The Last Warrior - The Horror at Perchorsk!
Following the battle at The Dweller's garden, Shaithis of the Wamphyri guided his half-crippled, seared flyer for home. He fancied the creature wouldn't make it, not for all his goading, for it was burned all along its underbelly and dripping fluids like rain. He, too, had taken a dose of direct sunlight, but had been nimble-minded enough to throw himself down on his flyer's back, in the trench of horny ridges formed of its huge wing muscles.
The blast had come as Shaithis's creature was turning away from the garden after a trial landing run, and so he'd not been blinded; but still he'd felt the hideous, searing heat of the true sun, and so had known that The Dweller could not be defeated. His weapons were simply too powerful, beyond Wamphyri understanding and certainly beyond their control. Which, together with the loss of his lieutenants and warriors, had convinced Shaithis that the attack was a pointless exercise. Wamphyri losses had been devastating, and the survivors had come to the same conclusion as Shaithis, quitting the fight en masse and heading for home.
Down across the Starside plain they'd flown their creatures, many limping, all humiliated, and Shaithis had felt their hatred of him beating like hammer blows on his psychic Wamphyri mind. They blamed him for their losses, for he'd been the one who instigated the attack, their self-appointed leader in the abortive affray. Generals who lose are rarely feted, mainly scorned.
On the way east, using the half-dome of the shining sphere for pharos and rolling in his saddle, Shaithis had seen Fess Ferenc and Volse Pinescu go down, fluttering out of the sky on flyers finally too weak to resist gravity's pull, and he'd watched them crash in clouds of dust far below on the moon-silvered plain. The Lords must finish the rest of their journey afoot, for Shaithis doubted they'd have strength for flight metamorphosis. He certainly wouldn't, if his flyer were to succumb. Still, walking had to be better than dying.
The Lords Belath and Lesk the Glut, Grigis and Menor Maimbite, Lascula Longtooth and Tor Tornbody were missing, along with many lesser Wamphyri lights. Of warriors there were none to be seen...no, Shaithis corrected himself, one - only one? - spurting through the sky eastward, acting of its own volition. Doubtless its master was dead, and now it returned to the only home it knew.
As for lieutenants: where were they? Gone - gone with the flyers, the warriors, the trogs - gone with all dreams of conquest and revenge. Only a dozen flyers left in all the sky, exhausted, gliding where they caught the thermals and desperate to conserve energy, carrying their Lords whole or crippled, bearing them back to their stacks and their......Their aeries?
Crossing over the glaring dome of the Gate, Shaithis had lifted his blackened face to peer ahead. And he'd seen the unbelievable, the unthinkable. Of all the mighty stacks of the Wamphyri, only one remained standing. And that was the stack of the treacherous Karen!
Fury galvanized him. Karen, that Mother-bearing bitch! He hauled on the reins, lifted the head of his flyer and turned it towards Karen's stack. His creature tried: its manta wings pulsed once, twice, three times; pulsed feebly at the air, then quivered mightily and formed a shallow 'V. The thing was barely alive. Its fluids were gone and there was nothing left to power it. The glide grew steeper, swifter, and nothing to be done about it. At the last moment Shaithis bellowed frantic mental commands into his creature's dull, dying mind, dragged on the reins until he thought they'd surely snap. The beast's head slowly came up and its wings adopted a more nearly aerodynamic profile. It swooped, levelled out, tilted to one side; the debris-littered plain became a dizzy, whirling, surreal kaleidoscope of rushing landscape. Then -
The creature's inner wing-tip struck the stump of a stack, accelerating its spin. Its master was hurled from the saddle, felt bones break in his left arm and shoulder, tasted dust and his own blood where his face ploughed the plain and rocks broke his teeth. Long moments passed, silent except for Shaithis's pounding heartbeat, and the worst of the pain slowly ebbed. Finally, gasping and swaying, he staggered to his feet, shook his gauntlet-clad right hand at Karen's lone stack. He cursed it long and loud. Her aerie stood as a sure sign of her treachery. She was The Dweller's, bought and paid for!
A vengeful snarl twisted Shaithis's broken features more yet. Well, and when she returned from The Dweller's garden . .-. ah, but then there'd be a reckoning! A reckoning, aye - long and lusty and bloody, bloody, bloody! And oh so very sweet!
He took a stumbling step in the direction of her stack -and froze. Descending toward that solitary needle of rock, that last Wamphyri aerie, was the warrior he'd previously noted. He groaned as it squirted in through the dark mouth of her launching bay. Her warrior! And while she lived it would defend her aerie to the last, against all comers, even against Shaithis of the Wamphyri himself.
How Shaithis raved then; ranted and raved, and no one at all to hear him but a flock of great bats, familiar creatures who doubtless questioned the whereabouts of their crevice colonies in the stricken Wamphyri stacks.
The moon raced on across the sky, and Shaithis grew quiet and became still. His shadow passed through the vertical and began to lengthen on the other side. When it was as long as Shaithis himself, then his shoulders slumped and he turned and headed for the shattered, far-flung ruins he'd once called home...
Weary and hollow-cheeked - with half of his body seared, several broken bones, and his face crushed and burned on one side - the once-great Lord Shaithis of the Wamphyri drew nigh the base of that mighty outcrop, that towering rock now gone forever, which had housed him for all of his five and a half centuries. In the stump itself, there he'd had his workshops: the vast vats where with great cunning he'd forced and moulded metamorphic flesh, creating his warriors, flyers, gaslings, siphoneers and various types of cartilage creature. Down there, if the massy ceiling had not fallen in upon it, a freshly formed flyer was even now mewling and floundering in its vat. Once a Traveller, soon it would travel again, and at least Shaithis would have a mount.
There, too, he'd find his pit-things: metamorphosed Travellers and trogs, mindless criers in perpetual night, the raw materials of his warriors and the other creatures he'd made. Well, they could leap in their pits, wail and gibber, stiffen, eventually fossilize. He cared not at all.
Overhead, the last of the Wamphyri were silently flying north, heading out across the icelands for those dark regions on the roof of the world, where the sun never shone at all. When his flyer was ready, then Shaithis would join them there. The legends had it that if one crossed the polar cap and kept going, then he'd find more mountains, new territories to conquer. No one in living memory had tested the legends, however, for the great stacks had been the places of the Wamphyri, their immemorial homes. But... that was yesterday. And now it appeared that the legends were to be tested in full. So be it.
As Shaithis went to descend a shattered stairwell, his good eye detected a movement in the rubble and he heard a muffled moan. Someone here, alive, in the ruins of his aerie?
Shaithis picked his way over tumbled blocks of stone and bony debris, came to a tangle of shiny cartilage and fractured rock where a hand and arm protruded from a gap. The hand groped blindly about, clawed uselessly at rough stone. From below came a half-conscious moaning.
For a moment Shaithis was puzzled; a Lord, even the lowliest lieutenant, would have dug his way out by now. But eventually he smiled a grim smile and nodded his recognition of the trapped man. 'Karl!' The vampire's false smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. 'Hell-lander. Ah, but I've several large scores to settle with hell-landers!'
He tore away blocks of stone and weirdly fused cartilage masses, reached down into darkness and drew Vyotsky out. His handling of the Russian wasn't gentle, especially since both of Vyotsky's legs were broken below the knees. He cried out: 'No, no! Oh, God - my legs!'
Shaithis shook him mercilessly until his agonized eyes popped open. 'Your legs?' he hissed. 'Your legs? Man, look at me!' He sat Vyotsky down on a flat stone surface, let fall his cloak to expose his ravaged body, slowly turned in a circle for the other's inspection. Trembling in his own extreme of pain, still the Russian winced at the extent of Shaithis's injuries. 'Aye,' Shaithis agreed. 'Pretty, isn't it?'
Vyotsky said nothing, continued to hold himself upright where he sat by pressing down on the rock's surface with the flats of his spread palms. In this way he kept pressure off his trembling, jelly legs.
'Now, Karl,' said Shaithis, facing him squarely. 'It seems to me that I remember a conversation we had, that time when we almost caught your fellow hell-landers, before The Dweller's intervention. You remember?'
Vyotsky said nothing, wished he could faint but in any case knew that he didn't dare do so. His agony was great, but if he collapsed now the odds were that he'd never wake up again. He gasped, closed his eyes as a fresh wave of pain burned upwards through his body from his shattered legs.
'You don't remember?' said Shaithis, in mock surprise. He lifted his gauntlet, clenched and unclenched his hand, opened the weapon wide so that the Russian could see its dozens of cutting edges. A single blow from that would flense a man's entire face, Vyotsky knew, or crush his skull like an eggshell. 'Well, I do remember,' the vampire Lord continued, 'and it seems to me I warned you then what I would do if you should ever again attempt to flee from me. I said I would give you to my favourite warrior, all except your heart which I would eat myself. Surely you remember that?'
Vyotsky's eyes were wide now and his lips trembled to match his straining arms.
'Alas,' said Shaithis, 'but I no longer have a warrior and so can't keep my promise. But I would, you may believe me! Except, of course, we do not know that you were fleeing. Ah, but I also remember telling Gustan that he was to carry you with him upon his flyer when we went to sack The Dweller's garden. Could it be that Gustan forgot my command? A shame, for I so wanted you to be there - to witness the way I would have dealt with the woman Zek and the man Jazz. On the other hand... perhaps you were hiding, waiting for us to leave before making a break for it?'
Vyotsky managed to shake his head in silent denial. 'I... I...' he stuttered.
'Oh, indeed!' Shaithis nodded, smiling hideously. 'I... I...' And as his smile once more slid from his face he reached down a second time into the space where the Russian had been trapped - and this time he drew out Vyotsky's SMG, and a leather sack containing provisions.
Again Vyotsky moaned out load, closing his eyes and swaying where he sat racked with pain. But Shaithis only burst out laughing, slapping his thigh as at some rich joke - then abruptly stopped laughing, reached out with his gauntlet and slapped Vyotsky across the knees. For Shaithis - by his standards - the blow was the merest tap, light as the touch of a feather. It ripped open Vyotsky's combat-suit trousers, tore away his kneecaps in a red welter. He did faint then, toppling sideways off the flat stone. But Shaithis caught him up before he could further injure himself. Then -
Without further pause the vampire tossed him over his good shoulder - and proceeded with him down into the black bowels of his workshops...
Below, it was not as bad as Shaithis had thought it might be. Parts of the stone and cartilage ceiling had collapsed here and there, and several of the protoplasmic things in their deep pits had been blocked in, so that their mindless cries were made faint by masses of fallen stone, but in the main all was in order. The larger vats were undamaged, and Shaithis's new flyer uninjured. It mewled when it saw him, bending its glistening, spatulate, armoured head in his direction. Soon the liquids in its vat would all be absorbed into it, and then its skin would form into membranous leather. After that a training flight, and finally Shaithis would be ready to undertake his great journey northwards.
Before then, however, there was one last task he must perform, one final act of vengeance in this place. He had admitted to the hell-lander Karl Vyotsky that his warriors were all dead. Well, and so they were - but that was not to say he couldn't make another. Indeed, the making of warriors and other beasts was an art of the Wamphyri, and certainly Shaithis was a great artist. Moreover, he had the necessary materials right here. Ah, but this one would be the warrior!
In a recent experiment, Shaithis had created a small creature of such primitive slyness and insidious vileness that his creation had surprised even him. The small mind of a trog, with some subtle alterations, had governed the thing - if governed was the word - while its principal physical component had not been man-flesh but that of wild creatures. The tissues of a great bat and a feral wolf had featured strongly, together with protoplasmic flesh from Shaithis's pit-things. But twice the creature had escaped, which in the end prompted him to put it down and have done with it.
Indeed, it would not have been prudent to let it live -not here, anyway - not and chance the other Wamphyri Lords learning of it. For while Nature often gave wild creatures a vampire egg, it was generally deemed unseemly for the Wamphyri themselves to perform such experiments.
And yet Shaithis had done just that. Slighted by a lesser Lord, he'd challenged and killed him, and so earned the right to burn his remains. Instead he had brought the body here to his workshop, cut out the vampire within and transplanted its egg into his creature! But when he saw how uncontrollable was the thing, then he'd sent it through the Gate. It had seemed to him a grand jest: that his creature should take its own brand of hell with it into the hell-lands.
Ah, but that was before he realized just how hellish the hell-lands were! Shaithis little doubted now but that all his troubles stemmed from that unknown place beyond the shining sphere-gate; perhaps even The Dweller himself had his origin there. Which was why he would now create the WARRIOR of all warriors! And, who could say, perhaps it might even be the last warrior? Aye, and when they saw what he had sent them, then the wizards of that world would think again before sending their hirelings adventuring here.
So thinking, Shaithis tossed Karl Vyotsky's limp form down onto the great slab of stone which was his workbench, then went to fetch the other ingredients of his work and certain instruments with which to fuse them...
It was a long job; sunup came and went, and a new sundown was beginning; finally Shaithis was done. He inspected with some satisfaction the thing heaving and hissing where it waxed in its enormous trench of a vat, striding down the length of it and admiring the rapid formation of a deadly array of weapons. Then, into its groping, vestigial mind, he implanted those commands which would form its one aim, its single goal in life, and left it to fend for itself. Emerging in a very little while, the warrior would discover the pit-things and devour them, and find its way out of here. The exit might well be too small for it by then, but Shaithis could not doubt that this warrior would make it bigger.
In the interim he had tested his flyer; the beast was better than any before it, fit steed for the long journey ahead. First, however, Shaithis would gaze once more upon the face of that mother of all treachery, the beautiful face of the Lady Karen. He flew to her aerie and without
hostility began circling it, calling to her in the way of the Wamphyri until she came to a window.
'So, Karen,' he called, from where he rode a gusting wind, 'then you are the last. Or maybe the first? Still, no matter, we are all undone because of you.'
'Shaithis,' she answered, 'of all the great Wamphryi liars, you are the greatest. You even lie to yourself! You blame me for your troubles, or whoever else it takes your fancy to blame, when in fact you know that you alone have brought the Wamphryi to this end. And in any case, what care you for them? Nothing! You care only for the Lord Shaithis.'
'Ah, you're a cold, cruel creature, Karen!' he nodded and scowled at her across an abyss of air.
'Merely accurate,' she answered. 'Do you think I did not know your plans for me? The truth is that you underestimated, Shaithis. You underestimated me, The Dweller, everything. You were so bloated up with your own schemes and lust for ultimate domination that you considered yourself beyond defeat. Well, and now we see how wrong you were.'
He flew closer, all of his great fury visible in his partly-healed face; until she cautioned: "Ware, Shaithis! I have a warrior. It's but the work of a second to launch him!
He drew back. 'Aye, I have seen it. But do you call that a warrior? I doubt if it would have my measure, not if I was the whole man. Which I will be, one day.'
'Are you in a position to threaten?'
He glared at her, saw that a second face had appeared at her window. 'Ah, and you even managed to save a companion for yourself!' he said. 'A lieutenant lover to warm you through all the lonely time ahead, no doubt? But ... I don't recognize this one. Now tell me, who is he?'
'I speak for myself,' Harry Keogh answered. 'I'm a hell-lander, Shaithis. The father of the one you call The Dweller.'
Shaithis gasped, drew back further yet. But in a little while his courage returned. From what he knew of The Dweller and his sort, if they were desperate to have him dead, then he would be dead! Perhaps they were satisfied with what they had done. Curiosity overcame all, and Shaithis flew his beast closer. Tell me one thing,' he called out. 'Why did you come here? To destroy the Wamphryi?'
Harry shook his head. That was the way it worked out, that's all.' And then he remembered a promise he'd made. 'Maybe you should ask instead, who sent me?'
Shaithis nodded. 'Say on!'
'His name was Belos,' Harry said, 'and he told me: "Tell them Belos sent you."'
It meant nothing to Shaithis, who had never been much of a one for studying the legends and histories. He frowned, shrugged, turned his beast away and headed north. The winds carried back to them his final word:
But they knew he didn't mean it ...