The queen of the damned, p.35

The Queen Of The Damned, page 35

 part  #3 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


The Queen Of The Damned

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Chapter 32




  SHE WAS DREAMING OF KILLING. IT WAS A GREAT dark city like London or Rome, and she was hurrying through it, on an errand of killing, to bring down the first sweet human victim that would be her own. And just before she opened her eyes, she had made the leap from the things she had believed all her life, to this simple amoral act-killing. She had done what the reptile does when it hoists in its leathery slit of a mouth the tiny crying mouse that it will crush slowly without ever hearing that soft heartbreaking song.

  Awake in the dark; and the house alive above her; the old ones saying Come. A television talking somewhere. The Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared on an island in the Mediterranean Sea.

  No hunger. Maharet's blood was too strong. The idea was growing, beckoning like a crone in a dark alley. Killing.

  Rising from the narrow box in which she lay, she tiptoed through the blackness until her hands felt the metal door. She went into the hallway and looked up the endless iron stairs, crisscrossing back over itself as if it were a skeleton, and she saw the sky through the glass like smoke. Mael was halfway up, at the door of the house proper, gazing down at her.

  She reeled with it-I am one of you and we are together-and the feel of the iron rail under her hand, and some sudden grief, just a fleeting thing, for all she had been before this fierce beauty had grabbed her by the hair.

  Mael came down as if to retrieve her, because it was carrying her away.

  They understood, didn't they, the way the earth breathed for her now, and the forest sang, and the roots prowled the dark, coming through these earthen walls.

  She stared at Mael. Faint smell of buckskin, dust. How had she ever thought such beings were human? Eyes glittering like that. And yet the time would come when she would be walking among human beings again, and she would see their eyes linger and then suddenly move away. She'd be hurrying through some dark city like London or Rome. Looking into the eyes of Mael, she saw the crone again in the alleyway; but it had not been a literal image. No she saw the alleyway, she saw the killing, purely. And in silence, they both looked away at the same instant, but not quickly, rather respectfully. He took her hand; he looked at the bracelet he'd given her. He kissed her suddenly on the cheek. And then he led her up the stairs towards the mountaintop room.

  The electronic voice of the television grew louder and louder, speaking of mass hysteria in Sri Lanka. Women killing men. Even male babies murdered. On the island of Lynkonos there had been mass hallucinations and an epidemic of unexplained deaths.

  Only gradually did it dawn on her, what she was hearing. So it wasn't the Blessed Virgin Mary, and she had thought how lovely, when she first heard it, that they can believe something like that. She turned to Mael but he was looking ahead. He knew these things. The television had been playing its words to him for an hour.

  Now she saw the eerie blue flicker as she came into the mountaintop room. And the strange spectacle of these her new brethren in the Secret Order of the Undead, scattered about like so many statues, glowing in the blue light, as they stared fixedly at the large screen.

  ". . . outbreaks in the past caused by contaminants in food or water. Yet no explanation has been found for the similarity of the reports from widely divergent places, which now include several isolated villages in the mountains of Nepal. Those apprehended claim to have seen a beautiful woman, called variously the Blessed Virgin, or the Queen of Heaven, or simply the Goddess, who commanded them to massacre the males of their village, except for a few carefully chosen to be spared. Some reports describe a male apparition also, a fair-haired deity who does not speak and who as yet has no official or unofficial title or name . . . "

  Jesse looked at Maharet, who watched without expression, one hand resting on the arm of her chair.

  Newspapers covered the table. Papers in French and Hindustani as well as English.

  " . . from Lynkonos to several other islands before the militia was called in. Early estimates indicate some two thousand men may have been killed in this little archipelago just off the tip of Greece. "

  Maharet touched the small black control under her hand and the screen vanished. It seemed the entire apparatus vanished, fading into the dark wood, as the windows became transparent and the treetops appeared in endless, misted layers against the violent sky. Far away, Jesse saw the twinkling lights of Santa Rosa cradled in the dark hills. She could smell the sun that had been in this room; she could feel the heat rising slowly through the glass ceiling.

  She looked at the others who were sitting there in stunned silence. Marius glared at the television screen, at the newspapers spread out before him.

  "We have no time to lose," Khayman said quickly to Maharet. "You must continue the tale. We don't know when she will come here. "

  He made a small gesture, and the scattered newspapers were suddenly cleared away, crushed together, and hurtling soundlessly into the fire which devoured them with a gust that sent a shower of sparks up the gaping smokestack.

  Jesse was suddenly dizzy. Too fast, all of that. She stared at Khayman. Would she ever get used to it? Their porcelain faces and their sudden violent expressions, their soft human voices, and their near invisible movements?

  And what was the Mother doing? Males slaughtered. The fabric of life for these ignorant people utterly destroyed. A cold sense of menace touched her. She searched Maharet's face for some insight, some understanding.

  But Maharet's features were" utterly rigid. She had not answered Khayman. She turned towards the table slowly and clasped her hands under her chin. Her eyes were dull, remote, as if she saw nothing before her.

  "The fact is, she has to be destroyed," Marius said, as if he could hold it in no longer. The color flared in his cheeks, shocking Jesse, because all the normal lines of a man's face had been there for an instant. And now they were gone, and he was visibly shaking with anger. "We've loosed a monster, and it's up to us to reclaim it. "

  "And how can that be done?" Santino asked. "You speak as if it's a simple matter of decision. You cannot kill her!"

  "We forfeit our lives, that's how it's done," Marius said. "We act in concert, and we end this thing once and for all as it should have been ended long ago. " He glanced at them all one by one, eyes lingering on Jesse. Then shifting to Maharet. "The body isn't indestructible. It isn't made of marble. It can be pierced, cut. I've pierced it with my teeth. I've drunk its blood!"

  Maharet made a small dismissive gesture, as if to say I know these things and you know I know.

  "And as we cut it, we cut ourselves?" Eric said. "I say we leave here. I say we hide from her. What do we gain staying in this place?"

  "No!" Maharet said.

  "She'll kill you one by one if you do that," Khayman said. "You're alive because you wait now for her purpose. "

  "Would you go on with the story," Gabrielle said, speaking directly to Maharet. She'd been withdrawn all this time, only now and then listening to the others. "I want to know the rest," she said. "I want to hear everything. " She sat forward, arms folded on the table.

  "You think you'll discover some way to vanquish her in these old tales?" Eric asked. "You're mad if you think that. "

  "Go on with the story, please," Louis said. "I want to . . . " He hesitated. "I want to know what happened also. "

  Maharet looked at him for a long moment.

  "Go on, Maharet," Khayman said. "For in all likelihood, the Mother will be destroyed and we both know how and why, and all this talk means nothing. "

  "What can prophecy mean now, Khayman?" Maharet asked, her voice low, devitalized. "Do we fall into the same errors that ensnare the Mother? The past may instruct us. But it won't save us. "

  "Your sister comes, Maharet. She comes as she said she would. "

  "Khayman," Maharet said with a long, bitter smile.

  "Tell us what happened," Gabrielle said.

  Maharet sat still, as if try
ing to find some way to begin. The sky beyond the windows darkened in the interval. Yet a faint tinge of red appeared in the far west, growing brighter and brighter against the gray clouds. Finally, it faded, and they were wrapped in absolute darkness, except for the light of the fire, and the dull sheen of the glass walls which had become mirrors.

  "Khayman took you to Egypt," Gabrielle said. "What did you see there?"

  "Yes, he took us to Egypt," Maharet said. She sighed as she sat back in the chair, her eyes fixed on the table before her. "There was no escape from it; Khayman would have taken us by force.

  And in truth, we accepted that we had to go. Through twenty generations, we had gone between man and the spirits. If Amel had done some great evil, we would try to undo it. Or at least . . . as I said to you when we first came to this table . . . we would seek to understand.

  "I left my child. I left her in the care of those women 1 trusted most. I kissed her. I told her secrets. And then I left her, and we set out, carried in the royal litter as if we were guests of the King and Queen of Kemet and not prisoners, just as before.

  "Khayman was gentle with us on the long march, but grim and silent, and refusing to meet our gaze. And it was just as well, for we had not forgotten our injuries. Then on the very last night when we camped on the banks of the great river, which we would cross in the morning to reach the royal palace, Khayman called us into his tent and told us all that he knew.

  "His manner was courteous, decorous. And we tried to put aside our personal suspicions of him as we listened. He told us of what the demon-as he called it-had done.

  "Only hours after we had been sent out of Egypt, he had known that something was watching him, some dark and evil force. Everywhere that he went, he felt this presence, though in the light of day it tended to wane.

  "Then things within his house were altered-little things which others did not notice. He thought at first he was going mad. His writing things were misplaced; then the seal which he used as great steward. Then at random moments-and always when he was alone-these objects came flying at him, striking him in the face, or landing at his feet. Some turned up in ridiculous places. He would find the great seal, for instance, in his beer or his broth.

  "And he dared not tell the King and Queen. He knew it was our spirits who were doing it; and to tell would be a death sentence for us.

  "And so he kept this awful secret, as things grew worse and worse. Ornaments which he had treasured from childhood were now rent to pieces and made to rain down upon him. Sacred amulets were hurled into the privy; excrement was taken from the well and smeared upon the walls.

  "He could barely endure his own house, yet he admonished his slaves to tell no one, and when they ran off in fear, he attended to his own toilet and swept the place like a lowly servant himself.

  "But he was now in a state of terror. Something was there with him in his house. He could hear its breath upon his face. And now and then he would swear that he felt its needlelike teeth.

  "At last in desperation he began to talk to it, beg it to get out. But this seemed only to increase its strength. With the talking, it redoubled its power. It emptied his purse upon the stones and made the gold coins jingle against each other all night long. It upset his bed so that he landed on his face on the floor. It put sand in his food when he wasn't looking.

  "Finally six months had passed since we had left the kingdom. He was growing frantic. Perhaps we were beyond danger. But he could not be sure, and he did not know where to turn, for the spirit was really frightening him.

  "Then in the dead of night, as he lay wondering what the thing was up to, for it had been so quiet, he heard suddenly a great pounding at his door. He was in terror. He knew he shouldn't answer, that the knocking didn't come from a human hand. But finally he could bear it no longer. He said his prayers; he threw open the door. And what he beheld was the horror of horrors- the rotted mummy of his father, the filthy wrappings in tatters, propped against the garden wall.

  "Of course, he knew there was no life in the shrunken face or dead eyes that stared at him. Someone or something had unearthed the corpse from its desert mastaba and brought it there. And this was the body of his father, putrid, stinking; the body of his father, which by all things holy, should have been consumed in a proper funeral feast by Khayman and his brothers and sisters.

  "Khayman sank to his knees weeping, half screaming. And then, before his unbelieving eyes, the thing moved! The thing began to dance! Its limbs were jerked hither and thither, the wrappings breaking to bits and pieces, until Khayman ran into the house and shut the door against it. And then the corpse was flung, pounding its fist it seemed, upon the door, demanding entrance.

  "Khayman called on all the gods of Egypt to be rid of this monstrosity. He called out to the palace guards; he called to the soldiers of the King. He cursed the demon thing and ordered it to leave him; and Khayman became the one flinging objects now, and kicking the gold coins about in his rage.

  "All the palace rushed through the royal gardens to Khayman's house. But the demon now seemed to grow even stronger. The shutters rattled and then were torn from their pivots. The few bits of fine furniture which Khayman possessed began to skitter about.

  "Yet this was only the beginning. At dawn when the priests entered the house to exorcise the demon, a great wind came out of the desert, carrying with it torrents of blinding sand. And everywhere Khayman went, the wind pursued him; and finally he looked down to see his arms covered with tiny pinpricks and tiny droplets of blood. Even his eyelids were assaulted. In a cabinet he flung himself to get some peace. And the thing tore up the cabinet. And all fled from it. And Khayman was left crying on the floor.

  "For days the tempest continued. The more the priests prayed and sang, the more the demon raged.

  "The King and Queen were beside themselves in consternation. The priests cursed the demon. The people blamed it upon the red-haired witches. They cried that we should never have been allowed to leave the land of Kemet. We should be found at all costs and brought back to be burnt alive. And then the demon would be quiet.

  "But the old families did not agree with this verdict. To them the judgment was clear. Had not the gods unearthed the putrid body of Khayman's father, to show that the flesh eaters had always done what was pleasing to heaven? No, it was the King and Queen who were evil, the King and Queen who must die. The King and Queen who had filled the land with mummies and superstition.

  "The kingdom, finally, was on the verge of civil war.

  "At last the King himself came to Khayman, who sat weeping in his house, a garment drawn over him like a shroud. And the King talked to the demon, even as the tiny bites afflicted Khayman and made drops of blood on the cloth that covered Khayman.

  " 'Now think what those witches told us,' the King said. These are but spirits, not demons. And they can be reasoned with. If only I could make them hear me as the witches could; and make them answer. '

  "But this little conversation only seemed to enrage the demon. It broke what little furniture it had not already smashed. It tore the door off its pivots; it uprooted the trees from the garden and flung them about. In fact, it seemed to forget Khayman altogether for the moment, as it went tearing through the palace gardens destroying all that it could.

  "And the King went after it, begging it to recognize him and to converse with him, and to impart to him its secrets. He stood in the very midst of the whirlwind created by this demon, fearless and en rapt.

  "Finally the Queen appeared. In a loud piercing voice she addressed the demon too. 'You punish us for the affliction of the red-haired sisters!' she screamed. 'But why do you not serve us instead of them!' At once the demon tore at her clothes and greatly afflicted her, as it had done to Khayman before. She tried to cover her arms and her face, but it was impossible. And so the King took hold of her and together they ran back to Khayman's house.

  " 'Now, go,' said the King to Khayman. 'Leave us alone with this thing f
or I will learn from it, I will understand what it wants. ' And calling the priests to him, he told them through the whirlwind what we had said, that the spirit hated mankind because we were both spirit and flesh. But he would ensnare it and reform it and control it. For he was Enkil, King of Kemet, and he could do this thing.

  "Into Khayman's house, the King and the Queen went together, and the demon went with them, tearing the place to pieces, yet there they remained. Khayman, who was now free of the thing, lay on the floor of the palace exhausted, fearing for his sovereigns but not knowing what to do.

  "The entire court was in an uproar; men fought one another; women wept, and some even left the palace for fear of what was to come.

  "For two whole nights and days, the King remained with the demon; and so did the Queen. And then the old families, the flesh eaters, gathered outside the house. The King and Queen were in error; it was time to seize the future of Kemet. At nightfall, they went into the house on their deadly errand with daggers raised. They would kill the King and Queen; and if the people raised any outcry, then they would say that the demon had done it; and who could say that the demon had not? And would not the demon stop when the King and Queen were dead, the King and Queen who had persecuted the red-haired witches?

  "It was the Queen who saw them coming; and as she rushed forward, crying in alarm, they thrust their daggers into her breast and she sank down dying. The King ran to her aid, and they struck him down too, just as mercilessly; and then they ran out of the house, for the demon had not stopped his persecutions.

  "Now Khayman, all this while, had knelt at the very edge of the garden, deserted by the guards who had thrown in with the flesh eaters. He expected to die with other servants of the royal family. Then he heard a horrid wailing from the Queen. Sounds such as he had never heard before. And when the flesh eaters heard these sounds, they deserted the place utterly.

  "It was Khayman, loyal steward to the King and Queen, who snatched up a torch and went to the aid of his master and mistress.

  "No one tried to stop him. All crept away in fear. Khayman alone went into the house.

  "It was pitch-black now, save for the torchlight. And this is what Khayman saw:

  "The Queen lay on the floor writhing as if in agony, the blood pouring from her wounds, and a great reddish cloud enveloped her; it was like a whirlpool surrounding her, or rather a wind sweeping up countless tiny drops of blood. And in the midst of this swirling wind or rain or whatever it could be called, the Queen twisted and turned, her eyes rolling up in her head. The King lay sprawled on his back.

  "All instinct told Khayman to leave this place. To get as far away from it as he could. At that moment, he wanted to leave his homeland forever. But this was his Queen, who lay there gasping for breath, her back arched, her hands clawing at the floor.

  "Then the great blood cloud that veiled her, swelling and contracting around her, grew denser and, all of a sudden, as if drawn into her woundst disappeared. The Queen's body went still; then slowly she sat upright, her eyes staring forward, and a great guttural cry broke from her before she fell quiet.

  "There was no sound whatsoever as the Queen stared at Khayman, except for the crackling of the torch. - And then hoarsely the Queen began to gasp again, her eyes widening, and it seemed she should die; but she did not. She shielded her eyes from the bright light of the torch as though it was hurting her, and she turned and saw her husband lying as if dead at her side.

  "She cried a negation in her agony; it could not be so. And at the same instant, Khayman beheld that all her wounds were healing; deep gashes were no more than scratches upon the surface of her skin.

  " 'Your Highness!' he said. And he came towards her as she crouched weeping and staring at her own arms, which had been torn with the slashes of the daggers, and at her own breasts, which were whole again. She was whimpering piteously as she looked at these healing wounds. And suddenly with her long nails, she tore at her own skin and the blood gushed out and yet the wound healed!

  " 'Khayman, my Khayman!' she screamed, covering her eyes so that she did not see the bright torch. 'What has befallen me!' And her screams grew louder and louder; and she fell upon the King in panic, crying, 'Enkil, help me. Enkil, do not die!' and all the other mad things that one cries in the midst of disaster. And then as she stared down at the King, a great ghastly change came over her, and she lunged at the King, as if she were a hungry beast, and with her long tongue, she lapped at the blood that covered his throat and his chest.

  "Khayman had never seen such a spectacle. She was a lioness in the desert lapping the blood from a tender kill. Her back was bowed, and her knees were drawn up, and she pulled the helpless body of the King towards her and bit the artery in his throat.

  "Khayman dropped the torch. He backed halfway from the open door. Yet even as he meant to run for his life, he heard the King's voice. Softly the King spoke to her. 'Akasha,' he said. 'My Queen. ' And she, drawing up, shivering, weeping, stared at her own body, and at his body, at her smooth flesh, and his torn still by so many wounds. 'Khayman,' she cried. 'Your dagger. Give it to me. For they have taken their weapons with them. Your dagger. I must have it now. '

  "At once Khayman obeyed, though he thought it was to see his King die once and for all. But with the dagger the Queen cut her own wrists and watched the blood pour down upon the wounds of her husband, and she saw it heal them. And crying out in her excitement, she smeared the blood all over his torn face.

  "The King's wounds healed. Khayman saw it. Khayman saw the great gashes closing. He saw the King tossing, heaving his arms this way and that. His tongue lapped at Akasha's spilt blood as it ran down his face. And then rising in that same animal posture that had so consumed the Queen only moments before, the King embraced his wife, and opened his mouth on her throat.

  "Khayman had seen enough. In the flickering light of the dying torch these two pale figures had become haunts to him, demons themselves. He backed out of the little house and up against the garden wall. And there it seems he lost consciousness, feeling the grass against his face as he collapsed.

  "When he waked, he found himself lying on a gilded couch in the Queen's chambers. All the palace lay quiet. He saw that his clothes had been changed, and his face and hands bathed, and that there was only the dimmest light here and sweet incense, and the doors were open to the garden as if there was nothing to fear.

  "Then in the shadows, he saw the King and the Queen looking down at him; only this was not his King and not his Queen. It seemed then that he would cry out; he would give voice to screams as terrible as those he had heard from others; but the Queen quieted him.

  " 'Khayman, my Khayman,' she said. She handed to him his beautiful gold-handled dagger, 'You have served us well. '

  "There Khayman paused in his story. 'Tomorrow night,' he said, 'when the sun sets, you will see for yourselves what has happened. For then and only then, when all the light is gone from the western sky, will they appear together in the rooms of the palace, and you will see what I have seen.

  ' 'But why only in the night?' I asked him. 'What is the significance of this?'

  "And then he told us, that not one hour after he'd waked, even before the sun had risen, they had begun to shrink from the open doors of the palace, to cry that the light hurt their eyes. Already they had fled from torches and lamps; and now it seemed the morning was coming after them; and there was no place in the palace that they could hide.

  "In stealth they left the palace, covered in garments. They ran with a speed no human being could match. They ran towards the mastabas or tombs of the old families, those who had been forced with pomp and ceremony to make mummies of their dead. In sum, to the sacred places which no one would desecrate, they ran so fast that Khayman could not follow them. Yet once the King stopped. To the sun god, Ra, he called out for mercy. Then weeping, hiding their eyes from the sun, crying as if the sun burnt them even though its light had barely come into the sky, the King and the Que
en disappeared from Khayman's sight.

  " 'Not a day since have they appeared before sunset; they come down out of the sacred cemetery, though no one knows from where. In fact the people now wait for them in a great multitude, hailing them as the god and the goddess, the very image of Osiris and Isis, deities of the moon, and tossing flowers before them, and bowing down to them.

  " 'For the tale spread far and wide that the King and Queen had vanquished death at the hands of their enemies by some celestial power; that they are gods, immortal and invincible; and that by that same power they can see into men's hearts. No secret can be kept from them; their enemies are immediately punished; they can hear the words one speaks only in one's head. All fear them.

  " 'Yet I know as all their faithful servants know that they cannot bear a candle or a lamp too close to them; that they shriek at the bright light of a torch; and that when they execute their enemies in secret, they drink their blood! They drink it, I tell you. Like jungle cats, they feed upon these victims; and the room after is as a lion's den. And it is I, Khayman, their trusted steward, who must gather these bodies and heave them into the pit. ' And then Khayman stopped and gave way to weeping.

  "But the tale was finished; and it was almost morning. The sun was rising over the eastern mountains; we made ready to cross the mighty Nile. The desert was warming; Khayman walked to the edge of the river as the first barge of soldiers went across. He was weeping still as he saw the sun come down upon the river; saw the water catch fire.

  " The sun god, Ra, is the oldest and greatest god of all Kemet,' he whispered. 'And this god has turned against them. Why? In secret they weep over their fate; the thirst maddens them; they are frightened it will become more than they can bear. You must save them. You must do it for our people. They have not sent for you to blame you or harm you. They need you. You are powerful witches. Make this spirit undo his work. ' And then looking at us, remembering all that had befallen us, he gave way to despair.

  "Mekare and I made no answer. The barge was now ready to carry us to the palace. And we stared across the glare of the water at the great collection of painted buildings that was the royal city, and we wondered what the consequences of this horror would finally be.

  "As I stepped down upon the barge, I thought of my child, and I knew suddenly I should die in Kemet. I wanted to close my eyes, and ask the spirits in a small secret voice if this was truly meant to happen, yet I did not dare. I couid not have my last hope taken from me. "

  Maharet tensed.

  Jesse saw her shoulders straighten; saw the fingers of her right hand move against the wood, curling and then opening again, the gold nails gleaming in the firelight.

  "I do not want you to be afraid," she said, her voice slipping into monotone. "But you should know that the Mother has crossed the great eastern sea. She and Lestat are closer now . . . "

  Jesse felt the current of alarm passing through all those at the table. Maharet remained rigid, listening, or perhaps seeing; the pupils of her eyes moving only slightly.

  "Lestat calls," Maharet said. "But it is too faint for me to hear words; too faint,for pictures. He is not harmed, however; that much I know, and that I have little time now to finish this story. . . . "
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