Shaithis's mental guard was down, his mind accessible as he emerged more fully from sleep. And there was someone there, a dark presence, to take advantage of his confusion. It was Shaitan, of course; even at a distance his gurgling, venomous 'voice' was unmistakable.
Evil? Do you say I was evil? No, I was wronged. Wronged by the Wamphyri, my own kind! For I was stronger than them and they feared me. And you, son of my sons? Do you also fear me? See how you start awake from me, as if I were some DOOM come down upon you rather than your salvation.
Shaithis went to close his mind... and hesitated. His hideous ancestor was the master of the dead volcano, wasn't he? What harm could he do from there? This could well be the perfect opportunity to learn more about him without alerting the others to his presence.
Shaitan picked all these thoughts out of Shaithis's mind and chuckled monstrously. Aye, he gurgled, for it would never do to let them in on our secret. Not until it's too late. Or at least, too late for them.
Shaithis lay back, narrowed his eyes and scanned across the glittering expanse of the ice-castle's hollow heart to focus upon the huddled shapes of Fess Ferenc and Arkis Leperson where they slept on. He reached out with his Wamphyri awareness to touch upon the flimsy mental barriers they'd erected about their sleeping minds, satisfying himself that they were in fact asleep.
And finally he answered that dark intelligence which had proclaimed itself his ancestor: I think I prefer you this way, Shaitan: out in the open, as it were, and not cloaked in dreams. But it was clever of you to break in on me like that. My so-called 'peers' among the Wamphyri were never up to it.
They were not of your blood, Shaitan at once answered. Or should we say, they were not of mine? Our minds mesh like those of twin brothers, Shaithis. It's a sign, that you're a true son of my sons, so that we are as one. We were meant to be as one and triumph over all adversity, and then go on to victories unimaginable.
Aye, Shaithis nodded, wonderingly, in this and in other worlds, as you have stated. I think it would be interesting to know more about that. Indeed it would interest me greatly to retake Starside from the alien enemies who dwell there now, and to avenge myself upon them. Now tell me your thoughts. For you've hinted we've a way to go together. Have you planned our first steps along that way? And how do I know 1 can trust you anyway? Your legends are infamous even among the Wamphyri, who themselves are not much known for straight dealing.
Again Shaitan's loathsome chuckle. My son, you'll trust me because you have to - because without me you're stuck here - and I shall trust you for the same reason. But if a token of my good will is required: have you not already seen enough of it? Who was it sent his small albino bats to you to keep your sore bones warm while you slept? And who was it disposed of one of your enemies, whose intentions were dire against you to say the least?
An enemy? Shaithis raised a mental eyebrow. And who might that have been?
What? The other seemed taken aback. But you know well enow! I speak of the abominable whelky one, who disguised himself with pustules and was companion to the Ferenc. Why, time and again he urged that grotesque giant to seek you out and murder you!
Shaithis nodded. That would be Volse's way, sure enough. I was never a favourite of his. Nor he of mine. The monstrous clown: if his wens had been wits he'd outshone the lot of us! So it was your beast that killed him, eh?
Of course, of course, Shaitan's mental voice sank deeper and darker yet. And do you think I could not kill you, too? Ah, I could, my son, I could... but will not. His tone was light again in a moment. No, for I sense that we'll do well together. And since in various ways I've already shown my good will, the next stage is up to you.
Stage? Shaithis frowned. What stage is that?
Of the plan, Shaitan explained. Or would you have me do it all, and likewise claim all the credit?
But there's nothing to explain. Just go along with it in accordance with your own plan - exactly as planned - and that will suffice. In short, bring them to me, my son, so that I may deal with them in my way.
Fess and the leper's son? And will you kill them? And then me, too, perhaps? Maybe I'd do better to stay joined with them against you? Better the devil you know, they say.
And after long moments: Devil? That's a word I don't much care for, said Shaitan. I don't know why, but I don't like it. Be advised not to call me that again, not even obliquely.
Shaithis shrugged. As you will. And before he could say or ask any more: They are waking up, Shaitan hissed. The squat one and the giant both. Best if I leave now and not compromise you. Only bring them to me, Shaithis! A great deal depends upon it.
And as suddenly as that Shaithis's mind was free of outside interference. But only just in time.
'Shaithis?' The Ferenc's rumble echoed in the cold air. 'I sense that you're awake. Hah! It's a bad conscience makes a man restless as you. You'll have to mend your ways.' And he laughed uproariously. The ice-castle shuddered and sent down a cascade of variously sized icicles, which in turn brought Arkis more fully awake.
Scratching himself, the leper's son sat up. 'What's all the noise?' he demanded.
Time we were up,' Shaithis called across to him. 'No more delays. We make our breakfast - poor fare that it is - and then we're on our way. What or whoever the volcano houses, he's our meat today. And all his goods in the bargain.'
'Big talk, Shaithis,' the other answered. 'But we've to get past the pale, cavern-dwelling bloodbeast first.'
Three of us this time,' said Shaithis, 'and forewarned is forearmed. Anyway, Fess knows the beast's lair. We'll give it a wide berth and seek some other way in.'
The Ferenc chewed on cold meat and made his way down to the floor of the hall. 'I for one am ready for it,' he said. 'A man can't live for ever - not even a Lord of the Wamphyri, not that we've seen, anyway - and I'm damned if I'll die of boredom or locked in the ice, terrified that something will find me there and dig me out.'
"Oh? Shaithis kept his thoughts guarded. Not live for ever? Well, perhaps not... but close enough, if Shaitan is anything to go by. And wouldn't that in itself be sufficient reason to team up with the ancient: to discover the secrets of his longevity? It surely would.
As for Arkis and the Ferenc: Shaithis knew that sooner or later he'd be obliged to have it out with them anyway, so why delay matters? And even better if Shaitan desired to have a hand in it.
With these thoughts and others like them in his mind (but always guarded, especially thoughts such as these), Shaithis joined the others where they prepared to leave the ice-castle. And a short time later the three set out upon their long, slow climb up the frozen rise to where the central cone jutted some fifteen hundred feet higher still. Like a black, crouching giant the tower of volcanic rock waited for them, sombre under its canopy of cold stars and writhing auroral fire...
Shaitan's miniature albino bats accompanied them, almost invisible against the snow- and ice-glare, forming an endless entourage whose members came and went, reporting all back to their immemorial master. In this way he was kept informed of the progress of the three and was pleased to note that they followed a most admirable route - one which would lead them directly into one of his many mantraps. An ambush, aye, except that this time there would be no killing.
No, for there were other, better things to do with men such as Fess Ferenc and Arkis Leperson than kill them. What? Good, strong Wamphyri flesh such as theirs. And they had their vampires in them, didn't they? Just as Volse Pinescu had once had his in him...
Ah, but that had been a treat!
Volse had been monstrous on the outside, right enough, with all of his pimples, polyps and other excrescences; but just half an inch under his whelky skin there had been a mass of fatty tissues and good, strong, long-pig meat hanging on a frame of bones like any other man. Except, because he was Wamphyri, there was a lot more to him than there was to other men; for deep inside him there was also his vampire. So that after Shaitan's ingurgitor had drained him of his blood and dragged the shattered shell of him before its master -
- What sheer delight: to tear open Volse's pallid body and seek out his leech, the living vampire whose squirming had so cleverly avoided the ingurgitor's siphon-like probe, but which could not avoid Shaitan. And finally to behead the thing and gorge on its nectar fluids, having first scooped up its skittering egg and stored it in a jar of Volse's brains mushed to a paste, as a tidbit for later. Ah, yes - for to the Wamphyri, such is the essence of a gourmet feast!
Even then Shaitan had not been quite finished with his victim. For extracts of Volse's flesh (which was infected with vampire metamorphism and so not entirely dead even now) would be useful to him in his experimentation, the creation of hybrid creatures such as the ingurgitor and other useful constructs, to which end the flayed, drained, gutted, decapitated, but none the less 'living' remains of Volse had been stored with Shaitan's other materials for use later.
Aye, even as the giant Ferenc's and the squat Arkis Leperson's remains would be stored, if all went according to plan. But as for Shaithis... well, there are plans and there are plans.
Shaithis was of the blood - of Shaitan's blood - and of all the Wamphyri who had been, he was also beautiful. Not by human standards, no, but certainly by Shaitan's. Beautiful, strong, vibrant with life. Ah, but then, the blood is the life! And when Shaitan dwelled on matters such as these, then he, no less than his wily descendant, kept his thoughts well hidden.
Meanwhile, his small albinos continued to apprise him of the trio's progress; in a little while he saw that they'd strayed from the path somewhat, so that he must needs redirect them. But in order to do that he must first contact Shaithis, who at that very moment toiled halfway up the fused volcanic slag cliffs toward the western face of the cone. The other two were within hailing distance, but their minds were concentrated on the task in hand.
Shaitan aimed a narrow, powerful beam of thoughts directly into Shaithis's mind, with which he was now a little better acquainted: Son of my sons, he said, you go somewhat astray. Your route requires some small adjustment.
Shaithis was momentarily startled but quickly controlled the agitated flutter of his thoughts. Not before Fess Ferenc had sensed something, however.
'What?' Fess called out across the precipitous, naked rock face. 'Did something alarm you just then, Shaithis?'
'My foot slipped on a patch of ice,' Shaithis lied. 'It's a long way down. If I had fallen ... I was gearing myself for metamorphosis.'
The Ferenc nodded across the gulf. 'Aye, we grow weak. Upon a time I'd revel in forming an air-shape and flying from these heights. Now it would deplete me considerably. We must watch how we go.'
Now Shaithis could answer his ancestor's inquiry, but he must do so carefully, with all of his effort concentrated on keeping his telepathic sendings private. To this end he made himself secure on a small ledge before answering: Shaitan, you almost gave me away then. Now tell me, how do we stray from the path? And how may I correct it? Also, you'd better tell me what to expect. I've no desire to end up pierced to the heart and drained off - like Volse Pinescu.
Fool! the other at once hissed. I thought we had had that out? If I wanted you dead you would be dead. I could send a creature even now to buffet you, all three, from the face of the cliff. Perhaps you'd fly and perhaps not. Whichever, you'd be depleted. And my creatures would find you and finish it. But I need you Shaithis - we need each other - and so you live. As for the others: I do not wish to damage them. I want them whole! Can't you see what a fine pair of warriors Arkis and the Ferenc would make?
Shaitan's words were so ominous he could only be speaking truth. He would not dare boast of such superiority unless he could deliver. It was in effect an ultimatum, even a threat: make up your mind, join me now or suffer the consequences.
In answer to which: Very well, said Shaithis, we work together. Tell me what to do.
Without pause Shaitan explained:
The leper's son climbs too far towards the east, diagonally away from you. In his way lies an old unguarded lava-run which leads directly to my rooms at volcano's core. If Arkis were to discover the mouth of this cave he could jeopardize my position; certainly my plans would require rapid and radical alteration.
An unguarded entrance? Careless of you.
My resources are not unlimited. No more talk. You must draw the others - especially Arkis - back towards you.
Very well, said Shaithis. And to the others, out loud: 'Arkis, Fess, we're too far apart - and I sense a problem to the east.'
Arkis at once secured himself in a lava-niche and peered out and about. 'A problem?' he blustered. 'And close by, you say? Huh! I sense nothing.' But his voice was full of nervous tension and his thoughts went this way and that.
The Ferenc, closer to Shaithis by some fifty feet, began to edge towards him. 'Something has bothered me all along,' he said. 'I've had my suspicions, anyway. And you're right, Shaithis: spread out like this we're too easy to pick off.'
'But I see and feel nothing!' Arkis again protested, like a man whistling in the dark.
With a shrug in his voice, Shaithis called out to him: 'Are you saying that your Wamphyri awareness is stronger than both of ours combined? Then by all means let's test it out. Do as you will. Be the master of your own destiny. At least you were warned.'
That was enough; Arkis started climbing more to the left, bringing himself back into line on a course converging with the others. And not a moment too soon; for Shaithis, from his own position, had finally spotted the dark shadow of a cave to Arkis's right and a little above him. By now the leper's son would certainly have come across it.
In Shaithis's mind the dark thoughts of his ancestor came a little easier. Good! The problem was not insurmountable, but the easy way is usually the best.
What now? Shaithis inquired of him.
Above you is a wide ledge formed of an earlier cone, Shaitan answered. When you strike it, move to the left, that is westward. Soon you will come across another lava-run; ignore it and carry on. The next entrance will seem like a mere crack occasioned as the rock cooled, but this is your route into the volcano. Except you should take up a position to the rear of the others! Do I make myself plain?
Shaithis shivered, perhaps a little from the numbing cold, which was beginning to bite even into his Wamphyri bones, but mainly at what was implied. For thoughts, like speech, often lend themselves to diverse interpretation, and certainly he'd detected the ominous 'tone' of the other's slyly insinuating mental voice. Yes, and he'd known that the depth of Shaitan's thoughts did not bear plumbing. It was strange to be Wamphyri and yet feel something of awe at the implied evil in another's scheming.
Shaitan, he eventually, cautiously answered, I'm putting my trust in you. It seems my future is now in your hands.
And mine in yours, said the other. Now continue to guard your thoughts and concentrate on your climbing.
And he was gone again.
Shaithis suddenly found himself wondering at the wisdom of this dark liaison. Indeed there seemed little of wisdom in it; it was mainly a matter of instinct, and of course necessity. But any advantage was Shaitan's. This was his territory and he knew it well, and he was not without resources. Shaithis could only hope that the ancient's plans for the Ferenc and Arkis Leperson did not extend to him also. But he sensed that they did not. Not for now, anyway.
His Wamphyri instinct again, which had seldom let him down. But there's always a first time. And a last...
He avoided morbid conjecture and looked for brighter omens. Of course there was always his dream: that first dream of the Lady Karen's aerie, where he had been returned to power after some fabulous conquest of Star-side and the destruction of The Dweller's garden. He had the feeling that as dreams go there had been an element of foretokening to it. Except there was an old Wamphyri maxim that men should never read the future too closely, for to do so is to tempt destiny. And anyway, the dream had ended in disaster and ruin - but at least it had hinted that there was in fact a future to look forward to. How much of a one was anyone's guess.
'A ledge,' Fess Ferenc grunted, dragging himself up ahead of Shaithis. As Shaithis's face appeared level with the rim, the giant reached down a huge, taloned hand; Shaithis looked at it for several long moments, then took it. And the Ferenc hauled him easily up on to the level surface.
'Last time you had the chance you threw me down,' Shaithis reminded him.
'Last time you were reaching for your gauntlet!' the giant replied.
Then Arkis came up and joined them. 'You and your premonitions!' he grumbled. 'I still say I sensed nothing harmful. Also, I believe I was almost into some sort of cave. It might well have been a tunnel.'
But Shaithis said, 'Oh? An empty cave, d'you think? Or did it perhaps contain one of Fess's sword-snouts?'
'Wouldn't I have sensed it?' Arkis frowned.
Fess Ferenc scowled. 'Volse didn't,' he said. 'Nor did I, until it was too late.' And turning to Shaithis, 'What now?'
Shaithis narrowed his scarlet eyes and made a small show of sniffing the air with his flattened, convoluted snout. 'The area to the right still feels dangerous to me,' he said. 'So I vote we follow this rim to the left a while, out of the suspect region. We'll see where it leads. At least it will give us a breather from all this climbing.'
The Ferenc nodded his grotesque head. 'Suits me. But how we've come down in the world, eh?'
As they set off along the ledge, Arkis said, 'Come down? How so?'
The Ferenc shrugged. 'Just look at us. Three Lords - or ex-Lords - of the Wamphyri, stripped of most of our powers, going like frightened children in a huddled group to explore strange new regions. And afraid of what might jump out on us!'
'Afraid?' Arkis puffed himself up. 'Speak for yourself!'
The Ferenc sighed and said simply, 'But I saw the thing that lanced the Great Boil, remember?'
At that moment it grew darker and the three paused to glance speculatively, apprehensively at each other. A thin cloud layer had drifted in to cover the higher reaches of the cone. The first small flakes of snow began to drift down and coat the ledge.
Arkis looked at the sky all about. 'One cloud?' He voiced his thoughts out loud. 'Which just happened to form here? A vampire mist, d'you think?'
'Obviously,' said the Ferenc. 'Whoever dwells here, he's sensed us coming and seeks to make it harder for us. He makes his lair more obscure, and the way to it more difficult.'
'Which means we're on the right track,' Shaithis added. He set off again along the ledge, and behind him the others almost automatically followed on.
'Huh!' Arkis grunted. 'Well, at least your premonitions were good. Perhaps too good. It seems to me this one has the edge on us. He sees and knows all while we remain in the dark, as it were.' He swatted at a small white bat which flitted too close.
And the Ferenc's eyes went wide as he gave a small start and burst out, 'His albinos! His bats! We should have known. That's how he tracks our course. The midges pursue us like fleas after a wolf cub!'
Shaithis nodded sagely. 'I had suspected as much. They're his minions no less than Desmodus and his small black cousins were ours back on Starside. They scan our whereabouts and circumstances, reporting all back to ... whoever.'
Arkis gaped and grasped his arm, drawing him to a halt. 'You suspected these things and said nothing?'
'A suspicion is only a suspicion until it's an established fact,' Shaithis answered, angrily shrugging away the other's restraining hand. 'And anyway, it makes a very important point and gives us an insight into his circumstances.'
'Eh? Insight? Circumstances? What are you on about? What point does it make?'
'Why, that the cone's master fears us! Bats to report our movements; a snowfall to hinder us; a sword-snouted creature guarding his hive, as the soldier bees of Sunside guard their honey? Oh, yes, he fears us - which in turn means that he's vulnerable.' And to himself: Good reckoning - perhaps he really is. But still I'll take my chances with him. At least we have this much in common: our intelligence.
And at once, gurgling in Shaithis's mind: And our blood, my son. Don't forget our blood!
Again, at once, the Ferenc snapped, 'What?' His huge head swung round in Shaithis's direction, and his eyes glared under gathered black brows. 'What was that? Did you say - or think - something just then, Shaithis?'
Shaithis hid his momentary panic behind bland innocence. 'Eh?' He raised an eyebrow. 'Say something? Think something? What's on your mind, Fess?' And as the Ferenc and Arkis scanned nervously all about, he sent a triple-shielded thought: Twice you've almost given me away, Shaitan. Do you think this is a game? If there's so much as a hint of what I'm up to, I'm a goner!
The Ferenc scowled. 'On my mind? No, nothing on my mind, except to get finished with this, that's all.' He straightened from his half-crouch. 'So what say you: do we go on, or do we call it a day? Is he vulnerable, this master of the volcano, or are we even more so? It's a nervy business, this climbing in the snow, not knowing what's waiting for us.'
Shaitan came whispering into Shaithis's mind:
Get on with it; bring them in; bring them to me! Do it quickly. For he's no fool, this giant. He's sensitive and we've both underestimated him. You'll need to watch him - and carefully.
'I've noticed,' said Shaithis to the others, almost conversationally, 'how the small albinos come and go from the west. So I say we stick to the ledge and see where it goes.'
'No!' the Ferenc growled. 'Something's wrong, I'm sure of it.'
Shaithis looked at him, then at Arkis. 'Do you wish to go down again? Have we wasted all our time and effort? Has a cloaking vampire mist entirely unnerved you? But our enemy wouldn't have issued it unless we had unnerved him!'
Arkis said, 'I'm with the Ferenc.'
Shaithis shrugged. 'Then I go on alone.'
'Eh?' The Ferenc stared hard at him. 'Then be sure you go to your death.'
'How so? Is this the place where Volse was taken?'
'No, that was on the other side, but...'
'Then I'll take my chances.'
Arkis said, 'Alone?'
Shaithis shrugged. 'Which is worse, to die now or later? Better to do it here, I think, locked in combat, than locked in the ice with something drilling its way to my heart.' And then, suddenly, as if he'd run out of patience, he hissed at both of them: There are three of us, remember! Three "great" - hah! - Wamphyri Lords against... what? An unknown being who quite obviously fears us almost as much as we - as you - fear him.' And he turned away from them.
'Shaithis!' the Ferenc called after him in a tone half-angry, half-admiring.
'Enough,' Shaithis snapped over his shoulder. 'I've done with you. If I win through all is mine. And if I lose -well, at least I'll die as I've lived, Wamphyri!'
He continued along the ledge, and without looking back sensed the eyes of the two following him. Then: 'We're with you,' came the Ferenc's final decision, but still Shaithis stared straight ahead. And at last he heard Arkis's voice, too, calling out: 'Shaithis, wait for us!'
He did no such thing but hurried on that much faster, so that now they must scramble to catch up. And with the pair hot on his heels so he came upon the mouth of the first cave even as Shaitan had forewarned. Here, because it would be expected of him, Shaithis paused. Breathing heavily, the others saw the dark cavern entrance into which he concentrated his gaze.
'A way in, d'you think?' said Arkis, but none too eagerly.
Shaithis stared harder yet into the cave's gloomy interior, then made a show of carefully backing away from it. 'Obviously so,' he said. 'Perhaps too obviously...' And to the Ferenc: 'What say you, Fess? For it's amply apparent that the cold of these climes has focused your awareness to a fault. Is this a safe way to go or not? Myself, I think not. It seems to me that far back in the cavern something stirs. I sense a thing of great bulk but limited intelligence, yet stealthy, too.' Which was, of course, the Ferenc's own description of a sword-snout. And as Shaithis had hoped might be the case, it put a picture of just such a creature into the giant's mind.
Fess thrust forward his great head into the cave, glared into its depths and wrinkled his snoutlike nose. And, 'Aye,' he growled in a little while, 'I sense it, too. And indeed this could well be a way in, for the cone's master has guarded it with a bloodbeast.'
Shaithis nodded. 'Or maybe with the bloodbeast?'
'Eh?' said Arkis.
'Perhaps he has only the one creature,' said Shaithis. 'For if there were a pair, then Fess here might well have been taken at the same time as Volse.'
'But what does that matter now?' Fess shrugged. 'Even on its own, this thing is a monster. Are you suggesting we might go against it? Madness! One of us would surely die - possibly two, even all of us - or at least end up sorely wounded before this thing succumbed. I saw it strike three times in as many seconds, unerringly, and ram Volse through and through like a fish on a Traveller's spear. Why, he didn't even know what hit him!'
But Shaithis shook his head. 'No, I'm not proposing to take it on; quite the opposite. What I'm saying is this: if there's only one such beast and it's here, then we go in by some other route.'
'What?' Arkis scowled. 'And they come thick and fast, these entrances and exits, do they?'
Shaithis shrugged. 'So it would seem. The tunnel where Volse was taken. The cave you thought you saw back there on the lava-cliff. This dark entrance here before us. Now listen: the master of the cone sent a mist to confuse us, didn't he? But not to keep us from this cave, not if this is where he's stationed his sword-snout. So ... perhaps there's another entrance close by.' He gave a sharp nod. 'I say we continue to follow the ledge, a little way at least. Then, even if it comes to nothing, at least we'll have explored this part of the face to the full.'
'Fair enough,' said the Ferenc. 'No argument here. As long as you're not asking me to go in there!'
Arkis growled, 'Then let's get on. We waste time with all this talk and conjecture.' He started off, in the lead, and the Ferenc followed on. And now Shaithis brought up the rear.
Overhead the small cloud had snowed itself out; the aurora writhed and the stars gave the icy curve of the world's horizon a blue sheen; Shaithis sensed the vampire awareness of his two 'companions' focused ahead, leaving him free to converse with Shaitan. And: There, he sent a tight-guarded thought. And how does this formation suit you? Also, what was the idea of the small snow storm? I thought you were eager for them, yet there you go trying to frighten them off.
The answer came back at once:
First, your formation suits both of us very well. Second, the snow served to confuse and distract them - especially the giant. Now listen and I'll describe your route from this point forward. Very soon now you'll come to a place where the rock is riven into deep crevices. One such crack has been filled in with lava which forms a floor. Follow this and it will lead you direct to my abode at the hollow core. As for your companions, alas their time runs very short. Indeed they haven't enough of it to find their way here. Not on their feet anyway.
There was nothing of humour in Shaitan's mental voice, only an icy resolve. Shaithis made no further comment; and anyway Arkis, heading the column, had come to a halt. Fess joined him, then Shaithis.
Before them the surface of the ledge and the near-vertical face of the cliff were split with deep fissures a full pace in width. Arkis looked at the others. 'What now?'
'We go on,' said Shaithis.
Perhaps his reply had been too ready, or he had sounded too sure of himself, for the Ferenc looked at him for long moments. And at last the giant said, 'But the way looks like a jumble of broken rock. Any cave we find will surely have collapsed in upon itself.'
'We won't know that until we look,' Shaithis answered. 'It's just that I feel we're very close now.'
The Ferenc narrowed his eyes. 'It appears I'm not the only one whose awareness has been focused to a fault. But very well, we press on. Arkis, lead the way.'
The leper's son, muttering darkly to himself, stepped out across the first crack, teetered a little on the far side and found his balance. And so they all proceeded.
Then, after negotiating a half-dozen more crevasses: 'Ho!' Arkis called back. 'But this next crack has a floor, formed of a frozen river of rock.'
'An ancient lava-run,' said Fess, joining him.
Shaithis came last and looked at the cliff, riven where in olden times the flow had forced an exit. 'Lava from the secret heart of the volcano,' he said. 'So perhaps we've found our way in after all.'
The Ferenc stepped under the cliff's overhang, into the shadow of the cleft. 'Let me scan it.'
Arkis went after him, with Shaithis bringing up the rear, and they all three sniffed the air, probing the way ahead with keen vampire senses. Until at last Arkis ventured: 'I sense... nothing!'
'Likewise,' said Shaithis, relieved that the small-talented Diredeath had discovered no threat (where in fact he found the place menacing and uninviting in the extreme). The Ferenc, however, seemed of a similar mind to Shaithis; except he was perfectly, and honestly, willing to voice it.
'I don't like it,' he gave his opinion, 'for it smells too much like the cave where Volse got his.'
'You've let Volse's death prey on your mind,' Shaithis told him. 'And anyway - and as has been said before -forewarned is forearmed. Also, there are three of us this time. Arkis and I, we have our mighty gauntlets, and you have your even mightier talons. And in any case we're already decided that the bloodbeast was hidden in that first cave. Myself,' (he paused to sniff the cave's air again), 'I think it likely that the cone's master has worked some beguilement here: he has gloomed on this place and left the smell of death here. But a smell is only a smell, and I smell success! I'm for going in.' He looked from Fess to Arkis.
Arkis shrugged. 'If this so-called "cone's master" has comforts in there, then I'm with you, Shaithis. I've had it to the tusks with hardship! I could use some rich red blood in my belly, and a woman in my bed. D'you suppose it's a harem he guards so jealously?'
Shaithis's turn to shrug. 'I've never been a one for the histories,' he said, 'but I've heard it said that some of the banished Lords took their concubines with them. We can't say what we'll find until we find it.'
'Comforts, aye,' said the Ferenc, licking his lips. 'I could use some of those myself. Very well, we go on.'
Shaithis put on a scowl and said, 'And how's this for a turn of events? Are you suddenly our leader? It seems you like having the last word, Fess Ferenc. "Arkis, you lead the way." And, "Very well, we go on."'
'Bah? was Fess's retort. 'If no one ever made a decision, then we'd be here for ever. Here, let me lead the way...'
Which was exactly what Shaithis had wanted.
The darkness of the interior was like daylight to the vampire Lords, indeed it was preferable to the auroral light and the blue sheen cast by the stars. The Ferenc strode where the way was obvious and unobstructed, inched along where it was made obscure by jumbles, or where the uneven ceiling came down low, or where blisters of lava had burst to form jagged-rimmed, circular cusps of rock like small craters in the almost corrugated texture of the floor. And where other natural fissures or blowholes radiated from the main run, he steadfastly followed the ancient lava flow.
Arkis stayed a pace or so to the Ferenc's rear, followed immediately by Shaithis. As they progressed so the oppressive sensation of ominous expectancy or foreboding lifted a little, which (to Diredeath and the Ferenc, at least) lent credence to Shaithis's 'theory' that the volcano's dweller had deliberately set a fearful aura over the mouth of the run to dissuade any would-be explorers.
Shaithis stayed very much on the alert, kept his thoughts fully guarded, would have liked to contact Shaitan but dared not, not with Fess and Arkis probing in all directions with their minds, their Wamphyri awareness sharp for the smallest hint of mental activity. And always they moved deeper into the heart of the rock.
Eventually the Ferenc called a halt, whispering, 'We must be halfway in at least. Time to take stock.'
'Of what?' Arkis grunted. His blunt query sounded like an avalanche, echoing out and back in slowly decreasing waves of sound.
'Dolt!' Fess whispered again when he could be heard. 'What use to have the senses of bats, to be able to smell out the way ahead like wolves and keep our minds tuned for the thoughts of others, when at every opportunity all you can do is make great noise! Would you alert our enemy to our presence?'
Abashed, Arkis kept his answer low: 'Hell, if he's at home, surely by now he knows we're coming!'
'Perhaps,' Shaithis intervened, 'but in any case, let's keep it quiet.'
'Taking stock, yes,' said the Ferenc. 'Going first all this way has taken the edge of my awareness. Arkis, you can spell me.'
'No problem.' The other took the lead, glad for the chance to make amends. But after moving on only a dozen or so paces: 'Now hold!' Arkis said. 'Something's weird!'
They had all felt it at the same time: a sensory void, a region vacant of all vibrancies, whether for good or evil, a place stagnant as some stirless, sunless subterranean lake. And they likewise knew what that meant: that the place had been made sterile, for even darkness and cold stone have a feel to them. Someone wanted them to believe that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, here... because there was something here.
Shaithis's flesh tingled and he knew the others must be feeling the same sensation. Arkis, in the lead, stood rooted to the spot, gurgling inarticulately; but it was much too late for gurgling anything. Shaithis felt the heavy mental curtain deliberately ripped open - felt fear and horror springing into being behind it and rushing to burst through its tattered drapes - then saw the blur of leprous grey which was to be the end of Arkis Leperson, called Diredeath. And indeed his death was dire!
Where the Thing came from would be hard to say - a niche in the wall of the place, a side-tunnel, a hiding place in the lee of some bulge of lava - but it came at great speed and with fell intent. And it was exactly as the Ferenc had described it. Patched white and grey, mottled like veined marble, it seemed to uncoil or erupt into being, as if some massive boulder half-buried in the floor had come to life and reshaped itself. Its legs were a blur, claws scrabbling as it reared before Arkis; its fishlike head bore a bone lance tapered to a sharp point and equipped with thorns or hooks all along its length; its eyes were like saucers, fixing its victim with their emotionless glare.
Arkis's gauntlet was on his hand, ready; but as he raised his arm the Thing struck at him in a move too fast to follow. Its lance gashed his short, squat neck as it sawed past, and its needle-toothed jaws closed on his gauntlet arm. The arm was severed, swallowed at a gulp. In drawing back, the Thing sawed at Arkis's neck again and sliced into his whistling air-pipe; in the next moment its lance was rammed forward a second time, directly into him, piercing his squat body to the heart. He jerked and throbbed where he was held upright on the bone blade, and his tusks chomped on thin air, turning red as he coughed up a spray of blood.
Fess whirled away from the scene (Shaithis thought to run) and his eyes were huge and scarlet. But a lot more than simple fear lit them: there was fury, too! The giant grabbed Shaithis with one taloned hand and drew back the other like a bunch of black-gleaming scythes. 'Treacherous bastard!' he snarled. 'Your father's egg was rotten, and the pus is still in you!'
'What?' Shaithis forced the metamorphic flesh of his hand to expand within his gauntlet. 'Are you mad?'
'In trusting you? I must be!' The Ferenc readied himself to thrust at Shaithis: to punch in through his ribs with his taloned hand, grasp his living heart and wrench it out. But something stopped him. Something he had seen behind Shaithis.
Shaitan was the colour and texture of black lava. Only his movement against the rock-splash wall had given him away, and only then because he wanted to be seen. Fess saw him, and his jaw fell open. He took a great gulp of air and forgot to strike at Shaithis, who rewarded him by crashing his clenched gauntlet into the side of his head. Then-
- Shaithis's immemorial ancestor brushed him aside, out of the Ferenc's suddenly loose grasp, and wrapped the stunned giant in a nest of lashing tentacles. With his arm locked to his sides, Fess was helpless, but in any case Shaitan allowed no time for any sort of recovery. With a sound like tearing leather, his elastic mouth flowed over and closed upon the Ferenc's entire face and head!
Shaithis, stumbling blindly away, struck stony debris and tripped. And suddenly nerveless - even Shaithis, nerveless - he crashed down on to the lava floor. To one side Shaitan's nightmarish ingurgitor hissed and bubbled as it drained off the last of Arkis's fluids, and to the other Fess Ferenc's 'invincible' body pulsed and vibrated in the primal vampire's coils where Shaitan crushed and devoured his head. And Shaithis thought: If there's a hell, then I stand at its gate!
Shaitan's eyes glowed red out of the darkness which was his crushing, grinding, metamorphic head. And his reply, in Shaithis's staggered mind, was this: Aye, a hell of sorts, where we are the Lords. For it is our hell, son of my sons, which one day we'll take with us to Starside, and then to all the worlds beyond!