had either been executed, or simply dropped from exhaustion, but as the slow pursuit moved into its second week increasing numbers were victims of the ceaseless nighttime raids by hit-and-run units of either the Albany Rangers or the irregular commando groups of mountain men, freebooters, and former resistance fighters from the previously occupied territories, who moved ahead of the main force to harry and harass the already demoralized foe.
These growing numbers of enemy dead and dying had the unfortunate effect of slowing the Albany advance, and they had also put considerable strain on the quality of any Albany mercy. The elaborate cruelty of the Mosul occupation and the atrocities performed in the name of Hassan IX and the hideous twin gods Ignir and Aksura were fresh in every Albany memory. As they moved deeper into liberated Virginia, the spectacle of ravaged towns and villages, the skeletal remains on roadside gibbets, and the long hummocks of earth, not yet fully grassed over, covering the mass graves of slave laborers, made sympathy extremely difficult, even for the lowest and most wretched captives. After more than three years of war, no illusions and precious little pity remained. Had the united people of Albany, highborn and low, not turned back the invaders at the Battle of the Potomac, they, too, would be suffering the same fate as all the others who had come under the domination of the Mosul Flame Banner in what had once been the Southland Alliance, the Republic of the Carolinas, or the Virginia Freestate. With the crucial, if formerly neutral, help of the Norse Union, the Kingdom of Albany had prevented Hassan's vast army from crossing the wide river that marked its southernmost border, but each and every citizen knew that, if they had failed, if the Mosul's northern thrust into the Eastern Americas had continued unchecked, they would right now be under the grinding, inhuman heel of the Mosul military and the religious oppression of the feared and hated priests and agents of the Zhaithan Ministry of Virtue.
This knowledge made sympathy for Hassan's discards hard to summon, and compassion was made even harder by the numerous and deadly booby traps that the Mosul rearguard had sown in their wake. Earlier that morning, three privates of the 14th Foot had, against their sergeant's better judgement, attempted to move the body of a dead child out of the path of a column of lorries, and had been blown to pieces by a brace of concealed grenades beneath the infant's corpse. Then, just before dawn, a grazing horse, uncomfortably close to Cordelia's tent, had put its foot on a landmine. Apart from being killed instantly, it had triggered an angry and totally unwanted stand-to. An extra element of horror was added by not all of the traps being simply explosives or woodland pitfalls with sharpened stakes, dug for the unsuspecting or careless. Two days previously, a cluster of Dark Things had appeared out of nowhere and totally consumed a luckless latrine detail, and, in so doing, provided a reminder that, although Albany might be far in advance of the Mosul in science and technology, they had nothing like the same command of those other dark and unearthly realities.
When the first booby traps had been fatally sprung, and word of the first casualties spread through the army, rage had boiled over. Fifty prisoners had been massacred out of hand, and three captured Zhaithan had been doused with petroleum and burned alive by a crowd of Albany engineers who, vengeful and drunk, had surrounded them as they died, laughing and jeering at the Mosul screams, and demanding to know how they liked those sacred flames. Cordelia had herself been a prisoner of the Zhaithan, but even she thought mob reprisal was fractionally extreme. So apparently did the King himself. Carlyle II had sent word that no Mosul prisoner was to be harmed, even the hated Zhaithan priests, although all captured agents of the Ministry of Virtue were to be held under close guard for interrogation. His words were repeated to the entire army, sent in writing to the officers, and read aloud to the ranks by senior noncoms with particular emphasis given to the final sentence.
"We treat our captured opponent with humanity, otherwise we are no better than him."
The order had been somewhat reluctantly obeyed, although the grim joke was that, since the King's pronouncement, the Rangers and irregulars has ceased taking prisoners during their night raids. More than one junior officer had repeated the observation that "if no Mosul is taken alive, the question of our humanity doesn't really arise."
Cordelia, on the other hand, tried not to think too hard about the unpleasantness. All winter, she had trained hard for a multitude of nastiness in multiple realities, and she needed any break that the expedition south might offer. She felt she deserved an interlude of silliness and narcissism after the long winter of a seclusion of intense study and physical self-discipline. Although a military operation, the advance into Virginia was not without its compensations and diversions. By day, they pressed forward in pursuit of the Mosul but, when they camped each night, except for those officers who were out on patrol or pulling guard duty, the wine flowed, food was good and plentiful, a portable phonograph played the latest cylinders from London, New York, and Copenhagen, and the conversation was bright and flirtatious. After the sun had set, Cordelia was almost able, if she carefully ignored incidents like the horse and the boobytrapped baby, to pretend that the whole exercise was nothing more than the prewar royal court on an extended country excursion. Being a military operation, the men greatly outnumbered the available women, but Cordelia hardly saw this as a drawback. Inevitable al fresco sexual couplings occurred, and as long as they were conducted with a modicum of discretion, the high command saw no reason to notice or comment. Cordelia, always a realist at heart, was also well aware that the diversion would be highly transitory. The Mosul would eventually be compelled to turn and fight, if only by the need of their commanding general, the notorious Faysid Ab Balsol, to save face, and now, as she sat astride her gelding in the spring sunshine and waited for news, that moment appeared to have come. On the other side of the low, tree-covered hills, if the first reports were to be believed, the forces of Hassan IX were now readying themselves to take a stand. After nursing his shattered army through the long Richmond winter, Ab Balsol had gained the reputation of a master of lost causes, and, if he had turned to fight, the party was at an end, and the serious soldiering had begun.
But seriousness was not quite yet upon Cordelia. A young cavalry captain on a bay hunter cantered down the line of horses, and she temporarily put aside her thoughts of battle and her speculation about the immediate future. She saw him first and quickly checked and adjusted her uniform. She knew, without any unreasonable vanity, that she sat a horse well. Although modern warfare was becoming an increasingly drab and camouflaged business, she was also aware that her adapted Ranger uniform showed her off to her best advantage. The characteristic short jacket of the Albany Rangers---dark leaf green with twin rows of polished buttons---squared her shoulders, accentuated her breasts, and was in no way at odds with her red hair and pale skin. Her tan riding breeches were as tight as a second skin, and her high brown boots were shined by her favorite trooper to a rich mirror finish. The entire ensemble was topped off by a soft green forage cap with a maple-leaf cockade, which added just the slightest note of levity. Less amusing was the small-caliber revolver in the flap holster on her belt.
She wore her green jacket with two top buttons undone, and the front panel partially open and folded down. This was the unofficial affectation of Rangers who had seen action behind enemy lines, and, since she had done exactly that, she didn't consider her adoption of it in any way inappropriate. A few unpleasant individuals, mainly jealous courtiers, newly drafted to active service, questioned her right to wear the uniform the way she did. They split hairs over the fact that, during those hideous days and nights when she had been a prisoner of Her Grand Eminence Jeakqual-Ahrach, and when she had made her daring escape from the Mosul camp on the Potomac, she was still technically a humble lieutenant in the Royal Women's Auxiliary. The same malicious gossips also questioned how she had so quickly attained the rank of major, but Cordelia Blakeney dismissed their arguments as being without merit. The fighting Rangers accepted her, and if those hardened and implacable killers wanted to look on her as some kind of mascot and a good luck token into the bargain, the rest could simply shut their mouths. The gossips also had no idea what it meant to be one of The Four.
As the young man came closer, Cordelia made no sign, and only cast the briefest of glances in his direction. She was shorter than most of the riders around her, and he only spotted her at the last minute, but when he did, he quickly reined in his mount, and raised his peaked kepi with a flourish. "Well, well . . . Major Blakeney."
She allowed him only a short, almost curt nod. "Captain Neally."
"Top of the morning to you, ma'am."
Cordelia eased back her shoulders and straightened in the saddle. She was well aware of the effect such a move would have. "And a good morning to you, Captain."
Neally urged his horse forward, and moved up beside her. He gestured to the clear blue midday sky. "We seem to have ourselves another fine day for this adventure, Major."
She nodded for a second time, and allowed herself a faint smile. "Indeed we do, Captain, indeed we do."
The formality of their greetings belied the relationship between Lady Cordelia Blakeney and Captain Tom Neally. The casual onlooker might only have suspected there was more to it when the captain glanced round, quickly and circumspectly, as if checking that no casual onlooker was, in fact, taking note of their exchange. Only then did he permit himself a sly grin. "And how does the morning find you, Major?"
Cordelia had difficulty keeping a straight face. "It finds me . . ."
She was also hard-pressed to censor a lewd giggle that bubbled up inside her. The devilment in her wanted to respond with the unvarnished truth that she was a little hung over from the previous night's champagne, and her muscles still ached from the bone jarring, under-the-stars shaggings to which the captain had treated her just a few hours earlier. Cordelia Blakeney and Tom Neally had become what was known as item on the third day after they crossed the river, and had remained so ever since. Every night that their other duties permitted, they would make for the deep, spring-night shadows, pressed close, arm in arm, and, laughing drunkenly, to lose their clothes, and have intense, if maybe temporary sex. They both knew that circumstances would not allow the situation to last, and both were determined to make the absolute most of it. In the light of day, though, they observed all the spurious niceties of the Albany upper classes, and the pretense that such things didn't really happen. If Cordelia ever needed an excuse, which she rarely did, being more than able to rationalize most of her behavior, she would tell herself that it kept the new cycle of dreams away---the bad ones with the uncomfortable white flashes that refused to make any sense.
". . . as well as can be expected, Captain, and eager to see what the day might bring."
"It would seem as though Ab Balsol and his Mosul have found themselves a place to make their stand."
"So I hear. What's the latest word?"
Neally's bay charger and Cordelia's gelding were now almost touching flanks, and their riders' knees were within inches of each other.
"This may be the final battle."
Cordelia studied Neally's face before speaking. Coral Metcalfe, one of her RWA drinking companions, had described him as "a doll, but probably stupid," and Coral's judgement could not be faulted. His jaw was square, his features classically even, his light brown hair, even with an unflattering army haircut, had a definite wave. She recognized that, had she and Neally been together in the city, she almost certainly would have tired of him by now. Cordelia was under no illusions about Tom Neally. He was a lot of fun, but hardly as sharp as a razor. Coral had guessed right: he really was a little stupid, highly uncultured in anything but the sporting pursuits of upperclass young men. What he lacked, though, in finesse, subtlety, or imagination, he made up for in rough energy, stamina, and zealousness. In the urban boudoir this might not have been enough, but in deep in the rural darkness, amid the smell of woods and fields, with his weight on top of her, and dew-wet grass or last winter's dead leaves under her naked back and squirming bottom, his relentless and self-sustaining crudity was atavistically apt. No question that, out in the Virginia night, Tom Neally certainly had the knack of reducing her to a shameless and enthusiastically mewing slut, legs spread wide, hair flying, and limbs flailing in abandon.
At various times during the course of the expedition, often while laying beside him, breathing heavily and feeling the cold of the ground creep into her, Cordelia had wondered if, under the circumstances, she should be less exclusive with her favors. Perhaps her taking multiple lovers might have been better for morale, but she had decided that the long-term result would be an even more scandalous reputation than the one she already enjoyed. This certainly seemed to be the case with Hermione Bracewell, another RWA captain, who worked with Coral Metcalfe in coded communications. Hermione was making herself patriotically available to a wide assortment of young officers, sometimes two in the same day, but her patriotism was also becoming the talk of the mess, and, of course, there was Jesamine, Cordelia's companion in The Four, who had taken up with aborigines. Serial monogamy with her own kind seemed to be Cordelia's most comfortable style, and, for the duration, Tom Neally was the monogamous object.
Cordelia tapped the handle thoughtfully against her chin. Neally might be unsophisticated, but even he could appreciate a woman with a whip. "I always thought one of the first principles of warfare was that he who selected the battlefield was halfway to victory?"
"I think we can concede them that and still come out ahead."
Cordelia raised an eyebrow. "Isn't that dangerously overconfident?"
Neally dismissed the question out of hand. "Ab Balsol and his flat-heads are starving and short of everything. All we have to worry about is that some kind of delay allows their reinforcements to reach them."
"So a clock is ticking?"
"You could say that.
"And what is the land like beyond those hills? Is there a reason the Mosul have chosen this particular spot to make their stand?"
Neally hesitated. He once again looked around to see if any attention was being paid to their conversation. Not, this time, to conceal their romantic involvement, but because he might be revealing privileged information. "It is rather a case of need to know."
Cordelia was suddenly irritated. Just a few hours earlier she had been romping uninhibitedly with this oaf, and now he was about to make an issue of describing the disposition of the enemy. "Who the hell do you imagine I'm going to tell? I'm certainly not going to inform the Mosul. They already know where they are. And, anyway, I can order you to tell me. I bloody outrank you, don't I?"
Neally flushed. He didn't like to be reminded that she was a major while he was merely a junior captain. "They've bivouacked in a long valley and are showing no signs of moving on. Approached from the north, it opens broad and then narrows at the far end. And the brass are guessing they'll dig in and let us come to them."
Cordelia grimaced. "Straight into a valley with high ground on either side? Does that mean they'll be pouring fire on our advance from both flanks? Aren't we going into a box?"
"The Rangers and cavalry will sweep the hills."
Cordelia felt a sudden knot in her stomach. She realized that there was a chance that Tom Neally might be one of the ones doing the sweeping, and clearing the high ground in front of the main advance had to be a high-risk assignment. She eased the gelding forward slightly so their knees touched. "Be careful out there, okay? I don't want anything to happen to you."
Neally looked away, suddenly embarrassed by Cordelia's show of concern. "I'll be careful. And you do the same. Whatever you're doing."
Concern again turned to irritation. "You know damned well what I'll be doing."
Tom Neally hung his head, with the look of denial that always came over his face when the subject of her duties came up. Like so many men of Albany, Neally maintained an absolute barrier of disbelief when it came to the other realities. Even those with firsthand experience with Dark Things in the field became profoundly uncomfortable at the first suggestion of the paranormal, and totally refused to accept that Cordelia and the rest of The Four were maybe as crucial to the Albany war effort as any division of infantry. She had been through the "more things in heaven and earth" argument so many times that she was disinclined to repeat it. Overhead, a single rocket bomb inscribed a white vapor-trail trajectory across the blue of the sky, and offered Cordelia a chance to change the subject. "At least we're still pounding them from the air."
Neally also looked up. "That's maybe another reason the Mosul have turned."
Cordelia frowned. "I don't understand."
The rocket bomb's engine cut out, and the projectile started to fall. It dropped faster and faster until it impacted somewhere on the far side of the wooded hills. A brief fireball rose into the air, the muffled sound of an explosion reached them, and then a column of smoke roiled up like an elongated mushroom. Cordelia attempted to gauge the distance. "It fell short?"
"They're all falling short. The Mosul must know they've moved out of effective range."
The rocket bombs, supplied under the lend-lease, Trans-Ocean treaty between the Norse Union and the Kingdom of Albany, had been a major factor in turning back the invaders. Although the Norse maintained a flimsy neutrality with the Mosul Empire, the exchange of aid with Albany was close to inevitable. Both peoples came from the same stock, they shared culture and customs, and spoke an approximation of the same language. Indeed, the Norse had founded the very first seafaring settlements in the Americas, but for their descendants to engage Hassan IX in open warfare was unthinkable in practical terms. The Norse were far fewer in number than the Mosul, and, even though alliance between the Scandinavian Vikings, the Scotts, the Eiren, and the English of the Islands had lasted a thousand years, they controlled a great deal less territory. The only thing that stopped the Mosul crossing the narrow waters of the English Channel and overrunning them was superior Norse technology and heavy industry. The Mosul, strangled by the constraining coils of their inflexibly brutal religion, had failed to progress. The Zhaithan priests refused to distinguish a scientist from a heretic, and stifled all research and progress. The foundries in Damascus and the Ruhr turned out cannon and musket twenty-four hours a day, but they produced only crude quantity; nothing to compare with the sophistication of the repeating rifles being developed in Birmingham and Stockholm, or the keels of the submarines being laid in the shipyards along the Clyde. Prefabricated parts of Norse gasoline-powered tanks were now crossing the Northern Ocean, being delivered to the Albany port of Manhattan by convoys of cargo ships, and then assembled in a huge roaring factory complex in the city of Brooklyn. Norse Air Corps instructors were training the crews of Albany's first small squadron of airships, and cadres of officers from Albany were attending advanced command schools in London and Stockholm, learning the use of these new weapons on the battlefield and on the high seas. In the final months before the offensive on the Potomac, the Norse had even given Albany their new rocket bombs, and the rest had been history.
"Can't the launching sites be moved?"
Tom Neally regarded the dense column of smoke in the distance. "That's being done, but it's a major undertaking. Building the launchers takes time."
Cordelia remembered the concrete ramps and the steel rails that guided the howling rockets, as their engines ignited and they raced up the track before rising into the air. The installations were major constructions, and there was no way they could be made portable. In theory, dirigible airships could be used to bomb the enemy from the sky, but, in practice, it was impossible. The rigid flying machines with their aluminum and fabric frames and helium-filled gasbags were too slow, too unwieldy, and vulnerable in the extreme to enemy ground fire. Cordelia had learned all about airship vulnerability at painful first hand in the fall of the previous year, when the NU98 had crashed behind enemy lines with her on board. The Norse-built Hellhound triplane could carry a small bomb-load, but it was nothing compared with the devastating unmanned rocket bombs that dropped from the upper air with such deadly effect. In this coming fight, Albany would be without one of its most efficient weapons.
"So this battle will be won or lost on the ground?"
Neally nodded. "That's pretty much the strength of it."
"So when do you and the rest of the cavalry move out?"
He shook his head. "I can't say."
Cordelia sighed with exasperation. "Oh Tom, do stop the dramatic secrecy. This is me you're talking to."
"No, I really don't know. We're waiting for orders."
"Could it be today?"
"There's a chance of that."
She was suddenly anxious. "But I'll see you tonight if you're still here?"
Three riders from Neally's regiment galloped past, and Neally leaned impulsively forward and kissed Cordelia. "Something's happening. I have to go."
He turned the bay, and put his heels to it. The horse started forward, lunging as though eager to be on the move. Cordelia was always amazed how the mounts of the cavalry were so eager for the fight, when the noise and carnage of the battlefield should have repelled all of their natural instincts. Neally turned in the saddle for a final wave. His saber slapped against the bay's flank. The image froze in Cordelia's mind like a still picture. His schoolboy grin, and his broad back in its khaki tunic, with scarlet shoulder boards. She swallowed hard at the sickening realization that the chance existed she would never see him again, and that would be how her memory would always see him. She wasn't in love with Tom Neally, but he was fun. A threat of tears constricted her throat. The gray gelding seemed to sense her unease and again pawed at the ground.
"Easy, damn it. We'll be on the move ourselves soon enough."
In the pocket of her uniform jacket, she had a pair of the new sunglasses from London, the ones with the round, dark blue lenses. She quickly put them on.
Copyright 2006 by Mick Farren
Excerpted from Conflagration
by Farren, Mick
Copyright © 2006 by Farren, Mick.
Excerpted by permission.
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