The queen of the damned, p.37

The Queen Of The Damned, page 37

 part  #3 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


The Queen Of The Damned

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Chapter 34


  "'This being has a great invisible part,' Mekare said. 'Were you to have seen it in its entirety, before this catastrophe took place, you would have seen something almost without end. '

  " 'Yes,' the Queen confessed. 'It was as if the net covered the whole sky. '

  "Mekare explained: 'It is only by concentrating such immense size that these spirits achieve any physical strength. Left on their own, they are as clouds over the horizon; greater even; they have now and then boasted to us that they have no true boundaries, though this is not likely the truth. '

  "The King stared at his wife.

  " 'But how can it be released!' demanded Akasha.

  "Yes. How can it be made to depart!' the King asked.

  "Neither of us wanted to answer. We wondered that the answer was not obvious to them both. 'Destroy your body,' Mekare said to the Queen finally. 'And it will be destroyed as well. '

  "The King looked at Mekare with disbelief**Destroy her body!' Helplessly he looked at his wife.

  "But Akasha merely smiled bitterly. The words came as no surprise to her. For a long moment, she said nothing. She merely looked at us with plain hatred; then she looked at the King. When she looked to us, she put the question. 'We are dead things, aren't we? We cannot live if it departs. We do not eat; we do not drink, save for the blood it wants; our bodies throw off no waste any longer; we have not changed in one single particular since that awful night; we are not alive anymore. '

  "Mekare didn't answer. I knew that she was studying them; struggling to see their forms not as a human would see them but as a witch would see them, to let the quiet and the stillness collect around them, so that she might observe the tiny imperceptible aspects of this which eluded regular gaze. Into a trance she fell as she looked at them and listened. And when she spoke her voice was flat, dull:

  " 'It is working on your body; it is working and working as fire works on the wood it consumes; as worms work on the carcass of an animal. It is working and working and its work is inevitable; it is the continuance of the fusion which has taken place; that is why the sun hurts it, for it is using all of its energy to do what it must do; and it cannot endure the sun's heat coming down upon it. '

  " 'Or the bright light of a torch even,' the King sighed.

  " 'At times not even a candle flame,' said the Queen.

  " 'Yes,' Mekare said, shaking off the trance finally. 'And you are dead,' she said in a whisper. 'Yet you are alive! If the wounds healed as you say they did; if you brought the King back as you say you did, why, you may have vanquished death. That is, if you do not go into the burning rays of the sun. '

  " 'No, this cannot continue!' the King said. 'The thirst, you don't know how terrible is the thirst. '

  "But the Queen only smiled bitterly again. These are not living bodies now. These are hosts for this demon. ' Her lip trembled as she looked at us. "Either that or we are truly gods!*

  " 'Answer us, witches,' said the King. 'Could it be that we are divine beings now, blessed with gifts that only gods share?' He smiled as he said it; he so wanted to believe it. 'Could it not be that when your demon sought to destroy us, our gods intervened?'

  "An evil light shone in the Queen's eye. How she loved this idea, but she didn't believe it . . . not really.

  "Mekare looked at me. She wanted me to go forward and to touch them as she had done. She wanted me to look at them as she had done. There was something further that she wanted to say, yet she was not sure of it. And in truth, I had slightly stronger powers of the instinctive nature, though less of a gift for words than she.

  "I went forward; I touched their white skin, though it repelled me as they repelled me for all that they had done to our people and us. I touched them and then withdrew and gazed at them; and I saw the work of which Mekare spoke, I could even hear it, the tireless churning of the spirit within. I stilled my mind; I cleared it utterly of all preconception or fear and then as the calmness of the trance deepened in me, I allowed myself to speak. *' 'It wants more humans,' I said. I looked at Mekare. This was what she had suspected.

  " 'We offer to it all we can!' the Queen gasped. And the blush of shame came again, extraordinary in its brightness to her pale cheeks. And the King's face colored also. And I understood then, as did Mekare, that when they drank the blood they felt ecstasy. Never had they known such pleasure, not in their beds, not at the banquet table, not when drunk with beer or wine. That was the source of the shame. It hadn't been the killing; it had been the monstrous feeding. It had been the pleasure. Ah, these two were such a pair.

  "But they had misunderstood me. 'No,* I explained. 'It wants more like you. It wants to go in and make blood drinkers of others as it did with the King; it is too immense to be contained within two small bodies. The thirst will become bearable only when you make others, for they will share the burden of it with you. ' " 'No!' the Queen screamed. 'That is unthinkable. ' " 'Surely it cannot be so simple!' the King declared. 'Why, we were both made at one and the same terrible instant, when our gods warred with this demon. Conceivably, when our gods warred and won. ' " 'I think not,' I said.

  " 'You mean to say,' the Queen asked, 'that if we nourish others with this blood that they too will be so infected?' But she was recalling now every detail of the catastrophe. Her husband dying, the heartbeat gone from him, and then the blood trickling into his mouth.

  " 'Why, I haven't enough blood in my body to do such a thing!' she declared. 'I am only what I am!' Then she thought of the thirst and all the bodies that had served it.

  "And we realized the obvious point; that she had sucked the blood out of her husband before he had taken it back from her, and that is how the thing had been accomplished; that and the fact that the King was on the edge of death, and most receptive, his own spirit shaking loose and ready to be locked down by the invisible tentacles of Amel.

  "Of course they read our thoughts, both of them.

  " 'I don't believe what you say,' said the King. 'The gods would not allow it. We are the King and Queen of Kemet. Burden or blessing, this magic has been meant for us. '

  "A moment of silence passed. Then he spoke again, most sincerely. 'Don't you see, witches? This was destiny. We were meant to invade your lands, to bring you and this demon here, so that this might befall us. We suffer, true, but we are gods now; this is a holy fire; and we must give thanks for what has happened to us. '

  "I tried to stop Mekare from speaking. I clasped her hand tightly. But they already knew what she meant to say. Only her conviction jarred them.

  " 'It could very likely pass into anyone,' she said, 'were the conditions duplicated, were the man or woman weakened and dying, so that the spirit could get its grip. '

  "In silence they stared at us. The King shook his head. The Queen looked away in disgust. But then the King whispered, 'If this is so, then others may try to take this from us!'

  " 'Oh, yes,' Mekare whispered. 'If it would make them immortal? Most surely, they would. For who would not want to live forever?'

  "At this the King's face was transformed. He paced back and forth in the chamber. He looked at his wife, who stared forward as one about to go mad, and he said to her most carefully, Then we know what we must do. We cannot breed a race of such monsters! We know!'

  "But the Queen threw her hands over her ears and began to scream. She began to sob, and finally to roar in her agony, her fingers curling into claws as she looked up at the ceiling above her.

  "Mekare and I withdrew to the edges of the room, and held tight to each other. And then Mekare began to tremble, and to cry also, and I felt tears rise in my eyes.

  " 'You did this to us!' the Queen roared, and never had we heard a human voice attain such volume. And as she went mad now, shattering everything within the chamber, we saw the strength of Amel in her, for she did things no human could do. The mirrors she hurled at the ceiling; the gilded furniture went to splinters under her fists. 'Damn you into the lower world among demons
and beasts forever!' she cursed us, 'for what you have done to us. Abominations. Witches. You and your demon! You say you did not send this thing to us. But in your hearts you did. You sent this demon! And he read it from your hearts, just as I read it now, that you wished us evil!'

  "But then the King caught her in his arms and hushed her and kissed her and caught her sobs against his chest.

  "Finally she broke away from him. She stared at us, her eyes brimming with blood. 'You lie!' she said. 'You lie as your demons lied before. Do you think such a thing could happen if it was not meant to happen!' She turned to the King. Oh, don't you see, we've been fools to listen to these mere mortals, who have not such powers as we have! Ah, but we are young deities and must struggle to learn the designs of heaven. And surely our destiny is plain; we see it in the gifts we possess. '

  "We didn't respond to what she had said. It seemed to me at least for a few precious moments that it was a mercy if she could believe such nonsense. For all I could believe was that Amel, the evil one, Amel, the stupid, the dull-witted, the imbecile spirit, had stumbled into this disastrous fusion and that perhaps the whole world would pay the price. My mother's warning came back to me. All our suffering came back to me. And then such thoughts- wishes for the destruction of the King and Queen-seized me that I had to cover my head with my hands and shake myself and try to clear my mind, lest I face their wrath.

  "But the Queen was paying no mind to us whatsoever, except to scream to her guards that they must at once take us prisoner, and that tomorrow night she would pass judgment upon us before the whole court.

  "And quite suddenly we were seized; and as she gave her orders with gritted teeth and dark looks, the soldiers dragged us away roughly and threw us like common prisoners into a lightless cell. "Mekare took hold of me and whispered that until the sun rose we must think nothing that could bring us harm; we must sing the old songs we knew and pace the floor so that as not even to dream dreams that would offend the King and Queen, for she was mortally afraid.

  "Now I had never truly seen Mekare so afraid. Mekare was always the one to rave in anger; it was I who hung back imagining the most terrible things.

  "But when dawn came, when she was sure the demon King and Queen had gone to their secret retreat, she burst into tears.

  " 'I did it, Maharet,' she said to me. 'I did it. I sent him against them. I tried not to do it; but Amel, he read it in my heart. It was as the Queen said, exactly. '

  "There was no end to her recriminations. It was she who had spoken to Amel; she who had strengthened him and puffed him up and kept his interest; and then she had wished his wrath upon the Egyptians and he had known.

  "I tried to comfort her. I told her none of us could control what was in our hearts; that Amel had saved our lives once; that no one could fathom these awful choices, these forks in the road; and we must now banish all guilts and look only to the future. How could we get free of this place? How could we make these monsters release us? Our good spirits would not frighten them now; not a chance of it; we must think; we must plan; we must do something.

  "Finally, the thing for which I secretly hoped happened: Khayman appeared. But he was even more thin and drawn than before.

  " 'I think you are doomed, my red-haired ones, he said to us. 'The King and Queen were in a quandary over the things which you said to them; before morning they went to the temple of Osiris to pray. Could you not give them any hope of reclamation? Any hope this horror would come to an end?'

  " 'Khayman, there is one hope,' Mekare whispered. 'Let the spirits be my witness; I don't say that you should do it. I only answer your question. If you would put an end to this, put an end to the King and Queen. Find their hiding place and let the sun come down upon them, the sun which their new bodies cannot bear. '

  "But he turned away, terrified by the prospect of such treason. Only to look back and sigh and say, 'Ah, my dear witches. Such things I've seen. And yet I dare not do such a thing. '

  "As the hours passed we went through agony, for surely we would be put to death. But there were no regrets any longer in us for the things we'd said, or the things we'd done. And as we lay in the dark in one another's arms, we sang the old songs again from our childhood; we sang our mother's songs; I thought of my little baby and I tried to go to her, to rise in spirit from this place and be close to her, but without the trance potion, I could not do it. I had never learned such skill.

  "Finally dusk fell. And soon we heard the multitude singing hymns as the King and Queen approached. The soldiers came for us. Into the great open court of the palace we were brought as we had been before. Here it was that Khayman had laid his hands upon us and we had been dishonored, and before those very same spectators we were brought, with our hands bound again.

  "Only it was night and the lamps burnt low in the arcades of the court; and an evil light played upon the gilded lotus blossoms of the pillars, and upon the painted silhouettes which covered the walls. Al last the King and Queen stepped upon the dais. And all those assembled fell to their knees. The soldiers forced us into the same subservience. And then the Queen stepped forward and began to speak.

  "In a quavering voice, she told her subjects that we were monstrous witches, and that we had loosed upon this kingdom the demon which had only lately plagued Khayman and tried its evil devilment upon the King and Queen themselves. But lo, the great god Osiris, oldest of all the gods, stronger even than the god Ra, had cast down this diabolical force and raised up into celestial glory the King and the Queen.

  "But the great god could not look kindly upon the witches who had so troubled his beloved people. And he demanded now that no mercy be shown.

  " 'Mekare, for your evil lies and your discourse with demons,1 the Queen said, 'your tongue shall be torn from your mouth. And Maharet, for the evil which you have envisioned and sought to make us believe in, your eyes shall be plucked out! And all night, you shall be bound together, so that you may hear each other's weeping, the one unable to speak, the other unable to see. And then at high noon tomorrow in the public place before the palace you shall be burnt alive for all the people to see.

  " 'For behold, no such evil shall ever prevail against the gods of Egypt and their chosen King and Queen. For the gods have looked upon us with benevolence and special favor, and we are as the King and Queen of Heaven, and our destiny is for the common good!'

  "I was speechless as I heard the condemnation; my fear, my sorrow lay beyond my reach. But Mekare cried out at once in defiance. She startled the soldiers as she pulled away from them and stepped forward. Her eyes were on the stars as she spoke. And above the shocked whispers of the court she declared:

  " 'Let the spirits witness; for theirs is the knowledge of the future-both what it would be, and what I will! You are the The Queen Of The Damned, that's what you are! Your only destiny is evil, as well you know! But I shall stop you, if I must come back from the dead to do it. At the hour of your greatest menace it is I who will defeat you! It is I who will bring you down. Look well upon my face, for you will see me again!'

  "And no sooner had she spoken this oath, this prophecy, than the spirits, gathering, began their whirlwind and the doors of the palace were flung open and the sands of the desert salted the air.

  "Screams rose from the panic-stricken courtiers.

  "But the Queen cried out to her soldiers: 'Cut out her tongue as I have commanded you!' and though the courtiers were clinging to the walls in terror, the soldiers came forward and caught hold of Mekare and cut out her tongue.

  "In cold horror I watched it happen; I heard her gasp as it was done. And then with astonishing fury, she thrust them aside with her bound hands and going down on her knees snatched up the bloody tongue and swallowed it before they would tramp upon it or throw it aside.

  "Then the soldiers laid hold of me.

  "The last things I beheld were Akasha, her finger pointed, her eyes gleaming. And then the stricken face of Khayman with tears streaming down his che
eks. The soldiers clamped their hands on my head and pushed back my eyelids and tore all vision from me, as I wept without a sound.

  "Then suddenly, I felt a warm hand lay hold of me; and I felt something against my lips. Khayman had my eyes; Khayman was pressing them to my lips. And at once I swallowed them lest they be desecrated or lost.

  "The wind grew fiercer; sand swirled about us, and I heard the courtiers running now in all directions, some coughing, others gasping, and many crying as they fled, while the Queen implored her subjects to be calm. I turned, groping for Mekare, and felt her head come down on my shoulder, her hair against my cheek.

  " 'Burn them now!' declared the King.

  " 'No, it is too soon,' said the Queen. 'Let them suffer. '

  "And we were taken away, and bound together, and left alone finally on the floor of the little cell.

  "For hours the spirits raged about the palace; but the King and Queen comforted their people, and told them not to be afraid. At noon tomorrow all evil would be expurgated from the kingdom; and until then let the spirits do what they would.

  "Finally, it was still and quiet as we lay together. It seemed nothing walked in the palace save the King and the Queen. Even our guards slept.

  "And these are the last hours of my life, I thought. And will her suffering be more than mine in the morning, for she shall see me burn, whereas I cannot see her, and she cannot even cry out. I held Mekare to me. She laid her head against my heartbeat. And so the minutes passed.

  "Finally, it must have been three hours before morning, I heard noises outside the cell. Something violent; the guard giving a sharp cry and then falling. The man had been slain. Mekare stirred beside me. I heard the lock pulled, and the pivots creak. Then it seemed I heard a noise from Mekare, something like unto a moan.

  "Someone had come into the cell, and I knew by my old instinctive power that it was Khayman. As he cut the ropes which bound us, I reached out and clasped his hand. But instantly 1 thought, this is not Khayman! And then I understood. They have done it to you! They have worked it on you. '

  " 'Yes,' he whispered, and his voice was full of wrath and bitterness, and a new sound had crept into it, an inhuman sound. 'They have done it! To put it to the test, they have done it! To see if you spoke the truth! They have put this evil into me. ' It seemed he was sobbing; a rough dry sound, coming from his chest. And I could feel the immense strength of his fingers, for though he didn't want to hurt my hand, he was.

  " 'Oh, Khayman,' I said, weeping. 'Such treachery from those you've served so well. ' "

  " 'Listen to me, witches,' he said, his voice guttural and full of rage. 'Do you want to die tomorrow in fire and smoke before an ignorant populace; or would you fight this evil thing? Would you be its equal and its enemy upon this earth? For what stays the power of mighty men save that of others of the same strength? What stops the swordsman but a warrior of the same mettle? Witches, if they could do this to me, can I not do it to you?'

  "I shrank back, away from him, but he wouldn't let me go. I didn't know if it was possible. I knew only that I didn't want it.

  " 'Maharet,' he said. They shall make a race of fawning acolytes unless they are beaten, and who can beat them save ones as powerful as themselves!'

  " 'No, I would die first,' I said, yet even as the words left me I thought of the waiting flames. But no, it was unforgivable. Tomorrow I should go to my mother; I should leave here forever, and nothing could make me remain.

  " 'And you, Mekare?' I heard him say. 'Will you reach now for ,, the fulfillment of your own curse? Or die and leave it to the spirits who have failed you from the start?'

  "The wind came up again, howling about the palace; I heard the outside doors rattling; I heard the sand flung against the walls. Servants ran through distant passages; sleepers rose from their beds. I could hear the faint, hollow, and unearthly wails of the spirits I most loved.

  " 'Be still,' I told them, T will not do it. I will not let this evil in. '

  "But as I knelt there, leaning my head against the wall, and reasoning that I must die, and must somehow find the courage for it, I realized that within the small confines of this cell, the unspeakable magic was being worked again. As the spirits railed against it, Mekare had made her choice. I reached out and felt these two forms, man and woman, melded like lovers; and as I struggled to part them, Khayman struck me, knocking me unconscious on the floor.

  "Surely only a few minutes passed. Somewhere in the blackness, the spirits wept. The spirits knew the final outcome before I did. The winds died away; a hush fell in the blackness; the palace was still.

  "My sister's cold hands touched me. I heard a strange sound like laughter; can those who have no tongue laugh? I made no decision really; I knew only that all our lives we had been the same; twins and mirror images of each other; two bodies it seemed and one soul. And I was sitting now in the hot close darkness of this little place, and I was in my sister's arms, and for the first time she was changed and we were not the same being; and yet we were. And then I felt her mouth against my throat; I felt her hurting me; and Khayman took his knife and did the work for her; and the swoon began.

  "Oh, those divine seconds; those moments when I saw again within my brain the lovely light of the silver sky; and my sister there before me smiling, her arms uplifted as the rain came down. We were dancing in the rain together, and all our people were there with us, and our bare feet sank into the wet grass; and when the thunder broke and the lightning tore the sky, it was as if our souls had released all their pain. Drenched by the rain we went deep into the cave together; we lighted one small lamp and looked at the old paintings on the walls-the paintings done by all the witches before us; huddling together, with the sound of the distant rain we lost ourselves in these paintings of witches dancing; of the moon coming for the first time into the night sky.

  "Khayman fed me the magic; then my sister; then Khayman again. You know what befell me, don't you? But do you know what the Dark Gift is for those who are blind? Tiny sparks flared in the gaseous gloom; then it seemed a glowing light began to define the shapes of things around me in weak pulses; like the afterimages of bright things when one closes one's eyes.

  "Yes, I could move through this darkness. I reached out to verify what I beheld. The doorway, the wall; then the corridor before me; a faint map flashed for a second of the path ahead.

  "Yet never had the night seemed so silent; nothing inhuman breathed in the darkness. The spirits were utterly gone.

  "And never, never again did I ever hear or see the spirits. Never ever again were they to answer my questions or my call. The ghosts of the dead yes, but the spirits, gone forever.

  "But I did not realize this abandonment in those first few moments, or hours, or even in the first few nights.

  "So many other things astonished me; so many other things filled me with agony or joy.

  "Long before the sunrise, we were hidden, as the King and Queen were hidden, deep within a tomb. It was to the grave of Khayman's own father that he took us, the grave to which the poor desecrated corpse had been restored. I had by then drunk my first draught of mortal blood. I had known the ecstasy which made the King and Queen blush for shame. But I had not dared to steal the eyes of my victim; I had not even thought such a thing might work.

  "It was five nights later that I made such a discovery; and saw as a blood drinker truly sees for the first time.

  "By then we had fled the royal city, moving north all night. And in place after place, Khayman had revealed the magic to various persons declaring that they must rise up against the King and Queen, for the King and Queen would have them believe they alone had the power, which was only the worst of their many lies.

  "Oh, the rage Khayman felt in those early nights. To any who wanted the power he gave it, even when he was so weakened that he could scarce walk at our side. That the King and the Queen should have worthy enemies, that was his vow. How many blood drinkers were created in those
thoughtless weeks, blood drinkers who would increase and multiply and create the battles of which Khayman dreamed?

  "But we were doomed in this first stage of the venture- doomed in the first rebellion, doomed in our escape. We were soon to be separated forever-Khayman, Mekare, and I.

  "Because the King and Queen, horrified at Khayman's defection, and suspecting that he had given us the magic, sent their soldiers after us, men who could search by day as well as night. And as we hunted ravenously to feed our newborn craving, our trail was ever easy to follow along the small villages of-the river-bank or even to the encampments of the hills.

  "And finally not a fortnight after we had fled the royal palace, we were caught by the mobs outside the gates of Saqqara, less than two nights' walk from the sea.

  "If only we had reached the sea. If only we had remained together. The world had been born over again to us in darkness; desperately we loved one another; desperately we had exchanged our secrets by the light of the moon.

  "But a trap lay waiting for us at Saqqara. And though Khayman did manage to fight his way to freedom, he saw that he could not possibly save us, and went deep into the hills to wait his moment, but it never came.

  "Mekare and I were surrounded as you remember, as you have seen in your dreams. My eyes were torn from me again; and we feared the fire now, for surely that could destroy us; and we prayed to all things invisible for final release.

  "But the King and the Queen feared to destroy our bodies. They had believed Mekare's account of the one great spirit, Amel, who infected all of us, and they feared that whatever pain we might feel would then be felt by them. Of course this was not so; but who could know it then?

  "And so into the stone coffins we were put, as I've told you. One to be taken to the east and one to the west. The rafts had already been made to set us adrift in the great oceans. I had seen them even in my blindness; we were being carried away upon them; and I knew from the minds of my captors what they meant to do. I knew also that Khayman could not follow, for the march would go on by day as it had by night, and surely this was true.

  "When I awoke, I was drifting on the breast of the sea. For ten nights the raft carried me as I've told you. Starvation and terror I suffered, lest the coffin sink to the bottom of the waters; lest I be buried alive forever, a thing that cannot die. But this did not happen. And when I came ashore at last on the eastern coast of lower Africa, I began my search for Mekare, crossing the continent to the west.

  "For centuries I searched from one tip of the continent to the other. I went north in Europe. I traveled up and down along the rocky beaches, and even into the northern islands, until I reached the farthest wastes of ice and snow. Over and over again, however, I journeyed back to my own village, and that part of the story I will tell you in a moment, for it is very important to me that you know it, as you will see.

  "But during those early centuries I turned my back upon Egypt; I turned my back upon the King and Queen.

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