It had been so long since Charles had felt human, away from the muck, pestilence and waste. His own body felt uncomfortable, foreign to him; his last wash had been months ago. Mites and lice crawled across his form, feeding and infecting at their own pleasure, treating him as a nesting ground. His mouth ached and bled day in, day out, the only restitution being that the gruel they ate wasn't solid enough to dislodge or crush his decaying teeth. He hadn't even removed his boots in days - no doubt the ebbing pain he felt would be a trench foot infection.
The Great War was a disaster, an uncontrollable inferno that was fueled by naught but accumulated rage and insanity. Nobody had known it, but the entire world had been supported by a single man, a lone pillar. Nobody knew until it was destroyed, and the world had crumbled and collapsed.
Even amidst the pervasive roar of endless gunfire and shelling, Charles could hear his comrades screaming. Pain and fear prevailed. Fear for their dying country, for their threatened families, fear that it would never end. Because, as they all knew, it was entirely possible that it wouldn't; it was terrifying enough when the western front was unexpectedly crushed by wave upon wave of Germans and Austro-Hungarians, Ottomans and Bulgarians. But then news had washed back to London from the coast of France, and a new type of fear was born.
The Central Powers were no longer abiding by laws they did not set. Neither laws of war nor laws of nature were followed - a pact with the devil must have been forged. How else could they make such wicked weapons? Gas which would drive men mad with endless, nonexistent fire. Grenades which scorched the earth unlike anything else the world had ever seen. Guns which could disfigure men beyond recognition within seconds. Such was overlooked as the manic cries of broken madmen, until the horrors followed the stories home.
Charles could handle it no longer. Only fifteen years of age, and his life had devolved to hiding in a trench south of Manchester, slinking in fear from enemies that could revoke even death from him. Scarred by images of men suffering unspeakable torture, never to find peace or restitution. A world without empathy, kindness, sanity.
Charles mentally broke, buckling over and retching for the eighteenth time that day. Tears poured from his face, the only sound he could make a deep moaning. How could it have come to this? Surely someone could have foreseen the devil's work he now feared? Had there been nobody there to stop it, to restrict its spread and keep the world sane? It was too late to place restrictions now - the only people who would survive would be madmen without restraint.
Charles spun to his left, pulling up his rifle and aiming along the trench. He should have been alone. To his horror, a masked man emerged from behind a corner, aiming a rifle of his own at the child. Only two thoughts passed through the mind of Charles, as he reflexively pulled the trigger: First was the faint hope he had responded fast enough, and would kill the man first.
Second, that he would be lucky enough to die if he failed.
The world beyond the window was a blur to Edward, a blur that he had never seen. It was the same physical world, with its old trees, grass and fields, but this view showed the new spirit of it all. A new world was blossoming from the seed of the old, with new ideas and perspectives coming to fruition. Some were frightened by the change, and that was understandable. The things that had changed were drastic, and the time taken was short. Edward, however, was unfazed; he had been born into this changing world, so was rarely frightened of it.
The sound of the train’s whistle was muffled by the walls of the cabin, but was nonetheless unmistakable amidst the rumble of the coach’s wheels. Edward quickly shifted in his seat, eager to see what the whistle heralded – to his amazement, the cityscape of London was fast approaching. What normally took him several hours to traverse by carriage had taken only a little over two by railway.
“Such speed!” he mumbled to himself, marveling at the completely Mundane machine.
It was assuredly Mundane, at least. None of the major powers capable of influencing Faults would have had time to assist in the conception of such a wonderful contraption, not with the Sixth Occult War going on. Even without its main instigators, the conclusion of the war had been dragging on for several months now, fueled by ongoing conflicts between stubborn participants, trying to emerge victorious in a war nobody could win. Nobody would have had the time or the resources to create any beneficial Faults for locomotives, nor could they mass produce it on a scale sufficient for their demand.
Of course, Faults were precisely what brought a thaumaturge such as Edward to London. Retrieving it from his pocket, he looked at the telegram he had received shortly before his departure.
|WE MUST SPEAK TAKE LONDON TRAIN IMMEDIATELY|
|ESTABLISHING FOUNDATION OF OCCULT REGULATION|
|TO PREVENT FURTHER WAR REQUIRE ADVICE|
Without a doubt, some description of a vice needed to be placed upon the thaumaturgic world. The only guidelines that existed – the Charlemagne Conscripture – were blatantly ineffective in their duty. The old ages of witch hunting had forced it to be spread by mouth alone, rendering it susceptible to unnoticed alterations both intentional and not. Written records of the Conscripture were drastically conflicting, usually sparking arguments about which were more accurate and which were not. Such debates were part of the ignition to the Sixth Occult War; an attempt to purge heretics who tarnished the rules of thaumaturgy, while finally removing all ineffective interpretations from history.
Again, an unwinnable war. The fact that four Occult Wars had occurred during the lifespan of the Conscripture was proof that it was ineffective.
The train lurched to a halt, prompting everyone within the cabin to collect up their possessions and head to the exits. Edward nervously rose from his seat, unsure if the locomotive would make another abrupt motion. He made sure to steady himself upon nearby seats as a precaution, partially returning to his chain of thought.
What sort of regulations did Cynthia have in mind? How would they be effectuated, and by whom? Perhaps a council would be necessary to ensure the enforcement of the new rules… Edward made a mental note to bring it up with her, as he stepped onto the platform outside the carriage.
Charles sat in his bedroom, quietly reading through his book. It had been an average sort of day, no different from the last and probably no different from the next. Adults were so strange; a little bit of snow on the streets and suddenly school is cancelled, but the actual threat of the Great War only gave them more things to teach. How to put on a gas mask, what to do when you hear sirens, where the safe places in the city were… Charles usually zoned out for those parts. The only thing he actively paid attention to was the news.
There was a very important reason Charles paid the most attention to the news from France, a reason he – nor any son, daughter or mother – could never possibly forget. Losing interest in the paperback book, he set it aside and retrieved the tin lunchbox stashed under his bed. Now here was a story befitting a growing fifteen-year-old; not a story of a strange detective and his wounded assistant, but a true story that was still unfolding. A story of hope, valour, determination, comradery. He opened the tin, looking eagerly at the messy stack of letters within, the date of each plain to see.
Ah, but such a story was not one that should be interrupted. It should be enjoyed in its entirety, start to finish, without intermission or pause. Retellings of the story were only befitting with food and drink on hand. Leaving the tin of letters open on his bed, Charles ventured out of his room and down the steps, heading towards the kitchen. His mother shouldn’t yet be home; she would still be at the factory, working to ensure the soldiers would have what they needed to keep fighting.
The perfect time to snatch a digestive biscuit or two from the pantry, along with a glass of milk. With the war dragging on, food was becoming quite difficult to obtain – the biscuits and milk were supposed to be for celebrations only. Fortunately, reading about the war was perfect cause for celebration, so swiping some was perfectly justified.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, a strange noise caught Charles’ attention. He knew exactly what it was, but it was strange for him to hear it coming from the front room, and from a familiar but distorted voice. His mother wasn’t supposed to be home yet, why was she home so early? Investigation was needed. He crept over to the open doorway as quietly as he could, peering inside.
His mother was sitting at the far end of the room, one hand holding an onionskin letter while the other covered her face as she sobbed. At her feet sat a wooden shoebox, stains of mud evident upon its surface. But it was the letter, the onionskin letter, that caught Charles’ attention the most. He had only seen a letter like that once before, when the government had conscripted his…
Tears welling in his eyes, Charles stepped into the room. His mother, hearing the footsteps, locked eyes with him immediately.
Geliebte Mutter und Vater,
Ich bin froh zu hören, dass es euch gut geht. Wir sind weit weg von Zuhause, dennoch hat die Nachricht des Angriffs uns schnell erreicht. Zweifellos waren es verzweifelte Juden und ihre Unterstützer, die versuchen uns zu schwächen. Ich habe nichts anderes von Feiglingen erwartet - bitte seid vorsichtig bei den Fabriken, vor allem den Wunder-Fabriken.
Es fällt mir schwer zu glauben, dass in eurer Mitte Verräter leben, die planen solche Taten gegen ihr eigenes Land zu begehen. Tausende riskieren hier ihr Leben, sterben weit von Zuhause und ihren Familien, und sie wagen es unsere Heimat zu zerstören, zu versuchen unsere Familien zu töten? Diese "Stiftung" ist nichts als eine Verkleidung des Bolschewismus, eine Plattform für die Unterdrückung Deutschlands. Ich bin sicher, dass der Führer sie zerschmettern wird, wie es solche Untermenschen verdienen.
Uns geht es gut hier draußen. Die Kämpfe werden immer kürzer und kürzer und bisher haben wir weder Boden noch Männer verloren. Wir überrollen sämtliche Feinde mit den Blitzhaubitzen oder feuern ein oder zwei Schüsse ab, wenn es nötig ist. Diese Waffen sind wirklich fantastisch - sie können mit einfach allem geladen und benutzt werden. Meistens haben wir einfach Erde von wo auch immer wir gerade anhalten reingeschaufelt und was auch immer daraus wird auf unsere Feinde geschleudert. Die Explosionen können geradezu spektakulär werden.
Ich muss jetzt gehen - wir stürzen uns bald in die finale Schlacht, die den Krieg für uns entscheiden wird. Wir werden bald Zuhause sein und ich freue mich darauf, euch nach so langer Zeit wiederzusehen. Der Führer wird mit Sicherheit mit uns zufrieden sein, so schnell wie wir die Feinde des germanischen Volkes besiegen. Ich werde euch bald wiedersehen.
Dearest Mother and Father,
I am glad to hear that you are both well. We are far away from home, and yet news of the attacks reached us swiftly. No doubt it is the actions of desperate Jews and their supporters, trying to weaken us. I expected no less from cowards – please be wary about the factories, especially the Wonder-Factories.
I cannot believe that traitors would live amongst you, plotting to do such things against their own country. Thousands have risked their lives here, dying far from home and from their families, and they dare destroy our home, try and kill our families? This "Foundation" is nothing but a disguise of Bolshevism, a platform for the oppression of Germany. I'm sure the Führer will destroy them, like these sub-humans deserve.
We are all well out here. The battles become shorter and shorter, and we have yet to lose any ground or men. We roll over any opposition with the Blitzhaubitzes, or fire a round or two if need be. These weapons are truly marvelous – anything can be loaded into them and used. Most of the time we have just been shoveling in soil from wherever we stop, hurling whatever it becomes at our foes. The blasts can be quite spectacular.
I must go now – we will soon be entering our final battle, after which the war will be ours. I will be glad to come home, to see you both again after so long. I am sure the Führer will be pleased with us all, so quickly defeating the enemies of the Germanic people. I will be home soon.
In another fit of rage, Thomas slammed his fists down upon the desk before him. The force was enough to knock over his inkwell, allowing the black liquid to spill across the handwritten note before him.
Frustration had been getting the better of him for the past several months now. Colonising the New World was proving to be a nigh impossible task; from the moment the colony had been established, its inhabitants had been endlessly harassed by drought, pests and disaster. For several years, both food and water had been dangerously scarce. The colony was almost abandoned completely out of desperation.
Tossing the ruined letter aside, Thomas mopped up the spilt ink with his handkerchief. Even with the colony properly established and running now, expenses had to be carefully monitored and controlled. Ink was by no means a commodity, but it was still an expense, and one that Thomas did not wish to needlessly partake in. He needed to be sure he would always have the finances needed to flee, to bribe whomever necessary so that he could run back to Britain on short notice.
The savages were volatile, functioning solely upon instinct. They had no interest in living upon the unforgiving land, but they showed no comfort in sharing it either. Taking the chief’s daughter had silenced them for a time, until both daughter and father had passed, and a new leader was elected. Yes, a new leader with no apparent sense of sanity or conscious thought, who acted purely out of rage and moved to annihilate the colony in one fell swoop.
What uncertain cowards the savages had been. They knew that they would imminently lose more than they gained alone, so they had defaulted to what they were best at; superstition and spirits. How they had gotten their blasted witchcraft to work was known only by them, but it had without doubt worked. Demons and beings thought to be but mere myth now wandered the land, summoned by the redskins to do their bidding and destroy the colonists. Unfortunately, their deities couldn’t see the difference between native and colonist.
Thousands had died that day. Men, women, children, slaves… everything within the grip of the demons was crushed, tortured, consumed, scorched. Only Jamestown itself had been spared, the settlement armed just enough to stave off the horrors. But everything else was put to waste. Even now, those ungodly creatures wandered through the fields, eating unreaped harvests and cursing the soil. The savages had fled weeks ago, and were yet to be seen or heard of yet; perhaps all of them had perished.
Retrieving a fresh piece of paper and dipping his quill in the almost-empty inkwell, Thomas set about rewriting his destroyed letter. It was the only hope of the colony now, the only solution to the problem. There weren’t enough men remaining to go out and tame the beasts, to purge them from the land. The only solution to this, of course, was to call for more men.
To the most high and mightie King James, by the grace of God King of Great Britaine, France and Ireland.
The world beyond the window was a blur to Edward, a blur that he had never seen. It was the same physical world, with its old trees, grass and fields, but this view showed the new spirit of it all. A new world was blossoming from the seed of the old, with new ideas and perspectives coming to fruition. Some were frightened by the change, and that was understandable. The things that had changed were drastic, and the time taken was short.
A feeling of déjà vu washed over Edward, the strange and inexplicable feeling he had done this before warning him that something had just happened, something that wasn't Mundane. No doubt it was another catastrophic mistake made by some fool fighting in the ongoing Sixth Occult War, some new unstable Fault-place to be used as a hidden battleground. Who knew how long it would take to be cleaned up - chances were, it would probably just end up under lock and key with the Foundation.
Hearing the train's whistle, Edward quickly shifted in his seat to see the fast-approaching cityscape of London. What normally took him several hours to traverse by carriage had taken only a little over two by railway. A shame he was coming under the circumstances he was in; he would have enjoyed to have wandered about London, exploring it as he once had while young. Retrieving the telegram from his satchel, he read it over once more.
|HIS MAJESTYS FOUNDATION REQUIRES ASSISTANCE|
|DIFFICULT FAULT ENCOUNTERED CONSULTATION|
|NEEDED SEEK JOHNATHAN SMITH UPON ARRIVAL|
King James' Foundation was new compared to some of the thousand year-old groups in the occult world, but it was quickly becoming an intimidating powerhouse. Though they were still growing in their understanding of the occult, their actions still carried immense momentum, enough to ensure that their summons wouldn't go unanswered. Many a battle in the Sixth Occult War had been squashed by them, the Faults being confiscated and uncooperative fighters disappearing to who-knows-where. Yes, they were young, but the world knew better than to ignore them.
Assisting them was quite beneficial too. Edward actually enjoyed teaching them what he knew, helping them understand Faults they couldn't figure out themselves. In return they had allowed him to continue with his thaumaturgy, undisturbed by the Foundation as long as he kept to their guidelines. Said guidelines were hardly unreasonable; most of it boiled down to don't hurt people, don't cause trouble and keep the unaware world, unaware. Magnitudes simpler than the Charlemagne Conscripture, and effectively enforced.
Of course, the Sixth Occult War broke many of these guidelines. People were killed, trouble ensued, and the periodic Mundane was dragged into a chaotic and unfamiliar world, all in the name of outdated rules. Understandably, the Foundation was taking extensive actions to end the war immediately; several factions had resigned in the wake of the Foundation's threats. Those who didn't were forcefully dissolved and apprehended, torn from the war and permanently barred from the occult. As far as Edward was concerned, such facts merely made supporting the Foundation all the more morally correct.
Such a shame the Mundane world no longer cared for the Foundation. Witch hunting was viewed quite poorly in this new age, and so were people still partaking in it. Anyone who knew what the Foundation did branded them as witch hunters, unfairly scrutinising them and purging them from memory. Perhaps it was for the best - the Foundation couldn't hope to keep the normal and occult worlds separate while acting as a nexus between them. They would do best fully submerged.
The train lurched to a halt, prompting everyone within the cabin to collect up their possessions and head to the exits. Edward nervously rose from his seat, unsure if the locomotive would make another abrupt motion. He made sure to steady himself upon nearby seats as a precaution, cautiously walking up the aisle to the exit and stepping off the train.
Charles sat in his bedroom, quietly reading through his book. It had been an average sort of day, no different from the last and probably no different from the next. School had been no different to any other day, filled with the same mediocre rounds of classes. Nothing special had happened, no big packet of news, nothing. Ever since he had gotten home, he’d just been reading his book - A Study In Scarlet, a story about a strange detective and his wounded assistant – waiting for his father to get home.
Hearing the faint sound of the front door opening, Charles dropped the aged book to his side, leapt off the bed, and raced down the stairs. Within moments, he was hugging his father, finally home after a hard day’s work.
“Well, I can see you’re excited!”
He was referring to the bicycle trip they had been planning. It wasn’t anything particularly out of the ordinary, but it was still exciting to the fifteen-year-old boy. Because today, together, they would be going further than ever before; today, they would ride beyond the outskirts of London, into the countryside.
“Of course, why wouldn’t I be?”
Not wanting to wait another moment, Charles raced over and grabbed the two bikes leaning against the nearby wall, escorting them to the front door. Finally, something different to do.
“So, what did you do today dad?”
“Nothing interesting, I’m afraid. Just sending some more people over to Germany to fetch one or two things.”
The war had changed.
In another history, a soldier’s loving parents wrote to him about a factory in his home of Germany, mentioning that its instigators – an anti-Reich collective known as “The Foundation” – had been caught and were sentenced to death. In that same history, the proud soldier wrote home to his parents, saying that the war would soon be over; soon, he would be home with them again, their victory assured by fearsome Wunderwaffe.
But that was a different history. That was an old history, one that never happened.
A nameless soldier died in a faraway place, buried in a shared and forgotten grave, hoping his family would be safe in Dresden.
The concrete walls of the bunker were untarnished, a featureless grey. A long desk, befitting of a boardroom, occupied most the room. Thirteen seats were positioned around it; only two were occupied.
“Always wondered what you looked like.”
“Now you know.”
“I wasn’t expecting for you to be-”
Eleven raised a finger to his mouth.
“… Really? We’re about to die, and your worried about the room being bugged?”
“Are the Anchors active?”
“Then we will survive.”
“… They don’t work.”
“You said they were active.”
“They are, but they don’t help. The cascade overloads them, and they fail within minutes.”
Four leaned back in her chair. “Still stone-faced as ever, I see.”
“How do you know they fail?”
“What do you think happened to the others?” She gestured to the empty seats.
“Do you know how this started?” Eleven asked.
“Not the precise details, but… The gist of it seems to have been that Soviet second-strike system, Dead Hand. Turns out, it’s some dodgy semi-corporeal paratech that decided the best counter-strike is a pre-emptive one. They couldn’t wrangle it in time.”
“What about the cascade itself?”
“You know those unstable, extra-spatial places that were made during the Sixth Occult?”
“Such as All Portlands, yes.”
“Dead Hand decided to take a shortcut through one. Punctured a hole where we couldn’t afford to have one.”
“How bad is it?”
“Multiple origin Rat’s Nest event. Try as we might, this isn’t one we can win.”
“At least the Foundation made it this far.”