Chapter One:

Before The Red Star Falls

 

by Stephen Mark Rainey

Dedicated to H. G. Wells

Originally published in
Terminal Fright magazine, issue # 6, October 1994


            “Show me what you have brought.”

          “It’s this,” Melbury said, raising the glittering object in front of Cedric Hayward’s eager eyes. “I had a rather dotty old uncle die, and this was among his property left to me. I fancy it must be worth a pound or three.”

          “I should say!” Hayward exclaimed, his luminous blue eyes widening with excitement. Graeme Melbury had journeyed here from Woking this morning with his newly acquired artifact and now sat in front of the large hickory desk, across from the jeweler. An early afternoon sun streamed in through the windows, turning the ivory walls a warm shade of bronze. Though not inordinately hot, London, during August of 1894, was humid and uncomfortable.

          “I’ve never seen stones like these before,” Hayward murmured. “Not in all my days in South Africa. Blast, the whole item is quite curious! Your uncle wasn’t particularly wealthy, was he?”

          “Hardly. A modest man, if ever there was one. Difficult to imagine him having this hoarded away.”

          The item in question was a spherical, metallic device about the size of a cricket ball, studded with faceted crystals of uncanny size and brilliance. The stones resembled intricately cut diamonds, but their pulsing, reddish hue seemed to suggest that, inside the sphere, a powerful energy seethed in vain attempt to burst its container.

          “My God, it’s heavy,” Hayward remarked with surprise, as Melbury placed it in his hands. “It must be filled with solid gold!”

          Melbury nodded, tweaking the tip of his long moustache. “So, Hayward. How much do you think such a thing could be worth?”

          The jeweler snorted. “You must be joking. I wouldn’t hazard a guess without an in‑depth study. I’m not even sure if these stones are diamonds. And this metal—I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I don’t see how even solid gold could weigh this much. Must be at least 15 to 18 kilograms. And look at this colour: coppery, with a bluish tinge. But it shines so!”

          “I believe it’s hollow.”

          “Impossible,” the burly man said with a scowl. “To weigh this much it must surely be solid.”

          “I would agree with you. But look here.” He pointed to one of the sparkling crystals. “Look deeply into the gem. If you hold it just so, you can see right into it. I’m sure it’s no illusion.”

          Hayward lifted the sphere—not without some effort—up to the golden sunbeams firing through the open window. Turning the object as Melbury had suggested, he peered at the flattened crown of the largest stone, indeed seeing what appeared to be the encased tips of the stones on the opposite side of the sphere. When he passed his hand between the light and the object, the gems blinked out.

          “Remarkable,” Hayward breathed. “But I do believe you have a point. Tell me. Did your uncle ever show this to you or discuss it with you while he was alive?”

          “Never. But in his office safe where he kept this thing, he left a letter for the heir of his estate—which happens to be me, since my nephew’s sad bout with the grippe; God rest his soul. Anyway, there’s no clue as to what the thing is. But the letter describes a long history of Melburys, all of whom have owned it. Quite a mystery, actually.”

           “Yet, you are here with your strange prize. Do you intend to sell it? Do you need money?”

          “It’s not that,” Melbury said with a shake of his head. “Needless to say, my curiosity’s been aroused. According to the letter, this thing has existed for a staggering number of generations—dating back at least 500 years.”

          Hayward blew a harsh lungful of air through pursed lips. “Impossible. Patently impossible. The craftsmanship…”

          “Naturally, I cannot prove it. But the family lineage documented in the letter has been verified by the College of Arms.”

          “An amazing tale,” Hayward said, offering Melbury a conciliatory nod of his balding head. “Well, let us have a look.” He took from his desk a jeweler’s loupe and screwed it gently into the hollow of his eye. Then, moving the sphere onto his cleared desk, he focused on the largest of the sparkling gems, watching the spectral array unfold before him in a dazzling rainbow.

          “My God, it’s incredible!” he blurted. “The colours! My dear Melbury, the thing you have here…!”

          He did not finish his ecstatic exclamation, for at that moment the cloud concealing the sun went about its way, admitting a new cluster of rays through the window. The crystal beneath Hayward’s scrutiny flared with supernal brilliance, and with a deafening crack, a blinding bolt of energy darted straight into Hayward’s loupe. He cried out in shock, falling backwards as the bolt arced from the lens into his client’s incredulous, gaping face. As if guided by an intelligence, the ray found Melbury’s unprotected eye, then flashed out of existence as the room dimmed to its normal state.

          “By the saints!” cried Melbury. “I can’t see! I’m blind!”

          “I, also!” came Hayward’s tortured voice. “Wait…no, my vision is clearing. Thank God…we’re all right, Graeme. We’re going to be all right!”

          Melbury rubbed at his burning eyes, fearing that they had melted in their sockets. Scalding tears poured down his face, and despite Hayward’s comforting words, he could see only a white‑hot field dotted with black stars that swam erratically like maddened fish in a churning ocean. Then….

          Relief! The negative starfield began to fade, and normal colours broke through the taut fabric of his blindness to swirl slowly into recognizable forms—so he thought.

          As his vision returned, he realized that, while he had not gone blind, he must have surely gone stark, raving mad. For he and Hayward no longer occupied a comfortable London office; instead, as if borne on an ethereal wind, they saw a great tableau opening before them, in which they were not participants, but distant, disembodied observers….

 

* * * * *

 

          It was a long, rolling countryside, bisected by a swiftly flowing, crystal blue stream that wound down from a steep, grassy knoll far to the right. Toward the northern horizon, atop a stepped mound of earth, the black, towering mass of the castle Bannockburn loomed against the deepening, violet sky like a giant vulture surveying its realm for carrion.

          Just ahead, a long pit filled with pointed wooden stakes barred passage to the castle; beyond this, as yet unseen, lay many more such trenches.

          The thunder of horses’ hooves was deafening in Sir Thomas Melbury’s ears. His own steed, Firebrand, sensed the danger ahead and hesitated, snuffling uncertainly at his master’s lack of rein. Melbury took heed and slowed his mount, raising an arm to signal a halt. A dozen knights had ridden with him to scout the perimeter of Robert Bruce’s defenses, in advance of the 500 footsoldiers camped a league to the rear. Already, a hundred knights and at least 5,000 soldiers had lost their lives in this struggle to annex Scotland for King Edward II. The evidence of such unspeakable slaughter was clear, for as Melbury approached the pit, he found that dozens of bodies, most already picked clean by scavengers, hung impaled on the stakes. And what he had taken to be stones in the heather ahead could now be identified as the ravaged bodies of fallen men.

          Bruce had overwhelmed the northern reaches of England, burning everything; killing men, women, and children alike before turning and securing himself at Bannockburn, in the hills northeast of Glasgow. England’s former ally openly intended to rule an independent Scotland; during the long ride from York to join with King Edward’s forces, Melbury had learned that the Scottish peasants considered Bruce a great patriot.

          More a butcher, Melbury thought, having witnessed firsthand the brutality of Bruce’s knights. And now, approaching the castle of his enemy, he could only wonder if devil might not be a more appropriate term. For the “patriot” Bruce must have surely made a pact with Satan and gained the power to conjure demons. Melbury, and all his men, had seen the fire in the sky two nights prior: a huge, blazing mass of brimstone that trailed sparks and green smoke as it hurtled earthward. A fantastic concussion had then rocked the countryside, and for the rest of the night, a demoniac, greenish glow tinted the sky above the Comyn Forest, off to the west.

          Since then, no trace could be found of Lord William Camden and his men, who had been advancing on the castle from the west. Nor had a one of Melbury’s runners sent to investigate ever returned. If Camden’s force had been completely wiped out, then the English had lost a full quarter of their numbers. The prospect was unthinkable; yet Melbury could deny neither the evidence of his senses nor the fact of his vanishing runners. Surely, it was witchcraft!

          The day was growing old, and the company had fallen far short of their hopes for reconnaissance due to a skirmish with a band of Bruce’s men during the afternoon. Melbury had been victorious, having lost only one knight—Brüch, the Hun, a loyalist from Monmouth. The rest had come away with minor wounds. But at the cost of time.

          Melbury’s trusted squire, Simon, a sturdy, blond youth of sixteen, now rode up on his mount—Firebrand’s own sibling, a charcoal‑coloured stallion named Greysmoke—and pointed to the west. “Sir Thomas! Do you hear? Strange sounds in the forest! The clashing of metal!”

          Melbury could scarcely hear a thing above the din of the horses and their riders drawing up behind him. But straining to listen, he at last discerned the faintest hammering sound, like a sledge striking a giant anvil. Strangely, along with the noise came the cold, grim feeling that its source must be something so terrible as to threaten to the Almighty Himself. Then, shrugging off this unseemly mood, he nodded to his squire and said, “I hear it. But I am loath to send another man to a virtual certain end.” Turning, he regarded the dozen knights and their squires clustered aft, all studying the terrain attentively. He shouted, “Wycliffe! A moment, please!”

          From the rear of the ranks, an onyx stallion rode forward, carrying a proud figure in polished silver armour, the crimson dragon on his shield and breastplate spitting a great gout of fire. Like Melbury, Sir Roland Wycliffe carried a well‑used mace and a dagger at his right side, with his sheathed sword at his left. His squire rode a horse’s length behind.

          “Have you heard the sounds from the forest?”

          “I have,” Wycliffe said. The knight’s chiseled face dripped with sweat that glistened in his blue‑black moustache and beard. “It is the sound of the Devil’s own smith.”

          “Indeed. I will send no more men into the forest. However, night will fall soon. We must secure a place for our encampment. At this distance from Bruce’s keep, we can risk no fires.”

          “I understand.”

          “I want to press a little farther and find out how many more lines of pits the scoundrels have dug over the next half league or so. Ride close with me. I need your keen eyes and ears. Something about the forest troubles me greatly.”

          “Aye, my lord.”

          Melbury gazed toward the distant treeline, then toward the castle on the horizon, feeling a tremor of apprehension. Over the last few days, King Edward had lost untold numbers of men making direct assaults on the keep. Robert Bruce himself was rumoured to have slain hundreds of Melbury’s countrymen, while the Scots had lost only a token few. Even the King’s celebrated longbows, catapults, and Chinese blasting powder had failed to shake the scoundrel from his stronghold.

          Sir Thomas turned to face the rest of his knights, who regarded him expectantly. The nearest, a stout Welshman named Colwyn from Caernarvon—the King’s own birthplace—held up his lance as a gesture of readiness, his dark, rather brutish mien haggard but alert. Melbury gave him an approving nod and then called out, “Let us ride. Sunset will be upon us all too soon.”

          He spurred his horse, and Firebrand took off at a trot, paralleling the stake‑studded ravine, followed closely by Simon, Wycliffe, and the rest of the company. These traps had cost the King dearly as his columns marched in strict formation, while the Scots charged like madmen, forcing hundreds of English soldiers into the pits beneath the sheer weight of the onslaught. Having learned from the costly mistakes of his predecessors, Melbury had wisely chosen a less obvious approach.

          As they drew nearer to the edge of the dark forest, Melbury’s anxiety increased. Although no sounds crept from its eerie depths at the moment, the trees bore a distinctly sinister aspect. The wood had swallowed too many men and all‑too‑recently voiced the presence of something within that he was certain had no place in God’s creation; a fact all the more troubling because he had hoped to use the forest as a means of concealment. The open spaces leading directly to Bannockburn could easily mean death for such a small company as his, should Bruce send out scouts from his castle. And the already fatigued horses could not possibly carry their riders all the way back to the main camp without a reasonable period of rest.

          Ahead, a cluster of large rocks marked the end of the first stake pit. Only a narrow path between the boulders and the treeline allowed passage beyond. And it was as Melbury began to lead his knights up the path that he heard the clamour to the rear. Drawing quickly to a halt, he turned to see a trio of horsemen galloping furiously toward him, waving the banner of the King and shouting his name. He recognized the leader as Master‑of‑Arms Holmworthy, and there was blood on his pain‑racked face.

          “Sir Thomas, the Scots have sent a column over our guard! They’ve overrun the camp and are moving this way. They mean to pinion us between them and the castle.”

          “That devil, Bruce,” Melbury growled. “How for the love of Christ did we not encounter the column ourselves? What manner of witchcraft concealed them?”

          “They moved in from the east. They must have proceeded along the River Forth and come out this side of Clackmannan. It’s a rout!”

          As if on cue, a distant roar echoed toward them across the fields. And then, to Melbury’s shock, from a glade just beyond the stream behind them, scores of dark silhouettes in the shape of men magically appeared, lining up just south of the first pit. Only a few hundred yards stood between them and the small English band.

          “Damn them!” cried Melbury. “We’ll have to fight.”

          “Into the forest with you!” cried Holmworthy. “There is nothing noble about their brand of slaughter!”

          Melbury, a man of strict honour, could never justify running from a battle. However, the fight was now unavoidable, and knowing the Scottish guard would pursue them without qualm, he nodded to the Master‑of‑Arms, then called, “Simon! My helmet!” The lad tossed him his heavy iron headpiece, which he caught easily and tugged down over his head, lifting the visor so he could be heard. “I do not know what we will find in this place. But we will ride in 400 yards and dismount. We take them on foot. They outnumber us at least ten to one, so we must fight well. Fight well for the King!”

          The knights raised their lances and their voices in response. In counterpoint, the Scotsmen’s own voices rose in a cacophonous roar, and, as one, the line charged. Melbury turned his steed and dashed into the darkness of the trees, his men following faithfully behind. The last remaining sunlight gave up the ghost as the larches and oaks closed in around them, the branches whipping defiantly at Melbury’s armoured limbs. He was forced to duck low several times as branches thick enough to take off his head appeared out of nowhere. All he heard now was the heavy beat of his horse’s hooves, the clanking of his armour and weapons, and the rapid thudding of his heart. Firebrand maneuvered through the underbrush with the surefooted grace that Melbury had trusted for many years, but it was difficult to count the horse’s paces on the erratic course he was forced to take. When he reckoned they had ventured in a good 400 yards, he reined the stallion to a stop and quickly dismounted, simultaneously drawing his blade, which he called Sanguinaire: an irreverent nod to the French, many of whom had met death at its bite. He saw Colwyn materializing out of the darkness to his left, and, just to the right, his faithful Simon was dropping from Greysmoke’s back and drawing his own heavy sword from its scabbard. Melbury felt a pang of regret, realizing that this was certainly to be the lad’s final battle. It was honourable to die here, he told himself; but so much a pity that the squire would never live to see knighthood.

          The Scots roared as they poured into forest. Melbury clumsily ran to his right, motioning for Colwyn and his squire to take up positions among the nearest trees. He saw two steeds bolt and gallop away at their masters’ goadings, while the knights—Sir Drake of Devonshire and Sir Allard of Warwick—took up their heavy maces and readied themselves to meet the charge. The trees, rising like basaltic pillars around them, would slow the Scots enough so that Melbury’s men could draw the first blood. Then, the fighting would begin in earnest.

          He could see a cluster of silver ghosts appearing amid the black towers, and the heavy tramp of hooves loosed a shower of dying leaves upon on his head. Firebrand reared, steam spurting from his flaring nostrils, and Simon moved to calm the horse. But Melbury shook his head, and said, “Let him go. I shan’t be needing him now. Prepare yourself, lad.”

          Simon’s eyes widened momentarily, but his muscles tensed, and his sword rose to salute his master. Melbury’s men lay in wait along a hundred-yard-long line, and if this were to be their final battle, then it would be at a very high cost to the northern land’s “great patriot.” For a moment, Melbury thought he heard a distant clang of metal against metal somewhere behind him, and remembered the horrid glow in the sky from two nights before. Glancing back into the pitch darkness, he saw nary a threat, but felt a quick fluttering in his stomach at the thought of the sorcery that must have been Lord Camden’s final bane. He immediately turned his attention back to the approaching horde; only seconds remained before the first blows were exchanged.

          The thunder among the trees took on the sound of an avalanche; and then Scottish armour was bearing down on the English, the red and blue‑striped seal of the Bruce family shining from every shield and breastplate. A plume of steam was the first thing Melbury saw of the lead horse, as if its nostrils spewed dragon‑flame; then a tall, black stallion, mane flying, leaped a fallen larch, its rider hunkering down in the saddle to avoid the branches overhead. Sir Thomas Melbury’s sword swung upward in a broad arc, to crack loudly against the shaft of the warrior’s giant battle axe. The heavy axe‑head tumbled to the ground, and the rider cried out in a loud voice, “Ye Sassenachs a’hae! Hae!”

          Melbury did not pause, but struck again, aiming his blow at the knight’s arm. With a sharp clang, the blade connected, and a pained cry escaped the rider’s lips. The horse spun to avoid a tree, and with a swift movement, Melbury grabbed its flying reins and pulled, the horse’s own momentum throwing it off balance. The stallion went down with a shriek, toppling its master, who landed on his broken arm. Melbury heard a muffled grunt, and knowing that he had several seconds before the knight could regain his balance, he turned his attention to the next marauder.

          They were swarming now, and the harsh ringing of blade against shield pealed endlessly through the darkness. A huge mass zoomed past Melbury’s head, and he swung blindly, Sanguinaire’s sharp edge cutting into the hindquarters of a steed. The horse stumbled, its armoured rider lurching from the saddle with limbs flailing. Now, Sir Thomas turned back to the first man, who was sluggishly attempting to regain his footing, left hand fumbling for the dagger sheathed at his hip. His right arm hung uselessly, the bone having been shattered by Sanguinaire’s furious blow. Sir Thomas hesitated just long enough for the knight to draw his knife; then he struck with all his strength. The pauldron—the protective metal covering between the arm and shoulder—shattered like rotten tree‑bark beneath his blade, and the knight’s left arm took its leave. The limb fell to earth and jerked once, as a shrill scream of horror and agony erupted from behind the visor of the stricken man’s helmet. A rich spray of blood jetted from the socket, and the body pitched forward to land facedown in the dirt. Instinctively swiveling to address his second foe, Melbury brought his blade up with a smooth motion, catching the rising man beneath the chin, twisting his head around, and cracking his neck. The body dropped like a sawn oak.

          Scotsmen poured through the black forest like a tide of vermin. One horseman was lifted from his saddle by a low‑hanging limb, back snapping with the sound of a powder blast. By now, most of the attackers had realized the futility of a mounted assault and were beginning to dismount to engage their enemy on foot. Already, some of Melbury’s knights faced three, four, or more foes, yet it was mostly Scottish blood soaking the ground. He saw Colwyn’s mace swinging at lightning speed, making contact with a helmet, smashing it inward with a sickening clang‑thunk as bone collapsed beneath metal.

          A blue and red shield rose up in front of Melbury, and a huge wooden mallet swished perilously close to his head. Backstepping, he suddenly found himself overbalancing and falling to the ground, dragged down by his own heavy armour. Above him, the Scot raised the mallet to strike again, and all Melbury could do now was roll sideways in attempt to avoid certain death. But in a flash, a lithe silhouette bounded in front of him, only to take the vicious blow directly in the chest. Simon! The lad’s breath whooshed through his lips as his feet left the ground and his body crashed down atop his knight.

          Through a red mist of pain, Melbury saw Sanguinaire lying only inches beyond his reach; he kicked himself forward, and his fingers closed around the haft. But a pair of iron‑shod feet suddenly appeared before his eyes, and he knew now the killing blow was about to land.

          Then, a tremendous crack shattered the air. In its wake, an unearthly silence fell. Englishman and Scotsman alike froze in mid‑strike, and even the wails of the dying were hushed. Somewhere in the distance, a heavy thud broke the stillness as a great tree struck the ground. Then a piercingly loud, musical wail split the night, rising up through the forest and outward to the stars, as if in supplication to Lucifer himself:

          Uullaah!

          A brilliant flash of white light transformed the forest into a weird chiaroscuro, followed by a concussion louder than any powder blast mortal ears had ever heard. Just in front of him, an invisible blade cleaved a white oak, its upper portion crashing down upon several frozen Scots. And the pair of armoured legs that belonged to Melbury’s would‑be killer toppled over—severed above the knees. The ruined stumps were charred black, laced with streams of molten metal.

          No trace remained of the rest of the body.

          An acrid stench assailed Melbury’s nostrils: the odor of scorched wood and roasted flesh. A cloud of smoke rolled over him, and he coughed painfully, trying to heave the weight of his squire from his back.

          He heard a quavering moan.

          “Simon! Are you badly injured?”

          “Can’t…breathe.”

          “Let me up!”

          Obediently, the wounded youth slid onto cold earth, allowing Melbury to rise to a crouch. Gazing into the green haze several hundred yards away, he saw something moving against the backlit trees and heard the crack of limbs and trunks being smashed as if by a great weight. Another white flash stung his eyes, and this time, to his right, as if a gigantic, invisible scythe had swung through the forest, row upon row of trees split just above the heads of the transfixed warriors, the boughs bursting immediately into bright, roaring flame.

          “Mary, mother of all saints,” whispered Melbury, now as transfixed as the rest. For the first time in his life, he felt his heart stutter with pure, childish terror. The monstrous cry rose again, as if from the throat of some unearthly bird of prey: Ullaah! Ullaah!

          The moving shape drew nearer, pushing down trees as if they were twigs: a mighty behemoth, or the Devil himself, marching toward them with two fiery eyes focused upon the knights. The pounding of its feet against the earth sent cold waves of nausea through Melbury’s bowels. He tightened his grip on his sword, desperately fighting the instinctive urge to flee. He dimly heard a scream, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw a man stagger out of an inferno, his helmet gone, hair and beard ablaze. He fell seconds later, to jerk pathetically on the ground with a last agonized sob.

          That poor Scot, Melbury thought, might be the luckiest man on the battlefield tonight.

          A tree crashed down 20 yards to Melbury’s right. Now, even young Simon, clutching his chest, rose to his knees, eyes as big as saucers, to watch the spectacle unfolding.

          With a mechanical whine, the thing strode into clear view: a monstrous insect, so it seemed, stalking purposefully on three segmented legs, moving with a rhythmic, loping motion. But the body, Melbury saw, was a glittering engine of bluish metal, its underside high enough to pass above the head of even the tallest man. Several snakelike projections hung from its lateral and ventral surfaces, and these whipped back and forth as if questing for prey. Translucent, pupil‑less eyes glared from beneath an arced metal carapace, and for a moment, Melbury thought he saw a dark, bulky silhouette moving behind them. Below the glassy orbs, a long, tubular snout protruded ominously, like a mosquito’s stinger, seemingly designed to draw the lifeblood from a man with a single, quick stab.

          But a second later, Melbury realized his error, for the tip of this projection flashed brightly, and again, a swath of trees and men were cleared by an invisible force which sent up new gouts of flame and smoke, accompanied by the shrill screams of burning men.

          “This cannot be the work of that bastard Bruce,” he muttered, for most of the victims of this Satanic eidolon were themselves Scots. But Sir Drake had also gone down under that last terrible volley, Melbury realized as he saw the emblem on one of the shields that littered the ground.

          A new sound took over the forest: the panicked cries of men whose nerves had been shattered. No longer transfixed, knights, footsoldiers, and squires were bolting blindly before the advancing monstrosity, their iron wills reduced to mere slag.

          Then, a strange thing happened. The monster swiveled with uncanny quickness, its snout angled toward a point a few hundred yards beyond the retreating warriors. The tube flashed again, and a wall of trees collapsed in flames, so that the left flank of the retreating body was now cut off. The tripod then began a quick, deliberate stride southward, cutting across the course of the retreat, again creating a barricade of shattered trees and rising flames. A number of lucky Scots had already made it past the fireline, and Melbury found himself wishing them godspeed. But another odd event now occurred: from behind the carapace of the stalking horror, a barrel‑shaped cylinder zoomed aloft with a sharp cracking sound, blasting its way through the upper branches and hurtling skyward, trailing a plume of thick black smoke. Half a minute later, from somewhere out in the meadow, came the deep, thudding crash of its impact.

          There followed a chorus of frightened cries from the unseen escapees. And within seconds, they fell silent.

          The monster had now turned the retreat from east to south, and with amazing quickness, the giant tripod turned to intercept the fleeing Scots, unleashing another invisible, fiery tongue ahead of it. The thing had successfully blocked all avenue of escape, except to the west—the direction whence it came, where the sky had been tinged with green on the night of this horror’s birth.

          Where Lord William Camden and his army must have surely met their doom.

          A groan rose from close at hand. Melbury saw a bloody face that he vaguely recognized; it was Colwyn, somehow still standing, his cleaved breastplate leaking blood. He shambled to Melbury’s side and placed a hand on his shoulder for support.

          “Armageddon,” he whispered. “This is the end of the world.”

          “It destroys Scots and the King’s men alike,” whispered Simon. “It is the Devil himself.”

          “It is an engine,” Melbury said. “Made of metal. Perhaps there are men inside of it.”

          Colwyn spat. “Men! Who? The French?” He laughed spitefully, then broke down into a fit of pained coughing.

          Heavy footsteps approached from the left. Sir Roland Wycliffe stepped into view, his helmet gone; a long scar drawn down his right cheek leaked blood freely. “It will be back upon us in a minute,” he said. “And the bloody Scots will trample us in their panic.”

          Melbury smelled smoke. The fire was creeping closer. “We must either retreat to the west…or make a stand here.”

          “Melbury!” cried Wycliffe. “Those men will crush us before we can land a blow to that devil! And do you mean to fight it with these?” He held up his sword. “Pah!”

          “Sir Thomas,” said Colwyn, his voice thick with pain. “May I suggest…an honourable retreat?”

          The din of the approaching stampede rose with each passing second. With a reluctant nod, Melbury called out, “Into the forest, then, though we may well come upon the lair of this demon!” He glanced around and saw a couple of horses tramping nervously in place nearby. He sent Colwyn’s squire after them, with orders to assist his injured master into a saddle. Then, to his amazement, he saw that, in the glow of the creeping blaze, Firebrand had materialized as if by silent command. A wide smile broke out on Melbury’s face as he ran clumsily to the horse and grasped its reins, stroking its muzzle soothingly.

          “Simon, into the saddle with you,” he ordered, leading the stallion back to his injured squire. “You shall ride.”

          “No, my lord. He us…yours!”

          “No longer,” he said. “And argue not!” Then, helping the young man to his feet, he hoisted Simon into the saddle. He patted the leather bags draped over the horse’s crupper armour. And then, a tiny light of hope flashed in the darkness of his heart.

          “Come on, then!” he called. “Death is close at hand!”

          The remnant of Melbury’s company—six knights, five squires and the three horses—broke into a run, the knights clumsy in their heavy armour, slowed further by various wounds. Melbury didn’t hold out much hope for Colwyn, and he feared for young Simon as well. For that matter, it would be blind luck if the panicked horde hurtling toward them did not mow them down before they could even reach the demon’s den.

          The underbrush grew thick and tangled, and men constantly fell and picked themselves up, occasionally discarding shields, helmets, even gauntlets. The clamour from behind kept pace with them, gaining very slowly, if at all. But a few of the Scots’ horses caught up with them and passed them, some with riders, some without, none paying the Englishmen a moments’ heed. Old enmities were forgotten under the threat of a soul-damning death approaching from beyond this world.

          An untold distance from the scene of battle, disoriented and ready to drop from fatigue, Melbury now caught a glimpse of greenish light ahead that sent a thrill of fear up and down his spine. His legs, propelled by momentum, were slow to obey his mental command to halt. But a cluster of chalky‑looking boulders loomed ahead of him, and he aimed himself directly toward the nearest, extending his arms to absorb the shock of impact. As he careened into the natural barricade, he collapsed against the cold stone, barely able to keep from falling onto his belly. The company drew to a stop, some by simply dropping to the ground.

          All panting and near fainting, each man fixed his gaze on what lay ahead. From behind, the sounds of screams tore through the wood, and the monster’s thudding footsteps could again be heard as well, for it had gained considerably upon its prey. The horses danced in agitation, their nostrils flaring, their eyes bright with terror.

          “Trapped,” muttered Sir Roland, gazing hopelessly to the rear. “Fire to the north and south, Hell and the Devil to fore and aft. Herded here like sheep!”

          Melbury was about to relate his plan, when suddenly, Colwyn’s squire, a lad of fifteen, shrieked like a girl whose belly had been slit. Turning, he saw the youth’s body lifted from the ground and pulled quickly over the top of the boulder. A split second later, Colwyn himself let out a yell and fell from his saddle, landing heavily in a heap upon the stony earth. His horse reared and broke, disappearing in a thunder of hooves. And before Melbury’s shocked eyes, the knight was dragged into darkness, where he loosed a pitiful, resigned cry that was then silenced forever by something that uttered a harsh, gurgling cough.

          “Christ!” screamed Wycliffe, reaching for the mace at his right hip. But his fingers never closed on its haft, for his legs were torn from beneath him by something that wormed its way past the nearest boulders and encircled his ankles. Then he, too, was dragged out of sight, screaming.

          Without thinking, Melbury leaped for his steed, fingers working at the straps that secured his leather‑wrapped bundles. At the periphery of his vision, he glimpsed a pair of luminous disks the size of wagon wheels, then something incredibly strong wrapped itself around his waist and pulled him away from the horse. Firebrand let out an almost human screech of terror and bolted, to be immediately swallowed by the depths of the forest. Melbury’s feet left the ground, and his back brutally struck the boulder he had used to brake his mad flight.

          But he still held his precious bundles. He hugged them to his chest as if they were children, refusing to let go, no matter the force that gripped him. He saw a dark, leathery cord around his waist, pulling him backward over the rocks and along the mossy earth, toward a dark mass he thought was a mud-encrusted boulder.

          But the boulder suddenly grew huge, shining eyes that gazed incuriously at him, and he heard a bear‑like grunt issue from the half‑seen shape.

          “Good Christ!” he shouted, releasing one of his packages to fumble for his dagger. “Good Christ!”

          As he took hold of the haft and ripped the blade from its sheath, he heard a shrill scream close by; he thought it came from Sir Allard. But he could spare no attention to the death‑throes of another. With all his strength, he plunged the dagger into the leathery tendril that encircled his waist. A greenish fluid sprayed into his face, burning his skin like acid. And a high, demonic screech drilled into his brain, issued from a gaping orifice beneath the eyes of the thing that held him.

          The next sound he heard was his own scream, blending with the voice of the monster, rising toward the heavens in dirge‑like harmony. Green light washed over him in heatless waves, and he caught a last glimpse of the saucer‑shaped eyes glaring at him with the fires of Hell burning in their depths.

          Then, he knew nothing more.

 

* * * * *

 

          He woke to a leaden sky and the sounds of strange hammering echoing from a distance. For several moments, he had no idea where he was or what had happened; he was mainly conscious of a sharp pain in his temples and a pressure behind his eyes. An acrid, smoky odor drifted on the cold morning breeze, and he heard a low, agonized moan come from somewhere nearby. He turned his head to search for the source, only to feel a white‑hot stab of pain in his neck and shoulders.

          Then, remembering last night’s slaughter, he forced himself to remain silent and motionless. He was lying on his back in a clearing of some sort, for his view of the sky was unobscured. The nearest trees looked to be 20 to 30 yards away. Glancing toward his feet, he saw that his body was intact, still armoured, but weaponless.

          His powder bags were gone.

          Then he became aware of a deep, throbbing noise rising from somewhere nearby; not loud, but low and powerful. And then, most horrible of all, came a series of garbled grunts and thick muttering sounds, articulated with the cadence of a language—but spoken by no human tongue. Turning his head ever so slowly, he sought the origin of this devilish utterance.

          And when his eyes beheld the sight, he had to bite back a scream, for a lingering shred of sanity assured him that releasing it would sign his death warrant.

          Three bodies hung upside down from tethers connected to a strange, metallic gibbet; bodies that were missing heads and portions of limbs, all gutted like deer following a successful hunt. One of the heads—Sir Colwyn’s—rested on a silvery pedestal, the crown of its skull shorn away to expose a hollow cavity. And close to it, strapped to a metal litter by leathery bindings, Sir Roland, naked, the muscles in his arms and legs straining, the cords in his neck standing out in stark relief as he struggled to escape.

          And beyond him, three great masses of glistening, wet leather, possessed of piercing, luminous eyes, their filthy grey bulks girdled by arrays of long, crinoid arms that waved in the air like sea-stalks in a strong current. The tips of several tendrils were coiled about evil‑looking, glittering devices, their functions made hideously apparent by their long, curved blades and barbed hooks. The three demons gurgled and whistled to each other in their own Satanic tongue, their attention focused solely on their task; they paid no mind to Melbury or any of the other prone men who lay scattered around the encampment—whether living or dead, Melbury could not say.

          Beyond these monstrosities, the engine that had wreaked havoc among the knights stood motionless near the treeline, beside the walls of what appeared to be a great, circular crater, at least 50 yards in diameter. This, then, was indeed the domain of this horror from the skies, these emissaries of Satan who appeared to operate without favouritism toward either Robert Bruce or the crowned King of England. It was from the machine that the low throbbing sound arose.

          He suddenly heard a hoarse curse from Wycliffe’s tongue—then a small, childish sob. Looking back at him, Melbury saw one of the infernal devices in a coiled tendril lowering slowly to Sir Roland’s chest; and a high‑pitched scream exploded from the knight’s mouth with enough force to ruin his vocal cords, for from then on, his mouth gaped and tongue spasmed, but no sound came forth other than a whisper of breath. The second of the three monsters, the vivisectionist, moved closer to peer into the crevice slowly opening in Wycliffe’s chest; one of the other arms lowered a tool which suctioned away the purple blood raging from the wound. Another arm inserted a shining, glass‑tipped rod into the chest cavity, and Melbury saw a flash of light and wisp of smoke rise from the body, which continued to jerk and writhe in its constraints.

          Mercifully, after only a few more seconds, Sir Roland’s struggles ceased. Only a reflexive jerking of his fingers indicated that life had ever coursed through the obscene slab of meat secured to these butchers’ table.

          Melbury’s own chest felt as if it had been savaged. God, the cold‑bloodedness! Never could he have envisioned such brutality, not from the most ruthless human foe! Would that all the men under Robert Bruce’s command descend upon this place and wipe every trace of it from existence. Surely, the very presence of these things was an abomination, an affront to God. At the cost of his life, he must attempt to expunge these monsters from the land!

          But how to do it? Any movement he made would likely alert his captors. And none of the men lying on the ground appeared to be in any condition to assist him. His eyes desperately searched the clearing for any sign of his powder bags. They, surely, represented his only hope against these devils. But he had lost them somewhere, very likely back in the trees.

          Melbury saw one of the metal devices lower into Sir Roland’s opened chest, to emerge with a deep red, dripping organ dangling from one pincered end. The eyes of the beasts seemed to study the heart curiously, as if such a vital organ might be inconceivable to their demoniac brains. Another tool began its exploratory penetration of the body with sickening, wet crunching sounds, and Melbury turned his eyes away, afraid of attracting the monsters’ attention by voiding his stomach.

          Then, a movement at the edge of the clearing caught his eye. He dared to lift his head, ignoring the pain in his neck and shoulders, and suddenly his heart leaped. Simon! His squire, still alive, though obviously in great pain, slowly crawling across the mossy earth toward him!

          And slung over Simon’s shoulder, one of Melbury’s precious bags of blasting powder.

          Blessed Saviour! Melbury glanced at the monsters, who were still engaged in their work to the exclusion of all else. Knowing now what he had to do, he slowly rolled onto his belly, cursing the clatter of his armour, alert for any sign that the devils had taken notice of his movement.

          For now, they showed none. Melbury slowly, as silently as possible, crawled forward to meet his squire, praying only for enough strength to fulfill the new purpose for which God Himself had commissioned him.

 

* * * * *

 

          It took nearly fifteen minutes to cover as many yards. He moved as slowly as the sun passing overhead, his armour still occasionally rattling frightfully; but if the monsters took any notice of him, they gave no sign. Perhaps they realized that their captives posed no threat and were content to allow them certain minimal movements. But Melbury could not bring himself to rise or increase his speed, for a single mistake could result in his sharing Wycliffe’s fate so much the sooner.

          As he reached Simon, he whispered, “The bag. Pass me the bag.”

          His squire was surely just this side of death. His face had gone pale, almost ghostly, his eyes shrunken into their sockets. A thin black line of blood dripped from his lower lip and down his chin. But Simon carefully pulled the leather bag from his back and slid it into Melbury’s waiting hands.

          Glancing toward the great tripod, Sir Thomas saw his opportunity. Beneath the belly of its arachnid‑like body, a darkened portal to its interior hung tantalizingly open. The beasts were so massive, so heavy‑looking; surely they could not intercept him before he reached their machine. Indeed, as the monsters worked, their bear‑sized bodies quivered and pulsated but remained rooted to their spots, as if their great weight rendered them almost immobile. Only their multitudes of tentacles displayed quickness and agility.

          He began a somewhat faster crawl toward the tripod, protectively cradling his powder bag. But then he discovered how wrong he had been about the devils’ apparent incognizance. Before he had gone another yard, one of the beasts emitted a deafening, bird‑like whistle, and three pairs of huge eyes rolled to regard him with unmistakable fury. With a sickening rustling sound, one of the bodies began to slide toward him, propelled by a set of thicker appendages low to the ground. Its charge was hardly lightning fast; yet it moved with ominous purpose and more quickly than Melbury would have expected. He realized now that, weighed down by his armour, he would not be able to gain his footing and reach the engine before the thing was upon him.

          “Sir Thomas!” cried Simon, somehow rising to his knees. “Give it to me! Quickly!” He reached for the powder bag without waiting for Melbury’s assent, and ripped it from his grasp.

          Then, by some miraculous strength of will, the injured youth struggled to his feet and stumbled toward the tripod, clutching his burden for the sake of his life. Melbury had gotten as far as his knees, and the weight of his armour threatened to topple him. Then, one of the advancing monster’s tentacles rose, brandishing a transparent tube that ended with a jewel‑studded, metallic sphere. Inside the tube, a light quickly flared, transforming the sphere into a brilliant, miniature sun. A sharp pain suddenly exploded in Melbury’s head, and his body was rendered utterly immobile. He heard a low buzzing sound in his ears, and he feared that his brain had begun to boil. His senses suddenly felt ravaged, and something—an unknown, vital piece of himself—seemed to be ripped from him as mercilessly as Wycliffe’s heart had been torn from his chest.

          Just shy of fainting and shocked by the sudden, strange emptiness inside him, he managed to turn his eyes back to the machine. Simon was staggering, but wearing only chain mail, he was able to move with greater speed and agility than an armoured knight. The other two devils were now charging at him with surprising speed; but they were too late. The squire fell against one of the machine’s legs, reaching into his hip pouch for his flint. Melbury’s heart soared, though he realized that only moments of life now remained for both himself and the lad.

          The arrogance of the devils had sealed their doom. Simon painfully heaved himself through the gaping hatch into the tripod’s belly. For a moment, Melbury feared the squire was going to lose his grip and fall to the ground. But again, determination overcame his pain and fatigue. He disappeared in the dark opening only seconds before his pursuers reached the engine.

          Melbury was now forced to turn his attention to his own attacker, which now brandished another horrible, bladed weapon. Still frozen by the fiery sphere wavering before him, he took a deep breath, and prepared himself for the deadly blow surely about to strike him down. The demon’s eyes focused coldly on him, transmitting a loathing and hatred as deep as his own.

          Then, as if in slow motion, the huge bulk was swept away by a roiling burst of flame, and Melbury’s eardrums shattered with the sound of the explosion. He felt a hot wind roasting his exposed flesh and saw a multitude of brilliant golden tongues lapping at his armour. And he was tossed backward with such force that his feet were torn from his boots. He hit the ground on his back, all the wind driven painfully from his lungs; his field of vision became a black sea dotted with white stars that reeled before him at nauseating speed.

          When his sight returned, it was to see a smoking ruin where the monstrous engine had stood; its legs had been blasted from their mounts and were now only twisted pieces of metal wrapped grotesquely around the neighbouring trees. The spiderlike body lay on its side, its “eyes” completely obliterated, the portal that Simon had entered now three times its former size, edges jagged and curled outward.

          Of the three monsters, only one of them remained even partially intact—the one that had attacked Melbury. It lay in a heap several yards to his left, gushing yellow‑green ichor, its eyes crushed and leaking thick, steaming fluid. Its remaining tendrils quivered and jerked like those of a broken insect, and its ruined body continued to pulsate weakly for several endless minutes. Finally, with a wet, gurgling hiss, the mortal thing expired, its grey-brown skin turning quickly black as if a torch had been applied to it.

          Melbury drew a long sigh of relief, though the effort hurt him to his soul. Poor, brave Simon! The youth had died a knight, the best and Godliest of them all. Somehow, Melbury had to live, to escape the remains of this evil lair so that Simon’s story might be told.

          He managed to roll painfully onto his belly and saw that his right hand was nothing more than a blistered, reddened mass of useless flesh. His sword‑wielding days had come to an end. His feet, thank God, remained attached to his legs, and while he felt no pain as yet, he could not even guess at the damage done to his body. He hoped that, someday, he might be able to walk again.

          A glimmer of light to his left caught his eye. Turning painfully, he saw, embedded in the ground near him, the strange, metallic sphere studded with brilliant, pinkish gemstones that had capped the evil tube. Melbury reached for it with his better hand and tried to grasp the curious object. Alas, the thing was of incredible weight, for all he could do was fumble it toward him across the ground. But this, he swore, would be his prize, his reminder of the Lord’s victory over Satan, and a symbol of Simon’s ultimate sacrifice.

          A talisman to be preserved forever.

          He did not hear when the trio of knights—the remnant of his army, whose encampment had been decimated by the Scots—staggered into the clearing and found him lying facedown on the mossy earth, only to believe him dead. Their faces fell aghast when they saw the remains of the great machine, the ruined corpses of countless men, and the blasphemous pile of blackened flesh that oozed greenish blood. Only when Sir Thomas Melbury groaned in the throes of some dream or memory did they realize that human life remained anywhere in this forest.

 

* * * * *

 

          “My God!” exclaimed Hayward, gazing in supreme shock at his ashen‑faced companion. “Oh, my God!”

          “We saw it. You saw it, didn’t you?”

          Graeme Melbury nodded slowly, staring at the spherical horror resting innocuously on Hayward’s desk. “They came from another world…another dimension. This thing cannot belong to our planet!”

          Outside, night had fallen. They had been under the spell of this infernal device for several hours!

          “What does this mean, Melbury?” Hayward whispered. “What is it telling us?”

          Suddenly, an emerald light filled the room, and both men rushed to the window to peer outside. High above, piercing the veil of night like a flaming spearhead, a brightly burning mass sped across the sky, descending steadily as it neared the western horizon. Shortly, a green flash like summer lightning briefly banished the darkness, and several moments later, a deep concussion shook the walls of Hayward’s office, tilting the portrait of his grandfather that hung above the desk. As the flare diminished, a pale swash of green-tinted light painted the horizon, somewhere in the vicinity of Woking—Melbury’s own home!

          “It will be different this time,” Melbury whispered. “Before, they came here to learn. What have they learned during all these years?”

          Hayward shook his head, and the question remained unanswered. But Melbury knew that the answers would be forthcoming soon enough, and he dreaded them. For now, he knew he had to return home; his wife and their son Nathanael would be there alone, and God only knew how near the thing had fallen to his own neighbourhood. Already, she would be wondering what could have become of him.

          He hurried away, taking the evil eye of the monstrous machine with him, intent on casting it away, for fear of what other dreadful power the thing might manifest.

          Before Melbury’s carriage even left Hounslow, the crowds of people who had gathered in the streets had begun to whisper the news about the cylinder that had landed in Horsell Common.



Story © 1993 Stephen Mark Rainey.  Reprinted with the permission of the author.

WAR WORLDS