Necroscope III: The Source
Thrown down, Jazz at once scrambled toward his gun, and no one made the least effort to stop him. The reason was simple: Shaithis and his two were moving back toward their mounts, scuttling like upright cockroaches where they threaded their way through scattered rocks and boulders, always seeking shade and refuge from the fatal, blazing light. And where and whenever that light fell upon them, then they screamed aloud as if scalded, covering their heads in their near-blind, blundering panic flight.
But one of them, Gustan, still carried Zek, who writhed like a snake in his grasp, beating at his head with her tiny hands. Gustan was Jazz's first target.
He snatched up his SMG from the hard ground, tilted its barrel downward and shook it. A few tiny pebbles and a trickle of dust fell from the barrel and Jazz prayed there was nothing bigger lodged in there. Then he was down on one knee, seeking out Gustan's fleeting, double-silhouette, finding it and aiming, and at last squeezing the trigger. The gun responded with a chattering diatribe of loud, lead obscenities, all hurled at Gustan's lower legs. Shaithis's lieutenant went down as if pole-axed, raising a cloud of dust where he screamed and flopped in the shadows of a low pile of rocks, and in the next moment Zek came scrambling free of him.
Jazz couldn't fire again for fear of hitting her. 'Keep to one side!' he hoarsely yelled. 'Give me a clear line of fire!' She heard him, threw herself to one side. A target at once presented itself, moving frantically in a sweeping beam of light. Jazz fixed the vampire in the sights of his mind even as the light swept on, and again he fired. Screams and curses came echoing back. Jazz hoped it was Shaithis himself he'd hit but doubted it: the silhouette hadn't had his bulk. On the other hand, he could still feel the bruises on his face where Shaithis's second man had picked him up. That one would do nicely, thank you. The thing these creatures would have to learn was this: don't mess with magicians from the hell-lands!
Zek came creeping from the shadows at the base of the cliffs. 'It's me!' she cried as he jerked his body in her direction. 'Don't shoot!' Wolf had met her half-way, was whining and prancing about her like a great puppy.
'Get behind me,' Jazz warned, waving the girl and the wolf aside. 'Get me another magazine from my packs, quick!'
The searchlight beams from the high wall of cliffs to the south (that's what they were like, Jazz thought: powerful spotlights, seeking out the enemy) continued to play, lancing down and throwing discs of reflected sunlight onto the canyon floor. Reflected, yes, Jazz nodded to himself, from mirrors. And thank God for whoever's aiming them! And now a pair of beams converged on Shaithis himself where the Wamphyri Lord had almost reached the flank of the nearest flyer.
It was the opportunity Jazz had waited for. He could have taken Zek by the hand and fled south with her, but he'd hoped for a shot at Shaithis. Now his target sprang to the side of his mount and twin beams of light followed him. Beating at the brilliant beams where they fell on him, almost as if he beat at flames, but obviously with no effect whatever, Shaithis leaped to catch his beast's harness and draw himself up into the ornate saddle. And that was where Jazz caught him. He'd held about a third of his magazine in reserve, maybe a dozen rounds, just for this.
He opened up, aiming carefully and squeezing off single shots, praying that at least one would find its target. Shaithis, in the act of climbing into the saddle, suddenly jerked and fell back, but still clung to the harness. Jazz cursed the inaccuracy of his short-range weapon, took still more careful aim. His next shot must have missed Shaithis but hit the flyer in a delicate spot, for the great beast threw back its head and gave a weird cry, then commenced lashing its tail frenziedly. A moment more of this before a nest of hideous worms seemed to uncoil from the creature's belly, thrusting its bulk aloft. And still Shaithis clung there, even managing to haul himself safely into the saddle!
By then the other flyers were airborne, too, and Jazz was astonished to see that they both had riders! Gustan at least should be crippled - or should he? For now Jazz remembered Encounter Five. Bullets hadn't stopped him, either; they'd merely inconvenienced him. Likewise, apparently, with Shaithis and his lieutenants.
Zek came from behind, slapped a fresh magazine into Jazz's waiting hand. He loaded up, looked for his targets; glanced skyward at the wide ribbon of stars riding high over the rearing walls of the pass - and found all three 'targets' sweeping down on him!
'Jazz, get down! Oh, get down!' Zek was screaming. She and Wolf went scrambling on their bellies into a tangle of jagged rocks, but Jazz saw that the aerial beasts would be upon him before he could follow suit. He couldn't dodge them, but he might be able to turn them aside.
Again he went to one knee, and with the three flying creatures and their riders swooping upon him from only thirty metres away, he opened fire in a steady, sleeting arc of lead. Shaithis was in the centre, and that was where Jazz concentrated his fire. He laced the three creatures, and attempted to lace their riders, left to right and then back again to Shaithis. How he could miss at this range - if he missed - was beyond his understanding; but when the beasts and their Wamphyri masters were almost on top of him he began to believe he had in fact missed. Until the last moment.
For as the firing-pin on Jazz's weapon slammed home on thin air and the gun fell silent, and even as he made to hurl himself flat behind the nearest boulder, then at last he saw the effect of his fire. The three beasts were bleeding dark red ichor from rows of black holes in the forward parts of their bodies, and their riders rocked to and fro in their saddles, apparently holding themselves upright by willpower alone!
Then- A great lip of flesh opened in the belly of Shaithis's mount as it swooped on Jazz, a trapdoor gash whose scalloped lower rim scraped across the top of the boulder shielding him and gouged at the dry, pebbly earth behind him. For a moment all was darkness and he smelled the powerful animal stench of the thing, but then its shadow lifted from him. By then, too, the unknown wielders of mirror-weapons had found their targets again and the flying beasts were bathed in lancing beams of searing light. And the light did actually sear them; for wherever the rays struck them, clouds of loathsome evaporation billowed outwards from the shrinking flesh of the beasts, like water boiling on dry-ice in the rarefied air of high altitudes.
That was the end of it. Reeling in their saddles, the Wamphyri admitted defeat, dragged their bellowing, straining mounts sky ward, wheeled in great arcs and went racing northward to the darkness and the shadows. When the pulsating throb of their leathery wings had faded into distance there was only the silence, and the pounding of Jazz's heart in his chest.
'Zek?' he called out breathlessly in a little while. 'Are you OK?'
She came out of hiding, nervously dusting herself down in a spotlight beam of bright light where it found the three, man, woman and wolf, and held steady on them. 'I'm all right,' she said, but her voice was very trembly. Jazz put his gun down and reached for her where she stumbled into his arms. He held her loosely at first, then fiercely, as much for his own comfort as for hers. The encounter with the Wamphyri had shaken him badly. This was his natural reaction to it. So he told himself, anyway.
Zek clung to him briefly, then freed herself and shielded her eyes against the light playing on them from the western heights of the pass. 'We're in full view,' she said.
Wasting no time, Jazz went to his packs, found another loaded magazine for his gun. He fitted it to his SMG, then seated himself and broke open small cardboard boxes of ammunition to start re-loading the empty magazines. This was his training surfacing. While he worked, he asked: 'I take it we've been rescued - by friends?'
As if in answer, there came a shout which echoed down to them from the heights: 'Zekintha - is it you? Is all well?' The voice was anxious, taut as the skin on a drumhead.
'Lardis Lidesci!' she breathed. And to Jazz, 'Yes, we've been rescued. I've nothing to fear from Lardis - except Lardis himself! He fancies me a little, that's all. But you can be sure he's a good man.' Then she cupped her hands to her mouth and called back: 'Lardis, we're all right!'
'Come back along the pass,' his voice came echoing again in a moment. 'You're not safe there.'
'He's telling us!' Jazz grunted. He finished loading up his packs, said, 'Help me on with this kit.'
As they began to make their way south again, they could see several mirrors glinting on the western wall, where the setting sun still turned the crags to the colour of molten gold. The glittering flashes of light were descending, and every so often tiny human figures were glimpsed silhouetted against the sky. From the bed of the pass ahead came the distant jingle of Gypsy movements, and at last the panting of runners where they converged on Jazz, Zek and Wolf. Fleeting shadows became the outlines of men in Traveller garb, their faces anxious. Not men of Arlek's party but faces which were new to Jazz. Zek knew them, however; she breathed her relief and said, 'Oh, yes - we're safe enough now.'
Oh? thought Jazz. And am I safe, too? What will your Lardis Lidesci think of me, I wonder?
From a distance of a mile and more to the south, shrill screams came echoing - cut off as they reached a crescendo of terror. Then silence reigned and distant flames leaped up, burning orange and yellow.
Tiredly pacing it out beside Zek - with Lardis's runners on the flanks urging them to greater speed, and Wolf loping in the shadows - Jazz said: 'Now what do you reckon all that was about?'
Zek's face was very pale. 'I would guess Lardis has dealt with Arlek,' she quietly answered. 'Dealt with him?'
She nodded. 'Arlek was ambitious. That's no crime in itself, but he was also a traitor - and a coward! He sought to make deals with the Wamphyri, at the expense of others - at their total expense. Lardis has warned him before, on several occasions. Now he won't have to warn him again.'
'You mean he's killed him,' Jazz nodded. 'Pretty rough justice around here.' 'It's a rough world around here,' she said.
Arlek's screams lingered in Jazz's mind. 'How would Lardis have done it?'
Zek looked away. The punishment would fit the crime,' she finally answered. 'I think that maybe Arlek died the death of a vampire: a stake through the heart, beheaded, burned.'
'Oh?' Jazz took that in, nodded again. 'You mean just to be absolutely sure, right?'
Her answer contained no trace of humour. 'That's right,' she said, 'to be absolutely sure. Vampires are hard things to kill, Jazz.'
He shook his head, thought: God, you're a cool one!
'No, I'm not,' she clasped his hand tightly - very tightly - in her own. 'It's just that I've been here longer than you, that's all...'
Lardis Lidesci wasn't what Jazz had expected. He was maybe five-eight tall, long-haired, gangling in the arms as Jazz himself but built like a rhino as opposed to Jazz's cat. He was young, too - younger by three or four years than Jazz - and, in sharp contrast to his squat shape, he seemed surprisingly agile. This agility of Lardis's wasn't only physical; his intelligence was patent in every brown wrinkle of his face, which was expressive and had more than its share of laughter-lines. Open and frank, Lardis's round face framed in dark, flowing hair had slanted, bushy eyebrows, a flattened nose, and a wide mouth full of strong if uneven teeth. His brown eyes held nothing of malice; indeed, they were usually smiling, but they could also turn very thoughtful. On the Earth Jazz and Zek had left behind he'd have made a professional wrestler; certainly he looked like one. Among his people here in this vampire-ruled environment beyond the Gate he was a natural leader, and the great majority of his five-hundred-strong 'tribe' rallied behind him all the way. Arlek had been a rare exception which proved the value of Lardis's rule, and Arlek was no more.
Since taking on the job of leader from his father five years ago when the elder Lidesci had grown crippled with some arthritic disease, Lardis had succeeded in keeping his Travellers free and secure from the ever-present Wamphyri threat; so that the tribe had grown and expanded, absorbing other smaller Gypsy groups into itself. Not nearly as large or strong as many of the eastern tribes, still Lardis's people had a record for safety which was the envy of all the Travellers: namely that since he became leader, the Wamphyri had not once ravaged successfully amongst them. There were several reasons for this.
One of these stemmed from that fundamental difference between Lardis and Arlek, which was so strong that it had now resulted in the latter's permanent removal. Lardis did not believe that the Wamphyri were the natural Lords and Masters of this sphere, or that the time must come when a devastating raid would decimate his tribe. He would not give in to the Wamphyri, would not placate them in any way. Other Traveller tribes had tried this in the past, were trying it even now, and it had never worked. Gorgan Lidesci, Lardis's father, still talked of the fate of his first tribe, when he himself had been a mere boy.
In those days, for a time, there had been a measure of peace among the Wamphyri; this had enabled the vampire Lords to consolidate their forces and commence raiding far more effectively and in overwhelming numbers. Gor-gan's tribe, a large one and governed by a Council of Elders, had attempted to make a deal with the Wamphyri, to come to a mutually satisfactory 'arrangement' with them. Before each sundown a raiding party would go out from Gorgan's people to make captives of men and women of lesser Traveller groups. Since such minor groups might be as small as two- or three-family units, ranging up to the strength of small tribes of perhaps forty adults, and since they were scattered all along the Sunside flank of the mountains, there was little difficulty in obtaining, before each sundown, a 'tithe' of about a hundred people. These were kept imprisoned through the long nights, so that in the event of a Wamphyri raid they could be offered in appeasement. The belief among the elderly leaders of Gorgan's tribe was simply this: that so long as the Wamphyri could find ready-made tribute, they would not have need to glut themselves on the tithe-paying people of the tribe: they would not bite, as it were, the hands that fed them.
For some years and through many nights this scenario held true. There were times when the Wamphyri came and others when they failed to find Gorgan's tribe (for the Travellers were never sedentary but constantly on the move, a restlessness bred into them through hundreds of years of Wamphyri rapaciousness), on which fortunate occasions at sunup the prisoners would be set free to fend for and feed themselves, and continue their lives as of old or until the next time they were taken prisoner, perhaps before the next sundown.
And when the Wamphyri did come, why, then there were offerings to be made, and the Wamphyri Lords, their warriors and undead soldiers would collect their tithe of one hundred Travellers and depart. In short, the Wamphyri became like tax-collectors; and true to the scenario, they did no harm to those who paid this regular human tribute.
With the result that the people of Gorgan's tribe grew weak, fat and increasingly careless. They lost their urge to travel and so avoid Wamphyri incursions; they used regular routes, watering-holes and harbouring areas, and their treks along the Sunside flank of the mountains fell into ever more foreseeable patterns; contrary to the very nature of Travellers, there was no longer any mystery to their movements. In short, they no longer bothered to hide themselves and thus were easily found. Now there were far fewer nights of peace and rest, when more and more often the Wamphyri would come and carry off their human tribute; but what did that matter? The tribe itself was safe, wasn't it?
Safe, yes - until the brief alliance of a handful of Wamphyri Lords had fallen apart, until they had quarrelled and split up, and each faction of the former alliance determined to build up its individual forces, refill its storehouses, define once more its old territorial boundaries and become strong again in the former Wamphyri traditions! For when armies build for war - and in the case of the Wamphyri not against a mutual enemy but internecine, each vampire Lord against his neighbours -then they take and use whatever resources are available, with never a thought for conservation. And the natural resources of the Wamphyri had ever been the flesh and blood of Travellers!
In a single night of terror and madness - one sundown, the space of time between the sun's setting and its rising again, a matter of only forty hours - Gorgan's tribe was decimated! The Wamphyri had come, first Shaithis to demand the usual tribute, which he took; then Lesk the Glut; finally Lascula Longtooth. More might have come, Belath and Volse and the others, except that by then there was nothing left to take; or if they did come, then the survivors of Gorgan's tribe were no longer in their customary holes waiting for them. For after Shaithis, when the Lords Lesk and Lascula found no tribute, they had simply killed the Council of Elders out of hand and proceeded to herd off the flower of the tribe itself! At which the handful of survivors, maybe fifty old ones and a hundred children, had fled for whichever sanctuaries they could discover. And not many of those in a land where the people of Gorgan's tribe were universally loathed! From which time forward the tribe had been no more, and the youth Gorgan had vowed never to put his faith in any 'deals' with the treacherous Wamphyri. Lardis, in his turn, was of the same mind: let other tribal leaders do what they would, go their own ways and good luck to them, his people would never submit to the Wamphyri, nor would they prey on brother and sister Travellers for dubious personal benefits and the well-being of vile, inhuman Starside overloads. As to how Lardis's convictions worked in his favour: There were still tribes who operated one tithe system or another, using either captive Travellers stolen from other groups to placate the Wamphyri, or even drawing lots and sacrificing members of their own nomad communities. Such Travellers who had adopted or accepted this servile existence were generally of large eastern-flank tribes numbering more than a thousand strong. Their size protected them from any retaliatory attacks which previous victims might possibly dream up, and or allowed them to make the required periodic sacrificial cull without appreciably diminishing the strength of the tribe.
They dwelled east of the pass because the game was more plentiful there and survival, in one sense, that much easier. Lardis knew this and kept his people west of the pass; it was a little harder to make a living but it was also that much safer. When it was sunup he kept lookouts in the southern extremes of the pass, to warn of Travellers moving west and supply intelligence reports of their strengths, persuasions, and any possible dangers to his own people springing from their presence or route of passage.
Lardis did not as a matter of course make war on Travellers who kowtowed to the Wamphyri but preferred to keep out of their way. In the event that they should war on him, however, he was always ready. His men -even many of his younger women - were well-trained, formidable fighters; they were skilled in ambush, entrapment, hand-to-hand combat, and in the use of all manner of weaponry. On the few occasions when outsiders had attempted to raid on him, then they'd been severely chastised; so that in the five years of his leadership the legend had spread abroad that he was not a man to fool with. He would accept small groups into the tribe for its own good, but would not amalgamate with larger bodies. His motto was this: to be medium-sized is to be safe. Not large enough to stir too much Wamphyri interest, mobile enough to confuse them, and just a trifle too vicious to tempt raiding parties from Wamphyri-supplicants. Up until now, at least, these integers had made for a remarkably effective equation.
But Lardis's scepticism (if not scorn) with regard to Wamphyri superiority, and his disgust at the mere thought of appeasement, were not the only reasons for his success. Oh, he knew well enough the purely physical and tactical superiority of the vampire Lords - their strengths and cruelties, the awesome horror of their war-beasts, the silent, speedy efficiency of their familiar spies the great bats, and the mobility of their flying creatures - but he also knew and made use of their weaknesses.
They could only raid at night, usually in the lull before (or in the wake of) one or other of the interminable vampire wars - to supply their war effort or replenish a depleted capability as the case may be - and they invariably completed their raids with dispatch. They didn't like to spend too much time Sunside, for while they were away they could never be sure what their Starside enemies were up to; aeries were wont to become occupied while their rightful masters were raiding abroad! Lardis knew, too, that the Wamphyri rarely raided west of the pass: most of the tribes, and especially those which were Wamphyri-supplicants, dwelled east; so why should the Wamphyri waste time chasing their prey in the west when it was openly on offer in the east? For the fact of it was that for all their much-vaunted pride and arrogance, the Wamphyri tended toward laziness. If they weren't warring with each other or raiding, then they were scheming for war, indulging themselves, or asleep! That was a weakness, too. For the great part, Lardis Lidesci went without sleep. And at sundown he took his rest in the briefest snatches.
Another Wamphyri weakness was this: that while it was hard to kill them, they could and did die eventually - and Lardis knew how to do it. But there was death and there was death. At the hands of another vampire, that was thinkable; Wamphyri pride would allow, however grudgingly, for that possibility. But at the hands of some lowly Traveller? Never! Where was the glory in that! Who would record that? What sort of way was that for a life to blink out? Lardis had killed no actual Lord, but he had twice dealt with aspirants to that final level of vampire power. They had been the sons and lieutenants of Lesk the Glut, who'd thought to come against him in the hour immediately before sunup, when he'd be unwary and emerging from his cave sanctuary; except Lardis didn't know the meaning of the word 'unwary'.
Put a hardwood bolt through a vampire, behead him, burn his corpse ... he was dead. But Lardis had made an example of Lesk's lads. Staked out, the sun had found them and steamed them away slowly and with a great deal of shrieking. Aye, let other Traveller leaders balk at the difficulties involved in the slaying of vampires, but not Lardis. The Wamphyri had come to know his name, perhaps even to respect it. Being able to live for centuries, near-immortal, it was generally deemed unwise to go up against Travellers like Lardis, who could - and would, given the chance - so rapidly and cruelly shorten one's span to nothing!
Then there was the Wamphyri fear of silver, which metal was a poison to their systems, acting upon them like lead acts on men. Lardis had discovered a small mine of that rare metal in the western foothills, and now his arrows were tipped with it. Also, he smeared his weapons in the juice of the kneblasch root, whose garlic stink would bring about a partial paralysis in any vampire, causing endless vomiting and a general nervous disorder lasting for days. If a kneblasch - treated blade cut Wamphyri flesh, then the infected member must be shed and another grown in its place.
It wasn't so much that these things were secret or known only in the tribe of Lardis - indeed, all Travellers had been aware of these facts immemorially - but rather that Lardis dared use them in the defence of his people. The Wamphyri had forbidden to all Travellers the use of bronze mirrors, silver and kneblasch, on penalty of dire torture and death; but Lardis cared not a jot. He was already a marked man, and a man can die only once...
These were some of the things, then, that influenced Lardis in the way he ruled his tribe and did his best to keep them secure west of the pass through the mountains; but there was one other element beyond Lardis's control, which nevertheless figured high in his favour, confirming his commonsense measures. It was this: that somewhere in those western peaks, in a small, fertile valley, lived the one whom the Wamphyri feared and had named The-Dweller-in-His-Garden-in-the-West. The Dweller legend was the main reason Lardis had been away this time. Ostensibly he had been seeking new routes and harbour areas for the tribe (and in fact he'd discovered several) but in reality he had been trying to locate the Dweller. He'd reasoned that what was bad for the Wamphyri must be good for the tribe of Lardis the Traveller. Also, rumours had been spreading for some years now that the Dweller offered sanctuary to anyone with spit enough to dare seek him out. For Lardis himself, sanctuary wasn't the hook, though certainly it would be a wonderful thing to find a safe, permanent home for the tribe; but if the Dweller had power to defy the Wamphyri... that in itself were sufficient reason to seek him out. Lardis would learn from him and with his new knowledge carry the fight right back to the very keeps of his vampire enemies.
He had sought for him - and found him!
Now he was back from that quest, and back barely in time to save the hell-lander woman Zekintha from Arlek's treachery; Zekintha... and the newcomer, whose fighting skills Arlek's dupes had mentioned in something approaching awe. On a one-to-one basis and without the intervention of his followers, Arlek hadn't stood a chance against Jazz. Well, if there was one thing Lardis Lidesci liked, it was a good fair fighter. Or even a good dirty one!
Lardis saw them coming across the canyon's floor, stepped forward to meet them. He clasped Zek in his great arms, kissed her right ear. 'Tear down the mountains!' he greeted her. And: 'I'm glad you're safe, Zekintha.'
'Only just,' she answered, breathlessly. 'All credit to this one,' and she nodded at Jazz.
Weary now, and climbing out of his gear as if he unhitched an anchor, Jazz returned her nod, then looked all about in the canyon's hushed twilight. Men and wolves moved here and there in the shadows of the cliffs, their jingling and low talk seeming very normal and pleasant to Jazz's ears. But central in a jumble of boulders which lay towards the western wall burned a great fire, emitting roiling black smoke which climbed into a near-perpendicular column in the still air. Arlek's funeral pyre, he supposed.
Some hundred or more yards to the south, the pass turned a little eastward and there commenced a steady descent toward the unseen foothills of Sunside. The rays of the slowly declining sun, blazing full through that last stretch of pass, beat on the western wall of the canyon and lit its crags and outcrops. Coming down from those heights, agile as goats, a half-dozen male Travellers bore mirrors like shields in their capable hands, always directing the sun's beams into those gloomy deeps of the gorge which lay to the north. Jazz frowned as the first of the mirror-bearers came closer. The man's great oval mirror was of glass, surely? Did the Travellers have that sort of technology at their disposal?
Lardis watched Jazz strip down to his combat suit, then approached him smilingly with outstretched right hand. Jazz tried to take his hand, found himself clasping his forearm instead; Lardis likewise clasped his. It was a Traveller greeting. 'A hell-lander,' Lardis nodded. 'How are you called?'
'Michael Simmons,' Jazz answered. 'Jazz to my friends.'
Again Lardis's nod. 'Then I'll call you Jazz - for now. But I need time to make up my mind about you. I've heard rumours about hell-landers like yourself; some take sides with the Wamphyri, working for them as wizards.'
'As you've seen,' Jazz told him, 'I'm not one of them. And in any case, I don't think any, er, hell-lander, would side with the Wamphyri of his own free will.'
Lardis took Jazz aside, guided him toward a spot where a party of men sat forlornly on broken boulders, heads hanging low. Around them stood a guard composed of Lardis's men. The ones who were seated had been Arlek's followers; Jazz recognized several faces. As Jazz and Lardis approached, the captives hung their heads lower still. Lardis scowled at them, said: 'Arlek would have given you to the Wamphyri Lord Shaithis. But he was a great coward, and he coveted the leadership of the tribe. You've seen the fire burning there?'
Jazz nodded. 'Zek told me what you'd do,' he said.
'Zek?' Lardis's smile faded a little. 'Did you know her before? Did you come to seek her out and take her back?'
'I came because I had no choice,' Jazz answered, 'not because of Zek. I had heard something of her; we'd never met, not until now. Back in our own world, our people are... not friends.'
'But here you're both hell-landers, strangers in a strange world. It draws you together.' Lardis's assessment was fairly accurate.
Jazz shrugged. 'I suppose it does.' He looked straight into Lardis's face. 'Will you make Zek an issue?'
Lardis's expression didn't change. 'No,' he said. 'She's a free woman. I have no time for small things. The tribe is my main concern. I have had thoughts about Zekintha, but ... she would be too much of a distraction. Anyway, I fancy she'd rather be friend and adviser than wife. Also, she's a hell-lander. A man shouldn't get too close to something he doesn't understand.'
Jazz smiled. 'The place you call the hell-lands is very large, with many people of diverse cultures. It's a strange place, but hardly the hell you seem to imagine it to be.'
Lardis raised his eyebrows, thought about what Jazz had said. 'Zekintha says much the same thing,' he said. 'She's told me a great deal about it: weapons greater than all the Wamphyri war-beasts put together; a continent of black people dying in their thousands, of disease and starvation; wars in every corner of your world, men against men; machines that think and run and fly, all filled with fire and smoke and a terrible roaring. It sounds close enough to hell to me!'
Jazz laughed out loud. 'Put it that way and you could be right!' he said. He had kept his SMG, whose strap he now adjusted where it crossed his shoulder. Lardis glanced at the weapon, said:
'Your... gun? The same as Zekintha's. I saw her kill a bear with it. The bear had more holes than a fishing net! Now it is broken, but she still carries it.'
'It can be repaired,' Jazz told him. 'I'll do it as soon as I have the time. But your people understand metal. It surprises me no one has tried to fix it.'
'Because they're afraid of it,' Lardis admitted. 'Me too! They're noisy things, these guns...'
Jazz nodded his agreement. 'But noise doesn't kill the Wamphyri,' he said.
Lardis grasped upon that, became excited as a child. 'I heard the chattering of it, echoing up the pass! Did you really strike at Shaithis?'
'At close range, too.' Jazz smiled wryly, ' - for all the good it did! I put a good many holes in their flyers, and a few in them, too, I think - but it didn't stop them.'
'Better than nothing!' Lardis slapped his shoulder. 'Their wounds will take time to heal. Give the vampires in them something to do. Keep them out of mischief a while!' Then he grew thoughtful again. 'These men,' he scowled at the seated group of unfortunates, 'were Arlek's followers. If they'd had their way you'd be vampire-fodder by now. With your gun, you could kill them all as easy as that!' He snapped his fingers.
Zek had followed on behind; she heard what Lardis said and her eyes went very wide. The men Lardis had been speaking about had also heard him (he'd ensured that they had); they straightened up where they sat, their faces suddenly gaunt and full of apprehension.
Jazz looked at them, remembered how a few of them had seemed ill at ease with some of Arlek's ideas and actions. 'Arlek made fools of them,' he answered Lardis. 'Great fools. And you weren't here to set it right. He was a coward, as you've said; he needed others to lend his opinions strength. These are the ones who were foolish enough to listen to him. Obviously they wish they hadn't. But you punish traitors, not fools.'
Lardis glanced at Zek, grinned. 'It might have been me speaking,' he said; and she relaxed and took a deep breath. 'On the other hand,' Lardis continued, 'one of these men struck you from behind. Don't you feel any anger toward that one?'
Jazz touched the tender bump behind his ear. 'Some,' he admitted. 'But not enough to want to kill him. I could teach him a lesson, perhaps?' He wondered what Lardis was after. Obviously he'd heard how Jazz had dispatched Arlek. Maybe he wanted to see his fighting skills at first hand. It would be a bonus for the tribe to have a man who could teach them or at least introduce superior fighting skills.
'You want to teach him a lesson?' Lardis grinned. Jazz had guessed right. Now Lardis walked among the seated men, pushing them left and right off their boulder seats, roughly away from him as he poured his silent scorn on them. 'Which one of you struck him?' he demanded.
A young man, muscular, nervous-looking, slowly stood up. Lardis pointed to an area of flat ground fairly clear of rocks. 'Over there,' he growled.
'Wait!' Jazz came forward. 'Let's at least make it a match. He doesn't stand a chance on his own. Does he have a friend? A close friend?'
Lardis raised his expressive eyebrows, shrugged. He scowled at the youth. 'Well, do you? Unlikely, I should think.'
Another young man, burlier, craggier, less apprehensive, got to his feet. As he joined the first on the open ground, Jazz thought: I deal with you first! Out loud he said: 'That should do it.' He made sure his SMG was on safe and handed it to Lardis - who accepted it gingerly and held it awkwardly.
Jazz approached his two opponents. 'Whenever you're ready,' he said casually. 'Unless you haven't the guts for it, in which case you can get down on your knees and kiss my boots!' The last was a deliberate ploy - to goad them into speedy action, cause them to lose their self-control.
Which it did!
They looked at each other, their chests filled out, and they charged like young bulls. And almost as wildly.
Jazz had determined to put on a show for Lardis. He avoided the rush of the man who'd clubbed him, delivered a slicing rabbit punch to his neck as he flew past. Not sufficient to put him out of the fight - not yet - but just hard enough to send him dazed and sprawling to the hard ground. The second man, sturdier and a shade more wary, swerved his body and threw himself into a dive, rolling to knock Jazz's feet out from under him. The plan failed as Jazz leaped high, avoiding his tumbling body, then stepped in close as the clever one sprang to his feet. He offered a feint, telegraphing a blow to his opponent's face. The other saw it coming, snatched the top half of his body back out of harm's way - which left his lower half not only exposed but proffered. Jazz kicked him smartly in the groin; but again, not hard enough to cripple him, sufficient only to make him curl up and drop like a stone.
The first one, groggy but game, was back on his feet. He'd picked up a jagged rock, now commenced circling Jazz while looking for an opening. Jazz was long-legged and knew that in certain circumstances the reach of his legs was greater than that of his arms - and in any case, this was no boxing match. He half-turned from the man with the rock, who at once stepped forward. But as Jazz turned away, so he bent his body sharply forward and downward from the waist, lifting and lashing out with his right foot. The move was so fast and so alien to any of the other's previous fighting experience that he seemed hardly aware of its offensive character at all! But suddenly his arm was numb and the rock had been kicked from his grasp. Still in fluid motion, Jazz straightened up, continued his turn through its natural circle, and sliced the other stiff-fingered across the Adam's apple. And again he pulled his punch.
Then he fell into a defensive crouch, looking to see what damage he'd done. And finally he relaxed, straightened up, stepped back and folded his arms.
Both opponents were on the ground, one clutching his groin and groaning, rocking himself to and fro, and the other choking, sucking at the air, massaging his throat. They'd recover soon enough, but it would be a long time before they'd forget.
For a moment there was a stunned silence, then Lardis began clapping his hands in spontaneous applause. Many of the men with him followed suit, but not Arlek's ex-gang. They sat very quietly, looking anywhere except at Jazz. To them he offered: 'Well, is there anyone else would like to try me?' But there were no takers.
'I leave their punishment to you, Jazz,' Lardis shouted. 'What shall be done with them?'
'You've shamed them enough,' Jazz answered. 'Arlek had his warnings, which he failed to heed. He's paid for that. Now these men have been warned. If it's my choice, then I say leave it at that.'
'Good!' Lardis barked his agreement.
Men at once stepped forward to help their two fallen colleagues to their feet. One of them was a mirror-bearer; he carefully laid his mirror down as he stooped to assist the man with the bruised throat. Jazz glanced at the large oval mirror where it lay face-down, then looked again - then pounced on it.' What?' he gasped. 'What in all the - ?'
Zek had been moving toward him. Now she came flying. 'Jazz, what is it?'
'Lardis,' he called out, ignoring her for the moment. 'Lardis, where did you get these mirrors?' And suddenly, quite out of character, his voice had a breathless, unbelieving quality.
Lardis came over. He was grinning ear to ear. 'My new weapons!' he answered, with something of pride. 'I went to seek out the Dweller - and found him! As a sign of our friendship, he gave me these. Fortunate for you that he did...'
Jazz picked up the mirror, stared incredulously at its backing. 'Fortunate indeed!' he finally got the words out. 'Maybe in more ways than you know.' He licked his lips, looked at Zek for her confirmation that his eyes weren't playing games with him.
She looked at what he held in his suddenly trembling hands and her jaw dropped. 'My God!' she said, very faintly.
For the mirror was unmistakably backed with chipboard, to which some Traveller had attached leather straps. What was more, it bore a manufacturer's label, carrying the embossed legend:
MADE IN THE DDR.
KURT GEMMLER UND SOHN,