II

DAHAM DRAKESH -  LE MANSE MADONIE - DEAD SILENCE

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The Necroscope took a taxi to Paterno, paid for a room at the Hotel Adrano two nights in advance, and by 12:30 was taking a shower before retiring. With a litle luck, the fan above his bed would keep him cool in the seventy-plus degrees of heat...

Hot in Sicily, yes ... but some four and a half thousand miles away, on the Roof of the World, it was anything but hot; indeed, on Tibet's Tingri Plateau at 7:00 a.m. the temperature hovered just one degree above freezing. But the sun was bright where its burgeoning golden blister threatened to burst on the eastern horizon, and Major Chang Lun was comfortable enough in his winter-warfare uniform, fur-lined boots and hooded jacket.

He and his Corporal driver had set out from the barracks at Xigaze ninety minutes earlier because they knew they had to reach Drakesh Monastery within an hour or so of the sun clearing the horizon. Any later and they'd be denied entry. No one was allowed to enter the monastery at Drakesh in ful daylight. Daylight was for contemplation, worship; darkness was for mundane man in his wickedness, the taking of food, the thinking of mundane thoughts, the maintenance of the body as opposed to the soul. The Major must consider himself fortunate indeed that the High Priest of the sect, the enigmatic Daham Drakesh, had seen fit to grant him audience during daylight hours.

Such would be the opinion of outsiders, anyway. Hah! Wel, Major Chang Lun knew differently. Powerful as this monkish creature was in his own spheres, the so-called 'People's' Army of Communist China was more powerful yet. But Chang Lun was under orders and must play Drakesh's game.

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The Major's vehicle was a two-seater halftrack, a snow-cat equipped for the plateau's uneven terrain. His driver parked it in the lee of boulders close to steps leading up to the monastery's foreboding entrance, covered it with a tarpaulin, finally came erect and saluted.

Chang Lun nodded his curt approval, turned and bowed from the waist to the string of red-robed priests where they stood stock still, arms folded, patiently waiting.

There were six of them; they indicated that the Major and his driver should take their places centrally in the line.

And with three priests leading and three bringing up the rear, the string set out at what was to the Chinese soldiers an awkward, unmilitary shuffle, climbing the steps single-file to the yawning stone mouth that formed the entrance to the monastery. The leading priest held his left arm tucked into his waist at the elbow, with the forearm held stiffly out in front. His jogging motion caused tiny golden bells to chime where they were stitched into the seam of his robe's extended sleeve.

And so into the Drakesh monastery. As they entered, Chang Lun looked back. In the middle distance, glowing yelow where glancing rays of sunlight struck through the shade in the lee of ragged mountains, a nameless city stood gaunt and deserted behind high fortress walls. If it weren't so remote the place would make an excellent military base, but what purpose would it serve to station soldiers in a region as barren and inhospitable as this? The southern borders with Nepal, Bhutan, and India were no longer in dispute.

Then a portcullis of massive timbers was lowered, shutting off the view and Lun's thoughts both. The tinkling of the bells receded, along with the soft flutter of monkish robes; darkness settled; the silence was near-absolute. And as the Major's eyes began to adjust, he saw that he and the Corporal were alone ... if only for a moment. Then:

'Welcome to Drakesh,' said a voice as dark as the surroundings. It spoke a sibilant Chinese but yet without a trace of dialectal accent. 'You have entered of your own free will - or rather, at the command of your superiors! Well, so be it.' The voice held a none too subtle sarcasm.

Abruptly, a torch was lit; the shadows were at once thrown back, and flickering fight ilumined the face and form of Daham Drakesh.

Chang Lun had met him before but the physical appearance, the presence of Drakesh, never failed to impress him. At sixty-eight inches in height, the Major himself was taller than average for his race, but he felt dwarfed in the presence of Daham Drakesh. The man must be all of six and a half feet in height! But thin to the point of emaciation, he looked almost skeletal where the light of his torch showed through his shift and silhouetted his pipestem body. His hands were freakishly long and tapering, their pointed fingers tipped with thick yellow nails hooked into claws; his shaven skull was thin at the front and lantern-jawed, long at the back and bulbous as the head of an insect on a scrawny neck.

But for all that Daham Drakesh seemed fragile as porcelain, his eyes - eyes luminous and yelow as molten sulphur - gazed on Chang Lun and the Corporal, and seemed to gaze through them, as if they were the ephemeral ones, not he. They felt paralysed by that gaze, until finally

Drakesh's lips cracked in a ghastly smile and he said:

'Come. I have prepared a room for your man in the left eye of the carven face. There he may enjoy the daylight, forbidden to me and mine, sip tea, break bread, take his rest - and wait for you, of course. We require no underlings to attend our discourse.' He smiled a mirthless sideways smile down on the Major and moved silently, flowingly ahead of his guests, leading them through the labyrinth of rock-hewn halls, galleries and tunnels which was the monastery.

'Alas, you and I may not rest, Major,' (again his loathsome smile, directed at Chang Lun). The wicked are not permitted to rest, ever - by which I mean that we have matters to discuss, of course.'

'Indeed we have,' the Major snapped, feeling (as he always felt) intimidated by this creature in this place and determined to regain the upper hand. 'Grave matters, which have brought me here on the orders of my superiors!'

'Aye, and your timing - or the timing of your masters in Peking - is faultless,' Daham Drakesh answered, as he rushed his visitors along gloomy stone corridors, with his torch held high in front. 'For just as you have your orders, so I have my ... shall we say, requirements? Who can say, perhaps there are higher powers at work? Certainly it seems that your coming at this time was inevitable. For if you had not requested an audience, I most certainly would have summoned you.'

'Summoned?' Chang Lun gasped. 'Why, you . . .!' But there he paused with his mouth agape, his slanted eyes opening wide.

In the last few moments, a massed moaning had become apparent; the Major had thought it might be some acoustic effect of the wind on the outer shell of the monastery. But now, in addition to the moaning, he could discern a regular whistling or slicing sound, like the crack of a lash splitting the air, or of several lashes in unison. And he had seen its source.

They had reached a central gallery deep in the mountainside. Lit by flambeaux, still the light failed to illumine the high ceiling or reach into every corner. The place was an amphitheatre, with stone steps descending to a level central area. But while the rest of the hall, cave or excavation was poorly lit, that central area was all too clearly illumined.

Burning braziers suspended on chains from the ceiling cast their flaring light on a scene that Bosch might easily have omitted from some hellish triptych. Emerging onto a perimeter walkway, the Major had come to an abrupt halt. Drakesh immediately gripped his elbow in a surprisingly powerful hand. 'Ah, no!' he whispered. 'Be silent, I beg you. Do not disturb them. They are at worship ...'

They' were the monastery's priests, the sect's devotees, the acolytes of the faith. They were naked; their red robes of priesthood lay folded on the lower tiers of the amphitheatre's encircling steps; their pale, cringing bodies thronged around the central dais - no, the long stone trough, as Chang Lun now saw - but those who stood upon or in the trough were clad in red nevertheless. The red of their own blood!

Heads down, in single-file, they trudged in their shuffling flip-flop fashion from one end of the trough to the other, while the 'brothers' al around flailed away at them with long black - and red - metal-tipped whips. The blood streaked them; it rained from them; their feet were stained crimson where they slopped through an inch of plasma like men treading grapes! Yet never a cry of pain from a single 'brother' but that low, concerted moaning, not least from the ones with the whips ... who knew it was their turn next.

And the blood in the trough: it drained away through boreholes to a sluice, and went steaming down a chute into unknown darkness. Those who had offered up their blood stepped from the trough at its far end, and went stumbling, reeling down an exit tunnel, presumably to a place of rest and healing. While at the other end untried brothers took their places, stepped into the trough and commenced the ordeal of blood. And in the outer circle, the last of the priests were even now disrobing, accepting whips from flayers who chose their own places in the shuffling, moaning line.

'Worship?' The Major was aghast, and his driver trembling, where Daham Drakesh hurried them around the perimeter and under an archway marked with an ankh: a symbol of long life, as Chang Lun was aware. But long life, in a place like this?

'But what of the blood?' The Corporal's face was now a far paler shade of yelow. 'Where does it al go? Al of that blood, al of that... life?' For some time there was no answer, just the flaring of Drakesh's torch as he forged ahead. Then finaly his voice came echoing back to the pair hurrying after him: The blood returns to the earth ... eventualy. Surely it is beter to offer it fresh than roting in corpses? Men take from the soil and the rivers, giving nothing back but piss and shit until the end. But here we observe our duty to Nature.'

'Huh!' the Major couldn't suppress a derisory snort. 'And do you bleed with them, Daham Drakesh?'

Drakesh rounded on him in the doorway to his quarters and for a moment seemed to rear taler still. Then the fire dimmed a little in his eyes as he answered,

'With them? No, Chang Lun, I bleed for them, for they are sinners al! In the night, they have sinned. Even their dreams have been foul, and ful of the vices which are in men. They have dreamed of women, and some of men. They have plied their own flesh, making it despicable. But in this place we are of the spirit, not the body. Which is why, periodicaly, we suffer their vile bodies to be purged; not by the release of base fluids but the essence of life itself. And so you see, your driver was right: the blood is the life ...'

At which a red-robed priest stepped forward from the shadows, and

Drakesh turned to the shivering Corporal. 'Go with the brother here, who wil see that you are comfortable.' When they were gone, he stood aside and ushered the Major into his chambers ...

Daham Drakesh had been here a hundred years. At the time, this had seemed the only place in the world that no one wanted. But now men wanted everything, everywhere, even a wasteland as barren as this plateau.

When first he came here there was the waled city and its people, nothing else. But in twenty-odd years the city was forbidden and its people in thral, and in another twenty most of them had died in the excavation of the 'monastery.' It pleased Drakesh to cal it a monastery, which was in fact an aerie. As for the survivors of the great task: their children were still in thral to Drakesh in his aerie, in one of the highest, most remote places on Earth. But it had not been remote enough.

Even that mighty fang Qomolangma, Everest itself, one hundred and thirty miles away, would not be remote enough. Men had conquered its topmost peak; they had come out of foreign lands to plant their sigils there. Usualy they hailed from the west, but in older times they had come from the east, too. Except those earlier conquerors had had scant interest in Everest.

History repeats. Those same slant-eyed warriors were back again. Not the Hsiung-nu or Avars nor even the Huns, but their descendants certainly, and with the same fierce blood in them. But where before they had skirted the Great Plateau, this time they had taken it. Wel, and Daham Drakesh, last of his line, was of an alien blood, too - of a truly alien blood, aye! This would not be the first time his kind had been swayed, usurped, even decimated by human invaders. But never exterminated. Nor would it happen now.

It had been the same in Dacia, Eflak, Walachia, Transylvania (the same in 'the source-place,' under whatever name the pages of history ascribed to it), in those earlier times. Daham had heard it from his egg-sire, Egon, who had lived through al of those long centuries of war to become the survivor of survivors, oldest of al the Wamphyri ... Wel, save one:

How nomadic invaders from the east had driven the vampire Lords from their ancient territories time and again, not least when they had considered themselves secure. And now? Was it to be the same again? Not if Daham Drakesh had his way.

He had come here those hundred years ago to remove himself from the actions of his father. Bored by isolation in his Transylvanian keep, and aware that an ancient enemy lay asleep in a secret place in the west, the 'Count' had determined to venture out and broaden his interests in the world; he had lain low for far too long. Daham Drakul (now Drakesh), Egon's 'son' by transfusion of his egg, had been left to care for the keep: 'in command,' as it were, of a handful of itinerant Szekely serfs and thralls. Huh! What was that for power?

But treachery was ever the way of the vampire, and no one hates a Master Vampire, a Lord of the Wamphyri, more than his own flesh and blood, his own egg-son. By virtue of Egon's egg, the burgeoning leech within him, Daham was Wamphyri; he would be a Lord in his own right. But not here in Transylvania, not in another Lord's castle. Wherefore he must remove himself to some far place and find or build an aerie of his own. A handful of soil out of Starside (his 'birthright') and six Szgany thralls vampirized into lieutenants, were all Daham took with him. Oh, and some monies in ancient golden ingots stolen from his father's treasury.

And so to the Roof of the World, and to this place -

- Where eight years later he'd learned of Egon's death at the hands of some merely human adversary. But by then a return to the Transylvanian keep had been out of the question, for it had been recognized as a source of great evil; the local administration would never allow another Drakul to take up residence there. It were best that the legend die again, only to rise up in other parts when the time was ripe.

And so the decades had flown, but what is time to a Lord of the Wamphyri? Time is nothing ... but ennui is. And just as Egon had become bored, so was his 'son' bored by his existence in this place. Except he must wait out his time; or rather, he must wait out the time of Another, until He was up again.

Daham knew about Radu; knew who, if not where he was. At least he knew as much as Egon had known, before his ill-fated sojourn in England. He also knew about the 'Francezcis' (more properly the Ferenczys), and had watched from afar while they grew powerful in the world. For just as they had their sources, so Daham had his. Indeed they were often the same sources! But more than this, he had his eyes and ears out in the world, his red-robed thralls and 'Emissaries of the Message,' ostensibly a message of love and peace ...

In reality they were his spies pure and simple, and their message a sham. Or rather, they were his "crf-so-simple and far less than pure agents. But as well as information, they sought out vampires, too-common vampires like themselves

- to learn from them ...

... And then to destroy them!

It was part of the ages-old scheme of things, a rule as valid as it had been fifteen hundred years ago: that obscurity and anonymity are synonymous with longevity. A simple code of existence that Egon Drakul had forgotten or put aside once too often. But his son Daham would not make the same mistake. For he knew that if man discovered vampires in the world - and if man believed in them - he would not rest until they were destroyed, every last one, including Daham. Which was

why he sought out and killed these lesser creatures first.

As to who they were:

Spawn of Ferenczy, Lykan, and Drakul errors from a time lost in history. The sons of the sons and daughters of daughters of supplicant Szgany come into this world with Radu Lykan, Nonari the Gross Ferenczy ... yes, and with Karl and Egon Drakul, too, out of a far strange place. They were not Wamphyri, no, but they were of the blood. And their source had been Sunside/Starside in a vampire world. Daham had learned something of that place from his father, and of blood-feuds so terrible that they would outlast time! Moreover, he knew it was only a matter of time before just such a feud erupted here.

He knew, because down the years his 'disciples' had come across descendants of Radu's thralls - lycanthropes with eyes full of moonlight - who told of a legend sleeping in a mountain far in the west. This was the same rumour Egon had heard a hundred years ago, that sent him plunging headlong into England ... to his eventual death. And who could say that Egon's death had not been wrought by Radu, or those he'd left behind to tend him through his long sleep?

Radu Lykan, and the Ferenczys, and the Drakuls. But that had been a feud - and would be again, when Radu was up! As to the when of it: soon, if Daham could believe his sources. And he did believe them. The Ferenczys had had thralls in England for long and long; for what good reason, if not to track Radu to his lair? And just as Daham's people had researched the so-called 'Ferenczinis,' and later the 'Francezcis,' so had some other agency out of England! Daham knew it; his eyes and ears were out there, not always in the guise of red-robed priests! Radu's thralls protected and looked after their sleeping master even now, and in their turn sought out his olden enemies until the time of his return.

And when he returned, what then? And what of Daham Drakesh, Wamphyri, in this remote but not inaccessible place? How long before Radu found him? Or - if the Ferenczys should find and destroy Radu first - how long before they found him?

... Or (and this was surely the worst possible of any and all scenarios), what if they had already found him ... ?

Well, he had no proof of that, nor even a shred of evidence as yet. But there was always tomorrow, and Daham Drakesh was a sincere believer in another old edict: that a stitch in time saves nine.

Egon had told him now, upon a time in the vampire world, the great Lord Shaitan the Unborn had stood off and let lesser Lords fight a great bloodwar, until all of them were depleted, made weak by their efforts. Then how he'd picked them off one by one, until he was the undisputed Lord of Lords. It had been a story worth listening to, and a lesson worth learning.

But how much better, how much more ironic, if Shaitan the Unborn had set those lesser Lords to fighting, if he had deliberately planned it so that they performed the bulk of his work for him? And who could say, perhaps he had! And perhaps Daham would do the same. The ultimate agent provocateur, yes.

History repeats ...

Al of which were thoughts that passed fleetingly through the vampire Lord's mind as his visitor, Major Chang Lun of the People's Army of Red China, tried in vain to make himself comfortable in the austere cavern that served the last Drakul for living space.

There was an alcove cut back into one wall. Within it a long, lidded box like a linen chest fitted snugly into the seven by two foot recess. A bench, its polished top was scattered with cushions of a coarse local weave. This was where Drakesh had seated the Major, upon his own bed in fact - which was inside the box. Normally at this hour, Drakesh would be inside, too. Alas that on certain rare occasions, such as this one, he was obliged to make allowances.

And while Chang Lun's 'host' brought tea and foul Tibetan biscuits from a secondary cave, the Major sat and narrowed his oval eyes, staring all about the dim, somehow smoky interior of this place. It wasn't smoky, he knew, yet seemed full of drifting shadows and the shimmery mobility of a scene viewed through smoke. Perhaps it was an effect of the indirect daylight filtering in through narrow slits hewn right through the great thickness of the far wall, the only indication that Daham Drakesh's apartments were on the outer extremes of the monastery.

Chang Lun had inquired about those narrow windows before. In other keeps in other lands they might easily be mistaken for ancient arrow slits, but in fact they were Drakesh's clock. The light crossed the room in dim, barely perceptible bars, forming patterns on the wall above the alcove where Chang Lun sat. According to the shape and brightness of the patterns and the time of year, Drakesh could immediately determine the hour to within two or three minutes.

'And at night?' (the Major had asked him one time).

'I have a certain affinity with the night,' Drakesh had at once answered. 'It is an art of mine instinctively to know what is the hour. I take pride in it - a vanity, I know. But as the setting of the sun is a marvel, and its rising even more so, we should likewise pay attention to the darkness that lies between the two.' Pseudo-mystical garbage ...

... The Major felt himself slumping and sat up straighter. It was always the same: this place seemed to drain him of life. Huh! The blood is the life,' indeed!

Tea,' said Daham, entering as if from nowhere, and causing the dingy air to shift and shimmer into new patterns.

'And there are Somangha biscuits, should you require refreshment.'

The tea is welcome,' the Major offered his curt nod. 'As for

Himalayan grass seeds in milk paste - '

' - Each to his own,' Daham nodded his understanding and placed a brass tray on a circular wooden table. Then he pulled up a three-legged stool and seated himself facing his visitor. 'Soup, cheese, biscuits, bread: you would probably starve on a diet such as that. But to the Tibetan, more than sufficient.'

The Major smiled thinly. 'But you are not Tibetan.'

'Polish, originally,' Drakesh was frank. 'When my mother died and my father returned to his native Romania, I went with him.

There I - what, heard the call? - I knew I had a mission in life. And so I came here and built this mission, this monastery. Think what you will of it, and of me; I have my devotees. You saw some of them at a phase of their devotions.'

'Indeed I did!' Chang Lun grimaced, and quickly diverted the conversation. 'So, you built your monastery. Then we came, and one by one the temples began to topple.'

'But not this one,' Drakesh's eyes had narrowed. Those troops who preceded you - warriors, and not merely an occupying force - they saw that I was different, and that the mysteries of the Drakesh Sect were real. They made report, and an officer - ah, a full Colonel, Chang Lun! -came from his headquarters on Kwijiang Avenue, Chungking, to see me. Do you know the significance of that? Perhaps you will understand me better if I speak of the British E-Branch, or their Russian equivalent at the Chateau Bronnitsy near Moscow? Oh, yes, Major! There are forces in the world greater than all the armaments of war. Some men understand such things, and I, Daham Drakesh, am one of them. But that is my pride speaking, and pride is a sin. Indeed, it is one of the original sins. But. . . perhaps I'm boring you?'

Chang Lun shook himself. This man was hypnotic; his voice lulled; his eyes drilled into your soul. And as if he knew the Major's innermost thoughts, Drakesh was even now smiling that ghastly smile of his. 'No,' the Major protested. 'What, bored?

Not in the least! So tell me: what did the Colonel from Chungking want?'

Drakesh nodded. 'I know that you already know,' he said, 'and that you think me a fraud, a fakir, and Colonel Tsi-Hong a gullible fool. But I'll tell you anyway. He wanted to see me melt a block of ice - from within! He wanted to know how I can see in the dark, without the aid of nitelite binoculars. He was fascinated that I could fast for thirty days and nights without even water or a crust of bread to sustain me, then walk naked, ten miles out into the snows, to meditate. And having heard certain truths and untruths about me in Lhasa, he was especially interested in my longevity, the fact that I've been here for a hundred years!'

Chang Lun nodded. 'Metaphysics,' he sniffed. 'Longevity. ESP. On Kwijiang Avenue, in Chungking, they study such things. Also genetic mutations and such. I say it's a fad. What weight can a thought carry? And what use to breed freaks? But we know the weight of a tank, and how deadly a gun is in the hands of a wel-trained soldier! So ... for the moment Colonel Tsi-Hong is in favour. Indeed, he has been in favour a good many years.

But he has superiors, too, and men want results. As for genetics: the Russians have bred a super-pig. The beast can't walk, its flesh is vile, and its shit stinks!'

'But on Kwijiang Avenue in Chungking,' Drakesh's voice had falen to a whisper, 'they are not breeding pigs ...'

And now, finaly, it was the Major's turn to smile. He just couldn't resist it. 'On Kwijiang Avenue,' he said, letting each word sink in, 'they are no longer breeding anything!' Reaching inside his uniform, he produced a heavy, 'sealed' manila envelope, which he handed to Drakesh.

Without a word or change of expression, Drakesh opened the envelope with a hooked fingernail. The 'seal' sprang open at a touch, which scarcely surprised him.

Where Major Chang Lun was concerned, the word privacy wasn't in his vocabulary. What was writen was lengthy and very complicated; Drakesh's eyes swept the crackling pages at incredible speed. He nodded his acceptance of the contents. And:

'I told him as much nine years ago,' he said. 'So now we'l do it my way.' As he placed the envelope in his robe, his face was entirely emotionless.

Chang Lun made no atempt to disguise his knowledge of his host's subject. 'They wanted tissue samples ... you refused to co-operate. They wanted blood ...

you said it was your "life," and you could not part with it. They wanted you! As a sample of something alien, extraordinary, they would dissect you like a frog, disassemble you like a watch to see what made you tick. Oh, no physical damage, neither scar nor puncture hole to tell the tale, but smal bits of you removed al the same. You bluffed them; you said you would rather die first, told them you'd wil yourself to death. Tsi-Hong believed you - why, he might even learn something from watching you do it! - but then you offered him an alternative.'

'My seed,' Daham Drakesh nodded. 'It seemed abhorrent to me that pieces of me, however smal, should die on their telescopic slides and in the chemicals of their experiments. I did not want myself... examined. But I could find no logical argument against the promotion of life, from the ugly, wriggling, otherwise useless hordes of my loins.'

'You came in a botle for them,' Chang Lun, too, could be cold, emotionless. They froze your sperm and took it away ...'

To Chungking,' Drakesh whispered.

'Indeed. And that was nine years ago.'

'And fifty came forth!' Drakesh's eyes seemed afire in the cave's weird light.

'Out of the flower of China's womanhood, yes. You, father to a horde,

when loyal, weeping Chinese parents were strangling their babies in the name of the People's Republic!' (Chang Lun was merciless, by his lights at least). To what end, Drakesh? What of Colonel Tsi-Hong's genetic experiments now?'

'I told him how it would be,' said the other. That one may not grow exotic orchids in a paddy field; that they will come up twisted and strange. But if they are tended by caring gardeners, watered by familiar rains, and reared in their natural, their native soil...'

'In other words, you'll "grow" them yourself. What, here? And how will the brothers react to that, Daham Drakesh?

A monastery, or a harem? A holy place, or a place of holes?'

'If it's your intention to offend me, your time is wasted here,' Drakesh answered. 'What will be will be ... not necessarily because / want it, but because your leaders want it. And if in order to exist I must obey, then I will obey. I will not be forced out of being, driven from my place.'

'You don't fool me,' Chang Lun shook his head. 'Your so-called "emissaries" are out in the world even now, to what end if not to find a new place for you? I fancy you'll flee before your deceptions are discovered. Let's be clear on this: I consider you a fraud, yes. But I also consider you evil. This ... this spawn that they bred by artificial insemination in Chungking is proof of it. Sooner or later even Tsi-Hong will recognize the truth, and what of you and yours then? I don't know what you are, Drakesh, but you're no holy man. And you're not up to any good, I'm sure. As for this monastery: do you think I can't see why you chose this place, so close to so many borders? Even now your boltholes are ready to receive you, when you are found out!'

Drakesh touched his robe, the place of the letter. Major Lun's raving didn't concern him; his mind was on other things. Fifteen of his 'children' deformed, destroyed at birth. He had known about that long ago, of course. But fifteen out of fifty? It was hardly surprising: freak births and nightmarish malformations had been all too common among the Wamphyri of Starside; so Egon had informed him. As for grotesque autisms - bone and brain disorders - tendencies to extreme violence and madness - 'unnatural' lusts: what else would one expect? These children, these creatures, had been vampires! Daham's blood-brood, his creatures, aye ...

The last six escaped,' Chang Lun broke into his thoughts, made no excuse for knowing every smallest detail of the letter. 'Only eight years old, and apparently perfect apart from their accelerated growth rate. They killed their keepers and instructors; they not only bit the hands that fed them ... but fed on them! Drinkers of blood, cannibals, homicidal maniacs! In only eight years they'd grown to men, and sexually voracious women! Finally they were hunted down to the last one, and eradicated. But it wasn't easy ...'

And again Drakesh said, 'I told them how it would be. But this time we'll do it my way.' His whisper was a hoarse rustle in his pipestem throat. 'My way, yes ... "

All of his 'children' gone now - the nucleus of an indefatigable army, which Tsi-Hong had tried to create as a unique breed, protectors of China - all gone now. But Drakesh knew no pain. He had known what the outcome would be.

Tsi-Hong had tried to teach them to be human; Daham would teach them to be what they were, and to hide what they were until he was ready!

It was what he had wanted from the beginning. It had been the way of the Drakuls since a time beyond memory - to infiltrate and eat out an enemy's heart from within. But China, the enemy? Not at all; the enemy was Mankind! China was merely the greenhouse for the next and last generation of Great Vampires, and Daham Drakesh would be their unholy priest - their bloodsire, aye - in the vampire world of tomorrow! But for now:

'You asked me certain questions,' he reminded the Major. 'Unless they were frivolous, I would answer them. Indeed, I am obliged to answer them, so that you may take my answer back to Tsi-Hong. "Would I make this place a harem?"

you asked.' Drakesh shook his head. 'No. The brothers will make ready the city in the lee of the mountain. And the lascivious among them will repopulate it. But I shall be the true father of the brood!'

'I know that place,' Chang Lun answered. 'I visited it - but briefly -the first time I came here. Its doors are still daubed with plague markings.'

Drakesh shrugged. 'Whatever the plague was ... it is gone now.' And changing the subject: 'There was something else that you said: that I would flee when I was discovered, and that my emissaries were out in the world even now, seeking new places for me. Well, you were right in one thing, at least. But quite wrong in another ... "

'Oh?' Chang Lun prompted him.

'Boltholes - hah! If ever I had intended flight, surely by now I would have fled?' Drakesh cocked his knobby head on one side and smiled. 'What? Only sixty miles to Nepal, and the same to Sikkim or Bhutan? And I am still here? No, don't pride yourself that I would ever flee from such as you, Major.' And before Chang Lun could answer:

'As for my emissaries: you don't know the half of it... But Colonel Tsi-Hong does! Over the roof of the world -across the Himalayas - is the easiest route into "friendly territories," it's true. Ah, but not for me! For my "emissaries!"

Chang Lun frowned, and for the first time began to feel a little unsure of himself, a little uneasy. 'Go on,' he said.

'Who better to look into the affairs of the outside world - not only the religious affairs, but also the social, political and economical - than

harmless monks of an obscure Tibetan order? Spies, Chang Lun! Not only for me but also for the much-reviled Colonel Tsi-Hong.

And by whom reviled? By you! And you dare to threaten me? By all means do so. But remember, you may well be threatening China herself! My emissaries, yes . . . spies for China. Ah, and very necessary, Chang Lun! Never more so than now. Doubtless you read in this letter how the Chateau Bronnitsy is no more, reduced to rubble some two years ago? But how was it wrought, for what reason, and by whom? And what if a similar establishment on Kwijiang Avenue in Chungking should be next? Metaphysics, a fad? Do you still think so? Well, others in the world take it far more seriously. So now you see the entire picture; you've become one of the privileged handful who do see it. And perhaps one too many ... if 1 were to let slip the fact of this new knowledge of yours, and of your opinions, to a certain Colonel in Chungking ... "

Chang Lun came to his feet at once! But slowly, oh so very slowly, he sat down again. 'I... seem to have underestimated you,'

he said. 'Worse, it seems I was mistaken - about certain things.'

'You were suspicious of what you did not understand,' Drakesh told him. 'But now you do understand . . . something of it, at least. Well, no harm done.' He smiled that smile of his and stood up. 'Now you will excuse me while I write my reply. This time, perhaps the seal will remain intact...?' And once again, before the Major could answer or protest, if he intended to:

'But let's have no secrets, you and I. My letter will list my requirements, the equipment needed to make Drakesh City inhabitable again . . . Which the military, your forces in Xigaze, will transport as it is made available. Also, I shall require more freedom, the necessary visas, to send my "emissaries" out into the world in greater numbers. For troubled times are coming, and I -or should I say we? - would be well advised to prepare for them now.' It was all true as far as it went; logically, it fitted the scenario perfectly. But none of it was for China.

Drakesh turned to go, turned back again. 'I will send for your driver; no need for you to wait on your own. Meanwhile, I thank you for your understanding, Chang Lun. May you always be at peace with yourself, if not with the world.'

Then, with a last enigmatic smile, bowing from the waist, he retired into his inner sanctum in a swirl of red robes ...

The Necroscope's dreams were and always had been strange. Now more than ever before he found himself unable to recall their substance when he was awake. This morning was no different; he came awake in his bed in his room at the Hotel Adrano sweating, panting, fighting with his bedclothes in a frenzy of fear, yet a moment later was lost as to the cause. But the fear had been real, as the continued trembling of his limbs and pounding of his heart testified ...

Something about B.J., about the moon, about wolves, about a place like a skull on a frozen plateau . . . about dark forces gathering in all the unquiet places of the world. It was there and it was gone. Something about himself: that he was two men in one body, with two sets of thoughts? When he was the other he didn't know his own mind, and when he was him -

- When he was him? ... Now what the hell?

When he was him!? What? Was he back to that again? Well, he was him, and he was satisfied with him, now!

With which the rest of the dream blinked out and disappeared entirely, and Harry was left to locate himself physically, in three dimensions, as opposed to the fourth and purely mental dimension of his mind, in this first day of the rest of his life ... in the Hotel Adrano, in Paterno, Sicily. And having fixed that, the rest of it fell into place and he knew why he was here. Set a thief to catch a thief? Well, not quite. But set one to steal from one, or from two ... ?

That was why he, the waking him, was here.

But the subconscious Harry Keogh - of whom he wasn't even aware - was here for another reason. Yet no confusion of purpose physical or otherwise; both purposes locked together like the two halves of one brain! And B.J. could not have planned it better even if she'd known everything; but if she had, the Necroscope wouldn't be here in the first place, or any other place by now.

Except maybe in a no-place, the last place on or under the earth: talking to his dead people in their own place, face to face as it were. But Harry didn't know that.

He called for coffee, breakfast, and when it came had no taste for it. By then he'd washed, shaved and dressed. So he ate anyway, and chewing over his food, likewise chewed over his plans. In doing so, the two halves of his mind found a meeting place. His business here was to 'break into' Le Manse Madonie, of course, and steal back from the Francezci brothers some of their ill-gotten gains. But it could do no harm to do a little research first: in fact, to research the Francezcis.

Not from any library or registrar's office, but from the dead themselves. For who would know better about the history of a family and its ancestral home than that family's progenitors; or, if they were unwilling, its servants? And where better to find the latter than at Le Manse Madonie itself?

Except here ... something extraordinary, that the Necroscope never before in his life stumbled across. Two extraordinary things, in fact.

One: thinking of Le Manse Madonie, his mind had conjured the photographs that Darcy Clarke had shown him at E-Branch HQ in London; more, it had superimposed them over that precognitive vision of the place, as shown to him by some residual echo of Alec Kyle's talent. This combination, a sort of mental triangulation, had the effect of

locating the building exactly in his memory . . . and in his mind! Astonishingly, he 'remembered' his co-ordinates from a flash-forwards!

The idea at once struck him that using the Mobius Continuum he could go there right now, without further ado. It would be as simple as that. He had his room's co-ordinates; if he was mistaken, or if something were to go wrong, he could return at once to the hotel in Paterno, or even further afield to any of the old co-ordinates he knew so well. But if he was right - if he could make one unbroken Mobius jump directly to the Madonie, without ever having been there physically - then the experiment would provide irrefutable proof that indeed he'd inherited some gradually fading trace of Alec Kyle's metaphysical skill.

And after Le Manse ... there were other, perhaps far more important places.

It was completely irresistible. Placing his breakfast tray outside his door and locking it, Harry forced his mind's Mobius maths to a familiar configuration, conjured a door, stepped across the threshold and -

- Went there, to the mountains of the Madonie! It worked!

There had been two locations, one of them at a lower elevation, well away from the place, and the other close up.

Harry had materialized at the first one, thus keeping a healthy distance between himself and the actual house. But there it was, just as he had seen it in his vision:

He craned his neck to look up and up, at stark yellow and white clifs -yellow in sunlight, as he now saw, - and at the squat, white-walled castle, mansion, or chateau, perched there in the rim of oblivion. A fortress on a mountainside from the Necroscope's viewpoint, where he stood on a winding road halfway between the sea and the sky.

The sea, of course! He remembered how, during that brief, earlier 'visit,' he'd smelled the Tyrrhenian at his back.

And now he could turn and take it in: the great sweep of Sicily's northern coast against the blue dazzle of white-flecked ocean, hazing towards Palermo in the west, and curving over the distant horizon to Messina in the east.

There were cars and a bus groaning their way up the steep road. Harry didn't especially care to be noticed; turning his back to the vehicles, he looked again at Le Manse Madonie:

That somehow foreboding mansion, built on the edge of a sheer drop that must be almost four thousand feet to the sloping scree of a rubble-strewn gorge. And the great clif of the mountainside itself, all sun-bleached rocks, brittle scrub and a few stunted Mediterranean pines ... exactly as he'd seen it before. Deja vu indeed!

But in reverse? More like Vega du! Harry thought, drawing himself back to the present.

The vehicles had disappeared around a bend, been eaten up by a spur of the mountain where the road had been cut through it. The Necroscope was quite alone. He found a flat-topped rock by the side of the road and sat down. Now, with a bit of luck, he should be able to find someone who could help him.

Yet even as his mind slipped into its familiar mode, that weird telepathic talent which allowed him to talk to the dead, something warned him that he should guard his thoughts. It was the place ... or rather, it was that place up there, teetering on the rim of the cliff like that. Oh, yes, it was as well to whisper, in the presence of the unknown. But a place is only a place after all; so why was Harry sweating? It was a hot day, certainly, but it didn't feel like that kind of sweat.

And if it had been other than day -

- The Necroscope scarcely believed he'd want to be here at all. But he would have to be. Indeed he would have to go in there, into that place. Tonight ...

Which made it imperative that he know something about it. And he would also like to know something about the Francezcis - something about their background, their history - something other than Darcy had told him. Though why he couldn't exactly say ... call it for future reference.

Harry's thoughts - even his most recent, guarded, inward-directed thoughts - were 'audible' to the teeming dead.

They always were, except when he shielded them or aimed them at an individual. By now he would normally have expected someone to answer him, inquire as to his presence here. He was the Necroscope, after all. But no, the telepathic 'aether,' his lines of communication, seemed to be down. No one was interested in him. Or if they were, they weren't expressing that interest.

And yet he knew they were there; he sensed them like phantom callers on a telephone; they 'breathed,' however silently, in his weird mind. But it wasn't Harry who was afraid, it was them. And because they were, and after listening to their silence for a while, so was he ...

... Harry?

He jumped a foot! 'What? Who ...?' With all of his experience, still the Necroscope spun around; and despite that everything was bright, hot, dazzling sunlight, and that sweat (good old honest-to-goodness, physical sweat now, as well as a trace of the other sort) rivered his back, still he shivered. Until: 'I ... I'm sorry,' he finally gasped. 'I suppose I should have been expecting you. I mean, I was expecting someone. But this silence, this dead silence, is sort of unnerving.'

And that was it, the second extraordinary thing: the fact that with the exception of this one dead voice, the Great Majority were 'dead silent.' Oh, they were here, but they weren't saying anything.

Nor will they, said the one lone voice in Harry's metaphysical mind. You're forgetting something, Harry: that what the dead did in life, they continue to do in death. Isn't that how it goes?

'Why, yes, but - '

-  But this is Sicily, said the as yet unknown other, as if that were explanation enough. Ifs a place apart, Harry. It has its own special code.

And indeed the Necroscope did understand. 'A code of silence?'

That's right, he sensed the other's incorporeal nod. Ifs a code they adhere to. And never more so than here.

'Here?' Harry knew what the answer was going to be in the selfsame moment he framed the question.

Right here, yes, said the dead voice. In this very place. In the shadow of Le Manse Madonie ...

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