Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World
Chapter 17: Stern's Resolve
How long it lasted, what its meaning, its details, the watchers could not tell. Impossible, from that height and in that gloom, broken only by an occasional pale gleam of moonlight through the drifting cloud-rack, to judge the fortunes of this primitive war.
They knew not the point at issue nor yet the tide of victory or loss. Only they knew that back and forth the torches flared, the war-drums boomed and rattled, the yelling, slaughtering, demoniac hordes surged in a swirl of bestial murder-lust.
And so time passed, and fewer grew the drums, yet the torches flared on; and, as the first gray dawn went fingering up the sky there came a break, a flight, a merciless pursuit.
Dimly the man and woman, up aloft, saw things that ran and shrieked and were cut down--saw things, there in the forest, that died even as they killed, and mingled the howl of triumph with the bubbling gasp of dissolution.
“Ugh! A beast war!” shuddered the engineer, at length, drawing Beatrice away from the window. “Come, it’s getting light, again. It’s too clear, now--come away!”
She yielded, waking as it were from the horrid fascination that had held her spell-bound. Down she sat on her bed of furs, covered her eyes with her hands, and for a while remained quite motionless. Stern watched her. And again his hand sought the revolver-butt.
“I ought to have waded into that bunch, long ago,” thought he. “We both ought to have. What it’s all about, who could tell? But it’s an outrage against the night itself, against the world, even dead though it be. If it hadn’t been for wasting good ammunition for nothing--!”
A curious, guttural whine, down there in the forest, attracted his attention. Over to the window he strode, and once again peered down.
A change had come upon the scene, a sudden, radical change. No more the sounds of combat rose; but now a dull, conclamant murmur as of victory and preparation for some ghastly rite.
Already in the center of the wood, hard by the spring, a little fire had been lighted. Even as Stern looked, dim, moving figures heaped on wood. The engineer saw whirling droves of sparks spiral upward; he saw dense smoke, followed by a larger flame.
And, grouped around this, already some hundreds of the now paling torches cast their livid glare.
Off to one side he could just distinguish what seemed to be a group engaged in some activity--but what this might be, he could not determine. Yet, all at once a scream of pain burst out, therefrom; and then a gasping cry that ended quickly and did not come again.
Another shriek, and still a third; and now into the leaping flames some dark, misshapen things were flung, and a great shout arose.
Then rose, also, a shrill, singsong whine; and suddenly drams roared, now with a different cadence.
“Hark!” said the engineer. “The torchmen must have exterminated the other bunch, and got possession of the drums. They’re using ‘em, themselves--and badly!”
By the firelight vague shapes came and went, their shadows grotesquely flung against the leafy screens. The figures quickened their paces and their gestures; then suddenly, with cries, flung themselves into wild activity. And all about the fire, Stern saw a wheeling, circling, eddying mob of black and frightful shapes.
“The swine!” he breathed. “Wait--wait till I make a pint or two of Pulverite!”
Even as he spoke, the concourse grew quiet with expectancy. A silence fell upon the forest. Something was being led forward toward the fire--something, for which the others all made way.
The wind freshened. With it, increased the volume of smoke. Another frightened bird, cheeping forlornly, fluttered above the tree-tops.