Warning: Some bad language in this one.


He had stayed until dangerously close to dawn, painstakingly reassuring
Charlotte that he would return as soon as he could, but he did not know
when that would be. Charlotte thought his time would be spent searching
for ways they could reach the stars, and that was in part true; but
Meier's more immediate goal was Gallinas, a long flight for even his
wings. He spent the next evening tracing landmarks on a map and
interrogating Robespierre on the finer points of swamp sucker hunting.

Swamp suckers were known by various names: skull sucker (for their heads
resembled human skulls), marsh dad, boocoopus. This last was a pun on
"octopus," for whereas octopuses had eight tentacles, swamp suckers had
as many as their bodies needed for support. They looked a bit like
jellyfish, though rather than long, trailing tentacles for catching
food, they had thick, muscular tentacles for locomotion and defense, and
specialized borer/sucker tentacles for feeding. Their bodies were hard,
with eerily rounded heads that they could retract, turtle-like. A swamp
sucker could be anything from the size of a house cat to the size of a
house, depending on its age and how well it had fended for itself. They
were scavengers, partial to swampy areas, and in general were harmless,
solitary creatures, but mating season drove them to congregate.
Robespierre speculated that such a circumstance could have led to a
swamp sucker hunting expedition. Normally the creatures were rather shy,
and no part of their bodies offered any salable harvest; in short, there
was no reason to hunt them unless mating season had brought a group
together and sent them foraging, as it sometimes did, to the destruction
of their human neighbors' crops and, occasionally, homes, outbuildings,
fences, and so on.

Meier had no definite plan. He pocketed a couple of maps (just to be
safe) and flew to the Gallinas area, knowing he would probably have to
improvise a place to rest during the day; he would have preferred the
basement of a vampire's castle, even a ruined one, but digging a "grave"
for himself much like the one he had dug for Pete was a more likely
prospect. Near Gallinas was a great backwater, perfect swamp sucker
habitat. Meier circumnavigated it carefully; a marsh was not exactly
_running_ water, but any kind of water was more than most vampires cared
to encounter.

Swamp sucker hunting was in theory straightforward. The creatures'
bodies were heavily armored, but their heads were vulnerable. A decent
marksman with a gun or crossbow, or a laser rifle, could simply pick
them off by shooting them in the head as they came into range. It was,
however, important to keep one's distance, for a swamp sucker that
considered itself threatened could move with seemingly impossible speed
to strike out and crush a man with a dozen or more tentacles.
Complicating matters were swamp suckers' habits of sleeping submerged in
water or buried in mud all day and coming out only on dark, moonless
nights; in general they avoided light. Some hunters used various types
of night vision devices so they could draw a bead on the creatures;
others preferred to "do it the old-fashioned way," observing them by
sound, then quickly turning on low-level lights (too bright and the
creatures would draw their heads in and flee, or charge) and taking
advantage of their disorientation.

The mass of swamp suckers currently inhabiting Gallinas marsh tended
mostly toward house-sized, and Meier found their trail easily enough, or
rather their trails -- several veritable highways of flattened reeds led
from the marsh. But which was freshest? He overflew several in
concentric, expanding half-circles. The creatures' briny-metallic scent
was difficult to pick out among the other unfamiliar odors -- the water
and its plants and the other marsh creatures, and rotting fish from
somewhere to the northwest. Meier was wondering what to make of this
when flashes of light and cracks of rifles being fired told him where
hunters and prey had met.

Meier gratefully left the marsh behind (he _truly_ disliked water) and
stretched his body to its thinnest shape to speed his flight. Following
the lights and sounds took him northwest, and the stench of rotting fish
grew stronger as he flew. He was perhaps a hundred yards shy of the
center of operations -- a copse of straggly cedars on a little knoll --
when shouts of alarm and a volley of shots told him something had gone
wrong. A few bullets whined a little too close to him for comfort as
they ricocheted off a swamp sucker's steel-hard hide. Meier swooped
upward and curved his wings to slow his flight. Apparently someone's aim
had been off, and a swamp sucker had retracted its head and charged the
offending lights. It was now in the process of indiscriminately
uprooting cedars with its left-side tentacles and suffocating a couple
of hunters with those on its right. The other members of the hunting
party were alternately shooting at the remaining swamp suckers (as best
they could aim by the electric lanterns they carried) and at the
tentacles of the swamp sucker that had their companions -- not the
tentacles holding the hunters, of course, but any others, in hopes of
hurting the beast enough to distract it.

<<I don't believe I'm doing this,>> Meier thought as he swooped nearer.
The night was dark and there wasn't nearly enough lantern light to give
humans a proper view of the field of battle, but Meier could of course
see everything -- including the not-quite-closed slit at the front of
the angry swamp sucker's shell. It would have taken miraculous
marksmanship to shoot into that thin line, but if a bladesman were so
foolish as to come close enough and strike deep into that cavern...

No human saw Meier descend in a curve that swept down the front slope of
the swamp sucker, nor the flash-fast stroke of one great wing, and only
a vampire's ears heard the pulpy sound of a swamp sucker's brain
splitting under its impact. Meier's momentum carried him away from the
creature as it thrashed in death throes as dangerous as its attacks had
been. He alit some thirty or forty feet away, far enough to escape the
humans' notice, but close enough to observe.

"What the hell --?"

"You think we got it after all?"

"Sure as shit actin' dead now."

"Think it's faking?"

"Naw, those critters don't have brains enough to play possum. Any more
of 'em out there?"

"Looks like we got all the others. Rory?"

"Shut up and let me turn the ear on 'em." "The ear" was an electronic
surveillance device that monitored and amplified particular frequencies
-- in this case the squeak-slither noises of the swamp suckers'
tentacles dragging them over the earth.

After nearly half a minute of silence: "The ear's not picking up any
more sounds. I think we must've got 'em all." And Meier's own senses
confirmed this; he could detect no evidence of swamp sucker movement in
the area.

While Rory had operated the ear, two of the men had set aside their guns
and were wading and climbing through the mass of tentacles that still
imprisoned their fallen comrades. Now one of them spoke: "Lou-Ray! Tom!
Can you hear me?"

Tom? Meier's heart nearly did a somersault. The party numbered only six,
and the four who were not hors de combat gathered around, one arranging
lanterns to shine on the bronze-and-gray mass of cord-like muscle while
the others commenced search and rescue. Meier carefully drew closer, but
he needn't have worried: the hunters were totally focused on their work,
dragging away tentacles and pulling out the men.

"Shit, he's not breathing."

"Tom's got a pulse! He doesn't look good, though."

"Nobody ever died of a couple broken ribs."

"Shit, will you look at that blood? Holy shit, his arm's off at the

"Aw, crap. Think we oughtta give him CPR?"

"To a guy who prob'ly bled to death?"

"Tom! Y'there, man?"

"See that arm anywhere?"

"It's likely somewhere underneath that thing. Unless it threw it
somewhere. We can come back and look once it gets light. Shit, what a

"It's not a clusterfuck if we got 'em all."

"Lou-Ray's killed those things before. Just bad luck. Those things are
totally wacko; you never know what they'll do."

"Tom Horton! You got a purty fiancee waitin' for you -- get the lead

"Lookit his head, Rory."

"There's too much blood to see anything. Hey, Ed, how's Lou-Ray?"

"He's gone. What about Tom?"

"He musta got hit pretty bad; he just don't want to come around."


This was more or less Meier's sentiment also. Striking out in anger at a
violent man was one thing; Meier still sometimes questioned his judgment
in letting Charlotte's father live. Tom had done nothing worse than
being in the wrong place at the wrong time; Meier really would have
preferred delaying his return to seeing him harmed, though he had no
idea how he might have achieved the former and not the latter. Now his
dilemma was even worse: not only did the man pose him no actual threat,
it seemed wantonly cruel to interfere with one so totally at a
disadvantage. No human would believe a vampire held such thoughts, and
if only for that reason he did not contemplate helping the men bear
their sad burdens -- one dead, one comatose -- to Gallinas. He kept his
distance and watched as they rigged stretchers from tarps and then made
for the town, the small lantern-lights bobbing at their sides. There
were occasional desultory snatches of conversation:

"Could've let them eat the bait, you know. That stuff stinks to high
heaven, and it ain't gonna be better tomorrow."

That explained the rotten fish odor, and how the hunters had crossed
their prey's path so quickly.

"I'm not tellin' Mrs. Holt that we won't come back for her husband's arm
'cause it smells too bad."

"Rory, I think we oughta head for the south side of town, to Doc

"Can't turn that way till we're past Old Omer's fence. I don't want to
tangle with that bull of his."

Meier glanced down at the wing of his cape that had struck the swamp
sucker's coup de grace -- he hadn't even noticed the coating of ichor
and neural tissue, but now he shook it off, and it slid clean as readily
as soil would have. Blood scent pervaded the area -- well, if a man had
a head wound and another had lost an arm at the shoulder, there would be
plenty of bleeding. Speaking of which...

Meier was as put off by a disembodied arm as any but the most
combat-hardened human would have been. The man who had speculated on its
whereabouts had evidently been right in his second guess; the swamp
sucker had flung it away with superhuman strength, nearly a hundred
yards. It would take humans a great deal of searching to find it in the
grass. Meier winced, hesitated several times, and finally scooped it up
with a wing and carried it to lie in front of the swamp sucker that had
been the death of its owner. The humans would think they had simply
overlooked it in the darkness. Meier gave his wing a good scrub in the
dirt to rid it of the sensation of contact with _that_, then -- in a
very human gesture -- actually smacked his forehead with a wing-formed
hand. The night was far from over; a little surveillance might give him
a much better idea just how wide a window of opportunity Tom's condition
would allow. He could still see the hunters' lanterns, and he turned to
follow them.

It was a long night for all parties concerned: a lengthy trek to the
outskirts of Gallinas, followed by an interminable examination and
patching-up process in a windowless room at Dr. Barnard's practice.
Meier could smell the blood through the wall; Tom's injuries included a
head wound that, as Rory had observed, bled profusely. Tom rallied
briefly but not very coherently, and Dr. Barnard was of the opinion that
he could tolerate the journey home, with the understanding that he be
transported slowly -- "shouldn't take more'n a couple days by wagon" --
and be confined to his bed for several weeks while his insides patched
themselves together. It all involved more unknowns than Meier liked, but
he didn't want to interfere with an injured man's being brought home
where he might be nursed back to health. And the slow transport order
gave him a little time. Then the significance dawned on him: If Tom
denied having paid a midnight visit to Charlotte's bedroom, it would be
laid to his head injury rather than Charlotte's unfaithfulness.

Things were looking up.

There was a hint of light in the air, and Meier concluded that he had
probably learned as much as would be useful to him. And as far as
burying himself for the day -- Old Omer's pasture sounded like a place
humans would avoid.

 * * *

Meier wakened after a surprisingly restful day under several inches of
topsoil and a generous layer of leaves. Under less pressing conditions,
the whole experience might have been fun, a concept that seemed almost
alien to him after so many years of monotony and isolation. As it was,
he felt chilled and a little shaky from hunger. He wondered whether Tom
was already on the road but decided his time would be best spent getting
back home and ascertaining how he could get Charlotte out of harm's way.

Old Omer's bull half-opened his eyes at the _floomp_ of the cape-wings
taking to the air.

 * * *

Meier was not alone in his flight. Some time after full dark had fallen,
a veritable swarm of dark bats tracked him from even higher, converged
on his trail and followed him. Meier was at first concerned -- he had of
course noticed them early on, heard their fluttering wings and their
navigational cries -- then puzzled that they tagged along after him like
sheep ... or migrating geese.

"If you want to do me a favor, you can precede me and play windbreak,"
he muttered, not really expecting a response; Meier could influence
domestic animals, but commanding wild ones with no prior contact was
beyond his powers, and commanding animals controlled by another noble
would be a gross breach of etiquette. The bats, however, shot past him
to form a tidy mass that did indeed cut the air resistance considerably.
Meier was not inclined to look gift bats in the mouth, especially when
he was tired from prolonged flight. The bats stayed in their formation
until Meier peeled off to land on one of his castle's towers; there they
swooped in a disorderly but seemingly delighted swarm about him, almost
as if celebrating his return.

"Have you lost your lord?" he asked them, wondering if these had been
animal familiars of a now-deceased noble who were searching for a new
master. He had no wish to fill that role himself -- but as he observed
them, he concluded that that was in fact probably not what they sought.
Now that his mind was less on making his way home and he could give more
attention to the little creatures, he realized they were not simply
bats. There was something of the vampire about them. They were not
shape-shifted nobles -- they _were_ bats -- and yet they were not bats

"Robespierre," said Meier, "I'm home. And I need my breakfast."

In a matter of minutes Meier was comfortably ensconced in his breakfast
room. The bats had followed him there but, to his relief, they showed no
interest in the unusually large serving of synthetic blood that he
savored. Since he had lived utterly alone for so long, he had switched
to a scaled-down system of blood synthesis; it would take some time for
Robespierre to undo the mothballing of the heavy-duty system that would
be required to feed so many. He of course asked the A.I. for
observations; Robespierre said that the strange guests appeared to be
genetically modified bats descended from _Myotis lucifugus_ (big brown
bat), an insectivore, and they showed uncommonly vampire-like
intelligence. Meier remembered that they had readily taken his hint
earlier and wondered what else they might be capable of. If they were in
fact associated with some noble house -- trained or possessed or bred to
super-chiropteran capabilities -- they might be the link he needed for
his next task: finding transportation to the City of Distant Stars.

He downed the last of his blood and, remembering the maps he had
pocketed the evening before, he spread them out on a great table, then
looked to the bats. "Where are you from?"

A number of the bats took flight, circling and scattering about the
chamber, and finally one separated out to land on the table and walk
with surprising agility across a map to a point near its top. The dark
nose poked a stylized castle amid lines and shadings that represented

"Chaythe?" Meier murmured, reading the legend. "I had no idea anyone--"

He had heard that Chaythe's mistress had been destroyed by the Vampire
King himself. For a variety of reasons, his kind had avoided the place
thereafter. But that had all been centuries or perhaps millennia ago; or
indeed, he might have been misinformed. Vampires were inordinately fond
of gossip -- or had been, in the days when there were enough of them to
make for gossip among themselves -- and false rumors could circulate for
years. The death of the Lady Carmila might have been another rumor.

"I would like you to take a message to your mistress -- or master," he
told the bat on the map. "Let me find pen and paper..."

The message was perforce a short one; Meier chose paper that was small
and light enough not to encumber its carrier excessively.

   Gentle Noble: I thank you for the companionship
   and aid of your creatures the bats. Now I seek
   another favor; passage to the City of Distant
   Stars. Your assistance will meet with my eternal
   gratitude. --Count Meier Link

Meier was prepared to tie the missive to the bat's leg, somewhat as
carrier pigeon messages had been prepared by humans millennia before,
but the little creature forestalled him; he had rolled the sheet and
tied it with a fine ribbon when the bat simply swooped down, caught up
the scroll in its claws, and flew from the chamber, the other bats
swirling and boiling after it until, in less than half a minute, Meier
was alone once more, blinking and half wondering if he had hallucinated
the entire experience.

"Robespierre," he finally murmured, "did I actually see all those bats?"

"One hundred twenty-seven specimens have just departed this castle,
noble lord."

 * * *

Much as he would have liked to see Charlotte again, Meier kept to
himself that night. His knowledge of Tom's condition -- such as it was
-- was certainly not a matter he could confide to her: he really didn't
care to reveal what he had been doing near the marshes of Gallinas. And
while he could scarcely explain how he knew of Tom's fate, he could
scarcely conceal it from her when so much hinged on it. So he rummaged
through the castle's library for maps that would enable him to take
measure of the area, to see what noble houses still remained where he
might seek help. He was finding and laying out small-scale maps when the
sky started growing light and forced him to his rest.

 * * *

End part 5 of 6

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