Zek's Story

'I came through the Gate kitted-up just like you,' Zek commenced her tale, 'but I wasn't as big or as strong as you are. I couldn't carry as much. And I was dog-tired...

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'It was night on Starside when I arrived - which is to say I didn't stand a chance! But of course I didn't know what my chances were, not then - or I might simply have put a bullet through my brain and that would have been the end of that.

'I came through the Gate, climbed down from the crater rim, saw what was waiting for me. And nothing I could do but face it, for there was no way back. Oh, you can believe that before I climbed down I threw myself at the sphere in a last desperate attempt to escape; but it just stood there, pouring out its white light, implacable and impenetrable as a dome of luminous rock.

'But if the sight of Them waiting there had scared me, my exit from the Gate had not been without its own effect upon them. They didn't know what to make of me. In fact they weren't "waiting for me" at all - they were there, at the Gate, on business of their own - but I didn't find that out until later. The whole thing is a blur in my mind now, like a bad dream gradually fading. It's hard to describe how it was, how it felt. But I'll try.

'You've seen the flying beasts that the Wamphyri use, but you haven't seen their warrior creatures - or if you have, then you haven't seen them up close. Now I'm not talking about such as Shaithis's lieutenants, Gustan and that other one; they were ex-Travellers, vampirized by Shaithis and given a little rank and authority. They had not received eggs, as far as I'm aware, and could never aspire to anything greater than service to their Lord. They were vampires, of course - of a sort. All the changelings of the Wamphyri are, but Gustan and the others are still men, too...' She paused and sighed.

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'Jazz, this will be difficult. Vampires are... their life-cycles are fantastically complex. Maybe I'd better try to clarify what I know of their systems before I carry on. Their biological systems, I mean.

'Vampires, the basic creatures, are born in the swamps east and west of the mountains. Their source, their genesis, is conjectural: there are perhaps parent creatures, mother-things, buried there in the quag, never seeing the light of day. These mothers would be pure and simple egg-layers. Now I've talked to the Travellers, and to the Lady Karen - Wamphyri herself - and no one knows any more than I've told you about the basic vampire. One thing you can guarantee, though: they don't emerge from their swamps during sunup.

'When they do spawn, then the first task of each and every one of them is find a host, which they pursue with the same instinct as a duck taking to water. It isn't in their nature to live by themselves, indeed if they can't find a host they quickly desiccate and die. You could say they're like cuckoos, who... but no, that's a poor analogy. Like tapeworms, maybe - or better still, like liver flukes. So they're parasitic, yes, but that's where any similarity ends...

'Anyway, I said their life-cycle was complex. Well, so it is, but when you think about it so are many of the life-cycles of the creatures in our own world. The liver fluke is a good example. Living in the intestines of cows, pigs and sheep, dropping their eggs in the animal's dung, to be picked up on the feet and in the sores or openings of other animals - including men! And once they take hold on the liver - then the animal is finished. The organ is reduced to so much gorgonzola! And if the beast dies in a field, to be eaten by pigs ... or if it is slaughtered and eaten by ignorant men... you can see how the cycle is continued. So, the vampire is something like that. It's a parasite, anyway. But as I said, that's the only similarity.

'The big difference is this:

'The tapeworm and liver fluke gradually destroy their hosts, reduce them to nothing, kill them off. In so doing they kill themselves off, too, because without a living host they themselves can't live. But the vampire's instinct is different. It doesn't kill its host but grows with him, makes him more powerful, changes his nature. It learns from him, relieves him of physical weaknesses, increases his strength. It encompasses his mind and character and subverts them. Sexless in itself, the vampire adopts the sex of its host, adopts all of his vices, his passions. Men are passionate creatures, Jazz, but with a vampire in them there's nothing to temper them. Men are warlike, and as Wamphyri they bathe ecstatically in the blood of their enemies. Men are devious, which makes the Wamphyri the most devious creatures of all!

'But all of that is only one part of the cycle, one facet...

'Now, I've explained how with a vampire in him a man is mentally corrupted. But then there's the purely physical side. Vampire flesh is different. It is a protoplasm, compatible with all flesh! With the flesh of men and beasts and almost anything which lives. And as the vampire grows in its host, so it is able to change that host to its own ends - physically change him! And the Wamphyri are masters of metamorphosis. I will explain:

'Suppose a freshly emerged swamp vampire was fortunate enough to take a wolf as its host. It would gain the wolf's cunning, its fierceness, all its predator instincts. And it would amplify them. There are legends of wolves like that here on Sunside. It's the same legend as the one we knew back on our Earth, which we called the legend of the werewolf! The silver bullet, Jazz, and the full moon!

'To seduce men - for food - the vampire-ridden wolf will imitate men! It will go upon two legs, contort its features into manlike features, stalk its prey by night. And when it bites...

'The vampire's bite is virulent! It is an absolute contamination, more certain than rabies. Ah, but where rabies kills, the vampire's bite does not. It might, if the vampire desires to kill, but on occasion the victim lives. And if at the time of the attack the vampire puts into the victim part of its own being, its own protoplasmic flesh, then that victim is vampirized. But let's say that the attack is fatal, that the vampire drinks the victim's blood, drains him dry (which is often the case) and leaves him a corpse. Again, in this case, even though the victim is dead, that which was inserted - which was traded for his blood - is not dead! In about seventy hours, occasionally less, the transformation is made, the metamorphosis complete. Again, as in the myths of Earth, after three days the vampire emerges, undead, to spread its contamination abroad.

'Anyway, I've strayed from the point. I was trying to explain what a Wamphyri warrior creature is. Well, picture one of their flying beasts magnified in bulk by a factor of ten. Imagine such a creature with a dozen armoured necks and heads, all equipped with mouths full of unbelievable teeth - teeth like rows of scythes! Imagine these things having a like number of arms or tentacles, all terminating in murderous claws and pincers or fitted with huge versions of the Wamphyri battle-gauntlets. Get all of that formed in your mind's eye, and you are looking at a warrior creature. They are vampires, but utterly mindless, with one and only one loyalty - to whichever Lord created them.

'Ah! - but I see the question in your eyes, Jazz. You're thinking: whichever Lord created them from what? But haven't I told you that they are masters of metamorphosis? Their creatures - all of their creatures, which take the place of machines in their society - were once men!

'Don't ask me the hows of it; I don't have all the answers, and I don't think I could bear to know them. What I do know I'll pass on to you, as time allows. But right now you've asked me what it was like for me when I first came here, and I'm telling you that the first things I saw - two of them - were Wamphyri warrior creatures. I saw them first, before anything else, in the same way you would notice a pair of cockroaches among ants. One: because ants are tolerable, while cockroaches are not. And two: because cockroaches are that much bigger, and so much more ugly!

Two of them, out there on that rock-strewn plain under the moon and stars. And I couldn't believe their size! That they were fighting things was obvious: take a look at a picture of Tyrannosaurus Rex in a book of prehistoric animals and you don't need to be told he was a warrior. These creatures were like that: with their weaponry, armour-plated, in all their utter hideousness, they couldn't be anything else. It was only when I saw that they were quiescent, controlled, that I dared to take my eyes off them. Then, having observed the "cockroaches", as it were, I looked at the "ants". Seen in contrast, beside the warrior creatures and flying beasts, that's what the Wamphyri looked like: ants. But they were the masters, and the monstrous giants their obedient slaves.

'Try to picture it:

'Out on the boulder plain, these two mountains of armour-clad flesh. Closer, a half-dozen flyers, all craning their necks and swaying their heads to and fro. And closer still, a few paces away from the shining dome of the Gate, the Wamphyri themselves come here to punish one of their own, a transgressor against the Lady Karen's laws. I saw them, stared at them in a mixture of awe and morbid fascination, and they stared back at me. For they were here to thrust someone into the Gate, and the last thing they'd expected was that some other should come out of it!

'There was Karen herself, and four subordinates -"lieutenants" if you like - and one other who was ugly as sin and draped in chains of gold. Now gold is a soft metal, as you know, Jazz, and easily broken. But not when its links are thick as your fingers! There was more gold in those chains than I've ever seen in my life in any one place, in one mass, and yet this Corlis who was decked in them wore them like tinsel! Corlis, that was his name; he was huge, a brute, and stark naked except for the gold. No gauntlet on this one's hand, for he was in shame. But though he stood there naked, unweaponed, still his red eyes burned furiously and unrepentant!

'The four who surrounded him were big men, too, but smaller by a head than their prisoner; they carried long sheaths of leather strapped to their backs, and in their hands slender swords. The sword, as I'd learn later, is a shameful weapon; only their evil gauntlets are considered honourable and fitting tools for hand-to-hand combat. Also, these swords were tipped in silver. And all four of them were pointed at Corlis, who stood there panting, his head lifted high, engorged with rage.

'Behind their prisoner, and shielded from him by the four who guarded him, stood the Lady Karen transfixed.

Sighting me, her red mouth had fallen open. Now, I'll tell you something, Jazz - something which no woman should ever admit, which I hadn't admitted, not even to myself, until that moment. Women are envious creatures. And the good-looking ones more so than others. But now I admit it because I know it's true. Except I didn't know how true until I saw this Karen.

'Her hair was copper, burnished, almost ablaze; it reflected the white light of the dome like a halo over her head, bounced like fine spun gold on her shoulders, competed with the polished bangles she wore on her arms. Gold rings on a slender golden chain around her neck supported the sheath of soft white leather which she wore like a glove, and on her feet sandals of pale leather stitched in gold. Over her shoulders a long cloak of black fur, skilfully shorn from the wings of great bats, shimmering with a weave of fine golden stitches, and about her waist a wide black leather belt, buckled with her crest - a snarling wolf's head - and supporting, on one rounded hip, her gauntlet.

'A woman, an incredibly beautiful woman; or she would have been, if not for her scarlet eyes. Who or whatever these people were, she was one of them; indeed she was the mistress of this group, their Lady. And before too long I'd know what they called themselves -Wamphyri!

'She came forward, around the group standing there, and approached me where I crouched by the crater wall, with the half-sphere of the Gate at my back. Close-up she was even more beautiful; her body had the sinuous motion of a Gypsy dancer, and yet seemed so unaffected as to be innocent! Her face, heart-shaped, with a lock of that fiery hair coiled on her brow, could have been angelic - but her red eyes made it the face of a demon. Her mouth was full, curved in a perfect bow; the colour of her lips, like blood, was accentuated by her pale, slightly hollow cheeks. Only her nose marred looks which were otherwise entirely other-worldly: it was a fraction tilted, stubby, with nostrils just a little too round and dark. And perhaps her ears, half-hidden in her hair, which showed whorls like pale, exotic conches. But golden rings dangled from their lobes, and all in all, and for all her weirdness and contrasting colours, still there was the look of the Gypsy about her. I could hear the jingle of her movements, even when there was none to hear...

'"Hell-lander," she said, in a tongue I wouldn't have known without my talent to rely on. Languages are easy when you're a telepath. But what I couldn't recognize in her spoken words, I read in her mind - and she knew it at once! Her pale hand, crimson-nailed, flickered toward me, pointed, accused: "Thought-stealer!"

'Then she narrowed those blood-hued eyes of hers, and when next she spoke her tone was thoughtful. "A woman, from the hell-lands. I have heard of men, wizards, coming through the portal, but never a woman. Perhaps it is an omen. I could make good use of a thought-stealer." She nodded, came to a sudden decision. "Give yourself up to me, and all your secrets, and I'll protect you," she said. "Refuse me, and ... go your own way, without my protection." But behind her as she spoke I could see the leers and the lusting stamped clearly on the faces of her henchmen. I thought quickly - for my life! If I didn't go with her, wherever, then where could I go? Was there anywhere to go? Or ... if I didn't go with her, then where would I be taken?

'"I'm Zekintha," I told her. "And I accept your protection."'

'"Then you may call me the Lady Karen," she tossed her head, setting her hair ablaze where it bounced. "Now stand aside a little way. We've business here." And to her aides: "Bring the dog Corlis forward!"

'Karen's men shoved their prisoner to the fore; even chained, he might have turned on them, but their silver-tipped weapons pressed him close. They took off his chains, and as the last of these was being removed -

'It was the moment he'd been waiting for!

'Knotting that last length of chain about one great fist, Corlis whirled, flailed, sent his warders dancing back. Before they could gather their thoughts he'd released the heavy chain, sent it crashing into them. In another moment he laughed - a mad, reckless laugh - and leaped for the Lady Karen to snatch her up. "If I'm to be a victim of the portal, Karen, then so are you!" he cried.

'So, in the same way you brought Karl Vyotsky here, Jazz, Corlis had determined to take the Lady Karen out of here.

'Now, clutching Karen to him, Corlis had almost reached the shallow crater wall. Her men were after him like hounds, but he had the advantage. It seemed that my one hope in this strange world was about to be removed from it. But Corlis hadn't reckoned with me. As he dodged Karen's retainers and the mouths of magmass holes, so he came close to where I crouched. Karen was kicking and biting him, but it made little difference. She was Wamphyri, but she was a woman, too. Finally, with the Lady tucked under one arm, Corlis saw his chance and bounded straight for natural steps of stone where they climbed the crater wall. He was now within three or four short paces of the Gate. But as he lumbered past me, so I reached out my leg, and braced it... it was as simple as that.

'He tripped; Karen went flying free, almost fell into one of the gaping magmass wormholes. Corlis got up on one knee, glaring his hatred and frustration at me. I was almost within reach of him. His arms reached for me and I backed away - but, God, Jazz, those hellish arms kept reaching! They stretched like rubber, straining after me, and I could hear the tearing of muscles and ligaments! His face - God, his face! - it opened like a hinged steel trap, with rows of needle teeth that were visibly growing and curving out of his jaws! I don't know what he was becoming - something utterly invincible, I'm sure - but I wasn't about to give in to him. Not to that.

'My SMG was in my hands, had been there all the time. But I'm not a soldier, Jazz, and I had never killed. Against this, however, I had no other choice. I cocked the gun (don't ask me where I found the strength, for my muscles were jelly) and squeezed the trigger.

'Well, as you know, bullets don't kill them - but they do make a mess of them. The stream of fire I turned on Corlis was almost a solid wall of lead. It turned his trunk scarlet, punched holes in his chest and hideous face, blew him back away from me and sent him sprawling, flopping like a wet rag. And amidst the chattering madness of my weapon, everything else seemed frozen. In the relative quiet of Starside, that gunfire must have sounded like the laughter of hell! And only when the magazine was empty did the noise abate, allowing its echoes to come thundering back from the hills.

'Stunning, the effect - but then the tableau unfroze. Urged on by Karen where she came to her feet, her men leaped toward Corlis. He sat up! - I couldn't believe it, but he did. Already the holes were healing in his body, his bloody face sealing itself. He saw them bearing down on him with their silver-tipped swords and looked wildly all about. There! - a magmass hole; he stood up, all lopsided, crouched, sprang, went sprawling toward its dark mouth. In mid-air one of Karen's retainers caught him; a sword flashed silver; Corlis's head sprang free! His trunk crashed forward, spurting blood from its severed neck. Corlis's dive took his twitching body down the magmass wormhole and out of sight. But his head lay grimacing, gnashing its evil teeth, where it had fallen.

'Karen gave a cry of disgust, stepped forward and kicked the vomiting thing into another hole. Whatever Corlis had done, it must have been very bad. Scarlet stains were all that remained of him...

'Karen looked at me, looked at the smoking gun in my hands. Her red eyes were wide now, making her face seem paler still. As well as the gun, she was aware of the rest of my kit; she couldn't keep her gaze from straying to my packs, the nozzle of the flame-thrower hooked to my belt, the sigil on the left-hand breast pocket of my combat suit. The latter finally impressed itself upon her and she stepped closer, peering at the crest. It was a hammer and sickle, of course, crossed with the bayonet of an infantry unit. Some small soldier had sacrificed his suit for me.

'But it signified much more than that to the Lady. She pointed, stretched herself tall - perhaps in outrage - and spat words in my face. They came much too fast to be anything but a gabble; I read them in her mind:

'"Is that your banner? The curved knife, the hammer and the stake? Do you mock me?"

' "I mock no one," I answered. "This badge is merely- "

'"Be quiet!" And she added: "Also beware, for if your weapon so much as snaps at me, then I'll feed you as a tidbit to my warrior creatures!" And she pointed to the anomalous monstrosities on the rock-strewn plain.

'My gun was empty and I didn't dare try to re-load. In a moment of inspiration I held it out, offering it to Karen; she at once shrank a little back from it. Then she scowled, knocked the gun aside, reached out and hooked her scarlet fingernails into the stitching of my pocket. She tore the offending blazon from me and tossed it away. "There!" she said, and : "Do you denounce these signs?"

'"I do," I answered.

'She nodded, became calm. "Very well," she said, " -but be thankful I'm in your debt. You can tell me why you wore that - that insult- later." And she turned from me and made a motion to her men, who hurried down onto the plain and mounted-up on their flyers.

'Karen made to move after them but I stood still, uncertain of what I should do. She saw my indecision, said: "Come, they're waiting for us."

'She took me to one of the nodding, lolling creatures. It had been Corlis's, I thought, for upon its back, where the neck stuck out, a cage of metal was bound in position. "Climb up and get in," Karen told me, but I couldn't. I backed away, shook my head. My fear seemed to give her a lot more confidence - not that I thought she needed any!

'She laughed: "Then ride with me."

'We went to the next unoccupied beast. Beneath its harness it wore a purple blanket huge as a carpet; the harness itself was of black leather with golden trappings, and the saddle at the base of the flyer's neck was huge, soft and sumptuous. The thing lowered its neck and Karen grasped nodules and harness, drew herself easily aloft and into the saddle. I could scarcely bring myself to touch that alien flesh. She reached down, grasped my fevered hand in her own cool one, and with her help I mounted-up behind her.

'"If you get dizzy, cling to me," she said. And then we flew to her aerie. I can't say more than that about the flight for my eyes were closed most of the way. And I did cling to her, for there was nothing else to cling to.

'The aerie was a horrible place. It ... Jazz?' Zek leaned across and looked at him. In his mouth, the cork tip of a cigarette stuck straight up in the air. Even as she smiled her soft, slow smile, a puff of wind blew half an inch of cold ash loose onto his chest, which began to rise and fall in a steady rhythm. And he had said he wouldn't be able to sleep! Well, it was better that he get his rest. Better that she get some, too.

But she wondered how much of what she'd said had gone in.

As it happened, most of it had. And Jazz's opinion of her hadn't changed. She was a hell of a woman...

The next fifteen miles weren't so easy and Jazz began to understand what Zek had meant by 'back-breaking'. After what he'd been through prior to and since leaving Perchorsk (and his own world) far behind, something a little less than three hours of sleep hadn't seemed a great deal. Not in the way of preparation for this, anyway. The trail had been rough, winding up into higher foothills where tumbled scree made the going a veritable obstacle course; it had soon started to rain, a deluge which eventually petered out just as Lardis called for the second break. Here there were dry, shallow caves under broken ledges of rock, into which most of the Travellers dispersed themselves. Jazz and Zek likewise, peering out from their cramped refuge while the sky cleared and the low, unshakable sun began to aim its wan but still warming rays into their faces again.

From this vantage point, as the air cleared and the sun sucked up and steamed away a swirling ground mist, Jazz was able to see why Lardis had chosen such a difficult route. Down below a forest stretched deep and wide, away out onto the Sunside plain. Criss-crossed with rivers tumbling from the mountains, the deep, dark green of the woods told of an almost impenetrable rankness. Up here the rivers were still streams, easily forded, but down below they tumbled through gulleys, joined up, finally broadened into wide watercourses winding through the forest. Good for hunting and fishing, certainly, but no good at all for trekking. The choice had been as easy as that: a difficult route or an impossible one. And of course the foothills did command a view of all the land around, a factor much to Lardis's liking.

'This time,' Jazz told Zek, 'I believe I'll sleep.'

'You did last time,' she reminded him. 'Are you beginning to feel the strain?'

'Beginning to feel it?' He managed a grin. 'I'm looking for a muscle that doesn't ache! And yet the Travellers have these damned cumbersome travois to lug around, and I don't hear them complaining. I suppose it's like you said: I'll get used to it. But I'd hate to think what it would be like for anyone who was unfit, or maybe an older person, stranded here.'

'I wasn't so fit,' she reflected. 'But I've had more time to get myself broken in. I suppose in a way I was lucky that the Lady Karen got me first. And then that she was... well, a "Lady", or as much of a one as her condition would allow her to be.'

'Her condition?'

'She has Dramal Doombody's egg,' Zek nodded. The Wamphyri Lord Dramal was doomed from the day he took a leper - which was how he came to be named that way. I'll explain:

'Leprosy is also part of the Travellers' lot. They are prone to it. Passed on, inherited or simply contracted from another leper - don't ask me. I don't know anything about the disease. But when its symptoms start to show in a Traveller, then he's kicked out. It happens now and then: his tribe simply abandons him. Or her. Dramal, in his youth five hundred years ago, took a female leper. She had the disease but it hadn't started to show yet. The vampire Lord found her comely; he cohabited with her in his aerie; too late he discovered her curse.'

Jazz was puzzled yet again. 'You mean she passed it on to him? But I'm amazed that any of these terrible creatures have survived at all! Quite apart from the fact that they continually war with each other, they drink the blood of Travellers, have sex with Traveller women, generally leave themselves wide open to all sorts of diseases.'

'And yet,' Zek answered, 'in their own way they're scrupulous. The true Wamphyri Lord or Lady is, anyway.'

'Scrupulous?' Jazz was taken aback. 'Are you serious?'

She looked at him, stared unblinking into his eyes. 'Cockroaches are also scrupulous, in their way. But all in all, the Wamphyri are ... choosy, yes. Their retainers, their henchmen - generally Travellers who've been changed, vampirized but not given an egg, like those two you saw with Shaithis - they're not so fussy. But as for "leaving themselves wide open to diseases": that might be true if they were wholly human. But as you've seen, they're not. Once a man is vampirized his body becomes invulnerable to disease. That's why they live so long. Even the aging process is defeated.'

'But not invulnerable to leprosy? Is that what you're saying?'

'Apparently. Anyway, this woman of Dramal's died in the tower where he locked her. Then the disease came out in him. Of course, his vampire flesh fought it. When limbs withered down they were regenerated, and when flesh wasted away it was replenished. But Dramal couldn't win. The vampire in him was itself infected. As the disease got a hold, all of Dramal's energies went into combatting it, holding it at bay. His aerie was shunned by the Wamphyri, and even in times of truce he had no visitors. He held his own people in thrall, of course, but as he weakened even they began to whisper and plot against him. They were afraid of catching the disease.

'Now all of this took time, almost five hundred years of gradual deterioration, but just a few years ago Dramal began to fear that the end was in sight, that one of the Great Undead was about to die - or that he would soon become so weak that his retainers would rise up against him, stake and behead him, and burn his remains to ashes. Then they would flee the aerie, which was now generally considered a pesthole. He determined that before they could do that he must deposit his egg - but not with one of the treacherous gang who now surrounded him. With the egg would go his power, of course, and the aerie would pass into the hands of his successor. So he took Karen Sisclu from an eastern Traveller tribe and made her one of the Wamphyri, and before he died transferred all of his power to her. In better times he would most certainly have passed on his egg through the sex act, but he no longer had the strength for that. He had expended all in teaching Karen the ways of the Wamphyri, the secrets of the aerie, and in passing on his sigils and the loyalty of his various beasts. And so he merely kissed her; that was sufficient; during that monstrous kiss his egg passed into her.'

Jazz couldn't suppress a small shiver. He grimaced and said: 'God, what a world this is! But tell me: by "her condition" do you mean the fact that she's now Wamphyri, or is it worse than that? I mean, does she have Dramal's leprosy, too?'

'No, not that,' Zek answered, 'but it's possible she's in an even worse fix, if you can imagine that. You see, Wamphyri legends have it that the first true Mother was a human female whose vampire produced more than the normal single egg. Indeed, the eggs were produced almost endlessly, until the vampire itself and its female host were drained - until there was nothing left of them! They gave birth to vampires until the effort withered them to lifeless husks. And this was how Dramal had determined to repay the others of the Wamphyri for their scorn, their naming him Doombody and for his isolation: but mainly for the sheer evil of it. He would cause to be brought into this world a hundred vampire eggs, all of which would find hosts in the denizens of his aerie. Why, even the flying beasts and warrior creatures would be Wamphyri! Which would mean the debasement of the entire hag-ridden race! Do you understand?'

Jazz nodded, but a little uncertainly. 'I think so. He hoped that Karen would become a Mother, that her vampire would produce the same endless stream of eggs. But how could he be sure?'

'Maybe he couldn't,' she shrugged. 'Maybe he merely hoped it would be so - but he told Karen it would be. And she, poor, damned, doomed creature that she is, she believes it. And the Wamphyri do have strange powers. Perhaps in some way he has engineered it. Anyway, he's gone now into corruption and so she waits, and the vampire in her slowly matures. Except... some mature more quickly than others. In some it is a matter of days, in others many years. If her vampire is a Mother, then she'll suffer the same fate as that first Mother of legend...'

Zek paused, and on impulse reached across and touched Jazz's face. Before she could withdraw her hand, he kissed her fingers. This, too, was on impulse. She smiled at him and shook her head.

'I know what you're thinking,' she said. 'And I certainly don't have to read your mind. It's a grasshopper mind anyway; from such a very dire subject to - dalliance? - in one move.' Then she grew serious again. 'But you're right, Jazz, this is a very terrible world. And we're not out of it yet by a long shot. We should both save our strength.'

'I've noticed,' he told her, 'that you've been sticking pretty close to me. Maybe it's as well I can't read your mind.'

She laughed. 'There are a lot of unattached male Travellers, Jazz,' she said. 'Now to them, and to Lardis too, it will seem I've made up my mind - whether I have or not. This way I won't have to keep fending them off. But don't make me keep fending you off, too, for I'm not sure how well I'd succeed.'

He gave a mock sigh, grunted, 'Promises, promises!' Then he grinned. 'OK, you win. And anyway, I ache enough already.'

At the end of the next leg of their journey, the sun appeared to have moved some degrees eastward, at the same time sinking appreciably lower in the sky; or maybe it was just that the Travellers had come down out of the foothills, so lowering their horizon. Whichever, Jazz noticed a definite urgency - a heightened awareness - in Lardis and his people; the pass through the mountains was still only a few miles to the east, and the sun's descent seemed that much more obvious. Yes, and Shaithis of the Wamphyri had a score to settle, so the sooner the tribe reached its cavern sanctuary the better.

Following a fairly well-defined trail down out of the foothills, the going had been quick and surprisingly easy. A little less than twenty miles had been covered in the time allowed for only half of that, and Lardis was well pleased. He called camp on the westward bank of a river at the edge of the great forested region, told his people they could have four hours of rest. He sent out hunters, too, into the thigh-length savanna grass after whichever birds and animals lived there. Then he found himself a spot on the riverbank and cast a line there, and sat in the long twilight with his back to the bank fishing and making his plans.

Meanwhile his men had found signs left by runners (free- and far-ranging members of the tribe who acted as Lardis's intelligence agents), which corroborated previously arranged liaison points for both the next Traveller group, only five miles ahead, and the primary encampment some twenty to twenty-five miles beyond that. As Lardis got his hook into a large catfish and hauled it ashore, he was well satisfied. Things seemed to be working out exactly to schedule.

As for Jazz and Zek: while she bathed in the river he worked on her SMG, clearing the blockage and oiling the parts, getting the weapon back into serviceable order. In the event of another confrontation, two guns would be better than one. Also, Jazz had called for the rest of his equipment to be brought to him; he wanted at least one member of this Gypsy band he travelled with, preferably Lardis himself, to understand the workings of various items - specifically the flame-thrower. When his gear arrived, Jazz found to his surprise that no one seemed to have tampered with his packs since he'd re-packed them. And maybe that was just as well. In the bottom of one pack there was a small nest of six deadly Russian fragmentation grenades. About the same size as hen eggs, they reminded Jazz of foil-covered chocolate Easter eggs in the compartmented, sawdust-packed tray of their wooden box. If anyone had tampered with those... Jazz supposed he'd have heard about it long before now.

Lardis, on his way to the campfire with the huge catfish jerking spasmodically where it lay across his shoulder, nodded to Zek and Jazz on the riverbank and called out: 'Let me just rid myself of this, then I'll be back to see these tricks of yours.'

They watched his burly figure out of sight over the rim of the bank, then turned back to what they were doing. While Zek finished drying her hair, Jazz tested her gun one last time; he drew back its cocking piece sharply and was rewarded by the clean, clear, very familiar ch-ching of metal parts engaging. Then he squeezed the trigger and the breech-block flew forward, slapped firmly home. Jazz nodded his satisfaction, put the gun on safe and slotted a full magazine into its housing. He handed the weapon to Zek and said: "There, and now you're a power in the world again. I still have six full mags and ammo to refill four of them. That's five apiece. Hardly an armoury, but a sight better than nothing.'

He picked up a grenade and weighed it in his hand. It had a twist-action, ring-pull pin. Packed with high explosive, on detonating the shell would break down into two hundred curved metal splinters, each one scything outwards from the blast at the speed of a bullet. Devastating! Even the most powerful vampire Lord wouldn't stand a chance against one of these. At the very least he'd be maimed, and at best decapitated. Jazz would have used them back in the pass that time, except he hadn't been sure what Arlek's lot had done with the grenades, and anyway his SMG had been more immediate.

Zek dragged his thoughts back to the here and now with: 'Do you want me to tell you about the Lady Karen's aerie?'

Jazz stood up, said: 'Yes, while I bathe. I'm starting to smell like you did the first time we met! Shouldn't look if I were you - it's gruesome in here.' He stripped down to his shorts, took a dive into the water. Then he swam back close to the bank and started washing himself. 'OK,' he said, 'let's hear about these vampire castles. I've a feeling it won't be pleasant, but whatever you consider to be worth the telling

And so she continued with her story...

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