BEFORE THE RED STAR FALLS
Dedicated to H. G. Wells
©1993 Stephen Mark Rainey
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
Melbury nodded, tweaking the tip of his
long moustache. “So, Hayward. How much do you think such a thing could
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
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
“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,
* * * * *
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
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
“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 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
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
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
“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
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
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:
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?”
“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,
“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:
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
“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
Melbury smelled smoke. The fire was
creeping closer. “We must either retreat to the west…or make a stand
“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
“Simon, into the saddle with you,” he
ordered, leading the stallion back to his injured squire. “You shall
“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
“Come on, then!” he called. “Death is close
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
* * * * *