Necroscope III: The Source
The End of Zek's Story - Trouble at
Sanctuary Rock - Events at Perchorsk
By now the dome of the sanctuary rock had risen up to a towering two hundred feet or more. It was a light, patchy ochre - an enormous sandstone pebble lying on its side -protruding from a hillside that rose through pines, oaks, bramble and blackthorn. Above, the belt of trees was narrow, dark now, rising steeply to cliffs and mountainside; below, the forest spread downward into a thin rising mist, levelled out where the foothills met the plain, disappeared in milky distance. A faint light came from the south, like a false dawn. It wasn't dawn, however, but sundown.
Looking up at the rock as they followed flowing contours to its flank, Jazz asked Zek: 'Have you been here before?'
'No, but I've been told about it,' she answered. 'It's wormy as some vast blue cheese, left forgotten on a shelf. There are tunnels and caves right through it, enough room for Lardis's entire tribe and twice as many Travellers again. You could hide a small army in there!' They paused fifty yards from the boulder's base where the hillside fell away and a great cave opened, watched the stream of Travellers entering, taking travois, caravans, wolves and all with them. In a little while orange lights became flickeringly visible (and were quickly hooded) in 'window' holes higher up, where lamps or torches were lighted; and still Jazz and Zek stood there in the gathering gloom.
Lardis came looking for them, said: 'Give them a little longer to settle in and choose their places, then I'll meet you in there - ' he pointed, ' - just inside the main entrance, which we call the hall. But if you like your air fresh, best get your share of it now. It gets smoky later. By the time you see sunup again, you'll be ready to barter your eyes for one good deep breath of clean mountain air!' He took up the handles of Jazz's travois. 'Here, I'll take this the rest of the way.'
'Wait!' said Jazz. He dipped into an easily accessible bundle, came out with two full magazines for his gun. 'Just in case,' he said.
Lardis made no comment, went off toward the cavern entrance where now moving lights flickered here and there.
'Lardis is right,' Zek said. They'll take some time to get themselves settled in and the place fortified. Let's climb up, behind the rock. We might still be able to see the rim of the sun from up there. I don't like it when the sun goes down.'
'Are you sure you're not just putting something off?' Jazz answered. 'Zek, I'll not hold you to any promises. I mean, I know you're right: this isn't our world, and so we're drawn together.'
She linked arms with him. 'Actually,' she tossed back her hair, 'I think I'd be drawn to you in any world. No, it's just a feeling, that's all. Those caves look totally uninviting to me. See, even Wolf would prefer to stay out here with us.'
The great wolf padded along behind them where they climbed through trees along the steeply sloping base of the rock. For fifteen minutes they climbed, until Jazz said: 'Far enough, I think. It'll take us just as long to get down again. This rock's bigger than it looks. Come sunup, then maybe we'll climb it to the top.'
They found a ledge in the rock and sat there close together, Jazz with his arm around her. She leaned back against the coarse sandstone and toward him, sighed tiredly. 'Why do they call you Jazz?'
'Because my middle name is Jason,' he said. 'And I hate it! Don't make any cracks about the golden fleece, for God's sake!'
'Jason is a hero of my homeland,' she told him. 'I wouldn't joke about him.'
Wolf whined a little where he sat at their feet looking up at them. Zek snuggled closer.
Conscious of her warmth, and of her shape against him, Jazz said: 'Zek, finish your story.' It sounded abrupt, but he knew it wouldn't do to get caught up in something he couldn't control. Not now, up here with night settling fast.
'What?' she said, her tone surprised. Then... perhaps she sensed, or read, his thoughts. 'Oh, that! It was almost finished anyway. But... where was I?'
A little angry with himself, angry with everything, Jazz reminded her...
'I'll make it short,' Zek said, her voice a little cooler now. 'Then we can get on back down.
'The Wamphyri Lords were there in Karen's aerie to talk about The Dweller. But Karen had been right: it wasn't only The Dweller that concerned them. They wanted Karen's stack. Shaithis wanted me, too, for my magic - God knows for what else! The rest of the bunch would dice for Karen; the winner would put her to whatever use; afterwards ... she would be burned. They feared that her vampire was a Mother. If it was and if she should vampirize her entire aerie - give all of her lieutenants eggs, and others to freshly selected, stolen Travellers - why then, with all of her "children" in thrall to her, there'd be no stopping her! She had to go before things went that far.
'As for her aerie: Fess Ferenc, Volse Pinescu and one of the lesser Lords were of a mind to produce their own eggs. With Karen out of the way they would do so; their "progeny" would fight it out and the winner become Lord of Karen's aerie. The losers would remain in thrall to their masters until new opportunities presented themselves. Wamphyri "children" in thrall, by the way, don't have an easy time of it; there's nothing a Lord enjoys more than using his own child, male or female, for his own satisfaction. The blood of one's own kin, especially of the vampire in him, is the greatest delicacy of all! If Dramal Doombody hadn't been done for, Karen's life would have been an unending nightmare.
The deed itself - the taking of Karen and her properties - that was to come before her vampire reached full maturity and took ascendancy. Patently it was a slow developer, but the Lords knew from their history and legends that Ladies were hard to get rid of once they achieved full flower. The "female of the species", so to speak. So ... she would be invited to join with the Wamphyri Lords in their attack upon The Dweller. Her forces would be used as cannon-fodder; when the battle was over, and without pause, her depleted units would be crushed in their turn, wiped out, and Karen herself taken.
'If she refused to join in the attack on The Dweller, that would be seen as a rebuke, an insult; it would warrant a full-scale, subsequent attack on her stack. But it was hoped she would join in, for if her aerie could be taken intact, undamaged - simply walked into - so much the better.
'All of this I got in bits and pieces from the minds of Shaithis, Volse, Menor Maimbite and one or two others. I dared not stay with any mind too long, in case they should become aware of me. But Karen had been quite right: in protecting themselves against her probing, they had left themselves wide open to me. I can tell you now, Jazz, that there are many hells. And if one of them is that place we were told about as children, where if we're not careful we go for our sins, then be sure that the others are the minds of Wamphyri Lords! There's little enough to distinguish between them...
'Anyway, finally the meeting was over and Shaithis stood and made a closing speech. As best I can remember it went like this:
'"Lords, and Lady:
'"With one exception - the exception of one vote, that of our... charming hostess, who will, she assures us, give the matter her most earnest consideration - we are all agreed on a punitive expedition against The Dweller. The hour of that effort against our great and mutual enemy is still to be set, but until it is decided, all are to stand forewarned and prepared. We all have valid reasons to wish to be rid of him. Apart from the fact that he has set up house in our territory - I take it we are agreed that the mountains are ours? - very well; apart from that fact, and that he gives succor to Travellers, who are our traditional prey, some of us have more personal grievances.
'"Some hundred sundowns past, Lesk sent one of his men to parley with The Dweller. Only to parley, mind you, as we have heard from the lips of Lesk himself, most lucid of Lords. The man did not return. Angered (quite rightly), Lesk sent a warrior to test The Dweller's mettle. The Dweller contrived to trap rays of the recently sunken sun in mirrors, with which he burned Lesk's warrior to a crisp! Lesk, whose reasoning occasionally differs from that of, er, less sensitive minds, sent a second warrior -but not directly against The Dweller. For Lesk had determined that The Dweller was a hell-lander, sent here to spy on us and provoke us, perhaps preparing the way for large-scale invasion. The idea became obsessive - that is, he was convinced of its logic - especially so considering that immediately after Lesk's initial attacks upon The Dweller, the gate to the hell-lands was seen to rise up into the very mouth of its crater! Surely as preamble to the feared attack? And so he sent the second warrior directly into the hell-lands, through the gate, to let any would-be invaders see for themselves something of the might of the Wamphyri. Needless to say, the second warrior did not return. But then, no one ever has...
'"Volse Pinescu, having heard of Lesk's losses, determined a more subtle approach: he activated and armed a hundred trogs to send against The Dweller's garden. They were to sack, burn, rape any women to the death and murder any men. They were raw, these trogs, with nothing of the Wamphyri in them; which is to say that while they did not much care for the sun, still its rays would not harm them. The Dweller's vile mirrors would not avail him here! But... they, too, failed to return. Apparently they were suborned: The Dweller found caves in which to house them, placed them under his protection!
'"Grigis of Grigis, being the son of the much-fabled Grigis the Gouge, thought to enrich his struggling stack with The Dweller's wealth - perhaps even to steal his entire garden, which commands a lofty view, as we are all aware. Or maybe Grigis thought to do something more than this; for if he could gain some understanding of The Dweller's magic and his cursed machines, then his own currently - er, middling station? - his circumstances, let us say, would be that much more improved and enhanced. Indeed, with The Dweller's weapons at his command, the Lord Grigis might even lord it over all of us! But of course, we can be certain that this was not his intention. Alas, he lost three fine warriors, one hundred and fifty trogs and Travellers, two lieutenants. His stack is now inadequate to his needs. Let us be honest at least with ourselves: if not for the menace posed by The Dweller, one of us by now might well have found the resources to diminish Grigis's lot further yet...
'"My own interest is easy to explain: it is interest pure and simple. Curiosity! I desire to know who this Dweller is. Wamphyri? - a new breed born of the swamps, perhaps? If so, how came he by his knowledge of weapons, machines, foul magic? What does he there, in his garden? And why are we scorned and so rudely ignored?
"This, then, is the plan:
'"We watch The Dweller! Nothing more, simply that -for now. Covertly, in the darkness of sundown - however many sundowns are required - we watch him. How? Through the eyes of our familiar creatures. Through bats great and small. From below, in stealth, where trogs shall crouch in shadows and observe; from above, even so high as they may glide, where our flyers may relay his every move; in our very minds, with which unceasingly we will spy upon him!
"The extent of his garden, dwellers therein other than he himself, the locations of his mirrors, weapons, the numbers of his retainers - until we know as much of him as is required. And when we know all of these things and can concert our attack accordingly - "
"Then you strike?" This last from Karen. And all eyes turning her way where she sat at the head of the long table facing the bone-throne.
'Shaithis eyed her leeringly. "Then we strike, Lady, surely? Unless you've already made up your mind not to be with us?"
'But she merely smiled at him, saying: "Fear not, Lord Shaithis, for I shall be there."
'A sigh went up. All were in accord. And the Lady neatly netted. So it appeared.
Then they took their leave; Shaithis and Lascula being first away, then Lesk, Volse, Belath, Fess, Menor and all the rest, and lastly Grigis. The reverse order in which they'd arrived, leaving their least till last. And when Karen called me out of my hiding place, to attend her by a window, the sky was acrawl with them. They circled outwards, dark clouds of ill-omen in the lesser darkness, each swooping back to his own place, returning to his personal hell.
'I turned to her. "Lady, you may not go with them against The Dweller!" And I told her all I had read in their minds.
'She smiled a strange, sad, knowing smile. "But did you not hear me? I said I shall be there."
' "Be still! Why, I could swear you actually care for me! Aye, and perhaps I care for you. So make ready what weapons you desire to take with you. If you need something, ask for it. Make provision of whatever I have to offer. Now I rest me. When I awake, before sunup, then I keep my promise."
'And she did. She went with me for my safe conduct; we had a flyer each; she flew us direct over the mountains and down onto Sunside. And with the new sun rising she bade me farewell and raced her beasts home again. That was the last time I saw her. Watching her flyer out of sight, I couldn't help but feel sorry for her.
'Some time later Lardis and his Travellers found me, and now I've told you everything...'
In a little while Jazz said, There are a couple of other things I'd intended asking you. One of them was about that warrior creature which caused all the destruction at Perchorsk. Well, you've answered that - it was Lesk's creature - but there are other things. The great bat, the wolf, the thing in the tank.'
Zek shrugged. 'Maybe the bat and wolf got through accidentally. Blinded by the light, the bat flew into the sphere. Like us, it was guided one way through the gate. Similarly the wolf, which was old, nearly blind. As for the thing in the tank: it was a vampire. As coincidence would have it, it numbered among its ancestors both a wolf and a bat. In its metamorphic state, it was likely to take on characteristics of both. The slug characteristics are typical of its swamp origin. Maybe it entered the gate looking for prey. I don't know...'
Jazz blinked tired eyes, said: Too deep for me. I begin to half-understand, but then I bog down. I suppose I'm just weary. One last thing. What about the others from Perchorsk, the men who came through before you?'
'I wasn't told about them,' she grimaced. 'Khuv - the lying dog - didn't mention them! But I did learn about them from Karen. Belath took the first of them; mutated, he's now one of Belath's warriors. The other was a man called Kopeler. I used to know him.'
'Ernst Kopeler, yes,' Jazz said. 'An esper.'
Zek nodded. 'He could read the future. When he came through the gate Shaithis's familiar bats saw him. Shaithis took him, but before he could make use of him Kopeler shot himself dead. If I'd been able to read the future, maybe I'd have done the same.'
Jazz nodded his agreement, said, 'It's time we got on down. I've still got a spot of weapon-training to do. And after that ... I want you very much. That's assuming I can still manage it, of course.' He grinned - but only for a moment.
Wolf, who had been still and silent for some time, began to growl low and throatily. His ears twitched nervously, went flat to his head.
'What - ?' Zek stiffened, looked startled; and for the first time Jazz noticed how quiet it had gone, and the thickness of the mist where it rolled down from the mountains. Zek clutched at him, her eyes suddenly flown wide.
'What is it?' he husked.
'Jazz,' she whispered. 'Oh, Jazz!' She half-closed her eyes, put a slim hand to her forehead. Thoughts...' she said.
'Whose thoughts?' Gooseflesh rose on his spine, his forearms.
' Theirs .r
Panicked shouts came echoing up to them; shockingly, an explosion tore the night: one of Jazz's grenades, left with Lardis. A weird, bestial roaring commenced: a primal sound. 'What the hell - ?' Jazz lifted Zek down from their niche in the rock, turned from her to begin making the descent.
'No, Jazz!' she cried, then clapped a hand to her mouth. And: 'Oh, be quiet.,'' she whispered. More explosions followed, hideous screaming, then shouting in blunt, commanding tones. Following which all was a tumult of sounds - battle sounds, and desperate!
'They were waiting for us!' Zek hissed. 'Shaithis, his lieutenants, a warrior, hidden away in the deepest recesses of the rock. And there are other warriors out here!'
Something huge launched itself from a position higher than their own. It throbbed in the thin mist that curled over the treetops, a dark shape speeding down the sky, trailing appendages which tore through the higher branches of the trees almost directly overhead. It, too, began to roar.
Jazz took his SMG from behind his back, automatically loaded up. 'We have to help,' he said. 'No, I have to help. You stay here.'
'Don't you understand?' she clutched at him, stopped him before he could get started. 'It's all over! You can't help. That was a warrior, one of several. If you had a tank and crew you still couldn't help!'
As she spoke there came a last, booming explosion and dull orange fire blazed momentarily through the screen of trees and mist. There sounded a fresh bout of screaming: human screaming, nerve-shattering, from many terrified throats. Then through a barrage of lesser shouts and yelps, Shaithis's booming voice, reaching up through drifting cordite-stink and mist:
'Find them! Find Lardis and the hell-landers! As for the rest: destroy them all! But don't let the warriors glut themselves. I have been hurt, and now I take my vengeance. Now it is my turn to inflict pain! Now find the ones I want, and bring them to me!'
'So much for Lardis's defences,' Jazz groaned.
'He was ambushed,' Zek sobbed. 'His people didn't stand a chance. Come on, we have to get out of here.'
Torn two ways, Jazz ground his teeth, turned his head this way and that. 'Please, Jazz!' Zek dragged at him. 'We have to save our own lives - if we can.'
They couldn't go down, so they started up. But -
Before they could take more than two paces there came a hoarse panting from below, a scrabbling amidst the shrubbery. White-faced, Jazz and Zek shrank back into the shadow of the rock, stared at each other. A figure came reeling up through the trees, clawing at the base of the rock, thrusting itself from bole to bole. In Zek's ear, Jazz whispered: 'A Traveller?'
Her face strained in concentration. The panting was louder, frightened, almost a sobbing. Jazz thought: it has to be a Traveller. He let the stumbling figure come closer, reached out from cover and grabbed him. At the same time he heard Zek's hiss of warning:
'No, Jazz! It's - '
Vyotsky, seizing his one chance to make a break for it - or perhaps simply fleeing from the horror of what was happening below.
The two men recognized each other in the same moment. Their eyes bulged. Vyotsky's mouth flew open in a gasp of complete astonishment; he started to bring up his gun, drew breath for a mighty shout - which went unuttered. Jazz clubbed him in the throat with the butt of his SMG, tried to kick him and missed, slammed a blow to his face. Vyotsky's head rocked on his shoulders; he went crashing backwards, off-balance, probably unconscious, into brambles and mist-damp shrubbery. The ground mist rolled over him as he went sliding out of sight.
Jazz and Zek listened with bated breath, their hearts pounding. They heard only the hoarse, unending screams from below, a gigantic snuffling and bellowing, loud crunching sounds. And in another moment they started in again to climb.
They forced aching muscles to the limits of effort, drew level with the dome of the rock and climbed above it, ran waist-deep through clinging mist and tearing undergrowth where the ground levelled out a little. Then they were climbing again, still not daring to pant too loudly, hearts and lungs straining as they forced weary legs to pump and tired arms to drag them through the foliage. But the sounds from below were gradually fading, and trees and mist both were thinning out.
'A vampire mist,' Zek gasped. 'They cause it to happen. Don't ask me how. I should have known, should have heard them in my head. But they knew about me and were shielding themselves. Wolf knew, I think. Oh! -where is he?'
She needn't have worried; the animal hounded her heels like a faithful dog. 'Save your breath,' Jazz growled. 'Climb!'
'But I might have heard them, might have given a warning if I wasn't so tired. And if- '
'If your mind hadn't been on other things? You're only human, Zek. Don't blame yourself. Or if you must blame someone, blame me.' Jazz dragged her up onto a shale-covered ledge in a slippery rock-face. They had come through the tree-line to the cliffs, the feet of the very mountains themselves. Clear of the mist, they could see a fading orange glow far to the south. It was the sun, and it was down. Sundown, and nowhere was safe now. But at least in the clean light of the stars they could see where they were going.
The ledge was wide but sloped outwards a little; it ran crookedly, steeply upwards. Echoing cries still rang from far below where the mist boiled as before; fewer screams now, mainly the signal calls of monstrous searchers and the answers of their fellows. Then -
Zek gave a massive start, drew air in a plainly audible gasp of terror. 'Vyotsky - he's coming!' she said. 'He's following us - and Shaithis himself is not far behind him!'
'Keep still!' Jazz grabbed her. 'Shhh!'
They listened, watched. Down below at the edge of the tree-line, the mist parted and Vyotsky came into view. He looked left and right but not up, started toward the base of the cliffs. Perhaps he thought they'd skirted the cliffs, and maybe they should have. But at least on the ledge no one was going to surprise them.
Jazz aimed his SMG, scowled and lowered it. 'Can't be sure of hitting him!' he whispered. 'These things are for close-quarters fighting - street fighting. Also, the shot would be heard.'
Again the mists parted and the awesome cloaked figure of Shaithis flowed out of them. He looked neither left nor right but inclined his head back to stare directly at the fugitives. His eyes glowed like small fires under the stars.
'There they are!' the vampire Lord shouted, pointed. 'On the ledge, under the cliff. Get after them, Karl. And if you'd be my man, don't let me down...'
As Shaithis glided forward, Vyotsky passed out of sight into the angles of the cliff face. Jazz and Zek heard shale sliding, Vyotsky's surprised yelp and his cursing. He was on the ledge and had discovered how slippery it was.
'Move!' said Jazz. 'Quick - climb! And pray this ledge goes somewhere. Anywhere!' But if Zek did pray, then her prayers weren't answered.
Where the cliff was notched and bent back sharply on itself, the ledge narrowed to an uneven eighteen inches. In the 'V of the notch a chimney of rock had weathered free, leaning outward over dizzy heights. Behind the chimney scree had gathered, forming the floor of a cave. The stars gleamed down on the ledge, but in the deeps of the cave all was inky blackness.
Shaithis, too, was on the ledge now; his commands came echoing: 'Karl, I want them alive. The woman for what she may be able to do for me, the man for what he has already done to me.'
Edging along the ledge toward the chimney and the cave behind it, Jazz asked Zek: 'Why hasn't Shaithis called up more help?'
'Probably because he's sure he doesn't need it,' she groaned. Even as she spoke a knob of rock crumbled underfoot where she stepped, causing her feet to slip. Her legs and lower body shot sideways, out over empty space. Jazz let his weapon swing from its sling, grabbed Zek's flying hand. He dropped to one knee, raked the cliff with his free hand to find a hold. His fingers contacted, grasped a tough root in the instant before the girl's weight fell on him.
Zek was dangling now, one elbow hooked over the rim of the ledge, the rest of her kicking and swinging. Only Jazz's grip on her offered any stability at all. 'Oh, God!' she sobbed. 'Oh, my God!'
'Drag yourself up,' Jazz groaned through gritted teeth. 'Try not to put too much leverage on me. Use your elbows. Squirm, for Christ's sake!' She did as he said, came slithering up onto the ledge in front of him. He grabbed her belt, hauled her unceremoniously against the face of the cliff. 'Now go on all fours,' he said. 'Don't try to stand up or you'll be over again. If we can just make that chimney...' Oh, and then what? But he refused to think about that.
Finally Zek crawled onto the scree beneath the overhang, collapsed face-down there and spread-eagled herself, dug her fingers deep into loose rock fragments and hung on. Jazz stooped, caught her under the arm and drew her upright. 'We have to get under cover, he said, 'otherwise -'
Ch-ching! came that unmistakable sound from behind them.
Jazz half-turned. Vyotsky had appeared round the sharp corner. His cruel lips drew back from his teeth as he lined-up his SMG on the pair he pursued. But from behind him:
"Alive, Karl, do you hear?' Shaithis's voice warned, that much closer now. Vyotsky's eyes went wide with fear. He glanced back. Jazz took the opportunity to swing his own weapon in Vyotsky's direction, squeezed the trigger. To hell with keeping quiet!
The gun chattered, and whining bullets chewed at the cliff like metal wasps, hurling chippings in Vyotsky's face. Instinctively he fired back, and a lucky round snatched Jazz's gun from his hands, sent it spinning out over the abyss. As the sling was yanked from his shoulder, only the chimney of rock stopped him from being drawn after it.
Zek clutched at Jazz and they clung together. And -
'Step over here,' said a cool, low voice from the shadows.
A figure was there, in the cave under the overhang, tall, slim, cloaked. Male, he wore an impassive golden mask over his face. Starlight gleamed on the gold. Jazz was struck with the thought that he looked like the Phantom of the Opera! 'Who - ?' he gasped.
'Quickly!' said the newcomer. 'If you want to live.'
'Stand still!' Vyotsky shouted, but Jazz and Zek were already moving to obey the stranger. As they stepped toward the cave, so he came out to meet them. Vyotsky saw him. Because of his cloak, at first the Russian mistook him for one of Shaithis's lieutenants.
The stranger held out an urgent hand to the pair, held up his cloak almost as if to shield them. He drew them toward him...
So much Vyotsky saw, but in the next moment... the big Russian blinked, used his free hand to rub furiously at his eyes. They'd gone - all three, gone! But he hadn't seen them step back into the cave.
A huge hand fell on Vyotsky's shoulder and he froze. Shaithis's monstrous voice hissed in his ear: 'Where are they? Did your weapon strike them? I hope for your sake it did not!' Vyotsky didn't look back, simply continued to gape at the empty ledge ahead.
'Well?' Shaithis's fingers dug into Vyotsky's shoulder.
'I didn't hit them, no,' the Russian gulped, shook his head. 'There was someone else. A man in a cloak, and a mask. He came... and he took them!'
'Took them? A man in a cloak and - ?' Shaithis's breath was hot on Vyotsky's neck. 'A mask of gold, perhaps?'
Now Vyotsky looked at him - and at once shrank back, cringing from the horror of his face. 'Why... why, yes. He came - and he went! And they went with him...'
'Ahhh!' Shaithis hissed. 'The Dweller!' His fingers were like the jaws of a steel clamp, crushing Vyotsky's shoulder. For a moment the Russian thought he intended to hurl him down from the ledge.
'It ... it wasn't my fault!' he gibbered. 'I found them, followed them. Maybe they slipped into the cave there. Maybe all three of them are there!'
Shaithis sniffed the air, his blunt snout quivering. 'No,' he finally said. 'Nothing. No one. You failed me.'
Shaithis released him. 'I won't kill you, Karl. Your spirit is puny but your flesh is strong. And there are uses to which good strong flesh can be put in the aerie of Shaithis of the Wamphyri.' He turned away. 'Now follow me down. And be warned: do not try to run away. For if you do that a second time it will make me very, very angry. I would give you to my favourite warrior. All except your quivering heart, which I would eat myself!'
Vyotsky watched him commence the descent, gritted his teeth and slowly lifted the barrel of his gun.
Without looking back, Shaithis said: 'Yes, by all means do, Karl - and we shall see which one of us is caused the most pain.'
The Russian's tense expression slowly slackened, relaxed. How could you fight beings like these? What hope did any man have of ever defeating or even damaging something like Lord Shaithis? He let out his pent breath, gulped, put his weapon on safe and followed timidly on behind the other where he made his way down from the ledge.
Below in the woods a great wolf howled piteously - Zek's Wolf, who knew that his mistress was now removed from him and gone far away. He lifted his head and howled again, the cry rippling from his taut throat. Then he sniffed the air and looked north and a little west, across the mountains. She was there, yes. That was the way he must go.
Grey as the night, Wolf began to climb through the trees. Two figures passed him going down. He curled his upper lip back, writhing from his carnivore teeth. But he made no sound. They passed out of sight into the misty woods. Wolf let them go and continued on his way.
The siren call of his mistress was strong in his mind...
It was noon at Perchorsk, but in the metal and plastic bowels of that place it could be midnight and nothing would be changed. One change at least was occurring, however, and Direktor Luchov and Chingiz Khuv were watching as a team of workmen fitted pipes high in the wall of the perimeter corridor. The pipes were maybe seventy millimeters in diameter, made of black plastic, and might in other circumstances be conduits for heavy-duty electrical cable. But that was not their purpose.
'A failsafe?' Khuv said. He looked flustered. 'But I know nothing about this. Perhaps you'd explain?'
Luchov looked at him, tilted his head on one side a little. 'You work here,' he shrugged, 'and I have no reason to keep it from you. I proposed this mechanism some time ago. It is simplicity in itself, and quite foolproof. What's more, it's cheap and very quick and easy to install - as you can see. If you follow these pipes you'll see that they go straight back to the loading bays inside the main doors. There you'll find a fifteen-thousand-litre container on the back of a truck. The truck is locked in position with its brakes on, rotor arm removed. That, too, is a failsafe. The pipes connect directly to the truck and they're being laid throughout the Projekt.'
Khuv's frown grew deeper. 'I've seen the truck,' he said. 'It's a military supply vehicle, carrying chemical fuel for flame-throwers. Are you telling me that these pipes will carry that stuff? But it's highly corrosive! Man, it would eat through this plastic in a matter of minutes!'
Luchov shrugged. 'By which time it wouldn't matter anyway,' he said. 'A failsafe only has to work once, Major, and that's the beauty of this one. Gravity fed, fifteen thousand litres of highly combustible fuel will rush downward through these pipes and circulate right through the Projekt in less than three minutes. As it courses along its way there are sprinklers. They will spray the fuel under pressure into every corner. Its fumes are heavy but they'll spread very rapidly. The Projekt has laboratories, boiler rooms, electrical fires, workshops, a thousand naked flames of one sort or another.' He shrugged again. 'But I'm sure you can see what I'm getting at. We can sum it up in one very descriptive word: inferno!'
A short distance away, Vasily Agursky had paused to listen. Khuv had noticed him and now he deliberately stared at him. Still looking at Agursky, Khuv said: 'I take it this information is not sensitive? If it is, you should know we are being eavesdropped.'
'Sensitive?' Luchov glanced along the corridor, saw Agursky. 'Ah, but it is sensitive, yes! Everyone who works here in the Projekt will soon be aware exactly how sensitive it is. It would be criminally irresponsible for anyone to try to keep it a secret. There will be notices posted everywhere explaining the system in great detail. This is not a matter for the KGB, Major, but for humanity. It is not your sort of "security" but mine - and my superiors'. And your superiors'!'
Agursky came closer, joined Khuv and Luchov. 'If this system is ever used,' he said, in a strange, emotionless voice, 'the Projekt would be destroyed utterly.'
'Correct, Vasily,' Luchov turned to him. That is its purpose. But it will only be used if another horror like Encounter One should ever escape from the Gate!'
Agursky nodded. 'Of course, for fire destroys them. It's the only way we can be sure that nothing like that ever gets out into the world again.'
'More than that,' said Luchov. 'It's the only way we can be certain that this place never becomes the focal point of World War III!'
'What?' Khuv snapped.
Luchov rounded on him. 'Oh? And do you think the Americans will sit still for a second of those nightmares launched from here into their airspace? Man, you know as well as I do that they think we're manufacturing them!'
Khuv drew air in a gasp, became suspicious in a moment. 'Who have you been talking to, Viktor? That sounded very much like something the British spy Michael Simmons once said to me. I hope you haven't been interfering in things which don't concern you. I accept that this failsafe of yours is probably necessary, but I will not accept anyone meddling in my work!'
'Are you accusing me of something?' Luchov kept his anger under control.
'Maybe I am,' Khuv's tone was icy. 'We still don't know where you disappeared to for three hours when that damned esper ran amok in here. Is that it? Has Alec Kyle been talking to you?'
Luchov scowled, the veins in his seared skull pulsing. 'I've told you, I don't know what happened to me that night. I suppose I was unconscious. Maybe it was an attempt to kidnap me - bungled, as it turns out. As for this - Alec Kyle? - I've not only never met him, I've never even heard of him!' Which was true enough, for the man he'd spoken to was called Harry Keogh.
Agursky had turned away, leaving them to their argument. Khuv watched him go, staring hard after his departing, white-smocked figure. Was there something wrong with the peculiar little scientist? Or ... not wrong but different? Something... different about him?
'Aren't you interested how it's triggered?' Luchov asked, still glaring.
'Eh? Oh, yes, very interested. I'd also like to know if there's a failsafe for your failsafe!' Khuv's attention was back on the Projekt Direktor. 'This place houses some hundred and eighty scientists, technicians, soldiers at any given time of the day and night, and it contains many millions of roubles' worth of equipment. If there was an accident -'
'Oh, there'll be no accident,' Luchov shook his head. 'If it's ever used it will be a very deliberate act, I assure you. Let me tell you how it works.
'There's empty accommodation close to mine. That becomes the failsafe control centre, with access only to the officer on duty and round the clock access to myself. Oh, and yourself, too, I suppose, since you'll probably insist upon it. However, I shall expect you to make your name available for the duty roster, as mine will be.'
'Control centre?' said Khuv. 'And what will this control centre contain?'
'A closed circuit TV monitor panel with three screens. One will watch the Gate and the others the stairwell through the shaft and the exit from it into the Projekt proper. There will be evacuation alert klaxons, too, though I admit a man will have to be pretty nimble to get out once they start sounding. As for the failsafe mechanism: two buttons and a heavy electrical switch. Button one will sound the evacuation alert in the upper levels the very moment that the Duty Officer sees anything come through the Gate. Button two will only be used if the creature is of that sort, and if the electrical fence, flamethrowers and Katushevs don't stop it. The button will control subordinate machinery: the alarms will sound more urgently, and steel doors will close in the ventilator shafts. If and when the creature passes from the core area, through the magmass levels and into the complex itself... then the switch is thrown. This cannot be done accidentally, or until the two buttons have been pressed. The switch, of course, opens the stopcocks on the tanker.'
'Huh.r Khuv grunted. 'I note that your quarters - and the control centre - are not far removed from the loading bays and the main entrance.'
'Your own quarters are similarly situated, albeit on a different bearing,' Luchov pointed out. 'We would have equal chances. So would anyone in that area, including your KGB men and parapsychologists.'
Khuv grudgingly conceded that. 'And you think it's a wise move to tell everyone just exactly how this failsafe operates? You don't think it will scare them witless?'
'I think it probably will,' Luchov answered, 'but I see no alternative. In the event of ... a disaster, as many as possible should have the chance to live. And where the military is concerned: well, they are the only ones who can't run when the alarms start sounding. The Katushev crews and the flame-thrower squads. And here I'm afraid I begin to sound too much like you for my own liking -but at least they now have the ultimate incentive to stop any emergence from the sphere!'
Khuv pursed his lips, made no reply.
'And now that I have satisfied your curiosity,' Luchov continued, 'perhaps you'd be so good as to tell me how your - experiments? - are proceeding? Have you had any message from those poor bastards you hurled through the Gate? Or have you simply written them off? And what about your investigations into this intruder affair? Do you know how he got in? What have you discovered about him?'
Khuv scowled, turned on his heel and strode away. Over his shoulder he called back: 'At this moment in time I have no information for you, Direktor. But when I have all the answers, and when they make sense, then rest assured that you will be among the first to know of it.' He paused in his striding and looked back. 'But you are not the only one who has been busy, Comrade, and I have made certain recommendations of my own. So far you have only considered an invasion from the other side, but my imagination is more wide-ranging. In a few days you will more fully comprehend my meaning, with the arrival of a platoon of crack assault troops - under my command!'
Before Luchov could enquire further, Khuv had passed through a bulkhead door and so out of sight...
In his private quarters, Vasily Agursky stared at himself in a mirror on his toilet wall. He stared, and had difficulty believing what he saw. As yet no one else appeared to have noticed, but then no one took a great deal of interest in him. But Agursky knew himself very well indeed, and he also knew that what he saw in the mirror was more than the sum total of his parts. Of his parts.
His first reaction, when he'd noticed the early changes, had been to distrust the mirror, a distrust which had quickly turned to a strong dislike. Ridiculous for a man to dislike a mirror, but it was true, he did. He disliked all mirrors, probably because they reminded him of certain undeniable alterations, which he'd be only too happy to forget about.
The changes were... weird! He wouldn't have believed them possible.
He had positioned this mirror on the wall himself, so that his face would be exactly centered in the glass. But now he had to bend his knees a little to get the same effect. He had gained two or more full inches in height. That fact should have delighted him, who had always considered himself as being little more than a dwarf, but instead it terrified him. For he could actually feel the ability of his body to be tall! And if the vampiric growth continued - then someone would notice.
His hair, too, was undergoing something of a metamorphosis. Its dirty-grey down was darkening, showing signs of a long-delayed virility, and the halo was contracting toward the centre of his head's dome, filling itself in. No one had noticed that, either, but he supposed they must when finally the growth was complete. Why, already he looked - and felt - years younger. Felt ready now for ... almost anything. And yet for a little while longer he must continue to play the part of the old Vasily. The old, despised, neglected and contemptuously treated Vasily...
Still gazing at himself, Agursky was surprised to feel a growl rising unbidden in his throat. It came up soft, purring from his chest, then thickened to a snarl. His lips curled back from his teeth - from his strong, white, animal teeth, whose canines had grown so as to interlock with each other more surely than they ever had in all his previous life - and he snarled like a beast! But he cut it off right there, took a grip on himself. For a moment there'd been a power in him like none he'd ever known before; and knowing where it came from, he knew too that he must control it. As long as he could.
For at the Perchorsk Projekt, they had this habit of burning things like Vasily Agursky.
Finally he took off his thick-lensed spectacles. The old curved lenses were gone now, removed from their frames and disposed of. In their place, flat discs of common glass which he'd cut in the workshop: 'eyepieces for my instruments,' as he'd explained it. No need now for aids to eyesight which had improved to an entirely incredible degree. Why, he could even see in the dark!
But in connection with his eyes, there was something else which might soon begin to show, though what he could do about that was quite beyond him to imagine. Contact lenses? By the time he could order and receive them it might well be too late. In a way that frightened him, too, but in another way ... it was fascinating.
Slowly he reached out a hand to the cord of the light-switch, gave it a single sharp tug. Click! - and the light went out.
But in the mirror two lesser lights had taken its place. Agursky couldn't suppress the strange smile, the wolfish grin, which spread over his darkly-mirrored features then. A smile in which the pupils of his eyes burned like tiny censers, filled with hell's own sulphur...