It was stil the early hours of the morning in Dalwhinnie, in Scotland; but some two hours earlier in the Drakesh Monastery, on the Tingri Plateau, it had already been midday ...
The white-robed initiate whom Harry Keogh had seen tramping the white waste to the face in the rock was at last ready. Ready to face (as he saw it) his final challenge, the last rite of 'purification,' and long-awaited acceptance into the Drakesh Sect.
He had been cleansed of all earthly sins, all vices of the flesh, the mind and the soul. He had endured all the rigours of life in the monastery - its austerity, celibacy, secrecy; its lack of communication, which was forbidden - al of the self-denial of the brotherhood without being a part of that brotherhood, without its acceptance. In short, for the two long years that he had lived here ... he'd lived a lie.
For unknown to him and two others just like him, they were the only ones who had suffered the austerity, celibacy and silence.
As for the rest of the brothers: they had survived their initiations long ago. Now they had their Master, Daham Drakesh, to give them succour; now they bathed in the blood which is the life, the tainted blood of their own; now they had each other. Moreover, they had the women of the Drakesh Township: the produce of their farm and fields; the warmth of their cringing bodies (while yet they remained warm) in the dark of night; their blood, in however small a measure, to provide at least a taste of the feasts to come.
Ah, for their Master provided for them in this monotonous white wilderness no less than he would provide for them in the outside world, when at last it was his ... when it was theirs! And except that they must not impregnate the women - or drain them to death or undeath, or weaken them beyond their capacity to work - nothing was forbidden to the brothers. But the only, the ultimate, the unforgivable sin would be the denial of the vampire Lord Daham Drakesh himself. And its punishment ...
... But there were diverse ways in which sinners, or even innocent men - such as initiates - might serve in the monastery of Daham Drakesh.
This initiate - that figure in white whom the Necroscope had seen marching with three priests in front and three behind - was ready for his final ordeal. In the preceding two years he had fasted for weeks at a time; at other times he had survived on yak's milk, coarse bread, and pale honey. For a month now his diet had been such that he'd lost ten pounds in weight and now weighed a litle over one hundred and five pounds. And this was a young, previously healthy man of eighteen years.
His ordeals had been fasting, freezing, loneliness, celibacy (which scarcely counted, since he'd never known a woman in his life), self-denial, hard work - and fear. The last because there were ... sounds in the monastery, and an aura ...
Work had been the first, when for months he must toil to dig his own cavelet from the solid rock, because he was forbidden to have a bed until he had a place to put the bed. The rest had been likewise obligatory: he could only eat what the brothers gave him, speak if or when spoken to, masturbate at his own peril. The sensitivity of the brothers, and especially of Daham Drakesh, was frightening. They could smell sex; they seemed to have the power to smell the very thought of it!
But he had been cleansed of outside influences, his body reduced and refined, his mind numbed. And Daham Drakesh - who was skiled in the arts of seeing without being seen, of knowing without being known, and of hearing without being heard - found him pleasing.
Drakesh took pleasure in purity and innocence, perhaps because he had never had any of his own. But he knew where to get it.
The High Priest took his time arriving at the room of the rite. First he visited the cavern of the creatures: hybrid vampire things waxing in their vats. They would be warriors eventually, the first of many. Then, as it had been in Sunside/Starside, so it would be here. And every high place an aerie, each deadly day a time of curfew, and the nights ... ah, the nights would belong to Daham Drakesh! In five, ten, fifteen years? A long time, aye, but what is time to the Wamphyri?
The cavern of the creatures: no one was allowed down here but Daham Drakesh himself and a handful of his lieutenants. If any common thrall should enter this place, he would be fortunate indeed to leave. Drakesh looked down into a vat, its gelatinous surface surging with long, slow ripples. They waxed, his beasts; they could be brought on quickly, if need be. Or they could lie here another hundred years, waiting to be born.
Then he looked at the trough-like conduits that serviced the vats, rust coloured runnels carved in the rock, umbilical sluices to feed the foetal abnormalities being bred here. That fool in Chungking, Colonel Tsi-Hong, would have Drakesh breed human warriors. Wel, and so he would - so he was, as witness the brotherhood - but Tsi-Hong knew nothing of such as these.
As the Lord of vampires inspected his vats, so there had commenced a familiar combination of whistling, cracking sounds from somewhere overhead; the acoustical quality of the monastery's chambers was remarkable. And now it came, a trickle at first but gradually sweling: the red tide. The life-blood of the brothers, given of their own free wil, gurgling down the sluices to the vats. Then, in the heart of every liquid womb, a sluggish stirring as vaguely outlined occupants sensed the flow of rich red food.
Daham Drakesh smiled in his fashion and moved on; he had seen al of this before.
He left the foetal vat-things to their gluttony, climbed stone stairs to the chamber of the trough, the long-accustomed scene of silent, ritual flagellation, and from there took long, loping, forward-leaning strides to the room of the last rite of initiation. He was eager now; the sight of the crimson flow in the cavern of the creatures, and the blood-tinged mist over the trough of silent agony, had set vampire juices working. Drakesh had his own needs no less than the waxing creatures in his vats of metamorphic creation. Except his needs were more selective.
The initiate was waiting; clad in white, kneeling between a pair of red-robed acolytes (Drakesh's lieutenants), he elevated his eyes as the Master entered - and at once lowered them. The room was small, square, high-ceilinged. At one end, a near-vertical, flue-like slot had been hewn into the solid rock wall. Six feet high from the floor, this chimney was sealed by a massive block of stone, stepped on one side like a dais. A pulley-system in the ceiling dangled long ropes of chains fitted with claw-like grapples.
To one side, a cart was piled with blocks of ice that were slowly welding themselves together. A stairwel in the opposite wal went down into darkness.
With the sinuous ease of the Wamphyri, Drakesh moved to a position in front of the initiate, placed a slender hand on his bowed head, and said: 'My son, are you sure? Are you prepared?' His voice was almost gentle, almost compassionate. 'Do you desire to exchange your white robe for the red robe of a brother?'
'Indeed, Master.' The initiate's voice was no more than a squeak. His fear was such that he might almost have said no ... but he would not give in now, especially not in the presence of Drakesh. In his sight, he would never dare to admit defeat.
'Look at me,' the Master of the Monastery commanded.
The face of the initiate was drawn; his eyes were hollow, his yellow skin pale as saffron parchment, with fine blue veins showing through. He smelled of youth, innocence, and everything that Drakesh was not. And the vampire smiled -
- And began to explain the test. The chimney will house you standing upright with your head bowed to your chest
- as if you bore the weight of the world! But nothing so great, be assured. These brothers will place blocks of ice above you, two or three depending on your ... fortitude? This room is not especially cold and the ice will melt soon enough. But the process will be greatly accelerated by the generation of heat from your own body. This, then, is your ordeal, my son: the weight of the ice; its slow cold drip; the confines of the chimney. All these things against your determination, your force for life. Finally, when the last few shards of ice slip down around your feet and you climb out, it will be over and you ... will be a brother!' he clapped his hands. 'No more explaining. Into the chimney!'
The red-robed acolytes climbed the dais with the initiate and helped him down into the chimney. Drakesh stood watching as they operated the pulleys, began loading blocks of ice onto the shoulders of the youth. But...
'Master!' that one called out, the sound of his voice muffled now. There are tiny holes in the floor. A great many... "
'Certainly,' Drakesh called back. 'So that the water from the ice can flow out and the air can flow in. What, and should I let you drown, or suffocate?'
More blocks of ice went into the shaft. Stacked on top of each other, they fitted well; and because the chimney inclined back into the wall a little, they could not topple forward. All of their mass was focused on the youth, who now cried out:
'Master, the weight!' His voice was strained, his words a series of panting grunts.
'An ordeal is an ordeal,' Drakesh's answer was cold as the ice itself. 'Less than that, and it becomes a mockery.' But his very tone of voice was a mockery, while his feral-eyed acolytes grinned and plied the pulleys.
The column of ice reached up eight feet above the hole in the wall now; its weight was that of five men. As another block was released from the grapples and slid into place, so the column settled an inch or two in its slot. And feeling the sudden, rapid compression of his body, the initiate panted so much faster and louder, his voice becoming a screech of protest:
'I... cannot!... Master, I'm being crushed! ... my knees are against the wall... my back is breaking!'
'Cry out, my son,' Drakesh called back. 'It will ease your pain. Pant and groan, even as your mother groaned when her body opened to spit you into the world. She gave you life - as you now give it to me!'
And as the acolytes worked at the rattling pulleys, Daham Drakesh descended the stairwell into the room beneath this room of torture. It was cold, and as he disrobed he shuddered a very little ... but not from the cold. It was an almost sexual shudder of anticipation.
Against one wall of this lower chamber, the floor had been scooped out into a shallow basin. As Drakesh stepped naked into the basin, he looked up. In the ceiling directly overhead, contained in an area of some eighteen by eighteen inches, a hundred small holes had been drilled through to the base of the torture chimney. Through these holes -through the very rock - he could hear the frantic screams of his victim. And coming to him from the stairwell, the relentless rattling of chains.
Finally there was one last recognizable word: a throbbing 'M-m- mother!' Followed by a shriek to end all shrieks that echoed quickly into silence, and a splintering sound that went on and on. And all that remained was a slow crunching and squelching: the compression of flesh and bone into jelly. Then, as the rattling of the chains continued unabated, the warm red rain of Drakesh's shower commenced to smoke down upon him.
But a worse horror was yet to come. For as Drakesh opened his jaws in a yawning gape, turned up his face and threw wide his spindly arms to the crimson spattering deluge, so his parasite leech took over. And all semblance of control, of anything remotely human, was surrendered now as the thing inside Drakesh revelled in this its life-source, its being, its cursed continuation - revelled in the blood of an innocent!
Drakesh's olive-marble skin took on a mottled life of its own; his metamorphic flesh rippled over the bones of his face, chest, body and limbs; the pores of his skin opened like small pouting mouths - like the tiny flowers of some hybrid cactus in a rare desert rainstorm - lapping with their own tongues at the juice of a man where it followed the contours of Drakesh's writhing, tormented form.
It went on for a long time ...
After the pulley chains had stopped rattling and the acolytes were gone in haste from the upper chamber (for they would venture nowhere near their Master now, not in his passion); then, as Drakesh recovered from his awful ecstasy and staggered from the basin, and the tiny mouths closed and his skin flowed back into a corpse-like but unblemished whole -
- Pain! Such a burning agony!
Drakesh hissed his terror, fell back against the wall and gazed crimson-eyed on his burning flesh. What was this?
Was it possible he'd made a terrible mistake? Had the initiate been a leper, some kind of plague-bearer? But no, this wasn't his parasite complaining. The pain wasn't his - it was in his mind!
Mentalism. Telepathy. A sending from far, far away. But it was so real - so immediate, so psychically in tune with him - that it could have only one possible source. Flesh of Drakesh's flesh: his bloodson and chief lieutenant, four and a half thousand miles away in Scotland!
Drakesh opened himself to it, accepted part of the pain in order to enter the mind behind it. And he was right, it was his bloodson, sent out into a foreign land. And sent there to die, apparently:
The flames melting away his body, his vampire flesh, cutting into the very heart of him, to the creature inside. And his injuries, so great as to be almost irrepairable; utterly irrepairable, in combination with the fire.
Hoping to discover the cause of his son's funeral pyre - its perpetrators - Drakesh attempted deeper penetration of the tormented mind. But even vampire flesh can be weak in the face of the ultimate truth, the true death. It would not be easy to communicate with the terrified mentality behind the dying. But stil Drakesh tried.
Who? he sent. And how? If you would be avenged, you must try to tell me, my son. The how of it came at once, for it was there, fresh in the burning mind:
The senses-numbing blast of heat and light inside a speeding vehicle ... the crash through a fragile fence, and headlong plunge into high branches ... the jarring cessation of an illusory slow-motion falling, as the wrecked car slammed down nose-first into earth. And at last it was time for the pain, for the knowledge of a devastated body to sink in and its agony to wash outwards.
But before it could wash all the way to Drakesh, he sent:
And now, who?
The man, the woman, the answer came back from a mind even now boiling in its steaming skul.
And Daham Drakesh looked out through a shimmering wal of blue fire at the faces and forms of his son's destroyers. The man in the London photographs, of course - this Alec Kyle? - and Radu Lykan's female thrall. Protectors of an ancient enemy ... and one who must now be aware that His enemies were abroad in the world!
The faces, the identities were there, and they were gone, liquefying along with the mind that sent them. Last faint echoes of pain receding ... the flames dying out... the sending ending, along with the sender.
Shocked, scarcely realizing the ful gravity of the thing as yet, Daham Drakesh dressed himself. And his fingers trembled and he saw again the enigmatic face of the man in his bloodson's sending, and in the Oxford Street photographs: that oh-so-human face masking its oh-so-weird intelligence. And again the Master of the monastery shuddered; not from anticipation this time but from the cold.
And no ordinary cold, but that of the alien void behind the man's eyes.
However briefly then, it was as if the vampire sensed the fall of a
strange and threatening night, whose taloned shadows were reaching for him even now ...
Two days later, but again early in the morning, the Necroscope Harry Keogh came awake to the ringing of his telephone. He had slept late and dreamed strange dreams - of the Great Majority, talking about him but not to him - and as he focused his eyes on his traveling clock, so the time clicked over from 9:44 to 9:45. The telephone extension beside his bed continued to ring, and Harry reached out and picked it up. He had long since lost his .actual terror of the thing, despite that it still conjured fleeting, disturbing motifs. Now, as his dreams faded away and his waking mind sharpened, he grunted, 'Uh?'
'Did I wake you?' For a moment Harry didn't identify the gravely voice on the other end of the line, but then it registered and he said:
'Ben? Ben Trask?' And he thought: E-Branch? Now what's up? But what could be up, except that they'd maybe heard something. And sharper now, giving it al of his atention, he said: 'Ben, is it about Brenda?'
'Sorry, Harry,' Trask answered at once. 'But no, it isn't about Brenda. We're still on it, of course, but... nothing so far. It's just that it's been quite a while now and we thought it was time we spoke.'
'Darcy and the rest of us ... to find out how the world's treating you, you know?' It came hard for Trask to lie. A lie-detector in his own right, it went against the grain.
Harry nodded, despite that the other couldn't see him. 'I'm okay, mainly. And you people?'
'Routine,' (Harry sensed Trask's shrug). 'Not that anything ever is routine around here! And apparently there's some weird shit in your neck of the woods, too . .
So, this was something other than a purely social cal. The Necroscope made no atempt to disguise his sourness as he inquired: 'So what is it, Ben? Can we get to the point? And where's Darcy? Shouldn't he be making this cal?' Or are you trying to get at the 'truth' of things, eh? And what would I have to lie about anyway?
'An accident - well, an incident - up there in Jock territory,' Trask answered. 'Didn't you read about it?' But he made no comment on Darcy Clarke's whereabouts.
'I only get Sunday papers,' Harry told him. 'So what are we talking about here?' The Necroscope was curious now, and cautious. Whatever it was, why was E-Branch talking to him about it? Something he might have been involved in? He hadn't robbed any banks in Scotland, had he?
'An incident,' Trask repeated. 'On the Spey, north of the Forest of Atholl, just a couple of days ago.'
'On the river? What kind of incident?' Curiouser and curiouser! Harry and Bonnie Jean had been up that way, until she'd cried off their climb. She hadn't felt up to it. . . or perhaps she'd thought he wasn't up to it.
'Near the river,' Trask said. 'A car went off the road and burned out. Its occupants, too. Horrific! But the police found a weapon, evidence of a fire fight. There were two bodies, members of a Tibetan sect. The Home Office seems to think there's some kind of sectarian war going on. There were already a dozen of these types in England and another six on their way in. They work - carrying 'the word,' or whatever - in teams of six. The ones on their way in have been turned back, six more in London have been told to leave the country. Which leaves four of these people still unaccounted for...'
'And?' the Necroscope said, when it seemed Trask was done. 'What has all of this to do with me?'
A slight pause, and: 'It's for information only, Harry. I mean, since you happen to be up that way ... ?'
'I'm not your eyes and ears in Scotland, Ben. I thought it was understood? Now I'm out of the Branch, I'm gone for good.'
Trask's voice was cooler as he answered: 'We're not asking anything, Harry. Just passing something on, that's all.'
'Well, thanks,' the Necroscope told him, just as tersely. 'And is that it?'
Take care of yourself,' said Harry, and without waiting for an answer put the 'phone down.
At the London end, Trask looked at Darcy Clarke standing beside him and growled, 'I didn't much like that.'
'I could see and hear,' the other nodded. 'I understand and totally agree. Now forget it and tell me what you think.'
Trask shook his head. 'It's a funny one,' he said. 'I got the impression he thinks he's telling the truth.'
'From his point of view,' Trask tried to explain, 'he was telling the truth - he wasn't involved in whatever it was that happened up there. And yet... I can't swear. I've only rarely come across this complication before.'
'Where I trust someone's word implicitly, and so must consider my own talent suspect! Still, I agree with you: the whole thing up there, whatever it is, has Necroscope stamped all over it. And by the way: the same goes for you.'
'What's that?' Darcy didn't understand.
That complication I mentioned?' Trask stared hard at him. 'When it comes to Harry, I get much the same feeling about you. I mean, / trust you all the way, Darcy. But somehow I get this feeling that you ... don't!'
After Trask left his office, Darcy sat at his desk and thought about it, and sighed. For he knew that Trask's talent wasn't in question. The esper had been right: Darcy didn't trust himself. Or at least, he didn't trust the decision he had made that time more than three years ago. His loyalties continued to be divided between Branch security and the well-being of a friend. And Harry was still under those post-hypnotic strictures imposed by Dr James Anderson.
Just how they were affecting his life ... who could say? But on the whole, Darcy liked to believe that his decision had been the right one. This thing with these red-robed priests out of Tibet was a case in point. Okay, so Harry wasn't involved - but supposing he had been? What if these religious fanatics had known about his talents and had been hunting him down for their own purposes? Surely it was better for all concerned that Harry had been neutralized in that respect? Of course it was -
- Yet still Darcy felt guilty. Well, it was something he would just have to learn to live with.
In his house outside Bonnyrig, the Necroscope absent-mindedly heaped pillows and sat back against them, frowned at the telephone, and wondered what all of that had been about. Red-robed Tibetan monks? Of course he knew something about them ... that in some way or other they or their monastery were tied up with his future. But that was all. Maybe in the not so distant future he would try to find out more. But as for the recent past: A couple of corpses in a burned-out car, and evidence of a sectarian war? Was there a connection? If so, it wasn't even beginning to make itself apparent! For the moment at least, he must let it go at that.
It was all he could do, for the fact was that the conscious, waking Harry Keogh really didn't know a thing about it. It had been excerpted from his life like a page lost from a manuscript, and there was only one person who could rewrite it.
Since she wasn't likely to, or wasn't ready to, for now it had become a part of the lost years ...