Shaithis of the Wamphyri dreamed a splendid fantasy. As is often the way of it with dreams, it was comprised of a great many scenes and themes with little or no explanation except perhaps as echoes of his waking ambitions. The fantasy had been developing itself for some time in the darker caverns of Shaithis's subconscious mind before suddenly firming into an ordered sequence of scenarios, which were these:
It was Shaithis's reception, his triumph, his moment of glory. The Lady Karen kneeled naked between his spread thighs, teased his great gonads, caressed and even nibbled (but very carefully) upon the purple, bulbous tip of his hugely swollen phallus, and now and then paused to gentle that pulsing rod between her perfect breasts. Sumptuously cushioned, Shaithis reclined upon Dramal Doombody's raised bone-throne in Karen's aerie - the last of all the great stacks of the Wamphyri, finally his by right of conquest - and looked upon all of those persons, creatures and possessions who were likewise his to use, abuse or destroy as, when and how he willed it.
Above and beyond the aerie's kilometre-high buttresses, battlements and balconies of fossilized bone, stone, membrane and cartilage, new stars thronged to join those already dusting the darkening sky. The sun issued its last coruscating fan of golden radiation where it sank down behind Sunside, and for breathless moments the barrier mountains were thrown into massive, jagged silhouette while the glaring yellow spikes of their peaks turned purple and finally grey.
Then... the rapidly elongating shadow of the mountains flowed like monstrous stains across Starside's boulder plains to blot them into darkness, and at last it was that sundown which Shaithis had so long awaited: the hour of his greatest triumph, and of his revenge.
As at a signal his lieutenants threw back the heavy tapestries from the windows and cut free Karen's sigils so that they went warping and spiralling out and down into the darkness; and they shook out the longer, tapering pennants bearing Shaithis's new blazon - a Wamphyri gauntlet, clenched and raised threateningly above the glaring sphere which was Starside's portal to the hell-lands - to wave in the thinly gusting currents of air over the aerie's higher parapets.
And: 'So I willed it,' he growled, 'and so it has come to pass.' And he glared all about, defying all and sundry to deny him his sovereignty - if they dared. And yet in his heart Shaithis knew that the victory wasn't his alone, not in its entirety. He knew he couldn't claim that he was its sole engineer, or that he alone had whelmed the strange forces and alien magic of The Dweller. No, for he'd required a deal of help with that.
Shaithis couldn't remember exactly how the fight had been won but he did know that he'd had a powerful ally who was here with him even now. Since he seemed to be the only one in any way aware of that Other, however, and since he alone of all men was fit to command - fit to proclaim himself Warlord of the New Wamphyri - what difference did it make? A wraith may not usurp a man.
He narrowed his eyes and glanced to the right and back a little (but not so obviously that anyone would notice), and peered a moment at the Dark Hooded Thing in its black cloak where it stood close by watching all that transpired. It was a black, evil Thing, and entirely unknown and invisible to all save Shaithis; yet this was the creature which had made Starside's conquest possible. Shaithis felt nothing whatsoever of gratitude but merely scowled; for out of nowhere it had come to him that his secret, faceless ally - his invisible familiar - was the true master here and he himself a mere figurehead, which irritated him and turned his victory sour. For he was Wamphyri and territorial, and there simply wasn't space in this or any other world for two Warlords.
Galvanized by some weird frustration, suddenly Shaithis started to his feet. His prostrate thralls and their kneeling overseer lieutenants rose with him (though all of them, masters and minions alike, shrank back from the severity of his gaze), and four small warriors in dully glinting armour hissed their alarm at such a flurry of movement, but nevertheless held to their positions in the far corners of the great hall.
At Shaithis's feet, the Lady Karen shrank back from her master. Her scarlet gaze seemed partly adoring (aye, she was treacherous as ever) but mainly fearful; he kicked her sprawling out of his way and strode alone to the high-arched windows. Out there, the dizzy aerial levels were now alive with entire colonies of smoky-furred Desmodus bats like clouds of excited, darting midges alongside Shaithis's gigantic, sky-scouring warriors; also rank upon rank of manta-shaped flyers in ornate, decorative trappings, with lieutenants and high-ranking thrall riders seated proud in saddles tooled with Shaithis's gauntlet sigil. It was an airborne display of his power in the wake of his greatest victory.
Shaithis stood there a moment, arms akimbo and head held high, and watched the flypast like a general inspecting his troops. Then he turned his hooded, crimson eyes westward to light upon The Dweller's garden, or rather the high saddle in the grey hills where once a garden had blossomed. Ah, but that was yesterday and now... flames leaped there and black smoke boiled skyward, and the underbellies of clouds where they scudded across the peaks were ruddy from the inferno blazing below them. Shaithis had vowed it and willed it into being, and now it was real! The garden was burning and its defenders were... dead?
No, not all of them. Not yet.
And: 'Bring them to me,' the dreaming vampire commanded of no one in particular. 'I would deal with them -now.' A half-dozen lieutenants hastened to obey, and in a little while a pair of prisoners were led into Shaithis's presence. Massive, he dwarfed them. Of course he did, for he was a Lord of the Wamphyri: he hosted a vampire in his body and brain, while his captives were merely human. Or were they? For even now there was that defiant something in their bearing which in itself might almost be ... Wamphyri? Then Shaithis saw their eyes and knew the astonishing truth.
Ah! And how was this for revenge? For there is nothing so delightful to a vampire than to torment, torture and tap the life fluids of another or others of his own kind. And: 'Dweller,' Shaithis said, his voice so softly threatening it was almost a whisper. 'Dweller, come, take off your golden mask. For I know you now even as I should have known you right from the start. Ah, but your "magic" had me fooled just as it fooled us all. Magic? Hah! No such thing - but the true art of the great vampire! For who else but a master of every Wamphyri talent - aye, and then some - would dare to wage a one-man war against all the great Lords that were? And who else but the most crafty - ah, crafty vampire - might ever have won such a war?'
The Dweller made no answer but simply stood there in his loosely flowing robes and golden mask, behind which his red eyes burned. And Shaithis, believing he saw terror in those half-hidden eyes, smiled a grim smile. Oh, yes, for whether or not there was terror there now, he knew that there would be soon enough.
As for the other prisoner: Shaithis would never forget this one! For not only was he a hell-lander but also The Dweller's father, who had stood side by side with his son in the devastating battle at the garden, when the Wamphyri had been swatted out of Starside's skies and crushed like so many gnats. What was more, when the fighting was over and all the great aeries of the Wamphyri had been levelled (all bar the bitch Karen's), Shaithis had seen this one with that selfsame 'Lady' in these very chambers: Karen's 'private' chambers, as they had been at that time, so that Shaithis had wondered: Are they lovers?
Well, perhaps they had been and perhaps not. It could be that they'd simply been allies against Shaithis and his army of Wamphyri Lords, and as a reward for her part in his defeat her aerie had been spared; but only to become Shaithis's in the fullness of time, as everything else had become Shaithis's. He supposed that one way or the other it made little difference, except that for some ill-defined reason he really would like to know whether or not this hell-lander had known Karen and been in her. Well, that was a question he could resolve easily enough.
She sprawled beside the bone-throne where he had left her, and now he called out: 'Karen, come to me.' She made to stand up but he added quickly: 'No, crawl!'
Luscious body oiled and gleaming in the light of flaring flambeaux, with only her golden bangles and rings to cover a figure which her vampire had made irresistible, she obeyed. Her great bush of pubic hair was a glistening copper tangle; the stains of her aureoles and spiked nipples were dark as bruises against the pale loll of her pendulous breasts; even proceeding in the undignified, animal fashion which Shaithis demanded, still her lithe loveliness could not be disguised.
When she was close to him, then Shaithis reached down quickly and bunched the mass of her red hair in his hand, jerking back her head and yanking her to her feet. She made no sound, no protest, but The Dweller leaned forward a little - a strange attitude or posture, like a dog balanced on its hind legs - and Shaithis thought he heard a low growl rumbling behind the mask. Had he aroused The Dweller's passions? And if so, what about those of his hell-lander father?
Now, still holding Karen upright, so that she stood upon her crimson-nailed toes, Shaithis deliberately looked away from The Dweller and into the strange, sad eyes of his puny-looking father. He cocked his great head on one side enquiringly. 'And so you're the hell-lander who caused me so much trouble in the garden, eh? Well, little man, it strikes me that you and your son were lucky that time, and that if you're the best they have going for them beyond the sphere Gate, then it's high time the Wamphyri went through into the hell-lands and showed them what we can do! Except ... I have to admit there's something I can't quite fathom. I mean, a creature like you - small, soft, puny, with the pulpy parts of a virgin boy - and you'd have me believe you've been into this?' He knotted Karen's hair that much tighter in his great fist, lifting her higher, until she was obliged to dance on the very tips of her toes. 'What, and lived to brag about it?' Shaithis's derisory laughter grated like a hot iron in ashes.
The hell-lander stiffened and his scarlet eyes widened a very little; his mouth twitched in one corner; his pale flesh turned paler yet. But he found strength to suppress the cold fury which Shaithis's scorn had momentarily induced in him. And finally, in a small, quiet voice he answered: 'You must believe what you will. I neither confirm nor deny anything.'
Such negativity! Shaithis took it as a sign of the hell-lander's impotence. For if he and Karen had been lovers, then doubtless he'd delight in boasting how she was his cast-off, which was the way of it with the Wamphyri; in payment for which insolence Shaithis would have him gutted with middling sharp instruments, and before his living eyes feed his smoking entrails to a warrior! But however impotent he might or might not be, still the vampire Lord's question went unanswered.
'Very well.' Shaithis shrugged. Then I shall assume she means nothing to you. If I thought she did I would cut away your eyelids so that you couldn't close them, and hang you in silver chains from the walls of my bedchamber where you'd have no choice but to observe each smallest intricacy and nuance of our lovemaking - before she died from it!'
At which moment, even as he said this thing: Don't!
The warning echoed like a gong struck in Shaithis's mind, and he knew its source at once. Glaring across the hall at the Dark Hooded Thing, he saw that where before the interior of its hood had been black and impervious as granite, now the sulphur orbits and scarlet pinpricks of eyes were visible, unblinking, burning their message into his mind. Don't drive them too far! I hold them enthralled, their powers suppressed, but goading them is like thrusting sharp staves under a warrior's scales! It makes them unstable, galvanizes them, weakens my hold upon them.
And Shaithis sent back: But they're whelmed, conquered, whipped like dogs! Which no one knows better than you; for you hold their minds like grapes in your hands, to peel or crush as you will. But as well as this I have warriors here, and my many lieutenants and thralls. Aye, and all of my creatures without, thronging on the night wind. Now tell me, pray: what have I to fear?
Only your greed, my son, and your pride, the other answered. But did you say 'your' warriors, lieutenants and thralls? Yours and not ours? Have I no part in your triumph, then? There were two of us, Shaithis, remember? And yet now you talk of T when you can only mean 'we'. A slip of the tongue, obviously. Ah, but then, the tongues of all the Wamphyri are forked, are they not?
In answer to which Shaithis hissed: What do you want of me?
Only that you are not prideful, the Dark Hooded Thing told him. For I, too, was prideful in my time, only to discover that it goes before a fall.
It was all too much. Tell a vampire not to be prideful? Restrict the towering, enhanced emotions of a Being such as Shaithis? But he was Wamphyri! And to the Dark Hooded Thing: I vowed Karen's death in a certain fashion, at my hands, in my bed. My triumph will not be complete until it has come to pass, or as nearly as possible. Also, The Dweller and his father have been my mortal enemies, whom I intend to destroy.
Then destroy them! said the other, his eyes blazing up huge, as if gorged on fire. Kill them now, but don't torture them. For it could be that if they are driven to it...
... I think that even they do not know their own strength, their own powers.
Shaithis was astonished. Their strength? But can't you see that they are weaklings? Their powers? Plainly they are powerless! Aye, and I shall prove it.
He released Karen's hair and she collapsed at his feet. And in his dreams Shaithis again turned to his captives, who throughout his conversation with the Dark Hooded Thing had stood as in a frozen tableau, held fast by vampire thralls. 'There was a time,' he told the pair then, 'when the bitch Karen betrayed her rightful master -which is to say myself - and all of the Wamphyri at a stroke. Betrayed us? What? Her treachery almost destroyed us! There and then I vowed that when times and fortunes had changed I would slip a siphon into her living heart and drain her blood sip by sip. Also, I vowed that while I emptied her of her juices, I would fill her with my flesh. A double ecstasy for a most undeserving Lady. So I vowed it, so let it be!'
And to his lieutenant: 'Go, bring me my couch of black, silken sheets, and the sharp, slender golden straw which you shall find upon my pillow.'
Shaithis's couch was carried in by six powerful thralls; a fawning lieutenant proffered a small silken cushion bearing a slim wand of gold tubing, whose funnel mouthpiece reflected the flaring torchlight. Shaithis took the golden straw, threw off his robe and beckoned Karen to the couch. But as he moved to join her there... again there came that rumbling growl from deep in The Dweller's throat, and again Shaithis sensed this oddly-postured being leaning towards him, like some nameless threat.
The vampire Lord paused a moment, cocked his head in mocking, silent inquiry, and smiled an utterly inhuman smile before seating himself upon the couch beside the apparently enthralled Karen. She lay there in a sort of vacant paralysis, with her scarlet eyes fixed upon him; but her breathing was shallow, palpitating, and gleaming beads of perspiration were starting from her brow in morbid anticipation. Catching up her left breast, Shaithis lifted it and examined the pale rib cage beneath, then slipped the sharp tip of his golden straw between two of her ribs and eased it towards the pounding centre of her body.
As a bubble of her dark-red blood formed around the siphon at the point of entry, so Shaithis's vampire lust brought him to massive erection. He released his partially inserted siphon and gripped the inside of Karen's right thigh with a huge hand, squeezing the flesh there as an indication that she should open herself to him...
... Which was when he felt her first, tentative rejection of his will - and the resistance of others bolstering her resolve - and sensed the suddenly converging foci of forces previously unsuspected. The Dark Hooded Thing sensed them, too, crying out in Shaithis's mind: I warned you! But too late, for the vampire Lord's dream fantasy had now turned to sheerest nightmare.
For the third time Shaithis heard The Dweller's now unmistakably animal growl and shot him a wide-eyed glance - in time to see him wrench himself free from the pinioning grip of his guards, then reach up and tear his own golden mask from his face. Except... whatever Shaithis had expected, it was not there beneath that mask; and as for the face which was there, that resembled nothing even remotely human. No, for bristling and flat-eared, it was the face or visage of a great grey wolf - but its blood-gorged eyes were still those of the Wamphyri!
Its wrinkled, quivering muzzle frothed and dripped saliva; teeth like the blades of small scythes gleamed where the wet, writhing muzzle revealed them; in the next moment the snarling beast (was this really The Dweller?) had turned and snapped at an astonished former guard. And even while Shaithis gaped, the thing's jaw closed like a steel trap on the lieutenant's arm and sheared it below the elbow.
From then on, all was madness.
As the huge, upright creature more nearly completed its metamorphosis into a grey-furred, lupine form, so its voluminous robes shredded like so much rotten cloth to reveal its sheer size. It was a wolf, yes, but as large as a big man! Shaithis's thralls, having already witnessed the monster's speed and savage efficiency, quickly backed off. Hastening their retreat, the great wolf fell to all fours and launched itself at another lieutenant, crunching effortlessly upon his head.
And through all of this, the vampire Lord on his couch grew only too well aware that fortune's tide had turned, and that other inexplicable reversals were even now in motion. Nevertheless, he determined that some of his dream-fantasy at least should be made to work for him; and crushing Karen in the circle of one great arm, he gripped the golden straw where it was poised to pierce her heart and prepared to thrust it home.
He gripped it ... and at once snatched back his trembling hand. For a second metamorphosis was even now taking place, in Karen, which was no less rapid and awesome than that of The Dweller into a wolf. Moreover, it was loathsome!
As if Shaithis's siphon had poisoned her and brought on some incredibly swift ageing process or corruptive catabolism, Karen's flesh was collapsing before the vampire Lord's eyes. Her arms became yellow-veined sticks from which her bangles clattered loosely to the floor; her scarlet eyes turned a sick, sunken yellow under matted eyelashes; her skin was suddenly corrugated as the skin of dried fruit.
'What?' he croaked, as her ravaged lips drew back in a travesty of a smile and showed him her leprous forked tongue, shrivelled gums and loose, decaying teeth. 'What?' It wasn't a question proper, but she answered it anyway, and her voice was a morbid cackle as she reached for Shaithis's shrinking parts and said: 'My Lord, I'm ready for you!'
Galvanized into frenzied activity, Shaithis slapped the flat of his hand to the siphon's mouthpiece and drove it home into her body - and a gurgling stream of stinking pus at once jetted out to splash against and adhere to his shuddering flesh! With an inarticulate cry he staggered to his feet, pointed at the dissolving, liquefying thing on the couch, and commanded: 'Destroy it! Remove it now! The refuse pit!' But no one seemed to be listening. Shaithis's lieutenants and other thralls were in turmoil; The Dweller's wolf facet was ravaging among them like a fox among chickens; and as for The Dweller's hell-lander father... the vampire Lord could scarcely believe his own eyes.
The pair of hulking Wamphyri aspirants who had dragged this small, unassuming human being in here were now slumped, smouldering shreds of blasted flesh puddling the flagged floor with their ichor; and the magician (oh, yes, for this, surely, was magic!) who had cindered them was at the window, gazing out on Starside's night skies and ruin-scarred plain with devastating eyes. For where and whenever his gaze alighted and lingered it brought fresh ruins; and all across the sky in the deepening gloom of sundown, Shaithis's New Wamphyri hordes were exploding into fiery tatters and raining their debris down among the shattered stacks of their olden forebears.
Raging his frustration, Shaithis discovered himself robed again, with his gauntlet at his hip. Knowing what must be done - that he alone had the measure of The Dweller and his father - he fitted his deadly weapon to his hand and, in the tradition of the olden Wamphyri, rushed at them to cut them down. And why not? For they were only flesh and blood after all, just as the great white bears of the Icelands had been flesh and blood. And as the vampire Lord knew only too well, all flesh is weak. Even Wamphyri flesh, in the right circumstances.
In Shaithis's mind the Dark Hooded Thing heard his chaotic, bloody thoughts and said, Fool! But Shaithis wasn't listening.
He came upon the hell-lander first, and swung his gauntlet... which froze in mid-air, as if time itself had stopped. But then Shaithis saw that time had simply stretched itself, and that his monstrous gauntlet crept across the intervening distance in a maddening slow-motion. The Dweller's father saw it coming and his strange sad eyes turned (but oh, so very slowly) to burn upon Shaithis's face. And the scarlet eyes of his son, the great changeling wolf, were likewise upon Shaithis from where that slavering creature floated on the air, caught at the high point of its spring.
In the manner of the Wamphyri, the pair spoke to Shaithis in his raging, blood-drenched mind; and not only them but the Dark Hooded Thing, too, all saying the same thing: You have destroyed us all. Your ambition, your passion, your pride.
Die! Shaithis replied, as his gauntlet collided little by little with the hell-lander's head and slowly shattered its bright core.
Aye, bright! Bright and blinding and deadly as the furnace sun itself! For there was no blood, no bone, no grey and pulpy brain in the magician's head at all -nothing but golden fire. Like the seething, seering nuclear fire of the sun.
Indeed, it was the sun, endlessly expanding out of the small destruction of the hell-lander to encompass and destroy... everything!!!
Shaithis started awake, felt the ice against his flesh and thought for a moment that it was searing golden fire. He cried out, and a thousand fragile icicles shattered and came tinkling down from the ice-castle's fantastic ceiling. In the next split second the vampire Lord saw where he was and remembered what he was doing here, and as his nightmare receded and reality closed on him, so his breathing and the pounding of his heart gradually slowed. Then-He scanned across the frozen expanse of the ice-castle and found the dark forms of Fess Ferenc and Arkis Leperson in their niches, and saw that the former had likewise come awake. And now the Ferenc's gaze met his across the glittering ice-sheathed vault.
'Dreaming, Shaithis?' that one called out to him, his words chasing themselves to and fro in the bitter, echoing air of the place. 'An omen, perhaps? You cried out, and it seemed to me you were afraid.'
Shaithis wondered if the dream had been self-contained, like his inward-directed thoughts, or if Fess had been 'listening in' on it. He hated the idea that anyone should spy on him, especially in his subconscious, where the seeds of all of his ambitions - indeed his intentions - were stored in darkness, awaiting their germination. 'An omen?' he eventually answered, but quietly, hiding what confusion lingered still. 'No, I think not. Nothing portended, Fess. A pleasurable dream, that's all, of woman-flesh and sweet traveller blood.' Of the Lady Karen rotting on my couch, and the entire Wamphyri race wiped out in the sunburst of an alien mind!
'Huh!' the other grunted. 'I dreamed only of ice. I dreamed I was frozen in an ice-tomb, and that some unknown thing was melting its way in to me.'
'Then it's as well my cry of sweet pleasure woke you up,' said Shaithis.
'Aye, but too early,' the Ferenc grumbled. 'Arkis sleeps on. In this he's the wise one. Let's drift a further hour or two before we're up and about.'
Shaithis agreed; and grateful that the giant had not read him, he settled down again and closed an eye...
And again Shaithis dreamed. Except that this time, even more certainly than the last, he knew it was much more than any common dream. The setting was a meeting between himself and the being known as Shaitan the Fallen, whom he recognized at once as that selfsame Dark Hooded Thing who had been his sinister, frowning familiar - perhaps even his alter-ego? - in his nightmare of frustrated revenge.
He was aware of the Thing as a shadow among lesser shadows in a cavern of black rock, unsuspected except for the red glow of its eyes where they floated in luminous yellow orbits. What he, Shaithis, was doing in such a place he could not say, except that he felt he'd been called here. Yes, that was it: he was not here entirely of his own free will but mainly because this enigmatic being had called him here.
And as if to confirm that thought: 'Shaithis, my son,' said the Dark Hooded Thing, whose true voice was deeper, darker, and probably more deceiving than any Shaithis ever heard before. 'And so at last you've answered me. Difficult to reach you, my son, through that clever deflective screen of yours, else I had known you and called you here long before now.'
Shaithis's Wamphyri eyes and awareness were accustomed now to the gloom of the place. Indeed he saw and sensed as well as ever, which is to say very well indeed: as a cat at night or Desmodus on the wing. The darkness made no difference; in fact, and with regard to his whereabouts, it merely served to confirm his first instinctive guess that he was in some natural chamber deep in the belly of the slumbering volcano. Which would appear to make Shaitan the Lord of these subterranean regions.
In such close proximity, the other read his thoughts as if they'd been spoken words and answered: 'But of course, just as I have been since... oh, a long, long time.'
Shaithis peered intently at the crimson-eyed shadow which was Shaitan. It was strange, but for all his vampire-enhanced awareness he saw only an outline of the other's form. No fault of his; his senses were not impaired; Shaitan must be shielding his physical self in a manner like to Shaithis guarding his thoughts. But... Shaitan the Fallen? Could it really be - was it really possible - for any creature to live so long? He made up his mind that indeed it must be, for here he stood in the presence of just such a one.
And: This isn't just a dream,' said Shaithis then, with a shake of his head. 'I can feel your presence and know you are real: that same Shaitan of whom Kehrl Lugoz was, and is, so mortally afraid, that ancient Being out of the first annals of Wamphyri legend. You were banished here in prehistory, and you live here still.'
'All true,' the other answered, and darkness stirred where he stood, as if he had offered a casual shrug. 'I am that same Shaitan, the so-called Unborn, who was and is your immemorial ancestor!'
'Ah!' said Shaithis, as truth finally dawned. 'We are of one blood.'
'Indeed, and obviously so. You stand out from the others like a meteor speeding through the stirless stars, much as I stood out in that distant time when I fell to earth. And our ambitions are the same, aye, and our intelligence. I am your origin, Shaithis, and your future. And you are mine.'
'Our futures are bound up together?'
'Outside of these Icelands, you mean? In more civilized places?'
'In Starside, and in worlds beyond Starside.'
'What?' Shaithis was taken aback, for there was something here which smacked of that earlier dream. 'Worlds beyond Starside? You mean the hell-lands?'
'For a start.'
'And you know of such places?'
'Upon a time, I was the inhabitant of just such a place. But that was before I fell - or was thrown - to Earth.'
'And you remember it?'
'I remember nothing of it!' The Dark Hooded Thing growled, moving marginally closer; and there was that about its motion - as if its very flux had intelligence, a sentient viscosity - which caused Shaithis to take a pace to the rear. 'My memory, all memory, was robbed from me when I was cast out.'
'No memory of what you did, who and how you were?'
Again the Thing moved closer, and once more Shaithis backed away, but not too far for fear he should back right out of his own dream. 'Only my name, and that I was vain and proud and beautiful,' said Shaitan, conjuring more echoes of that former dream. 'But it was a long time ago, my son, and given time all things change. I, too, have changed.'
'Changed?' Shaithis tried hard to understand. 'You're no longer vain, no longer proud? But even the least of the Wamphyri know such vices - and enjoy them. They always will.'
Shaitan slowly shook his hooded head, which Shaithis knew from the movement of his crimson eyes in their yellow orbits, the only parts of the creature which were visible through the warp of his inky, impenetrable mental shield. 'No longer beautiful!' he said.
'But it's the same for all of us,' Shaithis answered. 'We know we are not beautiful and accept it. And anyway, what has beauty to do with power? Why, there are those of us who even foster our ugliness as a measure of our might!' Inadvertently, he thought of Volse Pinescu.
Shaitan picked the picture clean out of his mind. 'Aye, that one was ugly. But he himself willed it. I did not. And physically and mentally hideous as the Wamphyri are, still by comparison they are beautiful.' And for the third time he came closer.
Shaithis stood his ground but groped for his gauntlet. It was a dream, true, but he'd not yet relinquished all control. 'Do you wish me harm?' he said.
'On the contrary,' the other answered, 'for we've a long way to go together. But this art I practise is wearying. It were better if you knew me as I am.'
Then show me yourself.'
'I was preparing to,' Shaitan answered. 'Indeed, I was preparing... you.'
'Enough!' said Shaithis. 'I am prepared.'
'So be it!' said his ancestor, and relaxed his hypnotic will.
What Shaithis saw then shocked him awake a second time, as if the sleeping volcano itself had erupted under his feet. He started up gasping in his ice-niche, wide-eyed and astonished by the castle's luminous light after the dream-darkness of the cone's core, with a chill in his black heart spawned more - far more - of what the Dark Hooded Thing had shown him than of any mundane or merely physical condition. And because the dream had been more than a dream, in fact a visitation, it didn't fade back into some subconscious limbo of obscurity but remained sharp, etched in the eye of his mind as clear as the sigils on an aerie's fluttering banners and pennants.
Shaithis, himself a monster in every respect, was not a creature to shock easily. Where the Wamphyri were concerned, 'fear' or 'horror' were more or less defunct concepts, eradicated and replaced by rage. Adrenalin was rarely released into a vampire's system to encourage or enable flight, but usually to trigger his animal passions so that he would stand and fight - viciously, brutally! An awareness of their superiority had been bred into Star-side's vampires through all the long centuries of their sovereignty, when it was indisputable that of all their world's creatures they were far and away the dominant species. Much as common Man was dominant in his world.
But the fact remained that Shaithis had once been a common man - a Traveller vampirized when Shaidar Shaigispawn renamed him, made him his chief lieutenant or 'son', and gave him his egg - and as such he'd learned what fear was all about. Even now after half a millennium he still remembered, if only when he slept. For however monstrous a man may become, the things that frightened him as a youth will continue to do so in his dreams.
What had frightened Shaithis the most in those early days of his abduction from Sunside - in that time now five hundred years in the past, before the Lord Shaidar coughed his scarlet egg into his throat and changed him for ever - had been the many and monstrous anomalies of Shaidar's lofty aerie: the cartilage creatures and gas-beasts, the entirely unthinkable siphoneers, the vast vats in the lower levels of the stack where trogs and Travellers alike became flyers or warriors or yet weirder facets of Shaidar's hybrid experimentation. For the vampire Lord had delighted in showing to Shaithis (at that time a young, as yet innocent Traveller) his most nightmarish creations, and in torturing his mind with the half-threat that one day he, too, might be a diamond-headed flyer, armour-scaled warrior or flaccid, pulpy siphoneer.
Morbid distortions and abnormalities such as these, then, had been the harbingers of Shaithis's worst nightmares during those early days of Wamphyri apprenticeship. But in time, as he himself ascended to the aerie's throne-room, such fears had receded, been suppressed, had succumbed to the vampire in him, which bade him become a maker of monsters in his own right; an art in which finally he'd excelled. And his flyers had been the most weirdly graceful, his warriors ferocious beyond any previous ferocity, and his other creations and experiments... varied. So that it was only in dreams out of his youth that he remembered and took fright at such things. Except that even in the most vivid and awe-inspiring of these, nothing that memory had conjured had been half as monstrous as that which the Dark Hooded Thing had shown him.
'Ugly,' Shaitan had called himself, but there is ugly and there is ugly. And as for hybridism...
Shaithis pictured again the thing which had stood there when his ancestor relaxed his hypnotic shield to let himself be seen as he really was: an abomination which not even the most perverse or insane Wamphyri mind might envisage, made all the worse through its reality. It had been... what? A man-sized slug or leech - corrugated, glistening black, and mottled grey-green - but rearing upright like a man? A vampire, yes, such as might develop from an egg inside a man or woman, but grown huge beyond all reasonable measures; so that Shaithis had wondered: But if this grew inside a man, then what became of its host!?
Then, as the grotesque but mainly vague picture of the thing (made vague, by virtue of its obscenity) scarred itself into his mind, so he'd become aware of something of its finer detail, which in the next moment had sufficed to shock him awake.
The thing (no, he must not think of it as a 'thing' alone but also as Shaitan, his ancestor?) had rubbery limbs, some of which ended in suckered tentacles. Others, however, did not but were equipped with vestigial human and other animal parts: mummied hands and withered, rudimentary feet, and even a gleaming bone claw. And it was these parts, and also Shaitan's flat, composite face on its spade-shaped cobra head, which repulsed Shaithis the most and brought about the resurgence of his long-forgotten phobia.
For he knew that the hybridism he saw here was not that of some Wamphyri Lord's experimental vats but of Nature; or rather of the vampire's unnatural tenacity, its determination to cling to life in circumstances however desperate, through travails and triumphs down all the nameless ages. Aye, for the Lord Shaitan had grown simply too ancient for the accommodation of mortal, human flesh, and his original body had wasted away to be replaced almost in its entirety by the metamorphic organism which was his vampire. Which was, indeed, now him.
Ugly? The result was hideous; especially so to Shaithis in his dream, for there it had been the embodiment of every nightmare of his apprenticeship.
As to how he knew the fate which had befallen Shaitan in his ice-bound isolation - his evolution, no, devolution, from man-vampire or Wamphyri to pure vampire - that had been written in the vast intelligence, hatred and sheer evil of the leech-thing's scarlet eyes, unblinking under their cobra's hood. Not the unbridled, mindless hatred so often seen in the seething eyes of a warrior, or the vacant, lidless stare of a hugely nodding flyer, and certainly not the watery, vapid gaze of a siphoneer. But such evil intelligence that Shaithis had known this thing was no morbid experiment but a true mutation.
He had known, too, with reinforced certainty, that indeed this was Shaitan the Unborn, called the Fallen. For of all Wamphyri legends there was one of universal prevalence: that to the innermost core of his being, Shaitan had been evil above all other men and creatures...
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