The Last Warrior - The Horror at Perchorsk!
Following the battle at The Dweller's garden, Shaithis of the Wamphyri guided his half-crippled, seared flyer for home. He fancied the creature wouldn't make it, not for all his goading, for it was burned all along its underbelly and dripping fluids like rain. He, too, had taken a dose of direct sunlight, but had been nimble-minded enough to throw himself down on his flyer's back, in the trench of horny ridges formed of its huge wing muscles.
The blast had come as Shaithis's creature was turning away from the garden after a trial landing run, and so he'd not been blinded; but still he'd felt the hideous, searing heat of the true sun, and so had known that The Dweller could not be defeated. His weapons were simply too powerful, beyond Wamphyri understanding and certainly beyond their control. Which, together with the loss of his lieutenants and warriors, had convinced Shaithis that the attack was a pointless exercise. Wamphyri losses had been devastating, and the survivors had come to the same conclusion as Shaithis, quitting the fight en masse and heading for home.
Down across the Starside plain they'd flown their creatures, many limping, all humiliated, and Shaithis had felt their hatred of him beating like hammer blows on his psychic Wamphyri mind. They blamed him for their losses, for he'd been the one who instigated the attack, their self-appointed leader in the abortive affray. Generals who lose are rarely feted, mainly scorned.
On the way east, using the half-dome of the shining sphere for pharos and rolling in his saddle, Shaithis had seen Fess Ferenc and Volse Pinescu go down, fluttering out of the sky on flyers finally too weak to resist gravity's pull, and he'd watched them crash in clouds of dust far below on the moon-silvered plain. The Lords must finish the rest of their journey afoot, for Shaithis doubted they'd have strength for flight metamorphosis. He certainly wouldn't, if his flyer were to succumb. Still, walking had to be better than dying.
The Lords Belath and Lesk the Glut, Grigis and Menor Maimbite, Lascula Longtooth and Tor Tornbody were missing, along with many lesser Wamphyri lights. Of warriors there were none to be seen...no, Shaithis corrected himself, one - only one? - spurting through the sky eastward, acting of its own volition. Doubtless its master was dead, and now it returned to the only home it knew.
As for lieutenants: where were they? Gone - gone with the flyers, the warriors, the trogs - gone with all dreams of conquest and revenge. Only a dozen flyers left in all the sky, exhausted, gliding where they caught the thermals and desperate to conserve energy, carrying their Lords whole or crippled, bearing them back to their stacks and their......Their aeries?
Crossing over the glaring dome of the Gate, Shaithis had lifted his blackened face to peer ahead. And he'd seen the unbelievable, the unthinkable. Of all the mighty stacks of the Wamphyri, only one remained standing. And that was the stack of the treacherous Karen!
Fury galvanized him. Karen, that Mother-bearing bitch! He hauled on the reins, lifted the head of his flyer and turned it towards Karen's stack. His creature tried: its manta wings pulsed once, twice, three times; pulsed feebly at the air, then quivered mightily and formed a shallow 'V. The thing was barely alive. Its fluids were gone and there was nothing left to power it. The glide grew steeper, swifter, and nothing to be done about it. At the last moment Shaithis bellowed frantic mental commands into his creature's dull, dying mind, dragged on the reins until he thought they'd surely snap. The beast's head slowly came up and its wings adopted a more nearly aerodynamic profile. It swooped, levelled out, tilted to one side; the debris-littered plain became a dizzy, whirling, surreal kaleidoscope of rushing landscape. Then -
The creature's inner wing-tip struck the stump of a stack, accelerating its spin. Its master was hurled from the saddle, felt bones break in his left arm and shoulder, tasted dust and his own blood where his face ploughed the plain and rocks broke his teeth. Long moments passed, silent except for Shaithis's pounding heartbeat, and the worst of the pain slowly ebbed. Finally, gasping and swaying, he staggered to his feet, shook his gauntlet-clad right hand at Karen's lone stack. He cursed it long and loud. Her aerie stood as a sure sign of her treachery. She was The Dweller's, bought and paid for!
A vengeful snarl twisted Shaithis's broken features more yet. Well, and when she returned from The Dweller's garden . .-. ah, but then there'd be a reckoning! A reckoning, aye - long and lusty and bloody, bloody, bloody! And oh so very sweet!
He took a stumbling step in the direction of her stack -and froze. Descending toward that solitary needle of rock, that last Wamphyri aerie, was the warrior he'd previously noted. He groaned as it squirted in through the dark mouth of her launching bay. Her warrior! And while she lived it would defend her aerie to the last, against all comers, even against Shaithis of the Wamphyri himself.
How Shaithis raved then; ranted and raved, and no one at all to hear him but a flock of great bats, familiar creatures who doubtless questioned the whereabouts of their crevice colonies in the stricken Wamphyri stacks.
The moon raced on across the sky, and Shaithis grew quiet and became still. His shadow passed through the vertical and began to lengthen on the other side. When it was as long as Shaithis himself, then his shoulders slumped and he turned and headed for the shattered, far-flung ruins he'd once called home...
Weary and hollow-cheeked - with half of his body seared, several broken bones, and his face crushed and burned on one side - the once-great Lord Shaithis of the Wamphyri drew nigh the base of that mighty outcrop, that towering rock now gone forever, which had housed him for all of his five and a half centuries. In the stump itself, there he'd had his workshops: the vast vats where with great cunning he'd forced and moulded metamorphic flesh, creating his warriors, flyers, gaslings, siphoneers and various types of cartilage creature. Down there, if the massy ceiling had not fallen in upon it, a freshly formed flyer was even now mewling and floundering in its vat. Once a Traveller, soon it would travel again, and at least Shaithis would have a mount.
There, too, he'd find his pit-things: metamorphosed Travellers and trogs, mindless criers in perpetual night, the raw materials of his warriors and the other creatures he'd made. Well, they could leap in their pits, wail and gibber, stiffen, eventually fossilize. He cared not at all.
Overhead, the last of the Wamphyri were silently flying north, heading out across the icelands for those dark regions on the roof of the world, where the sun never shone at all. When his flyer was ready, then Shaithis would join them there. The legends had it that if one crossed the polar cap and kept going, then he'd find more mountains, new territories to conquer. No one in living memory had tested the legends, however, for the great stacks had been the places of the Wamphyri, their immemorial homes. But... that was yesterday. And now it appeared that the legends were to be tested in full. So be it.
As Shaithis went to descend a shattered stairwell, his good eye detected a movement in the rubble and he heard a muffled moan. Someone here, alive, in the ruins of his aerie?
Shaithis picked his way over tumbled blocks of stone and bony debris, came to a tangle of shiny cartilage and fractured rock where a hand and arm protruded from a gap. The hand groped blindly about, clawed uselessly at rough stone. From below came a half-conscious moaning.
For a moment Shaithis was puzzled; a Lord, even the lowliest lieutenant, would have dug his way out by now. But eventually he smiled a grim smile and nodded his recognition of the trapped man. 'Karl!' The vampire's false smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. 'Hell-lander. Ah, but I've several large scores to settle with hell-landers!'
He tore away blocks of stone and weirdly fused cartilage masses, reached down into darkness and drew Vyotsky out. His handling of the Russian wasn't gentle, especially since both of Vyotsky's legs were broken below the knees. He cried out: 'No, no! Oh, God - my legs!'
Shaithis shook him mercilessly until his agonized eyes popped open. 'Your legs?' he hissed. 'Your legs? Man, look at me!' He sat Vyotsky down on a flat stone surface, let fall his cloak to expose his ravaged body, slowly turned in a circle for the other's inspection. Trembling in his own extreme of pain, still the Russian winced at the extent of Shaithis's injuries. 'Aye,' Shaithis agreed. 'Pretty, isn't it?'
Vyotsky said nothing, continued to hold himself upright where he sat by pressing down on the rock's surface with the flats of his spread palms. In this way he kept pressure off his trembling, jelly legs.
'Now, Karl,' said Shaithis, facing him squarely. 'It seems to me that I remember a conversation we had, that time when we almost caught your fellow hell-landers, before The Dweller's intervention. You remember?'
Vyotsky said nothing, wished he could faint but in any case knew that he didn't dare do so. His agony was great, but if he collapsed now the odds were that he'd never wake up again. He gasped, closed his eyes as a fresh wave of pain burned upwards through his body from his shattered legs.
'You don't remember?' said Shaithis, in mock surprise. He lifted his gauntlet, clenched and unclenched his hand, opened the weapon wide so that the Russian could see its dozens of cutting edges. A single blow from that would flense a man's entire face, Vyotsky knew, or crush his skull like an eggshell. 'Well, I do remember,' the vampire Lord continued, 'and it seems to me I warned you then what I would do if you should ever again attempt to flee from me. I said I would give you to my favourite warrior, all except your heart which I would eat myself. Surely you remember that?'
Vyotsky's eyes were wide now and his lips trembled to match his straining arms.
'Alas,' said Shaithis, 'but I no longer have a warrior and so can't keep my promise. But I would, you may believe me! Except, of course, we do not know that you were fleeing. Ah, but I also remember telling Gustan that he was to carry you with him upon his flyer when we went to sack The Dweller's garden. Could it be that Gustan forgot my command? A shame, for I so wanted you to be there - to witness the way I would have dealt with the woman Zek and the man Jazz. On the other hand... perhaps you were hiding, waiting for us to leave before making a break for it?'
Vyotsky managed to shake his head in silent denial. 'I... I...' he stuttered.
'Oh, indeed!' Shaithis nodded, smiling hideously. 'I... I...' And as his smile once more slid from his face he reached down a second time into the space where the Russian had been trapped - and this time he drew out Vyotsky's SMG, and a leather sack containing provisions.
Again Vyotsky moaned out load, closing his eyes and swaying where he sat racked with pain. But Shaithis only burst out laughing, slapping his thigh as at some rich joke - then abruptly stopped laughing, reached out with his gauntlet and slapped Vyotsky across the knees. For Shaithis - by his standards - the blow was the merest tap, light as the touch of a feather. It ripped open Vyotsky's combat-suit trousers, tore away his kneecaps in a red welter. He did faint then, toppling sideways off the flat stone. But Shaithis caught him up before he could further injure himself. Then -
Without further pause the vampire tossed him over his good shoulder - and proceeded with him down into the black bowels of his workshops...
Below, it was not as bad as Shaithis had thought it might be. Parts of the stone and cartilage ceiling had collapsed here and there, and several of the protoplasmic things in their deep pits had been blocked in, so that their mindless cries were made faint by masses of fallen stone, but in the main all was in order. The larger vats were undamaged, and Shaithis's new flyer uninjured. It mewled when it saw him, bending its glistening, spatulate, armoured head in his direction. Soon the liquids in its vat would all be absorbed into it, and then its skin would form into membranous leather. After that a training flight, and finally Shaithis would be ready to undertake his great journey northwards.
Before then, however, there was one last task he must perform, one final act of vengeance in this place. He had admitted to the hell-lander Karl Vyotsky that his warriors were all dead. Well, and so they were - but that was not to say he couldn't make another. Indeed, the making of warriors and other beasts was an art of the Wamphyri, and certainly Shaithis was a great artist. Moreover, he had the necessary materials right here. Ah, but this one would be the warrior!
In a recent experiment, Shaithis had created a small creature of such primitive slyness and insidious vileness that his creation had surprised even him. The small mind of a trog, with some subtle alterations, had governed the thing - if governed was the word - while its principal physical component had not been man-flesh but that of wild creatures. The tissues of a great bat and a feral wolf had featured strongly, together with protoplasmic flesh from Shaithis's pit-things. But twice the creature had escaped, which in the end prompted him to put it down and have done with it.
Indeed, it would not have been prudent to let it live -not here, anyway - not and chance the other Wamphyri Lords learning of it. For while Nature often gave wild creatures a vampire egg, it was generally deemed unseemly for the Wamphyri themselves to perform such experiments.
And yet Shaithis had done just that. Slighted by a lesser Lord, he'd challenged and killed him, and so earned the right to burn his remains. Instead he had brought the body here to his workshop, cut out the vampire within and transplanted its egg into his creature! But when he saw how uncontrollable was the thing, then he'd sent it through the Gate. It had seemed to him a grand jest: that his creature should take its own brand of hell with it into the hell-lands.
Ah, but that was before he realized just how hellish the hell-lands were! Shaithis little doubted now but that all his troubles stemmed from that unknown place beyond the shining sphere-gate; perhaps even The Dweller himself had his origin there. Which was why he would now create the WARRIOR of all warriors! And, who could say, perhaps it might even be the last warrior? Aye, and when they saw what he had sent them, then the wizards of that world would think again before sending their hirelings adventuring here.
So thinking, Shaithis tossed Karl Vyotsky's limp form down onto the great slab of stone which was his workbench, then went to fetch the other ingredients of his work and certain instruments with which to fuse them...
It was a long job; sunup came and went, and a new sundown was beginning; finally Shaithis was done. He inspected with some satisfaction the thing heaving and hissing where it waxed in its enormous trench of a vat, striding down the length of it and admiring the rapid formation of a deadly array of weapons. Then, into its groping, vestigial mind, he implanted those commands which would form its one aim, its single goal in life, and left it to fend for itself. Emerging in a very little while, the warrior would discover the pit-things and devour them, and find its way out of here. The exit might well be too small for it by then, but Shaithis could not doubt that this warrior would make it bigger.
In the interim he had tested his flyer; the beast was better than any before it, fit steed for the long journey ahead. First, however, Shaithis would gaze once more upon the face of that mother of all treachery, the beautiful face of the Lady Karen. He flew to her aerie and without
hostility began circling it, calling to her in the way of the Wamphyri until she came to a window.
'So, Karen,' he called, from where he rode a gusting wind, 'then you are the last. Or maybe the first? Still, no matter, we are all undone because of you.'
'Shaithis,' she answered, 'of all the great Wamphryi liars, you are the greatest. You even lie to yourself! You blame me for your troubles, or whoever else it takes your fancy to blame, when in fact you know that you alone have brought the Wamphryi to this end. And in any case, what care you for them? Nothing! You care only for the Lord Shaithis.'
'Ah, you're a cold, cruel creature, Karen!' he nodded and scowled at her across an abyss of air.
'Merely accurate,' she answered. 'Do you think I did not know your plans for me? The truth is that you underestimated, Shaithis. You underestimated me, The Dweller, everything. You were so bloated up with your own schemes and lust for ultimate domination that you considered yourself beyond defeat. Well, and now we see how wrong you were.'
He flew closer, all of his great fury visible in his partly-healed face; until she cautioned: "Ware, Shaithis! I have a warrior. It's but the work of a second to launch him!
He drew back. 'Aye, I have seen it. But do you call that a warrior? I doubt if it would have my measure, not if I was the whole man. Which I will be, one day.'
'Are you in a position to threaten?'
He glared at her, saw that a second face had appeared at her window. 'Ah, and you even managed to save a companion for yourself!' he said. 'A lieutenant lover to warm you through all the lonely time ahead, no doubt? But ... I don't recognize this one. Now tell me, who is he?'
'I speak for myself,' Harry Keogh answered. 'I'm a hell-lander, Shaithis. The father of the one you call The Dweller.'
Shaithis gasped, drew back further yet. But in a little while his courage returned. From what he knew of The Dweller and his sort, if they were desperate to have him dead, then he would be dead! Perhaps they were satisfied with what they had done. Curiosity overcame all, and Shaithis flew his beast closer. Tell me one thing,' he called out. 'Why did you come here? To destroy the Wamphryi?'
Harry shook his head. That was the way it worked out, that's all.' And then he remembered a promise he'd made. 'Maybe you should ask instead, who sent me?'
Shaithis nodded. 'Say on!'
'His name was Belos,' Harry said, 'and he told me: "Tell them Belos sent you."'
It meant nothing to Shaithis, who had never been much of a one for studying the legends and histories. He frowned, shrugged, turned his beast away and headed north. The winds carried back to them his final word:
But they knew he didn't mean it ...
Chingiz Khuv, accompanied by two of his KGB men, was on his way to the Failsafe Control Centre. It was almost 2 a.m. and Khuv's shift would last for six hours, when he'd be relieved by the next Failsafe Duty Officer. The wee small hours of the morning, but here in the Projekt time didn't mean a lot. Except that it was rapidly running down. For Khuv, for his commando platoon, maybe even for the Projekt itself.
These were Khuv's thoughts as he marched the steel and rubber corridors with his men flanking him. One of them was armed with a machine-gun, the other had a flame-thrower. Khuv himself carried only his issue automatic, but the safety-catch was off where it sat snug in its holster.
Eight days, Khuv thought. Eight days of sheer hell! Tomorrow he had no official duties and could rest, but the day after that... that was when he and his platoon were scheduled to be on their way, through the Gate. That in itself - the preparations, worrying about what was waiting in there and on the other side - would be troubles enough; but of course in the thirty-six hours between times there would also be the small matter of staying alive!
The Perchorsk Projekt had always been claustrophobic: its magmass levels had been eerie, frightening places ever since the accident which spawned them, and there was always the fear of further nightmare incursions from the Gate; but at least the creeping horror of the magmass was a familiar one, and the dangers of the Gate were known and appreciated. Now, however, the entirely unknown had entered into it, and someone or something was loose in the Projekt which struck and disappeared without trace, and which so far seemed quite invulnerable. It wasn't simply a case of stopping it, first it had to be found. For since the night of the triple murder... well, things had only got worse.
Now, to any outsider entering Perchorsk for the first time, it would seem a place of total madness. The main exit was guarded day and night by half a dozen men with a variety of weapons; people no longer moved about singly but in pairs or even threes; every face wore a strained look, with eyes hollow and bloodshot, their gaunt owners given to violent starts at every smallest unaccustomed sound. A terror had settled on Perchorsk, and there seemed no way to break its hold.
It had started with the deaths of the KGB men Rublev and Roborov, and the psychic locator Leo Grenzel; God alone knew where it would end. Khuv thought back on the string of murders since those first three:
A lab technician had been next, during a late-night power failure as he was clearing up in his lab. Something had entered in the darkness, crushing his windpipe to a pulp and crumpling his face and forehead with what must have been a single terrific blow. It had looked as though a giant bulldog grip had been allowed to snap shut on his face and the front of his head. Agursky had given his opinion that it was the work of a maniac with a tool of some sort, possibly a portable power-vise from the workshops.
Next had been a pair of soldiers going off duty, leaving the core and passing through the magmass levels, where they'd encountered something which they shot at. The shots had been heard, of course, and the bodies of the two eventually discovered. Their throats had been torn out and they'd been stuffed into one of the magmass holes. An examination had shown that under the massive bruising many bones had been broken, and the spinal columns dislocated.
Then, the night before last, one of Khuv's remaining four KGB men had gone missing and still hadn't been found; and just three hours ago...
That one was one of the worst. The body of Klara Orlova, a theoretical physicist working closely with Luchov's team of scientists, had been discovered in one of the ventilation shafts dangling upside-down from the pulley cables. Her throat, too, had been ripped out. And as with many of the other cases, there hadn't seemed to be very much blood around.
Khuv had barely arrived at the scene of that one when he was called on the double to the telepath Paul Savin-kov's room. The door, a light-weight timber frame with a thin metal skin, had a fist-sized hole in it and was hanging half-wrenched from its hinges. Inside was Savinkov, crumpled in a corner like a discarded doll and hideously broken. Although the snapping of his bones must have sounded out like a series of gunshots, apparently no one had heard a thing.
But at least this time it was seen how the murderer was wily as well as immensely strong and brutal. The cable to Savinkov's telephone had been cut outside his room in the corridor. The killer had been taking no chances that he might try to summon help. Which seemed to prove Vasily Agursky's theory: the murders were the work of a powerful, cunning madman, or at least a human being.
By then, however, it had been time for Khuv to prepare himself for his duty at Failsafe Control. He'd left Gustav Litve in charge of the new cases and gone to change into clothes suitable for the long shift ahead. And now that shift was about to commence.
Approaching Failsafe Control, Khuv and his men heard footsteps behind them, turned on their heels to see Gustav Litve coming at a run. White-faced, he was thrusting a sheet of paper before him, waving it at Khuv. 'Comrade Major,' he gasped, drawing close. 'This is it! I found it stuffed down the back of Savinkov's chair.'
The paper was a little crumpled; Khuv smoothed it against the wall, saw shaky lines written in pencil. They said:
I've been checking all the staff one by one. I would have done it sooner, but Andrei Roborov saw it with his own eyes and what he saw wasn't human. So I thought it must be something from the Gate, something we'd missed. Then I thought: how is it that with all these espers we can't find the intruder? Maybe it was shielding itself psychically; maybe it was hiding behind its own mind-screens! But if it could do that, then I should be able to detect the shields. Grenzel would be proud of me: I found it! He would have done it better, of course - which is why it stopped him! How I did it: I found an area where there were no telepathic readings, where there was powerful psychic interference. It was the mortuary. I checked to be double sure, and found I'd been wrong. But then I got the same sort of reading in the accommodation area - in the scientific section. I narrowed it down. It's Agursky! He keeps the bodies in the mortuary. He must have been in there when I checked the place the first time. And he was in his room when I went there a few minutes ago. I managed to contact his mind - and I think he recognized me! But be sure, he's the thing that Roborov saw! My telephone is out of order. I think there's someone outside. If I listen at the
The note stopped right there. Khuv read it again, his eyes wide, skipping over the words. Something of the meaning of the thing sank in and he felt the short hairs stiffen at the back of his neck. His blood seemed to turn to ice in his veins; but he forced himself to leap toward the heavy metal door of Failsafe Control and hammer on it, yelling:
'Viktor, open up for God's sake!'
Direktor Luchov was on duty. Red-eyed, he came to the door and opened it, was bowled backwards as Khuv burst in. 'What in the name of- ?'
'Read this!' said Khuv, thrusting Savinkov's note at him. 'It's something of a dying declaration. Things are beginning to add up, making a monstrous sort of sense. Savinkov seems to be saying that there's a connection between Vasily Agursky and the thing he kept in that tank of his. I still don't know what it's all about, but I'm damned well going to find out! Now listen, Viktor: get on the phone. Let's have no alarms, for that would only alert him, but I want everyone looking for Agursky. God, I've known there was something weird about him for weeks, ever since... since...'
Luchov stared at him, said: 'Since that time when he had his breakdown? When they found him down there in the thing's room? Poor Vasily, and he always seemed to me such a harmless little man.'
'Well, he's not harmless now!' Khuv snapped. 'Right, we're off to find him. Put the word about: if anyone gets to him first they're to hold him, by any means possible. And if they can't hold him they must kill him - also by any means possible.' He ushered his men out of the room, called over his shoulder: 'Search-parties in threes, Viktor. For God's sake don't let anyone tackle him alone!'
The mortuary was situated off the main perimeter corridor above the magmass levels. In its time it had housed the victims of the Perchorsk Incident, and for a while it had been a cold storehouse, but right now it was a mortuary again. And Agursky was the only one with a key. On their way to the place Khuv and Litve had separated from the other two KGB men; Litve had commandeered one of the Projekt's flame-throwers from its bracket on a wall, and the Major had equipped himself with a snub-nosed sub-machine gun taken from a reluctant soldier. They'd been to Agursky's laboratory and found it locked, with the lighted sign over its door proclaiming it 'vacant'. Likewise Agursky's room, which Khuv had opened with skeleton keys. Agursky could be anywhere in the complex, but they might as well try the mortuary. All of the bodies from the murders were down there, on ice, where Agursky had supposedly been examining them. Word of the manhunt had not got down to the core, and the magmass levels were silent as usual. Khuv and Litve looked down there for a moment - down to where the lights were low and the wormhole-riddled walls moulded into weird shapes - before turning off along the short straight corridor through solid rock to the door of the mortuary. It was locked but it wasn't a security door; Khuv's keys opened it. They swung the door wide and stepped inside, and Litve went to put on the lights. They didn't come on. The light-bulbs had been removed from their fixtures in the low ceiling.
A little light filtered in from the corridor. Khuv and Litve stood just inside the open doorway, glanced at each other, then at the tables against the wall, and at the long narrow boxes on the tables. At the back of the mortuary machinery made a slow, regular breathing sound, sending frigid air circulating. Other than that there was no sound, no motion. The room was a giant refrigerator.
Litve primed his flame-thrower, lit the pilot light. Its blue flicker threw the shadows back a little. 'Major,' Litve said, his voice nervous and echoing, 'there's nowhere he could hide in here. Let's go.'
Khuv tucked his elbows in and shivered. He blew into the palm of his free hand. 'All right,' he said, 'but don't be in such a hurry.' He turned in a slow circle, paused for a moment to watch his breath pluming in the air. Then he relaxed a little. 'OK, we'll make for the - ' and again he paused, listening intently. After a moment: 'Did you hear something?'
Litve listened, shook his head. 'Just the pumps back there.'
Khuv stepped toward the makeshift coffins where they lined the walls. 'While we're here,' he said, 'it might be a good idea to check on what Agursky's been up to. You don't know him quite as well as I do.' He shivered again, but not from the cold. 'He has funny ways with dead bodies, that one.'
With Litve moving up beside him, he looked into the first casket. Klara Orlova had been brought down; white as a 'candle and stark naked she lay there. The gash across her neck, which went from ear to ear, looked like a black velvet choker. On a young girl it would have looked erotic - if one was unaware that in fact it was a fatal wound.
The two men stepped to the next box. The contorted face of a young soldier, still silently screaming, looked up at them. God! Khuv thought. You'd think someone would have closed his eyes!
The next box was empty, and as Khuv moved on Litve quickly crossed the room to where a box stood on its own on a separate table. It had a lid loosely laid on top, which he lifted down. On Khuv's side of the room, the next box contained the second soldier. His face was a raw red mess, completely unrecognizable. Two more boxes to go. Khuv made to move on, and -
Across the room Litve drew breath in a shocked gasp. 'Erich!' he said.
'What?' Khuv strode over to where he stood. Litve seemed frozen in horror; but he was right, the man in the box was the missing KGB agent, Erich Bildarev. He was naked and of course dead; the ribs over his heart were crushed in, as badly as if he'd fallen on a bear trap. Khuv grasped Litve's arm, more for support than any other reason. His breath came faster, making a string of tiny plumes. At last he managed to gasp: That's the last bit of proof we needed. Savinkov was right, Agursky's our man!'
Then, across the room, someone - something - said, 'Ahhh!'
'Jesus, Jesus!' Litve cried out, going into a crouch and whirling to look across the room. Khuv turned with him, his eyes bulging to penetrate the gloom. The last two coffins lay there, their contents as yet uninspected. But even as the two men clung together and stared, so there was movement. A tiny plume of air rose up from the first coffin, and another from the second. And Andrei Roborov and Nikolai Rublev sat up in their boxes and stared back at them!
Their injuries, visible even in the poor light, said that this could not be. But it could be, it was. Rublev's cheek was absent from the left side of his face, so that the left eye gazed from a bony orbit; the cadaverous Roborov's skull dripped pus and brain fluid, which crept like wax down his pallid cheeks. They sat there in their coffins, stared, then smiled - and their upper eye-teeth curved down like fangs over their lower lips!
Khuv tried to gasp, 'Oh God - oh, my God!' but his tongue had stuck to the roof of his mouth. The eyes of the dead men - no, of the corpses, the undead men -were pits of glowing sulphur cratered with blood, and they continued to smile.
'Burn them!' Khuv finally managed to gasp. 'Quickly, man, burn them!'
'Oh?' said a sly, familiar voice from the door. Then you must hope that your flame-thrower is not one of the many which I have emptied!'
They looked that way, saw Vasily Agursky step back out into the corridor and close the door. His key grated in the lock. 'Agursky, wait!' Khuv yelled after him.
'Oh no, Major,' came Agursky's faint answer. 'You've found me out, and so there's no more time for waiting.' His footsteps rapidly faded.
Meanwhile, Roborov and Rublev had climbed out of their coffins. Khuv saw them, ran for the door. Astonished that his legs obeyed him, he hoped his hands would do the same. As he went he took his keys from a pocket, trying to distinguish the right one from its feel.
At the door, fumbling with the bunch of keys, he glanced back. The two dead men (and for the first time Khuv thought of them as vampires) were advancing on Litve, their hands starting to reach for him. Khuv shouted from a sandpaper throat: 'What are you waiting for, you idiot? Burn them! Burn the fucking things!'
Litve came out of his trance, aimed his weapon and squeezed the trigger. Nothing! The flame-thrower hissed but that was all. The pilot-light flickered. 'Jesus.r Litve screamed. He came scrambling, dodged Roborov where he went to grab him.
Khuv had tried half of his keys. In the near-darkness he couldn't make out which was which. He wrenched the ones he'd tried from the key ring and hurled them down. Litve clawed at him, gasping: 'Open the door! For God's sake open the door!' Khuv shoved him away, thrust his remaining keys at him.
'You open it!' he shouted. He cocked his sub-machine gun, turned it toward the vampires where they came almost mincingly forward out of the mortuary's shadows. Roborov's smile was malicious as he said:
'Why, Comrade Major! I do believe that this is the first time I've seen you in a real flap! Has something upset you?'
'Get back,' Khuv shrilly warned.
'Back?' Rublev seemed to mimic him. 'Have we offended in some way, Major? But that's too, too bad...'
They were almost within arm's reach, and still Litve babbled and cursed while he tried to find the right key. Khuv fired, a deafening cacophony of sound in the enclosed space. He squeezed the trigger of his gun and kept it squeezed until the stink of cordite stung his eyes and clawed the back of this throat. Then he released it, and as the fumes cleared saw the two where his sleeting lead had picked them up and hurled them half-way across the room. They lay there moaning, but even as he stared in disbelief they were struggling to rise up again.
Litve gave a sobbing gasp - and the key he was trying turned in the lock. He yanked the door open, stumbled outside. Khuv was right on his heels. As the Major came he stooped to retrieve Litve's discarded weapon. Litve locked the door and both of them leaned on it, Khuv scowling while he checked the flame-thrower over.
'You can tell by its weight that it's loaded,' he said. 'What?' He pointed a shaking finger at the mix-lever on the stock. 'Look! You were giving it too much air and not enough juice. Fool!'
He adjusted the lever, aimed the weapon along the corridor and fired. A jet of flame instantly roared out, white at its core and tapering to a shimmering blue tip. He killed the flame, said: 'Now open that door.'
Litve unlocked the door, kicked it open and stood back. Roborov and Rublev were on their feet, advancing. Behind them, the young soldiers were also out of their boxes. Khuv didn't wait for further developments. He turned all four to shrieking, crackling torches, burned them until they collapsed, melted them to bubbling, crumpled, stinking piles of fused flesh. Then, as Litve once more locked the door, he turned away and fought to retain his control, fought desperately not to be ill.
'Grenzel wasn't in there,' said Litve. That pulled Khuv out of it.
'That's right,' he choked the words out, holding up a hand to his mouth. 'Which means there are two of them on the loose!'
'Where to now?' Litve was in control of himself again; and now that the immediate horror had been dealt with, Khuv's mind got back in gear and began working with its usual efficiency. Perhaps too efficiently. His bottom jaw fell open and he grabbed Litve's arm, then released him and set off down the rock corridor at a run.
'Where to?' he called back. 'Where would you go if you were Agursky, or Grenzel? What would you do?'
'Eh?' Litve came running after him.
'We know what they are,' Khuv cried. 'He knows we'll burn him if we can. He can't let any of us live. There's only one place he can go!'
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