The old gods and creatures of myth are awakening to reclaim contemporary Britain as their own again. When Jack Churchill and Ruth Gallagher encounter a terrifying, misshapen giant beneath a London bridge they are plunged into a mystery which portends the end of the world as we know it. All over the country, the ancient gods of Celtic myth are returning to the land from which they were banished millennia ago. Following in their footsteps are creatures of folklore: fabulous bests, wonders and dark terrors. As technology starts to fail, Jack and Ruth are forced to embark on a desperate quest for four magical items – the last chance for humanity in the face of powers barely comprehended.
Published by Gollancz (1999) & Pyr (2009)
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“What’s what?” The traffic was too heavy for Church to take his eyes off the road.
“A flash of light in the sky over to the south west.”
“A UFO? I can give you Barry Riggs’ number if you like. I’m sure he’d like to take you to his secret base.”
“Maybe it was lightning,” Ruth mused, still searching the skies.
“Actually, Salisbury Plain’s over there somewhere,” Church continued. “They had a big UFO flap down near Warminster in the sixties when all the believers and hippies used to gather on the hill-tops to wait for the mothership to come.” He glanced in the mirror to see if Tom would rise to the bait, but the hippie ignored his gaze.
There was another flash and this time they all saw it; among the clouds, lighting them in an orange burst like a firework. “That’s not lightning,” Church said. “It’s more like a flare.” His attention had wavered from the road and he had to brake sharply to avoid hitting the car in front which had slowed down as the driver was also drawn to the lights.
“How long until you can get off this road?” Tom asked sharply.
“We don’t need to get off this road.”
The tone of his voice snapped Church alert. “Not long. There’s a junction on the outskirts of Swindon. Why?” Church glanced in the mirror, but Tom had his face pressed against the passenger window scanning the night sky.
There was another burst of light somewhere above them, so bright Church saw the ruddy glare reflected on the roofs of the cars around. Ruth gasped in shock.
“What’s going on?” Church thumped the horn as another distracted driver strayed across the line into his lane. “There’s going to be a pile-up in a minute!”
Ruth tried to crane her neck to see upwards through the windscreen. “I think there’s something up there,” she said.
“Probably the army on helicopter manoeuvres with no thought for anyone else as usual,” Church said. “Jesus Christ!” He swung the wheel to avoid hitting a motorbike weaving in and out of the traffic. The rider kept glancing up at the sky in panic as he gunned the machine. Cold water washed up Church’s spine. The traffic had become more dense with no space to overtake. He was glad he was in the slow lane with the hard shoulder available for any drastic evasive action.
Tom was becoming more anxious. “We must leave this traffic as soon as possible,” he stressed.
“I’m doing the best I can,” Church snapped. “Do you think I can pick up the car and run with it?”
Ahead of them something big swept across the motorway about thirty feet off the ground. It was just a blur, a block of darkness against the lighter night sky, but its size and speed made Church catch his breath.
“What the hell was that?” he exclaimed.
“My God,” Ruth whispered in awe. “Was that alive?”
The shock of the sight rippled back through the vehicles in a slewing of wheels and a sparking of brake lights. A red Fiesta gouged a furrow along the side of a Beetle before righting itself. There was a burst of exploding glass as a car in the centre lane clipped the one in front. Both cars fishtailed but miraculously kept going.
Church was afraid to take his eyes off the road, but he had the awful feeling that something terrible was about to happen. He wound down the window; above the rumble of the traffic he could hear an odd noise, rhythmic, loud, like the rending of thick cloth. After a second or two he suddenly realised what it sounded like: the beating of enormous wings.
He shifted the rear-view mirror. Reflected in it was Tom’s troubled face, his jaw set hard. “What’s going on?” Church barked. “You know, don’t you?”
Before Tom could answer, a column of fire blazed from the black sky on to a blue Orion, shattering all the windows with one tremendous blast and a split-second later igniting the petrol tank. The car went up like it had been bombed. And then all hell erupted.
A shockwave exploded out, driving chunks of twisted metal and burning plastic like guided missiles, shattering windscreens, careening off roofs and bonnets, imbedding in doors and wings. The vehicles closest to the blast were the first to go. Some were travelling too fast and simply ploughed into the inferno. Others, attempting to avoid it, swerved, clipped other vehicles and set off a complex pattern of ricochets that rippled across the motorway. A lorry, its windscreen a mass of frosted glass, crushed a Peugeot before slamming into the side of a bus. The bus driver fought with the wheel as his vehicle went over on two wheels, then back on the other two, before toppling over completely in a bone-juddering impact that crushed two more cars. Church caught sight of terrified white faces through glass and felt his stomach churn.
And then there was chaos as vehicles thundered into each other, smashing through the central reservation, piling up twisted wreckage in a deafening Wagnerian cacophony of exploding glass, screeching tyres and rending metal until it seemed all six lanes were filled with death and destruction. The flames leapt from collision to collision, feeding on ruptured petrol tanks, until a wall of fire blazed across the whole of the motorway. Another column of fire lanced down from the heavens, blowing up a living fountain of flame that soared high above their heads.
Their ears rang from the noise, and the sudden, awful smell of thick smoke and petrol engulfed them as Church threw the car on to the hard shoulder. Behind them and to the side, cars were still smashing into the carnage. Ruth thought she could hear terrible screams buried in the sounds of wreckage, but she convinced herself it was just an illusion. A juggernaut jackknifed and was lost to the fire. A motorcyclist skidded along at ground level, his arms raised in a futile attempt to ward off the inevitable. And more, and more, too much to bear. They turned their heads away as one, and Church gunned the accelerator, launching the car forward. The nearside wheels churned up mud and grass on the bank; the rear end skidded wildly, but he kept his foot to the floor. As they approached the inferno at breakneck speed, Ruth screamed and threw her arms across her face, Tom dropped flat on the seat and Church closed his eyes and whispered a prayer.
The heat made his skin bloom and he half-expected the glass to implode, but then they were through it and racing across the empty motorway ahead.
“God,” Ruth said in shock. She clasped her hands together in her lap to stop them shaking.
Church slowed down and headed towards one of the emergency phones on the hard shoulder.
“Don’t stop!” Tom yelled. “The worm will still be here. It doesn’t give up easily!” Then he added with exasperation, “Don’t you see? It’s after us.”
Church swung the car in a wide arc until they faced the wall of fire. Vehicles had backed up on the other side of the central barrier. In the distance came the sound of sirens.
“What are you doing?” Tom snapped.
“I have to see for myself.” Church leaned forward over the wheel and searched the skies. He and Ruth saw it at the same moment, just a glimmer at first, high above the billowing black smoke. But as it came lower it fell into focus and they both froze in their seats. They saw glints of copper and gold and green as the red glare of the fire burnished its scales. A scarlet eye as bright as a brake light. Enormous, leathery wings that beat the air with a slow, heavy rhythm, and a long tail that writhed and twisted behind it as if it had a separate existence. As it swooped low, it opened its mouth wide and belched another gush of golden-orange fire that sprayed into the inferno and sent a torrent of flames spouting high. Its movements were fluid as it soared on the air currents, terrifying and majestic at the same time.
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