Karen's Aerie - Harry at Perchorsk
'First of all, let me explain that no human being could ever adequately describe an aerie of the Wamphyri. I don't think our language, or any language of the old world, has the right words for it. Or if there are such words, then the description would become so repetitious - so laced with grisly-sounding adjectives - that the entire exercise would soon become a bore.
That's why I'll tell it as I saw it, like describing a picture or series of pictures, without putting too much emphasis on the grotesque anomalies and abnormalities of the ... but there! - do you see what I mean?
'The Lady Karen's aerie had belonged to Dramal Doombody, and so it has to be fairly representative of all the aeries, or castles if you wish, where they sit atop those fantastic stacks. So let's begin with the stacks themselves:
'As far as I was able to tell they're natural, weathered out from the mountains in their slow retreat. Why the stacks should remain while the earth around them crumbled... I'm no geologist. Maybe they were once the cores of a series of volcanoes, choked with a basalt magma which was tougher than the surrounding cones. The craters have long gone but these titan plugs remain. That's theory, of course, and anyway it doesn't matter. The stacks are real, and since time immemorial the Wamphyri have built their aeries on them.
'But just looking at a stack from a distance, you don't see the entire picture. By that I mean that you don't see the actual stack. It's there, inside the shell, but what you see is that shell, which through the ages the Wamphyri have built around the inner core. So ... the next question has to be: what is this artificial "skin" made of?
'Well, I think the best way to answer that would be to liken a stack to coral on a submarine shelf. The stone is there, and the living coral forms a skin on it, and the skin dies and itself becomes stone. So on the submarine shelf the "skin" is dead coral. And on the stacks... it's dead flesh.
'When an aerie requires repairs or extensions, the Wamphyri breed cartilage creatures whose sole function is to bridge a gap, form a section of wall, roof over a new hall or causeway. Which is to say, their living bodies form the building or repair materials. Except I said "breed" and that's the wrong word. They don't really breed anything, they merely change what already is. They take out of storage a troglodyte, perhaps, or punish a vampir-ized henchman who has been remiss in some way, or maybe steal a Traveller or two from Sunside. All human or sub-human flesh is the same to the Wamphyri. They can take it, change it, mould it to their individual needs. These cartilage things lock themselves in position wherever they're required, die and eventually fossilize there. Being of vampiric origin - having been vampirized - they take a long time to die; maybe they don't die as we understand it, but simply age and become... fixed.
'So what I'm saying is this: when you walk through an aerie, as often as not you're surrounded by the fused, polished bones and the hard, leathery hides of what were once men. And if you look closely enough - which is something you very quickly learn not to do - then you start to recognize the shapes of altered rib-cages, thigh bones, spinal columns and even... but I think you get the picture.
'The Wamphyri can stand extremes of cold. That's not to say they prefer it, simply that they seem inured. Except when under siege, they do heat their stacks with a complicated sort of central heating. Gasses are burned in the base of the stack and the hot air is channelled through pipes - great, hollow bones, usually - to every level. Other pipes carry the gas itself, which may then be burned as required. There are two sources for these gasses.
'Each aerie has its refuse pit. "Refuse" to a Wamphyri Lord can be anything from bodily wastes to wasted bodies. You know what vampires feed on. Well, they're not obliged to (indeed they can go without blood, without sustenance generally, indefinitely) and they do vary their diets with vegetable fibers, various oils, even fruits which are gathered during sundown on Sunside. They have vast storehouses of foods such as these, not to mention larders of suspended troglodytes and Travellers. In this instance, let's consider their "usual" fare.
'If a person is eaten and it is not desired that he or she becomes a vampire, then the remains of the meal go to the refuse pit along with all other garbage. Consider that a stack or aerie may house a thousand or more - creatures - and you get something of an idea of the contents of a refuse pit. Gasses are of course generated in large volumes. These are the gasses which are usually burned close to their source, in the bowels of the stack. Wamphyri conduits are leaky systems at best, and if gasses such as these were allowed to escape... the atmosphere in the rest of the aerie would be quite intolerable.
'Also to be found in the lower levels are the stables of the gas-beasts. These are what their name describes them to be: living gas bladders, as mindless as the cartilage creatures. Their single function is the production of gas. They are fed on coarse grasses and a little grain; obviously, the gas these beasts produce is close to methane; I don't think I need to explain further than that...
'Now, I said that in their way the Wamphyri are scrupulous. The Lady Karen bathed frequently, as often as I myself. I watched her bathing and it was as if she tried to scrub the taint out of herself, which of course she never could. But she didn't stop trying. Oh, she talked hard to her retainers, but what was she inside but a poor frightened girl? At least, she had been.
'Anyway, you'll appreciate that water does not rise as readily as gas. In our world it has to be pumped uphill, or "rammed" under pressure, or else it arrives by aqueduct from a source higher still. The aeries have their catchment areas, inward-sloping skins on all levels, channelling rain water into great barrels with overflow systems into other barrels. In the event of a great downpour, wells at the foot of the stacks are filled to brimming. When all reservoirs are filled, then the skins are allowed to hang loose like flags. In fact they're woven with the various Wamphyri sigils and so act as their banners as well. But the rains are infrequent and if an aerie were under siege this system alone would be unreliable. That's why there's a back-up.
'You'll understand the meaning of "capillary attraction"? The way sap rises through a stem, or water between sheets of glass? The Wamphyri use capillary attraction to lift water from their wells to the tops of their aeries. The tubes through which the water passes are quite literally capillaries - those same narrow tubes which connect veins and arteries. Real capillaries, Jazz, whose owners lie in placid heaps of pseudolife in secret rooms high in the aeries. Secret because the Wamphyri will not tolerate their creatures except in their proper places. They know the difference between acceptable and unacceptable, you see. And the proper place for a thing whose veins hang down inside pipes through half a mile or more of stack is, obviously, at the top of such a stack. And so, because they're unseemly, the Wamphyri hide them away.
'I stumbled across just such a room and its inhabitants in the Lady Karen's aerie. That's all I can remember of it: that I found it, and then that someone found me and took me out of there. I had fainted. My mind hasn't retained anything of the episode except the fact that it happened. And this was only retained - as a warning, I suppose - in case I should forget totally and wander back that way again. Needless to say, I never did wander back that way again.
'Also to be found in the lower regions: the pens of the warriors. The warrior creatures are kept, like lions in a Roman amphitheatre, close to starvation. Or they would be except for one thing: like the Wamphyri, they don't need to eat. When they do eat, their food is invariably meat, preferably living. They are pure carnivores, created to tear, maim, kill - and devour. Their reward in battle is to be allowed to glut themselves. They fly into battle, launching themselves from the stacks and squirting through the sky like giant squids; but if they're victorious, they soon become far too bulky to fly back again to their aerie and so return across the boulder plains as best they can. Apart from battle proper, the Wamphyri also use them during sundown for the rounding up of Travellers. Then, too, if they are successful, they're allowed the occasional titbit.
'But enough about them. Just pray God, if you're a believer, that you never see one. And especially that you never see one in battle...
'Flying beasts are stationed at various levels. You've seen them and know what they look like. They aren't especially dangerous, not on their own. Grounded they're clumsy, stupid; aloft they are graceful in their own alien sort of way. For control they are linked closely with their masters - by telepathy. It has to be that way when the Wamphyri ride them to battle. They are the sky-floating command-posts of their masters.
'One other thing about the Wamphyri in battle: they | have their own codes of combat, their own warped i "values" and ideas about valour, chivalry and such! Can you imagine that? But each one of them changes these values to suit himself, to his own advantage. If ever it gets down to hand-to-hand combat, one against one, the single weapon deemed allowable by high-ranking aerie masters - the Lords and their aides or lieutenants - is the war-gauntlet. Somewhere in the east, in a small Gypsy settlement, those hideous weapons are made to order for the Wamphyri. All metal things are made for them; they have no understanding of metalworking, or more correctly, they have a general dislike for metals. Silver is a poison, iron despised, only gold is relatively acceptable.
'So, I've covered a few points, helped to give you something of a picture of Wamphyri life and how their aeries operate. It's all too complicated for me to be more specific than that. Now, if you still want to hear it, I'll go on and tell you about my own experiences in the Lady Karen's aerie
Jazz had finished bathing and now climbed out of the river. He felt a lot easier, relaxed; the water had washed away most of his coiled-spring tension. He squeegeed the water from his body with the hard edges of his hands, shivered a little in the oh-so-gradually fading rays of the sun where it sat over the horizon's edge. As he began to dress and before Zek could continue her story, they spotted Lardis returning across the rim of the riverbank.
Jazz had disassembled most of his combat-suit harness, leaving only the belt and upper cross-straps with their various attachments. As Lardis arrived and cast a speculative eye over the several items of gear where they lay spread out, so Zek gave Jazz a helping hand to get himself kitted-up again. He preferred to sleep fully-rigged, or at the very least in 'skeleton order', so that he could wake up ready for any eventuality.
Finally, taking out a cigarette and lighting it, Jazz turned to the Gypsy leader - in time to see him twist and yank the pin from a fragmentation grenade!
Jazz drew air in a gasp, threw Zek aside and down, leaped toward Lardis. The other had not yet seen the consternation on Jazz's face. He frowned at the grenade in his left hand and the pin in his right. Jazz snatched the grenade away from him. He'd been counting in his head: one, two, three -
He hurled the grenade out over the river. Four, five -
It made a small splash - and immediately made a much larger one!
The detonation thundered, but most of the razor-sharp shrapnel was lost in the river. Some fragments whistled where they slashed the air overhead; a fountain of water rose up, sprayed out, fell back; the echoes of the detonation came back from the foothills and the water of the river slapped in wavelets against the bank. Dozens of stunned or dead fish were already floating to the surface.
Lardis closed his mouth, looked at the firing-pin in his hand - hurled it violently away. 'Eh?' he said then. 'What - ?'
Jazz scowled at him, said: 'Pretty effective fishing!'
His sarcasm was lost on Lardis. 'Eh? Oh, yes, I suppose it is!' The squat, bemused man turned away, went to climb the riverbank and calm his people where they came running. 'Indeed it is!' he finally, emphatically, agreed. 'But I think I prefer to do it my way.' He glanced at Jazz's weaponry laid out on the riverbank. 'Er, show me these interesting things of yours some other time. Right now I've much to do.' Jazz and Zek watched him walk away...
As Jazz packed his kit again and settled down comfortably where he intended to sleep, Zek continued her story:
'I had my own room in Karen's aerie. She and I shared the topmost level - literally acres of rooms, all of them enormous - where we were the only human creatures. Remember, the Wamphyri are human; it's the vampire in each one of them which makes him alien, and Karen's vampire had yet to gain total ascendancy. So we were the only people up there, but there was a warrior. It was a small one of its sort, which is to say it was about as big as an armoured personnel carrier and just as deadly! It guarded the stairwell to the next lower level. That was how well Karen trusted her aides.
'Then there were the water-drawing creatures, which I've already mentioned. And that was all, nothing and no one else.
'Every so often (I calculated at the time that it was about every twenty-four hours) Karen would hold audience. She'd call her lieutenants up from below, all seven of them, none of them having an egg, and apportion the aerie's duties or check on orders already issued. Then they'd make their reports, warn of any deviations in the balance which the aerie maintained, detail their recommendations, and so forth. It was like a military "O"-group, in a way, with Karen as the C-in-C. And she carried it off very well. These were the only occasions when I saw Karen's men without their gauntlets. Her warrior had orders - direct from her mind -to savage anyone who attempted to enter her level wearing a gauntlet.
'But don't be misled by anything I've said about her. Don't in any way make the error of believing she was vulnerable. For she wasn't; not physically, anyway. She was Wamphyri! - the real thing - and her lieutenants knew it. She looked, and for the moment perhaps still thought like a young woman, yes, but that was only the shell.
'Within her she had a vampire and its strengths were hers, growing stronger every day. If she appeared weak it was simply that she didn't want her underlings to test her, didn't want to have to punish them as she'd been obliged to punish Corlis, for that might mean calling again upon the monster within her for its assistance. And she was dedicated to her stance, which was to hold it at bay. Let it gain true ascendancy just once... she believed it would dominate her always. And eventually it will, of course, for that is the nature of the vampire. Karen is doomed to change, to metamorphosis, to the gradual deterioration of what she was into what she must become...
'I remember that toward the end of my captivity there in her aerie, I asked her what Corlis could have done that she'd wished to banish him to the hell-lands. Perhaps because I was the only one she could talk to without worrying about their motives, she told me all about it.
'Corlis had been the biggest of Karen's men, both in size and in the aerie's pecking order. He was also surly, a troublemaker, the Wamphyri equivalent of a male chauvinist whatever - in spades! Even as a Traveller he'd been a brute, but that had been forty years ago. Then he had been taken in a raid, since when he'd served Dramal Doombody - if "served" is the right word for it. God knows why Dramal suffered him, but the ways of the Wamphyri are never easy to figure out. Maybe at one time Dramal intended that Corlis should have his egg. But that's pure guesswork, of course.
'Let me explain Corlis like this: he wasn't true Wamphyri, but if ever a man should have been then he was that man. And he knew it.
'Most men would shrink from the idea, but not Corlis. He wanted an egg - and the power it would bring. He wanted to be master of the aerie, a Wamphyri Lord. He would like nothing better than to ride to war on the back of a flying beast, and command his warriors in their terrifying aerial battles. But while he and the others called themselves Wamphyri, they knew that in fact they were merely the undead servants of their true vampire mistress. And that was the great thorn in Corlis's side.
'He had asked the Lady Karen that she make him the aerie's warlord. To which she'd replied that she had no need of a warlord, for there was no war. He had demanded rank and position above his fellows, only to be told he had no right to such honours. There was room for only one master (or mistress) in an aerie, and in this aerie that one was the Lady Karen herself. Then Corlis had offered himself as Karen's consort and protector - at which she'd lost her temper and told him she'd rather sleep with a warrior! As for his protection: he should worry about protecting himself, especially if he intended to continue his current campaign of mischief and annoyance.
'But Corlis wasn't to be put off lightly. He'd argued heatedly that the other Wamphyri Lords were plotting for war, that now that Dramal was dead the aerie was vulnerable, and that Karen, a mere woman, could never hope to achieve any sort of effective command of her army in battle. She should choose her champion now, without delay, and the champion she chose had better be him!
'At that Karen had ordered him out of her presence, Corlis and the other six with him. Four of them had made to obey her, but the others...
They had sided with Corlis. And warning off the four who remained half-loyal to her, Corlis and his two (for surely he'd suborned them) had surrounded her where she sat upon her throne of office, which had once been Dramal Doombody's "bone-throne", made of the curved, fossilized jaw of a vast cartilage creature. From under his jacket, one of these traitors produced a stake of wood, forbidden in every aerie since time immemorial, and sprang at her. The second produced chains of iron, to bind her. As for Corlis:
'He stood, arms akimbo, and watched. His plan was this: to stake Karen through her vampire heart and then, when she lay helpless, to threaten her with decapitation and fire. This threat, he hoped, would drive her vampire to produce its egg, for even immature vampires will do this when true death seems imminent. The egg would be his, for he intended to be in such a position as to leave no alternative host. Namely: fused sexually with his victim!
'But Karen had divined his purpose. Being Wamphyri, she'd been gifted with an element of telepathic talent. Now, in her hour of need, that talent worked for her not only in reading Corlis's intentions, but also to call her warrior creature from its vigil at the top of the stairwell. The creature came - and swiftly!
'Corlis and his two now held Karen down. She was not wearing her gauntlet, but still she put up a fight. She wouldn't lie still long enough for the one with the chains to bind her; her nails opened up Corlis's face; she kicked the one with the stake repeatedly in the groin! And the four who were half-faithful were torn two ways: they danced here and there, undecided, not knowing what to do for best. But then, when they saw Karen's warrior coming... Ah! - but then they knew what to do for best!
Two of them leaped on the one with the stake and dragged him away. The enraged warrior took him from them and that was the end of him. He had no egg; he was just flesh, however vampirized; the warriors know how to deal with mere flesh. The other two more-or-less-faithful ones fell on Corlis where he tried in vain to rape Karen, and finally they pinned him down. That left the Lady herself to deal with the one who had tried to chain her. Unlike Corlis this one was small, and Karen's full vampire fury had been roused!
'She dragged him screaming to her throne and drove his face down on the jagged cartilage finial which formed the grip at the end of an arm rest. The finial was the eye-tooth of the creature whose massive jaw formed the throne; it entered the traitor's mouth and came out at the base of his skull, so that he kneeled there and flopped about like a speared fish. He was taken to the refuse pit.
'And Corlis, of course, was taken to the Gate
Zek looked at Jazz where he lay awake and listening. But she saw that he was blear-eyed and close to the edge of sleep. 'I'm tired, too,' she said. 'Let's sleep now, and I'll finish up on the next leg of our journey. We'll be spending the long night in the caves, I should think. You can ask me any questions then. And by then, too, you'll know just about as much as I do.'
Jazz nodded. 'You're doing a great job,' he said, watching her lie back in her sleeping-bag. Then he stifled a yawn, said: 'Zek?'
'Yes?' she turned her head and looked at him, her face a strange mixture of mystique and ingenue.
'If and when this is ever finished, I think maybe you and I -'
She shook her head, cutting him short. 'We're drawn to each other because we're all we have,' she said. 'In the caves we can be together, if that's what you want. But don't think I'm being generous, for I want it too. Just don't make me any promises about if and when, OK? We don't know "if" - and we certainly don't known "when"! Going home, should we ever be so fortunate, will be like stepping out of darkness into light. We might see each other very differently. Let's leave it at that.'
He smiled, yawned again and nodded. A hell of a woman! 'OK, but I've always been an optimist, Zek. Take my word for it: we'll make it!'
She lay back, closed her eyes, said: 'Well, here's to optimism, and to the conclusion of a trouble-free trek -and to the Dweller, and, oh - '
The future, yes,' she agreed. 'I'll drink to that. God knows it has to be better than the past.
From Leipzig, Harry Keogh returned direct to E-Branch HQ in London. He materialized in the armoury, a room not much bigger than a cupboard, took a 9mm Browning automatic and three full magazines (and signed for them) and was out of the place almost before the alarms could start up.
Then back to Jazz Simmons's flat where he donned a black shirt, pullover and slacks, and finally to Bonnyrigg near Edinburgh to visit his mother. This last wasn't absolutely necesary, for once Harry had communicated with a dead person he could usually speak to that person again even over great distances, but whenever possible it seemed only polite and much more private and personal to go to them in their final resting places or the places where they had died.
'Ma,' he said, the moment after emerging onto the riverbank above the place where the water gurgled dark and deep. 'Ma, it's Harry.'