'I came through the Gate kitted-up just like you,' Zek commenced her tale, 'but I wasn't as big or as strong as you are. I couldn't carry as much. And I was dog-tired...
'It was night on Starside when I arrived - which is to say I didn't stand a chance! But of course I didn't know what my chances were, not then - or I might simply have put a bullet through my brain and that would have been the end of that.
'I came through the Gate, climbed down from the crater rim, saw what was waiting for me. And nothing I could do but face it, for there was no way back. Oh, you can believe that before I climbed down I threw myself at the sphere in a last desperate attempt to escape; but it just stood there, pouring out its white light, implacable and impenetrable as a dome of luminous rock.
'But if the sight of Them waiting there had scared me, my exit from the Gate had not been without its own effect upon them. They didn't know what to make of me. In fact they weren't "waiting for me" at all - they were there, at the Gate, on business of their own - but I didn't find that out until later. The whole thing is a blur in my mind now, like a bad dream gradually fading. It's hard to describe how it was, how it felt. But I'll try.
'You've seen the flying beasts that the Wamphyri use, but you haven't seen their warrior creatures - or if you have, then you haven't seen them up close. Now I'm not talking about such as Shaithis's lieutenants, Gustan and that other one; they were ex-Travellers, vampirized by Shaithis and given a little rank and authority. They had not received eggs, as far as I'm aware, and could never aspire to anything greater than service to their Lord. They were vampires, of course - of a sort. All the changelings of the Wamphyri are, but Gustan and the others are still men, too...' She paused and sighed.
'Jazz, this will be difficult. Vampires are... their life-cycles are fantastically complex. Maybe I'd better try to clarify what I know of their systems before I carry on. Their biological systems, I mean.
'Vampires, the basic creatures, are born in the swamps east and west of the mountains. Their source, their genesis, is conjectural: there are perhaps parent creatures, mother-things, buried there in the quag, never seeing the light of day. These mothers would be pure and simple egg-layers. Now I've talked to the Travellers, and to the Lady Karen - Wamphyri herself - and no one knows any more than I've told you about the basic vampire. One thing you can guarantee, though: they don't emerge from their swamps during sunup.
'When they do spawn, then the first task of each and every one of them is find a host, which they pursue with the same instinct as a duck taking to water. It isn't in their nature to live by themselves, indeed if they can't find a host they quickly desiccate and die. You could say they're like cuckoos, who... but no, that's a poor analogy. Like tapeworms, maybe - or better still, like liver flukes. So they're parasitic, yes, but that's where any similarity ends...
'Anyway, I said their life-cycle was complex. Well, so it is, but when you think about it so are many of the life-cycles of the creatures in our own world. The liver fluke is a good example. Living in the intestines of cows, pigs and sheep, dropping their eggs in the animal's dung, to be picked up on the feet and in the sores or openings of other animals - including men! And once they take hold on the liver - then the animal is finished. The organ is reduced to so much gorgonzola! And if the beast dies in a field, to be eaten by pigs ... or if it is slaughtered and eaten by ignorant men... you can see how the cycle is continued. So, the vampire is something like that. It's a parasite, anyway. But as I said, that's the only similarity.
'The big difference is this:
'The tapeworm and liver fluke gradually destroy their hosts, reduce them to nothing, kill them off. In so doing they kill themselves off, too, because without a living host they themselves can't live. But the vampire's instinct is different. It doesn't kill its host but grows with him, makes him more powerful, changes his nature. It learns from him, relieves him of physical weaknesses, increases his strength. It encompasses his mind and character and subverts them. Sexless in itself, the vampire adopts the sex of its host, adopts all of his vices, his passions. Men are passionate creatures, Jazz, but with a vampire in them there's nothing to temper them. Men are warlike, and as Wamphyri they bathe ecstatically in the blood of their enemies. Men are devious, which makes the Wamphyri the most devious creatures of all!
'But all of that is only one part of the cycle, one facet...
'Now, I've explained how with a vampire in him a man is mentally corrupted. But then there's the purely physical side. Vampire flesh is different. It is a protoplasm, compatible with all flesh! With the flesh of men and beasts and almost anything which lives. And as the vampire grows in its host, so it is able to change that host to its own ends - physically change him! And the Wamphyri are masters of metamorphosis. I will explain:
'Suppose a freshly emerged swamp vampire was fortunate enough to take a wolf as its host. It would gain the wolf's cunning, its fierceness, all its predator instincts. And it would amplify them. There are legends of wolves like that here on Sunside. It's the same legend as the one we knew back on our Earth, which we called the legend of the werewolf! The silver bullet, Jazz, and the full moon!
'To seduce men - for food - the vampire-ridden wolf will imitate men! It will go upon two legs, contort its features into manlike features, stalk its prey by night. And when it bites...
'The vampire's bite is virulent! It is an absolute contamination, more certain than rabies. Ah, but where rabies kills, the vampire's bite does not. It might, if the vampire desires to kill, but on occasion the victim lives. And if at the time of the attack the vampire puts into the victim part of its own being, its own protoplasmic flesh, then that victim is vampirized. But let's say that the attack is fatal, that the vampire drinks the victim's blood, drains him dry (which is often the case) and leaves him a corpse. Again, in this case, even though the victim is dead, that which was inserted - which was traded for his blood - is not dead! In about seventy hours, occasionally less, the transformation is made, the metamorphosis complete. Again, as in the myths of Earth, after three days the vampire emerges, undead, to spread its contamination abroad.
'Anyway, I've strayed from the point. I was trying to explain what a Wamphyri warrior creature is. Well, picture one of their flying beasts magnified in bulk by a factor of ten. Imagine such a creature with a dozen armoured necks and heads, all equipped with mouths full of unbelievable teeth - teeth like rows of scythes! Imagine these things having a like number of arms or tentacles, all terminating in murderous claws and pincers or fitted with huge versions of the Wamphyri battle-gauntlets. Get all of that formed in your mind's eye, and you are looking at a warrior creature. They are vampires, but utterly mindless, with one and only one loyalty - to whichever Lord created them.
'Ah! - but I see the question in your eyes, Jazz. You're thinking: whichever Lord created them from what? But haven't I told you that they are masters of metamorphosis? Their creatures - all of their creatures, which take the place of machines in their society - were once men!
'Don't ask me the hows of it; I don't have all the answers, and I don't think I could bear to know them. What I do know I'll pass on to you, as time allows. But right now you've asked me what it was like for me when I first came here, and I'm telling you that the first things I saw - two of them - were Wamphyri warrior creatures. I saw them first, before anything else, in the same way you would notice a pair of cockroaches among ants. One: because ants are tolerable, while cockroaches are not. And two: because cockroaches are that much bigger, and so much more ugly!
Two of them, out there on that rock-strewn plain under the moon and stars. And I couldn't believe their size! That they were fighting things was obvious: take a look at a picture of Tyrannosaurus Rex in a book of prehistoric animals and you don't need to be told he was a warrior. These creatures were like that: with their weaponry, armour-plated, in all their utter hideousness, they couldn't be anything else. It was only when I saw that they were quiescent, controlled, that I dared to take my eyes off them. Then, having observed the "cockroaches", as it were, I looked at the "ants". Seen in contrast, beside the warrior creatures and flying beasts, that's what the Wamphyri looked like: ants. But they were the masters, and the monstrous giants their obedient slaves.
'Try to picture it:
'Out on the boulder plain, these two mountains of armour-clad flesh. Closer, a half-dozen flyers, all craning their necks and swaying their heads to and fro. And closer still, a few paces away from the shining dome of the Gate, the Wamphyri themselves come here to punish one of their own, a transgressor against the Lady Karen's laws. I saw them, stared at them in a mixture of awe and morbid fascination, and they stared back at me. For they were here to thrust someone into the Gate, and the last thing they'd expected was that some other should come out of it!
'There was Karen herself, and four subordinates -"lieutenants" if you like - and one other who was ugly as sin and draped in chains of gold. Now gold is a soft metal, as you know, Jazz, and easily broken. But not when its links are thick as your fingers! There was more gold in those chains than I've ever seen in my life in any one place, in one mass, and yet this Corlis who was decked in them wore them like tinsel! Corlis, that was his name; he was huge, a brute, and stark naked except for the gold. No gauntlet on this one's hand, for he was in shame. But though he stood there naked, unweaponed, still his red eyes burned furiously and unrepentant!
'The four who surrounded him were big men, too, but smaller by a head than their prisoner; they carried long sheaths of leather strapped to their backs, and in their hands slender swords. The sword, as I'd learn later, is a shameful weapon; only their evil gauntlets are considered honourable and fitting tools for hand-to-hand combat. Also, these swords were tipped in silver. And all four of them were pointed at Corlis, who stood there panting, his head lifted high, engorged with rage.
'Behind their prisoner, and shielded from him by the four who guarded him, stood the Lady Karen transfixed.
Sighting me, her red mouth had fallen open. Now, I'll tell you something, Jazz - something which no woman should ever admit, which I hadn't admitted, not even to myself, until that moment. Women are envious creatures. And the good-looking ones more so than others. But now I admit it because I know it's true. Except I didn't know how true until I saw this Karen.
'Her hair was copper, burnished, almost ablaze; it reflected the white light of the dome like a halo over her head, bounced like fine spun gold on her shoulders, competed with the polished bangles she wore on her arms. Gold rings on a slender golden chain around her neck supported the sheath of soft white leather which she wore like a glove, and on her feet sandals of pale leather stitched in gold. Over her shoulders a long cloak of black fur, skilfully shorn from the wings of great bats, shimmering with a weave of fine golden stitches, and about her waist a wide black leather belt, buckled with her crest - a snarling wolf's head - and supporting, on one rounded hip, her gauntlet.
'A woman, an incredibly beautiful woman; or she would have been, if not for her scarlet eyes. Who or whatever these people were, she was one of them; indeed she was the mistress of this group, their Lady. And before too long I'd know what they called themselves -Wamphyri!
'She came forward, around the group standing there, and approached me where I crouched by the crater wall, with the half-sphere of the Gate at my back. Close-up she was even more beautiful; her body had the sinuous motion of a Gypsy dancer, and yet seemed so unaffected as to be innocent! Her face, heart-shaped, with a lock of that fiery hair coiled on her brow, could have been angelic - but her red eyes made it the face of a demon. Her mouth was full, curved in a perfect bow; the colour of her lips, like blood, was accentuated by her pale, slightly hollow cheeks. Only her nose marred looks which were otherwise entirely other-worldly: it was a fraction tilted, stubby, with nostrils just a little too round and dark. And perhaps her ears, half-hidden in her hair, which showed whorls like pale, exotic conches. But golden rings dangled from their lobes, and all in all, and for all her weirdness and contrasting colours, still there was the look of the Gypsy about her. I could hear the jingle of her movements, even when there was none to hear...
'"Hell-lander," she said, in a tongue I wouldn't have known without my talent to rely on. Languages are easy when you're a telepath. But what I couldn't recognize in her spoken words, I read in her mind - and she knew it at once! Her pale hand, crimson-nailed, flickered toward me, pointed, accused: "Thought-stealer!"
'Then she narrowed those blood-hued eyes of hers, and when next she spoke her tone was thoughtful. "A woman, from the hell-lands. I have heard of men, wizards, coming through the portal, but never a woman. Perhaps it is an omen. I could make good use of a thought-stealer." She nodded, came to a sudden decision. "Give yourself up to me, and all your secrets, and I'll protect you," she said. "Refuse me, and ... go your own way, without my protection." But behind her as she spoke I could see the leers and the lusting stamped clearly on the faces of her henchmen. I thought quickly - for my life! If I didn't go with her, wherever, then where could I go? Was there anywhere to go? Or ... if I didn't go with her, then where would I be taken?
'"I'm Zekintha," I told her. "And I accept your protection."'
'"Then you may call me the Lady Karen," she tossed her head, setting her hair ablaze where it bounced. "Now stand aside a little way. We've business here." And to her aides: "Bring the dog Corlis forward!"
'Karen's men shoved their prisoner to the fore; even chained, he might have turned on them, but their silver-tipped weapons pressed him close. They took off his chains, and as the last of these was being removed -
'It was the moment he'd been waiting for!
'Knotting that last length of chain about one great fist, Corlis whirled, flailed, sent his warders dancing back. Before they could gather their thoughts he'd released the heavy chain, sent it crashing into them. In another moment he laughed - a mad, reckless laugh - and leaped for the Lady Karen to snatch her up. "If I'm to be a victim of the portal, Karen, then so are you!" he cried.
'So, in the same way you brought Karl Vyotsky here, Jazz, Corlis had determined to take the Lady Karen out of here.
'Now, clutching Karen to him, Corlis had almost reached the shallow crater wall. Her men were after him like hounds, but he had the advantage. It seemed that my one hope in this strange world was about to be removed from it. But Corlis hadn't reckoned with me. As he dodged Karen's retainers and the mouths of magmass holes, so he came close to where I crouched. Karen was kicking and biting him, but it made little difference. She was Wamphyri, but she was a woman, too. Finally, with the Lady tucked under one arm, Corlis saw his chance and bounded straight for natural steps of stone where they climbed the crater wall. He was now within three or four short paces of the Gate. But as he lumbered past me, so I reached out my leg, and braced it... it was as simple as that.
'He tripped; Karen went flying free, almost fell into one of the gaping magmass wormholes. Corlis got up on one knee, glaring his hatred and frustration at me. I was almost within reach of him. His arms reached for me and I backed away - but, God, Jazz, those hellish arms kept reaching! They stretched like rubber, straining after me, and I could hear the tearing of muscles and ligaments! His face - God, his face! - it opened like a hinged steel trap, with rows of needle teeth that were visibly growing and curving out of his jaws! I don't know what he was becoming - something utterly invincible, I'm sure - but I wasn't about to give in to him. Not to that.
'My SMG was in my hands, had been there all the time. But I'm not a soldier, Jazz, and I had never killed. Against this, however, I had no other choice. I cocked the gun (don't ask me where I found the strength, for my muscles were jelly) and squeezed the trigger.
'Well, as you know, bullets don't kill them - but they do make a mess of them. The stream of fire I turned on Corlis was almost a solid wall of lead. It turned his trunk scarlet, punched holes in his chest and hideous face, blew him back away from me and sent him sprawling, flopping like a wet rag. And amidst the chattering madness of my weapon, everything else seemed frozen. In the relative quiet of Starside, that gunfire must have sounded like the laughter of hell! And only when the magazine was empty did the noise abate, allowing its echoes to come thundering back from the hills.
'Stunning, the effect - but then the tableau unfroze. Urged on by Karen where she came to her feet, her men leaped toward Corlis. He sat up! - I couldn't believe it, but he did. Already the holes were healing in his body, his bloody face sealing itself. He saw them bearing down on him with their silver-tipped swords and looked wildly all about. There! - a magmass hole; he stood up, all lopsided, crouched, sprang, went sprawling toward its dark mouth. In mid-air one of Karen's retainers caught him; a sword flashed silver; Corlis's head sprang free! His trunk crashed forward, spurting blood from its severed neck. Corlis's dive took his twitching body down the magmass wormhole and out of sight. But his head lay grimacing, gnashing its evil teeth, where it had fallen.
'Karen gave a cry of disgust, stepped forward and kicked the vomiting thing into another hole. Whatever Corlis had done, it must have been very bad. Scarlet stains were all that remained of him...
'Karen looked at me, looked at the smoking gun in my hands. Her red eyes were wide now, making her face seem paler still. As well as the gun, she was aware of the rest of my kit; she couldn't keep her gaze from straying to my packs, the nozzle of the flame-thrower hooked to my belt, the sigil on the left-hand breast pocket of my combat suit. The latter finally impressed itself upon her and she stepped closer, peering at the crest. It was a hammer and sickle, of course, crossed with the bayonet of an infantry unit. Some small soldier had sacrificed his suit for me.
'But it signified much more than that to the Lady. She pointed, stretched herself tall - perhaps in outrage - and spat words in my face. They came much too fast to be anything but a gabble; I read them in her mind: