Fusion - Fission ¨C Finale
The Wamphyri Lords stole more women out of Sunside; with their lust and their bellies satisfied, they slept; likewise their beasts and thralls. Sunup gradually approached and the sky began to lighten over Sunside. When the first soft rains awakened them, before the sun's first deadly rays could shoot between the peaks into Starside and the north, then they would pass in through the Gate to invade the world beyond. But while they slept:
Harry Wolfson - once Harry Jr, then The Dweller, and now the leader of the grey brotherhood - padded down from the mountains and through the foothills, and stood off in the shadows to gaze upon the forces of evil where they lay in the Gate's glare.
He gazed on them, and upon the naked human figures crucified in their midst. And while the great grey wolf had no way of knowing it, he, his father and Shaitan the Fallen, all three of them, shared a common problem: their memories were impaired. But where in Shaitan the deficiency had localized itself and was stable, and where in Harry Sr it gradually improved, in Harry Wolfson it grew worse from moment to moment, and would not improve until he was a wolf entire.
But for now faint memories stirred: of the woman in the hard ground who had suckled him, of a man on a cross who was his father, and of a girl likewise crucified who had been an ally. Also of a battle long, long ago, in a place called the garden, which had been the end of one life and the beginning of another; and of a second, more recent battle in the same place, in which he and his grey brothers had no part but were only observers. He remembered now how he had planned to fight in that battle, on the side of the two who were crucified, but ... he didn't remember his reasons. In any case, it would have made no difference; they'd done their fighting in the air and their warriors were huge, and he and the pack were only wolves. Yet still he felt that he'd somehow failed these poor, crucified creatures: the man unconscious on his cross, and the woman, awake, inured and even resigned now to pain, but not immune to her own black hatred.
Back in the foothills, one of the brothers lay back his head and howled at the moon rising over the mountains. In its lower quarter, the moon was golden with reflected light; soon it would be sunup. Another howl, echoing up to accompany the first, caused Harry Wolf son to issue an instinctive thought: Hush: Be quiet! Let the sleepers sleep on.
His brothers heard him, and so did the Lady Karen.
Dweller? Her thoughts were faint, shielded from the minds of the sleeping vampires. But they evoked a flood of memories, however blurred. Harry Wolf son knew she spoke to him.
I am that one, he finally answered. And again, I... was that one. But now he must know the truth and asked her: Did I... betray you?
The fight? (A shake of her head, telepathically sensed.) No, that was doomed from the start. Your father and I, we had already seen our futures: golden fire burning in the Möbius Continuum! As for our enemies: we thought we'd seen the end of them, too, but we were mistaken. For it appears that their futures don't lie here in Starside but in the world beyond the Gate. Pictures accompanied her words - a scenario straight out of the Necroscope's and her own trip in future time - and wondered if he would understand them.
He did, and: I'm sorry. But his memories were sharper now and coming faster. My father should have known better: to read the future is a devious thing.
Aye, she agreed. I thought the golden fire might be that of the sun. But no, it was only... fire. They both burn, it's true, but Shaithis's will burn the worst, because it is his. I hate the black bastard!
He saw the logs and branches heaped beneath her. Shaithis will burn you?
What's left, when his warriors are through with me. And even in a wolf's mind, she read horror.
Is there anything I can do? Harry Wolfson came closer, on his belly, creeping between thralls where they lay in an open circle around the two central black tents.
Go away, she answered. Back into the mountains. Save yourself. Become a wolf entire. Eat what you kill and never bite a man or woman, lest they suffer your fate!
But... we were together at the garden, he said. And in his mind she saw again the fire and death and destruction.
Yes, but you were a power then. You and your weapons. But no sooner that last thought than suddenly there was another in her head. One of revenge. Does anything remain of your armoury?
His mind was wandering again; he looked this way and that and wondered what he was doing here; his recently pregnant bitch would be hungry where she waited for him. Armoury?
He couldn't remember, so she showed him a picture. Can you bring me one of these?
Some two hundred yards away out on the boulder plain, a sated warrior snorted in its sleep. Harry Wolfson snaked back into the shadows, loped for the foothills to rejoin the pack. A single thought came back to Karen before the connection was broken. Farewell!
And hanging there in her pain, in the night and the chill of Starside, she thought: He won't remember. But she was wrong.
He came again, but barely in time; came with the clouds from the south, with the first warm rain, with the grey light glowing in the sky beyond the mountains. He came with the false dawn, before the true dawn of sunup, and braved the circle of thralls where now they scratched and muttered in their sleep. And climbing the logs and branches of Karen's pyre, he stood upon his hind legs, face to face, as if to kiss her. But her mouth gaped like a gash in her metamorphic face, and what passed between the two was not a kiss.
Wizard, Necroscope, wake up!
Harry gave a start as Shaithis's thoughts lashed him like a whip; his thoughts, and then his spoken words: 'Your torment will soon be over, Necroscope. So open your eyes and say goodbye to all of this. To your Lady, your life ... to everything.'
Harry's thoughts had something of form and order; his mind was almost healed; his body, not nearly so. Silver was present in his vampire blood like grains of arsenic, so that his broken flesh and bones couldn't mend. But he heard Shaithis taunting him and felt a splash of rain, and opened his soulful eyes in the dark grey predawn light. Then, he almost wished he was blind.
Lieutenants of Shaithis were up on ladders, bringing Karen down from her cross. Her head rolled this way and that and her limbs flopped loosely as they tossed her down on a blanket upon the stony ground. Shaithis turned from Harry's cross, went to his tent and slashed through its ropes, collapsing it like a deflated balloon.
'And so you see, Necroscope,' he crowed, 'how I intend to honour my promise. For perceiving that you now see, hear and understand all, this time - for the last time - I shall take her in the open. No thrill in it for me, not any more; this time my labours are all for you. And when I'm done, then you shall witness how my warriors deal with her! As well to keep one's creatures happy, eh? For after all, they too were men, upon a time.'
The rain came on harder and Shaithis issued commands. His thralls ripped the collapsed tent into two halves, then used its torn skins to cover the faggots of the torture pyres. It would not do for them to get too wet. Shaithis had meanwhile returned to the foot of the cross; Shaitan, too, from his own tent. More leech than man, the Fallen One's eyes were glowing embers in the shadow of a black, corrugated cowl of flesh.
'It's time,' he said, his voice a phlegmy cough, 'and the Gate awaits. I say have done with all this. Put the woman on her pyre and burn them.'
Shaithis paused. He was reminded, however briefly, of his old dream. But dreams are for dreamers, and he was weary now of all dark omens - especially his ancestor's warnings. 'This man was the cause of my exile in the Icelands,' he answered. 'I vowed revenge, and now I take it.'
They glared at each other, Shaitan and Shaithis. There in the Gate's white dazzle, their eyes blazed where they measured one another. But finally the Fallen One turned away. 'As you will,' he said, but quietly. 'So be it.'
The clouds were flown and the rain had stopped. Shaithis called his thralls to light torches. He took a torch and held it up to Harry on his cross. 'Well, Necroscope, and why don't you call up the dead? My ancestor has told me that in your own world you were their champion, and I saw you call up crumbling trogs in the battle for The Dweller's garden. So why not now?'
Harry hadn't the strength for it (which his tormentor knew well enough), but even if he were strong he knew that the dead wouldn't answer him. No, for he was a vampire and they had forsaken him. But in the foothills behind the Gate, a grey shape fretted and whined, prowling to and fro, to and fro; and the pack watching him intently through feral eyes, where they lay with their tongues lolling and ears erect. The great wolf's memory was imperfect and his nature devolving, but for now he understood the Necroscope's every thought. In a bygone time, as a human infant, Harry Wolfson's mind had been one with his father's.
The Necroscope sensed his son there, felt his concern, and at once closed his mind to external scrying. It was an effort, but he did it. Shaitan knew it at once, flowed forward and said to Shaithis, 'Get on with it. This one's not finished, I tell you! Now he has closed his mind, so that we don't know what's brewing in there.'
'In just a little while,' the other snarled, 'his brains will be brewing in there! But for now, leave... me... be.r
And again Shaitan backed off.
'Well, Harry Keogh?' Shaithis called up to the crucified man. He waved his torch and tugged aside the skins from the dry branches of the balefires. 'And did you think to shut me out from your delicious agonies? And can you ignore the pain itself? Ah, we Wamphyri have our arts, it's true: we steel ourselves to the throb of torn flesh and the ache of broken bones; aye, even as they're healing. But the vampire never lived who was insensitive to fire. And you'll feel it, too, Necroscope, when your flesh begins to melt!' He reached down with his torch to the base of the pile. 'So what do you say? Should I light it now? Are you ready to burn?'
And at last Harry answered him. 'You burn, you... ordure of trogs and stench of gas-beasts! Burn in hell!'
Shaithis slapped his thigh and laughed like a madman. 'Oh? Hah, ha, ha! A taunt for a taunt, eh? What, and do you think to insult you executioner?' He touched his torch to tufts of kindling and a wisp of smoke at once curled up, then a small tongue of flame.
And in the shadowy foothills Harry Wolfson issued an ululating howl, then turned and at a fast lope headed downhill for the tableau set in the light of the Gate. The grey brotherhood made to accompany him, but he stopped them: No! Return to your mountains. What befalls me befalls.
Flames licked up from Harry's pyre, small bright tongues but gaining rapidly. Shaithis went to Karen where his thralls held her down. She was conscious now, would throw them off but had no strength for it. 'Necroscope,' the vampire Lord continued to taunt, 'wanderer in strange worlds and stranger spaces between the worlds. Now say, why don't you conjure one of your mysterious boltholes and come down from your cross? Step down and challenge me face to face, and champion this bitch whose flesh we've both known. Come, Necroscope, save her from my embrace.'
Instinctively, Harry's metaphysical mind began to conjure Möbius maths. Invisible to all other men, the shimmering frame of a door commenced to form in the eye of his mind. Except, of course, it was warped and highly volatile. Only let it develop fully and all of this would be over: so close to the Gate Harry would probably be shredded and his atoms diffused through the myriad universes of light. Maybe that was the answer, the way to go. At least he would be spared the agony of the fire. But what of the agony of others? What of the future agony of the entire world which lay beyond the Gate?
Too late to worry about that: Earth was already doomed. Or was it? For Harry knew that miracles can happen, and also that they occasionally happen when all seems lost. But in any case, he could always conjure another door - a bigger, more powerful door - when things became unbearable.
But: No! said Harry Wolfson in the Necroscope's inner mind, even as he thought to collapse what he'd made. Hold it there, Father. Just for a moment. And Harry felt his son looking at the Möbius equations where they mutated in his mind, and at the flickering, warping configuration of the part-formed door. Looking, trying hard to understand... and finally remembering!
In another moment the great wolf conjured equations which even Harry in the fullness of his powers could never have identified, symbols revenant of a time when the Necroscope's son had been far more powerful than his father. For a few seconds certain of Harry Wolfson's lost talents were recalled, and with the effortless skill of all but forgotten times he used one of them to diffuse through his father's ill-formed door a picture of their here and now, and a warning of possible tomorrows. It sped out from him at the instantaneous speed of thought, into all the innumerable universes of light.
The Necroscope cancelled his own numbers and let go of the now highly dangerous door, which drifted away from him towards the magnet of the Gate. But his son's message - and his warning - had been transmitted. Harry Wolfson had completed the mental part of his self-imposed mission; all that remained now was the physical. But where the first had been merely improbable, the rest was impossible. That made no difference, not to the great grey wolf, who remembered now that he had been a man. As well, then, to die like a man.
In through the encircling thralls he loped, like a wraith appearing from the smoke of Harry's fire. And snarling he made for Shaithis where the vampire Lord kneeled beside Karen. But he didn't make it; lieutenants got in his way; one of them hurled a spear and brought him down. Slavering and snarling, with the spear transfixing his breast and emerging bloody through his hackles, still his slender human hands reached spastically for Lord Shaithis - until a sword flashed silver and took his head.
From his cross, through billowing smoke (though the flames had not yet reached him), Harry had seen it all. 'No!' he cried out loud. And in his mind cried out again: No ... no... no!!! And something of his agony, not merely of the flesh but of the soul, went out through the disintegrating Möbius door, which on the instant imploded into the Gate. Then -
- A single, brilliant, prolonged flash of lightning illuminating the peaks, followed by a long, low, ominous drum roll of thunder, and finally a silence broken only by the crackle of the bonfire and the sputtering of fresh raindrops striking the flames.
Until, for the third time, Shaitan came forward.
'You cannot feel it, can you?' He stood over his descendant, glared at him a while, then lifted his head to sniff like some great hound. 'The Necroscope has released something into the air, and into his secret places. But you feel only your own lust. You've neither thought nor vision for the future, only for what you can take today. And so I warn you one last time: beware, son of my sons, lest you lose us a world!'
Shaithis's face was twisted in its madness; he was first and foremost Wamphyri, and now allowed his vampire full sway. A beast, his hands were transformed into talons. Blood slopped from his great jaws where his teeth elongated into fangs and tore the flesh of his mouth. With Karen's once crowning, now lustreless hair bunched in his fist, he looked up at Shaitan and beyond him to the man on the cross. And his eyes blazed scarlet as he answered: 'I should feel something? Some weird, mystical thing? All I desire to feel is the Necroscope's agony, and the flight of his and his vampire's spirit as he dies. But if I can hurt him a little more before he dies, so be it!'
'Fool!' And a heavy, grey-mottled appendage of Shaitan's - a thing half-hand, half-claw - fell on Shaithis's shoulder. He shrugged it off and came easily to his feet.
And: 'Ancestor mine.' He ground the words out. 'You have pushed me too far. And I sense that I shall never be free of your interference in my affairs. We'll talk more about that - shortly. But until then...' With a mind-call, he brought forward his warrior out of the shadows, placing the creature between himself and Shaitan the Fallen.
Shaitan backed off and gloomed on the warrior - which, in the Icelands, had been Shaithis's most recent construct prior to their departure - and inquired of his descendant, 'Are you threatening my life?'
Shaithis knew that sunup was nigh and time of the essence; he had none of the latter to waste right now; he would confront his ancestor later, possibly after the fortress beyond the Gate had been taken. And so: 'Threatening your life?' he answered. 'Of course not. We are allies, the last of the Wamphyri! But we are also individuals, with our individual needs.'
For which reason Shaitan in his turn let Shaithis live. For the moment.
And as the fire smoked and blazed up brighter, despite a renewed downpour, and as Harry Keogh felt the first breath of heat where flames closed in towards his lower limbs, Shaithis again turned his attentions to the Lady Karen.
While in another world...
... It was midnight in the Urals. Deep under the Perchorsk ravine, in the confines of his small room, Viktor Luchov snatched himself awake from a monstrous nightmare. Panting and trembling, still only half-awake, he stood up on jelly legs and gazed all about at the grey metal walls, and leaned on one for its support. His dream had been so real - it had impressed him so badly - that his first thought had been to press his alarm button and call out to the men he kept stationed in the corridor outside. Even now he would do so, except (and as he'd learned only too well the last time), such an action could well be fraught with a terror of its own. Especially in the claustrophobic, nerve-racking confines of the Perchorsk Projekt. He had no desire to have anyone come bursting in here with the smoking, red-glowing muzzle of a flamethrower at the ready.
As his heartbeat slowed a little and while he fumblingly dressed, he examined his nightmare: a strange, even ominous thing. In it, he had heard an awful, tortured cry go out from the Gate at Perchorsk's core, and he'd known its author: Harry Keogh! The Necroscope had cried out his telepathic anguish to any and all who could hear him, but mainly to the teeming dead in their myriad resting places across the world. And in their turn they had answered him as best they could - with a massed moaning and groaning, even with their soft and crumbling movements - from the airless environs of their innumerable graves. For the dead knew how they had misjudged the Necroscope, how they'd denied and finally forsaken him, and it was as if they were grief-stricken and preparing for a new Golgotha.
And the departed spirit of Paul Savinkov - a man who had worked for KGB Major Chingiz Khuv right here at Perchorsk, worked and died here, horribly - had materialized and spoken to the Projekt Direktor in his dream, telling him about the warning which Harry Keogh's son had sent out through the Gate. For in life Savinkov had been a telepath, and his talent had stayed with him, continuing into the afterlife.
And seeing in Luchov's mind the nuclear solution to the threat from beyond the Gate, Savinkov had told him: Then you know what to do, Viktor.
Yes, for They are coming, through the Gate, and you know how to stop them!
'Coming? Who is coming?'
You know who.
Luchov had understood, and answered: 'But those weapons may not be used until we are sure. Then, when we can see the threat - '
- It will be too late! Savinkov cried. If not for us, too late for Harry Keogh. We've all wronged him and now must make amends, for he suffers needless agonies. Wake up, Viktor. It's in your hands now.
'My God!' Luchov had tossed and turned, but Savinkov had seen that he wouldn't wake. Not yet. But... there were others sleeping here who would. And then, when Luchov heard the telepath talking again - to whom, and what he asked, begged them to do! - that was when he'd started awake.
Now he was dressed and almost in control of himself, but still breathless, still alert and listening, tuned in to the Projekt's heartbeat. The dull throb of an engine somewhere, reverberating softly through the floor; the clang of a hatch, echoing distantly; the hum and rattle of the ventilation system. In the old days the Direktor had been accommodated on an upper level, much closer to the exit shaft. Up there, it had seemed quieter, less oppressive. But down here, with the magmass caverns and the core almost directly underfoot, it could be that he felt the entire mountain weighing on his shoulders.
Still listening intently, Luchov's breathing and heartbeat gradually slowed as it became apparent that all was in order and it really had been a dream. Only a terrible dream. Or had it?
That sudden clatter of running footsteps, coming closer in the corridor outside. And voices shouting hoarse warnings! Now what in the world...?
He went to open the door to the corridor, and heard in the back of his mind, like an echo from his dream: But Viktor, you already know 'what in the world'! Paul Savinkov's telepathic voice, and clear as a bell. Except this time it was no dream!
A hammering at his door, which Luchov opened with hands which were trembling again. He saw his guards, astonishment written in their drawn, tired faces, and a pair of gaunt technicians just this moment arrived here from the core. 'Comrade Direktor!' one of the latter gasped, clawing at his arm. 'Direktor Luchov! I ... I would have telephoned, but the lines are under repair.'
Luchov could see that the technician was stalling; the man was terrified to report what must be reported, because he knew it was unbelievable. And now for the first time there sounded the sharp crack! crack! crack! of distant gunshots. At that, galvanized, Luchov found strength to croak, 'It's not... something from the Gate?'
'No, no! But there are... things!'
Luchov's flesh crawled. 'Things?'
'From under the Gate! From the abandoned magmass regions. And oh God, they are dead things, Comrade Direktor!'
Dead things. The sort of things Harry Keogh would understand, and which understood him only too well. And according to the warnings of a dead man, the worst of it still to come. But hadn't Luchov tried to warn Byzarnov what could happen? And hadn't he advised him to press that damned button right there and then? Of course he had, even knowing at the time that the Major didn't fully understand, and that in any case circumstances didn't warrant it. Also, Byzarnov was a military man and had his orders. Well, circumstances had changed; maybe now he would put his orders aside and take matters into his own hands.
Luchov had experienced and lived through similar disasters before. Now he felt torn two ways: should he make his escape to the upper levels and abandon the Projekt entirely, or should he see what could be done down below? His conscience won. There were men down there after all - just following bloody orders! He headed for the core.
As he ran along the angled, split-level steel ramp through the upper magmass cavern to the steep stairwell leading down to the Gate, the Projekt Direktor heard the first shouts, screams, and more gunshots from the core. The technicians were right behind him; his own men, too, armed with SMGs and a flamethrower. But as he approached the actual shaft where it spilled light from the Gate up into the cavern, so Major Alexei Byzarnov's voice echoed from behind, calling for him to wait. In a moment the Major had caught up.
'I was alerted,' he gasped. The messenger was incoherent. A gibbering idiot! Can you tell me what's going on, Viktor?'
Though Luchov hadn't seen it yet - not with his own eyes - still he had a fair idea what was 'going on'; but there was no way he could explain it to Byzarnov. Far better to let him see it for himself. So that when he answered, 'I don't know what's happening,' his simple lie was in fact a half-truth.
In any case, there was no time for further conversation. For as a renewed burst of screams and gunshots rang out, so the Major grasped Luchov's arm and shouted, 'Then we'd damn well better find out!'
A box of plastic eye-shields lay at the head of the ramp just inside the shaft. Byzarnov, Luchov, and his guards, each man paused to snatch up a pair of tinted lenses before continuing down to the core. There they emerged in a group, spreading out onto a railed platform high in the inward-curving wall. From that vantage point, looking down on the glaring Gate with its reflective perimeter of steel plates, they could take in the entire, unbelievable tableau in all its horror.
Dead men - once-men who had become hideous magmass composites, whose stench was overpowering even up here - were active in the core, coming up through hatches in the fish-scale plates, invading the safety perimeter and the rubber-floored area of the missile-launcher. There were nine of them all told, six of whom had already emerged and moved clear of the currently inactive electrical and acid spray hazard area. But such was their nature that Byzarnov could scarcely take in what he was seeing. Again clutching Luchov's arm, he reeled like a drunkard at the rail of the platform. 'For Christ's sake... what?' he mouthed, his eyes bugging as they swept over the madness down below.
Luchov knew he need not say anything. The Major could see for himself what these things were. Indeed he had seen several of them before, down there in the magmass, when they had been part of the magmass! Some were rotting; others were mummified; none was composed of flesh alone. They were part stone, rubber, metal, plastic, even paper. Some were inverted, with material folded-in which had tried to become homogeneous with them. They were magmass, neither pure nor simple but highly complex: magmass at its nightmarish worst.
One of them, guarding the perimeter walkway, had an open book for a hand. He had been reading a repair manual when the original Perchorsk Incident happened, and the book had become a permanent part of him. Now ... his left forearm mutated into a stiff paper spine at the wrist, with pages fluttering and detaching themselves as he moved. This wasn't the worst of it: the lower half of his trunk had been reversed, so that his feet pointed backwards. Even the plastic frames of his spectacles had warped into his face and bubbled up in crusts of brittle blisters there, while their lenses lay upon his cheeks where first they'd melted, then solidified into tears of optical glass.
And yet he had been one of the ... luckier ones? Shut in by magmass, crushed in the grip of convulsive forces and confined away from the air, he had died instantly and his fleshy parts had later undergone a process of mummification. But when the Perchorsk Incident was over and space-time righted itself, others had been left dead and twisted and isolated out in the open, and their condition had been such that ordinary men just could not bring themselves to tend to them. Fully or partly exposed -occasionally joined to the greater magmass whole or partly encysted within it - they had simply been left to ... degrade, in areas of the Projekt which were then sealed and abandoned. Eventually their human parts had rotted down to deformed skeletons, for even bone had been subject to change, in those awful moments when matter had devolved to its inchoate origins.
Byzarnov saw men who were part machine. He saw a creature with a face composed of a welding torch jutting from a crumpled oxygen cylinder skull. Another was skeletal from the waist down but encysted around the chest and head in glassy stone, like a figure in a half-spacesuit. Spiky magmass crystals were growing out of the fused bone of his legs, and behind the glass of his 'viewplate', his unaltered face was still trapped in an endless scream. Another was legless, a half-man which the magmass warp had equipped at the hips with the wheels of a porter's trolley. He propelled himself with arms which were black where scorched flesh had shrivelled into the bone. The trolley's long wooden handles projected upwards from his shoulders like weird antennae framing his head.
The twisted, mummied hybrids were bad enough; the semimechs were worse; but worst of all were those who were partly liquescent, who but for their magmass parts must simply collapse into stinking ruin.
Byzarnov had almost stopped breathing; he started again with a gasp, said, 'But... how? And what are they doing?' He turned to one of his terrified technicians. 'Why haven't we fried them, or melted them with acid?'
The first one up made it to the defence mechanism,' the man told him. 'He ripped out the wiring. No one lifted a hand to stop him, not then. No one believed...'
Byzarnov could understand that. 'But what do they want?'
'Are you blind?' Luchov started down the steps. 'Can't you see for yourself?'
And indeed Byzarnov could see for himself. The nine once-men had isolated the exorcet module; they were closing in on it, invading it. Three of the Major's technicians, together with a handful of Perchorsk's soldiers, were trying to hold them off. An impossible task. Dead men don't feel pain. Shoot at these magmass monsters all they would, the launcher's defenders couldn't kill them a second time.
'But... why?' Byzarnov came stumbling down the steps after Luchov. Behind them on the platform, the other technicians and Luchov's guards were reluctant to follow. 'What's their intention?'
To press the bloody button!' Luchov barked. They may be dead, warped, weird, but they're not stupid. We're the stupid ones.'
At the foot of the steps, the Major caught up and grasped Luchov's shoulder. Tress the button? Fire the missiles? But they mustn't!'
Luchov turned on him. 'But they must! Don't you see? Whatever brought them up knew more than we do. The dead don't walk for just anyone or anything. No, they need a damn good reason to put themselves to torture such as this!'
'Madman!' Byzarnov hissed. He was close to breaking. 'Oh, quite obviously this is some long-term, alien effect of this totally unnatural place, but these reanimated - things - can't have any real purpose. They're blind, insensate, dead!'
They want to launch those missiles,' Luchov shouted in the other's face, over the clamour of discharged weapons, 'and we have to help them!'
At which the Major knew that the Projekt Direktor really was mad. 'Help them?' He drew his pistol and pointed it at Luchov's chest. 'You poor, crazy bastard! Get the hell back away from there!'
Luchov turned from him, hurried along the rubber-floored safety perimeter towards the creature with the page-shedding manual for a hand. 'It's all right,' he was gasping. 'Let me pass. I'll do it for you.' And to Byzarnov's amazement, the thing shuffled aside for him.
'Like hell you will!' the Major shouted, and squeezed the trigger of his automatic. The bullet hit Luchov in the right shoulder and passed right through, punching out in a scarlet spray from a hole in his chest. He was thrown forward, face-down on the walkway, where he lay still for a moment. And Byzarnov came on, aiming at him a second time.
But the magmass things knew an ally when they saw one. The thing with the book hand got in Byzarnov's way, blocking his aim, while another whose limbs were cased in stony magmass welded to a trunk which was a jumble of fused bone, rubber and glass, came lurching to the Direktor's assistance. The Major fired at this one point-blank, time and again, to no avail. But as the thing loomed in front of him, finally a shot cracked the magmass casing of its left arm. The brittle sheath fragmented at once, and a black, vile soup - a decomposed mush of flesh - began leaking from inside.
Almost overwhelmed by the stench, the Major fell against the curving wall. Still the rotting hybrid came on. Byzarnov lifted his pistol and pulled the trigger, and the firing mechanism made a click! He had a spare magazine in his pocket. He reached for it ...
... And the magmass thing closed a bony hand on his windpipe. Byzarnov choked. He could see Luchov getting to his feet, staggering, moving towards the launching module, where most of the defenders had either fainted or stampeded in terror. Only one technician and one soldier remained there now: their weapons were empty and they danced, gibbered and clung together like children as decomposing nightmares closed in on them.
But Luchov: two of the magmass composites were helping him, supporting him where he lurched towards the firing console!
The Major made a final effort, drew the spare magazine from his pocket and tried to fit it into the housing in the pistol grip of his weapon. As he did so, the magmass sheath fell away completely from his assailant's left arm. Byzarnov opened his mouth to yell or throw up ... and the anomalous thing stuffed its skeletal arm and envelope of jellied, rotting flesh right down his throat!
The Major gagged and vibrated where the thing pinned him. His eyes stood out in his head and his heart stopped. He died there and then, but not before he'd seen Luchov at the firing console. Not before he'd seen him slump there and crumple to the rubber floor, even as the klaxons began bellowing their final warning.
On Starside, Harry Keogh burned. The rain was a drizzle which tried to but couldn't damp down the flames, and the Necroscope burned. He burned inside and out: fire on the outside, and a burning, consuming hatred within. For Shaithis, who even now took the Lady Karen by force, there in front of Harry's cross. She seemed completely exhausted, resisted not at all as he tore at her. And Harry thought: A beast, even a warrior, could do no worse. But he hoped he'd be dead before that was put to the test.
A moment ago, he had tried to conjure a Möbius door - the biggest door of all, right there in front of the Gate -which with any luck would implode massively and suck the vampires and their creatures and all into eternity. But the numbers wouldn't come, the computer screen of his mind had stayed blank. It was as if his skills had died with his wolf son, like a slate wiped clean. And indeed such was the case: after a lifetime of esoteric use, finally Harry's mind had given way, crumpled under the weight of one too many tragedies. Now he was a man again, just a man, and the vampire inside him was too immature even to flee his melting body.
'Come down, Necroscope,' Shaithis taunted. 'Should I leave some of this bitch for you?'
The flames were licking higher now, and black smoke belching. Shaitan had somehow got round the obstacle of Shaithis's warrior and stood observing all across a short distance. And for all that the Fallen One was alien, unmanlike, unreadable, still there was that in his poise -the way his eyes stared out from the darkness of his cowl - which spoke of an almost human uncertainty and apprehension. As if he'd seen all this before, and now waited for some awesome termination.
Harry's lower trunk was being eaten alive by fire. Now he must sleep and escape from the agonies of life forever. Except... instead of blacking out, suddenly he felt the pain laved away from him, deflected, turned outwards. And he knew that this was not simply an art of the Wamphyri. His body burned, but the pain was someone else's. Many someones were absorbing it: all the dead of Starside who, now that it was too late, only desired to comfort him.
No, he tried to tell them, trogs and Travellers alike. You have to let me die! But his deadspeak wasn't working.
'Where's your power now?' Shaithis laughed. 'If you're so strong, set yourself free. Call up the teeming dead. Curse me with Words of Power, Necroscope. Hah! Your words, like the dead themselves, are dust!'
And somehow, from somewhere, Harry found the strength to answer. 'Put yourself aside, Shaithis. The sight of you hurts worse than any fire. These flames are a blessing: they cleanse you from my sight!'
'Enough!' Shaithis raged, foaming over Karen like a scummy wave. 'One last kiss and she's gone, and you with her!' He fell on her; his jaws cracked open; he began to close his mouth over Karen's face, to crush her head -
- And her scarlet eyes opened into blazing life.
Perhaps she also opened her mind, to let Shaithis read his doom. At any rate, he tried to rear back from her. But no, her arms and legs were around him and their meta-morphic flesh was welded into one. And coughing up The Dweller's grenade into her throat, Karen pulled the pin with her forked tongue and buried her face in her tormentor's gaping jaws!
Shaithis tried to separate from her... Another second and he might succeed... Too late!
Goodbye, Harry, she said.
And the darkness of Starside was split by a single flash of light, accompanied by a detonation only slightly muffled by the flesh and bone which it turned to grey and crimson pulp!
As the red spray settled and their headless, shuddering bodies fell apart, Shaitan flowed forward to stand over them. He ignored Karen, saw only the shell of Shaithis. And reaching a clawed tentacle into the shattered cavity of his descendant's neck, Shaitan drew out his whipping, decapitated leech; drew it out and hurled it into the heart of the bonfire - and laughed! For Shaithis had no head, no brain. And Shaitan had no body. Not the body he wanted, anyway. Not yet!
'You fool,' he told the empty shell of flesh. 'And would you set your warrior on me? We were of one blood, you and I, but my grip on the minds of creatures such as these was ever greater than yours! Close on three thousand years I listened to old Kehrl Lugoz moaning in his ice-encased sleep, cursing me in his dreams. Did you think I would not notice when suddenly he stopped?
'Ah, he cursed me, but he was craven, too. Did you really think to inspire your construct with his hatred and passions? What? Old Kehrl? He had no passion, not any longer! And as for "hatred"...'
He turned and hurled a mental dart at Shaithis's warrior, which at once reared up and shrank back, mewling. 'You do not know the meaning of the word! What, hatred? And how I have hated you\ If I had let my jealousy loose... why, I could have killed you a hundred times! But never so sweetly as this.'
He flowed up to Shaithis, picked up his loosely flopping corpse and hugged it close. And Shaitan's black, corrugated flesh began to crack open down all its length, like a wrinkled nut displaying its soft kernel. Within the cavity of his ancient trunk, a smaller, more flexible and yet more durable version of himself - the original vampire - was waiting, as it had waited these thousands of years. But Shaitan's plan, to join with flesh of his flesh and so be renewed, was not to be.
For the two Harrys had sent out word of their agony not only into Starside, Earth and all the worlds beyond, but also into the spaces between them. Their travails were known by all the teeming dead, and their warnings had been heard by Others who were not dead and never can be.
In the same moment, Shaitan and the Necroscope sensed the One Great Truth. Harry knew, and Shaitan... finally he remembered!
'Ahhhh!' The Fallen One gasped, staggered by the memory. Even as his vampire struggled to be free of the old shell and into Shaithis, so its eyes where they were housed within his cowl looked up at Harry Keogh, burning on his cross. Shaitan looked at his face framed in fire, and knew where he had seen it before!
But now he saw (or sensed rather than saw, it was that swift) something else. Something that flashed silver out of the Gate's white glare, and then became an even greater glare as a nuclear sun burst over Starside briefly to rival the dawn. And between the coming of the exorcet and the bursting of its all-consuming warhead, Shaitan saw something else: a sight which might have drawn one last, long sigh from that Prime Evil's throat... except he was no more.
It was Harry's cross, but empty now and pierced by the spears of a great light, where at last it was blasted to atoms...
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