Our heroes gain safe haven with a civilized vampire, until they must battle an onslaught of mythical creatures, from dragons to mutants - and finally learn the origins of the strange animals who inhabit this new world.
INSIDE, a small room had been hollowed out of the center of the rock, so its walls and floor were of stone, with a stairway descending into the earth. The hunters were led by the doorman down two long flights of these turning stone steps. So steep was the descent that Beauty almost fell, and had to keep balance with his hands on the wall.
Finally they reached level ground. A spacious tunnel led them to a great gothic archway, which opened upon a wood-paneled room, thirty by fifty feet long, fifteen feet high, decked with rough-hewn cedar. Paintings lined the walls, illuminated by gilt candelabra. Velvet overstuffed chairs proliferated; oriental carpets, crystal chandeliers.
“Wowww,” meowed Isis.
As the doorman left, in walked a handsome man with short hair; deep sensitive eyes; skin of reddish hue; long, powerful fingers, and the secure smile of a civilized patron, his mouth parenthetically punctuated by a gently curving fang at each corner. He was a Vampire.
He spread his wings when he saw Jasmine, and his smile widened. As she ran up to him with her arms out, he encircled her, warmly touching his lips to her neck.
“Lon,” she murmured.
“Jasmine,” he replied. He pronounced her name “Yahzmeen.” His voice was deep as the grotto.
“Yowww,” cautioned Isis. Josh and Beauty were tense, ready to bolt. Josh cursed himself for falling into such an easy trap, and wondered if he could kill a Vampire at close range. Beauty measured the distance to the door, the distance to the creature. He would not make the first move. Treachery always loses strength when it must declare itself. Humbelly fluttered around the room, mindlessly upset.
Jasmine finally broke her embrace with the Vampire and turned back to the others. “This is my friend, Lon,” she said.
“We’re safe here. Lon, these are my friends… but I don’t know your names,” she realized in midsentence.
“Josh, Beauty, Isis, and Humbelly,” said Joshua, indicating with his hand. His voice was coiled.
Lon bowed from the waist, so low that his forehead almost touched the floor. “It is my deepest honor to welcome the friends of my friend,” he said. Draping his body were sheer silks of deep orange and chocolate brown, which flowed like flames through the ether when he moved. He rose from the bow to his full height, with the words, “Please accept my hospitality.”
Neither Beauty nor Isis moved. Josh bobbed his head, tentative, uncertain. “Thanks,” he said.
Lon smiled beneficently. “Come, we shall eat.” He put his robed arm around Jasmine’s shoulder and escorted her out the door, speaking of old times, new times. The others looked at each other, shrugged, and followed.
They went down twisting passages, some lit, some dark; through a large natural cave, dripping with stalactites; past an underground spring; along another carpeted room, filled with antique musical instruments of every variety – clavichords, pianos, French horns, oboes, dulcimers; and finally into the dining room.
It was enormous. Jeweled sculptures held court over one end of the room, their intentions made shadowy by the glow of ancient lamps. Objects adorned every surface, some powerfully magical, some merely exquisite. Scattered around the floor were scented animal skins: sheep, tiger, bear. Against one entire wall an enormous fireplace crackled brightly with burning cedar. A long, low central table of two-inch oak, which looked like it could easily accommodate a banquet, sat stoutly on the floor, surrounded by dozens of pillows, large and small, multicolored in soft exotic fabrics.
“Please, sit,” said Lon with an expansive sweep. He reclined on a pillow at the head of the table; Jasmine sat cross-legged on his right. The others sat comfortably on the floor around the table, propping themselves against the luxury of the down cushions. Humbelly, settling near the fireplace, immediately fell asleep.
A man slipped in, whispered into the Vampire’s ear, received a long, whispered reply, then ran out again. Lon said something to Jasmine; she laughed. He turned to the others, an apology on his face. “First we shall drink,” he said.
He picked a small glass bell off the table, jingled it softly. Instantly a beautiful, pale young boy came silently into the room, naked but for his jewelry, carrying a tray of liqueurs. He padded around the table, stopping to offer each guest a glass, placing a small bowl in front of Isis, coming finally to the Vampire host, who took the remaining glass and raised it. “A toast,” said Lon. The young boy scurried from the room.
Lon went on. “Jasmine has told me you saved her life. For this act you may consider me your most loyal servant.” He bowed his head half an inch. “So. A toast. May servant and master find each other worthy.” He drank. The others raised their goblets in the rosy light like torchbearers at a secret ceremony. Isis sniffed her bowl.
They were relaxing somewhat, but still uncertain. Joshua’s hand was never far from his knife. He was about to speak some of his thoughts, when Lon raised a staying hand. “Please,” said the Vampire. “I can see you are suspicious, and uncertain of my intent. I assure you, I am sincere. Jasmine has told me what little she knows of your plight, but we can discuss this further after the meal. In the meantime, since you are apparently being pursued by Jarl’s Guard, let me tell you what I have done.” Josh and Beauty watched their host closely. He smiled and went on.
“My spies tell me the JEGS were hard on your sign, inside the forest, still half a mile from the entrance of my cave. I have dispatched two of my fastest Humans, my prize palomino, and my cleverest Cat to continue your trail where you left it, flee north, and lead Jarl’s soldiers a merry chase through the forest. For a week, or until Jarl’s hired assassins are eaten by Accidents, whichever comes first.” He laughed heartily. “No, don’t protest. My people love a good chase, and in any case, they’ve been idle too long.” He drank again. Jasmine leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
Josh closed his eyes. Beneath the fog of suspicion that filled him, a feeling glowed viscerally. It wasn’t rational, but it was real – like the sudden intuition of cool rain welling at the pit of a hot summer day. In a single motion, Josh raised his eyelids with his glass.
“To our host,” he said, and drank. Isis nodded, lapped from her bowl. Even Beauty sipped.
“Then let the meal begin,” answered Lon, ringing his little glass bell.
Two boys and two girls entered, wearing shifts of rare silk, bearing appetizers on trays of silver. Wine-soaked fruits, spiced morsels of fish, breaded game hearts, sweetmeats, pickled lizard tails. And another round of drinks.
The next course was soup: robin’s-egg soup, dove-liver soup, honey-grass soup. Every dish was a creation, visual as well as gustatory; every creationa masterpiece. Joshua sucked up the sensations like a dry sponge in water.
Next began the music. The chamber quartet dressed in oranges and browns, the color of the house. Instrumentation consisted of a flute, a harp, a lyre, a cello. The lyric strains seemed to haunt the room, subtle as memory, recurrent as the waves of a hidden lagoon. Josh had the peculiar sense that all this had happened before – that he’d been here, in this scene: these ornate decorations, this melodious hall, that pillow – the way it leaned, the fragrance of these oiled servants. Thought he’d been here; but, of course, he hadn’t.
More wine. The main courses appeared. Stuffed geese, fried squid; sautéed cow. The music changed to something lighter, the table conversation wandered gaily from bass to treble; the evening warmed. Presently, the dancing began.
Veiled young men and women danced as if possessed, among the sculptures. Lon mentioned proudly they were his favorite concubines. He called one, named Lissa. She ran over to him, sat beside him, shared his meal as he fondled her. Another – a young boy named Peter – seemed jealous of the attentions Lissa was getting; so he came over to Lon’s other side, trying to press his favors on the Vampire. Lon grew distant, though, and dismissed them both back to the dance. Josh watched the two concubines return to the harem: as they passed, he saw their necks were bruised black and blue along the jugular tracks.
Desserts. Custard, fruits, cheeses. Brandies. Coffees. Smokes. A ferret-faced man came out and did sleight-of-hand tricks for a short time, then left. The fire simmered, the music calmed. Humbelly woke up, fluttered around the room a few times, sipped some mulled fruit wine from a dish, fell back asleep. The night had become mellow.
Puffing on a long-stemmed pipe, Lon settled back. Layers of smoke laced the room like thick, sleepy air. Previously exuberant figures began to curl in the corners. “And now,” said Lon, “the troubles.”
Josh told him their story. Lon listened, keenly interested, nodding from time to time. When Josh was done, Lon spoke. “Jarl’s soldiers are no longer to be a problem for you, I trust. As for the other… I know this Sire Bal. He is Sangnoir. Bad blood.” Vampires always called other Vampires “Sire,” even when there was little love between them. Lon showed his distaste now by pulling his lips back over his teeth, baring his fangs briefly in the ritual grin of aggression.
“It is not just Bal, though,” said Beauty. “Rumors are alive in the land. Humans are being kidnapped. Vampires are being named.”
“And I’m not so sure we’re rid of the JEGS that easily,” added Joshua. “They found us over a trail I’d have had trouble following myself.”
Lon nodded gravely. “Perhaps. As for the rumors you mention – something is happening.” He paused a moment, staring into his glowing pipe, then went on. “There is a new animal, in the south. So my people tell me. No one knows much about the creature, whether it be fish, fowl, or fiend. But some things are certain.” The others studied him attentively. He continued. “This animal is directing these abductions. Sires have been enlisted to organize the raiding parties, and the Humans who are taken alive are taken to the new animal’s den, somewhere near the Big Sticks River. What happens to them there is unknown. The Sires who participate in this genocide are rewarded – they are allowed to keep their pick of the Humans, to fatten their harems.” He lowered his eyes in shame. “It is loathsome, of course. But what is one to do?”
“And what of the other creatures?” asked Jasmine. “The Griffins, the Accidents.”
“They are all in the pay of the Sires, though I suspect the money and gifts flow north from the new animal. In any case, these creatures all have reason to hate Humans. Accidents, most of all. I think that is why this Forest has become the main rendezvous point in the north.”
“Why do Accidents hate us so much?” Josh demanded.
Lon raised his eyebrows, as if he’d been asked a simple question by a child. Jasmine said, “Humans created Accidents, Joshua. That’s why.” Josh remained unclear. Jasmine added: “It’s a long story. I’ll tell you another time.”
Lon went ahead, “It may be as simple as slave trade on a large scale: all the marauding groups meet at the southeast of the Forest; the hostages are pooled and taken to one of the pirate cities by a few of the leaders; the rest of the raiders remain here for continued abductions and general terrorism.”
“Do you know what route they follow” asked Beauty.
Lon shook his head. “No, though I have some suspicions. This Sire Bal, I’m certain, is one of the captains. He will be making the journey south with the captives, I can almost guarantee. And I know the trails he’s likely to follow. We used to hunt the Rain Forest together. Many years ago.”
“The Terrarium?” questioned Jasmine.
Lon nodded. “You know the area well, Jasmine. From the North Saddlebacks down to the pirates’ cove.”
Jasmine looked hard into the fireplace at an image only she could see. “That was a long time ago.”
“As I said, many years,” repeated Lon. “And I ran there with Bal-Sire even before I knew you.”
She turned to Josh. “Yes, I know the area,” she said.
“It is difficult terrain to navigate,” commented Beauty. “It would be preferable to catch them before they get that far. We should leave now.”
Lon laughed. “Only a fool would attempt my Forest at night.” Beauty stiffened. Lon caught himself. “My intent was not to imply you a fool, sir. I merely fear for your safety. This wood is black at night, and it is common to underestimate the savvy of these Accidents. A common, fatal mistake. They are cunning, these pauvres bêtes. Ugly brutes, but clever. And they know their woods. Best to stay here tonight, I think, and sally out in the morning.”
“He’s right,” said Josh.
Beauty frowned. “You have been kind to lead us here,” he said to Jasmine. Then, to Lon: “And you, to shelter us.” Finally, to the floor: “But I hunt alone. This tracking party is getting far out of hand. We might as well hire a trumpeter to announce us. Please, do not think me ungrateful but this is a thing for two of us, not an army.”
Josh found himself agreeing with the Centaur. Isis hissed softly. Lon puffed meditatively on his pipe. Jasmine waited a moment, until she was certain Beauty had nothing further to say, then answered him. “You’re letting Venge-right cloud your judgment, both of you. Three times over. First, you have no idea how many creatures will be escorting the hostages – it may be an army. I suspect you’ll need as may allies as you can find. Second, I’m your equal or better in a fight – Lon can vouch for that. What’s more, I’ll bet that little Cat can hold her own.” Isis growled approval. Jasmine stood up. “Third, I’m the only one among you who knows Dundee’s Terrarium well enough to track Bal, if he gets that far.” She scolded Beauty. “That’s why you should want me to go, but by Neptune’s Middle Fin, that’s not why I’m going. I’m going because this boy saved my life, and I always repay my debts.” She picked a glass of wine off the table and drank.
“Her words have merit,” said Josh.
“Words,” scowled Beauty. Then to the Neuroman woman: “I cannot stop you. Still, I do not like it.”
“You mistrust words?” Jasmine asked him, her manner softer now.
“Words are a sorry attempt to describe what is.”
“Words can approximate the truth,” she replied.
“You cannot convince me with words of something I know to be false by experience or feeling.”
“Words are their own truth,” asserted Joshua. Normally this was a topic he and Beauty avoided discussing; but they were all a little heady from the liquor and the moment. Sentiments were bubbling up like steam in a simmering kettle.
“Words just reflect the truths of their times and their places,” said Jasmine, warming to the subject. “For example, when I was still young, in the early twenty-second century, people rarely used verbs except in the present tense. The past was so depressing, and the future so frightening, that it became chic to discard all grammars but the present indicative. We said, “I eat,” and that had to do, since nobody cared if you had eaten, or were going to eat. The words were just reflections of the way things were, though. Make sense?”
Beauty’s expression looked as much like a wall as an expression could. “I hope you do not talk so much when you hunt,” he said.
Jasmine smiled. “That reminds me of a story,” she began. “I was walking with a Captain of Clones, some hundred years ago, stalking a renegade Hedon in the jungle south of the Line. I just talked and talked about this and that, and after a while, the Hedon jumped out of the trees at us, knife in hand. I got him, though – dropped him at the Captain’s feet.
“The Clone Captain was a little peeved, just like you. ’You always talk so much when you hunt?‟ he said. Thing is, if I hadn’t been making so much noise, that Hedon never would have found us, and we might not have caught him. See, it’s all a question of definition – whether you think of yourself as hunter or hunted, and how you make use of that. Which gets us back to words again, right?”
Beauty stared at her as if she’d come from another planet. He had never wanted a hunting partner less. She’d been helpful, true – but so much chatter turned his stomach. It made him positively disharmonious, tilted his equanimity. Once more, he measured his words: “I hope you do not talk so much when you hunt.”
There was a second of silence, punctuated by an eruption of laughter so loud that the Flutterby woke up. Lon raised his glass. “To the hunt,” he said.
“To the hunt!” they all toasted, and a cheer went up. Soon everyone was talking at once; even Beauty relented to the mood. Toasts were answered with vows, the music resumed, the dancers whirled in every corner. Humbelly fluttered until she fell asleep again. Isis got up on her hind legs to do a rowdy jig.
Josh was so sated, he was moved to sing a song, which he seldom did in the company of strangers. So he bade the musicians follow him as he sang out melodically:
“The hunter, he did cross the plain,
And then he ventured home again,
The merry merry feast will soon begin,
Among the leaves so green-o.”
At which point Beauty joined in with his gravelly baritone:
“Well it’s hey down down,
Ho down down,
Hey down ho down derry derry down,
Among the leaves so green-o.”
Followed by more cheers, more music. More drink, talk. Stories, gloriously told, of battles heroically fought, of journeys unconditionally traveled, of mortal trials tried.
Until finally, some time later, Lon stood and said he would be going to sleep. He showed the guests to their sleeping quarters – a lush, private room for each – telling them it would be his honor if each of them would take to bed a chosen favorite from the harem. Josh and Beauty politely refused; Lon intimated that he understood, though Josh saw the Vampire felt hurt, if not insulted by the rebuff. Jasmine selected the beautiful young servant boy with the jewelry, picked him up easily in her arms; carried him off into her bedroom.
Lon had a special surprise for Isis: a champion Persian with long violet fur. The two cats eyed each other, sidled up next to each other. “Mnnnnnn,” said Isis, as the Persian followed her hotly up a dark corridor into a seldom-used section of the cave.
Humbelly woke up long enough to flutter a bit nearer the glowing coals; and finally, the whole house-hold was asleep.
At sunrise they convened in the library: walls engorged with books, ceiling to floor; Josh had never seen such. He stared in profound wonder at the stacks of antique volumes, folio editions, gold-leaf bindings. “You can read,” he whispered to Lon as if it were a shared secret. Lon only laughed.
Josh considered carefully, then asked Lon if it would be possible for him to leave his scriptures – including those he’d written the previous night, before falling asleep – leave them with Lon, for safekeeping, here in the company of all these other books. “They could share thoughts with each other when no one else was reading them,” Josh added.
Lon was touched. He accepted Joshua’s treasure with high moment, saying he would be honored to harbor the writings with his own coveted texts. Gently he placed Joshua’s records on the shelf; when the manuscripts were finally nestled, he took Josh by the arm and said, “There is something I would show you.”
He led Josh to hidden door, then through it to a hidden room. Once inside, Joshua momentarily had to hold his breath: all manner of surpassing thing were here.
“My museum,” said Lon.
Josh walked silently from shelf to shelf. Strange artifacts sat in delicate display, mysterious machines from another time. Colored glass beakers, some connected by elaborate coils, filled one whole wall. A small collection of crumbling, ancient books was propped on the end cubicle. Josh read the titles: all contained the word Alchemy.
Another section of the room was devoted to various dried herbs, animal parts, raw gemstones. Timidly Josh walked up and down aisles of curious devices. All were labeled: Television, Film Projector, Video Cassette recorder, Holographic Laser Projector, Lava-Lite, Crystal Ball, Nutty Putty, Cardiac Pacemaker, Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, Microwave Oven, Geiger Counter, Magic Eight Ball – and all these things potent with silence.
“The magic of times past lives here; antiques of sorcery,” Lon said. “And though museum it is, every item here is in working order – oh, the moving parts must be hand-turned, now; electricity is such a rare luxury – but the magic contained in these potions and contraptions is still strong. You can feel it when you walk in the room.”
Indeed, Josh felt as if he were still holding his breath.
“I’ve never shown this room to anyone before,” Lon went on. “It is my special gift to you. In this way we share the magic, as our books share thoughts with each other.”
Josh was overwhelmed with the magnanimity of the gift, the magnificence of the room. He said, simply, “I’d like to see it again, someday.”
Lon smiled. “So you shall,” he said, and led Josh back into the library.
When all at last assembled, fond adieus were bid, along with stern admonitions.
“Go east first,” said Lon. “That is safest. Don’t turn south until Mirror Lake. From there you must rely on your hunter’s sense only.”
“We’ll be fine, Lon,” answered Jasmine. “You also take care.”
The noble Vampire took a burnished brass-handled saber off the wall and handed it to his old friend. “This blade has tasted the blood of many foes. May it never hunger in your hands.”
She took the saber from its scabbard, lovingly examined it, replaced it in its sheath, strapped it to her waist. “I’ll use it well on this hunt, dear friend.” They hugged long and silently.
To the others, each, he gave a tiny gold locket, shaped like a blood-drop. Josh strapped his to his belt; Beauty tied his in his mane; Isis wore hers tightly at the neck. “These you must keep with you always,” said Lon. “If ever you need my help, send this locket back, and I will come.” He hugged them all. “Enough,” he said. His eyes were moist.
Finally he escorted them to another hidden entrance, deep in the golden morning of the forest, where they emerged through a bark-peeling door in the trunk of a massive eucalyptus tree. The Vampire watched them disappear quietly among the green shadows. “Go in good blood,” he said, and returned to his cave.
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