The queen of the damned, p.28

The Queen Of The Damned, page 28

 part  #3 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


The Queen Of The Damned

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Chapter 25


  I couldn't stop. This invisible thing was one of my limbs now. I couldn't withdraw it and bring it back into myself. It was as if I was poised to take a breath, and if I did not take that breath I should die. But she held me motionless, and a great calm was coming over me, as if a drug had been fed into my veins. Finally I grew still and the power concentrated itself within me and became part of me and nothing more.

  Slowly I turned around. I looked at the clear snowy peaks, the perfectly black sky, and at the long line of dark bodies that lay on the path from the temple gates. The women were clinging to one another, sobbing in disbelief, or giving off low and terrible moans. I smelled death as I have never smelled it; I looked down at the bits of flesh and gore that had splashed my garments. But my hands! My hands were so white and clean. Dear God, I didn't do it! Not me. I didn't. And my hands, they are clean!

  Oh, but I had! And what am I that I could do it? That I loved it, loved it beyond all reason, loved it as men have always loved it in the absolute moral freedom of war-

  It seemed a silence had fallen.

  If the women still cried I didn't hear them. I didn't hear the wind either. I was moving, though why I didn't know. I had dropped down to my knees and I reached out for the last man I had slain, who was flung like broken sticks in the snow, and I put my hand into the blood on his mouth and then I smeared this blood all over both my hands and pressed them to my face.

  Never had I killed in two hundred years that I hadn't tasted the blood, and taken it, along with the life, into myself. And that was a monstrous thing. But more had died here in these few ghastly moments than all those I'd ever sent to their untimely graves. And it had been done with the ease of thought and breath. Oh, this can never be atoned for! This can never never be justified!

  I stood staring at the snow, through my bloody fingers; weeping and yet hating that as well. Then gradually I realized that some change had taken place with the women. Something was happening around me, and I could feel it as if the cold air had been warmed and the wind had risen and left the steep slope undisturbed. Then the change seemed to enter into me, subduing my anguish and even slowing the beat of my heart.

  The crying had ceased. Indeed the women were moving by twos and threes down the path as if in a trance, stepping over the dead. It seemed that sweet music was playing, and that the earth had suddenly yielded spring flowers of every color and description, and that the air was full of perfume.

  Yet these things weren't happening, were they? In a haze of muted colors, the women passed me, in rags and silks, and dark cloaks. I shook myself all over. I had to think clearly! This was no time for disorientation. This power and these dead bodies were no dream and I could not, absolutely could not, yield to this overwhelming sense of well-being and peace.

  "Akasha!" I whispered.

  Then lifting my eyes, not because I wanted to, but because I had to, I saw her standing on a far promontory, and the women, young and old, were moving towards her, some so weak from the cold and from hunger that others had to carry them over the frozen ground.

  A hush had fallen over all things.

  Without words she began to speak to those assembled before her. It seemed she addressed them in their own language, or in something quite beyond specific language. I couldn't tell.

  In a daze, I saw her stretch out her arms to them. Her black hair spilled down on her white shoulders, and the folds of her long simple gown barely moved in the soundless wind. It struck me that never in all my life had I beheld anything quite as beautiful as she was, and it was not merely the sum of her physical attributes, it was the pure serenity, the essence that I perceived with my innermost soul. A lovely euphoria came over me as she spoke.

  Do not be afraid, she told them. The bloody reign of your god is over, and now you may return to the truth.

  Soft anthems rose from the worshipers. Some dipped their foreheads to the ground before her. And it appeared that this pleased her or at least that she would allow it.

  You must return now to your villages, she said. You must tell those who knew of the blood god that he is dead. The Queen of Heaven has destroyed him. The Queen will destroy all those males who still believe in him. The Queen of Heaven will bring a new reign of peace on earth. There will be death for the males who have oppressed you, but you must wait for my sign.

  As she paused the anthems rose again. The Queen of Heaven, the Goddess, the Good Mother-the old litany sung in a thousand tongues the world over was finding a new form.

  I shuddered. I made myself shudder. I had to penetrate that spell! It was a trick of the power, just as the killing had been a trick of the power-something definable and measurable, yet I remained drugged by the sight of her, and by the anthems. By the soft embrace of this feeling: all is well; all is as it should be. We are all safe.

  Somewhere, from the sunlit recesses of my mortal memory a day came back, a day like many before it, when in the month of May in our village we had crowned a statue of the Virgin amid banks of sweet-smelling flowers, when we had sung exquisite hymns. Ah, the loveliness of that moment, when the crown of white lilies had been lifted to the Virgin's veiled head. I'd gone home that night singing those hymns. In an old prayer book, I'd found a picture of the Virgin, and it had filled me with enchantment and wondrous religious fervor such as I felt now.

  And from somewhere deeper in me even, where the sun had never penetrated, came the realization that if I believed in her and what she was saying, then this unspeakable thing, this slaughter that I had committed against fragile and helpless mortals would somehow be redeemed.

  You kill now in my name and for my cause and I give you the greatest freedom ever given man: I tell you that to slay your brother is right.

  "Go on," she said aloud. "Leave this temple forever. Leave the dead to the snow and the winds. Tell the people. A new era is coming when those males who glorify death and killing shall reap their reward; and the era of peace shall be yours. I will come again to you. I will show you the way. Await my coming. And I will tell you then what you must do. For now, believe in me and what you have seen here. And tell others that they too may believe. Let the men come and see what awaits them. Wait for signs from me. "

  In a body they moved to obey her command; they ran down the mountain path towards those distant worshipers who had fled the massacre; their cries rose thin and ecstatic in the snowy void.

  The wind gusted through the valley; high on the hill, the temple bell gave another dull peal. The wind tore at the scant garments of the dead. The snow had begun to fall, softly and then thickly, covering brown legs and arms and faces, faces with open eyes. The sense of well-being had dissipated, and all the raw aspects of the moment were clear and inescapable again. These women, this visitation. . . . Bodies in the snow! Undeniable displays of power, disruptive and overwhelming.

  Then a soft little sound broke the silence; things shattering in the temple above; things falling, breaking apart.

  I turned and looked at her. She stood still on the little promontory, the cloak very loose over her shoulders, her flesh as white as the falling snow. Her eyes were fixed on the temple. And as the sounds continued, I knew what was happening within.

  Jars of oil breaking; braziers falling. The soft whisper of cloth exploding into flame. Finally the smoke rose, thick and black, billowing from the bell tower, and from over the rear wall-

  The bell tower trembled; a great roaring noise echoed against the far cliffs; and then the stones broke loose; the tower collapsed. It fell down into the valley, and the bell, with one final peal, disappeared into the soft white abyss. The temple was consumed in fire.

  I stared at it, my eyes watering from the smoke that blew down over the path, carrying with it tiny ashes and bits of soot.

  Vaguely, I was aware that my body wasn't cold despite the snow. That it wasn't tired from the exertion of killing. Indeed my flesh was whiter than it had been. And my lungs took in the air so effic
iently that I couldn't hear my own breathing; even my heart was softer, steadier. Only my soul was bruised and sore. For the first time ever in my life, either mortal or immortal, I was afraid that I might die. I was afraid that she might destroy me and with reason, because I simply could not do again what I'd just done. I could not be part of this design. And I prayed I couldn't be made to do it, that I would have the strength to refuse. I felt her hands on my shoulders. "Turn and look at rne, Lestat,' she said. I did as she asked. And there it was again, the most seductive beauty I'd ever beheld.

  And I am yours, my love. You are my only true companion, my finest instrument. You know this, do you not?

  Again, a deliberate shudder. Where in God's name are you, Lestat! Are you going to shrink from speaking your heart?

  "Akasha, help me," I whispered. "Tell me. Why did you want me to do this, this killing? What did you mean when you told them that the males would be punished? That there would be a reign of peace on earth?" How stupid my words sounded. Looking into her eyes, I could believe she was the goddess. It was as if she drew my conviction out of me, as if it were merely blood.

  I was quaking suddenly with fear. Quaking. I knew what the word meant for the first time. I tried to say more but I merely stammered. Finally I blurted it out:

  "In the name of what morality will all this be done?"

  "In the name of my morality!" she answered, the faint little smile as beautiful as before. "I am the reason, the justification, the right by which it is done!" Her voice was cold with anger, but her blank, sweet expression had not changed. "Now, listen to me, beautiful one," she said. "I love you. You've awakened me from my long sleep and to my great purpose; it gives me joy merely to look at you, to see the light in your blue eyes, and to hear the sound of your voice. It would wound me beyond your understanding of pain to see you die. But as the stars are my witness, you will aid me in my mission. Or you will be no more than the instrument for the commencement, as Judas was to Christ. And I shall destroy you as Christ destroyed Judas once your usefulness is past. "

  Rage overcame me. I couldn't help myself. The shift from fear to anger was so fast, I was boiling inside.

  "But how do you dare to do these things!" I asked. "To send these ignorant souls abroad with mad lies!"

  She stared at me in silence; it seemed she would strike out at me; her face became that of a statue again; and I thought, Well, the moment is now. I will die the way I saw Azim die. I can't save Gabrielle or Louis. I can't save Armand. I won't fight because it's useless. I won't move when it happens. I'll go deep into myself, perhaps, if I must run from the pain. I'll'find some last illusion like Baby Jenks did and cling to it until I am no longer Lestat.

  She didn't move. The fires on the hill were burning down. The snow was coming more thickly and she had become like a ghost standing there in the silent snowfall, white as the snow was white.

  "You really aren't afraid of anything, are you?" she said.

  "I'm afraid of you," I said.

  "Oh, no, I do not think so. "

  I nodded. "I am. And I'll tell you what else I am. Vermin on the face of the earth. Nothing more than that. A loathsome killer of human beings. But I know that's what I am! I do not pretend to be what I am not! You have told these ignorant people that you are the Queen of Heaven! How do you mean to redeem those words and what they will accomplish among stupid and innocent minds?"

  "Such arrogance," she said softly. "Such incredible arrogance, and yet I love you. I love your courage, even your rashness, which has always been your saving grace. I even love your stupidity. Don't you understand? There is no promise now that I cannot keep! I shall make the myths over! I am the Queen of Heaven. And Heaven shall reign on earth finally. I am anything that I say I am!"

  "Oh, lord, God," whispered.

  "Do not speak those hollow words. Those words that have never meant anything to anyone! You stand in the presence of the only goddess you will ever know. You are the only god these people will ever know! Well, you must think like a god now, my beauty. You must reach for something beyond your selfish little ambitions. Don't you realize what's taken place?"

  I shook my head. "I don't know anything. I'm going mad. "

  She laughed. She threw back her head and laughed. "We are what they dream of, Lestat. We cannot disappoint them. If we did, the truth implicit in the earth beneath our feet would be betrayed. "

  She turned away from me. She went back up again to the small outcropping of snow-covered rock where she had stood before. She was looking down into the valley, at the path that cut along the sheer cliff beneath her, at the pilgrims turning back now as the fleeing women gave them the word.

  I heard cries echo off the stone face of the mountain. I heard the men dying down there, as she, unseen, struck them with that power, that great seductive and easy power. And the women stammering madly of miracles and visions. And then the wind rose, swallowing everything, it seemed; the great indifferent wind. I saw her shimmering face for an instant; she came towards me; I thought this is death again, this is death coming, the woods and the wolves coming, and no place to hide; and then my eyes closed.

  When I awoke I was in a small house. I didn't know how we'd gotten here, or how long ago the slaughter in the mountains had been. I'd been drowning in the voices, and now and then a dream had come to me, a terrible yet familiar dream. I had seen two redheaded women in this dream. They knelt beside an altar where a body lay waiting for them to perform some ritual, some crucial ritual. And I'd been struggling desperately to understand the dream's content, for it seemed that everything depended upon it; I must not forget it again.

  But now all that faded. The voices, the unwelcome images; the moment pressed in.

  The place where I lay was dark and dirty, and full of foul smells. In little dwellings all around us, mortals lived in misery, babies crying in hunger, amid the smell of cooking fires and rancid grease.

  There was war in this place, true war. Not the debacle of the mountainside, but old-fashioned twentieth-century war. From the minds of the afflicted I caught it in viscid glimpses-an endless existence of butchery and menace-buses burned, people trapped inside beating upon the locked windows; trucks exploding, women and children running from machine gun fire.

  I lay on the floor as if someone had flung me there. And Akasha stood in the doorway, her cloak wrapped tightly around her, even to her eyes, as she peered out into the dark.

  When I had climbed to my feet and come up beside her, I saw a mud alley full of puddles and other small dwellings, some with roofs of tin and others with roofs of sagging newspaper. Against the filthy walls men slept, wrapped from head to toe as if in shrouds. But they were not dead; and the rats they sought to avoid knew it. And the rats nibbled at the wrappings, and the men twitched and jerked in their sleep.

  It was hot here, and the warmth cooked the stenches of the place-urine, feces, the vomit of dying children. I could even smell the hunger of the children, as they cried in spasms. I could smell the deep dank sea smell of the gutters-and the cesspools.

  This was no village; it was a place of hovels and shacks, of hopelessness. Dead bodies lay between the dwellings. Disease was rampant; and the old and the sick sat silent in the dark, dreaming of nothing, or of death perhaps, which was nothing, as the babies cried.

  Down the alley there came now a tottering child with a swollen belly, screaming as it rubbed with a small fist its swollen eye.

  It seemed not to see us in the darkness. From door to door it went crying, its smooth brown skin glistening in the dim flicker of the cooking fires as it moved away.

  "Where are we?" I asked her.

  Astonished, I saw her turn and lift her hand tenderly to stroke my hair and my face. Relief washed through me. But the raw suffering of this place was too great for that relief to matter. So she had not destroyed me; she had brought me to hell. What was the purpose? All around me I felt the misery, the despair. What could alter the suffering of these abject people

  "My poor warrior," she said. Her eyes were full of blood tears. "Don't you know where we are?"

  I didn't answer.

  She spoke slowly, close to my ear. "Shall I recite the poetry of names?" she asked. "Calcutta, if you wish, or Ethiopia; or the streets of Bombay; these poor souls could be the peasants of Sri Lanka; of Pakistan; of Nicaragua, of El Salvador. It does not matter what it is; it matters how much there is of it; that all around the oases of your shining Western cities it exists; it is three-fourths of the world! Open your ears, my darling; listen to their prayers; listen to the silence of those who've learned to pray for nothing. For nothing has always been their portion, whatever the name of their nation, their city, their tribe. "

  We walked out together into the mud street; past piles of dung and filthy puddles and the starving dogs that came forth, and the rats that darted across our path. Then we came to the ruins of an ancient palace. Reptiles slithered among the stones. The blackness swarmed with gnats. Derelicts slept in a long row beside a running gutter. Beyond in the swamp, bodies rotted, bloated and forgotten.

  Far away on the highway, the trucks passed, sending their rumble through the stifling heat like thunder. The misery of the place was like a gas, poisoning me as I stood there. This was the ragged edge of the savage garden of the world in which hope could not flower. This was a sewer.

  "But what can we do?" I whispered. "Why have we come here?" Again, I was distracted by her beauty, the look of compassion that suddenly infected her and made me want to weep.

  "We can reclaim the world," she said, "as I've told you. We can make the myths real; and the time will come when this will be a myth, that humans ever knew such degradation. We shall see to that, my love. "

  "But this is for them to solve, surely. It isn't only their obligation, it's their right. How can we aid in such a thing? How can our interference not lead to catastrophe?"

  "We shall see that it does not," she said calmly. "Ah, but you don't begin to comprehend. You don't realize the strength we now possess. Nothing can stop us. But you must watch now. You are not ready and I would not push you again. When you kill again for me you must have perfect faith and perfect conviction. Be assured that I love you and I know that a heart can't be educated in the space of a night. But learn from what you see and hear. "

  She went back out in the street. For one moment she was merely a frail figure, moving through the shadows. Then suddenly I could hear beings roused in the tiny hovels all around us, and I saw the women and children emerge. Around me the sleeping forms began to stir. I shrank back into the dark.

  I was trembling. I wanted desperately to do something, to beg her to have patience!

  But again that sense of peace descended, that spell of perfect happiness, and I was traveling back through the years to the little French church of my childhood as the hymns began. Through my tears I saw the shining altar. I saw the icon of the Virgin, a gleaming square of gold above the flowers; I heard the Aves whispered as if they were a charm. Under the arches of Notre Dame de Paris I heard the priests singing "Salve Regina. "

  Her voice came, clear, inescapable as it had been before, as if it were inside my brain. Surely the mortals heard it with the same irresistible power. The command itself was without words; and the essence was beyond dispute-that a new order was to begin, a new world in which the abused and injured would know peace and justice finally. The women and the children were exhorted to rise, and to slay all males within this village. All males save one in a hundred should be killed, and all male babies save one in a hundred should also be slaughtered immediately. Peace on earth would follow once this had been done far and wide; there would be no more war; there would be food and plenty.

  I was unable to move, or to voice my terror. In panic I heard the frenzied cries of the women. Around me, the sleeping derelicts rose from their wrappings, only to be driven back against the walls, dying as I had seen the men die in Azim's temple.

  The street rang with cries. In clouded flashes, I saw people running; I saw the men rushing out of the houses, only to drop in the mud. On the distant road the trucks went up in flames, wheels screeching as the drivers lost control. Metal was hurled against metal. Gas tanks exploded; the night was full of magnificent light. Rushing from house to house, the women surrounded the men and beat them with any weapon they could find. Had the village of shanties and hovels ever known such vitality as it did now in the name of death?

  And she, the Queen of Heaven, had risen and was hovering above the tin rooftops, a stark delicate figure burning against the clouds as if made of white flame.

  I closed my eyes and turned towards the wall, fingers clutching at the crumbling rock. To think that we were solid as this, she and I. Yet not of it. No, never of it. And we did not belong here! We had no right.

  But even as I wept, I felt the soft embrace of the spell again; the sweet drowsy sensation of being surrounded by flowers, of slow music with its inevitable and enthralling rhythm. I felt the warm air as it passed into my lungs; I felt the old stone tiles beneath my feet.

  Soft green hills stretched out before me in hallucinatory perfection-a world without war or deprivation in which women roamed free and unafraid, women who even under provocation would shrink from the common violence that lurks in the heart of every man.

  Against my will I lingered in this new world, ignoring the thud of bodies hitting the wet earth, and the final curses and cries of those who were being killed.

  In great dreamy flashes, I saw whole cities transformed; I saw streets without fear of the predatory and the senselessly destructive; streets in which beings moved without urgency or desperation. Houses were no longer fortresses; gardens no longer needed their walls.

  "Oh, Marius, help me," I whispered, even as the sun poured down on the tree-lined pathways and endless green fields. "Please, please help me. "

  And then another vision shocked me, crowding out the spell. I saw fields again, but there was no sunlight; this was a real place somewhere-and I was looking through the eyes of someone or something walking in a straight line with strong strides at incredible speed. But who was this someone? What was this being's destination? Now, this vision was being sent; it was powerful, refusing to be ignored. But why?

  It was gone as quickly as it had come.

  I was back in the crumbling palace arcade, among the scattered dead; staring through the open archway at the rushing figures; hearing the high-pitched cries of victory and jubilation,

  Come out, my warrior, where they can see you. Come to me.

  She stood before me with her arms extended. God, what did they think they were seeing? For a moment I didn't move, then I went towards her, stunned and compliant, feeling the eyes of the women, their worshipful gaze. They fell down on their knees as she and I came together. I felt her hand close too tightly; I felt my heart thudding. Akasha, this is a lie, a terrible lie. And the evil sown here will flourish for a century.

  Suddenly the world tilted. We weren't standing on the ground anymore. She had me in her embrace and we were rising over the tin roofs, and the women below were bowing and waving their arms, and touching their foreheads to the mud.

  "Behold the miracle, behold the Mother, behold the Mother and her Angel . . . "

  Then in an instant, the village was a tiny scattering of silver roofs far below us, all that misery alchemized into images, and we were traveling once again on the wind.

  I glanced back, trying in vain to recognize the specific location-the dark swamps, the lights of the nearby city, the thin strip of road where the overturned trucks still burned. But she was right, it really didn't matter.

  Whatever was going to happen had now begun, and I did not know what could possibly stop it.
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