Zek Continues Her Story
It was deep twilight now. A few birds sang hushed, warbling songs in the grass of the plain; the mountains marched cold on the right flank, dark in their forested roots and gold on their snow-spiked peaks; the tribe of Lardis the Traveller moved silently, no words spoken, with only their natural jingle, the creaking of their caravans and rustle of travois to tell that they were there at all in the shadows of the woods where they skirted the barrier mountains.
It was colder, too, and a racing moon sailed like a pale, far-flung coin on high, calling to the wild wolves of the peaks, whose answering calls echoed down with an eerie foreboding. The sun was a sliver of gold in the south, gleaming faintly far beyond the plain and silvering the coils of winding rivers.
Only Michael J. Simmons and Zekintha Foener spoke, because they were hell-landers and knew no better. But even their speech was hushed. It would soon be sundown, which was not a time for making loud noises. Even strangers could sense that much.
Jazz had built a light-framed travois; he hauled their kit bundled up in skins, carried only his SMG strapped across his back. Zek helped as best she could where the going was rough, but in the main he was well able to manage on his own. In just a few days his trained physique had attained new heights of strength and endurance.
A few miles back they'd picked up the main Traveller party and now Lardis's tribe was complete. Now, too, the sanctuary outcrop was only a short distance ahead; already its dome was visible, with the sun gleaming on it like some great, fleshless, yellowed skull in the middle distance. From here on, as they went, the Gypsies would cover their tracks, leave no sign to tell that they'd come this way. Oh, the Wamphyri knew their hiding holes well enough, but even so they didn't care to advertise their presence here.
A few minutes ago Lardis had toiled up alongside Jazz and Zek, said: 'Jazz, when the tribe's in and settled down, then meet me at the main entrance. Myself and three or four of the lads, we'll have a go at learning how to use these weapons of yours. The flame-engine, and your guns.'
'And the grenades?' Jazz had paused for a moment, wiped his sweating brow.
'Eh? Ah, yes!' Lardis grinned. 'But bigger fish next time, eh?' The grin had fallen from his face in a moment. 'Let's hope we don't have to use them - any of them. But if we do - the silver-tipped bolts of our crossbows, sharpened staves which we've got cached away in the caves, our swords of silver which are likewise hidden, combined with your weapons ... if it's our turn to go, at least we'll go fighting.'
Then Zek had spoken up: 'That's gloomy talk, Lardis Lidesci. Is something bothering you? We've just one more sundown ahead of us, and before the next one we'll be meeting up with the Dweller. That's what you promised your people. Surely all's gone well so far?'
He'd nodded. 'So far, aye. But the Lord Shaithis has a score to settle. There was no bad blood before. It was the old game of wolf and chicken, as always. But now the chicken has clawed the wolf's nose. He's not just curious or greedy any more, he's angry! Also - ' and he'd closed his mouth and shrugged.
Tell us the worst of it, Lardis,' Jazz had urged him. 'What's on your mind?'
Again Lardis's shrug. 'I don't know - maybe it's nothing. Or maybe it's several small things. But there's a mist back there, and that's something I don't like for a start!' He'd pointed back the way they'd come. In the distance, to the east, a wall of grey mist rolled down from the mountains, coiled itself shallowly on the forests. It swirled and eddied, lapping like a slow tide over the foothills. The Wamphyri have a way with mists,' Lardis had continued. 'We're not the only ones who cover our tracks...'
'But it's still sunup!' Jazz had protested.
'In a very little while it will be sundown!' Lardis had snapped. 'And the great pass has been in darkness for a long time now. Here in the lee of these forests, there's shade aplenty.'
Zek's hand had flown to her mouth. 'You think Shaithis is coming? But I've sensed nothing. I've been scanning constantly but I've read no alien thoughts.'
Lardis had breathed deeply, more a sigh. That's reassuring, anyway. And if he is coming, we'll meet on our terms at least.' He'd glanced up into the mountains. 'But the wolves were howling, and now they've stopped. And our own animals are quiet, too. See - only look at Wolf, there!' Zek's great wolf loped a little way apart; his ears were flat and his tail brushed the rough ground. Every now and then he'd pause and look back, and whine a little.
Jazz and Zek had looked at each other, then at Lardis. 'But maybe it's nothing,' the Gypsy leader had grunted. And with another shrug he'd gone on ahead.
'What do you make of all that?' Jazz now asked Zek, his tone soft.
'I don't know. Maybe it's just as he said. Anyway, the closer we get to sundown, the more nervy everyone becomes. There's nothing new in that. The Travellers don't like mists, and they like their animals frisky. Anything else is a bad sign. The current mood: it's just a combination of things, that's all.' For all her brave explanation, she hugged herself and shivered.
'Ever the optimist?' Jazz's smile was uncertain.
'Because I've come through a lot,' she was quick to answer. 'And because we're so close to the end now.'
'Yes, you have been through a lot.' Jazz began hauling the travois again. 'And come to think of it, you never did get round to telling me how come the Lady Karen let you go.
'We've been busy,' she shrugged. 'Do you still want to hear it?' Suddenly the idea appealed to her. Maybe talking would calm her own nerves a little.
'Yes,' Jazz said, 'but first there are a couple of other things that have been bothering me.'
'Anachronisms,' he nodded. 'The Gypsies, this Romance-language tongue of theirs, their metal working. Unless there's a lot of this planet I don't know about -and I can't see how that can be, for one side's hot enough to fry eggs and the other would freeze you stiff - then these things I've mentioned are anachronisms. This world is ... well, it's primitive! But there are paradoxes. Some of the things in this world ... by comparison they're high-tech!'
Zek's turn to nod. 'I know,' she said, 'and I've thought about it. If you talk to the Travellers about their history, their legends, as I have done, you might find an explanation. Something of one, anyway. According to immemorial sources, their world wasn't always like this. Wamphyri legends bear the Traveller myths out, incidentally.'
Jazz was interested. 'Go on,' he said. 'You talk and I'll save my breath for hauling.'
'Well, the Traveller legends have it that once upon a time this planet was fertile in almost every region, with oceans, ice-caps, jungles and plains: much like Earth; in fact. And it teemed with people. Oh, it had its vampire swamps, too, but they weren't so active in those days. People knew about them and shunned them; local communities drew boundaries and patrolled them. Nothing living was ever allowed out. Vampirism was treated like rabies, the only difference being that if a man was ever vampirized they didn't attempt a cure. There is no cure. So they'd simply stake him out and... you know the way it goes...
'But in the main the vampires were kept down, and in those days there were no Wamphyri. The people weren't migratory; they had nothing to fear and so nothing to run from; their systems were mainly barter, less frequently feudal.
'Anyway, as far as I can make out they were maybe three to four hundred years behind us. There were big differences, of course: they hadn't discovered gunpowder, for one thing. Also, while they'd developed a complex language, they still hadn't made much effort to get it down on paper - or on skins. That's why most of this has had to come down by word of mouth, from one generation to the next. Of course, you can get big distortions that way: some unimportant things get exaggerated while others of real importance are lost entirely. For example, the heroes in the Traveller myths are all giants, who eat vampires for breakfast and don't even get a stomach ache! But no one remembers who developed the metalworking skills, designed the first caravan, made the first crossbow.
'So that was the way this world was: like ours maybe three or four hundred years ago, but in many ways less dangerous, less warlike, less noisy. Mainly people lived in peace with each other, and apart from small territorial disputes they were left alone to farm, fish, and trade off anything extra which they managed to produce. There have been plenty of worse places, and worse times, in our own world.
'Oh, and perhaps I should mention: in that bygone time the world did have proper seasons, shorter days and nights, again pretty similar to our own planet. But then -
Then something happened.
'According to the Traveller legend, a "white sun" appeared in the night sky. It came through the heavens so fast it looked like a bar of fire; it glanced off the moon, speared down and blazed across the surface of the world! As it fell so it shrank, until finally it skimmed across the land in a huge ball of fire, like a flat stone bouncing on water, and came to rest back there beyond the mountains.
'But though it was small, this "white sun", its magic was enormous. It speeded up the moon in its orbit, changed the world's axis, brought into being geological stresses of awesome magnitude. It created these mountains, the frozen lands to the north, the deserts of the south. And for a thousand years after its coming, the surface of this world was more like hell than the friendly place it had been.
The seasons were gone forever, the moon was now a demon flyer that called to the wolves, an estimated quarter-billion people were reduced to a few thousand. The continents had changed, mountains disappeared from where they'd been, were forced up elsewhere; the survivors went through a nightmare of tidal waves, storms, volcanic upheavals - you name it. But they learned to live with it, and eventually the world settled down. Except that now there was a Starside and a Sunside.
'Centuries passed. Who knows how many? Far Sunside became a desert, and Starside... well, you've seen it. Only the mountains and their Sunside foothills could support human life as we know it. People had settled there, started to rebuild, however slowly, crudely. They remembered a few of their skills, used them to start afresh. And meanwhile the swamps, mainly unchanged, had re-stocked with evil vampiric life...
'Explorers went over the mountains, through the passes, saw the frozen wastes beyond. Torrential rains, the howling elements and glacial ice had carved mighty stacks from the mountain flanks, but the land was all but barren. Men couldn't live there. Men, mind you...
Then there came the plague - a plague of vampires!
The swamps overflowed with the damned things. They infested men and animals in unprecedented numbers. Bands of vampirized men roamed on Sunside, murdering by night and crawling into holes during the interminable days. Reduced to near-savagery by Nature's disaster, now this un-natural disaster reduced people further still. Then the tribes rallied, began hunting vampires, killed them as they had in the old days. They used the stake, the sword, fire; they dragged vampires screaming into the open, pinned them down for the sun to fry.
'Finally Sunside was safe again; the swamps became more or less quiescent; the plague was under control. But vampirized men had been driven north through the great pass. Long-lived, they fought with each other for the blood which sustains them. They discovered and lived off the troglodytes in their deep caverns on Starside. Then, as they started to inhabit the stacks, so they became the "Lords" of that dark hemisphere. They built their aeries, called themselves Wamphyri; and with the intelligence of men and the drive of the vampires within them, so at last they began to raid on Sunside. The people they victimized survived by becoming Travellers, and they're still travelling. That's the whole story
'This "white sun",' Jazz said after a while. 'Are we talking about the sphere - the Gate - whatever?'
Zek shrugged. 'I imagine so. It's a space-time gate, right? Not only a distortion of space but a bridge across time, too. Is it possible that what appeared here thousands of years ago was caused by the Perchorsk accident, and that the two are linked through the sphere? An anachronism, as you say.'
'But what the hell was - is - it?' Jazz frowned. 'Back at Perchorsk there was talk of black, white, even grey holes. And you said it tied in with Wamphyri legends, too. How do you mean?'
The Wamphyri legends have it that the "white sun" came from hell - or a place that was hell to them, anyway. In other words, a world where the killing sun was a constant factor, a regularly recurring nightmare from which there was only brief surcease. Up until a time only a few years ago, the sphere we came through from Perchorsk out onto the plain of boulders on Starside was buried. It used to lie at the bottom of its crater, where only its upper surface was visible, beaming its white light up into the sky like a searchlight. It was maybe fifteen to twenty feet deep, surrounded by the crater wall. I had all of this from Karen.
'But just two years ago our time - '
'At the time of the Perchorsk accident?' Jazz was quick to note.
'Yes,' Zek nodded, 'I suppose so. Anyway, that was when a change took place. During sunup, when the Wamphyri stick close to their stacks, the sphere apparently elevated itself up from the bed of its crater until it was positioned as it is now.'
Zek's shrug. 'I certainly don't have one. But the Wamphyri saw it as an omen. Their myths have it that any change in the sphere - the gate to the hell-lands - is portentous of great changes in general. Changes they themselves might instigate.'
'Well, for a long time now they've talked of joining forces and waging war on the Dweller. If they could put aside their own petty squabbles long enough, maybe they'd do that. Also, we were something of a change in ourselves. When Chingiz Khuv started sending political prisoners and other "undesirables" through the Gate as a series of experiments ... it was the first time that the Wamphyri had proof that the hitherto half-mythical hell-lands were real!'
Jazz was frowning, chewing his lip. 'Something's wrong here,' he said. 'If the recent Perchorsk accident in our world caused the "white sun" effect thousands of years ago in this one, why didn't we appear through the Gate all that time ago? Another anachronism? A space-time paradox? I don't buy it. It doesn't ring true. Now tell me this: how long have the Wamphyri been using the Gate as a punishment? When did they first start sending transgressors through it?'
Zek glanced at him. 'Why do you ask?'
'Just a thought.'
'Well, as far as I'm aware, they've been doing it right through their history, for thousands of years.'
'See what I mean?' Jazz was sure this was important. 'Up until the time I left Perchorsk there had only been a handful of "encounters" - of which only one was, or had been, a man. A creature of the Wamphyri, anyway.'
Zek shook her head. 'No, he was true Wamphyri, that one. He was Lesk the Glut's heir, Klaus Desculu. He had Lesk's egg, but instead of going off and finding or stealing a stack of his own, he tried to usurp his father, Lesk The Glut is insane; even the Wamphyri recognize that fact, that Lesk the Glut is not responsible. His passions are enormous! He brought Klaus to heel, punished him for ten years - submitted him to incredible cruelties - then banished him through the Gate. He was the one they hosed with liquid fire on the walkway. But I see what you mean. If the Wamphyri have been sending their malefactors through the Gate throughout their history, where have they been going? Not to Perchorsk, obviously, for Perchorsk didn't exist then.'
'Coming this way,' Jazz mused, 'from Perchorsk to here, there's only one exit - onto the boulder plain on Starside. But going the other way ... is there more than one exit into our world? One at Perchorsk and another somewhere else?'
It was Zek's turn to be excited. 'I've wondered about that,' she said. 'And it might explain away certain other things which have puzzled me - and you.'
She nodded. 'For instance, how is it that the Traveller tongue is so close to the Romanian of our world? And for that matter, how are the Gypsies themselves so close? What do you know of Earth's languages, Jazz? Our Earth, of course? It's obvious that you're something of a linguist.'
He smiled. 'What do I know about Earth languages? Quite a lot, actually. I have qualifications in Russian. My father was a Russian. The Slavonic languages, yes, and something of the Romance tongues, too. That's how I picked up the Traveller patois so quickly. Why do you ask?'
'A theory of mine,' she answered. 'My own knack with languages comes from my telepathy. Languages are easy if you've a rapport with your subject's mind. But the connection between the Traveller tongue and Romanian seemed so obvious to me. And of course the Wamphyri have the same tongue...'
Jazz saw what she was getting at and drew breath in a hiss. 'The banished Wamphyri took their language with them into our world!' he said. 'Zek, that's clever! But - '
'But that's to suppose that the Latin tongues originated here, not in our world.'
That's my theory, yes. I also believe that some of those ancient, banished Wamphyri took their followers with them. The Szgany, Zingaro, Zigeuner: the Gypsy!'
'The Romance tongues spread outwards from Russia?' Jazz looked puzzled. 'I can't see that.'
'Who mentioned Russia?' she answered. 'If there is more than one exit in our world, why must they all be in Russia?'
'That would be my bet, yes. Ask yourself this: where did the vampire legend arise from in our world? Where does it have its roots?'
'In Romania, of course.'
'And which nation has retained its own language almost entirely intact since time immemorial, despite being surrounded by countries with little or no linguistic relationship? Like Hungarian and the Slavonic tongues?'
'I see,' he nodded. 'By periodic injections of vampires and their followers, right?'
Jazz began to get hooked on the idea. 'The more I think of it the more plausible it seems,' he finally said. The first Wamphyri migrated (were banished) to our world many thousands of years ago. They took their followers and their language with them: the Gypsies and their tongue, which is a form of Latin. They spread outward from Romania into all the lands around, but their heartland was Romania itself. Despite being conquered by Avars, Magyars, Goths, Gepidae and what have you, the language could only be diluted, not eradicated; for when the conquerors moved on there would always be new arrivals from this side of the Gate to reinforce the watered-down tongue. It explains why Romania is so isolated in its use of a Romance language. And as you say, it gives a real basis for Earth's vampire legends. But weren't Gypsies supposed to have come out of India? The Karakoram mountains?'
'Maybe the first of them through the Gate went to India,' Zek answered. 'Why not? They're travellers, aren't they? And from there they spread themselves throughout the world. Their urge to travel is simple to explain: it had been bred into them by the Wamphyri for so many hundreds of years...'
'So to sum up,' Jazz said, 'what you're saying is this: that there's another Gate somewhere in Romania, through which the Wamphyri have been arriving in our world for millennia?'
'Never a great many of them,' she answered. 'But yes, that seems to be our conclusion. I hinted at it and you worked it out for yourself. It's plausible, as you said.'
'So why doesn't anyone know about this Romanian Gate? I mean, a thing like the shining sphere isn't likely to remain obscure for very long, now is it?'
'Ask me another,' said Zek, with another shrug. 'But from what we know of the Dweller, he certainly seems to have access to our world. And if he doesn't use the Perchorsk Gate -'
'Which Gate does he use?'
After a little while, Jazz said: 'We've covered a lot of ground. So now, before I get too confused, let's go on to something else.'
'Like why Karen set me free?' 'If you don't mind.' 'Very well, it was like this:
'I don't know how long I stayed in the Lady Karen's aerie. Time seems suspended in such places, numbed by horror. Not interminably lengthened, however, because so much of one's time is spent asleep - exhausted! To live in such a place drains a person, physically and mentally. Menace seems to lurk even where there is none; nerves stretch to breaking; massive as even the smallest room is, still the feeling is claustrophobic. Silent for hours, then ringing with the laughter of the Wamphyri, or perhaps reverberating with screams of direst agony, an aerie is like Satan's antechamber.
'And yet the Lady Karen became my friend, or as much a friend as any human being could ever hope to find in a vampire!
'Perhaps that's not so hard to understand. She had been a simple Traveller girl. She remembered her previous life, knew the horror of her present circumstances, foresaw a future more monstrous yet. She had been a striking beauty in her tribe, and I myself was not without good looks. She found a kinship with me, read in my predicament echoes of her own. Also, she knew her vampire must soon take ascendancy. When it did ... her actions would no longer be entirely her actions.
'If she hadn't been female - if this aerie had been that of one of the Lords - then things would have been very different. I wouldn't have been here telling the story now. Can you imagine what it means to be loved, physically loved, by one of the Wamphyri? "Love" in the spiritual meaning of the word isn't part of their language, but in the physical...
'When a vampire takes a woman for his pleasure, Jazz - not for food, but for sex pure and simple - well, it cannot be pure and it is never simple! The things lovers do ... nothing is forbidden between a woman and a man in love. But between a vampire and a woman, or between - a female vampire and a man? They are powerful creatures! You have heard that old saying "a fate worse than death"? Ridiculous, for what could be worse than death? But there, I'm sure I don't have to describe it.
'But Karen was entirely woman, and her female elements were emphasized by her parasite. There was nothing of the lesbian in her - not yet, anyway, though God only knows what she would be like later. So I don't suppose the thought of me as a sexual diversion even occurred to her. Not for herself, anyway.
'But her lieutenants, they wanted me.
'Oh, they had their own women - stolen Traveller girls - but they were dark and I was fair. My colours were so rare as to be almost unheard of. And I was a hell-lander. Better still, I could steal thoughts. Now, the true Wamphyri, born of a vampire egg, has a degree of telepathy -but their lesser creatures do not. Not unless such is deliberately bred into them or gifted to them by their masters. And so, all in all, I would make a highly desirable property. Karen feared that when the vampire in her was fully mature, then she'd lose what small degree of compassion remained in her. Following which my future would become that much more unreliable, my unspeakable fate that much more certain. She did not want that for me.
'One day she said to me: "Zekintha, there is something you can do for me; when it is done, if it is done well, then I shall take you to Sunside and leave you there for the Travellers to find. I see no reason why you should become what I have become, what I am still to become.'
"You offer me a way out of this place?" I answered. "Only tell me what I have to do."
"There's a truce," she said. "The Wamphyri have called a meeting. All the Lords shall gather in one place, under their many banners, to see if they can find common ground in a certain cause. Now, can you guess where they'll gather?"
'"Indeed! In the aerie of Karen. That in itself- that they wish to hold their talks here - seems to me a highly suspicious thing. A very inauspicious thing. However, I shall make provisions. Now, what are your thoughts so far?"
'"I know only what you have told me of these Lords, Lady," I answered. "Which is to say that I fear them greatly! I think that if you let the Lords Shaithis, Lesk, Lascula and the others into your castle, then you'll lose it. Of all the stacks, this one of yours holds a prime position, Karen, and they covet it. They know, too, that you have me here, and that I have magic. I am therefore desirable. Your warrior creatures would pass down to him who killed you, and they are the finest warriors of all, for none could make warriors like Dramal Doombody. These are your own words, which I repeat to you. But if your castle and your beasts and I myself am desirable, you are more desirable still, Karen. They would make fine sport with you - with both of us - before making an end of it. But you are Wamphyri! You would last so much longer than me, and suffer so much more."
'"Are you finished?"
"Normally I would agree with you in everything you've said, but there are always two ways of looking at things. For instance, perhaps there is nothing inimical in this -not immediately, anyway. At least admit this: that if the Lords are to meet, then they need neutral ground on which to do it, even if it is only to agree to disagree! This would be the ideal spot, for they don't consider me their equal; I am merely renting them a room. Also, I said I would make conditions; by which I meant that I will take precautions against treachery. One: they must come alone, without their lieutenants. That shall be the first proviso. Two: no gauntlets."
'"What?" I was amazed. "But, Lady, will they heed you? I mean, you really intend to order them to leave their battle-gauntlets behind?"
'"For their own protection!" she smiled her half-human smile. "So that they will not be tempted to brawl among themselves if their talks get heated. So ... no gauntlets -or no admittance. Oh, they'll agree, for they're eager to get this thing underway.
'"And finally, three: the meeting shall be right here in these chambers - this very hall - with one of my own warrior creatures in each corner. Stalemate! if they attempt any... act, against me, then my creatures will attack! Remember, Zekintha, that for all his strength and his powers, a vampire is only flesh and blood. He will die in the right circumstances, under the correct conditions. And melting in the stomach-acids of a warrior is one such condition. On the other hand, the Lords will know that if I call upon my creatures without provocation, then they shall have the right to deal with me in their way: a stave through my body, decapitation, a bath full of blazing oil! As I said: stalemate. Now what do you say?"
"I still find it fraught."
"So do I, but it's done. And I may even profit from it. Now look there - "
'Through a window the mountains were blackly silhouetted where a fan of golden sunlight faded behind them in the southern sky. "Sundown," I said. "Soon..."
"Aye, soon," she echoed me. "When there's a pink rim all along those peaks, then they stir, mount their beasts, glide from stack to stack. They land in the launching levels below, proceed on foot upward through the body of the stack. One at a time, they shall come. My table shall bear... unconventional dishes. Suckling wolf in pepper, hearts of great bats floating in their blood, but blackened by the use of herbs, grassland game from Sunside, and weak mushroom ales from the trog caverns. Nothing to inflame their passions."
'"But what is your purpose, Lady?" I was curious -terrified, but curious. "I know you wish nothing to do with these Lords. I know that you are... not like them. Could you not refuse them outright? Is there no other place suitable for them to hold their meeting?"
'"Most of these men," she answered thoughtfully, "have never before set foot in Dramal Doombody's aerie - my aerie, now. I think Shaithis was a visitor, once or twice, in Dramal's youth when they had something in common. They used to hunt women together at sundown on Sunside, just the two of them. Not so much a friendship as a rivalry. But for the others it's an opportunity to see what I've got here. I know that they'd use the visit to study my defences against some future invasion. But if I turned down their request, refused to offer them my ... hospitality, that would only provoke them, unite them against me."
"You said you might even profit from their coming," I reminded her. "In what way, profit?"
"Ah, yes. And that's where you come in," she answered. "We Wamphyri have powers, Zekintha. You are not alone; I, too, have the ability to steal the thoughts of others. It is of course a talent of my vampire, transferring to me. As yet, however, the art is undeveloped, dubious at best. I can't always be sure that I read aright, and over any great distance it is not worth the effort. Also, because I am Wamphyri, they would know if I probed too deeply. Our vampire minds are similar, do you see? But you are not Wamphyri ..."
"You want me to listen to their thoughts? And if they should discover me?"
"They will expect to discover you! What profit in owning a thought-stealer and letting her talent go to waste? But the trick is this: to sneak into their minds without them knowing, with your guard up lest they read yours! Discover you mentally? Possibly; but no real danger, as I've said, for they'd expect as much. But they will not discover you physically for we shall hide you in a secure place. And these are the things I shall desire to know:
"Their thoughts and plans concerning myself; whether their meeting here is entirely genuine or simply a ploy to seek out my weaknesses; their weaknesses, their uncertainties, if they have any. Look into each of their minds in turn, and see what you can see. Except I'd caution you: don't bother with Lesk the Glut. His brain is addled. His vampire is itself mad. How may one discover truth in a mind as mercurial as that? What? - he cannot make sense of his own thoughts, not from one moment to the next! But he has a strong aerie, and his strength is prodigious, else the others would have dealt with him long ago."
' "I shall do my best," I told her. "But as yet you haven't explained the point of this meeting. What is it that brings them together like this?"
' "The one they call The-Dweller-in-His-Garden-in-the-West," she answered. "They fear him. Him and his alchemies, his magics. And because they fear him they hate him! He dares set up his home there in the western peaks, midway between Star- and Sunside, without so much as a by-your-leave! He harbours Travellers, too, and instructs them in his weird ways. And any who dare go against him ... ah, but they have tales to tell!"
'"And shall you, too, set yourself against this Dweller?" I asked her.
'She looked at me with those blood-hued eyes of hers. "We shall see what we shall see," she said. "Now go, sleep, rest your mind. Prepare yourself. When it is time I shall come for you, show you your hiding place. Do well, and I shall keep my promise."
'"I won't fail you," I told her, and went off to my bedchamber. But sleep was a long time in coming...'
'Then it was sundown. I started awake, heard Karen's footsteps. And she was hurrying!
"Come!" she said, taking my hand. That unnatural strength was in her fingers where they drew me up from my bed. "Dress - and quickly! The first of them comes."
'Vampirized Travellers - slaves, leeched to death and returned from that condition by reason of their converted physiologies, their altered organs and functions - had prepared the great hall. The table had been laid, and at one end had been placed the mighty bone-throne of Dramal Doombody. Raised up on a shallow platform, it seemed to yawn down the great length of the table.
"There," said Karen. "Your hiding place - within Dramal's great chair!"
'I might have protested, but she foresaw it, stilled my babble before it could pour out:
"Have done! None shall sit upon the throne of Dramal. I do this to honour the leper Lord, my father and master, whose egg is in me. Hah! So they shall suppose, anyway. Myself, I take the great chair at the other end of the table. Between us they are trapped! Their thoughts, at least. Too late now to make other arrangements. I'll brook no argument. Proceed with your part of our plan or get out. And I mean get out! If you're not with me you're against me. Find yourself new chambers within the aerie, or escape from it if you can. I shall not hinder you - but I can't say as much for the others."
'She knew I couldn't refuse; her vampire was stirring in her, aroused by her excitement. Useless - indeed dangerous - to try to dissuade her when she was like this. I went to the bone-throne.
'God, what a monstrous chair that was!
'It was a cartilage creature's lower jawbone, as I have said. Perhaps five feet long, the eye-teeth formed hand grips at the front, so that the user's arms would rest along the shining white cartilage ridges which in our jaws house our side or back teeth. Toward the rear of the jaw its sides rose up steeply to the hinge, but of course the upper half was not there. The flat, steep slope at the back of the jaw formed the chair's backrest, against which was normally set a massive red-tasselled cushion. At front and back, the four corners, knobs of cartilage protruded downward, making perfectly symmetrical feet; the whole piece had been intricately carved and arabesqued, like an enormous ivory. And like ivory, it too had once known life - of a sort. Entire, it stood upon its own small stage, beneath which was my hiding hole. I must crawl in from behind, where once had been the trachea, then sit up inside. In there I found a large cushion; I could sit there as in a canoe, upright, with my head and shoulders protruding through into the cavity under the jaw, and look out through the arabesques so artfully cut in the bone. The great red cushion would not obstruct my view for Karen had had it removed, so that I could view at will every face at the table. It's far easier to know a man's thoughts when you can see his face.
'And so they began to arrive.
'As they came I read their names in Karen's mind.
They communicated briefly, mentally, in the fashion of the Wamphyri, exchanging names and boasts. First was Grigis, the least of the Wamphyri Lords. He made out it was a matter of priorities, but plainly he had been sent to test the way.
"'Grigis is here," he sent, as he appeared from the stairwell. "'The Wamphyri honour me, Lady, as you see. My stature is such that I am first-chosen to enter your aerie. Alas, I see warriors there, all about the room. What is this for a greeting?"
'"For your protection, Grigis," she told him. "And for mine. When heads as great as ours meet, they might clash! But for now consider the warriors as decoration, a symbol of Wamphyri power. They have no instructions. While we and the other Lords are still, they shall be still. And now, welcome to my manse. You have entered of your own free will, and I freely welcome you. Be seated. The others are not far behind."
'Grigis strode to a window, leaned out and made a sign. It was dark, of course, but that is nothing to the Wamphyri. I read in Karen's mind how a second flyer, warily circling, at once turned inward and sped for the launching levels. Then Grigis took his seat, on one side of the table and well away from the bone-throne. Grigis was of course true Wamphyri and awesome in aspect, but he was nothing special among the Lords; pointless to describe him further.
'So the arrivals proceeded: many lesser lights, but here and there a power among them. Menor Maimbite was one such. His blazon was a splintered skull between a pair of grinding jaws. Allegedly immune to kneblasch and silver, Menor was known on occasions like this to carry a small pepperbox of these poisons, with which to flavour his food. His head and the gape of his jaws were enormous even for a Lord.
'But after a dozen of them were in, welcomed, seated, and while they fidgeted and muttered low among themselves, then the mightiest of them began to show. Fess Ferenc, who stood eight and a half feet tall and needed no gauntlet, for his hands were talons; Belath, whose eyes were ever slitted, set in a fleshless face never known to smile, whose mind was cloudy and cloaked and totally unreadable; Volse Pinescu, who deliberately fostered running sores and festoons of boils all over his face and body, so that his aspect would be that much more monstrous; and Lesk the Glut, who, it was legended, in an attack of his madness, commanded one of his own warriors to fight him to the death! The story went that he'd got under the thing's scales where it couldn't reach him, eaten his way into its brain and so crippled it. But as Lesk left its skull through a nostril, so in a convulsion the beast had snapped at him. He lost an eye and half of his face, where now he wore a huge leather patch stitched to his jaw and temple. But to replace the missing eye, he had grown one on his left shoulder, which he kept bare, wearing his cloak thrown over the right. Lesk took a seat on the left, right next to my hiding place in the bone-throne, which caused me to tremble violently. But I managed to control it.
'Next to last came Lascula Longtooth, who had so refined and concentrated his metamorphic powers that he could lengthen his jaws and teeth at will, on the spur of the moment, which he was wont to do habitually, like a man scratching his chin. And last of all was Shaithis, whose stack was a fortress impenetrable, whose legends were such as needed no embroidery. Of them all, he might appear one of the least imposing. But his mind was ice, and every move he made, had made or would ever make was calculated to an inch. The Wamphyri might not greatly respect each other, but every one of them respected Shaithis...
'I had wondered at Karen's dress - or lack of it. If I'd been in her position, unwilling hostess to these monsters, I would certainly have buried myself in clothing, even in armour! She wore a sheath of a gown; it was of a white material so fine and clinging that every ripple of her flesh was visible. Her left breast - and she had beautiful breasts - was bare; her right buttock, too, or very nearly; with no undergarments the effect was shattering. But as the Lords had arrived, so her purpose became clear. Instead of casting about with their eyes and minds, all thoughts had immediately centred on Karen.
'Remember: these had been men before they were Wamphyri. Their lusts, however magnified, were the lusts of men. All of them, at first sight, lusted after Karen, which kept their minds from more devious work. I'll not mention the things I read in their vampire-ridden minds; as for Lesk the Glut, I refuse to even dwell upon what I read in his!
'And so they were assembled, and so after some small preamble, and after trying the food she'd had prepared for them, then the talks commenced.