Startled, Shaithis fell into a defensive crouch, turned in a slow circle, gazed all about. He saw only ice, but knew now for certain that this place contained more than that. And at last, crimson eyes slitted, he concentrated his own thoughts into a probe: Who speaks?
What? the infirm, quavery voice spoke again in his mind, and Shaithis sensed a derisory snort. Don't make me laugh, Shaitan! You know well enow who speaks! Or have the long, lonely years addled your wits? Kehrl Lugoz speaks, old fiend. We were exiled together; we dwelled awhile in the caves of the cone; we were 'companions', for as long as there was meat. But when the meat was finished our friendship went with it. And I fled while I could.
Kehrl Lugoz? Shaithis frowned as he strove to remember Wamphyri legends almost as old as the race itself. And this Shaitan which the hidden speaker referred to: not the Shaitan, surely? He frowned again, and as suspicion turned to curiosity asked: Where are you?
Where I've been for... how long? Preserved in the ice, undead, that's where I am. Dreaming in my frozen hell of endless time. And you, Shaitan? How has it been for you? Has the cone kept you warm, or are its fires returned to drive you out?
Dreaming in a frozen hell? The very scenario Shaithis had conjured only a moment or two ago! Yes, and he believed that whoever this Kehrl Lugoz was who spoke to him, indeed he spoke from a dream. Perhaps the crashing of great icicles had roused him up somewhat from his sleep.
You're wrong, he said then, relaxing a little, for I'm not Shaitan. A son of his sons, perhaps, but my name is Shaithis, not Shaitan.
Oh? Ha, ha, ha! The other seemed to find his words bitterly amusing. The Lord of Liars even to the end, eh, Shaitan? Perverse as ever. Aye, you were the worst of a bad lot. Well, what does it matter now? Come for me if you will - or begone, and let me return to my dreaming.
The voice faded as its owner sank down again into permafrost dreams; but Shaithis, concentrating all of his vampire senses to their full, believed he'd located its source. I'm up here! that mental voice had told him at the onset. Somewhere up above...
Shaithis was in the heart of the carved, wind-fretted ice-castle now. There, locked in clear ice all of three feet thick, he could see a massive central core of volcanic rock thrusting raggedly up like the ossified root of a glass tooth: a 'splash' of stony spittle from the ancient volcano. And there, climbing the face of the ice-sheath where it covered the castle's lava foundations, carved into its cold crystal contours, glassy steps wound up out of sight into grottoes of gleaming ice.
There was nothing for it but to follow them; the vampire Lord mounted the frost-rimed stairs and climbed to the jagged peak of the core, where its last black igneous fang pointed straight up, as if threatening to break out of its sheath. And staring through ice hard as stone, finally Shaithis spied the author of the mind-messages he'd heard in the corridors below.
There in blue-gleaming heart of ice - seated upright in a lava niche, with one hand resting lightly upon a ridge of rock, as upon the arm of a favourite chair - a man ancient as time, weary, withered and weird! Encased as surely as any fly in amber, his eyes were closed, his frozen body motionless, his mien severe as his fate. And yet he sat there proudly with his head held high upon a scrawny neck, and with that certain something in his aspect which spoke mutely but definitely of his origin: the fact that he was Wamphyri! Kehrl Lugoz, whoever he had been.
No, whoever he still was!
Shaithis put out a hand to the wall of smooth ice, pressed down hard until his palm was cold and flat. A minute went by, then another, until finally: Thud!
It was faint - so very faint and far-seeming - but it was still there. And after a pause of two more minutes: Thud! - and so on. Kehrl Lugoz lived. However protracted his heartbeat, however fossilized his body (and it was, very nearly, fossilized), still he lived. Except, and as Shaithis had already inquired of himself, what was this for life?
He stared hard at the shrivelled thing, studying it through three feet of ice which, however pure, nevertheless blurred the picture and shifted its focus with Shaithis's every smallest motion. And now he believed he knew the answer to that other question he'd recently asked himself: which was worse, to be buried undead, or sent into the hell-lands, or banished here? And the vampire Lord shivered at the thought of all the nameless centuries gone by since Kehrl Lugoz had come up here and sat himself down, and waited for the ice to form.
Thud! And this time, because he'd been lost in his own thoughts and was startled, Shaithis snatched back his hand.
Kehrl Lugoz was too old even to guess at his age. The Wamphyri, when they age, do not necessarily show it. Shaithis himself was more than five hundred years of age, yet looked no older than a well-preserved fifty. But in the face of privations such as this one had known, it simply couldn't be hidden. Yes, Lugoz looked almost as old as time.
The eyebrows above his closed, steeply slanted eyes were bushy, white, locked in ice like the rest of him. His hair was white as a halo of snow over a brow wrinkled and brown as a walnut, with white sideboards which frizzed out wildly to half-obscure his conchlike ears. His ancient face was not so much wrinkled as grooved, mummified, like a trog kept overlong in its cocoon until wasted. The grey cheeks were sunken in, the chin pointed, with a thin wisp of white beard fluffing there. Eye-teeth like fangs overshot the withered lower lip; they were yellow and the one on the left was broken. There'd been insufficient strength in the frozen vampire to grow another.
The nostrils in the squat, convoluted nose (more properly a bat's snout than was usual in most of the Wamphyri) showed signs of fretting: disease, Shaithis supposed. And a huge purple wen was visible bulging under the chin, like the puffed mating wattle of one of Sunside's birds.
As for Kehrl Lugoz's garb: he wore a simple black robe, its hood thrown back, wide sleeves floppy about his scrawny wrists, and hem loose around his chicken's calves. Except of course the sleeves and hem were not loose but frozen in ice hard as stone. His hands where they protruded from his robe were extremely long-fingered, with sharp, pointed nails, and upon his right index he wore a large ring of gold. Shaithis could not make out its sigil. Veins stood out white in the backs of his hands, instead of olive or purple. Before he froze himself, this one had gone without blood for long and long.
Wake up! Shaithis sent. I want to know your history, your secrets. Indeed, for it would seem to me that you are Wamphyri history! This Shaitan you speak of: do you mean Shaitan the Unborn? He and his disciples were banished to the Icelands in the very dawn of legends. But still here? How? No, I cannot believe it. Wake up, Kehrl Lugoz! Answer my questions.
Nothing came back; the old thing in the ice had returned to his dreaming; his shrivelled heart continued to thud, but it seemed to Shaithis more slowly yet. He was dying. Longevity, even suspended animation, is not immortality.
'Damn you!' Shaithis snarled out loud. His curse echoed back to him - along with other echoes? - from the bowels of the ice-castle. He waited until the echoes had died away and only the weird moaning of ice-winds remained, then sent out his vampire awareness all around. Was anyone there?
... Well, if there was someone, then he was adept at shielding his presence. Except -
- Suddenly Shaithis remembered his flyer, which he'd left feeding! If someone should find it out there...
He reached out his mind to the creature, discovered it gorging still, cursed long and loud but this time silently and to himself. He'd never get the beast aloft now. But at least he could send it away from here.
Go! he commanded it. Flop, waddle, squirm, slither, but go! Westward, half a mile at least, and there hide. As best you can, anyway. And in his mind he felt the stupid creature moving instantly to obey him.
Then, satisfied that the flyer would put distance between itself, Volse's dead creature, and what - or whoever else might possibly be in the vicinity, Shaithis returned to the problem at hand. Earlier, the old thing in the ice had been awakened by a fall of icicles. So be it.
Exploring an upper terrace, the vampire Lord found a vast spout of ice like a frozen waterfall, and at its fringe many lesser formations. One of these icicles, some four feet long and nine inches through its stem, he snapped off and carried back to the ice-encased husk of Kehrl Lugoz. Since the petrified old fool couldn't be roused by mental means, let him start awake at the entirely physical shattering of this great blade of ice against his sheath.
Fully absorbed in his task, Shaithis failed to detect the furtive approach of others up the ice staircase. He 'shouted' telepathically at the frozen, ice-distorted figure where it sat: KEHRL LUGOZ, WAKE UP! Then swung back his icicle hammer to smash it against the face of Lugoz's sheath. But the great icicle refused to swing, because something was impeding it!
Hissing and spitting his shock from the red-ribbed vault of his throat out over the glistening, vibrating arch of his forked tongue - eyes bulging and crimson, and with his less than human features instinctively flowing into a fearsomely inhuman wolf-mask - Shaithis glanced back over his shoulder, then dropped the great icicle and reached for his gauntlet. But in that same instant a huge talon of a hand fell upon his wrist and trapped it, and Shaithis stared into the grim grey faces of two fellow survivors from the battle for The Dweller's garden: Fess Ferenc and Volse Pinescu!
He snatched back his hand and stumbled away from them. 'Damn your hearts!' he snarled, panting. 'But you've learned stealth, you two!'
'We've learned a great many things.' Volse Pinescu choked the words out past a huge scab of crusted pus which half-sealed his lips, impeding his speech. 'Not least how the "invincible" vampire army of Shaithis of the Wamphyri could be burned and blasted and crushed, its aeries destroyed, and its survivors banished like whipped dogs into eternal wastelands of ice!'
Volse's boil-festooned face turned purple with fury as he took a heavy, threatening step closer to Shaithis. But the Ferenc's temper was less volatile. With his great height and strength, and with his terrible hands, he didn't much need to work up a rage in himself. 'We've lost a great deal, Shaithis,' he rumbled. 'Since coming here it's dawned on us just how much. Aye, for this is a cold and lonely place.'
'Cold?' Shaithis blustered. 'What is cold to the Wamphyri? You'll get used to it.'
Volse strained his head forward aggressively, and a batch of boils on the left side of his neck burst and spurted their yellow pus on to the ice. 'Oh?' he gurgled. 'Like he got used to it, d'you mean?' He inclined his loathsomely decorated head sharply towards Kehrl Lugoz seated motionless as a mountain not three impenetrable feet away. 'Him and all the others we've found, encysted in their echoing fortresses of ice?'
'Others?' Shaithis looked uncertainly from Volse to the Ferenc, then back again.
'Dozens of them,' Fess Ferenc finally answered, nodding his huge, acromegalic head. 'All taken to the ice, clutching at straws, waiting out their time until some magical thaw shall come and free them into a land filled with life. Or until they die. For the cold of this place is not like the cold of Starside, Shaithis. Here it goes on for ever! Get used to it?' (Now he echoed Volse Pinescu). 'Resist it? Warm ourselves? Stoke up our internal fires against it? But fires need fuel - the blood is the life! And with what do we sustain ourselves while we're "getting used to it"? Blood cools, Shaithis, trickle by trickle, hour by hour. Limbs stiffen, and even the stoutest heart runs slow.'
Now Volse took it up. 'You ask: what is cold to the Wamphyri? Hah! How often were you cold on Starside, Shaithis? I'll tell you: never! The heat of the hunt kept you warm, the blaze of battle, the hot salt blood of trog or Traveller. Your bed was warm and welcoming at sunup, as were the breasts and buttocks of the lusty women who sucked the sting from your tail. All of these things you had to keep you warm. We all had them! And we had a "leader" who said to us: "Let's band together and take The Dweller's garden." And now what have we got?'
Shaithis looked at the Ferenc, who shrugged and said: 'We have been here longer than you. It is cold and we grow colder. Worse, we grow hungry...' His voice was now a growl.
Volse's hand touched the ugly gauntlet at his hip... tentatively... perhaps thoughtfully ... it could mean anything. But Shaithis backed away.
And as the threatened Lord plunged his hand into his own gauntlet and flexed it there, displaying its gleaming knives, rasps and cutting edges, Fess Ferenc raised an eyebrow and rumbled: 'Two to one, Shaithis? Do you like such odds, then?'
'Not especially,' Shaithis hissed, 'but I'll make sure you lose at least as much blood as you drink! Where's the profit in that?'
Volse grunted, coughed up yellow phlegm and spat it out. 'I - say - it - would - be worth it!' He went into a crouch, and now he too wore his gauntlet.
But the Ferenc only relaxed, stepped aside, shrugged again and said: 'Fight if you wish, you two. Myself, I'd prefer to eat. Full bellies are less fierce, and brains with blood in them more capable of clever scheming.' His maxim might not fit men, but certainly it was applicable to the Wamphyri.
Volse, seeing he stood alone, thought twice. And: 'Hah!' he snorted, this time at the Ferenc. 'But it seems your mind schemes just as well when you're hungry, Fess! For if we were to fight, Shaithis and I, why, you'd sup on the loser - and so make yourself stronger than the winner!' He nodded and removed his gauntlet. 'I'm no such fool.'
The Ferenc scratched his jutting jaw and grinned, however grimly. 'Strange, but I had always considered you just such a fool...'
Shaithis, still wary, hung his own gauntlet at his belt, finally nodded and took out from his pouch a purple heart as big as his fist. 'Here, if you're so hungry.' And he tossed it. Volse snatched it from the air and closed slavering jaws upon it. But the Ferenc only shook his head.
'Red and spurting for me,' he said. 'While I can get it, anyway.'
Shaithis frowned and narrowed his eyes suspiciously as the giant started down the ice-steps. 'What's your plan?' he snapped. 'Who will you kill?'
'Not who but what,' the Ferenc answered over his shoulder. 'And I'll not kill it but merely deplete it little by little. I should think it's obvious.'
Shaithis and Volse went skidding after him. 'What?' Volse questioned round a mouthful of bear heart. 'Something's obvious?'
The Ferenc glanced back at him. 'What did you eat when you crashed your exhausted flyer here?' he said.
'Ah-hah!' Volse spat out chunks of cold dark flesh.
'What?' Shaithis grabbed the Ferenc's huge shoulder. 'Are you talking about my flyer? Would you maroon me here for ever?'
The Ferenc paused, turned, looked him straight in the eye. Two steps lower than Shaithis, still the giant looked him in the eye. 'And why not?' he answered. 'Since it seems to me that you're the reason we're all marooned here?'
'No!' Shaithis spat at him, and stabbed again for his gauntlet - and the Ferenc at once swept him from the stairs!
Shaithis fell. Too depleted and restricted for metamorphosis into an airfoil, he could only grit his teeth and wait for gravity to do its worst. On the way down he struck several ice-ledges but suffered no real damage, until at the last he crashed down on his shoulder and chest - in snow! Merciful snow!
Blown in through an arched ice-window, the drift was three or four feet deep with a thick crust of ice. Shaithis crunched through the latter, compressed the former, wrenched his right shoulder and broke a pair of recently healed ribs. And then he lay there in his agony and cursed Fess Ferenc from the depths of his black heart!
Curse me all you will, Shaithis. The Ferenc had heard him. But I'm sure you'll think better of it. Of course you will, for it was you or your flyer, after all. Volse would have chosen you: for there's a vampire in you! Ah, the very essence! But personally, I think it were better if you live. A little while longer, at least.
Shaithis stood up, staggered away, looked for a place to hide. He allowed his hurt to wash over him, deliberately conjuring all the agonies of his crash on Starside, when he'd broken his body and face, and of his fight with the she-bears, to add to the pain of this latest tumble. And these were the false impressions of severe damage which he let flood out of him, to be picked up and (hopefully) wrongly translated by the Ferenc's vampire mind. Volse might conceivably read them, too, but Shaithis doubted it. The boil-fancier was a dullard, too much obsessed with the manufacture of abscesses.
What? the Ferenc seemed surprised, however uncaring. That much pain? Did you crash down face-first, Shaithis? He offered a grim mental chuckle. Well, and now you know how I've felt all this time, for your face has always been hurtful to me!
Aye, (Shaithis could not restrain himself), laugh long and loud, Fess Ferenc! But remember: he who laughs last...
The Ferenc's chuckling faded in Shaithis's mind, and: Not too seriously hurt, then? A pity. Or perhaps you merely put a brave face on it? But in any case, I think a warning is in order: don't interfere, Shaithis. If you think to command your flyer into flight, forget it. For if we can't find your creature, then be sure we'll come back for you. Order it to attack us, still we'll triumph in the end. For as you know well enow, flyers make poor warriors and our thoughts would stab it like arrows. And then we'd come back for you! But only let it be our way and make no protest, and for some little time to come... well, at least you'll know where to go when you're hungry. And for as long as your flyer lasts - and provided we are not in the vicinity when you go to feed - then you shall last just precisely so long, Shaithis of the Wamphyri.
Shaithis found a deep, sheltered ice-niche in the castle's labyrinth and hid himself away. He wrapped himself in his cloak and toned down his vibrant vampire aura. Now must be a time of healing. Perhaps he would sleep and conserve his energy. And there was still a little bear-heart left over for when he awakened. So long as he guarded his thoughts and his dreams alike, Volse Pinescu and Fess Ferenc would not find him.
But first there was something he must know. Why, Fess? he sent out one last telepathic question. You could have killed me yet let me live. Not out of the 'goodness' of your heart, surely. So why?
Halfway down the ice-stairs, the Ferenc smiled with a mouth almost as wide as his face. You were ever a thinker, Shaithis, he answered. Aye, and a clever one at that. Oh, you've made mistakes, certainly, but the man who never made a mistake never made anything. The way I see it, if there's a way out of this place you'll find it. And when you do I'll be right behind you.
And if I don't?
(The Ferenc's mental shrug): Blood is blood, Shaithis. And yours is good and rich. Let one thing be clearly understood: if this is as far as we go - if the ice is our destiny - then at the last I shall be the one who sits encased awaiting the Great Thaw. Fess Ferenc and none other. But I shall not go hungry to my fate...
Two exiled Wamphyri Lords - one grotesque and huge, and the other hugely grotesque - left the glittering ice-castle and sniffed the bitter air, then let their snouts guide them to Shaithis's doomed beast.
Meat was not the flyer's usual fare; its diet would normally consist of crushed bone, grasses from Sunside, honey and other sweet liquids, and some blood. Having metamorphic flesh, however, it was capable of consuming almost anything organic. On this occasion, having gorged itself on the frozen flesh of another flyer, it must now rest until the food was digested and converted. Bloated, it no longer lay where the ex-Lords had first spied it beside the gnawed carcass of Volse's flyer, but had found shelter slumped in the lee of a great block of ice half a mile to the west, where Shaithis had sent it.
Forming great saucer eyes in its leathery flanks, the dull, stupid thing gloomed on the Ferenc and Volse Pinescu and lolled its diamond head at them as they approached. Moist and heavy-lidded, its eyes 'saw' but could scarcely comprehend. Until the flyer was instructed to do something, and then by its rightful master, Shaithis himself, it would do nothing, not even think. Oh, it would seek to protect itself to a degree, but never so far as to harm one of the Wamphyri. For stabs of concentrated vampire telepathy could sting such creatures like darts, bringing them to trembling submission in a moment. Thus, while the flyer would not fly for Fess or Volse, it would lie still for them. Even when they sliced into its warm underbelly to sever great pipes of veins, which they would then suck open.
Shaithis, in his niche in the ice-castle, 'heard' the huge creature's first mental bleat of distress and was tempted to issue orders, such as: Roll, crush these men who torment you! Bound up and fall upon them! Even now, at a distance, he could transmit such commands and know that the flyer would instantly, instinctively obey him. But he also knew that while the beast might injure the Lords it could not kill them, and he remembered the Ferenc's warning. To set the flyer upon them (unless it could be guaranteed to incapacitate them utterly) would be to place himself in direst jeopardy. Which was why he ground his teeth a little but otherwise lay still and did nothing.
To Shaithis it seemed a great waste: his good flyer, used for food. Especially since Volse's flyer - literally two tons of excellent if not especially appetizing meat - already lay out there going to waste. Except even that were not entirely true. Frozen, the creature would not waste but remain available for long and long. But Shaithis knew that there was more than mere hunger in it; the Ferenc had a purpose other than to fill his belly.
For one, the beast would be left so depleted by this first gluttonous 'visit' of Fess and Volse that any further aerial voyagings would be out of the question; which meant that Shaithis was now stuck here no less than the others. It was partly the Ferenc's way of paying him back for his failure in the battle for The Dweller's garden, but it was mainly something else.
For the fact was that indeed Shaithis had been the great thinker, with a capacity for scheming which had set him above and apart even from his own kind, the universally devious Wamphyri. If any man could find his way out of the Icelands, then Shaithis had to be the one. An escape which must likewise benefit Fess Ferenc, who would doubtless follow his lead. And as Fess had so vividly pointed out, this was the reason Shaithis's life had been spared: so that he could concentrate on survival to the benefit of all the exiles.
That 'all', of course, meaning Fess Ferenc specifically; for Shaithis had no doubt but that eventually (unless there should occur some large and unforeseen reversal) the entirely loathsome Volse Pinescu must surely go the way of all flesh. As to why the Ferenc had so far suffered Volse to live: perhaps he simply couldn't abide the thought of eating him! Shaithis allowed himself a grin, however pained and bitter, before re-examining the question of Volse's survival. A much more likely explanation would be the loneliness and boredom of these Icelands; perhaps the giant Fess craved companionship! Certainly Shaithis, in the short time he'd been here, had felt a great weight of loneliness pressing down upon him ... or had he?
For all that this place appeared utterly dead and empty of any noteworthy intelligence, still he was not convinced. Even here in his ice-niche, with his thoughts well shielded, still there was this instinctive tingle of awareness in his vampire being, a suspicion in his vampire mind that... someone observed him in his trials? Possibly. But to know or suspect it was one thing, and to prove it another entirely.
Wherefore he would now sleep and let his vampire heal him, and later turn his attention to matters of more permanent survival -
- Not to mention a small matter of revenge, of course.
Battening his mind more securely yet, Shaithis settled down and for the first time felt the cold, the physical cold, beginning to bite. And he knew that the Ferenc and Volse Pinescu had been correct: even Wamphyri flesh must eventually succumb to a chill such as that of these Ice-lands. There could be no denying it, not in the face of such evidence as Kehrl Lugoz.
Then, even as Shaithis made to close his right eye (for the left would remain open, even in sleep), something small, soft and white hovered for a moment before his face, finally darting away with tiny, near-inaudible chittering cries into upper aeries of undisclosed ice. But not before Shaithis had recognized it. Pink-eyed, that tiny flutterer, with membrane wings and a wrinkled, pink-veined snout. A dwarf albino bat, it gave Shaithis an idea.
By now Volse Pinescu and the Ferenc would be absorbed in their meal, probably numb from their gluttony. Shaithis would risk opening his mind again. He reached out and called to the ice-castle's bats, which eventually came to him. Fearful at first, finally they settled to him singly, then in twos and threes, and at last almost buried him in their soft, snowy blanket. An entire colony of the creatures, they crowded into Shaithis's niche.
And with their small bodies warming him, so he slept...
The minion bats of Shaitan the Unborn (also called the Fallen) not only warmed Shaithis where he slept but also watched him, as they had since his arrival. They had watched Fess Ferenc and Volse Pinescu, too; also Arkis Leperson and his thralls (both of whom, within a period of just two auroral displays, Arkis had drained before secreting their bloodless corpses in cold-storage in a glacier) and a pair of Menor Maimbite's lieutenants, released from thraldom by Menor's death in the battle for the garden. All of these had wended their various ways here, whose subsequent activities the miniature albinos had faithfully reported back to their immemorial master, Shaitan.
The last-mentioned duo, ex-Travellers vampirized by Menor, had been the first of this fresh crop of exiles to get here. Having exhausted their dead master's finest flyer, they had crashed its panting, desiccated carcass in the salt sea at the edge of the Icelands and covered the last thirty miles afoot. Then they'd seen the smoke which Shaitan deliberately sent up from his chimney, and dragged themselves to what might possibly be a warm place. Well, and it had proved warm enough. Now they turned slowly on bone hooks suspended from the low ceiling of an ancient lava blowhole which opened on the volcano's west-facing flank: Shaitan's ice-cavern larder.
The lieutenants had been easy meat; they had no vampires in them; their minds and flesh had been altered but they were not yet Wamphyri. Given a hundred years or more and they might have been harder to take. But time had run out for them right here and now, along with all of their rich red blood.
As for the four Wamphyri Lords: Shaitan was rather more leery of them. Let them fight among themselves first, wear themselves out. It seemed only prudent. In his youth (which Shaitan scarcely remembered), ah, it would have been different then! He'd have had the measure of all of these and four more just like them. But three and a half thousand years is a long time, and time takes its toll of more than memory. Indeed, of almost everything. Now he was... tired? If it must be admitted, even his vampire was tired! And his vampire was by far the greater part of him.
Not ailing, frail or dying tired, just... tired. Of the unrelenting cold, which periodically would cut through the volcanic rock to the mountain's heart, even to the blowhole caverns in its roots; of the interminably dull routine of existence; quite simply, of the sameness and emptiness of being in these eternal, ageless Icelands.
But not yet tired of life. Not utterly.
Certainly not to the extent that Shaitan would advertise his presence to such as Fess, Volse, Shaithis and Arkis Leperson! No, for when you came right down to it there were plenty of better ways to die. Aye, and now that the exiles were here there might be more and better reasons to stay alive, too.
Especially this 'Shaithis'.
Indeed, with a name like that he might even prove to be the realization - the embodiment? - of a totally new existence. This last was only a dream of Shaitan's, true, but it had not faded with time. While all else had turned grey, his dream had stayed clear and bright. And red.
A dream of youth, renewed vigour, a victorious return to Starside and Sunside and of laying them waste, and then the invasion of worlds beyond. Shaitan's belief, his instinctive conviction that indeed such worlds existed, had sustained him through all the monotonous centuries of his exile, giving purpose to that which was otherwise untenable.
But while the dream remained young and bright, the dreamer had grown old and somewhat tarnished. Not in his mind but in his body. The human parts of Shaitan had wasted, been replaced by inhuman tissues; the meta-morphism of his vampire had transcended the deterioration of the host body until the man-part had disappeared almost entirely, leaving only rudimentary or vestigial traces of the original flesh, organs and appendages. But the fused mind of man and vampire remained, and for all that a great deal had been forgotten, still the accumulation of that mind's contents - its knowledge - was vast. And EVIL.
Shaitan's EVIL was fathomless, but he was not mad. For intelligence and evil are not incompatible. Indeed they are complementary. The murderer requires a mind to construct his clever alibi. An idiot cannot build an atomic weapon.
Evil is the perverse rejection of goodness, which in Shaitan was absolute. His was an EVIL which might put the universe itself to the torch, then gaze upon the cinders and find them good! He was Darkness, Light's opposite; he could even be said to be the Primal Darkness, which opposed the Primal Light. Which was the reason why even the Wamphyri had banished him. But he knew, without knowing how he knew, that he'd been banished long before that.
Banished ... by Good? By some benevolent God? No metagnostic, still Shaitan could conceive of such a One. For how may EVIL exist without GOOD? But for now -
- He put such thoughts aside. He'd thought them for long enough. In three and a half thousand years a mind has time to think many things, from the remotely trivial to the infinitely profound. For the moment his origin was not important, but his destiny was. And his destiny might well be part and parcel of this man, this being, called Shaithis.
In the Old Times the Wamphyri had named their 'sons' after themselves. Bloodsons, egg-recipients, common vampires - all had adopted the name of their sire. The custom had changed somewhat but not entirely. Arkis Leperson was the recipient son of his leper father Radu Arkis: 'Arkis the Leper', they'd called him. Wherefore his 'son' - a Traveller lieutenant who more than a century ago found favour in Radu's scarlet eyes - was now Arkis Leperson. He carried Radu's egg.
Similarly Fess Ferenc was the bloodson (born of woman) of Ion Ferenc; his Traveller mother died giving birth to the giant, whose size was such it impressed his father to let him live. A great error, that. While yet a youth Fess had killed Ion, then opened his body to steal and devour his vampire egg whole. This way Ion could not pass it to any other, and his aerie on Starside must devolve 'naturally' to Fess.
Shaitan, in his day, had sired many offspring and by various means, but his egg had gone to Shaithar Shaitan-son, who in his turn had become a father of vampires. And Shaitan's bloodspawned children had been named Shaithos, Shailar the Hagridden, Shaithag, and so on. While among Shaithar Shaitanson's spawn had been one called Sheilar the Slut, and possibly others with similar-sounding names, derived from the One Original. And all of these before Shaitan himself was banished.
Wherefore... was it too much to ask, too improbable, that three thousand years later this one, this Shaithis, should now appear, banished like his forebear before him? Shaitan thought not. But a direct descendant? The blood is the life, and only blood would tell.
Yes, blood would tell.
Take from him, Shaitan commanded the miniature officers of his law. Just one of you. A nip, the merest sip. Take from him and bring it to me. He said no more.
And in his ice-crevice hiding place Shaithis scarcely felt the fish-hook-sharp needles that punctured the lobe of his ear and drew blood, and was only faintly aware of the whir of small wings making away from him into the frozen labyrinth of the ice-castle, then out of that amazing sculpture and into the star-bright night of the world.
Some short time later, the albino swooped down inside the all but extinct central cone to Shaitan's sulphur-yellow apartments, and there hovered, waiting on his command.
From his dark corner he commanded it: Come, little one. I won't crush you.
The tiny creature flew to him, folded its wings and fastened to Shaitan's... hand? It coughed up spittle and mucus into what passed for a palm, and one small bright splash of ruby blood. And: Good! said Shaitan. Now go. Only too pleased to obey, the bat hastened from its master and left him to his own devices.
Fascinated, for a long while Shaitan gazed at the ruby droplet. It was blood, and the blood is the life. He waited impatiently for the vampire flesh of his hand to open into a tiny mouth and sip the droplet in - an automatic thing, born of hideous instinct - from which he would know that this was just the blood of a common man. But he waited in vain, for like himself Shaithis was uncommon. Very much like himself.
And: 'Mine!' said Shaitan at last, in a croaking, shuddering, delighted whisper. 'Flesh of my flesh!'
At which the droplet quivered and soaked through the leprous skin of his hand, and into him as if he were a sponge...
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