(Four Years Earlier)
The Great Wamphyri Lords Belath, Lesk the Glut, Menor Maimbite, Lascula Longtooth and Tor Tornbody were no more. All of these and many lesser Wamphyri lights, their lieutenants and warrior-creatures, all wiped out by The Dweller and his father in the battle for The Dweller's garden. That battle was lost, the kilometre-high aeries of the Wamphyri (all except the Lady Karen's) reduced to so much stone and bone and cartilage rubble by the massed explosions of methane-belching gas-beasts, and the Wamphyri masters of Starside themselves brought low in the aftermath of their humiliating defeat.
Now Shaithis, once-leader of the vampire army, turned his hybrid flyer's head into a wind whistling out of the bitter north, and rising on its waft set course for the Icelands. He was not the first of the Wamphyri to venture that way. Over the centuries others had gone before him, exiled or fled there, and after the battle at the garden certain survivors of his army had headed that way, too. Better the Icelands, whatever they held in store, than the awesome weapons of The Dweller and his father. Aye, those two, father and son: mere men. But men with talents; men come out of the hell-lands beyond the sphere-Gate; who used the power of the sun itself to blow away the protoplasmic, metamorphic flesh of the Wamphyri into superheated gas and stinking evaporation!
Harry Keogh and his son, called The Dweller: they had destroyed Shaithis's army, ruined his plans, reduced him almost to nothing. But almost nothing is still something, and in all creation there does not exist anything more tenacious than a vampire. Shaithis, if it were at all possible and given even the smallest opportunity, would build on the vestigial power which he still was to become something again. And if and when that day should come, then the hell-landers would pay. Yes, and all who had stood alongside them in the battle for the garden.
The Lady Karen had stood with them, treacherous Wamphyri bitch! Shaithis jerked hard on the leather reins, yanking the gold bit in his flyer's mouth until it tore the flesh there. The creature - once a man, a Traveller, but hideously changed now through Shaithis's mutative art -uttered a complaining grunt through pluming nostrils and flapped its manta wings more rapidly, lifting higher still in the frosty air as if to reach for the cold diamond stars.
Behind Shaithis, suddenly the mountains were split by a golden bomb-burst of searing light; a sliver of sunlight struck like a spear at him from beyond the barrier mountains, from Sunside. He felt it glance against his robe of black bat fur and cringed, and knew that he'd flown too high. Sunup! The sun's slow creep was bringing its molten yellow rim into view. Cold as he was, Shaithis could feel it burning on his back.
Mind-linked to a flying beast made in large part from a man, now Shaithis instructed his weird mount: Glide! A waste of mental effort, however small, for the flyer too had felt the sun's menacing rays. Its enormous manta wings tilted upwards at their tips and stilled their pulsing; its head went down as it slid into a shallow glide; Shaithis sighed his relief and returned to his black brooding.
The Lady Karen...
A 'Mother', some said, whose vampire would one day bring forth a hundred eggs out of her body! There would be aeries again on Starside, in some unforeseen future, and all of them inhabited by Karen's black brood, and the bitch herself hive-queen of all the Wamphyri! Doubtless there would be a truce between Karen and The Dweller, peace between them, even bonds of flesh. How that could ever be Shaithis was at a loss even to think. But hadn't he with his own eyes seen Harry Keogh and Karen together in her stack, her aerie on Starside, which alone stood where all the rest were tumbled into ruins?
Without exception, each and every vampire Lord had lusted after her body and her blood. And if things had gone their way in the battle for The Dweller's garden, Shaithis would have been first with her. Now there was a thought to savour!
Shaithis remembered her as he had once seen her, at a meeting of all the Wamphyri Lords in Karen's aerie:
Her hair was burnished copper; seeming to burn, it bounced like fine spun gold on her shoulders, competing with the golden bangles she wore on her arms. Gold rings on a slender golden chain around her neck supported her clinging sheath of a gown, which left her jutting left breast and right buttock exposed, or very nearly, so that with no undergarments the effect had been explosive. If the Lords who saw her like that had worn war-gauntlets, and if the meeting's agenda had been anything less than of the utmost importance, then certainly the lustier Lords might have fought over her. And who among the Wamphyri was not lusty?
From one pale, perfect shoulder had depended a smoky black cloak, skilfully woven from the fur of Desmodus, which shimmered with a weave of fine golden stitches; on her feet sandals of pale leather, similarly stitched in gold; and dangling from the lobes of her ears, golden discs fretted with her sigil, which was the head of a snarling wolf.
She had been breathtaking! Shaithis had felt the thoughts of his fellow Lords turn hot as their blood, and he'd known they all wanted to be into her. Even the thoughts of the slyest, most devious of them (Shaithis himself) had been diverted - which of course had been the witch's purpose! Aye, a clever one, Karen. He could still see her, burning on his mind's eye.
Her body had the sinuous motion of Traveller women when they danced, which yet seemed so unaffected as to be innocent. Her face, heart-shaped, with a lock of that fiery hair coiled on her brow, likewise could have been innocent - except her red eyes gave her away. Her mouth was full, curved in a perfect bow; the colour of her lips, like blood, was accentuated by her pale, slightly hollow cheeks. Only her nose marred looks otherwise entirely stunning: it was a fraction tilted, stubby, with nostrils just a little too round and dark. And perhaps her ears, half-hidden in her hair, showing whorls like the strange orchids of Sunside. Beautiful but... Wamphyri, aye!
Shaithis shivered, even Shaithis. Not from the cold but from his lust, and from his loathing. It was a tremor which coursed through him like the vibrating burn of electricity. And it was the sure recognition of his ambition. To destroy The Dweller had been all of it, upon a time. But now there was more.
'One day, Karen,' Shaithis promised himself out loud, his voice a low rumble, 'one day, if there is justice, I shall have you. Ah, and while I fill you to brimming on the one hand, on the other I'll empty you to the last drop! I will feed a straw of gold directly into your heart, and for every milky driblet your sex drains from me, I shall suck a spurt of scarlet from you! Thus of our depletions, mine will be temporary while yours... yours, alas, will be permanent. So shall it be!' It was his Wamphyri oath.
And scowling into the bitter wind, Shaithis flew north...
The sun's slow rising over Sunside could not catch Shaithis of the Wamphyri; flying however slowly around the curve of the vampire world toward its roof, still his going was faster and farther than the sun could chase him. So that in a little while he reached and passed that margin beyond which the sun's rays never fell, and after that he knew that he was in the Icelands.
Shaithis had never been much of a one for legends and histories. Of the Icelands he knew only those details which were items of gossip or matters of common knowledge: that the sun never shone there was self-evident; but rumour also had it that if one crossed the polar cap and kept going, then that he'd find more mountains and fresh territories for the conquering. No one in living memory had tested the legend, however (at least, not of his own free will), for the great stacks of Starside had been the places of the Wamphyri, their homes and aeries since time immemorial. But... that was yesterday. And now it appeared that the myth would be tested in full.
As for the creatures of the Icelands: in the margins of its oceans (some said) great hot-blooded fishes spouted, vast as the mightiest warrior and with shovel mouths that scooped the sea for smaller prey. They swam there from some eastern ocean, along a warm river that ran in the sea itself! It sounded like a lie to Shaithis.
Aye, and there were bats, too, which also ate the smallest fishes. These were miniature albinos and dwelled in caverns of ice, and were attuned to Wamphyri minds as were their kith and kin in more hospitable parts. Another myth to be tested.
Other than the whales and the snow-bats: Shaithis had heard of bears like the small brown bears of Sunside, but huge and pure white, which hid indistinguishable in the snow and ice to leap out on unwary wanderers. But again, he would see what he would see. None of these things held anything of terror for him. They were life and life is blood. And conversely, as in an old Wamphyri saying, the blood is the life...
For the equivalent of two and a half days Earthtime Shaithis flew steadily north; until, at the end of one huge glide and when it was time for his flyer to climb again, he spied bears basking in starlight on a floe at the rim of an ice-crusted sea. Shaithis's flyer was tired, its fats, liquids and metamorphic flesh depleted. Starside had been cold, but the Icelands were colder far. This place would be as good as any to stop and rest a while, for Shaithis was tired too. And hungry.
Where a cliff of ice towered over the sea he brought his flyer down, commanding it to remain there while he strode out along the frozen shore. The elevation of the place would make it a good launching platform when it was time to get under way again. A quarter-mile away the bears sensed him coming; a pair of them towered to their hind feet on the tilting floe, sniffing the air suspiciously and grunting their annoyance. They were females, and cubs tumbled from underfoot as they commenced to roar their furious warnings.
Shaithis smiled grimly and came on. Their roaring was a challenge. His Wamphyri nature reacted to it; his face elongated and needle teeth scythed through the cartilage of his jaws and gums like an eruption of bone daggers. His mouth filled with the salt taste of his own blood, and that too served to speed his monstrous metamorphosis.
The vampire Lord was only an inch or two less than seven feet tall, but the she-bears where they rumbled and roared on the float of ice and threatened to tip it over were all of that and twelve inches more at least! Their paws were three times the size of Shaithis's hands, and tipped with claws sharp enough to spear fish dead in the water at a thrust.
And: Ah! he thought. Good strong flesh, and ferocious fighters born. What warriors I could build from such as you!
Now he was only a hundred yards away, and that was too close for the nursing mothers. Plunging into bitter, slapping wavelets, they struck out for the shore. They'd see this creature off or kill him. If the first, good enough. And if the second: well, he'd make good red meat for the cubs.
Shaithis, fifty yards away from them where they left the water and shook themselves on all fours like huge white shaggy dogs, took his war-gauntlet from his hip and thrust his right hand into it. Come on then, ladies, he urged with his telepathic mind, not knowing if they heard him and caring less. For I've come a long hungry way, and a cold hungry way yet to go.
Still his 'hand' was only two-thirds the size of one of theirs, but deadlier far. He spread wide his fingers inside the gauntlet, and the grotesque palm was a great rasp of cutting edges, blades and scythes. And clenching his hand as nearly as possible to a fist, razor spines stood up inches from the knuckles, and four sharp-filed iron punches sprang out to point forward like ramrods.
The bears were charging, the smaller one (but only inches smaller) leading the larger on. Shaithis had chosen the site of the battle: he shrugged off his cloak, stood tall and central on a flat cake of ice frozen in a field of sharp, jumbled ice-boulders. The bears were disadvantaged, came slipping and sliding over the rough terrain. They roared, and the vampire Lord roared back, which served to increase their fury.
Before, Shaithis had appeared more or less human. Now he was anything but human. His skull had elongated to that of a wolf; the gape of his mouth was enormous, where white needle teeth meshed like those of a shark. His long and sloping nose had broadened and flattened to his face, growing convoluted and sensitive as the snout of a bat. Even if he were blinded, that snout and his whorl-like ears would track the movements of his opponents as surely as his scarlet eyes. His right hand inside its gauntlet had expanded to fill that fearsome weapon and give it yet more weight, while his left hand was now lizard-like and taloned, whose fingers were tipped with sharp chitin chisels. So that for all his manlike silhouette, in fact he had become a composite warrior-creature: Wamphyri!
The leading she-bear came at a shambling run, rearing upright as she entered the arena of battle. Shaithis let her come and at the last moment crouched low and hurled himself forward into her massive legs. He clung there, reached round behind, hamstrung her with one clawing rake of his gauntlet. Howling, she crashed down on him, and before he could escape the tangle tore open his back to the spine. The moment he felt the pain he killed it, willed it away; and kicking himself free of the crippled bear he looked for its larger companion. She was on him!
Huge paws groped for him where he skidded on his damaged back, and crushing jaws fastened in the left forearm he held up before his face for protection. But as her great head worried at his arm and her claws tore his body, so Shaithis swung his gauntlet in a deadly arc. It smacked against her head, demolishing her left ear and slicing into the eye, so that she at once reared upright and away, dragging Shaithis to his feet. His left arm had been released but was crushed, temporarily useless. If she should fasten those great jaws of hers around his neck or shoulder, he'd be finished.
Bloodied and roaring her pain and fury, she shook her red, torn head and sent pearls of blood flying in Shaithis's eyes. He ignored them and, as she lowered her jaws towards his face, thrust his gauntlet direct into her yawning cave of a mouth. Teeth like the heads of claw-hammers sheared as the gauntlet crunched through them. Shaithis drove that terrible weapon in deeper yet, wrenched it to and fro, enlarging her throat, then tore downwards into her gullet.
She staggered this way and that, her great arms beating uselessly. Shaithis opened his gauntlet in her mouth, wrenched it free, dislocated what was left of her bottom jaw. She'd not bite him now! And while still she flailed he swung his gauntlet again, this time with its iron punches extended. They slammed into her skull through the red debris of her ear and crushed the delicate bone inwards, penetrating to her brain.
She was done; she puffed and snorted and swayed, pawing uselessly at empty air. Shaithis gathered all his remaining strength to drive his gauntlet one last time through the ruin of her flapping jaw and into the back of her throat, where he gripped, crushed and severed the spinal column. Virtually decapitated, she was dead on her feet - for a single moment. And in the next the ice shook as her great body thudded down upon it.
Shaithis leaped on her, buried his awful face in the pulp of her head, filled himself with steaming crimson. The blood is the life!
... In a while he stood up. A small distance away the other bear left a trail of blood where it crawled in crazy patterns on the ice, dragging its useless rear legs behind it. Shaithis fought down his own pain as he went to the crippled creature; when chance permitted, he ripped away the muscles and tendons first from one foreleg, then the other. When finally the bear was totally incapacitated, he tore open its throat and let out the remaining bulk of its life steaming onto the ice.
And again he took hot, reeking blood, and felt himself growing strong.
Some little distance away his flyer nodded its great swaying diamond-shaped head at the top of the ice-cliffs. Shaithis stood up and commanded it: Come!
The thing came. Slipping and slithering at the rim, its many 'legs' uncoiled like whipping snakes to thrust it into its launch; and it soared out over the sea, then dipped one huge manta wing, turned and came back. It settled to the ice a respectful distance away, then at Shaithis's insistence came flopping to where the carcases waited. Meanwhile the vampire Lord had cut out the great smoking hearts of the bears and put them in a pouch for later.
He backed off and sat down on a stump of ice. And: Eat, he commanded his flyer. Fuel yourself.
And in the streaming moon and starlight, the changeling beast took back much of its lost heat, fats and liquids. Aye, eat well, Shaithis told it. There'll be no more strong meat like this awhile. Not until I'm healed, anyway.
And then, gradually, he let all his pain free to creep in on him, the agony of his split back and crushed arm, and his broken ribs where they'd tested the bear's pummelling. Pain, great pain! His vampire felt it: all the more spur to that thing within him, to be about the healing. i
Pain, aye. There were times like this, after a battle hard j fought and won, when pain was warmer than the warm, succulent core of a woman. It was Shaithis's pride to let it wash over him, and to feel the scars of his body start to heal. Perhaps he would keep some of them open, or scabbed at best, as mementoes of his victory.
Except... who would there be to admire them?
After a flight as long again, finally Shaithis spied the ice-castles where they gleamed under the serpentine writhings of polar aurora. They could only be stacks, aeries, surely?
His heart beat faster in his great breast. Wamphyri, here? What manner of creatures would they be, dwelling in the sub-zero temperatures of the Icelands? Albinos like the mythical bats, growing their own white fur for warmth? What would be their sustenance? And perhaps more to the point, how would they react to the Lord Shaithis?
He took his flyer up to higher altitudes, the better to spy out the ice-locked land around. Farther north, possibly at the northernmost extreme, a string of dead volcanoes thrust up their crater cones through ice and drifted snow. In both directions, east and west, they dwindled away as far as Shaithis's eyes could see, marching out of view across glittering, icy horizons. Some were cased in ice, others showed their naked stone; from which Shaithis deduced that the unclad mountains must still retain a measure of their former fire.
To reinforce his opinion, he noted that the central and largest cone even appeared to issue a little smoke. But the effect came and went and could be an illusion of the general dazzle. Star-dazzle and aurora-dazzle: the entire roof of the world was lit as by some weird blue daylight! Not that light was especially important to the Wamphyri; no, for the night was their element; eyes such as theirs could see even in the darkest places.
As for the ice-stacks: Shaithis gave them his keenest possible scrutiny. They were mere molehills compared to the once-mighty bone and stone stacks of Starside, and even the tallest would be less than half the height of the lowliest aerie. Where they were not coated with snow, it could be seen that their ice was of the purest; like vast, inverted icicles, they grew up in concentric circles away from the central volcano. Also, where the light struck through them at their peaks, he saw that they were pure ice through and through; but at their bases many seemed to have stony cores. Perhaps in its heyday the central volcano had thrown out great gobs of stuff all around, forming splashes of hot rock in these rippling rings, like a handful of mud tossed into a pool. And then, through the centuries, ice-sheaths had accumulated, gradually building into these jagged, sharply-pointed stacks. It seemed as likely an explanation as any.
That the ice-castles were not fit habitation seemed obvious at first, and Shaithis might well have flown on. But then he saw what looked like an exhausted - indeed frozen - flyer at the base of one such castle and went down for a closer look. Again choosing an ice-cliff's rim for a landing site, he left his flyer and walked a half-mile to that which he had seen from on high, lying crumpled in frozen snow.
A flyer, aye, much rimed, emaciated and seemingly dead. Seemingly. But no one knew better than Shaithis of the Wamphyri how hard it was actually to kill such a creature. Like the vampire Lords who made them, they were created to endure. He sent a telepathic message to the brain of the great diamond-shaped blanket of a thing, all of fifty feet across its wingtips, that it should stir itself, rise up. It did no such thing, which hardly surprised him: their small brains were rarely attuned to any mind other than their master's. But he might have expected a small twitch of curiosity at least, if only for the fact that some strange Wamphyri Lord had issued the beast an instruction, however invalid. There had been no such twitch, wherefore its brain must be dead. Likewise, of course, the great envelope of flesh which enclosed it.
Then, clambering over the cold humped ridge of its central body to the base of its neck at the forward junction of wings, Shaithis spied its saddle and trappings, and recognized the familiar blazon of its maker/master tooled into the leather: a face in caricature, grotesque and distorted from its weight of mighty wens and warts! And then Shaithis smiled his sardonic smile and nodded. The flyer had been the Lord Pinescu's creature.
Volse Pinescu: that most ugly of all the Wamphyri, whose habit it had been to foster running sores and festoons of boils all over his face and body, in order that his aspect would be that much more terrifying. So Volse was here, eh? Shaithis was somewhat surprised, for he had seen the Lords Pinescu and Fess Ferenc crash their crippled flyers in clouds of dust on Starside's plain of boulders after the battle at The Dweller's garden, and he'd thought that must be the end of them. Either that or they'd have to travel north on foot. In Volse's case... obviously he'd been wrong. Patently the wily old devil had kept a flyer in reserve, just in case.
And what of 'the Ferenc', as that one liked to be known? Could he also be here? Fess Ferenc, aye: one man, or monster, of which to be exceedingly wary. Standing at a hundred inches tall, the Ferenc would have dwarfed even the great she-bears which Shaithis had killed for meat. And he alone of all the Wamphyri carried no gauntlet: no need, for his hands were murderous talons! Well, well! Things might yet prove interesting in these terrible Icelands...
Shaithis sat in Volse's saddle and chewed on bear-heart, and he called to his flyer: Come, eat.
As his creature arrived and settled to the ice, Shaithis got down and strode the circumference of the dead beast's body, and so discovered a great hole eaten into its side, where blood vessels as fat as his thumb had been sliced through and sucked upon, then tied off with knots. At which he rightly guessed that Volse Pinescu had survived his stricken mount. Which begged the question, where was Volse now?
Shaithis extended his vampire awareness, sent out a sweeping telepathic probe. Not to speak to anyone but to listen for someone. He heard nothing. Or perhaps the echo of a mind's or minds' shutters swiftly slammed shut? If Volse and Fess were here, they weren't speaking. And again Shaithis smiled his sardonic smile. No one applauds a loser. It would be different if he had won the battle for The Dweller's garden. But of course it would; for if he'd won, then he wouldn't be here.
While his flyer feasted, Shaithis looked up at the ice-castle. The cold, glittering sculpture was mainly Nature's work. But not all of it. The rims of crude steps in the ice had been rounded by time, but upon a time they had been cut. They led up to an arched entrance under a facade of mighty icicles. Inside, the core was of stone, dark and uninviting.
Shaithis climbed the steps, entered the ice-castle, was aware of crusted rime crunching under his feet where at first he strode then crept through a mazy ice labyrinth. For as he went so he became aware that there was something dreadful here, or that something dreadful had happened here, and for the first time since The Dweller he felt himself in awe of the Unknown.
The place echoed and moaned. The echoes were mainly his, but changed by the cavities and convolutions of the ice-castle into dull bass grindings and slidings like floes crushing together in a heaving sea, or great ice-doors rumbling shut. And the moaning was the freezing wind echoing in the spires of the place, distorted and amplified by the ice into the agonies of dying monsters.
'Unless he were acclimatized,' (Shaithis spoke to himself in a whisper, for company if for nothing else), 'I cannot see how a man, even a vampire, might live here. Oh, he could, for a while, possibly through a span of a hundred sunups - except here it is always sundown - but finally the cold would get him. Yes, and I can see how that would be.
'The aching cold creeping into his bones, until eventually even Wamphyri flesh would freeze. His heart, beating ever more slowly, pumping thickening ice-crystal blood through shivering veins and arteries. At last he would stiffen and lose all mobility, and the ice wax upon him, until finally he sat upon an ice-throne within a glassy stalactite, thinking slow, frozen thoughts from the core of his ice-brain!
'Being Wamphyri - if he were Wamphyri - he would not die. At least, not until the ice shifted and sheared him, or ground him away. But what would that be for life? My ancestors disposed of their enemies in three ways. Those whom they scorned they buried undead, to become fossils in their graves. Those who worked mischief against them they banished to the Icelands. And those whom they feared were driven into the sphere Gate on Starside. Who can say which penalty was the most severe? To go to hell, to turn to ice, or to stiffen into a stone? I for one would not care to be a block of ice!'
These thoughts, breathed aloud, were carried away as whispers, amplified and thrown back as gales of sound. It was like whispering in some echoing cavern or grotto, except that these caves of ice were that much more resonant. In the high vaulted ceilings, icicles tinkled, then shivered into shards and came crashing down. Some were quite large, so that Shaithis must leap aside.
At that and when things had quietened a little, he decided to vacate the place - at which precise moment there sounded in his telepathic mind a far, faint quavery voice:
Is it you, Shaitan, come after all this time to discover and devour me? Then you should know that I welcome it! I'm here, up here. Come, get it over with. The cold centuries have chilled even my once-fierce Wamphyri passions. So come, make haste, and snuff this last low-flickering flame!