In the Garden of the Vampire

Simon Whitechapel

The decline of Yihh and its increasing isolation from the dozen minor Empires and states it had spawned in the days of its greatness, prompted in no small measure by a souring of the temper of its people, who turned more and more to the worship of minor chthonic gods, saw a desertion of many of the outer regions of the city, which took on the appearance of arboreous necropolises, overhung in the hot season by a shifting amber haze of dust, in which denser clumps of movement were often visible towards dusk: these were said — few dared to test the truth of the assertion — to mark the passage of a certain class of elemental which had long dwelt beneath the city, over whose purlieus it had once held undisputed sway, and which was now re-emerging onto an air that was no longer charged with the apotropaic power of frequent prayer and worship.

The desertion of the outlying regions of the city was most marked towards the east, where in the rainy season, which seemed, in these latter days, to arrive ever earlier and to linger chilly into months formerly unknown to it, a vast area was submerged by the hitherto infrequent vagaries of the river Isth, creating a broad lake in whose centre rose an island formed partly of a hillock and partly of the ruinous bulk of the Temple of the Bat, the work many years before of an imported southern cult that had spectacularly flourished and as spectacularly declined in a five year period, this being the time in which it was discovered that the focus of the cult's ceremonial, a species of piscivorous bat whose blood formed the chief ingredient of a weekly communal meal and whose red-tinged velvet fur provided ceremonial zucchetti for the cult's priests, would not breed in the climate of Yihh: efforts to import the bats from the flourishing vespertilaries of the cult's southern centres of worship were frustrated by an increase in the tax levied on this class of trade item, and efforts by the priests of the cult to claim a religious immunity from a charge designed for purely commercial traffic were defeated by the same forces that had acted in concert to raise the level of the tax initially, these being the older cults and creeds of the city, which had grown ever more jealous of the new cult's waxing power and swelling congregation.

Abandoned, the temple had fallen rapidly into disrepair, and proved indeed a perfect site for the colonization of the same species — or at least some similar — of bat on which the cult depended, and which had apparently been enabled, with the shifting of the climatic patterns of the area, to extend its range to the latitude of Yihh; but at a time at which the cult, fractured and ennervated by a series of schisms, was no longer able to devote the resources to re-introduce itself into a city in which, for a brief period, it had enjoyed a wild and luxuriant flowering.

Nevertheless, the appearance of the bats in the temple did not pass unremarked by the cult, for their crepuscular egress from the temple was eagerly noted by those of its devotees whose business took them to Yihh, and though they reported that the flight of the bats seemed slower, and their size somewhat larger, than that usual amongst their cousins in the south, no significance was attached to this, nor to the fact that the actual site of the temple was shunned by the native inhabitants of Yihh long before the wholesale desertion of that quarter of the city in which the temple lay.

Indeed, the reappearance of the bats was seen to be an auspicious omen, one portending a renaissance of former glories. Yet this proved not to be so, for even in this omen, whose interpretation might seem to be one of unambiguous merit, the schisms within the cult were brought to further widening, for it was claimed by the opposing sides as of exclusive application to them and their fortunes. Stirred into action by the increasing fervour of the clergy, the laity of the cult took to descending by night on the temples and homes of their opponents; there was a series of street battles, and several deaths, and the cult entered, during this brief period of a flaring of hostilities between the rival factions, into the consciousness of those outside its congregations. In this way certain old tales were revived, and enjoyed a brief vogue in the taverns and gambling houses of the cities of the south, before fresher matters claimed the fickle attentions of the idlers and wastrels who frequented these establishments.

One such tale concerned the congregation of the cult that was to be found in Yihh, and told that during the period of great posperity enjoyed by this, coincident with the erection of the great temple, a statuette had been commissioned of the cult's chief deity, Maviip-Wiip-Ng-Viip-Wiip, the great cosmocratic bat of whose dung, as He hung upsidedown in the unlighted cave of pre-universal chaos, the world, sun and stars had been spawned. This statuette, carved of a single huge gem of an unspecified but highly costly nature, was said to have been left in the temple, hidden deep within the foundations against a certain re-establishment. But the tale, by reason of its association with Yihh, of which city far more fantastic tales were told in the south, was given less credence than the others, which treated of more mundane, if occasionally salacious matters, and it held brief reign over the scarred oak tables, dinted pewter platters and cracked horn cups of its places of telling.

On one mind, however, it made a great impression, for there had resided in this mind beforetime certain facts whose details served to confirm, or at least to attest to the possibility of the tale. The family of We-Pyo had for many generations followed the profession of jeweller, once with great success, though they had latterly fallen on unhappy times. The period of the family's greatest wealth and prosperity had, however, closely followed on that of the Temple of the Bat in Yihh, for at this time there had entered onto the market a number of gems of very great value and rarity, but presenting in their unfinished state, by reason of an exceptional hardness combined with a paradoxical tendency to brittleness, lapidary problems of a peculiarly exacting kind. The family of We-Pyo, being at that time amongst the most highly skilled and experienced of those who followed the profession of jeweller, were able to profit greatly by this influx onto the market, for much of the work by necessity passed through their hands, and the great difficulty of the work they performed did not fail to bring commensurate rewards.

Yet it did not pass unnoted, either at the time, or afterwards, in the tales of the great feats of lapidary skill passed down to We-Pyo's time, that the nature of the gems that entered the market in relative flux — considering their rarity and value — was such as might have been expected to have been the result of some great work on a gem of this kind but of enormous size, such work necessitating the removal of no small proportion of the gem's original unworked bulk. It seemed to We-Pyo, therefore, that the tale was very possibly true, and because if the tale were true he would be enabled, with some effort, to become very wealthy, he resolved to make that amount of effort required, and to travel the six hundred leagues or so from the city of the south in which he pursued a half-existence, to the city of Yihh, Yihh the Fabulous and Necromantically Ill-Fabled.

The journey itself was no small undertaking. It took him some time before he was able to find himself a place in a caravan that involved him in work other than that of a catamite: he was a not unhandsome lad, and those southern merchants who trafficked to the north, heavy consumers of potent drugs and spiced liquors, were notorious for the declivity of their sexual tastes. In the end however he was engaged as a camel-herd on a small caravan that was to carry filigree baskets, designed for the storage of a certain white grub much esteemed as a delicacy in northern regions, to the city of Mnaal-Nh, which lay a hundred and twenty leagues to the south-east of Yihh, and whose population was mostly composed of refugees from that city, some now naturalized after two or three generations in the place, and most dating their exile to the disastrous year in which the Temple of the Sirens had put forth its power against the Temple of the Living Flame: both sects were now dwindled almost to nothing, and it was said that the terminal decline of the city could be dated from the two or three months in which their devotees had fought for possession of the strategic points of the city, both opposed by, and both, with seeming paradox, occasionally uniting to oppose, the troops of the Emperor, whose assassination, encompassed in time by the two sects in connivance, signalled the outbreak of a general and bloody anarchy, which died away to a sort of calm only with a score thousand or more of deaths.

In Mnaal-Nh, We-Pyo intended to pass some weeks acquiring an acquaintance with the language of Yihh, with which he might forestall certain anticipated difficulties. The task of acquiring even a passing familiarity with Yihhian proved, however, one of immense difficulty, and when after a month and a half he left Mnaal-Nh for Yihh in the employ of a caravan carrying dried fruits and funerary spices, he was sure only of his ability to request the simplest directions and purchase the most basic foodstuffs; and his attempts to acquire a facility in the partly ideographic, partly syllabic script of Yihh were less than half-complete. Yet he did not anticipate a long stay in the city, for the work he purposed was one that might, with luck, be carried out in a single day. However, the vicissitudes of fortune were familiar to him from his earliest days, and he wished to do all he might to anticipate and lessen their impact upon him.

The caravan travelled slowly: a heavy rain had fallen a day previously, and the camels, all of which were besides superannuated beyond, We-Pyo would have thought, the point of retirement, laboured to carry their burdens at more than a walking pace, for their feet, adapted to the shifting, friable sands of the desert, slipped and clogged on the moist ground. On the third day, however, the ancient towers of Yihh began to creep above the horizon, and on the following day the caravan was encamped beneath its walls. The decay of the once great city had been evident from some distance; in the shadow of the walls, it loomed monstrous, as though a vast blight of stone and brick had settled on the place. The walls crumbled, and were stained and splashed with gouts of vivid algae, slimy and cold to the touch; at one point a watch tower had toppled, and its wreck had been overgrown by tall, flame-flowered weeds with stiff, sharp-edged leaves. The stonework at the foot of the walls was wombed and tunnelled by rats, and there were long stretches of stagnant water here, fed by cloacae that seemed to have hacked out crudely in recent years, in which bloated fish, white as cancers, swam and grubbed. Even the sunlight seemed uncleanly altered, falling with a dead yellow luminescence in which there was little heat, and there was a subtle miasma, forgotten often and as often forcing itself on the attention, that seemed redolent of the dried mummificatory spices and natron of anciently sealed sepulchres that were now invaded by wet.

We-Pyo shivered to look at the place, and longed for the kindlier damp of the southern autumn. He was paid off by the caravan-master, and made his way into the city. Within, the decay of without was less evident, at least in those parts still inhabited, though even here the streets were half-empty, and the squares and piazzas seemed shadowed and silent. He resolved to enter the Temple of the Bat that very night, and commence his search for the statuette at this earliest possible opportunity, that his stay in Yihh might be protracted not one hour longer than was necessary, for he resolved that if a week did not see him meet with success, he should natheless return to the poverty of his existence in the south. And yet, when he had enquired the way of half-a-dozen passers-by, and wasted half-a-day, it seemed, in wandering into blind alleys (anxious, always, to avoid those parts that were deserted, for there hung here in the shadows a chill that numbed not merely the body but also the mind), his first sighting of the Temple was across a broad stretch of water: the Isth had overflowed, and the Temple was sundered from the city.

There was need of a boat, but his money was too meagre, he learned in painful enquiry of the riverside fishermen (these few, and starved-looking), to purchase such transport, and they would not hire one out to him, for they were suspicious of him, and somehow seemed to divine his purpose, and turned fearful eyes on the great crumbling bulk across the water. That night, hooded against the chill, he crept to the river after a meal of bitter vegetables and tart, vinegary wine, and sought to steal his transport, but it seemed the fishermen had guarded well against those with such a purpose. At last, however, stumbling on the uneven cobbles of a landing wharf, he came across a snoring shape stretched out in the darkness, half-clothed, clutching a bottle, and thin, and beyond it, half-dragged from the water, a boat, a coracle, leaking, ancient, but sufficient for his purpose.

He climbed with great caution into the craft, stowing a cloth sack containing the bare necessities of his burglary beneath the single warped board that served as a seat, and pushed off into the current. He was well upstream from the point at which the Isth thrust itself eastwards from its centuries-established path to engulf the Temple of the Bat, but found himself, as he had hoped, without the need of rowing across the river to enter the stretch of water in which the Temple stood, for he rowed beside the eastern bank. But even here, close to the bank, he found the current strong and unpredictable, and there were strange gurglings and swirlings from the river, sometimes soft, sometimes -- and these mostly from further out, towards the midstream of the river -- loud and with a curiously gelatinous vibrato, suggestive of he dared not guess what. The water stank, and was very cold. He found his paddle snagged constantly in debris, or sinking foully into thick banks of slime that extended from the bank, and though such things slowed his progress considerably, he did not care to enter what he knew would be the clearer water further out.

At last, however, he was able to strike his paddle deep and propel the coracle into the calmer waters that surrounded the Temple, and the rising huntress's bow of the moon, lofted two handbreadths above the ruinous shell of the Temple, laid a silver path on the water before him, until he entered the shadow of the Temple, and rowed in darkness. The Temple loomed above him, and his eyes probed carefully for a point at which he could land. There seemed to be many, for the water lapped some way below the foot of the Temple walls; he splashed into chill, calf-deep water, and dragged the coracle up and onto a broad flagstone that seemed — yes, was — the foot of a stair leading up into the place. He took up his sack, flinted light from a small earthenware oil lamp and began to climb, but the stair ended suddenly after he had climbed for only four or five heartbeats, and though it seemed to resume at a higher point, the missing steps had fallen away into unguessable depths. He descended and set off along the foot of the walls, lifting his lamp to examine their stonework at intervals, and ever careful of his footing.

He had completed perhaps a quarter of the circuit of the Temple's perimeter when he came across a tranverse crack, wide enough to admit a slim and active man, running from the height of his waist to ground level. He stooped and thrust the lamp into this, and saw beyond the breach what seemed to be a narrow corridor, running to left and right parallel with the wall. Then came a moment of constriction, and a half-heartbeat of panic that he was trapped, and he was crouched on the floor of the corridor, and standing to lift his lamp high, looking first one way and then the other. The roof of the corridor was low enough to touch, and it and the walls and floor were porous and friable with damp, and interlaced with the slender glistening hyphae of some lithophilous fungi. He reached a decision and set off to the left, and noted with interest that the damp and the growth of the fungi were lessening stride by stride, until the stone around him was perfectly dry, and his feet disturbed a thin white sprinkling of dust on the floor, which seemed to have sternutatory properties: twice he stopped to bind a fold of his cloak tightly over his nose and mouth in order to muffle a powerful sneeze, for a dread had come upon him of disturbing the dead silence of the place.

After some time he was presented with a choice: to follow a fork of the corridor to the left, or to descend a steep spiral stair that opened at his feet. Reasoning that his objective would most likely lie, if anywhere, deep underground, he set his foot to the first worn treads of the stair, and cautiously, for the well of the stair was so narrow that he could not direct the light of his lamp to guide his feet, he descended. A deeper silence seemed to rise around him, as though in descending below the level of the earth he travelled beneath the surface of a sterile, currentless ocean: he could barely hear the sigh and sough of his own breath, and the light of the lamp seemed somehow dimmer above his head. He counted the spirals of the -- and his foot had dislodged, resting on the stair, a pebble, or chip of bone, which went bouncing and skipping and leaping, raising echoes minute as the rustle of blood in his ears that rose and swelled until they seemed to roar within the stair, down into the darkness below, bouncing and skipping and leaping for what seemed like minutes, fainter and fainter, down into the darkness below until suddenly there came an end and only the echoes remained, which died more slowly, and he stood motionless, one foot poised to descend, and his arm, holding the lamp out above his head, beginning to ache, and then, from the darkness below, disturbed by the tiny passage of the pebble, a voice.

His body was momently suffused with sweat, and his mouth grew dry and his heart and lungs seemed to constrict, painfully. He trembled. The voice came again, rising from a very great depth with a weary, beguiling sibilance. He listened, and lowered his foot. He could not understand the language of the voice, but knew that it called him, and knew, too, that the honey of the voice was thinned, so that he might choose not to heed it. He lifted his foot and laid it on a lower step, and lifted the other, and continued to descend the winding stair, the silent winding stair, for the voice had ceased to speak at the instant of his decision to answer its call.

As he descended, the flickering half-light of the lamp was invaded by a weaker, steadier luminescence, and this grew slowly stronger, until, when at last he reached the last step of the stair, he had extinguished the lamp. At the foot of the stair was a long, high-ceiling'd chamber, quite bare, save that at one end was a faded couch of gilded woods and silks and lace, and upon this, stretched out and resting on a sharp elbow, was a tall, scrawny old man, who regarded him unblinkingly. The luminescence was strongest about the couch, but its source was impossible to detect: it spilled, perhaps, from the nigromantically stimulated interstices of the air. He stood for a moment, and the old man opened his mouth — there was a startling flash of vivid red tissues within, like the gape of some hungry, idiot carnivore — and spoke.


And he raised his hand, and the room had vanished suddenly, as though the lifted hand had dissolved the fabric of an illusion, to be replaced by a garden, sun-blessed, with many fruit trees and flowers, murmurous with a white marble fountain and the passage of insects, and ringed by a high wall of red stone. The old man had not shifted his position on the couch, but the couch itself had blazed now with all the colours and splendour of recent manufacture.

"Do you wish to know my name?"

We-Pyo felt the power within the voice, though this was weakened, constrained, like a torrent shrunken by the sun of many days. He said, "Yes."

The old man smiled.

"I am Io-Vlehh. Sit by me and eat. Drink, speak with me. I have had no visitors here for many years, though, as you see" — his free arm, thin and sharp as a blade, swept out a half-circle in the air — "my garden is very beautiful."

A table, laden with ripe fruits and crystal flasks of wine, which We-Pyo had not noticed before, and a chair, were drawn up close to the couch. The old man smiled, and motioned We-Pyo closer, and he, forgetting that a moment before he had stood in an empty stone chamber, high and cold, came to sit in the chair, and poured a glass of wine red as ruby, and sank his teeth into the flesh of a pulpy, blood-warm fruit, which was sweet as the kisses of a lamia. The old man smiled upon him, and leaned close — his breath was dry and faintly bitter with the spices and unguents of the tomb — to speak of ancient things, and the glories and splendours of by-gone days.

His voice was soothing, and though weak, was guileful with the thirst of ages, so that We-Pyo began to fall slowly asleep, lulled by the sunshine, and the murmur of the fountain, and the humming passage of insects, and the warmth of the wine in his belly, and the silver, stroking beauty of the old man's voice.

And the old man reached forward and tugged him gently to a place beside him on the couch

And he would perhaps have slept shortly for ever, but his eyes, wandering in slow satiety over the beauties of the garden, were caught by a sudden glistening, and focused sleepily on a creeping thread of saliva on the old man's chin, and travelled up to the hunger of the eyes, and reported a sprinkling of dust in the thick white hair. He rose, overturning the table with the violence of his movement, and stepped back and back, his brain over-iced with horror. The sun failed; shadows invaded the leaves of the trees; the water was choked to silence in the fountain; the furnishings of the couch faded and grew dull: he stood facing the vampire in the high-ceiling'd chamber beneath the Temple of the Bat. The vampire was silent, watching. We-Pyo turned and ran, stumbling once, for the stair, which he climbed rapidly, his feet busy, busy, turning and climbing, until the sound of his passage, trickling down ever fainter into the silence and chill of the chamber, faded away altogether.

Io-Vlehh was very old, and his thirst burnt him like a flame, and so he opened his mouth and screamed, a red, silent, perfect "O" of agony and vexation. And then he closed his mouth, and waited for blood, or oblivion.

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