The queen of the damned, p.23

The Queen Of The Damned, page 23

 part  #3 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series

 

The Queen Of The Damned
 



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Chapter 20

 

  The night stank of their burning, these wailing phantoms that left nothing on the empty pavement but their ruined clothes. Below, under the arc lamps of the abandoned parking lots, the lawmen searched in vain for bodies; the firefighters looked in vain for those to assist. The mortal youngsters cried pit-eously.

  Small wounds were treated; the crazed were narcotized and taken away gently. So efficient the agencies of this plentiful time. Giant hoses cleaned the lots. They washed away the scorched rags of the burnt ones.

  Tiny beings down there argued and swore that they had witnessed these immolations. But no evidence remained. She had destroyed completely her victims.

  And now she moved on far away from the hall, to search the deepest recesses of the city. Her power turned corners and entered windows and doorways. There would be a tiny burst of flame out there like the striking of a sulphur match; then nothing.

  The night grew quieter. Taverns and shops shut their doors, winking out in the thickening darkness. Traffic thinned on the highways.

  The ancient one she caught in the North Beach streets, the one who had wanted but to see her face; she had burned him slowly as he crawled along the sidewalk. His bones turned to ash, the brain a mass of glowing embers in its last moments. Another she struck down upon a high flat roof, so that he fell like a shooting star out over the glimmering city. His empty clothes took flight like dark paper when it was finished.

  And south Lestat went, to his refuge in Carmel Valley. Jubilant, drunk on the love he felt for Louis and Gabrielle, he spoke of old times and new dreams, utterly oblivious to the final slaughter.

  "Maharet, where are you?" Khayman whispered. The night gave no answer. If Mael was near, if Mael heard the call, he gave no sign of it. Poor, desperate Mael, who had run out into the open after the attack upon Jessica. Mael, who might have been slain now, too. Mael staring helplessly as the ambulance carried Jesse away from him.

  Khayman could not find him.

  He combed the light-studded hills, the deep valleys in which the beat of souls was like a thunderous whisper. "Why have I witnessed these things?" he asked. "Why have the dreams brought me here?"

  He stood listening to the mortal world.

  The radios chattered of devil worship, riots, random fires, mass hallucinations. They whined of vandalism and crazed youth. But it was a big city for all its geographic smallness. The rational mind had already encapsulated the experience and disregarded it. Thousands took no notice. Others slowly and painstakingly revised in memory the impossible things they had seen. The Vampire Lestat was a human rock star and nothing more, his concert the scene of predictable though uncontrollable hysteria.

  Perhaps it was part of the Queen's design to so smoothly abort Lestat's dreams. To burn his enemies off the earth before the frail blanket of human assumptions could be irreparably damaged.

  If this was so, would she punish the creature himself finally?

  No answer came to Khayman.

  His eyes moved over the sleepy terrain. An ocean fog had swept in, settling in deep rosy layers beneath the-tops of the hills. The whole had a fairy-tale sweetness to it now in the first hour past midnight.

  Collecting his strongest power, he sought to leave the confines of his body, to send his vision out of himself like the wandering ka of the Egyptian dead, to see those whom the Mother might have spared, to draw close to them.

  "Armand," he said aloud. And then the lights of the city went dim. He felt the warmth and illumination of another place, and Armand was there before him.

  He and his fledgling, Daniel, had come safely again to the mansion where they would sleep beneath the cellar floor unmolested. Groggily the young one danced through the large and sumptuous rooms, his mind full of Lestat's songs and rhythms. Armand stared out into the night, his youthful face as impassive as before. He saw Khayman! He saw him standing motionless on the faraway hill, yet felt him near enough to touch. Silently, invisibly, they studied one another.

  It seemed Khayman's loneliness was more than he could bear; but the eyes of Armand held no emotion, no trust, no welcome.

  Khayman moved on, drawing on ever greater strength, rising higher and higher in his search, so far from his body now that he could not for the moment even locate it. To the north he went, calling the names Santino, Pandora.

  In a blasted field of snow and ice he saw them, two black figures in the endless whiteness-Pandora's garments shredded by the wind, her eyes full of blood tears as she searched for the dim outline of Marius's compound. She was glad of Santino at her side, this unlikely explorer in his fine clothes of black velvet. The long sleepless night through which Pandora had circled the world had left her aching in every limb and near to collapsing. All creatures must sleep; must dream. If she did not lie down soon in some dark place, her mind would be unable to fight the voices, the images, the madness. She did not want to take to the air again, and this Santino could not do such things, and so she walked beside him.

  Santino cleaved to her, feeling only her strength, his heart shrunken and bruised from the distant yet inescapable cries of those whom the Queen had slaughtered. Feeling the soft brush of Khayman's gaze, he pulled his black cloak tight around his face. Pandora took no notice whatsoever.

  Khayman veered away. Softly, it hurt him to see them touch; it hurt him to see the two of them together.

  In the mansion on the hill, Daniel slit the throat of a wriggling rat and let its blood flow into a crystal glass. "Lestat's trick," he said studying it in the light. Armand sat still by the fire, watching the red jewel of blood in the glass as Daniel lifted it to his lips lovingly.

  Back into the night Khayman moved, wandering higher again, far from the city lights as if in a great orbit.

  Mael, answer me. Let me know where you are. Had the Mother's cold fiery beam struck him, too? Or did he mourn now so deeply for Jesse that he hearkened to nothing and no one? Poor Jesse, dazzled by miracles, struck down by a fledgling in the blink of an eye before anyone could prevent it.

  Maharet's child, my child!

  Khayman was afraid of what he might see, afraid of what he dared not seek to alter. But maybe the Druid was simply too strong for him now; the Druid concealed himself and his charge from all eyes and all minds. Either that or the Queen had had her way and it was finished.

  Jesse

  So quiet here. She lay on a bed that was hard and soft, and her body felt floppy like that of a rag doll. She could lift her hand but then it would drop, and still she could not see, except in a vague ghostly way things that might have been an illusion.

  For example lamps around her; ancient clay lamps shaped like fish and filled with oil. They gave a thick odoriferous perfume to the room. Was this a funeral parlor?

  It came again, the fear that she was dead, locked in the flesh yet disconnected. She heard a curious sound; what was it? A scissors cutting. It was trimming the edges of her hair; the feel of it traveled to her scalp. She felt it even in her intestines.

  A tiny vagrant hair was plucked suddenly from her face; one of those annoying hairs, quite out of place, which women so hate. She was being groomed for the coffin, wasn't she? Who else would take such care, lifting her hand now, and inspecting her fingernails so carefully.

  But the pain came again, an electric flash moving down her back and she screamed. She screamed aloud in this room where she'd been only hours before in this very bed with the chains creaking.

  She heard a gasp from someone near her. She tried to see, but she only saw the lamps again. And some dim figure standing in the window. Miriam watching.

  "Where?" he asked. He was startled, trying to see the vision. Hadn't this happened before?

  "Why can't I open my eyes?" she asked. He could look forever and he would never see Miriam.

  "Your eyes are open," he said. How raw and tender his voice sounded. "I can't give you any more unless I give it all. We are not healers. We are slayers. It's time for you t
o tell me what you want. There is no one to help me. "

  I don't know what I want. All I know is 1 don't want to die! I don't want to stop living. What cowards we are, she thought, what liars. A great fatalistic sadness had accompanied her all the way to this night, yet there had been the secret hope of this always! Not merely to see, to know, but to be part of. . . .

  She wanted to explain, to hone it carefully with audible words, but the pain came again. A fiery brand touched to her spine, the pain shooting into her legs. And then the blessed numbness. It seemed the room she couldn't see grew dark and the flames of the ancient lamps sputtered. Outside the forest whispered. The forest writhed in the dark. And Mael's grip on her wrist was weak suddenly, not because he had let her go but because she couldn't any longer feel it.

  "Jesse!"

  He shook her with both his hands, and the pain was like lightning shattering the dark. She screamed through her clenched teeth. Miriam, stony-eyed and silent, glared from the window.

  "Mael, do it!" she cried.

  With all her strength, she sat up on the bed. The pain was without shape or limit; the scream strangled inside her. But then she opened her eyes, truly opened them. In the hazy light, she saw Miriam's cold unmerciful expression. She saw the tall bent figure of Mael towering over the bed. And then she turned to the open door. Maharet was coming.

  Mael didn't know, didn't realize, till she did. With soft silky steps, Maharet came up the stairs, her long skirts moving with a dark rustling sound; she came down the corridor.

  Oh, after all these years, these long years! Through her tears, Jesse watched Maharet move into the light of the lamps; she saw her shimmering face, and the burning radiance of her hair. Maharet gestured for Mael to leave them.

  Then Maharet approached the bed. She lifted her hands, palms open, as if in invitation; she raised her hands as if to receive a baby.

  "Yes, do it. "

  "Say farewell then, my darling, to Miriam. "

  In olden times there was a terrible worship in the city of Carthage. To the great bronze god Baal, the populace offered in sacrifice their little children. The small bodies were laid on the statue's outstretched arms, and then by means of a spring, the arms would rise and the children would fall into the roaring furnace of the god's belly.

  After Carthage was destroyed, only the Romans carried the old tale, and as the centuries passed wise men came not to believe it. Too terrible, it seemed, the immolation of these children. But as the archaeologists brought their shovels and began to dig, they found the bones of the small victims in profusion. Whole necropolises they unearthed of nothing but little skeletons.

  And the world knew the old legend was true; that the men and women of Carthage had brought their offspring to the god and stood in obeisance as their children tumbled screaming into the fire. It was religion.

  Now as Maharet lifted Jesse, as Maharet's lips touched her throat, Jesse thought of the old legend. Maharet's arms were like the hard metal arms of the god Baal, and in one fiery instant Jesse knew unspeakable torment.

  But it was not her own death that Jesse saw; it was the deaths of others-the souls of the immolated undead, rising upwards away from terror and the physical pain of the flames that consumed their preternatural bodies. She heard their cries; she heard their warnings; she saw their faces as they left the earth, dazzling as they carried with them still the stamp of human form without its substance; she felt them passing from misery into the unknown; she heard their song just beginning.

  And then the vision paled, and died away, like music half heard and half remembered. She was near to death; her body gone, all pain gone, all sense of permanence or anguish.

  She stood in the clearing in the sunshine looking down at the mother on the altar. "In the flesh," Maharet said. "In the flesh all wisdom begins. Beware the thing that has no flesh. Beware the gods, beware the idea, beware the devil. "

  Then the blood came; it poured through every fiber of her body; she was legs and arms again as it electrified her limbs, her skin stinging with the heat; and the hunger making her body writhe as the blood sought to anchor her soul to substance forever.

  They lay in each other's arms, she and Maharet, and Maharet's hard skin warmed and softened so that they became one wet and tangled thing, hair enmeshed, Jesse's face buried in Maharet's neck as she gnawed at the fount, as one shock of ecstasy passed through her after another.

  Suddenly Maharet drew away and turned Jesse's face against the pillow. Maharet's hand covered Jesse's eyes, and Jesse felt the tiny razor-sharp teeth pierce her skin; she felt it all being taken back, drawn out. Like the whistling wind, the sensation of being emptied, of being devoured; of being nothing!

  "Drink again, my darling. " Slowly she opened her eyes; she saw the white throat and the white breasts; she reached out and caught the throat in her hands, and this time it was she who broke the flesh, she tore it. And when the first spill of blood hit her tongue, she pulled Maharet down under her. Utterly compliant Maharet was; hers; Maharet's breasts against her breasts; Maharet's lips against her face, as she sucked the blood, sucked it harder and harder. You are mine, you are utterly and completely mine. All images, voices, visions, gone now.

  They slept, or almost slept, folded against one another. It seemed the pleasure left its shimmer; it seemed that to breathe was to feel it again; to shift against the silken sheets or against Maharet's silken skin was to begin again.

  The fragrant wind moved through the room. A great collective sigh rose from the forest. No more Miriam, no more the spirits of the twilight realm, caught between life and death. She had found her place; her eternal place.

  As she closed her eyes, she saw the thing in the jungle stop and look at her. The red-haired thing saw her and saw Maharet in her arms; it saw the red hair; two women with red hair; and the thing veered and moved towards them.

  Khayman

  Dead quiet the peace of Carmel Valley. So happy were the little coven in the house, Lestat, Louis, Gabrielle, so happy to be together. Lestat had rid himself of his soiled clothes and was resplendent again in shining "vampire attire," even to the black velvet cloak thrown casually over one shoulder. And the others, how animated they were, the woman Gabrielle unbraiding her yellow hair rather absently as she talked in an easy, passionate manner. And Louis, the human one, silent, yet profoundly excited by the presence of the other two, entranced, as it were, by their simplest gestures.

  At any other time, how moved Khayman would have been by such happiness. He would have wanted to touch their hands, look into their eyes, tell them who he was and what he had seen, he would have wanted just to be with them.

  But she was near. And the night was not finished.

  The sky paled and the faintest warmth of the morning crept across the fields. Things stirred in the growing light. The trees shifted, their leaves uncurling ever so slowly.

  Khayman stood beneath the apple tree, watching the color of the shadows change; listening to the morning. She was here, without question.

  She concealed herself, willfully, and powerfully. But Khayman she could not deceive. He watched; he waited, listening to the laughter and talk of the small coven.

  At the doorway of the house, Lestat embraced his mother, as she took leave of him. Out into the gray morning she came, with a sprightly step, in her dusty neglected khaki clothes, her thick blond hair brushed back, the picture of a carefree wanderer. And the black-haired one, the pretty one, Louis, was beside her.

  Khayman watched them cross the grass, the female moving on into the open field before the woods where she meant to sleep within the earth itself, while the male entered the cool darkness of a small outbuilding. Something so refined about that one, even as he slipped beneath the floorboards, something about the way that he lay down as if in the grave; the way he composed his limbs, falling at once into utter darkness.

  And the woman; with stunning violence, she made her deep and secret hiding place, the leaves settling as
if she had never been there. The earth held her outstretched arms, her bent head. Into the dreams of the twins she plunged, into images of jungle and river she would never remember.

  So far so good. Khayman did not want them to die, to burn up. Exhausted, he stood with his back to the apple tree, the pungent green fragrance of the apples enveloping him.

  Why was she here? And where was she hiding? When he opened himself to it, he felt the low radiant sound of her presence, rather like an engine of the modern world, giving off some irrepressible whisper of itself and its lethal power.

  Finally Lestat emerged from the house and hurried towards the lair he had made for himself beneath the acacia trees against the hillside. Through a trapdoor he descended, down earthen steps, and into a dank chamber.

  So it was peace for them all, peace until tonight when he would be the bringer of bad tidings.

  The sun rose closer to the horizon; the first deflected rays appeared, which always dulled Khayman's vision. He focused upon the soft deepening colors of the orchard as all the rest of the world lost its distinct lines and shapes. He closed his eyes for a moment, realizing that he must go into the house, that he must seek some cool and shadowy place where mortals were unlikely to disturb him.

  And when the sun set, he'd be waiting for them when they woke. He would tell them what he knew; he would tell them about the others. With a sudden stab of pain he thought of Mael, and of Jesse, whom he could not find, as if the earth had devoured them.

  He thought of Maharet and he wanted to weep. But he made his way towards the house now. The sun was warm on his back; his limbs were heavy. Tomorrow night, whatever else came to pass, he wouldn't be alone. He would be with Lestat and his cohorts; and if they turned him away, he would seek out Armand. He would go north to Marius.

  He heard the sound first-a loud, crackling roar. He turned, shielding his eyes from the rising sun. A great spray of earth shot up from the floor of the forest. The acacias swayed as if in a storm, limbs cracking, roots heaved up from the soil, trunks falling helter-skelter.

  In a dark streak of windblown garments the Queen rose with ferocious speed, the limp body of Lestat dangling from her arms as she made for the western sky away from the sunrise.

  Khayman gave a loud cry before he could stop himself. And his cry rang out over the stillness of the valley. So she had taken her lover.

  Oh, poor lover, oh, poor beautiful blond-haired prince . . .

  But there was no time to think or to act or to know his own heart; he turned to the shelter of the house; the sun had struck the clouds and the horizon had become an inferno.

  Daniel stirred in the dark. The sleep seemed to lift like a blanket that had been about to crush him. He saw the gleam of Armand's eye. He heard Armand's whisper: "She's taken him. "

  Jesse moaned aloud. Weightless, she drifted in the pearly gloom. She saw the two rising figures as if in a dance-the Mother and the Son. Like saints ascending on the painted ceiling of a church. Her lips formed the words "the Mother. "

  In their deep-dug grave beneath the ice, Pandora and Santino slept in each other's arms. Pandora heard the sound. She heard Khayman's cry. She saw Lestat with his eyes closed and his head thrown back, rising in Akasha's embrace. She saw Akasha's black eyes fixed upon his sleeping face. Pandora's heart stopped in terror.

  Marius closed his eyes. He could keep them open no longer. Above the wolves howled; the wind tore at the steel roof of the compound. Through the blizzard the feeble rays of the sun came as if igniting the swirling snow, and he could feel the dulling heat move down through layer upon layer of ice to numb him.

  He saw the sleeping figure of Lestat in her arms; he saw her rising into the sky. "Beware of her, Lestat," he whispered with his last conscious breath. "Danger. "

  On the cool carpeted floor, Khayman stretched out and buried his face in his arm. And a dream came at once, a soft silky dream of a summer night in a lovely place, where the sky was big over the city lights, and they were all together, these immortals whose names he knew and held to his heart now.

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