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Epilogue

 

Three days later Ivan Gerenko, Theo Dolgikh and Zek Föener stood on the scarred rim of the gorge in the Carpathians and gazed gloomily on a great mound of scree and rubble, where only the stumps of the ancient castle's massive outer walls protruded. The scene was desolate as only these mountains can be, with jagged crests and peaks all around, an eerie wind moaning up off the plain, and birds of prey circling slowly in a sky ribboned with cloud. It was evening and the light was beginning to fade, but Gerenko had insisted upon seeing the site. There was nothing they could do tonight, but at least it would give him an idea of what must be done tomorrow.

Gerenko was here because Leonid Brezhnev had given him one week to come up with the answer - one all-inclusive answer - to the destruction of the Château Bronnitsy; Dolgikh because Yuri Andropov also required answers; Zek in order that Gerenko could keep an eye on her. She said she had lost her talent on the night of the as yet unexplained inferno - and worse, that all memory of what she'd learned from Alec Kyle had also been burned out of her - but Gerenko thought not. In which case he couldn't be sure that if she were left on her own in Moscow she'd keep her mouth shut.

But most importantly, and if she were lying, she was here because she was the world's foremost close-range telepath. If danger threatened from any source, Zek Föener would probably know it first; and so her actions would be Gerenko's indicator that all was well - or otherwise. After what had happened at the Château one must look to one's personal safety, and a mind such as Zek's could well be of the utmost importance.

'Nothing,' she said now, frowning at the grey ruins, her forehead furrowed. 'Nothing at all. But even if there were something here I couldn't read it! Not now. I've told you, Ivan, my talent has been destroyed. It burned up in that great bonfire and now... I can't even remember what it was like.'

She told a part-truth: her talent was intact, all right - she knew that from the seething cauldron of Gerenko's mind, and the cesspool of Dolgikh's - but she really couldn't detect anything else. Only a Necroscope may talk to the dead or hear them talking to each other.

'Nothing!' Gerenko repeated her, his voice rasping. He kicked at the dirt and sent pebbles flying. 'Then it's a black day for us.'

'For you, Comrade, perhaps,' said Dolgikh, turning up the collar of his coat. 'But you're up against the Party Leader, who happens to have lost a lot. Andropov may not have gained anything, but he certainly hasn't lost much. Not that he'll notice, anyway. And there's no point in him taking it out of my hide. As for E-Branch: he's waged war with you espers for years, and now you're finished. No skin off his nose. He won't agonise over it, take my word.'

Gerenko turned on him. 'You fool! So you'll return to simple thuggery, will you? And how far will that get you? You could have gone up in the world, Theo, with me. Right to the top. But now?'

At the back of the ruins in the heaped shale and fallen scree, something stirred. The rubble formed a small mound, cracked open, and foul gases filtered up into the evening air. A bloodied hand, that of a corpse, scrabbled for a moment until it found purchase in the rocks. The two men and the girl heard nothing.

Dolgikh scowled at the smaller man. 'Comrade, I'm not sure I want to go anywhere with you,' he said. 'I prefer the company of men - and sometimes women.' He glanced at Zek Föener and licked his lips. 'But I warn you, be careful who you're calling a fool. Head of E-Branch? You're head of nothing now. Just another citizen, and a poor specimen at that.'

'Idiot!' Gerenko muttered, turning away from Dolgikh. 'Dolt! Why, if you'd been at the Château that night I'd suspect you of being involved in that mess, too! You're too bloody good at blowing things up, Theo!'

Dolgikh caught his slender arm, turned him about. Gerenko's talent was alerted... but so far the KGB man intended no real harm. 'Listen, you spindly thing,' Dolgikh spat the words out. 'You think you're so high and mighty, but you forget that I've still got enough on you to put you away for the rest of your days!'

Back in the ruins, his movements covered by their arguing, Mikhail Volkonsky got to his knees and then dragged himself to his feet. He'd lost an arm and shoulder and most of his face, but the rest of him still worked. He shuffled awkwardly into the shadow of the cliff, drew closer to the three live ones.

'But it's mutual, Theo, it's mutual!' Gerenko mocked the KGB agent. 'And it isn't only you I can damage but your boss, too. How would Andropov fare if I let it out that he'd been trying to interfere with branch work again? And how would you fare after that? Overseer in a salt mine, that's where you'd be, Theo!'

'Why you runt!' Dolgikh swelled up huge. He raised his fist... and a strange expectant something filled the air. However blunt his senses, Dolgikh felt it too. 'Why, I could - '

Gerenko faced him squarely. 'But that's just the point, Theo. You couldn't! Neither you nor any other man. Try it and see for yourself. It's waiting for you to try, Theo. Go on, strike me if you dare. You'll be lucky if you merely miss, fall over in the stones and break your arm. But if you're unlucky this wall could fall on you and crush you. Your superior physical strength? Pah! I...' He paused and the sneer fell from his face. 'What was that?'

Dolgikh lowered his threatening hand, listened. There was only the keening of the wind. 'I heard nothing,' he said.

'I did,' said Zek Föener, shivering. 'Rocks falling into the gorge. Come on, let's get out of here. The shadows are lengthening, and that ledge back there was bad enough in full daylight. Why are you arguing, anyway? What's done is done.'

'Shh' said Dolgikh, his eyes going wide. He leaned forward, pointing. 'Now I hear it - from over there. Sliding shale, maybe . .

At the rim of the gorge, back along the track and hidden by the undergrowth, blunt grey fingers came up from the depths. Sergei Gulharov's shattered head came up slowly and stiffly; then a shoulder, and an arm thrown far forward to take the strain and give him leverage. Silent as a shadow now, he drew himself up onto firm, flat ground.

'The temperature is falling fast,' said Gerenko with a shudder, perhaps feeling the chill. 'I've had enough for tonight. Tomorrow we'll take another look, and if it's quite hopeless we can decide what to do then.' Wheezing with the effort and gritting his small teeth, he started back down the trail. 'But this is all a great pity. I had hoped to salvage something, if only a little face . .

Dolgikh grinned after him, calling out: 'We're pretty close to the border, Comrade. Have you ever thought of defecting?' When Gerenko failed to answer, he muttered, 'Shrivelled little shit!' Then he put his hand on Zek's shoulder and she felt his fingers bite. 'Well, Zek, shall we join him, or perhaps we'll hang back a little and do some stargazing, eh?'

She looked up at him first in astonishment, then outrage. 'My God!' she said. 'I'd prefer the company of pigs!'

Before he could reply she'd turned away. She started after Gerenko - then jerked to a halt, freezing in her tracks. Someone was coming up the trail towards them, closing on Gerenko. And even in the failing light it was obvious that the someone was a dead man. Lord God - he had only half a head!

Dolgikh saw him, too, and knew him. He recognised his fouled clothing, the damage a snub-nosed bullet had done to his head. 'Mother!' he gulped. 'Oh, mother!'

Zek screamed. Screamed again as a huge bloody hand passed over her shoulder, grabbed Theo Dolgikh by the collar and spun him round. Dolgikh's eyes stood out in his face. Behind the girl he saw a second corpse: Mikhail Volkonsky. And, God - Volkonsky had taken hold of him with his one remaining arm!

Like a startled cat, Zek bounded out from between them, fleeing after Gerenko. She didn't hear the mental voices of the dead, saying:

Oh, yes, these are the ones, Harry! But she did hear his answer:

Then 1 can't stop you taking your revenge. And she knew who was speaking, and guessed who he was speaking to.

'Harry Keogh!' she screamed, flinging herself breakneck down the track. 'God, oh, God, you're worse than all of us together!'

Until a moment ago Harry had been beyond Zek's reach both mental and physical, hidden in the metaphysical Möbius continuum. Now he stepped out of the shadows directly in her path, so that she flew gasping into his arms. For a moment she thought he was another dead man and pounded at his chest; but then she felt his warmth, the beat of his heart against her breast, and heard his voice. 'Easy, Zek, easy.'

Wild-eyed, she pulled back from him. He held her arms. 'Easy, I said. If you go running like that you'll hurt yourself.'

'You... you're commanding them!' she accused.

He shook his head in denial. 'No, I only called them up. I'm not calling the shots. What they do is for themselves.'

'What they do?' Breathlessly she looked back towards the ruined castle, where mad, frenzied shadows fought and tore. She glanced down the track: Gerenko had somehow avoided Gulharov's lunges, (his talent, of course) but the dead man was limping after him. Winds tugged at Gulharov, threatening to blow him back into the gorge, and thorns tore at his legs trying to trip him - but still he pursued.

'Nothing can hurt that one,' Zek gasped. 'Living or dead, men are only men. They can't touch him.'

'But he can be hurt,' said Harry. 'He can be frightened, too, made incautious. And it's growing dark; the ledge back there is narrow and dangerous; there can easily be an accident. That's what my friends are hoping, that there'll be an accident.'

'Your... friends!' Hysteria lifted her voice.

Gunshots sounded from the ruins, and Dolgikh's hoarse screaming. He wasn't simply shouting but screaming, like a terrified animal, for he'd just discovered that you can't kill the dead. Harry covered Zek's ears, drew her head to his shoulder, her face buried in his neck. He didn't want her to see or hear. He didn't want to see or hear, and so stared out over the gorge instead.

Weaker than he'd ever been before in his life, weak with terror, Theo Dolgikh was being dragged towards the rim of the almost sheer drop. Mikhail Volkonsky, on the other hand, was as strong as he'd ever been in life, and he no longer felt pain. With his one good arm round Dolgikh's neck, the huge ganger had him in a necklock which he wouldn't release until the man was dead. And now they were almost there, battling ferociously on the very edge of the gorge. Which was when Felix Krakovitch and Carl Quint showed up.

Blown to pieces, the two hadn't been able to do much until now; but finally Quint's arms - only his arms - had dragged themselves up from below, and Felix's upper torso, limbless, had wriggled its way out of the castle's debris. As the arms of Quint came up over the rim and grabbed Dolgikh, and as Felix's severed, sluglike cadaver wriggled into view and began to bite at him, so he gave up. He drew air for one last scream, filled his lungs to brimming - and the scream simply died on his lips, the merest gurgle of sound. Then he closed his eyes and sighed, and all of the air whooshed out of him.

But they made sure anyway, and with one last effort dragged him over the edge into space. His body pin-wheeled down the face of the cliff, bounding from one projection to the next, all the way to the bottom.

Harry uncovered Zek's head, said, 'He's finished - Dolgikh, I mean.'

'I know,' she answered with a half-sob. 'I read it in your mind. And Harry, it's cold in there . .

He gave a grim nod.

Haarrry? A distant voice came to him as he released her - one that only he and the dead could hear - one he knew and had thought never to hear again. Do you hear me, Haarrry?

1 hear you, Faethor of the Wamphyri, he answered. What is it you want?

Noooo - it's what you want, Haarrry. You want Ivan Gerenko dead. Well, now I give you his life.

Harry was puzzled. I haven't asked any favours of you, not this time.

But they did. Faethor's voice was a grim chuckle. The dead!

Now Felix Krakovitch spoke up from the bottom of the gorge: I asked him to help, Harry. I knew you couldn't kill Gerenko, no more than we can. Not directly. But indirectly. .

I don't understand. Harry shook his head.

Then look up at the ridge there, over the ledge, said Faethor.

Harry looked. Silhouetted against the dying day, a straggling line of scarecrow figures stood silent on the high, precarious ridge. They were fretted, skeletal, crumbling - but they stood there and awaited the Old Ferengi's command. My ever faithful, my Szgany! said Faethor, that once-mightiest of all the Wamphyri. They have been coming here for centuries - coming here, waiting for me, dying and being buried here - but I never returned. Over them, whose blood is my blood, my power is as great as yours is over the commoner dead, Harry Keogh. And so I have called them up.

But why? Harry demanded. You owe me nothing now, Faethor.

I loved these lands, the vampire answered. Perhaps you cannot understand that, but if I ever loved it was this land, this place. Thibor could tell you how much I loved it.

Now Harry understood. Gerenko... invaded your territory!

The vampire's growl was deep and merciless. He sent a man here who was responsible for reducing my house to dust! My last vestige on earth! And now there is nothing to show that I ever existed at all! How then shall I reward him? Ahhh! But how did I reward Thibor?

Harry saw what was coming. You buried Thibor, he answered.

So be it! cried Faethor. And he gave the Szgany on the ridge his final command - that they throw themselves down!

Half-way along the ledge, Ivan Gerenko heard the clattering of ancient, leather-clad bones and fearfully looked up. Down from that high place they fell, breaking up as they came; skulls and scraps of bone and flaps of fretted flesh, a rain of dead things that might drown him in mummied remains.

'You can't hurt me!' Gerenko gibbered, covering his wrinkled head as the first ghastly fragments thudded down onto the ledge. 'Not even dead men... can... hurt me?'

But it wasn't their intention to hurt him; they didn't even know he was there; they'd simply obeyed Faethor and hurled themselves down. And after that it was out of their hands, those of them who had hands. The clattering cascade continued, echoing loudly; and over and above the pelting of gristly bones, now there swelled a new sound: a terrible grumbling and groaning, but in no way the groaning of the dead. They were the groans of riven rock, of sliding shale and scree and accumulated debris. Avalanche!

And even as that fact dawned on Gerenko, so the face of the cliff fell on him and he was swept away .

Long after the dust had settled and the last rumbling echo faded away, Harry Keogh stood with Zek and watched the rim of the moon come up over the mountains. 'It will light your way,' he told her. 'Take care, Zek.'

She was still in his arms, had needed to be there else she might have fallen. Now she struggled free, wordlessly left him and headed for the scree-buried ledge. At first she stumbled, then straightened up and went with more certainty, more resolve. She would pick her way over the fallen cliff to the bottom of the gorge, then follow the stream down to the new road.

'Take care,' Harry called after her again. 'And Zek, don't ever come up against me or mine again.'

She made no answer, looked straight ahead. But to herself: Oh, no, I'll not do that. Not against you, Harry Keogh - Necroscope!

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