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Nathan saw a picture in the other’s mind: one of himself, tumbling, turning, rushing to earth! But it was whimsical and meant nothing. It was simply wishful thinking, accompanied by the thought: No, for it would only jeopardize my future. This Nathan is weak, a freak, nothing. Maglore’s egg would wither and die in him. While out loud he continued:
“Your fears are empty, Nathan. Nothing of nasty vampire stuff will get into you via your food. Why should Maglore wish to poison you that way, when a simple bite would suffice? Aye, and there are other ways: a fond fatherly kiss or a little sodomy, or simply by giving you to his women for a night…or to his men? No, only the lowliest thralls—who lack the power of infection, except by direct contact—prepare food for my master’s table. And as for Maglore: except when he requires blood, he is satisfied to eat the meat of beasts and birds. But then, so do we all in Runemanse … mainly.”
Nathan stood up straighter, glanced towards the cold room, and said: “How … was it for them?”
Karpath shrugged. The men, if you would call them that—personally I prefer to call them boys—were given to the women of Runemanse for their pleasure, to be drained of their sex and their blood, and Magda was given to the younger male thralls. Dead, all three would soon become undead, which was not desirable. So while they lay in their vampire sleep, they were butchered, quartered, and their parts hung up for keeping. That is how it was for them. As for how it’s yet to be:
“Maglore may well require flesh for the fashioning. Also, there’s meal and bone to be ground down for the manse’s flyers, its gas-beasts and emergent warriors. The flyers and gaslings consume grain, mainly, and a little Sunside honey for energy, and blood or flesh naturally; for they are vampire creatures, as are all of Maglore’s constructs. But warriors, especially young ones fresh out of their vats, must have it red! As for Maglore’s lieutenants and thralls: well, it’s good to have a roast now and then. All of these uses are in order …”
“A …roast?” Feeling his blood draining again, Nathan turned away. “Cannibalism!”
Karpath grabbed his shoulder, spun him around, snarled: “No, vampirism! If ever you get to be one, then maybe you’ll understand.” Except the knowledge will come too late, for I shall not suffer a rival in Runemanse!
Nathan shut out Karpath’s murderous thoughts, pulled himself together, stood up straighter and remembered what Maglore had told him: to walk boldly and without fear. Then, shrugging the grinning lieutenant’s huge paw from his shoulder, he said: “Are we finished here?”
Karpath sensed his resolve. The grin slid from his grey face as he growled, “I’ve nothing else to show you.”
“Then I’ll be on my way.”
“Where to?”
“Wherever I wish. For as you know well enough, Maglore has given me access to all of Runemanse, and I even eat with him. I shall go to him; perhaps he already misses me; he worries constantly, for my safety.” He said these things deliberately.
Karpath was suspicious at once. Waves of jealousy flooded out from him. “What will you tell him?”
Nathan looked him straight in the eyes. “Karpath, listen to me and listen carefully. Maglore prizes me for my colours, and for my ‘innocence’. Well, I’m no longer entirely innocent, but he’ll keep me free of vampire influences, if he can; you’ve said as much yourself. But on the other hand he prizes you for your strength and for your … loyalty? And so we’re not rivals, you and I. But think about this: if he is forced to make a life or death choice between us, which of us shall live?”
“What?” Karpath’s brows gathered like thunderheads as he considered it.
Nathan shrugged. “Maglore can always make himself a new lieutenant, but where would he find another familiar like me? Now, I say again: we are not rivals, but if you’re determined to be my enemy—” he turned and walked away,”—so be it.”
And behind him, Karpath made no reply but let him go …
Time passed. Nathan spent a great deal of it asleep, conserving both his physical and mental reserves. When he was awake, however, he scarcely went short of exercise: Runemanse was a far more vertical than horizontal place, and the stairwells seemed interminable.
Now that the provisioning was behind him, he felt fit to tackle anything; he didn’t think Runemanse would contain anything worse than what he’d already seen or experienced. In a way he was right and it didn’t, but in other ways …
He saw the Seer Lord’s warriors “waxing” in their hugely excavated vats. Apart from their armour plating, which reminded him a little of his deadspeak dream of Madmanse and Eygor Killglance’s anomalous blue-gleaming appendages, the creatures in their loathsome entirety were like nothing else Nathan had ever seen before. But in any case, they were not things which a healthy mind would want to dwell upon, not if a man desired to sleep soundly. One thing he did notice: for warriors, they were a good deal smaller than those beasts of Wratha’s which had ravaged in Settlement, and they weren’t built for flying. However Maglore intended to use them, they wouldn’t be taking part in any attack upon Wratha the Risen in olden Starside.
But the intentions of Turgosheim’s other Lords were less ambiguous. From the window of his room, night after night, Nathan spied upon the training flights of monsters. Any excessive use of torches or brightening of the gas jet flares, or unaccustomed activity in this or that launching-bay along the wall of the gorge, would tell him where to look. And then he would hear again, even as he’d heard it in Settlement that time, the sputtering throb of propulsive vents as nightmare shapes went spurting through the rising vapours of Turgosheim.
Most of the Lords and Ladies tested their creatures from time to time, but not all were successful. During a session in the twilight hours before sunup, Nathan watched one especially disastrous test-flight. Vast and lumbering, the creature flew out from Vormspire with the rumble of its propulsors echoing over Turgosheim, its armour glinting ruddily in the lights of the manses, and its exhaust vapours shaped by the winds into a fantastic, billowing slipstream. A monstrous and terrifying sight, it came throbbing across the gorge with a row of sentient saucer eyes flickering this way and that within the visor of its triple-horned, heavily plated prow. But it was perhaps too heavily plated, and its balance ill-aligned.
Tilting to avoid the jutting promontory of Devetaki’s Masquemanse, suddenly its nose dipped and the tilt became too steep. It attempted to adjust its balance but overcompensated. There followed a lurching roll, then a shuddering, total capsize! Upside-down, the monster’s starboard gas bladders were torn open on the jagged flank of Masquemanse; deflating in a moment, they fluttered like curtains in the wind as the damaged warrior was deflected out over the gorge.
Then … the thing seemed to sense that it was finished. At the last an anguished howling was clearly audible. Mingling with the angry sputtering of propulsors, this formed a combination of alien, nerve-rending sounds which carried to Nathan as a groaning, echoing ululation: a death cry. And the doomed Thing spiralled down into deepening darkness, then plummeted, finally glanced from a corner turret of Trollmanse and slammed headlong into the rocky bottoms. Chunks of red, fleshy debris and shattered chitin armour flew everywhere, and the sounds of the crash echoed into silence …
Failures of this sort were not infrequent at first, but as time passed and the Lords became more proficient in the making of aerial warriors, they were fewer. And always Nathan was aware that these living engines of destruction were destined for olden Starside, and that eventually they would rain terror on Sunside, too. His Sunside, from which he’d fled like a coward to die in the desert…
Nathan visited the gas-beast caverns located close to the refuse pits, and understood the reason for that proximity. But the gaslings themselves … were something else which he would try in vain to forget. The horror of the thing—of all Runemanse—lay not so much in the physical reality of the system, but in its morbid and pitiless efficiency; for all of Maglore’s creatures had once been men and expendable. And whenever Na
than looked at them, always the vestiges of men remained …
Eventually, when he had lived in Runemanse through thirty-odd sunups, Nathan went to see Maglore’s flyers penned in the yawn of the landing-bay. The reason he’d not done so before was that Maglore had warned him off it: the north-facing wall was notorious for treacherous updrafts and freakish, blustery winds; the polished rock of the launching ramps was slippery as ice; there were no protective walls to impede the flyers on take-off. The Seer Lord had lost a lieutenant there once, who stepped in the wrong place and shot himself screaming into eternity.
Two of Maglore’s three flyers were recent constructs: he had fashioned them as an exercise preparatory to starting work on his warriors. Skittish (for they sensed that Nathan was no vampire), the pair rolled their eyes and reared their diamond-shaped heads as he passed carefully along a railed walkway in front of their pens. But Maglore’s scent was on him, and they quickly settled down again.
The third creature was different, however. Housed to one side of the precipitous launching bay, beneath an overhang in the lee of the cavern, it was far less nervous. Something about the thing attracted Nathan’s attention. He gazed at the flyer in its pen: huge, grey, mute and comparatively docile, its huge head nodding at the end of a swaying neck, with eyes large as fists, moist and gleaming black in a weirdly manlike face. Eyes which might well be…
… But here Nathan paused in his musing. What on earth had he been thinking about? Manlike? And eyes which might well be …? For of course there was no manlike about it; those eyes were or had been human, Szgany! And again he reminded himself what he was looking at: a mutated, vampire thing—something that Maglore had changed—which, having undergone its metamorphosis, was human no more.
Leaning his elbows on the gated wall of the pen, he gazed into the great, sad, human eyes in the elongated, mutant head; gazed deep, and wondered: Who were you?
I was a youth upon a time, like you. The answer came back at once, shockingly, jerking Nathan rigidly upright against the wall! Then I was a man, a titheling, and Maglore’s thrall. But never a vampire thing … not until the end. Perhaps I offended him, though even now I don’t know how. What does it matter? It is enough that what you see before you is all that remains of a man. Ah, but the Seer Lord of Runemanse was generous with my brain and made himself a crafty flyer this time—damn his black heart!
Shaken to his roots, Nathan clung to the wall and whispered: “He left you your brain, a man’s brain … entire?”
Not entire, no. The flyer’s thoughts were vaguer now. But enough that I remember … things. And among them my name. You asked me who I was. I was a thrall who knew writing and faithfully recorded the history of a race, according to the word of my master, Maglore. And my name was Karz Biteri …
Later, Nathan would spend many a long hour with Karz, or what had been Karz, learning Turgosheim’s history from its onset. But on that first occasion he had been far more interested to know how the—creature?—had read his mind and been able to answer him so lucidly.
That was the way of it with all flyers, he was told, for they were the aerial command-posts of the Wamphyri with immediate access to their minds, so that they might react instantly to any order. In the reshaping of Karz’s mind, when Maglore had given it something of his own alien essence, telepathy had been the governing factor. Desiring something special, he’d let Karz retain much of his memory and all of his knowledge of old Turgosheim. Thus Karz Biteri, Maglore’s flyer now, was also a reference library on all Turgosheim’s morbid past.
You, too, are a powerful telepath, Karz had told him then, and so we may converse. But you must learn how to shield your thoughts, and you should always remember: a man is never alone in Runemanse. When you thought you were on your own down here, I read a good many things in your head which Maglore would not like. If I could read them, so could he.
“I have shielded them,” Nathan had answered, “constantly, or so I thought. But you’re right: I thought I was alone here. And when I saw you, and realized what you were …”
You were shaken and forgot yourself, I know …
The answer had been a sob, soliciting Nathan’s pity; so that he’d said:
“You too should guard your thoughts, Karz, for I can feel your hatred for him. If Maglore should discover it…”
Ah, but he has, the other had cut him short. He knows! Why do you think he won’t ride out upon the air? Because he fears I would tilt him into space. And so he made these new creatures, but doesn’t trust them either! For if I can have such feelings, perhaps they have them, too. Oh, he knows they do not, but will not trust them anyway. It seems I have given him a bad dream that won’t go away, for which I’m glad!
“Those are thoughts you really should watch,” Nathan had answered, “and very carefully.”
He’d sensed a mental shrug as Karz answered, Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t care. What is my life, anyway? It were as well to launch myself at sunup, and cross the mountains into the sun!
At which Nathan had remembered Thikkoul’s reading of his future in the stars:
“Now I see …a flight to freedom, yes! But … upon a dragon?” And Nathan had wondered: a dragon, or something that looks like one? And the thought had entered his head: why fly into the sun when there are other places to go and good works to accomplish along the way? Yes, and scores still unsettled?
Perhaps Karz had “heard” the thought, perhaps not. But his great head had stopped nodding for a moment, and his huge dark eyes had gleamed a shade brighter…
Maglore made more creatures and cocooned them away in forbidden vaults. The more he worked at the fashioning, the less time he had for Nathan. Apart from taking his meals with Maglore, Nathan rarely saw the Seer Lord, for which he was glad. But that was during his waking hours, while sometimes in his dreams —
—He often wondered about his dreams:
How he would start awake to discover his guard down and something other than his own thoughts oozing in his head, but something which always withdrew at once, leaving him his own man again. Maglore? But who else could it be? Not Eygor Killglance, for the old dead Thing in Madmanse made no bones about his presence but invariably introduced himself when he came in the night to wheedle and inveigle.
As for what Eygor wanted: some kind of bargain he wished to strike, some sort of promise to extract, and something evil to engineer from beyond the grave. So far Nathan had resisted him, but still he was curious and had long ago determined to go down into empty, echoing Madmanse one day …
Once, when the moon was full and floating outside his window, Nathan woke up and went to dash his face with water from a bowl beside his bed. But before he could lower his hands to the bowl, he saw the moon mirrored in the still water, and likewise his face. Then, as so often before, the stargazer Thikkoul’s words had come back to him:
“I see your face, your hollow eyes and greying hair …” For indeed his eyes were sunken in dark orbits, and his yellow hair was flecked with grey …
Time passed ever more swiftly, and Maglore grew sparing in his use of thralls and recent arrivals out of Sun-side. Now that he had enough warriors, it seemed he was conserving his energies and the raw materials of his metamorphic art in anticipation of some new endeavour.
One evening he called Nathan to him, asked for his wrist strap and snapped it into short sections. “You with your fine clothes,” he said, “wearing this scrap of leather like a brand! If you must be branded do it in style. Here …” And he gave him a sigil in solid gold, an inch long, whose design was the same familiar loop with a half-twist. Fashioned on Sunside, it was an earring, which Maglore told him to wear in his left ear.
By way of explaining his gift, the Seer Lord said, “Since you’re the very jewel of a lad yourself—and it being a well-known fact how much you Szgany like your jingly bits and pieces—I knew you would appreciate it.”
“I’ll need my ear pierced,” Nathan said, without considering his words. Maglore feigned
a coy look, then grinned and displayed eye-teeth as sharp as needles.
“If you were a lass, I might consider doing it myself!” he said. “Why, I might do it anyway! Except I prize you for what you are, not for what I can make of you. You’d best have Orlea do it with a hot needle, and remain in your room until it’s healed.”
Then, as Nathan was leaving, Maglore said: “When Orlea’s finished with her jabbing, send her to me. For while some jabs hurt, others are a pleasure. Oh, I follow Turgo Zolte’s teachings, it’s true, but even the strictest adherent has certain needs …”
Nathan chose his time carefully. And at the height of sunup when Maglore slept and the aerie was quiet, he made his way down into Madmanse.
I’ve been expecting you, Eygor’s deadspeak voice came oozing in his mind, as he descended the cobwebbed stairwell to the uppermost, deserted levels of the stripped, haunted manse. For plainly you’re an inquiring youth who can’t bear a mystery to go unfathomed.
Even though a hazy light came in from the gorge, Nathan struck flints to a torch; the innermost rooms and passageways were dark, and the place had the feel of a tomb. Ah, but it is a tomb. Eygor told him. That of a blind, blameless thing discarded like refuse into a pit, to die there and stiffen to a stone.
“Blameless?”
I was Wamphyri! How can you blame a creature for acting out its nature? Is the wolf to be blamed for worrying rabbits? Or did you only come here to scold me for those deeds which I was obliged to perform, by reason of the monstrous leech which all my life controlled and corrupted me?
“All men have urges,” Nathan answered, descending another stairwell towards the source of Eygor’s dead-speak, and checking that his footprints lay clear in the dust behind him. “But we don’t all give in to them.”
Which is of course the difference between us, the other came back at once. For where mere men are not obliged to vent their passions, I was Wamphyri.
“Tell me your story,” said Nathan. “I’ve had some of it, from someone who knows all the history of Turgosheim, but not the end of it. That is the mystery. How did you die, Eygor?”
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