Again Perchorsk - The Icelands Now

The hivelike caverns, burned-out burrows and haunted magmass levels of the Perchorsk Projekt had seen a period of intense activity. Six days had passed since Harry Keogh's night visit with Projekt Direktor Viktor Luchov, and his subsequent invasion of the core riding a powerful American motorcycle; as a result of which, a final, terrifying scene had now been set. The pieces were all in place for what Luchov could only hope would be the permanent closure of the Gate.

Down in the core, standing on the now deactivated, recently cleaned and polished fish-scale plates where they encircled the dimensional portal, Luchov's unblinking gaze fell in silent awe on the would-be instruments of that disconnection: a pair of top-secret Tokarev Mk II short-range missiles (in more common parlance, nuclear exorcets), mounted atop the compact, caterpillar-tracked carriage of their grey-metal launching and guidance module. Behind the smoked lenses of his plastic eye-shields, the Projekt Direktor's eyes were mere slits, as if frozen in a wince or grimace; for it had been his responsibility, passed down from Moscow, to order the Tokarevs armed and programmed. He knew only too well what he had here: knew that obscene slugs of toxic metal had been loaded into the slender steel bellies of the missiles, where now they lay quiescent but ready on the instant to spring shrieking awake. All it required was the push of a button.

A group of military technicians in white smocks were busy in the vicinity of the Tokarevs, checking and double-checking electrical hookups, semi-automatic and computerized systems, radiation levels, other instrument readings. Their senior man, directly responsible to the | Projekt Direktor, touched Luchov's arm and caused him to give a start. Vainly trying to conceal his nervous reaction, the Direktor barked, 'Yes, what is it?'

The man was young, no more than twenty-six or -seven but already a Major; he wore upon his lapels the crown of his rank inside the stylized atomic nucleus insignia of the Special Artillery Arm. 'Sir,' he formally reported, 'we're all ready here. From now on or until these weapons are required for use, there will always be two of us on duty here... armed, of course, as a safeguard against sabotage. We are aware that the Projekt has a history of, er, intruders?'

Luchov nodded. 'Yes, very good.' But he'd scarcely been paying attention. Turning jerkily away from the Tokarevs and pointing towards the glaring sphere of the Gate, he said, 'And do you know what you're on guard against - from that, I mean? Are you sure that if ever it's required, you'll know just exactly when to press the button?'

The other stiffened. He knew his duty well enough. A pity he now found himself in a position where he must take orders from a damned civilian, that's all! He was tempted to answer Luchov in just such terms and from the heart, except it had been made adequately clear to him that the senior scientist was a power in his own right

And so: 'I've acquainted myself with the Projekt's history, certainly, sir,' he said coldly. 'Also, we've watched all of the films. But in any case, the firing sequence may not be initiated except on your instructions.'

'Listen.' Luchov turned more fully towards him, fixed him with a wide-eyed glare and grasped his arm in a trembling claw. That's your brief, yes, but it doesn't say everything. Indeed, it says very little. You've seen the films? Good! But you can't smell them, can you? They can't spring out from the screen and swallow you whole, can they?'

Nodding wildly, and again pointing at the glaring white upper hemisphere of the Gate, he continued hoarsely: 'In there, a curse, a plague, something to make Chernobyl seem of no consequence whatsoever! If it, they, whatever, got out into the world... that's the end, I mean of everything! Mankind joins the dinosaurs, the trilobites, the dodos - gone! So don't get snotty with me when I ask if you know what you're dealing with.'

Pale with barely suppressed anger, the young officer came to attention and his thin mouth cracked open; but Luchov wasn't finished with him, hadn't yet told him the worst. 'Listen,' he said again. 'One week ago a man, or something which was once a man, went through that Gate into whatever lies beyond. When he went the world breathed a sigh of relief - since when it's been holding its breath! We were glad to see the back of him because he was tainted, a carrier. Only now we wonder: how long before he finds his way back here? And if he does, what will he bring with him? Do you follow me so far?'

Something of the colour had returned to the Major's face. He sensed the importance of what the Projekt Direktor was saying, the enormous stresses playing on his mind. 'I follow you so far.' He nodded.

'Very well,' said Luchov, 'and now something which wasn't in your brief. You mentioned our previous problem with intruders. Quite right; we did have this problem; we could have it again. So now I'm going to add to your brief and issue a new order.' He pushed his face closer. 'This one: if I should get taken out - if anything weird or inexplicable should happen to incapacitate me or even, yes, exclude me permanently from the scheme of things - then you're the next in line. Consider yourself appointed, here and now.'

'What?' The officer looked at Luchov's pale, shining face, his hideously scarred skull, and wondered if he was entirely sane. 'You are ... appointing me, Projekt Direktor?'

'Indeed I am!' Luchov was vehement. 'As Guardian of the Earth, yes!'

'Guardian of...?'

'Press it!' Luchov whispered, cutting him short. 'If anything should happen to me, press the bloody thing! Don't delay - don't waste time phoning Gorbachev or those mumbling cretins who so poorly serve him - but press the button! Get it over and done with and send your exorcets on a real mission of exorcism, into the world beyond the Gate, before the devil himself comes spewing out of there right into your face! Have you got that?'

The Major took a pace to the rear. His eyes were very wide now, very concerned; and still Luchov held his arm in a steel grasp. 'Sir, I...'

Abruptly Luchov released him, straightened up a little and stiffened his back and shoulders, then glanced away. 'Say nothing.' He gave a curt, almost dismissive nod. 'For the moment, don't say anything at all. But neither must you forget what I said. Don't you dare forget it, that's all!'

How to answer him? With a smile, which might be misinterpreted? With words? But Luchov had advised him to say nothing, and anyway the Major had no words. Perhaps it were better if he simply forgot the whole incident. Except Luchov had warned him about that, too. And anyway, would it be a wise move: to forget that this possibly dangerous man was in charge here? And in so doing, to forget what he was in charge of ...

Saving the Major from further embarrassment and possibly worse, a hatch in the fish-scale plates clanged back on its hinges and a maintenance engineer came up from below. Staggering a little as he stood up in the glare of the Gate, he wrenched breathing apparatus from his pale damp face and put on plastic goggles. Then he reached out a groping hand, as if seeking support, and staggered again.

Luchov recognized him, went to him at once with the Major following on behind. 'Felix Szalny?' The Projekt Direktor took the man's arm, steadied him. 'Is it you, Felix?' (He could be familiar when he thought the situation required it.) 'But you look like you saw a ghost!'

The coveralled maintenance man, small, balding, smudged with grime, nodded. He blinked his eyes rapidly and glanced back towards the open hatch. 'The next best thing, anyway, Direktor,' he muttered almost to himself, wiping cold sweat from his brow with a rag.

'What is it?' Luchov felt the short hairs rising at the back of his neck, which they were wont to do all too often in this place. 'Something below?'

'Down there, in one of the sealed shafts which was part of the original complex, yes,' Szalny answered. 'I was checking a wormhole hotspot. Curiously, the radiation has decreased almost to background; it's no longer dangerous, anyway. So I opened up the seal and... and entered. Eventually the wormhole came out into the old abandoned reactor maintenance level. In there ... I found magmass, of course.'

'Ah!' Luchov knew what had happened. Or thought he did. 'There were bodies!'

'Bodies, yes,' Szalny answered, nodding. 'That was part of it, at least. They'd been roasted, inverted, transformed. Some were half-in, half-out of the magmass, like mummies wrapped in warped rock, rubber and plastic. And even after all these long years of entombment, Lord, still I fancied I could hear their screams!'

Luchov was well able to picture it. He had been a scientist here in Perchorsk when the hideous accident happened; he still bore the scars, both upon his seared parchment skull and more permanently in his mind, which was why he now shuddered. 'It's as well you came up out of there,' he said. 'Later you can take a team down and clean the place out, but for now...'

'I ... I tripped over something.' Szalny was still dazed, still talking almost to himself, because as yet he hadn't told it all. 'Something crumbled into dust where I stepped on it, so that I stumbled and crashed against a cyst - which immediately shattered!'

The young Major touched Luchov's elbow, but this time very carefully. 'Did he say something about a cyst?'

The Direktor glanced at him. 'Oh, and are you interested?' And without waiting for an answer, nodding grimly, he continued, 'Then you must see it for yourself.'

He called over a private soldier and sent him hurrying off on an errand. And while they waited: 'Can we borrow a couple of these radiation tags from your staff here?' And then to Szalny: 'Felix, I want you to go and sit in one of those chairs on the perimeter.' And finally, to a second soldier: 'You there - go and get this man a mug of hot tea. And hurry!'

Luchov and the Major clipped radiation hazard tags to their clothing; the first soldier returned with a pair of gas masks; slinging these over their shoulders, the pair descended through the steel hatch into the lower half of the chamber. Down there, the Gate glared on them from where it hung suspended, weightless in the centre of spherical space.

Reaching the bottom of the steel ladder, Luchov stepped carefully down between the gaping mouths of circular shafts cutting at all angles into the giant stone bowl of the floor. These were 'wormholes': energy channels which had been eaten through the solid granite in the first seconds of the Perchorsk accident, when previously rigid matter had taken on the consistency of dough. 'Watch how you go,' he called up to the young officer. 'And give a wide berth to wormholes with their radiation seals intact. They're still a little hot. Of course, you'd know all about that sort of thing, wouldn't you?' He set out to negotiate the perfectly smooth cold stone floor, following corrugated rubber 'steps' which had been laid down to provide for a firmer tread.

And climbing away from the hub, they were soon obliged to use iron rungs where these had been grafted into a sloping 'floor' which gradually curved into the vertical; which was also when Luchov drew level with a three-foot diameter shaft whose lead-lined manhole seal had been left standing open. He'd first spotted the open hatch as he came down the ladder and guessed that this was where Szalny had been working. For corroboration, a pocket torch with the maintenance engineer's name scratched into its plastic casing lay where Szalny had left it in the wormhole's gaping mouth.

Luchov took up the torch, and lighting the way ahead he crawled into the hole. 'Still interested, are you?' His almost sardonic voice echoed back to the Major who followed on hands and knees. 'Good. But if I were you I'd put on that gas mask.'

Szalny had left a rope attached to the last rung; it snaked out of sight into the wormhole, which wound first to the left, then tilted into a gentle descent for maybe thirty feet before levelling out, and finally turned sharply right... into darkness. Into the permanent midnight of a place long abandoned.

'In the old days,' Luchov breathed, where he pierced the smoky darkness with a shaft of light and lowered himself carefully to the lumpy, uneasy-feeling floor, 'they used to service the pile from down here.' His voice, mask-muffled, had become a susurrating echo. 'But of course, that was before the pile ate itself.'

The young officer was close behind; clambering awkwardly out of the wormhole, he stood up and caught hold of Luchov's smock to steady himself. But Luchov was pleased to note that the Major's hand shook and his breathing was a little panicked. Probably from unaccustomed exertion; indeed, mainly from that... until Luchov let the beam of the torch creep across the walls, the floor, the magmass inhabitants of the place.

Then the Major's breathing turned to panting and his shaking got a lot worse, until after a while he gasped, 'My God!'

Luchov stepped carefully, fastidiously over anomalous and yet homogeneous debris. Over debris which had tried to be homogeneous, anyway. 'When the accident happened,' he said, 'matter became very flexible and flowing. A melting pot without the heat. Oh, there was some heat - a lot, in places - but that was mainly chemical reaction or nuclear residual. It had little to do with the way rock, rubber, plastic, metal, flesh, and bones melted together into this. This was a different sort of heat, an alien sort, the result of the forging of the Gate. As you can see, things get tangled at the crossroads of universes.'

Abruptly his slithering torch beam passed over, and immediately returned to, something in the wall. Szalny's 'cyst': a fine eggshell sheath of magmass stone, like a man-sized blister clinging there, but broken open now and dripping black stuff on the nightmarish floor. Even with their masks filtering out any poisons, still they could smell it; their movements and Luchov's muffled, echoing voice had disturbed it; as they stared, so sticky black bones came lolling out of it.

After that -- the Major didn't stop moving and mouthing, panting and gasping, until he was back through the wormhole to the white-glaring core; where finally, at the foot of the ladder, he paused, removed his mask and threw up. Having followed him, Luchov stood off at a safe distance and watched. And as the young officer finished but continued to kneel there, hanging like a limp rag on the lower rungs, so the Projekt Direktor said: 'So now you begin to understand. You understand something of the horror this place has seen, inherent in its atmosphere, indeed in its walls! Down here, sealed in by the magmass - and in other places bricked up by men who couldn't bear to contemplate it - there is much horror. Ah, but up there -' he lifted his eyes to the belly of the steel disc with its overlapping plates ' - on the other side of that madly glaring Cyclops Gate, there is so much more. An entire world of horror, for all we know, which is still alive!'

The Major wiped his mouth.

'I could see it in your eyes that you thought I'd cracked,' Luchov told him. 'Well, of course I have! Do you really think I'd be here if I was entirely sane?'

The Major coughed into his hand, and mumbled, 'My God! My God!'

Luchov nodded, and without malice said, 'Nice thought ... but what has He to do with this place, eh?' He shook his head. 'Very little, I fear. And the longer you're here, the more godless it gets to be.'

Not even attempting to answer, the other continued to cling tightly to the ladder's rungs...

Below the caldera of an ancient volcano, in a place not unlike subterranean Perchorsk and yet an entire universe away - a place of wormhole lava-runs and sulphur walls, where ages ago superheated gas had expanded to form caverns like bubbles in chocolate, and the liquid guts of a planet had first forced and then made permanent a spider-web network of channels in the permeable rock - this was where the monstrous Lord Shaitan had made his 'home' in a time immemorial. And here, just four years ago, his descendant Shaithis of the Wamphyri had discovered him alive and plotting still.

Now, standing tall but dramatically insignificant against the dark uppermost fangs of the caldera's broken walls -like a statue there on the old cone's lava rim under writhing auroral vaults shot through with the occasional scar of a meteorite's suicide, and gazing south upon a far, faint horizon - Shaithis selected and highlighted memories of those years: of how they'd passed, of what he'd seen and learned, and of what had been planned. By his ancestor Shaitan and by himself. Plans which purported to coincide, though not necessarily. Indeed, not at all.

And guarding such thoughts (ah, but jealously, fearfully!) Shaithis remembered his journey here from Star-side on the rim, across surly iceberg oceans and vast wintry wastelands. He and the other survivors of The Dweller's wrath: the giant Fess, hideous Volse, squat Arkis and various thralls, all fled here, self-exiled under threat of a vampire's death, which is far more terrible than that of any mere man and not just from an entirely physical point of view. For a man knows he must die, but a vampire knows he need not.

Four years ago, aye...

After the whelky Volse's loathsome demise, Shaithis in his treachery had directed Arkis Leperson called Dire-death and the acromegalic Fess Ferenc into the clutches of Shaitan the Unborn where, in the shrieking sulphur shadows of an ancient lava-run, that immemorial monster had struck out of his own mind-silence!

Even now remembering how it had been, Shaithis gave an unaccustomed start: the lightning-swift, shadow-silent attack of the siphon-snout (as Shaithis thought of such creatures now); then Arkis speared and held aloft on nimbly skipping tiptoes, jerking and throbbing on the hollow bone blade where it pierced him to the heart, eyes bulging and cheeks going in and out like a bellows, puffing out a fine damp scarlet mist. Extremely fine that life-mist, for Shaitan's ingurgitor had been loath to lose or spill a drop. And Fess the giant rounding on Shaithis in a fury, all intent upon tearing out his heart; but Shaitan to the rescue, flowing out of the darkness like a tide of evil, wrapping the berserker in a nest of tentacles while Shaithis swung his gauntlet to burst his head in.

And the one final scene which remained fresh as steaming blood in Shaithis's mind to this day: the great pulsing mass of the Ferenc held fast for long and long in Shaitan's many-armed embrace, until at last the giant's throbbing ceased and elastic cobra jaws released his head, leaving it wet and smoking and apparently whole - except it was seen how the eye-sockets were empty and trickling, with similar dribbles escaping from the nostrils and slack yawning mouth. And Shaithis thinking a thought so cold it burned him still: Oh, yes, surely hell's gate! Where I've just witnessed a so-called 'ancestor' of mine emptying the Ferenc's head like a rat sucking out a stolen egg.

And: 'Indeed you have!' Shaitan had at once, gurglingly, agreed, while his crimson eyes in their yellow orbits glared out from the darkness beneath the black, corrugated flesh of his cobra's hood. 'My creature siphoned off his blood - for safekeeping, until later, you understand - and I sucked out his brain. But you'll note how we left the best for you, eh?'

With which he'd made a small effort to propel the corpse in Shaithis's direction, so that it had appeared to take two stumbling, flopping steps towards him before crashing at his feet. And of course he'd known exactly what the other meant. For hiding in the Ferenc's huge, pale, dehydrated shell, his vampire (ah, sweetmeat of sweetmeats!) was still to be discovered and reckoned with.

And: 'Won't you join me?' Shaitan had offered a clotted, gurgled invitation - before wrenching Arkis from the bubbling blade of the ingurgitor and throwing him down to the lava floor, there falling or flowing over him as he commenced to search for his frantic, cringing parasite.

To this point events had left Shaithis somewhat stunned - but not for much longer. He was after all Wamphyri, and all of this had been much as anticipated. And of course, the blood was the life. Dining with Shaitan may even have sealed something of a bond between them.

It might have, anyway.

After that...

There was a lot to remember and events contrived to jumble. A good many fractured scenes and conversations overlapped their jagged edges in Shaithis's memory. As contrary breezes blew up off the cold blue star- and aurora-lit waste, bringing nodding snow-devils to swirl around the bases of the glittering, plundered ice-castle tombs of anciently exiled Wamphyri, so he attempted to arrange these fragments in chronological order, or failing that to separate them at least.

Shaitan's cavernous workshop, for example, located immediately beneath the volcano's hitherto unseen north-facing scarp, where soon after Shaithis's advent the Fallen One had escorted him upon a guided tour.

Apart from the high-ceilinged, stalactite-adorned vast-ness of the place - with its near-opaque windows of ice looking out upon and lending grotesque distortion to the very roof of the world, and its deep permafrost pits where Shaitan was wont to confine in ice his more volatile, less manageable experiments - the workshop had seemed much like any other. Shaithis, too, was a master of just such creative metamorphism; or so he had always considered himself, until he saw his ancestor's work.

Gazing down on one such piece through ice clear as water, he had offered his opinion: 'This alone would suffice to have you denounced and banished afresh, or destroyed outright, if this were Starside and the Old Wamphyri still held sway. Why, it has reproductive organs, which were forbidden!'

'A bull, aye,' Shaitan had answered with a nod of his cowl. 'Alas but procreation, the act of copulation, its contemplation - even the possession of organs, of the means - drives creatures to rage. I made this one a mate, female, which for thanks he at once tore to pieces! But even if she'd lived and brought forth, what then? I cannot see that he'd permit offspring to survive but would surely devour them at the first opportunity. Just look at him, and as yet half-grown! But so untrustworthy, at last I was obliged to freeze him here. The fault was his sex. It made him prideful and pride is a curse. It's the same with men, of course...'

'And therefore with the Wamphyri.' Shaithis had nodded.

'More so!' Shaitan cried. 'For in them all such urges are amplified by ten!'

'But they don't tear their odalisks in pieces. At least, not always.'

'More fool them,' said Shaitan. 'For if you can live for ever, what sense to breed that of your own flesh which may one day usurp and destroy you?'

'And yet you sought out women in which to spend yourself,' Shaithis had been quick to point out, 'else I'd not be here.'

And at that their eyes had met and locked across Shaitan's creature frozen in its pit of ice, and after a while the Fallen One had answered: 'I did, it's true - and perhaps for that very reason...'

It had been their first argument or discussion as such, but only one of a great many to come. And while it would soon become Shaithis's complaint that his ancestor conversed with him in terms more befitting a child, generally he accepted that the ancient, evil Being was trying to instruct him. Perhaps he considered his great age gave him the right; for after all, he was Shaithis's senior to the extent of seven spans.

... Another time: Shaithis had been shown a developing siphon-snout, absorbing liquids where it gradually took on shape and substance in a vat. The thing was much similar to the guardian ingurgitors (of which the volcano's master had three) but the siphon was longer, more flexible, and bedded at its roots in great walls of flesh, so that the creature's tiny, greedily glittering eyes were almost entirely hidden in bulging bands of grey, gleaming muscle.

Shaithis had known immediately what the thing was, enquiring of Shaitan: 'But don't you have enough of these? It surprises me you trouble yourself to make more. By now you've surely had the best of the ice-encysted Wamphyri... those of them who were readily got at, anyway. So what use to persist?'

Shaitan had cocked his cobra's head on one side, coiled up his arms and inquired: 'And have you fathomed it all, my son? Do you know the precise use to which they're put, these things of mine?'

'Certainly. They are variations on a theme: ingurgitors not unlike that or those which stopped Volse and Arkis, but rather more specialized. Their slender, bone-tipped cartilage snouts vibrate in ice to shatter it, whereby paths are drilled to the suspended exiles in their otherwise impenetrable sheaths. Once a channel has been cut, then the beast drains off its victim's liquids through its snout, which siphoned fluids - '

' - Are then regurgitated into my reservoirs!' Shaitan, perhaps peeved with Shaithis's ingenuity, had finished it for him. 'Yes, yes - but aren't you curious to know how? How may the driller siphon off solids, eh? For of course his victims are mainly frozen, whose fluids gurgle like glue.'

'Ah!' Shaithis had been fascinated.

'I will explain ... in a moment. As to why I bother myself with these Old Lords, when (as you've pointed out) they're now so few in number and invariably low in sustenance, the answer to that is simple: because it pleases me to do so. The terror in the minds of those of them who can still think at all is so rare and delicious as to be exquisite. If I had not them, then whom would I terrify, eh? Could I even exist, without my measure of tyranny and terror?'

And Shaithis had understood. Evil feeds on terror; without one the other cannot exist; they are inseparable as space and time. And reading his thoughts, Shaitan had whisperingly, gurglingly, chortlingly agreed, 'Aye, it's simple as that: I like it, and I need the practice!'

So that was why; and the how of it was likewise simple:

The drillers squirted metamorphic acids into their victims, whose desiccated tissues then dissolved into liquids which were drawn off before they could resolidify.

'It still doesn't answer my first question,' Shaithis had argued. 'Which was: why do you trouble to make more of these creatures?'

(Shaitan's shrug, of sorts.) 'I say again, mainly for the practice; as has been almost everything I've done these last three thousand years. Practice, yes, towards the time when we shall build an army of warriors, and with them set out against Starside and all the worlds beyond!'

For a moment the scarlet eyes beneath the Fallen One's cobra's hood had burned more brightly yet, like fires stoked from within. But then he'd nodded, gradually returned from the privacy of his dark-cloaked thoughts, and said: 'Ah, but now you must tell me: since you seem of the opinion that I breed too many, just how many of my ice-drillers and kindred creatures have you seen?'

Shaithis had been taken aback. He'd imagined a great many such beasts, to be sure. But what evidence he'd seen of them in the looted ice-castles had been the slow work of countless centuries, in no way the concerted effort of a handful of auroral periods, nor even entire cycles of such. And while here in the workshops at the roots of the volcano several vats steamed and bubbled where Shaitan's experiments continued to shape, still there were precious few working beasts. No flaccid siphoneers here as in Starside's aeries, for the cone's caldera contained a small lake of water; nor any great requirement for gas-beasts, where several of the volcano's caverns - especially Shaitan's living quarters - were warmed by active blowholes. So that after giving the question some little thought, Shaithis had been obliged to answer, 'Now that I think of it, I can't say I've actually seen any - except this one cooking in its vat.'

'Exactly, for there are none! Not of the visible, mobile-and-eating-their-heads-off varieties, at any rate. I keep only my ingurgitors, for the protection they afford me. Now come.' And Shaitan had taken his descendant down to black, lightless nether-caverns where every niche, crevice and extinct volcanic vent served as a storage chamber for the ice-encased progeny of his experimental vats.

And there he inquired of him, 'So advise me: how would you keep such as these both awake and full-bellied?' And answered himself, 'Out of the question! What, in these almost barren Icelands? You wouldn't. Which is why, as their various purposes are served, I freeze them into immobility down here. And here they stay, inert for the moment, the raw materiel of tomorrow's army. And when I require another, perhaps different sort of creature - why, I simply design and construct one! The art of metamorphism, Shaithis. But nothing wasted, my son, never that.'

Continuing to gaze down on his ancestor's preserved experiments, Shaithis had nodded. 'I see you've tried a warrior or two,' he commented. 'Fearsome but... archaic? Perhaps I should advise you: Starside's warriors have come a long way since your day. In all truth, these things of yours would not last long against certain of my constructs!'

If Shaitan was offended, it hardly showed. 'Then by all means instruct me in these superior metamorphic skills,' he'd answered. 'Indeed, and in order that you may do so, you shall have complete freedom of my workshops, materials and vats.'

Which had been much to Shaithis's liking...

Another time, Shaithis had asked: 'What of your ingurgitors? Since plainly they are working beasts, and since it's your habit to - separate them? - from what they take from their victims, how do you sustain them? On what do you feed them? For as you yourself have pointed out: these Icelands are very nearly barren.'

Shaitan had then shown him his reservoirs of frozen blood and minced, metamorphic flesh, explaining: 'I've been here a long, long time, my son. And when I first came here, ah, but I quickly learned what it meant to go hungry! Since when I've made provision not only for myself but for my creatures, both now and in the dawn of our resurgence.'

In blank astonishment, Shaithis had gazed upon the rims of (literally) dozens of potholes of black plasma. 'Blood? So much blood? But not from the frozen Lords, surely? There were never sufficient of the Wamphyri in all Starside to fill these great bowls!'

'Beast blood,' Shaitan told him. 'Whale blood, too. Yes, and even a little man blood. But you are correct, only a very little of the latter. The blood of beasts and great fishes is fine for my creatures; it will fuel them to war when that time is come, following which... why, there'll be food aplenty for all, eh? But the man blood is mine - and yours, too, now that you're here - for our sustenance.'

Shaithis had been even more astonished. 'You've bled the great fishes in the cold sea?'

'Actually, while I called them fishes, they are mammals.' Shaitan had shrugged in his fashion. They're warm-blooded, those giants, and suckle their young. Soon after I came here I saw a school at play, spouting at the rim of the ocean, so that my first ingurgitor was designed with them in mind. It was a good design and I've scarcely changed it down the centuries. Doubtless you've noted the vestigial gills, fins, and other seeming anomalies in the volcano's guardian creatures; likewise in my driller.'

Shaithis had noted those things. Indeed it was his habit to note everything...

On another occasion, fascinated by the sheer age of his self-appointed 'mentor', Shaithis had thought to suggest: 'But you have been here - upon the earth, in Starside and in the Icelands, mainly in these frozen wastes - almost .since the Beginning!' Even speaking those words he had realized how naive they must sound and how much in awe of the other he must seem, which his ancestor's dark chuckle had at once confirmed.

The Beginning? Ah, no, for I perceive that the world is a million times older than I am. Or did you mean the beginning of the Wamphyri? In which case I can but agree, for I was the first of all.'

'Really?' Again Shaithis forgot to distance himself from his astonishment. It was hard to be inscrutable in the face of revelations such as these. Of course, the legends of Starside said that Shaitan the Fallen had been the first vampire, but as any fool is aware, legends are like myths: mainly untruths or at best exaggerations. The first? The father of us all?'

The first of the Wamphyri, aye,' Shaitan had answered at last, after a long, curious silence. 'But not ... the Father, did you say? No, not the Father. Oh, I fathered my share, be sure, for I was young with a young man's appetites. I had been a man entire and fallen to earth here, where my vampire came to me... came out of ... out of the swamps...' He paused, leaving his words to taper into a thoughtful silence.

And after a while: 'Out of the vampire swamps?' Shaithis had pressed him. There are great swamps to the west of Starside, and according to legend others to the east. I know of them but never saw them. Are these the swamps of which you speak?'

Shaitan was still distanced by strange reverie. Nevertheless he nodded. Those are the swamps, aye. I fell to earth in the west.'

Shaithis had heard him use this term - about 'falling to earth' - before. Frowning and shaking his head, he'd said, 'I fail to understand. How may a man fall to earth? Out of the sky, do you mean? From your mother's womb? But weren't you also called the Unborn? Where did you fall from, and how?'

Shaitan had snapped out of it. 'You are a nosy person, and your questions are rude! Still, I'll answer them as best I may. First understand this: my memories start at the swamps, and even then they are faded and incomplete. Before the swamps, I ... I'm not sure. But when I came naked to this world I came in great pain and great pride. I believe that I was exiled into this place, thrown down here even as the Wamphyri exiled me at last to these Icelands. The Wamphyri exiled me because I would be The One Power. Well, and perhaps I had tried to be a Power in that other place, too, wherefrom I was banished and fell to earth. It is a mystery to me. But this I do know: compared to the other place, this world was like a hell!'

'Someone had sent you here as a punishment, to a life of hell?'

'Or to a world which could become a hell, of my making. It was a question of will: anything could be, if I so willed it or allowed it to be. I repeat: it was because I was wilful and prideful that I was here. Or at least, that is how I seem to remember it.'

'You do not actually remember falling, then? Only that you were suddenly there, in the vampire swamps?'

'Close to the swamps, yes, where my vampire came into me.'

Shaithis had been keenly interested in that last. 'In our time,' he mused, 'we've both had occasion to kill enemies and tear their living vampires out of them to devour. Fess Ferenc and Arkis Leperson were only the most recent. We know what such parasites look like: full-formed they are barbed leeches, which hide in men to shape their thoughts and urges. And in certain hosts, over long periods, they may grow so fused as to become inseparable.'

'As in myself, yes,' Shaitan had answered. 'Indeed, there remains precious little of the original me at all, while my vampire is grown to what you see.'

'Just so,' said Shaithis. 'You, or rather your vampire -as a result of prolonged metamorphism - is now gross. But how was it then? Did it come to you as an egg? Did the parent creature remain in the swamps? Or did the parasite come to you full grown, take you by surprise and slither into you complete?'

'It came to me from the swamp,' Shaitan had repeated. That much I know... how I do not know.'

The problem had vexed Shaithis (and his ancestor no less), but on that occasion at least they'd been lost for further questions and answers.

A good many auroral periods later, however, when Shaithis was busy in a corner of the workshop, carefully constructing a warrior for his ancestor's approval:

'This is how it was!' said Shaitan, coming swiftly and in some excitement upon Shaithis where he worked, and flowing up to him like a midnight shadow. 'In that earliest existence of which I apprised you, I served another or others but desired to serve only myself. As a reward for my pride - which is to say for my wit and great beauty, of which I was perhaps too much aware - and for my pains, I was thrown out and removed from my rightful place in that society. I was not destroyed, not wasted, but used! I became to Them ... a tool! A seed of evil, which They would sow between the spheres! Do you see? I was the folly and the penance! I was the Darkness which allows for the Light!'

In the face of this outburst, Shaithis had brought his work at the vat to a halt. Unable to understand the other, he could only shake his head and throw up his hands. 'Can't you explain yourself more clearly?'

'Damn you - no? Shaitan had shouted then. 'I dreamed it; I know it for the truth; but I cannot understand it! I've told it to you so that you also may attempt to fathom it -and likewise fail to fathom it, even as I have failed!'

With which and in a fury, he had rushed off and disappeared into the volcano's labyrinth.

For a long time after that Shaithis had not seen the other at all; he had merely been aware of his ancestor's shadowy presence. But a time had come when, going again to the vats, he'd found the ancient gloomily examining his various adaptations where they squirmed and hardened in their liquids; and there, following customary greetings but in answer to no specific remark or query, Shaitan had listlessly mumbled: 'I have been banished out of many spheres and thrown down from many worlds. Aye, and others like me, throughout all the myriad cone-shaped dimensions of light.' That had been all.

Mad creature! (Shaithis had kept this thought, and others he was thinking, very much to himself.) But it's as well you rush around crazed while I'm about my work. The last thing I would want is for you to become interested in what I'm doing now. For in fact he was there at that time in order to inject brain matter into his new construct, so stimulating and even directing the foetal ganglion's growth. Except... these were cells obtained from a rather special source, and by means of Shaitan's ice-boring ingurgitor...

Putting all such business aside for the nonce, however, and pandering to Shaitan's insanity, if that is what it was, he had answered: 'In which case, when we go against Starside with these warriors I'm fashioning, your revenge will be so much sweeter. Nothing will stand before us; and if there are higher worlds to conquer, they too shall finally fall, even as you fell to earth.'

His words had seemed to suffice to draw the other up from whatever morbid depths claimed him, even so far as to correct his temporary imbalance. And: 'Indeed, these appear to be good warriors, my son!' he'd at once remarked. A rare compliment; at once qualified by: 'Which they should be, for in Starside you had a sufficiency of superb clay with which to practise.'

And after that the ancient rambled no more...

Later still:

The two had constructed a slender, streamlined, powerful flyer, equipped it with a sucking snout and given it the stripped-to-basic brain of one of Menor Maimbite's otherwise defunct lieutenants. Fuelling the beast on quality plasma, they'd sent it on a reconnaissance flight to Star-side. After that and over the space of a good many auroral displays, they'd waited on its return but in vain. Eventually, when almost all hope had faded... then the flyer had returned, bringing back with it a scrawny shivering waif of a Traveller child.

A boy of eight or nine years, the flyer had snatched him at sundown from a party of Travellers where they camped in the hills over Sunside. It appeared that the Travellers no longer went to earth when the sun sank down into night. Why should they, when the Wamphyri were no more? But the return journey from Starside had been long, and the child almost dead from exposure.

Shaitan had carried him away to his private chambers for 'questioning'; shortly thereafter, the ancient's mind-call had summoned Shaithis from where he worked at the vats: Come!

A single word, yes, but its author's excitement had spoken volumes...
 

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