Deal with the Devil
When Jazz Simmons regained consciousness he saw that he was where he'd fallen, except now his hands were tied behind him. Zek, who hadn't been trussed, was busy moistening his brow and lips with a water-soaked rag. She sighed her relief as he came to.
Arlek sat close by on a flat stone, watching her at her ministrations. Others of the clan or tribe moved in shadows which had lengthened a little, murmuring with low background voices. As Jazz struggled to sit up, so Arlek came across and stood over him. He fingered a lump under his ear where Jazz had hit him, displayed a right eye rapidly turning black and closing.
'I never saw anyone fight like you,' he stiffly complimented his captive. 'I didn't even see you strike me!'
Jazz grunted, propped himself against a boulder and brought his knees up a little. 'That was the idea,' he said. 'There's a lot more I could show you, too, like how to fight the Wamphyri. That's what my weapons were for: to keep me alive in a world where things like the Wamphyri rule. Where the hell do men stand in the scale of things on this world, anyway? Why bargain with the Wamphyri, or bow and scrape to them, when you can fight them?'
Despite his painful face, Arlek laughed out loud. Other Travellers heard him, came forward; he quickly repeated what Jazz had said. 'Fight the Wamphyri, indeed! We are only lucky they spend so much time fighting with each other! But defy them? Hah! You don't know what you're saying. They don't fight with Sunsiders, they just make slaves of them. Have you seen a Warrior? Of course not, else you'd not be here! That's why we're Travellers, because to remain in one place is to be at their mercy. You don't "fight" the Wamphyri, my stupid friend, you just stay out of their way - for as long as you can.'
He turned away, walked off with his followers. Over his shoulder he called back: 'Talk with the woman. It's high time she told you something about this world you've come to. At least then you'll have some understanding of why I'm giving you - both of you - to Shaithis of the Wamphyri...'
Wolf loped out of the shadows, licked Jazz's face. Jazz scowled at the animal. 'Where were you when Zek and me were fighting, eh?'
'When you were fighting,' she corrected him. 'Wolf wasn't in it. Why should I risk his life? I told him to be still. He's just back from seeing his brothers. The Travellers have three or four of them, all raised from cubs.'
'Funny,' Jazz said after a moment, 'but you struck me as a woman who'd bite and scratch a lot.' He didn't mean it as a reproach, but it was and he regretted it immediately.
'I would,' she said, 'if there was any point. But I'd look silly trying to bite a dozen Travellers and their wolves, now wouldn't I? My first concern was for you.'
Jazz sighed. 'I suppose I went off half-cocked, didn't I? But I thought you said we'd be safe?'
'We might have been,' she said, 'but while you've been lying there Arlek's had word from a runner that Lardis Lidesci is on his way back from the west. Arlek knows Lardis won't give me to the Wamphyri, and so he'll do it himself - now! There'll be a price to pay when Lardis hears about it, but Arlek's got this group on his side and believes that in the end Lardis will have to go along with him or split the tribe. In any case, by the time Lardis gets here it will be too late.'
Jazz said: 'Can you touch me behind my ear just here? Ow! That feels tender!'
'It's soft,' she said, and he thought he detected a catch in her voice. 'God, I thought you were dead!' She squeezed cold water onto the back of his head, let it soak into the place where his hair was matted with blood. He looked beyond her to the south, to where the sun had gone down a little more, crept a little more to the east.
A stray beam lit her face, let him see her clearly and really close up for the first time. She was a bit grimy, but under the dirt she was very beautiful too. She'd be in her early thirties, only a few years older than Jazz himself. Maybe five-nine, slim, blonde and blue-eyed, her hair shone in the beam of sunlight; it looked golden and bounced on her shoulders when she moved. Her combat suit, tattered as it was getting to be, fitted her figure like a glove; it seemed to accentuate her delicate curves. Right here and now, Jazz supposed any woman would have looked good to him. But he couldn't think of one he'd rather have here. Or (he corrected himself), rather not have here. This was no place for any woman.
'So what's happening now?' he asked, when the cold water had taken some of the sting out of his neck and head.
'Arlek tracked me using the talents of an old man, Jasef Karis,' Zek told him. 'It wasn't too hard. There was really only one place I could head for: through the pass to the sphere, to see if I could make it back home. Anyway, Jasef's like me, a telepath.'
'You told me the wild animals here had a degree of ESP,' Jazz reminded her, 'but you didn't say anything about the people. I'd got the impression that only the Wamphyri had these talents.'
'Generally, that's true,' she answered. 'Jasef's father was taken prisoner in a Wamphyri raid; this was a long time ago, you understand. He escaped from them and came back over the mountains. He swore that he hadn't been changed in any way. He'd escaped before the Lord Belath could make a mindless zombie of him. His wife took him back, of course, and they had a child: Jasef. But then it was discovered that Jasef's father had lied. He had been changed by the Lord Belath, but he'd made his escape before the change could commence in him. The truth finally came out when he became uncontrollable -became, in fact, a thing! The Travellers knew how to deal with it; they staked it out, cut it in pieces and burned it. And afterwards they kept a close watch on Jasef and his mother. But they were OK. Jasef's telepathy is something come down to him from his father, or from the thing that Lord Belath put into him.'
Jazz's head swam, partly from the throbbing pain where he'd been clubbed but mainly from trying to take in all that Zek was telling him. 'Stop!' he said. 'Let's concentrate on the important stuff. Tell me what else I'll need to know about this planet. Draw me a map I can keep in my head. First the planet, then its peoples.'
'Very well,' she nodded, 'but first you'd better know how we stand. Old Jasef and one or two men have gone on into the pass to see if there's a watcher - a guardian creature - in the keep back there. If there is, Jasef will send a telepathic message through it to its master, the Lord Shaithis. The message will be that Arlek holds us captive, and that he'll use us to strike a bargain with Shaithis. In return for us, Shaithis will promise not to raid on Lardis Lidesci's tribe of Travellers. If it's a deal, then we'll be handed over.'
'From what Arlek was saying about the Wamphyri,' Jazz said, 'I'm surprised they'll even be interested in making a deal. If they're so much to be feared, they can just take us anyway.'
'If they could find us,' she answered. 'And only at night. They can only raid when the sun's down below the rim of the world. Also, there are some eighteen to twenty Wamphyri Lords, and one Lady. They're territorial; they vie with each other. They scheme against each other all the time, and go to war at every opportunity. It's their nature. We'd be ace cards to any one of them - except the Lady Karen. I know for I was hers once, and she let me go.'
Jazz tucked that last away for later. 'Why are we so important?' he wanted to know.
'Because we are magicians,' she said. 'We have powers, weapons, skills they don't understand. Even more so than the Travellers, we understand metals and mechanisms.'
'What?' Jazz was lost again. 'Magicians?'
'I'm a telepath,' she shrugged. To be ESP-endowed and a true man - or a woman - is a rare thing. Also, we're not of this world. We come from the mysterious hell-lands. And when I first arrived here I had awesome weapons. So did you.'
'But I'm not ESP-talented,' Jazz reminded her. 'What use will I be to them?'
She looked away. 'Not a lot. Which means you'll have to bluff your way.'
'I'll have to what?'
'If in fact we go to the Lord Shaithis, you'll need to tell him you... can read the future! Something like that. Something it's hard to disprove.'
'Great!' said Jazz, dully. 'Like Arlek, you mean? He said he'd read the future of the tribe.'
She faced him again, shook her head. 'Arlek's a charlatan. A cheap, trick fortune-teller, like many of Earth's Gypsies. Our Earth, I mean. That's why he's so much against me, because he knows my talent's real.'
'OK,' said Jazz. 'Now let's put our Earth right out of our minds and tell me some more about this Earth. Its topography, for example?'
'So simple you won't believe it,' she answered. 'I've already described the planet in relation to its sun and moon. Very well, now here's that map you asked for:
'This is a world much the same size as Earth as near as I can make out. This mountain range lies slightly more south than north, points east and west. That's using the compass Earth-style. The Wamphyri can't stand sunlight. Just like the old legends of home say, too much sunlight is fatal to vampires. And they are vampires! Sunside of the mountains, that's where the Travellers live. They are human beings, as you've seen. They live close to the mountain range for the water it gives them, and for the forests and game. Sunup they live in easily erected homes, at night they find caves and go as deep as possible! The mountains are riddled with fissures and caverns. Ten miles or so south of the mountains, there are no Travellers. There's nothing there for them to live on. Just desert. There are scattered nomad tribes of aborigines; at high sunup they occasionally trade with the Travellers; I've seen them and they're barely human. Several steps down from Australia's bushmen. I don't know how they live out there but they do. One hundred miles out from the mountains and even they can't live. There's nothing there at all, just scorched earth.'
Despite his discomfort, Jazz was finding all of this fascinating. 'What about east and west?' he said.
She nodded: 'Just coming to it. These mountains are about two and a half thousand miles east to west. This pass lies something like six hundred miles from the western extent of the range. Beyond the mountains west are swamps; likewise to the far east. No one knows their extent.'
'Why the hell don't the Travellers live close to the swamps?' Jazz was puzzled. 'If there are no mountains there, then there's no protection from the sun. Which means there can't be any Wamphyri.'
'Right!' she said. 'The Wamphyri live only in their castles, right here behind these mountains. But the Travellers can't go too far east or west, because the swamps are vampire breeding grounds. They are the source of vampirism, just as this world is the source of Earth's legends.'
Jazz tried to take that in, shook his head. 'You've lost me yet again,' he admitted. 'No Wamphyri there, and yet vampires breed in the swamps?'
'Maybe you weren't listening to me earlier,' she said. 'I can understand that. It's like Arlek said: you've a lot to learn. And only so much time in which to learn it. I told you that the Wamphyri are what happens when a vampire egg gets into a man or woman. Well, the true vampires live in the swamps. They breed there. Every now and then there's an upsurge; they break out and infest the local animals. And they'd do the same to men, too, if there were any there. The Wamphyri go back to a time when men were infested. Now they do their own infesting.' She shuddered. "The Wamphyri are men, but changed by the vampires in them.'
Jazz took a deep breath, said: 'Whoah! Let's get back to topography.'
'Nothing more to tell,' she answered. 'Starside are the Wamphyri castles and the Wamphyri themselves. North of them lie the icelands. One or two polar-type creatures live there, but that's all. They're legendary anyway, for no living Traveller ever saw one. Oh, and at the foot of the mountains on Starside, between the castles and the peaks, that's where the troglodytes live. They're subterranean, sub-human, too. They call themselves Szgany or trogs and hold the Wamphyri as gods. I saw specimens mothballed in the Lady Karen's storehouses. They're almost prehistoric.'
She paused for breath, finally said: That's it, the planet and its peoples in one. There's only one thing I've left out - that I can think of at the moment, anyway - because I'm not sure of it myself. But you can be certain it's something monstrous.'
'Monstrous?' Jazz repeated her. 'Most of what I've heard is that! Let's have it anyway, and then I've got some more questions for you.'
'Well,' she frowned, 'there's supposed to be something called "Arbiteri Ingertos Westweich". That's from a Wamphyri phrase and it means - '
'Him in His Western Garden?' Jazz tried it for himself.
She smiled a half-smile, slowly nodded. 'Arlek was wrong about you,' she said. 'And so was I. You do learn fast. It's The-Dweller-in-His-Garden-in-the-West.'
'Same difference,' Jazz shrugged, and then it was his turn to frown. 'But that sounds sort of placid to me. Hardly monstrous!'
'That's as it may be,' she answered, 'but the Wamphyri fear it or him or whatever mightily. Now, I've told you how they're forever squabbling, warring with each other? Well, in one circumstance - to one extent - they're entirely united. All the Wamphyri. They'd give a lot to be rid of The Dweller. He's legended to be a fabulous magician whose home is said to lie in a green valley somewhere in the central peaks to the west. I say "legended', but that might give the wrong impression. In fact it's a very recent legend, maybe as little as a dozen Earth years. That's when the stories started, apparently. Since then he's been said to have lived there, marked out his own territory, guards it jealously and deals ruthlessly with would-be invaders.'
'Even the Wamphyri?'
'Especially the Wamphyri, as far as is known. The Wamphyri tell horror stories about him you wouldn't believe. Which, considering their nature, is really saying something!'
As she finished speaking, so there was movement northward in the pass. Arlek and his men sprang immediately alert; they called forward their wolves, took up their arms. Jazz saw that they had torches smeared in a black, tarry liquid ready for lighting. Others stood ready with flints.
Arlek hurried over, hauled Jazz to his feet. 'This could be Jasef,' he said, hoarsely, 'and it could be something else. The sun is almost down.'
To Zek, Jazz said: 'Are those flints of theirs reliable? There's a book of matches in my top pocket. And cigarettes, too. Seems they didn't want them, only the heavy stuff.' He'd spoken in Russian and Arlek hadn't caught his meaning. The Gypsy turned his leathery face enquiringly in Zek's direction.
She sneered at him, said something that Jazz didn't catch. Then she unbuttoned Jazz's pocket, took out the matches. She showed them to Arlek, struck one. It flared at once and the Gypsy cursed, gave a great start, struck it aside out of her hand. The look on his face was one of shock, total disbelief.
Zek quickly snarled something at him, and this time Jazz caught the word 'coward!' He wished she wouldn't be so free with that word, not with Arlek. Then, very slowly and deliberately, as if she talked to a dull child, she hissed: 'For the torches, you fool, in case this is not Jasef!'
He gawped at her, blinked his brown eyes nervously, but finally he nodded his understanding.
In any case, it was Jasef. An old man with a staff, assisted by two younger Gypsies, came hobbling gratefully into the last few feeble rays of sunlight. He made his way straight to Arlek, said: 'There was a watcher, a trog. But the trog's master, the Lord Shaithis, had given him the power to speak over great distances. He saw the man -this one, Jazz - come through the pass, and he reported it to Shaithis. Shaithis would have come at once, but the sun-'
'Yes, yes - get on with it,' Arlek snapped.
Jasef shrugged his frail shoulders. 'I did not speak to this Szgany trog face to face, you understand. Worse things might have been lurking in the keep. I stayed outside and spoke to him in my head, in the manner of the Wamphyri.'
'Of course, that's understood!' Arlek was almost beside himself.
'I gave the trog your message, and he passed it on to his Wamphyri Lord. Then he told me to return to you.'
'What?' Arlek was obviously dumbfounded. 'Is that all?'
Again Jasef could only offer his shrug. 'He said: "Tell Arlek of the Travellers that my Lord Shaithis will speak to him in person." I have no idea what he meant.'
'Old fool!' Arlek muttered. He turned away from Jasef - and Zek's radio crackled where its aerial projected an inch or two from her pocket. Its tiny red monitor light began to blink and flicker. Arlek gasped and leaped backwards a full pace, pointed at the radio and stared round-eyed as Zek produced it. 'More of your foul magic?' he half-accused. 'We should have destroyed all of your things long ago - and you with them - instead of letting Lardis give them back to you!'
Zek had been startled, too, but only for a moment. Now she said: 'I got them back because there was no harm in them and they were useless to you. Also because they were mine. Unlike you, Lardis isn't a thief! I've told the Travellers many times that this thing is for communicating over great distances, haven't I? But because there was no one to talk to it wouldn't work. It's a machine, not magic. Well, now there is someone to talk to, and he wants to communicate.' And to Jazz, in a lower tone: 'I think I know what this means.'
He nodded, said, 'Those ace cards you mentioned?'
'Right,' she answered. 'I think the Lord Shaithis already has one - or if not an ace, certainly a joker. He's got Karl Vyotsky!' Then she spoke into the radio: 'Unknown call-sign, this is Zek Foener. Send your message, over?'
Her radio crackled again, and a once-familiar voice, shaky, a little urgent and breathless but fairly coherent, said, 'You can throw out the radio procedure, Zek. This is Karl Vyotsky. Do you have Arlek of the Travellers with you?' He sounded like he wasn't too sure of what he was saying, as if he simply relayed the requirements of some other.
Jazz said, 'Let me speak to him,' and Zek held the radio to his face. 'Who wants to know, Comrade?' he asked.
And after a moment's silence, in a tone which was suddenly pleading: 'Listen, British: we're on different sides, I know, but if you foul me up now it's all over for me. My radio is acting up. Sometimes it receives and other times it doesn't. Right now I have excellent elevation - you wouldn't believe the elevation I have - but still I don't trust this radio. So don't waste any time with games. I can't believe you'd let me live once just to kill me now. So if this Arlek is with you, please put him on. Tell him Shaithis of the Wamphyri wants to talk to him.'
Arlek had heard his name spoken twice, and Shaithis's name several times. The conversation obviously concerned himself and the Wamphyri Lord. He held out a hand for the radio, said: 'Give it to me.'
If Jazz had held the radio he would have thrown it down, stamped on it and wrecked it. No communications, no deal. Zek might well have had the same idea, but she wasn't quick enough. Arlek snatched the radio from her, fumbled with it for a moment and finally, a little awkwardly, said: 'I am Arlek.'
The radio crackled some more, and in a little while a new male voice said: 'Arlek of the Travellers - of the tribe of Lardis Lidesci - it is Shaithis of the Wamphyri who speaks to you. How is it you have the power and not Lardis? Have you replaced him as leader of the tribe?' The voice was the darkest, most menacing Jazz had ever heard. But at the same time, while there was something inhuman about it, it was definitely the voice of a man. Deep and rumbling with controlled strength, forming each word perfectly and with unswervable authority, the owner of that voice knew that whoever he spoke to, that person was an inferior.
Arlek had quickly mastered the radio. 'Lardis is away,' he said. 'He may return and he may not. Even if he does, still there are Travellers with me who are dissatisfied with his leadership. The futures are not at all clear. Many things are possible.'
Shaithis got straight to the point: 'My watcher has told me you have the woman who was the Lady Karen's thought-thief, the woman Zekintha from the hell-lands. Also, you have a man from the hell-lands, who is a magician and bears strange weapons.'
These things your watcher tells you are true,' Arlek answered, more at ease now.
'And is it also true that you desire to come to some agreement with me in respect of this man and woman?'
That is also true. Give me your word that in future you will not raid on the so-called tribe of Lardis, and in turn I'll hand over to you these magicians from the hell-lands.'
The radio was silent and it appeared that Shaithis was considering Arlek's proposition. At last he said: 'And their weapons?'
'Also their belongings, yes,' Arlek answered. 'All except an axe, which belonged to the man. This I claim for myself. Even so, the benefits for the Wamphyri Lord Shaithis will be great. Strange weapons to aid you in your wars, devices such as this communicator, which you apparently understand well enough, and their magic to use as you will.'
Shaithis seemed swayed. 'Hmm! You know that I am only one Lord and there are others of the Wamphyri? I can only speak for myself.'
'But you are the greatest of the Wamphyri!' Arlek was sure of himself now. 'I do not ask for your protection, merely that if the occasion should arise, then that you'd obstruct the other Lords in their raids. There are many Travellers and we are, after all, only one small tribe. You would not raid upon us, and you would ensure - if it please you - that the raids of your fellow Lords were made that much more difficult to accomplish...'
Shaithis's voice sank deeper yet. 'I recognize no "fellow" Lords, Arlek. Only enemies. As for placing obstructions in their way: I do that already. I always will.'
Then you would perhaps do it more diligently,' Arlek pressed. And he repeated: 'We are a small tribe, Lord Shaithis. I make no request in respect of Travellers of any other ilk.'
Zek tried to snatch the radio from him but he turned his back on her. Two of his men grabbed her arms, held her still. 'Black-hearted, treacherous - !' She was lost for words.
'Very well,' said Shaithis. 'Now tell me, how will you give the two to me?'
'I shall bind them securely,' Arlek answered, 'and leave them here in this place. We are some little way beyond the keep in the pass.' 'Their weapons will be left close to hand?' 'Yes,' Arlek squared back his shoulders, flared his nostrils. Even in his treachery, his dark eyes were bright.
It was all going according to plan. The Wamphyri were a curse; but with the curse lifted, even partly lifted ... it would not be long before Lardis Lidesci would be usurped. 'Then do it now, Arlek of the Travellers. Bind them, leave them there, and begone! Shaithis conies! Let me not find you there upon my arrival. The pass is in any case mine... after dark.'
They lay there alone, in darkness, with only the sound of their own breathing. To the south Arlek and his band moved off; it appeared that Wolf had gone with them. As the sounds of their hurried departure echoed back, Jazz said: 'I still think that beast of yours didn't make much of a guard dog.'
'Be quiet,' she said. And that was all. She lay very still. Jazz turned his head, stared north up the pass. Only the cold gleam of starlight that way. He strained his ears. Nothing, as yet.
'Why be quiet?' he finally whispered.
'I was trying to get through to Wolf,' she answered. 'He would have attacked them at any time - and been killed for it. I held him back. He's been a good friend and companion to me, and it wasn't the time. Now is the time!'
'You've seen his teeth - they're sharp as chisels! I've called to him. If he heard me, and if he's not too involved with the other wolves, he'll return. We're bound with leather, but given a little time...'
Jazz rolled over to face her. 'Well, at least we should have plenty of that. I saw the Wamphyri castles on the stacks. They were miles away. And then there's the length of the pass, too.'
She shook her head. 'Jazz, even now it's almost too late.' As she spoke, Wolf came loping, tongue lolling. Behind him the southern gap of the pass was lit with a fast-fading golden haze.
Too late?' Jazz repeated her. 'You mean because the sun's down?'
That wasn't my meaning.' she answered. 'And anyway, it isn't down. A mile south of here, the pass rises briefly to a shallow crest, then dips sharply and turns a little toward the east. From there it's a steep, steady slope down to Sunside. The sun's just over our horizon, that's all. On Sunside there are still many hours of light left. But... Shaithis will be here very soon.'
'He has transport?' Jazz was puzzled, half-flippant.
'Yes, he has,' Zek answered... 'Jazz, I can't turn face-down. There's a large rock sticking in me. But if you can manage it, then I'll tell Wolf to chew on your bindings.'
'You're crediting old Lupus here with a deal of intelligence,' Jazz was sceptical.
'A mind-picture is worth a thousand words,' she said.
'Oh!' Jazz said. He struggled to turn face-down, but -
'Before you do,' she said, breathlessly, 'will you kiss me?' She wormed herself fractionally closer.
'What?' he stopped struggling.
'Only if you want to, of course,' she said. 'But... you might never get another chance.'
He craned forward, kissed her as best he could. Out of air, finally they broke apart. 'Are you reading my thoughts?' he said.
'Good! But now I know what you taste like, the sooner Wolf gets to work on these bindings the better.' He rolled over onto his face. Trussed like a chicken, his legs were bent at the knees, feet uppermost. His wrists were tied behind his back, and tied again, to his feet. Wolf at once began tugging at Jazz's leather bindings. 'No, dammit!' Jazz spat out dirt. 'Don't pull, chew!' And in a little while Wolf was doing just that.
Jazz could see his packs, gun, Zek's too, lying only paces away. The weapons had a metallic sheen in the dark. 'I notice Arlek took my compo,' he said.
The hard-tack. The food.'
She was silent.
'I mean, he did tell Shaithis he'd leave everything except my hatchet.'
Quietly she said: 'But he knew Shaithis would have no use for the food.'
Jazz tried to turn his face her way. 'Oh? But he eats, doesn't - ' And he paused. He could see her eyes, unblinking in the dark shadow of her face. The Lord Shaithis of the Wamphyri,' he grunted. 'Of course. He's a vampire, right?'
'Jazz,' she said, 'hope springs eternal, but - maybe I should tell you something of how it could be. I mean, if we're taken.'
'I think maybe you should,' he said.
Something small, black, chittering, flitted close by, came closer in dips and swoops, then darted off again. Then another, and more, until the air seemed full of them. Jazz had frozen into stone, stopped breathing, but Zek said: 'Bats - but just bats. Ordinary bats. Not Wamphyri familiars. The Wamphyri use the real things for that. The big ones. Desmodus, the vampire.'
A thong parted behind Jazz's back, and very quickly another. Jazz flexed his wrists and felt a little give in his bindings. Wolf carried on chewing. 'You were going to tell me about Shaithis's transport,' Jazz reminded Zek.
'No,' she said, 'I wasn't.' Her tone of voice told him not to ask any more. But in any case he didn't need to. As the last thong parted and his straining wrists flew apart, he straightened his aching legs, rolled over onto his back and looked up. His eyes were drawn to an ominous stirring overhead. Level with the high walls of the pass, a black blot - several of them - shut out the stars as they began to descend.
'What the hell - ?' Jazz whispered.
They're here!' Zek breathed. 'Quickly, Jazz! Oh, be quick!'
Wolf loped anxiously to and fro, whining, while Jazz got his cramped fingers to work on the thongs binding his feet. At last they were free. He turned to Zek, rolled her unceremoniously face-down across his knees, went frantically to work on her knots. As each one came undone, he kept glancing up at the heights a little north of their position.
The descending blots were falling like flat stones dropped in still water, sliding from side to side, settling like autumn leaves on a deathly still early September morning. Three of them, their true outlines were now distinguishable: huge, diamond-shaped, where opposing points of the diamonds merged into heads and tails. They side-slipped this way and that, settling silently down toward the bed of the pass.
Zek's hands were almost free; Jazz left them and turned his attention to her feet. It was his thought to pick her up, throw her over his shoulder and run. But he faced the truth: his legs were still badly cramped and the darkness was now almost complete. He'd only be able to stumble at best, with Wolf bringing up a pitifully inadequate rear guard.
Three dull thumps in close succession announced the fact that the flying things had settled to earth. Jazz's fingers were fully alive now, deft where they hastened to free Zek's feet. She was panting, plainly terrified. 'It's OK,' he kept whispering. 'Just one more knot to go.' Down the pass, maybe a hundred metres away, three anomalous shapes lay humped against a horizon of stars, with spatulate heads swaying at the ends of long necks. The last knot came loose; and as Zek came struggling to her feet, staggering a little, so Wolf's tail went down between his legs. He gave a whining, coughing little bark and began to back off toward the south.
Jazz's arm was round Zek's waist, supporting her. He said: 'Move your arms, stamp your feet and get the blood pumping.' She didn't answer but stared with saucer eyes beyond him, in the direction of the grounded flying creatures. He sensed more than felt the shudder going through her, moving from her head, down through all her body. An entirely involuntary thing, almost like a dog shaking off water. Except Jazz suspected that this was something which wouldn't shake off. And he turned to follow her gaze.
Three figures stood not ten paces away!
They were in silhouette, but that hardly detracted from their awesome aura of presence. It radiated from them in almost tangible waves, a force warning of their near-invulnerability. They had all the advantages: they could see in the dark, were strong beyond the wildest dreams of most Earthly muscle-men, and they were armed. And not only with physical weapons, but also with the powers of the Wamphyri. Jazz didn't yet know about the latter, but Zek did.
'Try to avoid looking at their eyes,' she hissed her warning.
The three were, or had been men, so much was plain.
But they were big men, and even silhouetted against a backdrop of stars and black, nodding sky-beasts, Jazz could see what sort of men. In his mind a recurring picture of a man like these, dying in an inferno of heat and flame, screamed his fury and his defiance even now: 'Wamphyri!'
The one in the middle would be Shaithis; Jazz reckoned there'd be close to eighty inches of him, standing almost a full head taller than the two who flanked him. He stood straight, cloaked, with his hair falling onto his shoulders. The proportions of his head were wrong; as he looked with quick, curious glances from side to side and showed his face in profile, Jazz saw the length of his skull and jaws, his convoluted snout, the alert mobility of his conch-like ears. It was a composite face: human-bat-wolf.
The two beside him were near-naked; their bodies were pale in starlight, muscular, easy-flowing as liquid. They wore topknots with tails dangling, and on their right hands... those were silhouettes Jazz would know anywhere. The weapon-gloves of the Wamphyri! But so sure of themselves: they stood arms akimbo, almost uncaring, staring at Jazz and Zek with their red eyes almost as if they considered the antics of insects.
'Not bound!' Shaithis said in that unmistakable, rumbling voice of his. 'So either Arlek is a fool or you are extremely clever. But I see your broken thongs, and so I would say that you are clever. Your magic, of course. My magic, now!'
Jazz and Zek backed off a stumbling pace or two. The three moved after them, marginally more rapid but in no great hurry, gradually closing with them. Shaithis's lieutenants moved in the manner of men, with paces swift and sure; but their master seemed to flow forward, as if carried on the strength of his own will. His eyes were huge, crimson, seemed to burn with some weird, internal light of their own. It was hard to avoid looking into those eyes, Jazz thought. They might well be the gates of hell -but tell a moth not to investigate the candle's flame.
Zek's elbow struck him sharply in the ribs. 'Don't look at their eyes!' she said again. 'Run, Jazz, if you can. I'm all cramped, I'll only slow you down.'
Wolf came from nowhere, snarling his outrage - and probably his terror, too - as he loped from the shadows under the eastern cliff. He leaped at Shaithis's lieutenant on that flank; the man turned casually toward him, struck him aside left-handed as Jazz might strike aside a small, yapping dog. Wolf backed off, whined, and the man he'd attacked showed him his gauntlet. 'Come on then, little wolf,' he taunted the animal. 'Come, let Gustan pat you on your sleek grey head!' 'Get back, Wolf!' Zek cried.
'Stand still.r Shaithis commanded, pointing at Jazz and Zek. 'I will not chase what is mine. Come to heel now or be punished. Punished severely!'
Jazz's heel kicked metal. Blued steel. His SMG! His packs were there, too.
He fell to one knee, grabbed up the gun. The three who opposed him saw the weapon in his hand and came to a halt. They stood stock still, glaring with their red eyes. 'What?' Shaithis's voice was dangerously low. 'Do you threaten your master?'
Jazz faced the three where he kneeled; he groped blindly in a pack, then another. He found what he was looking for, slapped home a magazine into its housing. Shaithis came flowing forward. 'I said - ' Threaten you?' Jazz cocked his gun. 'Damn right I do!' But the man on Shaithis's right flank had come swiftly forward in a crouch. His sandalled foot came down on Jazz's right wrist, pinning it to the ground. Jazz deliberately threw himself flat, tried to kick the man away; but this was no novice. Avoiding Jazz's kicks and still pinning his arm and weapon, he came to his knees, caught Jazz's face in a massive left hand, effortlessly bent his head back and showed him his raised gauntlet. He unclenched his fist and hooks, knives, gleaming sickles coldly reflected the starlight. Then the man smiled and raised his eyebrows in mocking query, glancing questioningly at Jazz's hand on the pistol-grip of the SMG. The gun's muzzle was sticking in dirt; Jazz daren't pull the trigger.
He opened his hand and let go of the weapon, and the man who held him lifted him up from the ground by his crushed face. Jazz could do nothing; he felt that if Shaithis's lieutenant wanted to, he could just tear the flesh right off his skull like peeling an orange.
Zek sprang at the man on Shaithis's left, Gustan, where he now stepped forward. 'Bullies!' she cried, beating at him with her fists. 'Bastards! Vampires!'
Gustan swept her up in one arm, grinned at her, ran his free left hand over her body, pinching here and there. 'You should let me have this one a little while, Lord Shaithis,' he grunted. 'Knock some sense into her and teach her the meaning of obedience!'
Shaithis turned on him at once. 'She'll be in thrall to me, and no other. Watch your tongue, Gustan! There's room in the pens for another war-beast, if that's your fancy?'
Gustan shrank back. 'I meant only - '
'Be quiet!' Shaithis cut him short. He came forward, sniffed at Zek and nodded his head. 'Yes, there's magic in this one. But remember - she escaped from the bitch Karen. Watch her carefully, Gustan.' Now he gazed at Jazz. 'As for you - ' Again he thrust his convoluted snout forward, seemed to use it like some monstrous bloodhound. And his eyes narrowed to scarlet slits.
'He's a great magician!' Zek cried. She hung dangling in Gustan's arms.
'Indeed?' Shaithis glanced at her. 'And what, pray, is his talent? For I sense nothing of magic in him.'
'I ... I read the future,' Jazz gasped from a crushed, O-shaped mouth.
Shaithis smiled a terrible smile. 'Good, for I have certainly read yours.' And he nodded to the man who held Jazz aloft.
'Wait!' Zek cried. 'It's true, I tell you! You'll lose a powerful ally if you kill him.'
'An ally?' Shaithis seemed amused. 'A servant, perhaps.' He stroked his chin. 'But very well, let us test this talent. Put him down.' Jazz was lowered until he stood on straining tip-toes.
Shaithis studied him closely, cocked his head on one side, thought of a suitable test. 'Now tell me,' he finally said, 'what you read in my future, hell-lander?'
Jazz knew he was finished, but there was still Zek to consider. 'I'll tell you this much,' he answered. 'Harm this woman in any way - one hair of her head - and you'll burn in hell. The sun shall surely rise on you, Shaithis of the Wamphyri!'
'That is not fortune-telling but wishful thinking!' Shaithis snapped. 'Do you think to lay a curse on me? What, I am not to harm a hair of her head? This head, do you mean?' He reached out and grasped Zek's blonde hair, bunched it in a knot, tightened his grip until she cried out.
And the sun at once rose in the pass through the mountains, and lit the place with its burning, lancing rays!
Before the man who held Jazz screamed in terror and hurled him away like a rag doll, the Englishman thought an entirely frivolous thought: 'Now that's what I call magic!'