Castles - Travellers - The Projekt
Something more than an hour earlier:
Keeping alert for bats, Karl Vyotsky rode his motorcycle across the boulder-strewn plain toward the towering, fantastically carved stacks standing like weird sentinels in the east. It had been his first instinct to make for the pass and the thin sliver of sun he'd seen on the horizon in the high wide 'V of the canyon. But half-way to the mouth of the pass the sun had gone down, leaving only its rays to form a fan of pink spokes on the southern sky.
The mountain range reaching east and west as far as the eyes could see was black in silhouette now, highlighted with patches and slices of gleaming gold where the moon's beams lit on reflective features; but the sky over the mountains was indigo shot with fading shafts of yellow, and since night was obviously falling on this world, Vyotsky preferred the open ground under the moon to the inky blackness of the pass. He had no way of knowing that on the other side of the range, the daylight would last for the equivalent of two of his old days.
And so with his headlight blazing, he had turned back and headed for the stacks instead; and as his eyes had grown accustomed to the moonlight, and as the miles sped by under his now slightly eccentric wheels, so he had gazed at those enigmatic aeries some nine or ten miles east with something more than casual curiosity. Were those lights he could see in the topmost towers? If so, and if there were people up there, what sort of people would they be? While he had been pondering that, then he'd seen the bats. But not the tiny, flying-mice creatures of Earth!
Three of them, each a metre across wing-tip to wing-tip, had swooped on him, causing him to swerve and almost unseating him. The beat of their membrane wings had been a soft, rapid whup-whup-whup, stirring the air with its throbbing. They seemed of the same species as Encounter Four: Desmodus the vampire. Vyotsky didn't know what had attracted them; possibly it had been the roar of his engine, which was loud and strange in the otherwise eerie silence of this place. But when one of the bats cut across his headlight beam -
The creature's flight had immediately become erratic, even frenzied. Shooting aloft on the instant, its alarmed, high-pitched sonar trill had echoed weirdly down to Vyotsky, to be answered with nervous queries from its two travelling companions. That had given the Russian a notion how to be rid of them. Possibly they were harmless, merely curious; vampires or not, they weren't likely to attack a man, not while he was active and mobile. But he had his time cut out controlling his machine over this rugged terrain. There were fissures in the dry, pulverized earth of the plain, and rocks and boulders scattered everywhere. He needed to concentrate on where he was going, not on what this trio of huge bats were up to.
And so he'd stopped the bike, taken a powerful hand-torch from one of his packs, and waited until the bats had come close again. The one already 'blinded' kept its distance, patrolling on high, but after a little while the others had moved in closer. As they circled about him, then darted at him head-on, so Vyotsky had aimed his torch and pressed its button to bathe them in dazzling light. Confusion! The two had crashed into each other, fallen in a tangle. They separated on the ground, scuttling, flopping, crying their vibrating cries of alarm. Then one had managed to flap back aloft, but the other wasn't so lucky.
Vyotsky's SMG almost chopped the thing in half, splashed its blood on nearby rocks. And when the stuttering echoes of his weapon's voice had died away, the two survivors had gone. He'd given several loud blasts on the bike's horn then, to speed them on their way...
That had been twenty minutes ago and he hadn't been bothered since. He'd been aware that small shadows flitted apace with him high overhead, but nothing had come within swatting distance. He was glad of that, for one thing was certain: he mustn't expend any more ammunition killing bats! Like the Englishman, Michael Simmons, he knew that there were far worse things than bats in this world.
By now, too, one other thing was certain: he'd been right about the lights atop the no longer distant aeries. The closest of these was perhaps five miles away, with others dotted irregularly over the plain behind it, fading into the distance and seeming to get smaller and hazier even in the bright light of the moon. Their bases were piled with scree, fortified with walls and earthworks. In the striated, stony stem of the closest one, lights flickered and flared intermittently; smoke smudged the dark blue sky, obscuring the pale stars where it issued from various chimneys; lesser structures clung to precipitous faces where ledges had permitted precarious construction work. But the great stone buildings that crowned these massive stacks could only be described accurately in one word: castles!
Who had built them, how and why? - these things remained to be discovered; but Vyotsky felt certain they were the works of men. Warlike men! The kind of men the big Russian could do business with - he hoped. Strong men, certainly; and again his eyes were lifted to the crest of that closest tower, to the great ominous structure wrought bleak and frowning to scan the land about like some brooding watchtower.
In a little while, returning his gaze to the hazardous way ahead, Vyotsky found himself obliged to apply his brakes. A low wall of piled boulders had seemed to grow out of the littered surface, stretching left far out onto the plain, and right to extend itself into the very foothills of the mountains. The wall was maybe five feet high and a little less than that through its base. Man-made, of course, it was ... a boundary? The Russian turned his bike south, and riding up into the foothills he searched for a break in the wall. But ahead the wall rose up to meet with a steeply inclined escarpment of smooth rock which Vyotsky knew his machine couldn't climb. And even if it could, he wouldn't. Frustrated, he turned about, pausing a while to stare thoughtfully at the nearest stack.
From this high vantage point his view was that much better. Seated here on his bike, for a moment he found himself calculating the dimensions of these mighty columns:
At its base, this one would be maybe two hundred metres through, tapering down to about half of that as it rose all of a kilometer and a half to its turret-clad crest. Basically the tower was - well, a stone stack! Natural as any of the Grand Canyon's grotesque outcrops, its awesomeness lay mainly in its size and the structures built upon it. But as his eyes travelled up the tremendous, sky-scraping height of the thing, so he noticed what he took to be activity of some sort in the darkness of a huge cavern close to the top.
He narrowed his eyes in an attempt to bring the activity into focus. Now what was... that!
Stuffed into the bottom of his main back-pack - packed in haste, when he hadn't been thinking too clearly - Vyotsky knew there were binoculars. All well and good, but he didn't want to waste the time necessary to retrieve them now. But staring at the stack with its many gravity-defying structures, its watchtower castle and now this bustling activity in the -
Something launched itself outwards from the high cavern!
Vyotsky's spine prickled and his fleshy lips drew back from teeth which were still sore from the battering Simmons's elbow had given them. He drew breath in a gasp, straining his eyes to make out what it was that floated now like a black boiling cloud, forming an airfoil as it circled slowly about the great stack and lost a little height.
And in the next moment all of the blood drained from the Russian's face as it dawned on him just what this flying thing might be - namely, the twin of Encounter One! An alien dragon in the sky of an alien land!
Vyotsky was paralysed with dread, but only for a moment. Now was not the time to go into shock. He switched off his engine, and keeping to the lee of the wall let his bike free-wheel and carry him down from the foothills back to the plain. There he found a massive outcrop of rock and parked the bike in its shadow. The moon, which seemed to be moving across the sky remarkably quickly, was now almost directly overhead, making concealment difficult. In what little shadow there was, the Russian fumbled to unhook his packs, loaded his SMG with a fresh magazine and stuffed a spare into a pocket of his one-piece. Then he primed his small flame-thrower, and even though he was faithless thought: Christ! - and a lot of good this will be against that!
'That' had meanwhile circled the titan stack a second and third time, and was now less than a thousand feet high. Suddenly it veered sharply toward the plain, then seemed to expand rapidly as it came swooping in a series of glides and dips directly toward Vyotsky's hiding place. And he knew then that it was no use pretending any longer, no use hoping that the flight of this thing was merely coincidental to his being here. The - creature? -knew he was here; it was looking for him!
It passed overhead a little to the north, laying a huge shadow on the plain like a vast, swiftly flowing inkblot, and Vyotsky was able to look up at it and measure its size. He saw with only a minimum of relief that it wasn't nearly as huge or terrifying as the murderous thing which had half-wrecked Perchorsk. Fifty feet long, with wings spanning a distance something greater than that, it formed a shape similar to the great mantas of Earth, with a long trailing tail for balance. Unlike the manta, however, there were huge lidless eyes on its underside, peering in as many different directions as could be imagined!
Then the thing banked left and came swooping back, dropped lower still in a controlled stall, finally set down in a fanning of fleshy wings that churned up a cloud of dust which for a little while obscured it. It landed no more than thirty or forty metres away; as the dust settled Vyotsky saw it lolling there, turning what was best described as a 'head' this way and that in a manner which could only be called vacant or at best aimless.
Vacant, yes - and vacated! For now the Russian saw the thing's harness - and the empty saddle of ornately carved leather upon its back. But mainly he saw the man who stood on the ground beside the thing, staring in the direction of his hiding place. Saw enough of him, at least, to know that he wasn't a man, not entirely. For just such a 'man' as this had burned to death on the walkway in Perchorsk's core: a Wamphyri warrior!
He stared hard, apparently right at Vyotsky, then began to turn in a slow circle. Before he turned away, Vyotsky saw the glint of his red eyes like small fires burning in his face. But more than the warrior's face, the Russian was concerned with - concerned about - the gauntlet-like weapon he wore on his right hand. He knew the damage that weapon could do. But not to Karl Vyotsky. Not this time.
The big Russian remained quiet as a mouse in the shadows; he didn't move, didn't breathe, didn't blink an eye. The warrior completed his circling turn, then looked up and gazed for a moment at the castle on the stack. He spread his legs, put his hands on his hips, cocked his head sharply on one side. And he whistled a high-pitched, penetrating whistle that was more a throbbing on the eardrums than a real sound. Down from the sky fell a pair of familiar shapes; they circled the warrior once, then headed straight for Vyotsky where he crouched in the shadows of leaning boulders. It was so unexpected that the big Russian was caught off-balance.
One of the bats almost struck Vyotsky with a pulsing wing, so that he must duck to avoid it. The short barrel of his SMG clattered against stone, and he knew his cover was broken. The warrior faced him again, whistled to call off the bats, came striding forward. There was no uncertainty now, none. He knew where his quarry was hiding. His red eyes burned and he grinned a strange, sardonic grin; he tossed back his forelock from the side to the back of his head; he held himself proudly, chin high, shoulders pulled sharply back.
Vyotsky let him get as close as twenty paces, then stepped out into view, onto the stony plain in the yellow light of the half-moon. He pointed his weapon, called out: 'Halt! Hold it right there, my friend, or it ends for you right here!' But his voice was shaky, and the warrior seemed to know it. He simply swerved to change his angle of approach, came head-on as before.
Vyotsky didn't want to kill him. He had to try and live here, not die in some vendetta for the death of this heathen brave. The Russian would prefer to deal, not fight, not with an entire world against him. He put his weapon on single shot, fired a round over the advancing warrior's head. The bullet plucked at the warrior's forelock, it passed so close. He stopped, looked up, sniffed at the air. And Vyotsky called out:
'Look, let's talk.' He held up his free hand, palm open toward the warrior, lowered his SMG to point it at the stony ground. It was the best way he could think of to signal peace. But at the same time his thumb switched the weapon to rapid fire. The next time he pulled the trigger, it would be for real.
The warrior put his hand up to touch his forelock. He brought it down again, sniffed suspiciously at his fingers with his squat, almost swinish snout. Then his eyes widened and went as round as blood-hued coins. He snarled something Vyotsky half-recognized, which he made out or guessed to be: 'What? You dare threaten?' Then the warrior's right arm rose up toward his right shoulder in a sort of salute. His gauntlet was clenched, but at the apex of the salute it sprang open and showed an arrangement of blades, hooks, claws.
He went into a crouch, affected a combat stance, made as if to hurl himself at Vyotsky. But the big Russian wasn't waiting. Over a distance of only six or seven paces he couldn't possibly miss. He squeezed the trigger, opened up, hosed the warrior across the body with a stream of lethal lead - or should have!
But the KGB man wasn't having much luck with his gun. Of all times to have a defective round! - the weapon fired three or four shots and jammed. It had been Vyotsky's intention to stitch the warrior one way across his body, right to left and rising, then the other way, coming back down. A simple 'wave' of the SMG should suffice, pouring maybe fifteen to twenty rounds at him, half of which should find their target. But the gun had released only three or four shots, none of them aimed.
The first had sliced a groove along the warrior's left side, laying open the flesh there as if he'd been slashed with a jagged toothed saw; the next had pierced his shoulder under the right collar bone at the joint with his arm; the rest, two shots at most, had missed entirely. But the two hits had been like hammer blows which would have stopped any soldier of Earth. This wasn't Earth, however, and the target wasn't just a man.
Thrown back and spun around by the force of the impact to his shoulder, he'd gone sprawling flat-out in the dust - where in the next moment he'd sat up and looked groggily all about. Vyotsky, cursing loudly, snatched the magazine from his gun, re-cocked the weapon and glanced into the chamber. A cartridge, struck but not fired, was stuck in the breach. He shook the SMG to try to dislodge the jammed, defective round; no good, it would have to be carefully prised loose. And by now the warrior was back on his feet.
Vyotsky hooked the gun to his belt to keep it out of the way, unhooked the nozzle of his flame-thrower. He struck ignition and threw off the safety-catch. As the wounded warrior again stumbled toward him, he made one last attempt for peace and adopted the same pose as before, showing the warrior his open palm. Perhaps the other considered it an insult; whichever, all Vyotsky got for an answer was a snarl of rage. Then, even though the warrior had been shot through his right shoulder, still he lifted his gauntlet, flexed its terrible tools and showed them to his opponent.
'Enough is enough!' the Russian growled. He let the other come to within three or four paces, aimed the nozzle of his flame-thrower and squeezed the firing stud.
The small, licking blue flame at its tip became a searing lance of roaring heat, lashed out and torched the warrior all down the left-hand side of his body. Burning, he screamed his shock and terror and bounded away, bounded again, then threw himself down and rolled in dust and pebbles, finally extinguished the flames. Smoking, he staggered to his feet, went careening back toward his weird mount. But now that Vyotsky had started this, he'd decided it should be finished.
He advanced after the smoking warrior, aimed his hose a second time - and froze!
The Wamphyri warrior was calling to his mount, harsh, agonized orders which it heard and obeyed. The bulk of its grey body seemed to shrivel while its wings extended into huge sails. It beat them upon the air, flattening out even as it lifted off. Thrust aloft on what seemed to Vyotsky a nest of vast pink worms that uncoiled like springs to give it lift, it was like a huge sheet of lumpy, leprous canvas in the air. Its worm boosters retracted into it, and it came gliding overhead with its manta tail extended, lashing from side to side. As its body took back a little bulk and the wings commenced to beat, so the eyes along its belly reformed, all of them ogling in various directions. Then they spied and fastened on the Russian.
Vyotsky backed off. The flying creature fell toward him; its fish-like shadow overtook him, black as ink; its rubbery underside opened up into a great mouth or pouch lined with barbs. Vyotsky stumbled, began to fall. With a rush of air that carried an unbelievable stench the thing was on him. A flap of flesh scooped him up, cartilage hooks caught in his clothing and cold, clammy darkness compressed him.
His finger was still on the stud of the flame-thrower but he daren't squeeze it. Do that here, inside the creature, and he'd only succeed in frying himself! There was air to breathe but it was fetid, vile. The whole experience was a livid, living, claustrophobic nightmare that went on and on and -
The creature's gasses worked on him like an anaesthetic. Hardly knowing he was losing consciousness, Vyotsky blacked out...
For Jazz Simmons, 'in the thick of it' meant about five seconds in which to make up his mind; it was what might have been if Zek Foener hadn't been there to advise him. He'd made his mind up in two seconds, and as shadows began separating from the main shadow of the cliff was on the point of turning decision to action when she cautioned him with: 'Jazz - don't shoot!'
'What!' he was incredulous. The shadows were men who came loping to surround the pair. 'Don't shoot? Do you know these people?'
'I know they won't harm us - ' she breathed, 'that we're more valuable to them alive than dead - and that if you fire a single shot you'll not live to hear its echoes! There'll be a half-dozen arrows and spears lined up on you right now. Probably on me, too.'
Jazz put up his gun, but slowly, grudgingly. This is what's called faith in your friends,' he growled, without humour. And he looked at the wary, crouching gang of men who surrounded them. One of them finally straightened up, stuck his chin out, addressed Zek. He spoke in a harsh gabble, a dialect or tongue which for all the world Jazz felt he should recognize. And Zek answered in a tongue he did recognize. Recognition at least, if nothing more. It was a very basic, somewhat disjointed Romanian!
'Ho, Arlek Nunescu!' she said, and: Tear down the mountains and let the sun melt the castles of the Wamphyri, but what's this!? Do you waylay and molest fellow Travellers?'
Now that Jazz knew the tongue, he could more readily concentrate on understanding it. His knowledge of the Romantic languages was slight but not entirely without value. Some of it came from his father, a little less from his later academic studies, the rest he supposed from instinct; but he'd always had a 'thing' for languages anyway.
The man Arlek - indeed, all of these men ringing them in, and others where they now came out of hiding - were Gypsies. That was Jazz's first impression: that they were Romany. It was stamped into them and just as recognizable as it would be in the world now left behind, on the other side of the Gate. Dark-haired, jingling, lean and swarthy, they wore their hair long and greased and their clothes loosely and with something of style and flair. The one thing about them that struck a wrong chord was the fact that several of them carried crossbows, and others were armed with sharpened hardwood staves. Apart from that, Jazz had seen the like of these people in countries all over the world - the old world, anyway.
Gypsies, tinkers, wandering metalworkers, musicians and... fortune-tellers?
Tear down the mountains, aye,' Arlek answered her greeting now, speaking more slowly, thoughtfully. 'You know the things to say, Zekintha, because you steal them from the minds of the Travellers! But we've been saying "tear down the mountains" as long as men remember, which is a very long time, and they're still standing. And while the mountains are there the Wamphyri remain in their castles. And so we wander all our lives, because to remain in one place is to die. I have read the future, Zekintha, and if we shelter you you'll bring down disaster on Lardis and his band. But if we give you into the hands of the Wamphyri -'